Welcome to our new section, Reader Alerts, in which our readers share links and blog about environmental, biocultural diversity, humans rights, and social justice issues they are involved in or concerned about. The posts will be moderated by the Editor.
New York restaurateur who is doing what he can for Madagascar’s incredible tortoises which are being decimated by the Asian collector and culinary/medicine markets.
In March, 2006, I recorded the music of Munganyar and Kalbelia “gypsies” in and around the ancient desert citadel of Jaissalmer in Rajasthan. I was looking for evidence to support my theory, and I believe I found it, that many of the basic melodic sequences in Russian, Celtic, Turkish, North African, Malian blues, American blues, flamenco Cuban son, and Brazilian samba originate in Rajasthan. See my article about this trip in the April, 2008 issue of Travel + Leisure Magazine, and the documentary “La Cho Drom,” which made me realize this. I had already confirmed the strong connection between Malain music and American blues; see Dispatch #25; the question was where did the Malians get this bluesy sound?Here are two numbers where you can hear a bluesy flattening by Amin Khan, one of the hot young Munganyar virtuosos who is singing monophonically the same notes he is whipping off on his harmonium. The first he calls Sufiana. It’s a Sufi tune. Listen here to tracks 109 and 110.
Here is another astounding performance in track 108 by Amin Khan and his various brothers and cousins who kept dropping in and joining the jam session which was taking place at Amin’s house in the community of several hundred Munganyar artists and their families. Listen to these fantastic castanets in track 111, they’re ancestors to the ones played by flamenco dancers. These are simply two thin wooden slats, or sheets of glass that are clapped together between the thumb and fingers. And there are also two incredible numbers on the Jaw Harp by Amin. Listen here to track 118.
Out in the desert, I recorded two Kalbelia women accompanied by a man on a reedy flute who later slapped a plastic gerrycan as percussion. This tune 120 has maybe not uncoincidental similarities to an Irish jig.
On this track 121 one man plays a Jaw’s harp. In this track 122 the women’s singing has an Appalachian quality. And in the second part there’s another great tune by the gals. You can hear that the Kalbelia’s music is a lot rawer than the Munganyar’s.
In track 124 I captured the kamayacha or one-string stand-up fiddle player who played on the roof of my hotel in the citadel at six every evening.
Finally, here are some numbers by Hassan Khan, “the tiger of singing,” who plays for the Maharajah of Jaissalmar. He runs over the scales with me in track 127 ,in different ascending and descending clusters that he’s been practising for decades.
Track 125 is a version of Musti Musti, a Sufi song, that is very different from the one recorded by the late Nasrat Ali Khan. And there are some other amazing ragas in tracks 126, 130,and 131.The basic structure is the theme is stated vocally, then the percussion comes in and picks up the tempo, and the finale returns to the theme with redoubled brio. In 128 a kamayacha players drops in and does a solo. Track 132 sounds like northeast Brazilian good-time accordion. I would have thought I was in Recife if I had not been in Rajasthan.
A Review of Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys : Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist, by William W. Warner, National Geographic Press, 1999, for the Alumnae Horae magazine of St. Paul’s School, to be published in January, 2002
As the natural world is disappearing at an alarming rate, so is the art of nature writing. Which makes this collection of ten “odysseys” by William Warner all the more special.
This is a lovely, quietly gleaming gem by one of America’s masters of nature writing, the summation of eight decades of roaming the world and experiencing some of its most beautiful places. It belongs on the shelf with Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne, Thoreaux’s journals, Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook and other classics of the genre. As Alumnae Horae editor Deborah de Peyster, to whom I am deeply grateful for having asked me to review it and thus brought it to my attention, e-mailed me, “It is especially nice reading right now because it is such a peaceful book, full of the reassuring rhythms of life.”
Warner is the real deal, utterly lacking in the pomposity and preachiness and holier-than-thou attitude and socio-political naiviete and lack of compassion for their own species that other nature writers sometimes fall prey to. His writing is imbued with a gracious simplicity, an old Yankee sparseness and sturdiness, that are the hallmarks of a vanishing breed and sensibility, the true gentleman, which our mutual alma mater has produced not a few of over the years. I’ve always thought that this sensibility, when it is exists—and it is rare in any culture—verges on enlightenment. Perhaps the closest writer to Warner, in the end, is the late William Maxwell, except that Maxwell wrote fiction, and Warner, who is best known for his l977 Pulitzer-prize-winning book on Chesapeake Bay, Beautiful Swimmers, finds life as it is too intricate and fascinating to be feel the need for invention.
The odysseys all take place in the New World, except for one in the Pacific. They begin with Warner’s childhood, when it was possible to walk for miles along the New Jersey coast without encountering anything human. Warner is a New York City boy who summers at a resort called Spring Lake. In the opening paragraph of the book he describes his family situation, which sounds like straight of out Cheever or Fitzgerald :
“Very little in my upbringing seems to have pointed toward a love for the world of nature, much less for writing about it. I was born and grew up in New York City in a house that was without great books, without a father, and, for some periods of the year, without a mother. In loco patris I had only a highly irascible step-grandfather. Col. George Washington Cavanaugh was his name, and he wanted to be known by all of it. His most frequent utterances to me, apart from constant reminders that I was no blood kin, went something like this : ‘Your father is a bum, your mother is running around with every gigolo in Europe, so I suppose the spring can rise no higher than its source.’”
At Spring the young Warner, on romps with his brother and boyhood pals, discovers the rich world of estuaries and tidal flats. In a completely natural way, the curious kid learns the differences among willets, sanderlings, turnstones, whimbrels, godwits, and other shorebirds. He discovers how much he enjoys exploring and poking around in the great outdoors by himself, and over the years he comes to need periodic rejuvenating “escapes” from the human environment.
In the decades that follow, Warner spends the summer of l941 digging for dinosaur bones in northern California, he vagabonds solo down to Tierra Fuega where he is entranced by the killer whales, then he is drafted and sent to the Pacific theater. While helping secure the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), he discovers the psychedelic world of their coral reefs. Then he joins the foreign service and in the l950s is posted as a cultural attache to Guatemala City, where he plunges into the teeming and largely invisible diversity of the rainforest.
The howler monkeys particularly intrigue him. Their unearthly choruses at dawn are one of the most impressive and indescribable sounds in the animal world. (Two decades later, at the same loss for words, making all-to-infrequent use of my years of Latin and Greek at SPS, I compared howler choruses in the Amazon to “wind rushing through the portals of Hades.”)
Then we go to l980. Joining a party of very serious birders on the Dry Tortugas, Warner finds himself far more intrigued by their behavior than by that of the birds they are ticking off, and he gives us a wry natural history of one the most bizarre and obsessed human sub-types : the life-lister. He is equally bemused, climbing Mount Katahdin at the age of 52, by the l960s back-to-nature movement and all the flashy must-have gear the new generation of hikers and campers had to have before they venture into “the environment,” as the world of nature was already starting to be called.
Warner flies up to Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic, where, lamenting never having had one of the ecstatic visions reported by other nature writers, he finally has “a near epiphany.”
All these odysseys are absolutely delightful and highly informative, but the one that really stood out for me is the second, which is the title story. It takes place “many years ago” at “the New England preparatory school we attended at the time.” The headmaster is a “stern New England cleric.” That would have been the Rev. Samual S. Drury, fourth Rector from l911 to l938. (Most often remembered as a stern disciplinarian, Drury was also a naturalist who studied and surrounded himself with flowers and enjoyed vigorous walks, especially in Maine.)
Warner and an equally adventurous nature-loving schoolmate named Henry Buck make full use of the school’s thousand acres of lakes and deep forest. One afternoon they crawl into a cave where there are twelve porcupines. They catch one and sneak it back to their house.
This brought back fond memories of the spring of l963 when two classmates– “Jock” Wiley and Hilton Foster—and I went trout fishing and caught a humongous snapping turtle that was taking up the entire width of a small brook, with its mouth open, waiting to take off a toe or two of Jock, who was in the lead. But instead we got the turtle to clamp down on a stout branch and carried it back, triumphantly but surreptitiously, to the Upper, where we kept it in a bathtub for a couple of days.
Cigars may have been smoked on this expedition. If they were, they were undoubtedly rum-soaked crooks or Dutch Masters. Warner confesses in his Maine piece to reaching “into my pocket for a cigarette,” and then explains, with tongue-in-cheek mortification : “shocked readers should remember at this time, the United States was by and large a smoking society, which included the outdoors and nature lovers as well.”
These “escapes” into the woods of SPS were as important to me as they were for Warner. They were as important a safety valve as the rainforest is to the Mekranoti Indians of the Amazon, with whom I spent a month in l976. Periodically the residents of this isolated village, hundreds of miles from any other Brazilians, would escape the claustrophic confines of the village by going aybanh, as they called it : going berserk and running screaming into the forest. They would disappear for a day or two, then return to the village, and no one would say anything or act as if anything out of the ordinary had happened.
What I missed at SPS was any instruction in the natural history of this magnificent property that we had the run of. Which I gather now exists. But this didn’t stop either Warner or me from becoming infatuated with the world of nature and keying out the flora and fauna on our own. Often the most important parts of one’s education does not take place in the classroom. Had I known about Warner earlier, he would have unquestionably become a role model. (Peter Matthiessen and John MacPhee were my heroes in the seventies when I was bailing out of a career as a singer-songwriter and muddling toward becoming a nature writer). Our lives have taken very similar trajectories, a generation apart.
A critic is not worthy of the name, I suppose, unless he finds something to criticize, so I have diligently combed Warner’s book in search of something to take him to task for. I must report that I did find two things. On page 55, he begins a paragraph with the transitional phrase, “Small wonder then.” Then 24 pages later we get another paragraph that starts “little wonder then.” This is a trope that probably shouldn’t be repeated within at least fifty pages of its last usage. But at least Warner isn’t guilty of telling the same story twice, which I have to confess I’ve done in several of my books.
The second point is a query, really; I can’t claim to know the truth of the matter. According to the riveting natural history of porcupines that Warner provides us with (for instance, the quills apparently have an antiobiotic grease that mitigates the effect of the punctures they inflict; “such are nature’s little grace notes,” comments Warner), female porcupines are only in heat 8 to 12 hours in the course of a year. The randy males exhibit remarkable patience, tracking them for as long as a week before they finally get to mount them, which only happens after they have courted and won over the female and emerged victorious in vicious combat with numerous rivals. But this to seems to contradict what Nathalie Anger reported in the Tuesday Science Times not long ago : that porcupines “do it” “gingerly” and every day, 365 days of the year. Perhaps some enterprising student can take to the woods and find out what the real story is here.
The fam and I devoured several large platefuls of chicken of the woods, with actual chicken and with pasta. It was absolutely ambrosial, one of my best mushroom-eating experiences ever.
Only later did I read that you must be sure to eat only completely fresh flesh, otherwise you could be in for some toxic side-effects, such as your lips turning numb. After the second plateful, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a mouthful of gastric juices that had suddenly spurted up.
Like any red-blooded Slav, I am a passionate mycophile and consumer of wild fungi. WASPs tend to be more squeamish about this sort of thing. This is because, as Gordon Wassen explains in his fascinating book, Russians, Mushrooms, and History, Slavs never worshiped them. Anglo-Saxons did, and to dissuade them fro their mushrooms cults, the early missionaries persuaded them that all mushrooms were poisonous and loathsome toadstools.
How could there be chantrelles in the Ituri Forest of Congo that are visually indistinsuishable from the ones we pick in the Adirondacks, as I report in Dispatch#2? How could you get almost the same mushrooms in the tropical, temperate, and boreal zones ? (There are also very similar chantrelles in Nepal.) The answer to this and many other questions is in Olle Person’s The Chantrelle Book, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
NEW YORKER, JUNE 20, 1994
FLIGHT FROM DEATH The violence in Rwanda was threatening to explode in Burundi, where the author’s Tutsi relatives live, and he knew he had to get them out.
-BY ALEX SHOUMAFOFF
THE minibus sped past hundreds of deplacés walking along the road with mattresses, cooking pots, and bundles of possessions on their heads. “Africa and its interminable wars,” Jean Rwagasana, in the front seat beside me, muttered in French, the colonial lingua franca. These were people of Kamenge, which is a suburb of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, a tiny, populous Central African country that has been convulsed with ethnic slaughter for thirty years. It was mid-April, and they were fleeing the Army, which was battling the rebels in Kamenge and, in its usual heavy-handed way, killing everyone in its path, including women and children of the Hutu ethnic group, to which both the rebels and the déblacés belonged. The Army and the country were dominated by Burundi’s other ethnic group, the Tutsis, though Tutsis were said to compose only about fifteen per cent of the population. In Rwanda, Burundi’s twin, just to the north, the Hutu majority was in control of the government; there, too, the Tutsis were said to compose fifteen per cent of the population—until a few weeks ago, when Hutu extremists slaughtered perhaps as many as half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in what was shaping up as a savage genocidal massacre. For now, Burundi was calmer, but, as Jean put it, “the tension is rising.” He went on to tell me, “Just yesterday, on a Street in downtown Bujumbura, a woman started screaming. Maybe she was being robbed, or maybe it was a ruse by bandits to create panic. Everybody started running, but nobody knew what he was running from, or where he was running to. I stopped a man and asked him why he was running, and he said, ‘Because everybody else is.’”
Rwanda and Burundi are yoked by a common culture, language, and history. They are mirror images of a single nightmare, and they feed each other’s violence; most people felt that it was only a matter of time— weeks, months, a year at most—before the aftershock of Rwanda would hit Burundi. (In fact, the killings in Rwanda were partly a reaction to an underreported massacre last fall in Burundi, in which tens of thousands of people—perhaps even hundreds of thousands—were killed.) My wife, whom I married in Africa and who came to the United States seven years ago, is a Tutsi, and Jean’s mother, Pascaline, is a beloved relative of hers. I had come to get the Rwagasanas (as I have called them) out before the slaughter returned to Burundi.
There is a taboo in Burundi against ethnic hostility at the workplace or while sharing public transport, and the sixteen other passengers crammed into the minibus rode along in wary silence. Discreetly, I checked out the ethnic mixture. There were three obvious Tutsis. Tall, slender, with high foreheads, prominent cheekbones, and narrow features, they were a different physical type from the five passengers who were short and stocky and had the flat noses and thick lips typical of Hums. These differences, which are discernible in only about half the population of Rwanda and Burundi, were long ascribed to a now discredited racial classification: the Tutsis were Hamitic,” the Hutus “Bantu.” But they are the only differences between Hutus and Tutsis, apart from the fact that Hums are traditionally cultivators and Tutsis cattle-keepers. The people of these countries speak the same languages (Kinvarwanda and Kirundi, which overlap by about eighty per cent) and share the same customs and land base, so the Hums and the Tutsis are not tribes, as frequently mislabelled by Western writers, but somewhat physically differenti— ated social groups—loose, fluid castes, really. A Hum originally meant a ser— vant, a Tutsi someone rich and powerful. The Hutu-Tutsi group consciousness was exacerbated by the European colonizers.
The rest of the passengers were indererminate. Nosewise, heightwise, or any otherwise, it was impossible even for Jean to tell what they were. The population of Burundi is very mixed. But they themselves knew what they were; in this part of the world, one is either a Hum or a Tutsi. The affluliation passes from father to son. This system had resulted in killings by Hums of fellow-Hums with Tutsi mothers whom they happened to resemble, and, the other day, in the killing of a Zairean caddie at the Bujumbura golf course who had made the mistake of going to Kamenge and was taken by the Tutsi soldiers for a Hum.
The road to the province where Jean lived ran almost dead straight for fifty miles. As we left the last of Bujumbura’s suburbs and the gleaming sheet of Lake Tanganyika, we began to pass thorn scrub studded with the cactuslike candelabra of euphorbia trees. Every fifteen minutes, we would come to a roadblock, and a tall, heavily armed soldier, in blue-and-black-spotted fatigues, would come up to the bus and say, “Karangamuntu’ (“Identify yourselves!”), and we would hand him our papers. About halfwav along the journey, a car was on fire in the middle of the road. Sooty flames were shooting thirty feet into the air. A man—a Hum—with a machete waved us onto a muddy track leading into desolate bush. I knew that Hums along this stretch of road had been putting up makeshift barriers, dragging Tutsis out of their vehicles, and hacking them to death with their pangas, or machetes, and that much of the time in recent months it had been unsafe for Jean and his family to travel to Bujumbura. “I don’t like this,” I whispered to Jean. We sat bolt upright in the clammy heat, as the track led to a village, but soon we were safely on the main road again, flying like a bat out of hell. “This little country is terrible,” said Jean, a genial, street-smart student at the University of Bujumbura. “One day it’s cairn, the next you see bodies all over the place. ça vient quandca veut—it has a will of its own.”
BURUNDI had been in a state of general panic since last October 21st, when Melchior Ndadaye, its first elected President—and, by no coincidence, a Hum—was assassinated by a group of Tutsi junior officers. This had triggered the worst bloodbath since 1972. Hutus in the countryside, egged on by inflammatory broadcasts from Rwanda, had started killing their Tutsi neighbors; then the Army had come in and had killed even more Hutus. Half of the country had been in flames. Observers flying in helicopters over Burundi’s hills reported hundreds of bodies scattered around smoldering huts. On one hill, Hums were slaughtering Tutsis; on the next, it was the other way around. How many were killed? “One cannot know the number,” a provincial governor told me. The government estimated the figure to be between eight and ten thousand, but other estimates ranged from twenty-five thousand to as high as two hundred thousand. The victims were both Tutsi and Hum; most of the eight hundred thousand or so refugees who poured into neighboring Rwanda, Zaire, and Tanzania were Hutu. The Rwagasanas were especially vulnerable, because they were Rwandan Tutsis who had fled during the last big pogrom there, in 1973. The Burundian Hutus usually make a point of going after the Banyarwanda, as these exiles are called, because the Banyarwanda have generally done well for themselves, and because many of their sons are fighting in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda fourvears ago and now controls two-thirds of the country.
My wife had reached Pascaline by telephone from upstate New York, where we live a few days after President Ndadaves funeral, on December 6th, which had incited a new spasm of butchery. Pascaline told us that since October the family had been sleeping in the bush, under a grass roof spanning two anthills,
because armed Hutus were on the prowl and it was unsafe to stay in the house at night.
On New Year’s Day, we talked again. The simation hadn’t changed. Pascaline was a strong woman, whose family had already suffered every conceivable horror over the years, but this time she burst into tears. “This may be the last time we will be talking to each other,” she said. “If you can just get the children out and I die, it wouldn’t be so bad.” A few nights later, I was awakened by my wife’s sobbing. “I eat and sleep, eat and sleep, and feel so helpless,” she said. So we decided—my wife, three of her relatives who had already made it to the First World, and I—that I would go alone to Africa and try to get the Rwagasanas visas to America.
By late January, the killing had spread to the capital. Eight of Bujumbura’s eighteen quartiers populaires underwent violent, spontaneous ethnic cleansing. In four, all the Hums were driven out or killed, and their homes were torched with gasoline or blown up with grenades. Now, Jean told me, if a Hutu ventured into one of them, even a taxi-driver with a Tutsi passenger, the cry went up “Bord! Bord!” (quartier slang for “quarry,” or “game”), young Tutsis came running, and the Hum was stoned, beaten, or kicked to death on the spot. The same happened to a Tutsi who entered one of the four recently cleansed Hutulands. “If you get on the wrong bus, c’est fini pour toi,” Jean said. On March 19th, he recalled, he was remrning from a wedding in a bus full of Banyarwanda, and it was stopped by a makeshift barricade and surrounded by a gang of young Hums armed with pangas, knives, and hatchets. This was in the still mixed quartier of Bwiza; the assailants were probably Hutus who had been driven out of the adjacent, now completely Tutsi quartier of Nyakabiga. “They told the driver to let out all the Tutsis,” Jean recalled. “He refused. Then they broke one of the bus windows and started pulling a girl’s hair. Their leader ordered gasoline to be brought, so the bus could be set on fire with us inside. I thought my time had come. But just then a military patrol came by, and they all fled.”
Then, on April 6th, there was a spectacular double assassination in Rwanda, and that country, which had remained calm throughout Burundi’s bloodbath, exploded Rwanda’s longtime President Juvenal Habvarimana, and Burundi’s new Presi . Cvprien N taryamira who had just taken twice were returning together in Habvarimana’s plane to Kigali Rwanda capital—following a conferencc. in Dares Salaam, Tanzania, on the Certrai Aflican crisis—when the plane was apparently hit by rocket fire. It came down in garden of the Rwandan Presidential palace, and both Presidents were killed. At first, everyone thoughi that the plane bad been shot down by thc insurgent Rwandan Patriotic Front, bui the killers may have been extremists in Habvarimana’s own party. Last August, at Arusha Tanzania, Habvarimana had reluctanlty agreed to form a transitional wernment and to integrate his Army with the R.P.F. Since then, he had been using every delaying tactic in the book to avoid implementing the accords, but in recent weeks it had become clear to eeveryone that he had run out of excuses.
In any case, within hours of the assassination an unprecedented purge began, not only of Tutsis but of Hutu opposition leaders, sixty-eight of whom were killed in the first three days, and of prominent businessmen and intellectuals—the cream of Rwanda. The transitional Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingivimana, a Hutu who supported the Arusha accords, was hideously murdered. Her Belgian United Nations guards were genitally mutilated and tortured to death. The Minister of Labor was reported to have been cut into three pieces, and those pieces to have been used as a roadblock. Most of the killing was done by members of Habyarimana’s seven-hundred-man Hutu Presidential Guard and drink-and-marijuana-crazed young members of his party known as interabamwe—”those who think together and attack together.” In Gisenyi, a city on Lake Kivu, bordering Zaire, where thousands of Tutsis and Hutu moderates and members of the elite were butchered, a Rwandan journalist told me, some Hutu interahamwe burst into a church and asked the priest if he was Hutu or Tutsi. The priest was a Hum, but this was impossible to tell from his nose or his height, and he said, “I am a member of the human race.” The interahamwe thereupon chopped him into pieces.
Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the president of the National Assembly and a Hutu, became the new, interim President of Burundi. Ntibantunganya was doing his best to keep the country calm, but he was in a very dangerous position, caught between Hutu and Tutsi extremists, and everyone was waiting for the backlash from Rwanda. Burundi’s next bloodbath, many feared, would be worse than the one in October, and perhaps even worse than Rwanda’s.
SOMETHING was required to explain why the entire Rwagasana family—Pascaline, Antoine, and their children who were still living in Burundi—needed to come to America immediately. The fact that they were in mortal danger was not an acceptable argument. From America, they would make their way to a third country, where other family members were already living, and there they would ask for political asylum. It wasn’t possible to go to that country directly, because it was flooded with asylum applicants from disintegrating Third World countries and had stopped giving visas to them. So we scheduled a wedding. Janvier, the Rwagasanas’ fourth child, who had immigrated to the New World five years earlier, was marrying an American girl. I drafted a letter to the vice-consul in Bujumbura explaining that we would be financially responsible for the Rwagasanas during their visit to the United States. (If only one or two people had been going toJanvier’s wedding, it probably wouldn’t have been necessary for me to go to Bujumbura in person, but the whole family was a tall order.)
As it happens, twenty-one years earlier the Rwagasanas had used a marriage to escape from Rwanda. Antoine had then been a secondary-school forestry teacher and Pascaline had been working in a bank An Nvanza where the last king had held court. Their four eldest children had been born by then, and they had built a four-bedroom house. They were bien, as well-off as possible for Tutsis in postcolonial Rwanda. The bottom line was that they were alive, having survived massacres in ‘59, ‘60, ‘63, and ‘67: Antoine’s father had been killed and mother and a younger brother had been imprisoned in the last flareup.
The friction between the Hums and the Tutsis goes back centuries. Rwanda and Burundi were independent kingdoms until 1899, when they became colonies of Germany; after the First World \Var, Belgium took them over. The Tutsis had been the ruling class, and the colonial administrators, in both colo riles. In 1959. as Rwanda looked toward independence, the Hums began killing Tutsi chiefs and subchiefs, burning Tutsis’ huts, and chopping off their feet—literally cutting them down to size. in April, 1973, the Rwagasanas, having barely escaped a pogrom two months earlier, learned that another pangawielding mob was headed their way. There wasn’t even time to pack. They hired a Hutu with a truck to drive them to “a wedding in Kigali.” Antoine and his two brothers rode in front, and Pascaline, her widowed mother-in-law, Irene (who by then was out of prison), and the four children in back. After some distance Antoine’s brother Damasone held a knife to the driver, and said. “I don’t want to kill you. We are just trying to save our family. We aren’t going to Kigali Drive us to Burundi.”
When they reached the border, they found the guard asleep. Albert, the third brother, who could pass for a Hutu, slapped him awake and asked impatiently, Has Minister Sezirahiga passed?” Sezirahiga was the minister in charge of carrying out the “social revolution”—as the purge of Tutsis was euphemistically called—in southern Rwanda. The guard didn’t know what to say. “I’ll bet he passed here,” Albert went on. “And you were asleep! And how could you let these Tutsis escape? Open the gate immediatelv. So tine guard let them through.
If zinc Rwagasanas had thought that Burundi would be an improvement, they were sadly mistaken. “When we came here, we found what we had left, only in reverse,” Pascaline recalls. “The soldiers made Hum functionaries carry our bags ten kilometres, to a military camp, because, the commandant said, ‘your brothers drove these people here.’ “ The year before, Burundi had had a “social revolution” of its own—a Hutu insurrection followed by devastating reprisals on the civilian population, and in the end a total of about a hundred and fifty thousand Burundians lost their lives. The Hutu elite—all those with a secondary-school education or who were prominent in any way—had practically been wiped out, so there were openings for the refugee Rwandan intellectuals and former Rwandan government officials who were pouring into Bujumbura. By June, Antoine had found work, as the manager of a Belgian-owned coffee plantation. He knew he could be replaced by a qualified Burundian at any time, but he lasted in this job until 1991, when there were massacres in Burundi for the third year in a row. In that particular area, long a hotbed of Hutu rebel activity, the Army was merciless: Hutus were bayonetted on the way to Mass. The horrified Belgian coffee-growers sold the plantation to some Burundians, who replaced Antoine and promptly ran the plantation into the ground.
JEAN and I got off the bus at our destination and walked through the market, where several dozen women were selling fish, banana beer, clothes, and produce they had grown in the lush fields outside the town and brought to the market in baskets on their heads, with their babies strapped to their backs. A procession oflyre-homed Ankole cattle ambled by. We found Pascaline, a short, solid woman of fifty-two with a frank, expressive face, sitting at a sewing machine in a dress shop, just off the market, which she owned in partnership with two friends. Pascaline had come to our wedding, in 1990—a three-day blast in a Banyarwanda refugee village in Uganda, which was where my wife grew up.
The Rwagasanas lived on the other side of the market, in the quartier commercial—a mixed neighborhood of Zaireans, Banyarwanda, and mostly Hum Burundians—in a beautiful house behind a hedge. They had built the house in 1983. It had a gracefully roofed front porch, but most of the time everyone sat on the cozy back porch, off the kitchen. The walls were brown stucco, the roof corrugated iron sheeting. The house had running water, electricity, a television, and a telephone; it was one of the nicest in town. Jean wasn’t sure that Pascaline had accepted the idea of losing everything for a second time. There might have to be a chaude discussion. I told Pascaline that I had staved up the previous night reading about the gruesome history of postcolonial Burundi— an account of one brutally crushed Hutu insurrection after another—and had been forced to conclude that things weren’t going to get better anytime soon. I knew that each member of the family had had his or her moment. Jean’s had been on the bus in Bwiza two weeks earlier. One of his sisters had been raped at school by two Hutu boys some years ago, then beaten to a pulp and left for dead. Last October 22nd, the day after President Ndadave’s assassination, a mob carrying pangas had stormed the parochial school that Gilbert, the fifteenyear-old. attended. One of the priests had given a rifle to a student whose father was in the Army and who knew how to shoott. and the student had driven off the attackers, killing one. Up the road. in the commune of Kibimba, a Hum headmaster had locked sixty-four of his Tutsi students in a room, doused it gasoline and set it on fire, burning them alive. “I don’t think there is really any choice,” T said to Pascaline. “You cant stay here.”
I know that we must go, for the sake of the children,” she said. “But it isn’t going to be easy, starting again at zero at our age. I’ve always worked for myself, and I can’t stand being sans activité.”
Antoine, in his fifties, was already considered an elder, and was addressed by the respectftul title muzehe. What was he going to do, away from his coffee bushes and his cows? Thinking of a teen-age relative of theirs who had hanged himself in the late eighties in the country where they would be seeking asylum, I said, “No, it isn’t going to be easy. You’ll be blacks in a white society, second-class citizens.”
“That won’t be anything new,” Pascaline said. “As Banyarwanda, we have known nothing but discrimination since we came here. All in all, I think I would rather be discriminated against by whites. At least you know where you stand.”
“And the winters are brutal,” I continued. “The weakness of the light can lead to depression.”
“Is it true that half of this country’s land surface is covered with ice?” Jean asked.
I felt like the Angel of Exile, who had come to take the Rwagasanas away from everything they knew. But it wasn’t as if they hadn’t already lost their country twenty years ago. At least, they would have each other, and a chance, at last, to lead a decent, normal life.
SINCE its bloody “pacification” three years earlier, the Rwagasanas’ province had been calm. Only thirty-five people had been killed in the province following the October outbreak; most of the carnage had taken place in eastern Burundi. Still, the situation for the Rwagasanas remained very threatening. People had stopped coming to Pascaline’s petit cabaret—two thatched huts in the front yard, which had been the town’s most popular bar. She couldn’t even shop in the market anymore—the women, who were Hutus, would take her money and then not give her the food—so the Zairean house girl made the purchases. Antoine didn’t dare to check on his thirty cows, which grazed on ten lush acres outside the town. For three of the past seven months, the couple had slept in the bush, as they had in 1989 and again in 1991, and for another two-month stretch they had stayed locked in the house, not leaving it even once. In the middle of the night, people would throw stones onto the roof and shout, “We’re going to get this house!” In January, some Hutu neighbors reported to the provincial authorities that Pascaline and Antoine had put up Paul Kagame, the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. That was a malicious lie, whose purpose was to discredit the Rwagasanas.
‘We are marked,” Jean said.
“Yes,” his father said, adding, “We are alone.”
The sad thing was that Antoine and Pascaline were apolitical country people, who had no use for the Hutu-Tutsi mind-set Antoine never even mentioned that six of his brothers and sisters and their spouses and children—twenty-eight relatives in all—had just been killed in Rwana; I learned this later from his son. In fact, his closest friend was a Hutu named Romain. Romain had been Antoine’s student in Rwanda as a refugee from Burundi, after fleeing the 1972 purge of Hutus. Now he was a powerful man, one of the local deputies of the Hutu-dominated party that had come into power last August. The party had been pressuring him to break off his friendship with his old teacher, Romain told me that evening as we sat drinking beer in the deserted cabaret. “But I refuse Such a friendship as the one that existed between Antoine and Romain was not frequent,” they both admitted. it was as rare as a white man and a black man becoming bosom buddies in the Old South.
Romain’s s wife, Odette, was one of Pascaline’s partners in the dress shop. Odette’s mother was a Tutsi, and Odette herself looked sufficiently Tutsi to have been in danger during the October killing spree. so she had fled with her children to Rwanda (which was other relatively safe but where, if they had staved, they would certainly have been killed), and Pascaline had sent them food and money. No one can unfriendship,” Pascaline said, chuckling. How could I be helping Hurus in my former country, from which I had been driven out by Hutus?” This friendship gave the Rwagasanas a measure of protection that the other Banvarwanda in the commune didn’t have. The others, who had lived farther out in the countryside, had all lost their homes to arson and were now camped near the Army barracks down the road.
The family’s cows could be sold for only a third of what they were worth— not even fifty dollars a head—and only through an intermediary. They barely paid for their keep with the milk they gave but in the Tutsi culture cows were symbols of wealth. Antoine would not leave until they had been properly disposed ot A Hum cattle-keeper had told Antione, We aren’t going to give you mvthinz for your cows, because we’re going get them anyway.”
Pascaline asked if she could take her best plates the white porcelain ones with gold trim, which she kept in the dining-room cupboard. The answer could only be no, and someone said, “It has to look as if you were just coming for a visit.” Antoine went around with me as I took pictures of each room and then of the outside of the house from different angles. It was important to have a record of it for futurc generations.
THE Rwagasanas’ refugee status, like that of the hundreds of thousands of Banyarwanda who have been living in Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire, many of them since 1959, was permanent and immutable. The Banyarwanda were not allowed to have passports— only travel documents, or titres de voyage. It was very difficult to get an American visa with a titre de voyage, so Jean had been trying to get Burundian passports for the family. But the process wasn’t as far along as I’d hoped. He had only just “penetrated the milieu,” as he put it. The afternoon I arrived in Bujumbura, he and I had gone to see a Banyarwanda woman he knew in the Asian quarter, and she put him in touch with a Burundian woman who had a friend in the Department of National Documentation and Migrations who could fix us up with the necessary passports for seven hundred dollars. That evening, Jean went to see the go-between, and gave her three hundred and fifty dollars as a down payment, the balance to be paid upon delivery of the passports, which the woman assured Jean would be ready in two days.
Meanwhile, I reported to the American Embassy, which had been pared down to essential personnel; families and dependents had been flown home a week earlier. I met the consular officer who would decide whether to issue visas to the Rwagasanas. She had been up for three days straight helping with the evacuation of two hundred and eighty-four Americans from Kigali, and she looked beat. I told her that my wife’s relations wanted to come to America for a wedding and would be applying for visas, and she said, “Well, they’d better have proof of ties. They need to convince me they’re coming back to Burundi. I won’t take their word for it.”
“My impression is that they’re not going to cut us any slack,” I told Jean that evening. “So your documents will have to be impeccable. You’re going to have to get the deeds to the house and the land, and anything else that will show you have a reason to return.” Most of the Burundians who flocked to the American Embassy on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings to apply for visas, I discovered by chatting with them in the waiting room, had fishy stories supported by spurious documents, and I later learned that most of them were turned down. Some of the applicants, whose passports were hot off the presses and were possibly forged, were told by the consular officer to come back after they had travelled to a few other countries. But this was not an option for the Rwagasanas. They had to get out now, and not look back. Refugees from Rwanda—including interahamwe—were pouring into their province, and the situation was heating up.
With so many people trying to leave Burundi, the traffic in passports was brisk Our own order, which was netting someone in the Department of National Documentation and Migrations a cut of the seven hundred dollars, seemed to be proceeding smoothly. On Thursday evening two days after making the down payment, a jubillant Jean stopped by my hotel to show me his and his parents’ passports They were in order. The remaining passports, for the other children. would be ready the next day, the woman had assured him.
THE morning, I went to see Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a Tutsi who from 1976 to 1987 had been the second President of the Republic; he had been overthrown in a coup. During Bagaza;s tenure, there had been no massacres to speak of. (The most threatening enemies of the regime had simply disappeared or met with accidents.) It had been taboo to even mention the words Hum or Tutsi Bagaza had takcn power in a bloodless coup at the age of thirty and had started out full of revolutionarv vigor, inviting what was left (after tine 1972 purge) of the Hutu intelligentsa to return from exile, and phasing out the feudal sharecropping system. But., in the dassic African trajectory, he had become increasingly eas:n~iv repressive, driving out Greek and Pakistani tradespeople. expelling missionaries, jailing priests, limiting the activities of the Catholic Church, and, finally, alienating even the Army. “Is Bagaza considered a grand Président?” I asked the driver of the taxi who took me to the villa.
“No,” he said. “A former President.”
“The biggest mistake is to draw parallels with Rwanda,” Bagaza cautioned, and he gave me his spin on the HutuTutsi conflict. “Our internal politics are very different. Our kingdom was much more egalitarian. We had many more Hutu chiefs and, later, during the colonial period, ministers and generals.
The relationship between the two ethnic groups was not one of domination so much as one of trade between professional categories—pastoralists and agricultur— ists. But the colonial system always developed an intermediate class between the Europeans and the masses, and in both Rwanda and Burundi the Belgians made the Tutsis their intermediaries. The Tutsis were brought closer to modern life than the others. But on the eve of independence the elites of both countries adopted the anti-European rhetoric of African nationalism, and the Belgians turned on them. In Rwanda, radical Belgian priests helped the Hutus found PARMEHUTU, the Party for the Emancipation of the Hums, which overthrew the Tutsis. The Tutsis of Burundi saw what could happen to them, and they gradually took complete control of the government and the Army. In 1965, some Hum officers who felt oppressed by the reactionary King Mwambutsa and by the Tutsi high command attempted a coup, which led to the first massacre of Tutsis and then the repression of Hum political leaders who had been inciting the masses. Everything started there.”
But if the polarization of the ethnic groups had been created largely by the party politics at independence, by “leaders who exploited passions to rise and gain power,” today’s ethnic conflict, he agreed, had become something personal in each family. (A woman who spent two years in Burundi with the Peace Corps told me, “There is a hatred deep in the bones of these people that you and I will never understand. The rivers have run red too many times.”)
“How do you end the cycles of vengeance?” I asked Bagaza. In Jean’s words, how do you “deracinate the mentality that someone who doesn’t mind the Tutsis is an enemy of the Hums,” and vice versa? How do you get people to see that they best honor their dead not by avenging them but by dedicating themselves to healing the social psychosis that started the killing?
“There must be a big conference between the Hums and the Tutsis to study the problem of coexistence,” Bagaza said. ‘We must look for the solution within ourselves, and study the old ways when we coexisted harmoniously. No one can help us.”
An African diplomat I spoke to in Bujumbura was in near-agreement, saying, “Burundi doesn’t need a thousand casques bleus”—United Nations peacekeeping troops, which the Hum-dominated, nominally governing party had been asking for to protect it from the Army. “What it needs is a thousand psychiatrists.”
Others maintained that the basic problem in Central Africa is not ethnic, but lapolitique du ventre—the politics of scarcity. Because these countries are so poor, the state is the only game in town; the only way to make something of oneself is to use a government post for personal gain. This was why the Burundian Tutsis were so reluctant to share their power and privileges with the Hutu majority, and it was the root cause of the apocalypse in Rwanda.
That evening, Jean stopped by my hotel again: the children’s passports still weren’t ready. Nothing could be done over the weekend, and on Monday morning we still didn’t have them. That was the last day I could go with the Rwagasanas to the Embassy, because I was flying to Uganda that afternoon.
WHEN I reached Kampala, the full horror of what had happened in Rwanda was just unfolding. The original figure for the number ofTutsis who had been hacked to death with pangas, blown up with grenades, and mowed down with Kalashnikovs—a hundred thousand—was “too optimistic,” a B anyarwanda intellectual living in Kampala told me. “That is only the number of those killed in Kigali.”
According to Human Rights Watch! Africa, there were one million one hundred thousand Tutsis in Rwanda before April 7th. Others estimate the number at seven hundred thousand, but no one really knows how many there were then, or how many there are now. Many Tutsis concealed their ethnicity, and the proportion of fifteen per cent that one keeps hearing for the Tutsis in both countries (which does not take into consideration the many mixed marriages) is an estimate dating from colonial times.
The highest concentration was in the western province of Kibuye,” my informant went on. “I wonder if there is a single Tutsi left in Rwanda except in the part held by the R.P.F. Only those who managed to flee the country survived, and I doubt if they number more than fifty thousand. All the exits had been sealed. Rwanda is a small country and is easily administered if you are planning to commit genocide. The west is blocked by Lake Kivu, and those who tried to escape into Zaire and Tanzania found the borders closed. Payments seem to have been made to the governors of the adjacent provinces not to let any Tutsis in.” The borders were later opened for hundreds of thousands of Hutus, fleeing in terror of R.P.F. reprisals which turned out to be unfounded), in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described as “the largest and fastest” mass exodus ever seen. Tens of thousands of Tutsis in Kigali fled south, hoping to escape to Burundi, but they never reached the border. It now looks as if tens of thousands may still be alive in Rwanda, trapped in seminaries and stadiums, like the thirtyeight thousand refugees— most of them Tutsi— on June 2nd by the R.P.F. from the Catholic compound at Kabgayi.
The papers in Africa and abroad were full of grisly details. A man was heard crying weakly for water, water” and was pulled out of a pit where he had spent four days among hundreds of corpses. A baby was found still alive at her dead mother’s breast. Bleached, bloated, mutiErred bodies floated by on the Kazera River, which describes the Rwanda Tanzania border, at the rate of one every five minutes. Thousands of corpses washed into Lake Victoria, two thousand or so at the fishing village of Kasensero, in Uganda. According to a Ugandan official, the people who buried the first few bodies have become “mentally deranged.” At a hospital in Butare, Rwanda’s second-largest city, a hundred and seventy staff members and patients were killed by interahamwe in front of foreign doctors. Throughout the country, the panga was the murder weapon of choice, but screwdrivers, saws, hammers, and hatchets were also used. A full panga job took about twenty minutes. First the hands were chopped off, then deep gashes were scored in the back, and finally the head was whacked. If you preferred a quick death, by a bullet, you had to pay for it. The going rate was five thousand Rwandan francs, or about thirty-five dollars. The “tribal” identity card, introduced by the Belgians and supposed to have been phased out in 1991, was useful for telling who was who, There is video footage of interahamwe stopping citizens on a road, checking their identity cards, and executing those who were Tutsis on the spot. Grenades and other weapons had been distributed to the Hutus in each commune, and each person knew which Tutsis he had to kill. Immediately after Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the radical Hutu Radio des Mule Collines (which in October had urged the Hutus of Burundi to avenge President Ndadaye’s assassination) began to call on the Hutus of Rwanda to take revenge on the Tutsi assassins of their beloved leader (who had probably been killed by Hutu extremists like themselves) and on all Tutsi sympathizers. “When you are killing the wives, don’t spare those who are pregnant,” the station urged. “The mistake we made in 1959 was not to kill the children. Now they have come back to fight us.” Among the most common massacre sites were the churches, in which the Tutsis tried to take sanctuary.
On May 24th, at a meeting in Geneva of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, our State Department belatedly issued a statement saying, “We feel strongly that acts of genocide have been committed.”
MY wife begged me over the phone not to go to Rwanda. She said her mother, in Kampala, had talked to a soothsayer, and the soothsayer had told her that if I went to Rwanda I would be killed. But I did go, with two of my wife’s nieces, Claudar and Igisetsa, each of whom had a brother in the R.P.F. Having been born in Ugandan refugee camps, neither had ever been to Rwanda. We took a bus to the city of Kabale, in the southwestern corner of Uganda, and hired a taxi to take us over the Rwanda border to the R.P.F.’s headquarters, in Mulindi. “Our land. Our promised land,” seventeen-year-old Claudar said in awe as we drove through a hauntingly beautiful hut eerily empty landscape of luminous green hills and lush valley doors. The entire population had tied: terraced hillsides were reverting to the wild: the tea plantations in the val1ev had been let go. and their unkempt hushes were twice their usual height. “Our country. twenty-three-year-old Igistsa sighed. “So quiet.” Glossy ibises and dusky, primitive-looking hammerkops. with swept-back crests and stout hills, probed in mudfiats. We passed through the commune of Mukaranje, where my father-in-law had been an umutware, or subchief, under the Belgians. He had been imprisoned in 1959, but his sans had busted him out with the help of his Hum servants, and they had all tied Uganda.
We pulled into Mulindi and greeted the R.P.F. soldiers, who wore green camoufiage uniforms, black Welling-tons, and berets, and looked less like brutat soldiers than like sensitive intellectuals. which some of them were. The R.P.F. was basically ten thousand Tutsi exiles whom nobody had given the time of day to for thirty years and who, in 1990, decided to claim the right to return to their homeland—to have a country—in much the same spirit as that of the Jews who created Israel. Half of them, it seemed, were my wife’s relatives, among them my best man and the Rwagasanas’ oldest son, of whom we had had no news. The R.P.F. was in the best position, as far as I could see, to set things right in Central Africa. They were disciplined, and their ideology was sound: what they wanted was a Rwanda in which all citizens—Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa (Pygmies, who account for something like one per cent of the population)— had the same rights. They were not a Tutsi supremacist movement; more than a third of them were Hutus. The sad thing, I observed to a young lieutenant, was that more Tutsis had probably just been killed in Rwanda than were ever going to be repatriated. The R.P.F.’s military and political success had precipitated the genocide—just as, in the sixties, the government had slaughtered Tutsi civilians after offensives by an earlier rebel group, the Inyenzi, or Cockroaches. ‘We can’t stop fighting because people are being killed,” the lieutenant said grimly. “It makes you want to finish the job.”
Many people, including a growing segment of the international community, felt that the R.P.F. should be allowed to finish taking over Rwanda without outside interference. There was a lot of bitterness in the R.P.F., because the United Nations peacekeeping troops who were already in Rwanda td enforce the ceasefire signed at Arusha hadn’t done anything to stop the massacres, and now United Nations Secretary-General Boutros BoutrosGhali wanted to send fifty-five hundred more troops. “Who needs them now?” the lieutenant asked. “Who is it they are going to protect? The assassins and the cadavers?”
We spent two days at Mulindi, stranded by torrential rain. I asked Wilson Rutayisire, the R.P.F.’s commissioner of information, how the R.P.F. planned to run the conntry since all the ninderate Hutus it could have worked with had been killed, and so many machete-wielding crazies were still at large. Were there any plans to politicize the extremist Tutsis in Burundi?
“That’s not our responsibility,” he said. “Our efforts now are devoted to the problems of genocide, lawlessness, ending the war, and grappling with relief and casualties. About the future we can only say that we will put in a broad-based arrangement that will maintain the spirit of the Arusha accords, whose modalities will be worked out.”
“What are you going to do with the interahamwe?”
“They will be brought to justice— tried and sent to prison.” There have been some summary executions, but, he emphasized, “our men are under strict orders not to engage in any revenge killing, especially of Hum civilians.”
“I GUESS the soothsayer was wrong,” I teased my mother-in-law when we got back to Kampala. She laughed.
I called Jean. ‘We still don’t have the other passports,” he said. So I flew back to Bujumbura for an all-court press. What was supposed to have taken two days had stretched out to nearly a month. During this visit, I stayed with cousins in the ethnically cleansed, Huruless quartier of Nyakabiga. These cousins had no compassion for the Hutus. Cousin Josephine’s sister, who was married to Cousin Leonard’s brother, and three of her children had just been killed in Kigali, and the brother and the one remaining child were among the tens of thousands of Tutsis still trapped in Rwanda. With several dozen Tutsis, the\ had been stuck for the previous six weeks without plumbing or electricity in the Hotel des Milles Collines, drinking and cooking with the water in the swimming pool, and protected by sx casques bleus.
The day after my return, Jean learned that the passports were ready but hadn’t been signed, because the commissioner whose signature was needed had been arrested: he was a Hutu, and weapons had been found in his home. Two days later, our go-between brought Gilbert’s passport. It had been signed by the new commissioner, but the stamp with the commissioner’s name and title was missing, so it had to go back.
On Wednesday, the family came down to Bujumbura for the third time that week, hoping that all the passports would be ready, but they weren’t. So we decided to go to the Embassy and apply for visas for just Antoine, Pascaline, and Jean—the crucial visas. If they got theirs, it would be difficult for the Embassy to turn down the children. The consular officer interviewed the three of them together; I was not invited. After about fifteen minutes, they returned to the waiting room, looking sombre. But when we got out on the street Jean patted his attaché case, gave a little thumbs-up sign, and broke into a big smile. “She was really friendly,” Jean said. “She asked my father why he was going and he said, ‘C’est pour le mariage.’ Mv father is not a man who anyone could believe would tell a lie. ‘Why wouldn’t you stay?’ she went on. ‘Moi? At my age?’ he said. ‘To do what?’ She looked at his bank statement and asked Are you going to liquidate your account?’ and he said no.” Apparently, it was the indisputable fact that the Rwagasanas were leaving their property and savings in Burundi that persuaded the official of their intentions to return. The next day, Jean picked up the passports, stamped with three-month tourist visas.
On the following Tuesday night— the final hour, because the consular officer was leaving for two weeks on Thursday, the wedding date (which we were locked into) was in eleven days, and the plane tickets still had to be express-mailed from New York—the children’s passports were delivered, and the next morning Antoine and I trooped back down to the Embassy with the children. The consular officer kept them in with her for a very long time. I started to get worried.
“She asked us so many questions and I felt beaucoup de peur,’ Gilbert said when he finally got out. “At first, we played dumb. She asked me how long I was going to stay, and I said, ‘Two weeks. We’re going back right after the wedding. There’s nothing else we want to see or do in America.’ “Where’s your return plane reservation?’ she asked. I said, ‘My father has it.’ She called him in and he said he didn’t have it. But he got out of this brilliantly by saying ‘I showed it to you last time.’ Then we all started telling her stories, and we really got into it. In the end, she smiled and gave us the visas. But I thought for a while she was going to say non.”
ON May 21st, Janvier’s wedding day—and the day a front-page Times article reported that as many as ten thousand corpses had been washed into Lake Victoria—my wife and I and the Rwagasanas were standing on our deck in upstate New York, surveying miles of forest. I handed each of them a glass of champagne and pointed out a shadbush that was in showy bloom and was alive with spring warbiers. “You have come at the perfect time,” I said. “For the next four months, this will seem like the most beautiful place on earth.”
Pascaline wondered why the United States couldn’t give some of this empty land to the people who were stateless, and Antoine asked, “Are there any wild beasts in this forest?”
“Only deer, coyotes—which are like jackals—red foxes, and the rare bear,” I said. “There are no lions, no spitting cobras, no interahamwe with machetes. There is no danger here. Welcome.”
Outside Magazine, August 1994
WE CHECKED OUT OF THE hut and were on the Kander firn Glacier by eight-myself and my rwo sons, Andre and Nick, and their school buddies Jerome and Alex. The snow was still frozen as we traversed beneath the long, jagged ridge of the Tschingelhorn, a bloom of sunlight projecting over us onto the rock walls across the glacier, five miles away. The air was clean and smelled of wood smoke.
After 45 minutes we reached the Petersgrat, a 10,OOO-foot-high spine of pure snow with a sweeping view of the southern Alps. There they were: the Weisshorn, the Matterhorn, the Zinal Rothorn, Mont Blanc. Our plan was to descend intO the Lorschental, the valley that gaped thousands of feet before us. The way down wasn’t exactly clear; whatever tracks there might have been to follow had been erased by wind. But I didn’t think it was going to be a problem, because I’d made this descent rwice before: in 1961, when I was a teenager myself, with my dad and brother, and 20 years ago, honey mooning with my long-gone first wife. She was an ocean person, it turned out.
There are actually three routes from the Petersgrat down intO the Lotschental, but we weren’t able to find any of them. We ended up going too far down the Talgletscher, between two ribs known as the Chrindelspitzen and the Tellispitzen.- The snow gave way to corn ice laced with small crevasses that dropped off to a small lake maybe 700 feet below. This was definitely not the way. But it was only a short traverse to some rocks and then another down to the lake, below which we could see a trail. We could have climbed back up and descended the Chrindelspitzen, but we decided to take our chances on the rock.
If we had had crampons, I wouldn’t have had to chop steps. My fault: I was trying to keep everybody’s weight to a minimum, and I didn’t think we were going to need crampons on this rwoweek trek in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, which wasn’t supposed to involve anything hairy or technical.
The object was simply to revisit some of my childhood haunts, to take my boys to the high mountains that had once fed my imagination, in hopes that I might pass along the legacy of those days and this place.
At least we had ice axes and a rope, and I remembered how to tie a bowline on a coil. We roped up, and I made a loop for each of the boys to slip his ax-shaft into and showed them how to plunge the pick into the ice and belay in case one of us slipped-which, I added, was absolutely verboten. Reminding myself that Alex’s dad was a successful personal-injury lawyer, I diligently hacked bigfoot steps that sent shards of ice skipping down to the lake, and the boys, belaying each other from above, followed one at a time.
Suddenly, from close by, there was a thunderous roar, and an avalanche of blue ice that had broken off the glacier came crashing down a gully just beyond the rocks-right where I had planned for us to descend. Chastened, if not a bit paranoid, we picked our way nimbly down an outcrop until the last 20 feet, where there were no holds to be found. Heaving our packs to a snow patch below, we slid on our butts to a bed of crystals, landing next to each other. In some way, our proximity to disaster only heightened the moment-its beauty and dimension. If the boys hadn’t understood the mountain’s dichotomous moods- its sudden flashes of violence giving way to majestic calm -they were humbled by rhem now.
IN 1951, WHEN I WAS FOUR AND MY brother was eight, my parents left us for two months in a camp in Gstaad, where we were fined ten centimes for every word of English we spoke. My roommate was the crown prince of Afghanistan, who was later assassinated. Our hiking boots had hobnails-the Vibram sole was still a few years in the future-and in them we scaled the surrounding sawtoothed summits.
My parents fell in love with the Alps. We began to spend summers in Gstaad, and then we rented a chalet in nearby Gsteig, which was less glitzy but boasted a thundering waterfall (since siphoned off by a hydroelectric plant). In 1958 we discovered Kandersteg, a low-key resort, deep in rhe Bemese Oberland, catering mainly to the British middle class. Twenty years now since my last visit, the village, sprawled out along the Kander River, is unchanged. The hotel dining rooms are still filled with Brits taking their meals in silence.
Our plan, hatched several months earlier after poring over maps and books in my parems’ home, was to spend a week hut-hopping around Kandersteg, then to hike over a series of passes to Grindelwald, and from there to push on to Meiringen, best known as the birthplace of meringue and the place where Professor Moriarty pushed Sherlock Holmes into Reichenbach Falls. We would then return by train to Geneva. My parents are now in their midseventies, and alpine research is their spiritual practice. Their last major expedition was to the Pamirs, in central Asia, more than ten years ago. Since then Mom’s health has declined, and their outings are limited to a daily walk in the local woods. So the boys and I would be doing this trip partly for them, too.
My best friend in Kandersteg 30 years ago was a young mountain guide named Christian KUnzi. The Kunzis had been leading people through the high country for generations. Among the local guides listed for Kandersteg in the 1922 Baedeker’s Switzerland are Joh., Peter, Gottfr., and Fritz Kunzi. Christian’s father, Hermann, had guided roo, bur by the rime I knew him he had retired and was running a mountain inn above town. Christian and I did some memorable climbing in the early sixties. Now he was 51, and he was running rhe Hotel Steinbock.
The hotel, open from May to October, is in the Gastemtal, one of the five high valleys above Kandersteg. The road to the valley is cut out of a limestone cliff. To the left, the Kander River smashes through boulders, and then you come our on the valley floor. It’s like arriving in Shangri-la. On either side, cascades stream down thousands of feet of nearly vertical rock from snow peaks above. In several places warerfalls spurt right out of the rock. One winter Christian followed the frozen duct of one of these falls for half a mile into the bowels of the Balmhom, across rhe valley from the horel.
When I saw him again afrer so many years, Christian had grown a mustache and married an Englishwoman named Ann; they had two children. He had basically stayed put, while I had traveled almost incessantly (in search of what, I no longer knew) and was in my third marriage. Despite these differences, the bond we had formed years ago was still there. Hermann Kunzi was 81 and still going strong. I found him milking his cows on the ground floor of his chalet, behind the horel. He recognized me right away, even rhough I was bearded and, as he pur it, “a bit dicker” -a remark that he punctuated with an explosion of laughter and a poke at my broadening waist. I introduced my sons. Andre had heard Hermann’s laugh before and eventually connected it to another mountain man he knew, Warren Ashe, who delivers propane in the Adirondack village where I live. A lot of things here reminded us of home. The plants had a strong family resemblance to our flora. It was as if the Adirondacks were the Alps minus the top stories.
HERMANN AND I REMINISCED about an afternoon we’d spent together back in the midsixties. I’d been sraying at the inn for a couple of weeks, helping with chores. Hermann had shouldered a chain saw with a four-foot blade and handed me a bark peeler and a cant hook, and we’d climbed up to a wooded slope maybe 1,500 feet above the valley floor. There Hermann had dropped a huge larch, over a hundred feet rail, peeled it, and muscled the slippery pole down a streambed, over waterfalls, down scree, until at last it lay on the road in front of the hotel. I had really just tagged along, marveling at the spectacle, for the man, already in his fifties, made poetry out of collecting firewood.
The boys were eager to get up to the snow, so late in the morning we set out for the Lotschengletscher, which spreads between the Balmhorn and the Hockenhorn, the next peak up the valley. In ancient times this notch was an important pass. The Romans used it while subduing the Helvetii, the local branch of the Celts, and in 1419 there was a pitched battle here berween the Valaisians and the Bernese.
We climbed through a forest of birch, Arolla pine, and mountain ash loud with the rollicking, wrenlike song of chaffinches. It was the third week of August, and summer was already winding down. The flowerslobelias, gentians, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace, mimulus-were slightly past, and the butterflies were faded and tattered. This is where I am at 46, I mused as we drank tea and Coke at a trailside chalet: Summer is ending, the warranty has run out, and the knees are going, but the gut is here to stay.
We crossed the torrent coming down from the glacier and made our way up a boulder field to the old Roman route through the pass, which had been hacked out of a cliff and ascended in switchbacks. At the top of the cliff, above the snowline now, two chamois bucks stood silhouetted against the sky. I pointed out a stubby little mountain at the far end of the glacier-the 9,428-foot Mutthorn-tomorrow’s destination. Then we turned back. The boys tore down the trail to Christian’s like mountain goats, reminding me of my brother and myself in the fifties, leaving our parents in the dust. I proceeded slowly, testing the strength of joint and sinew, literally picking my way down, popping raspberries andjohannisbeeren, black currants. Firing up a Swiss cheroot on a bench beside a waterfall, I told myself I was going to have to make more time for the mountains. Like the British climber and poet Geoffrey Wmthrop Young, I had forgotten what they did for me.
“Our vivid and daylong consciousness of the mountain, of each other, and of the drama which we and the mountain played out at length together cannot be faithfully reproduced,” Young wrote in 1928.
“The mountaineer returns to his hills because he remembers always that he has forgotten so much.”
Nothing worthwhile is accomplished unless there is a pain barrier to be broken through, I told Jerome and Alex, who were resting every ten feet as we climbed up to the Kanderfirn Glacier the next morning. Several tortoiseshell butterflies patrolled the glacier’s edge, which we didn’t reach until an hour and 15 minutes behind the estimated hiking time posted on a yellow sign we saw down in the valley. It had been a while since I was in a country where everything was so worked out. It kind of spoiled the fun.
This was the first time, apart from a few hundred yards on the Lotschengletscher, that any of the boys had been on a glacier. I told them about my first time-on the Aletsch Glacier, in 1957. Our guide, Hans Burgener, from Grindelwald, kept pointing down into crevasses and saying, Dart is! HefT So-and-So, sporlaus verschwunden. There is Mr. So-and-So, lost without a trace. One of the disappeared was Hans’s own father. The only trace that Hans found of him, decades after he plunged into a crevasse, was his gold watch, which had worked up to the surface. And it took more than 5,000 years for that Copper Age man to be regurgitated by a glacier in Austria a couple of years ago. There were mushrooms in his bag.
At the end of the moraine we found tracks in the slushy snow and followed them to the Mutthornhtitte, nestled at the base of the mountain in an alcove. The hut’s outhouses are as dramatic as those on the Hopi mesas, hundreds of feet above the Lauterbrunnental Valley. It was on a trip to these outhouses, during a freak August blizzard in 1961, that my mother heard 11 Boy Scouts and their scoutmaster from Birmingham, England, calling for help from below. We threw them a rope and pulled them up, one by one.
Near the top of the Mutthom, we roped up, and I reviewed with the boys the sitting belay and how to climb with three points on the rock at all times-no knees allowed. At their age I had been as fanatic about rock climbing as they were about snowboarding. After school, my buddies and I would repair to the worn Appalachian slabs of Indian Hill with mail-order pitons and carabiners and a manila rope bought at the local hardware store. I devoured Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps, which recounted the first ascent of the Matterhorn: how, coming down from the summit, the young climber Douglas Hadow slipped, dragging half of his party to the glacier 5,000 feet below; how the survivors staggered down the mountain to Zermatt, dazed by what the mountain had wrought. Another seminal book was Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spidel; about the North Face of the Eiger. When I was 19, my father and brother and I attempted the Eiger’s West Ridge, but our guide had a problem with schnapps and overslept, so we got up late and had to turn back at a point 300 feet below the summit, where we met a young Austrian guide named Adi Mayr coming down with his Australian client. Yodeling as he glissaded, Mayr seemed in great spirits. A few days later he attempted the first solo climb of the North Face. A crowd at the telescopes in Kleine Scheidegg watched him climb confidently to the White Spider, a snow sheet high on the face, where he bivouacked. But when he started climbing the next morning he seemed to have lost his confidence, or his will to live, and he fell to his death after only 50 yards. The papers reported that he had just split up with his girlfriend and speculated that she may have broken his heart.
My obsession lasted through college. I couldn’t see a rock face, a road cut, or even a building without mentally picking a route up it. Never did I feel more alive than when poised on eighth-of~an-inch flakes of schist with a hundred feet of nothing beneath me. Rock climbing fostered the illusion of being in control.
The last pitch up the Mutthorn was easy but vertiginous. I realized as I led that this was one obsession I was cured of. I was so heavy I couldn’t retable-pull myself up to a ledge without the help of footholdsfor the life of me. Reaching the needle’s crest and looking down to the glacier 500 feet below, I, who at one time hadn’t been afraid of heights, felt a wave of nausea, the taste of fear in my mouth. What if I slipped? Could the boys hold me, or would we, like Whymper’s climbers, all go crashing down?
From where I sat belaying Jerome, I could just see the Breithorn, bathed in sunlight, peeking behind the Tschingelhorn, and the blinding whiteness of the Ebnefluh’s summit cone, slightly whorled like the tip of a Chinese fortune cookie. I admired the steely beauty of these peaks, and it occurred to me that I felt absolutely no need to climb them.
It was during the sixties, while caretaking an abandoned farm in New Hampshire and going for long, stoned walks in the woods with binoculars, that “nature hit me,” as my mother remarked. Rock climbing fell by the wayside. Suddenly I had a new obsession: birds. I began to learn their names and habits and to make small, detailed watercolors of them. The birds led me to the trees, the mushrooms, the wildflowers. I became a naturalist, following a six-generation line of naturalists going back to Russia in the 1830s. Returning to my hometown, I became the director of a local wildlife sanctuary and started to write about nature. In 1976 I spent nine months in the Amazon researching a book. Then I started going to Africa. I had parlayed a love of nature, begun in the Alps, into a career.
When I was 13, my father and brother and I climbed Wyoming’s Grand Teton. I was the youngest person, we were told, to have done the Exum Ridge. (It’s probably since been scaled by a six-year-old.) One day we visited the naturalist Olaus Murie, who had written Field Guide to the Animal Tracks and lived with his wife in a simple cabin on the valley floor. Murie was an old man, and he seemed like St. Francis. He had a spiritual radiance that I assumed came from being close to nature, though in the decades that followed I would meet very few people like him. Another was a Yanomami shaman named Leonca who seemed to be one with all the other forms of life in the rainforest, even the leaf-cutter ants. This was an important discovery-to learn that such people actually existed.
But then there were others, living in step with nature yet clearly tormented. Dian Fossey, who spent 18 years trying to save the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, would whip the testicles ofTwa Pygmies with stinging nettles, punishment for setting antelope snares that her gorillas occasionally stepped into. The original human inhabitants of Rwanda, the Twa were as endangered and as deserving of protection as the gorillas, but Fossey’s web of compassion, like that of a surprising number of nature lovers, didn’t extend to her own kind. I didn’t find much compassion among sociobiologists, many of whom seemed to believe that all behavior has a single, underlying motive-to maximize reproductive success-or among environmentalists, who often didn’t consider indigenous people in their conservation strategies. Looking at my own anger and darkness as well, I was forced to conclude that proximity to nature doesn’t necessarily make a better person. The Glaus Muries and the Leon~as of this world are few and far between.
AFTER A NIGHT SPENT AT THE TOP OF Lotschenpass with hosts who seemed to pride themselves on overcharging their guests and then kicking them out by 8 A.M., we scrambled up the 10,866-foot Hockenhorn. By evening we were back at the Ktinzis’, where Christian quickly restored my love of the Swiss by serving his specialty, raclette prepared the old-fashioned way: putting a flame under half a round of alpine cheese and, as it melted, scraping slabs of it onto small boiled potatoes on our plates.
Next afternoon we said our good-byes to the Ktinzis and took a bus in the rain down to the foot of the valley. There we headed up into the Gurnigel gorge, which is said to be spectacular, but we couldn’t see a thing. There being no distractions, I concentrated on the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, on getting in touch with myancestral bipedality. I recalled the theory that Bruce Chatwin advanced in his penultimate book, The Song/ines: that walking is what makes us human, that the best prescription for physical, spiritual, and mental health is simply to take a walk. The theory has been growing on me. The first artifacts are footpaths. Like water making its way downhill, finding the fastest, easiest way over terrain, there is a logic to their randomness.
We eventually came upon an open valley of pasture and rock bisected by a narrow dirt road. A longhaired Swiss hippie gave us a ride in his farm truck to Spittelmatte, where a wasted lot of young escapees from Zurich, Berne, and Brussels was tending cows for the summer. They were taking a break from the “evilization” below, a s!1ock-haired girl explained. “The culture is only money,” she said. We accepted a kilo of fresh mountain cheese and continued up the gorge.
It felt like there were rocks in my pack, which was indeed the case. The boys had slipped some in as a joke. We came to a plaque that said R.I.P. and listed six names. On September 5, .1895, the Altels Glacier broke off and 4.5 million cubic meters of snow, ice, and stone fell on Spittelmatte, burying these six farmers who had stayed behind to separate cheese. One day earlier and many more would have been killed; a day later and nobody would have been there.
Just as it was getting dark, we reached the old stone inn ofSchwarenbach, which guarded the enttance to a cliff-lined bowl. The cliffs were stteaked with the black manganese- and iron-oxide-rich drip known in the American Southwest as desert vamish. In my youth, Schwarenbach had been run by Otto and Dorli Stoller. Otto was a mountain guide and ran a climbing school. Now it was run by their son Peter and his wife, Trudi, who were delighted to play host to a new generation of Shoumatoffs and their friends.
Schwarenbach has had a distinguished cast of lodgers over the years. Picasso stayed here 40 years ago. Mark Twain wrote about his stay in A Tramp Abroad. Tolstoy was guided by Peter’s great-grandfather. Another Russian, the young Lenin, signed the register with his wife, Krupskaya, in 1905. The inn inspired short stories by Dumas and Maupassant, who wrote one called “L’Auberge” about two locals named Ulrich Kiinzi and Gustav Hari who decide to spend the winter there. One day old Hari goes off to hunt chamois and doesn’t come back. Alone, young Kiinzi is terrified. He hears moaning and scratching at the door and, thinking it’s Hari’s ghost, barricades himself and drinks all the schnapps. In the spring a rescue party breaks down the door to find Kiinzi whitehaired and stark raving mad. Outside the door lies the skeleton of Hari’s dog, which after days of unheeded moaning and scratching had finally starved to death.
The next moming we descended to Kandersteg and took a chairlift up the Oescheninsee, a teal-colored lake, and spent the night. Then we climbed up to the Hohtiirlie Pass, above the clouds. By dusk we reached the farmhouse inn of Marcus Lengacher, where I had stayed 30 years before. “America, eh?” asked Marcus, who didn’t remember me. “Dol1 war ich noch nicht. I’ve not been there yet.” Marcus’s matratzenlager; or communal bunkroom, was the best deal yet, only six francs a head, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were warm, welcoming mountain people, friends of the Kiinzis, not surprisingly. After the boys had hit the sack, Marcus, Elizabeth, several local cowherders, and I stayed up drinking kirsch and kreuter made from wildflowers. When I commented on the beauty of their place, Marcus replied, “You like it? You can buy it-the inn, the restaurant, the farm, and 20 cows.”
“Our sons are all in Berne,” Elizabeth explained. “They’re not interested in the pastoral life. That’s the problem allover.”
There seemed to be two distinct cultures in Switzerland: the mountain culture and the money culture. Where did she think the money culture came from? “The culture of money comes from work,” she explained. “It’s in the body to work. If you don’t work, you get sick. But some work so hard they forget to appreciate nature. Some don’t even notice when there’s a beautiful flower by the road.”
The next day the cloud cover had risen over mountaintops, and the whole Oberland was socked in again. I had been looking forward to the view of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau from the next pass, the Sefinenfurgge. As we started the climb, we saw an eagle and a chamois within 30 seconds of each other. The chamois stood on a spur, posing obligingly for several minutes before bounding down a nearly vertical series of cliffs and gullies.
It was raining in earnest when we got to the pass. We couldn’t see ten feet, so we hotfooted it down to the Rotstockhiitte, spreading ourselves out to reduce °the chance of being struck by the lightning flashing all around us. The hut had already been taken over by 20 members of a triathlon club from Cologne. We hung up our wet clothes with theirs. By evening the weather broke briefly, and we could see that the Sefinenfurgge was veiled in snow, as was the thicket of skyscraperlike towers graduating to the summit of the Schilthorn.
The morning brought heavy rain, so we decided to bailout and head to sunny Lake Como. We’d settle for postcards of Meirengen. We bombed down to Miirren, beating the yellow signs by 35 minutes. This was our last dash. For the first time my knees gave me no trouble. I felt in better shape than I’d been in for years. I demonstrated to the boys the lope I’d learned from the Yanomami. In the mountains again, the old man had gotten his second wind.
Alex Shoumatoff is the author of such books as The World Is Burning and African Madness. He is also a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Esquire.
Rolling Stone December 23, 1971
It was the Reverend’s 73rd birthday: he was in fine spirits. Someone in England had sent him a box of small cigars and he’d been smoking on them steadily in spite of a bad cold. When we reached the standstill in front of the Midtown Tunnel, he suddenly broke out coughing, choking, wheezing.”I swear, Brother Davis, you gonna cough yourself to death on them things,” said Reverend Davis’ wife, Annie. “You gonna cough yourself right into the coffin. You smoke them things just like a child eats candy.”
“Aw hush,” the Reverend replied when he had pulled himself together. “I ain’t gonna die. I ain’t going nowhere. And if I did die, I’d be here just as often as I was when I was alive.” He returned the cigar to his mouth.
“Know something, Reverend, you and I are exactly fifty years apart,” I observed as our white Galaxie finally gained the lip of the tunnel.
“Is that so?” he asked in an incredulous falsetto. “Well you got a long time before they get your meat.”
With that he reached into his pants pocket, took out his thumb and finger picks, and began groping up and down the pearl-inlaid neck of Miss Bozo. Suddenly, like beads of rain dripping from branches, music began to stream from his fingertips. It was a high-stepping, rambunctious rag, something that might have been played by an old-time jazz band choogling down the streets of New Orleans after the burial of a beloved trumpeter. The Reverend’s fingers sprang from fret to fret with assurance of sixtyfive years of experience with the inexhaustible blues idiom. Occasionally his left hand would sneak way up the neck and twinge a few pleading, whining notes and follow with a sassy bass run as it wandered back down to the C chord.
“That was the John D. Rockefeller rag,” he said when it was over. “He put the panic on in 1905. ‘Save up your money, don’t buy no coin, ’cause John D. Rockefeller put the panic on.’” He paused to take a long pull from his cigarillo. “I caught that one coming out of a city one time in South Carolina.” Back in the tunnel the ooze of a hundred idling engines was condensing on the grimy tiles. Still bottlenecked.
“You know,” he went on, “when I was your age I went to a party one time wearing a white suit and I was sitting there when all of a sudden a whole fight broke out. I went into the kitchen and stole a potato pie off the table and came over to the fireplace and clumb over the burning logs and hid up the chimney till they quit fighting. When I got out, good God, my suit was all black.”
“Aw come on, B. Davis,” Annie interrupted. “You still trying to tell people that story?”
Back at home in Jamaica, Queens, in the cellar, out of Annie’s hearing, the Reverend sits before a noisy electric heater and begins to recall in a low, salacious voice the violent world of poor black sharecroppers in the Carolinas, where he lived till he was 40.
His earliest memories are of a “red tin-top house with a honeysuckle vine climbing up the side of it,” nine miles out of Lawrence, South Carolina, where he was born -born blind -in 1897. When he was old enough, like every black who could stand on two feet in that part of the country, he went out to the fields and picked cotton and cane and bailed hay for the Man. He was the oldest of eight children, of whom six, including two sets of twins, died in childhood. His last brother was cut down by a woman with a butcher knife when he was 25.
His father was killed by the police in Birmingham, Alabama, when Gary was ten: “He told a woman to stop coming to see him; she came around and he cut her throat. Then he ran around telling everybody, ‘I killed a woman. Come and get me.’ The sheriff and his deputies came and he shot one -but the sheriff got him.” But even before his father’s death his uncle had taken over his upbringing.
“The first instrument I played was a mouth harp,” he says. “My uncle would go into town and buy him one. Then he’d buy me one. You could get a good one for 25c.” The young boy would sit all day in the barnyard calling to the pigs and the chickens on his harp, and under his uncle’s tutelage he became an accomplished country harpist, until he could blow the sounds of a whole coon hunt, the baying, panting, snarling, and whining of the pursuing hounds and the hissing of the treed coon. He always carries a couple of harps in his jacket but hadn’t played them since he had got the cold: playing with a cold is “too much whiskey for a dime. Make you as drunk as any shot of whiskey.”
Discovering that the boy was “musicinclined,” his uncle helped him make his first banjo out of a pie plate, and presented him with an $18 Washburn guitar on his eighth birthday. It was the most important day in his life, the day “the Lord put something in my hands so I could take care of myself.” He soon picked up the chords from the radio and from visiting neighborhood guitarists, and by the time he was 12 he was in demand for local fairs, hoedowns, hops, and camp meetings.
When he was 19 he went off to a school for the blind in Greenville, South Carolina, where he learned braille and played on street comers in a string band with Sonny Terry, Blind Boy Fuller, and Big Red. He was making what he calls “good -looking blues”: “the kind that makes a woman say, ’0 Lord, Mr. Davis, I can’t stand it.’” To hear him tell it, women were constantly succumbing to the spell of his blues, the insistent moan of his voice and his devilish good looks, evident in the old photographs in his bedroom. “I’ve had my portion of stuffing,” he says. “They wouldn’t let me alone, you understand? I grabbed one one time after I backed off her you understand. She fainted. Fell out. I thought she was dead right there. I just shook her a little bit, she said, ‘Lord God, honey, if you do it that way to me again I’ll go to heaven.’”
In his 20s, he wandered through the Carolinas from one city to the next, from streetcorner to fairground to dancehall to barroom, from one wild woman to another, with no one to trust and no dependable income, drowning in whiskey while people were shot and stabbed around him.
He married, ran the woman out of his house when he found out she had been seeing a man he had thought was dead. He learned the blues the only way they can be learned, by living them. “Blues,” he says, “is for gut-bucket people who run around with only half their clothes on. A man just got off them and they don’t even wipe themselves.”
In his early 30s he was disenchanted with the reckless profligacy of the blues life, and instead of ODing on a floor somewhere or being gunned down in his prime lilce Blind Lemon Jefferson, he became a man of God. In 1933 he became an ordained minister in the Freewill Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, swore off the blues, “the Devil’s music,” as Annie calls them, and began his new life as a religious street singer. Many of the holy songs that “came” to him are about his conversion, like the following one, which he and Annie sing together, and she calls “a real halleluia song”:
Now when I went out in this world of sin
I had nobody to be my friend.
Jesus came and taken me in.
I was out in darkness and I could not see,
Jesus came and he rescued me.
He cleansed me and gave me victory.
One day while Jesus was passing by
He set my sinful soul on fire.
He made me laugh and he made me cry.
He gave me a horn and told me to blow,
Go in peace and sin no more.
He led me away to the upper bright shore.
Now stand back Satan and get out of my way.
I don’t want to hear not a word you say,
For I’m on my way to the King’s highway.
Thank God I got over at last,
Thank God I got over at last.
My feet is planted in a narrow path.
Now I’m fire baptized and Holy Ghost filled.
I’m out here to do my master’s will.
I must keep going, I can’t keep still.
Oh glory how happy I am. Oh glory how happy I am.
My soul is washed in the blood of the lamb.
The Reverend became one of the last of the blind religious street singers, a venerable profession that has been snuffed out by such advances of civilization as government pensions for the blind. His astounding fingerpicking soon attracted the notice of the race record industry, and in 1935 he was invited to record for the Perfect label in New York. After cutting two records which made him a near-legendary figure but paid him practically nothing, he settled in Harlem where he could be heard on the streets on almost any day of the week for the next 30 years.
When I first met the Davises back on a freezing winter night in 1963, they were living in a three-room shack in the Bronx behind a row of condemned buildings on Park Avenue. The folklore center in Greenwich Village was in the custom of giving out the number of a blind old guitar teacher who needed the money, and Annie had answered and kept on calling me “child” as she explained how to get there: an exhilarating trip on the A train, the B train and the C train, a bus ride that began in front of a “flower florist” and a brisk walk through Spanish Bronx.
Annie let me in, clapping her huge white palms together in delight at the sight of such youth. The temperature of the room was easily a hundred degrees hotter than it was outside and as hot as any cottonfield back home. The heat was coming from an oil stove in the middle of the room around which two very large elderly ladies in dazzling Sunday hats were sitting, and it was so intense that it had warped the leaves of an Old Testment calendar that was tacked up on a wall covered with framed prayers, house blessings, and scriptural homilies.
Annie said Brother Davis was at the barber shop but she had just made some sweet potato pudding that was still warm inside, so I sat down and underwent the scrutiny of the two ladies until the Reverend made his entrance. He was telling a joke that was making the shy, thirtyish churchgoing man who had taken him to the barbershop redden behind his ears. The two ladies suddenly changed into young giggling flirts. One of them went up to the Reverend, took off his stubby-brimmed hat, felt his new haircut and said, “My, my don’t he look nice.”
“Here’s your new student, Brother Davis,” Annie said, coming out of the kitchen.
“Where, where, I can’t see him,” the Reverend said, and boohooed like a train whistle until he felt my hand in his, grabbed it, started back in a W. C. Fields take, and said, “Great God Almighty, what’s this?” He felt the fin~rtips for callouses and said, “So you come to me to play the guitar?”
Over in a corner of the room there was an armchair, a stool, and a row of banjos and guitars in cases. Mrs. Davis drew a curtain dividing us from the stove and the ladies and the Reverend took out Miss Gibson, the beautiful
flower-embroidered Gibson J -200 he bought in 1943, slipped his fingers in the A minor position on the fifth fret and said to watch his fingers. The three-hour lesson, on a slow and easy Cab Calloway song called “Babe Why You Cryin’ ‘Cause I Leave You,” was interrupted three times by people on the phone asking for him. One was a hysterical woman screaming that her husband was standing over her with a gun and please Brother Davis help me, what am I gonna do? “Now you just calm down and pull yourself together,” he told her. “If your man is gonna kill you, you probably deserves it.”
It was only in 1964, when the Reverend was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, that he was recognized as one of the last of the first generation blues singers and one of the kings of old-time country fingerpicking. Although he had been playing for 59 years, had recorded in 1954 and 1956, and was well known to the New York folk underground, the only living he had been able to make was on streetcorners, in bars, at church functions, and from guitar students.
The other outstanding early blues artists had all either died or given up their music long ago, and had to be tracked down and resurrected. But Gary Davis had kept playing because he was blind and it was all he could do, and when his moment finally came, at the age of 67, when a funky old man nobody had heard of was led out at Newport, his long, magic fingers and his strong voice, lacerated by years of singing over street noises, did not fail him.
While Annie was getting ready for church the Reverend was telling the gentlemen in the living room how the Queen of England caught his show in London and how he “got a chance to kiss the King’s wife.” One of the gentlemen was Mose, the 20-year-old who was driving and running errands for the Davises when he wasn’t working at his latest job as a bill collector in Brooklyn. Mose, for his part, was rapping about the imminent confiscation of his GTO for unpaid back installments and how he wanted to be a cartoonist and learn the guitar and be a certified public accountant and ball a minister’s daughter he met last Sunday at a church supper in the Bronx.
The drive to church in the dull slushy afternoon led through the endless vacant lots and sidestreets of Jamaica on Mose’s shortcut to the Van Wyck Expressway.
Annie was feeling down: it was the flu season and many of the people she had asked to her program were sick and weren’t going to make it, after all that telephone work. It was especially a shame that both Elder Glover and Reverend Bonepart were laid up and Reverend Lloyd People was performing a baptism and the Holy Angels had to sing at another church and probably wouldn’t make it over at all.
Yes, the snow was a real problem. Little children were playing on the dirty mounds of snow that had been pushed up on the curbs of Spanish Harlem and there was only a thin way for the Galaxie to snake through. Mose stopped in front of a gray wooden storefront on East 119th Street and went to park.
It was a very small building in what seemed to be an unusually wide alley, but inside the cracked and stained ceiling extended far enough back that there was room for ten rows of wooden folding chairs, an aisle between them, a table with a collection plate, a large bouquet of red plastic roses, a lectern with a purple cloth draped over it, and off to the side a tiny room with a rusty sink. It was definitely a place of worship.
The few guests who were going to make it had arrived. There were the Davis’ old friends from Corona, the Reverend Harold and the Reverend Claire Wright, neither of whom was very well. In order to supplement the meager
earnings from their missionary work, they were in business putting out a small mail order weekly advertising bargains ballpoints available in Wichita for 29c.
Then Pop Collins, a tall grey-haired gentleman who wore a three-piece suit and white spats, and carried an ivoryknobbed cane, another old friend from North Carolina. Then two Lower East Side follies with guitars who had set up a mike for their tape recorder on the lectern.
The only one missing was the preacher, and in a few minutes he arrived, out of breath and apologizing for being late, a small beaming man with a businesslike black attache case. He and Annie began talking and each time she said something he would rub his hands enthusiastically, brimming over with religion, and say, “0 yes yes yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.” It became clear that this was the first church he had ever held. He passed around his calling card.
It was time to start the service. The preacher opened his attache case on the piano stool: All it contained was a tambourine. He began shaking it and slapping it and talking fast, gulping in lungsful of air and dispelling them with long incantations, as many as he could manage in one breath, stoning himself out from the lack of oxygen: “Hear us Gracious Lord, hear us sweet Jesus, hear us heavenly Father, come down to us heavenly Father come down to us right here 0 Lord,” gulp, gasp, for his first time he was really getting it on, everyone was joining in with amens and alrights and laughter and clapping louder, louder, faster, faster, the tambourine shook, the hand slapped impossible to follow so fast, the place was rocking, we were all together, brothers in God, in a righteous revival frenzy.
When it ended, Annie got up and thanked everyone for being there and introduced everyone and called on Brother Collins to say a few words. He got up and just stood there for a while, his eyes shining with the goodness that was inside him. Then gazing up at the ceiling he began to talk in a steady, gentle voice, almost as if the words were written up there, about how all the troubles the world was in today were due to our being in rebellion with God, to people hating each other, to white and colored people not getting together with each other, and how he was so happy to see that some of our young white brethren are here with us today, and wouldn’t it be fine if we could start right here putting aside our differences and tell the world what we’re feeling. The preacher punctuated his speech with a few emphatic slaps of the tambourine, and Pop Collins stepped down, leaving the room ringing with exaltation.
Reverend Davis gave the sermon. Standing at the lectern with Miss Bozo around his neck, he looked 30 years younger: his forehead was creased, sweat pouring out, his nostrils flared, upper lip curling-he looked like Victor Mature as Samson straining at the pillars of the temple.
It was a musical sermon, of course: sometimes he was playing with his left hand alone, sliding up and down the neck while he snapped the fingers of his right hand or slapped them on the sound box. Moaning, shouting, squealing, at times his voice and Miss Bozo were indistinguishable, fire-baptized and Holy-Ghost-filled. Annie was clapping right hand into left, left into right, swaying back and forth with closed eyes. Occasionally she would shake and utter little screams as shivers of religion ran down her spine, and her eyes would pop open for a moment until she got into the sermon. This is what he was singing:
You better know how to treat everybody
For you got to go down. You got to go down.
You better learn how to treat everybody.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
The life you’re living won’t do to trust.
You better learn how to treat everybody
For you got to go down.
(Some of you people don’t realize it; taking the world by storm; don’t even know how to treat your family; doing all kinds of ways; living all kinds of lives; saying everything before your children; treat your wife all kind of ways; treat your husband every kind of way; God says:)
You better learn how to treat your husband.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
You better learn how to treat your husband .
You got to go down. You got to go down.
(‘Cause the mother to get careless; but God tells you how to raise a child; you got to place you say everything before the child; and do everything before; God says:)
You better learn how to live ‘fore children.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
You better learn how to live ‘fore children.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
(And you’re traveling through the world; and don’t know how to treat your wife; and giving everybody else the thing that you ought to give your wife; God says: )
You better learn how to treat your companion.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
You better learn how to treat your companion.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
(And you’re traveling through the world; some people think; just because a man is a drunkard; and will drink liquor sometime and cut up and raise sand; if they come and carry him to your house; you got to carry him in before the Lord; when God save him you can suggest saving your own self; God says:)
You better learn how to treat that drunkard.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
You better learn how to treat that drunkard.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, The life you’re living won’t do to trust.
You better learn how to treat that drunkard.
You got to go down. You got to go down.
One day a letter came from Annie:
“greeting in the name of the Lord Alex it was a plasure to have you spin the night feel free to visit us the same goes for Mary Lee she is so sweet you tell her for me I can’t forgt the good cheese cake she made for the party i had a Birth Day feb. 25 that always hope I might have something for B. Davis he is such a lonely person I can’t do too much for him he got in from Chicago march 16 Evy thing was 0 K i gave some of the Bread for him he lake it he said it Remind him of the kind of Bread his grandmama would make on the fith Sunday Eavng we will Be at 2843 Eaight Ave Don’t youall want to come time 3:30 p.m. that one Block from Rocking palice write me back at once OK I hope you got back all Right so long Annie Davis
It turned out the party was canceled because of his cold, but there were plenty of things to do-weeding the dandelions from the backyard, getting some slats at the lumber yard for his daughter Ruby’s bed and getting the Reverend’s ‘scription filled at the drugstore. It turned out there was a party anyway, because a couple from Brooklyn showed up with all their relatives to get married. A bishop was recruited from a choir rehearsal on Merrick Boulevard to fill out the marriage license.
When everything was ready Annie raised the piano seat and took out a large book of Dutch fairy tales whose pages were superimposed with the braille New Testament and all the important services. The Reverend felt over and recited a passage from Peter about the gravity of marriage and then began to lecture the couple in his own words on the seriousness of the step they were about to take, how they were committing themselves to stand by each other through sickness and setback for the rest of their lives, and the vow they were taking was being witnessed in heaven that very moment, and something about Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.
The bride, a huge Amazon in a black shawl, seemed little impressed and more than once showed signs of a mocking, bullying attitude toward her future husband, who was about a foot shorter than she was. When it came time for her to say “I do,” she said it so halfheartedly that the Reverend stopped the service right there and told her that it sure didn’t sound to him like she did. She stammered that she really did, honest to God, and having done his best, the Reverend pronounced them man and wife.
Long after the wedding party had gone home and the rest of the house was asleep and the sound of voices and footsteps was no longer to be heard, the Reverend sat up in the living room. He often sat like this in his armchair, smoking his pipe and dropping quids into the red plastic bucket that is his spittoon, alone, late into the night, with all the lights off, just sitting there silently in his darkness until five or seven in the morning.
At length the Reverend asked for Miss Bozo. He slouched back in his armchair and began strumming one of the quiet
introspective songs about the life to come that have been coming to him lately, and slowly the music began to fill the darkness:
Soon my work will all be done.
Soon my work will all be done.
Soon my work will all be done.
I’m going home to live with my Lord.
The chariot is waiting to carry me home.
The chariot is waiting to carry me home.
The chariot is waiting to carry me home
To rest for evermore.
The angel at the gate is waiting for me.
The angel at the gate is waiting for me.
The angel at the gate is waiting for me
Ready to welcome me in.
I have a mother she’s waiting over there.
I have a mother she’s waiting over there.
I have a mother she’s waiting over there
On kingdom’s happy shore.
By and by I’m going to see the king.
By and by I’m going to see the king;
By and by I’m going to see the king
Who bled and died for me.
Soon my work will all be done.
Soon my work will all be done.
Soon my work will all be done
I’m going home to live with my Lord
“You know,” he said several minutes later, “when you come to that line, ‘soon my work will all be done,’ that song reaches to a streak of gladness.”
Next morning the doorbell rings and in breezes Joseph, the Davis’ nephew. Sporting Life himself, 28, glasses, high school jacket, pencil moustache. He used to live with them in the Bronx, he says, hasn’t seen much of them since he grew up and moved to Brooklyn and they moved to Queens. But this morning he didn’t have anything to do and hitched a ride with a friend who was making a truck delivery a few blocks away. He asks the Reverend how he’s been. The Reverend says he just had a birthday.
“Is that right. So how old you now, Brother Davis?”
“I’s 73 years old.”
“Seventy-three. You getting on up in the age now, huh? Getting to be an old man.”
The Reverend pretends to cry. “I can’t pat it like I used to.”
“Well, I can still pat it. Well, sometimes that happens you know. When you get a little too old, you know.”
“Old man was 95 years old and I was sitting down in the barbershop and the fellow sounds like a train come through the barbershop,” he imitates train’s boohoo and pants, sounding just like wheels clacking down the track. “I said what’s the matter with you old man? ‘It’s used to be I could have a good time, I can’t do nothing no more.’ [Woo-hoo hoo hoo].”
“Well you can smell it. Nothing wrong with smelling it. That’s all you can do. Right?”
“He comes a-crying ’cause he couldn’t do nowhere near just like he used to could do. Did you ever hear a fool crying about something he used to could do and couldn’t do no mo’? I ain’t crying. I’m going on 74 years old. I ain’t crying.”
The Rain Forest: A Close Up Look
Boston Museum of Science Magazine, October 1990
This version is print friendly
The science writer Timothy Ferris and I were bouncing ideas off one another over the phone the other day, as we do from time to time, when he spun out a new argument for saving the rainforest, based on information theory. “Wouldn’t it be great if the Brazilians could somehow be persuaded to skip the industrial age, with all its population and toxic side effects,” Ferris mused, “and go right into the informatic age? If they could only be made to realize that they are sitting on a gold mine in the Amazon rainforest -a gold mine of information far more valuable than the current uses it’s being put to, like pasturizing one cow for every two acres of cleared woodland. Think of all the money the people who invented Word Perfect have made. More than a million people are using the word-processing program. And what is Word Perfect? It’s just data, maybe half a megabyte of information. And when you think that there is perhaps a terabyte of information in a single plant, you see what I’m driving at?”
“So what you’re saying is that the EI Dorado Europeans have been looking for in the Amazon ever since they first blundered into the valley actually exists, ” I said.
Ferris didn’t have to convince me, because I’d been fascinated with ethnobotany (the study of how people use plants) for more than 20 years, since I was an undergraduate at Harvard and got to know some of the graduate students of the remarkable professor Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes had been collecting plants, particularly hallucinogenic species, from the Indians in the Amazon since the forties.
I come from a family of naturalists, and my older brother Nick, who ran a nature museum for Westchester County, had independently become interested in the plants used by the Delaware Indians, who had once lived there. A few years out of college, I became the resident naturalist at the Marsh Sanctuary, a small gem of a wildlife preserve in Mount Kisco, and I invited Timothy Plowman, one of Schultes’ students to make a botanical inventory of the place. We spent the day wading in the marsh, roaming in the woods, zipping from habitat to habitat. Plowman’s energy was incredible, and it was clear that he knew every plant in the place, including its family and its Latin name. It was one of the most stimulating days of my life. My rudimentary knowledge of the local flora had been mainly acquired from poring over field guides, and it was as if Plowman lifted a veil from my eyes.
I also invited another of Schultes’ students, Homer V. Pinkley, to give a talk about his ethnobotanical work with the Kofan Indians of Ecuador. Pinkley had catalogued their entire material culture. I asked him about something that had been puzzling me: How was it that some of the uncontacted tribes deep in the Amazon have banana plantations (you can see them from the air), when bananas come from Asia and were first introduced in the New World by Spanish conquistadores on the island of Hispaniola. Pinkley said, “because plants travel faster than man,” and as a perfect demonstration of this he gave me seed from one of the plants the Kofan use that he had brought back. The Kofan and I have yet to meet each other.
It didn’t take me much longer to get to the Amazon myself. In the fall of 1976, as part of an eight-month research for Sierra Club Books, J spent a month in the remote, only recently contacted, Kayapo Indian village of Mekranoti. I took walks in the forest with one of the men who healed the sick people in the village with forest plants. He showed me a plant that he said the women used as a contraceptive. All they had to do was drink a brew of its leaves, he claimed, and they wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. The fact that the women kept nursing their babies until they were over two may also have helped keep them from getting pregnant. I gave a specimen of the plant, with the rest of my ethnobotanical inventory from Mekranoti, to the National Institute for Amazonian Research, in Manaus. A botanist there told me that it was in the chemically active spurge family, so it could perfectly well have contaceptive properties, but to date, as far as I know, the plant has not been analyzed.
According to Dr. Michael Balick, the director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, about 260,000 species of higher plants (not counting ferns, mushrooms, and other nonflowering plants) have been described on the planet and “if I had to hazard a guess I’d say maybe another five or ten percent are still unidentified. Two-thirds of these plants are in rainforests, and there are around 90,000 species in the neotropics, and maybe twothirds of these 90,000 are in the Amazon.
“But of the 260,000 species worldwide,” he went on, “the biochemical or medicinal properties of fewer than one percent have been exhaustively studied. And yet from that one percent alone a quarter of all the prescription medicine sold at pharmacies in the United Stated is derived.”
I thought of the famous miracle drugs from the Amazon. Curare, the muscle relaxant vital in modern surgery, was developed from an arrow poison made from the plant Strychnos toxifera which the Indians of several tribes in the Upper Amazon dipped their blowgun darts into. Quinine -for centuries, until the advent of sulfa drugs, the only treatment for malaria -was developed from the bark of the cinchona tree. Indians in the Northeast of Brazil bring into town bundles of leaves of jaborani trees, which they have harvested with machetes; and Vegetex, a subsidiary of Merck, processes pilocarpine, used in the treatment of glaucoma, from them. It’s a $25-million-a-year business.
“You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that in the other 99 percent of the world’s known flora that hasn’t been analyzed, there may be something extremely valuable,” Dr. Balick went on.
You mean something like the cure for cancer or AIDS? I asked.
Why not? Dr. Balick said, except that he suggested that in the case of AIDS, therapy might be a better word. In fact he was working with the National Cancer Institute’s screening program on just that. “The U.S. Government has undertaken a multi-milliondollar effort to screen tropical plants for anticancer and -AIDS properties, which is a very good sign that the therapeutic potential of the rainforest flora is being taken seriously.
“And given that two-thirds of plant species are in the rainforests, and that half of the forests, according to one estimate, will be gone by the year 2000, it’s very clear we’re in a race against time.”
The Indians, who have been using the plants in their neck of the woods for generations and chances are have already discovered the important ones, provide an invaluable shortcut in the quest. (By the way, even chimpanzees, with whom we Homo sapiens share 98 percent of our genes, have recently been found to treat themselves with leaves that have antibiotic and helminthic [antiworm] properties). The Chacabo Indians were found to use 82 percent of the species in a sample hectare of rainforest, 95 percent of the 619 individual trees. Another tribe, the Tirio, has 300 plants in its forest pharmacopoeia. Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the National Cancer Institute are rainforest species, Catherine Caulfield reports in her book, In the Rain Forest. Other rainforest plants are used to treat Iymphotic leukemia, Hodgkins disease, and amoebic dysentery.
Developing a marketable rainforest drug is an expensive proposition. First the compound has to be isolated, then toxicological tests to evaluate possible side effects must be conducted, and clinical tests to determine whether the product really works and how effective it is compared with other products already on the market. It can take years to satisfy all the rigorous guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration. And of course there is the question of securing a stable supply. But even if the Mekranoti’s contraceptive turns out not to be viable, I wouldn’t trade my walks in the rainforest with Indian healers or what I learned from their closeness to nature about my own humanity -for anything.
Adirondack Life, May/June 1990
After an absence of three weeks (I had been in Peru, which seemed on the verge of plunging into chaos and anarchy), I reached my home -a small log cabin high in the Adirondacks -late in the night of last April 30. The deep, undisturbed sleep I immediately sank into, which I’d been looking forward to for days, was destined to last only a few hours. A little after five, as the sky and the woods outside were filling with weak light, there was a deafening tattoo on my metal roof, toward the front of the cabin. It sounded just like a short burst of machine-gun fire, and my first, disoriented thought, as I shot up from my bed, was, “My God! The coup!” But then the familiar interior of the cabin came into focus, and I realized I was no longer in Lima, and that there wasn’t a soul for miles around except my neighbor down the hill, an old woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly except people who were cruel to animals. So what on earth could that have been? I wondered. Whatever it was, it had stopped, and I lay back down and was soon dead to the world again.But no sooner had I dropped off than there was another staccato volley on the roof, this time right over the loft, where I was sleeping. The effect was someone smacking a metal bar on a metal helmet that you are wearing. The burst started out fast, like a maniacal drum roll, then it wound down until there were definite spaces between strikes, and it lasted in all no more than a few seconds. By the time I had wrapped my pillow around my head it was over. Fifteen minutes later there was another round of earsplitting, jackhammer stutters, this time back at the front of the roof, then after about the same interval they exploded over the loft again. I grabbed a shoe and banged the ceiling, and they stopped short. By now I had guessed what was making them -a woodpecker. It had to be a pileated, I figured -the gorgeous, red-crested species that gouges great oblong cavities out of rotten trees in search of carpenter ants. Only a pileated could make such an incredible din, and I’d seen one several times in the past few months lurking around the cabin. Furthermore, I knew from the small heaps of sawdust that I’d found on the floor below several of the exposed beams that I had a carpenter-ant problem. As soon as the next bout began I dashed down from the loft, out the sliding glass door to the deck and around to the back of the cabin in time to see a black bird swoop from the eaves over to a poplar tree perhaps fifty yards away. It was a woodpecker, all right, but not a pileated. Pileateds are around twenty inches long. This bird was more like eight. I looked over the woodpecker plates and texts in my Peterson’s field guide and decided it was a hairy. The size was right, and there had been a flash of white as the bird flew off; Peterson describes the hairy as “our only woodpecker with a white back.” The identification seemed even surer when my neighbor told me that she had been driven to distraction a few years back by a hairy excavating a nest under the eaves of her bedroom.
The bird would start attacking my roof every morning punctually at daybreak and every fifteen minutes or so, until around 11:30, he would return for another session. The attacks would come less frequently during the after
noon, and would pick up again toward evening. I was turning into a sleepless, shell-shocked wreck, becoming like a victim of water torture. I called my agent down in New York City and told him about the bird. “There’s this bird that has a thing for my metal roof and it’s driving me nuts, driving me back to the city,” I said, and my agent said, without missing a beat, “Oh, you mean that woodpecker. We sent it up there to make sure you get up on time.”
A few days later I got my first look at the little bugger. I crept around to the back of the cabin and there it was, clinging to the eaves and bracing itself with its stiff, spiny tail. Too absorbed in what it was about to do to be spooked this time, it threw its head back and with wild abandon launched into another of its frenzied pecking sprees. It was amazing that it didn’t split its bill because it wasn’t drilling the wood, it was going at the edge of the galvanized metal sheet. I realized from its bright-red throat that it wasn’t a hairy. It was a yellow-bellied sapsuckera shy, retiring member of the woodpecker tribe that frequents orchards; one sees the horizontal rows of oozing holes it bores in apple trees much more often than one sees the bird. Yellow-bellied is one of those unfortunate labels that animals often get stuck with; one hardly ever sees the sapsucker’s belly. Its whitish back and white wing patches are far more conspicuous (hence my confusion about the white flash). That afternoon a builder came up from the valley to discuss a wing that I was planning to put on the cabin, and he saw and heard the sapsucker, too. Now there was a witness. It wasn’t just me, wacking out up on the mountain. “Jesus! What a racket!” the builder exclaimed. “He’s possessed. I can’t believe he doesn’t get a headache.”
There seemed to be a difference of opinion among the professionals as to what this strange behavior was all about. One of the many ornithologists whom I consulted in the stressed-out days that followed told me that woodpeckers are sometimes attracted to houses by the hum of their refrigerators, which they mistake for a sign of insect life. The majority, however, thought I was being subjected to a phenomenon known as “drumming.” According to Peterson, “the drumming of the sapsucker is distinctive, several rapid thumps followed by several slow rhythmic ones”; but according to Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun and Herbert S. Zim, the authors of the Golden Guide to the Birds of North America, “sapsuckers tap in distinctive rhythms (two or three series/min) but do not drum.” My friend Roger Pasquier, a crackerjack birder and the author of Watching Birds: An Introduction to Ornithology, who agreed with Peterson that sapsuckers drum, explained that it was something “which woodpeckers do in the breeding season to attract a mate and to stake out their territory. Often they choose man-made objects that reverberate. All I can say is that the drumming season isn’t that long.”
So that’s what it was: drumming. The expression “drumming up business” came to mind, and a few days later I happened to read in a biography of Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood mogul, how soon after he arrived in the United States, a penniless Polish immigrant named Goldfish, he got a job as a “drummer,” or a trctveling salesman, for a glove company. These cognitive exercises helped, psychologically. The first step in dealing with a situation is to get a handle on it.
Pasquier recommended that I get in touch with Lester Short, the renowned woodpecker specialist at the American Museum of Natural History. My call to the museum’s ornithology department was answered by a scientific assistant named Allison Andors, who told me that Dr. Short was in Kenya. I explained my problem and just then, serendipitously, the sapsucker made one of his assaults, which was so loud that Dr. Andors could hear it over the phone. “I suspect that what the bird is doing is drumming,” he said cautiously. He explained that woodpeckers drum in late April though May and stop in June, when they nest. This was heartening news, because I had just seen the sapsucker drilling a hole the size of a fifty-cent piece in a dying birch next to the cabin. “So it won’t be long now,” I thought.
A few days later a package from Dr. Andors arrived in the mail. Inside was a Xerox of the section on the yellow-bellied sapsucker in Dr. Short’s monumental Woodpeckers of the World. According to Short, the drumming of this species is “complex,” and takes “several forms,” some bouts lasting up to eight seconds and having as many as ten double beats per second. The bird also emits a call note, “chee-aa” or “c-waan,” that “peaks initially at 1.3” kilohertz” (which I think I heard several times). It is not a permanent resident this far north, but is what is known in the local parlance as a “summer person.” One of the first birds to arrive in the spring, it starts south again in late August and winters in the southern U.S., Central America and the West Indies.
Dr. Andors also included an article by a man named Lawrence Kilham who logged many hours in the field between 1951 and 1960 observing the breeding behavior of yellow-bellied sapsuckers in New Hampshire and Maryland. Kilham reported that the drumming “begins rapidly but is drawn out like a slow, telegraphic code: drr:a-da, da-da, da.” He had seen the birds do it on “a piece of metal, the hard, warped bark of a dead maple, or, most frequently, a stub that projects a few inches from the trunk of a dead pine or larch.” In April 1960, when the woods around T amworth, New Hampshire, were still filled with snow, he watched a rival male drum on the glass insulators along a row of telephone poles. Females have also been known to drum, but rarely. (I only saw this one bird doing it. At least there was something to be grateful for.)
The next question, now that I had all this knowledge under my belt, was what to do about the situation. Here again, I got a range of opinions. Pasquier suggested putting up a papier-mache’ owl. Another source of questionable expertise recommended plastering the bird’s drumming spots with Tabasco sauce. One of the guys in the bar down in the valley, where I was becoming a regular patron, said, “You know what we’d do, don’t you,” and offered to lend me his .22. But shooting the bird was definitely out. My inclination was to put up with it. As my neighbor, who had done nothing about the hairy excavating her bedroom eaves, argued, “Think of everything the animals have to put up with from us.”
The only strategy left, now that I had decided to live with the situation, was to try to change my relationship to it. It was, after all, I told myself, a natural sound, no less natural than the drumming of a grouse who stands on a log and flails his wings, producing a sound like a distant motor. Try to get into it. Think of all the people who live near the el, I reminded myself. A friend came from Montreal for the weekend, and her take was, “Why should you mind the woodpecker? There are no cars, no other noises.” These considerations made the drumming more tolerable.
I suppose I could have rented a room in the valley for the duration of the drumming season, but so many things were happening on the mountain that I didn’t want to miss. I began to see the sapsucker’s taking its surging hormones out on my roof in context, as part of the surge of biological activity in which the North Woods progresses from dormancy to the lushness of summer. Drumming through the advance of spring, the sapsucker became like a choric figure. It drummed through the melting of the snow, when the only other sounds in the bare, empty woods were the piercing whistles of unmated chickadees. It drummed through mud-time, through the emergence of the black bears (late one night driving up to the cabin I caught one in my headlights lumbering across the road) and of the mourning cloak and Compton’s tortoise-shell butterflies from their winter hibernacula, and later through the hatching of clouds of black flies. It drummed through the changing of the snowshoe hares’ coats from white to brown, through the flowering of the trilliums and the poplars, whose fluff drifted through the woods for several days. It drummed in the arrival of the purple finches, the warblers and the wood thrushes, whose liquid fluting was soon resounding on the hillsides. It drummed through all kinds of weather -sundrenched days of crystalline clarity, days when it was drowned out by great gobs of rain pounding on the metal roof. It drummed through the leafing out of the hardwoods and the excavation of the foundation hole for the cabin’s new wing by the builder’s bulldozer and Caterpillar, which must have robbed it of a good chunk of its territory.
The drumming didn’t stop all at once: It slowly petered out. As May progressed, the visits to the roof became less frequent, less urgent, more desultory and perfunctory. On June 1right on schedule -there was not a drum. I knew the sapsucker was still around because a few days later it flew into the cabin through the open sliding glass door and it took several hours, resting on the cathedral ceiling between frantic swoops, to find its way back out.
Apparently the sapsucker has gotten down to the next order of business raising a family -although I haven’t seen its mate yet. The drumming has served its purpose. I kind of miss it.
Alex Shoumatoff is the author of African Madness, Russian Blood and a forthcoming book on Chico Mendes, The World is Burning (Little, Brown).
This is the complete original version, a few sentances were cut from the version that appeared in Lapis Magazine, Issue 4, Spring 1997.
I had been to Nsambya Hospital seven years earlier, to interview Sister Nelizinho Carvalho, a heroic nun who had started the first blood-screening program in AIDS-ravaged Kampala. This time I was looking for Father John Mary Waliggo, an expert on the traditional culture of the Baganda tribe. I found him having tea in the refectory with three fellow priests. They invited me to join them, and we got talking about the old Baganda gods.
“Our gods were people with special powers, like saints.” Father Waliggo explained. “Everybody who did something extraordinary was divined.”
Kibuuka, the god of war, for instance, had been a warlord during the time of the sixth kabaka, or king, of Buganda, around 1550. He is supposed to have made wings from animal skins so he could fly like a bat. A half-disintegrated reliquary containing his genitals and jawbone is on display in the National Museum. Nende was the god of “plague attacks”– sleeping sickness and rinderpest– although bubonic plague itself was the purview of another god, Kawimpule. “We would like a god of AIDS,” one of the other priests told me. Mukasa was the goddess of Lake Victoria and of procreation. If a couple had twins they were considered to be a blessing of Mukasa.
Each of these deified ancestors still has a shrine that is attended by hereditary keepers, usually old women belonging to the clan of the god’s spouse, and when someone comes to ask for help, the god speaks through one of the keepers, who becomes possessed with his or her spirit.
“Are the old gods really alive for the Baganda, now that most are devout Christians?” I asked, and Father Waliggo said, “How can they go ? Where can they go ? They are part and parcel of us. Each of us has a name that comes from an ancestor, and by that name the ancestor lives. The dead kabakas are very important because they are living. Our dead are never dead completely. We say they have migrated, but whenever something important is happening in the family, they are there. That is why some Baganda first pour a little of their beverage to the ground before drinking themselves, to remember the others they have buried.”
The priests had to get back to their patients. I thanked them for the tutorial in Baganda eschatology and walked out behind the church to my waiting taxi, passing a small cemetery with a few dozen white crosses. In a clearing beside the cemetery a dozen men and women were standing in a semi-circle, singing hymns in hauntingly beautiful acapella harmonies, probably rehearsing for Sunday. I stopped to listen. It was that time of day in the tropics, fifteen minutes or so before sunset, when the leaves become irridescent blue and everything, for an incandescent instant, glows softly. The phenomenon, as I understand it, is caused by the horizontal shafts of the sinking sun being filtered through surface vapor, which produces a sudden change in color temperature like alpenglow, except objects are illuminated by the cool instead of the hot end of the spectrum. I happened to be looking at the crosses just as the slipping light caught them. For about twenty seconds they were extremely white, like sun-dazzled snow. Then they returned to normal, and I was left wondering whether it had just been a trick of light that I had witnessed, or a stand of departed Baganda obliquely confirming the truth of Father Waliggo’s remarks, or their afterglow.