Farting dogs cause minor explosions; mostly in my head. You know that feeling when Hydrogen Sulphide races up your nose, causing minor detonations along the way to your brain, kaboom, kaboom, kaboom, and you plead to the smoker next to you not to light a cigarette? Luckily today, with the help of hastily dispersing dogs, the concoction of Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Carbon Dioxide and a Methane mix, quickly dissipate into the Elgin Valley Mountain air.

Just as I reach the top of the hill huffing and puffing, I hear the early morning chorus of passing Hadedas followed by the barking of our seven dogs. Doggies of nonsensical logic, clawing up into the empty morning air to reach their teasing prey who are quickly disappearing into the early morning mist. “We failed again. Damn.” They say to each other, then quickly burrow into the ground for that elusive mole who teases them daily.


We walk almost every day. Up hills and down valleys. It is a vast area for treading feet; crumbly dirt roads made by harvesting tractors and helped by daily walking and burrowing moles. The pathways curl with twists and waggly turns that soon get me straining and stealing every single extra yard. It’s as if some absent-minded giant swish-swayed along, probably inebriated on apple moonshine, dragging his heels, carving a path through the yellow clay soil. It is easy to slink into a hallucinatory cloud and forget oneself in a landscape devoid of concrete. The only disturbances are conversationalist birds and our exuberant dogs who are desperately trying to deal with all this additional freedom. 



Objections can be heard from the wildlife — scurrying Mongoose, scampering Duiker and screeching birdlife. As for neighbours, they are often a kilometre or more away. If you need to make contact, then possibly try yodelling a Frank Ifield melody in a high-C — it might reach them.

When people live in a city they are distracted by what is around them; besides the usual — taxis argy-barging, vendors shouting, honking vehicles, howling sirens, etc; their eyes are wary, darting in search of unexpected surprises. In the Elgin countryside our distraction is the 304 species of birds — so far identified, so I am told. Over 9000 flora, most of which have some beneficial use. Amazing is it not? Just Google and then come and take a walk.


Hoop-Hoop Hoop-Hoop. We are being followed by a curious African Hoopoe. We can’t see the colourful bird as its plumage of cinnamon and contrasting black and white strips blend into the fynbos. But its call which is a lazy melodic Hooop-Hooop, Hooop-Hooop is the same consistent pitch of a very relaxed bird. Maybe its a male, hoping that we are going to lead him to a cache of insects, his courtship gift for a night of nuptials?

I pause to take a breath. This is usually up a steep hill. But today is different. I guess nature has a way of creating a reflective mood within us.

Soon, I have lost all sense of time. 


Where am I? The lie of the land is flat. I am in a valley surrounded by the distant Hottentot-Holland Mountains. I look about me and find myself standing by a very large sawn-off Eucalyptus tree log. 

How old is she? I am curious.


To work out the rough estimate of her years I measure the diameter. Centimetres equal years. I calculate she is about 150 centimetres. This makes her 150 years old. I decide to double-check and count the rings. I give up past 140 when the rings get muted. So, I guess she was probably born in 1870; almost thirty years before the Brits and Boers started their war over who owned South Africa’s gold. 

The dead Eucalyptus has the look of a bloodless cadaver laid to rest like a Paliya memorial stone to be worshipped by Hindu brethren. She is practically white as if washed in milk for weeks and months, when in fact it is the sun who has extracted her mosses, lichens, fungi and parasite. To have died so young is sad. Eucalyptus have been known to live well past two hundred and fifty years.

Looking at the dried sawn-off tree trunk, I’d say, through no choice of hers, she died five years ago. 

So, that would be 2015. Or did she?


I imagine this Eucalyptus once stood tall as Jack’s giant bean tree; thirty metres from the tar road behind me that was once ruled by ox wagons. I also imagine she was a Sentinel tree to guide lost travellers and visitors on wine outings — a lighthouse in a sea of apples. Not only was she one of the queens in the valley, but also a landmark for those who lost their wobbly bearing; usually weekend farm revellers.

At first, in 1870, our once young cherub seedling watched the tall thatching grass swaying high around her. Looking up in awe, she probably hoped one day to be as tall. Surrounded by King Protea in bloom she was probably visited by the local centipedes, and other creepy-crawlies, maybe even a grass snake or shy Puff Adder or three.

Within the first few years, through sun, wind and rain her view grew wider. Soon she was above the encircling fynbos, Erica sp, restios and paint splashed-like blueberries, gooseberries, blackberries on a vast frangipane tart. As her branches and leaves flourished she grew taller, quickly, peering over the two-metre Privet hedge that edged this farm. Our cherub seedling who had by now grown into a young sapling was the farm’s gatekeeper. Endless hours would pass by as she’d watch farm wagons pass by, some filled with harvested fruit, others taking workers home. She can hear their constant jibber-jabbing; oh, and how they love loquacious laligaggin, I suspect she thinks; well, I certainly do.


And in the years to come, lofty, high above the rolling soft hills of vineyards and apple orchards, she watches the seasons change — ox wagons have been exchanged for trucks. Year after year, through storm and sunshine; rain pouring dollops the size of ripe red cherries into the earth. Muddy puddles collect around the base of her trunk, feeding her shallow root system that keeps her upright and her solitary taproot that travels deep into the ground — it is her anchorage. When sunlight dawns she squints and sees Sol sizzling the farmworkers. Their necks and arms are slowly being toasted from milk chocolate to dark Belgium while performing their duties; snipping the vines in autumn; picking the grapes and slapping the flies dead in summer and of course jibber-jabbing. Always.

On top of her dead wood trunk, a sapling has sprouted. 

No, I am wrong. Twins. Deep in the rotted bowels of its tree knot a sapling lives. Twins. Both born again probably in the same year of 2015.

Out of the dead mother’s stump, its children grow. Five hundred and seventy millimetres high is one. Two hundred and sixty is the other. The shorter disadvantaged twin was born in an abyss of darkness. Once the infant managed to poke her head into sunlight, her fast-growing genes propelled her upwards. One day, mother’s little angels will hopefully be as tall as Mama was. Guessing at the nearby Eucalyptus trees, with a similar girth; I’d say probably ninety metres with a 2-metre derriere. Optimistically, I hope she will still continue to reach for the passing Martial Eagles.

Both these little saplings will live off their mother until the children have extracted all living goodness from her. By then the side-by-side seedlings will be trees whose roots will be five metres deep, well-entrenched into the earth and each other.

Of course, there will be the Elgin seasons to help her. But their mother is their soul and life until they are standing strongly upright on their feet.

What this has taught me is that trees look after themselves. A mother spawns a child knowing her genes will carry on spawning more trees like her.

This family connection is more prevalent in forests. Climate, for example, is a great destroyer of trees. A single tree on its own cannot cope with the yearly trials and tribulations of the weather unlike a large number of trees. 


In a forest, collectively trees create an ecosystem that moderates extreme cold and heat. Woodlands store a great deal of water and when the heat rises, it generates humidity. In this protected habitat the tree will live to a ripe old age; unless it is born in a place where man thinks is inconvenient. Which is what happened to this Eucalyptus that died in 2015.

Regular fatalities in a forest would result in huge openings in the tree canopy. This allows storms to get inside and be destructive, and uproot. There is an upside to this tragedy. The carnage creates humus — food for more fallen seeds, more saplings – a chance for life.


The Chestnut tree in our garden is not protected by a forest. The five main layers that helped the tree grow, from the protecting Outside bark to the Sapwood and the Central heartwood which supplies the water for feed are destroyed by a storm last winter. I expect this hardwood, a member of the Dicot family of trees will still grow. Sideways, and if she is lucky, branches will also grow, drawn up to the sunshine above; raised arms in hope that gale force winds don’t arrive soon; giving her a chance to grow and defend her new branches.

You can always tell a happy forest. Just look up at a canopy of trees. Their individual branches grow out until their tips touch the neighbouring tree. They do not grow any further because they both need the surrounding air and light.

Dirt rd & trees-SMALLER-P17A5261

Trees look after each other. They communicate through touch and scent. If their branches brush each other lightly they don’t encroach any further on their neighbour. When further apart they use scent. Some years ago a Boer farmer noticed giraffes feeding on Umbrella Thorn Acacias in the Limpopo. Needless, the trees did not like this one bit. Within minutes they started pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The Acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (ethylene I’m told) that sent a signal to the neighbouring trees of the same species to say a crisis was at hand. Straightaway, the forewarned trees started pumping toxins into their leaves. The giraffes got the message and moved on. 

Beeches, Spruces and Oaks all experience pain as soon as an insect-like a caterpillar takes an enthusiastic bite out of their leaf. The tissue around the damage changes. The leaf sends out electrical signals, just as humans tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not sent in milliseconds as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. So it takes at least an hour before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the insect’s meal. So imagine what suffering this poor Eucalyptus tree went through when the 121.6cc Stihl chainsaw cut through her one and only leg? All her self generating toxins would be to no avail.

From sadness to enlightenment as my eyes take in what lives around us. A sprawling vista of blue mountains echoed in crystal clear water. I smell sweetness in the air. My olfactory senses detect fragrant whiffs of apple chips wafting from our oven. It is in my mind as I know our oven is a couple of kilometres away. I stand up. Just as I am about to turn and walk away, I take one more look at the sawn-off living dead tree trunk and think. Every day 27000 trees are cut down to make toilet paper. So, how many rolls of toilet paper could this grand old dame contribute? Whatever the numbers are, I’d rather she were still alive, standing guard over our valley. Water for paper? Easy decision. You know the answer.

Tangleberry Cottage. As far as the eye can see and the mouth can eat.


Factual Source: Arborday — The hidden life of trees, by Peter Wohlleben.