Sunday, January 14, 2018


Hay’s cut, shining ridges like ritual scars in moonlight.
I stretch out on heaps that sweat lightly;
ground I'm on could turn in its sleep.

The world of grasses, standing, fallen, and the plants that grow among them. When the cows come in for milking, stamens of cocksfoot and yorkshire fog cling to their shining faces from where they’ve grazed, huge pollinators with the wind, among the flowering clumps under the cherry plum hedge. In the wallaby-lawns and short-cropped turf of pastures, centaury holds up its small, pink, bitter star-clusters, untouched. Along the roadsides prunella glows purple and in rich ground where cattle have bedded, nettles are lush. Thistles spread their spiky rosettes to make way for flowers and then the downy seedheads loved by goldfinches.
Haying begins late – new year is in before the mowers lay down their swathe-labyrinths in the shut-up paddocks and rush to make their escape, jouncing outwards across the courses of the pattern as soon as the last turn is complete, beasts breaking free by the shortest path. Stalks all fallen one way, the rows of cut grass form raised glyphs, burnished, until the tedding rakes come to scatter them and the balers swallow and spit them out.

It’s a good year for insect-eaters, and for their predators. Relative cool and damp means pastures are still green and full of plants among whose roots and leaves butterflies and moths and beetles continue to lay their eggs which hatch to feed and pupate and scatter skyward in flight after flight, providing rich food at every stage. For the first time in many years, a pair of flame robins rears chicks in the dense shelter of the windbreak along the ridgeline, and scrubwrens – ground-nesters that were among the first to colonise the garden but which vanished when quolls moved into the roof-space a few years ago – have reappeared to fossick under shrubs and perennials around the house. They co-evolved with quolls so they must have some strategies.
The quolls are very active – they gallop out across the roof at dusk and return at first light to bicker over sleeping-spots in the ceiling cavity, stirring now and then throughout the day to groom, and to hiss at one another. They leave their little tarry shits around the garden, glittering with insect husks and flecked with bone. Bats are feasting too. On the floor in a corner of the shed below a favoured rafter, a drift of moth wings gathers where a flittermouse has hung to eat its captures. Over several weeks, a chocolate wattled bat, soft-furred, mouse-sized like all the species found here, repeatedly finds its way inside the house (and out again), who knows how. In search of insects or a roosting-place, after the lights go out it emerges from a fold of curtain to elaborate the darkened volumes of the room with its purring flight.

Days of heat alternate with squally rain. Froglet mating-choruses go up, harsh, rattling, and later the insect-trilling of tree frogs. In cattle troughs and along the reedy margins of the dam, clouds of spawn float in their water-heavens. A lone banjo frog plucks its slack string among the rushes as it has done for the last six or seven summers. Frogs can live for fifteen years or more; it waits and calls, calls and waits for its answer.
On a dry day of little gusts that lift and fall away, downhill and downwind from us in our danger zone machinery strikes a spark, metal on stone, in roadside vegetation. Flame spatters outwards like spilt fuel. It runs along a fenceline, climbs a tree, jumps the road and splashes through the stubble of a hayfield, catches hold of bales not yet brought to the shed. There are people right there – workers in a nearby cherry orchard who rush to stamp it out, and neighbours who call the fire truck. But next morning the tree, a eucalypt, smoulders again. Fire can find its way into punky heartwood or go underground along a root-run and reappear weeks later – this is flame country, this is how renewal happens here. We watch and check and check again. Next day comes a relief of rain.

Brown falcons call to one another as they gyre the updrafts or hunt from powerline perches, shadowing and shadowed by a murmuration of young starlings still in their dark silver plumage, practising formation flights over the mowed ground. I don’t hear the falcons come and go at their usual nest in the pine hedge this year. Black cockatoos are there in numbers most of the time now – perhaps the falcons have been unsettled by them. And this season only a single swamp harrier quarters the hillsides – I hope, as ever, that a pair didn’t choose a hay-paddock somewhere in this territory as a nesting site.

In blustery wind, heavy crops of hard little fruit thrash around on the pears and apples; plums and figs begin to colour, hidden then revealed among the leaves and spotlit by intermittent sun. First blackberries ripen. As gusts buffet from all directions, the huge old pine at the corner of the road, last of a row that led to the stables of a house long gone, leans heavily on the elbowing limbs it has laid along the ground as prop and ballast. Thornbills and wrens flit among the crooked complexities of its niched bark and twigs; woodswallows sally out from its tiers after insects; a pair of eagles rests momentarily in the canopy with this year’s fledgeling before all three step out onto the wind to play once more when mobbing crows blow in.
After a hot day I go out in last light with the dog who trots, happy to be on the move, circling forward and back to urge me on. We sink into the dusk. Orange-brown butterflies lift from the field of me, small trails cross and recross. Flickering presences hunt the smoke-blue spaces of breath, claws print and crackle my skin, hawk drops to its kill, time lifts and what’s left of the little body dissolves to a cloud of flies, resolves to a handful of clean bones in my dirt. The dog’s feet throw up dust; I am taken, all in, deep.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


I am the slick silence
and the thought that branches there
I am sounds that speak
and words that hide themselves as noise
I am what my name says
Nag Hammadi VI, 2: Thunder

November opens on days of heat and ends in deluge. The green wave breaks and deciduous trees leaf out – even the linden in the labyrinth, always last, shakes its bright flags and makes flower buds. Red chestnut and white chestnut blossoms open and fall. Paddocks ripple; first silage is cut and stored and the rows of wrapped bales begin to give off their tobacco smell as they ferment.

Heat builds day after day; rose petals wither and standing hay starts to look thin. I struggle to keep the cheese cellar cool – we pile more dirt against the western wall and spray it with water; I sit blocks of ice inside to bring the temperature down. Nesting birds are clamorous from first light while the air is soft, then quieten as heat grows, though a bronzewing pigeon calls all day from its nest in the hedge, a murmured, repetitive hoot like a storybook owl. At dusk, new holland honeyeaters make vertical hawking flights for insects from the topmost twigs of the macrocarpas while bats crisscross around them.
The top bar hive built for us by a friend is set up on the slope behind the house – a kind of sympathetic magic in anticipation of a swarm – build it and they will come! Or rather, build it and I will find a swarm to bring there. But the hot days are followed by prickly humidity as thunder begins to growl from out behind the mountains – bees don’t like it and generally don’t swarm when lightning is on the way.

The dog stares me into a walk and in sticky heat we walk down into the forest, where she stays pressed to my side as thunder bawls nearer and nearer. In booming intervals, birds call and I begin to count their different kinds, touching thumb to fingertip – black cockatoo, yellow-throated honeyeater, spotted pardalote, green rosella, strong-billed honeyeater, yellow wattlebird . . . forest raven, black-faced cuckoo-shrike, olive whistler, shining cuckoo, fantailed cuckoo . . . pallid cuckoo, blue wren, leaden flycatcher, fantail . . . shrike-thrush, greenfinch, thornbill . . . bronzewing, blackbird . . . silvereye – while the dog sits patiently as I stare into the trees.

Back at the house, a single close crump of lightning blasts a channel from ground to cloud and the bellow of shocked air hits me in the chest. A few drops fall and the sun is out again, burning, intense – the storm is over. This pattern repeats until a huge weather system on the mainland trails its edge south over the island. Thunderheads lift their columns high, higher, then release a waterfall mixed with hail that overflows gutters and storm drains; afterwards, heavy rain blows from the southeast for three days and nights, with snow in the high country. Everything softens, relaxes. Cattle stand with their backs to the water that sheets in, chewing cud as they wait it out. Hawthorns by the road cast a petal-shade of white and pink to windward across wet brown gravel; the floor of the milking stall is sprinkled with lacework florets of elder. Winter creeks begin to flow.
Looking for indoor work, I clean a corner of the shed where bottles from long-ago wine-making line the wall in a jumbled mess. Many are empty – collected and never used or filled and emptied – but some have wine in them. When I first arrived on Silver Hill, I used to make fruit wines each year in season – cherry plum, damson-and-elderberry, blackberry, pear, quince, hawthorn. Petal wine from roses that grew wild on the old house sites around the farm. There were some successes, especially the combination of ripe, sugary-tart damson plums and astringent, tannin-rich elderberries – very good with a year or two in the bottle. After a while, though, something went wrong – maybe I got overconfident or perhaps I was simply absent, working away from home as I did then. Whatever the reason, the ferments clouded and their taste became acid or too-sweet or watery, unbalanced. Still I kept the full bottles and flagons, knowing that fruit and vegetable wines have a reputation for slow maturation. Every year or three I’d open and try some. Nope. Nope. They sat on their racks, thick with dust, knocked sideways by possums and rats, the ends of the corks chewed, labelling gone.

Now, once more I choose a bottle at random and run with it through curtains of rain to the house. I decant it and let it sit overnight, then try it next day. Something has changed. The wine is clear, reddish-amber, fragrant – blackberry? – sparkling with secondary fermentation – after thirty years! Delicious, heady but refreshing; no hangover. A few days later, another bottle the same. Encouraged, I look again at brown-glass flagons pushed to the back wall under a table in the laundry – not thirty years ago, but maybe twenty. I remember the taste – a big batch of cherry plum made from a mixture of ripe and unripe fruit, whose fermentation stopped early to produce a sickly syrup which was also acid – worst of both worlds. But now, though still clouded by a pectin haze from the unripe fruit I used, the taste is rich and complex, its sweetness no longer overpowering, its acidity softened to a balance.
On a day of burning brightness before the weather breaks, we go sailing with friends on the bay and I realise, when the engine is switched off, that I’ve never been on a boat under sail before: motorboats, yes, and sailboats motoring but not this real thing – the yacht running ahead of a wind that breathes into the canvas and whistles in the rigging. A sailing dinghy tacks back and forth around us, the sailor one with her boat as she moves the tiller and shifts her weight to catch the air.

And on a night of thunder I dream that radiance unfurls from me, bright shadow like a sail, and in it, torn by the shock of breath, a track or rent where dark light spills, a path down which my death can come. And the storm-voice says, read the wind: feel the web of soul around you with its living wound – your guardian and messenger and executioner was always you. So for that moment I understand that I am in the weave of things and in the force that breaks the weave; and sour and sweet conspire together on my tongue.

My translation from the Coptic in Hal Taussig, Jared Calaway, Maia Kotrosits, Celene Lillie, Justin Lasser. The Thunder: Perfect Mind. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2010, p 110.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

All souls

Early in October, the first day of warmth comes with an exhalation of dew from grasses grown long and soft wherever they’re not cropped back by cattle or pademelons; paddocks and roadsides are startlingly green. Drifts of perfume stray in from fruit trees whose buds were shaken open by days of wind – the sweetness of apple, the fishy scent of pear, wafts of almond from the last of the greengage flowers now giving way to tiny plums. After weeks of mud and cold it’s disconcerting to go outside without having to brace against a rainy gale. Under a clear sky, across the river the few remaining pockets of snow on the peaks gleam against scree slopes that look black by contrast. Next morning, fog-light turns the air grainy and luminous; parrots launch themselves into it and close their wings to torpedo their way through its interstices, little wattlebirds throw back their heads and send their voices into its depths. Later it lifts on bright sunlight.
Reptiles are fully awake now. In the space of ten minutes I see a shining black tiger snake on the track and elsewhere a tiny newborn of the grey colour phase; a beautiful greengrey sheoak skink whisks away into the grass, and a hugely pregnant bluetongue lizard blinks at me, golden-eyed, from a patch of sun, its body thick as a child’s arm. From every side come outraged calls of nesting birds, warning trouble on the ground. Then I hear the trouble from the sky alarm and think it must be the brown falcon passing over, but Terry calls me to see a white goshawk crouched in the long grass of the blackwood windbreak behind the house, tearing at the carcass of a ringtail possum it has snatched from its nest of sticks and leaves in the branches. Though it flies up when it sees us, the hawk is unwilling to its feast and sits, glaring, on a branch a few metres away, so that we can clearly see its furious red eye and the orange-yellow of its cere and legs, brilliant against white plumage and the polished ebony of its beak and talons.

From the tip of each branch, the fig tree sends up green flame-hands with this summer’s fruit swelling among them. Week by week the apricot trees, smashed so badly again by brushtail possums over winter I feared they might die this time, cover themselves in healthy leaves, though the flower buds have been eaten. Over the course of the month, lily of the valley flowers in the shadow of tall stalks of solomon’s seal, garden daffodils and narcissus wither and set seed and jonquils on the old hillside house-site come into flower. Wisteria and roses bud and break; the kowhai’s lime green cloud darkens to butter-yellow, and the little crimson paeony from the L’Arche garden in Hobart opens its sole, bee-haunted flower as always. The first hawthorns light up hedges and bird-sown thickets; elderflower panicles begin to fluoresce in the shade of leaves; oats and barley, planted as winter cow-fodder and soon to be chopped in as green manure, come into head. This moment of grace each year between snow and fire.
I’ve transferred last year’s hard cheeses to the new cellar and set up a shelf for this year’s lot. Every few days when I bring in the newest round of pressed curd, I look over those on the maturing shelf, and turn and wash them in salted whey. Feta sits in its bucket of brine with a plate on to top keep it under the surface; soft cheeses ripen in lidded containers. The room has its own distinct smell – whitewash and salt and cheese, and the gingery, carroty green of sauerkraut maturing in crocks, moved to the cool after initial fermentation has ended.

The room has vents at floor level and ceiling height to allow for circulation of air – I’m still learning how to use them to regulate temperature and humidity. Some air is needed to keep the space from becoming so damp that mould grows, but when I left the vents partly open on a hot day the temperature went up to 160 Celsius – quite a bit over the ideal 10–12 degrees, so that was a mistake. The best approach in summer is probably to open them wide at night, then close them before sunrise, as we do with the house during days of heat. It works here because we have so few nights that stay hot, unlike the mainland, where increasingly there are stretches of more than a week when the temperature stays around 300 Celsius overnight. Too hot.
I walk down the forested slope to the bottom of the farm and back up again with the dog while I wait for curd to set. She trots, wolflike, and stops from time to time and points into the understorey of bracken and goodenia and prickly coprosma beside the track, and looks back to let me know that she’s smelled something we can hunt, and trots on, with what looks like a shrug, when I don’t respond. It’s steep ground and I’m hot by the time we get back to the top of the ridge, even with the first of the sea breezes blowing cold off the water. As we come out from under the trees, a raven on lookout coughs a warning and dozens of birds take flight from where they’ve been digging for bronze beetle grubs in the pasture. The dog ignores them – unlike her predecessor, who took all incursions over his territory as an affront.

Each day as I sit down to write, having quieted the censor and stepped around my fears, I reach a place of anticipation – what will come to me now? – as keen as that with which I step into the outer world. Which textures, sounds, images will present themselves for languaging and how can I meet them with my human artefact of words and their freight of emotion, shaped from the store within me? Now at the start of November, on my father’s birthday in the days of the dead, I think about how he asked the world to enact and carry his inner landscape and its feelings; how places, creatures, people acted for him as ensouled metaphor to which he pointed, though without acknowledging, perhaps most of all to himself, how they corresponded with aspects of his own soul. It has left me with a longing to make these connections and speak about them while I can – to continue to learn from them about hunger and desire and fury and affection – how are we to live?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Stones ring

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
                                                                GM Hopkins

At the start of winter, upwellings of warm air continue to fling far outwards from the equator; they land as spiralling high-pressure systems over the southern mainland of Australia, blocking storms that usually bring rain and snow north from the cold seas. I cross the Tasman to Aotearoa / New Zealand as the pattern shifts – snow comes to the high country, and sleet and flooding rain washes over the islands.

Here with my sisters for the first time since our mother died, I feel the strangeness of her absence, and also the luxury of a stay that’s not overshadowed by crisis. I fly and touch down, fly and touch down, first in Christchurch, with its disorienting new skylines and streetscapes. Rebuilding the quake-shattered city is well under way, though some empty spaces remain and roads are still cordoned off in places. Even in the cold and dark of the year, people are about; work and play goes on. With my sister I wrap up warmly to walk in the park; we sit by the fire and talk, tossing the worn shapes of our lives back and forth between us.

The day I leave to travel north, cloud lifts and the little plane follows the line of the Alps under a huge sky, row on row of ranges covered almost to sea level in a fresh dump of snow, the whole island a jawbone, sawtoothed. Beneath me, mountains grind and spit rock into rivers that pour milky greygreenblue, and in them roll pale boulders of nephrite, pounamu, hiding their green hearts, and veined quartzite and mica schist that glitters in the cold; gold dust gathers where eddies take the heavy flakes and specks out of the flow.
The strait between the islands is so calm that shorelines and rocky islets are mirrored in the sea, and the only disturbance I see is a single wavering line of white that marks the ferocious rip where two oceans meet. To the northwest, a swathe of cloud, pierced by the bright peak of Taranaki, then north and east Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, Tongariro. And I circle down, giddy with light and air, into the town where I was born, and sleep in another sister-house over a harbour that’s mirror-still within, while at the entrance breakers roll and smash on congealed lava. But even here where oranges grow, it’s cold in the breath of snow from further south, and again we put on layer after layer to walk in the sea wind and turn over, one and the other, pieces of the patterns we’re part of; we tap them against one another to hear them sound.

Between us, the remaining sisters, we sort through our mother’s things, each garment, her rings and earrings, her household ornaments and renovated junkshop furniture still vivid with her life. She made something of unpromising materials, made them her own, just as we too work with what’s available, shaped by the places that name us as we roll their currents.

I lift away again and return to Australia, to days of warmth in northern New South Wales with a friend I first met at school, where we laughed ourselves slippery out of the grip of the mean girls, shaking loose; we’ve stayed connected ever since. Now she’s a healer and gardener in a rainforest valley she’s regenerated from lantana-choked, abandoned farmland over the course of thirty years – a place of restoration.
Back in Tasmania it’s snowing. Pine pollen blows from the hedges, yellow in the white wind, and brightly rims the water troughs and puddled footprints around them. One morning in the first week of spring I wake prickly-skinned, faintly nauseous, a metallic taste in my mouth – the sun has spat an X9 flare from its surface, sending a charged stream toward Earth that blows through spaces, collides with particles of everything, far out of range of my senses but disturbing still – my solid world turned ghostly, permeable in the solar wind. Telco transmissions are disrupted and hurricane season ramps up in the Caribbean as the massive charge of energy is added to weather systems.

Storms intensify in the southern oceans too, and into the snow, a few days after the flare, Elsie’s calf is born. We worry about her because her calf died last year, and intervene to hold the baby’s hooves as they appear, and pull as the cow pushes – and this time we feel him kick and see his tongue flick – and soon he slithers out, lax and lanky, and shakes his head, and we put his mouth to the teat and he drinks straight away, and is on his feet in minutes. Within the hour he is practising little four-footed hops and she licks him clean and warm in the cold air. She speaks to him constantly – mm hm mmm mur? hmmmm – for the first few days, even in the dark, even while she’s eating.
But it’s the other cow, Maggie, sturdy and imperturbable, who’s in trouble. She calves a week early, a few days after Elsie, and towards evening of the next day I notice that she’s swaying on her feet. It’s milk fever – all the calcium in her system drains into her milk before her hormonal regulatory system kicks in to mobilise, release, replace minerals from her bones. We inject an infusion of calcium, magnesium, glucose under the skin of her neck and shoulder; without it she would collapse within hours and would almost certainly die within a day or so. The effect of the injection is miraculous – she walks away and begins to graze.

Then mild air floats in; the cherry plum hedge lifts its white cloud and wattle blossom brightens lemon-yellow before it dulls, ochre then umber. Until daylight saving begins, the sun is risen already at milking time, faintly warm at my back as I return to the house with full buckets, a dew-halo silver in the grass around my long shadow, to make cheese on the stove. This surprising, improvised life.
Turning, turning, my heart is a fist of moss-coloured jasper speckled dark and light, cracked and polished, studded like a temple bell. Its hardness is immaterial now as the breath of life, breath of the ancestors rings it through; I'm home to a gong that shakes me, struck, my rumbled history waking in the sound.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire.’ Selected Poems and Prose. Ed. WH Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1954, p. 51.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sun return

[Then] the individual … must become a bridge over which something ancient and undifferentiated and outcast may walk to find a welcome in consciousness.Liz Greene

Despite the cold, mushrooms sprout here and there, though mostly not the edible kind, pushing up fruiting bodies from their vast invisible networks. Shaggy inkcaps appear in their usual place where damp soil heaps at a junction in the road but the rings and rows of edible field mushrooms, white and brown, don’t show in the pastures – nothing there to add to the last tomatoes and the dried beans that are coming in for shelling – beautiful little green-white flageolets and then kidney beans and haricots and canarios and speckled climbers.
I’ve been using the outdoor oven to cook fast flatbread and big slow pots of stew. Darkness looms at my back as I lean to the warmth – shadow of all those who have lit and tended fires or let them go out by chance or carelessness or necessity. More and more as I get older I’m aware of how those who came before are still here, not just as stories but as continuing presences. How my life is entwined with theirs – all those who stayed in one place and those who walked away; those who sold what they had for a handful of beans to climb in search of the giant’s gold; and all those who fell to earth and dissolved in rain. Their experiences pass to me as traits expressed or suppressed, genes switched on or off by biochemical wildfires that burned through them – lit by their own joys and sorrows and by those they inherited.

The generations overlap. I was there as my mother formed in the womb 100 years ago this year. Her complement of eggs already complete at five months’ gestation, I was among them, with my siblings, little sparks in the noisy darkness. We lived in her there, then, she and all of us blown through by what was dissolved in the water and air and food my grandmother took in for us, and by her terrors and pleasures, her laughter, her fears – of violence in a new country, of madness, destitution, of falling into hell. And we were there through the years of my mother’s childhood and adolescence with its own traumas and delights, coming one by one into the light when she joined with our father.

Full moon, new moon, the sun small and pale in its winter hut as the days pace down. The longest night arrives. Last year we didn’t light a solstice fire – the ground was saturated by months of rain, green grass grew through the heap of sticks and prunings and a potato vine sprouted, flowering, from the top. Now it’s drier and the moment has come – a struck match and the pyre kindles, first a tall yellow stripe through twigs on the outside of the stack and then orange flags and billows as bigger sticks deeper in begin to catch. Haloes blossom around carbonised branches in the heart of the fire as hundreds of combustion products combine in dozens of reactions in the complex, mutable chemistry of flame.
It will be weeks before the light begins to lengthen properly. Wind and rain follow the solstice in a strange alternation of mild and cold that repeats – warm wind then frost a day later; warm rain then snow on the mountains. The water tank fills and the first flowerbuds burst high in the shrubby wintersweet, sending wafts of cold perfume along the air; belladonna lilies put up their leaves beside the seat in the labyrinth.

Birds bathe all day in the waterpot at the labyrinth’s heart, keeping their feathers clean and voluminous against the cold, but already there’s a turn toward the warmth to come – scarlet robins appear in nesting colours; blackbirds and plovers begin to pair up; bronzewing pigeons, two by two, search the ground under the trees for wattle and lucerne seeds.
And ravens chase each other up and down the wind; their sound is everywhere – their calls and the creaking rustle of their wings. In the week before the solstice, in my dream a group of seven or eight flew together and apart, together and apart, stately, bodies upright in the air, beaks pointed skyward; I saw them at first from far off, and then as if through a telescope they sprang into focus, huge, dusty green like the bloom that grows on things left in the shade.

From neolithic times, ravens have been depicted by humans as sun-birds and images of transformation and guidance, three-legged for their role as mediators between sky, earth and the underworld. They watch for the moment of death and, in charge of the changes that follow, carry off the body for sky burial before their own return to the ground. In Chinese mythology the sun-crows are often red in colour – bright afterimages of darkness behind closed eyes – like the ten red sanzuwu, who inhabit each of ten suns held aloft by the branches of a mulberry tree in the eastern underworld, the Valley of the Sun, and which take turns to rise day by day, to travel across the sky in the carriage of the Sun Mother, Xihe; sometimes, though, the birds are green – afterimage of an afterimage – like the qingniao who serve Xi Wangmu, Queen of the West.

Yangshao Miaodigou pottery fragment, 4000–3500 BCE 
(Allan, Shape 31)
The ravens are my guides too, towards the light inside the dark as I carry the shadowing dead, nourishment and poison in my bones and blood. They accompany me now through cold that will deepen before it eases, as the ancestors gather at the lock-gates of my veins, jostle upstream, seeking a welcome in consciousness. I want to give them what I have to give – a home in my thoughts; heart’s open water where they can slip away, free.

Sarah Allan. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. Albany: SUNY Press, 1991.

Liz Greene. The Astrology of Fate. London: Thorsons, 1997, p 59.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Beste, best, beast

Foweles in the frith
the fisses in the flod
And I mon waxe wod
mulch sorw I walke with
for beste of bon and blod
13th–14th century song

I dream a big plane, a bomber perhaps, that turns and returns low over the gridlocked panic of a city at war, cumbersome and deliberate as a blowfly. It’s so close I can see the dents in its silver underbelly. I dream ruined boys, so far removed from manhood that they fixate on cruelty, as if the pain and fear they cause or merely witness could give them power. Nightly my mind documents my fears as strife gathers its grievous attendants and soldiers take to the streets. Of course this is my own internal landscape too. How to be with it.

I’ve stopped milking, to give the cows a rest before they calve in spring. Their pregnancies are just starting to show, bellies expanding, lopsided, as the bulky rumen is pushed outward by the growing calf. They’re due within a week of one another – not an ideal arrangement as it means months with no milk at all, and then a superabundance. The usual pattern when there are two housecows is to have one milking while the other is dry. But the day opens up without dairy routines to attend to, and I’m enjoying that.
In preparation for the coming season, Terry is building a cheese cellar – it’s nearly ready. Earth-walled, earth-floored, it’s built onto the western side of the house, with its outer wall dug into the bank of clay we piled up to lift the wind on that side when the house-site was excavated. Cool, windowless, it will be (I hope) a place where cheeses can mature at a steady temperature, cool and somewhat humid, away from draughts, and where potatoes and apples can be stored, and maybe wine if we can find a way to outwit the birds. Till now the cheeses have been shaded from direct sun but exposed to air movement and to high ambient temperatures in the middle of summer, so some have dried and cracked and others have ripened prematurely, with the risk of rancidity.

Experimenting with limewash mix to paint the inside walls of the cellar, I’ve settled on a lime-water-salt-whey combination that will seal and inoculate the surfaces with the kind of organisms I want in the storage environment. Having never used whitewash before, I’m surprised to find that it’s translucent, almost colourless when wet. At first I think I must have the consistency wrong but then it dries to a startling white that continues to brighten with time. The mix is thin and will need several coats – thick layers I saw on houses and farm buildings in France and Ireland must have accumulated over long years of repainting.
The light is low and cool – only a little while till the solstice. The local black cockatoo flock gathers together the threes and fives and eights of its summer and autumn dispersal in high forests and alpine scrub, and begins its winter circumaviation of the valley. Early in the month, forty birds spend their days moving between stands of dead eucalypts (grubs in the rotting wood), the garden around the house (banksia seeds and curiosity), and the radiata pine windbreak (seeds in the ripening cones), crying back and forth through morning fog and the bright sun that follows. Now there are nearly seventy – they fly in a marvellous clamour that can be heard from far off, their flight an animated script that flows, branching, overhead and into the pines.

Brown falcons that nest in the windbreak seem to be on good terms with the cockatoos but have begun to hunt kookaburras – big kingfishers nearly their own size, which have established themselves in the district in the last twenty years or so, having made their way down from the north of the island where they were brought from the mainland early in the 20th century. They eat pretty much the same things as the falcons – lizards and snakes, insects, small birds and mammals – so perhaps the falcons’ harrying is as much about seeing off competitors as hunting a meal. I can’t say I’m sorry the kookaburras have met their match – a whole family has begun to haunt the garden, and this year I didn’t see any of the large and beautifully patterned she-oak skinks that usually make an appearance.
This month a research vessel has sailed from Tasmania, north along the edge of the continental shelf to the mainland, dropping bag nets and taking sediment cores in abyssal depths of 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000 metres. They’re making acoustic maps of the deep seabed, about which almost nothing is known – much less than about the planets of the solar system, for instance, where currently the surface of Jupiter is being mapped to a definition of a few kilometres.

The vessel’s nets bring up creatures from a world whose pressures and necessities create lifeways and shapes that can seem nightmarish when hauled into the light – blind, fanged, irregular, slimed and banded with sensors that detect movements or electrical currents in darkness beyond the reach of the sun. Many animals produce their own light as lure or decoy; some are camouflaged in the brilliant reds and oranges that become invisible in depths where all but blue light is filtered out. Those that live in the intermediate depths often move toward the surface at night to feed, then retreat to relative safety in the sparsely populated deeps during the day. Animals that live on the abyssal seabed are almost entirely dependent on food from above – bodies that, dying, drift down from the sunlit world, whales and minnows alike. They live in a rain of billions of plankton whose calcium carbonate skeletons accrete on the seabed, forming limestones which come around again to build our houses and our bones, dress our pastures, whitewash our walls.

Image: Jerome Mallefet
When I was in Ireland, in the part of the southwest from which my mother’s people emigrated in the nineteenth century, I dreamed an ancient creature, human but imprisoned, by powers afraid of her life and also afraid to kill her, within a hardened carapace of lime. Only her face was visible, her outline simplified, limbs elided to stumps, but her eyes were alive, sane, and she returned my gaze despite long abuse, trapped in that white shell. Eventually she was freed, the mortar around her softened in water so that it fell away. Her unbound body was a collection of sacs and pouches, soft and shirred grey-brown like the skin of an orangutan, without a structure that could hold it upright. What was to become of her? She seemed untroubled, though seeing her, held or free, I felt horror.

In a miscellany of medieval documents collected in the 17th century, mainly comprising the statutes of various towns, records of gifts of land, clerical correspondence, a few pages of music were gathered up, including the words and notation of the song included in the epigraph to this post. In it the anonymous singer sums up in five phrases the predicament of human consciousness – how, while other creatures are at home in their worlds, we watch and worry over the best, the beast of our living, dying bodysoul. And each night, in reply, it waxes wod, grows wild, sends up visions of life from the deeps of our bones and blood, our inheritance and its shuddering rhythms. Through the careful layers of daylight mind a cloud of witnesses erupts; we see them and they look back at us, sometimes benign, sometimes terrifying. But no matter how afraid we are, to turn away is to turn from our best teachers, those ones who can show us where we’re lost, bound, what needs growing up out of its cruelty, what needs holding into its strength.


‘Foweles in the frith.’ Gb-Ob MS. Douce 139, Folio 5. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” David Foster Wallace

In the space of a couple of days, currawongs strip all the grapes from the two little vine rows on the north-facing slope below the track to the house. The vines have only begun to produce in the last year or three and it’s clear that unless they’re netted, we’ll never get more than a handful of fruit. The birds that have taken the crop are clinking currawongs – raven-sized but not corvids, shown by DNA testing to be in the same family as butcherbirds and woodswallows. They’re heavy but streamlined, glossy-dark with a white undertail, white flashes on their wings and a white band across the tail-tip.
Inquisitive, omnivorous, currawongs have a massive beak to pry and grab with and are happy to eat whatever’s in season – eggs and nestlings, fruit, insects, lizards, grain – and were themselves at one time eaten by humans here in the valley. They hunt the pasture slopes and forest in family groups, posting lookouts like the ravens with whom they sometimes feed, turning over cowpats in search of grubs and beetles or flying in to take ripe apples and pears, though I’ve never seen them eat carrion the way the ravens do. They often spend summers in the mountains and come down into lowland orchards and gardens in autumn, where alarm calls of small birds announce their movements, as do their own loud, metallic cries, somewhere between the sound of a tambourine and a stripped-thread bolt as it tightens, untightens, or the turn of a tap with a worn washer. When they’ve cleaned up the grapes, they turn their attention to a patch of newly sown barley, planted to feed to the cows over winter and then to be dug in as a green manure crop in spring – one seed for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, one to grow.

The sky is dark with ash from torched forestry coups, post-logging; the air is full of the smell of burning eucalypt. It’s very still and in the mornings, smoke hangs heavy around the hills and mixes with fog in layers over the satin drift of the river. Across the obscure distances of the valley, noises – birdcalls, conversations of apple-pickers walking to work along the road – are thrown as if ventriloquised to materialise close by. In late afternoon, the sun burns purple-red through the fire-cloud, flammagenitus, and its light colours the world fever-bright. The air is strangely warm though the days shorten fast and first frosts have come.
Then overnight, sleet comes gritting and slicing from the south – there’s a scramble to find winter clothes packed away since last year. The cattle lean, head-down, into the wind and look for shelter. Through cold days and nights one swan bobs on the dam where it has fed for weeks, pulling up strands of waterweed, surrounded by its flotilla of smaller birds. Where is its flock, its mate? A few kilometres away where the road runs beside the river, a chaos of black and white feathers tosses in the traffic’s slipstream where a swan, killed by a truck or car, has been thrown to the gravelled verge.

On the Korean peninsula and the seas around it, tension builds as a standoff that’s being compared with the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s ramps up between North Korea and the US, cheered on, as then, by the military-industrial complex. Is the situation better or worse because both leaders are seen as buffoons, mooncalves, not-quite-human, rather than as statesmen, however flawed? In a moment of sunlight I hear the news on the radio and lie face down in the shade of the flowering corymbia, showered by stamens as bees and wasps and honeyeaters of all kinds feast in the canopy above. The ground comes to meet me, holds me up and draws me to it.
We live in the water of language, culture, family, place, and are carried within its self-evidence, organised by its flow, until we learn to feel and think otherwise. In an address at Kenyon College, Ohio, the writer David Foster Wallace exhorted students to become aware of what it is that claims their allegiance in this way:
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. … If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. … Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. … Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

He points to worship of some spiritual path as an alternative – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – but evidence is all around us of how, adhered to unconsciously, unexamined, a spiritual practice can also, as Wallace puts it in relation to worship of money and power and sex and intelligence, eat you alive. And when it has eaten you it can scorch the ground under your feet and turn not just your life but also your neighbours’ lives to a column of ash.

Wallace himself was fatally gripped by his own worship of what he called the mind as terrible master when, after a lifetime of work to subvert the default settings he had inherited, he killed himself. Perhaps he was simply worn out. Perhaps he forgot that the way through is not only by effort of will – that, as the poet Mary Oliver says:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. ("Wild Geese")

Again and again we give away our power, individually, collectively, passively drawn along in the current of things or fighting, exhausted. Is there a way to be alive in the flow? Is there a way to call out and unmask the terrible masters inside and outside of us?

Wrens agitate over a snake that hunts the long grass behind the house; a tiger moth caterpillar meanders across open ground, safe in its coat of maddening bristles, in search of a place to make its transformation; there it will shed its fur into the silk of its cocoon for protection; there it will metamorphose.

Mary Oliver. Wild Geese: Selected Poems. Bloodaxe World Poets, 2004.
David Foster Wallace. “This Is Water.” Commencement speech to the Kenyon College class of 2005.