Since the first time I picked up Isac Dinesen and met Karen Blixen, I’ve been transfixed by that first line. This is someone writing from love and memory, a sentence steeped in the scent of regret and remembrance, looking back at something forever lost.
"I had a farm in Africa."
...I will never see it again.
The veils between worlds are so thin out in Africa that in some places they barely exist at all and it is entirely possible to look up at a sky streaked with wildly improbable sunsets – or out across the open savannah, alive with herds of gazelle and wildebeest and zebra, from a viewpoint halfway up a mountain slope – and have the perfect sense, enough to lift the hairs on the back of your neck, that you are looking at something that is entirely otherworldly, adrift in time and in space, something “once-was but never-to-be-seen-again” or something that is yet to come and that you have no business whatsoever knowing about right here and right now.
"I had a farm in Africa."
My own foothold in Africa was not a coffee plantation on the slopes of a Kenyan mountain – but I walked those metaphorical dusty roads anyway. I touched Africa, and it touched me, and there is a mark where it touched me which will never go away again.
But when it comes to veils… let me choose two topics to speak on, here, now, for this particular purpose.
Here’s something old which you might not have quite heard in this form before:
Because yes, I will speak of lions.
To the best of my ability to determine the dateline, this article dates from October 2003. That is now almost eight years ago, and the numbers are probably worse today than they have ever been. Wikipedia estimates that the African lion population in the wild, in the time frame 2002-2004, was between 16,500 and 47,000. The rate of decline estimates range from 50% to up to 90% (depending on what time bracket you are looking at) but all agree that in the last 50 years the numbers of lions in the wild have dropped catastrophically. The reasons can be many, from trophy hunting (which is something I feel so strongly and bitterly enraged about that I can taste bile in the back of my throat just THINKING about it) to the way that the increasingly encroaching cattle herds have caused lions to prey on animals that are less than wild and the self-assumed right of the owners of that cattle to shoot any lion that does so. But really – THEY are introducing a species into the lion’s habitat. That species, to the carnivorous hunter that is the lion, looks and smells like PREY – and if it moos like prey and is shaped like prey and runs like prey when the lion comes near, are you really surprised that the lions hunt what’s there…?
However many are left out there that are truly wild and free – be it 16,000, 20,000 or 50,000 – the species is sliding into extinction. At some point. As usual, when the humans assert their rights over everything on this planet and edge out every other living thing in the process, the odds are stacked against the lion.
But I, when I was young enough for it to be etched into my soul, have heard a lion grunt and roar somewhere in the tall grass at twilight.
I have heard this – I have heard it wild – and I will never forget that sound, as long as I live. It was giving the falling night a voice, and a purpose; it was night stalking the daylight hours at last, hungry and huge, and I was an insignificant speck, and unless I bowed my head and called it great and stayed out of its way while it padded by on soft lion paws and passed me by in favour of some other prey I would pay the price.
There will come a time when the last lion in the last wild twilight will make this sound, out in the savannah somewhere. And will then lay himself down under the stars, and die.
And something will go out of the world for me, when that happens. When the only way you can hear that great roar of power is when you wander past a lion habitat in a zoo, on manicured paths, until the day that the caged ones, too, vanish away – and after that, it will be a bloodless, toothless, powerless parody of something vanished, something that has truly passed beyond the veil and is gone forever from this world.
I share this world, I share my soul, with lions. When they go, I hope I am not here to see it because I will hear my heart turn to stone and then crack in half with the grief of it. Extinction is forever.
For those who have never heard the lion roar wild and free, it might not matter as much. But for me… it is a sound from beyond the Veil Between the Worlds, and I will mourn, mourn, mourn if the door closes between us and the gift of hearing it is taken away from me and the veldt is left empty beneath the stars.
Go to Part Two here