Sometimes being at the top isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, like if you were declared the world’s tallest mountain one day by a Bengali mathematician and then named for a British surveyor you will never meet. The natural outcome of this is that tourists will start clambering over you, ascending your north and south sides, leaving trashed tents and oxygen tanks and corpse after popsicled corpse on your slopes. No, sometimes it is better to trail a thousand feet below and cultivate your image cautiously, like how K2 worked its magic on Italian mountaineer Fosco Maraini over the years. “Just the bare bones of a name,” he waxes about Earth’s second highest peak, “all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man—Or of the cindered planet after the last.” There’s nothing quite like when someone takes the time to understand the persona you try so hard to project: in this case, rarefied and insuperable.
To be sure, there is often no rhyme or reason to how fame is attributed in this world. What did the dinosaurs do to deserve their fanfare when the pseudosuchians were the first archosaurs to exercise terrestrial domination? Yet, no plushie line for the plate-covered aetosaurs. No book deal or feature films for Saurosuchus, T-Rex of the Triassic. And rare is the five-year old who takes the time to pronounce Dromicosuchus over a dinosaur equivalent. But perhaps the whole division is content to be in the lesser limelight, intent to lurk from the shadows and sport the last laugh, or at least one of those toothy grins that is the winning feature of many an alligator or crocodile, both under-the-radar survivors who outlasted their rockstar relations (technically birds are also dinosaurs, but I had not the heart to tell my local caiman this, and I would advise you not to as well—best to allow them this one small victory).
Sometimes being best can be the worst. The prized antlers the wapiti so lovingly drapes with velvet and nourishes with aspen shoots can turn their caretakers into rumpus room decor, even though deerstalkers know perfectly well they could just wait for the elk to finish bugling its mates before picking up the discarded instruments for a song. Then there is the case concerning the northern white rhinoceros, where fame unsought steered a soul to ruin. And what a shame that was, for it almost nailed down the formula for being a cult-hit success: being burly and thick-skinned enough to shrug off any local predatory critique, but game to play second-fiddle to the trunked and tusked giant everyone knows and loves. Unfortunately the short-sighted and square-lipped grazer could not help but indulge in the exact type of facial ornamentation that attracts the wrong sort of attention. Who knew that a couple knobs of snout keratin could become such objects of desire for the poacher and such sources of sorrow for the poached? Not long now until the answer to this becomes moot. Not long until Najin and Fatu, the last mother and daughter of the line, reunite with Sudan, past mate and former father, beyond the rim of this material plane.
Sometimes second best is good enough. The eastern brown snake may be runner-up in venom strength to the inland taipan, but makes up for it by being bad tempered and fleet of belly, which in this rare instance can be quicker than fleet of foot. And yes, one pepper contender may emerge ahead in spice and Scoville units between the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and the Komodo Dragon varieties, but no sane person would care after tasting the two, or remain sane for that matter, having to work through hours of numbness and general breathing difficulties. Sometimes attaining just a high and not the high is all that matters, like if what you crave is squid, succulent squid and would do anything for it. The sperm whale can attest to this compulsion, perpetually ravenous for mantle and tentacle, plowing its brick head down a mile of ocean day in and day out to duel then devour creatures from horror tales of old. Yet even this champion, holder of innumerable records—largest toothed predator, loudest living creature, most prized whaling species, most notorious albino literary nemesis—only grabs the bronze in the thing it tries its best in, placing behind the smaller southern elephant seal and the Cuvier’s beaked whale, each diving even deeper in their fanatical pursuit of choice cephalopod cuisine.
Accepting that there will always be someone out there better than you may seem like a nightmare for any overachiever. How can you assess your worth without external metrics? What will you do instead of obsessing over usurpers of your records? Not everyone can be as non-plussed as the large-eared pika after the yellow-rump leaf-eared mouse took its high-altitude living crown, eking out a living four miles above sea level on the volcanic slopes of Llullaillaco between Argentina and Chile; most of us less hardy folk will inevitably suffer some ego shock from our demotion and relegation. The common swift, so sleek and slick and regularly complimented, might have thought it was all that while cruising at seventy clicks until the Brazilian free-tailed bat came whipping through, all skin flap and finger bones and wrinkled lip, breaking a hundred without breaking a sweat, though it would likely do so if it possessed sweat glands. What is instructive here is to take such news in stride, or in the case of the swift, to take it in glide while swallowing lunch flies. In so doing it has avoided the trap that has ensnared the cheetah, who moulded its way of life around its gold in the 400 meter dash so completely that it fails to qualify in all other ways at being a big cat, not even able to retract its claws or roar with authority like its beefier lion and leopard cousins, who swing by on occasion to bully the cheetah out of its prize gazelle catches as the sprinting champ merely watches and pants, breathless, helpless.
Maybe the best thing about being the bridesmaid but never the bride is that you need never wed yourself wholly to any one thing. Thus you are free to roam and evolve without hindrance in all the ways you, dear reader, deem best. In this day and age of change and turmoil, it may be an advantage to be best at nothing but decent at many things. The panda bear and the koala bear and the monarch butterfly may grace the covers of magazines dedicated to heirloom bamboo and gumleaf nutrition and the art of finding the right milkweed plant to raise happy caterpillars, but it will be the raccoon and the coyote and the jellyfish, jimmying door handles and snatching up poodles and clogging power plant intakes, who will snag the leading roles on the Anthropocene stage. Such motley ne'er-do-wells won’t garner any achievements of note for their performances, except for the one that matters in the end, which is to prosper while living alongside a misbehaving neighbor, one who is unaware of how much of a mess he leaves behind, one ignorant in how he is using up more than his fair share, one so unchecked in appetite and obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses that he doesn’t realize almost everyone in the neighborhood has long since moved away, including the Joneses, because who wants to live with such an inconsiderate and overbearing presence, except those malleable souls able to turn his vices into virtues, like the peppered moths of Manchester donning soot camouflage during the Industrial Revolution, or the crows of Sendai employing truck traffic to crack open walnut shells, or the white clover in Norwegian farmlands tweaking its internal chemistry to thrive in hotter Indian cities. Some may deem these weeds and pests without merit or value, but adaptability has always been too sly an element to be quantified in such ways. Perhaps toward this end it is better for us to eschew the notion of being best or even second-best altogether, to see past achievements and acknowledge the being behind. This may demand we seek out different sorts of knowledge altogether, less revolving around obsessive comparisons and record reverence, and more following along on trains of thought driven by wonder and curiosity. When did the Madagascar tomato frog acquire its vine-ripened complexion? What prompts the springbok to “pronk” straight-legged and straight up again and again? How do whale barnacles secure prime humpback real estate amidst all the vast and dancing seas? And if anyone tries to dismiss these acts and actors as silly or worthless, we shall laugh and agree that indeed they are silly and worthless, and that we are also silly and worthless despite our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise, so fortunate to live in a world that, despite our best efforts to improve upon it, remains chock-full of astonishment, so joyously inconsequential, so thoroughly indispensable.