Real Life: Bush Fire Emergency

Hugh and Nan Nicholson’s rainforest burning

Those of us in my region living in towns feel ourselves fairly safe in this emergency. So far. People from out of town have been evacuated and are staying with us. Others ask us to store their precious goods. I’m hosting four musical instruments and three large containers with photos and documents.

Recharging batteries is another thing we can do for people who no longer have electricity laid on. Whose power lines and generator sheds have been burned. In two cases I heard of today, the fire was stopped only a few meters from the main house.

The bushfire season began early this year. We’ve been burning since September, and the fires are getting worse, if that’s possible. Hotter, faster, and more destructive. In the past, diligent back-burning and fuel reduction in winter reduced your chances of being burnt out in summer. Now there’s hardly time. Winters are shorter and we’ve had less than half the rain we had last year when we already had a third less than in 2017.

It’s possible for a fire-ground to be burnt twice in two months. This despite the traditional view that rain-forest plantings, in contrast to Eucalyptus forest, will protect your property. No such thing now. Fires burn so hot that rainforests don’t stand a chance and they don’t grow back the way eucalyptus trees recover.

How will we live in a forever-blackened landscape?

Catherine Ingram’s article Facing Extinction, about the state of the world and humanity’s chances of surviving, is more a prescription for coping with the grief than a wake up call. It’s too late, she says, to try and save our Nature.

The way my countryside is burning, it certainly feels too late. I’m with Landcare. We plant trees. What if no trees survive either? It’s difficult to plan how to live now, when there’s said to be no future.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 8

The Black Cell

Three guards hustle me into the building. Not up the stairs. They walk me past a bunch of rooms furnished with desks and chairs, offices they look like, that are of the same configuration as the cells upstairs. At the end of the corridor is a door at right angles to where Simmon’s cell is upstairs.

Is there such a door upstairs as well? I don’t have time to remember because this door is yanked open and I am thrust in. Door slams. I am in the dark.

Pitch dark. Though I see lots of after-perceptions to begin with. The shapes of the men in the enclosure in their opposite colors. Sand-colored, they uncannily resemble Lotor-born melting into a Field of Dreams.

I blink that uncomfortable vision away and in its place see the fencing zig-zagging everywhere. I don’t recall that it was yellow? In its opposite hue it’s a zinging blue. It zig-zags over a face and the diamond shapes within the outlines slowly peel away.

My heart lurches. I know what I’m looking at.

Then I hear the singing. It’s the people in the yard because they sing the Meerkat Totem. Their strong many-voiced singing lifts my spirit.

Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young. Charged with food gathering, a meerkat leads the foraging. Carrying your family, you carry yourself. Whoever reaches the top, reaches down for the rest.

I hear the whole thing through before I realize they are inserting words. I listen harder. A creeping has begun of something up over my feet.

Charged with surveillance, we will slip away. Charged with caring, slip away from our guards.

The sound is fading because they are moving away, I realize. They’ve been started on their journey. I shift my feet and rub one off with the other. Cockroaches? Wood lice? What else lives in the dark?

Charged with food gathering, we make for the city by the mountains. Carry your family, walk twelve kilometers to the small platform and thirteen more, both into the setting sun. Who reaches the large platform set your face north. Walk twenty-five more.

They will slip away from their guards and make for the Yellow City, fifty kilometers distant and they are telling me the way. Can I walk fifty kilometers?

I’m already walking at a fast clip on the spot in the little area near the door. It’s weird that I don’t feel any insect carapaces crackling under my feet.

No. I know exactly why no crackling. Fear almost has me freezing.

I can’t freeze. Keep walking. Freeze and you will die. I get walking again. I warned my Meerkats to steer away from Lotor’s maw and I am in one myself? Lotor uses a couple of different awful-to-human-people ways to consume us. I snivel. The one in here is called black creep.

It is said that all creatures from off-planet are Lotor’s prey. I’ve never seen any creatures from off-planet other than us, descended from our Ark-Ship’s settlers, and the Earthborn who came as patterns and were reconstituted by the planet. I laugh. How does that make the Earthborn from off-planet?

The sounds I made just then laughing and sniveling, seemed to rise? I laugh some more while I keep walking, mostly on the spot. Almost-echoes from above? How wide, how tall is this cell? I fling out my arms to explore. Ouch! I hit a wall with my fingertips.

I twirl. Yes, my outstretched fingers skim past walls on all three sides, the door I came in through on the fourth. It feels like I am in a chimney.

Still walking, aka lifting my feet and mashing down on the creep, I explore the walls. Every second row is made of squared stones, the length breadth and depth of my forefinger when measured from the outside, knuckle to fingertip.

Ten-cubes, the Shamans call these. The rows between are doubles, two ten-cubes long. Also called bricks, they are just the things to cobble together a little platform to rest on.

I continue exploring, shifting my feet little by little to keep my speed steady. I brush my fingertips up the walls. All building stone is split from the mountains that Lotor extrudes. The Shamans consider them Lotor’s wastes.

I’m searching for missing stones or stones set crookedly. Places where I can get my fingers into, to pull. One unevenly laid cube will give me an in. I ignore the facts I do not have any tools, and that the walls are well made and blank as high as I can reach.

My feet and my legs are always the first to give up. Whenever my big toes don’t make it off the ground, I need to bend over to wipe away the creep by hand. It’s hard to keep up the lifting and setting down while I’m doubled over. No idea of the time outside, and why would I care? How many kilometers have I already walked in here?

For a change I sweep my hands down the wall, stopping short of the ground. Having Lotor’s hungry sand as close as the soles of my feet is near enough.

Wait.

My fingers brush a bump.

A couple of ten-cubes stick out down there. There’s a rim a fingernail-width deep, two cubes wide. Two cubes further, another such interruption. And another two cubes further, that same row again. That makes three of these strange configurations because they can’t have been accidental?

How high are they?

Five ten-cubes and they finish a single cube’s height above the level of the sand. I let myself get excited. The picture I’m getting is of vertical bars with the cubes between them sticking out, as if they were fitted in after the original build.

All kinds of knowledge cascade through me, the walls aren’t high because they were built to be a prison cell? I bet there are similar sets of columns-and-gaps in the adjacent, and the opposite walls. My knees hit my chest every step I take. Thud. Thud. I’ll be black and blue if I live that long.

I brush the stones with my fingertips, feeling for the irregularities introduced when the gaps were filled. Yes. I grin just for me. Here and here. Leaning into the nearest corner, I un-crick my back in stages because I must not forget to step. Can I rest my two feet on the nearest ledges set as they are at right angles, minuscule though they are? I’ll do anything for a little break from the walking action.

I’m in an evaporation tower that has its air-intake grates bricked in. Not a prison cell at all. Will it help, this knowing? It must. Each of the intake sections has twenty cubes, sixty per grate … I picture the intake vents made to look like grates in a house I once knew. Three grates making one hundred eighty cubes.

My feet keep slipping down. The creep is winning. The height of the evaporation tower will be equivalent to three floors including the ground. It was made by Ark-Ship settlers. There will be no getting through the walls. No getting through the ground floor air intakes low to the ground with their three-slotted structure.

The height of the house in this case is two floors. I know that from seeing it from the outside. The ground floor walls have two interlocking skins of bricks to carry the weight of the second floor. The upper rooms are walled with a single skin of stones to lighten the load.

With one hundred and eighty stones I can make myself a little floor and try to live forever on no food and no water–because the guards won’t feed me in here–or …

Fiction: Half Shaman, 7

7: The Narrow Yard

Where I lay crying and laughing. Nobody comes near me and I don’t, don’t care. The Ark Ship talked to me! I feel so … unbounded! I can do anything. And I am still me still the Harpy.

I’m scraped raw from being flung to the ground and skidding over the hard-packed dirt. A gravel rash that I barely notice is set with grains of sand and microscopic fragments of all the lives snuffed by the planet.

A guard reads hysteria in my actions or he knows just what I need. He turns a hose on me that spurts with a mixture of Lotor and Earth water. Lumps-in-a-liquid splatter over me.

All of me stings except the parts where the Lotor-water sticks to me. It seems Lotor is healing me. Does its central management know it’s healing me, or is it regional? As in, does Lotor’s heart know what Lotor’s elbow does? A life time study is Lotor. Soon to be truncated, at least by me. Ha ha ha!

I’m smiling so widely my face hurts. I sit up and smoothe the gel over my arm. Might as well. I look at them that couldn’t rush to my aid. There’s a fence separating us. Some look at the ground, seemingly ashamed that they couldn’t help. Some stare at me. I read a longing in them. Some smile fiercely to help along my joy.

Behind me in my yard are five fauns. In front, standing over by the fence on my side of it, where he is chatting with one of the Earth-born, is the one whom I suspect to be Thayne. He’s the only one in chains. He looks embarrassed.

“What’s your problem?” I inquire. I can’t stop smiling.

He shakes his head like he can’t believe what just happened. “You little fucker,” he says. “You made me a laughing stock. I built you up out here. Made you a real Harpy!”

A change of attitude rustles through the Earth-born. I didn’t see a signal. Men and women come to attention with various small incremental movements. Some look at me and then at Thayne. They seem to measure the distance between us, and move towards him despite the fence in their way.

Some stare fleetingly at the fauns also in the narrow yard. Four of the fauns are youths and the fifth is the man who might be their chief. He is made of frown lines, it seems to me. There’s no movement toward the fauns. No danger is expected from them apparently.

“Nobody I see is laughing,” I say, looking straight at the man on the other side of the fence conversing just now with Thayne. If anyone laughs, apart from me, it will be him. A smile sits waiting at the corners of his mouth. He’s a head shorter than Thayne and seems a few years the elder. He’s a taller than me … who isn’t … and stocky. From where do I remember him?

 “Why the fuck did you sing the Meerkat Totem?” Thayne says.

“What?” His complaint is so unexpected, I laugh; it shoots out of me, a long burbling glissade.

He comes for me, fist raised.

I try to control myself but can’t stop giggling.

He’s furious. “It’s not your totem! Not mine! Not anybody’s here! How will a Meerkat Totem help to get us out of here? The salt-mines, I told you!”

“Touch the Shaman and you’re dead,” says the man by the fence. The rest have gathered near him. There’s a threatening murmur confirming his meaning.

I get that the man by the fence probably sees through my disguise. He might even know me?

I frown at him. This is not a good time to be unmasked. What can I do to prevent it? The Head Shaman often controlled the students with his eternal lessons. The structure pops into my mind ready-made.

“Nevertheless, the Meerkat is the totem of the day,” I say. “Lesson One. Each day we begin with the previous Lesson’s Totem. Yesterday that was the Eagle.” I recall the Eagle Totem’s positive attributes quite well after yesterday’s efforts, though Thayne and I did not sing them.

Interesting that he did not comment or complain then. I don’t believe he knows there’s a difference. Now, among all these people, hearing the totem he professes as his own sung properly, he will be forced to attend, and sing, to keep his disguise. He may still be needed. Alive.

While organizing my thoughts I’m organizing myself. I’ve turned to face the left, where the Earth-born are gathered beyond their fence. Thayne is to my right. The Fauns are to my new left along with a couple of guards flanking the entrance into the building.

I start with the first phrase of the call, “He soars with his great wings …”

All the Earth-born sing and the words roar back at me.  “… reaching across the world …”

Thayne is still silent. I haven’t sung any of the real words yet.

“…far-seeing over fold and forest …”

Now he starts. Yesterday I gave him the words of the Fishing Eagle totem. Today we sing the Spirit Eagle totem.

“… He brings solutions to relieve a soul …”

“Now you dare!” he shouts. “I’m onto you now. I’ll …”

He doesn’t continue because the man at the fence pushes his hand through the wire faster than lightning—wire with slots too small to take a child’s wrist let alone a man’s arm—and grabs hold of Thayne. He pulls him close to the wire and talks to Thayne only.

Thayne, after he’s released, wears a diamond pattern in white on that side of his red face. And he wears a confused expression.

I miss seeing how the man gets his hand back through the wire, but sing the next phrase: “… a spirit and a heart …” Later, I think. Later I’ll think it through. The fence. The man. His hand.

My scholars sing the last phrase. The poor young fauns stare open-mouthed. I gather to my mind the line that the Head Shaman added in. “… The wind of his flight blows through our minds. …”

I suspect it gave the Head Shaman a few more words for a Shaman-to-Ship message. I don’t recall whether we dragged out any of the words to denote the dashes. I just remember the words and what they meant to me. Will they speak to anyone here?

Thayne snorts. The younger fauns sing it starry-eyed. The old faun glowers.

Well, on we go. “Next in the lesson is usually a story containing a homily,” I say. “I’m in difficulty here today. Knowing that many of you may be marched away at any moment, I have two stories that I want to tell you, both equally important to your survival.”

“With respect, Shaman Zjeb,” says the man by the fence. “Guards are getting toe-y. Tell us both as one-liners, if you please.”

The man by the fence knows my name! That abbreviation is how my father called me. What else does he know? To hide my trepidation I glance to where the guards are getting restless. They rock from their heels to toes, heels to toes. Ready to run for me? They’re mumbling. Deciding something. Looking at me, looking at my audience.

The old Faun, he no doubt being within hearing distance, looks even more forbidding.

“Make for the city by the mountains,” I sing.

The guards stop their fidgeting. Singing is all right with them?

“A salt mine is no less than a maw. Waiting in the landscape to slake. The planet’s greatest hunger.”

I manage not to mention the planet’s name but one of the guards gets my meaning and springs for me.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 6

6: The Meerkat Totem

I’m thinking about everything to do with signaling.

A shaman-to-Ship signal is hidden in a totem couplet that has more beats than the signal has elements. Or the couplet needs at least a beat for each element of the signal.

Which limits the couplets available? Or, different signals use different couplets. I mean, some couplets are quite short. Signals may be long. ‘Couplets’ is a bit of a misnomer too. Often there are four lines, not two.

Second, there is the fact that a dot and a dash are different in length. Must dots fall on short beats and dashes on long beats? I don’t know.

Give me, give me, give me a couplet to work on. Ants together carry their towns a stone at the time. Totems together carry their country a heart at the time. Together we live singly we die.

Don’t know why that one sprang into my mind, for I don’t know any Ant Totems. It is customary to capitalize the word when referring to people, says a shaman-teacher in my mind. I had the Shamans to guide me for three years. Ignore the meanings of the songs. Leave them for those who live the totems to cogitate on, the Head Shaman said.

So if I sing “Z to A” will the Ant totem couplet give me enough elements?

Mm. Write it down somewhere? Inner arm. Scratch it there with fingernail. Four letters. Ten elements. Dash dash dot dot / dash / dash dash dash / dot dash.Yes, there are plenty of elements in the Ant song. But not the shorts and longs in the right sequence, I think.

Use another couplet. Not any of the Eagles. The Meerkat?

I sing the words under my breath. Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young. Charged with food gathering, a meerkat leads the foraging. To carry your family is to carry yourself. Whoever reaches the top, reaches down for the rest.

Yes.

There’s a sequence but don’t cheer yet. It’s only the first step. The code for Z, dash dash dot dot, can be sung as Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el, where the two dots are short plosive sounds.To’ will become dash / dash dash dash, and can be sung as cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. ‘A’ is equal to dot dash, and will bea meer ka-a-at.

I sweat. It seems to work. But I’ve changed the sequencing around. Will that matter? Will it matter in the singing? What if I sing it three times and hide the wrong-way-round section between the other two?

I gasp because now I must sing. My cell will be my sound chamber, I remind myself. Start softly, normal speaking voice. Stand with my heels touching the bottom of the door. Face out toward the window. Remember to sing alto-tenor. Normal enunciation.

I sing the first two lines. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young.”

Now the sequence. I raise my chin, fill my lungs, sing as loud as I can. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. a meer ka-a-atCharged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

Down in the yards, the murmuring stops. I’ve been hearing it without realizing. The Earth-born are listening and maybe the Lotor-born as well. I can’t help it. I fill my lungs and sing again. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. Cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. A meer ka-a-at.Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

The phrases blend as if they belong. I’m cheered despite being the one and only doing the singing. Guards, who else, come tramping up the stairs.

I sing again, “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. a meer ka-a-atCharged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

The guards arrive at my door. They stand on the other side of it. They’re apparently waiting.

For what?

Sting sting sting in my arm.

I gasp. These stings are patterned something like my coding.

A thing vibrates in my arm! My amulet, of course. My flesh around it vibrates. I feel my letters in my arm the way I felt them vibrating in my throat when I sang them.

The coding simplifies. Pin-prick, needle-stab, stab, stab, prick, prick. Which represents AZ. Prick, prick, stab, stab, stab, prick. Which represents ZA.

I weep because the Ark Ship gives me its call sign and mine. Then I scream joy scream dance cry sing dance pull my hair. The ship! I want to scream. It talked. It signed me. It still knows me. I swallow and swallow and I cry and cry. Snivel snot and tears.

The guards shove open the door finally, shoving me along the floor with it. Yank me up, an arm each. Run me down the stairs. They throw me into the narrow yard between the two wide yards.

A Cat’s Story Ends

Miss Maggy-bag

A sad thing to report … Miss Maggy-bag was euthanased this morning due to tick paralysis. She was eleven years old and the most intrepid cat I’ve ever had the pleasure of guesting.

Intrepid because though she was too swaggy and inept to climb trees, she ran up walls after Asian House geckos, up fences to see off intruding felines and up the shade-cloth shed to sneer at the neighbor’s dogs.

She lost every collar with bells she was forced to wear as well as every flea collar. Under the house there will be a place where all these things lie, a testimony to a smart cat.

She was missing for sixteen hours. When I called her I only heard that squashed-frog sound, that frogs make when they are stuck in the drainpipes and it’s raining.

Finally found her at the bottom of the steps, cold, wet and unable to move. That noise was her, even her vocal chords were paralyzed.

I could’ve taken out a loan and gone through all the rigmarole of seeing if she’d make it with the antivenin, but she was 8x smaller than my dog who got a tick the same size and barely made it.

So I have her at home, swaddled in a towel, dead on my lap. It’s easy to imagine she is still alive because she is lying against me and I am breathing, she with me. It’s raining at the present, softening the ground. Later I’ll go out and dig a hole.

Maggy, wishful thinking. She tore off her toe on a fence and she could not go outside

Writing is Gardening

Mullumyard in the Rain

Gardening is like a hands-in-the-dirt kind of writing. That’s the thought I had about them both while I pulled out weeds this morning.

What I was doing there–with that thinking–was trying to construct a metaphor. You will have noticed, though, that I had doubts and inserted a ‘like’. The two things that I was trying to relate to each other at that moment felt like they are too different from each other and I settled for making a simile.

But what is there about gardening and writing that I thought I could bring them together in a metaphor? Thinking thinking thinking. I guess it is more about the ways that I engage in each process.

Gardening, you pull your garden gloves on, walk into the backyard and start weeding. For example. When you’ve picked all the dandelion flowers due to set seed and put them in the organic refuse bin, you’ll see that the newly planted pansy plants are looking a bit limp. Without having to wonder what you’ll do next, you’ll get a watering can, fill it and give the pansies a drink. Next, you’ll notice that the excess thyme plants you ripped out last week, are looking nicely dried. You’ll give them a good shake above the vegetable patch to release all those little dry leaves, where they’ll add to the mulch. Every little bit helps. And so on.

Writing, you’ll open the software you’re using, open the files you’re working on, and start adding into or subtracting from the section you last worked on. Soon you’ll discover that if you add this action to a character’s arc here, you’ll need to seed that character earlier in the piece, and you work on that for a while. While you are getting your lunch, you think of a nice metaphor with which to explain one of your most recalcitrant plot points, and so when you get back into it, you shift your attention to that part of the arena. And so on.

See the similarities?

Gardening is a hands-in-the-dirt kind of writing and writing is gardening with words.

‘Pantsing’ versus Planning

One of my typical ‘pantsed’ embroideries. Even the frame surrounding it was unplanned. Proof is in the areas where it touches or goes over the inner design.

This week I started to rewrite my work-in-progress before I have even written the last two chapters. Since I already know how they must proceed, it didn’t seem as important to finish the work as fix the holes I was finding while re-reading.

Some of these holes are places where I need to ‘seed’ facts to familiarize readers with concepts that will later be used as part of the plot. About five of them, so far.

For example, in Meld, the novel I’m working on, I’ll be writing a time-jump scene. There’s a space shuttle involved that I can’t just have appearing out of the blue … I’d be accused of using a plot device known as a deux ex machine ‘whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence …’ (Wikipedia)

I’ll need to ‘seed’ the shuttle earlier in the story to show that it belongs.

A second problem are the areas of credibility stretched thin by an over-use of descriptive detail, or an over-use of dramatic elements. The former is easy to fix. I just need to decide which bits of description the story can’t do without, and delete the rest.

The latter, the dramatic elements, are more difficult. In several cases these consist of personal characteristics of one or other of the characters and as such have been used to influence outcomes of behavior throughout the novel.

First I had to plot all main characteristics of each of the 6 most important characters … I hear you asking … why wouldn’t you do that before you start writing? And I would say to you … there speaks a planner. Which I am not. I’ll always will be doing this kind of thing half or three-quarters of the way through a project because I am a pantser.

I get an idea for a story in the form of a piece of dialogue between two characters. Or a thought. And I start writing. Dialogue and narrative are the first of my output. I plot and plan down the track. Insert and rewrite. Often.

Pantsing is a lot like sketching. I write and rewrite until a distinct story/image forms among the crowded words/pencil marks. How do you get your story out?