Posted in Africa, Earth, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

Baobabs, Part One, Eternity

Baobab sunset reflect

Across the grassy lagoon is a rare tree species for this part of the Okavango 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 the crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.

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. He also wrote a masterwork of natural history, L’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, a system totally different from that of his contemporary, Carl 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 plants.

In contrast to Linnaeus, 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 because it was too unwieldy. 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, and a vocabulary listing of 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens. It was never published, but is preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At least his life’s work was not lost.

Elephants (you knew I’d get around to them, right?) 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, an amount weighing around one hundred and twenty-one tons. A big bull elephant weighs up to 16,000 pounds, or seven tons. If you stacked elephants upon a scale, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.

The wood of the baobab is soft, spongy and fibrous. A plank cut from a baobab will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries. Sometimes, during times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.

The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth, pinkish-gray, and untouched by elephants, possible due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels. I estimate this tree is about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of 23 to 36 feet and reach heights of 98 feet.   The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive, with a circumference of 154 feet. In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in its middle. The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.

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 size is not an indicator of age. The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or perhaps even 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, probably first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.

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. While I’m at it, why not wish for an added one or two thousand years more to my life? Eternity is often defined as an endless length of time. Are two thousand more years enough time to witness this amazing world and the lives it contains? After two thousand years would I want more?

Posted in Africa, Earth, Islands, Nature, Photography, Travel, Writing

Islands in the Okavango Delta

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun. Landlocked, the river penetrates deep into the Kalahari Desert before it dies in the sand. Not a single drop reaches the sea.

As the river pushes south, it creates an oasis, a floodplain the size of Massachusetts, containing an ark-full of animals: the Okavango Delta, a flat maze of islands and water.

The river descends less than 200 feet in 300 miles. Bracketed by fault lines, sediments deposit elevation changes of less than seven feet. Islands that rise above the floodplains tend to be long and sinuous, following old channel routes, linking to other uplifted channels, and creating large dry fingers of land that will be outlined by next season’s floods. Water loving trees such as the Jackalberry, Mangosteen, Knobthorn and Sycamore Fig fringe these larger islands.

The Delta contains more than 50,000 islands; their landmass roughly equals that of water. Paths cross some of the islands; roads cross others; water surrounds the rest. All of the islands carry the mixed vegetation of the Kalahari sand plains. Approached by foot in this maze, every island looks like the next one and the next one and the next, especially during the low flood season, when boundaries between them evaporate with the water, when footpaths end in walls of thick bush, and roads take every opportunity to wander off in a new direction.

Sometimes you’ll wade to an island; sometimes the water is over your head. Near the southern end of the Delta, some of the islands are larger sandveldt tongues, extensive areas of the Kalahari that penetrate deep into the flood. In the Okavango’s vast delta of uncounted islands, a few inches here or a few inches there separate wet lagoons from dry land. If I turn one way, I’m lost in a maze of floodplain islands, now high and dry. Turn the other, and I’ve entered into a maze of Kalahari woodland. Until I’ve gone a few miles, it’s hard to tell the difference since the same vegetation covers both.

But when the sun sets, magic begins. The sky turns pink; water lilies fold into perfect imitations of floating candles; papyrus along shorelines become golden sentries; and the spell of water over a desert casts its memories into your dreams.

Posted in Africa, Air, Atmosphere, Earth, God, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

Morning

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

It’s the exact moment of daybreak. Outside my tent window the sky brightens from black to blackberry. A call from a nightjar floats in through the mesh of the window, gurgling and untuned against the silence beyond it.   Other birds begin to shift and rustle in the bush at the tiny hint of light in the sky. A damp coolness shifts upward a degree.

I emerge from the cocoon of sleep, roll over and watch blackberry become gray. I hear a lion’s roar, faint and comforting in its distance. The light turns curry, then yellow, then the pale blue of an egg. The shifting birds flutter, then fly free from the bush as if released from cupped hands. Air dries and lightens, and the sky turns to a transparent blue.

By the time I leave my tent the sun blooms between clefts in the hills. I stop and face east. My body is covered with downy sunlight, soft and warm as peach fuzz. Little coolness remains; the day is already sweet with possibilities.

There is a reason why the sun was our first god.

Posted in Africa, Cancer, Elephants, Nonfiction, Photography, Writing

Why Don’t Elephants Get Cancer?

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

This collared elephant, photographed in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, has a large breast mass – most likely mastitis, an inflammation or abscess of breast tissue often caused by blocked milk ducts. Although harmful bacteria may be present in her milk, nursing might relieve her mastitis symptoms. I don’t know the outcome for this mother, but it’s highly unlikely her breast mass was cancer related. Why? For elephants, the overall lifetime chance of dying from cancer is less than 5%. The mortality rate for humans is 20%.

Why should a mammal with 100 times more cells than we do have such a low cancer rate? Oddly enough, there is little relationship between cancer rates and body size of mammals – even though the cells of elephants will divide many more times throughout their lifetimes than ours will, simply because they have so many more of them. Elephants ought to have a greater quantity of random mutations predisposing them to cancer than we do.  But they don’t.

Studies using the autopsy reports of 36 mammals at the San Diego Zoo (ranging in size from mice to elephants) and the database of 644 captive Asian and African elephants confirmed that the relationship of cancer to body size did not matter. But those studies also found something highly unusual in the blood cells of elephants. African elephants have twenty TP53 genes (and therefore 40 alleles of that gene); Asian elephants have fifteen. TP53 is sometimes called the “guardian of the genome” for its ability to create a protein that suppresses tumors.

Humans have just one gene and two alleles of TP53. (An allele is basically a copy of a specific gene at the same position on a chromosome.   Chromosomes are located in the nucleus of cell and contain DNA, the genetic instructions that make mice mice and elephants elephants.) In humans, one allele is inherited from each parent – both crucial to prevent cancer. Having only one allele causes Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is characterized by a more than 90% lifetime risk of cancer.

TP53 codes for the protein p53, a crucial tumor suppressor that stops cells with damaged DNA from dividing. TP53 goes into action when cells suffer DNA damage, churning out copies of its associated p53 protein and either repairing the damage or killing off the cell. But instead of repairing DNA damage, compromised elephant cells have evolved to always commit suicide rather than pass on potentially harmful mutations acquired in trying to repair itself. Once the damaged cell is dead and gone, it can’t turn into cancer.

Most of the elephant TP53 genes are retrogenes, which evolved into their genome at a later time than the original gene. Two factors explain why elephants developed more TP53 genes: a long gestation period (22 months) and a reproductive lifespan that lasts well into their 50s (elephants live 60+ years in the wild). Unlike mice, elephants don’t reproduce often – thus they pass along the extra copies of TP53 even in old age, and their progeny benefit.

In contrast, humans reproduce only into to middle age and most of our cancers are diseases of aging. We are the legacy of short-lived ancestors (compared to modern life expectations), who mostly didn’t get cancer throughout their years of reproduction and raising children. As modern humans age, our chances of contracting cancer become greater since we have less suppressing genes than elephants do. And any cancer-fighting mutations within our genes don’t get passed along in our older years.

Do elephant genes hold the secret of a cure for cancer? Researchers are investigating. Meanwhile, elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory, for short-term gains. What if elephants were our saviors, our partners in longer, healthier lives? What if elephants were worth much more alive than dead? #worthmorealive Spread the word.

 

Posted in Atmosphere, Moon, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Writing

The Language of the Day

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

As a writer, the unarticulated language of each day is what I try to comprehend. Gray grammar, revealing run-on sentences, naughty nouns, veritable verbs, placid paragraphs, excited exclamations, or periods big as moons – I try to comprehend the meld of minutes and hours, but all of it without words, until I begin to think about meaning. But it’s never close enough, this thinking in images, to relive the day. It’s not the whole, not for a person who spends her life following a trail of breadcrumb words constantly picked apart by the birds in my mind, birds of short attention spans who flutter in and flutter off.

I try to pin each day to the page. I run after the squiggly pen marks that scamper off and disappear, my thought unfinished. I try to make every thought come together in the center; I try to herd them, one slow word at a time. I try to leave a tangible record of where I have been and where I might likely be found in the terrain of my mind. I watch the hourglass drip grain after grain of sand. I bend my head closer to the page; push my pen faster as a dusky rose light fades in the west and the moon sets into a blanket of black trees standing in a pool of fog.

Posted in Bees, Nature, Nonfiction, Writing

The Foreign Language of Color

photo by Klaus Schmitt, for the Floral Reflectance Database, Univ. of London
photo by Klaus Schmitt, for the Floral Reflectance Database, Univ. of London

Every color I see is really a color rejected. Elephants are gray because gray is the color of the wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of their skins. Blue jays are blue and daffodils are yellow for the same reason. It’s possible for our eyes to gorge on a thousand or more different color combinations – tints of turquoise, hues of hyacinth, shades of sapphire. For proof, simply go to the nearest paint store.

But the colors I see are not the colors seen by elephants or by snakes or by insects or by cats and dogs. Many scientists after many experiments believe that cats and dogs do not see colors well, but that birds do, and that the colors of their feathers have a lot to do with either camouflage or sexy come-ons. I believe the scientists are right. Otherwise we would endure male dogs with tails like peacocks and female cats with hind ends as red and swollen as baboons.

The colors I see, and the subtle natural variations of them, were of considerable advantage to my ancestors, foraging primates swinging down from the trees into the lion-colored grass. Colors indicated ripe fruit; motion and patterns the difference between zebras and leopards.

To honeybees, the world as I see it moves like molasses. Each eye of the honeybee contains nearly 7000 lenses, 7000 pinpoint openings for light, giving it composite images shaped somewhat like snow globes. Homing in on flowers at 300 images per second, (vs. 60 for humans) bees zoom about in fast-forward, so they can make all those in-flight adjustments to the slightest change of wind, grasp all those swollen bodies of pollen.

Like us, honeybees have three photoreceptors in their eyes. Where we see blue, green, and red, bees perceive blue, green and ultraviolet, combined into colors entirely different from those we see. Ultraviolet patterns on flowers are invisible to us, but to bees those patterns announce seductive landing zones.

It’s been long speculated that creatures with compound eyes see far less efficiently than we do. But seeing is in the eye of the beholder, in the language of colors available to read. Where I might not even notice a certain flower a besotted bee ogles an orgy of ultraviolet ravishment, an irresistible, come-hither promise of pollen and nectar.

I want the language of bees in my head, to see the world differently when I write. I want my words to unfold like time-lapsed flowers, petal pushing against petal, blooming in foreign color combinations, perennial, glorious, sexy, irresistible. I want you to stick your nose inside my flowers, waggling and buzzing. I want you to come away pollinated.

Posted in Africa, Air, Atmosphere, earth at night, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Nightfall

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Melting from yellow to orange the swirled, stained-glass sun hangs round and unfastened, rolling down a line of bush. The last hot breath of the day exhales and in a single moment the sun drops and is gone.

A lemon sky turns violet. Moisture thickens as plants exhale and shadows deepen. As light fades, smells condense – the cold iron of stars, the ancient, clean smell of cold sand under my feet, sage on my fingertips, smoke in my hair.

Palm trees fan black silhouettes against the stars.

I look up at a sky filled with diamonds where the giant, gem-studded belt of the Milky Way girdles the full belly of the night. By its light alone I pick my way to my tent.

The moon sails west, round and immense, shining a clean, pure light that has a whiff of blue about it. The brush is full of crickets, each one singing in a different rhythm. I hear a few individuals among the many – soloists. I hear collective phrasing – the choir. And right before I sleep I hear them singing even more loudly to the sizzling stars.

 

 

Posted in Africa, Birds, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Camp Staff

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

I turn my head toward the sun’s white-hot eye. Behind my closed eyelids burn a thousand childish sketches of red suns. I hear one of the regular camp staff scratching around my feet for crumbs: a Red-billed Francolin, who believes his territory includes the kitchen shelter and its surroundings. The color of his legs, feet and bill match, but they look more orange than red to me. He’s plump as a pillow, with a bright yellow circle around each eye – but woe to any other francolin who trespasses. The resulting chases are explosive, noisy, and continue until he’s satisfied the intruder is back in the bush where he belongs. Male francolins have spurs on their legs, and they don’t hesitate to use them in fights. When he’s this close I can see the tiny black claws at the end of his toes, and hear his soft chuckles when he finds another crumb.

Posted in earth at night, Nature, Nonfiction, Old Stories, Photography, Writing

Old Stories

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

We tell old stories in order to see anew. All of us take the same journey from life to death, though our paths are never the same. We begin as an explosion of infinite possibilities and then, for the rest of our lives, fall back upon ourselves, grabbing at some of those possibilities during our fall. Our trajectory, which touched the very rim of life, descends toward the center, ending at zero, at what some see as a portal and others see as finality. Falling, always falling towards the center of ourselves, the huge unknown universe within, our journeys are all the same.

Posted in Africa, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography

A Bucket Shower

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

A metal pail hangs over my head, fixed by a rope and pulley to the limb of a tree.  The bottom of the pail has a showerhead with a spigot to control water flow.  I stand on sand within a rectangle of stones while a loose, slat-sided fence protects my modesty.  Vines climb up and around and through the slats.  Sunlight filters through the overhanging tree while the sky above it snaps blue, blue, blue with the upbeat tempo of a jazzy song.

Naked, my skin softens as buttery light melts into my pores. Naked, I create my own breezes as I wash. Naked, I smell saltish, metallic, as if newly risen from the sea. Naked, I am clothed in myself.

Cool water the color of weak tea trickles down my neck and across the landscape of my body. Each sluice takes a different path: one rivulet down an arm, another makes it all the way to my ankle. The water becomes darker and turns into rivers full of dust as it washes away islands of soap. A small puddle gathers around my feet and sinks immediately into the sand.

As I dry off insect noise boils shrill as a teapot.  I dress and step around the edge of the fence.

The afternoon hunkers down and sits on its heels – occasionally fanning itself with a short breeze,perfumed with the faint scent of hot, dry wood.  Faint whisperings rustle through the grass, prayers for rain.  If there were clouds I would lie on my back and watch them.

I sip hot oxygen in tiny gulps, panting.

Life, perishable life, rests in the shade, its thin legs tucked under, safe for the moment, waiting, even-eyed, for the predators of the dark to awaken.