Names change colors when you are dusty around the eyes. Watch a gerenuk at sunset while listening to a Walkman.
These two odd sentences are mnemonics I constructed to remind myself of chains of thought that occurred to me while learning to do anthropological fieldwork in East Africa. Searching the forests of the Semliki Valley in western Uganda for chimpanzees spawned the first sentence. Hiking the deserts of northern Kenya hoping to cross paths with a fossil sparked the second.
In both cases, I planned to record my captured thoughts in a journal. But the day’s work and the number of steps I took before I made it back to camp erased whatever thought-trains the words referred to, and now, two decades and change later, after iPods have vanquished Walkmans and I hardly remember laying eyes on the gerenuk, I sift through memories to conjure meaning from cryptic sentences.
I remember a slender antelope backlit by the setting sun as it stood on its hind legs on a dry ridge top, stretching for something edible amidst the thorny branches of an acacia tree. I don’t honestly know any longer if it was an acacia tree, but I don’t remember anything else growing in that desert.
I remember wetting the canvas water bags and hanging them from tree branches so the water could be cooled by passing breezes.
I remember an unlikely storm, the riverbeds flooding, the blue glow of a lightning bolt against low, gray clouds. I remember the sound of rain and no motors running for hundreds of miles and wondering if my tent would hold.
It wasn’t encoded in a sentence, but I remember flying out of Entebbe in a Cessna and spotting something sparkling alongside the tarmac as we sped down the runway. After take off, when the plane banked to find its heading, I looked down at the swarms of insects rising in our wake, so dense in their millions they seemed columns of smoke.
Months later, after the rains had arrived in Semliki, I watched from the opposite shore as the river tore the last of the soil from the grasping roots of an enormous fig tree. The bank collapsed and the tree tumbled down, sparking an eruption of dragonflies, their bodies a shifting metallic blue, their wings by turns iridescent and invisible as they darted back and forth over the suddenly muddy water.
And I remember the small, yellow worlds created by kerosene lanterns.
I remember walking from camp to the incomplete lodge along the dirt road in the rainy season, the road scarred by the passage of trucks carrying construction materials and the ruts full of muddy water from the rains, the clouds sprawling overhead in great sheets, then lightning leaping from cloud to ground and its reflection racing along the mirrored surface of the road to bury itself in my feet.
I remember entering the forest, red-tailed monkeys sprinting through the trees above and in front of me, their limbs stretched to the fullest, their feet and hands splayed, ready to grasp and release.
I remember standing in camp watching the nightjars snatch insects from a sky turning from blue to blue-gray in preparation for the darker colors of evening, and I remember looking upward one night while sitting on the rock walls of the ruined hotel that formed the foundation of our camp and saying to nobody in particular: when lightning bugs fly high enough, they look like shooting stars.
© Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham
The kitchen tent, 1998. Courtesy of the author.