Sickness and medicine heal each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
Blue Cliff Record, Case 87
I come from a place of creeks and rivers, and subtropical downpours that feed them. Here, even though rivers run out of the wet forest across the valley, this side is already in the rainshadow of ranges to the west and there’s not much running water – farms rely on dams, and pump through the summer to fill troughs and keep crops growing. When I first arrived I was always listening for water, always looking for its signs.The first few years I was here seemed parched to me. I remember lying awake, sick with longing for the smell of rain, for the sound of it on the roof. Feeling that if it came, softening the air and the ground, it would answer me as well, like a promise that my life too could mollify and flourish. With all my fingers and toes I prayed down the days of drought, counting; I prayed in the way I knew, for what I knew.
After a long time, I learned to be in the dusty perfumed spaces of the dry, and they became my medicine. We’re heading into another spell now, as weather in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans switches to patterns that bring reduced rain to eastern Australia. All bets are off about how thirsty, how hot it will get.
On still, clear nights, the river breathes fog that hugs the current, and then in the morning rises up the valley sides till it reaches us here on the ridge, hanging the garden with droplets. After the fog disperses, everything glitters blue and gold. Each day, the sun angles higher and the little solar-powered water jets that float on the garden ponds have started to trickle again.
Now the pardalotes are back in earnest. Pairs inspect possible nest sites and announce them to each other. One perches and fans its wings and calls from the neck of the gourd nest we fixed to the wall last year. Then it’s gone again, and I hear it over towards the big stringybark near the barn. The tree is full of hollows, but they’re home to possums and snakes that love to eat eggs and nestlings, and so unless the pardalotes can find a hole small enough to exclude these others, it may not be the best choice.
Firetail finches are whispering their songs in the blackberry thickets; thornbills construct their cunning grassy spheres with a false entrance on top to fool their cuckoo parasites, and the real nesting chamber hidden away underneath, marvellously snug, the whole thing marbled emerald green with tufts of dried moss and dotted white with spider egg cases.
Overnight, willow catkins go from silver to gold as they put out their stamens. Cherry plums are blossoming; on the old tree in the paddock a few flowers open at the ends of outermost twigs – creatures have eaten the buds everywhere else and the ground is snowy with chewed petals.On the track, T finds a dead ringtail possum. It’s a baby, probably thrown from its mother’s pouch when an owl took her. The little animal’s first faint grey down of fur has just begun to grow; so young, it could never have survived on its own. It lies curled on itself, a beautiful goblin, eyes half closed, perfect claws and whiskers not yet tested in the world. The white tip of its tail glows. We mourn and admire, and bury the small body in the compost heap.
The eagles are overhead, circling high on the first thermals of a series of sunny days, then playing in the westerlies that follow. Nesting raven pairs shadow the eagles, climbing steeply to divebomb and heckle them away; when the eagles land in the branches of a dead eucalypt just downhill from the house, the ravens perch nearby, ready to attack.
In the wind, wet sheets wrestle themselves out of my hands as I peg them on the line. The soil is waking. I pull clumps of grass from the soft ground of a garden bed, and a smell of earth and violets perfumes the air. Blackbirds have begun to sing their territories. One then another of the hens wanders away from the nestboxes in their yard, looking for a secluded place to lay a clutch of eggs and bring out chicks.
The black cockatoo flock, a gathering of many families that convenes each winter and hasn’t yet dispersed, still flies in for days at a time to roost and feed in the pine windbreak and to visit other stands of pines along the ridge. Adolescents chase each other in twos and threes, making wild loops in and out of the branches, wailing and whickering. Little groups come down into the garden to check out the banksia cones and crack dead blackwood limbs in search of grubs.
I dream that I inherit a rosary from someone I knew when I was a child. I feel ambivalent about the gift because, though I like some of the patterned invocations of the goddess its rounds signify (seat of wisdom, house of gold, morning star, pray for us), many more of its prayers and litanies are like imprisoning spells intended to overpower and petrify. Even as a young girl I felt their cloying power. And the dream object itself is made of heavy, ornate, white stone that reminds me of the coldly ostentatious piety of the clergy and churches of my childhood, where such spells were enacted. As I lift the loop of beads, one rolls away and I understand, with relief, that the string is broken.
In a museum in Madrid, there’s little painting from the mid-1400s by Petrus Christus, in which Mary stands holding a smiling, wriggling infant Christ, the two of them encircled by the dry limbs of a dead tree, set against a velvet-black background. Though an art-historical approach would offer biblical references (the Tree of Knowledge, the crown of thorns) what the painting presents is a woman and her child, thriving and at peace in the midst of aridity imaged by the tree, and all of it emerging from the dark field that births the world and takes it back when the time comes.
I love and claim as part of my inheritance connection with Mary, as one of the many guises of female divinity down the millennia, irrepressibly alive despite the strongest efforts of successive cultures to confine and diminish her. With some of those old, cold sorceries now broken, I pray newly, to be free both of their certainties and my own longings that excluded so much. I don’t know for sure what I am, what’s best, what’s right, what’s sickness and what’s medicine.
Before dawn the dog asks to come in under the covers and curls up at my feet with a great sigh, instantly asleep with her face pressed against my leg; soon she’s running and yipping in her dream. Out in the moonlight, the ringtail eats a rosary of buds, the old tree dies back and flourishes again, out of the dry ground, the dark where life holds death in its arms and death holds life, figure and ground forever changing.