Thursday, December 23, 2010

The end of living and the beginning of survival

Chief Seattle (Si'ahl) was a respected Native American Chief of the Duwamish (Dkhw’Duw’Absh) tribe. He was a prominent figure among his people and pursued a path of accommodation to white settlers. He was born in 1780 and his body was returned to nature on 7 June 1866. During his lifetime the City of Seattle, Washington was named after him, but without uncertainty the Chief left an even greater legacy with his widely publicized speech arguing in favour of ecological responsibility and respect of native Americans' land rights.

In 1854, the "Great White Chief" in Washington made a purchase offer for a large area of Indian land and promised a `reservation' for the Indian people. Chief Seattle's reply has been described as one of the most beautiful and profound statement on the environment that has ever been made.

"How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man.

We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man--all belong to the same family.

So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves.

He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land, but it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on.

He leaves his father's graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father's grave, and his children's birthright, are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert. I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways.

The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand. There is no quiet place in the white man's cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect's wings. But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whip-poor-will (nightjar species) or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with the pinion pine.

The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath--the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath.

The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow's flowers.

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition: The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. I am a savage and I do not understand any other way. I've seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. Even the white man, whose "god" walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover, our "god" is the same "god". You may think now that you own him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the "god" of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white.

This earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of "god" who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.

Where is the thicket? Gone.
Where is the eagle? Gone.
The end of living and the beginning of survival."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The instant you speak about Africa you miss the point

We are all familiar with the situation where we have forgotten the name of a person or place and cannot produce it in spite of the utmost concentration. We have it 'on the tip of our tongue' but it just will not come out, until we give up and shift our attention to something else when suddenly, in a flash, we remember the forgotten name. No thinking is involved in this process. It is a sudden insight.

Another well known example of spontaneous intuitive insights are jokes. In the split second where you understand a joke you experience a moment of 'enlightenment'. It is well known that this moment must come spontaneously. It cannot be achieved by 'explaining' the joke, only with a sudden intuitive insight into the nature of the joke do we experience the laughter the joke is meant to produce. It cannot be achieved by 'explaining' the joke using intellectual analysis.

There is an excellent Zen phrase that says 'The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark.'

All verbal descriptions of reality and personal experiences ('enlightenment'), could therefore be seen as inaccurate and incomplete. Ultimately, when we wish to communicate our experiences we are confronted with the limitations of language.

Traditional people of the world (San Bushman of southern Africa, American Indians, Australian Aboriginal people etc.) developed several different ways to deal with this problem. Their statements and descriptions of the nature of reality,  personal and cultural 'enlightenment' are in the form of myths, using metaphors and symbols, poetic images, similes and allegories. Mythical language is much less restricted by logic and common sense. It is full of magic and of paradoxical situations, rich in suggestive images and never precise, and can thus convey the way in which mystics experience reality much better than factual language.

It is therefore easy to grasp the misunderstanding that took place between Traditional people of the world and Westerners when they initially met during Western range expansion and colonisation, but that is a completely different story.

Ultimately I could explain what an unbelievable experience it is to travel and explore southern Africa, but I would be missing the point. I would be heavily confronted by the limitations of language. There is only one way to reach African 'enlightenment' and your friends, that have already been to visit this fascinating piece of the world, will also not be able to explain it to you. You can only experience it for yourself.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Another tough day in Africa

In times of late there has been an increased interest from international eco-tourists to participate in primitive experiences which are conducted in large natural areas within southern Africa. Yes, it is very different from the traditional luxury safari lodge experience, so far removed in fact, that guests are willing to carry their own food and tents as they sleep out in the wild for days on end. By doing so, individuals consciously aspire to be part of an ecosystem once again.

I have been fortunate enough to conduct these experiences over the past couple of years and enjoy each outing just as much as the guests that participate in this unique product. The difference, however is that I  get to observe how guests react to situations they have never encountered before. As an example, imagine having to dig for drinking water in a dry riverbed and then ration this precious resource for the rest of the day, as opposed to just opening your tap at home every time you wish to drink.

As most African midday hours are rather hot, the group would generally seek out a shady spot for a siesta to kill time before exploring the surroundings in the cooler hours of the late afternoon. One observation I have made is that most guests really struggle with the concept of doing nothing for an extended period of time. Understandably so, we are all groomed to conform to western culture and meet constant deadlines and appointments, be it at work; social interactions or even being on holiday. Yes, even holiday. When is the last time you heard of somebody on holiday without an itinerary or travel schedule?
It seems that there is often a sense of unproductiveness that frustrates many trailists over the siesta period. However, to be perfectly honest, the frustrations are generally substituted by complete relaxation by day three.

I also conducted a little experiment recently. On the last day of a recent trail, I returned to the site where we had camped during our first night. A couple of minutes after arrival, all the guests had erected their tents. It is a fairly standard procedure; however it was interesting to note that they had all used the exact same location in which they were camping during the first night.
Later on that evening, while sitting around a cozy camp fire, the guests were using the exact same seats and seating arrangements as they had used during the first night. This proved, once again, that we are creatures of habit and that we all find comfort in our little private routines, although we sometimes don’t like to admit it.

These are potentially two of the many ingredients that makes Africa such an addictive destination to western urbanites. Unquestionably there is a slight and immediate uneasiness when they are confronted with an exponential amount of free time and a fracture of routine in Africa, but it always seems to develop into a unique and fulfilling experience that produces much happiness and many happy returns.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I wouldn't want to be anywhere else

As a proud South African, I often find myself searching for the negative perspective of being born and raised in southern Africa as a form of therapy to bring my patriotism to symmetry. When I think about it long and hard enough there are a couple of factors that come to mind, as can be expected, some days there are more than others. These factors may vary in magnitude, but my conclusion to the deliberation has, over the past couple of years, remained single and constant.
The fact of the matter is that I struggle to find destinations outside the geographical sub-region that really excites me. Yes, of course my mind moseys to other destinations such as the wilderness of Alaska in summer or the Seychelles, especially if I could have a Bonefish fighting at the opposite end of my fly-fishing rod, but these thoughts seem to become extinct once I start to consider the exploration and adventure possibilities right on my doorstep in southern Africa.

I clearly remember the first time we travelled to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It was my inaugural  camping experience in a region where wild and dangerous beasts roam. As it is for many that travel to and within Africa, the large mammals proved to be my initial attractions. Somehow, that deeply primitive fascination never dissappears and, over time, proves to be rather generous as it produces more room for alternative natural interests to developed. It could be the night sky, the 950 odd bird species or even the geology of southern Africa that captures my fascination next. One thing is certain, my relationship with adventure and nature has only grown stronger since that eventful expedition.

Regrettably we live in an era where the majority of society claims that the World has become a small place. I beg to differ. It is no conspiracy that the World has remained much the same size over the past 4.6 billion years. The single evident transformation however has been that of the human spirit. The majority of society have lost touch with nature and the World is, as a result, rapidly shrinking in their psyche.

The more you pay attention to your adventure and natural interests, the larger your World will become. According to me, southern Africa is forever becoming bigger. Its becoming bigger with a spirit of adventure while the rest of the World is apparently shrinking.