The air that you breathe

September 21, 2017 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … air quality

It was terribly hot that summer. Mr Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the centre of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edge. Strangers driving by on the turnpike rolled up their windows at the gagging, sulphurous smell and wondered how anyone could live with that stench coming from the river and the mill. But the people who lived in Shirley Falls were used to it, and even in the awful heat it was only noticeable when you first woke up; no, they didn’t particularly mind the smell.

from ‘Amy & Isabelle
by Elizabeth Strout

Recently, after several members of staff in one of my workplaces became sick over the course of consecutive shifts, the part of the building in which we work was shut down, due to what has been deemed an ongoing air quality issue.

That particular office is on the upper floor of a fully air-conditioned building: one of those buildings where you can’t open a window even if you want to. I have always struggled with this: I believe, right down to my core, that breathing temperature-controlled, recycled air will never, ever be equal to breathing air that drifts in through an open window. I continue to believe this even though the air outside the windows in that building is itself compromised by petrol, diesel and exhaust fumes from the nearby main road.

To me, the most pernicious aspect of all of this is the habituation. Like the residents of Shirley Falls in the quote above, when my colleagues and I first walk into work at the beginning of a shift, we notice things in the air that we stop noticing after we’ve been at work for a while. Like them, we don’t particularly mind the smell of our workplace. Or not consciously, anyway.

Luckily for me, I have a place to escape to, and I did so the first weekend after our workplace was shut down, going on another of my strolls through the Scrub, another of my wanders out and about. I took the photos accompanying this post (of vanilla lilies, grass trees, acacias and boobiallas all newly in bloom) on that very walk.

In the Scrub, at least, the air I breathe always seems sweet.

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Snatched phrases on … the sea

September 16, 2017 § 1 Comment

‘The sea pronounces something,
over and over, in a hoarse whisper;
I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.’

From ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’
by Annie Dillard

Sometimes when I’m walking on the beach I close my eyes and listen to the sea as I keep walking. It’s a way of shutting out the beauty of the visual world, in order to concentrate on the other kinds of beauty accessible to me at that moment, in that particular space.

The sea murmurs.
It sighs.
It whispers.
It roars.

Like Dillard, the language of the sea is one I can’t make out …

… although unlike her I’m not sure that I want to try.

I’m happy just to keep listening.

Snatched phrases on … pretty days

September 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

‘The grass had been cut and gave off a warm, allergenic smell.
The sky was soft like cloth
and birds ran over it in long threads.’

from ‘Conversations with friends’
by Sally Rooney

The image in today’s post doesn’t quite match the words, I’m afraid:

Still, it’s a pretty image, and perhaps it captures a little of the essence of Rooney’s soft spring day …

The poetry lover

September 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … poetry

It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.

from ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.

Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.

Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:

Tea, by Jehanne Dubrow (a sonnet, and the excuse for my tea-themed photo today)
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, by Dylan Thomas (a villanelle)
On the Birth of a Son, by David Campbell (a sonnet)
The Watch, by Frances Darwin Conford (a strict rhyming system of which Campbell would most surely approve)

Yellow

August 30, 2017 § 2 Comments

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?

Out and about: after the rain

August 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

‘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 …

Snatched phrases on … the sea

August 19, 2017 § 1 Comment

‘They’d ended up sitting on the beach,
the sea a great black heaving beast,
sighing and rolling under the white light of the moon.’

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I don’t have any photographs to accompany this post because I still haven’t yet managed to get the hang of the craft of night-time photography. But isn’t that a wonderful image of the sea at night? — that great black heaving beast, sighing and rolling. It makes me want to go for a night-time walk on the beach right now …

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