Despite living in the ‘city on the bay’ I haven’t been to any sort of beach for about eight years. Recently though, I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend at Mornington Peninsular. Apart from one day trip to Sorrento, I hadn’t visited the area before. I found it had its own special allure, the local town’s beach houses were marooned in seas of twisted and impenetrable clumps of coastal tea tree, which made the area feel more isolated than it was. The only sign of habitation were the power lines, looped between each home, and which rattled in the high winds at night. This competed with the creaking branches of the trees and the slightly more distant surf crashing into the cliffs.
PeninsulaIf a winter beach getaway was not sufficiently Australian Gothic, upon arrival (just after dusk) a storm rolled in, with wind pushing rain in from one direction, and lightning from the other direction. The house, thusly poised on a narrow peninsula between two contending coastlines, and two storms, felt like the ends of the earth, rather than just an hour from Melbourne.
This was different to the beaches of my youth, which were genuinely remote, un-patrolled and scorching in the intensity of summer. There were rock pools with blue ringed octopus. Or, in some coves, the allure of the water was mitigated by the course, unrefined grit that in a few thousand years would become sand. Feet sank, as such substances can’t support weight and I either had to swim out deeper and float, or constantly move in the shallows, so not to be sucked in further.
This is all well and good, but my brief holiday, or my youth, are not what I’m writing about.
My point is about edges. This entire humongous continent I live on, has about 97% of its population congregating on the edge of it. Or, as AD Hope puts it in the poem, simply called Australia:
And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pollulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
Bit harsh, I guess, but still, accurate about the timidity.
But it’s not just Australia. Humans love edges. Personal physical edges, psychological ones, as well as natural world ones. Edges are where conflict occurs, where energies are exchanged and where the new emerges out of the worn and broken down.
We don’t get beaches without wind and water wearing rocks away into grains of sand. We don’t see records of endurance achieved without humans pushing their minds and bodies to the edge. Similarly, we don’t see much art that hasn’t somehow pushed its creator, or its audience. It’s not just madness, but also emotional edges and spiritual crises that I’m talking about.
So we go to beaches as an analogue of all the edges we have experienced or want to experience. We stand on the shore where the water meets land to see things mix and collide, to see things destroyed, to see the sea, moment by moment, in changing light, be the agent of change we should be in our own lives.
Or, perhaps I would have thought to think of the ocean like this, instead of watching the open-mouthed joy of a staffy galloping up and down the shallows of the foreshore in the freezing wind, ignoring his human.
However, I challenge anyone to not find some worthy experience where the ocean kisses the land, or indeed, something worth knowing at any edge. I came away from what I thought was the edge of my life a few years ago with my life, despite the pain I experienced, while the kindness of medical people was learned anew.
I admit to feeling some triumph at successfully, if slowly, negotiating the seemingly endless vegetation covered dunes to reach a view of the wild ocean from a natural cliff top amphitheatre on the Bass Strait side of the peninsula. That was my physical edge pushed into a new achievement.
Perhaps, there will be some edge I can reach in my writing. Somehow, I will push myself to examine the themes and concerns of my stories with a more deft and decisive touch.
The below is one of my favourite poems, for the line about the ‘edges of his joy’ but also because it contrasts those who experience with those who describe, as well as those who, ahem, seek to mansplain to girls like the anonymous heroine of this poem, and those who just seem to know.
I think, when we make the journey to an edge, it behoves to be still for a moment, take it in, and listen like the orange tree.
The Orange Tree
John Shaw Neilson
The young girl stood beside me. I Saw not what her young eyes could see: - A light, she said, not of the sky Lives somewhere in the Orange Tree. - Is it, I said, of east or west? The heart beat of a luminous boy Who with his faltering flute confessed Only the edges of his joy? - Was he, I said, home to the blue In a mad escapade of Spring Ere he could make a fond adieu To his love in the blossoming? - Listen! The young girl said. There calls No voice, no music beats on me; But it is almost sound: it falls This evening on the Orange Tree. - Does he, I said, so fear the Spring Ere the white sap too far can climb? See in the full gold evening All happenings of the olden time? Is he so goaded by the green? Does the compulsion of the dew Make him unknowable but keen Asking with beauty of the blue? - Listen! The young girl said. For all Your hapless talk you fail to see There is a light, a step, a call, This evening on the Orange Tree. - Is it, I said, a waste of love Imperishably old in pain, Moving as an affrighted dove Under the sunlight or the rain? Is it a fluttering heart that gave Too willingly and was reviled? Is it the stammering at a grave, The last word of a little child? - Silence! The young girl said. Oh why, Why will you talk to weary me? Plague me no longer now, for I Am listening like the Orange Tree.