The commonplace miracle:
                                                            that so many common miracles take place.

                                                            The usual miracle:
                                                            Invisible dogs barking
                                                            in the dead of night.

                                                            One of many miracles:
                                                            a small and airy cloud
                                                            is able to upstage the massive moon.

                                                            . . .

                                                           A miracle, just take a look around:
                                                           the inescapable earth.

                                                          An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
                                                          the unthinkable
                                                          can be taught.
                                                                                       Wislawa Szymborska

Sparky, the half-wild bantam, begins to lay her first clutch of the season in a hollow she’s shuffled for herself in the sawdust behind the door of the propagating shed. The other hens stand around outside cackling, and there’s a lot of promenading with the roosters but no sign of anyone nesting in any of the usual places. And then the new black pullet begins to leave her own beautiful small eggs beside Sparky’s. Still the cackling and promenading goes on among the rest of the flock. 

We look and look again for nests – in the old manger; on top of bales in the hayshed; under the shelf beside the car – but find none. No use checking the henhouse – nobody is interested in the nestboxes, newly refurbished with fresh hay. Then T notices a movement in under the ferns just outside the barn door and it’s the brown pullet, sitting on 30 eggs. All that standing around? – it’s the hens forming a queue.

At the start of the month there’s a fortnight of cold air off the Southern Ocean and maximum temperatures of 9 and 10 degrees Celsius. Windless days and nights of low mist and damp – driech, as the Scots would say – with thick fog each morning but no promise of sun to follow because there’s cloud above; it sometimes resolves to rain. The birds are mostly quiet – a few opening remarks before daybreak from wattlebirds and wrens that roost in the acacias and grevilleas behind the house, then silence except for ravens’ ongoing conversations, and now and then the joy of the black cockatoo flock reeling overhead. 

Creatures are hungry, both because they need to eat more to keep warm and because there’s less food around. Over the course of a few nights, something chews every fruit and every leaf from one of the big bushes of fiery hot rocoto chillies in the polytunnel – a plant as tall as I am. In the past, sometimes mice have nibbled a few fruits to get at the seeds but this must be a possum to eat so much – the ringtail that whistle-wheezes every night from the windbreak? The branches of the bush aren’t broken as they would be by the weight of a brushtail, and also it’s a ringtail habit, suddenly to start eating some plant they’ve previously ignored. They did that with the chestnut tree and the avocado and the oaks, stripping the leaves for a year or two and then moving on to something else.

Solstice coincides with a full moon, glimpsed at rising and setting through breaks in cloud and fog, then finally, a few days after full, sailing high into a clear night, in which pademelons thump their alarm on the grass when I disturb them, and a rooster crows and crows into the moonlight. The next day is sunny and I have an impulse to put washing on the line, but the air is so cold and still and humid that I give up the idea – things would come in wetter than when I hung them out. The living room remains an encampment of clothes racks.

We begin to prepare for the season to come, ordering apple and pear trees and a nectarine and peach from a local nursery for a planned new orchard. T is growing fewer vegetables for market and has decided to repurpose hoops from unused polytunnels to make a netted area, since growing fruit without nets seems to be less and less an option. I put thick pads of hay on garden beds near the house to keep in moisture and add to the soil which, along with the lawn, is covered in worm casts – subsoil finally damp enough to let creatures move around there. Once when we were digging foundations during a drought, I found an earthworm that had tied itself in a perfect granny knot, waiting out the dry in a little chamber it had made a metre or more down in the hard clay. Now, after another dry spell the worms have unclenched themselves to tunnel in their softened element.

Not long after the solstice a great tongue of air from the Antarctic licks up over the island, bringing snow, though the peaks where it falls are invisible in cloud. On the satellite map, cloud masses like clots of foam dot thousands of square kilometres of ocean between us and the Antarctic. Every hour or so the sky darkens and fine sleeting rain rattles as squalls ride in from the south. Despite the cold, in a single afternoon I hear the first spring calls of an eastern spinebill, a grey robin, a yellow-throated honeyeater. Quolls are breeding and wallabies have young at foot. Sparky goes broody and sits on the nest in a trance. 

Around the world, though hell breaks loose, even so, in the dark, the cold of this moment of our folly, something stirs, tender and alive, again, again, again. Patiently it pushes through and around wreckage, waits out poison, indifference, malice. Irresistibly it holds its promise, warm: somewhere life continues.

Wislawa Szymborska. Miracle Fair: Selected Poems. WW Norton, 2002.


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