Whales to Starboard

“What’s there not to love?” Paul, my partner, asks. “Two days and three nights surrounded by the ocean; cocktails delivered to your deck chair, sublime sunsets and dancing the night away.”

But I’m thinking Poseidon Adventure and Titanic.

Then he tells me the price.

“Only $100 a night. That’s everything! Except drinks.”

Allowing myself to be swayed, I say, “Guess there aren’t that many icebergs in the Pacific Ocean.”

And that’s how I find myself on a cruise ship; heading out of Sydney Harbour on a Friday afternoon with no destination but the sea itself.

I’m relying on the 9 bars, 7 restaurants, 6 Jacuzzis, 3 pools, 2 theatres, 1 casino and a flying fox to keep my mind off the possibility of this 260 metre, 77 000 tonne liner sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. But soon I relax and begin to enjoy life on board ship. A Strawberry Daiquiri while watching the sunset at the Ocean Bar. A Pina Colada as we while away the dusk listening to Jazz in the Quarterdeck Lounge.  And a Semillon, with dinner at the Waterfront Grill. Despite myself, I’m getting used to this more quickly than I thought possible. Later that night in my cabin, gently rocked by the almost imperceptible sway of the ship, I sleep like an infant in a cradle.

The next morning, after several coffees and a buffet breakfast, we walk the promenade deck. I’m mesmerised by the deep blue of the ocean. I could circle this ship all day. But alas it’s time for morning tea. On the lido deck some of our fellow passengers are already quaffing their liquid lunches. I limit myself to the sweets bar and choose a lounge chair. There’s very little swell. We might survive this after all. Soothed by a slice of baked lemon cheesecake, and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea, I doze off.

Suddenly I’m woken by an announcement from the Bridge.

“Good Afternoon. This is your Captain speaking.”

I bolt upright. It’s the call to abandon ship and man the life rafts! Thank goodness I paid close attention at the safety muster yesterday. And I popped my life jacket under the deck chair earlier, just in case.

“Apologies for the interruption,” he continues. “There are whales straight ahead of us, with a couple of calves. We’ll go about. So stand at Starboard and enjoy the view.” Sheepishly I remove the life jacket and move to the railing. I’m glad Paul’s playing shuffleboard on the sports deck and hasn’t witnessed my panic.

Then I see them: six humpback whales, swimming in pairs, two of them smaller than the others. They must be the babies.  It feels as if the ship has stopped. Around me, people have gathered, lining the deck, staring in silent wonder as the whales roll and play, spraying watery liquid from their spouts. We drift, quite close, alongside them.

Like us, these magnificent creatures are travelling north, but unlike us, they’re fasting. Living off their fat reserves until their return to the Southern Ocean for a summer Krill feast. As we watch, the largest whale lifts its tail clear of the water and slaps it back down onto the surface.  A collective “Oh” exhales across the ship. A moment of deep communion between these awe-inspiring animals and a pod of humans. Is this what the ancients meant by the grace of god?

Paul is beside me now. Together we watch the whales merge with the waves as the ship sails on.  And then it’s time for lunch. But as I turn away, a low bellow echoes across the water. The lunch bell? A siren? A whale song.

Later we stand at the railing until the sun slips over the earth’s edge.  As the remaining light seeps slowly away, and dusk deepens into twilight, I spot Venus, the evening star. Just risen, it hangs low in the early night sky. I think about my new Cetacean friends, swimming through the dark waters, and wonder how our species can bear to pollute these oceans. How can we stand by as the ice caps melt and the Krill disappear?

Back on shore a few days later, I’m waiting for my takeaway coffee. The ground seems to sway slightly and I’m back on the boat, reliving that soul stopping moment watching the whales. Then my name is called; I grab my latte, my mind already in the office, as the baleen dream dips away over the horizon behind me.

Whale image unfortunately not the author’s own 
- By Christine  Zenino from Chicago US via Wikimedia Commons
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The windswept doorstep of the year

August is almost over. And so is winter. I’ve loved the slowly lengthening days that carry the hope of spring. The newly lit hours that creep in after the solstice always seem so familiar; like a lost memory returned, promising warmth. But the nights are still chilly, and although during the day the sun is warm, the shade is bitterly cold. As I round the corner at the bottom of my street the wind suddenly cuts raw across my face. It’s an icy alpine gust. Although it’s not actually snowing here I have no trouble imagining it covering the ground somewhere to the south.

This wind is like a quirky local character; its furious whistle follows me around, and indoors it hovers at the edge of my conscience. When I wake in the mornings I lie in bed watching it play in the Lilli Pilli outside the window. And as I wash the dishes in the evenings, I see it again, this time from the kitchen window, capering in the Crow’s Ash on the footpath. But usually I just feel the freezing gale that races up the ridge of the hill our street is on.

We first moved here in late August and on the first day I opened all the windows wide. The purifying south winds swept through the house like auguring spirits. At the time I thought this was just the way of this place and nicknamed it the windy suburb. But as the months went by I realised the winds were both seasonal and directional. In spring the warm northern zephyr floats freely through the house, but in summer it transforms into a hot, dry, north-westerly that feels like it’s traveled directly from the Strzelecki Desert. I can see why 17th century  navigators were inspired to draw up charts that captured the cardinal winds in the imagined stillness of a compass rose.

There’s an old saying that August is the windiest month of the year. And as if to fulfill this promise, each year the sharp southerly, bringing snow wind from the Southern Alps, arrives right on time in the early days of the month. Les Murray put it beautifully in the first stanza of his poignant poem, A New England Farm, August 1914.1

“August is the windy month,                                                                                                           The month of mares’ tails high in heaven,                                                                                    August is the fiery month,                                                                                                                The windswept doorstep of the year.”

And Aunty Fran Bodkin, a descendant of the D’harawal people of the Bidiagal clan and educator of ancient D’harawal knowledge at UWS, tells us in her perpetual calendar that August is “cold and windy: build shelters to face the rising sun; time to begin the journey to the highlands along the rivers; plenty of fish.2 But interestingly according to Sydney’s weather bureau records the windiest month is actually November. Perhaps August is just the first of the windy months.

Despite the Antarctic sting of the wind, this eighth month of the year is one of my favourites. I love that the sun comes up now well before seven and doesn’t set until almost half past five. There have been sudden days of heat, reminiscent of summer. One day, quite early in the month, the thermometer reached a scary 26 degrees, bringing the fear that Spring was here too soon. And reminding us that climate change is upon us. But then thankfully the month lapsed back into an intense icebox cold.  Perhaps these fluctuations are just the rhythms of this place; the adjustments at the edges of the seasons. The British imported the idea of four fixed seasons but the Dharawal previously recognised six seasons in the Sydney region. But even within the European tradition there was local variation. The new season started at the beginning of a month, but my father, who hailed from Southern Europe, insisted that Spring and Autumn began on the equinox.

The birds however follow no human calendar. For them August is the month where they emerge from their winter quiet with a flurry of nesting activity. Except for the Rainbow Lorikeets for whom every month is just the season of screeching. At dawn they shout from the branches of the paperbark in the back yard before flinging themselves onto the neighbour’s balcony railing. Seeds were once left out for them overnight so each morning now they scream for their breakfast.

But as the month has deepened the Currawong calls now ring out like medieval church bells; a deep, rich, melodic caroling outside the window. A much lovelier sound to wake to  than the shrieking of the Lorikeets.  The pesky parrots have been a little more civilised ever since the larger passerines have arrived. I remember this time last year surprising a Pied Currawong in my blueberry pot helping itself to the handful of purple berries that had sprouted. They were named bell magpies for their calls in the early days of European colonisation. They feed on small lizards, insects, caterpillars and berries. Some also take smaller birds. Perhaps the Lorikeets know this.

They are serious birds unlike the clown like Corellas that flock together at sunset, twenty or thirty of them, squawking through the skies in a swirling storm of white. Where have they been all day? Probably in some park tearing the trees to shreds. But luckily not in our local park where the Ibis rule. As I walk through each morning I’ve noticed that the Ibis are honking impatiently and pushing past each other to get at the sticks floating in the fountain. These regal water birds were revered as Gods in Ancient Egypt but are denigrated as bin chooks in Sydney. That’s because we usually see them foraging through the city’s garbage for food. But in our park they fly gracefully up into the Alexander palms and add their finds to their platform nest of sticks; an all day work in progress that ends only when they settle in for a quiet evening in the tree tops as dusk moves across the suburb.

It’s the Ibis and their nest building that remind me that August is pre-spring and come September we can begin to unfurl and prepare for the long warm months ahead.

 

1   A New England farm, August 1914 by Les Murray   www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/murray-les/a-new-england-farm-august-1914-0577012 

2  Aunty Fran Bodkin  dharawalstories.com/2015/09/24/perpetual-calendar/

Images [Public domain] via Wikimedia: Map of the Winds, 1650,Jan Janssonius; Brisbane City Council (Rainbow Lorikeets); Pied Currawong, Blue Mountains; Australian White Ibis by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; and snow photo courtesy of Sharon Walker via abc.net.au.

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Dry July

What is it about July that inspires abstinence?

This winter we’ve had the lowest rainfall in decades, amidst record breaking warm day time temperatures. It seems the weather gods have abstained from sending us any rain.

And there’s Dry July, the campaign to abstain from drinking for the month to support people living with cancer. There have been nine Dry July campaigns since its inception that have raised over 28 million dollars1.

But it’s also Plastic Free July2, a global movement that is imagining a world without plastic waste and encouraging people to not buy anything made from plastic for a whole month. It’s been around for a few years but this year the campaign seems to have taken off and the media is reporting on it. Coincidentally, because they are not part of the Plastic Free July campaign, this was also the month chosen by Woolworth’s and Coles to ban single use plastic bags.

We knew the ban was coming. There have been signs in the supermarkets for months and it’s been reported by the media as well. Mainly because NSW is now the only state that has refused to put a legislative ban on single use plastic bags. I guess we haven’t had to. Why regulate something that is going to happen anyway? The other states have done the administrative work and now these businesses have to comply. And because they make their policy nationally not locally, we get the ban too.

But it might have happened sooner if we’d legislated it. And it would apply to all shops not just the supermarkets that have chosen to do it. And like the container deposit legislation that’s now in place, it would have suggested a pro-active environmental agenda. But democracy is complex. In all the great civil movements, it’s the people, not the parliaments that have led change. Legislators formalise the mood of the nation, they don’t usually create it. And that can be a good thing. After all the alternative to democracy is dictatorship.

But no matter how the ban has happened, I’m so glad it has. And although there’s a long way to go before we get rid of plastics, or recycle them entirely, we’re finally thinking about the turtles. And the hundreds of thousands of other marine mammals and seabirds that ingest, or get entangled in, the eight million tonnes of discarded plastic that enter the oceans each year’3.

Albatross-Full-of-Plastic-2

But this transition to no more plastic bags has not been simple. Having to remember to bring an alternative bag when shopping is an enormous effort for the part of our brain associated with memory function. But maybe, like doing Sudoku puzzles, remembering to take plastic bags to the supermarket might stimulate the hippo campus, sparking a positive cognitive neuron response in that part of our brain, and triggering a collective decline in Alzheimer’s. However these positive effects might be forfeited if, when you forget your bags, you indulge in an angry rant directed at supermarket staff.

But perhaps remembering our bags is just too hard. Perhaps we should put our faith in fashion design. If we made clothes from plastic bags we wouldn’t have to remember to take them with us to the supermarket.

Plastic Bag dress

But there is hope. This July I have witnessed the resilience of ordinary people. On the first day of the ban, I witnessed an elderly couple at my local supermarket with a suitcase, something you might use if you were planning to spend six months in South America. They diligently filled it with their week’s supply of groceries and then carted it home across the park. Because I was following them, I noticed that they stopped to eat a packed lunch on the recycled plastic seats by the fountain. Could this be the beginning of a new era of resourcefulness amongst the population of Sydney? Alas the man behind me in the queue negated the good vibes by yelling, “Good on ya. Fucking stupid idea,” at the poor woman behind the cash register who’d told him he’d now have to pay 15 cents for a  plastic bag.

Brooklyn-Marina

Later that week I had lunch with my sister at a lovely seafood café on the Hawkesbury River and we discussed all things plastic. Is our food full of it? Is it really shrinking penises? And why didn’t the supermarkets actually ban all plastic bags not just the thin ones?

“Now they’ve got those thick white bags that will last even longer and cause more pollution. They should just sell the green bags and that’s it. Ninety nine cents big deal,” she exclaims passionately. I get her point of view and I agree with it. But at least a hungry turtle won’t mistake those 15 cent bags for jelly fish. And I’m just so gob smacked that this has finally happened that the critical part of my brain now resembles a stunned mullet.  I feel that this move is a harbinger of hope and we might actually do something in the near future about the environmental problems we’re facing.

Hope has been a dormant emotion recently. I guess that’s the survival mechanism part of my brain at work; that ancient, animal function commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’. I’ve been choosing flight, or avoidance. It causes despair, a close cousin of cowardice. But now I think, maybe it’s just July; the deepest month of winter, the month of hibernation and abstinence. Maybe hope is still alive? I mean, a year ago, would you have actually put your money on a plastic bags ban?  But it’s happened. Quick, let’s move onto a ban on new coal mines!

simone-weil-harmony estate simone weil

But perhaps I’m just experiencing the manic energy born of sudden exposure to warmth and light caused by unusually warm days. Is this how a grizzly bear feels emerging from its winter sleep? And will this energy soon morph into hunger? For plastic. Because, as French philosopher Simone Weil once said, “Imaginary good is easy.” When you get down to the day to day reality of doing real good, it can be bloody hard. Only this morning, as I finished the last slice of bread and emptied the crumbs from the plastic bag it’s baked in, I searched in my stash under the sink for one of those jelly fish bags. I’ve been collecting all our soft, scrunchy plastics for delivery to the supermarket recycling bin. These soft plastics are turned into play ground equipment, park benches and other plastic items too big for turtles to swallow. But there were no single use plastic bags left in my cupboard. I’d recycled them all when I should have been hoarding them.

What am I going to collect my soft plastics in? What am I going to line my bins with? What am I going to use to tightly wrap the disgusting left overs that have been in the fridge for months? Plastic is very good for disposing of not just our rubbish but all of the ugliness of our convenience addicted consumer lives. An entirely single use plastic free world is possible. There are solutions. But how many brain cells will it require?

And then I looked at the calendar and realised that July was almost over and I could abstain from thinking about any of this for another year.

 

 

SOURCES

1 Dry July campaign – www.dryjuly.com

2 Plastic Free July –  www.plasticfreejuly.org

Ocean Pollution Fact sheet – sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents

Images: Dead Albatross With Stomach Full of Plastic – www.environews.tv/world-news/video-watch-what-one-plastic-straw-can-do-to-an-endangered-sea-turtle/; Plastic Bag Dress –www.instructables.com/id/Dress-from-plastic-bags/; Hawkesbury River – noelex.org.au/broken-bay-nsw-anchorages/; Simone Weil © the estate of Simone Weil

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Yoga: an ancient Sanskrit word for humiliation

On Sunday morning, instead of sleeping in, like any sane person would, I decided to go to yoga. I’d missed my usual Wednesday night class because I’d prioritised dinner with a friend, over exercise; like any sane person would.

I was the last to arrive. The instructor, who looked like an Olympic Gymnast who’d fallen on hard times and was now forced to teach at a community gym, beckoned me to the only space left.  I reluctantly made my way to the very front of the room and rolled out my mat right next to him. All the yogis would now get to watch two versions of the class. One for seasoned practitioners with triple joints, and elastic instead of muscle in their limbs; demonstrated by the teacher. And the other for people with no joints, and marshmallow instead of muscle in their limbs; demonstrated by me.

Suddenly we were off and working our way through a series of basic poses. Perhaps I’d been too quick in my judgement. Perhaps this class was going to be the nice Sunday morning stretch I’d envisaged in bed after all. We began with a simple Cat Cow to lengthen the lower back, followed by Plank which flowed into Cobra, and then back up and into Downward Facing Dog. So far so good. Then came a High Lunge followed by Warrior 1. Even though I hate standing poses, particularly the ones with frightening names like Fierce Warrior and Reverse Warrior, I managed to keep up. And then thankfully after an Extended Side Angle pose we came into a seated position on our mats. I’m a great fan of any pose that involves sitting or lying down.

With my legs stretched out on the mat in front of me I focused on keeping my back straight. The instructor told us to hug the right knee to the chest. Apanasana. Simple. I’ve done this many times before. Then he told us to take our right foot in both hands and rock our right hip back and forth. Good old Baby Cradle pose. A simple hip opener. Easy. After all I’ve been doing yoga for about twenty years. The image below however is not of me doing yoga; now or twenty years ago.

Then the instructor said, “Place your right foot on the ground. Put your right hand next to your foot. Now put your shoulder under your knee.” That’s when I became slightly alarmed. The top of my body does not usually fit beneath any part of the bottom of my body. Suddenly the instructions were coming thick and fast, mainly thick, me that is, as I was still trying to manoeuvre my torso closer to my foot. I looked up to see what I was supposed to be doing and for a moment I thought I’d swallowed a whole batch of hash cookies for breakfast instead of a slice of toast. Before me, the instructor floated above the ground, supported it seemed by an invisible thread. His legs extended at a sharp right angle from his torso, demurely crossed at the ankles, his head balanced serenely at the front. He looked like a complicated bow on a very well wrapped present.

The image above is not of my yoga instructor, but it is the pose which he was demonstrating at the time. And the image below is not of me, but it is the pose I was demonstrating at the time.

With a snort of disbelief, which did nothing to disbalance the instructor, I looked around the room. I was expecting to see my class mates rolling around on the floor, holding their bellies, tears streaming from their eyes, laughing themselves stupid at the ludicrous expectations emanating from this god of equilibrium.  Instead I was greeted by twenty pairs of eyes hovering above wrists, magically attached to pliant, supple limbs gracefully  balanced two foot above, and parallel to, their mats. Who were these people? How can I hope to make friends in my local community if these are my neighbours? What could we possibly have in common? I turned slowly around and slunk into a simple child’s pose.

Finally they all came back down to earth and we moved through several twists and then into the final corpse position. It’s a relaxation pose that involves lying flat on your back, breathing deeply and trying to imagine yourself anywhere but here. It’s called corpse pose because if you haven’t died of extreme humiliation during the class you’ll probably collapse from extreme exertion on the way home.

But luckily I think I’ll live to see another day. The image below is not of me just what I looked like after the class. As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or in my case, stiffer.

 

 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Shape, Mental Floss, and HYA blog

 

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Burke & Wills and Me

I’m standing at Redfern Station waiting to catch the train to Canley Vale to visit my mother who lives exactly 9.2 km from there along the Orphan School Creek bike track. Usually I catch a bus from the station to her house but today I have my brand new 6 speed Holland Vintage Cruiser with me. Some people have suggested that I’ve purchased a pedal powered bone shaker. That I should have bought an all purpose, all terrain, mountain bike if I was serious about riding in Sydney.  But I pointed out to these naysayers that when I took my new cycling machine to the local park it performed beautifully.  Albeit today’s ride is 18.4 km return, but how much harder can that be than catching the bus?

The train pulls in and I prepare to board the last carriage as recommended by Cycling NSW. Apparently less people use this carriage so it’s easier when travelling with your bike. But as the doors open I realise that other people have already taken this advice.

I get in, and with a combination of iron-pumping and power lifting that any gym junkie would be proud of, I push past a classy racer complete with a man in serious riding gear. He’s wearing a tonal blue, stretch polyester elastine, cycling jersey with reflective trim, and those super fitted cycling shoes with clattering outsoles that are meant to drive all your power into the pedals. In my shorts and t-shirt I suddenly feel under dressed. Next to him stands a man with a huge suitcase and a small carry on. He looks like he hasn’t slept for twenty four hours so I suddenly don’t feel so shabby.

I maneuver past them until I’m standing against the opposite glass doors which are the exact length of my bicycle. I’m not even going to think about what to do when they open at the next station. Then just as the guard’s whistle blows and the doors are about to close, an old couple, with a combined age of about 150, drag themselves and two overflowing shopping carts into the carriage. The train moves off, and I smile wryly at the other four souls, each with a ridiculously oversized item, crammed into the smallest part of an otherwise completely empty train. As we leave the station I realise I’ve already learnt Navigating Public Transport With A Bike Lesson #1: Never travel in the final train carriage, especially if it is the one closest to the lift.

Forty five minutes later we arrive at Canley Vale Station. I get off and so do the old man and woman. I wave goodbye and wheel my bike down the ramp and onto the street. The bike path scoots under the railway line and next to it is the Orphan School Creek, a tidal stream, that apparently rises and falls to the rhythms of the Georges River. This is the same creek that runs behind my mother’s house and the inspiration for today’s adventure.

And I’m off. I’m so excited I feel like I’m on a holiday. I pedal past the station car park, then the empty back yards of the main streets shop fronts, then the local sporting fields; but just as I’m starting to think there’s nothing here but densely developed suburb, I find myself travelling through a green corridor of Swamp Oak. The last vestiges of the Alluvial woodland that once lined the creek. I notice an effort has been made to regenerate the waterway here, with sandstone blocks reinforcing the bank, creating deep pools where a pair of ducks swim and a Shag suns itself on a rock.  In the nearby long grass, which is edged by Forest Red Gums, colonies of Ibis stride and Currawongs and Magpie-larks lurk.  I stop in this idyllic place to drink from my water bottle. I shake a few drops out of it and realise I should have refilled it before leaving home. Nearby a pretty cottage reminds me of the food and comfort that is only a few kilometers away. Thirsty I pedal on.

I cycle under the Cumberland Highway and suddenly emerge next to a narrow concrete channel with yellow grass mowed to the edge of the path and not a tree in sight. It’s like a desert but not as pretty. I’m now riding under the full glare of the morning sun next to a suburban drain. I’ll discover later that this is Australia’s second-warmest April on record, and the eighth driest. And today the temperature will peak at 29 degrees. But for now all I know is that the nearby road is lined with McMansions, there is not a human in sight, and my thigh muscles are screaming. I consider crawling down the steep sides of the canal to search for water but instead I knock down the gears and push on. It would be easier to harvest my own sweat than discover H2O in this desolate wasteland. This must be what Burke and Wills felt like on their return from the Gulf of Carpentaria. They found their camp at Cooper Creek deserted. Their support team had left only nine hours earlier after waiting for them for four months. Knowing that my support team has made lunch, I hope I don’t disappoint her by not arriving either.

Finally I cross Smithfield Road and find myself behind Fairfield Showground where the path makes its way to St Johns Park. Although there is still no shade it is now a lot prettier. Twenty years ago I taught History at the local high school so I distract myself with memories of innocent young minds thirsty for knowledge.

When I finally arrive at my mother’s house I can’t speak. And I can’t stand either. I lie on the cold Italian tiles for the first time grateful that she tore up that beautiful soft rose shag pile. I close my eyes and wonder if I’m going to have a heart attack. But there are no shooting pains travelling down my arms so I have time to think about my life and if I’ve done anything worthwhile. That doesn’t take long and my heart rate still isn’t back to normal. I can tell because I can’t hear my mother’s shouting even though her face is very close to mine. There is only a red roar in my head. Apparently the longer it takes for your heart rate to return to normal after a bout of exercise the more unfit you are. And apparently you should never just stop riding a bike and get off it, you should slow down, and allow the blood which has concentrated in your legs, to circulate back into the rest of your body.

And then I remember that I’ve completed only half the journey. There are another 9.2 km to ride to get back to the station. So far this adventure on my new push bike has left me internally shattered, my skeleton feels disconnected in a thousand places. If I do survive, it’s doubtful I’ll walk, let alone ride, again. In my panic I haven’t noticed that my mother has left my side. She must be calling an ambulance. It’s worse than I thought.

But then the soft smell of slow cooked bolognese ragu wafts by me and my mother returns.

“I had to stir the sauce,” she says. “I made it this morning. We just have to boil the pasta.”

And that’s when I start to feel better. The roar in my ears subsides and I realise everything will be o.k. I’ll eat lunch. Then I’ll hop back on my trusty town bike for the return journey. Or perhaps I can stay overnight, eat the rest of the pasta for dinner, and my mother can drive me home in the morning. The bicycle can live here. I’ll come back another day and discover the rest of the Orphan School Creek Bike Track. Or maybe I’ll just walk to the Gulf of Carpentaria instead.

 

 

Images: Bike, flickr.com/photos/23672158@N04 via Wikimedia Commons; Longstaff, Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Spaghetti Bolognese, courtesy Charlie Bigham’s Blog.

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Two Weeks In A Night Club

Recently I spent some time in “Sydney’s #1 Nightclub”.  The home of Latin Soul on Mondays; Sydney’s Biggest Techno Party on Tuesdays; the Mid-Week Rave on Wednesdays; Hip Hop on Thursdays; Local Acts on Fridays; and the sickest House on Saturdays.

“That must be the World Bar in Potts Point,” I hear you say.

But I was there for the theatre.

“Theatre? What kind of music is that?” I overheard one cool young thing ask the barman while he poured her cocktail into a tea pot.

“It’s Indie, it’s out there, it’s the latest,” he replied.

Only joking.

If I had you fooled there, especially if you were wondering why the words cocktail and teapot were in the same sentence, you’re showing your age. No cool young thing would be caught dead in a night club before 10pm. And bartenders (along with barristas, barristers, bakers, butchers and anybody else who idly asks you what you do for  a living) usually just look at you blankly when you say the word theatre. Try it.

We were staging a play in the World Bar’s Blood Moon Theatre at 7pm while the cool young things were preloading elsewhere (or perhaps just eating dinner at home with mum and dad).

Each night after our show we packed away our entire set as the chillin DJ’s for that night’s awesome gig swarmed around us, taking charge of the light and sound system, and our stage. Which is how I realised it was the dance floor. At this point dear reader, you’d be forgiven for muttering to yourself, “It’s not really a theatre then is it?”

But this old band room was much cooler than your average theatre; an ‘activated’ space to use the current lingo.  And I was uber excited. We were making edgy, ‘pop-up’ theatre; one of the coolest art forms, in the neatest venue in town. The World Bar, in case you’re not aware, is a wicked place to party. Don’t believe me? Just ask the hundreds of patrons eagerly pushing to get in through the security cordon at 10:30 pm each night; as I was pushing, just as eagerly, to get out. But on our last night I found myself in the line with the hip party people.

The cast and crew had decided to stay around after the show for some celebratory drinks. Waving at the actors to save me a seat I’d made my way out onto the street thinking to deposit the set and props in the car I’d hired for bump out. It was parked just around the corner so within minutes I was back and ready for a drink at our after party. But I didn’t realise that after 10pm the security guards wouldn’t just let me walk back in. After all they knew me. I was the woman that danced a strange tango with them each night while yelling, “I’m with the theatre! Let me out!” But tonight as I approached the entrance the guard just looked at me blankly and told me to go to the end of the line. I backed away feeling deeply rejected; wondering what had changed in our relationship.

But as I stood in line I began to get excited again. I haven’t lined up to get into a night club for a few decades. Three to be exact. I admit I felt a little out of place; had I known I’d be clubbing I would have worn my sequined disco shorts and gangsta heels. Slowly the line edged forward and finally I was back at the front. The guard held his hand up and demanded my ID. I was flattered. Did he seriously think I looked under 18? Perhaps he just wasn’t wearing his glasses?

As if reading my mind he said, “It’s the law Lady.”

Suddenly I ‘got’ all the fuss about the lockout laws.

I dug around in my hand bag and a few minutes later I found my wallet. I handed him my driver’s license. Then I realised that he was waiting for me to stand in front of a huge machine with multiple screens.

From behind me came an impatient chorus, “Look at the camera!”

I looked and blinded by a flash, blinked, then opened my eyes to see a giant image of myself, eyes closed, on the screen.

“Again,” he said.

This time my eyes were open and so was my mouth. But that seemed to satisfy him.

Before I could ask, he said, “It’s the law Lady. We keep it on file so we can ban you if you cause trouble.”

Wow. Sophisticated.

I made ready to finally enter the venue. But just as I pushed past that security guard another one appeared and asked me to open my handbag. He was going to search my bag? Was I entering another country? That’s when it suddenly dawned on me why all those young women lined up outside carried only tiny little purses that hung from their shoulders from the thinnest of straps. Perhaps this was also why they wore only the tiniest of dresses that also hung from their shoulders from the thinnest of straps. But they’d had the luxury of going home after work (or school) to change. I was still in my work place.

I opened my bag.  The security guard stared at the contents. Obviously not what he was expecting. No lipstick, mascara wand or compact, sorry I keep them in my clubbing bag. All I’ve got here is a script, note book, torch, scissors, clip board, bull clips, phone, camera, ticket stubs, cash box, water bottle, Blu Tack, Gaff tape. I asked him if he was looking for anything in particular.

“Alcohol,” he said. “You can’t take alcohol into a licensed venue.”

Luckily I’d left my hip flask at home.

But then he pointed at my water bottle.

“I’ll have to take that.”

“But it’s my water bottle.”

“You can pick it up on your way out.”

And so finally at 10:56pm I re-entered the venue I’d been in since 5:30pm that night.

As I headed to the table where my drink and my friends waited I heard the security guard call out after me, “And don’t forget there’s a lock out at 1:30am Lady. If you leave after that we won’t be able to let you back in.”

I was pretty sure that by that time the only venue I’d be in was my bed.

Images: DJ Jordan Munns/Courtesy of The World Bar; Long Island Iced Tea/Courtesy Yelp.com; Nightclub Line Up/ Writer’s own; The Nightmare, John Henry Fuseli/Courtesy Wikicommons

Posted in Spirit of Place, Theatre | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

View from the Bio Box

Last week the world almost ended while I was at the Old 505 theatre in Newtown. I’d been here before, mostly in the audience, but over this five night residency I was the tech operator for Blind Tasting, a beautiful play by Paul Gilchrist, performed brilliantly by Sylvia Keays.

old 505 bar

From the bio box I could view the stage, and watch both the audience and the performance through a rectangle cut into the partition that divides the original ballroom of the old Newtown School of Arts. It is now a theatre and a foyer with a well stocked bar. It’s comfortable, intimate and beautiful and if you look up, next to the rigging, you can see the original plaster ceiling panels. Not a bad place to be for the final showdown.

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‘Teching’ a show is a little like being a DJ. I have a lighting board and a sound console and two computer screens, all with which to mix the mood for the play. And although it sounds complicated all I have to do is press the buttons in the right order. Liam O’Keefe, the lighting designer had already created and programmed the light cues, and the soundscape had been taken care of by the director. It included rain and thunder, seagulls and cicadas.

By the fourth night of this five night run everything was going smoothly. I had wrangled my fingers so they tapped the cues at just the right moment. I was dancing back and forth between light and sound and feeling like Nicky Siano at Studio 54. But then suddenly disaster struck. I began to lose control of my console. I’d just activated Cue 5, the excited chatter and squawk of seagulls, when suddenly I heard the gentle patter of rain, Cue 8. In a panic I checked the screen. What was happening? Had I hit the wrong button? No. The arrow signifying Cue 5 still serenely blinked its little green light at me. Nothing seemed to be wrong but why could I hear two cues instead of one? And then sounds that weren’t even programmed into my QLab software began to tumble around me. The theatre revealed its own musical score, one that I had no authority over; the whistling of wind rattling old window frames and the rustling of paper, starting and stopping at uncanny moments.

I looked up expecting the audience to be looking around in confusion, the actor raising her voice to combat the shamble of sound, staring daggers at me that said, ‘fix this bloody mess now!’ But no. The show was blithely continuing on its amusing little path completely oblivious to the impending disaster unfolding in the bio box.

Bio Box

It was just me. And all of these computers. Suddenly I realized that those Luddite nightmares that had plagued me for years were about to come true. Any sane person knows that computers and robots are about to take over the world and force us into mindless slavery. More mindless even than consumerism. But I’d thought perhaps we had a few more years of human autonomy left; the remainder of my lifetime ideally. There was still so much I needed to buy. But alas it seemed that the time had come.  A technical catastrophe preceding the final annihilation.  An apocalypse. Armageddon. The end of the world. And our new technological masters had chosen to start their universal domination by taking over my soundscape!

I made myself calm down. After all, if it really was the end, I may as well enjoy it. If these computers were determined to take over the show, then perhaps I should use this as an opportunity to pop over to the bar and order a gin and tonic. I slowly edged away from the tech desk, and as I did, the sound of wind and rain got louder and louder, until it was all I could hear. But the beautiful Sydney summer day on the stage remained undisturbed. The audience didn’t know that it was raining. And suddenly I realized that it wasn’t the fabricated world that had gone awry after all. Apparently the ambitions of the machine intelligence before me were still dormant. It was the real world that had turned intemperate.

Let me explain. The bio box was actually the stage of the old dance hall we were in and behind me were the glass windows of the building, covered over with paper to keep out any light. It was through these that the sounds of rain and wind, that were whipping the world outside, were coming from. The audience were surrounded by walls and thick black curtains which is why they couldn’t hear anything except what was happening on stage. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, which did turn a few heads, as I leapt back to the desk just in time to press the next cue.

I’d been so excited to be able to watch each performance and, like an alchemist, or a high tech god, add sound and light to the world on the stage. But now I realized that I was the one in a performance, which had its very own soundscape, administered by the great tech operator in the sky. It was as if he or she had been watching me all along, like I’d been watching the audience and the actor on the stage.

“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.

Had Shakespeare been a tech operator too? Perhaps he’d also had strange behind the scenes experiences? Maybe I too would now be able to write thirty seven plays and one hundred and fifty four sonnets.

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Theatre is a strange medium. Odd things happen. The space itself becomes a new character with every new play.  With all this drama perhaps the walls retain the residue of all that’s been before. All of those characters created, and then left behind when the actors move on; each set laboriously made and then exuberantly unmade. And what of that old ballroom that preceded us, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d suddenly heard the whisper of satin slippers and the flutter of dance cards.

Theatrical productions are the result of a temporary illusion imposed on a permanent structure; a new way to look at the world, a view into someone else’s experience. In the theatre you can live vicariously the human drama, suspend reality for a time; enjoy for an hour or so, another world, another place.  And when we emerge, and the lights come up, and the actor takes their encore, we slowly come back to our own realities. But we’ve experienced magic, perhaps we’ve had an epiphany; and hopefully that means we take a little more joy, or empathy, back out into the real world with us.

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Image of Newtown School of Arts Ballroom, courtesy of Eastside FM

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