Thursday, January 16, 2014

Back Home

Bungalow overlooking the river
This month I’m in the African bush at the place I share at a game reserve which is essentially part of the Kruger National Park.  Right now I'm sitting on a friend's deck, high on a hill with a distant town on the horizon.  The town has a cell phone tower.  Stan has written about the Big Five over the last few weeks, and we’ve had some wonderful sightings of all of them.  Yesterday evening a pride of eight lions was sharing a waterhole with five hippos.  At first the hippos were merely curious from the security of the water, but as the evening wore on they got hungry and made their way out to feed.  The youngsters in the pride taunted and irritated them, even landing a clout on one hippo’s backside.  Eventually the hippo drove them back in a standoff.  All this happened about fifty yards away.

But this piece isn’t about seeing wonderful things in the African bushveld.  It’s more about how I feel in this natural area and about what these sorts of places mean to me and, I guess, to us all. I’m not talking about conservation imperatives to which we all subscribe – preserving nature for diversity and future generations and so on.  I’m talking about what it means to me personally to experience this environment and to be part of it.

 Photo Aron Frankental
Of course, we are all visitors.  No matter if we come once for a couple of weeks or if we’re here for months every year.  We have other priorities.  Families, friends, jobs.  These things – for most of us – are concentrated in large towns or cities, so that is where we need to spend most of our time.  In the bush we now live with electricity, vehicles, appliances, cell phones.  Even, albeit very weak here, the internet.  These are hardly part of nature!

So what draws me back here?  Of course it includes the wonderful animal and bird life, but the complex interconnections of the systems are endlessly fascinating.  Huge blobs of elephant dung at dawn are sifted pancakes by dusk as dung beetles convert it to an incubator for their eggs and a nursery for the grubs.  (Watch for them rolling balls to a suitable burial place as you drive; a neighboring reserve has a welcome sign reading “Dung Beetles have Right of Way.”)  Caterpillars are hosted and fed by ants for the sweet juices they exude.  In the soft sand below our deck is a minefield of conical antlion holes waiting for the ants.  It’s not all great.  A baby impala is wonderfully cute but at the bottom of the fauna food chain.  Then, one of the regulars here came down with malaria over Christmas.  Bad luck, bad timing.  Pretty much how you get injured in a car accident in a city.  (There aren’t too many of those here.)

I suppose most people’s personal feel for history is related to their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on.  For me, to be in a place like this is to experience the Africa that the early pioneers discovered, and appreciate the dangers the locals faced on a daily basis.  The San could have been fighting over the waterhole with those lions.  It makes these things meaningful to me in a way that no historical description can.  The African bush speaks to me about my mother’s grandfather who was a missionary from Belgium to what was then the rural Transvaal, and of my father’s great grandparents who took part in the Great Trek to the north of the country.  And it reminds me always of my mother who spent the happiest times of her life in wild Africa.

I assume that most people feel this sort of connection with their physical, historical, and natural environment.  I can’t imagine that it matters if it’s the African bush, a forested lake in the backwoods of Minnesota, the Australian outback, or (insert your favorite natural place).  I think these areas hold us and remind us where we came from.  I never want to lose this link to what southern Africa was and still is.  Even though I remain a visitor.

At the start of this blog, when I wrote about the eight lions, I didn’t mention the two black rhino who also chased and were chased by the pride at the dam.  I thought it better not to mention anything about our rhinos on the internet.  Subsequently I learned that a black rhino was poached here in the early hours of yesterday morning.  Shot, horn sawn off.  Altogether five rhinos were killed in this general area that night.  This was despite a huge effort by local staff and supporters to protect them using a variety of methods from high tech to tracker dogs.  The wilderness has become too accessible.

Michael – Thursday


  1. Lovely piece, Michael. I have to agree that, for most people, there is a place that feels like home, that is better than anywhere else in the world. Other places all have their charm, their beauty, but they are not 'home.' Some folks are 'gypsies,' and don't have deep roots, but I think they're a minority.

    I've lived all my life within about 50 miles of where I was born (western Oregon). I've traveled a fair amount, and I've seen a LOT of beautiful places, from stark deserts and rock formations, to rain forests, to tropical paradise, to big cities and deep wilderness. But there's no place like an old growth forest of Douglas Fir trees with trunks four to six feet in diameter, rising up into the sky like the pillars in the nave of God's cathedral.

    Well, okay, that might be just me. :-)

  2. My original goal in life was to be a forest ranger. I still find that being alone in the woods brings me more solace and comfort than any where else. I'd also like to help those poachers find peace of the RIP sort ASAP.

  3. Thanks, Jeff. Everett. I think we all have these special places and a very special feeling for them. CS Lewis called it Joy in his little memoir Surprised by Joy.

  4. Michael, New York feels like home to me. It did when I visited here from nearby New Jersey when I was ten years old. I told my mother that day that I would live here when I grew up. And I do. Italy, especially Siracusa, Sicily of my paternal roots, feels like home to me too, though I didn't know it until I was pushing forty. My people have been city dwellers pretty much since there were cities. But my soul grows in the African wilderness. Is it because it was there that the human race came to be? My feelings of reverence for it come to me as infatuation but also nostalgia. From my very first visit, just over ten years ago, it felt like a homecoming for every cell in my body.

  5. Thanks for your beautiful words, Annamaria. I hope we can share somewhere in Africa one of these days!