Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Encounters with wildlife

The other day we saw four leopards. Three adults and a cub at the top of a koppie in Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape. Beautiful big cats, preparing to hunt, while a little up the hill a traffic jam of excited wildlife spotters watched from the safety of our vehicles.

Addo is the third biggest of our South African parks, yet compared to the whole territory we call the RSA, it’s a small clod of earth, dung beetle against elephant. Just as we artificially decimated our wildlife, so the slow process of rewilding is an artificial business. A few hundred kilometres away the Landmark Foundation in the Western Cape encourages farmers to protect their livestock using leopard and jackal-friendly methods. They’re not always successful. In the Koo valley, Shorty the leopard was tagged in his journeys around the mountains – till he was shot by a sheep farmer. Leopard-friendly wool and mutton labelling, anyone?

A day after Addo we slept in the Baviaanskloof, a beautiful wild valley. The wildness of Africa is still tangible compared to most of Europe. From spiders and scorpions to circling eagles to the hidden mammals in the ravines and rocks, the animal life is symptomatic of an energetic hum of life, of spirit, that still echoes off the cliff edges. Yet, aside from the elusive leopards, the big game here have gone. We can experience the wildness of the Baviaanskloof without fear of an elephant crushing our tent or a lion killing our loved ones. And if we are going to really allow the wildlife back out of the parks safely for them, we’re going to need to get a lot more in touch with those animals than most of our ancestors.

The Bushmen of the 18th century Free State apparently had a great trick that protected them from lions who attacked the Bantu of the region regularly. Max Du Preez in ‘Pale Native’ recounted stories that they used to watch for when a new alpha male took over a pride, then scared the hell out of him when he was found sleeping, using shouting and percussion noise, then left him in peace. He invariably got the point and left them in peace too. But perhaps in future there wil be more profound tactics used for communication. Anna Breytenbach’s image-based animal communication is both extraordinary and a fulfilment of a common dream we have for really being latterday Dr Doolittles. We are slowly but surely beginning to understand the language of plants. And perhaps it will not be too long before we understand the language of the minerals themselves.

Perhaps then the lion really will feel like laying down with the lamb. While the old sheep of the flock offer themselves up in sacrifice, much as wild game was believed to do by traditional San hunters. We have yet to solve the mystery of how animals became domesticated, given our failure to do so with wild creatures of any serious size in modern times. The humble opinion, which science seems to be echoing in modern experiments, would have to be that something in those animals very nature gave themselves to humans. Certain modern scientists might reduce that to “genetics,” but I would argue there is a more mysterious, archetypal quality in these animals’ soul journey that led them to link up with humans. The ancient Indian reverence for the cow, or the ancient native American reverence for the bison, would seem to be a recognition of this incredible choice.

Our collective gratitude for this is today stifled amidst the feedlots and broiler farms of our hellish modern meaty thirst. Those conversations with animals will need to begin with a lot of begging for forgiveness. Of course, amidst all this there are curious signs of hope. The penguins at Boulder’s Beach or Stony Point are a strange response to our actions over time, only coming ashore in recent decades when it became clear to them that few onshore predators were left – and that the humans had become strangely benign, in relation to penguins at least. I felt rather less benign, of course, about the rat that broke in while I was away, kakked in my sacred items, and threw my compost on the floor. Sterner conversations might be had with rats and ants and mosquitoes. The struggle for existence continues.

And then, beyond all these land-based challenges, there are the whales. Thank heavens for the whales.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Beyond Dawkins' Mind

...a ribald riposte to the militant atheists and the monotonous monotheists

A few years ago, as part of the Darwin centennial celebrations, there was a tedious debate in Oxford between celebrity atheist and geneticist Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. An advocate of 19th century empiricist atheist science versus an advocate of 19th century wishy-washy patriarchal monotheistic religion.


If I had been up there to debate science and spirit, I would have said stuff like this…

Gentlemen, here in the 21st century, we know in our bones that there is no God outside of ourselves, because God goes all the way to the inside. She’s living and breathing in the electricity of my fingers and the itching in the back of your knees that’s telling you you’ve been sitting in one place for too long. She’s the part of you that wants you to stretch up this miraculous body-gift you’ve been given and sing exquisite music with your vocal chords to the miracle of the dawn, which is the appearance of a solar disc that appears most wondrously on the horizon every day in exactly the same size and shape as the lunar disc does once a moony month, and she is those discs too of course, resonating in harmony with your exquisite physiology. When your heart opens to its vast electromagnetic field and the neurons in your gut start listening to her signals – gentlemen, you will know in your being that there is a God, gentlemen, and she’s a Goddess neither of you have shown the capacity to describe yet, but that doesn’t mean she’s not there, in fact she’s so damned clever she gave you a “God spot” called your pineal gland that is designed (designed, Richard!) to help you experience the cosmic unity behind all this, the bigger transcendent picture that helps you sink into acceptance of your path and, “research shows”, be a happier person.

Now, none of this godly presence can I prove, Mr Dawkins, which you seem to think makes it untrue. It doesn’t, it just makes it “unscientific” by a very modern, narrow, materialistic definition of science – which is that scientific hypotheses need to be falsifiable. What this literally, laughably means is that without defining God, we can’t test whether she exists or not. And since she’s a massive, undefinable intelligence, the light of pure consciousness, the wild and wonderful will-force of the irrational, way bigger than a 3-dimensional laboratory, ergo she does not exist.


Except that in my 21st-century world, I think feel and act, therefore I am God just like you.

Gentlemen, this whole debate would be so much more interesting if I took you away to some Amazonian friends and got you dosed up on ayahuasca, so that the heart-body-mind-industrial complex you walk around in got to experience a Goddess or three, and then you returned to decide upon that question of her existence. For this debate will continue to be sterile while you rely on the notion that your brains alone can work this one out.

There’s something in your incredibly intelligent hearts that’s directed you to this debate. What is it that wants to settle for a limited definition of God and possibility? Or deny anything bigger and more conscious than your current level of perception? Did you have an overbearing father, or an absent one?

I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m sure that what you’re doing here is just perfect for your polarised life path. It’s just that for me, the most useful and inspiring ways of looking at the world involve things my heart leaps at and my head can’t satisfy.

For example, the idea that this whole planet may have been designed for our human incarnation, that all these insects and plants and rocks and animals and fish and birds – and let’s not forget the mushrooms – are simply throbbing with cosmic life juice that we were part of designing. That we’ve been here as consciousness all along, just not in physical form until we were ready – so we’ve left no trace in the physical fossil record. I find that an inspiring, useful notion to play with (thanks Rudolf Steiner for that one), and I can weave you a dozen others from the realm of the imagination which I inhabit as often as I can.

Belief is not a dismal thing to be deadened on a Sunday. It’s a vibrant, active engagement with the miraculous imagination, the metaphorical wonder of this life, the heartfelt intuition that there is a powerful primal force at play here which we are an integral part of. Play, gentlemen, requires your whole being to be engaged, in a way which was so foreign to 19th century Englishmen, but which every child knows. Einstein said (more or less) that “Play is the highest form of research”. Engage your hearts, guys, and party on with the divine being that you are. Your homework is to bring me twelve more beautiful, possible, unprovable, inspiring theories about life, energy, matter and spirit and dance them for me next Tuesday night. Ay-men!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Ten thousand years

There is a painful truth in me, the one that says I too am not perfect. The curious thing is that I love it in my friends – this humanity, this smaller piece. Yet I fear to show it, at times, to the world. I fear rejection, judgement, and this fear is a very human one born from harsher ancestral notes, when rejection from the tribe genuinely meant isolation from human society and then most probably death. It’s a childhood fear too, of laughing leprechauns, dangerously mocking spirits, of a vulnerability that allows my power to be stolen away and leaves me in unfamiliar worlds, unable to make my way home.

Perhaps a part of you shares this fear too. This life is a mystery still = how and why I ended up here is at times a gaping question in my being, and perhaps all of the above has already happened. And still I live and love and laugh. Today it is a shiny bright winter’s day and another lost child grown up is standing on the platform, his Victorian beard and folded umbrella giving him away. And so I reach out to hear the idle birdsong chatter in this electric age.

“Soviet power plus electricity,” Lenin once called the revolution. That early magic fervour of the last century – material equality and electricity – was realised in so many horrifically levelling ways, as well as jet-powered certainties. I long at times for the certainty the trees have, the simplicity of a life where the gods still allow a hearty inner peace. Indeed, I think this home we all seek in some ways. The quest for the adventure of the story, the archetypal narrative of the hero’s journey home, leads to the wonder of the fantasy novel, the brilliance of the sci-fi movie, the trials of the video games set in ancient times; and the key question to ask, perhaps, is how much these instantly mythical adventures interact with, inspire, nourish our journeys in this daily reality, this alien world in which we have been deposited.

When I was a young teen I flirted briefly with the pixelated versions of epic, and engaged with the temptation of this virtual complexity. More important, though, were the social lessons I was learning – competing for time with the joystick or keyboard. Sometimes, losing myself in the arcade world for a while. Did I come back better equipped for this world? Almost certainly not: my imagination remained a fragile, vulnerable bird; the shell of escapism did not strengthen that. I have found my way gradually back into this world, and particularly the extraordinary body-heart-mind vehicle with which I navigate my way towards you. Sometimes, I know, you keep me at bay through your own related fears. And sometimes we spy ourselves trying that one again, catch ourselves out, laugh together in this ship of fools.

Today I drank elegantly prepared tea slowly with a friend, shared my imperfect foolishness a little further, talked without distraction, embraced finally beyond the story. The power of story can lead us back, deeper in to this wildly chaotic narrative of cells, to the next step we must take, to the next emotion we must feel without blocking, without lashing out with fists or tongues. Or express deliberately with tongues that know we merely play.  And then in these Yin-Yang moments there is the polarity of stillness: shape, pause, observation.

Ten thousand years of empires and plunder and artistry and genius. Ten thousand years of watching the wind blow and the trees grow and giving thanks.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ravi and the Perfume Tree

Here's a little nonsense as shared around the fire at Petervale earlier this year...

There was once a boy called Ravi who lived in one of the jungles of India. He and his family were perfume-tappers. At new moon they would find the perfume trees, then they would light a small ceremonial fire. They would circle the fire in this direction, and they would call the names of the gods they wanted help from in this order, and they would throw sacred spices into the fire in this order. And then they would take a machete knife and a jug and cut like so into the bark of the trees. The sap that came then was the most wonderful-smelling perfume and it would pour into their jugs. They traded the perfume and lived well from it.

Ravi knew the jungle like the back of his hand, he knew all the best paths and the best vines to swing on. However, one new moon he found he had wandered into a dark part of the jungle he found surprisingly unfamiliar. And all of a sudden he stumbled into a clearing in which was an enormous perfume tree, bigger than any he had seen before, and it had clearly not been tapped for a long time. So he prepared his ceremonial fire, and as he lit it he took one more look up at the magnificent tree. As he gazed up into the branches and leaves, he saw a wonderful rainbow-coloured bird which attracted his attention. As he stared at it more intently it turned – and stared right back at him. Ravi began to feel a little strange. As the bird flew off, he turned back to the fire and pretty soon he started walking around it, but he circled it in that direction, called the names of the gods in that order, and threw spices into the flames in that order. As he moved he recovered his normal feeling, and took hold of his machete and jug in order to cut the tree’s bark.

But when he did, something terrible happened. Instead of the perfume he was waiting for, what oozed out of the tree was a disgusting brown sticky goo. As he stared at the goo in a panic, he heard a hissing voice. He looked up to see a python in the tree. “You need to heal this tree, Ravi. It is the heart of the jungle. If it is not healed soon, all the other trees in the jungle will start to die. There is only one way to heal it. You must find a girl called May MacIntosh who will accept this brown goo, in exchange for a precious emerald which you must bring back to this tree.” And with that the python hissed away into the branches of the trees.

Ravi knew this was serious. He went to one of the streams that led out of the jungle, and got into his dugout canoe, bringing with him the jug of brown goo. The journey was a long one, and the stream eventually met up with the mighty river Ganges. Along the way Ravi thought to himself: perhaps the snake was telling him a riddle. There were no girls in India called May MacIntosh at that time, he was pretty sure of that. He pondered what the python might have really meant, as his canoe entered the holy city of Varanasi besides this mighty river.

He pulled up to a stone stairway leading up and out of the river, and while he was tying up his canoe, he heard a monk chanting on the steps, also stepping out of a boat. The monk was clutching his knees together in a most peculiar way, but what was more interesting was his chant. He was calling out, “Maya Makentosha, Maya Makentosha”, over and over again. Ravi was delighted! Here was a solution to the riddle, it seemed. He walked behind the monk, copying his strange stance, and also called out in the same rhythm, “Maya Makentosha, Maya Makentosha”.

The monk turned around with a scowl. “Why do you mock me?”
Ravi was shocked but said, “Oh great and wise master, I wish to learn the secret of Maya Makentosha!” And he told the monk the whole story from the snake and how he wanted to solve the riddle.

The monk replied, “Pah! The only thing that Maya Makentosha means is that it is a most excellent chant for taking my mind off the fact that I very badly need to pee. Now please excuse me!” And he entered a small door and closed it behind him. Ravi heard the pouring sounds of relief. Then the monk opened the door again. “Now, I am nonetheless willing to help you, for it is indeed very important that the jungle’s trees are helped. The problem that I see is that there are no girls in India by the name of May MacIntosh, I can assure you of that. I think you will need to search further to the north. Luckily, I have a 5-star travelling method that I will be very happy to offer you.” And he showed Ravi his magic carpet, which was indeed a most excellent and comfortable carpet, and perfect for riding over the skies of India. Ravi set off on it at once.

Unfortunately, when he got north of India, the air got much colder. Pretty soon, Ravi found icicles forming on his nose. And soon his hands got so frozen that he could no longer steer the magic carpet. It dived headlong down and landed… in a Scottish bog.
From all sides Ravi could see hordes of warriors running towards him, with long red hair, long red beards, and long skirts. They picked him up and rolled up the carpet, and crying out in a language he didn’t understand, they carried him up towards a cave in the mountains.

Inside the cave there sat a wizard, surrounded by potions and smells. He beckoned Ravi to sit down, and then poured him some green potion. The warriors pushed the potion up to Ravi’s mouth and he drank it, coughing and spluttering. All of a sudden he discovered that he could understand every word the wizard and his men were saying. “Now then,” said the wizard, not unkindly, “tell us what on earth you are doing here and where you have come from.”

Ravi told them the whole story and received much sympathy until he reached the part about searching for May MacIntosh. At this the warriors winced and swore and one or two of them turned round and spat in disgust. The wizard explained the reasons for this reaction. “The MacIntoshes live in the next valley. Thieves and layabouts the lot of them. We generally have no truck with any of them. However, it sounds like your jungle mission is important. Mary MacLennan!” This last exclamation was much louder and at that sound a young girl around Ravi’s age came racing into the cave, quite out of breath but beaming from ear to ear, particularly when she took note of Ravi.

The wizard turned to the new arrival. “Mary, you will accompany Ravi on his flying contraption, over the hills and into the valley of the MacIntoshes. With your sweetness and Ravi’s politeness I am pretty sure that even the MacIntoshes will receive you peacefully.” Mary was a little nervous to travel on the extraordinary flying carpet, but she perked up a bit when she felt how soft it was and particularly at the thought of going on an adventure with this exciting foreigner. As they took off she began to sing,

“Step we gaily on we go, heel for heel and toe for toe, arm in arm and row on row, all for Mary’s wedding”. Ravi nearly let the carpet plunge again in shock. He edged away from the girl who for all her loveliness was unnerving him badly. But he brought the carpet down to land in front of a small hut built from peat, with smoke curling up from the roof. The two children knocked loudly on the small front door. An enormous woman opened it, brandishing a soup ladle. “What do you want?” she asked, sternly but without menace.

“Humble greetings madam,” Ravi began with much bowing, while Mary MacLennan beamed alternately at the woman and at Ravi. “I am looking for May MacIntosh, in particular one who may give me a green emerald in exchange for this brown g- this delicious brown substance which has many wonderful powers and properties.”

“I’m May MacIntosh!” said the woman. “But I dinnae have no green emeralds lying around. Do ya think I would be living in this little hut if I did?!” She bent down. “In fact there’s probably fifty May MacIntoshes in this valley. And I doubt any of them much more than a green pea between them. Now why don’t you come inside, I’ll dish ya up a ladle of broth each, and you can tell me the whole story.”

So Mary and Ravi entered the hut and sat with May. As she heard the story, inbetween welcome slurps of warm broth, she sniffed the brown goo intently. As Ravi finished, she said, “I dinnae ken what’s in this stuff of yours. But it seems to me it may indeed have some special healing in it. And I’ve been having a think. This is indeed the valley of the MacIntoshes. But our name is not just heard here. We are very good at distilling whisky here, deadly stuff that makes men useless when they drink too much of it. We’ve developed a way to take our whisky around the world, which none of the other whisky-makers have managed yet. And the whisky we trade in is named for a May MacIntosh from long ago. I would say that if you followed the whisky trail you might find another May MacIntosh somewhere who might well have a green emerald for you.”

Ravi nodded sagely. “Oh, indeed Miss MacIntosh, that does sound like a wonderful suggestion. I was feeling most despondent until you said that.” And Ravi and Mary MacLennan happily ate their broth.

Afterwards, Miss MacIntosh led them outside once more, for the whisky transport was due any minute. “And how, indeed, is the whisky carried?”, Ravi asked.
“By dragon.” replied Miss MacIntosh.

At this, Mary MacLennan leapt into Ravi’s arms, and Ravi’s legs wobbled under the weight – and at the sight of the huge fire-breathing dragon roaring across the valley towards them.
As the dragon came into land, another bearded and kilted Scotsman nimbly clambered off and winked at Miss May MacIntosh. “Two more bairns want to join you for the delivery, Hamish” she said to him while he was loading crates of whisky onto the dragon’s back. “Right, well, you’d better climb aboard then, and be sharpish, I’ve got to get on with this next order,” said Hamish, sternly but not unkindly.

The two children clambered aboard. As the dragon took off, Mary MacLennan ventured a “Step we gaily on we go…” but the dragon snorted, unimpressed, and she shut her lips for the rest of the voyage. They were heading south again, and the weather was warming up, and before they knew it they were flying over a big wide sea – and some strangely pointed monuments were coming into view – the pyramids of Egypt. Hamish neatly brought the dragon down to land at the docks of the Egyptian city, and, having thanked him for the ride, Ravi and Mary set off on their hunt for another May MacIntosh.

Mary MacLennan could not understand a word of the local language, but fortunately for Ravi, the wizard’s green potion had not yet worn off, and so he could ask the locals if they knew of a May MacIntosh anywhere. The usual response was something along the lines of “Hoezit my boetie! Welcome to Afrika, nĂ©! No, we don’t know no May MacIntosh round here. Try further on!”

Eventually, after a whole day of hunting, Ravi approached the Temple of the Great Goddess. When he came up to the guards at the gate and asked them if they knew a May MacIntosh, they looked at him suspiciously, looked at each other, and then pointed their spears at him. “How do you come to know the true name of the High Priestess?” they asked him.

“Oh, I am begging your pardon, I only know I am looking for a May MacIntosh who is the only one that can save my jungle. I have come from very far away, bringing this most incredible brown potion, and I wonder if you would be so good as to ask her if she could help me?”

While one of the guards kept his eye on Ravi and Mary, the other one slipped inside the temple. Some minutes later he returned, saying, “the High Priestess will see you now.”

They were led up some impressive stone stairs to the feasting room, where the High Priestess was lying, eating grapes and looking very bored. She raised an eyebrow as Ravi and Mary entered with the brown goo, and asked them for their story. Yet again, Ravi explained about the goo and the emerald, and added that he had been told the goo must have wonderful healing properties. And then he asked the high priestess how she had come to have the name, “May MacIntosh”.

“Oh, that is very simple,” she replied. “When I was born, my father, who was a senior priest, was told that I would become the high priestess one day. He was told to give me my secret name, based on the first thing that he saw when he looked out the window. I was born besides the river Nile, and when he looked out, he saw a strange crate floating down the river, bearing the name ‘May MacIntosh whisky’. So my full secret name is
May MacIntosh Whisky, or May MacIntosh for short. But now, I need to know whether there really is any point in exchanging this brown goo for the goddess’s emerald, which I keep by my pillow at night. Now, taster, come and tell me about this brown substance!”

The temple taster did as he was asked, and when he tasted it, he wrinkled his nose in disgust at first, but then said, “Your holiness, this substance definitely has some medicinal properties. I feel stronger already. But it tastes quite disgusting!”

“Well, we can soon fix that,” said May MacIntosh. Egypt was a land with many bees and many cows, and so she called for milk and for honey, and while they were waiting for this, she called for the substance to be heated up. And so, May MacIntosh created the world’s first cup of hot chocolate. Now that was a substance really worth tasting. And when heated, with milk and honey added, and drunk, May found she suddenly became aware that her true calling in life was not to be the Egyptian high priestess any more, it was in fact to go back to India with Ravi and open the world’s first chocolate company. Luckily, when she passed the cup around, and Mary MacLennan drank some (after she had been feasting on all the wonderful delights around the table), she realised that her true calling in life was not to marry Ravi, but to become the Egyptian high priestess.

May MacIntosh announced to the astonished priests that the chocolate oracle had spoken, and that Mary was to be their new high priestess. She could not, of course, speak a word of Egyptian, but that did not matter. She simply sang, “Step we gaily on we go, heel for heel and toe for toe, arm in arm and row on row, all for Mairie’s wedding”. The Egyptian scribes interpreted all this strange singing in wonderful hieroglyphs, which people would argue about the meaning of for thousands of years afterwards.

And Ravi and May MacIntosh headed once more to the docks, where they boarded a ship travelling to India. Once there, they returned to Ravi’s jungle, carrying with them the green emerald from the temple. The trees of the jungle looked withered and parched as they arrived. They placed the emerald in the roots of the great chocolate tree, and instantly streams of chocolate began to spurt from the tree. Great streams and rivers of chocolate flooded out across the jungle, and nourished the roots of the trees in all directions. And so Ravi and May and the people of the jungle flourished once more, and the world got to taste the most delicious hot chocolate from that day onwards, alongside the wonderful perfumes the trees were already producing. From time to time, people would forget to look after the forest, and chop down too many trees, and then the chocolate streams would slow down until people remembered once more to care for the trees, which they usually did after a sip of cocoa. And Ravi and May ran a very successful chocolate company, which they named the Rainbow Chocolate Company in honour of the cheeky bird who had distracted Ravi when he was gathering perfume. And, naturally, they lived happily ever after.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Ursula and the Spiral Walk

A tale I was inspired to write some time ago, one of the few I have yet to perform out loud...

Ursula was a cowherd who lived on a large farm managed by her father, an important local chief. The land was at peace thanks to being led by a king who loved dancing. Ursula’s father told her that, if she practised her dancing often enough, she would one day be invited to dance before the king. Her favourite cow, Sindatrude, often allowed her to ride on her back, and so over the years Ursula got transported to all corners of the farm and spent her days dancing freely.

However, the farm next door was owned by a wicked wizard, who spent his time in making spells to increase his power over others, from things like bat wings, fox ears, and the invisible tails of frogs. He usually put the creatures through agony before removing the parts he was looking for. He had discovered that in order to have the power to instil fear in everybody around him – and therefore to become king himself – he needed to steal the dance of a young maiden. Now, he found where Ursula was heading one morning, and he sent his ferocious rhinoceros to capture her. The rhino bellowed at Sindatrude and threatened Ursula, and she reluctantly agreed to come with him. Once back at the wizard’s lair, the wizard persuaded her to dance with him. Since she had always danced on her own, at first she found that, in spite of her shyness, she enjoyed the novelty of dancing alongside the wizard. But soon she found that his strange movements were altering her own. Finally she found, to her horror, that she could no longer dance. Her body felt like it was in a straightjacket. The wizard cackled a horrible cackle and, bouncing the energy of her dance between his hands, told her she could leave. Distraught, she made her way back to the farm.

From that day on, life was hard for Ursula. She would take the cows out, sit and stare across the land, reflecting only on how every day felt gray and flat. Meanwhile, the wizard had taken his newfound power right to the heart of the kingdom, where there had been a beautiful and sacred hill often visited by all the people for magical ceremonies of renewal. Along the way he cajoled, threatened and converted more and more supporters of the old king, until the old king was driven into hiding in the forest. Then he blasted down the hill and in its place raised a forbidding fortress with a tall brown tower at its centre. To this tower he brought young men and women to be his slaves and dance for him. But the dance they danced was a rigid sequence, a formula of movement created and designed by the wizard to create a vortex, holding him invincible at the centre of the kingdom.

The years passed, and as Ursula grew, treading the same ground year after year, she came to feel a fresh flutter in her being, a new desire to regain her dance and to move freely. One day Sindatrude had taken her into a spinney at the far end of the farm, furthest from the wizard’s old stamping ground. There was a fine patch of meadow there with succulent crops for the cattle, and a gentle stream running through it. She lay under a beautiful old milkwood tree and felt drowsy from the day’s heat. Suddenly she heard a sweet soft voice, thick with age. “Ursula, if you wish to regain your dance, you must walk to the heart of the kingdom. And you must do so not in a straight line but in a spiral, from the edge of the kingdom, spiralling inwards across the whole land.” Ursula looked around to try and work out who was speaking, and after much puzzling she realised it was the spirit of the milkwood tree itself. She turned to it, and reached out to put both her arms around it, loving it with all her might. The tree continued to speak softly to her.

“Take with you medicine made from my sap and the nectar of my flowers, dissolved in water from the stream stirred sunwise. Carry this medicine with you on your spiral journey, and greet everybody you meet along the way. But it is most important that you only give this healing medicine to three people on your journey to the heart of the kingdom.”

Ursula prepared the medicine with care and set off for the coast, the edge of the land where her journey would begin. Along the way she travelled through many different landscapes: deep lush valleys, dry windswept plains, craggy kopjies and thick forests. And she met many people, and greeted each and every one with a smile that grew in confidence the more she travelled. As the spiral completed its circuits she found herself close again to places she had visited months before, so that with each step she felt both an excitement in the unknown ahead alongside a growing familiarity with and love for each place she passed.

One day she passed a terrible scene: a badly damaged stone track, where a man’s cart lay on its side, with a wheel wrenched off and his donkey lying trapped under it. The man himself could not move, for the cart had thrown him off and caught his leg, which had shattered. Ursula knew that this was an opportunity to use the healing medicine from the milkwood tree. She carefully spread the ointment along the break, and he was amazed to find his leg coming back to life. He sprang up with joy, and together they managed to lift the cart off the poor donkey, who clambered to her feet. The man expertly fixed his wheel and then invited Ursula back to his house for a supper, with great gratitude for her assistance. When she left the next morning, he gifted her with a miniature harp. “This was a present given to me in the old days by the wise woman of our village. Playing it helps to remove obstacles in the path. I have always been too headstrong to use it, but after yesterday I see its value anew. Use it wisely!”

Thanking the man, Ursula set off once more. Many more months passed, and she reached a part of the country where a wild surging river was racing between rocks and cliffs. She sat down to rest besides the river’s song, but she suddenly noticed two figures on the opposite bank. A woman was weeping, and lying besides a drenched child lying deathly still. Ursula took a long deep breath, and dived into the terrifying river. She hauled her way across and out the other side, and took out once more her healing ointment. She dabbed it onto the middle of the child’s forehead, onto her chest and her belly. As the medicine did its work, the pale child choked up water and opened her eyes. Colour began to return to her face, and the woman looked at Ursula as one who had witnessed a miracle. The woman and her daughter embraced each other with delight, and all three returned to the woman’s cottage, a short distance from the river on a hilly slope. The woman fed Ursula with food from her own wonderful garden, and when Ursula was fully refreshed, and had shared her own journey and task, the woman gave her a parting gift. This time it was a pitchfork. “This pitchfork comes down to me from my ancestors. It is always given to one worthy of support from the Earth. When you need the assistance of our Earth Mother, dig the fork into the soil, turn it once and call out ‘Wa-la-wa-la-hol.’”

Gratefully, Ursula made her farewells and carried on her walk. The wizard-king had his spies and his messengers, and he was becoming aware of this strange young woman and her journey, and was aware that she was coming closer to his own stronghold. One day a strange sight met Ursula: on one side of the road lay a decrepit old beggar, moaning and calling out in pain, clearly suffering from some terrible sickness. And on the other side lay a beautiful princess, dressed in her finery, but also moaning after being struck by some unknown malady. Ursula looked to them both in bewilderment. The princess called out in a sweet, silky voice, “Please, please help me. I can reward you well if you can only cure my sickness. You have no idea how much wealth I have at my command. Oh! Oh! The agony!” She was very persuasive, but something told Ursula to have a closer look at the beggar, for she knew she could only help one more person. When she came to the beggar, he stopped moaning and looked her deep into the eyes. “You have the power to help me, this I know. But you must choose wisely, by trusting your own heart,” he whispered.

Ursula stood in the middle of the road and breathed. And she felt her heart fluttering, and she knew who to choose. She took the ointment to the beggar, and smeared it into his weeping wounds and sores. As she did so, an extraordinary transformation occurred: the beggar began to change into a fine-looking young man, the son of the old king, who had been cursed by the wizard. And the “princess” on the far side of the road snorted loudly. When they turned to look, they only saw the wizard’s rhinoceros, charging off into the bushes and back to its master in his palace.

Accompanied by the prince, Ursula continued on the last leg of her journey, coming into full view of the wizard’s palace, but circling it several times as she spiralled inwards. The palace was surrounded by a thick and impenetrable thorny hedge, and the only entrance was hidden by magic controlled by the wizard. The prince could think of no way to enter, but Ursula smiled and took out the miniature harp. As she plucked a simple tune, the branches of the hedge parted into a welcoming avenue, and Ursula and the prince quickly took their strides into the palace grounds. There they were met by the sight of tall thick turrets, a heavily guarded gate, and walls that were made of an unbreachable stone. The great brown tower rose up above and the monotonous sound of the sequence-dancers carried through the air. Ursula dug her pitchfork into the soil, turned it, and cried out “Wa-la-wa-la-hol”. As she did so a great rumbling was heard, and the thick stone walls began to turn into soft soil, with roots growing from the depths. These quickly grew into vines that covered the castle, and Ursula and the prince found a way to climb up the outside of the tower. The two adventurers swung through the windows and into the dance chamber.

As her feet landed on the solid floor, Ursula felt the power of the earth surging into her, and with it her body began to shake and her voice began to wail. It was a deep, blissful wail of release, and she found herself beginning to move in a way that horrified the wizard, sitting triumphant on his throne. The prince felt the power of her dance and he too began to sway to a different tune; the other dancers in the room began to look up, and, waking from their deep trance, they began to stretch and curl to a new beat. The hard walls surrounding them began to shake too, and then to crumble into soft soil. As the wizard-king felt this, he felt his own power beginning to collapse, and something remarkable happened: all the hardness he had held and maintained began to shake him apart, and while he stood in the centre of the room, trying helplessly to fight Ursula’s fresh magic, he began to shrink, his features tightening ever more until all that was left of him was a brilliantly hard, many-faceted jewel. Ursula and the prince picked up the jewel, which throbbed with its own contained power, and they took it with them as they led a dance out of the collapsing palace and through the land, followed by all the other dancers, leaping with joy and delight in their new freedom.

Eventually they reached the distant forest where the old king and his followers retained a simple court in a mossy cave. The king emerged, blinking, bent with age, but still with a simple and humble dignity. He turned and embraced his son, and many tears were shed. The prince told his father of Ursula’s brave journey, and as the king nodded sagely, he spoke softly but clearly so that all could hear. “My son, it has been a troubled time for our kingdom. According to the old traditions, you should now rule the land. But it is for you to decide what should truly happen now, trusting in your own deep wisdom.”

The prince bowed his head and there was silence. Then he looked up with a sparkle in his eyes. “My father, my lord. A new dance has been danced these last days. Ursula should rule this land. I will listen to her wishes, for I trust her abilities and her courage to rule wisely and well. There will be joy and freedom in this land once more.”

And with great cries of surprise and delight, the crowd also felt the wisdom of his words. At her coronation in the forest, Sindatrude came as the guest of honour, and all pledged their allegiance to the new dancing queen of the realm.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Winter Boots for Lost Souls

Winter boots time is here. The other morning I rushed out of my house, slipping on my takkies; the Cape rain soon pointed out to me that I have a hole in the right sole. Made in China? The cobbler who eked out an existence in our local side streets has moved on, lost remnant of a bygone era, perhaps an era of poverty in some ways – but more an era of that lost virtue, frugality.

We suffer from affluenza in this global culture, a dis-ease which our ancestors, reflexively repairing and recycling, did not have the luxury to suffer. Do I repair the holes in my soul? Or simply throw the holes and the soul away, picking another role off the shelf. This is the question we Post-It moderns face daily.

Drifting round the shop shelves at Access Park, I get a vague iceberg-tip sense of the immensity of human ingenuity and industry that Shanghai and friends are right now throwing at filling up those holes (as well as ensuring there will be more holes to fill next rainy season). I, and perhaps you, are part of a minority: the majority of our species live in a small area - the south and east of Asia and its offshore islands. Sweatshop workers, palm oil rainforest destruction, rhino horn and shark fin consumption, and a reborn economic imperialism emerge from there perhaps simply because there are more humans there, and the impossible quest - for affluent materialistic Lebensraum for all of us - has gone global – out-spawning its Western designers, those creators of development models in Washington and beyond. How can any of us hold back the tide?

The only way I know begins inside. Navel gazing has got a bad rap over the years. The other day a delicate spider abseiled down to my belly button as I was lying in bed, and as I helped this builder of webs to depart for a perhaps more suitable environment, I remembered my own umbilical connection to mother Earth, to this Gaian web, this Pachamama. I breathed it in, surrendered to the photons and the heat molecules pounding my skin with summer memories, became aware once more of the elegant cycles of life. For a moment, I did not seek connection through my phone, that crazily addictive wonder laced with rare metals, which were hungrily hunted beneath virginal Congolese forests; I remembered that I am already always connected. And in that I found the beautiful power of solitude.

Many of us cannot be alone with ease. I have had times of depression, isolation, seeking perhaps the escape from all this which so many choose today, all in the same lonely and suicidal boat. Take away a typical teen’s phone and you take away their lives. The pressure is everywhere – how else can you belong? – and it takes a strong hermit to switch off and trust the wave. To pull on those winter boots and march out into the snow.

For, like winter turning to spring, the waves will come. We know this in our bones, in our beating hearts, in the glorious oxygen in our exquisitely crafted lungs. And though it may be tricky to find the ways to connect after times of solitude, tricky to seek common languages of song and colour and feeling and playfulness and compassion and touch… it is our earthly task, at times, to do so. There is always a way through the wood, when the time is right. I believe our task it to help each other trust that, find that path, breathe in the gap, and therefore find the unique dance in each soul.

For the truth is that for all the tinsel trappings of Chinatown, for all the glorious human aesthetic plastic artistry with which we are told to cover up our coyness, the best dances have no need for soles, with or without holes. Barefoot beauty is available to all of us at no cost. Wonderful to meet that with honourable witnessing, but brave and true to gift it to the world regardless of the audience. This fluid beauty of our inner soul-song is the reassurance our children need before they too become adults exploring the wood alone. And so the play of life – lila, in the words of some of those southern Asians’ ancestors – continues.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Transforming the Cockroach: thoughts on UK Politics after the election

"One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Great Britain found itself, in its bed, transformed into a giant cockroach."
Andries du Toit, May 8th 2015

So they got in again.
The campaign funds from big business and the incessant droning of the mainstream media about the need for continuity persuaded just 1 in 4 of the British electorate to vote Tory, and as a result they have a “majority” in the UK Parliament that means they can probably rule unfettered for 5 years.

This is insane. As insane as First Past the Post as an electoral system has always been, both in Britain and abroad. Let me share an additional perspective – as an overseas elector, based down here in Cape Town, those of you in Britain may be interested to know that without FPTP as exported to the colonies by the British government of the time, apartheid would probably never have been instituted. In the 1948 South African election, Jan Smuts’ United Party comfortably won the popular vote. The UP was not much more racist than the British Labour Party government of the time and had progressive intentions even if they were some way in the future. But FPTP meant that the National Party won more seats. Once the NP came to power they gerrymandered the electoral boundaries in their favour, controlled and censored the press, and won every FPTP election from then onwards. It’s no wonder that straightforward PR was instituted under the new government’s constitution in 1994. We do have another problem here in SA, with the ANC in power on a corruptingly regular basis, but that’s because they regularly win over 60% of the popular vote. And even with PR our form of “democracy,” learnt from the modern West, does not encourage the finding of consensus over decision-making.

Equally, FPTP ensured that Robert Mugabe established a dictatorship in Zimbabwe. In 1980 when British officials asked him how many seats he expected to win, he confidently predicted (to their incredulous surprise) an absolute majority for his party, ZANU-PF. He understood the electoral system and made sure his people campaigned effectively in the right seats, knowing the popular vote share was not the important thing. And once he had a majority, he abandoned all pretence of “democracy”, for FPTP was already encouraging a winner-takes-all approach.

More than 60% of Britons would like to see a form of PR instituted for the UK Parliament. Not the pathetically watered down AV system that the Lib Dems foolishly allowed themselves to campaign for under the last administration, but a fair system, of which the Additional Member System used in Scotland and Germany seems a brilliant balanced format allowing for regional and constituency representation but with fair top-ups. In this current election, voters for UKIP, the Lib Dems and the Greens accounted for 24% of the popular vote (7.5 million votes), and obtained 10 seats. If you include votes and seats for the Scottish Labour party and Scottish Tories, that figure goes up to 12 seats for 8.5 million votes, or 28% of the vote and 2% of the seats.

This is not, I would suggest, simply a matter of petitioning the Prime Minister who has little interested in changing matters. If I was anywhere near Parliament, I would suggest that all the PR supporting parties work together on this. Those people who buy in to the panic about UKIP getting more say are not thinking clearly enough. Norfolk County Council, as an interesting example, has shown that it is very possible for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP to work together in a consensual way over most issues, representing the vast majority of voters collectively, except the Tories who have found themselves unexpectedly left out in the cold. Yes there are racists voting for UKIP and even being elected for UKIP. But simply labelling them as far righters to be ignored or stopped at all costs is not sensible or fair given the size of their vote. They represent an angry populace: maybe some of that anger is misdirected but they are not inherently friends of the Tories and in many places their votes are more from dissatisfied former Labour voters.

So: if the SNP (pro-PR even though FPTP has just benefited them) works in Parliament with the Plaid Cymru MPs, the Green and UKIP and Lib Dem MPs, and sets up a Constitutional Convention to which Labour is also invited (or even helps institute - for God’s sake, Labour have to come properly to the PR party some time if they seriously want to be a party of the future!) and any pro-PR Tories and Northern Irish MPs that can be found… then this Parliament could be taken apart more quickly than we imagine and we could find a proper electoral system in place next time and many other constitutional changes, not just the ones Cameron wants to impose to keep things in his hands.

Or everyone could just sit back and allow Cameron to rule on the basis of him having “won”. Because that’s what Brits have done for the last few hundred years. (And frankly is one major reason I don’t live there. But I do still care about what happens to that island of my birth).

I’m not holding my breath over this. But surely the system is broken enough now for pressure groups to support these forces inside Parliament in insisting that this government is not legitimate. And to make it as difficult as possible for them to impose their views as if they represent the “will of the people”. And then make sure this sham of an election is never repeated.