Coffee With: Renata Harper

It’s time for our next Q&A! Just love these soulful, beautifully crafted words from Renata Harper, editor of EnviroKids.

Renata Harper
Why do you do what you do?
The natural world is my muse. Writing is one of many ways that I can express my love for nature and celebrate her keepers and creatures. I took the position of editor at EnviroKids (WESSA’s quarterly magazine for young eco-champions), because it’s a powerful way to share the magic of our planet with young South Africans. As a reluctant “grown-up”, it also allows me to be childlike, to play and enthuse.

Even if wordcraft weren’t my chosen profession, I would continue to write for myself. I’ve written through confusion, anxiety and heartache and it always brings me to the other side. I guess I write mostly to make sense of myself and of the world.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 
I would love to have been born in a musical! More feasibly, I would work in wildlife rehabilitation (and write about it) or be a conservation documentary-maker. I don’t discount either as future possibilities!

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari – it reminds us to look much further back and much further forward than we tend to.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – I experience it differently each time I work through it. More recently, it’s given me the courage to slowly opt out of routines and roles that don’t reflect who I am. Scary, but it couldn’t have come at a better time!

The Magic Faraway Tree series, by Enid Blyton – because I always knew trees held other magical worlds.

A quote you love?
“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one…”

I also love this comment by Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: One Year of Seasonal Eating: “People often ask me whether I feel I’m missing out on city life. I look around, at the mountains, at the setting sun, and I wonder who is missing out.”

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Forest treehouse. I love the coolness and wisdom of trees, the diversity of life they support, the dancing of the light. (But an unfenced rustic bushveld camp would win, hands down, every time.)

Your favourite way to recharge?
SARK, one of my favourite creativity authors, writes: “When a child gets crabby, put them in water.” My version would be: take me up a mountain. Movement, exploration and adventure energise me as much as rest does. And I love a good movie! I often go alone, and at unexpected times, just to escape and delight myself.

Top of your bucket list?
Costa Rica – I’m fascinated by its biodiversity, as well as the environmental ethos embedded in its governance. Then Botswana… I’m just waiting to win a 4×4.

Advice you’d give your 16-year-old self?
Reach out when you need help. Support – financial, spiritual, practical – is everywhere and comes in the most surprising ways, if you just ask for it. And take tango lessons – if you don’t, you’ll regret it when you’re 37. Conversely, she’d remind me not to let others, even (especially!) those who are well meaning, to deflate me.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
A time rather than a place: dawn, because it’s precious no matter where you are. In my urban life, I am alert to wild moments all the time, like the African harrier-hawk that raided the Cape sparrows’ nest in our garden and the squirrel that planted its own crops (peanuts, of course!) in our veggie patch. Without these kinds of wild reminders, I’d feel “ecologically bored”, as George Monbiot describes it in Feral.

Humanity in a hundred years – where do you think we’ll be?
If we can listen to nature’s calls and our own deepest, most authentic longings… if we can rewrite our story to be more compassionate towards the planet… I can see us thriving alongside nature. There are enough of us who care.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
A belief in a bigger picture, and knowing that I don’t always see it in the moment. And the kindred spirits in my life, both human and animal.

For you, winning at life is ……….
… when I experience time as expansive. I’m very aware of death and time is the most precious resource to me. I’m happy when I lose track of it, when I can follow my curiosity, play within a creative process. I hate having to rush though my day or a project, or to focus solely on an end-product. I start to feel down when my time feels squeezed. This has made working in a deadline-driven environment very difficult for me at times.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
I’d love to experience a natural area intimately, to understand its needs, to witness its challenges and victories, to know its stalwarts and upstarts. Professionally I’d like to write a book on creativity as a way of living, as well as a humorous animation with a strong conservation message (I’ve written one brief scene!). And I’d like to finally start a blog.

Biting the hand that feeds

Oupa's factory
Checking out Oupa’s plastics factory

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

Rookie errors

Broad Beans

I made some rookie errors when I planted our veggie patch last summer. I jumped in too quickly, without observing the patch – where the light falls, what the wind does – etcetera. The site is, it turns out, dank, with very little winter sunshine. But – never mind – I cut everything back, let it hibernate and ready itself for spring, and took a little break from urban gardening.

I also planted during a drought, which may have been a little unwise, but our well-point is up and running. The water tank and the patch are on opposite corners of the house (there were some space restrictions and it was the only way we could configure it). No worries – we’ve rigged up a very long hosepipe and fashioned a tap – and, with some effort, we’re able to feed the groundwater to our veggies. Minor obstacles.

It’s September and look at these gorgeous blooms that are springing to life!