In 1974, Mark and Delia Owens met in a protozoology class at the University of Georgia. A visiting scientist told them about Africa’s disappearing wilderness, reporting “More than two-thirds of its wildlife had already been eliminated, pushed out of its habitats by large ranches and urban sprawl.” And in the southern regions, “thousands of predators were being trapped, shot, snared, and poisoned to protect domestic stock.” Perhaps what shocked the two young idealistic students the most was learning that in some African nations, conservation policies and practices were virtually nonexistent.
In their 1984 book, “Cry of the Kalahari: Seven Years in Africa’s Last Great Wilderness,” the couple wrote, “We became determined to study an African carnivore in a large, pristine wilderness and use the results of our research to help devise a program for the conservation of that ecosystem. Perhaps, also, we simply wanted to see for ourselves that such wild places still exist.” They feared that if they didn’t go immediately, there might be little left to study. They would go on to conduct research and conservation projects on endangered species in Africa for 23 years, co-author three books and appear in a 1988 National Geographic documentary, “African Odyssey.”
Of their solitary years in Botswana’s vast Central Kalahari Desert, they wrote “we were the only two people, other than a few bands of Stone Age Bushmen, in an area larger than Ireland.” When asked if they ever saw anybody, Delia Owens replied, “No. Not unless people came to our camp, and that was very, very rare.” Now divorced from Mark, Delia has continued to write. At the age of 70, she has published her first novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” that has become a fixture on the New York Times bestsellers list and is a phenomenon with fans and book clubs. While on book tours, she finds herself on stage speaking to packed audiences—a rather terrifying experience for a woman who has spent years of her life living in isolation. It is precisely there, in that solitary place we go when the world is too much, that Owens connects with her readers.
Recently, my friend Marjo Price shared her copy of “Where the Crawdads Sing” with me. The author’s name immediately rang a bell. Kit and I were working at National Geographic in when their documentary, “African Odyssey,” was produced. In the summer of 1988, we were among a group from NGS who attended a fundraiser organized by the Friends of the Pittsburgh Zoo to help fund the couple’s wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. We shared a table with them at the dinner and learned firsthand details of how they documented the natural history of Kalahari lions and brown hyenas—totally cut off from the outside world.
Back at Boomerang Creek, I found a copy of “Cry of the Kalahari” with this inscription: “For Cathy and Kit, thanks for the pleasure of an evening together and for all you are doing to foster an appreciation of our natural world. Come share a campfire with us sometime. Best wishes always, Mark Owens and Delia Owens, 20 June,1988.” I didn’t have an opportunity to share a campfire with them, but Marjo, her husband Al Price, and their sons did.
In that remarkable way that circles come round and we suddenly are connected across space and time, Delia sent two copies of her novel—published 30 years after I met her—to Marjo and her son Lake who spent three months in 1979 working in the Owens’ camp when he was fourteen years old.
Delia Owens now lives alone in a remote corner of northern Idaho near the Canadian/Montana border. The seed that blossomed into her novel—set in the remote marshlands along the North Carolina coast not far from Georgia where she grew up—came from something that she often felt while living in a remote camp in Africa—the feeling of being alone and far from home, of living in isolation, and of not having a group to belong to.
The New York Times Book Review describes “Where the Crawdads Sing” as “Painfully beautiful…At once a murder, a coming-of-age narrative, and a celebration of nature.” It is indeed all that, and oh, so much more.
~ Boone County Journal – October 2, 2019 ~