Island Blog from Africa

sausage tree

 

 

They tell me the sausage tree hasn’t flowered for years.  It is now.  Two fat crimson blooms, deep as trumpets, hang down and waggle in the hot wind.  A sugar bird dips its beak into the nectar, then throws back its head to swallow.  Only two blooms as yet, but tomorrow rain is promised.  I sit in the dappled shade of a jacaranda and over there a coral tree waves fire blooms at the sky.  It’s super hot today and the sky is wide and blue with just faint brushstrokes of cloud. I look up and all I see is colour, bright primaries, nothing muted or almost there, but loud in my eyes, almost blinding.

I woke early this morning, around 5 am and opened my curtains slowly.  There she is, Shiloh the Peaceful, a heavily pregnant Nyala, a deer in a land of many different species of deer.  Her body is light tan, softly streaked with white and she has chosen the safety of this small reserve to give birth.  Her herd could be anywhere but she needs solitude for the task ahead.  I could reach out and touch her, she is so close to my window.  She looks at me.  I look back but she isn’t alarmed and soon her head returns to the ground, to pick the watered grass, her nourishment.  Keep safe, I whisper.  She would make a fine breakfast for a hungry leopard and there is a big male that walks this place at night.  Many other deer have made this place their home.  Little hunched Bush Buck, jumpy Impala and, now, Shiloh the Peaceful.

Swifts cut through the blue above my head whilst petrol blue blackbirds scuttle along the ground.  On a walk through the bush yesterday I saw grasshoppers as long as a Scottish housemouse, green at first until they spread their crimson wings.  When the rains come so will the spiders, the scorpions, and the snakes.  When the new arrivals gathered this morning for a power point induction, we learned the guidelines for a safe and happy stay here.  Some have come for a few weeks, some a few months, a few for longer, but the rules around wildlife are always the same.  How to behave in the wild is not a matter of choice, but of survival.  All of us gave our full attention, needless to say.

When encountering anything with venom, claws, teeth or trunks, don’t change shape.  That’s the nutshell of it.  No flapping of arms, no running, just very slowly back away, or, in some cases, stand absolutely still like in musical statues.  One guide, whilst out in the bush came face to face with a cheetah.  Although raw terror shot through him and every natural instinct was to run, he knew better.  Standing completely still and in silence, he waited as the cheetah came towards him brushing the skin of his leg and moving on down the dust track.  Easily advised, this standing still thing, but the truth is that any movement, any attempt to run would have been disastrous.  However, not one single wild animal has the slightest interest in humans, beyond curiosity.  They don’t fancy a human for lunch, nor do they carry ill intent towards us, nor do they think and reason as we do.  They run entirely on instinct and will not harm any of us unless we do something foolish, like flap or run.

We are all wise to remember that this land is their land, not ours.

Island Blog 151 Winter and Spring

2014-01-27 14.08.00

“Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”   Sinclair Lewis

Now, as the cold sets in and the winds bite, we can turn towards home.  The lack of strong daylight draws us to the soft lighting, the fire glow, candles and a good torch for the Last Dog Walk at bedtime.  I find I read even more, if that is, indeed, possible.  My tastebuds changed their tune and thick soup replaces a rocket salad.  I remember Elisabeth Luard, the famous cookery writer saying to me, once, that she loved the winter.  All those bonkers unmatching hats and gloves, the fat woolly jumpers, thick socks, big boots and nobody watching her waistline, least of all, her. It was almost with a sigh she welcomed Spring, knowing full well that those pretty frocks might well resist joining at the zip.

Gone are those foraging walks, the fresh tang of autumn with skies full of redwings and the leaves turning into gold and red to finally fall to the ground, a crunchy carpet at first, then a soggy mulch beneath our boots.  Mud gathers below the verges, frost splits the tarmac and the potholes re-appear with a vengeance.  But, walking into winter can hold its own delights, after all, who doesn’t like jumping in puddles?  If you have gone beyond puddle jumping there is something wrong with you because it may be the best form of excercise you can take and there is never any harm in re-visiting the inner child.  So many of us lose our sense of play and it is a Zeus of a mistake. The finest people I know still play childish pranks at 80 with twinkly winkly eyes and a dare in them for you to even think of disapproving.

In Sweden, so I am told by my viking daughter-in-law, there is no rain/sleet or slush.  There is only snow.  Kissing the ground at first, this white out can grow to terrifying depths, disappearing whole houses overnight.  If it ever happens here, there is considerable panic as if we are all about to turn into snowmen.  Trains stop, buses stop, and nobody can get to work.  Well, I struggle to find the bad in that, unless, of course, you are an emergency service.  In Sweden this is all carefully thought through and those who need to get about grow wings. Although I don’t want to say this, I do wonder at the flapdoodle this country gets into about seasonal changes, and I do shake my head.  At Tapselteerie, if the track was impassable, we just didn’t pass it.  Sudden holidays, lack of food, the power off, no phone, all meant fun.  As long as the stock were fed, milked and checked, we were all quite happy to play.  I remember once being at the hairdresser in town and the local police (pronounced poh-liss) popping his head round the door of each shop to recommend that those of us who lived ‘over by’ meaning anywhere but the town, should head home as the hill road was fast being wiped out.  Being wiped out is exactly what happens.  The terrain is just one hilly blanket and there is no way to tell where the road lies within it.  I said to the poh-liss that I wisnae going hame with one side cropped and the other trailing over my right ear, and, by the time I did head overby, someone had already found the road and marked it out which was very thoughtful even if it did take two attempts to top the highest hilly bend with a neat short back and sides.

It seems to me that fear is the killer here.  What on earth is there to be afraid of?  It’s only snow and puddles after all, although not both together.  Ice is a bit different though with its chameleon ability to become the road.  When someone ahead of me scooted neatly off the single track road in the un-gritted glen, landing just under the nose of a startled horse munching hay, all of us stopped to help.  We hefted and bumped and, on finding all that hefting and bumping quite pointless, popped the inhabitants into our own cars and trundled them home, waving to the horse as we drew away.

And, of course, there is always the promise of Spring.  Crocuses are coming, snowdrops pushing into the cold light, birds looking for nest sites.  But we should honour winter.  There is a beauty in it, a bare stark beauty that should not be missed, like building snowmen, puddle jumping, making soup, wearing bonkers and unmatching hats and gloves.  Longing for something to end just lengthens it I find.  Our winters are unpredictable, unlike Sweden.

How versatile are you?  I personally want to be able to bounce like Tigger (or move like Jagger) whatever comes my way, even if it does require forward planning and something to hold on to. And, there is always a temporarily unbouncing somebody who needs my help.

 

Island Blog 134 Reality Check

2014-06-05 11.15.11

 

 

This morning the air is still on the island.  Nobody is about, except for the birds playing out their dramas.  The doves, including Dave,  whose mate was nabbed by a sparrowhawk a couple of years back, and who will always be a gooseberry, turn up to feed, their beaks tapping out a syncopated rythm on the wooden base of the bird table.  We found the remains of the kill on the track outside the house, and Dave stumbling about lopsided and scared. Not a lucky dove, we said.  After a week or so inside a box, fed and watered each day, he managed a wonky lift from the ground, straightened up and flew right onto the telephone wire.  We hadn’t fixed anything, weren’t sure how to, but perhaps the combination of love and his own will to survive did their work.  Now, however many pairs line the wire, sometimes up to 15 in the winter months, he is the uneven number, but always faithful, staying close to home, when the others loop away across the hills to build nests, raise young, complete the yearly circle once again.

A pair of swallows have taken the nest we fixed at the back of the garage years ago.  Each spring, they check it out, and each spring, they reject it.  Perhaps this is because we are constantly in and out of the garage, for it offers the only access to the hill garden at the back, where the bee hives nestle in the wild grass, their faces towards the sun.  Every day each community, numbering thousands apiece, fly out to find pollen. The scouts communicate directions to the others in waggle dances, performed on the front step and taken seriously by the other worker bees, all women of course, who might be dithering about which way to go.  The hive mind is an extraordinary thing and one that never sleeps, for even when the bees don’t fly, we know that if we lifted the lid (which is not for the faint-hearted) we would not see one single bee loafing about with a vacant look in her eye.  Every single one is busily employed, going about her business mindfully, intelligently, continuously.  Any loafers would be thrown out.

Trouble is, the swallows number three.  I don’t suppose this works, a menage a trois, in the swallow world, but the three of them dive in and out of the garage each early morning and evening.  On the wire, they have words.  No violence is employed, but you can tell, from the tone, that it’s not friendly.  Perhaps, like doves, and swans, swallows mate for life.  Perhaps this lone one lost its mate on that huge journey back from Africa.  We watched them gathering on wires, rooftops, swirling like a dark cloud over Capetown, when we were there in March, preparing for their flight across the globe, and we marvelled.  How they manage to find their old nest sites year after year beggars belief.  We would need maps, charts, radar, provisions, a transport vehicle, confidence, determination and periodic rests in soft beds with cotton sheets and a spacious en suite.  They just fly.

In honour of their unusual tryst, together with the excitement at their final acceptance of the Garden Centre nest, (buy one, get a House Martin one free) I have fixed signs, one on the inside of the door, so we remember not to dive out and head butt a swallow, and one for anyone coming through the little gate who needs guiding to the other door.  If we need to access the hill garden, we must open the garage door slowly, peeking gingerly out, to see if our new friends are around.  Sometimes they wobble on the inside washing line.  We need an inside washing line on the island, as the outside one is often long-term unemployed.  The concrete floor is already guano-ed up and this situation won’t change, as long as they decide, finally, to lay their eggs, which they still may not, given the human comings and goings.

As I walked Miss Poppy around Tapselteerie yesterday, she made me laugh at some antic and, in response to my voice breaking the silence of the afternoon, a well-hidden nest of young tits leapt into action, their collective cheeping floating out from one of the dark holes in the old dry stone wall.  The mother, behind me on a branch, yelled at them to shutup, but they were having none of it.  I didn’t stay around to worry her, but the experience lifted my heart, just to have been allowed to witness that moment, and to fix the knowledge of it into my ordinary day.  I call that an ‘internal shunt’, for It changes me, even though nothing has changed.  My usual list of miniature disasters is still there; the demands on my time, my patience, my purse, stay in place; nothing is certain, nothing really safe and nothing I can do to make it any different.  I could lose a loved one in a nanosecond and there is little I can do to stop it happening.  I can fall ill, a silent enemy moving in to establish victory whilst I dash through my daily list, unaware until too late.  But it does me no good to focus on what may or may not happen, in fact, it will falter my step, weaken me, make me dull at parties.  What I need to do, mindfully and intelligently, is to learn from the birds, from the natural world, of which I am a part.  I am at the top of the food chain, yes.  I can think and reason, yes.  And these gifts are not given to be wasted.  They are gifts of sight, gifts of power, not over others as we seem to believe, but over myself, the choice to get real, like the birds.

How does that song go………oh yes…..

‘Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie
A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you’re going to make love with tonight. That’s truth, that’s love.

I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.’