Standing and staring

2011-08-26 00:00

UNLIKE Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath had an uneasy relationship with nature. And yet, shortly after meeting Hughes, Plath enthused that she could not stop writing poems that came from the “vocabulary of woods and animals and earth that Ted is teaching me”. Teaching-boyfriends aside, Plath had a point.

We too have learnt to approach ourselves through nature. When the boys and I walk in the bush, we do so ready for the deep claw marks of an aardvark on the side of a termite burrow, a cobra’s skin, porcupine scat, or the undulating tracks of a snake. Other times, we’ll pull seeds from a pod, test out their designs to see how they fly, or look at the natural geometry in the spiral of a snail shell, or in the arrangement of seeds in a flower.

Sometimes we’ll find the small cupped nest of a Paradise Flycatcher, or the oval nest of cocktail ants in a tree, or we’ll follow the dizzy trail of an antlion larvae, scouting out a site for its conical pit. And if we’re especially lucky, we’ll find the bubbly home of a foam nest frog. It delights me to have learnt how to stand and stare.

We’ve come a long way since our first night in camp, when our wheelie suitcases left incongruous tracks in the sand up to our tents. In the early weeks, we had no idea of the abundance of wildlife around us at any one time. Since we realised that most creatures only leave clues to their presence, we’ve become experts in scatology (the science of poo) and can even tell which way a reptile was headed by where the small cap of uric acid appears on its droppings.

Our life here has become an epic detective story. Attuned to looking for spoor and tracks in the shadows of the late afternoon sun, we can even recognise a puff adder spoor by the way it drags the tip of its tail, and tell the difference between a millipede trail and that of a dung beetle. And we look forward to the day that we find the unearthed brood balls of a dung beetle, broken open. Then we’ll know that a honey badger enjoyed a fine supper of beetle larvae (or, possibly a diurnal banded mongoose, lunch).

And in the evening, after my shower, I sit under the stars and wait for two scrub hares to appear. Not long after, I am visited by a Barn Owl that hunts in this corner of the veld. I’ve come to rely on these small gifts, among which I count our sightings of the Crimson-breasted Shrike. Common and near-endemic to Botswana, it is one of the most beautiful birds we’ve seen.

Here Gabriel and Tom have learnt that what we understand we will not fear (or worse, hate). The other day, Tom and I dug up part of a scorpion’s burrow, then after photographing the arachnid, we remade the burrow and gently herded it home. We felt differently about scorpions after that, and consequently, very good about ourselves.

The boys have also learnt to approach loss as it mixes into food chains. They’ve learnt about matters existential, how some species of cicada live up to 17 years underground as a pupa, before emerging for a short life span of only a few days above ground. They’ve learnt that some things are lot stronger than they look, that spider silk has a tensile strength comparable with that of high-grade steel. And they’ve learnt that the world is a smaller place than they thought. Some of the birds they are painting in water colour have migrated from some of the places in the world that they have visited.

They are full of questions like what lives in this hole, what made that dropping, what’s this beetle called, and why is that shiny green wasp hovering around the big wasp’s nest? And if they’re not collecting an ice-cream tub of millipedes after the rains, they’ll be digging safe holes for bushveld rain frogs (so nothing hurts them), feeding squirrels or taking photographs of reflections in a puddle. I recently taught them a little photography and was struck by the freshness of their images: they grasp that photography is about learning to see, really learning to see.

The simpler life also affords simple pleasures, like making off with a wheelbarrow stored outside the guard’s room (I don’t spoil it by telling them they’re allowed to play with it). They spend hours trundling each other around in it, at high speed. And whereas before they might have compared PlayStation notes on which car goes faster, Joe Vega’s Dodge Viper STR10, customised with crocodile vinyls, or Darius’s Audi A8, customised with an air intake and a cool hood thing, they now talk wheelbarrows. Apparently, a Falcon wheelbarrow is the fastest and lightest of them all, and the builder has half the speed of a Falcon and half the acceleration of a heavy builder. Who would have thought?

And then there is the big hole they are digging right next to our tent. Sometimes they are “mining quartz” and steer busy geologists over to discuss their progress. And at other times I overhear conversations about how much deeper they will have to dig to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.

This is precious stuff. This is why I wanted them to experience a life in the bush, where the tabula rasa of their boyhood is crisscrossed with wheelbarrow tracks, headed for possibility.


• Writer Tania Spencer and geologist Warwick Bullen were living until recently in the Botswana bush near Francistown with their sons Gabriel and Thomas.


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