Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Garden of the Wild-- John Vaillant's "The Tiger: a true story of vengeance and survival"

    John Vaillant's "The Tiger: a true story of vengeance and survival" is a bigger book than any handy category. It's a page turner, with a strong narrative hook that sinks into your mind in the first pages. But it's not just the story of a single tiger, in a single place, the particulars of the animal, the men who hunt it, or compete with it, and the time and place and circumstances in these acts take place; it's also an account of the commonality, the nature of the species, what Platonists would call the ideal form of "tiger." 
    The story takes place in a part of Russia few us realize exists. Vaillant calls it "Russia's Far East." It's beyond Siberia; how's that for far? It's as far from Moscow as Australia. Russia's Far East is a Pacific coastal region below Kamchatka, a name known to many only as a region on the Risk board. At its southern tip, the ocean port Vladivostock is the one place in the region Russia really cares about. One of the Czars took the region from China when the taking was good. Not surprisingly everything screwed up about Russia, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet collapse of the economy plays out in this part of the world, to the detriment of Russians trying to live there. The book is a good deep fascinating history lesson just for these reasons... But then the place's rugged environment is home to tigers too, some of them, not nearly as many as there used to be, but more than in China, where the hunger for animal parts in hideously superstitious "folk medicines" has completely wiped them out. Vaillant points out that if the czar hadn't taken this province form China, no tigers would be alive there today.
    The climate place's is bizarre, with subarctic winters of 40 below (Celsius), deep snow, and nothing to eat for man or beast except, on occasion, each other. But summers fill the landscape with a subtropical forest foliage and killer mosquitoes. The book's description of the climate and environment sounds like a fantasy novel, but apparently the place is very real and is no place for sissies.
    The tigers that thrive there are immense. Their coats are bundles of natural insulation with R-factors through the roof. They sleep in snow. And their minds and emotions -- and personalities, no other word will do -- cause one book reviewer to term them "passionate souls."
    Vaillant begins with an account of a hunter's return to his tiny cabin in a frigid winter landscape. He is hunting in midwinter in the "taiga" (the Russian for this deep forest landscape) because the Soviet economic collapse has deprived everyone in his village of regular employment and government checks. When all else fails people turn to "mother taiga," so men like Markov, a stalwart ex-soldier, an admirable figure in a desperate community, go there to bring meat to their families. Markov "is on foot and on his own in a dormant, frozen world save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last." But just as they arrive home, "the hackles on the dog's back and his own hair rise... they hear a rumble that seems to come from everywhere at once."    
    A few remaining pieces of the hunter are found in the snow a day or two later. Why the tiger chose to track and kill this specific hunter in a particular fashion -- and all the complex unwritten rules that govern human and tiger interactions-- provide the structure for a nonfiction work sparkling with dramatic narrative writing.
    We learn how tigers think. We learn of the deep-time evolutionary partnership and competition between solitary predators and human pack-hunters. We hear of current studies in Africa that show that predators as fierce as lions back off in the face of human arrivals, even when the pride has numbers. That humans evolved over time from prey when they developed weapons and big brains into predators the big cats learned to respect. Sometimes you leave something for the big cat; sometimes the cat leaves something for you.
    You learn that the hold of the tiger, its strength, intelligence and vitality,  over the human psyche remains so strong that product name "Viagra" derives from the Sanskrit word for tiger.
    Rules exist, the oldest taiga hunters tell us, that govern human-tiger interactions in the survival situation offered by the taiga. Vaillant's non-fiction epic carefully examines whether Markov broke those rules, and what other factors may have come into play.
    And in the end you may agree with the almost metaphysically argued conservationist lesson drawn by many of the book's readers that if you kill a tiger, you have not only destroyed a magnificent animal but "extinguished a passionate soul."