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The Wyoming mountains bring men together, in more ways than one.

The Wyoming mountains: bringing together words and broken men.

I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.

At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:

The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.

The cover of the original story; mine's still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

Mine’s still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Source: Canberra Times, Fairfax Media.)

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions.

Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the café, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.  An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting.

They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were – our country was – under attack, we were being invaded.

Except we weren’t; my imagination was simply getting carried away with itself.  Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but – thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars – there were no explosions; it was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn’t know.

But those young military men and women: they were real enough, they are real enough, because I’m currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  No, it’s not the most bizarre holiday you’ve ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy.  It’s just that, courtesy of the University of New South Wales, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I’d even visit let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some – many, most – may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn’t always entirely obvious (or true)…

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which commissioned this piece and published it on 11 November 2013.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

I always look forward to it, through the high dry heat of summer and much of autumn.  As the days shorten and shadow, once daylight-saving has finished its run and darkness comes before dinner, it’s one of the things I love most about being alive.  And it’s this: at 6pm each night I scrunch up newspaper pages into balls, carefully craft a tee-pee of kindling, and, like placing a cherry on a dollop of ice-cream, I top it all off with a pine-cone, before, with the strike of a match, fire takes hold in the hearth.  But wait, there’s more.  There’s the pouring of a glass of semillon or ‘sav blonk’, and then, the piece de resistance, the playing of the most deliciously maudlin music I can find – Max Richter is a favourite (his reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is heartbreaking, in a good way), as is anything by Johan Johansson or those Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros.

When everything is in its place like this, I’m as happy as a humble scribe can be.  Except, of course, happy isn’t right, because it’s misery that I’m after, or, at the very least, a no-holes-barred melancholy.

Melancholy: it’s a word to be adored.  Acquiesce is another, so is panacea, but melancholy is the king or queen of the lexicon; but in these wild days of ours where gender is the be all and end all, let’s just say that melancholy rules the roost.  Because it sounds good, and it looks good – as if it’s something that could be diced up and steamed – but it also feels good, no, it feels sublime.  Melancholy means, of course, pensive sadness, or the constitutional tendency for said sadness.  But it has troubling roots, being derived from the Greek word melas meaning black and khole meaning bile, which puts me off, just a smidgeon.  Quick, throw another log on the fire, pour another dash of the white, and turn up the music!

However, there’s no escaping the out-and-out danger of what we’re talking about.  It’s widely acknowledged that melancholia refers to a mental disorder marked by depression and ill-formed fears.  Please step forward Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and, um, Moses; Vincent van Gogh is also a member of the club but you already knew that.  Interesting that my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus Everyman Edition (1972) jumps from melancholy to ‘distressing’ and ‘dejection’, but for melancholia it cuts to the chase by taking us straight to ‘insanity’, which sounds rough to me, but you can’t argue with Roget.

Could it be that the ACT region, in which I include the Southern Tablelands to the north and the Monaro district to the south, might be devilishly fond of putting melancholy on its people?  It’s highly likely.  Because we have the harshest winters: fog, frost, freezing nights, as well as wind and rain and sleet, and snow if we’re lucky.  Because during the day we have a frighteningly blue sky, the sort that can send the best of us into an abyss of existential angst.  And because during the night we have a perilously black sky, one that can pinch our breath. The tropics we are not; our winters can kill.

'Blue Notebooks' by Max Richter.  For those who like to be blue, we salute you.

‘Blue Notebooks’ by Max Richter. For those who like to be blue, we salute you.  Well, I salute you.

This particular winter, with all the dreadful mess that’s currently oozing out of Capital Hill (or Camp Hill as it was once called, and as some still refer to it, which is divine), could well be sending even the most buoyant amongst our number into a pit of despair.  Or into the cult of busyness.  And it’s here that I’m reluctantly reminded of what Gunter Grass wrote in From the Diary of a Snail (also first published in 1972): ‘If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.’  No doubt our representatives in parliament house will ensure that over the next three long, slow, sinister months we’ll be fully supplied with conflict, between the future and the past, between fact and fiction, between elevation and condemnation, and – oh it seems absurd but regrettably it’s the case – between male and female*, and many of us may well indeed want to slip into unconsciousness.  Which ultimately, irony of ironies, could be a lifesaver.

Virginia Woolf, in A Writer’s Diary (1953), is a bit more positive about us melancholic types, especially, I think, those who’ve fallen into the black hole of social media but are trying to make the most of it: ‘If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy?’

Amen to that, sister.

So, until mid-September, until spring with its colours that go beyond black and blue, and the lengthening, lightening days that are to come, I will ensure that the woodpile is fully stocked, overstocked if my back and bank-account can manage it, that there are enough bottles of cheap white plonk ready and waiting along the bottom drawer of the fridge, and that the most miserable CDs I own (and I have quite a few) are stacked beside me.  But despite all this intentional – and, let’s be frank, gratuitous – desolation, there is hope.  Because as winter knows best, particularly the sort of winters we have around these parts, especially the 2013 version, a true melancholic isn’t sick at heart, and a true melancholic doesn’t let cheap political tricks suck the marrow out of his or her bones.  A true melancholic is simply realistic, and just a little brave.

*

First published in The Canberra Times on 22 June 2013.  Thanks to Cameron Ross. *Written before Wednesday 26 July 2013, when Australian politics went arse-up.  Now insert ‘between male ego and male ego’.

A few days ago, feeling a little glum, no reason, it was just one of those glums that settles like a dry, overcast day, except this was a beautiful late spring day, a hint of the summer that’s just around the corner, so go figure, I headed off on my weekly drive south to Canberra.  I love the drive because I take the back road rather than the freeway, so it’s a narrow meander through cattle and canola paddocks, sometimes bush, wind turbines on the ranges, passing through three villages, one of which has no shop, just a tearoom-slash-museum that’s never open.  I love the drive because there’s no email, no social media, the mobile can ring but it rarely does.  It’s just me and my music, the Old Lady of The House on the back seat like Miss Daisy.

But back to the start, the glummy start.

At the edge of town, nearing the freeway overpass, I saw ahead a big mother of a motorbike parked on the side of the road.  It was black, terribly shiny black, and it looked like the devil’s wheels.  Standing beside the big mother of a motorbike was the rider, also black – black helmet, black riding leathers, black gloves, black boots.  Clearly this wasn’t a policeman, but still he put out his hand to stop me.  Oh Christ, surely I wasn’t about to be robbed.  I slowed down, but part of me, the bigger part, wanted to speed off and get the hell away.

The motorbike man, looking to all the world like Mad Max, walked into the middle of the road but got down to a crouch.  I looked to see what on earth was going on.  There, on the solid yellow line, was an echidna, yes, one of those delightfully spiky little guys, the ones that like to waddle as they walk through the bush looking for ants and termites.  Thankfully they’re not uncommon, but they are shy, and they certainly don’t like to get this close to town.

I put on my hazard lights and watched.

Mad Max tried to pick up the echidna – he had the black leather gloves, you see – but the echidna wasn’t too happy about that: the little guy struggled as if its end was nigh.  So Mad Max put the animal back down onto the bitumen and proceeded to marshal it off the road.  Slowly, carefully, gently, he got the echidna onto the grassy verge until it disappeared to safety.  Mad Max turned to me and gave me the thumbs up – literally – and I waved at him and he waved at me.  I put the car into first, turned up the music, wound down the window, and headed off on my way south, the narrow meander through cattle and canola paddocks, sometimes bush, wind turbines on the ranges, passing through three villages, one of which has no shop, just a tearoom-slash-museum that’s never open.

And I knew that I was now 100% glum-free.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

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