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.
I saw flights of swifts and swallows
Whilst out among the hills, I was amazed to see three separate flights of swifts and swallows along the route! The biggest of these I filmed, a flock of at least a hundred birds: Alpine and African Black Swifts and White-throated Swallows. Though swifts look very much like swallows on the wing, they are in fact classified as hummingbirds; even so, they behave much the same. Watching them mill high and low about me was otherworldly! They do this to feed on flying insects, but I like to think also for the pure exhilaration of flying.
I watched a crane leaping in the wind
On another occasion, I saw two pairs of Blue or Paradise Cranes (Grus paradisea) among the hills. This time of year, they are watching their eggs, laid directly on the ground, usually in the stubble of harvested wheat fields. The first pair was at the summit of a gentle hill. At one point, the male spread his wings and leapt into the air on the wind! Blue Crane males dance to attract a partner, but since he was already paired up, I presume he was simply enjoying the flow of air. The second pair was more serene, quietly pacing in the stubble.
I started composing “Over the Mountain”
“Over the Mountain” started out as a caption to a photograph I posted to social media1 in late 2017. It showed the open skies, rolling hills and distant mountains so typical of the region in which I live, the Overberg2. Accompanying this impromptu photograph was the line “The fields become the hills and the mountains become the sky”. Not long after, it occurred to me that it may have poetic value. Initially, I thought to explore in “rolling” lines the undulating landscape of the region, and a rough sketch titled “A Vista” was born.
At the end of 2018, I began developing the draft. My intention was to compose one verse extolling the beauty of the landscape, but as I reflected on the photograph—and the frame of mind that prompted the original sketch—it became clear that this would not be adequate. There is so much more to the region than the distinctive patterns and colours of agriculture upon the land: splendid creatures dwelling in the valleys and mountains! I sought therefore to encapsulate my admiration for the Overberg in a kind of poetic “song”.
Inspired by the name of the region, “Over the Mountain”—a play on Overberg—slowly took shape, resulting in a number of amusing verses and refrains, amongst others: “Over the berg! / Over the berg! / Over the berg I go! // No more ’scrapers, / No more papers, / Over the berg I go!” This, of course, did not align with the style and tone of the collection, and it was clear that I had to write from a different perspective. The “song” route was not entirely fruitless, however, for it provided the raw material for the approach that would replace it.
Instead of composing a lighthearted “ditty”, I chose to think of the poem as a “hymn”. Consequently, it became more solemn—though no less exuberant—each verse painting a vignette of the Overberg, scenes I would not trade for the world: the hillsides where the Rhebok3 watches, the fields where the wheat blows in the wind, the heavens where the buzzard4 circles, to name a few examples. The poem is now in its final phase where I must select from the many verse variations I developed, those most promising for the final composition.
I learnt about the plight of the rhebok
“Over the Mountain” naturally lead me to research the Rhebok. I was dismayed to discover that it was declared endangered in September 2017. This is mainly the result of hunting and a loss of habitat. Hunters consider them a great prize since they are difficult to find, stalk and shoot. You see them very rarely; they are shy, cautious and fast. Hunting, in addition to the expansion of farmland and the use of traps set for other animals, has devastated their numbers; and thus they join the Blue Crane on the threatened species list.
The unfortunate news brought to mind my earliest encounter with the Rhebok (or Ribbok5, in Afrikaans). It was not a sighting, but a song from my childhood. “Die Oukraalliedjie” is a well-known Afrikaans folk song (about a song) about a farm called Oukraal6. In one of its verses, it mentions “’n ribbok wat daar teen die rantjie staan”7 (“a rhebok that stands against the hill”). Imagine my delight when decades later, upon one of my rambles, I should see a Rhebok for the first time in just such a scene: quietly grazing against a hillside—
Incredibly, at first, my presence did not disturb it. It was only when I produced my camera that it lost its nerve and bolted swiftly up and over the hill. I was fortunate to capture this flight in a series of photographs which I later used to confirm that it was indeed the Grey Rhebok, Pelea capreolus. Though I pass that area often, I have not seen it since. There was one evening I saw a buck darting by the wayside in the bushes; I suspect it may have been a young Rhebok, but in the low light, I could not tell. I wait patiently to see one again.
- The original post can be viewed here (Twitter).
- A chiefly agricultural region in the Western Cape province of South Africa. “Overberg” (pronounced “oowuh-fiR-beh-R-CH”, a trilled “R” and a guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh”) is Dutch for “over the mountain”.
- The Rhebok is a medium-sized South African antelope.
- Incidentally, the buzzard is a large bird of prey resembling a hawk. I photographed it early in 2018 and posted it here (Twitter). As you will see, it is not a vulture, as American English suggests. It is often seen circling high above, something I was able to capture (by complete accident) in 2017, which can be watched here (Twitter).
- Pronounced “Rh-bock” with a trilled “R” and the “o” a shortened version of that in “or”.
- “Die Oukraalliedjie” (pronounced “di oh-kRaahl-likki” with the “i” in “it” and a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “The Ol’ Pen Ditty”. “Liedjie” (pronounced “likki” with the “i” in “it”) is Afrikaans for “ditty” or “little song” and “Oukraal” (pronounced “oh-kRaahl” with a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “Ol’ Pen” (“ol’” as in “old” and “pen” as in an enclosure for animals), the name of a farm.
- Literally, “a rhebok that there against the little hill stands”. The line appears at the end of the first verse around the 0:20 mark. You can listen to the song as recorded by Groep Twee (Afrikaans for “group two”, pronounced “CHRoup tweeuh” with the guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh” and a trilled “R”) on Apple Music, Spotify or Youtube.
I wandered upon a mountain slope
Although December is the beginning of the South African summer, it is yet spring on the mountain slopes with scores of wild flowers in bloom. I had the pleasure—nay the joy—of wandering upon just such a mountain slope late one afternoon, discovering to my amazement even more species I had not encountered before! Most notable among these were the pink Kalossie (Ixia scillaris)1 and Wild Hibiscus (Hibiscus aethiopicus). I saw a number of the former scattered about the slope and one of the latter in the middle of the track!
I took precisely one hundred and thirty photographs, some of which I have included in this piece. Of the utterly delightful Kalossie, I could not get enough. New to me, I dubbed it the “Field Ballerina” for its little pink tutu-like flower and its light sway in the breeze. So enchanted was I by everything I saw that I resorted to poetry, composing three new sketches praising the red Bergpypie2 (Tritoniopsis antholyza), the violet Fine-stalked Lobelia (Lobelia chamaepitys)3 and the pink Kalossie. I grouped these under the title “Wild Flower Trio”.
I had also the pleasure of encountering a Toktokkie4, a Darkling beetle that knocks its rear end on the ground in order to attract a mate. To demonstrate this, I made a video recording5 of it doing just so in response to my knocking on the ground with a knuckle. I could have sat there on the ground watching it forever, so engrossed was I by the creature and my silly little knocking trick! As I wrote this paragraph, I conceived of a little poetic sketch—“Tock-tocky”—which I have since added to my list6 of poems for the collection.
I completed “Boy in the Field”
In the “Boy in the Field” poem, I recount a sighting of a Paradise Crane7 last November. The graceful pale-blue animal is the national bird of South Africa, indigenous to this region. I have photographed it on a number of occasions before, usually in a group of two or three, or as a herd on a hillside; but here was a solitary bird, quietly watching me from a short distance. The moment was dreamlike: the world about me vanished, and the crane was to me the very embodiment of Nature’s every virtue—in its presence, I beheld the divine.
How I would express the experience in poetry—or any other art form, for that matter—I had no idea. The initial draft I sketched at the time seemed unworthy; I was beset with the fear that I may have to abandon the poem! Then, a breakthrough came—as it often does, whilst out in the fields—in the form of a single line: “The hills were brushed with gold, early in November, / No more the vivid green it was in September.” It was clumsy, but nonetheless the catalyst for the first verse around which I could then construct the rest of the poem.
Four verses were the result, together describing the scene and what it evoked within me—and surely any other moved by the loveliness of nature—in a musing lyrical ballad. Where I thought grandiloquence would be necessary to convey the sublime, modest language sufficed—with a flourish here and there—and the poem is now complete. As it evolved, so did its title, changing from “Boy in the Field” to “The Boy and the Crane” (inspired by the couplet composed for The Zephyr and the Swallow8), to the final “A Crane at Eventide”.
I realised the value of veracity
One of my favourite Afrikaans poems is “In die Hoëveld”9 by Toon van den Heever10. Confined in the mines and suffering from consumption, the poet longs for the expanse of the highveld. So convincingly does he lament his lot that I assumed the poem must be autobiographical. It was not. The poet was no miner, he was a magistrate! His poetic brilliance notwithstanding, I was outraged to deduce—with no evidence to the contrary—that the scenario that so captivated me was nothing more than the most eloquent of inventions.
I felt, however irrational it may be, that I was somehow deceived by the poet—I say “irrationally” because there is, of course, in poetry every liberty and encouragement to indulge the imagination—but it is precisely because the poem had struck such a chord within me that I felt so, dare I say, betrayed. In poetry, it has always been my intention to be true to life, to capture scenarios as they were, emotions as I experienced them. “In die Hoëveld” strengthened my resolve in this regard: factuality is more precious to me now than ever!
At first, this approach was a subconscious one. It became deliberate a few months ago whilst composing a sketch titled “A Pear Tree”. In it, I was tempted to place the tree in question on a hill for dramatic effect. I checked myself immediately: the tree is not in fact on a hill but in a valley, the last that remains of what once was an orchard. However much the image of a solitary tree on a hill appealed to the Romanticist within me, I realised that it was infinitely better—for me—to look for the wonderful in fact rather than fabrication.
I did a little reflection
This year, I isolated myself on social media by unfollowing everyone. There were a number of reasons for doing so, but a deciding factor was the need to escape the incredible reaction of artists to the political events of 2016. Two years later, it still echoes through timelines like an untuned string11. It was particularly tiresome to me—if The Political Compass12 is to be believed—a “Centrist” with a slight leaning towards the “Libertarian Right”13 (somewhat of an oddity in the artistic community, if there can be such a thing).
Regardless of this isolation, I enjoyed posting to social media14 and also to this blog. They are invaluable tools of clarification and crystallisation. When I share a thought or any part of my work, it may be scrutinised by all. This helps me view what I have shared from the perspective of those I imagine are scrutinising it, and gives me a deeper understanding of the thing than I would otherwise attain. It is especially enlightening when I share something in which I am invested, and so it performs an important function in my creative process.
Therefore, in the year to come, I shall continue to post to social media and write monthly digests on this blog. It is of great benefit to me to reflect periodically upon my work and the essays allow me to do just that: to consolidate my ideas, discuss my process, evaluate what I create and document my progress—in fine, to diarise my artistic endeavours. Whether this has any value to a reader, I do not know—the kind of person who takes an interest in my work is unlikely to be forthcoming on the subject—but I must proceed regardless.
I take great care to produce what is meaningful to others: whether inspirations, ideas or the results of these. Were I to fail in this quest, nothing would displease me more. That notwithstanding, the goal of this project remains unchanged. It is still an expression of everything I have come to value and a task I find deeply fulfilling. Its purpose is not to generate wealth, accolades or fame, but something nobler: to celebrate Beauty. And what better way to celebrate than with others? Grant me then the honour of celebrating with you.
- Afrikaans vernacular for a “klossie” (“little skullcap”), which the flowers resemble. In some dialects, there is a brief gap between the “k” and the “l” in “klossie” (pronounced “kh-lossy” with a short version of the “o” in “or”) and “kalossie” (pronounced “kah-lossy”) is the result.
- Afrikaans for “little mountain pipe” (pronounced “b-eh-R-CH pay-pi” with a trilled “R” and “CH” the guttural “kccch” sound in “loch”, that is, not the “ck” in “lock”, and the “i” in “did”).
- It is possible I am confusing this with Lobelia tomentosa, they are incredibly similar.
- Afrikaans for “knockety-knock” or literally, “little knock-knock” (pronounced “tock-tocky” with a short version of the “o” in “or”).
- The knocking Toktokkie video is here (Twitter).
- I periodically post a “Poetry Publication Progress” list to social media, this being the most recent (Twitter).
- Grus paradisea, also known as a Blue Crane or a Stanley Crane and colloquially as the Vyf-sent Voël (pronounced “feyf-sent foo-wil”, Afrikaans for “five-cent bird”) since it appeared on the now obsolete five-cent coin (ZAR).
- “The Zephyr and the Swallow” couplet is the poetic concept around which the titular EP (Bandcamp) is built.
- Afrikaans for “in the highveld” (pronounced “ihn di hoo-uh-felt” with the “ih” in “sit”, the second “i” that in “did” and the “e” in “felt”).
- In “This November” and on social media, I referred to this poet incorrectly as Toon van der (not “den”) Heever. Toon van den Heever (pronounced “toowin fun dihn yih-fihR” with the “ih” in “sit”, the “y” in “year” and a trilled “R”) is not his real name. Toon is a nickname attached to him when an annoyed rugby teammate, whom he had nicknamed Duimpie (Afrikaans for “little thumb”, pronounced “duhimpi”), snapped at him with “Ag jou groottoon, man” (which literally translates to “Oh your big toe, man”, pronounced “ah-CH yo CH-R-oowuht-toowin, munn” with “CH” the guttural “kccch” sound in “loch”, not the “ck” in “lock”, and a trilled “R”, an Afrikaans retort taking the form of “oh your [insert relevant epithet, typically a bodily reference], man”, used either affectionately, teasingly or derisively). Toon’s real name is François Petrus van den Heever (Petrus is pronounced “peeyuh-tR-uhs” with a trilled “R”). Whilst I knew that Toon must be a nickname, I thought it was short for either Anton or Antoon (respectively pronounced “ahn-tonn” with a short version of the “o” in “or” and “ahn-toowin”), both Afrikaans for Anthony.
- Manifesting itself in every smug, patronising, self-righteous (and outright petulant) affectation bourgeois pietism can muster.
- A test designed to determine one’s political leaning. It can be taken at The Political Compass.
- According to this analysis on the aforementioned site, in the excellent company of Frédéric Chopin, Antonín Dvořák and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
- Both Google+ and Apple Music Connect have announced the discontinuation of their services and so I no longer post there.