Out and about: after the rain

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

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

This year, July was exceptionally dry in South Australia. Then August blew in and it has been bitterly cold, windy and rainy ever since.

There is a manic wind whipping through the treetops today … the sort of wind that’s somewhat unsettling and leaves me feeling a bit scratchy, Belinda Jeffery writes in her August 5 entry in her wonderful cookbook-cum-nature diary The Country Coobook. And I know what she means. In the middle week of August, I spent a week in our beach house down south, and much of the time the squalls of rain were so frequent and unpredictable, there wasn’t much of a chance for me to get out.

Rain in the vineyards

Still, one morning mid-week the sun shone between showers and I risked a walk. I headed down the path that skirts the wetlands and vineyards (on one side) and the eastern boundary of the scrub (on the other) and then turned south to follow the path back into the scrub.

Flooded scrubland

Last time I walked in the area around this trail, the ground was damp but not waterlogged. But on this particular day, after the recent rains, the low-lying parts of the land had become flooded. Beyond the reeds that bordered the flooded land, I saw trees with their trunks submerged, and waterbirds diving and swooping from branch to branch.

Submerged trunks

There was even a family of ducks.

If I crouched down to peek through the reeds, I could just see the green grassy banks rising above the flooded land, further within the scrub.

Is the grass always greener on the other side?

Once I’d walked far enough south, I turned west, deep into the scrub, where there were no more floods, and where yellow blossom dotted the landscape (more about which in an upcoming post). But even as I walked, the sky darkened and the temperature dropped.

I made it home just before the next burst of rain …

Out and about: a new series

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

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have two part-time jobs, which I move between each week in much the same way as I move between my two houses. One of my jobs involves editing manuscripts for an academic press, while the other involves call centre work.

The job at the call centre doesn’t involve sales work; I work for a not-for-profit community health organisation. My calls are mostly from clients wondering what time their nurse is coming or needing an unscheduled visit from a nurse due to an unexpected health crisis, or from members of the public wanting to find out how to go about becoming a client. Around me, as I take call after call, my colleagues do the same. We work in a bubble of chatter and noise: phones ringing; people laughing or raising their voices for a client who’s hard of hearing; people taking complaints; the lunch lady ringing her bell as she pushes her trolley between desks to sell food to anyone who didn’t bring their own lunch with them.

During each shift, I am allotted a 30-minute lunch break at a stipulated time (which varies depending on what time my shift starts). There is a lunch room at the end of the corridor, with a toaster and a microwave and a dishwasher, but I rarely eat my lunch there. Though I’m proud to work for the organisation — though I enjoy the work and value what we all do there — I think of those 30 minutes as my chance to escape.

And so I wander outside the office with my lunch. Our office is on the fringes of the city, and just down the road from our building is a stretch of park land that runs between the main road and the railway track. I walk there each day, and despite the hum of traffic and the rattle of trains passing, it’s a peaceful time. Swallows dive in front of me; parrots chirp; magpies sing; mynah birds chortle.

You can’t go far in 30 minutes, and I walk briskly along the path on a designated route. Still, despite my hurry, there are moments enough in which I have the chance to notice the passing of the seasons. In the cold months of the year, the grass is long and wet and the trees sway in wild, wet winds, their branches silhouetted against the grey sky. In the hot months, the grass dies off and the sun beats down between the branches, and the birds murmur amongst themselves.

Today’s pictures come from one of those lunch breaks a couple of weeks ago: late July, early August. Officially, these months are still classified as winter, at least according to the Western calendar. I’ve heard, though, that Indigenous Australians traditionally mark the time differently, recognising more than four seasons each year — and on this walk I saw why. Despite the cold, blustery wind, and the wet grass, and the leaden clouds above me threatening squalls of rain, the native bushes along the path had begun to flower. Acacia trees were heavy with musty yellow blossom (as pictured in the top photo), and I came upon a couple of hardenbergia vines in full bloom, their vines resplendent with purple flowers (as pictured in the remaining photos).

Perhaps you recognise the words I’ve quoted at the top of this passage: I’ve quoted them before. I think the words bear repeating, here and elsewhere, which is why this is the first post in a new series on my blog — a series I’m entitling ‘Out and About’. In these posts, you’ll find pictures and thoughts that I’ve collected together after one of my frequent wanders. It’s not a new topic for my blog, really — just a new way of gathering these kinds of post together: a recognition of how much this part of my life means to me.

Walking is a form of hope, you know. It’s also a form of joy. That’s how those lunchtime walks seem to me.

Snatched phrases on … bibliophilia

‘[I]t was not pride that took me into the village twice a week,
or even stubbornness,
but only the simple need for books and food.’

From ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson

A beautiful thing

Other people’s words about … appetite

To say that I ‘lost’ my appetite during those years would be a joke. On the contrary, I ate, slept, and breathed appetite. I thought about food constantly, pored over food magazines and restaurant reviews like a teenage boy with a pile of porn, copied down recipes on index cards: breads, cakes, chocolate desserts, pies with the richest fillings, things I longed for and wouldn’t let myself have. In truth, I had appetites the size of Mack trucks — driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure — but I found their very power too daunting and fearsome to contend with, and so I split the world into the most rigid place of black and white, yes and no.

from ‘Appetites
by Caroline Knapp

Appetite is a strange, fickle creature. I remember feeling, years ago, when I first read Caroline Knapp’s words in the passage I’ve quoted today, an overwhelming sense of recognition and kinship. I have always had a strong, keen appetite, and back then, when I read Knapp’s book, I felt ashamed of this fact; I fought my driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure.

I don’t feel that way now; my life is on a different keel. In fact, the periodic bouts of nausea I experience lead me to feel the very opposite. During these bouts of sickness, I would give anything — anything at all — to feel hungry.

Part of what I miss when my appetite is gone is the sense of anticipation that I, like all of us, experience with regards to food: the sense of looking forward to something I know will be pleasurable — whether we’re talking solitary pleasures here (sitting on the porch in the sunshine with a plate of cake on my knee and a pot of tea at my feet) or shared pleasures (a meal with family or friends). Anticipation, I realise now, is a pleasure in and of itself. Strip away anticipation and you strip away, with it, a great source of pleasure from your life.

Still, what I have learned is that there are other pleasures to anticipate, apart from food; other things to look forward to; other things, in a way, to hunger for, and then — finally — to savour. These days, the moment I start to feel a little better after a bout of sickness, the moment the nausea begins to fade, I make a big effort to stop languishing inside my house. I take a deep breath and then start seeking out, immediately, the things I know will bring me pleasure.

A while back, I quoted some words from Sarah Wilson about managing anxiety by (to paraphrase) simply doing it, leaving it, and moving on. Wilson’s words, I see, apply here, too. Anxiety, after all, is only one source of anguish: sickness is another. By not dwelling on our anguish, by actively making ourselves move on from it, we allow a sense of anticipation and pleasure to return to our lives.

We allow our appetite for life to flourish once again.

If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice now, I would counsel her to cherish her appetite rather than to be daunted by it (Knapp’s word). I would tell her that hunger and appetite are vital to life. I would tell her that hunger, like appetite, is a beautiful thing. And I would tell her to look up, out and around at the world. To savour the things she sees and experiences. To savour all the pleasures life has to offer.

I took the photos you see in today’s post on a recent bike ride around the Aldinga Beach/Port Willunga area. I had not been feeling particularly well in the days prior to this; I had slept poorly as a result; and I cycled slowly on that ride, feeling tired and not terribly fit.

Still, it was good to be out there. I had looked forward to that ride, and I enjoyed it. It felt good to be alive.

Meadowlands

Other people’s words on … wandering

Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use. Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don’t produce a market crop. The same is true of the meadowlands of imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space — must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space. Otherwise the individual imagination will be bulldozed over for the chain-store outlets of consumer appetite, true-crime titillations, and celebrity crises.

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

Most of you would know by now that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is wandering: along the beach, through the Scrub. We read a great deal these days about the value of high-intensity exercise (the dreaded HIIT), and though I understand the principle — short bursts of intense exercise, in order to get your heart going — I find the practice intimidating and somewhat soulless. I’m not interested in exercising purely to become ‘fit’, or to ‘get healthy’, or to try to do something epic.

What I’m interested in is wellbeing — a concept that includes mental, emotional and spiritual aspects as well as the more obvious physical ones.

That’s why I like to wander. Wandering, for me, can be a slow stroll through the bush, or it can be a steady march along the shore. Hopping on my bike and riding places — that’s a form of wandering, too. It’s about breathing in fresh air, moving through beautiful surroundings, looking around, and — yes — musing. As Solnit points out, it’s about being unfettered in time as well as space. Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, she says.

Oh, yes.

So today’s round-up of photos comes from another one of my recent wanders through the Scrub, back at the end of April. It was a dull, still day, and not many of the plants were in flower. The bush seemed stripped of bright colour: it was all earthy greens and sandy browns. The birdsong was muted, too — the whistlers don’t call much at this time of year; the shrike thrush songs are shorter and softer than in the warmer months. A crow croaked and muttered in the distance, and I heard snatches of broken magpie song.

But then I noticed the banksia trees, which were all in flower. I hadn’t seen them at first because I’d stepped in from a louder, brighter world beyond the Scrub, a world of fences and bitumen streets and painted houses. Banksia leaves are a dark, khaki green, and the flowers blend in with the surrounding vegetation, varying in colour from pale yellow, through light green, to drab brown. Their beauty is as muted as the birdsong I described above, and in order not to miss it — in order to appreciate it — you have to be willing to slow down. To stop. To muse.

And that is what I did.

A prayer

Other people’s words about … the view

At the back of the hotel was a garden. Along its edge ran an earthen pathway pillared by palms. it ended in a low iron gate. They had not noticed the gate before, but now they saw it opened directly onto the beach. Stepping through the gate, they were confronted by the white and blue of ocean and beach in limpid morning light. Bare-chested fishermen were pushing wooden boats into the surf, chanting prayers together for luck. Women in fluorescent knee-high saris walked past in pairs and threes, with fish-baskets on their heads.

From ‘Sleeping on Jupiter
by Anurahda Roy

First, an update: we didn’t go camping at Yorke Peninsula during my fortnight of annual leave as we’d planned, after all. For a variety of reasons, it was impossible to get away. Instead, we spent the two weeks flitting back and forth between our main home in Taperoo (a coastal suburb twenty kilometres north of Adelaide, where most of my jetty photos originate) and our old beach shack at Aldinga (a coastal suburb forty-five kilometres south of Adelaide, where many of my other beach photos come from). So the view from the steps down to the beach was different from the one I’d anticipated, though it was still a view to revel in.

A view to revel in

I complained recently about my dread of autumn and winter, those months of the year I always think of as the grey months. But my complaints this year were premature. Sometimes in South Australia, in the early weeks of autumn, the wind dies off, giving way to still, sunny days; endless blue skies; cold, clear nights. That’s how it’s been here for the last four weeks. I could not have picked better weather for a holiday by the sea, even without the campfires I’d hoped for.

One afternoon at Aldinga I took a walk heading south along the beach, beyond the spot where cars are permitted to drive onto the beach to launch fishing boats. It was one of those days where the horizon — that mysterious line between the sky and the sea — seems almost invisible. A boat glided over the surface, somehow suspended between the two, and the headland in the distance was shrouded in a mist of sea spray. The sea changed colour as I walked, from opaque blue, to glassy blue, and then to silver.

Tyre tracks in the sand
Invisible horizon
Gliding boat
Sea spray shrouding the headland
Opaque blue
Glassy blue
Silver and shining

As I walked, I thought about the words I’ve quoted right at the top of this post. I write about the beach here on my blog as a place, always, of beauty and wonder: a place where I swim and stroll, wander and wonder. But that’s a very Western, privileged, twenty-first-century way of viewing it, isn’t it? The beach in the world Anurahda Roy describes — modern-day India — is another place entirely; and her sea is a different entity. In her world, the sea provides the means for people to strive to make a living, and the making of that living obscures the beautiful view.

I am lucky enough, mostly, not to feel the need to chant a morning prayer for luck, as the fishermen in Roy’s passage do. But if I were the praying type, I would utter a prayer of thanks for the view of the beach I had that day, and for every day I get to live by it.

The big ‘I’

Other people’s words about … the view

Sit. Quietly. Turn your awareness to your heart space.

Now imagine you’re sitting on a small wooden bench with yourself. Imagine you’re doing so in that space in the centre of your chest. There you are, sitting to your right, the little nattering humanoid that you are, berating yourself for eating too much at lunch and debating whether to hang the washing out or not. This little nattering self is your little ‘i’. You (the big ‘I’) can watch it all. Yep, there you are, sitting quietly, looking out at a view, over treetops down to an ocean. On your little bench. Together. You’re just hanging, nowhere to go, nothing to do. The two of you …

From ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful
by Sarah wilson

It was my friend and fellow blogger, Anne, who first alerted me to the appeal of benches — I mean, real benches, in real life. In her ‘Bench Series‘, she posts photos of benches that she’s snapped from all over the world. I’d never really looked at benches before, except as convenient things to sit on while I rested and took a moment to enjoy the view before me. Now I find myself noticing them (and photographing them) all the time.

The kind of bench Sarah Wilson describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, though, is a metaphorical bench, one that you can only find within yourself. It’s a place where you can sit while you encounter, and learn to accommodate, your two selves: the busy, superficial, language-oriented self that churns out thoughts night and day, and the deeper, quieter, wordless self that lies beneath all the nagging chatter.

The idea of the two selves isn’t unique to Wilson. It’s an idea common to many systems of thought, one we’ve all become more familiar with since the recent popularisation of mindfulness-based practices and therapies. But I particularly like the way she uses the image of sitting on a bench to explain it. It’s a simple, vivid, accessible reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in (and believe) your own thoughts. 

A thought, after all, is only that: a thought. It may be true; it may not. Thoughts and the truth exist independently of each other. When I first came across this idea (here), it seemed both counterintuitive and revolutionary to me. I’m still grappling with it.

Wilson again:

And then it might occur to you that your little mate ‘i’ is just that — a little mate sitting next to you. And that this Big ‘I’ is who you really are. It feels deep and close and yet so vast.

Okay, I’ll admit I winced, at first, when I read these words. First, I’m not sure that the quieter self (the one Wilson calls the Big ‘I’) is deep or close or vast — or, indeed, in any way somehow ‘better’ than any other part of our self. I think that it just is.

Second, I was troubled by her use of the phrase little mate both to describe the thinking self, and to distinguish that self from the non-thinking self. I found the phrase overly colloquial, like some kind of condescending attempt to make a difficult concept more user-friendly to her less educated readers. But I have slowly come to feel the opposite way about her wording. The word mate implies friendship: it implies love, acceptance, forgiveness. Also fun. That’s helpful, I think. Why vilify a part of yourself, when you can instead smile and make friends with it?

Wilson uses meditation to find her bench. As you know, I don’t. But I don’t think that matters. What matters is that you know the bench exists — and that you know how to find it, however you get there.

And whether or not your prefer your benches real (like the ones in the photographs I took for today’s post, both of which are to be found in Aldinga Scrub) or whether you prefer them metaphorical, I wish you many sun-dappled, peaceful benches of your own in your life, wherever you happen to be.

Snatched phrases (on the world at our feet)

‘If he put his feet in to the water here at the beach in Jarmuli,
he was dipping them in the universe.’

From ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’
by Anuradha Roy

Of love and tomatoes

Other people’s words about … tomato sandwiches

I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.

Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.

‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.

from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.

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My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)

These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.

Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.

And as a symbol of my mother’s love.

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Note:
All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot,  a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.