My adopted hometown, Daytona Beach, is located in a region that’s known as the “Shark-bite Capital of the World.” I know a lot of people who surf and swim, and yes, a few of them have been bitten. (Usually the bites did not need medical attention.)
My neighbor J. is an avid surfer (actually several of my neighbors are). Recently he and a fellow surfer met up with a four-foot shark out in the waves. It swam around and toward them. Both of them quickly paddled to shore; neither was bitten. It’s said that surfers look like food to sharks (something about the underside of the surfboard looking like the belly of a fish or seal).
I asked J if he really felt the shark was after him. He said no. “It was an adolescent, they’re like any adolescent — they will try anything. And what’s more, the area we were in was full of fish.” (From what I read and hear, most shark bites, at least around here, do seem unintentional — the sharks mistakenly biting something that turns out not to be food.) I really appreciated J’s knowledge of, and compassion toward, the creatures whose environment he visits. So many of us humans lack that.
Knowledge, awareness breeds understanding and compassion. Most people who scream “Kill it!” when they see a supposedly “scary” creature like a spider or snake — don’t even know the creature’s name, let alone its habits. Education is key. As I’ve often said before, I think all of us have an obligation to learn the names and habits of the critters and plants wherever we live or visit. Plus which, it’s such a joy to learn about them. Really awe-inspiring.
On the subject of awe, David at Raptitude (one of my favorite spiritual writers) just wrote this beautiful piece on awe: “The Healthy Emotion We Don’t Get Enough Of.” David writes: “I suspect awe is, for humans, an essential spiritual nutrient, one our modern lifestyles don’t provide nearly enough of. Our pre-modern ancestors would not have been able to avoid awe, and its benefits, because of how frequently nature would have humbled them, in the form of deadly storms, combat with beasts, pristine wilderness, and nightly starscapes. We already know modernity doesn’t provide [what] we humans need to thrive, which is why we do absurd things like running in circles …”
It struck me, as J. spoke about the adolescent shark, that his tone also bore the kind of affectionate understanding one might have toward a nephew or grandson — or toward a younger version of one’s own self. We could use a lot more of that kind of understanding in today’s world.
I’ve read that Native Americans and other indigenous people think of all creatures as their sisters or brothers. I once read about a tribe (I think it was on an island in the Philippines — if I find the link I’ll post it for you) who revered crocodiles as their grandparents. The people swam freely among the crocodiles. (Recently, according to what I read, crocodiles started eating the tribespeople; the ancient relationship was broken. My hunch is that some other humans, downriver or across the strait or something, taught the crocodiles that humans are dangerous.)
Surfing around (no pun intended) online, I found this article in the India Times about a village called Maharashtra, where the residents create space in their homes for cobras! If people can do this for a deadly venomous snake, maybe the people where I live can learn about our nonvenomous Black Racer snakes and stop wanting to kill them.
A final word about our status as “Shark-bite Capital”: The actual number of bites in 2019 in Volusia County was … nine. That number was 21 for the state of Florida, and 64 worldwide. Just to put things in perspective. How many people each year are hit by cars? Not to discount the pain of the people who got bitten, of course. Just to say we modern humans have a strong tendency to panic and magnify natural threats in comparison with human threats.