Essay

Things we want to know but forget to ask

Stories about the painted past and the precarious future

In early 2018, on a hot, humid summer’s day, when even the birds were resting in the shade, a group of writers gathered beneath the ceiling fans of a university seminar room to devise a project that engaged with the idea of living in a precarious world. As we all lived in the Illawarra region, on the south coast of New South Wales, we decided to respond to artworks held in the Wollongong Art Gallery collection.

A few weeks later, the gallery’s professional officers Vivian Vidulich and Louise Brand led us through the bowels of the gallery. They pulled out wire racks full of paintings and lifted dust covers from sculptures. And we writers sat with the artworks, taking notes, talking, photographing.

We each chose one piece that activated something within us, and went away to write, coming together again over a series of sessions to read and talk about the works and responses to them. Diverse pieces of fiction, non-fiction and poetry evolved from this process: works interested in the land and waterways of the Illawarra and elsewhere; in the relationship between humans and other species; in wind, weather and waste; in death, birth, regeneration and refuge; and in the changing nature of life on this planet.

 

‘Light’, Christine Howe
Responding to: Grace Cossington Smith, Beach headland, circa 1931.

ELIZABETH II is five years old, yet to become queen of an empire that still claims for itself the light of an eternally rising sun. Mahatma Gandhi is visiting cotton mills in Lancashire, raising the ire of Winston Churchill. In Sydney, amid mass unemployment, hunger and evictions, the steel arches of the bridge meet like clasped hands over the wind-flecked harbour. And somewhere on the Illawarra coast, on this country that falls from grey-green ridges to the restless swash of the sea, Grace Cossington Smith is on a beach headland, painting.

If I listen inwards, quietly, through all the years between us, I can hear the creak of those trees in the foreground, long trunks easing against each other on the clifftop. I hear the surf below, the hiss and scuff of water at the base of the cliffs. There’s a rustle in the leaf litter – skinks, an echidna, slowly growing fungi. Grace’s feet, as she shifts her weight, as she reaches for her brush. Maybe she hums. Maybe she sees Cézanne’s landscapes as she mixes her paint, as the Dharawal light falls across the back of her hand.

She doesn’t know what will become of her work. She doesn’t know that these daubs of brilliant blue, this purple cliff, this flattened rock ledge, these strokes of khaki green, will hang in a gallery that hasn’t yet been built, in a building designed to celebrate the coronation of a queen who is not yet too old to sit on her mother’s lap.

She chooses colour with light in it. Years later, after she’s painted windows, wardrobes, wildflowers, bonfires, bridges, refugees, churches, she will say: ‘All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people – has an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour, colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created.’

 

I REMEMBER THIS when I visit my hometown, four months after a bushfire burned along ridges and through houses, one after another, on one of the hottest March days on record.

Now, eucalypts are sprouting bright-green leaves along blackened trunks. The local land council has started to conduct cool burns on the sandy ridges to the west of town, so new shoots of grasses and shrubs can grow in spring. Friends who are rebuilding their house said the first bird they saw flitting amongst the grey rubble was a flame robin.

We go for a walk just on sunset, past burnt-out wattle and melaleucas. My daughter stops and points at an unexpected burst of colour. It’s a yarn bomb, knitted by teenagers who have been collecting thread from the Tathra op shop. There’s an awkward grace in the tangle of colour, light pink, light blue, cream and navy stripes, narrow scarves tied taut around fire-scorched branches. The melaleucas will take thirty years to regrow, my mother tells me, which will make my daughter just a little younger than I am now, and me just a little older than my mother, and I hope by then my grey-white hair will catch the Yuin light, hold it, and let it go – as hers, in the gold of the setting sun, glows with it now.

 

Reference:

Cossington Smith, G quoted in Modjeska, D 1999, Stravinsky’s Lunch, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, p. 271

Christine Howe is a writer and lecturer who teaches at the University of Wollongong. Her first novel, Song in the Dark (2013), was published by Penguin, and her poetry has appeared in Cordite and Law Text Culture.

 

‘Death of Kangaroo’, Luke Johnson
Responding to: Garry Shead, The death of Kangaroo, 1992.

How brutal the bullet of grief that did this
that crucified Kangaroo
blasphemed marsupial of the scrub paddock and border paddock
of escarpments and roadways and golf courses
too.

What velocity the hammer of authority’s instinct must possess
to plough so greyly into the earth
this cross-starred apostle
of such hind-legged summit
and such wheat-eating
girth.

Was it you again, Pilate
with your lead-tipped whip
and your clean hands
and impossible power? Or
perhaps it was the high priest of the paintbrush
hiding away now
in his wide-brimmed hat
and triangle of guilt and
glower.

Put down your instruments of passion, Shead
and accept what is done
and what is done
and what is
dead
quit your memories
and your proclivities and
the sources of your similes
and step forward, man
with your pockets out-turned and
your excuses un-
explored.

For
unholyunholyunholyunholy
are the relics
continuously cut
from the eternal carcass
of this narrow-jawed saint
delivered from the tomb-like opening
of his mother’s pouch
only to be airlinered and parliamented
courthoused and coined
colonised with filament, panel and
paint.

Well, I say this to you and to all
for the forgiveness of sins fared seafully
from imperial coastline
to most bastardised shore
Lift Up Your Hearts And Pray Pardon To The Land Which Is God
for the blood of the bushfire is new and everlasting
and only It may rightfully forget or undo
a morte iniquitatis Macropus

this iniquitous death
of Kangaroo.

 

Luke Johnson has contributed to SoutherlyOverland, Island, Westerly, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Literary Review and HEAT, and has won or been listed for such awards as the AAWP Chapter One Prize, Josephine Ulrick Prize, Elizabeth Jolley Prize and Katharine Susannah Prichard Prize. He is a lecturer of creative writing at the University of Wollongong, and treasurer of the Australian Short Story Festival. His story ‘Ferocious animals’ was published in Griffith Review 53: Our Sporting Life.

 

‘A tale from the cabbage tree forest (Figtree)’, Friederike Krishnabhakdi-Vasilakis
Responding to: Eugène von Guérard, Cabbage tree forestAmerican Creek, New South Wales, 1860.

ONE DAY, NOT at all that many years ago, a small frog sat on the cliff of a headland. A great whale frolicked in morning waves tinged orange by the rising sun. Humpback Whale swam closer to have a look at this creature she’d never seen before.

‘You are not from around here?’

Yellow-spotted Tree Frog hadn’t spoken to anyone in a while and her throat was dry from floating in the salt water of the sea. When the frog didn’t reply, the whale swam closer.

‘I come from way out there, where the sun rises from the sea,’ sang Humpback Whale.

Yellow-spotted Tree Frog croaked in reply, her throat billowing into a green balloon.

‘I come from the forest up that mountain.’ She pointed at a spot near Mount Kembla.

Humpback Whale stared at the frog, for she had never seen such a beautiful creature: the frog’s bell-shaped back was marbled green and gold, there were black spots all over it and a pale green stripe ran down the middle. She had fully webbed toes and yellow spots on the groin and the back of her thighs shimmered bright yellow in the morning sun.

‘Mmmmh, that’s a long way away,’ whistled Humpback Whale. ‘What brings you here? Don’t you like it where you come from?’

And so, Yellow-spotted Tree Frog began her story.

‘I come from the cabbage tree forest. I lived there with my family. We chased blue triangle butterflies around the sassafras, we hid under the tree ferns from Laughing Kookaburra and played hide and seek with Ringtail Possum among the musk daisy bush. My family and I caught flies near the creek.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Now everyone’s gone.’

‘What do you mean, gone?’ clicked Humpback Whale.

‘One day, a wombat, a possum and a lyrebird from further up the mountain came to my forest. They sang songs of strange creatures of a kind no one had seen before and who spoke in a language no one could understand.

‘“They chop those trees down, one by one, until they are all gone, gone, gone.”

‘They said long winding scars of dirt replaced the bush and flowers. My family and I grunted in disbelief.

‘“It’s true,” the lyrebird screeched, “our homes are gone – my nest, Wombat’s burrow, Ringtail Possum’s mulberry tree – all gone. Most of the animals didn’t make it out alive.”

‘We didn’t believe them, but then these strange creatures arrived. First, we heard grinding blades on moaning tree trunks, then the gumtrees fell, screaking and groaning in pain as they shattered to the ground, sending quakes that shook us to the bone. Everyone ran, flew and scrambled in all directions. My father grunted in his frog voice of a thousand bees, “Climb up and up the cabbage trees” – for he was certain they would not fall, strong, tall and majestic as they were.

‘I didn’t follow. Instead I hastened as fast as I could towards the creek and jumped in. After the big rains, it was like a river and it carried me all the way to the big water.’

Yellow-spotted Tree Frog shivered.

‘I’m hungry and thirsty.’

Humpback Whale scanned the beach. There was no tree, no creek, in fact, nothing like the frog had described.

‘You can’t stay here.’

‘But I don’t know where to go.’

The whale let out a long, baritone groan that rippled through water and air for she didn’t know how to help the frog. Yellow-spotted Tree Frog joined in, in her frog voice, sounding louder than a thousand bees. Humpback Whale stopped. She’d heard that sound before, coming from the escarpment and so she told the frog.

‘Maybe you still have kin out there? There might be another cabbage-tree forest for you and other Yellow-spotted Tree Frogs?’ The whale exhaled, spraying a fountain of a million droplets in excitement.

‘You reckon there might be a new place elsewhere for me? A new home?’

As if on cue, the sound – faint, but louder than a thousand bees – travelled from the mountains. The frog heard it too. Did that voice sound familiar that was calling from the – ‘Wait, is that a cabbage tree hidden in the bush?’ she asked Humpback Whale.

‘There is only one way to find out,’ Humpback Whale said.

Hope chased hunger and despair from the frog’s belly and heart and she thanked Humpback Whale for her time, wished her farewell and leaped inland towards the escarpment that rose against the big, blue sky, in search of new cabbage trees.

 

Note from the author:

This response to von Guérard’s work was guided by several experiences. Trees are close to my heart: I grew up in Germany’s Black Forest, an enchanted place that has inspired many traditional fairy tales. As a child, I found much consolation and inspiration under those graceful giants and this fact – as well as being brought up in a household where fables, folk and fairy tales were an everyday presence – inspired me to write my first fables when I was about nine years old. I’m still writing this style of story in my new home on this side of the world.

Von Guérard’s painting – a unique historical and ecological snapshot of significant environmental change – also spoke to me. His view is almost the view from my home’s windows now, and there are no traces of the cabbage-tree forest anymore. This made me wonder what else had disappeared, and when a frog moved into our kitchen, I had the idea of exploring local extinctions. The Yellow-spotted Tree Frog that I write about in this fable spoke to me of extinctions that occur as a result of human encroachment into habitats.

But the Yellow-spotted Tree Frog has made a curious comeback, decades after it was declared extinct. The rediscovery of a specimen a few hundred kilometres south-west of the Illawarra allowed me to explore human notions of extinction–resurrection and adaptation. The European fable form I use here is intended to raise questions about the limitations of human knowledge about nature, showing instead both resilience and the potential for recovery and hope.

Friederike Krishnabhakdi-Vasilakis is a writer, curator and arts consultant. Her non-fiction publications on cross-cultural spaces have been published internationally, including in Law Text Culture and the Art Market Dictionary. Her creative writing projects, poetry and creative non-fiction have also appeared in several volumes of Dreaming Inside: Voices From Junee Correctional Centre. She is currently working on a collection of eco-tales set in the Illawarra and its coastline, and across the Pacific. She also writes under the pen name Freddy Iryss.

 

‘Notes in the margin’, Susan Ballard
Responding to: Colin McCahon, Listen: from a poem by Peter Hooper, 1969.

They say that once he started to drink it was pretty difficult to stop.
They say that towards the end of his life, on the way to his first opening in Sydney he got lost in the Domain, emerging the next day somewhere near Centennial Park. I wonder how long his wife, Anne, waited outside the toilets before notifying the police. I find a pair of his paintings in a strange peripheral location, and begin to look for clues.
Can’t you see the landscape?
The earth has been returned to the land of the birds, a pre-human time.
Pay attention.

The poems and the paintings are from another place, where the weather forecasts change by the hour, and each day the clouds gather over the hills.
In this place, geology is a load-bearing structure, and you can walk from East Coast to West Coast in just under thirty minutes.

We leave the estuary, press our way through the harakeke, and onwards
to where the wind sculpts the bush into smooth quiffs
and the sandhills are in constant motion.
Here it is hard to hear the voice of a child as it is whipped away in echoes against the cliffs.
In these cliffs McCahon searched for fossils, evidence of bodies that held the words he needed for his paintings.

He said painting cannot exist without poetry.
He drew in oil crayons that seeped into the board, staining its surface with the words of his good friend Peter Hooper.
Hooper said that poetry was an aim rather than a technique.
A technique needs frames, colours, surfaces.
He said poetry aims for limits, poverty, intimacy.

She said she used to write this way, with words lifted from others drifting down the page.
It was a mode keen for relations, certain that stranger things could happen.
Once she was invited to place these words within a gallery.
The men of authority said, ‘These are not the right words. Can’t you just describe the paintings; tell us what is going on?’
It was a great relief to leave, but their words lingered on.

Driving around the Mangarakau Swamp I see five kōtuku; the white heron, the bird that only flies once.
Once because there are only 200 birds in the country.
Once because your chances of seeing them are once in a blue moon.
Except tonight the moon is cool and hidden behind drifts of grey clouds.

I wonder what the birds are doing here.
Each shelters on the leeward side of a bay.
Each is precisely ten metres from the edge of the road.
McCahon probably drove this road as Hooper lived just over the hill.
Today they are selling T-shirts at the entrance to the museum: ‘It’s just a hill, get over it.’
Over the hill feijoa are ten for a dollar from the girls at the Mussel Inn.

The men of authority still select the poems.
The men of authority differentiate, determine and assert.

It is later now, and at the Auckland Art Gallery, McCahon has a wall to himself, a huge ochre ‘I’ framed within the inky black of a starlit sky.

We all feel this weight:
the artist,
the doubt,
the shuddering uncertainty,
the landscapes of words that fall down.

 

Note from the author:

Colin McCahon’s paintings include poems by New Zealand poet Peter Hooper; ‘Notes in the Margin’ is another of Hooper’s poems. Peter Hooper Selected Poems, Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1977.

Susan Ballard is an art writer from Aotearoa-New Zealand, living in the Illawarra. Her research is concerned with the ways in which art and writing intersect with ecological transformation, disaster and hope in the age of the Anthropocene. She is co-director of the Centre for Critical Creative Practice at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is part of the multi-authored project 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (Open Humanities Press, 2019).

 

‘Four views of the mountain’, Joshua Lobb
Responding to: Guy Warren, Hut on the Mountain, 2007.

Like the mountain, the painting has layers. And not just the obvious ones:
the threads of cloud, visible breath, obscuring dark clumps of trees;
the sharp line of the mountain, cleaving itself from a steel sky.
Look, my friend says. A painter starts with what’s underneath.
The layers push the other colours out, bring them to the surface.
Underneath brown is red, underneath pink skin is blue.
The colours in the corner of the painting glow like exposed sandstone.
The orange scorches through the green.

Look, another friend says, one morning
as we’re gasping our way up the eroded meandering path:
navigating haphazard splintery sleepers; dodging thin creaking trees;
the rough brick chimney. A remnant of another life:
tracing coalseams within the shale; avoiding fault lines.
Look, up there, in the dark corner. A shadow pecks at quartzy dirt
with his talon, scratching under the surface, looking for grubs.
We hold our breath. The lyrebird turns,
listens to dusty air, and disappears into the grey background.
We move on. When we reach the summit, our hands clasp the railings,
galvanised steel is icy-sharp against our pink skin,
as we take in the expansive sky.

Look, he says. We’re scudding northbound on the highway.
The road is wet from last night’s storm: glistening like polished cement,
the spray of passing cars flicks up like white spittle.
Look up there. There’s a wound on the side of the mountain, raw and new:
exposing copper sandstone, a sudden revelation of Triassic light:
the orange scorching through the green.
The mountain has been falling for millennia: cascading rivers
and silt, and volcanic ash. Boulders, eroded from the breath of icy air
crash into the dark trees below.
Like the story: the West Wind, the old man gasping round the corner, furrowing the rock,
dispatching his daughters, his own flesh, one by one, into the sea.

And I almost don’t see.
One Antarctic morning, lumbering home from the beach.
My pink skin blue, still stinging from the rough ocean;
head down between hunched shoulders, elbows tight against my rib cage.
I look up and see a sharp line of sunlight.
It cleaves the mountain from the steel sky.
The mountain’s crown is clear and golden through wispy clouds.
The sandstone and shale and quartz glisten.
Look, I gasp to myself. Look.

Dr Joshua Lobb is senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wollongong. His stories have appeared in The Bridport Prize AnthologyBest Australian StoriesAnimal Studies Journal, Text and Southerly. His manuscript Remission won the LitLink Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2014, as well as two residential fellowships at Varuna, the Writers’ House. His ‘novel in stories’ The Flight of Birds (2019), about grief and climate change, is published by Sydney University Press. He is also part of the multi-authored project 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (Open Humanities Press, 2019).

 

‘Still listening, still looking, Bronwyn Oliver’, Catherine McKinnon
Responding to: Bronwyn Oliver, Twist II, 1993.

IT’S A WINTERY July night in 2006, 10.17 pm. You have just entered some figures into your Excel tax spreadsheet. Final costs for a sculpture perhaps. The completed pieces of your upcoming exhibition hang in select places around the house and in your studio. Ammonite[i], a large, curved, rust-coloured work, in the likeness of an ancient fossil, hangs on your office wall.[ii] Beside it is Tentacle [iii] – long, thin, wispy. Do you stand and gaze at these two works? And if so, what are you thinking?

According to one who loves you, on any day over the last few months, from seven in the morning until eleven at night, you could be found sitting on the floor of your studio, leaning over a sculpture.[iv] The sculpture is settled on a bench in front of you. The bench is covered in firebricks. You have a small blowtorch in your hand. Two oxyacetylene cylinders sit behind you.[v] If it’s the beginning of the day, you get the acetylene burning, the flame yellow with black smoke. You temper the flame with oxygen, so it thins to a white-blue, and pick up a brazing rod. You hold the flame over two pieces of copper wire, melting them together, and using the rod to fix the join. No facemask or protective gloves.[vi] You breathe in the fumes of copper and phosphorous and the studio fills with a dark, bitter-smelling smoke. But the windows stay closed because you hate the cold air.[vii]

Twist II (1993) was made a year after you learnt to weld. You started with a ‘plumber-sized Oxy “Colt” welder’.[viii] You wrote about it in your diary. ‘Very frightened of using it,’ you said.[ix] But before long you added, ‘welding great fun – (still cautious)’.[x] Twist II is like a body hanging: the space inside, glimpsed through a network of obstructions. Its strong downward spirals are a resolving rhythm, but it casts shadows on the wall that suggest frailty, otherness, things unexplained.

You once wrote, ‘I think of my works as having their own inner life.’[xi]

People say your shapes are strange, otherworldly, captivating. They are twirling tunnels of energy, spheres of the future and the past, twisted or curled shapes, that seem to echo pods and seeds and cones. Earthly things or strange sea things. Your shapes appear ethereal, delicate, but many are woven from thick sturdy copper wire. Yet for all their beauty, your works are not innocent. Some have sharp edges that spike the air, others have hidden barbs, some have lead eggs inside them – as if expressing potential unrealised. Your sister, Helen, many years ago, described your work as that ‘I’m beautiful but I’m scary thing’.[xii]

A bit like you.

A bit like the fear that grips you about the future.

As you stand in your studio, on this July night, do you think about the future? Your future, our future. Do you see all that lies before us, the ravaged planet and the dislocations of whole peoples, and think this is not for me? Or are you bound by an internal turmoil that is more private?

 

A PRIVATE PERSON, everyone says.

Years ago, you cut off all ties with your family.

And one by one, you cut off ties with friends. Good friends, fair-weather friends, fickle friends.

All gone.

Except for those very few.

You were never convinced of the need to mend.

And then finally, the one closest to you, he left too.

He thought you wouldn’t miss him.

Nothing as important to you as your art.

Perhaps it is after you update your Excel spreadsheet, that you write the note for the one you love most.

The note says ‘Please feed the cats.’[xiii]

You go out into the cold night and place the note in the letterbox.

Maybe it is after this that you write on ‘large sheets of paper’[xiv] a sign that says ‘Warning Suicide Inside’ and tape it to the glass on your studio doors.[xv]

Maybe you shoo the cats outside before you close the doors and fetch a ladder or a chair.  You take hold of a rope that sits coiled in your studio.

Is this the same rope you bought thirteen days earlier?

For that’s when there appears an entry in your Excel file that says, ‘$41.68 for “wall fixing and rope”’.[xvi]

You knot the rope and fix it somewhere high. Do you pause? Descend. Contemplate?

Sometime, when the moon is high, you take off your shoes and cardigan, climb up the ladder, place the rope over your neck, and then you step off.

And there you are hanging in space.

 

I REMEMBER STANDING in front of one of your sculptures. In my memory, it hung above the entrance to the main theatre in the small city where I grew up.

I stood there, enchanted, watching the sun play over the intricate weavings.

Copper threads twirling in space. It reminded me of a dolphin playing in the sea, but also of other things, unnameable things. The form seductive but a seductive that allowed freedom of thought. I loved that.

In those last days you were not obsessed by your art, it was the future that concerned you.

You said to a friend, ‘How do I live the rest of my life?’[xvii] You kept asking, ‘How do people do it?’[xviii]

But everyone thought you were strong. Everyone thought you would fight on.

So…what happened to you, Bronwyn?

What did you see that night in July, that took the fight right out of you?

What did you hear that night in July, that took the fight right out of you?

Because…we’re listening.

Many of us…here listening.

Still.

And also…looking.

 

Endnotes:

[i] Oliver, 2005
[ii] Fink, 2000, p. 94
[iii] Oliver, 2005
[iv] Fink, 2000, p. 7
[v] Huon Hooke, in Hawley, 2016, p. 6/11
[vi] Fink, 2000, p. 195
[vii] op. cit., p. 195
[viii] op. cit., p. 103
[ix] op. cit., p. 103
[x] op. cit., p. 103
[xi] op. cit., p. 133
[xii] Hawley, 2016, p. 7/11
[xiii] Fink, 2000, p. 194
[xiv] op. cit., p. 194
[xv] op. cit., p. 194
[xvi] Hawley, 2016, p. 10/11
[xvii] Fink, 2000, p. 192
[xviii] op. cit., p. 192

References:

Fink, Hannah, 2000, Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things, Piper Press, Sydney.

Hawley, Janet, 2016, ‘Tarrawarra honours Bronwyn Oliver, brilliant sculptor who died before her time’, Financial Review online, accessed 7.4.2018, p. 1-11.

Catherine McKinnon is a novelist, playwright and academic. She is part of the multi-authored project 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (Open Humanities Press, 2019). Her most recent novel, Storyland (2017), was published by HarperCollins and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2018. Her plays have been produced nationally, and her short stories, reviews and essays have appeared in journals such as Transnational LiteratureText JournalRealTime and Narrative. She teaches creative writing and performance at the University of Wollongong. Her novella ‘Will Martin’ was published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short – The Novella Project III.

 

‘Press and pulse’, Tess Barber
Responding to: Marion Borgelt, Mortar and Vessel: Morphology, 2001.

Mortar and vessel. Lippy receptacles, spilling and nestled.
Uterine vessels made from mortar, enclosed and containing.
Carrying worlds, safely stowing seeds.
Press and pulse.

In 2016 lightning-ignited wildfires destroyed Gondwanan refugia – ancient and unique conifer seed, forest species that once dwelled in fire refugia. Again this summer, bushfire burnt through Tasmania’s forest reserves. This destruction has been described as the process of press and pulse: the press of climate change synchronising with the pulse of the extreme weather events, together pushing ecosystems, landscapes, worlds into collapse.

Anthropologist Anna Tsing also speaks of damaged landscapes.[i] She speaks of the movement, life and activity that are forged from them – acts of resurgence such as those of spores. These travelling castaways are dispersed across planet in search for refugia: a place to call home.

Refugium: an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas. Refugia are places creatures can go to regenerate, places processes can renew themselves. Refuge for latent biodiversity.

In the inner suburbs of the city terrariums are becoming increasingly popular. Small, enclosed, constructed worlds. Atmosphere aquariums, inoculated with life at will. People make these small monoculture-filled containers, like a petri-dish.
Or the modern gut.
Or the chimney of a nuclear power plant.

Next to the power plant are little radioactive puddles. A small ecosystem nestled in, munching on the refuse of human activity. Cancers are like these puddles. Someone once explained to me that a placenta is a cancer, the cells are cancerous – regenerating endlessly without apoptosis until the pancreatic enzymes of a foetus stop them: so many cells, only so much time and space. All those cells.

For humans cancer is a death, but it is also monstrous life. The life that mops up the power plant puddles. The mouldy-life that snuck into the terrarium. The life that grows off the effects of late capitalism on our (post) postmodern bodies. All those cells. How to weave together the fragments? Connected again for a second time, but now more resilient, more in tune to world. How do you cultivate the intuition required for such weaving? Thinking about the monstrous consequences of human activity is disturbing, but then so is 68.5 million refugees without refuge – the disturbance is both planetary and molecular now.

What else can’t been seen? What can be?
The mind or the material; story or substance?
What do you do when the instruments can’t measure close enough, when other ways of knowing are needed – other ways of making?

But people do the grinding, people make the making!
Churning, pushing, contracting – in the mortar, people mix the seeds they want! The vessels hold what the people put in them. Get out, mice, get out, you ibis. No weeds in the vessel! Keep the vessel clean, give the vessel good infrastructure. No mould in my vessel! No cancer in my vessel!

Ursula Le Guin was right: the stories were always about the vessel.[ii] About where to find the vessel. About the vessel’s new renovations. About which seeds to put in your vessel and at which time of the year. The laws made to protect the vessels, the wars fought to take someone else’s. The stories were always about the vessel.

Lippy receptacles, spilling and nestled. Press and pulse.
Vessels made from mortar, from stone and soil, root and leaf, ocean and Illawarra escarpment. Worlds carved from the movement of air, mineral, creature, and water.
Refuge for seed and spore, for the ocean travellers.

Time is poised, time hurries along.
How to learn to make more refuges, more refugia?
We tell ourselves there is no time.
Lippy receptacles, spilling and nestled: press and pulse.

 

Endnotes:

[i] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015.
[ii] Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Paladin, Great Britain, 1992, pp. 165-170.

Tess Barber is a creative writer currently studying a PhD in creative arts at the University of Wollongong. Her current research studies alternative approaches to environment and ecology in science and speculative fictions.

 

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