Saturday, February 11, 2017

My American

Many a night that summer she left Dr Archie's office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside the low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window - or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation.

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

The last few weeks have been filled with the madness and terror of the ascension of the new President of the United States, whose name shall not enter the attic.

At the same time that I was reading with horror of each new day of madness, I was reading Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark.  The experience was like diving into a cool pool. This portrait of the artist as a young woman, not a writer, but a singer, and the descriptions of the desert places where she grew up, and her time living in a cave once lived in by ancient cliff dwelling people, the wisdom and the intelligence of the writing which is so graceful and natural it seems not merely written but spun from the stuff of the earth itself, is a reminder that America does not need to be made great again.

It has always been great, from the culture of the indigenous peoples to the work of its great artists like Willa Cather.

Friday, January 27, 2017

' I prefer gardening'

In May 1938 Eleanor drew plans for a workroom for herself in the garden.

When it was completed,  Reference  books on Australian history sat on her bookshelves. There was

"another cupboard above for cups and saucers and loaf sugar ... And a tea caddy and some biscuits, so that I can occasionally invite a specially select and favoured visitor to afternoon tea or supper. And a window box all around my bow window. And two brown boronias outside my front door. I covet a brass door-knocker, but as the one great salient point of the whole thing is that nobody is ever to knock upon pain of death, I think I shall have to do without it."

From 'Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life', by Barbara Brooks (1998)

Eleanor and Eric Dark's house, Varuna, has been a writers residence since the early 1990s, generously gifted to Australian writers by their son Mick.  I spent a couple of weeks there in 1993, where I finished a novel, 'The Serpentine Belt'.  Not in Eleanor's workroom in the garden, but in a sunroom off the large bedroom at the top of the house which had been theirs.  I have rarely worked or slept as well. And no one was allowed to disturb those of us who worked there.

Eleanor would have approved.

But now, it is those brown boronias I'd like to ask her about, if she were still alive.  Two outside the door is a nice touch. Brown boronias have the most beautiful scent of any plant, for those of us who are able to smell them, and not everyone can. They are from Western Australia, and are notoriously difficult to grow.

Before I read this biography of Eleanor Dark recently, I had planted two brown boronias myself, on a retaining wall outside our dining room, where wide French doors open the room to the garden. They were flowering when I put them in, and have not yet been through a winter and into another flowering season. But I'm taking care with them, mulching them well and surrounding them with rocks to keep the roots cool.

And impulsively, I bought another recently, one not in flower, which is on another wall outside the kitchen window. If all goes well, heavenly scent will waft through the back of the house in spring.

I read that Eleanor hated housework, and would rather be gardening. I concur. And so I would like to ask her how the brown boronias went( they are short lived, only about five years at best), but did they thrive and flower during that time?

I met Eleanor once, when I was about 19, in 1970. She was fifty years older. It was at a meeting of the Federation of Australian Writers, in Sydney, where I went, only once, with someone I knew casually. I got up that night and read a futuristic, intense story I'd written and had published as a teenager. When I sat down, a woman sitting behind me leaned forward to introduce herself. ' Hello, I'm Eleanor Dark,' she said.

Oh. The author of The Timeless Land, I thought, overwhelmed by meeting a Famous Writer. I probably said nothing sensible. She was a formidable woman. Writer, socialist, feminist, conservationist, socially and politically aware far ahead of her times. In the 1970s, we were just catching up with the kind of ideas she put forward in her books.

Now, I might say, I am SO delighted to meet you. Now, about your brown boronias ...