THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

55   The Oxyaston ducts aren't where they should be

"This is a dwarf but massive tree," said Albert Adendorff, retired professor of Applied Palaeontology and part time curator of the Luderitz Museum. He laughed ironically. "You might think that I attempt to make an ironical paradox by speaking in funny contradictions, but let me assure you all, even you my little friend," and he patted the head of a three year old, "there is a giant hiding beneath this, this … this miserable excrescence." And it WAS a miserable excrescence, Henry silently agreed. A pretty good description for the heap of rubbish around which the party was grouped. Two families, two older couples, and himself. The same heap of rubbish he had seen in the station garden at Aus, only this one was bigger and more rubbishy. Henry was recovering from his disappointment. When he had shown Bergson's map to Professor Adendorff the old man had pointed to one of the red circles and said, "This is easy. I can take you there tomorrow." It had been abundantly obvious, as they arrived, that there was no possibility of a duct in this area. No rocky outcrop promising the possibility of a cave, no gaping fissure leading down into darkness. Just this big expanse of barren waste littered with flint and dominated, if one could use such a word, by the abominable floral specimen. There was certainly no point in lugging Lady Provider out here. Bergson had made a mistake.

"That is most without doubt the origin of the Linnean nomenclature. According to the binomial system of classification the first word, in this case Welwitschia, denotes after whom the plant is called. Gottlieb Welwitsch, renowned adventurer. 'Mirabilis', the second part of Welwitschia mirabilis, is the descriptive component and very accurately captures the general demeanour of this amazing plant."

His English was easy and polished from much use and the German accent was an embellishment to his speech, lending a professorial ring to his words.

"Welwitschia mirabilis, the giant dwarf. This is not my field of speciality. My speciality is fossils, and I have spent my life studying the structure and evolution of extinct animals and plants, not living ones. Nevertheless, I cannot fail to be fascinated by Welwitschia mirabilis. Consider how it has been driven underground by the rigours of the desert climate." They dutifully regarded the specimen, the object they had trailed some two kilometres over the gravel plain to behold. Even photographs were taken. "The stem is more than a metre in diameter and stands about a metre above the ground. There will be two to three metres of stem below ground before the taproot begins. The crown, if we may use so regal a word, is flattened and saucer shaped, protruding from the ground like an inverted elephant's foot, the hard, dark brown wood cracked and warty and more resembling a clump of rock than a living tree. Please be so kind as to note the two semicircular grooves from which the leaves grow. Yes, these are leaves."

"Are you sure this isn't refuse blown inland from the harbour?" Henry felt obliged to show interest and ask a question. After all, the old boy was genuinely enthusiastic about his subject and wished to share his knowledge free of charge.

"No, no. This is positively identifiable as Welwitschia mirabilis. You see, the plant produces only two leaves throughout its life. They are persistent, continually growing out form the base, like tough leathery paste being squeezed from a great tube. The ends of the leaves are constantly blackened and worn away by the desert sun and searing winds and, in fact, the entire leaf blade becomes torn into long thong-like shreds, resulting in this tangled mass lying before us."

"Does it have any uses?"

"No. Unfortunately not. And it is of great interest that you should ask the question, for it adds to the exceptional nature of the plant. It has been found to be entirely useless. No part of it is edible, the wood cannot be worked and as fuel it is impossible: it will only smoulder, giving off a foul smelling black smoke that attracts flies and mosquitoes and irritates the mucous membranes. Even the Bushmen were unable to fashion something from it. Their name for it was Tamboa, meaning God's mistake."

They had been standing around the tree for some fifteen minutes, looking at it from all angles, marvelling at its ugliness and its uselessness, and now the children were restless and wanting to go back. Henry fell into step with the professor as they trudged over the flinty, broken ground to Luderitz.

"How long did you say the tap root was?"

"Ah, yes! The taproot. Now the tap root has been estimated to reach a length in excess of one kilometre, but of course no one has ever been able to excavate the full depth due to…"

Henry liked the professor. He was mild mannered and humorous; correct but lacking in pomposity. His interest in this ridiculous plant was academic but not entirely serious. Surely that was an essential ingredient. To think that anything was particularly serious was to be deluded. As if sensing Henry's train of thought the professor cut short on the tap root and said,

"I devoted my life to the search for 'the missing link'. Fossil proof that man had developed directly from the same source as anthropoid apes… and I found it, the proof. Did it bring me recognition? Did it bring me contentment? It brought me nothing but trouble. I was driven from the university, branded as a lunatic and a fraud. And my senior colleagues then stole my work and claimed credit for the discovery. The last ten years of my career I was forced to spend at Fort Hare University, searching for the Missing Link that would prove beyond doubt that the black races of Africa evolved from a different type of ape - an inferior ape. Ha ha ha! Can you believe the stupidity?"

"So you were a failure?" Henry was surprised at the lack of bitterness in the old man's laugh.

"No. Not in my own eyes. In the eyes of others, maybe yes. But that is of very little real consequence. Not so?" And he gave Henry a challenging look, as if to say, "You don't look as if you care too much about what others think of you."

"But what about science? What about the pursuit of knowledge? How can you still believe…?"

"But I don't!" Behind his spectacles his eyes sparked fiercely. "Human behaviour stirs different emotions in me. Sometimes I am uplifted, at other times I am sickened. There is irony in everything man does. Do you know what amuses me most?" But they had reached the road and the group gathered in a knot about the professor. One of the older women was asking him about the salt surface that substituted for stone chips and tar.

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