I’M in Bellingen now, inland on the mid north coast of New South Wales. It’s a lush, vibrant town and when I arrived this afternoon the air smelled sweet like it had just rained, even though it hadn’t. Maybe it always smells like that here.
To my shame, I haven’t done an honest day’s work since I left. I got offered some labouring in Canberra, but I moved on instead (too cold).
While I was there I bought another Primo Levi novel, called The Wrench. It’s about a rigger who works on building sites moving heavy objects, constructing cranes. The back cover quotes a reviewer: “This is not a book for journalists. Civil servants, too, will feel uneasy while reading it, and as for lawyers, they will never sleep again. For it is about man in his capacity as homo faber, a maker of things with his hands, and what has any of us ever made but words.” I’ve been sleeping lightly, but maybe it’s a coincidence.
In Newcastle, I visited wunderkind photographer Conor Ashleigh, whom I interviewed recently for a Big Issue photo essay on child labour in the brick kilns in Nepal. One morning we drove through the Hunter Valley to Singleton, and saw the huge open-cast coalmines and four-wheel drives. In the pub on Saturday night we met a young man who’d left Singleton. He told us that a 19-year-old mate of his who worked in the mines already owned a house outright and had bought himself a Hummer.
But the region isn’t all coal – the guy who’d left Singleton is now an arts student, playing in a band. On Sunday I went to a singer-songwriter night run by Conor’s girlfriend, Grace Turner, she of the breathtaking voice. Her mother, artist Mazie Turner let me stay at her home. We got to talking about Moby Dick, and she related the story of a journalist on the Melville trail who swam with whales. One came straight at him, massive below the surface. He felt the sonar reverberating through his body and looked into its eye. At the last moment, it dived deeper. “Seeing something that fills up your entire vision – now that is truly awesome,” Mazie said. “Wonder. Wonder is the first principle of life.”
If nothing else, I’ve been stretching my awe muscles: sea baths on Sydney’s northern beaches, dolphins at Port Macquarie, broad rivers, kind strangers, the size of this land. Sometimes I forget how big and varied it all is.
Today I visited a macadamia farm, Tallow Wood Grove, south of Nambucca Heads. They have 23,000 trees, lined across the hills. It takes ten years for a macadamia tree to return a commercial crop. The long harvesting season, from April to September, is coming to an end. It was cool and open in the shade of the rows, and walking below the foliage, I realised it was just the way that, as a child, I’d imagined the wood in Roald Dahl’s book, Danny, the champion of the world, where Danny and his father go pheasant poaching. My catch would be a pocket full of macadamias.