‘Alienation and belonging’ is one of those recurrent themes in my life. It’s not just that I’m an immigrant – I’m also something of a maverick. So my primal need to belong lives uncomfortably alongside my need for freedom and authenticity. I am familiar with the feeling of ‘otherness’, which may explain my empathy with aliens.
This week I felt drawn to sit beside a stream in the Tokai Arboretum. Much of the adjoining plantation of alien pine trees is currently being felled in an attempt to rehabilitate the natural Fynbos vegetation in this section of the Table Mountain National Park. This is part of a nation-wide programme to eradicate invasive alien species. In my previous career as an environmental educator, much of my work involved explaining why aliens are a problem, so I deeply appreciate the reasons behind this imperative.
But as an alien myself, living in a country that has experienced the horrors of xenophobic violence, I have become less shrill in my attitudes towards species which, like myself, find themselves surviving in a country far from their original home. If large-scale eradication of invasive species is indeed necessary, my hope is that we could undertake this task humbly, learning a lesson from history about the complex implications of our best intentions. I also hope that we could act with reverence and compassion for the creatures great and small that will suffer at our hands.
And may we also recognise in those whom we call ‘other’ the familiar reflection of our own humanity.
Sitting in this grand cathedral
On a pew of granite rock
Awed by polished trunks like marble
Holding arching boughs aloft.
Incense heavy in the air.
Stained glass leaves and clouds and shadows
Cast their dappled blessings here.
You and I share this in common:
Neither native to this place.
Brought from other climes and cultures
We’ve adapted to this space.
Fortunes change. We are no longer
Welcome as in earlier years.
Migrants, settlers, refugees …
Competition raises fears.
When the welcome turns to hatred,
When our useful days are done,
Justify our cutting down.
Oh, the ache of not belonging!
Where can we find one who cares?
In the fellowship of aliens
Will we taste acceptance here?
North wind whispers in the branches.
I breathe out and I breathe in,
Bringing honour and compassion
To the company of my kin.
Earth, forgive us our divisions,
Lines we’ve drawn upon your ground.
We are one, we all belong here;
Help us heal the primal wound.