Friday, Katoomba, Cloudy

I spent most of yesterday in Sydney, a city that — through my increasingly rare visits — I’m finding not only difficult to enjoy being in, but increasingly difficult to simply navigate. Like so many modern cities, Sydney seems to be endlessly under construction, and presently, endlessly constructing roads. Sydney is all roads. Long, narrow, featureless roads that seem to spiral around and through eachother like strands of dna clenched in a fist. Relying entirely on my GPS (nothing feels familiar to me anymore, despite having previously lived in Sydney for many years) a series of sliproads, tunnels, and motorways eventually spit me out to where I need to go. You don’t travel through Sydney so much as you take one detour after the next through its grey patchwork of suburbs. There’s so much stuff in Sydney and yet it feels empty. All the things that are truly beautiful about it, the harbour, the parks, feel remote, inaccesible, overcrowded. Its weird cultural pockets are disappearing. It’s history is being outright erased. After finishing my city business I’m relieved to watch the highrises disappear behind me as I head west, through the rusting, weedy edgelands of Blaxland and Penrith. Home is just over the hills.

Back on the mountain the weather has changed dramatically. The Japanese Maple that looms over the north side of the house has turned entirely yellow and thinned out half of its shade. Overnight the temperature drops below freezing and from early morning we start recieving flurries of snow. Incredible. It is barely May, still deeply autumn. The strong winds and sun prevent any snow from settling, but it continues to fall. I watch flakes fall into my hand. They crumple like paper, disolve into tiny little pools, and then evaporate.

Wednesday, Leura, Sunny

Yesterday we watched a mountain burn.

Just down the road from our house is an escarpment that overlooks Mt Solitary – the lone mountain that sits in the centre of the Jamiseon Valley, surrounded by its dense forests. We often gaze upon it from Elysian Rock, a lookout that sits directly opposite the mountain and juts out ever so slightly across a eucalypt abyss below. It’s a place of peace and quiet and one that showcases the enormity of the valley. The light and the moods change daily, hourly. I’ve seen rivers of clouds roll 100 feet below us and I’ve been there on days so clear that the horizon seems endless, revealing previously unseen reservoirs and ranges. Mostly though it is silent and still with scarecely a visitor. The fire that took place yesterday changed all that though, at least for the afternoon.

The fire was deliberate, a controlled burning of over over 3500 hectares, the first of its kind at this particular spot since 1955 and the last that we will see in our lifetime. It is done for two purposes: to clear tinder in prepraration for the upcoming bushfire seasons and to help germinate trees such as the Banksia and Hakea. Over generations these plants have built up hard wooden shells to protect their seeds from the flame, but only release them after they have been scorched. Australia is a country born and raised in fire.

By the time we arrived, smoke had consumed the top half of the mountain completely. We watched as over a dozen seperate fires roared their way down from the sumit leaving a brownish heroin-white plume of smoke in their wake. These plumes collected at the top, sculpting themselves into a colossal cumulous ash cloud many times the size of the mountain. It was an astonishing sight. Apocolyptic in its scale, and in the uneasy feeling it gave by slowly blocking out the blue sky and the feeling that it was an unstopable force coming towards us.

At one stage a helicopter — completely dwarfed by the size of the plumage — appeared from and promptly disappeared back into the smog. It was carrying something by a long rope which at first I thought was water, but then realised was another fire bomb. I began to wonder about how these events are planned: winds assessed, temperatures checked, moisture examined, burn histories studied, emergencies prepared for. How can this element be unleashed and controled at this magnitude? I watch the path of flames and think of the eucalyptus oils fueling them, the countless seeds exploding, grasses cremated into nothing. The temperatures reach 800, possibly even 1000 degrees: halfway to melting the sandstone rocks that the trees grow from. All heat, all power, all consuming.

By the end of the day the smoke was visible everywhere. Not a patch of sky untouched. The smell though was surprisingly faint, barely noticable. As the sun began to set I noticed how eerily quiet it had become too. What was missing? Birds. Their absence most noticable in the late evening when we usually get the call and response of the magpies, the gangland screeches of the cockatoos, and the secretive trills of feeding rosellas. I wonder about their escapes. How soon did they know? How quickly did they mobilise? How many didn’t make it out?

I go to sleep knowing that the fire continued, lighting up a small patch of the colourless sky with a supernatural orange glow. Smouldering in the icy night air. Unlike today, there will be nothing to see once the flames are exhausted and all the fumes have cleared. The fire builds nothing, brings nothing with it, leaves nothing of itself behind but its memory in the blackened skeleton of the forest.

Friday, Katoomba, Windy

These are the messenger winds. The clearing winds. The preparing winds of winter. They roar through everything, turning the towns and forests into instruments. They quicken the end of the fall and the leaves give no resistance – they just surrender, detatching from the trees as if they were never attached to them in the first place. They let themselves be collected by little gales and then they are gone, only to be found again the following day in piles ready for the rake.

The wind is a disruptor. As the giant cumulus clouds are pushed across the sky, covering and uncovering the sun, the light keeps shifting from glare to darkness. I can’t concentrate. My mind wont settle. I prepare to find somewhere else to work, somewhere hidden from the battle in the sky, when suddenly the biggest rainbow I have seen in some time appears in the library window. Everyone in the building is drawn to it like a magnet of light. For a moment everything is still.

Thursday, Katoomba, Clear

The mornings are for peppermint showers, seasonal fruits, the oils of a freshly brewed coffee. They are for the senses, for resurection.

In the afternoon, the smoke of backburning and the smoke of home fires compete to make the atmosphere. The late April sun is perfectly round and bright crimson. The emperor of the sky. The only thing that will not be overcome by the suffocating haze.

As the light fades from civil, to nautical, to astronomical – we die again.

Tuesday, Katoomba, Clear

I can’t recall the last time that I slept the whole way through the night.

I keep waking, seemingly for no reason, at least twice. Usually once at around 3 and again at daybreak, three hours later. My mind wanders to the most mundane thoughts which give form to mundane dreams. Rest is kept away by little anxieties buzzing around my head, quietly in the background but impossible to ignore. Like flies trapped in the house.

Having a baby does this. I’m told that you never really sleep again. But I wonder too if it’s a product of the years. As we slowly approach our long, endless sleep – is this our minds way of savouring each waking moment? Forcing us into witness, trying to capture each taste of cool night air,  see each ray of moonlight. No matter how flavourless or how dim . We stop making sense of need. All things become scarce in the slipping away of time.

The world has stopped turnning. Silent. Still. I am awake in a forbidden moment.

Sunday, Leura, Mostly Sunny

The past few days have been difficult. Miles has been like the changing weather. Unpredictable. Capricious. Storms and calms. We managed to find a bit of peace in the afternoon with another visit to the community gardens. The neighborhood cat rejoined us as we wandered around a previously unexplored area of edible natives. Within its winding paths we found a dug-out firepit (recently used), an enormous tree stump, and three sheep – one of which was half shorn. Elsewhere we came across a massive Ponderosa Pine bleeding sap from one of its lopped branches. The blood of a phantom limb. Most of it hard hardened to a yellow candy crunch but I found two dollops slowly making their way to earth. The smell was intoxicating – fresh, green, minty, like a concentrate of fresh air. I kept opening and closing my thumb and index finger, feeling the epoxy snap of the resin between them. It never seemed to loose its stickiness as if recharged by each teasing. This is how we spent earth day.

I’ve been slowly making my way through Rising Tide Falling Star by Philip Hoare (by morning – it’s Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez at night). One of the most striking aspects of the book is how visceral it is. Hoare engages with the carnage of the ocean. The wreckage of storms and predatory animals. He comes across bisected waders, removed heads, entrails strewn about in the wake of violent seas. Blood and saltwater. The book ultimately illustrates just how deeply the ocean is embeded into our psyche, or perhaps our psyche in the ocean.

It makes me think back to my childhood holidays at my grandparents house on Soldier’s Point – a tiny peninsula of southern Port Stephens, once a checkpoint for hunting fugitive convicts. This house, designed by my father, backed straight on to the water. Although a peaceful and well kept bay area with scarcely a dead bird in sight, it did come with its own particular heady aromas and coastal atmospheres. Sometimes the beach would inexplicably smell of raw sewage. Mostly it was the scent of sunshine and brine. I was always fascinated by the tides, and the way that a whole new area of land would open up between the tidal movements. Recently I learnt that the whaling communities of Shetland have a term for this: Sjushamillabakka.

Often at high tide the beach would often become inundated with seaweed — Stackhouse’s seaweed, bulbous ballweed, bushy tangleweed, Zigzag cystophora, and Neptune’s string all pulled up from the seabed by boats or storms and drifted to shore. Some days you could barely see the sand underneath it. At low tide, most numerously in summer, the Soldier crabs would emerge from below and rattle their way across the grey Sjushamillabakka sand-mud, huddled together like an armoured carpet. They could sense it when my cousins and I would run out to meet them, quickly burying themselves in shallow graves of sand sludge. There would always be one or two not quick enough to hide and we would pick these ones up to examine their bright blue carapace. The rest we could feel crunch and crack underfoot.

One of my strongest memories of this place is also one of my earliest: my grandfather’s old workshop. I don’t recall ever seeing him down there — mostly I can only ever remember him sitting by the radio, looking out over the water — but I would often find myself down there in that museum of wood and rust. I remember the room being covered from floor to ceiling in tools, most I imagined to have come from the farm, packed like a giant suitcase with no final destination in mind. Only a few small windows let in narrow shafts of light in which bits of dust would dance their way to the ground. It smelt like oil and leather and slow decay. It smelt like the past. I remember being barely able to walk around in there.

Eventually the tools were gone (to where, I do not know) and the room was turned into a lounge area. New windows flooded the room, the new cane furniture, the generic wall art, with light. Now there was nothing but space, the room nothing but inviting, and yet I never felt interested in visiting anymore.

Thursday, Leura, Overcast

Something has changed with the local birds this season. They’re appearing more often in our yard, coming closer than ever before. Magpies wait with us while we finish our lunches. The secretive juvenile bowerbirds come bounding through the grass, diving from the bay tree. Not 5 minutes ago I watched Sulpher-crested cockatoos crawl above me along the translucent corrugated sheeting that connects the house to the garage, eating seeds from the drain pipes.

If it wasn’t already fairly obvious from the daily dropping temperatures of April — not yet over — I’d say that it’s a sign that we’re in for a long, cold, winter.

Wednesday, Katoomba, Overcast

Today does not promise to be especially interesting. My copy of Rising Tide Falling Star by Philip Hoare arrived today, and I managed to spill all of my morning coffee on the passenger side floor of the car, but otherwise it’s likely going to be a fairly uneventful work day. So I will write about yesterday again, at least the end of it when Miles and I took off for a stroll through Katoomba for the afternoon.

Our first stop was the train station for, naturally, a little trainspotting. On our way through the underground passage we came across a busker playing the violin. Miles has long been fascinated by the violin, but he seemed a little confronted by the performance at first. Perhaps it was the unexpected nature of it, or the echoey chamber where it was taking place, but he held on to my hand quite tightly for a while. Eventually he seemed to relax into it, enjoy it, and even happily agreed to hand over some coins at the end. Once we arrived on the platform we came across a man playing a Celtic harp. He wasn’t busking — just entertaining himself as he waited for his train — but it was a lovely thing to witness all the same. I noticed that he had a tattoo on his left arm, the same one that Bjork has on hers: Vegvísir – an Icelandic symbol which comes from a 17th century grimoire, designed to protect the bearer from becoming lost.

After the music, the trains, and the tattoos we found ourselves in an antique store hunting for old model cars. Most admired were the classic London buses in all their shades royal blue, forest green, and the classic red. It felt strange to be looking at these things behind glass cabinets, still in their original boxes and labelled with inflated price tags, with a little boy who would  love nothing more than to drive them with his hands across the ground.

From there we took in some urban bird spotting (mostly Pigeons, Indian Mynas, and House Sparrows) followed by some grocery shopping at the Co-Op, and eventually found ourselves in an overlooked little patch of land between the Cultural Centre, the looming Carrington Hotel, and the backs of some shops that line the main street. The best way to describe this area would be as a disused community garden. I have walked past it so many times now, wondering if it was in fact a community garden or not. I’m sure many people have. There are things growing but it’s mostly weeds and dried grass. The whole thing is fenced off but there are no signs indicating its use or ownership one way or the other. Entry wasn’t difficult at all. A small carpark at the back opens right into the garden but from the footpath a side gate opens easily. We wandered through the space, finding unripened pumpkins, bright yellow and orange marigolds, several varieties of chilies, cherry tomatoes freely crawling on the ground (in one case, strangely growing out of some broken concrete), and a few unidentified bulbs starting to appear in seemingly random spots. Despite its scrappy, unkempt landscaping, and the faraway fires that had filled the sky with smoke, it was a very peaceful place to be at that time. Miles kept very calm and quiet, occasionally picking a tomato or balancing on the various bricks and posts lining the garden beds.

Our solitude was eventually broken by a man with who told us that it was private property, although he was happy for us to stay a little longer, which we did. It seemed strange to me that someone would make a garden like this, in such a popular thoroughfare, in such a garden loving town, private. Yet another thing within arms reach that may as well be a million miles away.

Tuesday, Katoomba, Mostly Cloudy

The weekend winds have all but gone and in their wake, a deepening autumn chill. On our current daily walks we find fresh young pine-cones and shake their branches gently to make clouds of pollen for Miles to watch. Miraculous moments followed by sneezing and clothes covered in yellow coloured dust. Beautiful, vengeful, flourescent air.

Today in the library I find myself restless again, distracted by the ticking clock and the giant fluffy cumulus clouds with their silvery underbellies, slowly passing by the windows. I do like being here, there is something comforting about people moving around you to find books, or write, or read to their children, I just wish I had my own private space sometimes.

This morning I realised that there is a moment, shortly after sunrise, shortly after the sun streams through every window in the house, when it goes completely dark again. Without doing any investigation, my theories are either that this is when the rising sun goes behind the tops of the trees behind our house, or it reaches a particularly point where the house is sheilded by the angle of our flat roof. Regardless it’s an odd feeling to see the light briefly disappear and for everything to go cold again.

Listening to: Wildflower Hour Podcast

Sunday, Leura, Windy

The first of the seasonal winds has come – bringing down trees, powerlines, stirring up the dead leaves, and attacking me with allergens.

Strangely though our little house has been a place of calm. Even joy. Chloe made cinnamon star bread for our guests yesterday. We’ve eaten oat bread, blueberries, rhubarb,  and so many apples. Family time.

I have been finding it hard to stay focused. Too much to do. It’s hard to know what to prioritise. I’m also just trying to feel at peace with not really doing anything productive for a little while. The garden is in progress. I’m on top of work. Side projects are slowly being mapped out. Everything could stand to be moved along but I don’t want to miss out on these moments. The warming light of the morning sun. Miles laughing at the way the conifers bend left and right in the gusts. Slowly, patiently, doing very little.

I did however recently watch the Andy Goldsworthy documentary “Rivers & Tides” which was lovely. There’s a scene where, on a crisp early morning, Goldsworthy builds a sculpture of icicles that look like they’ve been threaded through a piece of rock on a remote stretch of beach. Once the sculpture’s complete the sun illuminates the ice – something he didn’t plan for or predict. It’s an extraordinary moment which has got me thinking again about creating systems and processes that allow for nature (or some unknown element) to complete or enhance the work.