THE BITTEREST TEARS

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who is quoted as saying: The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.

These words come to mind whenever I visit older cemeteries in some of the smaller towns and especially the many military graves scattered in the rural areas. Sadly, many of these places suffer from neglect and vandalism: headstones have been broken, metal letters gouged out, metal crosses and chains have either been broken or removed. Trees, weeds and grass grow unchecked except by diminishing numbers of volunteers. The old cemetery in our town is a treasure trove for historians, yet one wouldn’t dream of entering it alone for fear of being mugged!

Back to those bitterest tears; in chronological order come five examples of lives cut short:

Trooper W. A. Randall was killed in action at Kalabani British Basutoland in 1880. I find it particularly poignant that his age is given as 20 years and 10 months – as if to show that he was on his way towards his 21st birthday. The latter must have been as significant a milestone then as it is now.

For some it is important to remember why one’s loved one died. The sense of loss perhaps assuaged a little by this – bitter tears shed nonetheless – as in the case of George J. Fitzpatrick who, aged 29, was killed at Willow Grange whilst carrying off a wounded comrade.

Here is a grave of a veld kornet who died seven months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). W.H.H. Pretorius was only 27 years old – so many deeds left undone! The inscription is written in Dutch, for Afrikaans as we know it, had not yet become an official language.

Not all military men died of wounds: Lieut. F. H. Pratt-Barlow died in 1902 from enteric fever, aged only 20.

Plaques in churches tell this sad story too: Rex Montgomery Hilligan was 22 years old when he died in 1943: He too loved life but loving dared not save himself lest those he loved should pay the price.

DIURNAL

What does the word diurnal conjure up for you? For some it may relate to things which occur on a daily basis, such as reading the newspaper (or news online), writing in a diary or keeping a journal of some sort. Its roots are deeply embedded in Latin: dies (day) and diurnus (daily) became diurnalis in Late Latin, from where it moved into Middle English.

I tend to think of ‘diurnal’ in terms of creatures that are active during the day. Among these are:

Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) colloquially known as a Dassie – they can be seen basking in the sun on large rocks, particularly during mornings and late afternoons.

Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), South Africa’s national animal, are most active in the early mornings and late afternoons.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) tend to hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Impala (Aepyceros melampus) are mainly active during the day, except during the hot midday hours, and ruminate at night.

Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) forage during the day from sunrise until shortly before sunset.

Given my recent interest in butterflies, this quotation from Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is pertinent:

During the night colours are not visible, and there can be no doubt that the nocturnal moths, taken as a body, are much less gaily decorated than butterflies, all of which are diurnal in their habits.

SOUTH AFRICAN ENGLISH

South Africans are a wonderful bunch of people who speak a variety of languages between them. In the fashion of Englishes all over the world, the English spoken here borrows so freely from other South African languages that we merit a dictionary devoted to South African English. This form of English has been evolving since the arrival of the British military and administrators as early as 1795.

I was among only a handful of English-speaking pupils during my schooling and still tend to pepper my spoken English with words and expressions that had been so familiar during those formative years. Can they really be considered Afrikaans words, for example? Yes, but many words from this and other languages have become entrenched in the everyday English we use, for this is not any old English that we speak, but South African English.

Thus it is that we might seek muti (medicine) from a pharmacy to relieve the symptoms of some malady. If one of us experiences a sharp pain – such as a thorn in one’s foot – you are more than likely to hear the exclamation eina! This word effectively communicates how sore you are.

I frequently refer to flowers, animals, birds, insects and trees I have observed in the veld – a reference to the untamed open grassland, often studded with trees that we get in this country.

In order to explore the wilder, more out of the way places or to visit some of our fantastic national parks, we pack our camping katunda into our bakkie – that was before COVID-19 caused a blanket ban on travel.

Occasionally we come across large areas of erosion, called dongas.

Somehow the word ‘gulley’ doesn’t match the South African landscape.

Enjoying a braaivleis is an institution in this country. Since the lockdown began, our neighbourhood has been redolent with the aroma of braais. Having a barbecue or cook-out doesn’t cut it. ‘Braai’ encompasses more than merely cooking meat (occasionally also vegetables and even baking bread) over an open fire. It conjures up the ritual of preparation beforehand, waiting for the coals to be just the right temperature, the cooking process and the geselligheid that is part of the gathering for the meal.

Conviviality in the Eastern Cape extends to the way men greet their male friends, family, acquaintances and newcomers as ‘boet’ (originally an affectionate word for brother). As an aside, one would seldom describe a South African man as sporting a paunch: they tend to develop boeps!

A friend recently reminded me of a particularly poignant word that has been used a lot during the many weeks of COVID-19 related social isolation. ‘Sterkte’ conveys both sympathy and encouragement. It means much more than saying ‘be strong’ or ‘have courage’. It is a word that tells the recipient that I care for you; I empathise with your predicament; and I wish you well.

So, one of these days, when freedom of movement and association is allowed once more, I will enjoy packing our katunda into our bakkie; driving through the veld; over a nek or two; and to kuier with people who mean a lot to me. Doubtless we will steek a dop, enjoy a braai, laugh a lot and be gesellig whilst chewing biltong or eating wors. I will enjoy spending time with my boets and my ‘clean-sisters’.

Until then, sterkte to you all!

A SOUNDER OF WARTHOGS

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) are called thus because of the wart-like protuberances on their faces that really consist of bone and cartilage. You might like to look at them more closely the next time you get an opportunity to see them and note that the boar has two pairs (which they use for defense when fighting as these provide a cushion to the blows from the tusks of their opponent) while the sow sports only one pair of ‘warts’.

I was looking through a list of collective nouns recently and wonder if you already know that a group of warthogs is called a sounder of warthogs. As female warthogs tend to live in matriarchal groups, usually consisting of one or two adult females and their young, they ought to be called sounders. I have been unable to discover why this particular word is used.

Apart from the apparent facial warts, warthogs also sport white facial crests which, in the right light and angle, look a bit like tusks. The role of these is to make the animals look a lot fiercer than they are when threatened.

SAND BATHING

Birds don’t only use water for cleaning themselves, they also ‘sand bathe’. This is a rather interesting phenomenon to observe and so it is worth leaving open sandy patches in your garden. A variety of birds use the fine loose sand to keep their feathers in peak condition and to reduce the number of parasites in them. I first noticed the Laughing Doves doing this in our garden.

Small flocks of them congregate in sandy areas to scoop up the sand with their wings. They then shake their wings, allowing the sand to penetrate between the feathers. Allied to this is the habit of sunbathing, which is when the birds lie down with their wings outstretched. The sun is thought to straighten the feathers and at the same time spread the preen oil throughout the feathers.   Olive Thrushes also engage in this kind of sand bathing.

Dust bathing helps absorb any excess oil and also removes dry skin and other debris. Ostriches sand bathe too.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

The Fly

How large unto the tiny fly
Must little things appear!-
A rosebud like a feather bed,
Its prickle like a spear;

A dewdrop like a looking-glass,
A hair like golden wire;
The smallest grain of mustard-see
As fierce as coals of fire;

A loaf of bread, a lofty hill;
A wasp, a cruel leopard;
And specks of sale as bright to see
As lambkins to a shepherd.

Walter de la Mare