The Zoo We Live In


Through a glorious but all too brief break in the typical winter weather pattern here in middle Tennessee, I took my family to the Nashville Zoo yesterday. Sunny skies, temperatures a balmy 60-degrees, we loaded up the car, and after eating lunch at McDonald’s (I’m just now beginning to understand the “beauty” of eating at Micky D’s with children), we finally made it to the zoo parking lot, and thereupon quickly discovered that apparently many other folks in Nashville had reached the very same conclusion: get outdoors while the rain and cold are temporarily departed. Winter will soon be back upon us. False springs are so cruel.
My wife purchased a zoo family pass late last summer, and though I questioned the expense at the time, I now see as a stroke of genius on her part. She is usually right in these matters. I am usually a tightwad. While we ambled the paved grounds, pushing Ellis along in his stroller, I found myself more an observer of other people than zoo animals.

I noticed folks peering and walking along in their own curious ways, all as different as can be, with cameras in hand, some talking obliviously on their phones, most of them shepherding their own children through the zoological menagerie, and not one of us looking or acting exactly alike, yet all of us bearing some strange and imprecise resemblance to one another.

As I paused at the elephant and giraffe exhibits, these tall creatures with their thick, long and spotted necks, tails and ears whisking away flies and other insect annoyances, their trunks groping the ground in search of food, slurping water and filling their mouths for drink and occasional play, I watched these massive animals carry on in their slow gaits, every so often taking a moment to gawk at the much smaller, non-naked beings staring back at them from the site of our safety.

It is easy to reside in safety. I wondered how we must appear, if we indeed appear at all – if their brains can reckon and figure such sights – to these captive animals. I marveled at their size, how very large, oblique, intricate and stunning their muscles, how impressive their feet, how casual their actions. Their movement along the trampled ground, the motion of their limbs, their sheer volume caused me recollections of my childhood, when facing such enormity, my brain tingled and lay prostrate at such gigantic traits.

It is, I should hope, a natural thing to inhale such awe at the world’s wonders, whether natural or unnatural. I somehow manage to forget just how big certain things are in real life, how vast the world is, how valid it is to actually be living and breathing alongside the rest of earth and its astronomically numbered inhabitants, all told enormous and microscopic. As humans, we must certainly appear both gigantic and minute in relation to other creatures. And yet we are given dominion over them — a great price and a great responsibility.

This is not intended to be a treatise on environmental conservation or animal husbandry nor is it a plea to spare the globe from man’s involvement and interaction. Hardly. I am merely marveling – in my own mind, insofar as I can tell – the great and Providential difference that we all are. We roam the territories of our lives, or in this case the grounds of a zoo, and even a blind man in his sightlessness can plainly see that we are all so immensely varied in appearance (amen), culture and action. We are indeed peculiar treasures.

It seems appropriate, not to mention ironic, that all of this is brought to my attention while at the zoo, that fenced-in plot of city land where animals of all species, variegations and coloration are separated from man, woman and child by chain-link fence or a puddle of moat water, where the cackle of long-armed gibbons intermixes with the cackle of awed and bored children, where the odor of zoo life attends the meeting and confluence of the opposably-thumbed, stamp-footed, cloven-hoofed, winged and rationally-thinking. Sometimes I wonder which creature is more prone to and capable of the latter.

Whether or not you believe the earth, along with all its surplus and supplies, was made in 6 business days, or if you conclude that Evolution – or Creationism, for that matter – is for weaklings, or even if God is a part of any, all or none of the ongoing terra-activities, we are just as bound to marvel at all the differences as we are the similarities, to the skink as to the mighty lion, to the Gentile as to the Jew. Myself, I find comfort in hearing that all of earth – its boundless waters, solid ground, endless azure skies, kingdom of creatures – is not only something to be marveled at, but is likewise marvelous in its inherent Goodness, the everlasting, unbound, permanent meaning of the word, and the fact that no two human beings throughout all of time, on all the plains of earth are exactly alike is nearly unfathomable. It is good to marvel.

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


  1. Andrew C

    Some awesome thoughts. I think this is a big reason God created all He did. All of this gives us clues to know Him and His heart more fully. The size and complexity of it all is breathtaking, and as my heart starts to think of who God is in relation to all I see, and down limitless paths from there…wow. This is the rich stuff of life. Thanks for spurring us on.

  2. Peter B

    Indeed… it’s no stretch to see God’s marvelous hand in all of creation.

    Of course I feel pretty small for dwelling so much on how your brain “lay prostate”… but that just goes to show how we differ 🙂

  3. Chris Slaten

    “Inhale such awe” That is a perfect phrase for encountering something huge, particularly since such instances seem to have an immediate impact on lungs and muscles as well as the mind. Reading this made me think about how cool it is that we perceive with our whole bodies and not just our brains. That makes it even more strange to think of such an alien body as a giraffe’s perceiving us with its whole body. Does looking at us ever cause its knees to shiver?

    Your detailed descriptions of the zoo animals reminded me of section of a book that if you haven’t read you may be interested in. Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino. Particularly there is a fantastic chapter where he observes a giraffe and other zoo animals.

    Thanks for the rich meditation. Great imagery.

    It also reminded me of Jonathan Edwards descriptions of God revealing his own features and attributes through natural beauty.

  4. eric

    ….and of course, by “prostate” i no doubt meant “prostrate”. thank you, mr. peter b, for pointing out my gross and awkward mistake. yes, that was quite an image…

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