Diminuendo

Magicicada, the internet tells me, is a genus of cicada; specimens of which appear only every 17 years. After this period – truly one of nature’s epic dormancies – they miraculously emerge from underground and proceed to annoy the living shit out of people. This blog is my Magicicada, if you will. Over half a year has passed since my last post. Seven months. Two seasons. In that time ancient stars have perished, and others were born. Here on earth, millions of generations of insects have lived and died. Beneath the unfathomable sea, thousands of games of life and death have been played out. Energy has changed form countless times, from solar to chemical, and from potential to kinetic, as the stored energy in my conscience has forced my hands to address the keyboard once again.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see people are still reading (WordPress readily supplies those statistics), and I’d like to say a special “aw’right there?” to visitors from the Brighton Permaculture Institute. You might say I’m alummus from there, having graduated from a weekend course in straw-bale building two years ago. I apologize if you’ve been directed here hoping to find something useful on the subject, instead of this dearth of details buried amid blather like a baling needle in a … well, you know. Anyway, I’ve finally started a page that might be of some use for you; it summarizes my experience with straw-bale building, and will be published soon. Please be patient with me; it’s a work in progress, and will likely take longer to complete than the house itself.

As for the rest of ya’s, get reading, ’cause it’s a long one. Or, if the buzzing is already getting to you, put in the ear-plugs and skip to the pictures

How the time has flown

April, was it? Autumn in the Cape. That means shorter days, but much less wind, making it some of the most livable months of the year. With our winter approaching we had one critical task to perform, and that was to plant trees. Trees, I’ve discovered, are those things which you miss most if you lived apart from them for more than two months. There’s no point denying our affinity and connection to them. Apart from the physical comforts – supplying shade, protection from wind, maybe fructal goodies, and a thing to climb – they also provide a psychic comfort. They are very, very old friends to our species, and have been noticeably absent on our plot. So for these reasons and more we bought ourselves 75 trees, from a wonderful indigenous nursery nearby. Many of these were to serve as a hedge to the front garden Kogie is developing (the 40 x 30m down-slope in front of our house), and others were planted below our western dam, to create a small forested area. Others were scattered here and there to provide some colour and create micro-climates. To give them the best chance possible, we had adequate trenches and holes dug and even brought in some grade-A topsoil/compost mix from nearby. We made excellent progress planting within the first few days but on the third day we were hit with, categorically, the strongest winds to date. Gusts of 100km/hr and over were recorded; it was like nothing I’d felt before, and my internal wind-gauge has long been calibrated to the Cape. I could do nothing but stare in dismay out our lounge windows as our newly-planted hedge was mercilessly defoliated. The thirty or so trees waiting to be planted were laid down on the ground to avoid the same fate. My poor nursery suffered one broken pole, but fortunately for us that was the extent of the damage. Many of our neighbours reported minor damage too, which was compounded with a decent downpour later that night.

The morning after was Dr. Jekyll to the previous night’s Mr Hyde – innocent and oblivious to any damage done. I set off early to make a very pleasant appointment in Cape Town, to join Kogie and friends on a two-day hike of the Cape Point National Park. The weather seemed to be trying to apologize for its behaviour the day before, and we were graced with two exquisite warm, windless days to complete the trek. I think we did it in reverse, completing 20km the first day and 13 the second, staying over in a little chalet only a few km from Cape Point itself, high on a hill top with an incredible 360-degree view. It is a great walk, which covers a nice diversity of terrain including wetlands, beach, and low rocky hills, all of which is host to antelope, baboons, and of course plentiful bird life. All this only 20 minutes away from Cape Town proper.

May

I remember May as being the most enjoyable month of the year. Having finished planting the trees in April, we turned our attention to a small, 3 x 14m section on the North boundary near our only existing grove of trees, with the hopes of making it a chicken run and garden. It has some dappled shade and since pigs were kept there years ago, the soil is pretty decent compared to other parts of the plot.

Also during May we took advantage of the mild weather and trekked locally a few times, discovering some hidden gems right on our doorstep.
I guess it’s pointless and a bit obnoxious to brag about the richness of flora, fauna, and topography where I live, so I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say the really difficult thing about living here is not being able to be in ten places at once.

June

Winter started to make itself known here. On June 3rd I marked the first anniversary of a very memorable storm, holding my breath to see if the weather was equally sentimental, but the day came and went without incident. The neighbours have long since built a new cabin from the remains of the one destroyed a year ago and compared to what we endured at Easter-time, last year’s storm now looks meek in retrospect.

Elsewhere in the world, there was Brexit, that brimbroglio of shouting, flag-waving, and questionable politics. Personally, I was astounded the at the result. Why and how it was binding is still beyond me, and the quick shuffling of ministers afterwards was particularly suspect. Time will tell if it has bresolved anything…

July

Business as usual. The rains continued steadily but not overwhelmingly, topping up all our tanks and saturating the ground. While the trees started to put down roots, I turned my attention to our little cabin, which was due for a bit of a make-over. As I’d floored and dry-walled it during the summer, all it took was a couple of weekends to add some finishing touches, and voila; our dear old bivouac has now become as cozy as a doll-house salon.

Also in July Kogie started to realize her vision for the front garden; the 30 x 40m section of slope on the north side of the house. The steeply sloped portion in front (clay from the original house excavation) posed a bit of a problem but after various consultations we settled on a practical and affordable way to plant there, by using net bags filled with soil and held in place with short pieces of rebar. Another nursery just 3km away had a ready supply of indigenous succulent plants which have since thrived on the slope, and on the sunnier days, brighten it up magnificently. Kogie’s rose garden has also begun to thrive, and was expanded down the slope.

The last week of July was spent in one of our favourite places, Kruger National Park. With minimal planning we were able to secure accommodation in three different camps and after a one short plane ride (my first in two years) and one long car ride, were happily ensconsed among South Africa’s treasures. Sadly, the ongoing drought was having a pronounced effect on certain animal populations, such as the hippo but otherwise the bush, as always, provided some magical, unexpected moments which we won’t forget.
On the return trip home we stopped in Johannesburg to visit a friend. Having driven straight there from a bush camp early that morning, I was hardly prepared for such a cultural contrast. It was my first trip through “Josie”, and I won’t forget it. I must in particular thank the good people at Mango airways for trolleying my senseless body in and out of the airplane, having suffered catatonic shock from driving in the traffic there.

But all in all it was a nice break. I’m happy to report that Kogie returned home rested and refreshed, and even I was glad to have a holiday from my routine. Which, is basically a holiday.

August

During our absence, while the eastern climate was warm and dry, back home there were finally some real winter rains. Two straight days in particular caused havoc with the local roads and managed to find a weak spot in our new dam. The damage wasn’t catastrophic, and in fact we repaired and deepened it later on, but did lose the water stored there.
Fortunately by now the tanks and the ground were well and truly full so we continued planting the front garden and even added a few more trees around the plot, including a small orchard and adjoining windbreak close to the eastern side of the house.

One thing I like about our plot is that you can stand on our verandah and see with perfect clarity the entirety of our land. The only problem is, you’d have to balance on the bare rafters there and be careful not to lean out too much lest you fall 2m to the grass below. Our verandah was really the last piece of the original house which had remained unfinished, and we finally found a few dry days in August which allowed our carpenter to floor it and install a handsome railing. We’ve been waiting to walk out there for probably a year now, and it was worth the wait.

As if Kruger weren’t enough, we squeezed in a day trip to the West Coast National Park, to take in one of nature’s marvels there, the spring flowers. This is a South African event not to be missed – truly, a riot of colour, a celebration of millions of plants that emerge after months of dormancy to pay homage to the sun. Great swathes of colour stretch miles into the distance, carpeting hillsides and filling every available niche with something bright.
Closer to home, August also saw the emergence of our own local wild flowers – most of which are not as concentrated but of a great variety and no less beautiful.

The Olympics happened, too. I seem to remember a couple of headlines about Americans flaunting their exceptionalism, and divers covered in pond-scum.
(Apologies if that registered a little high on the sarcas-o-meter but I feel this four-year spectacle has become a rather gaudy bauble in the crown of our modern corporatocracy. Tasteless sponsorship, endless media churn, and political innuendo all combine to trivialize the athletics. The memories of names, faces, and medal counts will probably be as short-lived as the crappy concrete behemoths left behind in Rio di Janeiro. And now, as if to accentuate the contempt the modern IOC has for the traditions it claims to superintend, it is going to remove wrestling as an event. Yes, wrestling – like, the first Olympic event, ever. I think it was replaced with synchronized bouncy-castle-jumping, or something.)
Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah…

September

Um…

October

Er…

Now-ish

So winter and spring happened. As noted, except for the rains during our absence, winter was a very passable season here. The house has handled the varying temperatures beautifully, and always provided a warm respite for both human and dog during the colder nights. All that was required was a pair of slippers to make my morning commute across the lounge floor comfortable. We used this winter as a test to gauge whether or not to install the coal stove inside the house as an interior heat source. As it turns out, we didn’t need it this winter, but are going to install it anyway. Some days the thought of a crackling fire, complete with a bubbling pot of soup or biryani, and dogs snoring nearby, was irresistible.

As we see quite a drastic difference in day lengths here, during winter I took advantage of this by keeping farmer’s hours – early nights and early mornings – to log some time before the sun rose. This worked very nicely during winter, when I could count on three undisturbed hours before a familiar scratching on our kitchen door, signalling Bruno and co. were ready for their morning walkies. But of course they pay no attention to the wall clock, and now as the sun rises earlier, they have become my first order of business. Once around the block (our neighbouring plots) and then I’m able to sneak in an hour or two of gardening before the workday begins. Which leads nicely into my next topic…

Getting my sh*t together

A word on our gardens. Over the past two years I’ve been applying what scattered horticultural knowledge I have in a very haphazard way; and with limited success. We did well to get some trees into the ground before winter, and all except for a handful seem to be coping. We were a little enthusiastic top-dressing our lawn, however, and ended up smothering patches of it, lately squandering our water supplies trying to correct our mistakes. So we’re entering summer without full tanks, and this in a year of projected drought.
Behind the house our tyre wall is host to a number of plants, and is steadily being filled, and Kogie has had success along the southern boundary with a garden devoted to Indian veggies. Her plot in front consists mostly of water-wise succulents, so needs little maintenance. The garden by the nursery is expanding and now has a dedicated 5000L tank as its water source.
Our reed bed, though, is a good example of one of my well-intentioned, but poorly-executed ideas. Although its holding water, and the reeds are thriving, I’m not making intelligent use of the water – it’s flowing out the western side, into a channel where nothing is growing. By redirecting it downhill I might be able to get better mileage out of the water, and plant around it.
However, on the whole we are making progress, and learning how to adapt to this ground and climate. Wild grasses that thrived in the areas where the renosterbos was cleared are now drying out and providing us with an excellent source of mulch. Along with the bovine bounty I haul back from the dairy farm every other week, we’re ever-so-slowly enriching our soil.
Perhaps with some better planning I can gradually work towards a system which relies on fewer external inputs.

No country for old jeeps

Also during this period we acquired a new set of wheels. We had known for a while that our long-suffering Jeep was running on borrowed time, and although it did the highway miles pretty well, it had developed the disturbing habit of turning off – and locking the steering – if you turned sharply at a low speed (such as when parking.) This seemed fairly harmless except that it did this to Kogie while she was turning onto an on-ramp to a national highway. Thank goodness she was able to apply brakes and restart the Jeep in time to avoid a serious accident, but it was decided that night that we would invest in something reliable. Something called a bakkie.

The white bakkie (pronounced “buckie”) is, in rural South Africa, the equivalent to the black Mercedes of an Eastern European mafia: it is an essential piece of kit and renders one nearly anonymous. They come in various shapes and sizes but the basic formula includes a strong diesel engine and sturdy chassis capable of people, animals, concrete blocks, cow poop, and everything in between. Ours is a 2016 Toyota Hilux 2.4 gd6, a single cab design, which allows us to carry lots of stuff but only one passenger comfortably. I inaugurated this marvel of engineering in the most fitting way I knew how – by slinging cow manure into it’s bed with wild abandon. It has since been re-inaugurated a number of times, but has also carried people and stuff, and has become the preferred mode of carriage according to our dogs.

The difference in power between this and our poor Jeep is incomparable; and perhaps fittingly, one of the new bakkie’s first tasks was to tow our Jeep home from the spot it finally died, about 15km away on the road to Caledon. The Jeep, whose services over the first two years must not be overlooked, sits sadly in our driveway, a veritable thoroughbred put to pasture.

Diminuendo

Magicicada, the internet tells me, are due to emerge in 2017. It seems a fitting metaphor for the ceaseless noise of modern life, which, given the events of 2016, is set to increase.
If each piece of useless data flying around were a mosquito, gnat, or cicada, this world would be a nightmare for anything other than swallows and bats, and even they could easily gorge themselves to death. This super-abundance of data is a blessing and a curse for a species as curious as us, and it takes conscious effort to decide when to listen and when not to. I hope our little tale falls into the the first category.

Although it has had some low points, we at the Blue Crane Cottage have again in 2016 enjoyed many blessings. This is the year we settled in, made ourselves comfortable, and then began the familiar pattern of a work routine. We were finally able to welcome friends and family to enjoy this place. Compared to the eighteen months preceding it, I feel things have not changed as consistently, and so 2016 seems to have passed relatively quickly.

Thank you again for reading. If I can offer any wish for the season, it is that you filter out all the superfluous stuff and make time to focus on that and those which you love.

Happy holidays from both of us. See you in 2017.