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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

My Animal Self

An opinion piece in The New York Times caught my eye recently. In The Beast in Me, Maxim Loskutoff describes an encounter with a female grizzly bear while hiking in Glacier National Park, Montana. When they first see her, the bear is:

“… close enough to make out the rolling power of her gait and the light gold fur on her back, and far enough away for us to feel safe.”

Loskutoff and his partner admire her for a while and continue their walk. On emerging from a stand of pine, however, they notice the bear is now a mere football field away and coming directly towards them. And Loskutoff has what he describes as a ‘strange epiphany’:

“Several things happened in my mind at once: I realized the bear was following us, I realized she wanted to eat us, and I realized that I was an animal.”

The reason this article chimed with me is because I had just returned from a road trip during which I had, coincidentally and not nearly so dramatically, experienced an epiphany of my own not unlike Loskutoff’s.

I love road trips and wild camping and all this entails. Picnicking in the open air, walking with bare feet on warm sand, brushing teeth under star-strewn skies, even washing dishes with icy river water or on an empty beach at the edge of the ocean… I find the almost constant contact with the elements deeply pleasurable, especially so since I normally spend much of my time in my study and behind my laptop. Outside, I become more aware of all my senses, feel closer to nature, and relish the connection.

Camping wild. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

But – and this may sound a bit odd - there is one activity when camping that can be quite complicated, or even fraught with anxiety.

Going to the loo.

Let me give an example. While driving along the busy Panamerican highway on the return leg of our journey, I had to request a break to visit the ladies’. On our side of the road was a vast expanse of densely planted sugar cane: not the best place for a pit stop, but the need by this time was great. I trotted down the verge and walked briskly along a dirt track that bisected the field. Once I was a decent distance from the car, I pushed into the rustling cane, turned to face the track, and got busy.

My contemplations of an ant struggling to scale the cliff of a pebble were interrupted by the sound of someone coming. I looked up quickly. It was my daughter and she hadn’t spotted me. I watched her searching for a likely place to spend a penny, then stopping to look carefully back at the main road and up the track. I recognised her cautious movements as echoing my own moments earlier. In fact, she reminded me forcibly of something.

I let her know where I was, and she moved on, out of my line of sight. As I pulled up my jeans and buckled my belt, I mused about the nature of wild peeing. My daughter’s furtive behaviour and my own, both as I sought a suitable spot to do my business and when I observed her from my hiding place, had reminded me of a deer’s.

On returning to the car, writer as I am, I jotted down the following in my notebook:

“When a woman goes to the toilet anywhere outdoors, out in the bush, for those brief moments she is a wild animal: at her most vulnerable, alert, nervous of an encounter with a human.”

Come to think of it, the expression ‘to answer the call of nature’ seems highly apt. That sudden awareness of being fully animal under a thin veneer of human trappings took me aback, much as it had Loskutoff:

“… it wasn’t until I was prey, my own fur standing on end and certain base-level decisions being made in milliseconds… that the meat-and-bone reality settled over me.”

And, like Loskutoff, my knowledge of the “instinctive, frightened, clear-eyed creature beneath my clothes” pleased me. As he explains:

“… it brought with it the reassuring sense of being part of the natural world, rather than separated from it, as we so often feel ourselves to be.”

Now, I normally enhance my posts with several illustrative photos, but in this case, I will spare you the embarrassment. Though I may be more aware of, and delighted by, my animal self, I have no wish to inflict it on you. 😉

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