I was busy cropping and resizing pictures for the next photo extravaganza. I inserted a little levity into the piece by labeling a cheetah as "Predator" and some antelope-like creatures as "Assorted Food" (see inside). In the way of these things that thinking started gnawing at me a bit at a time throughout the day. Was this fair to the cheetah? Was it fair to the various springbok and gerenuk, blackbuck and wildebeest, and their kin?
Maybe this was a time to learn something. And maybe it was time to search for some sort of mythical center.
Needing something to talk about for an edition of a regular Sunday column I was doing at the time, I turned to the Online Etymological Dictionary, from which I quote liberally, while adding my own comments. The etymologies given are a mixture of that, so don't hold them responsible for my thoughts. :-)
What I discovered is that we had it backwards.
I wrote a series of essays for Docudharma, liberally sprinkled with my substandard, novice-level photography, after returning from a trip to Southern California. In an effort to spur some more discussion about our common environment, I am attempting to revive them.
The first one was published here.
Predation is a human failing. It was a human decision to describe the interaction of animals in terms of the interactions of human beings with each other and with the world of animals.
The word predator is rather new. Predation is much older. Here be pirates. Arrgh!
The word dates from around 1460, meaning the "act of plundering or pillaging," from the Latin prædationem (nominative: prædatio) "a plundering, act of taking booty," from prædari "to rob, to plunder," from præda "plunder, booty, prey" (see prey). The zoological sense of the word (i.e. applying it to vertebrate animals) is recorded from 1932. Predatory is first recorded about humans in 1589 and of animals in 1668, I suspect in a case of anthropomorphizing some animal or other. Predator, used about vertebrate animals, is from 1922, but was originally (1840) used of insects that ate other insects. The verb predate, "to seek prey" (1974), is a modern back-formation...and please don't use predate to mean anything more than "to date before" in my presence.
I dutifully followed the link to prey. Animals have been prey much longer than they have been predators.
The word dates from 1240, "animal hunted for food," from the Old French preie "booty, animal taken in the chase" (which goes back to at least 1140), from the Latin præda "booty, plunder, game hunted," earlier præheda, related to prehendere "to grasp, seize" (see prehensile). The verb meaning "to plunder, pillage, ravage" is attested from 1297, from Old French preer, earlier preder (circa 1040), from the liturgical Latin prædare. Its sense of "to kill and devour" is attested from around 1340.
I encounter difficulty thinking of animals as plundering or pillaging. I also suspect they do not have liturgies, being smarter than us in that regard. So I choose to believe, given the two together, that prey was a designation given to animals in their relationship to humans. Prey was what we hunted, not what other animals hunted.
Notwithstanding the fact that I could be wrong in that, I searched for a tone to bring my heart closer to the center...whatever and wherever that may be.
A chord erupted, sparked by my recent readings of Tony Hillerman. The following translation of the Hunting Song (apparently from a book by Natalie Curtis, The Indians' Book: An Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical And Narrative, which you can click through to. I do not have any opinion on the text, having never read it).
In Navajo lore, the blackbird is the best friend of the deer. Why else would the deer let the blackbirds ride on their backs and nest between their horns?
Flower pollen in a sacred ingredient in Navajo rituals. Changing Woman was raised on a diet of pollen and ground white shells. Both of these substances are used in the making of Navajo sand paintings. Pollen is offered to the dawn before the morning song (here is a link to the Breath of Dawn, from the Navajo Night Way sing, which can be saved for some other day :-) ).
Hear my singing;
He, the blackbird, he am I,
From the Mountain Black, from the summit,
Through the blossoms, through the flowers, coming now,
Through the flower pollen, coming now,
Through the flower dew-drops clear, coming now,
Starting with his left fore-foot,
Quarry mine, bless'd am I
Comes the noble deer to my song,