The Human in Nature
A documentary introduced me to a ritual of the predatory giant kingfish of South Africa. These fish have tough canine teeth and can be as large as a man – at least 5 feet long and more than 100 pounds. They are revered in some parts of the world as warrior fish, and are relatively solitary creatures, often hunting individually. Yet off the ocean coast of South Africa, a collective of these kingfish gather each year and travel far inland along a relatively narrow river, led upstream by a king of kingfish. They travel many miles into fresh water and seem to transform from hunters into pilgrims, eventually reaching a certain point in the river where they stop moving forward, and instead begin to swim in a synchronized circle around each other.
As David Attenborough explains in his narration, they are not there to spawn. They are not there to hunt. In fact, no one understands what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Within a few weeks, they retrace their journey back to the ocean.
I don’t know if the kingfish have considered the purpose of their ritual. Whether they made some decision at a joint session somewhere in the ocean to get out of their usual pattern of killing and take a whirling dervish-like retreat in a very different kind of flow – a kind of Thanksgiving holiday when everyone gathers together in ritual because it’s what you do. At least for these few weeks of the year, they are completing a kind of journey as a collective. Fulfilling a call together that only they can understand.
Whether or not they understand the call of their ritual as something more than “it’s just what you do,” I like to think that there is a primitive drive we all have, prompted by particular junctures, to connect with each other.
I think of my years living and working in New York City publishing, before my daughter was born. I loved working alongside some of my colleagues…. creating something new…. writing, editing…. producing magazines. At the end of the day, I would change into my sneakers like thousands of others, strap on my backpack, and walk about 50 blocks downtown to my home, where I would read, and write, and eat, and sleep, and then get up the next day to do it all again.
I can’t say that I really understood what I was doing. It was simply the daily routine. We of our subway commuters and Long Island railroad riders and honking taxi cabs, streaming in and out of holes in the ground and giant bus terminals and train stations. Climbing steps into our small walk-ups or elevators to our beautiful high-rises. I can’t say that it was living intentionally.
But on at least one occasion there was a singular intentionality that impacted us all. On that day in 2001, when planes hit the World Trade Center. I lived 20 blocks north. I saw many people that morning walking in shock, building dust on their shoulders and in their hair, not sure where to go since their subways and trains home were closed. Many of them simply started walking, trance-like, to find their way home.
And what happened to those of us who lived nearby — who were witnesses to the shock and the ash and the disbelief that two giant pivotal structures of our city, with thousands of people inside, had crumbled to the ground?
I saw it…. the intense community of it all. The rush of firefighters to the scene. The ambulances that fled past my living room window enroute to Hospital Row… not carrying survivors as we all hoped, but rescue workers who needed relief.
In that day, and the days that followed, the famous and not famous, wealthy and lower middle class, came together en masse to provide supplies and aid to those who needed it. Our collective shock as survivors gave way to collective grief as we lay witness to those who taped pictures to available wall spaces and streetlight poles of loved ones they were trying to find. Eventually shrines were spontaneously created with remembrances of those who were identified as gone.
And then, in time, we began to return to our routines. Our usual heads down, not looking to engage on the subway route. The blank stare of disengagement. The frenzy of workaday concerns in corporate boardrooms and cubicles.
Like the kingfish, living as part of a collective tends to be a glimmer, sometimes in response to a particular call that we must simply heed at a certain time and place.
In the tragedy of 9/11, there was a kind of poetry to the motion of people set, unchoreographed, into a new pattern. One where instinct, or trauma, or even disorientation had unalterably changed the path of one life and ushered us collectively into something completely different.
It’s not dissimilar, I think, to that feeling we get when we walk out into a wintery day after a giant snowfall, and the streets are padded, and the sounds are muffled, and the trees are thick with white. And suddenly, it feels like a new place for a time. A kind of parallel universe, where things look somewhat familiar, yet aren’t. There is a different color and texture and smell to everything.
I wonder if it is like that, when the kingfish begin their migration.
A trance. That sets everything new.