TIMBER

We all recognised the old man with shaggy silver hair who walked his dog around the block every day. Over the past five years I had become accustomed to seeing them plodding along ever more slowly, usually setting out as I was returning from my early morning run. Whatever the weather, the old man was always dressed the same: stout shoes, baggy long trousers, an open-necked collared shirt and a shapeless tweedy-looking jacket with leather elbow patches. He never wore a hat.

At first we were on nodding terms. Later I used to wave as I ran past and he would lift his fleshy left hand to wave in return. I could see the gold band on his ring finger glinting in the morning sun. We gradually discovered his name was Professor Barnes, that he had long retired from the English Department at the university, that he was a widower, and that he seldom received visitors.

Knowing this, I began stopping to chat to him. We mostly wondered when it would rain, deplored the fact that the street lights weren’t working, or enthused over the beauty of the jacaranda blossoms if it was that time of the year.

My sons were fascinated to learn that his dog was called Timber. “Good morning Timber!” They would shout their greeting whenever they saw the Golden Labrador shuffling past the front gate. “Good morning Professor Barnes!”

“Morning lads,” he would respond. “Timber is a bit slow this morning.” He would lift the lead with a gesture to show how loose it was.

“He must be so lonely.” Emma is a tender-hearted soul who stopped him in the street one morning to invite him to join us for tea on a Sunday afternoon. Timber came too, settling down as soon as they arrived, promptly at four o’clock.

It wasn’t long before Emma began taking him home-baked biscuits. Jonathon sometimes slipped tins of dogfood into our grocery trolley. “Timber is old and he can’t chew bones anymore,” he would explain. The first time it took both him and Simon to muster up the courage to open the gate and walk along the cement path to deliver their offerings to Professor Barnes. He would ruffle their hair and sometimes gave them a chocolate bar from the drawer of a small table in his hallway.

“Timber was really my wife’s dog,” he told us over dinner one evening. “She and our son … well … Susan and Allan were killed in a head-on collision. Timber was a youngster then.” He dabbed at his eyes with a large handkerchief and lifted his wine glass with a hand so shaky that we all wondered if the wine would make it to his lips.

“I was meant to fetch Allan from the airport that day, but there was a seminar I needed to attend.” His voice choked and he bent down to stroke Timber lying, as always, at his feet. “Allan had just completed his doctorate at Oxford. We were so, so proud of him.”

How can you break the silence following such a revelation? I could see tears glistening in Emma’s eyes. We had all stopped eating, not knowing where to look or what to say. It was Jonathon who rose from his seat to stroke the old dog. “Poor Timber,” he said softly. “What a good dog you are. It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, indeed it has.” Professor Barnes picked up his cutlery. “It has been a long time. Timber and I look after each other, don’t we?” He patted the top of Timber’s head between his ears. “You are a very good dog, old boy.”

Three months ago I began noticing that Professor Barnes and Timber were often missing when I returned from my morning run. They had always been as regular as clockwork, so I even ran around the block to see if I could find them before turning into our gate. On those days I could see no sign of them.

“Is everything alright?” I thundered to a halt when I saw Professor Barnes and Timber barely moving along the road last week.

“We’re getting old, but we’re getting along,” he told me cheerfully. The lead dragged on the ground between them even though Professor Barnes held the free end wrapped around his right hand.

Our doorbell rang on Monday afternoon, shortly after I had returned from work. I was taken aback to see Professor Barnes standing on the front step for he had never come to our house uninvited. We had also never seen him without Timber at his side.

“David,” his lips trembled. “Are your sons strong enough to dig a hole? A big hole?”

I swallowed hard. “For Timber? Is Timber okay?”

He nodded, tears welling in his eyes. “Timber is getting old. I must be prepared.”

My sons and I dug a deep hole in Professor Barnes’ garden on Tuesday afternoon while he and Emma sat on a bench nearby and drank tea. They both stroked Timber lying at their feet. Simon looked up from his labours. “Is Timber going to die, Professor Barnes?”

“Only when it is time, my boy. Only when it is time.”

“Do you want us to bury him when he does?”

“If you will. Yes, if you will.” The old man blew his nose on his large handkerchief. “That will please me.”

The telephone rang on Wednesday afternoon. Emma answered it cheerfully and then burst into tears. “Timber has gone,” she whispered. She made tea and sat on the bench with Professor Barnes while the boys and I wrapped Timber in a blanket and laid him gently in the hole. Simon collected the framed photograph of Susan and Allan from the old man’s trembling hands and tucked it under the blanket. I could see Emma linking hands with Professor Barnes as Jonathon placed a plastic sheet over the blanket and we filled in the hole.

Professor Barnes declined our offer of a meal. “I need to spend time with my thoughts,“ he explained, patting Emma’s hand. We watched as the boys collected small stones to make a pattern on the earth mound. Emma picked some flowers. We all hugged the old man before walking home.

An ambulance took Professor Barnes away on Friday morning. There was no need for a siren.

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.

FIBRE IS COMING TO TOWN

We might have potholes you can almost swim in; we might have dry taps now and then; we are often sans electricity; we have cattle and donkeys roaming through the town … streets are breaking up; sewage bubbles to the surface in places; and clean water pours down the streets at times. This beautiful town is creaking at the seams and yet … fibre is coming to town.

Trench diggers have been working for months, from one side of town to the other, readying the ground for the laying of fibre. They reached our area last week – the netting along our pavement is hiding the open trenches, which were covered over only a day later.

Some people have complained about the constant digging, the sound of machinery, and (quite rightly) the litter that gets left behind as the workmen make their way through the suburb. The time will come though when this will all be forgotten and they, in their turn, will connect to fibre so that their internet speed and capacity can improve. The picture below shows the section next to our drive that has been cordoned off before a moling machine was used to tunnel under it to feed the fibre through without damaging the driveway.

Yes, our town is fraying like a piece of old cloth. Despite all its problems, it is still a beautiful place to live. Now, the town is seamed with a fibre network filled with potential. Time will tell

MORE GRASS FUNNEL-WEB SPIDER WEBS

This grass funnel-web spider web is beautifully offset by the heavy dew.

These webs, highlighted by the early morning light, festooned the vegetation along the edge of the road. I have not seen so many in the same place before. Here are only two of them.

I usually only see these webs on very short grass, so was fascinated to get this ‘under the canopy’ view of one suspended between higher plants. Unfortunately the hole is obscured.

EARTH DAY 2021

The veld has been tinder dry for weeks as the relentless drought continues. A grass fire, fanned by hot wind, raced through the mountains around our town at the weekend, engulfing us in a blanket of smoke and ash. Today the Mountain Drive area looks bleak and black. Yet, Earth Day is one that encourages us to look at our environment more closely; to get to know it better; to consider what we can do to protect and nurture it better; as well as being thankful for what we have.

How extremely thankful I am for the 4mm of soft rain that we were blessed with during the night!

This has encouraged the canary creeper buds to open – these are the first of what should become a waterfall of bright blooms.

The Crassula ovata is also covered with buds waiting to open.

Meanwhile, the Cape honeysuckle flowers are already providing swathes of bright colour and a useful source of nectar.

The Virginia creeper is showing off its autumn colours.

In keeping with these autumnal colours, it is fortuitous that an Olive Thrush was the first bird to greet me this morning.

Happy Earth Day!