The Warm Kitchen
This story was written in the 1990s and recently illustrated.
Creative Writing by Wendy Sarkissian PhD
Into the Green Heart
My memoir, Into the Green Heart, is being prepared for publication.
Taking its title from a passage by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: the Roaring inside Her, this book tells the story of a professional woman at midlife, a consultant urban planner, who abandons city life for self-imposed exile in rough conditions in an unfamiliar bush setting. Beginning with the `wake-up call’ of the author’s close encounter with a brown snake in Arnhem Land, the book describes – via letters, journal entries and stories – the author’s year in the tropical bush and what became a journey of the self towards the Self, or the ecological Self. In 1991, deeply concerned about ecological issues, her own exhaustion and convinced that only a dramatic change would save her (and the Earth), she set out from Adelaide for `Deep Creek’.
She could never have predicted the archetypal journey she soon found herself experiencing. It contained all the recognisable stages – and transitions – of an initiatory journey: Separation, Threshold and Return. Fully illustrated, the book is organised around these stages, as well as the six Aboriginal seasons of the Top End.
This book is about a personal journey of initiation. Journeys are particularly effective when they include Nature, wildness, solitude and unfamiliar territory. So the author benefited from her isolation, despite her fears. All journeys to wholeness involve, to some degree, paradox, the absurd and the bizarre, darkness, the Shadow, taboos, the need to confront `old stuff’ and unhealed and unintegrated aspects of the psyche and the personality.
True healing journeys can yield embodied responses, often more easily achieved through embodied experiences. The author’s experience confirms what others report: transformative and self-healing processes undertaken with the support wild Nature can yield healing benefits for all: humans, the Earth and nonhuman Nature.
While for reasons of confidentiality, some characters and places have been changed, the events are essentially true. Three voices are woven throughout the book. The voice of the author’s `inner’ self, communicates to her other selves via her journal and deeply personal letters to a dear friend. Her rational, analytic, `academic’ self, communicates in formal progress reports to her PhD supervisor. The voice of Nature communicates via animals, birds and plants and Deep Creek’s landscapes, watercourses and skies. The book’s themes deal with changing perceptions and changing heart. We see and hear the author healing her separation and alienation. And we share her first – and deepening – experiences of oneness with Nature.
Back in late 1991, when the author had closed her consulting business, enrolled as a full-time PhD student and bought a one-way ticket to Darwin, she had no idea how the combination of her own inexperience with bush living, the unbearably rough conditions, extreme social and physical isolation and an alien culture would affect her. With absolutely no previous experience, she engaged two bush builders to build a simple `blow-through’ shack from 69 trees. Finally, she sat upstairs, reading by a kerosene lamp, netted in from ferocious mosquitoes and other night creatures. She does not romanticize her experience.
She hated the discomfort and at times was convinced she would have to abandon her project. Before she left the city and for many months after she arrived, the author questioned whether she had the fortitude, strength and flexibility to handle her experience. Dealing with daily bush `emergencies’, she began to see her own transformation from incompetent to competent and to find healing in that realisation. She chose a new path on her Return.
This is a book for men and women, for urban people, Nature-lovers and people `in transition’. It’s not a book exclusively for women at midlife, though they would relate well to it. It’s a book for people considering big changes: those who might be ready to take the plunge into another way of being but who may be hesitant or frightened and feel it’s not possible to do such a thing.
Here is an extract:
Middle of nowhere.
Young woman. Screaming.
Gracie’s scream, gigantic for a tiny woman, echoed between the honeycombed rock of the sandstone cliffs, startling snoozing creatures in dry creekbeds. Waking lizards lazing in bright sunlight. A hot wind burning through dry, scrubby savannah vegetation. Like smoke winding through high caverns and galleries of ancient paintings, her screams rattled human bones scattered on ledges and sand beds. Electrifying every being in this ancient country.
When Claire grabbed Gracie’s skinny arm and dragged her away from the cornered snake, Gracie was still screaming. About a metre and a half long, the snake had raised its head when her screams began.
“Snake!! Someone is going to die!” Gracie shrieked, black eyes wide with terror.
Gracie was a trainee guide from another Aboriginal community. Not yet twenty, she clearly knew about brown snakes.
Enough to be terrified.
While the four campers cowered behind Claire, Gracie clung to her, desperate eyes fixed on the snake coiled about two metres from them.
Her eyes – everyone’s eyes – were on the snake. And on me.
Silently, Claire motioned the other campers behind her.
Gracie and I had been sitting there–cross-legged on a low, rough kerb–at the Pig Hut–when I heard–and then saw–the brown snake slither through dry leaves under our legs.
Responding to Gracie’s first scream, it raised its head and began to glide back toward me. I noted a glossy black tongue and a pale belly. I sat, motionless as life unfolded in slow motion. Must be venomous, my mind registered. That’s why Gracie is screaming.
Now the snake’s head was gently nuzzling against my left hip, nudging me as if to determine if I were alive. As I looked into its face, hypnotized by its flicking black tongue, I sensed its fear.
I could not move. It wasn’t fear. I wasn’t frozen. I was just plain stuck. Sitting cross-legged on a low ledge, I could not extricate myself in one easy, fluid motion. I would have to untangle my legs and grope around to steady myself.
So we sat. Snake at my hip. My hip at its side.
Side by side.
After what seemed like hours but was probably seconds, Claire somehow managed to distract the snake, which slithered quickly to the far corner of the concrete floor, maybe a metre away. Clare planted her boots firmly and leaned toward me, whispering her order. In a seamless movement, reaching out both hands, she yanked me to my feet. I stepped quickly behind her. With an air of desperate authority, Claire silently herded the small group to the open jeep a few metres away. We clanked along the dirt track, leaving the snake behind. I looked back but there was too much dust to see.
Claire, no more than mid-twenties, was only a few months into her job as a guide at Davidson’s Arnhem Land Safaris at Mt. Borradaile Station in northwestern Arnhem Land. She spoke steadily but I could see her hands shaking as she clutched the steering wheel. How calmly she had handled that encounter.
Encountering a snake.
Now inside the dusty jeep, everyone was yelling at once. What a close call that was. That snake looked really angry.
Above the motor’s din, I heard my thoughts: “I’m not very afraid of snakes.”
That night in the dining tent, Karl was discussing the incident with another guide, Will, an environmental studies student from Brisbane. “I am proud of my kit,” Will proclaimed, turning the tap on the urn for another cup ofcoffee. He turned to Karl: “I carry only the basics in my pack: iodine, a compression bandage and gauze. I prefer to follow the traditional Indigenous approach to snake bites. If the snake bit Wendy on a limb, I’d apply a pressure bandage and immobilize the limb. If she got bitten elsewhere, I’d apply continuous direct pressure to the bite.” Will went on to explain, while I hung back, that the “Indigenous way” involves immobilization: the person is not allowed to move even one muscle for at least 24 hours. That hopefully contains the venom and keeps it from circulating in the bloodstream.
“Then, if the person survives,” Will continued, “we call in the air ambulance and they fly them to the hospital in Darwin – 350 kilometres by road or an hour by plane. Either way, live or die, it’s a medivac operation.”
Karl asked Will about the snake we’d encountered as they carried their drinks back to the dining table.
“The common brown is a fast-moving snake with potent venom,” Will explained. “It’s extremely dangerous. Even subadults can cause fatalities. We would not wash the wound because the hospital in Darwin could use the venom on her skin to identify the appropriate antivenom.”
I was holding onto the table as he spoke, shaking my head as he offered to get me a coffee.
“Most people don’t die,” Will reassured us, turning to rejoin the other guests. “But you can get really sick from a bite from a common brown snake.”
Later, in our tent, as we sat on our cots, Karl decided to read to me from a book he’d borrowed from the camp library.
“Beloved,” he hesitated, clearly shaken by the day’s events. “Will wasn’t exactly correct in what he told us. I’ve been reading. That snake has the world’s second-most potent venom. See here: it causes more snakebite deaths in Australia than any other snake. Sudden and relatively early deaths have been recorded.”
That made for a rough night for Karl, though I slept soundly, waking early to rapturous birdsong. Familiar birdsong. Familiar rapture.
Gracie and I spent lots of time reliving our close encounter before Karl and I caught the tiny plane back to Darwin later the next day.
“I’m frightened for you, Wendy,” she whispered, as we sat together after breakfast. “Snakes always mean that someone is going to die. That’s what they mean to my people, in my country. It’s the same here in Arnhem Land, Wendy, I’m pretty sure of that. Someone’s going to die, Wendy. I hope it’s not you. Please be careful. He was there for you, that snake. Remember how he kept going back to you”¦”
“I’m not going to die, Gracie,” I reassured her as we hugged goodbye at the airstrip.
“Goodbye, Snake Woman,” I yelled above the engine’s roar.
“You’re the Snake Woman,” yelled Gracie. “He was there for you.
The flight back to Darwin was more luxurious than the flight out because the pilot was trying to make up for being late. He guided the eight-seater plane as low as he could above the wetlands and the coastline, west along the rugged northern coast. He pointed out the features of the country.
Then, without warning, we were flying low over my country. I gasped, grabbing the seat for support. My country. Where I had walked barefoot for a year. Day and night. With snakes about. Entreating them to keep their distance. To let me share their country.
Now from the air I could see it all, like a gigantic map or aerial photo: patches of remnant rainforest, a dry, winding creek, cleared land to the east. A tiny two-storey shack with a stained iron roof. Dusty, rutted tracks, tiny bridges, dry eucalypt forest, paperbarks, cycads, pandanus palms”¦.
Engrossed in their flying adventure, nobody noticed I was crying.
My creek. My country. My forgotten country”¦
Back at the motel in Darwin, we headed for the pool. I was full of the snake story, sharing it with the other guests. Shivon, a hippie backpacker from Canada, listened intently, excited by my tale. As it turned out, she knew lots about snakes. And snake – and its deeper, archetypal meaning. When I explained how the snake had triggered strong memories of the time I’d lived alone in the tropical bush seventeen years earlier, she said, “It’s only a clue, Wendy. Be careful not to read too much into it. Life’s journey is one great mystery.”
“I’d say that the snake is just another part of the unfolding mystery of your personal journey, Wendy. But I do have a book that will help you”, she offered, reaching into her dilly bag. She drew out a small volume: Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small.
“Funny, isn’t it?” she continued, leafing through the book. “I was about to give this away and then I thought I’d better pack it for my trip. Have a read of the part about snakes. Or rather, snake.“
She leaned forward, offering the book, open at the snake chapter. I started to read:
“Anytime a snake shows up”¦you can expect death and rebirth to occur in some area of your life. This rarely reflects an actual death but rather a transition. Look for a change in conditions and a movement to new life”¦. What is needing to be healed?”
And more, on the same page:
“It can also reflect that your own creative forces are awakening”¦. Spiritually it can stimulate greater perception of how to apply your insight and intuition. Your own vision and intuition will become more accurate.”
And the next page: “When snake comes into your life you can look for a rebirth into new powers of creativity and wisdom.”
I slept through the flight from Darwin to Brisbane, dreaming of my country. Dreaming of the snake. After a long drive from the airport, we reached our bush abode. As the Beloved busied himself with dinner, I went in search of other books: my journals of the year living in that forest. In that country with the creek, the paperbarks and the pandanus palms. Deep Creek.
“Didn’t you throw them away?” was Karl’s question when he discovered me on my knees in the shed, surrounded by piles of dusty folders and research papers. He knelt beside me. “Why do you need your journals now?”
“I thought I’d never need them, I replied, reaching over to hug him. “But now, Beloved, I need them. I need to return to that country somehow–maybe not physically–to understand it better. Yes, that time and that country helped me get my doctorate and I’m grateful. But the other parts of it – Mica, the creek and the forest–I never made sense of that journey, did I?”
“That was well before my time, you know, darlin’.” The Beloved was smiling as he pulled me to my feet. “That was a long time ago.”
“I think I’ll just spend a little while reading these old journals and see what arises,” I replied, rubbing dusty hands on my sarong. “I’m pretty sure that’s what the snake wants me to do. If I’m to die and be reborn, I’d better get on with it, don’t you think?”
“I’m just glad he didn’t bite you,” he whispered, as we stepped out into the cool, evening air. He turned toward me, his smiling, weatherbeaten face silhouetted in the moonlight.
“That snake could have ruined our anniversary.”
I have a new book, Otter Creek, in the works.
In the genre of creative non-fiction, it’s the story of a developer in Vancouver struggling with the politics and environmental issues related to a piece of flood-prone land he’s recently (and reluctantly) inherited.
Steve had no idea what he was getting into when – after the sudden death of his developer father – he agreed to take control of the family business. He is soon enmeshed in a web of betrayal and deceit, family secrets, community conflict, Native land rights, activism and entrenched local politics. Emerging from ten years of graduate study in philosophy, Steve just wants to rezone the Salt Flats, build the proposed marina and retreat back to the university. But events conspire to draw him into new territory: stories, intransigence and old wounds. He discovers who he really is and where he’s really come from. Under his tentative guidance, an accord might possibly be reached that could transform planning and development in Vancouver. A transformation that acknowledges climate change and the possibility of a natural disaster. Steve must face his demons, reconcile with his past and commit to a future for himself and his city that’s very different from the one his developer father envisaged.
Set in contemporary Vancouver, this fast-paced story chronicles the challenges faced by anyone seeking to develop metropolitan coastal land in the shadow of the twin terrors of Peak Oil and global climate change.
This is a work of fiction. The plot reflects real planning and development sites and has a cast of fictional characters whose realistic exploits highlight the contested, often tragic – and sometimes heroic – struggles that accompany contemporary urban planning and development.
Here’s an extract:
Episode 4: the Community Meeting
Joe was drifting for the first time in his life. His body was anchored, restrained and watched. A soft pulsing tone on the monitor harmonized with his heartbeat. Intravenous drugs managed the pain. But his mind – that was another matter. He’d always had it under control. Now through a deep fog, it spun, howled, fluttered and plunged. He could not keep it with his body. Or under his control.
That terrible meeting.
His mind flew to the memory. Yesterday? A few hours ago? That’s when the nausea began, his left arm aching, then blackness. And now, his recalcitrant mind. He had to get it back!
For a moment the fog parted and Joe glimpsed the meeting. Heard it. Brian and Mark were standing on the stage, brightly lit, with the plans for Salt. They had a PowerPoint with the charts and projections. And the lawyers were there, of course. Maybe fifty people in the room. Joe counted them from his spot at the back. The rain hammered on the roof of the church hall. Slamming the screen door. Again and again. Now that door was slamming in his mind. Again and again.
The microphone wouldn’t work so Mark was shouting from the stage. People were shouting back from the floor.
The Norgate residents and the Indians sat apart – like guests at a wedding. On this stormy night, everyone was dressed alike: raincoats, fleece jackets, boots, and scarves. But Joe knew that the similarity ended there. Each community had different things to say. And boy, they were saying them. Loud. But not that clear because of the microphones.
Dylan had warned Joe that this was no way to hold a community meeting. He had brought along some woman professor from Australia who’d written a book about it. She thought people should sit at tables, “brainstorming” and sharing their feelings – or their “vision” as she called it. What a load of crap. This was business. Not therapy. The holding costs on the land were already massive. He had to bring this fiasco to a close.
From what Joe could tell, everyone at the meeting was concerned about one thing: flooding. Of course, the Indians continued to rant on about the Flats being Indian land. Part of the Reservation. But Joe had the deeds and there was no mention of that. He’d been lucky, he realised, to get it in a private sale without anyone notifying the Indians. He had that wily Mark to thank for that. It’d been a sawmill for as long as anyone could remember. Joe was worried more about soil contamination than flooding. Fortunately, nobody seemed to have picked that up – at least not yet.
The yuppie scum of Norgate – those flaky co-op types – kept rattling on about the Flood Mitigation Plan. As though it was a real thing. They claimed that the provincial government had a policy in the works. But Joe’s spies said otherwise. His contacts in the Premier’s office said it’d be at least three years before the policy would be released – if ever. So while that dreadlocked young Dylan raved on about how sea level rise could flood Norgate if Joe proceeded with his canal estate and/or paved over any part of the salt flats, Joes was desperate to so that very thing. And quickly. Get in the pipes and wires. And get out. Once the serviced land was sold, it’d be someone else’s problem.
Furthermore, this climate change stuff was crap. Even the scientists couldn’t agree. They’d made up the numbers. Faked them. And then somebody blew the whistle by leaking the scientists’ emails. Joe had seen the leader of the federal opposition in Australia on the TV saying climate change was all crap. All crap. There was no science, no policy. And there was money at stake, high interest rates. He had to find a way to revive this puppy.
In thee weeks before the meeting, Joe’s spies had reported mutterings about what might be a new problem. So far they had native land rights and flooding. And the risk of someone finding out about the asbestos. And the leachate. And the creosote. Now, for fuck’s sake – otters! Dylan (that sneaky little prick) had discovered that the former name of Mosquito Creek was Otter Creek. That’s apparently what the Indians had called it. Joe had his consultant anthropologist checking this out, of course. And now, damnit, everyone was going on about bloody otters. Joe thought they’d been extinct for decades. He’d only ever seen one in the Vancouver aquarium and that cute video of the two otters holding hands.
But now, unexpectedly, he was confronted by a fucking sacred otter. An otter den had been discovered near the banks of the creek. And now there was a suspiciously convenient connection emerging between otters and salmon stocks. Some sort of chain of command thing: salmon eat something that lives in kelp, otters eat (or fuck in, whatever) kelp and that helps whatever to grow. One great big heap of ecological bullshit. The chain of command or was it the food chain? Whatever. Joe was sure there were no otters there. Otters were bad for business.
Joe sank back, his mind swimming with otters in otter headquarters (did they build dams like beavers?), otter nests, otter hatchlings? Was there such a thing? Joe knew zip about otters, only that they were the new – and annoying–barrier to the development of his site. To Salt.
In the end, fuckin’ otters killed the community meeting. And a near disaster with an Indian kid. It looked like Mark had things under control and people were settling down as he explained the flood controls for the site. The canal estate, he said, would actually control flooding, not make it worse. Quite a few people had already left, with the odd threat or curse hurled from the back door.
Then one of the Indians came running in. It was Bill, the mailman. Joe had known him for twenty years. Bill, who was probably 45, was one of those nondescript Indian people who never looked at you. He was courteous enough as he dropped off the mail at the site office. But Joe didn’t trust him. He couldn’t put his finger on it.
Bill ran to the front of the hall and started shouting – and it wasn’t in English. He turned to face the audience with his back to the stage. Joe could see that he was crying and raving in what must have been his Indian language. Did they even have a language, these Indians? Then Bill whipped off his baseball cap. Joe had never seen him without it. Out flew a mane of glossy black hair. That really made him look different – and older. All that hair gave him a sort of presence. Joe recoiled in his seat at the back of the room. You could have cut the air with a knife.
But there was more. Oh, God! Once he had let his hair down and some of the Indian people were yelling back in this foreign tongue, Bill pulled his shirt over his head. And there – in colour (how much did that cost?) – was this huge tattoo of an otter. Joe only guessed it was an otter because the Norgate people were now chanting “Otter Creek, Otter Creek”. And Bill had muscles, what’s more, that seemed to bring this fuckin’ otter tattoo to life. Bill’s son jumped up and started translating for the Norgate people and the younger Indians. There it was: Bill raving on in whatever language, Kevin yelling too, directing his words to the Norgate people across the aisle.
Bill was crying. The it got a lot worse.
Bill had just come from the Lions Gate Hospital. His eleven-year-old granddaughter had been playing alone in the salt flats and had fallen into one of the holes dug for the hazards testing. The site had not been properly fenced. Her dog had run home with her doll in its mouth and the family had followed him to the place where Annie was trapped. She had a broken leg. It was a miracle, cried Bill. She’d be okay. But it could have been a tragedy. A real tragedy.
The whole thing was a tragedy in the making.
Bill was now crying that he’d had enough of keeping his head down. His head covered. He’d had enough of the whole white thing. Enough of developers. His real name, he cried, was Grey Otter. That was his name. This land was his land. All of it. The creek which ran through the salt flats was his creek. And the creek was his home: Otter Creek. And he would fight to the death protect it – and the otters– from development.
Now everyone was standing, clapping and cheering.
And then the chant: “Otter Creek, Otter Creek”.
Bill’s mother was there, hugging him.
Although they had disagreements about the creek and some things that had happened to the creek in the early days of the development of Norgate, many of the Norgate people crossed over and started talking with the Indians. Some people even hugged. They became one group, not divided like before.
“Otter Creek, Otter Creek,” they chanted. The tiny building shook.
That’s the last thing Joe remembered.
Feedback gratefully accepted!
Feedback on both manuscripts is gratefully accepted. Please email me at email@example.com