English summers are much like Brisbane winters: the sun is bright, the skies are crisp blue and the temperature is mild (in the mid teens Celsius; I haven’t a clue Fahrenheit). And both are short-lived. I do love Brisbane winters.
In a few days, it will be autumn here. I am looking forward to autumn, having never experienced it before. My sisters’ favourite poem/song when we were younger was ‘mu thu la bay’ (In Autumn, the Leaves Blow). It is an epic poem about a young, beautiful girl who falls in love with her tutor. He has to leave her in the autumn. Like all good Viet poems, he goes off to war and dies. He never comes back for her, and in autumn, with the leaves falling off trees and blowing around her, she remembers him. Autumn is a poignant and nostalgic season.
Intellectually, I understand this and I recognise the symbolism. Viscerally, emotionally, the images of autumn do not evoke much response in me.
In my formative years, I read the autobiography of Jill Ker Conway (The Road to Coorain and True North). I mentioned it in a book meme. I loved how the landscape and environment grounded and influenced Jill Ker Conway’s life and writing. I also interrelate with my environment; I have always personalised my living and working space, and find my moods affected by weather.
My lack of understanding of the English landscape, flowers and plants somewhat disorientates me, and at the same time reminds me that I have to learn, rather than refer to innate knowledge. I am eternally curious about berries and fruits and plants. When we walk in the countryside, I pick and squish and smell and peer. My partner continues on ahead and I chase him every few metres: I linger as something catches my eye, then I run to catch up. I was so happy to find acorns, in their cups, at the height of summer. I had never before seen an actual acorn – the symbol of old England is the gnarled and majestic oak – and the acorn speaks of mysterious connections. I am finding my place in this landscape of soft grass, nettle and acorns.
From early childhood, I wondered how my father related to the Australian environment and the ways in which it was different to Viet Nam. Of all my father’s children, I have the vaguest memory of him as a vibrant man. For more than half my life, my father has been ill. But I can call to mind images of my father striding along a beach, or casting out a net and hauling it in with regular, assured movements, or the graceful swing of his arm as he cuts up fish, or the way his huge hands cup fluffy baby chicks, the same hands that will wring their necks in a few months’ time. It was wonderful to see my father in Viet Nam, in land that he knew innately. He rested, elbow on the prow of our long tail speed boat, and he looked out at the Mekong. He looked like that land owned him, and he knew its ways. He squinted at the sky and said: It won’t rain tomorrow and everyone – local Viet and Viet Kieu alike – believed him. And he was right. I can’t describe how much Ba belonged to the Delta area, how he seemed to stand more erect and the pride of the land swelled around him. He shrunk again in Sai Gon, and then back home in Brisbane. But I got a meagre glimpse of who my father was before he came to Australia and I knew that the landscape infects my father, too.
The leaves outside my office window are turning yellow and dropping off. I watch them curiously, and a little nervously because I want them to turn yellow, and then red, and then brown, and then (and only then) may they drop off. They don’t mean much to me, these autumn leaves. But I am in a phase of transition now and I wonder if I will attach to autumn the fluttering emotions that currently affects how my identity is swilling into formation here.