How many times have I gone down into the blue dragon’s cave ...
                                                                                          Xuedou, Blue Cliff Record, Case 3

Southwest over the ranges, at dawn the full moon answers the rising sun that sidles to its midwinter notch in hills to the northeast. Even before the shortest day there’s a feeling that the season has turned. Birdcalls change as territorial manoeuvres begin again; brown thornbills check the eaves for cobwebs to carry away for nestbuilding; blackbirds chase and scold but don’t yet stake out a nest-range with their songs; fantails that didn’t migrate haunt the ways. When I go walking with F and Z we need only light clothing – they’re visiting from maritime eastern Canada, where this year, unlike other parts of the north, just now summer temperatures are the same as ours.

Black cockatoos gather in the big pines on top of the hill to shred cones for the seeds inside and to bathe in the cattle trough there. They squabble and play, swinging in and out of the branches. Brown falcons are nesting in one of the trees, and though they fiercely chase off ravens and eagles who come too close, they seem to have no quarrel with the cockatoos. It’s one of the great pieces of good fortune of my life, to live alongside the birds. 

Wintersweet releases its currents of perfume, almost phosphorescent, across the long nights and low light of the days. Bees work winter-flowering shrubs whenever the temperature rises above 130C and their sound is loud in damp, still air among late roses hugging the mudbrick of a north facing wall. In the forest, buds swell on the silver wattles. And the hens are laying – I make egg pasta to celebrate, and we eat it with preserved tomato and zucchini and pesto.

Then, front after front in rapid succession brings cold air up from the Southern Ocean so that there’s no chance for warmth to accumulate before the next wave hits. The mountains whiten. People huddle around their heaters and a blue haze of woodsmoke sits in the valley and trails downriver.

I relish the cold because it’s a season of respite from wondering about forest fires, and especially now because an El Niño cycle has begun – this pattern brings torrential rain to the Pacific coast of South America, but drier conditions further west, including along the eastern seaboard of Australia. The Indian Ocean Dipole is still in a phase that directs moisture our way, and that’s a relief, but heatwaves ripple through many parts of the northern hemisphere summer, presaging what’s likely to come, here. 

One clear night a few days before the solstice we put a match to the bonfire heap of trimmed and fallen branches, and thorny prunings from around the garden – things not suitable for firewood or compost – and watch, tranced, as sparks fly up over the gathering roar and die down again. Flamelights and their shadows leap, and the dog paces, excited but uneasy, happy to be out with us but also spooked by popping sparks that sound like gunfire, which she hates. Our bodies where we face the fire grow hot, while the cold breathes at our backs.

The bonfire echoes another circle of warmth I enter each week – the sound-menagerie of our local all-ages concert band, where I add my fledgeling screech to the woodwind section and have the great happiness of sitting in front of a beginner on the tuba whose whale-song booms and grunts reverberate through my bones. Delighted, absorbed, serious, we’re all doing our best – old ones, children, adolescents, parents of the children and adolescents – to join with the whole of the music.

For weeks since the nights really started to lengthen, I’ve had a sense of descending like a diver into the black of winter. Down in the dark of sleep, in one dream, in a thrift store I find a lamp that glows like a bioluminescent jellyfish; in another I visit an Escher-like space of upside-down staircases where I entertain my friends by showing them that I can float or fly at will. By day, though, the news reminds me that to travel over or into the depths can be a passage of no return – 500 refugees drown when an overcrowded boat goes down off the coast of Greece; a submersible implodes on a dive to the wreck of the Titanic, instantaneously killing the five people on board. Every journey risks whatever it is that’s ours to risk.

On the shortest day, low cloud thickens from the northeast and turns to rain. Dim light fades further; car headlamps go on at four in the afternoon and it’s dark soon after. Soft, easterly weather comes and goes for days; outside the back door the paving of the walkway, sheltered from prevailing winds, is wet with blowing mist. Air that flows from the north and east is usually warm, but this system has spiralled up from the Antarctic and the temperature fluctuates between 50C and 100 C. Water in the river turns tea-black as snowmelt washes tannin from the button-grass plains above the tree line. To dive now would be to be swallowed up in ink just metres from the surface. Chill darkness closes in.

Sought or unsought, the experience of descent comes to us. As a young woman I panicked there in the blackness with its mysterious sparks – close or far off? – fearful of the hungers that might seek me out. Now sometimes I feel myself carried within the living immensity of things where, before time begins, darkness presses me close, skin to skin.

How many times do we go down, thrown or driven or just falling, before we feel the depths hold us, pearl of firelight in the huge night. And winking out, winking in, though one day the journey will be down and through and terror may still take me – the little creature wants her life! – for now I’m uttered once more, perfectly imperfect, into daylight, voices, birdsong, into amazement, joining the music.

The Blue Cliff Record. Trans. Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary. Shambala, 1997, p. 20.


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