Chasing rainbows

RainbowBridgeI’ve wasted a lot of time chasing rainbows. Turns out, they come to you.

I drive up to Baroon Pocket Dam, on the Blackall Range, with the modest hope of a bushwalk and a few photo opportunities. I park in the picnic area, and before I even get out of the car, I’m grumpy. It’s all blue metal, fences and signs, and a dodgy-looking white van has followed me out. There’s a short walk behind the weed-ridden spillway, from where I can hear the comforting sounds of wrens and fantails, but I’m uneasy. The van-man is there, eating his lunch, staring straight ahead. I walk past the fences and signs to look out over the dam. Wind-waves lap at the shore. It’s bleak: no sound, no signs of life. I’m cold, and it starts to drizzle. This was a terrible idea.

Then I see it. A rainbow, arching over the dam like a bridge. A massive perfect rainbow. It’s close. I walk out beyond the railing to photograph it. Through the lens, the spectrum of colours is brighter and clearer. It’s coming closer. I’m shooting all angles, and for a time I can see where the rainbow ends – right in the middle of the dam. I could swim to the pot of gold waiting for me. Still it’s coming closer, wind-borne. I turn off the camera, and just sit on the railing, watching, as the rainbow passes over and through me.

The van starts, and I tense as it stops beside me. ‘Right place, right time,’ he says, and gives me a thumbs up. We’re both grinning, for the gift we’ve been given.Rainbowlens1

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Little fish

WTWRosie&IngaCanbLaunchI was so moved by Rosanna Stevens’s Canberra launch speech for Where the Trees Were, that I have included it here for all to read. If I have pulled off half of what Rosanna suggests, them I’m thrilled. We’re all little fish, but it seems to me that only by learning more about the natural world, and all of the histories of those places where we live, can we know ourselves – and this country.

 

 

“Let’s begin by acknowledging the First People of this country, the Ngunnawal People, on whose land we meet tonight to launch this book. I acknowledge their elders past, present and future, and extend my acknowledgement to all First People present here this evening. This always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

“Initially, I found it hard to imagine a way I could talk about all the things that happen in this book without being disappointingly vague: this is no fault of the writer, in fact I was marvelling at how one book could contain so much complexity and simplicity while I audibly swore at the book for containing so much complexity and simplicity. Where would I start from, I wondered, if I were going to praise a book about trees, that is also not about trees? It turns out, I just needed patience. Like all good writers, Inga had quite naturally planted her own metaphor for the entire story right toward the end of it, and when I read these two pages, they winked at me and enticed me to make them come alive this evening. The scene is a pastoral one – set around a river that sits central to our protagonist – Jayne’s – childhood memories and adventures. She is living out her final weeks of high school and has taken herself to the river to pick mushrooms.

After all the rain, I took an afternoon off, at the river. All my major assessment pieces were in, and sometimes field mushrooms grew under the tree where Kieran had fallen. I had a craving for mushrooms on toast. Mum did them up with cream and parsley and pepper, and since I had stopped eating meat, she was trying hard to come up with new dishes we would all like. Especially leading into exams.

I couldn’t have timed it better; some of the mushrooms were just opening out, fresh pink gills beneath the white caps. I soon filled a bucket but left it on the bank. The river was demanding my attention. It was as full as I had ever seen it, creamy, and sliding past rather than flowing. There had been heavy rain upstream, washing a lot of soil into the water.

There was talk of another flood at Forbes. It happened every seven years, sometimes worse than others. I always thought rivers flowed to the sea, but ours flowed west, into great marshlands and then the Murrumbidgee. They were big on rivers at school, with our houses named after them. I had learned the whole history and course of the Lachlan, the reference to it in “Clancy of the Overflow”, and the building of the dam. But I got its real name from Ian: Kalare. He was in Murrumbidgee house, the only one of our rivers still carrying its Wiradjuri name.

I bent to pick up a stick, to stop myself slipping, and realised that it wasn’t just silt and muck sliding past. It was a seething crust of shrimp, and yabbies in all sizes and colours poking their claws up through them, as if calling for help. Every now and then a claw would snip a shrimp in half, but perhaps by accident. I couldn’t tell if they were feeding or just trying to breathe.

A turtle popped her head up through all that living flotsam and pushed through to the shore, blinking, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. It was how I felt, too. A water rat scampered up the bank and sat not ten feet downstream. We watched the river together. It was one of those moments when I couldn’t turn away, in case I missed something, and in case it was gone when I looked back. Then the fish started coming up. First just their noses broke the surface, as if sniffing. Then the water boiled and surged and turned an even more awful brown. Hundreds of them breached at once: catfish, yellowbelly, perch, things I didn’t recognise. All sizes and shapes swarmed together, from fingerlings to a great old Murray cod, all gasping for air. I could hear them sucking.

Of all the days not to have a camera.

I did what anyone would do, waded in and started grabbing fish. They were slippery, but couldn’t get far. I went for the silver perch, glinting like jewels, and threw them up on the bank behind me. I stopped at two plate-sized fish each, but not before I had slipped and fallen in. I was wet through and slimy with mud and filth. I picked shrimp out of my hair, unhooked a crayfish from my sleeve, and threw them back. Then the water seemed to clear a little and the fish thinned, the yabbies dived, the turtle and water rat disappeared underwater with a plop. The river was back to normal, full and brown, but flowing on by as if nothing unusual had happened.

“While I soaked in the language and rush of this luscious and crustaceous scene, I was reminded of the Yolŋu theory and story – a First Nations community up north, from where the band Yothu Yindi hail – of gaṉma. Gaṉma is one of my favourite stories, and as a white person from the mountains I know so little about it, but what has been told to me is that there is a point at which the salt and freshwater meet to form a foaming body of water that is both and neither. There are small anchovy-like fish that live in gaṉma – gunmurra. Yothu Yindi sing about gunmurra. These fish are one of the few creatures who enter this brackish, swimming among the stirred up foam that exists like connective tissue between watery worlds. It is an ancient metaphor, but I have heard this story used to illustrate the two worlds that now exist in Australia: the Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The little fish are those who enter the water between worlds, to try and learn how to live, represent and navigate that difficult territory. It has always seemed to me that First People are often forced to be fish between worlds: but colonisers get to choose whether it’s a place we are ready to enter.

“Earlier this year, Hannah Donnelly, a writer and Wiradjuri woman from NSW who grew up on Gamilaroi country, wrote a piece concerning the ways in which white writers depict native and colonised country, for the Writers Bloc website. The piece, titled, The Unnatural Way of Things, stated:

‘Today when I read Australian literature I am perplexed as to how writers continue to colonise country through their writing… Australian literature perpetuates a white central narrative rooted in a colonial ignorance of country so deep and untrue. My favourite colonial angle is the old trope: ‘My personal narrative of connecting with the alien landscape’.

‘I could tell you that since settlement, hundreds of our native species have become extinct. That your narrative of connection felled ancient trees for farming, killed our totems, degraded our topsoil and polluted our water systems. It is not the landscape that is alien; it is you who is alien to our landscape.’

‘Our species are far more than a casual backdrop. The story within our native species cannot be separated from the narrative. Species signify whose country you might be imagining. At the mention of a particular tree you could be identifying that the location is a sacred space protected by spirits. Species can signal the season and where the dhinawan is sitting in the stars on the horizon. They are creation.’

“It is not my place to reassure you that Where the Trees Were ascribes to Donnelley’s call for a change in perspectives and awareness by white writers. It is not my place to tell you how successfully or deeply this book interrogates the relationship between black and white, colonial and native country through a plot. But what I can say is that unlike many contemporary works of literature by white writers, Where the Trees Were engages very exactly with a story about native land, colonisation, responsibility, and belonging to place. I am excited to listen to the most qualified responders, reviewers and critics of all – the First People of this country whose presences are strong and crucial to the plot of this book. By swimming in this water, Inga is offering us as readers, a place to begin to understand what white Australian literature can be if it makes native country and cross-cultural conflict so glaringly present, through a seething crust of stories of human friendship, love, loss and growth. Inga’s book is a little fish, swimming in this area between white and First Nations culture, history, and environment. As I read Where the Trees Were I felt like I was watching a development in Australian writing – I was watching Inga wading into the water where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers are already swimming strongly. I was watching her show me that we can also learn to swim in this churning body of intermeshed stories and lives without denying the side of history white writers come from.

“Of course, a novel isn’t a novel without it being being able to seamlessly carry off even more complicated layers of life than we could possibly imagine. I feel like I can absolutely get away with figuratively pressing this book into your hands right now, and I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity – I have never read a book that has made me miss my childhood, or want to go camping, more. This book made me realise I was not the only kid in Australia who decided tying meat to string and throwing it into a hot dam would successfully yield yabbies.

I have never read a book that has articulated better exactly what riding a bicycle down Northbourne Avenue in the heart of winter feels like: of anybody, you all here tonight should appreciate how rarely Canberran experiences are reflected in the Australian literary imagination. We got one! This book accurately describes the public service as part of an interesting queer feminist plot. And among all that flotsam, Where the Trees Were sustains a universal story: one of realising things as we grow up into teenagers, and carrying those realisations into adult responsibilities.

“This book has all of the things, tied into two intertwining stories, set out in the signature Inga Simpson way – sixty two short, edible chapters that form a tapestry between memory and now. And no matter where we are from, we, like the water rat staring from the shore in disbelief, are invited to watch and be part of Inga and her protagonist, Jayne’s, complicated and thriving world. We are reminded to celebrate that the human and every element of the world around us are destined to intertwine, and there will always be rich and complicated stories there.

“It is with great pleasure that I announce Where the Trees Were very much launched.”

~ 6 April 2016 @ Muse

WTTW Canb launchWTTW Canb launch tableWTTW Canb launch Friends

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Kangaroo Island & Birds of Extinction

Emma Lindsay 2013, Dwarf kangaroo island emu (extinct), Oil on linen, 121 (w) x 149 (h). Photo: Elouise .

I recently met the lovely and talented Brisbane-based artist, Emma Lindsay through fellow PhD student and birdwoman, Melissa Ashley (whose forthcoming novel, The Birdman’s Wife, about Elizabeth Gould, is a must read).

I stumbled across Emma’s work while writing my novel, Nest, and again while researching my PhD in Australian nature writing, and then again while researching the extinct dwarf emu for an upcoming writing retreat to Kangaroo Island (Emma’s striking portrait of the dwarf emu is pictured above). So when Emma – and one of her paintings – were at Melissa’s post-Phd party, I was not surprised.

Emma’s Extinction Project began in 2007 as a series of portraits of endangered and extinct Australian bird specimens held in natural history museums. Her interest is in human relationships (historical and contemporary) with the environment, and bearing witness to the escalating global problem of mass species extinction.

It’s a concern I share, but the works are exquisite in their own right, and I was thrilled to discover that the first public exhibition of Emma Lindsay’s Extinction Project will be held in Brisbane next year as part of the inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane, 9-13 March, at the Queensland Museum.

© Emma Lindsay 2012, Paradise Parrots (extinct), oil on Belgian linen. Private collection. Photo: Carl Warner.

Trouble is, that’s when I’ll be in Kangaroo Island, looking for evidence of dwarf emus in situ … So unless I can kid Emma and The Museum to let me in while they are setting up, it looks like I am going to miss out.

Do get along if you can, not only for Emma’s works. This will be the first time the World Science Festival has been held outside New York City. The festival brings together great minds in science and the arts to show the wonders of science to a broad general audience.

If you’d rather come along to Kangaroo Island for an immersion in writing and place, you can find out more here.

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Lifted

 

 

 

for those double rainbow days

In the mornings, the sun caught the coloured panes in a splintering rainbow while she played. Each note found a corresponding shade, dancing and darting up the pillars and away into the day.

On Sundays, when the practitioners filed in, swelling the pews, she roamed the meadows instead. While the cathedral was both audience and vessel, her god was not found inside.

It was on the grass beside the river, naked and alone, that her song met his, lifting her bare feet from the ground.

(This piece was a response to a writing exercise with two pictorial prompts – below).

Lifted1Lifted2

 

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Vote 1 for NEST – Courier Mail People’s Choice Award

CM People's ChoiceA lovely surprise: Nest has been included in the shortlist for this year’s Courier Mail People’s Choice Book of the Year award.

The winner is decided by readers, not judges and panels.

If you’d like to vote for Nest (you don’t have to be a QLDer), you can do so here.

Polls close 5pm 18 September.

The winner will be announced Friday, 9 October, at the QLD Literary Awards.

 

 

 

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Shallow Crossing

the-escape-shallow-crossing-9611956This piece was penned at the Shallow Crossing nature writing retreat earlier this year, on the magnificent Clyde River – Bhundoo – after a week’s immersion.

We drag our kayaks to the boat ramp, awkward in our life vests and rolled-up jeans. Afternoon light plays on the water, inviting us in.

I launch my companions first, slipping on the mossy cement as I clamber into my own boat and push off with the paddle. Tipping and tentative at first, we break the surface, and then we’re paddling upriver, sun in our faces, sun off the water. Bonsaid trees lord over golden rocks, swallows dart, and beneath the clear shallow water, the tide flattens green fern over riverstones.

We’re against the tide and into the wind but paddling is effortless amid beauty. The surface ripples and ruffles, while deeper eddies run still. Here and there, the river branches off into dark streams and rivulets and I would follow them all. Overhead, trees cast their reflections, just as they have for millennia. Here, I can believe it. The flash and gleam of light, the plop and bubble of others, below – the constant play of a world within a world that knows its own secret.

Trees have come down, in flood, and risen again, sending up fresh saplings at right angles to their discarded trunks, who they were before. All the time the river, the rise and fall, the turning tide.

We round the bend below our retreat and catch a glimpse of our host high above, captain of the ship, on deck to make sure we have not capsized, or given up – and then he is gone. He wants to be sure we see this place as he does. On cue, the lyrebird sounds from the dense scrub below The Escape, its call as complex and joyful as the scene it has helped to set.

We reach the crossing, the line at which we have been gazing all week, the sound by which we have set our horizon. Water rushes over river rock, and the cement dip of the gravel road, which disappears up around the bend. It’s the road we must all take tomorrow, returning to our own lives. We turn our backs on all that for now, and drink in the river, wondering why we did not get out on it sooner.

We return on the current, breeze on our backs, and life is this, only the occasional dip of a paddle to keep us on track. Two pine-clad islands signal the turn before our boat ramp, and the shallow pools where fish spawn. It’s too soon to land. We paddle on, buoyed by the tide, to see what is around the next bend.

A hawk follows, above, as we pass over rainbow riverstones. Everything is mirrored, either side: twice as many trees, two of each of us. The world above is the world below; we are in the water and in the trees, in-between and everywhere. Nowhere. Here, there is all the time in the world. It’s easy to forget.

This is Yuin country. An eel made this river tens of thousands of years ago – Bhundoo. Our heads are full of this story and others, our tongues still rolling over the words we have learned – new to us and older than anything we know. Our bellies are full of oysters, scallops and king fish, and produce from the land. Bhundoo is one of the cleanest rivers in the world. I feel whispers across the water, over my wet forearms, and stop paddling to listen.

But we’re here to find our own stories. The light is going, and we turn for home. I exit first, side-on the boat ramp, paddle across the bow onto land to steady me, and I’m out. My skills are applauded, and then I’m sliding on the slippery moss, back into the water, all pretence of grace gone amid squeals of laughter. Still, we drag our yellow vessels across the grass and return them to their racks pumped and victorious, and raise our fists above our heads.

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Nature writing @ Woodfordia

Woodfordia The PLantingSo, what is nature writing anyway?

It’s a question I’m often asked and one I’ll be answering this  long weekend at The Planting, the funky festival at Woodfordia. The Planting began as a project to regenerate the site of the Woodford Folk festival in the off season. It has been so successful (the planting is all done) that it has expanded to include all sorts of environmentally-themed performances, demonstrations, workshops, and stalls.

This year The Planting will include … nature writing. On Sunday morning I’ll be teaching a workshop on how to describe the natural world and in the afternoon giving a talk about the history of nature writing, including Australia’s (long but somewhat unsung) tradition – and its role today as an environmental strategy.

It’s a fun, cheap, camping-based weekend festival and the weather looks perfect: cool and clear.

For those of you who are not able to get along, I’ll be posting the text of my talk here in coming weeks.

Details:

Workshop @ 8.45am-11.15am

Talk @ 3.45pm -4.30pm.

Tickets here

Programme here.

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Nest longlisted for the Miles Franklin

Miles H

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very proud to announce that Nest has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. As a long time student of Australian literature, it means a great deal. It’s a wonderful list of books, featuring a few new names among the more familiar – and predominately blue and green covers! Congratulations to all of the authors, particularly my Hachette stable mate and pal, Favel Parrett.

 

 

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5 May – Environmental Writing Workshop

shallow crossing

As part of Olvar Wood’s inaugural nature writing retreat at The Escape, near Bateman’s Bay, I’m leading a workshop on the art and business of nature and environmental writing. It is ideal for those new to nature writing as well as professional writers working in environmental fields.

Whether you’re writing for your local government publication, volunteer newsletter, or just want to capture place more effectively in your fiction or non fiction – this one-day intensive in a gorgeous setting will inspire.

You’ll focus on techniques for bringing landscapes, flora and fauna to life for your audience, including: evocative description, effective use of emotion, and the importance of story. You’ll also consider issues such as anthropomorphism, culture versus nature, and the challenges faced when writing with an environmental message.

The workshop uses a combination of instruction, inspiring examples of nature writing, practical writing exercises, with plenty of opportunity for group discussion. You’ll come away with a stronger understanding of nature writing, contemporary environmental writing, and a practical toolkit for sharing your love of nature on the page.

Date: Tuesday 5 May (9.30am-4pm).

Cost: $125, including lunch and morning tea (the food, by the way, is fabulous!).

Booking close 17 April. For all enquiries and bookings, please email admin@olvarwood.com.au

Shallow Crossing is about 2hrs from Canberra or 30 mins from Bateman’s Bay.

clyde-river-bank

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Nests taking over Townsville

The good people of Townsville have chosen Nest as this year’s One Title One Townsville book. It’s a massive bookclub event run by the Townsville Library. The city’s bookish folk will all read Nest and discuss, tweet, Fbook etc about it. Then, at 6.30pm on Friday 22nd of May, I’ll be talking about the novel and answering questions afterwards at the Mercure Inn.

This year it’s all part of the Savannah Writers up North Literary Festival, which runs from 21-24 May. David Malouf, Samuel Wagan Watson, and Judy Nunn are among the writers appearing.

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