Being a spare day in early spring, when the promise of summer hangs in the air and lifts spirits everywhere, I took to the riverbank to enjoy a little whimsy, to dream a little of the future. The river is my favourite place for such dreaming, with its curious mix of both everything and nothing going on. I can sit there for hours and not really see anything, but I seem to see so much more there then when I am bombarded by some modern communication such as television or a movie. Even my reliable friend the radio becomes too prescriptive and constant after a while.
And so it was to the river that I wandered, past the McNaughtons' shabby fibro shack. No, the word shack is too harsh and uncaring. House. No, too grandiose; it's hardly a house. But it has been a home, a place barely large enough to contain the heart that beats within it. Janet has made it a home. Okay then, so home it is. So past the McNaughtons' home to the river I went, clutching my rollies pouch and the old foam six-pack esky I'd picked up at the church fete of all places. To my favourite spot, up river a little, away from the Tarzan swing and the makeshift jetty, to the roots.
The roots isn't an official place. Not even an official term as far as I know. Not that much in this town is official. Even our sole post box had been moved from its official location to one that suited us better. Geez, that was a funny day when Les our postie had booted his rattling old van up the road and pulled up where the post box had been. He jumped out of the van, grabbed a spare bag, and practically fell over the spot where the box had been. What a sight, and what laughter! Assembled as we were at the right time and place to see the action, all the kids and grown-ups of the town had enjoyed a right laugh about it. Les took it well though, and was quite happy with the new location outside the pub as it gave him an excuse for a chat and, on quieter days, a quick schooner for the road. Yep, nothing much is official in this town.
Where was I? Oh yes, heading to the roots. The roots is a place formed through some riverbank erosion, where the river red gums had lost some of their footing, leaving their thick woody roots exposed, at least in part, above the river's usual level. This made for excellent seating with enough variety in positions to allow me to sit there comfortably for hours on end. Of course, having a well-stocked old foam six-pack esky helped as well...
I wandered along the river's course for a few hundred yards, (metres if you prefer, but yards seems more fitting somehow), until I approached the roots. I then picked my way through the gums across the increasingly sandy soil and tufty grasses down to the river's edge and the roots. Having made a quick survey of possible seating positions, I tried a couple, found one to my liking (I think I've sat here before?), wedged my old foam six-pack esky and rollies pouch securely, and settled back.
It was a lovely day to be sitting by the river. Down here, the sky is not so big. So many tall trees, so many branches. The sky, accustomed to large expanses of canvas elsewhere, makes do here with small, irregular snatches of cloth. Even in winter, the opportunity for display is limited, as the gums maintain their cover. The colour changes of course. In winter, a darker and more brilliant blue, but now as the days grow warmer and longer, more of a sky blue. It's as though the blue paint has to be rationed through the day and so is used more lavishly in the shorter days of winter. By the height of summer, it will almost hurt to look at the sky, so light and bright the blue becomes.
It sure was a lovely day to be lazing by the river. The kind of day that kills our farmers slowly, day by day. No sign of rain. On a day like this, it's hard to even believe that there is such a thing. Not much breeze today either. Just the occasional finger of breeze, shifting a few leaves here and there. Not much weather at all really. Some days the weather just knocks down the door of my senses and I am constantly aware of the heat or the cold or the wind or the storm. But not today. First time today I'd really given it any thought. Seems that the weather is having a lazy day today too.
If the sky didn't offer much to the senses, then the river did. The Murray, while we have it, is an artist of the highest order. If left alone by the elements for a time, the river turns its hand to the most glorious recreations of its surroundings. Far beyond human ability, the river is a dead set legend at the painting gig. Not much variety mind you, always paints a version of the same setting, but so damn good. And prolific. Just give it a bit of daylight and a break from the wind or rain, and it's on the job early doors. Works all day too.
Old man river artist is at the height of his powers today. Here the canvas is perhaps forty yards wide and long as you like. Maybe it's more like fifty. These distances on water always fuck me up. I remember as a kid when Dessie (McNaughton) and I had tried to race across the river and back. Must have been about ten years old I guess, and it had seemed like a hell of a long way back then. Yes, must be more like fifty or sixty yards across.
As I mentioned, as an artist, the river is a hard working old so and so. Today he has filled his canvas with images of the river red gums that rely on him for water and sustenance. Not that he ever paints much else, but I guess when you're that good at something, you may as well stick at it. From my reclined position in the roots, I have a perfectly symmetrical piece of work in front of me.
Mother nature's work in the river red gums is something of an acquired taste, and depends a fair bit on what else is going on weatherwise at the time. The river however, takes that pass grade design and display work and turns it into high distinction artwork. The kind of artwork that is only ever likely to inspire a quiet kind of sniping jealousy on the part of the graduate tutor. In fact, reproductions of this artwork by our human artists litter lounge room walls all over the place, and while they often have a shallow pleasantness about them, they are immediately and effectively mocked in an instant of viewing the real thing.
An immediate impression: An amazing enhancement of the original work. It strikes me as being really unlike our human attempts. Full of struggle and passion, our own attempts often speak more of the artist then the subject. Our own attempt to engage with such art is then so often driven by our socialised desire to digest then regurgitate appropriate terms for its description. This thwarts our best attempts to engage with the art, as we are immediately thinking in terms of another's self, not our own self. I think that's one of the things I love most about coming to the roots. I always come here alone, and my thoughts are always my own. I don't need to describe or discuss what I see. A fact that is, I suspect, readily discernible to you, dear reader, having waded through the preceding descriptive prose.
The thing I love most about the roots is the way my thoughts can run. The oddest thoughts and fragments of memory strike me here. It's as though the ease of my situation and the unique nature of the river's art combine to soften my consciousness and change my thinking. It's not an intellectual thing. I doubt very much whether I could solve a simultaneous equation or remember capitals of northern African countries down here. No, down here I am capable of much more. My mind wanders and explores, it picks paths to follow at will, and easily jumps from one such path to another. At times it decides to go nowhere in particular and does just that. At other times it takes off at speed, only to find itself in a completely unexpected place some time down the track. Sometimes I spend hours just recalling past events and being surprised by what fragments of memory jump up at me. Other times I might compose a few simple lines of poetry or a song lyric, knowing that I'll never write them down. That's not the important part. It's the process not the product that's the key. Maybe the best times are those where I'm not even aware of what I'm thinking (am I thinking?) until something happens to snap me out of it. I might sit there until a bird lands suddenly on the water nearby or until the fading light of the day becomes obvious. A kind of awake asleep and a kind of just being.
What does all this do for me? Well, I'm not sure I can say. In fact, I know that I don't know. I do know it's good (in the old fashioned sense of the word, not as a way of describing something between fair and excellent) and that when I've not had the chance to get down by the river, it affects me. Recharging the batteries, or taking time out, these cliches don't seem to fit somehow. This experience is altogether too personal, too human, and too pre-modern to be described in holiday brochure or gym advertisement terms. It's certainly not unique, although perhaps its totally subjective nature does make it unique to me. Others probably have similar 'unique' times and places.
Or maybe they don't. Certainly our modern consumerstyle (as surely this is what our modern lives have become), doesn't allow much time or space for such things. This is one of the reasons I came back to this snoozing old riverside town and now feel so much a part of it again. To create a lifestyle beyond the real estate blurb, beyond the constant consumption of our western societies.
While we continue to consume vast amounts of food, clothes, space, entertainment, and energy, we fail to see that the one thing that is absolutely limited on a personal level is also being consumed. In fact the more consuming we do, the more quickly we consume time, our most precious personal resource. How often do you hear someone complaining of the lack of time in their life, only to hear that they are about to attend a conference in Hawaii and won't it be wonderful? Or that they are busy for the next three days because their kids are on holidays and they'll be going to the movies and shopping and oh, they might check out that new kids climbing gym too. But of course, you know after this week, things will be better, and we'll catch up then. Why are we always catching up with each other and do we ever succeed?
I don't mean to preach, but living here, and finding the time to waste time is absolutely paramount to me. In fact, wasting time is the best use of time I can think of. I love nothing more than to have a day drag on. Being surprised that's it's still only mid-afternoon and that you do have time to weed that garden or write some nasty missive to the government is quite a nice feeling. Certainly when you contrast it with the feeling that comes at five in the afternoon when you realise that several items remain on your to-do list, you have no idea what's for dinner (and there's no food anyway), and that you've just left your child waiting at the rail station for an hour then, yes, it's a bloody wonderful feeling.
It's not an every day thing of course. But now that I'm into it, I must admit to a certain time-wasting addiction. Time-wasting. Free wheeling. Dropping out for a bit. Maybe they were onto something in the sixties after all...Or maybe they weren't either. Doing it all the time, then it ceases to be useful. Balance. There's a word that's often understood and hardly ever achieved. As John Mellencamp once said, he knew there was a balance because he saw it when he swung past. I might come back to that one. Getting a bit out of balance with the storytelling here.
Back to the roots.
Startled by the call of a bird, I reached for the old foam six-pack esky, removed a stubby, twisted off the screw top, and enjoyed a long, sumptuous swig of beer. Returning the old foam six-pack esky to its temporary home, I rested the beer on my lap and directed my attention to the ancient, antisocial, and ultimately useless art of rolling a smoke.
Yep. It sure felt good to be back in the roots.
To be continued.