Dusty trails. Photo: Michelle Langstone
Dusty trails. Photo: Michelle Langstone

BooksDecember 6, 2020

When I am farther away

Dusty trails. Photo: Michelle Langstone
Dusty trails. Photo: Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone runs away to the Marlborough region to find some peace in the quiet.

There are things you can learn from the wild. If you go farther away, the messages get clearer, delivered uninterrupted down the wires of birdsong and through the swift-running currents of rivers. Where I stay, there is no light pollution after dark, and the stars are very bright. There are glow worms in the damp banks that line the forest paths; another set of lights to see by, they don’t interfere with your night vision, but enhance it. Out here with my wilder nature I feel my skin speak to the air, exchanging knowledge in molecules and breath.

I learn everything I need to know from animals. I learn about loneliness from a small feral goat named Stephen who bleats into the afternoon, looking for someone to break up the hours. I learn about comfort when he buries his head under my armpit and nudges me there, his horns blunt implements of reprimand for the time I have been away from him. I feed him fig leaves from the tree he can’t reach from his hind legs, and he yanks at the green stems, insolent with hunger. And then he goes mad, racing around his paddock, leaping onto logs, frisking mid air, turning half somersaults in the afternoon sunshine, his little body caught up in the simple euphoria of being fed something he likes, and having someone beside him. I sit with a cup of tea and he unties my shoelaces and tries to eat my sweater, and bunts me with his hard head, as if he is trying to beat into me that I must not leave it so long before I see him again.

I learn about the daylight hours from a black dog named Dusty, who watches the arc of the sun with me, and meters out my working day between walks along the riverbank, or up the forest road. I am on his schedule. I watch his ears and listen for the things he can hear before me. In the bed at night he sleeps heavy by my side, and I feel the cage of his lungs rise and fall against my hip. Out here alone, at the edge of the wild, he is my eyes and ears. In the dark mornings as we head down the river road, his white front paws flash in the loosening light.

Because I am farther away, I miss a funeral of a beloved childhood teacher. I watch the service online, with the dog beside me, and I let tears fall on his soft ears when I see the casket carried out. The cameraperson turns off the video, and then on again when they have positioned themselves beside the hearse, to where the coffin is carried by the family. I watch familiar faces from my childhood, now aged, come to lay roses on the casket lid. The camera is so close I can just pick up the words they say to her in farewell. I feel I am floating somewhere in the air above the the funeral goers, omniscient for the first and only time in my life, catching these private moments of sadness, craving the intimacy of grief.

I go out into the tangle of garden and pick wild flowers that are losing their best life, and scatter their petals up the forest path for my teacher.

People all over the world are missing the funerals of their loved ones, hunched over live feeds while a pandemic rages on and we are kept apart. I can’t warm up. I feel cold down to my bones from the way we are all spaced out in our grief across hemispheres. I light the fire and watch the paper flare, listening to the whoosh of air suck the orange flames higher. I go out in the rain that has begun to fall, collecting firewood and stepping carefully past the blackbirds that claim the lawn and the worms coming up for air. I am the least important thing here, less necessary than the rain.

The trees are heavy with birds. Their songs are damp, but optimistic.

Photo: Michelle Langstone

I get stuck inside the chicken coop when the door shuts and the clasp clicks into place. Crouched in the dirt I feel panic, and try to consider my options. It’s just me and three hens, who have come to tell me off in no uncertain terms, feathered dinosaurs on a scolding mission. I crouch there for ages, unable to move, imagining being found clutching the hens for warmth, nesting in their straw with them, in their house under the trees. I throw my body against the door but it doesn’t budge. In the end I find a long stick, and shove it up through the chicken wire, prodding the latch until I manage to push it upwards, and fling the door open to my freedom.

Outside of my own life, absorbed in the rhythm of another, I forget about the things that trouble me. I forget to be anxious about work, because here the work is the kind that keeps animals alive, and the land turning over, and it seems to matter more than deadlines for a world that keeps grinding on without me. Out here we watch the weather, and the river that runs swollen, and then calm again.

All the river stones are polished round, and when the water is high and full you can hear them rattle along its bed, if you listen.

Farther away it matters just to sleep and wake and rise. It matters to light the fire, and turn on the lamps in the evening, when the dusk windows turn to mirrors and I see myself for the first time in several days, tangled in a jersey, my hair in nests. I always tell myself I will carry the value of these simpler days back with me when I emerge. When I finally wash properly and style my hair, I will keep the wilder version of myself just close enough to still feel it. But the fact of it is, the moment the city takes me back in its possessive, smoggy embrace, I will let it erase the wildness the way I always do. I will let the street lights seduce me when they gleam in the rain, and the crowds in the shops carry me along with the conversations of strangers. I will feed my cat, who is never lonely, and watch her nose an indoor plant on her way to a nap.

But when I lock the door in the evening, in my little unit attached to other little units that hold other humans busy in their lives, I will remember the chicken coop and the panic, and remind myself that we pay for expensive cages and call them homes.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

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