THEY LIVE IN ALLIANCE WITH NATURE
by Paul Edmunds
Weekend Magazine, Evening Post, Port Elizabeth, Saturday April 30, 1955
SCOTT'S FARM lies in a valley between Makanna's Kop and Sugar Loaf Hill. Though within the Grahamstown municipality, it is one of the last of the wild places of the district — an expanse of over-grown green, clothing the moist earth and nourishing all the creatures that such unofficialdom breeds.
Along its border drops the little stream that wet the feet of warriors when the Battle of Grahamstown was fought more than 100 years ago. The land is virginal for the most—utterly wild—but here and there cool and mellow clearings bear evidence that paths were hacked through the sanctuary many years ago.
Blues, browns and greens are the colours. Their brilliance or sombreness, matches the weather's mood, for when Grahamstown skies are overcast, the earth's covering reflects the cold and inhospitable colour. But usually sky and land are bright with blue and green radiance.
Hidden by the entangled nature is a house. In it there live three ageing sisters, all three spinsters. They are ordinary people, yet in their way they have created great beauty.
It is about them, the animals and the plants they have tended, and the pressure of politics that this story is told.
Many years ago, Colonel Scott, military commander of the district, was honoured with an imperial grant of land on the outskirts of Grahamstown.
He built a house on the 86 square roods given to him, and lived there for a time. Later he sold the property, and eventually it passed into the hands of Mr E.H. Marshall, grandfather of the three sisters I spoke about.
It was passed down from generation to generation until today the three sisters own it—Miss Gladys, Miss May and Miss Maud Blackbeard. They grow flowers, watch animals and plants and for reasons seem to prefer the company of nature to human society.
Some of their reasons are apparent if you visit them. An afternoon at Scott's Farm is an escape from modern-day sophisitication into a sanctuary of simplicity.
In these surroundings I saw a new and refreshing significance to this well-worn old verse that hangs in their diningroom. It reads:
I think that I shalt never see
To use their words, the three Misses Blackbeard have withdrawn into a society "where the simple things of life count."
A poem lovely as a tree . . .
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowering breast,
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Cornerstones of their quiet philosophy are plants, animals, the land and nearly 70 years of reminiscences. And the expression of their code is in the peculiar charm of their home and grounds.
Alone, with nothing to disturb her, Miss Gladys has bred her rare collection of Clivias. She started with one pot, given to her by her mother.
But through hand-crossing and seeding and gifts, she has increased her collection to about 1,500—lilies which express their beauty in massive heads of tubular blooms in shades of cream, reds and various nasturtium colours.
So valuable is her garden of Clivias that Dr [R.] A. Dyer, Government botanist at Pretoria, sent an artist down to Scott's Farm to record a series of paintings of her blooms.
But it is really of the Blackbeards' alliance with Nature that I wish to write. The greater part of Scott's Farm is a sanctuary for the hunted. Its owners are friends to all things wild, and the wild things have repaid them with their friendship.
Tamed in their enclosures are Egyptian geese, which take off at evening on wide wings for their feeding grounds, then return to the farm at dawn; owls that feed on what the Grahamstown ratcatcher brings; Stanley cranes, the ballet dancers of the menage; and many varieties of water birds.
Some have a history. They were brought to the farm with broken legs or wings, or disabled in some way. The care and nourishment of the three sisters have restored them to normality—but they have never left; in fact, they have attracted more of their fellow creatures.
The sisters have been content in the knowledge that when storms blew, or when hunters' guns crashed, their birds were safe.
And it has also pleased them that implanted somewhere in these creatures is the germ knowledge of their existence and their safe haven.
So intimate has this link with the wild become, that Miss Gladys refers to her "friendship" with a timid little vlei-loerie.
"Our friendship started in the garden " she said. "I heard a rustle, then saw the little bird hop quizically and straight-legged from its green shelter.
"Slowly I gained its confidence, until eventually I could creep up to it with a little cut-up beef in my hand. The vlei-loerie would first bow, then thank me with a melodious call and eat."
One day, the bird arrived at the farm with a mate—they built a nest and hatched a mop of young.
Then there was the frustrated owl, which continually laid eggs that never hatched. In a moment of pity, Miss Blackbeard put some bantam eggs under the wise old bird, and it hatched and reared a couple of bantams.
Animals also know Scott's Farm. A duiker that used to eat chocolate from Miss Blackbeard's fingers was brought to the sanctuary as a starving orphan. That was just about the time when the "V" sign came into prominence, and so like the letter was the shape of the buck's ears that it was dubbed "Victory".
Disney was the tiny grysbok that preferred the shelter of the old farmhouse to the elements outside. He used to spend most of the day curled up with the dog or the cat, or walk daintily after his mistress as she moved from room to room.
The tortoises deliberately rustle through dry leaves. Age does not weary them nor do the years condemn them to more than another ring on their already well-ringed shells.
You can talk of virtually any animal that can be kept in a garden, and one of the sisters' face will light up, and she will tell you of some simple story linking that animal and Scott's Farm.
As the years went by and the pursuit of civilization stripped more and more of the district of its indigenous look, Scott's Farm became known as a little cameo of the original.
Visitors started arriving to wonder at the work and simplicity of the three women. Among them were the two famous botanists from Leyden University in Holland, Dr Lotsy and Dr. Goddijn.
Tree from Smuts
They were studying plant hybrids and actually met Miss Gladys Blackbeard at a lecture demonstration on hybrid grasses at Rhodes University College. In conversation with them, Miss Blackbeard mentioned the "human hybrids of South Africa".
The two botanists became deeply interested. With her help they organized a photographic and factual survey of Coloured people, investigating the characteristics and descent of many non-Europeans.
Their findings, which were published in Europe, gave an indication of the impact of European civilization on indigenous tribes.
Some of the facts were eagerly seized on by Germany, who exploited points of the survey in its campaign to maintain and intensify racial purity.
Although General Smuts never visited Scott's Farm, he also knew about the life there. He actually sent a tree to be planted in the sanctuary.
Mrs Margaret Ballinger, M.P. has admired the collection of Clivias, and so has Sir Arthur Hill, a former curator of Kew Gardens, and Dr Hutchinson, also of Kew.
But all the while South Africa's problems were becoming more crystallized. An ever-increasing contrast was becoming apparent between Scott's Farm and the neighbouring ground.
Hundreds of Coloureds were arriving in the towns to work, and an arid location of dirty streets, shops and jig-saw-puzzle houses slowly sprung up, completely encircling the sanctuary.
It is this location that frames my last scene—the bare foyer-room leading to the Mayor's Parlour in the Grahamstown City Hall.
Pinned against a board is a map* showing the municipality's zoning proposals as prescribed under the Groups Areas Act.
An ageing woman timidly enters, and looks at the plan. She sees—what she already knew—that Scott's Farm, the love, labour and lives of three generations, is destined to be cut up for Coloured ownership.
* Click HERE to see the actual map that caused the problems.
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