Thursday, July 26, 2012

In praise of shadows

Once the world was more thickly peopled with shadows than it is today.Cities that burn light day and night were darker then. Streets were lit with gas or oil or not at all. Moonless nights were not for unaccompanied walking. One can only imagine the welcome brightness of full moon. 

Shadows would have leapt up on walls in firelight, followed behind us either faithfully or inspiring fear. Their beauty enriched childs' play and a whole genre of theatre. 18th and 19th century toys used the projection of shadow and mechanical motion to exquisite effect. Today although the time has passed for family slide shows or magic lanterns we can still make a duck or wolf move across the wall by putting our hands to work in front of a lamp or using an open umbrella as a screen.

Still architects work with both blocks of light and its absence. And when Louis Kahn was quoted as saying, "the sun never knew how wonderful it was until it fell on the wall of a building" - he might have only been half joking. 

For me the most exquisite reflection on light and dark is Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. For him, an entire aesthetic depended on darkness. Gilded lacquer work was meant to be seen in half light, the beauty of spare rooms appreciated only by candles - the lustre of tarnish likened to an image seen on dark water. A room without shadows, he argues is merely a void. "It was different from the darkness of a road at night.It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself as though to keep it out of my eyes."

*shadow puppet image "borrowed" from the Indonesian National Library.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Grey sky and birds fly

During Winter I often crave the blue sky of Summer or late Autumn. Lack of blue is like a vitamin deficiency. The day seems a little dull without the definition that high colour gives it. But Winter light is beautiful too. Deciduous trees are leafless and sculptural and let the thin sunlight through their branches. Eucalpyts and other evergreens look silver in the chalky light. And the grey, lilac and violet skies reflect off water with a drama that’s hard to remember in the Summer.

Walking through the local quarry although the air is still cold the birds are busy. They have the idea of Spring before them and work towards it. Everything seems to know where it’s going driven along by the low angle of the sun.

The land here was all under orchards until the seventies. Before that a quarry and further back - bush. Now it is park land with vestigial memory of it's earlier incarnations. Old unpruned trees drop fruit - once there were thirty different types of pear picked - prized for their sweetness and long keeping. The mudstone shelves and breaks along linear faults. Modern labour costs prohibit blasting and hauling. The quarry is once more a cliff and clean cut valley. The creek once harnessed for irrigation remembers its old water courses and ducks follow it too.I walk beside it, mesmerised by its dark surfaces.  

This morning the grass was still wet where I walked and the spiders’ webs  dewy. Hyacinths have pushed through the earth – their centres tight and bunched not really yet flowers. Under the cliffs swallows are hawking insects and in a month will begin to build  a breeding factory from mud. Soon we will be planting potatoes and picking the first broad beans. We will begin to want that squeaky green taste of uncooked peas, new lettuces, the hot crunch of radish. For now it is burnt sugar biscuits and barley tea, early evenings and cool afternoons. As the mist lifts I set out with the dogs and the smell of recent rain lingers. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dog Days of the Backyard Buddhas

We are not Buddhists but we live with three Buddhas - each of them different and each of them on a different duty.

The least fancy is our backyard Buddha. He is a tubby, bare-bellied laughing Buddha, who has the eyes of the Dalai Lama – knowing, forgiving – always faintly amused. He is only a foot high, cast concrete and there are most likely a thousand others in his exact image, who look after other backyards.

It is this very ordinariness I find endearing - a humble and humbling incarnation. He has lost some of the detail of his chin and his left hand over time. But that seems only to set him apart from others, as though cast from one mould, each incarnation seeks only to become itself, as it also works at becoming nothing.

Through the dog days of Summer he sits serenely. After weeks of rain he wears a thick green moss across his head and shoulders and it seems to me like a lesson in being still. Looking at him through the kitchen window I am reminded of the story of the saint, who held still throughout Lent, with a blackbird’s nest in his outstretched hand. St Kevin was fed berries by the blackbird and perhaps my Buddha has a similar gig. As he sits cross-legged in contemplation on his lotus, his lap might seem inviting to a bird. That’s when I think to lift him up and set him in a tree. He is safe there from being lost in the long time unmown grass. He is lifted off the ground, as though in some kind of trace-like levitation.

Our other two Buddhas are both Thai and live in the bathroom - one reclining and one walking. Recently a friend asked, why is it that our ears grow longer as we age. And without really thinking, I said, because we are better listeners now than when we were young. Now we have less to say and more to learn and less time in which to do it. But before bed as I stood cleaning my teeth I looked over at the sleeping Buddha. He has the longest ears in the world. Perhaps our earlobes hang lower as we age because we all becoming Buddha.

I had always assumed that the Buddha’s ears were long because he listened to the whole world’s worries. But today I read that his princely beginnings weighed on him and as royalty he would have worn gold ornaments in his ears. In the eighties we all wore large earrings – perhaps our earlobes are longer now as a warning to others of fashion’s follies. I stopped wearing big baubles on my ears when I had a baby. He reached for and grabbed at them, lying in my lap as fat and happy as any Buddha.

The bathroom Buddhas are both painted gold – the larger reclining one covered in mirrors. If you bend towards him you can see yourself reflected in him a hundred times over. Perhaps the idea is that, if we see ourselves in him, we will see him in ourselves also. The sleepy Buddha is cracked through from breast to thigh. He was originally a shop fitting - perhaps from a restaurant. Whether he was dropped or split in the sun I’m not sure – but he was no longer wanted. He was greasy and his gold paint was peeling when we took him home. Now he is dusted clean and spoken to but we have not mended him. A friend of my son’s got a fright seeing the Buddhas in the bathroom. She felt watched, though both have their eyes either closed or cast down. She asked him later why they sit on the side of the bath and he was not sure. Neither am I really. It seems fitting though to see the Buddha at our most naked and innocent. There is no hiding from the Buddha and no hiding from our true selves in the bathroom.

We had a fourth Buddha but I broke him. I bought him some months after Tiananmen Square, with illegal currency in a shop in Shanghai. We were allowed only to have the mostly useless FECs in the 1980’s, to be spent at designated government stores. But I was trading Australian dollars with the hotel doorman.

There were so few Buddhas to see in Shanghai at that time. We saw only the Jade Buddha in his pavilion. But he was billed as an artefact - something to see which was extraordinary because of his size. A week later walking through the French quarter I saw a ceramic Buddha. Sitting atop a pile of printed papers, he was green and white  - a smiling rather than laughing incarnation – rosy cheeked and red lipped, with ears that touched his shoulders. He was dirty - as though he had been pulled out of the earth – a fitting image for someone who sits astride a lotus. Perhaps he had been squirreled away while the Revolution raged around him. Later I was told that that was unlikely.

His grubbiness was most probably a clumsy antiquing process, applied just prior to sale. I carried him carefully home in my hand luggage wrapped in brown paper. The newspapers were still pasted up on pillars in those days in Shanghai – not commonplace enough for wrapping. He sat on the kitchen dresser for a year or two but I dropped him trying to clean some cement-like grime from his fingers. Some of the Thai and Indian Buddhas have evenly lengthed toes and fingers. Some even have slightly webbed hands. Perhaps washing the Buddha’s hands was a little presumptuous. I might have loosened the webbing and left him less capable of catching reincarnating souls.

Today when I pass the Buddha in the tree he looks a little uncomfortable. I have no lotus for him to sit upon but I cut him a cushion of moss.

Perhaps I am too much taken by graven images but this is not a lesson. I like to think that the backyard and bathroom Buddhas live with us as friends.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog

This romance like so many others in this day and age began on the internet.Love, it seems can use technology.

Six years ago we got Blue as a paddock buddy for our ailing Border Collie, Patch. The Save-a-Dog scheme, (they have a website, with pictures and a biography), billed him as a placid heeler cross. When my sister and I went to the pound to see him we looked up and down all the enclosures without finding him, not realising he was actually corgi. Thinking on it now, we were probably looking at the wrong level. Blue is really a corgi with a heelerish coat and a busy cattle dog brain. He carries himself about on stubby corgi legs well suited to the things he likes in life, like surfing. Interestingly on reading about corgis I found that they are true dwarves. A miscommunication of the genes has produced an averaged sized dog with limbs that are foreshortened. Obviously the Scottish liked this accident enough to breed true from it.

Patsy came along later. Hearing about another heeler corgi (Blorgie), dog made me curious. I went to the pound to look and came back with her. All Pat's hobbies are different from Blue's. He loves the sea - she won't get her feet wet. Blue is not interested in other animals and Pat's lives to hunt. Her Spring through Summer job is catching butterflies and skinks. I take them from her mouth when I can. Sometimes I'm too late and we have a little funeral. Pat's is not invited.Although she has the sweetest temper she is a hunter. She and I have our differences there.

Both Blue and Pats grew on me. It was not love at first sight. It has been a smouldering affair with bright moments, some tiffs, long walks, great company and a shared interest in food.With Fred it was different. I was looking for him for a long while without knowing. There was going to be no fast car or boyfriend in my mid life crisis. But I needed someone new to talk to and do things with and someone to cuddle on the couch, (apart from M). I grew up on dog stories, Lassie, Grey Friar's Bobby, Rin Tin Tin, Call of the Wild...oh I could go on. But Flush always caught my fancy. He was a lady's companion - a poet's companion. He had a book written for him by Virgina Woolf and another by Flora Merrill. There was a stage play later and then a movie. Flush was remembered for himself as much as for his owner - much like Mozart's starling. Good credentials no? A signifier if you will. Flush was a spaniel with long soft ears and a mournful gaze. He was loyal, almost prescient, an ideal escort for a walker and a reader. He was small enough to sit in Elizabeth's lap but strong enough to walk the dales. Flush was credited with curing Browning of an unnamed illness which had her confined to bed in her childhood home. I think I have been saved once or twice by dogs.

Enter Fred. He was surrendered at the Lost Dogs' Home. Not in Melbourne but in country New South Wales. I looked at his picture on their website and read his little biography: Dachshund Border Collie cross fourteen months old, needs supervision, loves people, not good with chickens or cats, desexed, answers to Fred. After two weeks of looking and longing we set off in a storm to get him. When we got Blue he was called Clive. We changed that almost immediately and he seemed not to mind. Patsy was called Patsy and it seemed to suit her. Fred I mused could be changed to Flush. The jury is still out on that.

So far this is what we know about Fred. He seems to like to sit on furniture, often I look about for him and he is sitting at the kitchen table like a person, he loves the Blorgies seemingly equally. He does not like the vacuum cleaner but will happily sit in the bathroom hand basin to have his hair blow dried. He likes to fetch a stick or a ball but will not yet relinquish them, better than this is to chase Blue and take the ball from him. He loves the car and likes to be on the front passenger's knee and watch out the window. He swallows or tries to any kind of foreign object - favourites so far are erasers, shoelaces and fleece pulled from the sheepskin in his basket. He doesn't mind being brushed but likes to help get out any tangles himself. He happily sits on my knee while I type and is there now but prefers to be walking. Whether he can balance on a boogie board or not will have to wait for Summer.

He persists in being called Fred. Perhaps after all he is not Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog.

Other dogs in thymy dew
Tracked the hares and followed through
Sunny moor or meadow;
This dog only, crept and crept
Next a languid cheek that slept,
Sharing in the shadow.
Other dogs of loyal cheer
Bounded at the whistle clear,
Up the woodside hieing;
This dog only, watched in reach
Of a faintly uttered speech
Or a louder sighing.

from For Flush Elizabeth Barett Browning

Cloud study 101

Clouds give crispness and definition to the sky according to Gavin Pinney. And as founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society he should know. He has looked at plenty of clouds. They predict weather – they can mass or burn back. They inspire both wonder and worry – they can spoil a wedding or a picnic. Sometimes they scroll across an otherwise empty atmosphere like teletype. Cloud fanciers have favourites.

Did you know that Nimbus is the Latin for rain cloud? Nimbus by their very definition bring rain, they are dark, close and classed as praecipitato – clouds which can no longer contain their precipitation. Throughout the ten or so years of recent drought we watched the sky somewhat wistfully for nimbus. Then, it seemed to me that the sky was often empty. The ground hardened under it and even tall trees suffered.

On Friday last we drove through an atlas of cloud types. The sky was already threatening at two in the afternoon. At first it was diverting, watching the clouds climb and assemble into impossible architectures. Later it gave an unwanted urgency to our adventure. I know only the ABC’s of cloud kinds. But Cumulonimbus is unmistakable. It is almost always trouble or troublesome - Nimbus but with attitude. It means a storm, a sudden swing on the barometer, thunder and lightning displays and possible hail. To us it meant a plummet in temperature and a sudden drop in visibility. 

Leaving town we skirted the Hume which was closed close to Melbourne by an overturned truck. And despite our cross country route progress through Yarra Glen slowed to a crawl - while a tow truck retrieved a youngster’s car that had taken a corner awry and skated on the wet road into a ditch. The kids, thankfully unharmed, watched from under one umbrella while the mud covered car was winched aboard its ride. There would be a deal of explaining to do at home and mothers on their knees somewhere thanking the heavens that it was only an injured car. Meanwhile the storm hit its stride. The next three hours or so we seemed to be driving through all of the elements at once. Trees came down, a semi trailer jack-knived across our path, lightning lit up the road in minute spaced exposures. I was gripping the wheel hard and craning to see. Mostly all I want in a storm is to be home – the gates fixed so as not to bang, the gutters clear. I like the heat to be on, a bowl of soup ready, the family on the sofa or at least busy in their rooms – the dogs at my feet and a book in my hand.I am not known to be brave or adventurous. I am not even that often out at night. But we were on a mission to fetch a rescue dog and that alone made it worth risking wet roads.

That night we crawled into town like sailors looking for safe harbour. Well, Albury is a good way from the ocean – but the river is close and as we crossed it looked a torrent. Perhaps we could have been sweet water sailors…

After dinner - surprisingly good, television - reception terrible and bed - bliss, we woke to a different kind of cloud. Stratus is the kind of cloud that likes to be on the ground. It is a dog at heel. Damp almost to the point of rain but falling somewhere short - it is our chance to experience the sky at sea level. Nosing north to Canberra we sped into a chalky quiet.Either everyone else was sleeping or sensible enough to stay home.