Steel Wool

Where it touches the water the sleepy steel-wool wind sands the brass-rippled river free of its smooth shimmer. There is lemon-yellow metal lying on the flooded fields between the two rivers. The sun hides in the hedgerow, slyly slinking away, abandoning the day that it has failed to warm to a night of frosty daggers, creeping in with the growing shadows to cut down the last soldiers of summer and autumn. The fallen leaves turn to iced bronze, beaten copper and frozen blood, to be shattered and trampled. Within a few weeks they will have collapsed into a brown blanket. A kestrel stands on a post, calculating that I am too cold to catch it and so it will not expend precious calories by flying away. The little hunter – not so little now – is not treated with the same contempt as he trots into view, soaking wet and not caring one jot about the cold or the perfect mirror of the water that he has just shattered after another joyful plunge. After all, if the near-still wind can break the surface of the water, why shouldn't he. I throw his stick back at the glimmering mirror.


The Earth worn to its bones.

Australia is old. Its interior has been rinsed by long ages of sparse desert rain until the nutrients are ground from the earth. Its river beds are as ancient as the abyss. Even in the fertile East the forests look and feel old and worn. Even the mountains of the East are worn to nubs a few thousand feet high. Barely a bump for what is effectively an entire continent. The trees of those forests are grey scented ghosts brushed with silvers and grubby yellows. Their trunks are bleached white where the bark peels away because in these forests the earth is not renewed year on year by falling leaves, it is maintained on life support by the gradual fall of strips of bark, years upon years. An entire wilderness laid back to the Earth by fire is nothing more than in invigorating body scrub to this land. When the sun grinds through the thin needles of the trees, they grow white. The carpet on the ground is pale too. The creeks, when they hold water at all, are clear and bronze like an old statue of water laid gently on the sleeping ground. That ghostly backdrop makes the gorgeous metallic blue-green of a butterfly a thing not unlike a fever-dream. The glinting call of a bird draws the eye to a bullet of gold or blue or red or lime green. Black trees also stop the eye, some natural, some ripped in half by lightening. Scrape back the vegitation and you are through to the bones of the Earth in an instant. These phantom forests hold a shadow of menace too. This land is so sparse that predators have evolved to waste no time on long chases of plump prey. The predators here are tiny and deathly efficient spiders and snakes.



Spring Dreaming

A bewildering acceleration of circumstances meant that I left Babylon on a dreary autumn day and arrived after too much sleep in springtime in Adelaide, with blossom on the trees and a strange buzz in the air. The similarities between Australia and the UK only serve to illustrate the differences. There is talk of Christmas as the pinnacle of the long climb into glorious summer, not the distant bright light in the middle of a dark passage. My hosts were shocked that I suggested making a bonfire to burn old letters. One of my reluctant bonfires in the Night Planted Orchard would start a fire that would flush half of Australia into the sea. Double glazing is a rare and curious beast. Air conditioning is mandatory. In the US-style strip-malls, US brands compete with familiar UK brands. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car for once, but the road furniture is pure US which can lead a distracted traveller astray. Men talk about family, tragedies and real life in a way that would have real men fleeing in terror from an English pub. Beer is drunk like a bewildering sacrement that has had its day. Wine has equal standing. Serious conversations turn out to be wind-ups and keeping a straight face is a national performance art. Pubs are full of families and children. Kangaroos cross the road like sacred cows. There are protests about not opening underground coal mines. The greatest difference of all is the sheer overwhelming sense of space. There is wilderness here, more even than in the US. The population is tiny for the size of the country and most people live around the cities or in towns nearby. I drove the back way back to Sydney, through the mountains and the national parks, and didn't see another soul until I started looking for coffee. Even in the US, the wilderness has to be protected from humans. In Australia, the humans have to be protected from the wilderness in all its glory.


The Resilience of Trees

Yesterday was a glorious September day. Warm enough to wear a t-shirt all day, cool enough to have an edge. It started damp and ended with that buttery light that only comes in autumn. It was the best of all possible days. The little red dragonflies were swarming and the hawthorns pushed their fat red berries at me like a conference of strumpets.

 We spent the day cutting back the trees which grow with abandon in the Night Planted Orchard. It feels cruel to take thick boles out of trees, or to cut down the wild plum trees which have sprung up everywhere. It's equally cruel to leave the rowan crowded until it's sad, bowed head and starved leaves are a footnote in the shrubbery, or to leave the Ginko struggling upwards, its light stolen by a rampant Mirabelle on one side, a bullying laurel on the other, and imperious ashes behind. Struggling to carry a twelve foot, six inch thick bole down the garden it struck me that there must be hundreds of tonnes of wood in the garden, all still, all resilient, looking down at me with my mighty pole pruner and whispering 'is that all you've got, little man?'


Blue Neon

The first thing that you notice about the birds of Australia is the colour. There are drab, sulking sparrows here but they are relegated to the shadows. Every tree is a shop-window for cockatoos, magpies, old crows with patches of white and small pretty things with dabs of colour under their wings. Their tailoring is brilliant and efficient, garish and comely. They are sometimes as skittish as convention says that birds are supposed to be, but they are forward too. The magpies attack to defend their territories. The gulls strut and preen like glowing stormtroopers, stamping their feet like the cracks of whips. They sashey past as you drink your morning coffee or eat your evening meal. They display their wares with abandon. Their calls are sharp and melodic, piercing the trees. They shout their shrill songs, or whisper comely ballads to you as you pass by. Their eyes do not avoid, they fix you calmly.  They perform acrobatics against tall branches, swivelling to watch you with hungry eyes, looking for threats and loot at the same time, backed by song and soft, green rustling. There are natives and imports and it is often hard to separate the two. They patrol the innermost heart of the city, pecking and exploring, pulling morsels from between the cracks, looking for trouble and finding it. But all is not well. The imports look beaten and scurry aside when approached away from their nests. Their feathers though bright have seen better days. Beyond the brightness, their eyes and beaks are rough and fierce. They have conquered man's nature, but not without cost.