Lion Shaped Mountain: Festum Fatuorum

A random chain of events, and the chimpanzees’ reactions to these events, help create the ecosystem around them. The same is true of monkeys, of termites, of moths, and of humans. It is as simple and complicated as that.

This is the last installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.

At night, there are places in a West African forest where moonlight does not penetrate. In these spaces, the darkness is like nothing else. It’s even darker than having your eyes closed. Your other senses take over and are magnified. In the rainy season, the sound of frogs is deafening. In the dry months, the wind whistles through the branches.

In one such dark space of the jungle, the night is very still. The only sound is the crackling of fire as it echoes through the forest. The darkness is soon penetrated by the flames of several torches being carried by a group of men. The men make their way to a clearing where a small tent has been previously erected. They plant their torches into the ground and sit in a circle. Their faces are serious, even showing hints of apprehension. They sit in silence, waiting for one more to arrive.

Soon, another, rather terrifying figure, appears. Wearing a wooden mask and a gown of thatched grass, the beastly apparition walks to the center of the circle and stands before the gathering. In his hand, he holds a long wooden tube. He places one end of the tube under the mask and begins to chant through it. The sound coming from the other end of the tube is otherworldly. It is the voice of the Bush Devil. The men voice responses to the chants in unison. The Devil speaks of his union with the forest, his existence in the darkness, and his ability to punish those who dissent.

As always, the Lion stands eternal, watching over miles of scarred landscape and the souls that dwell upon it.

The Bush Devil drops the wooden tube and retreats to the tent. The men exchange glances. After several minutes, he emerges holding something in one of his hands. The object is concealed by his thatched gown. He returns to the center of the circle and picks the tube up with his other hand. He chants something else through the tube. He thrusts what he was holding up above his head. The light from the torches illuminate the object. It is the decapitated head of a male chimpanzee; the face forever locked in an expression of pain and horror. Merely days before, this chimpanzee was alive. Days before, this chimpanzee occupied a place in a chimpanzee community. Days before, this chimpanzee watched over other chimpanzees, foraged for food, had close bonds with other chimpanzees, and was a living part of a forest. All of this has been taken from him and his community. His abrupt end is frozen in time. The fear he felt at death is emblazoned on his face.

The ceremonial sounds of the men’s secret society fill the forest, spreading across the clearing and up through the trees, penetrating the canopy and escaping into the starry sky. In the distance, silhouetted against the night sky, is the Lion Shaped Mountain. It glows in the last embers dusk; a light so dim that it doesn’t penetrate the forest. As always, the Lion stands eternal, watching over miles of scarred landscape and the souls that dwell upon it. It presides over all activities in its midst. It looms behind the mythic hellishness of the Bush Devil, as it does the real hellishness underlying the actions of some living individuals.

In the distance, a man from another country is finishing a late night meeting with a government official. The man, an executive from a global corporation, has successfully convinced the official to allow his company to use a large swath of land in the northern part of the country. Resources will be extracted, villages will be uprooted, a river will be polluted, and forests will be destroyed. Individuals of all species will be cast out from where they live. Some will migrate. Many will die. The world will change. The landscape will adapt. The Lion will watch.

In another spot, an official from a lumber company meets with a park ranger. The official pays the ranger a sum of money. He will be allowed to remove a large patch of trees from the protected area. The park was set up decades ago by people from a different part of the world. No villages are allowed to lay claim to the land. No one owns the protected area, so no one cares to protect it. The ranger is paid and tomorrow the destruction of the forest will begin. More migration. More death. More change. More adaptation. The Lion will watch.

In the dark forest, the ceremony continues. The chimpanzee’s head is passed around the circle of men. The Bush Devil continues his incantations.

villagers farming cassava
In the last harvest, the farms yielded significantly fewer crops. This is cause for great concern. There is not enough food. There is no money. The elders discuss the fact that the soil has lost its potency. Photo of villagers farming cassava in Sierra Leone by Annie Spratt / Unsplash.

Beyond the forest, village elders are meeting. In the last harvest, the farms yielded significantly fewer crops. This is cause for great concern. There is not enough food. There is no money. The elders discuss the fact that the soil has lost its potency. The current fields were created by slash and burn, just four years ago. Traditionally, soil stays good for at least 15 years. This gives abandoned fields time to recharge, as secondary growth covers them. However, the pressures brought about by an increasing population density (due to other villages migrating away from global resource interests and being pushed closer to each other), has caused the soil to become depleted of nutrients much more rapidly. The elders decide that they will have to burn a new patch of forest for the next planting season. The decision will allow the village to survive another year but will soon doom the landscape to desertification and condemn the villages to starvation. The elders stand up at the conclusion of the meeting. One looks to the west. The last hints of dusk have departed over the Atlantic Ocean. The silhouette of the Lion Shaped Mountain has melted into the darkness.

In another forest, a hunter locates a trap he set the night before. He looks inside to find that he has caught several colorful birds. The hunter smiles. Tomorrow he will take the birds to the city to be sold as pets. He carries the birds out of the forest. The birds leave the only world they have ever belonged to. In an instant, they cease to be a part of this ecosystem.

The ceremony in the dark forest begins to wind down. The Bush Devil gives one more utterance and disappears into the darkness. The men make camp for the night.

Without a definitive silhouette line, a lion’s shape is almost impossible to make out. Instead, the small hills, rock outcroppings, and large trees become the defining features.

Night passes and the morning’s first light appears on the eastern horizon. The eastern light shines directly on the face of the Lion Shaped Mountain. It shows the mountain for what it actually is — an ancient natural formation, scarred and pockmarked from both the passage of time, and the organisms that have lived upon its surface. Without a definitive silhouette line, a lion’s shape is almost impossible to make out. Instead, the small hills, rock outcroppings, and large trees become the defining features.

A mother and her baby sit outside a hut under the hazy morning sky. As the mother holds him, the baby spots something out of the corner of his eye. It is a giant millipede walking slowly across the ground. He squirms to get down. Gently, his mother places him on the ground. He crawls over to the millipede and inspects it. Sensing the baby, the millipede stops walking and remains completely still. The baby laughs out loud.

The experience with the giant millipede is just one moment that creates this child’s reality. He has been born in a world part wild and part created by humans. The areas of deforestation, the areas of desertification, and the wild areas that humans have allowed to remain, are the foundations of this child’s existence. The roads that tell him where he can go, the dams that direct the river’s flow, the buildings that define his places of significance, and the borders that define the land, all determine what is real.

The boundaries of his reality are also set by what he has been told by others. The origins of what cannot be explained, the intentions of creatures that cannot speak for themselves, and the animal shape of the mountain, collectively form his cosmology. These will become just as significant as his own perceptions from his own experiences. The baby will grow up in a world shaped by the actions and thoughts of all who came before him. He will know nothing else.

As the baby grows into an adult, he will change with the world around him. The person he becomes will be based on the possibilities of his environment. His interactions with others, his interactions with the ecosystem, what he gains, and what he loses, will all determine what the world will be for him.

Yet, maybe, against all odds, this child will become a transformational figure. Perhaps this child will grow into someone who stands in defiance of the world he has been presented with. Perhaps he will not accept what he has been given. Perhaps he will demand to experience the world for himself — taking only his own senses and instincts as cannon. He may shrug off the sad wings of destiny to find that the world does not have to be what is presented to him.

And when he cries out that the mountain on the horizon is not shaped like a lion at all, he is expressing a profound observation. He is exposing the collective force of the myths we create that keep us from seeing the miracle of reality. It is a force that masquerades as religion, history, science, or one’s role within a group. It gives us simplified answers to a complex world. It masks the real issues and hides true solutions. It tells us how things are supposed to be rather than how things are. It scorches our landscape and takes us away from who and what we are.

Every time information is received without question, the antagonist prevails.

Yet it is not real. Instead it is the mythical antagonist in the eternal battle to understand reality. The chimpanzee is the resilient hero in this battle. Chimpanzees, understood by the masses as little almost-humans, war-mongering savages, mathematical geniuses, or living evolutionary markers are none of these things. Yet they exist in spite of these simplistic understandings. Through their resilience they adapt to the endless chain of random causes and effects that they are presented with. They adapt and figure out how to survive. The events of each day are the seeds of who they are. It determines how they live, how they die, what they eat, who they interact with, and what they do to the environment around them. The random chain of events, and their reactions to these events, help to create the ecosystem around them. The same is true of monkeys, of termites, of moths, and of humans. It is as simple and complicated as that.

The mythical antagonist prevents us from knowing this — with regard to chimpanzees or anything else in our world. Every time information is received without question, the antagonist prevails. Every time an event is perceived as one part of a predetermined flow chart, the antagonist grows stronger. Every time someone scoffs at a paradigm being questioned, the antagonist conquers. Every time a child who explores, gets replaced by a grown-up adult who accepts, the true face of the antagonist is exposed. True evil exists and it is nothing like a Bush Devil. Rather, true evil is a Lion Shaped Mountain.

Fifteen years from now, an adult chimpanzee named Pip is standing in a clearing in a small forest, long abandoned by humans thanks to a century old curse. Around him is a community of chimpanzees. Some are old, some are very young. Behind him sits an old female named, Mrs Joe. She eats a piece of fruit while she relaxes and watches her lineage. In the distance, a chimpanzee climbs a large mango tree. The non-native fruit tree provides a great source of food for the community right in the middle of the forest — no need to take mangoes from the village gardens. The tree was grown, years ago, from a seed that was discarded by a large chimpanzee, long dead, named Magwich. The seed came from a mango he took from an old woman’s garden. This one action has provided a new source of life for a rag-tag group of chimpanzees who live beside the river.

The Lion Shaped Mountain series is a story of two communities of chimpanzees living with seven communities of humans. It is pieced together with little bits of evidence – camera trap photos, tracks in the mud, stories from local communities, nest sites, examination of biological samples like fecal matter, and every other clue that I have come across in the last decade of studying them. I’ve named the chimpanzees, assigned personality traits, and imagined certain interactions based on my own perceptions. However, the reader should be assured that each liberty is grounded in a data point.

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