THE EARTHRISE DIARY (JUNE 2016)
© Text, Don Diespecker (2016); guest writers retain their ©
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I purposely omit, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance on a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound for coursing.
Miguel de Cervantes: The Life and Exploits of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Vauxhall Gardens was long the most popular place of public entertainment in Britain, from 1661 until it finally closed in 1859. …Every evening throughout the summer the gardens, with their walkways, musical performances and supper boxes, would typically play host to a thousand or more people who would stroll, eat, drink, socialise, flirt and, in general, enjoy a carefully managed combination of virtus and voluptus.
Daniel Snowman reviewing Vauxhall Gardens: A History in Literary Review, October 2011.
I’m in Burketown at the moment getting ready for the trip across the Gulf. We’re aiming for a small place called King Ash Bay right up in the northwest corner. We’re also hoping for a smooth trip but expecting lots of corrugations so have allowed a few days for the crossing. I’m also hoping for some delightful camps by the water not infested with crocs. Dream on!
Kerry Smith: Top End Log, (Email narrative, May 2016).
Fewer water dragons these days
Fat biting flies seem rare
Midges cloud the damp air
A black snake sleeps lazily
The climbing goanna stares down
Old man sees the changes
Burnt out summer slips away
June 1 2016. Welcome all Diary readers to the probably last of the “regular” Diaries. Dare I say we’re here on Planet Earth as visitors; mostly we come and we go in moments timely or untimely and though it seems something of a waste that we can’t forever hang out in a lively manner somewhere nice or possibly splendid, our being here at all has to be a privileged pleasure. Just imagine how much tougher it would have been for all of us had we turned up expectantly a mere ten thousand years ago!
It seems a good idea that I not begin this Diary with a series of dated ‘entries’ in which I describe sightings of brush turkeys promenading on Big Lawn like black peacocks (though I recently for the very fist time saw FIVE of them together, strutting like proprietors); or to mention again that the high and dangerous flooded gums, Eucalyptus grandis, are super dangerous on windy days (despite my having been bashed only two days ago by a deadwood branch falling from on high); or even waxing eloquent on the beauty of cormorants in flight (because I marvel at the cormorants each and every day)…
This “first day of winter” Down Under shall be the sole dated Diary entry. I prefer to reminisce and remember. This Diary being also an Invitation Issue I’ve included a potpourri of guest writings and I also draw again your attention to further of my writings in various forms (even genres) in my list of E-books. For new readers especially: my apologies for this notion of apparent abandonment: the good news is that these Diaries go back for years and you may easily access past postings simply by scrolling back. Also, all readers: if you scroll back to the above epigraphs in this Diary you’ll see that the first relates to fiction writing (novels in particular). The second epigraph tags a theme of gardens and gardening, perhaps even garden entertainment, and the third identifies that wanderlust and walkabout adventure philosophy so widely enjoyed by Australians as well as by visitors from abroad: off-road or 4-WD driving generally in the Outback. And there’s an “extra” epigraph that I’ve hidden in the text below for fear some readers could be deterred from reading any further into this issue…
Yesterday having been the last day of “autumn” here (autumn was almost entirely summery), the darkness at the back of my kitchen has been made lighter by my friend Pete who has installed bold white storage cupboards (their tops to be used also as bench-top working spaces). Pete and his family live in the house built years ago by Geoff Cawardine who long ago also was one of our students at The University of Wollongong, NSW; Geoff also had chain-sawed a slab of river oak that once grew on the property and close to the road and which also was deteriorating. I remember the day when Darcey Browning felled the old tree when I then was standing behind him with a handful of gravel ready to throw (quickly but gently) at the back of his safety helmet were I to see enormous branches falling from a great height (nobody solo sawing ought ever to be chain-sawing any tree whilst looking upward at the same time). Long sections of the felled tree lay on the ground for some weeks and until Geoff sawed what was to become my kitchen’s “original bench-top slab (about 30 years ago)”. Pete will be sanding and then staining with a clear varnish the old slab and that super-bench top will be seen as (at least by me) Nicely Historical. The Earthrise house here was made with one of my principal tools being my chainsaw (once Darcey had taught me how to use the machine safely). You see how everything is connected one way or another at Earrthrise as it often is in rural parts of the country like the Darkwood here in New South Wales (Australia). For bemused readers in other parts of the world, the Australian State of New South Wales does indeed look considerably like South Wales in Wales (United Kingdom).
While continuing faithfully to avoid dated entries in this mid 2016 June there has been more drama than anybody perhaps expected in NSW: for the first time (ever recorded) the entire coast of NSW has been on flood watch and flood alert. The so-called East Coat Low that formed attracted moist air that quickly became predicted 200-mm and 300-mm and even 400-mm falls of heavy rain within a 24-hours period: cyclonic winds, thunderstorms, compulsory evacuations (due to flooding, countless rescues of people in vehicles driving into flood waters which the State Emergency Services (SES) and the Police had warned against and prompting authorities to call these unnecessary rescues which effectively risked the lives of those who had warned against driving into flood waters and were then required to risk their lives rescuing the foolhardy)… There also were thousands of calls from homes and businesses made to the SES for help, such calls made for leaking roofs, fallen trees and unfortunate removals of very large roofs from big buildings. There has been beach erosion and the collapse of some beachside properties the consequences of high waves, storm surges and king tides. This huge storm formed in the N-E of the State and continued moving south leaving flooding rivers, flooded towns, power disruptions and more unpleasantness than can be imagined. The river here began rising, the rain began and I moved my car to higher ground next to my neighbour Victoria’s house and once home again I fully expected a BIG flood here, electricity failures and much damage (none of which has occurred). I got the fire going in the slow combustion heater, dried wet fuel, wrote, edited, and slept with one eye open… The flood came in the dark, peaked and then fell. By daylight when I could see, had eaten breakfast and was fortified by coffee, I saw that the bridge was intact (the deck still submerged), and from the debris dumped on the damaged bridge approach next to Earthrise, that the river was again rising (from excess water in the catchment and the effect of a king tide earlier on the Saturday night). Damage here was minimal: flooding of the garden and lawns here fell short by one to two metres. What luck! We at Upper Thora and The Darkwood had all dodged a very considerable bullet. By late afternoon vehicles were using the bridge again although some returned after a few minutes: Richardson’s bridge, the next bridge downstream being the probable cause. On Monday morning here: a perfect bright sunny day with no cloud. The bridges still have an abundance of logs, branches and debris jammed against them.
During these stormy and worrying times the Earthrise house provided shelter to six refugee micro bats sheltering from the weather: the tiny six were a mere handful and they hung together on a structural beam that was close to the outside of my bathroom window. The morning or sometimes dawn view of the upstream river seen through my bathroom window encourages contemplation of the coming light whilst shaving.
I want also to acknowledge here the genius of Charles Dodgson (better known as “Lewis Carroll”). I’ve always admired the Alice books: they have also inspired some of my writings, stories about talking insects (Julie Craig may recall that I recently found and sent to her, some of my notes and sketches about ‘talking ants’ that date to the late 1940s). More recent adventures of very sophisticated speaking midges are fun for me to write, particularly because my Midgeworld stories are set (mostly) here, at Earthrise. I’d have included one of those stories here but it’s a 5,000 words-long narrative. However; “A Leaf of her Own” may still be read in one of my e-books, The Midge Toccata.
I was surprised and pleased to read in one of Simon Winchester’s little books (The Alice Behind Wonderland) that the meaning of the word “photograph” is light-writing (“writing with light”). For years I’ve been describing as “shadowgraphs” the moving images of foliage projected on to the inside of my toilet door by the setting sun. Though the foliage is probably that of trees close by on this property it seems completely otherworld or magical. The experience of seeing this is a delight: one’s “own” silent movie, as it were. On one occasion there was included the silhouette image of a distant bird sitting on a waving branch. These marvellous images deserve to be filmed with a movie camera for they seem to me ideal examples of local biology and history. Paradoxically the lighting required for filming (and flash for still shots) would probably ensure losing the images…
Which brings me to gardens and gardening and the gardens theme in this Diary. I remember clearly the gardens of my childhood the first of which was at 1129 Oxford Street, Victoria B C (Canada). When last I visited Victoria the old house had gone and had been replaced by one very similar to the big old house of the early1930s that we rented… Also, those old gardens no longer existed and the big vacant lot near Cook Street had also vanished: all had transformed into real estate of various kinds. The old garden that I remember at 1129 Oxford had a big backyard where my father grew prize-winning dahlias (and Durbyn had a shoe-box-full of red and blue prize ribbons to prove it). Growing dahlias has perhaps been a family tradition: old photos suggest that my grandparents (Elizabeth and Rudolph) included them in their Adstock (UK) home and dahlias have grown well here at Earthrise, too. Durbyn’s prize-winning dahlias were grown during the Great Depression. Dad also grew vegetables. There were apple and pear trees, the apples as big as large grapefruit, and there were espaliered raspberry and loganberry canes in front of the garage’s timber wall.
One of the gold mine rental houses where we later lived in Pilgrim’s Rest (then in South Africa’s Transvaal Province) was big enough to grow large quantities of tomatoes: other residents would send their servants with baskets, money, and notes requesting Durbyn’s excellent tomatoes. Years later in Durban I helped my father make garden lawns at a newly constructed family home: most of the grass came from runners that we planted: later, my job was to mow the resultant lawns.
And there have been other houses and gardens in Africa, Australia and elsewhere: when in the mid-1950s Pam worked at South Africa House in London, I was working in our rented “flat” in an old Hampstead house and learning to write fiction: I earned a little money by working as an itinerant gardener around Hampstead: one of the sunny gardens belonged to the composer Edric Cundell (1893-1961) and as I recall, I also worked there as an extra pair of hands in his kitchen, long ago…in my scullery days.
The garden here at Earthrise was initially a labour of love: lantana and buddleia covered the ground and had climbed high to infest the riverside trees (the rest of this 10.2-ha or 25-acres property is steep terrain and forested). And, Yes, I like thinking and saying, “Part of Earthrise is a forest.” The Earthrise garden such as it is now is a consequence of Jannelle and I having removed logs and flood debris and destroyed the pernicious lantana and buddleia vines that initially covered the area in front of the house site. The “original” lawn is now archaeological having been buried and “preserved” by the big 2001 flood. Earthrise has a “new” lawn now that was largely gifted by the flooding river in 2001 and by subsequent high floods delivering a variety of seeds and plants…
What can be seen when we sit quietly and perceive landscape also informs our “garden awareness.” What we each think we are, how we are and of course, where we are, influences our perceiving. We each may see and become sharply aware of difference, contrast, light in ways that are exclusively personal. It’s then that we may with little or no effort consider imagining changes (that will certainly require effort in the future). In those relaxed times when we enable the landscape’s speaking, as it were, to us that we also feel enthusiastic about composing, creating, conceiving, fantasizing how we can dramatically change through our own hard work some of the landscape or scene or even the view. Such change as we each may bring about through our own efforts will vary from the removal of wilderness (or in Australia, The Bush) and replacing that with garden, or a designed garden and, always, a made garden. Gardeners are those who can’t resist being active gardeners imagining and willing aesthetic and beautiful change. To garden is to be romantic and loving, and very busy.
As a personal blog, and through the courtesy of Google, The Earthrise Diary used regularly to be posted or published every month but now time and age have diplomatically (and kindly, too) combined to recommend that I post issues if I may call them that, infrequently. This is a respectful indication to myself and to those who read this blog for me to change the pace and to ration my writing time as best and as sensibly as I can. In plain English: I intend my writing time now to be more efficiently prioritised so that I can better use most of my time for personal creative writing. Until now writing time has generally translated as being any periods or sessions spent at the computer or in writing endless notes to myself so as to continue in the email swim, or whatever. I don’t do social media and I’ve never played a computer game: my pleasure is to write every day and I do so eight or nine days a week. ☺ I heartily recommend this approach to life to friends and to many acquaintances in the hope that others will understand the joys of writing creatively, and that the need to write now whilst the going’s good is essential. In other words, writing, creative writing implies my ability to write as well as I can in the time that I have available. I also take the view that practically all writing all written documents may be anybody’s and everyone’s works of art if we write as well as we possibly can. And that whatever else writing might be it undoubtedly is therapeutic.
DD: I was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1929. I grew up in South Africa, lived later in the UK and together with my Australian wife Pam migrated to Australia in 1960 where our sons Nicholas and Carl were born. I used also to be an academic (The University of Wollongong, NSW) as well as a trained psychologist as well as a trained psychotherapist (trained in Australia and California). I’m still very pleased to have introduced and taught relatively new subjects and courses, particularly “Humanistic Psychology” and “Consciousness” possibly the first such subjects to have been offered in an Australian university. I like to think that my imagination is still in working order and I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction stories and narratives since I was ten years old (including verse/poetry, caprice, some reportage, family history and military history). Drafting novels is a favoured pleasure. Seeing the narrative emerge is a delight; I also relish reading in my sunny riverside garden.
Kerry Smith is a retired teacher who lives in one of the best parts of the world and loves to travel off-road with a caravan to parts remote and beautiful.
John Morris spent much of his working life in the armed services (Royal Australian Air Force and the Australian Regular Army first in WW2 and then in Japan and in Korea). This focused his mind such that the most astonishing array of bizarre and frequently unbelievable events not only came his way but inclined him to believe that the world was indeed ordered in this way. Following his service he re-treaded and completed his PhD in Psychology at the University of California (Berkeley). The same thing happened to him again. His world was indeed a bizarre and infuriatingly funny place. He saw humor in every incident whether positive, negative or even disastrous. He joined the Psychology staff first at Berkeley and then at The University of Wollongong. Neither disappointed him and since his retirement he replays "old movies" in his mind as he looks out over the Tasman Sea and sips on a cold ale and a smile seldom leaves his face and an occasional chuckle may be heard as the ridiculous and preposterous plays out one more time.
Signe Jurcic: I was born in Duncan, B.C. on Vancouver Island and attended Queen Margaret's School for girls (where I met your cousin Jill). We then both went on to study Nursing at VGH and the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). After graduation I moved to Montreal for three years. It was there that I met my future husband who was studying to be an ophthalmologist. We married in Vancouver where we built our home forty-six years ago. For the last eight years, since my husband's death, I have been on my own, though never lonely though thanks to family and good friends (Jill in particular).
Julie Craig is a keen gardener, writer, ex-trainer and motivator, artist and jewelry-maker. She has lived all her life in South Africa and her home is in Bryanston, Johannesburg where her one-acre of garden is situated.
Peter and Dee Thompson continue a life of gardening on the banks of the Bellinger River in New South Wales, Australia.
Mandy Young is a special education teacher who has designed and made her garden.
Sasha Fergusson is Vancouver-based and is working this summer in Dawson City, Yukon. Her favorite food is rice and peas (especially when made by her mother or her grandmother). Her favorite animal is the Canada goose.
Rik Diespecker was born in Vancouver, BC in 1929 and enrolled in the Canadian Army Regular Force in 1953. He served in Canada, Egypt and Germany retiring from the Regular Army in 1979 and transferring to the Reserve Army until 1984 as Lt Col prior to retiring to the Sunshine Coast in BC where he now lives. He was awarded a CD, the Canadian Forces Service Medal.
Idly ruminating in the garden and watching the downstream river I glimpse native violets in the raggedy lawn grass and turn to their blue and white sharpness and imagine picking a tiny bunch and setting them in a miniscule container of water, the smallest glass milk jug perhaps; or ought I let them be, lawn-held in the present? I nudge my garden chair to see more clearly the birdbath because the natural world within which I’m fixed “compels” me to. Two honeyeaters are in their birdbath pool celebrating water their safe splashing a cheery ritual. How well they’ve chosen their bathing place knowing the watcher to ignore and the Bellinger four jumbled metres below the lawn-edge a tad too inconvenient for river-smart honeyeaters that know they may fly down with ease despite needlessly burning energy to do that. The old gardener has made it easier although that’s of no account. A reminder breeze runs upstream rippling the surface. In this sheltered corner breezes always surprise. Do cormorants admire downward views, aerial shots grandeur from above? A small kingfisher hits the water. I see the dash and flair of the kingfisher while hearing the trilling voices of honeyeaters. After these golden moments the honeyeaters move away refreshed. The splashing reminds me of Welcome Swallows flying fast sorties downriver at Richardson’s Bridge: speeding swallows hurtling through and under and over the bridge, fast, so fast! Swallows air-hunting in-flight dinners don’t splash down like kingfishers. So small a splash the kingfisher makes: a workmanlike penetration of water, the professional hit then the bursting re-entry flight into air and light. It’s learned behaviour practised skilfully and how does the bird experience that? Might a cruise missile feel the water when bursting up to the sky? And the kingfisher sounds are so unlike the bigger sound of a water-slapping canoe. The notion of slap reminds me of a time long ago: the old SS Bencleugh reappears brightly in mind, the freighter with the almost German-looking Scots name. What became of her? The breakers yard, perhaps? Atlantic convoys? A U-Boat?
I was thrilled being aboard and sailing away, the ship surging grandly the waves in sun, wind and rain moving nearly always south then southeast toward Cape Flattery, across the huge Atlantic down to South Africa. Then, I’d sailed from the present into the future. Then, in a time long past I vaguely was the cabin boy and almost a sailor.
Mom and Deirdre were stewardesses, Dad was a steward: all the family signed on as crew: my grey-eyed family crew in far-away 1937, that ancient time that historical time of Amelia Earhart that long ago enlightening age of explosive awareness when I was a kid of eight feeling the great world blowing at me, bearing me up on a steel ship sailing! And all of that when I was just eight, a kid of eight scores of years ago, the family four unlikely and un-necessary extra crew paying their way on the 8,000 tons Scots freighter out of Leith her cargo of lumber stacked bridge-high cramming holds and further packed bulkily covering decks and hold covers except for the mid-ship’s open space and clear parts around cabins and the dining saloon. I feel now her floaty mass throbbing and pulsing from more than a lifetime ago!
The new image of an old scene flashes: the black-hulled Bencleugh a blond hillside of lumber bound by great steel chains, unsinkable. What if taut timbers had swelled in spray and broken the chains? What if a storm had capsized her? Like a cork she’d have been surely?
The masses of lumber for South African ports were sawn timbers for house building: great splintery rough-cut lengths taken from forests and sent to sea. Canadian softwood in Africa would become roof trusses, rafters, beams, joists and bracing, bottom and top plates, studs and nogging far away; British Columbia lumber shipped all the way from Chemainus on Vancouver Island. Gloomy grey that afternoon the family sailed away when Chemainus was all damp docks and the forest’s softwood fragrance, and a dockside sign in German: Rauchen Verboten. I’ve never forgotten the sign: black letters on a white board in autumnal gloom. Dad said it meant ‘Smoking Forbidden.’ Forbidden was an awesome childhood word, my first remembered German beyond the family name.
I remember friends in 1950 Amsterdam their forearms tattooed with numbers surviving and I remember Germany finding the family name in holocaust records faded. I remember 1937, the grown-ups muttering, my tender-age awareness of Hitler four years in power. We knew the Depression too: everyone was in it and yet we sensed that grey time changing because kids know more than they can say or tell. Now I remember visiting in the 1990s the old Jewish Cemetery in Diespeck not trashed by Nazis that section with the stahlhelm memorial that upright marble monument topped by the German steel helmet: German-Jewish soldiers in the Wehrmacht who served in the Great War killed, honoured and celebrated.
Why was Bencleugh’s hull so memorably black, smelling of the sea and seedy ports, the anchors so muddied? And there were galley smells too: luxurious bacon and eggs, unsubtle vegetable soup. I can still picture childhood 1930s soup, Grace in the kitchen at Oxford Street, the city of Victoria, slicing vegetables, cooking. Her soup always smelled rich and alive. The stove in the big kitchen burned cordwood from Vancouver Island forests. Mom fed the family well, made do with barley, lots of vegetables bought from the old Chinese street vendor, two big baskets on split bamboo shoulder-slung he carried. Up and down Victoria’s streets all seasons. Dad’s garden lettuce and beans she used too storing them fresh and cut in brine contained in earthenware pots that she shelved in the pantry, fresh summer greens in winter. And incomparable big fluffy dumplings like snowballs she made, boiled beef and ox-tail, vegetable soup, mutton stew and rice, wheaten cakes pan-baked and steamed pudding with golden syrup.
Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban, Lourenço Marques: two months to Mozambique the slow boat to Africa. We arrived in the hot spring. So different the world was then! Departure must have been late summer early autumn for our family that sailed away. September perhaps. I’d started a new class in Victoria, BC: Grade Three with Miss Greig at Sir James Douglas School. Then left, pulled out, unable to explain myself before shipping out forever to Africa: I was merely a movie a celluloid fantasy, my life then so vague. How to explain my ignorant self?
Bencleugh became home for eight weeks. I see her still through the mind’s eye in that remembered time while wondering at the tar and ropes smells and cooking smells and the zesty smell of the sea. The best of Bencleugh’s special smells was that heady scent of Douglas fir and pine and cedar, so strong everywhere on board: a sawn forest gone to sea. Such cargo: it seemed more cargo than ship. Suddenly I now can visualize her from above as if seen from an aircraft: the ship so bulky and top-heavy-looking imaged most of a century later and still so ponderous in all seas.
Dad signed the papers on the green baize of the dining table in the varnished saloon, as did the unsmiling or maybe dour Captain Shipton. There was to be a mutual dislike between Captain and cabin boy. The Captain was reputedly descended from Mother Shipton, the prophetess, seer or psychic (Ursula Southeil born 1488, the record showed; married Toby Shipton, carpenter—and no kids).
There was that imagined loud sound again from nowhere but memory, that reverberating walloping SLAP! And an image to go with the sound: the Atlantic in storm weather about halfway through the voyage, grandly visualized again: I hold hard the mid-ship rail in the relatively safe cargo-free space, the Captain staring down from the port wing of the bridge, his piercing gaze, his watching seemingly grim, unfriendly. And I remember the mighty SLAPS on the mid-ship hull high up when we were down in a trough Bencleugh wallowing, the wind driving right-angled at the ship bashing beam-ends resonantly loud and I could see again myself the inoffensive cabin boy, my small form turn to see more waves hurrying in my direction fast. There were enormous wallops as waves pounded the side, then each wave falling to the flecked windy trough oddly reminding me of the upstream rippling Bellinger breeze over the water but those Atlantic waves were hugely so much more. I seem to hear it still those slaps although there are no sounds quite like that in the present except when the garden-adjacent Plains Crossing Bridge is pounded by logs in floods when strikes on the bridge make the earth tremble and are felt in the house always as a great thud! In ocean storms froth skittered across the ocean’s flat parts, the spindrift flying; Bellinger storm winds urge rippled patterns and the sculpting of small waves and local heavy rain in the Darkwood makes myriad small spouts like naval shells falling on the ocean.
Dad loved Bencleugh breakfasts, those scents of curry and rice so well remembered. The Chinese stewards, the real stewards their cabins re-allocated to the family, served that breakfast hot curry Durbyn relished and fluffy rice and porridge too and tinned creamy milk and strong black coffee. No hot curry, no coffee for The Kid who thrived on luxurious crispy bacon and fried eggs in those Depression times and pancakes and butter and maple syrup so delicious! I close my eyes to see the butter melting on pancakes: it used to float a little on the maple syrup and the wonderful aroma filled the dining saloon still unforgettable decades later.
Outside in the sea wind there were remembered smells of ship’s paint too: Japanese crewmen painters who re-painted precisely decorative designs on the panels of cabin exteriors in a sort of faded gold or apricot colour: their flat-handled brushes were like wide spatulas, the short bristles tautly tucked into the thin wood.
I liked most of the crew: a favourite was Sparks the Radio Officer who liked to chat with Deirdre, she all of sixteen, her dark hair, her marvellous grey eyes, both warily watched by Dad. The First Mate was very Scots: Wilfred was charming to Grace because all her family were Scots though she was Transvaal-born like Deirdre and like Durbyn. And the second engineer what was his name? I’d liked him too. Captain Shipton didn’t like his real crew socialising with the pretend crew: he watched us all closely and as I recall he had a quirky pastime. Not for him music or painting, chess or bridge or poker: he had crewmen construct a fishing machine, a mighty mast and boom quite unlike the Chinese fishing machines at Cochin on India’s Malabar coast, those works of art mechanical. The Captain’s machine was like a big blunt derrick, one high pole an upright mast and with a swiveled boom sturdy enough to catch whales you’d think. He or the machine hooked a shark one morning on a bright day beyond Trinidad, the ship hove to the engines stopped possibly to clean the boilers. It was too deep to anchor too deep by far and Bencleugh would have drifted for sure, the ship near the equator still and silent, unpowered. The Captain had liked catching that shark and he was thrilled to watch it die gutted on the golden cargo, its crimson spilling across the lumber, but strangely there seemed no point. It was a quiet morning over dark water deep and all aboard had sport flinging away flat cigarette tins, those metal ones. The empty tins that held 50s, tailor-made smokes with silver foil tobacco smells inside: to the Deep the silent ocean swells they flew, Gold Flake one kind Herbert Tareyton another (Herbert, a top hat and monocle chap the logo depicted on the lid). It was a compelling scene that day the swells surging blue and no land seen. Glittering tins skimmed away glancing the sea’s surface closing to sink dully slowly fluttering down, the dark sea down. Some few stayed open wide their insides gaping shone and twinkled down the Deep eerily winking glinting diminishing falling away to faintest glimmer. All watched noisily then fell silent seeing the shining dwindle: that out of sight twinkling to final blackness. I never can forget those fading images the imagined far seabed Gold Flake-littered. Did the shark’s carcass fall as fast to blackness, faster than those flat tins fading?
I still wander parts of the old ship vividly in my mind as if remembering a significant movie. Off the dining saloon was a pantry/storeroom with tobaccos and cigarettes for the crew to purchase. There were big round tins like paint tins, their labels blue and white. Inside was chewing tobacco, tight-packed plug and suddenly there’s the peculiar realization of not ever having seen anybody chew tobacco since then. At night in bed as cabin boys do I’d lie thinking in the top bunk dark and sometimes through the cold closed porthole see bow waves hissing swiftly by, glimpse froth flying and in storms hear those big slapping waves pounding, the ship shuddering sometimes in and out the troughs and hear also odd pauses quite silent strangely till water drained down the scuppers and I heard it falling back to sea sliding along the sides. Some starry nights I was allowed up later and with permission sat right up in the bows. I so loved the crowds of stars and chatting with the bow lookout ready to bell-ring sightings. Once I saw a vessel’s light I was sure was dead ahead and told the lookout who saw it not but rang for me and The Old Man came out on the bridge to see for himself his binoculars sweeping then later ticked the lookout off shouting and it was all my cabin-boy fault, I the lookout’s misperceiving assistant.
The chained timber felt rough and splintery even through shoes. We had to climb up from cleared deck space to the chained cargo then walk carefully to the bows that rose and fell ahead, spray cutting back all the way to the bridge and no safety rails then back again and the same to the stern where the red ensign slapped and streamed in the wind. Durbyn’s basket of pungent limes was stowed in front of the bridge held there by the lumber’s ends together with his crate of crisp apples from Oxford Street, all in the cool air, the British Columbia apples the limes from Panama or was that Cristobal, Colon and a deception of memory? The marvelous scent of limes supposedly helps stave off scurvy. I’ve always since then finger-nailed lightly a lime for its scent, so volatile that whiff so sharp. How had everybody avoided falling over the ship’s side there? It was wildly dangerous surely that walk over bucking cargo; I hadn’t been allowed to at night, not alone. And never alone down to the hot engine room, the engine room that cavernous hold so loud, the roaring furnaces flaming, the stokers shoveling coal and hurling it headlong to red flames down in the stokehold. And remembering how deep down it was there below the sea’s surface and even deeper down along that tunnel where the screw’s shaft turned to its noisy end the great propeller thrashing undersea inches away!
Again I remember departing Chemainus, that first late afternoon tea with the Captain, tea and biscuits before darkness came then Bencleugh easing out away from Vancouver Island from home from Victoria and from Cowichan and the forests threading through islands then swinging starboard near Victoria Dad’s four brothers flashing from the headland their car lights fare-welling, never to see them again in life. We sailed along Juan de Fuca Strait to Cape Flattery then open sea turning to port and sailing south. In bed that first night I heard the engine room’s ash disposal dumping to the black seabed the noisy ash-bucket banging. In the top bunk listening, I felt the rumbling ship’s motion, breathing ship smells wondering at voyaging and puzzling at life. I conjure now another memory: that new ocean blueness of Mexico’s Pacific coast and down to Panama in that late summer near autumn the time cool and breezy, changing to the first warm tropical nights. I was allowed to stay up late. Shore-close the new air packed tropical scents, all fragrant all exotic. There was a new kind of radio music, dance music heard while we anchored off Panama City and there were golden harbor lights to see, one a searchlight shining straight up. Excitement came with the morning light the crammed steamer entering the Canal majestically slowly. Much later the family took shore leave to shop then boarded again laden with fruits. There was that drizzly evening rain in Cristobal and everywhere the luscious new fruits, their scents, their novel tastes so lively.
Through the wind and beneath the blue sky, our blue-ocean freighter thumping across the Caribbean and in the greyer Atlantic the mighty albatrosses hanging at the stern languidly balancing the wind their wings strong as sails. I saw the albatross seeing me, eyes gleaming. They hung lordly looking down, great-ocean grandees. A seaman bucket-washing clothes cursed and threw blue-mottled soap at one his bad luck entirely. The Atlantic seemed a lake the shores no distance for the ranging birds. The loaded steamer rolled, surged, swung, pitched and tossed. Ships and ocean birds sailed in and out of weather while humans remained grounded on ships built to penetrate varied weathers. Ships seemed more natural than our trying to fly. Magically there were flying fishes to see, flying up next our bows. Nowadays we fly sealed in sky-sailing tubes. And it was in 1937 Amelia Earhart flew the Pacific to vanish long seas ago and I remember.
Still we make pictures in the mind always shall for evermore. Imaging pictures so far back so strange yet there was I in that time there and then that cabin boy kid, my self. It’s always so easy to see ourselves easily with closed eyes we make anew the snapshot scenes from years ago our minds repeating even thoughts thought then and even sounds still heard: Mom’s voice her tone or Dad saying ‘Tomorrow morning we arrive in Table Bay,’ I still recall him speaking knowing now Table Mountain was a remarkable symbol for him. I remember his voice was husky then. And I hear too Deirdre’s voice, conjure up her 1937 face, see her features her lips moving then hear her tone, see again her expression and understand. Long ago in that Great Depression era my teenage sister wanted nothing more than a strawberry shortcake for her birthday made by Grace for her, layered with whipped cream. Depression luxury. I can almost taste it even now; she always shared. Long ago those long days of tight times when she was sixteen and I was eight. The Thirties were so long lasting for a kid of eight. Probably time went faster for Sis changing from girl to woman. She loved Thirties music, Deirdre as we all did. Imprinted, those ‘30s songs linger in memory. The best tunes ever. I grew up with them. Unforgettable was Cole Porter’s I’ve got you under my skin those crazy words ensured we’d remember. I can hear that clearly now in mind and Jerome Kern’s, Smoke gets in your eyes, that first line: They asked me how I knew my true love was true? And Kern’s The way you look tonight and who used to sing it then, was it Fred Astaire in Swingtime? Fred and Ginger. And: A fine romance. I remember too Gershwin’s Love walked in and the first line, Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. The lyric was written in 1937, too. Lines of clever words remembered.
In Cape Town we visited Durbyn’s friends, there were bright lights the slopes of the mountain grand and American dance music on the radio. Even then words from popular love songs, made sense. And there were those great movies of the Thirties, all entertainment and remembered music. Our family used to go together to the movies. Flying down to Rio. I was only three or four and those times are as clear as old memory can be. I remember the actors on the wing of that airliner, all of them dancing! The Movies, capital M! The Pictures, Moving Pictures! Romance long ago. An airline ticket to romantic places. I’ve always been a romantic.
I’m still here in 2016 in the everlasting present. The Kid is filing stories from 1937. Watch me carefully and you’ll see me blink and look vague but I’m just visualizing, picturing. I’m just remembering, dreaming of old memories filed in a snug cognitive corner in a backwater of my mind. That distant kid of eight’s still partly eight in 2016. I hold him up to the light; he’s still filing 1937 stories to the 87-years old guy in his garden. I’ve been opening the lines to 1937, scribbling information on mind’s Copy Desk then storing that. They’re like old photos those pictures in the mind, though you can’t take anything with you.
And I can see myself sitting here in my garden in 2016, reminded of that book by Julian Jaynes The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of the Bicameral Mind a title unforgettable. There’s a part about introspecting when you last went swimming, you yourself swimming and you’ll see yourself swim, something you simply didn’t experience back then when then you swam! Remembering makes us all magical animals. You’re easy to remember and so hard to forget.
Through my mind’s eye I glimpse a Saturday afternoon in 1937, a time when the ocean, the entire world was sunny and peaceful. It must have been when Bencleugh was hove to or soon after. There were islands off the port bow. They shimmered, seemed to float and looked so vertical and they wavered as I watched. Caribbean islands? I remember them distinctly and those long ago bright days on the sunlit sea and that strong ship superb bound in chains. I remember too the way scents and smells remind one. Now I remember my cousin Louise and image us in 1995 walking on Dachau’s springtime streets suburban admiring fragrant fruit blossom. And recalled there at that time the apple-blossom scents in our old garden that last Canadian summer in 1937.
And here now I see too the Bellinger River’s present breezes and ripples while remembering old sea storms and the 1930s, moving images in the mind screening comfortably fast and the ship’s prow plunging and the bow wave’s flying fishes all dazzling!
[Also in: Here and There: Home and Away Essays. eBook. © Don Diespecker]
LEAVING LAWN HILL
I’m uncertain if this will make much sense as we have been having final drinks over our last dinner in Lawn Hill. We head off in different directions tomorrow and the start of the next leg of the adventure begins.
The boys, Jim and Colin left today as they have a limited time to get home so they’re in Julia Creek tonight escaping the heat in an air conditioned pub. The rest of us leave tomorrow morning. Deb and Les head for Julia Creek on their way to Normanton and Dick and Jenny and myself turn north for Burketown to top up the tanks and do some washing before heading across the Gulf.
These last few days in Lawn Hill have been wonderful despite the hot weather. Every day has been above 34˚C and most have been 36˚ or 37˚. Thankfully the mornings are cool so walking the tracks and taking photos have been done early. Even the paddle up the Gorge was a dawn start as soon as it was light enough to launch the kayak.
I had a great paddle up both pools stopping to portage the kayak above the first set of falls. It's a carry/drag from the first section up to the second and that opens up another 2-km or so of beautiful water. It was in this section that I saw my first freshwater croc (it was quite beautiful and not nearly as ugly as a salty). I have a picture to prove it too.
I was told that there was another section that was navigable above the second section but try as I might I couldn’t overcome the rapids and had to give up. There was no way to portage around the last set of rapids and it was too fast for me to paddle up so I had to give up and allow the river to take me back to the portage area. Probably just as well as I was alone up there and had something happened no one would have known.
I’ve done almost all of the walks and enjoyed the Island Loop walks the most. Unfortunately the bridge is out so we had to paddle down the river to a spot where we could get out and then drag the kayaks up the bank before joining the walking tracks. It was well worth it and even the 200m-scramble up the cliff face to the Island Loop track was pretty easy.
Jim and I did those walks and we completed the whole three in the one morning without too much exertion. It was a pleasant morning and we still managed to get back in time for a coffee. Mind you the rest of the day was spent swimming and lounging away from the heat of the day. The average temperature in the van has been around 33˚ to 34˚ each day so the fixed fan has been a boon. It’s still too hot for snoozing and too unpleasant outside with the flies.
We went to Adel's Grove for dinner last night to farewell the boys ... and because we didn't feel like cooking. They have a great deck area under a huge tree that looks a lot like a jacaranda so we enjoyed a few drinks and shepherds pie with a banana, apple and walnut cake with custard for desert. Simple fare but tasty although I wouldn’t have added as much mashed potato to the top of the pie. It certainly makes it go a lot further though!
We ate after a group of 25 Year Five children from the School of the Air. They were from all over the Top End and had been gathered at Adel's Grove to bond a little and do some schoolwork. They were the most delightful kids and behaved beautifully. There were six teachers to manage the 25 kids so a good pupil/teacher ratio. It was lovely to see them all cheerful and excited. It would have been wonderful to be able to learn where they were all from and their stories. Despite being from all aver they got on well together. It was good to see.
Deborah cooked fried rice tonight. A huge pan of it so we all joined in after nibbles and drinks. I’ve done most of my packing up and only have a few things to do in the morning after my cold shower and breakfast. It's been great and despite the unusual heat, quite pleasant weather. It's a mild night tonight with a few wispy clouds covering the ¾ moon. Nights are delightful as are the early mornings. If one can find a cool place in the day the whole experience can be excellent.
According to the staff at Adel's Grove this is unseasonably hot. Normal daytime temperatures would be 25˚ to 28˚which would be glorious. I’m glad I came and despite moments of sheer panic about the trip home alone it’s proving to be a pleasant experience. It would be so much nicer to share it with Susan but that's not to be so I need to make the best of what I have.
Tomorrow we head back out along the dirt to Gregory then turn left and head north to Burketown so I can catch up on some laundry and provisions. Then we head west across the Savannah Way towards Booroloola and King Ash Bay. Hopefully we’ll be able to stop at some rivers for a fish - taking much care to avoid the saltwater crocs.
There’s probably not much coverage across the Top End so this may be the last email till we get back on the main roads again. Stay well and take care.
[The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), also known as the estuarine crocodile, Indo-Pacific crocodile, marine crocodile, sea-going crocodile or informally as saltie, is the largest of all living reptiles, as well as the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world. Males of this species can reach sizes up to at least 6.3 m (20.7 ft) and weigh 1,360 kg (3,000 lb) and possibly up to 7.1 m (23.3 ft) in length and a weight of 2,000 kg (4,400 lb)] Wikipedia.
[The freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni or Crocodylus johnstoni; see below), also known as the Australian freshwater crocodile, Johnstone's crocodile or colloquially as freshie, is a species of reptile endemic to the northern regions of Australia. Unlike their much larger Australian relative the saltwater crocodile, freshwater crocodiles are not known as man-eaters and rarely cause fatalities, although they will bite in self-defense if cornered] Wikipedia.
NAME THE GARDEN BUT IT WILL NEVER BE YOURS
My memories involve a lot of gardens. Out-doors, outside, the sky overhead forever and ever. Clouds, slowly and fast. Birds. Sounds. Delicious fruits. Tasty flowers. Prickly parts, too.
I experienced many aspects of life outside. I learned how to look, large and small. I also learned how to explore and find: sometimes the not so wonderful, but often the unexpected. It’s all there, outside. Is it waiting: maybe not. That’s the thing about a garden: it’s wild. And all the control and expectations we place on it are lost in it. It’s a part of life that has no bounds. Better than love, better we think when we pour hours and hours of love, lives hard work into it; more controllable that loving another. But like everything it is complicated and needs to be seen for what it is.
Could it be seen as a multi-layered bed of desire? We approach it with everything locked into place: the way we see, experience, what we want in the end. It is never what you think it is, usually something else. Sometimes it turns out the way you thought it might, but leave it for a while, go away, then come back and it’s all changed. Gone. Irreversible. There are not enough hours in the day or years in a lifetime. Now.
I created my garden with a thought involved. The thoughts are layered and I’m not sure which one to tell about.
Should I tell you about the thought of beauty? Beauty is everywhere; it’s chemical. It’s within me. When beauty arrived in my garden I wanted it to stay forever because I felt lovely being in it.
Then there is the thought of control. The thought of control is a bit itchy. I give it a good scratch but it comes back even stronger. When I thought I had control over my garden, I looked very hard. There were always those parts that responded joyously to growth, then whoosh! Out goes the control. Maybe, maybe it was never present.
Night and day: sound.
I don’t have to think about sound in my garden. It’s there already whether I want it or not. Sounds and sometimes the lack of sound float across the surface are amplified and give the garden another dimension. Sound is mixed up with thoughts. But every second of sound in the garden is new, like a brand new second in time. Does sound flow? Or is it like the river, without beginning or end? Just all at once, in your face. Can’t escape the now, the now sounds are always present. Even in your sleep. Floating through the window, across the moonbeams right into the now-ness of my sleep.
Smell. The garden is a place to sniff and ponder. Think newness and dying. Life and death is indicated by smell. Like it or not smell is its own boss. It knows no bounds. It can delight or repel. I read a book about a famous perfumer who had no smell. He became a god because he could control the way he smelled and therefore could control the way others reacted to him. Of course in the end he had to go, torn apart by the ones who loved him; a bit like a garden, really.
I had a garden once. For twenty-five years. It grew itself really and inured me to live amongst it. It was full of huge trees, which turned into dendrites in my nervous system. Beneath the trees was a garden full of wonders. I tiptoed around and gazed and gazed. It provided me with everything I’d ever wanted in a garden. What was that? Privacy. Happiness. A sense of wonder, like the universe. It was all there in that garden. It’s still there in my mind forever and ever.
I think, therefore my garden is.
He knew he would remember much because the Bellinger flowing by was means enough, at least for him. Once in it the flow would open lines to memory and real connections to imagination. The river was like that. Perhaps it was like that for everybody who got into the flow or perhaps it happened only in this river and only on hot days. He would keep it in mind.
Over the salad-green lawn he went carefully watching for any lone snake in the still-damp grass where it remained shady. Snaky days became warm early and hot in no time. Although it was barely mid morning when he stepped down to the grey metalled road the heat smote him in the face heavily. It reminded him of being hit by a fist enclosed inside a pillow glove. Like that, he thought, gasping ah!
For him, memory was as odd a thing as could be imagined. It was also sometimes certain and sure and at other times memory faltered, usually in the short term, but sometimes the old images looked a bit ragged around the edges too. Despite age and accompanying occasional confusions most of his memory was instantly available, or so he thought, and it was also as clear as crystal - as shining, as sparkling as flickers of early morning sunlight twinkling downstream on the dark surface of the river. He supposed that the flickering of light was universal and that it would probably be a reasonable sort of general description of the universe. How could that be explained to somebody from a different universe? ‘We have light here: it shines and beams and glows and illuminates and flickers. Is it like that where you come from?’ What would the other being say assuming that were possible? Probably: ‘Yep, we’ve got that stuff too.’ Something like that, he supposed. Humans seemed always so anthropocentric and that kind of thing seemed absolutely like a human signature, a Homo sapiens footprint in the cosmos. Could the other guys not be anthropocentric also? Perhaps they could be in their own particular ways.
The heat was a stifling blanket descending and it kept coming down. He had had to interrupt his thinking because extreme heat made him concerned about animals trying to survive extreme weather. At least there was no desert here. Here there was abundant growth and rich forests. There were sub tropical rainforest creeks. There was everything that most creatures needed but now global weather was extreme and here the heat was stifling. There were billions of microbes in the baking soil. There were infrequently seen birds trying to survive. Brush turkeys continued to stalk his garden like black peacocks. Wallabies still bounded across the early morning lawns. They had that thick fur, though; night and dawn were better for them. Bandicoots liked the night and the fruit bats always worked in the cool dark. In September the damp air flashed greenly with fireflies. That green glowing seemed hot to his mind. He was projecting his own concerns onto creatures more sensibly adapted than he was. He would have to be more aware about that, more knowing.
He went slowly over the timber bridge, by his reckoning feeling about 150 years old and wilting, then he carefully stepped down to the water on the other side of the river, shedding years. He again wondered about snakes in places various: they could appear suddenly, even on a reasonably clear path at any time of the day or night and in all kinds of weather. Strangely, and although predicting the manifestations of snakes, he knew, would never be a science, exact or otherwise, there certainly were (in his experience, anyway) days that were undoubtedly snaky. On a snaky day there would be early heat in the air, usually dry heat, but not invariably. He would walk extremely carefully on those days, obsessively so, and use his eyes excessively and sometimes he’d have been correct: there would have been a snake and he’d have avoided it. The snake usually reacted in much the same way. Neither of them had been looking for trouble. There was that time in far-off Durban when he damn near shot himself coming out the back door to find the black mamba and because the mechanism was faulty and the shotgun discharged as he closed the breech. Damn, that was close. What was it old Daniel Defoe wrote long ago: ‘the good die early, and the bad die late’? He knew he wasn’t entirely bad or completely good but somewhere in between as most people surely were and he knew that he was continuing to amass experiences of many kinds. What could one do with amassed experiences all so varied, if not use them but how best to use them if they were to be used at all? That was the question. Well then: there were various answers to that but he knew exactly which one he invariably wanted to employ because it was obvious, easy and wonderfully compelling: to write from one’s experience, ones experiences, rather. Indeed, yes and not forgetting to do it creatively. There were probably many other answers to the question, but the writing one worked for him.
It was still warm, the river, from yesterday’s comfortable run down the valley although at first it seemed cool on his skin and then in no time at all it was acceptably cooling and soothing because one’s whole entire body would be in it, moving, and the water moving too, against one or with one if one - who is this silly one? Never mind that for now. There were conventions in all things. There had been only storm rains to keep it moving moderately and the fresh running through the black rock rapids bubbled brightly and went rushing away to the dark of the forest downstream. The mainstream flow swirling through the rocks looked full and felt good once he got close to it and could feel its swirl against his legs. More years fell from him and seemed swept away flowingly, like flowers cast in memoriam. The lower the river was the slower it travelled and the more it was warmed on its passage. Today the fresh was pointing to the left, to port as you might say, pushed that way by the channelling mainstream that came out angled in a metre-deep trench through the bedrock. On days when the river got up higher the fresh was conducted across to starboard, to the right, and sparkled a lot more, more widely more expansively, the front of it waving from side to side like a big questing creature. And in the early morning it was also a beautiful white from the rapids.
He would step in from the sloping gravelled bank and wade so far until the mainstream pushed him out of control and then he might dive, barely a teenager again, eyes open to see the coloured sand and gravel made more clear by rounded pieces of singular white quartz, or he would breast it in the strong morning sunlight feeling the caressing cool as it swept up his protective old T-shirt ballooning it for moments while the swirl tried to shove his hat off. He always wore a hat and T-shirt and old tennis shoes as well as a fancy pair of black trunks he once bought for a float in the Dead Sea. There was nothing dead about this river: it was full of life: even the exposed bedrock pieces that made the rapids had small creatures ambling about on them. Dressing up to have a swim always made sense in New South Wales. There was the roasting sun and there were spiky creatures with spines that broke off in your foot. He often thought the same thing repeatedly: the river is more than its surface, moving. This marvellous live thing has length and width and depth. It was necessary to be in it, it was essential to penetrate that surface to experience it properly. There were a few magic places in the windowed house where if he stood, barely breathing, and squinted a bit, he could just glimpse the upriver bend beyond the bridge, see also the bridge in front of him, see the pool as well, and, straining his eyes to the right, see the green top of it rolling down to the next bend through the forest. He was surely the only human standing in one of those cosmic places where so much of the river could be seen in one breadth of seeing. It was quite the same, he decided, as having divine powers. Why else had seeing been bestowed upon us? But that was from up there in the house. Once you were in it the experiencing was penetratingly different.
In the late summer days of humid February and contained by a few airy metres above the water there were white butterflies that moved slowly bobbing gracefully even languidly and they sometimes came lower toward the surface but never touched, never landed and there were whirring dragonflies, heads down like dipping helicopters, always really close to the water seeming to touch it every so often and they all flew about like that whenever he glanced at the water, all through the day. Although they all moved endlessly and were busily alive they also all seemed movingly embedded in the supporting air. The butterflies reminded him of other ones, yellow, so much quicker, that bounced, bobbed and weaved for most of the late summer days up there over his garden, stationed in different, waterless air and they in turn reminded him of the Welcome Swallows cutting through their other pockets of air down at Richardson’s, the next bridge along the road. The swallows seemed to be feeding on the wing but there was surely some free time too some need for flighted games perhaps, an ego-like thing that compelled flying displays even under the bridge they swooped and then dashed straight up before breaking away like Air Force acrobatic teams. The yellow garden butterflies bobbed differently and so surprisingly fast, changing direction, seldom solo and almost always there were two, three or four of them and sometimes more than that. At such frantic rates of climb and darting manoeuvre they were hardly feeding and what they seemed to be doing in their ten to twenty metres of altitude and airspace, never higher, strangely, around the gardens was being intent on mating and maybe evading mating. Was that like flirting? They were really fast. Maybe the gardens were a sort of butterfly reserve or a trysting place, a pick-up joint for yellow butterflies. And maybe the Welcome Swallows were mating too. Would they do that in winter, which was when he saw them being most active? He didn’t think so. Were those yellow butterflies choosing to mate in the late summer, in the hot and humid February? He simply didn’t know the answers. He had lived there for 20 years, longer than he’d lived anywhere in the world and although he had learned a few things in that time he really knew very little. In the house he sometimes reflected on a river-stone paperweight on his table when he paused in his writing and he would see laminations and striations and little pinprick holes and think ‘mudstone’ or maybe ‘sandstone’ and wonder why the original strata were not all parallel…and he would always enjoy the colour and the clean surface untarnished. How had it come to be? For all his varied experience he knew how little he really knew about anything but he daily thanked God that he was able to see the world.
The butterflies and the remembered swallows also reminded him of the big pool next to ‘Jasmine’ below Richardson’s where several hundred years ago, it seemed, he and the Gestalt group always swam and after the last session of the day there were often one or two who did some ‘river-work’ there…those who were ‘blocked’ or stuck in ‘resistance’ and they were invited to pose for themselves appropriate liberating questions then dive deep to the bottom and stay there till they had their answers and after a while they’d burst up to the surface, gasping. Those were the days of express-like ways to super-quick awareness. How useful the wise river could be! River-work always succeeded, spectacularly.
There’s the big pool here too, he kept thinking. We used to call it the Champagne Pool because there were bubbles in front of the rapids and you had only to dive under, eyes open, to have a champagne experience, tickled.
In the water swimming or floating in and out of sunlight and shadows, particularly in the changing lights of mid or late afternoon, he sometimes imagined himself upstairs in the house, writing and pausing between sentences and when pausing glancing out the window to see the white top of the water and lines of light across its surface, depending on the time of day. When he was in the river swimming he would sometimes look up to where his writing window was and even seem to see himself sitting there thoughtfully looking out and down to the water, even imagining then that he could also see himself down there in the river as well. He knew too that being too free with his well-connected imagination was wildly narcissistic but he ignored that because he knew that in the years of being alive, butterfly, bird, water dragon, man, the contents of all lives lived were also lenses, windows on the world, the universe, everything. One had to be not only there, but fully present too. The imagination was not something to be stifled or even attenuated. It had always made sense to use what could be used. It had always seemed almost a duty.
If he timed his river visits well he sometimes had the place almost to himself. He allowed his ‘own’ high river banks to remain well covered in everything growth-full that might deter crazed fishermen from plunging along them or up and down them struggling with, snakes for example, or other unknown horrors. But that seldom worked well because the fishermen (one seldom saw a fisherwoman) would simply scramble over his stone river wall and invade his garden, over the gravity wall he had intended as a stone fence, coming in determinedly from the road and then marching with profane aplomb through his private paradise. Damn: the nerve of some people! ‘The River’ was popular with visitors, naturally, who often turned up in droves (it was everybody’s river, nobody had personal swimming rights except all the creatures of the natural world who lived in it, on it, over it), especially in the summer holidays.
Thus, having exclusive use of the river and on a hot Saturday afternoon, was a surprise to him. Where were they all and was there something demanding (tennis perhaps) on TV to have kept them away? For then he could do exhibitionistic laps and he could swim in place at the edge of the mainstream, his face in the water, his soaked hat keeping the sun off his head, seeing down to the bottom of the flow where there were snags and sunken logs in the gravel, sometimes the flash of a small fish going by. When he floated he sometimes had the company of little fish that flopped about on the mainstream surface, always the mainstream rather than the smaller flows burbling through the rapids running right across the river and curiously the bright silver flashing of the fish reminded him of his cabin boy days on the old Bencleugh - and the time when she was hove to on a still Caribbean, the south part of it, near Venezuela and because it was deep there and the boy was fascinated, more than fascinated: in thrall, to and by the deep ocean, he begged some empty flat cigarette tins from the crew, opened them out, skipped some over the rails into the sunlight to see them flutter down to the fearsome dark reflecting the sun briefly, winking then dwindling to the black abyss, yet here the deepest pools were only three metres or so except there by the rapids (the stepping-stone rapids also much used by hopelessly addicted fishermen who absolutely had to hop over and across if they could without slipping and falling or hooking themselves in one of his riverside trees because they always paused and perched and tried, unbalanced, to cast a lure) and just below the same rapids if it were quiet enough and not too many people going by in cars or walking he could prop himself on part of the bedrock right in front of the rapids and hang out there getting buffeted and patted and massaged on the back because he had to face downstream bracing himself, his feet up against another big broken part of the bedrock so he wouldn’t be swept away. Then in the later afternoon with the light patterns changing constantly shade from the garden trees high up on the starboard bank and the big fifty plus metres eucalypts casting blurred shadows he could sink down a bit in the swirl of green water and see what life there was in that narrow zone 200- or 300-mm above the surface (the yellow butterflies had more degrees of freedom): there were the dragonflies and other kinds of fly that reminded him of his trout fishing days: fly-fishing in the Snowy, all over New South Wales and before that in Africa. Exciting it all was but deadly for the fish and that was why he stopped fishing altogether. In that narrow band of air he could see there was a wonderful variety of winged small life moving constantly, drawn to the moving water, flitting in and out of the dappled light.
There was something moving on him, on his arm. He bent his head solemnly, straining to see politely and without fuss, without making too great a demand on focus. Now his chin rested on the top of his T-shirt where squinting he could also see part of the faded green design where the words ‘Gestalt Training Centre, Wollongong’ remained a solemn, teasing and faded emblem. Somehow a tiny green spider had manifested on his left forearm, plodding through and across and along his curved hairs, seemingly unconcerned and perhaps blown down from the banks or possibly even brought to this unexplained and surprising meeting, midstream, an unexpected traveller along what must have been an oceanic river and so feeling compassion and care flow through him he floated away considerately to the port-side bank, arm up dry to the dry shore and let him or possibly her off where the wee beastie might be safer, perhaps, although in this wild world who could say if the spider might have been happier left alone? He remembered that days ago in midday heat he had met a snake swimming toward him, not that he knew what it was until close because there was only this odd little upstart head like a periscope that made him veer to starboard to find out and of course it was a black snake - gasp - but only a metre or so long so hardly a monster yet and it seemed that the snake had much the same idea because of its breaking away to starboard too and so it came for a closer look and they each in their own odd ways checked each other out, in passing (in the man’s mind, at least) and then resumed their courses and swam on. Mutual curiosity. Perhaps that was how one should exchange courtesies with snakes, both on land and in rivers: simply smile and nod politely and keep going (although that water-borne snake had not smiled). Meetings with snakes were otherwise fraught, he mused in the embracing water. For really, there had been no problems at all with the young black snake: it seemed almost a congenial encounter. Four metres of thick red-bellied black snake in the water: that would have been somewhat different. Up above on the river-side edge of his lawn where he frequently sat there was very often a single water dragon who began the season a surprising orange and had only two or three bars of it left but in the early days of spring and summer when the biting flies were hunting tasty humans this little dragon became almost tame, using the man’s boot as a hunting perch. He sometimes fed a kill to the dragon and chatted a bit, casually swinging his leg, the dragon looking up at him, unblinking, while boot riding. The dragon was most friendly, he thought. He knew that reptiles weren’t invariably bad: even the younger goannas (that ate big snakes for breakfast) were decent enough not to single him out for a snack. Respect, the man thought guardedly, (and always keeping a sensibly safe distance), respect was the key.
Now in the late afternoon and during the third, or was it the fourth, swim of the day with the surface water quite warm and the lower levels of the river deliciously cool and still nobody, amazingly, arriving to join him the sun had turned widely and now was casting its late afternoon light through the old trees high on the crest of the hill downstream and he remembered that of course it was the end of February and the light at that time of year was always wondrous because when the late sun glowed reflectively on the downstream surface the soft colours made the river’s surface in long stretches seem like beaten gold, like gold leaf with some soft green there too. What might that look like from beneath the surface, eyes open, looking to heaven? Drunk with words he could see that the lights of the late afternoons of late Februaries were seemingly beyond words.
He swam again through the swirling fresh, remembering the little spider now further removed in its great travels, and from the corner of his eye, splashing through the surface he saw in clear light a bigger perch jump, not once, but some five or six times, high like a trout and coming upstream toward him but on the far side of the river in the sunlight and he thought of seeing salmon running in the bigger rivers and greater torrents of Vancouver Island, long ago, and trout in the Cowichan, in the Princes Pool downstream from the cabin in the woods long ago, and then he made a slow breast-stroking swim toward the shadowing rapids and changed halfway to the old side-stroke that his father used when they all went swimming in the Cowichan in the mid-‘30s and by 1937, when swimming too in the Blyde, high in the Transvaal, long, long ago also, and then he got to the rapids again and was about to perch himself there once more for the cool refreshing feelings offered by the familiar river of the ‘80s and ’90s and the new century present and so without realizing it at first he felt the rapid’s effervescence running giddily up his legs, the lighted bubbles at the head of the pool by the rapids that so irresistibly enabled he and Olejay to call that part of the river the Champagne Pool, so then he stopped, remembering images, and then turned around carefully again, remembering his way anew into that layered ambient place that seemed less well remembered a mere 20 years before, that lively zone of filled space now unmistakably visible immediately over the water in ’04, immersed in the luminance of it, the luminosity of whirring life, the greens of designer bodies, the translucent blues of wings, the congregation of tiny creatures blurring without collisions, the multi engagements of the aerial micro-world there in the river’s aura - something he was a part of and also in - because when he used his eyes gratefully he saw that he was seeing a divine world transparent, a filled thin space he could both see and also be part of seeing into and through life that was only as high as his head in the water in that long lighted place like a glowing portal that was simply a living layer of the earth and an ambient window too, that was filled with flying life flying in and out and along and through a long lens of afternoon air just above the surface of the river on a late sunny afternoon in February and so he continued moving about in it instead of sitting and watching apart from it all because he knew he could never be separate from any of it and then he also knew that he knew much more because he could see he was lightly swimming in light -
[© Don Diespecker (2004, 2005, 2016). Previously published in ISAA Review [Independent Scholars Association of Australia] (2004) and in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, (2005)]
THE SIXTH TEASPOON
Corleone fixed his one good eye on the person opposite: this was Giovanni, Head of Secret Communications and Codes. Carelessly he knocked the ashes from the end of his cigar and they fell amazingly accurately onto the froth of his cappuccino as if it were just another shot of nutmeg. ‘Giovanni,’ he said, puffing a smoke ring into which he blew yet another and another…
The silence grew as mesmerized they both watched the trail of smoke rings.
‘Ah yes,’ Corleone finally said. ‘To the matter in hand: you will take the bus to the destination. It will be number 555 and upon conclusion of your mission you will return on the 666. You will go to 606 Fiftieth Street, remember, and not to 505 Sixtieth Street.’
Giovanni locked this information into his greatest weapon: his brilliant mind, and the neurons and synapses closed upon the data like the pincer grip of a giant spider clamping on a hapless fly.
Corleone continued, ‘Remember the apartment will be bugged so we work in code as always. You will knock on the door and make only five knocks, not six, and you will be admitted by a lovely lady who will invite you to tea. You will gratefully accept and when she asks if you take milk you will say six, not five, teaspoons. This is the code for the number of days from now till when the five massed armies and six mechanized divisions will move and the assembled fleets set sail on their missions. All ICBM's will be recoded with this number.’
Giovanni's sharp mind recoiled at the thought of the enormous trust and skill implied by this mission. He felt sure that the apparatchiks had forgotten the affair of The Twenty Sugar Cubes (and since that time sugar had never again been taken in the HQ code room). His mind once again opened to the real work as Corleone continued.
‘She will also give you a small gift: a symbol that the message has been received and will be passed on. You will then return to this base and give me the token.
Giovanni left on his mission and later was admitted by the most beautiful lady (and unknown to him, the most successful double agent he had ever encountered, Elle de Camelot). She was drinking a heady mixture of Creme de Menthe and Benedictine. It was apparent that this was not for the first one. She sank into a chaise longue and artlessly enquired if he would like a drink.
Averting his gaze which had been riveted until now upon her more than ample décolletage, he replied, ‘one of those would do fine thanks.’ However, his years of training and attention to detail now stood him in good stead and he recovered quickly. ‘No thank you, a tea would be fine.’
‘Tintsin or Mandalay?’ she enquired and watched for his reaction.
This is a test Giovanni thought; whatever I say will be potentially a fifty percent fail. ‘Do you perhaps have Twinings English Breakfast?’ he asked, feigning indifference.
‘No,’ she said, casting her mind to the pantry that she seldom entered, ‘but I do have Persimmon-Blackberry.’
He shuddered (he was allergic to persimmon) and his mind flew to the consequences of the South American Fruit Conspiracy. ‘Tintsin is fine.’ He went for the 50/50 and waited to see if a Smith and Wesson would appear in her manicured hand. It did not and he was quickly out of the tea quicksand, but his razor-sharp mind was distracted by the strange metaphor, tea quicksand. He dwelt upon this for quite some time until he could refocus on her reappearance with a cup, milk, and sugar.
‘How much milk do you take?’
The steel trap opened. ‘Five teaspoons,’ he said. He did a quick mental reset, as he always did in these circumstances, and yes, the boss had said make sure it’s five and not six…
She took the tray away and returned with six teaspoons beside the jug.
His ice-cold nerve held as he added the five teaspoons spoonfuls of milk.
‘Not six?’ she asked.
‘No, five is fine,’ he replied and drank the tea.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked again, mentally rehearsing her own instructions: get the information and terminate the courier well away from your location. She took the tray and excused herself for a few moments before returning with a small box. ‘This is a symbolic gift to you and your cause - do not open it on the 666 but take it to your destination.’ She kissed him lightly on the cheek, causing him to knock a priceless Ming vase to the floor.
‘I'll have this fixed,’ he murmured considerately as he picked up the pieces and put them into his courier bag. He recalled that beautiful women had always had this effect on him and it had been a matter of discussion at Code HQ, when the Case of the Scented Brassiere had almost ruined him.
Giovanni made the 666 in good time and returned to Corleone. ‘ - È stato bene, Gianni?’ Corleone inquired in his disgusting Chicago-style Italian.
Giovanni looked down through the series of smoke rings and identified Corleone. Corleone took a gulp of his cappuccino. ‘This stuff tastes more and more like very stale cigars,’ he snarled.
Giovanni produced the little case.
‘Open it,’ said Corleone.
Giovanni recognised the clip on the outside of the box as being identical to the one used in the Case of the Dismembered Code Agent. ‘I must put that on the backburner,’ he muttered to himself. ‘It could be significant.’ He then became fascinated by the little cord with a clip which ran from the silver object to the back of the box where lay 50 grams of the most powerful explosive known to man. His mind went into overdrive. What significance could this have he wondered? He pulled the spoon from the clip and in a mystified voice asked Corleone: ‘Tell me one more time: was it five or six teaspoons?’
LETTERS TO PATRICIA
[Excerpts from letters written home by the then Capt Richard Diespecker at Camp Rafah, Egypt, when serving in the United Nations Emergency Force in the Gaza Strip March 1966 –1967].
April 15 1966. Sorry I haven’t written during the last few days but things have been pretty hectic. On Monday morning an RCAF Otter crashed in the desert and burned. One Yugoslav Lieutenant was killed, one RCAF Corporal badly injured and the two RCAF officers both very badly burned, one 70% the other 90%. By the time they were rescued and in the UNEF Hospital here it was late in the afternoon and ever since I have been very busy arranging blood at all hours of the day or night, flying in fresh milk from Beirut and getting extra medical stores from Beirut and Cairo. I was in Beirut for two and a half hours on Wednesday but only to arrange for a shipment of milk and then right back with 40-litres of it. The father of one pilot arrived from Canada two days ago and the parents of the other arrive via Beirut at midnight tonight. The boy whose father is here died as a result of his burns at 10:30 last night and I had to complete all the arrangements for a Military Funeral for 09:00 tomorrow. The Flying Officer who is still alive is completely burnt from the waist up and his chances are pretty slim. I expect I’ll be organizing a second funeral before the next couple of days are over. I know this sounds morbid but is has been a morbid week. Everybody has been wonderful and I have received full cooperation from anyone I have approached. However, in spite of the tragedy we must still maintain the Force and the normal day-to-day operation continues.
April 17 1966. The weekend is over and what a weekend it was. I just took a tranquilizer so that I have a good nights sleep and can start the week off refreshed. We buried one of the Air Force officers yesterday and then last night at 8 pm the other one died. I was up all night organizing the funeral and we had the same service and burial this afternoon. All went well but I am exhausted. As a result I’m behind in my work but hope to catch up by Wednesday.
Yesterday we had another wind off the desert and the temp was 135˚ F.
The cactus along the roads here are in bloom, yellow and red. Next week I hope to get some pictures of them. My first roll of film isn’t back yet but I’m expecting it on the Hercules due in on Wednesday. I’ll shoot them along as soon as they arrive.
January 16 1967. You’ll never guess where I went yesterday afternoon: I went to a circumcision party. One of the barmen in our mess was host and held the party in honour of his two-year-old son who had been fixed up a few days earlier. Apparently it is quite a big time in a boy’s life here. It was an all male affair. There were 20 Canadians (half officers and half sergeants) given permission to attend by the local Egyptian authorities. We arrived by bus about 5-pm at our host’s home in the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp (midway between Rafah and Gaza) where he and all his relatives met us (dirt floor, cement block walls, corrugated iron roof). One room about 40 x 60. No plumbing. The wives and daughters were somewhere else. In addition to us there were about 25 Palestinians there also. We sat around the edges of the room drinking 7-Up and smoking cigarettes and after about 40 minutes two belly dancers appeared and they danced and sang for us for about an hour and a half. They were young girls about 19 and every second tooth in their heads was gold-capped. An old woman playing a castanet, one middle-aged woman playing a drum with her fingers and a man playing a two stringed instrument accompanied them. We clapped to the music while they danced. We then left about 7-pm after much hand shaking and returned home for supper. It was so interesting as we otherwise never get into the home of a local.
We played football against the Sergeants yesterday and lost 1 – 0. It was lots of fun. No tempers were lost and no one was hurt. They scored their single point on a kick in the last minute of play.
I’m booked on a UN tour of Jerusalem starting on Jan 23 for four days. While I’m there I will be spending time with Lt Col and Mrs. Johnston and I will pass on to them your very best regards. On these conducted tours we go to Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. I will let you know all about it. I will be with a Canadian Medical Officer and a Canadian Captain from the Service Corps. I still haven’t seen the pyramids but do want to see the Holy Land. After this trip I will have three days leave left and I’m saving that for a final shopping trip to Beirut before I come home. I’m off to dinner now and a show (“Butterfield-8”).
February 7 1967. I have just showered and changed to go out to dinner after one of the most interesting days I have spent in the Middle East. This morning at 7-am I picked up a jeep from Supply and Fred Berge (a RCD Captain who is the Welfare Officer) and went over to the UNEF hospital where there were two other jeeps waiting and the three vehicles with Fred, myself, the hospital Matron, one nursing sister, the senior surgeon, the pharmacist, a Canadian dentist, a Danish armed guard and a Danish driver headed out into the desert for the bi-monthly sick parade. All in all we covered about 120-miles across sand, through old minefields and oases. It was fantastic. About 10 miles or so at a spot usually marked by some old oil drums were anywhere from 20 to 100 Bedouins waiting patiently for the doctor. They pulled teeth, treated burns, infected eyes, ears, worms, amputated fingers and toes and all without anaesthetic. In some cases the wounds were covered with camel dung and very infected. I was pressed into work cleaning and disinfecting wounds before inspection by the medical personnel. About 5% of them had TB. I was able to get some pictures of both men and women. The latter usually won’t let you take pictures but it was a way of saying thank you. A lot of these people suffer from malnutrition and anaemia. We went as far south as Fort Saunders, a Brazilian outpost on the international frontier between Israel and Egypt. Ruth and Peter should enjoy the pictures I took of the Bedouin tents out on the desert. When you see how the Bedouin children are suffering it sure makes you realize just how fortunate we are. They live in rags. The women look sixty when in fact they are really thirty. One twelve-year old girl had her two children with her. I was a very interesting day but sad as well. I had a good hot, soapy shower and felt much better.
I have a nice red antelope leather hassock, which came in from Port Said yesterday. I will mail it off to you along with a few other things in a day or so. It saves me bringing home a lot of stuff. I’m off to dinner: my face is burning from the wind and sun after a day out on the desert in an open jeep.
MY VANCOUVER ISLAND GARDEN
I do love my garden and it gives me lots of enjoyment. Like you, wildlife, pests, diseases are all problems for gardeners and I have my fair share of bears, deer, raccoons, squirrels and mice. To try to solve the problem, a few years ago my fruit trees were replaced with flowering shrubs and trees. Two attractive high gates were installed on either side of my house and in some areas a higher fence was built, mainly to keep the deer out. I still have raspberry and blueberry bushes. I try to pick the fruit before the birds but usually the birds win, though sometimes we can share.
When my husband was alive we used to put up an electric fence around some of the garden to keep the bears out. It then became too much of a chore once I was on my own. That's when the bears made my garden their home base. One time as I walked happily down the garden path I suddenly came across a lazy bear lying under the raspberry bushes picking off the berries handfuls at a time. Another time I awoke to find one of my greenhouse panes was broken. The bear had climbed the espaliered pear tree next to the greenhouse, took all the pears and in the process his huge paw went through the greenhouse glass. And there were other catastrophes. But hopefully now most of these problems have been solved.
You recently sent a photo of your attractive home and surrounding vegetation. It was lovely. Perhaps I'll send a couple of pictures of my garden. The photos were taken 2-3 years ago so now the plants are much bigger.
READING IN MY GARDEN
I often sit in my riverside garden to read and sometimes to write. I recently completed my reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and had first to be in context with my almost distracting location: the garden, its huge trees, cormorants flying downstream, the river. One of the Plains Crossing bridge’s four spans is debris-blocked from a recent flood and the river is unfavourably pinched in my direction: this Right Bank is undercut and scoured and big logs have piled over my boundary corner and will need chain sawing. From my modest belvedere four metres above the falling flood I watch small waves and the ways that they break and partly run back against themselves. There will be a beautiful mathematical equation explaining the dynamics of small waves but once I start reading I’ll see the waves in glimpsed moments of page turning: I don’t need an ability to explain wave actions. The waves and the roar of the passing river will become an accompaniment to my reading. In this enlivening place I read for four hours to complete the book and am refreshed by its grand prose. Reading in the garden is more inspirational than distracting. (Drafted June 2011).
It is the end of autumn and I sit in my garden chair at Earthrise, a different book open on my lap, and watch white cedar leaves falling like golden snow. Spent leaves tickle my head and I’m able to catch a falling leaf, inhale its dry leafiness then let it go. I want to see the leaves falling: to feel them, try to hear them and smell them; I need to be outside for that. The compelling sight of leaves falling stimulates memory and imagination and adds excitement and feelings to my reading.
There are attractive ways of reading that feel receptively right and other ways that have no appeal and feel entirely wrong. My reading benefits from compatible actions and phenomena. I have choices as to how, when and where I read. Normally reading and writing inside leads to enchantment made by the interior stillness of the house. Reading in bed is my least favourite location: the pillows scrunch inappropriately, warmth and comfort, position and light make re-focusing annoyingly frequent. Reading inside the house in daytime is easier, but my house has mute and lulling distractions: pictures, photos, books, and powerful but static views from most of the windows that feature the river at my doorstep. I can see the river and the trees at any time simply by glancing away from the page, but I’m separated from everything outside when I’m contained by the house. Reading inside is habitually pleasant, reasonably safe and less distracting than reading in the garden, but I learn less. The house interior is akin to background implying passivity, the world seen through windows being almost silent. When reading I want to be outside together with my books (one to read from, plus a dictionary, and a clipboard or exercise book and pens) and contained by the landscape. My garden is entirely distracting in every way: the river’s rapids roar close by, the high flooded gums threaten to drop deadwood branches on me, and there are snakes and goannas to watch for but there are benefits: I am inside Nature, reading and reflecting, seeing, hearing and feeling. There is no place on Earth I would rather be, reading or not reading, than in my garden. My book requires my active participation in an active and enlivening location: reading is dynamic.
The weather has been wet for weeks and the serpentine Bellinger is still well up after a flood and days of showers. Earthrise is flood-prone and nothing concentrates the mind more urgently than a flood. Flood is a lively lexical word, an action word: I must sleep with one eye open, as it were, particularly during heavy local rain and the threat of flash flooding. Ordinarily in wet weather I stay indoors writing and reading, but when the river rises I would be foolishly careless were I to focus exclusively on text.
Early in June some of these wet winter days have turned almost summery and today the sky is a vivid blue. The white cedars are leafless now but there is a filigree canopy of yellow berries on the high branches. Brown fruit pigeons knock down more of these seeds or berries than they can eat, and the berries turn the lawns into seedling nurseries. Songbirds trill in the flooded gums overlooking the river. I have a host of outside jobs to do, having been stuck inside for days, but I’ll ease into that gradually. It will be 20˚ or 21˚ today: an opportunity to read in sunshine; I grab my books and hurry down to Big Lawn. Building the new 12-m long gravity wall will have to wait and clearing the remaining debris from the most recent flood will be further postponed. I have a new book to read: de Waal’s: The Hare With Amber Eyes: I’ve saved it for a garden read.
Reading and writing outdoors demands alertness, sensory awareness and sensitivity to place. There are attractive reading and writing and viewing places here and it’s both wise and prudent in an outside reading location to become orientated by sitting quietly for a while, seeing the light and shade, the movements of trees, the state of the river. Were it summer I would seek shade on the belvedere above the river and risk drifting from the intended reading, at least for a while, but winter is more enlivening. I intend reading and likely some note making so I resist the belvedere view. Although the flood has passed showers have brought the river up again, this time by more than a metre, an unsettling warning for anyone living close to the water. Another flood is probable.
I sit in a sunny area of Big Lawn, a place more often used for autumn reading. My vulnerable garden chair sinks slowly into the wet earth. I sit here in autumn or early winter because Earthrise has a scant 50-m of river frontage and this sunny patch varies with the seasons and the times of day. Here I see one of the biggest and oldest eucalypts from lawn level where I’m close to its creamy trunk. There are wild violets and pink clover flowers in the lawn, muddy grasses and flattened groundcovers, and orange cup-sized flowers that have fallen 35-m from the African Tulip Tree. Close by, dun-coloured butterflies visit the ground from a higher cruising zone, testing their wings in the sun. These small creatures have yellow ‘roundels’ or markings on their wings and no two butterflies have identical markings: some are almost-straight bars parallel to the butterfly’s body, others are puzzling blobs and some are scattered and others look like elaborate little maps of Mediterranean islands. One butterfly’s wings have blobby yellow island markings the largest of which looks like Crete. I register these because this majestic winter day is a day for reading amongst the sounds of honeyeaters trilling against the background roar of the river churning through the rapids. Perhaps because I’m sitting in an unfrequented spot to bask in rare sunshine I see what I don’t usually see except at a distance. Perspectives change when we alter our positions by a few millimetres and moving several metres profoundly changes the views. The sun tracking behind me shines through leafy branches casting blurred shadowgraphs on the pale trunk of the old eucalypt. These shadow pictures can be viewed from ground level to about 30-m so I must also now look up. Our physiology discourages looking upwards, but the garden urges it, even while reading. Up is otherwise a dangerous place: high trees like e. grandis, the flooded gum, shed their leaves and shed their barks in December and their branches at any time. Reading outside demands my attention as crucially as if it were a flash flood and dozing could prove fatal: a deadwood branch falling from 40- or 50-m will likely kill a reader. Garden reading is urgent, exciting and directed: parts of my brain must concentrate on reading; other parts must pay attention to the busy environment.
Earlier this autumn and prior to the wet weather I read Anna Karenina, and the three Stieg Larsson thrillers. Although I read in several locations, the best of these were outside on sunny days during my lunchtime break. Anna Karenina is a wonderful read, a novel with everything: city and country, love and betrayal, horse racing, politics, poverty and riches, hunting, farming and even a detailed description of reaping a grass meadow with large scythes. In Canada during the Great Depression I used to pass a vacant lot on my way to school and there was an old man who sometimes cut the grass there with a large scythe: I visualize that while reading without interrupting myself. Every reader will visualize according to his or her experience.
Reading in the sunny garden enables learning stimulated by the natural world: breezes, flora and fauna. Reading here in summer would mean accommodating snakes and goannas as well as cheeky water dragons that use my legs as a stalking horse for hunting insects. Summer is crowded with adventurous cicadas, mosquitoes, midges and bull ants. Seen from inside the house the river flows by in the sunshine but I can’t hear it clearly; reading outside is value-added by incidents. I want to describe my surroundings while I’m reading because nature’s stimulations also enable reading.
My intuition is that I will enjoy de Waal’s intriguing narrative of the Ephrussi family and their artworks, so I’m motivated to read comprehensively while also staying alert. Soon I discover that what encourages me has also guided de Waal when researching his ancestor’s art criticism in Gazette des Beaux-Arts:
My eyes hurt. The type is eight-point, less for the notes. At least my French is returning. I begin to think that I can work with this man. He is not showing off about how much he knows, most of the time. He wants to make us see more clearly what is in front of him. That seems honourable enough (The Hare With Amber Eyes, p 37).
That statement is perfectly in accord with my intention: I want to see (and later describe) my surroundings while reading and writing, to record what is in front of me because ephemeral stimulations from nature also enable reading and writing. I want you, the reader of these words, to see some of what I see when I read outside.
Because summer’s end and autumn are turning points, they are times that inspire reading. Birds and insects demand attention and the colours of the day vary with the stretch of shadows. Autumn’s changes here are subtle and so quick that displays by the Japanese maple or the liquidambar alter within hours. And when there are fewer people on the river I glimpse cormorants using the dense air along the river’s course to ascend and descend. Cormorants flying deserve a book of their own. And there’s the open sky; house views of the sky are partial and framed by windows and the tallest of trees are truncated.
I open my book while acknowledging the vertical dominance of big trees that make views of the canopy almost remote. Again I’m compelled to look up. But de Waal’s book is both compelling and very engaging. Looking directly up when turning the page takes no time and offers me a moment of refreshment because up is filled with movement and life. The June butterflies that bob so quickly do so in leafy zones 4-m or 5-m above me and perhaps more freely than they do down here: up seems liberating and safe for butterflies. Just as certain butterflies cruise at a particular altitude honeyeaters trill at definitive heights in the big eucalypts: and light breezes breathe through the canopy but are scarcely felt down here on the lawn. My page turning encourages my learning of the zoned garden, so now there are two narratives in train: the de Waal narrative as well as my story that includes butterflies and honeyeaters at high levels.
De Waal’s partly illustrated book is about family and dynasty, place and the world of art, high living and high finance in Paris, Vienna, Odessa and Tokyo. The author is a famous ceramics artist; his prose is magnificent and the story evokes memory (both his and mine). I affirm this because I enjoy de Waal’s style; parts are written in the present tense when he imagines the lives and behaviours of his past ancestors. In reading about small ‘plaything’ old Japanese carvings called netsuke (made from a various materials): the collector, Louis Gonse, described a particular boxwood netsuke beautifully as ‘plus gras, plus simple, plus caresse’ - very rich, very simple, very tactile (de Waal, p 50).
The button-sized netsuke as charms or playthings, once attached to belts or sashes. The language reminds me of my own hand-made stonewalls nearby in the garden: I realize there are relationships between handling large wall stones and tiny carved netsuke. Stonewall makers like netsuke carvers are essentially tactile creatures who allow their hands to feel and inform in ways that are like seeing - similarly with readers and writers turning pages and tapping keys or buttons. Making gravity walls from river stones is my meditative garden hobby. I remember, while reading de Waal, building the first 2-m high wall here: I see the text I’m reading and I visualize my remembered self making the wall 25 years ago. And while enjoying de Waal’s prose I also re-vision my remembrance of similar Parisian apartment blocks in tree-lined streets. And turning the page triggers personal memories of working in Paris in 1951 when I walked from Malakoff to the Métro station, buying a baguette and a banana en route and breakfasting on the wing before stopping to drink a coffee at the bar above Port de Orleans Métro station before heading off to collect waste paper and unwanted books to sell for cash (apartment buildings in the best residential districts always had gate-keeping concierges and diplomacy was essential). Those were fine days. I’m reading de Waal’s narrative, seeing my garden, its walls and remembering parts of my own story in a fluid sequence of images.
Reading outside enlivens my remembered past and present experiences: it is as though I, currently the reader, have voluntarily become embedded in the busyness of nature. Not only can I see and hear the Bellinger a few metres from where I sit: by moving my head slowly from side to side, I’m aware of the colours of the river, her high and low tones, depending upon the amount of water coursing by: the purling of low water running the rapids, the variable roar of high water. Every river will always imply other rivers; this river, this garden supports remembered other rivers and gardens and stimulate the reading and visualizing of particular texts. Reading in this garden is delightful because so little seems to be background; the reader, like everything else that is alive, is obliged to interact within the natural world. Reading in the house seems like extraordinary work because it requires seeing, thinking, imagining and an intellectual appreciation of what is read within a static space, in an undemanding location. Reading outside demands awareness and attention yet is more like ordinary work because the reader, like everything surrounding him (including the demanding book) is also an active participant within the garden environment. The garden reader necessarily interacts with the garden/natural world environment. Inside a house, she is an almost passive part of a built environment: reading outside equates with being in the world.
About 5-m above and in front of me are the layered branches of Spathodea campanulata, the African (Uganda) tulip tree growing here to nearly 40-m. When I look up and through its branches I see pairs of leaves on every branch, some green, some yellow-green, some that are dark because they’re shaded. On bright autumn and winter mornings the effect is similar to that seen when wearing Polaroid glasses because of the shades of green. It is as though some great hand has gently arranged the branches for me to see, overlaid them with care and playfully tweaked the lighting to ensure that I see these leafy branches at their creative best. By moving my head a little when gazing up, I also see the high flooded gum’s branches and some of the dark branches of a nearby old cheese tree. I could easily photograph this scene but the camera would require special lenses to capture what I see in context: the foreground greenery of up, the middle ground canopy that also contains the butterfly fly zones, the close-by ‘ground’ of the e. grandis tree trunks and their slightly blurred shadowgraphs, and the splendid blue of the cloudless sky. The high “flooded gum” apparently vanishes above assorted canopies about 40-m up but continues a few more metres to somewhere beyond 55-m (my guess). And this scene is not only visual: there are sound effects. Honeyeater trilling has necessarily to rise above the pure white noise of the unsighted rapids. The air, if not filled, is close to crowded with small insects, many of them attracted to me because I may be radiating either goodwill or heat or both. Sometimes I gape upward for much longer than the moment that it takes for me to turn a page. We have to learn to risk cricking our necks to see up and Up There is where there is so much bountiful life and movement.
I’m outside again, reading in pure light, listening to the river and when the sun and time end my reading I stand slowly to admire the river, but the glare from the page has made the river colours look darker so that fast water from the pinched river and the rapids flowing into the pool looks dark blue-black and purple although a few metres downstream the water is again green and gold in the afternoon sunlight. The sun moves on and I walk to sit in the last sunny spot next to the birdbath (on the belvedere) where a flycatcher complains of my being in his way, but I ignore him and he relaxes. Having written above about sitting in my garden, all I’ve been doing was what the imagined ancestor was ‘doing’ in de Waal’s engaging book: ensuring you the reader may also see clearly what is in front of me.
De Waal, Edmund. The Hare With Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance; London: Vintage, 2011.
McCarthy, C. Blood Meridian, (first published by Random House, 1985); London: Picador, 2010.
[Written Nov 2011; also in the eBook Scribbles from Earthrise. © Don Diespecker 2016]
REDESIGNING THE GARDEN
A year ago, after I was recovering from both a cardiac event and a severe kidney infection I was scratching around, looking for something rewarding yet inexpensive to do. I have a largish suburban property, the house built on an acre of ground. When we purchased it the garden was non-existent, mostly long grass with a few trees and some rocks. It was a major effort to transform a sloping piece of land into a garden – with no money. The process involved asking friends and family for cuttings of plants, and anything they could spare. Naturally, the result was not very orderly. Plants need to be put in place with care, short ones in front, taller ones behind, and so on. Trees were desperately needed. The only ones I was offered were golden stinkwood, about which I knew nothing. These flourished with virtually no input from my side, but I discovered to my horror why I'd been given them: they are like weeds. Once the lovely golden yellow blooms are over, the tree produces a shower of seeds that germinate whenever there is rain . . .
On a more positive note: I designed and planted a circular rose garden. Initially this grew well but I discovered that there was tons of builders' rubble just below the surface, which meant the plants couldn't establish a proper root system. So this had to be abandoned and the roses moved. They are still alive and blooming, twenty years down the line. They are in beds without rubble and they are doing fine now.
With the plants I was given, borders and other beds were dug out. Did you know that one of the hardest things to do in a garden (apart from removing builders' rubble) is to remove grass? With much effort the beds were ready to be planted. Most of the cuttings I'd been given were rooted, grown on, then more cuttings taken once they were planted out.
I spent what money I had on trees, mostly indigenous trees, because these are drought-hardy. This is a dry land, with sun almost the whole year round, which means water is essential to keep the plants alive. From almost no trees to about a hundred took time, money and lots of effort. There are indigenous wild apple and pear trees, pyracanthus, jacarandas (self-seeded and not indigenous), paper bark thorn trees, various fichu, some wild date palms, a couple of liquidambar trees, a camels foot with a flush of mauve-pink flowers, fever trees, a few leopard trees, and a syringa. Most of the flowerbeds had seasonal flowers: poppies, petunias, Californian poppies, Namaqualand daisies, portulaca, fygies (brightly colored succulents). And I made an aloe garden on a steep slope. The aloes are blooming at the moment and what a pleasure to see the flower stems reaching for the sun.
I have about ten different types of aloes and each one is different; some leaves are plain, some are speckled, some small, others tall. This country has a wealth of aloes, all of which are water-wise and drought-hardy. The kiepersol has survived, as have the red and pink Australian bottlebrushes.
I have agaves, which add variety to a bed and root readily from cuttings; and succulents that grow so big they have to be pruned. And plectranthus: about six varieties of this pretty indigenous plant. All flower from late summer through to spring. Flowers are white, pink, lilac, purple and blue. And they're water-wise. Twenty year's ago I bought a couple of Queens of the night (Datura) which have been a pleasure. They're fast growing and prolific bloomers; I've rooted pieces given to me: the blooms continue throughout the year – a delicate night scent that wafts through my window.
At the moment the lemon tree is laden with fruit that we eat daily, mostly in tea and on food to replace salt. Lemons are essential for me and help to alkalize my blood, which tends to acidity.
I nearly forgot the carob trees. There are four, all of which produce seeds that can be ground into a pleasant chocolaty powder. And also the broom tree (not its botanical name): it's one of the acacias with finger-like leaves filled with a toxic sap. It makes a sturdy addition to the beds and is virtually indestructible.
My part-time gardener and I worked hard. We took hundreds of cuttings, grew them on and planted them out from August into December. The beds were re-dug and reshaped then composted. Some plants had to be moved and others remained. All the indigenous shrubs and trees are thriving, as are the aloes, and ground covers.
I should take photos of the new beds. At the moment I have some shots of the garden as it used to be. The transformation is almost complete but not much can be done in winter.
The vegetable garden has spread from an area under shade cloth to fill a border outside the lounge with green peas, spinach, mustard greens, radishes, and a mix of poppies scattered in between – this reduces the amount of watering.
A LIFE OF GARDENING
Peter and Dee Thompson
My earliest memories of becoming conscious of a garden date to 1966 when I was about five years old. We had just moved into a new redbrick home at the edge of bushland on Sydney’s North Shore. Mum and Dad busily created new garden beds bordered by bush rock (Sydney Sandstone) collected on weekends and brought home in the family car, we as kids jumping in for a bit of an adventure. The luggage compartment (or “boot”) was filled with the lichen-covered bush stones.
The gardens, mainly ornamental beds of flowering annuals and perennials, covered the street side of our large corner block. The backyard was smaller but with enough room for an outdoor table setting and where a fence was covered in passionfruit vines and where there was also a lemon tree. An incinerator for burning rubbish and our compost heap were hidden from view in a latticed corner of the garden. We spent many Sundays in our garden as kids playing or helping Mum and Dad with plantings or weeding and even helping push the Victa lawn mower around the vast lawns. I don’t recall a vegetable garden: there were just a few fruit trees and perhaps a parsley bush.
Mum’s mum (our “Nana”) had also been a keen gardener. She lived in the Sydney suburb of Manly on a rocky block with huge slabs of sandstone in the backyard. My sister and I loved exploring Nana’s garden: it even had a sandstone cave that we could hide in. Grandpa had passed on by that time; he’d been a farmer in western New South Wales. Nana had lovely lawns regularly mown by a local surfing identity. There were perennial beds and a strange looking Yucca plant sprouting from a sandstone outcrop and set in front of the 1950’s house but alas there was no vegetable garden there, either.
Grandma (who was our Dad’s mum) lived in a home-unit in the nearby suburb of Queenscliff. She had a very small garden beautifully tended and planted with a mixture of flowering perennials and kitchen herbs. Grandpa had also passed on not long after my birth and he’d been a very active gardener in his spare time: apparently he had grown or produced all the fruit, vegetables and chickens and eggs for the family table and also for an endless run of invited home guests when they lived in western NSW.
Sometimes during our annual family holidays we visited “open-gardens” and when we were in any of the cities we also visited botanical gardens. During the 1980’s I travelled with my then girlfriend (Dee) and worked in numerous locations around Australia (from the deserts of Central Australia to the Tropical North) and if we were to stay anywhere for longer than a few weeks we would start a garden of herbs. I remember when living on a Great Barrier Reef island finding a mature pawpaw plant that was more than two metres high. We dug it out and carried it to our coral garden about a kilometre away where we replanted it and it then thrived under our care. It was during this travelling and gardening time that my girlfriend gave me my first gardening book (actually a book on self-sufficiency). We also subscribed to Australian gardening and self-sufficiency publications: Grass Roots, Earth-Garden and later, Organic Gardener, Acres Australia, Permaculture International and Biodynamic Growing. We were inspired and longed for the day when we could start a proper garden that would be all our own.
Having travelled the world viewing many of the magnificent gardens in Europe and England as well as beautiful tropical gardens of South East Asia, it was time for us to settle down into suburban life. We chose Terrigal in NSW, Australia and we were ready to start our own gardens. First we planted privacy plants and shrubs along our boundaries and then a Native bushland garden between our house and the street. We started our first real vegetable garden (just 3- x 2-metres) and planted our very first vegetables using Esther Deans No-dig method. On Friday and Saturday evenings we regularly and religiously watched gardening and lifestyle programmes, Burke’s Backyard and Gardening Australia.
Our gardens grew in size and variety of plant species and soon we craved additional land so we purchased 2.2-ha of semi-tropical rainforest that had once been owned by a botanist from the Royal Botanical gardens in Sydney. Over the following seven years we added hundreds of food shrubs and plants as well as ducks, geese, goats, beehives - and children. We craved even more garden space, moving to the subtropical Bellingen area of NSW where we set about planting our ultimate gardens that now comprise hundreds of fruit, vegetable, herbs and medicine plants.
Here we are some 35-years later realizing that we have finally achieved our dream of owning and living in a large and beautiful garden. As I look back now 50-years later I remember those sunny Sunday afternoons as a five-years old child, collecting bush rock and loading that in the back of the family motorcar.
SEEING LEAVES FALLING
I used always to assume that leaves fell either when they’d had enough of doing leaf work or that they became so drained of energy by the end of summer and autumn that they were obliged to let go with or without the help of a passing breeze. And when I was very young in British Columbia, seeing autumn’s coloured leaves blowing past the windows was a sure sign of my learning to know that autumn (or Fall, as Canadians invariably call this colourful season) was arriving. Fall begs an upper case F perhaps because winter and summer seem relatively different when compared to a simple word like Fall and when I think about it now (in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter), Spring with an upper case S looks like the kind of word that might well be a close relative, a cousin perhaps, of that other different-looking word, Fall.
Over the years it became clear to me in quick a-ha! moments that leaves died and that Nature has a simple way of resting them more or less in peace. Nature enables her spent leaves to let go, allows them to fall to the ground naturally during most autumns. And now from the certainty of old age I’m sure that naturally is a key word and that I was perhaps much wiser in my early childhood than in many of my adult years. Natural and nature go well together, don’t they? And to a three- or four-years old kid a used or spent leaf has no alternative but to let go, to fall and be blown away or to lie stubbornly in repose to litter the garden. Dad was always handy with his bamboo rake (remember those impressive bamboo rakes that we used prior to plastic ones?) and so I learned, when less busy, that there was a great deal that was quietly going on naturally in the world. Stuff going on quietly all around me suggests that if I want to become more aware or even more enlightened of some of these goings on I’d be wise to sit quietly outside in my garden and to allow Nature to pass information to this willing participant. And now I remember sitting in the Luxembourg Garden, that beautifully intimate foreign garden adjoining boulevard St-Michel in Paris when leaves were falling and there were many people and kids were playing everywhere. I remember because it sticks in my mind: a sunny Saturday afternoon. A few leaves blew and bounced in the breeze across the gravel and there was a small child chasing them until the little one stopped suddenly and stood with her arms out waiting for a leaf to fall on her. And a leaf did. And she laughed long and loud, delighted.
In more recent times and not resisting at all the word naturally, I heard somebody on the radio assuring listeners that leaves tend to fall in clusters at the appropriate time of the year when the tree decides the leaves are ready to be let go. As a busy adult I simply had not slowed down sufficiently to consider such a possibility. I see clusters of spent leaves falling here regularly. Now and in this day and age I have no doubt that leaves falling in clusters do so generally after the tree decides when the time is right.
[Also in my e-book, Reflecting.]
REMEMBERING NEW ORLEANS
The first thing that happened when we arrived in New Orleans was we popped a bottle of champagne on the sidewalk outside the van right off Frenchmen Street. Barely anyone turned their head - New Orleans people are used to random bursts of celebration. For us everything was new.
We had come from the North down hugging the coast until we came out of the winter and into the summer in California. We saw the cloudless sky laying flat on top of the ocean and couldn't believe our eyes - went running straight for the surf and got sunburned right away. Then in LA the beautiful old beater that we'd been driving died on us and we spent a week stranded in Santa Monica until the boys made a couple of grand playing jazz on the pier and I took a long bus ride to East LA to buy the big white van. We drove through Arizona and into the mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where tiny dry snowflakes fell on our faces as we slept in the sand and the dust. After that we drove for two days straight. Through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and finally, by night, into swampy Louisiana where the highway was dark and empty, the air was humid and we could make out the rustling shapes of willows dipping over the road.
We came into New Orleans on a grey late morning and I was half asleep, watching out the window as if still in a dream as we drove up Bourbon Street past curlicue iron balconies with people waving and rainbow flags flapping and I had the impression we were driving alongside the ocean, which of course we weren't. We had no plan or place to be, at first. It felt like we drove around in circles without ever coming to the same place again. The smell of deep-fried fish filled the van and made us hungry. It mingled with another scent, musky and mysterious, like the smell of a compost bin behind a flower shop.
We were looking for a place to stay. I drifted to sleep, head on my knees and woke when we pulled over to the boulevard separating two sides of what might have been Claiborne Avenue. A couple of tattooed, face painted hula-hoopers stood with their bicycles waiting to cross the street. One of my friends got out of the van to talk to them and returned, slamming the door, with the name, "Miss Pearl" and the words "bywater" and "bunkhouse." These words led us to the corner of Royal and Alvar Street. The address we were looking for belonged to a shotgun shack covered with vines that looked like it was sliding off a cliff but wasn't. The yard was partially paved and the concrete was cracked and jutting up at different angles. On a big piece of it was painted in bright purple letters, "NO VEGANS." We cautiously opened the gate in the chain-link fence, stepped up the wonky, rotten staircase and reached through the wrought iron door to knock on the wooden one beneath.
Miss Pearl opened the door: only a crack, at first, then a little more, just enough to see her wide dark eyes.
"Who is it?" said in a low voice from behind the eyes.
"Hi, we're looking for a place to stay the night. We're from Canada -"
"You musicians?" she said suddenly.
"Ya we play jazz." Someone held up a trumpet.
"No vegans?" she asked opening the door now wide enough to see her small frame swimming in a black Hoodie cinched tight around her soft wrinkly face.
"No. No vegans." The door swung open. Miss Pearl grinned childishly, revealing gums and no teeth.
As we sat around in her lamp-lit living room that evening, it came out that apparently, we had been sent to Miss Pearl’s doorstep by good spirits. Miss Pearl was a voodoo woman. A metal dish of magic powder smoldered in the open doorway. We'd been warned not to touch it because it was bad-luck powder - she aimed to curse the mean woman across the road that wanted to have the bunkhouse shut down. Miss Pearl said she had prayed the night before for a jazz band to arrive because she needed one for a funeral. So we were invited to stay as long as we liked for five dollars a night in her shed under the condition that the boys learn the funeral songs and play the parade on the funeral day.
The funeral was for a kid named Cody who got killed in a car accident on his way to New Orleans with his best friend Jake. Jake stayed at the bunkhouse, too and became our good friend. He was a longhaired wanderer from Arizona who scribbled poetry in a composition book and worked as the assistant to an old antique dealer. Miss Pearl affectionately called him Shake-Jake because he would rock back and forth when he got excited.
"What if it rains?" we asked Miss Pearl the day before the funeral. The weather in New Orleans is wildly unpredictable and the clarinet couldn't get wet or it would break.
"It won't be raining," said Miss Pearl simply, not looking up from her stirring of a giant pot of red beans on the stove. When asked how she could know for sure she declared with wide, serious eyes, "Maybe it will rain in the morning, but it won't be raining at five!"
It was a perfectly gorgeous, tropical evening. We filed out of the bunkhouse at 5 o'clock, the boys in clean white shirts bought from the corner store, with their instruments in their hands, and me in my best dress, even if it was wrinkled and torn at the bottom.
Miss Pearl was covered with silver paint from head to toe and carried a dramatic black lace umbrella - she was what they call a "crate-monkey," somebody who dresses up and makes money on the street by having tourists take their picture.
Jake was the most important participant in the parade. He marched up front with a picture of Cody and Miss Pearl had painted his face white with a black tear under the left eye. He wore a dark vest and a tie with tiny roses on it.
They really know how to do a funeral in New Orleans. At first it’s somber and the band plays slowly Stormy Weather, then A Closer Walk with Thee. People came out of their colorful houses to stand on their stoops with their children and watch us. It seemed like they were on boats passing by. The parade gained in numbers. Soon we had fifteen, twenty people with us. I looked down the train tracks, dark and straight, and the choppy pavement with dandelions growing through and I remembered that all of this was under water eight years before. It made me sad to think about how the people here knew death much better than me. Many of the buildings were still marked with spray paint, a red X and a line to show how high the water got.
Then all of a sudden the band started playing You Are My Sunshine and all of these people began dancing and clapping their hands. Jake danced the most out of everyone - big goofy steps with his elbows high and a big smile on his face. I danced too. When we reached the end of the road all the people inside Flora's Café came into the intersection and clapped along. I've never seen such a beautiful scene in my life. I had to thank Miss Pearl for praying for a jazz band and when I die, I want a funeral like that one, with strangers dancing in the street.
Some Locals said simply and not unkindly: “shoot him” but I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. The Locals aren’t unfeeling: some country folk speak that way, sometimes. I remember reading a book when I was a teenager - it might have been The Story of San Michele - that the way to farewell a faithful old dog was to stroll out with him as if on a walk then give him a piece of good meat and simply shoot him, when being killed was probably not in the dog’s awareness. The notion is that for the dog owner sudden death for the dog is a useful alternative to pain and suffering but such an ending is messy and seems to me a salve for human conscience. No dog would have time to dwell on that or feel betrayed or have any time to reflect on the awareness of having been faithful to its ultimately faithless “master.” There’s an appropriate Latin word for that: perfidia, meaning both treachery and faithlessness. Shooting is a violent ending and unlike asking a vet to put the dog “to sleep.”
The vet had done all that he could but Henry was beyond medical interventions. The other choice was to let Henry die in his own way and I could show the old boy consideration when he was slow or tired or when he would surely be in pain and feeling wretched because dogs are smart and we can be sure they sense an end approaching whether they have a name for that or not. So there was a problem. A Local wouldn’t necessarily call it a small problem or a big one, just a problem because most people I know care about their dogs, particularly working dogs and we don’t want them suffering needlessly. We all will rush the family dog to the vet if we suspect the animal’s been bitten by a snake or we’ll try and save a puppy succumbing to a tick and likely to die because the tick wasn’t seen in a daily inspection. A tick will kill a pup in a short time but we don’t begrudge the time and expense in trying to get the vet to stop him dying prematurely before he’s grown enough to run flat-out through a well grassed paddock, one that’s bursting with lush growth from good rain. Young dogs deserve their puppyhood and the freedom to discover that they’re born to run through grass that smells of summer.
Because I couldn’t shoot him I allowed him to die naturally: he was a small dog but a big problem. Some said later I was cruel. Maybe Henry was thinking that too because the look in his golden eyes was far beyond sad, beyond pain and hurt. Dogs surely do know when the end is nigh, feel it in their bones. But I couldn’t kill him. In the end I held him in my arms, held him up to see the gleaming river once more when he was struggling and maybe thinking in his old doggy way that he’d get on his feet just one more time for a run around Big Lawn the way he and his great mate, Eartha used to run: full tilt, tails well down in their grooves to avoid being nipped as they’d play chasings for the joy of that. Eartha was like a mother to Henry and also his teacher and somehow like a big sister but never his benevolent partner (or lover, as some humans might imagine). Eartha was a little older than Henry when she came to Earthrise as a pup and she grew fast: she was a big black Alsatian/kelpie cross with a white blaze on her chest and could knock a man down if she ran hard at him. Now that they’ve both gone I’m inclined to think that as far as Henry was concerned he had no doubt he was a blue cattle dog; he wasn’t quite that but he had enough character to be one. The two dogs grew up together. Eartha, who by some strange means knew a lot about the wild, used to take Henry on mysterious forest tours, riverbank rambles and even wallaby chases on land and in the river. Thank God nobody shot them when they were enfolded by the wildness of country life and intent on being the fine dogs that they were. They had house privileges during the day, so were a bit spoiled.
Eartha was stoical, as though she didn’t want to embarrass us with old age and sickness and she died first, uncomplainingly after breathing difficulties and during the night when both dogs were on their leads over at their night quarters next to the “ute” in the carport. There was no howling, no barking. Henry was standing forlorn over her stiffening body when I went to them in the morning. She was too heavy to carry so I put her on the floor of the truck in front of the passenger’s seat, Henry sitting over her and we drove down the track in style for the last time to Big Lawn. Then Henry lay on the grass and watched, his head between his paws, only his eyes following every move as I wrapped Eartha cosily in her blanket and then dug her a good-sized grave. I buried her deep in pristine river gravels a few metres from what was once an old riverbank where we’d made the original campsite and placed the first caravan before we started building the house. I put heavy river stones over her grave to stop anything wild from digging her up.
Henry joined her several years later. When Des Willis gave me a tabebuia sapling, a tree from the tropical Americas, the two graves had their summer shade. There are roses and dahlias and impatiens there now too and a stonewall surround. I like to think that the tree flourishes because the dogs have been nourishing it for years. The Dog’s Garden has an honoured place in the centre of Big Lawn. When there are high floods the plants get torn out and scattered and helter-skelter logs wreck the wall but there’s no great trouble in putting everything back together afterwards. The tree likes it there and produces her pink flowers each spring.
As with all dead dogs their photographic images seem more realistic as the years pass: through the mind’s eye they both look unmistakably like the dogs they once were. And there are many associations that similarly remind me of their aliveness: Eartha would never get into the canoe but would always walk directly into the river, summer or winter, before swimming downstream and sometimes crossing to the opposite bank. Henry was always first in as soon as I steadied the canoe and he’d sit grinning in the front seat, turning frequently to encourage me to paddle, his tongue lolling, a sparkle in his eyes as he watched Eartha, tracking her, glancing back to urge his crew to paddle harder. We’d meet Eartha further downstream; Henry would disembark in the shallows and the pair would go charging away along the bank through all kinds of undergrowth and somehow avoiding the big black snakes that sometimes were sunning by the water; and the dogs would be waiting for me at home, panting, looking pleased and happy. For some strange reason I always think of Eartha walking confidently into the river and swimming whenever I hear the Lakmé Flower Song duet sung; it seems her song, in a strange way.
Both dogs were always relaxed when visiting the house: conserving their energy by snoozing worked well for them but they seemed to be on hair trigger alert outside which meant that if they startled a water dragon exploring the lawn or gardens they’d charge the little fellow with a chorus of exultation and often enough the dragon would come racing frantically past me to plunge over the edge of the belvedere and down to the riverbank to avoid the bully dogs. That sort of incident was purely fun for Eartha and Henry: I had to teach them not to harm the dragons and on hot summer days when we sat in the shade or at the Outlook Table on which I’d carved Beyond this place there be Dragons the dogs were obliged to sit as still as possible, ignoring those fat biting flies as well as the dragons because water dragons are partial to fat flies for whom they’re like Nature’s Fast Food. The bold little dragons quickly learned too and used the three of us as stalking horses, bouncing from a dog’s flank to the leg of my jeans where they’d hang by their elegant claws. We were merely two- and four-legged sources of nourishment. The water dragons at Earthrise have always manipulated warm-blooded creatures for their benefit; after a slow or defensive start in early summer they perhaps remember past summers and hop uninvited onto my boot for an advantageous view of their belvedere killing ground.
Snakes were fair game for the dogs. I had to be quick when I heard their snake attack barking because Henry and Eartha invariably attacked all snakes except big red-bellied blacks and the lethal browns and drove them at frantic speed to where I sat dreamily studying the downstream view: several metres of red-bellied black hurtling between my legs was always a thrill, but one that I never fully appreciated.
In happier times I used sometimes to speculate about reading dog stories aloud to the dogs in case they could understand. Quirky, I suppose. I still smile at the thought of reading aloud Metzger’s Dog to them (although I never did) because had they followed the narrative they’d have laughed their heads off. And that reminded me of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s book: Jock of the Bushveld; Jock was the runt of the pack that became a faithful hunting companion; every page was beautifully illustrated by excellent drawings in the margins. There was a full colour picture of Jock at the beginning and there was the heartbreak ending.
Both Eartha and Henry are long gone now. I miss them for all kinds of reasons. They seemed always to understand what I said to them, comprehending my mood, inclination or intention and offering comment by way of their body language, a lazy half wagging of tails while prone; or an immediate claws-rattling jump to their feet if a walk or a swim was suggested. Their torpor on hot days was evidenced by their proneness and lack of interest in everything except the sharp jab of a biting fly. The dogs’ joy and satisfaction was marked by their sitting upright while fixed on something interesting: their mouths drooling, their tongues lolling and offering the most generous of toothy grins when they turned to acknowledge me and remind me of how good life truly is. Those two dogs enabled me to learn to think in ways that were less rational and almost more balanced. Their brief and endearing lives in this beautiful landscape and waterscape was a blessing.
You all know the wild grief that besets us when we remember times of happiness.
Ernst Jünger: On the Marble Cliffs, 1947.
More About My eBooks
One of my novels, The Selati Line, is a South African railway story, a mobile or even picaresque story and also a road story. Several of my novels start as if in the minds of fictive characters in airplanes (usually a Tiger Moth): somewhere up in the clouds above the Bellinger River. The imagined flyer (usually a quite elderly person who once was a teenage young woman in the Air Transport Auxiliary) imagines the story unfolding in a place beneath. Happiness, for example, begins on the nearby Trunk Road between Bellingen and Thora and soon makes a second start on Darkwood Road (right outside the house where I’m now writing this). The Overview (a novella) starts in the air (directly above my house). The new sequel to Happiness, Success starts in the air, too. That most distinguished American writer, the late James Salter (who once was a Korean War flier) uses the device of ‘the unnamed narrator’) to tell some of his stories: I like the notion and also employ a variation of that ‘technique’ or device.
(1) Finding Drina is a light-hearted sequel to my two print novels (now also available as eBooks) published in one volume as The Agreement and it’s sequel, Lourenço Marques). Finding Drina is written in three parts and in three different styles that also are intended homage pieces (to GG Marquez, Ernest Hemingway and Lawrence Durrell); thus this little book is also meta-fiction (novella, about 30-k words).
(2) The Earthrise Visits is an Australian long story set at Earthrise (about 20-k words): an old psychologist meets a young literary ghost from the 1920s (his girlfriend meets her, too) before a second old literary ghost, unaware of his spectral state, arrives unexpectedly.
(3) Farewelling Luis Silva is an Australian dystopian long story partly set in Australia, Portugal and France (about 23-k words). A sniper meets an Australian Prime Minister, an old lover and a celebrity journalist; three of them meet a terrorist in Lisbon where there is a bloody assassination.
(4) The Selati Line is an early 20th century Transvaal train story, road story, flying story, a caper story and also a love story sequel to The Agreement and Lourenço Marques, lightly written and containing some tongue in cheek magical realism. A scene-stealing child prodigy keeps the characters in order (novel, about 150-k words).
(5) The Summer River is a dystopian novel (about 70-k words) set at Earthrise. A General, the déjà vu sniper, the Australian Prime Minister and the celebrity journalist witness the murder of a guerrilla who had also been an Australian university student; they discuss how best to write an appropriate book about ‘foreign invasions’ (novel, about 70-k words).
(6) The Annotated “Elizabeth.” I examine and offer likely explanations as to why my uncle (the late Dick Diespecker) published a mixed prose and verse novel in which his mother is portrayed as the principal protagonist and I suggest why the book Elizabeth (published by Dick Diespecker in 1950) is a novel and not a biography, nor a memoir nor factual history (non-fiction, about 24-k words).
(7) The Overview is a short Australian novel set at Earthrise (about 32.5-k words) and is also a sequel to The Summer River.
(8) Scribbles from Earthrise, is an anthology of selected essays and caprice written at Earthrise (about 32-k words). Topics are: family and friends, history of the Earthrise house, the river, the forest, stream of consciousness writing and the Earthrise dogs (Eartha and Henry).
(9) Here and There is a selection of Home and Away essays (about 39-k words). (‘Away’ includes Cowichan (Vancouver Island), 1937 (my cabin-boy year), The Embassy Ball (Iran), At Brindavan (meeting Sai Baba in India). ‘Home’ essays are set at Earthrise and include as topics: the Bellinger River and floods, plus some light-hearted caprices.
(10) The Agreement is a novel set in Mozambique and Natal during December 1899 and the Second Anglo-Boer War: an espionage yarn written around the historical Secret Anglo Portuguese Agreement (1899). Louis Dorman and his brother, Jules, feature together with Drina de Camoens who helps draft the Agreement for the Portuguese Government. British Intelligence Officers, Boer spies and the Portuguese Secret Police socialize at the Estrela Café (about 62-k words).
(11) Lourenço Marques is the sequel to The Agreement. Mozambique in September 1910. The Estrela café-bar is much frequented by a wide range of patrons and now also provides music: Elvira Tomes returns to LM from Portugal and is troubled by an old ghost; Drina and her companion return with an unexpected new member of the family; Louis faints. Joshua becomes a marimba player. Ruth Lerner, an American journalist plans to film a fiesta and hundreds of tourists visit from the Transvaal. Drina plays piano for music lovers and plans the indelicate removal of an old business associate (novel: about 75-k words).
(12) The Midge Toccata, a caprice about talking insects (inspired by ‘Lewis Carroll’s’ i.e., by Charles Dodgson’s Alice stories). This book has a splendid new cover designed by my cousin, Katie Diespecker in British Columbia (fiction, caprice, about 26-k words).
(13) Happiness is a short novel set at Earthrise. The ‘narrator’ is again the very elderly ex-ATA flier who unexpectedly meets and rescues a bridge engineer requiring urgent hospitalisation: she gets him safely to hospital in his own aircraft. She also ‘imagines’ an extension to her own story, one about a small family living partly in the forest and on the riverbank: the theme is happiness. Principal protagonist is a 13-years old schoolgirl, apparently a prodigy: she befriends a wounded Australian Army officer and encourages his plans. Her parents are a university teacher and a retired concert pianist. The family pets can’t resist being scene-stealers in this happy family (novel, about 65-k words).
(14) The Special Intelligence Officer is part family history as well as a military history and describes the roles of my late grandfather (Capt Rudolph Diespecker) in the Guerrilla War (1901-1902) in Cape Colony. The Guerrilla War was the last phase of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The title of the book is taken from Cape newspapers of the time: Capt Rudolph Diespecker was a District Commandant; his responsibilities included intelligence gathering that led to the capture, trial and execution of a Boer Commandant who was wrongly framed as a ‘Cape rebel,’ when he was legally a POW (Cdt Gideon Scheepers was never a Cape rebel, having been born in the Transvaal (the South African Republic,) one of the two nineteenth century Boer Republics (non-fiction, about 33-k words).
(15) The Letters From Earthrise, an anthology of my columns and other essays and articles written for the Australian Gestalt Journal between 1997 and 2005 (non-fiction and some fiction, about 70-k words).
(16) The Darkwood is a dystopian novel set at Earthrise in the not too distant future (about 80-k words). Earthrise is again central to other themes.
(17) Bellinger; Along The River is an anthology of personal essays relative to my home and the property, Earthrise, and the river at my doorstep (aspects and descriptions of the river, including flooding) (non-fiction, about 28-k words)
(18) Reflecting: an anthology of personal essays about the gardens, butterflies, a caprice, and other motivating factors at my home, Earthrise: mostly non-fiction (20-k words)
(19) Idling: is a collection of personal essays about seeing; a military history essay; a speculation about lawns; a working visit to Griffith University; periods of enforced idleness as “Don’s Days Out” in Coffs Harbour (mostly non-fiction; about 36-k words).
(20) Bear Fat A Memoir by Durbyn C Diespecker (1896-1977) with Notes and a Biography Edited by Don Diespecker. (This partial memoir that I’d invited in 1950 was written by my father between 1950 and 1969 and describes aspects of his life in South Africa, the UK and British Columbia, Canada; non-fiction; about 48-k words).
(21) Love. Selected Stories is an anthology of short stories old and new. Of these narratives three are set or partly set in Bellingen, Dorrigo, and the Bellinger River Valley; others are set in Africa, Greece, France, Iran and Spain. “The Bellinger Protocol” is a (magic reality) caprice. ‘Dragonfly’ is an interior monologue set in an imagined Vietnam; ‘Season of Love’ is largely interior monologue and set in the mountains surrounding Pilgrim’s Rest (then in the Transvaal). Several stories are fictionalized non-fiction (e.g., ‘A Circuit of Fields’ is excerpted from a non-fiction essay and set in pre-Revolutionary Iran) and most of the narratives derive from real people and real locales (about 36-k words).
(22) Success, a novel, begins in the air, gets under way in the familiar house on the Bellinger River, moves to Vienna and Paris and is apparently narrated by several writers including one or two who appear unnamed or unidentified. The story develops around Martha Haley, now in her seventeenth year and her new friend, Tom Pearce, a musical prodigy, aged seventeen: both Martha and Tom as well as their parents are on vacation in Europe (about 107-k words).
(23) Excess, a novel, begins at Earthrise in NSW, moves to San Francisco, where 22-years old blue stocking Martha Haley meets the 24-yerars old look-alike French journalist Melissa Bonnard. The pair join entrepreneur publisher Avra Palin in La Jolla where the trio avoid kidnapping and work together to document some violent history. Martha, before returning home at a slower pace rests briefly in Paris and changes her life’s plan in Montignac (about 98-k words); Happiness (13), Success (22) and Excess complete the trilogy.
(24) Mayfield is a stage play in two Acts (about 24-k words). Mayfield is an anti-war narrative set in the Newcastle, NSW (Australia) suburb of Mayfield in 1967 (during the Vietnam War). The play was given its first rehearsed public reading on July 24 1968 (sponsored by the University of Newcastle English Society) and read by members of the University. Production was by Joyce Williams. Although Mayfield is a suburb of the City of Newcastle this narrative was earlier and more distantly inspired in South Africa. The play is partly based on the true histories of some young South African soldiers of the Second World War who had been born in Pilgrim’s Rest (then in the Transvaal Province of the Union of South Africa). Pilgrim’s, as we used to refer to the village, was central to the oldest continually operated gold-mining district in South Africa. Those young men were the childhood heroes of the younger schoolboys, of whom I was one; some were killed in one of the Western Desert battles of the North African campaign of WWII. They included Dennis White and Waldo Boyes both of whom were killed on the battlefield and Radford Fullard who was seriously wounded at Sidi Rezegh and repatriated to South Africa where he died of his wounds in the TGME Mine Hospital at Pilgrim’s Rest. Prospectors in 1873 preceded the first gold mines at Pilgrim’s Rest. The prospecting and development of the mines that followed predate the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 and the establishment of Johannesburg. Pilgrim’s Rest is now a provincial heritage site in Mpumalanga (formerly the Transvaal) and part of the Republic of South Africa. One of the blurred parallels between the Pilgrim’s Rest of 1941 and the Mayfield of 1967 is that Pilgrim’s Rest was very much a “company town.” The hospital and many of the houses and other buildings in addition to the Central Reduction Works and all of the mines, transport and infrastructure, were company-owned by TGME Ltd., (the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates). Mayfield, NSW is adjacent to what was the BHP (the Broken Hill Proprietary Company’s) Newcastle Steelworks (which began operations in 1915). In 1997 BHP Billiton announced the closure of steelmaking in Newcastle and the Steelworks closed in 1999 with the retrenchment of many employees and contractors. The Hunter Development Corporation on behalf of the NSW Government in 2009 announced its remediation strategy for the land on the former BHP Newcastle Steelworks site at Mayfield. Everything changes (from the Prologue).
On January 28 2008 at summer’s end
That liquid season of showers and storms
Allowed one sunlit Darkwood afternoon
The Bellinger high and nobly gleaming
A flood descending in summer’s-end softer light
And radio music in the house for one watcher as
An off-road vehicle stops with a family of four
Two olds and two youngsters primed to raft
On red blow-up mattresses that wildly bounce
Them high over the deep rapids swirling them
Through The Pool at Earthrise around the bend
Beaching them to repeat the shouting cycle
One boy and his sister and sentinel parents
Relishing the river the last day before school
The sibling rafters yelling to hold summer in
That one sublime afternoon
Wishing you all wellness. Thank you to all of my guest writers. Best from Don: firstname.lastname@example.org