Monday, 27 May 2013

Voices from the Forest - Another Useful Reference Book for the Kirstenbosch Biennale

Voices from the forest

by Tony Dold & Michelle Cocks

Publisher: Jacana
Genre: Botanical/sociological
Verdict: Celebrating nature and culture
Book Reviewed by: John Manning
 Voices from the forest: celebrating Nature and culture in Xhosaland.

Tony Dold & Michelle Cocks have been intimate with Xhosa culture for most of their lives -- they have grown up with and in it. Respectively a professional botanist and a professional sociologist, they are passionate about the link between cultures and the natural environment, a link that has been eroded almost to breaking point in modern societies. Voices from the forest is a celebration of the association between people and nature: the influence of plants, animals and landscapes on Xhosa language, stories, poetry, religious rituals, healing practices and the customs that define Xhosa culture.

Richly illustrated with contemporary and historical photographs capturing both the grandeur and domesticity of rural Transkei, and the often intimate details of its natural and cultural landscapes, Voices from the forest is much more than a fine ethnographic achievement - it uncovers the ford between nature and culture that has been largely and often disastrously buried under the rubble of progress.

Relating mainly to the uses of plants in the Fish River Region of the Eastern Cape, Voices from the forest is primarily an introduction to the role of plants in Xhosa culture, with reflections on the future of biodiversity. Chapters cover Xhosa medicine, magic and charms, rituals and rites, the rite of passage, pot-herbs and honey beer, ceremonial crafts, cosmetics, medicinal plants, and cultural-linguistic aspects. They range from the severely practical to the frankly mystical. Analagous influences, however etiolated, define all cultures however obscured they may have become in urbanised societies. Traditional superstitions are no more fantastic than contemporary beliefs in homeopathic remedies or electromagnetic bracelets in the face of a complete lack of evidence of their efficacy. At a fundamental level we all answer to the voices from the forest. Where we err is in pretending that we don’t.

Voices from the forest is a remarkable guide to the roots of Xhosa culture, and an invitation to all of us to reasses our relationship with the natural world.

Reviewed for FMR BOOK CHOICE August 2012 by Dr John Manning, Principal Specialist Scientist, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Kirstenbosch

For more information and to buy this book see

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