Sunday, 22 January 2017

No.40 - Forests and the imagination

Most of my life I have been a forest boy.  On my mother’s wildlife sanctuary in eastern Zimbabwe I ran barefoot through squishy bogs sheltered by massive albizias and cussonias and figs; every year I return there to climb my favourite strangler-fig bridge.  I was early made aware of the complex ecosystem that prevailed there – from the moths to the bats, from the somango monkeys to the mongooses, from the snails to the eagles.  I learned to evaluate these interconnections for their place in the system, not for their human use.  My mother would point out a fallen Rhoicissus fruit, bitten once by a monkey and discarded.

 “People say, ‘Look how wasteful they are’, and hate monkeys for it.  But look at what’s happening to the fruit.  Some of the seeds have been ingested by the somango, to be defecated – planted – further off.  A bushbuck has come along and nibbled a bit more of it; they’d never get this food without the monkeys.  Nor would these tiny fruit-flies, which are food for someone else; nor would these chongololos.  As it rots, it adds unique nutrition to this forest soil.  What’s wasted?? Nothing!”

And we’d lift handfuls of that clean, black, fragrant, light, leafy soil to our nostrils: there is no other smell quite like it. It’s very light, almost airy; even the biggest trees that come down are mostly light, rotting quickly, recycling into new growth quickly.  Cut away that growth, remove the perpetual leaf-fall and the perennial mist that aids decay, or the bushpig- and hornbill-droppings that enrich, and this soil runs out of nutrients in two seasons.

Humans have been confronted with this lesson for thousands of years, but have apparently not learned it.

The hillsides enclosing the Mediterranean were once heavily forested – but as Pliny described the environs of Athens in the Critias in the fourth century BC:

In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body ... all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.  But in the primitive state of the country, its high mountains were high hills covered with soil ... and there was abundance of wood in the mountains.

Where did the wood all go?  To make ships for Athenian navies.  This did not change down the centuries.  In his wonderful book, The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination (2016), British nature-writer Richard Mabey notes how English oak forests were decimated to make English warships.  Similarly, in Landscape & Memory (1995), Simon Schama, whose Polish-Jewish great-grandfather was a lumberman, chronicles how, as Poland was successively occupied by German and Russian invaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Bialowieza forests were plundered on a massive scale: in the years of the First World War alone, 5 percent vanished, 5 million cubic metres of wood shipped to Germany, and no small proportion reduced to “walls of fire” by heavy artillery.

Manufacturing massed weapons of war is a long way from cutting clearings in forests for early human settlements, as Robert Pogue Harrison has related in my favourite of all forest-y books, Forests: The shadow of civilisation (1992).  For millennia, Harrison shows, forest was what people carved civilisation out of, and therefore began to distance themselves from it.  It was seen as dark, threatening, dangerous.  But that’s only one side of it: forests have always simultaneously been resources, not just for wood, but for fruits, clothing materials, a pharmacopeia of balms, as well as the richest imaginable source of cultural imaginings: forest is epic and fecund with mystery, always has been, from Gilgamesh to the Brothers Grimm and beyond.

Having explored swathes of this extraordinary cultural landscape, Harrison concludes:

As the order of [human] institutions follows its course, or as huts give way to villages and then to cities and finally to cosmopolitan academies, the forests move further and further away from the centre of the clearings.  At the centre one eventually forgets that one is dwelling in a clearing.  The wider the circle of the clearing, the more the centre is nowhere ...  The global problem of deforestation provokes unlikely reactions of concern these days among city dwellers, not only because of the enormity of the scale but also because in the depths of cultural memory forests remain the correlate of human transcendence.  We call it the loss of nature, or the loss of wildlife habitat, or the loss of biodiversity, but underlying the ecological concern is perhaps a much deeper apprehension about the disappearance of boundaries...

In other words, the ecological crisis of deforestation – one of the major drivers of global climate change – a form of change without boundaries – is also a profound crisis of the human ‘imagination of belonging’.

‘Climate change’, precisely because it is so nebulous, is easily derided and even denied by ignoramuses like Donald Trump.  Better to confront them with less ambiguous evidence from lower orders of change, where things are visible and measurable.  Such people often seem to think that natural bounties will somehow last forever, when all the evidence is to the contrary.  Ask the passenger pigeon – or, in our own time, the bluefin tuna, which is almost gone.  It is now estimated that the planet has lost half its non-human species in just the last 40 years.  Sixty percent of simians, our closest relatives, are now critically endangered. A large portion of that loss is due to the destruction of tropical forests, the last land repositories of great biodiversity.

There is little sign of the trend slowing.  Don’t believe that the Congolese or the Indonesian forests are somehow endless: one of the most heart-breaking things I have seen recently is footage of desolate orang-outans clinging to single trees, all that’s left of their great rich forest habitats, ploughed down and burned out for the sake of palm-oil plantations.  Don’t believe that the Amazon jungle is somehow immune to depredation: a fifth of it is already gone to cattle-ranchers and miners and subsistence settlers and unnatural fire.  The Brazilian government plans no less than fifty dams on Amazonian rivers to supply humans with electricity.  As if dams have not been proven again and again to be short-lived and ecologically catastrophic – they will, if they go ahead, very likely precipitate the demise of the Amazonian climatic ‘lung’.

European invaders of North America believed that the timber resources of that vast continent were essentially infinite.  One of America’s finest novelists, Annie Proulx, has chronicled the progression of American lumbering in her latest magisterial novel, Barkskins (2016).  It is an epic, fascinating and depressing story – and not only because of Proulx’s genius for polishing off her characters in ever more imaginative ways.  She describes the appalling conditions and perils of woodcutters in Quebec and Maine in the seventeenth century, the retreat of the forests before new swathes of white settlers and ever-more efficient machineries, as demand for timber for warships, then railway ties, then housing, then paper, mushroomed.  The forest wasn’t inexhaustible after all; the ecological damage was profound and irreversible.  Even in the nineteenth century, as one of Proulx’s characters comes in from Germany with ideas of replanting and sustainability, he is derided.  One of her last, twentieth-century characters, in contrast, studies both forest ecologies and the indigenous knowledges of the Mi’qmak peoples who were all but obliterated along with the rich matrix of their habitat.

The advent of the ecological sciences, little more than a century old, seems as helpless as Romantic poetry to stem the tsunami of commercial exploitation, driven by myopic profiteers who simply couldn’t give a shit.  Indeed, Robert Harrison regards the academies with disdain, as iconic of our furthest imaginative remove from the realities of forest-dwelling.  More subtly, people’s aesthetics can shift: George Monbiot, in his defiantly forward-looking book Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (2013), laments how the open spaciousness of his native Welsh Cambrian Mountains are today defended as a great last “wilderness”, even though in fact they have long been comprehensively denuded of forest and biodiversity by woodcutters and sheep-farmers: “Whenever I venture into the Cambrian Desert I almost lose the will to live.  It is like a land in perpetual winter.”

As I drove through the dustbowl of the Free State in December, I thought about how we in South Africa have also denuded vast territories for agriculture.  Instead of living in clearings in forests, we now fight to preserve tiny patches of forest – a mere 7 percent of what we had a century ago – in the midst of species-poor modified countryside that we too often have come to accept, even aesthetically admire, as ‘natural’.  We have, in short, become numb to loss.

In a thousand different ways, as all these wonderful books suggest, reforestation is one vital component of a restoration of our own humanity, our human sense of belonging.
As for me, it’s the first necessary step just to go down the hill to my local forest fragment, climb a wild plum with the cat, and breathe in through every pore the canopy’s colours and smells and infinitude of sounds...


Thursday, 12 January 2017

No 39 - Zimbabwe despatch: A walk through town

Pic: @kpczim
“I’ll walk home from here,” I say to my hostess.  She cocks her head at great steaming thunderheads looming over  Cecil Kop, rubs her throat in the morning humidity.  But okay.
            We’re in the middle of town, in one of the cul-de-sacs off the main street, which has lately been commandeered by a particular group of street- sellers – those who are making a few hard-won dollars from second-hand clothing.  Not the ultra-trashy, ‘zhing-zhong’ Chinese goods that have flooded most markets and destroyed Zimbabwe’s once-flourishing clothing industry, but clothes donated to charities in Mozambique, sold on in huge bales at US$250 a pop, smuggled across, or rather ‘negotiated’ through the nearby border post.  Now they lie in semi-chaotic piles on the sun-crazed tarmac, the vendors bawling their specialties and hoping the summer rain will hold off.  Here a heap of handbags and backpacks, there tiny-tots’ T-shirts, here packs of brand-new socks, there rows of sometimes slightly bent-looking shoes (one of each so you can’t run off with a pair). 
            My elegantly-built hostess likes rummaging through skeins of gossamery dresses and shifts and tops whose relevance to Africa has to be seriously questioned – but with a cry of triumph she comes up with a vivid Ralph Lauren dress, probably worn once by some Parisian deb and discarded: it fits her perfectly.  $4.  For my part, I score a couple of cool cotton shirts, one Malaysian, one English-made, and a pair of comfy Australian bush shorts with lots of pockets, just the way I like ‘em.  All in near-perfect condition: $2 apiece.  The insane profligacy of the developed nations meets the ingenuities of local economy.
            Not that these vendors are quite the impoverished who might benefit most.  My hostess chats amiably with some she knows well, not from the market but from her educational projects: these are teachers boosting their meagre government salaries during the school holidays, working ‘under’ another tier of entrepreneurs who actually get the bulk deliveries into the country, making middle-man (or often woman) profits that way.  We exchange our increasingly grubby and worn US dollar notes, getting a bit of change in the new so-called “bond notes”.  I ask some of the sales people what they think of them, and get that characteristic Shona clicking expression of doubt, if not disgust, “N-tskh-aahh”.  The notes are ostensibly backed by dollar reserves in the Reserve Bank, but if so how come there’s a shortage – or gold, but mining has died or been colonised by the Chinese and the Russians, so no one believes that.  The startlingly crisp bond notes  are ostensibly equivalent to the dollar, but within two days of their issue a fortnight ago they were being traded at alternative rates: they too are short in supply.
            In the main street, as I walk back across town, queues have built up at the ATMs: the amount of money one can draw at a time has been abruptly raised, possibly with Christmas in mind, but it’s still pretty meagre.  And the banks – some totally new, this year’s mushrooms and probably about as reliable as the sundry quasi-religious “prophets of profit” gulling the gullible everywhere – quickly run out of ready cash.  I go in to Barclays to see if I can draw some cash on my Visa card: No, that is no longer allowed.  So how am I supposed to get cash and spend my lovely tourist dollars?  Shrug: “You can swipe.”  That’s all very well at certain petrol stations and South African-based supermarkets, but most of the economy is cash-based – and the word is, or the fear is, that the “swipe” will soon not be allowed either.  Then what?  People are steeling themselves glumly for a repeat of the hyperinflationary madness of 2008, and all its ghastly consequences.
Pic: @kpczim
I am struck by how shabby this once-neat little town has become: the same tottering traffic-lights, sometimes on, sometimes blank, more potholes, fewer buildings being repainted.  Many firms and shops have closed up (more than 260 businesses have died this year): what used to be a gift shop is now Western Union (also backed up with queues of unusually quiet people hoping for money sent in from relatives outside the country); a long-standing restaurant is boarded up; a pharmacy next door briefly opened and then closed again.  What used to be my favourite bookshop now sells hair extensions, adorned with big flashy photographic panels of shiny grinning models.  The only shop in town selling books now is a narrow gloomy nook with a few dozen school text books (the same ones I taught from in the late 1980s) and some battered black-spined Penguin classics.  This government has comprehensively destroyed the public’s access to reading matter other than newspapers, whose literary quality is negligible.
            As always, street-corner vendors sell those papers, government mouthpieces alongside ‘opposition’ rags whose persistent vilification of Mugabe and ZANU-PF is tolerated as a sham of free speech: the government clearly doesn’t give a toss.  Though there is much trumpeting of the apparent in-fighting, the so-called G40 group against Lacoste (because its leader Emmerson Mnangagwa is known as ‘The Crocodile’).  It seems no less a mess than the equally split and hapless opposition. 
            As I walk on up the main street, the sultriness grows beneath the vividly clashing scarlet blossoms of the flame trees and the mauve jacarandas that line many streets – many of these trees must be older than I am.  When I lived here I didn’t think of the place as “tropical”, but after the thorny thickets of the Eastern Cape and the dust-storms of the drought-stricken Free State, it feels incredibly lush and steamy, uncut grass billowing into the edges of the minor side-roads, the hills dark blue-grey with shadows of approaching storm-clouds, promising the sudden warm runnels of drain-water I used to splash along as a barefoot child.
            I do not see another white person walking, just one or two passing in cars.  Being white here, whatever the luxury in which some continue to exist, is to be an irrelevance.  Rather like the old-age home in which my mother now lives, the community seems no less culturally closeted than it was in the 1970s: you relate to Shona folk largely in the form of aides, nurses, gate guards, gardeners, shop assistants, bureaucrats.  My hosts are seen as unusual in that they actually socialise with Shonas as parents and colleagues, and send their son to a school in which he is the solitary white boy in his year– with no ill effects whatever, so far as one can tell.  The alternative is – as many families do, white and black – to board the kid out to one of the ferociously expensive elite schools, whose obsession with sport is a constant topic of conversation.
From the old-age home I cut through a back street now all but impassable for potholes, even for my bakkie: only a skeleton of main thoroughfares is ever attended to nowadays.  I keep my eye open for a marvellous perky little caterpillar I’d seen earlier in the day: black hooped with yellow with two rear ‘antennae’ which bobbled along in charmingly comical fashion.  I’d debated briefly whether to lift it into the grass, but few people and almost no vehicles passed here; now, to my utter dismay, I find it half squashed.  I touch it; those little antennae quiver upwards.  Sick at heart, I kill it off.  A tiny thing, but it seems to me iconic of the whole mindless destructiveness of the natural world being carried out by humans everywhere: in Zimbabwe, the unchecked denudation of woodland to supply the drying-sheds of ‘emergent’ tobacco farmers, or the poisoning of a herd of cattle by arsenic leakage from an unregulated gold mine.
            I take a short-cut across the golf-course, which is obsessively maintained in the face of all economic challenges, the fairways fringed by dark dense alluring belts of indigenous forest harbouring melodious birds – Whyte’s barbets and Gorgeous bush-shrikes and clicking Puffbacks – and also an offputting ground-covering of human litter.
            At a street corner, shaded by jacarandas and figs, sits Tinashe at his little mobile stall, selling eggs and chips and single cigarettes that he gets wholesale and sells on for a small profit.  Friendly and chatty, he’s been installed here for a couple of years now.  He too is suspicious of the bond notes, and is hoarding dollars as much as he can: no use putting them in the bank.  Most people agree with him.  He is unconvinced the elections of 2018 are going to produce any benefits, but there is always that Shona laugh and little shrug that expresses hope: Well, maybe...
            I walk on, past a garden-plant nursery that seems still to flourish, a huge rain-puddle that no longer drains off the street, an ancient blue bus that has been broken down on an awkward corner for five days now, a man who in the absence of municipal attention has taken it on himself to fill some potholes with earth in the hope of a handout from motorists.  There does seem a surprising number of pristine 4x4s and double-cabs on the streets, in between the ageing smoking skedonks; I wonder if they care, shuttered like all suburbanites behind their rumbling automatic gates, their lawn-mowers and their outraged dogs.
            I am not far from my lodgings; I am drenched in summer sweat; a wind picks up; thunder humbles the hills; big lovely fat drops of rain spatter through the jacarandas; clutching their babies to their bellies, vervet monkeys run, and so do I...