‘In small doses melancholy, alienation, and introspection
are among life’s most refined pleasures.’
by Rebecca Solnit
by Rebecca Solnit
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.
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.
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.
This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling … Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s native aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.
So stories are travels and travels are stories.
by Rebecca Solnit
Last year, a theme I returned to often on this blog was paths. I had decided not to make a New Year’s Resolution for once: instead, I thought, I would learn to find, and then follow, my own path. Paths became a metaphor for me; once I began to look, I found them in the most startling and beautiful moments. There were paths in the sea, paths across the sky, paths to the horizon, paths trodden by other creatures than myself, making their way through the Scrub.
Perhaps it was a theme painfully obvious in its metaphors. Less painfully obvious is the metaphor Rebecca Solnit employs in the passage above. To consider one’s job as a writer to be the task of carving a path for one’s readers to follow: what a wonderful thought. What an honour.
I was interested in Solnit’s comparison with the songlines of the First Australians. In these days of serious debate about cultural appropriation, I considered long and hard whether it would be appropriate to include that part of the quote. In doing so, I found an explanation which seemed genuine and made sense to me. You can read it here.
Landscape as narrative. This is something I have long believed in, right down to my core. When I wander through the Scrub, observing how the seasons have wrought changes on it — how rain brings forth wildflowers, for example; and how those wildflowers differ in variety and in abundance, depending on that year’s rainfall — I believe that I am following a narrative which is both part of me, as a creature on this earth, and also greater than me. Songlines are not mine to appropriate, but the sense of a story, and the sense of the sacred, is everyone’s to share.
But story as map: that’s something I hadn’t considered before. I am both both a reader and a writer, and I am intensely aware, in both roles, of the contract between the two. The writer makes a promise; the reader holds the writer to it. I like the idea of viewing this contract as a map. It explains the sense of awe I feel as a reader, and the sense of humility I feel as a writer.
In the end, we each tread our own path across our own landscape,
using our own map.
But it is nice to know there are guides along the way.
Happy new year, everyone!
The narrow trail I had been following came to an end as it rose to meet the old grey asphalt road that runs up to the missile guidance station. Stepping from path to road means stepping up to see the whole expanse of the ocean, spreading uninterrupted to Japan. The same shock of pleasure comes every time I cross this boundary to discover the ocean again, an ocean shining like beaten silver on the brightest days, green on the overcast ones, brown with the muddy runoff of the streams and rivers washing far out to sea during winter floods, an opalescent mottling of blues on days of scattered clouds, only invisible on the foggiest of days, when the salt smell alone announces the change. This day the sea was a solid blue running toward an indistinct horizon where white mist blurred the transition to cloudless sky.
by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit’s words remind me of my own jaunts to and from the sea. So, no more words from me today — just a gallery of pictures I’ve taken over my own years of oceanside ramblings. You’ll recognise many of these pictures from earlier posts, no doubt, but collected here they convey, I hope, the many moods of the sea.
(Hover over the pictures to see their connection to the words above.)
from ‘The Faraway Nearby‘
by Rebecca Solnit
Sometimes, when I’m reading, a small phrase or a sentence will catch my eye, hidden away in the middle of the paragraph, or at the bottom of a page. Perhaps the words in that phrase snag my attention because they are beautiful; or perhaps the thought behind the phrase is beautiful — complex and lingering — despite the simplicity of the actual words.
I write these phrases down in a notebook and treasure them, as you might a necklace your mother gave you when you were a young woman, or a china teacup that once belonged to your grandmother. Sometimes, when I’m writing them down, the word ‘stolen’ creeps into my mind: there is something about the act of recording them which makes me feel I have snatched them from their creator and reappropriated them as mine, storing them inside my heart.
Snatched phrases: today’s post, quoting Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful words about books, is the first in an occasional series here with this theme. However you think of these words, whatever your definition of the word ‘stolen’, they are yours now, too. Writers write for others, after all; writing is about the transmission of words and ideas from a writer to his or her readers — readers like you and me.
And they are not really stolen at all, these words. It feels that way at first, because they are so precious and so beautiful. But in fact, it is the other way around: the words have stolen our hearts. To read is to be captured, over and over again. I can think of no better form of thievery.