The Tale of the Woodland Kingfisher.

Little Joe and I run into each other every other day and therefore find ourselves with time on our hands to share between us some bushveld schmooze. There is a lot to talk about in the bush besides the infernal dust whirlwinds, flaring tempers, unpredictable weather, and the usual shenanigans.

These chance encounters with the benefit of time have developed naturally into a close friendship, and we have since learnt to appreciate them for their healing effect on our beleaguered and often jaded nerves – a consequence of watching or being part of the unnerving and unpredictably violent dramatic events that play themselves out in the savanna everyday.

But the bush is not about the unfolding of violent drama only; it is about the true songs of worship in the original sense of the word – the shaping and moulding of our inner being by the music of wind, trees, grass, blue skies, and murmuring rivers carried by potent words that embody the eternal values of what is beautiful, noble and sublime in the world.

We therefore banter words at every opportunity, capturing these spirit life-forms, which manifest best in good conversation and mutual goodwill – a frank conversation from the heart with words that mend and heal and smooth the rough edges of chafed tempers and despondent souls.

But isn’t a good conversation a way of coming to terms with the world that often presents itself as irrational and hostile and therefore daunting? So it is our way of reasserting what we know upon what we do not know – our way of taking back our dismayed and stolen courage and folorn hopes and re-imagine and re-establish them with the assurance of certainty and certitude of faith in the ultimate goodness of all animals. …… and the world.

Can we ever hope to exorcise the demons of strife and mayhem boldly traversing the world today? The answer is borne by bushwillow pods sailing in the wind to the farthest corners of the bush; but we do know that even the fiercest storm will be starved of rain and must eventually peter out .

And therefore we shall not rest until the peace we all pray for is estabĺished. And we will find our bearings again and reorientate ourselves with our true purpose and goals in life.

Little Joe and I enjoy particularly the afternoon, when shadows are longer, deeper and thoughtfully kinder; and the marula and sycamore trees cosier, and friendlier than the yellow billed hornbills; and when the irresistible apple leaf tree looks more bedraggled, battered but valiantly defiant after enduring a day of nibbling and mauling by hungry browsers.

It is just the perfect time and place when the world is waiting for a good conversation among friends to ripen and hunkers for anchoring words of encouragement to fill empty hearts, and is too eager to receive the guiding hand of love through a hostile, complex and sometimes perplexing world.

Is that all about the afternoon? – well, it is more mellow, warm, kind and tolerably amenable to indulge two old gossipy, wanderlust Bush Spirits, like us, in search of conversation and good company – an opportunity to savour the day’s events and perhaps discover the elusive essence of the bush.

Ah, the essence of the bush – that which is present in all members of a species but is insufficient to withhold the assertion of every member’s individuality. The Spirit of the Bush is lurking in every shadow, and hiding in the blowing wind, and shaping every limb of every wild canopied tree. But can only be seen by those whose hearts believe.

I am known as the Singing Minstrel of the Forest; and Little Joe calls me his Colourful Praise Singer, and on a warm day like this my avian mates call me the Strident Voice of Reason. I praise, compliment, rebuke, scold and sometimes excoriate the deaf in spirit, all in a day’s hard work, when I sing for life, death, hope, despair and the birth of the new world yet to come.

Though I feel flattered to preen my borrowed robes, these compliments are certainly unearned and undeserved if not misplaced – it is Little Joe himself who has earned these much sought after mopane leaf accolades, for he is a compassionate elephant and can accommodate within his prodigious treasury of wisdom every divergent idea and stray thought in search of a home and sanctuary from the relentless spoilsports of personal joy and individual happiness.

In a world besieged by imminent personal dangers, self-preservation and selfishness take the upper hand. And we live inside ourselves and cut off from the heart of communal love and perhaps unaware of the beauty on the faces of others reflecting the smiling warmth of the sun that loves us all.

I have grown to like Little Joe in spite of myself; he knows himself very well and is grounded in his outlook on life and is too careful a listener and not afraid to take advice and act on it. He seldom feels affronted by strange ideas and does not feel compelled to display his vast knowledge as a bulwark against the onslaught of new and novel ideas. He welcomes life in all its absurd tragedies and triumphs.

Our friendship and chance encounters are a habit we have both cultivated with informal and indirect dedication and perhaps with keen interest over the years. It has therefore been seasoned with a healthy dose of scepticism about our different avian and elephantine personalities and intentions; but it has blossomed regardless into the uncommon beauty of the impala lily of mutual respect and affection – and I may hasten to add, also of mutual admiration and trust.

There is absolutely nothing little about Little Joe. But in spite of his commanding presence and superlative attributes, he manages to keep his nose clean. Soft spoken and soft walked, he remains effortlessly unobtrusive,carefully out of the limelight and adulatory attention; he is scrupulously self-effacing always yielding ground where he should be insisting on deference to his vast knowledge of bushlore and its mysteries.

He is one of a few of a kind that have found the true meaning of my putatively misunderstood music. On our first meeting he complimented me on my powerful rendition of the forest anthem. A rare and special compliment which did not fail to win my favourable disposition. He spoke of my lyrical penetration and discernment – of how I sometimes seem to sing to the very woodland spirits and gently rebuke their midday slumber and lament their neglect of duty while the world is threatened by anarchy. He remarked about my tone – sombre as a marabou stork dirge yet uplifting as the flight of a bateleur eagle above the mundane dark hurly burly clouds of strife and wanton destruction.

I was pleasantly surprised and perhaps taken aback that we had our meeting on that day under the rain tree – the apple leaf tree – the rain tree – our very own bushveld Tree of Life.

From Little Joe I have learnt that the tree of life is not about a literal tree dispensing life in mysterious ways, but it’s a representation of the essence of life – an enigmatic combination of the visible and invisible things that make life possible under our specific planetary conditions.

Like the roots of a tree we are anchored in the bosom of our Earth Mother by hidden strong bonds of love. It is to her that we owe our sustenance and grounded faith in the unknown and invisible sacred things. But we are also children of the terra firma, upon which we walk and travel in awe and learn and grow in intellectual stature.

And lastly our wild imagination and spirits, like the limbs of a tree, find space to grow and fulfilment in the air – touched and kissed by the invisible divine presence – the blue sky where angels, the fiery ministers at our beck and call, roam and keep the peace.

We all live in three realms at once and dare not forsake or neglect one for the other lest we die of ignorance and attrition. But those who can learn of the hidden powers living at the intersectional spaces will know the mystery of the bush and perhaps of all life.

I love Little Joe there is nothing dimunitive about him. He looms as large and warm as the African sunset in the horizon. He knows the secret of words- their colours, smells, shapes and sacred geometry, and prodigious power for good and evil. And we always talk under the apple leaf tree.

Copyright story Ralph Sibande and photo Kobus de Beer.