Spring 2009

Walking Like Lions

By Trebbe Johnson

Trebbe Johnson is the author of The World is a Waiting Lover and the director of Vision Arrow, an organization offering journeys to explore wildness and allurement in nature and self. She leads vision quests, workshops, and ceremonies worldwide, from Ground Zero in New York City to the Sahara Desert. A passionate explorer of outer as well as inner frontiers, Trebbe has camped alone in the Arctic Circle, written a speech for Russian cosmonauts to broadcast to the U.N. from Mir on Earth Day, and hiked through Greece. She teaches workshops on desire, allurement, and the figure of the beloved throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas, and has written on a wide variety of topics for numerous national publications. She lives with her husband in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. Visit her website at trebbejohnson.com.

We felt sorry for the lions. Driving out into South Africa’s Timbavati Game Reserve every day at dawn and dusk with our guides, my husband, our four friends. and I had already seen the pride three times before the night of the encounter: an old male and three females of varying ages. All of them were thin, and the coats of the male and the oldest female were dull and shabby-looking. The first evening we spotted them they were slowly making their way in the direction of a leopard’s scream that had split the warm, soft air just moments earlier. The females are responsible for doing the hunting for a pride, and our guide, Johann, surmised that these lions, whose prowess had diminished with age, were hoping to take advantage of the kill to get some meat after the leopard had finished. The next time we saw the pride the male had a deep gash across his nose. Once they were sleeping in the sun in the shade of an acacia, half hidden in the tall grass, their breath slow as sunset, deep and regular. So, we felt sorry for them. We felt like life was closing in for those old lions.

That aging shrinks our territory and diminishes our capacity to move about even in what is left to us is a common perception. It’s a view that is proclaimed, even championed, when times are socially, economically, or personally challenging. A friend told me the other day that she regrets not having left her boring, unsatisfying job several months ago, before the economy collapsed. Now it’s too late, she said. She feels she’s lucky to have a job at all. She doesn’t dare look for anything new. Besides, she added, as if the final obstacle were the ultimate one, “I’m almost sixty.”

When we find ourselves in personal or social tight spots, mystified and directionless, it’s easy to imagine only darkness ahead. However, that place is actually a threshold if only we perceive it that way. What’s on the other side is a new world made up of all we’ve lived and known so far and all we long to bring into being. Thoreau recognized the potency of those threshold times when the colors, shapes, and truths on either side of the here-and-now lose clarity and we’re poised in the present. He saw Walden Pond itself as a mirror of that liminal state, for “lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.” Thoreau also recognized the personal value of the threshold as a place for gathering one’s resources. “I have been anxious,” he wrote in his chapter on “Economy” in Walden, “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

Wilderness thrives on that threshold moment. It is always unfolding into the next instant of what it must do to be fully itself, whether that means blossoming, as the rose does, for all it’s worth, with no thought for holding something back for the future, or, as for a pride of old lions, setting off without shame to scrounge a meal from a rival predator. Often when we humans are pressed into this in-between place, we doubt our own past as a valid credential for moving forward and fear that the future will fail to welcome us. With such an attitude we sink into fear and passivity instead of stepping over that threshold into our own wildness.

Recently, on the vision quest I co-guide each year in the Sahara Desert, there was among us a woman in her fifties, Kara, who told us that her one great fear about the journey — more than riding a camel, more than being alone in the wilderness for three days and nights — was snakes. When one of our Tuareg guides told her it was rare to see snakes in this area of the Sahara, she looked dubious. When I told her that if she did encounter a snake, it might have something important to teach her, she looked at me as if I were trying to communicate in a foreign language.

And of course, she saw a snake. The day before the solo started, each participant took a walk to tune in to what drew their attention in the natural world and then to their own responses to it, and hence gain insight about their inner journey. The snake was curled in some rocks. It regarded Kara, then slithered away. Although she was frightened, she was also intrigued. Throughout her solo, she worked with the mystery of snake. She built a long snake of stones and decorated it with sand and pebbles. She drew a mock snakebite on her leg, which she colored with iodine from her first aid kit, and reflected on what she needed to know about being sharper and more direct in her life. She considered the relationship between poison and self-protection. Creating a snake dance, she took on the beauty of what she was afraid of. After the journey, when she got back home, she began to fulfill her lifelong yearning to paint by making water colors of mythical snakes.

The frontier we step into need not be a new career path, a new home, a new partner — although all of these may result. Usually it is something subtler, yet ultimately poignant and with a very wide reach. It may be so subtle, in fact, that we easily reject its summons or even refuse to acknowledge it. Those whispering intuitions, ideas that catch our attention at the periphery, dreams, stories that strike our curiosity or tug our heart, synchronicities, and other invitations that the world regularly sends us are new energy streams trickling deep in our unconscious. They’ll gather force if we let them. For Kara the call was to explore an old fear in many dimensions, and she ended up claiming her own power and authenticity, as well as her creative voice, as a result. For others it may be to learn a skill, contact a person, speak up, volunteer, say no for once, or say yes and mean it.

Stepping into the wild of ourselves is stepping into a mystery that we can never solve, but must ceaselessly explore. It’s an act that demands a combination of daring and faith — daring because there’s no guarantee of what lies ahead, faith because we have to step anyway, since our whole life cries out to do so. And we acquire this pair of skills not by working hard to summon them up before entering that new territory, but by stepping first and walking our daring and faith into being. We do it by walking like lions.

The last time we got news of the old lions twilight was spreading over the veldt. Earlier, as the sun moved toward the horizon, we had stopped for a while at the south end of a large grassy field to watch three healthy young lionesses that were crouched side by side, all their attention focused on a large herd of wildebeest perhaps two hundred yards away. The male of the pride was nowhere in sight. Every now and then one of the females would rise up on her haunches in slow motion, stare even more fixedly at the prey, then settle slowly down. We watched back with equal intensity.

Shortly after we had driven on, the other guide from our lodge radioed our guide from his Land Rover to report that they had just spotted another, older pride heading in our direction. A current of fear and excitement shot through our group. This must be “our” old pride that was coming. Would there be a fight? The young pride had obviously claimed that territory and was on the verge of snatching a meal from it. Would the older pride challenge them? Given the physical condition of the old lions, we had no doubt who would win. Although evening was falling, everyone wanted to see what would happen, so we headed back in the direction we’d come, driving this time from the north end of the field, the direction from which the intruding pride was making its way.

Almost the last thing we saw as the shadows thickened into black was one of the females from the old pride walking calmly past our vehicle. Suddenly one of the young lionesses emerged from the brush and approached her. They paused. Briefly they sniffed at each other. And then the young female flopped down and rolled onto her back, belly up, showing her submission. As the old lioness continued on, the younger one rose and slunk away, belly close to the ground.

Now our Xhosa guide, Giyani, flipped on the spotlight. Each night, as we drove back to the lodge, he would hold this large light and flick it back and forth, up and down in the darkness on either side of the track we bumped over, and miraculously he would illuminate such rarities as a giant slug or a feral cat. Now what we saw in the beam was the old lion. He was about twenty yards in front of us, and he was walking across the ground that the younger pride had occupied only half an hour earlier.

We had never seen him walk like this before, had never imagined he was capable of it. He was walking in large zigzags across the grassland. This was no weaving walk, however, not the walk of a feeble creature who had lost direction and balance. It was a walk that said, I know this ground. On all sides I know it and I claim it with my walking of it. The lionesses followed, each charting her own course over. They were, as Thoreau said, toeing the line between past and future. The younger pride had slipped away into the night. Not even Giyani’s skill with the spotlight could find them.

A friend of mine, who is 26 years old, said to me the other day, “We’ve been living in Plan B for too many years. The old ground is shifting under our feet. Everything is new. It’s a great time to go back to Plan A.”

He’s right. And his wisdom is especially relevant for those of us who are stepping into the territory of our second journey. Although some may tell us, and we ourselves may be tempted to believe, that the most desirable frontier is closed to us and belongs to someone else now, it is ours if we claim it — maybe not in the way we imagine, probably not as we might have when we were younger, but in a wild, bold new way that is defined by our experience, guided by our passion and curiosity, and fueled by our awareness of the precariousness and preciousness of every day of life on earth.

Back at our lodge on the edge of the veldt, we sat on the veranda talking while oil-burning torches gilded the ripples in the black river running below. Johann explained in detail what had happened earlier on the field. The young lions had clearly claimed that territory, he said. However, they backed off “because they have so much respect for the old lions.”


    a black bear
      has just risen from sleep
         and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
      in the brisk and shallow restlessness
         of early spring

I think of her,
     her four black fists
      flicking the gravel,
         her tongue

like a red fire
     touching the grass,
      the cold water.
         There is only one question:

how to love this world.
    I think of her
         like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
    the silence
       of the trees.
         Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
       and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
       down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

my life is
    with its poems
       and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
       down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her---
    her white teeth,
       her wordlessness,
         her perfect love.

— Mary Oliver