Tuesday, 29 December 2015

No.10 – Water, words and whiteness in ‘Zambezia’

Mosel River, Germany, 1979

One of the most stimulating books I’ve read in recent years is historian David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature (2007).  This is a startling history of Germany from the perspective of water management.  I didn’t realise, when I was travelling myself along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, that virtually everything I saw, including the river banks themselves, were man-made. 

What are now smoothly built-up river-courses, were once often fens and swamplands, which historically provided both many livelihoods (for eel-harvesters, for example), and absorbed floodwaters from mountain snow-melts.  The draining of the fens under Frederick II from the 1740s on, Blackbourn argues, set the emerging state of ‘Germany’ on a particular technological course – river-controls, dam-building, naval power – which played a major role in what Germany became.  The development of a particular, self-conscious “German identity” was founded to a great extent on how it treated its waters.

This got me thinking about water management in our own region, particularly my native Zimbabwe – and even more particularly about how water management and aesthetics played into a sense of ‘whiteness’ for that country’s ethnic minority.  What role have the big enfolding rivers, the Limpopo and Zambezi, played in forming a “national consciousness”?  What about dams, boreholes and irrigation in the farming community?  Dams and rivers as venues for quite culture-specific leisure activities?  The effect of the region’s unique seasonal changes, everyone always “waiting for the rain”, to use the title of Charles Mungoshi’s novel?  What are the relationships between water resources and the spectacles of tourism?  How have such attitudes amongst the flexing number of whites changed between, say, David Livingstone in 1855 and our post-independence present?

Lots of questions, and I haven’t read nearly enough to suggest any solid answers.  One anthropologist has had a shot at part of the issue – American David McDermott Hughes, in a short book entitled Whiteness in Zimbabwe (2010).  Hughes argues that rural whites attempted to recreate an English-Romantic kind of landscape, centred on dams, and that this was part of whites’ attempt to avoid integrating with indigenous peoples.  He took as case studies the role of dams in the Virginia district, near Harare, and the big one – Kariba.  From a more urban perspective, Muchaparara Musemwa’s recent book, Water, History and Politics in Zimbabwe (2014), shows how water reticulation and control played a crucial part in the white Rhodesian government’s exercise of political and racialistic power over Bulawayo’s townships.

Hughes has been roundly critiqued from a number of perspectives, but he has opened up a potentially very fruitful line of enquiry: the relationship between landscape aesthetics and group identities in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe.  I have become increasingly wary of branding “white Rhodesians/Zimbabweans” any one thing.  Despite the song –  “For we are all Rhodesians, And we’ll fight through thick and thin; We’ll keep them north of the Zambezi [see?], Stop the enemy coming in”, regaled by Ian Smith’s son-in-law Clem Tholet at the height of the 1970s war – the “white” population was always quite fluid and internally dissonant in many different ways.  Nevertheless, a hard core, which still exists, came to believe that the “white Rhodesian” was some special kind of animal, and expressed that belief through various kinds of literature and power structures.  This includes how certain landscapes were viewed, valorised as beautiful or special in ways unique to Euro-colonial whiteness, and therefore removed from “black” habitation or access.

Thomas Baines' iconic painting of Victoria Falls

Among the sundry unexplored aspects in all this, I find myself wondering about waterfalls.  I guess waterfalls are attractive to people of all cultures, though they may be viewed and utilised in culturally nuanced ways.  There’s the biggie, of course – Victoria Falls, still known by the name of the Dead White Queen.  Between the ambiguous “discovery” by Livingstone and the blandness of today’s tourist brochures lurk many other illuminating treatments.  One is The Diary of Henry Stabb (1875), written well before Rhodes’ invasion of 1890:

To convey any just idea of these falls is hopeless ...Suddenly & without a moment’s warning, right athwart the entire bed of this hitherto peaceful river occurs a mighty rift, the walls of which on either side go sheer down for nearly 400 feet, forming a frightful chasm into which the waters of the river disappear.  The original bed of the river on both sides of this huge rent remains as it used to be before the earth yawned & this vast fissure appeared; the bed has been simply rent asunder, but on the far side now grow trees & grass & ferns where formerly the river flowed.  Into this chasm, nearly 1900 yds. in length, the entire river rolls with a deafening roar; imagine more than a mile of water suddenly precipitated over a sharp ledge into a black & yawning gulf.

Stabb was no great writer, and his geology quite wrong, but what’s interesting is his attempt to measure objectively as well as to convey the “awful” subjective frisson of the Romantic sublime.  But this is not purely European, either: Stabb noted that his local gunbearer, “being a very fine fellow, showed yesterday by his frequent exclamations that, savage though he is, he is capable of thoroughly appreciating the beauties that surrounded us.”

If this is a glimpse into an early “white” aesthetic, in the post-colonial era the poet Harold Farmer, then resident in Zimbabwe, figures (I think) the receding of white power as an imaginary receding of the Zambezi river itself, a sub-continental drying-up.  The last stanza of his poem “Victoria Falls” reads:

The Falls have shrivelled; cracks in the clay,
paper boats in puddles, mock battles between
unruly sailors and the predictable course
of a trickle, crocodile snaps of twigs
and the restless indentation of children
in foliage, the massive ropes and chains shrunk
to spindles, great slabs of crested sound
dwindled to an insolent dripping.

White supremacy, Farmer seems to be intimating, was always a fragile and delusory thing.

Pungwe Falls
On the other side of the country, at about the same time, N H Brettell was writing about the smaller, but still spectacular falls of the Inyanga highlands: Pungwe, Gairezi, Nyama.  “It seems odd,” he wrote in his lovely memoir, Side-Gate and Stile (1981), that there is not much music written about waterfalls:

But nothing that I know has all the noises of this cataract, the steady bass of the underlying roar, the fluting of the spray scattered by the up-draught into a score of variations, the cymbal clap of ripple on rock, the sudden thunder like the muffled thump of timpani, of loose stones rolled in the bed of the swirling torrent, strings and woodwind competing for the contrapuntal voices of the cloven stream: the whole orchestra ...

Only someone thoroughly versed in Western orchestration could write like that.  In the poem “New Year”, Brettell observes how a weir had been thrown across the “petulant stream” and how “James the water clerk” came to take his flow readings – a hint at the technologies of control, management and governance of water:

But you can only tame a mountain river
For a few yards.  After an olive sliding,
Sleek as an eel-skin, over the basalt shelf,
Flexing of shoulder muscles for the eager wrestle,
Against the random barriers of the gorge
It leaps, splits, foams, and overcomes
The haphazard fashion of the broken bed ...

Between the green pool and the cataract,
I wait with Janus, chameleon, the swivel-eyed:
Before, the savage catclaws of the rapids,
Behind, the sullen measurable flow.

The aesthetic of white belonging, Brettell implies, is also split, between controlling ‘civilisation’ and the liberating lure of wilderness.

My mother Jill Wylie also wrote (in Call: Life with a Basenji) about some falls in the same region, the Inodzi, with similar personification.   Though in the middle of a dangerously slippery search for a lost dog, she took time to appreciate the perilous aesthetics of the place:

The river strolls along a gorge flanked by gums and wattles, tumbles over a little weir and basks in a wide, shallow pool.  For a moment it fools around among natural steps and crevices, not looking where it’s going.  The burnished iron and copper slopes down, so smooth, so innocent – come into my parlour – one could be forgiven for stepping too close.  But it takes the heels from under the river and flings it, confused and out of control, down the slick gorge.
            Sometimes it hits rocky projections which toss it into white manes, white and brown and silver in the sun.  For a moment it tries to catch its breath against a sand-bank but is whipped onwards to sheer down into a deep, glass-sided pool. ...

Which is where she found the dog, dead.  The way the description reflects what must have been the dog’s own inner experience of falling, without making it at all obvious, is I think quite remarkable.

And there must be much more of such intriguing writing about the place of water in our lives...

Sue Ross-Jarvis' original illustration for Jill Wylie's Call.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

No.9 - Music in Blake, Blake in music

I’ve been re-reading a lot of that strange and manic Romantic poet, William Blake.  Almost completely isolated in his own lifetime, his presence in modern culture is incalculable.  Witness an episode of crime series The Mentalist I caught on TV the other night, in which some grubby bunch of miscreants used “Tiger tiger” as a password (one of them careful to explain to viewers that it was from Blake’s poem, quoting: “Tyger tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night”). 

As it happens, I’ve been re-reading Blake to keep up with a student who is finishing a thesis on the animals in Blake’s poetry.  Astonishingly, despite a vast amount of scholarship on Blake, no one seems yet to have published a comprehensive study of how he uses images of lambs and tigers, lions and wolves, eagles and horses and foxes and worms.

All the best “doors of perception” (Blake’s phrase) open by sheer accident, I think – and it just so happened that I was also trawling through some long-neglected CDs, and put on John Tavener’s  Ikon of Light.  Amongst the very beautiful choral works on it are his renditions of “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”, two of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, written in 1794.

Maybe too beautiful.  “The Lamb” is suitably rhythmical and repetitive, but it seems to me that the elevated refinement of Tavener’s composition entirely misses the ferocity and roughness of “The Tyger”:

            What immortal hand or eye
            Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
            And what shoulder, & what art,
            Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
            And when thy heart began to beat,
            What dread hand?  & what dread feet?

The whole poem is a series of these questions, never answered.  If I were to hazard my own reply, though, it’s that Blake can’t imagine that the conventional, cloudy, loving God of the Established Church could have created this monstrous beauty.  His conclusion: the God of the Church was a fraud, a “Nobodaddy” as he punningly called him.  Blake put his faith in the fiery energy of the independent “poetic genius”, symbolised by the untameable tiger.  By comparison, then – and Blake does intend us to compare them – the Christ-like gentle Lamb seems just self-deluded.

So it felt inappropriate to find “The Tyger” sucked into the airy folds of Tavener’s near-mystical church music.  Just as it’s inappropriate to find Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” sung in conventional church services. What began as an acerbic attack on industrialising English nationalism – the “dark Satanic mills” – was a century later amended, just enough to smooth away offence, and suborned to Blake’s most derided opponent – institutionalised religion.

Blake is recorded as having sung his own Songs in company – rather well apparently.  In pubs, too, one imagines.  His earliest poetic references to music occur in The Island in the Moon, a shaggy and silly satirical kind of play, set in a tavern, in which characters named Suction, Quid, Sipsop and Aradobo raucously carouse.  Suction yells for “an Anthem, an Anthem”, and gets:

            Lo, the bat with leathern wing
            Winking & blinking
            Winking & blinking

Followed by “Grand Chorus Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Hooooo my poooor siiiides...” 
And the Lawgiver sings:

            Musicians should have
            A pair of very good ears
            And long fingers & thumbs
            And not like clumsy bears
            Fa me la sol La me fa sol

And there’s a lot more of this inebriated nonsense. 

But when we get to the more mature and refined Songs and “The Little Vagabond”, the orphan finds the “Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm” compared to the “cold” church.  He wishes the Parson would just lighten up a little.  In contrast, the church depicted in “Holy Thursday” herds the children into “companies” that seem to “raise to heaven the voice of song”, but in reality are, as in the accompanying illustration, regimented as a Byzantine frieze.

So in several of the other Songs, what seem to be superficial, innocently child-like lullabies (like “Cradle Song”) begin to seem suffocating and even slightly sinister.  In fact, several Songs are satirical rewrites of hymns by Isaac Watts and John Wesley (several of which still find a place in the Anglican hymnals).  And in his depiction of the “horrid labours” of industrialisation in the long poem Milton, Blake writes of music being used to lull the workers, “thousands play on instruments/ Stringed or fluted to ameliorate the sorrows of slavery.”  Precursor of the modern mall?

But there are other kinds of music that liberate.  Blake’s Muses are often musical.  The opening poem of Songs of Innocence has a piper, piping away “so that every child might hear”; and the poem Europe has a slightly “tipsie” Fairy singing to a “soft lute”, readying the speaker for his task.  The Songs are full of children singing with their freedoms, almost always out of doors.  They are in tune with a Nature that also sings perpetually.  Birds particularly – the nightingale, for example, leading “the Choir of day! trill trill trill trill/ Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse” – but even the gorgeous Flies

                                                            that dance & sport in summer
            Upon the sunny brooks &meadows; every one the dance
            Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave:
            each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance...

And in Blake’s vision of ultimate spirituality, the very constellations

                                                in the deep & wondrous Night
            They rise in order and continue their immortal courses
            Upon the mountains & in vales with harp & heavenly song
            With flute & clarion ...

Over time, Blake’s poems got wilder and more voluminous, his rhythms less obviously musical.  But his earlier poems have been performed by an astonishing number of artists, from Benjamin Britten to Patti Smith.  Here are just three for your delectation.

The American Beat poet Allan Ginsberg followed Blake in his rebelliousness, his atmospheres of urban decay, his long tumultuous lines.  He was particularly notorious for masturbating to climax while reciting Blake’s “Sun-Flower”.  But he also performed several of the Songs with musical backing.  He couldn’t sing, really, but the 1969 recordings recordings are historically interesting.   

Also interesting are arrangements by Belgian composer Lucien Posman and the Goeyvaerts Consort.  Like Tavener, this is choral work – or very rich a cappella – but the performances, rather than being smoothed out into a kind of mysticism, are charged with Blake’s own turbulence.  And you can make out the words!  The Consort performs several of the Songs of Innocence and Experience – “The Clod & the Pebble”, “Little Girl Lost”, “The Little Vagabond”, “The Poison Tree”, among them, though neither “The Lamb” nor “The Tyger”.  Best of all, perhaps, is the longer “Song of Los”, in which Blake was breaking out into his stranger “prophetic” poetry; Posman’s score is masterfully matched to the poem’s turmoil of tone and meaning.

But maybe my favourite of all those I’ve found is Blake as Appalachian Blues, unlikely but wonderful, performed by Martha Redbone on her new album of 12 Blake poems, The Garden of Love.  “The Garden of Love” itself, one of Blake’s bitterest attacks on the Church, is suitably harshly rendered, others equally appropriately mellow.

I think Blake would have been delighted.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

No.8 - The mother of all animals

Jill Wylie, Javelin the search dog, and duiker Berry

 The ethologist Paul Shepard has said that our need for animals

is no vague, romantic, or intangible yearning, no simple sop to our loneliness or nostalgia for Paradise.  It is as hard and unavoidable as the compounds of our inner chemistry.  It is universal but poorly recognised.  It is the peculiar way animals are used in the growth and development of the human person, in those most priceless qualities, which we lump together as “mind”.   It is the role of animal images and forms in the shaping of personality, identity, and social consciousness.  Animals are amongst the first inhabitants of the mind’s eye.

There’s no mystery as to why I’ve ended up writing mostly about ecological matters and our fellow-animals, incorporating them into my teaching when I can.

My mother Jill Wylie is a self-educated naturalist.  She was the centre of her local SPCA for forty years; she made a career of training a series of dogs to find other lost dogs (most often caught in snares in the hills and bush); and she protected a privately-owned, non-profit wildlife sanctuary in the Bvumba mountains of eastern Zimbabwe.  I grew up with innumerable orphans: kittens and puppies, bushbuck and duiker, genets and mongoose, chickens and hares. 

We all shared, she joked, one big bottle of warmed milk, with a little egg and calcium for our orphaned bones.

Animals formed my personality, identity, and social consciousness.

And she would take me into the forest in the late evening, when reddening sunlight slanted through that rich, safe world, and say, “Look! How the sun just picks out that leaf, that twig!  Amazing!”  An attentiveness that, without rhetoric or inhibition, sacralised even sheer accidents of light.

And I still do that.

The mystery, I suppose, is why, despite all my father’s best efforts, I failed to understand the internal combustion engine.  Indeed, I have come to believe that the oil-fired engine has set the whole world on a temporarily comforting but ultimately self-destructive course.  The first to suffer, of course, are the wild animals and their habitats.  While my father laboured in his workshop on mechanical projects of improbable ingenuity, my mother set out to rescue and rehabilitate such animals as she could reach. 

And then wrote about it.  Endlessly.  Diaries, letters, columns for newsletters, articles for journals, books.  Three books are in print: Call: Life with a Basenji (available here http://megabooks.co.za/shop/brand/jill-wylie/ ); and two parallel sequels, Search (about Javelin, Call the Basenji’s  Doberman successor as search dog; available direct from me); and Wildwoods: The making of a wildlife sanctuary (available here http://megabooks.co.za/shop/wildwoods-the-making-of-a-wildlife-sanctuary/).  I hope in future to share more of her (actually very good) unpublished work on this blog.  Meanwhile, here is a piece I wrote back in 2006, but hadn’t got around to placing elsewhere.  I hope it makes an interesting introduction to the unique, often quite perilous venture of a remarkable person.

Dan, Call the Basenji and Jill Wylie
[Photo: Martin Glover]


There are voices on the hill.  Intruders.  The dogs yelp.  I follow my mother into the forest, running.
            For more than thirty years I have followed my mother into this forest, along this path.  This path is the central thread in my childhood, still as strong and essential to my being as my spinal cord is to my body.  My childhood runs even now through my vertebrae, as through a tunnel of trees.
            The forest clings to the mountainside like an injured child.
            My mother owns this part of the forest, it is her property, there are boundaries.  Ownership of a forest is as problematic, however, as ownership of a child, and the status of boundaries is vexed these days.  Money once changed hands, pegs were surveyed and marked.  But my mother says, It doesn’t belong to us, we belong to itI am just a temporary custodian of this acreage of life.
The intruders are here to remind her of her temporariness.  They are carriers of arrows and irony.
            We are running to catch up with them.  I am barefoot, like the child I once was, wincing a little now, my soles plump with civilization.

View across Duiker Hill and into Mozambique

The property my mother possesses, or is possessed by, takes a cut like a sirloin from the flank of a ridge called Zohwe.  Zohwe is part of the Bvumba mountains of eastern Zimbabwe; its northeastern end noses into Mozambique. 
Bvumba means ‘mist’ in Shona.  Often the mist rolls across the top of the grassland-coated batholith we call Forest Hill, scuds down the inner thigh of Lion Rock’s granite prow, leaps with ease the deep Ravine onto Duiker Hill.  The hill is dressed in brachystegia woodland light and open as a smile; it nudges up against the forest proper, its hundred-foot figs and podocarps, cathas and cussonias, albizias and crotons.
            Then the mist rolls on down and dissolves at the valley floor, where the one road loops and writhes.  Mist is oblivious to boundaries.
            The property’s boundaries are imaginary.  No one but dead municipal mapmakers and my mother know or heed them.  There are no fences, bar one along the road at its narrow foot: our intruders this morning must have walked around the end of it.  To the northeast the woodland brushes seamlessly across the ravine to Elephant Head, and onwards.  To the southeast the big forest goes on, equally seamless, up into the head of the valley, the cupped hand of its watershed, its life source. The imagined boundaries of all the property-owners, sketched on air, are violated by nature with impunity: the Starred robins flit through them in a second, the somango monkeys leap across them, unmannerly trees crash from one property into another.
            And violating all of them, in their grooves more ancient than any men, the streams, whose fan of tributaries mesh in the small river which runs the length of the valley and feeds the houses and the coffee-farms, the flower-plots and the nut plantations.
            Without the forest, the coffee and the nuts would die.
            Stippling the deep shadows of the forests, like shy colonists – or runaway slaves – are more coffee trees, seeded there by Silvery-cheeked hornbills which have raided the farms for berries for their nesting wives.  The boundary between the cultivated and the wild is  indistinct, however much my mother might wish it were otherwise.
            But that is consequential on the Sanctuary’s essence, my mother recognises.  This is a Sanctuary without borders, the animals must be free to come and go as they please.  That is why it is a Sanctuary, because it is open.
            It is not a Sanctuary by anyone’s law or legislation.  It is a Sanctuary solely because my mother is there.
            She nurtures it by walking it, by walking and knowing.
            And by the animals’ knowing that they too can walk there, without threat.
            For the child trotting and laughing in my marrow, the forest is the safest place in the world.
            Now we are running, but with urgency, pursuing voices.  The voices are speaking casually in Shona.  They are not stray American or Swedish tourists.  They are black people.


We are white people.  Being white in Zimbabwe is a tricky business.  Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime has been wreaking belated revenge on the political descendants of Cecil John Rhodes, whose 1890 ‘Pioneer Column’ violently annexed Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) to British imperialism.  Zimbabwean poet John Eppel calls Rhodes ‘the cash-box bandit’.
            Now we have a new generation of cash-box bandits, masquerading as state legalism.  In a few short years, agriculture has been eviscerated, industry is collapsing, fuel chronically dries up, inflation runs white-hot at 1200 per cent, four million people face famine.  The police sell confiscated sugar at 400 per cent profit, ungovernable warlordism threatens, the dissenting press is bombed, opposition party officials disappear, Mr Mugabe flies to Malaysia on holiday.
            Conservation of wildlife and the environment is caught up in the mayhem.
            An African proverb: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
            The grass beneath the msasa trees glows like blond flame this morning.  It releases scents, somewhere between the aromas of cinnamon and dust, sparking with crisp dew.
            As a child in Kenya, my mother ran all day in such grasses, and refused to wash when she came home; those smells lingered on her skin and made her drunk with pleasure.
            Just that colour gets under the skin.  After many years away from my homeland, I saw a film, an iconoclastic Zimbabwean-made film called Flame, which recounted the career of a young woman freedom fighter.  It opened with a shot of the dawn sun glowing through these grasses: sharp coppers and edgy, fragrant yellows, tipped with cerise memories.  It felt as if my skin was being turned inside out.
            Of such ephemera we build our identities.
            Now I am ‘home’ – the inverted commas are becoming obligatory, sharp as the black commas on an Augur buzzard’s wings: I have not ‘lived’ here in more than a decade – we are running through the grass, the thin blades razoring coldly across my knees.
            The set of our dogs’ noses tells us the intruders have gone up the firebreak.
            Fire is a talisman of threat.  Lightning sets off fires, but less often than cigarette butts spun from car windows, less often than honey-gatherers smoking out bees from the hollows of waterberry or mutsungunu trees.  Sparks escape thoughtlessly; whole mountain ranges burn.
            I recall many October days, the hills blanched to a pale thick blue by pervasive smoke, when we flailed with sacks or green branches at the edges of fires that crept or stormed up the Sanctuary’s lower slopes.  The blazes scorched our cheekbones, left a sifting pungent darkness and the bones of small creatures.  We’d pick across the coughing aftermath like survivors of an apocalypse, stabilising logs that might roll in the night and spark it afresh.  Hope that the wind wouldn’t awaken in the night while necklaces of red eyes laced our dreams. 
            Many of the Shona people who fought the fires alongside us thought we were crazy.  But they needed the work.
            Later – as in former years - some of them would use fire to drive the whites out, destroy what they loved.  Fire as politics.
            Once, in the worst of the droughts, no man alive could hold it, the winds whipped it up like an acrid spitting sea, even the great evergreen forest was too dry to resist.  The hornbills were nesting in the craibias, the females bricked in with mud; the males wouldn’t leave them until the nest itself was consumed; on fire themselves, braying with terror they spread the flames through the desiccated thickets of dried creeper that weighed the treetops, thirty unreachable metres above any firefighter’s head.
            Like the most innocent women in a war, the most beautiful trees proved the most vulnerable: the great strangler figs, whose muscled, latticed, serpentine, spilling roots had throttled huge host trees to death and split rocks, were shown to be light and friable; they burned like bridges, like long hair.
Not even our biggest firebreak, refurbished by three men every July, raking up the side of Duiker Hill, would work that time.  The fires leaped it with the ease of giraffes stepping across a pig-path.
            The steepest side of Duiker Hill is one of my mother’s treasures.  Saving it from fire remains one of her most tenaciously held ambitions.  The soil here is stony and loose, as prone to russet erosion as a leper’s skin.  In the early years of her ownership, she nursed a thin scattering of emaciated, child-like trees: msasas, munondos, muzhanjes, a few Prince-of-Wales-feathers, waterberries in the gullies.  She ringbarked the Australian eucalypts that stole a thousand litres of water a day from the gaunt water table. 
            Under the weak canopy, an almost unique ecosystem.  Grasses, nutsedge, St John’s wort, blackjack, wild tobacco, streptocarpus, crackling brackens.  Cane-rats and moles.  Stands of leonotis with their storied crowns of orange blossoms that fed the slender bills of Black and Double-collared sunbirds.  Baboons came from Forest Hill, foraging for the soapy-cored yellow muzhanje fruits, barking and squabbling and bashing down the accumulations of dry grass-debris, so no fire that did come through would burn too hot.
            She hoped.  Then the baboons did not come.  Poisoned.  Baboons adore the bark of young pine trees, grown on plantations on the far side of the ridge.  So they were poisoned.
            Then the leopards were no longer to be found either.  Poisoned, by the carcasses of the baboons.
            In the Ravine, liberated from predation, the bushpigs flourished.  On Duiker Hill, grass-brakes mounted up.  A fire got away.  It coursed up those fragile slopes. Too hot; far too hot.  The struggling trees burned and crumbled.
            My mother looked across at those many years of protective work, the shallow dongas just gaining sufficient thicket to shelter her rehabilitated bushbuck, the vetiver grass she’d planted on the erosion wounds just beginning to take: gone.  She wept. 
Then she and the natural processes started again.
Life, green life, seems to be unconquerable.  It conquers cinders and time.  It conquers the despair of women and their visiting sons.  It may yet conquer humankind altogether.  There are little muzhanjes coming up everywhere, with oversized leaves, like urchins wearing borrowed adult finery.  New grass snouting up in punky tufts.  On the forest edge, the pioneer cathas flourishing a vivid adolescent lime-green.   In the new glades in the deep forest, where great trees had crashed in flames and breakage, bringing the open sky down with them, creepers we’d never seen before swarmed over the rocks and debris, healing, holding.  Then, nettles almost the height of a man.  Then the new albizia and cabbage-tree saplings burrowing up into the light.
It will all take time.  But time itself takes time.  And time until – what?  Restoration.  The mythic As-It-Was.
But what will be restored?  What original Paradise do we have in mind here?  We know this forest long ago housed mountain communities of healers, hunters and hermits; we have found the ancient foundations of huts, subtle as ringworm, and pots buried to the rims in earth, deep in burial caves.  We know that the forest was long ago plundered for its hardwoods: here and there the axe has left its flat, hard-eyed signature.
Not to mention the coffee-trees.  Not to mention the gum-trees building up in terrifying, whispering phalanxes along the river-lines.
Everywhere we look, we face the death of purity.
But the Sanctuary depends on a certain conservatism.  It is a metaphor for continuity.
Our intruders are tearing that fabric, that myth of protective stasis.  And they are carrying fire.  We can smell it.  And then, pushing hard up the firebreak, we see them.  Two men.  One has bow and arrows in one hand.  The other a black can slung on a handle of fencing-wire, spilling pale smoke.
We pause to call out.
Iwe, madoda!  Mirayi!  Uya pano!’

Lion Rock
We address the men with the respectful form – mirayi, rather than the more peremptory Mira! – Wait!  It is more unwise than ever to cause unnecessary antagonisms.
            ‘We are looking for some missing cattle,’ one of the men calls back.
            ‘There are no cattle up here.  Please come down.’
            We continue to move up towards them.  Realising we are not about to be deceived by this pretext, they take off.  We give chase, this unfit forty-five-year old and this seventy-five-year old woman and two not very fierce dogs.  I know I have no hope of catching them, nor any clear idea what I might do if I did.  Days were when could call fruitfully on officers from National Parks to arrest ‘poachers’, but those days are gone now; they have neither the resources nor much motivation to work outside their narrowly delineated Park areas.  Indeed, country-wide, Parks officials, progressively stripped of government funding, are either resourced by rich, upmarket tourist lodge owners, the odd NGO, or have themselves become active participants in the plunder of the Parks they avowedly protect.  More or less arbitrary local potentates now regularly sell ‘licences’ to foreign hunters to come in and shoot at will.  A South African hunter recently boasted of having taken out 1500 zebra skins in a single week.  The slaughter re-enacts that perpetrated by the first wave of white hunters in this country in the late 1800s.  Poverty has nothing to do with it.
            For these two young men, poverty might have everything to do with it.  Even if they are local wage-earners, wages have been outstripped by inflation by an order of hundreds. 
At any rate, they have split up and vanished.
            As I pound futilely up the firebreak, a bushbuck doe steals away: their probable target.  Strangely, she does not give the usual sharp flat bark of warning.  As if she knows.  Or perhaps because my mother is in attendance.
            My mother sings to bushbuck.  She developed a melodious call when she was raising orphans, so they could learn to recognise her approach, both before and after rehabilitation.  Terrified, bewildered, often wounded little orphans, susceptible to shock and scouring, they had to learn to trust.  My mother has an extraordinary ability to feel her way into an orphan’s mind and sensibility, to avoid, for instance, spreading her arms like an eagle’s wings, so inducing instinctual panic; to mimic a mother buck’s call to drink; to hold herself in such a way as to approximate a mother’s flank against which the baby could butt and suckle.
            My mother is the wildest creature I know.   
            Once an orphan is healed, has learned from my mother which wild foods to eat, and has made touch-nose contact with wild ones through the mesh of the big outside cages at the forest’s edge, it is released.  It will still be partially dependent on the bottle, and will come in when my mother sings her call.  If not, the dogs, raised alongside and often taking a motherly interest, will be sent out to track and herd the little creature back, nudging it along with their noses.
            So now, the grown, breeding buck in the forest, whether they are released orphans, the orphans’ offspring, or even totally unrelated wild ones, recognize her melodious call, know that the dogs will take no interest in chasing them; so they will just stand and calmly watch us pass. 
            Imagine her distress, then, to one day find the bushbuck Msasa, successfully rehabilitated orphan and mother of five fawns born in the wild, torn to pieces by the neighbours’ dogs; or Fawn Four, hanging bloated from a wire snare laid weeks before, the meat rotting on its makeshift gibbet, never collected.
            She feels every loss like a piece of her own flesh, torn out.  This is the price of unconditional love.
            These two men raise all these nightmares again.
            They have disappeared.  The dogs track and find the blackened tin can, still smoking, abandoned by a path we know snakes back down into the valley.
            In the honeyed evening light, we turn for home.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

No.7 – The Bushman, the hyena and the poet

I am always advising my students, when they get lost in the entanglements of complex research projects, to try to capture what they’re after in a couple of pages.  What’s the primary research question?  What’s the necessary primary and secondary material?  What’s the approach?  What are the main lines of argument?  To what basic conclusion?

Now that I’m enmeshed in trying to write a paper that has grown too big and ragged for its own good, and I need to lay out its essentials for myself again, I thought this might be a good place to do it.  Then some kind-hearted and perceptive reader might be able to tell me where it’s gone wrong – or that I’m simply crazy.

The subject combines two things I’ve touched on in previous posts: Bushmen and animals.  The brief of the paper is to explore links between what is becoming known as Human-Animal Studies and ‘indigenous knowledges’.  Since I’ve been picking at aspects of Bushman ecologies and modern poetry for a few years now, it seemed natural to try to take this a bit further, and to work with a tightly-contained ‘case study’ to anchor the bigger question.

The broad question I take to be this: What can ‘we moderns’ learn about human-animal relations from an indigenous (or pre-colonial) culture?   The case-study question that follows is:  What can we learn about human-animal relations from modern transcriptions of /Xam Bushman testimonies – such as Alan James’s poetic versions of //Kabbo’s testimonies?

A bit of the necessary background.  In the 1870s the linguist Wilhelm Bleek was able to record our largest collection of ‘Bushman’ testimonies (more precisely, /Xam from the Northern Cape): legends, tales, songs, incantations, recollections, laments of a society already on the brink of vanishing beneath the onslaught of European farmers and commandos. (The whole Bleek-Lloyd Archive is accessible online.)  This treasure-trove has proved irresistible poetic material for a number of white poets – Jack Cope, Stephen Watson, Antjie Krog – seeking belatedly to valorise this vanished people.  Because no one can speak /Xam any more, these poets have had to upgrade and edit Bleek’s laborious original translations into modernised, readable versions.  So I want to focus just on Alan James’s versions of the animal stories of the most accomplished of Bleek’s informants, //Kabbo, in his book The First Bushman’s Path.  I’m hoping that this case will exemplify, in a slightly heightened form, a set of issues that bedevils all efforts to answer this kind of question.  There are at least four inter-related problems.

The first problem is that we don’t even have a clear idea of who the ‘Bushmen’ (or San, or Khoisan) were or are; an historian colleague has suggested to me that the term is so imprecise it should be done away with completely.  We know very little about the /Xam or their ‘original’ lifestyle, and it’s only with extreme caution that we can transfer impressions from other extant ‘Bushman’ groups.  And we don’t know much about //Kabbo.

A second, closely related problem is that we have only a sketchy notion of what pre-colonial societies did and believed; we extrapolate backwards from present-day groups, but how modified have they become over the decades?  Even in the 1870s //Kabbo and the /Xam had already become deeply dislocated by, and implicated in, the invasion of the ‘modern’.  We have never seen ‘indigenous knowledge’ other than through the modern eye, pure or original or unmodified.  ‘Indigenous knowledge’ has become a text – even, perhaps, for many indigenous peoples.

What we know of /Xam beliefs about animals is confined to Bleek’s texts.  He and Lucy Lloyd were inventing an orthography for /Xam as they went along, translating as best they could, often twice, first from the Dutch that //Kabbo knew (how well?), then into Bleek’s archaic English (how well?).  Then we have Alan James modifying those texts yet again into self-conscious ‘poems’, which they were not originally.  So the third problem is how far we can take these multiple ‘layers’ as giving us access to anything like an ‘original’.

The fourth issue has to do with our approach, our underlying motive for asking the question in the first place.  Isn’t this because ‘we’ academics tend to think of ourselves as ‘Westerners’, meaning we belong (even when we dissent) to a culture that’s essentially rational, scientific, foreign, supremacist, capitalistic, globalising, and ecologically destructive?  Hence, in looking shame-facedly about for a gentler, rooted, organic alternative, we are predisposed to extract from ‘indigenous’ societies what we need in order to critique ourselves.  If the Bushman did not exist, we would have to invent him, the way Michel de Montaigne invented the noble ‘cannibal’, back in 1580, with the same purpose.  Indeed, anthropologist Ed Wilmsen argues that we – and the whole problematic, imperial enterprise of anthropology as a discipline – have invented ‘the Bushman’.

Maybe one can make too much of these problems.  Maybe, even through the cryptic veils of rock art, even through the attenuated poems of Alan James, we can be fairly sure about some things.  The/Xam hunted animals selectively and lived frugally; they told complex stories about their hunts and myths about human-animal origins; their shamans believed they could ‘channel’ animal powers and beings; their relations were in some degree egalitarian and spiritual.  They certainly did not wipe animals out with firearms for sport, eliminate wildlife in favour of domesticated stock, and slaughter that stock by the millions for food.  We can admit all this without necessarily romanticising the Bushman, as Laurens van der Post did.  This is to emphasise and utilise the ‘Bushman’s difference from ourselves.

One thing is clear: we cannot go back to pre-colonial Bushman life – even if we could understand exactly what that was.  Even what remains of the Bushmen can’t really go back to ‘Bushman life’.  We will never relate to animals in quite the same way again.  But maybe we can find some cross-cultural similarities, some common ground in ‘the West’s own animal mythologies, in a persistent strand of anti-rational Western philosophy running from Berkeley to Merleau-Ponty.  Or, most attractively, a strong school of thought that is now revitalising concepts of “animism”, not (only) looking to ancient myth, but trying to re-sacralise human-animal relations within our modern world.  Much as Alan James is doing poetically with the Bleek-Lloyd material.  And this is to emphasise the Bushman’s commonality with us.

Can one balance difference and commonality?  Maybe, through this animist lens, we can view James’s modern poems, not as representative of some fixed historical /Xam moment, but as aesthetic objects in themselves, with whatever ethical import they can be seen to carry.  Like any work of literary art, the poem carries the traces and burdens and richness of its verbal pasts, but in transmogrified form – the way Shakespeare’s plays modified and recharged his sources in Plutarch, or Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros reconfigured Homer’s Odyssey for the Caribbean milieu.  All stories are stories, as //Kabbo himself put it, that float in on the wind, and away again, belonging to no one.

Hmm, that does feel a little clearer...

Oh, conclusions?  Though study of Bushmen-as-different might give us a lever with which to critique modern eco-destructiveness, and though a recharged animism might bring Bushmen closer to us in common humanity, what we might usefully learn about human-animal relations is probably quite limited.  An attitude of greater respect?  Perhaps.  But are we going to believe in Bushman myths and shamanistic shape-shifting?  Or go out and actually live a hunter-gatherer life?  Very, very unlikely.  We can be certain, I think, that Bushman attitudes had nothing whatsoever to do with conservation, animal rights, or extensive domestication – the three major modes into which modernity has thrust our animal relations.  For most of us, and for most animals, the ‘Bushman way’ must remain an unreachable fantasy, and a literary construct – but, like a lot of fantasy, it is good to think with.

Anyway, here is an extract from Alan James’s poem, derived from //Kabbo, entitled “The hyena fears the fire”.  Make of it what you will.

hyenas eat meat that is raw,
and they eat ostrich eggs that are raw, that are cold,

they all eat things that are raw
for they keep no fire, they fear the fire, they run from fire,

for they remember how the hyena mother once burned her feet
when she stood on the coals of a fire at the Dawn Heart’s house:

for she had feared his assegai (//Kabbo explained)

Monday, 7 December 2015

No.6 – The South African fence: notes towards a literary history

I seem to recall that some years ago James Clarke, then writing an environmental column, claimed that there was not a spot in the whole of South Africa that was further then ten kilometres from somebody’s fence.

That would take some verifying, but the point is roughly supported by the experience of travelling through it: compared to the vast spaces of Botswana or Namibia, South Africa feels obsessively fenced-off.  It’s hard to get off the road in most places.  In impoverished areas like the Transkei, road-signs actually warn: “NO FENCING.”   Possession and exclusion, it seems to me, has become the rigid, even paranoid soul of this country.  Fences have become a moral constituent of our very psyches.  Fences to keep people out and keep people in, animals in or out, wilderness apart from domesticity, the legal from the marauding, the rich from the poor, the black from the white.  Wire everywhere, with its rich if vicious set of metaphoric monickers: galvanised wire, barbed-wire, chain-link, chicken-mesh, diamond-mesh, jackal-proof fencing, game fencing, electric fencing, razor-wire (the last allegedly a South African invention – a worthy contribution to civilisation, I’m sure).

The technology of wire transformed our rural landscape, fundamentally altering whole ecologies.  From about 1870 on, wire began to replace native and natural barriers of wood, thorn-branches, kei-apple hedges, bomas of prickly-pear.  Wire accompanied and made possible vast livestock agriculture, new grazing patterns, the banishment of a few remaining wild animals to “protected parks”, the enforcement of divisive racial policy, prison systems.  An 1889 Select Committee inquiring into the effects of the Fencing Act included this testimony:

Are the advantages of fencing great? – The advantages of fencing are very great.  It increases the amount of stock which land can carry, it prevents the spread of contagious diseases amongst animals, it checks thieving, and civilizes the country, as there can be nothing worth calling a farm until the country is fenced...

A huge industry flourished on enclosure.  In 1906 13,400 tons of wire was imported into the Cape; in 1928, 47,600 tons.  Today, as much livestock is replaced by game farming, some quirky relic fences also pass into obsolescence: the fence-posts made from long slivers of rock in the Karoo, and increasingly rare sneezewood posts, sought after by wood-carvers and instrument-makers.

It would be surprising if the fence didn’t make it into our literature.  Never mind the ubiquity of the suburban garden fence, in all its defensive variety – a society-defining industry as vast as the rural one.  Here are just a few rural teasers.

In 1909, the ‘Kipling of Rhodesia’, Cullen Gouldsbury, lamented the loss of the freedom of the Great White Hunter; the fence was destroying romantic nomadism and the migrations of humans and animals alike.  This is the closing stanza from his poem, “The Ring-Fence”:

Hang up thy rusted bandolier, and let the rifle rust,
For now the dreams of yester year and all they held in trust
Must take the place of strenuous days and starlit nights of old
Of morning mists, and noontide blaze, and weariness and cold –
No more the Tusker of those dreams shall charge, with trunk uncurled,
No more, at dawn, thou’lt pace the paths with dancing dew empearled –
No more crouch low and test the wind – the Ring-Fence hems the world!

(And how widely is the term “ring-fenced” used as a metaphor now!)

Fences can be as destructive to animals as they can be protective.  This is writ small, but with a terrible compassion, in a poem by Gouldsbury’s successor as Rhodesia-Zimbabwe’s premier white poet, the now neglected N H Brettell.  This is the evocative description from “Wind and an Eagle-Owl”.  The speaker and his wife are contemplating the aftermath of a quarrel:

We rode out with the pealing day before us,
Down plains all wind and woods in trouble,
With the first tooth of winter in the air:
All the world’s doors flew open for us –
Crippled and craven, the plovers scattered crying
On the shuddering air, peevish, lamentable:
And in a fence, the great bird trapped and dying
With splintered scapulars spreadeagled there.
You luckless fellow of our night of wind,
Who through the breathing solitudes had hunted,
And blindly struck, like us, suddenly pinned
And broken on the barbs that we had blunted.

                I tie my timid filly up
                To get a stick to kill you with;
                With pity brimming like a cup
                I come deliverer in disguise:
                Your great beak gaped in savage grin,
                Your great stare narrowed to a frith
                Of gleaming horror and surprise ...

What starts off as almost Shakespearean symbolism, narrows to grim and visceral mercy, with the fence as the murderous frame or fretwork.

To return to South Africa, and to turn from poetry to fiction:  J M Coetzee’s futuristic masterpiece, The Life & Times of Michael K, follows the meanderings of Michael K from his career as Cape Town municipal gardener into the dry interior, almost haplessly trying to slip past all restrictions and constrictions, including even the need to cultivate and eat.  He is the ultimate nomad, a “wraith” eluding history.  But he gets caught up in a police raid, interned in a labour camp (walled and fenced) and, ironically, assigned to a fencing crew:

... The work was slow, for they were using not new wire but lengths of old wire which when joined together coiled in inconsistent directions.  K liked the leisureliness of the work and its repetitiveness ... Once the farmer took K aside, gave him a cigarette, and commended him.  ‘You have a feel for wire,’ he said.  ‘You should go into fencing...’

But K’s desire is to transcend fencing, his “feel” is to go through and away:

            ‘So can you open the gate?’ said K.
                ‘The only way to leave is with the work party,’ said the guard.
                ‘And if I climb the fence? What will you do if climb the fence?’
                ‘You climb the fence and I’ll shoot you.  I swear to God I won’t think twice, so don’t try.’
                K caressed the wire as if weighing the risk.

The fence reappears countless times in this novel and, I venture to speculate, in sundry other rural and plaasroman farm novels.  I predict that once you start looking for it, the fence will appear everywhere, the all but unacknowledged legislator of our landscapes.  One more sample: Henrietta Rose-Innes’ recent deft novel Green Lion.  Like Michael K  it’s set in the Cape and vaguely futuristic.  Table Mountain is now ringed by a secure fence, ostensibly to protect its wildlife but also inviting transgression; like K, the lion of the title, last of its kind in the remnant of a disintegrating zoo, also effects an escape into something like myth.

Having so trapped ourselves in every direction, it seems, there is something in us that longs to get out again.  One might finally agree with Grahamstown poet Robert Berold, in his poem “boundaries” (from Rain across a paper field):

I no longer recognise these fields
cattle, fences, boundary stones

boundaries make no sense to me
the idea of a country is so strange

can God’s forms, tree and tusk

contain this chaos? ...