It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why won’t Mr Retail let us swim in his pool?

We take two books with us this year, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. A Sand County nearly doesn’t make it. When you’re hiking with kids there’s a lot to carry and only essentials make the final cut. But as I deliberate the last items to pack, I open the book arbitrarily and read this passage
, under the heading of, Wilderness for science.

The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health. There are two organisms whose processes of self-renewal have been subjected to human interference and control. One of these is man himself (medicine and public health). The other is land (agriculture and conservation). The effort to control the health of the land has not been very successful.”

With that I zip lock it and pack it in. It should probably not surprise me that more than 60 years ago, Leopold already addressed the issues that I am currently grappling with in my PhD. The PhD is on soil health, what I see as a foundation for the health of all else on our planet. About Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there is no question. It is considered by all to be essential gear.

There are things we know, and yet must be constantly reminded of. In nearly eight years of fathering I still take my own books on holidays, hoping to read them. Eight years of adjusting to the idea that while kids offer us a lot on which to reflect, they don’t offer us, in equal measure, the time to do so. And that breaks away now mean something different, and require different ways of reflecting. That passage is the only one I get to read, and as it turns out, the only one I need to.

We are heading out on what has become our annual family wilderness excursion. This is a time for the four of us to experience wilderness together. As this has been established into family tradition, so too have its unwritten criteria. We must go alone, for at least four days to a wilderness place, a place beyond roads, and preferably, as we reach this year, beyond even paths, where our chances of seeing other humans, or even their signs, other than ancient rock art, must be as close as possible to zero. It must be a place with ecological integrity, so be pristine and unaffected by even subtle signs of human intervention. We must take no watch and so must live instead to the natural rhythms of the days and nights. We must be able to sleep in the open, with nothing between us and the stars. Needless to say, such a place is beautiful.

I prefer it to be high. Around a thousand meters or more. There is a quality of altitude that manifests in different ways combining the practical, the aesthetic and the spiritual. It has to do with the ease with which one walks through higher altitude vegetation, the rich browns of restio vlaktes, how streams are more open, breezes cooler and that height offers separation from the concerns of the world below, offers perspective and distance of vision. And for me there is a connection with altitude that has its geological origins five hundred million years ago. Those formations of the Cape Supergroup, that have offered more resistance to the ravages of time, have acquired more wisdom and so convey a greater beauty.

Also we must all, including Sebastian aged seven and Phoebe aged five, be able to get there, on foot. It is testimony to the wonder of the area we live that my list of potential venues, within a few hours drive, consists of ten different options. And it is a shame then, I think, that so few venture there. This year, given that the temperature is forecast in the thirties, we have an additional criterion. We need water, lots of it and deep enough to swim. In my mind I hold the image of so many Western Cape rock pools where the shallow water, over white rock bottoms, is a brilliant orange in the sun, and ranges darker through to blackness in its deepest parts. Such deep pools exert on us a powerful pull, on Sandra and I, on Phoebe who cannot yet swim and so clings gleefully to our backs as we do, and to Sebastian who sometimes strikes our too far, too quickly into places where the water is blackest, and then panics.

Sandra fights fiercely for this time, as she does to hold all our family’s values. And sometimes she must fight even me, when I am seduced by preoccupation with less important things.

The place we choose holds many, rich memories of youth for Sandra and I. It is an opportunity too, to take up Mike’s invitation. We have told the children a few times, while driving through the pass, of Glenn’s grandfather who lives alone in the mountains. This would be an opportunity to show them something of the man and his home, to show them that it is possible to make different choices, and so to live well. And to show them a grandfather whose health was not taken from him too soon. Mike is my uncle, who at over eighty years of age, now leads a mostly hermit-like existence. He moved recently to the exquisitely beautiful, yet simple, wooden hut that he built long ago in the mountains, for the cost of a suburban swimming pool. And one of the childhood memories I have of him is of reading Roald Dahl to us in this place.

What is now his home was a place of great significance in my youth, where things of value were shared by a close group of friends, who have mostly now gone ways separate to mine. Things change and I have not been back to this place in many years, and not since being a father. I too spent time here alone. It was in the wilds of these mountains, when I was young and foolhardy, that I experienced one of only two times in my life that I have been lost and afraid in the physical wilderness. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make mistakes, and to survive them.

As we climb the steep zig-zag track from Mike’s hut into the mountains, I remember the final hairpin as the place where I wrote one of my first, half decent poems, more than twenty years ago. To take the children’s minds off the steepness and to keep them going, I relate the story of what happened when skugni, my old dog, chased the baboon up this road.

On our return, as we stand naked and ready to dive into Mike’s pool to dispel the heat of the downward zig-zags, Mike observes that Sebastian and I have exactly the same bodies. Like father, like son. When we leave Mike’s I take buchu with us, to take the pungency of memory back to our home.

Both kids and wilderness reveal to us the obvious, that we so often fail to see. And sometimes, out here, if we are open to them, insights can literally appear in the sky. As we are walking higher in the mountain we are suddenly surprised by the invasive clatter of helicopters, low over our heads, so low that Phoebe must cling desperately to my legs so as not to be blown away. We are even more surprised when they land just in front of us. “You chose the easy way to get here”, I say, to be friendly. And there is no reason not to be. The pilot shows our enthralled children around the cockpit, as the passengers, on a joy ride, unload cooler boxes. They are excited, but there is something disjointed for me about their disembarking. They have flown fast up the narrow kloof. They are enthusiastic about the great beauty of the place. But I suspect that theirs will be a superficial encounter with beauty, for wilderness, in my experience, does not so easily and hastily impart what it holds of true value.

When the sound of the helicopters later fades I am left wondering, in the silence, to what extent our whole way of living is set up to compromise depth and richness of experience for convenience and comfort and how healthy that is for us and for the land. To what extent does noise and speed leave us precariously ungrounded?

Our route to a campsite takes us up a valley where I have not been for many years and the destination I have in mind, I have never been to. Our direction is based on an intuitive sense and a vague memory that here is a place where we will find what we are looking for, a place where the different elements of landscape will come together to offer us what we seek.

Walking behind me after a lunch stop and a cooling swim, is Phoebe with a toothless grin. Her hair is a mess. And she’s dirty. Her hiking clothes are patched. She couldn’t look more gorgeous.

But emotions pass easily through children and unlike in us, are let go of equally easily. So moods change quickly. The kids have little experience of retreating ridgelines and such phenomena don’t sit well with them. They want what they can see, to be what they get. After climbing some way they are now hot and gatvol. All energy is violently directed at the difficulty of the task and none at solving it. The pace becomes killing in its slowness and lack of progress, and now I am frustrated and unsure. I wonder if this time we haven’t gone too far.

I proceed alone to a ridgeline for some perspective with which to reassess our route. We are close to the saddle I had in mind, slightly beyond which I can see waterfalls. Below me to the left is a peaceful valley, less exciting. If I were alone, as I have often been in the mountains, the choice would be clear – to continue upwards. But now my intuition must take into account the needs of others. And it is down into the valley that we go, with Phoebe asleep on my shoulders.

“May our hearts be lifted and our spirits refreshed”, is a line from the blessing we use for our family Sabbath meals. And it comes to mind as I witness the affect of our immersion into the cool, dark-orange of a magnificent mountain rock pool. Some further exploration downstream reveals a string of stunning pools and waterfalls and eventually the amazing spot that is our camp site.

This is a place with magic that gradually reveals itself, as we settle into it. It becomes a place of family and sibling togetherness, of creative, natural play and discovery, of willingness and excitement, of simplicity and adventure. It is a place of belonging that love and beauty co-inhabit comfortably. And as I watch from a short distance away, three little figures sitting close, in the enormity of the wild surroundings, reading and listening intently, it is a place that makes a husband’s and father’s heart sing.

It is a tiny moment of flat sleeping ground next to a pool near the narrow watershed between two rivers, one flowing east and one flowing west. And above it to the north rises the shear, vertical bulk of Deception Peak.

As a rock climber one cannot look on Deception Peak without being drawn up its immense walls and spires into aspirations and dreams, that may or may never be realized. Its name alludes to distinguishing what is true from what is not, but the mountain itself is very real, a precipitous place of danger, mystery and power. And only a few years ago Paul and I stood together on its summit, one of very few in the Western Cape that must be rock climbed to be reached.

Sandra and I often talked about taking Angie, my mother, to another of our wilderness spots that we love, because I knew she would love it too. I can picture her, her facial expression, her idiosyncrasies of body language, displaying immense pleasure, saying something like, “This is just one of the most beautiful spots.” But we never did. And now it’s too late. So while we are here, we vow not to make the same mistake again.

Why do we often not do the things we want to in life? Sometimes it is fear but often it is only that enemy of a life well lived, called busyness, that robs us of what is rightfully ours. How is it that such a thief so easily gains entry to our lives? I believe it is through that gap which we leave when there is a disconnection between priorities and values, when we confuse the urgent for the important. And I worry too about what other undesirables may enter through this gap.

Paradise is perhaps not a place without evils, but a place where we rise to the challenge of overcoming them. Even in this place there are lurking ills. Unseen carbon dioxide levels are excessive here too. And I am aware of the creeping presence of cluster pines and hakea. With my Swiss army knife, I cut several that are in the proximity of our camp. Next time I will bring my saw. Sandra wonders what good it will do against such numbers. But while I alone cannot clear the mountain, I can perhaps retain the integrity of this spot and its surroundings, that we have chosen as a home.

Is it a law, or some unhealthy trajectory into which we have locked ourselves, that the world seems to worsen and restrict more of our freedom with time, or is it only our perspective as we age? We are returning over private land to the mountain club hut. Mr Retail, as we shall call him, bought this land, that previously was the unrestricted playground of my youth. And he declared it out of bounds. I am rude about him, probably unfairly, because actually I know nothing of the man except this. He has wealth in terms of plenty of money, but lacks it in terms of the wisdom that comes with true experience of wilderness. The first is a presumption on my part. The second I see before me. But perhaps I should not be rude. Perhaps he was simply less lucky than I, and was never shown the mountains by parents and family who understood something of their real beauty and the value of that. And so came to the wilderness too late, with the voices of society too firmly entrenched.

But the house he has built here offends me. While not overtly so, to me it is ugly. It shows no imagination, shows no sensitivity to or understanding of the beauty of this place. It is lacking in everything that Mike’s house has. And it seems a pity that despite his financial resources he lacked the wisdom to do more.

We have seen few animals during our time in the wilderness, have seen no buck nor heard their familiar but always thrilling bark of alarm and warning. I have seen only some klipspringer spoor, fairly old. And so there is a sense of excitement when Sandra asks, “Is that a buck?” pointing along the road that leads to Mr Retail’s house. “It’s standing very still.”

It looks like a buck but something about it is wrong. A look through my binoculars reveals what. It is an impala. And even Sebastian at seven already knows and remarks that, like cluster pines and hakea, like Mr Retail’s house itself, impala don’t belong in this, the world heritage site of the mountain fynbos biome. The fact that it is a metal statue of an impala, is perhaps less damaging to the physical ecology of this place, but no less so to the inner ecology that connects wilderness to self.

Between Mr Retail’s house and the mountain club hut, for which we are heading, is a pool. It is, for the connoisseur of rock pools, one of the finest and one of the most alluring. Huge and deep and black, with a plunging waterfall. I swum in it in my youth. And now, like the Bushman paintings I remember hereabouts, it is strictly out of bounds. As we pass along the path in the heat, Phoebe gazes at the pool and asks: “Why won’t Mr Retail let us swim in his pool?” Like so many children’s questions, it is a good one. I explain about ownership and privacy but I also point out that if we go beyond such societal boundaries we can find our own deep pools. But for a child who still holds the wisdom of the immediacy of the present, it makes no sense.

“But he’s not using it. Why can’t we swim in it if he’s not here?”

The intensity of feelings for both the sun’s heat and the lure of cool beauty easily outweighs logical argument. But then, with a child’s brilliance that belies her age, she turns too to logic and points out, in complete agreement with South African water laws, that while Mr Retail may own the land, he doesn’t own the water and as a pool consists of water and not land, we should have the right to swim in it. I can not argue against this, but in the interests of maintaining good neighbourliness between the mountain club and Mr Retail, I shy away from testing her argument against authority, and so we walk on.

Cycles and flows, feedback and downstream effects, such as those recognised in our water laws are more evident here, in wilderness, more obvious, and we are able to more clearly recognise their importance. We are made more conscious too, when we carry all we need on our backs, of the extent of our own consumption and waste. If Phoebe is already thinking like this maybe one day she will make her daddy even prouder and be part of integrating an understanding of such cycles into more aspects of our social organisation. If water, why not land?

It is my hope that she holds such question and many others, long enough to find, for some of them at least, good answers, answers informed by experience that has depth. Like the answer as to why Mr Willy Wonka passed his chocolate factory on in the way that he did, or why Aldo Leopold stopped shooting wolves.

And hopefully deep experience will be ingrained into my children with the wonder that they discover how to harness the suns power through a magnifying glass. Together we burn their names into pieces of driftwood, that they now carry proudly in their packs.

As I think of their futures, I am conscious of another line from our Sabbath blessing: “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” But when I hear that US expenditure on beauty products is higher than on education and expenditure on advertising is a staggering 73 times that, then I worry. Despite what they have here, I worry about the glittery lure of superficial beauty, and I worry about whose voice will be strongest, Mr Retail’s or mine.

From my work in it, I know that wilderness answers questions that are not, in the same way, answered elsewhere. One of the questions that is mine to carry, sometimes stuffed in a side pocket, sometimes as a heavy, dead weight in the bottom of my pack, a question that I carry through my wilderness work, my soil science, my PhD, my future, is this: What is mine in the world to do?

Perhaps in our time here, an answer to this question is whispered to me, in the winds, in the alternating flow and stillness of streams and pools, in the silent solidity of stone, in the sun’s hot glare or the brilliance of stars revolving above me in the darkness, as I sleep. Perhaps it arises in the growing recognition that I too have something of value to say, and that if I give it voice, there are people who will listen. Perhaps it is evidence that we can utter things into reality.

The answer that comes is perfect in its simplicity: Remind us of what is important.

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold

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