Appreciate Birds: Protect their Habitats

White-browed sparrow weaver nest

Pretoria/Tshwane is a big, busy city. On a recent visit there I stayed in a little apartment near TUKS (The University of Pretoria) and was delighted by the number of birds I saw. Right there in the heart of this bustling, lively place I saw white-browed sparrow weavers flitting busily in and out of a nest they shared with other sparrow weavers. The small commune they had built was perched right at the tip of a Leopard Tree which grew in the apartment gardens. On the same day I saw numerous other birds about their business. Bulbuls eyed out the resident cat, parakeets shrieked in the trees next door, sacred ibises hunched dourly by a water feature across the way, and red-knobbed coots pecked about on the bristly grass nearby. According to Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, the region’s bird list ‘currently stands at 962 species, of which 98 are endemic.’ What an astounding number. The reason for this high bird diversity, stated the book ‘is [the region’s] climatic and topographical diversity’.

White-browed sparrow weaver

Green parakeets hidden in the bushy trees, and beyond sacred ibis dotted in the foliage

But, of course, habitats are threatened by global warming, a sad thought when reflecting how privileged we are in Southern Africa to so easily enjoy this avian diversity. Just two days before my visit to Pretoria I had watched Al Gore’s latest film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. In it, Gore highlights how global warming is caused largely by man’s use of fossil fuels, and how renewables should be used instead for energy generation. Gore’s method of persuasion is political and moral. Science doesn’t form a major thrust of his rhetoric. This is a pity. Instead of being the story of Gore’s struggle to make the powerful accept the ‘truth’ about global warming, An Inconvenient Sequel could itself be much more powerful had it paired science with morals and politics.

Nevertheless, An Inconvenient Sequel does bring to the fore once again the topic of global warming and its destructive consequences. And this is good. Imperative. As I sat listening to the bird chatter above the traffic noise in Pretoria I hoped to be a part of a world that takes big, urgent steps to ensure that we still have a multiplicity of habitats and creatures to enjoy.

 

 

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Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

Cannon

A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

My London Marathon Journey

Supporter sunglasses

My London Marathon journey began, of course, some time prior to 23 April 2017, the date of the event. Preparations included plotting the route, packing supplies, wearing the right gear, and liaising with supporters. My outfit was a bright orange T-shirt sporting the word Sense on it. Sense is a UK-based charity that cares for deafblind children. I was very happy to wear the colours of such an organisation. I also wore giant sunglasses to attract attention. These red plastic toys were nothing compared to what other runners wore: Darth Vader outfits, giant beer bottles and, yes, a 25kg tumble dryer. The kitchen appliance man (Ben Blowes) set a world record. Despite such competition I was very proud of my four-and-a-half-hour finish time.

It was a challenge to make my way through the thousands of people (there were 40 000 runners and I don’t know how many supporters). But the impressive work of road marshals and police men and women was a big help. They shepherded runners and supporters across roads, and channelled patient crowds into public transport stations. I maintained a good time, slowing towards the end, but was definitely hampered by a race-day toilet that held the promise of space-age efficiency but didn’t deliver. It gurgled through its automatic self-cleaning phase so slowly that I hopped about while waiting, anxious to return to the race.

The pace leading up to the 14-mile mark was the most stressful. I wasn’t sure I would be seen by those who knew me and I took so long to decide where the best vantage point would be that it took a hard sprint to get me there at the projected time. I must say that the timing chips given to runners and the mobile phone app they connected to were excellent when it came to tracking progress and therefore heightening excitement.

Spotting my loved ones through the crowds was hardest at the 19-mile mark and by then my calves were shaking with the effort of keeping me on my toes. But it was all worth it when we were reunited post-finish at our chosen meeting point.

Pre- and post-marathon

My London Marathon journey was a tiring (and expensive) one but lots of fun. I barely needed the energy bars we’d packed, so thrilling was the travel by train and by foot to the four spectator points our family had decided upon. I saw my dedicated, disciplined daughter at three of the four stops, and simply yelled her name as loudly as possible at the first as she ran past. She heard me, us, and saw us in our bright orange T-shirts, and said it really helped her to keep going for the 26 miles.

At last count Robyn had raised GBP1480.00 for her chosen charity Sense. I’m so proud of you Robyn Turton, thank you for letting me be your supporter (and for getting me a free supporter’s T-shirt)!

Robyn (front, centre) flanked by her supporters at the finish

Money, Monkeys and Serendipity

Serendipity is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

This is something I experienced on a recent trip to the UK. And then again when I returned to my home. Both after some, shall we say, trying circumstances.

In a wintry December London, my daughter and I set off from our residence to visit two museums in the centre of the city. After walking 15 minutes to the underground train station daughter realised she didn’t have her travel card with her. While she was contemplating spending her last pounds on an expensive day ticket I popped into the WH Smith to buy a magazine and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. Now we were in a quandary. Putting our loosely screwed heads together we debated what to do, when – serendipitously – my son-in-law arrived at the station on his way to work. After hearing our pathetic story he opened his very thin wallet, preparing to give us his meagre spare change, when – serendipitously – I happened to glance over at an ATM machine just two metres away from us. There, lying on the ledge of the machine was a ten pound note. Honestly. The previous customer must have accidentally dropped it after drawing money. And there it was. In our moment of need. But we hesitated. Well, daughter and I did. If we took it wouldn’t that be – er – stealing? Son-in-law had no such qualms. He gave us his change, picked up the ten pound note and went on his way. And we, happily, resumed our journey to the museums.

Fast forward a month or so and I was back in South Africa enjoying my mum’s matchless Christmas cake. This cake is made and given to me every year after many weeks of hard work and bottles of brandy. I love it. Unfortunately, so does my husband. I have begged and pleaded with mum to make us our own cake each but she refuses. And so, after 25 years of marriage I have devised a way of dealing fairly with this issue. I cut the cake exactly in half and each half goes into a separate tin, one half for each of us. Neither of us is allowed to touch the other’s cake after that. One afternoon I was working away in my home office when I heard a commotion. I ran through to the kitchen and there was a large monkey helping himself to (my husband’s) Christmas cake. Honestly. It opened the tin and then – when it saw me bearing down on it yelling and waving my arms – it took off with the cake and vanished through the back door. I couldn’t believe it. The precious Christmas cake was gone. I couldn’t possibly tell mum about it. Two minutes later husband arrives home and I start telling him how a monkey just stole his cake when I realise that – after our tense history – he must think I was lying. That I must have scoffed his cake and then pretended that a monkey stole it.

Obviously playing on my mind, a couple of hours later, eager to venerate myself, I went out the back door to check if, by any chance, the cake was anywhere. And there – serendipitously – lying on the roof was husband’s Christmas cake. The monkey was gone. I was so excited I leapt up on a plastic bin nearby, promptly putting my foot straight through the lid. Limping off with the lid stuck around my limb I found a ladder, climbed up sensibly and retrieved the – largely unharmed – cake. I gave it a quick dash under the tap and trimmed off all the sides and put it back in the tin. All was happily restored.

I’m not sure why the monkey dropped the cake. Perhaps it was too heavy to carry far. Or maybe the Vervet didn’t like brandy. Whatever, I know that with only teetotalling, lightweight monkeys around the only competition I have for the cake is inside the house.

Speeding Around New York City

‘Quick, only ten seconds to get across the intersection,’ said my husband to me over his shoulder. And there we were, at it again, chasing the lights on foot from West 43rd Avenue to 5th Avenue and our destination: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Haring around Manhattan’s very long blocks for the past day or so had proved to be good exercise, but exhausting too. ‘The countdown on the pedestrian traffic light isn’t a challenge,’ I protested in my effort to slow him down, ‘it’s just a warning.’

‘But if we keep moving we’ll stay warm.’ He did have a point; strolling in 1

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

degree Celsius temperatures would have been chilly. Nevertheless, I was grateful when, on this occasion, we decided to catch a bus most of the way. The trip, which cost 75 cents each (in exact cash, no change given), took us along Madison Avenue. The bus driver and a helpful passenger were attentive in their directions, telling us which stop to get off at, and I enjoyed looking at the big fashion houses as we travelled along. The Met is in an imposing building that looks onto Central Park. In fact the uncluttered view of the snowy park from the coffee shop in the museum echoed the clean and spacious layout of the exhibits and felt like it was one of the framed displays.

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

We made it across the Met’s threshold at

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

10.30am, just in time to join the free ‘Highlights Tour’. Entry fee to the museum is actually discretionary, a ‘suggested’ amount of $25 per adult (quite expensive when you consider the number of huge, free museums there are in other major cities). The one-hour tour was delightful. It was a journey through different eras, continents and styles. I particularly enjoyed the guide’s explanation of a Congolese warrior ‘judge’ sculpture. She spoke of this ugly, aggressive-looking god statue with respect, explaining how effective it was as part of that ancient culture’s legal system. Her deferential tone was in contrast to the angry political ‘Trump’ rhetoric so evident in the newspapers and TV news broadcasts I had read and watched in our hotel room that morning.

Luckily for me there were no urgently flashing traffic signs in Central Park. And, so, after our museum visit, we slowed our customary gallop to a canter through the park, enjoying the squirrels, and the clumps of dogs herded by dog-walkers. We emerged further down 5th Avenue where we sped up again, hastening past Trump Towers with its barriers, policemen and photographers in attendance.

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An explosive evening in London…nearly

by Roxanne Daniels

I had been working in London for three weeks and was finally able to pay my gracious hosts back and keep a bit of pocket money. After a failed and cancelled Berlin trip (which caused me to nearly implode, but let’s move swiftly on from that) I decided to go into the city and buy a last-minute ticket at a reputable ticket office in Leicester Square. As I joined the queue at 4pm, I hurriedly chose Half a Sixpence. The process was a breeze and I had a decently priced seat at the Noel Coward Theatre for the musical. I had three and a half hours to kill, so I wandered around and stumbled into the shop of my dreams – Stanfords. I was absorbed by stories of adventures and world maps in so many different forms that this took nearly an hour of my time.

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