By Bunny McBride
. . . before the rain begins I always waken, listening to the world hold its breath. ~Lianne Spidel
It was late, and I lay in my bed in a small round hut nestled against the Great Rift Wall in northern Tanzania. The stone abode was part of a rugged camp where my biologist brother-in-law spent many years doing wildlife research. I went there to escape the capital city of Dar es Salaam where I’d run into one too many snags in the article I’d been researching. The switch from pavement to earth and from human voices to those of nature was a welcome change. I planned to spend one week at the camp, but remained for five.
As I fell in and out of sleep, moonlight danced with acacia trees, creating lacy shadows on the whitewashed wall opposite my window. A lazy wind sifted through the screen, carrying the sounds of the wild on its back. The call of a nearby leopard resounded about the room—one loud hack followed by a series of muted rasps. A lion bellowed, and even though the big cat was probably some two miles away, I felt the vibrations of its momentous roar.
Overhead, scampering tree hyraxes turned the metal roof into a snare drum, while bush babies cried in the darkness, hyenas laughed menacingly, and baboons barked warnings to each other. Even in the pauses between these sounds, it was never wholly still, for crickets rubbed their wings together incessantly, filling the air with a soft, shrill vibrato.
However, one voice was missing in this midnight chorus, as it had been since my arrival: the whirr of the small waterfall that usually spilled down the Rift Wall into the river that runs below this hut. In that year of drought, there was no cascade, and the watercourse was bone dry. Night masked the desolation. But the harsh light of day revealed a parched and brittle landscape: trees were skeletons cowering in the sun and the whole dusty scene showed itself desperate for a drink.
Yet, remarkably (as the night symphony testified), life continued. Thrilled by its stamina and variety, I liked to begin each day watching it in the early morning hours as soon as starlight and moonlight began yielding to Africa’s blazing sun. Outside my hut stood an enormous boulder nudging against an unusually tall umbrella acacia. Sitting atop the rock beneath that gnarly flat-topped tree, I could look down on the riverbed 100 feet below and witness wondrous sights—such as elephants digging wells.
They arrived at dawn, massive forms lumbering through the veil of incandescent orange that plays over morning scenes here. Reaching the dry riverbed, they began their work, using their forefeet and trunks to quarry subterranean streams. The water table was so low that it took them considerable time, but eventually tiny pools arose and the great beasts quenched their thirst. When the elephants left, other animals arrived to drink from the ephemeral wells—puckish warthogs, playful baboons, graceful impalas and gazelles, and many others.
Day after rainless day, I sat atop my hut-side boulder and watched the scene repeat itself. Then, one morning, something besides the animals called my attention. At first I didn’t see it; I simply felt that the setting has somehow changed. Then I looked up and discovered that a green haze had appeared around the crown of the acacia tree—without the benefit of a sprinkle of rain and so very far from the groundwater below. A close look revealed masses of tiny leaf buds.
At breakfast I asked my brother how this happened in the midst of such utter dryness. He told me, “Acacias turn green in anticipation of the rains.” He explained that these trees take in water not only with long tap roots but through their leaves. So, when all is parched, they gear up for growth by sprouting leaves. Then they’re able to take maximum advantage of moisture when it finally comes.
“Do you mean,” I asked, “that in order to become really green, acacias have to muster up a bit of greenness first on their own?”
“Yes. That’s it, precisely.”
To me, this was a rousing thought. A call to live what one longs for: If you wish to be loved, find a way to give it; if you want knowledge, use whatever wisdom you have within to reach out for it; and if you yearn for joy, strive to express it. And do so in anticipation. The way an elephant digs for water when it is out of sight. The way an acacia sprouts buds in a full-fledged drought.
A writer with a Masters in Anthropology, Bunny McBride writes often on cultural survival and wildlife conservation themes. She has written scores of travel stories for some two dozen newspapers and magazines, including Travel & Leisure, Travel Holiday, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Outside, Sierra, International Wildlife. Her books include The Audubon Field Guide to African Wildlife (coauthor), Women of the Dawn (1999 Friends of American Writers Literary Award winner), Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris), Our Lives in Our Hands: Micmac Indian Basketmakers, Indians in Eden (coauthor). In close collaboration with Native American communities, she has curated 5 exhibitions at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, based on her books, including a current national award-winning exhibition “Indians & Rusticators” and “Journeys West: The David & Peggy Rockefeller American Indian Art Collection.”