Maverick Life

OLIVE SCHREINER CENTENARY, DEFERRED

From Dust to Dust: The ascent to glory in worlds great and small

From Dust to Dust: The ascent to glory in worlds great and small
The view back towards Cradock from Olive Schreiner’s grave at the top of Buffelskop. The pilgrims included Darryl David (standing) and novelist Henrietta Rose-Innes (hands on hips). (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Ascending Buffelskop, near Cradock, on a pilgrimage to visit the gravesite of Olive Schreiner is as sacred as it is rare.

Perhaps this is what is meant by World Without End. Not that our world will never end, this tiny, finite existence of ours on this planet, but that there is no end to the universe, that it goes on and on forever and ever. But without an amen, because the amen only comes at the end, and if there is no end, there is no amen.

The dust rises behind the wheels as we climb the mountain; it settles again as we drive on, up and up. The blue sky of the day shuts out the stars of the pending night. How gently they must shine on the grave up there, unseen from within the little tomb that holds legend and light from an earlier time, now to be honoured as she rightly should.

Your world is suddenly inverted. What was large behind us has grown smaller and smaller as we climbed; what was far away, in her eyrie where a pair of eagles circle overhead, is now close, intimate. Here she is, lying in dust, since her interment a century and a year ago. The long-held dream has become real.

The ascent by vehicle. The farm where Schreiner was governess to the Cawood girls is not far, somewhere below. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The hero who has brought you here is Olive Schreiner, and you’re within touching distance of her now. The tomb of stone is so small, and she is not alone in it; Cron, or Cronwright-Schreiner, who took his wife’s name, lies here too, and her baby, and the pet dogs she called Nita. But we imagine her alone in there, somehow; there seems scarcely space for one small person. How petite she is, yet how great. A giant mind in the smallest frame; proof, or evidence, that it is what we do with our minds that matters.

The previous evening, I’d given a talk on the Karoo and food at the base camp down there, a lodge called Dirosie on a farm called Buffelshoek. It is the farm near Cradock named after its mountain, at the top of which Schreiner wished to be entombed. As long as I’ve been visiting, and now living in, Cradock, I have wanted to climb to the top of Buffelskop to pay my respects. Petty human ailments kept me from it (osteoarthritis in the knees), but this time I knew I had to do it. Opportunities to do this are rare.

We gathered at Dirosie the previous night for a spit braai and the final talks of the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée, a personal reflection by retired Karoo magistrate Jo Els, a short story by Bookbedonnerd literature enthusiast Darryl David, and my talk on “Karoo food” which in truth had little to do with the latter.

I’d asked them to switch the lights off after supper so we could gather around the open fire and look up at the starry night and try to understand the greatness and smallness of everything. The nearby presence of Schreiner, atop that mountain over there, we know, but out of sight and seemingly so far, so detached, so seemingly unapproachable, lying there in her literary majesty. Us, down here, so ineffably puny, strive though we might. Below our aching feet, the ground from which we came and to which we will return; the dust to dust, and the seeming nothingness of it; above, the endlessness of an infinity we cannot comprehend. But we can try to.

Helping me to understand the greatness and the smallness of everything is my boet, my brother-in-law, but in truth my brother, Gerry Kuhn. My own brother died when I was not yet three and he, Phillip, just six, but Gerry, when he fell in love with my sister Pat, became my brother, and we love each other as blood loves blood, and have done since the 1960s when we first met. He happens to be one of the cleverest people I know, an engineer but also an architect, an artist and some-time singer, but he is also a rare expert in sound control. As a consequence, for many years he has been a familiar figure at every big sporting or cultural event in the Western Cape, from marathons to concerts; Gerry, the guy who sorts out the sound levels so the neighbours don’t complain about the noise from the stadium. He knows every nightclub in town, where the young habitués think he’s the coolest old guy ever. He meets everyone from the mayor to the guy panting at the back of the race, and everyone knows the tall, shaggy-haired old guy who sorts out the sound. Even Justin Bieber had the privilege of meeting my boet.

But Gerry’s world is tiny, because apart from all those clever things, he also invented something called the Dustwatch, which collects dust particles which he and his team examine on behalf of those who have bought Dustwatches and installed them on their farms, mines, plants and the like, all over the world. And this marks the contrast between Gerry’s world and mine.

In his cluttered, mad garage-office in Piketberg, truly the sort of space where you’d expect to find an eccentric, you will find Gerry head-down over a microscope through which he examines dust particles and photographs them. But it is when he blows up those images and displays them on his computer screen that you gasp at the beauty to be found in what appears to be nothing. 

Because, in one tiny speck of household dust lies an entire world of beauty and wonder. Gossamer strands of gold, shards of emerald and crimson, yellow ochre and ultramarine; filigree universes where tiny creatures – you can see their legs, their feelers, their tiny heads – weave or wander or munch on something which should not be there. Gerry calls it “my tiny world”; a universe in a speck of dust so small that the human eye cannot see it.

My world is far bigger than Gerry’s; it couldn’t be more of a contrast. My world lies in the Karoo, beneath the stars. I gaze up at night and my mind wanders to faraway universes, galaxies where strange creatures may lurk out of our sight and comprehension, just as there is life in Gerry’s minuscule universe.

The view from the top. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

And I imagine there is another intelligent creature millions of light years away gazing into his night sky, imagining that there might be life out there, and their eye, when scanning the sky, stops on a tiny pin prick of light that is our world, and thinks: perhaps there is life there, perhaps somebody stands there gazing into their night sky wondering if I might be here. Two minds in infinity, each as small and insignificant as the other, but connected.

Etienne van Heerden (centre, back to camera) hosted the veldsoirée and the expedition to the gravesite. From here he can see the farm where he lived as a boy. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

And his entire world, and ours, are as specks of dust, when measured against the space that goes on, and on, and on, without end. Where Gerry’s telescope looks down and finds the infinitesimally small, others such as the James Webb Telescope look out at the vastness of it all. In that immensity, they photograph the tiniest jot of black nothingness; not a “star” but an invisible speck between the stars, and in it they find galaxy upon galaxy into infinity and seemingly beyond. In nothing.

My alien friend in outer space may find himself a powerful telescope one night and focus it on the speck he found that is our Earth. And he may zoom in closer and take a photograph of a tiny speck within the speck that is the entire planet. That speck is the Karoo. My entire world.

The plaque on Schreiner’s tomb. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Three stones (the large one at the bottom, the large one above it and the small one to its left) were removed to place Cronwright-Schreiner’s body in the tomb. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

And in this Karoo we love, all those who admire Schreiner for it was her favourite ground, we have climbed this mountain to acknowledge her a century and a year after she was interred there. A centenary deferred by pandemic, so we are here a year late.

Three 4×4 vehicles have driven us up and up, on a treacherously narrow and bumpy path, along steep mountainsides with gloriously frightening views all the way down. Higher and higher, adrenaline is pumping, senses are heightened, and on a plateau we stop and climb out to look at Cradock far below, the big town now small. Back on board, we ascend to a gathering point where the landowner, Dirkie Visser, has had a hut built where biltong, Coke and sherry are waiting for us. Over there, another 500 metres away, is the path to the pinnacle where she lies.

Everyone here is a Schreinerphile. We have read her letters, visited the Karoo towns where she once lived; we know how she thought, what she wrote and when. In my case, it was Schreiner who brought me to the Karoo, and to Cradock, eventually. 

In dust, on high, the great writer and thinker in repose. The tiny old town below, infinity above. Tiny worlds humming with life in a speck of household dust. World without end. DM/TGIFood

Read more:

Suid-Afrikaanse samelewing weer eens by ’n kruispad: Gesprekke by die Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée

Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée: fotogalery van die sprekers

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.

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  • Jon Quirk says:

    Explore the mysteries and wonders of fractals in the brilliant book “The Wisdom of Crocodiles”, that in addition to talking a lot about fractals – how the universe is repeated, in ever-decreasing scales such that dust under sufficient magnification, looks identical to the distant surface of a planet – also gives both the best explanation of the recent global financial crisis and what it takes to make a psychotic killer – and all wrapped up in a great read.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    Brilliant. This alone is worth the subscription. The corruption murder and theft is everywhere and makes us zombies these days.

    More like this please.

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