This November

Cape Strawflower, 2 November 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
I photographed this Cape Strawflower blossom. Even when picked and without water, it will last for years. It is part of the “Everlasting” family, flowering plants whose “petals” are really the bracts (the usually insignificant part of the blossom holding the petals).

I watched the world in bloom

The indigenous heather of South Africa is known as fynbos1 (Afrikaans for “fine bush”), a plant kingdom unique to the Western Cape region with a multitude of species. From the tiny Lobelia chamaepitys (Fine-stalked Lobelia) scattered in drops of violet about the heath to the deep pink Phaenocoma prolifera (Cape Strawflower) igniting the heather. From the pale Edmondia sesamoides (Everlasting) and orange Leucospermum patersonii (Silver-edge Pincushion) adorning the hillsides to the salmon-pink Tritoniopsis antholyza (Bergpypie2) and blue Micranthus filifolius (Comb Flower) brightening up the waysides.

In late November, the eve of the South African summer, it seemed the very rocks would bloom if they could. After a long dry season, we had an excellent winter and the earth has responded with a profusion of flowers the likes of which we have never seen. Plants have appeared that have been dormant for years. Wherever I went, there was occasion to stop and photograph some wonderful instance of form and colour, some new species amongst the familiar tapestry to discover. To walk upon the mountain slopes was especially rewarding. If like me you enjoy flora, there is nothing like fynbos to enchant you!

Mountainside Fynbos, 2 November 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
Cape Strawflowers and Everlastings cover the mountain slopes in November when it is spring in my country, South Africa.

I visited the past

Having recently written about the two years I spent as a boy in the Babilonstoringberge valley3, I decided to revisit the area. I had done so a few years ago. I saw then how the valley had changed, much of my childhood paradise lost to modernisation and neglect. Today, of the little farm school, there is only the crumbling foundation, but the old fig and apple tree still huddle together beside it, though now without the windowed wall. The pit toilets remain, roofless on the edge of the grove. As I balanced upon the rubble that was once my classroom, a cuckoo4 called from the poplars, and a kite5 passed overhead!

All the happiness of my eight and nine-year-old self returned. I stood in all the places on the grounds to which there is attached a memory: by the old foundations where there used to be a ledge upon which I would attempt to sidle on the tips of my toes as far as I could, until it became impossibly narrow; upon the verge of the gravel road passing the site where I would pretend to be a superhero, soaring above the road; in the spot beneath the oak trees where on clear winter days we would sit about a fire and have our lessons in the open air! For a moment, it was all as it was then.

A Kite, 13 November 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A kite soared above while a cuckoo called from the woods.

I then went to the little cottage where we lived during the week at the time, not far from the school, following the road winding along the hillside. There it stood, stripped of the past, unrecognisable after its renovation. I knew this would be what I would find from my last visit, but in light of my recent recollections, it felt especially disappointing. It was now someone else’s home. Gone were the two small front-facing windows that neatly framed the downs, the old chimney of the fuming wood-burning stove, the haunted draughty shed once attached to its side. I took no photographs, as I did of the school.

I wondered whether the ditch I loved so dearly still ran behind the cottage (where I would marvel at dragonflies) but had not the heart to see if it did. I left feeling disillusioned, regretting in that moment that I went there at all. So much had changed in the intervening time, I thought it best not to trace the old route6 we pupils used to walk, once a week, to the second school building elsewhere on the farm—a path that led through a poplar forest where brambles used to grow (red on one side, black on the other, my sister reminded me later). Nonetheless, I was pleased I returned to the valley—one last time.

Cottage, 01 December 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A drawing of the farmworker’s cottage, our home during the week, as I remember it. It had two rooms, a fraction of the size of our home proper, but to us three children, a dream.

The past visited me

“Of a Summertime”, a poem I recently completed, eulogises fleeting moments from that very valley: dragonflies in the ditch behind the cottage are among them. How astonishing then that for the very first time (at least that I recall), a dragonfly should appear in the garden: a blue Cape Skimmer (Orthetrum julia capensis). Most of its one wing was lost, yet it darted effortlessly about the shrubbery. I could hardly contain my excitement! I suspect it must have come from the stream in the nearby forest where the slopes of this valley meet; an area so overgrown, no wonder the dragonfly visited the garden to sunbathe.

Then, a few days ago, no less serendipitously, my father called me outside to ask what I made of a little green light in the grass; and what should I find but a firefly7! Only days before had I thought of a poetic sketch I had abandoned, “The Last Time I Saw Fireflies”. So faint is my memory of the moment in question that I failed to compose anything worthy, but faced with this luminous wonder—another first for our garden which in my ignorance I shall ascribe, dragonfly included, to a good winter—my interest in the sketch was revived. As I mulled over the memory8, the muse was kind and granted me three verses.

A Cape Skimmer, 18 October 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A dragonfly in the garden, a visitor from the past.

I was lost in poetry

After my recent discovery of South African poet Toon van der Heever9, I found amongst his contemporaries Jan F. E. Celliers10. In “Dis Al” (Afrikaans for “that’s all”, pronounced “diss ull”), he describes in pithy fashion a scene of nostalgia and grief. A handful of words and skipping metre is all he requires to cut right to the bone. It moved me to compose a sketch of my own, not on grief but on joy. Its (unoriginal) working title is “That Is All”. Whether it becomes a final work—and to what extent it will resemble Celliers’ poem in the end—remains to be seen. I do not usually compose homages, but this may be the first.

Then, unsurprisingly, following my October encounter with the Aandpypie11, I composed a sketch titled “Little Evening Lily”. If ever a poem was inevitable, it was this one. What was surprising (or rather, unexpected) was another new sketch, “The Wind!”. It was born of a note written to clarify my meaning in a line praising the wind in “Most Sublime” (previously “Give Me the Fields!”). I saw immediately within it the potential to become a poem. In my ongoing quest to revere the wind, I leapt at the chance to add it to my litany of verses on the subject as a fourth invocation (not counting instances in other poems).

I have now begun work on “Boy in the Field”, a sketch I am somewhat fearful of editing. It was inspired by an event in November last year when at nightfall I walked in the fields and saw but metres away, a lonely Paradise Crane. This pale blue creature is so graceful that I liken it to a god, and so overcome was I at the sight, silence and tears were my only response. When at last I regained my composure, words came. Alone on that hillside with only the Zephyr about us, the moment was sacred. As I tentatively begin work on the lines, I find myself almost unwilling to return to that holy hour, but such is the poet’s work.

A Paradise Crane, 8 November 2017. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
The very crane I dared to photograph, compelled to capture the moment, something in retrospect I scarce believe I had the insolence to do.

I looked inward

My mother is a primary school teacher. Raised in abject poverty, it was her ambition to escape it—a course interrupted by my birth. From my earliest years and for most of my childhood, I was not in her direct care. My father wholly absent, it was left to my late grandmother (my mother’s adoptive mother) and later my nursemaid (who to this day refers to me as “my kind”12) to raise me whilst my mother pursued teaching. I romanticise my time in the Babilonstoringberge valley because they alone are untainted by the latent sense of abandonment that marked the years that preceded (and followed) them.

My mother’s absence created within me a vacuum, which I attempted to fill with “Beauty” (to me, Art, Nature and Solitude) and every modification to my behaviour I imagined would please her. The goal of my existence was to earn her affection: a hopeless task, sabotaged by the beginning of my school education when I was sent to board with a family in order to attend Grades One and Two at a school of my mother’s choosing. At this time, my mother began teaching Grades Three and Four in the Babilonstoringberge valley where my stepfather and infant half-sisters stayed with her during the week13.

A primary school teacher herself, my mother knew which teachers to trust with my schooling. Though I appreciate her strategy now, it filled me with dread at the time, for it meant that I would have to board with other families for most of my primary school life. I would see my family on weekends and during holidays, but eventually started distancing myself from them, because I knew that come Monday or a new school term, we would be separated again, and I would have to return and adjust anew to a family not my own. Over time, I developed a longing for home14 so intense, I felt it even when I was in fact home.

Babilonstoringberge Valley School Site, 13 November 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A panoramic view of the Babilonstoringberge valley school site where my mother taught, as it is today. Part of its foundation is visible just right of the centre. In the distance looms the Babilonstoringberge peak—a boy, I imagined it would erupt like a volcano! Below it is the wood from which the cuckoo called and to the left, the only semi-surviving structure, the pit toilets. The road on the left winds around one hill and up another where stands the labourer’s cottage we lived in during the week.

Respite came at age eight when I was set to enter Grades Three and Four, the grades my mother taught at the Babilonstoringberge valley farm school, and I joined my own family there. It was as if my life had at last begun! In the two years that followed, I thrived like the valley itself; but at the end of Grade Four, boarding resumed for the rest of primary school, and in high school, I lived completely alone. By then, I had internalised the alienation I felt and became disconnected from those I longed to love. Beauty, always of the kind that reflected my sadness, was my salvation, a barque on a capricious ocean.

That melancholy shaped my conception of the world, it is irrevocably cast within my psyche—I cannot escape it. You hear it in the plaintive melodies and read it in the wistful verses. I see it in the “lonely swallow rushing through the sky”15, the crane on the hillside, the wind in the grass. It is there in “forgotten fields”—the distant places always out of reach, the impossible hopes we abandon and banish from our thoughts. I cherish those two years in the Babilonstoringberge valley because there, for a while, my childhood hopes were fulfilled, surrounded by all that mattered to me: the hills, the fields and my family.

Footnotes

  1. Pronounced “feign-boss” with the “o” in “or” cut short.
  2. Afrikaans for “little mountain pipe”, pronounced “behr-kg-pay-pee” with the “eh” in “bet” and the “kg” sound in “loch” (that is, the guttural “kccch” sound, not the “ck” in “lock”).
  3. In “This September” and “This October”. Babilonstoringberge is pronounced “bah-bee-lons-twh-Rhng-beR-gh” (the “o” in “or”, the “e” in “wet”, trilled “R”s and the “gh” in “go”), Afrikaans for “Tower of Babel Mountains”. The range is named after its most notable feature, a great peak resembling, from some viewpoints, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Lucas van Valckenborch’s conception of the tower from Biblical mythology.
  4. A Red-chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius), known here as the Piet-my-vrou (Afrikaans for “Pete-my-wife”, pronounced “piht-mey-fRo” with the “ih” in “it” and a trilled “R”) after its “wiet-weet-weeoo” call.
  5. A Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus).
  6. I shared a little more about this route in a social media post here (Twitter).
  7. I filmed a short video of what is either a firefly larvae (a glow-worm) or a female of the species and shared it here (Twitter).
  8. Incidentally, the last time I saw fireflies, I was either five or six years old. We were at the seaside camping and I saw them in a bush. By the invitation of a friend of my mother’s, we attended a religious event. It was itself a tented affair, the kind with enthusiastic singing, clapping, preaching and donations to match.
  9. Whom I mention in “This October”.
  10. Pronounced “yunn eff eeyh sil-yeaRs” with a trilled “R”.
  11. In “This October” I wrote about this wonderful flower that opens at nightfall.
  12. Afrikaans for “my child”, pronounced “mey khnd” with the short “kh” sound at the beginning of “kid”.
  13. I would stay during the week with a teacher friend of my mother’s who taught at the school in question. It was a characteristically pragmatic decision on her part, oblivious to the negative emotional impact the arrangement would have upon my well-being.
  14. The Afrikaans word for this yearning, “heimwee” (pronounced “haym-veeyh”), is not unlike the Welsh “hiraeth” (pronounced “hee-Rye-th” with a trilled “R”) in that it conveys, in its simplest sense, a nostalgia for what one holds dear: home, a loved one, a memory.
  15. A line from the poem I composed for the Forgotten Fields (2017) album.

This October

A Malachite Sunbird, 10 October 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
I photographed this exquisite Malachite Sunbird, one of two males who visit the Cape honeysuckle daily. I recognise this one by the marks on his lower neck.

I revised and revisited poems

Every poem I complete leaves me at once exhausted and invigorated. The former for the mental and emotional exertion of wrestling with poetic lines and the latter for the joy and newfound enthusiasm success in these endeavours, however modest, brings. “A Dream of Summertime”, three verses recalling pastoral details from my childhood, is now complete. Its final title, “Of a Summertime”, is the last line of the poem.

I began revising “Give Me the Fields!” on 13 October, fortuitously exactly one year after composing it as a spontaneous tweet1 in 2017. I enjoyed the verse so much that I added a second, third and fourth! It is now in that dabbling phase where I explore different ways of expressing the ideas behind the poem in rhyming verse. This eventually produces a range of poetic possibilities which I refine into a final composition.

“A Sunbird” is an earlier poem I had completed but since edited in parts, altering its structure somewhat and rendering it unfinished once more. I returned to it unexpectedly in October to fully implement the adjustments. As a result, the poem is more vivid, flowing and succinct. This is why I think it worthwhile to live with one’s work for a protracted period, returning to it anew with a better understanding of its essence.

My Favourite Field, 25 October 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
Where the valley between the Babilonstoringberge and Kleinriviersberge (of which I wrote in “This September”) spills inland, my part of the Overberg region begins. You see above the Babilonstoringberge with clouds at their feet looming in the distance.

I bought an atlas

In my last post2, I wrote about the two years I spent in the valley between the Babilonstoringberge3 (Tower of Babel Mountains) and Kleinriviersberge (Small River Mountains)4. There I attended a small farm school where I was taught by my mother, a school teacher. Naturally, she cultivated in me a love for her favourite subjects, Afrikaans and Geography. My love of poetry comes from the former and of maps from the latter.

I remember drawing copies of my atlas, poring over the markings and lines, and inventing maps of my own! A few weeks ago, I purchased a Reader’s Digest Atlas of Southern Africa published in 1984, the very year I entered my mother’s class. It shows South Africa as it was when I was a boy with the provinces and names as they were then. The purchase was a nod to my eight and nine-year-old self, who is, of course, thrilled!

Atlas Detail, 28 October 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A detail from the atlas. The photograph preceding this one was taken from the spot marked by the yellow dot looking westward.
Aandpypie (Gladiolus liliaceus), 19 October 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
A single Gladiolus liliaceus by the wayside.

I admired a lily

We are in the midst of the South African spring and the countryside is in bloom, from the common Limonium perezii with its purply papery blossoms to the rare and unusual Gladiolus liliaceus. It was the latter I hoped to find a week ago and was delighted to discover by the wayside! Gladiolus liliaceus is a protected indigenous plant, know to us as the Aandpypie (Afrikaans for “little evening pipe”, pronounced “aah-nd-pay-pee”).

It opens at sunset and perfumes the air with an intoxicating (and unmistakeable) scent, an event that causes the lily to change its earthy daytime hues (when it is closed) to purple at night. The purpose of this transformation is to attract nocturnal insects but also, I fancy, to delight its human admirers. The lily is another connection to the time I spent in the Babilonstoringberge valley where I was introduced to it by my mother.

It is one of her favourite wildflowers. Watching sheep as a child, the Aandpypie, then still abundant, was her companion in the pastures, growing in the mountains and marshes in flocks of their own. It was there she learned to revere Nature, a virtue she passed to me. As I knelt to admire my wayside discovery, I felt it was a transgression even to behold it… Compelled to capture its beauty, I took my photographs reluctantly.

I wept before a poem

My mother was recently a surprise guest during a television interview with my youngest sister about her ventures in the South African wine industry5. Thinking she might be asked about this region, my mother resolved to include in her answer two lines from “In die Hoëveld”6, a poem by the Afrikaans poet Toon van der Heever7 (1894–1956): “[W]aar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo, / Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld…”

The Afrikaans translates roughly thus: “Where it is open and heaven wide above, / Where herds of grass skip across the field…” Only once before have I encountered a description so vivid of a sight so sublime—one that lies at the heart of my poetry and music—that of Eugène Marais (1871–1936) in “Winternag”8 where he likens the windblown waving grass to beckoning hands. I loved Toon van der Heever’s poem instantly.

I had not encountered it before my mother told me of it some days after her interview. I read the whole poem the next day. In the verses, Toon van der Heever longs for his beloved fields… There he played as a child, there his little house awaits him, there the wind makes waves of the grass… Ah! It was as if every string inside me was suddenly plucked! I was that boy! I am that man! I wept as I read because I understood every word9.

October Interests and Inspirations

I thought I would include here some of the things that interested and inspired me during the month:

  • The House of Small Cubes (2008), an outstanding short animated film by Kunio Kato exploring the unstoppable advance of time;
  • Calluna (2015) by Andrew Chalk and Tom James Scott, a delicate and meandering album with fleeting melodic fragments;
  • The term of venery “a loveliness of ladybirds”, which delighted me no end;
  • Carles Viarnes’ handwritten notation for his contemporary classical piano album Schematismus (2016) which I purchased; and
  • An insightful review by Doug Thomas of Origins by Affan, the inaugural release of Lonely Swallow, my micro label.

Footnotes

  1. I posted it first to Twitter here and the day after to other social media platforms.
  2. “This September”
  3. Babilonstoringberge is pronounced “bah-bee-lons-twuh-Ruh-ng-beR-guh” (the “o” in “or”, the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s).
  4. Kleinriviersberge is pronounced “clayn-Ruh-fee-Rs-beR-guh” (the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s).
  5. Under the aegis of a local wine farm, she owns a wine brand named after the hamlet in which we grew up and where I live now.
  6. Afrikaans, pronounced “ihn di hoo-uh-feld” (the “ih” in “sit”, the second “i” as in “did” and the “e” in “meld”), meaning “in the highveld”.
  7. Pronounced “toowin fun dihR yih-fihR” (a trilled “R”, the “y” in “year” and the “ih” in “sit”).
  8. Marais is pronounced “mah-R-ai” (a trilled “R” and the “ai” in “air”). “Winternag” is Afrikaans for “winter night”, pronounced “vihn-teR-nah-ch” (the “ih” in “sit”, a trilled “R” and the “ch” in “loch”).
  9. I wrote briefly of my own longing for the fields in “My Pastoral Romance”, which goes some way to explain why Toon van der Heever’s lines affected me so!

This September

Through the Downs, 7 September 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
I took this photograph whilst out among the hills, late in the afternoon.

I was transported to my childhood

“A Dream of Summertime” began as two stanzas, originally titled “Verses”. They were inspired by recollections from my childhood when (between the ages of eight and nine) I lived with my family in the great valley between the Babilonstoringberge1 and Kleinriviersberge2. There my mother taught at a small primary school for the children of farmworkers. I was one of her students in Grades Three and Four3, which she instructed together in one class.

The school was housed in two buildings. My mother and a second teacher shared a modest two-classroom building on one part of the farm, and the headmaster and a fourth teacher, one on another. Once a week, we would walk from one building to the other for subjects my mother did not present in Grade Four. On our way, we would pass through a forest with brambles and dandelions. These brambles and dandelions appear in the poem.

During that time, surely the happiest of my life, we stayed through the week in a farmworker’s cottage. It had two rooms, one door, a wood stove and four tiny windows overlooking the surrounding hills and valleys. Behind it was a ditch carrying water between a series of dams. It flowed fast in winter and hardly moved in summer. There I would marvel at dragonflies cavorting above the stream. The ditch and its dragonflies also appear in the poem.

I shared how my poetry comes about

Whilst “A Dream of Summertime” recalls images from the past, the majority of my poems are responses to the rural landscape about me now. Early in the month, I shared photographs of sights and the free verse they inspired in a set of five social media posts to demonstrate how my poems begin4. Were these lines to become a poem, they would undergo a significant transformation, since my ultimate goal is the composition of traditional verse.

Free verse is a powerful form of poetry, used to great effect by Richard Adams in the verses he conceived for Silverweed in chapter sixteen of Watership Down. Though his verses are a great inspiration to me, in the poems for this collection, I want to evoke the innocence and charm of simple rhyme on simple subjects—to hearken back to childhood, when poetry is uncomplicated, joyful, memorable and in its own way, profound.

Footnotes

  1. Babilonstoringberge (pronounced “bah-bee-lons-twuh-Ruh-ng-beR-guh” with the “o” in “or”, the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s) is Afrikaans for “Tower of Babel Mountains”. The range is named after its most notable feature: a great peak resembling (from some viewpoints) the Biblical tower as depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Lucas van Valckenborch in their paintings.
  2. Kleinriviersberge (pronounced “clayn-Ruh-fee-Rs-beR-guh” with the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s) is Afrikaans for “Small River’s Mountains”. The range often appears in my photographs, since I live near its eastern extension now. Indeed, it is one of its rugged spines you see in the photograph above.
  3. At the time (the mid 1980s), these were known in South Africa as Standard One (Grade Three) and Standard Two (Grade Four).
  4. The first of which can be viewed on Facebook here, Twitter here and Google+ here.