Sunday, June 1, 2014

My Log 427 June 1 2014: Matthiessen book The Tree Where Man Was Born, written half a century ago, is a wonderful wistful plea for a better world

tsetse fly which transmits sleeping sickness
tsetse fly which transmits sleeping sickness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Matthiessen in the WNYC studios...
Peter Matthiessen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Julius Nyerere as leader of the Legislative Co...
Julius Nyerere (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Tree Where Man Was Born"
Cover of Tree Where Man Was Born
It is a sign of the power of the late Peter Matthiessen’s books, and of his stature as a writer, that on his death, my second-hand bookshop in Montreal, The Word, one of the best I have encountered anywhere, could find only one of his books in their huge collection of the finest literature.
When I drew his death to their attention they put his book on his travels to the Antarctic in their window, and, having never read that one, I snapped it up.  A couple of days later the owner Adrian came at me on the street waving a large book by Matthiessen called The Tree Where Man Was Born, a beautiful book printed in 1972 by Dutton of New York, in which the writer recorded several trips he had made to the African continent, where he observed the wildlife and the human inhabitants with the same practised anthropological eye.
Along with the 100,000 words of Matthiessen’s text the book contains magnificent photos taken by Eliot Porter, who is given equal billing on the book’s title page.
I snapped up this book as well, and am just finished reading it. As usual Matthiessen’s prose is of such quality that one is constantly tempted to reproduce great quantities of it. But what amazed me more in this book is the depth of his knowledge of the wildlife of the relatively small area of Africa in which he travelled, and his profound knowledge of the history of each of the small groups of people --- often displaced people from some other area of the continent --- whom he encountered.
His journeyings took him down Kenya into the northern reaches of Tanzania, or Tanganyika, as it was known when he first visited it.  I remember clearly as a correspondent in London, being told by the Colonial secretary of the time that this large country was given its independence, Iain Macleod, that the decision was made “entirely because of Julius Nyerere.” It is true Nyerere was a sterling fellow, educated at Edinburgh university, but he was almost the only university graduate in the whole country, and I seem to remember that at the time of the handing over, the annual budget of Tanganyika was something  around 20 million pounds. Not much wonder that a few years later I was told by an amiable Canadian diplomat who had been our high commissioner there for some years, that “I am in favour of Julius Nyerere….of course nothing works in his country….but he deserves our support.”
Of course, Matthiessen was neither seeking, nor offering,  political insight, but was keen to investigate the actual conditions of the African tribesmen, their relations with their animals and land, and the extent to which the imposed ideas of Western-educated people were making life for them more or less impossible.
“In Tanzania,” he writes (remember, this book was published 52 years ago!), “ intensive agriculture is seen as the solution to malnutrition and unemployment, and a population increase is encouraged.But except in the highlands the red earths of East Africa are too poor to support permanent agriculture, and where they are fertile, the soils are soon impoverished by the plow, which lays them bare to cycles of fierce sun and leeching rain. In the wet season the ground is muck, and in the dry a hard-caked dusty stone. Wind and rain erode a soil that may have taken centuries to form, and there is desert. In Ethiopia, Madagascar and throughout East Africa one sees this fatal erosion of thin fragile lateritic soils; the rust red of the laterite comes to the surface of the African landscape like blood welling in scraped skin.”
This is so beautifully described one almost feels there is nothing more to be said.
But elsewhere in the book Matthiessen devotes a lot of time to observing elephants:
“I can watch elephants for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and and carry them off into the bush There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, an ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”
Still Matthiessen appears to have almost given up hope that the elephant will survive:
“…even very honest governments may not be able to withstand political pressure to provide meat for the people….park revenues from meat and hides and tusks could be considerable, and this temptation may prove impossible to resist for the new governments….A stubborn fight for animal preservation in disregard of people and their famine-haunted future would only be the culminating failure of the western civilization that through its blind administration of vaccines and quinine has upset the ecologies of a whole continent… Thus wildlife must be treated in terms of resource management in this new Africa which includes, besides gazelles, a growing horde of tattered humans who squat for days and weeks and months and years on end, in a seeming trance, awaiting hope.”
The elephant problem is the reverse side of the problem of livestock. Matthiessen observes that in small numbers cattle were no threat to the African landscape, but with the coming of the white man, a conflict has emerged. “The Europeans saw livestock as a sign of promise in the heathen: what was good for the white in Europe was good for the black in Africa, and that was that.” Thus was undertaken a vast campaign of wholesale slaughter of wild game, in the hope of ridding the country of the fatal tsetse flies, a useless slaughter as it turns out because it has become known that the tsetse prefers warthog, giraffes and buffaloes, so that “the vast majority of victims died in vain.”
And then this passage: “Game control, tsetse control, fenced water points, poaching --- everywhere wild animals made way for creatures which even from the point of view of economics seem very much less efficient than themselves. The ancestors of the wild animals have been evolving for 70 million years; the modern species, three quarters of a million years old, form the last great population of wild animals left on earth. Over their long evolutionary course, they have adapted to the heat and rain, to poor soils and coarse vegetation, and because they had time to specialize, a dozen species can feed in the same area without competing; rhino, giraffe and gerenik are browsers of leaves and shrubs, while zebra, topi and wildebeest are grazers; buffalo, elephant, eland, impala, and most other antelope do both. Zebras eat standing hay, and wildebeest and kongonis half-grown grass, leaving the newest growth to the gazelles; the topi has a taste for the rank meadow grass that most other antelopes avoid…..all have water-conserving mechanisms that permit them to go without water for days at a time….Cattle by comparison must be brought to water every day or two, and waste coarse grasses used by the wild animals.” It struck me during the many years that, as a journalist, I spent fiddling around environmental issues, how little we know of how Nature works. And this book is evidence for that belief. 
In one passage he gives a catalogue of the equipment needed before anyone ventures out into the African bush in a motor vehicle. Surrounded by wild animals, many of which can be extremely dangerous, fear of breakdown is real: and it reminded me of a trip I took once between Hay River and Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, to deliver a small weekly newspaper published in the first of these two small towns. The owner of the truck (and publisher of the newspaper) we were travelling in across the empty 180 mile distance, needed a panoply of extra materials in case of breakdown. In the event, his tail pipe dropped off in the middle of the night, and in below minus 30 degree weather he had to get down with his supplies of mending wire, to fix the problem. In Africa, it was the dry, dusty land and the wildlife that demanded immense caution; in Canada, it was the cold we had to confront.
There is so much meat in this book, informationally speaking, that I feel I  am incapable of making a more measured judgment of it, informed as it is by the author’s profound knowledge, allied to his unique capacity to describe what he was observing. It is interesting that for all his respect for these pre-industrial people of Africa, Matthiessen also describes a profound admiration for the strange assortment of white adventurers, ecologists, wildlife enthusiasts, who were among the first to bring the outside world detailed descriptions of the needs and the joys of this unique continent. Matthiessen himself benefitted immensely from the help of many of these pioneering people and is unstinted in his praise of them, while not neglecting to point out the sometimes wild aspects of their view of their roles.
His last chapter is  wonderful, an account of travelling among two groups of almost extinct people, small people, who appear to have intermarried along the way with people coming into their district, but who, when Matthiessen encountered them, were living so fundamental a life that they did not even have real houses, but merely sheltered in times of rain under makeshift shelters that they erected. One of these peoples, called the Hadza, would appear to require, if they are to have a future, game-cropping arrangements of some kind. They were encouraged in this by a Swedish man living among them, Peter Enderlein, who would like to try game-ranching to support them. “But he has received little support for this scheme, or any other and for the moment must content himself with shooting the animals instead.” Meantime he spends most of his time supplying food for the impounded Hadza, who are not supposed to leave their settlement, much less revert to their old lives in the bush. Matthiessen got the impression the man was almost at the end of his tether, and was hardly surprised when, some months later he received a note from him saying: “It seems my time in Hadza Land has come to an end. I was recently called to a meeting in Mbulu to discuss my project but I found myself the witch in a medieval  witchhunt where the bonfire was built and the match already lighted.” He was accused of wanting to keep the Africans primitive and naked and turn them back to the bush, and various other accusations of an unsavoury kind, none of which was remotely true. Such people as he was trying to defend do not find favour with modern governments, either in Africa or elsewhere.
In the last two paragraphs Matthiessen records that the Hadza women were out gathering roots and tubers, and also the nut of the baobab tree which, “pounded on a stone and cooked a little, provides food for five months of the year. The still air of the hillside quakes with the pound of rock on rock, and in this place so distant from the world, the steady sound is an echo of the Stone Age.” Traditionally the baobab provided shelter, fibre thread,  honey and water, as well as material for baby rattles and drinking cups. But today young baobab are killed by fires, set by the strangers who clear the country for their herds and gardens “and the tree where man was born is dying out in Hadza Land.”
“Soon the young hunters, returning homeward, come in single file between the trees, skins black against black silhouetted thorn. One has an imbra (a marimba) and in wistful monotony, in hesitation step, the naked forms with their small bows pass one by one in a slow dance of childhood. The figures wind in and out among black thorn and tawny twilight grass and vanish. Once more as in a dream, like a band of the Old People, the small Gumba, who long ago went into hiding in the earth.”
Such is the writing of one of our great masters.

This is a book to be cherished by anyone.
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