Lake Dieri

Doris Lessing is someone whose advice I've tried to follow since my grumpy older sister, who in some respects resembles her, handed on The Golden Notebook to me in, I don't know, 1969 or 70. It seems incredible that I read that book then but I did, even though I remember nothing about it. The Four Gated City left stronger traces but they too are faint.

When I wasn't much older I read some exasperated comments she made about writing. It was to the effect that she kept meeting people who claimed to be writers but when she asked what they had written, or were writing, the answer was: Nothing much. A writer should write, she snapped. That particular comment made me blush secretly for years, because I was one of those nothing much kind of writers.

In a mellower mood she once remarked on the peculiar way that, when you are researching or otherwise engaged with a subject, things to do with it come unexpectedly into view. The role of coincidence in research is a subject that might make for an interesting essay. Maybe it's just a function of attention but maybe it's equally a function of inattention. Sometimes the things you need come to hand precisely when you aren't thinking about them.

Today I was a bit hungover but I was happy. It was as if a metaphorical (= real) jackboot had just been lifted from the back of my neck. Not just mine. After writing up a few notes I made in the State Library yesterday, I thought I'd go for a swim before lunch. A dozen laps of the Ashfield pool, during which I collided with a back-stroking Chinese man. Later we stood at the shallow end and chatted. We are the same numerical age but he is a Snake while I am a Rabbit. I hope I bang into you again, I said, making him laugh and demur at the same time.

There's a couple of second hand bookshops along from the pool. The one further towards Croydon belongs to a bookbinder who sometimes works away at his table there but today was just idling. I browsed a book on the Darling (The Ugly River), another on Atlantis, saw that he has a Shorter Oxford Dictionary for sale that I might have to go back for (the 1969 edition, a bargain at $70.00). A young Chinese woman was looking for a vernacular dictionary. She was a Mandarin speaker. I mentioned that our new leader speaks Mandarin. Yes, she said, My husband vote him in! I voted him in too, I said. The bookbinder grinned and murmured in his throat what sounded like: Me too. All Chinese vote him in! the woman said. I told the bookbinder I might come back tomorrow for the dictionary and went down to the other shop.

It's more crammed, more like your typical miscellany. Just as I stepped inside a middle-aged Chinese woman passed in the street, singing out loud, in Chinese, a haunting melody. Things are getting better and better, I thought, intending to move up the back of the shop where the literary texts are. Then I remembered there are usually art books just to the right by the door and turned to those shelves. Right in front of me was a book called The Desert Sea. By Vince Serventy. Who, until his death earlier this year, lived up at Pearl Beach where my kids also live. I spent a revelatory couple of hours with him once, he was critiquing something I'd written.

One of the most persistent impressions I was left with after driving north from Broken Hill through far western NSW was that of a vast, albeit dry, catchment area. You cross literally hundreds of watercourses, all tending in an east west direction. There are beds of dried up lakes, and there are, here and there, dazzling saltpans. Of course everybody knows the absurd trope of an Inland Sea, that chimera so many early explorers looked for in vain. But as we drove through those strangely marine, or at least lacustrine, deserts, it didn't seem so crazy after all. I thought a lot about it on the trip, and subsequently; I looked at maps and in the atlas, and in the end decided that all those ghostly rivers probably, ultimately, flowed into Lake Eyre. Which is dry at the moment but fills up each time a drought breaks.

Well, Vince's book, from 1985, is a history of Lake Eyre, and of its prehistoric precursor, Lake Dieri. Lake Dieri was huge. It was a veritable Inland Sea. Everything west of the Great Dividing Range as far as ... two bastions of ancient rocks to the west of the continent. In the Miocene it was open to the sea, the bones of dolphins have been found. And crocodiles. That part of the trip, up the Silver City Highway to Tibooburra and then on through Sturt National Park into the Channel Country of south west Queensland, in fact took us along the eastern margins of Lake Eyre's enormous catchment, fully one sixth of Australia. As well as through the antediluvian bed of Lake Dieri. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that drive, that country, is what I'm hoping to write up this week. So I was very happy to buy The Desert Sea, for $5.00, and bring it home to read on a sultry Sunday afternoon, the first of the Mandarinate.


chiefbiscuit said...

Serendipity comes to mind. Amazing set of circumstances, memories, coincidences you've been able to string together - including even the different Chinese connections - and strung together merely by relating unfolding events. You seem to move in a world of dreams and connections - or is that just me reading into it?
'The role of coincidence in research is a subject that might make for an interesting essay. Maybe it's just a function of attention but maybe it's equally a function of inattention. Sometimes the things you need come to hand precisely when you aren't thinking about them.'
I find this so true, but am usually at a loss as to how to go about describing it. You have the knack of doing just that for people like me with clumsier minds. It's a knack I very much admire and enjoy reading.

Martin Edmond said...

thanks, chief. some days are just like that I guess - we been waiting eleven years for this one!