It is late, and I am lying in bed in a small stone hut nestled against the Great Rift Wall in northern Tanzania. The hut is part of a rugged camp where my biologist brother-in-law has spent many years doing wildlife research.
As I fall in and out of sleep, a lazy wind sifts through the screen, carrying the sounds of the wild. The call of a nearby leopard resounds about the room - a loud hack followed by a series of muted rasps. A lion bellows, and even though the big cat is probably some two miles away, I feel the vibrations of its momentous roar.
Overhead, scampering tree hyraxes turn the metal roof into a snare drum, while bush babies cry in the darkness, hyenas laugh menacingly, and baboons bark warnings to each other. It is never wholly still, even in the pauses between these sounds, for crickets rub their wings together incessantly, keeping the air filled with a soft, shrill vibrato.
But one voice is missing in this midnight chorus: the whirr of the small waterfall that usually spills down the Rift Wall into the river that runs below this hut. In this year of drought, there is no cascade, and the watercourse is bone dry. Night masks the desolation. But in the harsh light of day the entire landscape is parched and brittle; trees are skeletons cowering in the sun; and the whole dusty scene is desperate for a drink.
Yet, remarkably (as the night symphony testifies), life continues here - and somewhat amazed, I get up early each day to watch it. Outside my hut stands an enormous boulder and an unusually tall umbrella acacia tree. Sitting atop the rock beneath the gnarled branches of the acacia, I can look down on the riverbed and witness wondrous sights - such as elephants digging wells.
They arrive at dawn, massive forms lumbering through the shroud of incandescent orange that plays over morning scenes here. Reaching the dry riverbed, they begin their work, using their forefeet and trunks to quarry subterranean streams. The water table is so low that it takes them considerable time, but eventually tiny pools arise and they quench their thirst. When the elephants leave, other animals arrive to drink from the ephemeral wells - puckish warthogs, playful baboons, graceful impalas and gazelles, and many others.
Day after rainless day, I watch the scene repeat itself. Then, one morning, something besides the animals calls my attention. At first I don't see it; I simply feel the setting has somehow changed. Then I look up and discover that a green haze has appeared around the crown of the acacia tree - without the benefit of a sprinkle of rain or a vein of reachable groundwater. A close look reveals masses of tiny leaf buds.
At breakfast I ask my brother how this has happened in the midst of such utter dryness. He tells me, "Acacias turn green in anticipation of the rains." Then he goes on to explain that by gearing up for growth, the tree will be able to take maximum advantage of moisture when it finally comes.
"Do you mean," I ask, "that in order to become really green, acacias have to muster up a bit of greenness first on their own?"
To me, this was a rousing thought. A call to live what one longs for: If you wish to be loved, give love; if you want knowledge, use whatever wisdom you have within to reach out for it; and if you yearn for joy, strive to express it. And do so in anticipation. The way an elephant digs for water when it is out of sight. And even more profoundly, the way an acacia sprouts buds in a full-fledged drought.