The engine’s grinding drone rang in my ears and drilled through my bones. My stomach lurched. I tried to focus on the outline of the pilot’s head, on the seat belt, on anything static. Bouncing on air pockets, surrounded by epic open sky and vast horizons, yet I felt claustrophobic, and trapped in a kind of tin oven where the heat was rising. Carola, my friend seated alongside, cast more than one sympathetic glance my way. The nausea would not be contained any more, it had been building up for a few minutes now. With all the control I could muster, I stuck my face into a paper bag.
Carola and I were in a small Cessna airplane, taking a flight over the Namib desert. It sprawls across southwestern Namibia, from the boundary on the west where the Atlantic Ocean laps up against the desert, and from Angola in the north to South Africa down south.
This was empty and harsh terrain we were flying over. I felt like a very meager mortal with the misfortune to wind up on a waterless moon of Saturn. The physical reality is overwhelming: harsh sun, bare, stony plains, and disorienting horizons. This land seems relentless and unforgiving. Human culture seemed a forgotten conceit, a faint echo.
Two Friends in the Desert
A story of two men choosing to hide in this inhospitable corner of the planet, seems even more remarkable now that I am where they were. The book, “The Sheltering Desert – A Classic Tale Of Escape And Survival In The Namib Desert,” is by Henno Martin, one of the two German geologists who dodged the European battlefields of World War II to settle into this harshest of hideaways. (Namibia had been a German territory at the outbreak of World War II. They would have served under Hitler’s Reich). The geologist friends were far from modern human civilization with few modern trappings and equipment.
With no option of replenishing stocks of modern materials, Henno and Hermann learnt to hunt, forage, and survive like native ‘Bushmen’ or like our hunter-gatherer human ancestors of 1,000 years ago. They adapted by learning their environment and its animals intimately. The natural world was as cruel as it was astonishingly magnificent. They faced pain, disappointment and hunger, near brushes with death. They contemplated night skies and learned the society and empathy of wild animals.
Although their descriptions of daily survival and observations of the natural world are mesmerizing, their unfiltered encounter with the Namib goes into deep philosophical territory. The geologists’ withdrawal into a semi-forced Paleolithic life style gave them perspective on the distance that human beings have placed between their modern incarnations and their own historical evolution from nature.
The geologists own survival struggles combined with intimate observations of wild animals drew them to a bigger conclusion—that Darwin’s biological determinism alone could not explain how life prevailed over death and extinction or how survival adaptations could help surmount bleak prospects. The visceral reality of their survival peeled back the language of their own classical scientific-training. The language of inanimate, cellular-level, mechanistic and physical systems felt insufficient anymore. They begin to speak of life as moved by mystery and a ‘feeling’, sounding more like many indigenous people even today who live close to nature.
The geologists knew they were always teetering on the edge of a deathly abyss, but Henno describes a kind of spirit that persists, defiant of the terrible odds of survival in this desert, and provides affirmation of life. It is as though the seemingly dead surface of the desert could be penetrated by life. “For us it was an illuminating experience to learn at first hand that nature was not a unity. What greater contrast could there be than that between the old desert with its slowly crumbling rocks and the eternally renewed life which day in and day out joyfully defied the relentless contradictions of dead matter? Living and dead matter were so obviously at variance here, and the living matter so obviously triumphant in its adaptability over the dead elements and their rigid laws that the barren wilderness seemed to us more essentially alive than green trees rustling in the wind.”
Animals who had adapted were powerful characters in their story. “Life seemed new, splendid and exciting, particularly because of the startling contrast between the dead, arid, sun-parched rock landscape all around and the swift and beautiful animals that lived in it. Death was always at their heels, but they defied him gaily and lived their lives with obvious gusto.”
I certainly wouldn’t want to be a thin-skinned mammal in this heartless expanse. The desert could eviscerate and crisp me whole. Down there on the hot plain, I imagine I would gradually be entombed in a sand drift—sand covering every crevice of my body and filling in my eyes. I felt only fear and awe of the power of this place.
My all too mortal insignificance aside, I am safe in a marvel of modern technology—the airplane. I was still alive, still a complex being, and still filled with modern contradictions and imagination. As I stare into the barren desolation below, I began to see crowds in my mind’s eye. Perhaps this spontaneous mental wandering is a coping mechanism. The body survives unpleasantness and pain by seeking solace in visions of the opposite—in this case, people and humanity.
I thought about how I’ve felt in India with its densely woven tapestry of humanity on display in crowded markets and bus stands teeming with people, flower sellers, children hawking soft drinks, women with babies clinging to them, bedraggled beggars, thirsty and emaciated, shuffling through hundreds of strangers moving en masse, sweaty body to body.
Many times in my life, I have often turned away from crowds like these. I have felt them drain my energy, overwhelm, and sadden me. Poverty is a violence, not only for those who suffer it, but for those who share the condition by being witness up close. The pathos of human suffering is too visceral to bear, even empathically, sometimes. Ironic that in the air over the desolate Namib, I am envisioning myself in synch with an animated swell of people, squashed between bodies and elbows on buses, packed together in some sweaty Asian city bus station. I want the relationship of proximity with humanity, rich and poor, happy and desperate. Crowds are not comfortable places to be, but the idea seems comforting when I am confronted with desolate emptiness.
My friend Carola is pointing excitedly and I look down at the grand view that we are approaching. We are coming up over the Sossusvlei’s red sand dunes. The Sossusvlei is a region where magnificent honey- and amber-colored sand dunes, hundreds of feet high, curve out in infinite patterns in all directions. Their undulating, parabolic shapes, and the rhythmic expressions of curves in light and shadow are visually arresting. From the air you can see the gigantic sand waves spreading out like the tendrils of a star fish.
This Namib-Naukluft Park section is said to be the oldest desert in the world and in fact these are actually fossilized sand dunes. The prevailing winds that shape dune crestlines across this ancient landscape blow from differing directions. The bird’s eye view of nature’s feat of pattern, color, and symmetry are thrilling. Distinct circles can be seen, formations where the occasional rain-fed pools leave deeper-colored clay. These basins encircled by towering dunes are called “vlei”.
Eye and spirit fuse into elation, a quick flip from the desolation I was feeling earlier. I am energized.
From the air we pick out dotted lines of black objects, which turn out to be shadows of tree stumps. These dead camelthorn trees are remnants of trees that tapped into the now-buried Tsauchab River. The river flowed west towards the Atlantic, but over time, was overwhelmed in its course by the encroachment of sand dunes that covered over everything until the entire river was buried. The course of the buried desert river is marked by straggly dead trees.
We fly over the “Deadvlei,” a name which itself sounds cruel and inhospitable. Dead plant matter lingers on in the cracked surface of occasional pools, because micro-organisms, elsewhere the basis of life, do not survive in the desert. Even decomposition in the Namib is soporific when the sun and the lack of moisture stunts life.
The flight continues and we approach distinct formations of tall escarpments rising out of a deep channel. We look down where a river has cleaved its muscular, tenacious way through into a wide canyon. Behind it the terrain appears to be a wild labyrinth of gorges and ravines. This must be the Kuiseb River canyon! Dry, brown, and rocky, it forms a kind of territorial dividing line after the battalions of sand dunes.
The terrain in this part of the desert is more complex than the flat, open areas we have flown over thus far. The Kuiseb Canyon is where Hermann and Henno intentionally spirited themselves into the desert in late 1939 with few supplies to avoid suspicion.
Crudely at first, the geologist friends learned to hunt, forage, and survive in the desert. They learned that the wild animals of the desert have evolved such physical prowess, endurance, and strength that bullets do not kill them. So, to acquire food, just like the Bushmen, the geologists eventually learned how to outrun the animals they injured over exhaustingly vast territory. Through debilitating hunger, desperation, numerous clumsy failures, and with luck, they hunted springbok, gemsbok, hyena, zebra, the stray cow, and jackals. They learned to smoke and preserve the meat to extend its shelf life. They made sausage. They crafted tools, and melted shot to make crude bullets. They fashioned shelter in a cave they shared with tiny animals, and built a cooking oven. They acquired methods to survive, learning from both other animals and their own instincts. Their bodies adapted to surviving on meager calories.
The Realm of Animals
Henno describes encounters of vast herds of antelope like springbok and gemsbok in the 1940s. His accounts of watching and learning wild animal behaviors are mesmerizing. Henno describes the uncanny perceptions of the ostriches who could sense the human presence faster than any other animals, the casual ease with which the jackal mingled with springbok when it wasn’t in a position to hunt them, the inquisitive baboons that lived in the canyon walls, the mice that lived in caves, little snakes which went opportunistically for sun spots. They began to see animals as individuals with unique characteristics. “We learnt to recognized their mood and intentions from the way they held their heads, or set their hooves, or from the swishing of their tails or the flicking of their ears. We got to understand them and their behavior as you get to understand your friends without the need of speech.”
Surrounded by, threatened by, and always reliant on animals for sustenance and signals about the environment, they mused at the small degree of separation between humans and animals. In the animal world they saw social behavior, loyalty, communication, friendship, territoriality, and pride. They grew to feel that human instincts and motivations were not too far off those of animals. They recognized that the ‘all too human’ behavior of men was in reality ‘all too animal’.
Their dreams blurred the distinctions between animal and human. “There seemed no particular mystery about this;” Henno writes, “after all, for a couple of years now our whole life had revolved around them; they were our only fellow beings…supposing we had led such a life not merely for a couple of years, but from childhood onwards! How natural such dreams would be!” This phenomenon of sharing existence with animals so deeply is the likely source, Henno says, of mythology, a cultural heritage of many cultures “—in which human beings and animals mingle and merge into each other”.
They placed themselves in this same spectrum of life as animals. Their own adaptations to desert life and its contrast with the past set in human culture, moved them to spend long dark desert nights deliberately engaging in philosophical and existential speculation, contemplating the nature of life itself.
Henno describes several experiences which he could not explain or relate except through the concept of ‘mystery’. Sometimes it was as simple as inexplicable instincts on where to find a crucial lens from a pair of binoculars which had been stolen by baboons, taken apart and scattered all over. Or an inexplicable sense of mutuality with certain animals that seemed to defy differences in species. Sharing experiences of beauty and vulnerability in a harsh landscape seemed to unite them in the experience of life itself. Through these experiences the geologists began to feel that “no purely mechanistic interpretation which assumed that a living being was only a complicated physio-chemical machine, was adequate” It was mystery not only applicable to human sensibilities, but to life as a whole.
The reality of their stresses, challenges, and pain were instructive also. “Feeling such as pain and the response in the body set off electrical impulses in the nervous system which led to physical embodiments and adjustments.” If adaptation was ‘learning from experience’, it involved a kind of self-aware judgement, interlinking successive happenings in memory and learning from repeated encounters. Each new, learned adaptation helped creatures to ‘develop’ and go beyond inherited characteristics. Life could create new things, and give new significance to old things.
Henno cuts through Darwinian evolution incisively, saying that life went beyond the rigidity of purely physical phenomena. “Again and again we were confronted with the ridiculous inadequacy of any attempt to explain the whole of development merely through natural selection in the struggle for survival.” In their discussions under the stars during long nights, the geologists turn increasingly to the concept of a more spiritually-inspired life force to explain what they saw around them, among the animals. Henno writes, ‘life was raised above the inanimate world…by this phenomenon of feeling.’
Mystery and Language
The book’s prose can feel a bit forced in certain parts, and that may be partly due to the translation from the original. I think the greater significance is that the vocabulary and constructs to invoke the mystery they try to describe might be constrained in any expository prose. It strikes me that romantic poets offer a more compelling style of invoking man’s mystical relationship with nature, drawing on childhood imagination and a soul inspired connection to nature. It explicitly turns away from the world of human commerce and industry.
Their ideas about life force—fomented through the experience of survival alongside animals in the wild, far from humanity—shift profoundly from their modern, scientific sensibilities. The geologists call this life force a kind of ‘feeling’. The theory of ‘phenomenon of feeling’ as a primal force, perhaps the mysterious alchemy of imagination, spark, and spirit, adds a spiritual dimension to the biological systems of adaptive survival. Henno writes, “In a hostile environment development was impossible without a struggle, but if natural selection in that struggle were the only active force, how could there ever have been any striving towards beauty, friendship and peace?”
They parse out the concept thus: “We could…ask ourselves how a permanently hungry man could conceive of the idea of satiety? How could the conception of timelessness develop out of time? In other words how could it come about that life had an urge towards something non-existent? This miracle is implicit in the capacity of living things to feel and to judge.” Henno says that all pairs of possibilities developed from the original pair of opposites: pain and pleasure. “Pain…impelled a search for something non-existent.” The capacity to absorb pain but then rise out of the dull sticks and stones of experience, to seek and find beauty, imagination, and life impulse was the mystery. It was not only a capacity in human beings, but in other creatures that Henno and Hermann observed and reflected on.
The realization of life as a ‘feeling’ Henno writes, “shone like a bright jewel over our harsh and barren world. Suddenly we were able to understand how life could strive for the impossible, how human beings could toil persistently towards the impossible and how we ourselves, although engaged in a ruthless struggle to survive, could still love our fellow creatures. And how often life persisted obstinately until the seemingly impossible has been made possible!” Adaptation and evolution included an element of ‘miracle’ and mystery. Miracle and mystery were implicit in the capacity of living things to feel, to judge, to respond and to learn over time.
The notion of mystery in the universe has largely been factored out of the modern world while the language of mystery is deemed ‘lesser’ than the language of a ‘rational’ and scientific approach. Curious that even today, indigenous people who live close to nature and speak about it constantly reference mystery and spirituality in nature. Hardly surprisingly then, that the observations of these two scientific-age Europeans who returned to the wild again resonate so deeply with indigenous and other cultures which are close to nature.
The German geologists were in a unique position to comment on what modern culture has lost as a result of removing itself from nature and wilderness. Uniquely, they straddled cultures—born and raised in modern European civilization, but adapted to a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer life not much different from the Stone Age.
Beyond considering the loss of nature from human life, Henno and Hermann are also forward-looking about adaptation and evolution. And their discussions are note-worthy coming from a time when the world was facing violence and fascism during the Second World War. Their observations of humanity during that time provide a perhaps useful lens today, in the midst of our 21st century descent into ecological destruction. The best adaptation, Henno writes, rises out of free thinking with the greatest latitude. One of the most significant restrictions, he notes, was in the minds of people (referring to, at the time, the political propaganda of Nazi Germany). When people think uniformly by dictate and propaganda, their ability to adapt to new conditions is restricted. It is difficult to get past the constriction of imagination and grow into new states of being.
It’s not a big stretch to consider the straitjackets of imagination (through constant media imagery, advertising, the consumerist mindset which associates happiness with bought things and experiences, the distractions of the online world), which appear to open up our world but perhaps also constrict our imaginations. Ideologies—of religious and cultural superiority, of buying and consumerism, of worshipping material wealth, of male superiority over female, of human superiority over nature—reign through words, leadership, and commonly accepted social norms. Such ideologies—or restrictions of imagination—suffocate our human potential. Ideologies and their grip over human imagination are behind wars, mass extinctions, climate destabilization, gender-based violence, and human suffering.
The somewhat dizzying Cessna flight gave me bird’s eye perspective on the land. But Henno and Hermann’s adventures led me to a deeper, hidden world of the Namib Desert and a greater perspective on the restrictions of imagination that we live with in a world dominated by the human footprint and the machinations of modern commerce.
By walking with Hermann and Hesse, vicariously, through the Kuiseb canyon, watching the massive Namib clouds and listening in on their night time conversations, I felt the spirit and pulse of the Namib. Its stark and deathly façade was only part of the story. Beyond the physical reality, its story of what life could offer was infinitely more exhilarating. The gift of Hermann and Henno’s extraordinary hardships and reflections in the desert is a counterpoint perspective on the modern world. It leaves us aware of how impoverished we are in our minds and spirits because we have cut ourselves off from the riches of the natural world. How we regain this might be the most compelling question of all.
Our flight came down in the town of Walvis Bay after dramatic views of the desert encroaching the sea front. Death and life which had been so visceral in my experience of the flight and the desert, was a theme that came up again in my friendship with Carola. She was always lucid about life, much more so than me. She read people with ease, understood what motivated them, and what mattered in life while I seemed to fumble so badly. Not two years after this adventure, Carola’s cancer returned. With life still young, she prepared for death. We had some incredibly wonderful discussions during her final months of how to prepare for death. She wanted to write her truths. She wanted to write what she had learned, through the powerful realizations, sadness, wishes, and insight she was processing. Eventually her body could not withstand the aggressive therapy. Not yet 40, she passed away in May of 2014. This blog is an ode to Carola. She has left me a little of her life-force inspiration. It helps me carry on.