TAPHOPHILIA

I was introduced to cemeteries as interesting places to visit while I was still in primary school. My father had taken it upon himself to clear the bush encroaching on a chapel and cemetery situated not far from Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he was the Mine Captain. It was from seeing the graves of babies and children younger than I was that I learned about the scourge of malaria, while other graves informed me of the horror of a local train disaster.

It was in this half-forgotten cemetery that I became fascinated by the different epitaphs and shapes of gravestones; where I discovered my interest in the choice of symbols and biblical verses; where I learned something of the life expectancy in the late nineteenth century; and found interesting references to where people had come from – these were all things my father was happy to talk about.

Over the years I have discovered that there is much of historical significance to learn from visiting cemeteries, be it social, military, or related to families and religions. Should you spend any time there, you soon realise that cemeteries are, in a manner of speaking, outdoor museums that require you to look carefully – and possibly do later research – in order to interpret what you are seeing. My father was a keen amateur historian, who was particularly interested in the turbulent military history of his adopted country. As a result, many of our journeys were broken so that we could visit significant graves and monuments along the way.

I did not know then that during the years to come I would continue in this vein, as well as visiting various battle sites, with my husband. I also didn’t know that there is a word, tapophilia, to describe this interest in what old cemeteries have to offer. The word comes from the Greek taph (tomb) and philia (fondness or admiration). Sadly, many cemeteries in our platteland towns have been more or less abandoned either because of indifference by the local municipalities or simply because the towns are no longer thriving. Some, like the old cemetery in our town, are no longer safe to visit on one’s own although the aptly named New Cemetery is a different matter.

Of particular interest to me are the many symbols evident in older cemeteries especially. Angels are commonly regarded as the messengers of God who act as a guide to help the soul of the departed towards Heaven. Winged cherubs watch over the graves of babies and children to convey their innocence. The unbroken circle of a wreath represents everlasting life.

While the Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

A broken column indicates a life cut short; a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Obelisks, on the other hand, apparently became popular after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801.This one also depicts the commonly used Masonic symbol of the compass and square, which represent faith and reason.

Having found the word, tapophilia, and given my interest in cemeteries, the depiction of symbols and the history reflected by gravestones, I realise I must be a taphophile.

BELL GAUGE

I was paging through a tattered volume of a very old, undated, household encyclopaedia [part of my ‘sorting’ you understand] when this sketch caught my eye:

The shape looked familiar and sent me scratching through the boxes of needlework items I set aside some time ago to donate to someone who will make better use of them. There it was: a bell gauge. How many of you have such an item tucked away? I must have inherited it from my grandmother via my mother. I wonder how old it is.

This bell gauge is nickel-plated and is used for measuring knitting needles and crochet hooks. As I rely on the numbers clearly marked on knitting needles and have never learned to crochet, it has remained an unused curiosity.

According to the encyclopaedia, the crochet hooks should pass through easily and never be forced. For sizes 1 to 5 use the holes, but for sizes 6 to 24 inclusive use the slits leading into the holes, the holes in these particular sizes being intended to release the pins when gauged.

There you have it. Someone in my family must have found it a useful tool. Thinking back to my mother knitting socks, she might have used it for those grey steel needles had points at both ends so would have needed their sizes checked before use.

Knitting socks? Not me!

I VALUE MY GARDEN

I am in awe of beautiful gardens with carefully landscaped paths leading through various ‘rooms’, some of which may have a water feature or a focus on flowers in a particular palette of colours. In these water-wise days there are also gardens featuring aloes, cacti and a wide variety of succulents. I read about gardeners bringing in truckloads of soil, or even hiring earth-moving equipment to reshape the landscape; of bringing in – or removing – large rocks; and of installing elaborate irrigation systems. I see diagrams of gardening plans to be followed throughout the year. Gardens like these featured in magazines always look beautiful.  In my garden a mixture of indigenous flower seeds – such as these African daisies and cosmos – scattered in a bed bring me joy.

While most visitors enthuse over my ‘wild’ garden, others openly declare it to be ‘messy’ and ‘overgrown’. Some express an itch to cut down the trees – many of which we planted decades ago – and to prune the hedges. This is understandable for my garden tends to be ‘wildly creative’ rather than ordered into shape. For example, I let the canary creeper grow and flower where it pleases before trimming it back so that the weight of it won’t break other plants.

There are many practical reasons for this: the garden is too large for me to manage in an orderly fashion on my own; we are – and have several times before – experiencing a prolonged drought and so there is no water with which to maintain lush flower beds and a prolifically productive vegetable garden; and, until I retired a few years ago, I was seldom home for long enough to mow the lawn, never mind prune, weed, dig and plant. This is a section of what I call the ‘secret garden’, where nature takes it course.

I have always valued my garden for what it is: a place for solitude and relaxation if I need it, and a haven for birds – such as the Village Weaver below – as well as insects and any other creatures that require a home within our suburb. Over the years I have recorded 107 different species of birds seen either in or from our garden; have come across several snakes, a variety of butterflies, spiders and moths; observed bats, beetles, praying mantids, lizards and geckos; there have been swarms of bees, several frogs and toads, mole rats, a mongoose and even a couple of tortoises. We once even found a terrapin in our swimming pool – and still don’t know how it got there.

It is easy to tell why I value my garden for its tranquillity and its diversity. Never has this been truer than since the arrival of COVID-19 and the hard lock-down that came in its wake. For over three decades I have watched the garden evolve from a gravel and cactus ‘desert’ to a forest of trees and shrubs; from a hot and shade less place to a haven of shade and dappled sunlight’; from a habitat birds would rather fly over to one where many have chosen to nest and to seek food for their offspring.

Thanks to all of these visitors, I value my garden for the bird song that begins before sunrise to the haunting sounds of the Fiery-necked Nightjars late at night. I have enjoyed seeing an Olive Thrush pulling up a long earthworm from a crack in the old kitchen steps; watching a Fork-tailed Drongo swooping down to catch a caterpillar unearthed while I am weeding; observing a flock of Cape White-eyes splashing about in the bird bath; and have thrilled to the light touch of a Common Fiscal as it perches on my hand or foot to receive a tiny offering of food.

I garden for peace. I garden for the therapeutic quality of my hands connecting with the soil. I garden for the excitement of watching bright yellow flowers taking on the form of a butternut or a gem squash; for the joy of transplanting seedlings that have sprouted in the compost; and for the pleasure of finding self-seeded flowers or herbs growing in a place of their own choosing.

My sentiments about gardening echo those of the essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who has been quoted as saying I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.

HITCH-HIKING

There was a time when hitch-hiking was a common way for many people to get around this country. Some South African readers may even remember the designated areas set aside to pick up uniformed soldiers on their way home for a weekend pass. There used to be an atmosphere of generosity all over the rural areas especially: people of any age, hue or gender were given a lift as far as the motorist was able and then dropped off at the side of the road to try their luck getting a lift for the next leg of their journey.

My father regularly halted to give people a ride. There would be a smiled thank you, a cheerful wave and an occasional blessing as we drove away. My brothers hitch-hiked. I was forbidden to. Even then, my father deemed it unsafe for a young girl to thumb a lift on her own.

I did once though, in the company of two dear friends who had guided me from the summit of the Drakensberg, overnighted with me in a forester’s house, and who stood beside me on the national road as we sought a lift to Pietermaritzburg. I had fallen ill during a traverse along the top of the mountains and remember little other than the blast of air as vehicle after vehicle passed us without a second glance.

To be fair, they may already have made their decision in advance: two young men and a young woman, each with a rucksack, probably did not present an easy option. We were eventually given a lift in the back of an enormous truck. How grateful I felt at the time.

Times have changed. When did they change? How did they change? Why has the situation of hitch-hiking changed? At first there were a few news items of drivers being attacked by their hitch-hiking passengers. These might have been dismissed as unfortunate incidents for such news was mostly tucked inside the main pages. Drivers became increasingly wary about giving lifts to people of any age, hue or gender once such reports crept onto the front pages: attacks, death-threats, murder, and car hijackings – all ostensibly committed by hitch-hiking passengers.

The real losers are the hundreds of innocent people who, without a means of transport of their own – or money for buses – stand patiently at the road sides all over the country and wait in hope. How long and unpredictable their journeys must be!

Another aspect of hitch-hiking has changed. In my youth there was never a question of charging anyone for a lift. As a willing driver you would check where the hitch-hiker was heading for, explain how far along the road you were travelling, and the hitch-hiker would come on board if the arrangement suited. Now you see people standing at the side of the road waving a R10, R20, R50 or even a R100 note as a sign of their willingness to pay towards a segment of their journey. Even the simple act of giving someone a lift because you happen to be travelling in the same direction has been altered – dare I say, by greed.

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Of course you have a residential address for that is how you direct friends and family to where you live – and increasingly the courier too. Do you live in a street, a crescent, an avenue, or a lane, for example? Each of these names signify different elements to the town planners. In our town, Cradock Road is one of the main entrances / exits connecting our town to Cradock which is about 200km away.

Roads join places together and can be dirt, gravel or tar. According to the National Treasury, the South African road network comprises roughly 754 600 km of roads and streets. This dirt road wends its way through a farming area.

Streets are commonly used names in suburban areas and generally have buildings on either side. Avenues usually run perpendicularly to streets and are bordered by either trees or buildings. Here is an avenue of Eucalyptus trees leading out of town in a different direction.

In my neighbourhood there is an avenue which is actually half of a circular street. I suspect that it was designated an avenue to make it seem grand at the time this particular suburb was developed.

The other half of the circular street is known as a crescent. As one might expect, a lane is a narrow road. The dirt road that runs along the top of the Rietberge on the edge of town is known as Mountain Drive because it is shaped by the topography of the mountain.

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the name of the road, street, crescent, avenue, or lane where you live?