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THE LIONS OF THE MOMENT
by David Cabela
When today stares you in the eye and says let’s go, you never quite see it for the gift it is. But when it becomes yesterday, the clarity of memories fulfilled reminds you how each moment needs to be grasped. I have wasted far too many of my moments—taken a precious gift from God and treated it as something unimportant. But I have embraced a few, rarely, if ever contemplating the impact they would leave when I would later look back on them. Hopefully, I will someday understand that all the fear, the pain, the failure, and the struggle, actually solidified the importance of creating something that would stay a part of me forever.
It is only when we have left our todays behind when we realize we cannot go back to them. When we realize that the lions we have pursued will only live on in what remains of our memories. They live on because they are worthy of being remembered.
I have chased my share of lions or leopards or bears or success or whatever we call our pursuits at the given moment. Are they our dreams? Are they God’s dreams for us? Honest questions. The answer is always the same, even if often misunderstood. The answer is love. If we follow those pursuits with love and passion and perseverance and charity, then it is God who will ultimately decide what they are worth.
I write about hunting, but our pursuits can be and are many varied endeavors. Family, charity, even secular success, if pursued with love and honesty can be Christian. I have always believed the most honest relationship I can have with nature involves immersing myself into it as one of its predators. As a human, my ability to care for it and limit myself because of free-will sets me apart from the other creatures, but it is precisely in the pursuit where I have discovered this honest relationship—one that embraces rather than denies the truth of how much our lives depend on sustainably using nature. I believe it is a relationship based on something deeper than mere recreation. What do you do when you care about something? You learn about it. You protect it. You care for it. You guide it. You watch it grow and change and become what God intends it to be. Most of all, you spend time with it.
As a hunter though, I have to reconcile that I sometimes kill that which I care about. It is an important reconciliation. Life on earth does not exist without death. Something must die for you and I to live. Hunting reminds me of who I am and where I come from. It reminds me that we must ensure that wild places and wild animals exist for our children’s children so they can choose to have their own honest relationship with the natural world.
These lions in my life teach me about the land, the animals, the hunt, myself, and God. So I pursue them and I cannot help but ask myself why the world, slowly dying behind the screen, where hate is too often championed as righteousness, has largely forgotten where it has come from. Some of us, in an attempt to remind ourselves, occasionally leave the screens behind and search for something more meaningful. It is astounding how often I find that meaning, or maybe better stated, how that meaning reveals itself to me while I pursue those lions or kudu or bears or deer.
I remember the first time I saw a wild African lion. It was Zambia in the Luangwa river valley. I was in a tree machan with an experienced professional hunter on one side and my new bride on the other overlooking a slowly rotting haunch from a zebra hanging low in an acacia fifty yards upwind of us.
The gnawed upon slab of meat, the heavy paw prints, and one long strand of hair from a lion’s mane gave us the confidence that a big, old male might return the following evening to finish off its meal. So the native crew went to work building us a tree blind.
The team of four men zipped up and down the tree without any aid of a ladder or steps and, in less than 30 minutes, built a platform fifteen feet high in the tree. Made of grayed sticks not much thicker than fishing poles and fresh cut long grass, the machan appeared as if it might buckle under the weight of one person, let alone three. They tied on makeshift climbing steps made from machete-chopped branches as a courtesy to our unpracticed tree climbing skills. After inspecting the platform for weak spots, we settled into the surprisingly sturdy structure four hours before dark and prepared for a long, boring afternoon under a scorching sun.
I opened a paperback and began to read. My wife, Shari, seemed fixated by the line of ants with massive claw-like pincers racing up and down a nearby branch and our professional hunter, Hartley, placed his hat over his face and promptly began to snore. Periodically, I glanced through the shooting hole of the blind hoping to see something move. Hoping, especially to see an old male lion. By the apathetic attitude of our professional hunter, I knew the odds of seeing a lion much before dusk were unlikely, but as a Christian and a hunter, I am a creature of hope. It fuels my perseverance and I have seen the fruits of hope far too many times to take it for granted. So after I had taken my focus away from the novel for the fifth time in 30 minutes, I did so again a few minutes later.
This time I saw one of the world’s most magnificent creatures studying the brush beside the zebra haunch. I stared dumbfounded for a what seemed minutes. Then I started to whisper, but my mouth was too dry. I nudged Shari and gestured for her to peek through the shooting hole. Then I slowly reached over and poked Hartley. A seasoned hunter, he understood the prudence of caution. He slowly reached up to move his hat just enough so he could see me.
I mouthed the word “lion” and nodded toward the acacia. His expression revealed his shock that the lion had exposed itself so early.
Pausing every time the machan creaked or his clothing scraped on a branch, it took Hartley a full minute to move from lying back to sitting up. He stared silently out through his own small peek hole without moving for many minutes.
During that time, the lion only once looked away from the brush and when it did, it briefly turned toward us. I am not sure anything really prepares you for the first time you see a wild lion—especially when you are hunting one. I had seen many in zoos mostly sleeping with fat bellies and what has always looked to me like a broken spirit. This lion standing tall and confident, its powerful muscles twitching in the afternoon heat, had the appearance of royalty. I immediately understood how this creature had become known as the “King of Beasts”. It did not seem to merely belong there. It seemed to own the place.
“A young male,” Hartley finally whispered. “There is another waiting in the brush there. Get ready.”
I had my .375 H&H Magnum positioned so I could simply lift the stock and slip the barrel through the shooting hole in one smooth movement. I did so in a creeping pace. The young male turned and glared in our direction. I froze. As the seconds ticked away, the weight of the rifle began to test my resolve. Sweat hung from my nose begging me to reach up and wipe it away. I forced myself to hold still. The world seemed at a stalemate. Nothing made a sound. Finally, the lion turned back to the brush long enough for me to slip the rifle into position.
Staring through the scope, I searched the brush for the second lion Hartley had insisted was there. I saw nothing but grass and branches. So we waited. We waited in a silence only occasionally broken by a distant bird calling or a drop of sweat dripping to the floor of the machan.
I soon realized my body had been overtaken by trembling. Was it adrenaline? Fear? Fatigue? A combination? It was subtle but enough that I questioned my ability to shoot if I did not get it under control. I took a deep breath through my nose. To my ears it sounded like a tornado in the silence. The lion did not seem to notice.
Hartley shifted slightly. The scratching sound his clothing made was like sand paper. Once again, the lion ignored us and kept his focus on the brush. I still could not find the second lion.
Eventually, the young male turned to the zebra haunch, sauntered over to it, stood up on its hind legs and began to gnaw. I could hear flesh tearing and bones snapping.
“Here comes the other lion,” Hartley whispered.
Despite my deep focus on the brush, I never saw the lion come out of it. One moment it was hidden. The next it was there, standing in the open. It appeared to be the twin of the first.
“Young male.” I could barely make out Hartley’s whispers. “We only shoot older males nearing the end of breeding age.”
I glanced over at him, and without talking he motioned for me to retrieve my video camera and record the moment. My movements attracted the attention of the lions. And while we were seemingly having a staring contest with the two near the carcass, a third male had mysteriously appeared directly below our tree.
Shari tapped my shoulder and pointed down. The third, previously unseen, lion stared up at us with a focused intensity that is hard to describe. For a moment, I locked eyes with the creature. In the many times I have peered into the eyes of a deer or an antelope or a coyote or any other wild creature, I always sensed I could see fear.
The complete lack of fear in the lion’s eyes had this mesmerizing affect on me. I wondered if he could sense that I was afraid. I had, after all, recently encountered a village completely deserted because of a man-eating lion. This one looked at me as if I were some annoying pest to be dealt with accordingly. I could not look away and I will never forget that stare.
Eventually, the lion bored of intimidating me and joined its brothers for a feast while we watched and listened to their powerful jaws and teeth as they ripped flesh. At dark, the crew showed up to chase the lions away with the truck as we climbed out of the tree. The big cats did not go far and when we shined our lights toward them, we could see three sets of cold eyes staring back at us. I kept my flashlight on the pair of eyes that started to circle around us as we gathered up all the gear and Shari kept hers on the two sets that did not move.
The relief of driving away in the vehicle finally subdued the trembling that all the deep breaths in the world had no power over.
That night I awoke to footsteps and growling outside our tent. I felt for the rifle I had placed nearby the cot feeling only slight comfort in knowing it was nearby. I slept in fits the rest of the night.
In the morning, we found a few tracks and discovered that a group of female lions, attracted by the scent coming from the skinning shed had strolled through camp. One of them even popped its nose into the tent of one of our trackers before circling the shed and disappearing into the darkness.
I can still sense that unfounded fear I felt that evening and cannot help but wonder how much of God’s time I have wasted in unfounded fear. He tells us not to be afraid and not to worry, yet my lack of trust often exposes the weakness of my faith.
I tell myself God has it under control. I remind myself what it says in John 7: “They could not lay a hand upon him (Jesus) because his hour had not come.” Only God knows the hour and if I truly trust Him and his promise that death has no power over us, then I can pursue my lions, in whatever form they take, with faith and humility. I can cling to hope and embrace each moment as the true gift it is without the burden of fear. And hopefully, when my hour does come, I can glance back at yesterday and see why it mattered.