by Lowell Bliss
It was a convoluted epiphany which almost ruined a nice weekend moment of movie-watching. I had not seen Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, starring a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, since it was first released thirty-five years. My mind began to play decidedly modern games. I tried to imagine Karen Blixen—on whose memoirs, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, the movie is based—sitting at her small writing desk back in Denmark and googling: “What has been the change in wildlife population numbers since Denys and I were lovers in Kenya?” Then I wondered what research Pollack had done. Had he suddenly called out: “Hey Google: how much additional wildlife has Kenya lost since Dinesen’s book in 1937?” But that would have been 1984, the time of the film’s shooting, of which 70 percent took place on location in Kenya. I, however, was re-experiencing Pollack’s film and Blixen’s story in 2020. I paused the movie, and reached over for my laptop. Here was a movie about loss that evoked such longing and nostalgia and grief in us back in 1985 that we gave it an Oscar for Best Picture. Yes, Kenya is different than in Blixen’s time, but it is now also different than in Pollack’s time. I too was different. I typed in the search terms: “Change in wildlife population, Kenya, 1984 to 2020.”
This may appear to be another conservationist’s blog post about the global decline in wildlife populations, but it is not. This article will end—in a surprise to me the writer—with my late dad’s binoculars in my hands and tears in my eyes. It is an appeal to artists—to film makers and poets, to painters and dramatists, to musicians and novelists. Please, for every black rhino who dies on the pathway to species extinction—please take up his fallen body and make something mournfully beautiful of it. We failed the species; please, artists, don’t fail us. We need you to help us understand our losses, as Pollack, Streep, and Redford did in 1985. Will you give us a re-make of Out of Africa now in 2020 with whatever medium you choose: canvas, words, song, stage or screen?
Out of Africa is a tale of loss. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Meryl Streep plays Blixen, and these words are said early in the film, voiced over scenes which might be a beautiful sunrise, but might be a sunset—we don’t know yet. (Probably a sunrise.) Streep puts age in her voice, but it just adds to our anticipation. Blixen is a storyteller, we quickly learn, and we know that we are at the beginning of what has been billed as an “epic romance.”
At the end of the movie, Blixen’s narrator’s voice will repeat the phrase, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Now the age in her voice sounds like grief and loss. A slight emphasis seems to linger on the word “had”, as in, she once had a farm in Africa, but now no more. Blixen lost her coffee plantation to a fire, and thus to a lost crop, no insurance, and an overdue loan. She lost her family fortune. She lost her reason to stay in Africa. Most of all, she lost her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, played by Redford. Finch Hatton dies in a plane accident near Tsavo.
Out of Africa is a tale of loss, the irrevocable passing away of one person’s idyllic moment. The film tries its hardest not to be nostalgic about British colonialism, something that I fear often creeps into tales of the British Raj in India. The story has some natural protection against glorifying colonialism. Blixen herself is a woman, a fallen woman, and a Dane. In an opening scene, she is literally not “welcomed into the club.” Mostly though we have the sage and independent voice of Finch Hatton, who surely inherits the mantle from Last of the Mohicans: he is the one enlightened white man who walks as freely among the Maasai as Hawkeye did among the Indians of the American frontier. Finch Hatton sees and understands—or at least director Sydney Pollack in 1985 thinks Hatton does.
Long before Blixen returns to Denmark, Finch Hatten is the voice of loss. He misses his friend Berkeley who dies of black water fever. Kanuthia, his Maasai tracker, also dies. Mostly Finch Hatten misses the way Kenya used to be before the Great War and before the British officially colonized the country. He regrets the coming of the railroad and the tire ruts which are carved into the African plain. He pulls out maps to think through where to hunt on safari next. Wildlife populations are in decline and the hunting is no longer “good” in areas where once it was plentiful.
And that’s where we need to stop because, whereas honestly my epiphany this past weekend had nothing to do with Google search engines, it was concerned with cinematography (also an Oscar winner for the film, by the way) and set location and camera angles. You see, Pollack’s art had done a wonderful job of wrapping me up wholescale inside Blixen’s and Finch Hatten’s story. I was back in Kenya of the 1920s and I was genuinely feeling the same loss that they were feeling, of Kenya before the Great War, of the Rift Valley before the British officially declared it a colony. But then a momentary misfiring of a synapse in my brain made me realize—“Hey, wait a second!”—Pollack isn’t showing us archival footage of Cape buffalo herds in the 1920s. There is no CGI involved when they fly that bi-plane over the flock of gloriously flamingo pink color on Lake Nakuru. The storyline may be from the 1920s, but Pollack’s reality—my reality at the first viewing—was from the 1980s, from a time when I was alive, and young, and a man, a man who dreamed of being as free as Denys Finch Hatten and as attractive to women as Robert Redford. In 1985, I too had a dream of visiting Africa. But it was no longer 1985; it was 2020. I have in fact visited Kenya in the meantime, even gone on safari there, a word incidentally which simply means “travel” not “hunting.” All good art makes you reflect on who you are, and what your current reality is. Blixen’s and Pollack’s framework of grief and loss were still there for me, if I was willing to open my heart to it.
There are no statistics about the size of wildlife populations in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s. There are plenty of anecdotal accounts however of the bounty, not the least Isak Dineson’s itself. Pollack must have been cognizant of the smaller populations when he began filming in 1984. Pollack had to locate the herds and determine the camera angles which would best replicate the early 20th Century. He did have to import a couple lions from California, but that was primarily to ensure the safety of his actors during those scenes where tamed animals and trained wranglers were required. Mostly though, Pollack seemed to be able to find what he wanted, though not really. For instance, we first meet Finch Hatton as he approaches the train that is taking Blixen from Mombasa to Nairobi. The train has stopped on the middle of an immense plain. Finch Hatton is with Kanuthia and they sling two huge pieces of ivory off their shoulders onto the flatcar. In 1985, when I first saw the film, I don’t remember if I had a visceral reaction to this scene of ivory harvest, or whether Pollack even expected me to. (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, did not ban the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory until 1989.) But now in 2020, seeing the film again, I had that same uneasy feeling that I get when I watch Carey Grant light up a “fag”, or when Grant uses that term. Of course, even back in 1984, these two massive tusks were no doubt plastic Hollywood props. Watching the film back then, I probably nonetheless had the reaction, “Wow, if those tusks are that big, can you imagine the glorious creature that they came from?!” Watching the film in 2020 however, I felt cheated that Pollack never gave us footage of such elephants—surely Finch Hatten and Kanuthia hadn’t killed them all--but of course, Pollack couldn’t; as of 1984, that type of unbridled glory no longer existed.
My Google search could not find a study that began in 1984 and ends in 2020. The study I found looked at wildlife population decline in Kenya from 1977 and ends in 2016. (Close enough.) Dr. Joe Ogutu and his team of six report, “Our results show that wildlife numbers declined on average by 68% between 1977 and 2016.” Sixty-eight percent, more than 2/3rds lost, from Pollack’s time to ours. Ogutu et. al. reports: “The magnitude of decline varied among species but was most extreme (72–88%) and now severely threatens the population viability and persistence of warthog, lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, oryx, topi, hartebeest, impala, Grevy’s zebra and waterbuck in Kenya’s rangelands.”
In 2014, one month after my father Larry Bliss had died, I was in Kenya. My dad was born in the same year that Dinesen published Out of Africa. He loved spotting wildlife, whether in Michigan where he hunted whitetail deer with my Grandpa and my uncle, or in Colorado while on family vacation where we scouted the mountainside for big horn sheep, or out of the back window at the farm where he could maybe catch a glimpse of a bobcat or coyote walking through the meadow. He kept a pair of sturdy and stout black binoculars ready at hand. I inherited those binoculars when Dad died a death not too unlike Finch Hatten’s: out in the wild, betrayed by a machine—in this case, a tractor which he rode around the farm like a bi-plane. I brought Dad’s binoculars with me to Africa, on safari at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy at the foot of Mt. Kenya. It was late afternoon before we saw our one and only elephant, an old bull tucked away back in the bush. We saw one lioness. The rhino were all kept in paddocks where armed guards could protect them against poachers. Other tourists told us, “Oh, you should have gone to Amboseli or Maasai Mara National Parks instead,” but that’s like telling Finch Hatton that the hunting was still good down by Tsavo. Nonetheless, in terms of 21st century African wildlife spotting, my experience in Kenya was still better than my experience in Chad, which I visited in 2017. I saw nothing by way of big game. I did hear stories, like the kind Karen Blixen might have told. A village chief in Chad on the banks of the Chari River told us, “Yes, hippos used to climb up out of the river and eat our vegetables right before harvest. Now we don’t see any.” Or there was my conversation with Craig Sorley, who grew up in Kenya as a missionary kid, and who now directs Care of Creation Kenya in Kijabe. He told me, “Driving home from boarding school as a kid, we used to get stopped by herds of giraffe crossing the road. Now, I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a giraffe on that stretch.”
“He began our friendship with a gift,” Blixen the voice-over narrator says in the opening scene of Out of Africa, “and later, not long before Tsavo, he gave me another, an incredible gift.” In her dream, she is remembering her flight with Finch Hatten over Africa. She calls it, “a glimpse of the world through God’s eye, and I thought ‘Yes, I see. This is the way it was intended.” In the end, I can see that Finch Hatten with his bi-plane was as much an artist as Blixen with her pen or Pollack with his camera. So, I suppose, was Larry Bliss with his binoculars: “Here son, look at this.”