Wednesday, 16 December 2015

No.8 - The mother of all animals

Jill Wylie, Javelin the search dog, and duiker Berry

 The ethologist Paul Shepard has said that our need for animals

is no vague, romantic, or intangible yearning, no simple sop to our loneliness or nostalgia for Paradise.  It is as hard and unavoidable as the compounds of our inner chemistry.  It is universal but poorly recognised.  It is the peculiar way animals are used in the growth and development of the human person, in those most priceless qualities, which we lump together as “mind”.   It is the role of animal images and forms in the shaping of personality, identity, and social consciousness.  Animals are amongst the first inhabitants of the mind’s eye.

There’s no mystery as to why I’ve ended up writing mostly about ecological matters and our fellow-animals, incorporating them into my teaching when I can.

My mother Jill Wylie is a self-educated naturalist.  She was the centre of her local SPCA for forty years; she made a career of training a series of dogs to find other lost dogs (most often caught in snares in the hills and bush); and she protected a privately-owned, non-profit wildlife sanctuary in the Bvumba mountains of eastern Zimbabwe.  I grew up with innumerable orphans: kittens and puppies, bushbuck and duiker, genets and mongoose, chickens and hares. 

We all shared, she joked, one big bottle of warmed milk, with a little egg and calcium for our orphaned bones.

Animals formed my personality, identity, and social consciousness.

And she would take me into the forest in the late evening, when reddening sunlight slanted through that rich, safe world, and say, “Look! How the sun just picks out that leaf, that twig!  Amazing!”  An attentiveness that, without rhetoric or inhibition, sacralised even sheer accidents of light.

And I still do that.

The mystery, I suppose, is why, despite all my father’s best efforts, I failed to understand the internal combustion engine.  Indeed, I have come to believe that the oil-fired engine has set the whole world on a temporarily comforting but ultimately self-destructive course.  The first to suffer, of course, are the wild animals and their habitats.  While my father laboured in his workshop on mechanical projects of improbable ingenuity, my mother set out to rescue and rehabilitate such animals as she could reach. 

And then wrote about it.  Endlessly.  Diaries, letters, columns for newsletters, articles for journals, books.  Three books are in print: Call: Life with a Basenji (available here ); and two parallel sequels, Search (about Javelin, Call the Basenji’s  Doberman successor as search dog; available direct from me); and Wildwoods: The making of a wildlife sanctuary (available here  I hope in future to share more of her (actually very good) unpublished work on this blog.  Meanwhile, here is a piece I wrote back in 2006, but hadn’t got around to placing elsewhere.  I hope it makes an interesting introduction to the unique, often quite perilous venture of a remarkable person.

Dan, Call the Basenji and Jill Wylie
[Photo: Martin Glover]


There are voices on the hill.  Intruders.  The dogs yelp.  I follow my mother into the forest, running.
            For more than thirty years I have followed my mother into this forest, along this path.  This path is the central thread in my childhood, still as strong and essential to my being as my spinal cord is to my body.  My childhood runs even now through my vertebrae, as through a tunnel of trees.
            The forest clings to the mountainside like an injured child.
            My mother owns this part of the forest, it is her property, there are boundaries.  Ownership of a forest is as problematic, however, as ownership of a child, and the status of boundaries is vexed these days.  Money once changed hands, pegs were surveyed and marked.  But my mother says, It doesn’t belong to us, we belong to itI am just a temporary custodian of this acreage of life.
The intruders are here to remind her of her temporariness.  They are carriers of arrows and irony.
            We are running to catch up with them.  I am barefoot, like the child I once was, wincing a little now, my soles plump with civilization.

View across Duiker Hill and into Mozambique

The property my mother possesses, or is possessed by, takes a cut like a sirloin from the flank of a ridge called Zohwe.  Zohwe is part of the Bvumba mountains of eastern Zimbabwe; its northeastern end noses into Mozambique. 
Bvumba means ‘mist’ in Shona.  Often the mist rolls across the top of the grassland-coated batholith we call Forest Hill, scuds down the inner thigh of Lion Rock’s granite prow, leaps with ease the deep Ravine onto Duiker Hill.  The hill is dressed in brachystegia woodland light and open as a smile; it nudges up against the forest proper, its hundred-foot figs and podocarps, cathas and cussonias, albizias and crotons.
            Then the mist rolls on down and dissolves at the valley floor, where the one road loops and writhes.  Mist is oblivious to boundaries.
            The property’s boundaries are imaginary.  No one but dead municipal mapmakers and my mother know or heed them.  There are no fences, bar one along the road at its narrow foot: our intruders this morning must have walked around the end of it.  To the northeast the woodland brushes seamlessly across the ravine to Elephant Head, and onwards.  To the southeast the big forest goes on, equally seamless, up into the head of the valley, the cupped hand of its watershed, its life source. The imagined boundaries of all the property-owners, sketched on air, are violated by nature with impunity: the Starred robins flit through them in a second, the somango monkeys leap across them, unmannerly trees crash from one property into another.
            And violating all of them, in their grooves more ancient than any men, the streams, whose fan of tributaries mesh in the small river which runs the length of the valley and feeds the houses and the coffee-farms, the flower-plots and the nut plantations.
            Without the forest, the coffee and the nuts would die.
            Stippling the deep shadows of the forests, like shy colonists – or runaway slaves – are more coffee trees, seeded there by Silvery-cheeked hornbills which have raided the farms for berries for their nesting wives.  The boundary between the cultivated and the wild is  indistinct, however much my mother might wish it were otherwise.
            But that is consequential on the Sanctuary’s essence, my mother recognises.  This is a Sanctuary without borders, the animals must be free to come and go as they please.  That is why it is a Sanctuary, because it is open.
            It is not a Sanctuary by anyone’s law or legislation.  It is a Sanctuary solely because my mother is there.
            She nurtures it by walking it, by walking and knowing.
            And by the animals’ knowing that they too can walk there, without threat.
            For the child trotting and laughing in my marrow, the forest is the safest place in the world.
            Now we are running, but with urgency, pursuing voices.  The voices are speaking casually in Shona.  They are not stray American or Swedish tourists.  They are black people.


We are white people.  Being white in Zimbabwe is a tricky business.  Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime has been wreaking belated revenge on the political descendants of Cecil John Rhodes, whose 1890 ‘Pioneer Column’ violently annexed Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) to British imperialism.  Zimbabwean poet John Eppel calls Rhodes ‘the cash-box bandit’.
            Now we have a new generation of cash-box bandits, masquerading as state legalism.  In a few short years, agriculture has been eviscerated, industry is collapsing, fuel chronically dries up, inflation runs white-hot at 1200 per cent, four million people face famine.  The police sell confiscated sugar at 400 per cent profit, ungovernable warlordism threatens, the dissenting press is bombed, opposition party officials disappear, Mr Mugabe flies to Malaysia on holiday.
            Conservation of wildlife and the environment is caught up in the mayhem.
            An African proverb: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
            The grass beneath the msasa trees glows like blond flame this morning.  It releases scents, somewhere between the aromas of cinnamon and dust, sparking with crisp dew.
            As a child in Kenya, my mother ran all day in such grasses, and refused to wash when she came home; those smells lingered on her skin and made her drunk with pleasure.
            Just that colour gets under the skin.  After many years away from my homeland, I saw a film, an iconoclastic Zimbabwean-made film called Flame, which recounted the career of a young woman freedom fighter.  It opened with a shot of the dawn sun glowing through these grasses: sharp coppers and edgy, fragrant yellows, tipped with cerise memories.  It felt as if my skin was being turned inside out.
            Of such ephemera we build our identities.
            Now I am ‘home’ – the inverted commas are becoming obligatory, sharp as the black commas on an Augur buzzard’s wings: I have not ‘lived’ here in more than a decade – we are running through the grass, the thin blades razoring coldly across my knees.
            The set of our dogs’ noses tells us the intruders have gone up the firebreak.
            Fire is a talisman of threat.  Lightning sets off fires, but less often than cigarette butts spun from car windows, less often than honey-gatherers smoking out bees from the hollows of waterberry or mutsungunu trees.  Sparks escape thoughtlessly; whole mountain ranges burn.
            I recall many October days, the hills blanched to a pale thick blue by pervasive smoke, when we flailed with sacks or green branches at the edges of fires that crept or stormed up the Sanctuary’s lower slopes.  The blazes scorched our cheekbones, left a sifting pungent darkness and the bones of small creatures.  We’d pick across the coughing aftermath like survivors of an apocalypse, stabilising logs that might roll in the night and spark it afresh.  Hope that the wind wouldn’t awaken in the night while necklaces of red eyes laced our dreams. 
            Many of the Shona people who fought the fires alongside us thought we were crazy.  But they needed the work.
            Later – as in former years - some of them would use fire to drive the whites out, destroy what they loved.  Fire as politics.
            Once, in the worst of the droughts, no man alive could hold it, the winds whipped it up like an acrid spitting sea, even the great evergreen forest was too dry to resist.  The hornbills were nesting in the craibias, the females bricked in with mud; the males wouldn’t leave them until the nest itself was consumed; on fire themselves, braying with terror they spread the flames through the desiccated thickets of dried creeper that weighed the treetops, thirty unreachable metres above any firefighter’s head.
            Like the most innocent women in a war, the most beautiful trees proved the most vulnerable: the great strangler figs, whose muscled, latticed, serpentine, spilling roots had throttled huge host trees to death and split rocks, were shown to be light and friable; they burned like bridges, like long hair.
Not even our biggest firebreak, refurbished by three men every July, raking up the side of Duiker Hill, would work that time.  The fires leaped it with the ease of giraffes stepping across a pig-path.
            The steepest side of Duiker Hill is one of my mother’s treasures.  Saving it from fire remains one of her most tenaciously held ambitions.  The soil here is stony and loose, as prone to russet erosion as a leper’s skin.  In the early years of her ownership, she nursed a thin scattering of emaciated, child-like trees: msasas, munondos, muzhanjes, a few Prince-of-Wales-feathers, waterberries in the gullies.  She ringbarked the Australian eucalypts that stole a thousand litres of water a day from the gaunt water table. 
            Under the weak canopy, an almost unique ecosystem.  Grasses, nutsedge, St John’s wort, blackjack, wild tobacco, streptocarpus, crackling brackens.  Cane-rats and moles.  Stands of leonotis with their storied crowns of orange blossoms that fed the slender bills of Black and Double-collared sunbirds.  Baboons came from Forest Hill, foraging for the soapy-cored yellow muzhanje fruits, barking and squabbling and bashing down the accumulations of dry grass-debris, so no fire that did come through would burn too hot.
            She hoped.  Then the baboons did not come.  Poisoned.  Baboons adore the bark of young pine trees, grown on plantations on the far side of the ridge.  So they were poisoned.
            Then the leopards were no longer to be found either.  Poisoned, by the carcasses of the baboons.
            In the Ravine, liberated from predation, the bushpigs flourished.  On Duiker Hill, grass-brakes mounted up.  A fire got away.  It coursed up those fragile slopes. Too hot; far too hot.  The struggling trees burned and crumbled.
            My mother looked across at those many years of protective work, the shallow dongas just gaining sufficient thicket to shelter her rehabilitated bushbuck, the vetiver grass she’d planted on the erosion wounds just beginning to take: gone.  She wept. 
Then she and the natural processes started again.
Life, green life, seems to be unconquerable.  It conquers cinders and time.  It conquers the despair of women and their visiting sons.  It may yet conquer humankind altogether.  There are little muzhanjes coming up everywhere, with oversized leaves, like urchins wearing borrowed adult finery.  New grass snouting up in punky tufts.  On the forest edge, the pioneer cathas flourishing a vivid adolescent lime-green.   In the new glades in the deep forest, where great trees had crashed in flames and breakage, bringing the open sky down with them, creepers we’d never seen before swarmed over the rocks and debris, healing, holding.  Then, nettles almost the height of a man.  Then the new albizia and cabbage-tree saplings burrowing up into the light.
It will all take time.  But time itself takes time.  And time until – what?  Restoration.  The mythic As-It-Was.
But what will be restored?  What original Paradise do we have in mind here?  We know this forest long ago housed mountain communities of healers, hunters and hermits; we have found the ancient foundations of huts, subtle as ringworm, and pots buried to the rims in earth, deep in burial caves.  We know that the forest was long ago plundered for its hardwoods: here and there the axe has left its flat, hard-eyed signature.
Not to mention the coffee-trees.  Not to mention the gum-trees building up in terrifying, whispering phalanxes along the river-lines.
Everywhere we look, we face the death of purity.
But the Sanctuary depends on a certain conservatism.  It is a metaphor for continuity.
Our intruders are tearing that fabric, that myth of protective stasis.  And they are carrying fire.  We can smell it.  And then, pushing hard up the firebreak, we see them.  Two men.  One has bow and arrows in one hand.  The other a black can slung on a handle of fencing-wire, spilling pale smoke.
We pause to call out.
Iwe, madoda!  Mirayi!  Uya pano!’

Lion Rock
We address the men with the respectful form – mirayi, rather than the more peremptory Mira! – Wait!  It is more unwise than ever to cause unnecessary antagonisms.
            ‘We are looking for some missing cattle,’ one of the men calls back.
            ‘There are no cattle up here.  Please come down.’
            We continue to move up towards them.  Realising we are not about to be deceived by this pretext, they take off.  We give chase, this unfit forty-five-year old and this seventy-five-year old woman and two not very fierce dogs.  I know I have no hope of catching them, nor any clear idea what I might do if I did.  Days were when could call fruitfully on officers from National Parks to arrest ‘poachers’, but those days are gone now; they have neither the resources nor much motivation to work outside their narrowly delineated Park areas.  Indeed, country-wide, Parks officials, progressively stripped of government funding, are either resourced by rich, upmarket tourist lodge owners, the odd NGO, or have themselves become active participants in the plunder of the Parks they avowedly protect.  More or less arbitrary local potentates now regularly sell ‘licences’ to foreign hunters to come in and shoot at will.  A South African hunter recently boasted of having taken out 1500 zebra skins in a single week.  The slaughter re-enacts that perpetrated by the first wave of white hunters in this country in the late 1800s.  Poverty has nothing to do with it.
            For these two young men, poverty might have everything to do with it.  Even if they are local wage-earners, wages have been outstripped by inflation by an order of hundreds. 
At any rate, they have split up and vanished.
            As I pound futilely up the firebreak, a bushbuck doe steals away: their probable target.  Strangely, she does not give the usual sharp flat bark of warning.  As if she knows.  Or perhaps because my mother is in attendance.
            My mother sings to bushbuck.  She developed a melodious call when she was raising orphans, so they could learn to recognise her approach, both before and after rehabilitation.  Terrified, bewildered, often wounded little orphans, susceptible to shock and scouring, they had to learn to trust.  My mother has an extraordinary ability to feel her way into an orphan’s mind and sensibility, to avoid, for instance, spreading her arms like an eagle’s wings, so inducing instinctual panic; to mimic a mother buck’s call to drink; to hold herself in such a way as to approximate a mother’s flank against which the baby could butt and suckle.
            My mother is the wildest creature I know.   
            Once an orphan is healed, has learned from my mother which wild foods to eat, and has made touch-nose contact with wild ones through the mesh of the big outside cages at the forest’s edge, it is released.  It will still be partially dependent on the bottle, and will come in when my mother sings her call.  If not, the dogs, raised alongside and often taking a motherly interest, will be sent out to track and herd the little creature back, nudging it along with their noses.
            So now, the grown, breeding buck in the forest, whether they are released orphans, the orphans’ offspring, or even totally unrelated wild ones, recognize her melodious call, know that the dogs will take no interest in chasing them; so they will just stand and calmly watch us pass. 
            Imagine her distress, then, to one day find the bushbuck Msasa, successfully rehabilitated orphan and mother of five fawns born in the wild, torn to pieces by the neighbours’ dogs; or Fawn Four, hanging bloated from a wire snare laid weeks before, the meat rotting on its makeshift gibbet, never collected.
            She feels every loss like a piece of her own flesh, torn out.  This is the price of unconditional love.
            These two men raise all these nightmares again.
            They have disappeared.  The dogs track and find the blackened tin can, still smoking, abandoned by a path we know snakes back down into the valley.
            In the honeyed evening light, we turn for home.


1 comment:

  1. A beautiful and poignant piece of writing ... straight from the heart! I can only admire your mother.