A WALK AT LOW TIDE
BY TIM WINTON
Just before dawn I take the narrow track from the house to the beach and walk the shoreline once more to see the familiar stretch and all its daily surprises. Past the high band of coarse sand at the foot of the dune and the littoral field of gooseflesh the pebbles become on the long decline, the tidal flats are almost bare, ribbed and fluted with the sea’s nightlong retreat.
On the face of it there’s nothing to see here. Unless a whale suddenly rises like a suppressed thought out there in the channel, it’s an empty beach, unremarkable, event-free. And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it is never the same place and it holds its secret life close. Every day here are ephemeral stipples and scratches in the sand, divots where euros have stood and tiny tractor-treads where gilberts dragons have come down to cool off. There are tumbled heads of coral, mangrove trunks, an osprey feather, a scorpion in an oyster shell. With every step there is another pattern, a fresh texture, a new curving flourish, and when the sun butts up from the sea the palate changes moment-by-moment, roiling, restless as a spillage. Behind me the spinifex turns gold like baking bread and the stony ranges beyond are washed purple and pink until darkness only abides in the realm of pathless canyons.
Every day I come and most days I learn something new, but only occasionally do I really see because while I’m always looking I’m not necessarily paying serious attention. Half the time in the manner of my kind and my era, I’m looking at shells and stones and stranded jellyfish as though they are objects, rather than subjects. A subject has a life. In its wake and even in its form it trails a back-story, a journey that can be as brief as that of the cuttlefish that leaves only the foamy hull of its backbone to memory and whose death can be read in the neat curve of toothmarks left by the dolphin that claimed it. The bones of the turtle scattered along the house-track suggest a longer story, probably longer than my own, a life of oceanic questing and feats of navigation still beyond human ken. And the pink and yellow boulders pressed up against the coral reef; they are only new in the narrowest sense. The flash floods of autumn ripped them from the canyons a mile away and rolled them to the sea, but they were ancient and storied long before this, ground smooth and marbled before the world even saw a human.
When you pay attention you see the presence of the past, you witness the ongoing struggle and the yearning of all things seen and unseen. For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies facedown in the rockpool is shelter to the tiny and deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was host to half a million lives: each hole in its aerated cauliflower surface was wrought by an organism straining to thrive, build, reproduce, a miniscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on Earth.
That, I realize, is what lies beneath the surface of every sleepy step I take before breakfast: the resonance of a trillion lives, finished or only just begun, that ach to be fed, seek the light and tilt toward increase in a creation that has been burning and lapping and gnawing and withering and rotting and flowering since there was nothing in the cosmos but shivering potential. To tread here and never pay tribute, to look and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished. Things are not what they look like, not even the people and creatures and forms most familiar to us. Looking deeply, humbly, reverently exposes the viewer to what lingers beneath hue and form and texture – the faint tracks of story that suggest relationships, alliances, consequences, yearning. If you can ever know something you’ll understand it by what it has given, what it owes, what it needs. It has never existed in isolation, and ghosting forever behind its mere appearance is its holy purpose, its billion meetings with the life urge in which it has swum or tumbled or flowered however long or however briefly. When you look long enough, the subject of your gaze seems, eventually, to respond. Or perhaps it’s you, the viewer, who is changed; something has stuck, something’s going on.
This is what I think of when presented with new work by Paul Martin and Idris Murphy. Here are two painters who’ve learnt to look at natural forms so keenly and humbly that theirs has become, each in their own way, and in separate hemispheres, a listening gaze. Their reverent attention seems to have left them open to the steady returning stare of a creation that groans in travail even as it feeds us. The world we see in their recent work has been transformed and illuminated through their loving attention and in turn, over the decades, as artists, they have clearly been changed.
Tim Winton, Edgelands, 2014