On the forest floor

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“Grief grinds slowly, it devours all the time it needs.” Long Witt Woon: The Way Through the Woods.

Five years ago my friend died.  Not without notice, but it was fast and I felt riven. I’d lost good friends and family before and grieved desperately for them, then and now, but this loss blew me sideways in a different way. It wasn’t just about the death of my friend, it changed who I was and how I saw the world.

I sank into something more than sadness. I suppose it was depression, the pointlessness of existence was suddenly overwhelming and inescapable. Any existence, not just mine. I obsessed over the impending death of everyone I loved, in a kind of lackluster way. The world revolved around the truth of endings and the nothingness that followed.

People going to work, parents playing with their children in the park, even birds squabbling over the pecking order in our birdbath, I would watch them idly and wonder why they bothered. They were all just passing time.

It was hard to get past.

I envied my friends who believed in a god, because I imagine whatever the failings of its institutions, if you’re on board with that kind of stuff, religion gives you purpose, comfort and community. I just couldn’t manufacture personal belief on the basis of personal need.

I envied my mother, who was also grieving, but she’s a hippy so when there’s a death in what she calls her ‘gypsy circle,’ she doesn’t feel they’re gone in the same way.

“He’s still here,” she would chuckle, dragging happily on a cigarette, at the memory of how during their own long friendship they would bicker for hours about past lives and reincarnation. He thought she was very weird but begrudgingly adored her anyway.  She thought he was equally deluded as a result of something inflicted in this or another life.

I on the other hand didn’t believe anything except he was gone. I was so sad. He was so absolutely gone.

Worried, my husband took me to Pemberton, a beautiful small town in the south-west for a holiday, where he felt the old growth forests would soothe me. We walked everyday, down long gravel tracks. We walked through the tall trees, climbed through scrub and clambered down narrow paths that led to hidden misty lakes. We turned our phones off and played scrabble at night and watched birds hop among the grasses and shrubs outside our cottage in the morning. But most of all I felt peace when I was deep in the heart of the forest.

The air smelt of earth and home, the trees towered protectively around me. The ripple of birds as they moved among the trees, the whisper of wind through leaves, the crackle of an unseen creature crawling along the forest floor, sounds that were welcome rather than the assault I had been feeling in the city. Our footsteps fell in with the natural rhythm of the forest and I began to breathe a little more deeply.

Slowly, something happened that had not happened in any of my previous visits.  I found myself staring more and more at the ground. I noticed, with a sense of  interest that grew to wonder, the mushrooms and fungi that lived there. So many varieties, tiny yellow toadstools, bright and clear as a sour sally. Huge flat plates of fungi jutting out of random tree trunks. Brown fancies frilled like a Victorian lady’s nightgown, small red caps with white stems like you read about in fairy stories as a child.

The more I looked the more I saw. We walked past trees that stretched to the sky, in their prime. Breathtaking in their reach. But it was the old and the broken, the long dead stumps too wide for me to put my arms around that I saw now.  Fungi was everywhere. At every stage of life, small and easy to miss on the side of a 60 foot marri tree, dotted among the leaf litter on the forest floor, smothering fallen old trunks in bright green moss, drawing them slowly, slowly into the ground. And all around new life was springing forth, fed by those that had come before them.

The process was beautiful. I started to feel an almost spiritual connection that I didn’t understand and didn’t need to, because it was speaking to me at a level deep beneath my skin.

It was different to my mother’s surety that in death my friend still existed somewhere as I knew him, but it was comforting, because it felt real and it took me out of myself. Everything spiritual that made sense to me in the past, about striving to ultimately release ego was here and happening all around me. Quietly, slowly, inevitably. But not without purpose. The idea the essence of everything would eventually be absorbed into the earth illustrated to me, profoundly, how we are all connected.

It didn’t make me less sad, but it did help the pointlessness that was crushing me.

And I began to heal. I went home. I forgot a little about my mushrooms and stopped staring at parents pushing their child on a swing and wondering why they bothered.

Now five years later I have picked up a book. An epiphany in itself. And a reminder.

The Way Through the Woods; of mushrooms and mourning is written by a Malaysian writer, Long Litt Woon, who went through devastating loss when her husband went to work one day and didn’t come home. She describes her own understanding and relationship with death and grief and she talks about how she found her own way back to life through fungi also. Long Litt Woon’s passage through loss led to her becoming a student of Mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Her book is both a study in grief and healing and an exploration of this incredible form of life we still know so little about. Science and what it means to love and to be human all rolled into one.

It’s magical. I have been reminded of what it means to connect and I have a renewed fascination with these incredible organisms that play such a role in life and death.

I actually don’t think it matters, really, how you find your way back to connection after loss. I know many don’t like the idea of comparison and will say it’s relative. I’m sure it is but I would not compare my loss with a woman whose husband died. That is just more.  I can only speak for my own experience.

There is, for me, a deep selfishness that overcomes you when you grieve. Not the kind you choose where you take the biggest piece of cake or steal someone’s carpark or don’t appreciate your loved ones. This kind of self absorption is involuntary and suffocating. You lose the ability to connect with anything but how you feel at that moment and how you think you’ll continue to feel tomorrow and the next day and the next. Grief makes its home in your chest and it’s heavy, so even something as natural as breathing becomes an effort. The worst of it is the loss of connection. To anything in yourself other than your loss, to anyone around you. You feel utterly alone.

Nature has a gentle way of reminding us that you are not. That everything is intertwined and you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s mystical, peaceful and deeply healing.

To me, it was something as small and as vast as a mushroom that led me back to connection. I still miss my friend. His name was Niall.

Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, of mushrooms and mourning,  is published by Scribe. She is coming to Literature and Ideas for Perth Festival in February 2020.

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(photo: Albert Shaart, Flickr)

I remember you

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I remember you.

You intruded with your hippy music, weird food, your big orange pots and harem pants. We had each other’s measure. Enemies at the gate.

You were thin and pale with way too much hair, not like my dad. I wanted to blow you away, out of our house, down our street, back across the river where you came from. I waged a long campaign to drive you out.

The stand off over my cat which you wanted to give away before you moved in, burning sticks from the fire offered as sweet treats, with smiles that didn’t mean it, while we stared the other down.  Lining the pockets of my dressing gown with paper towel before dinner, so I could squirrel my food away for later after I’d provoked you into sending me to my room. The shameful lies I told my mum about your children breaking my stuff so she wouldn’t like them. How much it hurt when she knew I was lying and took their side.

You stayed.

So did the cat.

I don’t remember when we became friends, how we picked our way through the spiky path of mutual antipathy and found a way to love. Neither of us were good at it. We both recognised that much at least. Maybe that’s how.

I remember your kitchen and the food you made, nothing like the food I knew before. Ratatouille, coarse brown bread we had to slice ourselves, made into chunky croutons fried in olive oil when the bread got stale. I remember your aubergines and avocados, the beer you brewed in big brown bottles that were stacked in the pantry. The white parcels of bacon scraps we bought from Watsonia on High Street for five dollars and had with eggs and mushrooms on Sundays round the table, all together. I remember your stance on the evils of soft drink, which you demonstrated with a dirty silver 5 cent piece in a glass of coke on the fridge. The coin came out sparkling clean after a few days. I got the point but I still really wanted to drink the coke.

I remember your music that filled our house. Your record player with the good speakers, the real diamond needle and the blue velvet cleaner in its rectangle box. The shelves of albums in their covers with the plastic sleeves intact because you were careful about that sort of thing. Side by side, all in a row, their colours like a painting. We would play them every night at dinner, and all weekend. We’d play them on Saturdays while we cleaned the house, each taking turns with a room, week round. Mine was the kitchen which meant scrubbing your big wooden chopping board with the round cut-out for scraping food into pans and putting your knives back into their right place in the block. Or the lounge-room which meant dusting mum’s ornaments, chopping the wood and filling the wood basket for open fires on cold nights.

I remember you.

That time you and mum smashed the plaster off the wall along one side of the hallway and into the lounge, leaving the limestone bare. You had t shirts wrapped round your head for the dust. You used sledgehammers to break up the concrete out the front as well. I walked past with my friend from school and pretended it was not where I lived and you and mum were not my family. We weren’t like other families. Not like my old family.

I knew to my great concern you grew dope plants out the back near the chicken run and smoked it with your friends. I disapproved deeply. I did not know that elaborate glass contraption you kept on a shelf was bonafide smoking paraphernalia so I used it to water the plants and didn’t know why you thought that was funny.  I left the anti-drug leaflets they gave us at school all over the house hoping you would see them and fix your ways. You wondered aloud where mum found me and whose child I really was.

You’d surprise me now and again by getting me completely, even if you thought I was ridiculous. You’d smile at me with your pale blue eyes and I loved the light in them. I loved the way you laughed with your whole face.

That time you and mum pretended to be normal just for a night. You did that for me because you knew how much I wanted it. I had started at a different school and brought new friends home. I planned the event for days. I took great care to manufacture a scene from the family I thought I wished I had, and what it might look like. You on the couch with your newspaper, mum at the stove stirring the spaghetti sauce, looking for all the world like she had cooked it and not you. My friends round the dinner table, with a tablecloth and napkins, making conversation. You sat so well with your paper and your proper shoes and jeans instead of the harem pants you liked to wear around the house. Your friend with the wild eyes, wooly hair and bushy beard wrecked our efforts, when he burst in shouting for me to roll him a joint, he was joking of course but my fragile fiction was broken. I cried all night in the garden and you didn’t laugh at me then. You understood. And as it turned out, my friends didn’t mind and my life wasn’t over. And I loved your friend with the wild eyes, wooly hair and bushy beard, and love him still.

I longed for a mum and a step dad who went to parents’ night. I wished we had an iron and our school shirts were white and pressed like the other kids. I wished we did not dig up the hills hoist and use daisy shrubs we planted in its place to dry our clothes instead. But on weekends we’d do something magical like fill the car with helium balloons and release them from the tallest hill in town and then have fish and chips.

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I loved our Christmas where you would dress up in mum’s red caftan and the house was strewn with tinsel and we had a real tree with prickles that smelt like a story book Christmas. I loved our family dinners where everyone was welcome, and there was always enough, whoever arrived. You would talk to us sisters, all four of us like adults and we would discuss real things like music and news of the day. You made me want to be smart, and informed and a good conversationalist. I didn’t tell you I was frightened Reagan would push the button and worried we’d all die from ruining the atmosphere with chlorofluorocarbons. I still enjoyed the chats. You taught me to play chess and card games like Find the Lady and Euchre.

You gave me the playlist of my life with your music. Songs I can’t hear without being with you still. I’m glad we have that, and it can’t be taken.

Sleep well. I’ll remember you.

John Lennon: Imagine.

Murray Head: Say It Ain’t So Joe.

The Eagles: Hotel California.

The Beatles: All of them, but mostly Sergeant Pepper and The White Album.

Supertramp: Crime of the Century.

Bob Dylan: Masterpieces.

Bob Dylan: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. 

J.J Cale: Naturally.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman.

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