The Cheetah and the Garden of Eden
How a cheetah cub taught me an important life lesson
The Serengeti in Tanzania is a vast open landscape of wonder and suprise. But it can also be endless miles of driving through valleys filled with grass, seeing an occasional gazelle or a nervous impala, twitching its fur to get rid of the flies and and avoid the ineviteable predator. From our anthropomorphic eyes, they almost seem to know or sense in some way that all impalas will die in a kill from a perdator in search of its weekly meal. Of course, all safari goers are looking for the hunt. But this cheetah taught me a far deeper lesson.
After many hours of searching through this extraordinary, vast landscape, we spotted a mother and two cubs sitting under a lone acacia tree. We slowly approached to avoid scaring them off, but they seemed in utter peace. The didn’t much notice us. We pulled quite close, turned off the car to the utter quiet of the plains, and there was mom, just twenty yards away, with her two cubs in the shadow and coolness of the lone tree. Cheetahs have a sleek contained elegance about them, like a model on the cover of an Irving Penn Vogue shoot. Before they move into the wild hunt-they are the fastest mammal on earth-they move with a quiet grace, preserving their energy for the Olympic sprint that will hopefully be their long-for meal.
After a bit, the cub you see above rose up and gave us a studied look. He was of the age when mom would soon be rid of him, ready for the next litter. These plains of the Serengeti were flat and cheetahs search for the slightest advantage to catch their dinner. A small hillock of dirt will give them the extra few inches to see their pray in the grasses. But this young cheetah kept looking at our jeep, open at the top, and then silently walked over to us. We quietly rolled up the windows, mouths open in awe. Within a flash, he was up on all fours on the hood of our truck, curiously looking at us through the front window. While we all sat nervously, eyeing our open roof, he casually began licking the front window and then chewing on the exposed rubber gaskets. We were breathless and quiet with only the sounds of the camera shutters breaking the stillness.
His curiosity aroused, the cheetah cub effortlessly stood up on his back legs, chewed some rubber tie downs, and then peered down at us through the open roof. What were these oddly smelling creatures? He was perfectly still other than his fast breathing and pounding heart. We so wanted to reach out to feel the soft fur of this gorgeous animal, until he opened his sharp-toothed mouth and gave us a soft growl. We faded into silent terror. We were both so clearly curious about each other, but the cheetah was like a distracted kid, and he quickly went back to chewing some of the tie downs. Every few minutes he’d rise again and give us a quiet head turn and a subtle growl. In between, we asked our guide if we should have rewritten our wills. He laughed, “no, they never jump in the trucks.” What a relief we all felt. The guide was clearly as blown away as the four of us. Parenthetically, after returning to camp that night, we asked how many times he’d seen this. “Never, none of us have ever seen a cheetah jump on the jeeps,” he responded. We didn’t say, ”then how did you know he would jump in the back seat with us?” It was a relief to not have known that till we returned.
We gradually relaxed, and the cub kept jumping up, growling, eating parts of the car as we shot a thousand photos. Mom and the other cub showed us no interest. After forty-five minutes, he silently jumped off and shuffled to the hillock, looking for game. It was then as the storm approached that I took this image. There was such quiet and peace. And I realized, the real goal in this untouched place, was not to see a chase or a kill, but the feel oneself being in the midst of this garden of Eden, a magical place where everything had it’s purpose, it’s place, and it’s time. Life and death were part of an endless turning, and each piece, be it the cheetah or the nervous impala, played its perfect role in this endless mandala of life’s oneness. The cheetah did not know that this very same, odd smelling species he was so curious about, had already stolen from him that perfect peace and created a disequilibrium on the edge of taking it all away. But here, in this moment, as the cheetah sa up, so slowly on its hillock and looked around, I felt witness to that perfect garden, as if time had stopped, and we had become for even a moment, part of somethjing so perfect just as it was. Watching this cheetah calmly survey the coming storm, I felt so deeply the presence of something far greater than myself that wove us all together.