Saturday, October 10, 2015

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills - Issak Dinesen #QotD

2015.10.10-DSC04411I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn-trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle; in some places the scent was so strong, that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found on the plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs,—only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.

In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.

2015.10.10-DSC04398From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view, you see to the South the vast plains of the great game-country that stretches all the way to Kilimanjaro; to the East and North the park-like country of the foot-hills with the forest behind them, and the undulating land of the Kikuyu-Reserve, which extends to Mount Kenya a hundred miles away,—a mosaic of little square maize-fields, banana-groves and grass-land, with here and there the blue smoke from a native village, a small cluster of peaked mole-casts.

All the country round Nairobi, particularly to the North of the town, is laid out in a similar way, and here lives a people, who are constantly thinking and talking of planting, pruning or picking coffee, and who lie at night and meditate upon improvements to their coffee-factories.

Generally I and Nairobi were in very good understanding, and at one time I drove through the town and thought: There is no world without Nairobi’s streets.

I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world.

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements. The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it. No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it. The art of moving gently, without suddenness, is the first to be studied by the hunter, and more so by the hunter with the camera.

2015.10.10-DSC04402 They were never reliable, but in a grand manner sincere.

An African Native Forest is a mysterious region. You ride into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvellously rich in green shades. You cannot see the sky at all in there, but the sunlight plays in many strange ways, falling through the foliage. The grey fungus, like long drooping beards, on the trees, and the creepers hanging down everywhere, give a secretive, recondite air to the Native forest.

A white man who wanted to say a pretty thing to you would write: “I can never forget you.” The African says: “We do not think of you, that you can ever forget us.”

Then South, to greet the Southern Cross, doorkeeper of the great world, faithful to travellers and beloved by them, and higher up, under the luminous streak of the Milky Way, Alpha and Beta in the Centaur.

In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh deep green track.

The early morning air of the African highlands is of such a tangible coldness and freshness that time after time the same fancy there comes back to you: you are not on earth but in dark deep waters, going ahead along the bottom of the sea. It is not even certain that you are moving at all, the flows of chilliness against your face may be the deep-sea currents, and your car, like some sluggish electric fish, may be sitting steadily upon the bottom of the Sea, staring in front of her with the glaring eyes of her lamps, and letting the submarine life pass by her.

In a foreign country and with foreign species of life one should take measures to find out whether things will be keeping their value when dead. To the settlers of East Africa I give the advice: “For the sake of your own eyes and heart, shoot not the Iguana.”

2015.10.10-DSC04406 The neighbourhood of the Game Reserve and the presence, outside our boundary, of the big game, gave a particular character to the farm, as if we had been the neighbours of a great king. Very proud things were about, and made their nearness felt.

Love the pride of God beyond all things, and the pride of your neighbour as your own. The pride of lions: do not shut them up in Zoos. The pride of your dogs: let them not grow fat. Love the pride of your fellow-partisans, and allow them no self-pity.

It takes centuries to produce it, and it is likely that Socrates, the Crusades, and the French Revolution, have been needed in the making. We of the present day, who love our machines, cannot quite imagine how people in the old days could live without them. But we could not make the Athanasian Creed, or the technique of the Mass, or of a five-act tragedy, and perhaps not even of a sonnet. And if we had not found them there ready for our use, we should have had to do without them. Still we must imagine, since they have been made at all, that there was a time when the hearts of humanity cried out for these things, and when a deeply felt want was relieved when they were made.

In other words, since we are all prisoners in life, are we happier, or more miserable, the more talents we possess?”

The air in Africa is more significant in the landscape than in Europe, it is filled with loomings and mirages, and is in a way the real stage of activities. In the heat of the midday the air oscillates and vibrates like the string of a violin, lifts up long layers of grass-land with thorn-trees and hills on it, and creates vast silvery expanses of water in the dry grass.

The bird spoke its words very slowly, and the boy knew enough Greek to recognize it; it was a verse from Sappho: “The moon has sunk and the Pleiads, And midnight is gone, And the hours are passing, passing, And I lie alone.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

From there, to the South-West, I saw the Ngong Hills. The noble wave of the mountain rose above the surrounding flat land, all air-blue. But it was so far away that the four peaks looked trifling, hardly distinguishable, and different from the way they looked from the farm. The outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and levelled out by the hand of distance.

Nowadays great sportsmen hunt with cameras. The practice started while I was still in Africa; Denys as a white hunter took out millionaires from many countries, and they brought back magnificent pictures, the which however to my mind (because I do not see eye to eye with the camera) bore less real likeness to their object than the chalk portraits drawn up on the kitchen door by our Native porters. It is a more refined sport than shooting, and provided you can make the lion join into the spirit of it you may here, at the end of a pleasant, platonic affair, without bloodshed on either side, blow one another a kiss and part like civilized beings. I have no real knowledge of the art; I was a fairly good shot with a rifle, but I cannot photograph.

2015.10.10-DSC04400 We white people, I reflected, were wrong when in our intercourse with the people of the ancient continent we forgot or ignored their past or did indeed decline to acknowledge that they had ever existed before their meeting us.


I have the great good luck in life that when I sleep I dream, and my dreams are always beautiful.

My African existence had sunk below the horizon, the Southern Cross for a short while stood out after it, like a luminous track in the sky, then faded and disappeared. The landscapes, the beasts and the human beings of that existence could not possibly mean more to my surroundings in Denmark than did the landscapes, beasts and human beings of my dreams at night.

From Out of Africa & Shadows on the Grass (1937, 1960) by Issak Dinesen

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