I made a cheetah purr the other day. I drank coffee on a boat while watching hippos yell in each other’s mouths. I listened to my Contemplative Playlist as we drove past miles and miles and miles of identical, evenly spaced trees. The trees freaked me out more than petting a cheetah. There was no other plant life growing there, and no animals would risk the openness of the four-by-four space between each tree. The artificial forest covered whole mountains. The trees seemed confused about growing in such sterile conditions. I pitied those trees: they deserved a more natural forest.
I went on a safari the other day. We climbed into massive, open-air jeeps that, had they been human, would have resembled the bully Moe from Calvin and Hobbes. We drove around Makhasa reserve for hours, witnessing pristine African prairie and jungle right next to one another. Impala and nyala were so common we stopped squealing when we saw them, but when one jeep saw a giraffe or some rhino, the ranger would radio the other jeep and everybody would converge on that hapless creature, and we would all take pictures together. As thrilled as I was to be within shouting distance of a giraffe (and as childishly frustrated that I was not permitted to ride one), I felt betrayed by the a wilderness that was careful, controlled and calculated.
Okay, I know, liability and all that. Makhasa reserve couldn’t very well let tourists wanter around getting trampled left and right. And poachers: we saw the anti-poaching unit patrolling the fence on several occasions, bundled up and brandishing rifles at anyone who tried to steal a rhinoceros. But being on that game reserve destroyed my illusions of a truly wild wilderness. I want a safari experience without fences. I don’t want rangers telling me about elephants on birth control and exactly how much it costs to ship in an extra zebra from Mozambique. And it wasn’t just my idea of wilderness that was altered, it was this archetypal, ancient, untouched African wilderness that was lost too. Even after three months on the continent, I still clung to those tired Lion King images that primitivize nation states, towns and cultures alike. No wilderness is untouched. This place has been cultivated for centuries. I already knew that there is no such thing as a pristine natural environment.
I know that concept is appealing to us urban, governable folks because it allows us to “go into the wild” and come home more in touch with our humanity, or whatever. If there is no such thing as authentic wilderness, we have to come to terms with what we sacrifice for urbanity.
On our last night at the game reserve, a couple of us sat around a campfire after everyone else had gone to bed. I could hear hyenas laughing in the distance. I could see the stars, those unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere that disrupted the comfort of the fire. We were all relaxed and vulnerable with one another. The question of the night: “Do you think it’s possible to feel this human in the city?” The consensus was, probably not. But if there is no such thing as authenticity, if there’s no pure wilderness, the intimacy of that campfire was an illusion too. And if nothing is authentic, then, well, everything is.