INTO AFRICA: The Dying Wildebeest

(The third in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa.  See River Current posted 12-6-2010.)

One morning some of us on the safari chose to take a hot-air balloon ride at dawn to see the animals on the savanna from above.  I opted out.  I don’t trust balloons.  They either pop or shrivel up.  Furthermore, I have a complicated relationship with heights, so I went on the morning game drive instead.

We headed out across the savanna, still wet with dew, the sun not yet above the eastern escarpment.  Within a few minutes we came across a vivid drama of life-and-death on the African plains.  A dead wildebeest was being devoured by a hyena, two jackals, and a swarm of vultures.  They had been feasting for some time, their faces red with blood, the carcass rather ripped up.  Our guide pointed out that vultures are virtually featherless around their heads because they would not be able to clean blood out of a thick layer of feathers.  They are designed to be able to stick their heads into a carcass (they love to do this) and come out relatively clean.  We watched up close for a few minutes then drove off.

Within less than a mile we came across the same scenario.  In fact we wondered if the driver had just driven in a circle.  But no, it was a second wildebeest being eaten by a similar trio of scavengers although this time there were four jackals, one hyena, and a swarm of vultures.  We watched, fascinated by their maneuvers, competing for the best space, the hyena yapping at jackals and birds, jackals backing up and getting a running start to dive back into the crowd, vultures pecking at each other and hopping around with their thick wings flapping for more space.  Somehow in spite of the competitive dance, with occasional fierce stand-offs, they manage to share the food.

We watched awhile, then left, and came to a third site, in some ways more fascinating to me than the other two.  We found a wildebeest, lying on its side, dying all alone.  Whatever herd it belonged to was nowhere in sight.  Our guide said it looked old. It just lay there on its side, with no visible sign of injury.  Scavengers had not yet discovered it.  The animal was panting heavily.  Clearly it would never stand up again.  What struck me most deeply was what else the guide pointed out:  The animal was continuing to graze!  Although it could move its head only a few inches, it was stretching to nibble whatever grass was within reach.  Its old lips munching and squeezing to pull out whatever blades of prairie grass it could find.  When we left, it was still patiently waiting to dye, its life fading like the morning dew. Maybe a lion or hyena would come along and put an end to its efforts.  But I like to think it died grazing.

The rest of the day I was haunted by the vision of this lone animal, dying by itself, but doing what it loved, what it had done every day of its life.  Eating grass.

I recalled a colleague I taught with back in the 1970s.  One day early in the morning before classes I popped into his office to find him bent over a road map, plotting out his next trip.  Like me, Robert enjoyed using some of the summer vacation time to travel around the country, camping, exploring new cities, and visiting friends.  He shared his intended route with me, and then he said, “You know, if I have to die suddenly in the middle of something, I’d like to die while I’m planning my next road trip.”  This comment seemed to come out of the blue, but Robert taught philosophy so I couldn’t be sure.  Philosophers don’t live in the same blue the rest of us do.  But I agreed with him.  Then we mused for a few minutes about whether, if it happened that way, we would even be aware that we had died.  We might just suddenly find ourselves on our next journey a bit earlier than we had planned.  There is something to say about dying while doing something you love to do.

The image of the dying wildebeest continues to haunt me much like I am haunted by the famous marble statue carved about 200 B.C. called “The Dying Gaul.”  It shows a Celtic warrior, with hair slicked back with lime, naked except for the torque around his neck, his sword lying beside him.  He sits calmly, bracing himself with his right hand on the ground, his left hand resting on his right thigh, his left knee bent and still upright. He seems to be lowering himself gently and slowly to the ground where he will expire.  His head hangs downward as if resigned to his death, accepting it without struggle, as we are told animals do when they realize that fight or flight are no longer options. For over 2000 years this Gaul has been dying.  For even longer a wildebeest, if not this wildebeest, has been dying.

In a similar vein, the dying Gaul reminds me of the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, poised to kiss but caught in that moment just before their lips touch and so “never, never canst thou kiss . . .but do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”  The lovers are not dead, only painted on the side of an old Greek urn, but their eternity is fixed in a kind of frustrated bliss.  Keats also thought that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.”  So perhaps the wildebeest is still grazing somewhere in the hereafter but on even finer grass. Perhaps it didn’t even realize that it had died.  And the Celtic warrior is still fighting in an even finer battle.  And all lovers are still embracing in an even finer embrace.

Later that day a woman who took the balloon ride told me she noticed something from the air that you would never see quite as well from the Land Rovers.  “Bones,” she said.  “The savanna is strewn with bones.”  Of course it must be.  Animals live there in great herds and flocks, and they also die there.  But their bones lie hidden in the grass and behind scrubby shrubs that block the visitor’s view from the ground.  From the sky the savanna reveals that in addition to the great migrations of herds, the restless scampering of gazelles and impalas, the stately saunter of giraffes, the endless whirling of wind and dust, in addition to this great flow of life, the savanna is also a graveyard.  Bones lie everywhere even though we can’t see them.

In this same Rift Valley, in the last century, the Leakey family of paleoanthropologists discovered bones that are considered to be from the earliest humans to have walked on Earth.  For centuries those bones lay hidden. I wonder how those first humans died.  I wonder what earthly bliss they enjoyed in that rugged land and if it continues for them in an even finer landscape, in an even finer tone. Yes, I am also haunted by thoughts of those ancient ancestors of ours, those early human beings, who had not yet, and would not ever, wander out of Africa.