“In the centre of the yard, the lucky bean tree was just starting to flower, and its bare branches were bristling with vibrant crimson spikes. Beyond the clearing, the lush long grass glowed tall and green and singing with life…”
A flamboyant member of the pea family, this tree is also commonly known as the coral tree, and umsinzi in Zulu. Its flowers draw a myriad birds and insects with a penchant for nectar, its bark is favoured by elephants, and the leaves are munched by baboons, black rhinos and assorted antelope. The flowering of the lucky bean trees is an excellent indication that it’s time to plant crops, while boiled bark is an ingredient in many traditional medicines. When the pods ripen and split, the rows of bright red seeds that fall have long been regarded as lucky charms, and are often incorporated into adornments and jewelery.
“…spiky aloes, succulent elephant plants and pebbles flank the paths, and between each two adjoining driveways stands a pale-green-barked, white-thorned fever tree.”
This elegant, pastel-hued member of the Acacia family gets its common name from a long-ago misunderstanding. Early European pioneers found themselves contracting terrible fevers when journeying through or living in areas where these green-yellow barked thorn trees grew. They figured it must be the trees making them sick, but of course it was because the trees liked to grow in the swampy spots where malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrived.
The acacia xanthophloea is quite unique, as photo-synthesis takes place in the bark because its leaves are so small.
“In the distance, the solitary baobab reached its sculptural branches towards the sky. I leaned my body against the chicken-wire of the gate and pressed myself against it, feeling each little wire diamond cut into my skin.”
Often called ‘upside-down’ trees because it looks as if their roots are in the air, baobabs have a legacy of providing both symbolic significance and life-giving abundance to those who live close by. Their bark has been used for cloth, rope and fuel. They provide edible fruit and leaves and catchment basins and reservoirs for vital rainwater. Due to their ability to weather all sorts of abuse by rope-weaving humans and hungry elephants, and the way that they sprout to life even when cut down completely, they’ve come to symbolize endurance and longevity, as well as community, as tribal meetings are often held in the relief of their shade.
“I remember what it was like to drive on the streets beneath the jacarandas where the tar was carpeted in soft purple trumpet-shaped fallen flowers. If your car tyres crushed them from just the right angle, the trapped air in their bases would escape with a glorious popping sound. It was like driving through a giant bowl of Rice Krispies.”
This magnificent South American tree was first brought to South Africa in 1880 to add a splash of ornamental colour to the dusty palette of the savannah. It has flourished along the streets and in the gardens of the older suburbs of Johannesburg, and has entirely colonised Tswane (often referred to as ‘jacaranda city’). It’s considered an invasive species, which means we’re not allowed to plant any new ones, but the rich blue-purple canopies still serve as a reminder that elements brought in and transplanted from far-off lands only add to what makes South Africa uniquely South African.
“The first thing I notice is that the Tipuana tree is gone. I remember the vast reach of its strong curvy limbs, the perfect thumb-print rows of leaves, whirling helicopter seed pods, and the exuberant yellow, crumpled-tissue-paper flowers that used to litter the ground beneath it.”
Now considered an invasive plant in South Africa, this import from Brazil and Bolivia was once commonly grown in suburban gardens. Its large size and thirsty root system mean that it often competes with indigenous species, especially along river banks, where it can cause considerable lessening in water-flow.
The canopies of these trees are the favoured home of ‘spitting bugs’ (more romantically called ‘rain-tree nymphs) which consume large amounts of tree sap, and subsequently secrete the excess fluid which they froth up with their butts (this just keep getting better, doesn’t it?) and then use to cover themselves to prevent water loss and keep their temperatures stable. Quite a bit of this ‘spittle’ drips down on unsuspecting shade-seekers.
I wrote sitting up in bed with my laptop balanced on my duvet. Morning birdsong, sleepy breathing and purring cats were the soundtrack, very at odds with the story I was trying to tell.
Tragically, the whilst writing the last chapters of BLACK DOG SUMMER, a friend’s father was murdered in a botched robbery. It gave painfully fresh insight into the fallout experienced by a family after such a violent loss.
What did I know of how it feels to die? How could I speak of watching those you’ve left behind battle a shadowed entity spawned by your violent murder, hungry for chaos? How could I even begin to touch on Africa’s ancient and intricate mysticism?
I couldn’t. I still can’t. But now I know what it means to have tried, to have journeyed further into imagining than I thought possible and emerge, altered, on the other side. It has been an extraordinary adventure, and perhaps I am a little less cowardly now that it is done.
It was the first time my life was touched by violence and it affected me deeply.
BLACK DOG SUMMER was born from the fears and questions that had been plaguing me since. The fact that farm murders still happen in Southern Africa today made my need to tell the story both more pressing, and more daunting.