NAME: Rick Wilson
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“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” ― Henry David Thoreau
The smoke, like the tendril of a vine reached up from the small hardwood fire as I eased the twinge in my leg and arranged my backrest against the rough uThomboti tree. My thoughts dwelt on the limits and boundaries set for this iMfolozi Wilderness, and knew the extent defined by ‘the fence’ and how instantly it became rural Africa; complete with cows, goats, dogs and chickens. The big five replaced by farmyard animals, the bush by huts, trading stores and schools. The contrast was sudden and abrupt with no blending from one habitat to the other.
As I poked another log into the fire I thought of the Africa of my youth……...
Imagine for a moment a vast limitless space having no boundaries and certainly no neighbours that one knew of. This was my world, wild and remote. If we had neighbours they would be so far away that it would have no impact on my personal domain. However, the world in the eyes of a five year old boy is very differently to the world seen by older persons. I didn’t realise this until it was made clear by the amount of worry I exposed my mother to. Everything before me was a wonder world of fascinating new things just waiting to be explored and discovered.
This raw unspoilt land, along the mighty Kafue River (Zambia) was a naturalist's dream come true. The huge spiders, larger than the side plates at our dinner table, and the venomous snakes: the habitat of deadly Gaboon adders and the black mamba living in the large anthill behind our house. Large predators such as lions killing our cattle, the leopard’s hoarse sawing calls at night, elephant herds, hippos, and crocodiles at the river added to her maternal distress and exponentially increased the thickness of her maternally protective shield.
On many occasions I was so engrossed in the excitement of new discoveries and adventures that I had forgotten the time of day and was sometimes late in returning home, often in total darkness, and she would fear the worst had happened to me. Time, or rather not enough of it, was the greatest enemy of a budding naturalist. The time had always been simple for me as there were only two times, Day and Night. The problem was that in Africa darkness fell like a curtain; very, very suddenly. On each occasion I was caught out by the hasty decent of the African night, maternal wrath, supported by my father would sentence me to the worst punishment ever. I was forbidden to venture into the bush alone. Both my parents could see the distress of being kept in this invisible confinement, day after day this restriction would leave me frustrated by what I was missing. For a time I obeyed the parental decree of staying close to home.
My reprieve came quite suddenly and unexpectedly, it was and answer to my prayers, when an old farm worker came looking for work on the farm. Jonas, a farm hand who had at one time been tracker for some big game hunter. He assured my father that he would take over my training in working cattle. I would learn to work with livestock under his expert hand and he added matter-of-factly that the young boy should spend all his free time with him.
This old tracker was an answer to the prayers of my mother, a way out for my father and lastly I would have a protector and mentor in the form of a wise old tribesman, who always carried a spear. I suspect that Jonas got the job as a sort of child-minder to keep me from getting into real trouble. This old tribesman turned out to be a godsend for both my parents and I.
I can’t think of a happier period of my youthful years than this on a wild, natural, treasure of untamed land. A time of refreshment followed and for the next phase of my young life the quest for more knowledge of the natural systems led to greater thirst, Jonas patiently providing answers to the mystery of each life form we happened upon.
Walking behind Jonas, he would suddenly stop and listen, he would then whisper “…what do you see” ? Baffled by his question would have me looking around trying desperately to see what he seen. Vision is another sense that is often overloaded with information. At first it was in vain, for I rarely could make out the reason for his alert attention. Prodding his chest with his thumb, he would patiently explain that I should ‘see’ with more than my eyes alone.
In time he began to open up dormant primordial instincts, locked away in my young mind that allowed me to look for things that were not meant to be there, to hear the words unspoken. Jonas re-programmed my internal sense of direction and invoked the awareness of a sixth sense; the unconscious warning of impending danger without knowing the nature of it at the time. Later I would find this awareness I had developed to be in tune with nature, and it would be a distinct advantage in the bush for I rarely got lost or was taken by surprise in potentially dangerous situations. Yet I was to learn that this would be a double-edged sword when dealing with humans.
Jonas, by his enthusiasm, engendered a feeling of urgency in each living moment. He taught me to love life, and more importantly to be in love with life. I became happy, loving the sounds of laughter, music, rain, whispering winds, children at play, the flow of the river, the mighty crash of thunder.
On occasion he would hear the alarm call of birds and point out the cause for their behaviour, a snake in a tree, or he would say that the buffalo were wading in the pan as he had heard oxpeckers fly up calling “Tzzzz tzzz tzzz….”
I had learnt from the best to listen for sounds that should not be present and to listen to the words not spoken. One very dark night, Jonas taught me to follow the progress of a leopard in total darkness by listening to the sounds of insects, crickets and frogs abruptly stopping as the large cat moved past them. I began listen with my heart and also my soul…. by intuition.
The bush became my school–room. Each lesson learnt began to build the library within me. Each lesson steadily increased my basic understanding of how every aspect of nature was interdependent with all other things. I carefully noted how the signs left by creatures, however subtle and feint, would tell their own story. I collected bits of bone, feathers, hair and scats, making pencil sketches of things I was unsure of and perhaps needed to clarify at a later date.
Each day a new lesson was born, it became deeply imprinted into my heart, one of tolerance and forbearance toward creatures we may fear and not fully understand. A lesson that there were no bad animals, for animals did not kill with feelings of malice. They would act instinctively, maybe out of fear, or for food. We need to understand how humans and the rest of nature were interwined, interdependent and therefore yoked to the plough of life, to live in harmony with all things.
I became aware of something within my inner consciousness. I had received a treasure that I could not put into words, a gift from a wise old tribesman.
…………the log burned brightly, the smoky fragrance of Thomboti filled the air, I sighed heavily with contentment as I again prodded the campfire; it felt good to see with my soul.