Saturday, February 13

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The origins of the art instinct

Dennis Dutton argues in The Art Instinct that our appreciation of art from the passionate intimacy of the tango on along through the words of Raymond Carver and back to Vettriano's The Singing Butler is a form of sexual selection. He founds this argument, at least in part, upon certain universal artistic preferences, among them a consistently elevated opinion of landscapes that resemble the savanna our ancestors once walked.

Having now spent some seven months in Kenya, only hours from Lake Turkana and Olduvai Gorge, I can believe that. No number of millennia, no thousands of miles of migrations, no hours of Lady Gaga can diminish a real love for this land. There is no word but 'majestic' to describe the Great Rift Valley. I drive past it twice a month on the way to and from Nairobi, and I always watch it pass. In rain and in haze and on the clearest days it does not cease to amaze. To see the ground fall beneath you to a plain hundreds of meters below and where it only ends with an indistint line of mountains on the horizon cannot help but make one wish for me time to enjoy it. The rich iron red of the soil and the close rolling hills and forest that border it on the east and the long lakes that follow it to the west lead you into it and let you down slowly.

And one of these days I will finally find a matatu or tour bus that stops at one of the many viewpoints and take the Rift Valley's picture to share.

In no small part this is due to the patchwork of subsistence farms, connected only by narrow dirt roads cut by feet and hooves, along the Valley's wall and base. Men are leading donkey-drawn carts along narrow dirt roads cut only by their feet and hooves. Women are bent over in their fields pulling weeds and harvesting leaves of kale. It's a pastoral setting French and Italian painters only wish they had access to.

In other words, the Rift Valley's beauty is maintained because it's poor. This is some of the most fertile land in Kenya. It may be on a near vertical slope, but were it in America, it would long have been transformed into acres of corn or wheat, an ocean only broken by the occasional thresher. Still Great, this American Valley would look altogether different, less pleasing. Perhaps only a single viewpoint would remain, and it would have to be anchored by a restaurant of some repute to draw in visitors.

Maybe not. Maybe the entire Valley would be designated a national park and protected from encroachment.

Unlikely. It's enormous. People need to live somewhere. Crops need to grow somewhere.

What if the Kenyan economy had a bit more money running through it? What if these subsistence farms gave way to small towns crossed with power lines and asphalt roads? Maybe passing the Rift Valley would only be worth a brief glance then rather than laying down your book for the entire length, but maybe that would be worth it to those who live there.

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