It was May, and the evenings were still cool. My silky blue dome was almost invisible, concealed within a circle of tall grass and thistles. It was my third night in the tent. Alone. In the dark. It was a darkness unlit by neon or streetlights, a pitch deep enough to devour entire mountains.
I woke up with a start, frozen in my sleeping bag. Something was slithering along the side of the canvas. Or was it scampering? It was hard to tell. I lie there unmoving, hardly daring to blink as I listened to the sinister rustling. I thought about the bag of sulphur I had forgotten to sprinkle along the circumference of my tent to ward off such unwanted guests. Balloons of fear began to swell inside me. The indigenous animals of Turkey's south coast include the Ottoman viper and scorpions.
I tentatively slid my hand out to search for my torch. The noise continued. My imagination hurtled down a hundred critter-filled alleys, tunnels brimming with poisonous reptiles, spiders the size of rats and other beasts of unknown ferocity just itching to chew holes in the groundsheet and eat me alive, or…or simply look ugly.
After what seemed like minutes of agonizing fumbling I finally located my flashlight. I flicked it on. The squirming stopped. Hell! The beast was stalking me.
After fear, the next pit-stop on survival’s race track is aggression. By now I was wide awake, sitting bolt upright with more than a sensible amount of adrenalin careering through my system. I decided I’d rather be the hunter than the hunted.
As slowly and quietly as I could I unzipped the mosquito net door, dementedly flashing the torch this way and that like a cop in a bad movie. Still no noise. Whatever it was, was hiding. So out I crept. I stood up and turned around, running the beam frantically over the canvas. And then I saw it. The perpetrator of my insomnia. The heinous creature of my nightmares: A lizard, tiny, web-footed, verging on charming. The small reptile peered up at me petrified, beady eyes popping. I exhaled, feeling idiotic. Lizard and I stared at each other for a moment or two before I lowered the torch and crouched back into the tent. As I lie back down on my sleeping bag, I mused how despite not having owned a television for the last fifteen years I had nonetheless become yet another victim of Hollywood’s relentless fear-mongering.
Now I think about it, there is an entire industry founded on generating fear of wildlife. Horror films have been quick to cash in on the myriad of unusual fauna in the world. Anaconda, The Birds, and Jaws are but a few of the animal-based movies that spring to mind. Pretty much any creature that has the misfortune to crawl, slide or not possess fur is subject to a bizarre and completely fictitious kind of demonisation. The result is, when we’re left to our own devices out in the wild, especially at night, those monster movie images take on a life of their own.
The morning after ‘lizard night’, I stepped out of my tent and stumbled into my make-shift ‘kitchen’. In truth it was more of a food area, with a ramshackle washing up stand cobbled together from broken sticks. (Oh the many rewards of Girl Guides). But I was struck by something else. I realised as I looked about that there were no crumbs anywhere, no left-overs to clean up. In short no mess at all. Hmm, had this been what my nocturnal guest had been after?
From then on, I took time to venture out of my tent in the dark hours and observe what exactly was going on in the big bad pitch beyond my canvas. It was fantastic. What I saw was a carefully timed banquet. First to arrive were the cats. They rooted through my bin and carted off the bigger scraps. Next the field mice crept by. Finally, there were parties of lizards, skinks and agamas that polished off the crumbs. There was an owl too. It came most nights, calling into the darkness to its mate down in the valley, before making mincemeat of one or two unsuspecting reptiles, no doubt.
However, a month later something really dragged me to my senses. That summer, the first summer on my land, I would open up a large kilim onto the bare earth every morning for my morning yoga practice. Once I was done, I had to fold the carpet up quickly, otherwise the late spring wind blew burrs that would enmesh themselves in the weave. One day, I forgot to fold up the rug. I came back in the evening to see it covered in thistles and spiky caterpillar-like burrs. I groaned. They could only be removed one by one. It was a laborious, finger scratching process. I couldn’t be bothered with the task, so I left it. The next morning, when I chanced to walk by the rug, what should I see? Ants. Hundreds of them. And they had turned my yoga carpet into an insect spaghetti junction. Agh! Burrs, ants, it was hopeless. The rug was a goner.Then something caught my eye. I noticed two of the ants tugging at a burr, and another carrying one off.
As it happened I’d just finished reading a book about humanity's special relationship to its own land, or domain. I think if I hadn’t actually been living in the wild it would have written the work off as nonsense. One of the things the book stated was that when a person owns a domain and loves it, all the wildlife within the area will support them. I looked at the traffic of ants streaming across my kilim. I rubbed my chin, scratched my head, and turned around. Next I left for the beach.
When I came back in the evening I couldn’t believe my eyes. My rug was spotless. Completely and utterly. It looked as though it had been picked clean by a school of tweezer-brandishing elves. I began to look at animals in a vastly different light. I have become very humbled by them to be honest. Because all of them, even the scaliest, slimiest or most arthropod, are surprisingly benign. In fact they are not only harmless, they are invaluable, helpful little mates, and without them we'd be floundering in our own muck. I never sweep or wash the floor of my open kitchen. I leave my used saucepans out at night as well. And every morning I wake to find my band of nocturnal helpers has cleaned up the lot.
So it was that the bag of sulphur I had bought for protection remained forever unopened. Suddenly, I didn’t want to harm anything, and I believed, rightly or wrongly that nothing would harm me in return. Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps I was just lucky. I lived outside in the wild for the duration of eight months, and the only snake I ever saw was a tiny grass snake on the border six months on. No wild boar entered the land either. My pomegranate-growing neighbours (boar love pomegranates) believed they were warded off by the smell of a human sleeping outside. There were no spider bites, no scorpion stings, no Ottoman vipers found lurking in the toilet. It was almost as though the land was blessed.
My gardener owns an enormous Anatolian shepherd called Apo. He’s the size a small lion. For reasons that no one really understood Apo would turn up on my land most nights to begin a voluntary protective watch. Did he feel the way I did? I wondered.That there was magic concealed in the dirt? Sitting by his side, I would run my hands through his thick fur and marvel how such a huge carnivorous animal could be so gentle.Together we would stare out over a starlit valley listening to the owl calling overhead and the agamas scampering below. His ears would prick up and he would bark. It was a deep, wolf-like roar that echoed out into the darkness for miles and miles.
I began to feel that this might just be what paradise is like.
Atulya K Bingham
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