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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sea, mountains, and a painting

Some bright spark once said, "There are two types of people: those who make lists, and those who don't."

   I think there are two types of people: those born or have lived a long time within sight, sound and smell of the sea, and those who have not.

   I have always been a sea person. I was born in a hospital on a hill within sight of the ocean, and the sea was never far away. In my first days of life in the afternoon sou'easters on the hospital's verandah, I would have absorbed the salt-laden air and integrated the ocean with my being. 

   This created my world of three elements – sea, land, and sky. Sea to the east, land in the western half of consciousness and the dome of sky above. Yin and yang, you might say; and, well... Jung. A new day began with the sun climbing out of the ocean, and it ended lost in the trees to the west.

   The sea always represented a psychological "out". I can't describe it any other way. It was limitless. Beyond the waves breaking on the sand, it stretched infinitely to the east until it met the sky in a perfectly straight line separating two differing blues. I don't know the painter's name for the right shades but everyone knows those colours. One surely must be Greek Blue.

   In my late teens, I used to paint pictures of that sea and sky; sand in front, breakers on a shoreline bordered by cliffs. They were always pretty much the same, on the grounds that you can't easily improve on perfection. The cliffs shouldn't have been there but I liked painting cliffs, so they occupied the same spot in nearly every painting, to the north and south of the ocean - a body of water which should probably have been either the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel. Don't ask.

   I put what I believed to be the best of these paintings on the lounge-room wall in my mother's house overlooking the harbour.

   The one thing it had in common with all the others of the same genre was that it was awful. How pained my artist mother must have been to endure its awfulness, particularly when she and all my sisters were much better at painting than I. Or when guests came and maybe thought the painting was one of her efforts. But no way would she hurt my feelings and take it down while I was living under her roof.

   Perhaps she should have put a sign under it: 


   I wouldn't have minded at the time. I would have taken it as a seal of approval, i.e., appropriate acknowledgment of a son's talents by a proud mother whose paintings graced many a wall round the country.

   My surf-and-sea painting did disappear without trace a few months later when I left to go to Brisbane for full-time university study. I never saw it again, nor any of the other monstrosities of its ilk, and I'm eternally grateful for the fact that they all must have gone to a good home at the garbage tip within 24 hours of the Datsun 1000 and the budding artist hitting the road for Brizzie.

   But I've strayed where I never intended. Back to the point.

   Although I have never lost this yearning for the sea, I've lived the longer part of my life away from the coast, up here on the New England plateau.  What I noticed most keenly when I first came here was that hills surrounded me completely. The eastern segment of my elemental triangle was gone. Sometimes I felt a kind of suffocation by this loss.

   At least in places like Armidale, we can drive off the edge of the high country to the east and be at the seaside in two hours. Psychologically, that's as close to home as I feel, though I've got used to the Tableland now and couldn't bear the humidity of long summers by the sea.

Sappho. c. 600 BCE
   These musings were brought back with great vividness to me by the "...violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho", whose poetry from 2700 years ago has an unmatched beauty and richness. The coastal dwellers, those who tread the white sands of the Australian beaches, will appreciate this more than anyone else:
Lo, where the white-maned horses of the surge,
Plunging in thunderous onset to the shore,
Trample and break and charge along the sand!


  1. Do you think where we are born has a lasting effect? I was born in Canberra but have lived formative years in Cooma and it's mountains, Broken Hill and its deserts and the city that holds my heart, beautiful Sydney. I am now by the majestic sea. They all hold something magical but different.
    (PS. I am still very interested in politics.)

    Anne Powles

    1. Interesting question, Anne. I suppose it would be unreasonable to make a statement that would apply to everyone, but I imagine the effect of living in sight of Uluru or the great inland ranges would be just as powerful.

      There may be a birthplace one would want to forget. Then again, the length of time spent there as a child would be another influence, as would experiences of other places. Mine was based on an entire childhood in the one spot, in a happy family, with no insecurities.

      As a general rule, I'd be fairly sure that birthplace has a powerful effect, as those first few years really imprint upon psyche, wouldn't you say? [You're the expert there!] Whether it would extend to politics related to being born in Canberra, I wouldn't like to say. The cynic might claim that your continued interest in politics should indicate the reverse effect!

      I'm being unkind. I quite like Canberra and there are some people special to me living there [from time to time].

    2. Apparently, as an under 5 year old on my first holiday excursion on Sydney Harbour from Canberra, I enquired, "Did God put all this water here or was it the Department of the Interior?" The influence of politics starts early. Sadly I must confess, this predated Lake Burley Griffin.

      Like you I had a happy childhood in a loving family and so I suppose I was privileged to be able to enjoy security, even with family relocations, and thus could relish the experiences and the places. My parents both hailed from WA so we also enjoyed some remarkable holidays there.

      But even so, as you do, I think there is something special about the ocean. In times of trouble or doubt its very immensity and power or alternatively its immensity and absolute stillness makes one, and therefore one's problems, seem less significant. And for thinking, there is no better place.

      (I am totally unqualified to make painting comments but I have one of my late mother-in-law's paintings hung here after her direct descendents spurned it!)

      Anne Powles

    3. Definitely too long in Canberra for a five-year-old to be asking such a question!

      I've no double that the sea is a meditative place when it's fairly restful. There's something almost hypnotic about its rhythms - and the different qualities it has according to time of day, tide, and weather.

      When we first went down to the sea at Tannum Sands – in those days nothing more than a few weekender shacks – we were more used to swimming in the creek on the farm. So we found the sea very salty! And I remember my mother's being amused when, after a first swim in the briny, and some food, I asked her, "Can we get back in the waterhole again?"

      Bloody big waterhole, the Pacific. And no use at all when the cows wanted a drink.

  2. Oh Den, yes, it really does feel like a suffocation by this loss, loss of the sea in ones spirit. Thank you again for putting it all into words.

    1. Over the years you get used to its not being there – until you go back to the beach. Maybe a hit of beach now and again is enough. Well, it has to be....

  3. I often have healing dreams about the sea. Sometimes it's just the purity of the crystal green water, sometimes it's wondrous giant sea creatures seen in the waves. I slept hearing the sea murmuring or roaring all my childhood and sometimes worried about tidal waves. The sea was different each day and would send up gifts -fish or shells or patterns or seaweed - and was both intimate (those tiny wavelets lapping on the sand, on your feet) - and mysterious (where did it go, to what far off lands, to what depths?). That ozone smell,the salt on my skin, the wildness of a storm, the utter heavenly beauty on a calm, glittering day. Sigh.
    The infinite ocean.

    Julie M xx

    1. PS I love your words about your birth in the hospital over looking the sea -well I love all of it.

      Julie M

    2. I really think it should be you who's writing this part of the blog about the sea. Beautiful and apt description. It often used to be part of my dreams too, mostly benign but occasionally threatening. I don't recall one involving the sea for a long time.

      Thanks, Julie.


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