I resumed work on “A Late Winter Morning” today after two weeks otherwise occupied, chiefly with matters of secular life; it is clear to me that it will be many weeks before the poem is complete. Why then spend “whatever hour I could spare” these past two weeks buried in botanical books instead of devoting that time to the poem?
The reason is twofold: my rural surroundings inspire my work—studying its flora, fauna, topography and history I consider my duty—and in the writing of pieces like “A Wayside Wonderland”—in which I consolidate what I learn—I often produce lines that inspire new poems1. “Time well wasted” is the phrase I reserve for these moments.
The case with the above-mentioned piece, from which came a new poetic esquisse titled “A Lily” or “Lily in the Sedges” for a future anthology.
During my excursion with botanist Dr Chris Whitehouse a few weeks ago, I mentioned to him the field guide I use to identify fynbos1 species. He quickly reminded me that the area in which I live has predominantly Renosterveld2 vegetation rather than Fynbos (though there is an overlap, since here one transitions into the other) and recommended to me a brand new field guide on that subject by Dr Odette Curtis-Scott (whom I also hope to meet).
Following the exchange, I ordered a copy directly and collected it on 4 September 2020, the beginning of Spring in my country, South Africa. During the trip, the first part of which takes one through the countryside upon a dirt road, I stopped frequently to admire and photograph the countless species in bloom—most of which I saw for the first time—charmed as always by the kind that fascinate me most: those most dainty and unassuming.
Your humble amateur botanist was soon engrossed, attracting baffled glances from passersby; but, with new species flowering by the day, I was determined not to miss a single bloom. Unable to write this update that weekend, I spent whatever hour I could spare during the two weeks since working through my photographs (of which there were hundreds) to identify species and select the most interesting to include in this text.
Beginning then with 4 September, I spotted Bulbinella barkerae first, a flash of white against the hill so impressive I had to stop; and once I did, my gaze was fixed to the ground, marvelling at all the other species in bloom—like the desperately yellow Hemimeris racemosa, a flower no more than 5 mm (0,2 in) wide, and Lessertia frutescens, its blossoms ten times larger in striking red, like small flamenco dresses. For half an hour, I was transfixed.
Hundreds of Heliophila pendula adorned the scene, flowers so dainty, there were dewdrops larger; I could not help but laugh with delight! Too minute to photograph from any distance other than up close, some blossoms but 2 mm (0,079 in) wide, they all but disappeared to the lens. (In the accompanying photograph, it appears as if the flower is set upon a blade of grass, but look closely for the slender vertical stem that holds it there.)
Where the earth was most disturbed (by roadworks), patches of what must be either Delosperma, Disphyma or Drosanthemum carpeted the ground as if to repair it—some in bloom, others not. Nearby flowered what I believe to be Drosanthemum striatum—according to the guide, a vulnerable species—in a location somewhat insecure, growing directly below a barbed wire fence at the feet of a group of young invader species trees.
I also saw a relation of Nemesia lucida—that family fast becoming a favourite after seeing it some weeks ago for the first time—N. barbata, so named for the tiny white hairs at the top of its deep blue and equally beard-like lower lip (barbata is Latin for “the bearded”). These were plentiful, shaking their little heads in the breeze. In the second photograph of this set, it is looking longingly at what I think is Geissorhiza inflexa.
Then there was Diascia, a species related to Nemesia—one sees the resemblance in the captivating little flowers about 7 mm (0,28 in) wide—but which, I cannot tell, since none of the petal shapes in the guide quite resemble it (the closest match is a species listed only as Diascia sp. (“species”, to indicate that it is not yet described)); and near it, Zaluzianskya divaricata with its remarkable flowers, equally small.
For Dolichos decumbens, I was all but prostrate—and appropriately so, for decumbens is Latin for “lying down”—to admire and photograph its orchid-like flowers (about 10 mm or 0,39 wide), deftly painted with violet and white.
I also happened upon another Cyphia, possibly C. digitata, a relation of the one I saw on my excursion with Dr Whitehouse, entwining itself with Clutia polygonoides whose modest blossoms it shamelessly upstaged.
Similarly twining was Microloma tenuifolium whose waxy flowers were so intensely and luminously red that had I not seen it, I would not have believed it. (I should note that I make only minor adjustments to my photographs to show as closely as possible what I saw with the naked eye; thus, the red here is true to life.)
Happening upon a specimen of Eriocephalus africanus in a more accessible spot, I was better able to capture it, this time with its furry seed heads exposed, covered in the morning dew, giving yet more credence to its common name, the Cape Snow Bush. I found another still in bloom with near perfect flowers.
Lachenalia too is now in bloom. The first, possibly L. perryae, I photographed on Saturday and the second, either L. lutea or L. orchoides subspecies orchoides, that seemed to glow with an inner light, on 4 September. The third and fourth (also photographed Saturday), are both incarnations of L. rosea.
At intervals, a solitary Gladiolus liliaceus (whose praises I have sung before and shall reluctantly refrain from reciting here) would wave from an unworthy dirt road bank or ditch, and elsewhere on the route, from a sea of sedges, Gladiolus tristis would summon me to its side—whom I duly obeyed.
There were also birds to be seen, including Buteo rufofuscus, the majestic Jackal Buzzard, which I recently photographed, and Ardea melanocephala, the Black-headed Heron, near a waterhole (just out of frame), tolerant of my presence but flying off once it tired of posing for the camera.
This weekend past, I ventured out again, greeted by yet more species in bloom. Amongst others, a relation of the exquisite pink Ixia scillaris that first stunned me in the summer of 2018, almost certainly a white Ixia flexuosa, a pendulum swaying to the slightest movement of the air.
There was also a little Lyperia antirrhinoides with its dark purple face paint; Babiana patersoniae with a lilac stigma (unlike the white shown in the guide); and Colchicum eucomoides, yet to open and reveal its strange flowers, which I hope to revisit and photograph this weekend.
Fynbos (Afrikaans for “fine-bush”, pronounced [feignboss], with a shortened version of the [o] in “or”)—so named for the relative fine-ness of the shrubbery in the Western Cape province of South Africa—is an extremely heterogeneous heathery vegetation also known as Cape Flora, exclusive to the region.
Renosterveld (Afrikaans for “rhinoceros-field”, pronounced [RhnossteRfelt], with a trilled [R])—so named for the Renosterbos (Afrikaans for “rhinoceros-bush”, pronounced [RhnossteRboss], with a trilled [R] and a shortened version of the [o] in “or”) (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) its predominant shrub, in turn, named for the rhinoceros, now extinct in the region, seen by European settlers—is in some ways a lesser Fynbos, equally heterogeneous and endemic, but almost wholly supplanted by agriculture for which vast swathes of it was cleared to create “the breadbasket of the Cape”, as this region (the Overberg) is known. Consequently, it is estimated that only 5% of the original Renosterveld remains, wherefore I have sworn to do what I can to help preserve it.
As I develop a poem, numerous variations on stanzas come as a result of the composition process: some with promise, others beyond redemption. Not once before has any among these become a poem in its own right—its lines either woven into the work for which it was conceived or discarded outright—until now.
One variation of the second stanza of “A Late Winter Morning” (a poem in progress), which began as a playful experiment with alliteration and rhyme, has become too colourful for the work (which is lively but restrained); reluctant to discard it, as normally I would, I have decided to extract it as a separate composition.
An offshoot of “A Late Winter Morning”, a poem in my anthology-in-progress, I intend to include it in the collection despite a previous resolution not to add new compositions to the set, developing it alongside “A Late Winter Morning” as a companion piece under the working title “A Morning Chat” or “A Chat at Solitaire”.
“Chat” here refers to the bird of that name, the African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus), a vocal passerine along a stretch of dirt road towards an area known as Solitaire. On winter mornings, they utter their warbling calls from the wire fences (little puffs of vapour escaping from their beaks!), the subject of the offshoot poem.