My sister and brother-in-law found the lightening storm particularly fascinating. They watched it arriving for nearly an hour and then stood on my porch snapping photos of spidery bolts, golden clouds and the wind-swept terrain. When the rain became too hard we watched from inside as the sky rolled upon us and the earth seemed to melt in a sigh – or a song.
The farmers and cattle have their own, far more noble, reasons for rain-relief. I, on the other hand, am just thrilled to have hardened sand beneath my morning run.
On Friday morning I left at 5:15, as always, jogging towards the pink sunrise. This has, and is, and will always be one of my Most Serene Spaces: privacy in a giant expanse of twisted trees and drifting cattle
and a horizon freshly painted, just for me, every day.
Today I’m gliding over dirt paths and the storm’s misty residue. It’s been 20 minutes or so when I come upon a giant smoking tree. The sight is so unexpected that I run past and spend the next ten minutes rationalizing it.
It must be a method of clearing the land, I reason. Certainly a farmer is close by, prepared to control the burning and later chop up the tree for firewood. I pace on with uneasy resignation to this explanation.
Or, I tell myself a mile later, or it was some type of traditional worship… some healer is carrying out a ceremony or burning the bush for a medicinal concoction. Maybe the smoke is to dry out herbs or perhaps the ash is used in some type of curative mixture.
I am exactly half way through my run and the reasons seem weaker with each step.
Turn right to finish the loop or turn back to retrace my steps and find the tree.
I check my watch. 5:45. The stillness is profound. Too early for farmers and healers. And too far out.
I turn back.
This time when I approach the tree, its smoke has turned to giant flames. I advance to see that the trunk has been torn in two splintered halves. The gash is nearly vertical—attesting to a tool quite different from an axe or saw. I feel the spongy, wet earth beneath me and remember the storm. There is lightening in this tree. And it is very much alive.
The tree’s torso lies in a long stretch against the earth. I consider the surrounding bush in all its dry growth and thick vegetation. Bush-fire stories feel haunting and real. My house and neighbors feel close.
And so I begin.
Giant fistfuls of wet sand crash into the flames. Over and over I lean to collect the dirt and quench the tree’s blaze. At one point I pick up a fallen branch to chip away the smoldering bark. It falls to the ground in black chunks—sizzling into the piles ash.
I alternate between the sand strategy and branch beating for ten minutes before the flames dissolve and the smoke is controlled. I step away to survey my work and see finite success: the tree sits stifled and grey, yet still pulsing with energy. Small remains of embers and smoke appear to taunt. The potential for another ignition seems more than likely.
I check my watch again: 5:55. I can be back to the village before 6:15. If I sprint 6:10. People will be awake by then. I can tell someone.
I remember that the closest fire station is 40 km away in Gaborone.
I remember that my landlords leave for work at 6:00.
I remember that the neighbors speak only Setswana.
What’s the word for lightening? I know fire. I know tree. But how do I say burning? Should I call the Kumakwane police?
I am calm but anxious. Perhaps I was in the right place at the right time but does Fate stop there? Certainly people have taken wrong measures in those right places. Certainly I’d be held accountable if acres of bush burned down.
But Fate didn’t stop there.
Just five minutes after leaving the tree I come across three men walking towards their cattle post. This was miraculous for the following reasons:
1. I have been running this route for over six months and have Rarely seen another person in the lands before 6:30.
2. Most Kumakwane farmers are older and illiterate – these three men were in their 20s and spoke fluent English.
3. The majority of those who work out in the lands do so alone—herding cattle or repairing fences or collecting firewood. These were three.
4. And they had a shovel.
On Saturday morning I return to the lands with Heather and Tim. They stop to take photos of dawdling cows and enormous centipedes and bright red sand bugs. When we finally come upon the tree we find a farmer busily hacking at the stump. He has even pulled his truck into the bush to collect the massive trunk and branches. I greet him and he looks up with a smile.
A rain storm and a truck-full of firewood all in one week: a farmer’s paradise, I think.
How wonderfully bizarre to have participated.