Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Monday, 23 February 2015

Law of the farm number 26: “If you want to eat lamb you must be prepared to see blood.”

(this episode in our lives was also the subject of a short TV documentary)

December last year was the first time that I have slaughtered a goat. I have killed chickens and fish. I have even shot antelope from the comfortable distance of a rifle’s range, but to get up close and personal with a warm blooded, living breathing mammal is a whole different thing. I don’t enjoy killing. I am sure there are very few mentally balanced people that do. I have however come to see that I am an omnivore, and that my family before me for hundreds of thousands of years (probably longer) have eaten meat as part of their varied diet. Every time I look at my dogs, they are to me a living, breathing reminder of how their species and mine have walked a long way together and have formed each other and shaped what we have become. Someone told me once that humans
The Ibhoma Under Construction
domesticated dogs 20000 years ago, while we were all hunter gatherers. (even before we invented agriculture). After the dog, we apparently took another 10 000 years before we thought of domesticating the next animal: the cow. The point being, that despite recent popular tendencies toward vegetarianism, eating meat and dealing with the animals that provide it, has been part of our ancestor’s routine for a very long time. It is within this perspective, that I came to say to myself, if I am going to eat meat; I must have the courage to kill. It is always easy to avoid doing the killing myself. The supermarket, the restaurant and the fast-food outlet, make it easy. Together they conspire to make eating meat a light thing.
But the story of how I came to slaughter this goat requires a little explaining. You see, my son Litha, at the age of 18, decided to follow in the tradition of his mother’s ancestors and to become circumcised in the 1000 year old Xhosa tradition. The tradition, I am sure has evolved and grown over the years, but in its current form in our region, it involves a 3 week retreat, which begins on the day of the circumcision. Litha’s retreat was on our farm, where he lived in an Ibhoma,  a rough made shelter his brother, cousins and uncles put together for him the week before. The location was secret and not visible from any road, house or public thoroughfare. In that time in the bush Litha had no clothing (he had to make do with a rough woollen blanket); he had no electricity, running water, TV, cell phone or contact with the outside world. A great privilege in fact and the kind of retreat I would encourage every young man to go through.
We have co-evolved with dogs 
In the Xhosa tradition, male circumcision is a rite of passage. You go into the bush a “boy” and you come out a “man”. The boy literally leaves his childhood behind, with all his boyhood possessions burnt in the bush on the day that he leaves. The new man leaves the bush stony faced, not permitted to look back at his boyhood in flames behind him. Of course on the day that Litha returned home, there was a massive feast called an Umgidi. There was a lot of meat (and booze) at this celebration, but none of it involved me having to draw blood myself. We had professional butchers deal with all of that.

The goat, that is the subject of this story met his end two weeks before the great homecoming as part of a small celebration in the bush called Omojiso, or literally “roasting of meat”. This function signifies a milestone in the stay in the bush where the Umncibi (traditional surgeon) is happy enough with the healing process to permit the boy to come off the very strictly limited diet of the first week after the procedure. Kind of like “nil per mouth” the hospitals enforce with certain critical cases in their care.
Its surprising how little we actually  need to survive
Going into this complex and meandering process, I had made a very conscious decision.  I am not a Xhosa man I do not pretend to be a Xhosa man. I quite respectfully have no interest in becoming a Xhosa man.  I am interested though, in do what I need to do to facilitate my two sons’ becoming Xhosa men, if that is their choice. So it transpired that I found myself in the curious situation in the bush, at Pebblespring Farm, officiating over a Xhosa function called Omojiso.
Tradition requires that a goat be slaughtered to mark this occasion. While I could very easily have passed the task of killing the animal onto anyone of the junior Xhosa men assembled there on that day. I opted rather to show my full participation in Litha’s chosen path by taking the animal’s life myself. We had bought the goat two days before from a farmer about and hours’ drive from us. It was a beautiful young brown male goat. I chose the goat myself out of the herd that was corralled for the purpose of being chosen by people like me, for events like the one we required a goat for. I had no hesitation in pointing out this young brown male when the farmer asked me to choose. We secured the goat by its horns at the end of a long rope in the middle of a bush pasture and there the goat spent its last days and hours peacefully foraging, sleeping and generally dong what goats do. In the morning of the Omojiso,  the speeches and introductions went quite quickly and soon came the time I had been anxiously dreading. The goat was held down by two other men, I drew then knife I had sharpened carefully the night before. I cut first through the windpipe with the sound of the air escaping surprised me, then further into the neck striking the arteries releasing the blood to flow. There was still life in the body, as an older man showed me to cut deep in between the neck vertebrae severing the spinal cord till the body lay limp losing the last of its blood. I felt relieved that it was over. I felt the heaviness of taking this life. I felt good that I had able to play my role as a father and physically and demonstrably support my son in a path that he had chosen to walk.
All in the family

The goat was cooked there and then in pots that had been placed on the fire for this purpose. Litha was able to eat the meat he had been looking forward to after a week of bland dry rations. The two weeks after the Omojiso went quickly. Litha healed well and return triumphant two weeks later to jubilant groups of friends and family. Litha I am sure learned many lessons in the bush, but I too came away a wiser man. I learned about the heaviness that comes with supporting my children and those I love in pursuits that cause me to fear for their safety. I learned that my son is a surprisingly strong a resilient man. I learned what it means to kill a goat.
I know it is an obvious fact and that everybody knows that to eat meat, an animal must die. But sometime you need to wield the knife yourself and feel the warm blood on your skin for it to sink in. What other blood do we have on our hands? What is the price that must be paid to run electricity through all of our homes, heating our bathwater and lighting up out plasma screens? At what price to the carbon levels in the atmosphere? At what price to we commute to work every day, causing oilfields to be drilled or deserts to be fracked and wars do be waged? At what price do we employ domestic workers at near slave wages? What of their children, what of their families, their hopes and their dreams? The bread that you eat  from barren wheat field of toxic monocultures that spread over the horizon on every direction in the Western Cape and Freestate; where before active soils, and communities of plans and animals supported stable ecosystems that remained in balance for thousands of years? There is a lot of blood out there and there are very few of us that have hands that are not stained by it.
The goat sees its end

So I encourage you, wherever you can, whenever you can, to get as close to the brutal truth of your lifestyle as you can. Do this as a test to see if it is not too heavy for you to carry. Because no matter how you try, no matter how modern urban living tries to shield you, you cannot escape the Law of the Farm number 26: “ If you want to eat lamb, you must be prepared to see blood”.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Law of the Farm number 4: You are not the first person to plant a lemon tree

Hlubi and I this weekend visited “Babylonstoren, a beautiful wine farm somewhere between Paarl and Stellenbosch. It has beautiful vineyards and fine examples of historic Cape Dutch architecture, but more than anything else, it is the gardens that leave a lasting impression. The three hectare garden is expansive and is set out as a long rectilinear grid and irrigated with a water channel that runs along is length down the gently slope.
Annuals and Perennials, Fruit, vegetables and Herbs
The gravel pathways form blocks which frame different zones of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs and flowers. It is a beautiful place, but at the same time is a fully functional, productive garden producing the highest quality produce for the three restaurants and shop on the site. The gardener is highly knowledgeable, as have been the gardeners that took care of gardens just like Babylonstonern in the cape since the time on the Company Gardens in Cape Town in the 1600s. The point of course is that gardening is not something new. People have been perfecting this art for thousands of years. Each generation of gardeners has worked to make slight improvements and modifications to the work of the previous generation. No successful gardener has ever plunged themselves into an open field armed with only muscles and a spade. Of course effort is the key ingredient. But in as much as Law of the Farm Number 3 is true when it says that reading about sheep does not make you a shepherd, it is also true that there is a huge volume of information available to be passed on about any conceivable subject, including becoming a shepherd and including planting a garden.

The central gravel access path

At Pebblespring Farm, I have planted one or two lemon trees, but I simply don’t have 10 years to wait to see if this particular variety grows well in the particular spot I have chosen for it, with its particular soil and moisture characteristics. To short cut this process, I talk to other gardeners, I read books, I Google, I travel to Cape Town and visit places like Babylonstoren. Why? Because its all been done before and if I am thorough in my research, I will be sure to able to take advantage of the learning hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of lemon tree planters across the world. By playing my cards right I can obtain the power and clarity that would otherwise only be available to me if I had lived for many generations.
An abundance of texture and colour
This is of course true whether I am interested in planting lemon trees, learning the art of Kung Fu or the craft of knitting a jersey. Invariably what we are trying to do has already been done, and if we look hard enough we are able to find the stories of those that have done it. I have seen though in my own life, that finding the information is not difficult. What is often difficult for me is that, faced with the huge quantity of available information, the process of trying to consume it becomes all consuming. The balance between research and action becomes distorted and I end up binging on information: books, movies, travel, blogs tweets and Facebook pages. In the same way perhaps as the obese load up with so much energy giving food that they eventually become so heavy that they are not able to move to use up the energy, causing them to become immobile and to the point where the only action they are capable of is to take in more food.
My view then is that we must rather be led by action than be led by research. Let us push forward with our mission to the point where we can see that we can no longer advance because of our lack of knowledge. We will know when we have reached this point because a question will begin to formulate in our mind. We will start digging the hole for the lemon tree, and a question will begin to formulate. “How deep should this hole be?” Once we know the question, it’s quite easy for us to know where to look and to find the answer. The research then directs our next action. We dig the hole to the required depth only to be faced with the question of soil preparation. Should we fill the hole with compost, or should it be manure? Do we need to increase the acidity; do we need to make it more alkaline? As we proceed in our action, we are prompted in research. The research then  prompts us into further action. It sounds obvious I know, but actually what I am suggesting is completely in contradiction to our contemporary education system which at very least creates the impression in people’s minds that education and training is what happens in that part of your life before you start working. So, we” frontend” twelve or seventeen years of schooling into a young life at an age where working is frowned upon and even illegal. Once this stage is over, we enter our working lives where research is most often seen as a diversion or a destructive waste of time to the point where Google may be disabled on your company PC.
But don’t worry about all of that. Rather you just be sure that:
·         Number one, you know your mission.
·         Number two, you take the first step.
·         Number three, you recognise when you are stuck,
·         Number four, you find answers to the questions required to get you unstuck.
·         Then proceed, re-check to be sure that you are still on mission and repeat steps one to four.

You can’t go wrong!

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Law of the farm number 24: Some low life will steal you chainsaw.

After this month’s livestock auction on Saturday morning, we stopped off at the farm on the way home. I noticed that the front door of the cottage, which is off its hinges for painting, was lying flat on the floor of the cottage. Normally it’s propped up in the door frame. It had been quite windy on Friday so, I dismissed it, but could not help to feel a little suspicious. I unlocked the store room, immediately looking for the chainsaw. I looked high and low scratching through boxes and unlikely places in some kind of denial and disbelief.  It is nowhere to be found. Mandoza says he last used it on Thursday. He suspects the casual labourer that we employed the week before. A guy called “Sticks”

The door to the storeroom was not forced open, it had been opened with a key and the key had been returned to its normal hiding place. Mandoza thinks that Sticks may have seen the hiding place for the keys. Anyway, I am really upset. I am angry that we have thieves moving around on the farm, I am angry with myself for not being more vigilant with security and I am worried that I now have to find money to replace this piece of equipment that I really liked. In this soup of emotions that are now still floating through my brain as I write this on Monday morning in the coffee shop just up the road from my office. As I sit here in the smoky interior with the familiar seventies music soothing softly in the background, I struggle to remind myself of Law of the farm number 24: “Some low life will steal your chainsaw” Or as some American hippy once said “shit happens”. The mongoose will eat your hens, the bubbler in your Tilapia tank will fail, ticks will infest your cattle. These setbacks are constants. They will happen. The extent to which they happen and the degree of damage they cause may be variable, but they will happen. I try to console myself with the truth of this law. It helps a little, but maybe tomorrow I will be OK. Maybe tomorrow I will come to see that we have become softened by the illusion of comfort offered to us by our lives. Perhaps I will come to see that we are lead to believe that nothing can go wrong. Everything happens at the flick of a switch. Even here in South Africa, and especially if you are urban and middle-class, you may go through very long periods of time where nothing ever goes wrong. The bottle store never runs out of beer, the soccer is on the television every Saturday, the mall keeps it opening times as advertised and the lotto draw happens as scheduled every weekend. When things go wrong, they are small, they are temporary and we are shielded from the crisis, by layers of government and corporate structures. When the farmer’s potato crop is destroyed by a swarm of locusts, we somehow magically still get our Lays lightly salted from the all night convenience store. The massive corporate chain makes sure they import potatoes from some other part of the province or some other part of the world, we do not so much as notice a difference in crispness of our favourite snack. 

Everything we consume is in this way filtered to be free of risk, to the extent that when our restaurant scrambled eggs aren't exactly the correct degree of softness, we feel completely obliged and entitled to feel miserable and to throw a tantrum. What I am saying is that governments and corporations have very effectively come to create the illusion that rule of the farm number 24 does not exist. It does. Some low life will steal your chainsaw, and the sooner you (and I) wake up an begin to live and plan our lives according to this law, this non-negotiable constant, the sooner we can be more closely aligned with the way things work. Delusion may be comfortable, but making peace with the brutal truth brings us into closer union with the universe and its laws. And in this way we make ourselves free, not by selling ourselves into slavery to pay for the cost of the triple insurance premiums of comfort, safety and security.