The Cabinet of Curiosities (part 1)

(the part with no cabinet of curiosities in it)

Should you ever visit the 23thorns household, please be careful about what you touch. Not that your touching our stuff would bother us; we gave up any rights to possessions of our own the day nature started using bits of Mrs 23thorns and me to form smaller, less co-ordinated versions of ourselves with poor impulse control and a complete absence of common sense.

Nope. We are not worried about our stuff. We are worried about your peace of mind.

It’s all Mrs 23thorn’s fault.

Mrs 23 thorns, you see, has a “more is more” approach to interior decorating. Our bed currently has forty eight pillows on it. We lost the girl child in it one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and only found her on Sunday morning, by following the trail of dry chocolate cereal she had cleverly left under the duvet.

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It once took us three weeks to realise the bed had been stolen.

But it is not pillows that concern us now. It’s little boxy things. Little antiquey boxy things, made of china, or silver, or pewter, with hallmarks or pottery marks or porcelain marks on the bottom, and blackened, creaky hinges, and strange, ancient residues lurking in hard-to-reach corners. Mrs 23thorns tells me they are pill boxes. She tells me she is collecting them because they are beautiful and bring a small part of history alive.

This is a lie.

She is using them to spite me because I can’t get into the habit of using a coaster. Her plan is a simple one; she has covered every square centimetre of every surface of our house with Victorian pill boxes. I haven’t been able to put a glass down in our house for seven years. If I want something to drink these days, I have to tie it around my neck with a leather cord and sip it through a straw. Or I have to wear my special hat. The children have taken to drinking their own bath-water to stay hydrated.

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It’s best to give me a 2 metre “circle of avoidance” when I’m wearing my special hat.

So what has any of this got to do with your peace of mind? Well, every single one of those boxes has something inside it. There are rusted old keys that belong to long forgotten locks; there are brightly coloured little elastic bands; shells; obscure coins from countries none of us have visited. There are acacia thorns and chewed-up chewing gum (boy children are gross). There are buttons, and beads, and curtain hooks, and spent watch batteries.

As of last week, about seven of them were filled with home-made “lip balm” brewed up by Mrs 23thorns and Miss 23thorns. They claim it is made out of coconut oil and lavender essence. I think it is made of lard. So does the dog. You can spot the lip balm pill boxes because they have tooth marks all over them and smell of dog-breath.

In one of the most enticing boxes, a flashy little porcelain number with a pheasant on top, there is a dead toad. A very, very dead toad.

Upside down, he is exquisite; a thing of surpassing beauty. I found him in our borehole pumphouse under an old bag of cement. He must have died there quite some time ago, out of reach of anything large enough to crush his delicate bones or drag bits of him off to gnaw at in hidden corners. He was cleaned by ants, busy little surgeons with a touch so delicate that even the toes, as fine and as fragile as needles of glass, are still in place. To turn him over and examine him is to view a museum specimen.

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As long as you’re not too discerning about which museums you visit.

You won’t be turning him over, though. You will be meandering around my house trying to find a place where you can put your glass down when your attention will be attracted by a little porcelain pill box with a pheasant on it. You will open it. He will be in there. And he won’t be upside down. Right way up, he looks like he has come for a small piece of your soul.

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BRAAAIIINS!!!!

I am not suggesting, for even half a second, that you are the sort to be frightened by dead amphibians, though. Nope. The workings of the 23thorns household are more insidious than that. You would already have been thrown off balance by your inability to put down your glass, and if we did not immediately take to you, we would have put you to the test by bringing you another two drinks without taking any of your empty glasses away.

Pretty soon, you would start to worry. Not about dead toads, but about people. The sort of people would keep dead toads in pillboxes sitting on the table in their foyer.

This process would be helped along by the eleven-year-old boy in the corner with the vacant stare who kept twitching and grunting while making vague intentional movements with his arms, and the six-year-old girl who kept grinning at you without blinking. That’s when we would tell you about the dead cow’s head we had buried in the flowerbed.

Don’t worry about the kids. The boy is merely busy fighting off a marauding band of orcs in an unseen corner of his imagination, while the girl-child is waiting for you to say something about her freshly missing front teeth. And the cow’s head? Don’t worry about that either. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, too.

It was a gift from a friend.

Yup. Some people get flowers. I got the head of a freshly-killed cow that had apparently been slaughtered with a sledgehammer. It was handed over to me in a plastic shopping bag in a busy shopping mall.

Blood and small, clotted masses of brain tissue had pooled in the bottom of the bag, and were slowly starting to drip down onto the pristine white tiled floor. I felt the head through the thin plastic of the bag. It wasn’t moving right. Small bits of bone grated against each other, and when I felt the horns, they jiggled slightly, like loose teeth in a six-year-old girl. I did the only thing a man could do under such circumstances. I bought five kilograms of rock-salt and a plastic bucket, and set forth home, leaving a trail of blood and gristle behind me.

I popped the shattered head into the bucket and covered it with rock-salt, tucked it away on a shelf in an outside room and carried on with my day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Then Mrs 23thorns told me I wasn’t allowed to keep a rotting dead cow’s head in a bucket full of rock-salt in the outside room. She can be a little tricky sometimes.

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I don’t wish to sound sexist, but choosing gifts for women is next to impossible.

I washed the rock-salt off the head, while demonstrating truly masterful control over my gag reflex, and buried it in the flowerbed. As one does.

Fear not, gentle reader. The 23thorns household has not begun the slow descent into serial-killerdom. We are a sensible lot, and everything we do, we do for a reason. And the reason for all this? It’s rather simple.

Termites.

We have a large, barely-controlled garden that we are trying to fill with life. Up until now, we have tolerated whatever pests have moved in in the hope that nature would sort them out in the end. So far, she has done.

But then, a couple of years ago, termites moved into the bottom edge of our lawn. And ate it.

4605065-986

To be fair, we might not have watered as often as we should have, either.

 

There was a simple solution. Poison.

Hah. Simple solutions are for simple people. Instead, we dug up the lawn and filled the space with a snake-mountain, the upside-down fibreglass cap of a thatched roof, and a shed filled with dead animals. Again, as one does.

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this very well. Let me start again.

A few years ago, we inherited an old and decaying plywood shed. I painted it to look like a quaint stone cottage and set it up in the darkest, most remote part of the garden for the children to play in.

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We told them there was a troll living underneath to to spark their childish curiosity.

For some reason, they never used it.

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This reason. Yes, those are baby spiders. And yes, that bag made of leaves and silk is where their mother lives…

Nerds. It lay fallow for years, slowly filling with broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes, unused tiles and black widows, as such places do.

It stopped being quaint after about 2 weeks and became a hideous eyesore that we simply ignored until the termites ate our lawn.

We dug up the scraggly remains of the termite-blighted lawn and piled them up on one side. That left us with a vast open patch of soil and a mound of turf. I discussed the matter with the girl-child, and we agreed that the best solution was to move the shed up to the newly denuded patch, restore it, and convert it into a man-cave for Dad.

She thought that this was a wonderful idea, and immediately set about deciding which of her Barbies would be moving into the man-cave, and what furniture they would be bringing with them.

I sat her down and explained to her as gently as I could that a man-cave was a special place that Dads built so they could hide away from people like her and Barbie for a little while each day. She explained to me as gently as she could that she knew that, and that was why she was choosing only her best seven Barbies to go and live there. Mrs 23thorns can smell blood in the water better than any shark, and came bustling through at high speed to suggest we paint the man-cave aquamarine and white, and surround it with Peonies and Nasturtiums. She looks harmless, but the woman has a mean streak.

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At least she chose the manliest of flowers…

I decided that a battle deferred is a battle won, and set to work. I emptied out the broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes and unused tiles from the shed, and made a pile of them in the middle of the open patch. Then I piled the old turf on top of them, making sure to leave a couple of entrances open to the junk beneath.

I did not do this because I was too lazy to take the junk to the dump. I did it because I want snakes in my garden. These snakes.

SC_0023

I don’t think the person who named them knew how lips worked.

That’s a Red-Lipped Herald. A few years ago, our neighbour decided to clean up an old pile of wood at the bottom of his garden. He got a team of guys in to carry it out to the pavement one day, and when I arrived home, there it lay. On it lay five dead Red-Lipped Heralds. Which is a little upsetting. Red-Lipped Heralds are only mildly venomous, and live on frogs and toads. There is no need to kill them.

My garden is full of frogs and toads. And now that I have built them a hollow snake mountain next to my aquamarine man-cave, the Heralds are bound to move in. Me and the seven best Barbies in the family will sit among the peonies and watch them sunning themselves on sultry summer afternoons as we hide from the girls.

Or at least that’s the plan. So far I’ve just got a pile of old grass on top of a rusty old wheelbarrow and some broken pots. At least things eventually started growing on it.

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That dark part at the bottom there is where the snakes are supposed to go in.

Which leads me to the upside down thatched-roof cap. The snake mountain, you see, started to reach a dangerous height long before I ran out of turf. I had to stop building it before it toppled over on one of the children and someone called family services (we wouldn’t stand a chance if they found out about the dead toad and the cow’s head).

Which left me with a large pile of turf.

I have long had a theory that Mrs 23thorns is secretly attracted to men with hernias, so I went out and collected a bunch of huge rocks. I made another tiny mountain of turf, and used the rocks to build a tiny cliff along one edge of it.

It turns out tiny cliffs look a little odd, so I decided to build a tiny lake at the bottom of it. And how do you make tiny lakes? Out of upside down fiberglass thatched roof caps, of course.

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A fiberglass thatched roof cap. Or half of Madonna’s bra. Google wasn’t clear.

The tiny lake wasn’t just there to add scale to my tiny cliff. It was there to act as a breeding pond for more frogs and toads. Which would attract more Red-Lipped Heralds to the snake mountain. Which would make me and the seven best Barbies in the family happy.

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I know that all you can see is a pond with some stones behind it. I see a tiny cliff and a tiny lake. Self delusion is a gift.

And then it was time to move the shed. I carried it up piece by piece (in the hopes of delighting Mrs 23thorns with a really spectacular hernia), bolted it all back together, and clad it in white and aquamarine planks.

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Until I built this, I was convinced that this colour was “blue”. The girl child assures me it is “aquamarine”.

Which leads me to the title of this post. And the dead toad in the Victorian pill box.

Right from the outset, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never get a man-cave. Me-time is not a thing in our family. The only way you get to be alone in our house is if you stop bathing, and even that doesn’t work if anyone has a cold.

I also knew that my children would not spend any significant amount of time in a shed down at the bottom of our garden. Particularly not if some fool let it slip that said shed was the centrepiece of a garden designed to attract semi-venomous snakes (In my defence, I had no idea the kids would be so underhanded as to eavesdrop on the private progress meeting I was conducting with the seven best Barbies in the family).

So what do you do with an aquamarine and white shed surrounded by peonies, tiny cliffs, nasturtiums and snake mountains? If you are married to Mrs 23thorns, you look to history.

History has some cool stuff in it, like Vikings and tarantism.

And cabinets of curiosities. Those are beyond cool. And are, traditionally, Barbie free. From the moment I first saw one, I wanted one. And now I’ve got one. Or rather I’m getting one.

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Sadly mine will have slightly fewer human skulls in it.

I’ll tell you all about it when it’s ready. I have no idea when that will be. That depends on how long it takes the ants to strip the flesh from the shattered cow’s head in the flower bed. And how long it takes the enormous emerald beetle living in our TV room to die.

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I’m not saying I wish he would hurry up and die, but those matches are there just in case he is into self immolation…

I found him dying in the street the other day and took him home. I popped him into an old fish tank to live out his final moments, so I could mount him and frame him and stick him up on the wall.

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He is still there, feeding cheerfully off slices of apple and human fear. When he is done, my cabinet of curiosities will be done, and I’ll show it to you. And explain why I have a cow’s head in the flowerbed. And a dead toad in a pill box in the foyer.

Don’t hold your breath, though. He appears to be immortal.

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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

Magic Guarri

Trees are magical. A proper big, spreading, ancient broad-leafed tree falls into the same category as rounded, ancient rocks and deep, clear pools of water.

 

Magic

Magic.

We are drawn to these things. They make us quiet. They make us want to reach out and touch them, as if doing so will allow us to feel the pulse of the earth itself; will allow us to become part of something bigger and infinitely wiser than ourselves.

 

Magic.

Magic.

We have always known that trees can hold magic. The Vikings believed the cosmos was held up by a giant Ash called Yggdrasil. The druids worshipped in groves of spreading oaks. The Maoris declared the largest Kauri trees to be royalty.

 

Magic.

Magic.

It’s time for another Lowveld post. One about plants. Or just one plant. But it is a magical one. Here’s one now;

 

Magic?

Magic?

Were you stuck dumb with awe? Did you feel the pull of the ancient gods? Did you sense that you were in the presence of royalty, or feel a sudden urge to sacrifice a goat? Not? Oh come now! It is not, I will concede, much to look at. But it is a proper magic tree! More so than the Ash and the Oak; their magic is lost to us. We stopped believing, and now all they have left is the power to make us feel inexplicably moved in their presence.

Not so my little tree. Its name says it all. It is a Magic Guarri. Or, if you have a more scientific bent, Euclea Divinorum. And it is the sort of thing that makes you believe that it was placed on earth by a benevolent god specifically for the benefit of mankind.

Let’s get the woowoo magic out of the way first. The divinorum part of its Latin name comes from the fact that a decoction of the roots is used by some tribes for the purposes of divination. But that’s not the only type of divining it’s used for. A fresh twig of Magic Guarri is said to quiver when close to an underground water source. Yup; it’s used for dowsing, too.

But that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. Twigs are broken off and carried around or hung up in the eaves of houses as good luck charms and to ward off witches and bad luck. And yes, witches are as real to some of the people living in Africa as they were in Europe and the States during the witch hunts. In some rural areas, people are still driven from their homes or even killed on suspicion of witchcraft. Lightning strikes and sudden illnesses don’t happen by themselves.

 

I'm warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I'm reporting you to the inquisition.

I’m warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I’m reporting you to the inquisition.

So much for old-school magic. Now for the real stuff; the Magic Guarri is so staggeringly useful to the people of Africa that it doesn’t need evil spirits to exist to deserve its name.

We’ll start with the wildlife tourism stuff since that’s what these posts are about, mostly. If you go on a guided walk, or even, often enough, a guided drive in the bush, you are going to get to see the Magic Guarri. Your guide will stop, stroll over to a Magic Guarri, and break off a bunch of twigs. He’ll strip a bit of bark off the end, and crush the fibrous wood so that it ends up looking like a primitive paintbrush.

Leaf300

Then he’ll make you brush your teeth with it.

 

It's best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

It’s best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

Do not be offended. He does not have issues with your dental hygiene. He is trying to keep you engaged because the cool things like leopards and lions and elephants are not lurking around every corner, despite what you may have seen on the Discovery Channel. And he’s onto something.

The Magic Guarri tree has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. So much so that it is also known as the toothbrush tree. And here’s the really interesting part; it used to be thought that they were used like this simply because the twigs are really fibrous and made a good, stiff brush. Until a scientific someone took a closer look. It turns out that Magic Guarri wood has powerful anti-bacterial qualities that are only now being explored. That’s right; Magic Guarri is the natural equivalent of the sort of toothpaste that nine out of ten dentists would recommend.

If you’re doing the whole touristy thing, you might want to pick up a curio or two. A traditional African basket is always a good option. You will not realise it, but you will have stumbled across the Magic Guarri’s next remarkable quality; colour.

Let’s just say that you go for a nice multi-coloured number like this one;

basket

Your basket will have been dyed with Magic Guarri. Not just one of the colours; all of them. Magic Guarri is rich in tannins, and the bark is used to make a variety of different shades of brown dye.

Which is no big deal. Lots of trees are used to make dyes. But the Magic Guarri is a bit of a show-off. The bark may be brown, but the roots are deep red. They are chewed to turn the mouth a rather fetching red colour (far more practical than lipstick), to tan leather, and to dye floor mats so dark they are almost black.

And then, as if to prove the Magic Guarri is a sport of the gods and not a nice, sensible, naturally evolved tree, you can make purple ink out of the berries.

Speaking of which. The berries are edible, but not very nice. Do not, for one second, think you have found a chink in the Guarri’s armour. The fruits are used for making beer, which makes them very important indeed. They are also, since the Guarri thrives on multi-tasking, medicine. They are used as a laxative.

 

Magic!

Very important indeed.

Which pales to insignificance compared to the rest of the tree. Medicinal plants are a source of endless fascination to some and grinding tedium to many, so I’m going to rattle through this rather quickly. In order to live up to its name, various parts of the Magic Guarri are used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, cancer, open sores, arthritis, jaundice, snakebite, gonorrhoea, headaches, toothaches, and, I kid you not, leprosy (yup, like witchcraft, leprosy is still a thing in Africa).

A decoction of the roots is used to treat infertility. Once it has sorted out this problem, it is taken to treat stomach cramps and contractions during pregnancy. And just to prove that it will not abandon you in your time of greatest need, it is then taken to prevent miscarriages.

When I said that the Guarri was a bit of a show-off, I meant it. Remember those berries you took as a laxative? Do not be alarmed if they turn out to be a little too effective. That pregnancy causing, easing, and saving potion also acts as a natural version of Imodium.

 

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

You are, I hope, starting to form the vague impression that the Magic Guarri is quite useful. But we’re not done yet. It does some other things, too. In some parts of Africa, the branches are used to purify drinking water (it’s that whole anti-bacterial thing again). Even better than that, branches are added to milk to make it more digestible and stop it from going off. For more than a year. Which is kind of handy if you’re a traditional pastoralist without access to electricity.

But what if you’re not a traditional pastoralist? All the uses I’ve mentioned so far can be prefaced by the quietly belittling word “traditional”. Does this mean that the magic of the Guarri is going to go the way of that of the Ash and the Oak as the influence of the West is more strongly felt? Maybe not.

The Guarri has another trick up its sleeve. It has an unusually high tolerance for some heavy metals. And arsenic. Where there is lots of arsenic in the soil, there is lots of Magic Guarri. Which would be vaguely interesting, except for one thing. Finding lots of arsenic in the soil is a pretty good sign that there is something else there, too. Gold. Yup. Finding lots of Magic Guarri might help you find lots of gold.

 

I'll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

I’ll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

You might have picked up that the Guarri is a firm believer in overkill. Once you’ve found your gold, you are going to want to rip it and tear it and grind it from the earth. And you’re going to leave a bit of a mess. A poisonous mess. Gold mining waste pits are not exactly easy to rehabilitate. Almost nothing will grow on them. Almost.

Magic Guarri will. And it just so happens that it is remarkably good at holding together eroding soil.

So there you have it. An unassuming little tree that just happens to be one of the most coincidentally useful plants on the planet; there are other, more useful plants, but they have been bred over millennia for the purpose. The Magic Guarri was just kind of lying around waiting for us.

And that’s the thing. It is useful for us. Not much else. Birds eat the fruit, and a few animals browse the leaves, but not very enthusiastically (all those tannins make it rather bitter and, in excess, poisonous). Its bounty seems to have been reserved for mankind alone; an exclusive gift from mother-nature.

 

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Or maybe not. The Guarri has one final magic trick up its sleeve. And it’s not for us. It talks to the plants around it. And it does so to save their lives.

When the Magic Guarri is suffering from some sort of environmental stress, such as drought, it releases a pheromone into the air around it. And the plants surrounding it pick this up and respond by increasing the level of tannins in their leaves. Which makes them unpalatable to browsers. Which is kind of handy when you need all of your bits to carry you through the hard times.

Yup. Not content to live a life of selfless service to mankind, the Guarri takes time off to perform a little selfless service for its leafy brothers and sisters every now and then.

So there you have it. It is, I am willing to concede, no noble forest giant. You would not reach out a hand to feel the pulse of the world through its trunk, or strip off your clothes and dance naked in the moonlight beneath its spreading boughs. But should you ever pass one by, pause for a second to tip your hat to it. It is, after all, not every day you come across a magical gift from the old gods.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Unless, of course, you live here.

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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Game birds

I haven’t posted in a while. I could give you a thousand spurious reasons for this, but the truth is that I’ve been avoiding it because I need to do a post about birds. I’m not a birder. But if I’m trying to cover the entire ecosystem of the Lowveld, I will have to deal with the birds at some stage, because there happen to be quite a few of them.

I have managed a couple of bird posts, and now it’s time for another one. But I’m not really sure what to call these birds. Lurkers maybe. Skulkers. They are sometimes referred to as game birds, since there is a particular sort of person out there that prefers shooting them with shotguns to a nice, quiet round of Scrabble.

I can never remember... Is it pheasants or peasants that we're after?

I can never remember… Is it pheasants or peasants that we’re after?

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Miniature buck.

I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not my fault. A bird got in the way. A Francolin. Every now and then I start a post and it either doesn’t feel right or I just lose interest. This time I didn’t just start, I got two thousand words in. I was writing about game birds. I got up to the Francolins, and went off to bed. That was nearly two weeks ago. I sat down a couple of times, looked at the damn Francolins, and thought “meh”. And wrote angry diatribes about our government for a local news site instead.

Meh.

Meh.

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News

I have a new blog! Isn’t that exciting?

No. No it is not. There is, I fear, nothing new there.

When I started 23thorns.com, all the advice I could find said that I should pick a topic or theme and stick to it, so I decided to write about as many different things as I could.

Despite my attempts to do so, the bulk of my posts seem to have been about wildlife. I’ve decided to start a new blog full of old stuff. I am reposting all of my old wildlife and Lowveld posts, just to see how this whole focussed approach thing works out. Continue reading

The Baobab. Part 2.

Right! Here we are again! I’m never quite sure how to do this; last week, I wrote part 1 of a post about Baobabs. It had a 750 word introduction. And now I’m setting forth on Part 2, which should, I suppose, have absolutely no introduction at all. Which would just seem wrong.

So we’ll just do a quick recap and soldier on. Here goes with the recap; Baobabs are big, but not tall. They are old, but it’s hard to tell how old. And they are succulents. That’s pretty much it, except that it took me nearly 2000 words to say it, which seems, in retrospect, to be a little excessive. Oh well, let’s see if we can grind out another 2000 words.

Being an enormous succulent is not without its risks. You may have noticed that Baobabs look kind of elephantine. Which is a little ironic, because Baobabs have a mortal enemy. One that also looks a little elephantine.

Twins!

Twins!

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The Baobab. Part 1.

My mother doesn’t like rhinos. She doesn’t actively dislike them; they just leave her cold. She’s indifferent to them. She loves wildlife just as much as the rest of my family, and will happily spend hours watching a pair of squirrels running around the stoep or haul herself out of bed in the middle of the night to watch the shifting shadow of an elephant crash its way past the house in the moonlight, but set her up in front of a prehistoric 2500kg behemoth with a pair of sharpened spikes at one end, and she will set about wondering what to cook for supper or trying to remember whether or not she turned off the lights in the bathroom that morning.

Ho hum. I wonder if there's anything good on TV this afternoon.

Ho hum. I wonder if there’s anything good on TV this afternoon.

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