I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen . . .
Even as autumn deepens here, a tropical cyclone forms in the Timor Sea and travels south off the western coast of the mainland. It gathers strength till sensors on offshore islands record gusts of 290 kilometres per hour before the equipment breaks. The storm makes landfall in the Kimberley region, crossing the coast with sustained wind speeds of 218 km/hr. Both readings are the highest ever measured in Australia. The sound must be astonishing – from subsonics of the kind generated by earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami (and whales and elephants) through to shrieks above the range of human hearing. Once on land, the winds drop, but the great volume of moisture the system has gathered to itself passes onwards, southeast over the mainland. It reaches us as soft and soaking rain, welcome, still full of its memory of the oceans and deserts it has crossed.
The zucchinis are nearly finished for the season. I thinly slice the last of them and bake the mixture with oil and salt until it reduces by about half and begins to caramelise, then freeze it in batches. I love the taste of zucchini, and especially cooked this way – so simple! – eaten on its own or added to other dishes. Winter vegetables are beginning to grow – broccoli and red and green cabbages, their broadening outer leaves silver with bloom and cupped around the hearts as they form. Last petals fall from summer flowers. The striated pardalotes are still checking out last year’s nest – are they planning to overwinter instead of migrating, or are they just visiting one last time before they head north? Some fantails and silvereyes have stayed around – each year, more seem to remain here through the cold months.Flocks of birds continue to gather – some because they’re preparing to migrate and some just because their numbers have increased over the summer and autumn. Murmurations of starlings fill the sky overhead with their fluid precision of flight, before they coalesce with a rush and come to land in a tree, like a genie returning to its bottle. Little families of bronzewing pigeons fly up like a shout, clattering into the air, clapping their wings together overhead to convince me that they’re big and fierce and numerous.
One evening I hear a scrabbling outside the back door and find a little bat struggling on the ground there. Is it injured? Did it come in under the shelter of the roofed porch to escape an owl? A foodweb spreads around insects attracted to the house lights. The bat flies off, panicky-looking but moving freely I think. A couple of nights later it’s there again, clinging to a piece of firewood from the box beside the door and yelling in what must be its deepest basso – well within our range of hearing – when T picks up the log. Perhaps it had settled under the bark to overwinter now that the nights are getting cooler. We put the tiny animal in a fold of a woolen coat that hangs undisturbed in the porch as a hibernation roost. I offer it some water and it bites the bowl of the spoon fiercely but also drinks. We leave it to quieten and a few minutes later it’s gone.J is teaching herself to chop wood and so she too is learning to check for creatures that shelter under bark. A tree came down at her place and she’s tackling the heap of chain sawed rounds, building a woodpile. With each swing of the axe she yells like a taekwondo fighter, scaring away her own hesitation so that she hits true, to the heart.
The dog has taken to singing with me in a quiet, talking blues style while I practise flute. When I start each piece, at first she lies with her nose resting on her paws and her eyes closed, making small musical comments, then as the spirit moves her, lifts her head and howls along. So far, she only does it when there’s no one else around. In the beginning, I wondered if she was distressed by the sounds I make (completely understandable) but I don’t think that’s it – when I go to the room where I have the music stand set up, she walks ahead of me and lies down nearby. Her songs increase in complexity with each iteration.
In the early hours one morning I step outside into a glory – from southeast to southwest and almost to the zenith, the sky is filled with columns of light, crimson and green-white, slowly shifting, intensifying here, fading there. At times this movement dies down, replaced by a rapid pulsing like firelight, upwards from the horizon, then that too fades and the columns re-form to continue their transformations. It’s like watching music or seeing the earth’s thoughts while it listens to the sun. Shooting stars and satellites cross and recross overhead. This kind of auroral intensity doesn’t happen often here, so even though it’s very early, I go inside to wake T, and phone J at her house nearby so that they can share the wonder of it. It’s a dry, clear night, not too cold – I take a quilt and lie on my back to see the whole sky, watching till dawn brightens through.
I attend to the song and speech of the world, the range of things, and everything I do, clumsy and skilled, is my answer. Agitated or exhilarated, I listen to the taste, touch, smell of this earth and the whole flock of me startles up and circles, glides and settles, tries its song and finds scope, deep and wide enough, inwards, outwards, folding and folded in.
Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Edited by Malcolm Cowley. Penguin, 1983., p 51