The Wisdom of the Wilderness

You can listen to the voice recording below, or read the text. Enjoy!


The bush was a windless oven. Plants stood in their swaths of shade, gasping through their stomata. Animals clustered in the coolness that they brought, heads lowered, barely stirring, save for the flick of a tail or the twitch of an ear. Birds sat with wings hanging and beaks gaping.

It was time for us to seek the shade, to rest, to chat, to mend, to fiddle, to read, but mostly, to learn – by revisiting what we had seen and heard and smelled and sensed that morning; by re-examining its meaning and implications. By, sometimes, leading on to earlier experiences, actual or imagined. We turned to the dense riverine bush along the banks of the Ruvuma.

The men I was with are simple; barely schooled in academic terms. Yet here, they, especially Nelson, the elder of them, possess knowledge and wisdom vastly superior to mine. As we looked around for a pool of deep shade, Nelson was saying, “No, that spoor of the lion this morning, it is of the old man, I think. It is dragging its back foot when it is walking. The strength of the lion has left it. It has chosen another one. Now the old one is alone and it is becoming weak. It is following the other lions to try and steal their food when they are not looking, but it must hide from them. Soon it will be too weak. Then, it will lie down to die.”

I lowered myself onto a huge fallen tree, not thinking of finding a more comfortable position or even taking off my hat or laying down my rifle. His understandings are pragmatic, sensibly connected to the visible and the touchable, but charming and imagination-provoking, with just that hint of mysticism mixed in here and there – “This crocodile, it is far from the river. It is the spirit of the man who did not die good. It is waiting for the people who killed him to come to this water…”

He answers my questions unpretentiously, seriously, honestly. Some of what he says, I am vaguely aware, is perhaps inaccurate, or incorrect, but here, in the remote wilderness, it carries elements of truth and wisdom and perhaps comfort.

The years of academic training and intellectual exploration would probably enable me to question, or refute, if I wanted to. Yet now, all that learning, and all the latest business and social cleverness, and the painful mastery of the habits and ploys that smooth the civilised passage, have to be pushed back. It has to make space and silence, so that the teachings of a different school can be heard. It is a school in which learning is through observation of small details, of smells, and sounds, of sensing the mood and the character of the surrounding bush, and through hearing the wisdom of those that have lived in it for most of their lives.

Knowledge comes only to the humble, in this school. To them, revelation is slow at best – years – and subtle, through many mistakes and misinterpretations. If they are open, and remain humble enough, each little bit gained will open a vast new world of related unknowns, so that true mastery is mostly found in those of many years.

Now, the few that still embody this wisdom have become too enfeebled to venture into the harsh environment of the untamed bush – it has come to be a rarity, almost extinct.  To me it means an even slower, and probably flawed, process of learning; and a vexing certainty that the time I have left before I myself is reduced to the ranks of the enfeebled, will not be enough…

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