Growin’ in the Wind (Early Spring)

When we passed through New Hampshire en route home after our holiday in Maine earlier this year, Kiera lead us to the wonderful Portsmouth Book & Bar. It was there that I picked up a copy (for $5) of My Summer in a Garden written by Charles Dudley Warner in 1870. It is a delightful book, full of surprising and amusing insights into the pursuit of gardening.

In the introduction, written by Allan Gurganus, a distinction is made between “gardeners (and) those who wish to prettify their yards.”  My garden is certainly not a pretty one. That is not to say that I didn’t set out to create a pretty garden, it just didn’t turn out that way. I like pretty gardens, they appeal to my latent sense of orderliness. One knows immediately who the sovereign is when you enter the realm of weed free, manicured lawns and colour coordinated, insect free flowers and shrubs. And it sure ain’t nature!

My Summer in a Garden is part of the Modern Library Gardening Series and Michael Pollan writes an introduction to the collection in which he likens the garden to an arena rather than a refuge. I can imagine gardeners as valiant gladiators going into combat against invasives and invaders, the only armour being uv protection hats and gloves. And, at the end of the day, Mother Nature is always there on her throne to give the wasted and wounded warriors a pollice verso.

In the 7th week of his summer in the garden, Charles Dudley Warner writes:

 I am more and more impressed, as summer goes on, with the inequality of man’s fight with Nature ….. The minute (man) begins to clear a spot larger than he needs to sleep in for a night, and try to have his own way in the least, Nature is at once up, and vigilant, and contests him at every step with all her ingenuity and unwearied vigor. This talk of subduing Nature is pretty much nonsense. I do not intend to surrender in the midst of the summer campaign, yet I cannot but think how much more peaceful my relations would now be with the primal forces, if I had let Nature make the garden according to her own notion.

When one gets almost weary of the struggle, she is as fresh as at the beginning, – just, in fact, ready for the fray. I, for my part, begin to appreciate the value of frost and snow; for they give the husbandman a little peace, and enable him, for a season, to contemplate his incessant foe subdued. I do not wonder that the tropical people, where Nature never goes to sleep, give it up, and sit in lazy acquiescence.

When I took the decision to let the natural bush grow up into the garden, I really didn’t take into account that wildlife would follow. Now, I love the birds that visit us and wouldn’t have it any other way, but they do make an awful mess! Weavers strip the leaves off branches to clear space for their nests, wagtails have taken to perching on the veranda furniture and poeping all over it, francolins (spurfowl) scratch up all the little perennial seedlings in the flower beds, and mousebirds have a penchant for eating lampranthus (vygie) flowers.

As much as they make a mess, birds don’t really destroy a garden. They leave that to buck and rodents. It has been so terribly dry here that the buck, for the first time, are coming into the garden to look for food. I have never seen the garden looking so depleted. We are constantly devising methods to thwart them. Our recent experiment has been to collect buck droppings and soak them, in a plastic bag with holes, in a bucket of water. We then use the liquid to water the plants being munched by the buck, mostly aggies, bulbines, day lilies and roses, all of which grow in great profusion in my garden. Apparently buck will not eat any plants smelling of buck poo. Obviously I’m not keen to apply this to our veggies so we have had to make our allotment buck proof by closing up the sides with extra shade cloth and wire.

The rats are more difficult to keep out. We have an owl box but no tenants. In fact I haven’t noticed many owls about. The rats are helping themselves to the veg seedlings. I am now looking for an electrical rat trap that we can put in the allotment to deter them from annihilating all our seedlings. Our neighbour has a ginger tom that comes prowling around here at night so perhaps he will help to keep the rodent population down. I don’t want to encourage him though because of all the birds we have in the garden. Layla surprised us all by catching and killing a couple of rats and earned herself some biltong treats.

And then, of course there is the weather. Spring has had a slow start this year. Our first rains came only a few days ago after several weeks of hot, dry and windy conditions. We desperately need more rain as the water that we use to irrigate the field and the allotment is running worryingly low.

C D W observes:

 The principal value of a (vegetable) garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues, – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation.

Indeed! So what is growing in the garden?

In the veg garden (aka the allotment) we have the first of the spring veggies coming on. These are some of my favourite greens: asparagus, artichokes, broad beans and sugar snap peas. The sugar snap peas were badly frosted in June and died right back. We left them (out of laziness) and they recovered and are now producing sweet crunchy pods at a very rapid rate. It just goes to show! There are also plenty of the old standbys of veg gardens the world over – spinach and lettuce.

We transplanted about 100 strawberry plants out of the allotment into the field adjacent to the orchard as well as some raspberry and blackberry canes and a couple of blueberry bushes. They have all taken and are looking good. We also planted in the field potatoes, mealies, pumpkin, squash and onions. (Strangely enough, the rats and buck have not discovered them yet.) This leaves more room in the allotment for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, leeks, gems, courgettes and beans. None of these are doing much at the moment.

The garden is looking very bleak; the only colour is coming from fruit tree blossom and azaleas. Hopefully the modicum of rain that we had recently will spur things on a bit.

spring veggies

spring veggies

all the Chinese cabbage bolted in the hot, dry weather

all the Chinese cabbage bolted in the hot, dry weather

I planted these geraniums on Milo's grave. They're called Angels Eyes.

I planted these geraniums on Milo’s grave. They’re called Angel Eyes.

the banksia roses, before the buck had them for a midnight snack

the banksia roses, before the buck had them for a midnight snack

flowering cherry blossom

flowering cherry blossom

acanthus mollis

acanthus mollis

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I’m in the middle of a minor existential shake-up (“omigod, not another one,” I hear you say). It began a short while ago when I was browsing through some blogs featured on WordPress and came across one that opened with a quote from a writer called Annie Dillard who wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I found this somewhat unsettling because I am acutely aware that I seem to spend a lot of my days simply running on autopilot. Not long after, I chanced upon these words again while I was reading a weekly online newsletter that I subscribe to called Brain Pickings. The author of Brain Pickings made reference to Dillard in her review of the book On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. She summed up Dillard’s overall message rather succinctly as “presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity.”

So, with that in mind, I have since been mulling over what would constitute for me a life well spent. I am still riddled with the protestant work ethic, so a day spent not-busy is a day wasted as far as I have always been concerned. On days when I haven’t been too industrious, I feel guilty and promise myself that I will do better tomorrow. But this mindset hasn’t really been working for me for some time now because I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there has to be more to life than chores. When I brought in the laundry the other day and sat matching socks and folding underwear I despaired that my life would never amount to anything more than good housekeeping! So I’ve decided that I need to shake some old habits and create some new ones which make being present a priority. I need to pay attention goddammit!

When Milo died I was inconsolable. All I could see in my mind’s eye was a frail old dog on his deathbed and that made me feel so very sad. Then I tried to think of more happy times spent with him when he was younger and more himself. I found some photos of him looking healthy and alert and stuck them on the fridge door and now every time I look at them I smile, instead of cry.


All it needs is a mental shift. Taking that into account, I’ve decided to replace all my “to do” lists (which make me feel guilty when nothing is ticked off and give no sense of accomplishment when something mundane is actually completed) with “to be (or not to be)” lists instead.

I think it’s about being proactive rather than reactive. For example, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tidying up clutter and searching for misplaced things. So instead of fretting about what chores need to be done I’ve been making a concerted effort to be better organised. If everything has a home and is put there immediately upon entering the house and returned there after being used, I wouldn’t have to waste so much time tidying up and looking for lost stuff.

I’m also trying to focus more on enjoying life than getting things done. I’ve decided to be more playful. I’m always complaining that I don’t have enough fun in my life, as if pleasure is something that I need to go out and get. However, all indications are that happiness comes from within not without. (I should know that, I’ve got the t-shirt!)

playing with Photoshop!

playing with Photoshop!

The other day when I went to commune with my chickens, Layla got very jealous and kept charging at them, especially when I picked a handful of grass to feed them through the wire fence. I picked another bunch and offered it to her saying “you don’t eat grass you silly dog.” Her response was to grab the grass and munch all of it looking at me most defiantly, as if to say “I would rather eat the grass than let you feed it to those despicable creatures.” She then went down on her front paws, stuck her bum in the air and wagged her tail madly, inviting me to play with her. Now usually I would have shouted at her for intimidating my hens but this time I imitated her and we landed up rolling on the grass together, with me laughing wildly and her behaving just like a puppy. It made me realise that the opportunities to play are there, we just have to pay attention.

I shall leave you with an extract from last weeks Brain Pickings newsletter – a review of Waking up – a Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris.

Harris writes: “Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.”

Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds -“If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life – you won’t enjoy any of it.”

Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity.

He writes:“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.”

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

(the emphasis is mine)

sunrise on the koppie

sunrise with Layla on the koppie


cheeky chops is back, not looking his best just yet

cheeky chops is back, not looking his best just yet

a corner of the garden

a corner of the garden at sunset



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The 2nd of September dawned as any other day in our household. I awoke to the sound of the birds twittering in the garden outside our bedroom window. I got out of bed to let the dogs out for their morning constitutional and put the kettle on for tea and coffee. The bloody water had frozen in the pipes again but the kettle was full, so that was okay. After his coffee, Peter went down to the pump to sort out the water and then we showered and got dressed. But this was no ordinary day. September 2 was the day that had been chosen by us as the day that Milo would die.

In the three weeks since I wrote the By Your Side post Milo had rapidly become more confused, withdrawn and unhappy. When he wasn’t sleeping he wandered around aimlessly and seemed to constantly forget what he was doing. He was always looking for us and when he found us he would go looking for us again. He stopped interacting with us, showed no interest in being petted and even shied away when I tried to brush him. It became impossible to take him on walks as he couldn’t remember whether he was coming or going and would head off in the wrong direction desperately looking for us. I finally realised that his quality of life had diminished so much that I had to let him go.

I could not have done this without Peter. Although he has felt for quite a while that Milo should be euthanized, he let me come to the decision in my own time. He contacted the vet in Nottingham Road and arranged for her to come to the farm to carry out the procedure here so that Milo would experience minimal stress. And when it was over, he sent me off with a cold beer to sit on top of the koppie behind our house while he buried Milo in my Buddha garden.

When the vet arrived she squirted a liquid tranquiliser into Milo’s mouth. He followed me into the bedroom and lay down on his bed. I sat on the floor and stroked him and after a few minutes he started to drift off. Peter and the vet then came into the room and, while Peter held Milo’s head, the vet shaved a patch on his foreleg and inserted a needle. He didn’t even flinch – a trooper to the end. The vet then suggested we say our goodbyes, which we did while Peter held him and I stroked his head. He closed his eyes, gave a gentle little snore, the vet injected him and then, within seconds he stopped breathing. It was an incredibly peaceful death. I can understand why people use the euphemism “put to sleep” as he really did die in his sleep. Bravo Milo!

I am bereft, of course, but also relieved that his suffering is over. He gave me 16 years of loyal friendship and I owed him a good end to his life.

On the eve of his death, we helped him to take a final walk by keeping pace with him and nudging him along in the right direction.


Milo’s last walkies

Rest in peace my little Milo Dog.


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What a Wonderful World

August has been a weird month weather-wise. We’ve had horrible hot, dry berg winds which have whipped up dust and dirt and stirred feelings of intense disgruntlement and buggered sinuses. For ages the horizon has been a haze of dust, until the other night when a thunderstorm cleared the air and at last we could see the mountains again. The morning after the thunderstorm we woke to the most beautiful mist in the valleys, and snow on the ‘Berg.






As the bush creeps closer to the house, so does the wildlife!

grass mice enjoying the seeds and grain that we put out for the birds

grass mice enjoying the seeds and grain that we put out for the birds

Southern boubous are frequent visitors to the garden and have become quite bold.

Southern boubous are frequent visitors to the garden.

Njabulo has been helping us out on the farm and has been a real godsend. His brother, James, came to visit him last weekend and both of them pitched up to work on Saturday morning. After work, we decided to have a lunchtime braai. Njabulo got the fire going and cooked the food perfectly. Alex had better watch out, he has got some serious competition as the best braai master!

James, Njabulo and me

James, Njabulo and me






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A Place In The Sun


While I was in America I started reading a book called Quiet by Susan Cain which had been left on the bedside table of the apartment in which I was staying. Although I didn’t finish the book before I left, I found some of what I did manage to read to be quite a revelation. Cain argues that the world favours extroverts and that the classroom and workplace environment is geared towards those who function well in groups. She also argues that instead of thinking that there is something “wrong” with those of us who prefer to work on our own and be quietly reflective, the world should value the role of introverts.

In fact, I have always felt uncomfortable in large groups; they often make me feel like I’m “on the outside looking in”. I remember when I was working in the ngo sector in the early 80’s, group work was the in-thing. Those who liked the sound of their own voices tended to dominate and the ideas of the quiet ones were mostly overlooked. It also used to drive me crazy when the most idiotic comments made by the most verbose were earnestly received by the group and a simple decision could take an entire day to make. Not only that but when we were running workshops, we used to play icebreakers which always left me feeling totally distraught, especially when you had to say something nice about someone you didn’t know from a bar of soap. I just didn’t have the skills to do that!

Once I was attending a week long, interactive training programme in Cape Town which ended with an activity where everyone had a piece of paper taped to their backs. All the participants had to write something about each other on the piece of paper. I was beside myself for two reasons: I could not think of anything to say about any of the other participants and I was terrified that no-one would make a positive comment about me! Peter and our friend Clive were attending a Carnegie Conference on Poverty at UCT at the same time and came to pick me up early. I was so relieved to see them and felt that they had rescued me from a fate worse than death. They took me to listen to Jazz at Kalk Bay and were most consolatory as I cried into my drink and bemoaned the fact that I was a horrible person and no-one liked me!

If only I had known then that it is common for introverts to:

  • find small talk incredibly awkward,
  • often feel alone in a crowd,
  • feel like a phony when it comes to networking,
  • find mingling with strangers difficult, and
  • feel drained by social interaction.

Yay, I’m normal after all (although the jury may still be out on that)!

When I got home from the States I did some follow up research on Susan Cain and came across her Ted Talk on the power of introverts which I found very interesting. For most of my life I have believed that there was something wrong with me because I found it so difficult to do what others seemed to accomplish so easily, like mingling at a party and talking to strangers. It was good to discover that not only are there a lot of people like me but, according to Cain, we should be as highly valued as extroverts. And since I made this discovery I have become much less self-critical of my social ineptness, which is quite liberating. What I have Susan Cain to thank for is that I now feel more comfortable being me in situations where previously I would have felt that I had to put on an act of some sort.

My surfing of the net also turned up this interesting review of her book by Jon Ronson (author of The Psychopath Test).

And then, I got sidetracked (as one does on the internet) and listened to Ronson’s very entertaining Ted Talk on the gray areas between crazy and sane. It has nothing to do with introverts / extroverts but I thought it fitted in here nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a caution against labelling people too specifically. As much as I identify with introvert characteristics, I know that I have extrovert characteristics too. There’s a fine line between being determined by labels and being liberated by them. Fortunately for me Susan Cain’s explanations of what I considered to be my foibles released me from years of self criticism, rather than defined me.








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Day is Done


“O, with what freshness, what solemnity and beauty, is each new day born; as if to say to insensate man, “Behold! thou hast one more chance! Strive for immortal glory!”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Every day the new dawn offers us a chance to start over for the better. And each day we manage to screw it up by unconsciously repeating previous days’ bad habits. I am a repeat offender of many faults which include drinking too much wine and wasting time, among other things. Of course, none of us is perfect but I would think that if something bugged me that much, I should be able to change it. But come 6 pm the first glass of wine has been poured and more often than not I’m toasting absolutely nothing. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow, or perhaps not. I think we really need to internalise the notion that tomorrow is not guaranteed before we are jolted out of our complacency. And there’s nothing like confronting mortality to get one going.

It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

During the dark days of Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS denialism, which disputed the existence of HIV or its role in causing AIDS, we became aware that our employees on the farm were showing symptoms of HIV / AIDS. No-one was comfortable to talk about the disease back then because there was so much stigma and ignorance attached but I had watched a friend and colleague (a remarkable woman who had so much to offer the new South Africa) die of the disease because she was too ashamed to admit that she had AIDS. I could no longer keep quiet on the subject, like I had done with H, so I asked Mike, my brother, who is a doctor in Phuthaditjhaba, to come and speak to our workers, and those of our neighbours, about HIV / AIDS and its treatment. He brought a Zulu-speaking man with him who had been very ill with AIDs and had made a recovery after taking anti-retrovirals (ARVs). After the talk, everyone came forward and asked Mike to examine them. They all showed signs of AIDS and he advised them to get tested. Our farm worker and our neighbour’s domestic worker were the only two who asked for our help to get tested.

Since the state-run clinics were not keen to test for HIV (the government was trying to keep the statistics down) I took them to McCords Hospital in Durban to be tested; both were found to be positive. Then began the long and agonising process of getting them on to ARV treatment; first there was training (in those days the treatment was a lot of tablets taken throughout the day and the patients had to understand that once they started they had to take the medication for the rest of their lives); and next came the TB treatment. Our farm worker was really at death’s door by the time he finally started taking the ARVs. My worst memories of that time are of him and I sitting for hours on end in the waiting room at McCords surrounded by emaciated people (some as young as 12 years old) while the hospital admin staff treated everyone as if they were invisible.

Our employee made a fantastic recovery once he started the treatment. Sadly, our neighbour’s domestic worker developed complications due to also having been infected with hepatitis B and she had to come off the ARVs because they were shutting down her pancreas. She died a few years later, but not before she became an advocate of making HIV / AIDS less stigmatised in her community.

Our farm worker has been healthy for the past 12 years, however in January this year he developed cryptococcal meningitis which one only gets if one has a low CD4 count (which would only happen if he had stopped taking his medication). Since then he has been in and out of hospital until finally he was sent to the TB hospital in Richmond. We went to visit him there last week and I was impressed with the hospital but surprised to find it virtually empty despite having a physiotherapist, dietician, occupational therapist and social workers on duty. I was shocked to see how frail our farm worker had become despite assurances by the doctor that he was getting better. Time will tell. I have to say I have been angry since the visit – angry with him for stopping his meds; angry with the doctors at Northdale for discharging him when he was so ill and waiting 6 months before referring him to Richmond; angry with H for dying because I sure could do with her company right now; and angry with myself for squandering the time that I have by procrastinating and drinking too much.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll turn over a new leaf.

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By Your Side


Recently I popped in to our local hardware store to collect some lagging for our water pipes which keep freezing up whenever we have any frost. I got to chatting to John, the owner, about the weather, as one does, and I mentioned how difficult it had been for me to acclimatise to the cold having just come back from visiting Kiera in a very hot Washington DC. The conversation then veered off into how one’s life changes when the children leave home and how hard it is having our offspring scattered around the globe. (His daughter lives in some godforsaken place in Australia and he misses her terribly.) I commiserated with him over the fate of parents who, when their children leave home, are left with the dogs and then the dogs bloody well go and die. “It’s a cruel life”, he said.

It reminded me of the first verse of the Roger McGough poem, A Joy To Be Old:

 It’s a joy to be old.

Kids through school,

The dog dead and the car sold.

My very old Milo Mutt has been deaf for some time now. He also shows signs of what I think is doggie dementia in that, for the most part, the character of Milo is no longer recognisable. He simply exists in a world of his own and appears very confused most of the time. When he is on the move, he is constantly underfoot and in the way. He drives us crazy by following us around and always standing just behind us or in doorways and passageways so that he can keep tabs on where we are. And when he is taken out for his late night piddle, our patience is sorely tested (especially in the middle of winter) by the incessant dithering that goes on. When he is not on the move, he can be found sleeping, gently snoring, on his bed in the bedroom.

However, there are moments when the old Milo reappears. He is still a trooper. Dogged (as in dog·ged ) is the word that comes to mind when he slowly eases his arthritic body off his bed first thing in the morning and lurches down the passage, through the kitchen and garage and into the garden where he finally releases the pee he has been holding in. His tail, which has been held straight down during the journey, suddenly springs back up as we tell him what a good boy he is, even though he can’t hear us. Sometimes he doesn’t quite make it but we give him an A for effort anyway.

Later in the morning, come rain or shine, he takes himself off up the driveway to Edna’s wee house. If her door is closed he barks to be let in and then he makes a beeline for the titbits that she leaves out for him in the kitchen. When he is finished, he turns around and walks straight out and back home. Recently, instead of turning left at Edna’s front door to come back, he sometimes gets confused and turns right and gets a bit lost. But he doesn’t let that deter him from his daily dose of Edna’s leftovers.

And most afternoons, if he is awake when it is time for walkies, he insists on accompanying us all the way, slowly and laboriously on wobbly legs. However, on the home stretch the spirit of Milo the Younger seems to kick in as he races down the driveway at breakneck speed. We hold our breath as he careers around the corner, missing the garden shed by inches, and into the kitchen where he waits excitedly for us to catch up and give him his treat.

Earlier this year he lost his sense of balance and I really thought that his time had come. But he rallied after being put on cortisone and antibiotics and that’s the trooper in him. So despite being deaf, doddery and demented, I don’t think that he is quite ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet.

top left: Milo's first bath; bottom left: drinking tea out of my mug when he was little.

top left: Milo’s first bath; bottom left: drinking tea out of my mug when he was little.


Milo, 15 years old, October 2013





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