My quarter-niece Vreda van Tonder doesn’t believe in science. Just like that. Vreda, said I, what do you believe in if you don’t believe in science? I believe in Truth, said she. Oh, said I, a little puzzled, that’s tautology, isn’t it? Well, said she, I don’t believe in that either, and the reason I don’t believe in these things is that they aren’t moral. Oh dear, said I. I shall make a scientific statement and maybe you would be so kind as to make it moral for me so I can understand: put some zinc into some hydrochloric acid and you will get zinc chloride with hydrogen bubbling off. Yes, said she, then somebody takes the hydrogen and turns it into hydrogen bombs. Aah! said I, all is now clear.
This, you should know, is no schoolgirl type niece, this is a flabby menopausal sack with droopy dewlaps and crowsfeet about the eyes and everywhere else and yesteryear’s yellow dentures, with uppers that fall clack on the lowers whenever she smiles. Which isn’t often.
We sit on plastic chairs in the urban jungle which is my garden. Before us on a plastic table are cups of tea and a bowl of biscuits. Nice urban jungle, hey? I observe by way of conversation. Bad move; Vreda slightly lifts her right upper lip to expose the canine tooth on that side and glances about her with emphatic disdain. Well, she declares, you’d better get rid of that palm for a start; it’s exotic. Argument looms, but I never did know when to hold my tongue. Oh I don’t know, say I, I’m a bit exotic myself, my father was transplanted from Scotland. You are just being obstructive for the sake of argument, says she. Ja, say I, let’s have one, but she just falls silent and purposefully chomps biscuits and thinks about the Integrity of Nature and how nobody’s going to violate it while she’s around. She’d lay down her life for it.
I nosh on a few biscuits myself. Um-te-tum, I hum. I’m going to buy my missus a nice litchi tree for her birthday, but don’t tell her about it, say I by way of conversation. Aaauugh!! cries Vreda, I don’t understand you, all you love is invasive noxious foreign plants which destroy our green heritage! So where do you get your litchis from then? I ask. China? Oh do try to be reasonable! she cries. Okay, say I, let’s get rid of all spuds and tomatoes and chillies from Central America, all mielies and pumpkins from North America, all wheat and carrots and cabbage from Europe and Wild Jungle Fowl from Burma and we’ll live on vultures’ eggs and amadumbi since you don’t eat flesh. And don’t forget to saw down all the Jacarandas in the street.
She flings off to the kitchen for more biscuits and emerges composure itself, graciously smiling with her jaws shut. Don’t you just love to see our lovely African birds in our lovely indigenous trees where they nest? she murmurs. Sure do, say I, and in that palm tree too, which you appear to hate; nip over and count the doves’ nests in there and the Paradise Flycatchers’, and note the White-eyes hopping about cleaning up nunus and things. Maybe you’ll see the nice fat rat that feeds on doves’ eggs according to the Culture of God’s Wilderness.
She bloody nigh breaks her dentures on this latest biscuit. I take one myself, to establish family calm. After a bit I say Nice plastic furniture, hey, it doesn’t rot outdoors. Vreda scowls. It is made from the fossil remains of ancient trees, says she, and the past is still part of Nature and one should show respect for all species past and present. Ja, say I. More silence. After a bit I think What the hell? and enquire of Vreda with great calm: Ever hear of a bloke called Darwin? 150 years ago? What Now? cries she, hideously displaying the china choppers stuck all about with chomped-up carbohydrates and spit. Oh not much, I say, except he said extinction and invasion are absolutely fundamental to the process of evolution. Words Words Words! cries Vreda midst a shower of wet crumbs, would you dispute that gum trees belong in Australia? That horrible palm, in California? Too true, I declare, and we brought them here in boats but if they’d come across the ocean as seeds and got dropped in South Africa from a bird’s bum you’d say they belong here by decree of Mother Nature who is Mrs God all togged up in white bedsheets at the right hand of the Almighty. You’re insisting I should feel guilty because I’m H sapiens and we sapienses are immoral and ugly whilst the rest of Nature all about us is innocent and beauteous.
KhoiSan people are moral, says she. Well good on them, say I. The rest of us hiked out of Klasie’s Rivier a hundred and fifty thousand years ago immorally to fuck up the world, hey? There’s no need to be obscene, says Vreda. There’s every need to be obscene, say I.
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