Walking above the waters
If you dawdle in the interior of Australia there is a fair chance that you will be either immolated, desiccated or inundated – or all three. In what order depends on the season. It has been so for millennia. A grim trinity brought forth by an apocalyptic rider. And if you are parched and your clothes on fire it will be of no comfort to know that beneath you lies an artesian sea of fresh water.
I grew up in the western districts of NSW, north east of Wellington. The patterns of fire and smoke, the din of a storm crashing onto the galvanised roof and the dust as fine as face powder – these are all still pungent memories for me. The station homestead was surrounded by tanks collecting rainwater. Alongside creeks and dams the stock were sustained by windmills raising artesian water to drinking troughs. Vegetables were grown, chickens raised, cows milked and butter churned. Bread was from a bakery in town. Flour, salt and sugar were ladled into brown paper bags and tied up with string at Western Stores.
As children we were often dropped into the azure paradise of the Wellington Municipal Swimming Pool. Submerged in the silence of the cool water you escaped the chatter and the brittle heat. February nights could be oppressively hot. We wandered around the town sniggering inanities until we were ordered to bed, the sheets still warm from the daytime heat. Our muttering and whispering stopped after we were fed a teaspoon of brandy and raisins.
In 1955 the Wellington district was subject to very heavy rains. Once during a trip to town my mother Nancy was in a quandary whether to return home considering the muddy roads. Anyway we set off, Nancy driving my six year-old twin sister Prue and me in the ‘Dodge De Soto’. Some time into the journey my mother hesitated as we approached a steep culvert with black water surging over the road. As the wipers thrashed water off the windscreen we moved into the torrent. Immediately the car was thrust sideways and crashed onto its side where it became lodged. Mum opened her door and immediately disappeared into the swirling water. She surfaced, shocked and cold and struggled back into the car. She then managed to carry us to the road from the passenger side and we started walking. The rain had dropped a bit and although it was very dark the sky faintly silhouetted the trees flaying about in the wind. We tramped, freezing, the cadence of our shoes on the gravel marking our progress. We were exhausted when we arrived at the Frogleys’ homestead. The rain had started again, rattling and splattering off the roof. We were nudged in front of a grand open fire. Sodden clothes were removed and we were carried to the oblivion of a bottomless mattress. Next morning was bright and clear. The car had been dragged out of the creek and there it was on the grass, water still gurgling and dripping out of it. It was huge and magnificent, that big, shiny, wet American car.
That world has passed but not from memory. Memory is a significant part of my work as a painter. You hope time filters out the insignificant and illuminates what is important, that this may then become the beginning of a poetic image.
When I was five I watched as the station hands set fire to the wheat stubble after the harvest. It was late afternoon and the sun fluttered in the smoky hot air. The light dropped with the dusk and I could only see a bright line of fire along the horizon of the paddock and the darkening sky, a memory that stayed with me.
Some 30 years later thrashing around after a divorce I was trying to put myself back together in a rented studio. I had painted a rather puce sunset on a large canvas and then slung a random piece of rope across the horizon and pushed some paint on to it, portraying a line of fire. I would like to say I knew what I was doing and in a way I did as the memory validated the daubing – but it wasn’t until sometime later that this became clear to me. I refined the image and developed it into a series of paintings I loosely call ‘Blaze Lines’.
I recently drove out through the old districts of my memory, now engulfed by a tenacious drought. Everything is brown. All the grass has been eaten out. The poor wretched beasts are standing around trying to find a little pick, even parts of the sky are an ominous gold, dust being blown asunder. The only green appears to be the watered sporting fields. Some areas remind one of the Sudan with galvanised iron structures and Toyota Land Cruisers. It is truly heartbreaking to see.
Memory and time are entwined with each other. But ‘memory time’ is not sequential or linear. For most of us this is a great comfort as in many ways memory defines who we are. As Proust noted immediate experience can be completely replaced by an old reminiscence in an instant. A tiny smell can catapult you back decades. So we march forward in a turgent slurry of the past, present and hope for a future. That is if you are not burnt, drowned or refused a drink.
Keep your chins up mateys, that is unless Noah was a liar.
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