Thursday, Katoomba, Clear

The winter solstice. A thin day. A liminal day. The one where we start to return to light. Soon enough, if you’re perfectly still, you’ll start to feel the tiny vibrations of new buds — the coming of spring — but not before at least another month of crystal cold mornings.

Miles and I were in the garden all afternoon, moving dirt from where the old roses were to where our little apple orchid will grow. We dismantled an old garden bed made of weathered railway sleepers, ready to be re-used as the the orchard’s retaining wall. Surprisingly few discoveries in the dirt there, which had been undisturbed for at least a decade. There was one little lizard hibernating in a spike hollow. Some ghostly mushrooms too, hidden entirely underground, long, thin, delicate, almost transulscent, almost bioluminescent. I’ve read widely on soil, I’ve seen so many pictures, cross sections, I’ve held it in my hands countless times but you can only really start to fully understand soil by digging into it. You have to feel it in your arms and your back, its physical body sensed by moving through topsoil to clay to rock. You have to smell its rich, peaty aromas hanging in the still air of night to truly understand what it’s made of. You must watch the magpies and bowerbirds come to pick over what has been unearthed – they see the things that we cannot, and it is only through them that we can learn about what lives inside the loam.

We were deep into our work when suddenly the day was over. I had my head down for so long and when I did look up at the sky I saw a a pink contrail arching all the way over to the horizon, with pure winter darkness consuming it from the east. The last evening of the year that will be over so quickly.

In two days it will be Miles second birthday. On the day he was born it snowed. I will never forget the feeling of looking out onto the whiteness everywhere from our hospital window, holding this tiny creature in my arms, standing on the precipice between my old life and my new one. His eyes were so dark then. For the longest time they were icy blue, the eyes of a winter baby. Now they are a grey blue with tiny little fissures of green and gold, like rivers of experience and understanding starting to flow, coloured by chloroyphyl and sandstone and clouds, this place embeded within him, molecules exchanged with these mountains.

I think my strongest memory of this time will be the sounds of the glaze separating from the clay on Chloe’s new cups. Ever so small crystalline expositions. The pops of glass mirroring tiny changes in the atmosphere. The perfect soundtrack to these days of frosted lawns and clear blue skies.

Tuesday, Katoomba, Overcast

One of the surest signs of a change in weather is the cacophony of the Kookaburras. This is particularly true at the end of a long period of rain – which is happening right now. An eight day stretch of wet weather finally broke yesterday.

There have been indicators the change was coming. On Saturday afternoon, just before sunset, Miles and I stood on the train station platform and watched a thick mist move across town to the west. In its wake we saw little patches of blue sky appear, revealed by bits of cloud torn away from the sky like wet paper. Sunday morning was mostly clear, followed by more rain in the afternoon. It was like a drill, the heavens testing to make sure that the sun still worked. Yesterday was still cold but completely cloudless:  perfectly clear and bright with a night full of stars. It was such a dramatic change from the heavy, low, and grey atmosphere that has been hanging over us all week that it was almost surreal. Today is cloudy but the clouds are moving elsewhere. A migrant sky. I look up and all I see is white. I look up again and it’s blue. This dance continues and I predict that we will hear the Kookaburras this afternoon. They’ll be calling it, as they always do. The end of the big long rain. Time to feast, time to fly, until it’s time to find shelter again.

Saturday, Leura, Overcast

The dandelion clocks tell just one time and it’s winter.

The bare limbs of the trees point only in the directions of where the winter is coming from and where the winter is going to.

The fallen leaves are the moulting of summer. They are a graft to cover the frozen earth.

It is the forgetting time. You must plan to remember the winter.

Monday, Leura, Overcast

It is morning and I look out through the kitchen window. The window is cobwebbed in the corners, framing the glass which has the visible residue of years old rain drops all over it. Storm maps. Perhaps it should be cleaned, but if we want to see outside, it seems only fair that the outside should be able to see us.

In the distant east, beyond the pines, I see the sun tear open the sky. A warm, bright, wound of light. A fire in heaven that nothing will escape. Even the shadows are for the sun. It doesn’t so much burn away the darkness as it bleeds it away, the way that blood expands on a gauze, moving outwards from orange to pink to white, expanding into the day.

We have spent the last few days in the garden, excavating dead soil, replacing it with rich life-giving loam in which we will plant herbs and vegetables. Our digs become accidentally archeological. We find sections of clay pots, the broken neck of a glass bottle, sea shells, snail shells buried deep underground, some sort of fabric that falls apart in our hands. Yesterday we began to exhume what was once a pond but has become a sort of midden for old pot plants. A shallow grave for plantless roots. A mostly soil filled tarpaulin held down by large pieces of sandstone. Beneath one rock I found a frog, flat and brown and dirty. How long had he been there, this remnant? The water and his kin long since gone. Why does he stay? He seemed to observe me for a moment and then was gone.

All around us the last of the autumn leaves fall. The few remaining maple leaves have turned brown and shriveled on the branches, waiting for the next big wind to carry them to ground. On the footpaths, they are trampled into a fine red dust, like dried blood slowly giving way to the bones of winter.

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.