Beware the Tiger


For our earliest ancestors, the world had to have been a bewildering and dangerous place.  Of all of the awe- and fear-inspiring phenomenon that they witnessed, there must have been few that exceeded the fiery maelstrom that followed a lightning strike upon a tinder dry African savannah.  The majesty of the seemingly random violence of this natural force would have been both frightening and exhilarating to our primitive forbearers.

As we know, our ancestors’ natural awe and fear were in time overcome by ingenuity, and flints replaced lightning in fire pits lined with rock to contain this seemingly magical force.  The transformation of the arc of our species was dramatic.  A broad range of foods were rendered palatable and digestible through cooking with fire.  Tools of industry and weapons of conquest were forged in flame from iron and later steel.  Through fire, water was turned to steam to power locomotion before further refinement of the technology gave way to the internal combustion engine and ultimately to the power of flight.  The first and most important mastery of nature that lifted homo sapiens above its fellow species was unquestionably that of fire.

Of course, the ability to harness the heat of fire was also instrumental to expanding the extent of settlement by our ancestors.  Areas with minimum temperatures too low to support the naked ape became accessible with the heat of the hearth.  And so we came upon the boreal pine forest.  Once again, our ancestors were both witnesses to and threatened by the natural phenomenon of wildfire.  However, by that time, our understanding of the phenomenon was more nuanced.  We had learned that these fires were random in timing and location, but not in purpose.  In fact, the seeds of new life for the pine forest were contained in the cones produced by the Jack pine that flourish there, which can only be freed from their entombment and seated into the soil by fire.

Periodic wildfire, we realized, was the critical factor in natural forest renewal, but an existential threat to frontier settlement.  Our mastery of fire included mastery of fire suppression, and the frequent necessary small fires that created new growth forests and natural firebreaks were sacrificed to the security of settlement and development.  Once again, the advancement of the species prevailed in the taming of nature.

On October 3, 2003, Roy Horn of the animal act duo Siegfried & Roy was bitten on the neck by a 7-year old tiger named Montecore.  Horn had placed his head inside of Montecore’s jaws many times before, as he had with many more tigers in his by-then 36 year career in Las Vegas.  Miraculously and fortunately, Horn was not killed but was severely injured.  Like Roy Horn, Fort McMurray, Alberta, long situate in the jaws of the tiger, was this week tragically reminded that the beast is never completely tamed.

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