Monthly Archives: November 2015

Split Hemispheres

It was so cold last night I unfurled my second doona. This morning when I was dazzled awake by the late spring sun, I could feel a little bit of Antarctica strafing my snout. And then, when I strolled up Knocklofty, there was Mount Wellington glowing with a generous dusting of snow.

We are three days away from the beginning of summer, and I am filled with unseasonable zing.

I am beginning to wonder whether the indecision that sometimes assails me originated in the move I made to the antipodes all those years ago, and never quite being able to reconcile myself with the inversion of seasons. The chill of this morning gladdened me not just because I thrive in the cold, but because my Anglo-Swiss soul is appeased. It knows it should be heading for winter, that November should be drawing the autumn to an end, and that it should not have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from spring into summer. My Tasmanian body, though, is alert to the burgeoning vegetable patch, roses, raspberries and early daylight. It tries to persuade my retreating soul to lighten up, mingle, stay awake, eat lettuce, be more vocal, and spend more time with friends.

The hemispheric split is not unlike the disjunction that any being who has been uprooted from familiar territory battles with; the constant to-ing and fro-ing between our own lived lives and the tendrils that hold us to the past and dear ones whose lives continue elsewhere. The way this makes us feel both plagues and enriches us. It ebbs and flows. The hemispheric split has no such nuance. It is defined by its opposition and that opposition is directional.

I know in my mind that we are all heading in the same direction – that just as night follows day, summer will follow spring, no matter where I am, but the hemispheric split creates Spring/Autumn, Summer/Winter as dichotomies. And I feel as is if my soul is heading in one direction while my mind is heading in the other. No sooner does one thought or feeling enter my mind, when its polar opposite presents itself in equal measure.

Is it any wonder that I so often find myself in such an agony of self-doubt?


These last few days I have spent what might amount to hours squatting under the oak tree, occasionally weeding my new vegetable patch with my good paw, but often just listening to the rustling leaves and pondering. It might be hours, but time has been irrelevant. My familiar, Boo, when not hunting skinks, has been nestled in a pile of lawn clippings beside me.

A dozen or so years ago, when I had just embarked on a big work, and I was moseying my way down to the university, I decided to take a short cut through a piece of wasteland. The grass was so long it tickled my snout but what drew me in was the sight of blackberries so luscious, that they dragged down the branches that held them. My eyes were entirely tethered to the prize and I narrowly missed stepping on a fledgling oak. I knew that any day soon not only would the blackberry bushes be slashed but the grass scythed, too, and that this little oak would be decapitated. We moles are good little diggers and I had it up in no time. I rummaged in my rucksack for my notebook, ripped out a page, origame-ed a cup to hold my new protégé, and headed off for the university. The blackberries were all but forgotten.

I planted the tiny oak thinking of Great Uncle Mole who had not long since died, and remembering the big oak near his burrow that shaded us from both sun and rain when we had our picnic treats. Pies and hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and relishes and shrimps (outside food was always so different from – and so much better than, – indoor food); we would eat ourselves into a stupor. And at the bottom of the hamper, for after the very last crumb of fruit-cake, there would be a book wrapped in a linen drying-up cloth. We would settle our backs against the trunk of the great oak so that Great Uncle Mole could read out loud while Uncle Ratty slept off his stout. My absolute favourite was Argonautica and the story of Jason and his ship, the Argo, that had the gift of prophecy because it contained timber from the sacred oak of the oracle at Dodona. ‘This tree’, Uncle Ratty would say, one eye opening from his snooze, and his paw knocking at the bark behind him. ‘This oak was grown from an acorn from that very tree.’ And then, as night follows day, Great Uncle Mole would tell him not to tell such porkies.

Finding the oaklet felt like an auspicious start to to the big work I had ahead, if I could keep it alive, that is.

I hadn’t really thought of the practicalities. My burrow isn’t on the kind of grand estate that can easily accommodate an oak or three. Perhaps I didn’t have much confidence in its survival. My record for keeping plants alive has not been good, but this oak is a pretty sturdy tree now, perhaps some twelve feet high. It will no doubt become sturdier, spread its branches further, cast shadows over neighbours’ gardens.

And there are now eleven baby oak trees rising in the vegetable patch under its boughs.

I look at their brave, spindly little stems and imagine 17th century ship-builders eying them up for their curvature. It took about 700 oaks for the Dutch East India Company to build its ship Batavia. By the end of that century of trade and exploration, Europe’s forests were mere shadows of their former selves. They reckon on an oak needing to be at least a hundred years old before its timber can be considered, but I am not thinking of harvesting. I can’t even bring myself to weed them out now.

And there is another life in the balance just now, one that takes a great deal more pondering as I hunker under the oak tree. The purring familiar nestled on the grass clippings is wasting away. I have to decide whether to intervene or let be. At Dodona, the priestesses listened for the oracle’s pronouncements in the rustling leaves of the oak tree, and I know it is in the timelessness of this little spot in my garden that my decision is being made.

Beyond Words

What is it that is so beguiling about silence? Retreating for nine days has only made me value it more. It wasn’t really silent. My listening was, if anything, more acute than usual. Feeble though they are, my little mole-ears became fine-tuned to the sound of birds cooing, cawing crowing, chortling; wallaby tails thumping; gravel under paws; ticking; traffic hums, roars and screeches; corduroy rubbing against pelt; bubbling, lid-clattering boiling water; dogs barking; toast-crunching; my neighbour filling a watering can, and wind straining the hinges of the window. The kind of silence the retreat provided was a wordlessness. I neither spoke nor got spoken to, I listened to no wireless programmes. I admit that once or twice I lifted my pen, allowing a word or two to escape into my journal. On the other hand, I eschewed all reading – all except one book, that is. I allowed myself to leaf through and absorb Warnscale,* one landmark at a time. It is a book that uses words in a painterly way, sparingly interwoven with drawings and maps, peepholes and photographic vignettes – each word inviting layers of thought rather than pace of progress. When my retreat came to an end and with it the book, I felt bereft on both counts. But a retreat cannot exist without its counterpart, a re-engagement with life, and that was also what the book was working towards.

When I emerged I felt no inclination to read, could not imagine what might be as nourishing. But then I felt a weight as I swung open the back door. My neighbour had hung a bag on the handle. In it was a book she had borrowed from the library: Shaun Tan’s Sketches from a Nameless Land.* Perfect.

The Nameless Land is a country Tan evolved for his book The Arrival* about a decade ago. The two words in the title are the only ones used. And it is crucial to the impact of the story that this should be so. The story is very simple. A refugee lands in a strange place and has to makes sense of it. In a series of exquisite drawings, some grounded in familiar photographs of forced migration, some fantastical – with strange codes, animals, foods, and transport systems of the new world. The wordlessness and strangeness forces a reader into the same bewilderment as the refugee.

It is a bewilderment that clutches at me somewhere between my chest and my throat, and hurls me back to a time when I was plucked from a life in which I was quite an articulate wee mole, and deposited into one that was completely incomprehensible. At the school in this new place I understood none of the rules, had no idea about codes of conduct. I knew none of my fellow pupils nor their language or the language in which were being taught. A blank sheet placed in front of me remained blank. I did not understand the instructions, nor had I the means to express any thoughts. The playground customs were baffling, the games a mystery. The only thing clear to me was my position at the bottom of the pecking order. It was terrifying. Too terrifying to even to pique my curiosity in the way the refugee in The Arrival takes in his new world.

But The Arrival calms me, too. Deeply calms me. I feel understood by it. Because it has no words there is an egalitarianism about the experience. Its depth was enhanced even further a few years ago. Lying on a beanbag in a wharf shed – the kind that refugees and emigrants are corralled into like cattle, – I watched images of the drawings projected onto screen while Ben Walsh & the Orkestra of the Underground played an especially composed accompaniment.*

Why is it that I spend my life at a desk wrestling with words when it is images and music and movement through the landscape that move me?

Is this what is so alluring about the silence – that it quietens my word-heavy world and allows my other senses to surface?

*Louise Ann Wilson. See my post Paw Prints, 2 October 2015
*Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006), Sketches from a Nameless Land (2010)
*The Arrival – Shaun Tan, Ben Walsh & the Orkestra of the Underground