Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Autumn's Gifts

In Australia autumn often comes late, even up here in the mountains, as summer likes to lazily linger on into March and April. Changes to the Earth’s climate are no doubt exacerbating this phenomenon, bringing too-warm days and too little rain, and this year has been no exception. Though for some time the nights have been cooler, and the mornings brisk, the days have remained mild, and it was well into April before I noticed more than a tinge of autumn colour on the trees. Yet I have still been marking the season’s gifts, and all the usual residents and guests around me.

Little garden skinks aplenty, along with impossibly tiny babies, making the most of the warmth and sunshine, their rainbow-sheened skins shining as they bask, and climb, and fight in rolling tumbles. A larger skink, who I suspect is an eastern water skink, also took up residence; as did another even larger member of the skink family: a blue-tongued lizard. 

Eastern water skink
Grasshoppers and butterflies, and bee-hum around the blooming fuchsia. 

Greenish Grass Dart (also called Southern Dart or Yellow-banded Dart)
Lines of industrious ants carrying provisions to fill their winter stores. And tiny insects, which I can only assume are some species of gnat, flying in oscillating dances, as if they are planets orbiting minuscule, invisible suns.

Gnat squiggles
The morning and afternoon migrations of sulphur-crested cockatoos, with their attendant screeches (my house regularly seems to be directly beneath their flight path); and the occasional, and much-longed-for, cries of yellow-tailed black cockatoos, mournful but beautiful. The sound gives me shivers.

Magpies have been making holes in the lawn as they dig out worms and grubs to eat, and there has been much flapping and whooshing of wings and clacking of beaks as they spar.

Of course, there has been an eastern spinebill, a tiny honeyeater (sometimes with one or two friends), that comes to sit in the callistemon and pipe his/her little call, preen his/her feathers, and feed on fuchsia nectar, wings a-blur. This year’s bird has been considerably shyer than the little fellow I got to know over the past couple of years, so I have had to keep my distance, and take advantage of the rather spectacular zoom on my camera, to capture his/her portrait.

Eastern spinebill
The ever-present crimson rosellas twitter and whistle their adorable conversations, and sit high in trees making soft cracking sounds as they nibble seeds.

In the garden there have been strawberries and tomatoes gradually blushing to red, while a pumpkin grows by the front steps. And, on a walk a little while back I found a shining golden, and no doubt magical, mushroom!

Until recently, the trees at the small park not far from my house—I believe they are bald cypresses—were still vividly lime green. Only now have they transformed to fiery copper, and eventually these bright leaves will fall (hence the tree’s name). 

Though late summer and autumn are the times for the harvest, for reaping the plentifulness of summer’s fruiting, I have not completed a story since the year renewed itself. Summer is a difficult time. While I love warm days and the freedom that comes with wearing less layers of clothing, the heat and humidity don’t agree with me. Though it doesn’t even have to be hot. For some strange reason, summer always depletes my energy. I find it difficult to do much physically, and very difficult to THINK, which I clearly need to be able to do to pull together all the various idea-strands that weave themselves into a story. Though I have had ideas—some exciting ones—I have not been able to follow them through, to put them together satisfactorily. 
Perhaps the story is not ready. 

Perhaps I am not ready for the story. 

I cannot find the rhythm.

Earlier in the year I read Ursula Le Guin’s book The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, and I was struck by Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on writing, as related in the quote which gives the book its title. Woolf wrote in a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. (280)

Le Guin adds to this:

Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she [Woolf] says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move; and the writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, to find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words. (281)

It is quite true. Writing is about rhythm, and right now, I do not feel it. At least, not for the writing of stories. Besides, there is so much more that I need to know, to learn, to absorb and experience before I can write. 

Though I had hoped to read less this year to make more time for writing, I must confess, I am not doing too well on either score. I have written little of note so far, and have still been reading, perhaps not to excess, but not much less than usual (and the list of books I want to read, along with the things I subscribe to, and blogs, and articles, only seems to get longer and longer). Yet as Robert Macfarlane says in his book on landscape and language, Landmarks, ‘Before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer’s life’ (11). 

Perhaps it is not so bad to spend my time reading, for I am simultaneously learning to write, and learning in general, absorbing ideas and influences—what I like to think of as ‘literary osmosis’. The writing itself will come again when it is ready. I am sure of this.

I have now been writing creatively for a little over two years, and while I made great strides last year, writing several short stories and a novella, and developing well beyond what I had achieved the previous year (in part because I joined a writers’ group, which has motivated me to write much more), this past summer and early autumn has stopped me in my tracks. It doesn’t surprise me, feeling as I always do at this time; yet it still frustrates, in both senses of the word: thwarting my ability to do, and exasperating me emotionally and mentally.

I can only acknowledge the particular creative season that I am occupying at the moment, and accept its difference from the natural season occurring outside. While it is all abundance, I am lying fallow. Yet such dormant, slowing-down times are needed, as much as the times of abundance and activity. 

I am feeling a particular need to return to sources, to the things that I loved when I was younger. So I am slowly pursuing a re-reading of all six of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the first four of which I read when I was about twelve or thirteen, and I am surprised at what forgotten things have leapt out from my memory. In particular, a line from A Wizard of Earthsea, in which the wise, quiet mage Ogion says to his young and impatient apprentice Ged, ‘To hear, one must be silent’ (The Earthsea Quartet, 26). That deceptively simple piece of wisdom made a big impression on me as a teenager, quiet girl as I was. Yet it means so much more now, for I consider listening to be of vital importance. Listening to the inner voice and to dreams. Listening to the more-than-human voices. Listening to the Earth herself. This is something that, for the most part, we have forgotten how to do. We surround ourselves with our human-made sounds, and the countless distractions of the digital age, and we have forgotten that we can, and should, listen to nonhumans, and to the land.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged discovers ‘that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees’ (82).

To listen. To learn, in silence. To try to understand what the Others—the more-than-human beings around us, both breathing and non-breathing—are saying, through their sounds and embodied languages, their movements and gestures, their non-movement and rootedness. The many ways in which they interact with, and create, the world. 

Listening—truly listening—with heart as well as ears, is hard. It does not come easily. 

Yet I sat on the front steps and listened, and watched, and in this fallow time, I was urged by who and what I heard and saw to write this piece. 

Perhaps I was listening well after all.

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