“Nature is inescapably harsh, relentless and ruthless. She has certainly never wept in sympathy, nor stretched a hand protectively over even the most beautiful or innocent of her creatures.”
“. . . nature guards the way to death with pain.”
— Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
I used to think, in a lazy sloppy kind of way, that I grew up wanting to be Charles Darwin. At the moment I think I wish I were Eugene Marais, although the shooting yourself twice – once in the chest and then – just to be sure – the barrel in the mouth . . . that I admit does give me pause.
Eugene Marias (1876 – 1936) was a (proud) Afrikaaner who not only wrote poetry but was also a passionate observer of nature. Having just finished (in the bath, this morning) reading his ‘classic’ The Soul of the White Ant (by which he actually means termites), I think he was also the kind of amused, curious, original and independent thinker – by which I suppose I mean questioner – that it is only just beginning to occur to me is found charming in young people, and considered irritating and abnormal, and even slightly deranged or grossly inappropriate, in the adult of the species. At least these days, in polite society. Here he is, describing a 20cm long pet South African Scorpion he had. He was given the scorpion after it killed a full grown chicken ‘in seconds’ by stinging the bird on the leg:
. . . She became so tame and knew me so well, that I could suddenly push a finger before her, and allow her to grip me with her claws. She would bring her sting into contact with my skin, before recognizing me. Immediately, she would relax and withdraw her dangerous weapon. I could handle her freely. She liked being gently scratched.”
This sort of embracing, affectionate willingness to know nature – by which I suppose I mean ‘the world’ . . . She liked being ‘gently scratched.’ Ye gods.
I admire that. Other people must as well, or the book wouldn’t have been in print for 100 years, but . . . try it in person. People end up thinking you’re increasingly less cute and more deranged as the years go by. I remember a nine or ten year old boy, son of some teachers at my school in Swaziland, who loved snakes. He was famous for having picked up a mamba by the tail, swinging it in fierce centrifugal circles above his head until he could drop it into some handy container.
Did this really happen? No idea. But I miss the world in which such exploits are celebrated.
The Covid world seems to me to be the antithesis of this. “Be frightened” says authority. Isolate yourself. Hide. Don’t trust, not even the air you breathe. The world is trying to kill you.
If they thought of it: Do NOT ‘gently scratch’ enormous and lethal scorpions.
Well. Being alive is what will kill you in the end. I mean, we all KNOW that. No life without death. (Oh phrasemaker).
Last week I was touting a pair of journalists around Tropoja. Nice people. He was a photographer from the Netherlands, she was a writer from the UK. They hadn’t met before.
“Are they married?” asked Sadik, in an absurdly loud aside to me, as we all sit together on mattresses and eating a byrek Tale had cooked and brought down for them, in the ‘cave’ where I’d deposited them to sleep for the night. Only hours later the journalists will flee the cave, on account of the rather large wolf spiders which were mimsying around the floor of the cave. NB: Wolf spiders, like South African Scorpions, carry their young on their backs, exhibiting a truly admirable maternal spirit.
“No,” I tell him “They work together.”
“Ah,” says Sadik, “bashkshortje!” (they live together, a completely acceptable alternative to marriage, in the traditional Tropojan mind).
“No,” I say, “They WORK together, they’ve never met before.” Sadik’s brow furrows. This is clearly highly irregular. Why are we going to leave them alone together all night, to sleep in a cave for gods sake? He decides to think they’re married. And possibly insane.
Marais might, in a kinder way, have agreed with Sadik. “Sex has become degenerate in people” writes Marais, commenting on the idea that for all life below primates, sex is the ultimate antithesis of pain – the great ‘positive’ of life, opposed to the ‘negative’ of pain and death. For a termite, sex is the tremendous culmination only realizable after a once in a lifetime, once in a generation, flight on gossamer wings. It is not a small thing to be indulged in after dinner, if there isn’t anything better on TV. For termites.
Two days in, the photographer developed a sniffle. “It’s probably change in environment,” we say. “Or!” I say brightly “your body may be triggering a histamine response to an unfamiliar environment. You know, the classic ‘allergic’ reaction.” I discourse a bit on the body’s amazing defense systems. Snot is particularly fascinating and effective. No one is interested, and to be honest, I’m not 100% sure I know exactly what I’m talking about – although the general parameters are correct, I feel certain.
By the third day, his eyes are streaming. “I am sick,” he says. “Pity” I think. But he comes from the ‘real world’ – where the way to death is now guarded by fear. He’s had one vaccine already. But not the second. He has been trained, so he dons a mask and takes himself off – before we can even offer to go with him – to the nearest pharmacy, in search of a Covid test. He returns. “They don’t sell them,” he says, “They say I have to go to the hospital.” Right! Off we go, I say.
I know the Bajram Curri hospital. I stayed there once for almost 2 weeks after the bear whomped me. It’s a lovely old place. One-meter thick walls which keep it cool even in July heat. Thin on equipment, or dishes, or blankets. But very kind. The corridors are paved with particularly beautiful old glazed glass tiles which the writer and I run around admiring, while the photographer tries to make himself understood through the mask which he has thoughtfully, responsibly donned.
The attending nurses (2) and doctor (1) in the ‘emergency room’ reel me in, to translate. “Tell him not to worry!” is their first message. “Of course he doesn’t have Covid.” But, it turns out, they don’t have tests there either – why would they? The tests are done at the governmental health center, which is buried somewhere on a back street in Lagjia Partisane (Partisan’s Neighborhood). But it’s Saturday. There’s no one there until Monday.
“But we can call them!” says one of the nurses. “Maybe they will come in on their day off!” He is particularly sparky, and talks to me about the need for English classes while we wait. He wishes his child had a better chance for education.
None of the workers in the hospital are wearing masks.
Some phone calls ensue, and off we go. Even I have never explored this deep into the back streets and neighborhoods of Bajram Curri. It’s charming in a heat-dazed, post-communist kind of way. The buildings appear to be constructed out of bricks with absolutely no kind of mortar to hold them together. Children wave at us.
We find the Health Center. It still has the old hand-lettered sign over the door reading “Bacteriological Laboratory.” A newer, professionally printed sign has been added to the left of the front door.
By now, sick or not, the photographer is getting peckish. So the writer and I go off and buy a picnic. We sit on the front steps of the laboratory, eating fresh bread and cheese. I have discovered a truly foul brand of mass produced pale pink sausages, with unidentifiable “cheese” embedded in them. I eat all three in the pack. They are delicious.
The health center worker shows up. She is a cheerfully stout blond lady. The photographer swallows his sandwich and follows her inside. But “I’m SURE you don’t have it,” she says to tell him, on the way in. “You shouldn’t worry so much!”
After the photographer comes out again “Just 20 minutes for the result!” the writer says “Well, as long as I’m here, maybe I should get tested?” And she’s about to go in and ask.
But WHY? I say. And they both look at me. “I mean, IF he tests positive, THEN you might wonder, but you feel fine. AND you’ve been vaccinated.”
“Oh,” she says. “Right!” and laughs.
The photographer tests negative.
We try to give the blond woman a cantaloupe, but she backs away from us in horror. “No, no!” she says, waving her hands about “It’s a service of the state.” And she smiles at us as if at slightly impaired children. (Just go AWAY, I feel her thinking, And let me get back to my weekend). So we do.
The photographer takes his mask off. His sniffle is already distinctly less pronounced.
I think about the nurse at the hospital who pointed to his mask and said to me “Tell him to take that thing off! He doesn’t need it. He’s fine. This is a green world.”
Was it irresponsible?
Or was it a kind hand stretched protectively over ‘even the most innocent of creatures.’