‘Have yourself a very baboon Christmas’
A good Christmas tale should be uplifting, at least by the end; otherwise what’s the point? Just to be a Scrooge or a grinch? Not here, not now. So, don’t be put off by my starting with a lament that Christmas is both impossible to ignore and really tough to enjoy.
First, if you don’t believe in the holiday’s supernatural creation myth then the day can seem to be about not much more than shopping and cookies. Not that I have anything against shopping and cookies–well, I actually don’t like shopping–but all the juice behind the day should be about something more than consumption, even if you don’t buy the myth. The day still should somehow promise celebration and communion: something “liminal,” something special.
Plus, if you are not only a materialist athiest but also Jewish, or otherwise not raised with Xmas celebrations, then appreciating the holiday gets even more complicated. Sure, you can follow Jewish tradition, at least in NYC, and devote the day to movies and Chinese food, but that risks missing out on something both special and meaningful–kind of like making Thanksgiving into a fast day.
Now comes the uplifting part, courtesy of a story on the radio about the tales of a primatologist named Barbara Smuts. Her research took her to the savannahs of East Africa where she lived 7 days a week 10 hours a day for 2 years with a tribe of baboons. The story, what I now appreciate as an early Christmas present, came Tuesday morning on Morning Edition by Robert Krulwich and RadioLab. While you might think it strange to go from struggles with the Christmas spirit all the way to baboons on the African savannah, you won’t feel that way once you read a couple of the stories she tells of her time with the baboons.
In an article from the Journal of Consciousness Studies Smuts describes many of her experiences while she was an unobtrusive participant in the tribe’s daily life. In a section about being both social beings and individual selves she wrote (and the “we” below refers to her and her baboon tribe);
They most vividly convey a sense of group spirit when they share a highly pleasurable experience. Once, after few days of heavy rain, we stumbled upon a plethora of newly emerged mushrooms — a baboon delicacy that normally evokes competition. This day, however, there were enough mushrooms for everyone. To my amazement, before anyone dug in, they all paused to join in a troop-wide chorus of food-grunts, their bodies literally shaking with excitement. In that moment, I realized that collective rejoicing in celebration of sustenance must have begun long ago.
Oh my goodness … baboons say grace! They stop for a moment of shared gratitude before diving-in to the feast before them. They were not just going to pound down those delicious fungal calories, when there was enough for all they were going to pause first for a moment of communal gratitude, then eat. There was no supernatural deity being invoked, although there is always that possibility since even Smuts doesn’t fully know the mind of a baboon. But even without one, baboons stopped to count their blessings.
Her work, and a baboons life, gets even more interesting and relevant to holiday celebrations. The following is the story RadioLab told with wondeful radio-ish sound effects. You can hear it here or just read Smuts moving description;
One experience I especially treasure. The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half an hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha. Although I’ve spent years with baboons, I witnessed this only twice, both times at Gombe. I have never heard another primatologist recount such an experience. I sometimes wonder if, on those two occasions, I was granted a glimpse of a dimension of baboon life they do not normally expose to people.
OK, that knocked my socks off. Transcendental baboons; creatures with an apparently rich reverential inner life. That special experience of communion, a “spiritual” connection to something larger, to something shared that inspires awe and wonder was right there in the middle of the natural world. They stopped and collectively gazed at the water, like a prayer-service. I’m astounded, awe-struck by a world that has baboons who will both chase down a gazelle fawn and rip the flesh from it’s bones and then on another day stop for no apparent reason on a journey home so they can experience nothing less than a stream-side Quaker meeting.
All the talk this week about pantheism in conflict with a more meaningful Christian theology (see Ross Douthat in the NY Times or Allison Kilkenny and David DiSalvo here at T/S) misses the point that no supernatural entity of any sort is necessary for transcendent communion. There is no higher power necessary, whether you locate the supernatural in the natural world or in sacred texts. The natural world as weakly as we are still able to understand and experience it is not only all we have, it’s all we need. One can stand fully inside the natural world and find there our ethics, our striving for immortality, for transcendence.
And while it may not be enough to get me to go shopping, if baboons can stop to count their blessings before a meal and even have moments of reverential contact with the possibilities of life, so too can we. Merry Christmas.