Hansel and Gretel.

Right. I have now settled into my new old job, and have no excuses left for neglecting my blog. And yet I’m struggling to get back on the horse. There is an underlying reason for this; I’m bored.

It’s a peculiar form of boredom. I’m bored of the stories I haven’t written. There’s a lot going on here at the moment. There’s an election coming up, so everyone is a liar, a thief, a racist or delusional. To make things a little more interesting, we have recently found out that our esteemed President, a man who dodged over seven hundred corruption charges and a rape charge before reaching his current lofty position, has somehow ended up with a private home in the middle of nowhere that has cost us taxpayers a quarter of a billion Rand.

 

Did I say home? I meant homes.

Did I say home? I meant homes.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Then there’s the Oscar Pistorius trial, an object lesson on why we should stop making gods of men and shouldn’t let little boys play with live ammunition.

 

Behold! The world's most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

Behold! The world’s most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Just in case I thought this would all be over too soon, we have just welcomed a charming new potential resident to our fair land. A young man named Shrien Dewani has recently been extradited back to our sunny shores. If the state is to be believed, the good Mr Dewani is the inventor of a new sort of tourism. A year or two ago, he visited us on his honeymoon, and (allegedly) celebrated his new union by having his bride murdered in a staged hijacking.

 

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly...

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly…

I am going to have quite a lot to say about this. So is everyone else. Boring.

I have always subscribed to the belief that only boring people get bored. So I’m going to try something new. I’m going to tell you a story. When I started this blog, I hoped to use it as a tool to help me write a novel. Hah! I have not written a single word of fiction since month two.

So now it’s time to get back to my roots. I’m going to write some fiction. But not my own fiction. That seems just a little too much like hard work. I’m going to tell you a fairy story. It’ll help if you pretend to be five.

Hansel and Gretel.

Hello there, vaguely small people (don’t look so nervous; I’m also pretending that you’re five). My name is Uncle 23thorns, and I’m going to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

 

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop right there. We need to clear a few things up before we start. First of all, my name is not actually 23thorns. Amazing, right? That’s just a pseudonym. An alias. A nom de plume. It’s a name I made up so that I could hide my real identity, like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but without any superpowers.

I use it so that I won’t have to take responsibility for anything I write. Your parents should be able to explain it to you; just ask them why they used to book into hotels as “Mr and Mrs Smith” before you were born. Unless your surname is Smith. Then you’re on your own.

I’m not your uncle, either, by the way. But, like a real uncle, I’m happy to give you free and helpful advice. Like this: If anyone who is not the brother of one of your parents tells you to call him “uncle”, run as fast as you can to a brightly lit place and tell the unfriendliest looking adult you can find that you are being stalked by a weirdo.

 

If this is the unfriendliest looking adult you can find, keep running.

Come, children. Show me this weirdo who is bothering you…

Enough. I was getting ready to tell you a story. A fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel.

Yup. You read that right. Hansel and Gretel. The story your parents used to tell you. I know what you’re thinking; lame! (Do five year olds say “lame”?) You’ve moved on. Fairy stories are for babies. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Parents tell their babies and toddlers fairy stories because babies and toddlers are mentally deficient. Slow. Not too bright. They can’t read or write or operate heavy machinery. Once they get a bit older, though, they start to get a bit smarter. And then parents stop with the fairy tales.

They don’t stop telling them because they think you would be bored. They are, to put things simply, afraid that the fairy stories are just a bit too hard-core for you. They don’t want to freak you out.

 

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Luckily for you, I am not afraid. It’s not that I think you’re smart or tough enough to cope with the harsh truth of fairy tales. It’s just that I am writing under an alias, and don’t have to take responsibility for my actions. So where were we? Oh yes…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

Sorry. Time to stop again. I just need to clear something up before we go on. Hansel and Gretel did not live in a faraway land once upon a time. Hansel and Gretel lived in Germany, around 1315. I know that seems a little specific, but it matters. You’ll see. Anyway, back to the story…

In 1315, in Germany, lived a kindly woodcutter and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. And their stepmother. Their wicked stepmother. I don’t know why they even bother with the “wicked” part. Have you ever heard of any other kind in fairy tales? The story of Spackel and Brumhilde who lived in a forest with their vicious, bitter old father and their gentle, kind-hearted stepmother, and a magical llama called Rusty who laid golden eggs?

 

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Times have obviously changed a little. People get divorced. Fathers remarry. And so we all know a few stepmothers. I, personally, however, don’t know any wicked ones. Some stepmothers are trickier than others, sure, but wicked? It may sound like a corny and old-fashioned word these days, but if you take a closer look at some of those fairy stories, you’ll notice that being “wicked” was a pretty serious business back in the day. Like slavery serious. Child labour serious. Murder serious. Which leads me back to our cute little fairy story…

One night, Hansel and Gretel overheard their stepmother (who was wicked), telling their father (who was kindly) to take them out into the forest and leave them there because they were eating too much food.

Is it just me, or did things just turn pretty dark, pretty quickly. We’re only in the second paragraph (at least we would be if you didn’t keep interrupting), and our sweet little toddler story is suddenly about murder. Child murder.

Because that’s what this is. The forest in Germany wasn’t a few trees in a park with some well laid out trails through it and a concession stand at one end covered with posters of bears in hats asking you not to litter or set fire to their home. It was a dark, endless mass of trees that stretched to cover most of the country. There were bears. And wolves. And no food. Leaving kids in the forest meant leaving kids for dead.

 

Luckily their last moments will be filled with joy and wonder.

Luckily their last moments would be filled with joy and wonder.

Most kids. Not the intrepid Hansel. He gathered up a pocketful of white pebbles, and, as his kindly father led him off into the woods to die cold and alone and hungry (the word “kindly” has clearly gone through some pretty profound changes in meaning since 1315), he left a trail of pebbles behind him. That night, when the moon came out, the children followed the path of shining stones back home.

Smart, huh? Except for one tiny detail. Home just happened to be the place where the people trying to murder them lived. So maybe not so smart. But we have to be fair, I suppose. There was no such thing as family services in Germany in 1315. There wasn’t even such a thing as the police. So home it was. For a night.

The next day, their kindly father led them off to die again. Maybe “kindly” meant “persistent”. This time, Hansel didn’t have time to collect any pebbles, so he took a piece of bread with him and left a trail of crumbs.

Smart, huh? Or not. The crumbs were eaten up by birds. Which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. If this was my story, the trail would have been followed by a hungry bear, and we would have seen some action.

 

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

But no. No bears. Don’t worry, though. This is where things get a bit freaky. Hansel and Gretel do not collapse to the ground and starve, clinging together at the base of a sprawling tree, regretting up to their last breath the fact that they fed their only food to the birds. Nope. They poke around in the forest for a bit before finding a house made of gingerbread. Which they eat.

Right. So we’ve gone from dark to supremely odd. Half a second ago, it was just a sweet little story about a kindly woodcutter and a wicked stepmother trying to murder their kids, and now all of a sudden the kids are eating someone’s house. Someone’s edible house. Don’t do drugs, kids. Just saying.

And then, almost immediately, we go back to dark again. One brief, cheerful patch of house-eating after a bit of attempted child-murder, and we get back to the imminent demise of Hansel and Gretel. The owner of the house, you see, comes back. Is she the cheerful, rounded, rosy cheeked woman you would expect to find living in a house made of food? She is not.

She is a vicious old witch. Despite being blind, and old, she catches the kids. Maybe they have rickets, or seasonal affective disorder. She throws Hansel into a cage and puts Gretel to work cleaning the house. Aaaand… there’s your slavery. And a bit of child imprisonment. Which is really not so bad. In comparison to what is to come.

 

Read to your children. It builds character.

Read to your children. It feeds their imaginations.

The witch, you see, begins to feed Hansel. A lot. Which is nice of her, isn’t it? Unless, of course, she is fattening him up so that she can eat him.

She is fattening him up so she can eat him. So now we have a little cannibalism to go along with our child imprisonment, slavery, and murder. Just the sort of thing to lull a toddler off to sleep.

Anyhow, back to the story. Despite not being able to evade an old blind woman, Hansel still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Every day, the witch comes out to check if he has fattened up enough to eat yet. She does this by pinching his finger. But he is too smart for her. Instead of passing her his finger, he passes her a bone. Yup, in our sweet little toddler story, Hansel is apparently sharing his cage with the skeleton of its last occupant. Cute.

Our witch is obviously getting a little hungry. She decides to cook Hansel anyway. And his little sister. Maybe she wanted some dessert. She fires up her old oven and orders Gretel to climb inside. Gretel, it seems, is a bit of a dark horse. She has hardly featured so far, but now it is her time to shine. She tricks the witch into having a look inside the oven. Maybe she told her she’d dropped some money in there when she was cleaning it. And then she shoves her in. And shuts the door. And cooks her alive. Cute. Toddler stories.

 

In there? How much money?

In there? How much money, exactly?

And then things get a bit weird again. They steal the witch’s treasure (witches, giants, ogres, and dragons always have treasure. It’s the rules) and go back home again. To the people who tried to kill them. Twice.

Luckily, the wicked stepmother has conveniently died during their little holiday, and they live happily ever after with their kindly father. Or so the story goes. Things would be a little awkward, I imagine, when the kindly father tells the kids to clean up their rooms or tells them they can’t have a PlayStation, and they remind him of that time when he tried to kill them. Twice.

So there you have it. The stories you left behind as a toddler were a little rougher than you remember.

And the really scary part? Some of them are also a lot more real than you think. You might have noticed a bit of a food theme running through Hansel and Gretel. The kids are kicked out of home for eating too much food. Their trail home is eaten by birds. They eat a complete stranger’s house. The stranger tries to eat them. They cook the stranger. It all seems just a little bit obsessive. With good reason.

 

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

Remember Germany? 1315? It was a pretty bad year. There was too much rain. The crops failed, and there was a famine. It happened again the next year. And the next. There was hardly any food around at all until 1322. People starved. Lots of people. People who could no longer feed their families abandoned their children. In forests. And yes, some people resorted to cannibalism. Guards were posted in cemeteries to watch over the recently dead lest they end up as someone’s dinner, while other, more enterprising individuals took a more proactive approach and hunted down and killed their meals.

The Great Famine in largely forgotten now, partly because it happened so long ago but mostly because it was followed almost immediately by the Black Plague, which made it look like a tea party.

Largely forgotten, but not completely forgotten. The pain and the suffering and the social upheaval the plague caused have sent faint echoes down through the ages in the stories we use to help our toddlers go to sleep.

There were not, however, in 1315 or at any other time, any houses made of gingerbread. That’s just a fairy tale.

Although bacon houses or gloriously real...

Although bacon houses are gloriously real…

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Cat People

My father was not a man about whom people said “He has such a way with animals.” Not that he disliked them or anything. He just wasn’t one of those people who spend their first ten minutes of a visit to someone else’s house aggressively patting the dog and shouting “Who’s a good boy, then?”, or trying to win over the surly cat by holding out a hand a going “Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh” and gurning like a lunatic. He tended to ignore animals and they tended to ignore him.

 

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when, as he was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. We put up some “Found. Naively trusting cockatiel” signs, but no-one claimed him. And so we went out and bought him a cage and some toys, and a tiny mirror so that he would have an imaginary mortal enemy to fight with. Cheeky Boy (for some reason, all cockatiels round here are called Cheeky Boy) lived with us for a year or two, nibbling his way through the edges of our childhood books and noisily beating the crap out of the bird in the mirror until, sadly, he went the way of all flesh.

We packed the cage away in the back of the garage and forgot about it until, as my father was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. Up went the “Found” signs. Out came the cage. We called him Cheeky Boy (rules are rules). Being older and wiser, we threw away the mirror.

This is, I’m sure you will agree, a rather unusual way of acquiring pets. I have heard of other people who have captured escaped cockatiels (all cockatiels round here have escaped; they don’t occur here naturally, and can’t survive as ferals) by luring them in with food or spraying them with a hose, but my father just had to step outside.

We began to suspect that sinister forces were at play when, some time after Cheeky Boy II had passed on, my father stepped out into his garden, and a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo landed on his shoulder, and just didn’t go away. Up went the signs. Away went the bird. Cockatiels may be a dime a dozen, but a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo is $1000 for just the one. The owners turned up almost as soon as we put up the signs. No free pet for us.

 

"Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash..."

“Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash…”

This was, in retrospect, probably a good thing. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos can live for over 70 years, and besides, none of us had the faintest idea of what you are supposed to call them.

My father passed on a couple of years ago, and among the many things we lost was the ability to pluck free pets from the ether with no effort at all. These days it takes a bit of effort.

My family, you see, is obviously rather taken with the idea of free pets. Not birds, though. Without my father’s curiously impractical super-power, birds are out of reach for us. No more Cheeky Boys. So my family has taken to stealing cats instead.

They will loudly protest their innocence, but I know what they’re up to. It started with my youngest sister. A few years ago, she and her family moved into a new house. Once they’d been there for a week or two, the neighbour’s cat popped over the wall to check them out, as cats do. And so, obviously, my sister fed him a can of top-grade tuna. As one does. Or rather, as one doesn’t.

 

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

This wasn’t a starving feral cat from a back alley somewhere. It was the neighbours’ pet. They had a little basket for it. They had a litter box for it. They fed it and had a cute little name for it, like Mr Whiskers. They did not, however, feed it top-grade tuna. For some inexplicable reason, the cat began to visit my sister’s house more often, and spend more time there. And put on weight.

And now? It doesn’t go “home” anymore. Ever. She might have done so very, very slowly, but my sister stole her neighbour’s cat. Is she racked by guilt? Filled with remorse? She is not. She has renamed the beast “Tuna Cat” in recognition of her glorious victory. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

My mother was slightly disapproving of all of this. One shouldn’t use high-quality saltwater finfish of the tribe Thunnini to steal one’s neighbours’ cat. Not content to merely point this out, she then went on to demonstrate, by stealing her neighbours’ cat through the power of love alone. It took nearly a year. She knew she had won when the unfortunate beast began to starve to death. It was clearly spending so much time at my mother’s house that the neighbours forgot they had a pet and stopped feeding it.

Honour was satisfied. My mother declared victory and started to feed the stolen cat. She named her Mishka. My mother has set aside a couch in the TV room for her. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

I don't know why not. There's just so much you can do with them...

I don’t know why not. There’s just so much you can do with them…

I try not to judge these people. As they say, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I love them for who they are, and to be perfectly honest, moral superiority is quite a warm and snuggly feeling.

So why this long and rambling redefinition of the word “catnap”? Well, this is actually one of those long and rambling “I haven’t posted for ages!” posts. I’ve been a little scarce.

I have, you see, re-joined the ranks of the nine-to-fivers. I started a new job at the beginning of last month. It’s exactly the same as the job I left a year ago, but in a different place. Yup. I’m a bookseller again.

It’s all been a bit of a shock to the system. My time is no longer my own. It took me a while to find my rhythm. Evenings were for catching my breath, not writing. But I got over it pretty quickly. I’m a bookseller, not a lumberjack. After a week or two I was ready to return to blogging. And then it happened.

 

Now try to keep Monty Python's lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Now try to keep Monty Python’s lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but Mrs 23thorns has been sneaking around behind my back. All it took was for my absence to be guaranteed and my movements predictable. I stepped out of the door one day, and everything around me crumbled. Mrs 23thorns betrayed me.

Yes, good people. No sooner was my back turned than Mrs 23thorns up and stole a cat. Bam! Just like that! No high-quality tuna. No furtive strokes as the cat came stealing over the wall. Nope. I went off to work one day without any cats to speak of, and came home to find Ginger Cassidy living in my house. Yup. Ginger Cassidy. He was named by a committee of small people.

 

I wanted to go for "Contraband", but the committee disagreed...

I wanted to go for “Contraband”, but the committee disagreed…

The whole operation was flawlessly executed. Mrs 23thorns arrived home with her two tiny henchpersons to find the soon-to-be Ginger Cassidy mewing in the driveway. In a heartbeat he was installed in my daughter’s bedroom, calmly chewing on a piece of sausage and lapping up some milk while the dogs barked hysterically at the window.

Luckily I, the calm, rational, sensible member of the family, arrived home soon after, and immediately set about remedying the situation. I took Ginger Cassidy back out into the driveway and explained to him in short, easy-to-understand Anglo-Saxon words that it was time for him to leave. Sorted. I dusted off my hands and went back inside, nodding firmly to myself in acknowledgement of a job well done. Until I glanced out the window and saw that Ginger Cassidy was still there. As was the younger Ms 23thorns.

 

They were having a pose-off...

They were having a pose-off…

Every time Ginger Cassidy so much as glanced at the gate, she would scoop him up in her four-year-old arms and carry him back to the middle of the driveway while explaining that she loved him very much and he was not allowed to go anywhere.

Right. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I set the dogs on him. Kinda. What I actually did was carry him out of the gate and then let the dogs into the garden to keep him from coming back in. Theoretically.

Apparently Ginger Cassidy can levitate. Ten minutes later we found him sitting comfortably up a thorn-tree in the middle of the garden while the dogs went berserk just below him. “We need”, said Mrs 23thorns, looking at me pointedly, “to get him down.”

Right. This is what our thorn-tree looks like.

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as "Your job".

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as “Your job”.

 

“We” got him down. There was blood. No matter. I had another idea. I locked the dogs in the house, and the cat outside, and off we went to bed. It was perfect. As we slept, Ginger Cassidy would get bored and bugger off home to his real family. And he has a real family. Feral cats don’t let four-year-olds carry them around like ragdolls. Perfect.

Theoretically. In reality, I stepped outside the next morning all clean and polished and ready for work to be greeted by a plaintive mewing. From the thorn-tree. More blood. The dogs were locked outside and Ginger Cassidy was locked inside, and I went off to work.

I returned to find that we now had a litter-box full of cheerful white and blue crystals, and eighty kilograms of cat food. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I went around the neighbourhood knocking on doors. No joy. I put up some “Found. Naively trusting cat” posters. Success! That very evening I got an excited phonecall from a pleasant-sounding Nigerian man with only a passing familiarity with the English language. It took me just ten minutes to work out that he wanted me to go and fetch my cat. And its kittens. It took me just another ten minutes to explain the small but fundamental difference between the words “lost” and “found”. Bugger.

 

Although he did give me an idea...

Although he did give me an idea…

I mentioned the SPCA to Mrs 23thorns. She mentioned euthanasia to me with moist eyes and a quivering lower lip. Bugger.

It would appear that we now have a cat. And allergies.

And so to the paucity of posts on this blog. I have found my new routine. It goes like this:

We wake up bright and early in the morning. Or rather we are woken by a distraught four-year-old who has been bitten by a cat. There is little or no brightness involved. We lock the dogs outside. We remove an unreasonably large poo coated in cheerful white and blue crystals from a specially bought plastic tray full of cheerful white and blue crytals with a small, specially bought pink spatula, and throw it away. Then we vacuum up the cheerful white and blue crystals that have been artfully scattered around my daughter’s room. We close the cat back in my daughter’s room and let one of the dogs back inside to feed it while the other eats outside. Then it’s just a simple matter of locking the dogs outside again so that my daughter can get dressed with Ginger Cassidy before moving them back inside (while making sure Ginger Cassidy is safe in his room) so that they don’t run out into the street when I go off to work.

God only knows what happens when I’m away at work. All I can tell you is that yesterday it involved a tetanus injection. Then I come home again.

 

So that's what Karma looks like...

So that’s what Karma looks like…

I arrive home to a scene of idyllic peace. This lasts up until the moment I open the front door. The dogs run out. I pause briefly to greet the family before having a quiet cup of coffee with Mrs 23thorns in the garden. Or not. First, we have to drive the dogs back inside and lock one of them in the bathroom (the reasons for this are complex, but revolve around his ability to open windows) so that Ginger Cassidy can have some outside time. We then have to threaten the children with death if they let the dogs out. And then we can have our quiet cup of coffee.

Or not. My children do not fear death. We have about three minutes in which to soak up the peaceful sounds of the dog barking hysterically in the bathroom before one of the children needs to come outside to tell us that they are drawing a picture, or the other needs to answer a call of nature and releases the window-opening hell-beast. Then we get to relax by sprinting off down the lawn to drive the dogs back into the house before retrieving the cat from the thorn tree. And bleeding.

Once we have finished relaxing, we drive the dogs back out of one door while bringing the cat in another. We feed and bath the children before closing the cat in my daughter’s room and letting the one dog inside so we can feed the entire menagerie in their separate locations. Then we let the dogs inside for the night and squeeze my daughter into her room while holding various animals at bay with our feet. All that remains is to open my daughter’s window once she has fallen asleep so that the cat can frolic around in the dark for a while before coming back in to bite her awake at four in the morning so that we can do it all again.

 

Dawn at my house.

Dawn at my house.

And then it is my time to write. For some reason I don’t really feel up to it, and Mrs 23thorns and I opt instead to weep ourselves quietly to sleep while one of the dogs whines peacefully at my daughter’s door.

Fear not! Things are going to change around here! We are going to find a new routine! I wish I could tell you that we are taking control back from the vicious swarm of vermin that have taken over our lives, but I can’t. Nope. Today’s the day my daughter gets to bring Mickey and Mouse home with her. Micky and Mouse are the class hamsters. They live in a cheerful looking circus tent-cage covered in transparent pipes, and apparently need to be taken out and held every fifteen minutes or they will feel sad. My daughter is very pleased with herself. All the other kids get the hamsters for a weekend. She’s got them for the holidays.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

 

And so, good people, it might be just a little while before I get back to regular posting. I need to find a way to keep the cat away from the hamsters. And the dogs away from the cat. Which involves keeping my daughter away from the hamsters. And my son away from the bathroom. I can, at least, relax just a little and leave the dangerous work up to Mrs 23thorns. Not that she’s in control or anything. It’s just that she recently had a tetanus shot…

I’m beginning to understand why they say that owning a pet adds ten years to your life. I’ve aged at least that much in the last two weeks. And the best part? I don’t really like cats. Maybe we should get a cockatiel…

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

 

 

The Sameness Tree

I am, should you have been kind enough to follow this blog, still here. I’ve just been a little busy of late. Hello again.

If you are one of those kind people, you might have gathered that I am fond of trees. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that I loathe pine trees. Despise them.

I’m sure that if I had to see them in their natural home, marching in serried ranks over the jagged slopes of the frozen north, I would feel differently. But they don’t belong here. They don’t fit in. A pine tree in Southern Africa stands out like a middle-aged accountant at a nightclub. You want to walk up to it and gently explain that everyone, including itself, would be much more comfortable if it just went home.

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

It’s not that pine trees are exotics. There are many trees from foreign climes that fit in just fine. Jacarandas and Brazilian pepper trees don’t look out of place at all (unless you’re a botanist- they just happen to be rather nasty invaders). Pine trees just don’t look right. They are jagged and angular, like the jagged, angular, glacier hewn-contours of their natural home. They are built for one thing; snow.

We don’t really have any snow. Or jagged contours. The glaciers left us alone. Our contours are rounded and soft and ancient, and sometimes a little stark. And so, like pets who grow to look like their owners, the trees that fit in here are rounded and soft, and sometimes a little stark. What they are not are spikey, uniform, angular fascists of trees. Like pine trees.

But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Because the cardinal sin of pine trees is not the way they look. It’s what they happen to be useful for; paper.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

We don’t have much in the way of indigenous forest here in South Africa. But what we do have is simply breath-taking. Our forests are dark and damp and crawling with life. Soaring ancient giants like Yellowwoods and Stinkwoods lift a cathedral ceiling over clear, dripping streams and creeping ferns, and everything is softened by moss and fungus.

Nice.

Nice.

And noise. So much noise. Cicadas buzz, water drips, monkeys chatter, birds chirp and shriek, duikers crash unseen through the undergrowth, and the trees themselves creak and groan at the slightest breeze. But it is a curious sort of noise, somehow muted and respectful, like old men talking in a library. Until some bastard rips out the forest and replaces it with pine trees. Then there is no noise but the wind.

Paper. Computer age be damned, the world still runs on paper. We need it. And paper comes from pine trees. So we need pine trees. Pine trees just happen to grow in the same places that indigenous forests grow. The paper companies claim to follow strict environmental guidelines, but I have walked through their forests and crossed the bones of the world they replaced; old drainage lines, once dripping with water, now barren and dry, where the ancient forests would have been thickest. A world once fit for Arthur’s Avalon now fit only for crows.

Less nice.

Less nice.

The pine trees don’t just take over the forests, they take over the high grasslands, too, with their own sounds and life. And they replace it all with something unforgivable. Sameness. Uniformity. Every pine tree looks like every other pine tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. And I hate them for it. Until I need to write a cheque. Or dry my hands. Or read a book. My only defence for my hypocrisy is that being unreasonable has always been one of the simplest of human pleasures. Angular, needle leaved bastards.

Which is all a rather depressing (and characteristically long-winded) introduction to my rather more cheerful post. Trees. Lowveld trees. Ones I don’t hate. Mopane trees. That’s mow-par-knee said fast. These;

Nice again.

Nice again.

Nice, aren’t they?  You might have noticed something interesting about them; Sameness. Uniformity. Every Mopane tree looks like every other Mopane tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. It’s all rather fetching.

I am, I must confess, being a little disingenuous here, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed; the Mopanes in that picture are superstars. Brad Pitt Mopanes. Johnny Depp Mopanes. And they’re not from here. They grow like that way up in the Northern part of their range. Here, In South Africa’s Lowveld, we get Danny DeVito Mopanes. They look like this.

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

Which is rather less impressive. To be fair, we do have odd, isolated patches of superstars, like those in the first picture, which are rather poetically referred to as cathedral Mopane, but the vast majority of what we’ve got is more like the second, referred to rather less poetically as Mopane scrub. And we have lots of it. Stands of Mopane make pine plantations look rather insignificant. They don’t cover whole mountainsides, they cover whole countries. And where Mopanes grow, almost nothing else grows.

So why am I being so mean about the pine trees, and so nice about the Mopanes? Is grinding sameness not just grinding sameness? No. It is not.

There is one fundamental difference between the two; an ecosystem gets ripped out to make way for a pine plantation, whereas Mopane scrub is an ecosystem. Mopanes dominate vast swathes of real estate not because they have pushed out the competition but because nothing else will grow there. They have a remarkably high tolerance for shallow, poorly drained, highly alkaline soils. Even they have their limitations though; we are stuck with the scrub because the soil they grow in here is so thin.

Despite the grinding sameness of a hundred kilometre long patch of Mopane scrub, an individual Mopane is actually quite attractive. The Mopane is sometimes called the butterfly tree, because of these;

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

The leaves have evolved like that for a reason. Water. The parts of Africa where they grow are hot, and subject to long periods of drought. Those leaves have more in common with butterflies than you might think; during the hottest, most sun-blasted times of day, the Mopanes close their wings, and line them up so that the sun falls on their narrow edge, letting the tree hold onto its precious water.

This has a rather curious unintended outcome. Even the broad, spreading cathedral Mopanes make lousy shade trees. Yup, you can find yourself in the middle of a sea of leafy green trees with nowhere to shelter from the sun. The leaves aren’t just a nice shape. They come in nice colours, too. The Mopane is one of the few Lowveld trees that puts on a decent display of autumn colour.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

Mopane seed-pods are kinda cool. They are flat, kidney-shaped pods that turn from emerald green to light brown, and fit in nicely with the leaves. They are, however, a little dull. Until you open them up and find a tiny human brain nestled inside.

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

The wood is kinda cool, too. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour, hard, and heavy. It is so hard that it is rather difficult to work with, but the extra effort is worthwhile, because Mopane wood is termite resistant. It’s used for fence-posts and furniture and parquet floors. And bagpipes. Obviously. But making bagpipes out of Mopane wood is a senseless waste. You are supposed to burn it.

Mopane wood burns for ages, and leaves behind hot, long lasting embers. And it has a glorious and evocative aroma. There are few better woods for making a braai (barbecue), right down to the mandatory wait for the coals to be ready for cooking. Being forced to sit around chatting and drinking beer in a blazing African sunset while your fire burns down to readiness is not necessarily a bad thing.

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

But Mopanes are not about usefulness. They’re about something else. Life. Those pine plantations I was going on about earlier are deserts. Nothing here is equipped to use them. They have no seeds or fruits that our monkeys or birds could live on, and nothing here can digest pine-needles. There isn’t even any undergrowth to speak of; the pine needles coat the ground and leave it too acidic to let anything else grow beneath them.

Mopanes couldn’t be more different. The endless Mopane is bursting with life. Mopanes are rich in protein. They aren’t particularly sought after, since the leaves are quite resinous, but when times get tough, they come into their own. They are supposed to be deciduous, but there always seem to be at least some green leaves about, and even if the leaves have all fallen, they are still eaten. Which means that Mopane scrub is a sought-after habitat for large herbivores.

Don't worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff's lens is he's sure to back down.

Don’t worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff’s lens is he’s sure to back down.

It is not, however, a good place to go looking for them. The Mopanes might be letting all that sunlight through, but that sunlight is coming down from above. When you’re out on a game-drive, you are looking from the side. And you’re not going to see much. To drive through Mopane scrub is to drive between two opaque green screens. A creature as big as an elephant or a buffalo could be standing just a dozen or so feet off the road, and you would be none the wiser. Unless they step out in front of you.

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Yup. The creature that specialises in stepping out of the Mopane in front of me is the elephant. Elephants aren’t quite as dangerous as you might have been led to believe. If you treat them with respect, keep your distance, and move slowly and deliberately, they tend to leave you alone. It is, however, quite hard to keep a respectful distance from a four-ton behemoth that steps from behind a screen of green into the road ten feet in front of you. Moving backward not very slowly or deliberately isn’t always an option, either; elephants are not solitary animals. Another four ton behemoth you failed to spot might just be stepping into the road ten feet behind you. At which point your best option is to slowly and deliberately curl up into a foetal position and weep.

It’s not just herbivores that lurk in the Mopane. Lions tend to avoid Mopane scrub, which means that it’s a good place to find their smaller competitors, like wild dogs and hyenas.

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

But that’s the big stuff. Stuff you can find anywhere in the Lowveld. What makes the Mopane scrub so rich is the small stuff. The deeply fissured bark and hard wood make an ideal home for any number of creatures like hole-living birds and cryptically coloured geckos and snakes.

But that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, anything as widespread and dominant as Mopane becomes its own ecosystem. This isn’t always a good thing.

Those charming creatures are Mopane flies. Which is a curious thing to call them, since they are bees. Stingless bees. Which sounds nice, but isn’t. They make up for their lack of a sting by swarming all over you and trying to crawl into your eyes. They try to compensate for this rather annoying habit by producing honey. Tiny little bits of honey. Made, apparently, from the moisture they find in human eyes. They don’t seem to be trying too hard.

They don’t really have to. Other creatures have stepped in to take up the challenge. Who needs honey when you have manna? Yup. The stuff from the bible. Nobody really knows what manna was, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was the crystallised honeydew from scale insects that lived on tamarisks. Which just sounds silly.

It’s not, though. A sap-sucking insect called the Mopane psyllid lives on Mopane leaves in its larval stage. It covers itself in a scale of sweet tasting, crystallised resin, which is picked off the leaves and eaten the local people. It’s called Mopane manna. But that’s just a snack, not a meal. This is a meal.

Yummy!

Yummy!

That is a Mopane worm. Just one is a mouthful. But there isn’t just one. At the right time of year, there are tens of millions of the buggers. They are gathered by the locals and dried. In Lowveld towns, you can buy bags of them to snack on like potato chips from the seventh circle of hell. Don’t, though. They taste like the dried out inner-sole of a hobo’s shoe.

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

They do, however, sound adventurous and exotic. And so, over the last few decades, a couple of adventurous and exotic restaurants have tried to work them into their menus. You can now, should the mood take you, order a steaming bowl of stewed Mopane worms. Don’t, though. They taste like the stewed inner sole of a hobo’s shoe.

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick...

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick…

So there you have it. There are enormous patches of scrubby, unrelenting sameness out in Africa that are brimming with life and unpalatable delicacies. There is a rest-camp in the Kruger Park called Mopane, on the crest of a hill overlooking a large dam and surrounded by a sea of butterfly-shaped green leaves. If you visit the park for the first time, don’t stay there. You won’t see the forest, or the life it holds, for the trees.

But if you do choose to stay there, stick around for a while. Slowly but surely, all that life will start to reveal itself to you. You will start to see the birds in their holes, and the giant potato-chip worms, and the manna from heaven.

And maybe, just as the relentless sameness of it all starts to get to you, a four ton behemoth will step out in front of you as another one appears in your rear-view mirror. And you will wish, as you slowly (and deliberately) curl up into a foetal position and start to weep, that you were driving through a pleasantly barren pine plantation.

05-August_017

Ceremony

I think it is only fair to warn you that if, at any point in this post, you laugh, you are an evil person. Your heart is as hard and as black as coal, and you are destined for a fiery afterlife. I’ll see you there.

I’ve been reading a lovely old book about the mysteries of the ancient world.  It’s filled with pictures of jungle-hidden ruins and glaring stone statues. It has been filling me with regret. We don’t really know how to throw together a decent ceremony anymore. We don’t sacrifice virgins on top of huge stepped pyramids or dance naked in the firelight in massive stone circles. We’re a bit dull.

Except for Bill. Bill is at least trying.

Except for Bill. Bill is at least trying. You go, Bill!

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Pretty Handsome.

There are some people out there who will tell you that we should not impose our human standards of aesthetics on the animals that share our world; all of nature’s creation should be viewed as beautiful and important components of vibrant and valuable ecosystems. These people are noble and fair minded and pure of heart. They are also wrong. This is a sable antelope;

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Just look at that magnificent bastard! He’s a looker and he knows it. Look at that power! That grace! If he was human, he would be surrounded by fawning young women in tight bikinis and copious amounts of makeup. Then there’s this guy;

Are you religious? Cause I'm the answer to all your prayers!

Are you religious? Cause I’m the answer to all your prayers, baby!

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Spin.

The Emperor’s New Clothes, By Hans Christian Andersen, is very nearly two hundred years old, and is still as fresh and relevant now as it was when it was written. But something very odd has happened. Its meaning has changed.

For most of its life, it was a parable about pride and the fear that adults have of standing out from one’s peers. As the emperor paraded naked down the street, no-one dared point out his nudity for fear of seeming stupid. In the end, it took a child to point out that the great man’s goolies were flapping merrily in the wind in front of the assembled masses, because children are innocent and pure and free from the social fears and insecurities that plague us adults.

Now it’s about how a skilled pair of tailors can make a set of clothes out of nothing more than words. We have discovered magic. Real magic. It’s called spin. Continue reading

The wisdom of the ancients.

I can’t remember how old I was when I discovered Thor Heyerdahl, but I remember being deeply impressed. Here was a radical new approach to archaeology. This guy wasn’t pottering away in some dusty museum office, or scrabbling around in the dirt looking for tiny bones with a tiny brush. No. This guy was doing it himself. He was living history! And he was doing it by making boats out of sticks and growing enormous beards! I wanted to be him.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

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Memory.

Shortly after I had graduated from high school, on a holiday down in the bush with my family, my father and I heard a couple of lions roaring in the middle of the night, and decided to go out looking for them.

The open Land Rover we were using at the time was a temperamental old wreck, shuddering and coughing reluctantly into action when you turned the key, and taking off with all the speed and grace of an oil-tanker. But we coaxed it into life and headed on out to the spot where we imagined the lions to be. And found them.

Land Rovers are big. So are lions.

Land Rovers are big. So are lions.

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Four things to avoid in the bedroom.

I seem to have skipped out on one of the more exciting rites of passage that was promised to me. My mid-life crisis. Instead of rushing out and buying myself a Harley Davidson and some leather pants, I’ve apparently decided to make an early start on becoming an old curmudgeon. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since I am prone to chafing, but has meant that I now become arbitrarily annoyed by things that I never even noticed in my youth.

Hell's life insurance salesman.

Hell’s life insurance salesman.

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