The kind of photography that lives up to everybody else’s expectations often leaves me a little cold—maybe it is because people seem to expect good pictures to always look like models of what everyone else wants.
And I have a congenital defect that limits my compliance.
Because you see, I was born in the Kalahari Desert.
The biggest semi-arid desert in the world is a remote place where human beings quickly learn the practicalities surrounding seemingly infinite helpings of space…or perish.
In this remote location, my parents owned an aircraft instead of a car because the distance between where we were and where anything resembling civilization could be found was usually measured in flying hours. Hell, even a drive to the next house was a proper expedition, eating into hours of a day. The roads a syncopated rhythm of ups and downs, corrugation and slippery deposits of fine sand spiced with prickles, where rain and animals and people and vehicles have caressed and assaulted and worried at the earth across many moons and seasons.
The Kalahari demanded parties that went on forever and required people to routinely stay the night. Circumstances that proved equally promising for both mischief and misfortune as it turned out—when the preacher had a heart attack in my mother’s house, the doctor was already there.
My desert is filled with trees that are survivors first and decorations a distant second, adorned with evil red tipped thorns and tiny, intricately patterned leaves, curled upon themselves as they meanly safeguard the smallest deposits of moisture.
So, there is no horizon…at some point, the earth simply melts into the sky in a mirage of skytrees—blue until you roll the word from your lips when it becomes green until you dare to think it so to yourself.
It is also a corner of the world where the otherworldly seeps through the walls like dampness.
I know because our farmhouse was home to an ugly old man ghost who regularly launched Teddy (my Pommeranian) into fits of barking lunacy, but whom I announced to my mother with matter of fact calm whenever I spied him along my way to the bathroom at night.
The wilds of Africa has a reputation for going out of its way to prove itself perpetually pitiless to adults but for children it is a never-ending expanse of discovery and chance, bathed in sublime spectacle and daring mischief.
My free-form early years were all that—by most standards, they were also peculiar to the point of downright strange.
I learned to be a pilot before I could ride a bicycle; my everyday wardrobe consisted exclusively of knickers and hats (my darling but fabulously prim and proper English grandmother quite disapproved)—and I was the only white child for miles so my bushman friends called me Kenosi.
Literally ‘the one that is alone’ in Tswana.
Even as my life bled into the margins of normal when the time came for me to attend a respectable school, I would lie in my bed at night with hands stretched out to the edges on either side. I imagined that it was a raft on which I was happy to drift, quite solo, into the uncharted corners of the brand new universe offered by each reborn night, thinking often that I would hate to ever be truly in love.
And, on the days when I was less sure of my powers for keeping the regular world at bay, wondering if one could love but still, at least, live in an entirely separate house.
There was always the idea that the Kalahari was to blame for the fact that I have remained something of a loner and a drifter my entire life.
Then again, even when I was baked almost as brown as my desert companions, I was still regarded as an oddity.
My nanny told my mother unequivocally that ‘this one’s head turns differently’. Maybe she knew for sure what science does not…that my future was written long before the Kalahari, on the pages and pages of my DNA:
This girl will be alone. When she is not alone she will find her face turning towards solitude. And she will have direction for every moment, but not necessarily a confluent direction from moment to moment, ultimately always heading towards purblind horizons.
Not exactly an archetype for love—which is why I need your leg resting heavily across my body in the night, to keep me to your bed.
To hold me fast and steady in this intricate life that we have created entirely from one hot summer day’s long walk across the fields of a farm in Zambia. The veridical world we have filled with little people and spun upon the mighty axis of your unequivocal love alone…where, many wars and reconciliations later, I still so devotedly and so delightedly want to be, often to my great surprise. Because I still regularly wonder if one day I will wake up and find that I have drifted away, called by almost forgotten fragments of dreams and desert mirages.
because you can live without lovely lies
or demanding more than I can give,
and you never fight with my need to be entirely free,
I can breathe through every day
And live this analogue existence.
Into the secret uncertain hours of the night when only the moon can find my mind still fervently exploring faraway lands while my body is securely weighted to a different raft, my fingers no longer searching for the edges of my loneliness.
It is not everyone’s ideal picture of romantic love, but then experience has taught me that conforming is always futile.
All that matters is this unlikely world we have forged.
That works for me.
And for you.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Artotem, Flickr.