Morning coffee on the Limpopo. Two old people, perched impossibly high on a granite slab (how DID they get there?), looking out over the first wintery sun on the river, reminiscing. My father, 81, and his sister, my godmother, 87. The setting: Samaria, her family’s game farm in the very north of South Africa on the Limpopo river, home during winter holidays for over 80 years. Today the farm is part of the Mapungubwe National Park, a world heritage site for reasons geological, archaeological and cultural. Not to mention one of the most stupendously beautiful places in the world to watch game and study trees – or veldt flowers, the opportunistic wildings of a harsh climate.
Somehow these pictures of my father and godmother seem an appropriate place to start saying what I want to say, for the passing of time and the importance of human communication are important markers in these thoughts: we start with the printing press, and all the history of the Age of Enlightenment which followed. The importance of colour printing can not be under-estimated, nor the huge advances in the field over the last 30 years. I have before me, here on the Limpopo, a copy of Margery Fish’s book Cottage Garden Flowers. Published 49 years ago, it contains not a single colour picture and only 36 b&w photographs.
The Dustcover (photographed on the very same table the octogenarians are sitting on) tries to make up for this lack: it is Über Cottage Garden! And anyone over 50 can remember gardening magazines which contained fewer than one third colour photographs…
Colour photography… 15 years ago I spent 6 months in Europe, mainly studying UK gardens. On my first visit to Sissinghurst, a dream come true, I took exactly 17 slides. My budget was limited and film precious. Over 3 visits in 3 seasons I might have taken 70 photos – from which in due course will follow the long promised Sissinghurst post. During that visit I enquired on the progress in digital photography: it was used at vast expense for specialised passport photography only, I was told. Wait five years… I bought my first laptop that day from the same salesman – black and white, for who needed colour?
And with relatively cheap cameras we can take close-ups that would have demanded very sophisticated outfits just ten years ago… (My cousin will be emailing me earlier views, taken in April, when the veldt was quite pink with these flowers after the late rain and the dry summer – no-one can quite remember taking note of them during the last 60 years; where did the seed come from? How long had they been waiting for just the right opportunity to dominate the landscape so thoroughly? And what are they called? Work there for Jack to research…)
Then we send those photographs out into the big wide world via cyberspace… and so I come to share across the world, for no clear-cut reason, on my blog a tiny, tiny wilding from a huge landscape – and many a flower is NOT born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air… (I’ve checked the books I’ve brought along. There is no internet as I write. The one above – 7mm in diameter – remains a mystery. Might the pink one be Hermbstaedtia linearis? It’s a long shot…)
Why this post? Why this title? First the second part: well, why not? And well – I’m a little behind with blogging, both in time and in scope. I WANT to achieve more! As for the first part, reading Margery Fish (toilet reading, a chapter at a time) has made me aware of how a garden writer like Mrs Fish, one of the great classics of the 20th century, is extinct as a published author. I read half a dozen posts per week, beautifully written AND illustrated, which share in the way she shared. Thoughts around a theme; chatty sharing of intimate plant knowledge; a shared passion indulged. The democratisation of knowledge which started over 500 years ago.
And so I sit in an ancient landscape, where the Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe Cratons collided 2700 million years ago as the earliest continents formed, and I am surrounded by the specialisation of eons of evolution. There are 1700 species of trees in South Africa, and I wonder how many hundred grow on Samaria. How many shrubs? Grasses? Herbs? How many wildings that have never been described and named? How many garden worthy plants unknown in gardens? Where lies the future – and what might happen to knowledge as it becomes more and more freely available?