Monster of God
By Seth Weidnaar
I have a job that allows me the privilege to teach eager students American literature. Inherent in any study of American literature is a look at the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These two writers shared a consuming fascination with the natural world; they were in awe of the sheer wildness of the natural world, and they (Thoreau more so) dreamed of the preservation of that wildness. This fall my reading of Emerson and Thoreau reminded me of David Quammen, another writer who was struck by the wildness of the world and the conundrums involved in preserving that wild nature. Quammen’s book, Monster of God is packed with fascinating stories of four “alpha predators,” or top layers of the food chain – the Indian lion, the Australian saltwater crocodile, the Carpathian bear, and the Siberian tiger – and their effects on the people and the places they live. Quammen’s stories of the mythic beasts are matched by interesting reporting of the conservation efforts governments around the world take and the cultural histories and significance of the great predators.
The first group of alpha predators in Quammen’s book is the lions that inhabit the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Western India. The Indian government created a refuge for the only group of wild lions to exist outside of Africa. These lions are protected from all human harm in the park, but the boundaries of the park are shrinking as agricultural interests and demands push farms closer and closer to the park. However, the land of the park had been inhabited for centuries by a group of herding people named the Maldhari. The Maldhari had lived with the lions for that time, and the Maldhari fill Quammen’s pages with outrageous stories of herding cattle and buffalo amongst hungry lions. In those stories, livestock are lost to lions and the Maldhari people themselves are attacked by the lions; the Maldhari accept these losses as part of their home.
One of the first interesting rhetorical moves that Quammen makes in the book is to note that the large predators cause much more damage (to person and property) to poor and traditional people who live in the habitat of the great predators. This move helps to situate the conundrum of conserving alpha predators, and that is that governments and Western people dream of conserving these glorious animals, but these people and governments do not need to share any territory with these predators. I personally have a fascination with Siberian tigers and their conservation, but perhaps I would not be inclined if I had to worry about my students or myself being attacked while we walk from building to building on our school’s campus. It is with this thought in mind that Quammen shifts the book’s focus to the saltwater crocodiles of Australia.
While saltwater crocodiles exist in many places around the world, Australia has devised a unique and successful management strategy. Indigenous people living near the habitat of the crocodile are allowed to hunt the predator. Other, non-indigenous hunters are allowed to pursue the animals as well, with the money raised benefiting the indigenous people who inhabit the predator’s habitat in the form of social programs and infrastructure improvements. Australian conservationists closely monitor the animals and their numbers; now that they are a valuable commodity monetarily, more oversight is needed, and the numbers of saltwater crocodiles are increasing gradually, as are the attacks on humans and livestock. While this is a different method of management, attacks seem to be inevitable, and Quammen continues his great storytelling with many gruesomely memorable stories of crocodile attacks.
While the reader ponders the merits of the complete protection system of the Indian lions against the offtake system of the Australian saltwater crocodile, Quammen makes another interesting move with the book. Quammen shifts the focus of the narrative to the Carpathian Mountains (found in Romania), and the enormous brown bears that have terrorized the shepherds of the region. Once again, Quammen’s stories about human-animal interactions fascinate, although learning Nicolae Ceausescu’s hunting habits was quite disturbing. The interesting rhetorical move comes with Quammen examining several early myths and narratives, and the prevalence of man-eating monsters in those stories. Quammen posits that these alpha predators hold a unique place in the human psyche and that a failure to protect them would lead to disastrous consequences in the psychology of mankind. Whether or not you agree with Quammen’s assertions, reading and pondering them is a joyous experience.
At this point in the book, Quammen also begins to elaborate on the idea of the keystone species, something these enormous alpha predators are. The idea is that these predators have an enormous impact on their ecosystems even though they are relatively few in number. Removal of the keystone species would have dire effects on the ecosystem; even species that are seemingly unrelated to the predators would be negatively affected. This move, while fascinating and disturbing all at once, is the most scientific part of Quammen’s book and, coming on the heels of the predator’s place in our minds, makes for a somewhat tedious read. Although the idea of the keystone species helps Quammen with his last narrative move, a look at the most poetic and perplexing creature, the Siberian tiger.
Like the creature itself, Quammen’s writing about the tiger is as near poetry as scientific, nonfiction writing can come. After reading about the first three alpha predators and the efforts to save them, Quammen’s section on the tiger creates a sense of urgency for the species’ survival. This section provides perhaps the most exciting reading of the book, even though pondering the tiger’s survival might be the most unsettling. This section makes a reader wish they were something more than Emerson’s transparent eyeball, something capable of exacting quick changes, but that too might produce other problems. This is a nearly perfect way, another conundrum, to end a book about such unsettling creatures.