A bucolic scene: returning from a hike in the mountains, following the course of a small brook as it wends its way gushing and burbling down the valley and into the woods, chasing away a pair of inquisitive foxes on route, before eventually arriving back at the tent. The glade takes you by surprise, cool, moist and earthy; trees tower tall above the spot, their canopies filtering out the evening sun. Dead branches and leaves litter the ground, given over to a process of decomposition that will see them reclaimed by the body from whence they came: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, returned to mother earth.
Sitting down at the picnic table, the ensuing rest is well deserved: boiling up some water for a cup of tea, a cigarette to contemplate the setting sun. Soon the barbeque is lit and the rich aroma of the meat can be smelt, wafting up the hillsides in the smoke carried by a gentle breeze. Night is falling, the daylight fading rapidly. Tucking into the meat, it tastes succulent in the gloaming. Soon, you reflect, it will be time to light the campfire, before the darkness arrives in earnest.
A pair of eyes goes unnoticed, lurking amongst the foliage. So too do the subtle warnings signs, nature’s way of saying beware—the agitation of the birds, the perceptible increase in their chatter, as if they were trying to tell you something; the occasional sound of a cracking twig; the swishing of the undergrowth—signs, which, if listened to carefully, would perhaps give some clue as to the size of the beast patiently stalking its prey. Instead, what follows appears to come as if from nowhere: a blood-curdling growl, the cry of an impending attack; a primitive, animal sound, lusting on the smell of hot, juicy meat. It is a moment of sheer danger, a close shave in which the mortal threat is only averted by your bellowing voice and mankind’s ability to master that most primitive of all arts: fire.
Vivid and intense, the scene is engraved in your memory, a moment that reveals the fundamental vulnerability of the human being in its natural state. Alone, without the protection of the communities we form, we are an easy target, rich pickings for wolves, bears and wildcats. Alone in the darkness, we come face to face with the shocking truth of the fragility of our existence, a fact we are increasingly wont to forget as we clad ourselves in the conveniences of modern life, removed by an ever increasing degree from the first principles of the nature to which (in spite of what vanity may tell us) we are irrevocably bound.
Simply put, it is a case of safety in numbers: only by forming communities, only through cooperating and working together, through harnessing one of the most primitive aspects of human nature, and indeed the animal kingdom as a whole, has it been possible to protect ourselves against larger, more able-bodied predators. In an era in which repeated attempts have been made to reduce the complexities of human nature to the pyrrhic triumph of self-interest, there is perhaps something revelatory to be found in this truth, like restoring the sense of vision to a blind and impoverished man.