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Archive for October, 2010

PRAISE SONGS OF THE GREAT KAROO – WALKING THE VELD – October 2010

Easy walking today – mostly farm roads and not through rough and tough, scratchy, veld. But long – perhaps a three-hour ramble.
Backpack does a walker’s duty with water, hat, camera, apple, pencil and paper. Two sheepdogs companioned me yesterday – today I sneak out without them. Gives me more freedom. Don’t want them disturbing sheep during lambing, chasing buck, dassies, meerkats
Feet greet the earth road at a half past seven of a crisp morning. The old windmill is quiet behind the Great House – no wind yet. A single car passes me on the main road to Hantam Trust School – inmates look puzzled to view this elderly female foreigner traveling on two feet to goodness knows where. I wave. They stare.
Onto the Poortje road and along the river. Old, old willow trees, tall, spring-green and weeping, grow on the banks of the river which sometimes flows, sometimes dries up leaving hosts of fish heads and bones in the dry watercourse. Tamarisks are pink-tinged and feathery. It is October and new reeds are emerging green.
The road is straight. A clapper lark whirs up and dives down – again and again in mating call. A korhaan crackles. I search the wide flat landscape for yesterdays’ twin blue cranes, but they have stepped majestically on. The pair of springbok though, suddenly appear in my line of sight, bounding through the fence and across the road to disappear camouflaged in the dry grassland. I’m told that the white tail opened in pronking releases a sweet honey fragrance that San hunters could smell from far, far away – a sure guide for their days-long hunting.
Porcupine quills scattered roadside – looks as if this quill-shooting party came worse off in the encounter. I gather a good fifty, hide them in a bush to retrieve on my way back home. Veld becomes stonier, the grass drier, giving a lovely soft, low, all-over shading for miles of flatland. Kopjes and mountains in ranges in all directions. Chippings of ironstone strewn along my way.
Over the randje a young lamb rests in the road, mother sheep nibbling nearby. Lifting her head, she suddenly sees me, summons the young one and they trot determinedly away.
Through the first farm gate, an intricate undoing of chains and wire netting. Old iron and metal lies around in the veld for decades – no fear of rusting in this dry world. Near the sinkdam is a willow – there must have been water around here at some time. Under its shade, I perch on a fallen willow trunk, sip healthy Karoo water, and rest, gazing around in the cool morning and ever within the Karoo’s awesome hum of silence. Tiny unnameable l.b.j’s flit from bush to bush. A couple of bright yellow masked weavers are landing and taking off in the branches above me.
Not sight, sound or smell of humans for miles around.- I exist in the awesome spaciousness, richness and peace of the Karoo’s emptiness.
Six kudu have been sighted in these hills, arriving from who knows where – fences mean naught to these antelope-athletes. Nor to the dozen springbok just sprinting across the veld. Will I be the lucky one to catch sight of them?
On my right, the fence separating sheep off the hills dotted with green besem-bossies – an indication of the presence of tiny brown paralytic ticks which can kill stock within days. Paralysed, they simply cannot get up and so die. Farmers can dose against the tick – but that kills the dung beetles so necessary for good veld management. So, when resident ‘vermin’ – jackals mainly – who naturally limit their kills to a sustainable-only basis, are killed or poisoned, the roaming rogue jackals passing or testing their luck through a farm, will massacre sheep indiscriminately. Farmers must make these choices.
Accounts of yesterdays’ farm activities sit with me – the highs and lows – all happening in the peace and tranquility of wild places. First up was news of a porcupine which bit through buried black plastic pipes to drink at the water – and all the water from the dam to the flock of sheep and lambs, runs out. Good fortune: the men on horseback checking the camps spotted the dampness and a strong young previously unemployed Stanley has several months work picking up stones from the veld to cover all exposed pipes. A new role for low stone wall creations. Six dams cover the camps, filled by 12 windmill pumps, allowing long flexible pipes to snake kilometers far to the stock. Pure survival.
Lambing date for hundreds of pregnant ewes is precise – 20 September. Yet this year the ewes drop on their young on the 8th and all other planned farm work must be adapted to see to the newborns and their mamas.
Three men on three horses round up 500 woolly mouflons in Potbergg camp. Separate moms from lambkins. Separate skips – those who have missed the ram. Separate still-suckling moms with milk-filled udders. Mark each ewe with red or blue on the forehead to indicate age and status. Count each group. Three men on three horses saddle up and herd the bleating stock into the next camp. All in a morning’s work.
On my left now as I tramp the dusty road, stand fulsome green bushes, sign of a very old watercourse fed by a spring ahead at the boundary of three farms. Which sometimes fountains and sometimes not. Today is a not. At the gap between two ranges of hills, is the spring itself. An old pear tree and several willows announce its headwaters. Sam, now in his 90s, who worked on this farm all his life, from his young years, remembers there was a shepherd living there – which would be around 1910 – and had been before his time. Low stone kraal walls are still there. Possibly graves.
Climbing through the fence with its beautiful scarified sneezewood posts, I go to pay respects to the magnificent pear tree of old and tall stature. And am rewarded by chancing upon not only old stone kraal walls, but the largest piece of old willow-pattern china I’ve yet found – six centimeters in diameter – lying exposed between thorn bushes. I wonder about the shepherds who lived isolated here in the veld so long ago .
Also at the head of the spring in the gap between the hills, is where the old trek road passed. In a direct line from hills to the south, farmers, wagons and stock carved their ponderous way northwards to freedom.
I cut across country now to my destination – the new dam atop the hill which gives me good elevation to capture on camera the vast expanses of Karoo veld – range beyond range of hills fading to a hazy purple, jutting up into the vastness of this entirely blue sky. Three sixty degrees semi-desert uninhabited ( by human) nirvana.
A drink of sweet water, purest of the purest, from the water trough, and I pick my way carefully down the hill. There’s the pipeline to follow – carrying water with the natural fall of the land, to sheep and cattle miles and miles away. There’s also a dry stream bed for easy walking. I look carefully as this is the kind of shale where fish fossils millions of years old have been found. Not today. Not by me.
What a world this is. Saturated with past and present, history and geology, family and veld – for one who loves it.
And now the dusty homeward meander, retrieving porcupine quills en route – in time for a feet-washed, feet-up lunch. Four hours after hitting the morning road.

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My eyes catch a brilliant flash of wings in the forest canopy. A Lourie flaps from branch to branch raising its alarm call ‘kok-kok-kok.’ It flies off in an extravagance of emerald and scarlet plumage. Marilyn is putting up our tent on the wooden deck under a network of trees. I am lighting a fire. It is the time of sunset and silhouettes, pinpricks of light shine through the foliage. I listen to the closing birdsong of the day – chorister robins, chattering bulbuls, cinnamon doves, boubou shrikes, sunbirds, forest canaries, warblers. We are their audience until the night curtains draw around the forest.

A white umbrella of overcast sky radiates soft and even light bringing colours and textures in the forest alive. Orange fungi, multitudes of them clinging to decaying tree trunks. Mushrooms, ferns, fronds, tree bark, roots, lichen. The earth underneath soft, spongy. It’s woody smell permeates the air. The forest is secret, enclosed. We are not alone. No matter how softly I tread I am aware of eyes watching me. Birds, animals, insects hiding in the lower and upper realms of this world. Although I cannot see them they follow me. My foot snaps a twig, panicked wings take flight. Insects are silent, monkeys move away from the trees above me. The light forever changing, shadow to shade, shade to light – blocks of shade, shadow, light hurtling onto the forest floor. We follow a path leading deep into the forest, walk over stepping-stones across streams heavy with reflection. This, a forest that has been here before KhoiKhoian clans inhabited the region. Before the Sao Goncales ran aground bringing with it Europeans who cut down its timber. Before the Dutch East India Company plundered it. European settlers exploited it, The Great Trek demanded wagon timber from it. Royal hunt’s massacred its elephants. Prince Alfred hunted elephants with an escort of over forty men. By1908 the forest elephants were faced with extinction, their hunting was prohibited except for members of the British royal family.
I look up, the crowns of the old monarchs; the Outeniqua Yellowwoods rise above the canopy, threads of bearded lichens cling to their branches. These trees germinated around the time when King John 1 attached his seal to the Magna Carta granting freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, freedom to petition the monarch, freedom to elect members of parliament without interference, freedom of speech and of parliamentary privilege, freedom from cruel punishments and freedom from fine and forfeiture without trial while they journeyed afar to rape the souls of primitive man.

My mortality is strongly felt amongst these ancient trees bean-stalking their way into the sky, I am a mere speck below them, my life an inconsequential passing. And yet my will to live is enough to draw from their life force. I breathe in deeply, hold my breath for a second, breathe out slowly. I am a parasite, I leach their oxygen into my lungs, draw it into my abdomen where between my small intestines a tumor grows. Smaller ones invade my peritoneal chamber, my lymph nodes. I seek among decaying tree trunks, logs, branches to find healing fungi. I pick them from mycelium beds, these fruiting bodies ready to spread spores on the forest floor. My will to live makes me no better than a poacher. My sister, wise in the ways of ancient healers, places milk, honey, bread on the desecrated shrine, gives thanks to the forest for their gifts of healing. I in my own way pay homage to this threatened system of nature clinging tightly to its remedies sheltering in the moist understory.
“The forest never gives up its secrets…it is like someone you can hear talking, but whose language you do not understand.” Dalene Matthee

It is raining, I can hear it beating against the tent, every tree is exhilarated, bowing to the wind, waving, swirling, tossing their branches, raindrops gathered in leafy pockets fall in unison, symbols, tambourines, maracas, tympani drums in percussive coincidence on canvas. Inside I listen to the breath of my sleeping sister. I think of us as children splashing through puddles on the farm dirt roads, chasing flying ants -new queens of the rain dance, Steaming earth, rainbows over mountains. I am transported back to my birthplace, a farm at the edge of the world; my mind wandering through poignantly random moments of my life.

The forest path is interrupted by a tannin stained stream flowing over water-worn stones. Above tree ferns cast shadows on pale rocks, their spiral motifs one of the most Delphic sacred images known. We cross to the other side, step over circled tree trunks between starbursts of sun on water. The path – the only sign of man’s mark on this forest, its strangled growth leads us deeper into this enigmatically primeval place. I sit on an uprooted tree trunk. I watch a butterfly land on a leaf; a moments repose – I, and the butterfly. I drink the silent energy of nature, feel it stir my inmost thoughts. Annie Dillard comes to mind
“In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy.”
Thomas Carlyle wrote
“All life is figured by them as a Tree. Igdrasil, the tree of existence,
has its roots deep-down in the kingdoms of Death:
its trunk reaches up heaven-high, spreads its boughs over the whole Universe:
it is the Tree of Existence. At the foot of it, in the Death-Kingdom, sit the three fates – the Past, Present and Future; watering its roots from the Sacred
well. It’s bough with its buddings and disleafings – events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes, – stretch through all lands and times.
Is not every leaf of it a biography, every fiber there an act or word?
Its boughs are the Histories of Nations.
The rustle of it is the noise of Human Existence, onwards from of old. …
I find no similitude so true as this of a Tree.
Beautiful; altogether beautiful and great.”

I think of the fairy tales read to me as a child, still potent memories in my mind – The brothers Grimm portray forests as symbols of chaos, danger, mystery, wonder, introducing a mythological dimension between the forest, man and beast. Joseph Young describes how fairy tales shape our lives
“The darker elements in tales often reveal shadow energies in an action, an image, or even a setting. The deep dark forest is a common representation of the feared elements within. The monsters live in the forest. The forest can reflect parts of ourselves that are never entirely tamed, that are always somewhat dangerous and chaotic. These elements sometimes come up in nightmares. They are important parts of ourselves. In some ways, they are the most creative aspects of our inner world. We need to go into the dark forest. It is difficult and mysterious. Still, fresh energies and new ideas come from that place.”

Yes, I suppose subconsciously I chose to make a pilgrimage to the forest for those reasons. The dark malevolence growing inside me represents my innermost fears, this, my own monster. I need to go into that dark place to walk through my nightmares, come to terms with my nemesis, find “fresh energies and new ideas to cope with it.” At some level in both my mind and body I am excreting my metaphysical toxic waste, hacking through an avalanche of thoughts, the chill of death stalking me, the very air I breath seems filled with it, and yet it is not a smell of decay – it is a smell of rebirth.

The dark forest of my dreams is the archetypal home of my deep inner rootedness – a place where darkness is at breakpoint and can only turn to light.

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