“You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.”

Aldo Leopold said that, or something close, and I think of it as I enter Zambia’s Mosi y Tuna National Park to experience my first safari game drive.   It is  6:30 am, and it is cold. I am wearing a coat, I am under a blanket, and the jeep’s windows are all shut.  As Jason Paltzer, who is driving, tells us about an encounter he had with an aggressive elephant in this very park,  I am both disappointed and comforted by all the layers between me and the animals that we hope to see …. After a few moments, the grimy pane compels me. I open the window, leaving only air between me and wild nature.

Soon we see an impala.  It looks fragile, knowing.  It freezes, but then, at the sound of a camera shutter, it runs.  Its effortless gait reminds me of the way my daughter Kristen runs.  I love the impala for a moment, and then move on.  Next up is a warthog, awkward and muscular.  There is nothing beautiful to recommend this animal, yet we are taking photos and saying his butt bounce is cute. If we can love the warthog as he is, maybe there is hope for us?  We slow down for some guinea fowl who walk in the road in front of our jeep, seemingly unaware of us.  For some reason completely at odds with ornithological precision, I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor and how she loved her pea hens, and saw a map of the world in their plumage.

Next I am struck by the eyes of the giraffe, plaintive and loving, not unlike my golden retriever at home.  Then the zebras amaze me.  They are all perfect specimens, as if a doting zookeeper has been following them around. Their stripes are so contrary to any idea of camouflage. They don’t want to hide.  Instead, they are designed to find each other,  for the purpose of solidarity and survival. Their stripes also cause them to blend into each other, which makes life safer for the young and vulnerable. They have no natural predators in this park.  They pretty much thrive in peace.

I am the first to spot the crocodile.  He is underwater, but I see his long slender nose.  In the face of this fast, sharp-toothed endangered species, loving wild things becomes complicated… He is the reason we cannot swim in the river. I want life for this crocodile, yet the idea of his extinction provokes a whisper of relief in me that I cannot deny.

Baboons are a nuisance, we have been told. A few weeks ago one of them actually fought a tourist for a candy bar (or something), knocking him to his death, near Victoria Falls.  Now several baboons are prowling around our truck.  I am uneasy, and avoid looking them in the eye, afraid I will accidentally send the wrong message.  Then we see one in a tree — likely a female, she has a baby in her arms.  Slowing down for that we see another, also with a baby in her arms.  Once I know how to look, I see that the tree is full of mother and baby baboons, as if it is a scheduled play group!  This incredible act of social organization fills me with awe.  I decide to defend the baboon from now on.  It seems they are judged unfairly.

After an hour or so we arrive at the far end of the park where we can get out and stretch before we head back. There are some guards and another car nearby.   I wish I could walk alone for a bit.  I wish that the cars, and my friends, and even the strip of road that we rode along, were gone.  I would linger here, trust the peace, and accept the occasional predation– which seems to be the price of this particular kind of beauty.  I would live from truce to truce like the animals, abiding by their cautious rules of engagement.  Would I be able to freeze and run and fight at the right times, I wonder? ….  I stand under a tree for a bit, then explore a little ways in each direction, but I don’t stray too far from my tribe.

As I get back in the car I realize that there are things that I will never do–like hang glide, or swim with crocodiles, or walk alone in the wild.

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