Things I see on the beach

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The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.

(William H. Gass: American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, critic, and philosophy professor)

Oh, if only! I do try.

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At the low-tide line I watch a purple and white pippy, quite a large one, trying to retreat into the sand. However, it has a problem. It can’t seem to tilt itself from horizontal to vertical. It heaves itself through 30° … through another 30° … and finally it reaches perpendicular. Now, it faces another problem: the wavelets aren’t coming in far enough to moisten the sand so it can burrow down. I watch, urging the waves on. One comes close: it moistens the under-sand enough for a slight descending wiggle. Five more waves retreat a good metre away. Then, what it’s waiting for. A bigger wave shushes in, whirling far beyond the pippy, and when it recedes all that’s left is a faint bubble under the sand.

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An elderly man and woman arrive separately, him in a white ute, her in a small silver car. They set up camp: a blue striped chair, towels, a bilum bag they don’t unpack. He slathers himself with suncream and they set off barefooted along the beach. They’ve only taken a few paces, when they stop and turn to face each other. The conversation becomes vociferous, but it isn’t at all hostile. After a few moments they walk on and shortly stop again, face each other, laughing and still speaking emphatically. This is how they progress further and further along the beach. At their last face-off as they disappear in the distance, she stretches up and reaches under the broad brim of his straw hat and they kiss, still laughing. After a while they return along the beach, amicably, side by side. When they reach their beach camp they strip off and head for the water. She high-steps her way out through the lengthy shallows; stops before the water deepens beyond her knees; slides down into it. He keeps walking out to the wave break, frolics for a while, and finally torpedos into shore, head tucked down, shoulders hunched, body a straight line. They lounge in the sun for a while, and then head back to the white ute and the small silver car.

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A colony of seagulls clusters together on the sand, all looking out to sea. It must be grooming time. Their beaks are busy amongst the feathers. Some stand on one leg, wing or tail raised,displaying white spots on black, or black pinions. One puts its head down and scurries purposefully, snapping at the air. A few nestle down in hollows in the sand. When people pass they turn their backs and move in a leisurely way up the beach. Occasionally one glides in on spread wings and lands daintily before it takes a few stumbling steps into stasis. When a number of new arrivals land there’s a flurry, and a few aggressive moves, but the colony soon settles back to the business of grooming and gazing out to sea.

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It’s midday on a sunny weekend. There are a few groups on the sand: a couple in the shade of a striped beach umbrella; a mother and daughter sheltered by a beach tent; a gaggle of young men and women taking pot luck with the sun; a sleek slim couple, silver, tan and startling white, warming up for immersion with a passionate embrace; a touch of elegance on a flat patch where the dunes meet the bush, she in a bright orange dress, he in a straw boater, both with a glass in hand, something decanted from the lime green cooler bag between them. Then there’s a solitary beach bag disgorging towels.

No-one dances in blithely today: the sea which has been pleasantly warm for a few weeks has dropped a few degrees. They toe-test before choosing a place to deposit their gear, and flop, and discard T-shirts, and then move slowly through the shallows, arms raised against the initial chill, or to twist hair into a knot. They become a stumbling silhouette, carving a human shape out of the blue sky, the blue sea, the whiteness of breaking waves. For a while they are mere heads, occasionally acquiring shoulders as the swell diminishes or they bounce above it. Very occasionally they sprout arms and a face as they catch a wave. They don’t stay in long, and recover a complete body and human features as they return to the beach. A woman with a heavily tattooed thigh shakes her head at a tilt to remove ocean from ears, and anxious fingers adjust straps and elastic.

A solitary figure carrying a coiled yellow towel and a pair of sandals moves slowly along the beach, a nearly empty canvas bag hanging across his back.

It’s lunchtime and the beach begins to empty. At the boat ramp, an ageing woman dressed in bright tight yellow, vividly hennaed hair piled into a horizontal french roll, a large yellow flower nested under it, is talking to a local who never speaks to anyone. As we pass he says: “Anyone can talk to me any time, love.”

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An unlikely trio of dogs frolic while their owners surf: a whippet, whippet thin, almost two-dimensional; a solid sand-and-charcoal mastiff with frown marks that match the body markings; and a brown cattle dog, alert and ready to round up any sheep or cows that stray into his bailiwick. In the shade of the hill a black dog lies, tied to a rock with his lead. A taciturn local arrives with his hyper-friendly Jack Russell who talks to everyone, his owner to no-one. A bouncy young woman tries to pretend that her dog hasn’t just defecated on the pristine beach and surreptitiously kicks sand over the gleaming turds. Later on she comes back with a plastic bag, but she doesn’t excavate. A woman dressed in buff is halfway a long the beach, an obedient black dog at her heels. In the distance there’s a fisherman with a black shape lying beside his chair. I’m eager to add another dog to my tally, but the black shape turns out to be his tackle bag. But here comes Maisie to complete the complement of Spud dogs: a large black bounding dog, full of tail wagging and licking friendliness. She sits beside her owner (who carries a reticule of her excrement) and begs, paws up, for a treat.

This post is number two of a series inspired by icelandpenny who does such things so wonderfully. In reply to my comment on a post of hers, she said Go and settle in somewhere delightful & just see what happens … A reversal of the usual, eh? Let it come to us, instead of rushing around looking for “it.”

Hotchpotch 14

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Family holiday

For a month in December and January my house was full of family. I failed them a few times. Failure to provide surf was my main crime – “the worst surf over Christmas in 20 years, mum.” Failure to have in the fridge whatever it was whoever it was was looking for ran it a close second. In spite of this, they took me to Canberra where we visited the Dombrovskis‘ photographic exhibition and Questacon, the national science and technology centre; and they harvested oysters from the rocks, enough for a quick pre-dinner feast for six.

Oh, and I almost forgot! How could I? Two most important participants in a family get-together: Cruz and Jenga.

On the beach

Most of my beach-walking was close to home, but there were still plenty of treasures of the usual kind: seaweed, driftwood, shells, rockface, grasses. There was also an unaccustomed pleasure: company.

Prowling daybreak

I maintained my early mini-walks, occasionally before the household was stirring, although it was hard to beat hopeful surf-seekers. The early morning light remained a great treat, especially as it fell on the seedpods of Stars of Bethlehem. The vanishing of their blue and white flowers marked the end of Christmas.

Houses around Spud

I took advantage of the slumbers of the village to do a quick photo-essay on Potato Point architecture, beginning with my own beforested house. (By the time the visitors left it was a bit less forested. When a hakea fell over the drive it left an emptiness that drew attention to other leaners and potential fallers, which my children removed while I hid my face and hoped for their safety.) The other houses are mostly undistinguished, although there aren’t many traces of the beach shacks which have either been removed or renovated. What strikes me most looking through this collection is the bareness, which may be because a lot of the houses are holiday places.

Leaning

Sometimes photographic themes leap out at you. For a while everywhere I looked things were leaning, and I foresaw a lengthy photo essay. Then things stopped leaning, and this is the grand total.

And if all this summer is too much for you … twins in Warsaw

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with my grandson’s motorbike

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I don’t always succeed in my role as grandmother to an occasionally testy 14 year old, but I struck absolutely the right note when I went down to shoot his motorbike. He directed me towards the best angles, and stood by, proud in ownership, while I crouched and lent, exploring its intricacies. If you look closely you’ll see signs of his other passion: some days he spent 7 hours in less-than-ideal surf over the Christmas holidays.

This is my contrasting companion to DesleyJane’s beautifully delicate feather in her most recent RegularRandom posting.

Night noises: dusk to daybreak

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In the bush

The light patter of rain on an iron roof. Slabs of bark whirled from tree-trunks landing with faint thud. The crack of a metal can contracting in the corridor. The rising whoop whoop whoop of a nightjar. The barking of a neighbour’s dog.

A short time of silence when not even the breeze breathes.

And then morning sounds. The crowing of a faraway rooster. The revving up and fading laugh of a pair of kookaburras. The shrill throbbing of cicadas. The clear trilling of a lyrebird, interspersed with its rattling, whirring and thudding.

And then the padding of bare feet, heading to the kitchen to make coffee.

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At Potato Point

The voices of children playing in the street as light fades. The hissing and snorting of possums. Occasionally a slight asthmatic wheeze or the irritating zzzzzzzz of a mosquito.

The crunch of gravel in the drive at 2 am as my son leaves for work.

The long whimpering of an unhappy puppy. The call of the wolf-whistle bird. A twitter, a trill a throaty rise. The happy-birthday-to-you bird. The magpies’ liquidity. The friar bird with its irritating grackle-grackle-grackle. A harsh wick wuck wuck. All the smaller twittering that one day I’ll be able to name.

And always the continuo of the surf.

Celebrating place: the Bermagui Project

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For some years now the Four Winds Music Festival, held over two days at Easter, has been a highlight of the south coast cultural calendar. It has gradually expanded into a full year program including music, workshops, radical-voice lectures, performances and now the Bermagui Project.

This Project brings together Yuin people, scientists, historians, authors, artists and people with deep local knowledge to create paintings, poems, photographs and videos celebrating eight estuaries between the sacred mountains of Gulaga and Mumbulla. It uses the process of creative field studies, developed by scholars at the Australian National University over the last twenty years.

The project culminated in an exhibition of the paintings, photos, videos and soundscapes at the Bega Regional Art Gallery, whence I betook myself this week. The 200 kilometre round trip was well worth it, although I’d already seen the images in the catalogue. This is never quite a substitute for seeing the real things, although it was certainly an incentive.

The exhibition began with two videos of mesmerising water ripples above rocks? a human figure? Maybe the title is the decider: The cult of forgetfulness #1 and #2. The video artists are Lee Pemberton and Paul Hooper ( #1) and Delia Silvan and Lee Pemberton ( #2)

What particularly caught my eye as I moved on from ripples? Not this depiction of landscape as tartan in Headland by Lachlan Dibden, despite his artist’s talk about light and space. My landscape isn’t an array of straight lines, repetition, and 1950s colour.

The botanical drawings of Gilda McKechnie (Looking through a coastal Banksia at Camel Rock); Veronica O’Leary (Banksia serrated, Cuttagee); and Sharon Field (Understorey, head of Cuttagee Road) were more appealing, with their sharpness of detail and background landscape.

Then there was The ballad of Jimmy Crook. A visual as a ballad? Well yes, once you see how many images Paul Jackson can fit into one, how many stories he can tell, and how much commentary he can offer wielding charcoal.

No representation of country would be complete without the Aboriginal voice through a dot painting, in this case Lee Cruse’s A healthy river. Checking out this artist opened a can of worms. He painted a mural on a water tower in Eden in 2017, and controversy erupted when he was gaoled for domestic violence. Can you separate art from criminal behaviour? Should his painting be removed? Another question emerges too: the painting in this exhibition wasn’t painted as part of the Bermagui Project, since it’s dated 2012. But oh, those gloriously thick dots.

An odd coming together was Victoria Nelson’s sculpture of the seed of Corymbia maculata (spotted gum) in Carrara marble.

However what most caught my eye were a number of pieces that used layering to capture the complexity of landscape. Now they offered horizontal and vertical lines I didn’t object to!

In Robyn Williams’ Spotted gums (Corymbia maculata), captured in ink washes and graphite, the layers were vertical and dimensional: three levels on top of each other, like a form of decoupage.

Helen Morris’s Diamond python, etched on Perspex with acrylic paint over graphite, showed the snake with his food supply: the bush rat, the southern brown bandicoot, and fungi.

The simplicity of the layering of Chandelle Gogerly’s Cuttagee 001 in which she used photography to “capture and preserve the details sometimes missed by casual observation” offered grasses, seaweed and the tangle of nature’s white netting.

Trevor King’s more complex Horizons used digitally scanned and drawn images of littoral and forest plants, along with lines marking the landscape and clouds. (Apologies for the reflections in the first image.) I loved this one for its imaginative approach to showing luxuriance, its simplified but still-recognisable flowers, its use of bark as background, its solid base of silhouettes.

I spent most time in front of a short video by David Gallan called Flow, a wonderful entwining of images of water from pools to wave-breaking ocean, and the creatures that live in this water: rock orchid leaning, fallen flowers amongst the reflection of the parent tree, a water insect, waves on rocks, more reflection, a pair of lyrebirds, two dolphins creating a calligraphy of swirls.

The most intriguing image of all was Flora and fauna, Yuin Kelly’s digital print triptych of spotted gum bark with its faces.

Trevor King in Sensing Place expresses our relationship with place beautifully.

Bearing disciplined and loving witness

We deepen

Into our home terrain

Using every sense

To know it

For what it is

Describing, with forensic care

How life arranges itself there

Place-literate

At peace with landscape

We draw

We paint

We write ourselves into awareness

Construct meaning

Engage in the practice of belonging

Places are processes

Quietly, continuously changing

Unfinished

We never finish our knowing of them

We are each

Dynamic

Conversing with place

Through broad dialogue

Minute observation

We become the result of this essay

In understanding

Give myself over

Landscape will sculpt my individuality

If you want to read this as the poet formatted it, you can find it on p. 26 of the catalogue.

Songlines: tracking the seven sisters.

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The story is written in the country now, in the rock holes, hills, and dunes.

The story is also told at the National Museum of Australia in a stunning exhibition of paintings, holograms, wooden bowls, ceramics, woven baskets, woven figures and cinematic immersion.

Songlines: tracking the seven sisters traces the pursuit of seven sisters by an ancestral shape-shifter over vast expanses of Australia through three different tribal lands: the country of the Martu (the western desert in central Western Australia); the Ngaanyatjarra (between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie – 3% of Australia); and the Anangu/Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytatjara (in the northwest of South Australia).

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by Josephine Mick, born about 1950

The names of the characters might change (the pursuer is Nyurla and Wati Nyiru; the sisters collectively Minyipuru, Kungkarrangkalpa and Kungkarangkalpa) and the story darken, but there is continuity as the journey forms the landscape, until finally the sisters escape into the sky and become the star-cluster of the Pleiades.

The representations begin with an arrangement of striking woven figures.

The information panels are written in language, as well as English, and many of the paintings have an interpretation of the symbols. The colours are breathtakingly vivid, traditional Aboriginal dots and symbols emerging from the dark walls. I’ve offered close-ups with some trepidation at taking them from the whole image, since the image carries so much meaning.

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“Minyipuru” (“Seven Sisters”) laid out on the ground at Kilykily (Well 36 on the Canning Stock Route) where it was painted in 2007 Source: http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/yiwarra_kuju/artworks/minyipuru_jukurrpa

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Detail from “Kuru Ala” 2016: Estelle Inyika Hogan, Myrtle Pennington, Ngalpingka Simms, Lorraine Davies, Debbie Hansen, Tjaruwa Angelina Woods

A collection of woven baskets offers the configuration of the Pleiades.

Every now and then you are confronted by tall videos of Aboriginal women, talking about their version of the story.

A digital dome with a circular couch and headrests allows you to look into the sky, and to see the Walinynga (Cave Hill) rock art, which begins 3500 years ago and continues into the present.

A second collection of woven figures, dance and cast their shadows as we move in to Ngaanyatjarra lands. There too is a room of ceramics, yet another way to tell the story.

In the APY lands, Wati Nyiru checks his footprints and counts his toes -7? 5? 3?. He recognises himself as a sorcerer at last and this answers the question he has been asking himself: “Why don’t they like me?”

Tjungkara Ken dreamed about painting on a round canvas to track the journey of Kungkarangkalpa across 600 kilometres from the Northern Territory to South Australia to Western Australia. What she and her sisters painted is an encyclopaedic map conveying the knowledge carried in Songlines about bush medicine, bush food and water sources.

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“Kungkarangkalpa”: Tjungkara Ken, Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Freda Brady, Sandra Ken – circle painting, interpretation and detail

Tjunkaya Tapaya is a traditional owner at Atila. She says “I have painted this Tjukurpa (Creation of country) on many canvases, and my Tjukurpa has gone out to many places sharing this important story.”

The last lot of woven figures show the Seven Sisters escaping into the sky to become the star cluster, Pleiades, the end of their story. My photos don’t do them justice, but you can see the figures and learn about their making here.

Coda

Songlines were given legal authority in the Australian Federal Court in 2005 when it recognised the Ngaanyatjarra people’s claim to 180 000 square kilometres. Celebrations included dancing the Seven Sisters.

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“Land rights”, 2011 by Eunice Yunurupa Porter

For the Seven Sisters story told on-site in language (with captions), click here

For quality reproductions and photos of the artists, click here.

If you want to know more about what Songlines are, click here

My apologies if I’ve made any protocol mistakes, omissions or mis-attributions.

Aragannu

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I often walk beside my past as I move around my part of the world. I drive down the dusty ribbed road through the bush to Aragannu in Mimosa Rocks National Park and memories swarm. Here, I saw my first grove of blueberry ash. Here, we were once the rowdiest campers, behaving as we’d hate anyone else to behave. Here I sat by a campfire with a friend who had just lost her son. Here I stumbled along a faint track in search of rainforest, under a prostrate figtree and past modern middens. Memories expand at the rocky beach and I remember my aunt spraining her ankle on such a beach when she was my age.

Things have changed since my last visit, quite a while ago now. There’s a well marked track and even a boardwalk. Join me as I walk in the momentary present. Next time I go there this visit too will be part of my memory.

Let’s park the car in one of the many empty parking bays, under entwined trunks and twisting branches.

The ramp leading up to the loo offers many vantage places for capturing rocks in symbiosis with trees …

… and more twisting branches

Then it’s time to head off along a leaf-surfaced and root obstructed track, past more contorted trees.

Occasionally, a tree stands straight and tall …

… but more often they have a lean on them.

The track turns and begins to climb, up rocksteps and over ankle-turning loose rocks, over a ridge and down to a camping area (only one tent). The track continues on and becomes a boardwalk leading out to the sea and passing a mound, grass growing over an Aboriginal shell-midden.

The beaches and coves are rocky – large round rocks or ovaloid rocks or curved-corner rectangular rocks …

… becoming larger as you head further north …

… where land artists have made good use of material at hand.

In the background are Mimosa Rocks, so named because PS Mimosa was wrecked on them in 1863 with the loss of two lives. The wreck is still there, protected from marauders by the 1976 Commonwealth Historic Shiprecks Act.

Virtually real

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I enter the theatre at the National Museum of Australia and sit on one of its scattered chairs, a bulky headset, goggles with headphones neatly entwined ensconced on my lap. I have no idea what to expect. I follow instructions meticulously but fail to register the one that says “Press to start”. I hear people muttering “Oh my god” and wonder why. Finally, the penny drops and I too press start.

I am face to face with an old Aboriginal man against a background of his community. He is Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and I am on the lands of the Martu in the remote Western Australian desert. I’m travelling through the outback in the back of a ute, and then high up on a pinnacle looking down on a landscape of red soil and stunted trees. Entranced, I’m watching the night sky, the fire stick burning, the life of the community. Then the explosion of the Maralinga atomic bomb, the cloud in the sky, animals dying. These are the memories of Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, from a place far away. This is the collision of the title: traditional lifestyle, with the modern world in the form of an atomic bomb. Nothing could be a starker or more horrifying contrast.

For more about this experience and a short video, click here.

Two artists from different worlds

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Bukmak dhuwal mala ngatha ga borum nganapurrung manikaymirr ga marryun nganapurr ngunhiwal wängalil

(And every plant, every food: we sing it, we dance it.)

Midawarr (Harvest) is an exhibition of paintings done over ten years in harvest season, as Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley meet to collect, eat and paint the edible plants of Yolgnu country in Arnhem Land on the north coast of Australia. It’s richly diverse country: salt water, open forest, woodland, flood plains, freshwater wetlands, monsoonal vine forests and trees fringing river systems. Mulkun, an expert in Yolgnu cultural and botanical knowledge, paints mainly on bark, using gangul (yellow ochre), gurrngan (manganese, a black pigment), meku (red ochre), and gapan (white clay pigment) ground on a gunda (grinding block); and John, a renowned landscape artist depicts the same plants on a vast scroll.

Mulkun says she had to find a new way to paint beyond the sacred identity of plants, and find their secular identity. “The way they grow, the way they look and express themselves. This gave me their rhythm or their pattern.” For her, the paintings hold knowledge that it’s important to pass on to her people. John’s dilemma is different: he has to find a way for a painter of another culture to “make a work about a site of great power and sacred importance, and do so with reticence and reverence. I have painted the land at one remove, as seen through a veil.”

Along the sinuous panel beneath the paintings there is information about the plant, its use as food and medicine, and also an image of the same plant taken from John’s painting.

This is Gunga, the spring pandanus, used as a painkiller for teeth. “When little kids lose their teeth we chuck them into the tree so their new teeth come back sharp and strong.”

Butjuwutju / Mona (bush potato) has a tuber like a spinning top, but its grass-like stems are hard to see amongst other grass. People no longer know about this food. It’s been replaced by flour.

Nyathu (cycad) is probably the oldest food plant in the world, and sacred bread for the Yolngu. The nut is poisonous and has to be carefully processed. Community leader, Merrklyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, says that two Yolgnu clans still use this as an analogy for good governance: if proper processes aren’t used to make decisions, the outcome is poisonous and people will be killed.

John’s vast scroll is sort-of captured in a slide show where each frame duplicates a bit of the preceding one, and in a collage of close-ups.

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A short video shows the two artists at work, searching for plants and painting them, as John learns their Yolngu names.

I can’t leave this post without telling Mulkun‘s story. Her mother was taken by a policeman when she was out collecting räkay (water chestnuts) with other women, her child perched on her shoulders. Her father speared and killed the policemen and he never returned. Such is Australia’s shameful history.