Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Fire and water

Nature is amazing.

Last week water began running down the gutters on both sides of the road that runs past our house. It sometimes does that after heavy rain, but this is winter, and we live in a summer rainfall area with dry winters. There’s been no rain for at least two months.

Was it a broken water main? I went up the road to have a look, and there was no sign of such a thing. The water was coming across the road all along, from the empty veld by the railway line across the road from us. Why would it come when there has been to rain? What would cause the water table to rise so that that dry veld would turn into a swamp?

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line -- water in the dry season

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line — water in the dry season

Then we recalled that a couple of weeks ago there had been a fire over the road. Every winter there’s a fire there, and some of the grass is burnt. But this time it was nearly all burnt. Between our house and the railway line was not a blade of grass, just black stubble. With no grass to suck up the water and transpire it into the air, the water rose to the surface, flowed under the concrete fence and out into the street where it ran down the gutters.

That's our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass/

That’s our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass.

It’s hard to think that the dry grass that was there before the fire sucked up so much water. It is brown and dry and brittle. Yet somehow cattle eat such grass and thrive. It gives them both food and moisture.

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

A little way off was a clump of trees. They too are dry and leafless, winter-brown. But somehow the fire has not penetrated the trees, and there is a clump of aloes where the fire stopped.

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

But when you go to the aloes, you see that they hide a heap of stones. And beyond it there are more heaps of stones. And then I realise that these are houses. Perhaps this is an archaeological site. Who lived here, and when?

And then I realise that this is a relic of the ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid. Kilner Park, the suburb where we live, used to belong to the Methodist Church, as did the neighbouring suburb of Queenswood. Across the railwayline to the south-east is Weavind Park — all named after luminaries of the Methodist Church. On the hill was the Kilnerton Institution, where many black South African leaders were educated. But it was too close to white Pretoria, so the black people had to go, and all that remains are these piles of stones.

And now the suburban trains of MetroRail run past here. There is no station, nothing to stop for. They are going to Mamelodi, 15 kilometres to the east, far enough from white Pretoria for the black people to live.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

I marvel at the interaction of fire and water. The old elements of the ancient Greek philosophers, earth, air, fire and water. The fire comes, and brings the water. Modern chemists will say that these are not real elements, not the chemical elements of the universe. But they are the elements of human life, of the human world. We need them all to live. In three weeks time spring will begin. Green shoots will appear in the grass, the trees will sprout leaves. The water table will recede again until the rains come in October, and the fire of the sun will enable the grass to suck up the water from the earth, and the life of the world goes on.

 

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