Stuck in Eden
By James Provencher
At day’s end in late autumn I am sitting on a bench at the edge of Snug Cove where big workhorse tugs dwarf tied up trawlers, the local fishing fleet in Eden on Australia’s far South Coast. Eden’s claimed to be only one of three true deepwater ports in the Southern Hemisphere and was two centuries ago a busy whaling station. Before that, for thousands of years Aborigines enlisted the help of Killer Whales, beowas, their brothers, to herd migrating Humpbacks into Two-Fold Bay for the annual harvest.
Eden’s still a working wharf and harbour. A few freighters are loading timber across the bay, and big cruise ships often put in here. Once the QE 2 graced the sleepy town of 4000 with a visit. There are daily whale-watching cruises and fishing tours. Not far from the Victorian border, Eden’s the last chance for Sydney-to-Hobart racing yachts to find safe harbour before the Roaring Forties no man’s land of Bass Strait.
I’ve had my fish and chips from a little caravan shop that’s now closing up and trundling away. I’m sipping the first of three longnecks picked up on sale for $15 from the local pub bottlo. It’s a Mexican beer called SOL, brewed in the Netherlands. The label claims: Cerveza original de Mexico, Cerveceria Moctezuma: La Cerveza Hecha Con Sol, Passion y Alma. Born in El Salto del Agua brewery near Mexico City in 1899, SOL is deeply rooted in a culture with nothing to hide, a passionate journey to freedom without pretence or compromise.
Right. It tastes like a Corona or a Heineken Lite, inoffensive, but not much body like the Tecate Baja brand I favour. Still, I like the apt phrase, ‘nothing to hide,’ which to me accurately sums up Mexico: Tears, Laughter, Death, taking life by the throat.
Mind if we join you? An older gent and a young man are standing by my bench, holding cans of Melbourne Bitter. Sure, no worries… Turns out it’s a father and son who’ve been tracing the coast all the way down from Cairns, serving as a land support team for the elder son who bought a sloop up north and is sailing it home to Melbourne. He’s due to put in at Eden later in the evening.
The father says, Since my accident I’ve begun seeing things differently. I no longer work, offloaded the business, and now am looking for something…something like what my son’s found with sailing. It’s become his passion. I show him the SOL motto, Made with Sun, Passion, and Soul. There’s nothing to hide when you’re on a passionate journey…but bad weather’s roaring in from the south, a real southerly buster with hundred kilometer winds and thunderbumping rain, a real deluge. This support crew, admiring the beginnings of a dramatic sunset across Two-Fold Bay, compliments of the front’s threatening clouds, perks up. Jay, what time’s he due? Jay says about nine. I tell them I reckon he’ll need to stand down in Eden for at least two days. The father turns to me: Since my accident I worry, I worry about everything. His hands are trembling. Jay, do a time-distance calculation.
He struggles to stand, sways unsteadily. Jay, book a motel. I won’t be able to get down to the boat in the rain. Make sure there’s two beds this time. I don’t want the Ishmael-Queequeg double-bed thing like in Ulladulla.
Bellbirds are still chiming in the dense shore scrub lining Snug Cove. Rags of pink clouds hover over the dark pyramid of Mt. Imlay across the bay. I snap off a few shots with my long lens. Jay announces he got a room at the Eden Motel for sixty bucks a night and that his brother’s on time, arriving in a couple hours. So they pop open a couple more tinnies and I twist off another long neck. Sunset’s a corker, streaky flames leaking through the dark building wall of the Southerly.
You do photography? What kind of photography do you do? Well, I guess you could call it Art Photography, but really it’s just going walk-about, doing next to nothing, foraging the here and now. I poke and nose around in a kind of topographic trance. I think I need something like that, the father says. My wife paints, she’s a painter, she couldn’t come on this trip because she had work to do. His tone is dismissive. Well, I counter, I can understand that. When inspiration calls, you gotta answer. Silence, a beat, and then the father says, that’s it, I need a call, a calling. He floats away, into the sunset. That’s one thing I love, sunsets! I love the end of the day, the last play of light before the curtain falls. Jay snaps a picture of the harbour reflections with his I-Phone and shows it to his dad. You caught it!
God! Look at those black clouds swallowing everything. We’re going to be stuck in Eden. Stuck in Eden, I play it back to him: Eden’s no longer Paradise when you can’t leave…like when I was in Bali once, stuck there, the volcano erupting, no flights because of the ash. Like Shangri-La, where you linger in longevity, a prisoner in a timeless zone, I chafed against my prolonged sentence, another day in paradise spent only waiting to leave.
Look at that dockyard dog! He’s a cattle kelpie, maybe a stray! A short-hair, the colour of burnt wheat toast, he scampers down the dock of moored trawlers and scurries towards us, hops up and perches smartly on our bench. His ears perked and his eyes sharp almonds of alertness. Perfectly at ease, he abides with us, a node of calm surveillance. Suddenly, I’m up close and personal with animal awareness, peering into knowing eyes. The father says, he could be a stray, he could be mine. Dog’s worth a fortune! How much, I ask, is a fortune?
Oh, say, twenty grand. He’s a classic, a trained cattle dog for sure. But he’s got a collar, there’s a number on it.
The father calls the number on his mobile and there’s a quick pickup: a fisherman doing repairs on his boat just down the dock. No worries, mate, he’ll be back for supper at six, he’s no stray. So the cattle-cum-dockyard dog sits with us, listening to our malarky rap, surveying the scene, musing on the meaning of it all. He’s polite enough to show no boredom or guffaw. Shifting here and there, his gaze scans like a radar beam, his white forehead lodestar shining bright. I’m mesmerised by ardent eyes of an Antarctic fox. More dingo than dog, a Red Heeler, a drover’s herder, the loner who shuns the pack.
Sure enough, spot on at six, quick smart he takes his leave, up and scampers down the dock toward the ping of his master’s ball peen hammering something home. I have sat with professors and their books, with Roshis and their disdaining looks, but never, never in my life sat next to such knowing.
Work done, worries on hold, Jay pops another tinny of Bitter and out of the blue drops a gambit: What’s the best place you’ve ever been? Impossible! A quest like a koan, demanding an intuitive leap. I fumble for a first thought best thought response. The best place, well… once I was a long-distance hiker, a through-hiker, end-to-ending it on months-long trails, hooked on footslogging the endless path. In the beginning, I took first steps driven by destination, the endgame goal, for then I was an inchling forging my way, trudging under heavy pack, studying my boot tops. Overburdened with delusion, without
warning one morning I woke to weightlessness, empty, the bottom fell out. Afloat from then on, every step became an arrival.
The best place? The best place is sitting next to a dockyard dog, sipping the sweetness of the day’s last light. We’re all already there. Your brother wants to make it to Melbourne. He’ll be happy if and when. Every place is sufficient. Why not be happy now—in Eden, the best place.
Jay murmurs, yes, sufficient, passing through, already there. Hey, Dad, aren’t you hungry! Let’s get some supper downtown and come back later when he’ll be putting in.
At the harbour’s edge, suddenly alone in the quick dark, I linger, nursing my last longneck, Snug Cove glimmering, electric, mercurial, there.