Even by Australian standards, we’ve been having a particularly harsh summer so far. Nearly every corner of Australia has experienced some sort of heatwave in the last few weeks. In Perth, we’re experiencing a brief respite at the moment, and for the first time in ages, I can start the day without the hum of the air-conditioning or the heavy weight of humidity and heat hitting my face in the morning. I live every moment of these respite days with cool breezes, storing up my energy and trying to get things done. Because when the heat returns, my body becomes a heavy rock, and all energy is sapped from me.
What I noticed myself doing during our heatwave was seeking the sea. Not just literally, but also imaginatively through books set by the sea. There are so many seas in fiction and art, and while it’s easy to view them as all the same in some romantic image of an ahistorical, mythic landscape, the more I read, the more I realise I’m drawn to the idea of little human seas created through a sense of place and understanding. The seas set in England or Ireland are foreign to me. I appreciate their beauty, and I indulge in it, but it’s only when I reached for Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral that I recognised my own Australian sea; the sea that is a friend now, the sea that my body recognises rather than the one my mind responds to as a foreign but pleasant thing. This simple description says it all for me:
They undress, hang their clothes on a dead limb. There is a tide-mark on the trees which, from a certain angle, accords exactly with the horizon behind. She walks into the cool water. Martin wades in behind her, they are silent with heat and tiredness from the long day’s driving. The tree limbs are broken against the sky.
This flat silver water moves over her body like a blade, and she sinks slowly to her knees with the tight thread of the waterline moving across her skin. Martin floats on his back. For an instant she sees them, two naked and new-made beings, lying baptised in a silver garden. (p. 116)
This is so perfect. Because I know exactly how these fictional people feel. On those brutally hot days in Australia, when you feel as if the heat has entered every pore of your body, the cool water of the sea does feel like a blade that cuts through the dread and tiredness; it brings you back to your body as something new. This water-blade is something I dream of when the window is only symbolically open on nights without a breeze, and I can hear everything that goes on in my street in the eerie nothingness of summer nights. A silver garden of respite, something that feeds the body and the mind and prepares you for the next day. A few days ago I was in the car with my mother and she pointed to the beautiful bark of a tree we had passed. It seemed almost bleached white from the harsh heat and sun. Our landscape is not one that encourages nesting and carving out cosiness, even in our winters. But there is comfort here too; there is beauty in that sharp silver garden hitting your body during summer and that striking near-white bark that your glimpse in the corner of your eye.
So in the middle of a ‘cooler’ respite, here’s my ode to all the seas.
Image credits (from top to bottom): Untitled (Seascape) by Charles Conder; The Sea at Dieppe by Eugène Delacroix; Morning after the storm on the beach at Tangier by Sir John Lavery, R.A.; Sand, Sea and Sky: A Summer Fantasy by John Atkinson Grimshaw; Bronte Beach by Charles Conder; An Island in the Sea by George Wesley Bellows; Sea in Fog by George Wesley Bellows; The Baltic Sea by Lovis Corinth; The North Sea, August 1918, from NS7 by Sir John Lavery, R.A.; Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.