Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography

The Backbone of the Night

Edge of Darkness

I sit on my heels next to a high-burning fire and rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it.  Leaning in, I cup the palms of my hands to its heat.  Tongues of flame lick blackened lips of wood as if they want to tell my fortune with hot, strange words.

In Botswana, this close to the equator, there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness.  The earth rolls into night at 1,000 miles a minute – thirty minutes from sundown to dark.  No long sunsets technicolored by particles of pollution, no lingering light due to the earth’s tilt, no instant barrage of street lamps.

My night is lit only by flame and stars.

The fire spits an ember into the sand near the toes of my boots where it flares and dies.

Above my head a brilliant swath of the Milky Way spanned a vault of sky already crowded with stars.  Stars wheel toward dawn, the second hand on a clock face, the only clock that measures eons of time.

The beginning and the end are up there, somewhere.

The people of the Kalahari call the Milky Way “The Backbone of the Night.”  They believe it keeps the sky from crashing down on their heads.  If I squint hard enough, long enough, the Milky Way knits itself into what might look like pieces of solid bone.

Each time I look up it births even more new stars.

Most of our Old Stories must have originated like this, at night, around a hand-warming fire.

The fire burns down to single chips of orange.  My hands make a small lid over the last of its heat.

I walk down the path to my tent.  Soft night shadows loom around the circle of my flashlight.  At the tent’s threshold, I switch it off.  I trace the outlines of gods in the constellations overhead.  I see Orion doing a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon.  Leo naps on his back, the way most lions sleep.  Scorpio thrusts one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.  Buried deep in the Milky Way, a jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross.

Moonlight rains through mesh openings of the tent’s windows, spatters my blanket with shifting, delicate squares.  Sleep comes quickly, like an African nightfall.  My dreams fill with elephants as the backbone of the night arches over me and holds up the entire sky.


(an excerpt from my book-in-progress, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants)





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


Trunk tip 2b&wAwash in a sea of scent, Jabu curls his trunk and samples wave after wave of odors breaking at his feet.  Redolent tides wash in, wash out, a floating realm populated with aromatic citizens.  Schools of scents cluster at his feet, swimming through the grass at the bottom of an ocean of air.

Sixty percent of his brain is dedicated to smell.  Jabu can distinguish between a million or more separate odors in the daily news that floats by on warm currents.  Just a few molecules bring him history and current events: stories of who was here, who is there, how long they stayed and in which direction they went.  Jabu can detect fellow elephants ten miles away.

He reaches out and flattens the tip of his trunk over a wet spot in the sand.  Eyes half closed, he stands completely still, as if lost in memory, his brain sorting through the various scents tumbling up his trunk.  He samples the air thoughtfully, as if listening to a quiet conversation, as if storing it, word by word, in those huge frontal lobes of his.

Flehmen flat trunkI remember that elephants see the world in yellows and blues, like color-blind humans.  I fasten a yellow filter over my camera lens, then a blue one.  Jabu turns aquamarine.  From far, far away, he snaps a branch from a shrub the color of kelp, chomps, munches, drifts closer.  His slow motions make perfect sense underwater.

I wade into a lagoon of grass.  Ankles, knees, waist, chest, neck.  Some of the grass stalks bob over my head.  My hands, my body, my thoughts, move slowly.

Immersed, my ears fill with a pure hum.  The sound of my passage whispers in seashell voices.

As Jabu drifts by, undertones of blue and gray shimmer against his flanks, reflections of seaweed and kelp.  I follow, sub-aquatic, at the bottom of air.  Carried by the current of my imagination, I am about to tumble downstream. Jabu aslant b&w

Then the breeze kicks up, feels as if it comes all the way from the bottom of the Kalahari, feels red, feels gritty, feels dry as a hundred-year-old skeleton left in the desert.  It sucks every bit of moisture from under me and lands me beached and gasping.

I lower my camera.  Red invades yellow and the world greens.