OLDER THAN TIME

 

                          ...this land is not the sweet home that it looks,

             Nor its peace the historical calm of a site

Where something was settled once and for all....

           W.H. Auden, `In Praise of Limestone', 1948.

 

 

Anyone would have built a house here,

Laid out a village even,

As the Mine did.

Nothing really nestles in the Western Transvaal,

But if this ridge

(Like the others that break this high, bare expanse

Pressed against more sky than you have ever seen

Was too rocky for such comfort,

Its casually protective arm

Still made a pleasant corner

On the bare sandy tract west of the Mine -

So, Westdene, our home of a hundred or so houses,

Tin-roofed red-brick green-doored and framed houses

Neatly neighbouring the other

Tin-roofed red-brick green-doored and framed houses

That are the share of the wealth

Squeezed out of earth and men

That is due to our

Rank and race.

 

 

 

And if, now, the perspective

Provided by this position

Is dominated by the shine and angles

Of the steel and corrugated iron

That is the surface symbol

Of Blyvoortuitzicht's Number Two shaft,

Still, it is a happy prospect indeed

For those of us who live to extract a living

Out of that which supports us,

Whose dependence is

Poised

Between the impenetrable

And the need to penetrate.

 

This situation, however,

Finds its order

In another arrangement

Infinitely older and more substantial

Than the relations of its surface;

And the reasons behind choosing this place,

Behind the aesthetics of perspective

And the demands of practicality,

Did not take into account all the laws

Governing this place.

These are simple (when understood)

But more important,

Unnegotiable.

 

 

For example,

This ridge is here because it is quartz

And quartzite does not easily erode;

And the flatness that it embraces

Is flat because it is yielding dolomite.

This is why, in Plomer's Transvaal morning,

`Shoulders of quartz protruded from the hill

Like sculpture half unearthed';

No less in ours, and

This much, more prosaically,

We knew - even more,

That the plain face of dolomite,

The tempting domesticity of its

Scoured surface smoothness,

Is eaten out from within by conflicts

Older than poetry,

Older even than the politics

That made the year in which Auden wrote

His poem in praise of dolomite's near-relative

So significant for us.

Like limestone, dolomite dissolves in water,

So holes,

Eaten out by water,

And now filled with water,

Form in it too a secret system of caves and conduits

That in places (and this we did not know)

Is all that supports a surface

Seemingly secure enough

For the weight of our efforts

To sink through this

Mild medium of soft moist stone.

For us dolomite contained no geology lesson,

No extended metaphor for a faultless love

Or the life to come;

No, for us it was of significance only

For its position between us

And the aurifierous conglomerates

Beneath.

 

And who can blame us

For ignoring dolomite?

Here under the Far West Rand,

Under the bland facade of its flatness,

Lurks the temptation of twenty percent

Of the world's gold;

Blyvoor's near neighbour,

We remind those who have not heard of us,

Is West Driefontein,

The largest single producer of gold in the world.

So,

So what if dolomite,

Especially Transvaal dolomite,

Is for you notorious,

If by 1979 Dr Brink in his textbook

Could count thirty eight dead

And point to damage sustained on these

Honey-coloured surfaces

As more severe

Than on any other geological formation

In Southern Africa?

He could only tell you that this sort of thing

`Accelerated in the Far West Rand in the last fifteen years'

Which dates retrospectively

From his first edition, precisely

The innocence of our year

As far as dolomite

Was concerned.

 

Oh, we knew of sudden subsidences, creating

Cylindrical, steep-sided, and usually circular holes,

But to us these were, at best,

History.

Our forefathers, Voortrekkers,

Called these ridges the Gatsrante

Because of the abundance of karst features to be found here;

And anyone could read -

As every one of us did before Smuts

Disappeared up his holism

And betrayed us -

In Deneys Reitz's book

Of how he hid his whole commando from the British

In a hole near where Doornfontein Mine is now.

But that was then,

Local colour for the anecdote

That embroiders the stern tale of how we came to belong here,

Details that stitch together our claim to the land

And the unexpected treasure blanketed beneath it.

 

If you were to leave even history behind,

And talk like the anthropologists of the `valuable hominid remains'

Preserved in the much, much older holes of

Makapansgat, Sterkfontein, Swartkrans,

Well we, for whom time was a thin line between Alpha and Omega,

For whom history had to begin and end

To frame the limits of our minds' ability

To contain the cause and effect that explained us,

For whom God marked the outer edge

Of the failure of our imagination,

We, you see, did not believe in

Evolution.

 

Of course, when that three-story crusher on West Driefontein mine

Disappeared with the morning shift of twenty nine in October 1962,

We suffered with our more famous neighbour;

And when Schutte's house became Schutte's Depression in 1963

It all came closer home.

And so we began to pay more attention to humble dolomite,

Which kept its network of levels and pressures

A mystery between us and our gold;

We started to inquire, even as we pumped and pumped,

Into the economy of water,

That nuisance factor that dolomite introduced into our operations:

Found that certain of those groundwater compartments

Touched our level,

Slept just below the surface,

And reached up for us with tunnels

That remained choked with chert - as long, that is,

As the water table remained static;

Found that what we conceived as our solid base

Could be a bridge,

A delicate span on which,

Poised above eternity,

Clumsily we carried out

Our earthy exercises;

But, and so they comforted us,

Even under these conditions

Our circumstances could be

Strong and stable for a long, long time -

A long, long time, that is,

Unless the water levels

Dropped....

 

We had to keep on pumping, of course;

And so the game began of finding out

What was arch and what was earth -

Which we could only do by thumping the ground

With heavy machinery

And measuring the response;

All well and good,

But the arithmetic only worked if you were above a hollow -

Your sums could tell you solid tales

When feet away a drum waited to sing out

Its emptiness.

 

But still we pumped,

And as the last water trickled away,

Sensitive to the commands of our technology

(While knowing better),

The unforgiving order of things

Called in our debts,

Drew in our surface reality

To fill a deeper logic,

Longer than our chronologies;

Made us submit to a scale upon which

Our sense of duration

Hardly registers,

Those rhythms and patterns of

A history which almost

Stands still.

Those stories older than time

Taught us of borders more significant

Than any we had drawn

In the languages of history, geography, or ethnicity,

And brought these things so crushingly vast

Home to the delicacy

Of domestic detail.

 

Yes, anyone would have laid out a village here,

Built a house, even

Moved his love - wife, children, all -

Into the shadow of that protective arm,

Never suspecting how it could all slip through,

Soil through his fingers,

Water from his hands.

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