you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door …
Blackbirds chase on the roof above my head (I know the sound of their feet). Three males, beautiful in their glossy black, their daffodil-yellow beaks, are fighting for territory already. They face off, but don’t yet sing. One picks something up and drops it, picks it up and drops it – a snail? A stick? A small stone? Birds everywhere, their calls clear in the cool air that pools overnight now above the river, topped by a warm layer that bounces back all the sounds generated beneath it – vehicles on the road across the valley, conversations, dogs barking, geese sounding an alarm somewhere. The same cool air presses the river flat till it holds a reflection of every leaf of every tree along its edge; kayakers drift on its lambent surface, doubled, inverted.In the space of a couple of weeks, both T and I find eagle feathers, and T finds the tailfeather of a black cockatoo, still glossy, its yellow midsection bright. Feathers work hard; they wear out and now as the cold approaches it’s time for renewal. Many birds such as eagles and cockatoos moult some and keep others according to a pattern that leaves enough wing feathers to give uplift, enough tailfeathers to act as a rudder. Those retained in one moult will be dropped in the next.
It’s dry still, though the pastures are green. In the forest, seedling trees are dying here and there – those that have come up under mature eucalypts, and some of the more moisture-dependent understorey species like Pomaderris. Repeatedly, cloud-troupes pass over the island and move away south and east where they dump torrential rain over the Tasman. Here, only a scatter of drops.
I go walking in the mountains with A, climbing into cloud that blows and thickens in twists, forming and dispersing in the deepening mist. Cushion plants and Richea flowers are brilliant in light that always seems to come out of the ground up here, among outcrops of dolerite that have weathered to glowing orange, splashed with white and chocolate-coloured lichens. Everywhere the sound of water running, invisible under the mat of vegetation that grows in these alpine herb fields, until a little stream emerges now and then, fast-flowing. Wombat tracks crisscross the plain.I’m glad to see it like this – the plants healthy, verdant; it was dry for years. The mountains make their own weather as always, at present capturing moisture we miss, over on the other side of the valley in the rainshadow. As we climb, the sky darkens around us and the wind picks up; fine rain, stinging cold, touches our faces with its memory of snow. It seems to me that we walk upwards into night.
When wind threatens to blow us off the track, we descend to calm daylight and enter a river valley where fires that burned in 2019 took down many of the oldest trees – Eucalyptus regnans, tallest of all the world’s flowering plants. E regnans is a smooth-barked variety, moisture-adapted and vulnerable to fire. Among blackened stumps, fresh saplings of understorey and eucalypt species already stand head high. But the rainforest – myrtle, leatherwood, mountain laurel – will be much slower to recover; if the drying pattern continues and fires burn more frequently in what is now a mixed forest, these Gondwanan remnants will be replaced entirely by eucalypts.
As I work in the evening, a tree frog sits on the sill outside the glass, waiting for insects. It looks in, golden eyes catching the light, and calls – rain, it says, rain. And rain comes, sweeping in bands from the northwest then swinging west, south. Night pours through the house. I am sick at last, two years into the pandemic – tender throat, aching limbs, fatigue that throws me down, weighted, to drift in a fever-dream on the membrane between sleep and waking. There a body of pain rises to meet me, mirrored limb for limb, simply present without fear or recrimination.I remember how we learn not to cry out, how we teach ourselves to turn away from the ache close under the skin – pain we’re born into and pain we accumulate for ourselves, always there but sometimes, as now, amplified, reflected like sound and light over the river in autumn. Now I can greet this exile: Yes, I say. Here we are. Show me where it hurts. Like Enki’s mourners who witness suffering and open a door to transformation, I turn towards the moment – the moult! – to find out what stays and what can be relinquished; to wonder what strange plumage will grow in its place.
Derek Walcott. Collected Poems 1948–1984. Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1986.