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. 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 .

Tangled

Other people’s words about … writing a journal

She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.

There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.

from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott

Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.

Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.

But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.

It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.

In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.

And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.

Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.

Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?

I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.

Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.

Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.

I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.

And they don’t have to be cured.

Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.

As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.

And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.

Ubiquitous

Other people’s words about … fatigue

My legs, when I got up to go to the toilet or kitchen, felt light and shaky, far away from the rest of me …

Even speaking was too much. My words seemed pinned to the bottom of my jaw, and came out compressed and monosyllabic. I don’t remember crying much, but there was a dampness, as if moisture were constantly seeping through my skin, and sinking. As if everything inside me had become viscous, liquid, beholden to gravity and I was draining always to the lowest point; the soles of my feet, my buttocks, my back.

from ‘Anaesthesia’
by Kate Cole-Adams

The year I turned forty, I caught glandular fever (known by my North American readers as mononucleosis). It was a pretty typical case, I think: for the next year or so, I caught colds and viruses and coughs at the drop of a hat, and meanwhile I experienced a tiredness that — like the tiredness Kate Cole-Adams describes in the passage above, in a depiction of her own experience of adult-onset glandular fever — was beyond any kind of tiredness I had ever experienced before. It wasn’t tiredness at all, really: it was lethargy, lassitude, limpness, listlessness, languor — all those ‘L’ words, combined with a clammy, vaguely feverish kind of exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy and my head felt swirly and the floor seemed spongy beneath my feet.

Though the fatigue and exhaustion eventually, two or so years down the track, dissipated, I have found that even now, years later, I still get the occasional, sudden bout of glandular-fever-type fatigue. It always happens when I’m least expecting it and lasts for a few days, sometimes a week or more. If I think about it deeply enough, I am usually able to explain it by pointing to a higher than normal level of stress in my life.

I had one of those bouts again just recently. I’d come down to our house at Aldinga feeling tired and sleep-deprived after having been rostered on for a variety of different shifts in the space of a few days at my call-centre job. I had thought that I’d got through those shifts just fine, but as it turned out, I hadn’t, not quite.

So I spent the next few days at Aldinga sapped of energy and appetite: too tired to walk on the beach or catch up with family and friends as I’d planned; too tired, even, to write or to bake. Instead, I lay on the sofa in our sunny living room, and read, and dozed, and waited for the fatigue to pass. I knew that it would. I just didn’t know when. (Actually, I still don’t know. As I write this post, a couple of weeks down the track, I’m still experiencing fatigue and unwellness. But it will pass, as all things do.)

The first day that I felt even vaguely up to it, I went for a wander in the Scrub. I was still very tired, and so I took the walk slowly, following the path marked out by signposts for tourists, which takes you on a small loop through the Scrub: first south, parallel with the coast, then east towards the hills, then back northwards and west to the starting point. (Its official name is the Coral Lichen Circuit, and you can find more out about it here.)

It was late spring in the scrub: whistlers burbled (mostly) unseen in the branches. The yellow months had passed, and now it was the time for blues and purples and pinks and whites. And everywhere that I walked there were twining fringe lilies growing. As the photos in this post illustrate, I found them peeking through the leaves and branches and stalks and branches of sea box bushes, and rock ferns, and mallee pea-bushes, and muntries, and sheoaks, and grass trees, just to name a few.

They are common native flowers in South Australia, I gather — neither delicate nor rare. And yet each time I saw one on my walk that day, I felt a little thrust of joy at their very ubiquity. It was partly to do with the fact that I’ve learnt enough now, in all my wanders through the Scrub, to be able to identify them; partly to do with the fact that I’d reached a point in the ebb and flow of my own exhaustion where I felt I had enough stamina to go on another of those wanders, however gentle that wander was; and partly, simply, to do with the lovely prettiness of the lilies themselves.

Perhaps the fringe lilies were a symbol for me that day, growing and twining — despite their appearance of delicate fragility — in amongst all the other greenery. Thriving, despite everything.

Or perhaps symbols are unnecessary here. Perhaps it was enough just to see them and enjoy them exactly for what they were.

Note:
I recently found a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Aldinga Scrub. It is the Flickr account of the Friends of the Aldinga Scrub, which has hundreds of wonderful photos taken in the Scrub, not only capturing but also identifying the native flora, fauna and fungi (and doing a much better job of this than I can ever hope to do, though I try). Check it out here.

The air that you breathe

Other people’s words about … air quality

It was terribly hot that summer. Mr Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the centre of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edge. Strangers driving by on the turnpike rolled up their windows at the gagging, sulphurous smell and wondered how anyone could live with that stench coming from the river and the mill. But the people who lived in Shirley Falls were used to it, and even in the awful heat it was only noticeable when you first woke up; no, they didn’t particularly mind the smell.

from ‘Amy & Isabelle
by Elizabeth Strout

Recently, after several members of staff in one of my workplaces became sick over the course of consecutive shifts, the part of the building in which we work was shut down, due to what has been deemed an ongoing air quality issue.

That particular office is on the upper floor of a fully air-conditioned building: one of those buildings where you can’t open a window even if you want to. I have always struggled with this: I believe, right down to my core, that breathing temperature-controlled, recycled air will never, ever be equal to breathing air that drifts in through an open window. I continue to believe this even though the air outside the windows in that building is itself compromised by petrol, diesel and exhaust fumes from the nearby main road.

To me, the most pernicious aspect of all of this is the habituation. Like the residents of Shirley Falls in the quote above, when my colleagues and I first walk into work at the beginning of a shift, we notice things in the air that we stop noticing after we’ve been at work for a while. Like them, we don’t particularly mind the smell of our workplace. Or not consciously, anyway.

Luckily for me, I have a place to escape to, and I did so the first weekend after our workplace was shut down, going on another of my strolls through the Scrub, another of my wanders out and about. I took the photos accompanying this post (of vanilla lilies, grass trees, acacias and boobiallas all newly in bloom) on that very walk.

In the Scrub, at least, the air I breathe always seems sweet.