In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe how children today are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Beekeeping seems to be an
interest which most of us discover in our latter years, and the question becomes are we yearning for something that we know intuitively we have lost or are we using the bees to re-connect with a childhood memory of the natural world. Certainly the concept
of nature can be romanticized and perhaps many new beekeepers discontinue their interest when those idyllic impressions are disturbed by reality.
In my case, as a white boy growing up in a British colony at the height of the
imperial experience, I had immense freedom together with race-based privileges which I took for granted. There were no restrictions as to where I could go, where I could walk or climb or ride. And many weekends were spent clambering over the rocks and
slopes of Murahwa’s Hill. I had no fear of the troops of vervet monkeys and chacma baboons which roamed the hill named after Chief Murahwa of the Manyika people, nor of the leopard which my father would hear at night with it’s characteristic
“Did you hear the leopard last night?” he would ask occasionally. I never did.
I remember only getting a rush of adrenalin as the rufus colored nightjars, which lay
superbly camouflaged in the granite outcrops until the last possible moment, would fly up from under my feet in a flurry of feathers.
One day I climbed down a short fissure below the summit to a small, precarious ledge and
found a faint but definite Bushman rock painting. I sat in wonderment, gazing over the valley in which the town nestled, awe struck at the thought of perhaps being the first person for more than a thousand years to see this beautiful example of
Khoisan stone age art. On later visits I would stand on the summit, waving to the houses below trying to attract my parents’ attention, or, sitting on the ledge, I would use a mirror to reflect the sunlight on to our house in the hope that someone
would notice, much as we did in class when we used the glass on our watches to flash onto the ceiling, or more daringly, into the teacher’s eyes, wondering whether he would notice (and we were taught almost exclusively by men.)
It became a ritual to sit on that ledge at noon, eating the sandwiches my mother had prepared, looking over the town.
On another visit, and not far from the ledge but on the east side of the summit, facing towards
the BaVumba mountains and the Portuguese colony of Mocambique, I stumbled across an old wall of stone between two huge granite boulders that seemed to block the entrance to a cave. Over the next few weeks, enlisting the help of some friends, I tore away
some of the rocks, rolling them carelessly down the mountainside, a dangerous and senseless act of destruction for which we were later, and quite correctly, mildly chastised by the local representative of the Historical Monuments Commission when a small group
of museum authorities inspected the find.
Several weeks of such despoliation uncovered a hole large enough to squirm into, encountering the strong odor of either a leopard and/or of dassie guano. Dassie was the local
name for rock rabbit, or hyrax, which lived in the crevices and was the favorite food of a pair of black eagles who nested on the adjacent hill. Dassie droppings were thick and rich in the cave and on one occasion I filled a jute bag and took it back
for my father’s compost heap, a gift he much appreciated,.
Confident that the noise and activity would have long frightened away the leopard (and confident too of the animal’s notorious shyness and secretiveness)
I wriggled forward. Later came the realization that the leopard did occasionally occupy the cave, gaining access though a small opening in the jumble of collapsed rocks in the roof.
It is difficult today, more than 50
years later, to recall the feelings of a young man entering a dark, dry space; I suspect I was more intent on discovering the main purpose of the vault behind the wall. I had convinced myself that it was a burial site, and that the vague shapes
which were semi-lit by the peripheries of the beam of the flashlight were skulls resting on a ledge in the cave wall. Digging away the compacted soil behind the stone wall had exposed small, tunneled smoothen passages that left ridges and curves much
like old bones; they were probably the passages of white ants which had long since departed.
I remember too being struck by how smooth the walls were, convinced that this was the result of thousands of pairs of human hands
brushing past; it was more likely to have been the result of water erosion over thousands of years.
What I did find were the remnants of old, clay pots, typical of the Bantu, Shona-speaking, Iron-age people indigenous
to the area. This was evidence enough that this was a refuge site to which the local Manyika would flee when they were attacked by the stronger Ndebele; the pots were used to store grain for such desperate times of need.
On one occasion, and it is no longer clear exactly which part of the chronology this fits into, I had come down from the hill in the late afternoon. My father confirmed that I had indeed had my lunch on the ledge as usual and asked if I realized
that the leopard had, for a short moment, been standing on the summit above me as I ate. Apparently he had noticed the distinctive cat-like silhouette, particularly the long, upward curing tail as it appeared briefly above me, looked out over the valley,
On reflection, that was a monumental moment in my life. Sitting on a rock that had attracted a man from prehistory, marveling at the pictorial dimensions of his spirit and unknowingly sharing
the view with one of the wild’s most noble, most untamed creatures, I was closer to nature than I had ever been before. It is at such moments that a young man gets his first glimpse of the holy grail that is the natural world and which can
later be rekindled in passions such as beekeeping.