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The first ones we saw were resting in the shade of an acacia tree. The driver had spotted them, a skill that comes from years of experience. The dead giveaway, of course, is a lone tree around which are gathered a half dozen LandRovers: such a gathering will almost surely include lions. We drove up within twenty feet and stopped. Sure enough there they were, two of them, a male and a female, lying motionless except for their sides heaving in the heat.
At once there was the usual flurry of tourist activity -a search for binoculars, a memory card lost, jockeying for position to get the best view accompanied by gasps of amazement at being this close to animals of which we have heard so much. Indeed you can see their eyes and count their whiskers.
For all the majesty of the lion, the image portrayed in TV documentaries and elsewhere, close up the picture is a little different. True, the male with his mane and great head cuts a majestic pose. Even without a roar the title King of Beasts suits him well.
And the female has that sleekness, that pussycat look about her that sells cars to men and suggests how real women walk. But here in the heat of the Serengeti they look dusty, hot and as uncomfortable as I am. Maybe even bored with the whole carry on, strutting and roaring reserved for some other time and place.
Here and there on their bodies bits of hide are missing, scars that have healed, signs of the battle waged for survival. A lion must eat regularly, that is, track down and kill a zebra or impala or some other form of wild life two or three times a week. These two lions alone, therefore, represent a fair bit of killing and no small amount of struggle. Later we would see a pride of 15 lions, a sight that sets one to calculating the number of zebras needed for dinner. Given the demand for food and the ongoing battle with rivals for territory, both two legged and four, the life span of a male lion averages about 12 years. Survival here in the wild is by no means assured.
After a time the female of the pair gets up, takes a leisurely stretch and walks past, not ten feet from the LandRover, treating us all with utter disdain. We may as well have been in Saskatoon although I am sure she would have had us for lunch had we ventured out; we took her picture instead.
Such are the lions -living on the edge, displaying pride and independence and a kind of indifference that gives one pause for thought.
The others had “gone on safari”, out into that scorching space called the park and I, unable to think of enduring more heat and the comforts of a LandRover, had settled down under a tree with my binoculars and coffee to pass the morning.
I scan the landscape hoping that by some outside chance I might spot a giraffe, maybe an elephant. If all else fails a zebra. Nothing moves save heat waves rippling in the morning air. I am about to give up and retreat to my tent when I notice it –a black ball about the size of a quarter not twenty feet in front of me moving ever so slightly. I decide to have a closer look.
Kneeling in the sand I turned the ball over to discover on the underside a beetle: I have come upon a dung beetle moving a turd, or to be somewhat less crude one could say I have found a beetle in the process of moving her house -pantry, maternity suite and living room all rolled into one.
As I watch she pushes the ball an inch or two, then scrambles over the top and begins pulling, moving the ball another inch. And so goes the push/pull dance of a dung ball and beetle down a path.
As insignificant as the beetle appears, and as unmentionable as is the material with which it works, there are countries -Egypt for instance -where the beetle goes by the dignified name of scarab and enjoys a place of respect, replicas carved of it in wood and stone for sale to tourists. Such a carving was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. I read somewhere of another species who can pull a dung ball 1,141 times its own weight, the equivalent of an average person pulling six double-decker buses full of people. Furthermore, dung beetles are a whiz at engineering, moving dung balls always in a straight line, orienting themselves by the position of the sun and moon, making all moves with absolute efficiency.
A friend says I have a mind for such things, for dung beetles and such. Possibly. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been out in the heat too long. Whatever the case, I am impressed.
How did this beetle come by such -we can’t quite bring ourselves to say intelligence, that’s reserved for us –rather how did he or she come by such ingenuity, instinct? Surely the journey has been a long one.
A few hundred miles away lies the Olduvai gorge, a site, like others in Africa, where there has been found remains of many forms of wildlife as well as the bones of our ancestors, beings in the process of making the transition from animal to human, from ape to homo sapiens. How long ago? One, two, three million years; with each discovery the time line extends further and further back. Indeed, the change was so gradual it is totally imperceptible as a single event. Only the cumulative evidence of hundreds of thousands of years gathered from many sources can measure the slight change in bone structure or brain capacity that qualifies a creature to be classified as human rather than ape. What is also clear is that there have been various beginnings, off shoots of creature development, beings with some of our characteristics which qualified them as human but who passed into oblivion. One writer puts the total at 22, perhaps more will be found, the number of branches in our family tree, that is, beings with some human attributes but whose lineage comes to an end.
At first you want to say it was a kind of false start at being human. If you are of religious bent you might say God is practicing until God gets it right -and still has a way to go. Poetic thinking but not entirely indicative of the process at work.
Could it also be that creation then, as now, has limits, beginnings and endings. In the case of our distant ancestors, the 22 branches who made it for some thousands of years and are no more, something occurred to which they could not adapt -the food supply diminished, the weather changed, competitors got the better of them -and they could not make the adjustment until one day they were no more and another line, more efficient, more adaptable emerged. Our branch on the tree continues -for the time being -twenty-third in line, so to speak, but hardly assured of the throne.
What of dung beetles? How long has it taken them to get here? How many beginnings came to an end? How long did it take to learn to move a dung ball a hundred feet and make of it a home? No one knows for sure and if anyone claims to know, wait awhile and the time frame will shift. What we are sure of is that it has taken the lowly dung beetle a very long time to get here. Moreover, their lineage has at least as good a chance at survival, maybe better, than our own.
As much as any animal giraffes have adapted to their surroundings, finding their own niche in a crowded world. One of nature’s many oddities, they shouldn’t be here but they are.
One morning I found myself sitting alone in the “lounge”, an open-air tent set up in the middle of the camp with a sand floor and some soft chairs and a sofa and, on occasion, a hint of a breeze. The night before the whole contraption had blown down in a fierce thunderstorm. Generally at home you can see a thunderstorm coming, a bank of dark cloud rising up in the west with slashes of lightning and thunder with a crack to it. The storm the night before had been a wild affair; it didn’t seem to come from anywhere, but was suddenly just there, thunder and lightning on all sides with wind and sheets of rain. For a time we wondered about our tent. The open air shower and toilet at the back were flooded. But then it was gone, nothing more than a rumble or two somewhere in the distance. And for a little while it had been deliciously cool. Now the heat is back and I am reduced to studying the landscape, particularly some acacia trees nearby, the tallest maybe twenty five feet high, lush green with a kind of umbrella look to them, a shape that makes them a favorite gathering place for zebras and other wildlife seeking respite from the heat.
Today I spot nothing and am about to give up when something peculiar catches my eye, something absurd -a face peering out at me from the upper levels of the acacia. And a peculiar face it is, one with features somewhat akin to a cow, a teenage cow with a silly, quizzical half smile -a look that seems to say what are you staring at? Then I notice the rest of the picture camouflaged in the midst of the trees -long legs and neck, distinctive patterned coat -a giraffe munching her way through lunch. She goes on about her meal ignoring me.
Standing, a male giraffe can reach up to 18 ft. or more high and weigh over 3000 pounds. For a large and ungainly animal –their neck and shoulders seem too large for the rest of the body threatening a front end roll over -they move with a distinctive precision and beauty, great long necks towering above the foliage, somehow the bottom half of their bodies at a gallop while the upper level seems to float.
The giraffe’s exceptional height, a result of long legs and an even longer neck, allows it to forage on acacia high above all competitors, with a view of the surrounding countryside and any possible predators, most notably lions and alligators.
One adaptation the giraffe has made to compensate for its peculiar anatomy is to develop a valve in its neck that closes when it lowers its head to drink, the valve controlling the amount of blood flowing away from the body. When a giraffe stoops to drink, however, it is these same legs and neck, essential to survival in some ways that can be his or her downfall. Giraffes must spread their legs in a kind of splayed fashion in order to reach the water, placing them at considerable risk, unable to see well and quite unable to react quickly, the very time when a lion or a crocodile will choose to strike.
But for all their peculiarities, it’s the elegance of the animal I admire, a grace of movement and something friendly in their demeanor, gentle. Then there’s that silly look on their face, staring at you with a childlike innocence from the heights of the acacia. Maybe they think what a strange looking animal; he shouldn’t be here but he is.
Evening comes and the LandRovers return leaving the creatures to what the night may bring. It’s then you hear your fellow tourists wondering if there will be a swimming pool in camp or making plans for a flight to somewhere else or asking what has happened to their third suitcase and it occurs to you that we take ourselves awfully damn serious. Having so much, all the wealth and comforts of home and suitcases full of stuff creates assumptions, breeds an unawareness, arrogance even; the lions and the dung beetles and giraffes and yes, the wart hogs and the hippos and all the rest, don’t give a damn. Your cameras and your Tilleys and your suitcases they treat with a refreshing indifference.
Add to it all they are still here, these magnificent beasts and lowly creatures, not yet all shot or run off or gathered up and locked away, pacing up and down in a zoo or stuck to a wall with a pin. Without a road or a mall or a new development they continue. And the dung beetle, at least, in all probability will continue long after my lineage has petered out. But that’s not the end of it.
Strangely, unexpectedly there can come in the midst of it all a feeling of being detached, unhooked shall we say. Washed. For a little while at least you are rid of something. Like walking alone on the prairie on a spring morning and you hear one meadowlark, time where you can see and hear again and know where you belong.
Ron Evans is a CPSP Diplomate living in Saskatchewan, Canada is a a published author. He has frequently presented his poetry and prose at meetings of the CPSP Plenary as well as contributed articles for publication in the Pastoral Report.
The following are two of his recent book publications:
Below are several of his articles published on the PR:
To contact Ron Evans, click here.
Posted by Perry Miller, Editor at June 6, 2012 1:26 PM