Hello from the forest

This is Connor, 52, three days after we arrived back in Ferncliffe, KwaZulu-Natal, after decades in Cape Town.

On his lap is a bushpig skull. It would have been a wondrous find even back when Connor lived here as a child. He knew this forest so well he could slip through it like mercury, tuned into the creatures around him.

And now, whacking through a thicket of alien vegetation after years at a desk, he’d instantly spotted the shape of the bushpig’s jaw in the gloom.

I met Connor here in Pietermaritzburg while at university, and one of the things that tied us was walks and scrambles through Ferncliffe together, sometimes at night. I liked watching him negotiate wild places without flinching; never hesitating. I was suburban soft in comparison. This is me now, 48, planting a Pigeonwood. Excuse the gardening gear.

One Pigeonwood being released into the wild

Something about going exploring again and that fortuitous bushpig discovery made all the hassle of the move from Cape Town melt away and everything feel just right. For a year, as Covid had coiled around Cape Town and confined us to an apartment, we’d worked on formulating a business plan to start an NGO in this patch of neglected mistbelt forest in KZN. It would be a response to the persistent urge to do something, however small, about the biodiversity loss and climate change that is today’s reality.

There are still large mammals here, despite the odds. And Ferncliffe is so well-known to us. And so beautiful.

It is degraded, covered in aliens that prevent natural regeneration. But with some help, there is plenty of wildness to bounce right back into the gaps. We might not have lots of funds (or BSc degrees), but it’s proved surprisingly easy to find like-minded people to help. From botanists to accountants and website designers, something about the idea of a misty forest expanding, providing shelter for more creatures, captured imaginations immediately.

So now we’re here, wrangling dreams and reality, be it finding the correct shade-netting for the nursery roof, or how to keep porcupines out of the propagation area. It’s both terrifying and wonderful. Last week, our first order of trees was dropped off, ready for planting. A row of elegant yellowwoods and mahoganies, ironwoods, pompons and forest crotons, so marvellously right for the habitat, ready for spring. This week, we pressed go on the website, to launch what we hope will be a project that will see Ferncliffe grow and grow.

Because this is a forest under pressure. Some weeks after we’d found that incontrovertible evidence of local bushpigs, we took the same path that led past the site of the skull discovery, only to see the twisted remains of a snare. An ugly piece of wire, several strands thick, wound tight to a hefty branch, lying in wait.

But perhaps we can all help the creatures and trees of Ferncliffe, by extending the areas in which they can find food and flourish. We’ll plant more trees, but we’ll also be caring for what’s already here. So this is a hello and an invitation – to come and get to know a special forest named Ferncliffe.

3 August 2021