Sensory Landscapes - Part One
In this series, Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor, Lauren, introduces a new range of writing exercises and tips using the vastly different landscapes we find ourselves in as rural Australians, and the ways we relate to these landscapes as women. In Part One of this series, Lauren explores seasonality and the ways that an intimate knowledge of the how the seasons manifest in the landscapes we belong to can not only improve our writing, but be vital for our understanding of the impacts of climate change, and hopefully inspire us to take action for change.
Autumn Tamed, April 2020
Lemon and orange skins cling to green and the remnants of a summer drag on, staving off fruiting frosts. Foliage stems snake upwards breaking manicured canopies, luxuriating in the last rays of warmth in April days. Before, from the pale layers of autumn skies, sunset descends as a softening –
leafy silhouettes, blurred edges, a pink blush behind a drifting clouds; a quiet slip into autumn’s evening cool.
Autumn is my very favourite time of year. It has been since I was a small child, because autumn didn’t just mean browning leaves, it was also such a festive time in my memory; my cousins from Sydney would come to visit for Easter every year, there was a multi-cultural street festival with food and traditional dancing from around the world, the town would be busy with interesting foreign backpackers working to harvest grapes and keep the wine industry afloat, my grandparents’ orchard would be overflowing with ripe Golden Queen peaches that we would climb leafy trees to pick and dozens of hot air balloons would launch from the oval near my house at dawn, waking me with the loud spurt of gas needed to inflate the striped patchwork globes.
It’s also my favourite time of year to be in nature, and I feel particularly drawn to the gradual changes that this season represents: a growing blush, a curling leaf, a later sunrise. In my part of the world, the Riverina, there are very distinct autumnal patterns that inspire me as a writer, and more specifically as a poet. But the changing seasons give us such a great opportunities to refine our observational and descriptive skills, noticing subtleties in our environment and representing these in a way that has thematic significance.
You may find that spring is the most striking season to you, or in your particular landscape. Perhaps it is the definition of the seasons itself that speaks to you, or, in the tropics and by the coast, maybe it’s the relative constancy of the climate. In the case of those who live in many of the landscapes that aren’t captured by the (distinctively European) four seasons, perhaps you notice the perceptive way the Indigenous designation of seasons for your area is particularly fitting and reflects a deep understanding of and respect for the local environment.
Whatever it may be, I challenge you this week to pay closer attention to the way things around you are changing. The exercises below will help you notice what’s happening seasonally now, but they can also be applied to your memory of aspects of seasons you know to be true. If you’re lucky enough to have a vast repository of memories of the “profile” of a season in your local environment, you also have the possibility to craft a larger, very important narrative: What are the changes you’ve noticed in the seasons over the decade or two (or three, or four)? What are we losing as a result of climate change? Often it is the larger impacts of climate change that we focus on, but we also stand to lose the more nuanced aspects of our enjoyment of our landscapes, perhaps later breeding seasons, changed migration, plants that don’t thrive in milder winters.
I’ll be asking you to take your writing outdoors during this series, I recommend that when you’re exploring the outdoors, you take photos of the tiny details as well as the usual landscape shots to inspire your writing.
Exercise 1: Look up
So much of our description in poetry and in the setting detail of narratives is about what’s down at ground level, things we can get close to and inspect.
One of the things I love about autumn is the sky – it is so changeable, often cloudy and threatening only to clear for a warm day. It is also the time of year of the best morning and evening light in the region I call home. Grape, rice and fruit harvests are under way or just finished and there is a lot of dust in the air, resulting in the most beautiful of pinks streaked across the sky at dawn and dusk.
The thing that is different about writing about a season is that it requires observation across time to understand what the continuum might be, and accepting that what we expect to change in a linear way often doesn’t, penduluming back and forth. Observe the sky over a week or two, every day, at different times of day. What do you notice? Record a quick scribble, perhaps about colour, saturation, clarity, cloud cover, texture. If you don’t know the technical term to describe a cloud formation or a natural phenomenon, research it. Is there a discernable pattern in your recordings? Was there anything particularly beautiful that can be explained by the occurrences of the season (see my example about the dust from harvests).
Exercise 2: Look down
Plant life is another clear indicator of seasonal change. Perhaps you are an avid gardener and your fruit and vegetable patch clocks the seasons for you, or perhaps there are different hues of green you notice when you’re out for your daily walk with the dog. There are the usual variations in leaf colour, too, of course, if you live in cooler climates.
Take photos of a wide landscape that features lots of plants (a street, a park, an area of reserve or national park) for 4 weeks in a row (try for about 2 or 3 times per week). Compare your photos: what do you notice about the colours, not only of the leaves and flowers, but the stems and foliage of shrubs as well? What do you notice about the light in the photos? If you’re wanting to hone your narrative writing skills, think about how this change could be representative of what is going on within the houses of the image or the people who use the park.
The plant I love that grows in autumn where I live is the hairy panic tumbleweed. I love its spindly limbs, its delicate and fragile skeleton, the way a raft of them blanket the landscape. I imagine them bumping along on the wind, whistling a tune. The other change I notice, and lament, is the dying off of the bright and cheerful flowers of the yellow buttons plant that keeps me company on my daily walks through the scenic reserve during summer.
Exercise 3: Look closer
This is really about having a minute focus. A couple of years ago, I did a photographic series of partially decomposed leaves as a celebration of autumn and the earth’s regenerative cycle in creating mulch for the next generation of fruit on my lemon tree. In turn, that inspired a poem, too, about the beautiful of what I called my ‘leaf skeletons’. You can see the photograph and poem below.
Find an item that changes seasonally. Chart its development, it may be from a seed, to a germinated seed, to a plant, etc. all the way through to its eventual ripening, harvesting and what it ultimately becomes. You will need to really engage your senses here, because it may not only be changing visually, but it might also have accompanying aural, tactile olfactory components. If you need inspiration here, I suggest watching a few time-lapse videos. Now, take your descriptions and turn them into an extended metaphorical poem either about growth and maturation, or time and decay.
On the Breaking Down of Leaves, April 2020
Your tangled intricate lace more finely-spun and delicate as you waste away – emaciated – in your attempt to sustain those around you. Your fall is soft and noiseless a sail to a forest floor, your sacrifice unnoticed and your gold skeletal remains incomparable to the bright and gaudy blooms that shoot from your slow melt into the earth. Glossy foliage and scented stamens; nature’s trumpeted score to your silent decomposition.
I’d love to read any of your writing exercises! Put them in the comments section below or email them to us at email@example.com