“We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell
Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into place behind three elephants. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and two hemispheres. I’m clumsy in this new world. The old one of concrete and cell phones trails me like a lost dog.
Flirting with each one of us in turn, the wind twirls ahead in small scrolls of dust. Its warm lips nibble on my ear and blow a kiss past my cheek. Fingers of wind brush back my hair. I’d forgotten what a coquette a breeze can be, how it can lead you out into the world and make you a bit impish, too.
Thembi knuckles her eye with the tip of her trunk, curled tight as a fist. As she rubs, a dark smudge, a triangle of tear, spreads like a delta from the corner of her eye. Morula’s leans against a lead wood, rasping her hip against its rough bark, satisfying an itch. Poofs of dust rise with each scrape
Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi daintily picks a single leaf from a bush willow with the two “fingers” at the tip of her trunk. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they curl their trunks around the branches and strip off its soft leaves. Jabu smacks his lips as he wads them up and crams them into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, mud, and the cells of sloughed skin from everything that moves or crawls in Africa. From his belly up, Jabu is slate colored. From his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.
Morula swings away from the bush and stops near a patch of sand. She snorts in a handful of sand, squeezes the accordion folds of her trunk, swings it upward, and blows dust across her back. She powders herself again and again, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of dust.
The breeze carries it to me and I sneeze.
Every atom we breathe was generated in stellar engines, white-hot blossoms that pollinated the universe. Each one of us is made from trillions of those atoms, which will never be assembled in the same way again. Ever. Identical twins may look alike, but sub-atomically they too are completely unique. If you could grab a handful of atoms from your body and hold them in your hand, they will not be alive and yet, when they are assembled within us, we live. Pick Morula and I apart atom-by-atom and we would be piles of dust, no longer living. Morula’s pile would, of course, be bigger.
It is only our dust that is immortal, endlessly carried on currents of air.
For long periods of time not one of us with the elephants speaks a single word. Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in clumps. Their noggins perch atop impossibly skinny blue necks and look professionally shrunk by headhunters. The spooky laugh of a single hyena crawls in from the distance.
Sweat trickles from under my hat. No matter how many times I gaze ahead, the path remains the same two dusty ruts in the tall, lion-colored grass. Seed heads from dry stalks pop like tiny finger snaps in the heat. Sand fine as cake flower powders my boots, and I gasp as though I have gills.
As we trudge along, I catch a glimpse of a “go-away” bird, a Gray lourie, springing along the branches over my head. He leans down and reproaches us for being foolish enough to be out in the mid-day sun. Go-wheyyyyyyy, go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyyy. The lourie nods his pronounced head crest at us. Go-wheyyy. Wheyyyyy. Go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyy.
Bleached by the sun, the sky is no longer blue. As we pass near a marshy waterhole, two blacksmith plovers bounce up and down, their call mimicking smithies tapping on metal: Klink!Klink-Klink!
In this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings. With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias. With the scrape of our footsteps. With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.
What would it be like to think without words and recognize shapes without names? But I hear these words in my head as I think them.
Later, in the afternoon, we flush a warthog family. One of the piglets stops and looks over his shoulder at me.
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. Several stop to look our way.
They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike. Quintessential Africa.
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 noted 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.
I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails. Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter. Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts. None of lions, however. They tend to circle, keep you in sight. The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.
The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus). I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck. Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail. Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves. Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts. Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow. Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.
Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes. Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails. Their lips and nostrils are gray.
In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source. Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs. Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks. Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white. Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones. Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.
You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot. For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole. For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color. If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys. (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.
Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra! Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces. Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra. And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.
Zebras have thick, tough hides. Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.
But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too. And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.
Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.
I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .
Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.
Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.
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.