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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tales of Community: Lyall Watson

Air Date: Week of

As a boy, Lyall Watson spent his summers on the remote southern coast of Africa, on the Cape of Storms. All the mothers of vacationing families, his own included, worried about their restless sons. Their fathers were off on distant fronts, fighting a world war. It was Watson’s grandmother who finally came up with a solution, marking the beginning of a boys’ club that was not so different from the community of early tribes. Watson shares a story from his memoir Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. It’s our holiday special, and this year the theme is community. Authors Jake Halpern, Judy Blunt and Lyall Watson are here to share some of their stories on that theme. And Lyall Watson, it’s your turn now. Your book is a memoir, really. And part of it is about your time in this wild community of boys that you were part of there in South Africa. Could you please share that with us now?

Lyall Watson

WATSON: Sure. True communities are rare. They can't be forced or legislated into being. They have to grow naturally. I learned this valuable lesson as a child in Africa, coming of age around the end of the second World War.

I was just ten years old and running a little wild as a result of lack of paternal supervision. The fathers of all the boys in my age group had gone off to fight on distant fronts. Some never returned, and those who did were struggling to rebuild professions and trades disrupted by six years of war. So we saw little of them, even when our families and friends took traditional summer holidays down on the remote southern coast of the Cape of Storms.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: This is where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet and create a unique habitat – one with its own idiosyncratic weather and peculiar fauna and flora. A relatively undisturbed sanctuary at the foot of Africa, isolated by mountain ranges and deserts from the turmoil going on in the rest of the continent. A place where leopards and baboons, buffalo, bushpig and even elephants still lived unfenced. Being there was a privilege, a glimpse of the last of the best of times to be young.

We were, however, at an awkward age, too old for toys and too young for girls. A restless generation, ripe for disaster, rescued only by the fact that being bad in those innocent days wasn't a big deal. But our mothers worried about us anyway and wondered what to do until my pioneer grandmother came up with a brilliant solution to the problems of all the families with unruly sons.

[MUSIC: Conundrum “Joko” TEA (Junkwagon Records – 1999)]

WATSON: She commandeered a wagon and team of oxen from a local farmer and did the unthinkable. She loaded up the wagon with a dozen of the most turbulent pre-teen boys and supplies sufficient for a month. And then she drove us herself, of her own hands, out to an old fishing hut on a remote beach many miles from the nearest road or habitation, and then she just left us there.

We had heard many things about this ramshackle hideaway. It featured very largely in the stories told by our grandfathers who had gathered there whenever they could to enjoy all male weekends with good brandy and outrageous lies about all the fish they had ever caught. And now it was ours.

The hut was nothing more than a one-room driftwood shack in the dunes. Inside there was a wooden floor with gaps between the planks large enough to provide ventilation and to let beach sand trickle back through. That, and a small collection of battered pots and pans.

We liked it right away. And when we had unpacked the supplies Ouma had provided for us, we discovered that these consisted largely of flour, sugar, soap, candles, matches, fishing gear, a few canvas water bags, and a bedroll and one change of clothes for each of us.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Wren’s Peace” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: The adventure began with a long swim at the far end of the narrow beach where breaking waves curled up around rocks covered up to the high tideline with large black mussels. These proved later to be one of our mainstays, available in all weathers, but by sunset that night we had caught several large galjoen - fish that also feed on the mussels - and grilled them over slow-burning coals on the beach not far from a seasonal spring of cool fresh water at the base of the cliffs. And that evening we dined and drank entirely off the land and enjoyed a huge surge of pride in this newfound discovery of an ability to support ourselves.

Foraging is heady stuff. It changed all of us in fundamental ways. We were very soon aware that what we were doing set us apart from all the other boys who were getting fed, and driven about, and told what to do. We were drawn together by the very act of breaking the bread which we had ourselves baked. The pride it brought was shared and, in just a matter of days, we began to think of ourselves as some sort of tribe.

When the Dutch landed at the Cape in 1652 to establish the first farming settlement there, they were met by a ragged group of people. These were small and tawny-colored with peppercorn curls of black hair. They wore loincloths, leather cloaks and leggings, and lived there, right on the beach, collecting shellfish, crayfish, fur seals and an occasional beached whale. The colonists called them strandlopers or "beachwalkers," and judged from the huge midden mounds of shells that they had lived in this way for a very long time.

The Dutch were also very dismissive of such "savages" who scavenged for food, and ate it raw, and slept out on the sand. But we admired their ingenuity and were very taken by what we knew of their lifestyle. Beachwalking, we discovered, was an entirely reasonable and honorable profession. And because any half-decent tribe has to have members and a proper name - we voted unanimously to become the new "Strandlopers" and vowed to meet every year for a month.

So it was, and in the days that followed we also created a simple set of tribal rules: one: no girls; two: no boys under nine or over twelve; and three: and everything that happened at the hut was a secret, divulged only on pain of death.

We saw that first season out triumphantly. When Ouma came back on the appointed day with her ox-wagon, she said we looked different.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: It wasn't just a matter of a lack of grooming, all the families noticed the same thing. Even their most awkward offspring returned from the hut with a new maturity, a different bearing, and every single one of them refused to talk about the experience at all. Even the curiosity of younger brothers was turned side with the same tight-lipped response : "You just wait until you turn ten."

In retrospect, our decision to repeat the adventure every year was a vital one. It meant that a continuous culture was born, or at least reinvented, and we never had to start from the beginning. We were all just Strandlopers and proud of it. A different tribe, democratic while it lasted and happy to make things up as we went along. Our society was never large enough to splinter into factions or small enough to come to blows, because our group size, by happy accident, was very close to the optimal size for all such successful foragers in history. The distinctions that did emerge amongst us were all based on merit and ability.

[MUSIC: I Am Walking “Shi Ni Sha” NEW NATIVE MUSIC (Narada Productions – 1997)]

WATSON: Petrus, for instance, was born to fish and seemed always to know where and when to go and what kind of catch to expect. Boetie, a tough Afrikaner kid, grew up on a large bushveld farm and he automatically took charge of setting snares for rabbits and guineafowl, which he stewed by burying them in clay cocoons beneath our evening campfire. And I found myself slipping easily into the role of storyteller and keeper of the old and newly minted Strandloper traditions. It was my job when disagreements did arise, to arbitrate by dredging up historical or fictional authority which absolved us all from having to take sides. So the words "This is how it was done!" always ruled the day and still leaves me with huge respect for the power of tradition and precedent.

Looking back, I am amazed by how well it all worked. Young boys are better known for rebellion than collaboration. But, in hindsight, I am also aware of several factors that did favor cohesion. Life on that beach was easy. There was always something to eat, something different almost every day. The climate was kind, we lived in swimsuits and hats, and felt so comfortable there. As though we fitted into a gap in the ecology, a niche waiting for us to arrive in this powerful and provident place.

That is what pulled us together. And now, half a century later, I am delighted to learn that we were not the first to be touched by its magic. Recent archaeological discoveries on that same Cape coast have now shown that others, perhaps even our direct and distant relatives, lived there in much the same way almost 100,000 years ago.

Foraging and fishing, hunting and gathering, finding food easily, they had time for other important things such as playing, dreaming, dancing, singing - all the activities necessary to grow big brains and produce some of the world's first real art objects. They were safe on the sheltered Cape coast, they waited for the right moment to rejoin the march of human history, bursting out and spreading north out of Africa into Eurasia as the first true communicants - Homo sapiens.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

CURWOOD: Lyall, that’s such a wonderful story, and it’s such a contrast to see this sort of innocent and peaceful community take shape while most of the world, your parents included, are focused on a world war.

WATSON: It was a time capsule, I think. We stepped into it quite unwittingly.

CURWOOD: Huh. What effect, if any, did the war have on how you decided to run your club?

WATSON: We knew nothing of it. When we were on the farm we didn’t have any communications at all. And I only learned about the world war, and what happened, and why it happened, 15 years later.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about returning with this different bearing. You can’t exactly call it the wilderness, but the wild beach there, the wild coast.

WATSON: It’s something like what the people who saw the first astronauts come back, and step out of the shuttle. There’s that long look, that thousand mile look. That’s what we had. We’d done something we didn’t know about. We didn’t know how we had come to do it. We just sort of fell into a pattern, and the pattern was right. And when we found we could look after ourselves, and we didn’t need to have someone look after us, we didn’t need to be told what to do, we worked out what was right to do, and it worked so extraordinarily well.

HALPERN: Lyall, I wanted to ask you a question, which is, as you were describing the beach, I was think of “Lord of the Flies.” And, you know, schoolboys who end up in this place kind of fending for themselves – there are some similarities, but of course that goes horribly wrong. I was just wondering what you thought it was about your community that kept it, in fact, not only from going wrong, but made it so harmonious.

WATSON: It was so important to us. Even though we were there for one month at a time through three or four years, the years between nine and being a pre-teen. We never told anything about anything we did there. Nobody ever broke that. It was such a sacred thing, and I think that if we had been there non-stop, we might have gone the way of the pig’s heads on sticks. That didn’t happen to us. There were wild pigs in the woods, and we liked them, because they showed us were water and where the fresh fruit was to be found.


BLUNT: Well, I think it’s – my father used to say that boys were like pups. You have to keep them busy or they’ll get into trouble. And I tried to imagine what might have happened to our community, had all of the fathers been absent suddenly. And it would be devastating. Our mothers, and, you know, combined with the children, might have kept the farms and ranches going, but it would have been not as sustainable. But we came up being a part of the very real business of living. The jobs that we had were not games, they were not chores, they were parts of the real business of ranching. And we stepped into those roles at a very young age, right about the age that Lyall is talking about, about ten. We started what my father would call making a hand. And there’s something about this maturity that develops when one begins to do what you know in your heart are important jobs, that these are meaningful occupations. It can grow you beyond your years, as far as maturity goes. And I think, probably, some of those same lessons that the fathers weren’t there to teach the boys were lessons that the boys taught one another in their forming of community.

WATSON: That’s absolutely right. And I credit my grandmother with thinking about this and inventing the idea. It was so outrageous, you know, it couldn’t happen now.

BLUNT: Oh, no.

WATSON: Parents wouldn’t allow a bunch of 10 year olds to be sent off into the wilderness on their own. These are dangerous times, or perceived to be dangerous times.

HALPERN: Lyall telling the story makes me think of another aspect of home and community which is that it’s fleeting, that is sometimes vanishes with time. We want to hold onto it and keep it close to us but that sometimes it’s just gone. Reminds me actually of the end of “Remembrance of Things Past,” where the main character is going back to Paris after he’s been gone for a long time and he said, “Alas, the streets are as fleeting as the years.” And it’s very poignant. It just evoked a feeling for me.

WATSON: Writing about it brought a lot back to me – things I hadn’t thought about for 30 or 40 years. And I enjoyed that experience.

CURWOOD: Lyall, I have to ask you, what happened when you turned 13? I mean, since no one under nine or over 12 could participate in the club, what was your first summer like, being 13 and not being able to go back to this community?

WATSON: Awful. I missed it. But I was then getting to the stage where I was in my last two years of schooling, and I had to work, and I had a girlfriend, and times had changed. But I cherish the memory of it.

CURWOOD: Well, I’d like to thank you all for sharing your stories with us today. Lyall Watson is author of “Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant.” Lyall, thank you very much.

WATSON: I enjoyed it enormously.

CURWOOD: Judy Blunt is author of her memoir of rural Montana, called “Breaking Clean.” She also teaches at the University of Montana. Judy, it was a pleasure, thank you.

BLUNT: Thanks, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: And Jake Halpern is author of “Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales.” Jake, thanks for being here.

HALPERN: Thanks for having me, Steve.



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