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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Pronounced “feign-boss” with the “o” in “or” cut short.
- 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”).
- 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.
- 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.
- A Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus).
- I shared a little more about this route in a social media post here (Twitter).
- 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).
- 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.
- Whom I mention in “This October”.
- Pronounced “yunn eff eeyh sil-yeaRs” with a trilled “R”.
- In “This October” I wrote about this wonderful flower that opens at nightfall.
- Afrikaans for “my child”, pronounced “mey khnd” with the short “kh” sound at the beginning of “kid”.
- 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.
- 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.
- A line from the poem I composed for the Forgotten Fields (2017) album.