by Angela Rockel
We crawled down into the dark and we waited
When I was a child I loved to take charcoal from the fireplace and grind it to paste with water to make ink. Its opacity fascinated me – I would hold the jar to the sun, tilting it to find the thin meniscus at the very edge of the liquid through which some light could find its way. It was the world of darkness in small; I could come nearer to it, hold it in my hand, touch its surface and watch the end of my finger disappear into its mystery. And I could find images there; I used it to write and draw and paint lines and washes in velvet-black and soft grey, with a brush made from a chewed twig and a pen cut from a kelp gull feather brought back from the beach. It was satisfying to find the materials I needed close at hand. Sometimes I added the purple juice of phytolacca berries that grew in a weedy corner of the garden, and which we children called deadly nightshade, though of course it is not.
Here in the valley of the Huon the inky water of the river, stained purple-brown-black by buttongrass tannin from the high country, reminds me of those experiments in depth and darkness. In places on the west coast of the island where rainfall is very high (as on the west coast of the South Island in New Zealand), huge volumes of fresh water, tannin-dark, pour off the land and create an opaque layer on top of the salt water of the sea, limiting available light – and so the deep comes nearer. Feathery sea pens, corals, sponges that usually live very far down move up to reefs and outcrops just metres below the surface.
I’m thinking about all this because it’s cold enough to light the fire each evening and my husband has begun to collect the silky-brittle logs of char that are left in the morning ashes after the stove has been shut down overnight. He’ll crush them and soak them in seaweed tea before adding them to the garden beds. Charcoal is porous – each piece becomes a little outpost like a sunken wreck that hosts a world of life, supporting bacteria and fungi that sweeten and fertilise the soil. And if the char is made in a fire that’s not too hot, it retains oils and tars – an aromatic chemistry of persistence which allows it to last and last in the ground, doing its work without breaking down.
All over the world, rich black earth can be found where people have settled and stayed; where they’ve lit their cooking fires and dug the charcoal into their gardens with the kitchen scraps and broken pots, with the liquor from their ferments and pickles and brews thrown in to bring it to life. It’s there under the streets of Roman London; it’s there in the terra preta of pre-Columbian Amazon settlements abandoned hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago, quietly regenerating itself in collusion with earthworms, while the leached, infertile soils around it slurry and bake in the tropical wet.
Days are still short; the sun grinds in its black bowl – shining chunks, our planets and moons against that dark. Some of my companions have gone there already – one breath then gone, sounding. Night rises and I step in – sometimes it’s all I have of them, this ink that swallows the world.
Out in the paddock a circle of sodden ash marks the place where the solstice bonfire, bone fire, took the year’s accumulation of everything that’s unassimilable and turned it airy, bright and dark, ready to go back under. Each year the flames unfurl their hands and the cold lump of the heart hisses and wails; in the embers everything speaks and sings in its own voice and that is the song. The bonfire’s a chance to hunker down together; we watch the sparks go up and let the smoke catch in our hair and clothes, breathe it in, let it wash around us. Against all evidence of the immensity of cold at our backs, we turn our faces to the spot of warmth and light we’ve made to signal our hope that, truly, after this night, once again our part of the earth begins to lean toward the sun.
Humans everywhere have their ceremonies to mark the turns of the year – fires lit from a splinter of last season’s wood, char and ashes ploughed into fallow ground or scattered among the growing crops. The black, the coals and dust, the body of ink, unknowable, from which the next thing can come. After winter, something can happen; the ground rises in steam like a dark loaf – lives come up, trumpets and bells from underground, out of this fabric which we have a hand in creating and to which we return, ourselves and all that we make and do, for better and for worse, out of our own necessities. This journal, for instance, these posts of char.
Find Angela Rockel on her blog: http://onsilverhill.blogspot.com.au