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Pacific Black Ducks. (Photo by Micah Oberon).

Last week I walked into a conversation between two friends.  I’ll call them Leslie and Glenda.  They were admiring each other’s scarves.  Leslie’s burgundy floral brocade with traces of gold thread was draped in a shawl about her shoulders.  Glenda wore a cheerful red cashmere scarf, casually looped around her neck.  I bemoaned the fact that I had many beautiful scarves gathering dust at home as I wasn’t sure how to wear most of them.

“You’re either a scarf-wearing person or you’re not,” said Leslie, and told us about a friend of hers who always looked awkward wearing scarves.  She demonstrated by knotting her shawl tightly around her neck and mimicked her friend’s self-conscious appearance in a half-choked voice, “look at me, I’m wearing a scarf!”  We all laughed, but Leslie and Glenda laughed even louder when I told them I’d bought two books on scarf-tying techniques in my twenties.

“They’re both still sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust like my scarves.  I was so bamboozled by the complexity of all the different techniques for tying and wearing the damn things, I gave up all together.”

“It’s about being yourself, isn’t it?” said Leslie.  “When I was a young woman I used to feel so unattractive and, sure enough, I didn’t have many suitors.  I thought it was because I didn’t have long blond hair and a willowy body.”

“Oh yes, I know what you mean,” said Glenda, throwing her arms wide in cheerful surrender.  “As a girl I longed to look like Katherine Hepburn.  I thought she was so elegant.  I’d imagine myself swanning around like she did. Then I’d look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘no, my dear, you’re just a little blue duck and that’s all there is to it.’”  Leslie and I nodded empathically.

I was surprised to hear of Leslie’s lack of confidence as a younger woman.  To me she seemed poised, clear and authentic….someone who was widely admired and liked.  She was always fresh-faced and happy and it was easy to relax in her glowing presence.

“As I grew older,” said Leslie, “I realised I was trying to attract the wrong kind of man—one for whom outer appearances are important.  And, you know, there’s a real advantage to being a little blue duck.  By the time I’d grown comfortable in my body and stopped worrying how I looked, I noticed the women who’d been conventionally beautiful when they were younger were struggling with the aging process.  A great deal more than I was.  They found it difficult losing their outer beauty and youth.  So, in a way, their looks were an impediment to their deeper contentment.”

I related to Leslie’s reflections on two levels.  I am definitely a little blue duck in the physical looks department; and no amount of scarf-tying flair can disguise me as a swan.  As a friend from my past once told me, “you weren’t exactly a beauty.”  He did go on to say other nice things about me, but funnily enough I’ve forgotten them!  And it’s true that as I’ve grown older, I’ve learnt to accept what are often seen as flaws – my freckled skin that never tans (even when smothered in coconut oil and burnt raw as a teenager), my small chin, a short body that inclines towards plumpness and a drooping belly (the sacrifices we make for our children!).  These days, I’m able to rest more often in an inner space that’s unconcerned and unconstrained by outer form.  From this space my energy, my joy and my inspiration flow…and it’s from here also that my best writing emerges.

On days when I read back anxiously over preceding paragraphs, trying to think of something clever to say, or desperately inserting one of those metaphorical scarf-tying techniques (perhaps a pearl necktie or a silk rosette) in the midst of simple cotton prose, inspiration falters and I realise I’m trying too hard to be someone other than myself.  As a writer, I am also a little blue duck…but even little blue ducks can swim and dive and fly.  They just do it in their own special way; and it’s meaningless (and mean) to compare them with swans.

I’ll be forever grateful to my friend and teacher, Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who helped me to find my writing-wings and fly again, with child-like trust in air-currents of inspiration— allowing them to sweep in out of nowhere and carry me exhilarated through wide blue skies and uncharted countries.

After years of feeling terminally blocked as a writer, I attended one of Barbara’s FreefallWriting™ Workshops in the early nineties.  Listening to her talk about the writing process and finding an authentic voice, quoting from such common-sense luminaries as Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit) and Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)…it all made perfect sense.   For too many years I’d been focussing on producing poems, articles or books I thought others would be impressed by and want to read.  Instead of being content with the simplicity of my writing style, I was reading literary tomes like The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, wondering desperately why I could never pile images and metaphors on top of each other quite so impressively.  To use scarf-tying terminology, I was trying to turn a basic square into palazzo pants or a bead chevron braid, and ending up instead like Leslie’s non-scarf-wearing-friend, half-choked by my own self-conscious techniques and disguises.

Barbara taught me to turn off my screen and write into the blue. “Don’t look back and don’t change anything,” she told us.  “Don’t edit while you write.  They’re two different modes and one gets in the way of the other.”  Like Ueland, Barbara believes everyone can write, and having been to many of her workshops over the past fourteen years as well as running my own classes, I can confirm I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t.  You might not be able to write like Michael Ondaatje or JK Rowlings, but you can write like you….and that’s something that nobody else can do.

So if you, like me, are a little blue duck, remember you have wings and webbed feet….just like those elegant white swans….and they can carry you far and wide by water, land or air, if only you give them a chance.  As for literary scarf-tying techniques (yes, all those books on your shelf with scary titles like Scene and Structure or Conflict, Action and Suspense or Writing Articles that Sell or Metaphors for Booker-Prize-Winners – okay I made that last one up)….forget about them, for now.

All you need are the word-feathers you’re wearing, two webbed feet to paddle through blank pages and ink, and a pair of wings to catch the winds of inspiration when they blow your way.  And they will. Just begin: one word at a time, one page at a time, one day at a time.  Writing is a journey for which there is no map and certainly no GPS. It may help to have a goal in mind when you set out, but be prepared to diverge and take advantage of prevailing winds.  You might freefall through towering cumulus and rainbow arches into an imaginary world you’ll never see if you keep paddling in circles round the same old garden pond.

Wandering-Whistling Ducks playing Follow-the-Leader in the pond. (Photo by Micah Oberon).

Peter Bishop, Creative Director at Varuna, The Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, says the first draft (of anything) should be a free-for-all (=freefall!).  “Dare everything,” he said during a retreat I attended in 2007.

“Don’t show the first draft to anybody.  This is your time to explore, to find out what’s there, without fear or favour.  It’s a process of discovery, where you, the writer, find out things about yourself and discover whether you have a story to tell.  Never think about what a publisher or an audience will want.  The purpose of the first draft is to find a story only you can write.”

Kate Miller-Heidke sings “Ducks don’t need satellites/They probably don’t know they’re up there (and don’t care)…They most likely think the sky ends blue/Don’t you wish you did too?”  So spread your wings and launch yourself into the Wide Blue Wonder Of Writing.  You never know what you’ll find.

An inspiring little book on the gentle art of regenerating the bush with minimum disturbance.

One of my teachers, Diane Harwood, has kindly given me permission to share the notes she’s developed on bushland regeneration.  These are based on an inspiring little book by Joanna Bradley plus Diane’s many years out in the Denmark bush, weeding and caring for local reserves, finding out what works and what doesn’t by trial and error.  I have copied these notes below and included an image of the book jacket, in case you want to source a copy for yourself.  We’re reading it as part of our course and it’s a delightful story of two sisters in New South Wales in the sixties who were dismayed by the widespread infestation of weeds along their local walking tracks and decided to take matters into their own hands.  Over the years, they proved  that “systematic hand weeding, carefully done, was a spectacular success.”  Both women were in their fifties and claim they did not work hard, but were persistent, selective and particular about their methods.  Joanne Bradley says, “Bringing back the bush is a gentle art, demanding a strong will and patience.”

I’ve used this gentle approach to bushland regeneration as a metaphor for the personal journey towards sustainable living and creative expression in other posts.  It’s given me new hope that I and others can make a difference to the future of this planet by gently plugging away in our own areas of interest and skill.

I’ve copied Diane’s notes below for your inspiration and education.

ON BUSH REGENERATION

Notes by Diane Harwood

Inspired by
Bringing Back the Bush: The Bradley Method of Bush Regeneration by Joanna Bradley

The “Bradley” Principles of Bush Regeneration

  • Work from good (ie weed-free) areas towards bad
    (ie weedy) areas
  • Make minimum disturbance
  • Allow the regeneration of native plants to dictate the rate of weed removal

Words of Warning

Don’t start on a large weed infestation unless you are sure you will get back to do the follow-up work. Removing the parent plants may create light and space for hundreds of new weed seedlings.

Don’t remove anything you are not sure of. Many weeds have a native look-a-like, and some of the weediest-looking plants are important members of the local plant community.

Aim for control, not eradication, and tipping the balance in favour of the local native plants.


Applying the Bradley Principles

  • Assess extent of area to be weeded, taking into account surrounding land-use, and considering potential sources of weeds. (When assessing, be careful not to brush against seed-bearing weeds.)
  • Note which weeds are present, their growth habits and life cycles, and the density of the infestation. (Remember some plants have dormancy periods.)
  • Plan to prevent the least weed-infested bush from becoming degraded.  Aim for control, not eradication, and to tip the balance in favour of the local native plants.
  • First step is to remove any seed-bearing trees, plants or parts of plants without spreading the seeds.  Catch on tarp or place into bags.
  • You may need to make a traffic plan, especially when working with a group.  This is important to avoid trampling and damaging native plants and spreading weed seeds through clean bush.
  • Next, dig out or cut any isolated weeds or ones that are directly inhibiting native plants.
  • Use a fork or crow-bar to loosen the soil, then pull weed out, allowing all soil to remain in place. Replace leaf litter. This helps to deter further weed outbreaks.  Leave fallen logs, twigs, bark etc from native species to provide shelter and nutrients.
  • In some cases the uprooted plant can be left as mulch, but generally it is best to remove all weed material from the site.
  • Do not allow piles of weeds to get too big to handle; always consider the next step – removal from the site and disposal.
  • Disposal can be a problem: if possible put the material through a mulcher, then compost it if necessary to kill seeds.  Alternatively, place in pit and cover, or burn.
  • Whichever method is used, take care not to infect new areas!

A tangle of Dolichos Pea, Bridal Creeper and other weeds in the Morgan Street bush reserve close to Denmark town

Last year a group of friends and I worked through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way over a period of about six months.  We decided at the outset that none of us were in a hurry to get anywhere and we weren’t going to have any hard and fast rules for our little group.  And so we met fortnightly instead of weekly, we turned up regardless of whether we’d done our “homework” from the previous meeting and we each set our own pace towards what Cameron calls “artistic recovery.”  No one was excluded or made to feel bad for missing meetings or leaving some tasks undone.  In short, we dispensed with idealism and approached our journey with gentleness.  It was remarkable what we each achieved in that short time.

What if we could form groups like this supporting each other to live more sustainable lives?  Not a twelve-step recovery program based on the disease model of addiction; but instead a spiral path woven organically, uniquely for and by each individual.  No set goals.  No experts on pedestals or prescribed utopia.  No success or failure.

One person’s spiral might travel in wide circular sweeps, tightly layered one above another – little progress apparent from the outside, but from the inside a steady slow strengthening of resolve and deepening of self-understanding across many areas.  With each turn of the spiral we have an opportunity to revisit past issues and insights, taking the lessons deeper into our souls.

Another person’s spiral might move upwards very quickly, impressive from the outside, a gleaming tower of silver coils.  It’s easy to gain height quickly when we narrow our focus.  Such individuals blaze a pathway for the rest of us as we travel more slowly, attempting to gather in all the strands of our complex lives: to parent consciously, to eat healthily, to recycle, to grow our own food, to find meaningful work, to express ourselves creatively, to contribute to our community, to find inner peace etc…

Who can do and be all of these things?  And yet how harshly we judge ourselves when our weakness in one area is shown up against another’s passion and commitment:  the mother of three who rides with her children to and from school by bike every day; the young man who grows most of his food in the backyard and tells us we should all be doing the same; the musician who spends her days and nights writing and recording music to inspire hope and change.

Diane Harwood, lecturer in Conservation and Land Management specialising in Bushland Regeneration.

I think again of our lecturer at the Great Southern Institute of Technology, Diane Harwood, who through decades of commitment to caring for local bush reserves has developed the philosophy of a peaceful eco-warrior.  (I will share some of the guiding principles she has developed over the years for bushland regeneration in another post.)

“If you go out to work with hate in your heart, it’s not good for anybody,” she tells us about weeding the bush.  “Cleaning up and making it all nice is not what it’s all about” (i.e. making it look good for the public.)  She tells us the story of the Bradley sisters working in Sydney in the seventies, who developed an approach to weeding the bush that focussed on working with the good areas or supporting the natives.  “We’re encouraging the bush, not the weeds.”  And that’s very different from setting out to eradicate what we don’t want.

If I apply this approach to my life, I can look at my strengths and ask how I can use those talents, interests or capabilities to create a more sustainable world for myself, my family and my community.  My strengths are equivalent to the native plants that belong in the bush and that thrive when uninhibited by disease, pests, weeds or a harsh climate.

I’m not a gardener (I’m famous in my family for not noticing we had a back lawn until we’d been in our current rental home a couple of years); so growing food looks almost impossible from where I stand now.  I live in a big house with lots of stuff I don’t need (see my first post), with a family who devour boxed cereal, packaged snacks and sugar.  We have two cars and an ecological footprint I dread to measure.  I could go on about all the ways in which my family and I fail to live sustainable lives.  (And sometimes I do ‘go on’ to myself.)

The question is does this help me to change?

Perhaps the most passionate environmental activists are their own worst enemies – setting the bar so high we listen to them and feel defeated before we’ve begun.  Driving home with my twelve-year-old son in the car the other day, he announced out of the blue “I think we should all kill ourselves.”

“Who?”

“The human race.”

“Why?”

“Because we’ve messed up the planet.”

Is that the message we want to give our children – one of fear and despair?  And even if the situation is hopeless and civilization is on the verge of collapse (as some predict), does this mean we shouldn’t try to make a difference in whatever small way we can?

I draw comfort and inspiration from Di’s philosophy.  Bringing it home, I see I have strengths in writing and communication, and this is one place I can make a difference.  In other areas, like understanding the bush or growing food organically, I’m a child taking baby-steps and I know I’m not getting anywhere fast.

I have decided to step slowly and patiently, to seek out and be guided by teachers who are wiser and more experienced than I (more about them in future posts).  Mostly they aren’t people you’ve heard of — unless you live in the small town of Denmark, Western Australia.  They haven’t written any books or won any national awards.  They are ordinary people living quietly extraordinary lives, following their passions, building on their strengths, changing the world for the better and gently inspiring others to follow their lead.

And so I say: Let us be gentle on ourselves — set small achievable goals.  Nurture and build upon those strengths and interests that come naturally.  Anything that undermines or strangles these native talents is a weed requiring attention.  These are the habits most important to replace with self-nurturing behaviours.

One of my bad habits is skipping my morning exercise routine and starting the day feeling fuzzy-headed and unmotivated.  Learning qigong has given me something I can do for ten or fifteen minutes to lift my spirits and energize my body quickly on days I’m in a hurry.  This simple life-style change has helped me find the time and energy to recommit to my writing projects.

Focus on one step at a time.  Set realistic targets and be prepared to let them go, change them or revisit them until they are second nature.  Above all, don’t compare yourself with anyone else.  No one is quite like you: no one has your unique combination of strengths and insights, and no one has lived through the challenges you have met.

Sustainability isn’t just about living in harmony with the Earth.  First and foremost it’s about living in harmony with our selves and each other; setting aside the judgements that arise from idealism or comparison and recognising each of us has access to an innate wisdom that will guide and strengthen us, if only we let it.

Di with some of our merry band of Conservation and Land Management students. We come from all walks of life, each of us passionate about understanding our local bushland and making a difference.

What do bush regeneration, creative writing and household decluttering have to do with each other?

“Weeding is not warfare,” wrote our Conservation and Land Management lecturer, Di Harwood, in big green letters on the whiteboard last term.  And this axiom captures the essence of her gentle approach to regenerating local bushland reserves. Again and again she has stressed there is nothing to gain from hating the weeds that threaten our native bush, nor from attacking them in ruthless blitzes that might look impressive initially, but are sure to have a disappointing impact in the long-term.  Razing weeds to the ground, leaving large disturbed patches of earth only opens the way for more weeds to move in.  Opportunistic by nature, they will overtake these patches faster than the natives, and we, the exhausted weeders, will watch with dismay as they grow more dominant than ever.

Instead, Di suggests, we begin with those areas of the local reserves where the bush is strongest, where the natives have the upper hand and gently seek out and remove any plants that do not belong.  Never fast and furious, but calm and considered: in a patch of Dolichos Pea, we trace each plant to its roots, removing them one by one, gently patting the surface material back over the disturbed earth, creating small spaces around young natives so they have enough light and nourishment to grow strong.

Photo by NJ le Breton

One of my fellow CLM students traces a Dolichos Pea to its roots.

Recently, I went out for dinner with my friend, Madeleine, who was encouraging me to organise and declutter my home.

“But it’s so overwhelming,” I said.  “I don’t know where to start.”

“Choose one small area at a time…don’t try and be logical about it.  Just choose the one that jumps out at you or the one that’s bothering you the most at the time, or even the one that looks easiest to tackle.  The important thing is to start, and to chip away at it bit by bit.”

I took her advice to heart and decided shortly after to tackle the children’s board games – with pieces distributed far and wide across our five bedroom house, and all mixed together in the wrong boxes, it was a mammoth task that took three of us a good half-day.

Family Games - Organised!

The before picture was too scary to upload!

“You’ll be amazed by what you find,” said Madeleine, “and by the new energy that comes with each ordering and letting go.”

She was right.  That first afternoon the boys and I rediscovered many old favourite games and even some new ones we hadn’t played together before – like Rummy-Oh.  We rebuilt several decks of cards, filled a jar with dice, sorted out the Monopoly, Life and other play money, which had all been stashed away in an old wallet by my youngest, Samuel, and even managed to offload a bunch of games we agreed weren’t that fun.  Since then we’ve enjoyed several family games nights and moved on in our decluttering project to tackle the boys’ bedrooms, my office and even the gutters around the house still clogged with last year’s autumn leaves.

Sitting down to write today, I discovered my creative mind is a lot like my house…full of many unfinished projects, neglected dreams and discarded ideas.  I’ve written three versions of a memoir, still not quite finished, begun a young adult fantasy that was shortlisted for a Varuna fellowship last year and made several attempts to blog.  A recent family crisis has taken me away from my writing projects and I return now to find this garden of words overgrown and chaotic.

In the mental space that is arising as I gradually order my home, I am finding time again to write.  Like an impatient bushland warrior, I want to tear out the weeds of all those strangled ideas and visions that never led anywhere to find the natives: the ideas and stories that are truly mine and that only I can tell.  But which is which?  I’m not sure.  And as I wrote this morning, following one strand after another, I realised the writing journey is a lot like the gentle arts of bushland regeneration and decluttering my home as taught to me by Di and Madeleine.

Before I can uncover stories that have the potential to grow strong and tall, I must sort through all those other thoughts and ideas that sit on the surface of my mind…each of them clamouring for attention, insisting on their own importance and potential.  And perhaps I will need to sit with some of them awhile and listen, to let them spill out their stories, however inconsequential.  These strands of thought are often linked, as plants link to each other, their root systems tangling, their branches overlapping or one plant wrapping its tendrils around another and reaching for the light.  By following what seems an trivial thread, I may find a bigger story waiting to be liberated from a tangle of aspirations, ambitions and insights.

In the meantime, all I need to do is keep showing up at the blank page or screen, allowing the writing to map its own journey through the undergrowth, to find its own shape, purpose and rhythm, beyond the reach of logical plans or imitative dreams.  And so I begin these Tangled Tales: Unravelling the Connections.

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