the dead and those not yet born returning
speech in fragments like a gust of bells
In the forest downhill from the house, T finds the beak and jawbones of a raven, skin and feathers of the face still attached – no skull, no other bones or feathers scattered around. A few days ago, I heard a tremendous noise of ravens gathered, calling. What could have killed this bird? Eagles and hawks would do it if they could, but the ravens are alert to danger, quick to fly from threats they can’t meet, quick to gather in mobs against those they can. Was it a masked owl, the leading edges of its flight feathers burred to silence – an ambush of talons out of darkness?As the Days of the Dead come near, I’m thinking about the ecologies of haunting in this place and everywhere; how everything – each plant, each creature, and the stones, the water, the air – even fire in its season – each thing carries its particular history which is all of history always present within it. And so everything interconnects in and across place and time. Everything, for better and for worse, is haunted by all that has gone before – and by all that’s to come, sorrows and joys. After centuries of murder and deracination, centuries of extraction as a way of life, what is a way that enables repair and flourishing among and between the living and the dead?
Wave after wave of rain sweeps down from the tropical northwest, and front after front draws in moisture from the east off the Tasman, so that mainland rivers, and some rivers in the north of the island, go up and over their banks and levees and into the towns built alongside and for them. Flash floods scour catchments then drain into river systems, and a slow, relentless surge moves towards the sea. Higher levee banks are hastily bulldozed in towns downstream and new rows added to sandbag walls hour by hour as the water rises.
Here it’s just wet and not very cold, and plants grow wildly, bees work in the rain, birds sing through the downpour and bandicoots go shoulder deep in the soft ground after worms. Wallabies grow fat on new grass. In the drains beside the steep section of road outside the gate water runs so fast it cuts through all the layers of the roadbed to the 19th century foundation of worn river rocks; in places, the sandstone bedrock shows through.
Around each dam, swamp hens give up their death metal rants to sit on eggs and raise hatchlings. Adults search the damp ground for morsels, and beaktip to beaktip, feed them tenderly to black fluffball chicks, speaking a continuous soft drumming that seems to come from deep inside and also from the air, everywhere at once. Banjo frogs plunk melodies against a deafening background of froglets. No swans this year, and the surface of the dam seems empty without them. Last season the male disappeared and three of the four cygnets died – two in the first days of life and the third when it was almost grown. What happened to the female swan and her remaining child?Now the moon wanes and all night in the old-moon dark, the repeating downward trill of a fantailed cuckoo sounds through the garden. The turning world swings Jupiter across the sky, and later the Pleiades with Orion following, and finally the thin moon rises and still the cuckoo calls and calls, into daylight. A wave of blossom passes over the orchards and fruit begins to set – pears, apples, quinces, cherries. Elder and hawthorn brighten the hedges – another year! The light itself is green, the air grassy, leafy.
Meteorologists report a solar flare strong enough to create an aurora. When night comes, through gaps in cloud at first we see only the lights’ mysterious precursor, a red glow, nearly invisible, like the faintest safelight in this huge darkroom where everything develops. Later we step out under the stars to see shafts of light playing along the southern horizon. Long exposure photographs show the beams rising through bands of vivid green, magenta, purple. Three days later, intense thunderstorms cross the continent from central desert to eastern seaboard as everything crackles with the buildup and discharge of energy that has entered the planetary field. Downpours add to the strain on pumps working day and night to empty water that gathers behind levees and sandbags in the flood zones.
Out along the ridge, in the forest understorey of goodenia and peaflower, pomaderris and musk and broomheath, love creeper hoists its blue flags on threadlike vines rising leafless, near invisible, from the leaf litter. Above this, high in the canopy of a straggly regrowth stringybark, currawongs feed wheezing-clamouring nestlings in their swaying cradle of sticks, bringing them lizards, frogs, insects, other birds’ young, kitchen scraps from nearby houses – whatever’s on the menu, the parent birds make two trips in the time it takes me to pass by.
One foot in front of the other on the rainy road, I walk in cloud descended to the hilltop, days dark under the slow sky, moonwane nights darkening further towards an eclipse. Wars go on and rumours of war continue to build. I think about how, just down the road from any frontline and in the ruins after the frontline shifts, the world goes on; not every nest is broken and the lives of peoples of that place mostly continue – lives of microbes and fungi, of the leaf-sprouters and the scaly and smooth and furred swimmers and runners, and the humans – most make their way somehow, within sound of the guns. And the guns do fall silent in the end, for a time.
This place too has been a frontline where much was lost, where wounds call down along the course of generations and where sorrow rises so high some drown before flourishing returns. Now at the thinning between worlds, Halloween, as I hold the raven mask in my hand, blessed dark accompanies this grief. In it I know that each creature is the boat of all that came before; each of us a raft for ancestors who can rest, hallowed, when they’re at rest in us. We are the frontline, the flood zone, its ruins and the spring returning there.