Although oak trees, many of them English Oak, can be found in a number of South African towns, they are not indigenous to this country but originate from the early European settlers, who tended to plant what they were familiar with. It is believed that many of the oaks in parts of the Western Cape probably originate from trees imported by the Dutch East India Company as a source of wood for the manufacture of wine casks.
Under the right climatic circumstances, oaks have a life expectancy of between 300 – 600 years and so it is not surprising to find mature oaks still growing in a number of the older towns and cities in this country. Our little town, established as a military post in 1812, still has a number of streets lined with oak trees – what stories they could tell of the changes that have taken place over the past two centuries!
Here a group of schoolgirls is inspecting a relatively young oak tree growing next to the tennis courts on their campus.
Not all of the oak trees are old – saplings abound, many of which have been left to grow into mature trees. There are even the odd oak trees growing next to the roads, possibly remnants of deliberately planted trees or ‘escapees’ that found favour in the soil. We are used to the presence of oaks and love them for what they are.
The Urban Herd, which regular readers will be familiar with by now, continue to wander through the suburbs at will – munching on the grass verges, as well as any flowers, shrubs or leafy plants they can reach. I watched some of them doing just that and was surprised by the odd loud crunching noises, until I realised they were eating the acorns that had fallen onto the pavement! A little further on, I spotted this bull – which we have dubbed ‘The New Year Bull’ – reaching up to pull clusters of acorns from the trees.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the hibiscus flower was used in our primary school classes to demonstrate the different parts of the flower, such as the stem, calyx and ovary; the pistil which consisted of the stamen, style, and stigma; and then the petals. It is a large flower and there were several bushes of them growing in the tiny school garden; they were easy to cut open for demonstration – and fairly easy to draw in our Nature Study books.
Although tropical in origin, these hardy plants manage to grow in a variety of places. While hibiscus flowers are freely associated with tropical islands, the few we inherited with our garden still flower every year despite being totally neglected by me! They attract butterflies, beetles as well as a variety of sunbirds – in our garden these are usually the Amethyst (Black) Sunbird and the Greater Double-collared Sunbird.
Although we knew these flowers are called hibiscus, as young children we got into the habit of calling them ‘Hi Biscus!’ because that is what my father used to say every time we drove past the hibiscus hedge that grew next to the tennis courts in Barberton – especially when the bright red flowers were in bloom. You see, along with about 6% of the male population, he was inflicted with deuteranopia (red-green colour blindness), and so was unable to really appreciate the bright colours of these flowers. He could see the size of them though, thus he would call out “Hi Biscus!” to them, much to our amusement.
It was the poet John Donne who first told us that no man is an island, implying that we cannot live entirely without contact with other people i.e. we do not thrive in isolation. Simon & Garfunkel sing the refrain, I am a rock / I am an island, claiming to be self-sufficient – for the time being anyway. To isolate ourselves is neither possible nor a good idea claims the philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994). According to him, we are social creatures to the inmost of our being.
True: so are many other animals in their own way, which is possibly why we enjoy scenes such as the ones below as they reflect the empathy we have for others and connect with our desire to be regarded as being ‘special’ to someone.
Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park
Zebra in Addo Elephant National Park
Yellow-billed Storks in Kruger National Park
Giraffe in Kruger National Park
Springbuck in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
We have become so accustomed to seeing herds of cows, bulls and calves all over town that we can recognise individuals by the patterns on their hides, the curve of their horns or simply by association with each other. Thus, there is The New Year Bull’s herd, the String Bull, the Golden Cow, Caramel Cow and so on. Efforts to have the livestock removed from the urban areas have proved to come to nought – the animals are back within a day or two.
It was with some concern then that I heard loud mooing coming from lower down the hill where we live the other day. It sounded frantic and came from more than one animal at a time. Had someone driven into them on the road? That is always the danger. Only the other night motorists had to come to a halt in the dark as there were black cows standing in the middle of one of the main streets in the suburbs. I peered out of my gate.
The small herd that I could see were on the trot and mooing as they did so. See their tails raised and their quick gait. Then I saw two men shouting at them from behind and waving long sticks. They were really too far away to be very effective – until a municipal tractor arrived to drive alongside the animals, the driver too adding to the cacophony.
The animals had been interfering with traffic near the bottom of the hill – a busy part of town now that the schools and university are operating again after the summer holiday. I can just imagine the order, “Get them out of here, anywhere, just get them away from here!” The hapless men were not going to extend themselves. Why should they? By afternoon that same herd was back grazing on the lawn below our house!
It must be a combination of today’s 37°C heat and the recent view of the coastline during my return flight from Cape Town that has got me thinking about youthful holidays spent on the beach at Southbroom, along the KwaZulu-Natal coast. I retain the landlubber’s delight at watching waves crashing over rocks – a particularly wonderful spectacle at Tsitsikamma.
The feel of beach sand underfoot and between my toes draws me back unerringly to days of making sandcastles and digging deep moats around them.
The senses of smell and taste embed certain memories that can be drawn to the fore at the merest whiff of a familiar fragrance or the tiniest morsel of a flavour from long ago. These memories return in a flash: the lime green ice-creams in a cone we could buy for a tickey – sixpence if you wanted a double scoop – and the bright green crème soda my Granny would mix up in a large bottle for us to drink on the beach. The strongest memory of all though relates to the tin of freshly baked biscuits in the bottom of the wicker picnic basket she always put ready for us.
After an energetic morning of having been dunked by waves; building sandcastles; or running up and down sand dunes, we would approach that biscuit tin with wet, sandy fingers and a gnawing hunger.
I can clearly recall the delicious aroma as one of us lifted the lid; the light crunchiness of the plain biscuits; and the delight that there was always more than we needed – my Granny knew all about keeping little active bodies happy on the beach!
Many years ago, more than I care to count, one of the young girls I taught gave me a dream catcher that she had made for me. It was a parting gift to protect me from bad dreams – and it would surprise her if she knew I still had it!
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when we woke to a thick mist – in typical fashion, this meant a scorching day ahead – that left tiny droplets of water on leaves for that short while before everything was sucked up by the sun. I saw this mist catcher … capturing the fine moisture in the mist just as dream catchers capture the ethereal dreams.
I did not really want to disturb my neighbours. Each night I would close the curtains without even glancing in their direction.
My inquisitiveness was compelling and difficult to resist. After all, I had watched them move in and seen their soft furnishings.
It was those eyes: sometimes staring up at me; sometimes with feigned indifference as I peered through the smeared glass to see if someone was at home.
There usually was.
I took to sitting in the garden, surreptitiously monitoring their movements.
I even watched them raising a family.
Then one day the Cape Robins abandoned their nest.
[Last summer a pair of Cape Robins nested in a lavender bush outside our french doors and I was able to observe them through the glass].