Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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It’s Staycation Time!

My family are right on-trend with our plan to stay home for the summer holidays. As we drove back from France yesterday – which is not as glamorous as it sounds since it’s less than a two-hour drive and the campsite was one kilometre over the border – German radio was full of top tips on how to enjoy holidays at home. Callers mooted things like having breakfast in your pyjamas, having coffee in bed and not worrying about hotel hygiene as reasons why they enjoy staying at home. Having never given hotel hygiene a moment’s thought, I loved the last one. It’s so German.

After two nights’ camping, I can report that I like staying at home because when you turn a tap, water comes out of it. I also like not having to walk through a damp forest to go to the loo in the middle of the night. And I like not meeting strange men coming out of the co-ed ablutions and wondering if I am going to get the toilet they just used. The campsite was budget-friendly though (€20 a night for a caravan that sleeps four, kitchen equipment, linen for one double bed, a barbeque, gas and a tent pitch) and pretty, and at some point in the holidays, when I get over the water/loo thing, we’ll go back.

The two main reasons mooted for people to holiday at home, or in Germany rather than in another country, are finances and the threat of swine flu. However, Thomas Cook’s new offer for Germans to reserve loungers in advance might be enough to get the population onto budget flights to Turkey. According to yesterday’s Independent, for the first time in a generation more Britons are holidaying in the UK this year than abroad (probably to avoid the Germans and their deckchairs). Marketers have leapt onto the Holiday At Home concept, and sales of picnic accessories and barbeques are soaring.

With my kids on holiday from Thursday this week until mid-September, I’m compiling a list of cool things to do at home. Here it is so far:

* Ride bikes

* Learn to cook something new

* Eat lunch at the river

* Eat lunch in the garden

* Keep diaries

* Go to the library

* Go to the pool

* Hire DVDs from the library or borrow from friends and have movie nights

* Cut up old magazines and make a collage

* Have friends for a sleep-over

* Go for a walk in the forest

* Read in the hammock

* Learn to ride the unicycle

* Bake cakes and invite friends round for a tea-party

* Collect and press leaves

* Go roller-blading

* Camping in the garden

* Pour Mummy a stiff gin and tonic and take it to her in the hammock

Any ideas warmly welcomed.


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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My Fantasy Escape

My fantasy escape is a writing retreat in the African bush. I sleep in a large double bed with white linen and a mosquito net, and have a view of a waterhole where elephants come to drink, bathe and cavort with their babies. There are monkeys in the trees and warthogs snuffling in the shrubbery.

Silent staff bring me meals – exactly what I require, when I require it, without my ever having to ask – and are available take me on game drives should I wish it.

My family are permitted to make short visits. When they leave they do not cry, but cover me with kisses and wave cheerfully. I feel no guilt when they leave.

There is also yoga, but after the class all the other participants must melt away, unless I like them, in which case they may stay for dinner and be highly entertaining.

I swim in a pool that is the perfect temperature, and take outside showers.

There is a library of books and fat, comfortable sofas in which to read.

There is a verandah, with views, for contemplation.

The temperature never rises about 28° Celsius, and never drops below 18.

I write, and dream, and wake, and sleep, all to the rhythm of the bushveld. I watch sunsets and stars, sunrises and morning mists, but sleep through the heat of the day.

I live in the moment, meditate to the sound of beetles and birds, and write and write and write.

Can I go there now?

Thanks to YogaMum for the inspiration.


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The Forest Maker

I have this little brother, Andy. He is big and quite funny. He is also kind, dreamy, hard-working, full of empathy, sporty, outdoorsy, loyal and committed. For a living, he makes forests.

When he was growing up and in his early twenties, it was never clear what Andy was going to do for a job. He tried his hand at insurance and while his boss liked him, Andy found the relentless daily grind of office work unbearable. He also became bogged down by office politics – as a non-political animal, he just couldn’t understand it and was often hurt by people standing on his head to climb onto the next rung of the ladder.

He knew it was not for him and he left. He began making my mother’s smoked trout pate and selling it at local markets. This work suited him better: he was his own boss, he could work at his own pace and it allowed him more time to be outdoors. Andy’s smoked trout pate became very popular in KwaZulu-Natal and he even started selling it to a few shops, but it still wasn’t The Thing he wanted to be doing with his life. The family, as you can imagine, were wringing their hands. What was he going to do? Who was he going to be?

What nobody knew was that, in his heart, Andy knew what he was going to be. In his time off from the smoked trout pate business, Andy took his beloved black Lab Billy for walks in the indigenous forests of KZN. While there, he would collect seeds off the forest floor, take them home and nurture them. Achingly slowly, over a period of years, Andy developed a nursery of 4000 trees in his garden. He found he was spending more time looking after his trees than making trout pate. He joined local environmental groups, made contacts and began to be known as someone who knew a lot about indigenous trees.

Going indigenous is a big trend amongst South African gardeners because plants that are local to the area attract more birds and insects, whereas exotics leach the soil of precious nutrients and can be destructive. Andy began to sell a few trees from his home nursery, started to advise the lady gardeners of Pietermaritzburg on replacing exotics with indigenous and participating in drives to replace exotics in public spaces with beautiful indigenous trees.

And then his miracle happened. He was offered tenancy at the nursery of the local Botanical Gardens. He carefully transported his 4000 trees from the garden at home to the Gardens, where he now has a shop, staff and a public venue for his skills and knowledge. He is also involved in wholesale indigenous tree sales, participates in tree fairs and has become known as one of KZN’s top tree people. He still landscapes for lady gardeners, but he has also worked on golf courses and larger projects, removing hillsides of exotics and replacing them with indigenous. He is the forest maker.

My brother inspires me because he didn’t take the traditional route into the working world, but followed his heart. He ignored all the naysayers and did what he had to do. When he found his true calling and began to live it, his miracle happened. He is not an arrogant boss; he labours with his team, digging and hacking and hauling. He speaks brilliant Zulu. His employees love him. His employers love him. He is the gentle tree-man of KwaZulu-Natal. I am so proud of him.

And the best news of all, selfish sister that I am, that he is finally earning enough money to buy himself a ticket to come and spend Christmas with me and my family. This is his first visit to us ever and the best possible Christmas present I could have.


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Writing About Nature

I love nature. And I would love to write about it really, really well. However, having grown up an urban girl I haven’t had that much exposure. I think to write about it superbly, one needs to have been enveloped in it, to have grown up on a farm or in the mountains, and to have had constant, daily contact with the planet, to know how it flowers, and to love the animals that walk upon it. One blogger who writes beautifully about nature is Healing Magic Hands. It was this post that turned me into a fan of hers.

I’ve been trying to think of writers who write well about nature. Gerald Durrell springs to mind for his evocation of the flora and fauna of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals. I also think of James Herriot for his hilarious animal world, Barbara Kingsolver for the bounteous plant life of The Prodigal Summer and Wordsworth for his visions of the holy in nature. I welcome other suggestions.

As a child, my main contact with the wild was the odd safari, which is a very elegant and colonial name for what were just holidays in the game reserve. I adored them. The sensible time for a game reserve holiday is in winter, when the trees don’t have much foliage (so you can see further into the bush) and the animals are forced to go to certain waterholes to drink (where you can see them). For me, the best thing about a game reserve holiday is that you follow the rhythm of the bush: wake early, nap in the midday heat, be busy in the late afternoon and evening, and go to sleep as darkness falls. A jaded city body takes on the rhythm mesmerisingly fast, it is as if it’s how we were meant to live.

So you wake with the dawn, have a quick cup of tea or coffee to warm up, and head into the icy morning to see what you can find. As the sun rises, so do the animals: snuffling warthogs running in rows with their ridiculous tails straight up in the air, unsurprised giraffe watching you stoically from above an acacia tree and skittish zebra flicking their manes and dancing off the road as your car approaches. We once had the incredible luck of watching a family of wild dog waken as the sun warmed their den: first mother, then four or five young. They gambolled for the joy of morning.

After a few hours of game-watching, your stomach directs you home for breakfast. This is always a huge and hearty affair: porridge, eggs and bacon, toast, cereal, fruit. Then, since the animals go quiet in the late morning, so do you. You read, nap, play board games or cards, bird-watch. If you’re extremely lucky, you might get to do some game-watching from your chair: a few vervet monkeys cavorting in the trees, some impala wandering casually into camp, zebra chewing the cud. Some people may need a lunchtime snack, others not. Some grown-ups might have a beer or two, others not. Later, you head out for an afternoon drive.

One afternoon, we were driving through a densely forested riverine valley. As we rounded a corner, we found ourselves in amongst a herd of elephant. Because of the trees, it was hard to tell how many there were, but it could have been up to forty. We immediately stopped the car, held our collective breaths and watched. We were slightly nervous, because elephant can be temperamental; they have been known to charge cars and even crush them. However, this afternoon, they were in a peaceable mood and having a wonderful snack of trees. It’s breath-taking watching an elephant eat: they seem to wrap themselves around entire branches, folding these into their bodies as easily as if they were wafers. We saw elephant babies, clustering around their mothers for safety but occasionally venturing forth alone to feast upon a smaller tree. I don’t know how long we sat there. We were transfixed. Then, with some imperceptible signal, they all turned and melted into the forest. One second we were amongst a herd, the next, they were gone.

An afternoon game drive can bring you upon a herd of buffalo, deceptively cow-like but extremely vicious. If you’re lucky, and in the right park, you could see rhino. Here you also hold your breath and count the exits – they are bad-tempered and can run surprisingly fast. Exceptional luck will bring you a cat: lion, leopard or cheetah. I have an uncle with an odd sense of humour, and once when we were out on a drive with him, he spotted a male lion. I couldn’t see the lion, so to get him closer to the car, Chris rolled down the window, leaned one elbow out and gave a loud and insulting imitation of a lion’s mating call. To the lion, this meant his territory was being invaded, so he roared and charged our car. I screamed and ducked under the seat. It was a mock charge, intended only to scare, and it had succeeded. I didn’t see that lion, but his roar reverberated in my head for days. We drove off with Chris being roundly scolded by the other adults in the car.

You return to camp, where the braai gets fired up and starving from the afternoon’s endeavours, you eat boerewors sausages, steaks, baked potatoes, salad. The adults drink beer and red wine, the children Coke. Everyone falls into bed early, exhausted.

At certain reserves, you can go on night drives. Sometimes these will be in a large open Landrover, accompanied by a guard (with a gun), or if you’re in a private reserve, you might drive yourselves out. Night in the bush is very cold, so on top of the anoraks and woolly hats, you have blankets to keep you cosy. At night, you will see hyena, which are menacing and scary, perhaps lion, leopard, bushbabies, various night birds. Or you can drive for three hours, see nothing and return cold and disappointed. You take a chance.

I look forward to the time when my children are older and I can offer them this experience. The bush is my dream holiday; timelessly relaxing, dreamy and peaceful. It can also be pretty exciting, but those charging lion or rhino stories will fuel many a future dinner-party. To smell, feel, hear and see the wildness of our planet is an experience worth a thousand Disneylands.