Friendly Fire
There’s something a bit Earth Motherish about this time of year. Leonie Joubert can’t help herself as she watches spring prying the fingers of winter from the tumbling Eastern Cape hills.

The air is so thick with the scent of jasmine, you’d half expect to see droplets of it swelling into expectant bellies on the window panes and trickling down in runlets, finally gathering on the wooden sills like a perfumed moat. It’s almost springtime in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape, and the blooms are drumming up a heady fanfare in anticipation of its arrival.

But the battle between the seasons is far from over. As the province’s dry season approaches its annual denouement, an unusually hot few weeks grips the region. Conditions are ideal for wildfires which have ripped across enormous tracts of veld lately.

One fire started in the Addo Elephant Park, where 60 guests had to be evacuated from a resort area, according to SAPA news reports, before it moved swiftly in the direction of the academic town, driven by fierce berg winds.

By Wednesday, 12 August, frilly, creeping fronts could be seen moving through the Sundays River Valley, Nelson Mandela Bay, Koukamma, Kouga and outside Grahamstown. There was a new front in the Stutterheim area that same week.

In the African veld, fire is as much a part of the landscape as the savanna animals that graze it. It gives so much of the countryside that typical bushveld complexion by killing off many younger trees, only allowing a few to grow up and pepper the otherwise grassy hills.

Even in the Cape’s fynbos, fire keeps the shrub-dominated vegetation alive, allowing some plants to re-sprout or others to shoot up seedlings in the cooling wake of a blaze.

But if these fires happen too frequently – which they do, these days, since people interference with the natural regime – they incinerate the young, recovering vegetation. Its touch becomes destructive.

Even as the flames began to slow and die back, the bowl in which Grahamstown has nestled since the frontier days was choked under a rug of smoke. Minute ribbons of soot floated about, settling everywhere. The hillsides were left charred and smouldering; the air remained thick and dry. Nature conservationists and game farmers began to scour the hills to count the loss, of both vegetation and wildlife.

But slowly, the air cooled with nightfall, and the jasmine blossom began to insinuate itself into the air once again, soothing away the lingering hints of smoke.

That’s just it, really – the planet spins through space, tipping this way and that as it wanders through the course of the year, bring in one season and casting out the other. A bit of life is overcome by death, and replaced once again by life.

In spite of the devastation of the raging inferno, and the scarified hills left of its wake, it’s hard to remain downbeat when there’s the giddiness of spring fever in the air. Spring, jasmine and the soft hint of renewal in the early morning mists.

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