“Brother of the blowfly… no one gets to heaven without going through you first.” –Yusef Komunyakaa
Sixteen years ago, my wife and I, along with our friend Audrey were standing outside a guesthouse near the towns of Boabeng and Fiema in Ghana when Kojo, a young boy, approached on a bicycle. His whole shadow rose and fell with each turn of the crooked front wheel. Behind him were miles of fields and the dust-dry trees of forest. He stopped in front of me and opened his hand to reveal a small crumpled note. I unfolded it and read, “My friends, two of my children have died, i.e. the black and white colobus monkeys. Please come, quickly!” The note was signed, “the chief, Nana”
In the conjoined town of Boabeng and Fiema, two species of monkey are considered by many to be living gods—fuzzy masters of the universe. As with any god, the relationships people form to the monkeys are individual. Some treat them with absolute reverence. Others scold them like misbehaving but well-loved children. Then there are the evangelical Christians in the town next door. They sneak into the forest and kill the monkeys both to discourage the worship of false gods and to eat said false gods. Apparently, sacred monkeys taste like chicken.
On this particular day, a taxi had hit and killed two monkeys as they tried to cross the red-dirt road into town. In addition to evangelicals, cars are one of several features of modern West African life with which these sacred monkeys can come into conflict, others being agriculture, logging, and hunger. In Boabeng and Fiema when monkeys die they are buried in simpler versions of the ceremonies reserved for humans. It was one of these funerals to which we had just been invited.
As we approached the scene, perhaps a hundred people had gathered beside the road where one black and white colobus monkey lay in each of two small wooden coffins. Women were wailing. The chief was making an announcement. Other men were sounding their approval of the chief’s words, a deep and mumbled assent. Overhead, the rest of the black and white colobus monkeys looked down.
Once upon a time, the forests in which black and white colobus monkeys lived stretched in broad bands across West Africa. The colobus monkeys do not like to run on the ground and in those days they could have flung themselves, tree to tree to tree until their arms tired. Such freedom, if one might call it that, is a thing of the past. Today, the forests have contracted. If you could have seen us from above on the day of the funeral you would have seen the bright colors of women’s dresses, the red of the road, and then around us the brown-green of the forest trees. But from a greater distance something else would be conspicuous. The forest the monkeys live in is isolated, an island on which the gods are hemmed in, an island surrounded by the fields of subsistence, fields where yucca and other crops are grown to sustain the secular bodies of women and men.
The forest of Boabeng-Fiema is not the only sacred grove. Here and there across the country, here and there across West Africa, survive other patches of forests or tall grass in which living gods roam. The groves differ in their particulars, but are all living temples in which animal deities are worshiped through the daily prayers implicit in leaving a tree standing or resisting the temptation to shoot what is edible and then, occasionally, more elaborate ceremonies, like the one that we had been called to attend. Beyond West Africa, sacred groves are also found elsewhere too. There are sacred groves in India, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia too; thousands of them in total, each helping to save what remains.
Image 2. A black and white colobus monkey looking down on humans. Photo by Justin Hills.
Sacred groves are religious, but also functional, a traditional means of conserving the forest (or other habitat) on which both wild species and humans depend. Their sacredness is a means of preserving plant medicines, wood, and everything else the forests are needed for, a means encoded in religious taboos. As a model for conservation, the groves are not perfect. The forest around Boabeng and Fiema is a small green donut where there would have once been miles of stubborn sun-eating trees. But were there no monkey gods, things would almost certainly be worse. The last tree would have been chopped down, the last monkey eaten; the godliness of monkeys and trees holds the farms back, even if only just barely.
Since I left Ghana distance has highlighted the similarities rather than the differences between the sacred groves and western conservation approaches. In western approaches, we don’t hold up the animals in, say, Yellowstone as gods. Yet the reverence we offer pandas, tigers, and other flagship species seems to me very similar to that given to sacred species. When we spend millions of dollars on a panda, it is probably fair to say we are valuing it as though it too were a god, a god whose conservation helps to conserve that habitat in which it once thrived.
But recently, I’ve come to reflect again on the sacred groves. One of my former PhD students, Nyeema Harris, is beginning conservation research (on big cats and giant rats) in Ghana. Another student in my lab, an undergraduate, Justin Hills, just returned from a summer program in Ghana. In talking to them both about my time there I have had a chance to remember the ways in which sacred groves really are unique.
Although the word “grove” suggests a forest, sacred groves include places where the species protected, for example, crocodiles, bats or termites, rely on other habitats. Not far from Boabeng and Fiema is a sacred river where the gods are fish. When we lived in Ghana, I was eager to see fish gods and so asked where we might find them. We were directed to a market in the city of Techiman. The river runs through the market and so right there, in the middle of town, the sacred fish can be observed. The symbolism of the sacred fish is rich and old. According to local belief, each one was an actual god. We were prepared to see blessed, shimmering fish.
As we walked through the market full of loud colors, sounds and bountiful acrid smells, we came to the spot. There it was, a small pool of water. I was excited, a bit giddy even. Then I looked down. Sacred water, I imagined, should be clear. This water was dark with waste. It stank of human filth and rotten market food. Yet there, rolling and twisting in the shallow dirtiness were catfish, their long whiskers rising out of the water. One wants to find a lesson in such an experience. I think there was one, but it escaped me until recently.
One might see these fish as a tragedy, a measure of how poorly we are capable of treating even gods. That is how I had seen them all those years ago, but in pausing to talk to my students about Ghana, I reconsidered. The fish are also something else. Here in the middle of the city were catfish living on society’s discards. Catfish have always lived on what is left behind. They feel around in the dark for decay and, with their soft mouths and hard teeth, turn that decay into flesh. This, as I look back, was what was really different about the sacred groves, not the god-like monkeys, which we have in the form of pandas and other charismatic megafauna but instead the catfish. In them I met a stubborn god of rebirth.
In western cultures, we do not care for decomposers. We do not care for the species that turn what we do not want—the bodies of our relatives and pets, our waste, the waste of our society—back into life. The vulture is ugly, the maggot worse than the filth it is capable of turning into wings. Then there are the termites whose clear bodies raise dead wood onto legs and walk away and, most vulgar of all, most utterly repulsive, the bacteria and fungi that can bring nearly anything we give them back to life. Even the bible with its themes of rebirth disregards the decomposers. Noah puts all the animals on the ark, all of them except, it seems, the decomposers, who were left to their own devices to spontaneously generate from filth.
The lesson from the sacred groves is that even what is ugly can be sacred and valuable. If the monkeys all disappeared, we would lose many things—perspective on ourselves, dispersal of valuable fruits, beauty, grace and more—but if the decomposers were to disappear, we would lose even more. For the Egyptians, the dung beetle was holy. Historians note that the Egyptians thought the dung beetle was godlike because in rolling balls of dung (in which mother dung beetles put their eggs, that they might feed on fungi and bacteria as larvae), it looked as though it might also be capable of rolling the sun. But let’s not confuse the story that went along with the dung beetle’s sacredness with its actual value to the Egyptians. Just as the catfish at the edge of the market eat what we wish would go away, the dung beetles made more beetles out of excrement. In a time before modern sanitation systems, it is hard to think of anything more miraculous. Bless the beetles for what they do, bless the catfish and the vulture too. Each one is, I can see clearly enough now, a kind of god. Take away the monkeys and we will suffer. Without the decomposers, nothing that we produce would ever be reborn.
Perhaps concerete examples are useful here. When Europeans brought sheep and cattle to Australia they also brought European plants on which these animals could graze. In doing so, they rebuilt a European ecosystem in which they could always be the top predator; grass-sheep-man. But they did not bring decomposers and the native Australian decomposers—used to the dry and stingy dung of kangaroos—left the wet and piling dung of the European grazers where it fell. The dung began to accumulate. In some places it was feet deep and, like the water in the stories of floods, it kept rising. Flies took over where the beetles had failed, but slowly and unpleasantly. The Europeans, despite their intentions, had created a new ecosystem, one in which the ball-rolling dung beetles had been replaced by flies that batted at farmers faces, flies that rose like haloes everywhere the farmers went. The piles of excrement and clouds of flies were the evidence of the value of decomposers (and of some decomposers over others). They were a measure of what the Europeans should have been grateful for in their farms back home but had not known to thank.
On its own, this story is a kind of parable, but there is more. One man, decided to fix the Australia’s great dung problem by importing dung beetles to Australia. Many introductions of non-native species to Australia have had tragic ends—cane toads to eat moths, rabbits to eat grass, foxes to eat rabbits, goats to eat everything and to be eaten, camels to, well, I am not sure. But this was not to be one of them. A Hungarian scientist introduced beetle species from all over the world to Australia. He wanted to use many because he knew not all would work, because different beetles do different things to dung (some roll it, some bury it, some tunnel through), and because the beetles had to survive in many different habitats where sheep had been allowed to graze, from dry-dry deserts to rain forests. In the end, twenty species of beetles survived and thanks to them rural Australia is less shitty; once again grass-sheep-man-beetle-grass. Australia has been more pleasantly reborn; the grass is greener for their presence, the air alive with big, strong, wings.
Image 3. The newest dung beetle to be introduced to Australia, Onthophagus vacca. Photo by Encyclopedia of Life, Creative Commons.
Elsewhere, in cities, be they Ghanaian, European, Australian or North American, dead and decomposing matter is less likely to be that of sheep or cows and more likely to be that of dogs or even humans—human waste, rotten human food and worse. For much of history, ducks and pigs were allowed to roam towns and cities eating what we left. We threw garbage and feces out windows and down steps and the pigs and ducks ate what was thrown. In images of New York City from the 1800s there are almost invariably pigs. These animals not only ate our waste, they turned it to meat, and we ate them. We knew then to be grateful for the pigs; what they did was so obvious one had to, even if begrudging their vulgarity, appreciate their effect. It was easy to bless the sow, or at least it was until the pig’s place in the ecological order of things changed.
In the late 1800s, the urban pigs began to be associated with disease. That was all it took. The pigs were killed and waste piled up. A new resolution for urban waste was necessary. Garbage was shipped out of the city while sewage began to be more consistently piped out as well. The garbage went to dumps, the sewage to waste treatment plants. This is where it still goes, how we still live. But what happens in those places? There are no pigs, no catfish even. In dumps, some of our waste simply accumulates. It piles deeper and deeper as it will continue to do—layering like time–as the dung of sheep in Australia once did. Some matter though is reincarnated as the animals that rise, wriggling, through our things—termites, beetles, seagulls, and rats, each wallowing alongside bacteria in the litter of modernity. But the real glory we could not do without is to be found in sewage treatment plants where bacteria and protists take what has left our bodies as unusable and use it. In doing so, they take filthy liquid and convert it into more of their bodies and clean liquid. In living humans take clean water and pollute it; in living bacteria take dirty water and make it clean.
You can choose who seems holy to you, godlike, a god even, but I’ll take the bacteria and other decomposers. I’ll take the vultures standing on rooftops and fences, raising their angular wings as if in some unchoreographed tribute to Martha Graham. I’ll take the dung beetle. I’ll even take the maggot. Anybody can celebrate a monkey or a panda; they are easy gods, worthy of a simple sort of worship, one of fences and nature reserves. The decomposers are harder. They are everywhere and they need to be, without them nothing would be reborn. Without them we would all be, like the Australians of yore, knee deep in feces and bodies. Without decomposers even the plants would eventually stop growing. Some gods are clever, some gods are beautiful, some gods—it has been said but not proven—are even merciful. You can have those if you want. As for me, I’ll take the maggot and the vulture. I’ll take the bacteria. I’ll even take the catfish rolling in the shallow stink of Techiman’s market, the catfish whose groping mouth reaches up like the afterlife, that tunnel through which, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa reminds us, we must pass to get to some other side.
Note: This essay took fourteen years to write. It began when my wife and I, at the age of twenty-one, returned from Ghana and only showed signs of resolution after discussion with my wonderful Raleigh-Durham book club. Thank you folks. Special thanks to Scott Huler for telling me about the pigs and to Mary-Russell Roberson for reminding me of the way that Martha Graham could raise her wings.