Melissa Krige and her family are safe-keepers of an ancient, white stinkwood forest. Here she shares their experiences of living beneath its canopy.
It was providence that brought us to this enigmatic forest at the foot of Africa - with less than 0.56% of South Africa covered by indigenous forest, there is simply not much of it left, let alone for sale.
My father, living in Canada and contemplating a return to South Africa, had asked us to look out for a seaside cottage for him whilst visiting the area, and so we found ourselves in the office of a Gansbaai estate agent. There were a few to see and we were almost out the door when I stopped and asked a curious question that was to set destiny´s wheels in motion - "do you ever come across indigenous forest for sale?"
Francois, my arborist husband, looked surprised - why on earth would I expect to find a forest here on the windswept, sun-blasted coast-line where all that grows above chest height are the Norfolk Pines that stand like sentries about the town´s centre? But taken aback, the agent said yes, he did have something special to show us.
A pot-holed, gravel road took us inland from the rocky coastline. From here we turned onto a sandier one that twisted and turned its way through inscrutable bush. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the bush gave way to the forest. Leafy branches obscured the sky and then we saw the trees. Gnarled and ancient, draped in old-man´s-beard, they had branches and trunks the colour and shape of human limbs. Light shimmered through the soft green canopy and bird song filled the air. Here, said the agent, was Africa´s southernmost forest.
Francois´ eyes shone like the shafts of sunlight illuminating the forest floor. Mine saw before them the small fortune required to buy this unlikely oasis of green. Regretfully, I dismissed it as impossible. It was way over our price range; there was no house and no infrastructure. Our lives were firmly entrenched in the city, and with two children under the age of 5, it was hard to envisage us negotiating our way over all the obstacles whilst still preserving our sanity. Full of what-ifs and maybes, we joined the metal river of commuters winding their way home to the city.
A few months later, a despondent Francois asked if the forest was still on the market. It was. We did our sums: they didn´t add up. We bravely ignored the figures and put in an offer. The seller didn´t bother to respond. We agonized. The agent phoned - the owner was considering removing the forest from the market; we went out on a limb and a prayer and offered the asking price.
The process of selling our house to pay for the forest was like prematurely shedding an old skin before the new one is ready to replace it. In over our heads, we were asking more than its market value and so it sat, unsold. When I was really low, I would imagine myself amongst the ancient white stinkwoods. Their energy is gentle and golden and comforting. Since childhood I have felt strongly connected to animals and trees, plants and mountains, and so I asked the forest for help. I sensed already in those early days that the forest would request something from me too - exactly what I did not know beyond that it would bring together my life-long desire to be of service to both humanity and the earth and that this would be somehow in partnership with the forest.
Eventually the house sold, but for much less than we had hoped. We scrounged and scraped, begged and borrowed; and managed it - just - with a small amount left over to build a wooden cottage beneath the forest canopy. It almost cost us our marriage though, and at times it seemed as if life as I knew it was disintegrating, and in a sense it was. In hind sight, this process gave me clarity, purpose and the strength to cope with the future challenges that life in the forest would pose.
For the forest has also come at a personal price that each in the family must carry. In time, our tree nursery and other activities will support us, but in the meanwhile, Francois leaves before sunrise every Monday for the city to earn our keep. On Thursday afternoons we listen for the distant sounds of his bakkie winding its way back home.
People often ask if I am not afraid, staying in a forest alone with the children when my husband is away. In truth, I feel protected and nurtured. As lovers of nature and trees, we have explored a variety of natural forests. All have a different energy. Those of Knysna and the Outeniqua are awe inspiring; the light and energy there feels luminous, vital. Others evoke a sense of deep inner quiet and reflection. Platbos forest has a gentle, healing, heart-centred energy.
So if ever I feel alone and lacking in faith, I look to the forest. In the first lonely months following our move, I would often find a raptor´s feather - eagle, hawk, owl - lying beside the forest path. I came to see them as a sign to trust in myself and that all was as it should be. I laugh at myself now, for I have a handful of those precious feathers - how patient and loving are the forces that guide me! Recently, I learnt of the symbolic significance of raptor feathers - they ask us to believe in our intuition and higher visions; to trust that the universe will support our flight towards the light.
A few days ago, I came across a forgotten diary dating back 7 years. There I had written my intention for ten years hence:
"… we are living 3 hours from Cape Town, there are mountains in the distance and forests of indigenous trees. We live in an ecological house and it is an example of how to live harmoniously with nature. Here, children learn about plants and nature and of working with them, not against them… there is beauty all around us and what we plant and create grows strong and true and abundantly. It inspires others and aids them in realizing their own dreams …"
I marvel at how perfectly we are manifesting this vision; how blessed we are to live in such a magical place. I have learnt that finding and living one´s life purpose calls for devotion, commitment and plenty of hard work. And when one is sincere and willing to face the challenges with a loving and open heart, the universe will support one in the most wonderful and unexpected of ways.