Thursday, December 31, 2009

Marooning the Men on Green Island, 1826

Neddy and my self climbed back into the boat. The others pushed her out, til we could feel the bite of the sea. The Menang men talked to each other, happy to be heading out to hunt. Neddy did not talk to them. He didn’t know their language. His face was different to them, his straight hair and canvas clothes made him different too. The Menang men treated him like they treated all us sealers, one eye on his cutlass and the other on opportunity.

We had wrapped spirals of kangaroo skin, fastened with copper nails around the oars, to keep them tight in the rowlocks and they creaked now as Neddy and my self laboured out to the island. With each creak and splash, I wondered what the other men seemed to know and I wondered about Randall, whose mind was always on the game and the trap.

We beached on the north side of the island, where it met the deeper water, crunched gently into the rocks. Twertayan disembarked and the four others followed him, their spears clattering the gunwales, stood waiting for me and Neddy to stow the boat,

Neddy hefted his oar out of the rowlock. I watched him. “Push off!” Neddy hissed at me, his eyes wide. I knew what we were about to do. I looked at the best of the Menang men – the five strongest, the five hunters and protectors – grinning, rubbing their thorny feet on their slim shins in anticipation of the bird hunt. I knew all about it then. I could have stopped it then but I did not.

“They do not swim, Neddy.”

“Push off, Hook. Randall tol’ us so.” Randall had broken Neddy’s little brother’s arm over his knee on Kangaroo Island.

“They do not swim!”

Neddy shoved an oar against a stone scrawled with the white markings of strange creatures and the little boat heaved away from the island. Whaleboats have pointed bows ahead and astern. There is no going about or shoving a clumsy transom against water, just turn the body and row the other way for a quick lurch away from a cranky humpback, from swell smashing against granite or from desperate people.

I tried to ignore the lamentations of the marooned Menang men but every time I checked ahead and then over my shoulder for bearings, I saw the five dark figures, their arms waving, silhouetted against the fertile green of their prison. I rowed with that same deadening in my stomach, that same blackness I feel when I dream bad things, when the only happening of my ill deed is shame, shame felt deep within my body.

“There is no water for them Neddy.” This concern, spoken aloud, did not unravel my guilt but made me a weaker man.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seal Medley

"We'll have to get you a gun, girl," Old Salt grinned at me, knowing my response. "Just like Annie Oakley, with a bit of target practice... What's the matter - don't you like guns?"
He knows I'm fine with guns, that I was brought up by a gunsmith. "Ah shit, don't tell me - no, don't tell me,
you like seals, don't you?"

Last night as we hauled, a seal fought us for the net. It ate every single fish, working its way from the channel entrance and towards the boat. The fish it could not tear out, it bit in half or just devoured bellies distended with roe. Finally the seal arrived at the boat and I peered down into the water to see its phosphorescent gleam undulating around the net. Like a marauding ghost, this seal.

On Breaksea Island, I lay across lichen, watching the seals and sea lions. They enchant me. Like pelicans or pashas, the seals' capacity for pleasure is heartening. It makes me feel good just to see them. They roll in water water, using the flippers as sails and up on the rock is the creche, where all the babies congregate.

" 'There is no better mother than the seal,' said the man with the slow voice.
'A seal's breast milk will raise an inch of fat. Isn't that what it says in the proverb?' said Michael."

From one of the highest points on the island, I watched a seal swimming along, way below, straight, swift and purposeful. One morning, I stood on the rocks, searching for bait, limpet knife in hand. A curious female seal sprouted beside me, blowing a mist of air and brine, eyeing me. She dived and surfaced again. She came closer and closer. I sang to her, can't remember the song, just sang as loud and true as I could. I could see her incredulity at my singing, knife-wielding self.

"That was the first time he saw her.
At first she was nothing more than a bulge in the water and he thought, I’ve been waiting for this, the creature who lives in this breathing inlet to reveal itself to me. He was waiting for a monster but it was a seal that rose to the surface. Her whiskers twitched and she snorted away a mist of water and looked at him with black eyes.
He put down the violin and she turned and rolled back under the surface. He picked up the violin and she appeared again. It was the first time he’d laughed out loud in weeks, months.
He played to her then, ‘Basket of Turf’ and ‘The Devil’s Dream’. She rolled and flipped and twitched her ears. He did not think of her meat or the skin that would warm him. He needed the company more."

" 'Did they let the young seal go?' said Michael the Ferry.
'I never heard what happened after.'
'Well, I believe that if they put him out, they'd be alright,' said Michael. 'Because I know my father, when he was a young lad, did the same. He brought home a young seal and put him down in the kitchen here for the night, and in the night there was a voice outside the door and it crying, 'Tadgh has left me!' and the seal in the corner of the kitchen here let words out of him when he heard the crying. 'I am Tadgh,' says this seal. When my father's father heard that he said to my father, who was only young at the time and had little understanding: 'Go,' he said, ' and take that seal and put him outside the door by the water's edge and leave him there. Say nothing,' he said to my father: 'only go and leave him there by the water.' And when my father opened out the door, he saw another seal on the quay waiting. If there's harm in the seal, Patrick Sean, there is good in him too. A man who is fishing and working near to where those creatures have their living, then he must study their ways.'
'They have been of great benefit to all classes of people,' said the man with the slow voice.
'It is better to have nothing to do with them,' said Patrick Sean, 'no matter is it good nor bad.' "

When the resident seal at Emu Point was slaughtered a few years ago, older locals looked towards Old Salt. He didn't kill that seal. He did write a letter to the paper, in which he said tour operators should not feed the seals, claiming it historically provoked bad behaviour in both humans and wildlife alike. The reason for the sudden interest in Old Salt, after the death of Sammy, was a very public stoush between him and the C.A.L.M officer who accused him of shooting a seal a few years before. "I didn't shoot that seal either," Old Salt told me. "But I know who did."
Sometimes I think Old Salt was quite happy to wear that one. The resulting notoriety made him Saltier than ever, and the rogue seal was dealt with.

Old Salt did tell me a story about the killing of a seal. "The Old Man and I went out to Waychinicup once. He was gonna set some nets and there, lying on the rocks was this big old bull seal. The Old Man picked up his axe, walked over to the seal and put that axe right through its skull."
I must have looked utterly mortified. "Why did he do that?"
"He was just about to set nets. He knew that seal would eat every, single fucking fish. He had five kids to feed and petrol for the drive out there." Old Salt shrugged. "Just the way it was."

" 'It were better,' said the man in the corner, ' for no man to kill a seal. Wasn't it your uncle, Michael, that killed the seal and died at the height of his strength?'
'He did, and I am after telling this man how he was warned.'
'What happened?' I said."

* David Thomson, The People of the Sea, a Journey in Search of the Seal Legends, Arena, 1989, (1954).
~ Sarah Toa,
The Family Tree of Julian MacGregor, 2007.

'Fish', by StormBoy

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Stunned Mullet Called Lucky

"I think I am a little bit drunk," I mumble as I stumble over the bull mastiff. He leans against me even more lovingly, thinking, perhaps, I will stroke his throat one more time.
Hours before, I was in Video Ezy, when surprised by my Honours supervisor's enigmatic text message.

"I love it when one of my students gets a Phd scholarship."

I expected it. In fact, all year I beavered, putting sentences in the right order, deciphering post structuralism texts and booting people out of my house, with the explicit intention of procuring this scholarship.

Now I feel slightly dazed and a bit of a fraud. It's all been too easy. That gleaming river stone of future promise, the one you pull out of the water and lay it in the bright sun - words on a page, letters worked into sentences, into paragraphs - the one you watch dry up into something pretty but not quite what you visualised. I was expecting that and yet hoped that the shining stone would hold to her rash promise and stay true ... and for once this has happened.

Today, I was emotionally exhausted, not from reality, but reading The Bone People (Keri Hulme) for the fourth time in ten years. It's a beautiful book that never fails to stamp on my guts - an intriguing, charismatic, violent lover I return to, over and over, to remind myself why I can't go back. Like the beginning of any relation based on self-demolition, I bought that book, with a nose for trouble, on the strength of its cover.

And then. And then. In Video Ezy with Storm Boy, whose latest research project is Alien Versus Predator, my supervisor's message bleeps and, for the first time ever, I know what I'm doing for the next three years and that I will be paid to do it.
Three years to write about those characters from the past whom I've obsessed over; the Maori William Hook, the odious Samuel Bailey, the Menang Moennan, that elusive little girl who disappeared between the written words of Commandants and Colonial Secretaries, the Pallawah women driven from their home by the Black Line and Van Diemen's Land Company survey pegs, the whaling Black Jacks of America. These are some of the people who converged on Breaksea Island in 1826. Now that is a ripping yarn.

So. I am a little bit drunk, full of the relief of the ejaculated, sort of guilty but not dirty, clean, kind of groan up, and wearing the foolish grin of someone who just can't believe their own luck. It is a strange collection of feelings.
One day, I will experience life from the inside of the machine. This thought unsettles me, coming from the fringes as I do, a furious sole parent who rails against real estate developers, right wing politicians and D.E.C. bureaucrats who wanna lock up all our islands. I am beginning already to experience the osmotic effect of entering that bubble, and the compromises enclosed.

Another coupe last week, (it was a corker week) is having not one, but two stories accepted by indigo journal, a biannual anthology of Western Australian writing. That's coming out in February. Far out.

To retain some sense of what ordinary life is like, I'll stay on the tinny and continue working part time for Old Salt. He's not that enthused about having a deckie called Doctor Toa, but I'm sure he'll cope, so long as I don't sleep in or stop laughing at his jokes.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

M.C Escher, Fluorescent Sea

What he said #2

"Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here. Historical accident snuffs out out whole universes with every clock tick. Statistics declare us ridiculous. Thermodynamics prohibits us. Life, by any reasonable measure, is impossible, and my life - this, here, now - infinitely more so. Art is a way of saying, in the face of all that impossibility, just how worth celebrating it is to be able to say anything at all."

Richard Powers.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Setting Free the Sharks

The sharks in Waychinicup waters are big - for small sharks. This Port Jackson is probably the same one we caught last year, cruising along the nets munching on skippy until he/she became the opposite of unstuck. While Wobbygongs will snap grumpily, Port Jackson sharks wait patiently for me to unmesh them and then fold back into the soupy waters and lazily swim away.


When we arrived, the tide was sucked out of this little embayment but out to sea, swell crashed against the stone gates, trying to surge in. Such a strange tide, a breathing water in a breathing place. We rowed out to set some nets, dropping the boys at Elephant Cave.

Water is clear, not so much river water as brine from the ocean. Seagrass here is emerald green, glossy, waving ribbons, much healthier and vibrant than in the town estruaries.

We trekked through forests of orange flowering 1080 bush and paperbarks, to the rockpool for an icy swim.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

PassionFlowers and FairyTales

Zeb Shine is a woman who birthed babies at the same time I did, living a life packed with art and drama. For a few years now I've blown into the city and finally, her kitchen, for a precious catchup, staying up all night to drink copious cups of tea and imbibe other nefarious substances, while we indulge in unpacking the last six months.

She keeps producing these little zip lock plastic bags, bag after bag. Lips. Yes, lips. Several hundred thousand lips, laboriously scalpelled from from paper ladies, the Revlon models. Everytime I visit, her collection has grown. On my last trip to Freo, Zeb was in production mode. "It's terrifying," she told me, "getting them glued down. I have to get it right the first time; no second chances with glue, or positioning. It's one move and that's it. A thousand times over."

This is an artist who spends zilch time on Photoshop and an inordinate amount taking a scalpel to women's glossies. Subversive, yes, but not in its obvious context.

From the lips of the Revlon women, velveteen splatters of wine advertisements and the carnivorous smiles of superstars, the PassionFlowers emerge. The PassionFlowers bare their teeth and reveal their luscious inner folds in one full blown, fleshy bloom.

Producing the one flower meant replicating the same set of lips. It takes a certain kind of obsession to scour the city for that particular 1999 edition of Marie Claire.

Zeb Shine's FairyTales are another thing altogether. Again, each image is a collage of thousands of glossy magazine snippets. The FairyTales give us the story of Woman in all her incarnations. Little Red enters the mossy depths of deep forest, aware all the while of the coal-eyed wolf watching her from a house. Danger here lurks inside the domestic sphere and nature is the refuge. Wendy steps away from her Lost/Bad Boys and moves on, into her own mature sense of self. Rapunzel's mane is her thorny prison but at her feet there is a locked door - and a key.

Step in and look around, via the link to Zeb's website, A Curious Nature. Please bear in mind the site is still under construction! I will leave a permanent link in Phosphorescence, under the Moon. I think we will hear and see a lot more of Zeb Shine and her Curious Nature.

PassionFlower © Zeb Shine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Room of One's Own

It still needs a couch, a bookshelf and some of the images that keep me happy ...