Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 18, 2004 Tourism notes.

Kruger is a fine balance between wilderness and civilization. It is wilderness made easy, very easy, for us to look at and taste without having to experience the frightening reality of it. It says something about us humans, that we have so taken over the earth that we have to work very hard to keep a small part of it in something resembling the state that it would be in by default if we hadnít shown up on the scene. The whole of southern Africa used to simply be, plants and animals living together, eating each other, killing each other, sometimes flourishing and sometimes dying in droughts. Animals have societies too, but not the ability to change the whole world around them as we have, to take away and close down the rest of the life there and make it operate all in our service.

People talk about living closer to nature. I guess that is possible Ė living in a way that reduces the human impact, and forces us to be aware of our relation to the rest of the system rather than acting as if everything other than our society was dispensable. And yet we canít live fully in nature, because that would overlook that it is the nature of humans to create societies and buffer ourselves against the uncaring harshness of the natural world.

I drove around Kruger like all the other tourists, looking for large mammals, stopping to peer at birds, hoping to see lions and leopards and rhinos and other rare creatures. I gazed wistfully at giraffes and zebras and impala, such graceful, beautiful creatures. I was thrilled when the four lions let us follow them down the road, when a rhino crossed right in front of me, and when I finally came across my first elephant, who felt like an instant friend. I delighted at baboons, who seem so very much like us in their complicated societies, mothers sitting together and fussing over their babies, youngsters chasing each other up and down. I watched a warthog family Ė mom, dad, and four babies Ė trying to find them attractive but finding it difficult. I took hundreds of photos, snapping and clicking at will, and deleting the mistakes later from my computer.

Once in a while I stopped on an empty bit of road, turned off the engine, and hung out the car window to feel myself in the environment rather than watching it. It feels empty and quiet, a place that simply goes on, with no progress or direction. Animals look for food, mate, raise their young, die. Plants grow and propagate. Does life have immediacy and excitement for any of them? Do the very-human baboons worry about their friendships, how their babies will turn out, whether they can provide enough food, whether the weather will cool down? How conscious are they of the leopards that feed on them?

Watching a giraffe, I thought of eighteenth century European drawings of giraffes, which seem shorter, stunted, an effort to show people who could never travel themselves to see what is out there in the world. For all of western society, for everyone but the people who lived with them in the bush before the west ever arrived, those animals are exotic and different. They form part of our world from childhood, we see pictures, we see them in zoos, we see them on television in endless nature shows. But they donít know what they mean in human eyes, they simply live. Really being in the wilderness would mean totally putting aside human objectification of wilderness, having no meta-concept of deciding to live in wilderness as distinct from human society. And yet even so there would be no real communication with the other creatures in wilderness Ė though perhaps humans can learn the right way to hoot and growl so a baboon understands. But what do giraffes or elephants think humans are? Do they think anything of humans? Being part of wilderness would mean being in a Tower of Babel with no way to break through to any of the other species.

Being out in the veldt, hanging out the car window and listening to the sounds, was wonderful. Not quiet, the calls of hundreds of birds and the buzzing and whirring of millions of insects make a busy racket. But it felt empty in a wonderful way. Just sun and earth and plants and creatures that couldnít communicate with me. I would have liked to walk away from my car, far enough that I couldnít see it, and lie on the ground listening to the calls and feeling the heat and smelling the earth and the leaves and the dung. But of course this isnít really being in the wilderness, itís the civilized visit to the wilderness, where rule number one is that you may not get out of your car. So I didnít, as I am a member of civilization and I have every intention of staying there. And a human lying on the ground sniffing the air might well make rather easy prey for a lion or a leopard, if I were lucky enough to meet one. We are well adapted for civilization, but pretty ineffective for wilderness, we canít run fast or fight off predators or fly away. Our only hope of survival is to create a world that lets us get away from the dangers of the wilderness, by living in civilization instead.

So I had to be content to be a tourist. And of course as a tourist I was delighted by the animals I got to look at, and proud of taking a few good photos that I can use to impress others back in civilization by how close I was to the lion or the rhino or the zebras. So I guess it will definitely be civilization for me, I behave just like one of them.

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