Delia Owens, author of Where The Crawdads Sing—the September book pick for Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine—pens a thought-provoking essay on the 20-something years she spent researching wildlife in Africa, and what she learned about female friendships through the pride of lions—and other mammals—she studied there.
“Here’s to’d ya. If I never see’d ya, I never knowed ya.” Clink, clink. Sitting around an old kitchen table in South Georgia in 1957, my three girlfriends and I, eight years old, tapped our shot glasses together and tossed back a swig of Coca-Cola. The odd adage had been taught to us by Danni, one of our many grandmothers. We lived in a rookery of mothers, and I thought I understood troop love.
But I knew nothing until I studied lions and hyenas in the Kalahari Desert for many years.
Blue, one of the lionesses of the Blue Pride, stood alone on the crest of East Dune, scanning the scorched valley for prey. Four months ago, during the rains, two thousand antelopes would have dotted the savanna. Now, only wind and dust tracked the barren scene. Over the last two days, she had eaten only a four-pound springhare. Blue cooed softly, listening for an answer from her pride mates, who would usually have answered her call from nearby. But there was only the sound of dry, rustling grass. The pride had disbanded because of lack of prey and were scattered over 10,000 square miles. I knew this because my research partner and I radio-tracked them by aircraft. Blue had not seen them for months.
Suddenly, her large head swung north, and she stared. Guessing that she’d seen a lone antelope, I looked in that direction. Suddenly, Blue took off at a fast trot, and I spotted her target. Sassy and Chary, two of her pride mates, padded through the sand on the dune face, two hundred yards away. As she neared, they also broke into a lope and the three lionesses collided in a full body slam, their long sides rubbing against each other. Back and forth, they slithered along each other from nose to tail. Then they dropped into a pile, rolling over and over, snuggling noses into necks, gently pawing faces.
Scientists have trouble with the word love. We can’t weigh or measure it, so we avoid using it. Fail to define it. But if this wasn’t love, then I’ve never seen it.
Sunrise found them feeding on a large gemsbok. By cooperating in the hunt, they finally had a decent sized kill, which could feed all of them several days. As their large canines tore into their breakfast, they raised their lips and snarled at each other. Blue swatted at Chary; Chary growled at Sassy. One would never guess that these were the same lionesses rolling in the group hug the night before. My friends said it reminded them of Big Little Lies.
There are survival reasons why tightly-bonded groups of mammals are made up of females and not males. Forty baboon mothers screaming and mobbing a leopard are more likely to succeed in chasing off the predator than a single mom could. The more females in a hyena clan, the better they can defend their territory from other clans—and kill larger prey. This provides more resources and security for their cubs. The matriarchal groups evolved because cooperating with other females benefited each individual and her own young. The camaraderie was nice (even important), but it was not the driving force. We’ve watched a brown hyena female neck-biting a subordinate clan mate for nineteen minutes to reassert her status. Months later, when the subordinate was killed by lions, this same dominant assisted in adopting the orphans of the lower-ranking female. In a desert, it truly takes a clan. It’s a hard lesson: stay in the pride or clan for what’s it’s worth, but watch your back.
In mammals, there are almost no permanent groups consisting only of males. The males leave their natal groups after adolescence and spend their lives wandering from one group to the next for mating. (This is where my friends said: you had to go all the way to Africa to learn that males go from one group to the next for mating.) Since one or two males can mate with all the females in a pride or troop, and since males don’t raise the young, there are fewer reproductive or survival benefits for males to form tightly-bonded groups. It would be a brawl of competition. They do occasionally hang out together in loose alliances up until the minute they fight—sometimes to the death—over mating rights. Some of our less desirable genetic traits, such as competition for dominance and fighting over resources (including mates), evolved for very good survival reasons. We may not have endured on the savanna without them. In other words, we might not be here. Our past helps us see who we really are.
“Here’s to’d ya. If I never see’d ya, I never knowed ya.” Clink, clink. My girlfriends and I, much older and now sipping wine, raised our glasses. One by one, we have drifted over the dusty dunes back home and will always toast each other with these words. Only now, we know what they mean.
They are my pride, and I dedicated my novel to them.
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