Part two of a two-column series on a visit to Sri Lanka is up on 3QuarksDaily now. Read it there now, and I’ll post it here to CS&W next week.
For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:
The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.
Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.
Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.
ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:
“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.
Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”
Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”
Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.
The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.
Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.
The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.
At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.
Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.
Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.
Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.
The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.
The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.
Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.
The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.
But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.
Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.
In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.
An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.
We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.
It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.
Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.
Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.
We stop along the path.
“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”
With a hop, “Now the North American.”
Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.
Here is the earth pulling itself apart
Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.
Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.
A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING
“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.
Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”
In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.
The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.
Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.
Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.
The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.
Site of the Þingvellir
History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.
At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.
Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.
Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”
Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.
Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.
Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.
What to do?
Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”
Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.
Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.
In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.
I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:
Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.
The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.
Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.
Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.
Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.
Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.
Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.
Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.
The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.
Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
Some years ago:
“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”
Some days are more freighted than others, and today ranks low on the portent scale, for today our only mission is to photograph a laundrette.
Abidjan lies steaming at dawn. The business district they call Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare, not an elevated place of extended sight lines and bracing air. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense with eyes on the Atlantic Ocean along the west African Cote d’Ivoire.
A lead-footed swelter grinds down; the scent of ill will drifts close. When the sun takes hold and the work day begins, languor and sloth set the pace: commerce with little vigor, exertion with reluctance, the humdrum jostle of a poor city.
Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged-dressed foreign boys fanned out across Abidjan. Their mission: to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and set about sudsing, well before the sun would crest the hill.
Unlikely as it seems, determined young foreigners yearn and scramble for this work, here, where the future shines down bright as the equatorial sun. Here, take-home pay is more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. In the Ivorian laundry trade there is a trade union and there are union dues. You can be fired.
If young Burkinabé are determined to work, if they come and collect the sweat-caked shirts and socks, suds and pound them all on rocks, deliver them back and do it right, they’ll pocket a hundred bucks a week.
You can’t take pictures if you don’t go early. Too late and all you’ll see is clothes drying in the grass. This haste forces a rookie mistake.
New in town, brash, we bound straight out of bed traipsing, with not even a look in the mirror. Brush our teeth, put back on yesterday’s clothes, get a cab, no questions asked or answered, out and gone. With no counsel or good sense.
Cabs all fiery orange here, might be any kind of car. Open up and climb in. This one even has a meter. Just kind of sitting out there idling on the curb. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could we be his last fare of last night?
First, to find a common language: Shona speakers in Zimbabwe, Setswana speakers in Botswana, the Swahili-speaking Maasai, pretty much everybody will try – except French colonial officialdom, we noted at immigration, and, as we find out now, Ivorian cabbies. This will be done in either French, or French.
So we’ve got this guy right off the jump, off and rolling between buildings the sun hasn’t yet cleared. Angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hits stone we explain, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We point at a map but he’s already driving. He nods and says he’ll need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).
It takes important minutes to find out, but as it happens, this most uncheerful gentleman seized on the word Dabou, which is a town 37 kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast. Heard nothing before or after, and he is heading out of town fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was his home.
We work this out at the point when we can look forward and back and see nothing resembling a park to either cooking smoke-filled horizon, and hardly another car, besides.
We shake our heads, pose as forceful. He poses back wounded, as if he’s never heard of any Parc du Banco and relents to something we’re not asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, then, as we hurtle along the coast.
Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!
This pains him in a theatrical way, but we match his drama with scowls and when we get back to Abidjan, to the hotel where we started, we pay him for his trouble.
And so we do what we should have done in the first place – inquire at the man-cave of a front desk. There we find one gentleman getting a jump on his daily torpor in the dark toward the back. Pinched and full of regret, he will have to speak some English now, because it’s his job.
He sets us up with a guy named Simeon, a graying older chap, who drives for the hotel. He knows all about Parc du Banco, of course. It will take about an hour and he quotes 3500. Progress.
Simeon heads back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, there’s a big sign off to the right, “Tampon Express.” Maybe that means something else here?
Serried ranks of sellers are forming along the verge, rattling around staking out patches of gravel, setting up shop for another day of peddling folding fans and drinks and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust. We didn’t have much to do today, yet we fear we have already failed before 8:00 a.m., but Simeon makes a turn onto at a dirt track, motors over a hill and here we are.
The laundry has come back to life. Color returns with the sun. The birds have been here all along. A pretty wildflower. Butterflies. Gnats en pirouette in a random shaft of sunbeam. Close to the water like this, it’s an agreeable time of the morning, heat not stifling, sweat yet to incite insects.
You can smell the mud from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At this remove, the rush of current makes a jumble of the many dozen voices.
The river brims with industry and purpose, spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, have spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers and haulers and folders and food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.
Shirtless men hoist bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reach higher than they can stretch their arms. Women scrub shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move just far enough out so there is no silt. Boom boxes blast soukous pop. Freshly washed garments hang across half submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, hold laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them.
I cannot see around a crook in the river but I wonder if there is a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway pair of socks or bar of soap.
Every last soul is soaking wet, splashing and singing, and two more boys take the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market has spontaneously lit up alongside. Baguettes and nuts are on offer for now, and more women approach crowned with fruit.
A blond girl and a white guy, the only non-Africans in the park. About as likely as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We draw a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.
(Back then, which was in the days of guidebooks, they wrote things like “anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk,” meaning if you are not African and you are carrying something, you probably won’t have it by the end of the day.)
We climb out and walk to the crest of the hill. Simeon, God bless him, puts on a hangdog look and trails us. The first wave of challengers is just curious kids. The second we stymie by saying in English, really fast, things like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t speak to you and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Vietnam.”
They are bewildered but they won’t be put off for long. We understand Simeon explaining in French that we don’t know any. They counter with a menacing Anglophone, brawny and imposing.
He proposes that we have no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explain that when he shows me his badge that says tourist police we can talk, while I snap more photos.
For a moment he is befuddled and scowls, “You want to see my badge?”
Simeon comes up close to stand with us, his expression like he has just found a sore inside his mouth. We hold the high ground there on the hill for a few more minutes, under siege, then retreat before pushing too hard on our luck. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one.
Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?
Here are several written and spoken excerpts.
Get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:
The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is under repairs in Capetown, South Africa. For a normal ship that wouldn’t generate any headlines. But the RMS St. Helena serves as a literal lifeline and the only means of transportation for the inhabitants of St. Helena Island, a speck of land way out in the South Atlantic ocean. This document, attempting to address questions from stranded and potential passengers and businesses, shows the RMS St. Helena’s importance to St. Helena Island and also to Ascension Island, where the RMS usually calls on it’s regular itinerary. It’s interesting to follow this link and read about the trouble caused by the possible dry-docking of the Royal Mail Ship.
You can feel the remoteness of these places when you take the three day journey out from the African mainland to St. Helena and the overnight journey onward to Ascension. But that just became way more immediate for the unfortunate subject of an article headlined British woman mauled by shark near Ascension Island saved after husband punched it. The only way off Ascension Island is the RMS St. Helena or via the British Ministry of Defense’s “airbridge,” used to shuttle troops between the Falkland Islands, the military base at Ascension and the Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. The airbridge, it turns out to the ill fortune of our shark attack victim, is temporarily not calling at Ascension either, as you can see from the question and answer sheet.
As a result,
the family found themselves “pretty stuck” by travel chaos across the South Atlantic.
St Helena’s airport, built with the help of £285 million from the Department of International Development, was due to open last May but flights have been postponed indefinitely as it is too windy for commercial aircraft to land safely.
As a result, people normally get the island’s ageing supply ship, the RMS St Helena, to Ascension Island, but it broke down near South Africa in late March and it remains there having repairs to its propellor.
Furthermore, flights have stopped touching down on the military runway on Ascension for safety reasons, reportedly because of cracks in the runway.
Friends and others I talked with here felt gently optimistic about the prospects for Remain this time yesterday. Even as British TV coverage started up at 10:00 last night, BBC1 entered the fray with a wink and a nudge, ‘we think we’ve got this remain thing in the bag’ kind of undertone.
The Brexit vote saw the highest UK-wide turnout of the past two decades and the people we know told us just about all their friends and most of the people they know favored Remain, convincing them that the Leave camp was, as was the popular view, made up mostly of older people who remembered a ‘good old days’ that never existed.
The solid Leave result reinforces a couple of ideas.
First, it adds weight to the emerging consensus that in today’s atomized, web-driven information seeking, we really do get information that tends to reinforce our beliefs. It was obvious to my entire cadre that the only correct-thinking way to vote was Remain, but we only turned up with 48 per cent of the vote.
Second, this is a real and tenacious revolution against the establishment that may well spread across west. Just yesterday we were joking that with a leave vote the U.K. could have the honor of kicking off Donald Tusk’s ‘end of western civilization,’ which could then be followed by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, the end of the EU and shortly after surely the apocalypse. Yesterday, that was a joke.
Will the EU or the UK be the first to pull apart? As to the UK, politicians were staking out their positions before the last votes were counted. Here is Nicola Sturgeon on the Scottish vote: “Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain in the EU, and I welcome that endorsement of our European status.”
And from Wales, Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood: “With Scotland voting to remain and a second independence referendum now on the cards, it is clear that the UK cannot continue in its current form. Wales, its economy and its communities will soon be at the full mercy of the Westminster elite and robust action must be taken to mitigate the impact of this.”
The centrifuge spins within the parties too. Labour’s leader is widely derided and it was the Tories’ slow motion disintegration kicked the whole thing off in the first place. The Prime Minister has resigned, not so much the honorable choice as the only one after driving the bus over the cliff.
It’s the 10:00 hour on the morning after and London has awoken to market shock, reassurances from the central bank and, as from one of my friends, “I despair! I really fear for the future of my children and their generation.”
Let’s hold that thought for now. I’m going to wander down to Westminster and see what I can see.
My last African visit set me thinking about humans’ and animals’ place in the world. This is an early bit from my upcoming book on travel in Africa, due in early 2017.
During Europeans’ first blunderbuss intrusions onto the African continent they denigrated the natives and abused wildlife. With the human superiority we’ve all been taught most of us still fail to consider the astonishing abilities other living things have.
Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, gives some examples:
- Bacteria compare sugars, a food source, and move toward higher concentrations using a flagellum, a microscopic tentacle, to propel themselves.
- The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
- Honeybees, on finding a food source, perform a “waggle dance” to give directions to other bees.
- Rats seem capable of creating maps, triangulating through their environment. Certain cells fire corresponding to points on a grid, others fire according to the direction the rat is facing and then a third neuron fires as a rat moves through an area it recognizes.
- Albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds seem to sniff their way across oceans to return to the obscure rock they call home.
- Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
- And most remarkably to me, green turtles seem to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. We will talk about a magical night we spent with egg-laying turtles on Ascension Island later in the book.
“Cogito ergo sum,” declared Rene Descartes, and that was that. “I think, therefore I am.”
Those three Latin words made the French philosopher sound so smart that the term Cartesian Logic has survived him by 400 years. But Descartes also thought language was a requirement for thought.
He wrote, “There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)”
Cogito ergo sum for humans but not for animals.
That is not so smart.
In 1967 Thomas Struhsaker, then of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that vervet monkeys have different calls with different meanings for different situations. In Stanford University professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky’s example, they use different sounds to mean “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.”
Carl Safina has written a beautiful book called Beyond Words, exploring what animals think and feel. In it he writes that the vervets of Amboseli park have words for leopard, eagle, snake, baboon, other predatory mammal and unfamiliar human, among others.
Safina wonders why “… we maintain a certain insecure insistence that ‘animals’ are not like us – though we are animals.” When researchers played a recording of a family or bond group member,” Safina says, “elephants would return the call and move to the sound, but when they heard the recorded sound of strangers they “bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.” He thinks “Each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population.”
To biologist and author E. O. Wilson, “The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.”
If the mind evolved as an instrument of survival for humans why would evolution be different for animals? Why are chattering baboons not expressing fear of the lion down below as a way to further their survival? Why is not the entwining of elephant trunks expressive of the emotions involved in friendship?
We say that humans have the capability for “complex symbolic thought … because showing … concern for the dead reveals the value placed on social-group members, as well as the cognitive ability to represent group members even after they have died.”
Elephants, too, have been seen to bury their dead. There are stories of elephants standing vigil over their dead mates, kicking and prodding them as if trying to bring them back to life, as if they wish their mates to hold on to life no less than humans.
To Safina beliefs like heaven, hell and reincarnation are “devices for keeping the deceased undead. The main thing humans seem to believe about death is: you never really die.”
Safina intuits some things backed up by research.
Natalie Emmons, a researcher at Boston University, writes that it appears people everywhere view death as a transition:
“belief in eternal life goes back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest documented evidence shows that modern humans were intentionally burying their dead with animal bones and shell beads in the caves of ancient Israel 100,000 years ago.
To which physicist Alan Lightman says,
“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”
In The Old Way, A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas considers where humans rank in the elemental hierarchy of protecting oneself in the animal world. “Our fists and feet are too soft to deliver meaningful blows, we have no claws, and over time our teeth have become too small to act as a deterrent.”
Safina seconds the notion. “Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization.” Meanwhile, “Many animals are superhumanly alert.”
The poet Amit Majmudar writes that “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”
He hopes the time comes when we no longer regard animals as “inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.”
Photos from EarthPhotos.com.
My two previous books are:
Science asserts that humans have the capability for complex symbolic thought because showing concern for the dead reveals the cognitive ability to represent group members after they have died. Elephants are also known to bury their dead. They have this same cognitive ability.
The Maasai believe that only elephants and humans have souls. And souls or no souls, just look at these two. Smiling, caressing, these two are clearly pals.
Here is a bit of my eventual book on travel in Africa. Aubrey is the English name of a guide who helped show us Zambia.
Photo: On safari in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Aubrey grows melancholy by the campfire. The lantern casts an unsure light and a rich Milky Way splays out overhead. Aubrey once had three sisters and three brothers. Now he’s the head of the family.
He has one sister, and more matter-of-factly than I think I would, he says the others died of “natural causes.” He sits motionless, staring into the fire and his past, and then he turns to us.
His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home. A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.
“This is African life.”
HIV? He just shakes his head. He has grown concave with gloom.
The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard, about maize and making ends meet:
A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag of maize, with head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag unsuspecting, thinking it’s part of the harvest.
A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up son in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.
Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe.
He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens as he does. It’s hard to understand it all, but the outline is that, according to a Zambian folk practice, a log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.
The prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed.
The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.
In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day, with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back.
“I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.