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.
Here, a copse of pine fumes with mist atop a ridge of the Little River Mountains whilst there, a final puff lingers upon a rugged peak. Below, the Little River itself is all but a mirror in the stillness. Modest are the joys of the Overberg in the arms of the South African autumn.
Timorously developing the rough lines of the “Rains and Roads” poetic sketch, here and there, a promising phrase emerges—like the very sunlight through clouds they describe. The poem muses upon a moment not unlike the one I include here, photographed in late spring, 2018. (So bright was the sun that the iPhone camera could not bear it!) I suspect “Rains and Roads” will be a single stanza to echo the transience of the scene. Indeed, nothing worthy comes to mind for a second stanza just yet.
On this winter’s morning in the Overberg countryside of South Africa, the low peaks of the Small River Mountain range are laden with sunlit clouds; and in the gentle valleys at their feet, mists enshroud the hills.
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.
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!
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.
I posted it first to Twitter here and the day after to other social media platforms.
Babilonstoringberge is pronounced “bah-bee-lons-twuh-Ruh-ng-beR-guh” (the “o” in “or”, the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s).
Kleinriviersberge is pronounced “clayn-Ruh-fee-Rs-beR-guh” (the “e” in “wet” and trilled “R”s).
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.
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”.
Pronounced “toowin fun dihR yih-fihR” (a trilled “R”, the “y” in “year” and the “ih” in “sit”).
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”).
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!
I have been working on the last of a set of three poems titled “The Batis” for the greater part of March. The Cape batis is a small bird with one of my favourite calls—three simple notes which it measures out in the sweetest whistles: foo-foo-foo, foo-foo-foo. I have been enamoured with the creature ever since I first heard its call and was compelled to adore it in verse! The subject of the third “The Batis” poem was not, however, this particular three-whistle call, but another: cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet. I had attributed this call to the batis because I had seen the bird sing this song last year, and in the “The Batis III” verses, describe both bird and call (and the joy it brings on autumn mornings) based on that incident.
A few mornings ago, hearing again the cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet, I ventured out to see if I could spot the bird. To my surprise, I discovered it was not a batis singing but a robin-chat! Puzzled, I set out to learn how I came to misidentify the songster and learned that robin-chats sometimes imitate the calls of other birds. I realised how I may have been tricked. When I identified the batis, last year, two things must have happened: the robin-chat sang the batis foo-foo-foo at one point and its own cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet at another, and I mistakenly attributed the latter to the batis, thinking it another of its calls; and since the birds look somewhat similar at first glance, subsequent sightings evidently compounded my error.
This meant I had written an ode to the wrong bird and it had to be changed! Upon evaluating the poem, I found that only the title and two lines needed replacing. “The Batis III” became “The Robin-Chat” and I exchanged two descriptive lines in the second verse—“A little bird of black and white / Brushed with reddish-brown”—for new ones more suitable, given what had transpired. Thus far, “The Robin-Chat” (heretofore “The Batis III”) has taken the longest to write and is still being revised in light of the new edits. Its four verses, though short, have, thanks to the subject matter, proven a fount of poetic possibility. Whether it becomes part of the final publication or not, it has been an adventure to compose!
I discovered an early poem.
This month, a year ago, I wrote “Rains and Roads”, the first poem drafted specifically for my poetry publication when it was still a distant idea. I came across the poem whilst organising my notes. It was dated 16 March 2017, a rough sketch borrowing somewhat from an earlier 2012 poem, “Autumn”. “Autumn” was the first poem I had ever written on a pastoral theme; in retrospect, my first essay at the format I would ultimately embrace: the Romantic lyrical ballad. “Rains and Roads” continues the theme of “Autumn” but applies it to winter. It consists of two verses and describes a wet day in the countryside: the sun breaks through the clouds after a shower of rain and rivulets trickle beside the gravel roads.
I spoke to David Armes about the poetry publication.
David Armes of Red Plate Press created and produced the handmade letterpress sleeves for the eponymous Forgotten Fields album. I spoke to him earlier this month about publishing the poetry as a handmade booklet—a paperback edition that draws on the minimalist theme of the aforementioned album. In my experience, looking into production early on has a positive effect on a project, and it has certainly been the case here. It has helped me define the concept of the work and thereby the nature and form of the publication. I function best when I have a clear framework for my creative pursuits—it liberates me from the tyranny of carte blanche—and so, articulating my thoughts to David was a boon.
I received the Origins masters and commissioned its artwork.
Taylor Deupree of 12k Mastering has done wonderful work with the recordings for Origins, the first release of contemporary classical pianist Affan and the inaugural release of the Lonely Swallow label. Origins is a collection of six impromptus recorded in low-fidelity. It has all the makings of an intimate, melodic and atmospheric listening experience which Taylor has expertly brought to life in the masters. During the aforementioned conversation with David Armes, we also touched on the visuals for Origins. He will start producing ideas on the press in April, bringing us another step closer to announcing a release date.
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!
This is part one of a three-part series about the new self-titled album. Read part two, “A New Album, Part Two: The Music”, next. Forgotten Fields will be released on 17 November 2017.