Deeper Water

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The secret things I knew about my mum, and the things that everyone knew, had played in my mind for some time, since I was real little, I guess. When I was small, all around me seemed to flow, gentle and sweet like the quiet edge of the creek. Then my brothers grew too large to be hemmed in, and Sophie met a bloke, moved out and had babies, and things became harder. The older I got the louder those secret things inside me became, all those knowns and unknowns, until – apart from Anja – I’d rather talk to animals than people.

Innocent and unworldly, Mema is still living at home with her mother on a remote, lush hinterland property. It is a small, confined, simple sort of life, and Mema is content with it. One day, during a heavy downpour, Mema saves a stranger from a raging creek. She takes him into her family home, where, marooned by rising floods, he has to stay until the waters recede. His sudden presence is unsettling—for Mema, her mother and her wild friend Anja—but slowly he opens the door to a new world of beckoning possibilities that threaten to sweep Mema into the deep.

‘She takes us to a place of the strangest innocence and lovingness … And she takes us to a physical place that’s quite her own, and when you go to her country – the lush but uneasy country inland from Byron Bay – you recognise at once that she’s the voice of it, the country speaks in her voice, though the captivating wise gentleness of that voice belongs only to Jessie.’ Peter Bishop

Out now!

To order go to Booktopia, Readings, Bookworld, or for an ebook Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Kobo

Reviews of Deeper Water:

Deeper Water is a fine and elegantly written novel from an impressive writer.”

The Weekend Australian

Deeper Water delivers on its title’s promise of immersion, sensuality, and the liminal … a compelling examination of our relationship with nature.”

Australian Book Review

“Cole’s characters are, each one, perfectly drawn examples of flawed and fragile humans, and she evokes the landscape in which she herself grew up and still lives with the tender familiarity of a child for its mother. This is a softly spoken coming-of-age tale that deserves the label tour de force.”

North & South Magazine

“Mema’s narrative voice is quiet and measured, never giving very much away but at the same time revealing the immense depth and intensity of her feelings that sit just below the surface. Her longing is mysterious, and Cole’s descriptive prose imbues it with the gloriously sensual anticipation of a bud about to burst into bloom. A compelling and satisfying read; its sensuality and earthiness give a mythical quality to the regional Australian landscape.”

Readings

“A fierce momentum tugs the reader by the belt buckle, causing her to flip pages to see when the tension will be finally released. Cole’s talent lies in the depiction of the intangible feelings of a sexual awakening.”

Newtown Review of Books

“In literature, and in film, there are some classic plots almost guaranteed to grab the audience’s attention. The Stranger Comes to Town is one, Coming of Age is another and what in England we might call Something Nasty in the Woodshed (a reference to the wonderful novel Cold Comfort Farm) is another.

Like a practiced chess master, local Burringbar author Cole, who grew up in relative isolation on a country property, has used all these themes to create a novel that is as deep, chilling and sensuous as the title itself. Her first book, Darkness on the Edge of Town, (which also used the stranger in town device) was good, this one is not just better, it’s extraordinary.”

Verandah Magazine

“With its simple yet elegant prose, and quiet yet deeply felt emotion, Deeper Water is a mesmerising story about a young woman’s awakening to the possibilities of love and life.”

Shelleyrae, Book’d Out

“Jessie Cole is an exciting talent, who with Deeper Water proves that she is an Australian writer to watch.”

The Hoopla

“Now and then it’s hard to write a review about a certain book – not because there is nothing to say but rather because I struggle with what to say that will be enough to truly capture the essence of the book and then adequately relay that to readers of my review. Deeper Water is one such book … This story seduces you from the start, drawing you in powerfully by a critical event in the first few pages of the book and then slowly sings itself to you until the song is done. I love Jessie Cole’s writing style – it is calm, quiet, experientially descriptive, truly beautiful. Rich and real … deeply sensual … This is a tantalising book. It is raw, real and emotive.”

Jennie, Daystarz Books, Goodreads

“In the last four years, I’ve reviewed a lot of books. Sometimes the words come easy, sometimes I have to coax them. The reasons for the writers block can be varied but I honestly think this is probably the first time I haven’t really known what to write because the book is so beautifully written and I’m not sure how to convey that accurately … I read Jessie Cole’s first novel, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and was impressed by it but this novel showcases her evolution and advancement as a writer. It’s the sort of book that you wish went a bit longer, just so you could keep reading it and experiencing it.”

Bree, All The Books I Can Read … 1 Girl 2 Many Books!

 

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On The God of Small Things

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It’s hard to think about the writing of Indian author Arundhati Roy without conjuring an image of the political activist she has become. Confident, articulate, brave. Decrying injustice wherever she finds it. The hard truths she speaks seem to echo around the world making her appear large instead of small, fearsome instead of vulnerable. So sure of the validity of the causes she fights for. But what strikes me most forcefully about her 1997 Booker Prize winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, is how much Roy grappled in order to understand her world. As her haunted protagonist, Rahel, asks – ‘What had it all meant?’

The God of Small Things reveals such an intricate world of childhood trauma, of powerlessness and loss, that instead of dealing with certainties the reader is left to muddle their way through the mire of a place so complicated by ancient and modern history, political chaos, and long-standing familial discord that it is hard – at least initially – to have a clue what is going on.

At the heart of the novel lie Rahel and Estha, seven year old twins who haven’t yet learned how to control their Hope, but somehow know that this isn’t a Good Sign. The book unfolds slowly. It is non-linear and tangential. We know from early on that things will go badly, we just don’t know quite how or why. The process of reading the novel is that of piecing together a puzzle; frustrating and illuminating in turn. Revelations accumulate and by the end everything is clear. Even though I can’t possibly know, I suspect the process of writing the novel mirrored this journey. That Arundhati Roy wrote it in attempt to bring clarity to what had been, for her, a mess of confusion.

The end result is masterful, yes. But the power of the novel lies in its capacity to take a familial tragedy – three young children crossing a swollen river in a boat, one of them drowning – and show us how complex and far-reaching the consequences can be. In The God of Small Things it isn’t just the family and community who are both affected, and implicated, by the events of the novel, but everyone. Roy delves so deeply into her country’s systemic problems – the touchables and untouchables – that the whole book becomes a gigantic treatise on injustice without ever seeming preachy or didactic.

Even though I’ve read it many times, my mind still boggles.

When The God of Small Things was first released I was two years out of high school. My adolescence had been marked by two inexplicable losses within my immediate family. Nothing about the world around me made any sense. I was deep in the fog of grief and desperately in need of meaning. I read books to escape, but mostly I wanted to find new ways to understand my world; new ways to understand myself and what I’d been through. Disorientated by life, in fiction I sought a sense of the familiar. I steered clear of Indian fiction, staying within recognisable parameters.

But Arundhati Roy broke the stalemate between me and all-things-foreign in a way that I least expected. Even though the book is set in ‘Ayemenem,’ Kerala –a bamboozlingly unfamiliar place – the experience of Rahel and Estha, children lost in the drama of unravelling adult lives, echoed my experience so wholly that reading it I could hardly breathe. Despite all its lush Indian imagery, quirky similes, extravagant metaphors, and obscure socio-political detail the book captured so entirely how I felt as a child it could have been my life.

My mother gave me The God of Small Things as a present sometime in my early 20s. I probably accepted it with an internal roll of the eyes, thinking – ‘Thanks Mum, I’ll add it to the pile.’ But reading it cracked something open inside me. It made me wonder how the childhood trauma I’d been through related to the world at large. It widened my vision and opened my world … and it made me curious about writing. About whether or not I could do it. But mostly, it gave me the impetus to try.

And now when I see Arundhati Roy and the activist she has become, I think of who she once was: a young woman grappling with injustice so deep and wounding it barely made sense. But it did. Once she turned it into words and made it a story.

First published in Newswrite, Issue 208 April-May 2013, as part of their Writer on Writer series.

Our Silent Selves

A few years ago, I went to stay with a friend in the city. The face she greeted me with was not her face. One of her eyelids sagged, giving her a strange lopsided smile. Distress bubbled up inside me. Had she been struck down with Bell’s Palsey? Had a stroke? Why didn’t she tell me?

“What’s happened to your face?” I blurted out, feeling the tears rise in my eyes.

“It’s no big deal,” she said, brushing me off with a wave of the hand. “It’s just a bit of botox gone wrong. It’s not permanent or anything.”

It took me a while to acclimatise myself to this answer. My startlingly confident, formidably intelligent, beautiful thirty-one year old friend was getting botox? And botox had caused her eye to sag as though she’d had a stroke? Of course, I knew movie stars and the like forked out to get this paralysing poison injected into their faces, but it wasn’t something I’d considered when it came to people I knew.

Fast forward a few years and it seems far more common. I have other friends with tell-tale shiny foreheads, though I’ve never again encountered a droopy eye. Botoxed faces all have something in common. A strange vacancy, a peculiar dullness. Despite the glimmering smoothness of the skin – the odd way that light reflects off an unlined surface – there’s a kind of deadness around the eyes. All my botoxed friends look faintly angry, with a touch of indifference. It’s a particular expression, rarely found in an unneedled face, and it takes some getting used to.

Lately, I’ve found myself feeling uneasy after spending time with these shiny-faced friends. The sense of connectedness we’ve always shared seems impeded by their impenetrable faces. In short, I miss their micro-expressions. I feel cut off from them, and come away lonely and disturbed. I worry how these frozen faces serve them in other parts of their lives. How do their partners feel? What about their children?

I know why women feel they need botox. I understand the pressure on us all to maintain a youthful appearance. The relentless bombardment of media images and meta-messages. Our invisibility once past a certain age. The very real ramifications of aging as a woman in our culture. But I can’t help wondering about the costs of botox, and not just to the hip pocket.

There’s no argument that botox paralyses facial muscles. That’s how it works. It minimises micro-expressions. So in a sense, communicating with someone who’s had botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body-language involved is silenced. Considering body-language, mostly facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others’ emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are truly frightening.

There has been a study into the effects of botox on the ability to empathise, but nothing which specifically addresses the impacts on friendship, or the mother-infant bond. The absence of discussion around the effect of botox on mothering is troubling considering in that a mother’s display of emotions is how the infant learns to interact with the world. Psychologists have a method for testing infant distress at unresponsive faces called the ‘Still Face paradigm.’ Any alarm bells ringing?

Obviously empathy is a cornerstone of relationship, vital to both building and maintaining positive interactions with others. That many women are prioritising themselves as a still image is disturbing and worthy of consideration. The poker-face, by definition, doesn’t express anything. With the proliferation of selfies and the focus on static representations of women’s faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women’s faces? And what is the cost?   

 

First published in the guardian – ‘Comment is Free’ – May 22nd, 2013.

Why Is It (Still) the Mother’s Fault?

I live in a small town way out in the country where – it’s true – debates about helicopter parenting are pretty rare. Here packs of sunburned kids ride helmetless around our winding roads, the wind blowing through their sweaty hair, the sun reflecting off their freckled faces. They ride to the local waterholes where they leap from rope swings, flying through the air like amateur circus performers, not a parent in sight.

And yes, excepting the odd hospital admission, usually they are fine.

But despite their general robustness, when I watch my sons ride off into the distance I do worry about their heads, their skin, and their pre-manhood bodies. I worry because I love them, and children, in all manner of ways, are vulnerable.

When my first baby was 4 months old I was sitting on the grass at the local playgroup – the little guy on my lap – when he stopped breathing and turned blue. It seemed he was choking, but I couldn’t find the offending object by scooping around in his mouth. Patting on the back produced nothing. Seconds passed. Perhaps a minute. My baby wasn’t breathing. A more experienced mother came to my aid, giving him the baby version of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, and he vomited up a piece of leaf smaller than a five cent piece. I cried for an hour, hiccupy and inconsolable. How could I think I could raise a child when I couldn’t even keep him safe from the threat of miniscule leaf segments?

The weight of the responsibility hung heavy about my neck. And, of course, that was just the beginning.

When Catherine Deveny decries helicopter parents and all their associated neuroses, she avoids the very persistent reality for many mothers: that of an oppressive sense of responsibility. Does she really assume this arises in a vacuum? That these ‘competitive’ and ‘annoying’ super-mums are singly playing out their varying degrees of neediness or ‘abandonment issues’ – blindly – to the detriment of their children?

Because that is a very harsh call.

I suspect if we dug a little deeper we’d find that mothers feel responsible for every facet of their child’s development because everyone else thinks they are responsible too.

The bigger question for me is – how – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault? No wonder those highly qualified over-achievers are trying so hard to be the best mothers they can when the pressure is so undeniably huge, when their child’s ‘outcomes’ rest squarely on their shoulders.

But the irony is that mothers can never do right. Try too hard and they are creating ‘dysfunctional co-dependence,’ slack off a bit and they are charged with neglect.

And yes, I was a child of the 1970s. I too got driven around in a car with my dad chain-smoking, all the windows up. Heck, I even ate catfood. Didn’t everyone? But nowadays I think we are all a bit more savvy to the effect our childhoods have on the people we become.

I too want my kids to be brave, resilient, optimistic and independent. So by all means let’s discuss it: benevolent neglect, quality boredom, and independence as a result of parental indifference. Funny, yes. A great tagline. And maybe it’s a good starting point. I know that when I imagine my boys flying through the air on that rope swing I am simultaneously terrified and exultant, but the joy of it wins out in the end.I just wish in these discussions we could stop throwing out barbs and get to the heart of it.

In a culture saturated with mixed messages aimed at children, where the average age a child views pornography is 11 and gender stereotypes dog their every move, where making healthy food choices is bamboozling even for the educated adult, where we are force-fed instant gratification as a way of life but becoming good at anything still takes energy and effort, where a lack of resources sets some of us up for significant disadvantage, where fear-mongering is a large part of the political landscape, where environmental destruction looms always on the horizon, where technological addiction and a multiplicity of anxieties are rife among our numbers. Where broken arms, cracked heads, fractured feet, black-eyes, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, school sores, cellulitis, teeth abscesses, asthma, allergies and learning difficulties are all just part of the game. (And, yes, between them my kids have had them all!)

Why – in this confusing and hazardous climate – is everything still the mother’s fault?

When I see those helicopter parents anxiously hovering, I try not to judge them. Instead, I imagine the terrible weight of responsibility our culture hangs about their necks. They are the gatekeepers, and if things go wrong they will be held accountable. And I think of that tiny segment of leaf that nearly blocked my baby’s windpipe.

How can we help mothers be resilient in the face of so much risk?

This Article was first published by The Wheeler Centre on the 10th of December 2012. 

Making Sense of the Darkness

Writing fiction is the most mysterious process. It is easy to believe when you read a story in a book – the finished product – that the writer has constructed everything in a kind of conscious clever way. (If the book is working!). But it has never been like that for me.

I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town four years ago, and when I read it now I am staggered by how it seems to run so smoothly – as though it was plotted and conceived – as though I had planned all those things I wanted to say. In fact, the process was nothing like that.

I had written a manuscript before Darkness on the Edge, a piece of fictionalised autobiography reflecting on what had been a particularly traumatic adolescence. During that time I had come to use writing to digest the parts of my experience that were difficult or unmanageable. It had become a tool for me, a way I’d developed to communicate with myself. In a sense, it had become a habit. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the writing as a product. I saw it largely as some kind of outward, graspable expression of my inner self, as though I could hand over that first MS to a stranger and say – ‘This is where I’ve been. This is who I am.’

After I’d written that autobiographical story I was very peaceful. I had spoken the unspeakable and – metaphorically, at least – breached that gap between myself and the outside world. I wondered about publication, and made a few attempts to share my writing beyond my family, but deep down I felt the work was completed, even without a wider audience. It was out of me, and that was enough. I was free and light; unencumbered by the past. My story was on the page and not hanging heavily about my neck. I don’t think I believed I had another story in me.

But life isn’t like that, is it? A couple of years later I experienced a constellation of events that left me reeling. A short relationship with a man that was so dazzlingly confusing I was floored, and at the same time, a close friend’s baby slowly died. The two events combined seemed to break something open inside me, revealing a world of potential suffering I had stealthily kept out of view. While my friend nursed her dying baby with a warrior courage, I crumbled, as though the very ground I was standing on was suddenly giving way. And in that time Darkness on the Edge of Town was born.

The story came to me in one powerful strike. It hit me like a whack on the back of the head, the voices so strong and clear all I had to do was find the time to write them down. I didn’t think at all about what I was saying – about the deeper thematic meaning of the text – I was simply compelled by the characters and the situation they found themselves in. Four years on I can look at my work and see that I was grappling with the transience of life. That I was wondering about power relations and love, about kindness and abuse – and about how these things entwine. That I was trying to understand what responsibility we have for each other as fellow human beings, and perhaps especially what responsibility we have for those who are most fragile amongst us. But at the time I had very little awareness of these things, they sat somewhere in the periphery of my vision, always just out of reach.

On the shelves!!

Trying to make sense of how Darkness could come to light in such an intuitive way still leaves me a little confounded. And on top of that it is now a book! Something that others can read. Something that you might read. And I would like to be able to sit here and say – ‘yes, well, I had been thinking about things deeply and decided to construct a tale in which to share my thoughts …’ but this simply was not so. In truth, I was blindsided by a story that sprung with unexpected force from some invisible place inside me and now I’m sharing it with you.

And I hope – if you read it – you enjoy it. I hope that you will see that even though sometimes the terrain of Darkness on the Edge of Town is tough, at its heart there is a tenderness. There is love and there is kindness. There is the intimacy that is created when one person holds out their hand to another.

And sometimes, this is enough.

Extract: Darkness on the Edge of Town

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1.

The steering in the old girl lunges a little to the left, so on that night I was holding tight around the corners, swinging into them the way Marie says she hates. She can just see herself plummeting down the drop on the side of this mountain, but I’ve lived here for years and I know the road pretty good. It’s real green and bushy out here, and in the night it can look like there is nothing, no houses, just this winding precarious stretch of road. It was late, and I’d dropped Gemma off earlier at her girlfriend’s house. She’s sixteen, my girl, and she’s only just reached that girly stage. Nail polish and makeup. She came home from school the other day all dolled up. It was photo day and her friends had taken her aside and done her make up. I reckon she expected me to hit the roof, to tell her to ‘get that shit off’, but I just looked and didn’t say nothing. She washed it off anyway, soon as she got home.

That night, I was on my way home from the pub. I don’t drink much, just a couple of beers, but I like to see the boys now and then. It was coming into winter and the air inside the truck was cold. I lit a cigarette, banged around the final bend before my house, and right there, right out front, was the upturned car, engine still running. The lights of the car were shining down into the bush, lighting up the dark. I pulled up on the grass out front of my house and ran over to the car, peering in the window, but there was no-one inside. The smell of exhaust fumes lingered in the air, and reaching in I turned the engine off. There was a flicker of movement on the edge of the road. She was squatting there, swaying slightly, the bank dropping away steeply behind her. Humming – she was humming. In the moonlight she looked kind of crumpled and broken, her long dark hair falling forward over her body.

“Shit honey, you right?” I said, but she didn’t move, as though she didn’t hear, and so I crept up a bit closer, “Mate, you okay?”

She looked up then, and her hair fell away, and I could see in the shadow of her arm she held a baby. Its body was limp, its eyes closed.

“We got to get you some help,” I said, and she whimpered. I crouched in front of her, reaching out a hand. “Sweetheart, you need some help, come on off the road”.

I wondered how long she’d been there, perched like that on the edge of the drop. I needed to call an ambulance, but I didn’t know if I should leave her. Reaching out two fingers, I tried to feel the baby’s pulse. The baby was cold and I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t know CPR anyway. Up close I could see her. She had eyes like an animal caught in a trap, large and sort of misted, dark. The side of her face was bruised. She was youngish, I reckoned, early twenties. Didn’t look like she was from round here. Looked foreign, sort of. She held the baby tightly with one arm, the other hung dangling from her shoulder. Her shirt was lifted and her pale breast sat exposed above the baby’s head, dripping milk. Watery white drops that plonked slowly on the baby’s slack face.

“Oh honey, come on, come on off the road,” I said, starting to panic.

A line of blood crossed her face and fell in a sticky blob on the baby’s foot. She shuddered and toppled backwards, landing with a jolting thump, the baby’s head flopping sideways. Dusty pebbles rained down the slope behind her.

“Love. See that house there? That’s my house, and I’m going to pick you up and bring you inside so I can call an ambulance okay?”

I didn’t know if I should move her, but I figured, if I run inside and call an ambulance and she goes over the edge, that’s worse, and I wanted to check out her head, see if I could stop the bleeding.

She didn’t try to move away, but I guess she was pinned, holding the baby in one arm, and her other hanging loose like that. I came alongside her, close up to her baby’s head. It looked a strange kind of blue in the moonlight, and I felt suddenly sick. Slipping my arm beneath her legs, I scooped her up. She clung to the baby and sort of curled up around it, her loose arm swinging out and falling back against her. If it hurt her, she didn’t make a sound.

To purchase Darkness on the Edge of Town go to Readings.

To buy in ebook format: Amazon, Kobo, itunes, Google Play

 

 

The Knoll

Twelve is a slippery age, a time of shape-shifting and metamorphosis. My son, towering above me, smiles and pulls me in towards him in a gentle embrace. His chin rests on my head. He giggles, and I squeeze him round the middle. Through the accident of birth, I am a little mother. A child-woman with her own half-grown, giant-sized boys. The younger one too is gaining on me. At ten years old his gaze is almost equal with mine.

“I’ll be taller than you soon, Mum,” he says, and what can I do but nod. It won’t be long now.

It’s as if my smallness has placed me strangely in their world. Long ago I became one of the kids, jostled along in the pack like we were all a bunch of clumsy puppies. Following our noses, unsure of the way.

“Take us down to The Knoll, Mum,” the oldest says, “Come on, I know how to get there.”

It’s a swimming hole, a secret haunt, with a rope swing. I’ve lived in this same green hollow of a town for most of my life, but I’ve never been to The Knoll. I envisage cigarette butts and half-hidden bongs, rubbish and the scent of teenage transgression, but the afternoon is sticky and hot, and I don’t mind being wrong.

“Okay,” I say, “But if any other kids are there, we leave. Right?”

They accept without question the strange rules I have invented.

On the school bus my boys have learned the whereabouts of this hideout. Behind the old church, through two sets of fencing: one barbed, and one not. The grass is long, and we slip through, on the lookout for snakes. There is a worn path down to the creek. It is damp, as though a troop of wet feet has just passed through.

“There’s no-one here, Mum. We’ve missed them,” the younger one says, “That’s good, isn’t it? We can be here for a bit?”

We stop at a wide corner of the creek, grassy on either side. There are no cigarette butts, no rubbish. It is, in fact, quite scenic – an old wooden railway bridge curves away to the left. There is no sign of the encroaching suburbia of my town, just grass and trees and the gentle flow of water. At the base of The Knoll is a giant disused cement water tank half built into the bank. I sit on the top, and watch the boys try to get the rope. Ragged, with inverted bike handlebars knotted on the bottom, it hangs over the water, just out of reach.

“You better check it’s deep enough first,” I say, and my big fellow scampers down the edge and plunges in.

“Can you touch?”

He swims around, and ducks down, heading for the bottom. The water is clear enough, but I can’t see him. I know he will resurface, and he does.

“I can’t even get down to the bottom. It’s real deep.”

I peer across at him.

“Alright. Come on. Let’s see you jump.”

They fish the rope from the air with a stick, and then they are away. Lithe, muscular, beautiful, one by one they swing out across the water, dropping in at the highest point. How to describe such grace?

I catch myself thinking of their countdown to manhood. Right now they seem at some pinnacle of evolution: smooth-bodied, open-faced, ready for the world. They fly across the water with no hesitation, no missteps or fears. The creek swallows them up, again and again, and each time they are reborn, their faces breaking through the water’s surface, joyous and alight. I wonder what happens between here and there; between now, and becoming a man. I live on a winding dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, but I am not naïve to the next steps. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, fast cars, junk food, and the shallows of a consumer culture with no end. We do not have wireless broadband, mobile reception, or even commercial TV, but I know I can’t keep the world at bay forever. The question of what makes a man looms large in my mind, and I must admit – I am more than a little afraid.

“Mum, you have a jump,” my big fellow says as he pulls himself up the muddied slope.

“I don’t know if I can,” I say, but I know that I want to.

“We’ll help you. It’s easy. You just hold on, and let go at the end.”

The littler one watches me from the launch pad on the bank. He holds the spindly end of the rope in his fingers, his body quivering with excitement or cold.

“I bet you can do it, Mum,” the older one tells me, “I bet you a dollar.”

I stand up, and strip off my clothes. Down to my bra and undies, I am vulnerable, uncertain. The path is slithery, and I slip awkwardly towards the jumping spot, gripping small saplings as I pass. At the precipice, my son transfers the cold bike handles into my hands. I stand on the edge, holding tight and looking out at the expanse of the water.

“Push off Mum, just lift your feet.”

And I do.

The rush of air against my body makes me squeeze my eyes closed. On a pendulum, I am flying blind. A wide arc through space.

“Let go … NOW!”

My fingers unclench, and I drop from the rope with an unwanted cry. The water breaks around me, and I surge downwards like a bullet. There is no rock bottom, and after a moment of stillness my limbs kick in and I swim back towards the surface. Pushing into the world, spluttering and laughing, my eyes and nose and mouth are full of water.

My boys grin from the bank.

“You owe me a dollar!” My big fellow calls, punching a fist in the air.

Twelve is a slippery age, on the brink of any number of beginnings.

“Go again Mum. Go again.”

I tread water and look up at the sky. It is the deepest blue, without a single flitting cloud. There is nothing to signal the world is changing, but above me the pendulum rope keeps swinging, marking time.

 

First Published in Meanjin Volume 71 Number 2, 2012

Varuna Second Book Fellowship

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Jessie has been awarded a Varuna Second Book Fellowship for the new novel she is working on. Two weeks in the Blue Mountains at Varuna, The Writers’ House, commencing in 2012.

For information on Varuna, check out their website:

http://varuna.com.au/

Harvesting camphor – a green solution?

Clear felling of camphor laurel to create ‘renewable energy’ in the local sugar mills leaves Jessie Cole pondering the realities of wood-burning as green power.

Burringbar is my hometown. Turning off the Tweed Valley Way into the main street always does something to my heart. Lifts it in some way. I know I’m lucky to have such a connection to place, to walk a winding road through the greenest hills and think – this is home. It is a luxury of grand proportions. But lately walking through my valley has become something completely different.

Huge double barrelled trucks zoom past at high-speed leaving the overpowering scent of camphor dust in their wake. Giant machines move up the hillsides clamping the camphors at their bases and felling them left, right, and centre. The trees are wood-chipped in the paddocks where they once stood and then carted off to burn. The sound of heavy machinery echoes through the hills, punctuated with the slow cracking of falling trees. The picturesque hillsides have become a site of carnage. I’ve been here thirty years, almost all my life, and never have I seen such devastation.

The harvesting of camphors to burn in the nearby Broadwater and Condong sugar mills is a ‘green initiative’ partly funded by the NSW and Federal governments. The proposal was simply to turn cane waste from the sugar industry into energy, clearly a win-win scenario, eliminating the polluting cane field fires, and topping-up the electricity grid with renewable energy. ‘The reality is,’ says local educator and environmentalist Alison Polistchuck ‘there was never enough cane waste to burn, and camphors are now being clear-felled to fill the gap.’

Foreseeing the reliance on woodchips the NSW Greens Leader, Ian Cohen, rejected the initial proposal in 2003 claiming it was ‘not a green plan at all.’ Though green groups raised questions about the energy required to cut, chop, and transport the wood, the loss of mature trees as a carbon sink, the erosion and silting up of the local creeks, the possible threat to endangered plants and animals, and the basic pollution of wood-burning, these problems were disregarded, and the plan was sold to the public as renewable energy.

On a global level this kind of ‘green power’ is called ‘biomass burning’ – chipping up trees and burning them in power plants to create electricity. This practice was deemed carbon neutral at Kyoto back in 1997, even though burning trees for energy emits 150% of the CO2 that burning coal does, and it takes 30-90 years of new growth to re-capture the CO2 that is released instantly from burning trees for energy. The word loophole springs to mind.

Camphor laurels have always been a vexed issue on the North Coast. A declared noxious weed, they are the cane toad of the flora world, colonising spaces where the Big Scrub used to be. The ecological benefit of regenerating camphor trees to native forest is largely unchallenged, but there are bigger questions at hand here. Are camphor laurel trees better than bare pasture in green terms? What is the value of a tree, any tree? And perhaps most pertinently – is burning woodchips ever a green power solution?

In an interesting turn of events, the co-generation plants were placed into receivership early this month. The Executive of NSW Sugar Chris Connors has blamed the financial crisis on the fall in value of Renewable Energy Certificates due to a flooding of the market. But a closer look at NSW Government audit documents reveals a complex mix of factors leading up to the economic problems. Lower than forecast amounts of cane waste and limited availability of alternative fuel sources were both cited. No questions have been raised about the basic unsustainability of harvesting trees to burn for fuel, and it is unclear whether this recent financial crisis will mean an end to the clearing, or an increase as the sugar mill scrambles to stay afloat.

Camphor laurels are a noxious weed and there is a legal objective to control the species. But the irony is – unlike natives these trees thrive in open country so clear-felling them does little to stop their spread. For the practise to be ecologically viable there would need to be staged removal of trees and replanting with native species to protect habitat, prevent erosion and weed infestation, as well as to minimise the loss in carbon stores. Even if wood-burning for electricity was a green power solution, no effort has been made to manage the camphors in a sustainable manner. Walking down the road in my hometown I am left wondering what strolling through my valley will be like when all the bulldozers are finally gone.

This article was first published in The Echo in March 2011

           

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