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.

Out & about: messages

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

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

I often wax eloquent about the value of stopping and taking the time to look up, but the other day, walking in the Scrub, I happened to look down at the ground I was walking on, and this is what I saw:

My friend Anne tells me that these words are quotes from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie I’ve never seen because it’s never appealed to me.

I do like these words, though.

I went back to the Scrub the next day, retracing my steps, but the pebbles had gone, or someone had moved them, or (at least, this is what I thought, till I remembered I had photographed them) they had never been there in the first place, except in my imagination.

But I kind of like the fact that they disappeared. Though I’d hate to be accused of solipsism, or indeed of fatalism, somehow it feels as though I was meant to see those words that day.

And as though, perhaps, I was meant to pass them on to you.

Small

Other people’s words about … the passage of time

‘ … We can be like sisters,’ she says. And then she freezes.

I smooth my hair behind my ear. I look at the snow.

‘I didn’t … ‘ She leans forward, cradles her head in her hands.

And I think of how time passes so differently for different people. Mabel and Jacob, their months in Los Angeles, months full of doing and seeing and going. Road trips, the ocean. So much living crammed into every day. And then me in my room. Watering my plant. Making ramen. Cleaning my yellow bowls night after night after night.

‘It’s okay,’ I say. But it isn’t.

from ‘We are Not Alone
by Nina La Cour

Some people in the Western world — most people, perhaps, if you take at face value the world we see portrayed on social media, and on TV, and in the ads — live big, busy, crammed lives, like Mabel and Jacob in the passage above. They go overseas on holiday. Borrow money to buy houses and cars. Renovate and redecorate. Eat out at restaurants. Drink lattes with their friends. Bungee jump. Skydive. Buy new clothes each season, colour their hair so it doesn’t go grey, replace their smartphones with the latest model. The words vibrant and noisy come to mind. They are not the same things, and yet it can be hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

Me, I live a quiet life. A small life.

Partly, this is of my choosing, and partly it isn’t. Partly, it’s because a small life, a simple life, has always appealed to me; partly, it’s because that small life found its way to me a long while ago, and foisted itself upon me. And partly, too, the simple truth is that it’s difficult, when you’ve started down a small, narrow track, to turn around and retrace your steps. To find yourself out in the open. To start again.

Most of the time, I’m okay with this. But sometimes, like Marin, the eighteen-year-old narrator in the passage above, there are moments when it isn’t okay, after all.

Those moments pass. They do. But I think they’re worth acknowledging, every now and then.

Correa flower in blossom in Aldinga Scrub
May 2018
Small but beautiful, after all.

Out and about: autumn

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

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Autumn arrived in the vineyards in mid-May. One weekend in the last week of May or so, I went for a brief wander on one of my favourite tracks, which skirts the wetlands, the Scrub, the vineyards and the farms.

It was one of those autumn days when the sky changes every moment that you look up at it, and with it the light. One moment the sky was blue and the grass shone bright and green; the next, the sun disappeared behind clouds, and the sky darkened, and the grass turned a pale, sombre green.

As I took the photos you see in this post, I became aware of stinging sensations at my ankles and wrists. We’d had rain overnight, and the ground was damp, though the temperature was mild. Mosquitoes were everywhere, biting, biting. I kept stopping to scratch: my ankles, my wrists, my hands. Still, it was peaceful and green.

Can you see the willy wagtail perched on the wire fencing in the photograph above? It darted about as I wandered the track, zigzagging and dipping and feinting, the way willy wagtails do. There were fairy wrens on the path, too, but I didn’t manage to capture them.

Next time, maybe … ?

Chasing clouds

‘It took me years to see that path and to find my pace.
When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.’

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

We recently spent a week in the caravan staying in our favourite spot, perched on the clifftops at Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-Autumn, and the weather, like the view, changed every day, sometimes every minute.

During one of the sunnier hours, I went for a run in the bushland that lies behind the dunes and cliffs. I took off my running shoes and ran barefoot along the winding sandy track that rises and dips through the scrubland. Despite the lack of rain in the previous months, the bushland here seemed to me quite lush (at least by South Australian standards).

I finished my run at the base of the highest dune, and then I trundled up to the top of the dune to look down on the beach and shoreline below.

It was a moment of silver seas and blue skies — a moment worth celebrating.

Reflections

Other people’s words about … landscape

Paul had read somewhere that a landscape itself has no meaning. That it was more a mirror and anything you saw in it or felt were your own thoughts or feelings being reflected back at you.

From ‘The Windy Season
by Sam Carmody

I’ve heard it said that a person’s eyes are like mirrors to the soul, but I’ve honestly not heard landscape described before in this way. And yet it makes instant sense to me.

I’ve written before about how, when I first moved to the area of Aldinga Beach, what I saw, all I saw, was the coast. That’s partly because the line of coast is stunning around the Aldinga and Port Willunga area, with its rugged, crumbling limestone cliffs and wide white sands and deep blue seas. It’s partly also because my partner is a surfer and so our life together has been, right from the start, about the sea rather than the bush.

But partly, I think — mostly, in fact — it’s because I didn’t know what else to look for, back then. I came to Aldinga with my own particular thoughts and feelings and expectations, and what I expected to see was reflected right back at me.

The first time I strayed from the beach to wander through Aldinga Scrub I did so more out of curiosity than anything else, knowing nothing more than that it was a small, much-squabbled-over, highly politicised piece of bushland close to home. Then, later, I turned to the Scrub again, seeking solace. I was trying to encourage myself to find an external landscape to wander through, rather than the internal landscape I seemed, neverendingly, to be pushing through.

And I found what I’d been seeking, although I had to teach myself at first.

Take grass trees, for example, which seemed to me at first ugly, prickly, alien things with strange spear-like growths protruding awkwardly from their crowns. Now I see how there are delicate white flowers clustered on those spears at certain time of the year; I hear how insects and skinks scuttle, hidden, protected, beneath their prickly leaves; and I notice how, at every turn of the sandy path in the Scrub, there is a grass tree in a different stage of growth, from the early clusters of stalky green grass to the grey thickets of rotting bark that mark decay and death.

Or take a midsummer day in the Scrub, like the recent one on which I took all the photos in today’s post: the kind of day when the only flowers in evidence are the last clusters of common everlasting, those scraggly, tough little flowers that look like ragged, paper-petalled daisies. In the high, midsummer sun, those petals are the brightest, purest white I’ve ever seen in the bush. I didn’t see that in the early days, either.

So, yes, the landscape of the Scrub I see now is different from the one I saw ten years ago, and in that sense, it is a mirror: it always has been.

Will you forgive me if I use the term ‘meaning-making’ here? I am neither an academic nor a scholar, and in any case, I am thinking of making meanings, in this context, in a psychological rather than a semiotic sense. For me, what I’ve just described above is a process of meaning-making that is both deliberate and joyful: it deepens my life.

And that is the kind of mirror I’ll always be happy to look into.

I see you

Other people’s words about … love

The bright lights had been switched off and the place was lit only by small windows. Then there she was — Stella — the top of her head highlighted as she looked down, reading. It never ceased to amaze him the thrill he got at seeing her. Catching her unawares.

From ‘Midwinter Break
by Bernard MacLaverty

Every time I read these words by Bernard MacLaverty, I feel my breath catch. That’s how it feels to see someone you love, isn’t it? That’s how those tiny, stolen glimpses feel.

The photo accompanying this post is one I took on my latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner Wayne. It was very early summer, as you may remember: fan flower season. One evening just after sunset, as I wandered from the beach back to our campsite on the cliffs, I came to a fork in the path where there were fan flower bushes growing at every corner.

And there, in the dim glow of the early-evening sky, the petals of the fan flowers — which in the warm, bright light of the middle of the day are a strong, cheery blue — seemed to shine for a few moments: pale, spectral, luminescent.

Perhaps my talk of fan flowers seems an odd match for the words I began this post with. But this was another one of those tiny, stolen moments we’re given in life from time to time, and it seems to me a good way to honour Bernard MacLaverty’s lovely words …

PS One other thing: a quick shout-out to my mother, who celebrates her birthday today, and who is a person responsible for many lovely moments in my life .