Cage

Other people’s words about … words

Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no colour we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green that is halfway between those colours, the fiery warm colours that are not apricot or crimson or gold, the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count as it fades from where the sun is to the far side where other colours are happening. If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term, and it is transformed into another and another. The names of the colours are sometimes cages containing what doesn’t belong there, and this is often true of language generally, of the words like woman, man, child, adult, safe, strong, free, true, black, white, rich, poor. We need the words, but use them best knowing they are containers forever spilling over and breaking open. Something is always beyond.

From ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’
by Rebecca Solnit

In the passage I’ve quoted above, Rebecca Solnit gives a beautiful, vivid description of a sunset, a description which then morphs, somehow — in just the same way she describes the colours in the sky morphing — into a discussion about words: how we use them, how they imprison us, and how our understanding of the way that they imprison us might just set us free.

This year, perhaps even more than previous years, we need the words, as Solnit puts it, to ask ourselves questions about what is happening all around us: in the political sphere, the public health sphere, the environmental sphere. And yet, at the same time, all the words we use when we ask ourselves those very questions, when we try to make sense of this year, are nothing more than containers, cages. I can’t think, honestly, of a word that really captures what this year has been like, or what the meaning of this year might be, or how we might learn from this year so that next year isn’t the same (or worse).

I am a person who loves to read and to write, and so it seems natural to me, when I feel wordless, to equate my wordlessness with despair. But sometimes, this year, when I’ve been at my most wordless in the face of everything that is happening in the world, I have been reminded of a line by Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.

Hope, Dickinson writes, sings the tune without the words. Dickinson’s hope is feathered and wordless; it is an uncaged creature, a creature that is free.

I think of Dickinson’s warm, flitting hope as an antidote to everything else I’ve felt in response to this year. When I read her poem, her words set me free.

Lately I’ve been reading …

With thanks to my mother for the second and third items on this list.

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

Burning, breaking

Other people’s words about … climate change

For the very first time, the wetlands are also on fire. Old Gondwana growth, ancient forests are aflame. This is not the forest that regenerates; what is being lost will never return. It is not hard to see that something is deeply, palpably wrong. All winter drought conditions have intensified; the building fire skipped the river, which should have been a natural break. There is practically no water left; the Shoalhaven is so parched that the town will run dry within months.

From ‘Mourning a Disappearing World as Australia Burns’
by Jessica Friedmann
Read the whole article here

Happy New Year to all my readers. I wish you all a joyous 2020.

I’m writing this post on a day in which bushfires continue to rage uncontrolled across much of my country. I know that this story is being covered by the media, and so there is not much I can say that you yourselves probably haven’t read or thought already. The article I’ve quoted in today’s post is worth reading, though, in addition to whatever else you’ve read or heard: I am in accordance with much of what Friedmann writes.

All I will say is this: it has astonished me for years that I live in a country where it is possible for politicians to deny that climate change is occurring, that I live in a country (a world?) where apathy and bluster are accepted forms of political leadership.

My country is burning. It has been getting ready to burn like this for years. It breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart.

Holiday views, though the fires were already burning when I took this photograph.
View from the Kangaroo Island ferry, 29 December 2019

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.

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

The sea, breathing

Other people’s words about … the sea at night

I take many photos of the sea during daylight hours, but my photography skills aren’t good enough to capture the sea at night. Some nights, though, when the wind is westerly, blowing from the ocean onto the land, I can hear the waves, through the open windows of my house, as they roll into the beach and fall back, roll in and fall back.

It’s a dreamy, dreamy sound.

The night garden was thick with dreams. Beneath the earth, beneath the eyelids of birds, in the air that came like an exhalation from the sea. Pearl listened. It always felt closer at night, the slump and hiss of waves like an old man dreaming.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

The slump and hiss of waves

.

Snatched phrases: changing world

‘I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour,
precariously balanced,
moving from one species of leaf to another.’

From ‘Warlight’
by Michael Ondaatje

In the passage above, the narrator is an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood; the story is, among other things, a story of his passage into the adult world.

The lone grevillea bush in flower at the winter solstice

I love the image Michael Ondaatje uses in this passage — not the stereotypical image of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which would have worked, but this more intricate, layered, thoughtful image of the caterpillar … still a caterpillar, undoubtedly, but a caterpillar that changes as it moves from one world to the next.

Anthills: they appear one day in the Scrub, and disappear the next

I don’t have any photos of caterpillars, but I took the pictures accompanying today’s post in the Aldinga Scrub during the week of the winter solstice …

Unknown mistletoe on banksia bush

… a time of year when we all, to some extent, mark the passing of time and of the seasons, and of the ever-changing natural world about us …

Grasstrees: not yet in flower, but standing sentinel nonetheless

Snatched phrases: dusk

‘Rose-breath [from the rose bushes] around us, faint.
The dusk like a mist of the night,
as if night evaporated at dawn,
to collect and then rain down again, to make night again.’

From ‘Edinburgh’
by Alexander Chee

Roses in a dusk-like mist

The silent sea

Other people’s words about … the sea

I thought about the kind of people who come to the sea to look at it: how they put themselves down on whatever rock or bench is around and gaze for hours into the distance as though something out there makes life seem meaningful, or at least less incomprehensible. What are they looking at? I asked myself. What do they see when they see the sea? Most people seemed to find the sea deeply interesting but it held no particular depth or virtue for me. The most profound effect the sea had on me was that sometimes, from the living-room window, it quite literally made me want to throw up. I’d always thought that people who liked the sea were people who didn’t like society, that it was people who’d failed in their relationships who turned to the sea. There was something in their glazed faces — leaning on harbour railings, walking along the crumbling promenade, staring over the tops of their newspapers — which disturbed me. It seemed they wanted to be immersed in it, that as they looked out at the sea they entered into a special relationship with it which, to a certain extent, entitled them to speak to it. Because people who spent too much time looking at the sea did start to commune with it, as if nature held the answer to all of life’s important questions, their expressions suggesting that they were not so much watching the sea as conversing with it. I could tell from the way they sat, dead still, that the sea spoke to them and that they, for their part, were receptive to its communication. But what was the sea saying to them? The sea didn’t speak to me. What do you say to them that you won’t say to me? I asked the sea, but the sea was silent and had no communication to make.

from ‘Somehow
by Danielle Dutton (in the Paris Review, #224)

This passage made me laugh (which I think — although I’m not entirely sure — was the writer’s mischievous intention). So I had to include it in my collection of passages about the sea, didn’t I?

Anyone who even glances at my blog will know that I fall into that category of people to whom the narrator in the passage above, Mr Field, refers as people who spen[d] too much time looking at the sea

And I suspect I always will!

Something out there …

Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.