The Places in Between

There are towns across the world, thousands in number, that have never had their name inscribed upon a map. The conduits of history have moved around them, the rivers have not touched them. They have been ignored. There are towns and peoples and cultures that will never so much as be described in a book. There are farmers who in three generations have not wandered beyond the nearest hills. There are, in Rory Stewart’s words, places in between, and they will not be remembered. And here we sit in western suburbia, where the lights never go out, at the fastest spinning edge of the carousel, where everything is new and everything glitters with potential. We, most definitely, will be remembered. We will be remembered for not helping them.

Casimir Pulaski Day

Looking back through the waves of nostalgia, there’s something brighter about the life of our youth. There’s something richer and purer. Something beautiful. There’s a burning feeling for the simplicity, for the adventure, for the creeks, for the glory of the dappled sunlight and bicycles through the summer streets, for sleepovers at Eddie’s. There’s some yearning there, and it comes back at the first old song.

And you get it from songs, don’t you, you get that feeling of transcendence. You step, for a moment, beyond the confines of this world, into something ultimate and ecstatic.

You feel it in love. Love feels like a symphony.

You get it from common purpose, from a shared dream, from nationalism or environmentalism.

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I can remember my Grandpa, before he passed away, taking me out walking through the trees. Every passing turn was filled with adventure, with mystery, with an endless forest of potential. I can remember canoeing with him slowly along a flat long lake.

My mind jumps forwards to canoeing on a school camp. To the pure, raw fun of exploring the bush with a dozen of my best friends, no parents, no school work, just endless natural surroundings.

I can remember playing out the side of church, fifteen years old, with friends, and one of us not knowing the rules of soccer, getting it all wrong, trying to tackle somebody with their chest. That memory stretches out for three years, just mucking about, just little kids.

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One of the boys I used to play soccer with is no longer alive. He died of cancer instead of going to university. I can’t call him up, go over to his house, talk about cricket. There’s no him to answer the phone.

My grandpa passed last year. He was like a mystic to me. This invulnerable seer, that knows something you never will, that has this connection with the natural, that has been taught lessons that the world has long forgotten. There were conversations we never had.

And you think back of those times, and you remember that your father’s hair once was brown.

And all those years of riding bikes with the group after school, and all the adventures we shared. And now we are scattered into small unconnected lives. After the bright of Camelot I wonder if the nights each drifted off into separate lives and different loves, and only sometimes remembered the beauty they had around that table.

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In the very best of life, when the song reaches its climax, you still feel the lack. You still feel, that even at its greatest, this record is slightly off track. Isn’t it slightly out of tune, even through the sepia tones of nostalgia?

When you are soaring, carefree, at peace, suddenly the phone rings. And you are immediately reacquainted with life in a paradise lost.

And I don’t know what else can deal with it. I don’t know what other system of thought can help. When you get everything you ever wanted, and it doesn’t satisfy, or it doesn’t last, and you yell out in frenzy at this bipolar universe, what answer are you gonna get back?

Silence?

What if every glint of light, in this dark and shadowed world, was the reflection of something brighter soon to come.

Terrence Malick Redux – Nature vs. Grace

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow… Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries… Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things.’ – from the film ‘The Tree of Life.”

“You desire to live “according to nature?” Oh you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power – how could you live according with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this nature?” – German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

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I don’t know if you’ve taken a holiday recently. If you have, then you might find this easier. You might be more capable of lifting your mind out, above the water, above the littleness of daily life. You might be more able to find your imagination.

Imagine a beach.

Imagine a scattering of rocks cast across the sand, each of different shape, each of different size. Then a wave comes, carrying some away, leaving others behind. And then another wave arrives, and then another.

After this reasonably modest storm our beach is sparse: many of the rocks have gone. Many of the little black dots have left us, and there is endless golden yellow and blue. We have clean smooth sand in front of us. Now, certainly, the light rocks have all departed, as have the smooth ones. The waves have selected from the rocks, they have ensured the survival of only the fittest, only those who cling hardest to the beach, only those who struggle most forcefully for permanence, are allowed to continue. Our population of rocks is heavier, more jagged, more embedded into the landscape. The waves claimed what was weak and kept what was resilient. The survivers cling to the beach with all their strength.

But then again, if we stop and think, they don’t ‘cling’ to the beach do they? That’s the whole point isn’t it? We have described an impersonal process. Only life ‘clings.’ Only life ‘struggles.’ We do not have life here on our imaginary beach – we have pebbles on the sand.

The theory of evolution is often personified. We speak of ‘selfish genes,’ of ‘the struggle for survival,’ of ‘the purpose of evolution.’ But this is just us attempting to wrap our heads around an impersonal process. A wave rises up the sand, and the beach keeps the strong and discards the weak, that’s it, and the rest is anthropomorphism.

Now imagine if our rocks could breed, every hour, as long as the wave hasn’t taken them. Wouldn’t the rocks gradually grow more and more resilient to the swell? Perhaps we might call this rock, eventually, a crab, but the difference between a rock and a crab is simply time. They are, essentially speaking, the same. A rock that could breed, plus trillions of trillions of waves, is a crab. That mighty barrier separating the living from the non-living, in our minds, and in our hearts, is not quite the fortress that we thought it was.

The waves of the evolutionary process of course stand for the threats to survival, and the rocks are combinations of cells. The threats wipe out the less well-adjusted combinations of cells, resulting in gradual progress. The contribution of neo-Darwinian thought is to incorporate DNA and RNA into this process (unlike a Lamarckian model the organisms are not passing experience onto their descendants, but just their genetic blueprint). (The one guy reading this who has actually studied evolutionary biology loved that paragraph and everyone else nearly closed the page).

Now this is our explanation of all of life. It is an impersonal explanation. So try hard to strip away all of the personifications you have attributed to it. You are not a ‘living identity.’ You are a great assembled swarm of individual cells that have resisted the waves together, not because they wanted to (cells are no more personal than rocks remember) but just because they did, just because they had the right shape. Now the patterns that these cells have formed together are quite incredible. But essentially, we are just complicated rocks that have withstood the rising and falling swell of the mindless universe around us by gradually becoming more resilient organisms, doing so accidentally, entirely without intention.

Now one consequence of a proper understanding of evolutionary theory, stripped of all personifications, is that the traditional boundary between living and non-living, and between conscious and non-conscious life, has been significantly weakened. A human being is not as separated from a pebble upon the ground, as we once thought she was. The difference is one of ‘extent’, not so much ‘category.’ We can’t say that one has a ‘soul,’ or that one is made of some super material substance. No, if you could take enough pebbles, reduce them to their underlying atomic components, and then reassemble them into the right shape, you would have a human.

If we bring string theory into it, then we would speculate that all of the diversity of the periodic table is simply strings vibrating in different ways. Everything (lakes, trees, koalas, skyscrapers, dentists, iPhone’s) reduces on the atomic scale to just one type of thing, strings, little one dimensional building blocks.

So then that gaping chasm between a human being and a slab of pavement, that traditionally meant so much to human identity, has been narrowed to a sliver. Hence perhaps why Peter Singer is so quick to accuse those who attribute extra worth to humans of ‘speciesism.’ Perhaps he is right. Perhaps when we consider humans to be oh so valuable, and donkeys not so much, we are discriminating unfairly.

But I don’t think that Singer is being entirely fair here. He is always talking about the barrier between man and animal, and good on him. But why doesn’t he ever want to talk about the barrier between pebble and crab? That’s why, to my mind, Nietzsche is a much better philosopher. He pulls down all barriers, without special pleading. He obliterates the gap between man and animal, by obliterating the gap between man and rock. He doesn’t just knock down a few houses, he bulldozes the town. And I think, if Nietzsche was to use Singer’s language, he would simply accuse those materialists who assign great worth to life in general, of lifeism.

And if Singer is right (and I sure think he is), with the few tentative steps he takes, then Nietzsche is right to carpet bomb the village.

That is to say, that if this remarkable thing we call humanity has arisen purely by mindless processes (an accidental byproduct of the rising and falling of waves), then there isn’t much basis for that reasonably crucial belief most of us hold that says that human beings are valuable. Mr Singer wants to do some very delicate trimming of a few upper branches and the problem with that, and I hate to say this, is that his tree has no trunk.

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One other way that people personify evolution is by saying that that we must somehow obey its edicts. Some in the eugenics movement argued that we have a moral duty to further our own evolution as a species by destroying the weak and breeding the strong. Evolution is our master, they were implying, and we must obey it. Nature is progress. Nature is survival of the fit and abandonment of the weak. We must conform to nature. But they misunderstand what evolution is. Evolution has no purpose. Do the rocks on the beach have a destination in mind? Do the waves have a goal that they strive towards? So neither then do our cells, which are just as impersonal. So then there is no ‘ought’ that we can derive from the processes of evolution. There are no moral judgments. There are just rocks, bouncing against rocks, producing people (incrementally, and over much time). So then why should we feel compelled to conform our lives to the directions and manners of nature? I am not bound to obey some mindless process of rocks and waves. Nature just ‘is,’ it cannot produce an ‘ought.’

Now this is great news, because to this point no civilisation founded on the principles of Darwinian evolution has been anything less than a train wreck.

If we are to build a workable society, we must not build it on the principles of nature (as if nature has principles, another personification). No we must build upon whatever it is – this strange spark inside us – that makes us turn to each other in love. Now we can explain this impulse, love, by way of neo-Darwinian theory. Love produces babies (I’ll leave the details out). Love allows for cooperation, trade, the shadows of what we now call society. Yes love can be explained by its evolutionary roots.

But evolution on its own leaves the concept hollowed out and dry. If the evolutionary explanation of love is the whole story. If love is *just* a complex way of evolved rocks propagating their existence mindlessly, then we have stripped love of its majesty. Love becomes an illusion foisted upon our brain by our genes to promote survival. It feels like we are tapping into something cosmic, something Earth bending, something out there, real and meaningful. But no, no, it’s just that your atoms see in someone else’s atoms the possibility of propagation or trade, and so particular chemicals are secreted which encourage your brain to care.

If we close the door on the divine, on the idea of a creator, if we have just a material explanation, and not an explanation by way of agency, then we reduce the whole universe to just physical laws and mindless atomic incidents. Everything that we care about, literally every single thing, is just atoms bumping into atoms in different ways. It is just waves and rocks and some going and some remaining.

Now (and I want to say this without personification), some people do live in a way that mirrors the impersonal processes of evolution that made us. Some people have a view of life that is hard and inflexible.

“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you.”

“Toscanini once recorded a piece sixty five times. You know what he said when he finished? “It could be better.” Think about it.”

Striving constantly, for notice, for permanence, for existence, clawing away at your competitors, pushing them down and you up – that is what survival of the fittest means. In such actions, we all announce that we think life is just some mindless struggle for survival. In such actions we proclaim that we think life all stems from meaninglessness. Such actions stem from this atomic view, imbibed not expressed. It all stems from a view that you get one chance in this hostile universe, and the only way you’re going to take that chance it is through struggle.

“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.”

And then they pin Jesus Christ to a cross and he says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and there isn’t anything in that sentence consonant with the way of nature. It is a sentence only makes sense, as a way of life, if there’s something else out there. I mean if matter is it, if we are just evolved rocks, if we get one life, one chance to rise, then getting killed when you could have shied away from truth, and going down speaking words of forgiveness, it just doesn’t fit. Jesus gets no payback for his righteous death.

And that is the way of grace. It is a way of life that tries, at great expense to itself, to spread light and life to everyone else. It encourages itself to fall, so others rise up. It defies evolution, turns against it, subverts it.

It believes that the universe is made of more than just matter. Sure, it leaves room for the physics. I am not arguing for some simplistic either/or dichotomy. No I am arguing for both. I am arguing for a view in addition to the physical, mechanical explanations, not instead of them. Such a view may fit very well with evolutionary theory. But rather than say that evolution is the whole show, it says that evolution is just a tool that the creator used.

In doing so it injects meaning into this drab, mechanical, atomic reality, rescuing it from nihilism, turning people from atomic colonies, into human beings. It asserts that this mortal struggle is only one chapter in the book, and not even the best one. As comfortable as it sometimes looks, as natural as it seems, this is not home. We are stowaways here. We are exiled to the universe. We came from somewhere far over the rainbow and this is just a halfway house. There’s better accommodation on the way.

“Do good to them. Wonder. Hope.”

“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”

It looks naive. It looks foolish to this world around us. Maybe it looks weak and sentimental. It isn’t about rigid religious judgement. It’s just basically, a way of life that at its core embodies selfless love and hope.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” – Jesus Christ, from his sermon on the mount.

This difference here, between the way of nature, and the way of grace, is I think perhaps the core theme explored in Terrence Malick’s the Tree of Life and the Thin Red Line.

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Postmodernism and History

“Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.” – Simon Schama, Professor of History at Columbia.

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Postmodernism

It seems that there are not one but two quite separate types of postmodernist. I want to illustrate this by contrasting them with some classical thinkers.

1. Classical Historian One asserts that when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC he uttered the immortal phrase ‘the die has been cast.’ His indecision faded the moment he saw the river.

2. Classical Historian Two asserts that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, probably not uttering the attributed words. He is likely to have settled upon his revolutionary course of action long in advance.

3. Weak Form Postmodernist asserts that due to the lack of concrete source material we should attribute only a moderately high probability to the common belief that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. His famous phrase is probably a later addition to add colour to the narrative, but may have been actual. His intentions at that point in time are probably lost to the gradual erosion of time.

4. Strong Form Postmodernist denies the exist of Julius Caesar, Ancient History, Modern History, and perhaps on some days even reality itself. History, he tells his students, is whatever you can convince the marker of.

A Room of Events

Or you could think about it this way.

Imagine an empty room, an apartment perhaps, with closed blinds and no furniture.

Now let us say that furniture stands for events. Each event of history – The dropping of a bomb on Nagasaki, the launch of Apollo Thirteen, the murder of John F. Kennedy – is a piece of furniture. A big portion of the role of the historian is to tell us which items of furniture are in the room. They are tasked with filling the room with furniture: with painting the blank walls of history with events. There might be some divergent views about some items of furniture – the existence of Jesus Christ would be beyond reasonable debate, whereas the existence of Caeser is more questionable – but the overall level of disagreement would be quite low. The vast majority of historians agree about the vast majority of the pieces of furniture in the room.

The second role of a historian is to weave the grand narrative, to tell us the story. They have populated the room with objects, now they tell us how the objects interrelate, which events led to which other events, how, and why? The storyteller takes the props and builds a narrative. Now, this, right here, is much more debatable. Here the level of disagreement is much higher. There are many discussions at this level, many revisions and reinterpretations. But, and this is the key point, all participants in these debates agree roughly about what bits of furniture are in the room. A participant in this discussion who is a bit cautious about weaving stories, who is a bit skeptical about grand historical claims, is still in the room, sitting on a sofa. If he is a postmodernist, he is the weak kind, the half shot. He is a very welcome voice, the anti-Marx, the one person in the room preaching the doctrine of uncertainty, chaos theory, limited information. Good on her! Simply put, she has common sense. In a room full of overconfident classical types, she just wants people to recognize the fog of time.

But there is a more insidious foe lurking in the corridor. He stands, he does not sit, for he does not believe in chairs. He denies anything and everything that is asserted. No events are beyond doubt – total doubt that leaves one blindfolded in an endless darkness. He doesn’t believe in up and he doesn’t believe in down, and he would accuse anyone saying otherwise of making a power play. He is a proper postmodernist, and he has not exercised common sense in a good long time. Or maybe he doubts its existence.

She gets confused for him a lot. Sometimes she gets his emails accidentally. Heck, sometimes she even confuses herself about it all. But at the end of the day, when he’s off levitating around in the corridor talking about linguistic theory (but if all arguments are just power plays why aren’t his?), yes when he’s off levitating, she’s enjoying her leather coach which, unless you were a professor, you would say quite certainly, actually does, kind of just, exist.

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Now that I’ve defined my terms as accurately as I can, I want to say just this about the strong form types –

The most dangerous ideologue in the world is the one who denies the existence of an objective foundation upon which our subjective interpretations wrestle.

There is a thing called truth, and it is at times an infuriating dot on the horizon. But if you work for a university, especially in a history department, I hope you wake up every morning and go looking for it.

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This post inspired by conversations with Matt Miller.

Terrence Malick

“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at it’s best and least corrupted, it’s gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.'” – J.R.R Tolkein.

“It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.” – C.S Lewis.

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” – a line from American Beauty.

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Terrence Malick is regarded as one of the world’s greatest living directors. He is the anti-Spielberg, suffusing his films with unspoken themes that play on your brain with all the yearning of riddle. He isn’t obvious or up front, in his films or in his life. Perhaps that’s a function of his story. He is a Rhodes scholar, an Oxford and Harvard trained philosopher and surely the smartest man in Hollywood. He is also a man of great hidden sadness, with a personal tragedy at the core of his life that I will not repeat (he is an exceedingly private man who does not enjoy having his life cast out amongst the shallow rapids of public speculation).

So what exactly is Terrence Malick on about?

Well many things. One of which, I think, is this –

Nature mixes two contrasting extremes into one heartbreaking world. The cosmos is stunning, triumphant, incredible, and something within it has gone deeply, deeply wrong. It is a bursting symphony with every second note played out of tune. It is a fallen empire, a castle of former glory. Something within it is waiting for restoration.

I think that’s part of what he’s saying, as the bullets fly and men fall, to a backdrop of dappled light and gorgeous, flowing, pure blue water, in The Thin Red Line. I think that’s some of his message, as a grieving mother remembers her son by voice, as the viewer is soaked in the splendor of the multi-billion year origin of the universe, depicted step by cosmic step, in The Tree of Life.

I think he’s saying, look around you, this universe, this world of ours, it is a fallen empire. We live in paradise lost.

Malick would, of course, have full license to say all this, being a religious man.

A naturalistic man would not agree. He would not agree that there was a former glory. He believes that mankind has always been compromised, flawed, partly broken. He does not believe that humanity has ever been perfect, living in happiness and harmony.

The naturalistic man also does not believe in a future restoration. He does not believe that humanity will ever fully loosen its bonds of egoism. Aside from some transhumanist fantasy, or some technological singularity, he does not believe that we will ever be flawless beings without the constant weight of insufficiency.

The natural man, in short, believes that human kind has always been, and will always be, much as it is now – a race of imperfect beings in an imperfect world.

Malick, by contrast, would I believe quite agree with Lewis’s contention that nothing is quite yet in its proper form. He would agree that there is an ancient glory waiting to be unleashed. He would see the suffering of this world as a devastating, temporary aberration. He would agree with Sam, that ‘it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.’

Malick isn’t a preacher. He leaves you with two options, paradise lost, or mediocrity evolved.

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Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
– Revelations 21. The second last chapter of the bible.

On the Boundary


“When you speak to me,” He had said, leaning forward with his arched back raised from the chair, “Do it, well do it quite slowly.” Mike had walked into the room with his head down, awkward like a kid’s first dance. His uncle normally spoke to adults, not to him.

“Yeah.”

“Now, boy.
You going to wake up every morning of your life, you know that, except one. You going to wake up every morning but one.”

“Well I’m just seventeen.”

“And tomorrow you’ll be eighty two.”

Circling birds trace casual calligraphy across the chroma sky. Dipping and weaving their white tipped wings look like breaking wave tops upon the horizon. A light wind pushes them towards the hills, and they go with it, they go where they are taken. A flex of their back, and they could cross a forest in a glide, but they just follow the air where it leads. The world is purer and darker in the evening.

“You see that sunset. Do you see it?” The uncle said.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know what it means.”

“It’s a sunset.”

“I don’t know why it’s always so beautiful.”

“Just a reaction of the light isn’t it.”

“I don’t know why the whole world, always around me, is so beautiful.
But I’m fifty two, and every day, I still take the effort to notice it.”

“I don’t…”

“Understand? I know you don’t understand.
I know you’re seventeen, and you don’t think this way. But it’s important.
Let me put it like this.”

He looked out at the thousand mile sky and drew in a deep breath of smooth mountain air. It was a painting before him, dashes of light in all the right places.

“One morning boy, you woke up, and you were alive.
A scattering of particles coalesced, grew, and were born into the world.
And when you woke that first morning you saw the universe – that cosmic tapestry woven billions of years ago – now unveiled in front of your crying, swollen eyes.
You saw the most remarkable thing, you saw existence, your existence, and the existence of a whole host of shapes and sounds and movements.
Everything was awake with a new splendor, as the morning stars sang together and all the son’s of God shouted for joy.”

The boy felt the soft breeze rising from the veiled valley below, carrying the odd sound of water gently drifting towards the sea, pulled towards the vast emptiness of the ocean. The hills are silent. The roadways are cracking in the cold.

“And then boy. Then you and me, and everyone else, we just got used to it.”

And the kid listened to all this, as time flew by, and as around them his mind danced upon the moonlit world until the fires of his youth turned to risk aversion.

……………… 

A week later, it is morning, and from his place upon the rock the kid, Mike, can see the gentle sunlight sketching out the valley, drawing out the landscape like some soft colour painting. He can see, below his feet, the hard white boulders – the giant’s pebbles that are tossed across the line of the ridge like metal across a scrapyard. He can see, ahead of him, a solitary path wandering left then right, passing in the hollows between the rocks, reaching down the ridge, then rising up, and then down, and then over the edge of the world. Beyond the ridge, and beyond the rocks, the road falls into the valley like a drop of water into an ocean, and it is lost amid the hundred thousand oaks, the churning freshwater rivers, the moving shadows and the whispering leaves.

The sound of wind rises from the valley, from that other world beneath the canopies, and brushes against his beard, cooling his wet face and his dripping brow. He can hear the morning joy of a bird, dancing around the ridge. Then he sees it, a violet dot against a wall of green. It sits ahead of him, on a branch, hanging over the edge of the escarpment, over the forest below.

He raises his binoculars, looking up from the sunlit landscape. The sky is light and blue and endless, like the outside of a balloon stretched out over them all. It sits like a canopy placed above the play, with the characters running and fighting, laughing, loving and dying, and all for the benefit of some disinterested audience far, far away.

He is walking the outer circle today – the ridge of stone that runs parallel to the boundary of the world – with his rifle hanging from his back, and his binoculars in hand.

They are walking it too, six of them making fast pace for Eldora, with machine guns. Six invaders that had moved out of the forests and then crept up the hills like rising shadows at dusk. Six enemies, come to change the world, walking in the morning sun with all the certainty of revolution.

He has been on the boundary for two years, since his father ran. He knows that most men move like ants through the mountains, rushing back and forward, following each other and scattering at the first sound. Most men move like ants. But these men, they move like lions.

The one at the front is short, brown and leathered, he walks with his head up and with his eyes ahead, as if he is not climbing a mountain, as if he is walking to a meeting. He does not seem to be carrying weapons, in perhaps the way that a serpent does not seem to be carrying weapons. A serpent is a weapon.

The next is tall and thick, paramilitary perhaps, with an M16 not over his shoulder, but in his hands. So he climbs the mountain without hands, he climbs it like a man climbs steps, upright, with ominous regularity, he climbs it like he climbs out of bed, but it is hard to imagine him sleeping. It is hard to imagine him ever as anything less than a source of death, coming over the landscape.

The other four carry the packs, in army fatigues, with leather jackets and rifles behind their backs. They have crew cuts and tattoos on their necks. They walk in a U around the first two. They walk with their eyes wide open, as if the movie they are part of is about to take a twist, and with their mouths slightly ajar, as if they are suppressing deep breaths. They are not the same as the two men ahead of them, they are just killers. The first two are something else. The first two are a revolution.

He lowers the binoculars, closes the lid, closes the case, closes his eyes, and hopes that they turn towards the dark world. But they won’t, they don’t, they can’t, they have been sent here to take the children.

So he moves towards the six invaders, across the rock and between the trails, out of sight, running low with his hand brushing the rock to balance. He moves towards them not to stop them, for a feather can’t stop a train. He moves towards them not to hold them off, for day can’t hold off the night. He moves towards simply, fatally, to do his family proud.

As he ran, Mike remembered two years ago, an officer knocking on the door. He remembers the man standing there in a leather cap holding a conscript notice in the summer rain. He remembers turning to his father not with a smile, but with that dangerous silent pride.

‘Father.’

‘Where to?’

‘To the boundary.’

And his father, too selfish to show emotion, had said nothing, but he now knew that his only son would die before him. He couldn’t hug him; the history between them and the fighting egos stopped that.

The father, raising his eyebrows, looked down and then away, just playing the game, just trying to put the world down so that he rose up. His tone was gruffer than normal. His son was going to war and his tone was gruffer than normal.

‘You do your family proud.’

It was a command.

His father had then been called for a second tour in the autumn. He had fled, evaporating like his imagined reputation as self sufficient, self made, self governed. He had disappeared and he was not missed, for he did not miss anybody. He had wanted to be respected more than he wanted to be loved, and he had ended with neither.

But here his son was, doing his family proud, trying to earn respect from a dead father, as he ran across the ridge.

And as he did so, as he ducked and dived between the stones, I watched. I listened. I lined up the scope on my sniper rifle, tracking his dancing movements with the bullseye, sitting, thinking and waiting.

……………………….

Mike was less than a kilometer away from the six when he stopped to rest. He wrapped himself in his thick, hooded green jacket, and pulled his light leather sleeping bag up over his head but not over his eyes.

Around him, sweeping stone faces in the perfect still of dark blue night. Monumental rock, a thousand grey peaks. Shadows and apparitions. The midnight world ceased to be scientific, methodical, mechanical. The midnight world felt like a fantasy, like a miracle. A beating drum and a fleeing sun.

His mind was at its most aware, wakened by the cool still air.

Sleep.” The young man whispered to himself, as he tried to quell his nerves. “Sleep.”

But in the dark night, the scurrying thoughts were free, to spin his head round, and keep his mind alight.

He thought of the township down below, on the flat dry side of the ridge, sitting under the moon with straight streets, tall brick homesteads, leather caps hung firmly, and polished boots ready for the morning. He thought of that ancient town, sitting under the midnight moon quietly begging for forgiveness. Trying to go on as if the past was a dream, lingering in the mind but unreal. He thought of that formal place, silently terrified that its history would emerge like some dark specter from the fog, passing through the town in the emotion of night. He thought of those ageing people, sitting on their verandahs waiting for the past.

Mike could not escape the dark shadows of his history. They were his past, for better or for worse, and without them he was weightless, he was a man without history, and a man without a history is a man without an identity. Better a sordid past well acknowledged than life without context. Better sitting around the fire at night-time, humbly admitting – that was us, than a life of rushing around pretending to be a middle-class angel.

There are no angels down there in that township – just human beings. Human beings and corpses from the seven-year war, buried under the fields.

Sleep.” He said out loud, to the ancient wilderness.

But images were flashing in front of his brain like a slide show, like a compulsory slide show of his youth.

He thought of the mountain walls around him. He thought of the millions of years that these rocks had seen, with shadows passing up and down these surfaces as the sun rises and sets a billion times, with all the landscape moving like some time lapse vista, but with these stones still and unmoved.

I want to walk, inch by inch, through all of history, start to finish, to see how it all was.

Just, sleep,” As he banged his temple with his hand.

But, finally, his mind was slowing. The shadows of his subconscious were growing thick, slipping up on him from behind, forming thick dark knots, and gravity was pulling upon his eyes.

He yawned, silently, at the stars.

Close your eyes, escape, and go home.’

Time slowed, realities’ grip slackened, and the prisoner was free. He relaxed, and wandered amongst the apparitions.

……………

In the morning over breakfast, he saw the shadows coming, sweeping over the ridge, over the ancient forest, the rippling creeks, and towards the corrugated homesteads, and bringing with them the sound of a dozen jet engines. They flew over in the same direction as the six men from way off in the never never, beyond the end of the world, towards the Empire. Down in the pockmarked village, the broken farms sit like a lunar landscape. In town, it is the quiet of the agricultural life – and then a whistle – and then the leaping tongues of a hundred instant infernos. Empty streets, sitting in summer, and then flying glass, floorboards snapped like dry twigs and heat escaping in every direction. Silence, and then a concussive thud, thud, thud; the relentless drum of a careless foe. Everywhere you look, is either crater or bursting flame.

Looking down on the madness, from his spot on the ridge, dark blots can be seen rushing about like threatened ants, like a colony on fire. They move in every chaotic direction, until they disappear into white. The sound of the explosion is always a second delayed.

He continues drying the cooking pot. The six men ahead of him have stopped. They stand in a line looking down on the burning village.

Mike places the pot on the ground and grabs his binoculars. He sees the tall one first, squatting, and it is close enough to see his smile. Then he sees the four army men, laughing together as they kick out the fire, some packing their gear. Then he sees the short brown man, standing on his own.

The short man turns with his head looking up at the ridge, at the boulders, scanning with his thin emotionless eyes, and it feels as if there is nothing that he does not see.

……………

Gravity

“And what will we say to them?”

“We will say this –
One morning you woke up, and you were alive. A scattering of particles coalesced, grew, and were born into the world.
And when you woke that first morning you saw the universe – that cosmic tapestry woven billions of years ago – now unveiled in front of your crying, swollen eyes.
You saw the most remarkable thing, you saw existence, your existence, and the existence of a whole host of shapes and sounds and movements.
Everything was awake with a new splendor, as the morning stars sang together and all the son’s of God shouted for joy.”

“And then?”

“And then we just got used to it.”

And he said this, by the quarry, as time flew by, and as around them the children danced upon the moonlit world until the fires of their youth turned to risk aversion.