Thunder resonating in my chest and the breathtaking light show periodically illuminating my dark room, I lay awake last night listening to the howling and gusting wind coaxing my wooden home into an irritable, rattling dance. I half expected our house to lift its wooden stilts out of the ground and to grumpily stomp down the mountain to find a more secluded spot! Sleep was out of the question and so I let my mind wander and, as always, stories of the Green Lady, guardian of the forest, fizzed and popped into my mind. Last night's storm made me realise anew that my beautiful green muse is certainly not always sweetness and light. There are times when she can be a fearful adversary indeed.
I lay awake thinking about the original nineteenth century Italian settlers in this harsh and beautiful part of the world. They were gentlemen silk farmers from the North of Italy, lured to Africa by promises of free land, houses and vast mulberry forests, but what they found here was quite different from the marketing blurb. Massive herds of wild elephants, marauding troupes of baboons, leopards and venomous snakes. These were the least of their worries!
The steep dirt road up the mountain that our present-day visitors often complain about simply did not yet exist. The Italians had to use sleds and oxen to hoist their belongings up the mountain, over a period of two gruelling weeks. Upon arrival, they discovered with rapidly sinking spirits, that the promised vast mulberry forests, comprised merely a few indigenous mulberry trees. And, once their precious silkworm eggs that they had so carefully nurtured all the way on the ship from Italy had hatched, these leaves were discovered to be inedible, at least to fussy Italian silkworms. The silkworms died and, with them, all hopes of a South African silkworm industry. The Italians had no funds left with which to return to their homeland. They were well-and-truly stuck, at the top of a mountain in the remote forests of South Africa.
But far worse was to come. The legendary rains of this area turned the land they had cleared into an impossible mudbath because, of course, there had been no houses, as promised, but rather the temporary loan of a few tents from the local authorities. Living here I know that it is not uncommon for over 200mm of rain to fall within a period of a few days. Can you imagine camping in such weather? And then there was the soil - thick, heavy clay. Virtually impossible to grow any crops in such soil without the addition of serious compost. Nowadays we simply drive down the mountain to fetch compost in town or we gradually improve the soil through addition of organic material over a period of time, whilst we feed ourselves from the local supermarket. But our poor Italians had no such luxury. Wheat for bread and pasta? Forget it! They had to survive on sweet potatoes and the paltry few crops that could eke out an existence under these conditions.
My sympathies are always most with the women. Can you imagine the challenges of child bearing and rearing under such conditions?
Many Italians died, sadly some committed suicide, yet others were absorbed into the local industry and populace. Of the original thirty-two families, only one, solitary person ever made it back to Italy.
The Green Lady will not be tamed...
You can read more about the story of Knysna's Italian settlers in Dalene Matthee's excellent book, The Mulberry Forest.