On the Great North Road

Driving north once again to fetch my daughter back from school, I left the farm in the early morning dark. When the sun came up, near the village of Chisekesi, it was spectacular! I had to stop. (And yes I found a good spot to pull well over.) As I watched the dawn come up, now pink, now orange and finally yellow to white, I thought for a moment how the sun would be going down on the other side of the world, just then.

As I set off again, I was struck anew, by the fact that as a passenger, your observations are quite different from those of a driver. A passenger can look out and enjoy the passing scenery of life; as a driver you need to be more concerned about that truck, two vehicles in front of you, which has decided to overtake another truck on the blind rise ahead.  These kinds of incidents are fairly common and I expect wherever you live, you experience this kind of foolishness on the road too.

But regular readers of my blog will know I’d rather put a smile on your face or tug at your heart strings (just a little one, now and then) than make commentaries on the negative aspects of life. Although, of course I do love a rant…..particularly when driving over those nasty, close-together bumps intended to slow vehicles down or keep drivers awake; I call them grumble strips.

Along with fairly sharp speed humps, they are pretty common on the road here because there is apparently no law about not building on the servitude. People’s houses, shops and general habitations are right on the side of the road, with the resultant need to slow vehicles down to almost walking speed, through every town and village. And this in spite of the fact that you are actually driving on the main highway through Zambia, once called the Mpika Highway and now referred to as the Great North Road since it will take you North all the way through Zambia to Tanzania.

A map of Zambia showing the Great North Road to Tanzania.

Zambia is an enormous country. So undertaking car journeys here, is no mean feat. We live in the Southern Province and Lusaka, the capital city, is in the Central Province. From here it is only 290km away (although the trip can take you 5 hours for reasons I mentioned earlier). But from Lusaka to the borders of our neighbouring countries tells its own story, in terms of distance. For example, the border with Tanzania in the north east is 1498km and to the Democratic  Republic of Congo, in the north, 2270km.  To Angola, in the north east, the distance is 1372km while to Malawi in the East, 1097km and Botswana in the south west, 1490km. Our closest border is with Zimbabwe – from Lusaka, a mere 145km.

The road to Lusaka was extra busy when I travelled. Many people were going to collect their children from schools which were closing and there were also more than the usual number of trucks because of the possibility of the borders closing. Indeed some of our neighbouring countries had already done so and this may have an enormous effect on Zambia for we are a land-locked country and rely heavily on road-bound cargoes. Here the borders are closed to buses, but food and essential items will be allowed through for the time being.   And yet in spite of the traffic and a certain sense of urgency, there were things to enjoy on the way.

Laden motorbike on the Great North Road.

The towns were slowly waking up as I drove along and this being a week or so ago, it was still mostly business as usual.  In some places roadside food stalls were open for business; dough cakes fried in hot oil or maize cobs roasting on small open fires. The countryside is green now and wet in places. Cattle could be seen grazing on the grassy verges, some of them unattended, others under the watchful eye of a herder.  On the road itself, laden motorbikes and cycles piled high with charcoal or goods for the markets had to be kept an eye on, for in some places the road is narrow and the cyclists especially, apparently unaware of the danger they are in from passing traffic, sometimes travel two or three abreast. Insert your own rude word just here! Meanwhile many trucks carrying livestock, fuel, chemicals, mining equipment or  who knew what, under cover of tarpaulins, were on the move and I suspect had been, all night. Near the town of Monze I came up behind a truck loaded with a container that still had labels on it from where it had once been; in this case, Bridgetown, Barbados, which gave me pause. It seemed incredible to see it on a road here in Zambia.

Drawing near to Mazabuka – self-styled the Sweetest Place in the Nation – because of all the sugar cane grown and processed there, I navigated the worst of the speed grumps and grumble strips. At the green and restful roadside Coffeeberry Restaurant I stopped to stretch my legs and fill up on coffee, also grown locally. I stocked up on biscuits and fudge for the man and the girl and set off again.  The busiest part of the road was still to come. There would be roadworks for they are busy working on this road – happy day – small diversions and that one piece of road where you inevitably get stuck behind a big truck crawling over the Munali hills. Mostly they seem to make it, but every now and then one breaks down, just as the incline starts. You have notice of it by the shrubbery that is wrenched from the roadside bushes and placed strategically behind the truck to warn oncoming traffic of the obstacle.

Fabulous food and a green space to relax in, Coffeeberry Restuarant, Mazabuka.

This time, I was grateful that there was no breakdown vehicle to try and navigate. And that was not all;  I had music to listen to and a beloved daughter to fetch from school. I thought how glad I was to be alive and how very grateful for that morning sky. And for the earth that turns, in spite of everything; including heavy traffic, schools and borders closing, and even viruses.

Next time – On the Great North Road continues.

That incredible American rock band The Eagles, were formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1971. Since then they have had more than 18 songs in the charts, including number one spot for a number of them. The band broke up in 1980 but reformed, much to the joy of fans worldwide, in 1994. Take It Easy, don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy words to drive to!

Followers of the dog blog can find it here https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

For a poem by Walt Whitman and an old song, King of the Road, follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

If you’re curious to see what I’ve been up to craft-wise, go here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/crafty/

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

Mad March Days

There is an old saying about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb which, in the northern hemisphere, means the month may start off with winter but it will end with spring. Here in Zambia, and this particular March, it’s been less of a lion, and more of a tame tabby, sometimes basking on a hot stone in the garden, sometimes watching the rain, sleepily, through the window. But like all cats, the month has been unpredictable.

We’ve had plant-drooping hot days or a cool wind seeming to bring in an early autumn chill. We’ve had a monkeys’ wedding – a phrase full of whimsy, for me.

“The bride wore fur. Her own of course.  So did the groom and indeed, all the guests.  The attendants were not carrying posies because they had eaten them. There was feasting and fighting, shrieking and much monkey merriment.”

Sounds very much like some of the weddings I have been to. 

A Monkeys’ Wedding.

Of course a monkey’s wedding is not some rare animal nuptial, but rather an intriguing weather phenomenon.  It is an unexpected soft fall of rain from one small cloud in an otherwise bright blue sky. The sunshine gleams through the rain, turning it into millions of scintillating, diamond droplets. It is uncommon, magical and not quite of this world. Hence, I feel, the name.

On some days we have been treated to sunshine and on others, gloom, as well as the occasional high wind. You found you had to hang on to your hat. Or your skirt.  You didn’t need an air vent to stand over if you wanted to create a Marilyn Monroe moment; the wind was quite wild enough to do it for you. And sometimes at a most inconvenient time; like just as you were crossing the main road in Choma town, carrying shopping in both hands. Ah well. At least the people on the pavement behind had a jolly good laugh.

A sudden squall.

And then there have been those days when a sudden squall would appear from out of nowhere; no build up, no noise; just a rapid, heavy downpour which lasted long enough to have you running for the washing on the line, only to find you may as well have left it, because the rain stopped as suddenly as it started.  Meanwhile you got wet unnecessarily because the washing itself, wasn’t even dry yet, anyway.

The rains have greened up the bushveld and the grass is long and lush. It is certainly wetter now, than this time last year, but not as wet as it can be in March. So it was with some surprise that we found ourselves stuck, after a drive we took. We had ventured into the game park and sat with a cold drink and crisps – quite a family tradition for us – on the tailgate of the vehicle. Later I was to realise I shouldn’t have had that extra handful of cheesy chips, for beneath the innocent tussocks of grass, lurked a trap, triggered by weight…

Happily unaware, we watched Egyptian Geese in their brown and white livery flying over the stock dam and an African Jacana in the reeds. Nearby, in the long, green grass, sprightly grasshoppers leapt from blade to blade and all the while the crickets sang.

Time to check barns, said the man, we need to go. But turned out we weren’t going anywhere. Our hearts sank as the back wheel spun merrily, making its own determined little hollow of black mud and scattering grass in all directions. We trudged into the bush to look for stones and indeed found some old bricks which we packed into the hollow, but to no avail.

Can you tell where we were parked?

When the cavalry – in this case a land-cruiser-load of farm labourers – finally arrived an hour or so later, the girl and I jumped around, waving our arms, shouting out in relief and joy. Our rescuers leapt off with great enthusiasm and swarmed around us to gather at the back end of the pick up. They gave a great shove. No luck.

After some jostling, re-positioning and laughing because one man slipped on the grass, they gathered themselves once more for a final big push. I wish I could say they did it. Happily, the land cruiser made short work of the job, as they had come armed with a towing strap and soon we were all bound for hearth and home after an unforeseen evening adventure.

Or course we should have expected the unexpected. For this is March and the old saying, as mad as a March hare, has never seemed more apt. In the world, this March will be remembered for the madness it has brought into our lives. In Zambia, something of the same. And on the farm – paraphrasing, if I may, the late, great Ronnie Corbett – like parliament, March continues, quite wet, and rather windy. But hopefully with no dry cough….

In tribute to Ronnie Corbett who passed away this month in 2016, I found this clip from their television series, the Two Ronnies – Ronnie Barker of course, being the other Ronnie. I hope you enjoy it.

If you are in the mood for more of the Two Ronnies then follow this link for another of their brilliant and funny comical song sketches. Also the poem Cargoes, by John Masefield. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Followers of the Dogblog can go here: https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

And the Crafty page has new content too: https://shellbell.home.blog/crafty/

Reminder that if you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

Butterfly Morning

One morning a few days ago, we stepped out to the sight of fluttering clouds of butterflies which had appeared overnight in the garden and, indeed, all over the farm. But then, butterflies are like that. One day they arrive and then they are gone.

This arrival, in sudden, spectacular fashion of a single species of butterfly, is captivating, not least because of their glorious sunflower-yellow and ice-white wings edged with a splash of orange. And black dot markings, which are very conspicuous.

Not so obvious, is their chrysalis, which I have to say looks a little like a bird dropping. Nature is clever like that.  

Chrysalis and Butterfly on the side of the rain gauge.

In fact we found one such chrysalis, some time ago, attached to the side of the rain gauge. We wondered what it could be and kept watch as the weeks went by.  Today – serendipitous morning indeed –  as we passed by on the pathway, the occupant of the pupa was emerging; ooh, take a photo I tell the man, who obliges. (He’s an obliging sort). We watch the newly emerged butterfly, bright-shining new and still dewy, a beautiful yellow and white just like the ones fluttering around the nearby flowering shrubs.

Turns out they are Common Dotted Borders, ( Mylothris agathina), their common name derived, I suspect, from the black spots along the edges of their pretty wings. They are everywhere. The man even comes across them in the tobacco lands and (obligingly) stops to take another photo for me. We decide that in the future there will be another such butterfly arrival, since many of them are engaged in making more butterflies.

Mylothris agathina – a mating pair of Common Dotted Borders.

In the garden I think how pretty that sunny yellow brightness looks fluttering around the purple sprays of flowers in the Duranta Repens (now I see why it is sometimes called the Butterfly bush).

I will take lots of photographs, so I have a few to choose from. I position myself. They move away. I wait. They come back. Mad camera clicking ensues. Which frightens the butterflies. Who move to the other side of the Duranta. Well okay then. Pick up my camera and tripod and carry it around. And yes. They move. But it’s okay, I can do this; they are so pretty. I return to the other side of the Duranta and watch as they flutter back to where I was. Still. After all, I only need ONE good photograph of them. The tripod is a lot heavier than I remember. Oh. Well I suppose the garlic flowers will do almost as well. Or there. That’s good too. Oh that Wild Dombeya tree will do nice..by now, I am dragging the tripod. And just as I am starting to understand where the term butterfly mind comes from they have moved back to the Duranta, where more of the lovely little blighters have now joined them. Once more, dear friends and never mind the fraying nerves!

In the end, after about 250 000 photo attempts I admit defeat… I simply cannot capture them in the same resplendent beauty as they appear before my eyes. Not all at once, at any rate.

I read that they are not tasty to birds, which I think I can attest to. Certainly I watched a Brownbul swoop in and land in the Duranta as if for a closer look at a possible snack. But he flew off almost immediately, without even trying to eat one of the many butterflies that were fluttering around him. Now if they had been flying ants…

Butterflies are regular visitors and occupants of the garden, attracted to the flowering shrubs and scented flowers but you can often see them on the edge of muddy puddles. Drinking, obviously. But not so obvious is that this is mostly done by males who take in salts and minerals from the soil which they incorporate in their sperm. Who knew? Clearly, not me! And actually, this butterfly behaviour has a name, which is “puddling”.

Common Dotted Border butterflies in the land.

Of course what butterflies all have in common, apart from their beauty, is a hungry little caterpillar to eat the leaves in my garden. Not that I mind. The plants are so plentiful, there are more than enough to go around. And still be some left for me to enjoy too.

The particular caterpillar of the Common Spotted Border is small, brown and not unlike the bird-dropping style pupa. It’s what the man calls “a looper”  too….making loops with its body as it crawls along a leaf. It’s not easily spotted unless you look for it or if, of course, it breaks out in great numbers, in your crop. Please no. Not that!

That’s the problem of course, with beautiful butterflies… and hungry little caterpillars; you just can’t have one without the other. Although I suspect caterpillars may be easier to photograph. For me, at any rate.

An oldie but goody…in my opinion. “Elusive Butterfly”, a lovely folk rock song, rather like a lyrical poem set to music. And reminiscent of trying to get photos of butterflies, which just don’t stay in one place too long… The song became a transatlantic hit for singer Bob Lind, when it reached No 5 in both the US and UK music charts.

Fans of Dolly Parton can find her fabulous song “Love is Like a Butterfly”, if you follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

A Fine February

The Zambian bushveld behind my house is now leafy, a green relief after months of brown. A myriad of butterflies flit  through the grass in the fields and in my garden, they flutter between flower and shrub. Grasshoppers make sudden gymnastic leaps from one blade to another, and all the while insect sounds fill the air. Dove notes ring out, over and over, the sweet and melancholy music of summer. This is February.

Overhead the blue sky is scattered with billowing clouds; in a day or two, the rain may fall again.  There is even water running in some of the rivers and in one of my favourite places on the farm, the small stock dam is full. Which is also a relief. Certainly, there are roads over which the farm pick-up can still pass but still…. Better than this time, last year, for sure.

Favourite spot – the Stock dam.

And speaking of better, this particular February, I have a pair of invalid bulls in my backyard which were brought here to get better after they had been fighting. (Not each other.) Both have damaged back legs – not good – and both are still limping. Oh I’m sure they’re improving I tell the man,  with my fingers crossed. After all I do love bulls. And I’ve got used to watching them over the fence and sometimes, walking into the grass beside them, enjoying their earthy and particular smell. They are mildly curious about me, their tails flicking at flies and their dark eyes watching my progress.  Their limping, notwithstanding, they’re peaceful to watch.   Except, from time to time, when other bulls are moved  into the paddock in front of our house. Then the peace is undeniably broken as a great bellowing match ensues with the bulls in the front paddock issuing renewed challenges and the two  in our backyard replying. They shake their heads, paw the ground and toss sand over their backs. After they’ve had their own say, I shake my own head, “Don’t you remember why you’re here, you fools!” I shout, as they limp off to eat grass again.

One of my invalid bulls. Isn’t he lovely?

The grass on the farm is long at this time of year; lovely, sinuous, swaying plains of Crowsfoot and little pockets of puffy, pink Natal Redtop. The smaller antelope are hard to see now. Sometimes it is just the movement of the grass displaced, as they walk or run, that tells of their presence.  The trees are heavy with leaves and deep pools of shade and shadow extend into woodland thickets. Along a shady track, a chance meeting with a colony of mongoose  has me sighing over a pair of young ones, no bigger than my palm, who fidget, squirm and crowd against their mothers, as the adults in the group pause and stand up to watch us go by.  Meanwhile along other farm roads,  at every puddle, butterflies congregate; and it seems, the muddier the puddle,  the more they gather. And if it has a dollop of cow dung in it, ooh lovely, even better! For a butterfly.  

Grass is sublime – here is Crowsfoot in the bushveld.

In the depths of the bushveld I can hear Wood Hoopoe give their chuckling calls and I see them flying into my garden, along with the strident Trumpeter Hornbill. In the garden, the shrubs are full and lush. At night the scent of the Cestrum is sweet and would certainly be cloying if it was too near the bedroom window. It definitely gives off more fragrance after a bruising by rain. On other shrubs and small trees, there are fruits and berries aplenty. Birds too, are plentiful now, although I must say there are fewer who visit the bird bath, in these wetter days.  The wild bird seeds I put out still get attention though and particularly from the Blue Waxbills.

Something goes right to my heart when I catch sight of Waxbills. I always take a moment to admire the perfection of that little seed-eating beak and the round, sweetness of its brown and blue-feathered body. And those eyes…

I found myself staring into  just such a pair when I climbed up to investigate an old Waxbill nest recently.

The sweetest bird – Blue Waxbill. Photo by Leanne Mackay.

It was one of my February tasks; I had offered to donate some nests I had found, for a birding exhibition at the museum in Livingstone. Being me, I can’t help picking up old nests; I’m as obsessed with them as I am with baskets…which reminds me I saw some real beauties in the Choma Museum. Another blog? I think so…yes…now, where was I again? Oh yes. Nests.

I had gathered a weaver’s nest long blown down in a storm and another, abandoned almost immediately after it had been built. I already had a Flycatcher’s nest and I thought the tatty, old Waxbill nest hanging under the eaves of the house for the past year, would round off my collection rather nicely. Carefully balancing on a strategically-placed chair – and regular readers of the blog will know I have done that before; anyone would think I enjoy it –  I peered up at the untidy nest. It looked very much past its prime and I was just deciding it was not in use, when there was the flash of a pair of small bird-bright eyes and the occupant flew out.

“You idiot!” I said aloud, meaning me, not the bird, and immediately climbed down. The bird had not replied, of course, but I expect she would have agreed, if she could. I imagined her indignation; “Oy, who do you think you are – staring at me in my own living room?!”

Watching from a now (safe) distance, I was very glad to see her return once she thought the coast was clear. From inside my own living room I watched her fly back into her snug little nest. Now, that was a relief!

Country singer Dottie West and I were both raised on country sunshine; for her green grass, daisies and the bluebird; for me the grass was ochre, the flowers, cosmos and the blue bird I’ll always love is the Waxbill, of course. This is Dottie West, singing Country Sunshine.

For my favourite song from Mary Poppins, “Feed the Birds,” follow this link https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

For the Dogblog, go here: https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

A little Mad for Mushrooms

Since first I saw that fairy tale red toadstool with white spots, in a favourite story book, I have been mad about mushrooms and toadstools. Oh and by the way, that fabled red and white toadstool is the Fly Agaric, from the Amanita family and found in woodlands all over the globe.

Some mushrooms and toadstools rise from the earth, pushing their way through a membrane (the volva) into the light, like hatchlings. Some can be found thriving on animal dung heaps and others growing on fallen twigs, like a bright Orange Bracket which I almost trod on but which happily caught my eye, before I did.  Bracket fungi are especially lovely to me.  They have an enchantment of their own, a ready-made table on which to spread a fairy feast. Bracket fungi are firm with a velvety texture, and mostly grow on dead wood.  Many of the ones I have come across are brown and layered, like a child’s drawing of tree rings. One of my favourites has a sublime and shiny brown hue rather like a piece of turned wood; hence the name, Varnished Bracket.

Baby orange Bracket in my garden.

Here in Zambia, are many types of mushrooms and with an incredible range of characteristics. Some have small bumps upon them, others are smooth. Some spotted; others plain, but in an astonishing array of colours, from black and brown to white, as well as yellow, orange, red and even purple. Their shapes are wildly varied too, from the dome and traditional umbrella, to weird, misshapen grotesques and long, trembling fronds. Certain mushrooms are meaty-looking and solid, like the Boletus family. Others, like the Chanterelles, have an ethereal quality. But what you see on the surface is only a tiny part of the whole story.

Trametes, or Bracket Fungus.

The part we see is just the body or the fruit of the mushroom, but under our feet, or noses, is a hidden, mushroom kingdom of life.

Beneath the mushroom body, inside the earth, the wood or other food source, is the mycelium. This is where mushroom food is made. The mycelium can be as small as an ant or cover an area running into many kilometers! It is here that the mushroom metabolises decayed plants; you could almost say fungi “eat” dead plant matter. In this way the fungi, together with bacteria, puts the decaying organic materials back into earth and so enriches it with minerals which the new plants and subsequent fungi will use. It’s a quietly miraculous, rich and rewarding cycle.

As if they really were fashioned by fairies, mushrooms and toadstools will suddenly spring up overnight or appear in a matter of hours. Some grow in colonies in the lawn and clustered together, there is a quaint, other-world quality to them, as if a fairy village had been abandoned in the night.   Fairy rings, or fungi growing in a circle, are a rare sight, but breathtaking; you almost feel that if you are very quiet you might just catch a glimpse of one of the small folk.

Mushroom village on the front lawn.

Of course, in fact, fungi are literally down to earth and of the earth, and as substantial a part of the real world, as all other living things. And when it comes to the real world, some fungi are for eating and some are definitely not! And if you like me, have ever wondered what the difference was between mushrooms and toadstools, a mycologist once told me that mushroom generally refers to those we can eat and toadstool to those we cannot. A mycologist is of course, one who studies fungi, and is therefore a mushroom expert, or as my grandmother used to call them, a fundi (say foondi). Now say fungi fundi (Foongi foondi). Wasn’t that fun? Hey,  I’m just a fun guy.

Moving on.

In Zambia, after  the rains, you can buy wild mushrooms on the side of the main road, as local people collect and sell them.  You will see little heaps of them, usually in small baskets. Here, probably the most popular mushroom is the “Chingulungulu”, the  Termitomyces titanicus. As its name suggests it is found in and on anthills and is reputed to be the largest mushroom in the world, with the cap growing up to 1m in diameter. Like the other edible mushrooms, it is an excellent source of protein and rich in a variety of minerals. 

Children selling a pair of giant Chingulungulu, Termitomyces titanicus mushrooms on the Great North Road, in Zambia. (Photo by Ernst Hendrik Jacobs)

Another popular favourite here, as it is in Zimbabwe, is Amanita Zambiana, which in Zimbabwe is called Nhedzi and in Zambia goes by Ndelema and Tente.     

As a child it was this delicious Nhedzi mushroom that my family used to go hunting for. We children could help look for them but had to stand (proudly) next to our find without touching, because only the adults were allowed to actually pick.  It had to be after good rains and became a favourite seasonal outing. That tramp through the damp and musty, magical undergrowth of a Miombo woodland is a thing I have treasured since then. We’d hunt under the Msasa trees in likely places, often finding other tantalising toadstools of bright yellow, russet red or wonderful, white and warty.  At last the delighted discovery of that gleaming white and brown domed mushroom, rising almost egg-like from its white membrane,  was a joy I have never forgotten. And the same goes for its distinctive smell, which I can only describe as one part earth and two parts heaven.

Once home, my mother would wipe them carefully and slice them before tumbling them into pan to be fried in butter and a dash of salt. For me, eaten just like that or added to a fried egg and bacon breakfast, there was and still is, nothing in the world to beat it!

With music from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky and Disney’s genius touch, with fairies and dancing toadstools, it’s the magical world of Fantasia. And yes, you guessed it, both the music and the film, firm favourites of mine!

For a fascinating time-lapse photography look at the Fly Agaric toadstool growing, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

Wings and Stings

Zambia is literally an insect-paradise. Every year, without exception, we see one that we have never seen before. From glorious, glowing bugs that gleam in the night to powerful and ponderous black beetles moving their long antennae like slow-waving flags, from delicate butterflies that flit amongst the flowers to loud whining wasps who always sound angry as they make their mud nests, there is enough variety of creepy-crawlies to satisfy even the most dedicated entomologist. At certain times of the year, some species even appear in such quantities, you could call it a mini-plague.

Flying ants in particular. When the rains come, they leave the ground in the early evening, in their thousands and swarm into the air to mate. Then they discard their wings and search for places to start new colonies. In the morning the ground is covered with thousands of flying ants and wings. A swarm of flying ants is extremely protein-rich and the skies will suddenly fill with birds as they come to feast.

Flying ants, the morning after their nuptials.

Local people collect them too, from the ground, and fry them; oily and nutritious I’m told. I wouldn’t actually know myself. I do know that a dinner party of mine was once interrupted by flying ants. We turned all the electric lights off at once so as to stop attracting them but then it was a matter of trying to decide if that crunchy texture was a pecan or not……

One of our most relentless insects are ants; Driver, Safari or Serulis as they are known locally. They suddenly appear in their voracious, single-minded columns, aggressively feasting on whatever small unfortunate creature crosses their path. They are constantly combative and will attack if disturbed. Some locals simply move out of their homes for a day or two if these ants arrive on their doorstep, to allow the ants to pass through and kill off all the insects they find in their path.

They move extremely fast; the very moment you realise you’ve stepped in some, there is already one biting you on your scalp. The bite is hot and painful. It is not unknown at outdoor gatherings to hear a sudden shriek and see someone running and stripping off because they have walked into an army of these ants, which have a habit of swarming up under trouser legs and sleeves, biting as they go. Most people find modesty completely unnecessary when they’re under attack by Serulis. The only way you can get rid of them is to actually pull them off your skin. And then, search your clothing very carefully for any strays who will bite as soon as you put them back on!

Seruli ants on the march, their ranks in temporary disarray due to being disturbed.

When it comes to stinging things, Zambia has quite a few. The eave on one side of our house is home to a colony of wasp nests and on the verandah they are constantly building. In the herb garden there is usually at least one bucolic, buzzing bumble bee whose sweet, storybook look seems at odds with the fact that it can sting. One morning there was even a small black scorpion lurking quietly on the roll of toilet paper. Fortunately it was spotted. I leave it to you to imagine how things might have turned out if it hadn’t been…

The necessary mosquito net is a great saviour at night, and a fast-blowing fan also helps keep some insect pests at bay. Some of them, however overcome these obstacles. One year hundreds of black beetles descended upon us. They were so tiny they could slip through the small holes in the mosquito netting. And did. All night! Even tucked under that safeguarding canopy you couldn’t read in any kind of peace. In the morning you rose bleary-eyed and snarly due to having spent the whole night brushing teeny black beetles off your face and off the foot you stuck out of the side of the sheets to keep your body cool…

And then there are the rose beetles which can arrive in squadrons; round, peanut-butter coloured and hard-bodied, they fly in at all windows and doors and then trundle around inside the house. I’ve unwittingly drunk one from the water glass beside my bed. They make look like peanut butter but they certainly don’t taste of it. Truly nasty! And boy do they give off a stink when they are dead and decaying in the garden, on the driveway, and on the windowsills. They make a a whirring noise as they fly and crash into objects, and get their spiky little feet entangled in the net, or in your hair.

Some flying insects are beautiful, like those jewels of the skies, the dragonflies. In my garden they hover and dart over the grass as the late afternoon sunlight sparkles on their iridescent wings; wings so delicate that the colour will be reflected on to the surface beneath. Fragility is a false lead; dragonflies have extraordinary powers. They have four wings which can move independently. They can fly backwards. And dragonfly vision is in the realm of super-natural; with over 20 000 lenses in each eye and a head that jolts compulsively every few seconds, and with each small movement, an insect is tracked, at an estimated 95% kill rate, they are one of Nature’s most deadly predators.

Blue dragonfly in my garden.

There are apparently 22 species of dragon fly (Odonata) in Zambia. I have certainly seen at least 3 different ones myself; a slim, taper-thin brown, a short, plump red which I cannot name with any certainty, as well as a rather beautiful large blue, which I believe may have been a Gynacantha villosa. Dragonfly names, like the creatures themselves, have an other-world intrigue; Dropwings and Sprites, Spreadwings, Gliders, Skimmers and my personal favourite, the Pearly Flasher. Make of that what you will!

For a truly fascinating and very informative piece on African ants please follow this link. https://terranostra.one/posts/My-Journey-to-the-Ants.html

Oh I do love YouTube! What treasures you can stumble upon… here Scottish singer Eddi Reader likens us to dragonflies, not to their powers, but to their fleeting lives; a lost summer’s day, a lifetime away, what do you find – slow turning sun, with somewhere to run, on your mind. Not the flash that you saw, that was gone in the wink of an eye, as soon as we’re here, we disappear, like dragonflies. Listen to her lovely, lilting song, titled, “Dragonflies”.. and watch dragonflies.

For a great old folk song, Blue Tailed Fly (or Jimmy Crack’d Corn) by LeadBelly follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

If you are enjoying the blog please subscribe. You can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

Walk this Way

I’ve  always loved to walk; preferably down dusty farm roads or  along secretive, leafy tracks in the bushveld. Personally I am not inclined to long, competitive walks where people are trying to beat the clock or each other, although a good paced walk can get the heart rate up. Walking fast is good for your body but if you slow down, you have time to watch the world on your way and that’s good for the mind.  Walking in the bushveld is best; and depending on the time of year, for me, either early morning or late evening. 

A leafy country lane just waiting for a walker.

Walking in the Zambian bushveld can be simply a walk or an Expotition, as that beloved bear, Winnie the Pooh, once called it. For example, if you grab your hat and head out, that’s the former. If, however, you have to put on special footwear, and grab your camera, and the ubiquitous bottle of water, a book on mushrooms perhaps because it’s rained and you might see some interesting ones – and now that you have all this to carry, you’re going to need a little bag – now, now you have an Expotition.  

 So I set off on my expedition,  but not in the spirit of Amundsen or the ill-fated Scott.  After all, I am not planning to walk so far that I will become starved enough to eat my pack animals – nor do I need any. I think I can probably manage this little tog bag on my own.  And that is the beauty of walking; you can do it in your own way, at your own pace.  You don’t have to walk to the South Pole. Or the North Pole. Or around an entire coastline. Unless, of course, you want to. It’s your choice. 

Walking in wild places is good for the mind and the soul; not to mention the heart-rate, if you come upon something unexpectedly.

I recall walking with a beloved, late uncle who was part-owner of a rhino conservancy. We set off through the thick Zimbabwean bush to look for the rhino. Everyone else was anxious in case we didn’t find them, I was anxious in case we did. I tried to persuade him that I should wait for everyone on the top of the nearby granite kopje (hill) so that I would see the rhino and more to the point, it would see me and not be surprised.  But he wanted us all to stick together. I certainly stuck pretty close to him. I caught a brief glimpse of the rhino that day, as it hurtled through the bush. That was enough of a walk on the wild side, for me!

A bushveld walk over the stock dam wall, last January. (Photo by Dale Jones)

In Zambia at the height of summer, you are wise to walk early in the morning before the sun is too high in the sky. In a few hours, if you are barefoot (as I often am) the soles of your feet will burn on the hot ground. When temperatures climb up into the late 30s, then I start dreaming of walking on a beach, here, sorry not here (we are landlocked after all) there, anywhere!  Even the sandy banks of a river can sometimes replace a beach.

Walking on a beach is therapy with every step; the warm, silky feel of it, when the sand is dry or the satisfying crunch of it, wet. Add to that the foamy tide that washes in and out, and the small creatures that you see as you walk, it’s real food for the soul. Standing ankle deep in cool, salty water while watching ships on the horizon, there is no rush. Not in Africa. Or anywhere else, just then.

On holiday, we always walk where we can;  in the pretty town of Caumont L’Evente, in Normandy, France, that turned out to be a daily, uphill huff and puff, into the village to buy French pastries for our tea, a variety for the others, while for me, lemon tart, every time.

They say you are what  you eat.

In Caumont L’Evente if we want pastries, we have to walk, to get them.

Of course eating more, as I do on holiday, I feel I should walk more, but not you understand in the way of an Olympic walker; it’s not only about the walking, it’s much more about what I will see on the way. In Normandy that turned out to be peaceful dairy cows grazing in green meadows, pausing only in their single-minded chomping to watch me, watching them, over rustic but neat wooden fences. And on our way back to our holiday home, the beautiful summer roses in someone’s backyard.

At home I love to walk in my own backyard, the woodlands behind our house. I pause to look into wild and wonderful copses, to gather pods and driftwood, or thoughts, which I can weave together into a waffling blog. Like this one.

The fabulous and ageless Cher singing about tracing the footsteps of Elvis Presley. What can I say, except one favourite singer of mine, singing about another favourite – a beautiful ballad and tribute done in inimitable Cher style.

For that much-loved poem Tewkesbury Road by my favourite poet, John Masefield and the rather lovely and bittersweet Alabama Rain by Jim Croce, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

For followers of the Dog Blog, it’s Angel’s turn and you can see her walking with her favourite, the Big Boss, on this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

Wind in the Woodland

As January brings her wind of change and with only the echo of a girl’s laughter in empty rooms, I have started the great tidy-up. Like Mole, in my favourite book, “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Graham, I have been spring-cleaning.

There is a sense of achievement in sorting through old paperwork and tidying up rows of groceries in the pantry. There is some satisfaction in untangling skeins of wool and methodically wrapping trimmings around small pieces of card to keep them tidy. Sorting buttons into their colours is the sort of mildly therapeutic work that keeps the hands busy and the mind engaged so that it does not listen too closely to the silence of the house. For the house is quiet, now, except for the low buzz of insect song which is a constant companion.

Duranta Repens, the Forget-Me-Not tree.

Just before the dawn, the insect music suddenly stops and the silence is heavy and all-enveloping, like a cloak. When the first robin sings, the insects start again, but his song is sweet and melodious, theirs, more monotonous and faintly shrill. The Heuglin’s Robin (we’ve been through this – yes, yes his name has changed, but not for me) sings every morning and that is a sound to lift the heart. The Cape Turtle doves call in the distance but it is the song of the robin that makes me draw back the curtain and look out at the pale morning.  It is his song, ringing out, as it does, through the day,  that draws me outside.  And just like Mole, I am inclined to say “Oh hang Spring Cleaning” and suspend all work as I go out into my garden and into the bushveld beyond. And if, like him, I was to meet with resistance, I too would utter a rude, “Oh, Onion Sauce!”

Spider Lily flower.

January may be bittersweet with the big changes she has brought and yet, she is not only full of promise but delivers on it too, for she brings spider lilies, verdant abundance, frantic yellow-feathered weavers and small, single-minded tortoises trundling from one unknown place to another. 

In my garden, the spider lilies, (Pancratium Tenuifolium) hang ethereal and gleaming white upon their green stems; in some places around the country, you can see banks of them for they grow wild in Zambia. The Duranta Repens is covered in sweeping sprays of vibrant purple flowers which droop down over the bird bath. The Forget-Me-Not tree, as it is called by some, is always beautiful, but especially at this time of year when it is so full of blooms and covered in clouds of butterflies.  In an Acacia thorn tree, the Masked Weavers are frenetically working on new nests, and their chirping is quite cacophonous.

Acacia flowering with yellow blooms and yellow Masked Weavers.

Meanwhile over the back fence, the bushveld beckons for it is green now, if not exactly as lush as it can be. Many of the rivers are yet to run as full as they can in this month. In some places there have been good rains, in others, not so much. It’s a January that’s not completely dry but not as wet as it could be. But still wet enough for that little-seen resident of the bushveld, the tortoise. At this time of year, they emerge, often crossing tar roads from one side to the other. Their tortuous progress always prompts me to stop and move them safely off the road, being careful, now that I’ve learnt, to keep the tortoise away from my body as I hold him,  for they have a habit of wetting themselves (or worse) when you pick them up. Which is not that surprising. It must seem very alarming to the poor tortoise to be lifted into the air but on the other hand, even though he himself is more concerned with being back on terra-firma, I am more concerned that being crushed under the wheels of a vehicle would be considerably more calamitous.

African tortoise.

Finding a tortoise in the bushveld is perfect but they do find their way into our garden too. We had one who arrived so mud-covered, one particularly wet season, that he could hardly walk. He looked exhausted, struggling through the hardened crust of mud and clay that had adhered to his legs. A careful wash with the garden hose soon removed most of the hard-baked coating on his knees and feet. He went on his way with, if not exactly a spring in his step, then at least a new sense of purpose and a belief that he might arrive at his destination.

Which brings me back to my quiet house and my mission. Like the tortoise I am not exactly leaping for joy, but I have work for my hands, and plans for the future. And when the silence gets too loud, I can slip out of the back door and into the leafy arms of Mother Nature, for she has the zither hum of a million insects, the sweet symphony of bird calls and the wind which in my backyard, whispers not in the willows, but in the wild woodlands.

When looking for something to watch with our child, I chanced upon The Wind in the Willows tv series and found it enchanting. Like the book, it paints an idyllic picture of rural England and a way of life long gone. The theme song, composed by Herman’s Hermits’ Keith Hopwood and Malcom Rowe, perfectly captures the essence of the original book as well as the series. Sung by Ralph McTell in his beautiful, folk-style voice, it has a rather haunting quality.

If you are interested in reading the lovely lyrics, they can be found on my verse page. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

For a look at my miniature Wind in the Willows inspired tableau, that I created for our Christmas table in December, have a look here. https://shellbell.home.blog/crafty/

The Wind in the Willows album composed by Keith Hopwood (of Herman’s Hermits) and Malcolm Rowe, and also featuring the voices of such great actors as Peter Sallis, (Wallace and Grommit) and David Jason (Only Fools and Horses) can be found on this link. https://g.co/kgs/pFYo7Y

For followers of the Dog Blog, here is the link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

New Year, New Normal

January always feels like another spring to me. Not only the new start to a new year (and in this case a whole new decade) but also the rather tantalising prospect of new challenges and changes, hopefully for the better. I smile a little at New Year’s resolutions; I suspect few of them are kept for any length of time. Certainly for me, I say, new year, same old me. I mean I know there is all this talk of growing as a human being, but I’m in my 50s – my growing years were over a long time ago. Unless of course you mean growing in dress size. Of course I can find new interests or enrich my world with new experiences. Whilst wearing my larger clothes. But really, grow as a person? Hmm, I’d rather not.

Still I like to take stock in January and also, do something practical. This year it has meant clearing out our schoolroom as the girl is off. It meant taking down the posters for the last time. The better ones, along with text books and equipment, will find new life in a new schoolroom when I donate them. The tatty ones were fun to make, but their job is now done. There was a sense of achievement in throwing out old lesson notes and having a good clear out. Repainting the room to cover up those ugly sticky-stuff/blue tack marks will be one of my new year jobs, especially since my old job of home-school teacher is now at an end.

It is has been a true treasure being able to teach my girl. I will never forget the moment when she read her first book. Look, we’re not talking Tolstoy or Dickens here but it might as well have been for the soaring pride I felt when she read in her little girl voice, “I am Top Cat! Am I Top Cat? I am. I am. I am Top Cat!” And that was only a fraction of the joy I felt when I discovered she was so very much better at Maths than I am…

It has been brilliant having our girl at home with us, all these years, even though the normal for farm living in Africa, is boarding school. But it’s all change. Now Boarding School, will have to become our new normal. I don’t mind telling you, it is a daunting prospect. We are close-knit unit, but I know, in my melancholy heart, that it is time to find out how stretchy the family scarf is! Certainly, she is ready to go and I expect she will soar.

I will stop and smell the freshly-risen fungus in my back yard.

I am told, by all the mothers who have been here, done this, to keep busy – to find something to fill that empty space. For me, that won’t be difficult. For one thing Nature is out there and I am privileged to live with it right on my doorstep. I will walk in the woods and seek out treasures in the trees. I will stop and smell, not roses perhaps, but small toadstools that have pushed their way out of the earth.

Indoors, I have already ear-marked several overdue chores – the sorting out of my pantry for one and, oh dear woe is me, the tidy up of the store room! The door to this room only just opens…and once inside who knows what monsters lurk inside! Being Zambia, I should think there will be at least one slithery thing… I always open the door with great noise and then pause before I go in to give whatever is in there time to slide away from the door. Still, I know I will be filled with great satisfaction when I’ve got that snarl-up of a room untangled and squared away.

And once that’s done, I expect there will be a myriad of other jobs I can find. The old schoolroom is to be my new sewing room – and oh have I got plans for that machine this year! The chatter and laughter from our child will have to be replaced with the buzz of the machine – when the power is on. Because, a new year it may be, but some of the old problems will be carried forward with us. Like the fascinating dung beetle who literally has to push his very aromatic load in front of him; there will be luggage. Emotional or real, as in the case of the packed school trunk, waiting patiently for the off.

Dung Beetles and luggage.

It’s not long to go now and I find myself trying to slow down the days. Which is impossible but at least I can decide how I spend them. With the wisdom of the man ringing in my ears I have spent time, this last week, with my girl, rather than lavishing endless, exclusive attention on that trunk. I was in danger of doing that. I just want it all as perfect as possible because that trunk represents the last time I will have the only influence on my child. Which is a good thing I know. But so very difficult too. The world does not seem to grow wiser or more beautiful, but rather the opposite, and to knowingly launch one’s precious offspring into it is quite simply alarming.

It is the great irony of parenthood that we have to let go of the ones we love the most. Still, it is the great blessing of a good union that we can find comfort in each other when that little one flies off, taking her breath of fresh air, her funny, sweet sparkle with her…

New year, new normal. Wish us luck, won’t you?!

In this song sung by Lee Ann Womack are so many of the wishes that I would wish for my own daughter. So I dedicate it to her…I hope you dance, cherub!

Another song for the girl – one of our favourites. The sentiment is true too, and probably not just for me but all the mothers out there who have their children away from them.

And while we’re on the subject, the evocative poem “To A Daughter Leaving Home” by American poet Linda Pastan and ABBA’s bittersweet but beautiful song “Slipping Through my Fingers” is here. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

December Gifts

When I was young, I went away for a year to work overseas. By the end of it, I’d had an incredible time, but I couldn’t wait to come back. I left cold, damp England a few days before Christmas. I grew up loving the look of robins in the snow, with holly and evergreens, but they were pictures on Christmas cards and in books, something beautiful to look at, but not something I truly connected with.  December in Zimbabwe is something quite different.  The heat off the airport tarmac hit me as I stepped out of the plane.  My heart sang. I was home.

Now my home is in Zambia, and Christmas is usually hot and hopefully wet! Oh dear that sky is very blue today I say to myself looking up. Did she just complain about blue sky I hear you say, as you, my overseas reader, pulls up your warm socks and huddles a bit closer to your cup of cocoa? Yes she did, reply the local and the regional readers, for they are looking at the same sky.  As I write, it is crystal clear, cerulean blue – we would have liked it so much to be stormy – but you know what they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride and this particular beggar would ride into a storm on the back of a rain-drenched donkey if necessary. Clinging on for dear life, not so much jingling as jangling. With nerves. All the way.

Festive Red Velvet Mite.

Still, December has plenty of beautiful gifts. There’s the tiny Red Velvet Mite (Trombidiidae) in his festive, velvety, scarlet coat and in some areas of the veld, pyjama lilies (Crinum macowani) striped like candy canes. One or two fungi have popped up to decorate the leaf litter and dragonflies in a myriad of colours dot the air with sparkles. Meanwhile further out in the veld there are lots of baby animals. Podgy warthog trundle or dash along in single file behind the grown-ups, all tails in the air. Pretty Impala babies prance on dainty hooves and simply sublime, the young Sable in their downy coats watch with liquid eyes, framed by long lashes.

Christmas babies, Sable (Photo by kind permission of our neighbour, Jamie Rutherford)

In the back yard, pretty White Water Sedge (Cyperus Mindorensis) is everywhere, its shiny white heads nodding like small baubles in the sun. In the garden my sisal plants are topped with tall, green spires – fascinating, fashion-model flowers that they produced a few months ago.  The flowers are beset with the ever-busy bees swarming around them, collecting nectar. There are plenty of sisal flowers which is why I have cut one down to use as my African-style Christmas tree again this year.

The house is bedecked in greenery and tinsel. The Advent calendar (a gift from a special friend) has been slowly depleted as we count down to Christmas Day. Which makes me reflect on the year that has passed. And got me thinking of the blog.  Besides there is the small matter of that rather lofty claim I made earlier about having readers…

… But really, I do. And it’s not just that you stop in so kindly, (and thank you for that) from time to time and tell me what you think of the blog that week, it’s also written, not in the stars, but in my blog statistics.

White Water Sedge with flower baubles.

More than 2000 people read my blog during the year, which for this farmer’s wife, living a quiet little life in Zambia, is quite astonishing. The most popular post, written in March, with 175 readers, was “In the Grass” for, as you know, at the bottom of my garden I don’t have fairies, I have wild grass. https://shellbellhome.wordpress.com/2019/03/14/in-the-grass/

The evocative piece, “A Falconer in Zimbabwe”, written by my brother P. Heymans, also in March, came in at a close second. 173 of us learnt that an Arrow Marked Babbler will always come to the assistance of his comrade who has been taken by an avian predator. https://shellbellhome.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/a-falconer-in-zimbabwe/

The Road Trip blog was third. Which is quite pertinent since it feels, to me, as if we are on this journey together. I mean, I can actually see where you are. Ooh now, I don’t mean where, as in, you’re sitting up in bed with a cuppa or shifting from foot to foot as you wait in an endless queue, I mean where, as in the world.

People from 65 different countries have stopped in for a read. Just imagine!  My United Kingdom, United States, Australian and New Zealand reader numbers stay fairly even, as do those from countries on my own continent; Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. From time to time, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia have stopped in. Angola, dropped by. As did Mauritius. Israel came up and so did the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq. Also France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany; Poland and Slovakia too.  Across the globe, Philippines and Canada, while India, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia have hosted readers as well.  Ukraine appeared and so did Azerbaijan. In truth there are too many to list, but look at that, I just tried. Shout out to Puerto Ricco. And Guam!

African-style Christmas trees in the making.

I’ve had such a wonderful time with writing this year. From the first spider’s web silvered with dew way back in February, to the stupendous, sweet-smelling Sisal towers of December, how humbled I have been by your attention. And so glad to have had you all along for the read.  For me the rewards have been rich.  If I could throw a thank-you party for 2000 and more, I really, truly would!

This will be my last blog of the year. I will be back in the New Year sometime and I honestly hope you will be too. Meanwhile there is a batch of warm Scottish shortbread to bake.  For the Man. Now. While I have power! And another chapter of that Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol” to read to the girl.  What more is there to add, except, in the immortal words of Dickens’, character, Tiny Tim, “A Merry Christmas to us All; God Bless us Everyone!”

One of my favourite Christmas carols is Carol of the Bells, originally from Ukraine. I am not sorry for putting it twice; this lovely version by the equally gorgeous “Cimorelli”, is crisp and sparkling, like newly-fallen snow. Or rain drops.

Carol of the Bells played by the Trans Siberian Orchestra is utterly different, as you might expect, just from the name of the orchestra. I dedicate it with much love, to my husband and our girl, who has inherited a true love of rock music from her father.

And lastly – three songs! Well it is Christmas you know… From Rock to Rock and Roll from the fifties. And since I had the delight of singing this with a friend last year, I am such a fan of the Puppini Sisters! Look out for them if you like retro, Andrews Sisters’ style music. Here they sing the Hawaiian Christmas Song. Kick off your shoes. Have a dance! Or just watch them and the joy they bring.

Interested to see how the Sisal Christmas tree turned out? Just follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/crafty/

For a beautiful Christmas song – Joy to the World, sung most beautifully by the Kenyan Boys’ Choir, and my last poem for the year, go here. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

And finally for those who were following the Dog Blog – they are back with a little Christmas piece. https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

Of Rain and Rekeni

When the rains come, there is a lot work to be done on the farm and in the garden, a shed-full of planting plans, to be put into action. The rain brings renewal and energy, not just for the veld and the garden, but for me too.

This year the rain arrived at almost the same time as our very last term at Home School ended. Next year it’ll be all change, but for now, the holidays are here, and with them, the kind of work that makes me feel happy; the preparations for holiday visitors, stocking the pantry and the long-overdue and thorough tidy-up and clear-out. Call me strange but I like my house to be tidy before I put up my Christmas tree.

Meanwhile, in conflict with getting any kind of work done, the power situation this summer, is truly dire in Zambia (And Zimbabwe. And South Africa.)  So when the power is on, I rush between stove and sewing machine to make lunch and sew Christmas decorations, gifts and to get on with my mending. Well perhaps, I don’t really rush, as such, for the mending, but it does eventually get done. As for the crafting, it clutters the kitchen counter, waiting expectantly for the moment the glue gun can be turned on.   

Tractor road maintenance.

Out on the farm and in my garden, the tractors have been fixing roads. This is almost always guaranteed to bring rain –  ask any farmer who just disked the side of the road in preparation for grading.  Drains are vital to the maintenance of the dirt roads and also to your house if you, like me, live at the bottom of a slope. Otherwise you find water pouring off the road and flowing right past your kitchen door and you watch in amazement as a pair of the man’s slops (flip flops) get carried away into the garden.  

When the rains come, our world greens up and the weeds start growing like…..well…themselves! When it comes to the farm crops, it is almost a continuous task, keeping the weeds at bay.  In the garden they appear en masse, and overnight. And of course the lawn suddenly needs mowing and wouldn’t you just know it, the mower wants to die but sorry for that, I refuse. Growing up, as I did, in a place where another plan was always ready to go into action, I am not inclined to give up easily.  Machines were not allowed to die or  to simply grow old and be put out to pasture (ha) but had to be reworked, rewired, re-welded and held together if necessary with wire and a piece of rekeni. Pronounced rrekenn.

Rekeni is a length of rubber cut from an old inner tube. It is used to tie things up. Got a dripping tap – and inevitably, around here, we do – secure it with rekeni. It is I admit, a complete pain to untie it each time you need to use said tap, but at least the water doesn’t drip out constantly. Got two too-short hosepipes? Join them with little length of plastic piping and bind with rekeni. And so to the lawnmower. As I write it is mowing furiously… thanks to rekeni  and wire. Look, the wheels are a bit wobbly but they’ll do, for another season.

Beauty and a beasty; Frangipani flower and Millipede

Here in the garden there is just as much activity, not only from the tractor, the man with the mower, and me with my plans for new flower beds which I started dreaming about way back in July,  but also the many small creatures that live here alongside us. 

Millipedes always arrive with the rain. Chongololos as we call them (say chorn gor lor lors) appear everywhere, trundling their shiny, tube-like black bodies around the garden and the veld and bringing their voracious appetites with them! In Zambia they grow enormous and become an olive-green as they get busy eating. Everything.

In the house the rain brings wet-smelling dogs and muddy paw prints on the newly-cleaned kitchen floor. The indoor laundry appears again; just a piece of rope I string up especially for the purpose. So I’m sorry but if you want to get a drink out of the fridge, you have to fight your way through an army of wet washing, soaking sheets and dripping dresses. It could be worse. It could be drawers.

What with all this tidying and clearing, cooking and crafting, and preparing for Christmas, December is a busy month. But it’s satisfying work. And at the end of another industrious day, I can’t think of anything better than climbing into my bed and listening to rain falling in the night.

American singer, Eddie Rabbit, started out as a song writer, composing, among other songs, “Kentucky Rain” for Elvis Presley. Then his own singing career was launched when he came out with this toe-tapper in 1974. It is one of those happy songs which just never get old. Thanks Eddie.

Want to sing along to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” or read a beautiful poem about Australia; https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Home Sweet House

I think we leave something of ourselves behind in the houses of our past. I’m not talking about a perished piece of hosepipe, a doll with one arm or a broken-down wheelbarrow. And it’s not something you’d find in a packing box. It’s an intangible connection, like strings to the heart, which when pulled on can hurt or give comfort in the shape of a good memory.

Recently a dear friend had to move out of the much-loved house that she and her best friend – her beloved, late husband – had built. The haunting cry of the African Fish Eagle and all the other memories that she had shared with him seemed to be embedded in the very walls and from every window, a view that they had once shared. I think leaving that house felt like leaving him behind too. We, her friends, could only imagine some of the heartache in it, for her.

And yet, I subscribe to the view that although we leave something of ourselves behind, our memories are not within walls but within ourselves and we take them with us wherever we go, the good, the bad and the bittersweet. That said, I do believe houses, like people, have characters. And like people, some houses are just nicer places to be around than others.

Our Colonial-style house in Zimbabwe.

We lived for a short while in a beautiful and enormous u-shaped house built around a courtyard, constructed, many years ago, by a team of Italians. All the doors and windows were wooden, in colonial style. The dining room was quite grand and the scene of frequent family feasts. One of the things I loved best was the wraparound veranda from which I could watch the myriad of Palm Swifts that had colonised an enormous palm tree on the front lawn.

When we came to Zambia we built a house in the virgin bushveld, set amongst spectacular wild trees. I forwent tiles in favour of cement floors, which are deliciously cool under foot when the weather is hot and the rain has not yet come. The heart of that home, was not, as is most usual, the kitchen, but the pub, which you stepped into as you came in at the front door. Many festive evenings were held around that bar counter, hand built my man and my father. Here we heard the Fiery Necked Night Jar at night and Wood Hoopoe by day. And set, as it was in the bushveld, we had frequent visits from mongoose, monkeys and once, less welcome, a Black Mamba who slid in at the front door, perhaps looking for a beer…

Our own-built home in the bush of Zambia.

Now we live under thatch which dips, cottage-style over the entrance to the veranda. Here bats roost and at night you can hear the low, reverberating call of the Giant Eagle Owl. In this garden Bushbuck and monkeys feel quite at home by day, and Kudu, by night. In the heat of the day, the wild Fig throws an enormous cool, dark shadow over the swing which my daughter likes to sit on with her best friend, her cousin. When it rains, I love to hear the whispering rustle of it upon the thatch.

Our thatched house.

I can’t get excited by contemporary, industrial design – for houses. Some of these apparently grand houses you see on television programmes, with enormous steel structures and gigantic glass windows leave me unmoved. I think there is something cold and pretentious about them. They appear to have no heart. And I can’t help wondering how many birds kill themselves on those vast planes and panes of glass.  One of my favourite houses of all, is as far removed from these leviathans as a little Blue Waxbill would be from a Pterodactyl.

A painting of the House on Craig Farm

It was the home on Craig Farm, in the old Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was once called, where my father spent some of his childhood; and I, a little of mine. The building itself was composed of two rondavels (circular rooms) at either end of a veranda which was connected to a small rectangular house. My Oupa (my grandfather) added these extensions, for the original house was tiny – what we would call a pondokkie. I was very young so my memories of it are few; but I recall, in the garden tucked away, a beautiful carved angel kept watch over a small, sad grave. And doves calling. Even now, the croon of the Cape Turtle Dove on a hot afternoon takes me back to this house. As a child, I thought it was the perfect shape and I dreamed I would build one exactly like it, one day. Perhaps I still will.

As for that dear friend who had to leave a dear home, she will be renewed as she makes another home for herself. All her memories will have to move around of course, and jostle each other somewhat, to make room for the new ones. For that is the thing about memories; no matter how many you have, there is always room for more. 

The wonderful Dolly Parton epitomises the warmth of hearth and home in this famous song of hers, My Tennessee Mountain Home. No matter where you live, I think you can find your own home sweet home, in this song.

For that immortal folk song “500 Miles from Home” by Peter, Paul and Mary, and an Ellen Wheeler Wilcox poem, go here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Best Nest

The pretty yellow Masked Weaver birds who have been nest-building for a number of months now, tend to fall silent in the heat of the day. Then at about 3.00 in the afternoon they suddenly reappear and get to work again, with noisy, high chirping to accompany their frantic activity. I think they worked much more slowly in the heat – and spent quite a bit of time in the birdbath instead. For the past weeks, after some rain, we’ve had cooler weather and you can actually see a colour difference in the weaving of their nests. Between the first workings which had been dried to golden brown by the sun, and the new, which are green, there is a distinct line, as if they ran out of one colour of thread and had to carry on with a different one.  

Masked Weavers and an industry of nest-building.

Nest-building is a serious and fascinating industry.  And in fact, none are best. The best nest is the one each bird has built for itself, for each is perfectly suited to the bird who built it. I am always captivated by the many sizes, shapes and the incredible adaptability of birds to their surroundings. Birds use what they have. 

In the case of the Blue Waxbill nest which is very untidy on the outside, I love to see the long stalks of grass sticking out in all directions. Some of these still have a few seeds too which in my mind is rather like a pantry for the Waxbill, being a seed-eater. Having found one or two of these long-abandoned, (and after checking nothing else has moved in) I touch the inside of the nest. It is wonderfully soft and I expect, warm too.

Blue Waxbill nest on the right next to an old Red-Headed Weaver’s nest.

The Wire-tailed Swallows nesting in the garage make such perfect nests. There is something so utterly satisfying about those little daubs of mud and the sweet cup shape can almost make one forget how it was made; an arduous,  beak-full by beak-full of mud, attached, just so, pressed into exactly the right spot. 

Paradise Flycatcher’s nest measures just 6cm in diameter.

The Paradise Flycatcher nest in all its miniature wonder, is a thing of pure perfection. I watch for sight of the male bird with his dazzling and definitive long tail and try to find the nest. It’s not easy. They are very adept at making their nests inconspicuous. I have found one or two old, abandoned ones on the ground and can never, ever resist bringing them inside. When I look at it I can hardly imagine how a bird and eggs even fit inside. But clearly they do for year after year, in late October, the flycatcher appears again and teases me with his tantalising russet tail and sweet, chirruping whistle.

Some nests I have never found; like that of the Schalows Turaco or Loerie. I was quite sure by his constant forays into the large fir tree in my back garden that he had a nest and a mate in there, but I never found it. To be honest, I didn’t try too hard as I was afraid of disturbing this rather jumpy and secretive bird. But there are nests which are hard to miss, like the nest of that intriguing bird, the Hammerkop. Now that, is a nest!

Nest of the Hammerkop.

It has the look of a huge, shaggy pile of water-born sticks that have been swept along by a river and lodged in a tree. In fact, of course, every one of those thousands of sticks (one researcher estimates it to be around 8000) have been selected by beak and carried up, one by one. To me, the Hammerkop nest looks rather like an untidy haystack but the small entrance is cosy, inviting and perfectly circular. In the end the whole structure can measure as much as 1,5 m across and is apparently able to support a man’s weight. Which is an astonishing thought. Still, I hope no man has tried. Wait a moment… was that a bird call or a faint cry for help? Oh well.

The Sunbird nest is an entirely different structure. I watched with great delight when a Scarlet-Chested Sunbird started building right outside my kitchen window. It was exciting – except she chose a particularly thin piece of grass dangling off our thatched roof, on which to start. My joy turned to worry. And when the wind blew the nest bounced and swung. It won’t hold, I told my man. Turned out, I was right. One morning the nest was gone. I rushed outside to the sound of faint cheeping and the nest lying on the ground. I scooped it up with care. Inside were a couple of tiny, pink and featherless chicks.

I did what I usually do in a crisis. I called the man.

He came up, as he usually does, with the perfect plan. We carefully put the nest inside one of those string bags that hold onions. Then with him holding the stepladder (and me wobbling anyway) I tied the bag up to a beam under the thatch, trying to get it into the same sort of position it was before. And hoping the knot would hold. I’m no sailor or boy scout; I can just about manage a granny knot. Don’t say it.

Onion bag nest and the original strand of grass she built on!

We watched from inside. After a short time the mother reappeared. She looked a little confused I could have sworn my nest fell on the ground – but after a few seconds in she popped.

I must say I have never worried about a knot quite as much as the one I tied that nest up with! In the night when the wind blew I would wake up and worry and wonder and worry and think how hard it would be for someone like me to be responsible for all living things.  Every morning I would rush into the kitchen to check on the nest…. but in fact, if I had but realised it, that knot would never be undone by wind nor human hand. I found this out a couple of years later when I decided the bag was finally past its best and had, in fact, to cut said knot, with scissors.

As it turned out, there were three broods out of that nest. It certainly stayed the course. The only thing I had left to worry about was whether, inadvertently, I had enabled a bad nest builder to produce more bad builders to produce more bad builders…

I loves these guys! The Mills Brothers always sing with such uplifting joy and charm. They started as a Barbershop quartet (which considering their father owned a barbershop seems appropriate) and continued after the death of one of the beloved brothers, when their father took his son’s place. Later, after his retirement, the brothers continued performing as a trio. It’s hard to pick my favourite of theirs but “Yellow Bird” just fits with my blog this week!

For a beautiful, emotive folk song, My Singing Bird, by that incredible Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor, follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/2019/11/12/2671/

First Rains

Have you ever seen an African rainstorm? I don’t think there is any work of Nature more thrilling. And as for the first rain of the season – there just isn’t an event more anticipated with joy.

Before the rain comes, small fluffy clouds build and grow – and disappear. The heat simply burns up these soft, newborn clouds. This can go on for weeks, for months. Then, one day, the clouds change. Billow upon billow, they start to tower into the dusty blue sky, which suddenly darkens. Thunder rolls overhead, sometimes with the crack of lightning. In a moment big drops of water hit the ground. It’s rain. At last. Happy chemicals rush into the brain. As if by magic, a load lifts off the shoulders.

First wildflower of the season.

November African rain does not only renew the earth but also the heart and the soul.  When the rain comes, all things seem possible, again. In the unrelenting heat and dry, you felt yourself weaken and fade, like a fragile bloom in the desert. You simply had less resistance to the usual ups and downs of life, less ebullience, less life.  All that changes the moment the first proper rain drops fall.  The smell of the rain on the earth – it has its own word – petrichor – rises up and enfolds you. Like a mother picking up a young child from a fall and encouraging her to try again, so this scent wraps itself around you and urges you on in your labours, your goals and your dreams.  

Raindrop diamonds.

Our world is washed clean and the difference is truly magical. The trees sparkle as sunlight catches on raindrops which dot the leaves like diamonds. Spider’s webs become bejeweled. The most humble of plants is transformed for the moment, into something spectacular . The leaves on the trees have a glorious lustre and the leaf litter suddenly takes on new life, its wonderful, woodsy colours revealed once again now that the dust is gone. In places the litter, which up till now, seemed scattered, appears to have moved closer together and lies slightly flattened as if it hugs the earth. In other places it has been swept along by small rivers of rain and found rest up against the nearest obstacle; a tree root, a boulder, a fence.

Leaf litter shining clean.

First rains means wild flowers and flying ants. In the rains Zambia explodes with insects and a myriad of other creepy-crawlies such as millipedes, rose beetles and an oval-shaped bug that smells like stinky socks. So it’s not all raindrops on roses then. But actually, it really is!

First rains work a miracle. The birds sing with more gusto and the tree trunks become wet and dark with moisture. In the garden the roses bloom and bloom. Meanwhile water drips from the edge of our thatched roof and into the puddles below. Each drop hits the water with its own sweet, melodic ring. Beyond the tree line, the sky is moody blue. It’s the colour which brought rain. And a promise of more to come.

First rains have fallen.

The first rain in November brings also, an uncommon event; I rush out into the garden and dance in the rain. Look, we’re not exactly talking Gene Kelly here. For one thing, I don’t take my umbrella. For another, I can fall over my own feet while stationary. Because I tried to put both feet into the same leg of my trousers. But for a small moment I’m actually a dancer and in my own world, with my head upturned to feel rain on my face, I fling my arms outwards and twirl around like a loon. It feels good! You should try it sometime – dancing in the African rain.

The fantastic Creedence Clearwater Revival had 9 top ten hits during their 4 years together in the 60s and 70s. Despite their Californian origins, they sang mostly of bayous, catfish and the Mississippi, and arguably became the founders of Southern Rock. Here they are with, “Have you Ever Seen the Rain?”

Want to sing or dance in the rain? Or at least watch the gorgeous and superb and did I mention gorgeous, Gene Kelly, doing it in ” Singing in the Rain?” Go here. https://shellbell.home.blog/2019/11/13/2678/

Nature’s Way

In the bush-veld it’s a matter of life and death, either to prey or predator. One way or the other. Either the prey is eaten or the predator goes hungry. Nature’s way is hard, implacable and bound by that simple rule. Turns out this is also true in my garden.

Yesterday I heard the alarmed shriek of a Francolin outside my bedroom window. I looked out in time to see a Lizard Buzzard flying in low and a Francolin chick scuttling for cover under the lavender bushes and the Forget-Me-Not tree. In my heart I am thinking run little thing, you’ve got to run! A while later I went out to investigate but saw no sign of any birds.  When my dogs went nosing around the same flower bed, a lone adult Francolin suddenly exploded from the tangle of vegetation and flew away. I think her youngster must have been taken by the hawk, for there was no sign of it and I kept my eye on that flower bed all morning, in case of movement, in case the mother came back…

Lizard Buzzard on the lookout for food.

A few days ago, I made the unpleasant discovery of part of the leg from a bushbuck on my lawn. My dogs meanwhile were extremely agitated and excited about what they had found in a spot just outside our gate. Turned out to be dried blood and dung pellets as well as digested grass. There were drag marks from one side of the road to the other. The dogs’ prints made it impossible for me to tell what else had been there but just to the side of the road, near an anthill, we found another bushbuck foreleg lying in the crook of a tree. There was not much meat left on it but it had obviously been torn off and eaten by something. We know there has been a leopard seen in the area. So perhaps. But we don’t know. What I do know is that this drama was played out in the middle of the night, noiseless enough to not disturb my dogs. What I do know is that the leg was not large. I think it belonged to a youngster.  I thought it belonged to the youngster I’ve been watching come into my garden with its mother, since Winter.  I had not seen them both for a while – until yesterday afternoon.  That was a gladdening sight.

Drag marks and tracks – but we don’t know exactly what took place here.

Nature’s credo makes me feel quite sad if I dwell on it. I can’t help it. I’m just wired that way. One of the most pitiful things I ever saw on an otherwise brilliant nature documentary, was a wolf taking a baby reindeer. Oh how that little one cried! I’ve never quite been able to get the image, or the sound, out of my mind. Of course I know the wolf has to eat. I’m just one of those people who would rather not watch it doing so.

That is why my dogs are forbidden from chasing anything in the garden. They do sometimes revolt against this rule and one of them was in particular disgrace when he caught and killed a mongoose. My Sunday afternoon walk is thoroughly spoiled if they scare up an antelope and give chase. It does not happen too often because mostly, they listen to us when we call them back. I know it’s in their nature, but as I am higher up the food chain, my garden, my woodland walk, my rules.  

Of course predators are vital to the balance of ecology. Too few is just as detrimental as too many. Just watch the fascinating and thought-provoking account of the re-introduction to Yellowstone National Park, in the USA, of wolves. (Look out for the link at the bottom of this piece.) Of course, since this was done, there is now a necessity to control the wolves which if too plentiful become a menace to the neighbouring areas but as I see it, this is still a healthier ecosystem than one in which wolves are extinct.

For my part, I can console myself somewhat with the thought that around here, particular prey animals, Francolin and Bushbuck, are plentiful.  As were the Barbel or Catfish, it seems, in the small stock dam.

The puddle of sludge that was a stock dam.

Over the dry season the stock dam has dwindled to nothing much more than a tiny puddle of sludge. It was decided that the farm labourers should go and retrieve the catfish for themselves, before the fish all died and rotted.  I was amazed at how many they pulled out of the small area of water that was left – I believe it was in the region of 100. Not that long ago Marabou Stork were spotted there – also feasting on the fish exposed by the disappearing water.  The smaller fish had long since expired or been eaten, perhaps by the Barbel and birds. For now the dam is nearly all dry and the sun has baked a patchwork of cubes into the clay.  When the rain comes – as it will – the water will return and so, I expect will the Barbel, the small fish and all the waterfowl that used to live there.  I am looking forward to that. Their wild predators are not. They are not worrying, planning or hoping. They simply are.

American/Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie comes from Saskatchewan originally. She won an Oscar for her co-written song, “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman. This song , a family favourite of ours, “You Got To Run” calls on people to invoke the “spirit of the wind” – that is, to take a stand, to never give up, even when things are difficult.

For a fascinating story on the re-introduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, please follow this link. I think it’s worth taking the time. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

The Smell of Nostalgia

On a hot summer night the Moon Flower in my garden gives off its potent, giddy scent. It is most beautiful at dusk and opens when the moon is full.  Some say it’s narcotic and they may be right. Certainly it conjures up a vision of the beautiful garden which was my mother’s pride and joy, on our farm in Zimbabwe. There the Moon Flower bloomed in oyster-pink perfection. The sweetness of Jasmine also carries me back for it hung in pretty, perfumed white clusters at my bedroom window and the scent of Sweet Peas, in all their profusion of colour, which grew in such quantities as to fill up every glass vase in the house.

My Moon Flower – Brugmansia Sauveolens

If I put my nose inside the creamy, Cup of Gold bloom (and being a bit strange, I do) I am once again a small girl on a great adventure, in a garden belonging to my Ouma, my grandmother. For there, its waxy dark green leaves and serpentine tendrils, tumbled and trailed magnificent flowers at just the right height for a small girl’s face. Cup of Gold is  Solandra Maxima;  Solandra for a Swedish naturalist called Solander and Maxima – well that hardly needs telling; those enormous, golden, chalice-like blooms in all their glory – maxima indeed! I used to peer in and imagine fairies sleeping on those velvety petals. Knowing as I do now, that it is part of the Nightshade family, I suspect their sleep would have been full of deep and odorous dreams.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” So said the world-renowned Helen Keller.

 How right she was. Smells can ensnare your mind completely in a fog of nostalgia or set you dreaming of one memorable moment, like a keepsake that you have taken out to look at.

Heavy, heady blooms of the Brugmansia Sauveolens

But some of these can set the bells of alarm clanging in the mind – like the acrid, choking scent of a bush fire on a windy day in October. At this time of year especially, it will have me rushing outside, looking up into the sky for smoke, trying to work out how far – or near, it is. Burning bush grass is particularly pungent and even if you have only been on the edge of a bush fire, and not even beating at it with wet sacks, you will still come away reeking of smoke. It is a wild, woody perfume and clings to your hair and your clothes – once smelt, never forgotten.

Rather like Eucalypt. I have a small stand of Eucalyptus trees that I planted at the bottom of my garden.  When I walk through them I always reach out and pluck one leaf which I crush. As the distinctive camphor of it rises up it reminds me of a great plantation of Gum trees on that farm we loved so well.  In the plantation a breeze would make the leaves whisper and the branches sigh as they gently swayed. But if there was a storm, oh how those gum trees groaned as their peeling, silvery trunks and branches were lashed with wind and pelted with rain. Afterwards, the smell of the Eucalypt hung in the air, and intensified with every step you took.

Venerable old giants – Eucalyptus trees at the entrance to the farm.

Everyone has a favourite smell. When my girl was a baby, my favourite smell was her.  I used to breathe in the top of her head – like mothers the world over, with their own little ones. The smell of baby soap still makes me think of those days when she was a precious, wriggling bundle with a great capacity for laughter. (She still is in fact. Although she might object to being called a bundle.)

Sometimes there is no real reason for relishing a certain smell – like the freshness of clean linen – it’s just something to be enjoyed for its own sake. But for me, vanilla is my girl and the warm caramel of tobacco curing in the barns is my man.  From the herb garden, a sprig of mint crushed between my fingers is rich with nostalgia; if not the perfect lamb roast with friends and family, then an ice-cold Pimms, that is, a gin sling with ice and a sprig, made for me by my father, for a special occasion.

These scent memories are like companions who stroll into my daydreams. And on the subject of daydreams, can I talk about it…or is it too soon? After all, around here, it’s the smell we are all waiting for. Sitting in an excessively warm room at the end of a long, blistering day, it’s the perfect perfume to dream of – the rich, earthy redolence of rain! We can remember what it smells like but it’s difficult to describe. Still, we will know it when we smell it – soon, we hope, we believe.

One of my favourite songs – perhaps especially, being one myself – “Daydream Believer” was written by John Stewart from the Kingston Trio. It was released as one of their last big hits, in 1968, by a favourite band of mine, The Monkees.

For the lovely Amy Lowell poem “Petals” and one of the world’s most beautiful songs, “I Believe” here sung by the great Frankie Laine, follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

October Lanterns

This morning I opened the curtain beside my bed as I always do, to feel the very welcome rush of the cool morning and to look out at the still-dark sky. The air is lovely at that time of the day – but not for long. In October we close the curtains and the windows early in the morning because about half an hour after the sun rises, the heat will start pouring in and with the daily power outage of 10 to 13 hours, there will be no help from fans or air conditioning units!

Traditionally October here, is called “Suicide Month”. It may be said lightly but beneath, this is no dark joke. For people and animals, these are the days of dusty, cloudless blue skies, of unrelenting heat combined with the intense dry. For some, it can simply prove too much, especially in a year when the rainy season was practically non-existent. This is literally the month which can break farmers, their families, their farming enterprises.

Farming is always about planning. And like a seasoned wrestler, October, especially, needs to have been planned for and then grappled with, before we can bid him goodbye.

Monkey under the Cassia tree with some friends further afield.

On the farm, the water troughs have to be topped up more often. Water in my garden has attracted more than the usual amount of  wild animals, including, even a pair of warthog, who I think probably went to the hill where the pipe from the water tank sometimes spills over for a short while, creating a small temporary, marshy area. Certainly I saw mongoose there one morning, enjoying the moisture and the little lush patch of green grass that is a result of that accidental watering.  In the garden there are more monkeys than usual. They forage  in the Fig tree,  pick through pods or simply sit on the little patch of shady, green lawn around the Cassia tree.  Meanwhile the Rhodes grass that was baled earlier in the year proves vital in a year like this when there is so little grass in the veld.

Grass bales have been also been delivered, I see, to various wild life parks in Zambia and Zimbabwe – a huge effort by people to try and help the wild animals. It appears though, that this effort is not without controversy. I am not sure why. I personally can’t see what the disadvantages would be of bringing food to the hungry. 

Meanwhile, as the enormity of an October life and death struggle goes on in wild and farming areas around our region, the internet is swamped with images of Halloween which gleam at us from across the globe.  Don’t get me wrong – I love dressing up and also, any excuse for a fancy dress party….right?  No actually, not right now. For us, the articles about Fall or Autumn, about cold days and warming cups of soup, are out of season.  Not to mention Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins. And I think most Africans would not really get this “playing with your food” and turning it into some ghoul – not the least because many people here are superstitious and this talk of witches and ghosts, sits uneasy on their shoulders. As for dressing up – it is all very well until you can feel the perspiration trickling down the side of your face, turning your monster make-up into mush.. then you’d almost sell your soul for a glass of something cold and clinking with ice. Let’s face it, it is just too hot for Halloween here!

October lanterns – the Dichrostachys Ceneria or Chinese Lantern Tree.

In any case, in my garden, Nature has provided her own bewitching October lanterns. They are the delicate, bi-coloured blooms hanging from the Dichrostachys Ceneria tree.  These flowers, with a mantle of pink above and yellow, candle-like, below, give the tree its common name, Chinese Lantern. It’s a nitrogen-fixing legume and can help the soil, but needs to be kept in check for it has a great capacity for colonisation. Is there a parable in there somewhere? You decide. Regardless, after the flowers, a cluster of pods, swollen with sickle-shaped seeds will appear. When they drop, they will provide a nutritious feast for many wild animals.  As will the Mulberry tree, with its first fruit, now red but slowly ripening in time for the fruit-eating Hornbills, Turacos and Green Parrots.  And the making of jam. Now that’s a tradition an African like me can really get behind!

October is all about a blue sky… In the song African Sky Blue the melodius and much-missed Johnny Clegg and Juluka, hope for blessings from our African sun. And there’s a promise in there of the rain to come. Goodbye October.

It is little more sombre than usual, but this week’s verse, written by my daughter, is about depression and the very beautiful song, Hurt, by R.E.M was written to offer hope. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Friends of a Feather

There is something entrancing about a shimmering, white arrow of Egrets flying in formation over our house. And I love the contrast between that jet stream of efficiency and the apparent chaos with which it falls apart as they come in to land on their roosting tree. For as they each touch down there is much squabbling and jostling before they find their place to settle for the night. Come the morning, they will do it all again, as they head out to the fields where the cattle graze and the lands are ploughed, only to return at twilight. On windy days – as it has been – it’s impossible to stay in formation for they get wind-battered and blown off-course. Then they simply give up and it’s every bird for himself.

Rather like the lone Pelican who suddenly appeared one wet November morning on a stock dam nearby. We have no idea where he came from, but we thought perhaps he was headed North, towards some of the beautiful floodplains of Zambia. Certainly we have never seen one around here before. It is such an extraordinary bird. Dixon Lanier Merrit put it best;

A wonderful bird is the Pelican!
His bill can hold more than his Belican.
He can hold in his beak,
Food for more than a week,
And I don’t know how the Helican!

An Unexpected Guest, the Eastern White Pelican.

Perhaps our peaceful little dam was a good place for a tired pelican to rest up and take stock, like a comfortable bed & breakfast establishment on a long journey.  One morning a day or two later, he was gone. I couldn’t help hoping that he found friends. And fish.

I have another, regular visitor who arrives at the end of September, the Schalows Loerie. He is spectacular to look at, but rather shy. Still, I always know when he has arrived due to his measured but raucous call. If I am lucky I will catch glimpses of his emerald-bright plumage in the branches of the fig tree, or the underside of his wing, which is ruby-coloured. The red disks around his eyes and the white markings on either side of his beak look as if they have been carefully painted on, like theatrical make up.  Imagine my joy when one summer’s morning I caught him at the birdbath as I stepped out of the back door with my camera. Serendipitous day!

My Sweet Summer visitor, Schalows Loerie.

For some of our permanent residents, like the weavers, and in particular, the Red-Headed Weaver, it’s business as usual. One male is very busy building a new nest next door to last year’s, in spite of visits and what seems to be far too much early attention from a female. I mean, the poor fellow has only just started and already she is there with her beady little eye, inspecting each woven grass strand as he flies off to get another – talk about a high maintenance mate!

Inspection time – Red-Headed Weaver male and female.

But there are feathered friends out there I simply don’t know. Now and then, I hear, floating over the garden, like the discordant announcement on the tannoy at an airport, the call of an unidentified bird. I rush to record it but you only get it once and then it’s gone. Whatever it is, it’s loud and uncommon. In trying to describe it to my younger brother in which I attempt to emulate the noise – which inexplicably causes him much mirth – we decide that perhaps it is a Heron, passing overhead, flying from here to there and that is why you only get the noise once. To me, that sounds like a good suggestion.

And may come in useful tomorrow, on 19th October, which is the next Global Big Day, when thousands of people identify and count species of bird, the globe over. Those of you who read my account of the one which took place in May, may remember that I didn’t see much in the way of birds. Tomorrow I will be at it again! As the night jar’s last nostalgic note fades away with the dawn and that first rapturous reveille of the robin rings out, I’ll be there, taking notes. Who knows, maybe that singular visitor will fly over and I’ll be able to find out who he is. Now that would be a bonus!

Why don’t you get involved in the bird count – it’s fun and important. Last time more than 30 000 people the world over, recorded almost 7000 species of birds. Even just a half an hour or so wherever you live; simply make note of what you’ve seen and upload your findings to the website, eBird, on the link. https://ebird.org/home

Meanwhile, have a listen to the girl with the golden voiceZambian singer, Mutinta sings one of her feel-good, happy songs, “Little Bird.” This is what I will be saying tomorrow… “little bird don’t fly” (at least until I’ve identified you!)

For the poem The Cattle Egrets and the magical Mills Brothers singing about that “Yellow Bird”, go here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Halcyon Days

I have an old photograph of my grandparents’ house on their ranch, Mahamara. It was a thatched farm house with creeper-covered white walls and a stable door at the front entrance. To the right was the bathroom, the kitchen and a cool, dark pantry that I loved to follow my grandmother into.

The farmhouse at Mahamara Ranch, Zimbabwe. The great granite kopje can be glimpsed behind. (Photo by the late Bob Addis)

That pantry is forever preserved in my memory. The shelves groaned with jars of homemade tomato jam and bottled peaches. There were cosy nests of mixing bowls and aloof soup tureens, orderly stacks of baking trays, biscuit tins and rows of boxed groceries.  I always felt it was like a shop. And if the pantry door had been left open, I would steal inside and pretend I was the shopkeeper, selling my wares to imaginary customers.Which was just as well. I don’t suppose my grandmother would have appreciated me selling her staples to real ones.

My grandmother’s wooden bathroom cupboard was very tidy and smelled of carbolic soap. Inside, there were neat piles of clean towels and sometimes mending, but what I loved most was the old jar filled with the left-over bits of soap which had become too small to put beside the bath, but were still too useful to throw away. If you put your nose into the jar, it smelled clean and flowery. Like soap. Funnily enough.

At night the generator that ran the lights would be turned off by my grandfather. If you had dawdled before getting into bed, there would be an anxious pause in the doorway as the engine noise stuttered into silence and darkness closed over you. You would run and dive on to your bed so that your feet hardly touched the floor – for who knew what lay in the darkening silence, waiting to get you! The mad run and the protesting screech of the iron bed against the wall usually led to laughter. A moment later an adult, holding a candle, would peer in and you would try to pretend you’d fallen asleep instantly; although I suspect the ill-suppressed sniggle under the bedclothes might have given the game away. Oh sorry – do you not know the word sniggle? It’s a cross between a snort and a giggle of course.

Finally, snuggled under eiderdowns which felt cool but kept us warm, we’d sleep till morning and an early cup of tea in my grandparents’ room. We’d climb on to their beds and there was always that one red plastic mug that we all wanted to drink our milky, sweet tea out of.

From picking peas and strawberries, some of which we tumbled into baskets to be carried triumphantly home to the kitchen, to the hours spent playing along the spirals of the rose garden, I have a sense that these were some of our halcyon days.  There were shrieking games of Marco Polo with a team on each side of a tall fir hedge and a bucket of water on one side, for the unwary and the usually unwilling-to-be-wet. We put on makeshift holsters then whinnied down the drive on stick horses and fed thick- cut slices of bread, palm flat, to the real ones. And if it rained we would rush indoors for there was a brand new battery-operated record player which meant hours of hilarity, listening and miming to old songs or putting on shows for anyone who would sit still for long enough…

But mostly you’d find us on the granite kopje (or hill) behind the house. Like other such rock formations in Zimbabwe this one consisted of a large dome of granite, on top of which were found great boulders, some still balancing, others having fallen, as if their only purpose was to create such dark caves and magical crawl spaces as made the perfect place for children to play.

And so it was for my brothers, my cousins and I.

There were smooth, flat areas which were slick and slippery when it rained and large hollowed out basins which filled for a time with rain water. There were smooth, rounded stones and large, fantastical thrones carved by sun, wind and water. There were hyrax – we called them rock rabbits or dassies – sun-basking on high rocks we could not reach, and blue-headed lizards scurrying for cover under small stones. Lichen grew on many of the rocks and sometimes, in the cool, damp shade of an overhang, velvety fairy moss.

There were also small pockets of soil which were too shallow for anything but the Resurrection plant. (Myrothamnus flabellifolia). This small, shrubby plant always looked dead in the dry season but if you broke off a piece, carried it home and put it in water, a miracle would happen; in the morning it would be green.

I’m inclined to think that memories are a bit like that. They too can lie dormant and overlooked, but water them with attention and suddenly they spring up as if they were brand-new, just like the Resurrection plant. 

Recently I was quite fascinated to learn that this same plant which grew on the kopje behind much-loved Mahamara, is used by many people all over our continent, as an herbal tea. I didn’t know this. But how perfect. Memories of a much-loved home and tea. They seem to go together.

We had lots of old records to choose from at my grandmother’s house but one particular favourite was this album by the folk singer, Jimmie Rogers. Here he is singing, “Widdicombe Fair”.

Des and Dawn Lindberg, South African folk singers, were so much a a part of my childhood. Follow this link if you would like to listen to their version of the much-loved “Two Little Boys” https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Wild Visitors

Can I just tell you, we have always had wild visitors! You know the kind; they arrive at any hour, help themselves to whatever they want, tramp through the flower beds and leave without even saying goodbye!

I’m talking wildlife of course. Wildlife has been coming into our gardens ever since we’ve been living here in Zambia. Some animals are seasonal visitors and others, year-round. When the grass is green and plentiful after the rains, the buck tend to stay in the veld. When it is dry and food scarce, as it is right now, they head straight for my garden. With Bushbuck by day and Kudu by night, the garden is constantly being raided. Just the other evening I noticed a single red flower on one of my few rose bushes. In the morning the bloom was gone. Well that’s one less rose the man could have picked for me I thought, with a sigh. Still, I expect it was delicious to whichever animal ate it.

This nocturnal visitor, a female Kudu, probably ate my roses.

This summer especially, I have noticed the Bushbuck numbers in my garden have grown. They can be seen congregating, most unusually, in groups of 5 or so, a few older females, a young one or two, and a male. Usually these are solitary buck, other than mothers with babies at hoof.  

A couple of seasons ago, when we had enough water to keep the lawn green, we had a permanent Bushbuck female resident. I was always glad to see her, for she was rather beautiful. Sadly, she is gone now. For a time after we were sure she had died, I kept looking for her, just in case. I still miss her.

But others of her kind still come in every evening and early in the morning, and can be seen foraging beneath the wild trees. My agapanthus and spider lilies are now nothing but small green nubs; having been nibbled right down. The Frangipani tree which grows very near the house has had most of the tender shoots which are on the garden side, chomped off , as has the poinsettia. You can actually tell by the height of the browse line on certain trees, just which buck has been eating it. I think it is miraculous that the trees and plants recover from this dry season onslaught, but they do.

She wasn’t a pet but I still miss her, this pretty Bushbuck female who lived in our garden.

Monkeys are common visitors. In fact we’ve always had monkeys in our Zambian gardens. They can be seen clambering and leaping through the tree tops along the fence line or right inside the garden, before dropping to the ground if they are hunting for food. Until the dogs spot them. Even then, they don’t run away completely, but merely retire to a tree, to scold the dogs until the dogs get bored with barking.  You can hear the crack of pods in the trees and the occasional snap of a twigs as they forage for food in the wild tree tops.  Sometimes, if they feel safe, they come down to ground level so that they can pick up the fallen pods. 

Vervet Monkey climbing on to the verandah roof.

The water in the garden certainly attracts attention from the monkeys. I have seen them come right up to a garden tap and drink , their small hands gripping at the tap and their mouths pressed to the opening or the hosepipe from which, inevitably there will be a leak. Even from a turned-off tap, there are a few drops to be had.  Watching them I get the feeling that any minute, one of them will learn how to turn the tap on. Just imagine!  That would be chaos and vast quantities of wasted water because I don’t suppose they would turn it off again…

The addition of a water trough in the back yard has definitely done its bit to attract more traffic. It was built especially for the animals and I am glad to know that at least some of the creatures who live in the bush-veld nearby have a source of water.

One visitor who I have to say was slightly less welcome (at least when my daughter or my dogs are outside) was a baboon.  We often hear baboon and see them on the fringes of the garden, but always on the other side of the fence and when we do, we usually shout and chase them away, as we are extremely wary of them.

This particular baboon – a large male – came strutting up the path through the back yard. Happily two of the dogs did not see him and the other only watched his rather insolent progress from a safe distance.   I clambered on to one of the huge exercise tyres in my back yard and brandishing a large stick I yelled at him to,

“Get out of my garden!”

“No I won’t!” the baboon shouted back. At least I think that’s what he said.

“Yes you will! Go on!” I yelled, flapping my arms like a flag in a high wind.

Suddenly he moved.  Ha I thought, that’ll teach you! I watched with triumph as he ran to the back fence over which he scrambled. Then I heard the man behind me.

“Go on!” he shouted.

I don’t know this for sure, but it might just be possible that it was the man that made the baboon depart. It is just possible I suppose, with yet another sigh, that his low-voiced “Go on!” might have been a little more impressive than my squeaky one.

Or was it the fact, that, disturbed as he was in his shaving – the man that is, not the baboon – we were to go out – the man that is and not the – do I have to explain it again?  Anyway I think perhaps the baboon took fright at the sight of the large, foamy-faced figure brandishing a razor. It’s simple really – just like me in the dead of Winter, he didn’t really feel like shaving. 

I have three reasons for choosing a song from Disney’s Jungle Book, this week. Firstly, there is a white-haired monkey in this clip who always makes me laugh. Secondly the ape, King Louie, is voiced by that supremo of jazz, Louis Prima and he just happens to be a favourite of my father-in-law. And finally, watching Baloo the Bear, I am always reminded of a cousin of mine who played him with such verve and brilliance, in a stage performance…. wow man, what a beat!

If you’d rather be living close to Nature you might like these words by Henry David Thoreau. Besides, there’s the supreme NAT KING COLE to listen to. Just follow this link https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

This September Spring

September, now on her way out, is the month of Spring in Zambia. I love Spring, with its blessed buds and bright new beginnings. In September, I only have to look at the new-born calves to feel that sense of hope, but this September I don’t mind telling you, I have worried for them. And their mothers. And all the other stock and wild animals.  Not to mention my farming friends and neighbours. For this was no fresh, green Spring. The dry Spring season is part of nature’s cycle in our part of the world, but this particular one rode in on the back of the pale, gaunt horse of drought. This Spring was a season of dust in the air and in the nose; of tinder-dry veld and dried-up rivers.  The month of October, our hottest and driest of the year, looms with more threat than promise, right now. Especially as we were not blessed with a September rain this year, as we have been before.

Heart-gladdening flowers on the Cassia Abbreviata.

And yet…and yet… in the bush-veld and in my garden there have been some small, sweet joys.

The Cassia Abbreivata has been riotously in bloom with its heart-gladdening yellow flowers, and its long, velvety pods, mostly cracked open, offering some kind of meal to the brownbuls and barbets. Meanwhile a gleaming Plum-Coloured Starling hopped from garden to veranda, following the trail of some insect. Overhead, on the telephone line, a pair of swallows search the sky with bright, beady eyes. Here and there they dart and in between they swoop into the garage to their dear little nest of mud, under the eaves.

Nearby, the Dombeya, the Wild Pear, put on a stunning show of sweet-smelling, white blossoms, rather like a bride’s bouquet. When I paused beneath, as I like to do, to stare up into that fragrant canopy, I would hear the busy drone of the bees, hastily collecting nectar before the flowers dropped, or were blown off by the gusty wind. For this month has been wildly windy.

A Bride’s Bouquet – the Wild Pear.

When you passed beneath them, the wind would moan through the trees. Sometimes the boughs would bend so vigorously, you’d hold your breath and wonder if they would hold. Our back yard is littered with the dead leaves and twigs that have been blown off. When you walk through this leaf litter, there is the crunch underfoot of thousands of pods as well as the crackle of desiccation. There is an inclination for some, to sweep them all up, but I prefer to let the leaves lie, for beneath this carpet, the earth and the tree roots are protected from the dry, hot air. And besides, small creatures live and feed in there, like the pretty, orange-hued Heuglin’s Robin; do I really have to call him a White-Browed Robin Chat? I saw him one morning, flurrying leaves furiously over his head, as he picked his way through the litter, looking for something to eat.

Mnondo, wearing Spring-green.

Even in this harsh Spring, for me, there is charm in the rough and rugged ways of the woods. Walking the perimeter fence I am entranced by the bristling bare branches of the leafless trees dancing on the wind, while the pale khaki grass sways in time. The sudden delight of the only spring-green tree, the Mnondo, takes my breath away. And would you know it, looking more closely, on many of the trees, there are new buds everywhere.

September’s perfect circle.

“Look for a lovely thing,” the poet Sarah Teasdale said, “it never will be far.”

And she is right. I find mine in a gap spied between foliage and terra-firma, a sublime space created by the bend of the trees, the curve of an anthill, and the distant, dusty sky. It’s a perfect circle, an artist’s composition, fashioned by September herself.

“To everything, there is a season, and a purpose, under heaven.” This is a true 60s classic by The Byrds, “To Everything there is a Season”. Released in December 1965, it epitomised their folk rock style, with that perfect mix of Byrd-style 12 string guitar and stirring vocal harmony.

For the lovely haunting tones of Nana Mouskouri singing about September, click on this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

You can find the last (for now) in my dog blog series on this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

Road Trip – Journey’s End

As kilometers of tar fall behind and yet more stretch out in front of us, there is a break in the tree line and the sudden, glimpse of an enticing view.  We find a place to stop. By climbing up on the back of the vehicle, we can look out over the vast expanse of Matabeleland West, and far, far beyond to the beautiful, blue horizon.

Back on the road we pass a few small settlements. Flanking the road now and then is a vlei, a low-lying area, where water collects after the rains. Most of them are dry now but some are dotted with vegetable gardens and small crop lands.  Towards Lupane we see a pair of oxen pulling a wagon loaded with goods and further along, another pair, this time of donkeys, pulling a small cart on which a family, are perched.

A view of Matabeleland after the rainy season.

Lupane itself, is a sizeable town, but you’d not know this from the main road, tucked, as the town is, behind a large filling station and a little general store.  We were surprised at the size of it.  Like most towns in Zimbabwe, Lupane is quite neatly laid out with commerce and business in one part, and residences in another. Some of the government buildings have white-painted stones around small flower beds, and trees, and so does the police station on the opposite side of the road. As we drive on, I have a feeling there is quite a lot more to the town of Lupane than what we have seen in our brief stop.

All along this Matabeleland road, the countryside reflects the climate. Where it is drier, the terrain is marginal with only baobab and thorn trees. But in other areas, there is bush veld and occasional pockets of Mopani or Acacia trees where cattle, donkeys and goats take shelter from the mid-day sun.  As we get closer to Bulawayo, we are in cattle ranching country with wide expanses of dry grass, thickets and thorn trees. The road, hitherto fairly quiet, becomes busier as we approach Bulawayo, capital of Matabeleland. 

Bulawayo roads were once traversed by loaded wagons, pulled by teams of trek oxen which needed room to turn, so the streets are very wide.  Now there are cars of course, many of them pulling trailers filled with goods brought in from neighbouring South Africa. In in the city centre, some streets have been given over to a busy market selling vegetables and cooked mealies or corn on the cob, tinged with black from the open fire.  In another street, the second-hand clothes market thrives.

A view of Bulawayo. (Photo by R SHEARING)

Bulawayo was once the heart of industry but that has changed to a large extent. Still, the people here are strong. They live their lives and know that their plans and their ways to make ends meet, must be made, day by day. The city has the air of a once-loved home where some of the best parties were held, although it has been shut up for some time. But Bulawayo remembers. I can’t help the feeling that she is just waiting for someone to throw open the windows, get down to some spring-cleaning and to start up the music.  

For the streets are still lined with Jacarandas in the Spring. The Natural History Museum still rates as one of the best I have ever been to. Centenary Park is still a popular place for people to go. I look for the fountain but since there is a drought and the city is very short of water, I don’t really expect to see it spouting up into the air. As we drive past I remember the utter joy of riding on the miniature train that used to run through the park when I was a child. Oh if that train were only to run again! There is nothing quite like riding on a miniature train… it was a magical, memorable moment of my childhood.

Centenary Park and the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe. (Photo by R.SHEARING)

Once through the city, we are now headed for our final destination; the small rural town of Esigodini. Or Essexvale as it was once known. We wind our way through the Blue Hills and the road flattens out as we pass some farm land and small-holdings. At Esigodini the road climbs up a hill and over a railway line. The main street is flanked with small shops, the old post office and the Why Not Hotel. Why not indeed! 

The hills of Matabeleland.

There are hills in the distance looking in almost all directions from this town. These hills are not soft nor verdant. They are harsh and forbidding. And yet magnificent. In some of these hills there is gold. In fact there has been gold-mining here since ancient times. It was formally commercialised in the 1930s.   The Bushtick Mine, nearby, was, in its golden years, from 1932 to 1947, the biggest producer of gold in the country, but it closed down in 1951. It has recently been re-opened and the old castings once more being worked.

The road into Quiet Waters Game Sanctuary at Falcon College, Esigodini.

I think I can tell this is a place rich with minerals, for the soil is stony, as you will see if you walk along these roads. Personally I think stones fascinating, unless of course I’m kicking my toe against one or turning my ankle over on another. As I am wont to do. Especially here. That said, I love to collect rocks. And in this place is such a myriad of colours and textures in the aggregate, that I just know I will find more treasures to carry home after a walk. The man knows I will too. I think I hear a small sigh; he always offers to carry them home for me. And I always thank him sweetly and pile his pockets up with pebbles.

But we will walk another day. For now we have arrived at the place we were headed. Our car doors close and in a moment the family know we are here.  And yes, a cup of tea would be lovely, thanks. And if it’s true that home is where the heart is, then as my heart is here, for the moment, I am home. Later, a little sun-downer and a gathering of all the family we are here to see, will be the sublime ending to a perfect journey.

“On the Road” is an old song by that American country icon, John Denver. It tells of a boy driving with his dad “and when it gone a-hundred-thou-we-got-out-and-pushed-it miles”. Like all John Denver’s songs this one is sublime, sweet and evocative. One line in particular speaks to me…”so I looked out the window and dreamed I was a cowboy”.

Still on the travelling theme, listen to the superb Lee Marvin singing WANDERING STAR on this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

And if you are interested in the history of Matabeleland and of Zimbabwe in general, please follow this link for a truly informative and fascinating website. http://zimfieldguide.com/

Road Trip – Of Teak & Teracotta

Victoria Falls is at our backs and we are in teak forest, with green glades of beautiful, big trees either side. There are signs of logging and my heart breaks every time I see another stupendous specimen felled. Further along there are small piles of firewood for sale, leftover off-cuts we can tell, from a much larger logging operation going on somewhere nearby. I feel fury at those who are allowing this to happen and rage at those who cut down trees of this magnitude – especially as they can never replace them. Mainly my frustration is that they are not forced to harvest sustainable forests instead of cutting down wild ones. This is my rant – which goes on for a few kilometers – spare a thought for my man – but of course, ranting doesn’t help anyone, least of all the trees. After a while – for goodness sake, let’s have a piece of chocolate – I start to notice that there are new wild trees growing here and there – if they only but get the chance! 

On the road between Victoria Falls and Hwange.

And yet still, this countryside is beautiful and this road. This is a road to drive on, flanked first by forest and then remote village outposts, all the more perfect for being set well back off the main road. Village houses and schools in small rural pockets pass us by. Now we are in baobab country. The countryside is drier here and the earth hard-baked but there are some thorn trees and fruit trees and little areas of bush-veld growing around small, cropped lands. Beneath the trees some locals have tied up the pods of the baobab – cream of tartar- for sale. In these small, remote outposts, some houses have little vegetable gardens or stick stockades to contain their cattle. Here the wheels of ox-pulled wagons and donkey carts still roll along the road along with the other traffic. Here there is a wide sweep of roadside for people on foot and on bicycles. Further along the road we see that some village cattle are gathered around the last remaining pools of water in a vast, but winter-dry, river bed.

Baobab tree near Hwange.

As we get closer to the town of Hwange, the terrain changes again.  It’s a place of rock and dry as dust. The trees are scrubby, aside from the baobabs that dot the hillsides. Here nothing much grows. There are houses and people here of course, for Hwange is a coal mining town. I still recall the day – it was June 6, 1972 – when an underground explosion occurred in the Hwange Colliery claiming the lives of 427 miners. There is a memorial to them on the spot where it happened. From my window looking out, I think this is a hard place to live in. Perhaps this is true of many mining towns. On the jagged and treacherously steep slopes beside the road, we see a pack of dogs barking at some big baboons. A smoky carbon hangs on the air and seems to settle on the surroundings. Up ahead, the tall cooling towers of Hwange Power Station push their twin plumes of white steam into the sky and high on the hill opposite an old, colonial style building still stands.

As Hwange town falls behind, we pass close to the entrance for the Hwange National Park and for a time, the scenery changes again, to deep Teak and Mopane woodland. Here we have seen elephant browsing in the wild fruit trees early one morning. The “DRIVE SLOWLY-WILD DOGS” sign gets us all sitting upright but we’ve never had the pleasure. Besides, it’s too late in the day to see them out and about. But a group of Ground Hornbills gets our attention, gathered in noisy session, as if for a meeting, by an old dead tree stump.

Gwayi River pots.

Then, “Gwayi River pots!” I say aloud. As I always do. The man gives me a sidelong glance. “Do you want to stop?” he says and even though his tone is perfectly level I know that he is hoping against All Hope that the answer will be no. This time, happily for him, it is. The terracotta garden pots and ornaments flash by; all the ones I have at home are enough. For now.

We are halfway to our destination and we stop to stretch our legs. It’s Halfway House, that one-time thriving, old fashioned inn. I always think she is rather like a sweet, country girl fallen on hard times but for me there is some trace of her former charm. The floors are still polished and the bathroom is clean. When we leave I always imagine all that I could do if the place were mine. 

There are peddlers there now, selling their beautiful wood carvings; Zimbabweans are astonishingly good at carving. A few people lounge about on the outside benches under thatched umbrellas. We get ourselves an ice-cold Coke, a lemonade and a bottle of ginger beer which causes an impromptu verse by the man and me, of the old jingle – “Stoney, Stoney, the one and the only – Stronger than the strongest thirst!”

As we drive away, I look out of my passenger seat window and do what I always do at least once on a road trip; lose myself in a daydream as the wheels of the car roll on towards our destination.

Darius Rucker has this voice. Oh my goodness. It’s that perfect combination of silk and gravel. In the song he’s heading south, and so were we when we left Zambia. (By the way fans of the tv show,”Duck Dynasty” might recognise a few people in the video.)

You will find a poem by English Poet Laureate John Masefield and if you want more music, that heart-tugging song, My Rambling Boy, by Tom Paxton, at this link.https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

Road Trip – To the Border

Road trip. For me, these words conjure up memories of long hours dreaming out of the car window, hard-boiled egg sandwiches and an occasional sibling squabble on the back seat – there were three of us – about who would sit where. We always had music. We might sing all the words from Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and His Technicolour Dream-Coat or silly snippets from the Muppet Show. It might be the Kookaburra song and London’s Burning, in rounds, till someone got confused and we’d end up in unison. For the fourth time. There was the car radio of course and for a time, we had some of those bulky 8 track tapes, which were about the size of a desk diary. Then came cassettes, which had occasionally to be ejected and wound up again with a pencil, because they would suddenly snarl up and the singers would all sound like small mice singing backwards, at very high speed.

I really can’t imagine how many miles we clocked up on all our family driving holidays as we went from Zimbabwe to South Africa for our seaside trips, or from farm to other family farms at the start of the holidays and from farm to boarding school at the end.

Over the past 3 weeks my own little family and I have driven over 2250 km (1400 miles) of road in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I thought I’d take you along, but just like any good road-going holiday should be, it will be broken up, I hope, into manageable chunks.

Africa is a pretty shape isn’t she? Zoom in and find Choma in Zambia, on the map above. Then find Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Scroll down and zoom in a couple of times to find the little town of Esigodini. That’s where we’re going!

Like any other self-respecting road-trip, this one starts with an egg sandwich as the sun rises beyond the windscreen and ends with the late afternoon sun glinting on a slammed door, a hug and a welcome cup of tea.

The early morning drive to the Zambian border town of Livingstone is uneventful because it’s too early for the ubiquitous speed traps. At the border we arrive as the resident troop of baboons swarm over the big cargo-carriers and transporters, tugging at tarpaulins and climbing into unattended cabs to see what they can carry off.  The larger males, presumption personified, sit on top of the largest trucks, adding insolence to insult by scoffing their stolen snacks on top of the loads they have just pilfered from. The border is not yet busy, which is a bonus and our deliberate, cheery smiles are returned. Which, let’s face it, is also a bonus, at any border crossing…

There is very little water coming over the Victoria Falls as we drive over the bridge, which spans the Zambezi gorge, into Zimbabwe. I am always awed by this gorge – so much so that usually I am torn between looking at the wondrous water fall or the great cavernous rock carved out by the river on the other side. This time it is easier; the Falls are so low there is very little water coming over. So I look away from the Falls and down, ever down into the depths where the formidable dark Zambezi River flows in its fathomless bed and seems, just now, apparently lazy.

The Victoria Falls, lower than ever I have seen it and yet, it is still something to consider the rock over which it usually roars.

Then we are in Victoria Falls, a Zimbabwe border town and as usual the place is alive with tourists. The colourful shops selling sarongs, baskets, jewellery and carvings are open for early business. In spite of the dire straits that this beloved country is in, it’s business apparently as usual in the Falls; and the beginnings of a fuel queue at one of the service stations is the only sign that life in this busy border town is not all baskets and buzz.

Victoria Falls is at our backs and now it feels as if we are really on our way.  In our car, we have no mp3 players nor devices connected. We’re somewhat old-school; we have old favourites on cassette and a vibrant new selection of mix cds made up for us by the girl. I like to listen to what’s she enjoying. Besides, she is always kind enough to include a few that I actually know, as well as a favourite or two for her father.  So here we are – we’ve got music and snacks. It’s a road trip!

 My journey continues next week. Hope you’ll still be on board. Meanwhile enjoy this, one of my favourite road-trip songs. Turn it up! Mathew Mole, a fresh-faced young South African singer, with his up-lifting hit, “Take Yours, I’ll Take Mine.” (Hmm, I wonder – can he be referring to the big bag of crisps being shared between us as we go along? My flavour of choice – something spicy. Yours?)

Does he need an introduction? I don’t think so. It’s Rowlf, that fabulous hound from The Muppets, doing one of our perennial car favourites from way back when my brothers and I were kids.

For Rudyard Kipling’s haunting poem “The Way Through the Woods” and an old favourite, by the fabulous Seekers – The Whistling Gypsy Rover – follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Pod Perfection

Since I was a child I have been madly in love with pods. They always seemed fascinating and beautiful; nature’s own jewellery boxes. I never could resist picking them up and bringing them home. And I’ve not grown out of the habit. The pods that survive the journey home; usually in my husband’s hat – he’s thoughtful like that – I will keep until they became so desiccated they crumble at the slightest touch. But before that they will be tumbled into a basket or propped up on shelf, or hung up somewhere so I can look at them. And become fascinated all over again. (Which is secretly how I view my husband too. Although of course he wouldn’t stand for being propped up on a shelf.  But that’s another story for another day.)

The lid is gone but the jewel is in its case; Pod Mahogany seed and pod.

When I was small, pods were fairy-like. Like the jewellery box on my mother’s dressing table, or the music box which when opened revealed a tiny ballerina, pods and seed cases took me into another world.  I remember picking up the tiny pods from the Blue Gum tree so that a cousin and I could use them for dolls’ tea cups. My brothers and I loved popping the Impatiens seed cases. There was something so satisfying about it. How delighted we were by the distance those little seeds flew! Poppy seed pods were a favourite of mine and still are. They are plump and perfect in their little hats; and worked wonderfully as pepper pots in all my cooking games, long ago.

Albizia pods and a winter sky.

I may have played with pods but they are vital, containing, as they do, that miraculous small harbinger of life, the seed. Still, even though seeds are serious business, Nature has gone wild with her imagination and supreme with her perfection, as she has fashioned a myriad of enchanting containers for each of her precious, botanical offspring.

Pods are made to be a safe haven, for a while. Then, like the special passenger seat in a vintage James Bond’s movie, they suddenly eject their hitherto pampered charge. The violence of the action causes some flat, smooth pods to spiral, like those on the Munondo (Julbinardia Globiflora) trees. At certain times of the year you can hear loud cracking sounds as the pods explode into their twisted, tortured shapes. Some pods seem sprung-loaded, and others simply peel open.

Pods and Seed cases

My husband recently brought me home a handful of pods. He is thoughtful like that. I think the pods are from Entada Abyssinica. The tree is not very large or distinct, right now, but the pods are entrancing. They start off oval and flat, with each faintly-marked segment containing a seed.  They end up looking like a tear-off notice, with each segment papery and ready to peel as the whole seed case spins and dangles off the end of the tree’s branches.

Some pods are heavy and dense, and will bounce when a breeze comes through. Others are light and airy, and like the little dancer inside the music box, they pirouette and twirl most gracefully. There is after all, a kind of music in pods. Sometimes they are so closely packed together that when they jostle together in the wind there is a sound like a far-off fire. If you stand under a Mukwa tree on a windy day you will hear running water. Its pods – those strange hairy-centered, fried-egg shapes –   grow in clusters so they brush and rasp against each other when the wind blows. Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis) pods are great adventurers; you can find them a very long way from the nearest tree and we have seen them bounce and roll as the wind catches them.

Copse of pod-topped Mukwa trees.

Many of the indigenous, wild trees are covered in pods now, and in numbers I have not seen before. My garden is full of indigenous trees as well as exotics and the bird life in it right now, is astonishing. I think the answer, lies, not in the soil, but in the pods.

Just this morning I heard the melancholy wail of a Trumpeter Hornbill. He and his clan will have already visited the Pod Mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis) in my garden, for she is presently wearing a halo of her distinctive black pods, many of which have opened. The whiteness inside catches the sun in a most lovely way. But as well as that, this pod bounty is much sought after. The hornbill will crack the pods open and remove the fleshy covering, the aril, from each seed. The seeds themselves are loved by rodents. And it is not just the Pod Mahogany that offers a buffet.    

Pod Mahogany in my garden covered in pods.

Yesterday I saw a Brownbul hanging, rather precariously I thought, on the long pod of the Cassia Abbreviata, or the Sjambok Pod tree. These pods are very long and rigid, and on the outside, brown and velvety. Inside it is made up of joined cylinders. When the pod is dry the seeds rattle in their individual compartments in a most pleasing way. I read that the dry pulp surrounding each seed is very tasty not only to the birds, but the Bushbuck too, if the pod falls.

But they better be quick! Pods that hit the ground are just as likely to be picked up by me and carried happily indoors. After all, the wonderful Scottish designer, William Morris said,

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   

And in my book, pods are both.

Watch ballerinas dancing to that simple and rather lovely melody, Music Box Dancer, written by Canadian Frank Mills.

Remember the satisfaction of popping an Impatiens seed when you were a child? https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Lavender’s Blue?

Lavender. Just the name evokes nostalgia. Once smelt, never forgotten. And the colour is glorious. After all, “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly.” Hmmm, am I happy with that?  I’d go with a purple. You know, with the clue being in the name. But then, I suppose, it would be so much harder to sing that song. Anyway, regardless, blue or purple, or the perfect blend of both, it is just one of my favourite plants and I expect I’m not alone. What’s more, like all the truly classic and enduring style icons, it never goes out of fashion.  

I am pleased and privileged to have a large bed of lavender, of two different varieties, in my garden.  

Two kinds of lavender in my Zambian garden.

The bed is circular and had been divided, when we first came, into regular segments using rustic blocks. I thought it would be perfect for growing vegetables, one for each segment. Alas it was not! The soil in the bed turned out to be extremely unhelpful and disappointing; when you watered it, the top 5cm turned hard, like a layer of cement. We tried so hard to improve it, to change its character, to make it play nice. But no. No matter how much of it we dug out, or how much of it we removed and replaced with humus-filled compost and lovely, friable soil from elsewhere, it would not break its habit of forming a hard crust on the top. Capping, I’m told, it is called. Just plain hard-headed I’d say. Still, I just couldn’t face that circle being bare and barren – after all a lot of work had gone into it. But, it wouldn’t do for vegetables. So, I planted lavender instead. 

That turned out to be a good plan. The bed did not need as much watering and the lavender thrived. And if I was to tell you there are always clouds of butterflies hovering over it that would be no exaggeration, even now, in winter. 

The lavender attracts so many different creatures that I am always finding something I didn’t see there before. A grey-green grasshopper blended so well against the lovely foliage, I almost didn’t spot him. And he was enormous. In the summer I had brightly-painted ladybirds, trundling their tiny, shiny bodies all over the flowers and the leaves. I expect it’s plagued by aphids, hence the ladybirds. And they in turn, bring small, bright-eyed birds, who perch on the top of the plants, some of which are very bushy and strong.

Grasshopper Green in the Lavender. And a friend.

A legavaan threaded its deliberate way through the bed one afternoon. I watched it go in and it was an age before it came out again. I wondered if it had found something to snack on in there. I couldn’t help wondering what its friends would think when they smelt it…

For it does have an intoxicating smell. The lavender I mean. (Heaven knows what a legavaan smells like; I’ve never got close enough to say.) But lavender, has a smell like no other. And in such a wonderful way. The Chinese proverb says “a bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives flowers” but I’d say, make that a lot, when it comes to lavender.

That distinctive fragrance was particularly memorable at a lavender farm we visited in Yorkshire in England. As you opened your car door, you smelt the lavender long before you saw it. There were varieties there that I had never heard of, not only English and French but Spanish too. There were rolling beds of it and hundreds of plants. It was hedged and clipped and spilling over in country beds. There was a lavender maze. And all the while, that scent on the breeze. It was a little bit of heaven. As were the tea-room speciality, oven-warm scones dripping with lavender honey and crowned with cream.

Lavender in Yorkshire, England.

English lavender is lovely but then so is the French.  In Normandy, there was lavender growing wild and wilful in the garden of our holiday house. I couldn’t believe the flower heads – they were so much bigger than the rather tiny ones on my lavender at home. It’s no wonder I picked a piece and smuggled it home in between two sheets of tissue paper and used it for some time, as a bookmark in the little book of poetry I keep beside my bed. And in an almost secret garden that we came across by chance, while walking around the city of Versailles on a hot day, the lavender was in bloom, its purple heads heavy on pale green spires. And, grown as it was, in a walled space, all that fabulous fragrance floated upward and surrounded you, like an invisible mist.

In my home I like to pack a little bag of lavender and stash it between the sheets in the linen cupboard. There’s that smell every time you open the cupboard and a little of it clings to the fresh, clean sheets when you climb into bed. I have used a dab of lavender oil on a hanky, to settle a restless little soul who can’t sleep. My husband loved it. Oh wait. That was my girl. Actually I don’t think the man minds lavender, as long as we don’t have to talk about what colour it is…

Are we back on that? No. It’s purple and mauve and lavender. Funnily enough.

Lavender in a garden in Versailles, France.

Meanwhile I read that the ancient Romans used lavender to scent their baths, their beds and even their hair. And it may even be from the Latin to wash, Lavare, that its name is derived. Lavender water was a la mode from the Middle Ages and believed to hold some aphrodisiac properties. Well of course it did! Let’s face it…. if you were going to get up close and personal in the summer of 1400, it was probably considerably nicer if your intended had doused themselves in lavender, since the chances were probably high that they had not bathed. Well, not since Tuesday. In summer, 1399.

The Romans (who says they didn’t do much for us) also discovered its medicinal properties. In fact these days the flowers and the oil of lavender are both used to make medicines and can be used for anxiety, restlessness, insomnia and depression. I can’t say I’m surprised. The smell of lavender rises up through the nose and floods the brain with an immediate sense of contentment, rather like the smell of cinnamon cookies or a hug from your favourite person.

Busy African bee in my Zambian lavender garden.

The Romans apparently believed that lavender would deter adders. And judging by the fact that the only snakes I’ve ever seen in my lavender were a boom-slang and a grass snake; I mean I’m not saying I would go tripping bare-foot through my lavender myself; but I have to admit… no adders. Or perhaps the effect of lavender is such that if you did see one, you would be more, “Oh lovely, lovely, it’s an adder,” and less “Eeeeeek!”

Lavender may be romantic – can you just imagine how many weddings all over the world it has starred in – but as for lounging about in it, taking a selfie; that’s definitely not for me.

But to walk slowly past the lavender bed and to pause a moment to spy on whatever is in there, that’s a thing I do. And to amble past the lavender bed in the warm, winter sun, and to trail your hand over the flowers and the leaves as you stroll, that’s a thing I do. And to stop, and cup your hands to breathe in that smell, now that’s a thing I always do.

Lavender’s Blue, so the song goes. I dedicate this heavier version of an old classic, done by Marillion, to my man.

If you’d prefer a more traditional version of this sweet old song, go here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Memory of Gardens

Gardens make memories. In every garden, wherever it may be, there is always some link, sometimes barely tangible, to another garden in another time and place. Sometimes this is down to a deliberate, planned planting and sometimes just a happy accident. No matter how small, gardens are vital. They can connect us to the past. They give us sustenance and joy, like summer strawberries or a wild profusion of sweet peas. Not to mention that small benefit of extra oxygen…

Sweet Peas.

Gardens have always brought joy into my life. From a couple of bright, potted geraniums on my Harare balcony, to a bed of common white irises that raised my spirits while I lived in a rather sad, rented house in that same city, from a tiny tropical forest of potted ferns and palms on a cool veranda to the rambling, rampant country borders I’ve known, and grown, gardens have always been there, like a true and faithful friend.  The gardens I have loved most dearly, have mostly been on farms and hark back to my youth, and an idyllic childhood. Now, I am always glad to have plants in my own garden that take me back.

One of the few heart-warming spots in my winter-drab garden right now, are the aloes, with their flowers like flames. Aloes are one of my memory plants; they remind me of the rocky granite outcrops that I loved to explore when I was a child.  And of a garden I loved, with an enormous tree that was perfect for the expert climbers in the family – of which I was not one – and a great, flat piece of granite used as a table for family picnic lunches. Aloes fitted perfectly in this garden of rocks and wild trees.

Aloes in the garden on Southdale Farm in Zimbabwe.

My own aloes live in a bed with large boulders for neighbours – one of which I tried to drag to a new location with our twin cab, and in so doing, managed to pull our back bumper off in the process….Yes. It was a little awkward explaining that one to my man. So. Moving on. As the boulder did not. Oh well, it turned out to be a good place for a rockery anyway and a perfect spot to plant aloes. They are beautiful and native to our continent, a water-wise plant, perfect for this dry time, and also provide a good source of nectar for the birds, especially since other flowers, now, are scarce.

Aloes in my garden here on Stillmeadow Farm, in Zambia.

Another source of food for birds, and of childhood memories for me, is the Red-Hot Poker (Kniphofia), a native of South Africa. I think there were some in nearly every garden I ever went into. Just recently I found myself swerving away from picking one for the vase, on a visit to my parents, because there was a sun-bird feeding in it.  I had a feeling that the bird needed it more than I did. I don’t suppose he knows how lucky he is to have such a garden paradise in a place as dry as that part of Zimbabwe. It’s testament to my mother’s enormous talent for gardening, and not just where it’s easy.

The last of the Red Hot Pokers in my mother’s garden in Zimbabwe.

The only Spider lilies I ever saw were in a garden grown by my mother in law and when we came to Zambia I was amazed to see that they grow wild here! I have a lovely bed of them but they only flower if I protect them from the buck who simply love to eat them.

Spider Lilies flower in wonderful array as long as no one is eating them…

When I was young, Cannas were also a common sight in Zimbabwe, everywhere you went. I have a brother who called them Police Camp flowers because they were often planted outside police stations; neat, regular beds of them, grouped all in smart squadrons of colour; red, orange, white and yellow. When I think of cannas I still see in my mind’s eye, a house in Harare where the owner had several perfect circles of canna beds, grown in spectacular single colours, on the kerbside.

In this garden I have not tried to grow some of the flowers I have grown before, mainly because I expect they will be eaten before they even get a chance to bloom. Like poppies. In one garden I had poppies enough I think, for a small (illegal) operation – the California variety – in a great profusion of colour, they danced when the wind blew overhead. I grew Namaqualand daisies too – those brilliant yellow and orange sun-bursts of colour in that perfect, simple shape. I always planned to visit the wild Namaqualand daisies of South Africa. One day.

The stunning flowers of the Frangipani tree.

I have the white frangipani trees, but they are not as prolific as the beauties which used to grow in my mother in law’s garden. Hers were glorious! These of mine get the hungry attention of wild animals which probably doesn’t help, but at least they manage to push out a few flowers which, like all white flowers, glow rather beautifully in the twilight. I noticed, too, the untidy and wild-wispy nest of a waxbill in the one outside our kitchen. So I am not the only one who appreciates it!

A Blue Waxbill nest in the Frangipani tree in my back garden.

Walking in the garden, I noticed that my lone and lovely peach tree is covered in tiny blooms. I never planted her myself; one day she just appeared in one of the overgrown borders.  To this day I have no idea who ate a peach in that spot. Or what bird brought me a peach pit from someone else’s garden. And I will never reach the peaches… but peach trees are lovely and remind me of my maternal grandmother, who had a quite a few in the orchard, outside her kitchen, on a farm I loved so well. The blooms were so pretty and those stewed peaches – one of her specialities – were delicious. 

Hundreds of tiny pink blossoms on the peach tree.

Perhaps that is the most important thing about a garden; how it connects us with the ones we love.

Years ago in Zimbabwe, my mother in law, who has made more beautiful gardens than anyone I know, took me on a visit to a very special one which had been created in memory of a much-loved son who had passed away. The garden was opened on certain days and upon entry, you were to sign a special book stating who it was that you, yourself, were remembering as you walked around that beautiful place. It was incredible, an astonishing feat! It had layer upon layer of flowered terraces spilling down into serene water gardens, with trees and trails, and at every turn, something special to see. At every turn, a memory for the mother who had made it, for many of the trees and plants were ones her child had loved.  Its bittersweet beauty has always stayed with me.

I have been thinking about it even more so since a beloved aunt and uncle passed away recently. It brings home to me how very poignant a plant memory can be. Perhaps it is in a garden that we are closer to our memories than anywhere else, for we are surrounded by nature.

My aunt had a garden with a low and mellowed brick wall as a backdrop and a frame for a small farm dam beyond. I always loved that view and thought I too would like such a thing in my own garden one day; for what is an old wall if not something that protects, but also beckons… like the walled garden in that eternally magical book, The Secret Garden. Her husband, my uncle, was a banana farmer, a thing he came to late in his life, but was good at. In my own small banana plantation, which bears no resemblance to the ones he grew, I will, even so, think of him.

Tropical border in a garden I made here in Zambia.

I think a group of gardens should be a memory of gardens. Especially since some gardens stay in the mind forever. Like the one my mother created on a very beloved farm long ago. That garden is forever golden in my memory; with its profusion of snowdrops and sweet-peas, columbines and camelias, jasmine, honeysuckle… oh I could go on! And most definitely will. In another blog.

In a voice, rich and evocative, Jimmy Rogers sings about The English Country Garden. I used to play this on vinyl, on my grandmother’s portable record player when I was a child. Hours of joy. It will always remind me of her garden.

Fascinated by time lapse photography? Watch flowers unfold to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Mongoose

“It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is, “Run and find out,” and Rikki-tikki-tavi was a true mongoose…. he had to get up and attend to every noise all through the night and find out what made it.”

“Eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.”

Those opening words are from a classic piece of story-telling, written in 1885, by the great Rudyard Kipling, about the mongoose, Rikki-tikki-tavi, who famously kills a cobra and saves a child in the process. These words from Kipling ring true with me. You only have to watch a band of mongoose to see how very inquisitive and alert they are.

On Sundays, especially, when there is no-one working in the garden, we get an occasional visit from a band of Banded Mongoose. Their Latin name – Mungos Mungo  – makes me smile. It sounds like a comical character out of a novel by Dickens or Kipling himself.  Like their name, Mungos mungo are particularly endearing little creatures. Unless of course, you’re a snake.

They arrive in a noisy throng, to scratch up insects and juicy grubs in the grass and in the ground, using their sharp, non-retractable claws which are so perfect for digging.  They are omnivorous so their diet is not only insect, but also fallen fruit and berries, and they will steal birds’ and reptiles’ eggs if they find them.

Band of Banded Mongoose.

After they have been, there are always plenty of small holes for me to step into, all over the garden. Once we found a hole that had been dug out and beside it, a scattering of large, white and broken snake egg-casings that the mongoose had found and devoured. There were about 10 eggs so I for one was quite relieved they had not hatched, this time.

I particularly love how they talk to one another. They are very social animals. They have a surprisingly large repertoire of clicks, murmurs, squeaks and grunts. If you sit quietly you will hear that they are never silent; they literally never stop communicating with each other. Like a big, noisy, extrovert family out at dinner, they call to one another as if constantly checking where everyone is or telling each other, “Ooh, try this,”;   “This is good,” ;  and maybe, “I like yours better!”

Looking for snacks around the chilli bushes.

One of the larger adults is always the look-out; the posture is very distinctive. He will sit up tall and straight, eyes alert to any movement from anywhere. After a while, one of the other large adults will take over so he can take his turn at scratching and feeding.  While the look-out is on duty, the smallest youngsters, like toddlers everywhere, romp and roll around blissfully, wrapped up in their own world of play.

Classic Lookout.

Banded mongoose live in large groups; I have counted up to 30 in my garden at any one time. They live, travel and fight as a team. They don’t stay in one area for too long before moving, in a rolling wave, to another location. If you come upon them, just as they are about to cross a road, you will see a large adult at the head of a quivering, arrow-like formation. The lead adult will stop and check before calling to the others to proceed and then they will dash and leap after him, adults on the flanks, small ones on the inside, as they make for the safety of the grass on the opposite side.

At a previous home in Zambia, in a garden deep in the bush-veld and virgin woodlands all around, we had regular visits from a mongoose group. Back then, we had only one old, completely deaf dog (and quite blind too) and they used to come very close to inspect her, a fact of which she was blissfully unaware, poor old soul! They once advanced on her to within a few feet of us and were not concerned by us taking photographs. They squirmed and wriggled and climbed over the top of each other, making themselves almost into one moving animal, as they came up behind her. I wonder if they were confirming her status as either safe or dangerous to them?

Band of Mongoose inspecting my old Jack Russel, Nutmeg.

While we’re on the subject, and before I go, can we talk about the plural of mongoose? It is tempting to say mongeese but from what I have read, the plural appears to be mongooses. Really? That can’t be right! And reminds me of that old story of the man who wanted a pair of them and had to write away for them to the local zoo keeper, John.  So, “Dear John,” he began, “Please send me a pair of Mongooses.” No, he thought, that’s not right. He tried again. “Dear John, please send me a pair of Mongi.” Nope he thought. Still not right. He tried, “Dear John, Please send me a pair of Mongeese,” but still wasn’t happy.  Finally he wrote. “Dear John, Please send me a mongoose. Best wishes, Jack. P.S. Send me another one.”

One more look back before leaving.

The mongoose family who come into my garden (hah – did you see how I cleverly avoided the plural there) are always engaged and engaging. Sometimes they play along the pathways near the banana plantation. Sometimes they stretch themselves out on any bit of green lawn they can find, in the heat of the day, or lie dozing on a warm patch of ground in the wintery sun. I love to watch them but you have to be very still. It is best that they don’t catch sight of you otherwise they get very twitchy and move on, sometimes charging for the fence and disappearing from sight into the bush. When they are ready to go, they rush and race away taking all their lovely, chattering sounds with them. One of them will often hang back and and stop, for just a moment, to check behind. I am always quite sad to see them go. And always hope they will be back.

It’s not music this week but a fascinating look at mongoose behaviour, here seen giving some warthog something of a spa treatment. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

For a poem by Rudyard Kipling, about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the famous mongoose, and a song by the gorgeous Irish group, Celtic Thunder, All God’s Creatures, go to: https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Walk in the Woods

We walked in the woods and found we were not alone. For it is a simple truth that in the woods, you may be solitary, but you are never truly alone.  And when you walk out in the African bush there is always a sense of anticipation as if any minute you might see something wonderful.

In the wintry woodlands behind our house, there is life though the Zambian bush-veld is dry.  From the tiniest beetle clinging to the underside of a leaf to the loquacious wood hoopoes whose chuckling songs ring out as they take flight over head, there is always something nearby.

And there is loveliness in this sombre, limited palette of a typical African winter; with hues of mostly brown, khaki, grey and occasional splashes of russet and green. Though the air is dry and the dust catches you in the throat from time to time, the sky overhead is azure and the contrast between the brown and the blue is breath-taking.

Zambian bush-veld in June.

 “I went into the forest and came out taller.”

These are the words of the great naturalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau.  And ring very true, for me. Even the heaviest of hearts can be lifted by a walk in the woods, for nature takes you out of yourself. Sadness can be put aside, at least for a time. I am cheered by the call of doves and the constant zither-hum of insects, the sound of the leaves sighing as they are lifted by the wind and the excited sound of a startled francolin.  

While we walk, the dogs race excitedly ahead. While they nose about in the good, strong smells from buck droppings and wild hoof prints, I look for other treasures. Even in the brittle, dry bush of a Zambian June, there are lovely things to see.  

Zambian wild trees in winter.

The trees in winter, are quite beautiful. Some of them bereft of leaves, have their bare bones laid open to the eye, the intricate twists and turns of their lithe and beautiful branches now evident. They don’t all lose their leaves however. Some of them stay green, somehow, although on close inspection, you will see many have turned their leaves slightly, especially in the heat of the day, so as to present as small a surface to any evaporation, as possible. Others are almost top-heavy with pods and some of the wild trees have been pushing out more flowers than usual, in this drier-than-normal winter season we are having. I wonder if it’s a safeguard against lean times; the production of more flowers and more seeds; more chance of the tree perpetuating its species.  

Mnondo, top-heavy with pods.

A tree orchid, I believe it is Ansellia Africana, clings determinedly to a tree, and seems half-dead but I know it will bloom again when the rains come. And I will find it still here, and then it will have its beautiful yellow and spotted blooms from where it gets its name, the Leopard orchid. It goes also by the rather quaint name of the Basket Orchid because it is able to create a makeshift container of its roots, not just to catch but also to digest falling leaf litter, for its nutrients.

Wild orchid in the woodland.

At my feet, I find many dried pods and guinea fowl feathers. An old nest blown down catches my eye, although I am always careful to make sure there is nothing inside it before I pick it up. There are lots of butterflies about now and sometimes the cow-pats and dung heaps in the road are covered in them; butterflies get food from animal dung.  And very early in the morning, the tree leaves are covered with dew and as soon as the sun has warmed their wings enough, the butterflies can be seen drinking from such little pockets of moisture as they can find.

Common Pansy butterfly in the leaf litter.

The dogs race up an anthill as they chase monkeys. The monkeys leap to the safety of the trees and continue shouting and chattering at the dogs who bark and gaze longingly back up at them. As usual, it’s a stand-off.  After a while the dogs lose interest and besides, the anthills are easier to explore now as many of them are almost bare. Their domed shapes are now more noticeable. The trees growing on the anthills, usually hidden by tangled foliage, are now exposed to the eye, the living canopy sometimes a support for an old, dead tree which has collapsed on to its neighbour.

Exploring an anthill.

Down at ground level, nestled beneath leaves I look more closely and spy a dried bracket-fungus. Now that is a find! Fungi is fascinating. This particular one is huge and looks something like a lovely piece of sculpted wood, polished and very tactile.  And beyond, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, there is always the tawny grass, softly nodding its seed-heads as they catch the last bit of sunlight of the day.

Giant bracket fungus.

We turn the corner and there ahead are a pair of eland, magnificent and cautious. They don’t rush away at the sight of us, but watch us for a while and then deciding we are not a threat, nibble at some leaves briefly before moving slowly away over the rough, ploughed land, picking their way carefully through the tussocks and sticks,  and all the while, with backward glances, they never quite ignore us.

A pair of watchful Eland.

Down the road, near home, a herd of impala stand for a moment before springing away into the bush, the sun catching their tails as they go. In the trees on the side of the road a startled young bushbuck lightly leaps from one thicket to another. The melancholy wail of a hornbill erupts from somewhere ahead of us. As the sun starts to set guinea fowl crowd around the baled grass and scratch at the ground for their supper, before retiring to roost for the night.

We walked in the woods and found we were not alone.

Rather a lot of people have sung this song. This is still one of my favourite versions of You’ll Never Walk Alone – by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

For that much-loved poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost, follow this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Walk in the Forest was composed by Brain Crain. Have a listen. It’ll take you there.

Sunflower

Like books side by side on a shelf, the farming seasons each tell their own tale. And like a favourite story, some seasons will be lifted down and re-visited, because those were the good years.  But lurking between the feel-good stories are the ones you don’t want to think about. These are not your chosen bed-time reading.  These can jolt you awake in the night.

Drought years are like that.  And like the hard-baked patchwork of clay lying in the bottom of a slowly-drying dam, drought years are forever etched on the memory. Ask any farmer, whatever age he may be, and he will shudder or shake his head, and tell you a year in which there was a drought.

Hoof-marked clay now exposed to the sun.

In drought years, you lie awake in summer listening to a brilliant build-up of thunder; you may get a small shower of rain but it doesn’t last and it’s not enough.  Day after day, the same; a seesaw ride of hope and despair.  In vain you wait for the sound of drops of water on the roof or windows. That is the hardest silence of all to bear.

Such was the summer that has just passed here in Zambia.

Hartebeest coming for water.

The clouds would build and then be blown away. The little bit of precipitation that fell was here and there, the showers, few and far between. And as with all farming’s bad seasons, it’s not just about how soul-crushing it is at the time, it is the cold fact that you have yet to come up against the real bite of it.  For the African winter that follows a very poor rainy season is relentless and hard.  On every living thing. The rivers have not filled up as they normally would and the dams, much lower than they should be, lose water, every day more, to evaporation.  You watch the levels and wonder if you will have enough for your cattle, your crops, yourselves. As the ground slowly dries out, the grass and plants follow suit.  The stock dam, so much lower than this time last year, is a worrying reminder, if we needed one, that there may be trouble ahead.

Dwindling stock dam.

And yet. And yet, it is not in the nature of a farmer to give up until there is absolutely nothing to be done. Until that moment he will keep at the business of farming and try to think of ways to deal with the situation. In Afrikaans there is an old saying, “ ‘n boer maak ‘n plan”. In other words, a farmer makes a plan. When those dire, ill winds blow in, some people adjust their sails, some batten down the hatches and some build windmills.  In farming, as in life, you find all three.

When faced with a crop which the industry does not want to pay a fair price for, who is to say what’s to be done, only that it may not be enough, anymore, to hope that things will change. It may need a new crop, a new way of growing an old one, or even, for some, a completely new life.  On this farm a new crop has gone in, alongside the old. Only the years will tell us how that will go. But at least, we’ve adjusted our sails.

Hope for the future; newly-planted Avocado trees.

The borehole rig has been busy in the area.  The irony is not lost on me that in drought years, more boreholes are drilled. Just when the groundwater is lower than usual, everyone tries to find more of it, because everyone needs water.  It’s a costly risk. The despair of the duster is something not to be dwelt on; that moment when after hours and days of drilling, the result is a puff of dust, as if the earth simply coughed. But the fortuitous fountain of water that could result is like a gift from God. It may just save your sanity. And your farm.  

Looking for water; borehole rig at work.

The grass that was baled earlier in the year when it was more plentiful, is testament to my farmer’s ability to look ahead; a vital thing if you are to weather the farming storms. So too his supervision of a great mound of compost which was prepared a couple of months ago so it could be spread on all the flower and tree beds now.  It will go a great way towards saving on watering. As will letting the lawn die. You could say we are battening down the hatches. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of the Zambian drought-stricken winter, I saw, on a recent trip through the south of the country, crops of sunflowers. They at least, thrive in the dry. Their bright, beautiful faces were just the tonic I needed to get me re-painting a garden bench and my garden pots.  And to remind me that I’m the building-windmills type. I mean, I’m not saying these windmills of mine will be any good and there’s quite a good chance that their sails won’t go round in the wind as they’re supposed to, but, like the sunflower, just the thought of them, will give me something to smile about.

In the midst of a Zambian winter, a Sunflower.

A happy flower and a cheerful song; “Sunflower” by the late, great star of country music, Glen Campbell.

You can find that lovely gem of a song “The Wind” by Cat Stevens (Yussuf Islam) song on Verse page. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Just a Winter’s Tale

This morning when I put my toe out of bed I really wanted to pull it back in. And later, standing in the shower after my morning exercise, I had to add something I didn’t need last week – more hot water.

Going outside on to the veranda to do my exercise in the cold, gloomy dawn of a winter’s day is quite a challenge but heading into the back yard to workout with tyres? Well, let me put it this way; they say the definition of Pinterest is your wife staring at the computer screen for hours and then serving your steak and salad in a jar. The definition of You-Tube is your husband staring at the tablet screen for hours and coming home with a tractor tyre for you…..

Still, at least the veld is right there and the sun coming up through the trees is pretty.  And is that the bush-buck stealing through the grass? From a nearby tree, a kingfisher gives me a piercing whistle as if to alert me to the fact that I’m procastinating. So, back to my exercise; some days I work my legs, other days, my arms. On Saturdays, I flip an old, spare tyre. Not my own, you understand – although that could be entertaining – but a truck tyre especially procured for me, by my husband. I wonder if he is trying to tell me something. Whatever that may be, it is hard to hear him over the sound of my own grunting as I get to grips with the tyre, lift and flip. Repeat.

Tyre and rope workout. Want to join me? You can have the big tyre if you want.

At least I have gloves which help. To be honest, through May and June, the amount of clothing I am wearing, has steadily increased.  Layer upon layer, it has grown;  long-sleeved tee shirt, add a light, cotton sweater, add a fluffy, hand-knitted jersey until finally, I have reached the maximum which is the Puffa jacket over the top of all the other layers, as well as thick socks and a down-at-heel pair of sheepskin slippers.  Did I mention that I look particularly fetching in Winter? No I didn’t. Because I don’t.  My winter style is cocoa. But not Chanel.

The thing is I’d just rather be warm, and early mornings and nights are cold in our Zambian winters. That said, as the day ages, the sky is usually bright blue and the yellow sun is balmy, even, hot.   

In the morning we bask, lizard-like, sitting on a bench strategically placed for it, at the kitchen door, enjoying a cup of tea and the genial sun on our faces. I have been known to put my jersey or jacket out in the sun for a while so that it is toasty when I put it back on to go inside because the house is colder than the outdoors. We have no sun-trap rooms, although sunlight streams into our schoolroom for an hour or so in the morning.

A spot to have a cup of tea and catch the winter sun.

In the afternoons, the birds are more active as we walk around the edge of the yard, along a perimeter pathway. We have seen African Hoopoe and pretty Green Parrots and inevitably find Guinea Fowl feathers, for the garden is one of their favourite haunts.  The dogs forge on ahead and occasionally stop. If one gets behind us, there is a bit of a skirmish as they push through our legs to get in front again.

At night, we snuggle under a blanket to eat hot toast for supper and watch television. When we go to bed later, we feel the chill of the night air blast in at the back door as we put the reluctant dogs out for their evening constitutional, before letting them back in for the night.  I fix their beds and cover the Jack Russell terrier who likes to be buried in blankets. After a peek out at the cold night sky, the crystal stars and the fathomless garden, I hunker down under our duvet which we really only need for a couple of months of the year. I stay quite still in one spot to warm it up. Sometimes I read or I give a thought to what’s out there.  

Attracted to the garden because of the lack of green grass in the bush-veld right now, the bush-buck will be foraging here and there, delicately nibbling on nearly everything, except the herbs. Odd that, I always think. The Giant Eagle Owls come and go; in winter we don’t have the fan going in our room so I can hear them clearly; first a low, reverberating call and then the returning echo as another replies.  Sometimes we hear the whoop of a startled zebra coming from the small game park which adjoins our garden, the strident, harsh call of a bush baby or the excited, high bark of a jackal.

Someone had a good nibble on the Frangipani tree last night.

Meanwhile I imagine tiny creatures sleeping in snug cocoons all over my garden and come September, I will have a whole new crop of hungry little caterpillars just in time to eat all the new leaves of Spring.  Call me strange, but I do hope all the birds are warm enough. I think about the little grey tree squirrel who drives the dogs mad when he springs teasingly, lightly over the lawn between the fig tree and the wood shed. I haven’t seen him for a while so I expect he is sleeping it off in his cosy drey, his nest of leaves, in the heart of the fig tree. If he only but knew it, he could give himself such a laugh if he bothered to peek out at me and my morning, exercise routine.

Zambian blue sky even in Winter.

Tonight I must remember to put my tracksuit pants handy next to the bed so I don’t have to try and balance on one leg in the dreary, cold bathroom at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Also my socks, my vest, my long-sleeved old cotton t shirt, and fleecy sweatshirt. Oh, sorry. Did you think I would be a real sport and wear lycra? Are you mad? If I must exert myself physically, I’d rather it was not while actually getting into my exercise clothes.

A blast from my past, a hit in 1983…. the distinctive David Essex brings his own Winter’s Tale.

And if you’re still in the mood for music, go and have a listen to Hazy Shade of Winter by Simon & Garfunkel. At the bottom of the Verse page. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Moon Magic

On a moonless, winter’s night in Zambia, the sky billows overhead like some vast, voluminous and ink-black cloak. The sky span is infinite and the stars without number. Some of them really are like the diamond in the children’s song, but others are gold, sapphire-blue and even red, like rubies. Some of these stars are not stars at all but planets and like the song says, the stars twinkle. But in fact, the planets do not.

Let’s have new words for an old tune… “Twinkle, twinkle little star, Planet steady, shining, far…” Or something like that.

Stars or planets, they are all beautiful, gliding like radiant dancers over the heavens as if putting on a show.

The brightest stars in the southern skies; gleaming , ever-faithful Sirius, the dog star, Canopus, named for a mythical navigator and Alpha Centauri. We have the famous Southern Cross, whose five stars are believed to be around 20 million years old. Last night over the garden, I even saw Jupiter. And then of course, there is the African moon.

Dawn moon from my bedroom window.

I say African moon because here south of the equator, the moon is not the same as in the Northern hemisphere. When we look up at the moon here, we seen no man – we see a giant rabbit, slightly dark, but luminescent as the moon herself.  And when the Zambian moon rises full, in all her pearl perfection, the night sky changes and so does my garden. 

I’m not talking werewolves you understand or any other nonsensical manifestation of primitive man’s fear of the moon – but there is a kind of magic in the mystical, moonlit world that is revealed as she rises in the sky.  The light she casts has a bewitching quality and like an alchemist she turns the familiar garden world of trees, plants and oddments into an Aladdin’s cave of unfathomable wonder. It is almost as if by stepping out into my back garden I have stumbled through a portal into another world.

New Moon. Photograph by Leanne Mackay.

Sometimes if there are clouds in the sky the moon is veiled and less bright, but no less exquisite. For she is lovely, no matter her shape – from slither to sickle, from sickle to that sweet half-smile. When she finally attains her flawless orb, I can understand why wolves are driven to howl.

Moon and clouds combine to make magic in the sky.

Somewhere far from here, she is moving mighty ocean tides but here in my garden her influence is no less powerful. Did you know that the moon-flower blooms according to the phases of the moon? And when the moon is full; she release her heavy, sweet scent into the night air as if to draw attention to herself; for the moon-flower is lovely but the moon may be more so. When the moon is full, the moon-flower bursts open fully to catch moonlight on her silky petals and who is to say which is more dazzling just then!

Lunar Eclipse, Zambia, January 2019. Photograph by Leanne Mackay.

Earlier in the year we had a lunar eclipse. Spectacular! And for me, definitely not a Blood Moon as the faddish, social media name goes these days! It’s a sublime phenomenon which deserves to be called what it is.  After all, a lunar eclipse can only happen when a full Moon passes directly behind Earth and into its shadow, and Moon, Earth and Sun have to be perfectly positioned. I can hardly fathom that such astounding precision even occurs in the vast endlessness of space, but it does. And results in a moon, way down here on our little Earth,  that is beyond breath-taking.  And yes, she may even be coppery, or gold, depending on the dust and particles in the atmosphere.

Lunar eclipse moon in Zambia. Photograph by Leanne Mackay.

Meanwhile it was atmospheric dust that produced an April moon, here in Zambia, so golden and glorious, it looked like a fire trapped in the black of the sky.  And shone in at our windows, casting its strange, time-turning light. 

Zambian April moon in the trees.

I love to look at the moon for moment just before I close the curtain and climb into bed at night. But if she later shines in through even the teeniest chink in the curtain, it wakes me up and I feel quite cheated that the man is snoring beside me (quietly) and not getting up to make my early morning tea. I feel confused at first… and then realise that the light in the room is not dawn, but the moon.  Sometimes I get up and go to the window to look out and see what may have come into my garden; perhaps the large, looming shape of kudu browsing busily on the frangipani tree or rabbits, nibbling safely upon the lawn while the dogs doze on inside.

If I’m lucky I will slip back to sleep. If not, I must lie patiently and wait for that cup, the very best of the day. Yes that’s how it goes in our house. He makes my first cup of tea.  But I’m not to expect conversation. That would be going too far.  So we have our tea and I open the curtain as I always do, to get the first fresh air of the morning and listen to what’s out there; an owl perhaps or a night jar or the night crickets playing that last tune before they close up at the end of their shift. And sometimes, the moon is still up in the early morning sky.

Early morning Moon and a tiny Venus over my garden.

I look for the morning star, that special, silvery jewel. Of course the morning star is none other than the planet Venus. And how apt it is that she was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Imagine how lucky I feel then, when the moon is still hanging up there beside her; the moon and Venus, two supreme celestial bodies that literally make me so glad to be alive.

Three brilliant pieces of music this week. What can I say? The moon has that effect on me…. Ludwig Beethoven composed his famous C# minor Sonata – Moonlight Sonata, in 1802, by which time he had already lost 60% of his hearing. I believe the profound impact that going deaf was having on him, can be heard in this heart-wrenching music. Even back then it was so popular, he is reputed to have become quite tetchy about it, saying ‘They are always talking about the C# minor Sonata; surely I’ve written better things!” I like to think he would have felt more affection for it had he known that one day it would be loved by millions of people all over the world and would in fact, become one of the most downloaded pieces of classical piece of music ever written.

Claude Debussey wrote the intensely haunting piece, Clair de Lune in 1890 , inspired by a poem of the same name, written by a French poet, Paul Verlaine. The title means ‘moonlight’ but what I find really interesting is that the piece was originally called ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ meaning a ‘sentimental walk’. In the moonlight perhaps?

On VERSE, if you’re in the mood for more moon-inspired music, and a spot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn’s sweet version of Moon River:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

ON CRAFTY -The first of my Harry Potter style crafts – this week, wands. https://shellbell.home.blog/crafty/

Zambezi

If I’m going to be lying wide awake at night, I’d rather it was beside the Zambezi River than anywhere else in the world! At home I think we are all too conditioned to start thinking about all the things we could have, would have, should have done. Speaking for me, lying awake in the middle of the night at home, my brain and over-fertile imagination often leads me into frankly nightmarish territory. (No… best not to ask…)

On the banks of the Zambezi River, it’s quite different. How can it not be? For a start, consider that more than two million years ago a part of the Zambezi used to flow through the Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana, until tectonic plates shifted, as they are wont to do, and the river moved eastwards.

wide river

The Zambezi River, border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

That said, on the Zambezi River, I don’t actually lie awake and think about tectonic plates. Still something miraculous does happen.  Beside that glorious river, the big and the small worries that I have, real and imagined, steal away like a leopard into night shadows. My little brain is only allowed simple, conscious thoughts like ‘that’s a hippo” or “listen to the lion” because the soul is in control. I lie blissful, glad for once to be sleepless, as I listen to the beautiful, wild sounds of the African night.

big hippos

Hippo drift on the current.

I hear hippo.  They sound like elderly gentlemen in the library of some exclusive club, occasionally breaking the silence with a series of chortles and snorts as if reading an amusing piece in the newspaper. Sometimes the chortle breaks into a full guffaw – all in the lowest bass register. Much higher up the scale, and further away, I hear the high, unearthly whooping of hyena; like hyped-up hooligans on their way to make merry mayhem. Then the combatant bark of baboons and suddenly it is as if an all-out war has broken out on the Zimbabwean bank of the river, as baboons bellow and shriek at one another.

DSC02821 (3)

Hippo in the Zambezi River

Much later, I am awoken by the sound of that ultimate African animal, that mighty cat, the lion. To me, a lion call starts implosive and trapped, as if gathering strength to break free, like an angry animal inside a cage. It is drawn-out and almost agonised in its resonance. Then bursts, full-fearsome, from deep within the belly of the beast, a roar which rolls across the river with powerful, blood-stirring authority.

But wait.

A loud and high-pitched trumpeting sounds like a slightly discordant clarion call to the night and to all lesser animals to make way. Make way for the elephants!  As they near the river to drink, the elephants grow louder and suddenly the air is filled with trumpeting and snarling as elephant and lion face off in a bid for territory and precedence, on the river bank. After a time it seems as if the elephants win and the lions retreat, for I hear that bemoaning big cat-cry once more, now far away, and the echo of that superb sound is the only legacy to the fact that the lions were there at all.

DSC02813

That’s Zimbabwe on the far side.

In the daytime we see neither lion nor elephant, but my eyes are once again drawn to the river, that ancient traveller, harbinger of life and sometimes death, who began his journey from a tiny spring up in the remote North- Western corner of Zambia, in an unassuming, wooded area called the Kaleni Hills. Where I am, the river is a wide, watery expanse, a stupendous sight to see! It is fascinating to think it has already flowed through or along the boundaries of five countries – Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and now Zimbabwe, which I can see on the far bank. And will yet gain a sixth as it finally ends it journey, sprawling at last into the Indian Ocean, on the coast of Mozambique. From source to ocean, it will have travelled 2700km.

big sky

Zambezi River under a big sky

As the wind blows through the trees at the water’s edge, the music and motion of the river is constant;  it glides and sighs, it lurches and swirls, now softly lapping at the bank, now parting the water reeds and eddying around the sand banks.  It is never still as you can see by its cargo; this time a solitary small leaf, or a fall of  wild fruit from a tree, here, a foamy break of  brown and dirty-white bubbles, there, simply a stick. All are moving in the same Easterly direction, pushing inexorably onward, towards that momentous moment when the river will thunder over the Victoria Falls, and beyond.

bank big

Small channels and islands in the Zambezi River

We watch an ibis fishing off a small island, the sunlight gleaming on its gorgeous, green feathers. Soon another joins him and another, and the trio take turns to call and cackle at the day, and at us. In the reeds nearby, a flurry and a small splash; fish for supper, for a kingfisher. Swaying on a river reed, a tiny frog watches me for a second before he plunges into the cool, dark water.

A silent, unassuming piece of wood is carried past on the current and only the keenest of onlookers will note its scales and its heavy-lidded eyes as it drifts quietly past. Moments later, a commotion and thunderous splashes as the hippo we heard in the night, move out of the main river and launch themselves into water on the small island opposite where we sit.  We catch a glimpse of why; a hippo mother and her small, treasured calf swimming alongside her, and so the pod moves to the safety of the hidden, watery channel. We don’t see them for the rest of the day, but we hear, from time to time as they surface and bask, the odd grunt of hippo conversation.

big pink sky

Sunset over the Zambezi River.

The hippo are quiet as the sun starts to go down. Over the river, the big African sky seems even bigger than usual. All day, it has been a perfect, picture-postcard blue with cloud formations both fluffy and fine.  Now it slowly starts to change, as it takes on a  different hue that hovers between blue and grey, then suddenly, sun set. In all its glorious effulgence – sunset on the Zambezi River – now that’s a sight to see!

 

From the other side of the world, a song about another famous river, the Mississippi, that Ol’ Man River.  Arguably one of the best of all show tunes;  sung here most magnificently, by British bass-baritone, Rodney Earl Clarke at the London Proms.

And if you’d like to listen to a rollicking, happy version of that old tune, Down by the Riverside, go to the Verse page here:-

https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

NEXT WEEK I am sorry to say there will be No Blog Update due to the river of paperwork that is threatening to engulf me if I don’t sort it out now! The week after, I’ll be back. Hope you will too!

The Birds and the Bees

So it’s time for a talk about the birds and the bees.  And here I am, strategically placed to do it.  The timing is perfect; I’m dressed for the occasion.  I’m waiting with anticipation. Any moment now… ooh, ooh, here it comes..…aaannd there it goes. Never mind, here are two more – aaand they’re gone too. What do they all have in common; the fact that I don’t know what kind they were.

Ha! I’m not talking, as you might have realised, about those birds and bees but birds as in identification and B’s – as in Binoculars, Bird Books, Bottles of water. Any idea what’s going on?  I’ll tell you – I was counting birds for the Global Bird Day held recently.

Off to count birds.

What a brilliant and satisfying way to spend the day! Also slightly stressful. It is incumbent upon you, after all, if you’re taking part in something like this, to contribute.    

The thing is, there are less birds around now.  May is quiet, here in my garden and behind, in the Miombo woodland, not much bird activity either. There are some plentiful residents like the bulbuls, and one or two barbets as well as a noisy kingfisher who sits for ages on the side of our swimming pool. I think he’s just using it as a vantage point. I hope so. I hope he’s worked out by now that there isn’t a single fish in there and never will be. Otherwise can you imagine the conversation between them when the pool-sitter gets home. 

He: So, what’s for supper?

She: What do you mean what’s for supper?! You said you’d be catching fish!

He:  Uh, about that…

Anyway, back to my birding escapade.

So there I am. I am pretty excited as I set off. I’ve been swatting up and I‘ve got the necessary terminology. Feathers. Beak. Over my shoulder I am carrying a bag containing bird book, binoculars and a bottle of water as I am intending to be out there A Long Time. Also my birding check list.  Over the other shoulder I am hauling a larger bag containing a folding chair.  Meanwhile in my hands, out in front, like a guided obstacle for every tuft, stick and slap-happy branch, is the tripod and camera.  The thing is, you see, I need the camera because I’m bound to see something I don’t know so I’m hoping I may be able to get a photo and identify it later. This is my thinking. I find myself a good spot, set up my chair and unpack my bag.

A bird was here.

Sounds straightforward to you doesn’t it?  Hah! Think again!

In the first place, I am carrying all this stuff and trying to contain my dogs.  You see the blessed, beloved canines have followed me into the bush and they are wildly excited, scaring guinea fowl and francolin out of the undergrowth as they nose here and there.

Then I manage to set my chair up in a hole, which I don’t notice so when I sit down in it, both the chair and I slowly start to tilt.  With my face pressed into a tuft of grass and my legs waggling about ineffectually like a beetle on its back, I am for the moment so entertained by myself that I’ve almost forgotten what I’m here for. Finally when I get myself under control I decide it is going to be easier to crawl out but this entails trying to avoid the tripod – which I manage – but while I’m down there I hear the flap of bird wings and realise there was one right next to me, if only I’d been upright. It’s jolly hard being me, sometimes. Finally right way up, now I’ve got all this stuff and I haven’t thought to drag myself a table to lay it all out in front of me (what is wrong with me I wail to myself) so I’m trying to balance the book and the check list and the binoculars on my lap and at the very moment I have it all sorted out, a bird that I don’t recognise, lands on a nearby branch.  I leap up, clutching at the binoculars which appear to have no strap, trying to focus the camera. I take a photo just as the bird flies off into a thicket. I suppose I should be glad that it’s not a bad photo. Of a thicket.

Thicket. No bird.

Suddenly! Whooee! A Turtle Dove!  I mark it off. I count up my total. I’m such a mathematical genius I know it has just increased by one.  That makes, counting again to make sure, five so far!  Meanwhile back in the house (which I later discover) at about the same time, the latest count has just come in from one of the other groups. They’re not that far ahead of me…. at 102… oh well.

In the Miombo woodland we’ve got dust today, but no birds…

It’s disappointing to me, on this day, that I haven’t seen an African Hoopoe, Giant Eagle Owl or Green Parrots, all of which I’ve seen around the house before. On the other hand the lovely Little Bee Eaters hang around on the line above me for a while and a gorgeous, gregarious flock of Glossy Starlings arrive noisily in the trees nearby. No Waxbills, Fire-finches, no Pied Kingfisher. I’m not saying they aren’t here….just that I don’t see any. No Schallows Loerie. Of course I do know this particular bird is a very seasonal visitor but honestly- it’s not that far to Livingstone, where he comes from – couldn’t he have popped in, just to be counted?  Still I do see a Gaber Goshawk and a Lizard Buzzard takes some small thing from the ground.  I hear the African Fish Eagle before I see it; that haunting call fills the air and always makes me scan the sky.  Near the edge of woodland, there is thick grass. Out of this emerges a pair of Button Quail because the dogs are, for a few moments, following an interesting scent elsewhere. 

A bird did not make these tracks.

In the end I get no excellent photos of birds – I would need a much bigger lens for that – but at least I am able to confirm some of my sightings. Later, trudging back to the house, I can see the bush is already drier than it was just a week ago and the leaves on some of the trees look almost wilted as they preserve all the moisture that they possibly can. But there is life; butterflies, bees and some tiny wild flowers still to be seen. The tree orchids are not in bloom but another beautiful epiphyte hangs heavy with yellow blooms.  There are plenty of hoof-prints from the bush buck that have picked their way daintily along the pathway. As I walk, I hear a few bird calls but have no idea what they are. Sigh. Just then, I startle a lark – I know that one I shout, scrambling to mark it off – as it flaps upwards in alarm.

Beautiful, but not a bird.

Altogether on Saturday, we counted only 28 different species around here, but I am glad to have done my bit.  In the Global Bird Count, Zambia came 3rd for Africa and 22nd worldwide, with a tally of 327 country-wide species.  Globally, birders gathered more than 1,85 million sightings as we all mapped the birds! Globally this data teaches when and how birds use the landscape and in so doing, helps us keep them in it. And we can all do it, wherever we are. We don’t have to travel to some distant, wild location; we all have a front row seat to bird-spotting because birds are everywhere. Nor do we even have to spend the whole day doing it… just 10 minutes or whatever we can spare.

As for me, I’ve got plans. To do better next time.  At least I hope to do better because the next count will be in the height of the Zambian summer, in October.  Who knows… maybe I’ll even get a lifer!

But most of all, for someone who loves birds as much as I do, this is a chance to register some of the myriad of bird species, so that much bigger brains and considerably better birders than me, can take that data and use it for the good of birds. For what would our world be without birds? We stand small, but far from insignificant, in how we impact this beautiful planet of ours. We may be puny beneath the sky and yet we can do so much. So much good. Don’t you want to be part of a something so huge and so vital? I do.

(For those who are interested to see the world-wide results – or to join this brilliantly rewarding exercise next time, go here: https://ebird.org/home

Birds uplift my soul. And so does music. This piece in particular. Here is the chocolate-rich voice of Neil Diamond with a song that always haunts me, in a clip from Johnathan Livingstone Seagull, a parable from the 1960s about a seagull learning to fly and to attain perfection. (1973 – Hall Bartlett; Music by Neil Diamond and Lee Holdridge) Take the time to watch. I am sure it will uplift your soul too.

A Lot of Bull

I have some beautiful bachelor boys in the back garden right now! They lie around most of the day, only getting up to eat and to go drinking. Occasionally they skirmish with one another. I’m talking bulls.  Some men bring their wives flowers – what can I say, mine brings me bulls. But you might say that’s not as odd as how happy it makes me when he does!  

Actually in the interest of veracity, he sometimes brings flowers too but that is a whole ‘nother blog… back to the bulls.

The Boys are Back in Town.

It is now nearing the end of Autumn which means the bulls move into our back yard for a short while. It’s a big back yard – plenty of room and plenty of grass for them. For us the practical benefit is that, as these big beasts move around, lie around and jostle with one another, they will flatten the long grass which would otherwise be a very real fire threat. They also enrich the soil, of course.  And then there is the added bonus of me being able to watch them.

Something on my tongue.

Bulls are magnificent.  I love to watch them walk, with that deliberate economy of movement – a muscle machine in slow motion. Bulls will not be rushed. Everything in their own time. And if you try to force the issue, well, on your head be it. (A bit like my husband in fact.) I love their huge, broad, masculine heads, their soft, vulnerable muzzles and their long eye lashes. (No I’m not going to say it.)  And then there is the smell of them. It’s unmistakeable.  Slightly reminiscent of hops, it’s a singular, sweet and salty odour of dust, leather and fermenting grass.

Are you looking at me?

Bulls are extreme. They’re restful, or they’re not.  It depends on their mood.  Mostly they only concern themselves with an occasional flick of a tail or an ear to keep away the flies, because people don’t merit too much attention as far as a bull’s concerned. Unless you’ve irritated him. Then his indolent indifference changes to instant irascibility. You’ve got his attention and weighing in at about one tonne might I say, perhaps not in an ideal way.  But it isn’t usually people who get them grumpy.

It’s other bulls that can get their goat.

Best buds.

Bulls will watch you for a curious moment and then go back to whatever they were doing.  If they’re eating, the only sound you can hear is the tearing of grass from the earth and the occasional rustle of vegetation. For a big animal, they can be extremely quiet.  Sometimes they will put their head on the ground, and sleep, like a dog. Mostly they will lie relaxed, moving only their jaws, as they chew their cud, lazy in the midday sun or peaceful and cool in the shade of a tree. 

The language of bulls is about hierarchy and posturing, calling to cows or to each other. They form social groups and will seek each other out if separated. In bull society, there is a definite pecking order although there is always someone challenging it. Like people, some bulls are loners and prefer not to run with the gang. Others may gang up on one individual.

Kicking up some dust.

Bulls make a variety of noises. There’s the snort and the nostril blow, which may be irritation at a fly or another bull.  Then there is the rumble of the deep low – which starts way, way back in the throat, with that enormously powerful neck flexed and huge, hard head angled low, forehead first, ready for confrontation.  Sometimes the sonorous low builds to a crescendo, to a full-bodied bellow as their whole enormous rib cage contracts and the mighty head is thrown back.   Sometimes the bellow reaches such dizzying heights, it sounds like a screech, of pain.

Handsome aren’t I?

But mostly that’s all just noise. In a real fight, bulls make very little sound.    

One night we can tell a fight has broken out because there is the sudden loud crack of branches and violent tearing noises as vegetation is trampled.  We can’t see them properly but we can see clouds of dust in the gleam of the torch light, and we can hear the occasional blow and pant of the bulls as they crash and rampage through the undergrowth for an hour. In the morning, the area is utterly decimated and the corner fence post, an iron pole with the diameter of a dinner plate, is bent to the point of cracking. The two antagonists look pretty sorry for themselves; one limping with his head down, a swelling on his rump, not making eye contact with the other, and the victor, rather puffy around the eyes. Bulls fight to establish who’s in charge. It’s in their nature.

Bulls in my backyard.

But what, I wonder is in man’s nature that makes him (or her) want to go to a bullfight? That anyone would be entertained by watching this stupendous, sublime creature tortured to the point of rage and agony and then killed, is way, way beyond my comprehension.  The crowd might be shouting “olé” but I’d be shouting, “ stick him with the pointy ends!” To the bull. You can’t do that, I hear someone say – you can’t criticize another culture’s tradition. So let’s be clear, I just did! After all, it used to be tradition for some to cook their foreign visitors in a big pot over a lovely roaring fire. Surely we’ve moved on?

As I shall now. You wouldn’t know it was really me, if I didn’t have at least one little rant.

Bulls are some of my favourite animals but I don’t mean in a coochy-coochy-tickle-you-under-the-chin sort of way. Although, we have a bull that has been hand-reared and particularly likes being scratched. He advances and lowers his head – which in bull language usually means – back away, now. In his case, it means scratch me, now! He pushes his face towards you and stands quietly for a moment while you scratch his forehead. But then he will suddenly tire of it (as bulls do) and give a playful toss of his head. And it is always a bit of a lottery as to whether you have moved away quickly enough or not.

Heading out but they’ll be back.

A while ago, one of the farm bulls wonders into our garden looking for his mates. We want to get him out, so we follow him at  a respectful distance, urging him forwards as he plods on ahead.  Suddenly, as bulls are wont to do, he takes umbrage.  Turning on a hoof, he gives a low bellow and charges at us!  My husband starts waving his arms, shouting loud, manly commands at the bull. And at me. It goes something like this.

“Oy! Go on! Get out of here!” (To the bull)  and

“Go on! Get out of here!”  (To me) and also, but most important of all,

“I haven’t got my hat!”

The thing is the man has immediately reached for his hat (that trusty farmer’s friend) which he will flap at the bull – a technique, I’m told, that works – but he isn’t wearing it!

As for me – am I going? Am I just! I’ve given one screech and am now heading for the big, wide-trunked mulberry tree. I’m wondering in my head, as I run, if I can dodge the bull by ducking behind it. The thing is, I’ve never been good at actually climbing trees. (Unlike some cousins of mine who swarmed around like monkeys in the high boughs, I wore out at least one pair of perfectly good pants, as a kid, sliding along the lower ones.) So I’m laughing as I run, not you understand, a laugh of pure merriment; but with a slight touch of hysteria, for I have started to realise that I might Have to climb – just kill me now, it’ll be quicker – and also, I can’t help being concerned about what’s happening behind me. With the bull. And my husband.  From behind the tree, I see that he is still waving his arms about, issuing loud expletives, but standing his ground. The bull gallops past him. Turns out the bull wants to go in the opposite direction to the one in which we’ve been herding him. Well of course he does. Silly us.

After the bull has gone, my husband is in shock because I’ve actually listened to him, when he said get out of here.  I don’t have the heart to set him straight. But in my book, it’s, “In Sickness and in Health, but if a Bull Charges, You’re on Your own, Pal!”

It’s a bit different this week but go on, watch this clip of a dairy farmer playing music to his cows. I’m sure it will make you smile!

For the bull blog it was a toss up (pardon the pun) between which version of this song, Ghost Riders in the Sky, I chose. The Outlaws have done a rock, guitar-driven version and then there is the mellifluous Marty Robbins. In the end I went with the sonorous Johnny Cash, a man who sings as though he may have seen demons like these… and found redemption.

Winter is Coming

Winter is coming.

Of course I am not talking about “Winter is Coming!” which foretells of a terrible war, as in the hundreds of Game of Thrones references that you may have seen flooding the internet over the past months. With a stirring and memorable theme tune, this epic fantasy book and television series, deals in mayhem and murder, with dragons, giants and a gargantuan fortress wall built to keep out some hideous Winter creatures – gosh aren’t you just so sorry you haven’t been watching it all….

But back in the real world, our own Winter approaches, make no mistake and she has sent her messengers on ahead, as if to warn us and give us time to prepare. The signs are all around me.

The Bird Formerly Known as Bulbul (eye roll) and Mnondo pods.

Underfoot there are thick, crunchy carpets of leaves which have been falling for a few weeks. Overhead, beneath an ultramarine blue sky, many trees branches are heavy with pods, like the the Mnondo (Julbernadia Globiflora) and the  Msasa (Brachystegia Speciformis).  Both have velvety, flat pods which will spiral when dry. Just don’t walk on them barefoot when they do – it’s as bad as it would be walking barefoot on a bucket of spilled Lego. The Mukwa trees (Pterocarpus anglosensis – now there’s a mouthful!) have lost nearly all their leaves and their strange, hairy, fried-egg shaped pods are exposed now.  The Mutamba (Strychnos Spinosa) is covered in fruit – unripe for now, but green and glossy, a hard, round, orange–sized shell encasing sweet and sour, fragrant flesh inside.

In the garden we’ve been preparing for the animals that will make their way in during the winter, building our own miniature fortresses around some plants.

Twig corrals to protect new trees. You can see the extension where the darker twigs end and the lighter begin. And if you’re wondering about the little one in the middle, that tree is being moved.

The new trees which were planted a few months ago have each had their own corral of woven sticks  to protect them from the bush buck. These have now been heightened, to protect them against the kudu who love to nibble the tops.  The guavas on our trees are ripe so we’ve picked a crop before the monkeys and the birds get the lot. I’ve stewed some for the freezer which will be a little tangy, sweet treat in the heart of the cold weather a couple of months from now.  The bird baths are being checked for cracks and mended if needed.  This year I am planning to put a water point in the wild bush-veld area right behind the house. I think the animals are going to need it more than usual.

The bush buck are particularly fond of my succulents and the poinsettia and a female has moved into the back yard, as one always does during these cooler months when the grass in the bush is less plentiful. Males come into the garden too – such a fantastic sight – but happily they don’t take up residence, only forage here and there, and mostly at night, when my dogs are safe inside. This suits me because bush buck males are very handsome but aggressive – although they do bark warnings at you if you venture out into the garden at night. 

I’m very handsome but obstreperous, so don’t disturb me while I’m snacking in your garden.

Guinea fowl too, fly into the garden for insects or the seeds I’ve put out. I like to watch them take their baths – flat on their stomachs on a newly-churned piece of soil and flapping their wings, they scoop great plumes of dust over their wriggling bodies. Apart from the occasional noisy outburst from the guinea fowl and the sweet call of doves, the garden now is not as filled with birdsong but if you walk around, you will see Bulbuls sorry Brownbuls (Yes you read it right, don’t get me started) and Drongos and a Barbet suddenly exploding out of a nearby bush will nearly give you a heart attack. It’s a quiet time for the birds and perhaps a more serious one at that, as the possibility of less insects looms.

Fluffed-up Barbet and a late morning Autumn sky.

That said, we’ve had a sudden rush of grasshoppers – more than usual at this time of the year.  I expect it’s because we’ve had a false start to the short Autumn;  the little April showers brought a flush of green to the grass and in the veld, many trees have pushed out green leaves.  Perhaps the grasshoppers thought spring had come but it’s more likely they are making the most of the unexpected bounty before the veld all dries up.  At this time of year too, we always get clouds of white butterflies – African Swallowtails and Pieridae, with a faint green tinge to their wings. They flutter amongst various blossoms to drink their fill. When the weather turns cold these will disappear but other varieties will take their place. 

Dry grass bales, early morning dew and that little flush of green, from the April showers.

On the farm, the grass has been baled in readiness for winter feeding for the cattle and the round straw bales look a bit like very fat cattle themselves. Round ones. Without horns. Or heads. Or tails. So, not really like cattle. Okay then. Rolling on. If you walk amongst the bales at dawn and dusk, you will see flocks of guinea fowl, who have young ones at foot right now. They scratch their way around the bales and make a great caterwauling of a noise when you approach to take their photo. They take off heavily, in dribs and drabs, and the ones who are left behind shriek with indignation and sometimes run back and forth in panic, as if, for a moment forgetting they too, can fly.

Late March sun setting on the bales of grass.

The sky is different now. The angle of the sun has changed.  Long shadows are cast in the late afternoon. Dusk arrives a little earlier, while dawn comes later each morning. The dawn chorus is less exuberant than it was at the height of summer and some of our summer visitors can’t be heard anymore.  

For a few seasons we’ve had swallows nesting in the garage and they stayed through a couple of winters. Every time we drove in and out, they would give their piercing little whistle and dart out into the sky, first just the pair and then four as the chicks fledged.  Now, the nests in the garage are empty. This time, I think the swallows have left.

Winter is on her way.

Whether or not you watch Game of Thrones, whether or not you know anything about it at all, I have this to say – the theme tune that has come out of it is, for me, quite simply magnificent. It was composed by Ramin Djawadi, an Iranian German composer, who has written themes for such notable films as Iron Man, Clash of the Titans, Westworld, Shakespeare in Love as well as arrangements for Pirates of the Caribbean — The Curse of The Black Pearl. Turn it up a bit and for a moment suspend yourself in a world of dragons and knights, brutality, bloodshed and intrigue. I think you can hear it all in the music.


			

April Shower

We’ve had a little April shower. Or two. I honestly think I heard my garden singing. It was such a relief from the heat and the unrelenting dry weather and rather like comfort food for the soul, after a rainy season that honestly never really happened.   It was good for the garden and for the crops where it fell, but still, alas, not enough to fill dams or get rivers flowing.  Still, walking out on soaking wet lawn, with the dust washed from the sky and dampened down upon the road, for now, made everything fresh. 

In the bush it seemed the birds were suddenly much noisier and the crickets chirpier than usual. A female bush buck and her baby could be seen standing under a canopy of dripping leaves as if having a shower and so could a rather precious baby rabbit that had ventured out, as if coaxed on by the smell of newly damp soil early in the morning.  Even just that little rain was wonderful, even having to wait for it till almost Easter, it was so welcome.

April bunny in the lands.

Unlike the northern hemisphere where Easter rolls in with images of Spring lambs bouncing around on great swathes of green grass and woodlands awash in bluebells and daffodils, here Easter is in late summer or, being in April this year, in Autumn. But not an Autumn as northerners know it; here it is less of a season and more of a pause – like a woman stopping at the back door before she goes out, to get her scarf, just a light one. In case she needs it.  Here we go from hot and hopefully wet summers, pause, and on to a dry, dusty, cold winter – which brings me on to a little rant.

(Oh dear, she’s off. You may as well pull up a chair. Here have a cup of tea while we wait it out.)

Don’t mind me – you know I can’t help myself…. I just find those overseas weather reporters so tiresome when reporting on African weather. In fact I wish they would stop because they never do their homework.  Just a few days ago there he is, I’m going to call him Eustace, the little -;  standing in a studio in front of a satellite image, bemoaning the “chance of rain” in Cape Town, Harare and Lusaka. Do you mind! We’re in the middle of a drought, I’m shouting at the television – just as I’m doing now – stop moaning about the rain! I don’t care if it’s in your DNA, to complain about it, Useless Eustace, we want the rain!

We want the rain. Usually the rains in December, January and February keep everything washed and wet. But not this year. This year, the air has been dust-dry, like a shower of utterly desiccated leaves showering the world with a million, choking particles. That and the heat have been hard to bear; as if someone trapped us under a giant glass dome under the burning sun.  Meanwhile, all we can do is look upward and hope for a change. Over and over, white wispy streaks of cotton cloud appear only to be burnt up or blown away. Some days those clouds look more promising than others. What can we do; keep watching the sky.

Cumulus gathering – only to fade away.

And what skies we’ve seen!

Painted sky.

All that dry, dusty heat kept combining in magical ways to make paintings in the sky of unbelievable colour and pattern. They’d literally never believe you if you tried to put them on a canvas. Ooh how unrealistic and unnatural they’d say.  Of course, there were the usual suspects; the orange and the pink, but often joining them,  was lilac, purple and splashes of crimson red.

A sky full of promise.

You have to be quick to catch a Zambian sunset for it is ephemeral and fluid; rather like waking up from a wonderful dream; there is that moment of clarity and then it’s gone. So too with the twilight sky. One moment and it’s already different. Winds change, dust particles rise, clouds drift apart . Tomorrow it may be beautiful again, but it will never be the same.

And looking up at the sky once more I see yet another change. The clouds have crowded together like a flock of curious sheep. They huddle even closer as the wind changes again. Something is coming. I smell rain. It’s another little April shower.

Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in may… so goes the old song and here to sing it in his deep and resonating bass, the wonderful, Al Jolson.

The Frog & Toad

I’m thinking of calling our house The Frog & Toad – we do serve good, ice-cold beer here, after all. Also, though it’s not unusual to get frogs in our house, just lately there seem to have been more than normal. They’re not noisy now – not like later in the year when the frog chorus is positively cacophonous. They just quietly appear in rooms, all over the house. Mostly they are quite ordinary-looking but some of them are quite astonishing. Here in Zambia there is quite an array of frogs and toads, with different patterns and colours, from brown and grey and spotted to I’d-rather-not touch-that-one.

We have a rather beautiful white frog in Zambia, probably one of the many kinds of tree frogs, according to my frog consultant. Yes I have one of those! This little chap has red legs and feet and can often be found clinging to a wall or bed post inside the house. He  can be quite tiny, no bigger than the first joint of my thumb.  If you move him and put him gently outside – which I do – it’s no use. The next time you go back into that room, there he is again, staring at you out of sleepy half-mast eyelids. I had a boyfriend like that once.  So it’s scoop him up, put him in a flower bed, return, repeat. You can do this all day if you have mind to. Or end up leaving him where he is although this is risky because of course he is much sought after as a snake-snack. But let’s not go there.

Little white frog crawling up the wall.

Frogs are great photo subjects. They don’t move away at once. Instead they blink up at you as if deciding if you are friend or foe. In my case, I don’t kill them, or dislike them like some people do. Still, I would rather they didn’t climb into my shoes though.

Which is what happened to my husband who had the uneasy experience of forcing his foot into a gum boot only to find it was already occupied.  The haste with which he tried to take his foot out again was only hindered by the tightness of the boot and all this accompanied by a sound I had not heard him make before. Once his foot was free, the frog hopped out and headed for another pair of unoccupied boots. Fortunately the frog had only just moved in because frog waste has an eye-wateringly bad smell and they do make a horrible mess of the dog’s drinking water – more of this in the Dog Blog.

Sleepy toad on the side of the pool.

Except for the platanna – the African Clawed frog – who is covered in a sticky mucous, most frogs are cool to the touch and damp, not slimy. You can feel his smooth skin if you trap one in between hops – his own, not yours – holding him carefully in your hand while you transport him to more desirable quarters – for you, not him. Let’s face it, left to his own devices Mr Frog would not only make himself quite at home in your living room, but would no doubt invite all his friends too.  And yes, we all know someone like that.

But getting back to the frog, as you carry him outside, you can feel his little heartbeat, 40 to 60 beasts a minute apparently. (Humans being more in the region of 60 to 100) You realise then that there are two kinds of people in the world, the ones who think about the heartbeat of the frog and the ones who think about their own.  I mean it’s all fine while he’s sitting quietly in the palm of your hand but if he makes a leap for it, all bets are off as to whose heartbeat speeds up the most.  

Little tree frog. Isn’t he pretty?

Meanwhile all this got me wondering… what is the actual difference between frogs and toads – apart from that the one is a handsome prince in disguise and the other is not? Well aside from size, it turns out the difference is in the skin, frogs being mainly smooth while toad skin is bumpy. That said, there are frogs with bumpy skin and toads with smooth. Seems even scientists can get themselves into a bit of a froth trying to work out the difference. Frogs tend to hop, and toads to crawl. Frogs tend towards longer legs, toads to shorter. Both can swell themselves up, not only to sing but when confronted by danger. Again, I’m sorry – but I literally know people like that!

Toad in a cool, dark pot on the verandah. And no, that’s not a potato beside him but a lovely smooth stone I picked up on a beach in South Africa.

One night in my kitchen, coming across a little amphibian on the floor, I decided to put him out, in case, you know, something else came looking for him. It was one of those which I didn’t quite want to touch so I bent to scoop him up in my husband’s hat – well, it was the nearest garment other than the ones I was wearing and quite honestly taking my jarmies off simply to transport a frog outside would be a bit much – not only for him, but all the other poor innocent, nocturnal creatures out in the back garden.  Anyway, as I bent towards him, something unexpected happened.  The little frog suddenly jacked himself up on his front legs, and at the same time, inflated himself to twice his original size. Then he screeched at me. It was ear-piercing and weirdly terrifying for a fraction of a second. Until the idea that a tiny little toad, no bigger than a matchbox, used his scare tactic on a giant – me – and it worked – got me giggling. It also made me think that any self-preserving serpent might be less – “ssuper ssupper” and more, “ssoo long, ssisster, I’m sscarpering!”

So what happened in the end to the little screeching frog in my kitchen? Well as it turned out, he obligingly hopped towards the back door so all I had to do was open it for him. Of course, in the morning I found him again – sleeping in the cosy and possibly pungent, heel of my trainer.

And as for that fab frog consultant of mine, here she is, one of my gorgeous nieces, with Princess the bullfrog. Follow the link below to see a truly fascinating story about Princess and the operation that saved her.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpermalink.php%3Fstory_fbid%3D2209677142459295%26id%3D129485527145144&width=500

Since it’s been all about frogs, it’s got to be Kermit the frog. Singing one of my favourite songs – from the movie of the same name, The Rainbow Connection.

Take Your Troubles to a Tree

Call me weird (at your peril; just a gentle warning) but sometimes I like to wrap my arms around a tree and lay my cheek against the bark. Mostly it’s rough, but not always, for trees are as different to one another as people are.

Trees are vital and beautiful. It’s no wonder that they have inspired music and poetry, perhaps the most famous being “Trees”, by American poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer, who, in 1913, wrote the immortal line, “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.”

Trees have their own character and each, a charm of their own. The huge Fig tree (Ficus) in our back yard, for example, gives the most wonderful, deep shade in Summer and not to mention the fruit so beloved by a myriad of birds and animals. She loses her leaves in winter but none of her powerful presence and I can’t help feeling she’s been here a very long time.  Standing smaller, beside her is a Cassia (Abbreviata) which has splendid long brown pods and gladdens my heart with his happy show of yellow blooms in September and October.

The Fig tree and the Cassia.

There is a Brachystegia woodland behind our house – both Mnondo and Msasa – which give us that spectacular springtime show, of fresh lime green leaves, slowing turning to gold and all the tawny shades of red.  Here in Zambia the show is over much sooner than in Zimbabwe, and often starts earlier too – so if you weren’t looking out for it in August and thought you might still catch it in September, sorry for that – you’re too late! 

Part of the Brachystegia woodland in the late afternoon.

In the front garden is an enormous Pod Mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis) with its almost perfect cylindrical trunk reaching up into a canopy of large grey green leaves and at times, big, shiny black pods.  This beauty has a very close neighbour who may prove the death of her; for a Fig has wrapped its powerful and suffocating arm-like trunk around the Mahogany. For now they co-habit but maybe one day, the Fig will smother her as he entwines her in his embrace.  I hope not. I hope they will live on into old age together, one tall and splendid, the other sinewy and beautiful.

I planted some Acacias in my garden, silvery-green thorn trees; not the tall, flat-topped one, so much an icon of Africa, inevitably photographed against a setting sun, but shorter, fuller and full of unused weavers’ nests right now. I’ve planted Dombeya (Wild Pear) and Bauhinia, so-named for its pretty, butterfly-shaped leaves. And a Kigelia Africana, or Sausage Tree, much loved by elephants. In case. Of elephants.

I recently discovered a way of estimating of the age of a tree – and no I don’t mean by cutting it down and counting the rings – which may be scientific but seems extreme – especially to the tree!  First you mark on the trunk of the tree, a measurement of 5 ft (1,50m) from the ground, and then at that point, you measure the circumference. Assuming that the tree in question grows one inch (2,5 cm) a year, you divide this number into the circumference.  Of course it is not completely accurate – for more accuracy you need to know the annual growth factor – how much that species grows each year. And I expect that also depends on where it’s planted. 

The beautiful Brachystegia in my garden which I decided to measure is on the edge of the lawn so it definitely gets more water than a completely wild specimen would get. It has incredibly long branches and a wonderful trunk full of whorls and knots, just so right for hugging.  What’s more, using the method described, I worked out that this beauty is 85 years old!

Old Lady Brachystegia in the early morning.

To me, there is something enormously comforting about a big old tree that has been on the earth longer than I have.   I imagine what it has seen in its lifetime and what creatures have sheltered beneath and in it, high in the canopy or low, deep in the bark.

Brachystegia trunk – hug this!

When I hear the noise of an axe on a tree in the bush my heart plunges because for me, it is truly one of the saddest sounds. Of course, there are many people who need firewood for their cooking and to keep warm. I believe all communities and operations that need firewood should be establishing sustainable plantations, rather than chopping down the wild trees which support so much inter-dependent life.

Under our wild trees I have seen bush buck sheltering when the sun is high. I have seen squirrels and monkeys leaping around the branches and I’ve heard owls calling from this wild, leafy sanctuary.  Most of the trees have been home to countless nests from which numerous chicks have hatched. And along one trunk in particular, I’ve seen caterpillars in a steady, crawling climb and heavy, drooping swarms of bees hanging beneath.

Trees keep us humble. They remind us we are small. They inspire us to stand firm to our beliefs and to be grateful for every day. And I believe you can lighten a troubled heart, if you take it to a tree.

I don’t mean dancing around it in the nude, chanting some new-age mumbo-jumbo;  oh no, too many grass seeds, insects and snakes for that!  Personally, I don’t fancy coming face to face with a cobra whilst naked. It might be offended.  So no dancing, and no nudity. Now, lean your head against a tree…wait, stop. Check for ants and other biting things first. You don’t need more troubles on top of the ones you’ve already got!  So to recap, keep your clothes on, check for insects and then lean your forehead against the trunk of a tree.

Now, breathe. There is a kind of enchantment in this, believe me.  You can take comfort from the power of a tree, her sap rising like an elixir of life, which magically you will feel in your own bones. Some trees will wrap you in a fragrance and you will hear the rustle of their leaves, as if in appreciation.  And because you are perfectly still, you may even hear the heart of the tree.  Go on, hug a tree. You might like it.

You can find the poem “Trees” on the Verse page and the beautiful voice of Paul Robeson singing the song of the same name.

This beautiful song, Two Trees, by Anne Reed, tells of a pair of trees who live side by side. There is much poignancy in this song for me because, for me, it is about being a wife and holding fast. It reminds me that we should not take our lives for granted. And that I am blessed to be celebrating more than 20 years of marriage, this week.

A Falconer in Zimbabwe

BY P. HEYMANS

I was chatting to a bunch of kids about falconry and one little girl put up her hand and asked me how it is that I claim to love birds if I hunt them with my hawks! It is a good question and no doubt one asked by plenty of adults especially these days now that the hunting debate is so sharply in focus.

The fact is, I was interested in birds, way before I even knew about the existence of falconry.

In 1982 I was fortunate enough, through circumstance, to come across the late Ron Hartley – the famed raptor biologist and falconer. Sceptical about falconry at first, I soon became witness to the incredibly strict set of self-imposed ethics this group adheres to. Ron was no exception and he was fastidious in his insistence that the birds come first – be it the hawks OR the quarry.

By name and by nature; Star – my Peregrine falcon.

There is a whole story to be told about the efforts of falconers who have been instrumental in what is arguably the greatest conservation success story of our time – the recovery, world-wide, of the Peregrine Falcon. Numbers had dwindled to perhaps unsustainable levels because of the use of DDT but were restored through captive breeding and hacking of young birds (hacking being the release of birds at a suitable stage, back into the wild) using falconry techniques which were age-old. The effort was almost exclusively maintained by falconers giving freely of their time and often at the expense of careers and even families simply because they cared enough that the Peregrine could not be allowed to disappear.

This attitude persists to this day. A current example is the captive breeding and release of the Houbara Bustard in the Middle East. This is an important quarry species for Arab falconers and the effort has been significantly funded and assisted by various falconry groups.

Falconry is most certainly not for everyone because it IS hunting. However, it is a kind of turbo-charged form of birding because there are the most incredible natural behaviours witnessed which would seldom be seen outside our world.

Who would know that each member of a covey of Coqui Francolin knows precisely the location of every single ant-bear hole in their territory and the fact that their escape path always takes them directly to the closest one and safety? Or that an arrow marked babbler will always come to the assistance of his comrade who has been taken by an avian predator? Guinea Fowl do the same thing for their chums. Broken wing acts are well documented in waterfowl. Francolin perform these also except that these mothers fly weakly and drop into cover once the predator has been drawn away from chicks. In the early season, the number of cock birds taken with a hawk, far outweighs what would be accepted as conforming to usual numbers and behaviour. Be it deliberate or not, cock birds very often are sacrificed when they flush early and draw the predator away from their covey of hens and youngsters.

And no bird books comment on Lanner Falcons utilising the head-on strike whilst Peregrines avoid them.

Star, executing a perfect take-off.

Many of the most spectacular flights I have been privileged to enjoy, have not resulted in a success for the predator, my falcon. Falconers always, have a strong sense of admiration for the myriad of escape techniques employed by all quarry species. The bottom line is that there is not an awful lot that is more spectacular than a falcon passing within a few feet of you, travelling at terminal velocity. However, there has to be a healthy population of equally cunning and skillful quarry out there to ensure that this kind of thing will keep on happening. The dynamic between the two groups of birds is nothing short of breath-taking!

Oh the inspiration of this voice – John Denver, and the power of this song – The Eagle and the Hawk. That’s all. Except, turn it up!

Photograph


Old photographs can really reach into your heart and give it a squeeze.  A photo is something of a portal to the past so I suppose a whole album could be considered a time machine!   Of course when times are tough you can go back to that photo, to that day in your memory, when life was only good – but that might be because you’ve forgotten the hardships you faced back then.

I think nostalgia is good for the soul, but like chocolate, probably best not over-done. For me nostalgia includes that one photograph which makes my heart silently huddle in the corner of the room and have a little cry, on the inside.  In this photograph are grass and trees and far, far away a blue horizon, and it is especially poignant – for it is a farm where I and my brothers, grew up.

It was here in this paradise lost that I first saw an ocean of grass, moving with the wind. Here my brothers rode motorbikes, occasionally hunted and trudged mile on mile, tracking lost falcons.  We watched waterfowl on the pan or reed-buck in the vlei and often, all together, covered great swathes of country on the back of the pick-up, the wind in our faces.  Or, staying mostly in sight of the homestead, I tramped the roadways and byways, picking up eye-catching stones or soft, downy feathers. Once I even walked home carrying a lost lamb which I found lying under a tree. (And by the way, it is a lot harder than it looks in pictures. Just a friendly warning. You know.  In case you come upon a lost lamb.)  While walking I was always sure I would find some treasure just around the next bend. Sometimes this turned out to be an unexpected patch of mud, or a thorn bush, or a sudden stumble over a tussock of grass. Rude word.

Msasa trees and the rolling grasslands of our beloved paradise lost, Eastdale Ranch, Zimbabwe.

And yet it is as well to think on this ; “the past is another country – they do things differently there “, words by English writer, L.P. Hartley. Some of those things “done differently” were good, but some of them, not so much. The past is important but if we are always looking back over our shoulder – we are bound to fall over something in front of us. Like a tussock of grass.

Still imagine how different life would have been if all the people we loved had never gone to live elsewhere.  Literally everyone I know has family who live in another country. Which means those people also have family living in another country.  And on and on. And now I think I might need a little lie down after working that out…

There is a word I hear these days – diaspora.  After research I find that it originates from the Greek diasporá, meaning “a dispersion or scattering,” found in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.  It first entered English in the late 19th century and described the scattering of Jews after their captivity in Babylonia, in the 5th century B.C.

Wait…….What?  Are you serious!   Can it really be that this moving and being forced to move, has been going on for millennia?   And here I was thinking it was a modern day condition and particularly applicable to our own continent.   After all, the great South African song writer and singer, Johnny Clegg, even penned the song “Scatterlings of Africa” which speaks to so many of us.

I hope wherever you live, you are home and your heart is content.  For to live in the past is to yearn for a place that no longer exists.  As for me, I am glad not to have scattered as far from the land of my birth as some.  I am grateful to still be on the continent that I must admit can drive me to despair, but that I always love.

And would you look at that…those tears I mentioned earlier seemed to have dried, my brain is already impatient with them.  I go to the window and look out. The lavender smells sweet on the breeze and I can see a cloud of butterflies among the grey stems. My heart lifts.  When I look at that old photo again, I am so very glad to have been there.  

And speaking of the great Johnny Clegg – here he is with Savuka, performing one of my favourite songs – Great Heart. It tugs a bit at the old heart strings but after all, I think that is why we have them


A note to you before you go – have a look at the page VERSE for a beautiful African song, dedicated to all those who have suffered from the recent cyclone. And next week, expect something different for I’ll be sharing a piece on falconry by one of those previously-mentioned brothers of mine…

In the Grass

At the bottom of my garden I don’t have fairies, I have wild grass, which to me in some ways, is almost the same thing. Have you ever stood in the long grass and just listened?  There is the usual insect drone, or the chirp of crickets but there are other sounds too I fancy, like secrets whispered in a language you half-remember from a dream you once had in your childhood. Yes. It’s quite possible I’m strange but what can I say, grass is stunning!

Grass is at once ethereal and earthy, a shape-shifter of sorts. Consider it; now languid, green and cool laid out beneath some great tree, now tall and rank, khaki heads nodding in agreement with each breeze.  When I walk in the bush I like to look at the grass; it’s quite astonishing how many different kinds there are and often growing side by side.  Grass is a living community, close-knit, even intimate; the soft, fluffy, pinkish seed head of Natal Redtop might lightly pat a furry frond of Timothy grass which in turn leans towards the rather aptly-named Crows-foot, with its talons of tiny seeds. Towering over them may be a sea of Hyperenia, used here and in Zimbabwe, for thatching. Then there is my favourite, Red grass or Rooigrass, as I grew up calling it. It has the rather beautiful Latin name of Themida Tiandra. I have an early memory of driving down a dusty road with my father, a cattle farmer, and him telling me its name. Perhaps that’s why I like it or perhaps because it’s spiky, like me.

Early morning sun on the long grass in my garden.

In May, we will have to cut the tall, wild grass in the garden. By then it will be brown and as the Zambian winter goes on, it will become tinder-dry; a real fire threat, especially when you consider it is just 100 metres or so from our thatched house. But for now, I can just enjoy it. And do.

Grass is miraculous. Burn it and it will return, greener and fresher than it was before. Renewed. In long grass too, there is a  magical world; perhaps a small, hairy caterpillar swaying on a single stem of it, or the sudden, explosive flapping from a francolin you’ve disturbed as you walk. Of course long grass may have hidden dangers too; possibly a snake you could inadvertently stand on or some wild animal that you haven’t noticed until you are too close for its comfort.  And yours. 

Here in my garden, I have come upon antelope and once, a shiny legavaan, that wonder of large lizards, who at sight of me, flung himself into the long grass as if he were an Olympic swimmer going for gold.  Once my heart had returned to normal, it struck me that if you were to judge by the speed of retreat, he got a much bigger fright than I did! Or perhaps he can just run faster.  More likely. I can’t run.  As the joke goes –

“I never run with scissors.

Those last two words were unnecessary.”

Two characters from that funny old series, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum! Don Estelle (Trooper Lofty Sugden) and Windsor Davies (Sgt Wilson) perform a perennial favourite of mine – Whispering Grass. This in memory of the indelible, wonderful Windsor Davies, who passed away in January this year, at the age of 88.

By the way, if you are enjoying the blog you can subscribe on the WordPress page and if you so choose, you can get notification by email when I post a new piece.  And as always, I love to hear from you!

Bird Music

Right now, Zambia is hot and a myriad of insects come out at night, so we sleep under a veil of white mosquito netting and a fan at night. In the morning, when I have my tea, I like to turn the fan off so I can listen to the sounds of the bush outside and the garden waking up. Dawn has not yet broken and for just a moment there is utter silence before you become aware of the high drone of insects, more of a vibration than a noise, a constant hum, the rubbings-together of a 1000 wings. But it is the birds I am waiting for.

A couple of mornings ago, this early-morning insect orchestra was uplifted by two of my favourite bird calls. First came the pensive, drifting, flute-like whistle of a Fiery-necked nightjar, a sound that resonates way back in the memory streams of my childhood.   And then, oh glorious, the low, tuba boom of a Giant Eagle Owl. Whenever I hear it, I feel that sound reverberating through my bones and in my very soul. I imagine hares and other creatures crouch motionless or scurry for safe holes when they hear it.  How beautiful it is;- and how glad am I that my very small jack Russell is snuggled up safe beside me and not out there. (And so is she, by the way, if you are to believe this week’s Dog Blog).

As the sky lightens, my personal alarm clock rings out, an adorable Heuglin’s Robin, who flies to the creeper outside my bedroom window to sing his precious heart out. Like his European cousin he too has a lively, bright eye as he catches sight of me. I believe he is now called a White-browed Robin Chat.  Still, in Latin, I see he is Cossypha Heuglini, so I for one, am quite happy to call him by his old name. Just what is it with scientists and their annoying inclination to change the perfectly good name of a bird or a plant! I can’t help wondering if it isn’t just plain vanity sometimes; Ooo-look-at-meee-I-have-a-much-better-name-for-it! And have you noticed, how often they actually don’t? Me too! Oh well.  Regardless of which name the little fellow goes by, his song is as melodious as ever and his timing always within 5 minutes of the day before and the one before that. Pretty wonderful alarm clock don’t you think?

Meanwhile in another part of the garden, the weaver birds have been frantically busy for the last few months, with nest-building. A weaver’s nest is another of Nature’s wonderful works of architecture, so many blades of grass and stripped leaves, painstakingly woven into a beautiful dwelling. And some of them even lined with pieces of lint and soft materials. Imagine the hours it takes and the tireless effort, every thread to be collected individually, every nest a tapestry of hundreds of threads. I can’t help feeling how truly, utterly astonishing they are; all that work and the architect has only a beak to work with!

In the garden we get plenty of the masked weavers, well-known for their yellow coats and black eye masks, but we also get the little red-headed one.  Some time ago, one of these took a great dislike to my husband’s vehicle and motorbike… in fact any shiny surface which seemed to show he had competition in the area.  He would sit and peck furiously at the car wing mirrors and windscreen, and chirp, and flutter his wings in agitation.  He was so intent on his own world of annoyance – gosh can I just relate – he really wasn’t bothered by us creeping up to take photos. He wanted to have his little tantrum and nothing was going to stop him! And yes, I can relate to that too….

Red-Headed Weaver Protests.

If you’ve got a moment, watch this clip. Music by birds, by not in the way you might think. I for one, will never look at birds on a wire in quite the same way again.

Mother Earth & Father Time

Most days my glass is half full. Then there are Those Days. You know the ones; when a whole handbag of everyday troubles smack you in the face and dealing with them makes you want to curl up in a corner and wail. Of course that’s the kind of self-indulgence that our grandmothers would have scorned flat.  “Add more lipstick and attack”, was advice attributed to that icon, Coco Chanel, which is a fine sentiment as long as you haven’t run out of lipstick. And is it your colour, ma chère?  That said, it does strike a chord in me, a woman of a certain age.

“He turns the Seasons around so she changes her Gown” are words from a song in the animated film Charlotte’s Web and sung by Charlotte, a rather inspirational spider growing older with a lot more grace than I can muster.  She is speaking of that eternal duo, Mother Earth and Father Time who, like good parents encourage and nurture us and all the while they are letting us go; that is go, grow, glow, grow older, grow grey.  

When I was young I honestly thought I would go grey gracefully (Ironic laughter) but when I first saw it in my hair I thought, you must be joking Sunshine! And I don’t care that interior designers go mad for grey – yet another thing in that ever-expanding Book of Things that Irritate Me – grey is simply not a colour. And by the way, you do realise that all those ugly, wicked and grey step mothers in fairy tales are simply menopausal women, don’t you?  Faced with such sweet, smooth-skinned, perky little princesses, I am not really surprised they give in to their dark side. Still, it turns out that going grey is just the least of it as I have found with middle age creeping in. Actually it was less of a creeping and more of a jump out from behind the dressing-table mirror, scaring the hussy out of me and most of the living colour out of my hair, actually.  After a few months of that high-octane body heat that only the middle aged woman can understand, I decided to put it on paper in the form of a poem.  (Go to Verse on the main menu, if you’d like to read it.)

In truth, I know I am one of the lucky ones, not only for my abundant blessings but also for that half-full glass I believe in.  And when life seems set to really get me down, I go out into the garden because even though she is partly responsible for my middle-age rage, Mother Earth can always soothe me with many, unexpectedly beautiful things. Like an open rose or a bird’s nest newly hanging from the eaves.

A Beautiful Thing.

I came upon a stunning piece of natural architecture one morning, a spider’s web of enormous proportions and every one of its shining filaments woven into an intricate wonder. There were signs of escapees, perhaps birds, that had flown through, but mostly it was still intact. Not being one of those who are particularly afraid of spiders, I looked hard for the artist but she was nowhere to be found.  I would love to tell you which species built this web, but let’s just call her Charlotte, of the species, Incius Wincius. Let’s face it wincius is the least you do when you inadvertently walk through one. As for me, finding the remnants of a web clinging to my face, I suddenly find I have an untapped talent for karate, with arms rapidly chopping the air, accompanied by a small shout.  I always think seeing a spider’s web before walking into it is just one of my happy little blessings.  And not just for me. Charlotte is probably pretty happy about it too.

Have a listen to Charlotte, voiced by the fabulous Debbie Reynolds. (Film based on the poignant children’s book Charlotte’s Web, by E.B White.)

Welcome to my world, won’t you come on in?

Those are the words of an old song and they sum up quite nicely thank you, what my blog will be about. Here on the farm we have routines and the seasons move on inexorably, and as country people, we had better keep up or fall behind.  Sometimes the season drags its feet as it did this past December, when we kept searching the bright, blue sky for the rain which was supposed to arrive before Christmas, and didn’t come till January. The rain when it came, was almost the cliché it has become on those wildlife documentaries that they love to make about Africa, where all the animals are constantly waiting for water to fall. Yawn.  It’s not that the rain isn’t vital… it’s just there really is more to Africa than waiting for rain! And while we’re on this subject don’t get me started on that song about blessing the rains down in Africa as that is the only reference to them and the song is about something else entirely. But, as is usual these days, I’m losing my train of thought…where was I… oh yes…

One morning after rain had fallen (cue angelic choral music) I saw a beautiful chameleon.  We get quite a few in the garden but this one was drinking from one of my birdbaths and that is a thing I had never seen before. She took no notice of us as she quenched her thirst. She was a beautiful green and on her nose, a brown mark. Was it a scar or was it something else? We settled for perhaps a patch of dried mud which seemed to suggest some digging.  That’s what made me think it was a she, for chameleons lay their eggs in the ground; a thing I only found out recently from one of my brothers.  When she had finished I carefully moved her when the dogs weren’t watching. I’d have hated them to damage her although like many humans around here, they are rather wary of these creatures. Superstitions abound on this continent, about the chameleon and perhaps considering those swiveling eyes and the ability to change their clothes, it’s not that surprising. Personally I love them and the way they cling on to your finger when you move them out of harm’s way is nothing short of amazing – those small feet are strong and cool and once carefully set down in some safe location, the chameleon can really move it. Oh dear…I hear another song coming on in my head (hello ear worm) so I’m going to shut up now. Until next time.   

My favourite version of “Welcome to my World” by the incomparable Elvis Presley.