The only television shows I cannot bear to watch are nature documentaries. I see them and am reminded that the animals in the titular roles are dying, will be dead before I get to travel and behold them. Their Latin names spoken in gravelly voices are almost obituaries by now.
“There goes Panthera leo, stalking its prey. Too bad it’ll be gone by 2050.” The narrator seems to say: “Such a wonderful beast that you’ve never seen and never will! Won’t you miss it?”
Of course, the sad thing is, I will miss it. I’ll probably even cry over the damn thing. Every time an exotic creature takes its last breath, I find myself wishing I was at its deathbed. The day I heard six vultures were poisoned to death just a few hours north of me, making them almost certainly extinct under my country’s skies, I thought of the lions that used to walk the soil under my feet, soil turned to concrete. As a child, when I heard that lions used to wander not so far from my house, I was filled with wonder. Now, I think of how I’ll tell my children there used to be vultures here, too.
There is nature in the city I call home, hidden in between crushed soda cans and drifting plastic wrappers. The river that used to be a liquid graveyard is slowly healing. There are the sparrows and the wagtails, birds to which songs are dedicated, patchworks of what came before the city. One could say: they are the protectors, they were here first, we love them for it. Opposing them is a long, decorous line of creatures, living litter, dropped just as carelessly as soda cans, and equally appreciated. The jellyfish invade the beach once a summer. They aren’t supposed to be there, but nobody told them the Suez Canal is for human use only. The bright green parakeets that fill the skies escaped from the zoo. The angry-eyed mynas that fight them for territory did as well. It isn’t their fault they’re here, and that the vultures up north are nearly gone, but it’s hardly a fair trade.
Walking the city, I look up between the buildings that act as shutters between me and the sky and curse every bright green flash I see. Only now does it occur to me that we may be under custody as much as the parakeets were. The city around me is a quarantine. Homo sapiens in, wildlife out. We keep it so, with poisoned corpses left for birds of prey and tawny skins stretched out for our rugs. If we leak out of the city, as we are prone to do, we will ruin what is around us just as the parakeets and mynas slashed apart the biological web of the recovering river. The invaders flock around us. After all, we brought them here, into the concrete jungle.
I imagine that I want to live in the country, amongst the pristine nature, without our new addendums, or at least, with fewer of them. But then I think of the felled trees for my home and the split habitats for my roads and consign myself to the unforgiving concrete and the towering buildings. We humans deserve being confined in our urban prisons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend my days dreaming of escape, dreaming of being not quite human.
I like to imagine myself the subject of a nature documentary, with a grim narrator reporting my plight. Perhaps overpopulation will kill me; maybe climate change will destroy my home. Maybe a photograph of my suffering will win someone a prestigious prize. Maybe there will be a fund in my honor, a picture of my genus on a popular website.
I try not to kid myself. I am not a rare bird or lion. I am not royalty. I don’t have the heart of a Panthera leo, like a certain King of England. I do not fly a crest of arms emblazoned with a vulture. I am far from being the last of a genetic line. I am no Salome, last independent ruler of Judea and last female leopard in that same desert, queens of dwindling hope. If I were an animal, I wouldn’t be shown struggling in the jaws of a polar bear or torn open by a gunshot. I’m not an unwelcome newcomer, either, not a bright green parakeet or angry myna, roosting in places I shouldn’t be. If I were an animal, I would be a dung beetle, strolling along under a scorching sun, uninhibited by the falling birthrate of lions.
After deciding this, I was informed, although not on a nature documentary, that the dung beetle rolls its crap in a line of cosmic significance, following the Milky Way. A dung beetle must roll his ball of dung away from the rest of the dung beetles, in a straight line. He cannot falter, or he risks the ball being stolen by others, and he, a creature smaller than the palm of my hand, can see starlight that I cannot begin to grasp, and he follows it. Perhaps this should not surprise me, for he was once an Egyptian god, rolling the sun across the sky. That was when he was a scarab, incarnate of the sun god Ra, but Ra has long faded away from most of us, and what is left is a dung-rolling creature, travelling through insignificant wastelands. Scarab and lion used to be king and protector. Mighty Sekhmet the lion goddess, guarding the dung beetle’s slow walk across the heavens. She was so powerful her breath created the desert.
The two have separated since the ancient Egyptians. Lions on every coat of arms, in every tale, while their king is burrowed into the obscurity of the desert, and perhaps it is in the best interest of the latter. Richard the Lionheart came to the Holy Land when lions still lived near my apartment, but they left when he did, hunted by the Crusaders. The lions that now roam the desert, the same desert Sekhmet formed with a single breath, are scarce; they no longer have to protect Ra, but rather themselves. I wonder if the dung beetles would be on endangered watch lists if their glory continued after Ra, if killing them was a conquest. Maybe I would be watching them on a nature show as they rolled one last ball in a heavenly line.
Once, as I deplored the state of the world, I thought myself far more puny than majestic. The city can do that to you, but even the mass of buildings doesn’t compare with the news piling up around me. The streets I walk are nothing compared to the data I scroll through each day, weather reports, knowledge crowding up like cars in traffic. The sheer information about nature used to dwarf me. Every percentage about the climate, every new disappearing species, every sign I held and every lecture I listened to hammered in my insignificance. I became sure I was a dung beetle, with only the power to push my own dung as the few lions that walk among us burned my future.
I didn’t know where those lions—oil giants, company owners, billionaires—lived, but I often assumed they must be far out in the country, away from the skyscrapers hemming the rest of us in. I thought that perhaps they did not understand, these predators, what they were doing. One of the stories about Sekhmet tells of her going into a blood frenzy, destroying all in her path. She was calmed only by Ra tricking her into drinking red beer, sending her into a drunken stupor. I did not think anyone was capable of subduing our lions, our world leaders, and was certain we were failed dung beetles, merely insects and not kings. Bloody report after bloody report, I wished the world could fall asleep so we could start afresh.
Only lately, walking down cracked sidewalks, pushing my own ball of shit in front of me, have I started to realize how much bigger I am compared to a dung beetle, and how much smaller compared to a lion, and started to consider that perhaps I am a combination of both. As I read reports about trees being planted, plastics being banned, schools striking, I no longer feel so small. A teenager may be a dung beetle, but a group of them is something entirely different, something that has grown a pair of claws. Dung beetles know to follow the stars, the scarab used to be king, after all, but the lion is the fighter—and fighting we are. My generation, and others, fighting for the vultures and the lions and most importantly, ourselves, and I fight along with them, part lion, part dung beetle.
My inner nature show narrator, studying the hybrid I’ve realized is me, is at peace as he babbles on about eventual extinction. I’m a specimen approaching endangered status, apparently, but I’ve also rolled a ball of shit across the desert, no simple feat. I push my ball of thoughts in front of me as I stalk fallen pieces of litter. I realize there is a strange sort of balance inside me. I am aware of climate change, of ecological breakdown. I know the ramifications: the heat, the cold, that we will have to adapt to later if we don’t change now. But I also choose to hope that no matter the damage we do to our planet, it too will adapt. There will always be life: the jellyfish, the parakeets, the dung beetles. We are murderers, we have killed vultures, lions, but we have invited in the bloodthirsty mynas. The mynas will ruin the current order and create a new one, one in which we, along with many others, may be left behind. It would serve us right. If we, Homo sapiens, had a nature narrator, he would be speaking of the long period we must prepare for. “They can save themselves,” he would say urgently. “But they are too foolish to do so.” Then he would continue to talk about all the other wonderful animals, adapting, evolving, in ways it would be wise for us to do too, as humankind carries on hunting stars.
My imaginary hybrid self, the beetle lion, has come to the conclusion that living things will always remain, even if they’re an awkward sort of compromise between an Egyptian god and the king of the savannah, or a quickly disappearing species and a dung beetle. It’s true that the vultures up north are nearly gone, that the parakeets are biological invaders, the ecological system as we know it is falling apart. It’s true I may never get to see a lion in person, definitely not anywhere near my house, but the jellyfish will keep coming to hunt my bare legs instead. Our world is falling apart, but maybe we’ll be able to put it together again.
Despite my newfound hope, of myself and of our planet, I still cannot bear to watch nature documentaries, but when I walk down the street in the shade of the skyscrapers, I know I too have a path of cosmic significance, a fair shot at survival.
Despite both these things, I’ve already started to miss the lions.