Christmas Week at the Zoo

On a warm southland winter day,my granddaughter Margaret and I visited the San Diego Zoo. It is a very large place that would take several days to visit. Set in a peculiar natural setting of sun swept plateau and deep cut leafy arroyos, we were soon alone on a suspended walk through a tropical jungle face to face with a long-tailed Colubus with monkey. With white hair down its back and a white tufted tail, we saw it swing, graceful as a dancer across branches, ropes and netting, leaping like a bird with consummate grace. A sign nearby noted that this is a threatened specie, often killed for its meat, or deprived of habitat by deforestation. But this one contentedly sat before us, and then swung away to limb where another monkey slept, and carefully spread the hair of its mate looking for fleas. Four-year old Margaret looked on in amazement. “He is combing her hair,” she said.

One day earlier at the Christmas morning Liturgy, during the homily the elderly priest indicated that he had read the Christmas Gospels for 60 years, but each time it was new. The Gospel reading for the daytime Mass on Christmas Day was the opening verses of John, a hymn to Christ and creation, describing the cosmic reach of the nativity, in which God’s only begotten son, became one with human kind. “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this light was the light of the human race.”

Margaret at the Zoo
Margaret at the Zoo

It was a curious transposition to go from the Mass of the Nativity to the place in which we now found ourselves. There are many ways to observe nature, but seeing it through the wide eyes of a child is a wondrous experience.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the great nature conservancies of the world. Against a backdrop of magnificent stands of bamboo, cactus, and flowers from all over the world, live some 4000 creatures, many of them rare, nearly extinct species. You find yourself almost alone with exotic creatures paying no interest in your presence, stripping the bark off branches, or rolling in sawdust. Amidst the inevitable displays of fuzzy pandas with Christmas bow ties, smiling alligators, and other cuddly creatures, Margaret had eyes only for animals. She was seeing each bird, each reptile, each camel, for the very first time. But for many of us, the older we get, the more jaded we become. We have been there, we have done that, and nature no longer speaks to us. Yet we do so at our own loss.

St. Augustine saw nature as a witness to deeper mystery: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities,”  he urges us to stare at the unanswerable, it asks the ultimate question, to find wonder. And wonder, we are told, is the first step toward wisdom.

As Margaret, found her mysteries, we found ourselves also seeing new things. At each display, a map of the world shows the natural home of the creature one is observing: South American, Equatorial Africa, the Islands of the Indian Ocean, Northern China. There are also accounts of other creatures long extinct. A description of the Indian Elephant was accompanied by a comparison of the ancient mammoth with enormous 16 foot-long tusks that ceased to exist 11,000 years ago in North America and Siberia. The koala bear has been tracked back 20,000,000 years to Northern Australia. We found ourselves becoming like the little child that was with us.

And once again, I was brought back to Christmas. In Out Holy Father’s Christmas homily for this year, Pope Benedict reminded us that “we must bend down…in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions, the God who conceals himself in the humility of a newborn baby… Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart.”

And in this spirit we did the zoo. For us it was a wonder-filled experience made all the more memorable because we rediscovered God’s creation through the eyes of a child.

January 1, 2012