I catch the poems I am fit for … A man’s readiness is his limit.The Boyhood of Fionn
Four ravens annoy a grey goshawk. They don’t attack it but follow it around, landing where it lands, yelling ‘Hawk! Down low! Here!’ I track the sound and step outside at each crescendo when the hawk takes wing from tree to tree. Without my glasses, hawk and ravens, brilliant in their contrast, look strangely magnified rather than diminished – unboundaried, unplaceable.
Moving leisurely, with an ‘Am I bothered?’ look, it ignores the ravens for an hour or more but is distracted enough to land at one stage in the big bluegum where brown falcons nested this year and they too get on its case. Goshawks are ambush hunters that rely on concealment, their prey not knowing where they are; eventually, unable to hunt or rest, this one starts to look sullen, takes itself into the dense, soft greenery of a young wattle where the ravens and falcons can’t easily follow. There it sits hunched, a cabinet minister after a press conference.
A week of blue and gold around the equinox, utterly still at ground level, and in the treetops, a breath. Bathing thornbills zzt zzt their irritation at the shrike thrush that also comes to the water; wrens work over the climbing rose for aphids on late leaves and flowerbuds; wattlebirds chase all through the garden.
Towards the end of this high quiet, I look at a weather map and find, in place of the usual complementarities of anticlockwise–clockwise pressure systems, a vast easterly flow across the Pacific, the Tasman, the Southern Ocean, and on over the landmasses of the mainland and Tasmania, out into the Indian Ocean. Startled, I zoom wider and find that easterly winds circle the entire southern hemisphere over land and sea in an unbroken flow except for some disturbance as the stream reaches the Andes, after which it resumes. Trade winds, usually confined to equatorial regions, have extended over half the globe.
And out of the flow, huge rains come, flooding coastal mainland areas that burned last summer, ash from those fires washing into the watercourses, the catchments. Rain blows far inland and in a single night, brings a year’s fall to arid districts. Then as the system begins to break up and the winds turn westerly once more, it tracks south across the strait to bring days of showery mist here in the southeast before heading back out to into the Tasman.
What was that? Coil of energy within a complex field where forces overlap, interconnect. A Thou coming to meet the I of late capitalism. A being of rain and wind that travelled from the east across the sea. Indigenous peoples whose country it moved through would have the stories, learned in deep time – where from, who with, where to.
I’ve found an outcrop where the magma upwelling that created the landform here has weathered through – molten rock that never broke the surface but lifted and fractured the layers above before it solidified. I knew there were places along the ridge where this weathering had happened but I’d never seen it, or hadn’t recognised it if I did. Trees grow from the stone, the splitter now split by cold and wildfire and the roots and burrows of living things, forces of the daylight world.
Like the rain, the hill is too big and too old for me to encounter directly. The Melukerdee people who have been in relationship with this land for tens of millennia whould be ready – as I am not – to understand and survive a face-to-face meeting with the Thou of this place, with its surges of deposition and disturbance, of violent heat and long cooling where crystals form along planes of stalled flow, place of springs and soaks that appear and disappear over and through and under.
But in the same way that a figure came out of the landscape of Ireland and into my dream to meet me on terms I could endure, sometimes envoys of this place arrive in forms that abolish incommensurabilities of time and size and distance. Brown bandicoot bursts into my sleeping mind as big as me, full to his skin with the hill’s heat and speed and slowness and juice, with power-to-find-food, power-to-find-sex. He shows me what this ridge can do and be and what’s needed here – cover and soft ground, grassland and forest, a multifarious web of living and dying that enacts itself in stately and comical dances of difference and commonality, unmoored from scales of measurement. Each thing large in its world.
Long grasses are straw-pale, but where hay was cut, pastures are green again. On the shoulder of a rise where the land drops steeply away, the old beurre giffard pear stands in silhouette, its leaves already shading magenta-red-orange-gold after a few cool nights, fruit ripe and falling. H and E come to pick them for pressing and we drink the juice – fresh and then after a few days, starting to fizz and later, fully fermented. We’ll put some aside, too, for fragrant vinegar, the cloudy mother hanging in its depths.
Thinking about how we levelled a space to build the house: the casual force of the bulldozer that scraped aside topsoil, gouging a platform into the slope of the hill. We pegged out the main room so that its angled corners would match midwinter solstice sunrise and sunset and planned for windows that would bring the low sun inside. At the time it was the best gesture we knew towards place but, geared towards our comfort and economy, it wasn’t relational. We looked outwards, but without anticipation of a returned gaze. I winced away from the scarred hillside but I don’t think I wondered how the ground responded, or whether there were presences here at all that should be acknowledged in greeting or request or exchange. We didn’t ask or offer the hill or its peoples anything. Thoughtless, unready.
In the medieval Irish story of the childhood of the hero Fionn, the young boy, wandering in exile, finds the poet Finegas who is to become his teacher sitting beside the River Boyne:
‘Why do you live on the bank of a river?’ Fionn asks.
‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind,’ answers Finegas.
‘How long have you been here?’ asks the boy.
‘Seven years,’ his teacher replies.
‘That is a long time,’ says Fionn.
‘And I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ says Finegas.1
Untutored, I had to sit for a long time while everything rushed and sparkled around me before I began to sense the life right there inside it, invisible in the glare. Inhabitants of the imaginal realm, ecosystem from which our worlds emerge, were going about their business all along, eyeing me as I stared right through them. Now I’m looking back, answerable, learning my place in the flickering crowd.
1 The Irish film, Song of Granite, re-enacts this scene as a meeting of the famous sean-nós singer Joe Heaney in old age with his boyhood self. (Dir. Pat Collins. Wildcard Distribution, 2017.)
James Stephens. Irish Fairy Tales (1920). New York: Dover Publications, 1996.