Summer Notes, 1.

On the morning of our southern Solstice I step out into the summer and the heat burns my eyeballs. December 21 in the Pilbara, a vast desert area in Western Australia, is a little hotter than the local average of 39 degrees Celsius. The temperature rises day by day, astonishment by astonishment. Tomorrow it will reach 45. A patient agrees: “Yeah it’s pretty warm up here in Newman. Not as hot as Telfer, but. When I worked out there it’d get up to sixty.”

My patient is a blaster. His job is to place explosive charges inside great rocks and blast those rocks into manageable lumps for the dump trucks. (The trucks are bigger than my two-storey house). My patient continues: “You can’t do that work inside a cabin with aircon. You have to get out into the sun and do it. It can be pretty warm work.”

At lunchtime I drive my vehicle – yes, it has aircon, but the black steering wheel doesn’t know that: it’s too hot to touch. I steer with shirtsleeved elbows – and I park in the shade. Bracing myself for the heat outside I look up and watch an Aboriginal group as it files quickly across the sunburned concrete. Number One wears boots, Number Two wears thongs, Number Three wears nothing on his feet. He moves fast, his footfalls are brief, his gait a skipping as he literally hotfoots it to the supermarket.

While working a few years back in another mining town, this one in the Flinders Ranges, they told me of a young man who drove up into the Arkaroola hills and went hiking in the heat of the day. He carried insufficient water. When they found his body a day later it had been cooked.

At the Fragrant Church

 
I went to the church today
Not, I admit, in order to pray –
Rather you might say,
To pry,
To spy.
 
Outside the church
In desert sun’s scorch
Littering the porch, lay
Gum droppings, eucalypt
Bark, twig, in mad disarray.
 
Silent the shrine,
White, quiet, fine,
And a smell rose up,
And spoke: ‘breathe deep,
Take pleasure, take, keep!’
 
Is it camphor?
In all candour
I cannot say, but can report
The heated gum odour
Lifted me wholly in transport.
 
The river gums here –
“My aspens dear” –
Grow, persist, survive,
Through rains, flood, mud
And when long droughts arrive –
 
And they speak to me
And say, ‘Wrinkled man, grey,
Gaze on our bark, ridged too
And stark, and keep good humour:
Breathe deep, deep, inhale our aroma.’
 
And so I do. And on church porch did today
Despite the heat, one hundred Fahrenheit,
To read what and when – I never dreamed if –
Services there’d be, on twenty-fifth. And confounded,
Found nought; no report. Really? Reel, sniff –
 
That sweet fragrance’ll
Endure by chancel,
By happy chance,
Though town’s broke and townsfolk
Leave with parting glance.
 
The church stands, white,
Quite quiet. And by it –
All around, littering the ground –
Pragmatic, aromatic, lies gumbark,
Fruit of time’s wound,
Immanent, permanent
And profound.

The coal resource exhausted, the town on death row, the mining townsfolk have drained away to seek their separate fortunes elsewhere. Too few faithful remain for a quorum or even a service on Christmas Day.

Last Coffee at the Prairie Hotel

 

It will be centuries/before many men are truly at home in this country,/and yet, there have always been some, in each generation/there have always been some who could live in the presence of silence.*

 

Have you ever visited Parachilna? Situated in the remote north end of the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian outback, this town is reckoned to have a population of six souls. The principal edifice in the town is the Prairie Hotel. If you visit this pub, as I have, repeatedly over the past two decades, you will count many more bodies than the half dozen you might expect. We come in all our different ages and stages to Parachilna and we stop at the Prairie Hotel. We come – grey nomads and graziers and gourmands – we come in our large SUV’s, our battered utes, our private planes. We arrive for the famous food, the haunting landscape, the novelty, the romance!

 

Though I myself run to the cities. I will forever/be coming back here to walk…up and away from this metropolitan century…*

 

I come for the coffee and the company. Around Christmas time, with summer blazing in the Flinders, the nomads have fled back south, tourism has withered and the hills stare back at the bleaching sun. The world lies silent, listening to its aeons. The Prairie Hotel is old, its walls of stone thick, holding the heat at bay. In this heat and desolation eccentrics and locals gather in the cool of the bar of the pub.

 

 

And some, I have known them, men with gentle broad hands,/ who would die if removed from these unpeopled places…*

 

At this time of the year Christian doctors have joined their loved ones in the moist green down south, leaving in their place a locum, old, wearing his Jewish hat. In that sense I am both eccentric and a local. 

 

Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills/…for the sake of belonging…/the city will never quite hold me. I will be always/coming back here…to see, on far-off ridges,/ the sky between the trees, and…to hear the echo and the silence.*

 

I mentioned the coffee. If you hate coffee most places in the Flinders Ranges will reinforce your hatred. But if you revere the sacred bean, come drink at The Prairie Hotel. There, Lachlan Fargher presides over a serious espresso machine. There I drop in year upon year, unannounced. Lachie looks up, says, ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I nod, Lachie bends his handsome head in concentration and soon I sip that elixir that brings me on a drive of sixty-seven kilometres (each way) every lunchtime of my fortnight locum. (Excepting Shabbat. I sure as shit don’t drive on Shabbat.) Others come to drink the eponymous Fargher Lager, others to eat the famed Feral Grill, a collation of native viands, not – I regret – kosher.

 ‘To everything under the sun there is a season…’ All ends, everything passes. That’s what nostalgia is for. The North Flinders is a treasure house for the nostalgist; in Brachina Gorge, see geological striations in great walls of rock telling their mute tale of aeons unimagined; in Arkaroola, note and lament the passing of the ediacaran, whose fossils mark the first life on earth to have nerve cells organised to process sensation; and note the lonely stone walls – unroofed but still erect in their noble proportions – of dwellings abandoned by pioneers whose hearts cracked in the long droughts.

 

Add to this is my own lament. With the passing of the unlamented, lamentably polluting coal resource in Leigh Creek, the mine has closed. Soon the Clinic that served the mine will close too. In future summers the North Flinders will not summon its Jewish locum.

 

Driving south yesterday, at the conclusion of a medical estivation in Leigh Creek, I stopped at the Prairie Hotel. Lachlan Fargher looked up: ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I looked at the Aboriginal paintings in the Dining Room that is really a gallery of fine art. I took in the old timbers, the scarlet collection tin for The Royal Flying Doctor Service. I took in Jane Fargher, Licensee, the brain and spine of a brave enterprise. I looked at Lachie, his black curls bent over his machine; at Avalon, springtime’s barperson. Tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow, the former will brew Aussie coffee in Nashville Tennessee and the latter will practise criminal law. I drank my latte, said goodbye and drove away.

 

 

 

• Fragments of ‘Noonday Axeman’, by Les Murray