Today is Halloween and with that, of course, comes the annual spooky season blog. Halloween is an ancient tradition, dating back 2,000 years when the Celts occupied much of western Europe. November 1st marked their New Year as it fell at the end of the summer harvest and beginning of the long, cold, and miserable winter - i.e. the time of death. It was believed that on "hallow's eve", the boundary between the living and dead became blurred, causing ghosts to return to damage crops and take lives. To ward off these spirits, the Druids donned the skins of dead animals and built huge bonfires on which they sacrificed both crops and living creatures. These traditions still exist today, albeit in a much less dramatic fashion. Here in Botswana, November 1st couldn't have a more different association. This time of year marks the start of the rainy season and the enormous boom of new life that comes with it. In a country where desert dominates and rain ('pula') literally means gold, it is a time of immense celebration. However, in the spirit of the spooky season, this blog pays homage to the weirdest and most misunderstood elements of the Okavango. So, read on if you dare...
A baboon howls in the moonlight. NHFU/William Steele.
Unlike their butterfly-cousins, moths have earned themselves a tough reputation. This is a little unfair, considering that (most of them) just work the night-shift. They're the infamous devourers of clothes, the irritating insect that can't seem to get enough of you, and the drinkers of... fermented fruit, blood, and tears. Yes, you did read that right. Certain members of the Calyptra moths and, in particular, the males have given their fruit-piercing mouthparts a whole new lease of life: by penetrating the skin of their victims with a voracious vampire bite. While this all sounds very sinister, the reason is, of course, love. This delicious and nutritious sodium-rich drink provides an ideal 'marriage gift'. With antennae riddled with thousands of smell receptors, they can detect their lucky lady's pungent pheromones from over 11-km away and deliver their goodies just in time. So, next time you make a snap-judgment of a month, take a pause and just think, what would you do for love?
Why are moths so persecuted, when they just running the night-shift of their butterfly-cousins? NHFU/Hannah Gormley.
Other than the ocean (of which there isn't any in Botswana), the night sky has to be the most misunderstood thing on our planet. In our increasingly crowded world, the Okavango is one of the last places on Earth in which you can see an uninterrupted view of it. Much like the Celtic traditions described above, the night sky has bred rich oral folklore that has been passed down through countless generations within Botswana's many tribes. But of course, the night sky cannot emerge without a sunrise and sunset. According to Motswana mythology, the sun that lights our skies was once tricked by a lonely crocodile. He persuaded her to let him swallow her fiery beauty in the west and carry it across to the east, where she would rise again for a new day. Meanwhile, in San culture, the sun originated when the head of a lazy, selfish man, which once beamed like a bright light, was chopped off and thrown into the sky.
A super-moon sets behind a male lion. NHFU/Liz Johnston.
Another beautiful San legend is that of the Milky Way, which originated when a young girl, furious at her mother, threw the fire she was cooking with up into the air and, in doing so, left blazing coals scattered across the abyss. In a world that seems more broken than ever, it is quite humbling to remember that at night we all look up to (relatively) the same view. In Hambukushu, the Milky Way is known as 'Ngio Dhao' or the 'road of the skies', while it's the 'Roman Road', 'Road of Slaves, 'Road of Warriors', and 'Road to Santiago' to the Slovenes, Romanians, Hungarians, and Spaniards respectively. In cooler climates, like Iceland and Norway, it's the 'winter way' and in Sweden, it's the 'snowy street'. Others draw their inspiration from the path of an animal: it's the 'way of the birds' everywhere from Finland to Latvia, 'the Deer's leap' in Georgia, 'the fish jumping in the shadows' in Hawaii, and 'the way of the white elephant in Thai. While in Asia, its origins lie with water. It's the 'Silver River' in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean; the 'River of Heaven' in Japanese, and the 'Ganges of the Upper Sky' across much of India.
What does the night sky mean to you? NHFU/William Steele.
For some, climate change is much scarier than Halloween and all of its combined spooky associations. It's very easy to feel overwhelmed when we think of what it will take to overcome it and to feel distant from the images we see of melting glaciers or victims of extraordinary environmental impacts that are alien to your own life. But let the milky way remind you of how connected we are as a planet and how it will take a global effort, at the level of every single individual, to overcome it. We don't need to dress up in animal skins or sacrifice our pets like the Druids, but every small step you take will make a huge impact, and make climate change seem just a little less scary.