Erin Hortle: Stoking Fire, Wandering Stone
The Tasmanian Writers’ Centre launched its inaugural Hot Desk residency program this year, inviting writers aged 18-30 to embark on individual projects in our Salamanca Arts Centre studio space.
Our resident Erin Hortle is part-way through a creative writing PhD at the University of Tasmania. An ongoing concern of her academic and freelance writing is the cultural inscription of the more-than-human world. She is interested in the ways in which particular elements, spaces and environs are perceived as conventionally masculine and/or feminine. She wonders how creative writing (in all its guises) might help us to understand how such inscriptions function, and how this, in turn, might facilitate new ways of imagining. If you’d like to read more of her work, she has pieces coming out in the forthcoming issues of Island and Kill Your Darlings. Her writing has also been published in White Horses, Funny Haha and Transportation: Islands and Cities.
Stoking Fire, Wandering Stone
It’s Tuesday, 9th August, and all around this (sun)burnt country, we are prompted to ask ourselves, and then our significant others: “On average, how many hours a week housework would you say you do?”.
Ido and Dom appear, not with the drinks they’d promised, but with armfuls of firewood stacked so high we can only just see their eyes, glossy in the firelight and so obviously smiling at us, over the slabs of tree.
The fire is okay—it’s small and safe and exactly what you’d expect of a city festival (even one that smacks of Bacchanalian excess)—but it could be better. It will be better now. As the logs hit it embers kick up, spraying and swirling on the momentary, micro-weather system the flames and tumbling wood create.
“We found their stash,” Ido announces, grinning proudly at Claire, Sophia and me.
“Let’s keep ramping ’er up,” Dom says to him, and they disappear into the throng of people who are juggling glasses of wine and plates loaded with braised meat and pickled vegetables. Claire nicks off to get us a bottle of wine (we know them: they might be some time with this). The bluegrass band, who had been swaying and stomping over by the trees that drip with fairy lights, finish their set and as the crowd disperses, a few people mooch over to our fire.
This time, as Ido and Dom toss their clutch of wood to the blaze, a bloke from across the flames notices.
“You’re mad!” he barks, as excited as someone who just won their first ever meat-raffle at a country pub. No, scrap that. As excited as someone who was dropping by for a beer, didn’t even know the meat raffle was on, entered on a whim, and then won. What I’m trying to say is, when they disappear to get another load he, somewhat impulsively, scurries after them; and when he reappears, laden with wood, he’s puffed up like a rooster and grinning like a golden retriever.
“Hayley! Hayley! Check it out,” he calls to his partner, who’s chin-wagging with her mates.
“Whaddaya think you’re doing?” she hoots as he heaves the wood onto the fire.
“Oi, Jas!” one of her girlfriends shouts into the darkness.
Jas appears, but a touch too late. Ido, Dom and Hayley’s mister have already headed back to the cache of wood leaving him to lurk by the fire with all the missuses. The heap of wood’s taken off; licks of orange, yellow, red and black coil up from it. We have to step back because of the heat, which means we make more room around the blaze for the people who have been drawn in by the height of the flames. The gathering crowd parts for Ido, Dom and Hayley’s mister, the latter of whom is holding his stack of wood firm with his chin. As they dump the timber on the flames, there’s an impromptu cheer. Ido and Dom look bemused and a touch embarrassed, but Hayley’s mister beams.
Jas’ face drips with envy. “We going for more, boys?” he asks.
“Nah, reckon this’ll do,” Dom says, barely glancing at him. He turns to us. “Mulled ciders?”
“Yes please,” Claire, Sophia and I chime. (The bottle of wine is nearly empty. Don’t judge us: yakking by a fire is thirsty work.)
“I’ll give you a hand,” Ido says. He and Dom disappear into the crowd again.
Meanwhile the mister is saying to Hayley: “Think I got a splinter in me chin, can you see it?”. She squints up at him as he bares his neck at the flames. (It makes me think of my friends and I, holding buttercups beneath our chins on the oval at Lauderdale Primary School and marvelling at the mysterious, yellow glow.)
None of them notice the look on Jas’ face—they don’t realise what they’ve denied him.
The flames curl and lick high, higher. In the distance, the rough sandstone of the buildings flicker honey in the street-, fairy- and firelight.
I’m at Port Arthur. It’s a couple of years earlier and I’m in a warehouse. I knew that the collection was going to be random—it’s relics from a curiosity shop, after all—but I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so … available: I thought I’d have to fossick, burrow deep for the stories. But instead the air is a mess of yarns that knit in to one another.
The shelves are stacked fat with what you’d expect: leg irons, ball and chains, cannon balls (that, in case you were wondering, are really very heavy… I checked). There are also some animal traps and a mantrap that was supposedly manufactured after Port Arthur was a prison in order to titillate tourists, they surmise, rather than actually trap men. A mess of old bones and teeth, statues and figurines. Polynesian weaponry: bows and arrows, spears, rough-hewn daggers, darts. Stone from Pompeii, “apparently”. A bird leg that’s as long as my forearm, covered in a snakeskin of bronze scales and has three, crude, clawed toes. A painting of Napoleon Bonaparte that was supposedly shot through the eye by Port Arthur escapee-turned-bushranger/sweet-talking-lover-boy, Martin Cash. He was out, ranging and wooing in the midlands when he heard his sweetheart had shacked up with someone else. Jealousy pooled in his stomach like sick and lust, kindled by competition, blazed through him fiery hot. Got the jealousy really boiling. He swung up into his saddle and galloped back down to Hobart Town. Was it a trap? Who knows? But as soon as he arrived the fuzz were onto him. They cornered him in a pub on Brisbane Street. There was a Western-esque showdown and luckily, the only casualty was the painting of Napoleon, which was hanging behind the bar. I’m shown where the painting was repaired.
“Could’ve been anything that damaged it, of course,” John says. “But still, it’s a good yarn.”
It is a good yarn. A typical masculine drama, but aren’t they all? I wonder if he told it to me because I’m here as a writer and not a historian: I don’t care that it can’t be verified. I can imagine Mr Radcliffe, the curiosity-shop-raconteur, spinning it to tourists in the 1920s and 30s—back when the shop was open for business.
“And here, see these bricks? They weren’t part of the curiosity shop collection, but we weren’t sure where else to keep them and they are very curious—or at least, I think so. Each of these bricks has been posted back to us, with a letter informing us that the sender stole the brick when they visited Port Arthur, and ever since have suffered horrendous bad luck, so they’re sending it back to us in the hope their luck will improve.”
There are dozens of shards of brick and stone in the pile. Dozens of spates of bad luck. I pick up the stone from Pompeii, carry it over to the clutter of jinxed stone and compare them. I don’t have a geologist’s eye. It’s all non-descript. Rubble.
“Do you think stone can be imbued with bad luck?”
“If it can, then Hobart’s a write-off too,” John says. Then he explains how, after Port Arthur-as-penal-settlement closed down, it was rebranded “Carnarvon” and became a town (which is where Mr Radcliffe opened his curiosity shop). “A new name for a new beginning,” John quips. People were encouraged to tear down the buildings and recycle the materials. Two military barracks—part brick, part sandstone—were trucked up to Hobart for recycling. Perhaps other buildings, other materials, too.
“Do you think any ended up at Salamanca?” I ask him. Whenever I think of sandstone buildings, I think of Salamanca: of that view you always see on postcards that draws your eye up the street towards the plateau of the mountain. Throw in the market, if you so please. (This makes me think of eating fruit leather as a child and my tummy rumbles. It’s embarrassingly loud in the quiet of the warehouse. John politely ignores it.)
“Probably not, but then, who knows?” he says. “Wandering stone: it’s not the sort of thing people kept tabs on, is it?”
“Maybe the sort of person who would want steal stone from Port Arthur is the sort of person who’s prone to bad luck anyway,” I muse.
Listen to me, trying to rationalise so arbitrarily.
Wandering stone. I smile.
It’s a fortnight before Ido and Dom build that raucous fire at the Feast and everything is grey: sky-grey, rock-grey, water-grey. Mick’s she-kelpie leans into me and I scratch her ear. Her tail thumps against my leg. I’m not usually a dog person, but we’re pals. Ido and Mick, the quarry-master (what is the word for someone who owns and works a quarry?), are talking. I feel the gender divide press on me: she and I in silence, he and him yakking. I want to say something, thinking (hoping) that my voice might propel me across this rift, but I have nothing to say, so I scratch the she-kelpie’s ear again.
You cannot see the forest for the trees. The sun has burst free of the clouds and it lights up the bush. The rain-slick foliage is a kaleidoscope that catches up the light and throws it back every which way. I cannot see the trees for the air that shimmers with golden flecks of moisture drifting; for the air that tints the bush green, brown, blond, blossom-red. I squint and think about that bit in a Richard Flanagan book that I thought was kind of gorgeous but my brother found clichéd (not this line per se, but the scene—“some kind of bookish male fantasy”): “all around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light.” It’s different, but it’s the same. Flanagan’s character is in a bookshop, and I am at the edge of the bush. Books are trees turned culture. And look, there! The specks of light flutter in and amongst the stringy-barks I love because they are firewood wrapped in kindling, and the bracken, which is just like the bracken that was the best hiding spot when we played hide-and-seek as kids (you could wade through it, lie on your back, hide under the canopy—you’d only get found if someone came close, but isn’t that always the way?). I can see the trees again. It seems my eyes have become accustomed to the glare.
The sun is on the back of my head, heating my hair, and it feels glorious. It’s warming the she-kelpie’s fur, too. I notice she’s closed her eyes. I close mine in solidarity and breathe in the scent of broken rock and dewy bush.
The land has been exploded, graded, piled into mounds of splintered cliff. Although, I suppose the worked rock isn’t cliff: it’s what was removed in order to make the cliffs. It’s sheer, the quarry is. Are we sunning ourselves on top of it, or do you have to be in a quarry to be on it? If I took four big steps to my right I’d tumble into it, that’s for sure, and probably break at least one limb. If I took six big steps forward I’d be in the bush. (Two big steps to my left are the piles of gravel and stone, in case you’re wondering).
What happened to the trees when they made the quarry? Did they bulldoze them first, or let the dynamite do its work? If the latter, did the explosion cause the trees to burn?
These are all things I could say! I realise, opening my eyes. But it’s too late: Ido and Mick have both peeled off. Ido is in his ute, ready. Mick is in his excavator. Business is happening.
Stone is man’s business, it seems to me. It seemed to me, in that moment, as I waited, mute in the sun with the she-kelpie, and watched Mick heap gravel in the tray of Ido’s ute.
And then I shovelled it all arvo til my forearms ached from the shock of spade on rock, from the density of each load, and I thought: no, it’s bloody well not.
(And let’s be honest, stone is always shifting, grinding, moving, on a scale we humans can only imagine. Look at me, with my spade. I’m scratching around like a chook.)
I’m standing by the fire that Ido, Dom and Hayley’s mister built, looking at the honey-hued stone that did wander, at some point. Where from? Is it laced with bad luck? I wonder. I suspect not. It’s prime real estate, which in today’s world is a (if not the) marker of good luck. Plus, it’s where culture happens.
(Look at us, at this feast, this arts festival. Watch us do culture.)
It’s a big blaze now. Jas gazes into it dolefully.
“Can’t see a splinter,” Hayley declares.
Jas is sad, I think, because he’s missed out on playing at being a man.
Men like to think fire is their business, more so, I suspect, than stone. It’s their primordial business. Real man stuff. Fire is evolutionary-nostalgia; after all, aren’t we the fire apes? Fire is pre-technology, pre-capitalism, pre-Christianity. Fire is a masculine take on austerity chic—it’s the lumberjack phantasy you see splayed across the pages of Smith Journal. Fire is all these things, parcelled as authenticity: fire is “real” “man” stuff.
Primordial posturing. That’s what Ido and Dom denied Jas when they trotted off for mulled ciders.
A month and a bit later people asked themselves and then asked one another, “How much time a week do you spend doing household chores?” and life as we knew it descended, fleetingly, into chaos. Usually placid people swore like troopers. Not because, when they peered, deep into their souls, and then deep into the faces of their significant others, they realised that it just wasn’t fair—it still isn’t fair—but because the census website crashed and they saw red: they saw fire. How did Annabelle Crabb put it? A “puce-faced national hissy-fit.”
Eclipsed by governmental technofailure: a collective hunch turned guesstimate that Australian women still spend nearly twice as much time at unpaid housework and child-rearing than men. And we wonder why women live, work, retire and die significantly poorer than their counterparts.
I’m off on a tangent, now. But I’m thinking about Jas’ disappointment, and I’m thinking about how fire is inscribed as masculine, and I’m thinking that it’s all bull.
Fire isn’t man. Fire is woman, through and through.
Women know fire’s tameness. We know the way it has tamed us. We learn it from a young age; we live it every day; and it is so incredibly mundane. It dances with sparks of glory, sure, but day-in, day-out, fire is domesticity: the unpaid coalface.
Men like to think fire is spectacle: the BBQ, the campfire, the bushfire. Women know that fire is spectacle, because we are the spectators. (Look at Claire, Sophia, Hayley and myself watching as Dom, Ido and Hayley’s mister put on that blazing show. We could have helped them, we could have ferried loads of firewood through the crowds and built the fire high, higher. Why didn’t we? Because we couldn’t be bothered? Because we’d rather quaff wine and bask in its warmth? Because we thought we’d let boys be boys, and look at them having a blast, and why would we want to ruin it for them, and oh bravo.)
But women also know that fire is daily grind. It’s not just nouveau-Tasmanian gothic, crosshatched with the Dark MoFo circus and caveman phantasies. It’s spag bowl on a Tuesday night, it’s the vacuum cleaner’s incessant hum and it’s the engine of the family car on the school pick-up run. Just because you can’t see the flame doesn’t mean the fire isn’t there—combustion enabling us, driving us along the asphalt or into the bucket of bleach or wherever, whatever.
Fire is woman: womanly posturing in the shadows.
I know, I know. You’re thinking: listen to her, trying to rationalise so arbitrarily…
I am and I don’t care because I’m thinking about Muriel’s tragic mother who torched the backyard because no one would bloody well mow it. Flame seems to me, such an appropriate choice of tool.
 I am referring to The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf: Sydney, 2013), p. 65.
 Read the full article here: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/botched-census-annoying-but-not-earthshattering-20160812-gqr65d.html
 Here I’m assuming that when the census data is finally made public, it will reveal what all other surveys indicate. See, for instance, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features40March%202009 and, https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2014/jun/19/australian-men-housework-leaners-survey
 From P. J. Hogan’s 1994 film, Muriel’s Wedding.