All for you

            — Why does it always come to this!

            — It’s all for you, honoured one.

                                                                           Record of Dongshan 98

                                         The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

                                         rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

                                         The rocks roll straight through the house

                                         but every pane of glass is still whole. 

                                                                                              Tomas Tranströmer, ‘Allegro’

In the netted garden, fruit disappears in the night. T sets up the camera there to see who’s eating the plums – it records rat selfies, whiskery faces peering into the lens. Out in the paddocks, white cockatoos finish the walnuts and come for the hazels. But there are blackberries enough for everyone, some of them plump where bushes have found water down in the gullies. Out in the open, in the sun, the berries stay small, their flavour all the more intense for that. 

Dry gold, dry grey. Cool mornings. On all the trees here on the hill, only a handful of apples and pears this year. Blossom was sparse and then the parrots and ringtails and currawongs took most of the few fruit that set, though in the valley a short distance away, the trees are loaded. Almost nothing on the elders, and J had to search the roadsides away from the farm for hawthorn berries to make tonic.

I preserve a half-bucket of damsons that ripen before the rats find them. Tomato and green bean harvests go on, and the last of the cucumbers, and broccoli and parsnips begin to be ready in the autumn garden. Plenty of potatoes still. Dried beans pile in baskets to cure, drawing passersby to sink their hands deep and run their fingers through the silken heaps.

Raptor skies. Two pairs of wedgetailed eagles perform a stately dance towards and away, towards and away from each other on westerlies that lift over the ridge. The white goshawk comes after the chickens. I hear the racket and find them all huddled inside, apart from two hens and the rooster, who has chased off the hawk and is standing under the hedge with the hens. One day we find a little sparrowhawk inside the henhouse, chasing its namesake prey who come to eat the chickens’ leftovers. When it sees us the hawk panics, unable to find its way back out through the floor-level hatch it came in by. We open the door and it hurtles out, eyes wild.

Cloudy days come and go, and rain falls in the hills to the west as it did in the bad drought years of the early ‘80s, never crossing the river. Then there are more days of heat, with gusty wind off the mainland that whips up dust devils from ploughed ground and lifts clouds of dirt around building sites in town. To the south of us along the peninsula, someone puts a match to a hillside of gorse. Flames shoot high and hot under a column of black smoke, then spread to adjacent forest, climbing and gathering pace as a sea wind picks up in the afternoon. Fire trucks do their best; helicopters bucket water from nearby dams, and fixed-wing planes scoop seawater from the bay to dump on the leading edges of the fire. Friends in its path along the ridge evacuate, but when the wind dies down in the evening, so do the flames, and no houses are burned. Everyone goes home.

In part, warming here with its related risk of wildfire is an effect of the East Australian Current, whose duration and range extends southward year on year. The warm water brings new creatures – a green turtle swims alongside the city docks; marlin and skipjack tuna appear off the coast. An as-yet unidentified disease kills half the oysters in the commercial hatcheries. Warm climate sea urchins have grazed to nothing the beds of giant kelp that once flourished all along the coastline, and with the kelp beds, the rich and intricate ecosystems they fostered have disappeared – though recently there have been some successful attempts to reseed urchin barrens from remnant communities of relatively heat-tolerant kelp. 

In this complexity, I’m thinking again about the John Cage composition 4’33” – music of no notes that allows all the harmonies and dissonances of the moment, internal and external, to be felt and heard. Change is here. How can we stay with catastrophic upheaval in the human and wider-than-human world – stay with the vastness of possibility, without collapse into either resignation or denial?

And I’m thinking of the spaciousness my mother seemed to find, late in her life, that made room for all aspects of her experience. Married in her early twenties, she was nearly forty when I was born, and was in her late fifties by the time I left home, last of her six children. During decades of childrearing, she’d been sick, anxious, depressed, agoraphobic, her heartmind foundering in the effort to feed and clothe all of us on my father’s wage as a labourer and what she could earn as a factory worker – she who had loved to dance and sing and learn.

But as she got older, increasingly she spoke about her life as one of good fortune. As a young woman I was impatient with this, hearing denial, deflection, at best rationalisation of what had been – surely? – a lifetime of constraint and disappointment. Now I think that she had, somehow, found a sense of agency and a taste for what she called the uniqueness of her own fate, as a child of post-famine Irish Catholic migrants, a Depression-era adolescent, a burdened adult. At times she was fretful about lost opportunities, especially for education, but increasingly this was expressed in terms of compassion for the girl and woman she had been. She learned, mostly, to be with her memories and thoughts, even the persecutory ones, with tenderness, letting them come and go, all miraculous like every other part of the music of this, this, this life, the driest of her years now integral to a composition that had always been unfolding. 

Black cockatoos finish the banksia cones they co-evolved with and move on to the pines they’ve learned to love. At the river, walking with N, the sea eagle circles out and back from its sentinel tree as we pass and a pair of herons fishes the shallows – are they catching prey that’s new to them? It always comes to this. It’s all for you. 


Record of Dongshan 98. Pacific Zen Institute Miscellaneous Koans.

Tomas Tranströmer. ‘Allegro,’ trans Robert Bly, in The Winged Energy of Delight:
    Selected Translations
, Harper, 2005.


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