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The Snake, the mound and the elephant.


This image depicts a snake poking its head out from inside a termite mound, one which had a tree growing out of it also. In the background is an elephant bull feeding on fallen seedpods from the same tree. Close your eyes and picture the scene playing out in the dry bush country of Zimbabwe and on the banks of the Zambezi River. Now take a second with me to ponder the miracle of this photograph and indeed the very miracle of still-life photography…




It all began hundreds of years ago when a termite queen started laying over 20 000 eggs per day. She started a colony of termites so vast that they numbered millions, all related - each a brother or sister to the next. These termites needed to eat so venturing out, only at night, to avoid being burnt by the sun (for they have no pigment in their skin), they collected dead grass. They collected more grass than is eaten by all the animals combined, working tirelessly for 365 days of the year, year in and year out. They then used this fermenting grass as a fertilizer on which to grow mushrooms. To house these mushrooms they built a vast mound with secret gardens deep within. They built their clay castle, one single grain of sand at a time, until it stood taller than a person.

This mound they kept at a constant temperature through the skillful use of air vents. The environment inside the mound was therefore perfect for growth; it stayed the same temperature throughout summer and winter, year in and year out. The termites tunneled their way all the way to the water table below where they fetched water to irrigate their mushrooms. This termite mound is in fact the oldest form of an organized community on our planet.

One fine day a seedpod was blown from a neighbouring tree by a hot fierce gust of wind, moving ahead of the approaching rainy season. One tiny seed fell down one of the termite mound’s cooling shafts. The stable micro-climate allowed this seed, much smaller than the nail of your pinkie finger, to germinate. Slowly it sent out a small root and then a stem. This stem shot upwards towards the distant light at the end of the tunnel and the seedling grew into a massive tree, 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide. This tree outlived the termites and a Green-spotted Bush-snake now lives in the disused mound, where it whiles away its time hunting geckos.

Pocking its head out of a hole in the mound at the exact time that we happened to be driving past on a safari drive, I jumped out, and not believing our great fortune, began photographing. While I was clicking away, seedpods were falling all around me; the same ancient winds that began the process of germination were again blowing on cue, in mid November. An elephant bull walked past and using his dexterous trunk, he picked up the fallen seedpods, which to him are like Christmas pudding. These pods were from the same tree growing out of the same mound. I waited for the bull to fit neatly into the background of my frame before tripping my camera’s shutter.

This photograph is just one tiny example of the miracle of life that unfolds in countless ways everyday in the African bush and the above description is a very brief summary of just some of the many factors that must have come into play for this moment to ever come into existence. There are simply too many miracles involved, linked in a series of unfathomable events, to describe adequately using only words. You see, this is where photography becomes a language all of its own, one where a single fraction of a second can reflect upon the mysterious tapestry that contains the very essence of life…

The end.


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