Just recently I read that the Sumatran tiger is in imminent danger of extinction. And felt an icy hand grip my heart in despair.
There is of course nothing new about this situation. It is also the case that we tend to have dramatic feelings of loss about the big cats and other beautiful mammals who share the planet with us. We tend to be less concerned about the daily demise of whole species of bugs and creepy crawlies who are also a vital part of our ecosystem.
We feel concern in an intellectual sense about the future of our planet but how often do we explore our emotional and spiritual links with the animal kingdom?
“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to the man” (Chief Seattle)
It is not simply that our own continued existence depends upon the survival of our physical world but that we risk our wider empathy with animals. The shamanic traditions understand the human spirit as essentially the same as animal spirit. We see highly valued qualities, such as loyalty, nurturing, intelligence in animals as well as ourselves.
As urbanites, largely cut off from the world of nature, our spiritual reliance upon wild things is particularly poignant. For we have lost our own wildness. The increasing appeal of ever more ‘extreme’ sports, the vast growth industry to the last remaining places of wilderness on earth, all testify to our continued need to find the unsullied snows within our own souls. It is no accident that bestselling books about mountaineering have such evocative, spiritual titles as “Touching the Void.”
No-one knows whether or not William Blake ever saw a real tiger but his poem ‘Tiger’ is a profound reflection of how we seek the divine through the natural world:
“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
Blake sought the nature of his God through his creation and was amazed and perplexed at the diversity he saw in the natural world:
“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
His was not a domesticated God, a tame Jesus, for whom the sacrificial lamb has always been a Christian symbol. His was a vast, wild and ultimately unknowable universe and God, whose nature could only be inferred from his extraordinaryworld:
“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fires of thine eyes?”
The wild otherness burning in the eye of the tiger is the essence of the divine, as much, or perhaps more, than the tamer human qualities that have been historically attributed to God.
In its loss we feel the inevitable shrinking of our own spirits.