19 March 2009


In the shadow of Kilimanjaro, in the middle of nowhere, a Maasai man talks on a mobile phone. Something seems wrong with it. Not that he should not have a cell (any more than any of us) or that he should be talking on it in this place (I certainly sent SMS messages from the shadow of the Mountain), but perhaps that the pace of technology is beyond our ability to cope or comprehend, and that the consequences are coming at the same breakneck speed. Back in New York, where the temperature was bitter cold upon our departure, the forecast was to warm up to 50 degrees the following day. These wild fluctuations in weather are terrible for our health and everything around us, and partly, if not entirely, the result of our rush to haste. When it does actually snow (an increasingly rare event with the rise in temperature), we put massive volumes of salt on the roads so we can all rush out to wherever. This road salt has contaminated the groundwater, so the local schools must buy bottled water. Is this what we want? And ironically, with the temperature rise, there is more occurrence of slushy snow followed by freezing rain, making the roads far worse than regular snow and thus requiring more salt.

At the lodge, there is a Maasai man who gives talks after dinner about their culture. In an ideal world, of course, we would like to hear him and learn more, but in this one, we are on a tight schedule with very little sleep, and can think of little else but bed. At every meal he comes, interrupts the conversation and tries to browbeat us to attend his lecture.

As we are trying to come back to the Lodge at the end of the day, there is a bull elephant blocking the road. He charged the car in front of us, so we stop and wait while he pulls a tree into the middle of the road. I am reminded of Orwell’s story about shooting an elephant (though that is a story about imperialism and futility). There is an irony here: this animal is in our way, an inconvenience for us, but we are on the brink of destroying his kind. And they are so majestic in all respects: as individuals, family units, their culture and memory. Nice to see them with tusks. I had a client when I was shooting fashion that created jewelry from ivory; since I never know when to keep my mouth shut, I asked how she felt about the blood on her hands. She didn’t fire me immediately. But we all have blood on our hands, and look the other way. An example: the principal mineral in cell phones and other high-end electronics is called coltan. Google it. Mass rapes and murders (details too horrible to mention), wholesale slaughter of lowland gorillas and elephants, the list goes on. And all for our electronic toys. This is happening in the Congo, quite close to where I am now. I’m told I might be killed if I try to get in.

We travel to Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley today. As we pass over a washed out bridge, Chris senses a flat tire and stops the Land Rover. Immediately that old air smell from a tire permeates the air. I offer to help change it and we proceed with the task. Everything is very dirty, but he has the proper tools and two spares, so there is no problem. As we work, two women approach and watch us work, the oldest and youngest wives of a Maasai man. I don’t usually pay people to take their photos, but I liked them, and broke down.
The Land Rover has two spares, but Chris is uneasy with only one, so we stop in Namanga where he drops us at Simon’s Curio Shop while he goes to fix it. Again, I am impressed at the level of awareness of the average Kenyan, far above that of the average American. There are many handicrafts, carvings of different animals, African masks, and musical instruments. They are made from a variety of woods, and being with the head of the Rainforest Alliance, we discuss the level of threat to each of these tree species according to Cites (Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species), ebony (endangered), teak (threatened), rosewood (threatened), and acacia (no problem). The carvers in the back are very talented, and being a woodworker, watching and chatting with them is a pleasure. I feel like I should buy something to support the local economy, but I have become such an anti-consumer, I just can't bring myself to do it.

Coming down into the Great Rift Valley, passing through localized rainstorms, the view is magnificent. Once in the Valley, there is a fierce wind from the east, and one just sees the topsoil blowing away. There are large plowed areas with tractors surrounded by clouds of dust.I see small tarps, steaked into the ground in a vain effort to reestablish some cover and windbreaks, but the wind has torn away the protective shields.

Tonight’s lodging is at Elsa Mere, the home of Joy and George Adamson, conservationists and creators of the “Born Free” book and movie. It is a beautiful location on the shore of Lake Naivasha that was formed into a foundation upon their deaths, and we have cottages that face the Lake. According to our guide, this is one of the greatest ornithological sites in Africa, but is under dire threat from a number of sources: livestock, human waste, and the flower industry, which we will tour tomorrow. I’m fascinated by the time capsule sense of the place. The house is maintained exactly as it was when the Adamsons were here, and meals are very British, presented by a servant, and George’s Land Rover is enshrined, polished every day. It all speaks to me of another era of conservation, which is really imperialism in disguise: making the undeveloped world accessible to the whim of the “first world.” We enjoy their animals, go home with the trophies and take their resources to supply our lifestyle. Am I too cynical? And this is not criticism of the Adamsons; they were far ahead of their time, and the work they did probably inspired a generation of environmentalists. But that model will no longer work, and the time has come for a radical environmentalism. As I write, Emmy Lou Harris comes up on iTunes singing Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand,” the message to me being that the time has come when every decision must be made based on the impact on our grandchildren. (oops, preaching again)

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