Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

 William Blake's Prophecy

 A bit over 200 years ago, William Blake, an engraver and poet barely making ends meet, began an ambitious project --- he would not only write poetry, but illustrate it too.  His best known work comes in two self-titled halves, "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience."  He wrote about Heaven and Hell and orphans and child labor and roses and London, but he also happened to create a poem that has become the single-most anthologized bit of literature in the English language, the "Tyger, Tyger" poem.  In it, Blake asks the rhetorical but still-relevant question: Did the God who created the terror and power of tigers, also manage to create the innocence and quietude of lambs?  How do we reconcile beauty and evil, terror and power?

 That question is in every headline it seems, but especially recently.  As USA Today says, "In Ohio, a panic over one man's zoo."

Having been working on a book about tigers in fact and myth for five or six years now, I can say that while tigers escaping from captivity (usually due to their selfish, careless, or mentally ill owners) may make the news and seem highly singular, in actuality, over the years, it happens all the time.  

Math makes this inevitable.  It's a sad fact that there are probably fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (most in India, but a few each in Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Sumatra, not to mention the famous "snow tigers" in Russia).  In contrast, nobody knows how many tigers are in zoos, circuses, and the private compounds of drug lords and exotic animal fanciers, but the usual number is assumed to be past 10,000.  That many people with that many tigers in their backyards and a few are bound to go missing every once in a while. 

This tiger (above) was photographed in a zoo in Trivandrum, India.  Of course we can all sympathize in some small way with the people who do keep tigers.  According to Animal Planet, it's the world's most popular and iconic species, ahead even of the extended family that makes up the shark assemblage.  I bet we all have some similar shared fantasies.  Who wouldn't like to own a palace like Hearst Castle, or who doesn't want to win the lottery?  Most of us are still waiting for personal jet packs to become a reality.  And most of us would love to have this or that zoo animal as a pet on our estate.  Hearst's zebras are still visible from Highway 1, and in my wife's case, she longs for her own giraffe.  I have been looking at tigers as many ways as I can, and even dead, they are fascinating. 

Here (below) is AVC art teacher Christine Mugnolo, sketching tiger specimens behind the scenes in the collections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

A large museum like the Field Museum in Chicago might have a total of 200 or more different tiger specimens listed in their catalog, from full skeletons to jars of tissue to dried pelts.  For me, I am interested in all cultural aspects, not just biological.  In Hindu tradition, the goddess Durga has eight arms and is a fierce (planet-saving) warrior.  She often is depicted riding a tiger.

Some of the manifestations though of our tiger fixation baffle me.  This fashion spread from Harper's Bazaar shows a model bottle-feeding a white tiger cub.  It's being yanked back on the chain while her back seems about to go out.  Somehow it doesn't make we want to spend $2000 on a linen blazer.

White tigers by the way are all inbred descendents of a wild-caught genetic freak.  They are not a separate form or species, just a color mutation.

I guess I should be glad that we feed tigers in our ads now, rather than shooting them.  In the past, most photographs of tigers showed the dead ones, like this fellow in India, shown here in a bad xerox in one of my workbooks.

I do keep a "tiger journal" (an artist's sketchbook just devoted to this topic) --- it is filled with newspaper clippings, escapes, notes on poaching, bits of literary reference, and tigers in advertising.  It turns out, the tiger is so popular that I filled up my first 100-page vol and now have another 100 pages scattered through successive journals.

In Blake's time, Britain was fighting native rulers for control of India, and the Gadhafi of the moment had been Tipu, a rather brilliant (and understandably anti-British) leader who used tiger-themed uniforms for his army.  His throne was tigers and all of his flags and banners.  He had a pump organ built in the life-size shape of a wooden tiger eating a dead British soldier --- he had it built and he shipped it to them, as a taunting gift.  When he finally was killed, tigers were brought on display in London as war trophies.  (As a footnote, you can see a watercolor about the death of Tipu on display now at the main Getty Center, and there as well is a gorgeous piece by Blake of Satan exulting over a fallen Eve.)

The recent release of tigers in Ohio has caused editorialists to call again for calls for stricter controls on exotic animals.  The problem is, we can't legislate against vanity, stupidity, or depression.   People have all kinds of pets they should not have.  There are some people on my block who shouldn't even own a small dog, when it comes down to it.

Attacked by a tiger, a crewman in the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now says, "Never get out of the boat."  Maybe we should have the opposite idea: sure, yes, go ahead --- get out of the boat.  Encourage more people to have big fierce pets, tigers included, and when they escape, don't shoot them but rather just shoo them up into the foothills.  The escaped cats can join the mountain lions and black bears that are up in Angeles Crest and that we hardly ever see.  Okay you tigers, here's the deal.  Stay to the canyons, go back to being nocturnal, just content yourself with mule deer and the occasional stray pet, and everybody will be happy.

We can set up a secondary population of tigers here in California, to make up for when the last few in India are poached into oblivion.  After all, they fill our dreams (and our English books) already.  Why not have the real thing?

When I told my wife this idea, she just wanted to know one thing.

How long until I get her that giraffe I keep promising?

1 comment:

  1. I just happened upon your blog and don't know whether to say enjoyed reading it or was depressed afterward. Well, truth is I and perhaps numerous other folk feel exactly as you do. I come from the verdant state of Kerala, India, where tigers flourished once upon a time and now if we're lucky there are maybe 15 left. By the time we're done perpetuating there'll be no fauna left to grieve over. Its slightly hope filled to know there are like minds out there. Thanks for a good read.