I live in a pocket of Northwest DC situated so close to Smithsonian National Zoological Park, I can hear African lions roar from my apartment.
The sound is low and enormous and disarming. It booms and arcs, sending vibrations for miles. There’s nothing like it. Even the familiar, on-screen yawp of the MGM cat, keeper of the cinephile kingdom, pales in comparison.
To say I didn’t fully appreciate this primal, backyard symphony before the onset of coronavirus would be wholly inaccurate. It served as more of an exotic fun fact — an antidote to banal small talk and a special morsel I had in common with my literary heroine Nora Ephron. (She wrote about the lions, too, when she lived in Northwest DC while married to famed journalist Carl Bernstein.)
“I would stare out the window of my Washington apartment, which had a commanding view of the lions at the National Zoo. The lions at the National Zoo! Oh, the metaphors of captivity that leaped to mind!”
I don’t aim to draw the “captivity” parallel, however. Too on the snout. I’m simply here to pay homage to my maned neighbors for their daily concerts.
Prior to the mid-March stay-at-home order, I knew them to sound their calls before sunrise and sunset, when they’re most active. I never once paused to ponder the pride’s lunch plans. I wasn’t at home during those stretches of the day. I couldn’t hear their throaty tunes while out in the world.
Then, on a morning in early April, those roars rolled in on the hour, every hour. By day’s end I was as tamed as Pavlov’s dog and waiting by the window, neck craned in anticipation.
So far I’ve refrained from roaring back, though the instinct — and pent-up emotion — is certainly there. Any attempt at call-and-response might seem too similar to the shrillness of the smoke detector. (My human neighbors have heard this sound one too many times, I’m afraid.)
I moved in last December, but hadn’t any clue that the window to meet other tenants would — just weeks later — slam shut. No time hallway hellos or casual chats by mailboxes.
While I miss my family in Massachusetts terribly, I’m grateful for the pride that’s unknowingly adopted me. I rely on them, my pack. I need and thank them for reminding me that nature’s pulse is as unwavering as it is magic.
I tell them of my sense of helplessness, too; the unending thoughts of suffering masses I can’t make well. They know of the guilt — how the illness and quarantine crippling so many has forced me, in my own isolation, to reckon with myself in answering a long-burning desire to write more.
Thanks to Smithsonian’s always-live “Lion Cam,” I’m learning to better train my ear. Living-room and Google-Chrome-browser windows open and suddenly Luke (14 years), Naba (15 years), Shera (14 years), and Amahle (5 years) are on the prowl in front of my coffee table.
These self-imposed lessons in zoology have duly reminded me of a theme I often return to when things get hard: to really know something is to be with it, to try and understand it. To tame it and be tamed by it. Who’s roaring about what, and why. Hungry? Frisky? A tad territorial? I now know such deep and distinct vocals are capable of busting up family squabbles and asserting strength; signaling warning and frustration, hunger and lust. We’re all social beasts struggling to communicate something, it turns out.
But when all of this is over, I will be the only animal who gets to walk away.
I write more now than I have in years — every day, in fact. It’s the wonderful pandemic-silver-lining-surprise I feel I don’t deserve, but cling to with both hands.
Springtime amid this new reality is long and unnerving and eerily bright. What’s ahead will be, too. But, tomorrow, as the mid-afternoon sun cuts through Rock Creek Park’s winding tree line, the lions will roar with me.