Towards the end of winter our ground dries out. It does not dry out a little. It dries until a handful of dirt, pouring through your fingers, has almost no substance. Water poured onto the earth soaks away in moments while the sun beats down without mercy and without pause. Everyone, human and animal, waits for the rain.

Most years, since we’ve been here, the first rain came in October and the ground stayed fairly damp all the way through to April. In those years there were times when the road leading to our place could have been mistaken for a river. On the news during one such year we saw parts of neighbouring Centurion disappear under floodwater and our own local river, referred to by Winston Churchill in My Early Life as the mighty Apies, bursts its banks and does become mighty for a while. We cannot then take our usual routes to town. In fact we have to be careful about going out at all. But plant life is saved, the borehole fills up, and all is cheerful again.

In one particularly unhappy year the skies held out till December, giving us only about four dampish months out of twelve. Whatever sort of year we are having, late winter is mighty dry. We have planted a little fruit orchard and have no intention of seeing our trees, pomelos, lemons, naartjies, guavas, pawpaws, peaches and plums, go to hell.

“The thing to do,” Miriam said, and she is the one who knows, “is to lay mulch around the trees. Then, when we are able to water the trees, that will keep the moisture from evaporating.”

“What is mulch?” I asked

“Vegetable matter,” she said, “leaves and stuff.”

We did not have enough leaves for the purpose, so we went off to buy something else that would serve as mulch. What we found was Lucerne and spread it around the trees. It looked right and we were happy and we told ourselves the trees were happy too.

We did not notice that others too were happy. We had allowed a herd of mighty Brahman cattle to graze on our land, but outside our formidable garden fence. Then we made the fundamental mistake of not closing our gate securely. As soon as we turned our backs and went inside – and the Brahmans waited for that moment – they came storming into the garden.

Two things the incident taught us about Brahman cattle are (1) they dearly love Lucerne, and (2) they eat it fast. The cattle outnumbered our fruit trees about five to one. The result was that by the time we came running, waving our arms and shouting, our Lucerne had already changed from mulch to dessert. The cows and the herd’s one young bull all looked contented. We, and our fruit trees, had returned to our previous state.

More on our neighbours Brahman

The Black-eyed Susans and the Brahman

A Lucerne Dessert