Early on Monday May 1, which is also known as Worker’s Day or May Day, I headed out for a pre-dawn walk with my dogs, and paused many times as I took in the beauty of the salmon-pink dappled sky, with the first rays illuminating the clouds as if from beneath, and a lingering sense of moisture after the welcome rain.
Perched atop a huge stone pine, two owls were having a quiet conversation. Often at night I hear their murmurs, pitched an octave apart, as they share hunting tips, perhaps, or discuss what supper they’ll be winging back with, to their offspring in the nest.
Sometimes they converse over the canopy of trees in the nearby greenbelt, and I’m always somehow comforted by the sound, their nocturnal company, and it makes me linger under the starry sky, just listening to them (and relating too, as I’m the quintessential night owl, as well as the proverbial early bird).
I’m a collector of feathers, from all my walks, mostly from birds of prey, each one a work of art.
A few days ago, a black and grey gymnogene swooped low overhead, and clasped a foothold on the branch of a nearby tree.
Such a magnificent sight, to view his undercarriage from only a couple of metres below, where I was standing, and hear the whoosh-whoosh of those immense wings in full spread of flight.
Other than our soft footfall, this Monday morning was completely quiet, unusual for a weekday, but perfectly consistent with the past few long weekends, with schools closed and many families taking advantage of the public holidays.
The air seems so much fresher, crisper, without the belch of daily exhaust fumes denoting a departure for work, or the school run, fossil fuels in action.
This year, on Easter, I didn’t go anywhere, quite literally, as I decided to have a car-free few days.
All excursions from home were on foot, and other than working on Bolander (which technology brought to my doorstep), I switched off from the noise and hue as much as possible (much easier since a tree branch grew in front of my TV dish, eight months ago, mother nature making an intervention on behalf of my sanity and stress levels…)
On the radio a couple of days ago, in a weekly question slot for viewers, the topic was Nieu Bethesda (which the listeners had to guess, based on some clues given).
I have two cement owls from this very special little town (one in my garden, and the other next to my bed), and remembered writing about it in Bolander one Easter.
A quick rifle through my stacks of newspapers, and there it was – a trip down memory lane.
I’ll share it again:
Reverie at Owl House; Easter 2011
I walked in silence through the sculptures, in the chill of early morning in the Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda, over the Easter weekend – taking in the surreal landscape of figurines in cement and glass.
Plunged into the world of the extraordinary Helen Martins, and the vision that culminated in the transformation of her home and barren garden at the Owl House, I pondered the experiences and perceptions that informed her creative outlets.
It is a place of mysticism, of radiance and introspection, of light and colour and bleakness and beauty.
A woman who had embarked upon a journey in later years of a hard and sacrificial life, into which suffering and disillusion were etched – but also determination to overcome the pallour of illness and despair, by counteracting it with translucence and vibrant hues.
Using rudimentary materials at her disposal, predominantly glass, wire and cement, she undertook the metamorphosis of her environment through these mediums – instilling it with bold and unconventional patterns, radiant and outlandish combinations of shapes and colours, and scenes that transcended traditional approaches to religion and spirituality, and became a brand uniquely her own.
She drew from biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and also from William Blake – depicted by owls, camels and people, mostly facing or pointing east – a reflection of her fascination with the Orient.
She worked tirelessly for 25 years, covering every surface of wood and glass in her home with ground glass, and for the last 12 years of her life with the help of Koos Malgas to create the myriad structures in the garden area (a relationship that drew suspicion from the local commuity, because of the taboos of apartheid).
Playwright Athol Fugard, who bought a house in the little town, published a play about her home, The Road to Mecca, and there is an annual five-day Fugard Festival in Nieu Bethesda.
Ironically (and typically), she only received accolade for her remarkable artistic contribution well after her death, which took place at her own hand, by the ingestion of caustic soda, upon losing her eyesight (after years of working with crushed glass), and suffering from debilitating arthritis.
But her legacy is a treasure, and encountering it was a meditation upon the nature of beauty.
What embedded joys, throughout our South African landscapes, especially upon the lesser-travelled roads, and tucked away in little hamlets and valleys.
Back to now… and then
As I was in owl mode this May Day, I spotted this little pendant hanging in my bathroom, above.
It was gifted to me by Sven and Nadine Rothmaier, a young German couple I’d met on the side of the road near Elim in 2009, after they’d travelled through Africa on their bicycles, a trip of three years.
I’d invited them to stop by and visit in Stellenbosch, as we were living in a lovely old farmhouse at the time, and had plenty of room.
They ended up staying for three months, with their rescued dog Midwoch, the most extraordinary house-guests, with stories of bravery and their many adventures, zigzagging through 21 countries over three years, touching the face of Africa as few ever get to see her contours.
I wrote about them, at the time, in Long and Winding Road:
“Chance encounters often yield the most wonderful, inspiring fruits. It is between the frenetic lines of our busy lives, on the dusty backroads of life, where – due to a more leisurely pace and the opportunity for an unhurried gaze at lovely surroundin gs, that the gymnogene may be spotted on the twisted and exposed roots of a tree, hunting for frogs.
“Or a porcupine is seen hurrying under its cumbersome load of quills, along a single track. A snake lies basking in the heat of a sandy road, scales glistening, and a swift-footed mongoose darts from one embankment to the next, resembling an arrow from pointed nose to extended tail.
“It was on a back road, just past the hamlet of Elim on the way to Stanford, that I saw another arresting spectacle this past Sunday. Pedalling slowly in the midday heat of the hot August day, heavily-laden panniers on the back, front and sides of their bicycles, were a man and a woman.
“And behind the man’s bicycle was a hand-built trailer with large ventilation holes, and a muzzle peeping out.
“Irresistable, to my sojourner’s heart. Stopping to take a photograph, I enquired as to their journey, and their furry companion.”
And so another story, another point of intersection with other lives, other experiences, other prisms.
Like great big circles and cycles, there is so often that sense of familiarity, or themes that resurrect, of the inherent nature of things, that are rendered and depicted in so many ways.
There was a family of owls on that farm we lived on, and I used to sit down at the base of a tree nearby, and observe the youngsters, under the watchful eye of the parents, who soon become accustomed to my presence.
When we moved to Somerset West six years ago, the very day I arrived with my bakkie stuffed to the gills with boxes, I saw a huge owl sitting on the attic windowsill, regarding our entrance to this new habitat, with majestic yellow gaze. It felt like a good sign, a welcome.
A couple of days ago, I found a boomslang lying on the side of the road, just outside my home. It had been ridden over, by a bicycle, I later found out. I moved it onto the sidewalk, and looked at its long, graceful body, and characteristic colouring, and felt sad for its loss to the ecosystem.
An elusive snake, toxicity notwithstanding, and not prone to any human encounters generally. All creatures great and small populate this world, us among them. But none have such power over delicate balances, as do we.
All these threads, over the years, a tapestry woven with memories of good people, of wild and beautiful creatures crossing my path, of points of connectedness. Freedom, to be.
Carolyn Frost: Editor