17.12.09

Ki-Lin

"I would walk the floe-edge, then, in those days, hoping to hear the narwhals, for the wonder of their company; and hoping, too, that they would not come. The narwhal is a great fighter for its life, and it is painful to watch its struggle. When they were killed, I ate its flesh out of respect for distant ancestors, and something older than myself. [..]

"I watched closely the ivory gull, a small bird with a high, whistly voice. It has a remarkable ability to appear suddenly in the landscape, seemingly from nowhere [...] It is hard to say even from what direction it has come. It is just suddenly there. [...] Like any animal seen undisturbed in its own environment, the ivory gull seems wondrously adapted. [...] To avoid water in winter, which might freeze to its legs, it has become deft at picking things up without landing. In winter it follows the polar bear. When no carrion turns up in the polar bear's wake, it eats the polar bear's droppings. It winters on the pack ice. Of the genus Pagophila. Ice lover.

"And I would think as I walked of what I had read of a creature of legend in China, an animal similar in its habits to the unicorn, but abstemious, like the ivory gull. It is called the ki-lin. Theki-lin has the compassion of the unicorn but also the air of a spiritual warrior or monk. Odell Shepard has written that 'unlike the western unicorn, the ki-lin has never had commercial value; no drug is made of any part of its body; he exists for his own sake and not for the medication, enrichment, entertainment or even edification of mankind.'

"With our own Aristotelian and Cartesian sense of animals as objects, our religious sense of them as mere receptacles for human symbology, our single-mindedness in unraveling their workings, we are not the kind of culture to take the ki-lin seriously. We are another culture, and these are other times. [...] The history of the intermingling of human cultures is a history of trade -- in objects like the narwhal's tusk, in ideas, and in great narratives. We appropriate when possible the best we can find in all this. The ki-lin, I think, embodies a fine and pertinent idea -- an unpossessible being who serves humans when they have need of its wisdom, a creature who abets dignity and respect in human dealings, who underlines the fundamental mystery with which all life meets analysis.

"I do not mean to suggest that the narwhal should be made into some sort of symbolic ki-lin. Or that buried in the more primitive appreciation of life that some Eskimos retain is an 'answer' to our endless misgivings about the propriety of our invasions of landscapes where we have no history, of our impositions on other cultures. But in that simple appreciation of a world not our own to define, that poised Arctic landscape, we might find some solace by discovering the ki-lin hidden within ourselves, like a shaft of light."

-- Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

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