Lessons from frogs
I’m thinking about frogs. Writing to you now the night has closed in and the frogs are singing. Over the layers of their songs is the low hunting call of the mopoke.
I’ve taken to my bed. My back, its lingering malaise1, has flared (for no apparent reason) with an intensity that has closed down my world. To be still is something I find hard. Something I rarely am. I have learned to think and feel in movement and instead, this week I have been forced to be quiet. The experience has not been comfortable.
Which brings me to frogs. In the Australian desert there is a frog called the water-holding frog (Cyclorana platycephala) who can live beneath the earth for years encased in ground so hard you could strike it with a pick axe and barely make a dent. These frogs make a cocoon around themselves sealing in the moisture so it can’t escape into the dry earth. They also have a strange shaped back foot like a little garden trowel which they use to dig deeper when the dry pushes down. It is only when the rain comes that they emerge from their coffins and soften into life. If you happened to dig up such a frog and it had not rained it would be hard, like a rock. Indeed you might think it dead. Of course if you were indigenous and an inheritor of the stories and knowledge, then you would know such a frog was merely entombed tomb and drink the water from its bladder and be saved.
In the quiet of my week I have been thinking about the water holding frog, about what it would feel like to have the first molecule of moisture swell the world around you, to feel the walls of your coffin soften from the outside in. I’ve been thinking about the frog deep in the earth waiting for the rain, for the patience and acceptance to enter a trance-like state in order to emerge into the world again.
I went back to that Terry Tempest Williams essay on the poet Jim Harrison and she quotes these lines from his poem Returning to Earth:
I want to have my life
in cloud shapes, water shapes, wind shapes,
crow call, marsh hawk swooping over grass and weed tips.
Let the scavenger take what he finds.
Let the predator love his prey.
Tempest Williams thinks Harrison is talking about acceptance. Joy and wonder, grief and despair, life and death all held in the world around us to show us how we might live.
On the farm this last week, J has juggled shearing and lamb marking and it has been a less than ideal moment for me to be confined. Instead of my usual stream of busyness, my days have been bookended in the simple act of walking very slowly to feed the poddy lambs2. This afternoon, as a grey fantail flitted around me with delight at the insects I stirred up, I listened to each lamb call, and instead of rushing I realized I could tell them apart, just by the tenor of their voices. This small noticing pleased me.
I returned to the house through the riot of weeds and flowers. The birds, after our last rain event, have gone into overdrive madly remaking nests. From the moment the sun rises, till it drops again they fling themselves after insects, pluck twigs and strands of wool, mouthfuls of mud to make their nests. Out my window I can see the last of the trees are leafing up and today, for the first time since the end of March I let the fire go out.
All this movement around me and I yet I must remain still.
On account of being restricted in my movement this week I have got through a few books. It’s been a purple patch of reading. First Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! was utter perfection and I loved every perfectly chosen word. Then in a change of pace I read (thanks to the mafia-like efforts of my friend Meg, who somehow had it delivered to our mailbox even while she was driving to the other end of Tasmania) Helen Garner’s How to End a Story, which is the third part of her great work starting with Yellow Notebook. I think this series is the most extraordinary thing I’ve read in its examination of the everyday, the experience of being human, of being a writer, a mother, a lover, a woman, a wife, a friend - it makes Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle look like he’s pottering around in kindergarten. I read How to End a Story in a volent rush, even though I knew the ending. And for the time being I have nothing to say except its superb. I need time to think about it and have marked it up. It will be a delight to work back through it slowly. At the same time I was reading Bernadette Brennan’s biography of the writer Gillian Mears Leaping Through Waterfalls. I have a small confession. I am not a huge fan of biographies. They have to be really really good, almost novelistic, to keep me interested. Newsflash: I could not put Leaping into Waterfalls down. It’s impossible to look away from, as was GM’s writing. I read her The Mint Lawn as a 19 year-old and I remember thinking, I didn’t know a writer was allowed to do that! Foals’ Bread is one of my favourite novels.
The other journal that has been keeping me company on the couch is Georgina Reid’s Planthunter publication, Issue 2 Wonderground with its theme of loss. From the first essay about the photographer Bill Henson and his sister digging up their mother’s garden and transplanting it after she died, to the poet David Whyte’s poem on diving into a well to find the treasures of grief, to Reid’s extraordinary interview with the psychiatrist and gardner Sue Stuart-Smith and Jason Cotter’s account of the efforts of a farming family to save a massive river gum from the fires to fiction by Inga Simpson, this is a wonderful journal. If you are a gardener or have one in your life, this would be a perfect Christmas present. I ordered it to be supportive of independent publications and have been delighted.
A couple of newsletter recommendations. Journalist and presenter Em Herbert has a newsletter called While the baby sleeps and if you are a young mum or if you just enjoy great writing, sign up. She’s a talent. I can’t wait for her to work out she has a book in her. Just scroll down to the bottom of her web page and subscribe. It’s all horses, sausage dogs, insights and reflections on early motherhood. Also Andie from Blue Milk writes a ripper of a newsletter swinging from high culture, mothering teenagers in a blended family to feminist theory and pop culture all in a few sentences. It’s the best sort of ride.
News from my editor, manuscript will be back this week or early next. I am busting to start working on it with her mind overlaid onto mine. I’m sure there will be moments where I think, I can’t possibly….. but mostly I’m really looking forward to it.
Until next week, when hopefully I will no longer be in pain and life will be back to normal, enjoy this splendid spring.
I am seeing all the specialists and doing all the things and hoping for a diagnosis and way forward by the end of this week.
Maxie the miracle pool noodle lamb had his cast taken off this week. I made a reel of his progress (while I was on the couch) and it’s on my insta if you’d like to have a look. He’s doing super, hasn’t missed a beat.