Friday, 17 January 2020

No 96 - The wild potency of poo

Indigenous forest behind a fringe of aliens
I am an alien trying to vanquish aliens. That is to say, I am a displaced Zimbabwean of indeterminate national allegiance; I own nothing and am (I convince myself) unowned; but I am sufficiently enamoured of a local patch of remnant indigenous forest to want to do something to save it from invasion. Perhaps because this forest's lush and complex height reminds me of those of my childhood: species of yellowwood and rhoicissus, turaco and neddicky, bushbuck and blue duiker, are common to both. A certain luminous quality of evening light. 

The (other) aliens in question are largely Port Jackson wattle, a.k.a. long-leafed acacia - dense cohorts of Australian invasives that the Working-for-Water organisation battles right across South Africa. I decided to tackle just one small patch on a neighbouring slope. Which means tens of thousands of packed saplings, under and between which almost nothing grows; nothing nests in it or eats it; nothing curbs it but imported wasps who infect the trees with galls and hopefully prevent them seeding further.

Sterile Port Jackson monoculture
So I bought a tree-popper and a panga and made a start, one tree at a time, one square metre after another. A fire set me back by a year; in its ashen wake a million Port Jackson saplings sprouted, thick as the hairs on the back of a dog, as a friend put it. Anyway, I soldiered on, and still do, uprooting what I can, cutting thicker ones, ring-barking the biggest. I could make much faster progress with a chainsaw, but I can't bear the noise, and my method is better exercise. And I think the slow approach is showing advantages. Next property over, the owner called in Working for Water, who blitzed the slopes in a couple of weeks, chainsawing and poisoning the stumps. What seems to have come up predominantly is a harsh species of grass, almost another monoculture, apart from Port Jackson regrowth they've had to come back to.

After a couple of weeks: looks like Armageddon, little replacement
growth as yet; I dread the possibility of a fire torching all this
dead biomass and setting the whole effort back again.
Something very different has happened on my side of the fence. It's not quite what it was before, but the rewilding, as George Monbiot calls it in his book Feral, is progressing in its own intuitive way. Grasses spread quickly into the bare patches, helped along by a couple of resident cattle. Close on its heels are some fynbos species, seeding into the disturbed earth: we're at the easternmost reach of the fynbos biome here. In between, multiple other unnameable ground-cover plants slowly swarm; long-dormant stumps, cut and burned, are resprouting: rhus and knobwoods. An acacia karoo, a year ago just a twisted remnant, has grown a metre and a half and is presently flowering a blinding
After a few months: waist-high fynbos, dead wood rotting
back into the earth, very little Jackson regrowth.
yellow. With the flowers of course come the bees and moths and beetles and other winged pollenators; for the insects and the seeds come the birds, the cisticolas and the prinias. A variety of new browse attracts the bushbuck; new roots the porcupines and the bushpigs. It is such a thrill to see something like a functional ecosystem re-asserting itself.

It's not an unambiguous process. Each tree killed still feels like, well, a death. I am also killing the larvae in the bolls of the wasps, who are in theory my allies. Each tree downed is releasing its carbon dioxide into the already saturated
Knobwood, one of the hardy pioneer species that will form
the beginnings of a new forest.
atmosphere, and I can only trust that the replacement vegetation will reabsorb it, and plus some. Not everything that pops up is good: sometimes it feels like the Iraq situation: you take out the main dictator, but a whole bunch of even nastier people surge into the vacuum, thorny and sneaky and yet harder to control: more aliens like dormant pines, solanum, lantana, prickly pear. Still, on the whole, things are looking better and better. 

This is where the poo comes in. More and more creatures, from larvae to cattle, excreting fertile richness back into an acidified soil, feeding up the bacteria that break things into useable components, succouring the underworld fungal networks on which the above-ground vegetal kingdoms depend. Life dying back into fecundity. As T S Eliot memorably put it in Four Quartets, the soil which supports us is essentially "fur, flesh and faeces". Tell that to the fertiliser companies. So what follows is a little photographic paean to the potentialities of poo.

Bushbuck's round pellets, often fresh and glossy atop
the older, fading deposits.

Porcupine's distinctive 'bullets'
Baboons like to park their coils on visually prominent spots sometimes:
this example contained few granular seeds, as fruit is short in the drought.
Bird droppings often spread seeds as well as nutrients: this one
isn't likely to fertilise much, but makes a nice abstract.
Bushpigs sometimes establish temporary middens,
usually just where you want to walk.

Cowpats can take some time to break down - but lift a corner
and it's alive with hardworking little beetles and bugs...

... some the spawn of this fellow: what exactly he intends to do with this huge
dung-ball is a mystery - but in a day it's gone.

And the cowpats are the birth-place of such
magnificent silvery folk...
Visit Dan and Jill Wylie's books and art at