To the Sea

Friday, 11 January 2013

Untitled (Seascape)

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.

The Sea at Dieppe

Morning after the storm on the beach at Tangier

Sand, Sea and Sky

Bronte Beach

An Island in the Sea

Sea in Fog

The Baltic Sea

The North Sea

Symphony in Grey and Green

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.

12 comments:

Joanna said...

Very soothing. This post makes me happy. :-)

Chuck said...

Hila, I love how engaged you are. It is very inspiring. I haven't read Dorien but I have read Self's My Idea of Fun which I absolutely loathed. I wholly un-recommend it. I had to read it for the same class as American Psycho and it is similarly horrid. Self's writing is so clever but unpleasant.... Eugh.

I would love to experience the Australian sea. The closest I've got is Tim Winton. One day! The weather is miserable here so I think I might go in search of warm seas and glowing climes in literature. I'm reading about Florida at the moment so that is a start. X

Rambling Tart said...

I love this post, Hila. :-) I grew up near the cold, Northern seas of Canada and the States, so your warm seas are wonderfully strange to me. :-) We are sweltering on our side of the country too, but every night a sharp change comes. Fierce cool winds blow in making you wonder how you were ever nearly comatose with heat just a few hours before. :-) Australia is harsh, strange and absolutely marvelous. :-)

carolinefryar.com said...

Hila, thank you so, so much for sharing these. They're fantastic.

vegetablej said...

I sympathize about the sweltering heat, having 9 years of extremely hot springs, summers, and autumns in Japan. There they actually have special foods, like smoked eel, to eat to restore your strength during long hot periods.

If you want to feel like you are right in the ocean when you can't be there try to rent some movies like Message in a Bottle or Perfect Storm, or maybe Blue Crush for Australian water. They put the water all around you. It's how I went to the ocean when I was far away.

And there's always cold green tea.

Sasha said...

This was beautiful. I find myself drawn to all bodies of water. There's something deeply endearing about its movements, its colors. And it fills me with an oddly content nostalgia. I definitely got that feeling from this post.

Gracia said...

Thanks for your "ode to all the seas". For too long has Charlotte Wood been on my to read list. (Since reading an extract from her Animal People to create a collage for The Big Issue last year, to be precise.) I like the idea of it like a blade and a silver garden of rebirth.

Yours, a water baby from long back,
G

rooth said...

You know, I think I'm a water baby until I get to the sea and am just overwhelmed by how huge it is and how it (or a creature in it) could easily swallow me whole. For me, the sea is about relinquishing control and really being with nature.

Hila said...

Joanna: I'm glad :)

Chuck: Aww, thanks! The way you summed up Self's writing is basically what I think too: clever, but unpleasant. I also hated American Psycho. I'm not a fan of this overly-cynical style of writing - it doesn't take much effort or originality to be cynical. Ah, Tim Winton! He's a WA favourite.

Krista: I agree! Australia has its own logic.

Caroline: My pleasure!

vegetablej: Good tips, thanks :)

Sasha: Same, I think it's just the lulling affect of water - makes me feel like a child.

Gracia: I loved 'The Submerged Cathedral'. It seemed to have inspired mixed and polarised responses from my students though, when I taught it. Please tell me what you think if you read it!

Rooth: That's part of the beauty of the sea - its immensity.

Sarah said...

oh man I could spend the whole day just poring over these. melting over the muted colors, and the brushstrokes, they're strokes of genius!

-Sarah
The Chic Banner

Looking Glass said...

I love this post! I think you've summed up our Australian climate beautifully. I am lucky to gaze upon the ocean every day from my work desk and you know what? It does calm me and keep me cool on a hot Summer's day even without having to dip my toes in...

Clare x

Hila said...

Thanks Sarah!

Clare: There is something so calming about the sea, I'm jealous of your constant view.