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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Detour Through the Kalahari: “It may be that the day is just the dream of the night....”

Before the first of our rains finally arrived last week, the grass was parched and brown, and the vegetable garden needed watering every day, but the dry spell that made the cornfields suffer was good for cherry harvest and could hardly be called a drought--nothing like conditions on the opening page of Laurens van der Post’s The Heart of the Hunter (1961):
We were still deep in the Kalahari, moving slowly through a difficult tract of country into which the rains as yet had been unable to break. Since it was already late in the year, the plight of the desert was frightening. Almost all the grass was gone and only the broken –off stubble of another season left here and there, so thin, bleached, and translucent that its shadow was little more than a darker form of sunlight. The trees, most of them leafless, stood exposed against the penetrating light like bone in a X-ray plate. The little leaf there was looked burnt out and ready to crumble to ash on touch. Under such poor cover the deep sand was more conspicuous than ever, saffron at dawn and dusk, and sulphur in between. There was no shade anywhere solid enough to cool its burning surface. What there was, seemed scribbled on it by the pointed thorns like script on some Dead Sea scroll.

In quiet moments during the day and the dark hours when sleep flees, I have been living in the Kalahari and learning from Laurens van der Post. The excerpt above is only the second paragraph of the book, after a short introductory paragraph of two sentences, so you see how quickly the author plunges his reader into the atmosphere he wants to convey. Van der Post does not mistake the desert for empty land. The Kalahari, we learn as we read, is alive with clouds, stars, plants, trees, people and stories, and the traveler who guides us through it does so with a fine sensibility and love for everything and everyone he meets there.
I know that, ever since I can remember, I have been attracted by deserts in a way I do not properly understand. I have always loved above all others what I call Cinderella country. I know of nothing more exciting to my imagination than discovering in the waste land, which the established world rejects as ugly and sterile, a beauty and promise of rare increase not held out anywhere else in life.

Most of all, he appreciates the culture of the Bushmen. At its most superficial, then, The Heart of the Hunter (sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari) tells a story of travel through the Kalahari and conclusions the author draws from his experiences, with the next level down his focus on the Bushman, but there is depth beyond a recounting of encounters and tales told. Van der Post’s third level is his search for nothing less than the meaning of life and his finding it in Africa and in the Bushman’s oral culture, from which he draws parallels to cultures and religions around the world. Finally, in all of these stories, as well as in the poetry of Blake and Goethe, he finds the reconciliation of opposites, the reunion of black and white, man and nature, intellect and emotion, life and death.

The Bushman before he came into conflict with European culture and law, with his spirit safely contained in his traditional stories, says van der Post, knew nothing of “that isolation which secretly eats away the courage and individuality of modern man.” Rather—
Armed only with his native wit and his bow and arrow, wherever he went he belonged, feeling kinship with everyone and everything he met on the way from birth to death. I myself would define his ‘participation mystique’ as a sense of being known; wherever he went he felt known, whatever he encountered, starlight, cloud, tree, or animal, knew him.

Those of my readers unfamiliar with van der Post’s writings will no doubt be thinking skeptically about now, Isn’t this just one more book romanticizing of the ‘primitive,’ of which we have known so many? Does the author conclude that we of the literate West are doomed to alienation because there is no way to return to our mythical ‘origins’? Happily—although not at all easily—this is not where Laurens van der Post would lead and leave us. The structure of this book echoes the much longer work of Marcel Proust. Part One of The Heart of the Hunter is “World Lost,” Part Two, “World Between,” and Part Three, “World Regained.” We can, the author believes (along with Proust), “regain” a feeling for the meaning of life and for belonging in the world. All it takes is that we do not let our commitment to words bar the contribution of images to our sense of belonging, that our appreciation for science not blind us to the grace to be found in imagination, mythic narrative and poetry.

Laurens van der post himself (1906-1996) was blessed with the soul of a poet and with a childhood that nurtured that soul. His attunement to the world around him was extraordinary. There is scarcely a sentence in this book unworthy of being quoted, but I will close today with a short excerpt from near the beginning, since in the beginning is the end and in the end the beginning:
The last red glow in the west died down behind the purple range of cloud, and it went utterly dark beyond our camp. Our own fires rose higher than ever, straining like a gothic spire towards the stars which were appearing in unusual numbers. Soon the stars were great and loud with light until the sky trembled like an electric bell, while every now and then from the horizon the lightning swept a long sort of lighthouse beam over us. At last the Bushmen stood up from their work with a deep sigh of satisfaction and wiped their hands on stubbles of grass. ... As always their fires were more circumspect than our own. Ours was a cathedral of flames, theirs little more than slender candles burning in a night devout under stars.

The sight stirred me deeply....


Gerry said...

I am fascinated by deserts, and love to hear stories about them. The thought of actually (sorry PJ) going to a real desert gives me the fantods. It doesn't surprise me a bit that writers are moved to poetry, philosophy and mysticism by a desert experience. Good. I can read their stories from my perch in the woods. Next to the Bay. In winter. Winter would be a good time to read this book.

P. J. Grath said...

So interesting how different people are, how differently two women similar in many ways respond to the same habitat idea. In winter I love to read about the Arctic! The desert doesn't really attract me, but the Arctic "wastelands" do.