EXACTLY when I became an addict, I can't say, for the compulsion to green your own ground, like the spur of necessity to write, can creep up on you. But somewhere, somehow, several seasons back I became a compulsive planter.
This planting proclivity, this imperative dalliance with the dirt, which the dictionary describes variously as: to set (seeds, crops, et cetera) into (ground) to grow; to place firmly in position; to establish, found, to implant in the mind, can lead you into some shady and secluded avenues of cross-fertilisation, as I discovered recently when I found myself writing a book about nature, a process which taught me, among many things, to surrender to life's fluctuating rhythms of engagement.
One day I'm out walking in the wilds or working in the garden, exposed to the sun, the wind, the scent of salt air, the clouds of mosquitoes and fiery nests of jumping ants; next day I'm a lounge lizard, reading all manner of books, poetry, magazines, the local rag, idly doodling daisies, adjectives, ideas and disembodied phrases in my notebook. These wisps entertain the mind and set it off on new and sometimes wildly tangential courses. Some courses I bypass; others I follow, contemplatively tossing them around in the compost heap of my mind where they age, gradually break down and, in a fresh, unrecognisable form, serve as fertiliser for a whole new creation.
When you're trying to cultivate your own creative course in life, your best bet is to follow the chief force of attraction. For me, right now, that is down amongst the densely planted trees in my backyard. Pottering amongst them, I find myself steeped in a still satisfaction. I may ponder a prevailing problem or momentarily immerse myself in the borrowed scenery of some fuzzy future, but mostly my mind is, as Marvell put it: "Annihilating all that's made/To a green thought in a green shade."
This past summer, the remorseless sub-tropical humidity hit hard. In my neck of the woods, or what's left of them, the trees are an antidote to enervation. One morning I ambled under the canopy and sat on a rock the size of a small television set. This rock I had uncovered several days before while digging a hole to plant a tree fern. Using an old fence paling and the garden hoe, I had, with the help of a neighbour, levered and heaved it out of the ground.
Sometimes when I settle on that black rock awhile, certain ambiguous concepts, muffled desires, imaginative or emotional filaments as fine as dandelion flowers or finch feathers begin to float up. If I can resist clutching at them, they will sail towards me and settle softly on the shoulders of my writing. Then, like a mother hen with an itchy wing, I will scratch and stroke and smooth them. I will cluck over them and hold them up against the harsh light. Days, weeks, years may go by. Eventually, they will coalesce on the printed page.
Meanwhile, on the lounge lizard days, I assume the horizontal and investigate all manner of things about trees, turning the pages and chewing on the irony that so many of these sentient beings lay down their lives for the paper on which the information I seek has been printed. In a hard-bound exercise book, for which even more trees died, I make notes.
Importuning the powers that be, I mutter: Hopefully this is all in a good cause. I write down:
A mere acre of trees can remove approximately thirteen tons of dust and gases from the atmosphere every year.
The ancient Greeks attributed great oracular powers to oak trees because their roots penetrated so deeply into the earth, the repository of wisdom and insight into the future.
The Druids so revered the oak that it signified their order.
Merlin, it's claimed, conducted his enchantments in the shade of an oak tree.
The Kadamba was one of Krishna's favourite trees, while the myrtle was said to be sacred to Aphrodite.
In pagan times people believed that spirits lived in trees and they would not pass particular sacred trees without stroking their bark to assuage the trees' spirits, to tap into their wisdom, or perhaps to make a wish. Hence the expression "touch wood."
While no one in Australia, to my knowledge, has attempted to put a monetary value on the many vital services that trees provide, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has had a go. They calculated that a single tree that lives for fifty years will contribute services worth almost 200,000 American dollars to the community during its lifetime.
Discovering all this stuff, however, does not alleviate the planting addiction on which I find myself hooked. If anything, it only intensifies it to the point where I can hardly keep my hands out of the soil or my wallet. On the fringe of the forest, I scan, plot and plan -- a Flindersia brayleyana here, a Syzygium luehmannii there. I wish someone would start a Planters Anonymous program for us addicts. I've lived in the Rainbow Region for several years now, so I've heard the 12-step meeting spiel.
Sitting on my television rock, I give it a birl: "Hi. My name's Shelley and I'm an addict. Some days I just cannot stop, even when I'm aching and sweaty and exhausted. The mere sounds of the names seduce me -- Waterhousia floribunda, Randia benthamiana, Cryptocarya obovata, Toona australis. Every time I drive past a nursery, I struggle to keep the wheels steering straight ahead instead of veering left for a quick green score. I've clocked up nearly two weeks' clean time, but if I'm truthful, that's only because I spent the money earmarked for the electricity bill on twelve mature Bangalow palms and now I'm broke for a while."
Leaning my back against the trunk of a Swamp Mahogany, I consult my higher power about this compulsive-addictive syndrome.
What do you advise? I humbly petition.
An authoritative voice replies: Keep planting. Keep writing. You are indeed deep in the forest right now, but on the right track.
I scratch my head. Was that my higher power or my earthbound ego speaking? Is there not a part of me, of all of us planting addicts, that wishes to make our own miniscule green mark on the planet before we pass on to the happy planting grounds further afield?
In the writing life, what else can you do but fossick through the fragments of your own fancies, fetishes and frets? Every so often a gossamer outline of the impending work hangs suspended in a clearing up ahead, glimmering like a tinselled cobweb in the dawn dew. But you must approach it tenderly. If you charge at it or through it, you will mangle it, destroy its fragile and particular form. And then you'll have to stay up half the night like a deranged Daddy Longlegs, frantically fine-spinning the words all over again. And after all that effort, you still may not manage to weave the exact same gorgeous web on which you first set eyes. This business of approaching and unveiling one's work and, ipso facto one's life, can be a delicate operation, a sensitive balancing act, a steep, respectful learning curve.
The secular world promotes the full speed ahead, gung-ho approach to achievement; it advocates techniques like goal-setting, check lists, time management; it sanctions the imposing and overlaying of a preconceived pattern. But when you're writing or preparing to write, you are, as often as not, in a dappled zone of revision and recantation through which a wintry mistral of ambivalence constantly blows. It echoes in your ears, irritates your eyes, keeps you generally edgy, wavering, or shaken. You dare not complain about it, for it insulates you equally and alternately against your vicious inner critic and your impulses to lapse into creative complacency.
For days or weeks the work may not go well. Then one morning, for no apparent reason, the cotton wool clouds of your thoughts part and a pale crescent moon of clarity reveals itself. You grab the pen. Gratefully, you outline a lunette of words. With wild abandon or detailed deliberateness, depending on the depth of your desperation, you trace its arc amongst the work. By sunset, you're thinking "at last the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places, yea, I have a goodly heritage and will shout myself an Indian takeaway tonight and maybe even a massage tomorrow."
The thing about the work is: you have to persist. You have to sit still somewhere and start. You scribble. And wait. Scrawl a little more. Tap, tap, tap the keyboard. Delete. Cut and paste. Tinker. Drink endless glasses of lemon water, cups of tea. Gaze out the window, hoping for a lightning bolt of inspiration to strike you. Ruminate. Twiddle. Type some more. A rolling stone gathers no moss -- and it is precisely the moss, the soft verdant skin of the work, which you need to allow to grow on you, to cover you in its moist, dense mats of meaning
To return to the tree-planting trope, the writing process goes something like this: You plant the seed, you water, you fertilize, you mulch. You wait. You are in the early stages of frondescence. Some leaves will thrive, some will wither and fall off the twig. The trunk gradually grows branches, sometimes too many. You prune. You cannot afford to be fainthearted about this, yet you must also be considerate and wily about the pruning -- the amount, the timing of it. If you don't prune enough, the work will grow straggly or unwieldy; if you prune too soon, it will not blossom; if you prune too brutally, you will destroy its inherent shape.
One afternoon in the forest I was down on my knees mulching a Davidson's Plum (Davidsonia pruriens) when something went plop. A Lewin's honeyeater had landed on one of the thick juicy stems of a Giant Elephant's Ear, Cunjevoi (Alocasia macrorrhiza). He peck, peck, pecked open the fragrant, fat pod to get to the tiny red fruits inside, then made a hearty meal of most of them before flitting off. I made a mental note to plant more Cunjevoi -- and then I caught myself drifting like a tuna ensnared in the net of these green ideas
How, I asked myself, had I managed to float this far away from the fast-forward world with which I once so feverishly engaged? Whatever happened to that old eighties part of my persona, the woman who wore stilettoes, silk stockings and navy power suits, who straightened her hair, who rode her animus with spurs on, negotiating city boardrooms and the Himalayan egos of vertically challenged film producers with equal dexterity, who heard the cash register ringing as she churned out slick client copy week after well-paid week? Had I ventured into a twilight glade too far off the bright, beaten track? Was my work too allusive, too meditative, too Romantic?
In quest of reassurance, I prowled my local bookshops and was heartened to hear that the nature sections are among the most popular and fastest growing. One day I dragged myself out of this most easterly ecotopia I call home and schlepped to the city. The mainstream bookshops there had fat, glossy sections for gardening -- Don Burke Does Tuscany and What Rhododenron is That? -- but there was none for any broader view of nature and our relationship to Her (unless you count the panoramic coffee table books). I cast a critical eye over the mass-market, non-fiction best-sellers and wondered, for a nanosecond, if I could redirect my writing inclinations towards, say, Thai cooking or a-thousand-and-one Aussie jokes? Nah. I'm afraid that someone else will have to reap the royalties from those. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, I've not only gone bush, I've also gone and married the Muse. I've put down roots in Joseph Campbell country -- following my bliss, trusting the garden path of organic creativity to lead me through some fresh green fields along the way.
Just the other day, after an especially productive and tiring day of planting, I had a dream. I was walking in an open field emblazoned only by a massive spreading tree like an ancient oak. In a split second, some tremendous invisible force lifted the oak out of the earth, suspended it about ten metres in the clear blue air and began to spin it tremendously fast. Around and around like a whirling dervish surrounded by a huge halo of light it rotated, until its branches contracted and curled in, gnarled and distorted by the pressure. After several minutes the spinning gradually slowed to a halt. The branches began to uncoil and the leaves to unfurl and resume their normal outstretched shape. The surrounding featureless landscape and the whole event were charged with a vital, positive power. Unhurriedly, the mighty force then lowered the tree back into the earth in a new spot only metres from its original position.
I awoke with the understanding that this whole happening was a sign of how certain contretemps, cycles of creativity and changes will erupt from the deep seams of the unconscious and heave us, in spasms and starts, through life, whether we think we're ready or not.
Copies of my book, "Love Letters from Mother Nature, "which explores what it is like to fall in love with a universe that is alive and which prizes nature-as-teacher, are out in the bookshops and on the internet, vying with countless others for readers' attentions, and, like all authors, I wish for healthy readership. But the mind, to resist neurotic longing, must entertain itself, move on. And so the fresh idea seeds for another work are already germinating in the dark humus of my imagination. In my usual plodding pursuit of an elusive ideal, I will continue to plant and prune, to ponder, make notes, write and rewrite until the new work reaches full bloom.
But in the grand scheme, I put my hopes for my writing in the power, the unlimited agent of alteration that illuminated, uprooted, gyrated and transplanted the oak tree.
In the interim, to fill the restless gaps between writing bouts, I continue to make myself useful to the ecosystem. Every so often I step back to admire my handiwork and the gratifying growth of the plants.
So, this is co-creation, I muse.
I talk to the tree spirits, hoping they will take pity on me and let me infiltrate their ancient arcana. Some days I say to them: there must be a story in here somewhere.
The story, I know from experience, will reveal itself piece by tiny piece, clue by subtle clue. To help myself hear it, I attempt to silence the loud clamourings of my personality, to relax my titanic will for long enough to become a clear channel, to allow the magic malleability and creative flux that is part and parcel of all nature to move through me. I sit on my rock and feel the firmness of bark against my back. I listen to the rustling whispers of the leaves, I sift the soil for secrets, I keep my eyes open for omens all around. I drift.
Tennyson said: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."
I bless the trees, the soil and the whole complex web of ecological wonders into which they, and we, are inextricably woven. Before I leave the forest, as an act of creative confidence, I invoke the powers of the universe. Standing as still and sturdy as a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus marcophylla), I reach out my earth-encrusted hands and touch wood.