The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep …
Seamus Heaney, ‘Clearances: 7’
Overnight, it’s autumn in the angle of the light, in the smell of morning, in the beginnings of night fog on the river. The black cockatoo flock starts to gather ahead of winter, young ones chattering and wailing as they fly, excited and chasing each other like children at a festival. They come down into the garden as they have done since the trees we planted began to grow up, to eat banksia seeds and check the blackwoods for goat moth grubs, on their way to the pine windbreak, where they’ll make a start on new seeds forming in the green cones there.The 11-year cycle sunspot cycle will peak in a couple of years and already, repeatedly throughout the month, our star spits out plumes of plasma whose energy blows outward through the solar system, strong enough at times to push aside earth’s magnetic field and light up our night skies. A few days after each burst, there’s agitation in weather systems around the globe.
A cyclone tracks southeast from the Coral Sea (it’s the season), and perhaps because of the extra energy added by the flares, and because the ocean is warm enough to sustain it, instead of blowing itself out, it travels all the way to Aotearoa New Zealand, and stalls just off the coast. Downgraded to a tropical storm, still it spins around its unmoving centre, sending jets of supersaturated air flailing out to thrash the islands, bringing landslides and flooding, washing out roads, isolating whole communities.
Here though, harvest, and storage of what’s been harvested goes on – I drop hawthorn berries into cheap port for the year’s supply of tincture (the bottleshop owner looks compassionately at me as I buy four casks); late cropping raspberries are picked, green beans blanched, tomatoes boiled. J picks blackberries for the pastrycook at a local bakery, and we cook some with windfall pears and early apples, which are also starting to ripen. Hurrying to get things done, I notice that as I pick the day’s flowers from the hypericum, I’m looking over its shoulder to the next thing on the list – the realisation brings me back with a shock. No moment is preparation; nothing is a rehearsal.These autumn sensations, temperate, lull me into forgetting that it’s still fire season, and then a blast of burning air pours down off the mainland’s central deserts. It’s like living next to a huge animal that can reach and swipe at any moment. There’s been no rain for several weeks and so, from one day to the next, we face into the northwesterly flow and begin to scan the air for smoke. The young red chestnut has made fruit capsules for the first time and, shocked, it drops them all at once, ripe and unripe.
As they have done for years, sulphur-crested white cockatoos send scouts to check the small sweet nuts on the little walnut for ripeness, down in the paddock where the old orchard was. Though more than 100 years old, the tree stands only four or five metres tall, beautifully shaped but with a bonsaied look, perhaps through lack of water over its lifetime and also because the trunk was damaged maybe 60 years ago when T’s brother hit it with a tractor. Because the tree is about half a kilometre from the house, the white cockatoo flock, usually raucous, can fly silently in unseen, very early in the morning, to eat most of the nuts. They take a single bite from some and throw them down; they break off twigs and leaves and next year’s fruiting wood. Afterwards I see them sitting, spread out evenly through the branches like lit candles.
Young birds continue to fledge – fantails and thornbills and spotted pardalotes, grey robins and olive whistlers accompany their parents into the trees. As I sit by one of the water pots in the garden, four young blackheaded honeyeaters and an adult come down from the eucalyptus windbreak where they’ve been feeding on insects among the leaves. They look at me with curiosity as they drink and bathe an arm’s length away.Hot days follow one another and then a stream of rainbearing air flows down from the tropics and drenches the warm dry ground. Fire-tension eases and the smell of wet earth comes through the open windows all night. Uncertain, uncertain, everything is changing. I watch the weather app as another tropical storm makes its way south from the seas near Fiji; it looks as if this one will pass to the east of the islands of Aotearoa.
Some of the worst damage from the cyclone that did make landfall across the Tasman is in the Hawkes Bay area in the east of the North Island, Maui’s slippery fish, where my mother and her many siblings grew up. The town of Napier, hard hit by flooding just now, was demolished in 1931 by an earthquake, and I was raised on stories told by the aunt who hid under the counter of the shop where she worked, while the building fell down around her; by other relatives who watched from the hills outside town as a cloud of dust and smoke went up from the ruins; and by my father, who was with an emergency crew that travelled across country – on borrowed horses; on foot; on railway jiggers along remaining sections of track – to get there as best they could, the roads smashed up, finding crowds of people, bewildered, wandering the spaces where streets had been, arms around each other’s shoulders. All the voices of all those storytellers silent now.
I’m thinking about a friend whose mother has just died, and about what Seamus Heaney calls the ‘pure change’ that comes with the presence-in-absence of such a time. He says:
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
… a bright nowhere
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
And so after the quake, after the storm and what it circles, I’m taking my turn at storying, listening into the silence, telling how I navigate the country of my days and nights, where to find the sweet nut-meats, saying what I heard and what I hear, what remains, here, now.
Seamus Heaney. New Selected Poems, 1966–1987. Faber and Faber, 1990, pp. 231, 232.