I’m an early riser more by temperament than nature. It started as a habit necessitated by my parents’ early departure for work, the slogging through the snow in the winter, and the long bus ride to school. But those morning hours have become something I treasure, though not, as some would suggest, because they are associated with virtuous living of some kind.
I crave the fleeting silence. I enjoy the solitude, but also the solidarity with other early risers. Give me a newspaper, a cup of tea (even the milky and overly-sugary version common here in Kenya), and a nice view, and there is no way my day is going to be anything other than good. I’ve been spoiled in Berkeley, able to step out the front door and see the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands and, on especially clear days, the Farallon Islands dead-centre beneath the bridge.
In Nairobi I have to make do with the grounds of the YMCA, not such a wearisome duty when you think about it. They’re green, peaceful compared with the hectic city that is coming to life around them, and host all manner of bird life (sadly, I had to leave my precious Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania at home—my backpack was ready to explode), from the starlings and sunbirds and the little birds with the long tail-feathers and the faces that looks like monkeys’, to the buzzards and hawks and hooded crows that swoop in and out, to the occasional Marabou Stork which, having unfurled itself from the acacias lining the Uhuru Highway, comes flapping awkwardly overhead, looking for all the world like a physiological impossibility, something that should have gone the way of the dinosaurs, or which should recede into fantasy the moment you close your copy of the Lord of the Rings.
I’ve never given early rising the thought Aldo Leopold did, but he is here, as in all things, worth quoting at some length:
Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffee pots from hunters. It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it.
Orion must have been the original mentor of the too-early company, for it is he who signals for too-early rising. It is time when Orion has passed west of the zenith about as far as one should lead a teal. Early risers feel at east with each other, perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements.
Orion, the most widely travelled, says literally nothing. The coffee pot, from its first soft gurgle, underclaims the virtues of what simmers within. The owl, in his trisyllabic commentary, plays down the story of the night’s murders. The goose on the bar, rising briefly to a point of order in some inaudible anserine debate, lets fall no hint that he speaks with authority of all the far hills and the sea. The freight, I admit, is hardly reticent about his own importance, yet even he has a kind of modesty: his eye is single to his own noisy business, and he never comes roaring into somebody else’s camp. I feel a deep security in the single-mindedness of freight trains.
Like many another treaty of restraint, the pre-dawn pact lasts only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant. It would seem as if the sun were responsible for the daily retreat of reticence from the world.*
The Nairobi YMCA is not the place for lay-abouts: there are no concessions made to the late-sleepers even on week-ends, for just like every other day, breakfast starts at 6.30 sharp. This is my kind of place!
* Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 59-60.