Carbon Offsets: Wash Away the Carbon, Wash Away the Guilt?

Carbon offsets are “a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere.” [1] In other words, if I fly on a jumbo jet halfway around the world for an “eco-friendly” vacation, approximately one ton of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere for every 2,000 miles I fly, so I can make up for the huge amount of harmful emissions spewed out by my travel by paying someone or some entity to install solar panels or wind farms, plant trees, etc.

Problem solved, right?

Not so fast.

Do carbon offsets actually make a difference? Or are they an artificial construct designed to help well-off people wash away their guilt while polluting the planet?

Carbon offsets can, in many circumstances, meet the goal of reducing or negating net carbon emissions. But the carbon offset market is rife with opportunities for abuse through the monetization of natural systems as well as outright fraud. More regulation and standardization is needed to insure that the consumer is “getting what they paid for.”

—–

Years ago when I was lucky enough to see Al Gore speak on his “An Inconvenient Truth” book tour, the big takeaway for me was him painting climate change not just as a huge threat, but also as a tremendous opportunity: a threat to the survival of humans and other species, but also an opportunity for far-reaching innovation (and the monetary rewards that come with inventing “the next big thing” that end up saving the planet—a not-so-transparent sales pitch to the rich climate deniers that there was potentially a lot of money to be made in this arena).

But as we all know, opportunities for huge economic rewards are also opportunities for an equal level of fraud and deception, resulting in the global business elite often being the “winners” and indigenous cultures and lands in third-world countries being the “losers.” In fact, monetization of natural systems can be thought of similarly to monetization of indigenous cultures: an immoral appropriation of something that isn’t yours, with the sole purpose of making money off of it while potentially altering it significantly if not destroying its very essence in the process.

“When people talk about monetizing, they’re usually talking about some sort of scheme,” says David Heinemeier Hansson. “Because anything that needs to be monetized can’t just be simple. If it was simple, you wouldn’t need a word like monetize. You’d just be making money selling a service or product.” [2]

—–

Seemingly eco-friendly projects such as the creation of new hydroelectric or geothermal facilities, installing new solar farms and wind farms, planting forests of new trees, and other carbon offset schemes—while “green” on their surface—often have significant environmental impacts of their own, over and above the net reduction in carbon emissions. In other words, a project looks great through the singular lens of carbon emissions, which is all the tourist purchasing carbon credits is really interested in; but when looking at the project from a broader perspective, it’s a potential environmental disaster.

The best critical quote I found related carbon offsets is this:

“Some say (carbon offsets) are the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of paying for indulgences. In other words, it would be better to work out a way of not sinning at all…” [3]

And therein is the basic rub with carbon offsets. Which path is the moral high ground—to go ahead and commit the heinous crime, apologize to the court for your impropriety, pay the minimal fine from your fat wallet, and do your time in a white collar prison only to be released early for good behavior? Or to simply have never committed the crime in the first place?

The Desert Tortoise: Survival Threats, Protection Efforts

The desert tortoise is an iconic species found across the deserts of the US southwest as well as northwestern Mexico. It is also the official State Reptile of both California and Nevada.

“Desert tortoise” actually refers to two different species—Gopherus agassizii and Gopherus morafkai—with Gopherus agassizii found entirely in the US and Gopherus morafkai found in Mexico as well as in parts of Arizona.

The desert tortoise was placed on the California Endangered Species List in 1989 and was listed as “threatened” on the Federal Endangered Species List in 1990.

Threats to Survival

Although they appear to be built like tanks covered with armor and can retract into their shells to protect themselves against predators, there are a number of factors that make desert tortoises a fragile species. They are slow moving, slow growing, and have low reproductive rates. Juvenile survival is low (with only about 2 or 3 tortoises out of 100 hatched eggs surviving to adulthood), and females do not breed until reaching the age of approximately 15-20 years old. They are impacted by some larger predators directly, but smaller predators such as roadrunners, ravens, and fire ants can also severally impact desert tortoise populations by targeting eggs and young. Ravens are particularly a problem, as the population of ravens increases as the population of humans in the desert increases (as does their production of trash, which the ravens feed off of).

For many decades, these animals were frequently removed from their habitat by humans and taken home to the suburbs and kept as pets, contributing to a decline in population. Later, as the public became more educated about the illegality of taking desert tortoises, some people thought they were doing the right thing by taking the animals back to the wild and releasing them. However, pet tortoises frequently carry infectious diseases which are easily transmitted to natural populations. In addition, captive-bred pet tortoises were also released into the wild, negatively impacting the natural population because of their different genetics and behaviors. Humans are even a direct threat, and the simple act of handling a tortoise in the wild can spread Upper Respiratory Tract Disease which has seen a marked increase in recent years.

Other threats to the desert tortoise include OHV use, grazing, military exercises, mining, agriculture, energy development, and invasive species.

Protection Efforts

Because of its iconic nature as well as its status as a threatened species, there are many things being done to help protect the desert tortoise and educate the community. A few examples include:

As we continue to expand our footprint across fragile desert ecosystems with more roads and more traffic on existing roads, desert tortoise mortality due to collisions with vehicles is increasing. One very simple yet highly effective solution is a type of low fencing technique called Desert Tortoise Exclusion Fencing. A ~36 inch tall piece of fencing is buried 12 inches below the ground, to prevent tortoises from digging underneath; and left to stand 24 inches above the ground—tall enough to prevent the low-slung desert tortoise from surmounting it, yet low enough to not impede the free movement of many other animals.

The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee is a non-profit working to conserve desert tortoises and educate the public. Founded in 1974, they protect ~5,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat. The largest piece of land under their protection, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, is a preserve in the western Mojave Desert encompassing 39.5 square miles. In 1980, the BLM designated the area as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern as well as a Research Natural Area.

Established in 1975, the Desert Tortoise Council is a non-profit organization that promotes desert tortoise conservation across the southwestern United States and Mexico. They offer several training courses covering topics for researchers and volunteers such as field techniques and health assessment procedures.

The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California, offers a Desert Tortoise Information and Youth Education Program which provides educators with a variety of resources to help teach about desert tortoises in their classrooms. They also offer a Desert Tortoise Adoption Program in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, allowing people to adopt captive-bred desert tortoises that are unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild.

The Big Lonely

Four Days in Carrizo Plain National Monument

Sunrise in the foothills of the Caliente Range, Carrizo Plain National Monument.

One of the first things I noticed was the quiet. Not that dead calm, deafening silence type of quiet, where the only thing you can hear is the sound of your own heart pumping the blood through your veins; no, there is plenty of sound around you. But it’s different. It’s harmonious, it’s cohesive, it’s … completely 100% natural. The bugs buzzing, the birds singing, the wind gently blowing across the grassy plain, all coming together in a sublime symphony, yet in some way quiet, lacking just one thing: that low background rumble of man and his various activities, the hum of humanity.

Driving in through the southern entrance of Carrizo Plain National Monument for four days of solo camping, exploring, writing, and just plain vegging out, I was almost immediately lonely. But it was a good lonely.

Carrizo Plain National Monument. So close to Los Angeles, yet it feels so very far away.

After about 30 minutes of driving, I saw something in the road up ahead that seemed to be out of place. Stopping to scope out the anomaly though binoculars, I realized it was two pronghorn antelope. The pair slowly meandered back and forth before finally crossing the road and wandering up a small hill. I inched the car forward, a little bit at a time, not wanting to spook them, eventually getting closer to them than I ever would have imagined possible.

Two pronghorn antelope slowly work their way up a small hill.

After a good long encounter, I bid them farewell to resume their foraging. My journey continued deeper into the park, and after another 20 minutes or so I saw something else in the road up ahead. Another anomaly. But it was bigger, and darker in color. Definitely not more pronghorn; could it be some of the tule elk who also grace the park?

No … it was another car.

As we passed each other and both waved enthusiastically, it dawned on me that I had just traversed about half of Carrizo Plain National Monument before seeing another human being. Carrizo Plain … The Big Lonely.

The Big Lonely: Not another soul for miles.

In his final days in office, then-President Bill Clinton established Carrizo Plain National Monument by presidential order on January 12th, 2001. It is currently administered under a cooperative agreement by the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy. Only about a hundred miles from Los Angeles, yet still unknown to most people, Carrizo Plain is home to the largest remaining native grassland in California and a small but vital remnant of the natural ecosystem that once spanned California’s massive Central Valley.

Carrizo Plain is also home to the largest concentration of endangered species anywhere in California, including the California condor, the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat, and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, to name a few. And two iconic land mammals, the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) and the tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), were reintroduced to the Carrizo in the 1980s in hopes of further restoring this small but ecologically important piece of what California used to be.

Raptors, raptors everywhere out on the Carrizo Plain. Here, an intermediate phase Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni).

Barbed wire fences are just some of the man-made remnants of the Carrizo’s long history of cattle ranching. Volunteers with groups like Friends of the Carrizo Plain regularly remove old fences, but there are still hundreds of miles of barbed wire crisscrossing the monument. Yet many of them have been strategically modified: instead of the typical four strands of barbed wire, the top strand has been removed, and the bottom strand has been replaced by smooth, barbless wire. Why? Because elk prefer to jump fences, while pronghorn tend to crawl under them, and even with these modifications the fences are still effective at their primary purpose: keeping cattle where they are supposed to be. Domesticated cattle, it seems, don’t jump, and don’t crawl. But the tule elk and pronghorn antelope are free to move about the expansive plain relatively unencumbered.

The Carrizo has been nicknamed “California’s Serengeti,” in reference to Africa’s iconic ecosystem where millions of animals roam free. Driving along the dirt roads of the Carrizo Plain, seeing nothing but birds for hours at a time, is not nearly the same as driving across the Serengeti or other wildlife-rich areas. But it once was. And it could be again. Someday. If we continue to do the right thing.

Rock outcrop near Selby Campground.

When you’re scanning the plains for wildlife, you search for things that look out of place: colors, shapes, sizes, and movement that stand out from the landscape. Driving across the plain late one breezy afternoon, on a mission to hopefully finally find some tule elk, I suddenly saw movement. A dark figure was bounding quickly across the landscape. Then another. Then yet another. Soon I was surrounded by them, dozens, maybe hundreds. But something didn’t seem quite right. They were too small, too close to the ground to be elk. What in the world was happening? What were those things? And what were they running from (or to)?

Tumbleweeds.

Everywhere, tumbleweeds loping quickly across the plain. Mocking me.

Two ravens cross the road.

The Carrizo Plain is hemmed in by two mountain ranges, the Caliente and Temblor Ranges, and bisected by the San Andreas Fault, that not so imaginary line in the sand where the Pacific Plate grinds against the North American Plate in infrequent fits and starts that we like to call earthquakes.

The plain itself has no natural drainage, so the watershed drains inward, tothe lowest spot, located at the northern end of the plain: Soda Lake, which at 3,000 acres is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California. And it’s called home, at least temporarily, by more than 180 different species of birds every year.

The boardwalk at Soda Lake.

On my final evening camping in Carrizo Plain, I made a chicken and rice burrito and finished off the last of a bottle of Pinot Noir. In the twilight, with a soundtrack of howls from a nearby pack of coyotes, I grabbed my camera and walked the steep access road that wound its way up to a tank supplying intermittent water to the campground. The view from up there was one of the best in the entire park, which is saying a lot. From my perch in the foothills of the Caliente Mountains, I could look north to Soda Lake; directly across the plain to the jagged topography caused by millenia of movement on the San Andreas Fault, with the Temblor Range beyond; and south deep into the heart of the plain itself.

The light was fading quickly, so I snapped a few last pictures and hurried back to my tent and quickly fell asleep.

Evening view of Soda Lake from the water tank access road above Selby Campground.

After packing up camp early the next morning, I drove south out of the park. Although constantly scanning the vast landscape for more pronghorn and maybe some of those elusive tule elk, I came up empty. My mind started to wander. I imagined a time in the near future, maybe just 40, 50 years from now, when the pronghorn and the tule elk stretched across the Carrizo as far as the eye could see, hunted relentlessly by mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and maybe even some wolves, with abundant California condors and turkey vultures picking away at the remains of the dead carcasses scattered across the restored native grasslands. California’s Serengeti, indeed.

In the middle of this not so far fetched daydream, I spotted two small shapes. They were way out there, on the side of a hill, about a third of a mile across the empty plain. It was two more pronghorn.

Hope for the future.

I pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed my camera, and took off on foot. Within a dozen or so steps across the short grass, my mind had transported me back to my time in Africa, traipsing through the low grass, with nothing but a camera in hand. Little in life can compare to the experience of tracking wildlife on foot in their native habitat.

The pronghorn pair were a bit skittish, and I was careful not to move forward too quickly. Eventually they became almost indifferent to my presence, still keeping an eye on me but going on with their business. At one point, the male walked up to the female and touched his nose to hers, in what I took to be a showing of sweet, gentle affection. He then walked around behind and mounted her.

I thanked them for doing their part to help repopulate this near-pristine remnant of ancient California, and then turned around to start the short hike back to my car and the long drive back home.


Matt Artz is the author of Back to the Bundu, Down to Africa, A Life Outside 1, 2, 3, and 4, and numerous other books and stories. His new novel, The Kite Moon, will be published in the Summer of 2016.

Throne of the Ancients

I had come back to the bundu to get closer to nature, and I had certainly seen a lot of nature on my adventure.  What I wasn’t expecting was that it was also very much about people.  And nowhere did I see that more than when we hiked to the top of Eagle Rock.

We left early, driving up Mohave Highway and then wending through a twisted set of roads that on the map looked like a plateful of spaghetti.  We eventually reached a place called Eagle Junction, and parked in the parking lot under a tree.  Except that it wasn’t a parking lot, it was just an area where vehicles had occasionally parked before, where the grass had been beaten down ever so slightly compared to the taller, undisturbed grass next to it.  And the lone tree was hardly majestic; not big enough to provide even the slightest bit of shade for the vehicle, it acted more as a signpost saying “Park Here” than anything else.

Heading out towards Eagle Rock.

Heading out towards Eagle Rock.

Andrew grabbed his rifle and walked out on the trail for a few hundred yards, checking for animals, while we stayed back at the parking area.  After about five minutes, he reemerged from behind a small rise and told us to follow him.

We hiked along the rocky trail, stopping here and there to identify tracks, scat, and animal remains, before the path dropped down into a little valley below the outcrop that dominated the northern skyline.  After crossing a dry stream that had seen water fairly recently, we emerged on a beautiful plain covered with pastel yellow flowers, scaring off a few baboons who loved to eat them.  Before long, we were at the base of the rocky outcrop, and then ascended a steep path up to the southern ridge.

Once on the ridge, we followed a faint path that moved east, towards the highest point—Eagle Rock, a prominent feature I had seen every day in the Tuli from a distance of many miles.  We passed a large baboon skull, stopped to investigate a massive pair of male kudu horns that had to be at least four, maybe five feet tall, and followed fresh leopard tracks up the trail.  Near the top, in a steep, rocky section that seemed to be accessible by only the smallest, most agile species, we paused while Andrew pointed to some large gashes on the bark of an isolated tree.  An elephant had been here, and had partially scraped the bark away with its tusks.  How an elephant had come this far up—and why it came this far—was a mystery.

Shortly after the elephant markings, we emerged out on a large, rocky plateau, the east side of which drops several hundred feet straight down to the Motloutse River.  This was Eagle Rock, possibly the most scenic spot ever in an area already known for its stunning beauty.

Off in the distance, across the river and in the mopane trees a mile or two away, we could see a lone bull elephant browsing.  To the right, on the plain below, a large herd of impala and a good-sized herd of kudu lazed comfortably near each other, some slowly grazing on the tall, fresh grass, but most just lying down and resting.  Directly below our feet, many colorful lizards came close to see what we were doing and to see if they could scrounge any scraps of food from us.  Far below, on the rocks next to the river, a family of rock hyrax nimbly jumped from boulder to boulder.  Above our heads, catching the strong updrafts caused by the abrupt rise of Eagle Rock, several birds of prey circled and dove and circled again.

Andrew suggested we each find a nice private spot where we could sit quietly, enjoy the view, and reflect on everything we had seen and everything we had done.  The group quickly dispersed across the rocky plateau, which was large enough for everyone to have their own personal space.

Different people in the group did different things.  Some sat quietly and never moved a muscle, just taking in the majestic landscape unfolding before them.  Others moved around a little more, taking photos of the views and the wildlife.  Inexplicably, one person sat with their back to the incredible view, staring sullenly at their boots on the rocks.  Oh, well.  To each his (or her) own, I suppose.  Each person has a different experience, and takes away different things from that experience.

—–

After about half an hour of reflection, Andrew reassembled the group.

“We have a choice on the hike back down,” he said.  “We can take the faster way.  Or we can take the longer, more beautiful way.”

One in our party immediately jumped in and voted for the shorter way.  As the rest of us started to speak up and vote for the “longer, more beautiful way,” it was clear that Andrew never had any intention on taking us the shorter, faster way back.  We were in no hurry to get back to camp.  We were taking the scenic route.

While our hike up had been confined to the southern side of the ridge, our hike back down skirted around the northern side.  This side was less rocky, with more vegetation.  There was no real trail here, and it was, as Andrew had promised, even prettier than the hike up had been.

Signs of ancient habitation on Eagle Rock.

Signs of ancient habitation on Eagle Rock.

Not too far in to our cross-country hike around the northern ridge, I noticed something peculiar.  The ever-present rocks that peppered the landscape looked different here.  My intuition told me what they were, but my brain dismissed this explanation as impossible.  So I rationalized that the small piles and stacks of rocks in odd places on the hills must have been deposited there by water running off of the top of Eagle Rock.

A minute or two later, Andrew stopped us.

“Does anyone notice anything different in this area?” he asked the group.

I gave the others a brief chance to respond, but the archaeologist in me could hardly hold back my answer.

“Stone walls?” I said, pointing to the unnatural-looking features in the landscape.

“Yes,” he answered.

We moved on, climbing a hundred feet or so up a small rise, emerging on a grassy plateau that was literally surrounded by rock—on one side by a large natural wall, and on all other sides by the remnants of man-made walls.

Grave site.

Grave site.

Within the enclosed grassy area were four or five odd-looking piles of rock.  Andrew pointed at the closest pile.

“Does anyone know what this is?” he asked.

“A grave?” I replied.

“Yes.  This is an ancient settlement.  And these are the graves of their chiefs.  Once a year, the tribal elders still come here to pay their respects to their ancestors.”

The settlement was probably between 500 and 1,000 years old.  By taking advantage of natural features of the rocky landscape and then building a series of stone walls to complete the enclosure, they had efficiently built a small fort that was very defensible against attacks by animals as well as by other tribes.  And it was just a short walk to the top of Eagle Rock, where they had the best view in the land.

Beneath our feet, the ground was a different color within the walls of the settlement.  The typical reddish soil so common elsewhere in the landscape had in this place taken on a distinct whitish tint.  Upon closer inspection, the white color was caused by millions of tiny bone fragments that had been mixed into the soil over hundreds of years of occupation.  These ancients were obviously meat eaters, which is not surprising considering the prodigious bounty of wildlife that roamed not far beneath their lofty perch, easily spotted from miles away from the top of Eagle Rock.

Iron age artifacts.

Iron age artifacts.

Andrew went behind a rock and pulled out some special artifacts that helped us understand a little bit more about the people who had lived there.  These were not primitive people making simple stone tools;  three pieces of iron—an unformed scrap of metal; a wide, flat spear point; and a long, exquisitely crafted barbed arrowhead—were a testament to how advanced these people were.  He then showed us a small, delicate bead, finely crafted out of ostrich shell.  Together these pieces gave us a small peek into their world; hardly enough to define their existence, but enough to give us a better appreciation for those hearty and resourceful souls who used to call this beautiful place home.

—–

After leaving this throne of the ancients, we continued our journey down the ridge, taking yet another detour.  Andrew was looking for a brown hyena den he had seen in this area a year ago, and we needed to find out if it was still in use.

We wandered up several side canyons, boxed in by red rock cliffs, large trees gripping desperately at the steep canyon walls with twisted root systems that looked like something straight out of a fantasy movie.  In a place where I had seen so much beauty, and on a day where I had already been completely blown away by the landscape, it just seemed that with every step we took, every corner we rounded, every hill we topped, we saw something even more spectacular.   I was beginning to wonder how much more of this my brain could take before it exploded from an overdose of visual stimulation.

Andrew eventually found the brown hyena den in some rocks against a cliff hanging above a small plain.  As we walked up to the mouth of the den, walking single file behind him, he saw one of the hyenas dash into the den, but the rest of us did not see it.  So we decided to stand around and wait for a little while to see if it would come back out.

Three baboon skulls and numerous other bones littler the entrance to the hyena den.

Three baboon skulls and numerous other bones littler the entrance to the hyena den.

As I stood there waiting for the elusive hyena to emerge, a gentle, misty rain began to fall and I stared not at the opening to the den, but at the ground beneath my feet.  The ground around the opening was littered with skulls, horns, teeth, tufts of fur, and bones of all shapes and sizes.  Maybe it was just having come from the ancient settlement site high on Eagle Rock just an hour or two earlier, but for some reason I was suddenly struck by the resemblance of the hyena den to a rock shelter—a prehistoric home where early man would have spent his days.

At the opening of a small rock shelter against a cliff edge…

…elevated with a view of the surrounding rocky red hills and plains, ideally situated for spotting prey and defending against other predators…

…a small landing in front of the cliff making a perfect place to return from the hunt and gorge on the spoils…

…the rocks below littered with the debris from a thousand previous hunts…

…deep in the wilds of Africa.

After all of my studying of and fascination with ancient peoples, for the first time in my life, it was as if I was actually experiencing it.

This is exactly what it must have been like.

It mattered little if it was the home of a brown hyena in 2013, or the home of australopithecus robustus a million or two years earlier.  Man and his ancestors are just a few of the many species of animals to ever inhabit the planet, and we really are not that different from each other.

—–

About the Author: Matt Artz is an outdoor lifestyle, environment, and technology writer who lives in Highland, California. This article is an adaptation from his recent book Back to the Bundu: Adventures is Botswana’s Tuli Wilderness [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ]. 

We Are the Road Crew

“This is dedicated to a fine body of man.  It’s called ‘We Are the Road Crew’.”

—Lemmy Kilminster

Roads are the backbone of the Tuli Wilderness in Botswana.  But what exactly is a road?  No matter how you define it, the majority of earth’s human population would probably scoff at using the term “road” to describe some of the things we drove on in the Tuli Wilderness.

The early European settlers of the greater Tuli area found that the only viable modern use of the land was for raising livestock, and even then it proved to be tough going.  After years of struggling, most ranchers in the Tuli turned their holdings into game farms, finding that the business of wildlife tourism was much easier and more lucrative than raising livestock.

The majority of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness were probably first established by the ranchers for accessing their livestock.  And many of those roads were probably established on or near game trails; those “highways” used by animals that followed the path of least resistance and were burned into the landscape over the millennia were the obvious place for the humans to later place their own roads.

DSCN6374_con

Once established, a road for humans also becomes an important artery for animal travel as well.  This was an important aspect of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project, as we drove the roads each morning and scanned the thousands of fresh animal impressions left in the soft, dusty sand before they were obliterated by the passing of our vehicle.

—–

In some places, the roads we traveled were deeply eroded and barely passable, almost like small, rocky canyons.  In others, they were two faint lines in the dirt, hardly visible in the daylight and completely invisible to all but the trained eye at night.

In some places, the roads were nothing more than faint depressions in the tall grass, identified with great difficulty only by carefully scanning the landscape and looking for near indiscernible changes in the height of the vegetation.  And sometimes, even though the expert behind the wheel would swear otherwise on his mother’s grave, you were certain that there was no road there at all, and that he was just making it up as he drove along.

DSCN6375

Some of the roads were little more than a faint path up a rocky outcrop, while others were hard packed red dirt that turned in to long stretches of deep mud after a rain.  In some places a road traveled along an area of soft pink sand a foot or two deep, making it look more like you were driving along a dry river bed than a road…because you actually were driving in a dry river bed.

These were the roads of the Tuli Wilderness.

—–

The primary purpose of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project in the Tuli Wilderness is data collection.  It’s all about the data.  And you can’t collect data on an area without passable roads; if an area is inaccessible, you collect no data.  So out of necessity, a big part of the project was road repair work.

The name of the road we traveled most frequently, Mohave Highway, has to be a pun created by someone with a wicked sense of humor.  While it is the major artery running roughly north/south through much of the Tuli Wilderness, it’s hardly a highway.  Practically the only thing it shares in common with a major highway is that it’s mostly straight.  Because of its importance in nearly all travel across the Tuli Wilderness, most of our road repair work was concentrated along the Mohave Highway.

DSCN6414_con

We collected rocks—some so close by that they could be carried just a few feet from their resting places; others up to a mile away that we had to haul in to the work area by truck—to fill the ruts and the holes and the divots, and then we backfilled them with shovel full after shovel full of dirt and sand to fill the gaps between the carefully placed stones.  It was backbreaking work.

Road maintenance may not be nearly as romantic a task as chasing elephants and lions across the African plain in an open Land Rover, but it’s very necessary and highly rewarding.  And unlike data collection, the results of your work are instantaneously visible.

—–

A couple of days after a long, hard session of rebuilding Mohave Highway, we headed out in the vehicle with Andrew driving and Johannes in the passenger seat.  Johannes had not been out with us for a few days, so he had not seen the result of all our hard work.

As we passed by one and then another area where we had moved so much rock and dirt to fill a few deep ruts, Johannes looked carefully at the road.  When we passed by a third area that had benefited from our handiwork, he turned to Andrew and said something in Setswana.

Andrew turned back to the road crew and said, “Johannes says ‘good job’.”

—–

This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK |iPad ].

What do you want to do when you grow up? The answer may be irrelevant.

Many years ago, I worked at a company that hired a lot of summer interns. But these weren’t your typical upper division college students or recent college graduates: they were all recent high school graduates, working for us over the summer until they started college. They all had plans, and they were spending a few months over the summer with us to get a better idea of what the business world was really like (and to make a few bucks along the way).

At the end of the summer, we held a going away party for the interns in the big conference room. Five interns and about 40 staff stood around and shared small talk and cake. Conspicuously absent was Phil, our company president, who was stuck on a conference call.

As the party was starting to wind down, Phil walked in, apologized for being late, and gave a brief speech thanking the interns for the contributions they had made to the organization over the summer. Then he asked the interns, who were all huddled together on one side of the conference room:

“So what are your plans now?”

One by one the interns shared where they were going to college, what they would be majoring in, and the jobs they were going to get after graduation. It was all very well thought out, and very impressive.

“It’s nice that you all know exactly what you want to do,” Phil said. Then he turned around to his staff and asked:

“How many of you are doing today exactly what you thought you’d be doing when you graduated from high school?”

Of the approximately 40 staff in the room, just one woman raised her hand. And that was Phil’s personal secretary, who was in her mid to late 60s and just a couple months away from retirement.

I’m not sure who was more shocked–the interns, or the long-time staffers–but a lot of jaws dropped in that conference room.

And then Phil trotted off to his next conference call.

—–

For every person who wanted to be a doctor since they were six years old and then went out and actually did it, there are hundreds of people who wanted to be doctors and ended up in other places. Those people are not failures. In fact, most of them are very successful.

It’s good to have a plan. But it’s also good to be flexible, or “agile” in the parlance of our times. Don’t be a slave to your plan. Because you never know what life might throw at you…

Dirt like Blood

This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

There’s something so primal about red dirt. At least it’s always been that way to me.  Whenever I see red dirt, I experience a mysterious attraction.

In the red dirt.  Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

In the red dirt. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

Soil appears red when it contains a high concentration of iron. Perhaps somewhere, deep in our DNA, our instincts tell us to go towards the blood red dirt because of the iron content. Humans need iron to survive. It’s literally in our blood.

Or perhaps it’s something else, something more cerebral. Perhaps it’s more of a calling; to go back, to a place we’ve never been, but to the place we came from.

Like the salmon born and raised in captivity, released to the wild, attracted like a magnet to one stream out of so many, a stream it has never been to before, yet it somehow knows: This is it. This is the one. This is home.

Like a magnet, Africa had pulled me back. It was an attraction that was strong, steady, and irresistible; it tugged a little at my brain, and at my heart, but mostly at my gut, rekindling a deep desire—a desire to return to a place I’d never been before, the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana; but to a place where I had always been, through my ancestors, through all of our ancestors, so long ago: Africa.

To finally see a place I’ve always seen.

To get to know a place I’ve always known.

To finally understand where I came from. Where we all came from.

The real “old country”. The original homeland.

Because we are all African. The rest is just a matter of timing.

—–

I remember once hearing a scientist say that by the time you smell something, microscopic particles of whatever you smell have already entered deep into your body. Although the context was toxic and potentially poisonous chemicals, the same goes for anything else—if you smell it, it has entered your body. By the time you’ve smelled it, it’s already inside of you; it’s become part of you.

“Tuli” is the Setswana word for dust, and the dust is everywhere in the Tuli region. It works its way in to everything. You can smell it in your nostrils. You can taste it on your tongue. You can feel the grittiness in your mouth.

It’s hard to put an experience like my time in the Tuli Wilderness into words, but I have attempted to do so to the best of my abilities here. It was an experience, or more of a magnificent portfolio of experiences, that will stick with me forever. The Tuli is inside of me. It’s become part of me. I can still taste it. It’s pumping through my veins.

—–

Two weeks, alone but not alone, in a place where man was meant to be—always meant to be. I set about this adventure thinking that it was just a deeply personal journey, maybe even a “midlife crisis,” a vacation of sorts meant to reconnect with nature and with the true meaning of humanity. But in the end, it was not about a vacation, but about a life.

It wasn’t an escape from technology, civilization, and people, but a blending of old and new experiences, of the past and the future. And though at times it was deeply personal and illuminating, in the end, it wasn’t at all about “me”; it was about something bigger.

Going back isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. A journey that never ends.

Back to the basics.

Back to the beginning.

Back to the bundu.

—–

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”
—Ernest Hemmingway