Wednesday, 30 November 2016

IMITHI: Grahamstown's Tree Memory Project

 If water is our life-blood, 
plants are our very flesh.

Over millions of years plants have created the atmosphere we breathe; the soils from which we harvest food; and the fossil fuels on which our present economy runs.  Without plants, without trees, we are dead.  It’s that simple, and no exaggeration.  Yet fossil fuels and arable soils and water-generating ecosystems are all under huge stress from human activity.  Trees are being cut down at terrifying rates globally, un-homing orang-utans and gorillas and butterflies, lemurs and wolves and owls, as well as age-old human communities from the Amazon to Myanmar.

We may feel we can’t do much about the destruction of forests in New Guinea or Brazil, but we can do something in Grahamstown.  We can write about, document, record the memories of local trees that once graced our streets or hills or gardens.  We can try to preserve the trees we still possess.  And we can try to take the long view and try to plant new trees that in a hundred or two hundred years will be places in which ecosystems can thrive and great-grandchildren can play and new cultural meanings can be forged.

Makana's Kop: Impression (c) Dan Wylie
Trees carry meanings and memories. 

Trees are havens in which we hid or cried or shared secrets or companionship.  They housed other mammals or intriguing birds or threatening insects.  They heaved up our houses’ foundations or suffused our mornings with beauty or yielded sweet or bitter fruits that became who we are.  They are scented with seasonal weathers and ghosts.  Our town is dominated at one end by the grove on Makana’s Kop, with all the cultural weight of those who are buried there; and at the other by the Botanical Gardens, with its quilt of foreign trees at once imperial and beautiful, both alien and educative.

Our relationship to trees is not always just beauty and benefit.  They break walls and harbour venomous snakes.  Some alien species are astoundingly lovely, but others are ecologically damaging and have to be rooted out.  But overall, remember – without trees, we’re dead, and so are a zillion other species, upon every one of which a functioning ecosystem may depend.  Dead simple.

So here is the call.  Send in your memories of trees.

You may know of and direct us to photographs or paintings of Grahamstown’s now-forgotten and vanished trees of the past.  You may know of old travelogues, or letters, poems or stories.  You may have photos or paintings or drawings of trees you once played in, or planted, or cut down, or that still exist, on your street or in your back yard.  Certain trees may commemorate or recall specific individuals or events.  Write down what you know and remember, and send it in.  Anything.  It doesn’t have to be literary or polished.  Be sentimental, or scientific, or angry. The more specific your information – the precise location, the species, the exact time or age – the more useful it may be.  Take more photos.  Get your kids and students doing projects.  Let’s think afresh about our trees.  Let’s think about what we can leave behind, not just for tomorrow, or next year, but for fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.

We don’t know what we’ll do with it yet.  The Facebook page is just a start.  In time we can start compiling and correlating and mapping and sifting it all into something that will find its own shape.  It’s for everyone to participate in.  Just keep it to Grahamstown-Rhini and its immediate surrounds for now!

Send what you have to the
              Imithi facebook page

or to Dan Wylie at

or mail to Dan Wylie, Department of English, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.


Saturday, 22 October 2016

No.37 - Mike Skinner: Elegy for a friend

Mike has crossed the border
from which there is no return
Mike Skinner and I were the same age, both originally from Bulawayo, both incorrigible bachelors, and of similar build.  We shared for some years a passion for the slightly mad activity of rock-climbing, until for some reason he more or less abandoned that for the slightly madder activity of para-sailing.  For both of us Rhodes and Grahamstown had become our second home.

Mike loved the desert, drawn repeatedly to the Kalahari.  I never got to join him there; but we did climb many local crags, and the Compassberg, and Mary near Tarkastad; and we 4x4’d with John McKinnell through mountainous Lesotho.   He and I shared one particularly memorable desert adventure – a trip to Namibia, with our friend Nikki.  We visited Ais-Ais and Sossusvlei and Windhoek, then headed north for even drier regions.  We camped one night in the lee of the massif of the Brandberg, and Mikey decided to bake some bread, from scratch.  This poem relates what happened:


The night of the Brandberg closes about us,
warm as fur.  Our fire, fading on the sand, feels
like the centre of life.  Mike rakes away the coals
and unearths the pot beneath them
where the bread’s been invisibly baking.
He lifts the heavy lid, shines the torch in.
There is no bread.  Nothing.  A black iron hole
swallowing our astonishment.
We do find it after some seconds –
so puffed up with exuberant yeasty life
it was stuck to the lid itself.

But now there really is no loaf:
death has lifted its lid on a hollow
black as an impenetrable hunger.
Whatever else we might cherish and taste,
that is a loaf from which we cannot eat again.

Mikey has the best view of all now.
We went on then to climb the famous Spitzkoppe, spectacularly shaped in yellowing colours but made of ghastly decomposing granite chutes that skinned our knees.  Then it was on to the petroglyph galleries of Twyfelfontein, and the strangely pristine coastal town of Swakopmund – where we found that the police were looking for us.  Or, specifically, looking for Mike: his father had been shot in a house break-in in Bulawayo.  We raced him back to Windhoek to catch a plane home – then Nikki and I continued the holiday in Mike’s white Toyota 4x4.  We felt weird, vaguely guilty, and bereft of Mike’s robust pragmatism, mechanical acumen, and genial quietness.  But it was what Mike wanted us to do.

Mike at Twyfelfontein
He was always so: unfailingly selfless, gently uncomplicated, keeping any distress close to himself.  He could express robust criticism of the world’s miscreants, including whoever killed his father, but there wasn’t a mean fibre in his body.  He was a man of parts – he could play the piano, cook, build stuff with meticulous care, run his pharmaceutical unit – but was not one for introspection, or saying much about his inner self, or imposing on one for help.

I saw relatively little of him these last couple of years, though most recently I think he was grateful that he and I could share some illness stories – rather as we had periodically commiserated over our expanding middle-aged bellies.  He would shrug and monosyllabically profess his positivity and hand it all over to God, blinking his eyes like a slightly nervous raccoon and grinning shyly with his small teeth.  I told him to call me, any time, for anything, but he did not – and suddenly it was too late. 

I am so grateful for having known him, knowing I could do no better than to judge my own life-decisions by the single criterion: would Mikey Skinner have approved?


I am cutting out alien trees
halfway down the hill
when the phone call comes.
A knot in my stomach has been waiting.
Our lovely Mike is gone.
So blessed in his modesty and quiet
almost none of us even knew he was ill.
Our lovely Mikey is gone.
The cellphone sits like a hollow in my hand.
The sun is a hollow in the low sky.
I think of the world that Mike has left:
our campuses afire, Somalia starving,
Syria ruined, etcetera, etcetera.
Sometimes it seems it’s not Death
that is so intractable and opaque
but Life itself.  I should have
spent more time with him.  I should,
I should... But Mikey is gone.
And now we can only
leave the lopped branches of guilt
to lie where they fall, and try to love
whoever we can, when we can,
as much as we can, for as long
as time is running in our veins.


Friday, 14 October 2016

No.36 - "Teaching" - what IS that exactly?

Here we are, on yet another “march”.  This one is supposedly a national gesture by academics to the South African government to do something more positive about the university fees crisis.  We are so bad at this.  We are less robust or organised than French farmers.  We don’t aspire to the spine-tingling song-and-dance choreography of COSATU workers.  And we’re far less scary than the actually quite small bunch of campus protesters who manage by manipulative violence, childish vandalism, and disgusting online bullying, to bring the legitimate work of thousands almost to a halt.  Tripping along behind it all is a potentially very positive re-examination of what we fundamentally do – this thing called “teaching”.

I estimate that less than a third of all the university’s staff are present at this demonstration.  Some wear their archaic remnants of mediaeval “academic dress” and wave placards with sundry uncoordinated messages: Mathematics For All; 1.5% Its Not Much (no apostrophe).  Some of us make ours up on the trot with koki pen on coloured card.  What shall I say: Zuma: Show Leadership For Once in Your Miserable Life, or Take a Breath: Think This Through?  Should it be Yes We Can! or In Your Dreams, Chinas

Eventually I scribble Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.  It’s a quotation from Ursula le Guin’s otherworldly novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which I happen to be presenting to our first-years at the moment.  The words are part of the protagonist Genly Ai’s explanation of the values of the Ekumen, the interplanetary trade organisation of which he is a solitary envoy.  The Ekumen (cf. ecumenical) is a kind of hybrid of the UN and the Internet.  It espouses, alongside voluntary trade alliances between diverse peoples scattered across space,

Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life.  The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God.  Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.

There can hardly be a better definition of what I think “teaching” is about, or rather education (Latin e + ducere: to lead out and away).  In amongst the entangled drives, the obscure agendas, and the inflated rhetoric of the demonstrations, there is frequent recurrence of the phrase “quality education”, but little discussion that I can see of what precisely “quality” might mean.  Mostly it seems something of an afterthought to “free”.  One can be sure that curiosity, adventure and delight are unlikely to be uppermost in anyone’s mind.  As Genly Ai ruefully notes, this is “not the tongue spoken by those who rule men, the kings, conquerors, dictators, generals” – or even, it might be added, democratic bureaucracies.  I can’t quite see what’s driving the idiocy of violent campus protests, but I’m pretty certain it’s ultimately about power.  And power always deploys simplification and exclusionary consolidation, not the enhancement of complexity and harmony.

The rhetoric of the disarrayed tentacles of the FeesMustFall-type campaigners – at least some of whose desires I and my colleagues in principle support – often intersects with broader calls for “transformation” and “decolonisation”.  Several seminars, a couple of conferences, and various books later, I still have no idea what “transformation” might actually mean or entail, let alone how “it” might be implemented; asking the question usually provokes an outburst of backward-looking invective directed at the legacy of apartheid.  The overcoming of that quite specific historical crime gets conflated with a much looser call for “decolonisation”.  This seems to me about as attainable as a reversible orgasm, or equivalent to trying to fit a rotted leg back onto an amputee a decade after the injury. 

If one cannot waltz backwards through history, towards a utopia that never existed, one can only try to invent new legs for the old stump, and limp or segue onwards.  That process requires innovation, a willingness to explore diverse possibilities; it requires breaking new grounds, whatever traditions might be summonsed in support; and it requires the optimistic mind-set of loving what one is building, rather than the destructive myopia of the merely angry.  Curiosity, adventure, delight.

Have to adore that cover...
As it happens I am also exploring, with another class, Dante’s fourteenth-century epic of pilgrimage and redemption, the Divine Comedy.  And I’ve serendipitously discovered Alberto Manguel’s new book, Curiosity (2015).  Manguel is one of those polymathic European scholars who can convey massive learning with lucid panache and wholly refreshing approaches; I loved his earlier book A History of Reading.   In Curiosity he uses Dante’s great poem as a central thread on which to hang a series of meditations on the nature of curiosity itself – essentially, why we ask the kinds of questions about life that we do.  Manguel is so widely-read that in a page or two he can elucidate the ideas of three European philosophers you’ve never even heard of; but his definition of curiosity is straightforward enough.  The path of questioning can be a thorny one:

The great quest which begins in the middle of our life [like Dante’s poetic pilgrimage] and ends with the vision of a truth that cannot be put into words is fraught with endless distractions, side paths, recollections, intellectual and material obstacles, and dangerous errors, as well as with errors that, for all their appearance of falsity, are true. Concentration or distraction, asking in order to know why or in order to know how, questioning within the limits of what a society considers permissible or seeking answers outside those limits: these dichotomies, always latent in the phenomenon of curiosity, simultaneously hamper and drive forward every one of our quests.  What persists, however, even when we surrender to insurmountable obstacles, and even when we fail in spite of enduring courage and best intentions, is the impulse to seek, as Dante tells us...

Education, for me, is nothing other than providing for the student the matrix within which this negotiation can flourish.  Students always falter, to differing degrees, and so do we; and so we ideally try to provide the grounds on which to pick ourselves up again, and start questioning afresh.  Some crises can be good for this process, even when, as now, the nature of the matrix itself comes under scrutiny.  But as the present upheaval shows, individual responses can be highly idiosyncratic – and, contra the normative intolerances of varieties of group-speak, they ought to be.  Dealing with, stimulating, enhancing, and above all tolerating such idiosyncrasies and complexities in the teaching-learning situation is a process unsuited to the recent drive towards tertiary education’s so-called “massification” – another term of ideologically-impelled, self-disabling and self-contradictory vacuity.

George Steiner is another multilingual European scholar of awe-inspiring breadth and breathtaking richness of expression (not to be confused with Rudolph Steiner, the anthroposophist educator).  Steiner (George) has argued throughout his wonderful book, Lessons of the Masters (2003), that it is not the levelling of opportunity for all that makes for effective education, but the particularities of a master-disciple relationship.  No matter what "transformations" or "decolonisations" or curricula reforms occur, this remains the core.  My own master-mentor, the late Don Maclennan, introduced me to Steiner maybe thirty years ago, in the form of Steiner’s huge and enthralling book on translation, After Babel.  I have since read much of him, another kind of master-teacher.  I am always captivated if frequently left behind, though it would be hard to specify just what all Steiner’s effects on me are or will be.

In any case, Steiner shows, those effects are intrinsically fraught and unpredictable, and ought to be.  The exchange between mentor and acolyte ideally passes through stages of adoration and mimicry, followed by challenge, and ultimately supersession.  The ideal master produces not a clone, but a skilled escapee, even a betrayer.  At times, it is hard to say which is the master and which the pupil.  “The pulse of teaching is persuasion,” Steiner writes.  “The teacher solicits attention, agreement and, optimally, collaborative dissent.”  Crucially, it is not in the muffling anonymity of the lecture theatre, nor in the boiled-down study-notes posted on the internet chat-rooms, but in the eyeball-to-eyeball interchange, the oral Socratic dialogue, where the most fruitful, quality education occurs. 

One might say that whoever grasps Socrates’ [pedagogical] intention is made an autodidact, especially in ethics.  For Socrates himself professes ignorance; the wisdom attributed to him ... consists only in his clear perception of his own unknowing.

This wavering, unmeasurable, fabulous energy – in which I exhilarate daily, often at the hands of students clearly cleverer than me – largely escapes the purview of the “decolonisation” activists; it baffles modern managers; and it frightens governments.  It is why the Athenians forced Socrates to swallow hemlock, why Stalin murdered the finest poets, even why the God-bound Dante condemns Odysseus to the Inferno – because he dared explore too far, and only for himself and its own sake.  But where would we be without curiosity about the darkness?

In The Left Hand of Darkness, a mystical character named Faxe the Weaver is key: I take him to be closest to Ursula le Guin’s own voice. Echoing Socrates, he says:

The unknown, ... the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on.  Ignorance is the ground of thought.  Unproof is the ground of action.  If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion. ... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. ... The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Worth recalling, as we mill about and wave our imploring or angry placards for the photo-ops, looking for silver linings in the chaos.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

No 35 - Protestations of beauty

What is being born beneath our noses?
Campus has seemed quiet today but there is an undercurrent of nervy potential for disruption and confrontation, so in caution we have been sent home.  I mark a few draft essays from students who are trying to hold their work together; check over a couple of journal articles that have been sent to me for review, sign yet another petition to government to do something swift and creative about the fees issue.  Should I then feel guilty that I take a bit of time to work some recalcitrant acrylic paint across the surface of a canvas?

I think not.  It was something of a mantra during the apartheid years: How can one write poems about flowers when people are suffering and dying in the streets?  But it’s precisely at times of human turmoil that I think it most important to try to produce even one article of beauty – a poem, a song, a painting – something that will outlast and eventually outshine our moments of madness and gloom.  Most important, too, to take a moment just to appreciate the astonishing beauties that reveal themselves to the attentive eye just metres from one’s back door.

Even the tiniest people have their bevy of servants and friends
This is not a cop-out.  It is not a sign of indifference to human plights.  Rather, it is an amplification of one’s awareness, a sharpening by contrast.  For me, it is itself a protest.  It is a protest against crassness and trampling boots.  It is an antidote to blinkered selfishness.  It is a reminder that ours are not the only lives, that we live within and by virtue of symbioses wider and subtler than the merely human.  It is a kind of humility, a slitting open of ideological arrogance.  It is to live out the best in us, to enjoin ourselves to create of every social interaction a thing of beauty, too.

The critic Jonathan Bate writes to this effect: “To miniaturise the world is to dwell better within it.”  Notice what is normally beneath notice.  I blithely walk in and out of my back door several times a day.  But adventures happen just a metre or two away.  After all, this is the spot I once found the cat in wary conversation with a rather handsome Night adder.  And not a fortnight later I found her, in exactly the same spot, in wary conversation with a rather handsome legevaan, roaring like a passing jet liner. 

And what if I pause, and bend, and look even more closely? 

At the corner of the wall a string of glossy ants bustle up and down, their every social interaction a thing of comradeship and beauty.  

And on the rippled glass of the door, a moth rests, a powdered fragment of moon, the lightest breath of a fine idea.

Raindrops line up along flower-stems like beauty queens, transparent rosaries, each one a tremulous prayer to transience.

Flowers smaller than a child’s fingernail, when magnified, unfold galactic complexities, a purple richer than royalty.

Trapdoors spiders lurk in their gossamer architectures, though not for us.  Only when the nuclear holocaust has passed, will they truly emerge and gobble up all our pretensions.

Ferns growing out of a wall-crack.  I hear the words of a friend: Get those things out, you have to preserve the integrity of the infrastructure!  But the fern is the infrastructure of life itself.

The trick is this: to bring the given into aesthetic conversation with the created: the heron imagined in a burned branch, the heartfelt rosary of heart-shaped shells, a yin-yang mandala meditated out of broken glass cleared from the forest.


Make it beautiful; make the beauty count.


Sunday, 2 October 2016

No.34 - Student protests and feline philosophy

It’s all rather surreal.  In between spasms and pockets of activity, campus is eerily quiet.  I emerge from a class with a radically diminished and subdued group of students to find that the police have been stunning protesters with rubber bullets.  It’s all over; the only evidence is the platoon of cops gathered at their truck down the street, and paramedics closing their ambulance doors on someone injured and bumping off across the lawns. 

It’s surreal participating in a march intended to show solidarity between students, academics and management, to present a petition to the ANC authorities.  We all want better funding for tertiary education.  Scarlet and black academic gowns stir with conversation and uneasy jokes.  But where are the students?  A certain suspicion develops as the march moves slowly off in the direction of the Town Hall.  A student organiser, after a struggle to get the bullhorn to work, encourages us to shed academic dress and to dance and sing, “or even just hum”.   There is, apparently, only one approved way to protest – that stamping, singing mode that to outsiders makes anger look rather enjoyable.  After less than a hundred metres the little coterie is enveloped by a swarm of running, shoving youngsters, from who knows where?  Some are certainly not university students.  A bald-headed man, who may or may not be from one of the several ‘factions’ making their presence felt, brings the thing to a halt, engages in vigorous discussion with the Vice Chancellor, shouts hoarsely that he is “boycotting this march” – which to my mind means he ought to go home.  No one can hear what he’s saying.  I can’t see this march getting anywhere, so having shown my solidarity with its very reasonable requests, I leave it and go home.

The cat greets me, stretching and mewing.  She wants to play and go for a walk.  I take her advice and join her and blow off a little frustration, uprooting alien saplings on the forest slopes.

Life is very clean and straightforward for a cat.  If it’s not a direct physical threat, to be avoided or fought, or if it’s not edible, she just ... chills. She somehow manages to be preternaturally alert and meditative at the same time.  I’m convinced there’s a lesson to be learned there.

Meanwhile my stomach churns and my sleep is broken.  A sweet and earnest team of Department of Health statistics-gatherers comes round and informs me my blood pressure is a bit high.  It’s as if my innards are directly mimicking the chaos in my professional world.  That turmoil is following some numbingly predictable trajectories; clearly key actors have learned nothing from history.

History, ironically, is not on the side of a favourable outcome of the fees upheaval.  The protesters – meaning that minority of people, who may or may not in individual cases be students, who promote a more or less confrontational approach to the fees problem – are generating an energy which is temporarily gratifying for them but undermines everyone else.  They seem intent on an anarchic and prolonged closure of the universities, in service of an unattainable goal.  Look back at Kampala, Harare, Kinshasa, and any number of other cases: prolonged and repeated closures have a predictable outcome.  Established academics leave; richer students leave; funding diminishes further; infrastructure erodes; publications dry up; research shrivels; a machinery of mediocrity grinds despondently on; both national and international recognition vanishes, as degrees lose quality and kudos.

So why do these protesters persist?  Conspiracy theorists revel in rumours that ‘third forces’ are at play, powers that actually want the fees issue to fail, and the universities to fail.  Anti-government forces that want the ANC to be seen to fail?  Or the ANC itself, which would love to see these troublesome intellectuals and uppity youths disempowered?  Who knows?  Mixed and leaderless movements disable negotiations.  We want unity on this, but unity entails compromise; in democracies finding compromises and forging lasting solutions takes patience – and protesters making demands are by definition neither compromising nor patient.  So it goes on.  Anger gets misdirected.  Enemies are made precisely where allies are needed.  Self-defence is turned into racism.  Disagreement, even over minor tactics, is twisted into disloyalty.  The rule of constitutional law is howled down as oppression. Managements issue sensible but ineffectual generalisations.  Social media bristles with viral lies and distortions and snatches of cell-phone footage, with unpredictable effects.  (We are, the Economist claims, in an era of "post-truth politics", a seriously frightening idea.)  Sundry “causes” intermingle, not all amenable to tactics inherited from the struggles of the apartheid years.  The government shows an astonishing and depressing lack of urgency and leadership, despite a plethora of interesting and possibly quite viable ideas flowering in the papers and chat-groups.

I watch the cat on the hill-slope.  For a long time she just settles and sits. My tree-pulling is of no interest.  She is entirely self-contained.  Yet her ears are flickering and listening constantly.  Finally a scent or a rustle too subtle for human senses attracts her, and she begins to stalk.  She is utterly focused.  I call to her but there is no response.  When you stalk, stalk.  Very Zen.

In my university context, what am I focused on?  In amongst the mush of administration, committee duties, and of course protests, what is the task?  It seems very clear to me.  I am here to improve my students’ skills.  That is my job, and it is the only thing that university can uniquely provide students, in service of making them maximally functional citizens.  It is irrelevant to me where the student’s fee-money comes from: a parent, a bank, a scholarship, the taxpayer, herself.  The skills still need to be taught and acquired.

I am under no illusion that this is in itself a simple thing.  Literary skills are multiple and complex – more than just reading and writing.  They are perception and argumentation.  They are about values and ambitions and cultural predispositions.  And things that get in the way of teaching the skills are also multiple and complex: they can take the form of a student’s psychological breakdown, or a hangover, or an unfruitful university policy, or an ignorant political decree from the Department of Labour, or a student's apathy.  Or protesters hounding a lecturer out of the classroom.
Very Zen cat

Nevertheless, this one goal in my teaching life helps ground me, and helps direct my responses to situations as they arise.  Things only happen one at a time, so I try to deal with them one at a time.  My focus helps me decide what I can influence and what I can’t.  When something is beyond me, I remind myself of the cat.  I remind myself of my self-sufficiency.  I sit still.  I leave the impossible situation behind me for the moment and turn to do something else: pull up a Port Jackson wattle, make something beautiful that might just outlast the fracas of the day, and might even outlast me.  Cuddle the cat.  She likes that, the rich simplicity of touch.  Nothing she does or says is not the truth.  I can pluck ticks off her eyelids.  She knows what I’m doing, and trusts me completely, even when it stings.

Ah, truth and trust.  We humans are so bad at those.


Friday, 23 September 2016

No.33 - What the flowers say

We walked through the purple fields of the Tienie Versveld flower reserve, between Darling and Yzerfontein on the West Coast.  The closer we looked, the more variety appeared, the more utter strangeness.  These flowers made me feel simplistic, one-dimensional, destructive with my enormous feet.  Tarmac and wheatfields and fences and vapour-trails had hemmed these flowers in to this little space, like refugees in their own land.  I silently paraphrased Wittgenstein: "If flowers could speak, we would not understand them."  If we understood them, we could not do to them what we do.  As is the wont of poets, I nevertheless imagine what they might indeed have to say to us - a poem, alongside a lucky thirteen photographs

What the flowers say

Fenceposts, you stop to notice, cannot subdue us,

despite highways, and wheatfields, and savagery.
We nod on the edge of marshes and deserts,
in sagacious variety, vivid as promises.
We have been here longer than creatures have walked.
Our inventiveness shames your arts and architectures.
We are original colour and delicacy.
We startle and delight in corners and verges,
springing into improbable verve at a season’s shift.
Why do we not rule the world? Or perhaps we do,
without saying so, being rulers by different means.
Don’t get us wrong: we are not all love and perfume;
we have thorns, and daunting hairs, and traps.
But rooted to our loyalties, we do not wage war.
We do not tear up acreages of living things
and replace them with dead things.  Above all,
we have not made a monumental mess of our world.
Who would guess that we revel in common sunlight,
that you breathe in what we breathe out,
that without us, you’d never
have walked at all, that you would be

dead as fence-posts?


Saturday, 13 August 2016

No.32 - Social notes from the hermitage

Sangomusha - my first hermitage
An article in a recent newspaper reports that after an extensive survey of 841 scientific studies, a University of California professor has concluded that solitude might be good for you: “single people tended to be happier in their jobs, more likely to stay in touch with friends and family, more self-reliant and less inclined to negativity.”

Well, I could have told them all that about three decades ago, when I went on the first of many ventures into temporary hermeticism in some or other tattered cottage.  So could a plethora of hermits, recluses, wanderers, monks and mystics over the last couple of millennia. Not that all such solitaries were entirely balanced, I suppose: living for years on top of a stone pillar like Simon Stylites is seriously weird.  But having been brought up in forested mountains, an only child thrown largely on his own devices, I worked up skills of self-sufficiency, of facing fears alone, and of joyous kinds of discovery that don’t need to be shared with anyone for their power.  A condition Socrates called autarkeia.  (How distant that seems from the Age of the Selfie, where the Selfie doesn’t actually exist until narcissistically revealed to the world via Facebook or Instagram, so it’s really an Otherie.)  It’s not that I don’t treasure conversation and comradeship, I do; but I am still most profoundly content when I am alone, a fact which bemuses and doubtless frustrates certain friends.

It’s kind of warming to find solitaries down the ages – who are rarely entirely solitary in practice – indirectly affirming my life-style.  Solitude is not after all – as Anthony Storr also argues in his psycho-analytic study, Solitude (1988) –  a pathology to be shunned, but a “valuable resource”.  At the same time, Storr concludes, it’s not about achieving some perfect and lofty state of enchantment: “If life is to continue, one cannot linger forever in a state of oceanic tranquillity: ... the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realisation that something is missing, from awareness of incompletion”.  Indeed, many solitaires whose accounts I’ve read seem at once wisely in equilibrium and soulfully restless.  Solitude is something of a paradox.

I’ve recently been reading Peter France’s book Hermits (1996), which devotes chapters to various sets of recluses and monkish types, from the early Christian Desert Fathers to the poet Robert Lax on Patmos.  I do like deserts and islands, but am ‘naturally’ drawn most strongly to forests, and so I find this thought, from the “small, rather weak and very ugly” Russian monk Macarius, writing from the Siberian forests around 1834, especially attractive:

Man finds peace of mind and benefit for his soul in forests.  We see that in former times people used to withdraw into thick forests and there, away from worldly vanity, through prayer and ascetic labour, sought salvation.  Just one look at the evergreen conifers of our homeland gladdens the eyes, portraying a symbol of our hope for eternal life which people go to the deserts to seek ... The forests which surround our monasteries should be preserved from destruction by all means in order to prevent the word ‘wilderness’ from finally losing its meaning.

This is echoed by the four-stage Hindu path.  The third stage is vanaprastha, the forest ascetic: “When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and grey in his hair, and in the son of his son, let him retire to the forest.”  The final stage, sannyasa, total renunciation, is that towards which a person naturally matures.  As the guru Sri Ramakrishna put it: “The last part of Life’s path has to be walked in single file.”

Peter France includes a chapter on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, easily my favourite Christian writer.  Like quite a few of these alleged solitaries, Merton was a compulsive communicator and writer.  And not only about the monk’s chosen life of solitude and meditation.  I return frequently to his volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968), not because of its religious thought, but because Merton was so in touch with the public world: he discusses the Vietnam War, American racism, modern materialism and multiple other subjects with a razor-sharp analytic mind.  He says much that we could all apply to our own situations even today.  Another volume of his essays entitled On Peace (1962) should be required reading for every power-inflated world leader, from Mugabe to Trump.   In fact, in Conjectures, Merton writes only once about solitude: “Solitude is to be preserved, not as a luxury, but as a necessity; not for ‘perfection’ so much as for simple ‘survival’ in the life God has given you.”  This is not so that you become insulated or removed, but so that you are better placed to love those who most closely depend on you, much as their demands might disturb your peace of mind: “Unlike the great benevolent and public movements, full of noisy and shared concern, [this basis for love] is not foggy, diffuse, devouring and absurd.”

I first encountered Merton’s work in 1985 when I was cycling rather aimlessly through New England, puffing across the bottom end of New Hampshire, when I accidentally bumped into the outer fringes of Hurricane Gloria.  I took shelter from the thrashing winds near what turned out to be a monastery, known rather Pooh-ishly as Hundred Acres Monastery.  Which it wasn’t really, or was no longer.  It had been a Trappist monastery once, but only one of the original monks remained – the now elderly Father Paul – surrounded by various waifs and strays, some religious, some not, some even women.  I asked Father Paul whether, given this motley crew, whether he was still able to run the place on Biblical principles, or what?

He mulled gently on that for a while, then said: “I find the Bible very puzzling.  It’s very opaque to me.”

I cheered inwardly: here was a man who been a monk for literally half a century, who still found his faith’s founding text mysterious, who did not pretend to have The Answers.

I pressed, “But you must have some sort of rules to keep the place together, and functioning.  What rules for residents do you have?”

He thought about that for a while, too, then said: “Supper is at six.  That’s all.”

And so it was, as I discovered, living there for a few weeks while I earned some badly needed funds working for a blasting company.  Amongst the residents of Hundred Acres at the time was one Wayne Teasdale – odd and gangly, very intense, hyper-intelligent, vastly read and a prolific writer on mysticism; we spent hours walking the roads through those wonderful autumnal New England woods talking of faiths and mystics from Rumi to Meister Eckardt, from Bede Griffiths to Merton, most of whom I had never heard of.
Forest view from the present tattered cottage
Wayne Teasdale claimed to have had a vision of God – with the aid of a spot of LSD.  There was another resident, Barry, as Christ-like a being as I had ever imagined, compact and unthreatening in mind and body as a block of basalt.  He agreed Wayne had had a profound vision, but not as deep as his own experience of the ‘Godhead’, or the ‘One Principle’, or the ‘Ground of Being’ – I was impressed that he didn’t want to affix a name to ‘it’.  Barry was building himself a real hermitage back in the woods. Vision or not, he was taking no chances: as an engineer he was building it like a land-based survival raft that would safely ride out the upheavals of any miscreant earthquake.

More lyrical, meandering and personalised than Peter France’s survey is Isabel Colegate’s account of hermits and solitaries, A Pelican in the Wilderness (2002).  The title comes from my favourite Renaissance poet, Thomas Traherne: “A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the Hous top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness”.  Ironically, she notes, few hermits were ever truly solitary; they were often quite social, living in coenobitic communities, or awkwardly being pursued by a public hungry for wisdoms.  Colegate ranges widely, from Syria to the Skelligs, from Krishnamurti to Charles de Foucauld in the Sahara.  But that’s as far south as she or Peter France go.

Really, have there been no sub-Saharan African hermits?  The search is on...


Thursday, 4 August 2016

No.31 - Laurens van der Post's ecological vision

I’ve been trying to put together an article on the latest surge of literature invoking the “Bushman” as the potential saviour of our messed-up world.  Goodness knows we need a philosophy and lifestyle that generates less toxic waste, curbs rampant population growth and consequent habitat destruction, urban alienation, and insoluble warfare.  Whether the so-called “Bushmen”, or what’s left of such hunter-gatherer communities, can really help us in our modern malaise – that’s a moot question.

James Workman, one of the world’s top water experts, argues in his book Heart of Dryness that, since shortages of water will be a defining feature of the global future, Bushmen’s frugal ways of surviving desert conditions may prove to be vital skills.  White writers, perhaps seeking to compensate for the genocide of the Khoi-San peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are resurrecting old folktales and testimonies into modern forms.  Don Pinnock, in his young-adult novel Rainmaker, figures Bushman shamans – one named Mr Khabbo – as the rescuers and mentors of a young lad from the ‘Coloured’ ganglands of the Cape Flats.  In The Way of the Bushman Bradford Keeney, himself initiated into Ju/hoansi (Kalahari Bushman) shaman-hood, relays the insights of “the elders”, who claim both that the anthropologists have got it mostly wrong, and that their own wisdom is essential to “saving the world”.  Most recently, journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven has published her intriguing memoir The Keeper of the Kumm.  As a ‘Coloured’, Vollenhoven can claim a certain direct ancestry in /Xam Bushmen, and finds, through both shamanistic ritual and reading /Xam kukummi (stories), a route to health that Western allopathic medicine couldn’t.

Behind all these, and other books and efforts to refurbish the Bushman, hovers the inevitable figure of Laurens van der Post.  More than any other writer, van der Post was responsible for launching the image of the Bushman as essentially peaceful, leisurely, ascetic, deeply spiritual and intuitive, and in touch with nature – completely reversing the image of previous centuries of Bushmen as a primitive and verminous nuisance.  On the strength of a mere few weeks in the Kalahari in the 1950s, he wrote The Lost World of the Kalahari and then The Heart of the Hunter, made a film for the BBC, and delivered dozens of lectures around the world.  The “Bushman within” – a way of thinking and being he claimed had been largely lost by the industrialised West – became a central facet of his public persona.  Quite likely he came to believe a lot of it himself.

Van der Post has come in for a lot of schtick of late.  J D F Jones’ 2001 biography, Storyteller, has been particularly damaging.  Jones argues, with a mixture of regretfulness and exasperation, that just about everything van der Post ever told anyone about his life was retrospectively doctored, exaggerated, misremembered or downright invented.  Almost twenty years before that, anthropologist Ed Wilmsen was pointing out inconsistencies in van der Post’s various accounts of his encounters with Bushmen, and questioning the accuracy and originality of his Bushman information.  Certainly, most of the folktale material included in The Heart of the Hunter was derived from the work of Wilhelm and Dorothea Bleek of Bleek-Lloyd Archive fame, with only tangential acknowledgement from van der Post.  Many of those stories came from the informant //Kabbo (see my previous post on him).

Okay, so van der Post confabulated a philosophy for himself, one that he considered useful in a disturbed and disturbing world.  Perhaps we can stop worrying about whether he made stuff up, or about how historically or anthropologically “wrong” he got the Bushmen.  Aren’t all philosophies confabulations – composites of story, poetry, abstractions, assertions, rituals – farragoes of the imagination?  It’s striking how the critiques of van der Post I’ve read are uniformly focussed on historical accuracy and on questions of racial identity – South Africans’ Number One Obsession.  Very little has so far been said about either van der Post’s literary style and quality, or about the ecological dimension to his philosophy.  The latter is especially surprising, seeing as the “Bushman philosophy” that everybody examines or espouses is so intricately tied into their physical and animal environment.

So what was Laurens van der Post’s ecological vision, of which the Bushman mythology was a part, but not the whole?

He expressed it compactly in the series of interviews published as A Walk with a White Bushman:

Every bit of unspoilt nature which is left, every bit of park, every bit of earth still spare, should be declared a wilderness area as a blueprint of what life was originally intended to be, to remind us.  When we do see that, it is like having a religious experience, we are changed by it.  This act of instinctive re-remembrance sparks off a most dynamic sense of guilt and horror at what we are doing, and an immense longing not just to conserve but to rehabilitate the earth. ... Finally, nature will always take care of itself even without man.  But man without nature is unthinkable and, known or unknown, his spirit needs it ...

Broadly speaking, these sorts of ideas are widely held by many people.  Bushmen, in van der Post’s construction, exemplified an intuitive belonging within nature which made daily living a “religious experience”.  He is regularly accused of romanticising the Bushmen, and perhaps he did, but he was also fully aware that we can’t all just “go back” to such a lifestyle:

[T]he Bushman finds himself in the power of a very highly conscious, highly organised civilisation which finds everything he represents totally unimportant, totally discredited.  So the problem is, what does one do about this?  Well, I thought that the only way that I personally, as a human being, could tackle it would be to translate this Stone Age idiom into a contemporary one and to try to show that it is important to us...

Translating age-old Bushman idiom, “totally incomprehensible to us now”, into a contemporary one is what most writers, from the Bleeks to Pinnock to Sylvia Vollenhoven, have also been trying to do.  Van der Post did what they all do, what the original //Kabbo professed himself happy with – seeing the original kukummi and testimonies transmute into print and drift away to different communities.  That is precisely what stories are supposed to do: they belong to no one and every one.  Stories “float on the wind” – a //Kabbo phrase, taken out of context but now the popular mantra.

Van der Post thus tried to propound this philosophy from yet another different angle, in two sequential novels, A Story Like the Wind and A Far-Off Place (1974).  The main character is 14-year-old Francois, whose family is slaughtered by “terrorists” somewhere in Southern Rhodesia.  He happens to have rescued a stray Bushman – named, inevitably, Xhabbo – who now is able to lead Francois, his girlfriend Nonnie, and his own wife on a months’-long journey, a thousand miles across the deserts to the West Coast.  Xhabbo teaches Francois, and so the reader, all sorts of bush-lore in a manner repeated in numerous such works, both fictional and non-fictional.

A Far-Off Place is frankly pretty dreadful, the action sequences clumsy, the whole narrative implausible, the dialogue inauthentic.  Matthew Fike’s welcome article on these novels unpacks complex Jungian references, but says little about ecology. In the course of Place’s laboured unfolding, however, van der Post’s ecological philosophy sparks through, not only in Xhabbo’s knowledge (tracking, communing bodily with animals, finding tsamma melons and other water sources, the inevitable honey-guide, etc etc) but also in epiphanic moments of communion with nature, supported by considerable detailed knowledge.  At these moments, van der Post’s often pompous and ponderous prose can modulate into the richly lyrical.  There is this passage, for example, on honey and the bee – prescient, in fact, given current reports of catastrophic collapses in bee populations around the world today:

[Honey] was a substance of a mystical kind, which in the eating was transubstantiated in the blood of the eater to become a thing of spirit, making him a different person.  As one ate, so one became, and for him it was therefore, however instinctive and unconscious the deed, an act of as great meaning as the sacrament in which bread and wine were believed to be transubstantiated into living flesh and blood. ... It is the bee that produces the honey and whose ways Solomon in all his glory exhorted the men of his day to study in order to be wise.  It is itself involved in a partnership with flowers, plants and matter, so that it plays a great intermediary role in bringing together in a single creative purpose, four dimensions that would otherwise be separate...

The organic, interconnected vision described here is echoed many times in the novel.  For Francois, the dawn call of a intimately-described dove – “small, neat, precise in figure, and immaculate in a dress of mauve and purple with a buff cravat held in a jade-black ring to a delicate throat” – evokes a holistic view that owes something not only to Bushmen but also to Jung, Jan Smuts and Christianity:

 [A]bove all the view was unpolluted, not just free of the unnatural smog human beings inflict on the earth that they inhabit, but in the more subtle and profound sense that it had never even suffered the intrusion of sophisticated minds and civilised eyes, acute and slanted with calculation of how to exploit it for their own ends. ... creation for creation’s sake.

One can have all sorts of problems with Laurens van der Post’s portentous vocabulary of mysticism which, like many of the books I mentioned earlier, can drift off in the direction of New Age-type vacuousness.  One can gripe at his historical inaccuracies, his self-promotion, even a lingering paternalism, but I’m far from convinced that there isn’t something of important ecological value to be rescued from van der Post’s untiring imagination.