A writing exercise: Describe something you see differently from others.

My vision allows me a clear view of everything within about a foot; beyond this, the world blurs. Yet when I lie in bed sleepless at two in the morning, without my glasses on, I can distinguish something through my sheer white curtains. Two stars, literally twinkling, catch my eye. They’re the pointers, signposts to the Southern Cross, the constellation Crux. And if I sit up and push the curtain aside, my poor eyesight can make out the five stars of the Cross, so brightly are they shining.

At 10 o’clock when I go to bed, Crux is on my horizon, just above the southern rooftops. I’m comforted by its presence, it helps me fall asleep. When I wake again at 2 o’clock, it’s at just the right angle to shine in my window. Often I’ll sit up and write or translate for a couple of hours until 4 o’clock, when the Cross is so high in the sky that I have to stretch my neck to see it almost above my house. If I’m still awake before dawn, I have to put on my glasses, go outside and look straight up.

For locations south of 34°S, that is, anywhere in the southern hemisphere south of Sydney, the circumpolar Crux is always visible in the inland night sky, even in this city of Canberra, for our population is small and produces only a little light pollution. In the dark sky the five stars of the cross – named in decreasing order of brightness from the bottom star, Alpha, then Beta on our left, Gamma at the head, Delta on our right, and the small one Epsilon – are easy to see.

These Greek names are scientific and logical, but the awesomeness of the Southern Cross has turned some star namers into poets. The blue-white star, Beta, is also known as  Mimosa, from the Latin mimus, mime. Near it is a blue, red, orange and yellow star cluster called the Jewel Box, and just below it is a dark nebular, a cloud of interstellar dust called the Coalsack, a black fish shape in the whiteness of the Milky Way. And of course there’s the name of the Southern Cross which came from Christian European sailors exploring the southern oceans in the 15th and 16th centuries, discovering that this star pattern, which resembled the Christian cross, was a useful navigational guide.

Crux and Coalsack. Courtesy Naskies, Wikimedia Commons
Crux and Coalsack. Courtesy Naskies, Wikimedia Commons

But back to the pointers that accompany me as I write in the wee hours of the morning. Furthest from the cross is Alpha Centauri, the closest active galaxy to the earth. Yet, Beta Centauri, a hundred times further away, is brighter. To my dim eyes they seem the same distance from my window, both glowing with the same intensity.

Science is not my cup of tea, I’m not blinded by it, but I am dazzled by the two points of light shining through my curtains, the ones that, in all my former life in the northern part of Australia, I had never really noticed.

Crux_(Southern_Cross)_from_Hobart,_Tasmania, courtesy Edoddridge, Wikipedia
Crux_(Southern_Cross)_from_Hobart,_Tasmania, courtesy Edoddridge, Wikipedia

Postscript: My son is soon to be married, and the wedding breakfast will be at the Southern Cross Club.

Post Postscript: He’s marrying an astronomer.



Agnes at the beach

A writing exercise. Describe nature imitating art.

I thought how pleasant it would be to pass through the quiet town and take a solitary ramble on the sands while half the world was in bed. […] Nothing else was stirring – no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands; – nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday.

Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë

Late afternoon, south coast, New South Wales. The last waves of the ebb tide roll in, low impact waves thinning out as they feebly stretch their way up the shore. They wash back, and watery fingers gouge long grooves, dragging rutile particles from a pinpoint, down and out in fine sinuous curves, crisscrossing and lying darkly over each other. Peppery grains gather at the edges of the patterns, sharpening the lines. People and dogs tread obliviously over the etchings; not one is without a footprint. On this beach, unmined for mineral sands, the waves retreat and carry some of the lighter sand into the ocean, leaving rutile behind, a heavy mineral that resists movement and forms patterns like fine charcoal sketches. Mined beaches have the rutile sifted out and the whiter quartz grains put back where they were found, making a new beach that is strangely light, where there are no artworks at sunset.

Next morning, I go early to the beach to look for lines in the sand. They’re all gone, the art has been washed away and the rutile is no longer gathering in dark rivulets. The night tide has stirred and blended it with the regular quartz grains. As I, like Agnes, make the first footprints in the sand, I see the dark specks that soften the glare. In the late afternoon the sketches will reappear, no two lines ever twisting the same way twice, not drawn with a pencil or brush or sculptor’s tool, but with the ebb tide.


PS  I posted this piece yesterday about nature imitating art, and today the WordPress Photo Challenge is… Life imitates art. That’s a coincidence.



A writing exercise. Describe something never before described. Something that makes you look twice.

I’m sitting on a park bench, my feet tucked up on the seat to keep away from large two-centimetre ants wandering about looking for their nest. I can see it, in the soil to my right. Nearby, a crowd of regular-size ants crawls over and under a small Christmas beetle, devouring its innards. The beetle’s iridescent elytra – its hardened forewings – were intact when I arrived, but now one elytron is hanging loose, barely attached. It’s a small and pretty beetle, yellow with blue and purple tints like a tiny metallic-painted VDub. I look back to the large ants that have found their nest, a broad depression in the dry soil. In it is a bed of eucalyptus leaf litter, and at its centre, a jewel, a deep emerald green beetle. Can’t tell if he’s dead or just playing dead. I want to save him from the marauding ants, take him to my safe home.

I have nothing with me except a paperback novel; I pick him up on two gum leaves and sit them on the book, and his little black legs stretch out. Not dead, sleeping. He tries to walk away but the plastic film of the book cover is slippery and he can’t get a grip. I walk towards home, holding the book horizontally, tipping it repeatedly, watching him slide back towards my fingers. He never tries to fly away. Christmas beetles are clumsy fliers anyway; he probably wouldn’t get far before slamming his tiny body into an obstacle. At night we hear them hitting the windows, flying blind. It sounds like someone tap tap tapping. In the mornings there are always a few upside down on the ground beneath the glass. If they’ve survived, they just need flipping over and off they go. Otherwise they’re trapped on their backs and die. Reminds me of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Resigning himself to fate, he crawls underneath the larger leaf where he thinks I can’t see him, and hangs on for the remainder of the walk.

Back home, I put the book on the table and the leaves and beetle fall off.

I encourage him to walk on top of a leaf but he doesn’t trust me, crawls beneath the longest one and hangs upside down.

I take his photo and release him into the native garden in my back yard.