Great Grand Wild
The way that Africa and the wild of Africa and Africa cultures are deeply compelling to me – is not to other people – at least the people that I meet in my West Coast day-to-day. Africa is often an abstract maladaptive concept – it is a continent full of primitives and thugs, disease and hardship – but mostly, Africa is a place people never think about. I think about Africa all of the time.
I have a terribly upsetting visceral feeling of grief and despair whenever I go to a zoo – and truth be told, I have only visited a zoo two times in the last 30 years.
Before I go further, for all of you good-minded zoo faring people, I hold no judgments – by all means go to the zoo! I can even imagine that there are a couple of very good reasons for zoos to exist – but the reality of these great wild animals held in small enclosures devastates me.
What is an elephant (specifically I am thinking about the African elephant) alone without her kin? What is an elephant if she is not walking hundreds of kilometers on the memory footsteps of her ancestors across the plains, trudging through the thick bush, ripping bark off the trees with her tusks, and forging great rivers? What is she without Bateleur Eagles flying overhead, or the dusty savannah yielding to a delta, a waterfall or a muddy watering hole replete with impala, thompson’s gazelles, hippo, hammerkops, giraffe and ostrich? What is she without red-billed oxpeckers, yellow-billed oxpeckers resting on her shoulders?
My greatest fear is that one-day, and it could happen in our lifetime, the Great Grand Wild of Africa will be gone. She will be burned out, farmed out, cut down, mined, hacked, robbed, shot and sold to black markets all for human causes both noble and ignoble but nonetheless all because of human beings. We might be able to put animals in zoos to conserve them and then one day pretend like we can remember the wild savannahs, deserts and forests, but one animal at a time seen in isolation will never sing like the unfettered and unfenced landscapes filled to the brim with life in her myriad sounds – cicadas, lions moaning, go away birds, honey badgers running all night long tearing up the bush like mini-nascar drivers with their speedy little paws, bees buzzing and the endless drift of songbirds talking.
Being in the wilds of Africa – smelling, watching, feeling the magnificence of large herds of antelope running, zebra running, wildebeests migrating, springbok pronging, smelling the Okavanga Delta, walking on the spines of Namibia’s ancient sand dunes, wading in the Zambezi River, being charged at by an angry bull elephant, or another time by a white rhino, or three other times by a buffalo and still living to tell about it – these are the greatest privileges of my life – and ironically, this blessing would not have happened unless there were Zoos!
30 years ago to this very month and time, my parents gave me the most precious gift. My mom was the Education Director at the Sacramento Zoo and she coordinated a safari for zoo docents. At the last minute a participant canceled, my mom worked it out for me to attend. We went to Zimbabwe.
I was 16, and despite growing up in a Scout family camping and recreating in the outdoors, nothing in my childhood came close to the wild bush. In many ways, the bush destroyed me and I don’t think I will ever recover. I hope I don’t! Even if you see me here before you now alive and well, there is not a minute of any waking day that I am not longing for her. At any rate, going to Africa all of those years ago destroyed any sense of a career I could have had or that some people might say I should have at the age of 46. I am unable to fully live in this civilized material world.
Probably right in this very moment 30 years ago is when she bit me.
It was late into the night and the moon was shining brightly through the boughs of Acacia and Mahogany. I was sitting in a grass thatch hut high up on the bank of the Zambezi – but I could still hear the trickle of her pass by.
Suddenly my guide whispered “Be Quiet. Wait here” and ducked out. Moments later he returned, without saying a word he motioned to follow him. We walked only steps to where we could see the center of our camp. Behold! A male lion walking, lit and dappled by moonlight shadows. Magnificent. He was barely 30 feet from where I stood. That was the exact moment when the wild slayed me – not in any terrorizing harmful way, but in a powerful intoxicating way like when you fall in love.
In that moment I understood that the wild is not separate from me. I felt utterly vulnerable – that lion could have easily pounced on me – but it wasn’t exactly that I was afraid of the lion but overcome by how alienated my life up to that point had been from the most natural primal reality on our planet. I learned exactly in that moment that I am not superior to nature and that human beings are not superior nature – Nature, our Great Nature, is where I come from. I shed my entire identity as a sub-urban California kid on the spot and, almost as if, that lion opened a mystic portal especially for me. I walked through without hesitation and ever since that moment, being a care taker of the wild, of Nature, and being a care taker of human beings has been my galvanizing call.
Needless to say, there is not a lot of money or career opportunities for nature-minded people! But the wealth of meaning that now rolls in my heart makes me extremely wealthy. Still, the obscurity of my passion is also isolating – I prefaced this point at the beginning, as real as these feeling are for me, this is just an abstraction for most people; it’s sometimes strange how things are!
Pretty much any thing of consequence that made me the person I am today happened because of the moment I felt the wild – either because I have gone back to the African wild 9 times since 1987 visiting more than 20 national parks or because my love for Nature turned into a love of natural peoples, indigenous cultures, African cultures and basically a love of the possibility for people to be whole and well wherever they are blessed to be born because this is the way of the wild.
Getting to travel like this to Africa is rare – it is expensive, it is hard to get there and maybe it is not so relaxing like a beach vacation. But the truth is, none of us have to go to Africa to be in the wild or see her face. Just the other day, sitting in my garden watching all of the birds it struck me, She the Great Wild, was right there. These precious beautiful birds small and large flying in the skies above, pecking at my garden, nesting in the trees – they are all wild, the wild is all around us. The bees are wild, all of the pollinators are wild – even everything that makes our food grow, that causes the plants to rise up, the sun and the moon and the core of precious earth – they are all wild. We would be nothing without Her, we would have no seashells or gold or honey or wetlands if not for her. Who would be our muse for poetry and art and stories with her? In a world full of distraction, full of pressures and priorities, I say to you now, nothing is more important than keeping the wild alive. Without the wild, we would just be people in our zoo enclosures called cities isolated from everything that makes us human beings – because just like the elephants, where would we be without forests to walk in, without fish in the seas, without unfettered landscapes so beautiful they cause our hearts to swell?