Summer, In Which the World Catches Alight

IN

Words by Roushanna Gray @veldandsea

Fire. What a beautiful and all powerful element. We are still so interconnected with it in our current-day foraging practices and it has played such an integral part of foraging history around the world. Who doesn’t love cooking on fire? Literally adding the essence of adventure into your meal, harnessing smoke as a preserving tool and using the fire as a means to creating tools and cooking equipment.

Fire in the wild as opposed to a domestic one is a different beast altogether. It remains a huge threat where I live, in our flammable natural environment. It is the reason why we have fire breaks surrounding houses on the mountainside, why as a family we don’t like to holiday away in summertime, and why a whiff of smoke in fire season can send us all into high alert mode.

But let me start at the beginning, and let me begin my story by way of introduction to the edible landscape I live in.

Roushanna Gray

My name is Roushanna Gray and I live and work as a wild food foraging teacher

My name is Roushanna Gray and I live and work as a wild food foraging teacher on a little smallholding at the southern tip of South Africa in Cape Point, Cape Town. Geographically speaking in terms of foraging, we are deliciously situated, nestled in amongst pristine fynbos with an icy Atlantic ocean flanking the west and a warmer Indian ocean on the east of the peninsula. Fynbos (I’m going to use this name a lot, so lets get familiar with it straight away) is the local shrubland or heathland vegetations name, ‘Fyn’ meaning fine and ‘Bos’ translating to bush. The southern tip of South Africa is home to not only the smallest of floral kingdoms in the world, but also the one with the highest biodiversity with around 9000 plant species in an area of around 78,000km2. Our nearest coastline, which offers hundreds of different seaweed species (around 800 different seaweed species are found along the SA coast), is about 5km away, and abundant with seaweeds, seafood, coastal herbs and veg. There are also several pine stands nearby with seasonal wild mushrooms and multitudes of succulent winter weeds. 

In the middle of November 2017 we experienced a radical wild fire that wrapped 360º around our smallholding. We had days of apprehension as the fire crept over the nearby mountain ridges. With the first few smoky days and red-embered nights glowing down from the burning bush in the mountainside, we were left us sleepless and concerned; our fate thrown at the mercy of the elements.

The fire spread onto our neighbouring farm, whilst also slowly spreading into the nature reserve opposite us, across from the only tar road nearby. Even though the wind was in our favour – howling its south easterly summer song towards the fire – it back burned towards us, threatening houses, structures, animals, our hearts and homes. Our worst nightmare was in action and our whole world was on fire.

For weeks on end there was a thick layer of black ash covering every surface whenever the wind blew. Windowsills, books, inside every single tea cup, even on our faces when we woke…

Fynbos is very well designed to withstand our harsh Mediterranean-like climate with prevailing south easterly winds in the long hot, dry summers, sea salt laden air and acidic sandy soil. Our local plants are designed to burn with their flammable foliage and is cyclically conditioned to do so for its own benefit. A healthy quick and seasonal wild fynbos fire promotes biodiversity, seed germination and soil re-mineralization. But an unseasonal, too frequent (read man made) fires burning through alien vegetation rendering a high intensity heat can cause loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately the fire we had was the latter.

With an incredible collective of heroic neighbours, friends and fire fighters, the front lines of the fire were battled over several days and nights, and the property was saved, if a little licked around the edges by flames. Very fortunately no structures, people or domestic animals were harmed – the only real damage was human smoke inhalation and crispy red eyes, burnt shoes and feet, irrigation piping burnt away, a little wooden cabin was engulfed in flames but somehow miraculously survived, several of the plant nursery shade houses were charred, a special succulent plant collection destroyed by smoke and heat, vehicles damaged, mountainside steps and pathways consumed and reduced to ashes. And all the plants on the hills and mountains around us were gone. Poof. Vanished in a cloud of smoke like a disappearing magic trick, with only blacked stubs of flora left to tell the tale.

Post fire, the ash was a creature of its own. Deliciously re mineralizing for the soil, but detrimentally infuriating inside the houses. For weeks on end there was a thick layer of black ash covering every surface whenever the wind blew. Windowsills, books, inside every single tea cup, even on our faces when we woke – but when life knocks you sideways, you quickly realise how much you take for granted and we were just grateful to even have possessions for the ash to fall on.

… a moonscape, burnt and scarred as far as the eye could see.

Meanwhile, out of the house and on the land, it was a whole new world – a moonscape, burnt and scarred as far as the eye could see. I wondered up the hillside, now able to head in any direction I chose, unhindered by bushes or thick foliage, but quickly got disorientated. Before I had known my way around by the positions of familiar plants, my little fragrant herb landmarks, or by a pathway, the flowering protea bushes, by colour and texture. Now it was as if I was somewhere else entirely – I could see the house and the farm, and obviously the mountain was behind me, but all my familiar spots, my little walking routes and foraging areas and picnic spots, it was difficult to place them. The landscape had changed,and it was like our little farm had lifted up and been placed in a new and unfamiliar planet. I was lost at sea with only rocks instead of plants as a guide. This would take a little getting use to and I was impatient for the rain to arrive to coax new life back into this barren canvas.

The rain took its time as were were also experiencing Cape Towns worst drought in recorded history, and in the meanwhile there was much fixing and exploring to do. New irrigation pipes were laid and fitted, melted pipes were found and replaced. I walked everyday it was not windy and saved ash for future projects like wild fermentation and cheese making, and collected charred branches for charcoal drawing. Life mingled in among the death. Green grass shoots and bracken were the very first to spring up followed quickly by wild asparagus spears– Asparagus capensisusually a big wiry thorny bush, now raised to the ground, its first spears were fat and juicy, a foragers delight. Burnt out tortoise shells were filled with ants and paper thin snake skins crumbled and blew away in the breeze. The most incredible tiny bell flowered Fire Lillies popped up after a day of light rain, providing a spectacular display with its splashes of vibrant red colour on the black ground, a true Phoenix flower. Birds of pray appeared and swooped overhead, keen eyes loving the perfect newly opened hunting grounds.

Fire Lily

…wafting through the acrid smoky smells crept a curious scent of burnt marshmallows.

Watsonia, a bulb stated as edible in many old plant books, they are said to be eaten after cooking in a certain way at the right time of year. I have tried for years to get the perfect combination of season and culinary preparation of our local Watonia tabularis right and failed epically every time. I tried baking and roasting and cooking in ashes, boiling and sun drying and more, all to no avail. My efforts were still just completely unpalatable and very, very bitter with a nasty tannic after-taste leaving me super sceptical and wondering if they weren’t just used for their tanning properties. A few wild food friends had managed to cook them in hot ashes well enough to eat, but I couldn’t seem to get it right. But after this fire, wafting through the acrid smoky smells crept a curious scent of burnt marshmallows. The Watsonias were perfectly cooked. Popping up above ground, you could see these huge charred bulbs for miles around, big and bulbous and demanding your attention as you scanned the landscape, totally dispelling my belief that these were not a good source of food. Who knew they just need a raging wild fire to tear through them and turn these field veg into a ready-to-eat, eco packaged, takeaway super food!

An ethno-botanist friend Elzanne Singels came for a walk shortly after the fire and showed me how the sticky gel that oozed from the creamy coloured flesh of the bulbs were used as a resin since Palaeolithic times for making tools from shards of rock and handles of wood that were hardened and fixed after being set in the fire. What wondrous Watsonias. 

Another amazing thing about them was that most re sprouted fairly soon after this. This is through a survival mechanism evolved in many geophyte species to deal with both fire and foraging animals. They form vertical columns of bulbs underground as they divide or multiply each season, thereby ensuring that the fire or animals only ravage the first few layers and save the deeper ones as an investment crop to guarantee future generations of the species.

Several of the Watsonia bulbs were take off to the local university to have tests done to determine the nutritional value – all very exciting stuff.

 

We now also had aliens to deal with. Millions of them.

In the meantime, the Watsonias were not the only thing to prove super resilient. We now also had aliens to deal with. Millions of them. Invasive plant species that is, not the kind that arrive in a UFO. When my parents-in-laws purchased this 39 hectare land in the early 80’s, the first thing they did was to start clearing the property of the invasive Port Jacksons aliens, Acacia saligna, that were everywhere. They spent the first 15 years clearing and hacking and it remained an ongoing maintenance project, getting easier each year. The only problem with a lovely fire though, whether a good or bad one – is that any Acacia seeds that are lying dormant underground are quickly triggered, just like a lot of the local plants. They rapidly germinate, and if not dealt with quickly they really start taking over and begin out-competing the indigenous and endemic species’ habitat, and it was all about to happen again.

Luckily we had an incredible amount of post-fire support from an amazing fundraiser through our beverage queen friends called Five For Fynbos – the brainchild of Meghan Werner of Theonista kombucha and South Africa’s Botanist brand ambassador Caitlin Hill. With donations of kombucha and gin, a selection of bars participated in each creating a special cocktail, a percentage of every drink sold going to this cause.

There was a special pop up Five for Fynbos fundraiser event hosted at The Gin Bar celebrating the cycles of fire with flower crowns and wild flavoured snacks, where four of Cape Towns incredibly talented bartenders Stephanie Simbo, Peter Lebese, Aiden Powrie and James Meridith created beautifully innovative drinks, each with a fire theme ~ Ignition, Flames, Transformation and Creation, plus a talk on the role of fire in fynbos by the very knowledgeable Rupert Koopman. An online fundraiser was also created to for those who wanted to assist but could not make it to the bars in town. 

The money raised through these incredibly heart-warming and generous efforts are currently being used to remove invasive plant species and rebuild the paths along the mountainside, to ensure biodiversity prevails and is protected in these wild spaces we care for.

ANYTHING is possible. Love in action is a beautiful thing.

The landscape, when it grows back, will never be the same as how we remembered it. The colours and textures and taste of it will be different. There will be more bulbs than protea bushes, seasons will smell new, perhaps even unfamiliar, and it will take at least 5 years for the ground to be covered again. After getting over my initial depression and time of mourning the loss of the plants and all the memories it held, it’s kind of exciting. It’s actually thrilling to imagine what will come now, I look so forward to experiencing all the fresh, delicious new growth and witness the rhythms of nature returning once again with all of its phenomenal designs. 

I think I have learnt two very important lessons in this whole crazy experience. The first is that nature needs nature to survive, and how perfectly designed it all is. The second is that when a group of people collectively set their minds and hearts to actively do something together, ANYTHING is possible. Love in action is a beautiful thing.

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