Succulent love

My ongoing love affair with succulents has intensified since our level 3 water restrictions kicked in. Hardy, versatile and low-maintenance with endlessly fascinating hues and contours,  they’re the perfect drought tolerant plant. They don’t sap our water supply, and they absorb radiation. They seldom wilt. And they bounce back quickly after a bit of neglect.

Sculptural and beautiful to look at, ‘Bloom where you’re planted’ perfectly encapsulates them – stick them just about anywhere and they’ll propagate, morphing into the most captivating shapes.

Gardens in our part of the world are looking parched – new plantings have withered and lawns have died. The relentless winds don’t help, ridding the air of every trace of moisture, making plants even more dry and brittle. But the succulents soldier on, asking for just a little water and care, and giving so much in return.

Kindle or not to kindle?

Reading for me is a tactile experience. You can’t curl up with a screen the way you can with a book or magazine. Scrolling through emails doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies the way poring over old letters does.

Books age well. They get thumbed, dog-eared, underlined, and sometimes defaced. They lose their covers (my pet book peeve). Letters fade and turn yellow, magazines get crumpled and tattooed with coffee rings. Kindles? Well, you can adjust the brightness and the font size, but screens are just screens – cold and inert.

The first few books I bought for my kids, I was torn over whether to scrawl their names on the inside – writing in books still feels a little like sacrilege. Now I love doing it. In a generation or two, their favourite childhood tales might end up on a second-hand bookshop shelf, in a place far removed from their current lives. The new owners might notice it, and wonder, even if for just a mili second, who Samuel and Noah Nicholson were.

Every time we move (which has been too often in the last decade) I do a major purge and declutter. My books and magazines are always spared (as are my letters and photos). I just can’t part with them, even the trashy ones that I know I’ll never look at again.

They also make the most fabulous decor items. How completely gorgeous is a stack of yellow National Geographic magazines piled high?

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The point of this post – on a blog that is supposed to be about simplifying and de-accumulating? Books are the one thing I’ll never stop amassing. I just can’t make the switch to a kindle and my magazine fix can’t be online, it has to be the real, glossy thing.

Books, to me, enliven a home. And they can be passed on – again and again. What a gift in our single-use, high turn over world.

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My husband’s grandad was known for being intellectual and bookish. All his books, like this inherited beauty, were stamped with his custom made ‘DRM’ stamp.

Overwhelm!

I love those gifs (or are they called memes?) that do the rounds on Facebook – about life in the eighties pre-technology when we rode our bikes everywhere, could only contact each other via landline, Pac Man was the only video game around and we never watched TV. A much simpler time, when we were told to make ourselves scarce or read a book if we were bored. Being scuttled off to OT, swimming lessons and pottery? Pah!

Incredible how things have changed in just one generation. Seems like right now, our kids, and us, have a lot more to worry about. Rhinos are nearly extinct. Our bee population is fast dwindling. By 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish. The ice caps are melting and the sea rising. We’re running out of water. The Indonesian forests are burning. We’re consuming so much our landfills are running out of airspace. The food we eat is toxic and laden with preservatives. We’re hyper-connected yet many of us are still lonely and isolated. And while some of us gorge ourselves on meat and junk food, many of us are still starving to death. The pressure on our kids to perform has reached new heights (I’m pretty sure we didn’t write exams in Std 4?!). Trump. Brexit. ISIS. Zuma.

It’s hugely overwhelming and can make you want to curl up in the foetal position or be an ostrich and bury your head. Ignorance is after all bliss. But once you know something, you can’t un-know it.

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Cuddling Ruby helps with the overwhelm

Something that has also helped, for me, is to start small. Baby steps. Pick one thing that resonates with you, however tiny, and start doing that thing. Stop buying straws; take your own bags to the supermarket; eat less meat; join a beach clean up; stop shopping; be more patient and present with your kids; give the guy at the traffic light the courtesy of eye contact and a smile. Start small and don’t beat yourself up when you forget to do it or slip up.

For me, stuff is a big thing. I can never resist a magazine, covet just about any coffee table book ever published, and have an embarrassing amount of jeans. But I often feel crushed by the weight of the rubble in our household – the wrapping paper, party favours, broken toys and kids paraphernalia, old gadgets and shoes from yesteryear. This year, I’m going to tackle the mountain of crap that threatens to bury me. It’ll be donated, repurposed or upcyled. I have much to learn about the most responsible way to dispose of stuff (what should we be doing with foil and food packaging that isn’t recyclable – find alternatives and stop using them altogether probably!).

This is the year we lighten the load and start making some tweaks. We’ll tweak and tweak until eventually the small habits become ingrained and effortless. In the same way that I’m now unable to throw food waste into the rubbish bin without a shudder, I’m hoping, eventually, that one day, sooner rather than later, every decision around accumulating is a conscious one, ever mindful of our responsibility to tread a little lighter. Number 1 on my hit list – packaging! Watch this space.

My farm boy

My husband grew up on a farm and is much closer to the earth than I am. There’s stuff he just knows – basic agricultural principles about planting and sowing, the scarcity of water, eating seasonally. Being frugal and recycling is ingrained in him; it’s something I had to learn.

With all the technological knowledge we’re gaining, it seems the really basic stuff that we ought to know, like how to feed ourselves, is being lost. I only recently learnt what a pepper plant looks like. Could I tell a garlic plant from an onion? Probably not. Walnut tree from a pecan nut tree? Definitely not. Have I ever pulled a carrot out the ground? Nope.

I’ve gotten so used to plucking highly packaged and processed food off frigid supermarket shelves I can’t recognise plants in their natural habitat. But, determined to learn, we’ve been experimenting with a bit of urban farming. Our patch of garden is little, but it’s big enough to teach us the basics.

Here’s what we’re experimenting with at the moment.

We discovered, fortuitously, that the area underneath our trampoline acts like a greenhouse, as tomato plants kept sprouting up. Since then we’ve had success with celery, kale and peppers (gutted that our trampoline patch was recently decimated by builders who had to dig up some pipes). We’ve got some veggie boxes (mainly spinach, but also carrots and strawberries), wonderfully large potted blueberry plants (which we planted) and wild rosemary bushes (which we inherited). We’ve got a little lemon tree and planted a pomegranate bush, none of which have yielded any fruit yet. The tomato plants continue to sprout up anywhere and everywhere, clinging to to anything it finds.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can forage for supper, but it’s a start.

Airpocalypse

A decade ago, footloose and fancy free, I followed my husband on a posting to Beijing. I figured that as a well-travelled anthropologist, adjusting would be a doddle. Turns out I was woefully underprepared and suffered a severe case of culture shock. I was a terrible China basher and couldn’t understand the love Sinophiles had for the country. To me, it was dusty, barren, ugly, unforgiving, brutal and incomprehensible.

Beijing is one of the world’s megacities and boy do you feel it — the heaving mass of people, the congested highways, the asphalt, the skyline crammed with cranes, the retail mania. And worst of all, the pollution. We arrived in this insane city in the run-up to the Olympics. Construction was in overdrive, choking the already filthy air with dust particles, making it difficult to breathe.

When we lived there I seldom bothered to check the pollution index –  just by looking out the window I’d know it was through the roof. Breathing the air was so toxic, many of the international schools had sealed outdoor domes where kids could play sport. And those face masks that people wear? Apparently useless at keeping out the really nasty particles.

Pollution - mini rant
A daily ritual in Beijing. Pull back the curtains and suss out the air quality. This is a bad, though far too common day
Pollution - mini rant
A good day
Pollution - mini rant
A (very rare) pristine day

It all felt very post-apocalyptic. I’ve never felt the disconnect between man and nature as much as when I lived in Beijing. Everything felt artificial, even the rain – which, sometimes, it was. After particularly dry spells, the government would shoot chemicals into the sky to make it rain – it’s called cloud seeding and it’s a thing.

During international conferences (when foreigners would stream in) factories would be shut down and the change in the environment would be almost immediate – you’d see the bluest skies, and actual clouds. The international delegates would leave, the factories would power up, and you’d be enveloped in a soupy smog within a day. It was super depressing – and very disconcerting how governments play God with the weather.

Living under perpetually leaden skies was by far the toughest part of our China stint. Tougher than the culture shock and the language barrier. I was in a slightly more forgiving space by the time we left, having made many wonderful friends and learnt so much. Bereft of any natural beauty, I was forced to seek it out elsewhere – to scratch below the surface and uncover some of the idiosyncracies of life in the Middle Kingdom. And, although I didn’t need much convincing, Beijing reminded me of the rare beauty of home. In Cape Town we’re blessed with the most exquisite blue skies almost daily. You do notice a yellow band of pollution when the Cape Doctor stops blowing and air gets trapped by the mountains. But everything being relative, I still like to gulp it in.