The South African winter has arrived, and one of the joys of the season is its lingering mists. This is unused footage (sped up eight times) filmed two years ago for the “Verse One” music video on an unforgettable morning as the mist gently surrendered to the sun.
Over the past few months, I have been working on a new album. It began at about the same time as my collaboration with Krzyzis in late 2016. Early on, I knew that both projects would share a theme and have a similar concept. These were first explored in The Zephyr and the Swallow—the collaborative EP with Krzyzis—a combination of poetry and ambient music inspired by my love for the countryside. The EP was built around a couplet, a short poem of two lines I wrote to inspire the music; but for the album, I wanted to expand on the idea and write a larger work, a series of verses for a ballad.
The Zephyr and the Swallow EP illustrated a pastoral scene—the wind blows over a field and a swallow dashes into the sky—an idyllic moment of beauty set in a rural landscape. In my youth, at the height of summer, I would spend hours in the fields watching the wind making waves in the grass and the swallows flying overhead. Even now, I find this simple pastime a most enchanting and vivid experience. It is just such a scene I describe in the couplet I wrote for The Zephyr and the Swallow—“Over the field the zephyr blew, / Into the sky the swallow flew”—lines I set to music to create an ode.
Writing the Poem
I started writing the poem for the album in late 2016, going through numerous drafts until I eventually found a form and approach that felt appropriate. In much the same way one agonises over the notes of a musical composition, one pores over a poem—every syllable of every word carefully chosen to exquisitely articulate a meaning or express an emotion. After three months of assembling and dismantling verses, I finally produced “Forgotten Fields”, a self-titled ballad with six verses. In the poem, a daydreamer nostalgically recalls a happy moment in time, surrounded by fields and swallows.
Central to the theme of the poem is the feeling of wistfulness—a longing tinged with regret—conveyed by the imagery. It describes a world of endless fields, swallows impossible to catch, a memory forgotten and rediscovered. The lines are gentle and flowing—the musings of someone lost in thought. They are beautifully read by English narrator Chris Lateano for the compact disc release. “Forgotten Fields”, the all-encompassing title, is alluded to in the final verse:
Far away and left untrodden
Under summer skies
Lie the fields I had forgotten
Where the swallow flies!
I prefer to be alone. Growing up, I felt as if there was no one to defend, protect, value and recognise me. Early on, I learnt the benefits of separation as a way of coping with this reality. But, the emotional stuntedness, detachment and isolation I began to experience as a result, left me feeling disconnected from others, especially the people who were “supposed” to love me. I don’t pretend to speak for all people with dysfunctional backgrounds, but we tend to feel numb and consequently unable to form healthy relationships. Because we feel like aliens, the best we can do is to imitate behaviours that help us pass off as human. Even when we are besotted with someone, we struggle to connect on anything more than a superficial level because we are afraid of exposure.
The wasteland within
To me, love is an unattainable ideal, an experience I must be denied. Somewhere, in the recesses of my soul, a siren sweetly sings of how hateful, shameful and worthless I am. My relationships fail because I subconsciously engineer them to do so. My inner landscape is so devastated that I am incapable of inviting anyone in. In fact, I dread visiting there, myself! If they saw what a wasteland it is, they would run for the hills! I don’t invest much of myself in a relationship—I dare not! Too many forbidden forests would have to be visited and too many treacherous tombs excavated in order for me to open up in any meaningful way. And so, I play along until the relationship comes to its inevitable end. With the self-sabotage complete, I can retreat again to the familiar places.
One gets used to the wastelands. So much so that the barrenness becomes beautiful. Any green is regarded with suspicion. How can there be green when there is no rain? When the storms bring only darkness and howling winds, blowing up disorientating clouds of dust? Surely, there are only thorns and weeds to choke the ruins of what could have been? Aren’t all the landmarks hills of anger, pain and sadness, the constants we learn to love over time? They seem inextricable from the landscape, how can one ever abandon them for happiness? Is happiness not just an unexpected flower that wilts and withers the moment it is seen? (And what a relief when it does, no longer there to remind us of our loss!)
Finding the fields
And yet, there is hope! Occasionally, I come across fields of wildflowers, miraculous and wonderful. I discover them in the wastelands when music, like an irresistible siren song, draws me to where they are. Once there, I can destroy myself on the rocks of beauty to be reborn for a moment into something free, hopeful, vulnerable, honest, unspoilt and untamed! I wish I could remain there, but as I wander the wasteland, traversing vast stretches of everyday life, the fields are soon forgotten. I even forget that music is who I am, it is what I should do. Distracted, I stumble aimlessly along. And that is why I created Forgotten Fields. It is like a map and compass, reminding me that the fields exist, that I must not forget them, that music is the way to find them. Dear reader, what is your music? What is your map and compass? May you find it, soon!
Autumn is a time when the earthy beiges of summer turn verdant green. In the countryside, where I am fortunate to reside, this change in the landscape marks the beginning of my favourite time of the year. As the season progresses, the wheat stands tall enough to blow in the wind. Their wavelike movement always reminds me of Winternag (Afrikaans for “winter’s night”), a poem by Eugène Marais. In it, he likens the grasses blowing in the wind to beckoning hands. And that is exactly how I experience them. They invite me; the fields call out to me! I am compelled to stand in their midst and revel in their beauty!
In the autumn of 2012, I listened almost exclusively to the music of July Skies. Their gentle blend of disarming instrumentals and melancholy vocals made me fall in love with my surroundings, over and over again. So much so that I was inspired to write Autumn, which I humbly share with you, here:
I smell the wispy, rising smoke as autumn fires burn,
I feel the crispness of the air as shortened days return.
How the sky seems clearer,
Bluer in the cold;
How the green hills dearer
Than all of summer’s gold!
Mornings come with gentle mist that quietly greets the day,
All about the countryside the brightest hues are grey.
I need only wait a while
Before the hills appear;
I need only see them smile
My heart to fill with cheer!
I wonder at the long, thick grass that won’t give up the dew,
Midday finds them glistening still, in gentle sunlight, new!
Soon the day is ending,
Already evening falls;
To the moon ascending,
I hear a nightjar calls!
When the rainfall comes, the shallow rivers flood
Drizzle turns to torrents and moistened soil to mud.
Now and then the sun will show
Through heavy cloud to shine;
Now and then, the winding road
To make a silvery line!
To me, fields are places of quiet reflection. Some time ago, I wrote about the origin of that association, in my childhood. I mentioned a children’s book with an illustration of a boy in a field. I discovered the book online and ordered a copy. It arrived, today.
Distorted by time
Paging through it, I remembered every illustration. But, there were differences in the details. I remember the boy lying in an open field of tall, golden grass, but as you see, the grass is short and the landscape domesticated and green. (On top of this, I somehow added a straw hat, whilst completely forgetting the sleeping German shepherd!) How memories are distorted by time!
Through grown-up eyes
I see why the illustration made such an impression on me, in my youth. It has an idyllic Norman Rockwell quality. Even though it’s just an average children’s book illustration, I’ve become instantly sentimental about it. So, it feels strangely sacrilegious to analyse it, too much. I am just happy I get to see the image, once again.