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‘One thing the coronavirus plague has impressed upon us all is how we humans do not travel alone. A multitude accompanies us on our migrations, passing through us, microbial, viral, fungal, benign or malign.’
Once upon a time, before the present troubles, I used to find myself quite often in London. I’d stay with friends, or housesit their houses for them, and frequently would be pleased to find old acquaintances already in residence: plants I recognised from home, from the Western Cape. Aloe comosa, brevifolia, perfoliata, broomii. I knew the names because my mother, a lover of indigenous plants, made watercolour paintings of these succulents. Some of her paintings are housed in the Kew botanical art collection, to our family’s collective pride.

Seeing these quietly coloured, undemonstrative plants, I’d smile to see fellow transplants from the south. Maybe I’d make myself a mug of rooibos tea – also from the Cape, but which I never drink in Cape Town – and give the aloes a drop (no more!) of water as a treat. Lekker gesellig, as an early trekboer drinking his koffie in the Karoo might have remarked; nice and sociable.

The first time I went to Kew, years ago, it was partly to make a pilgrimage to the art collection on my mother’s behalf (my parents, in their sixties then, had never travelled outside South Africa). There was frost on the grass and the sky was grey, the cloud cover dense enough to hide the planes flying over from Heathrow – there were fewer of those then, too.

I ventured into the huge Victorian jelly-mould of the temperate glass house, relishing the humid warmth, and here I had another, somewhat surreal moment of recognition. I found myself walking into a patch of Karoo fynbos, perfectly recreated. Here were the proteas and ericas and clivias of home, and a little further on the succulents and stoneplants of the Karoo; we all spent a moment together, breathing in the same air, slightly embarrassed to meet each other under such circumstances. It was like stumbling unexpectedly into a museum diorama, but a diorama of your own natural habitat. Perhaps I should have plucked and eaten one of the medicinal herbs, as a demonstration for the passing tourists. (I did not consider myself one of these.)

A visitor to Kew from Sudan, say, or Guinea, might be similarly bemused to see in the trees the rose-ringed parakeet, originally from a narrow horizontal strip of northerly Africa but now triumphantly feral all over the show.
It reminded me of nothing so much as seeing a lion under glass. In Cape Town’s natural history museum (a potent place for me; my mother worked there as a diorama artist before I was born, and I’ve been visiting it since birth) there’s an old photo on the wall that entranced me as a child. It’s of a Victorian diorama containing a stuffed Cape black-maned lion. This was a subspecies that was blasted to extinction in the 19th century, by European hunters, adventurers, and collectors for circuses, museums and menageries. He stands in a delicate box of glass with dark-wood trim, against a backdrop of painted sky and naturalistically arranged fynbos, one paw raised to rest on a piece of Table Mountain sandstone. There are no such specimens remaining in South Africa, and only a handful in all the world.

Forty years on, I would have the immense satisfaction of tracking down that very same diorama in the depths of the London Natural History Museum’s marvellous bunker-like specimen storage complex, which would easily survive a nuclear war along with all its antique, scarred and sutured occupants. (I do not mean the curators, who were delightful.) I placed my hand upon the glass, looked into the lion’s glass eyes – and noticed that his genitals had been primly removed by the taxidermist. Later, I would put him in a novel.
These beings, lions and aloes and all the rest, arrived in the West through various kinds of capture – exotic trinkets extracted to be pets or trophies or ornaments or educational aids or part of the archive. Other species’ migratory stories are different: the cats and dogs, pigs and ducks, millet and maize and scores of others that form part of the human coevolutionary menagerie / garden that we carry with us, or drive before us, wherever we go. Nguni cattle, for example, arrived in southern Africa with their people from the north. Chickens, from their Asian origins millennia ago, have populated the world, via what archaeologists call “exotic faunal exchanges”.

Colonial exchanges were not all one-way, of course. The British brought plants and animals with them when they came over to Africa, in a silly (sinister) attempt to Europeanise the landscape – here and there in Cape Town, a few demoralised oak trees remain as remnants of that desire, wildly outflourished by the aggressive Australian bluegums.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, that notorious old plunderer, Cecil John Rhodes, planted fragrant pines and released red deer and two hundred European songbirds into the forests of the Groote Schuur estate on the slopes of Table Mountain. Alas, they did not like it there, and refused to sing the English songs he’d dreamed of. The only descendants of these birds that remain are starlings, and some quiet chaffinches that apparently can still be spotted by astute birders in the dense undergrowth. Prudently lying low, causing no trouble, and no doubt still pining for the woods and hedgerows of home.

Rhodes had used his vast wealth to swoop in and buy up a swathe of the mountainside from local farmers, many of them recently impoverished by the devastation wrought by phylloxera on the vineyards. Including, indeed, some of my own ancestors, themselves descended from German, Dutch and Scottish immigrants who’d fled their own hardships to seek fortunes in the up-for-grabs colonies. They lived on some of the most desirable estates around Cape Town before their ruination.

Phylloxera, of course, is yet another roving creature, being the American grape phylloxera beetle (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae). This had decimated the European wine industry before arriving triumphant, gorged on fine French red, in the Cape in 1886, via an infected vine belonging to a certain “Mr Kotze from Mowbray” – thus indirectly robbing me of billions in colonial spoils that now, I suppose, belong to the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation. The beetles are pale, sap-sucking parasites that feed on roots and leaves; the deformed, nodular roots and secondary fungal infections slowly cut off the supply of nutrients and water to the vine, which is a metaphor I’m sure.

This was not the only imported devastation to hit the colony at the time. It was the time of the Rinderpest, the feared viral disease accidentally introduced in 1887. The virus probably snuck into Eritrea inside Indian cattle imported by the Italians in Somalia. It killed most of the cattle in eastern and southern Africa and precipitated a devastating famine. The depopulated land encouraged the growth of thornbush, which in turn encouraged the tsetse fly (Glossina), previously largely absent from these parts, to move in. The fly carries sleeping sickness or nagana (Trypanosoma brucei), yet another opportunistic and tyrannous migrant to the region.

As a child I used to enjoy getting my tongue around tsetse, a Setswana word. Another potent early memory of the South African Museum is the large glass tank of these flies, dead, that mouldered in one of the lower rooms, collected during some eradication effort from the early years of the century. It was the much less appealing, but equally compelling, counterpart to the dead Cape Lion in its glass case, down in the dark of the basement of the Natural History Museum two time zones away.

This talk of diseases swiftly circling the globe brings us round to now, of course, and covid-19, and all the trophies and hybrids and feral creatures of this globalised world. These are the exotic faunal exchanges we carry out now, and carry with us: our herds of microbes, out viral stock, our fungal fellow-travellers.

One thing that the Corona plague has impressed upon us all is how we do not travel alone. Everywhere we go, a horde of organisms accompanies us on our journey, clustering in our lungs and guts and mouths and on our skin, passing through us. We trail them behind us like a cloud of spirits, benign or malign. When we speak of human migrations we speak, too, of this multitude, tracing and tracking us: the inhuman transhumance.

Like everyone, I’ve spent the year listening obsessively to the news. It’s not good anywhere, and particularly not good in the UK right now, it seems. Maybe, what with the politics and the pandemic and the changing climate, all those London billionaires will abandon their overheated mansions. Perhaps some enterprising Namibian or Burundian or Nigerian will buy them up for a song, as Rhodes did a century ago with the lush estates on Table Mountain, which had in turn been plundered from the Khoisan hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, the First People of the Cape.

The Khoisan, who had lived in the area for many thousands of years, were the first to use rooibos, that tough bush from the arid Cederberg mountains north of Cape Town that is popular for making tea – a cup of which kicked off this essay. They probably used it for medicinal purposes, and to drink. When the European settlers arrived, at the height of the colonial tea trade, they were accustomed to the habit of sipping Chinese and later Ceylon tea. They fell eagerly on rooibos as a replacement for their costly Asian fix. Indeed, by the late 1920s, the demand was so great it threatened the supply of wild rooibos plants; fortunately, the industry was saved by a business-savvy Russian immigrant who realised the potential of “mountain tea”, and after some agricultural tweaks and refinements, you can now buy it at Tesco’s. (Brexit willing!)

Here at home I make myself a cup of rooibos now, which I find disgusting to be quite honest; we have run out of the proper English I prefer. I breathe in the warm herbal steam, breathe out whatever is living in me, potential virus and all. We’ve been on lockdown here, on and off, for ten months. I was supposed to be visiting Scotland now, but here I am in the rising heat of a Cape summer. Sparrows – possibly the oldest and most successful of all human-associated migrant species – play on the balcony, watched closely by my cat, who is a mix of African wild cat and some long-forgotten Norwegian ship’s cat from the Dutch East India Company fleet, I like to imagine.

The smell of the tea takes me back to London, where they do seem to like the little leaves of the red bush. I remember my British friends always longed for warmth. I however found English buildings unbearably hot; t-shirt temperatures in the heart of winter. Everywhere I went, I sweated embarrassingly, longing for the snow I had been promised in my childhood picture-books.

Meanwhile, the glaciers melt, and in Africa the slow Sahara sands sift down the continent, ever south, nudging the tsetse fly and malaria mosquito ranges southwards too. Every summer I’ve spent in the UK since the first, it has seemed incrementally hotter. Last time I was at Kew, I didn’t even want to try the temperate glasshouse. The grass outside was not crisp with frost but yellow and dry, like the veld. Perhaps there were chaffinches hiding in it, wondering what happened.

I imagine a near-future Ballardesque city of swamps and tropical sun, the temperate zone at Kew burgeoning with new vigour, cracking through its glass cage. Parrots digging their beaks into the pollen of the aloe vera flowers. People online talk about moving to Mars, and I hear there are tardigrades on the moon now, which must be nice and cool. Gesellig. Maybe we’ll plant rooibos on a newly Karoo-ified Hampstead Heath and make a packet.

I sip my tea, and imagine on the other side of the world an aloe that I used to water, growing infinitesimally every day, pressing its tiny thorns another micromillimetre into the alien air.

Henrietta Rose-Innes

Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African author of four novels and two short-story collections. Her novels Nineveh and Green Lion were shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and have been published internationally and in translation. In French translation, Nineveh won the François Sommer Literary Prize in 2015. Her collection of short stories, Animalia Paradoxa, was published in the UK in 2019. In 2012, ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition, and ‘Poison’ was awarded the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia. Henrietta has also acted as a judge for international writing competitions including the Caine Prize, and most recently for this year’s British Fantasy Awards, She currently lives in Cape Town.