Stephen Watson was a South African academic, poet and writer who passed away in 2011. His prose and poetry were primarily inspired by the city of Cape Town, but it was in the Cederberg that he found what he calls la querencia, a Spanish word referring “to a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn… place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs”. 

Watson’s article Bitter pastoral: The meaning of the Cedarberg, was originally delivered at the Leipoldt Festival in Clanwilliam in June 2000. For the purpose of the blog I want to share a number of quotes from Watson’s article, in conversation with some painting cutouts I recently made. The paintings show the view from within the many caves hidden throughout the landscape. Within these caves I always feel reminded of Moses’s desert experience in Horeb, and the titles of the works allude to this. To create the exaggerated rock-like textures I used different brush types, sponges, crumpled plastic and oil-based mediums. These leave very distinctive marks on the synthetic, glossy yupo paper.

Ydi Coetsee Hallowed (2021), Oil on Yupo paper cutouts

Watson begins his article saying that, “no one who has ever visited the Cedarberg can escape awareness of the fact that this is an area of the world which has a special, indeed unique, power to compel the mind and imagination (as well as exercise the legs and lungs of those who climb there).”

“For my part, it is always the height and breadth of the land itself, its huge self and huge sky, that strike me when I return to the Cedarberg. I am compelled once again by its contraries, the fact that here is a mountainscape both dry yet shining, desolate yet so rich.”

The overpowering sense of freedom and happiness that accompanied Watson’s first visit to the Cederberg as a 7-year-old boy, later inspired him to reflect on the meaning of the “pastoral”, and in which ways the literary tradition differs to and resonates with the Cederberg. 

“What one finds in the literature of pastoral, moreover, is a kind of stereotypical scenery which would seem to be at the furthest possible remove from everything we associate with the hard-bitten, sun-bitten terrain of the Cedarberg.” Yet Watson comes to the conclusion that the term pastoral “is much more than a word that belongs to the history of literature. It points directly, rather, ‘to one of the finite, universal impulses – the urge to escape the actual to lodge in something closer to the ideal’, as Paul Fussell has it in his essay “The Survival of Pastoral”.”

Ydi Coetsee Cavern (2021), Oil on Yupo paper cutout

“This is the universal, undying human need to find a place in the world other than the world as we ordinarily know it.” 

In Watson’s childhood visit to the mountains ‘freedom’ meant being away from school. But as an adult “one could find release from other, no less generic afflictions. One could forget, at least for a while, that one was black or white, male or female, English- or Afrikaans-speaking. In short, one could elude that most dismal necessity of South African life, now as then – politics and the political. And even if one remained oblivious to the Latin motto “solvitur ambulando” (it is solved by walking), one could appreciate anew why mountaineering itself has always been something more than an outdoor activity–why Jim Slater, the doctor to the American Everest expedition of 1963, could go so far as to say: “I have come to feel that one of the deepest attractions of mountaineering is its potential, for a time at least, to allow us to feel whole, pulled together, undivided, undistracted- in a word ourselves.”

To speak of the intense ‘otherness’ of a place such as the Cederberg, Watson employs the term ‘bitter pastoral’, inspired by the apparent paradox therein that “the beauty of the Cedarberg, its power to hold us, its charisma, is not separable from its desolation, its aridity, its poor soils, frequent droughts[…] It is sometimes said that the ability to be two contradictory things at the same time is often much more powerful in its effect than one single, unalloyed thing. This is a paradox the Cedarberg undoubtedly embodies.”

Ydi Coetsee Hide (2021), Oil on Yupo paper cutout

“The Cedarberg is so captivating, so powerful in its effect on the imagination, because its terrain embodies, I think uniquely, a version of South African pastoral as well as anti-pastoral. On the one hand, there is the austerity of its stone world – all the dryness of its cold no less than the dryness of its heat. On the other, and all the more compelling by virtue of the contrast, there are its springs, its streams, its mountain pools, its disas and snow proteas – as well as the more obvious oases like its valley farms and the missionary village of Wupperthal.”

“Being so inhospitable, so other, it is precisely what is consonant with our deepest psychological and spiritual needs. Uncolonised, perhaps uncolonisable, it is one of those ever fewer parts of the world which still wear the face of Eden.”

Watson does not take a religious position on the landscape, but concedes that “many of the world’s great religions have their origins in places starved of water”. Artists, he believes, remind us of the transcendence of place and of being. He quotes George Steiner who wrote that “literature and the arts tell us of the obstinacies of the impenetrable…It is the poet, the painter, the composer…who instruct us that we are monads haunted by communion. They tell of the irreducible weight of otherness, or enclosedness, in the texture and phenomenality of the material world” (Steiner 1989: 145).

Ydi Coetsee Hollow (2021), Oil on Yupo paper cutout

“In these mountains, one’s experience of the world, so often thinned out and denatured by other time-bound imperatives, starts to deepen once more. One understands afresh, in the presence of these stone peaks, why the word “being …. is not”, as another American writer, the poet Charles Simic once noted, “a fancy concept in philosophy, but a wordless experience we have from time to time.”

“Here, in addition to that otherness in its terrain, one has access to those three things which are the rarest luxuries in the contemporary world: silence, space, and time.” 

Ydi Coetsee Echo (2021), Oil on Yupo paper cutout

Watson’s poem The Water Spirit, reveals how time and entropy cut through the cavernous rocks to form the caverns that inspired these paintings, and how its clarity affected him when he first went there; “I had never tasted water like this, the coldness flowing in it like another substance, tasting of rinsed stone, not water. Nor in all my seven years had I seen anything like the fresh-washed grain of its bed. I had never seen anything more clear.”

The Water Spirit

At night
I listen to the river
weave its many voices
into one voice only,
of water flowing
through the dark.
There is
something moves
through water,
even as it moves,
that is not water,
does not

It cuts
a channel
through the dark,
but not the sound
alone of water
parted by its bed
of stones,
purled between
the stems of reeds,
pacified by
dark pools.

Not the sound
of water braided
or unbraided
through the defiles
of its passage;
nor that wind-
sound a river makes
as it narrows,
in its cutting
through the hills.

There is
something moves
through water,
even as it moves,
that is not water,
does not
move - and which
I hear tonight,
silent against
all onrushing,
not travelling
through this mountain dark,
and which I listen to,
myself not moving,
not wanting to.

I conclude with Watson’s portrayal of the Cederberg as a place inhospitable, and therefore healing: “In such places, most happily of all, we do not see ourselves reflected – not even in our most benignly anthropocentric operations.”

Sources: Stephen Watson (2005) Bitter pastoral: The meaning of the Cedarberg, The English Academy Review, 22:1, 146-159, DOI: 10.1080/10131750485310151