Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thank you, 2016

Looking back, through the lens of a small handful of pictures, this selective record of 2016 helps to put a year in perspective. Some of the best things are reflected here: lessons learned, drinks drunk, crops cultivated, walks taken, forages found, gardens grown.

This curated version of a life: Is it dishonest? Would it be more relevant to capture the bad things, like my father's vascular dementia, my mother's worry, my husband's 10 to 12 hour work days, the unpredictable and stressful noise from neighbors, our families who are, to say the least, complicated?

My answer is that the rosy perspective of my edited digital record keeps me sane, and reflects moments of real happiness within the context of the messy life that is probably typical of the lives that most humans lead.

Through it all my steadiest and best companion has been the Frenchman, who remains the light of my life, quietly in the background, moving heaven and earth on a daily basis.

For the new year, I would wish Frenchmen upon everyone. But since there may be a shortage, my wish instead would be to develop or nurture a sense of curiosity. With it you will never be alone, never bored, often surprised, and frequently delighted.

Onward. And strength in the struggle. Whatever it may be.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Table Mountain pilgrimage: disa-bound

Recently my friend Marijke and I met at Kirstenbosch to hike up Table Mountain by way of Skeleton Gorge. At 6.30am the security guards allow only Botanical Society members in, and the actual garden turnstiles are kept wide open for hikers and runners. I find this a beautiful testimony to a way of life I could happily lead. This mountain, a botanical hotspot in the middle of a teeming city of 3.7 million people, is extraordinary.

This is the green, eastern flank of a mountain whose iconic north face is much better known. The knobbly rock on the left is Castle Rock; Skeleton Gorge is the wooded ravine immediately on its right.

This rock-scrambling section (above) towards the top third of the walk up is actually much for fun than the endless uphill slog on a neat path that precedes it (my friend was very patient. I must have stopped 20 or 30 times to catch my breath, while she could have ploughed on). But here the route lies right in the bouldered stream bed. Straight up.

And then come the ladders. Famously, my mother once walked up here...with a corgi. A stranger took one look at this and carried the corgi up. Walking down again may have broken the corgi; my mother swears it broke her knees. More about that, later.

Above: The satisfying view of the Kirstenbosch parking lot below us.

Reaching the top of the gorge was a relief. We had hiked up with the requisite backpacks stuffed with water, warm windbreakers, maps (both of us had a map), snacks and, in mine, hot coffee for a breakfast treat. We quickly added an extra layer over our T-shirts. The sweaty climb in high summer had turned into a cold mist pouring over the top of the mountain.

We watched a party of panama-hatted tourists who seemed to be in the company of a guide (I wish I had asked questions as they passed us). They spent a lot of time at a beacon with basic directions. No map. The three visitors were wearing shorts and short-sleeved shorts and carried nothing more. The guide carried a tiny backpack, and they were on their way to the cable car, a good hike into the cloud.

Many visitors assume that the top of Table Mountain will be flat and easy to navigate. It is not, and it is not. As I have written before, there are mountains on the mountain and the weather turns on a dime. Most people who are hurt or who die on this mountain are not mugged (this is the main worry, even among locals who rarely set foot on this unique rock pile); instead, they come to grief because they are unprepared for the conditions, or wander off a cliff.

We stopped too, checking our maps for our route to make sure we were on the right path, and we opened the thermos of hot Illy, dipped biscuits, and watched the world from a rock.

The Smuts Track, above, hugs the eastern edge of the mountain here before swinging to the west and towards the aqueduct - a massive stone wall that bisects the fynbos along a stream, directing water into the Hely-Hutchinson reservoir.

Walking with a botanist, garden designer, and the author of the superb Indigenous Plant Palettes (essential reading for South Africans interested in indigenous gardening) is a privilege. My usual walking partner is the Frenchman, whose patience is endless - the many stops I make to take photos of flowers, or to scratch and sniff plants with edible potential do not bother him. Now, while I was slumming it with my beloved Samsung Galaxy S7 (NOT the one that blows up) Marijke had brought her proper camera and was assuming my usual role, calling for more stops than me, and able to identify just about everything en route.

Watsonia tabularis was in perfect bloom from the beginning to the end of our walk at this elevation. It is endemic to the Cape Peninsula and is named after the mountain.

Marijke noted that it is not available commercially locally, and a quick Google yielded a hit at California's Annie's Annuals, of all places [note that Annie uses photo stock from all over the world, so the flower pictured in that link was not grown by her - I am curious].

The bridge over the disa stream. We had come to find out if the red disas - orchids that grow only near rare perennial streams in these mountains - were in bloom, as they are further east. Disa uniflora grows thickly here, the pristine, tannic water dyed the colour of tea by the fynbos through which it is filtered. I have been lucky to see them several times.

But we were too early, and the disas were still in bud. 

We walked on, toward and along the aqueduct, finding botanical treats along the way.

After a waterfall, the route is filled with clean water which followed us all the way to the reservoirs, joined by other streams along the way.

Drip disas appeared, pale ghosts against wet rock faces, growing in the cool moss. 

Disa cornuta more than made up for their reticent red cousins.

A miniature lobelia, not identified.

Watsonia tabularis lit the way as we descended towards the middle of what is called the Back Table. 

Despite severe water restrictions in the city below, up here, in the mist, the mountain is its own green, wet world. We saw nobody, now.

The exquisite China flower, Adenandra villosa, with intensely scented foliage.

We followed the track between two peaks, Junction on the left, St Michael's on the right, the widening stream to our right, cliffs dotted with drip disas, soaring.

Marijke was now wearing Layer No. 2.

Erica abietina, I think.

While we both had bathing suits in our back packs, ready for a dip into the pools below, the nipping wind kept us firmly zipped up, hands in pockets. Vince has never quite got over the water in the Cape. For a Vancouverite used to turquoise snowmelt, Coca-Cola water was a shock. But to me this is the colour of clean.

The kloof behind us, we were poised above the reservoirs, which were brimming. 

We said goodbye to the last of the beautiful drip disas, our route heading into drier regions.

Whether it was the blinding sun or the howling wind, I took no pictures from here, right across the towering dam wall and the whipped water, past the the napping high altitude alien vegetation team, and the right angled hook we took to return due east, or even of the cedar and oak glade at the very top of Nursery Ravine. Marijke did, and I should borrow her pictures.

But after a lunch break for fruit juice and sandwiches in the shade we were back out here on the edge of the mountain again, and poised to descend via Nursery Ravine.

Sporadic cloud cover woke me up and the Samsung began snapping again.

The graceful and strange mountain dahlia - Liparia splendens.

And down we go.

Down - at least on a mountain - is better than up, I feel, and the view stunning.

There were still many plants to see. Above - not identified yet.

Remember my mother's knees? My knees were fine. But after a steady downhill slog my legs were jelly. Two days later I was stiiiiiiiiiiiiff.

Low on the slopes tree pincushions grow - Leucadendron conocarpodendron.

And then we were back in the most beautiful garden in Africa, where we had begun: Kirstenbosch. We had been on the mountain for seven hours - much longer than we needed to be, but very happy for it, and it was just past lunchtime.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Climate change

Christmas under a southern sun. It had been two years since my last Christmas at home.

I love fruit cake and fir trees in the dark, cold North, but here in the Cape our tree is a small, indigenous Gardenia thunbergia in a pot, and supper was eaten on the patio, in the long, bright evening after a hot day. At 8.30pm it was still light as we sipped the chilled asparagus soup my mom had made. There was a red pepper mousse, roast lamb, and meringue with fresh cherries and cream.

In New York the Frenchman went on a ramble to Jamaica Bay, in a T-shirt, so perhaps the weather is catching. I miss him.

We are reaching the end of a strange year. I wish you strength and grace, and humor, and the courage to do better than ever before in the uncertain days that lie ahead.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The tall grasses

The midsummer grasses growing thigh-high in the Alphen Trail greenbelt are beautiful. Sadly, they are usually mown at their peak by the municipality. 

Ted the corgi is pleased about the mowing, though, because his vet said that a grass seed might be the cause of an eye irritation and retinal ulcer he has developed, warranting round the clock drop-treatment to save his eye from serious damage. 

In the woodland (mostly exotic poplars) owls call at night. It is beautiful relief after thumping overhead neighbors in Brooklyn.

The only thing missing is a Frenchman.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Never forage alone

My Cape Town cattail (bulrush) pal, Maggie the corgi. Guarding the loot, recently.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In the garden

If you follow me on Instagram or check in on 66 Square Feet's Facebook page, you'll have suspected that I am Not in New York. It's true. I am in Cape Town, for a month. Partly because of my butcher. In Brooklyn. Who said, in the context of a broader conversation, Don't wait. He is that kind of butcher. A very nice man.

Mostly, I have been spending time with my parents, at home and in the garden, as well as working remotely, which is what the digital world is all about.

It is early summer in Cape Town, the equivalent of June in New York, so the garden is in bloom, and big fat cherries are arriving at supermarkets.

My mom would like to plant more agapanthus. The terrible agapanthus borer seems to be in abeyance, though I am not sure why. It decimated many of her plants over the last few years.

The rose is 'South Africa,' and the kale in the flower bed is still yielding a good crop.

Zinnias have just begun to flower.

In the former herb garden - now much shadier - the walls are filled with pots, and a bonsai collection resides in a corner.

The Cape dwarf chameleons are back! This is very good news. Vince found them in August after a years-long hiatus.

They are hard to spot and then, when you find them, they seem very outlandish and even more obvious. This verbascum is no longer in bloom but is left for the chameleons to climb.

A female lesser double collared sunbird (long name for a small bird) on a tired allium, but still yielding nectar to drink.

I'll post when I can, otherwise, you'll find a daily picture from this deepest south, in those other places.