The idea of the Ouroboros, or tail-eating serpent, first lodged in my mind during an organic chemistry class when I was 18 and in my second year at the University of Pretoria. By then I had already met Peter and we had moved from being “just friends” to “going steady.” We were in class together as our professor recounted the “vision” of German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé (1829-1896) that gave him the clue to the structure of the benzene ring.
When he was in his mid-twenties and living near Clapham Common in London, Kekulé spent a summer evening sharing his ideas about carbon bonding in chemical structures—in those days a great puzzle in their discipline—with a friend and fellow chemist who lived in Islington, on the other side of the city. Riding home on the last bus, Kekulé drifted into a reverie during which he saw atoms “gamboling” and dancing and forming combinations. “I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones…while the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them but only at the end of the chain.”
In the 7 years that followed, Kekulé became practiced in receiving and developing helpful images in this way. By then he was in his early thirties and a professor in Ghent in Belgium. One evening, during an evening nap by the fire in his darkened study, he again saw—in a Traumerei, or reverie—atoms “gamboling before my eyes.” Now his inner sight “rendered more acute by repeated visions of the kind, could distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion.” Then he was startled to see one of the “snakes” seize hold of its own tail, and whirl “mockingly” before him. He was jolted out of his languorous state, “as if by a lightning bolt.” He spent most of the night that followed working this up until he had shaped his theory about the structure of benzene.
The tail-eating snake is one of the oldest re-appearing icons in mythologies all over the world. According to ancient Egyptian legend, when the sun god Ra merged with Osiris, ruler of the underworld, to form a new divine entity, two serpents representing Mehen, “the serpent god of protective coils,” slithered around the newborn super-god holding their tails in their mouths.
Left, “Afur-Asahr saith unto Osiris, who dwelleth in the serpent Mehen, Hail, Osiris, Governor of the Tuat, thou lord of life, thou ruler of Amentet, thou shalt live, live thou life, thou hast magical power, and shalt prevail by magical powers.” Right, in one of his many forms, Ra, god of the sun, has the head of a falcon and the sun-disk inside a cobra resting on his head. See how rotundly the snake curls around the cobra.
Left, the snake circle in Native American art. Right, the evolutionary snake eats its tail. While I was amused to see that the part of the snake’s tail that is disappearing into its mouth is labeled GUT, in this context the acronym actually stands for Grand Unified Theory, a model in particle physics in which, at high energy, the interatomic electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, or forces, are merged into one single force.
I was awake, maybe daydreaming, when my Orobos manifested itself the other day. I have no doubt, though, that the notion had been cooking in my head since we moved from our house in Roberta Street into our Wilmington Flats apartment. Or maybe it had been cooking all my life: Carl Jung considered the Ouroboros icon to be one of the primordial archetypes of the human psyche. It usually represents cycles, eternal return, infinity, completion, and self-containment on a cosmic scale.
Left, our apartment block, Wilmington Flats, as seen from the street. Right, Peter is standing by what used to be a gate to the small nature reserve, Hidden Hollow, which is now our back yard. Now the gate serves as a historical marker rather than barring anyone from the little paradise.
I experienced my “vision” just the other day while contemplating from my study window the river in the small nature reserve that lies behind our building. Suddenly the actual panorama before me shifted from my mind’s eye, to be replaced with an image of completion: the river’s serpentine curves twisted around and grabbed the tail of the river of my childhood.
Left, the black curve of the river through the snow—Parley’s Creek—is visible through the trees. Right, now that Hidden Hollow is greening, the river is harder to see through the trees. The visible curved line is a walking path that follows the river’s curves. Parley’s Creek is a tributary of the Jordan river, which has its headwaters at Utah Lake and flows northward a mere 50 miles until it dead-ends in the Great Salt Lake.
If Parley’s Creek is my snake’s tail, its head is the Sterkstroom river (it would be known as a creek in American vocabulary) near my grandparents’ house on the Steenekamp family farm in South Africa where I grew up. When we arrived on the farm from Cape Town where my father was a refrigeration engineer, we lived in the old farmhouse with my grandparents. Soon we moved to a small house within walking distance.
The photo above is not of the Sterkstroom river on our farm, but of a river I don’t know the name of in the Koster area, which is 95 km from our farm. I do not have a photo of the actual Sterkstroom.
Above, taken when we had just arrived on the Steenekamp family farm in 1953. From left, my mother, Susan Steenekamp, holding our baby brother Klasie; Gerda(4); Lana (2); my father’s father, Johannes Nicolaas Salmon Steenekamp.
We lived near the river from when I was 4 years old until I was 6 and in Grade 2 (same as second grade here—I was always young in my grade, since I went to first grade at 5 and then skipped a year.) My same-age cousin, Hendrik, and I started exploring the river before we started elementary school. From our grandparents’ house, a walk of just a few hundred yards took us through the lane of quinces that edged their yard, across a patch of worked land, and on to an apparently impenetrable barrier of grey-green growth. When we came to the end of the worked lands around my Oupa and Ouma’s house, we faced a wall of grey-green sage interspersed with other indigenous trees and shrubs. In the middle of the greenery, a dark hole marked the access to the river. The portal was small even for a child: when we stepped into the dark shade inside, we had to hold up the overhead growth to be able to stand upright. As we moved toward the circle of light ahead, sharp twigs and branches scratched my arms and legs. Hendrik, who led the way, stepped first into into the soft sunlight coming from the glint of water at our feet as much as from the filtered rays above. When I emerged beside him, there it was: a river made for children. In retrospect, my hazardous crawl through the tunnel and arrival in the sun-filtered light of the riverscape had all the elements of a Jungian journey to the underworld and rebirth to new life.
Above: the center photo shows all of our cousins who came to the big farmhouse where my grandparents lived for the celebration of all holidays. The tallest cousin at the time, I went in the back row with the tallest boys. My same-age cousin, Hendrik, with whom I explored the river and other exciting features of the farm, is the second-tallest person in the back row. He is standing next to me, on the left in the photo. (He is by my right side.) This was Christmas Day, 1957. The inset photos on the sides are the cousins who were babies and asleep at the time the photo was taken—or not yet born. The exception is 2 bottom photos on the right: the girls are sisters Dawn and Lucretia who then lived in England and would only join us on the farm a year or two from this day. All the girl cousins in the center photo are wearing dresses our mothers made out of a roll of white fabric that my Ouma ordered every year as our Christmas gifts.
Here in Utah the Sterkstroom would be called a creek. The day I first saw it, it was barely flowing. A hopscotch of rocks led to the other side. Hendrik and I immediately jumped across, our bare feet finding good purchase on the stepping stones. (We always walked barefoot on the farm—most children even went to school in bare feet.) That day, and uncountable times after that, we played on the far bank where the shrubbery did not come right up to the water. We threw rocks for a big splash, floated leaves and sticks, and climbed fallen tree branches.
Above, my siblings and I in 1957. The photo was taken on the same day as the one of the cousins. From left, Klasie (4), Gerda (9), Carel (1 1/2) Lana (7).
We children were forbidden to go in the water—it was infested with bilharzia (schistosomiasis), a parasitic disease that affects the urogenital and intestinal parts of the body, and can also make its way to the brain where it causes a malfunction reminiscent of early dementia: confusion, hallucinations, balance problems, and systemic weakness. My sister-in-law experienced these symptoms as an adult and was eventually diagnosed and treated for the bilharzia that she contracted as a child. During my childhood it was thought that mosquitos were the bilharzia parasite’s interim host, from where it passed to humans via bites or stings; or directly from the water through open wounds. Now, though, it is known that water snails shed the infective stage of the parasite into the water, from where it passes through the skin into the human host. As children we were so indoctrinated about the horror of “pissing blood”—one of bilharzia’s symptoms—that we never deliberately entered the water. To paraphrase a familiar saying, though, there’s many a slip betwixt bank and klip (klip is Afrikaans for “stone.”)
Gerda with siblings in 1961. From the left, Lana (9); Gerda (11), 8th grade, which was the first year I went to boarding school in Rustenburg, as all farm kids did for high school; baby brother Hennie-Boshoff between the sisters, Carel (5), Klasie (7)
The children of our farmworkers, South African blacks, were either not told about the swimming taboo or, given that they had even less parental supervision than we had, did not heed it. Sadly, the disease” is still a serious public health problem today. An estimated 2–3 million children are infected, and 20 million (nearly 40% of the population) are at risk. Despite this considerable health burden, control programmes do not operate at either national or provincial level in the country.” (Moodley I, Kleinschmidt I, Sharp BL, et al. Annals Trop Med Parasitol. 2003;97(6):617 –27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14511560
Once Hendrik and I started taking the bus to school in Marikana, about 5 miles away, we no longer played at the river near my grandparents’ house all that often. Instead, we got to know very well the “drift” (or shallow part of the river) that the school bus crossed. There was no bridge. As Hendrik and I earlier did at “our” part of the river, the bus hop-scotched across the rocks high enough to emerge from the water that formed rough tracks for the crossing. Now and then the river was in spate after the thunderstorms that boomed through my childhood and the bus driver had to stop and check the flow to determine whether the bus could cross. In an irony made more vivid in these present days of parents being prosecuted for allowing their children to walk to the park on their own, the driver on one occasion sent the Standard 5 boys (seventh-graders aged 12-13) into the roiling waters to see how strong the force was. Fortunately no tragedy ensued, enabling my scruffy, dirty-fingernailed, foul-mouthed schoolmates who often teased my little brother Carel (because he was so smart) to be upgraded in my estimation to heroes, albeit of the villainous kind.
The last photo of me with my siblings on the farm. It was 1966. I was 16 and in my first year at the University of Pretoria. My uncle, who had a camera, came over to our house to take photos of me and my family for me to send to my host family in Breda, Iowa, USA, where I was about to go as an exchange student for a year. When I came back, my parents had sold the farm, which had fallen into financial difficulties after a 7-year drought. When I came back from the US, my parents had moved from the Transvaal province to the Free State, to a small town, Heilbron, which was 235 km (146 miles) from our farm. I went home to an unfamiliar house in Heilbron, where my father had found a job as a refrigeration engineer on a chicken farm. I never got to say goodbye to my childhood Xanadu in person. In the photo from the left, Klasie (12) with Boshoff (5), Tertia (4); Carel (10), our dog Mientjie, and me.
My and Peter’s new river has no parasitic dangers we know of, but a sign on its northern bank warns against high water or flash floods whenever it rains in its catchment area. We had a spring snowstorm today, one in which winter and spring meet in the white pear blossom petals mingling with the snowflakes. Even from our windows we could see the river rising at least a foot above yesterday’s mark.
Above, snow flakes mixing with white pear blossom petals.
Yesterday, by contrast, was a lovely mild and sunny spring day. Peter and I could not resist the temptation to play by the river.
As soon as I had enfolded Parley’s creek within my heart as an element in my personal mythology, my brain greedily completed another circle in relation to a second vivid memory of our farm: at the Hidden Hollow, exit that leads to Sugarhouse Park, I found an equivalent for our koppie, or rocky outcrop, on the farm. In our farm koppie, my siblings and I one day discovered a cave with a jackal skeleton inside.
The photo above is not of “our” koppie, but of one in the Phalaborwa area, about 500 km away and near the Kruger National Park. I show it to give you an idea of how suddenly a koppie rises from the flat veldt.
Above: This is the only photo I have of the koppie on our farm, taken in my childhood. From the left, my brother Carel, my brother Klasie (who died a few years ago), my mother with my baby brother Hennie-Boshoff, and me. It was taken by my school friend, Jeannine du Toit (now Dr. Franklin), who was visiting from Pretoria and had a camera. I was 13 years old and in Standard 8, which is the equivalent of a sophomore in high school.
A chapter in Memory’s Last Breath titled “Quantum Puff Adders and Fractional Memories” (Chapter 2) tells about our family’s life on the farm. Here is a paragraph from that chapter about our koppie:
“Our exploits included the discovery of a cave in a rocky outcrop two miles from our house, into which we would let ourselves down with ropes we carried from home, and where, after a disappointingly short drop, we would come upon the bones of a jackal still bristling with a few patches of fur. At the same rocky outcrop, our six-year-old cousin Katrientjie once accidentally put her hand on the miniature paper-lantern hive of a swarm of wasps, was stung multiple times, lost her grip on the rock face, tumbled six feet to the ground, and broke her arm, a string of events that necessitated eight-year-old Lana and six-year-old Klasie, fast runners, to race back for help, while ten-year-old me took charge on the injury site. Until help arrived, I held Katrientjie’s head on my lap, spoke whatever reassurances I could muster into her ear, and squeezed juice from an orange on her lips and into her mouth with the notion that the sweetness would stop her from fading in and out of consciousness.”
So far, Peter and I have had no drama yet at our new “koppie,” other than that I climbed up a few feet to rescue Dante and then had to be rescued myself! To get to our Sugarhouse koppie, you follow the walkway beside the river to the east, then cross the river via a rustic wooden bridge. Continuing on the walkway, you get to a tunnel that takes you under a busy street, 1300 East, into Sugarhouse Park, considered a “crown jewel” among regional parks in the Salt Lake Valley and comprising “110.5 acres of lush, rolling green space in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City.” An area consisting of the lead-up to and outlet from the under-street tunnel is called The Draw: it consists of human-made red rocks sculpted to mimic the landscape of many of Utah’s national parks.
Left: the green rectangle on the very right is a view of Sugarhouse park through the tunnel at The Draw. Right, our “koppie” even has a cave. It is not hidden, dark, and dramatic like the one in our koppie on the farm, but has the merit of Peter’s closeness—although we did visit the farm when we were in our 50s, he never got to see the koppie or the cave.
When you exit the tunnel, you get to Sego Lily Plaza, a continuation of the red-rock landscape, arranged to resemble Utah’s state flower from an aerial view. It will be completed this year, 2018.
Left, artist’s sketch of the seagull-eye view of Sego Lily plaza. (The seagull is Utah’s state bird.) Right, at the top middle, you can distinguish Peter (against a background of dark green trees) attempting to scoot down along a vein of the Sego lily leaf shown on the right of the sketch–its veins are surrounded with green to indicate future plantings.
Left, Peter practising a salsa step onthe leaf depicted at the top in the sketch. Right, Gerda attempting a jump down a shallow rock step on the same sego lily leaf.
From our walk back home along the river, I salvaged a weathered leaf, worn down to a lacey structure during the winter. At home, I stuck it to the window in my study. As I was writing this piece and looking on the internet for Ouroboros illustrations, I found a picture that made my skeletal leaf loop together with another memory from my past, this one from my and Peter’s “courting” days at the University of Pretoria: we used to leave notes for each other signed with the infinity symbol.
In the words of T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”