The Jungle Book revisited by multiple authors
Chapter 6 – The Journey
It is September 2020, just one year later. Yes, one year already …
He crossed the country comfortably in a big truck specially equipped for the journey, and chose to fly from Entebbe because the alternative – crossing the Congo and taking a smallish boat across the Atlantic, as she did – was definitely not for him. He hated expanses of water, even small ones. And he doesn’t mind flying as he is used to heights. They’ve created a special place for him on the plane.
He does a lot of thinking during the long journey. His trip West is a first in the history of humans and animals (if you believe there is a difference between the two, which he doesn’t – humans are animals after all, they just screwed up the world, which the other animals didn’t). So has there always been communication between humans and animals, they will ask? Of course there has, and a smile crosses his huge face. Humans have always wanted to ‘talk to the animals’, but most of them don’t know that they can, they have, they do. Because this secret – now no longer a secret – has been reserved for those empathic humans who have genuinely cared for animals and their homes on land and in the oceans. And it has gone on for thousands of years. Don’t think, he sees himself saying, that all the stories and myths about humans communicating with animals are imagined – Harry Potter, Artemis, Dr Doolittle, Shiva, St Francis … because they are not. They are real, or let’s say – he will say – they are based on the reality of the select, the happy few, the band of sisters and brothers – think Dian Fossey, Walt Disney, Jane Goodall, Attenborough, and most of all the rangers and other humans who live alongside them in the forests, the jungles, the plains.
His arrival in New York has been announced in every media outlet across the world, so it is no surprise that hundreds of admirers and followers are waiting there to greet him – chimpanzees, elephants, a wide cross-section of ungulates, rodents, reptiles, mammals, and monkeys of all species, size and colour. Those with opposable thumbs, or even paws and claws that can grip – and the animal world is full of these – carry placards and banners, although to human eyes, there is nothing written on them.
There was much debate about letting animals out of zoos, private homes and farms, and although some were against it, everyone came to agree that not to allow him a ‘welcome committee’ would be seen as a serious diplomatic and political faux-pas. It would be allowed, but only for those beasts that were not likely to attack, wound or eat any humans along their way. So obviously the large and medium-sized carnivores were kept in their enclosures, cages, and apartments.
He thinks, and thinks … . 9 million years is long, the moment when gorillas and chimpanzees split off from the common ancestor they shared with humans. And over that long, long time they have developed communication – not only between themselves, but between themselves and other animals. (Not for the first time, he wants to tell humans that their communication started much, much later.) It is not language exactly, but wavelengths in the ether, accessed and used through a complex series of noises, head movements, and – to humans – silences. Which they have kept to themselves. Mostly. Until now.
They ‘talk’ (as humans would say) with other gorillas, chimps, monkeys, birds (great data carriers), elephants (intelligent, empathic communicators picking up news and ideas from their cousins across the continent), and the many, many other species. And this has enabled them to know what goes on in the vast and beautifully diverse world they live in – and of course to keep track of what the humans are doing … . Because, make no mistake, they know – and know all about – humans and their pre-occupations. And their belief that they are superior and unique in the animal world, as they crow that they are the only ones who can communicate.
But they had quite simply got it all wrong. He smiles again, and his face crinkles and beams.
His name is Zrou, by the way, and he is a silverback mountain gorilla. He is 35 years old, weighs 200 kilos and stands 1m70. His family is made up of three females, two young adult males and nine infants of various ages. He has spent his whole life in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, at the heart of the Virunga volcanic mountain range. Living in a 10,000-year-old primeval rain forest gives you a certain long-range view of life, the world, and your place in it – outside the petty day-to-day matters that seem to so pre-occupy humans.
At JFK Airport the welcome is tumultuous. The police are not used to keeping a crowd of multi-sized, multi-hued, multi-hooting mammals, reptiles, birds (and a few large insects and spiders) under control. Tear gas and batons are clearly out, and the law of the jungle was not on the curriculum at Police Academy. But they manage, because surprise, surprise, the throng of animals is genuinely peaceful, happy, and actually shows them a great deal of respect – and when a couple of elephants pick up two policemen and put them on their backs so they can have a better view, the smiles on the faces of these usually dour and serious officers is a sight to see, and one which is captured for the world by a hundred press photographers whose editors cannot help but add their wit: « NYPD gets new environment-friendly water cannon » being one of the most popular.
Zrou climbs onto a podium in front of the crowds, raises his huge arms, emits a couple of grunts, looks into the sky, and there is a sudden silence. The humans – police, press, onlookers, followers – have heard nothing, felt nothing, seen nothing, but the gorilla has clearly ‘told’ the crowd to be silent and listen, and they are and they do. After more grunts, small noises, and noiseless moments, he raises his arms again, palms outwards, and the crowd bursts into even louder hoots, shrieks, trumpeting, and ultra-sounds that no human can hear.
Another specially designed truck leads the motorcade and animal procession through Queens, into Manhattan, up 1st Avenue and stops outside the United Nations building. For Zrou is giving an address to the General Assembly, to representatives of every human country on earth, one year exactly to the day.
It took a long time, many passings of the moon, for them all to agree – as the humans would put it – to go public. Exchanges of opinions, views, caveats, apprehensions, and downright fears flew through the ether across the world and back – and back again –between the elders of species, sub-species and genera. And not just the ether, the skies and the oceans (birds are indeed great data carriers and cetaceans are champions of long-distance sonic comm). But it had to be done. The past 200 years of human domination had had such a devastating effect on all the other animals in the world that they could no longer wait.
They knew the dangers. The sheer sudden and terrifying realisation that they, the humans, were not the only ones to ‘talk’ could have profound effects on the human psyche, not known for its stability or its benevolence towards others. If humans could do the appalling things they did to their own species, what more could they do to animals (on top of what they had already done!) now they knew they could communicate with them? And what if certain humans wanted to capture this power – to weaponise it as they say – for their own ends? Torturing and forcing animals to do things no human could or would do.
It might indeed become a weapon. There were ‘Dark Forces’ (as that wonderful human, Tolkien, called them) already at work. Power over others, that strange phenomenon that humans loved so much but which was absent in other animals, was a frightening and real risk to the very essence of the animal world –peaceful lives, harmony, and survival.
On the other hand, as the elders had agreed, animals could do a lot to humans if they so chose, and rose, united and powerful. And humans tended to forget that ‘animals’ meant all life forms … of course the lesser bugs and micro-organisms weren’t exactly the rocket scientists of communication or action, but they were in the ether too, and could be deadly if asked … .
But, finally, it was the events of last year that had tipped the balance and persuaded them to take the decision. It was literally a matter of life and death, individually and collectively. And the world had actually taken the ‘Revelation’ much better and more calmly than anyone, human or not, had expected. In fact many, many humans seemed almost to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Something they had hoped, thought, dreamed of for so long, had finally come true.
They could talk to the animals. And the animals had chosen Zrou to represent them.
Zrou sits on a podium in front of the General Assembly. The streets outside look like the ante-chamber to Noah’s Ark, as his welcome committee waits for him to come back out. At his side, behind a cluster of microphones, stands Mwesigwa, his friend the ranger from Bwindi who speaks perfect English in addition to his native Bantu dialect. Zrou looks slowly from left to right and back again. Armed security guards are everywhere. Like the heavily armed police looking more like Special Forces who accompanied his motorcade to the UN. But this was to be expected, desirable even, after last year. On the advice of other elders, he had demanded such shows of armed protection. Because who could they trust, really? The Dark Forces they knew so much of – but not enough about – were far from ready to give up their power, certainly not to a bunch of human teenagers and environmental do-gooders, and definitely not to a pack of fucking animals for Christ’s sake!
The vast hall goes quiet. The magnificent, powerful, peaceful gorilla begins to utter a couple of short, sighing, grunts then looks at Mwesigwa for a while in silence, then looks back at the humans. The ranger says « Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the human species. You and I share 98% of the same genes. We are not different, we are not enemies, we are both part of the same wonderful, beautiful, diverse, life-giving earth. » There is a pause while Zrou utters more grunts, sighs, and little whistles, punctuated by silences looking at his translator. « There was a time, not so long ago, when humans and animals lived side by side in mutual awareness, respect, and sometimes fear, either in the animals or the humans. You do not, for example, try to make friends with a sabre-toothed tiger. » The audience is not used to a deadpanning gorilla. A spatter of laughter runs round the hall. « For aeons, humans codified, deified, re-created us, on the walls of Lascaux and Altamira, in the spirits of the forests, in the temples of ancient religions. And then, when you started mechanising your lives, industrialising your existence, exploding your populations, we were pushed out of our homes, killed, hunted, exterminated, and now we are on the edge of extinction. All in a tiny few hundred years, a drop in the vast ocean of our joint existence since we parted ways nine million years ago. Nine million years versus 200! »
Mwesigwa pauses, just as Zrou has paused, and there is an uncomfortable silence in the hall, during which the gorilla cannot help but notice that the majority of the humans before him are pale-faced, old, and male. Does this mean something? Is it relevant, important? He has heard noises about this, about the make-up of human power, and here it is in front of him. He turns to the ranger and there follow more grunts, noises, rapid vertical movements of his head and the usual face-to-face silences. Then the Ugandan speaks again.
« Our dearly beloved friend stood here just one year ago and spoke to you about a major concern of humans – the warming of the atmosphere, the increase in temperatures, and their influence on sea levels, glacial melting and the probability of major impacts on coastal communities around the world, resulting in mass migrations and the possibility of large numbers of deaths. As the elders of many species, we have thought about this, we have discussed it at length, and we have come to the conclusion that ‘Save the Planet’ actually, for the most part, means ‘Save the Planet for Humans’. Not animals. We are sidelined once again, ignored, we are your collateral damage. What you have done to the earth and what you continue to do is not just warmed it up like a soup you eat, but you have cleansed the earth of much of its forests; you have reduced the space we live in and need for our homes; you have killed off almost half our species on earth in 50 years; you have destroyed the biological diversity of our forests, jungles, wetlands and plains; you are taking over, exploiting and destroying those vast, beautiful spaces which have always been ours – the wilderness; and you will not stop. You are not saving our planet with your reduced energy projects – you are saving your own. She was right, but she went nowhere near far enough. And that is why I am here today, because things must change – drastically and sustainably – or there will be no planet left for anybody, humans or animals! »
Mwesigwa has become more impassioned, louder, angry, as he reaches the end of his speech, his friend Zrou’s speech. The silence in the hall has become embarrassed, unbearable, as the humans do not seem to know where to look, what to do, as if they want not to be there now, under this onslaught which they know in their hearts and minds to be truer than most things they have ever heard.
Zrou grunts again, whistles, moves his head and looks at Mwesigwa for some time. Then the ranger speaks, and what he says reveals the deep understanding that the animal has of the human psyche, emotions, and intellect. It is time for recovery. For redemption. For a state of grace.
« All is not lost. Throughout time animals and humans have proved their ability to live side by side, together, in a bond, the bond of their shared life on this, our planet, our only home. Our adventure on this earth is a mutual one. And there is no better way of demonstrating this, and of concluding my speech here today, than by reading the words of a great American thinker and lover of the wild – words born and written not far from here, on the Atlantic coast. His name is Henry Beston. »
As a large, white screen descends behind him, Zrou looks long, once again, at Mwesigwa, and they both smile. Then Mwesigwa speaks the words on the screen.
« Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery, man ceases to be man. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.
For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. »
There is silence, a pure silence. Zrou stands to his full height and raises his huge arms, palms outwards. He looks at the audience. In his sparkling brown eyes the hall and the humans are reflected as in a glittering ball. Then the silence breaks with a few claps, then more, then thunderous applause. And as the audience rises and begins to cheer, from somewhere above and behind them, probably in the multitude of interpreters’ booths, the sniper’s bullet crosses the hall and enters Zrou’s skull through his forehead, splattering the animal’s brains and blood onto the pristine white screen, trickling over Henry Beston’s words.
Just like that other bullet one year ago to the day, through the head and brain of Greta Thunberg. Except the splatter on the wall from a small, slight teenager was much less than that of a mountain gorilla in the prime of its adulthood.
But, really, it is just the same.
In a small, poor apartment about forty blocks south of the UN, a man watches the end of his favourite film, one he has seen hundreds of times. Tears are running down his face. Ann Darrow is safe. King Kong swats at the fighter planes firing at him. But the bullets are too many, too deadly, and he falls from the Empire State Building to his death.