Monday, August 3, 2015

Excerpt from a work in progress (Africa Notes: Reflections of a Semi-Educated Tourist)

NOTE: The following narrative is an example of how I go about constructing the first draft of a chapter.

5. Wetlands
The evil chief and his son fled for safety into the underworld and became earthworms, the lowest of the creator’s creatures. They became food for the fish.
—David Lee Smith (Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe, 1997)
Gnu, a blue and white, Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, owned by Wilderness Air, sits a quarter of a mile down the tarmac at Maun; Leo, the sister plane, taxis toward us, stops fifty yards away, and turns; its turboprop engines shut down. Standing outside the small, bare, terminal, we squint into the afternoon sun. I put my camera away, having taken all the pictures needed of Botswanan baskets displayed on the walls inside. We get our assignments. Karen should have been in Leo, I think, given her astrological sign and her lifelong dreams, but we end up assigned to Gnu instead. Both planes are modified from the basic Caravan 208B by having cargo pods installed below the passenger compartment. We watch our bags being crammed through the small doors; limits on luggage size, weight, and design—soft, forty-four pounds maximum weight—now make sense. We wave goodbye to our traveling companions as they walk toward the small plane and make their way up the fold-down steps, tossing back packs into the rear open space before finding a seat. The young African co-pilot, smiles and closes the door then walks under the wing to his own steps, grabbing the cable hand rail, getting into the cockpit, and pulling the steps up after him. Engines start, then rev, before Leo turns, taxis down runway, turns again, and takes off back into the wind. We’ve just been shown our mode of transportation between camps for the next two weeks—Cessna Grand Caravans moving about over a vast open country as casually as we would get out on the Interstate back home.
Gnu taxis up and turns in the spot previously occupied by Leo. Engines shut down; pilot and co-pilot open their doors, step down on to the runway, and wave us on board. This drill will become routine over the next few days, the only variation being where we try to sit, decisions being made mostly on the basis of photo opportunity. On a regular airline, I always try to get an aisle seat, and Karen usually gives up hers willingly if she gets one and I don’t, mainly to minimize my fidgeting. On Gnu, I take a window; again, she’s patient and knows why. Over the next hour, I will take picture after picture from 7,000 feet. I’m thinking ahead of how these African photographs will be used: various PowerPoint shows, videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter posts. I have no idea who will be looking at them, or who even cares about my decisions on the instants and images to capture. In my mind, I’m simply building an extended narrative because that’s what I’ve done every week, three times a week, for the past fifty years, namely, building fifty-minute lectures on biology, each of which is actually the equivalent of a fifty-page essay, accompanied by pictures. Old mental habits die hard.
From earlier in the day, my notes as we left Johannesburg on at ATR 72 Air Botswana plane for Maun, looking down on the city fringes and outlying settlements, were something to the effect that “this looks like rural Oklahoma.” Red dirt; housing you might not want to occupy on a blistering hot day—corrugated metal roofs, concrete block walls, unpaved streets—all seemed quite familiar from a childhood spent in former Indian Territory. THIS PARAGRAPH NEEDS A TRANSITION, TWO SENTENCES. BREAK IT UP WITH SOME ACTION, OR CONVERSATION, MAYBE AIRPLANE ENGINE NOISE, SOMETHING TO INTRO REAL TIME NARRATIVE AND A HINT OF ACTION TO COME.
Weeks later, looking at the maps, I discover that north of Johannesburg the land is largely of Permian origin, thus laced with iron. This mental association between color and chemical content of soil, and a geological epoch, is a product of growing up in Oklahoma. Because my father was a petroleum geologist, names of those late Paleozoic eras—Mississippian, Pennsylvanian, and Permian—were part of our household conversation. Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are referred to collectively as the “Carboniferous” because the vast wetlands and forests produced during those times were eventually converted into coal by planetary forces—folding and burial of rock layers, pressure, heat, and time. The carbon atom you just breathed out, as carbon dioxide, could easily have been part of a giant amphibian’s eye, three hundred million years ago. That’s the kind of scenario that moves, uninvited, through the mind of a semi-educated tourist looking down at red dirt from the window of a small plane.
Below Gnu, the Okavango Delta fans out into the Kalahari Desert. Karen has gracefully given me the window seat. I’m seeing crocodiles, I know, and hippos, but thinking of damselflies and digital cameras. As a biological scientist, my students and I published numerous papers on the parasites of damselflies. This engagement with a single group of species—the host insects—functions almost like a set of high tech, virtual image, goggles. You see a habitat anywhere in the world, a habitat like that into which you’ve waded, swinging an insect net, and your mind supplies the inhabitants. And what is the digital camera’s place in this scenario? The answer is simple: upon a single chip, 15mm x 9mm x 2mm, I can capture several thousand images.

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