Friday, 8 April 2016

No 21 - The Terrace

Late afternoon light slips across the treetops on the edge of the terrace, more lucid than nectar, sadder than gold.  The tips of leaves lift as if to meet it, like the mane on a cat’s back.  It’s autumn, the sky is cool with the frailest of high mares’-tail clouds, the erythrina tree at the east corner is beginning to shed its first leaves, yellowing like coins worn to the thinnest of memories.

I’ve come to love this little terrace.  I don’t own it; it’s not even on the tiny property I rent.  Like light, I prefer to pass over and through this life, not attempt to possess it.  The view is astounding.  The Southwell road curls away across the shallow ridges of the coastal plain, the promise of a discovery following its own nose to the sea.  I can see the sea, cerulean plate with a single white chip on the rim: a ship.

Over the years I have worn a wavering path through the grass from one end of the terrace to the other.  Sixty-six paces, good to think along.  I talk myself through problems and poems and practice lectures. It’s automatic now to duck beneath the thorny branch of the acacia tree at one end, step over a slightly protruding stub of Table Mountain sandstone in the middle, and the tip of a buried rib of rusted metal at the other. 

On the bare patches of this little path I’ve worn down, other tracks appear.  Bushpigs’ heavy chevrons; bushbucks’ smaller sharp Vs.  They move through unseen in the night, hoarding their stripes.  In the day, sometimes, baboons shamble through, overturning rocks in search of insects, tearing out the side of the termite mound on the slope.  Now and then the big male comes up the cottage steps and takes an interest in the TV through the glass door. Vervet monkeys sun their silvery bellies on the treetops in the early mornings, their little black faces pert as buttons on a tux.  Now and then a slender mongoose, searching for the guinea-fowl nest with the thirteen speckled eggs.

And once every couple of years, a great tortoise, thrice the size of a rugby ball and looking as old as the slabs of rock he stumps across, pursues precisely the same circuit through the garden and vanishes into the forest, for a moment having encompassed me in his incomprehensible aeon.

I walk a blurred boundary between the wild and the conquered.  I face the setting sun.  To my left, big Wild plums with their fans of symmetrical leaves and cerise round fruits.  One of them is thick, robust, with anaconda curls to its branches; the cat and I like to climb it and feel we have transcended the toils of mortal ground.  On my right, a tall Black wattle, Australian invader, as alien as I am, an uneven ladder of horizontal branches we also climb until we are taller than giraffes and silly with wind.  I pull up the persistent seedlings, since the ecologists tell us they do not belong; but they too have their little miracle: each night their long friezes of leaflets close up, like a hundred feathered hands closing in prayer along each of a thousand pews.

I no longer know what belonging means, if it is not to attend to such details, each one sacred to its own being.

Muscling up through the twenty-metre strip of shelving rock between the terrace and my buildings are any number of aliens.  English rambling rose wreathing the lean-to garage; North American pines waiting for Christmas; Scottish thistles prickling up through the local helichrysum; a single graveyard cypress alongside the king proteas.  Always, the sun especially vivid through their blades, Australian long-leafed acacia, aka Port Jackson wattle – the most 
persistent menace of all.  Swarming across neighbouring slopes, especially in the wake of an intense bushfire a year ago, the Port Jacksons overwhelm almost all other species, creating a whispering militaristic monoculture.  I root them out as best I can, feeling a bit like that lone protester in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, but revelling in watching the indigenous diversity reassert itself where I’ve cleared.

Life is strongest when most diverse: that’s my mantra – and the mantra sung by all the birds that skitter and chirp through the forest trees skirting the southern edge of the terrace.  The slope drops away steeply there, propped up by yellowwoods and rhus, boerboen and wit-hout; I can look down into complex continents of cavernous greens and cross-hatched shadow, white sparks of rock and shivering concentrics of spider-web.  Green-painted turacos run like squirrels along the branches before launching themselves on wings of livid crimson; Bar-throated apalis and lisping canaries thrilling through the thickets; cheerfully whistling greenbuls and Fork-tailed drongos and the hoodlum mousebirds mobbing the fringes.

And somewhere amongst the rhoicissus creeper a robin-chat is trying to impress with an experimental mix of sunbird song, human gardener, and Crowned eagle, linked with playful trills and tripples of his own invention.  That robin is biodiversity all in his own hidden self.

I stroll to the east end of the terrace, where Siberia is crouched fixedly over a hole in the ground, led to it by a runnel of tamped grass smoothed by the bellies of mice. That cat has taught me a lot about local species, by methods usually fatal to the rodents: the ghastly Asian Rattus rattus, but also sweet Three-striped mouse and Grey climbing mouse, House mouse and the cutest of all, the fluffy-tailed Spectacled dormouse.  Nothing doing at this hole today, so Siberia follows me along the terrace, gathering herself with a thoughtful and cunning expression into a mock-chase across the grass, all jubilant flexing stripes and rabbit-heels.  She seems to know how funny she looks from behind.

At the other end of the terrace we contemplate that nub of metal.  Someone has left a scent on it that Siberia explores carefully before rubbing her face on it. Olfactory territories.  It’s the remnant of a car chassis, I guess.  For decades the buildings I live in were occupied by a succession of auto-repair businesses.  I soon discovered that the old method of getting rid of a redundant car-body was simply to shove it down the hill.  So over hundreds of square metres the forest is littered with car parts and massive tractor tyres with trees shafting up through the middle, seat springs and hubcaps and suspension-leafs and gearboxes.

For a certain period, when scrap metal was relatively lucrative, a band of men and youths with donkey-carts would trundle out from town, dismember the wrecks of the ancient Holdens and Morrises and Chevys with axes and crowbars, and cart the mangled pieces off.  Amazingly quickly, the carcasses were thankfully gone.  At one point the guys lit a cooking-fire on the lip of the terrace; coals fell into cracks in the earth; next thing we knew an underground fire was belching clouds of oily smoke and a gritty stench into the air.  I began to realise that my little paradisal terrace was actually built on car-wrecks, that beneath its coat of fragrant earth, kikuyu and heather remained a noxious reservoir of metal and rust, oil and paint and flammable rubber.  That ‘airborne toxic event’ persisted for days, scratching at the lungs, until a lucky thunderstorm doused it.

And down the forest slope remains an ineradicable swathe of tattered plastic and shattered glass, shards of chrome fittings and flakes of paint, mixed in with beer bottles and medicine jars, rims of tin-cans and all the rest of our modern detritus.  I remove what I can to the city dump: this is what our profligate civilisation has come to – the shifting of our rubbish from one locale to another, none of it ultimately going away.

But for now, I am light in the light, levitating in the peace of evening as a nameless flower collects in its mauve petals the pollenated sun, frailest and most precious gift on the edge of encroaching night.

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