Why go to Africa?

I don’t remember which man in the circle asked; perhaps the question was in several minds: why go to Africa? I could be flip and say, as Edmund Hillary said about Everest, “Because it’s there.” 

When I was a kid, I was hospitalized. After the experience (at 19) of tight and total confinement for a year (insurance in the 1960s paid for a year, the doctors saying to my parents, we want to keep him and be sure he gets over whatever-this-is), I was ready to be ‘free’…whatever that meant. 

 I had no idea what was happening, it seemed I’d lost my mind, and in my terror, I wound up on Bowditch, the men’s maximum-security hall. I survived, and even came to appreciate the experience as the key to a more authentic life. 

After that experience, I no longer fit inside my family, or background, the same way I had previously: popular man in high school, captain of the football team, many friends, predestined to rule some corner of a corporate universe. Now, I wanted to do yoga, learn about Eastern philosophy, and develop as a writer/painter.

 Eventually, I finished college. However I didn’t let go of my newfound desire to write, to paint, to experience life in a direct manner. It took years, the whole of my twenties, to rinse away the sludge of drugs that sedated me in the hospital: Thorazine, Stelazine, and Cogentin; the drugs that made me controllable.

1976, I took my first canoe journey into the arctic, down the river that became my passion, the Back, or as the Inuit call it, The Great Fish River. I felt I had come home. My first journey was for 76 days when I traveled with Bernie Peyton. My next trip was a solo journey across Labrador; traversing its northern most peninsula, form the Arctic Ocean into Ungava Bay. I discovered the joys, the challenges, and intensity of solitude and relying on oneself. It’s not so bad being on your own, in nature, far from help; in fact it’s a privilege. Alone. To most people, that would not be a recipe for happiness. I fell in love with Solitude. 

We’re relational animals, but for more years than I’d like to count, I spent significant time alone on long solo canoe journeys. Whenever I had enough money, I’d go. I was meeting a need to be self-sufficient, to prove my worth to myself. Living close to death I felt alive. Learning to be fully present inside the loving indifference of nature was a gift.

For twenty years, I turned this into a career for PBS and Channel 4 in England. I wrote books. I made TV. I traveled around the world. I lectured. I made paintings, lots of prints that emanated from my experience of the natural world: birds, fish, landscape. My favorite painters are still Morris Graves, Burchfield, Emil Nolde, and expressionism. The writers I admired then were Proust, Tolstoy, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner, and even John Cheever. I read poetry ferociously, to bath in its language. To be with the complete world created by an artist soothed me, met something inside me normal conversations and activities couldn’t reach: discovering a new poem, pondering a watercolor by Nolde, a passage in Proust. I did not find a comparable UMPH in the world I inhabited. I came to see this as my failing, not a failing on the world’s part, as I came to discover, as the poet David Whyte says in Sweet Darkness: 

The world was made to be free in…

Africa. Pretty exotic, or, if you’re not a Romantic, you might say ‘different.’ When a New Englander uses that word to describe something there’s a world of prejudice conveyed with it, usually not a compliment. After 9/11, I made a film in Southern Africa by following the Limpopo River from its headwaters in Jo-berg to where it meets the Indian Ocean in Mozambique, at a place called Xai-Xai. Coming into this remote area, just after their civil war had ended with South Africa, I came across a bombed church, and a few other buildings pock marked with bullet holes. A brand new sign painted in red across the whole length of one building read: Coca Cola, Sweet Life.

 I heard organ music coming from the church. I entered carefully, but not quietly enough. My feet crunched broken glass. The young girl playing the organ heard me. She stood up quickly, terrified, and fled. The film I made spoke to the everyday life in a continent we only hear the worst things from: corruption, plague, starvation, and various kinds of war. I wanted to show the other side, the daily life of people living there, just like us. As a film, Crocodile River fails in many ways, yet it’s a lovely portrait of a young African man, my traveling companion, Bonus Lunga, especially the last scene when he sees the ocean for the first time.

I would not go to Kenya, stay in Lamu, if I did not already know it. I have friends there (both European and local), and have the goal of finishing a book, my first in twenty years! The working title is: Loves Last.. I could stay in Keene, NH, go through another New England winter; be comfortable and surrounded by friends. Given the choice, I’d prefer to be in warm weather, swimming everyday, living simply, rather than bundled up, contracted, and coping with winter, waiting for spring. 

Claire and I spent time in Lamu, almost bought a home there. I will be free to write in an environment that my intuition tells me will reveal different insights I cannot achieve sitting in Keene. You’re just not going to run into a wall like the one pictured above in Keene….

Of course, the whole thing is a gamble. The book may not work out, or ever be published. I’ll have wasted time when I could be looking for a job, and sacrifice my relationship with Stella.

Other than these bits, I love to travel. 

David Whyte is a poet. I’d even say Bard, with that word’s ancient meaning.

David Whyte

David Whyte

When I say I’ve been with him, went to hear him, or admire his work, most people look quizzical, make the remark, “I don’t understand modern poetry.” Another variation is, “Poets today are too obscure.” I’m eager to make my next film and recently proposed to the two men who have sponsored past films, one at PBS and other at Channel 4 in London, that I go on a long canoe trip with David Whyte…..that the conversation would be worthwhile, make an interesting film. We sat together at the same London cafe Table. They didn’t  know David, and asked who he was. When I said, a poet, they spoke simultaneously, almost in alarm: “A Poet?” I felt small. They said, “Look, Rob, if you want to take Michelle Obama, or a Kardashian, we’d be interested.” 

I’d like to prove them wrong.

David Whyte is a successful poet. He self-publishes through Many Rivers Press. He travels constantly. He makes his living by poetry. He takes poetry into corporations. He can charm an audience of three, three hundred, or eighteen hundred. He is a master at creating intimacy.  He receives little attention form the academic community, where most poets find positions, and where poetry critics live. David works in the world. Occasionally, he exudes an irritating self-confidence, but hearing him read, talk and enquire, you forgive him.Traveling as he does between this world and wherever it is he goes to bring back the honey of his enquiry, I’d forgive him a lot more. It takes effort to delve so deeply into one’s own self. He’s good at it. Recently, he posted on his face book a passage he wrote about hiding, being shy, and received 500,000 hits. 

We don’t live in a contemplative age. We don't live in an age of poetry, as we once did. Much contemporary poetry follows suit; attempting to abandon metaphor and beautiful language, for….for what? I’m not sure. An earlier 20th century poet, William Carlos Williams, in his late poem Asphodel, explained why poetry matters this way: 

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”


Here, a current poem from David Whyte…...

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink, 
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering, 
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else

The Orange Dragon of the Green Valley

My friend will never write this, as I’ve asked for thirty years, and he hasn’t yet.

The most Thoreau-vian man I know, he spends his time investigating edges, the edge of a field, the currents along a river’s edge, the attic of a house, the thoughts most people don’t even know they have. He is a connoisseur of the barely there, both inside himself and in the world. 

For fifty years he’s traveled the edges of his community in the Stockbridge valley. He knows its forest, rivers, streams and even the vernal ponds. He knows them the way a commodities trader knows his market. Being interested in edges, he sees the center pretty clearly. 

He hasn’t yet burned down 300 acres of town woods, as Thoreau and his friend, Edward Hoar, did (by mistake) cooking fish they’d caught in the Concord River. Once, my friend, running in winter, found a Bobcat hit by a car on the road. He marveled at the cat’s beauty, held the still warm body, turned it in his hands, fondly. Knowing the skin’s value, he carried the cat
against his chest to hide in the woods and pick up later. When he returned there was no Bobcat, only its tracks leading off. He often speculates what would have happened if the stunned cat woke up in his arms. Another seasonal income, this in early summer, has been to drive from Stockbridge to New York City, gathering roadside wildflowers, then selling them to vendors at the New York Flower Market.

Thirty years ago this fall, as a freshman, I met my friend crossing Harvard Yard in early morning. He was fly-casting; practicing long distance casts. It could only have been him. I watched, as charmed then as I continue to be by this outlander. 

He trades in secrets. He knows things. He is solitude’s companion. No local or foreign government would pay for his secrets, but if he wrote, or spoke, what he knew, he would be the Edward Snowden of the natural world, the Interface between us and the lower case world, the quiet, sipping-out-of-sight creatures and processes we pass by. Once, he retuned in the spring from a long solitary hike and pronounced he’d seen the Orange Dragon of the Green Valley.

—Robert F. Perkins