~Billy Collins from “Morning”
~Billy Collins from “Morning”
Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.
Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?
…These things happen … the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses …
The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
~Jane Kenyon from “Twilight: After Haying”
Celebration is a sign of life in the rubble, the bliss of those arising from an ash heap to walk and breathe again. Heartache is the sight of death in the rubble, the suffering of those trapped and crushed by a roaring force too immense to imagine yet devastatingly real.
Bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses; we are grasses torn from our roots, ravaged.
Tears flow as they must, wetting the stubble left behind like dew. We weep in sorrow for those lost; we weep in joy for those spared.
What else can a soul do but weep at parting and weep at welcoming?
These things happen, oh yes, these awe-full awful things, they happen.
Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
~Psalm 103: 15
Sometimes an excursion from home is more like a sprint, as far and as fast as possible.
Sometimes it is a spontaneous trek into the unknown, just to prove it can be done.
Sometimes it is a climb into the dark, with precipices and crumbling ledges under our feet.
Sometimes it is a tentative journey of curiosity to see what may be around the corner.
No matter why or where or how far we wander,
the path home shines just bright enough
to show us the way back
when we are ready.
He is there, waiting.
He keeps the light on for us.
photo by Larry Goldman
In recognition of this day 38 years ago, I’m reprinting this part of my Gombe saga, working as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.
At first glance, Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle. It was a façade. It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.
Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi. When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us. Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.
There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.
Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.
Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders. The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.
Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion. No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard. Had someone been injured or killed? There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.
We hurried along barely familiar trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.
That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub. A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do. We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds. We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world. We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.
Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.
“Will they kidnap me, Jane? Will they come for me? Where will they take us? Will they shoot us dead?”
Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders, sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us. We’re safe staying right here. Everything will be fine in the morning. No one will take you from me.”
She concluded: “They would have to shoot me first…” and at that, Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder. He knew that was how baby chimpanzees were captured by bounty hunters, by shooting the mother dead and snatching the infant from her protective embrace.
When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy. Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers hurt but with no life threatening injuries. There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.
We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi. Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp. We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.
In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with some suspicion. Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments. We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa. It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety. The agents did not shed any light on whether our friends were alive or dead.
We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.
It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.
My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops…. You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Good things as well as bad, you know are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
~C.S. Lewis- Mere Christianity
…the room was filled by a presence that in a strange way was both about me and within me like a light or warmth. I was overwhelming possessed by someone who was not myself. And yet, I felt more myself than ever before. I was filled with intense happiness and almost unbearable joy as I had never known before or never known since. And overall, there was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.
~C. S. Lewis