Bitter Pastoral – the voice of the land
‘Bitter Pastoral – A Talk About the Cederberg’ is the title of an essay written by my friend Stephen Watson, a South African writer who died after a short illness in April 2011. In it he attempts to describe his relationship with the Cederberg, a mountainous area near Cape Town, and through it the relationship between writing and landscape.
What follows is a response to Stephen’s seminal essay, published in his last book The Music in the Ice (Penguin South Africa, 2010). This is a fragmentary piece; I don’t give much direction to it, ranging as it does unannounced over Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, Stephen’s beloved Cederberg, and the grasslands of northern Kenya. But this seems the right way to do it. Perhaps because the relationship between two such monumental entities – landscape, thought – with their abstractions and their concreteness can never be fully explored. And perhaps because death itself is a fragmenting rupture; it blows everything to pieces.
February, 2011. Heathrow to Cape Town on British Airways. It is night and we are over the Sahara, which goes on forever. I am watching damp English dystopia in the form of the film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let me Go.
Although we tend to think of dystopia as a purely futuristic premise, Ishiguro’s novel is cleverly set in the past, with recognisably late eighties/early nineties cars, architecture, uniforms. Yet in this alternate past human cloning has been developed, and a generation of clones are slaughtered piecemeal so that the genetic oligarchy can receive spare parts, and thus be preserved.
The novel and film are provocative in many ways. They demand we question how accepting we are of the way society is positioned – politically, morally, historically: of how accepting we are of the past itself. We think, it was like that because it was like that. But the film suggests all our pasts could so easily have been different, and we would be similarly accepting of a recent past which had led to advances in medical science, which had in turn led to an NHS organ donor programme involving human clones.
In my own alternate past I am on this airplane to work with a friend who is not dying at all. We will have frantic conversations before my seminar with his students. He is that over-committed kind of teacher, always with a queue of students outside his door who simply want to talk to him. At home he has two small children who he feels torn from, in a way he never expected. So for me, as a colleague he will be that elusive element, a seam of shining malachite glimpsed as it threads among so much crushed carbon. In the alternate past the dark material of death does not glitter in our futures.
At 4am the plane drops out of the sky. We are skirting tropospheric thunderstorms over Gabon. I’d raised my windowshade and seen the lunkheaded clouds towering far beyond our flight altitude level. Lightning shears the sky close to the wing.
Everyone asleep wakes suddenly and grabs the back of the seat in front of them. ‘What time is it?’ The Swedish woman next to me says, in Swedish, to her husband. ‘Fyra,’ he replies. Four. I hear the word fear. But we stay aloft and somewhere over Walvisbaai in Namibia comes a milky dawn, then the megawatt southern hemisphere summer sun.
The Cederberg is a mountain range in South Africa’s Western Cape province. It’s a largely arid area, although threaded by rivers and streams; in these thin oases citrus is grown.
Stephen calls this place ‘the land with no fat.’ The Cederberg is red, Mars red. Looking at its looming shale mountains, and the dry cut valleys between them, it is hard to see what connection the Cederberg might have with the pastoral, as a literary and aesthethic convention more about shepherds and fields than this raw place.
‘The pastoral impulse itself has never died out if only because it is based on a constellation of human needs that can never be eradicated from the human psyche,’ Stephen writes. ‘This is the universal, undying human need to find a place in the world other than the world as we ordinarily know it.’
The pastoral is the place other to our everyday reality, he suggests. It is the place the ‘human mind ceaselessly constructs’ to evade ‘domestic irritations, political oppressions or metaphysical anxieties.’ It is a limitless reaching, a hunger for the ideal. But also a sacred place.
We might all have a vision of the perfect landscape, a place we journey to, imaginatively, in order to find solace or joy. But what if this place offers neither, at least on surface inspection? No brooks, fields, smudged Turner vistas, no Tuscan hill towns or wave-raked beaches.
‘I was forgetting, of course, that no one ever satisfactorily explains anything they love.’ This is Stephen’s caveat, declared at the beginning of the essay. ‘When the object of one’s passion is a range like the Cedarberg, one soon discovers that any attempt to define its spell, no matter how much one might have written about the place before is rather like trying to hit Mars with a pea-shooter.’
Why is it so hard to describe or explain what and who we love? What is the mystery which robs us of our expression? Could passion for a landscape be in any way like passion for a person, I wonder. Do they both render us mute to the same degree?
September 2011. I am walking 150 kilometres over seven days in the Namib desert, on the fringes of the Skeleton Coast National Park. The Ovambo called this place ‘The Land God Made in Anger’. The Bushman called it Bitterpits.
We walk 20-30 kilometers a day in tilt-a-wheel temperatures that go from 38 degrees during the day to near zero at night. ‘Each of us has an image of freedom,’ Stephen writes. And how much better and more free to walk, even here, in the second oldest desert in the world: in his essay Stephen quotes the Latin motto solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking), about how, in walking – and especially extreme or expeditionary walking – we become ‘something almost bodiless.’
And it’s true; I don’t eat much these searing days, and we all watch as our bodies turn lean and brown like kindling. There’s a weightless, thoughtless, quality to our voluntary forced march that is not unlike being buoyed by love for a person, a kind of trudging mania.
But we are bodies after all. We battle blisters, sunburn, trying not to sit under the tick bush nor step on a puff adder. I try to take the measure of the emptiness of this place with its red cut rocks, the scar of bustards in the sky.
The Namib might be an example of what Stephen terms the ‘anti-pastoral’, with the ‘austerity of its stone world.’ Here, unlike in the Cederberg, there are no oases, no physical space where we might seek succour from reality. There is no dizzying contrast between the soaked citrus grove and the Namaqua desert beyond its borders. And yet it is a refuge, these empty no-time hours when we walk twenty kilometers in silence, the only sound the wind rattling through buffalo thorns.
These days have been an ordeal, but also never long enough. I sleep in the desert with only a bedroll – no tent. It’s mostly safe, if you discount the snakes, scorpions, hyena and leopard. The payoff is going to sleep under the curdled constellations, the floodlight moon.
At night I dream we are sand-surfing on what looks like windsurf boards mounted with spinnakers; imprinted on them are the names of Damaraland, the Kaokoveld: Koppermyn and Mon Desir, Torra Bay and Sorris Sorris. Such reckless yearning names for drunken hamlets with an Engen station and a bottle store. There is some formula driving this, I feel, an attempt to solve that persistent equation between lavishness and desolation.
February, 2011. February is the hottest month in the Cederberg. Tourists are scarce – not many people can take the heat; during the day it is over 40 degrees.
The drive takes me first high above the verdant valley of the town into a mountain pass. Here twisted cedars defy the wind. Strange boulders, wind-carved, line the highway like statues. Then the road plummets into a wide flat valley, as far as the eye can see. I pull up under huge drooping trees and book in at the farm office. Traveller’s Rest is one of those oases in the Cederberg, a sudden explosion of green amid ochre and shale.
‘It takes an unusual person to see beauty here,’ says Haffie, the dowager owner of the farm where I am staying. ‘It’s not to everyone’s taste. Most people want green, they want the coast.’
So I do, I think. Then why am I here? The truth is, I’ve come in bleak sympathy with Stephen’s predicament. I wanted to be entirely alone here for a few days, to see if I could work out my own relationship with the area. I’ve been to the Cederberg once before, in 2010, and I responded to its bruised mountains, cannonball sunsets, how the evening goes down on fire. ‘The beauty of the Cedarberg, its charisma,’ Stephen writes, ‘is not separable from its desolation, its aridity, its poor soils and frequent droughts. At the same time, it seldom fails to offer us something more.’
Alone in my cottage, gold hours thud past. Columns of ants devour my food. The heat stuns all living things into a mid-day torpor.
Suddenly the electricity cuts out. Eskom, the electricity company, are doing work on the line and have cut off power to the entire district between Calvinia and Clanwilliam for the day. I have to shove everything in the freezer and not open it if I want all the food and drink I have bought to last in the heat. I flee for the day, driving to Lambertsbaai to have lunch, a hot drive made hotter by waiting in summer roadworks queues. When I arrive at the town I find a fish processing plant spuming stink over the harbour and down-at-heel hotels facing an empty sea.
On my way back a rainstorm brews. Cold cobalt clouds amass over the citrus farms that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. The clouds are rolling in from the north, all the way from Namibia. I don’t know I will walk 150 km in the Namib desert in six months’ time – that decision is still ahead of me.
For the last eight months I have felt a pull to return to South Africa, as if I had to return to make sure this landscape was real. I think of the day Stephen took me for a walk on the mountain above St James. We reached the top and he turned to me and said, ’You see how easy it is to become obsessed with this place.’ We were looking out onto False Bay, into the bony mountains that stab the southern ocean on either side. It was a Sunday in April, early autumn, but a thin heat remained.
‘Yes,’ I said, and felt it: the rush of obsession. Stephen’s eyes devoured the horizon. I could see then for certain he was of this place. He would never make the mistake I have made, of loving a country that is not mine.
The nights in the Cederberg are rough. I feel alone, vulnerable. Anyone could come through the door; the bottom panel doesn’t lock properly. It is 28 degrees and I have no fan, so I have to leave all the windows open. I have a dream called ‘The Watching Eyes’, a Reality TV/simulated dystopia programme. People on a plane undergo experiments and change shape or matter. In this reality TV programme I am working at a Farm Stall like the one Haffie’s daughter Charity runs here.
I wake up exhausted from the dream. I open the curtains and a hungry red bores into my eyes. Today it will be 39 degrees.
September, 2011. We are up each morning before dawn and so observe how just before the sun vaults the horizon the wind picks up, out of nowhere. There is no breeze, not even a ruffle, only a convection of cold wind in our faces. When the interior of the country is cold at night, an east wind blows in the morning.
This is my third time in Namibia. I don’t know what keeps me coming back to this blasted landscape and its bizarre allure. Never go back somewhere you have been happy. The return is never the same as the first time, because we are haunted by memories and harassed by expectations. It’s not quite nostalgia, that living in a soft-focus citadel of the past.
Literary scholar Dennis Walder has written of nostalgia as a ‘tenderness’ for ‘fragments of our past, pieces of ourselves.’ A postcolonial theorist, he calls nostalgia a ‘global epidemic of longing’ for a place that was once safe, before rapacity and superficiality overtook us.
I’ve always thought of writers as nostalgics par excellence, that this might even be the definition of a writer: someone who spends too much of their time wondering not why or how things went wrong, but exactly when. I wonder if nostalgia is actually an unconscious understanding that we are not on a linear track through life at all, rather we are revolving like planets around an invisible sun, caught in time which is not an arrow but a spiral. We are only trying to get back: to the original moment when we were loved, where we were loved. Then there is the perverse, writerly longing to return to the moment just before things went wrong. The turning point.
For some reason I’ve kept the bar receipt from my final night on that last trip to Namibia, in Swakopmund, after we had finished our monumental Skeleton Coast walk, which has its own story of things going wrong, untold here. It’s from the Tug, the ship-themed bar and restaurant that reaches out into the cold Atlantic. It is one of those thermally inked receipts which fade in time so you can’t see what you bought, or how much it cost.
February 2011. I speak to Stephen on the phone, because he is too weak to have visitors.
I say, ‘I’ll be back in August.’
‘Who knows, I might still be here.’ Stephen says. His voice is completely normal, not the sheared, exhausted voice of a sick man.
After we ring off I pace the garden outside for a long time, listening to the saw call of the Hadeda Ibis, the squeak of Cape guineafowl. The harbour is static in the afternoon heat; the supertankers twirl on their anchors.
I go back to reading his Cederberg essay. ‘…here is a mountainscape both dry yet shining, desolate yet rich… it is one of those places where the world is pared back to its geological origins, to the stone which is the real floor of the world.’
Then I am overtaken by something very powerful, and I can’t read his book anymore. It’s about the voice I hear in my head as I read, his voice, which will soon not exist.
This is what I think now, after spending the last eight years in empty places – Antarctica, the Arctic, on ships at sea on long passages, South Africa, Namibia and lately the Northern Rangelands of Kenya: the land is speaking. It is broadcasting a message on a frequency which is ultimately inaccessible, but we can still detect it. If only we could decode it then we would have the key to an essential knowledge. Something about not wanting more from the moment than it is prepared to divulge, about letting go of expectations of any particular outcome. It sounds like the wind, but it’s something else.
September, 2011. As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the PURE LAND. This painting, by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, hangs above my desk in London. It is a horizon-awed canvas, a single Rothko line between a muted sky and land.
Ahead of me I see it, or a version of it. We walk for seven hours with hardly any rest. The rains have been so plentiful this year we have been walking through undulating curtains of sable grass.
We are nearing the end of our expedition. The last hour up Doros crater is a vertical scramble. At the top of Doros Crater we play Sinatra’s ‘Fly me to the Moon’ on a mobile phone. The view is so impressive it takes on a calamitous aspect. A khaki plain stretches for a hundred miles in all directions, punctuated by anvil-shaped drumlins. These Dwyka formations stretch all the way down to Table Mountain in Cape Town, where they dissolve abruptly into a cold sea.
I have brought only one book on this walk, Stephen’s collection of poems, The Return of the Moon, which is about the Bushman’s life and thought, and is based on the famous Bleek/Lloyd translations of the San language. The poems are written as if spoken by the Bushman. In one, the narrator says that a man is truly dead only when his spoor fills with rain, and that people who die become stars:
There are whole clans of people –
Men, women and children –
Long since become stars.
Stephen believed that the body of the writer absorbed the message the landscape was broadcasting. That was why expeditionary walking was important to him; through its hardships, its rigours, through that pleasing click or refrain it places in your head, the body received the message, and understood what it needed to write. We become transmitters.
I sit up and look into the yellow wind of the Namib, trying to hear the tense, resinous tone of this land. Instead I hear Stephen’s voice – as a poet, as a person, it still rings in my mind; its intensity out of place with those languid Capetonian vowels, the humour that always loitered at the edges of even the most sombre sentence, his near-cackle of a laugh. Only when you stop remembering what someone’s voice sounds like are they truly dead.
February 2011. Towns of southern Mauritania appear and are surpassed on the Your Journey flightmap.
At the end of Never Let Me Go, Kathy, who we now know is a human clone, will soon be called up for organ donation service and so begin her piecemeal death. Her predicament is a metaphor of course, for how we are all being dismantled by time, by our human frailty, and how our acceptance of it is our only possible defence against our impotence in the face of death.
Her childhood friend and boyfriend have been killed. She is alone. She can ask nothing of her dead lover. She hadn’t understood that such a love was even possible. But at the same time she fails to feel betrayed by the system that has killed him, and will soon kill her. It is not a betrayal because nothing more was promised.
Kathy drives to sunlit field, where she gets out of the car to watch a plastic bag caught on a barbed wire fence flutter in the wind – a ruined pastoral, perhaps, this random field and hedgerow in an alternative England. We hear her thoughts in voice-over: ‘Do any of us really ever understand what we have lived through, or feel that we’ve had enough time?’
We see her facing the field lit with the tangerine flare of a late spring sun in England. Something is moving through her. It is not the wind, or not exactly. Something else that cuts and cauterises. We don’t know her thoughts any more in that moment, but she seems to understand how it comes upon her, ungenerated by her desires, her needs. Then it passes through her like the wind.