The stone woman gives birth in the middle of the night. 
                                                               Attributed to Dongshan (Tung-shan)

                   The mother of the Xia was Tushanshi, the Lady of Mount Tu.
                   One day she turned herself to stone, and the stone split open
                   to give birth to a child whose name was Revelation.
                                                                                               Joan Sutherland

Four hens go broody at the same time – mesmerised, they settle into their chosen spots and sit – two in the henhouse, one in the hayshed, one deep in a patch of tradescantia under the pear tree. We bring in some eggs from a different flock – araucanas (blue shells!), australorps, barnevelders – and J puts four under each hen. They bring out ten chickens between them – some eggs are infertile, some chicks don’t make it out of the shell. 

Fantails flit in and out of an elderberry tree just outside the polytunnel door, finding their way inside to eat the insects that flourish in the warm damp there. Now they’ve made a nest right by the entranceway – a marvellous cone in the crook of a forked twig, fine shreds of eucalypt bark lined with hair and swathed all round in silvery spiderweb. Whether they use it or have built the nest as a decoy is another matter – cuckoos are still calling and the shrike thrush is on the hunt.

There’s confusion in the first day or two after the chickens hatch as all four hens scratch around together and some chicks move from one to another. Now two hens have fewer chicks than they started with and two have more – including the one who sat under the pear tree; she did well to bring out any – I saw a tiger snake sunning itself just beside where she had hunkered down, and quolls are active at the moment, though they’re probably more interested in summer moths and their larvae, rich and easy pickings emerging from the roots of pasture grasses.

My friend A comes to visit and we drive up the east coast of the island till we’re in granite country – pillows of potassium-rich magma that hardened slowly underground, crystalline, nearly 400 million years ago. Now giant shoulders of pink rock appear from hillsides that wear away around them; boulders roll down the slopes of themselves and pile on the beaches where they fluoresce yellow and orange with lichen. They weather ever smaller – megalith, melon, egg – until only grains of quartz remain, white sand refracting aquamarine through seawater. 

We stay a few days in a beach shack like those of my childhood, lovingly cobbled and maintained using what’s available – recycled timber, scrap materials fitted together. I fall asleep to the sound of the sea, the hush of small surf and now and then a sharp crack as the face of a wave claps shut on itself, flat against flat. In the mornings our footprints follow the tideline beside tracks of oystercatchers who stalk ahead, their full grown chicks wheedling along behind. In the lee of the point, warrener shells pile deep among the dunes, their green whorls zigzagged, pearly underlayers gleaming. Far along the beach, someone is walking. This is Paredarerme land.

One day we follow a national park track that crosses a stony riverbed and climbs out of the rock-walled gorge through she oak and grasstree and eucalypt woodlands along an escarpment, before descending to the riverbank once more above a waterfall. The rock here is dolerite – blue-grey basalt that weathers warm brown – another, later, volcanic intrusion that formed much of the east of Tasmania during the breakup of Gondwanaland nearly 200 million years ago. Steps have been made from the stone, beautifully, skilfully by trackworkers, up and down the valley sides. The climb up from the river is steep and the descent is nearly vertical. Here, kilometres from a road, in an area of the gorge too narrow to permit helicopter access, the workers have engineered a wonderful stairway of stones so big they would be difficult for two men to lift, let alone carry and manoeuvre. On the way back we swim in the pool at the river crossing, skin fizzing with cool after the heat of the walk.

Still the days stay mild here, while in the north and east of the mainland, heatwaves intensify and fierce storms gather each day, thunderheads piling so high that when hailstones form, instead of falling they’re carried higher by the updraft inside the cloud. There they accrete further layers of ice and begin to drop, only to be sucked back up and so it goes until they’re the size of hen’s eggs, the size of fists. When bolt after bolt of lightning has finally discharged the static that holds the stones apart and aloft they fall; they strip leaves and bark from trees, smash rooftiles and windscreens, ruin crops. They cool the hot ground and, melting, soak in slowly to water the soil without eroding it.

As we get ready to travel back down the coast I dream that heavy rain brings sudden flooding – the river rises to wash away the road that runs alongside it, brown water roiling in the bends then spreading smooth over the surrounding country. But I know a way that climbs into the hills, and though an eddy reaches my car and swirls around it, the engine is unharmed and we drive to safer ground. 

Home again, summer has arrived – T brings in tomatoes and cucumbers, raspberries and cherries. Creatures visit the water pots around the garden and each day I look forward to seeing the family of swamp hens that come to bathe and drink and lounge around on the grass – three, four, five adults and three adolescent chicks – jurassic punks, even their tails spiky with dark grey fuzz. They lift their huge feet, long toes opening and closing with each step, and hop-climb to splash the water and trample the plants I’m trying to establish; they fold their grey leathery legs and lean down to sip, throw back their heads to drink. As they move around, the adults speak softly to one another and to the chicks, percussive words from somewhere inside themselves, kdonk, donkdonk, tonk.

We burn, guts molten from deep down far back, bones of the ancestors, bones of the ground, cooling adamantine. We freeze. We break down and bring forth what’s needed. All of this, always. The old year cracks, the old road disappears; the valley spirit never dies.

Joan Sutherland. Through Forests of Every Color. Shambala, 2022, p. 128.


Popular posts from this blog