Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 18th December 2020

It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Tim Dee.

Tim has been resident for a longer stretch this year than he anticipated in a new home in Scarborough, a southern suburb of Cape Town, the last village before the Cape of Good Hope. For much of this time he’s also been a baby-minder to one young Adam.

Where I am today shadows are rare and reflections rarer. I live at the foot of a mountain on the shore of an ocean. Standing on bare sandstone under (almost) all day and every day sun, there is no shadow other than my own and that hugs close and brings little relief. Likewise, when I stare at the sea I get precious little back – there is not much of me to catch in the saltwater. Living in such a place for the last year, between these epic monologues of planetary matter, it has been hard to feel at home. That, though, is what I have been trying to do. 

The effort has been a teacher. And good. Once I glimpsed my (minute and fractured) face in the dulling scales on the body of a tiny anchovy that had been coughed up onto the sand. More recently, other dead things thrown ashore have begun to speak. I am beginning to learn how my location articulates. In our garden, borrowed from the mountain, I’ve buried under a rock an albatross skull I cut from a sea-slain tideline corpse. Maybe it’ll yet make an avian Yorick for me. 

There are no trees at the Cape of Good Hope. No dapple, no light scatter, no accommodating shade therefore. Perhaps half a dozen people sleep nearer the Antarctic than us, but between my room and the ice there’s just a few kilometres of sparsely vegetated rocky terrain and then a vast ocean of coldly molten sea. The land here seems preparing to be gone, while the bigness of all this, the slow-moving mountains and the always heaving water, both at work under a never-less-than-mobile sky, would be enough to make any newcomer crouch. To my south, nothing native grows higher than an eland’s shoulder – we see them browsing on the fynbos bushes and herbs in the national park that begins a few steps from our door. The antelope have long been here and they fit the scene. Anything taller is likely to be new and uncertainly at home. 

There are some uncertain trees, in fact, and the rocky fynbos is not the whole of the present story. Just outside our village, south towards Good Hope, there is an avenue of alien eucalyptus, a stand of pines, and a single deciduous oak. They are all old trees, planted when a different national ideology from today’s attempted to determine the country’s vegetation as well as its human growth. Nowadays none are doing very well in the thin sand-gritty soil or beneath the bombard of back-bending and head-aching ocean winds. Stooped, bare, and dead wood abounds. 

I often feel something like one of these trees.

Chaffinches sing from the pines. The alien trees are home to alien birds released by European colonists at the Cape in the nineteenth century, to answer some homesickness and also thereby adjust what was perceived to be a deficit in the native avifauna. The birds would cheer up the scene for those who were trying to make a new home away from their old one. For me, as this year has gone on, it has been odd physical experience – a heartfelt yank – to hear in October the male birds’ sweet rattling song and feel, almost as though it was my pulse, its evocation of an early spring day in Britain – a season and a place that, in twelve months, has come to seem more than a light year away from me. 

In one straggly eucalyptus I watched two hadeda ibises trying to build a nest. One of the pair dropped sticks at the V of a branch, the other stood further along the same, issuing silent instructions perhaps, or gravid with an urgent egg. One by one the sticks fell back to the ground and I watched the observer bird’s head sink to its breast as it followed each fall. Its expression declared it had never believed any would hold. Or so it looked to me. 

Hadeda are native in South Africa but are regarded as invasive in the Cape. They are doing well in the city. They weren’t here so much when Claire, my wife, began her birdwatching as a South African child thirty years ago. Many people dislike them as immigrant parvenus. But for their long beaks they might be frumpy hens. Dressing only in drab greys and fustian browns, their brightest moment is a small iridescent patch on their wings that shines in sunlight and makes them look like they have washed in a puddle at a petrol station. 

The birds’ brash, clownishly tragic calls, normally parped in flight, have driven our friend Mark, otherwise the sanest and kindest of men, to distraction. He would like to destroy those that keep him awake night after night with their flutter and farts in a tree outside his bedroom. Mark’s problem is an illustration of the most troubling aspect of the new hadedas – by coming towards us and finding a way to live alongside us (often from our discarded waste and in our planted trees) the birds have put their wildness (and our perception of it) in jeopardy. Seeking to live like us and from us exposes the birds to our derision because, whether we fully discern it or not, the ghost of our own enterprise can be seen making a go of the contemporary world in the form of a bird. Doing so we find them disturbing, even threatening. Beyond the hadedas’ glint, I take it that, at some level, the birds’ human neighbours are registering a mirroring. The ibises are somehow as we are or, at least, were. Google them and you get a ‘People also ask’ box: How long does a hadeda live? Can I kill the hadedas in my garden? Can you eat a hadeda?

The ibises were the first non-human lives our baby noticed and pointed to, and I have come to love them for that, and for their awkwardness and their shabbiness, and for their determination to get by among us. Both chaffinches and hadedas are apt expressions of our botched tenancy in this place and it turns out that they’ve made me feel more at home here than our wild and native neighbours like the eland on the rocks, or the clawless otters rippling between beach and sea, or the humpback and southern right and Bryde’s whales sounding and blowing their mammal breaths all the way out to the marine horizon. These other animals have spoken to me too, operated on my living, and tutored me as to where I am – to see a whale every day for a month does something to your mind – but my first friends here, the first to hold the door of here open to me, were these hadedas and sundry others of a slum or mongrel avifauna, including sacred ibises and Egyptian geese. 

Unable to leave South Africa this year I have also been schooled by being made to stay in one of perhaps only two places on Earth where two flightless birds live in each other’s footsteps. On the Cape Peninsula, there are ostriches and African penguins. (I think there are places in Australia where emu and penguins are cheek by jowl; and when there were moas in New Zealand they had penguin neighbours too.) The skies being closed to human traffic has made the birds that cannot do that which defines a bird extra significant. To me, at least, again. I’ve seen many ostriches on the Atlantic beaches, and once followed some massive toe-steps stamped on the sand into the surf, though (I presume) there never was a swimmer. On the east side, the False Bay side, of the peninsula I’ve also watched penguins leave the sea and become upright walkers of a bushy hillside, a golf-course, a holiday camp, and the roads around the old naval harbour of Simon’s Town. I take Adam to watch them some days and we often see ostriches on the same trip. Sometimes one of his first books comes in the car with us too: Lucy Cousin’s A Busy Day for Birds. One bright-painted double-page spread has two penguins on the left and an ostrich on the right. ‘Waddle like a penguin in the snow’, the text reads, ‘Run like an ostrich, go, go, go!’ Putting the snow to one side – here the penguins pant far more than shiver – few babies worldwide could have that species mix as a common experience on a daily basis. One time out, with Adam in his rucksack on my back, our two-headed hydra freaked some ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope into a stampede, and eight of them ran, going, going, going, almost to the very end of the continent. At Boulders, the same day, a pair of mating penguins, jiggling horizontally for minutes in the sand outside their council-provided nest box, were put on the spot by Adam’s pointing and fascinated crooning, his interest also calling in a three-penguin waddle-posse of disapproval who, putting their heads to one side like anguished clergymen, looked at the carnality before them as if evolution was going wrong there and then.

It turns out that I’ve something of ostrich and penguin in me also.

Then there are the baboons. They ape us too. Among many encounters: the dust-coloured female shitting on my roof just inches from the window and my desk where I worked on writing up the majesty of the wild; and a huge male walking to the shallows of the surf at sunset at Olifantsbos and staring out to sea, as if it were thinking of its next steps, making its own sort of orison to the day star at the horizon. They have much to say and I am doing my best to listen, but their story is still coming through, and is already too long for wherever I have pitched up. 


Tim Dee’s latest book ‘Greenery’ came out in March 2020, and will appear in paperback in March 2021. His next book, if time allows, might be called ‘Home Scars’. It should feature the baboons and something also of his last year’s ‘Shadows and Reflections’, which focused on the sounds behind the sounds of his three-decade radio career. This year for CBTR he has written on Richard Mabey, John Bevis, and Laurence Rose, while his book (Book of the Month for March) was reviewed by Lucy Jones.