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Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

William Blake (from his poem ‘The Tiger’)

[Jim Corbett (1875-1955) was a famous Anglo-Indian hunter and conservationist, and in 1958 India’s first national park was named after him. For 35 years he spent a good deal of his free time hunting man-eating tigers and leopards in the hill country of northern India, eventually writing some popular books about his exploits. Here are three excerpts from Man-Eaters of Kumaon, 1946. The first excerpt is meant to be emblematic of the millions of other tragic stories that have been reported since the dawn of human history. The second is meant to bring home to us the physical horror of a human body being treated as food by a large carnivorous animal. And the third deals with the arbitrary and mysterious nature of misfortune. Do these excerpts throw any light on a question Einstein put to a group of fellow scientists shortly before he died: ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ Although the question is undeniably evocative, it may strictly speaking be insignificant, or at least philosophically muddled. For example, is it significant to ask whether gravity is a friendly force, or water a friendly compound? The fact that water has drowned millions, and that gravity has caused a goodly number to fall to their deaths, seems beside the point in view of the fact that we depend on gravity and water for our very existence. Similarly, our existence—or at least our bodily existence as we know it—depends on the universe, however unfriendly it may sometimes appear. But perhaps we should cut Einstein some slack by assuming that the question he was really asking, covertly, is, ‘Can the universe be seen as the creation of a friendly Creator?’ There is plenty of room for disagreement on the answer to this question, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that the question has significance.]

Eighteen miles from our summer home in the Himalayas there is a long ridge running east and west, some 9,000 feet in height. On the upper slopes of the eastern end of this ridge there is a luxuriant growth of oat grass; below this grass the hill falls steeply away in a series of rock cliffs to the Kosi River below.

One day a party of women and girls from the village on the north face of the ridge were cutting the oat grass, when a tiger suddenly appeared in their midst. In the stampede that followed an elderly woman lost her footing, rolled down the steep slope, and disappeared over the cliff. The tiger, evidently alarmed by the screams of the women, vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared, and when the women had reassembled and recovered from their fright, they went down the grassy slope and, looking over the cliff, saw their companion lying on a narrow ledge some distance below them.

The woman said she was badly injured—it was found later that she had broken a leg and fractured several ribs—and that she could not move. Ways and means of a rescue were discussed, and it was finally decided that it was a job for men; and as no one appeared to be willing to remain at the spot, they informed the injured woman that they were going back to the village for help. The woman begged not to be left alone, however, and at her entreaty a girl, sixteen years of age, volunteered to stay with her. So, while the rest of the party set off for the village, the girl made her way down to the right, where a rift in the cliff enabled her to get a foothold on the ledge.

This ledge only extended half-way across the face of the cliff and ended, a few yards from where the woman was lying, in a shallow depression. Fearing that she might fall off the ledge and be killed on the rocks hundreds of feet below, the woman asked the girl to move her to this depression, and this difficult and dangerous feat the girl successfully accomplished. There was only room for one in the depression, so the girl squatted, as only an Indian can squat, on the edge facing the woman.

The village was four miles away, and once, and once again, the two on the ledge speculated as to the length of time it would take their companions to get back to the village; what men they were likely to find in the village at that time of day; how long it would take to explain what had happened, and finally, how long it would take the rescue party to arrive.

Conversation had been carried on in whispers for fear the tiger might be lurking in the vicinity and hear them, and then, suddenly, the woman gave a gasp and the girl, seeing the look of horror on her face and the direction in which she was looking, turned her head and over her shoulder saw the tiger, stepping out of the rift in the cliff onto the ledge.

Few of us, I imagine, have escaped that worst of all nightmares in which, while our limbs and vocal cords are paralysed with fear, some terrible beast in monstrous form approaches to destroy us; the nightmare from which, sweating fear in every pore, we waken with a cry of thankfulness to Heaven that it was only a dream. There was no such happy awakening from the nightmare of that unfortunate girl, and little imagination is needed to picture the scene. A rock cliff with a narrow ledge running partly across it and ending in a little depression in which an injured woman is lying; a young girl frozen with terror squatting on the ledge, and a tiger slowly creeping towards her; retreat in every direction cut off, and no help at hand.

Mothi Singh, an old friend of mine, was in the village visiting a sick daughter when the women arrived, and he headed the rescue party. When this party went down the grassy slope and looked over the cliff, they saw the woman lying in a swoon, and on the ledge they saw splashes of blood.

The injured woman was carried back to the village, and when she had been revived and had told her story, Mothi Singh set out on his eighteen-mile walk to me. He was an old man well over sixty, but he scouted the suggestion that he was tired and needed a rest, so we set off together to make investigations. But there was nothing that I could do, for twenty-four hours had elapsed and all that the tiger had left of the brave young girl, who had volunteered to stay with her injured companion, were a few bits of bone and her torn and bloodstained clothes.

This was the first human being killed by the tiger which later received recognition in Government records as ‘The Mohan Man-Eater.’

The tigress had eaten her meal close to where she had been lying, and as this spot was open to the sky and to the keen eyes of vultures she had removed the kill to a place of safety where it would not be visible from the air. Tracking now was easy, for there was a blood trail to follow. The trail led over a ridge of great rocks and fifty yards beyond these rocks we found the kill. I am not going to harrow your feelings by attempting to describe that poor torn and mangled thing; stripped of every stitch of clothing and atom of dignity, which only a few hours previously had been a Man, the father of two children and the breadwinner of that wailing woman who was facing—without any illusions—the fate of a widow of India. I have seen many similar sights, each more terrible than the one preceding it, in the thirty-two years I have been hunting man-eaters, and on each occasion I have felt that it would have been better to have left the victim to the slayer than recover a mangled mass of flesh to be a nightmare ever after to those who saw it. And yet the cry of blood for blood, and the burning desire to rid a countryside of a menace than which there is none more terrible, is irresistible; and then there is always the hope, no matter how absurd one knows it to be, that the victim by some miracle may still be alive and in need of succour.

Of the many incomprehensible things one meets with in life, the hardest to assign any reason for is the way in which misfortune dogs an individual, or a family. Take as an example the case of the owner of the cow over which I had shot the leopard [not a man-eater]. He was a boy, eight years of age, and an only child. Two years previously his mother, while out cutting grass for the cow, had been killed and eaten by the man-eater, and twelve months later his father had suffered a like fate. The few pots and pans the family possessed had been sold to pay off the small debt left by the father, and the son started life as the owner of one cow; and this particular cow the leopard had selected, out of a herd of two or three hundred head of village cattle, and killed. (I am afraid my attempt to repair a heartbreak was not very successful in this case, for though the new cow, a red one, was an animal of parts, it did not make up to the boy for the loss of his lifelong white companion.)

[The following excerpt from Inuk, by Fr. Roger P. Buliard, an Oblate missionary who spent the 1930s and 1940s in the Canadian Arctic, reminds us how relentlessly harsh and oblivious to our well-being Nature can be, a fact that may be relevant in considering the question, ‘Is the universe the product of a friendly Designer?’ Fr. Buliard was new to the North when he set off for Dismal Lake with his Eskimo companion Avaligak. The object of the 150 mile trip was to bring Fr. L’Helgouac’h back to the mission for the episcopal inspection, and Fr. Buliard and his companion looked forward to a pleasant outing. They didn’t bother with a tent, and even neglected to pack a compass. Though neither had been to the place before, they figured they couldn’t miss a lake that size. The diary entries begin at the point when, having lost two of their three dogs (along with the provisions on their backs), they are tired, hungry and lost. Desperate for food, they have just wounded a caribou bull they have been patiently stalking . . .]

July 12 . . . Off we went, filled with new energy at the prospect of food, pell mell up the hill. There was the caribou, quite close, still on his feet, but mortally wounded. Both of us fired away, but the beast seemed to have a charmed life. He refused to fall and we fired again. The sight of the powerful animal shattered by our bullets made me ill. At last he slowly sank to the ground and we rushed forward. The dog arrived first and was tearing the animal apart, though he was still alive. Avaligak thrust the dog aside and drove his knife into the caribou’s throat. He drank some of the warm blood, then cut into a leg and gnawed away at the raw flesh. Hardly the haute cuisine! But hunger overcame my repugnance and I took my share. We gorged ourselves; then Avaligak, doubtless feeling more confident after his repast, cheerfully admitted that he was lost.

“I do not even care to guess where we may be,” he said. “Let’s take some meat and go back to Coppermine.”

And so we have started back. If everything goes well we should make the seacoast in three days.

July 13 . . . Last night, totally exhausted, I slept like a log in spite of the rain, and woke up wet and chilled to the bone, to hear a wild uproar. Avaligak was beating the dog to death with his rifle butt; the miserable fellow had devoured all of our precious meat during the night. We went off on an empty stomach again, hoping to kill something. But I have an uneasy feeling about our luck.

July 14 . . . Bastille Day! Even the miserable prisoners who poured through the ruined prison gates could have been no more miserable than were we this day. We have not seen a living thing today or yesterday except mosquitoes. Rain, too.

July 15 . . . This morning, while walking mechanically, I saw a little ground squirrel!—‘Siksik,’ as the Eskimos call him. At the door of his mudhouse, standing stiffly upright, he looked like a raw recruit doing his first sentry-go. We were still far off when he challenged us—sik! sik!—two sharp hisses, self assured, even if his head swung nervously and his quivering fur foretold a hasty retreat. Such a graceful little thing! But a hungry man has no eyes or ears for beauty. I fired. Alas! It was a mushroom bullet, and nothing remained of my Siksik but a ball of messy hair and the tail.

That unfortunate squirrel is all we have seen so far, except for the occasional small bird who hails us with a joyful, sparkling song, ignoring, of course, our misery and hunger. Tonight, after almost deciding to give up, we decided to try to reach the place where, on the way out, we had killed the caribou. We got there, all right, but a bear had been there before us. Of our caribou, all we found was one bone. We ground it between two flat rocks and ate the mixture. By George, it was good! I wanted to rest, but Avaligak demurred.

“If we sleep,” he observed, “maybe we never get up.”

In spite of his perfectly sound reasoning, Avaligak dropped half a mile further on, and we had to pass the night in the open after all.

July 16 . . . Very low this morning. But we can’t very well quit, with Coppermine only eight miles away. Little by little, literally by inches, we plodded toward the mission. It took us twelve hours. Avaligak’s face was terrifying. His yellow skin was faded, his cheeks hollow, his eyes looking twice their normal size. My face must have had the same attractive appearance, for when the mission children ran out to greet us they turned away in horror. Brother Becksheffer came to the door and his kind face was so filled with pity that I was nearly ashamed of myself, feeling rather like a naughty child who has run away from home and found himself in difficulty.

Of course, we were fit again in a short time. But what a diet! A spoonful of broth every fifteen minutes. And my face was sore for days from the hundreds of mosquito bites. It had not been the pleasant camping trip that the American businessman dreams of in his office in Radio City. But it taught me a lesson.

It taught me to respect the Barren Land on its bad days. From that time on I prepared properly for my overland trips, for I understood that the country was relentless, that it was, in fact, an open grave waiting to receive the hapless traveler.

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