Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Time? What's Time?

The bush fires were a long time ago now, and there are those words *time* and *now*. Back then I said to a friend that I felt our national psyche was injured. A summer of anger and hurt and death and culture wars. When the rains came, relief was palpable but the toxic run off over scorched country killed aquatic species. Pollinators were rare now and thousands of people moved into tents and caravans. Others organised food drops for surviving wild animals whose habitats were destroyed by fire.

That was January. By my 50th birthday mid-February, I think we had our last gathering of more than two people. Now I have a list on my fridge of things I have to do every day to maintain a routine. ‘Please Sarah! Go for a walk, write something, finish your mentoring job, read, sort out the mullet nets.’ In February, I was still going up the mountain every day on fire tower duty. I was preparing around then for the beginning of my uni classes at the Resource Centre. One morning on my way there, I stopped at the hardware to buy a gas bottle. A fighter jet buzzed the little town. The man helping me get the gas onto the back of the ute said, ‘that’s the fourth pass he’s done this morning.’ And as I strapped the gas to the aluminium bars, the jet did another pass. Odd.

At the Resource Centre, the work farm trusties set up the function room for a meeting. After big hello smiles, they continued moving about chairs, tables, plugging in the urn and laying out a table full of cups, teaspoons, sachets of sugar in little bowls. Dressed in their prison greens, they arranged cakes and slices into dainty piles. Over the clinking of crockery and quiet murmurs of the trusties, I heard the jet again.

Each day they ride mountain bikes from the work camp to town. They trim the gardens and water in new plantings at shire council and state government premises. They clean up sections of the hiking trail that snakes 500km from Albany to Perth. These guys are minimum security and approaching parole and theirs is a ‘soft entry’ back into community where once a week, there is a rush of green-clad shoppers wielding trolleys in the local supermarket, the guard standing by the ATM and watching them.

After setting up the function room, Marley (not his real name) sat beside the photocopier. The weekly community newspaper spewed page by page from the machine and he carefully folded each page in half. His job is to collate the newspaper and then distribute it around town. Marley is Iranian Australian. When he first arrived at the camp, he was aloof but polite and spoke quietly. I remember him talking to one of the other prisoners about world peace in his odd, nasal tone. Adenoids, I think. As he grew to know people in town, he warmed to them. These days I’m likely to see him stopping in for a chat with the mechanics or the librarian on his newspaper round. Other prisoners come and go as their sentences are served but Marley remains a green clad fixture. He is wrapping up a ten-year sentence for people smuggling; a one particular voyage that ended catastrophically.

There was a kind of buzz going on at the resource centre this day. The place began to fill up with uniforms. Local police, parks and wildlife, fire and emergency services. I went outside and sat on the bench under the peppermint tree. A hire car whipped past. I saw the driver do a double take at the centre, turn around and come back. Then a hire four wheel drive, then another. People began spilling from cars with cameras, laptop bags, talking on mobile phones. City clothes and the gait of a mission.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked the young man at the front desk.
‘Minister for Corrective Services’, he said. ‘Apparently they are making an announcement today.’ So maybe the Air Force jet was scoping?

Eventually the minister turned up and while I studied the new lectures and printed out class lists, the room next door crowded with various apparatus of the law, making media announcements regarding the justice system, and Marley stayed by the photocopier, collating the newspaper in his prison greens.

*Time* That scene was from another life. I haven’t seen the work farm trusties for three weeks and I assume they’re in lockdown. When I mentioned this to Flame and wonder about sending them books or postcards, some kind of support, she said, ‘Sarah, we’re all in lockdown now. It’s just … those guys are used to it.’

Time must operate differently for them, I think. The need for routine must be paramount. I too have a list on my fridge now. We all suffered the shock three (?) weeks ago when so many people lost their jobs and were forced home to contemplate. Time now seems to operate in graphs of curves and daily new infections. Time now works in blobs and spirals and pools. Back when the rain put the fires out, I would never have believed that dinner parties would soon be declared illegal or that citizens would actually consider installing a government tracking app on their phones. That having too many cars outside your house could mean a visit from the police. Driving the river bridge is now a crime where I live, unless you have an exemption. Linearity of time has been shown for the western furphy it is. Any historian can tell us that. Time is more like blowing apart a dandelion seed head with your breath, watching the individual seeds travel off on their own trajectories.

Sometimes I do an exercise with my students to demonstrate the ‘everywhen’ connectivity in Indigenous life. We stand in a circle and each person represents an aspect of Noongar culture. Katitjin/knowledge, Moort/family, Lore/law, Nyitting/Dreaming, Boodja/country, Gorah/time/long ago. We have a single ball of string and, holding the piece of string, throw the ball to the person who we feel is connected to what we represent. For example, I as Moort could throw the ball to Boodja, and so on. No decision is wrong. When the ball of string is completely unravelled, we are holding a complex, messy version of a cat’s cradle. Everything is connected.

I read somewhere on social media, an epidemiologist used to wonder as a science undergraduate why they were forced to do some humanities units – sociology, anthrop, philosophy etc. And they said, ‘I get it now. STEM and the humanities are connected, intimately.’


These days
Back then
Long time ago
Weeks ago
Maybe tomorrow
Next week
Maybe in Spring