Nothing can compare with the physical experience of a harsh landscape utterly transformed by flowers.
Every year we make a pilgrimage to Postberg, a spit of land in the West Coast National Park between the rough Atlantic Ocean and the turquoise of the Langebaan lagoon, about an hour from Cape Town, to see the spring flowers.
Long before the floral banquet arrives, visual hors d’oeuvres suggest the abundance to come. Flashes of white from the rain daisies and the brash pinks of the large vygies are scattered along the N2, all the more striking because of the more restrained palette of the landscape.
It is the slow-food equivalent of flowers — simple, fresh, bounteous, beautifully presented. They grow prolifically in the “disturbed” soil of Postberg and its surrounds, which was first trampled by Khoi cattle and later by settler cattle and then ploughed for the cultivation of lucerne. This year, because of the early abundant rains, it was petal to petal, nature’s form of the Victorian horrere vacqui.
It takes at least four hours for the flowers to open fully. We arrived before full opening, just as the sun was burning off a haze that kept everything slightly out of focus. Driving towards the flowers, we were given a view of their pale undersides, which changed when we looked back at them — a shimmering field of luminescent white (because of inbuilt reflectors) quivering hypnotically in a light breeze. Close up, they have the same shine as snow; from a height, they look like drifts of pristine beach sand.
For insects, the white flowers are come-hither, ultraviolet landing pads, complete with demarcations leading directly to the centre of operations, pollination.
In smaller, less densely populated areas are small plants blooming in colours that your mother would have warned you about wearing together — the pale yellows and salmon of the oxalis or sorrel, the chrome yellow and hectic orange of the arctotis daisies, the shocking pinks of the vygies and the lapis lazuli of the heliophila, or blouvlaks.
Collectively, the flowers have the energetic feel of the whirling cosmos in Australian Aboriginal dream-style paintings — universes of dots, suggesting shifting masses of twinkling energy points. In a similar vein and closer to home, Nicolaas Maritz’s Karoo nightscapes, with their characteristic dots and dashes, also evoke a similar feel. The flooded colour field paintings of Mark Rothko or Félix González Torres’s constructions — Untitled gold curtain or his pile of shiny wrapped candies — are also highly suggestive.
The flowers also recall the paintings of the eccentric savant, 19th-century French artist Séraphine Louis, with her strong primal connection to the natural world and her home-made pigments. Chic two-toned bontebok lying in the daisies take the place of the pale unicorn on a floral background in the highly stylised, complex medieval tapestries.
One wonders how South African photographers would approach the flowers. Would David Goldblatt find the equivalent of the flinty, almost lunar Richtersveld landscapes? And what about Jo Ractliffe with her austere, powdery post-battle sites, Pieter Hugo with his more theatrical approach and Guy Tillim, well versed in the tropical French Polynesian paradises?
Visiting the flowers cannot be done in a vacuum. It is done against the background of bleak psychoecological concerns. According to Professor Glenn Albrecht, the Australian philosopher, contemporary humans suffer from psychoterratic mental diseases because of the destruction and changes to the natural world. These include ecoparalysis, ecoanxiety, econostalgia and nature deficit disorder, which is found particularly in the children of parents dependent on technology, who do not take them into nature.
The late, fierce, badger-haired political activist and essayist Susan Sontag wrote 35 years ago: “Nature is no longer what people needed protection from,” rather, it “needs to be protected from people”.
She also had plenty to say about the problems, both moral and aesthetic, raised by photography in her book of essays, On Photography, written in the mid-1970s. Although 35 years old now, the cautions in her first essay, In Plato’s Cave, are particularly pertinent to daisy-gazing through the lens. She writes that “taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world”. It is not the camera, which is simply a tool, that is the problem; it is the attitude behind it that raises deeper, disturbing concerns.
Sontag recognised that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed”, a form of colonising. Unlike paintings or drawings, which require a longer process than depressing a button, the danger of photographs is that they are seen less as interpretations and more as “miniatures of reality”.
She says that “there is an aggression in the photographic record” and “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture”.
Sadly, for many visitors unfamiliar with the wilderness, being behind a lens is used as a “social rite, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power” and it “helps people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure”. It also serves as a buffer, ultimately preventing you from being in and experiencing the moment and “makes reality atomic, manageable, opaque”. It sets up a situation in which the viewer is physically present but unavailable in such a way that taking photographs is also a way of “refusing the experience”, Sontag writes. It would be some consolation if at least they really looked before taking the photograph.
The desperate need to acquire or consume by taking hundreds of images suggests a “semblance of appropriation”, even “a semblance of rape”. It is as if the desire to possess the image overrides the actual experience. The result is a trophy image that will be revisited and considered far more precious and real than the actual experience itself, that “serves as evidence”.
Most visitors are restrained enough to stop themselves from grabbing bunches of flower booty but, one suspects, only just. Granted, the allure of the flowers is potent, but the ferocity of consumption is such that the subtle signs to comply with the conditions of the park are blatantly ignored. These attitudes are a deep indication that, as the natural wilderness shrinks, so does the internal wilderness, making it extremely difficult for most people to digest and acclimatise to the phenomena, space and silence.
Unfortunately, there are no winter or summer schools to stem the ignorance. As an antidote, here are some suggestions. Unlatch yourself from the great teat of technology — it is totally ineffectual in this setting. Switch off the surround-sound system, turn off the cellphone, leave behind the point-and-shoot, settle the mind and steady the breathing and take in the richness, sip by sip. Accept your insignificance in such surroundings — do not fight it. Approach the experience as if you were entering a nondenominational temple — with reverence. One understands why Japanese tourists kneel on the ground in awe before such natural wonder.
Become aware. But, most of all, be absolutely present in the moment and really look. It is about seeing as an active act. And forget about memory because, if we are to believe evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, not a single atom that was in your body when you gazed at the flowers remains afterwards, and the images you took are simply megapixels in a digital camera, or grains, in the case of a film camera.
It is not about projecting your well-heeled entitlement, parading 4x4s, all kitted out with a camera and well-endowed lenses, or even a point-and-shoot, believing you are above protocol. This creates a kind of macho, testosterone-soaked atmosphere, turning the whole experience into a bun fight more appropriate to a Saturday morning sale in a mall and totally at odds with and spoiling the robust delicacy of the flowers, which give so freely.
No photograph, film or even painting can provide the numinous experience of being among the spring flowers. As Jungian and wilderness guide Dr Ian McCallum says, being in the wilderness is “utterly different” to watching it on TV. Television can inform and impress, but it is sitting alone on an island in the Okavango, or watching the approach of an elephant, that changes your perception of the world and of yourself.
Postberg West Coast National Park is open until the end of September. Hours 9am to 5pm. Tel: 022 772 2144. Website: sanparks.org