Posted in Africa, Travel

Nature’s Bar Codes

An Excerpt from my book:

Our honey-colored morning is airbrushed with dust as we scuff our way toward a mid-day meal.  The road we’re following, just two ruts in the sand, has a center grown up in grass.  It’s as tall as the undercarriage of a passing vehicle, but a lot shorter than the undercarriage of passing elephants.  Paved roads don’t exist in this part of the Okavango Delta; spring floods would only wash them away.

Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees.  Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way.

They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike.

In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes.  He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra.  His examples revealed that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes.  The white is lack of pigmentation.

So  – here’s the question that pops into my mind as I watch the zebras: do zebra foals imprint on the black stripes of their mothers or on the white stripes?  The accepted belief puts money on the black pattern.  But isn’t that the human response, the bar code response?

Not one of us knows what a zebra knows.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

5 thoughts on “Nature’s Bar Codes

    1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I would LOVE to follow yours, but I think it would be detrimental to my waistline! I have a saying: “If I was fatally allergic to chocolate, I’d still die happy.” BTW, my grandfather ate chocolate every day of his life and lived to be 103. So I believe my cravings are genetic.

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