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Pandemic Musings

This article contains thoughts, opinions and two factual accounts of near-death experiences while in the field. Have a warm drink and a read.

Sitting at home approximately 30 hours before a strict stay at home order by the government of this country, I look at our dwindling supplies in the kitchen cupboard and know that we’re going to have to leave at some point next week to replenish. Which is not going to be a problem, as groceries will remain open. Yet droves of people have been flocking to groceries, wholesale markets and I have no clue what else, literally risking their lives (and those of countless others) just to be able to open the fridge and see it full? I honestly can’t understand the driver of this behaviour. I can hazard a guess though.

There is a need – an extremely deep-seated one at that – to ensure our future.

This goes far beyond race, religion and politics. This is not even about survival, as many would seek to argue. Even before this virus exploded, the entire world was going at an incomprehensible pace, one can even say surpassing the speed of the planet itself. In fact, human beings were living on a hypothetical planet spinning 1.75 times faster than the planet we’re actually living on. Gobbling up resources at an unsustainable rate, out of the blue a microscopic organism entered the body of one person and voila – here we are now at standstill.

And great voids have now opened up in people’s lives. All our daily shenanigans were centred around activities we absolutely had to do such that tomorrow will be fine. Fear-driven, we survive on little sleep, spend a thin slice of the day with our families just to be able to survive tomorrow. We serve companies who claim they are equally as financially strapped as all of us. We pay hefty insurance premiums each month and put aside pension plans for our golden years.

So it actually makes some form of sense that people would be panicking. We’re conditioned to see a half-full larder as half-empty. We’re taught that we have this entire 70 or 80 year lifetime that must be partitioned into pre-determined segments which capitalize on what is deemed to be “useful”. But now, all of a sudden, the future became uncertain.

I can’t help but wonder how could one ever think that the future was ever certain, though. The only constant is change, and the only certainty is death – the uncertainty of tomorrow.

This is the eternal state of being human. We change, and we die.

Time itself is unlimited (perhaps a subject of another, much lengthier post) but our occupation of this physical body is not. Time is not money.

All we have is now – a moment which is guaranteed to be a life-changing moment. Whether one can perceive the change or not does not necessarily imply its occurrence (or lack thereof).

We have no idea what tomorrow brings, or if it will come at all. See, each day in nature is different from the next. The sum total of happenings in nature changes each day – a single tree may stand in the same spot for a hundred years, yet there are always different animals on it. It never flowers in the same place. It gets its first epiphyte one day and adopts a new role in the ecosystem until its eventual demise, upon which its role will again change.

Each sunrise is different from the next, as is each sunset. Clouds move differently and conditions never repeat. Immerse in nature and the underlying lesson is that we are part of it and our existence is as fragile and transient as a mayfly.

BUT

Spend each day traversing the same route in the same vehicle, going to the same cubicle, seeing the same people, performing the same tasks, wearing the same clothes, watching the same shows on the TV – and slowly we become lulled into a false existence that is tragically doomed to fail. Slowly, the months tick past. Then years. But hey, it’s ok, because all the time you’re spending equates to comfortable living and an even better retirement, right?

It simply makes one of the cardinal rules of nature – of existence – exceedingly difficult to grasp.

Alas, for some it may be too late to change the direction of the ship – but should some of us make it out of this pandemic alive I do hope that we resume our lives with a new awareness. That no matter what, we are helpless. Let us be humble, and respectful. For nature is benevolent – although she is purported to be unforgiving. Allow me to give two examples from personal experience.

A few years ago I was photographing White-bearded Manakins with two good friends (former clients but hey relationships can form easily when people are on similar wavelengths) and one of the birds flew excessively close and perched almost overhead. There was a peculiar expression on the bird’s face, but I was cut short from even photographing the bird as my buddy Leon pointed to the embankment I was huddled against with a smirk.

“Fer-de-lance” he said calmly.

“Where?”

He pointed to the embankment. Knowing that they are masters of camouflage among the leaf litter, I knew I had to put on my best pair of eyes to see it. But I just couldn’t find the snake, even when I aligned my face along his arm as he pointed directly to it. Finally, he poked it with a stick, and it moved a little.

There I was, completely engrossed in my task with a highly venomous viper not even two feet away from my torso – and believe me that snake was well aware of my presence. One brave manakin noticed it along with Leon when it began to slowly move away from us.

If you don’t believe me, here’s the snake – now called Trinidad Lancehead, Bothrops atrox. It was so close I had to take several steps back for my camera to be able to focus.

fer-de-lance

 

 

 

 

 

Last year we visited a small town called Baringo in the Great Rift Valley area of Kenya. Lake Baringo was one of our stops, where we were to take a boat at sunrise for some above average birding in some golden light. Arriving at our lodge in the dwindling light of evening, we couldn’t help but notice more than a few Nile Crocodiles at the water’s edge. Yes, the same water’s edge where we were to jump in our boats the following morning. Out of curiosity, we shone a flashlight over the lake that night – revealing innumerable eyes glowing back at us. Excellent.

The next morning, we got into our boats – which were worryingly tiny, only enough room for 3 or 4 persons, seated one behind the other. The birding and photography was fabulous by any standards, in fact some of the best images I returned home with were made in Baringo. On our way back to shore we decided to check within some reeds to see if there was anything available and willing to be seen or photographed. Our guide soon spotted a pair of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters – migrants from Europe that I had been dreaming of seeing for years.

northern carmine bee-eaters-6960

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As is customary procedure, we attempted to get closer to the birds, one of which had flown to an exposed stump some distance away.

Our boat driver navigated pathways through the dense reeds, paths invisible to the naked eye especially from open water. It only occurred to me after that something else must have made those paths. Eventually we came to a sort of clearing within the reeds, after which we could go no further as the vegetation was simply too dense. At least we got a clear view this time.

northern carmine bee-eater-7092

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I photographed the bird and then shifted aside to let a friend get his shot – but there was a sudden whooosh from behind us. I spun around immediately but still was too slow to lay eyes on the creature. I only saw the tip of its nose as it smoothly sank beneath the surface. But we all knew exactly what it was. My wife was keeping a lookout from our boat and locked eyes with the adult Hippopotamus that had surfaced.

Our party of two boats instantly started engines to evacuate ourselves from the danger zone. Well, one did. The boat I was in had its engine propeller tangled in the dense reeds under the surface. Our boat captain calmly lifted the engine and manually removed the offending vegetation. All the while we sat in silence, after all we had binge-watched hippo attack videos prior to our trip like any self-respecting traveller would. But there was only the deafening silence, and bubbles.

The most dangerous animal on the African continent chose not to end our lives that day. Just like the most dangerous animal on Trinidad spared me years earlier.

Life is a lottery, whether you’re at home or abroad. Whether you’re at home or at work.

Live hard, and live now.

Whatever it is you like to do, do it now (well maybe not now, depending on the restrictions in your country)

Whoever means something to you, let them know now.

Whatever matters to you, make it your priority now.