In the Masai Mara, a lion carries off the remains of a wildebeest in grass burnt from salad to hay. Picture by Michael Kerr
‘Four Fields’ by TIM DEE has been short-listed for the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize. In this extract, the author considers one field, the great plain of the Masai Mara, and what lives and dies on it
Everywhere in the wild grass of the Masai Mara in southern Kenya, the shortest route is found between the earth and the mouth. The answer is always grass. Six elephants walked through tall yellow grass that reached to the bellies of the smaller animals, to the knees of the larger. Their haunches rocking, they paced as if they had an appointment at the end of the world, as Karen Blixen said. And they reaped as they went, their tusks like pitchforks, and the rest of their bodies like various loaves of bread.
Three miles away, a line of giraffe necks appeared from the grass, all else was hidden. Five canted masts. Ten yards away a female cheetah and her two cubs, with rouged cheeks and whiskers, fed on a Thomson’s gazelle, the meat of its exposed muscles drying from crimson to rust as we watched. The downy ridge of hairs along one cub’s spine waved in the light just as the grass next to it did. Two barn swallows dipped to nip at the flies the kill had brought out. A baboon sat and ate, picking hand over hand at fresh grass stems; it wiped its face with one palm, its other fist wrapped round a hank of grass, pausing midway towards its mouth. A shining hippopotamus, tagged on its flanks with emerald reed-stalk calligraphy, wobbled from one wet patch of grass to another. Grant’s gazelles and topi looked up from their cropping, jaws sliding, top over bottom, bottom under top; quern mouths.
To arrive in the Mara is to enter a grassed universe. The plain widens in the Rift until you are nowhere other than simply here, in the middle of the grassiest place you’ve ever been. The earth stretches generously over its equatorial miles. I have never seen so many blades of grass in one field of view. Like all the flat places, the plains, the fens, the steppe, it works on your eyes first with a scene so wide it pulls at their corners and a view so deep it furrows the brow.
Let the Mara then be one field. The sun splashed down between great cakes of cloud on to countless communities of grass-life: spread acres of tall grass and of short, herd after herd of mixed animals, browns and blacks and fawns, scattered trees and their tethered shadows. Every yellow, every green, every brown surrounded me, running from my feet to the edge of the world. Beneath the grass the land rises and falls; it is worn in places where rock pushes through and cut in others where rivers channel wet across it; but overall the business of what is beneath is muted and what prevails is the surface. Over all: the grass which covers everything is not just superficial – it becomes the Earth as well as growing from it, for the movement and shape of the land rhymes with the movement and shape of its outgrowth; the grass is both the world’s body and its gesture. Mara in Maa, the Masai language, means dotted or spotted, patchy or chequered. It is also the word for cheetah, leopard and giraffe. It suggests the entire view and its contents.
IN THE GRASS WERE CORPSES. Thousands beyond counting. So many in one place that, there and then, the plain effected a revision of everything I knew about death. Almost all were wildebeest. Dead young and dead old, alike. They hadn’t come here to die, but since they were here, they would die here and because they live here in hundreds of thousands, the dead gathered at the feet of the living.
In places, for every standing animal, there was a shadow at its hooves, a skeleton, a skull, a mummified body, brown bags of bones, old overcoats shed in the heat. I didn’t see anything die but I have never seen so many dead. The new dead steamed as vultures stoked at open ribcages. The old dead liquefied under the sun in a meltdown to meaty molasses. Bones blurred in a hymn of flies. Grass grew livid from beneath, through bleached bone houses. Grass grew livid from within, pulling up from ruptured guts; a last meal germinated, juiced into life by rot. A wildebeest grazed on the grass that sprouted from the stomach of a wildebeest.
The same sun blared evenly down over everything. The air above the grass was either rancid or chalky. There were meals of bone to be had and there were dead eyes to be drunk. The vultures were fat. Hyenas too. Where the grass was long, sometimes only a rib or a horn was visible above it, the ruins of a city lost in a jungle; where it was short, whitewashed collapses of bones daubed the plain with tents of spines and skulls like an abandoned camp.
Death’s organising genius is to be disorganised, to make a shambles everywhere. The very scatter of bodies was frightening. A skull where all else had gone; a complete skeleton without a skull; three legs arranged like the spokes of a cartwheel; a splay of yellow teeth rolled like dice across baize; the skin and hair of a wildebeest looking as good as new, its interior a hollowed cave of gore; a new corpse plaited through an older one; a skull resting within a ribcage. And, all the time, the grass growing all about, and the living stepping through the dead to eat it.
What is it that pulls the herd of living and dead together? What moves the congress across the plain? Grass, exhausted, trampled and cropped beneath hooves. Grass, longer, fresher, greener, ahead. The smell of grass beyond the smell of the dead. The smell of green beyond the brown river. A glimpse of lions, yellow in the yellow grass. The push of teeth at the heels of the herbivores.
Like a rising flood, a blunt front of wildebeest reached us; the advancing line, half a mile deep, billowed into the grass of the plain. Behind it, a solid scrum, a continuous, interlocked shunt of 50,000 parts. The earth raised by five feet for miles into a moving brown crust. The first animals flushed yellow-throated longclaws from the grass that flew up above and tried to settle again but could find no space to land between the wildebeest. I couldn’t see where the herd ended. The horizon was made of animals.
The beards at their chins are the colour of the grass that strokes them. Nose to tail, flank to flank, walking, eating, walking and eating. Nothing prepared me for the epic ordinariness of the herd, the mind-wipe of its pedestrian repetitiveness, the same again and again in front of me, moving from right to left, passing and passing, plain as the plain itself, like wind through grass and made from both and becoming both. The wildebeest moved in a cloud of audible near-quiet, with only an occasional husky gnu, or adenoidal cough, marking their progress and showing the bigger silence of the others, while behind everything, and making its wildtrack and weather, was the breathing of the herd and their steps through the grass.