The Touchstone

A prose poemi by John Salter
photograph by Jocelyn Geraghty

The Hunter valley is depressing,
especially that part just east of Muswellbrook.
Or at least that's how I found it.
Yet when you come to that place, up through the Hawksbury valley, there are
so many traces of what this place must have once been like.

But that was before large mining companies set about digging large holes - usually ignored
by the people's news media - as a by-product of our ever-growing need for energy.
Technology, to our modern minds, is a story of success, and
although there is a world beyond the tunnel-vision of the west that has its own measures, for us
it is the product not the by-product - of the man-made - that glitters and mesmerises.

On a trip back from Sydney we found ourselves
looking for a place to camp overnight
in this god-forsaken place.

It was not looking good -
The side of a busy road rarely looks a good place to camp -
the noise of heavy trucks is intolerable and I've known a place
so bad that the ground shook beneath you every time a truck passed in the night.
There are also long, slow, noisy trains that never stop, that carry the coal
we need to power our busy lives.
So, it was not looking good for us that late afternoon in the Hunter valley, just east of Muswellbrook.

Things seemed to get worse. Liddell power station came into view. Signs
assured us that the white clouds were only water vapour but
they said nothing about the pale yellow fumes drifting up from taller and thinner chimneys.
The power station strangely resembled a nuclear reactor.
It is more than vaguely reminiscent of photos I'd seen of Three Mile Island, Pittsburgh.

I felt my despair deepening the further we went along the Hunter valley.
So, it was a kind of relief when I saw a sign to a lake, Lake Liddell.
It had a camping place far enough from the noise of the main road traffic.
The office was a miserable unarchitectured brick house that appeared to be locked up.
We knocked a second time before a young man appeared.
The interior smelt but he didn't seem to notice.
We paid $5 each for the night and could stay anywhere in the park.

I'm sure that living in a place like this part of the Hunter valley
stamps its mark on the human psyche.
The young man told us, proudly I think, that the lake was manmade - not natural.
And locked himself up again in his bunker.
There were two or three caravans in the distance but I don't think they were occupied.

It was very windy that afternoon and not easy to find a good camping spot, but at least
the noise of the wind drowned out the noise of the incessant coal trains.
Perhaps there was really only one train - so long and ponderous and continuous
that it created the impression of more,
but we went to sleep to the sound of the wind not the trains.

The wind dropped during the night and sunrise transformed this place
with gold and orange edges to low clouds in the east and mist on the surface of the lake
that completely concealed the power station on the far shore.
There were ducks on the lake as well.
I saw then that there were two orders of things in this place.

I had no way of thinking this yesterday as we entered the Hunter valley.
I had not even thought this before entering the Lake Liddell camping area, but on waking
during the night I had seen in the distance, the lighted power station coruscating but
also looking poorly against the magnificence of the stars and moon on this clear night.

There were two orders of things here: one living the other dead.
In the morning, the ducks swimming in and out of the mist brought this idea back to me.
The power station was invisible, did not exist - in the world of the ducks and mist. In fact,
one day it would not exist at all, in any world. It would cease to operate and
grass would begin to grow through cracks in the concrete.
The wind would blow in dust and debris.
Perhaps an earth tremor would destabilise one of those towers that ooze their vapours.
That collapse would signal Nature's taking back a little more of
what we'd arrogantly thought we'd taken without her noticing and, all this time,
perhaps centuries, the ducks would continue to swim in and out of the mist - on mornings such as this.

The craters left after the coal has been removed will revegetate - given enough time.
And this is the point: time is the point.
Of the two orders of things or worlds co-existing in this place, only one exists in time and
is under continual siege to make sure that that clock keeps ticking,
that the wheels of industry keep turning, for should they stop
that other world, which is timeless, would take over.

But that other world where the sun forever rises and sets
and mists form and disperse and birds and animals recycle their species
with the regularity of the sun - is the world of the truly living,
the world of change, evolution and adaptation and
its power lies in this.
Its power is the power to simply erase that which attempts to ignore its rules.

On a morning such as this - when these things can be both felt
with the senses and known with the intellect
it seems obvious that this order of things is the real world and
that other order, which exists within it, is mere illusion or, perhaps, self-delusion.
There are echoes in this of that ancient myth of Eden and expulsion, for it seems
we can be only a part of that grander world in the most elementary, basic way.

Human existence is different
to that of all the other species with whom we share the earth.
We are the only ones able to create a world even if, as in our own age, it is a world
flawed, often unjust, illogical and unsustainable.
Reverse evolution is not a possibility for us, for
We have come from many eons to be what we are.
Our method has been to blindly stumble but
the direction, in retrospect, seems to have always been forward.
Imagination allowed us to create many past worlds and also
allowed us to leave them behind.
There is no guide to lead us in our world - other than imagination.
But there is an unfailing touchstone - that much larger world which ours lies within, which can be found
even in a place as unlikely as this part of the Hunter valley.

The Apple Dictionary defines the prose poem as "a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery." It is a useful form for it permits one to make a valid argument while avoiding the rather dry rhetorical requirements of logic.

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