Caption: Lion roaring into the night, Kruger National Park, South Africa. © Villiers Steyn / Shutterstock
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
There is no escaping the fact that our species, Homo sapiens, has placed the natural systems of our planet, and therefore ourselves, at serious risk. Through our sheer numbers and careless actions, we have perturbed Nature in ways that are becoming increasingly difficult to halt, let alone reverse. In the grand scheme of cosmology, this matters not a lot, of course, for the universe will continue just as well with us as without us. We, and all that we have created and done—the good and the bad—are but the merest blip in space and time. The cosmos is indifferent to our presence.
Yet we cannot be indifferent to the cosmos, for within it lies the secret of our own existence. And the evolutionary process programs us to keep probing for the answers, not only “out there” in deep space, but also introspectively, within ourselves and our surroundings. Our search for “the meaning of life” perplexes us—sometimes it seems tantalizingly within our grasp, at others impossibly elusive.
Our existential crisis is ever-present, but Covid-19 seems to have escalated it to a permanent state of anxiety. Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, there were surprises. For example, Google reported a rise in the number of searches around the world asking for ways to help in a time when people could have been at their most self-involved. Here are some.
“All over the world, we saw this shift in values as people turned their energies to being supportive, empathetic, and taking a stand for voices unheard,” Google said. “How to donate” was searched twice as much as “how to save” and “how to support small businesses” also doubled. “Black Lives Matter” was searched globally—five times more than in 2019—and “how to stop climate change” was keyed in more than ever. One particularly well-googled search was “sunset near me,” as people chose to appreciate this “daily gift.”
A gift it certainly is, but then all of Nature is a gift, and one place guaranteed to make one appreciative of this fact is the African bush. Africa’s wild places are not benign, far from it. Dangers lurk for the complacent and careless. But they are also calming, and for me, they are places where I come closest to understanding the fundamental purpose of being.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, always referred to Africa as God’s country. In the autumn of 1925, he came to Africa and visited Kenya and Uganda, intent on learning something about the archetypal nature of humankind. During his East African sojourn, he woke at sunrise one day while traveling by train, and on a steep cliff, he saw “…a slim brownish-black figure standing motionless, leaning on a long spear.” It gave Jung an intense sense of déjà vu, prompting him to say: “I could not guess what string within myself was plucked at the sight of that solitary, dark hunter. I knew only that his world had been mine for countless millennia.” Jung never came to South Africa, but I am sure that his deep sense of the continent’s spirituality and relevance for all could only have been reinforced by the experience. The late Ian Player, the doyen of South Africa conservationists and himself a great follower of Jung, would have undoubtedly agreed. He put it thus: “I have seen the light come into the eyes of people from all over the world as they have sat around a campfire with the sounds of Africa echoing in the darkness, or watching Scorpio rising, followed by the mysterious moon. The Africa within, which we carry, sees the mirror image of the Africa without, and something within the soul responds. “I shall never be the same again is a phrase so often used by those who come to Africa.”
Einstein never set foot in Africa. But, nevertheless, I have no doubt that he, too, would have been in accord with his compatriot Jung, and Player. For surely there can be no better window into one’s own existence, or that of the cosmos, than a bushveld night.
Nothing is darker than a moonless night in the African bush. Above, stars fill the sky with their infinite pinpricks of light that have traveled for billions of years to reach our eyes, too faint though to give form to the bushveld landscape. Instead, it is sound and smell that inform us. The far-off rumble of a distant lion’s roar seems almost gentle and benign as it floats through a blanket of heavy, humid air. Closer by, the long, drawn-out ya-ya-ya-ya-ya heralds the presence of at least one black-backed jackal. Then comes a soft prrruup prrruup … A frog, maybe? Or an insect? No, it is the call of a tiny scops owl. Its cousin, the wood owl, hoots a velvety note from the thick riverine bush.
Overall, though, with the approach of dawn, the sounds are slowing and becoming more intermittent. It is as if an orchestral movement on a vast scale is drawing to a slow, quieting close.
Suddenly the tempo changes. A short, harsh crowing starts up. Hesitant at first, then seeming to gain confidence, it quickly becomes louder and more persistent. Soon, the air is ringing with the strident reveille of a Swainson’s spurfowl. Like the equally coarse crackling of a helmeted guineafowl, it is a call to arms for the day shift. A woodland kingfisher joins in with a high, staccato entry note followed by a brittle descending trill, and in no time at all, it is as though every bird that has ever existed is making its contribution.
The bush is alive with song and, with the coming light, fleeting glimpses of small birds darting and flitting through the trees. Solos briefly burst through—the burble of a coucal, perhaps, or the liquid piping of a black-headed oriole? But they soon subside, lost again in the raucous chatter of a party of red-billed wood hoopoes and the general confusion of sound that make up the “dawn chorus.”
The theatre of the waking day is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the African bush. All you need do is sit quietly and wait for the performance to come to you. But there is also the wonder of going out to find it, especially on foot. To the untrained eye, there are no signs, no clues to what has passed this way and when. No path is visible in the tall grass. But the ranger up ahead has seen something, and he motions those in his charge to keep down and come closer. It’s not much, but he points low down to a tuft of darkish fur caught on the vicious snares of a small “wag ‘n bietjie” thorn tree. “Cheetah,” he whispers. The force of the snagging thorns grabbing at the animal’s coat has split the thin twig but not broken it. The wound is still moist, so evidently recent. Slowly the party moves forward; suddenly, the ranger pauses again and points ahead and to his left. There no more than twenty or so yards away is a cheetah standing on the low rise of a termite mound. She is facing away, intent on something, or maybe just casting about from her vantage. But then she becomes aware of her pursuers. With its characteristic “tear marks” clearly visible, the beautiful head snaps round to stare momentarily. And then, in an instant, she is gone.
Such encounters are exhilarating in the extreme. It is one thing to see wild animals close up from the safety of a vehicle or from a hide, but quite another to come across them on foot. Suddenly you are on their turf, and they have the advantage.
The smaller creatures—the spiders, insects, and maybe the odd rodent—are suddenly in sharp focus. The birds are all around you instead of just in front, and you see close-up the true beauty of a small flower, a drop of dew on a web, and the delicate structure of a discarded feather. Quickly you learn to watch where you place your feet to not destroy a hoof print in the sand. And more than anything else, you understand what most of us have never known in our cloistered city environments. There is a sense of discovery about ourselves, where we come from, a sense of rekindling skills lost many generations ago, and a sense of place.
At no time is this more keenly felt than when encountering elephants drinking and cavorting with evident pleasure in the water. More than any other land mammal, with the possible exception of the great apes, the elephant evokes a deep response in the human psyche. Its size alone makes it worthy of respect, but there is so much more than just its commanding physical presence. The elephant is the embodiment of wisdom and is imbued with a complex sense of social behavior that includes caring for its fellows, especially the young of a herd.
Elephants had their beginnings in Africa and have an ancient lineage that stretches back over 50 million years and more, to a time not long after the last dinosaurs became extinct. And since the first hominids walked erect across the vast expanses of the African landscape, elephants and humans have lived alongside one another. For most of this time, their coexistence has been peaceable enough, but since the late nineteenth century, the two have been increasingly set against each other. Wanton hunting and poaching for the elephant’s valuable ivory has taken many populations to the brink of extinction and sometimes beyond. Furthermore, human population increase has placed a huge burden on the land, and competition for Lebensraum has thrown man and beast into further conflict.
The overriding dilemma, though, has to be faced squarely. In the face of human needs and demands on the landscape, and especially the cruel decimation of elephants for their ivory, they could well lose out. Permanently. It is a strange feeling indeed to see elephants roaming freely, as they should, across the savanna in their closely-knit maternal herds, and then to reflect that we could well be witnessing the twilight years of a species much older than our own. If the elephant were only a dreaded adversary of humans, like the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito, then its demise would hardly raise a whimper. But this is not so, and should the elephant slide into oblivion, the wound will be lasting. For the moment, however, they remain.
Slaked, our herd down by the river moves off into the gathering darkness, while overhead a flight of raucous hadada ibises wing towards their roost. There is no lingering dusk in the bush, and night comes quickly. The great orange orb of the sun drops hurriedly towards the horizon. Then, as it touches the distant hills, it seems to balance there momentarily before continuing on its timeless journey. For a few short minutes, the western sky is lava-red, moving through an arc of softer, pastel shades of yellow and blue to deep indigo towards the far side of the world. Colors quickly fill in until all of this landscape is thrown into an inky relief. An eerie silence cloaks the bush as its inhabitants adjust to the sudden change of day into night. Then a loud grunting reverberates up the valley—hippos in a prelude to their wading ashore for a night of grazing—and some way off, the black-backed jackal moans into the dark. Another night in the African bush is underway.
Perhaps these reflections are little more than a personal indulgence. Still, I believe that most people who have shared similar experiences, whether here in Africa or in far-off landscapes elsewhere, will agree that wildernesses everywhere must be treasured, not as nostalgic monuments to the past, but as critical elements of a better future for all. Yet, unfortunately, and almost everywhere, we have badly damaged the wild places that serve us in so many ways, spiritually and practically. Now is the time for restoration.
As Google observes, the zeitgeist of our time is for a better future more than for a return to the past. And to achieve this, we need to do as Einstein suggests and, “Look deep into nature…”