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.

This quiet unknowing

Other people’s words about … dreams

I am trying to find my dog, which is going to be put down. Not a dog I live with in my waking life, but another, a black Labrador. The dog has already been taken away and is awaiting its death at a pound on the edge of town. This awful knowledge permeates my sleep. When I get there, however, my dog has gone. In its place, lying sick and exhausted on the concrete floor inside a large cage, is a young, very beautiful red setter. As I enter, the creature raises its head towards me and I see with slow shock that its muzzle has been sewn up with fishing line. The red dog pulls itself off the ground and limps towards me. Rising on its hind legs, it puts its forelegs on my shoulders, and rests its head against the left side of my neck. I can sense it begging me to save it. I feel great pity; I embrace and try to comfort it. But there is no sense that I can or will do anything to help it. The burden would be too great. Words come into my head. The dog’s name: Gadget. (Why Gadget? I wonder, even in the dream.) Then the thought — with which I am already justifying my decision to abandon it — that red setters are not very intelligent dogs. I step away. The animal stands there, hopeless. I touch it on the back and I leave.

What to do with a dream like that?

From ‘Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams

What to do, indeed?

I love the words in this passage: this description of a dream, which is vivid and haunting and bewildering all at once, as dreams so often are. Over time, Cole-Adams goes on to say, various astute readers have suggested to me that this particular dream might not belong in this particular book, that it is a dream that emanates from somewhere else and that ought to be left there …. And yet she includes the dream in her book anyway. In doing so, she allows herself to write intuitively, blindly, instinctively, knowing — knowing — that what she is writing must be written, but not knowing why.

In the quiet after waking I lay curled on my side suffused with the knowledge of irrevocable loss. I had betrayed the red dog. And in doing so I understood that I had disavowed some helpless, voiceless part of me. The dream did not feel like a dream. The house was still and very dark. I did not know what the dog had been trying to say, but I could still feel almost physically the place above my left shoulder where it had nuzzled its head against my neck, and I accepted finally that I could not write this book without it.

Do you sometimes have dreams like Cole-Adams’s dream — a dream that [does] not feel like a dream? Do you feel memories rising in you that feel more alive than memories should ever feel? Do you get a feeling of sickness in your gut that you know — you just know — isn’t a sickness; and yet it is, it is?

I do.

These days, I’m not much one for grand resolutions. I don’t know what path I’ll follow this year (though, in a more concrete sense, I know I’ll walk the sandy path in Aldinga Scrub, pictured above, over and over). I don’t know what 2018 holds, for me or for you.

I do hope, though, that there will be some moments like Cole-Adams describes, for you and for me: those quiet moments after waking when you do not disavow the helpless, voiceless part of you; those moments when you accept finally that you cannot otherwise do what it is you need to do.

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.

You are not special

Other people’s words about … transformation

I looked out the window at the station. I had the sense that something in my life had ended [since my diagnosis], my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would. I thanked my mother for the lift to the station and got out of the car.

From ‘Conversations with Friends’
by Sally Rooney

I’ve written before about sickness and my own experiences of it (here, for example). What I like about Rooney’s words are the way she addresses what I believe is our culture’s pernicious need to make sense of our physical suffering and of our ills.

There are many, many ways we may try to do this. Some of us, for example, tell ourselves there must be a reason for our pain or our illness. Some of us tell ourselves that our condition makes us special, or different, or somehow better than we might otherwise have been if we hadn’t experienced it. Some of us try to see our condition as character-building. And some of us believe that if we talk about it, or write about it, we can make something useful of the suffering that it causes us, and of our lives.

But I think Rooney is right. There is no reason for illness and pain and suffering — not really. These things are, as she calls them, a mundane fact of our existence.

I don’t think this is a depressing realisation — or, at least, I don’t think it has to be — and I wish I had figured it out for myself a long time ago. The important thing, I think, is to accept the truth of your situation, however far away it is from the one you would prefer, and then to get on with the business of living your life — however you choose, however you can, however it happens to you.

Because the light will always filter through, if you look for it hard enough …

Tentacles

Other people’s words about … urbanisation

Here, town finished, and countryside began. You crossed over, from pavements and shops, towards copses and streams, and meadows full of grazing cows. The streets and the fields seemed to push at each other, the city trying to sprawl further out and the fields resisting. The planners and architects and merchants would obviously win. What force had buttercups and earthworms and cabbages against the need of human beings for dwelling places, against developers’ chances to make money? Alive as a strange creature in an aquarium, the city stretched out its tentacles, grew and swelled, gobbling the pastures and hedgerows that lay in its path. Fields were bought, and new rows of houses built, and then the process repeated.

from ‘The Walworth Beauty
by Michèle Roberts

When we moved to Aldinga Beach almost twenty years ago, it was still — just, almost — a country town. Ever since then, the city has been creeping up on it. Sometimes I think the encroaching suburbs are like an oil spill, seeping down the slopes of the hills from the north, all the way into the Scrub. And so, though the rural world we live in at Aldinga Beach is very different from the nineteenth-century English one Michèle Roberts describes in the passage above, still her words seem apposite.

But the Scrub is still alive and I still go wandering through it, and whenever I’m wandering there, I feel hope. I took the pictures in today’s post one morning last week, in late July. Though the sky was grey and the temperature was chilly, the first breath of spring had wafted over the Scrub, as I hope you’ll see below.

In flower that morning were flame heath bushes …

… and …

… grass trees.

I saw the first shy showing …

… of guinea flowers:

There were green shoots everywhere …

… after the recent rains.

And there were other plants budding, too. Like this:

And this:

And this:

In the southwest corner of the Scrub, where the land slopes down towards the coast, the kangaroos were snoozing …

… although they weren’t best pleased when I disturbed them:

Further on, I caught a flash of gold from the corner of my eye. It was a golden whistler darting about the branches of a tree beside the sandy path.

Whistlers don’t sing at this time of the year, but their plumage is as glorious as ever (though unfortunately faintly blurred in my photos):

So, yes, the tentacles of the city are reaching out here in South Australia.

But still, the last remnants of the pre-urbanised world like Aldinga Scrub live on.

Inhabitant

Other people’s words about … noticing

Over the last year I have discovered a passion for birds and wildflowers in particular, along with the ever-present kangaroos. I love the texture of bark, the colour of leaves and mosses, I’m utterly fascinated with the fact that I can walk around our small patch of natural bushland each day and find something I’ve never noticed before. Or find something I have noticed before, but it catches my eye for a different reason.

from ‘Fifteen Acres: A Small Slice of Paradise‘ blog
by Lisa from Central Victoria, Australia

I came across Lisa’s blog only recently and instantly realised she is a kindred blogger. Her blog documents her growing understanding of, knowledge about, and love for all the species of native flora and fauna that live on her block of land in rural Central Victoria. I get the feeling that Lisa has learned about her patch of land in the same way I’ve learned about Aldinga Scrub — by walking through it day after day and simply observing.

Like Lisa, I didn’t expect to become fascinated by the plants and creatures living on my doorstep. It just happened. I didn’t even know about Aldinga Scrub until after we moved to Aldinga Beach: it was the beach — with its beautiful cliffs, its blue waters, its fish-inhabited and bird-dotted reef, its wide sands — which initially attracted me.

The first time I walked through the Scrub, I was just curious. I had heard that it was the last remnant of original coastal bushland in South Australia, and so I wanted to see what it was like. A year later, going through another phase of feeling inexplicably agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin, I decided to try walking through the Scrub more often. I thought that, if I made the effort to look outwards at the world around me instead of looking inwards into my own seething internal landscape, I might find solace.

And I did.

A small kind of miracle happened as I walked through the Scrub over and over. As I wandered, I began to wonder. As I wondered, I stopped. As I stopped, I observed. As I observed, I noticed, as Lisa puts it. And then, at last, I started to see and to learn.

Something else happened, too. I began to inhabit the world around me during those walks. Inhabitation — it’s a powerful word. Maybe it’s pretentious. Maybe it’s corny? And yet that’s how it feels.

It never stops, this seeing, learning, wondering, inhabiting. That’s another kind of miracle.

The pictures in this post are photographs I’ve taken over the years on my walks through the Scrub. Here you can see it in its many moods, its many seasons, its many tempers. I don’t know if my photographs can convey the wonder I felt as I took them, or the remembered sense of discovery I feel now when I return to them, but I hope that they convey, at least, the deep joy that my wandering has brought me.

That’s the thing, you see — noticing is both a humble and a joyful process. It’s a privilege to inhabit this kind of joy.

Life cycle

I’ve talked before about my love of grasstrees.
In the last few weeks, walking through the Scrub,
I’ve glimpsed grasstrees at all stages of their life cycle.

Some were growing and establishing themselves:

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Some were flowering:

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And some were dying and decaying:

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At each stage of their life
grasstrees seem to me unique, strange, prehistoric …
and beautiful.