TREE SCARS

If this tree could talk, what tales would it tell?

tree scars

What caused those large scars in the bark? Were they small and grew with the tree? Was it a willful attack on the tree and, if so, why? Did it hurt? What is the origin of that rusty nail or screw on the edge of the lefthand scar? Why is it there? There are other cuts and blemishes too. What makes people treat trees like this?

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EARLY EXPERIENCES WITH NATURE

Perhaps if I had grown up in a city I might have been different. I remain, however, a bundu (a largely uninhabited region some distance from towns) girl whose early playground was the veld in what was then known as the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) Lowveld. We walked everywhere as children, exploring the narrow paths twisting their way through tall grass and climbed trees with gay abandon.

The different colours, patterns and texture of the bark of trees have always fascinated me, as have the wide variety of seedpods which the bounty of Lowveld trees presented. Stones too, of all shapes, colours and sizes were at one time deemed worthy of collection. I still cannot resist bringing the odd one home now and then. Ants, beetles and songololos (millipedes) became magnificent creatures when scrutinised under a magnifying glass – one of the best gifts a young child can receive.

bark

Snakes used to paralyse me with fear until I reached high school when a boy (that he was closely surrounded by grinning friends should have been taken as a warning sign) gave me a snake to hold. It was only a second later that I realised this was no rubber snake. I held onto it, stroked it with my finger, and assured him it was beautiful before handing it back to the disappointed bevy of boys. He did me a favour though, for I no longer fear snakes and can now fully appreciate their beauty and diversity.

puffadder

Puffadder

We encountered many snakes during my childhood. Ones that remain etched on my memory include a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) coiled on the farmhouse steps; a large African Rock Python (Python sebae) stretched across the narrow farm road; and a Boomslang – tree snake – (Dispholidus typus) threading its way through the roses that clambered over the veranda. My eldest brother was bitten by a Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis). I remember our fascination with the puncture marks from the fangs, There were many more.

The natural world was our playground in which we made mud pies, dug in the coarse river sand, and drew pictures in the dust. We tried to catch tiny frogs, discovered fresh water crabs, chased lizards, looked for birds’ eggs, and kept a close watch out for chameleons. Birds were plentiful and somewhat taken for granted.

We watched clouds gather, boil, and dissipate. Sometimes we would shiver in anticipation of the next lightning strike as our home shook in response to the rolling thunder overhead. Occasionally we would see a tall Eucalyptus tree being struck by lightning with a loud crack and watch the tree burst into flames. It was always fun to describe the shapes we saw in the constantly shifting and melting clouds on a hot day or match them with the dark shadows caressing the Makhonjwa Mountains.

It was as a child that my interest in thorns developed; that I grew to love the smell of dry grass; that I was struck by the beauty and variety of aloes; and learned to appreciate the tinkling sound of water flowing over rocks.

acacia thorns

While my brothers fished in the farm dam, I would watch the Red Bishops building their nests in the bulrushes and try to keep count of the colourful dragonflies crossing the water. It is early experiences such as these that have entrenched a life-long interest in the natural world around me. Give me a holiday in a game reserve over a city anytime!

WHEN WILD FIGS ARE LEFT TO THEMSELVES

With a wild fig tree in our garden, we know that we have to constantly be on the lookout for seedlings that spring up closer to the house – especially those that find a niche in cracks in the steps or anywhere else on the building itself. Leave them for ‘another day’ and we might be in trouble of the very expensive kind!

A second fig has been growing virtually unnoticed in the ‘wild’ part of the garden – for how long I am not sure, although I do remember thinking a year or two back that we should get rid of it, given how enormous the parent tree is – until it now towers above the terrace and its trunk is thickening out. The time has definitely come to do something about it. I will show you why.

These pictures are of a small outbuilding on a farm – it was quite likely an outside toilet in its heyday – where a tiny seed must have lodged itself and grew and grew and GREW!

wildfig1

wildfig2

wildfig3

HOLDING UP A TREE

Despite his youth and attractive appearance, Roland Ball was considered to be a rather stuffy member of staff for he was overly concerned with his image as a successful accountant. Unlike many of his colleagues, he always appeared impeccably dressed in a well-tailored suit from which he allowed a hint of gold to show from his watch strap and carried an expensive looking leather briefcase – even his shoes looked hand-stitched. His tasteful collection of cuff links always drew comment from the receptionists, who laughed about being able to tell the time by his punctual arrival at work each morning. Peter Magic, the branch manager, who enjoyed wearing brightly coloured ties and casual jackets to work, often urged Roland to “loosen up”. He couldn’t.

Well, he couldn’t until Valentine’s Day. That was when he had planned to propose to Rita Irvine over a candlelit dinner in one of the most expensive restaurants in town. A dozen red roses had already been delivered to her office early that morning; she had purred her appreciation over the ‘phone. He glowed from within all day and looked around anxiously every now and then in case anyone had noticed the bubbling feeling that threatened to erupt into a chuckle.

His decision to marry had been arrived at after months of deliberation and careful planning, for he wanted to give Rita the best future he could afford. Having nurtured his relationship with her in what he considered the most proper manner, he had carefully calculated that the timing was right at last. At the end of that day he left the office filled with high expectations and a sense of immense satisfaction that everything was going according to plan.

On the 15th February, Roland rose and dressed earlier than usual and automatically checked his already immaculate appearance in the large bathroom mirror above the basin. He automatically straightened the slight kink in the knot of his paisley tie and pulled a stray hair from the shoulder of his well-tailored suit. He scrutinised his face closely and tried out various smiles. Would anyone else be able to detect that his private hopes and dreams had been shattered? The expensive spurned diamond ring caught the morning light on the bathroom windowsill where he had carefully placed it before going to bed. He looked at the mocking sparkling gems for a moment, reviewing their cost, the carefully selected cut and the dreams the ring represented, then impulsively picked it up and flung it outside. To his surprise, Roland felt a little better.

After a routine breakfast he found difficult to swallow, he set off on the usually busy highway along the all too familiar route to work. The words “Oh Roland darling, you’re much too stuffy to live with” drummed and echoed in his ears with each passing car. Rita had laughed huskily and made gentle fun of him by turning his carefully nurtured plans into a joke. How could she? Overwhelmed with the nauseating feeling of humiliation that he wondered if he would ever recover from, Roland turned the familiar corner leading through a familiar remnant patch of pine plantation. Looking up briefly, he noticed an early morning jogger leaning against a tall pine tree as if he were holding it up.

A long suppressed bubble rose from within Roland’s conservative body. Without thinking, he pulled to the side of the road and, leaving his door open and the hazard indicators flashing, dashed through the barbed wire fence and crashed through the bushes oblivious to the tear in the sleeve of his jacket or the yellow mud which covered his highly polished shoes.

“Let me help you!” Roland seldom raised his voice and now panted as he sprinted towards the bemused jogger. Without another word he pressed his arms against the tree and grunted with exertion.

“What on earth are you doing?” The jogger, a man in his fifties, his T-shirt wet with perspiration, asked in a bemused fashion in between his own panting.

“I’m helping you hold up the tree,” Roland replied nonchalantly. He was feeling much better.

“Are you mad?” The jogger eyed his companion with caution. “I’m only stretching you know.” He stood back, his arms hanging limply at his sides to show Roland what he meant.

“Hold on!” Roland shouted, his tie askew and the cufflinks gleaming in the early morning light. To the jogger’s surprise his companion winked and pushed harder, panting with the effort. He nodded and resumed his position with some amusement.

A crashing of branches alerted them to the arrival of two young men panting up the slope. “What’s the matter?” They queried loudly as they stumbled over the rough ground in their smart looking office attire.

“This tree is about to fall!” Roland and the jogger shouted in unison. Roland felt an inexplicable, shuddering surge of joy pass through his body.

“The tree’s about to fall!” The young men echoed loudly towards a knot of curious onlookers gathered at the edge of the road. More cars screeched to a halt and more feet trampled through the brushwood. Roland glanced at his watch: 8.30 a.m. The receptionists would be wondering where he was and Felicity would have made his customary mug of coffee. His eyes met those of the jogger and his face creased into the first genuine smile he’d had in years.

“Keep it up,” he whispered, his carefully cultivated facade slipping away to be replaced by an irrepressible feeling of joyous freedom.

The jogger shrugged his shoulders and pushed harder, feeling the weight of people helping him from behind. “I can’t hold on for much longer,” he grunted a few minutes later and gratefully moved back to allow younger arms to take his place. Roland carefully did the same.

The two men stood on a rock overlooking the highway, now clogged with cars and excited bystanders. Roland touched the jogger’s shoulder. “Thank you for playing along,” he said quietly, removing his jacket and loosening his cufflinks as he spoke. “People need to be jostled out of their routine now and then and you were a perfect target. Let me run you home.” They melted through the excited crowd and drove away unnoticed.

“Where have you been?” Peter Magic demanded when Roland entered the office at ten o’clock. The staff were agog: casual shoes, slacks, jacket – and no tie! Roland pretended indifference to their stares as he picked up the morning mail then he looked at them with a broad grin on his face.

“I’ve been holding up a tree.”

DECEMBER GARDEN ROUND-UP

It was shortly before seven this morning when my coffee and bird-watching stint was disturbed by a loud crack followed by a heavy thud: two branches of the Tipuana tree in our neighbours’ garden had split from the main trunk and fallen across their hedge facing the street. No harm done, although it will be an arduous task getting those heavy branches down.
The very old Tipuana tree in the other neighbour’s garden sheds small branches and twigs after every wind. This goes to show that indigenous trees are better for our gardens – even if they do tend to grow more slowly.
I set out to investigate the rest of our garden:
Self-sown gooseberries, bursting with flavour, are ripening wherever plants have taken root. I will need to send M and C round with a small basket soon to see what they can harvest.

gooseberries
Scenecio pterophurus brightens up a corner of the vegetable garden. [John Manning’s Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa has proved to be very useful in identifying some of nature’s bounty that pops up in the garden]. Apart from looking cheerful and pretty, they attract myriad butterflies during the course of their long flowering period.

scenecio
The scarlet Aloe ciliaris has been showing off its blooms for some time now.

aloeciliaris
The yellow Aloe tenuiour grows just around the corner.

aloetenuiour
Blue Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) is rampant in the garden and needs to be cut back regularly. The first blooms are out and we are looking forward to a beautiful show of them as the month progresses.

plumbago
While the Van Stadens River Daisies (Dimorphotheca ecklonis) are not looking their best at the moment – the centre of this one is being chomped by a caterpillar – these particular plants are very special to me. They are the descendants of the ones my late mother grew on the farm and so remind me of her and of my youth whenever they flower.

vanstadensdaisy
Other flowers that remind me of my mother are the Pompon trees (Dais cotinifolia) as they were always in full bloom when she came for her annual visit over the Christmas period. I have been watching the buds appear as pinpricks and gradually fatten out. This morning I noticed that some are beginning to burst open, so it won’t be very long now before the trees are completely covered with pink blossoms.

burstingpompon
The Cape Chestnut trees also look beautiful when they are in full bloom. Our tree is a late developer, it seems, for the ones in town have been covered with blossoms for several weeks already. Nonetheless, it is just beginning to show what will be on offer.

peepingchestnut
I love the shape of the chestnut tree and couldn’t resist photographing the early morning sunlight shining through its leaves.

chestnutsunlight
A quick walk through the forested area of the garden rewarded me with the different scents of leaves as I brushed past them, the musty smell of the leaf litter underfoot, and glimpses of Cape Robins and Paradise Flycatchers flitting between the trees.

forest
I emerged from the forest to find a Pin-tailed Whydah seeking fine seeds on the lawn.

ptwhydahclose
Many would have been dropped by the Village Weavers tucking into the seed from the feeder suspended from the acacia tree.

villageweaversfeeding
Two Rock (Speckled) Pigeons kept watch from the roof.

roofguards
A young Olive Thrush seemed surprised to see me so close.

youngolivethrush
Bryan the tortoise was caught snoozing.

Bryansnoozing
And both the Lesser-striped Swallows are making good progress with their new nest.

progress
All is well.

OCTOBER 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

OCTOBER 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

Laughing doves (Streptopelia senegalensis) are probably the most common birds in the garden, so it is about time that they made their way first onto my list this month. I often think of them as being the bravest of doves.

This is because they are the first to cautiously approach the feeding area once the seed has been put out. They start by gathering in the tall jacaranda tree on the pavement and then gradually work their way, in ones and twos, through the trees towards the food source.

At last, one will flutter down to peck at the seeds scattered on the lawn … then there are two … then more arrive in a flurry of ‘petticoats’ until there is a moving blanket of them. Only then are they joined by the much larger Redeyed doves, Rock pigeons and, occasionally, Cape turtle doves. Their heads bob rhythmically as they peck at the seeds and move on.

Cape Turtle Dove

Laughing doves seem to spend a lot of time courting each other. On sunny days they also enjoy finding an open, dusty spot for dust baths before nestling as flat as possible with their wings spread out.

A pair of House sparrows have been making their appearance this month, along with a rather tatty looking Red bishop, not yet showing his full sartorial splendour.

The Redchested cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou) has returned; more easily heard (often from 3 a.m. onwards!) than seen. Burchell’s coucals fall into the same category. Having heard them for several days, it was good to actually see a pair of African green pigeons flit about the fig tree. The latter has been shedding leaves for some time and is now beginning to put out beautifully shiny ones.

It is with the return of the Diederik cuckoo that I feel our spring is complete.

My October list is:

African Green Pigeon
Black Crow
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Common Waxbill
Darter
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
House sparrow
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redchested Cuckoo
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon
Southern Black Tit
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow Weaver

NOT A DROP TO DRINK

NOT A DROP TO DRINK

Day Six of us having no water in our town. That, combined with the first cheerfully sunny day for a while, encouraged us to take a drive out to some sites of historical interest in the area.

The first stop along the road towards Fort Beaufort was the Governor’s Kop signal tower (see 21 March 2014). Given our lack of water at home, it was pleasing to see evidence of ground water in several small farm dams en route, spray irrigation and even a working windmill or two.

windmill

The wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) are coming into bloom, as are the coral trees – both Erythrina caffra and Erythrina lysistemon, providing bright splashes of colour in the veld that is slowly shaking off its winter mantle.

We turned off the tar onto a dirt road leading into the Coombs Valley in search of the well-known Clay Pits, where Xhosas traditionally used to collect yellow and red ochre with which to decorate themselves. The directions we had been given proved to be inaccurate. While I was photographing an old sneeze wood fence post, a passing farmer stopped to offer assistance. The Clay Pits happened to be on his farm another 4km away! How serendipitous that was.

fence post

They were not far from the farm house and so we walked through the veld to see them. I am not sure what I had expected, but it was not a heap of yellow and reddish stones next to a deep hollow, now overgrown with trees and shrubs as no-one seeks ochre here anymore.

claypits

Next, we drove through the beautiful Coombs Valley along a rough dirt road cutting through game farms before turning into the equally beautiful Trappes Valley leading towards Bathurst. Apart from the ubiquitous Vervet Monkeys, we saw herds of Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck and Impala.

Large swathes of indigenous bush hug the hillsides with flocks of Cape Glossy Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Crowned Hornbills flitting in between.

crowned hornbill

The dense cover of vegetation rouses admiration for the 1820 Settlers and others who were dumped in this (what to them must have been) inhospitable terrain with no amenities and expected to make a living for themselves.

It is disturbing, however, to note the infiltration of exotics such as wattle, eucalyptus, conifers and even palm trees – some possibly planted by those early inhabitants – along the road and water courses.

The Kowie museum in Port Alfred is housed in a beautiful dressed stone building that once was the station for the railway between Port Alfred and Grahamstown. This was officially opened on 1st October 1884 and remained in private hands until the government took it over in 1913.

Kowie Museum

All that remains of the original fort in Port Alfred is a low stone wall, now incorporated as the boundary wall of a private home in Hards Street.

stone wall

We stopped at the historical Pig and Whistle Inn in Bathurst for a late lunch. This is said to be the oldest pub in South Africa, having been in operation since 1832.

pig and whistle inn

There is a leisurely aspect to life in the countryside. The warm hospitality we’d received from the farmers in the morning had given us a taste of it. Instead of ‘popping into’ the historic St. John’s Anglican Church in Bathurst, known for sheltering women and children during the Sixth and Seventh Frontier Wars, we met the assistant verger who gave us a detailed tour of the church along with background stories of local interest and who pointed out the grave of the man who originally built the Pig and Whistle.

bell at St Johns Church

Leaving much later than intended, we wound our way further up the road to Battery Hill, where only the Powder Magazine remains of the original fort. This commands a superb view across the valley to the ocean at Port Alfred on the one side and across the Coombs Valley to Governor’s Kop on the other.

powder magazine

On our way back, we stopped briefly at the Bathurst Methodist Church, which also sheltered women and children during the Seventh Frontier War.

Our last stop was the Toposcope, sadly so vandalised now that few of the direction plaques are of any use. By now we were being blown about by the blast of the cold front that had been edging closer for most of the day. The strong wind brought with it curtains of haze and mizzle that blotted out the landscape in its wake and flattened the grass around the Toposcope. The sky clouded over completely and the temperature dropped to 8°C.

Bathurst toposcope

It was clearly time to drive through the rain and to head for home – where not a drop of water came out of the taps!