Words: Andrew Burrell
Images: Katherine Olston and Andrew Burrell
‘we speed ourselves up as much as we can—then struggle not to let it change us.’ … ‘What’s wrong with that? There’s not much point to longevity if all you’re going to do with your time is change into someone else entirely. Or decay into no one at all.’
— Greg Egan, Diaspora, 1997
‘Ya know… ’ says the voice in my head even though the voice
with which I speak would never colloquialise in such a manner,
‘Ya know, I think this may be it.’
And, you know, I think it might be right.
The mist hasn’t risen in days, which in itself isn’t odd, what is odd is that neither has the sun. At first I thought there must have been something awry with my sense of time, but how can it be possible that such an aberration could continue for so long? I have no way of being sure, nevertheless I am convinced that at least several weeks have passed; signified through bodily rhythm rather than
a phenomena resulting from the rotation of a planet.
’The night is full of stories. They float up like miasmas, as though the dead leave their dreams in the earth where you bury them, only to have them rise to meet you in sleep. Mostly the scenes are familiar, but sometimes everything is strange, the people unknown.’
— Tim Winton, In the Winter Dark 1988
It is the silence more than anything that gets to him now. In the beginning it was the darkness, but now it’s the silence. In the beginning he thought that the light would return, as it always had. But he was wrong. In the beginning he did not even notice the silence, he was too caught up in trying to find his way out of the dark. There was a time before, though it may seem it now, this is certainly not all that there ever was.
Pitch black amongst the trees, the only thing his eyes register is the almost indistinguishable differentiation of sky through the canopy of branches and dense leaves high above. Without an artificial light of any kind, even the short walk back to the house is impossible. He knows only too well that between here and there lay the traps he has set for foxes and a dry ravine where in the cooler months water runs it course—a ravine that requiresa careful and steady traversal even in the light of the day. He had been to this part of the bush many times before—he knows it very well—at least he thought that he did. Now it seems unfamiliar, as if its character had changed. This was not his place to be.
But that was the beginning. Back then he was still quite calm. He believed that time would pass and the light would return. He also knew that he had other senses, senses that worked well in the dark and above all a common sense honed in this very environment. He would be fine.
He had only to wait. And wait he did. He waited for the morning. He waited for first light. He waited for the drop in temperature that would tell him that soon he would have full use of his vision again. He waited for the smell of dawn. He waited. None of these things came. At one point he noticed a change. He could not be sure when, but at some point the light that there was, the almost imperceptible difference between the black of the sky and the black that was the forest, disappeared. There was only one black. It was then that he also noticed the silence.
The silence and the dark have remained. He wonders if—no,
he knows that—he is not the person he was at the beginning.
He really isn’t sure who he is anymore.
‘The Nargun never moved. In this place of nothing—no light,
no wind, no heat, no cold, no sound—it waited. It felt the old, slow pulse, deep and enduring, and remembered the earth swinging on its moth-flight round the sun. Its dark, vacant eyes waited: for the mountain to crumble; for the river to break through; for time to wear away.’
— Patricia Writson, The Nargun and the Stars, 1973
I am here and I wait. How long I have waited I am unsure. The bush that had surrounded me is no longer here. The ground beneath me is smooth and soft. I can tap it with my knuckles, give it a good hard thump if I like, yet it makes no sound. I can feel it all right; once I punched it, I punched it so hard that I made my clenched fist bleed, but I heard no noise as a result. Even my cry of pain was muted, silenced by what ever keeps this place in order.
There is a place, I don’t think it is far from here where I used to go as a child. I would take long walks into the bush, following paths of my own making though the undergrowth and invent stories about the landmarks I saw around me. Descending into the valleys this undergrowth would become moist and the tall Eucalypts would give way to dense growths of bracken fern. There was a special way things sounded under those ferns, soft and muted, as if the ferns around me reached out and wrapped the bird calls and tunes of trickling water in their fronds, delivering them to my ears only after they had held onto them for a short moment. I always felt completely safe under the canopy of the ferns; sharing the paths worn by the smaller animals of the bush who also used their cover as refuge from the more open expanse of the surrounding gum trees.
Once, an older child of a next-door neighbor had told me that there was a pixie living amongst those ferns. She knew this because she had seen it with her own eyes. I quickly pointed out to her that this could not be so as pixies only lived in the moorlands of England, and that I was certain that none would have made such a long journey to the Australian bush. And besides, the creatures of the bush were much more ancient than any pixie could possibly be. She asked me what sort of creatures I was talking about, and what their name may be, which made me sad, as I knew quite well that their names had been forgotten a very long time ago.
There are of course many things forgotten. I have forgotten how I got here. I’ve forgotten how long I have been here. I do however know where I came from, and this is important to me, to anybody really. Surely where I came from brought me to where I am now. This is what I keep telling myself and I am grateful for the time that went before.
He was indeed grateful for the time that went before—involuntarily recalling it in fragments. He had spent most of his adult life in the Valley, a town with a handful of houses and an even smaller number of residents. He knew each of them by name, though he avoided situations where the need to use their name would arise. Of course there was also that time spent out of the
Valley—a year or two in the city when he was younger, a very bad time for him, boarding houses and the fathering of a child—this didn’t end well. He had often wondered what had driven him, what the attraction of the city had been when it was only an idea—the idea of a place he had incorrectly presupposed would have room for him within it.
The Valley lay just over the horizon from his childhood home—
a short journey via line of sight, though he would never have considered going that far on his many solo ventures into the bush behind his house. His family home was on the border between the suburbs and the bush. The asphalt of road that ran past the house finished at their driveway. The road continued on, but was dirt from there on in. There was only one more house that he knew of further on, he had never seen its occupant but knew the dog from there well. He knew others were terrified of that dog, he had made a truce with it and it would often accompany him on his long walks into the bush. As far as he can remember he had never patted it, never got close enough, it would just follow along behind and sit and watch when he took moments of rest.
‘She felt alone, cut off, and went to bed to hide in the dark. But when the light had gone, the tiny beetles and midges were drawn to white surfaces that loomed in the dark; they found her pillow and moved like thistledown over her face and crawled in her hair. Mrs. Tucker retreated head and shoulders under the sheet. She could hear, very close to her ear, the mosquito-hum of the midges—
a sound so fine that it lay on the very edge of hearing.’
— Patricia Wrightson, A Little Fear, 1983
Something begins to play on my mind. I realise there is, and has always been another site, another place. There is this place, and I am here in it. As I try to piece together my history here—the before, the now, the beginning, the imagined end—I begin to see another place, it is an immense and frightening place, and it has followed me throughout my life. A place where I should never look, where none of us should ever look. It is filled with the forgotten and the unremembered. Looking there I know there is now more forgotten than ever will be remembered. It is this thought that makes me want to run. That thought is filled with so much power it forces me to look the other way, to turn my back on it. I am filled with a longing to find out what happens next.
‘In the totally revealing light of the day there seemed nothing at all that the trees could be concealing. At this hour of the morning there was no mystery, no danger anywhere. The night with its confusion, fear and bafflement was gone – dissolved like the mist…’
— Joan Phipson, The Cats, 1976
As the light returned he knows that whenever he had imagined himself from the outside looking in, this is the place where he has been. He looks at the ground below him; there is a small dark stain of blood in the soil, a stain echoed on his knuckles. He looks around himself and then down at his body. Somehow he feels inhabited by the child he was, inspired by the words he had read, the moments he had spent imagining all of the things that may be. This place holds so many of those possibilities, and he wonders how he had forgotten that.
‘Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.’
— Miranda, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975
The preceding text is part of a larger ongoing project—Nocturne—a conceptual collaboration between Katherine Olston and Andrew Burrell in response to having both grown up on the fringe between the suburbs and the bush. They developed both individual and collaborative works during a residency in the near-ghost town of Glen Davis (population 27) in the Greater Blue Mountains. Katherine Olston and Andrew Burrell produced the accompanying images collaboratively during this residency. Elements of this text are inspired by nocturnal sojourns into the bush surrounding this small town.
All images: Katherine Olston and Andrew Burrell, Nocturne : Sonata in 20 parts (detail), (2012). Digital photograph, dimensions variable.
Andrew Burrell is a new media artist, writer and educator working with emerging technologies in the realms of real time 3d, interactive installation and networked...