Finding My Soul with Charging Rhino’s & Elephant Shit

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Two white rhino’s at Il Ngwesi conservancy in northern Kenya.

Recently I stayed for two week at Il Ngwesi eco-lodge in northern Kenya, part of a conservancy that is owned and operated by the Maasai. As it’s slow season and quite rainy, I was the only one there most of the time. I experienced some of the most joyful, soulful, peaceful moments of my life. I wanted for nothing more and felt immense grief and sadness for a life chasing those feelings, often in ways that produced the exact opposite result.

Most beautifully, after a night sleeping under the stars, I awoke in the warm light of dawn to the sounds of countless animals everywhere. Across the river was a herd of dozens of elephants. I watched them for two hours, completely mesmerized. I observed their behaviors and imagined what they were feeling: mothers protected their babies with tenderness as they approached a water hole, young ones ran around with floppy trunks and trumpeted like unruly teenagers, and large bull males slowly patrolled the perimeter with stoic confidence. I journaled, jotted down notes, and sketched the scene with curiosity and calm excitement like when I was a kid filling all my notebooks with drawings of animals. Whether I was “right” in my analysis was not important to me. I wasn’t trying to get recognition as an elephant behavior expert. I wasn’t solving anything or fixing the world. I simply “let the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves” as poet Mary Oliver wrote. And it was perfect.

Over and over, day after day, I found peace in watching the elephants from a vehicle, my room, and even on foot (which requires extreme caution!). Every experience was different. Each interaction I saw between these animals was like a gift from the universe. While you watch this video, slow down, breathe, feel your heart beat, and know you are part of all this. It’s your birthright.

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Observing elephants in the wild has been an experience that, over and over, filled me with wonder.

I had similar soul-touching experiences on walking safaris through the bush with my Maasai guide, James Ole Kinyaga, who explained to me all the plants and animals we encountered. He taught me about the tracks and the scat, about how the dry ecosystem responds when it rains. Every day I learned something new from James, not just about nature but about being a man in an uncertain, dangerous world. I wanted nothing more than to be with him and learn. I’m so grateful for my weeks with him.

One day, within a dense brush, James carefully brought me to within 30 feet of two enormous rhinos. Though I’ve seen many rhinos from the safety of safari vehicles, this was the first time I approached them on foot. They were too big to comprehend. I was too small to survive. They could have killed me in an instant and moved on without remorse (or would they have mourned me?). James expertly maneuvered me out of the wind to avoid scaring them. They are nearly blind, but have a superhero’s sense of smell and hearing. They grunted and threatened a few mock charges, which instinctively and instantly gave me the ancient presence and focus that kept my distant ancestors alive. The Maasai are still in tune with the wild, I’m re-learning it. Right now, I want nothing more.

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Walking up close with rhinos is completely unlike seeing them from a safari vehicle.

During these experiences, I felt a contrast within me compared to my career sitting in nice offices. I’m very proud of all I’ve accomplished in my life developing new technologies and I had a great time doing it; however, at this moment, I sense a deep calling to spend more time in wild nature. To find more balance. To not spend the bulk of my life indoors. Everyone’s journey is different, so I’m not claiming any universal wisdom here… just what seems to work for me right now. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

As I reflect on the inner peace I feel observing wildlife, a part of me (likely created by our capitalist culture) is screaming, “Why are you so fucking special that you get to selfishly listen to your soul while everyone else is working so hard? Life isn’t a vacation, so stop deluding yourself. Don’t be lazy.” I’m trying to thank this part of me (my “loyal soldier” as Bill Plotkin calls it in Soulcraft) for helping me survive and thrive for the past 39 years; however, at this point in my life, the only voice that matters is my own. My happiest memories throughout my life (and especially as a child) are mostly of being alone in nature with animals. I should listen to that more, huh?

I long to observe wildlife and understand the great dance of the plants and animals that is unfolding in Kenya as it has for eons. Humanity was born here in the Great Rift Valley and evolved alongside these massive mammals. Maybe that’s why I’m hearing a voice in me that wants to study and smell elephant shit so that I may understand the world and who I am in it.

I’ll close with a quote from “A River Runs Through It”, my favorite book and film. Norman Maclean’s words about fly-fishing in Montana, about growing up wild and returning there to live out his final years, have left me crying countless times. I’m grateful to finally listen to my tears, the flowing river of my soul, asking me to wake up, using the only language they knew I would hear, understand, and not ignore.

“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

Moonshots for nature and innovative philanthropy. Senior Tech Fellow at Conservation Int’l. Formerly Google X & Maps, founding CEO of Oceankind. On my own path.

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