Are we there yet?

The clocks changed weeks ago. But is it autumn yet?

If I close my eyes its hard to tell. The warmth of summer holds on, dawdles into the end of April, seems to be making overtures to May. Like kids in the park just before tea, holding on as long as possible, trying to make the day last before baths and bed. Like teachers on summer holidays, trying to hold on to the calm of last week as the term begins, and calm is just a memory.

The weather may resist procession, but the tilt of the Earth cannot be avoided and the world will turn. The Earth clock of day length will change, the evenings will draw in; the leaves will change colour and we will arrive in autumn and still wonder what happened to summer.

I wrote the first two paragraphs of this a few days ago, and while the weather was still warm, but now the plants are voting with their leaves. Yes autumn is here. In the space of less than four days the pavements have gathered a covering of leaves, not deep yet, but sure enough. In a few weeks the ground will be covered in a coat of leaves as it readies itself for winter. As for now, the pavements sound to the pop corn crack of acorns and you can start to dunnock mouse rustle your feet through piles of leaves. Surely this must be one of the greatest free pleasures in the world. Piles of leaves to kick and wade through.

Soon it will be cold enough to light the fire. A guilty pleasure in a time of carbon austerity, but a pleasure for sure. You can gather in the cold blue glow of a television's light, but you seem to be just in the same place at the same time, with no real connection. Nothing beats the soft light of a fire. It calls for red wine and conversation: television calls for little more than silence. The light from a fire seems to blend with the darkness rather than banish it. It pushes the dark back into the corners, but allows it a place to survive. The value of light is that is not darkness, but you need the darkness to remind you of how good the light can feel. The bright light of electricity fights with the darkness, a fire's light flows into the darkness and embraces it.

Even if I remain unsure of the turning of the year there are signs that cannot be ignored. In the morning, flowers no longer turn their dawn faces to the sun, they have produced seed, made hay while the sun shone, and shut down for the year. Some flowers bloom in the autumn, but the fragile flowers do not last. Wind blown they become broken within a week. Currawongs have returned, with their bouncing flight and wind up toy voices. The grass on the back lawn, a poor choice to be sure, grows green again and the tropical grass on the front lawn, a better choice by far, yellows in the failing light. Fruit glows on the branches of some trees, hidden by fences by day , found by bats at night. One makes a mistake and lands on a live wire, and hangs like a fruit itself. Air dried. Fruit bat indeed.

The full colours of the fruit are more complete than the translucent leaves. Leaves show their colour best as light shines through them, fruit throws the light back at you, robust and solid. The leaves of the elm trees that grow outside work take on a more yellow glow. In spring they were pure green, now they blend with gold to make a pale colour that is neither green nor gold, but hovers somewhere in between. A colour of transition.

On the way to work there is more fruit. A taxidermist (a profession I would have thought long gone - maybe it survives by stuffing beloved pets!) has a large snake wound round the tree in front of the business. In its mouth is an apple. Mmmmmm….. tempting, but I resist. I walk on and am not banished.

On the nature strips mushrooms spring from the ground. Here today, gone tomorrow. They grow with the unseemly haste of young children, but take forms that are vaguely plant like. No wonder they confused those who sought to classify them for many years. When I was kid, back when there were only three Kingdoms, they were some form of plant. Now they are given a space of their own. Kids on the way to school kick them out, bursting the fruiting bodies - the mushrooms - into dozens of pieces. But underground the webbing fingers of growth continue. How many people know that we would be in real trouble without them, nature's recyclers. As the year gets ready to move into its sleepiest time, the fungi remind us that here there is no sleep. Round and round the atoms flow, through each of us and back into the world. All part of a carbon cycle we seem content to disrupt.

I think woodlands are the best place to be in autumn, but most Australian trees do not shed their leaves en masse like many northern trees. They hold on to them, too valuable to shed. The excess of winter not harsh enough to make them shut down the leaves and regrown them in the spring. Deciduous trees run the classic branch plant economies. Growing leaves in the boom time and making them redundant when the turning of the year renders them redundant. I have lived in parts of the world where businesses did the same thing, but it was people who were discarded, not leaves. We can look to nature for many lessons, but not all that nature does is a perfect fit for us.

We visited the Dandenongs this weekend, and walked in the soothing comfort of mud. It feels right that there is some give in the soil, not just the hard backed tracks of summer. Boots should be dirty at the end of a walk, not just dusty. I don’t like checking for leeches, but at least it adds adventure to a walk that takes you no more than a few kilometres from the car park. Here the trees tower above you, straight, mast like. Not the twisted and shortened forms of other forests. Some trees bear scars of fires past, others, mysterious carbuncles. Parrots call, and short rustlings in the bushes draw you to a halt. A lyrebird strolls on to the path and scratches in the mould. It runs off, and I am always reminded of the Road Runner by its looping gait. I check for Acme rockets and coyotes, but the coast is clear. Woodlands and autumn - an almost perfect mix.

In small corners and avenues of remembrance people have planted trees. Some to remember the places they came from, some to remember the people they have lost. Many of these trees suffer in the dry summers and may not last through the next few years. Trees that were planted so that some corner of a foreign field would seem to be England, or that death of Australians in a foreign land would not be forgotten, show their mortality. At the turning of the year history comes knocking at our door.

At night the smoke of the first fire taints that air - pollution I know, but so closely linked to this time of year as to be essential. In the past, as a kid, it would have meant the slow smouldering of piles of leaves, raked together in the corner of the garden and committed to the fire. The ash was spread on the vegetable beds. Leaves to ashes and ashes back to leaves. But now such things are frowned upon. The first frost would have knocked back the weeds in Embrough Pond and my thoughts would have turned to roach - wonderful fish, never very big, but each looking as if it had been newly minted that day. Like a bar of living silver.

Autumn is a time of colour and change. And yes, it has definitely arrived.

Go West

With the sounds of a family wedding still ringing in my late to bed ears I was awoken by my children. Their sun clock woke them early and they demanded attention, stories, consciousness. The alteration of the clocks means nothing to them - and a few hours later I was on my way to Perth. A long day loomed.

I boarded the plane at just after 3 in the afternoon, flew for almost four hours and arrived two hours later. Such is the mystery of westward flight. You may read the time from your watch but your body tells you otherwise. In a different city, with my brain saying I should have been asleep hours ago, I struggled to stay awake. You can kid yourself along for only so long, in the end you have to give in to the siren song of sleep - a long day indeed.

As we descended into Perth I was watching a tourist information video on the plane. Amongst other information it suggested that the seagulls (their words I assure you!) should not be fed, as they can become aggressive! In a country blessed with more than its fare share of the deadly end of the wildlife spectrum I thought a warning about the hazards posed by gulls was a little misplaced. Over influenced by Hitchcock maybe?

The hotel room provided a map of the area, and sitting there on the edge was an advertisement that ran like this:
“Real Shooting …….Real Guns. Forget scented candles, whale music and all that tree hugging guff. Experience the excitement of real shooting for relaxation, recreation and fun…….shoot a variety of rifles, shotguns, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols”.

The young women with tossed hair and full lips seemed to be having a good time, but clearly not a whale of a time!
I am not making this up. The lack of full power assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and the ability to call in air strikes seemed like an act of genuine restraint.

Where the hell was I? Gulls with a mass less than a meat pie and probably less threatening to your long term health are to be avoided at all costs, but I can wind down by blasting the crap out of (and I'm guessing here) human looking targets in the name of relaxation! Why not bring them together and declare an open season on Silver Gulls - kill two birds with one stone, or high velocity, armour piercing ammo in this case. The grinning girls in the advertisement and the shaven headed man grasping a large pistol scream for some form of analysis, but I’m not up to it. I’m still in shock, and I need to take shelter under the bed as there is a gull on my balcony with an evil look in its eye and mischief in its heart.

Things were not about to get better. The taxi driver and the waitress at dinner were straight from Bond double agent central casting. Bottle black and bottle blond hair, eastern European accents, although they managed not to pull any outlandish martial arts moves on us. Thankfully. But they made it clear we were on their turf. I may have been very tired, but I could have sworn that the buildings were changing colour as well. Very strange.

Then it peaked. On the way back to hotel I found a Scientology Centre. Tom Cruise, Ron L and all the rest. Alien Space Gods are here to save you! Help! I’m on an alien planet. I was grateful for the sleep that came rapidly, maybe it would be different in the morning. Maybe I was already asleep and this was all a dream.

The morning dawned with steel grey clouds, and faint beams of light where they were thinner. Tea on the balcony as the day grew. The road below was still lit by street lights, yellow and pale, dim and patchy. Then something moved on the roof of the shop verandas over the pavement. There it was again, running from shadow to shadow, our constant urban companion, the rat. Sneaking home maybe after a night searching for smoked ham, mutton bones, other peoples' possessions. Moments later it was followed by a second. The roof seemed to be some form of rat highway. I don’t think it’s in any way unusual, but just that we don’t normally see it. The night time life of cities and our own homes is probably more rich in diversity than we acknowledge. It's normally hard to pay attention when you are sleep.
I was in Perth to work not to watch rodents at play. The venue was an old school, on land granted to the state on the condition it was always used for education. It would have been a valuable piece of real estate, but now nature pushed in from many sides. Ravens played in the yard - and I use the term play without caution. Watching a bird push its beak into a crushed cola can and flick it out onto the lawn, then do it again, and again, while being joined by other ravens, is hard to interpret in any other way. Any fluid in the can would have long since drained away It's only a shame that the need to concentrate on the task in hand distracted me from ethology! The ravens were there every day. It seems a shame that many people just dismiss them as crows and do not give them a second glance.

At lunch time I wandered down into the car park, flanked by dense scrub. Bird calls. Insect buzzes. The occasional rustle of something larger, or clumsier. White cheeked Honeyeaters fought in the bushes, noisy, resolutely brave, even when under close observation. Young Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes, with Zorro face masks and long pale wings, were being shepherded through the bushes by adult birds. A large red dragon fly landed a few feet in front of me, and cleaned its eyes. Sweeping movements of its legs over the huge globes that fill the front of its head. I heard the whoosh just before a saw the bird. A Willie Wagtail flashed over my right shoulder, just past my ear, and collected the dragon fly with a metallic snick. Surprisingly loud, surprisingly sudden. It landed in the nearby bushes with lunch in its beak, leaving a single wing drifting down to the ground. Thin, like glass paper, detailed, like net curtain. A lizard flashed across the path and darted up the trunk of a small tree. It stopped, confident in its camouflage.
That afternoon we were taken to the beach - City Beach and Cottesloe Beach.
Barely out of town really. Looking out to sea, past the swimmers and kite surfers, past Rottnest Island there is nothing but sea until you reach Africa. The distances here become strange, numbers with a vapour trail of zeros that feed off into near meaninglessness. The distance from Melbourne to Perth greater than London to Istanbul. But still in the same country. Longer than from the western edge of Europe to the gates of Asia. The return trip would take you a good way towards Africa, back to where we came from. How can it be so large? How can Perth be so distant?

The light from the beaches seems to flow up the planned, straight streets and fill the city with a kind of brightness. Perth really does sit on the edge of the ocean.

The next two days dawned pink and clear, with the sun behind us, east. I was not seeing much in the way of living things from the hotel - rats excepted! So I looked elsewhere. Windows. Edges. Glimpses of the river. And poking their heads above the mantle of a green building, grass trees. A roof-top garden, surrounded by the glass and steel of today and an ornate reminder of when buildings were built with curves. Even inside your room things can catch your eye - especially if you borrow a few ideas!

Down by the river, the evening on the last day, two swans with peddling feet took off from their river, The Swan River. Snake birds sat drying their heavy wings in the warmth of the setting sun, heavy birds, diving birds. Birds that need to sink more than they need to swim. They look old, more reptilian than most birds, and when they enter the river their bodies sink below the water line, head and neck above water - a water snake.

I kept walking and came to a kind of end, a bend in the river. Marsh land was being built here. With board-walks and boards to tell you what had been lost and what was being remade. I was asked to look around. The small ponds were bare, silent and I thought they were empty. But then there was a bird of prey in the air. How do they do that? You look as hard as you can and there is nothing there, and then, as if by magic, a hunter is hovering over the river edge. A black shouldered kite. Pale against the evening sky. It was hunting the river edge, it would hold up its head to look left and right and then look straight down, intent on its prey. In the end it looked straight at me. In a city that has built itself on what can be torn from the Earth, I was face to face with a predator. Red Eyes. Pale face, wings adjusting to the gusting wind. And as quickly as it appeared it was gone, around the corner.

There was nobody else on the board walks, but behind me was the stadium of the WACA, where people pretend that sport is a matter of life and death, and seem to miss the real life that goes on by the river.

As I was leaving the next day a flock of White Tailed Black Cockatoos flew over. Wonderful birds - but which of the two species where they? My bins were in my case, and my camera lens depressingly short. The birds gathered in a pine tree and teased me with fine clear views and open stances. They flew up on their long lazy wings and called to each other to leave. I could not name them, but did I enjoy them? Yes. Sometimes the effort we go to in naming things can pull a shade between us and what we are seeing. If you only see things to be named, you are looking through a dirty window on a clear day. Sometimes, we should just open the window and look.

The magpies on the grass called and I knew that they sounded different to the birds in my garden. Flatter, with less range, almost as if they were singing to themselves. Was this a regional accent? A western voice? Or was it just the one bird? I’ll have to come back to find out. We have a choice between first impressions and close attention. In Perth I gave in to the first and was caught out when I finally did the second. There on the banks of the Swan River with a Kite looking me in the eye, I knew that there was more to know about that aggressive gulls and shooting ranges.

First impressions 1: Paying Attention 3. Game over.

To the sea again.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

I must go down to the sea again …..

The pull of the sea and the beginning of Autumn go hand in hand. As the days shorten and evenings draw in, the coast becomes a place to be for its own sake - not just a place to be to escape the heat, not just a cooler anywhere, but a place in its own right. Walking on the beach in the morning there are few footprints in the sand, and those on the return journey are more likely to be your own. Like walking in empty corridors or darkened streets, you find the echoes of your own footfall coming back to find you.

The beaches are not empty, but there are less crowds, fewer people, more space. Directionless walking is possible without the tripwire danger of other people's space. There is enough space for each person, and conversations are a result of choice, rather than obligation. Chance meetings. Old friends.

Couples, reflective on the beach. Singles, never truly alone. Conversations with the other, conversations with self. Each builds understanding, each builds connection. Both are important, neither should be rejected.

On the horizon a shape - white, straight-sided and unnatural - forms into the sail of a ship, running from a coasting wind, cutting waves, throwing spray as it passes. The pale dawn sky grey now, but growing blue, as the waves wash away the pock marks of last night's rain and my own footprints.

Even in the full light of day the sky is not as blue as the summer sky. Less of a roof, more of a shade cloth, that lets the light through and the heat out. At this time of year the sky thins and the beyond becomes visible, in my mind at least. Clear air without the barriers of heat haze and dust. You can seek clarity here, not just sanctuary.

Last night's rain, arriving just as the dawn was breaking, came in, chased by southern winds from the Antarctic. The sound of rain on a tin roof, the white noise of Australian architecture, is a rare pleasure, but one which seems a little more common than in the last few years. The rain’s hiss blends with the lonely, repetitive, call of a Frogmouth, a mix of the natural and the man made. This is no wilderness, but wildness can come calling if you listen, if you let it in.

The morning of such days have a powerful pull, beach washed debris calls to finders and the observant, to seekers of treasure. The gulls dance in the wave's edge, shuffle footed to stir up life, breakfast for them, death for others. With fewer people they are less flighty, less disturbed, but when they do fly they give vent to protest in sharp calls and darting flight.

In the evening a huge moon struggled to pull itself from the Earth, a Blue Moon if the truth be told, and turned the sky pink as it grew. Full and ripe, a lunar fruit in a sky at the turn of the season, watched from a beach at the turn of the tide. High tide, full moon, the turning of the year.

Standing by the sea, looking out, watching waves formed by yesterday's winds arriving today, you can feel its pull. Even on the edge of a small sea you can feel the pull of travel, move a few miles and you can hear the deep south calling. What’s out there where the whales swim and stiff winged birds glide? Ages between wing beats, feeding on the wave's energy and the deep swell of a global ocean. East and West has nothing but sea, out past Capes and continents and back to this lighthouse point, where falcons circle and people come to stop and stare, and talk of the future, or to think of the past.

This brief time by the sea is over, so tonight I will sleep without the call of the sea as the day fails. The soft crash of waves replaced by the sound of trams and passing trains. This holiday has passed, but we will be back, called back

………. to the lonely sea and the sky.