Forbidden fruit

Imagine a ripe, red, round tomato.  It hangs from its hairy, green vine in a clump with its friends among the twist and tangle that is a tomato plant.  Unable to resist, you pluck the fruit, admiring its smooth, shiny skin before popping it into your mouth.  One squeeze of your teeth and its juice explodes outward, filling your mouth with seeds still warm from the sun.  You chew slowly, savoring the homegrown sweetness and then slide it all down into your belly.

It’s a nice image, no?  Unfortunately, it’s as close to that ripe, red, plumpy,  deliciousness as I’m ever going to get.  At least while living in this complicated land called Namibia.

It’s no secret that she and I have a rocky relationship, otherwise this blog would be titled something like “Cavorting with Cupcakes”.  Our latest quarrel: my vegetable garden.  Apparently, growing my own food, rather than eating the plants she provides, each and every one covered in thorns, is completely unacceptable.  And punishable by biblical plagues.

The tomatoes were the first to go.  I had six plants growing like it was a race, leaves and flowers sprouting left and right.   Gradually, the little tomato balls began to form and I was already listing delicious recipes in my head.  Then, just as gradually, the plants began to whither away.  Moving from one side of the bed to the other, yellowing, drooping leaves replaced the green ones.  I watered and watered but no fruit ripened, and my imaginary recipes remained just that.

Then one day, Jay, who is much smarter than I, came to visit me in the garden.  While I lamented the death of my friends, the tomatoes, he knelt down to have a closer look and after a minute asked what those little spider webs were all about.  Confused, I knelt beside him and indeed, saw little spider webs encasing stems and undersides of the leaves.  I’ll go with the excuse that they were really quite small and that is why I had never seen them before.  And I had never seen any spiders, and still didn’t.  A subsequent “tiny spider webs on my tomato plants” google search revealed the culprits; not spiders, but spider mites.  Tiny varmints that chew holes in the veins of the plant, suck out all the water, reproduce every three days and are very difficult to get rid of.  Super.

In an effort to keep the garden organic, the option of pesticides was ruled out.  So I tried a variety of other deterrent sprays: coffee water, chili water, stinging nettle tea, everything that anyone ever recommended.  Either the sprays didn’t work or they didn’t work fast enough and soon the plants were nothing but skeletons.  Namibia just laughed as she sent forward her next blight.

The zucchinis were another plant that used to grow not only well, but so well, that I didn’t know what to do with all of them.  Last year, I became an expert on different ways of eating a zucchini.  This year, the mice have.  I find it especially charming how they eat part of each fruit rather than all of just one or two.  But that would be too lenient on me, the sinful vegetable grower.

This time, however, I had back-up.  I called in the cats.  I could tell they took their jobs seriously by rolling in the dirt, lounging in the shade, and eating grass and then vomiting it up again, but they only cocked an ear, if anything, toward the rustling in the grass.  No amount of encouragement from me could entice them to investigate and the zucchinis continued to be reduced to inedible stubs.

My attempt at a counterattack was not received well by my opponent.  Soon after, the mice began consuming the flowers as well, allowing no fruit whatsoever to grow.  But I was not willing to watch the zucchinis follow the tomatoes into the grave, so again, I raised the stakes.  I put a match to the grass surrounding the garden, the grass that protected the mice.  I watched those flames with a gleam in my eye and a smirk on my face and went to bed feeling the victor.  I was not.  The zucchinis now have worms.

Next came the locusts.  Giant, yellow, armored locusts with appetites as big as themselves.  I countered with marigolds, the so-called workhorse of the pest deterrents.  They were simply chowed down to nubs.  The carrots stood no chance.  The onions disappeared.  Lettuce gone.  Cabbage ppbtthh.

But I fought back.  I fortified.  Either with sliced-up Pringles cans, yogurt containers, or strange, black plastic lining that Jay uses for more important things.

In case of survivors, Namibia turned up the sun.  In a single day, seemingly healthy plants were fried lifeless.  So, up went the shade-netting.

I’ve got a scarecrow.  I’ve got a fake snake.  Companion planting, crop rotation, piles and piles of manure.  But is it enough? How many plagues are still to come?  Will Namibia and I ever sit at the table of sisterhood and break those cupcakes together?  Only, I imagine, if she has made them herself and covered them in thorns.


I return to Namibia, Namibia returns to life (two unrelated events)

Springtime in Namibia.  I used to be under the impression that it didn’t exist.  Coming from a region of the world with summer thunderstorms, fall colors, winter blizzards, and spring bursting to life, I could not distinguish truly separate seasonal entities in this country.

Sure, one was a little colder or a little warmer than the previous.  A little windier or wetter.  But when someone would mention what a typical spring day it was, I’d look around, look at them, look around again and then nod my head and smile, totally confused.

Now I’ve got a couple years of Namibia under my belt, and upon my recent return from the States, I could actually see this mysterious springtime taking shape.

First of all, as I mentioned earlier, it is slightly warmer than “winter”.  We’re dressed in the usual Namibian attire of shorts and a t-shirt.  The jeans are in the closet and jackets are needed only occasionally.

Then there’s the trees.  Theoretically, it’s the rise in temperatures that triggers their blooming, and rumor has it that they have a mega-root that pulls water up from deep underground, but when everything else around is parched to utter crispiness, these acacias and their poof-blooms deserve a medal of valor.

A yellow life boat in a sea of brown.

They provide pollen for the bees, and so, honey for us.

The white variety.

The wildlife is sharing the little water there is to be found i.e. the cattle troughs:

And the acacias are making ludicrous numbers of poofs out of secret, underground sources.  Wacky.

With everything else as dry as earthly possible, tis’ the season of fires.  They break out randomly and unexpectedly, dotting the landscape with flames and towers of smoke.  The sky has a near constant haze.  Sometimes, if it’s close enough, it even rains ash.

If any of you have stuck with me so long, you may have read about last year’s fire.  Thankfully, the one that visited us this year wasn’t so bad and I’m hoping we’ll only have the one (knock on wood).  As before, it was due to someone playing with fire in the bush and carelessly letting it free, bringing us the late-night-tortoise-rescuing-smoke-inhalation-racing-to-beat-the-fire-at-its-own-game fun once again.

Standing by with the hose lest the fire break should wander.

Sniffel rode with me in the firefighting car. He had no idea what we were doing but he liked it.

A tortoise huddled on the spare tire as we shuttled him to a safer spot. Notice the ash everywhere.

And the tortoises aren’t the only ones resurfacing these days.  Frogs pop out of the garden beds as I plant cucumbers

and serenade us from the swimming pool at night.

The snakes are out, too, and lucky for us, they feel it necessary to come visit.  Yesterday, lunchtime, I ran into this guy.

What in the name of Steve Irwin is a snake the size of Manitoba doing in our cactus patch?  Does the bush not have enough birds, rodents, elephants for this thing to eat?  Funnily, the snake book said this estimated 2.5 meter (8 ft.) dude wasn’t even maximum python size.  No, no.  6 meters (nearly 20 ft.) is full grown.  Those are the ones that eat crocodiles.  I suppose someone should, but crikey.  Please, just satisfy my morbid curiosity from afar.  Thank you.

So, snakes and all, I’ll admit it.  I can see the signs of a spring, the land returning to life after a winter, even here in Namibia.  The good news is that after any spring that I’ve ever heard of, comes a summer, summer brings rain, and that is when life damn near explodes out of this place.

If it’s anything like the spring, it should be quite a ride.

Fire 2011: Day 3

By our Day 3, the fire was on its Day 7.  Our time together had been exhilarating and enlightening but also exhausting.  Now, the weekend was coming and I surely wasn’t ready to give it up to more long, hot days in the bush.  This thought kept me going just a little longer.

This is what we had accomplished the day before:

And that morning, we found this little bugger:

Where it came from, God only knows, notice nothing around it is burnt.  But it was going to take out our precious camp from the day before if we did nothing.  It was the last challenge between us and our relaxing weekend.  It was us or it.  I squinted my eyes in an evil glare.  Challenge accepted.  You’re going down, mister.

Back at home, Jay and I load the truck with our whole staff, all three of them,  a firebeater for each of us, lots of water to drink, and of course, the dog, who wouldn’t stay behind even for a really hot lady dog.  We figured with the five of us we could put this guy out without a firefighter, which was good since we didn’t have one.  Then, one more time, we headed out into the bush.

The fire had grown considerably since we visited it earlier.  If we had waited any longer, it may have been beyond our meager man power.  The next two hours we walked along the edge of it, beating, coughing, beating, and then jumping around the next man to the next flames.  We followed it from the road we had carved out the day before to a hill it was climbing on the other side of a vast field.  Then we walked back again to put out those tricky spots that wait til you’re gone and then relight.  There were many. 

Four of us reached the truck at the same time and all went immediately for the water bottles.  Jay lagged behind, inspecting our work.  Our grade: incomplete.  Those tricky spots were not done fighting yet.

So we split up, the staff took the low road, retracing our path once again, moving every stick, every log, every patch of grass near the edge threatening to start up again.  Jay and I took the high road on the hill, doing the same thing.  Sniffel, the dog, now bored of the peaceful shade of the truck, came with us. 

In my brain I told myself over and over, if we didn’t get this right we’d be back here tomorrow.  Do it now, rest later.  My legs trudged slowly and grumpily up and over the rocks.  My eyes searched for even the smallest snake of smoke creeping through the air.  We found a few; mainly logs that were still smoldering and would light dry grass if they burned their whole length.  We tossed them into the already burnt blackness.  Another hour or so and we met the guys halfway.  The dog had disappeared, probably gone back to resume his nap in the truck.  Slowly, scanning the fireline one more time, we all meandered back as well.

At this point, all of us would have been happy to head home and accept our victory.  And we would have had Sniffel been there.  But he was not.  Nor did he come when we called.  Nor was he anywhere to be seen.  You would think a little white fluffball would stick out amongst a charred landscape but he also tends to look like a rock.  He never runs away and if he gets tired of whatever we’re doing he returns to the car.  We worried his superior nose (hence his name) had lost its way with everything being burnt and smoked.  Wherever he was, he was hot, dehydrated, and far from home.  We weren’t leaving without him.  The truck of men drove down the road to see if he might respond to the sound of the engine.  I headed back into the hills, no longer tired, but wondering if the fire had won after all.

Then Jay’s voice broke through: He’s here!  I ran back to the truck greatly relieved yet pissed off to see the little butthead that made me worry.  He was panting hard but seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed his unknown adventure.

That was the last we saw of the fire.  It seems to have petered out on the neighbor’s farm.  With a little luck the rains will come soon and all will be safe until next year when the firefighters will be ready and the dog will stay at home.

Ok, guys, I’m just gonna lay…..zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Fire 2011: Day 2

Sometimes you can look at the morning sky and know exactly what the day will be like.  This was one of those days.  The sky was hazy; filled with black smoke pillars rising over our hill.  

The fire had, inevitably, moved into the next neighbor’s farm. But it was spreading within our own as well.  We met him on the border road fence line.  None of us knew quite what to do to contain it.  This time we had no road to work with, the fire was moving through deep, dense bush.  We tuned our radios to the same channel, wished each other luck, and parted ways.

Jay sent his right-hand man out on the tractor to plow a firebreak through the bush.  We had to keep it from spreading further.  The direction it was headed would end at our house, reservoirs, and cows and pastures.  Our only option was to try to encircle the fire with the tractor and burn towards it, as yesterday, to take away its fuel.  So we sent the tractor into the least thick bush, picked a spot with a lot of grass and set it on fire.

Today we had only four people, one was on the tractor, leaving three on foot to keep the fire from jumping the break. (This accounts for the few pictures I have for this day, please forgive me.)  We had one firefighter but we had left it behind since the newly cleared road was quite rough.  It started smoothly, Jay dragged the fire along with a rake, and me and Eddie, a donation of labor from the neighbors to the north, had firebeater sticks to stamp out any rogue sparks.  I expected some as the road was only two meters wide and the wind was strong and irregular.  So I ran back and forth between the two ends of the spreading fire.  If it did jump, we would need more than one man on the job.

In between, I had some time to think.  I worried about the tortoises.  I knew the antelope could run, the birds could fly, but the tortoises had a slim chance if they got stuck between the two fires racing to meet.  I found one little guy on the road trying to cross to safety.  I helped him to the other side. 

I also thought my choice of a tank top for clothing was not my smartest idea.  The sun was strong and I knew I would be pink by the end of the day (I was). 

I walked past what we had already burnt.  It looked like a war zone.

I hope there were no tortoises in there.

I returned to Jay with an all-clear report from the other side.  We chatted for a minute and then I began to stroll down the line again.  I should’ve stayed with him.  A minute later he was yelling for help.  I turned on a dime.  Even so, by the time I got there, we couldn’t keep the flames down.  It was scorching hot and the smoke kept us from seeing and/or breathing properly to effectively fight.  I told him to get the firefighter, I’d do my best in the meantime. 

I beat those flames for all I was worth.  I tried not to listen to my crying eyes, parched throat, coughing lungs or jello arms.  I thought about the tortoises and the house on the other side of the hill.  They were depending on me.  But the fire kept spreading.

In no less than an eternity, Jay came flying to a halt in the truck.  We started the generator and the water began to flow.  In a minute we had killed it, what we couldn’t do in twenty minutes by ourselves.  We stood back and looked at our 10-meter, semi-circle of ash and laughed at our close call.  Too bad it wouldn’t be the last.  I proceeded to drink about a gallon of water.

We decided to keep the truck with us from now on.  After the fire on the proper side of the road had died down, we drove down to our other man and found he, too, had had a mishap.  Luckily, the tractor had been with him and they were able to carve out a break around it.  We all worked together after that.

We couldn’t plow a road up and over the hill so we aimed at a spot at the bottom with many big boulders.  There, the fire would not be able to pass.  Eddie walked behind the tractor with the fire rake, Jay drove the truck slowly behind him and I was on the back with the firefighter putting out what I could along the road.  It still spread toward the approaching fire but now would not, and did not, jump the break.

The fire reaches a pile of debris discarded by the tractor.

Although we sped it up by working together, the job still took a couple of hours.  We all drank a lot of water throughout, refilling our bottles with our trusty firefighter.  Eddie had a cigarette from time to time, despite our constant proximity to an intense fire. When we reached the hill the sun was heading into late afternoon hours.  And we still had a whole other side to burn.

The fire we had just halted was the one on our farm.  There was still a fire on the neighbor’s farm which would burn the camp we had just saved if we did not stop it.  So from the end of the first fire we started another.  And then we got a flat tire.

Here the truck drives along our firebreak as I put out what we’ve started. It was a long and intimate day with the flames.

So, after a quick change we were back in action.  Same procedure as before; rake, truck, water.  But the road was narrower now, the tractor had only gone through once.  We had to retrace our tracks many times to catch jumpers.  After half an hour of progress we looked back and saw a smoke pillar on what looked like the wrong side.  We raced backward and sure enough, the camp we worked all day to protect was burning.  Something, somewhere, had escaped.  The firefighter couldn’t help if she wanted to, her tank was empty.  The tractor went to work trying, again, to encircle the fire.  We radioed the neighbor to find his nearest water point.  In half an hour we were full and back at the fire.

Our tractor man had done a remarkable job while we were gone.  He had made two roads; one to stop the fire and one to stop the fire when it jumped the first one.  When we got there, the danger was gone and we put out any flames near the edges.  I think he won MVP for the day.

The next day from the air we could see the extent of the tractor maze.

We returned to where we’d left off and continued around the neighbor’s border without incident.  We met them at the end when the sun disappeared from the sky.  Just as we both agreed our respective sides were under control, our northerly neighbor radioed saying the fire was heading toward our house.  There were not two fires that day, but three, and this one had climbed our hill.

Despite the darkness and exhaustion, the day was not over.  As we pulled up to the front gate, we could see the sparkles of multiple hot spots on the hill overlooking our house.  It was actually quite pretty and looked like a little village had sprouted.  It felt rather cozy.  We had a swig of whiskey then got back to reality.  We refilled the firefighter and burned a line between our house and the fire.  This time we didn’t run out of water, we ran out of fuel to pump the water.  So we ditched the rake and the truck and each grabbed a firebeater.  Fortunately, we were in a rocky area with not a lot of grass so we managed manually.  Then we called it a night.  The fire never came down from the hill.

                      Our late night, cattywampus attempt to protect the house.
Although we took a shower that night, everything still smelled like smoke; our food, our cats, our bed.  Regardless, I fell asleep quickly, thinking our firefighting days were over.

Fire 2011: Day 1

It does rain in Namibia, even sometimes in the desert.  But like any semi-tropical country, only in the rainy season.  That season ended about four months ago and is still about three away.  Conclusion: it is currently very dry here.  Result: fires start in a careless instant.

For the past couple of months, voices have been crying out over the CB in the kitchen; fire.  Fire here, come help.  Fire there, they need more hands.  Sometimes the smoke towers could be seen in the distance.  But it was always that, in the distance.  Until last week.

Monday we saw the smoke billowing out of the neighbor’s farm to the north.  We called them up, asked what happened.  Their neighbor on the other side had workers camping in the bush one night and their fire ran away.  Without telling anyone, they let it spread and so it arrived without warning on our neighbor’s doorstep.  We asked if we could help.  No, they had it under control.  Until Wednesday.

That morning we looked outside and the fire had climbed over the hill between us and appeared awfully close to our fence line.  Another fire was already deep into our fields but far from anything it could damage.  Seems something had escaped control. 

Another phone call.  They needed help this time.  The fire was approaching their camp with cattle and what was left of the grass they had to graze.  They needed a firebreak.  Quickly.  We headed over and met another crew ready to go.  We could see the smoke above the trees.  The fire was not far away.

What was fortunate was the camp with the fire was separated from the camp with the cows by the main road.  So all we had to do was burn the grass remaining between the road and the fire to take away its fuel.  And not let it jump the road.  We had a pick-up truck with an enormous tank of water and a power sprayer on the back in case it did.  They call these contraptions firefighters, sensibly.  Then we set a chunk of dead grass alight and dragged it along with a rake.  It was my first time actually starting a wildfire.

It spread quickly and we kept moving forward.  We had a long way to go before the border to our farm.

As we worked, more people staff from the farm showed up with more firefighters.  They started the firebreak heading in the opposite direction.  The owners of the farm, drove through from time to time to check on things.  The husband, calm as a bug in a rug.  The wife, frantic as the flames.  Just to make her feel better, her tire popped in the middle of it all.  I had to continually return to our truck and move it away from the growing flames and snap photos in between.  Sniffel seemed absolutely oblivious to what was going on. 

I walked along with some other fellas, setting fires with matches, or in their case, cigarettes, to speed up the process.  When our fire reached back into the bigger trees the flames grew to sizes I’ve never seen in my life.  They created thick, black smoke, blocking the sun, and made mid-morning feel like late afternoon. 

The other half of the crew finished their side and met us at the border to our farm.  The fire did, too.

We closed what we could with a firebreak but some of it would just have to burn.  We went for a flight later in the evening to see where the fire might be heading, and the damage left in its wake.  It told us tomorrow would be a long day.

The fire found the neighbors’ house.  They were able to stop it without loss.

I came to call these “tree ghosts”.  Like a stick of incense, they fell in perfect form as they burned.  We would see many of them.