Finding the Wild

By Helen Savidge

I’ve heard that a sphere of human influence covers the earth, our touch a second skin on the land. I got cell phone service in rural South Africa, out on the veldt five hours away from Johannesburg, and felt it like a layer of dust. Our touring group of college students had passed clusters of shopping outlets and crude cinderblock shacks like empty tin cans on open leagues of brown alien hills, aloe plants like teal glass sculptures nestled under the bare ridges. Instead of buffalo, we saw zebras, and amongst the grazing cattle, ostriches.

Our destination was N’come village, a cluster of square huts and cement outhouses out on the high grey plains identical to all the others. The name is pronounced with a click in the throat where the ‘c stands in. Local families would take in our group of twenty for a few days for a cultural experience. Sidney, the smiley preacher, put three of us in his truck and drove us down the long dirt road that made the village. Family compounds lined each side, collections of stone huts and herds of livestock wandering freely between the fences, rows of dead winter corn. Inside each dead wood and barbed wire fence stood red rock enclosures for the animals like the ground itself had eroded away and left them there as piles of stones.

From the door of our homey cinderblock rectangle we could hear bleating goats, cawing roosters, lowing cows, and yelling children. On the wind, the livestock sounded like the cries of lost souls on the plains of asphodel, especially from the pitch black outhouse behind the compound in the dead of night.

I looked out from our host’s compound before the moon rose, and it looked like the empty, black, salt marshes of Savannah, Georgia; my home. The scattered instances of electricity across the valley looked like McMansions lighting up along the edges of marsh-bound islands at night, concrete shelters and million-dollar waterfront property made one in the dark, all part of a sparkly shell that covers much of the earth. In satellite images, it crusts brightly along the edges of continents, thinning into darkness where the richest of us do not like to live.

On the flight from DC to Johannesburg, I read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a memoir in which a native Georgian detailed the swift death of Georgian longleaf pine forests after settlers came from Scotland. Just by surviving, they completely destroyed the delicate and beautiful ecosystem within a couple short centuries. It vanished into the turpentine industry, into the farmed fields and local homes, the needs of the human sphere. For the first time since starting college two years before I got homesick for palmettos and marsh, as I was halfway across the Atlantic going in the opposite direction. Out the window, the coast of Africa was nothing but grey dirt and hollow buildings in the dawn, a shell of cement and asphalt wide enough to obscure the ground as far as I could see until clouds and bright sunlight covered it up.

In N’come, dying ecosystems stayed on my mind. During the final day I took a walk down towards the dry riverbed with a couple professors and students. The dry riverbeds ran down the hills right out of broken hollows in the grass, like water flowed down till its weight collapsed the earth into dusty veins through the valleys, eroding the rivers higher into the hills. The veldt depended on healthy grasses to hold the soil together. Like any good scientist’s daughter, I worried that the village’s grazing cattle could allow the hills to break down too fast for the community to sustain. At the subsistence level, it probably isn’t the same devastation that massive farms cause back home, transforming miles of the landscape into a biological desert, but more like those Georgian farms in the longleaf pine forests. Most people here don’t have electricity or running water, and many grassland species are now endangered.

After we left N’come, the view changed from rolling hills that looked like they should be spitting ghost towns and cowboys at one turn, and ruined castles and bagpipers at the next, to ugly, geometric tree farms. Young men drove small herds of longhorn cattle under the eaves beside the highway. Trees do not hold earth like grass does. At home, the islands on the ocean wear away steadily over thousands of years, a half-mile of grass-covered dunes between the waves and the forest, a natural barrier against hurricanes. When the dunes disappear into life-guard huts and the first line of defense is palm trees, oaks, and beach bungalows, a single hurricane can sweep the entire beach away.

But those trees are needed. Someone will buy them to make homes, or paper. There must be tree farms somewhere to meet that demand. To gift that land back to the grasses would deprive someone, somewhere, of shelter, maybe textbooks, so we must keep them there.

I expected Kruger National Park to be a wonderland in comparison, two million hectares, the size of a small country, fenced in and isolated, and it was. At dusk we entered and saw herds of little tan impala blending into the red dirt and bush. Kudu ate the higher bush leaves, deep grey-brown coats the same tone as the dry scrubs, curling horns lofted behind them. A line of four elephants marched in single file against the sunset while more grazed by the roadside. Buffalo roamed across the road. The land felt so stuffed with life I wondered if it had been stocked.

Did all of earth look like this before humans started to manipulate it? Do pieces of the ocean still look like this? Kruger would have been small villages and subsistence farming if the people who loved this land hadn’t been forcibly removed, and now it was contained in gated borders, patrolled by armed poacher-hunters, and carefully left alone to thrive and multiply while humans passed through slowly on mapped out roads to appreciate the fantasy world they’d created. The human presence cleared the land of its own footprint and ruled through the camps and roadways like a quilted bubble over the conservation land – a more direct, more preserving influence over the earth than any undeveloped park or untouchable wilderness. The absence of human presence is so unnatural that it is inherently another extension of control.

In the morning, we got up before sunrise and piled into open safari vans, covered in coats and blankets, and drove for forty minutes through an icy hell of frigid pre-sunrise air. As we disembarked, jumping up and down to get the frostbite out of our limbs, our two guides loaded their rifles, eyes wary on the pair of rhinoceroses grazing a hundred meters away. One stood in the middle of the road, head up and alert.

In the grey sunrise, a whole tribe of baboons ran past, babies clinging to the mother’s stomachs. “It’s unusual to see baboons or monkeys anywhere with big cats nearby,” Elliot, one of the guides, told us quietly. They send one baboon into the tallest tree in the area to look around and check if its safe. We must not have been a threat. A bush hare bounced away. Cat prints dotted the earth. Millipedes made their way across the ground.

We found a prickly pear. “This is invasive,” Elliot said, “If we find these in the bush we must report them so they can be taken out.” Further on, we found calcium rich hyena dung. “Nothing is wasted in the bush,” Elliot said. Hyenas ate the bones of the dead, and tortoises ate the recycled calcium to make their own shells strong. Cyclical and perfect.

In Florida, people release pet snakes into the wild when they get to big. These invasive snakes have no natural predators. They grow huge, some big enough to eat alligators, and multiply in the wetlands. They’ve opened an annual hunting season for the snakes, but it has barely made a dent. In the Appalachian Mountains, species of salamanders and songbird disappear year after year, and until they’re well gone, no one notices. On my own coast we take pride in how well-preserved the wildlife is, how isolated and protected the islands are, but 85% of the oyster reefs have disappeared in the last century, a keystone species, and we have no idea how much it has affected the water. As much as I love the wildlife, I rarely see it, no matter how much time I spend in the woods at the edge of the marsh. And where are the native people that once lived there? As controlled as it is, Kruger is missing one of it’s key species: humans. The landscape thrives. Are we invasive even in South Africa, the birthplace of our species?

Our group went out in our own bus one sunrise to search for big cats, and we found them, four lions lazing around in the bush slightly off the road, windows and a heater between us and the morning air this time. From the front, our professor’s father talked about the constant battle to keep the rhinos alive, a militarized campaign against poachers. It would be nice if just giving them a space and leaving them was enough, but it isn’t. We must go out and protect them in the space we have cleared for their lives.

Sigagule Village, our second homestay village after N’come, had the landscape of Kruger outside its bubble, different from N’come, bigger and less isolated, surrounded on all sides by bush. They had electricity, but no leopards besides the tall-tales people chose to tell about them. A local named Lucky took us on a tour of the wilderness just below the village, carrying an iPad through the brush, a swarm of children clinging to our hands and overpowering his explanation on the uses of various bushes.

I wanted to find someone who knew the flora here as well as I know mine back in Georgia, who could answer all my questions about the plants I had seen, maybe tell me about the native snakes, but he knew no scientific names. We heard nothing about invasive or indigenous, except that people used to plant gardens down in the ravine past the dam, including his own family.

“My grandmother and grandfather lived there,” he said, pointing towards the next line of low hills. “They moved into the town when it got bigger, but the homestead is still there. Grandmother taught me about the plants.” He told us that weeping wattle could be used as toilet paper, and the rain tree was terrible to camp under. The sickle bush could be used to cure wounds. “Come,” he kept saying, “I must show you something terrible.”

A deep rut cut across the end of the long dam over the reservoir, obviously a path for rushing water during the rainy season when the terrible drought threatening their drinking water hadn’t sunken the water level far down the bank. The rut opened into an unnatural canyon, the earth cut away in sharp tears, deep, narrow channels straight down to the granite under the dirt. “This isn’t supposed to be here, is it?” I asked. The land he held dear was damaged, the ecosystem in danger. “Do people care?”

Lucky shook his head. “People do not think like that around here.” He said he was trying to get people to see things as he did, to care that cattle could fall into the ravine and die, or children. Did he care about the effect that the trenches would have on local fish species? Why would he need to, unless it affected fishing? The villagers could not afford to preserve what they needed to use in order to survive. He knew how to fix it too, how to stack up logs so grass can take root quickly and hold the soil without being washed away, but it would be expensive and difficult, and they just don’t have the resources.

“Do you know what’s causing it?” I tested. He didn’t. It is so clearly the dam. The water, supposed to flow easily through rock beds or sink into the earth, rushes heavily past the dam and down over a land incapable of sustaining swift water. Dams are ecological nightmares wherever they occur, and even a small one like this is death to the ecosystem. The Susquehanna River near my college, an enormously old river, older even than the hills around it, formed when the continent of Gondwana slammed into the Euramerican continent. The river has some small dams. Already, rare species of clams and invertebrates that depend on fish migration have all but disappeared.

I didn’t tell Lucky about his dam problem. I’m a young white girl from America who isn’t even a science major. In two days I would leave. That was his home. What would he do, dig it up on his own with his bare hands? How would the community respond? Would they put together the resources and support to hire people to remove the dam and drain their lake when they’re worried about having enough water to last through the drought?

Lucky cared more about the bare earth than the other people in the village because he cared about how his grandmother used these plants in the same way he does now. But I doubt he has been taught much about healthy ecosystems, what I understood as synonymous with ecosystems outside human influence. To care about oysters, leopards, or rare plants is a privilege afforded to people that know their land as property only, not as food, toilet paper, shelter, and community. If I went out into the swamps of Georgia, I would probably die. Lucky would last out in the bush a long time. The bush is his family history. He lives with its dirt under his nails.
Somewhere along the line between poverty and wealth, humans take themselves completely off the real surface of the planet and recede into the sphere of human influence, asphalt and tended grass under their feet, treated air around their heads, the world’s natural flora and fauna scrubbed from their hands. And it is these humans who see nature as what the earth would be without people on it, as if we’re not irreversibly a part of it, slowly ripping it out by the roots. Many people live much closer to the ground. To Lucky, the land is his home, his culture. This too is a need. Taking the land away, giving it to nature, “saving” it, would be cruel. If only there were resources to coexist, funds to break down that dam and still give the community water, an incentive not to throw garbage in the bush, an understanding of exactly where they stand on the ground they inhabit in the same way we understand ours.

We hiked Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, a yawning gulf of red rock and scrubby bush hidden in huge, blocky mountains. Markets curved along the turns on the highways as we drove there, waterfalls and cliffs as the backdrop. The canyon itself sat airy and silent. The most wildlife we saw was a swarm of flies off a high cliff, a shock of emptiness after Kruger and Sigagule.

The human sphere lingered here in the park buildings, thin roads to the highest heights, and sandy paths snaking up and down the ridges, titled with the names of animals that we never saw, leopard trail, quail trail, blazes on the rocks, an emptiness caused by the usual ecological devastation. But this was the emptiness I had wanted to find, a thinning of influence, more so even than Kruger, human-less and utterly wild. After veldt, bush, even the hyper-restored game reserve, that was what I’d been looking for. It felt familiar, like the state park on the island back home, an isolated block of nature that people seldom bother to visit, and even fewer bother to understand. It felt dirty.

Even without the tangible human sphere, from a thousand meters up the slopes, we could see the thick white line at the river’s edge where the water level had dropped. Clearly the protection and isolation hadn’t helped it escape the drought. The thirsty landscape baked in the sun, people back in the village worried for drinking water, and at the top of the canyon, giant sprinklers watered the visitor center’s grass. I heard no birds, saw no lions or lizards. Maybe with more focus on stocking the animals and keeping them healthy, more removal of invasive species, more devastated communities and dislocated families, and more force from the human sphere, it could have been like Kruger.

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