Through my own eyes

Other people’s words about … the seasons

I arrived in England on a grey March day in 2009. The Underground journey from Heathrow to Mile End took me through the western boroughs of London: tiled roofs and chimney pots in neat rows and the clouds as dark as oyster shells, rain falling from them in a barely perceptible mist. The city was exactly as I had expected to find it. Over the next weeks, daffodils bloomed, people started shedding their heavy coats, and my walk to work became greener by the day. Spring was arriving.

From ‘The Little Library Year’
by Kate Young

In ‘The Little Library Year’, a follow-up cookbook to her first cookbook, ‘The Little Library Cookbook’, Kate Young celebrates England and its seasons. Having been born in England myself, and having spent a year living there when I was nine and another year when I was fourteen, as well as having made several return visits in the first couple of decades of my adult life, I understand the joy Young finds in noting the distinctions between each of the seasons in England: the astonishing green of new growth in spring; the long, balmy days of summer; the crisp mornings and falling leaves of autumn; the bleak, dark, short days of winter.

First week of June: Groundsel flowers on the dune, Taperoo Beach

But unlike Young, I feel more attuned to the seasons in my adopted home country, Australia, which I moved to when I was three years old: the country I will, by choice, live in for the rest of my life. The statement that the seasons are less distinct here — a statement that Young is not the first person to make, let me hasten to add — troubles me. The seasons here are only less distinct if you choose to see them through Western/European eyes. If you see them through Australian eyes, and particularly through the eyes of a person indigenous to, or acutely at home with, this country, you will observe seasons that are very distinct from each other, though not in the same way as they are in England.

Last weeks of May: Grasstree in flower in the Aldinga Scrub

I’ve written a little on this before, here. While I don’t wish to repeat myself, and while I certainly don’t wish to criticise a fellow Australian writer (whose writing, and recipes, I love), I think it’s important to maintain an awareness of the lens through which we see and experience the world we live in. What we expect to see can so easily colour what we actually see.

Last week of May: High tide at Aldinga Beach at evening

This year, 2020, began in Australia with a fiercely hot summer that culminated in horrific bushfires, the kind that we have never experienced before, the kind that create their own weather system, their own tragic season of burning and death. Since then, the bushfires have gone out, at least for now, and the seasons have moved on. Here in South Australia, the heat has cooled, the days have shortened, rain has fallen, grass has turned green once more, and — particularly in the last week or so — frosts have bloomed over the land overnight.

First week of June: Winter sea under the jetty, Largs Bay

This year, in the enforced shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, in a time when human activity has been quieter than usual, I have found myself even more aware than I usually am of the cycle of the days, the weeks, the months, the passing of the year. March, April, May and June have all been months that have been different from each other, in both subtle and distinctive ways, whether through a change in temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind direction, or the height of the sun and the moon.

First week of June: Still waters at North Haven, near the breakwater

Young writes: Throughout my first year [in England] — gloriously bright and beautiful spring, the blisteringly hot and heavy summer, the night that the leaves started to fall from the trees — I found it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I, too, here in Australia, find it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I am grateful to see them, and to document them with photographs like the ones that dot today’s post.

I try, always, to move through the world — my world, the one I live in — seeing it as it is. It is a lifelong project, and one I will never grow tired of.

First week of June: Lizzy the garden cat, soaking up the winter sun

Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Feverish

Other people’s words about … panic

Rumours washed over the city. The fever had ended. The fever [had] started again. A shipload of sick people was coming upriver. A cure had been found. No cure was available. An earthquake in the countryside left people saying the end of the world was at hand. The wells had been poisoned. The British were coming. I would have despaired of the hopelessness and confusion. Eliza dismissed the wild tales with a shake of her head.

‘They may be true,’ she said, ‘but we have work to do. Come now, Mattie.’

From ‘Fever 1793’
by Laurie Halse Anderson

I first read Laurie Halse Anderson’s wonderful novel for young adults about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 many years ago; and a copy of the book has sat on my shelves ever since. I pulled that copy out the other day and, in re-reading it, was reminded of the remarkable way history seems endlessly to repeat itself.

In some ways, as the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world, we are all, very suddenly, living in a strange new world. But in other ways, as Anderson’s novel reminded me, we are not. Sickness is nothing new; epidemics are nothing new; fear is nothing new. These crises occur over and over. Some of us survive them, and some of us don’t: these are the humdrum facts of human life.

Morning light, Aldinga Scrub

We will all have different ways of coping and responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic, depending partly on our health, partly on our situation, and partly on our own individual coping mechanisms. In Fever 1793, Anderson’s character Eliza responds to the epidemic she herself is living through in a way that I find particularly practical and matter-of-fact.

But we have work to do, she says. And indeed we do.

Grass tree standing tall, solitary and true, Aldinga Scrub

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Because we can

Other people’s words about … making myths

Women who run: women with disabilities, fat women, women who’ve recovered from physical injuries, trans women, migrant women, Indigenous women, depressed women, women with no time, women with no kids, women ladies of leisure, schoolgirls, retirees, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, queer women, straight women, slow women. Scrutinise any one of these categories and a set of stories that defy generalisation will emerge, stories that destabilise the big stupid myths that say women can’t run, that only certain kinds of women can run, that it’s too dangerous, that it’s unfeminine, that it’s a sign of trouble.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Next week, I start a new job in a new workplace. It’s been nine months since I had a salaried job, and though I’ve enjoyed the challenge of working as a freelance editor — and though I don’t plan to stop freelance editing any time soon, despite my new job, because my new job is part-time and therefore will allow me to continue freelance editing on a similar part-time basis — I feel both relieved and blessed to be returning to the salaried work force. At forty-nine, I am willing to admit that job security and a regular income is important to me. I knew this when I began freelancing. I know it even more deeply now, nine months later.

Winter sunset

I took some of the photos that you see in today’s post over the last few weeks, while I was out walking or running around my local neighbourhood. Running for me isn’t so much about, as Catriona Menzies-Pike puts it in the passage I’ve quoted above, destabilis[ing] the big stupid myths that say women can’t run: it’s more about destabilising my own personal, stupid myths about myself, one of which, for many years, was that I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t strong, and I couldn’t run.

Deep blue sky

In fact, some of the stories I’ve told myself all my life are true. I’ll never be an athlete. I’ll never be strong, physically or mentally. But I do continue to run, and continuing to run continues to make me feel good.

Spring flowers in the Scrub

No matter how slowly I run some days — no matter how old or stiff or sad or achey I feel when I’m running — and no matter whether I have a stable, salaried income or an unstable, freelance income, I run. Not far, and not fast, it’s true.

Nonetheless.

I run, not just because it makes me feel good, but because I can.

Hole in the sky

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Take note

Other people’s words about … gratitude

I am so glad to still be here. Every day, I do my best to see the colours. I take note. I breathe them in.

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, I know. I want you all to know that I have been thinking of you, and I have been thinking of posting. There just hasn’t been room inside my head to get to it.

The first groundsel flowers of the season
(Spring is coming)

But when I read Helena Fox’s words in the Acknowledgments section at the back of her wonderful novel for young adults, How it Feels to Float, I wanted to pass them on. Because no matter how crammed my head — my brain, my mind — feels at the moment, I, too, do my best to see the colours, to breathe them in.

Blue winter sky

The photographs in today’s post come from a walk I took in the scrub a few weeks back. I hadn’t wandered through the scrub for a while, and I haven’t made it back since, but those moments were precious. I am still breathing them in.

Last rays

If only I’d known

Other people’s words about … what’s important (or not)

I found a studio where I could practise a particular kind of semi-cultish yoga; I sweated on my purple mat for ninety minutes to pounding trance beats, drank smoothies in the vegan cafe, relished the feeling of freezing sweat on my cheeks when I threw my coat on over my leggings and walked in the snow to the Q train.

Maybe this will be the year I’ll learn to stand on my head, I thought, maybe a headstand is the thing I will accomplish in 2014. I thought about it a lot, like a headstand was a thing that was important.

From ‘This Really isn’t About You’
by Jean Hannah Edelstein

If only I’d known. That’s the feeling Jean Hannah Edelstein is describing in the passage above. In her case, these words applied to a period in her life when she didn’t yet know that she had Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes her to developing cancer later in her life.

If only. If only. Who hasn’t said that to themselves, at some point in their lives? If only I’d known, I’d have focused on other things. If only I’d known, I’d have made different plans. I’d have done more; I’d have said more; I’d have tried more. I’d have been more.

Don’t tell me you haven’t ever thought that.

*

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks over here in my nook of the world, as I continue to try to find my way in the freelance world. I don’t know whether I’ll manage to make a living from freelance editing, in the end. But on tough days, uncertain days, I remind myself that at least I’ll always know that I tried.

Which makes for one less if only in my life.

Grey skies

And meanwhile, in my spare time, I’ve gone wandering beneath grey skies, and blue skies, and cloudy skies, and clear skies. Because there’s no hint of an if only whenever I’m out wandering.

Blue(-ish) skies

Lately I’ve been reading about …

My version, your version

Other people’s words about … truth

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

From ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’
by Janet Malcolm

I was disabused of the notion that memoirists and autobiographers write ‘the truth’ a long time ago, after I read, and wept over, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, only to discover subsequently that he had made up much of what he had written about within it. Since then, I’ve learned to take anything I read in a piece of nonfiction with a huge pinch of salt.

Like most people, though, I am still used to thinking of works of fiction as telling something that is the opposite of truth. I think of them as stories, things that exist only in our imagination. I love the way that Malcolm, in the passage above, subverts this concept of the truth. In doing so, she tells us something far more truthful, I think, about the nature of truth.

Interior versus exterior:
Grass trees from a distance

It was my mother who introduced me to Janet Malcolm, after a conversation we’d had about nonfiction writing. I found Malcolm’s thoughts on the problem of truth in biography and other nonfiction writing illuminating, even though the passage I’ve quoted from is now more than fifteen years old.

Truth versus fiction, internal truth versus external truth, interior versus exterior. How much of what we see and read and think is subjective and biased? How much can we ever say is true?

Interior versus exterior:
Inside a grass tree

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

The stories we tell

Lately I’ve been reading about … river red gums

I didn’t just notice the river red gums, but also the cracked mud of receding water, rotting gum leaves, greater eastern egrets, kingfisher, heron, ibis, ducks, emus, kangaroos, wild horses, wasps and flies. I even saw (threatened) Murray cod foraging in the shallow water along the lake’s bank, and quickly learnt to look for them at the centre of the ripples of golden tannin their fins sent out. It was the first time I’d seen them surface, amphibian-like, in this manner. The effect was prehistoric. A single galah feather caught in a spider web stretched, strong as rope, between two river gums, waved gently in the corner of my vision.

From ‘Biyala Stories
by Sophie Cunningham

Each month this year, I’m taking a walk through the Aldinga Scrub — the same walk each time, along the Coral Lichen Circuit, which follows a gentle, undulating loop through the Scrub, with spots that overlook both the coast (to the west) and the hills (to the east) — to watch the seasons ring their changes on the landscape. I’ve walked the Scrub so often, taken pictures of the trees and the flowers, listened to the birdsong and the sound of the waves in the distance, to the wind moving through the trees. But I want to know the Scrub better, to know it intimately, to witness it. I want to know its intricacies — the kinds of intricacies that Sophie Cunningham describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above.

Cunningham’s essay is about the river red gums that grow in the part of the world where she lives: Melbourne (mostly), Victoria. It’s a thoughtful, erudite, poetic essay, at least in part about the stories these trees can tell us, the stories they might add to our own (human) narrative if we were able to listen. (You can read it here.) It came to me, as I read her essay, that I don’t know the stories of the trees in my own part of the world, this part of the world I’ve said so often and so glibly that I love.


Aldinga Scrub: January.
SA blue gums.

The trees of the Aldinga Scrub, like the river red gums in Cunningham’s essay, are struggling to survive. So are the plants of the Scrub, the birds and the animals. Their survival is threatened by many things, including encroaching housing developments; farming practices that have, since World War II, diverted the natural water flow away from the Scrub to nearby crops; pollution; climate change; islandisation; the spread of weeds from people’s carefully curated gardens and lawns.

I’m neither a scientist nor an ecologist; I can’t use any particular knowledge or training to save the trees or the plants or the birds on a large scale. But I can keep witnessing the Scrub: wandering through it, posting pictures of it here on my blog and my Instagram feed, sharing, in the process, the things I see and learn, the passage of the seasons, the stories I discover.

I can ensure those stories don’t go untold. That, at least, is a start.


Aldinga Scrub: February.
Above: Old man’s beard and bent tree trunk.
Below: Bracken fern, dying off in the summer heat, and grass tree spear.


Note:
For anyone who’s curious, Cunningham mentions in her essay that she has an Instagram account in which she posts a daily picture of a tree. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I searched for her account and found it here.

Why do you write?

Other people’s words about … writing and joy

Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story [that he was writing], and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

From ‘Normal People
by Sally Rooney

I have a friend, whom I very much respect, who has been writing fiction for as long as I’ve known her, without any desire to seek either publication or readership. It seems to me that she writes purely for the pleasure of the process itself, and for what that process brings her; it seems to me that writing, for her, is an entirely internal process of discovery and exploration, requiring no further justification, either to herself or to others.

Light through leaves (1)

Since my own decision to stop writing a while back, I’ve gone on thinking about writing and the role that it plays, or has played, in my life. And I’ve come to find my friend’s concept — whereby writing is a private act, an act for no-one other than herself, with no thought to the future or to the past — consoling and inspiring in equal measures. I like the honesty of her act. I like the wonder in it. I like the courage. Sometimes, it takes courage to do things just because.

Light through leaves (2)

So I hope that my friend experiences, when she writes, those brief, flickering, sun-dappled moments of joy Rooney describes so beautifully in the passage above. I hope she feels the old beat of pleasure inside [her] body.

And I’m sure that she does.

Chasing clouds

When the run does its work, I will become lost in its beating heart.
We run on.

From ‘Running with the Pack’
by Mark Rowlands

Today’s photos come from a run I went on in early September on a day when the first faint hint of spring was in the air.

The course I followed took me south along Aldinga Beach; then eastwards, into the Scrub; then north, along a grassy path that skirts the boundary of the Scrub, between the vineyards and the bushes.

At the end of that grassy path, an elderly couple were standing, leaning against the wooden fence. The man greeted me as I came closer, and called out, ‘Where have you come from? Where does this path lead to?’ And so I stopped to chat to them, describing how to get to the beach from where they were.

The last part of the run took me through the wetlands, which is where I pulled out my camera at last. The pictures show the landscape, but they don’t convey the sounds — frogs croaking, a hidden moorhen squawking wildly in amongst the reeds.

And they don’t convey the feeling of the sun on my skin, either: warm and sweet and new, the way the sun always feels in the first, early days of spring.