the river washes me through

I walk with the road and the hillside it follows. Amazed again by the way the world answers pressure for pressure the roll of each step from heel to ball of foot to toes, answers my palm and fingers touch for touch as they rest on the bar of a gate or the trunk of a tree. Amazed by the way breath comes in from the whole sky.

Rain keeps falling and now the soaked ground lets it go. After a night of downpour, for the first time since the big dam was dug more than sixty years ago, water flows over the wall; T hurries to lower the outlet and bring the level down. When the wall becomes saturated it will collapse and wash downhill all the life it holds. Everywhere, the sound of running water.

And then two days of sun and just like that, full spring. Hillsides are yellow with wattle flower, flags of pollen fly from the pines, willow catkins roar with bees. The first pardalote calls, and first cuckoo. Firetail finches reappear in their customary places in short grass beside the garden beds and near the house – they’re not migratory so where have they been in the months when I haven’t seen them? And how do they survive when the grass seed they feed on is gone in the autumn and winter?

Weeds grow high and I begin to clear away oniongrass and sorrel and euphorbia from beds where daffodils and narcissus and leucojum are beginning to flower. So soon after so much rain I expect the ground to be cold, coming away in sodden clumps with the roots of things, but as above, though it’s wet, it’s already working, open, alive. Warming itself up. I find myself singing with it, an old call-and-response learned long ago, with a high, keening melody that weaves up and down above a two-note drone – a song that began as a yell between groups of women working a hillside in eastern Europe.

As a child, I encountered that drone-sound early via bagpipe music of the many settlers of Scottish descent in Aotearoa New Zealand, my father’s people among them. On Friday nights of my 1960s childhood when shops that usually closed at 5 pm stayed open till 9 (they were closed all weekend), families came to town to do their shopping, adolescents gathered to look at one another, and a highland pipe-and-drum band in full kilted and sporraned and bonneted regalia made circuits of the town centre, playing as they went. 

I couldn’t see the point of the drone then – why include sustained notes that don’t move to make melody – that in fact clash with the melody as it rises and falls. I was fascinated by the pipe music and repelled by it – the plaintive airs that stood my hair on end; the relentlessness of the drone that underlay them; the hissing menace of the snares. Later I learned many songs with drone parts, and came to love and deeply appreciate the back and forth approach of tune and drone, which no longer felt like dissonance but like a thrilling experience of meeting. The single note, in its very steadfastness, responds to every note that nears it. 

Wakeful, with a half moon caught in mist, with the astounding taste of leatherwood honey in a cup of tea, with the little tent of light from the lamp, I think about the latest attempt to capture traces of dark matter, in the rare occurrences when this mystery interacts with the physical world as we know it. Though hidden and near-undetectable, together dark energy and dark matter comprise (if explanations of the behaviour of galaxies hold true) 95% of the known universe – and they’re everywhere: 

We are so used to thinking of [dark matter] as out there somewhere, holding the stars in their orbit around the Milky Way … but it’s right here in this room. There is a gale of it blowing through us now. The problem with finding dark matter is it doesn’t shine or absorb light. It’s like a ghost, able to travel through solid walls, through the entire earth and never collide. It is a companion to our lives that we have never felt, tasted, touched or seen. And yet its gravity is responsible for us being here. Alan Duffy, astronomer

For the most recent experiment, instruments have been set up deep in a disused shaft of a working goldmine in Stawell on the Australian mainland. There it’s hoped that, shielded from electromagnetic interference generated by human activity and the background radiation of the universe, it will be possible to record and amplify the minute flash of collision between a sub-atomic particle of dark matter and the nucleus of an atom in a sodium iodide crystal. 

As night ends I hear the first blackbird singing in darkness then sun and vast blue above valley fog, and all of it – moonlight and lamplight and honeyed tea and unseen bird; sunlight on mist and the sky that holds it – imbued with, washed though by an immense and intimate flow.

And in the same way, thought and memory rush through me as the mind of the world moves and shapes itself. So I walk with my people’s ghostly pipe-band – tribal Scots invaders performing the 17th century military drills of their English colonisers, on Maori tribal lands confiscated or otherwise stolen less than a century before I was born – not in memory, out there somewhere, holding the stars in their orbits, immutable, but as memory – as a gale blowing through; as companions, all of us capable of transformation from hungry ghost to ancestor.

And I sing, falling and rising with the silent roar, the through-note that sustains me, listening for the tiny flash of meeting – here, here – down among the gold.

Alan Duffy, quoted in Alexander Darling and Ben Knight, ‘A Shot in the Dark.’ The search for dark matter – ABC News, 21 August 2022.


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