Other people’s words about … spring

After Matthew left I lost the knack of sleeping. Brighton seemed unsettled and at night it was very bright … At periodic intervals throughout the day I felt that I was drowning, and it was all I could do not to fling myself to the ground and wail like a child. These feelings of panic, which in more sober moments I knew were temporary and would soon pass, were somehow intensified by the loveliness of that April. The trees were flaring into life: first the chestnut with its upraised candles and then the elm and beech. Amid this wash of green the cherry began to flower and within days the streets were filled with a flush of blossom that clogged the drains and papered the windscreens of parked cars.

from ‘To the River
by Olivia Laing

I continue to be fascinated with the notion of seasons, and how the idea of a season is as much a cultural and traditional one as it is a quantifiable or temporal one. Here in my part of South Australia, if you were to measure the year out using temperature and climate as your basic season markers, you might say that we begin the year in January and February with dry, glaring, windy heat. In March and April the weather is often warm and dry but the wind drops off; in May and June the days grow cold, though they remain frequently sunny and still. Somewhere around July and August, the serious clouds and rain begin; in September and October there may be both storms and patchy sun; in November and December the weather is dry and warm but variable.

That, at least, would be one way to mark out the seasons where I live.

But temperature and weather are only half the picture. Plant life and animal life have their own seasons, too. In the northern hemisphere, spring is often celebrated as a season of growth and birth, much as Laing describes it so vividly in the passage above, but here in South Australia, that season of growth is far more staggered and gradual. In late July, when the temperatures are still winter-cold, the native plants begin to flower, and the birds begin to build their nests. By November, that cycle of birth and growth has already begun to slow and drop off.

And then there are the different seasonal colours. Myself, I tend to think of July and August, in my own world, as the yellow months. So many of the native plants that flower at this time of the year have yellow blossoms: acacias, guinea flowers, groundsel flowers, punty bushes, bush peas, goodenias.

Many of the plants I’ve just named were in flower on one of my latest walks in the Scrub, as you can see in the pictures accompanying this post. Everywhere I looked, from the tops of the trees right down to the ground, there were sprinklings of yellow.

So it was a yellow walk through a yellow world. Perhaps we should call this time of year the yellow season?

The list maker

Other people’s words about … wildflowers

It was the top of the morning, the very cream, and I skimmed it off and crouched in the cornfield, gulping it down … The field ended in a double ditch, and from it grew a mass of flowers in a profusion of colours and forms, such as is seen trimming the edges of medieval manuscripts. Black medick, I counted, buttercup, horsetail, ribwort plantain, hedge woundwort, must mallow and curled dock, the clustered seeds a rusty brown. Wild rose, dandelion, the red and white dead nettle, blackberry, smooth hawksbeard and purple-crowned knapweed. Interspersed with these were smaller, more delicate flowers: cut-leaved cranesbill, birdsfoot trefoil, slender speedwell, St John’s wort, heath bedstraw, tufted vetch and, weaving in and out of the rest, field bindweed, its flowers striped cups of sherbet-pink and white. The stem of the knapweed was covered in black fly, and a spider trap shaped like a dodecahedron had annexed a few pale purple flowers of vetch inside swathes of tight-woven web.

from ‘To the River
by Olivia Laing

I have quoted from Olivia Laing before, I know. Still, one day a week or so ago as I wandered through the scrub, I couldn’t help thinking again of To the River. In particular, my thoughts kept returning to the passage I’ve quoted above. We’ve had an extraordinarily wet, windy spring here in South Australia this year — a spring that’s left me craving our usual harsh, dry, crackling heat. But the ‘up’ side to the lower temperatures and higher rainfall has been the abundance of wildflowers.

That day, as I strolled along the path in the scrub, it felt to me as though I was walking on a carpet of flowers. Whistlers burbled in the trees above me — I spied both golden whistlers and rufous whistlers — and wattlebirds clucked, and magpies warbled, and I am sure I heard the call of a curlew or a godwit, though I really don’t know whether that’s possible in my part of the world, or — if it is — whether a curlew or a godwit would frequent the scrub-side of the dunes.

Meanwhile, the rug of flowers went on spreading out before me.

As I walked, I found myself doing exactly what Laing does in the passage above: counting the flowers. I saw each flower; I named it; I knew it. I made my list as Laing made hers, and though we live in different hemispheres, and our lists are very different, I suspect that the joy I felt in making my list was somewhat akin to hers.

If I was an artist or a calligrapher — if I was a mediaeval scribe — I would decorate the edges of this post with the flowers I saw that day, in reference to the illuminated manuscripts Laing mentions above. But I am none of those things, so my photos will have to suffice. (As usual, hover your cursor over the photos to see the name of each flower — or my attempt, at least, to identify and name each one. Part of the pleasure in list-making is the knowledge that some of the names on the list might be wrong. I learn as I go.)

Perhaps you might like to think of these photos as a kind of pictorial version of the list I made that day, or as evidence of the carpeted path I trod, or as a simple expression of my joy.

They’re all of those things to me.

At ease on this earth

Other people’s words about … beauty

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.

from To the River
by Olivia Laing

Haunted by waters. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?

Though the words I’ve quoted above are about a river rather than the sea, still, they ring true for me. For most of my adult life — except for the two or three years I spent in my early twenties, travelling and working abroad — I have chosen to live within walking distance of the sea. In my late twenties and thirties, as I’ve mentioned before, I lived in a series of share households: different houses every eighteen months or so, different housemates. But each of those houses was close to the sea.

These days, I divide my time between two homes. The houses themselves are roughly seventy kilometres apart — one north of Adelaide, one south — but they are both just a few minutes’ walk to the beach. Open a window in either of them, and you can hear waves rolling onto shore. Step onto the front porch, and you’ll smell seaweed drying out beyond the water’s reach — a damp, bleached, faintly rotten smell. Look around indoors, and you’ll see drifts of sand piling up in the corners.

The sea surrounds me. It’s how I make sense of things. It’s how I feel at ease.


There’s another phrase I love in the words above: susceptible to beauty.

Like anyone else, I have good days and bad days. There are days when I feel at home, here on this earth: when my skin feels comfortable beneath the layers of my clothes, and the warmth of the sun feels kind and good. And there are days when the world seems vast, alien, spinning, remote. What gets me through those latter kinds of day are tiny moments of beauty, out there by the water: pinpricks of sunlight sparkling on the tips of waves, like sequins on a piece of cloth; clouds chasing across the horizon, billowing and grey; a cluster of yellow flowers growing in the dip of a dune, petals cupped to reflect the light.


I took the photographs you see here late one August afternoon, just a few weeks ago. Sitting at my desk, working at my computer, I felt hemmed in suddenly: by streets and footpaths, by fences and cement driveways, by the sound of my neighbour hawking up sputum in his bathroom. The longing to get away from all of that was so strong it felt akin to starving. I felt hollow through and through.

I shut down my computer, stepped outside, and walked down the road to the sea.


Five minutes later there I was, standing on the sand, looking out at the water and the sky. It was close to sunset and I wandered a while along the shore, released at last: from work and worry and words. And I saw something, then, that I don’t know how to describe, though I’ll try: I saw spring coming. The air had a certain quality to it — a softness, perhaps, after the steely bleakness of winter. I thought that if I reached out with my hand I might touch that beautiful softness. It seemed possible, just for a moment.

Looking at the photographs now, I don’t see what I did then. Perhaps you don’t, either. But I know that I saw it, all the same. It was one of those moments — those tiny moments of beauty — to which I, like Olivia Laing, am susceptible.

I am grateful for those moments, is what I’m trying to say. They give me a kind of gladness. They bring me home.