Sunday, 2 November 2014

About the weather

Sometimes I wonder why I live in the Blue Mountains. Seemingly endless winters that seep into your bones and incur extortionate heating bills; a four hour return city commute to work and the cultural cringe afforded regional towns can take its toll. But every time that commuter train chugs its way across the grimy plains and begins the climb back up the mountain I feel a certain world weariness slip away. As the terrain outside the window gets progressively greener and more wild, as views expand to reveal that timeless stretch of valley and ridge dissolving into a purple horizon where golden evening light magically anoints cliff-faces and treetops, and when the dizzying altitude allows me to breathe deeply once more, I know why I'm still here after 13 years. Someone said recently that they didn't choose the mountains, but rather the mountains chose them. Perhaps they chose me too.

I wrote the following piece about leaving the city many years ago but it still resonates with me, particularly as we hurtle headlong into another summer, when spring’s brief bolshie burst of fecundity will be all but silenced by the shimmering heat. Or not.

Weathering the Blue Mountains

Windscreen wipers on the taxi scrape back and forth.  A grim driver peers past them through dense fog to barely visible traffic lights.  Outside ghost trees shiver and cars around us splutter white steam like dragons.  In the distance an ambulance siren wails down the highway.  “Some weather we’re having,” I say.  “Yep,” the driver sighs, summing me up in the rear vision mirror. "That’s the mountains for you.  Up here, it’s either paradise or purgatory.”  The cabbie’s ominous observation irks me.  Does he mean the weather or life in general in the Blue Mountains? 

It is early Spring, a time of new beginnings.  Daffodils and jonquils brighten skeletal gardens but it is still cold and will remain so until November.  I have recently joined the exodus of tree changers fleeing the big smoke for some fresh air, a change of pace and a mortgage break. I choose to settle in the Blue Mountains - an idyllic World Heritage listed address only 100 kilometres west of big bad Sydney.  But I soon realise there is more to this move than a new postcode.

Initially, there are phobias and misconceptions to overcome.  Snakes and bushfires aside it is the born and bred mountain folk that scare me most.  Goaded by city friends to purchase the correct uniform – ugg boots and flannelette – we are warned of bikies, druggies and rednecks. What we discover is a mixed bunch of artists, greenies, travellers, young families and life-challenged individuals, united by a common bond – climate.

For most people discussing the weather is polite conversation.  For mountain dwellers it’s up there with politics and religion, often controversial and always opinionated.  Perhaps that’s because the seasons are so palpable at 1000 metres above sea level, unlike Sydney’s terrarium-like atmosphere.

Adjusting our lives to mountains time we watch leaves unfurl after Spring sun-showers.  No traffic or large shopping malls, instead just a breath of fresh air.

Finally Summer arrives.  Packing woollens away we revel in the warmth of sunshine on pasty, naked limbs.  Christmas tinsel shimmers in shop windows and blue-tongues smirk when mistaken for snakes under the clothesline. Soaring temperatures keep tourist buses on the coast and locals complain bitterly about the heat.  The bush begins to crackle with drought and the incessant shrill of cicadas.

The almost inevitable bushfires keep everyone on edge.  Unable to sleep we listen as sirens approach then fade into the night.  With morbid fascination we watch the fiery red glow of neighbouring hilltops, creeping across the valleys and gullies, drawing ever closer.  The blow-torch heat from gusty nor-westers whips up blackened gum leaves, scattering them in backyards like sooty confetti. And an eerie quiet descends with the dense smoke shrouding our valley.

Concerned friends ring from the safety of the city offering prayers for rain as overnight fireys and Elvis the mega-chopper become super heroes.  Tuned to community radio, I pace the deck, scan a hazy horizon, cough and wonder how to pack a life into the boot of a car.

Bushfire season passes.  A brief but blistering summer subsides into the glorious, golden hues of Autumn.  A fairyland of falling leaves in blindingly beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow adorn roadsides.  Crisp air and clear skies are ideal for long, restorative walks.

A group of ferals move in next door.  All hair and flares tumbling from a clapped out combi plastered with sentiments that read “Save the Reef”, “No Nukes”, “Sorry” and my personal favourite “Magic Happens”.  They mostly keep to themselves but occasionally the beat of conga drums wafts on the breeze along with some suspicious scents.

By May preparation for Winter is well underway.  I purchase my first proper coat and seriously consider thermal underwear.  My partner re-discovers a long-lost pioneering spirit and is busy chopping wood and collecting sticks, taking great pride in neatly stacked piles of kindling.  The Weather Channel becomes prime time viewing in anticipation of our first frost and I secretly squirrel away marshmallows, cocoa and tins of soup.

It occurs to me that I had developed a peculiar trait inherent in true mountain folk, a pre-occupation with the weather, the more inclement the better.  Bragging to Sydney friends that their minimum temperature is our maximum.  Rubbing numb fingers together with glee whenever the thermometer sinks to 0 degrees!  Wistfully watching clouds, searching for the band of cumulonimbus that will herald the elusive, snow-laden low-pressure system I crave.  I become obsessed with snow.

Winter solstice approaches and residents make ready for a unique local celebration.  The Winter Magic festival boasts street parades, food stalls and fireworks.  Enchanted by the heady aroma of wood-smoke, roasting chestnuts and incense in the chill air, we rug up to watch with parochial pride as fairies cavort with African drummers and circus performers make way for wizards and wanderers.  But still no snow. 

Crunching through brown leaves and duck poo on the lake’s edge, I pause to study the blackening sky, greeting an elderly mountain woman feeding the birds.  The thin winter sun illuminates her lined face.  “Do you think we’ll get any snow?”  I ask, almost pleadingly, nodding skywards. She looks at me curiously, “Not now love, Spring’s on its way.”

I glance out over the lake and spy cherry blossoms on the far side. “But don’t worry,” she smiles patting my arm, “there’s always next year.”

And the year after that…The beauty and drama of the Blue Mountains has taken hold of me.  I can’t wait to see what next year will bring.  

First published in The Australian newspaper

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