A family is a place made of people who either own you or let you go. A place made of blood and breath, of fierce neglect or smothering love. A place of dreamers, borrowers, failures, legends. Of those who are hungry and those who are content. A place of the barefoot or the impeccable, the lost or the homebound, the wise or the ignorant, the selfish or the altruistic. Of those who would sacrifice for you and those who would not, of those who drop off casseroles and those who hold you in their arms.
A family is a place of infinite stories, once you start listening.
The storm grows throughout the night. Gusts of wind slap and pummel the side of the house with open palms and a horde of fists. It moans around the edges of the front door. The arms of my chair tremble with each blast.
I push the tip of my pen across a piece of paper, try to quiet the storm of voices inside my head. The world is sealed outside, my thoughts sealed within. An ant climbs onto the paper where I’ve written these last few words, bumps into the ink marks, recoils, bumps into them again, recoils again, and gives a wide berth thereafter to ink. I empathize with the ant. None of my words are the right ones. The damp animal scent of fear chases them into the darkness beyond the candle on my desk.
The power is out. The candle is a miniature sun. It creates light the same way the sun creates light, by consuming itself. But a candle burns faster, has a much shorter lifespan. It flickers in the drafts flowing through the house like ghosts.
The rain picks up its tempo and sounds like hundreds of nails thrown against the window behind me. Squalls beat against the glass as if the storm has gone mad. An image forces itself into my imagination – an image of the furious wind taking the house in its hands and shaking it.
I write until the candle gutters and I have just enough of its light to find my bed. I cannot sleep. Words swirl and dive and surface and sink. My useless eyes stare into the dark. My heart beats as if it is marching to its doom. The house shakes and shakes and shakes. Finally, bone-weary sleep overtakes me.
I dream a night-full of quicksilver dreams, of wild-haired crones, potent seers and wisdom that fades with dawn. The absence of wind awakens me. Emerging from the cocoon of sleep, I go outside.
Long fingers of light spread behind the mountains, the palm of the sun still hidden. The few stars left burn out. All that distant, distant past up there – before humans, before dinosaurs, before one-celled lumps of life began wriggling in the sea.
Clouds with gray weighted bottoms float behind the wake of the storm. Their fluffy tops begin to glow. Rooted to one spot like a sunflower, my head turns toward where the sun will rise. And I wait.
When I least expect it, Beauty fells me with a roundhouse right, pummels me with soft fists, dazzles me with her quick feet. Sometimes it’s a glancing blow to the chin; sometimes she doubles me up by a quick swing to the solar plexus. Right, left, right, left – she’s danced me round and round the ring until I’ve lost my breath. She’s left me in my corner, dazed and gasping. She’s held me in a clinch, face to face, with nothing more to say. To some Beauty is just another heavyweight contender, but in bouts with me she’s always the champ, always the champ.
“Today we track lion on foot,” Syd says. It’s our final test, the one that lets us know whether we’ll graduate or not from our game-ranger course.
Our small band climbs from the Rover and starts surveying the ground. There are lion tracks here, all right.
“Which way?” Syd asks. We point variously in the same general direction. “Okay, ready?”
We scuff our feet and look around. Syd hefts the rifle from its rack on the dash and our eyes follow his motions as he loads it. That clenched spot in my chest relaxes a little.
Syd and Bernardo usher our silent group away from the road and into the bush as we follow the tracks. Bernardo takes up the rear.
“I am here to stop you from running,” he says with a small smile. Eight people marching in a line and stepping on each other’s heels are not easily identifiable as prey to a lion. But any single one of us dashing way from the group would trigger a hunting response: “Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!”
We step literally in the lions’ tracks. They are about three-fourths the length of my boots. They are so fresh we can see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads.
Slowly we make our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, the early-warning radar for lions.
Syd picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall through his fingers, testing. A fluttering wind blows from the right direction, into our faces. If warned by our smell, the lions might decide to swing around behind and follow us. Bernardo keeps glancing backwards, as do I, the last one but for him in our column. Even though it’s fall and many of the scrub thorns have lost their leaves, we can’t see very far ahead. Syd and Bernardo occasionally confer back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan. We probably don’t really need to know what they are saying.
Just past several gullies gouged into the sand by rain, the tracks disappear into a thicket. Syd stops and listens intently, then sweeps his arm to the right. We bypass the thicket, perfect for ambush, and see if lions have emerged on the other side.
In the open, grassy area beyond, our line bumps to a halt. “See them?” Syd asks.
As if on cue, two heads pop up.
Luckily, even though my heart leaps, my legs do not.
The lionesses are under trees on the far side of the field. They are lying down, but our invasion has made them curious. They stare at us, open-mouthed, little question marks nearly visible above their heads. The whir of a camera reminds me that mine is dangling around my neck. Through its telephoto the lions look less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.
Then, off to the right, another lion roars and Syd’s eyes widen in surprise. A low “Tsssssss,” escapes between his teeth. There are more lions here than we have seen tracks for. Everyone’s head, including those of the lionesses, swivel in the direction of the roar.
Almost simultaneously a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounces into view near the lionesses and stops there. The woman driver surveys the two lions with binoculars and writes something in a notebook. Bored with it all, they lie back down.
Momentarily distracted from the fact that there are lions to the left and lions to the right, we ask Syd, “Who’s that?” Against all training, we have condensed into a tight ball behind him. Even Bernardo has moved up.
Syd still stares in the direction of the roar. “The ecologist,” he says, “she works in the reserve.”
The bakkie leaves the lions and rattles over the rough ground to where we are.
“Morning,” the ecologist nods to each one of us in slow motion. I wonder to myself if the lion that roared is moving in our direction.
She looks at Syd. “There’s a male about a quarter mile up the road. Be careful where you walk.”
“Is it?” he says, “thanks.” Their exchange is so matter-of-fact that it sounds as if they’re discussing potholes.
“Right then,” she says and the bakkie joggles off. Not even an offer of a lift.
Bernardo and Syd have a short conversation in Shangaan. Then Syd says, “We go back the same as we came. Bernardo goes to get the Rover.”
Bernardo leads and Syd provides the rearguard. As soon as we move, the lionesses’ heads pop up again and follow our exit. We move as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw. Once we’re out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trots off, and I am now in the lead, careful to back track our own footprints.
Soon we’re in the Rover headed again to the clearing. The male has not roared again. One of the lionesses opens her eye as we drive up, then shuts it again and flattens her ears. We are an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.
Syd tells us that these sisters are the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory. Another pride recently moved in and killed their relatives. That was the reason they did not answer the male lion. We were lucky one more time: if they had answered, he would have come running.
One of the sisters has recently been in a fight. She has a wound on her shoulder and has not eaten while healing. Her ribs are showing.
“They do not bring food to each other,” Syd says. “She has to be well enough to hunt.”
We watch the sisters as they nap. We have evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we’re sitting in our trusty Rover.
“Will they make it?” one of us asks.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” someone else adds.
“Yes,” Sid says, “yes. But that is just my feeling. If they move to another territory, they will be okay.”
The lionesses nap side-by-side. Without opening her eyes the healthy one raises a front leg and drapes it over her sister’s neck.
Driving back to camp at dusk, we find a male lion awakening from an afternoon nap. According to Syd this lion is very young, trying to move into a new territory, and challenge the two males who recently took over. He has a black punkish stripe in his still-growing mane and no scratches on his nose. He’s not far from where we found the sisters and might be the lion who roared. He blinks at us sleepily, then looks off into the distance, his yellow eyes still not completely open.
As it gets darker we find the eyes of bushbabies reflecting our spotlight like bright Christmas ornaments in the trees. They are distant cousins of ours, using their quick hands and enormous eyes to forage for fruit, insects and bird eggs at night. Long shaggy tails provide balance as they leap from branch to branch, dodging the quick flicks of light we direct at them. We catch glimpses without blinding them.
Syd stops the Rover by a bush. “See him?” Our heads swivel in all directions. I don’t see anything but bush.
Illuminated by the headlamps on the Rover, Syd climbs out and walks over to a round-leafed teak. He reaches up and suddenly a Flap-necked chameleon comes into focus right by his hand. It is a perfect mimic of the leaves on the teak.
We shake our heads and smile at each other.
Back at camp we’re presented with our certificates of completion for our short three-day course.
“Don’t worry about your job, Syd,” we tell him, “none of us will ever be as good as you are.”
He smiles quickly behind his hand, then kicks at the wood in the fire. “Did I tell you about the leopard that jumped into the Rover last year……….”
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
The last thing I expected for Game Ranger Training was driver’s training, but right now I’m learning how to parallel park next to a bull elephant.
“A little right,” says Syd, and we flatten yet another bush with a loud crunch. Our noise doesn’t seem to bother the elephant. He’s placidly stripping the bark from a small acacia while I wrestle the wheel.
“Okay,” Syd says, “shut off the motor, but leave it in first gear.” As soon as I do, cameras click and whir as five other trainees happily snap pictures. My fingers tremble on the keys and my left foot goes numb on the clutch while I watch the elephant’s mood. He’s no more than ten feet away, browsing out of a patch of sunlight and into shady thornbush. The cameras cease clicking.
“Move over there,” Syd points to the other side of the elephant. “Light’s better.
Good positioning for photo ops is probably an important skill to acquire to guide tourists through the wilds of Africa. But getting to where Syd points will not be easy. There’s a log to crawl over and a hole to avoid that’s big enough to swallow a rhino. But the real trick to driving a 12-passenger Land Rover is not to bounce anyone out of the last tier of seats. It’s a good five feet off the ground. Already I’ve navigated a 30-degree slope out of a sandy riverbed without losing anyone over the side, even though the backend of the vehicle fishtailed as if on ice and all I saw was the sky until all four wheels were on level ground again. I figure if I get close to the elephant again, I’ll pass this informal driver’s test for sure.
Down, up, squeezed between two large tree trunks, the Rover crunches dry branches under its tires, making more noise than the bull, who’s busy dismantling a large rainbush. Without any directions from Syd I park at an angle that gives everyone a clear shot. I turn off the motor. Engine vibrations cause blurry photographs.
“Oooo, good light,” someone says and the cameras resume their consumption of film.
Syd smiles at me. I’ve passed. He hands over my camera. “A very calm elephant. You can take pictures, too.”
As I focus the bull begins to look a lot like the elephant who hangs around our camp, the one with the chipped left tusk. Like all good teachers, Syd’s built in a little insurance to make the hard stuff easier. We’re here on a crash course with only three days to earn our training certificates. Safari guides study for months and years, both in and out of the field, so we won’t qualify for a change of careers. We only want to learn skills that might come in handy for the next leg of our trip – overland camping thorough Botswana.
Syd’s initial surprise at our wrinkled faces and gray hair was evident when he met us at the Skukuza airport. The surprise quickly turned to puzzlement as we dropped our duffels in the dust.
“Where is your luggage?”
“This is it,” I replied. “We’ve all been to Africa before.” I point to two women in our group. “They’ve been here thirteen times.”
“Is it?” Syd whistled through his teeth, the South African equivalent of really?
The camp Syd works for is located in a private conservation area on the southwest edge of Kruger National Park. It’s between the fork of two rivers, the Sabi Sabi (meaning “Danger! Danger!”) and the Sand River, now a dry and treacherous streambed filled with boulders – the site of my diver’s test.
The bush we drive through was once the home of the Shangaan, whose land was sold to a private concession. Syd takes us to the place where his father had a rondavel and kept cattle. Flattened areas mark the spots an entire village once occupied.
“My father received no payment from the former government,” Syd tells us. However, the new South Africa is talking reparations and Syd is proud of this. “Our government is trying. It is all we can ask.”
Although two luxury bush lodges are close by, we’re definitely roughing it. We pump our own water, take bucket showers and eat meals around a campfire. We live in tents set up on platforms above a concrete pad. In the warm season the elevation keeps snakes and smaller creatures from crawling into sleeping bags, but now, at the height of winter, nothing but cold air creeps under our cots.
Last night I wore my gloves, stocking hat, long underwear, sweatshirt, socks, sweater – nearly everything in my duffel and still woke up shivering.
This morning I burst out of my sleeping bag’s cocoon, jam my feet into boots, then simultaneously dance into my pants and pull on my coat. I scamper to the fire and shove my boot tips into the coals.
A blackened coffeepot simmers inches away.
“It snows where I live,” I say to Syd, “and it’s not this cold.”
“I don’t believe you,” he laughs.
“I’ll show you.” I jog back to my tent and fetch a small album I brought, photos of my house, of family and friends.
Syd stares at the picture of my car, a white lump, identifiable only by its black side mirrors sticking out like ears. He stares at the picture of our road – blanketed fir trees bracket a single set of tire tracks. He points to a fir.
“Christmas,” he says, “your Christmas.” He has never seen these dark conical trees with needles. “They are still green.”
I tell him that I was warmer then than I am now.
“No, no,” he laughs and points to the picture of our house; his finger traces the furrow my legs made through the snow. “No, this is colder.”
I stamp my feet to waken my toes.
A few minutes later Syd takes us out on foot to read spoor and learn the botanical lay of this land. In the soft early morning light the trill of a coucal follows us, sounding like water dripped into an empty metal bucket. Doo-doo-doo-doo. . . doo . . .doo. . . do.
The coucal’s rust-and-black feathers provide perfect camouflage in the dry winter bush. We peer into the scrub, but do not see him.
Most of the rattles and flutters we hear as we walk are birds, but each one makes us scan the bush nervously. We’re on foot with lions, leopards, snakes, and elephants all around, and absolutely dependent on the knowledge of just one man.
Syd shows us how to sort out the difference between the tootsie-roll droppings of wildebeest and giraffe – a wildebeest stands in one spot, thus a pile, while a giraffe walks, spreading droppings along its path. In contrast, hyenas eat enough bone that their scat looks like chalk. Syd picks up a piece and it crumbles in his hand. We step over the dung of an elephant, easily identified by quantity – a five-gallon bucket of compost dumped into a pile.
Just in case we might need it, Syd also shows us weeping wattle, which can be used for toilet paper or bed stuffing – its leaf clusters soft as any paper product on the market.
As we walk we sample the sweet, fibrous inner lining of acacia bark, a favorite of elephants. We taste a creeping vine called elephant pudding; its succulent leaves have the flavor of salty green beans. Syd gives us a single leaf from a Magic Guarri to chew, but I quickly find out there’s nothing magic about it. Guarri has so much tannin that it tastes like a never-cleaned copper teapot. Even elephants won’t eat it, and elephants eat almost anything. Syd doesn’t tell us that until after we spit out the bitter leaves.
Our hike takes us past a Marula tree, which bleeds a sap red as blood. Dye is made from its bark and sweet liquor from the fruit. The fruit has four times the Vitamin C of an orange. Just next to the Marula is a potato bush, which exudes the scent of fried potatoes, but only at dusk as its sap rises.
Later on, in the evening, Syd proves himself as good a cook as he is a teacher. Tomatoes fry in one cast iron pan, while a chicken stew simmers in the other. He deftly drops dumplings into the stew, covers it, and pulls it to one side of the fire. He passes out tin bowls and spoons. We scoop and set speed records for consumption, wash our bowls with sand and rinse in a tiny amount of water.
Night falls fast in Africa. In the gloom deepening into blackness we climb aboard the Rover and wrap ourselves in felt-lined blankets. The temperature is quickly dropping, just like in high deserts: shirtsleeves at noon, long underwear right after sundown.
Syd drives us to one of the nearby luxury lodges where we pick up Bernardo, a tracker. He is young, with a wide, brilliant grin and an obvious deference to Syd. We have the feeling he is in training also, and Syd confirms this. “I was once a tracker like Bernardo.”
Bernardo wants to know the results of our driving test.
“Who is the best?” He asks Syd.
Syd points to me.
“Is it?” Bernardo glances doubtfully at the only male in our group. I smirk and reply, “He drives too fast.”
How either of them will find anything in the gray twilight is a mystery to me, but Bernardo settles onto a canvas seat perched on the front of the left fender. Although it’s a little like riding a mechanical bull, from there he’s able to see any tracks in the sandy ruts before we drive over them. In ten minutes we are on the trail of a rhino.
Syd and Bernardo are excited. They leave us in the vehicle and walk ahead, trying to read the rhino’s intention. Bernardo waggles a finger at us when they return.
“You are very lucky,” he says, his smile a sunbeam through the gloom, “not many rhinos here.”
Ten minutes more and we find him, right beside the road. It’s doubly lucky that he’s a male; females with calves will charge anything that moves. The rhino ignores us. He’s found some fresh green grass, an unusual treat in the dry winter season, and he’s busy cutting a large swath through it, snorting as he eats.
Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. Fhuffff. Chomp. Chomp. He sounds like the world’s largest steam-driven lawnmower.
We sit in silence, watching a prehistoric creature. I half-expect a dinosaur to emerge from the surrounding bush and join in the grazing. Mist rises from the wet grass and obscures the black outline of trees against a sky that is now dark violet. The rhino moves off, disappearing into a smudge of brush. But we can still hear his progress: Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
On our way back to camp I catch a glimpse of movement in the tall grass. “Leopard!” I whisper and tap Syd on the shoulder. Bernardo turns in his fender chair and quickly spots him too, motioning with an arm. Syd drives in a wide circle, cutting across a clump of brush. Even though we’re making more noise than the rhino did, the leopard is intent on something far more interesting: the nearby snorts of jittery impala.
He crosses the road behind us, then changes his mind and walks down the middle of it, in our wake. We stop and Syd shuts off the engine. The leopard lopes by on the right, too fast for my camera’s shutter speed. He passes under Bernardo’s feet.
Bernardo is frozen. He doesn’t even look down. By remaining motionless, he becomes part of the vehicle and the leopard ignores him.
When the leopard is twenty feet away Bernardo exhales, relaxes. He turns to us with his sunburst grin. “Oooooh you are lucky! A rhino and a leopard!” He shakes his head from side to side. “You are very lucky!”
In 1898, on the central coast of British Columbia, Franz Boas recorded oral beliefs of the Heiltsuk tribe. Their creation stories told of a world made of water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline. The oral history of the Heiltsuk stated that their peoples settled the central coastal area “before the great flood,” which may refer to the rising sea levels as ice sheets further inland melted.
The First People of North America spread up rivers and along the Rocky Mountain foothills, out into the Great Plains and on to the Atlantic seaboard as the glaciers melted. Twelve thousand years ago, a band of humans travelling the steppes of what would become the state of South Dakota, might have witnessed something like this:
To the north are huge, receding remnants of the Pleistocene glaciation. But here it is spring, and the valley below them bursts with sedge, Arctic sagebrush, dwarf willows, buttercups, daisies and new shoots of grass. A braided river born from ice meanders south, glistening under a rising sun.
In the distance immense clouds pile behind a series of small, rolling hills. The clouds groan, rumble and rain fingers the earth. A rainbow arcs, glistens, and fades.
Up and over the nearest hill strides a Columbian mammoth, and then another and another, until the horizon holds thousands of them in parallel lines, headed in a single, purposeful direction. It’s the spring migration, following a route used for generations.
The humans squat, clothed in the skins of llama and deer, rabbit and fox. They watch as the mammoths fill the basin below them. They watch interrelated family units greet each other joyously, trumpeting, bellowing and intertwining trunks. The air shivers as mothers rumble reassurance to their offspring. The circles of kinship within the mammoth families include aunts and grandmothers, uncles and grandfathers, whose experiences carry the entire library of mammoth knowledge.
A young calf with wild eyes and a swinging trunk veers out of the herd and toward the humans, stops, lifts a foot, raises her chin, then rips out a clump of grass and throws it over her back. As a self-appointed guardian for her family, she’s young enough to be uncertain and old enough to be full of herself.
Satisfied with her display, festooned with wisps of grass, she rejoins her family. A sibling tugs at her fur, liberates a stalk of grass and waves it around like a magic wand. Her mother, the matriarch, is constantly alert to the humans, her awareness evident by an uplifted trunk smelling in their direction.
The humans keep an eye on her. They know what she’s capable of if they threaten the herds. They watch and wait, scanning the valley, smelling sweet grass crushed between thousands of massive molars.
On a distant hill a solitary male mammoth flips over shocks of grass, searching for new growth. He’s an oddly dainty monster, with a squashed, flattened face and a tall head dome. The skirt of hair across his flanks and under his belly ripples in the breeze. His fur coat is three feet long, his feet covered with six inches of hair. Around his neck and under his chin, is a dark-colored beard, a feature often depicted by Ice Age artists.
The humans communicate with silent glances at each other, recognizing the woolly mammoth is old and slowed by age. They are not surprised when he is surrounded by a pride of American lions, Panthera leo atrox, a species 25% larger than today’s African lions. Timing and opportunity are gifts to all predators.
The lions surround the mammoth as he stands his ground, whirling in circles, brandishing his tusks. The more agile lions slice in and out of the fray and finally succeed in hamstringing the bull, severing the tendons of both back legs. A long time later, the mammoth goes down. The lions eat their fill and spend most of the afternoon upside-down, napping. The humans settle for a long wait. Often lions will defend prey this size for days on end.
But humans aren’t the only hunters following the herds, waiting for opportunity. Other scavengers are drawn to the kill. Circling in a slow funnel of doom, paratroops of vultures spiral down, down, down and muster on the ground in untidy rows. A group of Condors, slump-shouldered and patient undertakers, perch on a jumble of nearby rocks.
At the first hint of blood on the breeze, Arctodus simus, the Giant Short-faced Bear, stands upright on his two back legs, sniffing for the direction of its source. The biggest bear ever – twice the size of a grizzly – he is 11 feet tall when upright. Like all bears, he is also an opportunistic carnivore. With olfactory organs larger than those of any other bear, he locates the lion kill quickly and strides toward it at a graceful, rapid pace, moving in the same way a horse paces, the legs on a side moving forward together. He does not waddle like modern bears. He charges up the hill, roaring. The lions give way to the largest land predator of the Pleistocene, intimidated by his size. They are unwilling to risk injury from his strong jaws and their ability to crush bones with a single bite.
The humans stay put and let the bear eat. They too are intimidated. Even when standing on all four legs, Arctodus simus is seven feet tall, able to look any man directly in the eye.
Toward dusk, when the bear shows no signs of moving on, the humans concoct a plan. They gather stones, large stones, and ferry them within throwing range. The bear stands erect each time the humans edge closer, but is glutted, lethargic, and does not charge them. The humans spread into a half-circle, each one next to a pile of stones, and with a single nod, begin to throw as fast as they can. Surprised, furious, the bear charges in one direction, only to be hit from another. Before their piles of stones diminish, the humans have routed him. They are many and he is just one.
They build a ring of low, smoky sagebrush fires around the mammoth. They cut out his tongue and eat it raw. Fortified, they work through the night, scattering coyotes with well-timed stones. They carry a small arsenal of bone-tipped spears and arrows, but these are precious and not used unless it is absolutely necessary. Wolves, howl at a distance, pack-hunting under a full moon.
More than half the mammoth, the down side, is still left. One of the men separates an exposed shoulder blade from the rest of the skeleton and sharpens it by flaking away pieces of bone. At thirteen pounds, it’s a heavy tool. He uses both of his hands to chop at the carcass. He hacks at a lower leg, frees it, and and drags it to one side.
A woman uses a splintered tibia as a knife, shaves layers of fat from a disarticulated foot. She eats as she shaves, wipes blood and fat from her face with the palm of her hand, and pushes her hair from her eyes. It clumps in crests like greasy, matted feathers. She swats at the mosquitoes swarming around her, then rises and throws dried mammoth dung on the nearest fire. It smokes, repelling the small, persistent predators, a species so adaptable it will live on long after both mammoths and humans vanish from the earth.
Under the cold, unblinking animal eyes of the night sky, in a world lit only by a small circle of fires, the humans eat and butcher and sometimes sleep.
Morula slaps her ears flatly against her shoulders.
Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house. Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation. The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.
I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.
Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.
Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.
Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India. Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat. Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin. African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time. Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.
And no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants. In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape. Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs. Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.
Here’s a little fairy tale: Once upon a time, elephants lived to a rhythm of their own making. There were no elephants in captivity. They were captured only in legend, in song, painted onto walls of caves, etched on the flat sides of rocks. There were no elephants on reservations, in circuses, in sanctuaries, or zoos. No elephants were murdered solely for their tusks. They were not orphaned by the slaughter of their families, nor made to endure solitary confinement, leg irons, beatings, prods, and electric shocks. They were not enslaved. They were not used as vehicles of war. They were not made to wear radio collars, jeweled headpieces, or bear intricately carved wooden howdahs on their backs. They did not carry princes, or hunters, or loggers, or performers, or tourists. They were not forcibly relocated from the land of their birth. Most died of old age. Once upon a time elephants knew a landscape without fear, without fences, a landscape empty of humans. Once upon a time, elephants were everywhere.
It’s 5:30 a.m., overcast and dark, very dark. Driving to work from the country into town, I’m jittery and wide-awake after two cups of coffee. In fact, I might be the only one who is awake – I meet no other traffic. It’s the time of year when I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. I live far enough north for hibernation.
The headlights of my car fan out before me and tap the tops of trees as the road rises beneath me to the crest of a small hill. As I reach the top and start toward the bottom, right in front of me, no time to brake, there is a wolf in the road. Full of surprise, his yellow eyes meet mine.
I drive right through him.
No contact, no impact.
Stunned, my mind searches for answers: That was a wolf! No, it wasn’t a wolf; you didn’t hit anything. But it was a wolf: long thin muzzle, gray and silvery ruff, rangy legs. It wasn’t a coyote; it wasn’t a dog; that was a wolf! It couldn’t have been a wolf, because it wasn’t there! No, it was there, I saw it! How could you see a wolf? They haven’t been here for a hundred years. If it wasn’t a wolf, then what was it?
Parallel universes? A hundred-year tear in a moment of time? Science Fiction? No, it was a wolf! I saw it!
I glance into the rearview mirror. Darkness, total darkness beyond the faint red glow of my tail lights.
Perhaps there is a wolf out there, loping away among dark trees, unnerved at his encounter with a huge two-eyed roaring monster that froze him in his tracks and disappeared at the moment it came close enough for him to smell its stinking breath.
We shake our heads, the wolf and I, trying to dislodge the strange scene, which disappeared as fast as it appeared. Two convergent creatures tangling out-of-sync, caught in a collision of lives, of timelessness, creating for both of us an instant of absolute astonishment. Above us, the whirling constellations leave fading paths across the sky.