Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dusty Roads

I forgot my camera for today's ride. The sky was blue, Autumn warm, and I rode through Yea, Strathbogie, and the roads thereabout.

I travelled a wonderful dirt road to the Forlonge Memorial, commemorating the first introduction of fine wool sheep in Victoria. This road was the highlight of my ride, as unsealed roads often are, past homes, historical markers, farmers on dirt-bikes, sun-bleached paddocks, and abandoned houses. From the memorial I looked upon a granite mountain and I think I saw caves.

I felt a tinge of sadness today. Though that is not quite the right word - it was something vague, mixed with longing - a nostalgia for things unseen and unknown by me. And it was a good kind of sadness, the sort that puts me in touch with things, makes me feel alive, is creative. A lot of emotions, the sort we are tempted to reject as simply negative, are also capable of being creative, of awakening us to realities and objects. Anxiety, sadness, anger. Those feelings often have the opposite effect: they stifle or kill the spirit. But just as we sometimes thrive on pressure, so too do we sometimes flourish through those 'negative' emotions. The sadness I felt was the haunted kind, bringing to mind the many lives which people struggled to build in this place, which are now swallowed up by the earth.

Last night I re-read the opening line of David Malouf's The Great World. “People are not always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.” Toward the end of the novel, Jenny finds a man, whom she always disliked, sprawled on the ground and dying of stroke. She awkwardly takes him in her arms.
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”

The world steals from us things – things we had but have lost, things which will never be in the first place - and one way it does this is to bury the things which were, including the people who were. Things rise and then fall, that is the natural order, and yet I cannot help feeling - strangely, I admit - the loss when I am in these places, alone on my motorcycle, passing an empty falling-down house.

Mid-way through the novel and just after his return from the war, Jenny's brother Digger is asked by a friend what it is that he is doing in King's Cross “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
“It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”

A question might be asked: who feels the loss? And if you do not know these people, why feel it? A psychotherapist might ask, whom is it that you really grieve?

I am not interested in such questions here. What interests me is the way this sense of people, this felt sense when I ride through these places, matters to my riding. It is one reason that I have come to love riding so much, and a reason that I consider it a creative act rather than just a sport or leisure activity. Riding is an imaginative act of retrieval, of engagement with things I never saw or knew, but whose presence I sense as I travel through the same space in which they are enfolded, separated from me in time.


  1. That last paragraph sums it up for me! I tell my friends that when I get on my bike I am on another plane. You put it so well, enjoyed the piece. Thanks