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Issue 06

Number 38

Craig G. Bartholomew

Craig G. Barthlomew is the Director of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. 

No 38 with its original gate and our rescue dog, Scampi

Place and time are basic constituents of creaturely life. However, they are easily ignored. To live a fully human life we need to be attentive to them, with the gifts and challenges they bring. 

When I was studying overseas years ago my parents moved to No 38 in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). This is an exceptionally beautiful part of the province, with its rolling hills (Hillcrest!), dry winters and rainy, humid summers. When they moved there it was rural. Our property is a nearly flat acre of fertile ground. My father always had the instincts of a farmer and, with the 3-bedroomed house set in the middle of the property, the back part became the orchard and vegetable garden. 

It is not only humans that inhabit place, and, were it not for the roving bands of monkeys who can destroy a crop in five minutes, our garden would have produced even more than it did. Monkeys, I discovered, can forage on particular routes for some eighty years, knowledge passed down through the matriarchs. After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the middle class evacuated many of the cities and our quiet, rural context filled up with gated communities, an additional mall, and so on. 

Nevertheless, the birdlife remains prolific, and the property retains its feel of earthy tranquillity despite the high walls, barbed wire fencing, electric gates and other security elements that are sadly standard fare among the middle class in South Africa today.

Place holds our memories and that is certainly true of No 38. My parents lived out their working days, retirement and deaths at No 38. My mother died in her bed at home.

My father was not very mobile, and we purchased a three-wheel scooter for him to use around the property. This transformed his life and every morning, after coffee and toast, he would go out on his scooter, often dangerously fast and on inclines, followed by our wonderful rescue dog, Fluffy. By then I had worked away on the front of the garden, filling it with flowers, and he would park by them and just sit, with Fluffy by him. Just after he turned ninety, he died in hospital, and I flew back from Canada and led his funeral in our back garden. Place holds our memories.

When the pandemic struck, it became necessary to make No 38 self-sustainable. We built a two-bedroomed cottage on the back of the property and my sister moved into it, freeing the main house to be rented out. My cousin extended his flat on the side of the main house, increasing it substantially. He had brought his London cat Tia, who had only ever known a second storey council flat in Romford, to South Africa, and she now relishes the expansiveness of our property, still choosing to take a nap in the crate in which she flew to South Africa.

Development and nature are not necessarily antithetical and should not be. Some remarkable birds began to visit No 38 during the pandemic and have remained, visiting the new cottage regularly, and feeling quite free to walk into the cottage.  In the photo you can see the woolly-necked storks that are daily visitors to No 38. This species was endangered but through adapting to urban life is now off the endangered list.

It is truly the case that as we nurture nature, it nurtures us.