Wild life

The many good things to come out of lockdown

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM


I was drinking in the fresh air on the high earth wall of my farm dam last week, when I saw a low white cloud coming straight at me from the northwest. The distances you can see up here are immense, across tawny savannah towards blue hills on the horizon, an unfenced land stretching for days and days of travel to the Ethiopian frontier. As I was standing there, filling my lungs and feeling free and happy, the white mist got ever closer and began to resemble confetti. The low, fluttering cloud was entirely silent. And then I saw it was a multitude of white butterflies, all flying on exactly the same southeasterly bearing. In the days since, they have migrated in never-ending millions from dawn to dusk, pausing on flowers to fill up on nectar, before taking to the skies again.

Where they are going and why, we have no idea. Perhaps they have a plan, like the red and blue dragonflies that recently arrived en masse from the east — the wonderfully named globe skimmers, pale-spotted emperors, blue perchers, twisters and vagrants — having migrated here from southern India, flying on the monsoon jet stream across the seas to stay with us until March, when they will set off for their return journey to Asia.

After a year like this, it’s high time to switch off from the outside world and rusticate on the ranch. Wake up well before dawn and turn in early to bed, after drinking a cold beer under the stars. Fill the lungs with air in the sunshine, look at butterflies and flowers, walk the dogs across wide-open spaces, kicking up the scent of fresh grass, hear the birds and, ankle-deep in cow dung, count my cattle each morning.

I have nothing to complain about. I am sorry that many have had a bad year but for me it has been interesting and worthwhile. I wouldn’t have missed the family being stuck in lockdown in England and seeing Trafalgar Square without a single other human being in it. I enjoyed my work, met some lovely people, had several adventures and took great pleasure in shooting in Scotland and Devon. Like most parents we got to spend much more time with our children than we might otherwise have done, now that they’ve left school. Rather than being made to feel the youth have it too easy, which might have happened in a normal year, I find myself admiring them for their resilience and delight in the simplest things. What a wonderful generation they and their contemporaries will be. As for the older members of our family, life has been dreadfully boring and bloody awful. It is ghastly that I have not been allowed to kiss my 95-year-old mother since March and I miss Aunt Beryl, whom we lost. But I love our elders for being tough, much tougher than the rest of us.

It’s been a year of worry and cooking, too much wine and good friendships. There was a moment back in March when, I admit, I was terrified. I had visions of bodies stacked in the streets as I remember them in Rwanda. That soon passed when I realised it was just wrong and I haven’t believed much of what I’ve read or heard from politicians or scientists since then. After seeing England, I think it’s useful to have it driven home yet again that the state is a ghastly thing when it pokes its nose into your private life. Those guys up there really do not know better than ordinary folk, because how could they in such unprecedented times. I feel a bit sorry for them, even when they behave in a way that appears to be devoid of basic common sense.

I have a feeling the year ahead will be even more interesting than 2020. Three years of heavy rains look as though they’ve just ended — and the pastures are as thick as a feather bed. It’s amazing how, in this very instant of great comfort, one senses the beginnings of the next severe drought. Farming up here in northern Kenya has taught me how, unless one survives the dry, dusty months and even years, there will be no joy in the downpours and grass that follow. When it’s as dry as the moon, I wonder if it’s ever going to rain again. Then, with the first drops, that wonderful petrichor makes me forget there was ever even a dry spell.

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