Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eco-systems: birds, fish, grief, magic

Pavlov's Cat has recently written a beautiful post about scattering the lint from her clothes dryer around the garden so that birds can use it as a soft lining for their nests. Apart from my feeling the way about her clothes dryer that some people feel about my dishwasher (and of course, I use it several times a week, instead of just when it is raining), this is a lovely notion; and her comments box indicates that others are similarly taken with this idea of co-existence.

My own feelings have come under some pressure in this regard recently, on several fronts, as I have been thinking about back yard ecosystems. Our own back garden was re-built with a series of ponds, stone walls and benches last year, and by the time I was recovering from surgery, the plants were settling in, the goldfish were breeding and learning to eat from my hand, and we had started to marvel at the difference made by these small bodies of water in the garden. Over the course of spring and early summer we progressively scooped out fallen quince, pear, and dogwood blossom, then elm tree seeds and jacaranda flowers from the ponds. I entertained my visitors in my "folly", a stone pergola with a wrought-iron cupola, and encouraged the stephanotis plants to race each other in climbing up and around their concrete columns. The garden was also the place where I taught myself, in a very rudimentary way, to meditate; even if this involved nothing more elaborate than sitting still and doing nothing.

When the eastern tree frog we called Herbert (von Karajan) came to live among the violets, we congratulated ourselves on having built something that might complement the indigenous plant environment, in the heart of the city. (We live on a busy thoroughfare, complete with trams running past the front door; but we can also cross a side street and be on the Merri Creek.) Paul then built a special swampy frog pond, in hopes of attracting more frogs. The garden, then, is an eclectic mixture of the "natural" environment, with more than a hint of gothic folly in its architecture and sculpture.

We were a little concerned about the fish and Mima, my fifteen-year-old cat, but she is more interested in following me around the garden, making nests in the mulch, and drinking the fish-flavoured pond water than risking getting her paws wet by going fishing. Since our neighbour's great-niece, partner and three-year-old daughter have moved in with him next door, we've also had to put a lock on the gate between the two back gardens: the human eco-system around us has also undergone a major shift, and we are conscious that small children and ponds, even shallow ones, are a dangerous combination. But the real sign of change in the relationship of people, water and animals has been the birds. We've always had thrushes, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, lorrikeets, miners and odd kookaburra perching in the elm-trees, a very odd sight indeed. And it's always seemed like a kind of blessing, when they fly into and through our trees.

Even when the garden-builders reported seeing a kookaburra swoop down and lift a goldfish out of the little trough under the tap, I was more thrilled by the oddity than scared for the fish. Then a few weeks ago I saw a lovely grey heron, standing awkwardly on its spindly yellow legs, up on the roof of the house, watching the pond, and watching me watching it, but not venturing any closer. And one day last week Paul saw a cormorant flying in and around the garden. He chased it off several times, and was concerned, but I was still blithely confident that the fish would be able to hide away, and was pleased at this sign that the garden was becoming such a rich eco-system.

Then one morning last week I came back from my walk along the creek and went into the garden to walk around with the Mimacat, and was horrified to see empty ponds, with not a single fish in sight. It seemed that cormorant or heron had come in and fished out the ponds completely; and I was overwhelmed by desolation and the destruction of it, and sympathetic horror for the experience of being a fish with a large bird swimming around and picking off the family members, one by one. Our little eco-system seemed no system at all, if the birds could be so comprehensive in their fishing. A few hours later, I went out again in disbelief, but saw one small shubunkin swimming quietly. Then an hour later, one or two more; and by the end of the day, most of the larger goldfish, two-thirds of the silver perch and all the rainbow fish had re-emerged. It seems they had been fast enough to take cover under the rocks and plants, and smart enough to stay there for most of the day. It was like a magical visitation. The destruction had seemed so comprehensive that all I could do was wish, against all hope, the fish were back. And there they were: the big comets Merlin and Charlotte (I like to think these are the breeding pair), and the two black ones Beadle and Bugelow, though the majestic black and gold one I called King Olaf Tryggvason (around the time Joel was doing a school project on his "ancestors") seems to have been amongst the casualties.

It's been a chastening event, all round. We are now thinking about putting tightly strung wires around and across the ponds: these catch any breath of wind and vibrate in a bird-deterring way. I know that cats and birds, and cats and frogs, and dogs and lizards are equally difficult combinations in the domestic garden. "Nature red in tooth and claw", my mother would say; and this was well before David Attenborugh showed us just how red Nature could be. But weirdly, the fact that the bird did not fish the pond out completely suggests that this *is* a functioning system: the bird hasn't exhausted the food supply, and has left enough fish to make it worth a return visit. Just let me get those wires strung across the water first.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A little adjustment disorder

Over the last few weeks I've been struggling hard to find a rhythm and a routine for reading and writing. My dear visitors have gone home; my teaching has mercifully been reduced to about eight lectures over the course of the semester; and I have few regular meetings or commitments. I'm feeling stronger, physically, than I have for ages, and have established a good routine of walking along the creek for about 45 minutes each morning.

These would seem to be ideal conditions in which to catch up on some reading and writing, after the last five months since my diagnosis; and also, it must be said, after the few months last year when I was flinging myself from pillar to post, hardly ever sitting still long enough to read or to put a sentence together. Yet it has been almost impossibly difficult to work. I can barely sit at my desk, and check email, blogs, news and weather sites to a ridiculous degree, yet I'm unable to take myself off to the cinema or break the cycle. If I sit down to read, I fall asleep within minutes. I can feel physically strong when on the creek path in the morning, or on my bike, or even on the tennis court (had a great workout last Sunday, though I still can't serve), but when I go in to work I come over all feeble, and have to hold onto the stair rail, or the back of a chair, or sit down, when I used to dash about, and sometimes even literally run along the narrow corridor between the two halves of my building. And when I think about going back to full duties in second semester, I am liable to start panicking, start crying and feel anxious. This has been very distressing to me, as I have always loved my job, and loved going in to my office and seeing folk. I've revelled in the busy-ness of trying to balance my teaching and my research; and if I've moaned about committees, I've also enjoyed my share of knowing what's going on and how things work, and my part in making good decisions. All this seems to have changed.

It's taken me a while to work at untangling the threads making this particular knot. I don't think I'm over the worst of this (I had a cheerful and interesting appointment with Tash and a stand-in oncologist, Craig, on Tuesday but sobbed all the way home and for most of the rest of the day), but things look a little clearer than they did a few weeks ago, so let me try.

Some of the anxiety and fatigue might be attributable to the after-effects and side-effects of treatment and the effects of menopause; but I suspect this is more psychological than physical. At a party a few weeks ago, I was talking about some of this to Sandra, who named a psychological condition "adjustment disorder" which I looked up. It seems to appear within about three months of a shock such as illness or bereavement, and can be accompanied by depression, anxiety or other such things. It is to be distinguished from post-traumatic shock disorder ... but I'm far from trying to make an accurate self-diagnosis. I took great comfort in the idea that there might be a recognisable pattern to the way I feel. Someone else likened having cancer to traumatic shock, and I took comfort in that, too. I don't want to overdramatise the problem, but I don't think I have ever experienced anxiety of this kind before, and it was helpful to see that there might be a shape — a beginning and an end — to it. So I made an appointment with one of the counsellors through the breast clinic, but my appointment isn't till May (I'm in London for most of April).

I was so desperate the other night I let my partner sit me down and pretend to be my counsellor, and we came up with some concrete suggestions for how to manage the time at my desk, and I'm pleased to report that for the last two days I haven't opened email till after lunch. Mornings are for research; I don't have to accomplish any number of words or tasks; but all the reading and writing I do in those hours has to be on the project I've set myself. And I think I will get close, finally, to finishing this little essay on Piers Plowman soon. Ironically, I'm writing about Langland and the nature of work. Here's a sentence I wrote today: "Langland knew that writing was hard work, but seems unable to say this directly; and so in this regard, as in many others, the poem proceeds by indirection and dialectic." That's pretty funny, really: I wonder if that sentence will still be there in the final version!

So I'm trying to untangle the small-scale problem of how to read and write, while also tackling the larger issue of facing up to returning to work. It's certainly not made any easier in that the University is still in the throes of a major shake-up; my Faculty is suddenly deep in debt; my department has vanished; and my new school is facing staff redundancies as we all write new subject outlines for 2008 and beyond. I even found myself experiencing a sense of grief, and loss: I have spent my entire adult life at the university, and suddenly feel strangely detached from it. It's possible this is a good thing. This was Manfred's view, when we spoke about this at another party, that a little adjustment disorder might be beneficial, if it loosens the ties of duty and obligation in which I have bound myself so tightly. When I was talking with Suzanne in the meetings before my surgery, she said, "cancer changes your life." I am starting to see what this might mean.