Learning the language of the forest

By Time of article published Nov 21, 2011

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WHEN we think of “heritage”, we probably think first of culture, often failing to link those cultures to the natural environments in which they developed.

I am an urban dweller, with my patch of ground in the suburbs. But I chose to live next to an urban gem, the reserve of Pigeon Valley in the Durban suburb Glenwood.

I don’t own it, or need to own it (although some friends suggest that I act as if I do). It is owned by the eThekwini metro, and thus the people of Durban.

I spend much of my time in there, finding and taking out invasive plants that would otherwise smother its diversity, or just walking or sitting.

Here are about 100 species of locally indigenous trees, in a mere 10ha of land. For comparison, the entire British Isles have, by most counts, 33 indigenous tree species.

One of my favourite spots is an immense Natal fig, under whose spreading branches is a remarkable range of emerging trees.

One species is the rare Natal elm, which grows from the deep shade to become a great tree supported by buttresses that reach out from the base.

This urban setting is its home, with probably most of the South African trees of this species in this little reserve, although it can also be found, always sparsely, into the tropics.

As it comes into fruit, crowds of thick-billed weavers work their way through the low-hanging branches, leaving precious few fruit to ripen – when they do, it is sweet and cherry-like.

Recently I saw a grey-headed bush-shrike moving on its branches, with its strange snipping alarm sound.

Here is also the Natal loquat, with its wide leaves and spindly white flowers that emerge in summer, spilling their fragrance into the air.

This variety is plentiful in the reserve, but is found in only two other reserves, except where it has been cultivated.

Here is the beautiful fluted milkwood, with its straight but fluted stem that creates deep fissures. On occasion you may see emerge the Pondo rock gecko, its immense brown eyes peering at you. In spring, the visitor may turn a corner to see the shower of white blooms enveloping the September bells (Rothmannia globosa).

By this time, the spotted ground-thrush, an engaging and endangered bird, will have left after its winter visit, and the young of the fearless black sparrowhawk will be making its first forays for prey, slicing unerringly through the maze of trees.

Now, heat after rain triggers the emergence of Alates, the winged “flying ants”, food for any number of birds, insects and mammals – I have sat and watched as maybe 25 species of birds crowd to plunder the riches this brings, becoming casual despite my presence, while a slender mongoose hides as close as it can in the grass to take its share.

This wealth coincides with the breeding of many bird species.

Today I saw a white-eared barbet peer from a hole in a dead tree, possibly a helper to the adult parents on the eggs; while at the end of a perilously thin strand of creeper a dark-backed weaver is at its nest, its belly an intense yellow, giving its evocative creaking-gate call.

I write as an observer of nature, but I am also formed by what I observe.

I know that not everyone who enters the park notices what I notice. It takes time to learn the language of the forest – the shapes, sounds, scents, textures – and that language becomes part of one’s culture.

I think of the herbalist who told me of learning to identify 400 species of trees and plants from a leaf or a root.

It is no surprise that umuthi refers to both medicine and tree – our pharmaceutical knowledge is largely what we know of the chemicals that plant life offers us.

These forms of knowledge inform and enrich the notion of African identity.


When I see Durban gardens with their conventional garden imports, bamboo palms and the like, and never the showy yellow extravagance of a Natal plane, the brilliance of the blood lily, or the variety of colours of new growth on the forest bushwillow, I cannot help but see this as a rejection of such an identity.

A commitment to the local species is a commitment to where we are. It requires a particular ethic.

Last Christmas Day, I heard some movement by the fence of the reserve.

Down a bank from the road, the municipal groundsman on duty that day was working to remove litter, while others were celebrating with food and drink.

No one was there to check whether he was doing his job.

His steady work communicated to me an ethic of care and respect for this place.

l Crispin Hemson is director of the International Centre of Non-Violence.

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