Paring down to the Essence, but without removing the Poetry

Three years ago today, I flew out of a desert — Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans that reflected so well my own emptiness — and landed on a piece of Africa tucked into the edge of the Zambezi Valley. The rains had arrived, and it was a piece of Africa full of seeds bursting with the promise of new beginnings. Of connection. Of learning.

The Gods that I’d beseeched on a vision quest in another desert — the Canyonlands in America’s West — had not, as I’d first thought,  ignored me. They’d just been waiting for the right time to send me home. Home to the man about whom I’d written in my journal during that challenging four-day fast, alone in a small tent set amongst the sagebrush, protected by giant sentinels of red rocks.

The Makgadikgadi Salt Pans Dec 2012
Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans .

By chance, just last week my past life dumped itself, box after box, all over my office floor. It had flown over from Virginia to remind me not to forget where I’d come from and how far I’d come. Not to forget how I’d failed. And fled. And hurt. And fled. And learned. And unlearned. It showed me how, even when you’re “home”, you never stop learning.

In these last three years I’ve learned that keeping things simple in such a dynamic environment isn’t easy. That it’s a discipline. Like a phrase I read about wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, “to pare down to the essence, but without removing the poetry.” Here, we’re blessed because it’s impossible to push aside the poetry for long. It’s in the drumming on our tin roof in a rainstorm, and the burst of birdsong after it has passed. It’s in the trails of hieroglyphics left in the sand by the tok-tokkie beetles. It’s in the luminance of a rising full moon. It’s in the warm, soft flesh of the first ripe mango you bite into in summer. It’s in the petrichor, swept in on the winds ahead of the first rains.

A sunlit rainstorm on the farm.
A sunlit rainstorm on the farm.

I’m learning about the rewards of fostering interdependence, especially in our organic garden, and about the diverse selection of wild edibles accessible in the bush beyond our house. I’m learning how much I love chickens, and the joy in cooking fresh eggs still warm from their nest boxes. I’m developing a growing repertoire in my open-air kitchen by experimenting with the food that comes from the garden and the bush. And I’ve learned to blog.

I’m learning that my heart now beats to the pulse of an old Africa, not the new. It’s to the ancient spirits of this earth that I connect. Like those that show themselves through the rasping call and steady gaze of a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl landing on a branch above my head, or through the time-honored wisdom of rituals and traditions among the indigenous people, whose ancestors go back so many thousands of years.

Most of all I’ve learned that nothing is permanent, especially here where you’re reminded often of the vicissitudes of nature, of the susceptibility of the human condition. As Chris wrote to me in a letter, long before I moved on to the farm: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination,” quoting his favorite poet, John Keats. Yes. Being certain of nothing while aspiring to pare down to the essence, but without removing the poetry.

Poetry.
Poetry.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.

32 Comments

  • This is pure loveliness.

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    • I take that as high praise from you, Bart. Much gratitude.

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  • Beautiful !

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  • Beautiful and so honestly written. This post is inspiring 🙂

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    • Thanks so much for your kind comment. We’re lucky to live here. All the best to you on your piece of Africa to the north, Annabel

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  • Great blog Annabel.
    Probably my hankering for “home” has kept me wandering the world for that feeling of belonging. So many of us scattered far and wide.
    Lucky that you found home again in Africa.

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    • Thank you, Gillian, for your kind, but poignant comment. That about which you speak weighs heavy on so many exiled people. It’s sad.

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  • Most beautiful writing – you have such an incredible way with words that just connect ! Thank you

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    • Much gratitude for your super-kind comment, Bridget!

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  • Beautiful words and love following your journey Annabel. xx

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    • Thank you for playing such a critical part in my journey, Louise. Much love … xo

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  • Beautiful, beautiful photos and prose!

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    • Thank you, Colin. There isn’t a day I wake up and think how fortunate I am to be here.

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  • Exquisite, Annabel. ♥️

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    • Thank you, dear Courtney … all the way from Madrid! 🙂 xo

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  • Notice the rather brief comments today: not because we do not feel but because we lack the ability to put this into print methinks . . . I think we all are looking for ‘the essence’ . . . perchance the Powers Above have granted you a passage to get close and closer . . . And, oh, the photos are magnificent!

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    • What a really thoughtful comment, thank you, Eha! All the best to you, Annabel

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  • I love reading your beautifully sculpted prose, Annabel x

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    • Thank you for your lovely comment, Stephen … it’s hard to think I’ve been here three years already!

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  • Home dwells in so many places and perhaps most profoundly in the heart. You capture that so beautifully and your thirst for learning is inspiring indeed. We love and miss you in Virginia!

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    • Thank you for this wonderful comment. Indeed, home does dwell in different places. I’ve had firsthand experience of this, as you know. I’ve been thinking of you all in the snow in Virginia, wishing some of it would blow over the sea and into this furnace now and again! So much love to you back, Jen … xo

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  • Oh my, what images!

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    • Thank you, Michelle. Mundanity is not a word we bandy about in these parts, haha!

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  • Oh Annabel,I do not ever have to purchase books on Africa or where your home is while i have the privilege to read
    your most beautiful blog how fortunate are we?
    Thank you so very much for gorgeous photos on top off this awesome writing.:)

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    • Much gratitude for such a kind comment, Maddy. It’s readers like you that make blogging so rewarding. All the best, Annabel

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  • Another beautifully written post. You remind me occasionally of a book I read about a woman from Germany, I think, who ended up marrying a Masai man, and living with him for many years, with a huge learning curve. I know I couldn’t do it. Such a fascinating read.

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    • Thank you, again, for your interest and support, chef mimi. I have not read the book about which you write, but having ridden on horseback across the Masai Mara and visited a Masai village, I’m pretty certain my life here is much easier than hers would have been in Kenya! That said, the arc of the learning curve for me living in the bush is long, but it bends towards progress, I think. 😉

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  • Beautiful, evocative writing Savannabel. I know that part of the world as I lived on Nampini Ranch (Katambora Rapids) in my teen years. I do miss Africa but Australia has been good to me.

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    • Thank you so much for your really kind comment, Eleanor. One of the most rewarding results of writing this blog is the growing community of people with connections to this extraordinary place. Much gratitude to you for stopping by!

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  • Oh, Annabel, reading this post brings tears to my eyes! I remember the you that came back from that vision quest in the desert, full of bright hope underlined by deep dark fears. The lessons you learned that week were one of the few sustaining pieces that kept you going through years of complications, and are, I think, a significant part of what got you to this place that is exactly where you should be. I wish I could have held those boxes back and sent them to you one at a time, to give you glimpses of the past that you have ridden to this point–just enough to occasionally remind you of how far you’ve come, but never overwhelming you. You are reaching a place of wonderful balance and purpose, ‘just learning and sharing and feeding people,’ and I feel fortunate that you are sharing these lessons with the rest of us!

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    • And now you have nearly brought tears to mine! You were my rock through all the tumult, and I simply couldn’t have moved forward the way I have without your love and support. You are an exemplar of all things good and the very best neighbor I could ever have had. So much love to you, Cynthia … xo

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