Unpublished essay, written in March 2015 as part of course work for the doctoral programme with the University of Cape Town's Environmental Humanities South.
This is a feral place.
It doesn't look like the thing it once was: a wooded kloof in a crease on Table Mountain’s sloughing foothills, on the wilder side of Deer Park, in Gardens. Some of the indigenous trees are still here, the offspring of generations that have lived and died in the sheltered cool, alongside a tumble of sandstone that has become a stream bed. The tree’s canopy still throws a fidgety, dappled light, as the air harries the leaves overhead. But the ground has long since shrugged off the undergrowth, leaving only a few threadbare tufts. Years of shoes have padded across the rusty clay-thick soil, compacting it into an impermeable pavement.
But neither does it look like the thing it was made to be: a four- or five-roomed home, cut into the mountain slope, where each storey was chiselled into the bank in terraces. The puzzle-pieced stone walls, which shored up the banks and marked out each square room, have shed pieces of masonry into rubble piles on the ground. Even the once meticulous stairway, a series of meniscus lines retreating uphill as they join the ground floor with the first, has cast many of its steps aside, making for a tricky ascent in places.
The trees are reclaiming the house’s interior: one has sprouted from a room floor; another has a fist of roots squeezing an exterior wall out of shape. But their hide has become a scroll for visitors to etch in their presence, with crude instruments. Messy geometric letters proclaim that so-’n’-so loved so-’n’-so; that 2Sam07 thought himself worthy of being remembered here; that Juice-Seed-Boy needed to stamp his presence with a broken Star of David.
One tree has a puffy keloid scar running along the edge of a gash as its skin tries to heal, but the unclosed wound has left the exposed flesh bleached dry. Onto this, and cruder still than the other scribes, is violet paint, painted violently: ‘Keegan’ was here.
A tour guide once told me that this was the home of a wealthy Cape Town family, whose young boy whose limbs had become buckled and blunt with leprocy. To spare him exile - at the time, somewhere in the mid-1800s, Robben Island was a leper colony - they cut this home into the mountainside, and secreted him away here with a servant to be his minder and carer and companion.
I’ve often thought I should verify this story. We have to be rigorous, after all. But putting the fact checkers to work on it, feels as though it would turn this lovely flighted thing into a smear of feathers on the tar, and I’d be setting the crows’ razor beaks to work, cleaning it up.
For some reason I need this fable to keep intact the broken child of my imagination, and to allow the ruin’s time-worn corners to ring with his ache for his family; or his carer’s yearning for her own kin.
I wonder though, was this a place of asylum, or a place of imprisonment?
The rubble in the centre of one of the ruin’s long-abandoned rooms, hints of the fact that its more recent visitors have turned it into a hearth of sorts. There’s a fire-charred stump of tree branch, the shadow of flame that must have licked up the wall at one time, and a fresh circle of boiled egg peelings.
But what is this rubble, these shed pieces of wall: is it rock, or is it stone?
They’ve always been rock, that peculiar weave of materials cooked up by the Earth’s tectonic forces to be hard enough to crush bone. But they’ve only recently become stone, rock that’s cut to shape by a Homo sapiens’ sharp-edged tools, driven by blunt force, to be transformed into a useful building material.
Somehow they reflect the different timelines that sculpt how we look at the world and view our place in it, at a time when human beings have become a geophysical force on the planet, able to change the natural world with as much potency as a volcanic eruption, or a meteor strike, or the slip-sliding of the planet’s crust.
As a child, my timeline was that of a quietly Catholic family, where humans were the most important length on a string of years and decades and millennia that was spun together by God. It was a timeline cradled between the dizzying parentheses of Alpha and Omega.
(I remember a nun trying to describe infinity to me: ‘Imagine the biggest mountain you’ve ever seen, and it’s made entirely of diamond, and there’s a little sparrow trying to peck away at the mountain as if to reduce it to nothing. That. That’s infinity.’
I had a physiological response to this image: I literally felt dizzy for a few seconds. I was nine.)
The second timeline was as a 20-something, sitting through three years of history classes as a university undergraduate. While we were using a Marxist lens to debate the true origins of the apartheid mechanisms used to keep black people on the edges of cities and squatting on the margins of the economy is hostels and shanty towns: was it really about keeping the races separate (the ‘liberal historian’ interpretation), or was it about maintaining the migrant labour system which shored up the control of labour, keeping poor (black) people uneducated and the blunt instruments needed to hammer repeatedly on the anvil of our mineral-energy economy? Cheap to hire, uncritical in their thinking, subservient in every way.
Petty apartheid laws weren’t about keeping a black person’s naked skin from touching the porcelain seats that were reserved for a white derrière, it was about maximising profits through keeping labour cheap and repressed.
I was so immersed in this, that I didn’t notice the arrival of a new timeline. Suddenly human history was 200 000 years long, and the notion of a god became one small chapter in the many different parts of the compendium of our species.
We have had many ideas over time. Take the sewing needle. This, according to Peter Watson in Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, allowed humans to move onto the final two continents as we spread out across the planet, because we could stitch together warm animal furs and cross the Bering Strait which was exposed by low sea levels due to Ice Age conditions. It was bitterly cold, but we crossed from Russia to the Americas.
We’ve had many other ideas: Communism and Democracy; the Archimedes screw; evolution; fire. And we’ve had existential musings which have led us to dream up the most fantastical gods, mostly in our own image.
The third timeline came a few years later, when dabbling in natural history writing dovetailed beautifully because it helped fit humans into the natural order of things.
Now, the Beginning and the End were places growing out of our species’ extraordinary ability to grapple with the notion of deep time. The Beginning is the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago (what came before then is as bewildering for my brain, as that first stand-down with the notion of infinity). And the End is what happens when this Universe is done expanding into the nothingness that it’s spreading into right now (that nothingness is as dizzying a concept).
Or, on days when my brain needs something less unwieldy, a useful timeline is one that begins with those early days when Earth, this planet, was first moulded into shape like putty as a cloud of loose atoms and molecules were spun around our infant sun about 4.6 billion years ago. And this particular timeline ends when our sun finally reaches the twilight of its years, when it yawns, stretches, expands… and finally explodes, engulfing Earth and its siblings, leaving cinders in its wake, so that the whole process can start once more. Stars and their child-ling planets birthing and dying and being born once more.
Astronomer Carl Sagan put it so eloquently in his book Cosmos: ‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.’
Sitting here, amidst old rock and young stone, I’m reminded of the fact that the body which contains Me is made of the same stuff as the rocks around me, the hide of the trees, and the implements used to carve these crude and short-lived messages from Sam and Juice-Seed-Boy and Keegan. Our fabric was cooked up in those exploding stars billions of years ago. The molecules and atoms have been recycled through so many permutations since then: how much of these bodies once resided in the muscle of a dinosaur, the skin of the mudskipper-type creatures that started emerging from Earth’s young oceans, or the first droplets of water that came together in the combination of an ‘H’ and two ‘O’s when this planet concocted its own water.
Where does this living geophysical force, Homo sapiens, fit into this? How do we view ourselves in this? Each of us is a small individual, inhabiting our own small space. But together, we become part of a much greater force which can literally redraw the natural order of things. Human activities on the planet are driving the sixth great mass extinction of species. We’re altering the climate, killing the soils, melting ancient icecaps, starving the ocean floor of oxygen in parts. And we’ve set some of these planet-scale forces onto a trajectory that cannot be undone or reversed for thousands of years.
Eventually Earth’s natural systems will fine a new state of equilibrium, but that will be a long time coming, and who knows what species will survive this change. Climate scientists warn that we’re pushing global temperatures up to the point that the climate will shift into a new ‘regime’, well outside the stable one in which modern civilisation emerged or in which most current life forms evolved.
Natural scientists often point out that about 99 percent of all life that has ever lived on Earth has become extinct. Like all these species before us, human beings are headed for the same end, just as my own body will eventually return to the carbon cycle from which it germinated, grew, bloomed, and continues to mature. It will eventually age down to nothing, and my mine will melt away as the body decays and rots. I will be gone. Modern humans have been around for about 200 000 years. Who knows how much longer until the species becomes extinct like so many before it. The question is, will this extinction be due to some other natural force, some natural attrition, or by our own hand? And are we not just another natural force, ourselves?
Of all the geophysical forces that have wrought such planetary change, we are the only one that has been aware of its actions while it does so.
The planet will recover. Other climate regimes will emerge. Different ecosystems will bloom, made up of entirely unique suites of life forms. Who knows what those will be?
And somewhere in all of that, the rocks and stones of this ruin will, themselves, be reduced once more to powder. Eventually, as one continental plate engulfs another, they will grind these down to nothing like the jaws of a strange ruminating beast, or melt them like toffee.
The problem with death, if you take a geological-length view of things, is that it’s like having the book slammed shut on you before you’ve had a chance to read the final chapters. We just don’t know how the story will end.
Who decided that a wind would be named after the direction it comes from, rather than the direction it’s going to. The Cape’s prevailing summer wind is the ‘south-easter’; it isn’t called the ‘north-wester’ even though it heads off that way year after year.
It’s probably why the birds aren’t twittering today, in this crease in the kloof below Table Mountain. The Cape Doctor is haranguing the peninsula again, sweeping a fray of grey clouds across the top of the table, pouring it down over the mountain’s wrinkled brow until they melt into nothing. Right now, fingers of restio plants and ericas are reaching into the cloud up there, harvesting water droplets which they will trickle-feed into the porous sandstone of the mountain which eventually - how long, weeks, months, years later? - will then charge the rivulets which sway though the stream bed next to this ruin.
Everything’s a-jitter in the grove right now, and the canopy whispers with a chorus of papery sighs.
This remains a feral place. Once it was wild. Then it was tamed. Now it is neither. The wild tries to reclaim it; its visitors beat the wild back. But the place still aches with the emptiness of those two inhabitants that once lived here: the white boy, and a dark-skinned servant-carer.
And we’ll never know if this was their sanctuary, or their prison.