When coronavirus locked down the city, I began to walk every afternoon. Once I had crossed my busy local park, the streets were empty. My walks looped around the Darling Point escarpment and sometimes down the steep steps into Double Bay, as far as its harbour pool. On other afternoons, before dusk, I would walk in the opposite direction through Woolloomooloo and around Mrs Macquarie’s Point, pacing the length of the naval yards across the bay. Sometimes I would loop from this walk through the gates of the Botanical Gardens and along its shadowed paths. Less often, instead of turning back home, I would keep going through the gates at the other side and into the deserted city, where it seemed I could see the buildings clearly for the first time since my childhood.
As I walked, I also began to take photographs on my phone. Posting a set online, I gave them a title: ‘Covid Walking Moods’.
Without meaning to, I had started a project.
Because the square format was difficult to access on my new phone, I reloaded an old app I hadn’t used for ten years, with ‘lenses’ and ‘films’ I swiped across the back of a virtual retro camera until they settled in place with a satisfying click.
Two settings – one colour, and one black and white – allowed me to recreate winter’s subdued milky light.
The black and white photographs had a sensual graphite quality, powdery and shiny at once, like pencil sketches. You will have to take my word for the colour photographs’ green shadows, luminous reds, and exaggerated viridescence.
The sprawling arms of an angophora, the scarred limbs and hanging roots of Moreton Bay figs. When my eye was in, things almost seemed to want to fit themselves inside the frame. Wild grasses leaned out from cliff stairways to catch the light. Rowboats, stacked on their ends, lined up attentively.
But what I liked best about this app was that the match between the ‘viewfinder’ and view was inexact. In order to catch the image I wanted, I had to move the camera into the approxi-mate position, hold my breath, and click. As if I was sneaking up on them, I caught things slightly off-centre.
At dusk the high mansions loomed over the steep streets. On the flat, the marbled car parks beneath apartments stretched like crypts into the hillsides.
On fine days, as the sun sank, it cast rosy shadows across the western sides of the hills. The skies were mauve, peach, pink, and lemon yellow, the water glimpses a flat gold. On inclement days, whole weather fronts rushed through the eastern Heads, or from the west.
Sometimes I would also take short film clips, especially if I arrived at the end of Darling Point at the same time as the small ferry from the city as it described a fast arc through the thin light to briefly pause and take off again. There were so few commuters that often the attendant didn’t bother to throw the rope loop around the pylon on the wharf, or set out the gangplank, as the engines churned. At home, I could watch these small videos again and again.
These clips, shot between the trunks of the park’s angopho-ras, were often the most liked online. No matter how empty the ferries were, the recorded message in a male voice still sounded out, the hull of the ferry still clanked and groaned. Watching the footage, a friend wrote, made her want to cry.
These walks had become the highlight of my days. But what was I doing as I took them? It had become fashionable to write about the pleasures of flâneurie but I didn’t feel like an idle stroller in my half-abandoned city. Always a stopper and starer at peculiar detail, I was looking as I’d never looked before. Perhaps I was more like Gustave Doré’s ‘New Zealander.’ In the final illustration in Thomas Macauley’s London: A Pilgrimage, this visitor from the future sits on a rock to sketch the ruins of London across the water.
The Victorian critic John Ruskin believed that every person should learn to draw and take a notepad with them. The sketcher’s eye becomes:
accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars . . .
But as I walked, I was doing something between glimpsing and staring. I would catch a mood and study the details of my pictures later.
Each time I passed the Covid-19 testing centre in its tent beside the cruising yacht club, an old slipway behind it, I crossed to the other side of the street.
One evening, on the long, curved street at the back of Darling Point, I came across a man in plastic booties and scrubs, putting his test kit into the boot of his hatchback after a home visit. We pretended we didn’t see each other.
I have walked for twenty years around these parks and streets. I have walked with my children and I have walked through two tragedies. I could tell you that a skipping rope on asphalt sounds like the heartbeat on a foetal ultrasound. Yet I have always felt lifted up by my city’s melancholy loveliness. And now, as I walked through autumn, and then into winter, it didn’t let me down.
In his book about the Aboriginal people who managed to stay in coastal Sydney well into the nineteenth century, Paul Irish describes their movements between different parts of their Country, to see family and remake connections, as ‘beats.’ A beat can also be the movement of a bird’s wings, a rhythm, a pulse, a hesitation, a heartbeat, the action of sailing into the wind or vigorously stirring, or, geographically, an area patrolled by foot; gay men subverted this formal term for a policeman’s allocated area into the gloriously informal, to denote an area regularly cruised for sex. In Melbourne, I used to drive a carless friend to the beats in Richmond, Fitzroy, Preston and North Carlton. (I dropped him off. I didn’t wait). A beat can even be a stretch of water fished by an angler. Perhaps it’s overly romantic to imagine that most of these meanings, of amplitude and rhythm and deep life, defined Indigenous people’s traversal and visiting of Country, which was also, I know, philosophy and law.
These were my own – though also, history told me, not my own – areas of special interest, which I needed to see, to feel with the measure of my feet and eyes.
‘After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in ‘Binsey Poplars.’ I didn’t know if I was recording a strange pause as I took these photographs, or something that had been lost already.
Louis Daguerre, I remembered, announced that he could ‘seize the light,’ whereas Henry Fox Talbot described his process as ‘fixing a shadow.’
Nightfall. The Marathon Stairs – known in their day as the ‘break-neck’ flight – stretch upward from Double Bay. In the lee of an enormous fig tree, a lone jogger runs up into blackness. At the top of the stairs, where they are cut by the steep angle of a curb, the word MARATHON writes itself out of the darkness in darker shadow.
Flowering grevillea, its centre a bloom of haze.
The graffitied trunk of a weeping fig.
Heart of a cycad, frosted by light.
French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote that the photograph moves us when it contains a wound: some detail that seems to sit outside the photographer’s intention, which he called the ‘punctum.’ The small injury asks us to recognise the singularity of existence. It holds our gaze without condescending to mere beauty.
The picture is bound to the real like those pairs of fish, he writes, which navigate in convoy, as though united by eternal coitus.
The photograph always asks us, why this moment, and not some other?
The golden sunset, photographed through jacaranda branches as I walked west, made silhouettes of the tiny seriffed leaves.
An ibis, on a footpath, tagged by its crooked shadow.
Beyond our borders, the virus spread. In America, as thousands died, one newspaper dedicated a section to those who had been lost to put faces to the numbers, like its portraits after 9/11. But this time, the editors wrote, ‘There was no finite number of the dead. No geographical point united them. Their backgrounds were of infinite variety. They did not die all at once on a bright blue morning.’
It was dizzying to scroll down as, beneath each photo of a small-town doctor or tribal judge or student, a life unfolded in all its ordinary and extraordinary detail.
In 1789, fifteen months after invasion, smallpox spread to the Indigenous Sydney people. This landscape of small beaches and rock overhangs in which I walked was already haunted by the trauma of an earlier pandemic. The Eora were found, according to First Fleet sailor Newton Fowell, ‘laying Dead on the Beaches and in the Caverns of Rocks,’ often with a small fire on either side of them and ‘some Water placed within their Reach.’
Judge-Advocate David Collins would record visiting different coves with an unnamed Aboriginal man, who looked around anxiously for his people: ‘He lifted his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time,’ wrote Collins, until ‘at last he exclaimed, “All dead! all dead!” and then hung his head in mournful silence, which he preserved during the remainder of our excursion.’
Out of a hedge of vertical sticks, a single magnolia bud, the shape of a lamb’s foot.
In a quiet dead-end street in Darling Point, I remember, I once looked down into the low garden of a block of flats, to see a young lamb tiptoeing along its paths.
Like honeybees and earthworms, the virus travelled ahead of the frontier. The Sydney people, fleeing the rapidly spreading outbreak, took the disease with them, passing it through their complex networks that stretched across the country. Settlers moving into areas it had already swept through assumed they had always been as sparsely peopled.
For Roland Barthes, the second wound photographs contained was our knowledge that everything they depicted would die.
Once, he wrote, he had come across a photograph of Napoleon’s brother. He was amazed to be looking at the eyes that had looked upon the emperor, but no one else seemed to share his excitement, or even understand it.
‘Life,’ he wrote, ‘consists of these little touches of solitude.’
In films, it’s the establishment and tracking shots that move me, in which time and landscape mark out their presence.
The end of Paul Cox’s film, Man of Flowers: the lonely misfit looks out from a sunset cliff, as seagulls – innocent of the film’s high art ambitions – wheel over the sea in the sunset. At the end of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a single, long, tracking shot follows the Tiber in Rome as the grey river goes about its ancient business and I am struck to the heart each time I watch it. In Carlos Reygadas’s Japón, all the children of a poor Mexican pueblo pass the camera – real children, not child actors – on their way to a drawing lesson. In their faces – shy, gentle, greedy, mean – all of human nature seems to pass by.
Looking at a series of takes by documentary maker Timothy Treadwell before he was killed by a bear – of low Alaskan bush, moving in soft wind – director Werner Herzog was moved to remark on the strange secret beauty of these seemingly empty moments. ‘Sometimes images themselves develop their own life, their own mysterious stardom.’
Like Barthes, I had no interest in whether my photographs were art. In fact, I liked the way they weren’t. They held the record of my body’s movements, along with the blunt will or intention, it seemed to me, of the things they depicted.
Barthes’s investigation of photography turned, at a certain point in his book, into the ‘rediscovery’ of his recently deceased mother. It was being in deep mourning that allowed him to understand the way that photographs repeated a momentary instance to infinity. Looking at a photograph of his adored mother’s face when she was five, Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida, he was moved by ‘the impossible science of the unique being.’
Misty rain, and the ferry closes in on the wharf through flat water. A speedboat passes slowly behind it, its wake a white scratch in a seascape of blues.
In the black and white photographs I took, there was something disconcerting about the way they imitated the old processes: colloidal silver grains suspended in gelatine, from the feet of dead cows and albumen, which is egg white. I still remember the pleasure of taking a photography course in the eighties, of watching the prints develop in their baths, of pegging up the wet paper to dry.
In those processes, which draw on the organic and the elemental, the ‘fatality’ Barthes perceived in photography was made explicit. Was there more or less deathliness about my photographs, now my phone could do their work, in an instant, in my hand?
Some years ago, walking along a Darling Point footpath in spring, I glanced down to see grey noisy miner chicks looking back expectantly, from their hiding place in a low star jasmine border.
In novels, it’s the longueurs I remember.
In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the grass cutting scene takes up several chapters in the middle of the novel:
The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe moving of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.
I once read that the photographer Brassaï, famous for his night scenes of Paris, used cigarettes to time his long exposures. A Gauloise for a certain light, a Boyard if it was darker. I believe those slim and beautiful cigarettes are in the photos too, just as Bruce Chatwin maintained that whatever he erased remained as a kind of ghost within his texts.
Today night and interior photos no longer hold these small dramas of breath and time within themselves. And yet, when I look at mine, I seem to see an epoch passing, in all the small and quotidian things that define us.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather records, she aimed to write without accent, to touch moments of her story and pass on. She wanted her novel to be like those lives of the saints in which trivial incidents are treated with the same attention as their martyrdom.
Although I also like novels written in a ravishing recherché, it’s this type of book I love most, whose images unroll, untouchably themselves.
How often I’ve wondered, as a novelist, if my job is less to tell stories than to catch a particular fall of light, the curve of a tree limb, those in-between moments when whole ways of being reveal themselves.
In colour, wisteria tendrils draw fluorescent scribbles above a footpath.
A topiarised tree in a pot corkscrews skyward.
Between buildings, gold light reflects itself across a narrow walkway.
It has always struck me that light itself is a kind of wound, like the punctum that holds the gaze in Barthes’s photograph: particular, historical, and poignant.
‘Our light was not your light, ours was restrained,’ the narrator of one of my aborted novels, which is set in 1899, begins.
It was just as it appears in our photographs. A dim skein stretched out between a spire and a clockface. A luminous blankness at the end of our wide streets. It was not hard, like your light. It was not full of details. Our shades were pensive, our skies absorbed our feelings. Women, alert and straight-backed, staked out sloping stretches of grey lawn for a picnic. Boats drifted like the thought of sex across the corners of our eyes. There was something flat about the light as we moved through it, as if it had been pressed between the sky and some great reflecting surface, the way the sun jellies in still water just before the dusk.
The top of a white garage, a harsh glow from its uplight. Thin winter branches vein the dimming sky above.
These days, writes author David Shields, life ‘flies at us in bright splinters’ and we are increasingly hungry for the real. We no longer experience it, if we ever did, as a coherent fathomable whole and so it’s nonfiction – as personal and flawed and cut-about as possible – which makes more sense than the novel, with its urge for coherence. But I have never read fiction, I realise, for its morals or its stories. It seems to me I have always read it for tone, and for its small, intense bursts of place and time.
The novelist I. Allen Sealey uses light to open his Anglo-Indian chronicle, The Trotternama. ‘Icelight’, he writes, is
the slippery, spermy light that comes just before dawn. It freezes time, or rather, traps it at the tremulous point just short of freezing, when time is neither solid nor liquid but simply a quality of light . . . It allows you to get the past down, to copy it, after it’s actually melted away.
We have always loved ruins, in the West. But it may be that we’re living now among the ruins of life itself. Scientists speak of ‘ghost species’: populations of creatures that still live but are functionally extinct. A ghost species, writes English nature writer Robert McFarlane, ‘is a species that has been out-evolved by its environment.’
This virus may be a sign of our own foreshortened future. Some scientists suggest that it has come about because we have invaded the last wild places, brought the creatures from their homes into our markets, shaking viruses loose from their natural hosts, to find new hosts in us. They warn that this is the beginning of a new era of pandemics.
What if our cities are already ruins as we live in them, I wondered as I walked? Could a flower be a ruin? A park bench? A Moreton Bay fig? The air? Us?
When my son was three, he turned to me with a mysterious look on his face after he woke up from his nap. ‘When the sun burns out,’ he said, ‘we will all turn into birds.’
As the lockdown eased a little, my mother died. I knew I was fortunate, restrictions having lessened, to be able to sit with her over the long afternoon as she took her last breaths. To be able to watch her face, to touch her hand, as the signs of vital life ticked down.
Is she dying now? I asked the nurse. There is kindness in an honest answer.
In one of my favourite novels, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, an English couple, middle-aged scientists, are murdered by a stranger as they make love in coastal sand dunes. As the novel traces their decomposition in its forward narrative, its other narrative traces their lives back to the past. It is a book full of life and grace, of tender observation.
A hundred years ago, Crace writes, the pair’s family and neighbours would have held a midnight quivering for them, where they could be lamented hysterically, without embarrassment. Once they had been laid out, the mourners – women first – would weep ‘till their shoulders shook, tapping on the floorboards with their boots and sticks, rattling their bracelets and their cuffs.’ When the men arrived, ‘all the guests would stand to form a circle round the bed. They’d grip the mattress and the bedboards, a shoal of hands, to quiver the murdered couple, winnowing and shaking out their wrongdoings so that they’d enter heaven unopposed.’ Then, as dawn approached, they would quietly reminisce, reversing the sands of the couple’s lives, from their last few months, back to the wonders of their births; ‘how sweet and difficult they’d been, how promising, how loved.’
Maybe that’s what I’d been doing, posting these small photographs.
‘Quiverings,’ writes Crace, ‘were resurrections of the dead.’
In 1940, the Jewish-German philosopher Max Horkheimer wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘In view of what is now threatening to engulf Europe and perhaps the world, our work is essentially designed to pass things down through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle.’
Now, at the same time as we mourn the dead, there is the question of whether new generations will stretch into the future ahead of us. Of death without an echo.
Of all the words for our moment, writes academic Steve Mentz, the Homogenocene scares him most. The end point of our apparently endless hunger for expansion is that everything will become the same as everything else; every ocean in its heat death a home only to jellyfish. ‘I am afraid,’ he writes, ‘of losing differences and distinctions into sameness.’
In wealthy Darling Point a metal-railed stairway still held on. It stretched behind the paling fences of low units, along a roughly hewn cliff that wept, into a bed of dark monstera deliciosa at the side of an old gatehouse.
These old eastern suburbs plantings, wrote novelist Patrick White, were ‘associated with my own private mysteries . . . moss-upholstered steps . . . the monstera deliciosa, a rich mattress of slater-infested humus under the custard apples.’
As the days grew longer, great fronts still passed over the escarpment.
In one colour photo, taken after a storm, the clouds have pulled away from the horizon to reveal a plasma-coloured sky and thin violet clouds. In the foreground, on the lawn outside an apartment block, two magpies watch me alertly.
My photographs, caught on the move, continued to sustain me. If I had set out with the intention of taking them, they would have felt stilted, over-arranged. Instead, each was a small gift, a tiny registration of haphazard life – and a rebuff to my tendency to see the world in grimly overdetermined terms.
It always moved me, when my children were smaller and we walked past the old age home at the end of our street, that they never saw age or time when they looked up into the rooms. That girl is wearing a hat, they said. That boy is watching the soccer.
Jon Constable, the painter of clouds over English fields, would spend hours lying on his back observing the sky before heading home to paint. ‘I have done a good deal of skying,’ he wrote. I was also skying, in my own small way, in my city where the low and humid atmosphere seemed to settle into each image, where sky and sea were particularly bound together.
On the pontoon in the middle of the sea baths, whose splintery boundary I walked, two men sat companionably together, sky and water the same blue.
Now, as I walked by the gallery, there was tight young fruit at the ends of the Moreton Bay figs’ dark leaves. The hanging draperies of their roots were tasselled and hairy, like desiccated nervous systems.
By February of 2021, it would be estimated that 20.5 million years of human life had been lost globally to Covid-19.
And yet, for all the sad eeriness of their conception, my photos filled me with joy. The things I passed daily had never seemed so alive or miraculous as they pushed and danced their way into my photographs’ square frames.
Our job now, I’d read, was to try to imagine the unimaginable. But there was something to be said, too, for witnessing. If we can’t love something, how can we want to save it?
On seeing John Gould’s display of stuffed hummingbirds at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, John Ruskin declared that he had made a great mistake in wasting his life on mineralogy rather than devoting himself to studying the life and plumage of birds. If only he could only have seen a hummingbird fly, Ruskin believed, it would have been an ‘epoch’ in his own existence. ‘Just think what a happy life Mr Gould’s must have been,’ he is reported to have said, ‘– what a happy life!’
After the restrictions on travel ended, in spring, we headed down the south coast. The fire-blackened trunks of the gums were bright green with panic growth. I took a few more photographs – grass trees in flower, the pale trunks of banksias – but these would be among the last.
The urge to take these photographs had passed.
In Foxground, I continued to walk each day, this time along the road that runs beneath the escarpment to a dead end, and back.
Why did we have to take the same walk so many times, my daughter asked me, one afternoon, as we crossed the cattle grid into the paddocks of a long-gone property cut into the rainforest, where the road became a track. Because, I said, I liked to try to understand a single, small place better. Each time we walked here I could see what was the same and what had changed – and new things can always surprise us.
As I spoke I caught sight of something large stirring in the high vines by the road’s edge, where the forest canopy met the ruins of an old wall. I put my hands on my daughter’s shoulders and drew her close, feeling the hot blood beneath her skin, as we peered out of the shadows.
Standing on its hind legs, feet up against the stone as it reached to feed on shoots and berries, was a feral goat: a huge beast with horns and a fleece as hairy and magnificent as the illustrations in my childhood book of Greek myths. As we flattened ourselves back into the lantana, the rest of its flock joined it from the forest, tearing loudly at the foliage. Then a plane, back in its regular flight path, passed overhead and with a pounding of hooves, they took off, into the valley.