The last weeks having been sultry, I have been swimming a lot in the farm dam, bobbing about with the grebes and wild geese in the sun-warmed water.
I was inspired to suggest an ‘Anything that Floats’ afternoon with a pirate theme. Only think of the opportunities it offers for silliness and raucous behaviour! The usual culprits and I had it planned for next weekend – but the fickle finger of fate has intervened.
This weekend, there was swimming on Saturday, no problem, then again on Sunday, drifting lazily around and alarming the goslings. We emerged absolutely covered in little leeches. Lovely. There were hundreds of them: little bits of super-adherent snot. Country living: you’ve got to be mildly disgusted by it from time to time.
In other news, a fond friend has forwarded a short story I wrote years ago and which I’d thought I’d lost. I’m going to post it here so I don’t lose it again – not even if I fall on top of my computer like I did last time.
It is 1799 words long. It rambles. I’ve decided I like it even though it takes itself seriously, but you are under absolutely no obligation to give yourself eye-strain by reading it.Today’s pic: the farm dam looking ominous.
Imagine a red dirt road in the African sun. Imagine the redness of the clay, the pale champagne coloured grass showing pale green at the roots. The road, meandering between red-gold sandstone ridges under an untroubled sky, becoming a deeply rutted track littered with rocks, cresting rises and slithering down stony slopes. Now! To the left - between these bushes - almost invisible unless you know its there.
The long grass brushes at the underside of the car as it picks its way into the gully. Now right at the thorn tree, do you see the skeleton of a tractor, rusting in the long grass like an old work horse put out to pasture? Right again here, and through the tawny scrub, the grass on the track is just shorter than the surrounding veldt Into the open, sailing on a sea of long grass, cresting another rise, and there it is, nestled between two mountains, a house with a red roof.
And there am I, the last soul in the last place you’ll reach on the last of the road, a speck under the sky, a child of the earth, a student of life, a pilgrim like you - cursing the sky.
And here you are, an accidental visitor. You didn’t mean to come here, I know, but you are here now. Would you like some tea before you turn back and cross the grassy sea in search of somewhere else? Oh, I’m the farm manger here – or was, I’ll be leaving soon and a good thing too. Yes, it is beautiful here, It feels almost like the end of a life to leave, but it is just a moving on. I have learned too much and nothing here.
If you want to know what I mean by that, you must be ready for a long tale. You’re not in hurry? Very well then, it’ll be a relief really. It’s about learning and losing.
What have I learned? I have lived through quite a lot of my projected span and find myself wondering, pondering, this question, turning it over and over in my mind: what have I learned?
By the time one reaches my age, one has faced love and anger, defeat, victory and impotence, joy and sorrow, dreams and nightmares: and what does one learn? I wonder sometimes if it is all a waste of effort, like chasing the wind. Then again, is that such a sad thought after all? Imagine running with great, flying steps across a field or a hillside, leaping and laughing in the wind, breathing in great gulps of air until you fall down, gasping and defeated but joyfully, vibrantly alive.
Perhaps life is just for living, and learning is merely a whimsy by the wayside. It could be that the idea of becoming better, wiser people as we live out our lives is just an idea. I certainly know more things, but am I the wiser or the better for it? I don’t know, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the opposite may be true.
My books taught me no wisdom. I borrowed thoughts, knowledge and dreams, ambitions and ideals because I lack any of my own. I should not miss them, but conditioning brings dependence and I do. You should have seen my books. I loved them: row upon row of faded volumes smelling of dust, well-thumbed, adored. My books, and the farm: they were my life for a time.
Sometimes, when the jackals are yapping hungrily around my house in the darkness, I close my eyes and try and see the pages before me as if they were the faces of mentors or friends from the past. I can see the shape of them, but the words are blotted out. When it rains, I cannot sleep.
A farmer should love the rain, but very few of us do, its always too little or too much with never any middle ground. It’s a friend to us, but a fickle, irritating one. It’s the climate here; drought follows flood in an irregular cycle. Like ancient pagans at midwinter afraid that the summer will never return, we often fear that the rains will never fall again.
The local church calls a gathering, and we trudge dutifully through the red dust and the blazing sun to pray for rain, crying out to our grim God to pour forth the water from heaven. None of us brings an umbrella, yet all of us are believers. I learned something there. Something of my own, I suppose it must be in some book somewhere. I wish I had the words for it.
Not so long ago, we were literally though faithlessly brought to our knees, and now the pastures below my mountain home are rich. The cattle glow with health and ripple with fat, and the baboons have stopped raiding the homesteads, having enough of nature’s bounty to satisfy them. And me? I suppose I am happy. I suppose I am heartbroken. Why should the skies care? Why should I? My books are gone, their paper thoughts have returned to the earth as I will one day,. For now its time to move on.
You don’t understand? But then, you weren’t here. It seems so clear to me, but I was here. I have been here. I think it can only have been three years actually, but it seems as if I have rooted into the earth and have always been poised above the valley in my rocky gully under the wide sky amidst the golden grass.
See how the two kopjies rise into crests from here: the pinkish gold boulders are remnants of a primal sea; some of the oldest rocks in the world. They’re are made of millions of tiny crystals. If you hear me out today, you might see them light up with the fire of the setting sun. From a distance these barely look like mountains at all, a ridge of yellowish boulders in the yellowish grass is what you see. Up close, you see the grandeur - uncaring grandeur under the uncaring sky.
I told you it was dry? It was bitterly dry. This is dry land to start with, and when the streams run dry and the bore- holes begin to run dry, there’s nothing left but hope and that’s not strong. The red clay is hard and cracked with sere tussocks of grass here and there. Even the people look as if the sun has dried them into husks. The cattle and the sheep diminish in number, slaughtered to spare the grass, to feed it with their blood.
There was a wild fire on the mountain and that was bad too. We fought it in this very gorge: the one event that makes the farmers here all work together. We fought it all the night with streaming eyes and screaming lungs and there was nowhere to go that wasn’t a hell of smoke and sparks. See how the beams of my house scorched here under the eaves? You should have seen the flames, felt the heat, heard the roaring, you’d never forget the power of it.
We got rain at last, not long ago. I can’t be sorry, but I can. Selfishly, small-mindedly, I find that can. Look at my mountains. Do see the lie of the land? See how the sandstone ridges slope towards this spot, so beautiful, so graceful - shaped as if to channel blessings from the sky.
Imagine that you were a raindrop falling on either slope. You land, gleefully bouncing off the rocks, joining your brothers until you are part of a stream, a merry cascade, a torrent. There is only one way to go and that’s with the flow. You flow. At a point your streamlet joins its twin from the opposite slope, and now you are a torrent and have strength. You leap exuberantly over the rocks.
Down and down, seeking the lower ground, channeled by the mountain, finding and flowing right through the little house. Flowing through my life, my possessions, and my dreams. I wanted to cry, but instead I laughed. What else can one do? Then there are my books, were my books. I tried to dry some precious volumes under the fickle sun, but it was no use. Pages gummed together, rippling with water damage, blooming with mildew; it was a great loss, a terrible loss - heartbreaking. I laughed with the pain of it.
The next time, it was only a week later, the torrent found itself channeled into ditches, but it soon overflowed its bounds and took the path that nature intended. One shouldn’t try and fight nature. She’s a big girl. The second time, I didn’t laugh, but I still had the courage to do what I could to repair the damage, to save some things from the lingering wet, to dry out and patch up. I dug the ditches to dangerous depths, don’t fall into them, they’re in the long grass over there.
That night it rained, and as I slept the water and the mountain peaks did their trick again. Shallower this time, but still a full-scale invasion of water and mud. Things began to rot. There were mushrooms. I did what I could. I got some help and dug the ditches still deeper, I packed my things high and hoped.
It rained every night. Every night I woke and went to the window, watched the water rise, watched the water fall. Then, one night I saw it rising and rising, lapping at the step. I battled it, I guided and coaxed the water away from my door with pick and spade and curses in the stinging deluge. I won. The waters began to recede. Tired, cold, wet and weary I went in search of my bed.
I found it underwater, the flood had risen through the floor while I battled the waters outdoors. You have to laugh, really you do, it's the best way, but sometimes things get beyond funny.
It is too much, I am defeated by the repeated insults of nature. Of course, it’s the situation of the house, really, and it has been a wet season after all.
See the rocks: the rose quartz crystals flashing fire in the setting sun, blazing, burning. One could love this place. I did once, and still would but for the rain.
Where to now? Oh, the Kalahari desert, there’s a game farm that needs hands. Not much rain there. Sometimes they have years on end with nary a drop, flattish too. It’ll take the damp from my bones and I’ll sleep at night.