Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tale of the Red Hand

The Old English Cemetery, Sutherland. Photo via Kambrokind Guest House.

One of the few “true” ghost stories that I know happens to have a botanical and succulent plant theme. As with all true ghost stories, it happened to a friend of a friend who shall remain nameless, many years ago, and has certainly changed with each telling, probably in significant ways, to turn it into a satisfying narrative, and to make it more frightening and inexplicable. I don’t for a moment think that the cold, high veld around Sutherland is really haunted by a shambling lich or some other, less describable terror from beyond. But still, I will be tempted to double-check the windows the next time I park my car to take a nap after a long drive.

Sutherland is far back in the mountains to the northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. I recall flying over the area on the way to the Fairest Cape one July—at the height of the southern winter—and glimpsing a dimly lit, snow-covered landscape through a break in the clouds. The sight was unsettling, ghosts or no, for someone fresh from summer in New England and contemplating a month of camping in the desert. Sutherland is one of the coldest places in Africa, with rocky plains in every direction sparsely vegetated with low scrub and hardy little succulents.

A certain respected South African botanist was doing fieldwork around Sutherland in the middle of winter. At the end of a long day of driving, hiking and collecting specimens, he found himself on a little-used road, miles from nowhere, and decided to park, get some rest and continue plant hunting in the morning. After supper out of a can, heated on a camp stove by the side of the road, he decided that the weather was going to be too frosty for sleeping under the stars. So, he got into the car, reclined the seat, and got settled in his sleeping bag.

The temperature was bitterly cold that night, by African standards if not by the standards here in Connecticut, and the botanist closed the windows tight, and wore his jacket inside of the sleeping bag. The chill was still uncomfortable, and he was awake for some time before falling into an uneasy sleep.

Some time after midnight, he awoke with the feeling that he was no longer alone. Nervously, he looked around the car, and saw a disembodied hand—emaciated, deep bloody red and faintly internally phosphorescent—reaching for him from out of the dark, right inside of the cab with him. He just about leapt out of his sleeping bag in a panicked attempt to escape the hand, but the spectral visitor vanished almost as soon as it was seen.

There are a number of possible explanations for the Red Hand: certainly, people commonly experience strange and sometimes realistic hallucinations when emerging from troubled sleep. One can’t entirely rule out the actions of living humans, though the area was very remote, and the blasted, treeless landscape didn’t offer many places where a thief could have hid when the frightened botanist searched the area around his car. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the incident was this: the night was frigid and the botanist was certain that he had closed the windows to keep out the wind before going to sleep. But afterwards, he found that the window in the direction from which the hand had approached was rolled down part of the way.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Autumn in New England

It's been sort of a dreary summer in Connecticut, and the fall foliage isn't really the best this year. Still, the view from Spring Hill in Storrs isn't too shabby.

A uniform silver haze in the sky the other day gave rise to some unusual light effects: note the ring around the sun, with bright spots at 9:00, 12:00 (and presumably 3:00 behind the low clouds). Was this a portent of bad weather?

Yes, as a matter of fact, it was a portent of bad weather. Wet snow flurries fell yesterday afternoon through this morning, on and off. Snow before the leaves fall is pretty rare, and it was fortunate that it wasn't cold or heavy enough for much accumulation: heavy snow sticking on the leaves of deciduous trees can cause serious damage. There weren't any downed branches or power outages that I noticed, and the snow is gone now.

Talk in Massachusetts

Pelargonium oblongatum (section Hoarea), a tuberous caudiciform from Namaqualand in South Africa's Northern Cape, in flower in late spring.

I've got a talk coming up this Saturday, at the Cactus and Succulent Society of Massachusetts, at Tower Hill Botanical Garden near Worcester. The meeting runs 1:00 to 4:00, and I'll probably start yakking at around 2:30.

My topic is going to be "Succulent Pelargonium." Pelargoniums are members of the geranium family, primarily native to South Africa. The usual garden center geraniums are hybrid Pelargonium, but the genus also includes probably 150+ species from arid habitats with succulent stems, succulent roots, or even somewhat succulent leaves. My talk will be a basic introduction to the group, covering a range of succulent species, with diversions into cultivation and propagation. I'll bring along some extra seedlings for people to try at home, too.

I'll be doing a similar talk for the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society in November.