Sacred Combe Safari IV
Throughout human history there have been increasingly frenzied attempts to find things that separate human and non-human animals for all time. Tool use? No. Tool-making, then? No, not that, either. Culture? Sorry, no, that doesn’t work. So what about religion? But some of the more intense studies of apes and elephants cast doubt even on that (Cynthia Moss and Jane Goodall for example).
I saw a small group of elephants standing quietly round a skull in North Luangwa National Park. It was the skull of an elephant. And they were just standing there looking at it. In a shared silence. No one was feeding, no one was socialising. Aware of our presence, they adjusted — and stayed exactly where they were. Because whatever they were doing, it mattered.
Had they just stumbled across this random elephant skull? Did they know this clump of trees of old, as a place of death, a place where one of their kind had died? Was this the skull of an elephant known to them? A beloved matriarch, dead from illness, from accident, from a bullet? Knowledge of death is sometimes thought to be another of those uniquely human things, but it didn’t look like that to me. Here was a moment of reverence.
Every evening on a Sacred Combe Safari it is my practice to read out a brief chapter of my book about the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, which is called, unsurprising, The Sacred Combe. It’s also about all those secret, sacred places of the soul.
That night when I was reading out a section on the human experience of reverence in wild places, a voice rose up so loudly I had to stop, and wait for my interrupter to finish. This happened three or four times in the course of the chapter, and soon more than one voice was calling: rising up and echoing along the wide, shallow Mwaleshi River. It seemed to me that there this time, there was a certain lack of reverence involved. I paused again, waiting, as ever, on their convenience. And then I picked up the thread as best I could.
Giving a reading
my fine phrases
heckled by lions