Where have you been?
The darkling way, the bird path, the open hand.
The Record of Dongshan
In the first few days of the month, pallid cuckoos arrive, and fantailed cuckoos, and shining-bronze cuckoos, calling, calling all day, and at night after moonrise – See?See?See?See?See?See? See. Here. Their host birds rush to bring out a first brood from eggs laid before the cuckoos arrived, or to complete their nests if they themselves have only just returned from migration – satin flycatchers! Swallows make reconnaissance flights over dams, checking for insect life, and skirl in and out of the sheds and under eaves where they build their mud cups.The equinox is here and wild weather passes over the island as storms emerge from the Southern Ocean and track eastwards, to collide with tropical air that streams down off the Coral Sea; atmospheric rivers pour themselves out over the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand. Nests must surely have been blown out of the windbreaks, but I haven’t found any on the ground so far. The southern horizon glows fitfully with the lights of the aurora as sunspot activity adds itself to the energetic mix, on the way towards its 11-year peak in a couple of years.
Gusts slam the house. I lift my head after hours of copyediting and see that the wind has begun to shake open leaf buds on the birches and some of the oaks and hawthorns; white chestnut and elder and walnut leaves are already half-unfurled. Each day the green wave rises among the deciduous trees until it has reached the tops of all except the sweet chestnuts and the lindens, whose resinous buds stay closed. The wave lofts a foam of blossom – plum petals whirl away and tiny fruits form; quinces and cherries and elders froth open, then the pears and early apples.
With the wind, the first bushfire of the season crashes through forest on the east coast of the island, where conditions are generally drier, and dry earlier. The Met Bureau has finally declared an El Niño event, now that trade winds in the Pacific have slowed – a later call than US and other agencies because here they use atmospheric data as well as ocean temperatures in their calculations. People talk anxiously about the summer to come: How dry? How windy? Dry lightning? I dream I’m in the city and eucalypt saplings have grown up through everything; they catch fire – the centre of the town is burning.
Grass is suddenly long and lush in places where it hasn’t been grazed by wallabies or cattle. Brown quail whistle their rising, two-note question from among its clumps and thickets. The pardalotes are tap-tapping inside their gourd nest and carrying in fine grasses and sticks; although all last year’s nesting material is still in place, they’re clearly doing a lot of refurbishing. The michelia opens its little creamy flowers and the kōwhai’s intense green-yellow racemes emerge from gold-furred buds.The hour before daylight is full now of blackbird song, conversations of ravens and of wattlebirds, and the sleepy talk of wren families and olive whistlers and honeyeaters. In the dark, the brown falcon flies out to hunt; its fell voice carves the air over the small lives in its path. When the sun appears, it has real warmth, and snakes stir from rock piles and earth banks where they’ve overwintered; I hear the alarm cries of birds around the garden. The first thunder of spring booms far out over the mountains.
And listening to the radio I hear an interview with a woman who describes how, while she was on the road during a spring storm, lightning struck her car – once, twice! She herself wasn’t hit, as the car body took the charge and the tyres insulated it; the engine continued to run, and in her shock, she kept driving. She says, ‘I thought I was outside the car; I thought I was the landscape and the storm was my heart – I was driving through my heart.’ Six months later, this feeling had morphed into a sense of ‘great ill-ease’ and a conviction that ‘the storms could see me … lightning was watching me … it could come and get me.’ And as an autumn squall passed over, lightning did hit her house while she was inside.
The woman’s name is Zoë Barry. She’s a musician and composer and says that at the time of the lightning strikes, the experience affected her capacity to think and make decisions, but not her capacity to make music – though if she sang, the sound was sharp: ‘I couldn’t sit in a note – I was hovering above.’ Now, fifteen years later, she ‘makes sense’ of the lightning that came for her by composing and performing what she describes as ‘sonic theatre’ – voice and looping cello that rises and falls in long, breathy, whistling notes: music that can ‘take something that happens in a split second and stretch it out so that you’ve got time to sit within it and be within it.’This experience – of sensation that metamorphoses in memory and imagination from shock to entry into a hell-realm to something else within the transformations of music – reminds me of a journey described in an old song called ‘The Curst Wife.’ In it, a woman is given to the devil by her husband (in the oldest versions, in return for a pair of plough oxen) but she escapes from hell and comes back whistling a tune. In many cultures, to whistle is to summon the storm,* or the devil, or ghosts, or demons, and there are admonitions about being very careful unless you really know what you’re doing: Never whistle at night. Never whistle on board ship. ‘The Curst Wife’ has not only a whistling protagonist, but also a whistled chorus – the singer and the subject of the song (are they one and the same?) declare themselves as magical adepts.
I know an old couple that lives near hell, and if they ain’t dead they’re living there still.
The devil he came to the man at the plough: “I’ve come for some of your family now.”
“Oh, which of me family do you mean to test?” “Oh, your scolding wife, it is her I like best.”
“Then take her off with all of my heart and I hope from hell she never will part.”
He got this old woman right up on his back, and a pedlar was never more proud of his pack.
He carried her on to a heap of stones and he left her down there and he stamped on her bones.
He carried her on till he came to Hook Hill, and she cried as much tears as would turn a mill.
He carried her on till he came to hell’s wall, and she up with her fist and flattened them all.
Eight devils tried to put her in a sack, and she up with her critch and broke nine of their backs.
The devil was looking across the wall, says: “Take her away or she’ll murder us all.”
So the devil he hoisted her up like a pack; he was seven years going, seven bringing her back.
Said the devil to the farmer, “I hope you’re well, but I can’t keep your wife, she’s ruined hell.
I’ve been a devil most of all my life but I never knew hell till I met your wife.”
The old woman went whistling on over the hill: “If the devil won’t have me I wonder who will.”
This shows just what women can do: she went down to hell, and came back again too.
In the song, under millennia of hatred represented by the idea of womanhood as curse, is an even older story, told all over the world, of the journey to hell and back. Many versions persist: Kuan Yin descends into the hell realm and is asked to leave, as her presence transforms it to a heaven. Christ descends to hell and frees the souls there. Golden Inanna goes down to meet her shadow twin, Erishkegal. Wives and husbands go in search of the beloved dead. And this old woman goes down and brings back a song.
Garden daffodils turn papery and start to make seed, even as late narcissus begin to flower around the old house site out in the paddock. Blue love creeper appears, hallucinatory, from its invisible threads. We travel on through all weather, hunted by and within our own heartmind, stepping out the old dance with our ghosts and demons. We go by dark ways, we learn our music on bird paths, lightning paths, we bring it back and share with open hands.
* Lightning itself produces whistlers – electromagnetic waves of such low frequency that they fall within the audio range; given the right receiver, they sound like descending whistles. Sometimes they travel along earth’s magnetic field lines from one hemisphere to the other, up through the magnetosphere to the ionosphere, which begins at about 80 km from the surface of the earth, and down again to ground at the opposite end of the magnetic dipole. So, for example, listeners in Dunedin, in Aotearoa New Zealand, can hear the whistlers from volcanic lightning in the Aleutian Islands. These waves also interact with electrons that have been geomagnetically energised during solar storms. The signal from the interaction often intensifies around sunrise and is known as the dawn chorus because it sounds like birds. It happens during auroras too.
ABC Radio National. ‘When Lightning Strikes Thrice.’ https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/drawingroom/when-lightning-strikes-thrice/102817928
Claire Antel, Andrew B. Collier, Janos Lichtenberger, Craig, J. Rodger. 'Investigating Dunedin whistlers using volcanic lightning.' 12 June 2014. Geophysical Research Letters - Wiley Online Library.
‘The Curst Wife.’ The Farmer’s Curst Wife / The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife / The Devil and the Ploughman / Kellyburn Braes / Lily Bulero (Roud 160; Child 278; G/D 2:320) (mainlynorfolk.info)
The Record of Tung-shan. Trans. William F. Powell. Classics in East Asian Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press, 1986.