Lion from 'In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears'
In Predatory Light
9th December 2013
Edgar Vaid reviews 'In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears', by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Sy Montgomery, and John Houston.
This ambitious book explores through numinous texts and some striking monochrome photographs, humankind's historical and contemporary relationship with lions, tigers, and polar bears.
What is "Qaujimajatuqangit"? A Sumerian winged deity said to warn of approaching storms? A rare species of arboreal mammal native to Burkina Faso? Or perhaps a word disqualified by judges at the 2012 World Scrabble Championships?
In fact, it's the name given by the Inuit to their traditional knowledge, and some of its precepts are certainly worth remembering by anyone who happens, for example, to be hiking in the Svalbard archipelago, eg -
"When a nanuq (polar bear) is staring at you and doing something that looks like yawning, that bear is not sleepy; it's a sign that the bear wants to eat you and is preparing to attack."
Such is one of the many interesting nuggets scattered throughout In Predatory Light, although its ambitions reach far wider than a mere manual of handy tips for travellers. The book is imbued with a vigorous conservation ethic, eg: "modern man the world eater, respects no space and no thing green or furred as sacred" (Loren Eiseley).
Devoted to meditations on three of our planet's most charismatic mega-fauna, this ambitious book explores through numinous texts and some striking monochrome photographs, humankind's historical and contemporary relationship with lions, tigers, and polar bears.
So why these animals in particular? The answer given is that they "are among the largest carnivores and most formidable predators on Earth. They live in very different parts of the planet, but, threatened by the loss of their habitats, they all share an uncertain future."
As that's such familiar territory, what differentiates this book from more conventional texts focussing on their plight? Well, it's notable for comprising an elegant fusion of mythology, folklore, and historic anecdotes of native peoples, whose wisdom reflects their respect for these iconic animals, with which they have traditionally shared their living space.
The farmers of India's Vindhya Mountains, for example, are aware of the Bengal tigers' presence but rarely encounter one, which may help to explain why the animal personifies 'maya' - the Hindu concept of illusion and concealment.
In the neighbouring continent of Africa, the Ju/wa Bushmen of the Kalahari Basin wouldn't utter the word 'lion' in the daytime because, like death spirits, the lions would be resting in the shade and not want to be disturbed.
Far to the north, the Inuit hunters of the Arctic understood the importance of each animals 'imca' (soul), and if they killed a bear, then a period of at least three days mourning was observed.
Rather humbling is the revelation that the Inuit name for white men is "the people who change nature", and the origins of this condemnatory moniker reside not in some ancient tribal legend, but firmly in the corporate activities of an industrialised twentieth century: "through biomagnification, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are concentrated from phytoplankton to shrimp, then to fish, to seals and finally to polar bears."
When a health centre on Baffin Island advised families to cease eating polar bear meat because it was polluted, a local hunter replied, quite reasonably: "it is not for you to tell us not to eat them; rather it is for you to stop poisoning them."
Apart from such illuminating ethnographical observations, in many places the prose itself positively sings off the page, a classic hallmark of accounts by writers with first-hand experience of animals in their natural environments.
For example: "the very shape, colour and overwhelming beauty of the World's biggest cat haunt the stone age of our imagination." Or "it is probably with the polar bear, the sovereign of white infinities, that their spirits spoke most."
A further bonus is the text's admirable willingness to push at the borders of most individuals' vocabularies - how often do you encounter "cryosphere", "malefic", or "telluric"? Additionally, there is a sprinkling of striking quotes from authors since Hermann Melville took up his pen in 1851. Although some of the writing strays perilously close to anthropomorphism, it should certainly be savoured by the majority of readers.
They may not, however, be so forgiving over the choice of photographic reproductions, which of course are integral to the publication's very essence. But why, to use the contemporary parlance, should some people have 'issues' with the photos?
Admittedly these are liable to be the traditionalists, for whom a minimum requirement is that published images (unless historic and/or unrepeatable) should be 'technically proficient' - which includes being adequately framed, in reasonably sharp focus, and relatively free from blur (caused eg by subject movement).
On these grounds alone, if entered for something along the lines of the "British Journal of Photography Annual", about one fifth of the photos would be disqualified from consideration. Whilst this may sound both unimaginative and harsh, it's important to recognise the prevalence of such a conventional approach.
This insists that picture editors' responsibilities to select technically competent photos are not thrown into abeyance on the grounds that the book is somehow striving to convey mythic 'impressions' of nature's primal forces, or more specifically of the speed, power, and ferocity of lions, tigers, and polar bears.
A connected point is that blowing up photos to a huge size - larger than A3 in some cases here - doesn't necessarily make them more impressive - it usually just magnifies their faults.
Having said that, there may be imbibers of this volume who will be content with the more impressionistic style of images - perhaps analogous to the international ice-skating judge who habitually gave higher marks for 'artistic impression' than 'technical merit'.
However, even they are liable to quibble at the similarity of many photos in the lion and polar bear sections. Each of these, incidentally, receives double the pictorial input of the tigers - a puzzling imbalance.
To sum up briefly - excluding critically-minded wildlife photographers, In Predatory Light is recommended for all those particularly interested in humankind's multi- faceted relationship with three of our most iconic terrestrial animal species.
In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Sy Montgomery, and John Houston. Photography: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson. Published by Merrell, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-8589-4610-8. Price: £35.00.
Offer: The book is available to our readers for the special price of £32 including postage and packing by telephoning Marston Book Services on 01235 465 500 and quoting reference MPMERIPL.
Edgar Vaid is a freelance book and film reviewer. For more than 30 years he worked for Natural England, becoming involved in policies including traditional field boundaries, organic farming, and public rights of way. However, he became witness to a series of increasingly over-sophisticated corporate programmes, and endured some mind-numbing team meetings. Partly as a more productive and satisfying diversion, he took to writing reviews (rather than drink). Edgar lives in the Forest of Dean, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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