Sunday, 13 December 2009

We are all primates here

What could be finer than sharing the world with the most northern population of non-human primates in the world? Sheep and squirrels are all well and good, but for an Englishman, it is sheer delight to come across monkeys on your home patch. Not in a zoo or a book, or with a voice-over by Johnny Morris, but living as they always have, in the woods, gazing back  with their ancient stare. St Simian, un-appointed Primate of the land.

A pair of Japanese Macaques were perched nonchalantly in a tree overhanging the road today. They seemed to be breaking off twigs, stripping their bark and chewing them, though it was hard to see if this was the tree itself or the creeper growing up it - or even insects under the bark. They moved further into the tree when we approached slowly, one a little bigger and shyer with darker fur with a reddish tinge, the other more confident, a ball of thick grey fur ready for the snow due any day now.

I don't envy them the winter outside, and it struck me forcibly how extraordinary and fortuitous it is that we happen to know how to make houses for shelter, while they, with their opposable thumbs and the materials everywhere around them, don't. They are said to huddle together in the snow in big groups on the ground like penguins. You can imagine waking up freezing cold, thinking, 'Shit, the buggers have pushed me to the outside again,' before working your way back for your turn in the cozy middle.

The local ten year-old with us didn't share our enthusiasm. She only likes the babies, finding the adults pug ugly. After all, they are as normal for her as squirrels are for the English. And for Aizu people whose vegetables and fruit are targeted, the monkeys can be a pest. It is a tribute to people's forbearance, to the traditional idea that monkeys protect against demons, and to anti-hunting laws, that monkeys are so relaxed about encountering other primates like us. Especially as our ancient stares gleam with the potential for a much greater degree of inventive malevolence.

If it was England, we'd have wiped them out long ago, along with our wolves, bears, beavers and otters, if they dared to steal a single apple. Then we'd be back to the bloody sheep.

For some fascinating detail about the lives of Japanese Macaques Mucaca Fuscata, click here
If you'd like to read about the mythology and legend attached to monkeys in Japan click here

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