Welcome back, stranger. Season’s greetings to you.
I took a longer-than-normal break from blogging; I suppose our anniversary gave me a certain sense of closure and I was beginning to see everything after that as mere epilogue. Plus, I didn’t want to bore you with yet more descriptions of me painting (more descriptions of me painting can be found below). But life goes on, even in our sleepy little corner, and so I mused: maybe even minutiae might merit my monthly missive.
Alliteration aside, all are agog about an acquisitive anniversary: Christmas. Once again the season has snuck up behind me and pulled my Santa-pants down to my ankles, leaving me in bewildered disbelief. My brain has, after so many northern Christmases, created a permanent connection between cold temperatures and this holiday so for me, stepping outside of a store decorated with tinsel into 30-degree blazing sunshine only creates cognitive dissonance, not yuletide exuberance.
But we’ve got new decorations, a tree or two, and a peacock instead of a partridge. And it’s not in a pear tree. But if you’re interested read on, or just do some window-shopping here.
I can hear crickets chirping which means that either my audience has completely deserted me or perhaps just that it’s summer here. And oh boy is it ever. Spring sprang past me. Spring is an amazing season here – the temperatures are very comfortable, and an equitable mix of heat and rain create a dazzling but short-lived display of colour and lushness among the fields. All too soon the days become longer and hotter, the rains less frequent, and sure enough, those grasses die off and the water in the dams evaporates. Suddenly that contentment, that fat feeling of having enough moisture around disappears and the sun and wind seem to conspire to suck every drop of H2O it can from both animal and plant. And it’s not even so bad here in the Western Cape. It was a relatively dry winter but out in the eastern provinces farmers are truly suffering through a drought, some even abandoning their farms as lost causes.
A year ago this heat was novel; the perfect rehabilitation for a long-exiled African kid (well, at heart). This year I view these sweltering temperatures with a more seasoned and critical eye. Now that we have young trees and a vegetable garden to worry about, the sun and its evaporative effects need to be considered all the time. We’ve managed to capture about 17000 litres of water, which may sound impressive until you need to budget it over five very hot and dry months. Temperatures are already steadily in the low-mid thirties, and so I usually wake at 5am just so I can enjoy a couple of comfortable hours before the sun makes its presence known, which can be as early as 7:30am. One must budget their own energy in this heat as dehydration and heat exhaustion can set in quickly. The greater danger, though, and one that I’d dismissed from my mind, is veld fires. We’re used to seeing great plumes of smoke in the distance, rising off of farmers fields at various times in the year as they burn last year’s stubble. But on October 25th, after having woken up from a leisurely Sunday nap, Kogie and I looked out our bedroom window and saw smoke hardly half-a-kilometre from our house. At once we knew something was wrong because, well, there are no fields there, and a quick phone call to our neighbours, whose house was nearly in the path of this inferno, confirmed the worst. So we grabbed some buckets and rushed over to help. Luckily there’s a community WhatsApp group which had already responded, and so with a few fire-beaters a group of us did our best to direct it away from the house. The wind was strong, though, and kept ahead of us, blowing to the NNE. The thick renosterbos covering the hill burns fast and hot, and this area began to burn dangerously out of control. Fortunately some local farmers arrived with some irrigation vehicles, which served as makeshift fire engines quite nicely. The fire brigade showed up too – about an hour after the last flares had stopped smoldering. Ultimately there was no property damage but about half-a-hectare of bush had been reduced to blackened stumps.
Our neighbours understandably declined the offer of a braai afterwards, having seen enough fire for one day.
(Ironically, the very section that burned had been put on the market not long before, and it was only once the bush had been “cleared” that the prospective buyers saw the value of the land and put in an offer.)
So that was the beginning to the week. Kogie had just arrived that day and I was over my bout with tick-bite fever. We had a whole week together, during which time I completed various jobs around the house while Kogie sewed some lovely curtains for the lounge, often working late into the night or starting very early to finish them up. Our week ended with a visit from one of Kogie’s sisters, who was in Cape Town for a week.
The next week I once again returned to that pet project which stares at me every time I walk out the back door, the tyre wall. It’s holding nicely but needed to be built up another two courses, and continued around the West and East sides. So, between that and varnishing the bare rafter ends and verandah (in preparation for the exterior painting), I kept myself busy. I’ve been dying to paint the house simply because the wind and the rain have such a detrimental effect on the bare plaster. Unfortunately we also became host to two starling nests; the inhabitants of which exploited tiny (5cm!) gaps in our plaster. So although the mothers were anything but aggressive I thought it best to wait another couple of weeks until the young ones fledged.
As antidote to all this painting I also dug some new beds near the nursery, which would accommodate some corn, beans, and squashes. It’s a tiny fraction of our 1.25 hectares, which only goes to show how little land a person needs to provide for himself and many others. As I empty the nursery of the more mature plants, I am just as quickly refilling it with seedlings, both of trees and annual crops.
Kogie returned that weekend with the kids and on Sunday we were happy to finally host our “guardian angel”, the lady who provided vast amounts of information and inspiration, not to mention her building team and various building tools. This is one of our friends in Greyton, who built three stunning straw bale homes there long before Tesselaarsdal was even a twinkle in our eyes. I remember clearly having long phone conversations with her in my backyard in the UK. She answered all my doubts and made the whole enterprise seem easy. She is an incredibly busy woman, involved in some wonderful projects in Greyton, and so had never been able to find the time to visit us during our building. However, on this day she was en route home and Kogie whipped up some tantalizing curries to keep her here a while.
Another Monday and more of the same on the books for me. Tuesday was Diwali, though, so I journeyed to Cape Town to celebrate it with Kogie and clan. I got an early start and filled my day driving from store to store, ticking off items on my long list of house necessities. After a full day of driving in central Cape Town and every corner outside, I collapsed on the couch at Kogie’s daughter’s home late in the afternoon. Although a minority in that neighbourhood, we celebrated the evening with traditional candles, baked goodies, and fireworks outside.
The next morning I returned early and fortunately Bruno seemed to hold no grudge, having spent his first night alone at the big house. The rest of the week was spent doing more tyres, varnishing, and reed bed work.
That weekend I was alone which is just as well because I was hit with a flu pretty good on Sunday. This put a serious damper on my house-painting plans, though, which were due to go ahead as at least one of the starling nests had fledged. I can honestly say the highlight of the week was when a bakkie-load of cow poop was delivered. This stuff is gold to a gardener – it is the magic ingredient for compost and an absolute necessity as an amendment for soil like ours.
Kogie came up on the weekend and brought up another sickie; her grand-daughter who was recovering from pneumonia. So it was a chilled weekend, although I did manage to paint most of the walls upstairs.
It was around this time that the familiar cry of a peacock became commonplace; I guess a specimen, raised by a local fancier perhaps, had become free and was now searching for a mate in the valley below us. I never knew that peacocks also have a short honking vocalization, almost goose-like, which made an interesting addition to the auditory landscape here.
Anyway, finally on Monday I was able to tackle that challenge which had been gnawing at me for many weeks, painting the exterior of the house. I knew this would be a bit of a monster and in the end it took me a full six days to put two coats on the entire outside. I had to put up with strong winds from every direction and intense heat that made both paint and painter sludgy, but, it was worth it. Not only is the plaster sealed and water-proof, the glaring off-white of the bare plaster has been softened and we’ve been told that the house now “disappears” into the hill behind it (a compliment, I think!)
In the evenings as I would take my rest on the front verandah – Bruno on my lap – the peacock often made himself known, sounding more and more plaintive every day. It’s not really fair to raise these birds away from their territory of origin. There are no predators here but neither is there a local breeding population, and this fellow was clearly in need of a willing pea-hen. One morning he even displayed to me and Bruno, causing a rather awkward moment.
During this time I also began interviewing with another possible client. It seems that after a couple of false starts the employment statistics around here may finally see some positive changes. The past few months have provided me with a wonderful variety of things to do (it’s not all painting, despite what you read here), and have filled my head with many future projects that will require a bit of cash to realize.
The house is nearing completion, and perhaps because of that I’m happy to report that the lady of the house now devotes a good portion of her brief time here to enjoyment of that house and the area. After a full year we’ve pulled out the bicycles and done a couple of Sunday-morning safaris, sometimes rewarding ourselves with brekkie at the local cafe. I’ve become used to a pedestrian pace most of the time, but for anyone living in a city, it is crucial to slow down periodically. Plus, it makes for better bird-watching…
Last Sunday, after a late dinner, I heard a loud thump somewhere in the back. The wind was up, and so at first I assumed it was the tarpaulin covering our wood pile back there making noise. But minutes later I heard it again and this was definitely something else. I opened the back door, and with just enough light left, could make out the peacock on our roof, craning his head sideways to look down at me. After a moment of mutually curious observation, he spread his wings and flew off. Two weeks of fruitless searching, it seemed, was enough, and he’d decided to try his luck elsewhere.
Events here, thankfully, are not keeping pace with those in other parts of the world. It seems things are moving steadily towards an uncertain climax all along the fault-line which separates the West from everybody else. Maybe a decisive seismic shock there, sending Europe drifting over to America, is just what the world needs. A geological solution to all those difficult political problems.
But I’m a simpleton, a pre-industrial man, I suppose. I personally feel that given just one hectare of this big planet, a human with a little bit of knowledge and a fertile imagination can happily occupy him- or her-self for a lifetime.
If you’re living somewhere immersed in ever-increasing levels of tension and fear-mongering, let me reassure you that there are places left on the earth where clouds drift slowly over great open fields, cows saunter to their grazing lands in no hurry and there are moments of such stillness and tranquility that a person could believe that time has all but stopped, were it not for a gentle breeze reanimating the landscape.
This will be my last post for 2015. It’s been an incredibly exciting, challenging and rewarding year for us both. Every day this year has been Christmas for me. I hope you are so lucky in the coming year. From Kogie and I, happy holidays.