Clicking through online clips of documentaries, I find myself entranced by the lusty, dynamic collaboration between danger and nature. Springing from a tree like Aphrodite through the foam, a bird cuts through the reddish air to escape a dusky-eyed jaguar just behind. A velvety penguin zooms through crystalline, pale blue seawater while a dove-gray seal awaits him on a chunk of ice. In a viral video, a scaly iguana evades a wave of lithe snakes, while a lively voice-over narrates his brush with death. I watch a mantis crawl delicately over a leaf, only to be promptly devoured whole by another mantis.
The camera pans over the savanna, under the ocean, and into the desert, grasping at anything bright, textured, and high-contrast. My human eyes track all over the screen, energized by that insatiable desire to be everywhere, to capture and contain everything, to see the natural world open up like a flower and release its mysteries. Many of the mysteries, once revealed, are painful to watch. Prey caught by the nape and dragged through the underbrush: its life immediately pacified in a single stroke of oxblood. Eyes bulging out like lotus bulbs poking through pond water. Flesh glimmering juicily in the grass. A limb parted dispassionately from a razed torso. Elephants walking miles to arrange themselves into a funereal semi-circle around a rotting body. Their eyes, ringed with flies, huge, wide, and scarlet-tinged. I freeze the frame and search for a flicker of understanding within me; but it is not possible for me to really understand their sorrow. Grief hits differently in the kingdom Animalia.
The painterly hands of evolution have produced a terrestrial environment that blushes in a million different colors. But in the city I live in, that palette is reduced to a few sad hues: sidewalk-gray (peppered with dark, gluey stains), tar-black hot from the sun, and the occasional blot of dirty green from a malnourished tree growing out of concrete. Walking to a friend’s house in a bordering neighborhood, I try to find the other colors, and sometimes succeed: cherry red and ocean blue looped around a barber’s pole, muted yellow emanating from inside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. On the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I find, to my surprise, that the glass barriers are covered in coiling, royal purple and bright orange graffiti.
I scan the Yamanote trains as they pass below; their final destinations flash by, written in glittering kanji above the sliding doors, and I remember what it felt like to learn to read them for the first time. The mystery contained within that introductory encounter no longer exists. I now regard many Japanese characters with the same mechanical familiarity that I do my native alphabet. The replacement of naivete with knowledge is expertise gained, but it also means recognizing that something–maybe ignorance, maybe innocence–has been lost. Many kinds of loss have been personally useful; they have led to the scabbing over of pain, the vital life lesson. But other kinds of loss are so cruel so as to serve no meaningful purpose. I don’t know how to manage the realization that there are so many experiences I can see no reason for, and that I wish I had never had, or never inflicted upon others. Life might be just a protracted, melodramatic, gamified maze in which I keep secrets, process anger, leverage meager talents to collect paychecks, and struggle to locate enough luck to avoid the gory dead-ends with the biggest predators and the truest horrors.
Evening has fallen over this year’s first true summer day, and my body buzzes with a bitter cocktail of apprehension, contemplation, and longing. While waiting for the lights to change, I pull my unkempt hair up into a ponytail and roll up my sleeves. The breeze is a balm, but still my mind resists the calming effects of the cool air and wan moonlight. I walk under the underpass thinking of death and grief. I know that, one day, the opportunity to know both these intimately will arrive on my doorstep. If I focus, I can see them in the distance, twin blurry mirages in lustrous, rainbow colors. They are always two steps ahead, waiting along the path of the jungle.