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.