The Nama Group

[Outrageous] hypotheses arouse interest, invite attack, and thus serve useful fermentative purposes in the advancement of geology.

In spring 1993 I received an invitation from Professor Adolf Seilacher (figure 4.1) to join his field party for an expedition to Namibia. Seilacher2 had just been awarded the prestigious Crafoord Prize by the Swedish National Academy of Sciences and was wasting no time in putting the prize money to good use. I was honored by his invitation and hastened, on April 18, to accept: "I would be very pleased to join you on your trip to Namibia this summer, and I will be happy to serve as raconteur."

Seilacher is generally regarded as the best paleontologist of his generation, a gifted teacher, an extroverted lecturer, and an observer of nature with an awesome ability to make key observations. His Vendobiont theory, in which he proposed a radical reinterpretation of early fossils called Ediacarans, is not the first, nor perhaps even the most important instance in which Professor Seilacher has changed our view of life. In his 1972 paper "Divaricate Patterns in Pelecypod Shells," following a line of pale-ontological thought begun by George Gaylord Simpson, he claimed that divaricate color patterns and other conspicuous traits of organisms are in many cases nonfunctional (read nonadaptive). First greeted with skepticism, this paper now holds a very special position in paleontology. In his own words, "The basic form [of divaricate patterns] is assumed to be less controlled by adaptation and phylogeny than by a common principle of shell growth."3

Seilacher's recognition of fabricational, nonadaptive characteristics has dramatically enhanced the sophistication with which we can understand evolution. It leads to the most crucial and difficult counterintuitive lesson of evolutionary theory: the idea that self-organizing mor-phogenetic mechanisms are the processors of evolution. In other words, highly complex forms of life can appear for, at least from the point of view of an adaptationist, no reason at all. (An adaptationist is one who views all morphological traits of organisms as having an adaptive, or "survival," value.)

Figure 4.1: Dolf Seilacher in the field in Namibia.

Seilacher focuses on the process of morphological incarnation. This focus pervades Seilacher's professional work. As described in this chapter, a huge slab we had excavated was successfully reproduced as a silicon peel. I watched Seilacher walk away from the prize specimen, leaving it in the field. Satisfied that the artificial cast will provide the information necessary for interpretation of the process of growth and life of these forms, Seilacher was content to leave the choice specimens in Namibia.

This focus on process extends to the illustrations in Seilacher's publications. He insists on producing his own illustrations because drawing enforces careful observation. Each hand-drawn illustration in a Seilacher paper contains multiple images. In my opinion his illustrated articles are like fractals: The illustrations are like manuscripts in themselves and can be read as such.

I greatly looked forward to joining Seilacher in Namibia. In a heady mood, I began my first entries for the trip:

July 25, 1993: Gate 4, Springfield, Massachusetts Bus Station.4 Corporate headquarters since 1933.

Seilacher first entered the United States in 1954 via El Salvador and Mexicali. He met the border guard on foot. Later he earned a $100-per-month stipend at Stanford University. He remembers Professor A. Myra Keen trying to teach stu dents how to properly pack specimens. Boxes were dropped to demonstrate the efficacy of various packing strategies. Failed attempts were not graded on a curve.

I'm still standing in the Peter Pan bus station on a sultry New England Sunday afternoon. Ambulances and towing company vehicles are preparing for a parade. Passenger cars as well, with the Puerto Rico flag flying above both front fenders.

A Spanish-speaking lady is ahead of me in the ticket queue, with her son and her henna-colored hair. My ticket to Logan airport costs $21.00, with a bus change in Boston, so the driver tells me. We stand in line waiting to board the bus, and a white woman ahead blows a cloud of smoke my way and then crushes out her cigarette on the concrete. The bus fills two-thirds full with Hispanics, blacks, whites. Two black men board with white baseball caps and purple visors. One has a Walkman deployed while he impatiently chews gum. The other man is traveling with his son, who has a fashionable bowl cut. The father wears white "home boy" long shorts and shirt, and is playing a Nintendo "game boy."

Peter Pan Bus Lines names its buses: "Peter's Kiss," "Captain James Hook." I cannot read our bus's name while seated; on a whim I ask the driver for the name and with annoyance he replies "I have no idea." He pulls us out of Gate 4 and Nintendo spills his soft drink. A long tongue of soda runs down the aisle. Ignoring the heat, a driver in a gorilla suit passes in a jeep, flying Puerto Rico colors.

A water tower dominates the landscape where Interstate 91 turns off onto the Massachusetts turnpike. 2:30 p.m. we stop in Worcester. The Irish influence is evident in the names of roads: Brosnihan, Kelly, Kelley. Still curious about the bus's name, I step out to have a look. "Tick! Tick! Tick!"

The Coney Island Hot Dog restaurant, with giant yellow mustard dripping from its hot dog marquee, abuts our parking lot. Parking in this lot is not free; motorists must deposit money in a yellow "Pay Here" box; the box is a microcosm of the parking lot, and the money is deposited in the numbered slots:

Deposit money in same number slot as your parking space. Fully insert dollar bills one at a time, folded three times, then insert coins.

A gardener has parked here. He has a blue bandanna over his hair and a Z71 long-cab pickup truck. His two daughters are with him, one has gloves, and both are here to help. Dad pulls a lawnmower out of the back of the pickup.

We resume our journey through Worcester. Kelley Square Liquors. Wein-traub's Delicatessen. Cloverleaf and Star of David. Diamond Inn. St. Stephen's Catholic Church. Grafton Street. Pilgrim Street Not a thru street. Puritan Street Not a thru street. Grafton Street has elements of the Americana highway strip, but is more classy, like Cape Cod. Sign (also encountered on the Cape): "Thickly Settled." Route 122, south. Purple loose-strife grows wild near the Turnpike entrance. It likes the wet, low areas along the Pike. Reduced Salt Area. One if By Land Bus Tours. Framingham.

3:33: Boston, South Station. Everything Yogurt. James Cook and Company Live Lobsters. Callahan Tunnel. Logan Airport. Long Wharf Marriott.

Boston, with evenly spaced trees and buildings, is lovely on this July day as seen across the harbor from Boarding Gate 6. Seagulls cross the water with strobelike wing beats. The Lufthansa symbol is a crested bird in flight, but the bird is very slender, as if an eagle of the Third Reich had been plucked. Airline clientele seems mostly white. A German woman carries a travel bag entitled, across its side in large letters, "The Ultimate Solution." We will be flying a DC10-30 Bremerhaven. An Aer Lingus E1-ASJ stands near our Lufthansa jet. Lufthansa jets have an interesting comma-shaped pattern in blue paint on the jet cones reminiscent of the spirals Nazis painted [in red] on the nosecones of the Messerschmitt ME-109.

5:05: We're still waiting to board. The German tourist sitting in front of me with blue baseball cap with a "G" and a blue tee shirt with "Faith No More" printed on it in numerous languages. But the other languages are transliterations, not translations.

A curt head nod seems to be de rigueur when German adults meet. On board, Flight Steward H.-D. Goetz reminds me of Adolf Seilacher, the man responsible for my flight to Germany.

Seilacher has invited me to join him on a paleontological expedition to the former German colony of South West Africa, now the newly minted country Namibia. With his team of German scientists and technicians, we will search for half-billion-year-old fossils belonging to what paleontologists call the Ediacaran biota. German scientists discovered the first Ediacaran fossils in South West Africa in 1908. Most paleontologists believe that the members of the Ediacaran biota represent fossils of the earliest animals. Seilacher is notorious for his disagreement with this conventional view.

July 26, 1993: Airport Frankfurt Sheraton, Frankfurt, Germany.

I am seated in the lobby of the Frankfurt Sheraton, outside the Hiller shop. Artwork on the wall looks like a cross between a nebula and a poached egg. The Frankfurt Airport Center is encased with attractive slabs of Rapakivi Granite. Rapakivi granite is a type of igneous rock that when slabbed and polished appears peppery from a distance. It is a popular material for uberclass coffee tables. I imagine that much of a batholith5 must have been exhumed in order to provide enough Rapakivi to enclose such a large building.

Back in the airport, an impromptu air museum adorns the B departures area. A red Fokker D7, a Fokker with speckled camouflage, a replica of Lindbergh's Spirit of Saint Louis (engine by Ryan), a red Morane MA 317 (1933). A copy of Richthofen's red 1917 Fokker Dr. 1 triplane prominently displayed. Three wings makes a plane slow but very maneuverable.

As in the time of Hitler, Germany is still a nation of fliers. The display continues into a pictorial history of the Frankfurt airport, 1909 to the present. The 1911 panel shows a hot air balloon; by 1912 a giant propeller marked the airfield. Early in the display is an astonishing photograph of a First World War dogfight; 10 or more biplanes gyrate in an aerial brownian motion of battle. A German Albatross with the Iron Cross dives improbably.

The history of the Zeppelin comes next. Zeppelin mementos (medals, toys, guidebooks, china) visible in plexiglass cases. The 1932 panel shows a Dornier "Jumbo" float plane with six pairs of propeller engines, with the propellers facing opposite directions in each pair. The huge plane is surrounded by kayakers.

Landung der Dornier DO Xauf dem Main 1932 "Jumbo. "

The display then moves to several panels of the Nazi era, 1936-1945. Light vandal scratches across the swastika on a flag in one of the photos. The 1936 panel shows a plane that may have been an early version of the Stuka, but perhaps out of a sense of national shame, none of the Nazi era panels show the famous planes of the Luftwaffe, not even the famous Messerschmitt ME-109 or the early Luftwaffe jets. (The Messerschmitt ME-109 does, however, appear in a nearby airport toy shop. The Spanish Air Force used the plane for years after World War II.) The 1945 panel shows the eagle of the Third Reich being removed from its pedestal.

The rest of the panels emphasize postwar peaceful flight, and the 1952 panel emphasized cosmopolitan Germany. Bilingual signs: "Uskunft-Information." A Volkswagen beetle with a sign on its rear, in English "Follow Me." The crew peering through the glass of a Pan American "Clipper Climax."

I had a long conversation with a young woman from near Hannover on the transatlantic flight. She spent the year in Boston, and did not want to leave the States to return to Germany. Her father drives buses on the Autobahn. She was in Tunisia when the Berlin Wall fell, and she believes that the two Germanys should have remained separate countries.

I walked past a symbol for Church services; it resembles the cross insignia on the Fokker D-7. I stepped outside, and walked along on a ramp footpath going nowhere in particular. The air was cool and inviting. The dense trees across the Autobahn are very unlike those in New England; rather than tapering tannenbaum style they have the vegetation concentrated [and flattening out] near the top, giving them an African, Serengeti look.

Returning to the airport, I stepped into Namibia. I was pleased to find a second airport gallery with a special July-August botanical exhibit [of plants from Namibia] on loan from the Frankfurt Botanical Garden (Stadt Frankfurt am Main Palmengarten).

As you can see from the notes above I was trying hard to hone my observational skills in preparation for Africa, hoping to improve my abilities as field rapporteur.

Before proceeding I want to make a comment about what I have written here. You will find examples of racial tension in what follows. I have tried to be sensitive and respectful to all while faithfully reporting what I saw and heard. My own feeling on the matter is that although we are all members of the same species, Homo sapiens, there are indeed profound racial differences. No one fully understands the historical or sci entific meaning of these racial differences, and that is why no one knows what to do about them today. All we know (and even this can be questioned) is that it all started in Africa. The great Namibian geologist Henno Martin considered the matter of racial differences and concluded that anyone who understands Mendelian genetics should realize that human racial differences are unimportant.6

The airport exhibit had what appeared to be a comprehensive display of Namibian succulents. There was the living stone plant Lithops gra-cilidelineata (family Aizoaceae) from the Namib desert. Lithops, limited to two swollen leaves, resembles a persistent seedling (color plate 4), although old leaves do dry up and new ones develop inside and emerge in late spring. The Thompson & Morgan seed company calls Lithops "a perfect example of nature's adaptability. Neat little plants that look for all the world like stones. They are Succulents, easy to grow and create a great deal of interest."7

Also present in the exhibit is the finger-shaped Fenestraria aurantiaca (also family Aizoaceae) from Kap, Kleines (Lesser) Namaland, Namibia. The spiky-leafed Aloe erinacea,, the spotted-leaf Aloe hereoensis v. h. of Da-maraland, and the astonishing-looking aloe tree Aloe dichotoma (kokerbaum) and Aloe ramosissma. All the aloes are family Liliceae, from Großes (Greater) Namaland, which must be the center of aloe diversification.

The cactus Euphorbia virosa (family Euphorbiaceae) occurs in Namibia (Lesser Namaland). Pachypodium namaquanum of family Apocynaceae (Kap, Greater Namaland) has an awkwardly swollen trunk. The Cypho-stemma species (family Vitaceae), including C. seitziana (Grandilla Mountains), C. juttae v. juttae (Greater Namaland; larger and treelike), and C. currari (Kap, Elephant's Bay), all have thick trunks and lobate leaves.

Finally, I saw a live specimen of the odd plant that is emblematic of the botanical curiosities of Namibia: Welwitschia mirabilis (family Welwitschiaceae). Welwitschia is one of the few surviving members of a group of plants known as the Gnetales, a botanical order with only 71 species that includes Ephedra (Mormon tea) and Welwitschia mirabilis.

Welwitschia looks like a low, wilted head of romaine lettuce grafted to a giant parsnip, and is indeed a curious-looking plant. Its thick, inverted conical stem can reach up to a meter and a half in diameter. The plant is broader than it is tall. Like Lithops, the mature plants have only two leaves, leading some botanists to describe the plant as a persistent seedling, although it does have a complete reproductive cycle. Even here there is a unique feature, however. Unlike any other plant, during fertilization a tube grows upward from the egg to unite with the pollen tube.

The last plant I encountered in the exhibit was Lithops erniana. This living rock is named for the Erni family, members of whom I was to visit in Namibia. I was struck in this exhibit by the large number of unusual plants, although many of them were familiar because they are grown as ornamentals in southern California, where I attended school. The Nama is a very ancient desert; perhaps this is why it has accumulated such a variety of unusual-looking plants.8

Leaving the grow lights of the desert plant display, I wandered over to the other side of the air exhibit gallery. The Messerschmitt one-man jet ME-163 "Komet" is the only World War II—era plane. This seemed odd, even considering the space limitations in the airport lobby, because the war produced an astonishing diversity of German aircraft, including formidable jet fighters that were design precursors to some of the modern U.S. military aircraft. The ME-163 was not one of these, however. It was a tiny delta-winged plane used to protect synthetic fuel plants against Allied bombers, and could stay aloft only for about 7.5 minutes. Its insignia is a flea headed skyward with a rocket jet coming out of its tail:

Wie ein Aber Floh Oho! [Small like a flea, but deadly!]

The shape of the ME-163 is echoed in a suspended bitail AV36 tiny red and white glider. Seilacher has recounted how, growing up in Nazi Germany, he and other young men were encouraged to fly gliders. No enclosed cockpit, just an open air wooden seat and a rudder control stick. A nation of flyers.

Further wandering brought me to a display on the new nation of Namibia. Formerly it was the international territory of Namibia, which was once the German colonial territory of German South West Africa. It is situated on the Atlantic coast of southwestern Africa, bounded on the south by South Africa, on the east by Botswana, and on the north by Angola. Its area is 824,290 km, but it has a population of only 1.4 million, and many of these people live in the capital city Windhoek.9 Diamonds are the most important export, but copper, lead, zinc, and cattle are also exported.

Like most African nations, Namibia has had a troubled history in the twentieth century. However, Namibia's story has a happy ending for now. South Africa took control of South West Africa as per a League of Nations mandate on December 17, 1920. On dissolution of the League of Nations in 1946, the United Nations inherited its supervisory authority for South West Africa and in the same year refused South Africa's request to annex South West Africa. South Africa retaliated by refusing to release the territory to a United Nations trusteeship.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1950 that South Africa could not unilaterally annex or modify the international status of the Namibian territory. A UN resolution in 1966 declared the 1920 mandate void and terminated. South Africa rejected this declaration, and the status of the region remained in limbo.

The UN General Assembly voted to rename the territory Namibia in 1968. The International Court of Justice was heard from again in 1971, this time ruling that South Africa's presence in Namibia was illegal. An interim government was established in 1977, and independence was to be declared on December 31, 1978, but the resolution was rejected by the major UN powers. Elections supervised by the United Nations in April 1978, under a South Africa-approved plan, led to a political abstention by the militant South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). A Multi-Party Conference (MPC) held successful talks with SWAPO, petitioned South Africa for self-government, and on June 17, 1985, installed the Transitional Government of National Unity. Negotiations held in 1988 led to withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and South African troops from Namibia.

The Transitional Government resigned in February 1988, and Namibia finally achieved its independence on March 21, 1990. Namibians are thankful for this quiet triumph of diplomacy: Billboards in Windhoek proclaim, "Thank You United Nations!" However, South Africa still controls the territory surrounding the major port, Walvis Bay, and the lucrative diamond trade is largely in foreign hands. The Caprivi Strip panhandle, a thin belt of Namibian territory, extends due east from the northeast corner of the main area of the country, as a buffer zone between Angola and Botswana. The first Namibian coins appeared in 1993.

The first president of Namibia is Sam Najoma, a black man of pleasant visage with a broad smile. Namibia bills itself as the smile of Africa. The national anthem is "Namibia Land of the Brave" (music text, Axali Doeseb; arrangement, Konrad Schwieger). The national coat of arms is a green shield with a red stripe and yellow sun, surmounted by a diamond headband and an African fish eagle, and with an oryx on either side. Underneath the shield is a sprawling Welwitschia plant, which the display notes is a "fighter for survival and is therefore a symbol of our nation's fortitude and tenacity." Below Welwitschia is the motto "Unity, Liberty, Justice," the latter perhaps a nod to the International Court of Justice.

Back to notebook:

Colonial troops look like jackbooted German cowboys.

Tribal art. Some of the most interesting woodcarvings of animals emerging from a dark manzanitalike wood. Weathered wood surface blends with burnished necks of swanlike bird and antelope gracefully stoops to drink. Following natural wood contours leads to grotesque shapes.

Flight LH 568 to Windhoek, then Johannesburg. Mostly whites on flight. Black family with crying baby sent back to check through stroller; two big glances were exchanged that could cut through tungsten. After 15 hours waiting for flight, I'm ready. Germans love to smoke. More tobacco stores than fast food. Even the USO (50 years 1942-1992) is sponsored by Marlboro. Talk between airman and army man over what the Germans will inherit (new medical facilities) as the Cold War bases close. Where did they get that fried chicken?

Keine Umstellung! No jet lag.

Several possible themes emerged as I waited for Seilacher to pick me up at the Windhoek airport. Plants exposed to rigors of the desert develop into weird succulents. Luftwaffe aircraft develop under the rigors of war into jets, rockets, and eventually NASA. Ediacaran organisms under the rigors of predation give way to shelly trilobites. Nama natives develop under the rigors of colonialism into the Republic of Namibia. The Bushman race, called The Harmless People10 and pressed into slavery by the Ovambo tribe, have had a sorry recent history. Could they have a statesmanlike future in the new Namibia?

Shortly after my Air Namibia (a converted Lufthansa jet) flight landed, Seilacher and company picked me up at the Windhoek (Eros) airport in a Volkswagen minivan. The driver sat on the right, a legacy of British takeover. I had a lunch of gemsbok (oryx) at a restaurant on a Windhoek terrace called the Gathemann. We spent the night in the lovely Motel Safari in Windhoek. As night fell, I saw the Southern Cross for the first time.

Over a beer in the Motel Safari, Seilacher explained his rationale for bringing us all together in Namibia.

Seilacher confided to me that he hoped we would have informative discussions with Bruce Runnegar and Jim Gehling over beer in Aus in the evenings, and would not be too tired to engage in fruitful discussion. He also expressed hope that Bruce and Jim would not be converted to his way of thinking because it would destroy the whole discussion. Seilacher's main aim in this exercise was to find out how far a reductionistic (as opposed to a holistic) way of thinking could go in terms of interpreting Ediacaran fos sils using organisms and sediment types known today. In other words, Seilacher planned to stand firm with his unorthodox arguments and he wanted to see how far his adversaries could get with their traditional actualistic arguments in which the present is viewed as the key to the past. As Seilacher put it, in his counter-actualistic vein, "Of course physical laws were the same but habitats were not the same because . . . the biology was different."

Leaving the next morning at 8:39, we stopped in at the Namibian Geologic Survey on the corner of Robert Mugabe and Lazarette Streets. The Survey building is attractive, with a red corrugated roof and yellow with green trim that matches the Namibian flag flying overhead. The National Monuments Council of Namibia is across the street.

Windhoek seems preternaturally neat and tidy, a result of civic pride, inexpensive labor, and new buildings. Men in fatigues and machine guns are seen on street corners, however.

At the Survey we saw an unusual case of shifted mudcracks, looking like what a numismatist would call a double strike (color plate 3). First described in 1975 by R. M. Miller in the Journal of Sedimentary Petrology}1 these unusual mudcrack features showed a distinct displacement between identical polygonal patterns, and the specimens in the Survey courtyard captivated Seilacher's attention. We spoke with Survey geologist Charles Hofmann about other unusual sedimentary structures.

The main road south out of Windhoek, toward Rehoboth, is B1. As we headed onto the Main Road, we passed the Tropic of Capricorn as a highway marker. Because of the paucity of long pieces of wood, the barbed wire fences are built with staggered short pieces (figure 4.2). Weaverbirds build solitary nests in clusters on single trees, or in giant communal nests.

Much of the land in this region is dedicated to the rearing of Karakul sheep. The wool of adult sheep is coarse and uncomfortable to the touch, but is nevertheless useful for heavily worn or abused items. It is so water repellent that airline seats made of the wool of Karakul sheep will float. The moth larvae of New England, who usually relish wool, refuse Karakul wool. A Namibian story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of farmers filling potholes with Karakul wool. On B1, the sheep are protected by special antijackal fences, dug into the ground so the jackals cannot burrow underneath.

Highway B1 goes all the way to Cape Town. Posted speeds are fast (100 km per hour) but the roads are narrow and two lane, not unlike

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  • hollie
    Where did Axali Doeseb grow up?
    3 years ago

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