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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Simplicity and the complicated

See simplicity in the complicated.
Achieve greatness in little things.
                                  Tao te Ching

When I was about nine years old, my father contracted Q Fever

   It was well named. The disease was so mysterious in the 1950s that the Q stood for “Question” or maybe “Question Mark”. He was very sick; so sick that for the first time ever, and much against his will, he allowed himself to be sent away from the farm by my mother to recuperate at the beach.

   As far as I could ever remember as a child, he had not had a day's holiday. Uncle Frank took some time off from his job at the meatworks in Gladstone to come and help my mother run the farm while Dad was away.

   I have very fond memories of my father's illness, because he took me with him on this holiday. Nothing like that had ever happened before – he and I together and it never happened again.

   Uncle Siv had a shack at what was then regarded as a remote little beach called Tannum Sands, now practically a suburb of Gladstone, but at that time a ramshackle little village of two dozen or so jerry-built shacks which people had put up as weekenders.

   It was a magical time in my life. Just before dawn every day, my father would take one of the fishing rods at the shack, and, with me hot on his heels, would go to the surf beach just down the little hill to catch our breakfast. There were plenty of fish about at that time, so we were always guaranteed a breakfast of whiting or flathead or bream.

   I would wander about the beach, collecting anything of interest to me, or just straddling a log washed up in a storm at some stage; special to me because it reared up from the sand rather like what I imagined resembled a Viking ship. 

   As dawn slipped through sunrise into early morning, I'd watch the change of mood in the sea and sky while the soldier crabs scurried about and the seagulls did their foraging and bickering on the creamy sands. Behind me, the dew dried from the leaves of the great eucalypts and added their scent to the salt-laden air swished by the surf. It was a poem waiting to happen.

   Life just doesn't get any better than that.

Photo: Jan Stockwell
   Just after that holiday, we were taught a poem at school which I can still recite. Anyone who has experienced the Australian bush at dawn, sitting by the ocean as the tide comes in, can easily relate to this purely descriptive song of innocence.

An Australian Sunrise
by James Lister Cuthbertson

The Morning Star paled slowly,
the Cross hung low to the sea,
And down the shadowy reaches
the tide came swirling free.

The lustrous purple blackness
of the soft Australian night
Waned in the grey awakening
that heralded the light.

Out of the dying darkness,
still in the forest dim
The pearly dew of the dawning
clung to each giant limb.

Till the sun came up from ocean,
red with the cold sea mist,
And smote on the limestone ridges,
the shining tree-tops kissed.

Then the fiery scorpion vanished,
and the magpie’s note was heard.
The wind in the she-oaks wavered
and the honeysuckles stirred,

The airy golden vapour
rose from the river's breast.
The kingfisher came darting
out of her crannied nest.

The bulrushes and reed-beds
put off their sallow grey,
And burnt with cloudy crimson
at the dawning of the day.

   It wasn't until my undergraduate university days studying English literature that I became aware of the hidden layers of meaning in the poetry of William Wordsworth. He was to me the leading light of the nineteenth century English Romantics. I was well aware, long before, of the romance of foggy autumns, two-toned critters before 1959 pink and grey Holdens, lovers on Greek pots never quite getting it on, and the pleasure dome of Xanadu, but not what Coleridge and Shelley and Keats were really searching for.

   It so happened that at the same time, I was studying the Asian philosophical traditions, particularly of Taoism and Buddhism. The connection between the  Romantics and the Asian mystical vision struck me with absolute clarity, and none more obviously than in this part of what I regard as one of the greatest of poems of the Romantic tradition in England. 

Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
...For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.


  1. Beautiful start to my day. Thank you Denis. My briefest comment - but that says it all.

  2. "The morning star paled slowly - the cross hung low to the sea" of the few poems I can recite by heart too! I wonder if it was in a class reader?
    A beautiful recount of a precious memory.
    Isn't "memory-making" so much of what life is all about?
    Without meaning to, your Dad's illness did this for you.
    PS Do you now have any idea with the "Q Fever" might have been?


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