Saturday, February 16, 2008

You can't go home again*

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

mostly TS Eliot - Four Quartets

I am having trouble with memory.

Vince and I drove onto Leisure Island, after we had crossed the same narrow causeway crossed for so many years by me at so many ages, balanced on either side by shallow reeds and mudbeds (where days later we would tread, I for the first time - having always stayed with the white sandflats and turquoise water, not these backroads of the estuary - in Vince's literal footsteps, escaping the horror movie swarms of mudcrabs I had never known existed), driving past the Green Pools, me telling Vince as much as one can in sentences about my childhood summers on this little flat, quiet island, the small waves that scared me at night so that I threw my bears out of bed to summon my mother up the stairs, the grandfather I never knew who fished the lagoon in his boat, his solo car going down a ramp built by his friends because he had had his legs amputated...This place of history and happiness.

I said to him, One should never try to go back.

And he took me literally and said, We don't have to stay here. Thinking that unhappiness might lurk in the memory of things past, more recently maybe than I was travelling. But I had been self-conscious about my rambling stories, my constant repetition of, That never used to be there, or This all used to be forest, or Everything has changed.

I wrote this on a piece of paper late one night after we had come home and after we had had a dinner and shared a bottle of wine in a sanitary block of building that covered what used to be a milkwood grove and sweet outdoor restaurant in a garden of hibiscus hedges where an old lady had baked delicious cakes and cooked for one's lunch musselcracker, which fishermen brought to her from the reedy side of the lagoon. I was trying to write about Knysna, or more specifically, Leisure Island:

the kind of place
where annuals are planted
one day a bed will have been cleared
and small bedding annuals
will have been ranked
and watered
flowers for summer

in the dark
the black oyster catchers call
left to right, and right to left
above the sound of the small waves

the men on the sand at night with a light
a threat that visits again in nightmare

the houses on the hills corrupting memory
and destroying hope
in one preordained architectural and municipal blunder

the lagoon is precarious, I say
on its knees, says Vince

the milkwoods chopped to broaden the view
the seahorse never found

Well, that's what I wrote and I felt a sort of despair that was new to me. Not a personal one, but a larger one, for a place representing a country that is crumbling and a picture too broad and complicated to be painted. Of poverty stalking sweet memory too closely for the memories or desire to return to be valid, of developement and expedience and money and corruption. Of tourism poisoning what it has come to see.

But we still snorkelled at high tide in the risen lagoon and saw fish circling us. We saw the pair of oyster catchers every day with their two babies hidden in the reeds, now exposed, now submerged by the fluctuating tide. We saw the hermit crabs and the ripples of sand on the lagoon floor, bare half the day, under water the next. We swam in the deep green pools on an incoming tide. We slept with the French doors wide open to the lagoon and little road that circles the island. And we saw the flocks of gulls and terns at Noetzie, even as the forest and pure hills are hacked to be built on by the developement whose name has come to symbolize for me Monster and End: Pezula. Its roads and electric fences, its guards and gates over once-public paths, and helipad and houses on the hills, populated by the unmemoried rich, by Federer - the inheritors of what was unique and what is now all that is left.

You go somewhere to say to someone, This is who I am. But when you find it, it is no longer there, so you must say, Some of this is who I was.

* Thomas Wolfe, 1900 - 1938, his posthumously published 1940 novel, You Can't Go Home Again


  1. I love the picture and "some of this is who I was"... Now it's who I was too... :-)


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