Tigers and Words

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

The word “advice” comes from Old French, and before it Old Latin, and it means “to see.” The word “apocalypse” is of Greek origin, and it means “to lift a veil.” In other words, to see better. A wise oracle is sometimes called a “seer.” This one doesn’t take a genius to figure out; it comes from see-er, or “one who sees.”

The more you scratch the surface of the words we use today, the more you find that many of them have something to do with our sight. Language, after all, is about how we see the world. It is our daily rebuttal to the eternal, nagging question posed by the cosmos: “What am I looking at?” And the answer, which is “something strange,” is always reassuring. 

I recently read a book about a man-eating tiger. (Actually, I read multiplebooks about multiple man-eating tigers, but that probably says more about me than it does about you or about tigers.) The story (the first one) is about a poacher living in Siberia a few years ago. He steals meat from a large, male Amur tiger’s kill, and possibly tries to shoot the tiger, illegally, in order to sell it on the black market and temporarily fend off the abject poverty in which the people of that region spend their entire lives. 

The book offers many lessons, but one of the more practical ones is this: if you are going to shoot a tiger, make sure you finish the job and kill that tiger. Because if you don’t, the tiger will stalk you, for hundreds of miles, for days or even weeks, it will eat your dogs, and eventually, it will wait out in front of your remote cabin and ambush you. Then it will eat you, leaving so little behind that the authorities are able to fit your “remains” into a single jacket pocket. (I know!!)

After reading this particular account, my primary takeaway is that wild tigers are basically the Liam Neesons of the animal kingdom. They have a very particular set of skills, and if you wrong them, they will find you, and they will kill you.

A different tiger, far from the ice and snow and pines of Russia, this time in the dense heat of India and the dense malarial haze of the foothills of the Himalayas, killed an estimated 436 people, making it the deadliest animal in recorded history. The “Man-Eater of Champawat,” as it was called, is the subject of yet another riveting book. 

We’ve gotten off track here, sort of, but not really, because tracks are the reason I brought up tigers in the first place. In the book about the Russian tiger, it is pointed out that apex predators use a kind of proto-language to find and capture their prey. An Amur tiger, standing in the depths of the Taiga forest, will make its way through life by finding, taking in and correctly interpreting a complex array of signs. A track in the snow. A drop of blood. A bare patch on a tree. A tuft of fur on a thorn bush. Each of these signs is seen, and while the footprint of the man is NOT the man, the tiger is able, through abstract thinking, to conjure up the idea of the man with it, imagining its prey and what it was doing. By looking at the track, the tiger can see not just things that are happening right now, but also things that happened in the past, and things that will probably happen in the future. It is the root of written language, and with all of humankind’s many alphabets, accents, dialects and umlauts, this is still the exact same thing we do. A tiger literally reads the world, just as you read the words on this page. 

Language allows us to see things that are not currently there. It allows tigers to see their prey, and it allows us to see tigers and their victims being stuffed into a jacket pocket. Language allows us to lift the veil from the present and glimpse into our past, and into our future. It is our most precious gift, received from our ancestors, from Lucy (one of our earliest human ancestors) to the farmers who ventured beyond the boundaries of the Old World a few generations ago, and it is the most important thing we have.

Our children must be forced to learn almost everything about the world. But not language. That, they will learn on their own, just by being around it. All we have to do it use it around them and respect its profoundly important place in our story. Once they have it, we can grow old and die, because we know our children, and their children, and whatever strange beasts they eventually evolve into, will be able to see us, those who came before them and loved them, and to see whatever strange things are just over the horizon, anytime they want.

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