A map that everyone can understand

Marquesas Islands

French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean.  An island group so small, in relation to the bigger picture, that when you zoom in to see the islands, their relation to the rest of the world disappears, and they sit surrounded by a screen of blue…

This delightful image reminds me of this excerpt from Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of The Snark (a poem that every sailor should read and possess a copy of, on board):

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

On a bigger map, these islands of myth and legend, beloved of sailors, dreamers, and an ailing, suffering Paul Gauguin, apparently sit—wonderfully, unimaginably—isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At this scale, they disappear—words, shapes, everything—from the map, completely, and we have to rely on Google’s red balloon to determine their existence.

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In the poetic imagination, The Marquesas are so remote from the rest of the world, that when Paul Gauguin—plagued by all sorts of illnesses, going blind, abandoned by his vahines, and dependent on laudanum and morphine to ease his suffering—told his art-collector friend (and, later, biographer), George Daniel de Monfreid, that he wished to return to Europe, Monfreid dissuaded him:

In returning you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public’s appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world. Your enemies – and like all who upset the mediocrities you have many enemies – are silent; but they dare not attack you, do not even think of it. You are so far away. You should not return… You are already as unassailable as all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.

 — George Daniel Monfreid, Letter to Paul Gauguin circa October 1902

Kris finally got through the Panama Canal on the 17th of September, after countless leads, agents, options, fly-by-night freight carriers and whatnot… and he did not even spend a whole day on the other side…

Eager to finally make his way back home, he weighed anchor the same evening. His first stop, The Marquesas…

As remote as they are, The Marquesas signify, happily for me, the slow but dogged approach of my Beloved.

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Good days

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

weekend

I spent last payday’s wages on books…I went a little crazy, online.

I ordered back issues of the literary journal Granta, collected works by Graham Greene and a novel by William Faulkner. I snapped up some short story collections of Latin American writers, in Spanish. I took out two literary magazine subscriptions: Overland, and The Lifted Brow. I impulsively put Taschen’s massive full-colour art books of Egon Schiele and of Peter Beard, in my shopping cart, and paid for them with my eyes half-shut, and without looking at what the total came to. Then I ordered Dan Eldon’s The Journey Is The Destination, because he was influenced by Peter Beard.

Finally, and already made extremely uncomfortable by this binge of book-buying, I threw the last of my sensibility (and money) to the wind and bought the out-of-print, hard-to-find monograph produced in Germany of the works of Expressionist artist Jeanne Mammen. She was an amazing painter, and so little is known of her…apart from this one monograph of her work, there are no books, illustrated or otherwise, about her.

I know what you’re thinking: did I rob a bank…or am I printing the money at home? This sounds like the online shopping spree of a person with lots of disposable income, but I’m actually just a salesgirl in a shop, I work three days a week, and I send a third of my income to help an elderly parent.

The decision to enrich my life with books means that I give up other things. For the last four days I have lived on pots of coffee and boiled spaghetti with salt and garlic—which is the only thing that I have on my boat— because I can’t afford to go grocery shopping for a week or two.

Do I care? Not really. I love elaborate cooking, and among my friends I am known as a bit of a foodie. Just a bit. But I love books. I love them first. I love them more. If I were to be completely practical and honest about things, food is ultimately just fuel for the body to run on. (My foodie friends will have heart attacks when they read this blasphemy). I could have a whole Instagram account dedicated to what I eat, but can I tell the difference between a five dollar meat pie and a 70 dollar three-course dinner, in the…um…at the…end? LOL

Besides, we all eat too much, these days, so that a few days off food won’t hurt. I don’t mind eating salted chickpeas out of the can with a spoon as my one meal of the day, if it’s because I have just bought some fabulous books on art, or literature.

I found that I didn’t really want to eat, these past four days, anyway. I was lost between the pages of my books—some of which have started to arrive from the booksellers—and wasn’t hungry for anything but beautiful prose and inspiration.

 

Paradise Found

Paradise Found

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

excerpt from Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

I went away for two years, to marvel at vine-hung jungles up muddy rivers, at tepuys rising like wizards fortresses out of a sea of greenery, at waterfalls so high that half the water had blown away on the wind before a drop reached the ground where I stood. I clung to mules as we descended near-vertical mountain paths in the Andes. I bedded down for the night in bus stations, in traveller’s inns that felt like army barracks, in 18th century mansions filled with antiques, and in a crash pad in New York—eight Latin Americans in one room, of whom one spoke English.

I stayed with locals in disparate settings of 18th century charm, or 18th century poverty…in a clapboard house sinking into the squishy mud on the edge of a filthy canal, in a house in the old slave quarters of a medieval city, where the young prostitutes drank and argued on the old cobblestones, and  I spent one night in a communist-style block of Cuban apartments where the water and electricity came on for a few hours each day, but every resident owned an instrument and the building twitched its hips to salsa music, morning till midnight.

Naturally, when the time came to return home, I was a little worried that life in Darwin, Australia, would seem poorer for all the places I’d been.

I needn’t have worried.

As the old cliché goes, “There’s no place like home.” Back up the creek on our houseboat, SonOfAGun, the mangroves swayed in the sea wind, and morning sunlight lay slick on green-gold water like fine olive oil. For many months I was utterly spellbound.

When Kris and I moved our boat to this spot, I loved it right off the bat: the solitude, the natural surroundings, the quality of the light, the chi of living surrounded by water. I didn’t think it was possible to love this place any more, until I came back from my wandering and found that I did.
paradise found 2

“Paradise Found” was made for the exhibition “Gypsies, Vagabonds, and Wild Mad Women”. I priced it to discourage anyone from buying it and, luckily, no one did. I’m glad, because I want to live with this one for a while. It’s the beginning of what I suspect may be a bunch of love letters to my home and my life.
paradise found 3
It’s composed of watercolours, acrylics, collaged papers (linocut, textured or painted beforehand) and a bit of colored pencil. I’ve just uploaded the image to my Society6 shop, so it’s now available as a fine art print on acid-free rag paper.

jungles real & imagined

We Go...
We Go In Search Of Our Dreams, 2017.30x40cm. (12×16″) acrylics and alkyds.

My friends organised a group show while I was in Guatemala, called Gypsies, Vagabonds, and Wild Mad Women (open from 13th April – 7 May at Tactile Arts, Fannie Bay, NT), and included me. When I got back to Darwin in October of last year, I found it so difficult to do the work for it. Of the 7 small canvases I prepared, I only managed to paint 2 in the end. This painting was one of them.

Unlike most of the other things I made for the show, this one practically painted itself. That’s partly because realistic stuff is actually quite easy to paint…I’m not really inventing anything from scratch: trees, plants, jungle backgrounds, lianas, ferns, backpackers…I’ve seen them all, at some point in my life, and know roughly how they ought to look. Putting all these elements together may be a kind of inventing, but I’m really just layering one familiar image on top of another.

The other reason this painting came so easily is that I have fairly recent memories of jungles like this. Kris and I spent 5 months up a river in Guyana, surrounded by riverine jungle…and very little else.

Jungle Trail

I have some photographs from this part of our trip, but looking at them now somehow doesn’t recall the way it felt to be there. That’s the danger of relying on photographs to preserve your memories: very few of the photographs we take do the experience justice. With a camera in hand, I tend not to observe as much of my surroundings…I don’t stop to gaze at one thing, burning it into a complex memory that includes sounds, smells, textures, movement. I am counting on the digital record to reproduce all of that for me, later. But the camera can’t record smells or textures or sound (not mine, not well), and it focuses on no single thing; unless I’ve taken a macro of some flower or other small object, most of my shots of “the jungle” are just a mess to look at: a million leaves, a tangle of branches and vines, every skinny palm tree or rotting log is there, in the poor light that filters down through the canopy. The photographs show everything; and yet, often, show nothing. A green and brown shadowy chaos.

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If I hadn’t spent hours upon hours just paddling around, gazing up at the forest canopy, or walking around with my eyes glued to the forest floor; if I hadn’t taken individual plant specimens home to carefully sketch, or written page upon page of what it was like, at that moment, to be sitting on deck, looking up at canyon walls covered in trees and snaking vines…I would not remember Guyana as vividly as I do.

jungle underpainting

All that actual looking, writing, smelling, touching, sketching paid off. As I painted each layer of this canvas, I heard the whooping bird calls again, the yip-yip-yip of toucans colourful as piñatas; the drawn-out roars of howler monkeys  echoing from deep among the trees; the boiling surface of the murky river, as great fanged arapaimas hunted blindly for the smaller piranhas; the ghostly lights of giant fireflies floating among the buttress-roots of giant trees. I saw again the up-and-down floaty bounce of morpho butterflies—their Dutch Blue wings flashing in and out of sunlit patches. Felt the cool air of the forest floor on my face, and heard the muffled patter of fat raindrops falling through the jungle canopy in a storm.

Jungle Trail

This painting became a doorway back to that world, that time in my life. I got misty eyed quite often, painting this (even though the finished painting is hardly fine art) and the memories flooded me with rapture—How can this wild, primeval memory be mine? How have I deserved to be the owner of such magnificent sensations?—and regret, because I could have spent a decade in that jungle, and still be a stranger to its secrets. I am sorry I could not spend more time…not just in Guyana, but in all of the places we visited and fell in love with.jungle underpainting

Still, to have been there at all is a miracle. I never dreamed I would make it to any place so wild and beautiful. And I have my memories, scented and intricate and rich, tucked inside: a miniature door that I pray will continue to open for me, when I need it, given the right touch, turning the right key.

Burning the midnight sun

POLLINATE Rechargable solar lamp

I bought a POLLINATE ENERGY Rechargable solar lamp recently, after seeing it in action at a friend’s garden party. I’ve been using it every night, since, and cannot praise it enough.

I connect the lamp to its small solar panel (installed permanently on the roof of the houseboat) during the day to charge it; at night, I disconnect it from the solar panel, and can then use the lamp as a desk lamp (it comes with a stand), a hanging light, or as a handheld torch/flashlight, anywhere on the boat. It casts a warm and extremely bright light.  At it’s brightest setting (it has three: a night light setting, a regular setting you can read or cook by, and a turbo setting good enough to embroider by,) a fully-charged lamp will last 6 hours.

The boat has always been equipped with solar lights, but because they run off a large deep-cycle 12-volt battery, they have wires, and had to be permanently fixed to the ceilings; I can’t move around the boat to work, and the light coming from several feet overhead just isn’t powerful enough to do fine work by. I used to have to stop doing finicky crafts or drawing when evening came, because most LED solar lights are bluish, sickly, and flicker in a way that tires the eyes quickly.

pro2-1

Since buying the Sunking Pro2 from Pollinate Energy, I have been able to stitch, write, read, paint, and bind books well into the night. I’m no longer confined to my worktable inside the cabin, but free to work anywhere on Sonofagun’s spacious deck, as well. Heck, I could take my needlework with me, camping, if I was so inclined.

Both the lamp and its solar panel are ruggedly built and virtually indestructible. The battery has a lifetime of 5 years, and the lamp comes with a 2 year warranty. I didn’t even mention the 2 USB charging ports, because I don’t have any use for them…my big solar panel and battery set-up handles that.

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And if all of that doesn’t make this lamp desirable enough, then you should know about Pollinate Energy’s mission to provide safe, clean, solar-powered light (among other things) to households in India. When I buy one Sunking Pro2 lamp, in Australia (about AUD130, with shipping), I subsidise the costs of production to make 5 solar lamps affordable for families living in the urban slums of India—so that kids don’t have to study or do their homework by the dangerous, smelly, toxic light of a kerosene lamp, and their parents can do their livelihood work in the evenings by good, bright lights. These lights save on kerosene, on carbon emissions, save eyes and lungs, and won’t start fires…

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They’re perfect, really. I recommend the Sunking Pro2 to anyone wanting a good, bright portable light…not just the odd boat or caravan dwellers and enthusiastic campers, but even anyone that currently owns a large flashlight and buys disposable batteries for it. Check out Pollinate’s website here.

And no, I was neither paid nor prompted to write this. I am only too happy to recommend good products for free, when I come upon them. 🙂

Write over the edge of a cliff

“So I have two opposing beliefs that exist side by side—one, that communication is possible; two, that communication is impossible—and I swing back and forth, writing or not writing.”   —Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

I’m just going to dive into this post, because if I try to “catch up” with everything that has happened since October, I will never get the job done.

Stephen Dobyns sums up the way I often feel about blogging. The task of ordering my thoughts around the subject matter, and writing them down in the best way I possibly can, takes so much time and energy, it’s almost like having a second (third?) job. And yet, that is the only way to truly communicate something. The point of writing, after all, is to communicate: to take an experience, a thought, a feeling, and express it as succinctly as possible, so that you manage to move that experience or idea (nearly, though never entirely, because everyone interprets words differently) from your own head and into the head of a reader.

If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.

Despite all the care taken to arrange words so that they convey something precise, communication still fails, sometimes. Writers are not the only people guilty of being lazy and careless with words. Readers can also fall short of their roles and speed their way heedlessly through words, misinterpreting them or failing to appreciate that someone has, to the best of their abilities, chosen these particular words, and has put them in this particular order, for a reason.

They say writing, as a profession, is dying, and I believe that.

“Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”
—from The novel is dead (this time its for real), by Will Self for  The Guardian

Forget the debate between ‘dead tree’ vs. ebooks, and how the ease with which anybody can now ‘publish’ a book (because there are no financial risks involved in backing and promoting a lousy writer, whose work is a mere digital file that can be replicated ad infinitum) will make the difficult profession and demanding craft of writing extinct. I believe that even ebooks will die out, eventually, as both writers and readers get lazier, do whatever comes easiest. Any attempts to actually teach critical reading or serious writing in schools will come to be seen as “bullying” the children into learning something that is neither ‘fun’ nor profitable.

The visual image is the real king, these days, because it demands less of its audience. It is instantly gratifying, it titillates with colors and shapes (and subject matter), it does not require an education, a vocabulary, memory (in order to make sense of succeeding paragraphs, one must be able to recall what was said in the preceding ones)…it does not even require knowing a language. It’s wonderful in that way. It will cross boundaries of language, geography, culture, education and class, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful thing, the image—quick and easy to take in—though perhaps responding, relating, and consuming only images will be as detrimental to our mental health as consuming only packets of chips and bite-sized morsels of processed food would be to our bodies.

But nobody’s worried about that, because the great thing about this worldwide and systematic decline in critical reading OR quality writing is that if we are ALL uniformly dumber, then we really aren’t dumb anymore, are we? We may have taken a step backward, but we’ve all taken it together, and anything more demanding ceases to exist as something we have lost, or as something to be regained, because we simply won’t be aware that it ever was. The reference point blips out soundlessly, like the tree nobody was around to hear fall over in the forest.

I am on my way out of the devolving world, and the intellectual futures of people who made something like Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller—with its appallingly bad metaphors, its “sex will make bad writing palatable to dumb readers” strategy, and its author’s (and publisher’s) cavalier abandonment of any standards of quality—is not really my concern, anymore. If anything, I’m merely disappointed by how few of the new and trumpeted books emerging in bookstores and libraries have stolen my heart this year…

But I’ll keep on writing, here and elsewhere, even though the number of people willing to slow down and read a few hundred words with mindfulness has dwindled (and will continue to dwindle). Because I value the act of writing, in and of itself, whether it gets read or not. Because good writing brought me up and carried me through the wilderness of this world. Because I can’t not write.