We’re driving the Land Cruiser down a dry riverbed. All week we’ve been tracking rhinos, up in the heartless desert above, following the miracle of them, but today we have left their country—one of the driest places on earth, the Namib Desert, where only an inch or two of rain might fall each year—and we’re cruising the sand-wash beneath the cool shade of mopane trees, looking at elephants, giraffes, oryx.
In certain places—the ghost-eddies of where the river once flowed, and where it will flow again—heavier cobbles have settled, so that an inlay of water-polished dark stones lies packed beneath us, and for a few moments it is like driving on the brick streets of Paris, with sun and shadow stippling us—and then the ghost-river’s signature changes, and we are deep once more in the silken whisper of sand, and we feel immediately the greater reflected heat.
In other places—the shallower places, closer to the shore—fantastic polygons of dried mud-cracks shelve and overlap one another like scales of shed reptilian armor, or like a surreal collection of china and dinnerware, the curled plates and cups still darkened from last week’s rainy season.
Elsewhere, crystalline salt patches sprawl gleaming like pools of spilled paint, around which butterflies congregate by the dozens, feasting, gathering the minerals and nutrition that will help empower them to return to the desert floor above, to aid in the pollination of so many desert plants and flowers, upon some of which the rhinos graze. From a distant enough perspective, I suppose a viewer could say that a butterfly is a rhino, or that a blossom is a rhino; and that a flooding, charging river of tumbling, clacking boulders and cobbles, drying weeks later to the sheen of hard-baked salt pan, is a rhino: for all of these things, great and small, conspire to create a rhino. In this made and healthy world of Namibia, it may be that there is nothing that is not a rhino—and yet we almost ran out of rhinos.
In the blood-red plains of basalt above, remnants of the old fire of the world, now cooled, the giant black rhinos wander, the last 92 of their kind in Namibia, having inhabited that desert— the place no one else wanted, the place where almost nothing else could survive—for 50 million years or more, without interruption. The country is so harsh that the dominant vegetation is the toxic, latex-based Euphorbia bush—but somehow the rhinos (perhaps by virtue of their size) survive on it; and somehow they can travel two, even three days without water, with ground temperatures rising above 120 degrees.
I don’t get it. In such an unbelievably difficult land, why has life decided to put so many of its eggs in one basket? Why pack so much biomass into one blimp sized creature, so ornately, fantastically, intricately wrought—and then send it floating across the cooled fire of basalt, grinding up the poisonous bushes like a mulching machine or a sin-eater, redistributing those wan nutrients across the desert through its wandering spoor in an otherwise relatively sterile and lifeless desert?
It is as if the country is so harsh only the most yeoman-like travelers can be charged with that task. And yet, wouldn’t a prudent creator or designer hedge such bets? What reckless, clamant daring must exist within the heart of all life to invest its spirit in one grand and giant gamble of a creature, rather than spreading those same resources, and that spirit, across thousands or tens of thousands of smaller creatures: beetles and butterflies, small birds and mammals.
In the red desert above us, 92 giants stride, passing through the vaporous heat as if in a dream, eschewing water, plodding on, brutally magnificent for anyone who will witness and try to understand them.
What lessons might they hold for us?
We saw them yesterday, and we will see them again tomorrow. Today we are taking a break from the bright red heat, are exploring the thread of life that is sometimes a river and other times dry sand, and around which all the rest of the desert’s life is clustered. We pass elephants giving themselves sand baths, their flag-ears flapping, making breezes in the heat; we pass the laughably large giraffes, and the elegant wild oryx. We are traveling beneath the country of the black rhinos; they have resided on the earth those 50 million years, while we have been here for only 180,000.
We stop and drink from our water bottles often. It just doesn’t make sense for them to inhabit that upper world of basalt, where it sometimes gets so hot it seems the rock is still on fire. Only they can survive by eating those giant poisonous bushes—far more toxic than any apple of knowledge in Eden—and around which they have built their lives and bodies. (Sometimes they lie down on top of the springy bushes, as if they were mattresses, to keep from having their bodies touch the too-hot desert floor, which might otherwise bake them like a giant roast.)
I want to argue with whoever or whatever made them. I do not argue the perfection: the way they do not need keen eyesight, in a land where the aridity would destroy their eyes anyway, or their giant three-toed feet, so adept at shoving aside the worn and rounded softball-sized cobbles of the basalt. I yield all that and more to the genius of life. What I want to protest is the boldness of the gambit.
Puny and vulnerable, I want to believe that the force that put all life here is cautious with us all, conservative. The hint of such ostentation—such flamboyance—seems to indict the quiet, safe lives we spend wallowing in a comfort that too often approaches numbness.
It seems so safe, down along the riverbed, among the elephants and giraffes. Tomorrow we will fill our water jugs and venture back up into the place where only giants can live.
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