We are born. We die. In-between, ah, in-between are all the possibilities in the universe.
What brings it all forth? What have we in common with every living thing? What have we in common with the vine tendril, the bee, the unfolding flower, the cheetah, the salmon, the amoeba?
O each vanishing endangered one upon this earth, the last ones, the least ones, the ones we rarely see, the ones we will never see again. O the sun, the wind, the rain, the mountains, the deserts, the trees, the seas, and all who live around us, despite us – what a spell of life you cast!
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.
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?
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.
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.
I inhale. Exhale.
Ah, essential air. Rare air. Barely there air.
The first and last thing I will ever know.
Air may be light, but it is not empty. Even the cleanest air is filled with microscopic organisms: bacteria, viruses, spores, fungi, rusts, molds, yeasts, amoebae and pollen. Twenty-five million tons of air fill every square mile on this planet. Your average lungful of clean air contains about 200,000 particles; on any given day in the most polluted cities of the world, the count may be as high as 375 million.
The sky that begins miles above my head reaches its fingers all the way down past the roots of grass and into the earth. Molecule by molecule, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen sift into the smallest spaces, into the burrows of snakes and earthworms, into the spaces between grains of sand.
Eighty percent of the atmosphere huddles within ten miles of the earth’s surface. If the earth were the size of an apple, the air around it would be a single layer of wax. That thin skin of sky, a biofilm just fifteen miles thick, that ocean of air, holds most of the earth’s weather and most of earth’s water – just enough of both to protect us from the lethal vacuum of the universe.
The earth is our space suit. Think about that each time you breathe.