How to begin? The first 17 days of 2013
[The strange thing after I had written this piece (runner up in the Wildcare Tasmania International Nature Writing Prize, March 2013)
[After completing these entries I looked over the photographs I took on these days and they show that another hundred or more parallel texts are possible]
January 1st 2013
“The year’s doors open/ like those of language/ toward the unknown . . . we shall have to think up signs, sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan/ on the double page/ of day and paper.” Octavio Paz, ‘January First’, trans Elizabeth Bishop.
How to begin? With a New Year’s resolution to improve fitness, grow greener, begin a journal?
A journal is more welcoming than a diary, looser, more accommodating to scraps of data and ideas and more public. It becomes an exercise in interesting oneself.
We’ve moved from a city’s heart into Gumbaynggirr country. White timber cutters arrived here late, in the 1870s, with their bullock trains and families and houses and tracks followed by roads and streets, shops and schools. My grandfather’s ‘daybook’ is a ledger of fields, trees and costs. He was a wheelwright in a village nestled in the heart of England, vertically planted from generations of blacksmiths.
Our house backs onto Jagun Nature Reserve (pronounced Jah-goon in Gumbaynggirr, meaning ‘home’). The reserve is a bundle of trees and tree stumps, orchids, vines, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals. It is regrowth forest oversupplied with stumps standing on poor sandy soils with clay substrates. It regrows slowly; it takes 50 to 60 years for hollows used by parrots, possums and gliders to form. We won’t be here that long.
“Always continue walking a lot and loving nature.” van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, Jan 2 1874.
Each walk is an opportunity and adventure. Last week it was finding Crytostlis erecta – Bonnet Orchids. Perhaps a journal will discipline me to observe more, understand more and make personal connections, not just a record of looking outward into the world.
Aldo Leopold showed that you need an active and participatory relationship to the land to gain a proper ethic towards the land. I’m using a mattock on saplings to stop trees from overwhelming this home. The forest is working at invasion. The first modern tree Archaeopteris conquered the world; its pelt covered much of Pangaea and changed the surface of the planet. Since then trees have evolved 100,000 species, though 10% are now endangered.
“O, Lord, How beautiful thy world is! How inimitable the structure and symmetry of any single leaf of the tree that make the greenery of this infinitesimally small spot of the earth’s surface!” Sir Henry Parkes, diary, Jan 3 1892.
It’s very early or very late, long before kookaburras and cicadas stretch their wings and sing. It’s a solid, stubborn, bricked-in black; the rain has eased but left no starlight. I think I am awake from last night’s long call, my mother bewildered and upset. Though the open window, a Toowhoo a who, Toowhoo a woo calling from the forest edge. The only owl that calls like those from my English childhood is the Powerful Owl. We have wanted one for our forest, a robust owl to dominate night’s canopy, a restoration of the family. The top predator indicates forest health, that its ecosystems are supporting abundance. I saw one once with a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in its talons and the owl still looked huge.
I thought I’d finished this entry, turned off the lamp then found light seeping down from a thick mattress of cloud over the Pacific and two shadowy shapes emerge as roos, noses in the green trough. Cicadas are already juggling noise that never falls to earth. Sunrise is converting a new day in twenty minutes time, then we can test Constable’s powers of observation that “no two leaves on a tree are alike.”
“The birds must suffer greatly as there are no haws. Meat frozen so hard it cannot be spitted. Several of the thrush kind are frozen to death.” Gilbert White, journal, Jan 4 1768.
That most influential nature writer Gilbert White published so that, “stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside.” He sensed culture intertwined nature, and that “the life and conversation of animals” was important.
Not a great year for butterflies; black specks of native bees dive into the Echium plantagineum’s second coming in the white garden, one exotic corner of our native garden. I am weeding paspalum in an avenue of Blueberry Ash and Lilypillies we planted for privacy; two years later they are only my height. She bends over a garden bed, her skirt lifts, I notice the ligaments running from the back of her knees up her thighs, pretty legs for any age, the tick bites almost gone. That tension turns me on, not a sexual thing, nor asexual, more the taut elegance of a sail the wind has just filled and which rushes you into the horizon.
This house is a cool observatory, binoculars hang off the tallowwood posts, yachts slide along blue wrinkles on the horizon racing from Pittwater to Coffs, Dollarbirds chatter in a Bloodwood. I would name this third deck ‘Selborne’ if I had the patience and the eye.
Cardinal Schönborn endorses intelligent design by denouncing materialist interpretations of evolution. BeliefNet, Jan 5 2006.
I read on the deck as the hot air fills with dragonflies. Hundreds of dragons unable to bank and swerve and loop like the Needle-tailed Swifts hunting high, but they zip forward and sideways and hover with robotic precision and the speed and strength of deep time. Dragonflies the size of seagulls ruled the Carboniferous with Horsetails long before the dinosaurs.
The expansion of bioenergy crop production is increasing ground level ozone, a deadly pollutant. Ashworth, Wild & Hewitt, letter, Nature, Jan 6 2013.
Guests gone, barbie cleaned, we rest on deck. The sea is thundering, trying to inch closer, a Pink Bloodwood buds creamy-yellow, its sweet scent arrives in gusts. The Blackbutts’ upper limbs are shining silver, the sky is fluorescent blue and through this immensity a tiny, mouse-sized insignificant significance darts by, a Scarlet Honeyeater pulsing colour with volition and destination. Moments later, a flash of aqua as a Sacred Kingfisher perches on the tip of the bower. We have pursued these beings with binoculars and cameras but never sought possession.
Four Scaly-breasted Lorikeets fly by, spangled breasted a more accurate term, their colours cross a threshold, demonstrate how beauty mesmerises by its fleeting fictions.
These colours are exotic to me, brought up in a damp green amalgam of fields and woods, owned and formed by the Enclosure Acts, but still a picture of England from before the wars. An innocent place; the blood of empire rinsed by the waters surrounding the island. There never was a sustainable history and the sustainable future we need so desperatley is hard to imagine. I thank animals before eating them, but that’s not enough, is it?
“Even after the elimination of bourgeois production, however, there remains the snag that the soil would become relatively more infertile, that, with the same amount of labour, successively less would be achieved, although the best land would no longer, as under bourgeois rule, yield as dear a product as the poorest. . . Having bored you with this muck . . . Marx to Engels, Jan 7 1851.
A Kookaburra lifts me up. I climb the stairs, a bright rose-gold star hangs low directly East, Mars? The Southern Cross sticks overhead, Saturn glares over a waning crescent moon, Christmas light are flashing silver, crickets have surrounded the house – the sea’s slow heartbeat.
I was tricked into getting up. Half an hour later, the Kookaburras start the dawn chorus, the first one was like those knowing concert goers who begin clapping before the last note has faded when you want to linger with the remains of the music. A pair of plovers join in the business. Yet time reverses, the sky grows darker, purple clouds feed in from the South, curtains are closing, the Milky way has closed down, the sky is drenched in cloud the moon put out and the sea is getting louder. It’s hard to believe in the resurrection, that a violent luminosity will soon lubricate the leaves, but it’s firing havoc on georgic landscapes in Tasmania, scorched mutilation, rumours of one who didn’t run away pitchforked by flame.
‘Soil is the mother of all things’ – Chinese proverb. How to begin to be green and sustainable with such appetites? We try to improve the soil, as soils are being eroded globally – sixty-five million tons per day. A handful of healthy soil contains two thousand million living organisms, each with individual life cycle and functions.
Attn Rhys Edwards
re Dev app. 2012/160 Tuesday, January 6. 2013
I support the referenced development application, but would like to remind the developer and council of the importance of existing trees remaining on the site due to it being a designated koala corridor. This corridor has unfortunately already lost trees in a previous development.
Between 1990 and 2010 the number of koalas in New South Wales declined by a third (Threatened Species Scientific Committee). The koala population is not secure on the Mid North Coast. This corridor is important. We heard koalas in Jagun Nature Reserve (which the corridor connects to) a few months ago, and they were photographed, the first time in a decade.
Yours, . . .
This decade is the cusp of a tipping point: it is the end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that humans have pursued for 99% of their history and for the first time over 50% of the world’s population are now urbanised.
Native fauna and flora are under pressure everywhere; loss of rainforest, source of the richest biodiversity, is relentless. This world is a dynamic often catastrophic place (over 99% of species that ever lived are extinct) and the concept “balance of nature” has ‘evolved’ to an emphasis on change and disturbance. The problem is that humans are increasing the extinction rate as they become distanced from natural environments. If we can learn to appreciate nature conservation will follow; natural aesthetics is a key long term conservation strategy.
Ecology has begun a paradigm shift implicating us as totally dependent on natural processes, as indigenous cultures knew. Yet we abuse them – one response is to sing of the beauty of the natural world, so that those alienated from such experiences will demand the in the future.
Our culture celebrates distraction not attention. I think we need to take responsibility for our attentiveness as well as actions. Paying attention strips levels of awareness from wider fields to realise that experiences are richer and more complex than imagined. Attention fosters a sense of responsibility for the environment, the flora and fauna and the landscapes, habitats.
“Read Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes,’ – all the examples and mode of giving them sublime, ….’tis a grand poem – and so true!” Byron, Journal, Jan 9 1821.
The earth is hard, the mattock thuds as I cut into paspalum roots, purple thumbs with silver hairs wedged into the baked clay. After half an hour my eyes sting with sweat and my heart is pounding. Bush fires up north and south, the heat encourages the cicadas and the ocean is a mirror of light. I open up the house, have work to do, think of going for a swim finding my way to sea level, where it all began. Our postures, our rationalisations and desires are all connected to how we live with nature not inevitably doomed to Johnson’s “inevitable self-deception”.
The trunks are dead still, the canopy fluid, light swims from branch to branch amongst the flowering Pink Bloodwoods and Xanthorea shooting among eroded castles, fungi and moss reveal a past when the axe was wielded so quickly the muscular empire made a good living. Yet the forest stands as if human presence is imaginary.
The Brothers Grimm collected old German folk tales about forests, outside the norm, places of enchantment and danger (Wild from old German wald for forest). Jakob Grimm later wrote: “A temple is simultaneously a wood. What we think of as a walled building, merges, the farther back we go, into a sacred place untouched by human hands, in a grove and enclosed by dense trees.” (‘Introduction to Germanic Mythology’, 1835).
Trees are among the oldest and most efficient of all multicellular life forms and live simultaneously in earth and sky. Powered by the sun, these biochemical engines draw water and minerals from the soil and convert carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen. Each mature tree is an ecological city, home to a myriad of interacting lives, plants, fungi, animal. This house is built around tallowwood poles with flooded gum floors; we need timber, but 25 million annually for disposable chopsticks was ridiculous. We are slow at learning trees – they are too anonymous. The artist Herman de Vries wanted to remove this anonymity and founded The Tree Museum, planting 400 species of trees in the Hague. Nearly every street has its own tree with information about that individual tree.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of taking walks daily . . . who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering. Thoreau, Journal, Jan 10 1851.
This entry by Thoreau led to ‘Walking’ considered the seminal work of the environmental movement, an evolving work through public lectures and revision, the essay marks a shift, half-way through drafting Walden, from a poetic to a more empirical (or as he put it, ‘distinct and scientific’) way of depicting nature.
While eating breakfast I watch three roos weed the garden, fur fluffed from the rain, looking like stuffed toys, colour of cardboard, muzzles damp and dark, hoping it’s just the grasses this time. A fresh batch of jumping spiders are leaping all over the windows. Vagrant hunters by daylight, they stalk their prey intelligently, learn by trial and error; beauty fits their complex eyes and how they dance from side to side in courtship.
Each walk stands unique, we walk differently, some as if looking through a window, some study the ground, but we are porous to the scents and sounds, and the texture of ground. I never have a plan. For the first time here I see a Forest Kingfisher shoot past up Oyster Creek as I stand on the little wooden bridge. We pick a few tasty purple Dianella berries; the Gumbaynggirr used the thin leaves to weave string.
Later, taking out the recycling, I disturbed the Sacred Kingfisher perched on the summit of our simple bower made from fallen branches tied together for the Bower Creeper to climb; the third time in three days and never before, the garden is starting to work.
“Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one . . . At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.” Darwin to Hooker, Jan 11 1844.
Today is the hottest day, fire danger is everywhere; the cicadas are humming that metallic noise and an Oriental Cuckoo appears, south of its normal range. A friend spotted a pair of Cicada Birds yesterday, again an unusual sighting.
It’s a hot sky even with the sun dropped into temporary exile, its surface wipes pale blues and smears of ochres – a Jules Orlitski canvas (his ideal painting is “nothing but some colours sprayed into the air and staying there.”)
I’m on the top deck in a position of privilege somehow derived from reproduction, variation and the struggle for existence. Two bats hunting overhead know what we look like, giants with breadth and depth. They are silhouettes, fast fluttering wood block prints skittering back into shadow – it seems important to witness such events pre vampire parties in old castles. Eastern Long-eared bats? Large-footed Mouse-eared Bats? Eastern Bent-wing bats? In tropical ecosystems bats often comprise over half of mammal species, but populations are declining due to disease and habitat loss. They have long life-spans but low birth rates, usually one pup annually, and are vulnerable roosting in colonies.
The ceiling grows brighter and darker over the gothic forest stirring with its nocturnal business and machinery of insect noise oiled and running smoothly, a paradigm of leave well alone.
“One gets horribly sick of the monotony and can easily imagine oneself getting played out. . . It is going to be a close thing . . .” Captain Scott, diary Jan 12 1912.
A wonderfully worked straw-coloured ovoid pot, long as a little finger, lies on the door mat. It’s smooth as a pinch pot thrown on a wheel; the craft of writing is never so smooth.
From the neat hole a bright black and orange Mud-dauber Wasp will have emerged to begin again to build, to paralyse jumping spiders carrying them back, to lay a single egg. The larva feasts on its stunned larder then pupates in a miracle of metamorphosis, beginning with small mouthfuls of mud.
We walk down to the creek, the waterlogged timbers lining its bottom are exposed blackened, a couple of mullet nose around, its body is flexible, sometimes pouring over the path insistent on returning to the sea, but it empties into a large lagoon, infrequently open as the sea throws itself against the coastline in incessant bellyflops. The hottest day of summer finds the sea breeze empty.
“The idea came to me to write poems of a pagan nature. So I scribbled something down in irregular verse (different to the style of Álvaro de Campos, more irregular), and abandoned the idea.” Fernando Pessoa, letter, Jan 13 1935.
The Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos gather noisily, flapping in creaking circles, these large huge slow birds flock here in stormy weather. The storm duly arrives lighting the whole forest starkly, a stage illumination as if getting closer to flashes of truth. How can we have dominion over floods and bushfires?
Judeo-Christian theology claimed dominion over nature; exploitation was natural, pagan nature worship unnatural. Respect for life is “a feeling that we must not destroy certain things . . . Christianity, anxious to destroy primitive paganism, had made great efforts to exclude plants and animals . . .” (Mary Midgley, Beast And Man, 1995). Raymond Williams suggest three essential meanings of the term ‘nature’: the essential quality and character of something; an inherent force that directs world or human (Christianity ropes this to God); and the material world itself (with or without humans). They can’t be untangled. I’ve just had a thought, this lapsed Catholic is a pagan (Latin Paganus, ‘villager’) like Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero and everyone else once was – with a belief, like Buddhism, that being alive means being interconnected and tangled – everything connects: plants, politics, wonder, food, health, soil, economy, history . . . My favourite nature writing is multidimensional, open to the complexities of how we understand, represent and act upon the natural world.
Today is a Diary Day in Korea. Couples exchange their new diaries and wish for a good year. I was there last summer but couldn’t tell their happiness index. We share Google Calender and are lucky.
Having a beer with neighbours, they laugh at our wild garden. We don’t own a mower or strimmer wanting our patch to be an extension of the reserve (with a Japanese ‘room’, small orchard, vegetable garden and a few roses). Nature is not an exotic thing that’s been boxed off and preserved in a park or a photograph somewhere else. We decide to leave the paper wasps’ nests over the door; they give a nasty sting but are not aggressive and are good for the garden.
If humans suddenly vanished, there would be no weeds. After months plants would thrive and blossom on the pavements, roots would impregnate walls. After years the roads would become grassed highways for large animals, parks and sports fields would sprout saplings and grow great forests that would clean up the sky.
“The war is going to go on despite our quarrels and our longing for freedom and fresh air, so we should try to make the best of our stay here.” Anne Frank, diary, Jan 15 1944.
This country is still at war but nobody seems to know. The Gumbaynggirr footprint, always light, is fading; bora rings lost, canoe trees rotted, grinding stones lost. Country covers up. In the forest stumps decay, by the bridge chains are nailed to a tree, beyond are remains of a barbed wire fence.
Zen master Dogen says, “Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles and grasses.” Mindfulness is calm awareness of one’s body, feelings, and thoughts, but once in the forest my senses are on alert outwards. A furry glimpse, a Swamp Wallaby bounds off thudding the ground. John Berger says animals began to disappear during the industrial revolution, just as domestic pets and animal representations became popular. Animals and humans both became alienated from natural and traditional ways of living. Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world and this village is full of dogs. There are 400 million dogs in the world all descended from wolves which number about 100,000 with some species endangered. Pets are bad for the environment, but the Australian Companion Animal Council reports that pet care products, pet purchases, pet food, veterinary services and pet care services were worth $6 billion dollars some years ago and rising – 50% of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, probably the same as our electricity costs.
“Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp.” Captain Scott, diary, Jan 16 1912.
No sign of the Brolgas, the black speck is a Whistling Kite over Belmore Marshes, once the Kakadu of the south, now a plain of grass; water is the new gold.
At Hat Head we stop off for a skinny dip as two White-bellied Sea Eagles wheel overhead with a birds-eye view. The creek is tannin-dark, the dunes bone-white, the beach golden and the sea the colour of Truman Show oceans. This can’t be real – there’s no work, no food, no walls, no ceiling.
At Delicate Nobby Beach I wade through surf, camera above my head, to shoot the sea churning through a chasm, then relax, try and catch some waves, carried with no ambition. I should try and finish my history of Antarctica.
Thinking of bravery, Rachael Carson comes to mind.
“Who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.” Luther, Jan 17 1546.
Dawn. Words fail.
Photographs fail too, subsumed to the Romantic notion of the sublime and a surfeit of brochures. Yet I cannot resist the light show of a beautiful new day, the burnished beach, Brahminy Kite, Nankeen Night-Heron and Little Terns diving close in. It’s wretched surf, so just the two of us. It takes attention to appreciate our cosmic inheritance, even Gaia as metaphor rather than palaeontology.
Late night I was reading the critic who coined the term Arte Povera: the artist “discovers also himself . . . abandons linguistic intervention . . . abolishes his role as being an artist, intellectual, painter or writer and learns again to perceive, to feel, to breathe, to walk, to understand . . .” Germano Celant, Arte Povera catalogue, 1969.
We can’t afford to dream of tomorrow.
6.01.52 17 Jan
Latitude -30.59259° Longitude 153.0113°