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Giraffe Reflections

Giraffe Reflections

by Dale Peterson

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The most comprehensive book on giraffes to appear in the last fifty years, this volume presents a magnificent portrait of a group of animals who, in spite of their legendary elegance and astonishing gentleness, may not entirely survive this century.

Dale Peterson’s text provides a natural and cultural history of the world’s tallest and second-biggest


The most comprehensive book on giraffes to appear in the last fifty years, this volume presents a magnificent portrait of a group of animals who, in spite of their legendary elegance and astonishing gentleness, may not entirely survive this century.

Dale Peterson’s text provides a natural and cultural history of the world’s tallest and second-biggest land animals, describing in detail their biology and behavior. He offers a new perspective on the giraffes’ place in our world, and argues for the stronger protection of these imposing yet endangered creatures and their elusive forest relatives, the okapis.

Some 120 stunning photographs by award-winning wildlife photographer Karl Ammann capture the grace and elegance of Giraffa camelopardalis. Both beautiful and informative, the images document giraffes’ complex interactions with each other and their environment.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Conservationists estimate that there are fewer than 75,000 giraffes remaining in the world, scattered about in small pockets of declining habitat across Africa. In this stunning collection of Ammann's photographs, Peterson (Jane Goodall) offers an engaging natural history of giraffes, as well as a look at their behavior and beauty. The Greek historian Agatharchides referred to the giraffe as the animal that "Greeks call camelopardalis… t has the varied coat of a leopard, the shape of a camel… ts neck is long enough for it to browse in the tops of trees." Drawing on scientific studies, Peterson notes the manifold advantages of being tall and long-necked, which increases the animals' ability to avoid predators, thermoregulate, forage for food, and find suitable mates. Giraffes exhibit traits that reveal the workings of their own mental worlds, including the behaviors of sparring, vigilance, fear, and flight. Ammann's exquisite photos portray the giraffes' majesty and just how impoverished our world would be if they "march into a night of nonexistence." 111 color illus., 2 b&w photos. (Sept.)
Science News

"Striking full-page photographs are highlights in this comprehensive text on the biology and behavior of giraffes."
Boston Globe - Jan Gardner

“'Giraffe Reflections' is a rare breed in that it excels both as a photography book and a work of natural history. Karl Ammann’s photographs are riveting, but so is Peterson’s text. Each enhances the other."
New Scientist - Bob Holmes

"Giraffe Reflections is a stunning compendium of animal photography and entertaining history. . . . The real point of the book is Ammann's gorgeous photos of giraffes, both atmospheric shots and more prosaic ones of the animals going about their business. With Peterson's entertaining text as a filigree, the combination is an emotionally satisfying presentation."
Scientific American - Lee Billings

"An elegant and comprehensive volume. In a series of lushly visual essays, the authors delve into the evolution of giraffes' strange anatomy and the intricacies of their behavior, as well as their possible futures alongside humans. Marvelously—and despite the book's encyclopedic presentation—giraffes become even more mysterious by the tome's end than they were at its beginning."
Giraffe Reflections

"Informative and strangely mesmerizing."
Examiner.com - Alan Petrucelli

"This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful books of the year."
Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
The African continent is home to many stunning animals, not least of which is the giraffe. This magnificent book—another collaboration by Peterson (English, Tufts Univ.) and wildlife photographer Ammann (coauthors, Elephant Reflections)—describes the role the giraffe has played in a variety of cultures, such as those of prehistoric Kalahari Bushmen (who carved them into sandstone), ancient Greeks and Romans (who called them "camel-leopards"), Ming Dynasty Chinese (who considered them magical unicorns), Islamic potentates (who called them "zarafas" and gifted them to European royalty), and Renaissance Italians of Florence (to whom they were a "quadrupedal astonishment"). Peterson also traces the history of the scientific study of giraffes, including recent field studies that have been crucial to our understanding of giraffe social systems and behaviors, e.g., the giraffe "necking" (sparring) behavior and the mother-baby bond. Throughout, the story of the giraffe is told as much with images as with text. Each chapter concludes with a series of Ammann's breathtaking photographs, which have been selected and sequenced to illustrate specific themes. VERDICT This is engrossing natural history about one of nature's most intriguing animals. Highly recommended for all who enjoy learning about African wildlife.—Cynthia Lee Knight, Hunterdon Cty. Lib., Flemington, NJ

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University of California Press
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9.90(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.60(d)

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Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95696-4



IT WAS STILL DARK when Karl and I left camp. On the way to where we thought the giraffes might be, we passed through a feeding group of Thomson's gazelles. Illuminated starkly by our headlights, they looked like precious tchotchkes: delicate little legs, prancing style, nervously tic-tocking tails.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we surprised three giraffes lying down in the grass and looking dazed, as if they had just woken up after a long and satisfying night's sleep. They were emerging from the darkness, bathed faintly in the light-speckling dawn, and all we saw at first was what appeared to be three swaying trees with heads on top. They became alert as we drove closer. They were in a small meadow, edged, protected perhaps, on two sides by a bit of dark and thickety bush, and I imagined the spot as a comfortable bedroom for giraffes.

Karl took some photographs, but instead of waiting patiently for the sun to rise and cast some interesting morning light on the sleeping beauties, he kept driving around, looking for a better angle, taking one or two quick shots with the engine off, then starting the car, moving to a new position. As he worked, he commented on his photography, the animals, the light. "Yeah, it's the nice type of light which says they're just getting up," he said. But the moment was quickly gone. Soon the light had turned slightly harder, and the three lying- down giraffes were laboriously standing up. Then, slowly, they sauntered away. The sun rose and turned into a seething red ball at the horizon, and so the day began.

This happened in southwestern Kenya, in the Masai Mara: a rare place where the modern catastrophe has not yet fully dawned, where, in the fading darkness, it is momentarily possible to believe you have reached the fragile beginning of time.

In the Mara, we saw giraffes singly, doubly. We saw them in groups of three or four or a dozen or more. One time we emerged from a hiding place in the thickets and discovered a group of eighteen. They were Masai giraffes, of course, patterned with brown and splotchy spots. One looked as if she had been made entirely of cream and then one day had been struck forcibly by a mad flock of brown-sugared birds.

One was lying down, the rest standing, all with their ears flickering and their tufted tails desultorily flicking back and forth. They stared. We stared. They stared and chewed their cuds. We stared and took pictures. They stared and then looked at each other. We stared, took pictures, and then Karl started up the car to move closer and get a better position. Several minutes later, I saw a subtle emergence of giraffe consensus. One turned, another turned, a third turned. Soon a half dozen had turned, and then they were all ambling undulously along, stately and elegant. Karl (working on his lenses, muttering to himself): "Try to do a very wide angle once, take them all in."

* * *

Later, in northern Kenya's Samburu National Reserve, we came upon a group of six reticulated giraffes (whose markings look like brown plates caught in nets of pale hemp) browsing in a nice pocket of trees and bushes. Four of them looked young, one of them very young. They were spread out at first and chewing at the trees and bushes, but eventually they moved out of the pocket and began slowly, patiently ambling in the same uphill direction. They seemed so finely built, so delicate, and they gradually arranged themselves, as they walked, into single file, the four youngsters in the middle, the big adult male at the rear, the adult female at the head.

Then, for no good reason, they stopped and gathered to think about things, or so it seemed. They stood still. They looked in several directions. We saw, then, two more giraffes at some distance behind and moving uphill in their direction. The stragglers looked like adolescents or, possibly, full adults. But everything happened very slowly, and Karl and I remained in the car and then settled into another experience of time, where we were immersed in the sweet smell of dry grass and cooled by a dry wind blowing through the windows, heated by a slanting late afternoon sun, fitfully distracted by the buzzing of a fly. I thought: blond savanna, brown bushes: fitting colors for a giraffe. Meanwhile, the tall female outside our vehicle stared at us for a very long time, then began eating a small cache of green leaves edging a brown, thorny bush, while the two stragglers behind her slowly, slowly began to catch up. Now there were eight in the group, pausing, looking, pausing, browsing, pausing.

A big male had a half dozen red-billed oxpeckers lined up on his back, picking away at a feast of ticks. Karl: "That's quite a lineup. Must be something tasty."

We followed them all slowly, the car grinding away in its lowest gear and struggling heroically over a rough surface of bumps and holes, following the giraffes as they slowly continued uphill, pausing opportunistically at each greenish-brown thornbush. They took bites, too, from the occasional high acacia tree, each filled with a hundred weaverbird nests that dangled like Chinese lanterns. I gazed away momentarily, looking out across a spectacular vista of sun-yellowed plains dropping down to a green-lined river. Then I returned to the giraffes and was suddenly amazed at how narrow their necks are, ribbony even, yet very flexible and immensely strong.

* * *

In the Namibian desert, at a place called Twyfelfontein, we found giraffes in their most ancient and ethereal form: wispy, rising representations carved into rock by Bushman artists who lived a few or several thousand years ago.

Twyfelfontein. A recent name, Afrikaans in origin, it describes the wistful hope a white farmer formed for this spare spot in the sparse desert. The name translates into English as Doubtful Spring.

The Bushmen camped in a small plateau or terrace just above the doubtful spring, and their camp was a gathering place, a passing refuge in the hard life of hunting and gathering. They were protected by a high cliff and mountain behind them, while before them lay the flat and splendid valley consisting mainly of rust-red stone and sand, which is spotted, after the rains, by the green of small thorn trees and scrub. The valley is surrounded by flattened, red-rocked mountains. The red rocks are Etjo sandstone, consisting of alluvial conglomerates and eolian sandstone—stone, that is, formed from sand that has been sifted by the wind and is thus fine grained and capable of breaking into smooth, even blocks.

The spring and the remnants of that camp are surrounded by a chaos of great broken sandstone boulders, arranged like a mythical giant's fallen house of cards, with the smooth surfaces covered by art. As many as 2,500 separate etchings on some 200 sandstone tablets depict a swirling congregation of antelopes, elephants, leopards, lions, ostriches, rhinos, warthogs, zebras—and giraffes—as well as some humans, the occasional animal and human hand or foot print, and a number of purely abstract forms and designs. The representations are convincing and accurate and yet boldly stylized. There are rhinos, for example, with impossibly long upturned horns, tapered and fragile. There is a lion with a preternaturally long tail that curls back and then up and finally terminates in a leonine paw print. A giraffe stands on finely tapered footless legs that look like wisps of smoke rising from a fire. Another giraffe, elsewhere in the stone, stands proudly with a five-pointed head, five projections (two ears and two horns on top, a smaller horn pointing back) that strangely evoke the five digits of an outstretched human hand.

Before writing came art, and so it is art that draws us back to the beginning of memory. Africa is covered with such memory, which has been painted on or carved and chipped into rock. The art embraces the artists themselves and their people, and it embraces the animals people lived with, the animals they saw and dreamed about and hunted when hunger so required.

The art can be found far to the north, from the western edges of the Nile River all the way west across the Sahara, from there down to the eastern middle of Africa, and down again to the south. The northern art reminds us that the Sahara Desert was once, before a shift in climate that happened four to six thousand years ago, wetter and richer and far more hospitable to large mammals and large-mammal hunters than it is today. Giraffes are depicted there, often, in the context of hunting and trapping. But the southern carvings and paintings, all done by Bushman artists and revealed in thousands of different sites across Africa's great southern foot, evoke, I think, a more ancient life that took place under the sun and stars within a coherent and whispering cosmos.

The Bushmen were despised by the first white settlers in Africa, who saw them as wild men with clouded minds and filthy ways, a people inherently incapable of grasping the higher logic of Christian and colonial authority, with (in the words of one early missionary) "a soul debased, it is true, and completely bound down and clogged by his animal nature." They were "savages," to repeat the calumny used by Sir John Barrow in his memoir of explorations in southern Africa done more than two hundred years ago. Barrow, though, was expressing a common prejudice, and he probably did so ironically, while describing his early discovery of the glorious art surrounding a Bushman camp, art so forceful and spirited, so accurate and yet expressive, that, he wrote with a critic's understated certitude, "worse drawings ... have passed through the [European] engraver's hands."

Barrow recognized the skill and intelligence involved in such art, and he responded to it in aesthetic terms. This art is not the fading remnant of a feeble attempt at decoration or of casual vandalism, the graffiti of bored teenagers. It is the studied production of an active mind. Barrow saw beauty, and he recognized training and skill. That is an appropriate response, yet it is inappropriate to imagine that the Bushman artists intended these works to be, in the European way, aesthetic productions that might be bought or sold or traded, thereby distinguishing the artist as an individual. Nor is there any clear suggestion in this art of the simplistic tit-for-tat of sympathetic magic: the effort to capture or freeze game animals symbolically with the fervent belief that an artist's triumph can become the hunter's.

The fires were scarcely extinguished, and the grass on which they slept was not yet withered. On the smooth sides of the cavern were drawings of several animals that had been made from time to time by these savages. Many of them were caricatures; but others were too well executed not to arrest attention. The different antelopes that were there delineated had each their character so well discriminated, that the originals, from whence the representations had been taken, could, without any difficulty, be ascertained. Among the numerous animals that were drawn, was the figure of a zebra remarkably well done; all the marks and characters of this animal were accurately represented, and the proportions were seemingly correct. The force and spirit of drawings, given to them by bold touches judiciously applied, and by the effect of light and shadow, could not be expected from savages; but for accuracy of outline and correctness of the different parts, worse drawings than that of the zebra have passed through the engraver's hands. –SIR JOHN BARROW, 1806

Yes, individual artists must have been particularly skilled, and surely this art would have generated aesthetic pleasure as well as a sense of wonder or magic. But its primary purpose may have been collective rather than individual, and it must have worked in the same way that stained-glass windows did for illiterate medieval Christians: as a cultural expression, a shimmering communal statement in which the ways and logic of a people within their cosmos were confidently remembered, rehearsed, and realized.

Our guide at Twyfelfontein, a slender and composed young Damara woman who introduced herself as Thekla Tsaraes, explained that the carved rock art was done by Bushman shamans who had gone into a trance. During the trance, she said, they used their art, those ethereal representations of animals, as a route of entry into the spirit world. The giraffes, for instance, were usually shown without their hooves, with their legs drawn away into long, thin lines expressing the shaman's experience of rising in the air when he enters a trance. Sometimes a giraffe etching would be twisted, in the way a shaman feels his own body changing, transforming as he enters the spirit world.

When she spoke of the Bushmen, Tsaraes said "Boesman," and her English was sometimes hard to follow. "So the Boesman people," she said, "have used their footprints to enter the solid rock without being seen." When I pressed her about the giraffe images, she declared, "Sometimes even the giraffe is regarded as a holy animal. They believe it's close to the clouds and is bringing down the rain." And when I asked her how we could know such things about people who lived so long ago, she responded that anthropologists had studied their culture.

It is true. We know a good deal about the cultures of surviving Bushman groups from the work of twentieth-century anthropologists. None of those survivors made the art, however, and the primary source of knowledge about the art-making Bushmen comes from the nineteenth-century labors of Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist living in South Africa. Bleek was interested in studying the several languages of Africa's First People, and when, in 1870, he learned that some /Xam Bushmen were imprisoned in Cape Town for various petty crimes, he convinced the colonial governor to release a number of them to his care. One of them, a man named //Kabbo who was, in Bleek's assessment, "a gentle old soul, lost in a dream-life of his own," proved to be his most prolific informant, although the other /Xam also contributed. They lived in Bleek's house, taught him their language, and in the process described their lives and vanishing culture.

The /Xam lived in extended family groups of perhaps a half dozen to two dozen people, who would temporarily settle near a spring or water hole. They built their small huts far enough from the water to avoid frightening the animals, who also congregated around water, and they relied on a second spring or water hole for the change of seasons and the inevitable drying-up of the first. Getting to the second might require two or a few days' trek across arid lands, with the migrating group carrying water inside ostrich eggshells.

They were hunters and gatherers, with the women gathering vegetable foods and the men hunting for meat using small bows and light, poison-tipped arrows. The /Xam poisons were lethal but very slow acting, which meant that the hunter had to track his wounded quarry for hours or even days. Tracking, then, was an essential skill for these hunters and is expressed in the animal-track motif of so much of their art.

But the /Xam worked to control their fickle and often hostile environment through shamanism, which is even more of an essential theme for the art. All- night dances brought some of the men, carrying sticks and wearing rattles made of dried seed pods or pebble-filled springbok ears, into a trance state. The dancers, trembling, sweating, bleeding from their noses, became charged with a potent energy that seemed to boil out from within. Through succumbing to this energy they experienced their own death, leaving their physical bodies in order to manipulate the occult forces of the world beyond. They became shamans, in other words, and they used their newly acquired powers to work on three interconnected problems having to do with health, game, and rain. Shamans who acquired the power of healing might pull the illness out of a stricken person and into themselves, then sneeze it out along with a bloody discharge, which was then wiped onto the ill person with the theory that its smell protected against evil. Game shamans—the rock art sometimes shows them wearing caps made from the scalp of an antelope, the ears sewn to stand upright—worked to control the movements of antelope herds and confuse the trickster deity, /Kaggen, who liked to protect the special animals. And finally, the rain shamans tried to outsmart and catch certain mythical rain animals, whose blood or milk, when spilled, would be transformed into water that fell as rain.

That, in any event, is what I learned at Twyfelfontein and later from considering a handful of books on the subject. I also spoke about such things with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of the anthropological classic The Harmless People (1958) and, more recently, The Old Way: A Story of the First People (2006), both of which draw on her experiences as a girl visiting and living among four language groups of the still surviving Kalahari Desert Bushmen. She knew nothing about the rock art, Thomas told me, since the Kalahari Bushmen did not do that kind of art. Their art was in their music—and, for the men, in their hunting and the mythlike stories they told about hunting. Also, she added, none of the Bushman groups she knew had shamans, at least not in the sense of someone being an elite, professionalized healer.

Excerpted from GIRAFFE REFLECTIONS by DALE PETERSON. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dale Peterson is a Lecturer in the English Department of Tufts University and the author of numerous books, including Jane Goodall, Demonic Males, Visions of Caliban, and Chimpanzee Travels. Karl Ammann has photographed wildlife throughout Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outdoor Photography, Natural History, African Geographic, and elsewhere. Peterson and Ammann have also collaborated to produce Elephant Reflections and Eating Apes, both published by UC Press.

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