Cold and heat
A monk asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is no cold or heat?”
The monk asked, “Where is the place without cold or heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”
Blue Cliff Record, Case 43
Strange windy days and nights, like the equinox, out of time. Spattering of driven rain and the mountains shrouded in snowclouds again. Before daylight, in the lulls, currawongs call like a rattling of silver ingots; wattlebirds clear their throats and the falcon goes cackling away to hunt. Walking with the dog down by the river I hear the first pardalote – some of the migratory birds are back already. Patches of wattle come into bloom in the gullies.Again and again the wind rises and swings west, northwest, west, southwest, each front bringing rain. Clouds pile up behind the ranges then spill and scatter this way. I’m so glad of these damp days as light lengthens here, and heatwaves follow one another in the northern hemisphere. Grateful for this moment of reprieve at the start of an El Niño cycle that brings drought to the eastern seaboard of Australia, after three La Niña years without summer fires. At the moment, even the mainland still cools down at night – a buffer before the heat comes for us in a few weeks.
Though the days have been cold, nighttime temperatures haven’t reached their usual winter lows – the jet stream has swung south from its customary latitude at this time of year and is bringing tropical air down over the island. Across large areas of the ocean around the Antarctic continent, winter sea ice hasn’t formed.
I’m afraid of what summer may bring. Remembering the final heatwave of the last drought, when across the river, dry lightning touched the rainforest there, there, there, there like a line of footsteps, and fires went up from each step. Pyrocumulus clouds towered and collapsed along the wind in a horrible smell of burning mould, of things not evolved to burn. For weeks we lived under an overshadowing plume of smoke, as rainforest and wet sclerophyll and its understorey burned right down to the ferns and mosses; cut-over eucalypt forest burned; pine plantations burned in a smog of pitch. The plume passed over like the angel of death, fouling the air and dropping a layer of char onto all below it.Each night we took turns to watch for embers falling out of the cloud onto what had become a tinder-ground, everything transformed to fuel by heat and zero humidity. We moved the cows to a place where they would have shelter and access to water. Each time the wind picked up we set sprinklers going around the house and on the roof. We blocked the downpipes and filled the gutters with water; we took down curtains and laid wet towels along the sills. Miraculously, no spotfires began on this side of the river, but it was partly the intensity of the firestorms that saved us – though the updraft from their heat was strong enough to lift whole burning leafy branchlets, they were taken so high that the cold of the upper air extinguished them before they began their descent.
At some point as the fires reached their peak and we could see them advancing over the rim of the valley opposite and down its slopes towards the river –a kilometre or two from here as the raven flies – I ran out of energy to hold off the thought that our preparations were useless. In 1967, in the last major fires to affect the valley, the strip of land on which the farm sits was spared; now, it seemed, our turn had come and the house, the garden, my old workspace, J’s house – all of it would burn.
At that, something sprang open in me and despite the acrid air, in some way I could breathe again. And I knew what I wanted to do – walk the ground and thank it and all that it sustains. The others joined me, and so we made a little procession, a circumambulation, T and J and the dog and me, praising and thanking all we were about to lose – thank you, sandstone and fossil-filled mudstone ancestors that underlie everything, weathering through, thank you, ancestor springs that follow the cracks and levels of the rock, thank you, clay and sand and soil and all its organisms. Thank you, garden beds and the world of insects and bacteria and fungi from which decades of food have sprung up, and thank you, metal hoops and plastic skin of the polytunnel, and tomatoes and capsicums and early peas and frost-tender greens that shelter there. Thank you, little apricot with your valiant flowers that open among brushtail possums and green parrots who love you too much, thank you, apples and pears and figs, thank you, windbreaks of hawthorn and grevillea and blackwood, macrocarpa and pine and eucalypt and the wind that roars there, thank you, salvaged church-and-hospital timber and iron of the barn, thank you, perfect clay-sand mix in the mudbricks of the house. Thank you roses, and thank you, creatures that eat them.As we walked and stopped to touch and speak to each part of our world, I remembered a day when, distressed, I had sat in the garden and, without thinking, had run my hand along a branch of rosemary. The green astringent perfume of the plant came to me like a voice, like a returned touch, jolting me out of my absence and withdrawal. It dropped me deep into an experience of the responsiveness of the world – the way the very being of things speaks to us, as the rosemary did just by doing what it does, making and releasing perfume into the air. And so each thing responded during and after our praise song in the fire weeks. And I thought of how the palawa people have found and continue to find ways of hearing and speaking with this place and its web of lives and spirits through deep time, through the coming and going of the ice and through fire and invasion.
Though I have language from and for another place, and only the years of one life here, still I say thank you, stringybark and bluegum ancestors, thank you, bandicoot and pademelon, quoll and devil, bettong and potoroo ancestors, thank you, skink and snake and falcon, eagle, owl, raven, honeyeater, cockatoo, wren, robin, fantail, finch ancestors. Thank you, frog and dragonfly and duck and swan ancestors and all creatures that live where water pools. Hot or cold, in the chaotic intensities of this one and only life I want to turn toward all of it, just as it is, always already preparing to leave, to be gone back in. On the edge of destruction, things answer and begin to shine.