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.
Last Friday, I walked up the Little River Mountains range, which often appears in my writing and photography, in the company of Dr Chris Whitehouse, a botanist who owns—or rather stewards, as he reverently puts it—a swath of land upon one of its eastern slopes.
A fount of knowledge—how envious was I of his command of botanical names1—he introduced me to many species that bloom there this time of year (the end of winter in South Africa), waiting patiently whilst I admired and photographed the flowers and scenery2:
The mountain was laden with Leucadendron whose green conquered the slopes in spectacular fashion.
Rocks and rock formations, expertly composed by Nature’s hand, created intricate visual scherzos.
At times, the cliffs were surreal in photomontage-like contrast with the surrounding landscape.
In their seams, Ikebanaesque arrangements burst forth whilst lichens freckled their faces.
We would often encounter my beloved Lobelia, mostly L. Pinifolia, in violet and white.
I also saw for the first time, Gladiolus debilis, a lily my mother sometimes recalls from her childhood3.
Other first sightings included Cyphia volubilis winding up the slender stems of a reluctant Restio;
Drosera cistiflora and D. pauciflora with their delicate petals distracting from tentacles below;
Salvia africana, its scruffy flower perching with a twig in its mouth (a protruding stigma);
Manulea cheiranthus with its small yellow starfish flowers cavorting atop the stems;
and a little Nemesia lucida4, most delightful of all, which, were it not for the attentiveness of my companion, I would have missed! Its adorable expression so captivated me that, reflecting upon it yesterday, I composed to it a little ode—a sketch for a future anthology!
In retrospect, I should have taken notes there and then—supplementing my DSLR photography with iPhone shots, which I could have annotated in the moment—saving me the subsequent search for botanical names (my occupation these past few days, hence the delay of this update), some of which I will doubtlessly have gotten wrong. Incidentally, Dr Whitehouse identified the mysterious flower I discovered two weeks ago (mentioned in “A Buck, a Bush and a Lily”, the fourth image in that update): a member of the genus Roepera, most likely Roepera fulva.
Photographed with the encumbrance of a visor (due to the pandemic), the images are not as good as I would have liked, but I trust they convey some of the beauty of the mountain and its flora.
She would pick “armfuls” of them when she was young, on her way home after a day of watching the sheep on the Little River Mountains. Incidentally, I used an iPhone 11 Pro to take the photograph above (I wanted to share the encounter with my mother in the moment, but there was no service) and must recommend it for detail and ease of use; it captured the delicacy of the tepals, lost in the Nikon images (of which I include one below, for comparison).
The closest match in my reference book is Nemesia macrocarpa which this flower does not resemble. Other sources lead me to believe it is N. lucida.
It is late winter in my country, South Africa, and the poem on that subject (imaginatively titled “A Late Winter Morning”) is developing slower than expected. It seems to me I have not yet shaped its stanzas to my satisfaction—they contain my impressions of the season, but have not the internal coherence I desire in my work.
Then there are the time-consuming experiments of expression the poet must make—however confident of his lines he may be—for from those may come a thought, word, phrase or line that ignites his composition. Should he be successful, more time must be spent to actualise his discovery in the existing work—often, transforming it completely!
Presently, I am at the end of just such an explorative phase which has resulted in two compositional directions: the first with two stanzas, the second, three (in both cases, with several variations), that I must now attempt to refine. From whatever comes as a result, I shall ultimately choose a draft to develop into a final work.
A Rhebok (Pelea capreolus), yesterday, in an ocean of wheat. It stood in the very field wherein I first saw one of its kind in 2017—who knows, it could be the same antelope! It stood stock-still as irreverently—at least, so it always feels in these moments—I photographed it. Not once did it stir; a most extraordinary thing for these famously shy creatures!
I also managed to photograph up close the flowers of the shrub I saw last week. I am convinced it is Eriocephalus africanus, the Cape Snow Bush1. The common name is fitting, the flowers do resemble snow from afar. My original guess that it was part of the Sutera family then was quite wrong; it is in fact a member of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family.
I did not mention this at the time, but last Friday, in a field that usually attracts no attention to itself, I glimpsed several lilies amongst the vegetation. Their shape and colour struck me, but the moment prevented me from taking a closer look2. Yesterday, I inspected them properly and beheld for the first time Gladiolus hirsutus, the Small Pink Afrikaner3.
Another first sighting in the same field was of a white flower (below) that grew low upon the ground, that I am yet to identify4. There were some familiar faces too, however, most notably Lobelia tomentosa, its delicate violet flowers, no bigger than a fingertip, fluttering in the breeze. Look closely: a tiny, almost translucent spider is hiding behind its lower lip!
“Cape” is taken from “The Cape”, the colloquial name for the Western Cape province of South Africa.
I managed only to take the unfortunate photograph below from several metres away before hastily having to move on:
“Afrikaner” is Afrikaans for “of or from Africa” (pronounced [uffRikaahneR] with the [u] in “bluff”, a trilled [R] and the [i] in “in”), a word you would arrive at were you to add the “-er” in “southerner” to “(South) African”: “Africaner”.
At first, I thought it was a relation of Hibiscus aethiopicus, which I encountered for the first time in 2018, but that species is alone in its genus. Scour as I might my reference book, I see nothing that resembles the flower.
Yesterday, for the first time, I saw a fox! I had heard of fox mischief during my childhood but had never actually seen the creature, and so I was stunned to spot one in broad daylight, making its way up a hill, turning briefly to watch me scramble for my camera. The photograph below was the frantic post-scramble result, taken with a hopelessly inadequate lens, as I was set up to photograph landscapes, ill-prepared for the zoom necessary in the moment.
It was, undoubtedly, a Cape Fox (Vulpes chama), also called the Silver-backed Fox, a small animal—about 50 cm (20 in) long, the tail adding a further 30 or so cm (11 in); about 30 cm (12 in) at the shoulder—supposedly nocturnal.
I also saw a shrub in bloom on a north-facing slope which, like so many species of fynbos1, had been unassuming throughout the year, suddenly to impress in late winter. Unable to come sufficiently close to it, I could not identify it; however, it may be part of the Sutera family—a wild guess, based upon vague similarities with certain species in that family. When next I am in that spot, I shall make the precarious uphill climb and attempt to inspect it properly.
Another sighting (this time, photographed with a more appropriate lens) was of an adult Jackal Buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus)—a bird I have photographed many a time, and which I captured in hallmark circling flight, three years ago2.
Fynbos (Afrikaans for “fine-bush”, pronounced [feynboss], with the [ey] in “feign” and the [o] in “or”, but shortened)—so named for the relative fine-ness of the shrubbery in the Western Cape province of South Africa—is an extremely heterogeneous heather-like vegetation exclusive to the region; indeed, the province (roughly the size of England) has more plant species than the whole of Europe.
“A Pear Tree” is complete, and I have moved to the next sketch, “A Late Winter Morning” (originally “A Partly Cloudy Morning”). Outlined in a rough stanza eleven days after the original “A Pear Tree” sketch, it describes the countryside at sunrise as it appeared to me upon an August morning in 2018.
Incidentally, I have reverted the titles of two finished poems to my original choices: “A Walk II” (wherein I remember my first Great Dane) is once again “You and I, My Hound!”, which necessitated the removal of the Roman numeral from “A Walk I” (wherein I remember my late friend, Jacques F. Visser).
Yesterday, I bought three books from my favourite second-hand bookshop1 on subjects of particular interest to me: maps, Ancient Greece and the Romanticists. I was especially pleased with the atlas2—to date, the second in my possession—which shall be a source of endless fascination (I wrote about my love for atlases in “This October”3.)
Presently, I am reading Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker, which gives a Christian perspective on modern art. Though I am an atheist, I find it most insightful. After I have finished it, I shall read The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets—writers from a culture I hold in the highest esteem—by Michael Schmidt.
Wordsworth is the finest Romantic poet. Whilst I own several digital copies and one softcover of selections of his works, Wordsworth: Poetical Works “contains every piece of original verse … published by the poet himself, or of which he can be shown to have authorized the posthumous publication”4—a treasure to a Wordsworth devotee!
Quirk & Leopard in the seaside town of Hermanus in the Western Cape province of South Africa; all hardcovers, for less than 400 ZAR (South African rands, approximately 24 USD, 21 EUR or 19 GBP)—a steal.
The Times’ Concise Atlas of the World: Ninth Edition.
In the “I bought an atlas” section.
An extract from the front flap of the dust jacket.