A Small Place

A Small Place

This place is part of myself...
My relation to this place is part of myself...
If this place is destroyed, something in me is destroyed... 
My relation to this place is such that if the place is changed, I am changed...
Arne Naess
(Drengson, 2008: 87-88)[1]

In the 1940s my maternal grandparents bought a small holding in the Breede River Valley, near the town of Worcester in the Western Cape. My grandmother named the farm ‘Raaswater’, after the raging sound of the Hartebees River that coursed through the property. The Hartebees River is one of the many tributaries originating in the surrounding mountain ranges. These rivers culminate in the Breede River that meanders gently through the centre of the valley.

Raaswater and its river formed a large part of my mother’s childhood memories. Her memories became mythological stories which taught us her understanding of life. The river gave, as its yellow ochre clay became whatever my mother’s imagination wished into shape. And the river took, as its wild waters washed precious toys, pretty ribbons and bright coloured bits of clothing away to other far off places. The river’s water was channelled via cement waterways to the cultivated garden which provided drinking water for the family. The continuous sound of its rushing waters was a reassuring presence which formed the backdrop of every moment lived on the farm.  

Raaswater became an idyllic place in my imagination. I yearned for being part of the peaceful symbiotic existence between the natural environment and humans, as suggested in my mother’s stories. By the time my mother was married, Raaswater had been sold and so we never had the opportunity to know it. In contrast to her childhood experience, we were raised in a newly developed suburb outside of Cape Town. To my mother’s dismay, the privilege to relate intimately to a natural force such as a river or mountain was not a part of our suburban reality. 

Many years later, after Apartheid was abolished in South Africa, I found myself feeling lost and without a sense of place in the world. As an Afrikaner female, I had no idea where I truly belonged. I realised that even though my ancestors had lived in Africa for over 300 years, I felt neither African, nor European. I noticed that I swing between the two continents, but never seem to feel rooted in either. It was during one of my travels to search for belonging that I met a Protea cyneroides in a glass house at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. As I recognised this living entity from the soil where I was born, I was struck by a deep sense of empathy for its uprooted and dislocated state.

Members of the Proteaceae plant family were rooted on the ancient landmass Gondwanaland before its split into several continents including Australia, South America and Africa. One could say that these plants truly belonged in the Western Cape. I wondered if these prehistoric plants could tell me what it means to be indigenous to a landscape. The one site I had some ancestral relation to was Raaswater. I decided to try and meet endemic Proteaceae species that shared the soil with my lineage in order to see what I could learn.  

Raaswater has changed hands many times since my maternal ancestors cultivated export grapes in its soil. A quick internet search revealed that it was currently run as a guest farm. I called the owners, explained that it was my mother’s childhood home and requested permission to visit. And so a week later my mother and I set out with boundless expectations to go and re-live her childhood memories in this exceptional place.  

The approach to Raaswater was ominous. After we passed a highway petrol station we drove between a densely populated suburb and dry desolate koppies adjacent to the ‘Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden’. My mother became disoriented and we missed the turn off to the farm. We reached a dead end at a bizarre sign advertising a private nature reserve where one could see the ‘big five’ in a ‘malaria free zone’. Eventually we found our way, crossed a bridge over the Hartebees River and turned into the electric gates of ‘Raaswater Country Stay Guest House’.

As one would expect, we found the old thatched-roofed farm house and its garden much changed. Remnants of the cement water channels and ponds that my grandmother built peeped through the lush cultivated garden. My mother remembered how Mona, the horse, was brought into the garden to drink from the channels in the early evening. But these channels were dry. We decided to take a stroll down to the river to see what indigenous vegetation we could find and to spend time with a part of the farm which we presumed would have remained much the same.

The approach to the river was through a fence and past an organic recycling dump in a field covered in fine grasses and very little else. It seemed like a landscape that had been ploughed too many times and only a limited variety of introduced plant species remained in the soil. I could not see any recognisable indigenous vegetation.  As we pushed through some thick alien tree species, the river came into view.

What greeted us was a silent river. The dry cobble stones and a few puddles of polluted water lay muted in a sulphur stench. A thick black telephone cable looped high across the river and continued over the barbed wire fence demarking the boundary of the property. In one of the still ponds floated the remnants of a child’s game: a plastic Barbie doll missing its arms and legs and a similarly dismembered baby doll. My mother had become as voiceless as the river and was slowly tracing its banks...I deeply regretted bringing her on this journey.

The owner offered us a cup of tea and indulged my mother’s stories about the place. I enquired about the river and was told that it trickles in the summer months, and often overflows in the winter. My mother described how she used to swim in the river in the hot summers and that she could not remember it ever being that dry. From our conversation with the owner I gathered that the river had become an undesirable place. It was dangerous for her children to play there because it was polluted and it was frequented by unsavoury homeless characters. Once a year, as the snow melted on the mountain peaks, they lived in terror that their property would be flooded by the fast flowing and uncontainable river that sometimes broke its banks.

After our visit we tried to find some indigenous veld in the surrounding area, but it seemed that all the adjacent farms had been cultivated to the brim, destroying any remnants of what used to grow there.

The visit to the farm threw my mother into a depression that was palpable for weeks. My guilt over her state of grief was amplified by a realisation that my ancestors were unknowingly complicit in the destruction of the indigenous features of the landscape.  How do I connect with a place that is bereft of any indigenous life; a place that is now completely manipulated and changed by humans? How will I ever know what the landscape’s true nature is? The loss I felt raised new questions about what belonging to a place truly entails.

I recalled my meeting with the Protea cyneroides plant in Amsterdam and my hope that I could find answers from these ancient plants about belonging. But my chosen place, Raaswater, was stripped naked; any Proteaceae that used to grow there was uprooted to make space for the cultivation of ‘profitable’ species.  At this point I turned to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for assistance. They identified the flora that would have grown on Raaswater before its development as Breede Alluvium Fynbos. This endangered wetlands vegetation type contains a few Proteaceae species. 

One of these species had a common name that caught my attention; it was called the Worcester Silkypuff. Its Latin name, Diastella parilis, indicated a genus that I had not seen before. I was curious and did a virtual search for images. It was impossible to tell from the internet images what the size of this tender flower was. I knew it was a type of Protea and so in my imagination I created a flower that was about the size of a small fist. I fell in love with its delicate beauty.
Diastella parilis has been classified as critically endangered on the Red Data List. This means that there is an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild within the immediate future. According to the description on the website more than 75% of its habitat has been converted into vineyards, taken over by alien species, degraded through groundwater extraction and altered through the drainage of seasonal wetlands to serve agricultural expansion. 

At the time the species search website i-spot, failed to pin-point the location of the last remaining populations. As an amateur botanist, I felt completely overwhelmed to try and find such a rare flower in the vast Breede River Valley. To start with I would need permission to search for it on various pieces of privately owned land, be acquainted with its flowering time and know exactly what to look for.

SANBI has a division called CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wild Flowers) who specialises in searching, finding and documenting species in specific areas.  It happened that Worcester had its own local CREW group of volunteers and I asked to join them on their expeditions. I met Ishmael Ebrahim, the director of CREW, his assistants and the local people from Worcester interested in conservation. I spent many happy moments with them learning how to identify plants and shared their joy when we did find a rare species. The excursions familiarised me with the Breede River Valley landscape. Diastella parilis however eluded me. I realised that the CREW group had not visited Breede Alluvium Fynbos vegetation sites thus far and that is why I had not found any of the plants on my plant list. I came to understand that fynbos vegetation is very specific to its habitat and that certain plants would only grow in particular ecological circumstances. In fact, it is generally accepted that cultivating certain fynbos species is difficult.

Six months into my search, I decided to go and speak to the curator of the Proteacea family at Kirstenbosch, Louise Nurrish. Nurrish had been trying to cultivate Diastella parilis in her hothouse at Kirstenbosch. After a short meeting she announced excitedly that the plant has recently started to flower and that if I had time she could show it to me. We walked through passages of immature rare plants in containers until she stopped, lifted up a small pot and held it out towards me. I was astounded. It was indeed one of the most beautiful, gentle and vulnerable looking flowers I had ever seen. But instead of being the size of my fist, it was as big as my thumb nail. ‘Would you like to have one of these flowers?’ She asked me. I was dumbfounded. I silently nodded my head as she cut one of the precious blooms from the plant. That afternoon I made a small painting to celebrate my joy of meeting the physical flower at last. But my sense of dislocation continued.

Nurrish suggested that I visit the Herbarium to see what information they could give me about the location of the species. Thus I ended up at the local Herbarium where species from various landscapes meet in one filing cupboard under their collective genus which is filed within a plant family name.  I met the curator and requested to see the files on Diastella parilis. Again, I was amazed. Here, carefully adhered to a cardboard folder, I encountered perfectly preserved dried cuttings from as far back as the 1800s complete with handwritten notes. Each folder documented the date, month and location of the sighting. None I am afraid we seen on Raaswater.  Most of the inscriptions noted the location as the Slanghoek Valley and between the months of July to January.  I called Ishmael Ebrahim from CREW and asked him how I could access these privately owned farms to search for my flower. Ebrahim suggested I called an ecologist, Anso Le Roux, who was working in the Breede River Valley.

It was almost a year later, in December, that I finally found myself walking on a landscape very similar in typography to that of Raaswater but on the mirror side of the valley. Le Roux had introduced me to a local farmer and he kindly gave me permission to walk on his property.
The approach begins at the flatter pieces of land further away from the mountain which has been easier to develop. It is only after passing through a setting of monotonous lines of vineyards that the topography starts undulating gently and the landscape with indigenous vegetation comes into view. The visual contrast between the sterile, regulated monocultures and the diverse fynbos veld, which was alive with bird and insect life, was a sobering reminder of an ecological system lost in service of agricultural production.

As I walked, I unexpectedly came across a section of veld scattered with small fluffy pink flowers shining through the green-grey vegetation like sparkling stars. It was Diastella parilis in its natural habitat! For nearly a year I had been searching for this flower, one of the rarest on Earth, and suddenly here it was, growing abundantly in a small field.

I was overwhelmed and knelt down onto the soil in order to observe the flowers more closely. Each tiny flower-head was a universe in itself that consisted of a red waxy cup holding an exploding cosmos of minute light pink feathers and luminescent magenta stems topped with bright yellow pollen spheres. The structure of the flower heads reminded me of a Protea but at a miniature scale. On one of the flowers sat an equally minuscule bright green grasshopper. I later learnt that Diastella parilis is one of the unusual species of its genus to be pollinated by insects because it produces nectar.
My research revealed that Diastella parilis was so prolific in this pocket of land because the area was ravaged by an uncontrolled fire three years previously. I learnt that the entire plant is destroyed in a fire but that the seeds survive because of its seed dispersal agents, namely ants. Ants carry the seeds into their underground nests where they are safely stored. When conditions after the fire are favourable, these seeds germinate and Diastella parilis appears once more. It felt strange that these precious little shrubs existed peacefully amidst a military-like expanse of vineyards.

On closer inspection of the veld I discovered that my feelings of impending danger were justified. Adjacent to this field were grave sized pits, dug out to test the soil for extension of the vineyards. I realised that the reason Anso Le Roux knew about these plants was because she was determining the ecological impact of their removal on behalf of the farmer. After owning the land for six generations, he was legally obliged to have an ecological assessment done in order to obtain permission to plough his land. The price of grapes had dropped and his business was suffering. He later explained to me that for the survival of his children and future heirs, he needed to expand.

The fertility of the alluvial soil of the Breede River Valley was the reason why Diastella parilis lost its habitat. I collected some of the dugout soil and took it to my studio to see what I could learn. These damp and silent interactions affirmed earth as the marker of death but also the holder of potential for new life. We all, human and non-human, come from and disappear into the soil. The soil my ancestors appropriated from Diastella parilis became the place where I met with ghosts from the past and I heeded their counsel.

Over time this little flower crept into my heart and seeded in my inner landscape. Through this single connection so many others were made. These connections have become part of an understanding of my position in relation to my ancestors, other human beings, organisms and our shared environment.

If the place where these flowers bloom had to be destroyed I know that something in me will be destroyed.

[1] Drengson, A. and Devall,B. 2008.The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Berkeley: Counterpoint.