Sunday, October 12, 2014

19. Thatch

19.  Thatch

I see them walking home through the sultry shadows of the ghommos at the end of a long day;
it’s the end of winter, the grass is ripe. Ready.
Measuring their paces like someone documenting a long journey,
they head home.
Thick thatch, bundled burdens, carried on their heads, supported by proud necks and elegant shoulders.
They move graciously like their own shadows, holding their heads high.
In spite of the load, there is a lightness in their hearts,
carrying it with dignity and carrying it with pride. 
It will bring warmth on cold winter nights
and it will be cool on hot summer days.
Simple thatch. Twined together like vibrant families into larger communities. 
Labour of love.
They sing and cut and sing and measure and then,
all at once, stamp them into shape.
All the edges aligned: from grass to thatch. 
Labour of duty. 
On their straight backs and proud shoulders they carry, and they sing,
and they sweat,
and they ache
and they laugh
A baby is born, and the golden thatch will proclaim their joy;
a bright new life
a new hut,
a new place.
The baby will grow, and become a man, an old man.
With him the thatch will fade, its colour lost.
Its purpose may remain for many seasons and many harvests
but at the end it will be, like the old life, replaced.
Amongst the songs and dances the young and fresh will replace the old and the wise.
Dexterous hands will merge branches into poles and grass into thatch
to weave a roof as strong as a nation.
All together.
Grass to thatch to roof. Sheltering life, and transitioning nature into homes;
from the earth the mud will rise into walls structured by poles to strengthen
and carry the heavy loads being brought in on proud necks and elegant shoulders.
A calf is born and stands for the first time in the moonlit night.
The young heifer will lick him, love him, support him
and the life of the herd bull will begin here and now, on this cloudless night.
Somewhere distant a dog barks and a lonely drum measures the journey of life.
Until morning.
A fresh bucket of water is brought to the surface by the tender muscles of adolescent girls,
laughing and spilling water in the sand; their shy smiles offer me some,
and I wash my sunburnt face in the cool of the water and think of the thatch:
 a similar coolness, the rich smell of water from the earth. 
Through the water in my eyes, I see the oxen harnessed to a plough,
and soon the soil will be turned and its rich smell will announce its receptiveness.
Ripe. Ready. For the seeds to germinate.
It will harbour and nourish a crop, if the rains are good.
They duck down into thick grass where no bold man will go, where leopards and snakes may linger
 in the shade of the tall grass.
Labour of love. Labour of duty;
to provide shade and warmth, protection from the sun.
They sing and they cut and measure and they stamp grass into thatch.
And they smile and they wave, as we drive past
into our future, leaving them in our past.
They are memories, etched in my mind forever. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

18. Matopos’ Future

As my son and I walk down the sandy road we read yesterday like a book. A rhino walked along this path; you can feel his presence in his footprints, the size of dinner plates, meticulously measured intervals, in a neat row. He was here all right, he did not stop to eat, nor did he hesitate at the low water bridge, he walked with diligence and measured intention to the midden where he discarded the remains of a few meals, kickstarting the cycles of the dung beetles and flies.

“I wonder how often he comes this way”, my son asks, even though there is no need to answer that question. We examine the rest of yesterday’s entomological history written in the clean slate provided by the rhino. We can tell the passage of the insects, even to the species, here and there we can even tell that the chat were hunting ants as their trails suddenly ends where their path crossed that of the chat. The end of another life. The chat’s chicks will not mind though.

For many reasons, we humans are intensely interested in knowing the future. Some make predictions, some stare into crystal balls, and others construct computer models, but tomorrow remains largely unknown. There are no accurate methodological approaches to study details of the future.

However, we are incredibly good at studying the past. We can learn so much - the forms, the functions and the workings of things, the patterns, the processes and cycles and the dimensions of time. There are so many things we can decipher and measure in the past that may help us to understand something of the future.  We learn the amplitude of events and from that we can at least say what limits the future may conform and behave to, or the boundaries the future will adhere to or within. 

When the camp attendant drops a wheelbarrow of wood near our fireplace I can see the rings in the wood where the sharp axe cleaved through time. The age of those branches and trees can be determined in a manner similar to that which my fellow students at university counted the growth rings in the teeth of predators and other beasts… their history trapped in their own bones, the leaner times marked, and promising an era of more rapid growth. All the way through time until you get to the outer layer, the year before death… the ultimate end. 

At a much larger scale, the rivers may cut their own way through the “parent material”, exposing the geology of the earth as layers accumulated in places, revealing the genesis of the earth. This process is remarkably similar to the archeologist’s meticulous labor exposing the life and times of the dwellers within the caves. They pick through the dirt, and read their ancient history, their recipe books, their enemies, art and births and deaths and other woes. It is all there, we just need to learn to read the specific language of the past. 

Our desire to decipher the future forces us to study the past and our endeavors to do that focuses our minds on various measures of time. The most predictable of all are most probably the seasons. As summer turns into autumn, announcing winter, there is always for me a sense of promise in the turning of the seasons.  The earth is telling us: “Yes, winter is coming, and it will come, but beyond winter lies the season of promise! Spring and summer”. Then, the plants will blossom and bloom, seeds will germinate as will ideas, others will come out of hibernation and a new cycle of life will initiate itself. So the seasons are predictable, we know to a large extent what lies ahead in broad terms. We are however completely unable to say with definitive accuracy if this winter is going to a cold, or a mild one… we stash the wood none-the-less. 

Studying the beasts of the veld and the food and feed they eat for nourishment, we can determine that some will live one season only, others will be around for a few. The pachyderms will most probably live as long as one can expect a mammal to live for. We can predict, based on the past, that the impala will drop their young at the right time, when the earth generously provides; each year, they will do it, until their end. So can we, if we get a mate, if we are fertile, if we have enough to build a home and if, and if, and many many other ifs… That level of detail is not known, and never will be. But, strangely, we know what we need to know. We know the seasons are pretty well defined in time, so we can prepare our fields and plant our crops, and harvest and plan for the dry months. We can count our kids and determine the amount of food to hoard. Perhaps that level of detail is enough, do we need to know more?

I wonder about the history I am writing for my sons and their children. It reminds me that we need write good stories in the sand for those who follow us. It is in our power to make the present good, for what we do today, will, like the rhino’s path, be tomorrow’s history. We may not be able to know our future, but perhaps and far more importantly, its our duty to make the history books of those who will follow us worthy of further examination! Make that history good, make it count - it may change someone else’s tomorrow. 

Perhaps, like the past, the future is written in these rocks and trees and rivers and tracks in the sand.  Perhaps the days and the nights are the individual words, the months are the paragraphs, while the seasons account for the sections of the chapters, announced by the different years, punctuated by droughts and wet seasons. As such there may be many books, libraries in fact, all capturing, harboring and hiding the history and the future for those bold enough to read the words.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

17. Understanding death: the Matobo experience

Death is often regarded as a singular once-off event. The end of life. Like birth, it is one of the most important “events” in the journey of life itself. It marks the other end of birth. The final stage. As it is at the opposite side of birth it also creates very much the opposite emotions to birth - both for the individual who experiences it and the people who are “left behind”. (That euphemism actually says a lot more beneath the surface. In essence it means that death is after all not the final stage but that death actually allows the individual into the next phase…to leave others behind, the deceased is moving on, elsewhere!)

Most, if not all religions in the world, suggest in some or other way that there is life beyond the dark curtain of initial death. We either “go to heaven” or come back as another human or component of life, perhaps wiser and better equipped than before, ever improving as individuals. (An interesting thought to evolutionists… how do the reincarnates contribute to increasing vigor or value of the species?)
Being with Matobo, and seeing its processes and transitions and the flow of life in many different forms and mutations, death becomes more of a continuous process rather than a single event, often challenging my understanding or perception of death, which was primarily formed as part of my Christian upbringing. Death as the end of life becomes a little more muddled when one looks at nature and how death is manifested in other beings. 
While I may have seen many dead trees, the actual death of a tree may take many years to complete, a slow process that reduces the elaborate branches to mere wood, which remains a wooden skeleton for decades, as if it created its own tombstone, the final tribute to many years and cycles of life and death itself. 

In the case of deciduous trees, large parts of the tree die off each year, the bark and leaves peel off and fall to the ground and they are incorporated in the soil beneath the tree, turned into nutrient-harboring compost which the plant may absorb in an absurd form of auto-cannibalism (which is a completely different subject - lets contain our focus to death!).  Trees, or at least, parts of trees die off every year, something higher organisms such as humans and other mammals do not experience. The skin is said to be the largest organ of the human, and therefore snakes and other reptiles who lose their skins each year, shedding it to sport an entirely new fresh skin, therefore also suffer some limited form of an annual death cycle!

Like the tree, that grows new leaves all the time, or in annual bursts every spring, colonies of termites and bees, may grow new individuals who can not survive on their own, and therefore form part of what is often referred to as a single organism, the colony. The “castes” represent different organs - the breeders are likened to the reproductive organs, and those growing mushrooms from lignin and other plant material are said to be the gastrointestinal system of the larger being etc. Here the death of an individual is nothing more than shedding an epithelial cell or two in the digestive tract of the larger organism. So, how do we define death in this case where the death of an individual is simply an unimportant process of recycling as fresh beings contribute to the larger whole?

While an individual tree may experience many years of cyclic deaths or deaths of smaller parts of itself, some vegetatively reproducing plants, like certain grasses, may actually never really die! The clones or new shoots grow from parent material and although seen as “new youngsters” they are actually the parent plant itself, at least genetically. While other parts of the plant, other clones may die off, the actual individual may end up as many individuals and while some of these may die, the actual plant survives many deaths! The original remains intact and alive in many places all at once! Bizarre.

My beloved lichens may undergo a similar process, though it is even more complex, considering the fact that they are made up of two species merged into one morphological being that grows clonally for many thousands of years, separating from itself and creating “new” colonies (yeah, not even individuals, cause the individual is made of at least two species!!!). So for them, and we may not be able to fathom it, death as we know and understand it - may actually never come! Great, is it not?!
What would be catastrophic is the death of an entire species, extinction, the ultimate death. That would constitute the passing of what could be a critical component of the complex system. As long as the deaths are countered by births and clones and seeds emerge to replace adults with young then its all ok. But too many deaths of critical components may lead to the death or collapse of the entire system as we know it. Meta death, if there is such a thing!

Incredible as nature is, this has happened many times before, and may happen again. We can only hope that a new order may emerge from what is left and evolve to initiate another revolution of evolution around the axis of life itself.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

16. Matopos' Birth

I have not written about Matopos for a while - there were other things happening in my mind and heart. But I have been there many, many more times and have found myself thinking about the birth of Matopos. How was Matopos born? Did anyone witness that great event? It must have been a wild and torturous time for the earth to bring forth such a place, to nurse it through puberty and allow it to mature and cool down and settle here in the heart of Zimbabwe.

Of births, I have seen many. As a young child I sat watching my fathers fish tank, waiting the whole night for a guppy to give birth! (Yes, some fish do give birth to live fish/fingerlings.) I have disturbed many chickens, every few minutes, to see whether another chick has hatched. I even took an egg to school in my pocket once to make sure I didn't miss that wonderful moment when a wet lump of bloody down and pink flesh stands up to be a chick – proud and willing to take on the whole coops roosters! Similarly, I have watched and helped my dog, Tanya, give birth to a basketful of pups. I saw a giraffe being born once and even saw a shriveled little rhino taking its first steps in Zululand, still wet and unsure about this whole new world. I attended the births of two of my sonsmuch more dramatic and painful and filled with emotion, both of pain and suffering and ecstatic jubilance once we counted the toes and fingers and a nurse or pediatrician had given us the thumbs-up! 

All of these events have a component of time attached to them. For the rhino it must have been a long, long wait, while for Papas guppies it was almost as frequent as the lunar cycles but still, each time, caused a stir in the household. New life is precious. Always.

When I marvel over Matopos, I can only imagine the pain and suffering it required to bring a place like this into being. The clouds must have built up into a tremendous storm, with great winds sweeping the empty grassy plains, with not much to make a traveler pause his passage. Then, like the first cracks of my precious batch of ostrich eggs, but at a massive scale, the earth may have ruptured, and I imagine some watery, rich soils oozing from this first sign of new life. For days and days, like my baby ostrich, this new world may have been eking its way to the surface, slowly breaking through the inner layers of ancient earth forced from behind and below by the eagerness of lava desperate to reach the outside world; just like the first of Tanyas pups, always the strongest, most inquisitive and proudest of the litter. (I always cried when the first pup was sold!)

I imagine the earth opening and the first of Matoposs great and immense ghommos and dwalas emerging from the inner earth, wrapped in smoldering red blood that rolled off the sides into what we see today as the smaller boulders and rocks surrounding the base of these grandiose granite hills. Some would simply work their way out, sliding into a new place of existence with great ease and dignity, while the smaller ones would be voided into piles of rocks as if by some ghastly beast. Yet others would be flung by ancient pneumatic forces deep into the birth-night, brightening up the sky like fireworks announcing some great event. Cluttered rocks and the earth's rubble would be swept into unimaginable configurations in bursts of energy, anger and relief. The noise must have been incredible when the earth opened up and spat out Matopos. The whistling of earth's gaseous excrement must have pierced through the sky like a million steam trains, leaving great fires in their wake, ignited by sparks as rocks were hurled through the sky!

I would not be surprised if a few moons, smaller planets, meteors and other inquisitive extra terrestrial marvels came to witness it… because it must have been an event of great significance. It was certainly the birthplace of an international conservation significance! Perhaps the geomorphologists – physicists and geochemists or those who study the birth of geographic entities – may be able to put a time or period or even an epoch on this event, but I suspect it took a long, long time. It is, after all, a large place, perhaps not big in geological terms but, nevertheless, a milestone in the evolution of the earth.

Once those first cracks became evident the great herds most probably scattered, not to return for many, many generations. Or not until the place calmed down and it was cleaned up and sterilized like a theatre after the difficult birth of breached twins or a hasty caesarian to save the life of a newborn. Here the process had to take care of itself, over time. The universal healer, time. 

Last week a friend a pointed out an elephant shrew slowly making his way out into the last of the summer rays to heat himself before his rocky tavern cooled down. I can see in my mind how the larger herds, having not heard any further commotion beyond the horizon for many a decade, like our little shrew, slowly snuck back, like the animals of the veldt emerge after the thunder rolls away in the distance. They came back, followed by their hunters in little bands of prehistoric people who slowly wandered through this fledgling landscape like the first visitors to a newly-established museum. Here they settled, some demarcating their territories with song or dung piles, while our early brothers and sisters painted the inside of their caves with elegant figures of what they saw on the outside. The chaos subsided and Matopos grew into a boisterous infant, not unlike the clumsy pachyderms that frequent this place now, then into a young person blooming with her own young and fertile as the veldt itself. 

As is the way with nature, the landscape today resembles the peaceful scene I encountered one night when I could not resist the urge. I managed to sneak past a vigilant nurse, and took a glimpse of my tranquil wife nursing a newborn son. I remember the pain and angst of a new mother, but that scene of great tenderness, love, devotion and complete serenity will always persist. Like Matobo.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

15. Matobo Time

Please visit the The Arts in Focus to obtain information about our 2014 Matopos Calendar - 
an initiative supporting rhino conservation in Zimbabwe.

Matobo Time

We sat high above Matopos on the warm granite with the cool breeze in our faces when Emile asked me how long I am going to be. “A lifetime...,” I answered. 

I watched him for a little while as the wind played in his hair. “The lifetime of the bacteria decaying this dung beetle or the lifetime of the big guy down there?” he asks as he sits up and points with a piece of grass to a white rhino down below in the valley. In my mind’s eye I suddenly see this place in a different dimension. I see Matobo made up, constructed of time, the make-up of life itself. At the smaller lever I “see” mitochondria buzzing around in cells and cells dividing and things growing and happening relatively fast at a microscopic level, as I did as a young zoologist. At the other end of the scale, under my hand I rubbed the fine dust off the granite rock, also at a microscopic level but at a temporal scale even my relatively intelligent mind struggles to fathom.  I wonder how long that took. As I gazed over the landscape surrounding me, instinctively the scientist in me started to divide the world around me into discrete groups of individuals, events and processes based on the relevant timescale during which it happens or lives. 

When you consider the whole, the entire ecosystem, the time scale is millennia or eons, the longer yardsticks of time. However, when you break the system down into an array of increasingly smaller sub-systems, smaller and more precise units of time are required. You could measure the lifecycle of a rhino in years, while months are more appropriate to measure the gestation period of his equally obnoxious wife, but the passage rate of the grass through his digestive system is more appropriately measured in days. Fertilization of his calf took place within a few seconds while oxygen exchange in his enormous lungs is probably measured in smaller fractions of time. Many measures of time are appropriate to discuss the lifecycle of our rhino, but for others the entire process is over in a few seconds or even less. 

The shortest of events and lifetimes

A gust of wind may sweep across a field of grass and a million grasses are pollinated, just like that. End of story. A significant event that took a few fleeting seconds, but its impact will be prominent when a million grass seeds germinate in a few months time after the rains. Some critical events take place over a very short period of time. Raindrops fall, and the soil is instantly wet, just as the water was a fluid one moment and the next it's a gas.  Some smaller species complete an entire lifecycle in a few days. Some mysterious flowers only open to be pollinated at night, and then only for a few nights, and then its all over. Many of the smaller critters and plants typically only live for one season, then their duties as denizens of their world is complete. For them seconds and hours and days are far more relevant. Months are towards the outer extreme of time measurement for them.

Some lower organisms, live for only a very short periods of time, those single cell organisms and smaller invertebrates in ephemeral ponds transcend dry seasons as spores.  Similarly, some lower plants, some fungi live for very short periods of time, and are highly opportunistic in their approach to life. These shorter life cycles are controlled and affected by the duration of shorter environmental cycles, like day and night, the seasons with wet and dry cycles, cold and warm periods, and even the ratios between light and day. 

The annuals
Some plants and animals live according to very strict annual cycles. One year is the limit for them. Their life-cycles are punctuated by the seasons, normally starting with the rains and ending with the winter. Then there is a period of rest, the dormant stage. Annual plants transcend this period as seeds. The plant itself is no longer there, but many seeds remain behind to initiate new cycles of life. The animal equivalent to annuals are the many insect species who live for only short periods of time and survive the harsh period as eggs. Butterflies are the most typical of these. The eggs hatch in spring and the caterpillars eat their way to adulthood, go through their incredible metamorphosis and emerge as butterflies, painting the landscape in small sections from flower to flower.

For most of these smaller creatures, the annual cycle is all they will live through and experience. No memories of last year, or the year of great floods or the drought of 1982. They just have now, as there is no real past, apart from yesterday and last week and if they are really lucky last month. There also is no real future, no next year or ‘one day’. Perhaps they don't miss it because they don't have it. Perhaps now is enough.

Those who live a little longer
Others have a past and a future. I watch the young impala play, learning about their futures.Their lives are measured in years rather than months. Other processes within them are measured in shorter yardsticks. Their gestation period is 7 months. They are affected by the annual cycles, breed highly seasonally so all the lambs are born in a very short time. Like the life cycles of the short lived species of Matobo, their lives are hugely controlled by the seasons, breeding cycles, times of abundance and shortages,  but the adults cross over into the next season and the next. For them, there must be more of a sense of the past and the future. Hence, the learning as youngsters, butting heads and chasing each other in mock predator prey plays. 

The barrier from the one season to the next, in Matobo, is winter, the dry season. I often think, in terms of evolutionary jumps/progress, crossing that invisible barrier must have been a great challenge and achievement. There are many ways in which to cross that bridge between being one and being two years old! Some plants do it by going dormant in the harsh part of the year. Some trees loose their leaves and sit out the winter. They just hang in there, expending as little energy and resources as possible. Others, like many reptiles will eat as much as they can before the winter and then find a cosy place to hibernate, allowing their body temperatures to drop. They use as little energy as possible to stay alive and then emerge pretty lean when spring arrives. Others are simply big enough, mobile enough and store enough reserves to carry them through winter. These are often the warm blooded part of the family, those who can collect and burn energy to stay with us on the surface during winter. These guys can often live for many many years. Think rhino and elephant. The cold blooded strategy also works well for crocodiles and pythons and tortoises. They live long because they use their energy sparingly and add up the years that way. For them the lifespan yardstick is very long... decades.

Leaving individual lives behind...

There are other timescales that are also relevant. Those which goes beyond the scale of individual lives. When we think about how the whole of the system evolves and develops, it essentially operates at a time scale way beyond the relevant measures of the oldest of individuals. The growth of, and the interactions between individuals within populations, allows for individual species to evolve into functional groups of communities, whether they are antelope communities, grasslands, forests or wetlands. At this level, shorter processes and limited lifespans merge into one another and all fuse to produce larger infinite timescales. The shorter timescales are still important, but they have merged into one another and like the different pieces of a mosaic they loose their individual relevance when looked at from a distance. Similarly, at least in my mind the cyclic nature of the smaller time intervals merge into processes of extended duration, creating the larger infinite temporal landscape. 

This is the scale at which the larger environmental processes are important. Cycles of dry and wet periods follow on each other, the result being the specific dynamics of forests and grasslands competing for area, predators and prey oscillate in numbers as some species increase and others crash.  All of this contributes to the overall variability within the larger system. These are experiences individual short-lived individuals and annuals species will never know about.

We watch the sun rapidly falling from the sky, announcing the end of another day, and we are forced down the hill to get to our vehicle before darkness turns Matobo into a stage for the nocturnal critters to play their role.

Emile walks down in silence, guiding us, and I think about circadian rhythms. It is the pulse of life,  while lunar cycles pace out the months, adding up into years, and years becoming decades and decades accumulate into longer and longer time periods, making up time itself and we are in there somewhere.

Please visit the The Arts in Focus to obtain information about our 2014 Matopos Calendar - an initiative supporting rhino conservation in Zimbabwe.