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Safari metabolism

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Giraffe2.jpgTo research my fourth novel, I have been spending time on safari in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, where I can experience environmental conditions that approach those that prevailed in British East Africa of World War I.  I frequently stay in a small, thatched-roof, canvas-walled cottage on the banks of the Malewa River, where shy water buck, demure bush buck, aggressive buffalo and plucky warthog cross, from which zebra and impala drink, around which monkeys scamper, and out of which hippopotamus surface like submarines.

Sitting on the raised veranda of the cottage, I've learned much:
  • Animals, contrary to the notion I had - derived from high school reading about mythical Native Americans moving soundlessly through the forest - can make a lot of awkward crashing noise as they move through scrub and in their interactions with rivers.
  • On the other hand, I am continually amazed at how animals can be grazing or passing virtually next to me, and I wouldn't have noticed them had I not serendipitously turned my head or looked up from my book.
  • Animals are surprisingly often equally oblivious of my presence.  Don't they smell me?  Hear me creaking in my chair or walking in my cottage?  Apparently, they're used to a fair amount of awkward crashing noise and, as for smelling me, either they've all got sinus infections or the smell doesn't carry like I'd thought it would.
That said, I have noticed a marked increase in my "animal sighting quotient" since I've startedHippo2.jpg coming on safari regularly.  Over time, I've learned to spy dik-dik "hiding" in plain sight by standing motionless; to distinguish the loping gait of the jackal threading through dense bush; to recognize the difference between the sound of wind rustling trees and animals snapping branches.

Some of this increased sensitivity is the result of greater exposure; but some of it is attributable to a slowing down - of my movements, of my gaze, of my breathing.  When I go on safari, I find I'm downshifting gears biologically as much as mentally: I'm relaxing my city metabolism as much as letting go of my urban worries.

So I felt a frisson of recognition finding two descriptions of this phenomenon by women more experienced in it than I.  Here's Elspeth Huxley on the "Dr. Doo-little" personality:  

The senior warden of the Tsavo National Park, David Sheldrick, and his wife, share their house at Voi with a great many animals and birds.  Both Sheldricks belong to that small company born with an instinctive understanding of their fellow creatures and with the patience which goes with these queer, unsought talents.  Such individuals are gentle, quiet in motion, slow spoken, unassuming, in a sense absorbent; they have a tranquil, indrawn quality.  People who are taught, jerky, spark-like and aggressive seldom draw from an animal the trust and feeling of security it needs.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 135.

Now Karen Blixen, on the adjustment necessary to appreciate wilderness:

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements.  The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it.  No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal.  The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, p. 15.

To be honest, "slow spoken, unassuming . . . . tranquil [and ]indrawn" and having an "aptitude [for] stillness" aren't accurate descriptions of me yet.  But in the pleasure I experience from the emphatically non-urban thrills of the bush, I recognize in me "the ache for slow beauty/to save you from your quick, quick life," and I hope this means, as Kapka Kassabova promises in her poem "The Door," that I've reached age enough to have stopped "knocking on a door without a house."  The fourth book will tell.

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