- Frogs that sound like xylophones
- Competent warthogs
- Luxuriating giraffes
I spent a few days watching wild animals I know practically nothing about.
Hippos—two, three, or a dozen, depending on the size of the waterhole they stand dozing in all day—do this:
“You move over.”
[Time, time, time.]
“No, really, you move over.”
“OK, but I don’t like it.”
“Actually, you move over.”
Warthogs and wildebeests appear on film to be blocky, stiff creatures, and their blocky stiffness makes them seem stupid and humorless. But they’re not. They are graceful, competent, and tell jokes.
When two young impalas are sparring, just testing each other out, measuring, they do it in total sync. Butt, butt, butt, then stop, look around, then butt, butt, stop, look around. They are so in tune with each other, and the timing of an antelope’s need to look for danger is so precisely understood, that the levels of being are stark. They have to do this sparring. They just have to get it done. They have to understand the difference between each other. But no impala (I feel sure, based on practically nothing) is going to stab another impala while he is scanning for danger, because above all, they are impalas together, and so they look out.
Before the trip, I watched a video of a brutal fight between giraffes. Giraffes use their heads to beat each other. Partway through listening to David Attenborough’s take on this, I tried to watch the video without listening to him. There’s been so much stupid anthropomorphizing (Look: they’re married!), and so much stupid—what should I call it?—dehumanizing?—of animals (That murderer is an animal! He treats her like an animal!), that I keep trying to look at animals as an act of cognitive decluttering. When dogs fight and cats fight it’s—obviously—very emotional. I grew up around horses, and I’ve never seen a horse do anything without a legible emotion. But these giraffes—I could pause the video and walk right up to their faces and see nothing. I tried to perceive anger or fear in their bodies. If I ignored the blank-to-me looks on their faces, could I see emotion there? Focusing on just the bodies made them more coherent to me. The best thing about having bought TSA PreCheck is that I don’t have to walk into that glass tube at the airport and lift my arms, because I can’t lift my arms like that without feeling Don’t shoot all through my body. Do giraffe faces simply not do what human faces do, muscularly? Or are they not feeling what I can understand as feeling? When one of them finally fell and the great neck followed, and then his poor head finally hit the ground, his eyes closed for a moment, and then, in the space of the closing of the eye, I thought I could see the feeling.
When I saw giraffes in the wild, I found it impossible to see them as other than voluptuously luxuriating—those necks and heavy-lidded eyes, of course, but mostly the vast haunches. The flanks. I enjoyed seeing them this way. It was like seeing an entire fantastical species of gorgeous, decadent ladies from another planet, and who doesn’t want to see that? I didn’t quite want to leave the human cultural history they were evoking for me. I feel like I can do that for a while without harming them, as long as I am prepared to let go.
The hyena, in people’s effort to describe it, is part cat and part dog. I do not think it’s right for Disney to have rendered an entire species as Nazis, so I was especially glad to be able to see them. It is true that hyenas will eat a hyena that dies, and it’s true that they sometimes walk around all day with their heads covered in blood. But what’s my problem with that? I kept asking myself when I felt the repulsion. I didn’t see them do either of these things, though I heard that other people on the trip had watched this happening. What I saw them doing was napping, walking around in the grass, looking powerful, and slipping, in their strangeness, away from my efforts to fix them with my mind.
I saw a lot of other animals and tried to keep track of them on a card with checkboxes. I saw: Baboon (chacma), Buffalo (African), Bushbuck, Cheetah, Eland, Elephant (African), Fox (bat-eared), Giraffe, Hare (scrub), Hippopotamus, Hyena (spotted), Impala, Jackal (black-backed), Jackal (side-striped), Kudu (greater), Lechwe (red), Leopard, Lion, Mongoose (banded), Monkey (vervet), Porcupine (great), Reedbuck, Springhare, Squirrel (African ground), Steenbok, Tsessebes, Warthog, Waterbuck, Wild Dog, Wildebeest (blue), Zebra (plains), but I could not even fathom the birds or the reptiles. And then there was a section for insects and plants. I felt an exhaustion in naming. I felt I was losing the animals as I tried to contain them in that way.
Today I read Zadie Smith (“Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction”) and started Jane Bennett (Influx and Eflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman). Both Smith and Bennett quote Whitman’s line about multitudes, but Bennett quotes it without the parentheses, and Smith quotes it with the parentheses: “(I am large, I contain multitudes).” I had no idea that line has parentheses! Obviously, I did not really go for the Romantics. I’m kind of shocked that it isn’t always emphatically disseminated within its parentheses, infinite regress and simultaneous expansion. I get that parentheses are a mouthful. I picture people passing the line along holding their hands in two crescent moons at their shoulders, trying to signify. I tried to remember if maybe the line occurs in the poem more than once. Maybe at first it was in its parentheses, but at some point got out. I don’t have a copy of the poem in the house. I don’t want to get into the internet. I asked a poet friend about all this. She cleared some of it up for me, but she also said there are multiple editions, lots of feelings around them.
I would watch the animals—an individual here, a group there—watching the way my mind wanted to read personality onto the effect of, say, a species with a big beak versus a species with a little beak, a broad brown stripe down a nose rather than a narrow one. Watching myself being phrenological with them.
That may be why, after a day of looking, moving safely among many layers of my invasion of animal and human spaces within the violence of safari, then and now and beyond, I liked to stand on the little bridge to the camp as dusk accumulated, listening to the sound of xylophones. I knew the sound was frogs—(reed frogs, I learned)—because I grew up with tiny tree frogs that would sing so loudly that guests sometimes shut their windows tight, even in the summer, with no air conditioning, in order to sleep. What were the animals without me? I could stand on the bridge letting the idea of animal that people made vibrate in the reality of their sound.