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)).

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