Differentiation

March 21, 2017 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … wild animals

As Paul and I were cresting the last hill, as I was squinting into the darkening woods to make out the path, a couple of deer lifted their heads at once and differentiated themselves from the trees.

We stared at them, and they at us, for a full thirty seconds without moving. They multiplied as we looked at them. There were three at first, then there were four, then there were five. They were the exact color of the bark and leaves –- gray brown –- but the skin around their eyes was red. I felt the breeze on their backs lift the braid from my chest and set it down over my shoulder.

‘They’re going to get us,’ Paul whispered. He reached for my hand.

‘They’re a herd,’ I reminded him. ‘They’re afraid of us.’

Two more appeared. Paul shivered.

From ‘History of Wolves
by Emily Fridlund

When I walk in the Scrub, particularly at certain times of the day, I am always conscious that I might encounter a roo or too. There are traces of them throughout the Scrub.

Sometimes a kangaroo appears before me in plain sight — in a clearing in a patch of sunlight, enjoying the last rays of the sun, joey in pouch.

But sometimes there are roos in front of me all the time, without my even realising it. I don’t know what alerts me to them then. It might be the faintest rustle in the leaves around me, or a slight movement — an ear-twitch, perhaps. Sometimes a sense comes over me, simply: a dawning awareness that I am not alone any more, that I am being watched, and regarded, and assessed.

Kangaroos are not naturally aggressive towards humans, as far as I know, or not during encounters like this. But still, like all wild animals, they are protective of each other and of their young. And so, when I come across a roo or two (or more) in this way — when they differentiate themselves from the bushes around them, as Linda, the narrator in the passage above, beautifully puts it — I make sure to stop and take one or two steps back. I let the kangaroos know I’m not a threat. We regard each other a while, creature to creature, acknowledging each other. It’s not fear I feel then, like Paul, the little boy in the quote above: it’s respect.

And then I move on, leaving them to their world, re-entering my own.

Darkness encroaching

March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … winter

Minutes after that the sun came out: brilliant, stunning us all. Still, it was no surprise when we were let out of school a half hour early due to the windchill. I made my way home from the bus stop at a rigid trot. I crunched along the snow-packed trail, felt the wind come off the lake in blasts, heard the pines groan and creak overhead. Halfway up the hill, my lungs started to feel raggedy. My face changed into something other than face, got rubbed out. When I finally got to the top of the hill, when I slowed down to brush ice from my nose, I turned and saw a puff of exhaust across our lake. I had to squint against all that white to make it out.

From ‘History of Wolves
by Emily Fridlund

Many years ago, I spent a winter in Michigan in the USA. For a whole month, the temperature did not lift above zero degrees Celsius. Having lived in South Australia most of my life, I had never seen a lake freeze over before. I walked across the surface of the frozen water, and grasped for the first time the meaning of the term ‘windchill’, a term I realised I had never understood before. A little way further out, a fisherman sat in a folding camp chair with his line cast down into a carved-out pool at his feet. I thought of taking a photograph, but my hands grew numb in the few seconds it took me to take off my gloves and fiddle with the lens on my camera. How can you grow so cold so quickly? It didn’t seem possible.

My American friends, knowing my love of ice cream, suggested taking me to the ice cream parlour in their local town, but it was shut down for the winter. We did a quick march up and down each side of the main street to look at the ice sculptures standing outside the shops. I kept expecting them to melt. I am Australian: I expect ice to melt. That’s just what it does.

For me, Emily Fridlund’s words, which I’ve threaded above and below throughout this post, capture the essence of that winter I spent in the northern hemisphere.

Overhead each afternoon we could hear the Canada geese coming back. We could hear them giving directions, labouring through wind currents, setting down their Vs. When the sun had just about set, we turned around, Paul lagging, getting farther and farther behind, so as the day grew truly cold –- miniature winter setting in, the way it does at night in April –- I put the backpack on … and we headed back toward his house on the lake.

What a lovely phrase, don’t you think?: Miniature winter.

Here in South Australia, where our climate is temperate, we don’t have four distinct seasons. Autumn is the beginning of what I always think of as the grey months. Our native trees are mostly evergreen, so they don’t shed their leaves; the weather simply grows windy, rainy and cold. As winter approaches, the days grow greyer still, and the hours of daylight shorten. The sky seems to sink lower over the earth, closing everything in. The world grows monochrome.

But then, in the middle of March, the temperature shot up to fifty and miraculously stayed there. Within a couple of weeks, the south slope drifts had eroded to stalagmite pillars. A wet sheen appeared across the surface of the ice, and in the late afternoons you could hear the whole lake pop and zing. Cracks appeared. It was warm enough to gather wood from the pile without mittens, to unfreeze the latches on the dogs’ chains with the heat of your fingers.

This time of the year — the first days of March, the very beginning of autumn — I always grow nostalgic for summer. Down the road at the beach, the sea is still warm enough to swim in, and the sand crumbles soft and dry and warm beneath my bare feet. A sense of urgency comes over me as I look up at the upside-down bowl of blue sky above me. I murmur spells at it, trying to make it stay.

The grey months are coming but not yet, not yet.

Note:
The pictures accompanying today’s posts are photos I’ve taken over the last few years during the South Australian winter. It may look as though I used black-and-white film, but I didn’t. That’s just the way it is.

When the wall comes down

March 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

Other people’s words about … the view

When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.

This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:

The day the boy was born, the wall fell down
That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear,
And then the wall I laboured with such care,
Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone,
To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own,
I built it. Sitting in a garden chair
With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare
Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown
and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign
Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy,
I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few
Years and we’ll see! — out following a line
Not of our choice at all. And then with joy
I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.

On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.

But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.

For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.

The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.

Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.

But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.

I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.

And to see, again, the beautiful view.

Notes

  1. You can find a link to this poem here and here.
  2. All the photos in this post were taken at our campsite in Yorke Peninsula in February this year.

On asides

February 23, 2017 § 1 Comment

Other people’s words about … other people

Some writers describe nature beautifully; some express their characters’ inner lives with great insight and pathos; some describe people pithily. I came across two writers of the latter kind recently.

How’s the following for a description of someone, for example?

He had the countenance of someone who’d weathered a thousand tiny insults; they were etched into the lines of his forehead and cheeks. He had the drawn, inelastic face of either a serious smoker (with no time for the inconvenience of food) or a fastidious vegan whose pursuit of a healthy lifestyle had left him on the verge of sickness.

from ‘A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy
by Colin Grant
(p. 2)

Colin Grant’s book is a memoir about life with a brother who lived with, and ultimately died from, epilepsy. It’s also a history of epilepsy’s treatment (both cultural and medical) over the last two millennia. But it was Grant’s descriptions of people which really held me.

He held disgust in his nose, a magnificent diaphanous beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains on the nostril hair and dividing septum, usually slightly cocked and in a permanent sneer.
(p. 16)

After I’d finished reading A Smell of Burning, I moved on (in a completely non-sequitur fashion) to Angela Carter. I’d never read any of her novels before, though people had told me over and over that I should. I’m still only partway through The Magic Toyshop, but already, I’m relishing Carter’s descriptions of the characters who populate her story.

Here she is on five-year-old Victoria:

Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
(p. 6)

And here’s her description of twelve-year-old Jonathan:

Jonathon ate like a blind force of nature, clearing through mounds of food like a tank through the side of a house. He ate until there was no more to eat; then stopped, put knife and fork or spoon and fork together neatly, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and went away to make model boats.
(p. 4)

Meanwhile, when Melanie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Carter’s story, first meets Finn, she watches him from afar before he notices her. When she does capture his attention, he fixes his gaze upon her before speaking:

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
(p. 38)

These are snatched phrases, I guess, more than anything. But that’s the thing about the experience of reading: it’s not just about plot, or emotion, or catharsis. It’s about the little things, too: the words and the phrases; the asides and the diversions. The sentences I’ve quoted above aptly capture the essence of the people they’re depicting: they made me smile in recognition (and wry admiration) and then re-read them, just in case I didn’t miss anything. And, like the characters they’re describing, they stayed in my mind long after I’d put the books aside to get on with the business of my day.

They stayed in my mind. I can think of no greater praise for someone’s ability to write — and no greater reason to keep on reading — than that.

Inhabitant

February 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words about … noticing

Over the last year I have discovered a passion for birds and wildflowers in particular, along with the ever-present kangaroos. I love the texture of bark, the colour of leaves and mosses, I’m utterly fascinated with the fact that I can walk around our small patch of natural bushland each day and find something I’ve never noticed before. Or find something I have noticed before, but it catches my eye for a different reason.

from ‘Fifteen Acres: A Small Slice of Paradise‘ blog
by Lisa from Central Victoria, Australia

I came across Lisa’s blog only recently and instantly realised she is a kindred blogger. Her blog documents her growing understanding of, knowledge about, and love for all the species of native flora and fauna that live on her block of land in rural Central Victoria. I get the feeling that Lisa has learned about her patch of land in the same way I’ve learned about Aldinga Scrub — by walking through it day after day and simply observing.

Like Lisa, I didn’t expect to become fascinated by the plants and creatures living on my doorstep. It just happened. I didn’t even know about Aldinga Scrub until after we moved to Aldinga Beach: it was the beach — with its beautiful cliffs, its blue waters, its fish-inhabited and bird-dotted reef, its wide sands — which initially attracted me.

The first time I walked through the Scrub, I was just curious. I had heard that it was the last remnant of original coastal bushland in South Australia, and so I wanted to see what it was like. A year later, going through another phase of feeling inexplicably agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin, I decided to try walking through the Scrub more often. I thought that, if I made the effort to look outwards at the world around me instead of looking inwards into my own seething internal landscape, I might find solace.

And I did.

A small kind of miracle happened as I walked through the Scrub over and over. As I wandered, I began to wonder. As I wondered, I stopped. As I stopped, I observed. As I observed, I noticed, as Lisa puts it. And then, at last, I started to see and to learn.

Something else happened, too. I began to inhabit the world around me during those walks. Inhabitation — it’s a powerful word. Maybe it’s pretentious. Maybe it’s corny? And yet that’s how it feels.

It never stops, this seeing, learning, wondering, inhabiting. That’s another kind of miracle.

The pictures in this post are photographs I’ve taken over the years on my walks through the Scrub. Here you can see it in its many moods, its many seasons, its many tempers. I don’t know if my photographs can convey the wonder I felt as I took them, or the remembered sense of discovery I feel now when I return to them, but I hope that they convey, at least, the deep joy that my wandering has brought me.

That’s the thing, you see — noticing is both a humble and a joyful process. It’s a privilege to inhabit this kind of joy.

Of love and tomatoes

February 13, 2017 § 2 Comments

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.

Snatched phrases (on the sea)

February 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

‘[I] stare at the water.
It’s shot with moon, silver leaking all over the surface.’

from ‘Words in Deep Blue
by Cath Crowley

Okay, so I don’t have any photos of the sea in moonlight, because I have as yet to figure out night-time photography.

But the words above reminded me of one of the things I love about the sea, and one of the reasons I so frequently post other people’s words about it, accompanied by my own photos: I love how the sea changes colour, depending on the season, the temperature, the weather, the time of day, the tide. The colours you see below — blue, green, pewter, turquoise, gold, silver — are just some of the many colours of the sea.

You may recognise some of these photos from earlier posts on this blog. Forgive the repetitiveness. That is one of the things about the ocean, I think: the wonder it instils in you, each time you see it, each time you visit it. It repeats itself, over and over.

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