Water work

                                    This subtle touch releases the brightness.

                                                The Blue Cliff Record – Case 78. Trans. Joan Sutherland

Rain blows in from the east, smelling of the sea over which it has passed. Soft, drenching, it continues for days until clear water begins to run in roadside drains; early one morning I disturb a brown falcon as it drinks what looks like bright air from the bowl of a puddle. The bird flies up, not very far, and turns its wild face to me as I pass. The winter creek flows loudly over and under the ground, disappearing into erosion tunnels, emerging yellow, foaming down along its course. 

Depressions in the landscape become little lakes and in the boulder fields on kunanyi / Mt Wellington, above the city of Hobart, a tarn appears that only fills during prolonged easterly rain, covering the round rocks of its bed with limpid bluegreen for a day or three. The water is breathtakingly cold but still my friend E dives in to find the electric life of that moment, while her little daughter, rugged up against the chill, hops from foot to foot on the stones at the edge and cheers her on. 

More and more fungi sprout in the continuing wet – a web of food and poison and medicine that extends under and on and through everything, now and then putting up parasols of olive green, sky blue, scarlet, white, along with creamy and golden and pink-brown corals and fluorescent orange shelves. Patches of red-and-white amanita start to come up under the windbreaks for a second time this season. It’s too wet to light the solstice bonfire. 

The black cockatoo flock continues to grow – several mornings I count more than a hundred birds as they fly over from the southwest and every fold in the landscape fills and overflows with their calls and cries. A few birds wheel down to visit the banksias in the garden, biting into the cones to find seeds; most continue onward to stands of wattle and eucalypt and conifers that offer the prospect of food. The ground under the pines is carpeted with shredded cones. 

It gets colder. Plant growth slows, though clumps of poa and cocksfoot still sprout in the grassy spaces around the house and the grevilleas and hakeas flower on; birds and insects are loud there. Everything stays drenched and glittering. Parrots are eating the (small, hard, unripe) olives so J picks some and I put them in brine to ferment – they’re almost all seed but taste good when they’ve cured a few months, their horrible bitterness transformed through and through by microbial life that the salt liquid invites. Tomatoes continue to ripen in the polytunnel but they’re really coming to an end now and I have to cut away spots of mould and rot so that we can go on tasting summertime, here in the darkest part of the year. 

Looking for inside work I transfer the flageolet beans that have been drying in an open basket to an airtight container. I left them out much longer than they needed because I love to scoop and pour their cool pale greenness from one hand to another. Visiting children delightedly sink their arms into the silky pool.

Days become shorter and shorter and then, for a couple of weeks before and after the solstice, there’s a pause when there’s no noticeable change in the nights’ length. During a zoom session here in the winter dark I listen clear across the world to a trickle of midsummer morning birdsong. 

I'm thinking about avoidance and approach and how, as a teenager, I learned to plunge into tormenting thoughts and feelings, not because I thought it would help but because, desperate as a cornered animal, I understood that avoidance hadn’t worked. With (I felt) nothing to lose, I remember throwing myself towards a sense of shame and worthlessness that towered over me like a wave. And being astonished by the way the feelings washed over and through me, transformed from monstrous abstractions to creaturely sensation. Just human grief, after all, and a turbulence of other emotions that lifted and rolled me and, in the end, set me down. Of course the wave gathered again (and again) but I knew from that time that once I put aside my resistance and entered the surge I had nothing to fear.

Thinking too about the work that’s to be done in transforming the pain, inflicted and received, of our colonising and colonised history. Avoidance isn’t working here either; refusal to acknowledge trespass and murder and theft hampers and weighs heavier with time. The medicine now is in our tears and the unseen work they befriend that frees us to act justly.

Overhead as night comes down, welcome footfalls of this season’s quoll young as they patter over the iron of the roof, the unmistakable sound of play in their fluid turns and leaps and pauses. At this time of year quoll droppings, instead of being packed with insect husks as in the summer, are neat parcels of fur with the teeth and jawbones and delicate ribs of rats and mice wrapped up inside. Ringtail possums are active on the thoroughfare of the roof too, as youngsters look for new territory and mothers with growing young in their pouches look for food. Agile climbers of the slenderest twigs, tightrope artistes on wires and cables, they seldom come to the ground if they can help it – there they are slow and vulnerable. In the space of a week I see two dead by the road, hit by cars, and under a horizontal limb in the shelter of an exocarpus, the intestines and tail and part of the back legs of another, probably taken by an owl. 

Into every cell I breathe the touch of a day of sun and still air, faintly warm, that expands at the heart of a high-pressure system, before rough weather spirals on across the island. Later I sit too long at the computer and get cold, then dance to warm myself up – taking good advice from the rock and roll doctor – to the music of Hazmat Modine and Abigail Washburn and Little Feat and The Muttonbirds. I bring the ancestors a cup of water and ask for their help – to turn poison into medicine, to recognise the numbness that passes for ease, the sorrow that heals – as I step into the bath of all that is. 


Joan Sutherland. Acequias and Gates. Cloud Dragon, 2013: Gates 134. https://joansutherlanddharmaworks.org


  1. I have loved spending these intimate wintery moments with you on the hill. Your writing is becoming more and more beautiful.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog