Archives For Africa

african-steerWho was the mysterious poet whose quiet, brim-shrouded attentiveness to C.S. Lewis in a pub inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to describe the hero Aragon in a similar pose?

Being neither a poet nor a literature major, I’m not ashamed to admit I have been unfamiliar with the interesting story of Roy Campbell. While his friendship with the Inklings of Oxford most intrigues me, his life itself is a fascinating story.

A South African who offered his deepest emotional devotion to Spain, his early years were influenced by the license of London’s bohemian underworld. He did, however, end up criticizing the excesses of the Bloomsbury Group.

Later, he and his wife would convert to Roman Catholicism, and even risk their lives to protect the letters of Saint John of the Cross from murderous Spanish revolutionaries who sought to burn them. They accepted responsibility for the documents shortly before the seventeen monks at the monastery were rounded up and shot in the street while their library burned.

Several days later the Campbells were visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of St John of the Cross, would be discovered.

The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it. (Joseph Pearce, “The poet who saved a saint’s priceless letters”)

C.S. Lewis & Roy Campbell

C.S. Lewis considered Campbell’s championing of the Spanish fascists (who protected the Roman Catholic Church from the Leftist rebels) to be naïve. He even wrote a poem in direct response to Campbell’s lengthy “Flowering Rifle,” which is included in issue 4.2 of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

I happen to edit the military chaplaincy journal Curtana, which is currently on hiatus. In the same issue I included another Campbell poem, “Christ in Uniform” (see pages 78-79).

In a second article, Joseph Pearce who was quoted above provides a lengthy exploration of the relationship between the two men. Its subtitle, “The Best of Friends and Enemies” reveals its theme. While Lewis remained critical of his acceptance of fascists, the two eventually became friends.

In spite of such an unpromising encounter, Lewis warmed to Campbell and invited him to meetings of the Inklings. He even offered to put Campbell up when he was in Oxford, offering him “dinner, bed and breakfast” at his home. They would exchange correspondence about the poetry of Milton, which both men admired, and settled into an altogether affable relationship.

Another peculiar thing about their friendship is how Lewis based a satirical character on Campbell in The Pilgrim’s Regress. When a song is requested, it is a one of the most savage of the men who first takes the stage.

“I will,” cried thirty voices all together: but one cried much louder than the others and its owner had stepped into the middle of the room before anyone could do anything about it.

He was one of the bearded men and wore nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles: and suddenly he began to beat on an African tom-tom and to croon with his voice, swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro and staring at them all, out of eyes which were like burning coals.

This time John saw no picture of an Island at all. He seemed to be in a dark green place full of tangled roots and hairy vegetable tubes: and all at once he saw in it shapes moving and writhing that were not vegetable but human.

The passage continues, but it’s best read in context. Especially since it precedes an accusation that John, the pilgrim in the tale, is so unsophisticated as to be unable to distinguish between art and pornography.

The Making of a Poet

Lewis and Campbell were both poets. Campbell was successful in this pursuit, and admired by many. Lewis . . . much less so. But it was my recent reading of one of Campbell’s poems on the subject of poetry that set me to researching for this column. So it’s only fitting that I close now with his poem entitled, “The Making of a Poet.”

It’s quite visceral, evoking the savage imagery of his native Africa, and hints at what inspired Lewis to caricature him in the way we read a moment ago.

In every herd there is some restive steer
Who leaps the cows and heads each hot stampede,
Till the old bulls unite in jealous fear
To hunt him from the pastures where they feed.

Lost in the night he hears the jungles crash
And desperately, lest his courage fail,
Across his hollow flanks with sounding lash
Scourges the heavy whipcord of his tail.

Far from the phalanxes of horns that ward
The sleeping herds he keeps the wolf at bay,
At nightfall by the slinking leopard spoored,
And goaded by the fly-swarm through the day.

You can read more of Campbell’s poetry here.

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.

Government & Baboons

July 30, 2013 — 11 Comments

I recently read an interesting article about battling terrorism from an international base in Djibouti. Many African nations have joined those from Europe and North America in trying to protect vulnerable villages from the ravages of violent extremism.

However, as readers of Mere Inkling know, we don’t deal with political matters here. Everyday life, yes. Writing and self-expression, of course. Faith, definitely. Imagination, most certainly. Current events are also on the table for consideration, insofar as they relate to the aforementioned subjects.

Politics though, as a subject in and of itself, is not on the Mere Inkling menu.

With that in mind, I want to share a passage from the Air Force magazine article. In a description of “a recent personnel recovery mission in Ethiopia,” it says,

The HC-130s landed at night on a pitch-black airstrip, but first had to make a “clearing pass” to scare a congress of baboons and a pod of hippopotamuses off the runway.

Quite a picture. However, the image itself only made part of the impression left on me by this sentence. More lasting was the reminder of what a group of baboons is called.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating essay about government entitled “Democratic Education.” One of many of its many kernels of wisdom is this: “Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”

Returning to the subject of animals, the second chapter of Genesis tells us,

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.

So, Adam named the animals, and I imagine that after her creation, Eve helped her husband refine some of those appellations. What I don’t know is this—exactly who decided how we label groups of the same species?

I would point out how apropos baboons being referred to as a “congress” is . . . except for two considerations. (1) The connection would be lost on many readers whose governments have parliaments, and (2) It turns out this is actually an error. The actual word for baboon bands is a “troop.” So much for their unfortunate association with an organization that has lost the confidence of nine out of ten Americans.

Here are a few of the familiar and unfamiliar collective nouns for a variety of animals, with some brief comments and questions.

Lions | Pride – Aptly named!

Prairie Dogs | Coterie – I never considered prairie dogs snobbish.

Kittens | Intrigue – I should have learned that from simple observation.

Finches | Charm – They really do, don’t they?

Wombats | Wisdom – Wisdom to Aussies, a mystery to me.

Pekingese | Pomp – Well, perhaps just slightly elitist.

Cobras | Quiver – Logical, given the prospect of meeting a group of vipers.

Peacocks | Ostentation – Much nicer than the “pride” option.

Barracudas | Battery – Same as electric eels, I suppose.

Crows | Murder – A term familiar to most literary folk.

Bullfinches | Bellowing – Huh? Sounds more hippopotamusish.

Cows | Kine – Have to thank the medieval English for this one.

Seabirds | Wreck – Beware when they fly overhead.

Bacteria | Culture – And what kind of civilization have they ever built?

Deer | Gang – Must be the teenagers, before they become a herd.

Cockroaches | Intrusion – Accurate, repulsive and ominous.

Guillemots | Bazaar – What’s a guillemot, and what is it selling?

Cormorants | Gulp – Didn’t their momma’s teach them to chew?

Cheetahs | Coalition – Wouldn’t “a ‘sprint’ of cheetahs” sound better?

Woodpeckers | Descent – Am I missing something here?

Clams | Bed – Not much else to do in the clam-world.

Turtledoves | Pitying – Meaning they take pity on us, not vice versa.

Bobolinks | Chain – Cute, but lost on Americans where they’re known as reedbirds or ricebirds.

Snails | Walk – Someone’s lacking a bit in creativity here.

Ravens | Unkindness – Speaking of unkind, who labeled them this?

Flamingoes | Stand – Come on now, isn’t that a bit obvious?

Giraffe | Tower – I guess the flamingoes aren’t the only ones.

Lice | Flock – That is way too nice a word for those vermin!

Alligators | Congregation – As a pastor, I simply don’t want to go there.

This is way too much fun, but I’d better stop now so I can revisit this theme in a year or so. Until then, if you learn who gave that unkind name to groups of ravens, let me know.

Newest Pet Craze

July 11, 2013 — 23 Comments

aye-aye 1Have you seen pictures of these delightful little creatures? They’re called Aye-ayes, and they are widely distributed across the jungles of Madagascar. (Any genetic link between aye-ayes and Gollum remains unconfirmed.)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified these harmless mammals as “Near Threatened.” So, helping them reproduce, as an aye-aye breeder, may also keep the species from becoming extinct.

Actually, I don’t believe you can import Aye-ayes as pets—unless you’re one of those rich or famous people to whom the laws for regular people don’t apply. But, if it is possible to adopt an aye-aye, I offer the following pros and cons for your consideration.

Pro: Some people think they look cuddly.

Con: Some people think they look creepy.

Pro: They don’t demand attention all day long.

Con: They’re nocturnal and might keep you up at night.

Pro: People will think you’re on the cutting edge.

Con: People will think you’re one odd cookie.

Pro: They have tiny mouths.

Con: They are omnivores, and eat other animals.

Pro: Most people consider them exotic animals.

Con: They clearly resemble devilish gremlins.

Pro: Daubentonia madagascariensis are lemurs.

Con: They’re not nearly as cute as their lemur cousins.

Pro: In an emergency, they’re edible.

Con: In an emergency, they’re edible.

Pro: Aye-ayes may reveal God’s imagination & humor.

Con: Aye-ayes just may have a less heavenly origin.

aye-aye 3The picture to the right, a close up view of the aye-aye’s “hand” lends credence to the last conjecture, above. It also evokes nightmarish memories of a story that traumatized my youth, “The Monkey’s Paw.”

You can either read it here, or view a recent treatment of it here.

C.S. Lewis acknowledges the danger posed by possessing too much love—an idolatrous affection—for pets. Of course, there are other things we can love that way with even less justification than an animal.

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little. It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious.

You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify. Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you.

He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come. I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace. If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour.

Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (“The Personal Heresy: A Controversy”).

Yes, as Lewis so ably points out, it’s far more important to care about the personhood of our neighbor today . . . rather than a departed writer. (Coincidentally, Lewis would object with equal eloquence to Lewisolatry.)

If we cannot express our goodwill to other people, it’s better directed towards dogs and aye-ayes than someone departed from this world.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand. These furry little creature may not be the objects of the latest pet craze now, but it may be possible for you to initiate a new fad!

To make that possibility a bit more likely, allow me to close this column with a picture of a lovely aye-aye in its natural habitat. Now, that’s an animal one could easily consider cute and cuddly (as long as it keeps its paws to itself).

Ksukol ocasatý (Daubentonia madagascariensis)