The texture and colour of soil has always been of interest to me, and my earliest memory is of sitting in the sun in the middle of First Beach, scarcely a toddler, and eating the white beach-sand. The memory, or more likely a series of stacked memories-of-memories, includes the texture and scent of the sand in my mouth, which is fairly full of it. The Clifton beach sand is made of finely-ground granite mixed with decomposed Table Mountain sandstone and broken shells, with an average grain size of perhaps one millimetre. It has salt and some organics mixed into it, and under the microscope one can see the remains of many tiny marine creatures or parts of them. In general, perhaps due partly to the salt, it is sterile when dry. The sand is cycled by the waves and changing currents, which remove a few metres from the top of the beach every winter as the storms and swell with their scary backwash build up, and bring it back in the spring and summer as the South-Easter flattens the swell, creating a maze of sandbars in the inter-tidal zone.
The ground at Luitingh’s Guest Farm was an ochre orange colour, and it too contained grains of decomposing granite. But the grains were, I think, quartz for the most part, much coloured with rust. The more organic matter got into the soil, the browner or blacker it became, so that the stuff in hidden folds of the koppie was a rich black loam. I did not eat any of it. The soil contained animals, mice, moles, worms, the grubs of insects, the lairs of trap-door spiders, the conical hides of ant-lions, the towns of ants and the cities of termites, fine roots and the mycelia of fungi, the bones of dead pets, buried garbage, broken china, bits of rusty metal dating from Hopper’s tenure, spent rifle cartridges and old bullets, some perhaps from the unused Anglo-Boer War laagers on the sides of the koppie. Or such, at any rate, is visible to the myopic sensibilities of our species, for within all these visible phenomena lay the numberless tiny lives of the mites, nematodes, amoebae and bacteria and all their myriad-minded cousins. All of this was in the area around the koppie, which had kept its original trees and benefited from aeons of run-off.
The soil out in the fields was less complex and less alive, and lay in great red sods like slabs of meat when it had been turned by the disc-ploughs before a crop was planted, as the activities of farming tried to introduce to it some of the cyclic mobility that the waves brought to the sand at Clifton. But the soil in those fields was a thin and mangy thing, like a stray jackal, without the surplus fat needed to long sustain the demands being made on it, and after being driven on like a beast for years it had grown tired and rolled over. Now, by stirring its body with ploughs and pouring on the tons of fertilisers and poisons, they could cause it to act somewhat as though it were alive, but it was not really so.