Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Straight to the Dublin

I was on my second last day at work. It was the middle of winter. I say on my TWDS bio here that I work in a service station and write stuff but only the latter is true these days. Mmm. Fix your bio Sarah Toa. Write instead, ‘writes’ because that is all I am doing at the moment. Living from my savings, writing. Setting nets and setting fire to things.

Anyhoo, in July, when I was on my second last day at the service station, I got in after dawn to open up the shop and prime the coffee machine. There was an invoice addressed to me lying on the day book. It was a bill for the honey I’d bought from my boss. Plastic pails of honey due for the shop shelves had been damaged in transit a few weeks beforehand and I’d bought several kilos at cost price. Boss couldn’t work out the correct amount at the time, and we’d let it slide until the business was sold and I got laid off and it was my second last day at work.

Getting the bill for thirty dollars’ worth of honey would normally not have rankled me. I don’t mind paying for things I’ve bought. But the invoice was grinding against the fact that in the eighteen months I’d been making coffee in the adjoining cafe, I never saw a single tip. I mean, I did see them, tinkling silver and gold into the cut-glass tip jar, but I never received any. Every month the tip jar was emptied and stashed in some mysterious parallel universe that did not involve us humble baristas and service station toilet-cleaners. Anyone in charge went vague or uncomfortable when I began my difficult, querying, Sarah-assholery as to what was actually happening with the tips.

On my second last day I received the honey invoice but still no bounty of tips. Boss was nowhere to be seen, I was on my own and it was a tumbleweed midwinter sort of day. I didn’t feel graceless enough to indulge in burning bridges down to the waterline, so I had one act of resistance left. When I’d finished raising a lone fist to workers’ solidarity, I settled down to scroll through my phone.

I stood at the counter and read the ABC news and my Twitter feed. I think I even had a look at A WineDark Sea. One of the local blokes came in and bought a newspaper. ‘Correct weight,’ he said, putting one dollar fifty on the counter. I rang it up. Cha-ching. Then I checked my emails. Amongst the dross, one email stood out. It was from my publishing house with the heading: URGENT 2018 International Dublin Literary Award.

The Sound had been nominated for the award that was previously called the IMPAC. If it was deemed as fitting the criteria, the book would go straight to a longlist on November 6th. ‘Can we go ahead with this?’ wrote the publicist.

I looked back over the email she’d forwarded to me. State libraries from all over the world can nominate up to three novels for the award. Out of the hundreds of international entries, the judges will whittle down a shortlist, announced in 2018. Info was embargoed until the longlist was decided. I’m not one to use Jesus’s name as expletive or exhortation, but the ramifications of my book being longlisted for one of the richest literary prizes in the world made me breathe out his name. Silently.

‘Congratulations,’ the email ended.

The judges of this year's award
I was still amazing over the email when FIFO Frank, returning from his swing away, came in for a coffee. ‘What’s going on?’ He asked.
‘Oh, not much. It’s my second last day at work.’
Frank looked alarmed and adjusted his beanie. Obviously, the Bush NBN (previously known as the Telegraph) had failed him while he was away. When I explained about the business changing hands, he said, ‘This is really bad. I don’t like change. It’s not good Sarah. What are you gonna do?’
‘I’ve got some things lined up,’ and it was true. At the time I was just about to do a month-long writer in residence in Perth, and I was looking forward to a summer spotting for fires from a tower at the top of a mountain. ‘There is more to life than pumping fuel and making coffees.’

There is something very cool about The Sound going straight to Dublin, city of literature. Today I am finally able to say that my book has been longlisted for one of the biggest literary prizes In.The.World. I’ve been just popping with this information for months and unable to say anything.

‘It’s okay, Frank,’ I said, as he stumped out of the shop, clutching his flat white.
‘Well, I’ll seeya,’ he said.

Despite my newfound literary self-esteem, I was still fixating on those missing tips. I knew I made great coffee and that I was often the first smile the old blokes saw in the morning. So, two days after my last day at work I went into the shop. My ex-boss was there and I put the honey invoice on the counter in front of him. ‘I’d like to pay for the honey but I’d also like to ask you about my tips.’
He started prevaricating, ‘Well, we were going to take you all out to dinner with the tip money but …’
I waited, listened him out. Looked at him. Finally, he picked up a biro and signed off the honey invoice as paid.

The Sound was nominated by the State Library of Western Australia (Thanks guys), with the librarian commenting: ‘This is an exquisitely beautifully written novel. I could smell the ocean, and feel the sea air, whilst being transported to a historical period I knew nothing about. A rare author who is able to bring historical events and people vibrantly alive. Not since Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet have I so loved a fiction book.’

Monday, November 6, 2017


Burn pile

Two burn piles turned into three when the old man Banksia caught an ember. The wood was so rotten and pulpy that it sucked in the fire like a chimney, flames licking at the bark. Owen cut it down with a chainsaw and I used the ute to drag it into a cleared area, away from the dead bracken.

Full moon and the inlet sounded 'slappy', he said. 'Soft, slappy waves.' No swell outside, just a light wind and gentle waves on the shore. Later I listened to songs being sung in the big house and read a poem about yards, feet, furlongs and rods; even township sizes are determined by how much work an ox can do in a day. I ate cheese beside a lantern from the good ship Cape Ottway and waited for the moonlight to blast the Marri trunk.

A mopoke cried moowook moowook in a tree to the west. Flew to a tree to the south of me and cried again. Then moowook moowook to the west, until that mopoke had circled my house with song.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hyphae and the Tree

Earth stars, earth tongues, russulas and chantarelles
Ergots, flask fungi, coral fungi and morels
Amanitas, death caps, ink caps and mottle gills
Web veils, fan fungi, wax gills and parasols
Oyster mushrooms, magic mushrooms, laccaria and stink horns
Tooth fungi, club fungi, split gills and curry punks
Jelly fungi, stomach fungi, basket fungi and skin fungi
Puffballs, travesties, pretty mouths and bracket fungi.

Above, trees embroidered the sky, crown shy, jacquard patterns of light between their canopies as they politely gave each other space. Rambunctious cockatoos flung honky nuts onto the tin roof and a tiny black snake basked on warm granite. Like the sea’s opaque skin, what lies beneath is concealed from our eyes. Below, beneath the messy, decay-scented litter, beneath the house, the track, the car, the snake, beneath our boots, lies the world of mycelium.

It seems trees are not that into Darwin’s theory survival of the fittest. Instead they nurture each other in order to create strong, diverse communities. We could call trees socialists, at the risk of anthropomorphising plants, to force them akin to ourselves in order to divine their inner, secret lives.  ‘Mother’ trees suckle their young by feeding plant sugars to the roots for up to a decade. Trees can feel and express pain. They live in families, communities, where they support sick neighbours, make decisions and fight off predators. They do these things in Tree Time, a different scale of time to us; ponderously, they speak slowly and inevitably to truth.

Sentient beings are capable of perceiving events, of signalling to others and responding to them, and this is an argument for the sentience of the tree … sensation, awareness, information processing, memory, adaptive learning and finally, intercommunication. But to achieve these things, to express pain, to succour an unwell friend or alert the community to predators, there must be a way of speaking.

Silvery strands of mycelium thread through the forest humus, underground, clot together and fall away into singular lines of hyphae. Mycelium furls around the root tips of trees, passes sugar and gossip to a neighbour tree and the next and the next. From tree to tree, hyphae pass resources and information. A tree under insect siege sends electrical ‘data’ through mycelium to its neighbours, so they can produce insecticide in time to defend themselves. In payment, the tree will feed the fungi (which, in being nourished by animate matter, is more animal than plant-like in its nature) nutrients gleaned from photosynthesis.

Visible renderings, the stories, are the fruiting bodies of one of the largest living organisms on earth. Fungi shoulder their way through leaves, wood, bitumen roads, yielding beds of sheoak needles or stoic brick paving. They push their soft white fists through the crust, silently, overnight. From subterranean webs of gossip, nurture and early warning systems, they force their way into the dappled light of a forest morn, newly born, perfect in form. They are the manifestations of hunger and battle and succour beneath us, the tangible stories we can see.
The armillarias killed the old marri down by the inlet shore in the winter. Armillaria mycelium is no friendly communicant for trees but its aggressor and will feed on the decaying carcass for decades. The thugs of the fungi kingdom. The mushrooms, beautiful sheaves of gold, perfect and succulent, climbed the craggy bark like marauders up the castle keep, relentless, until they cancered the ancient king.

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth,
Our foot’s in the door.

Pink, frilly chantarelles grow in seams between stands of karri hazel and are yummy cooked up with garlic and butter. Hebalomas feed on bones. Coriolus flare on logs like a Spanish dancer’s skirts. Earth stars squat in leaf litter, little colonies of star critters.
Sometimes I feel closed into this forest country and yearn for an open sky, megalithic granite fronting an ocean, a horizon. There is my discomfort in not being able to see the Southern Cross at night for dark, feathery screens.

And yet, and yet. As I slept in the forest I dreamed of swimming inside my house, the same night a lost and found friend’s brain bled. I drove through the forest and heard the music, and was transported through the canopy to the hospital bedside of another friend. I don’t remember the intensity of these experiences on coastal heathland or sand dunes.

Fungi hunting through the emerald karri understory, wilding it down to the level of a honky nut, or a ball of kangaroo poo with a whole city of bugs and mushrooms aboard. The forest moves quickly through decay and rebirth. Underneath it all is the invisible chatter, the inter web of mycelium.

Sylvia Plath, Mushrooms, The Colossus and Other Poems, William Heinemann, 1960
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, Black Inc, 2015
Robert Macfarlane, The Secrets of the Woodwide Web, The New Yorker, 7/8/2016
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, Penguin, 2016
Professor Suzanne Simard, Do Trees Communicate?