A fine state to remain in as long as you can

The Southern white rhino, Fatu, the daughter, put her shoulder up against the car and started to rub. The entire Land Cruiser began to tilt(you would too, if several tons of rhino leaned into you), and her handler barked at her to move away.

Braver’n I am.

Simon, my E-Trip Africa guide, started the car up and pulled forward, then backed up alongside the other rhino grazing nearby. Her handler asked if I wanted to touch Najin, the mother.

Are you kidding me? Of course I do.

I climbed up on the seat right behind Simon and hung myself out the window. Half in and half out, towards three enormous rhinos, hopefully in a pleasant and receptive move after a big bucketful of fresh carrots and feed pellets.

Najin was. She sidled alongside, and I scrubbed her great broad back, the high point of her hips. It’s like trying to scratch a grey leather couch that’s spent a few too many years in the sun.

I put my hand on her forehead, then scrubbed the inside of her ears, lined on the outside with a thin tuft of fur. Mindful that she likely hasn’t had an ear scrub before and a little too much enthusiasm might mean a horn through the door, I scrubbed her ears very lightly. She didn’t mind. If anything, she moved her body closer alongside the Land Cruiser. I had more acres to rub and scrub.

She’s twenty. She and her daughter have lived here at Ol Pejeta for more than a decade, protected by armed guards. Those that have died here, including the world’s last male Northern White rhino, are buried with honors and a lovely tombstone under a spreading tree out on the high grass plains. I rode out there to see those today. His passage marked the end of a species. The last two are female, and there is no way to perpetuate them any more.

Simon’s been a guide for fourteen years, and has been employed by E-Trip Africa for five. He’s been out here hundreds of times but this is the first time he has chosen to pet the rhino. I’ve no idea if he wants to be brave because I’m hanging my ass out his window, but he was delighted. As he stroked the animal’s great, wide, leathery back, his eyes filled with wonder.

At one point, Najin had walked far enough forward for me to get access to her butt. I honestly have never met a creature who, if I do it carefully enough, doesn’t enjoy the hell out of a butt scrub. The trick is to not annoy, startle or otherwise invite disaster from an animal which could easily upend this vehicle and impale both of us on its enormous horns.

Her tail was actually quite soft. Even on her rock-hard body, there were places which were smooth and tender, and I scrubbed those with both gentility and enough vigor to get her attention. Nuthin’ like a serious ass scrub, which more than a few huge African olive trees can attest to, now bent over after an ellie has done the same.

That I am writing this article is testament to the fact that she apparently enjoyed what I was doing, for she stopped long enough, in that curious way that large animals do sometimes, to register a pleasant feeling, recognize that no threat was imminent and that no harm was intended, then happily went back to mowing the grass next to the right rear tire. Hmm. Wonder what’s making my ass feel so pleasant? Never mind.

Mowing is the correct word, for if you get up close and personal to a white rhino you see a terrifically wide muzzle. So named, our guide said, because the Dutch word for “wide” which describes their great mouths, was unpronounceable, therefore interpreted as white, and when another, darker rhino surfaced, well, okay, black. Not that there was anything scientific behind it. I spent some time kneeling right in front of one (okay okay he has cataracts) and feeding him inches from his horns (okay okay, so there were four very thin bits of wire between us, but still). The black rhino has a prehensile lip,which makes feeding him feel a lot like Jurassic Park. Closest you and I will get in real life.

If I cannot feel wonder in such things, I question how alive I am.

The Wonder Years, which in all honesty I never saw but only heard about, was a popular program that aired on CBS for about five years from 1988 to 1993. The premise was that teen years- those involving all the awful angst and acne and sexual anxiety that being a teenager involves (and these are our wonder years? Yes. I wonder how the hell I got through mine)- are just wonder-full.

I beg to differ. Somewhere around late elementary school things start to get shitty, and we’re expected to Grow The Fuck Up already. Stop being kids and start being responsible humans. So much for wonder. At least in the factories that we call schools.

Wonder, the joyous surprise that new experiences can bring, or that being willing to see old with new eyes can produce, is rejuvenating. It’s lifeblood. And for so many of us who feel jaded, it’s like a brand new lease on life. Geritol for the geriatric, if you will. Wonder, at its heart, is joy, what I call the bird in your chest.

What puts the bird in your chest may well be your work. Or, your grandkids. Or, your prize orchids, or the hummingbirds who populate your back yard. Does it matter? What matters is that you cultivate and continue to cultivate wonder in the extraordinary and joyous experiences that we face every day

In truth, it doesn’t matter where you find your well of wonder. It so happens that at this point in my life, being in remote and wild places, such as what we have left in the world, is what makes my heart sing. I feel wonder not only that I wake up in the morning but at where I wake up. What I get to see. The people and animals I get to interact with, and write about.

Some years ago I was at a small hotel in Buenos Aires, finishing up a long and fantastic adventure trip. I was speaking to a young woman in our mixed bedroom, a girl from America who was just as chuffed as I was about traveling.

From the bunk in the back, a young American man piped up about how world-weary he was. He’d seen it all, he said. He was SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO bored. He’d had it. There was nothing more to see, and he simply couldn’t understand why the two of us were so excited about nothing.

He was all of twenty-two. “Just wait,” he intoned, with all the gravitas of the uber young who have decided that they know everything the world has to offer. “You’ll get bored too.”

My new friend and I rolled our eyes at each other and left the room to the leftover, pissed off, know-it-all-human. World-weary and supremely boring at twenty-two.

When you and I lose wonder, we lose joy. Lose joy, we age overnight into angry old shitheels. At any age.

The Wonder Years can be all our years, if we seek delight and surprise. If we choose to frame our new experiences that way. Some aren’t so wonderful. Some are downright horrendous. Which of course makes the joyous ones that much better.

Short on wonder? Go watch a hummingbird fly. Put yourself in a new environment. Hang out with the very young, before they’ve seen one city and decided the world sucks, dude. Hang out with wonder-ful people. And see what happens to your world.

Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash