Lyle Krahn is an awesome wildlife photographer. He is not, however, a very sensible man. How do I know this? Well, the other day he set off into the frozen Canadian wilderness, on his own, on foot, to follow the trails of some animals because I told him it would be easy.
Sensible men do not get ideas from me. On top of that, Lyle doesn’t even know how to read. I can read. I can read “Fun with Dick and Jane”.
I used to work in a bookshop with a specialist children’s section. I had a colleague who really knew her stuff. Every now and then, she would talk about children being “reading ready”. Apparently, there is a phase that kids go through when they are primed to learn to read. Start teaching them too early, and they just won’t get it. Start teaching them too late and you waste valuable time.
This all seems perfectly reasonable. But if you believe, as I do, that we are risen apes, not fallen angels, it’s not reasonable at all. It’s remarkable enough that our brains are even capable of assembling a bunch of near random scratchings on a piece of paper into a coherent message, but there are scientists and educators out there who are suggesting that a brain essentially designed to scratch a living out of the sun-blasted wilderness of Africa goes through a stage when it is perfectly adapted to deal with Dick and Jane.
That’s just silly. Or maybe it’s not. As a species, we’ve only been literate for a few thousand years. But we’ve been reading for longer than that. Very much longer indeed. Hundreds of thousands of years longer. Maybe even millions. Our lives depended on it.
When we went down to the bush for holidays when I was younger, we used to sleep out on a covered stoep (patio), fenced in with chicken-wire and mosquito netting. At night, after the lights were all turned off, we would lie in the dark and listen to the bush come alive. And alive it was. The bush can be a staggeringly noisy place. Some of the noises were easy to identify; the grunt of a leopard or the roar of a lion, an elephant taking down a tree with a crack like a gunshot.
But the noises I loved were the other ones. The secret ones. The brief, furtive rustle of small, careful feet picking through dried leaves. The crunch of a hoof or a paw in the coarse sand of the dry riverbed. The licking of lips and flicking of ears, hardly discernible among the background hum of a place overflowing with life, but close, right here, with us.
Sometimes, we would flick on a light and catch the culprit in the act; a tiny genet flowing across the ground like a living shadow, a hyena padding out from the surrounding trees and sniffing at the moonlight. Mostly, the source of the sound would remain a mystery. But only ‘til morning. Because we had started teaching ourselves to read.
The house was surrounded by a wide strip of dirt to act as a firebreak. As soon as the sun rose, we would dash outside to see what tracks had been left on this canvas during the night. The lowveld is positively crawling with life, so there is not a patch of dirt anywhere that is unmarked by some sort of creature; the tidy, meandering parallel lines of a beetle, the arcane runes of a passing game bird, the odd, curving drag-line of a snake, but that wasn’t really what we were looking for. We were finding the source of those noises in the night.
We got quite good at it. Good enough to start matching tracks to sounds. A gentle, stop-start stirring in the leaf litter would match up with the crisp, cat- like tracks of a genet, noisier rustling and the occasional loud sniff with a larger set of Civet prints. A cautious, faltering crunch through the dry river with the delicate trail of a duiker, a confident, casual trot through the same spot with the dog-like track of a hyena.
It was like reading the morning paper, an up-to-date report on the comings and goings of the night that prompted just as much discussion:
The huge, cracked serving dish of an elephant: “He was right here, just next to the window, and we never heard a thing!”
The dairy-cow hooves of a small herd of buffalo, complete with steaming cow-pat: “So that’s what all that crashing was.”
And then there were the really cool ones. Every now and then you would walk out and find the track of a leopard, round and scalloped like an enormous housecat, or better yet a lion, just the same but twice the size, almost as big as a man’s hand.
And then you would remember where you were. The hair on the back of your neck would stand up as you suddenly felt hidden yellow eyes staring at you from the shadows of the bush. Sound would suddenly spring into focus, every flapping bird or wind-blown leaf signalling the end, sharp teeth and sharper claws poised to tear at your back. And you would head towards the door, quickly, whispering “Keep your eyes open. They must have come past in the last few hours; they could be anywhere!”
It was awesome. We were men of the wild. Hawkeye. Alan Quartermain. Umslopogaas. Tonto. And then we went on a hike in the Kruger Park. And realised we were just children, running around in short pants and reading, in faltering, stammering sentences, the first few pages of “Fun with Dick and Jane”.
When you walk in the Kruger Park, you walk with two people; the ranger and the gameguard. Both are armed with rifles and kitted out in khaki. But they have different roles to play. The ranger is in charge. He has done all the right courses, and knows all the proper names for things you see. He is the one who talks to the guests, pointing out interesting birds, plants, and animals, and keeping everyone in order. He will even show you some tracking.
He can do it well, too, pointing out how you can tell the age of a trail by cheCking how coarse the soil is and how crisp the edges of the tracks are, and showing how you can tell not just what left the track, but what it was doing, too. The scattered dirt kicked up by a running kudu; the patch of flattened grass where a buffalo spent the night; the scratches in the bark of a tree where a lion reared up to leave his mark. These guys can read properly. They’re on to adult books. Just don’t give them anything too tricky. Stick to Dan Brown and Nora Roberts and they’ll be fine.
But if you want to see someone who really knows what he’s doing, who’ll polish off “War and Peace” in a weekend, in Russian, watch one of the gameguards. Most of them are Shangaan, a group of people who have lived in the area for generations.
The gameguard has not done any of the right courses. He does not know the proper names for the things you see. At least not in English. He doesn’t talk to the guests. That’s the ranger’s job. On the surface, he appears to be there as a support for the ranger, an extra gun in case things go wrong.
But if you watch carefully, you will notice that the balance of power in this relationship is not quite so straightforward. The interesting bits of wildlife being pointed out to you by the ranger are usually being spotted by the gameguard. They are not pointed out to the guests, but brought to the attention of the ranger with a flick of a finger or a nod of the head, and sometimes a click of the tongue or a quiet “Ksst”. And when things do get a bit hairy, while it is certainly the ranger’s job to manage the guests, the gameguard doesn’t take a back seat when it comes to make the big decisions, like whether to fire a warning shot or put down the guns and start throwing stones and shouting.
You see, the truth is that round here, the ranger is also just a child, albeit an older one. The Shangaan grew up here. A large part of his families’ livelihood came directly from the bush. He was learning about the plants and animals around him while you were learning about algebra and history. And he learned to read spoor and track animals at the perfect moment. He learned when he was “reading ready”.
Every now and then, by some subtle signal, the ranger will drop out of the lead and fall in behind the gameguard. I’ve have realised over time that this means the two of them have picked up an interesting trail, and the gameguard is going to try and track the creature down. The ranger cannot do this. When he was “reading ready”, he learned algebra and history like you and me.
It is a joy to watch the gameguard at work. Most of the time, he walks along at a steady pace, glancing down to make sure he’s still on the trail. Every now and then, he will slow down a little and look around him more carefully. The world is not a smooth canvas of soft sand. Sometimes, on stony ground or in thick grass, there are no tracks to follow. But there is always something. Some bent grass. A clump of hair caught in the branches of a thorn tree. Sometimes he will stop and back up a little and choose a different path. And nine times out of ten, he will lead you to your quarry.
It often looks a little like magic. But it’s not. What he is doing is no more mysterious to him than ploughing through Harry Potter is to you. He is literally reading his environment like a book. As humans and their ancestors have been doing for countless generations. Their survival depended on it.
And that is why your child has a brain that is ready to learn to read. Your brain is not designed to pick out a series of tiny ink symbols on a blank white page and turn them into a story. Your brain is designed to deal with far more complex symbols; a flattened patch of ground tells the story of a zebra rolling in the dust, a single bead of drying paste at the end of a stalk of grass tells of a hyena marking out the edges of his world, a spray of disturbed dirt at the front of an impala print tells of a startled buck throwing itself high into the air, an explosion of energy to twist it out of the path of whatever disturbed its peace.
As I have said, I have only just begun to learn to read these symbols. I will never catch up to the gameguards, or even the rangers. But I have learned enough to add another rich layer to time spent out in the wild. I cannot read all the stories they tell, but there is something cool about just knowing that something was there, that you missed an elephant or a herd of buffalo by minutes, or that right now, as you crouch down to look at a scalloped track in the dirt, a pair of yellow eyes might be boring a hole into the back of your neck, a set of claws flexing in preparation.
And Lyle Krahn? Well, they say that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. So maybe I’ll fly up to Saskatoon and teach him how to read. His pictures make me want to go there anyway, and it will give him a chance to step out of his role as a wildlife photographer and write an article for the local news.
I’ve got a headline already; “UNKNOWN MAN IN SHORT PANTS DIES OF EXPOSURE IN FROZEN WASTELAND”