Monday, March 16, 2015

'Tigris! Tigris!' A Species Loneliness

On second thought, it might have been revelatory to witness a tiger. While in Bangladesh, I had convinced myself otherwise. To avoid disappointment? To temper entitlement? I return from Dhaka the day before my birthday, in thrall to Red Roof Inn desynchronosis. Broad-eyed and crepuscular, I daydream of Panthera tigris tigris, a fetish I’ve cultivated over the past month. At midnight, a Chinese businessman waits behind me at the vending machine. I forget I only have Bangladeshi taka notes in my wallet, so I tell him go ahead. “Ah,” he says, grinning, “you are still disorienting.” I nod, assuming it is a grammatical slippage, that he meant to say disoriented. He offers to buy me a “treat,” but I tell him I’ve changed my mind, thanks and goodnight. Back in the hotel room, I realized he’s just wasted perfectly good double entendre on me. It was a joke. Of course: you are still dis-Orienting. I’ve spent enough hours with Edward Said that I’m not sure I would have laughed anyway. A mute CNN reporter with Turkish backdrop blabs about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. I type the homographs over and over again, a keystroke daydreaming as if into the CNN teleprompter: Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said etc.  

I want to hurl the extra mattress from the balcony into the pool area. Its housekept sheets await disarrangement. The vertiginous canyon between the mattresses accentuates my loneliness. In a state of lucid drift, I imprint the sheets with shallow indentation, the curvaceous haunches of megafauna. In his essay “Dreamtigers,” Jorge Luis Borges writes, “This is a dream… and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.” If by staring at my gift on Christmas Eve 1999, I became an infamous doglover (O, caged terrier, your insomnious eye shine), then on this birthday eve 2015, I will myself to become a catlover too. I keep distant company with the sustained pseudohallucination of Panthera tigris tigris in the dim airport hotel room.

Known as the "father of sociobiology," Pulitzer-prize winner Edward O. Wilson defines biophilia as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." It's why we sometimes tap our brakes to bear witness to motion on the roadside, to remind ourselves the margins' whir is still habitat: a rafter of turkeys in Orangevale, California; the scurry of an armadillo in Chickasha, Oklahoma; the chukwalla's pushup in Tucson; the rooting javelina in Sedona; a jilted bear cub in the New Jersey highlands. Unlike zoophilia (persistent sexual interest in animals), biophilia is natural, adaptive, instinctual. When I was in my teens, I thought the cover of Belle and Sebastian's 1996 debut album, Tigermilk, was the former; it seemed overtly sexual, the lactating mother sitting in the bathtub as her suckling infant wore a tiger costume.

It was the facelessness of the infant, I think—or maybe its cockeyed ears—that made it erotic, exhibitionist, transgressive. Eager to make sense of the album cover, to project my own ordeal onto another, I had decided it blended two paraphilias (zoophilia and lactophilia). As an adult, though, I recognize the photograph outsources the intimacy of breastfeeding— the implicit bonding and nourishment—to the tiger. It is decidedly biophilic.

One can read the urgency of biophilia, that imperative for affiliation, in the lines of Borges’ trials in “The Other Tiger”: “We shall seek a third tiger. This / Will be like those others a shape / Of my dreaming, a system of words / A man makes and not the vertebrate tiger / … I know well enough / That something lays on me this quest / Undefined, senseless and ancient, and I go on.” Unlike Borges who wrote of the tiger in all three genres, resigned to impossible destining after a single species, my biophilia is scattered among several species: dog, ferret, parrot, tortoise, badger, and then there was tiger (most recent of fetishes). In the tiger’s absence, Borges seems to discover his species’ profound loneliness. Sometimes, when I’m alone—in house or hotel—my subconscious fabricates a companion who's just on the other side of the wall, using the bathroom. “How does a tiger get in the bathroom?” Alan asks in The Hangover. “Of my dreaming… senseless and ancient,” Borges replies.

In the past couple decades, scientists have been debating geochronological nomenclature. The current epoch, the Holocene (Greek for “entirely recent”) is being slowly abandoned for a new parlance, the Anthropocene, an epoch in which human activity (as opposed to glaciation or other climatological phenomena) impacts the planet’s ecosystems. The term, which has been predictably politicized, doesn’t ring true to Edward O. Wilson, though. In the Economist, Wilson rejects anthropocene because it’s too self-aggrandizing, “a time for and all about our one species alone.” Instead, he offers the Eremocene, or the “Age of Loneliness.”   

Back in the States, I’m able to receive text messages again. “Dad wanted me to send this,” my mother says in one, followed by a slew of photographs. One is an accidental video, my parents background bickering over aesthetics (“Hurry up, it’s beautiful now,” “I don’t know how,” “They’re beautiful now,” “I know…”); another is taken through the screen door, indecipherable through the distortion of mesh; for the last photo, though, my mother has opened the door to our Western Pennsylvania backyard. It’s snowy blue hour, and she captures (just barely) two deer mid-bolt after being caught eating the birdseed dislodged from the feeders by the squirrels. Dad, with his broken ribs and collapsed lung (another brutal winter, as if snow-shoveling would have cured his ennui, Nobody’s expecting you to be a hero here, Dad) has been spending a lot of time at the windows, counting the deer—“…five at one time!”—waiting to command his wife (“Get a picture, Mar!”) and share with his son (“Send them to Lar!”) whom he sees just twice a year.

I reciprocate with a photograph of spotted deer from the Sundarbans; standing ass-to-ass-to-ass-to-ass beneath sundari trees, their collective of eyes search in all directions for tiger as they wait for the macaques to drop leafy twigs onto the alluvium. As we approached, a few deer barked while the others burst away. Aboard the R. B. Emma, the green motorboat that grumbled us through the channels, I read Kenneth Anderson’s Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue. Each essay is littered with the pug marks of tiger, ecstatic imprints in the nullah. Anderson coaxes the reader through bush and sapling forest. “Trust me reader,” he seems to say, expertly. “I know how to find the tiger.” Written sixty years before my Sundarbans tour, Anderson’s confidence seems antiquated; by comparison, my Bangladeshi tour guide, Emamul (“Emu”), begins by all-but-guaranteeing we won’t see a tiger. By reading Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue in between treks and meals, amidst uninspired sightings of crocodile, kingfisher, egret, kite, soft-coated otter, wild boar, and the others, I am still able to engage with the megafauna fantasy. Unfortunately, by the end of each essay, Anderson eliminates the tiger he has been promising to his reader. The tigress becomes bulleted becomes carcass becomes taxidermy becomes trophy becomes essay becomes, over and over again, a cipher for my loneliness in the mangrove forest delta. In this way, Anderson’s essays are inevitable corpses, but I read on, trying to resolve the dissonance.

If the tiger in my hotel room is real, she will eventually leap the mattress canyon, slash and devour my computer screen, its photo gallery of deer transmuted into buffet. I find quarters in my backpack and return to the vending machine at 4 a.m. for the orgiastic selection of American snacks. I look behind me for the Chinese businessman, but he’s not here at this hour. I study Tony the Tiger depicted on the coil-kept Kellogg’s box. Because my room is already sufficiently tigered, I snub Tony’s digits. Every time I am in a hotel room with my pets—the parrotlet in his traveling cage or the tortoise in the bathtub—I am reminded of Doug Aitken’s migration (empire), an eighteen-minute video I used to watch at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh every Thursday after bio lectures. I’d bypass all other exhibits, sit in the dark room, watch the video twice (at least), and then leave, my acute biophilia slaked. Filmed at lackluster motels not unlike this Ref Roof Inn in Burlingame, Aitken films a cast of North American species inhabiting room after room.

The video obscures the taxonomical rift by extending human accommodation to fellow animalia. I can still remember the exhilaration of a raccoon on the kitchenette counter, the beaver under the gush of the bath faucet, an unblinking owl on a bed as down feathers flurry around it, the curved horn of the bison parting the curtain, peering outside to the motel parking lot. In “The Deep Zoo,” Rikki Ducornet writes, “the mysteries of matter are the potencies that, in the shapes of dreams, landscapes, exemplary instants, and so on, inform our imagining minds; they are powers.” In Aitken’s video, matter’s mystery is reclaimed because potencies are allowed to, as Ducornet puts it, “fall into sympathy with one another.” I may tap my brakes to let deer cross the road, but not since the docile sika of Assateauge Island in Maryland have I ogled one at full stop. And I may bow hungrily into my refrigerator, but have I ever sung its praise, the puzzling convenience of its thermal insulation?

When the deer peeks into the motel refrigerator, though, the two fall into such sympathy, a sympathy that can be called irony or anthropomorphism, depending. In each room of migration (empire), a new animal inhabits a space designed for human transition—eagle, fox, some kind of white peafowl—thrust into this impermanency and afforded basic amenity.

The cougar is the most dynamic actor of migration (empire). If my tuxedo cat is 95% genetically similar to the cougar or tiger or any large cat (so the genome says), then this cougar segment is a demonstration of the 5% that is savagely dissimilar. A static image of the cougar would not look so anomalous, just an excellent taxidermy in a sterile motel room. But then it springs, mauling the pillow, rumpling the sheets. Like my hallucinated tiger, this cougar is dispossessed of its wild, so it ambushes the mattress. migration (empire) is a sophisticated Dr. Doolittle in which the animals articulate through their embodied potencies. Aitken’s dramatization of biophilia is psychic, sublime. 

The sun rises in Burlingame, and it’s officially my birthday. I’ve only managed forty minutes of sleep, dreaming my parents’ snowy Appalachian yard was actually the grassland steppe of Beringia, and we watched the transcontinental species swap from our porch like it was a water station in a marathon, the nuclear family’s breath fogging with each whoop. Mom texts at 6:34 a.m. PST. In the past, she would set the alarm for my true birthday (EST), but more tired these retirement days, she sleeps in. “Happy birthday!” she texts with emoji accoutrements—hearts, balloons, and a gift box. “Sorry for breaking your pelvis,” I reply out of habit. “What are you doing?” she wants to know. “Corn beef hash at hotel diner,” I reply. “Your favorite!” she reminds me.

I drink coffee, rereading the first essay in Anderson’s book, “The Maneater of Jowlagiri.” By the time Anderson kills the tigress, the pleasure of the essay evanesces. To read is to re-assassinate the tigress. When the writer kills (actus reus, Latin for “guilty act”), the reader becomes an accessory to the crime (mens rea, “intending mind”). What if, instead, the end is the beginning? If I, as reader, could elect for “Give me the bad news first.”

FALSE START: The next second the .405 crashed squarely between the [tigress’] eyes, and she sank forward in a lurching movement and lay twitching in the dust. I placed a second shot into the crown of her skull, although there was no need to have done so; actually this second shot did considerable damage to the head and [caused]… unnecessary… work [for] the taxidermist.

If I read the essay in reverse, beginning with the displeasing terminus and ending with the manifest tigress, will the reverse path effectively undo the essay’s causality? Resuscitate the tigress killed by my first reading? I try it out, and surprisingly, the essay coheres. But it’s hard to renounce the forward linear path entirely. No matter how subversive I am as a reader, on my second tour of the essay, I am still complicit in its original momentum—gummed up by Anderson’s intention, his actus reus, the initial vector impulse. At best, this reading is contrapuntal, a fugue with an ecstatic finish:

FALSE FINISH: Suddenly, from the thicket of ever-green saplings to their left, could be heard the sound of violently rustling leaves and deep-throated grunts. What could be there? … There was a snarling roar and a lashing of bushes, followed by a series of coughing ‘whoofs’ and then silence. Not pigs, but a tiger!

In a village in the Sundarbans, we were led down a dirt path to a shrine devoted to Bonbibi, a syncretic protectress of the outer forest. We huddled beneath a beehive to peer into the shrine.

Bonbibi, center, separates the demon god Dakkhin Rai (left-center) from the young honey-hunter Dukkhe (right-center). Bonbibi is regularly propitiated and petitioned, recognized by Hindus and Muslims alike, for safeguarding citizens of the “beautiful forest” against tiger attacks. When I asked the eldest villager if Bonbibi had a husband, she nodded. “There was a husband, but he was killed by a tiger,” she told Emu, who translated. There was some disagreement among the women. “Wait, Bonbibi is a tiger widow? Or this woman is?” I asked Emu, but the women were talking about something else, and the moment passed. Having read dozens of Bonbibi tales, I have never encountered this detail. Her vahana (Sanskrit for “vehicle”) is a tiger, sure, but this new revelation would mean her fabled dominion over tigers is just a protracted revenge killing. Suddenly, the mythic protectress seems no different to me than Kenneth Anderson; both are just vindictive trophy hunters.

“The Maneater of Jowlagiri” discusses how “death [follows] death” as the tiger marauds towns, looking for her mate: carrying a boy in her jaws, mauling farmers in cattlepens, devouring a new bride, consuming the skinny chest of a priest, puncturing the throat of a defecating pilgrim, etc. And who can forget how, as Anderson waits alongside a half-eaten corpse, expecting “the return of the [tigress] to its gruesome meal,” he glances at the remains, and it seems “one arm [reaches] upward… in supplication or [calls] perhaps for vengeance.” Anderson baits the tigress with livestock, but now that she has acquired a taste for human flesh, the method is ineffectual. Instead, Anderson resorts to embodying the male tiger, the partner whom the tigress grieves. The slayed tiger is, after all, what has instigated her ferocity. Anderson’s is a deceitful mating call, but an even more treacherous biophilia.

I could then easily distinguish the intonations of a tigress calling for a mate… Twice I gave the answering call of a male tiger, and received at once the urgent summons of this imperious female. Indeed, she came to the edge of the clearing and called so loudly as almost to paralyze us all…
By calling the tiger, Anderson causes the tiger just as in the lucid “Dreamtigers,” Borges can cause a tiger. It is a spontaneous generation as when (in the first century) people believed certain creatures were derived from dust, foam, moss, and particulate. The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in De Architectura, “in libraries with southern exposures the books are ruined by worms and dampness, because damp winds come up, which breed and nourish the worms, and destroy the books with mould, by spreading their damp breath over them.” As a result, Roman libraries thereafter faced east to prevent Auster (the personified southerly wind) from spoiling texts. 

In Borges’ short story “Blue Tigers,” the protagonist Alexander Craigie is, like Kenneth Anderson, a man of Scottish descent who finds himself in India, chasing tigers. Published twenty-three years after Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue, it is possible that “Blue Tigers” is another of Borges’ fantastical roman à clefs. Upon hearing of an anomalous blue tiger, Craigie goes to a village on the banks of the Ganges. After being misled by the villagers, he independently discovers a collection of brilliant blue disks stored in a crevice in the ground. The villagers, familiar with the disks, call them “the stones that spawn.” Over the course of days, Craigie finds that it is an impossible task to count the stones; they multiply and divide, spontaneously generating and degenerating, and the paradox burdens Craigie, shattering his rationalism. In all of Borges’ writings about tigers (the blue one, the “other” one, the dreamt one, the Zahir, etc.), the speaker struggles with their finite inventory. It occurs to me that the literary ecology of a species has always been one of impractical keystrokes hoping to conjure “the feel of the bony structure that quivers under the glowing skin.” It’s a futile exercise, a senseless relay writing we’ve been committing for generations while failing to generate even an embryo from our imagining, let alone something that could decimate a “tribe of buffaloes.” Not songs of experience, but shrinking fantasies that bear the dubious reminder: if you want to witness a tiger, you must go to the zoo.

My girlfriend meets me for my birthday (2/6 in San Francisco). We eat oysters, drink martinis, and even though she hasn’t seen me for over a month, she indulges my chatter about Panthera tigris tigris. “We saw tiger poop,” I tell her, “and claw markings on the bark of the trees.” I tell her about the muezzin who alternated between pointing in the distance and looking over his shoulder, the boy in the village with bow and arrow, how we heard baagh growl from inner forest. Walking through the Lower Mission, I see depictions of tigers on doors (emerging from bamboo) and windows (one tiger chases another on the sill); tiger print and tiger tattoo; its stripes in Chinatown too, the zodiacal mural (the “Water Tiger” will be back by popular demand in 2022). I take stealth photos and have delusions that my urge to affiliate causes these tigers. On Valentine’s Day (2/14 in Sacramento), Shane McCrae reveals the cover of his new book, The Animal Too Big to Kill, via Twitter: a matryoshka set of tigers, identical but scaling down in size, each emerging from the previous tiger’s jaws. They roar each other into existence. In this vomitous book cover, a tiger contains Whitmanian multitudes. My perception of it feels clairvoyant. When a friend points at the inebriated woman bucked by mechanical bull (2/21 in Los Angeles), I study her backdrop instead, the music video for “Eye of the Tiger.” I am trying to convince myself that upon my return, the tiger’s range has coextended with my own, and why not: the MLB claims there are tigers in Detroit, the NFL in Cincinnati, and the PGA would have you think there’s one teeing off in Georgia this April.

I start to become aware of where the nearest tiger is to me at any given moment (which zoo) and realize it’s only a matter of time until I pay admission. Where was I when I last saw a tiger? I start asking myself questions such as this, goading myself on. (In Baton Rouge, across from LSU’s football stadium, the living mascot in his enclosure: Mike VI)

I read that the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary has feral cats, bobcats, cougars, and tigers. It’s hard to imagine the zoo will be anything less than an extension of the city’s infamous state prison, but I go anyway for the sake of their project of sanctuary (for unwanted wild pets, injured wildlife, and surplus and confiscated animals). From the joint parking lot for the sanctuary and public library, I can hear the Folsom Valley Railway, a miniature steam-powered train (according to its website, “the only 12 inch gauge railroad… in the United States”), and I can’t help but wonder how many times the tigers hear the whistle each day (“I hear the train a’comin’…”). Inside, ample enclosures seem like cells, the kindly volunteers like jailers. “How long have they been here?” I ask a volunteer. “Um, since two-six in oh-four,” Susan replies. My fifteenth birthday. I peek at Misty and Pouncer, worry them for a minute until I realize they’re as lethargic as my own tuxedo cat. They seem just fine.
Misty and Pouncer were just two of thirty-nine tigers confiscated from Jon Weinhart’s Colton, California property in 2003. It was the largest rescue of big cats in United States history. Originally intended as a sanctuary for retired big cat actors in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Tiger Rescue functioned more like a tomb when PAWS arrived. According to CNN, there were thirty animal carcasses in the yard, “including the skeleton of one big cat sharing a cage with a live burro” and fifty-eight cubs frozen in three freezers. Not only was Weinhart breeding the animals (there were “seven tigers cubs and two leopards cubs” in the attic), but he also stored big cat pelts in the barn.

Pouncer, who was found tethered to a pole on Weinhart’s property, hides out of sight in the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary. Misty, who was once emaciated and covered in mange, privately lounges on a rock face. Her gorgeous sprawl defies the reality that she was once crammed in a cage only three-by-three foot in area, having never touched a natural surface. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are more tigers in American backyards than there are in the wild in Asia. I imagine Misty and Pouncer passing through my parents’ backyard in Pennsylvania, inserting them into my Beringia dreamscape, and I shiver. It seems to me the black market is the most irresponsible way to cause a tiger. Despite the horror of Tiger Rescue, I don’t doubt that Weinhart was a cat lover, that his was just an unchecked biophilia. Despite his best intentions, a mismanaged urge to affiliate resulted in the deaths of ninety big cats, a figure six times greater than Anderson’s spree in India. I leave the Sanctuary, pass the miniature train still circuiting the sidewalk, and as I enter the library, I hear the shrill whistle. “Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay / … And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.”

What, indeed, is the best way to cause a tiger? If by pointing, it only appeared. If by gale force, it spontaneously generated. If by squinting through the orange saline stripes of the phoenix palm, shadows conspired in fleet illusion. If by writing, the futile song was fruitful—if, à la Ducornet, “words, just as things” could “acquire powers,” become “the mind’s animating flame.” If only, just for one seductive instant, when the nervous system reactivated, sleep left us a wink of its perilous hallucination.

Because we cannot adequately cause a tiger, though, in our Age of Loneliness—we can’t even reasonably anticipate one in its natural range—the fetish becomes gradually extinguished. It becomes as endangered as the species itself. If I am to ever see a tiger in its wild, then I must discontinue the relay, accept once and for all (as Louis Pasteur did 1,864 years after the Vitruvian treatise), “La génération spontanée est une chimère” (spontaneous generation is a dream). With this, Tigger and Hobbes return to what they always were: synthetic fiber batting. By law of “Omne vivum exvivo” (all life comes from life), only a tiger can cause a tiger, meaning an optimal ending for a tiger essay is not one that successfully coaxes the tiger into existence. We cannot cause by intention alone. If we could, Borges’ trials would have resulted in an overpopulation of the Royal Bengal Tiger. By ending with implicit conditionality (i.e., Anderson would cause a tiger if he could), an essay can promote the natural biophilic urge. In this false finish, the writer appears to give up his trophy as he calls to the absent species in continuous petition, a “senseless and ancient” ritual with the veneer of zoophilia:

I clambered up [the tree] some twelve feet to a crotch… Then, expanding my lungs, I called lustily in imitation of a male tiger. Nothing but silence answered me… I called a second time. Still no answer. After a short interval, and expanding my lungs to bursting-point, I called again.

Works Cited
Anderson, Kenneth. Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue. New York: Dutton, 1955. Internet Archive. Creative Commons. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Borges, Jorge L. Dreamtigers. New York: E. P. Dutton &, 1970. Print.
Ducornet, Rikki. The Deep Zoo: Essays. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2015. Print.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His essays appear or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Wag's Revue, Sundog Litand elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is a reviews editor and an assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM

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