Thursday, 28 December 2017

No 54 - The solace of birds

'Batis and acacia' (c) Dan Wylie
Most mornings, for a few months, I’ve been awakened at first light by a rattling flurry of sharp sound. The cat would startle up; I’d wonder if someone was knocking, or tossing hard seeds onto the roof... We got to know soon enough that it's a testosterone-loaded little Cape Batis, very neatly dressed in black, white and russet suit, but positively furious at seeing his reflection in the dawn light on the eastern window. You’d think after a couple of weeks he would twig that this was not a rival male, but a virtual bird, a fake-news bird, not worth expending all those calories on. But no, self-recognition not being a strong point, or maybe actually enjoying a kind of gym session, on and on he goes at it. Sometimes he is joined by an African Paradise-Flycatcher, resplendent in breeding brick-red colour, or a Dark-capped Bulbul. Are they learning from each other?

I wonder if a Klaas’s Cuckoo chick somewhere is being deprived by this distraction, as the Batis is a prime sucker for the cuckoos to foist their eggs on – and already I can hear an immigrant cuckoo lilting, My-iki, my-iki in the pines upslope of my cottage, its white belly making it all but invisible against the paling sky. Nearer to hand, the Batis churrs and grouses. As Terry Oatley has written, this is a hard sound to describe; he finds the only satisfying one is C J ‘Jack’ Skead’s, likening it to pebbles being rolled together. I think of it as more woody than stony, a sort of rolling gurRRR-rrRRRrrr-rrr. But it has always been a problem for the bird-guide compilers to describe bird-song. The old Roberts guide (eds. McLachan & Liversidge) was quite richly poetic: I think it was the Pel’s Fishing Owl’s call that was compared to the cry of a desperate soul falling into the pit of hell! No one ever having heard such a soul, actually, this would not do for the more recent scientific generation, as represented by Gordon Maclean, compiler of the 1984 Roberts, the hefty edition with its handsome maroon dust-jacket. Though the descriptions of songs became blander, Maclean did include sonograms, little graph-like diagrams like ECG printouts, which I found very useful in gauging relative smoothness or harshness of calls, time intervals, and more. In the yet more recent Roberts field-guide (Chittenden, 2007), much pared down in the interests of making it more convenient to carry about, the sonograms have disappeared. For the Batis, Maclean repeated the “two stones” notion, as does Chittenden; but without amplification it’s not so useful.  The massive seventh edition (Hockey et al), despite being 1200 large-format pages long, has done away with the apostrophe after Roberts, the sonograms and the stones: the Batis now says chewarra-warra-warra, which is quite good, even if it reminds me of Tigger trying unsuccessfully to be fierce in Winnie the Pooh.

Why do I even possess these books – alongside two huge volumes of the Bird Atlas project, the two beautifully-illustrated volumes of Geoff McIlleron and Peter Ginn’s Ultimate Companion, Peter Steyn’s Birds of Prey, a battered Newman’s field guide, and still others? After all, I am far from being a dedicated “twitcher”, more a sporadic observer, and these books are far more technical and detailed than I will ever need. I blame the bird atlas project, which my mother and I participated in for a time in its first round; that educative experience drew me into buying the atlases when they were published (obviously, since our names were in the back, hoo-hah!). Then I bought more, and more... Apparently South Africans buy more bird books per capita than any other nation on earth. Yet I do like to know who I’m seeing and attach a name. A name confers a certain intimacy on a raw observation, allows me to feel more at home and attuned, even if the bird itself doesn’t give a tiny white poep about your human sense of intimacy.

The clumsiness of our attempts to describe birdsong means: dump the books, go out and listen. There is no experience but the experience. I take a chair onto the front lawn, look out over the forest tree-tops, the coastal plain beyond, sit and listen. A certain kind of knowledge and layering of meaning comes from the books, to be sure; a different kind from memory and experience. A number of species in this forest also occur in my home forest of eastern Zimbabwe, so are heavy with evocative memory. And they are all present this crystalline morning, talking to and past and over and despite one another.

The Batises (Batii?) are worra-worra-ing and chirping; White-Eyes chitter in a little group dashing from erythrina to wild-olive; Dark-capped Bulbuls sound fruity greetings from the leaf-tops of hubris. These are the little people, but soon along come the royals, first bounding along the branches, half-kangaroo half-bird, eyebrows strikingly painted white on green, jungle geishas, then with a growling churr launch through the air between trees with a flash of wing as crimson as a caesar’s robe. Knysna Louries – sorry, Turacos (I’m of that generation still stuck with the ‘old’ names). One, and another, three, and four: then the arching, raucous call: graaah, graaah, graah. My mother used to say that that call, depending on strength and rhythmic duration, presaged mist or summer storm. I was a bit dubious: it was both the rainy and the breeding season, so the two were likely to coincide quite a bit anyway. But it was a little myth that I nurtured, part of how we identified with and interpreted those who shared the forest with us. Damn the taxonomists, who now insist that what we had back in the Vumba were Livingstone’s turacos, with a slightly pointier crest and a slightly bluer tail. Well, they are like enough, and remain as magnificently aristocratic and broad-voiced, aristocrats and criers of rain.

There are other littlies who will talk down kings, whose voices are louder than climate-change denialists’, exceeding their bodily importance a thousand-fold. Most vociferous this morning is the Bar-throated Apalis; I think of him as frenchified, dapper and lively and piping Phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE. The indefatigable Jack Skead noticed that some individuals’ throat bars were thicker than others. Theories competed like waxbills at a birdbath. Was it dimorphic? Was it a sex symbol, like a flashier cravat? Was it just that the feathers lay at different angles at different times? Lately, it’s said that a thicker bar signifies greater territory and dominance. How would that even work? OK, my territory is one hundred and twelve wingbeats wide, let me add two millimetres to my bar, like a corporal promoting himself to a sergeant? There remain profound mysteries in such relationships between colour and behaviour.

The middle classes are also coming into voice: Lesser Striped Swallows taking an interest in my back porch with little gazoo-like squeaks; Rock Pigeons’ chesty love-notes on the roofline; one Southern Boubou shranking out a sound like shook foil, answered by another with a high bright cry, clearer than a bell. Forget your legend- and poetry-saturated English lark and nightingale – colourless calls in comparison with our Oriole’s ringing clarion, or the Burchell’s Coucal’s falling-and-rising bubbling, somewhere between clarinet and harp. It is an orchestra this morning, albeit one thoroughly disorganised and aleatory. A clatter of vociferous Redwinged Starlings, too, creaking and glurping and scolding the cat. They're often accused of excessive aggression, but none of my books mention that they mourn. I once saw a group, on a road in town, surrounding the body of a flock member that had been killed by a car. They said little or nothing for a while; then by some secret signal one starling hopped forward and covered the body in a flurry of frantic shivering feathers and wings. This was explained to me as a pseudo-sexual act, perhaps a futile effort to revive the dead; but, as that individual backs off and, after a quiet interval, another comes forward and does the same, it looks more like a ritual, respectful and concerned and arranged.

Who is this - Steppe Buzzard?
Now the thermals rise with a seaborne sough, bringing in some of the big guys: raptors. Never all at once, of course, but there is the drawn-out kwheee of a Long-crested Eagle, who is often to be seen perched on poles alongside the cuttings near town. I can anticipate the sharper yelp of the Jackal Buzzard, or the spiralling continuous yow-yow-YOW-yow-yow of a Crowned Eagle displaying and looping for his mate. A little worry for my cat, who could be easily taken by this huge predator: I have a vivid memory from the Vumba of a Crowned Eagle snatching a young Somango monkey off an acacia tree-top right below my bedroom window. And maybe a Fish Eagle will wander up from a coastal watercourse, to utter that silvery thrilling cry that is in my memory forever welded with the dawn honking of hippos and the booming of Ground Hornbills and the powerful silky slide of the Zambezi River.

The thermals are also lifting a cabal of White-necked Ravens into the lively sky. There are far fewer of them than just a few years ago; has there been some shift in local migratory patterns, or have too many been poisoned by farmers putting out toxic carcasses for the odd jackal and rippling destructively and blindly out into vast ecosystems? At any rate, these croaking priests of the air are playing on the wind – it is surely playing, a cavorting that has nothing to do with preparing for a hunt: a revelling in the gift of flight, a passing fixation on formation-flying, an occasional mock aerial joust. In his fascinating book, Pleasurable Kingdom, Jonathan Balcombe argues that seeking of pleasure is as potent an evolutionary force as Darwinian competition for resources. Birds, he thinks, enjoy singing; he cites philosopher and ornithologist Charles Hartshorne:

'Raven Games' (c) Dan Wylie
There is no conflict between ‘birds sing for pleasure’ and ‘they sing to maintain territory or attract mates.’ The more essential an activity in the whole life of the bird, the greater the proportion of the bird’s pleasure which is realised in that activity.

And it’s just about impossible not to feel that pleasure and pride inflect the singing in the thickets below me of a Red-capped Robinchat (the old Natal Robin; only a committee could rename a bird whose cap is not at all red but at best, according to the guides, “cinnamon-brown”). At any rate, this Robin is going great guns, mimicking a Crowned Eagle, sliding into a flycatcher screek, a riff of gardener’s lazy whistle, a couple of inventive sequences of his own, back to a modified snatch of eagle – astonishingly variable,  unique to this individual and, well, happy. Balcombe also quotes Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in 1956:

When I hear a particular robin singing on a bough – I do not think: ‘Irritable protoplasm so organized as to succeed in the struggle for existence’.

I could go on and on, just with what I’ve heard in an hour – a web of sound-textures melding with the scent of sap rising off complexities of vegetation as the day heats up. In our addled, politicised, monetised world, the birds are my distraction, solace, unselfconscious Mercurys of wisdom and unalloyed delight. So many people are oblivious to all this; even most of my eco-literature students have proven woefully ignorant of the extraordinary interlacing of sound and colour, texture and scent that makes up such a multidimensional sensory experience: their smartphone-centred world, for all its globalised reach, can come nowhere near to so deeply engaging the complete person. 

And without learning to love all this, how can we know we need to save it, or would want to? 

*****



Friday, 22 December 2017

No.53 - Robert Mugabe and the fragility of power

"Blow, winds, blow!" (c) Dan Wylie
Some friends have asked whether I am going to write about the Zimbabwe situation. After all, I am ‘from there’, so I should, no? As it happens, I have no more an inside track on developments there than any other outside observer, though I have followed events with great interest. I plan to go to Zim soon, and will report back on my experiences.

In the meanwhile, anyone who has any kind of historical consciousness will be neither surprised by Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s ouster, nor particularly utopian about the immediate future. We have to be grateful that it has happened with minimal bloodshed and public upheaval, while recognising that the coup consists of little more than a shuffle amongst the incumbent stalwarts of the party. Emmerson Mnangagwa has been the staunchest securocrat of them all, the organiser-in-chief behind the suppression of ZAPU and the Ndebele from even before 1980, more viciously in the 1980s, including the Entumbeni clashes of 1980-81, and the massacres of Gukurahundi (his denials notwithstanding), the serially rigged elections. His recently announced cabinet does not have a man in it under the age of 65; despite their pragmatic noises since the coup, this doesn’t feel like a team that is going to radically change direction to reboot production, resolve the cash crisis, open up genuine reconciliatory dialogues to address the buried past, or transition smoothly to truly transparent electoral democracy. We can but wait and see.

Meanwhile, I share the national delight that at least RGM (the Rogue Grand Manipulator) and his poisonous wife have been sidelined. As it happens, I have been reading Stuart Doran’s great doorstopper history of ZANU(PF), Kingdom, Power, Glory, which was published before the coup but offers a densely-documented backdrop to it – especially Mugabe’s willingness to use violence at any point to gain his ends.  Doran cites Mugabe himself, speaking in 1981:

Our methods will differ according to the situation. If a situation warrants we use vicious methods, I can assure you that we will use vicious methods. ... If other people are planning coups, planning revolts, then let them be warned that we are well prepared for such eventualities. Once again, if it is to be an eye for an eye, well, we will remove two eyes for one eye. (Doran, p.270)

Talk about being hoist with one’s own realpolitik petard! It is only too ironic that Mugabe’s deposition, for which he seemed wholly unprepared, happened so non-violently – not the norm amongst the world’s tyrants. There has to be some psychological link between tyranny and short-sightedness – for who, gazing down the bloodied steppes of history, would dare become one? A sorry outcome would seem fore-ordained: look at Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Mengistu – overthrown by outsiders they have provoked into war, assassinated by trusted brothers, driven into exile... Live by the sword, etc.

"Et tu, Brute?" (c) Dan Wylie
It so happened that I have also recently seen an excellent Al Jazeera documentary on the 2016 trial of Chadian strongman Hissène Habré. At almost the same moment as Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade was killing off Ndebele ‘dissidents’ in the south of his country, Habré was doing the same in the south of Chad. Like Mugabe, Habré had come to power through the entanglements of a civil war, occasioned in part by colonial boundaries having shackled together historically incompatible peoples in a new ‘nation’. Like Mugabe, he was well-educated in the ways of the West – each gained several degrees –  which helped persuade some powers to overlook his obvious abuses. Habré was propped up by France and the United States because they could use him as an ally against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who had invaded disputed territories on Chad’s northern border. With French help, Gaddafi was repulsed, eventually to meet his own bloody demise. Habré himself lasted only eight years as leader of his horrifically abusive one-party regime, from 1982 until his overthrow by Idriss Déby in 1990. Habré fled into exile in Senegal, but his crimes, which included rape, sexual slavery and ordering the deaths of 40,000 people, followed him. After protracted negotiations to get him extradited from Senegal, Habré was finally brought to trial by a supra-national African court. On 30 May 2016 he became the first ex-dictator to be convicted of crimes against humanity in such a court.

It has often been asserted that Mugabe had been clinging gamely and lamely onto power because he is afraid of being hauled up before such an international court himself. The question may now be moot, seeing as how his former henchman, now usurper-successor, Mnangagwa has granted him immunity – though on what divinely-appointed judicial authority one man can immunise another for mass murder is a perennial mystery. And one doubts that conscience is much of a driving force amongst such people. Mugabe will probably, like some other ex-tyrants, die in muffled and luxurious isolation.

It also so happened that while the Zimbabwe coup was unfolding I was marking exam scripts – students responding to a question on Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest. Nowadays one is pressured to interpret even such ‘old’ works in a ‘decolonising’ or ‘post-colonial’ context – or be deemed irrelevant, if not white supremacist. Since the story involves an Italian-European magician, Prospero, taking over an island from its pair of native inhabitants, Caliban and Ariel, The Tempest is indeed susceptible to such a reading. (Another colonised islander, Caribbean writer Aimé Cesaire, did just that with his counter-play, Un Tempête, which our students also study.)

"Monster/Magician" (c) Dan Wylie
But The Tempest is about nothing if not power and usurpation of power: Prospero is exiled on the island following his overthrow in Naples by his very own brother; and not only the oppressed Caliban is scheming to overthrow him – so are some of Prospero’s own countrymen, themselves shipwreck victims. This is, it seems, Shakespeare’s symbolic vision of history: cyclical dislocation and chaos breed unseemly squabbles for position and patronage – not to mention getting the girl.

As I’m sure many commentators have observed before, Shakespeare was positively obsessed with the usurpation of kingly or tyrannical power, returning to the theme in play after play. Hamlet opens famously with the eponymous hero confronting the ghost of his father, murdered and usurped by his own brother. Macbeth strives in vain to atone for his lethal royal sins and avoid being ousted by his erstwhile lieutenants. Julius Caesar is assassinated by men he has always known, including even his closest colleague, Brutus. King Lear (sort of) voluntarily hands over power to his daughters, but the unexpected consequences drive him into crazed exile, raging at the storm which is also the upheaval in his mind. (What a scene: I was immediately provoked into painting tableaus from these plays!) The History plays – all those Henrys – are about little else than the moral legitimacy or otherwise of kingship, and the mechanisms by which one ruler takes over from the last. In Henry V Shakespeare penned the immortal, rightly oft-quoted line about the fragility of any tyrant’s hold on power:

            “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

If I remember right, I first encountered that line as the title of a biography of King Hussein of Jordan. Anyone – decolonised or otherwise – who argues that Shakespeare is irrelevant or passé has either never truly read him, or is too narrow-minded to understand. Few writers are more incisively observant about those psychological blind-spots that make the lust for power both so dangerous and so fragile.

In contemplating these commonalities of human political behaviour, the patterns that go on repeating themselves, century after dispiriting century, I always find myself going back to another doorstopper book, St Augustine’s City of God, written around the year 400:
"His father's ghost" (c) Dan Wylie

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? ... If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralised that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity. (IV.5.4)

Augustine had your measure, RGB, 1700 years ago. Please read the script, Emmerson.


***


Saturday, 4 November 2017

No 52 - How (not) to write a dystopian novel


Once it became known that I was teaching Ursula le Guin’s wonderful, other-planetary novel The Left Hand of Darkness, science-fiction and fantasy buffs were so thin on the academic ground that ‘work’ on those areas – thesis supervisions and examinations and article reviews – started drifting my way. 

I was no buff, having read very little science-fiction at all. I do remember that, as a kid, I enjoyed the ‘Trajan Empire’ comic-fantasy serial in my Look & Learn magazines – a sort of offworld/hi-tech/Roman-Empire mixture. And at high school at one point we ‘did’ a volume of sci-fi stories called The Stars & Under. This included a story about a time-travelling sport hunter being taken back to the Jurassic to shoot a dinosaur, wandering off the carefully non-intrusive pathway and trampling a butterfly – with all sorts of subtle and unforeseeable consequences, including derailing the anticipated landslide outcome of a US presidential election. (Obviously, something like this happened in early 2017.) 

But I wasn’t attracted to fantasy particularly, though I read the obligatory Lord of the Rings. Many years later I encountered a bookish little boy on the Montreal metro, and asked him what he was reading. Harry Potter; it had just come out. ‘Very good’, I said, ‘never stop reading, it will be the greatest treasure of your life,’ and got off the train. I hadn’t a clue who Harry Potter was. In time, I read the available volumes of the series, intrigued at the condemnation by Christian friends of mine – Harry Potter was Satanic, they alleged. I thought the books were good enough tales for twelve year-olds, though rather obviously derivative of classical and mediaeval models – and definitely not Satanic. Even later, ironically, I found myself supervising an academic thesis on precisely those derivations, happily proving my point.

By that stage, of course, science-fiction and fantasy was being incorporated more readily into academic programmes – indeed, was fast becoming the chosen reading field of so many youngsters, intersecting with their more mind-numbing rage for epic film and computer-games. I had myself rather accidentally incorporated a sci-fi story into my PhD work on white myths of Shaka: I somehow discovered that the doyen of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke, had written ‘The Light of Darkness’, about a modern African dictator, also named Chaka, who ultimately gets his eyeballs fried by his own hubristic satellite-dish observatory. It has to count as the most badly written short story in the genre I had ever come across – though there may well be worse out there.

As I migrated from Shaka to ecological concerns in literature, sci-fi hove into view more strongly, just because so many futuristic novels and stories are concerned with where we as humans are headed on our present environmentally-destructive trajectory. Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood were regularly chosen for study by my eco-literature students; and I have found myself supervising and examining theses on these and other speculative/fantasy writers, ranging from brilliant (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Wahington series) to the awful (Game of Thrones). I read two volumes of Thrones, and there was not a single sentence I wanted to go back and read again for its beauty or finesse – and many, many sentences I wanted to feed immediately to that silly woman’s derivative dragons. There is some serious infantilisation of our adult readership going on, and by and large I prefer to consider the future through non-fictional works such as climatologist James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren or Jacques Attali’s A Brief History of the Future. Attali considers scenarios involving banking, international commerce, insurance, sanitation, and cultural nomadism – subjects largely ignored by novelists who prefer the spectacles of high-tech warfare, the power of surveillance, and the prurience of manipulating sexuality and reproduction. The apocalypse may well be rather humdrum, and boringly lacking in zombies.

I also became aware – though the field is expanding fast – that Southern African speculative fiction is thin on the ground. There is J M Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, which is vaguely futuristic; and Jane Rosenthal’s Souvenir, set mostly in the Karoo; Nancy Farmer’s Harare-set The Eye, the Ear & the Arm; an edgy story by Henrietta Rose-Innes, ‘Poison’, as well as her more recent novel, Green Lion; Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City; Andrew Miller’s Dub Steps; a scattering of stories for younger readers... More is emerging, but we’re still in our infancy. There was certainly nothing futuristic set in the Eastern Cape, so as usual when confronted by such a gap, I sort of inwardly shrug and sigh, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just have to do it myself...’

The result was The Wisdom of Adders (available from PrintonDemand, and electronically on Amazon/Kindle here). I had great fun playing with the landscape and a deeply-changed ecology and climate, and with what might have evolved in language and place-names by the year 2170. It’s not sci-fi in the sense of other-planetary influence, alien visitors, time-travel or spectacular technology: it’s entirely grounded in realism, and there is, in my envisaging of a kind of slow global apocalypse over the previous century, not much high-tech left. Like Le Guin, I am really more interested in a particular human situation – in this case the coming-of-age journey of a feisty and impulsive young woman through a landscape partly blighted, partly open to opportunity, a landscape I hope the reader can imaginatively inhabit.

In that respect, the novella is not utopian, but nor is it dystopian in the way of Cormac McCarthy’s now legendarily bleak The Road, with which we are also terrifying our first-year students.  Adders is perhaps more like Jim Crace’s lesser-known future-America journey novel, The Pesthouse, or Le Guin’s anthropological ‘study’ of a future California, Always Coming Home. One gets the oddest questions, which make one wonder if one has written it ‘right’. But what exactly happened in Nummers? (Well, I don’t know, if it isn’t in the novel, it doesn’t exist.) How does she get batteries for her torch? (I don’t know that either; make something up!) What does the jackal mean? (Sorry, haven’t a clue; it’s just there.)

My slightly crabby replies might conceal important questions – questions that resurface as I contemplate writing a story parallel to Adders. (Neither a sequel nor a prequel, what is that – a paraquel? And no, I do not intend to call it ‘The Foolishness of Subtractors’, as waggish Reg Rumney suggested.) Those questions include: Just how much ‘back history’ can one incorporate without slowing up the narrative or sounding didactic? How much ‘future technology’ has to be explained, given that the physics for it may not even have a vocabulary yet? How much ‘meaning’ is best left to the reader’s imagination, how much ‘misinterpretation’ risked? And which current developments and trends does one choose to extrapolate into the future, and why? Is it a matter of simple logical extension, or of one’s own psychological disposition?

Nat Segnit’s recent review article in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘Dystopian’s Dilemma’, is sub-titled ‘Invention at the expense of storytelling.’ He notes how one recent American dystopia overloads the narrative with made-up words for new tech (though such must surely emerge, and Adders is a bit guilty of that); how another has a theory about the future driving it, but the novel attached to it feels merely ‘dutiful’; how another ‘pours in a mass of contrivance and alternative history ... having to explain the world at the cost of inhabiting it.’ Many balances to be struck.


And there are still deeper questions about extinction and hope. Many argue that we humans are destined for extinction, and maybe our extinction is the world’s best hope. But while writers are still writing for readers, it’s a question of how one projects human hope despite everything. To write a dystopian novel utterly without a future for humans would be to destroy the purpose of writing itself. On the other hand a dystopian tale, leavened with hope, to that degree ceases to be dystopian. So there may be no pure dystopia, only dystopic tendencies: in all the stories I’ve now read (though I know I’m still far from buff-hood), there are characters who embody some stubborn desire to go on, to rebel, to survive. This is true even of The Road; of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, now screening on TV; and of that very early story, still in my view as good as any for its haunting vision of a yet-possible future, ‘The Machine Stops’, written in 1924 by E M Forster (yes, he who wrote A Passage to India).  I’ll say no more about it – just read it, while I see if I can rake up any reasons for hope on which to base the next novel...

*******

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

No 51 - Geology, literature and marvellous life


It may be an invented memory, but I do seem to recall, back in 1983, the first rumblings of controversy over the plan to divert the N2 highway around Grahamstown, instead of through it.  Moreover, because Army property straddled the obvious route through flat land on the northern side of town, it was decided to drive the bypass through the tortuous hilly country to the south. This would involve some exceptionally deep and (as it turned out) unstable cuttings.

Don Pinnock, resident in Grahamstown at the time, described the “farce” of a public meeting about it (in his delightful book of essays, Love Letters to Africa):

Few townspeople wanted the bypass. Grahamstown’s traders talked of lost revenue, hotels of lost guests, romantics of a lost town along the N2. There were predictions of horrendous car accidents along the new speedway (eventually, they proved correct). But this was the mid-1980s and the apartheid government wanted a fast road that didn’t go through poor townships where youths burned tyres, threw stones and worse. ... The people objected. But this wasn’t democracy, it was a lesson in self-interest. The plans for the bypass were approved.

The cuttings, however, have provided more than one unexpected bonus. One was that Guy Butler, doyen professor of English at Rhodes University and leading light in establishing  the 1820 Settler Foundation, managed to rescue a number of the larger sandstone boulders from the roadworks, and set them up as compass stones outside the Settlers’ Monument where it looms over town like a beached crate.


I started with these pseudo-Neolithic menhirs in my introduction to the recent (I think fourteenth) edition of the annual Literature & Ecology Colloquium, this time held at Rhodes. I started the Colloquium in 2004 as a forum for the few academics in the country who were interested in conjunctions between literature and environmental concerns. I felt that since the ecological crisis is unquestionably the global crisis of our times, at least some of us literati ought to be thinking about how we can contribute to educating our students about it. In the intervening years, with the willing participation of sundry colleagues and institutions, the Colloquium has migrated around the country, drawing into its ambit various scholars, both established and emergent, to think outside their usual boxes and extend their chosen subjects in ecological, or ‘ecocritical’, directions. We have explored numerous themes along the way – animals, trees, birds, pedagogy, belonging, water, shorelines and more – and spawned a decent range of published articles in journals and books.

This time, the theme was geology. Eyebrows were cocked, but the more I thought about it, the more avenues this seemed to open up, especially in the Southern African context.  I hoped that the Colloquium would attract a range of papers on local manifestations of the geological in our sundry literatures. For whatever reasons – the timing, lack of funding, Grahamstown’s vast isolation, bemusement at this crazy idea, or whatever – it didn’t really. Charne Lavery did talk about the various islands sprinkling our territorial waters (which are more extensive than our territory on land!), but her interest is more pelagic than geological; and Dirk Klopper offered a wide-ranging treatment of the weird consort of the occult and palaeontology shadowing some texts, including Olive Schreiner’s famous novel, The Story of an African Farm.


Several papers were not about our region, but opened up further possibilities. Sam Naidu introduced us to a crime novel about Mexican migrants into the US caught in the geological wastes of the Sonora Desert, reminding me of the rich literature of the Kalahari and the Namibian deserts (I thought of Laurens van der Post in the Tsodilo Hills, or the unlikely ‘doughnut’ mountain formation in Wilbur Smith’s The Burning Shore). Tsitsi Sachikonye talked about the effects of volcanoes and earthquakes in the Caribbean novels of Maryse Condé (no irrelevant matter, as Mexicans, Japanese, Italians, Pakistanis, and many others just in the last year, will tell you). And I thought about the quake-induced tsunami with which Jane Rosenthal closes her futuristic novel of the Karoo, Souvenir.  My erstwhile PhD student Jyoti Singh’s paper on William Blake’s phantasmagoric use of geological features raises a perpetual question: when does reality, or realism in writing, and scientific observation, spill over into the realm of symbolic meaning, and why?  This question also haunted Alan Northover’s paper on Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Shaman, an imagining of Neolithic lifeways which indirectly evokes the famous rock paintings of France’s Chauvet Cave. I am reminded here of the numerous travelogues, stories and poems in Southern Africa invoking Bushman rock art for all sorts of spiritual purposes, as well as of other caves: the Cango caves of Anne Landman’s novel Devil’s Chimney, for example, or the sinkholes in Michael Green’s novel of that title.
           
And so it goes on... so much more to explore in this geological vein.  Mountain aesthetics, road-building, riverlines, shorelines... all geological. Vegetation distributions and water availability are fundamentally governed by the geology being just what it is. Our extensive farming literature is dependent on soils: that’s half our economic history. The other half is driven by mining and powered by fossil fuels; one could start with Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and track the literary history of mining’s impact on our society all the way through to the laments of Marikana.

Which brings me back to the N2 cuttings, which – as Don Pinnock explored in the aforementioned chapter of Love Letters to Africa – spawned a second unexpected benefit. The bulldozers inadvertently uncovered a shelf of Devonian black shales which, local palaeontologist Rob Gess discovered, held in its splintery grip the most astonishing array of fossils: primordial yet complex plants and seaweeds, marine bivalves and jawless lampreys and sea-scorpions and the lobe-finned fishes which are our own ancestors.  Rob Gess closed our little Colloquium with a guided tour of some of his fossils, many unique to world palaeontology, some of species hitherto entirely unknown: chalky scratches of bone in the blue-grey shale, soft-body impressions of juvenile lampreys, complete right down to the ring of teeth around the suckering mouth.  Fantastic: 360 million years of geological history swimming up into a petrified present, the moment of death frozen in implacable rock.

So one is hurtled back through incalculable tracts of time. As Goonie Marsh, geologist complete with unruly beard, tanned knees and sandals, laid it out in his marvellous pocket survey at the Colloquium: not only is it hard to get one’s head around the numbers and the layered taxonomies of aeons and periods and formations, but also hard to accept that humanity is an eye-blink in those aeons, our advent and eventual demise to be regarded dispassionately.

Well, we literati aren’t very good at being dispassionate: we live for the love and turbulence, the loyalties and betrayals, the emotional horrors and beauties of our briefly embodied lives, as captured in the compressed and flexing time-spans of literary works. A poem or a paragraph can connect materiality with thought across millennia. Section X of Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan’s enigmatic ‘long short story’, A Brief History of Madness in the Eastern Cape, hints at both continuities and differences:

It was raining the day Mavis and I arrived in Georgetown.  So we went to the museum.  We whispered along the corridors of exhibits, the dumb past all entombed and labelled.  There was one in particular – a piece of mesozoic fossil beach.  It should have been displayed with searchlights on black velvet, like the crown jewels, in a chamber all of its own.  It is a chunk of fossil life, with thousands of different shapes and sizes of crustaceans packed into each other, eating and being eaten, like a Notre Dame gargoyle, foot in mouth, shell overlapping shell, and endlessly impacted palimpsests.
                        Then there was also a collection of Settler culture – not so tightly packed as the fossil, but clearly in the making.  Individual life agonies imprinted on these derelict possessions – spectacles, baby bows, bridal nighties, fading, intimate diaries.  Each one posed a question for the future.

Two sets of communal life-forms, packed in analogous displays. The questions for the future? What is the meaning of the past for us?  How do we penetrate its dumbness?  Are we so different from those mesozoic life-forms?  Is there something that makes us uniquely human?
           
To that last question there is the obvious answer: language and poetry – or to put it in terms of an image Maclennan returned to often, the making of bread from stones – of culture from the material of the world.  For Maclennan, as for many of us, the most enduring fascination and mystery is that human culture, with all its predatory idiocies and its artistic glories, should somehow have arisen from sheer geology and become conscious and, even more astonishing, loving and ethical in its awareness of ‘individual life agonies’.  In an unremittingly over-written but provocative recent book, Stone: An ecology of the inhuman (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen avers:

Stone becomes history’s bedrock as lithic agency impels human knowing. Neither dead matter nor pliant utensil, bluntly impedimental as well as collaborative force, stone brings story into being, a partner with language ... a material metaphor. ... [W]hen imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm reveals an abiding inclination to stories of rocky entanglement, to the making of exigent and unexpected art.

This last Colloquium was great fun and unquestionably educative. But I feel the enterprise has reached the end of its natural life, at least in its present form. Someone else, with a different vision and energy, will have to take it onwards now. Wow: fourteen years of it – gone by in a geological eye-blink.

*********



Sunday, 17 September 2017

No 50 - Great apes, experimentation and fiction


When several items concerning the same subject cross one’s consciousness at almost the same moment, what are you supposed to do? Except take it all as sign that you must write about it – which usually means needing to fill in one or two little gaps, which leads inevitably to a welter of extra reading, which reveals that the gaps are actually rather large, which necessitates yet further reading ... until you’re in a dizzying vortex of wondrous information – disguised as cumulative ignorance – from which you can scarcely extricate yourself.

In this case, it was the loan of a novel, the purchase of a book, a snatch of TV documentary, a student presentation – all about experimentation using chimpanzees.

Why do we conduct experiments on animals – some undeniably fruitful, too many revoltingly gratuitous, all in some way damaging to the animal, and all too often fatal?  Because we can. Because we are in the last analysis a self-serving species that can, whenever convenient, derogate other species to some ‘lower’ order, deny them a requisite degree of feeling, rationalise away their self-evident terror and pain. We have the physiological, technological, and psychological power to do it, so we do.

Or at least, certain highly specialised sections of certain societies do – essentially the scientific elite of the world’s most technologically advanced nations: the Europeans, the British, the Americans. And because chimpanzees and other great apes, already familiar from menageries, zoos and related prisons, came from the colonised corners of the globe, the animals found themselves shackled in an unholy alliance of experimental science and imperial power.

Donna Haraway, one of our most trenchant, idiosyncratic and penetrating writers on human-animal relations, sums it up this way in her magisterial history of primatology, Primate Visions (1989):

Monkeys and apes have a privileged position to nature and culture for western people: simians occupy the border zones between those potent mythic poles. In the border zones, love and knowledge are richly ambiguous and productive of meanings in which many people have a stake. The commercial and scientific traffic in monkeys and apes is a traffic in meanings, as well as in animal lives.

Haraway’s book unpacks in detail some of the sundry laboratories and enterprises set up over decades to study chimpanzees and other simians, often in cruel behaviorist ways, in order to ‘prove’ things that any observant field worker would find perfectly obvious. Haraway includes Henry Harlow’s infamous photograph of a tiny chimp clinging to a wire frame draped with a towel. Wow: an orphaned infant cleaves to anything that might resemble its mother – what an insight! Decades of traumatic experiments involving disease infection, toxins, forced organ transplant, crash dummy testing, and more, demonstrably yielded little of value to humans.

Less invasive ‘social’ experimentation tried to divine similarities between human and ape in terms of language acquisition, cognition, and socialisation – an obsession so pervasive that it can only evidence a deep-seated insecurity in ourselves, a defensiveness about the extent to which our language, our vaunted rationality, and our capacity for co-operation does or doesn’t transcend our “animal origins”.

The protagonist of the aforementioned borrowed novel, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014), expresses a healthy scepticism about the intrinsic limitations of laboratory experiments. I won’t disclose more about the story, which is  doubtless roughly based on the monumentally botched case of trying raise the chimp Nim in a human family in the 1970s. The novel has a couple of nifty twists. I’ll just quote the protagonist on how pervasive is the presence of the ape in academic circles:

Take Introduction to Classical Chinese and find yourself devoting a week to Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and the chaos he wreaks in Heaven. Take a European literature class and find on the syllabus Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy”, with its ape narrator Red Peter ... Take astronomy and maybe there’s a section devoted to exploration, to those pioneering dogs and chimps of space...

It was just such footage on a TV documentary about abandoned engineering projects that got me going on this jag. The project in focus was the Barcroft space research station,  out in the California desert, about as alienating an environment for chimps as you could imagine – but there they are, being crammed into 44-gallon drums in order to simulate life in a space capsule. I found it almost unwatchable; but there was a scientist stating that the US space programme could not have succeeded without these tortures – “sadly”. And did chimps themselves benefit from these advances? Not one jot.


To be fair, even laboratory scientists expressed affection for their kidnapped primate charges – yet I find the photo of two young chimps clinging to primatologist Robert Yerkes as heart-wrenching as Harlow’s. Yerkes claimed to have loved his chimps, but they were still a thousand miles from the homeliness of coherent chimp society. (The Yerkes primate research centre in Atlanta continues to house more than 50 chimps.) Even that lucid and humane researcher, Frans de Waal, author of the ground-breaking Peacemaking amongst Primates (1991) and Are We Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are? (2017; my recent coincidental purchase), troubles me a bit in his own move from ethology (observation in the wild) to experimentation on captive apes – despite his own scepticism: “One can train goldfish to play soccer or bears to dance, but does anyone believe that this tells us much about the skills of human soccer stars or dancers?” And he let his chimps socialise amongst themselves. Jane Goodall et al have had their impact.

On the other side of the coin, fiction – especially after Darwinian theory placed humans and apes ever closer in evolutionary development – obsessed equally about the possibility of humanising apes – which is to say to eradicate that troubling closeness/difference border-zone. As Virginia Richter shows in her survey Literature after Darwin: Human beasts in Western fiction (2011), these tales ranged from the homicidal gibbon of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders on the Rue Morgue” (1841) and the Darwinian experiments conducted in H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape-raised Tarzan to Franz Kafka’s seminal “A Report to the Academy” (1917) - all evincing what Richter calls the “anxiety of simianisation”.

Almost no subsequent imagining of the speaking ape can fail to refer back to Kafka’s “Red Peter” and his eloquent academy address about his transition from ape to (sort of) human.  Like both Haraway and Fowler, Will Self uses an extract as epigraph to his 1997 novel Great Apes:

When I come home late at night from banquets, from social gatherings, there sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do. By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of a bewildered half-broken animal in the eye; no one else sees it, but I do and I cannot bear it.

Self imagines a whole literate, quasi-human chimp society, complete with chimp artists, doctors and academics, with one deranged individual suffering delusions of becoming human (humans are endangered in the wild).  These chimps substitute “huu” for question-marks, “pant-hoot” for phone, “sign” and “gesticulate”  instead of say and discuss, and indulge in varieties of gross and open sex (perfectly normal for “chimpunity”, of course). It’s a sardonic, heavy, clever, at times funny but oddly unlikeable novel.

There is Bernard Malamud’s futuristic novel, God’s Grace (1982), in which only a human and a chimp (who can speak English as the result of laboratory training), survive a nuclear holocaust.  Malamud’s novel exemplifies Haraway’s observation that primatology “is a First World survival literature in the conditions of twentieth-century history”. Except in God’s Grace, it isn’t the human that survives ...

Finally, the talking apes make their way into South African literature, too.  Red Peter reappears in J M Coetzee’s strange but highly influential  meditation on animal rights, The Lives of Animals (2009). In this country, of course, the ape of first encounter is not the chimp but the baboon, with well-known studies ranging from Eugene Marais’ classic The Soul of the Ape (1969) through to Fransie van Riel’s Life with Darwin (2003; this Darwin being a baboon, not Charles). Michiel Heyns’ novel The Reluctant Passenger (2003) features Cape Point’s  baboons being captured for an experimental facility. Most recently, Cape Town’s perennial ‘house-breaking’ baboon issue is revisited in Ken Barris’ new story, in The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions (2017), in which a house-owner develops an awkward relationship with an invasive, but human-talking baboon. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.

It may be impossible not to be complicit in animal experimentation: I have little doubt that some of the medical treatments I have benefitted from would have been tested on rats or beagles; I know that my cat’s pills have been tested on other unwilling cats. There are glimmers of relief, at least for chimps: much experimentation has stopped. The US National Institute of Health in 2013 withdrew funding for chimp experiments, though loopholes remain, and we know less about what happens in private enterprises. There are ongoing legal efforts to accord chimpanzees “personhood”, despite last month’s rejection by the New York appeals court to free two warehoused chimps on the basis of habeas corpus. Their argument? Chimps aren’t humans; simple. I agree: but the chimps should be freed because they are chimps. We have a way to go yet in the task of reversing the tide of human arrogance and exploitation; yet it’s increasingly accepted that we cannot (as Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam, hoping to become an angel) “let the ape and the tiger die”.

*****


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

No 49: A journey in twelve unanswerable questions


 
(c) Dan Wylie: "Siberia"
1 The first hurdle is to leave the cat. They have done this many times since she was hoicked, bedraggled and savagely spitting, out of the feral gutterlands behind Clicks. And he knows she’ll be perfectly safe – safer, probably, than at home on an ordinary day, raddled as it is with roaming dogs, crowned eagles, adders and the occasional caracal. Yet eight years hasn’t made it easier. He leaves her at the kennels with useless goodbyes snagging painfully in his throat and tears pressing up from somewhere behind the cheekbones. How is it that one can be so in love with that small animal, with a ferocity that exceeds, or at least is different, to any feeling extended to a fellow-human?

2 Why are people so stupid on the roads? On these roads in particular. He has a multi-stage trip to negotiate, but it’s a local mantra that this is the most dangerous leg of all, from his town to the airport. There we go: inevitably, some crazy wanker trying to pass a laden cattle-truck, reeking with fear and impending death, on a blind rise, the double white line as clear as a punch in the nose. He hoots, too late in his misanthropic rage, at the swanky double-cab, the driver a man in his thirties, wife and two kids in the back – what is the arsehole thinking?? He wants to turn around immediately and go home to the cat, all fur and purrs and warm isolation. But he cannot.

3 Having checked through security – take off your shoes, accused of carrying a waterbottle, accused of creating extra work for the X-ray man – he watches through the wide airport windows as his Airbus is prepared for flight. As a youngster he studied aircraft with obsessive intensity: he knows what a triumph of international collaboration this machine is: parts manufactured in the UK, the US, China, Belgium, assembled in France or Spain by workers from the Philippines and Algeria and Germany – now being fed with Middle Eastern fuel, tended by Japanese vehicles like beetles round a corpse, Xhosa and Cape Coloured and Afrikaner workers and security personnel and caterers loading boxes of hot slices of Italian pizza... If such fantastic collaboration is possible, coalesced into this single purposeful blast into the improbable air, why does it not happen all the time, and everywhere?

(c) Dan Wylie: "Trash Bonanza"
4 He moves through shiny impersonal tunnels from one incredibly speeding machine into another – from the airliner to the Gautrain, as if from one toothpaste tube to another. To get to his night lodgings in Rosebank he has to change trains. He waits at Marlboro station. The platform has been designed to be as repellent as possible, only shiny rails at bum height to lean on for a bit, nubbled flagstones painted yellow to warn you away from the rails. A telephone company promises the impossible: Travel far, stay close. Concrete, hissing neon and grey metal. Just the other side of the rails are homes: crowded together in dispiriting russet tiers, all the roofs carrying, like crones with bundles of wood, solar heaters – a good thing, no doubt. Heaps of forbidding trash in the open ground. Beyond that, a glimpse of highway, carved through a lowering sky, traffic bound for – he imagines – Hell itself. Who invented these soulless conglomerates, these labyrinths of insane speed?

5 He realises that he has not flown into Harare since 1979. It wasn’t even Harare then. He has no memory of the airport at all. He has been going back to Zimbabwe once or twice a year ever since, but always overland. He has plenty of memories of the appalling border-post at Beit Bridge, of the baboons scavenging among the rusting girders of the bridge across the Limpopo. He has sworn never to go that route again, not ever. Now he looks out the aeroplane window and sees the Limpopo carving across the dry lowveld. There is not a drop of water in its ochre bed. You could walk across it at any point. People are walking across it all the time, mostly headed south.  Borders are, it seems, designed to be porous, sometimes more so or less so, but always porous. So of what purpose are borders? At least, at Harare’s swanky new airport building, where every passenger has to pause on a red mat to be photographed, the customs official is friendly, even mildly flirtatious.

6 The Chinese have refurbished the road from Harare to Mutare: yellow shoulder lines, new flourescent signage in international green-and-white, cats’-eyes all the way, and not a pothole for 256 km. In this one might discern evidence for Robert Mugabe’s claim that the country’s economy is recovering – though in truth there is little to recover from apart from his own government’s mismanagement. Or, as others argue, it’s a sign of another wave of colonialism, this time by ZANU-PF’s erstwhile wartime backers. Who is saving this country, if it is being saved at all? At any rate, he is glad he's not driving this time; his ride only gets to leave Harare at four in the afternoon, and into the dark they face the blazing headlights of dozens, even hundreds of heavy trucks heading, where? For a land whose economy has teetered for years on the brink of a ‘collapse’ that seems forever to recede, this is a phenomenal amount of traffic. Where is it all going, carrying what? The darkness does not say.

7 How can a great joy at the same time be the greatest pain? When it is visiting his mother. She was once a strapping and vigorous woman, who climbed hills and saved many lives and wrote her heart out. Now she is 88 years old, confined to frail-care, her back buckled into a hoop and her memory slipping its cogs every few minutes. But she knows him, keeps admiring his hard shoulders, can engage with old memories and topics of conversation for a while, then slips back into a few established tracks that groove deeper into her mind with each repetition: How are his students nowadays? Isn’t the tree outside her window beautiful with its pink flowers? Most frequently of all: “I always said, I don’t want to live with any What-ifs, to know I did my best, I think I can say that. There were failures, but no What-ifs.” She says this so often he begins to wonder if, deep down, she really does have regrets, and what they could possibly be. Is it possible to have honestly lived without, to the very end, having no regrets? But if anyone could, she could.

8 The next hurdle is a simple and practical one. The sole of his left boot has fallen loose. With dismay he discovers that Pitamber’s shoe shop, which has fixed his family’s shoes since his earliest years – half a century! – has closed down. It feels like an almost unconscious, at least unacknowledged, pillar of belonging has crumbled. This, he feels, is the true state of the economy. He has to resort to a man who works on the pavement outside his lawyer’s offices. The man says he can do it in half an hour; no, maybe an hour. It is now 9.30. He says to the cobbler, “Fine, do it now, and I’ll pick it up later, at 2 o’clock.” He consults the lawyer on his mother’s affairs, her finances, arrangements for her inevitable burial. Already suppressing tears, he visits her, holds her thin shoulders. They have lunch together, then he walks the kilometre back to town, the struts of his flip-flops chafing between his toes. It is one-thirty, but the boot has not been mended. “You’re early,” the cobbler accuses. “Please do it by two,” he demands, “I have things to do.” He wanders up and down the main street for a while. The teachers have been paid, and are queued up at every ATM; they can draw just $20; the whole country is racked by a cash crunch. There are more street vendors than ever, selling sunglasses, padlocks, eggs, sweets, shoes, battered school textbooks. They don’t hustle. At the corner of Robert Mugabe Way and Herbert Chitepo Street (the first the assassin of the second) two women sell newspapers, sitting on rough boxes and wearing iridescent green vests. Though it’s years since his mother bought papers from them, they remember her; they would always joke and she’d stroke their cheeks, marvelling at their lovely skin. And they remember him, and ask after her, and send their love. When he gets back to the cobbler he is washing a car, and the boot is still in two pieces. What rises in his mind is the ancient shibboleth, of racist Rhodesia: “Ah, typical bloody...” You know the rest. Why, try as he might, over decades, is it so hard to eradicate the prejudices instilled in childhood? He sits with studied (im)patience on a nearby concrete block and watches while the cobbler works away at the boot with small but evidently powerful hands. One hand is missing a finger. He doesn’t ask. The cobbler uses no glue, asks only two dollars, and offers no apologies. It’s not a great job. Well. He puts on the boots and walks away. Round the corner he ducks into the well-supplied MFS hardware store and buys a tube of shoe adhesive. He is going to personally glue the bejumpers out of that boot.

9 His mother asks after his students, admires the pink flowers on the tree outside, claims to live with no What-ifs. Again and again. Who created this pernicious, creeping apocalypse known as ageing?

10 Almost as gut-wrenching as watching his mother’s slow and inevitable, if relatively cheerful, decline, is what has happened to the elephants. Two elephants lived on a game reserve bordering town. One elephant had a weird, special and beautiful relationship with a Basenji dog: they would commune through the electric fence. You can watch it on the internet. But maintenance of the fences is poor; money is lacking; there have long been arguments about whether the elephants should be there or not. Now, border-jumpers desperate to make a living in these impoverished times have been transiting the reserve. A policeman chasing the illegal traders ran into one of the elephants and was trampled to death. The consequence was inevitable: the elephants were shot. Why is it that, in any human-animal clash, it is the animals that get it? How did we so badly lose the capacity to coexist?

11 Driving with a friend back to Harare airport, he chatters aimlessly, trying not to recall the image in his mind of his mother, fragile and bent and bravely smiling, waving goodbye. Astonishingly, no road block stops them; at times, he knows, people get stopped up to twenty times on this road by the police and fleeced on trumped-up charges. Instead, he can admire the colours of the msasa and munondo trees coming out in vivid spring leaf, gold and vermilion and deep crimson and lime green, beneath them the sun glancing through coppery heads of rasping grass. His heart leaps and grieves. How is it that one’s sense of home is founded so fundamentally on the tangential and fleeting sense of a blade of colour, the hint of a scent of a certain soil?

(c) Dan Wylie: "Clay Pits: Aerial view"
12 Two flights reverse his course across the subcontinent. On the first leg he has an aisle seat and busies himself with a crossword, when he is not chatting to an American maths teacher who hopes to live in Zimbabwe forever: “The climate!” he enthuses. He sounds like an old colonial. He has a window seat, and regrets not bringing his camera: the unfolding geology, the snaking river courses, the patterns of fields, the mist on the far mountains, the strip of crisp dunes along the coast – all strike him with a shivery, heart-flummoxing sense of beauty. He has a suspicion that this has something to do with a deeper sense yet, a hollow at the very core of him shaped like the memory of his mother, whom he may never see again. In the car, driving home, he begins to compose a song: “I kissed you once, and then again... Then I had to let you go... What son am I, to leave you so? ‘Go on,’ you said, ‘lead the life you choose’...” A bawl, animal and unstoppable, wrenches itself out of him, hollows him out.  He has to pull over, shuddering. To his right stretches a vast area of
(c) Dan Wylie: "Dust Frenzy"
naked cleared earth, great machines moving through dust-clouds in monstrous silence. Why is ‘progress’ simultaneously destruction? Then he drives on, looking forward mostly just to picking up the cat. His beautiful, companionable cat who – in contrast to the journey out – will miaow loudly and continuously all the way home.


*****

Friday, 11 August 2017

No 48 - The Ecca Poets

In memoriam Norman Morrissey
(Quilt by Mariss Everitt)


Eastern Cape denizens often speak of the Hogsback with an obvious affection – its humped dolerite ridges, its forest walks and waterfalls, its eco-shrines and oddball potters and painters, its famously tiny chapel and soggy leaf beds and quaint seclusions. It’s one of the special little havens of green high leisure on the edge of the more gaunt Karoo.

It has also for decades been the haunt of a unique cabal of productive poets, who call themselves the Ecca Poets, after the name of the regional shale that undergirds much of the area, and the pass that curls through the dramatic hills between Fort Beaufort and Grahamstown. There isn’t to my knowledge another group quite like it in the country, at least not in the rural areas. (The Batsotso Jesters may be an urban equivalent.) Over many years they have produced almost annual collaborative volumes: they started up in 1989, and I suspect that the National English Literary Museum’s database is incomplete. NELM’s earliest record is of Cast (1996), followed by (amongst others) Holdall (2002), Passover (2003), Dispositions (2004), Keynote (2008), Spaces (2009), Brood (2010), Gold in Spring (2016). Add to the collaborative collections a number of  two- or three-partner publications, occasional pamphlets, and a goodly number of individuals’ volumes. There is a lot of very good poetry in this steady and devoted stream, amounting I imagine to at least several hundred poems. Yet the Ecca poets have been almost entirely neglected by the critical establishment. Even Jeanette Eve, in her sumptuous A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape, while including some of the individual poets, makes only a passing mention of the group's earliest manifestation as the “Echo” poets. It’s high time someone did a major study.

I’ve known many of the poets, more or less tangentially, been to a number of their readings and launches, occasionally reviewed one of their volumes. Inevitably over the years the composition of the group has waxed and waned. Steady at the centre stands the owlish bonhomie of Brian Walter, in whose strongly ecologically-aware poetry I have taken most interest. Like other Hogsback residents and writers, he taught at Fort Hare University in Alice in the dry valley below, before some years ago moving to Port Elizabeth. Another is the robustly humorous Catholic priest Cathal Lagan, who brings a particular theological depth to some of the poetry. To judge by the number of poems these two dedicate to each other, they are especially close comrades. There was founder member Basil Somihlalo, the only other member of the band, as far as I know, to have passed away so far (in 1994). Mzi Mahola, once attending Fort Hare university, later mostly occupied with running a museum in New Brighton, contributed for a number of years, as well as producing individual volumes. Of roughly the same generation is Quentin Hogge, who a while ago was (at least by his own account in his recent volume, More Poems, Boet) ostracised for publishing a particularly non-PC poem. Hogge has a uniquely wry, colloquial and forthright – one might say distinctively Eastern Cape – voice. Norman Morrissey’s voice is not dissimilar: punchy, pithy, colloquial, at times sardonically wise.

Leavening the gritty voices of these older gents are some younger voices. Lara Kirsten, when she isn’t on tour playing the piano, contributes a vigour and theatricality in Afrikaans. Mariss Stevens (Everitt), on the strength of owning a Hogsback house, joined in for a while, until (despite having produced a lovely volume of her own, On Gardening) she decided she’s a better quilter than a poet. And in recent years Silke Heiss, already an established poet in the little journals, fell in love with Norman; together they energetically promoted poetry through readings and workshops, even as she supported him in his last years. Both their latest productions, including Norman’s last volume, Strandloop, are saturated with their love for one another.

Only an extensive survey could do justice to the range of voices, concerns, ideas, subjects, forms and settings covered by this vivacious bunch. Few of them do not ruminate at some point on the purview, power and purposes of poetry itself. Brian Walter, for example, sets out a succinct manifesto, or methodology, that would help many a baffled student, in “Memo”:


            Try not to say too much,
            but with a Keatsian hand of chance
            trace with a light touch

            a sketched instance;
            cut and shade, tone and hue;
            close with a Janus glance.
            (Bookmark)

Cathal Lagan ends his poem “Tickler” this way:

            I wanted to be a tickler of fish,
            catch the sprung muscle of it
            with a fearsome grip,
            but in that there was no art.
            Now it is mine to play with words –
            figuring them out.
(Bookmark)

That “sprung muscle" - lovely. But for now, the story is the celebration of the words and hefty presence of Norman Morrissey. In a poem dedicated to Norman, Quentin Hogge touches on a theme common to many Ecca poems – disdainful suspicion of corrupting urbanism and commercialisation in contrast to the rich organic belonging of the paradisal Hogsback.

            Paradise

Airports respect no dreams:
the taxi terminus
and subway stations stink,
these human sewers,
where canteens serve
soya sossige and acorn coffee.
Machines go berserk.
sensing steel fillings
in obsolete teeth,
while terror climbs aboard unnoticed.
CNN will take you there –
don’t leave your lounge.

Unless,
where you want to be
is where the loerie
floats the synapses of forest,
a scatter of scarlet wings
in the ganglions of light,
where the silent boomslang
rules,
a pause of utter command.
(Borderline 2002)

Perhaps in belated response to this, Morrissey wrote “Eden”:
 
(Quilt by Mariss Everitt)
My boomslang
would lie hammocked atop the hedge
- thick as my wrist,
two metres and more in the lounging –
and let me get near
as she basked.
Then I got a gardener
and she suddenly
disappeared

- which is a slash ahead of Yahweh,
he left the Serpent at least
at peace in Eden.

There’s that trademark wry humour, the little sardonic twist of wisdom. So although many of the Ecca poets might be regarded as modern-day pastoral organicists, they were hardly oblivious to the serpents in the garden – the technologies and politics that interpenetrate everything, the ills that bedevil the blood itself. As he aged (though he was ‘only’ 68 when he died), Norman attended to the voices of his own body. He wrote in “Just Sound?”:


There was a hip-replacement
then a long, deep pneumonia
that nearly got me – body and soul

- that set me on crutches.
The legs are weak and stiff
and the lungs I must have to walk again

need legs to strengthen them.
Doesn’t it all sound
just like life?

He wasn’t about to collapse into maundering self-pity, though, reminding himself in the very next poem in Bookmark, entitled “Bitching”:

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote
in a dungeon,
Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

came out of a gaol;
and here I am
bitching

about writing
from
a mere sick-bed!

There was always something of the twinkle-eyed grumble about Norman, as he delivered his poems with a ponderous gruffness from behind his whitening beard, affecting something of the air of an oracular sage. At the Grahamstown launch of his last volume, Strandloop, in May last year, he read more slowly and gruffly than ever – we were beginning to suspect even then that the sick-bed was getting the better of him. But so much of his poetry is about beauty, and love, and the holy delicacy of the natural world and its denizens. Like so many of his poems, “Wind” is as short and direct as a tossed pebble:

I once saw the wind
a stream
like crystal water
flowing

You may be out in the invisible wind now, Norman, but the words flow on, crystalline as a Hogsback stream.


*****