Goodbye, Farewell, Totsiens, Hamba Kahle and Sala Kakhule – We’re Headed Down the Road and Off the Grid

That little place we all dream of, down the road, under the radar and off the grid.

Excerpt from Chapter 19, Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists

 DON’T YOU SOMETIMES JUST WANT to stand up, scream and chuck it all against the wall? Tell the boss they can upstick the job and the bank manager the mortgage same-wise? 1 Inform the council you’re done with their rates and the tax collector that you’ve payed your last instalment on the gravy train?

It’s really not that hard to do, but it does require a significant recalibration of who you are and what you want to make with what’s left of your life. With the realisation of diminishing returns, increasingly, people are quitting the urban din and downsizing to the platteland as their retirement plan.

The first stratagem is to avoid those voguish dorpies, like Darling and Clarens, that have outpriced their value; even more so once-delightful places like Hermanus and Knysna, which long since traded most of their charms for the lure of development and increased rates income.

For people who like wide-open spaces, extreme temperatures and negligible rainfall, the Karoo is a big puller. Places like Cradock, Vanwyksdorp, Nieu-Bethesda, Rhodes Village and Sutherland each have their own appeal, as well as challenges. In the latter two it’s finding enough firewood in areas virtually devoid of trees, to survive winter. In others it would be the competition of opening yet another quaint guesthouse, restaurant or art studio. Yet the gurus tell us competition is good.

In Cradock, Harrismith, and Graaff-Reinet, it’s a lack of water. All along the Vaal it’s an overflow of sewerage. But there are so many dorps from which to choose (literally, Ariesfontein to Zuurfontein), there is no need to rush things… unless, as was the case when Great Trek leader Piet Retief fled Grahamstown, you are skipping ahead of the law. The smart way is – and this is really the crux of downsizing to the country – sell your city pad first and then rent in the place you fancy to see if it ticks the boxes.

That is one plan, but it solves only half of the issue of getting out of the grey urban jungle. Freedom, as the old song tells us, means having nothing left to lose. To free oneself of all the bonds that tie us to the relentless machine of servitude, …..

On my peregrinations around the country over many decades I have always been on the lookout for a perfect bolthole. At various times I have fancied, among many, Morgans Bay, Cape St Francis (the wild side, not the diamonds-and-villas marina side), Cintsa, a fynbos plot at Pringle Bay (I actually bought one, but life got in the way and I had to sell), Storms River, a Little Karoo game estate called Touwsberg and, more recently, an eco estate in the foothills of the Baviaanskloof Mountains called Honeyville.

My problem seems to be that, every time I am about to commit to my own Elysian Field, I move the goalposts and my dream off- the-grid future skips on down the road. My partner regularly brings me back to reality, pointing out that we live on a perfectly peaceful waterway in easy reach of a beach, a mountain and a forest. Which is the truth. But my response (if only to myself) is, if we all thought that way we’d never get our people to Mars.

1 A famous telegram sent by Australian humourist Lennie Lower to his publisher after an argument read simply: “upstick job arsewise stop”.

The Fine Art of Green Living – and Dying

Bonaventure in Savannah, GA, aka “the garden of good and evil” – possibly the greenest cemetery you’ll ever see.

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy and Eco Activists: excerpt from Chapter 18

I REMEMBER AN OLD GAME: would you eat something – typically something gross like a live garden slug, or a fresh dog turd – for R1 000? No? How about R10 000? A similar scenario that, apparently, saw the actual harsh lights of a TV quiz show was “would you take the money?”

You are offered a suitcase stuffed with money, typically a million rands, pounds or dollars. However, if you do take it, it is with the knowledge that somewhere in the world (preferably a faraway, overpopulated place like India or China), a child will die by virtue of the process we know as the butterfly effect. Would you take the money?

We all do, we all take the money every day, each time we drive a car, or fly in an airplane, turn on a heater or even cook a meal. In the great inter-connectedness of the biosphere, because of this, somewhere a baby dies. It’s usually a young chimpanzee or orangutan whose forest home is being chopped down to plant fruit palms to make palm oil, so that your child, or the brat next door, can have the Oreo for which they threw a tantrum in the supermarket.

By the same knock-on effect, we are all complicit in the destruction of nature, a small comfort being that we down here in the Southern Ocean are not as bad as some people. I recall being in Florida in the United States one muggy summer. Just walking around outside brought on a sweat. My partner and I ducked into a shopping mall – where we were blasted out again by the sub-arctic air-conditioning. They just do everything there in extremes, whether it’s kindness or craziness.

I remember laughing to myself during the very funny movie Down and out in Beverly Hills. There’s a scene where the hobo character played by Nick Nolte goes rummaging in a dustbin for food. It was huge, so big in fact it had wheels! It was a time when we still had old-fashioned metal dustbins in South Africa. Now we too have plastic wheelie bins, four times the volume of the old ones, same as they did in the United States back in the early 1980s. Mostly, they are filled with plastic and thrown-out food. But I’m no longer laughing.

We are each of us that person in David Bowie’s song “The Man Who Sold the World” (everyone you meet, face to face, is that person): we sold the world for mostly trivial increments in comfort and convenience, for trinkets made from rhino horn and sea shells. Now’s the time to start buying it back, one piece of litter at a time, with all the money we made while selling it.

There are a few good reasons why we need to reassess the way we live. One is that most of us who have First World lifestyles use way too much: too much petrol and too much toothpaste, too much sugar and too much food generally. But more telling is that we use way too much electricity and water. We buy stuff we don’t need, then we throw away stuff, much of which we didn’t need in the first place. And with that comes all kinds of waste and pollution and other problems down the line, for ourselves as well as for others.

In South Africa we have become captives of a centralised state that has failed us – miserably – with service delivery. Although we might just have bottomed out of the “state capture” pit, it will take untold years before things get back to tolerable levels; maybe longer depending how things go on the political front. This alone is a pretty good reason to go running for the hills.

One of the best environmental lessons we learnt in recent times was during the acute water shortages across South Africa in the late 2010s: that was how to conserve water, mainly by using less. For many of us, it opened our eyes to the fact that clean water is a limited resource, not just something that, on demand, pours out silver spouts in our homes.

A bad habit the COVID-19 lockdown highlighted was commuting. Already in the first week of “stay put”, people in various cities around the world posted on Facebook claiming considerable reductions in air pollution. On that first day you could virtually hear Mother Earth breathing out and the sounds of nature filtering back in. Surely there must be better ways to do this? E-bikes come to mind.

LIVING GREEN IS ALL VERY WELL, but what about all those old and worn out vehicles – our tired, diseased and toxic bodies – when they’ve blown their last gasket and are headed for the casket? The only thing we can say reliably about all of us is that we are all going to die. And even in death we end up cluttering the works.

Many cultures burn their dead, which uses lots of unnecessary firewood. Among India’s Hindu population there used to be a custom known as sati, which required a widow to climb on top of her deceased husband’s funeral pyre: thankfully, this practice has been outlawed for some time. All the burning of wood and spouses aside, the fumes from a burning human body are truly noxious, as we learnt above.

Some more spiritually enlightened societies feed their dead directly back into the nutrient cycle, usually to vultures, but in some places hyenas. I’m guessing this means of human disposal will not be an easy sell to everyone, no matter how practical, but it does put a new spin on the conservation definition of a vulture restaurant.

But what if a tree were planted on each of the estimated 300 000 new graves each day worldwide? Instead of burying our dearly beloved departed ones inside brass-festooned wooden coffins in vast acreages of good land, we dig a hole for them, throw in a bag of compost and plant a tree?

I’ve thought it all through. Indigenous trees would be preferred, in order to regenerate or create natural woodlands. But other flowering species as well as any fruiting ones would be acceptable, to provide food for insects, birds and hungry people. The hole should be just 1.5 metres deep, one metre for the tree and the extra bit for the body.

The burial containers would need to be strong enough to carry the weight but ones that will biodegrade quickly, preferably a cardboard box with some light timber bracing. The unique selling point would be the name: remember that the first person to patent this product and copyright the name is going to be the next green billionaire.

My best shots so far are the Burial Box, Bye-Bye Box and the Snuff Box, but I’m gifting them to you. All I ask is that you send a commensurate donation from each sale to a conservation cause – and that when it’s my turn, I get a yellowwood.

Why Where You Were Born and How You Were Born Can Really Matter

The story of Hansel and Gretal was originally titled “Little Brother and Little Sister” and told of a time of extreme famine in Europe, when families ate their shoes, or one another. That gingerbread house is not just fanciful, but a visualisation of deepest yearning.

Excerpt from Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists, chapter 17

The first question that springs to mind is, is geological and environmental health really a thing? Historically (at least in the sense of modern science), geology and medicine have been regarded as quite discrete disciplines. Yet, as Hippocrates appreciated, there is significant overlapping:

Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly must … also consider the qualities of the waters, for as they differ from one another in taste and weight, so also they differ much in quality.

Over time, people and animals have learnt by trial and error what to eat and what to avoid in their areas. All along the sub-tropical eastern margin of South Africa, people would have known not to eat the fruits of the forest poison rope, Strophanthus speciosus. The capsules contain a deadly cardiac glycoside called strophantin that has been used as an arrow poison.

Unfortunately, this was not something the straggling castaways of the Grosvenor, which wrecked on the Wild Coast in 1782, would have known. By the time they reached Brazen Head (about 50 kilometres south of the wreck site), fewer than half the survivors were still alive, and they were already starving. Several who sampled the fruits of the deadly vine died right there.

Plants get many of their basic elements and compounds from the soils in which they grow. On his journeys along the Silk Road in the 1270s, Marco Polo noted that the party’s horses became distressed in the mountains of central Asia: some of the horses lost their hooves and had to be dispatched. We now know that it was selenium poisoning from plants they’d eaten.

Farmers know selenium poisoning as the blind staggers that can affect any grazing stock. In South Africa the chief culprits are the delicate yellow daisy-like flowers of the various species of Senecio, commonly known as ragwort, poisonous ragwort or grasshopper bush. The genus is one of the largest groups of flowering plants, with some 1 200 species occurring mostly in Mediterranean regions and temperate montane grasslands.

I have a 3,5 kilogram, 777-page book that expounds upon the subject of geological health in great detail. My favourite chapter is about “geophagy”, and it’s one most parents will identify with: when your toddler ingests soil, ants – and worse.

Humans have been eating earth, or soil, for millennia. There are numerous accounts of when people, entire nations in some cases, have been driven to eating soil (among many unsavoury things) through extreme starvation. Also of slaves who, singly or en masse, committed suicide by eating soil, sometimes voluntarily to escape hell on Earth, but also sometimes through sheer hunger.

Some old tribes have long practised geophagy, mostly of clays, as an aspect of folk medicine. They might have learnt it from primates that regularly eat clay to combat intestinal parasites. Parrots are known to eat clay in the wild: some of the nuts they eat contain toxins, so it might be to neutralise these.

The list of animals known to practise geophagy is long and includes both Tabby and Spot (like when they swallow grass to help void something they’ve eaten), and livestock that are given mineral “licks” as dietary supplements. The old safari clanger “do giraffes hunt in packs?” has its origins in the towering camel-leopards chewing old bones for their calcium.

There is some evidence that eating soil and generally mucking about in mud is not just good for us but even essential. There is an idea being bandied around medical corridors that as human societies grow increasingly distanced from their rural roots, allergies seem to be increasing proportionately.

Our immune systems need contact with Mother Nature in order to develop fully. The apparent allergy pandemic in urban kids is also often attributed to all the bad stuff being put into mass-produced foods. Some say it’s the pesticides and herbicides with which crops are sprayed. It’s most likely a combination of all of the above.

But don’t panic, keep calm and carry on, because we are all going to die. The only things that need to be negotiated are when and how. That could well depend on where you were born (farm or flat) and how (natural or by Caesarean section). All other things being equal, the best scenario health-wise would be on a farm and by natural childbirth. The opposite would be by Caesarean section delivery in a high-rise. These factors could also determine how you fare in life in the years between.2

We each have inside of us around 38 trillion microbes, which we acquire in the first five or six years of life. Naturally born children are gifted a very large number in their mother’s birth canal and are thus buttressed against many maladies awaiting us in the big bad world. The rest we get along the way, but children with close contact to nature get theirs much earlier, and thus their immune systems are more robust much earlier. Eating soil – and even dog poo – is all part of that process.

Medical studies have gone even further, suggesting at least some part of our personalities are also formed in those early years, through the assemblage of tiny organisms with which we come into contact during this time.

Speaking of children, the story of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm has delighted youngsters for many generations. It recounts the travails of two children of a poor German woodcutter and a nasty stepmother. They get lost in a forest but manage to outwit an old witch who lives in a gingerbread house and had planned to eat them, in short. The backstory is there was a famine in the land, so the horrible stepmother takes the siblings into the woods and leaves them there to starve, so she won’t have to feed them.

Originally Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to write children’s stories, but rather to preserve German folklore. The story in question was originally called “Little Brother and Little Sister”, and it was set, quite specifically, between 1315 and 1322. At that time, Europe was in the grim vice of a terrible famine, precipitated by extensive volcanic eruptions in the west Pacific Ocean.

In the first year of the famine, mostly only the poor serfs suffered the hunger of failed harvests. However, as the years dragged on and the famine worsened, landowners and eventually even the squires and ladies resorted to eating their leather shoes, their children or one another.

Some parents starved themselves so their children might survive. Others ate the children so they might. It was the worst food crisis of the Medieval Period in Europe, and millions died all the way from Dublin to Moscow. Just a quarter century later the region was ravaged by the Black Plague.

Soil and Trees: Blood of the Earth and Breath of Heaven

The great engine of green life, from soil to sky, it’s all connected.

Excerpt from Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists, chapter 16

ARGUABLY SOUTH AFRICA’S FIRST SOIL AND TREE CHAMPION came from very inauspicious origins. When I announced to my family that I had decided to become an environmentalist, my mother (far more inclined to clasp gold than hug a tree) gave me a fridge magnet. It is still there long after she is gone. It reads: “After 2,000 years of civilization how can you make a road and not plant trees on either side? Robert Mazibuko.” He sounded like my kind of guy, so I endeavoured to learn more about him.

Robert Mazibuko was born around 1910, the fourth child of eight to parents who were labourers on a farm near Spionkop in the Natal thorn belt. His and the other working families on the farm were allowed to cultivate small acreages and run some stock, as well as enjoy a share of the larger farm’s harvests. All the children tended the family fields as well as those of the white farmer, learning all the tricks and trades of the land.

At a mission school on the farm, they learnt how to build traditional huts and to make things like clay pots, grass mats and milk strainers, as well as wooden utensils and farm implements. This allowed Mazibuko’s family to accumulate some capital, which afforded them the luxury of sending him (alone among his siblings) to attend school beyond Grade.

He showed such promise that, on finishing Grade 7, he was sent up to the prestigious black-run Driefontein Secondary School. One of the subjects taught there was gardening. Once again, the lad from Spionkop excelled, and so was sent on to the St Francis Teachers’ Training College, part of the Catholic seminary at Mariannhill. There he was taken under the wing of a Father Huss, who taught agriculture.

Mazibuko enjoyed a head start over most of the other students and was soon put in charge of all the school’s gardens and trees, and they in turn flourished under his green fingers. Education inspectors would come from as far as Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital, to admire his handiwork. Beyond gardening the students had to fix windows, doors, desks, whatever needed to be done, even building toilets in the surrounding communities.

It was there, following the organic growing methods taught at the college, that the young man saw and understood the inter- connectedness between bees and other insects, birds and plants. Upon graduating in 1930, the young gardener went on to work at mission schools around Natal. He taught others how to grow vegetables and flowers, plant and tend fruit trees and – most important of all – how to make healthy soil: “black gold”, he called it.

After a quarter of a century of school teaching, he joined the Valley Trust, an agricultural and community health project in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. There he refined the trench gardening system he’d been developing all those years. Trenching is specifically suited for places with poor soils and/or low rainfall: very simply, you dig a trench, fill it with organic matter and some soil. Water it, and the trenches become rich, moisture-retaining micro-habitat valleys.

Nearing his eighth decade, the man who had become known as the Tree Man of KwaZulu-Natal procured overseas funding to start his own place. This was the Africa Tree Centre, in the heart of Zululand, where he continued his teaching. Finally, he was able to blend the many influences of his life, from simple farming to what can be considered “modern” organic agriculture, the African bond with the earth and traditional medicine, as well as the spirit of ubuntu, or sharing, that reflected both his traditional as well as his missionary legacies. Mazibuko died in 1994, having spent his entire life observing and working with natural processes.

No one better understood John Muir’s concept of the connectedness of all things in nature. How trees breathed in air through their leaves to make molecular skeletons around a carbon core, and from sunshine to make sugars. From the soil they sucked up water with dissolved minerals, including nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, as well as silicon oxide, which gives them their flexible rigidity.

Soil and trees, marrying the breath of heaven with the blood of the Earth, are perhaps our greatest gifts from Mother Nature.

Eco Activists – The Givers and the Takers

The Givers – founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman and his right-hand man, “Oom Water” Gideon Groenewald. Twin sons from different mother faiths.

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: Excerpt from Chapter 14

ON THE APPROACH TO GRAAFF-REINET the carcasses of lambs lay next to barbed-wire fences, the veld beyond chalky, dusty and parched. Across the Karoo hundreds of thousands of sheep died of thirst and hunger. A white bakkie pulled up, and out jumped a scraggy, hirsute man in his trademark leather hat. Gidoen Groenewald had received the call the night before and had driven through the night from Pretoria. It was his 64th birthday.

I first met Gideon Groenewald in the Drakensberg in the 1990s when we were both strapping young men. It was the day I was to begin my solo “grand traverse” of the mountain range. He had walked up to rarefied Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge carrying a shoebox. After introductions, he opened the box to show me the treasures he’d brought. They consisted of some old skull bones and lumps of what looked like squashed balls of clay. Dinosaur eggs.

I had no reason to think I’d ever meet him again, and I had no idea how busy he would be when we did. Groenewald’s name first appeared in the social media when he was part of a Gift of the Givers team that brought water to the stricken town of Makhanda.

But it was events deeper in the Karoo that brought Groenewald to national attention. On a Tuesday morning in early October 2019 a Gift of the Givers convoy pulled into drought stricken Graaff-Reinet. The nation had watched in awe and trepidation as, after several years of below average rainfall, the town’s only water source, Nqweba Dam on the Sundays River, slowly dried to a bare clay floor, fly-blown fish rotting on its irregular tiled surface.

He greeted project manager Ali Sablay and then, after addressing and re-assuring the gathered crowd “we will find water” – looking like he could lead a wagon trek into the wilderness, and you would follow – announced that he needed to sleep before the drilling team arrived. With emergency water delivered, their real work would soon begin: securing underground water….

At the centre of this life-giving tableau sits Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, born in Potchefstroom and educated in Durban. After receiving a message from his spiritual advisor in Istanbul, the medical doctor quit his practice in Pietermaritzburg to establish disaster-relief foundation he called Waqful Waqifin – gift of the givers.

The Givers have establishment hospitals and clinics, created agricultural schemes, dug wells, built houses, developed and manufactured emergency foods, renovated fishing boats, provided scholarships, food and shelter to millions around the world including in Syria, Nepal, Bosnia, Pakistan, Somalia, Haiti, Zimbabwe and in Sooliman’s home country.

Groenewald’s own journey with Gift of the Givers began in 2014, just days after his wife suddenly died. The phone rang, and a woman who identified herself as working for the foundation asked: “Are you Oom Gideon Waterman?”

Since then Groenewald and Sooliman have developed a deep relationship, praying together every day for guidance. Groenewald says that, although he is a Christian and Imtiaz a Muslim, their faith is the same, and the lesson is the same: to love thy neighbour.

In early 2020, rains across most of the country broke or at least eased the drought situation. But with the entire planet in the grip of a climate crisis, the big dry will return. It’s similar to the sudden outbreak of a viral pandemic: you know there is always something cooking in the microbe-sphere, you just don’t know when or where it will hit next.

(This was written in early 2020 well before the Covid pandemic was sprung from its dark hole)

The A, B and C of Climate Change: Atmosphere, Biosphere, Cryosphere

The Earth is heating up, which is melting our Cryosphere – all the ice that we used to rely on to capture carbon and to reflect back into space much of the incoming solar energy. It’s called a positive feedback loop in nature, but it won’t be very positive for us.

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: Excerpt from Chapter 13

FOR STARTERS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, what is the cryosphere? The word derives from the Greek kryos – which can mean cold, frost or ice – and, of course, sphere. A sphere can mean different things, like a globe such as the Earth, or an area, as in a sphere of influence. Cryosphere is the term used collectively to describe all the areas of our planet where water is to be found in solid – that is frozen – form. It includes sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets and frozen ground, or permafrost.

Fine, but what has the cryosphere got to do with us here in South Africa? The thing is, as Alexander von Humboldt taught us, everything is connected. If you are indeed sentient, you’ll know glaciers in the Himalayas, the Alps, Alaska and Greenland have been retreating, melting, for some time now.

In Africa, the ice and snows of Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzoris are all but gone. The extent and thickness of the sea ice of the Arctic has been dwindling since at least the 1960s and even the massive Antarctic ice shelves are beginning to break apart. It’s all happening while you read this, and you can bet your last cent that it will have an impact on you, massively.

The most immediate bump-on of the warming and melting ice is that sea levels will rise, and the homes of countless millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas will begin to get waterlogged. That’s still the easy part: people can pack up and move to higher ground, and they will. (The results will not always be easy, or pretty, but move they will have to.)

Even more serious than the glaciers and ice sheets melting, though, is the situation with the world’s permafrost regions that cover vast swathes of North America, most of Greenland, northern Scandinavia, the entire Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and all of Siberia. We are talking about an area about 19-million square kilometres in extent.

Clever climatologists who measure things like polar ice cores, glacial retreat, sea-floor sediments and the like, inform us that the Arctic permafrost has been melting for the past two centuries, starting slowly at first, but the rate is now increasing. Permafrost is frozen soil and, like soil everywhere, it holds carbon in large amounts. As the permafrost melts, it has the potential to release as much as 1.6-trillion tonnes of carbon, in the form of methane gas and carbon dioxide, into the Earth’s atmosphere.

That amount of carbon gas dwarves all the emissions currently being released from all the fossil fuel vehicles, airplanes, ships and power stations around the world. But don’t think they are not connected: it’s the human-fuelled greenhouse effect that accelerated the climate change curve in the first place and that is, mostly, causing this permafrost “big warm”.

Another thing about good old Mother Nature is that all her processes are concentric; poke her with a stick here and she swings around and bites you there. We pump carbon gases into the atmosphere, the Earth warms up, the glaciers and permafrost begin melting at accelerating rates, which releases more carbon gas, the rate of warming increases…

Another loop in the global warming feedback scenario is being played out in our oceans. They are responsible for absorbing the whale’s share of all the CO2 we are spewing out – so far as much as 30 per cent of what our various combined activities have produced.

But, not only does this mean their absorption abilities reduce (a sponge can hold only so much), the increased carbon dioxide creates increased acidity, and that is bad for things living in the sea, most especially plankton and coral reefs and anything else with a dissolvable calcium-carbonate shell.

If we don’t stop spewing out all this carbon, we’re screwed. The end game is not a pretty picture. It’s still a wee bit premature to make the call, but we are likely to kill ourselves through simple stupidity. It might be nuclear, it might be viral, but more and more people are putting their bets on the black numbers of environmental implosion.

Most people way down here in Africa would not have heard of an organisation called the International Permafrost Association (IPA). But a surprisingly large number of people live in permafrost regions (places where the mean annual temperature is below freezing). For them it’s easy to build on frozen soil, but what to do when the very foundations of your home begin to ooze away?

One fun part of the IPA’s preoccupations is seeing what once- living beasties pop out of the thawing ice. We know mammoths have come to light, and that a small group of Russian scientists – or was it Hollywood royalty? – may or may not even have enjoyed a mammoth steak braai.

Some other things found include antediluvian (before the Flood) homes made from the tusks of the woolly pachyderms. Also, plants and seeds, including a 30,000-year-old plant specimen of Silene stenophylla, which was found down an ice-age squirrel burrow, and revived.

Anyone who has watched the chilling crime-thriller TV show Fortitude will remember how the polar series climaxes with the discovery of the thawed body of a diseased mammoth carcass. It was not just the stuff of TV thrillers: several years ago, an anthrax outbreak on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia was thought to have been caused by exactly that.

It was George Bernard Shaw who observed that, in time, every joke ends up being serious. In the same way all good science fiction eventually becomes reality. Think of all the fun we have to look forward to.

Plastics Macro, Micro and Now Nano – It’s Time to Clean Up Our Act

A supermodel showcasing the horrors of plastic pollution is the olive ridley sea turtle with a 12-cm plastic drinking straw lodged up one of its nostrils. The eight-minute YouTube video clip has had more than 23 million views. A marine biologist, using the pliers of a multi-tool, finally manages to extricate it from the crying turtle’s bleeding nose. Warning: Be warned, it is highly distressing to watch to the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw&t=148s

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: Excerpt from Chapter 12

WE ALL KNOW THAT PLASTIC has become one of the leading causes of environmental concern, aesthetically on land but, more crucially, biologically in our waters.

Given the fact that many readers will already be suffering advanced PCFS (planetary-collapse fatigue syndrome), following are some fun facts about plastic to get you into the spirit of it:

  • Nearly half of all the plastic produced in the world today is 
used just once then thrown away.
  • Every year around 9 million tonnes of plastic ends up in 
our oceans. That’s enough to place five plastic shopping bags filled with 
plastic trash on every 30 centimetre stretch of coastline right around the world.
  • Less than one-fifth of all plastic produced is recycled.
  • A trillion (1 000 000 000 000) plastic shopping bags are 
produced worldwide every year, each with an average useful life of 15 minutes. The material will persist for several centuries or longer.
  • Plastic (from plant cellulose) was invented in the mid- 19th century.
  • Educated estimates say plastic kills millions of marine animals every year.
  • Every minute around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased. Almost all of them will be thrown away. That’s 52.6 billion a year.
  • Around 25 billion shoes containing plastic-rubber composites are bought each year, mostly slip-slops and cheap trainers, most of which end up as litter.
  • Up to 6 billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away annually.
  • An estimated 400 million car tyres are littered around 
the world.
  • About 3 trillion cigarette butts are tossed every year. Those 
with filters, the vast majority, pose a toxic risk to aquatic 
animals when they end up in rivers and seas looking like food.
  • The typical woman who reaches menopause will have discarded around 10 000 menstrual pads or tampons, plus the applicators, 
along with the associated packaging, in her lifetime.
  • Since mass production began around 1950, we have accumulated around 9 billion tonnes of plastic, most of which 
will still be around long after we are not.
  • Most of the plastic that washes up on our beaches, as opposed 
to that which is dropped or comes via stormwater drains and 
rivers, originates in Indonesia.
  • Less than one-fifth of all plastic produced is recycled.
  • A trillion (1 000 000 000 000) plastic shopping bags are 
produced worldwide every year, each with an average useful life of 15 minutes. The material will persist for several centuries or longer.
  • Plastic (from plant cellulose) was invented in the mid- 19th century.
  • Educated estimates say plastic kills millions of marine animals every year.
  • Every minute around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased. Almost all of them will be thrown away. That’s 52.6 billion a year.
  • Around 25 billion shoes containing plastic-rubber composites are bought each year, mostly slip-slops and cheap trainers, most of which end up as litter.
  • Up to 6 billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away annually.
  • An estimated 400 million car tyres are littered around 
the world.
  • About 3 trillion cigarette butts are tossed every year. Those 
with filters, the vast majority, pose a toxic risk to aquatic 
animals when they end up in rivers and seas looking like food.
  • The typical woman who reaches menopause will have discarded around 10 000 menstrual pads or tampons, plus the applicators, 
along with the associated packaging, in her lifetime.
  • Since mass production began around 1950, we have accumulated around 9 billion tonnes of plastic, most of which 
will still be around long after we are not.
  • Most of the plastic that washes up on our beaches, as opposed 
to that which is dropped or comes via stormwater drains and 
rivers, originates in Indonesia.

One thing is for sure, no matter how much some people would like us to be rid of them, plastics are omnipresent and far too useful to be going away soon – other than into our rivers and oceans, that is. The American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837–1920), who simplified the industrial production of plastics, believed they would eliminate the need to “ransack the world of substances which are growing constantly scarcer”.

He was probably right about that but did not envisage the knock- on. Take your home, for example: if you are an average person (and there is every reason to believe you are), at current figures you are adding about 50 kilograms a year to the world’s load.

A staggering 360 million mostly non-returnable plastic bottles are sold globally every day. That’s around 1.3 billion a year.10 But at least they are, theoretically and potentially, recyclable or re-usable. Not so sachets. Those little plastic “pikkies” are used to vend single portions of instant coffee, shampoo, toothpaste, spreads, sauces and also the energy gels so fancied by runners and cyclists. Because they are not recyclable, they have no monetary value, which makes them especially troublesome for models that seek to contain the plastic plague through recycling and repurposing.

But that’s not even the worst of it. For years, the people who measure these things were perplexed by the fact that, no matter how much they collected and counted, they could not make the scales balance between what they knew was being produced and what was ending up in tips, rivers, along beaches and in oceans. Where was the shortfall?

The answer came in a landmark paper published in 2004 by Plymouth University professor of marine biology, Richard Thomson, which was a high-water mark in a somewhat watery field. Thomson spent several halcyon years on the Isle of Man, where he had teams of students look for all the small pieces of plastic they could find. While plastic mostly does not go away, especially in sunlight it becomes brittle and breaks up into increasingly small particles. Thomson’s students found a great deal of it, much of it only the size of the sand grains, on the beaches.

By crunching the numbers, Thomson found the missing plastic and in the process coined the term that we have all come to know well and dread – microplastics. It is estimated that as much as 15 per cent of the lovely “sand” of the legendary beaches of Big Island in Hawaii is actually microplastic.

Ocean currents are mysterious and circular; everything is connected. In 2015, two Australian scientists cooked up a scheme to see if they could find plastic – and if so how much – on one of the remotest, uninhabited places on Earth.

They chose tiny Henderson Island, in the Pitcairn group in the southern Pacific Ocean, and spent three months there collecting and counting plastic. You might recall that was where the Bounty mutineers chose to hide from the omnipresent and vengeful Royal Navy. Anyway, the two Aussies calculated the island had around 18 tonnes of visible plastic waste (they did not measure the microplastics), the highest count ever recorded by area anywhere.

As if microplastics were not bad enough, now we have to get our heads around nanoplastics – the things that exist somewhere above molecule level but mostly out of sight, unless you happen to be a water flea or oyster.

The base of the marine food system is plankton, tiny particles of plant or animal matter. When plastic breaks down to really tiny particles, it resembles plankton, and just about all particle-feeders gobble them up. They are like the grains of sands on the beaches or stars in the sky.

A microscopic image of a transparent water flea just 3 millimetres long, published in National Geographic shows a noodle soup of tiny nanoplastic pieces. A study of 114 fish markets around the world found similar filaments, fibres and microbeads in just about every species, from Olly Oyster and Shrimpy Shrimp right up the food chain to Titanic Tuna.

An ultra-sensitive sound recording detected one of them saying, “thank you humans for all your exfoliants…” Not really, but they might as well have. Microbeads from cosmetics form a large portion of micro- and nanoplastic mass. No one yet knows what effects they will have in the long term, but there’s no reason to think it will be good.

A River Used to Flow Through It

Your typical river in South Africa: this is the Hennops which, in my youth, was a favourite place for a pastoral picnic.

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: Excerpt from Chapter 11

ON A MAP OF SOUTH AFRICA, the rivulets, spruits, streams and rivers resemble nothing so much as the capillaries, veins and arteries of a living body. They carry water, of course, water that is the lifeblood of all living systems. There can be no life without water, and there can be no decent living without good water. Earth is the only planet we know of that has good flowing water. But not all of it is so good anymore.

The country’s biotic persona is not well. It is a drug addict and its drug of choice is pollution: plastic, fertilisers, chemicals, sewerage – all the waste we generate in our lives, in our factories, on our farms, all the waste we generate as a society and have not got around to dealing with in a mature way. Chuck it in the nearest river, and it is carried away. Who cares where?

There was a time when we could swim in just about any spruit, dam or river, and we did, be it the Vaal or the Crocodile, the Umgeni or the Duzi, the Nahoon, the Great Fish, the Black or the Liesbeek. Now you wouldn’t want to put your toe in most of them; they are often afloat with garbage, building rubble, raw sewerage and attendant pathogens, including cholera.

Freshwater ecologists reckon that maybe only 15 percent of all the rivers in South Africa could be considered as being healthy. How the hell did we, and they – our water custodians, Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) – allow things to get so bad?

In a middle-sized town in the Eastern Cape interior, disquiet bubbled up about unacceptable levels of E coli in the Great Fish River catchment. In April 2018, DWS dispatched an environmental officer to check out the sewerage works at Cradock. What he found there was disturbing.

The place was locked and abandoned. While wastewater continued to flow into the facility, most of the pumps and aerators were dysfunctional and appeared to have been so for some time. Untreated sewerage was seen oozing from broken sewer lines and manholes. It had only one place to go – downhill into the Great Fish River. Add to this the fact that the town was at the time subject to frequent electricity cuts due to non-payment of its municipal electrical bill. (Although sewerage is a water-driven system, sewage processing requires electrical separators and pumps.)

The town with the most widely publicised water troubles in recent times (apart from the 2017/8 near water-outage in Cape Town) is Makhanda, formerly known as Grahamstown. In 2018 it became one of the first towns – but far from the last – in South Africa to actually run dry. The famously elite boarding schools there had to send their children home.

It was reported that poor people in the City of Saints (courtesy of its many churches) had to buy filtered water at R20 for 5 litres or R5 if they brought their own containers. For many years, authorities had known that the town had major infrastructural problems.

In Centurion, Gauteng, residents established Armour – Action for the Responsible Management of our Rivers – to clean up the stinking Hennops River, once a favourite picnic and swimming spot. They strung a net across the river and, over one weekend in early 2020, 170 bags (about 4 tonnes) of garbage were collected and removed from the river over just one weekend. Not long after it was 10 tonnes.

In 2019, residents of Vereeniging (Emfuleni Local Municipality) took to Facebook to vent their spleen. Pictures posted on the “Save the Vaal Environment” page showed the river horribly polluted. Comments suggested the entire sewage-stormwater system there had collapsed. Drains, pipes and processing plants were clogged with congealed masses of human waste, bacterial mats, all manner of plastic and polystyrene, condoms, nappies and sanitary towels.

It was not the first time the Vaal had been the focus of environmental concerns. Taking its major feed from the Vaal (with some input from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project), the Rand Water Board supplies water to all of Gauteng, which is, as we all know, the powerhouse of our economy.

On my travels to research this chapter I saw hovels, some nothing more than a hole in the ground covered with plastic sheeting, along the Braamfontein Spruit in Sandton, in open view of golfers swinging clubs at the River Club, one of the most elite golf courses in South Africa. It would be hard to find a more divided society anywhere on this planet.

Along with human settlements spilling over riverbanks and virtually into the rivers when they flood, comes disease. As far back as 2008, cholera outbreaks were reported in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. What links just about every river that runs through an urban or peri-urban area is that they are, or were, green belts along which the incoming flood of humanity has found free and open land on which to build (or dig) homes, take water, wash and dump their refuse.

And so it goes, town after town, river after river all round the country – the Umsunduzi, the Mgeni, the Buffalo, Swartkops, Eerste, Sand, Black, Salt ….

“State capture” is nothing new here or indeed in many – if not most – countries in the world. In colonial times, the Empire owned you pretty much wagon, horse and hay. In South Africa, books such as The Super-Afrikaners opened our eyes to just how thoroughly the Afrikaner nationalist movement had taken control of every aspect of the country’s functioning.

The ANC did not capture our railway system: the Nats did it a century ago. But one thing those hoary old white men ensured was that, at least as it impacted on the white population, the country’s infrastructure ran as well as did its rail network.

But, starting sometime after we were gifted democratic government, the stories – not unfounded, it turned out – about how the country’s infrastructure was breaking down (potholes being the topic most favoured in this discourse) began. In fact, the whole picture was much larger, and more complex. You can say it started with state corruption and nepotism that, over time, we witnessed ramping up to eye-watering levels never seen before.

Virtually every government department – including defence, education, police, communications, railways, you name it – was involved in the plunder. Also all the state owned entities, or SOEs, including our national air carrier SAA, broadcaster SABC, and power utility Eskom. And among them is the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation. Under two successive ministers, that department was stripped down to its skeleton and actually declared bankrupt in 2017. (It was R4.3 billion in debt.) But where did all that money go?

There is mounting evidence (in news and official reports, books, accusations and counter accusations, charges and commissions about government corruption, right up to the Zondo Commission hearings) that much of the money “stolen” over the past five years went to lining people’s pockets and funding election campaigns.

A watershed moment took place in 2017 to decide who would succeed Jacob Zuma as president, and whether the “capture” would continue or not: the one preferred by the president and his followers, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma; Zuma’s political opposite and vice-president Cyril Ramaphosa; or wild card Lindiwe Sisulu (water minister at the time). Once that was settled came the battle over who would sit on the vice-president’s throne. It was difficult to calculate, as there were many different accounts of money being used to buy influence and votes.

If Times Live and the Mail&Guardian are to be believed, around R500 million of it came from water and sanitation to fund the political aspirations of Sisulu. Denials and accusations of “fake news” (sound familiar?) poured like floodwaters from that office.

There’s literally no money left to fix any of it, or even do the most basic maintenance. It’s a dirty game, and it’s called politics. But, while all this was going on, there were other, even stronger, forces at play: urbanisation of unprecedented magnitude, driven by the twin turbocharger of political freedom and economic hardship. It’s a formula for social, economic and biological meltdown.

“The reality [of the apartheid legacy] is that so many of our white compatriots simply want to deny,” writes political analyst Oscar van Heerden in the Daily Maverick. “They would very much like to believe the narrative that blacks inherited a strong economy and a stable country with excellent infrastructure that worked.”

Our reality in the early 1990s could not have been further from that truth, he argues. “Municipalities worked because they only worked for a small preferred minority of white citizens. Electricity, water and sanitation were mainly for whites only. So, whites conclude that blacks cannot govern, they were corrupt and look at how they have destroyed this once beautiful country of ours.”

It would have helped their case if they had not stolen all that money along with our rivers and our electricity and rail infrastructure and the quality of life for all the millions of people who still live in shanties in over-crowded abject poverty along with our dreams of a better life in a better place.

 

 

 

 

Busy Bees, Dying Bees and Bee Embezzlers

 

The fine art of beekeeping. Most of the world’s honey comes from mild-mannered European and Asian races of the honey bee Apis mellifera. Not so our “killer” African bees. You have to be resolute to be a beekeeper in these parts. [image courtesy beeweelhoneyfarm]
Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: Excerpt from Chapter 10

TO GET THE HONEY FLOWING, here are some fun facts about bees (specifically South African honey bees):

  • It takes about 1 200 bees to gather nectar from about 2 million flowers to make one 500-gram jar of honey.
  • Bees have no intention, and indeed no knowledge, of pollinating flowers: it’s a free service they render in exchange for the flower giving them pollen and nectar. Isn’t nature terrific?
  • Bees beat their wings around 200 times a second and can fly up to 25 kilometres an hour. Their normal range for seeking out forage seldom exceeds about 5 kilometres. However, in desperate times, they have been recorded venturing more double that distance in search of sustenance or water.
  • Foraging bees eat honey before setting off and will consume some nectar on a long return flight.
  • A bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers on each foraging trip. They might make as many as 12 trips a day, so visit and pollinate up to 12 000 blooms.
  • The average worker bee will fly about 600 kilometres in her life in order to contribute about half a teaspoon of honey to the combs.
  • 20 kilograms of honey converts into 1 kilogram of wax.

Biogeography did not bestow the patronage of honey bees on the Americas or Australia: the honey industries there use mainly imported European honey bees, most common of which is the relatively docile Italian honey bee A m ligustica.

They were first introduced to the east coast of North America by English settlers in 1622, and 231 years later (1853) were first noted on the west coast. The African honey bee took much less time to get there. 
In a project to cross-breed bees, Brazil imported a number of races in 1956, including the African “killer” variety A m scutellata. A year later they escaped their quarantine (some say they were let out) and promptly headed north.

They were first recorded in Texas in 1990 and fear flowed ahead of them like a panic wave. They were bigger, more robust and aggressive than any other honey bees they encountered and so easily outcompeted them. 
By 1993 they had reached Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California in 1995, and by 1998 they reached Nevada.

So docile were the established races compared to the new arrivals, up to then many beekeepers hardly bothered with protective clothing when handling hives: you would not dare that with the rapacious African swarmers. Not long after this, many US states began reporting massive swarm losses of commercial hives, used there mainly for agricultural pollination.

A new phenomenon arose, known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Losses of 30 to 50 per cent a year, in some cases as high as 90 per cent, were reported. No one really knew why. Around 75 per cent of all commercial crops – including soya, canola, clover, almost all fruits and nuts, notably the almonds of California – depend on commercial pollination.

First the African bees got the blame. However, as more information accumulated, other causes became apparent; none more so than the potent neonicotinoid pesticides that are much favoured by American farmers

In the early 2000s, widespread CCD was noted across Europe, the worst-hit area being Germany’s highly developed Rhine Valley. Hive mortalities were so high, in some places special bins were placed along autobahns for beekeepers to dump old empty hives. It was found that one specific class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, was the worst villain, and one specifically, Clothianidin, that can be 10 000 more powerful than DDT. It took a decade for that product and other similar neonicotinoids, which disarranges the internal wiring of insects, to be banned by the European Union.

Increasing outbreaks of corn rootworm had spurred the use of ever more potent pesticides. In 2013, German beekeepers reckoned their pollinating business was worth about €15 billion a year. But German crop farmers were not impressed, as was pointed out in a National Geographic article, as the ban on the poisons would cost them around €880 billion in lost yields.

Since then, another topic has come into bee colony collapse discussions: stress. People with AIDS who die, do so of pneumonia, tuberculosis or some other bug that hits them when their immunity systems are compromised. Likewise, diseases are the tipping point of stressed bee populations. Starting in the 1980s, a widespread host of parasites – including varroa mite, foulbrood, wax moths, tracheal parasites chief among them – seemed to get the upper hand of honey bee colonies. What caused these plagues no-one could say exactly.

The United States is the second largest farmer of commercial bees, after China. There is a sizeable community of itinerant bee farmers in the United States, some of whom don’t have homes but live in their trucks while transporting hives state to state, farm to farm, as different crops come into bloom. The bee truckers might think it’s okay, but bees don’t like it much.

It takes a substantial part of their short lives to fix their location, then learn how to navigate out from home and back, in their search for forage and water. Moving them continuously drives up their stress levels and, when combined with the other factors, such as coming into contact with agricultural sprays, their immune systems become compromised and in sneak the baddies.

Many of the same diseases and pests have an impact on South African bees, some of which have been imported via improperly quarantined bee products, but nothing like the extent of America’s. This is mainly due to the vigorous nature of our bees. Added to this is the fact that an estimated 80 per cent or more of our bees are still wild.

Along with that of songbirds, frogs, large predators and some other key species (bio-indicators), the health of bees tells us a lot about the health of our environment. If the bees go, we all go, goes the modern environmental dictum.

In South Africa we might not starve if our pollinating bees disappeared, but imagine life without most of our deciduous and citrus fruits, cherries and most berries, onions and peppers, no beans or peas in the pantry, nor most kinds of nuts. About 100 of the plant foods we eat depend on insect pollination, from almonds and broccoli to youngberries and zucchini.

Farmers in general seem to have learnt how to spray judiciously, says John Moodie, one of the country’s biggest beekeepers. “But macadamia farmers are still a bunch of cowboys when it comes to pesticides,” says Moodie, who also runs beekeeping courses on his farm Honeywood in the Grootvadersbos foothills.

Another problem for bees, he says, is the indiscriminate spraying by unenlightened farmers in places like the Langkloof, a major deciduous fruit growing region between Oudtshoorn and Port Elizabeth, where Moodie places hives every year. “They will spray for fruit flies at the same time the orchards come into blossom without connecting the dots.”

Which is not to say all beekeepers are among the most ardent of conservationists. For many of them, bees are like sheep, or chickens, or nuts – just collections of organisms that are a means (making honey or pollinating food crops) to an end (making money).

Take KwaZulu-Natal Midlands honey farmer Roland Kennard who, when caught in the act of selling honey diluted with sugar water, told Carte Blanche investigative reporters in July 2018 he liked to stretch “the boundaries of creativity”. He was one of five farmers in that area who were linked to honey fraud.

Unlike most other countries with significant bee businesses, the honey market in South Africa is substantially larger than the pollinating one. Some 3 000 tonnes of honey is consumed here each year, generating around R3 billion. That gives lots of wiggle space for creativity.

It is thought that as much as 75 per cent of stuff sold as honey worldwide is concocted sugar water, most of it coming out of China. The amount reaching South Africa annually is thought to be about 2 000 tonnes (two-thirds of the national consumption). Counterfeit honey often has pollen added to give it a deceptive chemical masking.

(Check the label: if it mentions China, but also India or Zambia – caravanserai on the fake honey road – you can be sure it’s wholly or partially fake.)

 

 

 

 

Good Farmers and Bad Farmers

Large-scale ploughing – the beginning of the road to ruination of the land. A few good years followed by a cascading story of agricultural woes.

Excerpt from Chapter 10, Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists (Jacana)

IT IS A SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH that we should never speak ill of a farmer while there is food on our tables. And yet, driving past many dairy farms you’d want to stop your car, jump over the farm fence, knock on the farmer’s door and pie them with a freshly laid cow pat, bellowing: “You should be ashamed of yourself; no self-respecting person, farmer or no, should ever treat animals like that!”

Recently on a dairy farm near Swellendam I saw a field where cows were staggering, udders the size of Pilates balls forcing their legs out as if they had some grotesque deformity. This is one farmer of whom I would not hesitate to speak ill.

Some distinguished people such as Jared Diamond have said farming is the very worst thing humans have ever invented, given the effects it has had on nature over the past 10 millennia, and then on ourselves over the past 10 decades. Diamond says agriculture is a disaster from which we have never recovered.

Agriculture began around 10 000 years ago. Ironically, while the human want for meat, milk and so on should ensure the well-being of the animals from which they are sourced, pretty much universally the complete opposite has become the reality. Sentient writer Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus) reckons the way farm animals die is one thing, but how they are forced to live is even worse. He says domesticated farm animals have paid the price in suffering for the astonishing triumph of human agriculture.

The root of the problem, he reckons, is that domesticated animals still carry the genes and instincts of their wild ancestors, as well as their social and emotional needs. We force them to live in tiny cages, or even worse, their appendages are often lopped off, and their young are taken from mothers before they are weaned (often right from birth). The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply.

Even the ways they are fed are often unpleasant and – at worst – cruel. Take for example cattle: for some millions of years, bovines have developed a unique four-compartment stomach and associated bacteria suited for eating and ruminating grass and pasture herbs such as clover.

And yet, on most industrialised farms, they are fed maize and soya, sometimes worse, like repurposed offal and fishmeal. That way you don’t need lots of expensive land to feed them. In fact, the only land you need is that to keep them enclosed, wallowing all day – often on cement floors – in their own urine and faeces. Or in deep, perpetual mud that causes their hooves to go rotten.

It does not have to be that way, as one farmer outside Stellenbosch has shown. He calls himself and his brand Farmer Angus. I became aware of this good farmer through various Facebook connections and when our family started buying his products wherever we could find them.

After a career in high finance in London, he and his young family returned to his wife’s family farm at Spier, desperate to go off the grid. Angus set off down this regenerative road by building a clay home for his own family and, following that, clay homes for the farm workers when he became manager of the estate. “I saw how stuffed up ecosystems were – are. Not just overseas but also here as well,” he says.

Reading about the Salatin family of Virginia, United States, in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, was the big game changer. In 1961, patriarch William Salatin bought a worn-out, abused and eroded piece of land in the Shenandoah Valley and began the long process of restoring its health. Three generations later, and after much tree planting, composting, rotational grazing and other good farming practices, today Polyface Farm is considered America’s showcase regenerative farm. So, there was Angus on a showpiece farm, but he could see how things could be done much better.

Visiting one one summer’s day I learn that Farmer Angus is one of only two producers of genuine grass pasture-reared beef in the Western Cape. The farm’s meat contains no added nitrates, nitrites, gluten or anything else. Furthermore, all his farm animals – pigs, chickens, cattle – are guaranteed not to be fed on anything that contains glyphosates. He is particularly proud of a new innovation, the only beef burgers – in the world, he claims – that come in compostable packaging.

While he is showing me his revolutionary “free range” chicken mobiles I drop my 50-million-dollar question: how does he compete commercially against all the other highly industrialised, mass- production farmers?
 “Simple,” he shoots back. “No, or fewer, middlemen.” He sells only through select local and regional outlets as well as off the farm. “Every time you make a food purchase, you are choosing a farmer, but are they destructive or regenerative?” he leaves that dangling.

We have vast swathes of monoculture in this country, Angus expounds – what he calls “lazy” farming. There is no place for laziness in his worldview. “Look at all the sugarcane in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo. It is a highly polluting form of farming, and we don’t even need it.”

I wonder about that: if you can farm regeneratively on 400 hectares, then why not 4 000, or 40 000? I recall an article I read in some inflight magazine about how Jody Scheckter had become Britain’s leading, possibly largest, organic farmer. Not something you’d expect from Sideways Scheckter, the reckless racing kid from East London in his white and blue-striped Renault R8 Gordini, number 139.

After quitting motor racing (he was F1 world champion in 1979, driving a Ferrari), he moved to the United Kingdom where he bought a farm, Laverstoke Park, in Hampshire, south of London.

Sheckter never meant to become Britain’s leading organic and biodynamic farmer, but he’s always been a fast learner. The thing is, when you are running a working farm thousands of hectares in extent, you need to feed more than just your own family, or most of what you produce goes to waste. Being the competitive person he is, Scheckter was probably determined to follow the very best farming practices. In doing so, he has demonstrated that you can scale up good farming practices.

“We are creating the most ideal, natural, healthy environment that will enable our animals and crops to thrive. We follow nature, but use the latest and best scientific research, techniques and equipment,” says Farmer J on the Laverstoke Park website. Laverstoke produces beef, dairy, pork and poultry products, as well as a range of beers, and more recently sparkling wine, with homegrown Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier varietals, using strict biodynamic methods.

The website continues: “This begins with the soil – soil is 90% of farming – there are more living organisms in a handful of good soil than people on earth! By enhancing the healthy bacteria and fungi in our soils, this aids plants to absorb the nutrients effectively and that is what gets the nutrients from the soil to the plant.”

There is a link between Hampshire in England and Harrismith in the Free State, and that is farmer Danie Slabbert. Slabbert grew up on a typical eastern Free State plaas where they grow stuff like mealies and wheat and sunflowers and soya beans and potatoes. In his father’s day it was considered quite alternative to grow the radishes that are now a popular rotational crop of the region.

What made Slabbert a bit different from the other plaasjapies of the district was that his folks sent him off to actually study agriculture, in far-off Saasveld, near George. That kind of thing will get a young man thinking, for good or for bad. Many people in the region thought it was bad, possibly even blasphemous when he came back and started talking about new-fangled methods of farming – like not spraying.

Agriculture has broken down, Slabbert says, what with the use of chemicals and large machinery. “We’ve actually weakened the land without even knowing it. What we (his Riemland farmers’ study and research group) want to do, is bring it back to its natural state,” he says. He uses other modern words like regenerative, and natural and unconventional. A central tenet of the Riemland group is, wait for it … to not plough. In the mealielands of the Highveld that would have been akin to not attending church on Sundays.

With ploughing you turn over the topsoil and release the dormant nutrients for immediate take-up by new crops. That leads to a massive flourishing of new plantings. But every time you plough, things cascade: the topsoil dries out a bit more, and the bacteria and other soil enrichers including earthworms decrease. Then crop harvests begin to decline, so initially you add manure from your livestock.

Year by year that is not enough for intensely planted monocultures such as mealies, wheat or sunflowers, soya or potatoes. So, you have to add artificial fertilisers to maintain harvest levels. But by then you find diseases have infiltrated the weakened bio-organism that is your farm, and you begin to use poisons, herbicides to clear the weeds, and pesticides to kill the bugs (bad as well as good ones). That rot sets in, and it escalates with each season of ploughing and spraying.

“We want to bring back livestock. We want biology and organisms to live and work together. We want to use less chemicals and rebuild the land, so that it retains moisture and structure,” says a man who has gone down a hard road to reach a better place. After a journey of 11 years, he can now say with confidence that: “My plants survive with less rain and my land’s nutritional status has improved immensely.”

With the return of earthworms to his lands, nature’s own composters, he has seen the return of other creatures that have been absent from the area for decades, like owls (26 in one gathering) and blue cranes. What that means is that the soil has come back to life and with it the pyramid of life from microbes and mice to insects and birds.