"Wilderness is like the Tao; it is the Way of no way… " Quote by Meridy Pfotenhauer, September 2016
Meridy Pfotenhauer passed away peacefully in Pietermaritzburg, on 4 September 2017, at the age of 67. Her life was dedicated to the Drakensberg mountains – a World Heritage Site of mountain wilderness, magnificent scenery, sparkling rivers, fascinating Bushmen rock art, and local communities who were mentors and friends.
Meridy's connection with wilderness is integrally linked to her deep spiritual association with the Drakensberg mountains - a relationship that dates back more than forty years. Her experiences in mountain wilderness permeated her being and influenced how she thought and lived.
The start to Meridy's close relationship with mountains was not auspicious.On her first hike into the mountains, she was totally unprepared for the gruelling one day hike and was so dehydrated and exhausted at the end of it that she barely made it back. Something in the landscape, however, kept calling to her and, three months later, she returned to repeat the same hike but, this time, fully prepared for all eventualities. It was a beautiful day, the antithesis of the previous experience. The mountains weaved their magic spell and bound Meridy to them for the rest of her life.
For the next ten years, she explored the mountains on her own going further and further into the valleys and gorges and along the ridges.
These day trips, though always a pleasurable outing, did not prepare her for the profound shift she experienced the first time she stayed in a cave for the night.Without any warning, she was suddenly aware of a heightened sense of consciousness that made the whole world change shape and colour. A deep sense of peace descended on her and a feeling of belonging. "This is my genesis, the source of my beginning. I have come home."
She was filled with joy, wonder and awe that was so natural there was no need or wish to analyse the experience. An extraordinary ordinariness and an ordinary extraordinariness that simply "is".
Walking in the Berg provided Meridy with much-needed time not to think. She would become totally receptive, absorbing without categorising or naming, aware of sharing a common thread of life with the mountains and everything living there. In these moments, she had a sense of what it is like to be a mountain and the feeling that the mountains had a sense of what it is like to be a human being.
One night, while Meridy was out walking, the moon rose and lit up the mountains. They were incredibly beautiful but unexpectedly and terrifyingly fragile. Meridy felt a pang of alarm and an unsettling sense of threat to these infinitely precious mountains, the genesis and guardians of so much. She knew she had to do something. It was the first time she thought about the need to form an organisation to protect them.
She started reading about wilderness and collecting names of organisations and individuals who might be likely allies. She wrote a letter of appeal that she sent to 50 people. "We need these mountains as a sanctuary for the human Heart and Spirit because that is what they are. We dare not lose the natural home of the human heart." She received a handful of replies – from Keith Cooper, Conservation Director with the Wildlife Society (now WESSA); Roland Goetz, head of the Wilderness Leadership School ….. and a few private individuals.
The legendary South African conservationist, Dr Ian Player, came to see Meridy in person. This made a powerful impression on Meridy.He was curious to know what had sparked her interest in wilderness and the source of her passion for the Drakensberg. After hearing her story, Ian gave Meridy his support and encouragement but added: "I cannot help you as much as I would like to."
Only sometime later did she understand Ian's comment. His time was occupied with wilderness challenges in Zululand and further afield, while Meridy's focus was on mountain wilderness in the Drakensberg.
A group of people met in Pietermaritzburg soon afterwards and Bergwatch was formed, which Meridy co-ordinated for about 10 years. Bergwatch had a fair amount of success and managed to stop some developments, scale down others, and re-site structures to reduce their visibility.
While working for Bergwatch, Meridy was constantly confronted by distressing threats to the Berg. During this time, it was balm to her soul to walk in the mountains with her son, David, who was only 3 years old when she started taking him for day walks. They would walk very slowly with lots of time for noticing and studying things. His wonder, joy and delight were contagious and captivated Meridy. They would sit spellbound for ages looking at an insect, flower or bird. David played a significant role in connecting Meridy to wilderness by opening the eyes of a child in her again.
Connecting with the Amazizi and AmaNgwane communities also had a profound influence on Meridy's understanding and experience of wilderness by exposing her to the hardship and cruelty of life in these isolated mountain regions. When one lives in wilderness, one's relationship to the land is very different to when one visits the place. This is their home and the home of their ancestors. "In wilderness we go back to our roots and forward to our future."
One day, when Meridy and an elder were sitting alone high up overlooking the valleys, he said: "If I were very sick I would come here and build a small hut and stay here and be cured of all my ills. "When asked why he was convinced he would be cured, he replied: "Here everything is pure."
These sensibilities are often at odds with the visible damage that is being done to the land – as if it is scourged and bleeding. It required a real effort on Meridy's part to put herself in the shoes of mountain communities and to realise that life is very difficult and full of privation. It demands the survival of the fittest and yet, at the same time, Meridy witnessed numerous spontaneous acts of generosity of spirit "so unselfconscious, it didn't even know it was." An instant self-recognition and identification with the other that is unfamiliar to the capitalist way of being. This is real Ubuntu.
Meridy wondered if this generosity of spirit has arisen from the cruelty of the landscape and that it was a survival mechanism that has become as natural as breathing. Maybe this is the only way to live in such a harsh environment.
In contrast, our consumer society has gone the opposite way – as we become increasingly separated from the natural environment, there is no recognition of our being nature, being the other and the inter-dependence of all that is.
Where will the human Heart and Spirit find renewal if developments devour Meridy's "incredibly beautiful yet terrifyingly fragile" mountain landscapes. Just being, without needing to think or analyse is surely the essence of the wilderness experience and of life itself. Protecting mountain wilderness is both a challenge and a bequest that Meridy leaves us.
Tribute to Meridy from the communities near Bergville she worked with for almost 20 years
"We thank you, Meridy, our Honourable Hero, who introduced the love of culture and heritage in our hearts and changed our minds back to our roots.
You loved iHlana where the spirit of our ancestors lie. The spirit of uBuntu was your fruitful lesson to us. You helped so many of our families getting up and down, to take us to doctors, to save lives.
For us you are MERIDY : M-Motivator, E-Encourager, R-Realistic, I- Innovative, D- Dedicated, Y- Yest for the BEST."
From Bawanile Mtolo, Amazizi Wilderness Group, and Khumbalani Ndaba, Mweni, MWWT.
Photo of Meridy at Giant's Caste, taken by her son David. It was the last walk she did in the Drakensberg.
Written by Sheila Berry
My Wardrobe for a Day
I have an important date to keep -
with a cloud of blue butterflies
and a waterfall!
To celebrate the occasion
I have been given a shimmering robe
of blue sky to wear, and a cloak
embroidered with rainbows.
Soft blue silk
streams iridescent light
as I skip
on laughter-filled feet
across the tops of mountains
A poem written by Meridy in the Polela Valley, 1998