Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lichen and Running Water

Greenwitch The Mousehole Cat The Hollow Land A Few Fair Days
Is it possible to be born into the wrong landscape? I wonder. I was born in Melbourne. Both sides of my family have been in Australia for many generations. I grew up with high skies and eucalyptus trees, and know no other landscape well. Yet I have never really felt at ease here. Perhaps it's psychological, reflecting only a certain discomfort with my own skin. Or perhaps my soul has its roots in another land. Because whatever the cause, and try as I might, I cannot fall in love with thin dry forests and red dirt. I have read, and loved, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, that hypnotic mythical story set on a property studded with Australian trees. I devoured Tim Winton's Dirt Music, located in the West, and Delia Falconer's The Service of Clouds, set in the Blue Mountains. Foggy Highway, by Paul Kelly and the Stormwater Boys, is on repeat in our household as it tells the stories of Australia. I've lived in Melbourne and Perth and driven the thousands of miles between and around the two, drinking in the landscape. It is stunning, awe inspiring, humbling. But I do not rest easy here.

I just don't feel at home. Even in the depths of a Melbourne winter (which don't run that deep these days), I yearn for muddy puddles and endless days of thick rain. I hunger for green pasture, fence posts exuberant with lichen, and fields and folds flowing as far as the eye can see.

What is my interior landscape? Could it be genetically prescribed? My ancestors were miners and innkeepers from Cornwall and who knows where else. I haven't been there, but perhaps that landscape tallies with my own.

After all, whenever I read Greenwitch by Susan Cooper, I get a tingle of recognition. Greenwitch is the third of a sequence, The Dark is Rising. The series draws from myth and legend to tell of the endless struggle between Dark and the Light. In Greenwitch, based in a fishing village in Cornwall, the battle for good is aided by the even more powerful neutral force of the Earth. A young girl, Jane, participates in the village's annual spring ritual for good fishing and good harvest. The ritual involves the nocturnal making of the Greenwitch, which is tossed into the sea. Jane's pity for the Greenwitch, and her relationship with it, shapes the story and affects the eternal struggle. And the description of the houses, the village, the seawall, the sea - all so different to my own experience - feel deeply familiar. As I read, I sense the tang of salt and hear gulls in the distance; the sound of waves fills the air. The landscape, the stones, the village are like a dream I can't quite remember, something I love but have never known.

Another book set in a village in Cornwall has a similar effect. Every time I read The Mousehole Cat, by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley, I cry. This picture book is set in the town of Mousehole, pronounced Mowzel, so named because of the narrowness of the gap through which the fishing boats have to pass from the open sea into the harbour. It's based on an old Cornish legend about a time when winter storms were so bad that no boat could get through the gap to the fishing grounds. The village is slowly starving, so Old Tom, who has no living dependents, decides he must risk destruction in order to feed the town. His cat, Mowzer, sings to and soothes the Great Storm Cat as Old Tom steers his boat to the fishing grounds, and brings home enough fish for everyone. The language and the illustrations are complementary: each intricate, each adding richness and depth to the story. This is a book to read over and over again, and treasure. But beware: it may not be just the landscape that brings tears to my eyes. If you plan to read it aloud to a little one, be prepared for your voice to crack, and keep a box of tissues within easy reach.

I'm not just hooked on stories from Cornwall. Stories set in the north of England also grab me in the guts, so familiar do they feel. Many of us read Jane Gardam's Bilgewater or A Long Way from Verona at high school. Less well known, but absolutely wonderful, are two collections of her short stories. The Hollow Land, set in the Cumbrian fells, recounts the low-key adventures of Harry and Bell as they lock up the fell gate, explore an old mine, listen to ghost stories on a rainy night, find a frozen cataract, and spend time with various eccentric villagers. A Few Fair Days is set on the coast of north Yorkshire, and tells stories about young Lucy. Nothing much happens, but everything is important: a windy day, when mother airs out blankets and Lucy goes for an impromptu solitary wander; an empty house, which the village children commandeer for their elaborate games; a feisty aunt, frequently absent, who breaks all the rules; a house guest who wears a wig.

The stories are shaped by their respective landscapes. The Hollow Land is set on the fells, a land riddled with abandoned mines and studded with sheep. Just as the water runs secret paths, sometimes aboveground, but more often underground until the rains come, many of the stories are about things known to the locals, but unspoken and hidden from outsiders. On the other hand, A Few Fair Days is set in a cold and blustery country of stony slopes and sand dunes, heady with the smell of the sea. Houses are large and chilly, and time drags. Most of the action takes place away from home, in an abandoned house or down in the dunes; and many of the stories are about things uncovered, things which must be recognised for what they are. In this windy landscape, obfuscation and opacity are soon blown away.

In all her stories, which are gentle, funny and kind, Gardam displays her acute ear for dialogue: the offhand comments made by mothers to children, the two short phrases that convey a whole relationship. And she takes the reader back to childhood, when playing on a piece of defunct farm machinery takes a whole afternoon, and aunts loom large.

One day, I hope to visit England. There I suppose I will find that I am not English either, and like all children who have lived in various countries, and all children born to immigrants - however long ago -, I will have to resign myself to statelessness for my interior landscape at least. In the meantime, I continue to search out stories of lichen and running water, endless rain and grey skies, green fields dotted with sheep, dark seas and cobblestones, and noses that drip with cold.

> Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley The Mousehole Cat (Aladdin, 1996); Susan Cooper Greenwitch (Atheneum, 1974); Jane Gardam A Few Fair Days (New York: Greenwillow, 1988 (1971)); Jane Gardam The Hollow Land (London: Puffin, 1983 (1981)).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blind Speculation

I'm looking forward to reading glasses. I figure that way, I'd look less interruptable. Someone would burst into the room, gabbling away. I'd wait a second or two, and they'd pause. I'd slowly raise my eyes and peer myopically at them through the glass. If they kept talking, I'd tilt my head, slip my specs down my nose, and glare over the top. If they still didn't let up, and it was serious enough that I had to attend, then I'd take off my glasses with a martyred sigh, fold them carefully and put them away. And we'd all know that reading time had come to an end.

Those of us without glasses get so little ceremony. We don't get to pat our lapels or walk round the house looking for them. We don't get to find them with a sigh, and open the cute little box, nor unfold the arms and slide them on. There is no flag that we have now transitioned into Reading Time, apart from the book in our hands, and somehow it doesn't communicate enough. When we are interrupted, we get no time as we turn our attention to the immediate problem. We're expected to change our focus immediately, as if it instantly moving out of a book was possible. Glasses would give us a pause, a moment's grace, to return to the here and now.

Sadly, too, those of us without glasses never look as intellectual. Someone reading with a pair of specs on appears to be deconstructing a text. We look like we've flopped down with a novel.

But I figure most of us get to wear glasses as we age. I just have to wait my turn, and then I, too, can add a little transition ceremony and a mildly intellectual air to my reading. By then, however, the kids will have grown up. I'll be trying to find my glasses to read medicine labels, and cursing the day I wrote this post.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Becoming Clara Bebbs

Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries
As a child, I repeatedly borrowed Ratbags and Rascals from the library. It was a collection of unrelated short stories by Robin Klein: a clumsy monk accidentally blots a piece of parchment and turns it into a work of art; girls on school camp develop a Rube Goldbergian invention to try and stop a roommate from snoring; other girls scare themselves silly holding a seance at a sleepover; and so on. But I especially loved 'How Clara Bebbs put Strettle Street properly on the map'. Clara Bebbs, bored during her school holidays and fed up with her forgettable street, goes about making it interesting. She sticks silver stars to the pavement. She rigs up a trolley pulley so that no-one has to push their shopping up the hill. She builds a jungle, and a swimming pool, and an underground tunnel; organises swap meets and concerts and chariot races; and so on and so forth. To a child who grew up in nondescript streets in the suburbs, this was heady stuff.

Imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled across an adult book that was pretty much the same idea. Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, by David Engwicht, argues that streets have become dominated by traffic at the expense of public life. Children no longer play in the streets; people don't use the front rooms of their houses; our wisest neighbours sit indoors, away from the traffic, rather than outside dispensing wisdom. The result is a breakdown of community, of neighborhoods, of belonging.

The book goes on to suggest ways to challenge this. Simply put, Engwicht argues that traffic can be calmed, even diminished, through informal means. When people use the street for chatting or games or shelling peas; when neighbours walk or use public transport, rather than their cars; when banners and other mechanisms calm drivers as they slow to look, then drivers will choose other routes, or even other means, to travel. Instead of being solely for cars, the streets will be reclaimed as vibrant public space. Engwicht suggests setting up a 'walking bus' to school, building archways across a street, putting seating in a car space, and doing anything and everything that might entice people to move slowly, use their car less, stop for a chat, and use the street for human interaction. If we put ideas like these into practice, we will end up with more space for conversation and play, stronger bonds between neighbours, and, of course, safer streets for everybody.

This certainly resonates with my experience. In our street, those of us who walk or ride or use public transport are visible. So too are those of us who sit in our front gardens in the evening. We recognise each other, and chat a little. Other neighbours who drive everywhere are, quite literally, invisible to the street. The three houses next to me have rollerdoors at the back of their properties, and I never see the occupants. I wouldn't know them if they knocked on my door. Cars charge through our street, visibility is poor, and I won't let my five year old cross the road to a friendly neighbour's without me checking that it's safe to cross.

I'd love to know more neighbours, and strengthen the bonds with the others, but lack the gumption to go hammer on their doors. So last week, I took a small first step. My kids and I mapped out a chalk labyrinth on the footpath in front of our house. We chatted with a few people who wandered past, and left it there for people to puzzle out. Pity it was so rainy that it washed off the next day. But we will do it again, and again.

My fence is good for writing, as the graffiti taggers know, so I am thinking I might pose a few conundrums, or write a few quotes on it, in chalk. And we have a large street tree with nice horizontal branches on a decent sized 'traffic calming' square of land. I am trying to work out how to hang a tyre swing from the tree. My kids need a swing, and there are other invisible kids in the street who might emerge if there was reason to. A few lawn chairs near the swing, and we're halfway to a street party.

Feeding into these ideas is On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries, by Richard Reynolds. It's hard to tell whether Reynolds is deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Either way, the book is hilarious, delightful, thought-provoking. It recounts the guerilla gardening movement (private citizens gardening in public space without permission) and provides tactics and suggestions for action. The text is dotted with the language of revolution; gardeners are known by their first name and troop number only. As well as being amusing in its seriousness, it's full of good advice: how to choose a spot; how to minimise vandalism; how to recruit public support and other gardeners; how to win over city councils and the law. And it has helpful notes on plant selection, too.

My sister and I fantasize about dotting our suburb with walnuts, mulberries and other large, graceful, shady trees that will bear fruit. But between climate change and ongoing water restrictions, we can't see how we could nurture a sapling to a full grown adult. To do it properly, we'd need stakes, hessian, and council worker clothes, not to mention the saplings. And anyway, we're chicken.

Until I'm braver, I need to set my sights closer to home. Under our aforementioned street tree, our lovely council spread black plastic to suppress weeds, then dumped a thin layer of tanbark. Even lovelier neighbours regularly leave car tyres (reclaimed by us for potato towers), large chunks of concrete (been there for a year or two now), and all sorts of other rubbish. A council worker sprays the lot with roundup every few months to kill any weed that dares poke its head above the black plastic and tanbark. Yet a block down the street, another tree has been underplanted with daisies and geraniums. The spray-man leaves these, and it makes me wonder whether, if we planted densely enough, he might skip our little corner and spray somewhere else, instead.

Weaving the ideas from these books together, I imagine a little scented garden, a tyre swing, a pavement labyrinth, a few lawn chairs... perhaps, just perhaps, those neighbours hiding behind their curtains might be enticed to slip outside their front doors one warm summer evening. Someone might bring a bottle of wine; someone else, some biccies. And I'll have a moment where I have lost myself in the story, become Clara Bebbs, just for a little while. And Stewart Street, like Strettle Street, may too become interesting.

> Robin Klein Ratbags and Rascals (Ferntree Gully, Victoria: Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (1984); David Engwicht Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 1999); Richard Reynolds On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).