Dusty Books #3 The Ageless Land – Olga Levinson

This is the first in a series of discussions about desert books that have found their way to my dusty shelf. The desert is often described as ageless and timeless and a country with as much arid land as Namibia, is often written down on the same pages as the desert.

“South West Africa is a strange land, engendering a love that goes beyond all logical reasoning. For it is a hard country, and will always remain so; hard and uncompromising; it nevertheless has an inexplicable appeal for all those who live there. It seems to grow on the traveller too, and time and again the early explorers found themselves drawn to return in spite of all they had suffered. At first there might be disappointment – even dismay, certainly discomfort. But before long the spell of the country holds the traveller, and he can never forget what he sees.

With nostalgia he will always recall the awesome loneliness of the desert, the vast arid land of the south, the red dune-veld of the eastern border, …”(Levinson 1961:9)

In  The Ageless Land.The Story of South West Africa (1961) Olga Levinson writes about the landscape, people and history of a country that she seems to love dearly. Levinson seems to have been a scanner with a keen interest in all sorts of things and also lived in South West Africa, the Namibia of today. Nou ja, jy mag vra hoekom ek dikwels sulke ou boeke met verouderde inligting hier onder jou neus kom druk. Ja, baie dinge het verander sedert die verskying van hierdie boek en selfs in die tyd toe dit geskryf is, was sommige dinge anders as in haar beskrywings. Maar dis die soort boeke wat dikwels op my stowwerige rak beland, want haar beskrywings van die landskap is in woorde wat ‘n mens nie maklik loslaat nie. Especially her description of the Skeleton Coast is a delight to the imagination:

Few places in the world can offer a more lonely and desolate scene than the barren white sandy wastes of the coast of South West Africa…For over seven months of the year a pitiless wind lashes this arid coastal belt, cutting fretful patterns into the vast restless dunes …it may temporarily uncover the bleached bones of forgotten skeletons, which have given the northern stretch of this land the sinister name of Skeleton Coast…It is a weird and waterless world, battered by the cold relentless Atlantic waves on the one side, and stretching in stricken rejection for some sixty to a hundred miles inland on the other. Its sand dunes, which are the highest in the world, form a formidable barrier between the coast and the interior…Yet, even here in this desolation, beats the primeval rhythm of life. Curiosities of the vegetable kingdom, shedding all unnecessary trappings in their desperate struggle to survive, cling to their precarious existence with a crystalline singleness of purpose. Their only regular moisture is the dew that forms on cold winter nights (11).

I read this book around the fringes, skipping a lot of the history and people, and getting lost in the landscape. I’ve been there, and now this dusty book took me back there again.

Dusty Books #2 Ferns – Roger Grounds

Often we have to carve a little bit of expedition into our daily lives when the open road has to be ignored for a little bit as we get other things done. So on Friday morning, I had one of those makeshift expeditions and it turned into a whole series of unexpected adventure: I went looking for ferns.IMG_20151121_101132.jpg

Well, not really. I often duck into the library on a whim just to see where my nose leads me and whenever a book pulls me in, I stop right there and that’s where the expedition goes. IMG_20151120_115810.jpgThis time I got pulled over by Robert Grounds’ Ferns – stopping me in my tracks to remind me how much I’ve always loved these lacy little plants that conjure up forests and waterfalls and slow, fat dinosaurs with the unexplained, unspoken warmth of nodding old friends. I pulled out my notebook on the floor between the shelves of dusty books and get lost in that special feeling of long distance kinship when a writer puts one of your fondest vague loves into words:

“Ferns are indisputably the most beautiful of all the non-flowering plants. They have a grace and charm that is uniquely their own. Whether they are grown in a shaded border along with hostas, hardy terrestrial orchids and shrubs, in bottle gardens and Wardian cases, in the pampered environment of the greenhouse, or whether they are simply encountered in their native haunts in woodlands and hedgegrows, it is the delicacy of their finely finely divided fronds and their flowing habit of growth that makes them so attractive.”

“The ferns of the modern world could easily be taken at face value simply as a successful group of plants, like any other group of plants that has survived the modern age. Yet things are not so simple. Ferns are indeed one of the most successful of all groups of plants, and yet they are plants of enormous antiquity. The ferns of today are but the diminutive relatives of the great forests of tree ferns that flourished together with giant clubmosses and horsetails in the Carboniferous Age some 350,000,000 years ago. It was these giant ancestors of the modern ferns that laid down those rich seams of carbon upon which not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the structure of modern society were to be founded.”(Grounds 1974:14)

There is something to be said for old nature guide books. Some of them have lines that read like poetry. Just look at these lines from the section on cultivating ferns:“Ferns are among the easiest plants to cultivate. In the first place, they will thrive on neglect…; even so, that is not to recommend neglect as an ideal mode of cultivation.” (Grounds 1974:48) As I pulled out its neighbour, the glossy, thick Ferns of Southern Africa (Crouch et al. 2011) I keep them next to each other. The new one with its fat wads of delicious pictures and information, the one that will lift the usual suspects in the garden to celebrity status. And the old one, with its fond recounting of the story of ferns from the coalmakers to the Victorian grottoes to the fact that my hands are itching to copy all these beautiful sketches in ink. I love that there is something as splendid and alive as a brand new book with the latest information, showing that there is growth and interest. IMG_20151120_115759.jpgAnd I love that a book from 1974 can still tell me something I’ve always wanted to know – enthusiasm shining through the outdated and still pointing somewhere.

Soon I gave up the noble and uncomfortable exercise of trying to jot down field notes from these two excellent specimens and I tuck them under my arm to carry home.

Lost in the shiny pictures of the field guide, the sounds of the night are tuned out as fern after fern the surprising expedition continues. There are ferns in deserts? In arid places? In water? That look like that? But hovering over all of these questions, is still the question that halted me at the botany shelf: What is it about ferns?

The next day I set out on another expedition. Counting 5 different ferns in the yard before it starts raining again. IMG_20151121_100521.jpgEk het gou agtergekom dat dit my nie regtig ‘n bloue duit skeel wat hulle name is en watter een nou die nefie of die antie is van watter een nie. IMG_20151121_101100.jpgEk hou daarvan om die blare om te draai vir die spore wat wys dis varings. En om te kyk na hulle. Ek hou daarvan om na varings te kyk en meer kloes as dit sal ek nie sommer maklik kry nie. So I start taking pictures of them. And telling people about them And writing about them.

Ek en die varing en die tuin sit en kyk vir mekaar. IMG_20151121_101107.jpgIt’ll take more expeditions to get to the bottom of this strange affinity. I like the way Grounds says it at the end of the first section of his introduction: “The more one knows about ferns the more they intrigue one, and to appreciate them fully it is well worth examining in some detail their place in the plant kingdom and their evolutionary history.” (1974:15)

Miskien is varings net mooi. Maar hoekom?



Dusty Roads #1

As die paaie jou roep, is die beste begin soms jou eie agterplaas. Vanoggend ry ek weer onder ‘n tonnel Raffia palms en boomvarings op ‘n nou teerpaadjie werk toe. Ons vergeet maar gou dat ons leef op ander mense se veraf droompaaie. Dit was baie droog gewees die afgelope tyd in Zululand en die welkome buie wat die laaste paar dae geval het, maak dat die grond in die woud weer ruik soos dit moet. Die see was vaal en omgekook vanoggend na gisteraand se donderbui. Maar hy sal weer reg wees vir daardie swem wanneer jy hier uitklim na die lang, stowwerige paaie.

When you drive up the North East coast of South Africa, starting at Durban on the N2, you may think that there is not much more to this landscape than the suffocating green of the sugar cane –  sometimes wafting purple plumes, sometimes ablaze in a thick smoke of candy floss – and the blue flits of the Indian Ocean to your right and the bridges over the Tugela and the other rivers that make your tyres go gnk-gnk.

You bet that was a long sentence.  It is because there’s that stretch of the road that you just want to get over and done with in one breath. The blue gum plantation flickering to your right as the road sign says it’s 16km more to Mtunzini Plaza – the toll gate where you turn off.

Turn off that road anywhere and the cane fields pull away. Suddenly there are bits of bush between the patchy hills of cabbages and mealies and palm trees. Those same banana trees that looked so frayed on the middle man of the N2, suddenly heavy with fruit and vervet monkeys. Coral trees hang their orange flowers over your way from their bare, grey branches. And when you roll down your window you still smell the ocean, but the hot dampness from the drooping grass blades hit you in the face. Welcome to Zululand.

The turn off to Mtunzini is to your right, about 140km North from where you started. The little village appears from underneath the biggest overhanging canopies of fever trees and umzimbeets you’ve ever seen. A lourie’s red wings disappear up the branches of a tree full of flowers. And you smell the wet earth and remember that you were here to write about nature.

Suddenly you find your feet sinking into the tunnel of that mole that poked it’s confused little nose out next to my exploding pot plant. A stripy flash of a tail turns a lizard into a snake, just for those few seconds when you glimpse its little feet with relief. There where you grabbed the trunk of a tree a little orchid is hanging on for dear life and you wonder why it did not pick the hole between the branches like the tumbling fern.

In this humidity everything grows faster and bigger. If you stay here until it gets dark and the drunken loops of bats flutter past your ear, you’ll swat away the kind of mosquitoes that used to ride the dinosaurs between these ferns. And if you’re lucky you’ll see one of those huge moths as big as your hand. mesmerizing the clicking gecko plastered below the ceiling.

Just put down your fan and sink into the heat that buzzes under the stars where the dark leaves cut the moon into bits of gleaming white. You’ll hear the owl calling.

Dusty Books #1 Springbok round the corner – Basil Fuller

I picked up this remarkable find, published by Maskew Miller around 1954, for R5 at a book sale at a school hall in Hartenbos last summer. Ah, yes, those summers in Hartenbos, reading under the canvas of a tent blowing with the Port Jackson trees and salty air, trying to keep the greasy chips paper’s vinegar and the juice of the nectarines from the place across the road away from the pages of a new find. It is time for another one of those soon!

I had never heard of the book or the author before, but the title drew my eyes away from the rest. (I did buy a few of the others too, will tell you about them soon enough here in the corner of Dusty Books) Here’s the first part of the prologue where the author writes about his choice for the title:

The old man put down his glass to gaze across the dining table. For a long time he had talked of out-of-the-way places – Damaraland, the Kalahari, and the Skeleton Coast – until at last the waiter had wearied and gone to the kitchens while we sat on in an empty room. Now he said quizzically:

“Of course you’re travelling in Africa to see lonely deserts and primitive men.”

Then he grinned at my hasty disclaimer.

“Well, that’s what most of your kind mean when they talk of ‘the unusual’. But for a change, I wish one of you writer fellows would tell us about the unusual things near at home, the curious things we miss because they’re just off the beaten track; things which the average man might see, but doesn’t.”

Later, we sat together on the stoep and looked out across Umtata to watch the moonlight silver the rounded hills of the Transkei.

“You’ll agree that Africa, more than most lands, is packed with unexpected things and places, with unexpected people,” the old man continued. “Yet the average person, whether South African, British, or American traveller, just doesn’t find them. He hasn’t the trained eye. Why should he? To use a hunting parallel, he is like the townsman tracking game.”

A sudden idea caused me to ask questions about his experiences with South African game, particularly the Springbok.

“Springbok!”, he exclaimed his voice cracking in excitement, “The Springbok is always unpredictable. It’s this way with him. You may cover his country for many miles and not see him, even though he is nearby all the time. For the untrained eye may look straight at him and yet pass on, suspecting nothing. That patch of deeper brown had blended perfectly with the landscape. Then, perhaps, there comes a very slight movement in that very spot, the flick of the ears, the quick turn of the graceful head. And there’s your Springbok! He has developed, so to speak, against the background of the veld almost as a picture appears when a film lies in developing liquid. He has been there all along but you have not been able to see him.” (ix)

En nou moet ek oorswitch na Die Taal want ek is net steeds, ‘n jaar later, hopeloos te opgewonde oor hierdie boek. Ek kon my oë nie glo toe ek sien watter plekke in die inhoudsopgawe en onderaan die foto’s is nie: Senekal, Vierfontein, Umtata, die Bluff…

En dit is wat die boek so besonders maak. Wat my nog meer opgewonde gemaak het, is wat hy om al die hoeke en draaie ontdek het. Hy praat met ‘n ou man en vrou wat onthou hoe hulle as slawe op ‘n skip aan wal gekom het in Natal. Hy kry fossiele in ‘n ringmuur om ‘n kerk in Senekal. Senekal! Hy vat die spoor van sandduine op die Berg van die Nag en praat met myners wat nog ly aan die goudkoors op die delwerye.

He drives this old car, The Cannibal Queen, all over some obscure dirt roads to corners of South Africa like The Bluff in Durban and Odendaalsrus. Constantly tracking the stories of farmers and miners and descendants of figures in South African history, giving you that feeling of when you stumble across an old black and white film of a person you’ve only read about in history books so often that you’ve forgotten that they were real.

“Springbok round the Corner” may be a travel guide to places and people that you’ll never be able to travel to anymore, and still should be in your cubbyhole to remind you that whatever you’re setting out to see in this beautiful country, lies beyond the sensational and the obvious: around the corner.