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May 2017

June 2017

Fireflies

Fireflies-1500x1000When I was a child and catching lightning bugs in my backyard, I had no idea why they lit the sky. My sisters and I and friends ran through the yard, pouring them into clear Mason jars with holes punched by an ice pick in the tops for ventilation. Now I know that their bioluminescence was all about love or, at least, finding a mate. With their on again-off again lights they were saying I - am - avail - able, I - am - avail - able. I’m glad I didn’t know that then, as I was at the age that such a notion would have been distasteful. We just loved their light; ephemeral though it was, it was a child’s strobe, a pre-bedtime light show. Once, I even kept a jar of them by the bed, a night light companion.

There are 2000 species of fireflies, and new ones are still being discovered. What imagination God must have had, and what time, to think up 2000 different kinds of fireflies what with everything else he had to do at Creation. In some species, both male and female fly; in others, the females stay home and keep house. Females and males look alike, for the most part, only females have compound eyes. Maybe that’s like Bette Davis eyes. They see more than the weak-eyed males, detect motion better. So, if the male is slippin’ off to a night rendezvous with Zsa-Zsa, Mom knows and there will be fire when he comes home.

In some places in the world there are times when thousands of fireflies blink in unison, like a light-choir. These events are the kinds of things that entomologists lie awake thinking about at night and wait for with expectation. My college friend Terry, an aged grad student when I was a freshman, used to bend my ear about insects whenever he could. He would sidle over to a group of students, an intense look in his eyes, and then began to regale them with interesting happenings in the insect world. No matter what the topic of conversation he would eventually connect it to the insect world. I thought he was weird, but now I understand: he had a passion. And he was wierd.

Sadly, some fireflies are not the brightest bulb in the pack. I found one on my windowsill this morning when I drew the shade, dead. I can only imagine the effort it took to burrow under the sill and into the room, only to find nothing but a snoring human being and a traditionally built cat, asleep. I - am - avail. . . oh what’s the use, he probably said, and lay down and died. Later, in my study, same thing: firefly, prone on the floor, expired. I’m going to post a sign on my window: “NO MATING HERE - TURN BACK NOW.” Yet they are likely illiterate, and lonely, and can’t help themselves, like moths to the flame.

Like everywhere else in nature writing, there is a narrative of loss. Fireflies are disappearing, it is said, and human beings are to blame. They say its development and light pollution. I read that synchronous fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car's headlights pass. They lose the beat. But I’m not a scientist, just a memoirist. I think about those summer nights, catching fireflies, carrying blinking mason-jar lanterns around the yard, and I don’t think I’m to blame for this ecological problem: I let them all go at the end of the night. Promise.

I laid the body of the expired lighting bug on the sill outside of my window. There, his blinking friends can pay their respects as I did mine, in memory and hope. With thanks to the God of small things.


Fargoan

IMG_1050"We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God who created it and runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God." (J.I. Packer)

For the last four days I have walked the sidewalk between my downtown hotel and work, past a plaza peopled by a handful of homeless men, one block down Broadway with the Fargo theater behind me. But yesterday, about seven in the evening, I had had enough of this circumscribed world, having seen all I could by walking. I rented a bicycle. I settled into the seat and cruised helmutless and tentatively toward the river, detouring through parking lots, around construction, navigating broken pavement, until I reached the Red River banks. I followed the greenway south, upstream, and crossed over a bridge into Moorhead, into Minnesota, my wheels singing, the river on my right.

I don't know anyone here and yet for an hour I pretend that I live here, a Fargoan squeezing all the life I can out of the warm and breezy day, from sunup at five to sundown at ten, a respite from the long, frigid winter. There is a family on the path, and I timidly ring my bell as I pass, nod to them. College students lounge languidly on rocks near the rapids. A woman, then a man, run alone. One young man yells at me from a pontoon boat he shares with some friends. "What's up," he says. I wave. Fellow Minnesotan, I think. Dakotan. High plains drifter. I'm just moving in the elements, a Fargoan, I want to say, yet I don't. My accent would betray me.

Flying in a few days ago, North Dakota spread like a earthen tapestry before me, a succession of green fields, plowed fields, fallow fields, farmhouses hemmed by stitched trees to break the wind, the roads at right angles. Yet my eyes were drawn to the river, a serpentine ribbon of green, a scribbled line of watery life on an engineer's grid, a reminder that God makes his way in crookedness, doubling back on Himself, meandering here and there, yet always, always, going to the sea.

Packer, a man closer to God now than he is to earth, goes on to say that "[w]hen we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings." Grim travelers. No direction home. Like rolling stones. I think about that now as I hum along, about rocks and gray water and rabbits crossing the path and squirrels twittering up branches and people walking blindfolded along a river, disconnected dots in a landscape of loss, and I utter a few words of thanksgiving that my eyes are open and I have a map of sorts even if I do run up to its unfolded edge time and time again. A lamp unto my feet.

Reluctantly, I turn back and retrace my route. Huffing up the ever so slight incline from the river to downtown, a young boy on a bike hails me from the sidewalk.

"Hey, you wanna race?"

I don't want to race.

"Aw, I gotta sissy bike," I say.

"Come on." He looks so hopeful.

"Ok. To the corner. Go!"

I let him win. At the corner, he turns back, smiling, whooping, the old man beat.


IMG_1068When I finally make it back to the kiosk where I need to turn my bike in, I have seven minutes left on my time. I want to use it up, so I ride down Broadway, clattering over the train tracks. I stop and look both ways down the track, because the infinity of tracks is irresistible. Nothing. Then, about a block down, I turn, my time running. I have two minutes. I'll just make it. I feel smug in my frugality. But no, just as I reach the tracks, the gates close, the crossing bells clang, and a great locomotive roars past dragging freight, grain and fertilizer and lumber, a great elongated behemoth bullying its way across the plains. The delay cost me another four dollars, but the show was worth it. Multi-colored, graffiti-splashed freight cars rumbled past, the peeks of Broadway through their couplings like camera shots, click-click-click.

I had dinner at 9:00 at the Vinyl Taco, where everyone there was younger than me. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress" was playing, and I smiled to myself in my darkened corner booth. I bought the album when it was released, could picture its gatefold art even now, and yet not a single person in this restaurant was born when I bought it. Not a single one. I consider asking the server what year she was born, but I hesitate. It could not have been before 1990, a year it seems odd to even type, and what would be the point? History is not much-loved.

About 10:00, sundown in Fargo, I sat eating ice cream at Insomnia Cookie. The extended daylight is beguiling, and so I couldn't bring myself to give up the day yet.

"Where you from? You're not from here, are you?" A man seated with his preteen son engaged me.

"How'd you guess?" The accent. Of course.

While we finished off our ice cream, I learned a lot about Joe Antinopolous, a true Fargoan.

"Fargo's a good place to raise a family. You still feel like you can leave your doors unlocked and not worry about anything."

I told him I was visiting for work, doing a peer review of an office like the one in which I worked, and I told him who was in charge of the office.

"Oh yeah," he said. "He's my neighbor. He and my son are in school together."

Of course they are.


IMG_1070Walking back to my hotel that evening, I thought about what Packer said, about how not knowing God we stumble about blindly. We need a map of the world, a compass, a way to connect all the disparate points of light and darkness. I thought also about an article I read earlier that week, a series of journal entries by a man walking in his neighborhood. Trying to come to grips with various tragedies in the world and their victims, he wonders, "What are the continuities between them, and between them and me?" He has no answer.

Walking back to the hotel with Angela, a co-worker, earlier that day, she told me that her only son, who was 32, had been shot four years previously by some kind of white supremacist. "He was nearly perfect," she said. "I still feel like he's near."

I said, "Scripture says 'God is near to the broken-hearted,' and if He is near but unseen, then perhaps your son really is near."

The Fargoan t-shirt I saw was more right than its designers knew: "Fargo, North of Normal," is supposed to be a nod to the quirkiness of this place. And yet all is abnormal. All is broken and seemingly random. People wander the world and try to find some continuity, some thread of meaning.

And yet there is a map of the world. With it you can can start anywhere and find your way home. Even in Fargo.


The Walking Stick

IMG_0941Our very competent guide, Katembo, has a walking stick this morning, that is, a firearm. It is required that he carry it for our walk In the Okavanga Delta, along with a cache of large round-tipped bullets, golden and standing at attention on his belt. In his commanding way, in his khakis and safari uniform, I imagine him a soldier in a previous life, though I do not know this. I know only that if he told me to drop to the ground, I would do so without hesitation.

Katembo is outfitted this way with a stick for walking because, after a morning game drive in the chill air, we took a one-hour walk in the savannah, sometimes on a road, sometimes bending off-road. Tall grass pressed in upon us, swished by our feet, the Kalahari sand kicked up by every footfall. Silence settled on us like mist in the fields of a new morning. We did not speak, by choice, so as to better listen. My mildly labored breathing mixed with the occasional sounds of impala warnings, with the constant rise and fall of the wind.

Topping a large termite mound, Katembo explained how the mound was the beginning of an island in the Delta, like the many we saw on our flight overhead a couple days ago, when we buzzed the bush airstrip to clear it of animals. The termites build the island up from sand mixed with their saliva, and then birds come and leave drippings that contain undigested seeds, and when the flood comes and washes it down, the seeds are dispersed and are the beginning of trees that will anchor this built up piece of ground, making an island. Land, from spit and sand and seed.

Later Katembo picked up a creeper vine, a long pliable grass, and showed how it could function as a jump rope. (I smiled thinking of Katembo at the age of ten, jumping rope, a miniature khaki-clad version of himself.) More practically, people used the vine to tie firewood together that they would then carry on their heads like everything else. Im my time in Africa I have seen the stout heads of Africans carry bananas, laundry, water, mattresses, furniture, and even, sadly, a tiny coffin.

Seeing an elephant in the distance busily chomping way on vegetation, we bent right, giving him a wide berth. He might like others shake his head in annoyance at us, or trumpet at us, or make a false but frightening charge. This is their home that we are visiting.

After walking, Equator took us on a boat ride through the channels of the delta, weaving in an out of the papyrus grass which floats on the water, rising and falling as it rises and falls. Elephants like the roots of the plant. They pull them up and slosh them back and forth in the water to shake loose the dirt and then stuff them in their large mouths. We had tea on board, under the partial shade of papyrus grass.

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Katembo stops the Landcruiser. "I need to check the tires," he says, as he steps out. This is code for "I drank too much tea and need to use the facilities (such as they are.)". We are on our way out of Moremi, en route to the airstrip, on our way over to the Okavango Delta and our new (and sadly, last) camp. Even en route, we are chasing the elusive leopard, who has left prints everywhere and yet remains unseen.


IMG_1017In Moremi we were reminded again of the wonderfully balanced but fallen nature of Creation. We saw an injured male lion, alone, and realized that his days were numbered, as he could no longer hunt. And then there was the bird with a broken wing. It is enough to bring tears. To say dismissively that it is the “survival of the fittest” is no comfort and deeply unsatisfying. We long for a time when the lion lays down with the lamb, when the need to kill ends, when nature is no longer tooth and claw.

At Moremi, I needed to charge my iPad battery, so I went into the staff area. The five young men who take care of us were there. The chef, Boeno, was cutting vegetables. Another was in the scullery, washing dishes from our lunch. All were at work. Boeno told me that they work together as a team. They all set up and take down camp together, but in between they each have their jobs. "He is a better chef than me," said Boeno, pointing to a smiling, larger man. He was pleased to give me a tour of his kitchen. He told me that he enjoyed his work, that he trained in a chef school in Maun, and that he stays busy in camp about ten months of the year, going home in Summer (December and January). They are hard-working and hospitable, funny, and kind. The chef announces the menu each evening and then after dinner may tell us a riddle.

One young man told us how he likes to sleep on a mat outside under the stars, with just a blanket. "Aren't you afraid of the bugs and mice and snakes that may crawl on you," asks my wife, sensibly. He smiles and shakes his head no, and then proceeds to tell us about sleeping with his brother once when he was ten and a black mamba crawled between them. "God was protecting you," she said. "Yes,” he nodded.

We flew from Moremi in a Cessna Caravan, up over the Okavango Delta, which spread out like a lush fan of green before us, water punctuated by marsh, with trees growing on intermittent higher ground. The flight was only 30 minutes, if that, and then our drive no more than that again. Our campsite sits on the edge of a broad marsh, our lunch table set under a chandelier that hangs from a tree branch.

On tonight’s game drive there was a huge surprise. We came upon a baby leopard alone out in the high grass, completely unafraid of us. As we watched her mill about and move around, two hyenas, one a mother and another a child, approached. The leopard spotted them. There was chase. The leopard bounded over the grass and went up a tree, not more than ten feet ahead of the hyena. The hyenas milled about and finally settled in the grass, patient as they waited. The leopard would be no match for them. After a while it came down, made its way to another tree, and climbed it. The hyenas followed, again settling in the tall grass. Then, the leopard moved again, finding her mother on another tree. They were together again, yet the hyenas followed. They are patient and opportunistic. The mother leopard likely has hunted and killed, but the hyenas may seek to take the carcass from her.

It was an extraordinary close to the evening, a rollicking journey off-road, a fine welcome to the Okavango Delta, with a beautiful sunset as well. Dinner was by a roaring fire, under a chandelier of lanterns, a fine finale to a beautiful day.

"I have to smell the flowers," says Katimbo as he once again exits the Landcruiser. Ah yes, so do we.

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I have been making lists. One list is that of all the birds and other animals we have seen in Zimbabwe and Botswana. These include:


IMG_0779African Elephant
Monkey Fingers (red fruit of tree that can be sweet and is edible; Trymore likes it very much)
Teak (trees used for lumber to build Cape to Cairo railroad)
Zebra
Warthog
Roller bird
Giant Eagle Owl
Red-Billed Horn Bill
Giraffe
Impala
Versus Monkey
Scorpion (in our room at Matetsi!)
Mouse (ate its way into and out of my wife’s knitting)
Gray Go-Away Bird
African Tawny Eagle
Weaver birds
Wild Basil (smells like Vapo-Rub when crushed; tells you when someone is following you)
Cape Buffalo
Comorant
Kingfisher
Fish Eagle
African Darter
Egyptian Geese
Baboons
Crocodile
Hippopotamus
Lilac-Breasted Roller (four color, and "rolls in display")
Grey Heron
Great White Egret
Sherry Goose
Malachi Kingfisher
Guinea Fowl
Magpie
Black-Back Jackal
Malibu Stork
Bateleur Eagle
Yellow-Billed White Stork
Kori Bustard
Lapwing
Water Dikkop
Roadrunner
Blue Waxbill
Water Monitor Lizard
Hammerkop
Banded Mongoose
Cobra
Kudu
Crown Shrike
Wild Dog
Cheetah
Burchell's Sand Grouse. 50
Swamp Booboo Bird
Waddled Crane (endangered)
Painted Reed Frog ("They need to get back to their reading," says says my son, about their very loud welcome)
Leopard
Cheetah
Bush baby

Another list is that of quotes, spontaneous utterances that seemed memorable:

"Where else am I going to order Stenbock?" (My daughter, ordering venison at our hotel in Johannesburg, SA)

"Nature is so very organized." (Vusa, our guide, at Matetsi River Lodge, Zimbabwe)

"It is good to see a family praying together." (Keith, a staff member, at Matetsi River Lodge, just before throwing rocks to chase baboons away from our breakfast)

"I will be your passport." (Peace, our guide and driver to Victoria Falls, when I asked if we needed our passports)

"He is reading the newspaper." (Vusa, on what Trymore, our tracker, is doing on our game drive)

"See, toasty elephant muffins" (Kenny, about the elephant poo in the water around our boat)

There is another list, a short one, that has all the experiences to be avoided on safari. One has to do with spiders. Compared to that one, the others are insignificant, so I omit them. Only, don’t take the mokoro boat ride.

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I awoke at 5:30 one morning to a scratching on the tent flap behind my head. Mice. As elephants are really afraid of mice, I thank them. We have had several up close and personal encounters with elephants, false charges with trunks lifted, bellowing a warning, and so though we love to see them we are cautious.

Our day begins with a 6:00 am wake up greeting from Katembo and the sound of our butler pouring warm water into our wash basin. I sit up. I gather my toothpaste and brush. Unzip tent flap. Rezip. Brush in the cold air by the light of a dim battery-powered lantern. Throw water on my face to wash sleep from my eyes. Unzip. Rezip. It is still dark, and by flashlight I dress and shave.

Unzip. Zip. These two steps are important, as we have heard the story of the family who did not do this, only to find their baby carried off and dropped by a hyena. Or the hyena that drug a blanket outside the tent, to be discovered the next morning by an awakened camper. We have had a pride of lions skirt our camp, elephants chomping grass nearby, and we know from tracks that the lions have visited us at night, while we are sleeping, perhaps peering into our tents and smelling our foreign presence.

Breakfast is taken together, around a table, our chef standing by the serving table. I drink Rovos or Five Roses tea, sweet, with milk, have cereal, melon or banana, toast, and, sometimes, eggs and bacon. And then, Katembo is ready. We gather our cameras and jackets and board the Landcruiser, an amazing vehicle that is part boat, pushing through three foot high marsh grass and water, through what surely must swamp our vehicle. But it does not.

We skirt the marshlands for about three hours and then stop for tea on a marsh-side clearing, arriving just in time to see three hippos, on land, running for the water, then submerging. Katembo sets up the table, arranges the tea, and asks for orders. I have tea again. It is what we do here. The chef has prepared fresh coconut muffins for us. I have one and one-half muffins. After tea, everything is returned to the vehicle and we set off again, until noon, through higher land this time. We see a hyena, elephants (very near the road), and some new birds. Unfailingly, I grow sleepy at some point (we all do) and my eyes blinker shut behind my sunglasses. Asleep on safari in Botswana.

Lunch is delicious. The chef read my mind! On the game drive I turned to my son and said, "I love all this food, but what I really want right now is pizza." For lunch, pizza. Three kinds. And another favorite: a salad of cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. There are cucumbers in a yogurt sauce, homemade garlic bread, and, what else, tea.

After lunch I took an open air (but enclosed) shower in the room back of our tent and, dried, unzipped and re-zipped the tent flap (remembering the baby carried off by a hyena). I took razors to recharge at the vehicle parked in the staff area of the site, and the chef invited me into his open air kitchen. There were large blacks pots over fire, a Dutch oven, and a table on which he was cutting vegetables, preparing for dinner. Open before him on the table is a notebook of recipes. "You can copy it," he said. I said I would send my son, the chef.

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IMG_0825After dinner, I lay in bed listening to the sounds of the animals, from the scurrying of lizards on the tent flaps to the hippo grunts to the growl of the lions nearby. There is no light but starlight and moonlight on this last night in Botswana, no sounds but those of the animals that live here.

Then, I hear the engine of the Landcruiser turn over. Katembo is returning his walking stick to the lodge. He drives away alone into the darkness.