When I think about Victoria Walk Park (also known as Victoria Park) here on
I think about open space, a small respite from the constant noise that Woodstock buzzes. Woodstock homes tend to be dark, mostly semi-detached, not too much open space. Playing in the streets but only certain streets; living on the foot of a mountain means the ball will always roll away. Each time it happens to me, still, I imagine the underground ball club, new ou's rolling in.
So this park, we grew up close by, always, been coming here 30 years, and now I live just opposite. It’s an open space that is fenced to keep children safe from running to the busy roads that surround it and to keep the dogs and balls safely within the parameter. The fencing with its padlocks also aim to keep the parks empty at night, no one is allowed to be within the grounds yet the missing palisades tell a different story.
The park has swing sets, a slide and benches dotted around the lawn, it meets a berm just over halfway which falls into a tarred basketball court in need of much repair. The cracks in the tar make space for seeds to settle though and in winter green peeks out of the gray. I enter the park from this side and see the sign that sits just after the public restrooms the park houses, a small building, almost unnoticeable. The sign shows images of what is prohibited in the park, from ball games to motorbikes, cutting down trees and sleeping. Below all the images reads “RIGHT OF ADMISSION RESERVED” and for the first time I stop and really think about "Reserved for whom?" and "Which Right?", the park is perfect to koppel a yung tie, where are people supposed to catch a break around here? This sign annoys me and I make a mental note to cover it with art instead.
This park may be secure enough to keep the children, dogs and balls in, and through the spaces in the fence, allows others to find a place to be at night. This fence is certainly big enough to let the frogs, snakes and birds move freely.
I'm here to look at this space through the lens of, "How Natural is our Nature?", a writing assignment set by our MPhil Environmental Humanities South course. I think about this shit all the time, I am so drawn to this land, with the deepest love I have not moved from beneath this mountain and often imagine the herds and biodiverse communities that have lived here, that continue to live here, how to fit it into the word count?
I begin a journey around the park with a sketchbook and charcoal from a fire I made last week. I rub the Eucalypt’s, of which there are many, and choose areas on the bark that look interesting to me, a little bit different. I always consider these Eucalypt’s, how economically viable they are while also being so detrimental to our water table and allelopathic to other plant species competing to live where they live. I stop at the Red Flowering Gum, so stunted where it stands but pushing out flowers and since they’re at my height (and not the normal grand Diplodocus size) I notice them for the first time. Like really notice their glory, unadulterated and reminding me of ridiculously bright sea anemones wafting in the inter-tidal zone. They are exquisite in colour and in their formation, as if they landed here from space yet they are obscene, a luminous coral red gaping sex, enticing pollinators and radiating lust. These alien plants settled and assimilated in Woodstock, Cape Town, portal to the next dimension.
It’s funny because we actually do consider them aliens, one of the worst, "invasive" we say, these Australians that have taken over our pristine land. In this Nature we still put effort to exclude within our own species but also outside. And legit, right? Water table, allelopathy, I mean part of me feels guilty, who am I to judge the rights of life and species, whose fault is it that they are here? Global dominant trade routes? Another colonial masterpiece? They are up high on the local chain of commodity, paper (toilet paper), pulp, wood, honey, essential oil, Real Stuff.
After I rub the third Eucalypt, I feel as if this tree rubbing is senseless as they all look so different, there is nothing that puts them in an identifiable comparison. I also get annoyed with myself because why should they? I decide that rubbing the unnatural things, the very man-made things, the hard-not-breathing-or-interacting-with-its-immediate-environment things, would be a better option. The benches are next to the trees and of the same colour green as the palisade fencing which begs the question about greening up a space. Choosing green for the benches could possibly be because it is an unobtrusive colour, or it simply could be the cheapest option or, most likely, is a nudge towards nature, bringing the green into the city centre, so close to the highway and peak hour traffic.
I rub the benches in three places and what comes up remind me of different rock faces, lichen against sandstone, the colours and textures of a granite boulder and even the smoothness of Malmesbury shale.
These days this park is mostly used for soccer games and dog-walkers, as many as twenty dogs at a time with owners and sometimes partners, a social moment for dogs and their people, some of whom work from home so the park offers a welcome moment of sunshine. “All ball games strictly forbidden” reads a faded and rusted old sign at the opposite Melbourne Rd entrance from where I first entered, but everyday at least once, there is a group of young people who come and play soccer. It is in these moments where the social anxiety that neighbours who know each other purely because they run their dogs at the same park at roughly the same times, is overshadowed by the forced coming together of young people eager to kick a ball around the imagined but definite soccer field boundary. Children from the orphanage, from the schools, neighbours, neighbours from other areas, all come together in the match of the moment. Some get excluded and come throw balls for dogs while they wait for someone to be called out so they can fill their proverbial soccer boots.
Ball games and dog games, ficus trees and wind. Oh this wind, the south-easter bliksems round Devil’s Peak and moulds the trees to sit below its blow line, forcing them down like it wishes it could do with the buildings. Trees are obliging which makes them great to climb and easy for us to see the birds who rest between flights. Today I saw the fiscal shrike that has taken up residence in a pepper tree in our home. I watched him fly from the Red Flowering Gum in the park to the Acacia in our garden. These leaning trees remind me that this stretch of land was no place for trees, Protea’s and pincushions only reaching so high on these Devil’s Peak feet. How natural is this Nature? This question always reminds me of Jadav Payeng who planted a forest on a barren sandbar to create a wild refuge over a few decades. This forest has seen its true biodiversity potential and sees larger animals like elephants, tigers and rhinoceros. Life is persistent; it is the true nature of life, to live. Sometimes it takes someone who’s never lost the ability to see how that is true, that all things that live have the right to be alive and have basic needs, like accommodation, food and other members in its own species. This is as natural as it gets, and here in this city, the kind of life that has endured makes sense. Here where thousands upon thousands of animals roamed, lions with their paws wet in the ocean shore, buffalo and buck stampeded into the ocean, no where else to go but to where sharks and orca’s could feast. Imagining all the many other species, their freedom to journey with no limiting walls and ha-ha's and guns and boundaries, the ultimate ideal of a natural Nature. Yet still so much survives and this place; this park finds itself in the biodiversity hotspot of the world. I’m pulled back to the current reality, where local animals gather at the watering hole.
Now I’m standing here where Leliebloem farm used to be, a huge farmland whose upper reaches tickled the knees of Devil’s Peak. I only know about Leliebloem because my parents told us how the highway was a fairly recent construction, before us sisters were born, but the Garden Court hotel that looms over us (where my father grew up and the house where we spent most of our childhoods) used to be an orphanage, Leliebloem House, forced off to Athlone and named after the farmland it was a part of. This land I’m standing on has been leveled out, cut out of the earth so it may be steady and weighted evenly instead of being a rolling shin cascading down the knee of Devil’s Peak.
Below me and beyond I can imagine the old Fort Knokke standing in full regalia, here as the water lapped up just below. Just over two hundred years ago where Sceptre, a British warship, had been anchored and then destroyed by the North-Westerly wind, it lay there at Fort Knokke, just below this park. It feels like this park has seen so many things, all the things that happen above its ground, never mind below. The mere fact that it exists as open land, engaging with its environment for always, means there is a remnant and a truth in its naturalness, its nature remains natural even if the original biodiversity it held is greatly diminished.
30 years of coming to this park, only 30 when it has been around for so many more 30’s. The last 10 years has been concentrated journeys with my dog, us knowing the route blindfolded. This park has helped me believe that biodiversity is relentless, that it is not just about the rats and pigeons, or the cockroaches, cats and dogs. In winter the park fills with water as the rains collect in the clay base, it reminds me always that Cape Town - although brittle and dry in the Summer- is humid high and sodden in winter, a natural seasonal wetland. This wetness brings frogs into the park, this safe haven surrounded by dry city and a lack of wild areas even though we sit beneath national monumental park that is the mountain range. I know about the frogs because I hear them but only once had the privilege of seeing the Clicking Stream Frog in the water of the plastic irrigation main valve housing when it lost its lid. The housing had filled up with rainwater and sat this way for the winter months so the frog settled in as a tadpole nicely. Like where were its siblings? How even? I’ve seen shy snakes here but sure they would make an easy snack for a bird or target for a dog. There’s a patch of pink Pelargoniums in this park that I forage flowers off of and I’ve disturbed the delicate pink flower crab a few times doing that, my bulky fingers getting in the way. I’m wary to never forage more than roughly a quarter off of a bush because of this precise reason, crab spiders ambush their prey on flowers and thus need flowers to eat. Pelargoniums have a short season and when you’re the same flash of pink as they, you have to take every opportunity you can to make the most of hunting season.
This park ends in a retainer wall that drops down to the next field. The retainer wall has a series of seepage or drainage holes with graffiti loosely dotted between, the last one asking the very big question, “?FREE?”. At the Melbourne Rd entrance, the drainage holes are closer together and a swarm of bees had settled in nicely. Happily foraging pollens and nectars, drinking water in the various places water collects. Of course this bothered the dog owners greatly and the bees became such hazard, stinging an inquisitive nose or two. In a time where the plight of the bees is in full force, I was delighted that they’d decided to move in to my hood where I could see them and engage. It broke my heart that they were removed and I choose to imagine that their removal was done officially and not at the mercy of insecticidal spray.
This lower field where the bees lived is mostly lawn with two small boulders and benches and trees lining the perimeter. There is a hint of the limestone track that was laid a few years ago, this park is used much the same as Victoria Park but without the playground set. Just below this field is Al-Noor Orphanage that sits on big open land that has been mostly laid with lawn. So as I stand at the top park and overlook the two fields below, the first thing I see is the utter squareness of where I stand which of course is echoed throughout the city and throughout the landscapes of the world. This idea of urban and rural, the natural and the artificial and how we compartmentalise our world into these binaries, this makes me see the value in the things I dislike. Take this lawn for instance, the material that covers the vast majority of this big tract of land, I know that the lawn is a valid species, alive through the same trials of survival that my species has been put through in the same space and time. Yet I despise it, this monoculture of our land, coating all the fancy lawns and golf courses, fields and estates. It stands as a reminder of the Enclosure Act, of the perpetuation of the English Landscape ideal that has dominated landscaping been the outdoor carpet of choice for centuries. Thirsty and using water resources where there are so many who go thirsty and rivers who dry up. Of course I’m projecting, I realise this, for it’s not really the lawn’s fault that we’ve exploited it so. When I take the time to look closer I notice that the lawn is made up of many species, what some people would even call weeds. These are equally as valid and their persistence in the world is a moment for us to view them differently. Focusing on the squareness, however, the neat rows of land and streets and fields become easy for us to navigate and ultimately to control. It is as if we have put a frame around the land to designate space for our pleasure and ideals, lawn taking us from the lush rolling hills of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens through to the manicured estates that dot the country, framed regions of demarcated colonial chic. As Theodore Steinberg says of the city of Manhattan’s gridlines which commenced in 1811 “Through the plotting of its streets and blocks, it announces that the subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is its ambition.”
Sinking thoughts into the land lets the life of the soil rise up into being, not invisible under ground. So many insects, earthworms and pillbugs, sometimes even moles are evident on this land, you see their castings or molehills and even see them once in while. There is life teeming here, perhaps not abundant in its biodiversity but certainly not modest.
The sea is not so far away. We know that centuries ago the sea was quite close with Sceptre being wrecked just below where I stand. My father used to walk down the hill to Woodstock Beach (which is in a straight line from where we live), here close to this park. It has now been reclaimed by industry and now there is the local waste drop-off and factories where the waves used to lap the shore. They called the road "Beach Rd".
Still, as I stand here and close my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly, I fill my lungs with sea. I hear and see the seagulls and it reminds me of my childhood and going to school in the early morning when the sea haze was much further inland to where we lived and I would wake up to that smell. The sea, the sea, right here in my room. At night the foghorn and the bellows from the ships would call out long and low, like huge water elephants or whales breaching and bringing with them a sense of belonging or nostalgia, a memory of feeling safe and secure. What of nature in that? The sensitivity we have as children and the vulnerability we feel that can be soothed by the deep bass sounds coming from the sea, reaching up to us in our beds. The gentle rhythm of the train track at night when it’s quiet enough to hear. A steadiness it brings, a dependability I guess, and I think about everyone who hears that noise in the still of the night - not just me and not just other people but the dassies, lizards and birds hiding in the auditorium of the mountain - at least in my imagination, I am not sure that the sound reverberates that high.
Out there in the harbour, those tall metal giraffes have come in recently, they could be tall cranes, or flamingoes except they lack the certain roundness and fancy that flamingoes have. Standing here watching them, it feels as if we’re getting further away, this view that I have seen since I was a child that either my sense of sight is tricking me, that my perception is so different and influenced by memory or that steadily the shallow land is being reclaimed in the sea.
Birds, it’s the sound of nature you hear the most. There are all kinds of cries, some more prominent than others because they live here too. The crows on top of the clinic next to the park, the hadeda’s who are always looking for their partners, the starlings chittering in the palm trees with palm dates hanging heavy and ready. These birds remind me of the popular kids in the playground, the ones the games would revolve around, the confident ones, the ones whose voices were heard. The nature of this nature has stayed the same, mostly, in as much as you can stay the same when your inherited self is the same but your entire natural habitat is changed.
Finding nature in this park… Yesterday as I left my home to run my dog at Victoria Park, I could smell chicken being cooked in someone’s kitchen, a smell I know so well, roasting gharam masala wafting round the park. Smell is one of those senses that have evaded the greatest of scientists and designers; smell-o-vision has a long way to go to be captured technologically as the other senses have been. For now the words on this paper will have to carry the scent of roasting spices. The story of food as nature is an obvious yet convoluted one. That actualchicken I smelt most likely came from a factory and not a farm, how much nature in that food? Yet the nature in my nature is harked back and titillated, putting me in the kitchen with my mother, us talking about our day or maybe about the food we will eat in an hour.
For this nature to be in its full Naturalia, I have to remember the Erica’s and Protea’s that once blew in the wind, scattering pollen invisible to the eye, the Kukumakranka’s making the air heady with their scent, the waters that ran down this mountain and still flood the garages and cellars of some of the older Victorian houses. I have to actively envisage these plants and all the insects and bacteria and mycelia that lived here so they may breathe for a moment in this reality. I think about the water that still flows all the time, where it is, where exactly it may go as it runs beneath our feet and roads. I dream of gauging a hole in the road to let the water bubble up as in a spring, coughing and sputtering out into the light, fresh water for everyone who uses Woodstock, for your garden, for your thirst, to wash your clothes, to clean your wounds. So many people live in Woodstock without homes, the park is sanctuary for many acting as respite from the sun as you walk through your days, it is security at night when you have nowhere else to go and can slip unseen through the broken palisade to hide between the Tecoma’s if someone else hasn’t gotten there first.
Victoria Walk Park has a newly installed water fountain, a faux rock spring that allows the overspill of the tap to collect in a low groove in the ‘rock’ for dogs to drink. It stands as a fiberglass moulded monument to the mountain that overshadows it. It is set in a tarred base which makes no sense but which harks back to when parks were strictly tarred ground, like the primary school I attended and the many parks dotted around our city. Perhaps this was low maintenance, before the days we realised that water needs to sink into the ground and not always be quickly drained away into the sewers like as the colonial legacy taught us to do. I make a rubbing of this faux rock and I am reminded of what animals who are kept in zoo’s must feel like, faux rock faces and faux sea beds, faux plants and faux hills. A fiberglass façade of Real but when you touch it, its vapid, shallow, real in that it exists but very much unreal, nothing like home, the home an animal in a zoo may remember, in its inherited memory. I stop because here I realize there is no natural in this nature.
A recipe ode to Nature/Natural
Spices in the Apocalypse are a weak spot and require voyaging to attain. But when you have them, here's my Mamma's, Hajiera Rossier, gharam masala recipe - perfect for roasting chicken. Reproduced with permission from my mother, Gadija Khan.
- 1 handful whole jeera
- 1 handful whole koljana
- 1 handful saajiera
- 2-3 whole star aniseed
- 2 full sticks of cinnamon
- 5 cardamom seeds
- 4 cloves
- 4 all spice
In a hot pan, gently roast seeds. Immediately crush with mortar and pestle or bicycle-powered spice blitzer.
Make as you need.