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Circles in a Forest

by Dalene Matthee

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1764138,162 (4.06)5
Born and bred into the tawny magnificence of Africa, Saul would fight to save the vanishing world of his inheritance.
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This book is a rare gem in the world of literature, written with consummate skill and uncommon insight. Set in the late 1800s in South Africa, it reflects both timelessness and universality.

I'm not surprised that the book's blurb/synopsis fails to do the story justice, because this is truly a 1 1 > 2 writing that is difficult to capture the gist of. Yes, the main character, Saul Barnard, is disturbed by the wanton destruction of the Knysna Forest, it's wildlife, and its fiercely independent human inhabitants, but the story is so much more. Saul Barnard, a descendant of the first Dutch colonists in South Africa, subjected to English exploitation, is torn between his love of the Knysna Forest and its wildlife, the demands of his family, and a dramatically changing world. It's a coming of age story, an awakening to the connectedness of the natural world, an insightful and intimate depiction of a broad range of human emotions and proclivities (destructive and productive), and a parallel mystical kinship with a majestic wild elephant, all in all an engrossing story catching the reader up in the tension and playing with the reader's emotions. On the surface it is a simple enough story, but as a thoughtful reader is pulled in there are multiple layers to experience and contemplate.

To me this is the best form of eco-lit, immersing readers in the natural world without them necessarily realizing. As with this story, hopefully more will come to understand that it is the consequences of our actions that our children will have to live with.

Different passages will catch different readers attention, but these are some small bits that stood out for me:

“Were they right and was he wrong? he suddenly wonders. Is being slave, being dog, being nothing, being blind not perhaps the better way and you, in your stupidity, just did not realise it? Does it really matter where the blue buck’s gall is? Or where you believe it is? Yes, it matters! To believe a lie is to betray yourself. To walk past a truth because the path of the untruth is well trodden is just the same. Let him then be guilty of everything, but not that!”


“It took him four years to learn that life was a crooked circle. The woodcutter killed the Forest, the wood-buyer killed the woodcutter. Round and round and round you walked the crooked circle. Year in, year out. Where Harison or his men stopped them today, they felled tomorrow because the Government – who paid Harison to save the Forest – were putting on pressure from the west for more and more wood for railway lines, wood for jetties, wood for harbours, wood for the mines, wood for making wagons that had to take man and his possessions north! Wood for tables and chairs and cupboards and beds! Wood! Wood! Wood!”


“You won’t catch me that way. The Forest has been put at the mercy of man, and man, my dear Kate, is the most merciless creature on earth.”

“I do not agree with you. I know exceptions; you are one of them.”

“Don’t be fooled that easily; man is merciful as long as it suits him and as long as his mercy doesn’t stand between him and other things. I suspect the Government is weighing wood and gold on the same scale at the moment; gold will be heavier in the end because the diggers are demanding it, therefore the Government will be merciful and their mercy will mean that the diggers can destroy this Forest as they please. Lower down in the Big Forest, the woodcutters are destroying it because they have to live; a hungry stomach, hungry children, know no mercy for things they do not understand. De Regné is powerless against hungry stomachs and fortune-hunters, and if I stay here, the day will come when the picks and shovels and stamp-mills will catch up with me in every remote corner. I will hear their guns destroying the forest life and I will have no means of defence. I hear from Frank Jefferson that the same thing happened to many of the forests of Europe; miles and miles and miles of oak forests were felled by man, leaving naked earth. It took two thousand mature oak trees to build one fighting ship. So you see, Kate, for some or other reason, man always takes more than he needs or is entitled to… I have watched this Forest being wounded – I’m not staying to see it die.”


Whether he stays or not I leave for you to find out. What I will say is that the ending of this story brought tears and some solace to this world-weary old naturalist, especially for the majestic wild elephant as a symbol of all that sustains us. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
The setting of the story is South Africa in the 1880’s. The novel describes the exploitation of Afrikaaner woodcutters and the extermination of elephants.
Saul Barnard, a proud woodcutter, stands alone, trying to stop the destruction of the forest by woodcutters and gold prospectors. What is so compelling about the book is the passion and love for the forest expressed by the author. ( )
  drjesons | Dec 25, 2012 |
Read the Afrikaans version back in high school. The English version came a few years later. the story is touching and, if one is a South African, it has added poignancy. Alas there are no longer any elephants wandering the forests of Knysna anymore (to my knowledge). This book represents what has become a bygone era in South African history. ( )
  ChrisAdonn | May 2, 2011 |
A good story - highlights the awful poverty of the woodcutitng community in South Africa. I walked through the forest of Knysna myself, and saw the remains of their villages and graveyards - was touched. ( )
  estellen | May 7, 2008 |
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