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“Afrikander Cattle” – 4 December 28, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature, nature.
Tags: , , , , ,

Waterberg landscape

This is the final installment of a series that starts here.

Observation of nature. That’s what it’s all about. Not idealization of nature, not reverence for nature. Let me give you an example from American literary history: the diverging approaches of Emerson and Thoreau, those well-known New England Transcendentalists. Walking in the woods around Concord, Massachusetts (where Thoreau had famously built his cabin on the shore of Walden Pond), the two would be conversing. Then Thoreau would stop, noticing the unusual profusion of acorns in an oak grove this particular winter, jotting down a note about it to add to his journals. Emerson would seat himself comfortably on a log and begin pontificating on grand themes of the universe and the human connection with it.

Nothing wrong with either approach, but who would you want by your side if you had to find your way across a confusing complex of beaver ponds and alder thickets? You, the readers of this blog, understand my particular bias. I would want to notice the particular asymmetrical mountain on the horizon to my left as I started across the ponds, and to make sure it was over my other shoulder as I retreated. Not that I’ve always been successful at these kinds of things by a long shot—but at least I understand what might be involved in getting out of such a place.

The story of Eugene Marais, “Afrikander Cattle,” brings together all those wonderful themes of human observation of nature, communication with animals, ingenuity in working with rather than against the obstacles and the difficulties of wild places. In this story, the setting itself is essentially another protagonist.

Bushveld scene

The Waterberg area that Marais describes is obviously not an easy place to navigate. As I read, I revel in the descriptions of its obstacles: the infinite varieties of thorn trees, the smooth steep rockfaces, the shadowy ravines. These are the kinds of places that it takes years to learn how to negotiate.

Reading the story brings me back to the reasons why I got interested in the Boer War in the first place. I could see how these people knew how to pay attention to, for instance, the exact number of dry stream valleys you have crossed or to the tiny movements—possibly hostile—that can be detected on the ridgeline. The other thing that intrigued me was that these people fought as citizens, not as soldiers.

One could argue that the story of Marais in “Afrikander Cattle” is unrealistic, or perhaps a kind of magical realism, like that of Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A Boer scout rides his faithful horse bareback, without even a halter, and is able to control his movements precisely by a kind of harmony of man and beast. And then the scout is actually upstaged by Hendrik, the Bushman, who can control the exact movements of a large herd of cattle. But I would say, based on my experience in working with horses (see the first installment of this series), that I believe these things could literally have happened.

It’s also worth pointing out that Marais, an Afrikaner who supported the movement to have his language recognized internationally for its literary value, was nonetheless able to go against the prejudices of his people and to appreciate African tribal culture.

Marais was an unusual and sensitive man, one who was tormented for many years by an addiction to morphine and who ultimately committed suicide. He had the intensity and he had the vision, but he did not fit seamlessly into his world. He experienced tragedies and disjointed events. His young wife died shortly after the birth of his son. During the Boer War, he wanted to aid the cause of his countrymen by joining a German expedition to ship supplies to them via Portuguese East Africa—but he was devastated by malaria.

He is better known for his poetry and for his scientific works about the group behavior of animals than for his prose. For an interesting and insightful discussion of his poetry, please see the essay by my friend Roon Lewald, here.

His addiction killed him in the end. But we can say quite emphatically that his ideas did not die with him at age 65, in 1936, from two self-inflicted shotgun wounds.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.

Eugene Marais, 1871-1936



1. Roon Lewald - December 30, 2010

A mountaintop can be reached along many trails. Interesting to see you approach the multifaceted Marais from your particular angle, guiding your U.S. mountain-rambling readers along an oblique route from American landscapes as viewed by Emerson and Thoreau to the unfamiliar natural scenery of the Waterberg. I find it works very well too. And thanks for your link to my essay remarks about Marais!

Jenny - December 30, 2010

Thank you, Roon. I always enjoy the game of making connections between things that aren’t usually connected.

2. Brian - January 3, 2011

Enjoyed the story of Hendrick and Winterbach. Are there still Bushmen out there herding cattle or is this something that has disappeared?

It seems like the farther people get from having a practical day-to-day interaction with nature–hunting, herding, farming and maybe just a rural lifestyle in general the less observant they are. I’m just generalizing of course. Most people who enjoy the activity called hiking, myself included are more in the Emersonian camp. We “love” nature and are the number one group to protect it of course. We can use phrases like “finding solitude” and “getting away from the hustle and bustle” but we’re less likely to spot an animal or notice where a deer slept. I enjoy off trail hiking because it gets me out the “I hiked 13 miles and climbed two mountain peaks, it rained a lot” mode and forces me to be observant, at least in terms of navigation and sniffing out faint paths. But because my only practical goals are to get through whatever obstacle I am confronted with and not get lost, I still find my observation is limited to things relevant to that.

Your comment on the South American author reminds me of the link I told you I would send you. You read a whole new random essay every time you hit the refresh button!


Jenny - January 3, 2011

That link to the postmodernist blather generator is hilarious! Unfortunately, some of the book manuscripts I’ve edited sound very much like that, and for some reason, scholars of South American lit are especially prone to it.

The Bushmen/San were traditionally hunter-gatherers, but in the present day, in Botswana, where their population is most concentrated (in the Kalahari region), their most common occupation is livestock farming. In South Africa, where they have been increasingly absorbed into other African ethnic groups, they practice many different occupations. I can’t say whether or not livestock herding is a particular specialty there in the present day, but if I find out more on the subject, I will add it here.

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