Sigh

Other people’s words about … living by the sea

We walk back to our car, the morning seeming eerily quiet. I’m used to living close enough to the shore that occasionally we can hear the gulls in the distance, crying. Here, there’s nothing. With the cold, there’s no insect noise, no bird noise. Just the wind moving the leaves, the branches swaying, the world, faintly sighing.

From ‘Fragments of the Lost’
by Megan Miranda

Once, years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I left the house by the sea in which I was living to stay for a couple of weeks with a man with whom I thought I was in love. He lived interstate, in a suburb miles from the coast: a suburb of twisting cul-de-sacs lined with neat brick houses and small, grassy parks, each of which had a set of swings, and a see-saw, and a coin-operated barbecue.

With the passing of each day in that man’s house, I felt a terrible, growing sense of fatigue and disenchantment. At first, I thought that I must be ill. I felt tired, so tired: my limbs seemed stiff and leaden, and each night, as I lay in my bed in his guest room, sleep blanketed me so rapidly, so heavily, that I felt as though it was smothering me.

Then I thought that, rather than becoming ill, I was falling out of love. This was, in fact, partly the case: from the moment I first walked through his back door, I felt myself growing angrier and angrier with this man, whose life was nothing like I had thought it would be, and who (transported from the town where I had met him, my home town) seemed a different man, a different beast altogether, from the man I had been drawn to just a few weeks earlier.

But finally, as my days in his house passed, I came to realise that my strongest feeling of all, beyond the bewildering exhaustion, beyond the unjustifiable anger, was that I was lost. I mean the word in its literal sense: not as a metaphor for some kind of emotional loss (although that was undoubtedly a part of what I was feeling; I was, after all, very young), but as a geographical descriptor. I could not locate myself in the twisting, winding, circling streets of his suburb. I could not tell north from south, east from west. I felt as though I was in a maze. I knew that it was a maze of my own making, and I knew that I had to find a way out.

And it seemed to me that if only I could hear the sea the way I could hear it when I was at home (its sighs, its mutters, its roars), if only I could hear the gulls crying in the skies above me, the way Megan Miranda describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, I would know where I was, and I would no longer be lost.

Eventually, I found my way out of that maze, and I got myself safely back home. Still, I’ve never forgotten the weeks I spent in that man’s house. I came to understand, during that time, that the sea, for me, had become a kind of compass in my life, both literal and metaphorical. That the sea gives me a sense of place. A sense of direction. A sense of home.

Here, there’s nothing, Miranda’s narrator writes, describing her visit to a place far from the sea. Perhaps that’s what the sea gives most of all to those of us who live beside it: a sense of something outside of ourselves. A sense of presence.

Sea and sand

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Out and about: at lunch

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

I haven’t done an out and about post for a while, so I thought it was time. I recently quit my job at the call centre in order to concentrate on my work as an editor, where my workplace is in the city centre …

… which means that my lunch-break strolls haven’t stopped, but they have certainly changed.

It’s easy to be tempted by shops when you work in town (books! clothes! books!), but the other day, on a late lunch break, I headed north towards the river as I left my office, rather than south towards the shops.

Five minutes north of my office is the River Torrens — the perfect place for a lunchtime stroll.

This particular day was one of those lovely January days, as I hope my photos on this post demonstrate: warm and sunny, with soft blue skies and a gentle breeze ruffling the water …

… There were ducks and moorhens paddling about, and the grass, which had been recently mown, smelt dry but sweet.

January is one of my favourite months of the year, as far as the seasons go. It’s usually sunny, and though the days are mostly warm, the temperatures rarely rise to stifling. It’s the ideal month for strolling, walking and wandering.

I plan to come back to the river in my lunch break again soon …

Yellow

Other people’s words about … spring

After Matthew left I lost the knack of sleeping. Brighton seemed unsettled and at night it was very bright … At periodic intervals throughout the day I felt that I was drowning, and it was all I could do not to fling myself to the ground and wail like a child. These feelings of panic, which in more sober moments I knew were temporary and would soon pass, were somehow intensified by the loveliness of that April. The trees were flaring into life: first the chestnut with its upraised candles and then the elm and beech. Amid this wash of green the cherry began to flower and within days the streets were filled with a flush of blossom that clogged the drains and papered the windscreens of parked cars.

from ‘To the River
by Olivia Laing

I continue to be fascinated with the notion of seasons, and how the idea of a season is as much a cultural and traditional one as it is a quantifiable or temporal one. Here in my part of South Australia, if you were to measure the year out using temperature and climate as your basic season markers, you might say that we begin the year in January and February with dry, glaring, windy heat. In March and April the weather is often warm and dry but the wind drops off; in May and June the days grow cold, though they remain frequently sunny and still. Somewhere around July and August, the serious clouds and rain begin; in September and October there may be both storms and patchy sun; in November and December the weather is dry and warm but variable.

That, at least, would be one way to mark out the seasons where I live.

But temperature and weather are only half the picture. Plant life and animal life have their own seasons, too. In the northern hemisphere, spring is often celebrated as a season of growth and birth, much as Laing describes it so vividly in the passage above, but here in South Australia, that season of growth is far more staggered and gradual. In late July, when the temperatures are still winter-cold, the native plants begin to flower, and the birds begin to build their nests. By November, that cycle of birth and growth has already begun to slow and drop off.

And then there are the different seasonal colours. Myself, I tend to think of July and August, in my own world, as the yellow months. So many of the native plants that flower at this time of the year have yellow blossoms: acacias, guinea flowers, groundsel flowers, punty bushes, bush peas, goodenias.

Many of the plants I’ve just named were in flower on one of my latest walks in the Scrub, as you can see in the pictures accompanying this post. Everywhere I looked, from the tops of the trees right down to the ground, there were sprinklings of yellow.

So it was a yellow walk through a yellow world. Perhaps we should call this time of year the yellow season?

Out and about: after the rain

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

This year, July was exceptionally dry in South Australia. Then August blew in and it has been bitterly cold, windy and rainy ever since.

There is a manic wind whipping through the treetops today … the sort of wind that’s somewhat unsettling and leaves me feeling a bit scratchy, Belinda Jeffery writes in her August 5 entry in her wonderful cookbook-cum-nature diary The Country Coobook. And I know what she means. In the middle week of August, I spent a week in our beach house down south, and much of the time the squalls of rain were so frequent and unpredictable, there wasn’t much of a chance for me to get out.

Rain in the vineyards

Still, one morning mid-week the sun shone between showers and I risked a walk. I headed down the path that skirts the wetlands and vineyards (on one side) and the eastern boundary of the scrub (on the other) and then turned south to follow the path back into the scrub.

Flooded scrubland

Last time I walked in the area around this trail, the ground was damp but not waterlogged. But on this particular day, after the recent rains, the low-lying parts of the land had become flooded. Beyond the reeds that bordered the flooded land, I saw trees with their trunks submerged, and waterbirds diving and swooping from branch to branch.

Submerged trunks

There was even a family of ducks.

If I crouched down to peek through the reeds, I could just see the green grassy banks rising above the flooded land, further within the scrub.

Is the grass always greener on the other side?

Once I’d walked far enough south, I turned west, deep into the scrub, where there were no more floods, and where yellow blossom dotted the landscape (more about which in an upcoming post). But even as I walked, the sky darkened and the temperature dropped.

I made it home just before the next burst of rain …

Out and about: a new series

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have two part-time jobs, which I move between each week in much the same way as I move between my two houses. One of my jobs involves editing manuscripts for an academic press, while the other involves call centre work.

The job at the call centre doesn’t involve sales work; I work for a not-for-profit community health organisation. My calls are mostly from clients wondering what time their nurse is coming or needing an unscheduled visit from a nurse due to an unexpected health crisis, or from members of the public wanting to find out how to go about becoming a client. Around me, as I take call after call, my colleagues do the same. We work in a bubble of chatter and noise: phones ringing; people laughing or raising their voices for a client who’s hard of hearing; people taking complaints; the lunch lady ringing her bell as she pushes her trolley between desks to sell food to anyone who didn’t bring their own lunch with them.

During each shift, I am allotted a 30-minute lunch break at a stipulated time (which varies depending on what time my shift starts). There is a lunch room at the end of the corridor, with a toaster and a microwave and a dishwasher, but I rarely eat my lunch there. Though I’m proud to work for the organisation — though I enjoy the work and value what we all do there — I think of those 30 minutes as my chance to escape.

And so I wander outside the office with my lunch. Our office is on the fringes of the city, and just down the road from our building is a stretch of park land that runs between the main road and the railway track. I walk there each day, and despite the hum of traffic and the rattle of trains passing, it’s a peaceful time. Swallows dive in front of me; parrots chirp; magpies sing; mynah birds chortle.

You can’t go far in 30 minutes, and I walk briskly along the path on a designated route. Still, despite my hurry, there are moments enough in which I have the chance to notice the passing of the seasons. In the cold months of the year, the grass is long and wet and the trees sway in wild, wet winds, their branches silhouetted against the grey sky. In the hot months, the grass dies off and the sun beats down between the branches, and the birds murmur amongst themselves.

Today’s pictures come from one of those lunch breaks a couple of weeks ago: late July, early August. Officially, these months are still classified as winter, at least according to the Western calendar. I’ve heard, though, that Indigenous Australians traditionally mark the time differently, recognising more than four seasons each year — and on this walk I saw why. Despite the cold, blustery wind, and the wet grass, and the leaden clouds above me threatening squalls of rain, the native bushes along the path had begun to flower. Acacia trees were heavy with musty yellow blossom (as pictured in the top photo), and I came upon a couple of hardenbergia vines in full bloom, their vines resplendent with purple flowers (as pictured in the remaining photos).

Perhaps you recognise the words I’ve quoted at the top of this passage: I’ve quoted them before. I think the words bear repeating, here and elsewhere, which is why this is the first post in a new series on my blog — a series I’m entitling ‘Out and About’. In these posts, you’ll find pictures and thoughts that I’ve collected together after one of my frequent wanders. It’s not a new topic for my blog, really — just a new way of gathering these kinds of post together: a recognition of how much this part of my life means to me.

Walking is a form of hope, you know. It’s also a form of joy. That’s how those lunchtime walks seem to me.

Leafless

Other people’s words about … winter light

The sun was like a moon in this country, and in its light I felt as if I was looking at everything through a pearl. It was cold and the trees had no leaves. I had never seen a leafless tree before.

from ‘Sleeping on Jupiter
by Anuradha Roy

I love this description by Anuradha Roy of a Northern Hemisphere winter, as seen through the eyes of a young Indian woman accustomed to living in the tropics. I remember feeling the same way myself when I left Australia in my twenties to travel through Britain, Europe and North America (and, later, elsewhere). For a year I lived and worked in Germany, as I’ve mentioned once before, in a small industrial town in Nordrhein-Westfalen, not far from Dortmund and Dusseldorf. To begin with, from November through to April, before my German was fluent enough for me to find another job, I worked in a factory.

Leafless tree on Gedville Street,
between the coast and the railway station

During those winter months in Germany, I rose each day just before six o’clock and walked through the dark streets of town to the station, where I caught a train and then a bus to the factory district. My shift started at around seven-thirty, but daylight didn’t filter through the glass panels of the workshop ceiling until well after nine-thirty. I left work at four o’clock — first back on the bus and then onto the train; then back on foot through the streets towards the fourth-floor apartment I shared with a German friend. By the time I reached the door that led from the street of our apartment building into the stairwell, the sky had darkened again.

I thought, as I shuttled from home to railway station to bus to factory and then back in reverse, that I might never see broad daylight again.

Dove in leafless tree

The trees that lined the street on which I lived during those months were European trees, native to the area, and so they were deciduous. Their leafless, bare branches formed stark silhouettes against the grey apartment buildings and the grey, clouded sky. It didn’t snow, but even in the few hours of daylight we were granted, the sun stayed hidden, a faded white ball in that streak of grey sky. Everything seemed cold and grey. I, too, felt cold and grey.

Leafless tree leaning into a house near Largs Bay School

Though Australia does have a few native deciduous trees, most native vegetation is evergreen. And so, even though the winters here in South Australia can at times feel very grey, most leafless trees — like the ones I photographed to accompany today’s post, all of which grow in the neighbourhood where I live — are imports from countries like Germany: cousins of those trees that lined the streets of the town where I worked all those years ago.

Leafless tree on the school oval
on Gedville Street

I’m a home-body these days. I love the Australian sun. I love the wide arch of sky and the shifting, glittering, restless ocean. I love the grey-green leaves of eucalypts, the drooping pods of acacia trees, the red bristles of bottlebrush flowers, the golden needles of the sheoaks. I couldn’t live anywhere else now. This is home to me.

Travelling brought me a lot of joy, though, and it taught me things I could never have learned if I’d stayed at home. My love for this place is a part of what my travels taught me, I think. Those bare-branched trees were a gift. They led me back home.

Even leafless trees don’t seem leafless here
when you look at them closely!

Because

Other people’s words about … settlement

It is no wonder that most Adelaide inhabitants have little idea of what the pre-European vegetation of the Adelaide Plains looked like, because over vast swathes of suburbia, unless one knows exactly where to look, it is basically all gone and has been for over a hundred years. Add to this the interest in recent decades in planting Australian natives that may have been sourced from regions over a thousand kilometres away and there is little wonder that confusion exists about the identity of the truly indigenous plants of the Adelaide Plains.

from ‘The Native Plants of Adelaide
by Phil Bagust and Lynda Tout-Smith

We bought our house south of Adelaide almost twenty years ago, back when house prices were still affordable along the coast, if you went far enough away from the city. I didn’t know the area of Aldinga very well before we moved there: when I was a child, it was still a little coastal country town within driving distance of Adelaide. City people spent their summer holidays there each year. That was all I knew about it.

Guinea flower (hibbertia)
Guinea flower (hibbertia)
Smooth riceflower (pimelea glauca)
Smooth riceflower (pimelea glauca)

Aldinga isn’t a small country town anymore: since we’ve moved there, it’s been swallowed up in the growing suburban sprawl — those vast swathes of suburbia — along the coast north and south of Adelaide. It’s no longer a holiday town, either. People travel farther afield these days for their holidays, mostly overseas. Many of the beach shacks have been knocked down, but some (like ours) still stand.

Pink fairy, a spider orchid (caladenia latifolia)
Pink fairy, a spider orchid (caladenia latifolia)
Old man's beard (clematis microphylla)
Old man’s beard (clematis microphylla)
Flame heath (astraloma conostephioides)
Flame heath (astraloma conostephioides)

Aldinga Scrub is a patch of native coastal vegetation growing just inland of the beach: an environment of dense, bushy vegetation growing on low sandy dunes. I had never heard of it before we moved here. It is, in fact, the only patch of remnant (pre-European) coastal vegetation left in South Australia. It’s not pristine — there are many weeds growing in it. The climate within the Scrub itself has changed, too, due to the diversion of natural stormwater by farmers onto encroaching farmland.

And yet, wandering through — listening to the songs of the shrike-thrushes and whistlers and magpies and fantails; stumbling across a lone echidna trundling through the undergrowth; standing back to allow a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch bound past — I feel as though I get a hint of what the place was like before European settlement. Hence the photographs on today’s post, which I took in mid-September, as spring took hold of the Scrub.

Paper-flower (thomasia petalocalyx)
Paper-flower (thomasia petalocalyx)
Variable groundsel (senecio lotus)
Variable groundsel (senecio lotus)

I’ve never named the Scrub explicitly on my blog before, though I’ve posted many photographs of it. I feel fiercely protective of the place — because of its unique status; because I discovered it late in life; because I know that the more that we encroach upon it, the more it disappears. Because, because, because.

Meanwhile, I am still teaching myself the names of the native birds and animals and plants and insects who inhabit the Scrub. I wander about, learning and wondering. I may never really know its original nature, but I plan to go on teaching myself about it until the day I die.