True Stories: Woodland and wetland

2011-10-13 00:00

WHILE An Inconvenient Truth blared on the science classroom television, I felt the familiar mix of guilt, anger and worry. It’s the feeling that you get when you see those eye-scorching photographs of biltong-thin survivors of droughts in countries that used to have a high rainfall. Or when you read newspaper articles sowed with facts about how the resources that we rely on could run out within 50 years.

Even if you think Al Gore is an attention-seeking politician, you have to admit that the world is facing some ominously destructive problems. It’s looming over us like a colossal, cracking dam wall threatening to release gallons of water. There does not seem as if there is much you can do to seal the cracks in the wall — or ignore them. That is what I thought, when my dad first started talking about rehabilitating the wetland at the bottom of our garden.

My younger brother, Adam, and I first discovered the wetland on one of the many adventures we had through the gum plantation managed by NTC, that sprawled from the end of our garden to the foot of hazy Swartkop Mountain in the distance. Around the age of 10, the plantation was the best place to go when life was lacking excitement. Anyone who has walked about in a gum-tree plantation will know that it is a shadowy maze of evenly spaced, equally indistinguishable eucalyptus trees — so it is not difficult to get lost. On one of these disorientated expeditions — after what felt like hours of walking in circles and telling Adam that I knew exactly where we were — we found the first evidence that this area of the plantation had once been the path of a tributary of the Dorpspruit River.

You didn’t have to be an expert on the flora of South Africa to realise that this place was unnatural. An old log-trucking road had blocked the flow of the underground tributary of the Dorpspruit, creating a deep pool. The clustered trees chased out the sun leaving a ghostly green light to illuminate the water while scraggly, rotting, felled trees formed a bridge across the dam, not unlike the structures beavers make. The whole area was swarming with alien vegetation — even underwater there were cities of inky green bushes.

When Adam and I arrived home, we were a little disappointed to hear from our parents that we were not the first people to see the wetland in the World’s View valley. The gum-tree plantation had been planted a few years prior to my birth. So, before the valley was claimed by the thirsty army of trees, it had been a grassland with the fissures between hills brimming with indigenous forest. During the grassland times, the now almost ­dormant spring was overflowing with water that created a small river joined to the underground tributary of the Dorpspruit where Adam and I had discovered the dam. This new river flowed into Pietermaritzburg. But, as gum trees are notorious for sucking vast amounts of water, it was inevitable that the river would shrink to a dripping stream. So once again, people’s greed had caused havoc. This was another depressing environmental issue, but my dad was convinced that we could rehabilitate this wetland.

There is an environmental law that states that you cannot plant a tree plantation within 20 metres of a natural water source. Six years after Adam and I “discovered” the wetland, with this law in mind, my father e-maile­d, then met with the owner of the plantation to discuss why the trees had been illegally planted over a wetland. During this time, NTC felled and replanted the trees. This year they agreed not to plant anywhere near the waterway. Over the next few months the wetland area began to change in a way that I had not seen before.

The World’s View neighbourhood worked to help rehabilitate the wetland. People organised mass eradications of the alien vegetation, plantings of indigenous plants and clearing of the rotting piles of gum-tree branches that had been accumulating for years.

Platinum waves of natural grassland spread across the little valley while malachite clusters of indigenous forest began to claim their original space. Most noticeable was how the volume of water in the spring doubled and a glass-like stream started to flow into the dam, which was now clear and weedless. The once rare sightings of duiker and bushbuck were now common — the path to the dam was scattered with their dainty cleft hoof prints! And when you walked through long grass, hosts of tiny birds swerved into the sky. The wetland is more alive than the woodland ever was.

About the writer

Alice Findlay is 16 and is going to have adventures all over the world, especially in Brazil — her grandmother’s home country. She is fascinated with fashion, art and the natural world. She keeps a sacred collection of Vogues and National Geographics. She is a ballet dancer and athlete who attends St Anne’s Diocesan College.

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