01 March 2011

Fed with manna in the wilderness

Les Powrie, August 1993

Dunes near Gobabeb
The Kuiseb River - a long, linear oasis
I enjoyed this sunrise on one of my many early morning walks.

There is a desert out there.  You have heard that it is hot, boring, big, unpleasant - well, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.  You need to pass through this vast expanse of nothingness because you have to get to the other side.  You resolve to dash through in the dead of night so that you can get to the other side and not have it affect you too much. 

But then you have a breakdown which keeps you in this area for a day, maybe more.  You do what you can to get the attention for the car that is needed, then with nothing else to do you begrudgingly accept your fate and go for a walk in the desert.  You set out at 10:00 and you walk.  You walk, and you walk, stewing over the dilemma - you are stuck in the Namib desert!  You are stranded!  You cannot imagine what could be a worse fate.  You trudge through sand dunes, over hot, dusty plains.  You see gemsbok, black backed jackal, dry grass, scorpions, lizards which dive into the sand and disappear, tok-tokkies, trees in the middle of nowhere, ants, wasps, lizards, grasshoppers, green plants, stones that move suddenly and you realise that they are beetles, melons, water holes dug by animals who know where to find water that fell 320 days ago and has been underground for 315 days, even a village near a river bed. 

Suddenly you realise that you are no longer stewing over your car, but you are fascinated by this desert.  The snakes, hyaena, springbok, jackal, scorpions, beetles, lizards, gemsbok and all are here, they are healthy, they are able to sustain themselves on this nothingness, and then you realise that you have seen more than nothingness.  You have seen some of the most fascinating plants and animals that you have ever seen, and you are amazed at how many different kinds there are.

They are not as striking as the flowers and plants to which you are accustomed, to the lush green rolling hills near East London and in the Transkei, the beautiful forests and bushveld in the eastern Transvaal Lowveld, the subtropical Natal coast, or the magnificent Fynbos of the Cape.  They are not as delicate as the familiar garden subjects.  But you realise that you are developing a fondness for this unusual beauty.  All of this has come to you without anyone showing you what is to be observed and learned, and you realise that with a guide there would be even more to be seen.  You start to see what has lead to my great fascination for deserts for as long as I can remember.  I have spent time getting to know the Namib and the Karoo and that is why I have such an enduring love and respect for the arid parts of our country.

Let me now share some things that I have learned, and maybe your next experience in the deserts or semi-deserts around us will be more meaningful, more pleasant, more exciting, more fulfilling than you ever imagined.

Let us look at some of the things that are not readily seen because they are camouflaged; or which take time to observe; or are so small that you have to get right down to earth to see them as I did here one day when I had to allow my clothes to dry out after being soaked in a Karoo rain storm.

Take time to observe, seek a guide to help you to observe, and then become a guide so that you can help others to find joy in their encounters with the wilderness.  But far more important to me than the simple fascinations that I have for the Karoo are the lessons about life that I have learned there, things about the desert in which we live even if we live in one of the lush parts of the world.

I would like to draw two parallels with the rush through the Karoo.
One is expressed in the sentiments of Robert Louis Stevenson that 'we are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best that we can hope to find is an honest friend.'  We see violence, war, poverty, sickness, tragedy, discord. horror, disaster, and in short, all that is as far from what we dream to be ideal as it can be.  The ideal is peace, luxury, wealth, harmony, perfection, beauty - in short - paradise.  Instead, life is kind of like the desert - hot, boring, big, unpleasant - well, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.  Many people are loath to bring children into this terrible world, as they see it.  Some kill themselves to free themselves from it all.  others simply deem it their right to add to the problems in the attitude that if you can't beat them you may as well join them.

But when we stop to look around us we see that beneath the sensational headlines of the media there is actually a lot of good, a lot that is honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, lovely and of good report and praiseworthy.  But it requires taking stock, stopping, getting out of the car, and observing.  We tend to be so involved in the hurly-burly of life that we fail to see beneath the surface of humanity, that most people are actually not warmongers, but they interact peaceably with each other.  In fact, I like people.

I have also seen a parallel with people viewing the scriptures as a desert - hot, boring, big - well, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.  They avoid travelling through the pages of these special books, and if they are persuaded to open the book they rush through them hoping to get to the other end of the journey hoping with their lives as little affected as possible by the boredom that they are convinced exists in these outdated texts, and especially in older English translations.  But those who have stopped and wandered about the words on the pages, have seen many gems, many beautiful and comforting words.

Behold the fowls of the air:  for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they?... Consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:  And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe ye, O ye of little faith?  (Matt. 6: 26-30).

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:  Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer and gathereth her food in the harvest.  How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?  when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?  Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:  So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man (Prov. 6: 6-11).

But besides the valuable lessons I've learned while exploring in the pages of the scriptures, I have also gained wonderful insights about the scriptures while wandering in the desert.  I have seen that plants which grow in the most harsh parts of the desert are more able to endure hardship than the same species in softer conditions.  Scientist debate at length and point out that plants in these extremes are not stressed, because they are accustomed to the hardships.  It is those that are in 'ideal' conditions that suffer when exposed to even moderate hardship because they are not hardened to these conditions.

Plants either endure drought, or they avoid drought.  Succulents lay up reserves in their leaves and thus endure periods of hardship, and we have been counseled to lay up temporal reserves as Pres Ezra Taft Benson has said 'I ask you earnestly, have you provided for your family a year's supply of food, clothing, and, where possible, fuel?  The revelation to produce and store food may be as essential to our temporal welfare as boarding the ark was to the people in the days of Noah.'  We are also challenged to be self reliant in education, health, employment, resource management and social, emotional and spiritual strength.  Deciduous plants drop their leaves so that they do not lose moisture through evapo-transpiration, and we have been counselled that 'if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee:  for it is better for thee that one of thy members perish, and not that thy whole body be cast into hell' (Matt 5:30).  There is much to learn of endurance from these plants which live for hundreds, and even thousands of years.

From the Karoo I have learned about the restoration of the Gospel, that it is not like the efforts at veld restoration which farmers attempt as the substrate has become so altered through years of abuse that species and soil are lost, and the veld can never be the same as it was.  But the Lord has restored some virgin veld that has never been abused, and is the only true example of what the veld should be, not just what experts believe it would have been five hundred or a thousand years ago, with a few species missing and veld composition altered such that they know that they cannot hope to see the veld return to exactly what it had been.

From the magnificent blossoming of the veld in the spring I have learned that flowers bloom where they find room - and this is true of people too.  It is interesting to me that the Namaqualand fields which are most beautiful in Spring are those which are most overgrazed.  We, too, can turn rough times into times of bright blooming which will delight the eyes and gladden the hearts of those around us who also face difficulties - and who doesn't?

From a recent visit which Sally and I made to the Tanqua Karoo we saw that, just as it is the effort of every blade of grass that keeps the meadow green as my mother frequently said, so it is the effort of many little flowers which make the fields into carpets of yellow, mauve, pink, orange, white and mixtures of colours.  It it the effort of each of us which makes the desert of life into a delight to those who take the time to see beyond the doomsday reporting in newscasts in the media.

The Saviour taught and lived in an area which is much like the Karoo.  he took examples of that veld for His parables.  For example, in the Tanqua Karoo I realised how the shepherd could leave ninety and nine sheep to go and look for one that had strayed - I saw sheep follow a strait and narrow path the width of a car tyre, to the extent of keeping in the narrow track made by the car, even following the twists made as the car slewed in the soft sand.  The sheep did not deviate from this meandering path, although it took them in a crooked line when they could perfectly well have gone straight.  So the shepherd could trust the flock to follow their normal track to the sheepfold while he sought the one lamb that had left the strait and narrow way.

Consider the many special experiences which have been had in the wilderness - Jacob at Peniel where he saw the Lord face to face; Moses who saw the Lord face to face on Mount Sinai; Elijah who was brought food by birds which the Lord sent to him while in the wilderness hiding from Jezabel; Nephi who saw the spirit of the Lord and was taught about the birth of Christ, the tree of life and other lessons; Enos who prayed through the day and the night while in the forests, and who heard the promise from the Lord that his sins were forgiven him; Joseph Smith who saw the Father and the Son in a grove of trees.  Moses, Elijah and Christ all fasted for forty days in the wilderness, showing us that we must not expect to receive great spiritual blessing if we only spend a few moments saying prayers, but we need to stretch ourselves a bit more.

Next time you go through the desert - the Karoo, society, the scriptures, or whatever else seems to be dead, take time to see beyond the reputed lack of life, and you will be rewarded with a revelation of an abundance of life.  You may find your impressions changing as did the lady who said 'Good gracious, this here is nothing but miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles!" and a few days later said 'This is the most beautiful, the most interesting and rewarding desolation one could ever dream of.'  You will also learn that the richness of learning to be had extends beyond what you will experience on site, just as many of those who dash through the Karoo hoping to be as little affected by its nothingness as possible, often sit down at the other side to relish a delicious meal of Karoo lamb which gets its special and unique flavour from those very bushes which they are convinced have no worth in their lives.  We will be blessed with special experiences and insights in all aspects of our sojourn in this apparent wilderness of life, if we take the time to browse from the pages of scripture, and if we take time out from the hustle and bustle of life to observe the wealth of good in our society, just as the children of Israel were fed with manna in the wilderness.

Book review for Manna in the Desert by Alfred de Jager Jackson

Alfred de Jager Jackson
Manna in the Desert: A revelation of the Great Karroo

Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: Brevitas cc, 2006
270 pp. ZAR 285

ISBN 1-874976-48-1
First published 1920, second edition in hardcover published 2006 by Craig Elstob. The second edition includes the original black and white photographs as well as some recent colour photographs and an Afterword by Craig Elstob.
I have spent a fair amount of time as an ecologist in the Namib Desert in Namibia and in the Succulent Karoo and Nama-Karoo in South Africa. My impression was one of hidden beauty and concealed vitality and about 20 years ago I presented a talk entitled 'Manna in Your Wilderness'. One can only imagine my surprise to see, in a recent visit to Sutherland the Karoo, reference to a book published in 1920, Manna in the Desert by Alfred de Jager Jackson. The librarian at Kirstenbosch obtained a copy for me and I was expecting a book like this.

And I was very surprised to see a glossy cover, and found that the book was republished as a second edition in 2006 by de Jager's great-grandson Craig Elstob.

To add further to the surprise, inside the back cover one finds that Craig has the middle name Dryden, and his great grandfather x 5 married a Dryden in the UK, and all the family have the second name Dryden. This name has very particular significance for me as both my grandmothers (two sisters) were daughters of John Little Dryden who was Port Captain and Shipping Master in Port Alfred from 1882 to 1896, and then Harbour Master at Mossel Bay from 1896 where he lived until his death in 1914.
The author, Alfred de Jager Jackson, spent his youth on a farm near Beaufort West in the Great Karoo and shares many anecdotes about his experiences in the Desert. The book sets out to share the emotional and spiritual upliftment experienced by the author living in this semi-desert area. He talks about the plants and animals of the Karoo, and gives his insights into the web of life on the farm, and how the humans fitted into this web. The author gives his object in writing the book as drawing 'men towards a right and reverent regard of Nature, particularly as exemplified in the Great Karroo, in the abundance and variety of its animal life, in the wealth, diversity and complexity of its plant life, in its splendid skies, and in the intense contrasts of its natural features, both of air and earth.' De Jager clearly has a great love and reverence for his childhood farm and tells of more than 50 plants and several animals, giving quaint spellings (like rispers as opposed to ruspers, Dubbeltjiedoorn which is also know as Duwweltjiedoorn, or Devil's thorn) clearly influenced by Dutch, and 'translations' (Kougoed translated as 'cold' rather than 'chewing' goods) of common names, but very few scientific names. He gives some very interesting insights and accounts of farming in the Great Karroo, transport, accommodation, animal husbandry, tutors, farm workers, researchers, expeditions and so forth. He describes plants, animals, insects, birds, reptiles, seasons, climates, and more that paint an inviting picture of the 'vast solitudes', 'great valleys',  'rugged mountains' and 'splendid skies' of the karoo. He writes about several of his tutors, some farm-hands and their antics, several pets of either domesticated or wild origin, and dear memories and recollections that stayed close to his heart for as much as sixty years. His informal but pleasantly descriptive writing style would appeal to a very wide readership.

I very much enjoyed this insider account of the area that I have visited as an ecologist, learning of some of the practices and thoughts of the past and how they compare with present thoughts and practices, and how they may have affected the present practices and condition of the veld. I think that this book is worth reading for its ecological content, the writer's passion for the karoo, the delightful word pictures he creates, and well, I really enjoyed reading it!