I wanted it to be my fault. When I found myself irritated by Rick Bass’s “The Black Rhinos of Namibia: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert,” I figured something was wrong with me. After all, one of my favorite books, “Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had,” was written by Bass, crafted with lyricism, heart, and insight. So Rick Bass, gifted memoirist and nature writer, on rhinos? I had been certain it would be a treat.
Except right off the bat it didn’t feel like a treat. Bass takes us to the vast desert of Namibia where he plans to pursue black rhinos with a charismatic conservationist and indigenous trackers. Should be fascinating. But page after page turns out to be less rhino adventure and more a slog through dense, convoluted ramblings about time, evolution, and nature’s complicated and interwoven tapestry. “There is nothing, and we look out at nothing,” he writes about viewing an African mesa, “and we feel a peace and a stillness that in no way should be correlative to the near past, the human history that resides just beneath the land to the north, the land we are looking out at, only a few short decades ago; or, for that matter, yesterday, or this morning, this afternoon, now.”
Stubbornly determined to like this book, I found myself pouncing on any energetic paragraph, noting optimistically in the margins that perhaps the work was just now getting its legs. But for too much of the book these moments fizzle and we are given only the idea of rhino: “What is a rhino, and just as there are different trophic levels within and upon a landscape — and just as such layers exist in our own lives as we proceed through them — are there possibly similar trophic levels of other lives, and other dreams?” Bass writes.
We finally see a real rhinoceros at about the book’s halfway point. Then we get a dose of the intimacy and danger we’ve craved. Not a big dose, maybe, but a dose.
Bass apparently went to Namibia for a very short time about seven years ago. I say apparently because he does not make any of this clear. We can date the story using an article from 2006 he wrote on the subject, and also a time reference in the epilogue. Surely many readers will have the impression the trip was recent.
All that said, thrilling are the sparks of the old Rick Bass. In a section on the ecology of places, Bass offers a clear and poetic explanation about how cedar forests are kept healthy by bears who deliver nitrogen to the soil by means of the salmon they eat (“each fish a dense torpedo of protein”). Perhaps rhinos provide a similar service to the desert.
Bass can be funny, as when his shorts, loaded down with collected rocks, nearly fall off as he tries to run.
And his vivid descriptions of incredible creatures are breathtaking. There are lions with “dagger-clawed paws” who breathe their “hot and anticipatory breath through a cage of teeth.” A rhino, he tell us, is “a three-thousand-pound nearly blind racehorse with three-foot-long dagger horns, capable of eating poisonous plants and going without water for days.” And then there is the moment when a mother rhino “ran without stopping, galloping toward the horizon, raising plumes of red dust as if each strike of her feet was kindling a fire.”
Those flashes of poetry only made me pine for a book full of them.