1. There is no leaving home
Some homes that I lived in are no more – bulldozed with their orchards and their gardens and their avenues of fig trees we used to harvest for market – limbs entangled all morning against the sky, filling mesh bags with the smell of sweet sap. The oak tree with leaves that touched the ground and a ladder to the fork where I could sit and read unseen. The lemon, the vineyard, the old sheds with bunches of onions hanging to dry. All of it gone.
We moved and moved again. Lived a while in the last street in the suburbs with an island of farmland across the road, hemmed in from all sides between the highway and encroaching towns on the periphery of Cape Town. I came alive on those lands. Ran crazy wild down those paths between windbreak pines and stubble fields – gathered Kei apples from the hedgerows and learned to walk mindfully on barefeet, scouring the edges for the medicinal weeds I was learning. I was 20, there was a neglect and wildness to the land that suited me, lying face to the sky in midseason growth as invisible as the land itself was to the moving buzzing world that was swallowing it.
I was not alone here. Miraculously this little patch of depleted soil, planted to annual grass crops, wheat and ryegrass and oats, its row pines and rough hedges was home and last hope to an assortment of misplaced creatures. A family of meerkat had made a home burrow at the furthest edge, close to the far hedge. There was a fox – more than one perhaps – ears giving it away above the waves of yellowing grasses on the long summer evenings. There was the scratching and rustling of field mouse and shrew, a close encounter with a cobra. Owls in the pines – jackal buzzard and francolin, weaver and plover and a hundred other nesting and calling and wing purring birds. There was also a grysbok – a little red antelope with black feet high stepping in the soft sand between sunlight and shadow, sewing up the invisible edges of our world.
Were we living like we were the last of it – like this bit that we had was not enough?
I loved the earth there and it loved me – I thought that that was enough. I was wrong.
I have never been to the shopping mall that was built in that place – could not imagine walking between a cinema and food court and thinking, here – somewhere beneath all this marble floored chrome glinted hardness is the soft sand where meerkat birthed her young. I did try and fight it. Wrote the letters – took my objections to the small office on a hot afternoon where I was told your voice is only one and unlikely to be true – that the wildlife that I had seen in the quiet on my own were probably not there. That the land I spoke for was wasteland and private property and the development would go ahead. I moved away before the first trees fell, coincidentally I thought, but there were hard places in me now where a tangle of undergrowth and tree light had been before.
By the time I returned to my home town after university it was barely recognisable – or perhaps I just noticed the change that had been coming all along. It was no longer a town – but a node and a suburb in a vast stretch of suburbs. The way the land expressed itself – the way it lived its seasons was gone, I thought the part of me that was an expression of that land was gone too. So I left home again, abandoning that place to the metropole. I have not been back to say I was sorry.
Perhaps this is what it means to live in the developing world – this slow hardening off – the turning a blind eye and ear and heart to the workings of the world – the slow mechanical crunch of bulldozers clearing for new and bigger and more, with capital flowing more than our rivers and lives and livelihoods discarded in the name of our holy trinity: progress, capitalism and economic growth. The pretending that we are not here.
A newly conceived embryo
is nearly weightless –
some cells held together
by three weeks it swims
in gilled perfection – indistinct animal
tadpole, fish, bird, cat.
big-eyed, big head,
limb buds, tail,
quick beating heart –
gathering life to itself
by twelve weeks she will weigh about 13g
human now in form not size
she will continue shaping earth
from soil to plant
to blood to human
shifting mostly carbon
and flowing water into form –
when i held my new born daughters
cupped the soft warmth of their heads
in my hand. saw galaxies and
the endless forevers in their dark eyes
i never once, for a moment, thought they did not belong here –
thought they could be anything but here.
when they suckled mammalian
pup, cria, kit, whelp
we were earth animal.
our bones are built of the stones of here
water of the rivers course our veins.
the earth is not our home
but our body.
our thoughts are the thoughts of trees.
Perhaps it is a lifespan thing. Perhaps a civilisation must be born, live, flourish and die – and we are now at an age where we face that death, knowing it is ours. As much as I would like to will it so, we are not them – the ones who come after. We are not the voices on that other wind. No matter how much we crane our necks to the future – tomorrow is not ours. We are the ones who are here now. We are the elders – the combined wisdom of 10,000 years of civilisation. And what do we have to say for ourselves?
Mostly I have lived in denial. I have tried all my life not to be part of this civilisation – not to embrace its culture of mass consumerism – to live on the rich edge of the world where life still communes with the stars – but to no use. I can no more claim my body as separate from earth – separate from spirit than I can engage in the world and live separate from the howling fast pace hum and whirr of our society.
I still endeavour to grow my own food – to not eat at the feed trough of the factory farm that is so convenient and immediate. I fail – rushing as we do between school and here and that which needs doing with no time to stop and pause and harvest and cook – and how bad can chow mein be if I bring my own dishes to avoid the polystyrene – tomorrow I will do better. And I do for a bit – remember to harvest the plums every day for a week, perfect ones for the fridge and friends and school lunches, those with dings and holes where the birds got there first (and really I don’t mind sharing). I rinse and cut the bad bits for the chickens and freeze the rest, ready for winter plum pudding and fruit curries. Tomatoes by the bucketful puréed with garlic and basil and Vietnamese coriander and frozen; and grapes and grapes and grapes. And yes I say thank you for the abundance and blessing and I remember to take note of the two ravens arcing the cloud pulled sky in the morning before the rain. These are the good days – holding the balance, but not for long.
I cannot escape my complicity in the destruction of the planet; and none of this detracts from the fact that we are here at the tail end of a civilisation. That we are the crones, the elders, the shamans that left their wisdom on cave walls for those that are still to come. What is the picture that we are painting – pigment of rock and blood and spit on the wall.
4. This is not denial
ate it leaning on the doorpost of my home
sun mid morning high
and warm – full on my face and chest
and arms and feet,
glowing through greenfire leaf
and touching silver
on ferns and the grey-silk stems
close as i will get
nourished to my core