An excerpt from my book-in-progress:
The tip of Jabu’s trunk hovers in front of my eyes, wet with mucous, dotted with sand, nostril hairs visible.
He blows into my face, gently. I blow back, gently. We exchange breath, distillations of our own personal atmospheres, particle-swarms of changed, exchanged air, brewed though all the cells of our bodies.
My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves, with saproots and spearmint-scented bark, all lightly fermented. I think of the stagnant air that surrounds my daily life, air that is conditioned, filtered, deodorized, air that is bland. Elephant’s breath is said to cure headaches. And it just might, if I had one.
Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot tip. The scents I’ve picked up while walking tumble up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible schnozz.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree, and pluck a single leaf from its crown. Imagine having a nose with which you could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal, swat, poke and siphon with it. You could take a shower, or reach over your shoulder and scratch your back with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
He chuffs, a hot gust of air directed at my feet. Wet mist covers one boot top momentarily, then evaporates.
Funky jazzy trombone trunk. Snaking snorkeling vacuuming trunk. Showerhead. Backhoe. Slinky. Shimmying sucking swigging trunk. Empty pipe. Water gun. Periscope. Plucking siphoning tenacious trunk. Kazoo. Tweezers. Tentacle. Affectionate handshaking pickpocket trunk. Python. Air hose. Question mark. Whistling snorting sneezing trunk.
In Greek mythology, the Charites were goddesses of charm, beauty, nature and creativity. Aglaea, “Splendor” was the youngest, Euphrosyne, “Mirth,” was the middle sister and Thalia, “Good Cheer,” the eldest. To the Romans they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces.” Homer wrote that they were in the retinue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, pleasure and procreation. Although early depictions of the Graces occurred in marble sculptures dating from the 6th century BC and a first century fresco at Pompeii, they are more likely known by the Renaissance paintings of Botticelli, Raphael and Rubens.
In Africa, grace – the pleasure of beauty in nature – is a constant state of existence. Splendor, the youngest of the Gratiae, can be found in moments both large and small – in the turn of a head or in a long, glorious sunset.
These three impala in identical coats pause before us in a moment of easy grace. The youngest, coltish, knock-kneed, takes our breath away when she throws us a glance over her shoulder. The charm, the Charities, of fleeting beauty.
The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake, nor a leopard, nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that sound like submerged tubas. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.
Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They’re vegetarians, emerging at night from ponds and rivers to eat grass. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well at all, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. Both can outrun you, and you never know what might set off a 6,000 pound animal that can achieve a speed of 19 mph.
In 2002, I was traveling through the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana on a mobile camping safari. Six people in an open-sided Landcruiser focused their cameras on laid-back hippo blimps floating in a nearby pond. It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.
Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle.
He was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the camer’s autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.
Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed our back bumper. He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone. This is the only picture I have of him, right before he charged.
While standing in the shade of my tent, I look out over a lagoon of bent grass to the trees at its far shoreline. A few of the stalks shiver and crosshatch in the lagoon as a mouse or grasshopper nibble at their stems. Otherwise, the grass is motionless.
I stick my hands in my pocket and scuff dust with the toe of my boot.
Something rustles in the underbrush. My sleepy senses come to full alert. It’s an ancient world out there - full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains. i spot one of the honorary camp staff, a francolin, scratching around a clump of buffalo grass.
We are all afraid of something. Thembi gets in a tizzy over bees. (Imagine bees up your nose!) Eggshells horrify Jabu. For Morula, it’s the fear of not belonging.
Are elephants afraid of mice? No, but quick small things moving around their feet startle them. I consider that a prudent reaction in a world full of snakes.
My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants. My primitive brain is not comfortable when there are carnivores around, especially when I can’t see them.
Just last night a lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep: WAAA-AH-UNGHHH UNGH UNGH UNGH ungh ungh. . . .It ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.
A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles. This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp.
A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart. In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest. Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came. I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana. But tell that to my primitive brain.
Four days ago, as I waited for Doug to pick me up from Stanley’s Camp, I had enough time before his arrival to join an evening game drive. A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the tier of seats behind me in the Landcruiser and held hands. They were on their honeymoon. John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp had found a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – but it was too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.
So we headed off in the opposite direction. The young couple happily snapped photographs of zebras and impalas and baboons, giddy with the realization they were in the midst of their dream vacation. A male kudu with magnificent horns kept us in one place for nearly a half hour as the couple peppered John with questions and marveled over the graceful curl of the kudu’s horns.
At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll. With open grassland all around us it was safe to descend from the vehicle. He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.
As I take my first sip a lion roared in the near distance. “That’s not very far,” I said and looked at John.
“We could get lucky,” he looked at the couple with us.
They nodded, so we dashed our drinks on the ground, stashed our glasses back in their basket, and scrambled back into the Landcruiser.
Just down the road, where we’d been half an hour earlier, four large males lounged in the tall grass alongside our tracks. One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts: WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.
John sent a radio message to the other vehicles. They will detour to join us on their way back to Stanley’s.
As we watched the four males, light faded from the sky and disappeared. Blue became purple, then black. Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.
John switched on a spotlight. A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.
Spotlight off. The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.
A distant contact roar from one of the lions on the other side of the reserve.
Spotlight on. The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Shallow breaths through my open mouth. A commotion to our left.
Spotlight on. Another male, who was sitting off to our right, had moved across the road and was now rubbing the side of his face against the lion inert in the grass. When he couldn’t get his companion to rise, he also slid into the bush. A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Silence.
Then a faint roar, in the distance again.
The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.
“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.
The inert lion was gone. John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle. His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass. The lion had walked around the back end of the vehicle without us hearing him until he was right next to me. The skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up to the top of my head.
The lion turned his head toward the light. The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.
He was that close. I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.
He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush. I exhaled. Had I been holding my breath that long?
The two other vehicles appeared just in time to catch a glimpse of his back in waist-high grass. They followed him, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.
John turned in his seat and looked at us. The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face and glinted from the eyes of the young couple, eyes that were now nearly the size of their open mouths.
“I think it is enough,” he said. “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”
An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life, Living in the Shadows of Elephants:
In 1998, the Disney Corporation opened the Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. It is, in essence, a 500-acre zoo, containing 1,700 animals representing 250 species, from Abdim’s storks to African zebras. In the center of the park is a 145-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide sculpture of a baobab, representing the Tree of Life from the Disney film, The Lion King. Much larger than any known baobab, the sculpture is molded around a refitted oil platform. Its trunk is carved with 325 animals and contains a theater with 430 seats. Upon its branches are 103,000 leaves dyed five shades of green, made of kynar, a flexible fluoropolymer resin.
Since opening, the park has averaged 9 million visitors annually, ranking seventh in the world in theme park attractions. Disney’s resident herd of African elephants has produced six calves, three females and three males, all still living – the most successful breeding program in the United States. The herd now consists of twelve elephants: four males and 8 females.
Here, in the Okavango Delta, our small herd of three elephants, one male and two females, browse through thick brush on one of the islands left stranded after last year’s flood. As I might linger over a sunset, Jabu, the male, lingers over a small mopane tree, whose leaves have high protein content, an important year-round food source. Thembi pulls out a single leaf from a young palm and chews on the sweet cane-like stalk. Morula has entirely disappeared into a thicket, but I can hear an occasional crack from a breaking branch as she tugs it from a tree.
The sun reflects from my camera’s metal buckle and penetrates my brain like a dull pickax. It’s a burst bomb, pure and searing, a light behind my eyelids, a glimpse of the beginning of our solar system. Halfway through its own lifespan, the sun is fueled by enough hydrogen to last five billion years more.
I move into the shadow of a nearby mopane. Thick, dappled shade makes diamond patterns at my feet. Slowly we begin to leave the island, the elephants more reluctantly than the humans.
Across a dried up lagoon full of grass, is a baobab, a rare species for this part of the Delta. Its nude limbs, entangled as a root system, seem to search for moisture from the sky. Kalahari Bushmen believe the trees appear fully-grown, planted upside down by the gods, with the tree’s roots in the air. They also believe spirits inhabit the baobab’s large, waxy-white flowers, and if anyone has the audacity to pick one, they will be eaten by a lion.
This baobab is deciduous and luckily naked this time of year. It’s around twenty-two feet in diameter and about seventy feet tall; a young tree that I would guess is 600 years old. Its trunk is smooth and relatively unblemished.
Older baobabs have a tendency to rot out their heartwood, but completely heal around the hollowed trunk. Rats and reptiles frequently invade them. The African honeybee often establishes hives in crevices of a hollowed trunk. Native to central and southern Africa the bees are actually a subspecies of the Western honeybee.
A single sting from an African bee is no more venomous than a single European or American bee sting, though African honeybees respond more quickly when disturbed and send out three to four times as many workers in response to a threat. They also pursue an intruder for a greater distance from the hive – thus their reputation as “killer” bees.”
So the Honeyguide bird is more than willing to let another species take that risk. Physically unable to break open a bee’s nest, it has developed a symbiotic relationship with humans, indicating the presence of a hive by continuously dive-bombing nearby, all the while uttering monotonous, squirrel-like chirps. Alerted by the Honeyguide, intrepid Kalahari Bushmen pound pegs into the soft bark of baobabs to climb the tree, lull the bees with smoke and obtain a sweet reward for taking that risk. Bushmen always leave honey for the birds, for if they should fail to do so, the Honeyguide will one day lead them to a lion, instead of a hive.
Smooth and pinkish-gray, the baobab across the grass lagoon has only a few hollows in its trunk excavated for bird nests, and a single scrape from an elephant’s tusk. Older trees are often deeply scarred as high as an elephant can reach.
Hollow baobabs have a long history of creative uses by humans. During World War II, a baobab in Namibia was fitted with a toilet. The toilet is still there, but the tree has grown around the door, which no longer opens. On the lower Zambezi River, the Kayila Lodge has an operational toilet tree, used more for photo opportunities than necessity. And on a private farm in Sunland, South Africa, an enormous baobab contains a wine cellar and bar, complete with draft beer, a dartboard, stools, and a wooden bench along the wall. The tree is possibly the oldest baobab in existence – it has been radiocarbon-dated to the end of the Stone Age, around six thousand years ago.
In Kasane, Botswana, a baobab was used as women’s prison in the early twentieth century. I imagine it also served as a deterrent – incarceration with potential rat and reptile cellmates would make any criminal think twice. Although that baobab died in 1967, an offshoot now grows next to the remains of the jail. Throughout Africa, hollow baobabs have served various purposes – as hiding places during tribal warfare, as shops, storage shelters, barns, chapels, burial sites, post offices, even a bus stop.
Almost every part of the baobab is edible. Fresh leaves are eaten as spinach and condiments. The shoots from germinating seeds taste like asparagus. Bulbs from its roots make porridge. Fluid extracted from the bark of the baobab is used to dilute milk. The ash from a burnt tree is a good substitute for salt. Pulp and seeds of its fruit contain potassium acid tartrate as well as citric acid, an effective substitute for cream of tartar, and resulting in the Afrikaans name “Kremetartboom.” Early settlers also used fruit pulp in place of yeast and added baobab leaves to speed up the fermentation process in winemaking. The fruit pulp has the highest known concentration of Vitamin C. It makes a slightly acidic, but refreshing drink when mixed with water. Baobab seeds have the same protein value as domestic nuts and can also be roasted and ground into a substitute for coffee.
The baobab is often called “the Monkey-bread tree,” because baboons and monkeys eagerly consume its fruits. Nearly all four-legged browsers eat the baobab’s fallen leaves and flowers. The flowers open just before dark, produce copious amounts of nectar and last for only 24 hours. Their heavy, carrion-like scent attracts nocturnal insects and bats, such as Peter’s Epaulleted Fruit Bat.
In times of drought, elephants strip the bark of the baobab and eat the spongy wood underneath, estimated to contain 40-70% water – classifying the baobab as the world’s largest succulent. An individual baobab can store up to 32,000 gallons of water and weigh 266,880 pounds – or one hundred and twenty-one tons. A big bull like Jabu can weigh up to 16,000 pounds or seven tons. If you stacked elephants one upon the other, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.
The name baobab derives from North African Arabic, bu-hibab, “fruit of many seeds.” Within life spans that reach six thousand years, the baobab nourishes countless species, takes in tons of carbon dioxide and releases equal amounts of oxygen. It cycles and recycles, measures seasons by dropping its leaves, measures centuries by the blur of life beneath its limbs. A baobab’s death is the death of an eternity, as measured by one of those species for which it provides.
An excerpt from the book I’m writing about elephants:
Jabu, Morula and Thembi slowly browse through the brush on one of the islands stranded after last year’s Okavango flood. Opposite of us, across a dried lagoon filled with grass, is a rare tree species for this part of the Delta: an African baobab, Adansonia digitata – digitata for the five leaves it has per stem. The baobab is deciduous, naked this time of year. Its prehistoric appearance conjures up primeval landscapes full of odd plants and crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.
There are eight species of baobabs, six found in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar, one in Australia, and digitata, which grows in West, East and Southern Africa. Baobabs are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, spread there by the movement of human settlements.
Adansonias are named after the French naturalist, Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who spent five years in Senegal, brought home a huge plant collection, and published a paper on digitata after his return. Adanson also wrote a masterwork of natural history, an encyclopedic l’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, distinct from that of his contemporary, Linnaeus (1707-1788). Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, introduced binomial nomenclature – using an organism’s Genus, Adansonia, followed by a descriptive modifier such as digitata. Systema Naturae classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants.
In contrast to Linnaeus’s system based on structures, Adanson proposed a “natural” system that took many features of the plant into account, which included structure along with function, growth, evolution and distribution. His system was ignored in his time because he refused to use binomial nomenclature. However, the publication in 1789 of Genera Plantarum, by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, combined Adanson’s use of multiple structures with Linnaeus’s binomial classifications – a methodology widely accepted and still in use.
Adanson’s masterwork was huge, just like the baobab: 27 large volumes with a 150-volume index that contained an alphabetical treatment of 40,000 species, a vocabulary listing 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens. It was never published. It is, however, preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Elephants love the bark of the baobab because of its moisture content. As insurance against harsh drought, the swollen trunk of a single baobab stores up to 32,000 gallons of water, making its wood soft, spongy and fibrous. A plank cut from this tree will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries. Sometimes, during these times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if standing on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.
The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth and pinkish gray – untouched by elephants, probably due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels. I estimate this tree to be about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of twenty-three to thirty-six feet and reach heights of sixteen to ninety-eight feet. The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive. Up to recent times it had a circumference of 154 feet. In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in the middle. The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.
Found mostly in seasonally arid areas, baobabs grow very slowly as they age. However, in its first years of life, a baobab grows relatively quickly. A tree planted in Kruger National Park in South Africa grew 65 feet tall with an eleven-foot diameter in just 38 years. In contrast, an older tree described by Livingstone in 1858 grew only two feet in circumference in 110 years. Despite their early exuberance, baobabs can be cultivated as bonsai trees.
Although the Glencoe baobab is thought to be two thousand years old, baobab wood does not produce annual growth rings and it actually shrinks during times of drought, so its size is not an indicator of its age. The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or older, taking root about the time Eric the Red colonized Greenland (985), or later – perhaps the year Gutenberg invented the printing press (1439). This tree, this timepiece, first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.
Just twenty days after leaving England, the Beagle anchored at the Cape Verde Islands on Jan 16th, 1832. As Charles Darwin surveyed the islands with ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy, they measured a baobab that was 45 feet tall and thirteen feet in diameter, and rumored to be a thousand years old. Darwin remarked in his diary that Adanson supposed some “celebrated baobabs” to be 6,000 years old. The enormous tree “with its great thickness” impressed Darwin, and he wrote in his diary, “This one bears on its bark the signs of its notoriety – it is as completely covered with initials & dates as any one (tree) in Kensington Gardens.”
The Glencoe baobab has never been subjected to radiocarbon dating, but another in the Limpopo area has been carbon-dated at over 6,000 years, older than the pyramids at Giza (2560 BC). Several other trees in the region have also been dated - at about two-to-three thousand years old.
As I look at the baobab across the grass lagoon, I wish I could slip sideways into the life of this nearly eternal tree, and time-lapsed, witness the swirl of life around it as it fattened and grew. And why not wish also for the future, for another one or two thousand years more?
I turn at the sound of a branch breaking behind me, squint against the sun, and cup a hand at my forehead to shade my eyes. The elephants are great gray silhouettes, haloed all around in bright, bright light. My watch ticks on my wrist, its hands pointing to meaningless numbers.
WordPress.com stats. A 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.
Only a few yards from our Land Rover, a single-cylinder water pump alternately chugs and sputters, drawing from the water table beneath the sand, and sending spurts through a pipe to a square trough. This supply of water keeps the bachelor elephants in Savuti area, as they wait for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chug-sputter, chug-sputter, chug-sputter lulls my eyes closed. They open, close, open half-lidded, close again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispers and my eyes flick open as a huge bull strolls past. I pick up my camera.
His enormous tusk splay out almost sideways. I focus on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudges past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water is nearly finished. He heads straight to the square trough. The clicking and whirring of our cameras doesn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marvel at his tusk. It is easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of its growth pattern – out, rather than down and up – his tusks make him a much wider elephant than he really is.
Mid-drink, he curls his trunk into his mouth; his head tilts back; his eyes close. He makes gargling sounds as he drank. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blows bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons down his throat. With each swallow goes the taste of dung, samplings from all the animals that used this waterhole – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I try to imagine the bouquet garni of this waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent elephants recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps the old bull is memorizing the stories in this trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He returns to where we are parked, and stops close by. His skin is the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rises just past his belly. Spatters of mud stain his ears and back. His forehead bulges and flutters audible sounds, if I had the ears for infrasound.
After several long minutes, his eyelids droop and his mouth slackens. Under the hot sun he falls asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coils like a magic rope on the ground. He sleeps with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreams of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeps into the sand.
I match my breathing with his, and drowse, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbles soft snores in his sleep, yet he is probably aware of the humans next to him, nodding their heads, also falling asleep. Other bachelors scuff past him, on their way to and from the waterhole.
Tiny paws of wind skitter across my arms and keep me half-awake. But for a moment, I almost enter his dreams.