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mucking through the compost

E and I are speeding away in a car – our old VW Kombi, last seen 25 years ago – it appears we are leaving a small town in a hurry.  “A hold-up!”, I hear someone shouting. The street is full of running people; one of them raps on my closed passenger window. “Hurry, hurry!” he says. Past E’s frowning profile, I can see storm clouds jostling for position on the horizon, casting deep purple shadows on the emerald lawns of the church on the other side of the street. Its white-washed steeple appears stage-lit, and several small rainbows hang like raised eyebrows against the sky behind it.

Church in Pniel, Western Cape

Our car arrives at another church. My dream self seems to remember that E compulsively photographs Dutch Reformed churches (exterior, interior, ulterior) – those grand spaces where holy words were routinely perverted to bolster apartheid ideologies. Now suddenly alone, I wait in the hot car for E to return. I’m aware of him walking around the large, strident building, cupping his brow as he glances up to the top of the narrow steeple. He turns and waves; indicates ten more minutes.

NG Kerk, Op die Berg

The soft rustle of old pepper trees nearby lulls me as I travel back to the hold-up we escaped;  then see squabbling footprints on the beach near our house – harsh marks made by seagulls, dogs, the soles of walking boots and barefoot imprints. A war zone. In my dream, I fall more deeply asleep. My handbag is emptied on my lap – among a pile of paper, I find a tied parcel of old scribbled notes. I try to make sense of a few underlined words but cannot grasp their shape or meaning.

I keep everything, even old keys from previous homes – especially old keys.

The soundtrack of my dream: a dog barking, a train that screeches past on a distant rural track. A man, balancing a child on his shoulders, approaches E where he is hunched down, still trying to capture the steeple.  The man removes a key from his pocket and they walk  to the front door of the church, leaving the child outside to play with handfuls of gravel. I sense that the child wants to help me decipher the words on my lap. Refusing to meet his gaze, I am aware of his hands performing a series of balletic signs, dancing their meaning to my sleeping ears.

The gnarled trunk of the tree next to the Kombi grows from an ancient termite mound. The Afrikaans word klont crumbles into my subconscious; my hands twitch as sun-baked earth falls from my fingers.

Very inspiring website: Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled After Termite Mounds |

Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.

My younger sister and I are driving inside her car – an unfamiliar and powerful beast I have to rein in, threatening to gallop away – in a landscape that reminds me of the flatlands of the Free State. We don’t talk, but take turns to stare out the passenger window while the other one drives. A vague worry gnaws that E will wonder where I am when he’s done photographing the church. Giant popcorn clouds float towards us. The landscape feels wrong, the horizon too low, the sky too vast, the earth a flat, spinning disk.

Every now and then a single tree presents itself to our passing car.

Desktop Background of a Single Tree in a Field.

Another, older, woman joins us in the car; she tells me to sit in the back. “Grief,” she says, “is such a short, inadequate word.”

Meeting my younger sister’s eyes in the rearview mirror, I remember that we are on our way to bury this woman’s child; the same boy I saw playing outside the church.  I walk behind my sister and the unknown woman as we approach an open grave. A young man, carrying a bucket of roses, passes us.  His body bent sideways, as if the weight of a few roses is too much to bear. Red scuffs of earth puffs from his shoes as he walks. A coffin is lowered into a prepared, green-lined hole with a keening mechanical sound that tears into the beautiful blue of the day. Clouds frolic in the sky. Birds call to one another.

The unknown woman’s expression is resolute: a rock face I cannot access.

I walk around a church building, looking for E. The child is no longer playing outside. I notice a small bird dive-bombing into a diamond-shaped pane of glass from one of the church windows. Its approach is methodical – repeatedly diving towards the pane with outstretched butter yellow wings, it finally recoils and flies away.

I wonder what it was looking for.

present tense

My dictionary assigns ‘grief’ the meaning of ‘the special sorrow of losing someone through death’. Ever since waking up from my dream, the word has been floating in my mind. It seems to fit my fragmented state of mind, a tag I could use to describe the images of decomposition and decay that inspire my work at the moment; this state of entropy I find myself in. Maybe trawling too many forensic pathology sites has unhinged me slightly – disturbing images are inevitably thrown my way (which I won’t share), but images like the one below, inspire.

Beautiful – bone marrow cell types

Another inspiring find was discovering Frances Glessner Lee – an amazing woman and pioneering spirit in the field of forensic science.

Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body: Galleries: Biographies: Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962).

Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), a New England socialite and heiress, dedicated her life to the advancement of forensic medicine and scientific crime detection.

As a teaching and reference tool, Frances Glessner Lee made a series of ceramic plates to illustrate the typical wound patterns  caused by various weapons at various distances. The wound patterns shown here were caused by a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, with a lead bullet, shot at various distances. (Top to bottom, left to right: contact, 1 inch, 3 inches, 6 inches, 18 inches, and exit wound.)

I find that the feeling of despair lifts when I muck through the compost heap in my garden to find examples of decaying flowering gum seeds– without their tough outer skins, layers of sinewy substrata are revealed, until they finally decompose to granules of dark soil.  Nothing, it seems, ever really dies.

Flowering Gum seeds, decomposing. 


A question asked by a student on caught my attention: The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the universe tends toward high entropy. If so, what happens when there is nothing left to be disordered? How can matter be constant? 

The answer (by Brent Nelson, M.A. Physics, Ph.D. Student, UC Berkeley) gave me the following insights:

* Matter isn’t constant, but energy is.

* Once all of the energy in the universe is converted to heat, then the universe will be in equilibrium. (A theory complicated by the fact that the universe is expanding, and an expanding universe can never really reach equilibrium.)

In a static universe, there are cosmic microwave background photons at a ‘temperature’ of 2.78 Kelvin – a much colder ‘heat bath’ than humans, and of course the sun. Over time, as the sun burns hydrogen and as planets collide and break apart and as particles decay and so on, everything eventually ends up as photons or other elementary particles. This leads to equilibrium.

* We no longer need to worry about the heat death of the universe, because the time it would take for everything around us to convert to heat is many, many times longer than the current age of the universe. So, even though the universe is expanding, it is also marching very, very slowly towards equilibrium.

What a relief.

The Daily Galaxy –Great Discoveries Channel: Sci, Space, Tech.

An ancient subatomic signature extends across the universe.  It seems that some subatomic particles, invisible and untouchable effects of the very creation of reality, might exist simultaneously across all of space.  “Relic” neutrinos, like the relic photons that make up the cosmic microwave background, are leftovers from the hot, dense early universe that prevailed 13.7 billion years ago. But over the lifetime of the cosmos, these relic neutrinos have been stretched out by the expansion of the universe, enlarging the range in which each neutrino can exist.

I don’t know how this information is going to help my through my current transition, and onto new, fresh ground. Maybe knowing that the universe is behind me, also striving for equilibrium, helps.

This is how my present fragmented feeling looks like – soft, spongy, interlaced lichen.

And yet, ultimately, inspiring.

Happy creating!

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