For too many years Hart Mountain was out of my line of travel and added just enough extra time and miles to the trip at hand that I by-passed it. This spring I made the effort to go there, just there, and was well rewarded. It is a long slog from anywhere, the roads can be quagmires, the dust invasive, the heat crushing, and the mosquitoes draining. May it always remain this way.
It is already true that one can be dropped on any commercial strip in the USA and have no idea where they are. Each is so much the same, so not unique, that Chattanooga and Bakersfield look much the same. We have eradicated the prairies, slaughtered the forests, and filled the wetlands, must we also quash the individuality of the national monuments and make them conform to the ideals of capitalism, consumerism, and corporate expansion? What of calm, contentment, and courage to step outside of the box, to appreciate the subtle realm of time, space, and light that is not under our control? Where will we go for peace when we have used up all that is wild?
You have seen my photos over the last year. Many of those photos were taken in national monuments (including the two on this page). If you enjoyed my meager attempts at conveying the intensity of these landscapes, you will enjoy this (free ebook) photographic journey through the national monuments by exquisite landscape photographers
The jackal arrived first. Stopping every few meters to look around, over this shoulder, over that shoulder, turn all the way around and look again. Then do it again a few meters later and again a few meters after that. Finally, at the zebra carcass, she ripped off big chunks and swallowed them almost whole. Standing on the ribs for better traction, tearing, stopping to scan every mouthful or two, gulping as much as possible. Working every angle for the best grip and the most meat, she moved from one end of the zebra to the other and back again. Watching and eating.
Part 2 The hyenas
Three hyenas materialized, one by one, in the grass 30 or 40 meters from the carcass. The jackal stood on high alert. It went back to the carcass, but more furtively, inhaling as many big chunks as she could. The hyenas began working their way in, looking around as they moved. And then, just as quickly as they appeared, they dissolved back into the grass. The jackal stood down.
Part 3 The lions
As the hyenas began their descent upon the carcass, a lioness sauntered into view through the grass. Lying down 20 meters out from the carcass, only her back and head were visible. The hyenas made their exit. The jackal went back to business with renewed vigor.
A few minutes later, another lioness appeared in the grass. Moving around the first, she strolled the perimeter, moving slowly toward the carcass. The jackal took note and without rushing or being in any way obvious, she evaporated from the scene.
The lions took turns moving closer, repositioning themselves, lounging near the carcass but not going directly to it. They were both within a few meters, rolling a little, posing for the morning sun, seemingly enjoying their implicit power over hyenas and jackals. One flopped to the ground with a post-zebra belly in need of rest, while the other dragged the carcass closer to a covering tree and began feeding. Breakfast is served.
Our lives are full of noise. Endless beeps, twitters, and rings. Traffic, jets, refrigerators, air conditioners. Ubiquitous cell phones, microwaves, TVs, and tablets. Each pinging, humming, and demanding attention. Gratuitous noise, the tv or radio turned on and then ignored, or worse, talked over loudly, has long been a pet peeve. Car keys left in the ignition, leaf blowers (^%*^%$$ leaf blowers), car alarms (see leaf blowers), and every cell phone/ATM/POS card reader with keyboards that indicate, by sound, every letter entered.
For some, like me, it’s exhausting. Our brains process all that noise, whether we actively recognize and acknowledge it or not. We filter out the sounds that are unimportant, we acknowledge those that have an impact on us, we scan for those we are expecting, and more importantly, for those that threaten us. This is the natural process of evolution. Hearing allows us to tune into the world, to alert us to danger and opportunity, alike. Modern humans have piled on so many extra layers of noise that we barely hear what is necessary anymore.
Enter, the elephants. Elephants are bigger than your imagination can conjure. They eat plants, roots, branches, leaves, and stems. Their dexterity, for not having an opposable thumb, is remarkable, but still, tearing limbs off of trees and roots out of the ground is not a quiet pursuit. Elephants, like humans, leave an impressive imprint wherever they go. And yet, if they were not pulling branches from a tree, you might not know they were there.
They are silent. They walk without noise. They move through thick brush and low trees silently. An entire herd of elephants can sneak up on you. They materialize out of the shrubs one by one as if they are vapor suddenly swirling together to create a house-sized, gray phantom. And then they swirl away again back into the trees, one by one out of sight.
Scanning either side of a road, while politely waiting as an elephant crosses, there are no more to be seen in the brush. Searching low for legs and trunks and high for ears and backs, there is nothing but brush. Before the first one is across, though, there is another, fresh out of the shrubs. You look again. Nope, definitely no more hiding in there. A big female with a calf comes strolling through; a couple of teenagers horsing around follow her. Now you’re sure that’s the last of them… What at first appears to be a lone animal turns into an entire family group taking shape out of the bush and dissolving back into it.
They rumble. You have to be close to hear the bass, almost cat-like purr, more felt deep in your chest than heard; it does not travel far. Elephants also use infrasound, below our audible hearing range, to communicate across long distances.
I wonder, is their world as noisy as ours?
Do they say, among themselves, “The impalas are sooooo loud!” Or, “I hope the hippos keep it down tonight.” “There go the hyenas again. They always go blaring off when someone walks by.”
Are there teenage elephant infrasound parties that keep the whole neighborhood awake? Do they make infrasound noise just because it brings them joy? Or do they remain silent in their elephant way, only rumbling and speaking when necessary? Is the baseline noise of the savannah exhausting enough that they choose silence?
In what is perhaps a romantic view, I see elephants as intelligent and humble, rumbling when content, and otherwise staying quiet simply because they are listening. Because adding their voices to the cacophony isn’t necessary, because there is more to learn from mostly remaining silent. I could learn a lot from elephants. Rumble more.