Essay: Maggie MacKellaron writing

The Turning of the Line

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

The cold is a living thing in this old house. It snakes under doorways, through glass thin with age, wraps itself around my legs, creeps into my toes, stiffens my fingers and hardens my nose.

  1. I am writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. It’s about the particularities of this place on Tasmania’s East Coast. In order to write this book about this particular place, I go walking. Mostly I walk out the back door, over the first ramp, through the gate and into the lane. Then I climb through the fence into Killing Paddock where a small mob of killers watch me and my three dogs. These are the sheep we keep for our own table. At this moment, this very long moment, we are in a drought and though they are too skinny to be worth killing, they are still called ‘the killers’. From there I walk up the hill and climb through another fence into the paddock called Hill Run. I follow sheep tracks though the Prickle Box bush and down a sandstone slope to the creek. The creek is only a memory of a creek. It is now a place with water seeping in a dirty ooze of mud. Each day I walk the mud gets harder and the water lower. Around the place where the creek should be are the prints of deer and the scat of devils.

In the dawn I push through it carrying a copper pan filled with glowing coals. The pan warms my hands, metal soft, the coals glow and I shake them into the dark fireplace and blow. The coals lick and suck on pine cones and slivers of bark till flames leap.

  1. I am cleaning the cottage and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. A family of blue wrens watch me through the window. They hop from bush to lawn and back. The bluest of the wrens flings himself against the clean glass, his breast a burst of a cold scrubbed sky. Inside I strip beds, bundle linen, pile towels up and empty rubbish. I scrub the toilet, clean the mirror, wipe down the shower, replace the towels, make the beds, iron the pillow cases, do the washing up, empty the crumbs from the toaster, fill the fridge, set the fire, and vacuum the floor. To end I pluck three geranium stems from the pot outside the door. They flame hot pink in pale yellow sunshine in a jar filled with water on a scrubbed pine table in a kitchen in a cottage on the east coast of Tasmania, waiting for the next paying guests to stay.

Outside my thin window the frost creaks as streaks of red spill into another winter morning.

  1. I am feeding sheep and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. I unclog the feeders of possum poo and piss. Above the roar of the tractor, above the hungry sheep, above the bare paddocks and quiet winter trees an eagle watches, hanging like a mobile above my head.

I write in my journal the list of jobs for the week.
Then I read from Mary Oliver’s The Poetry Handbook: ‘The most important point
in the line is the end of the line.
The second most important point is the beginning of it.’
I make a note.

  1. I am hanging sheets on the clothesline and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. I shake the sheets and peg them tight. They flap in the blasting southwesterly. White fluffy clouds race overhead and beyond the windbreak of trees a front builds. Clouds stack up against clouds. I ignore it and fill the line with clean washing. Over the fence the Merino rams wait for me to fill their trough with sheep nuts. An old ram sits away from the mob. His head hurts from fighting. He is missing a horn. The ground is bare so I can see it, discarded like a broken toy or a useless weapon on an empty battlefield.

Under the desk my black Labrador sleeps and
chases wallabies through the bush, her muscles twitch as she swerves and leaps, her breath ragged in muffled yips.

  1. I am lighting tussocks with a drip torch and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. The smell of burning fuel coats the back of my mouth, my eyes smart from the smoke and I move the drip torch from arm to arm to ease the pain in my wrists. The flames and smoke put me in the middle of the world’s end. Nearby one of the dogs chews on the spine of a dead sheep. Later, in bed, I blow my nose and my snot is black.

Sun punctures the thin glass window and warms my hands. In the courtyard the two-way radio crackles. I put down my pen and walk, seized again by cold, to answer. A punctured tyre on the tractor, a quick five-minute job, but far away up the paddock. And so I stand beside the wheel as tall as me and hand down tools to the swearing farmer on the ground and the hours stretch into afternoon.

  1. I am mustering sheep and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. I canter up the paddock on the grey pony looking for stragglers in pockets of bush or hiding beneath the overhang of the creek bank. The pony’s hard black hooves stir the dust spirits. On the shoulder of the hill a patch of bush pushes up and we stop to catch our breath. In the stillness a parrot calls, and then another and another and all around above and through a flight of bright green air with flashes of yellow and glints of red singes our edge. Swift parrots, rare and precious.

To help pay bills I type letters for a friend who is a gastroenterologist in Sydney, the sing song words, the twisting stories, the gaps where tragedy sits
“It was my pleasure to review….                                                              
## a 58 year-old man, a chemical engineer who came to
## a 22 year-old man, a barista who suffers from                         
## an 87 year-old woman, a retired teacher who attended        
## a 69 year-old man, a retired plumber who describes
epigastric discomfort/diarrhoea/vomiting/unable to swallow/iron deficiency anaemia/palpable masses/bright red blood on the toilet paper/who has suffered from a lifelong tendency to constipation/some recent imaging that is concerning/ *insurance*/low ferritin/dyslipidemia/hypertension/diabetes/deranged liver tests/not compliant/40 pack a year history/non smoker/excessive alcohol/subsequently husband died unexpectedly/what?/gastroscopy/colonoscoy/extended bowel preparation/I will be in touch with the results.
Yours sincerely”
(cc to…)
and the dog bangs on the back door, out the window a grey fantail flirts, a trace of wool in its beak as it readies, too soon, for the spring ahead.

  1. I am in the kitchen making lunch for shearers and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. I put eggs on to boil for sandwiches. Mix butter and sugar, fold in flour, cocoa, an egg or two for a chocolate cake, butter bread, heat party pies and sausage rolls, poke garlic into a leg of lamb, place it on a bed of rosemary, nestle it with potatoes and pumpkin, bless it with olive oil, place it in the smoking oven. I wash dishes and dirty pans, pack the smoko basket, mop the floor, set the table, stoke the fire, load the wood box, turn the oven down and take the basket to the shed.

Apparently, John Steinbeck wrote in his introduction to Cannery Row, the only way to collect a certain marine flatworm, so delicate it is almost impossible to capture whole without it splitting and mutating, is to let it ooze and crawl onto the knife blade and then once there, gently lift it into the waiting bottle filled with sea water. Steinbeck thinks this may be the best way to write his book, to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves. I read this in an essay on the internet, ‘How to Do Nothing’ by the artist Jenny Odell, so I don’t know the context of Steinbeck’s story and I am not curious enough to find out because the thought, though containing a morsel of truth, is also torture.

  1. I am in the car driving to town and thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. I turn the corner and see the mountain white with snow. In the town I go to the produce store and buy grain and lucerne chaff, I go to the shop selling all manner of nuts and bolts, I go to the shop that sells pumps and pick up a tiny part to fit the pump in our sinking creek. I go to the hardware store for reinforced nails, I go to the video shop to buy DVDs (streaming a TV series is an impossible thing on the East Coast of Tasmania) and because there is no water for my garden I go to the supermarket and buy fruit and green vegetables. I buy bright green spinach and curly edged kale. I drive to the school where my son boards and pick him up for the holidays. The car is sweet with the scent of chaff and full to the brim. He adds all the things you need for a term at school. We drive home and can’t see out the back window.
  2. I am in the sea off the beach where I run when I’m thinking about writing a short non-fiction book, a farm journal of sorts. It’s so cold the edges of me have tightened. The sea, indifferent and constant returns me to myself. I have learned to surrender. I lie in water alive with cold and feel the blood run hot to my heart. When I get out I glow.

At the end of the day I mix up chaff and rolled barley, and heralded by dogs I walk to feed my horses. The light is golden and all the world is pinched. My two old friends stamp their front feet, bob their heads and swish their tails. There are ewes in the lane leading down to the cattle yards. They are going on a truck first thing in the morning. They will be driven up the Midlands Highway and then the truck will meet the ferry to cross Bass Strait. In 24 hours they will be in Victoria where they will have their lambs in knee deep clover. They are not our best ewes, but it was still an awful decision to sell them. We have drafted off any that are too old or weak for the journey. After I throw hay to the horses I take the dogs down to check the water in last hole in the creek. On the way back I see an old ewe cast in a drain beside the track. Her face is red with blood. Her eye has been plucked by a crow. I stand her up and watch as she gets her balance and then walk home. I find when I get there that the words, like flat marine worms, have slunk

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Arts Tasmania. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Creative Victoria.

Writers at Work is assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts