Wednesday
Apr032013

"Listen!"

"Let’s go listen to the Great Nothing,” our guide suggested on one of the last evenings of our recent trip to Botswana.

We were in the Makgadikgadi, a place roughly the size of Switzerland and largely uninhabited by humans except on its fringes. Located in the middle of dry savannah adjoining the Kalahari Desert, the Makgadikgadi is the remnant of an extinct super lake that at 100 feet deep and nearly 31,000 square miles, once covered much of Botswana before evaporating millennia ago. Most notably, the Makgadikgadi is known by its series of salt pans, some of which are immense – the largest is 1,900 square miles. Deeper into one of these large, stark and flat, mostly waterless and extremely arid pans is where we were headed.

Of such large pans, someone once said, “you can drive at great speed and arrive nowhere.” And indeed, once we’d left behind the small green oasis of our tented camp set within fan-shaped palms and camel thorn acacia, bumped our way along the sandy ruts through a short stretch of scrubland and out past fewer and fewer patches of grassland, we sped along in our open-sided Cruiser on a salt-encrusted surface as flat as a billiard table and stretching as far as the eye could see. When at last we stopped, it seemed we had indeed arrived nowhere.

Here was a landscape unlike any I’d ever been in – the antithesis of our Maine island home or my native Midwestern Chicago. Getting down from the truck on a dry hard-packed surface that crunched beneath my feet but revealed little footprint evidence, I did a 360. Everywhere I turned, the pan stretched, endlessly it seemed, to the horizon. In all directions, it was possible to see the earth’s curvature.

I felt as if I were standing atop an enormous, overturned shallow bowl. Here, tone-on-tone minimalism had been vaulted to a whole new level. Within this vast space, there were no outcroppings, grasses, trees. Nothing hinted at sticks and thatch, much less mortar and bricks. I heard no birds, saw no critters. Oh, I knew that somewhere on the pans, unusual creatures who’d adapted to unimaginably harsh conditions somehow survived, and that after the brief rains, migrant zebras, sometimes in the thousands, trekked toward places where the pans briefly filled and grasses temporarily flourished. And that, seasonally, in years of good rains (which this was not), flamingoes in great numbers flocked to certain pans where for a time crustaceans hatched and algae bloomed. I knew, too, that separating some pans were desert patches where saline-resistant prickly salt grass thrived, and, improbably, magical-looking Baobab trees, the “upside down trees” with root-like branches and massive pulpy fibre trunks that could live for a thousand years. But in the “nowhere” to which we’d arrived, none of this was in evidence. It was as if we’d been transported to a separate universe.

Before me, the vast pan gleamed. Behind me, as I faced the lowering sun, my shadow cut dark and deep. We’d arrived in the “golden hour.” In the day’s last light that photographers and painters crave. We’d arrived, to quote poet Tony Hoagland in “Summer Dusk,” in the “hour of the evening with a little infinity inside….”

I began to walk in the direction of the soon-to-set sun. And now what struck me were not the visuals. As I moved away from the vehicle and my companions, I became acutely aware of sounds. Just my feet crunching the surface, my camera strap brushing against my side, a gentle wind blowing past my face and ears. I walked on further until the soft murmur of voices was no longer audible and the Cruiser had become a small, dark bump silhouetted against the horizon behind me. I felt compelled to walk even further, as though I were being pulled into the immensity, a feeling not of being swallowed up by the vastness but welcomed.

Finally, I dropped down and sat cross-legged on the pan’s crusty surface. The sky was starting to pull the curtain back on its nightly spectacle, rimming the curved horizon line with dusky rose, but it seemed the most natural thing to do was close my eyes. Now, I could better absorb what was palpable, what was extending beyond my brain’s synapsis-pinging recognition of it into something tangible, almost  physical. It was the absence of sound. Or, rather, the presence of silence.

I’d come out to the Great Nothing and found a Great Something.

The deep quiet I was experiencing on the pans so exceeded any I often and desperately crave and willfully seek in a world increasingly amped up, cranked up and plugged in. Where an overload of noise, whether imposed upon us or self-induced, shuts out quiet, often at great costs to our ears and psyches.

Some linguists believe our oldest word is hist – “Listen!” Indeed, I'd been reminded a  few times on our trip – usually as night descended – that hearing evolved as a warning system, to alert us 24 hours a day to what is afoot. How, for example, when a lioness is on the prowl, other animals and birds, even insects, cease their cheep and chuff and become silent so as to better listen. Our human ears take note of such cessation, too, whether we’re atop the Cruiser or in a suddenly flimsy-seeming canvas-walled tent. Is it any surprise that it seems quite natural and automatic for us humans to take joy, even comfort, in dawn’s reassuring symphony of birdsong or the raucous chorus of frogs in the dark? Perhaps our response to such clamor is automatic, a welcome relief that harkens back to our wary “animal selves.”

Out on the pan, I listened. The wind, the occasional crunch of my feet against the crusty surface whenever I shifted my weight – these were the only sounds discernible to my ears. Yet such absence did not feel like emptiness, a vacuum or void. Rather, it brimmed. With what, I can’t say. Maybe the rarity of it. To be in a place that though vast and open held such deep quiet. And held time, too. Not stilled time, nor, merely, its passage. But the presence of time undisturbed.

In the Makgadikgadi, the evidence of prehistoric man is abundant. Stone tools date earlier than the era of homo sapiens. Many experts believe our ancestors from which we all derive lived here. Thus, some say, coming to Makgadikgadi is not an arrival. It’s a return. A return to our ancestral home. And to a wind-sweeping-the-pan-silence in which reside sounds that my original brothers and sisters, and others since, could better detect and decipher. The evidence may be absolute that my ancestors dwelled here, rose up on their legs to look and listen. But who can say if, like me – or shall I say how many like me—sat cross-legged and puzzled over the silence, not, simply, its rarity, but what in it spoke of infinitude? And possibly resembled the original silence out of which the world arose?

Opening my eyes, I saw the “golden hour” was long past. The sun, a gold lozenge, was about to slip behind the horizon. It was time to head back. I stood, turned toward the Cruiser, and slowly crunched my way toward it. As I got closer, I could see that the wine had already been opened in our traditional “sundowner.” A few glasses were being raised in a toast. Voices drifted across the pan, the reassuring murmur of engaged conversation in which the welcome sound of laughter occasionally bubbled up.  

Soon, a staggering plenitude of stars would fill the sky, prompting us to tilt our heads back in wonder, pondering as we always have the silent stars, their distance almost beyond our comprehension, but which, across the millennia, have given us direction, satisfied in constellation-making our need for connection, and inspired our stories. Stars like those of the Southern Cross which the indigenous Bushmen call the giraffe’s head. And Orion, said to be three zebras a hunter shot at and missed, his arrow just another star below – a mistake that meant the zebras galloped off each night toward the dawn’s horizon while the hunter, the “hungry star,” plodded wearily after them. And so would continue to do so, night after night. A silent resumption in the skies above this primordial pan to which I’d arrived, and returned.

Monday
Feb182013

Neither Here Nor There

Beginning this coming weekend, and for the next three weeks, I’ll be neither Here nor There.

Instead of a Midwestern city or a downeast Maine island, I’ll be in Namibia, a southwestern African country twice the size of California, or in its easterly neighbor, Botswana, which, at 582,000 square kilometers, is the size of France. Instead of Lake Michigan, I’ll find myself beside the South Atlantic Ocean with its cold Benguela current flowing northward from the Cape of Good Hope. Rather than Penobscot Bay, I’ll be traversing the Okavanga Delta created by the nearly 900-mile-long Okavango River -- the "river that never finds the sea” because its spreading, sprawling water is consumed by the Kalahari sands, but, before disappearing, creates a nearly 10,000-square-mile watery maze of lagoons, channels, and small islands.

Rather than walking paved city streets or wooded trails, I’ll explore mammoth coastal dunes, some of which “sing” and “roar.” Also, ancient deserts – the Namib and Kalahari – and, in southern Botswsana, the largest salt pan in the world – Makgadikgadi – which, despite practice, is still maddeningly difficult to pronounce. I’ll be trading in white spruce and red oak for mopane, quiver trees, the prehistoric welwitschia and, hopefully, a few impressive baobobs. Instead of paddling kayaks, we’ll pole the Delta in a mokoro.

Instead of nearby browing white deer, possibly a zebra.

Instead of flashy gold finches, some stunningly multi-hued lilac-breasted rollers.

Crows, yes, but, being pied, look duded up for some avian black-tie event. And it won’t be skunks tearing up my lawn searching for grubs, but, perhaps, not far from our tents, a few elephants needing a mud bath and willing to help create one.

My island backyard nemeses – marauding red and, increasingly, the even harder-to-tolerate gray squirrels – will  metamorphose into troops of ever watchful monkeys and baboons with a penchant for unguarded bowls of fruit or a shiny iPod or ring of keys.

The schools may bear some similarities.Some of the local habitations will not.

Handshakes can speak pretty much the same thing, but in Namibia, four-wheel drive achieves a whole different standard.

 All of which is to say: I’ll be gone. And lucky, again. Very lucky to have another opportunity to travel this part of the world. After which, returning to There and Here, I’ll have more photos, and stories to tell.

All photos taken by the author

Tuesday
Feb052013

Of A Different Color

Earlier this week, at the store where I’d gone to buy new running shoes, the young saleswoman and I agreed about which pair seemed to fit me best. But I didn’t buy them. They were green. Lime green. Neon lime green. The other options: orange, crimson, and an eye-popping purple and teal combo. I left with another brand I liked just as well, and, as important, in an easier-to-live-with blue and black.

As it so happened, the next stop on my errand run was the hardware store, my single mission there to select some paint chips as possible colors for a few walls in our house. This should’ve been easy – my palette when it comes to home décor is, by intention, fairly limited. But the amount of time I spent perusing the Benjamin Moore color kiosks was so protracted, it even seemed to arouse curiosity if not suspicion in a young clerk who meticulously stacked and restacked a nearby display of bagged sidewalk salt and re-arranged a phalanx of snowblowers for which an anything-but-normal Chicago winter has yet to elicit much demand.

Color is important to me, although, were you to open my clothes closet, its preponderance of black and grey may suggest otherwise. As would my interspersed “splashes of color” – muted shades of brown. And the occasional green that, I assure you, is neither neon or lime.  

I’m reminded of a Barbara Hurd essay. In it, she recounts an episode when, at age 14, she and her mother went shopping for winter coats. Her mother kept selecting green coats from the racks, in shades Hurd describes as “emerald,” “jade,” “apple green,” and an “almost lime.” Hurd wanted brown. Standing before a mirror, her mother held up a green coat to her daughter, declaring the color turned her hair golden, made her face more vibrant. But Hurd did not recognize herself. She plucked a camel-colored coat from a rack and held that up instead. “But that one,” her mother exclaimed, “makes you look like a sand dune.” Which clinched it. Writes Hurd, about loving such a comparison, “all those shadings, the shadows on its curves, the way something as invisible as wind could change its shape.” For her, color was not about complementing skin tone, improving vivacity. Later in the essay Hurd gets into her themes: how or why some of us want to blend in unnoticed with our surroundings, and how what we attempt to camouflage can be more revealing than a bright costume or masquerade.

Neon lime clearly doesn’t say me. My preferred wardrobe choices with, apparently, the default set to my go-to black, has evolved by way of what’s most comfortable, easy, and, especially when packing for trips, requiring the least amount of thought. The paint chips, however, were another matter.

For wall paint, I naturally gravitate to that part of the color wheel favoring beige, tan, cream, and myriad off-whites. Any deviation has been in the realms of mushroomy browns or the palest sage greens. These, I’ve found, have longer “shelf-life.” They marry well with art and rugs and, especially in the case of our island house, don’t attempt to upstage the native landscape and views beyond the windows. It’s fairly safe to say that the colors on my walls, in the bed linens, upholstery, or even the dishes on the table are primarily those occurring in the natural world. Best I know, green lichen splotching rocks in the woods or shores may be bright but is never neon.

What such choices reveal about me, I can’t say. But coming to recognize them a few summers ago may explain the exercise I self-imposed then: naming our house’s rooms based on their predominant colors and what of the natural world they evoked. For our bedroom, I chose Birch. The living room I privately christened Driftwood. Another bedroom became Fern. The study induced Bark, and the guest room, given its here-and-there smatterings of deep red, earned Bunchberry. It was as if I was about to turn our house into an inn or B&B with thematically-named rooms. Over the years, I’ve stayed in such places, put my head down in Rose or Iris. In Robin or Goldfinch (no matter that in my customary black, it may have been more appropriate to park me in a room called Crow.)

Such an exercise, needless and somewhat silly, may have been the product of some inexplicable musing. But then I’ve always been attracted to and intrigued by names, even when it comes to colors. Surely, I’m not the only 60-something who remembers her favorite Crayola color. Burnt Siena – and not so much because of the color itself but the exotic notion of it, the sound of the words. Though I was too young to understand the reasons behind Prussian Blue being renamed Midnight Blue, I nevertheless missed the former moniker, although, years later, after I’d outgrown much crayon use, I did appreciate the wise civil rights era change of Flesh to Peach. Since, Crayolas have evolved into 120 colors that now include atomic tangerine (seriously?), macaroni and cheese, and, improbably, manatee and inch worm, names that, regardless their corresponding color, are likely to evoke in the mind some vivid pictures.

I remember, too, when the catalogue retailer J. Crew burst onto the scene 30 years ago with its new, youthful and layered casual look. Almost creating as much stir was its then novel way to name color choices, often involving something edible. While cantaloupe and espresso may have seemed novel then, today they’re mundane. More recent J. Crew’s recent offerings read like a menu – sweet guava, honey glaze, sour lemon and bright rhubarb. For variations on brown, they’ve wisely chosen burnt caramel and toasted almond rather than, say, liver or tripe.

Often, of course, there are disconnects between actual colors and the objects depicted or evoked. Indeed that’s what tripped me up with paint chips in the hardware store.

 There, hanging out in my customary domain of the off-white spectrum, I discovered Woodland White is actually a pale green. Because, I wondered, that’s the color that white takes on when lit through leaves? But what about Cedar Path? Shouldn’t it have more rust to it, given the probability of dropped needles underfoot? Does a Serene Breeze in summer say green on our skin? Why not something more blue? And Stolen Moments may suggest the theft of time, but, given its lemony green, from where or whom? Turning Leaf should have some orange in it, no? But maybe the browner-toned Autumn Leaf is meant to evoke the oak, its few crisped remnants rattling overhead after all the others are gone. I admit to having trouble letting Summer Harvest in its sole color evoke the multi-hued bounty I carry home from a late August visit to the island’s farmers’ market. However, I can’t weigh in on whether pale-green Baby Turtle is accurate to any turtle offspring anywhere on the planet. I’d say, based on my early morning walks in our woods, Benjamin Moore got Misted Fern just about right, but I’d like to suggest that Tree Moss might be better paired to its depicted color by switching moss to lichen, given the ample evidence provided by encrusted tree trunks outside my study window. And the brown tones in Fields of Gold? Accurate only if it’s late September and the goldenrod and tansy have long gone by.

I love the greens of spring, greens like no other – intense, insistent, irreducible. So I might object to Spring Bud being so pastel, and absent, it seems, any pulsing urgency. But maybe this is the color of the thin, delicate, and short-lived membrane cloaking an emerging apple blossom just about to burst forth. And thus proving that closer inspection of the world around us is often required.  Of what’s not in the limelight. Of what seeks shadows. Of what dwells briefly and is hard to miss. And of what shelters, inhabits, announces, or disguises. In all gradations of shades and tones. Colors, in infinite variations, yet just a small part of it.

As are, of course, color names. Though essential this week to my musings, they sometimes don’t count for much, as I discovered yesterday when placing my paint order at the hardware store. In spite of all my perusing, I’d obviously overlooked what also appears on the paint chips. Right there in the bottom right hand corner. Ordering paint, it turns out, is all done by number.