Learning to read

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.

Lyle Krahn following some bad advice

Lyle Krahn off to follow some bad advice

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.

Too early

Too early

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.

Much too early.

Much too early.

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.

Few people realise that the spotted hyena is the only animal capable of smelling moonlight.

Few people realise that the spotted hyena is the only animal capable of smelling moonlight.

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.

The morning news

The morning news

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.

Time to head back inside

Time to head back inside

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”.

Hiho, hiho, it's off to walk we go.....

Hiho, hiho, it’s off to walk we go…..

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”.

With the gameguard in front, they might finally find some animals.

With the gameguard in front, they might finally find some animals.

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.


Don't worry, Lyle, I've come to help you with your photography.

Don’t worry, Lyle, I’ve come to help you with your photography.

33 thoughts on “Learning to read

  1. Reblogged this on Norbert Haupt and commented:
    I love how we are connected nowadays. Here some thoughts from a friend in Africa. Talking about sleeping in the bush – something I have never experienced.

  2. Thank you for pointing me to Lyle’s blog, for starters.

    This really is the best post I’ve read by you so far, and you’ve never disappointed (translation: you just raised the bar for yourself!) As one is not at all clever with words all I can say is thank you.

  3. Marcia says:

    Bravo, 23! I’ve been putting off reading this latest post due to some time constraints that I thought would make me rush through it, which I didn’t want to do. I’m glad I shoved some errands around to make time for it today. While I normally expect to be snorting Earl Grey through my nose while reading your blog, today’s experience was far more moving on a whole different level. I was just hypnotized by all the images you painted so clearly. Oh, what a wonderful thing childhood is, to begin with, and a childhood spent learning to appreciate the wildlife around one is the best of all.

    Every part of this post touched something in me, and made me wish I could be there, myself, to see and learn and appreciate the richness of your world. Thank you for an armchair journey that has made my day better for having gone along on the trip, even vicariously. Lovely writing!

  4. Art Brûlant says:

    Another great read. I do enjoy “reading” the snow….tho I am still very much with “Dick and Jane”

  5. 23thorns says:

    Ah, yes. How far the sweet bird of youth has flown. I used to be able to walk across tar so hot that it was melting and sticking to me, without even breaking a sweat. Now I step on a piece of lego and am reduced to tears.

  6. narf77 says:

    No-one should be forced to deal with “Dick and Jane” at any age! Are they they universal children’s torture books or a very VERY clever way to sift the grain from the husk?! I have a sneaking suspicion that they are used to make those children that are “primed and ready to read” abohore bad literature from the start and seek out their own pirate ship voyage to man their minds with and swear NEVER to darken Dick and Jane’s doorstep EVER AGAIN!
    I KNEW that our possums were related to something! “Smelling moonlight” is their forte and as soon as the moon rises they are out there…trampolining on my carefully fortified veggies, careening off the chook pen walls and scaling our almost denuded Japanese maples and carefully selecting the tastiest leaves. All the while screaming at the top of their lungs so that not only do you wake up to devestation, you get very little sleep and are grumpy to prime the scene…
    I am starting to think that taking kids out into the African bush is a rite of passage. If they ever recover from the event they are considered true Africaaners…there must be a place tucked away for the children that don’t make it…the kids that remain in the foetal position after hearing one too many loud predatory noises and stay curled up well into adulthood…
    Reading is so much more than books…reading is instinct and feeling and 6th senses and processing and understanding those fundamental things that no-one understands but we all cling to primally and understand with our souls. Reading is the communication of the natural world condensed into our understanding and the knowledge of the ages passed from one mind to another and sometimes…just sometimes the communicator is a master and can communicate something that we might never see but we can certainly feel. Thats where books come in… to give “the rest of the world” a taste of it all.
    I was a feral child out on our own 100 acres of native bushland. For the first 10 years of my life. I walked barefoot from dusk till dawn and the most dangerous thing we had were our native Aussie snakes, spiders etc. but I never got bitten…I was a child of the bush and I learned early to appreciate my ears before my eyes told me that what I was hearing was real. As an adult my feet are too tender to walk barefoot like I used to and my instincts are past memories but I feel an ancient kindred spirit with those game keepers…my admiration for their instincts knows no bounds.
    Let us know when Lyle goes into print and we promise to read all about it :). Love the naked shot by the way…does your poor long suffering wife know what you do when you find snow?!!! 😉

  7. I love this post. It reminds me of my first love – Africa. I have followed the white mans path in Africa since I was a small child and have wonderful correspondence with some of my great heros such as George Adamson, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, and the like. I have books that I have collected from various corners of the country that you cannot find anywhere else. I love my 1922 copy of Kruger Park Sagas! I look forward to reading more from you!

  8. lylekrahn says:

    And here I thot that you only offered good advice:) I definitely think you should come to Canada and get a little snow in your life!

  9. Seriously, I think you’re onto something here. The evolution of reading, I mean, though there might be something more lurking in the bush. Up here, close to the north pole, we can do just the same especially during the winter. Last week I found and followed the tracks of three lynxes, mother and two yearlings. They had fallen into in single file where they had crossed the road but fanned out again some 40 meters into the forest. You rarely see any animals during the winter, but you can read about their lives from the snow.

  10. carol says:

    Thanks for that – now I am completely depressed and wishing I was lying on my little iron bed on the stoep and listening to the frogs go “schmuck” – rather than sitting in front of my computer……

  11. warmginger says:

    A wonderful post and a really interesting take on reading – loved it. And now I know why my kids will happily spend hours poring over bits of rock and sand in the desert. 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      Oh dear! Gingers in the desert! My sister was nearly a ginger (she has brown hair, but got the fair skin and freckles). She used to grit her teeth under huge hats and layers of sunscreen while we frolicked around near-naked in the sun. She now has the skin of a schoolgirl, while I have to go in every now and then to get bits of my face burned off with liquid nitrogen.

  12. fciprian2013 says:

    I live in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, recently risen from the sea in the past 10,000 years. The sand in the forest is like beach sand, and the tracking is phenomenal. While we don’t have the dramatic tracking opportunities you all have, If I spend a night in the pines, my Dick and Jane abilities can see the coyote, deer and raccoon.

    Ever see the movie “The Great Dance?” Now that’s some reading! Tracking is choreography to a hunter of that caliber.

    • 23thorns says:

      I haven’t. I’ll try to track it down (see what I did there?). I was actually going to write about the Bushmen (San) in this post, because they make the Shangaans look like awkward amateurs, but the post was getting too long. They really are phenomenal.

  13. aquacompass7 says:

    thank you for following my blog.I came from Japan.

  14. James Corner says:

    I always enjoy your posts but this was the best yet. Wonderful! Thanks.

    • 23thorns says:

      Thank you. I sat for hours trying to come up with a witty response to your comment about Surrey the another day, but I got nothing. South African geography has let me down!

  15. Sue says:

    You remind me of how observant little kids are and how often we overlook the same subtle signs. They hear everything we ignore, they smell everything we have become inured to, they see detail a heck of a lot better than these old eyes do. You’ve told a great story. Thanks!

  16. Once again an amazing post. I can imagine the straining ears of children, lying awake at night, trying to identify those late night visitors. I too am trying to learn to read but I’m at the ABC’s stage. What is that bird called, what is that bug called, do I really HAVE to know what that snake is called? It’s an amazing second education and in some ways, probably more important to know and understand than the one society has deemed most important.
    Glad to have you back blogging frequently again too. 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      LEARN THE SNAKES FIRST! Knowing everyuthing else is just cool, but knowing the snakes might just save your life one day.

      • I know I should but I don’t like snakes. I don’t even like pictures of snakes. I saw what a tiger snake looks like for the first time ever the other day. I will NEVER forget that one!

  17. kelloggs77 says:

    Forget animal tracks. What Lyle SHOULD have read was “To Build a Fire” by Jack London (I am thinking we may have briefly talked about this piece before). If he had read this story about a foolish man who goes out alone into the freezing Yukon and eventually dies because he can’t build a fire, Lyle certainly would have stayed home. 🙂

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