To journey without travel

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The leaves are turning again, their rims crisping at the margins and their laminas flushing a deep red. The fluorescent pink flowers of the crepe myrtle are dissolving like clumps of moistened fairy floss; their leaves — which appeared so late in spring I thought the tree might have died — are yellowing before my eyes, a slow-motion blur of green to the buttery gold that will precipitate their demise. High in the paperbark tree, a rainbow lorikeet is admonishing an Indian mynah; they’re fighting beak and claw over the creamy filaments of autumn’s already-moribund blossoms.

Main image:  Woman sitting in garden with passing seasons (Illustration Chris Johnston)

My garden and I have come full circle together, for the first time in perhaps a decade or more. When I arrived home on the second day of February in the Year of Our Plague, I was stepping from the bone-snapping frigidity of an Austrian winter into the slippery broil that passes for oxygen during Sydney’s most humid of seasons. Rumours were already circulating as surely as the plague itself, and a scattering of masks had appeared on the faces of travellers on flights and in airport transit halls; but I couldn’t have guessed as I passed through Australian immigration and scooped my bag from the carousel that I would not return to this depot for the longest time.

My life had been, until that point, a blur of travel, a flitting, in my job as a journalist and travel writer, across seven continents and more than 70 countries over the years. I had become immersed in foreign culture, food and geography, had become more adept at identifying birds of the polar regions than those in my own garden.

Serendipitously, I’d resolved to ground myself for the first part of last year — and to travel, when I did so again, more mindfully and with a somewhat softer carbon footprint. But the transfiguration of that intention into something more enduring has reaped unforeseen fruit, has expanded my shrunken world in myriad, soul-nourishing ways. Sitting at my garden table one warm February day watching birds dash from paperbark to Tasmanian blue gum to palm tree, I realised with a satisfying jolt that I had been present for every season of this singular year; I had journeyed in sync with my surroundings on their year-long journey around the sun.

Exactly two years earlier, as the cicadas droned and the dipladenias oozed from their stems in my Sydney garden, I was half a world and an entire season away, crunching along the snow-rimed cobblestones of Quebec City’s ramparted old quarter. It was another world, a snow globe shaken into a shimmer of flurries and cryogenically frozen. A few weeks later, as summer was embarking on its imperceptible traverse into autumn, I was many time zones distant, travelling east from Kathmandu into the Himalayan foothills where early spring’s rapeseed blooms quivered like acid yellow oceans on either side of the road. In the mountains, the deciduous trees were just coming in to leaf, and Mt Everest deigned glacially over pine-studded rises.

In May, when the grapevine’s last florid leaves clung vainly to their stems and summer’s warmth had retreated, I was hiking through St Helena Island’s sub-equatorial hinterland; here, fat fruits balanced like rubies on the spiny pads of prickly pears, green-tipped bourbon beans sprouted hard and shiny in the vertiginous coffee plantations, and scarlet hibiscus flowers twirled their skirts and flashed their stamens like exuberant dancers. In June, when gloom had infused my garden and the crepe myrtle had been entirely denuded, I was on top of the world, picking my way across Svalbard’s tundra. Warmed by a midnight sun, it was speckled with purple saxifrage and orange lichen. 

 

'From this new, grounded perspective I have observed the world in all its microscopic glory; even while standing still, I have partaken of a miraculous, incessant journey.'

 

By the time August’s squalls arrived and the camellias had fallen rusted and limp to the ground, I was flying along a New Mexico byway with the window down and the wind in my hair. Summoned by summer’s heat, sunflowers and lupins sprayed the muddy landscape with radiant hues. In October, as the potted daffodils wobbled like splayed suns on their stems and the azaleas fizzed outside my kitchen window, I was striding along the Ramblas in autumnal Barcelona; the city glowed with the burnished leaves of grand old oaks, and its drooping spires of lavender looked decidedly moth-eaten.

As that year was drawing to a close — the drowsy calm before COVID — my garden was awash with the scent of lavender and murraya and frangipanis. But I was hiking in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, through cold forests of chir pines clouded in orange-tinged needles, past terraces planted with winter crops of mustard and wheat.

Yet another year has passed, and as the earth tips away from the sun the season is inexorably changing. From this new, grounded perspective I have observed the world in all its microscopic glory; even while standing still, I have partaken of a miraculous, incessant journey.  

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Woman sitting in garden with passing seasons (Illustration Chris Johnston)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, changing seasons, garden, travel, covid-19, journey

 

 

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I find this a delightful piece of descriptive writing. The final words, “even while standing still, I have partaken of a miraculous, incessant journey”, actually reminded me of the introduction to a short story written by W. Somerset-Maugham called “The Vessel of Wrath.” In his introduction, Maugham notes how good descriptive writing can fire the imagination and transport one on incredible journeys. His story came out of the seemingly mundane “Sailing Directions” published by the Hydrographic Department of the British Admiralty: “These business-like books take you upon enchanted journeys of the spirit; and their matter-of-fact style, the admirable order, the concision with which the material is set before you, the stern sense or the practical that informs every line, cannot dim the poetry that, like the spice-laden breeze that assaults your senses with a more than material languor when you approach some of those magic islands of the Eastern seas, blows with so sweet a fragrance through the printed pages…[and] so much else is given you besides. What? Well, mystery and beauty, romance and the glamour of the unknown.” A fine piece of writing that enticed me to read again one of Maugham’s great yarns.


Ross Howard | 20 April 2021  

‘seemingly mundane “Sailing Directions” published by the Hydrographic Department of the British Admiralty’: ‘The steamer is going up river to meet Kurtz; it is “like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” A hut is sighted on the bank. It is empty, but it contains one book, sixty years old, An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship, tattered, without covers, but “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread.” And in the midst of nightmare, this old book, “dreary…with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures,” but with its “singleness of intention,” its “honest concern for the right way of going to work,” seems to the narrator to be “luminous with another than a professional light.” (V.S. Naipaul, Conrad’s Darkness, 1974) The gardens are heaven because, unlike elsewhere, the streets are not hell. The Great Australian Peace, with its honest concern for the right way of going to work, is luminous with another than a professional light.


roy chen yee | 22 April 2021  

What a beautiful read; reflecting through the seasons’ lenses, travelling again to the places in your past year’s travel memory book, and journeying through the seasons’ changes in your own backyard. So delightful to have found a colourful travel story in such a microscopic blimp of your usual office!


Jude | 25 April 2021  

I must confess, living in Brisbane, I do miss the 'real' English style gardens of my youth in Melbourne. My school was just across the road from the Botanic Gardens, where, when we were in Sixth Form, we were allowed to spend lunchtime. I still remember the Botanic Gardens with joy. All the colleges at Oxbridge have gardens. Some enormously beautiful. It should make studying more pleasurable, looking out from your room to the garden, but I'm not sure it does. There's too much pressure in student life. I think COVID has made many people, like you, Catherine, stop and stare at the little world in their backyard. In some ways it is tooth and claw, but in other ways it is peace. There's something about a garden. Sadly, I'm no gardener. But there are gardens which seem like Paradise. I think our concept of Paradise, even the word, comes from Ancient Persia. Iranian gardens are very formal and symbolic and feature water, which has value in that mainly desert land. Wonderful places.


Edward Fido | 01 May 2021  

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