“Why are you writing a book about thorns?” I hear almost no-one ask. Well, since you have brought it up I will try to explain. With pictures.
They say that a first book is almost always semi-autobiographical. In order to be selected for the journey he must undertake, my protagonist must be both extremely clever and extremely athletic. So that door is closed to me. I’m going to have to fall back on that old schoolteacher standard: “write about what you know about.” I know about thorns.
It’s not something that we tend to think about, but part of the character of every South African boy, rich or poor, black or white, is formed by his relationship with thorns. Or at least that’s the theory I’m sticking to until I finish the damn book. Freud would be so proud.
Let’s start at the top. Picture Africa. Not the real one, the one from the magazine covers. This is what you will see:
Beautiful, isn’t it! Just don’t go too close because this is what it really looks like.
It’s an Acacia. Just one of hundreds of species found here. There are trees, bushes, shrubs and groundcovers all of which have one thing in common. Thorns. Long ones. Short ones. Straight ones. Hooked ones. Fat ones. Thin ones. Sometimes they are so prevalent that the type of countryside is named after them: thornveld. Places are named after them: Thorneybush, Doringkloof (thornridge), Haakdoringdraai (hookthorn bend). But they are not the ones that make us who we are.
Then there are the Aloes. Strange, otherworldly succulents that have evolved into as many shapes as there are species; trees, bushes, scramblers, climbers and more, from the size of a matchbox to the size of a tree. Here is a typical one.
Again, don’t go too close.
And again, they are not the thorns that make us who we are. There are countless thousands of bushes and trees and lianas growing here, with evocative names to get the imagination buzzing, names like Green Needle Thorn, Cat’s Claw, Knobthorn and Spikethorn. The Afrikaans names are even better, like the Wag’n Bietjie (“Wait a Bit”, since if you get caught up in this, getting out is a slow and careful process) and the Haak en Steek (a simple, and brutal, “Hook and Stab”). But none of these claims the prize of making us who we are, or at least revealing us for who we are. That honour goes to these:
It’s called a paperthorn. And it is everywhere. There is not a patch of grass, or even dirt, in the entire country that doesn’t potentially harbour a patch or two of them. They grow hidden on sports fields, in parking lots, between paving slabs, in leafy green public parks, and in all but the most carefully weeded gardens. And they are carefully designed to torture children. All the wonderful plants I have mentioned so far can easily be avoided. Most grow out in the countryside, and those grown in gardens can easily be identified and avoided. Not paperthorns. Because of these:
Each one of those fluffy looking balls is made up of about 20 paper thin spikes. When you stand on one, it breaks up and covers your whole foot with individual spikes that need to be pulled out one by one. And it gets even better. Because they are soft, you usually get two or three steps into a patch before you realise what has happened. And then you have to get out again. Sit long enough in any South African park and eventually you’ll notice that every now and then a barefoot child stops running and begins to tiptoe carefully forward before sitting down and clutching their feet. Or just stops in the middle of nowhere and starts shrieking.
That’s where the next challenge comes in. Your parents simply don’t care, or if they do, will take your brush with nature as a personal offence. If they were longer, sharper thorns, that needed to be dug out with a needle, you might get some sympathy. Instead, as you sit grimacing in agony and pulling thorns from your tender young flesh, whatever your loving parents have to say to you is likely to start with “Oh for Christ’s sake…”
And so, as a boy growing up here (I’m not being sexist, I simply didn’t spend much time growing up as a girl) you had to make some fundamental decisions about what sort of person you wanted to be. Were you going to be the sort of namby-pamby, milque toast mama’s boy who always wore shoes. If you found yourself mid-patch, were you going to be the nerd who called his mommy for help, or would you grit your teeth and tiptoe on, tears damming up behind your eyes as you fought for self-control. These were fundamentally important decisions, because there was always someone else watching. And judging. And telling everyone else at school.
The solution would eventually become clear. You had to become Rambo. If you gritted your teeth and took the pain, you ended up with feet like saddle leather. At a stage I had feet so thick I could walk across melting tar without noticing it until my feet got stuck. It all seems like stupid, macho posturing in retrospect, but at 10 years old, if you could run through fields of paper thorns without feeling a thing, you were a god. You had taken your first steps toward manhood, and you were ready for these:
I don’t even know what the English name is. We used to call them Duiweltjies (little devils). There are no feet thick enough to cope with them. Duiweltjies were all about pain control. Because of these:
We all learned to deal with them in the end, because cowboys don’t cry. At least 10 year old cowboys in groups don’t. I still occasionally find myself stuck in a patch of Duiweltjies, pushing manfully forward, jaw squared and teeth clenched, before remembering that I am 40 years old, and don’t have to impress anyone anymore. Then I shriek like an English schoolgirl.
At least I didn’t grow up in the west of the country. They have these:
The boys from there are the manliest boys in the world, and their feet are as hard as anvils.