Stories of The Retreating Dark
Back when I first lived outside of Australia, up in Finland, I asked for advice about how to survive winter and the darkness. In general the advice could be condensed to “take advantage of it: sleep more, eat pancakes and burn candles”. It’s taken over 6 years and another 3 countries for for the final bit of advice to kick in, but I now feel that burning candles is an important part of keeping sane and comfortable in winter. As it gets dark, or later, if I get home after dusk I light a new batch of candles for the evening.
We’re not being particularly good about keeping our kitchen table beautifully laid out every day, as computers, mail and magazines will pile up, so in general I keep the candles on the window sill. There’s a couple of dedicated candle holders but it’s largely a mismatch – some old jars, the lid of a grave candle and some reclaimed soft-drink can trays.
Keeping the candles on the window serves an additional purpose as the glass reflects the light back in and that row of candles, well they seem to keep the dark at bay. The days are getting longer and soon the candles will be redundant for all but keeping my teapot warm, but I am so glad that I’ve finally learnt to make use of them.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of things that I find easier about living in northern and central Europe is that The Seasons and many associated traditions (prolific use of candles included) make so much more sense to me here than they do in Australia.
I once heard about a South African project to develop region specific (southern African) children’s books and elementary grade readers. One of the challenges faced in teaching children (and adults) to read was that the materials normally provided were completely unbelievable to local beginner readers. Wellington boots, hedgehogs, frost and rolling lawns were alien concepts for people who were trying to connect marks on a page with the world around them. If culturally specific materials can help people learn to read books, how much better are they going to be at helping people learn to read and understand the environment around them?
I devoured books as a child. Even though Seven Little Australians, and the books of May Gibbs, Mem Fox, Gillian Rubinstein, John Marsden, Joan Lindsay and Colin Thiele were part of my literary diet, they didn’t condition my relationship to the environment and the rhythms of the year nearly as effectively as the stories of Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Tove Jansson or Arthur Ransome. On one hand, there just weren’t as many Australian authors for me to connect with and on the other, the Australian authors I read were also part of a relatively young, post colonial tradition who could also only relate to the environment through a European, primarily British understanding.
However, I am living in Austria now and luckily have an increasing understanding of Upper Austria’s local environment. In summer I know to look to the north to see if a sudden storm is going to blow in over the Mühlviertel, and I get the joke behind the warm dry wind called the Fön (hairdryer). But one day I might end up back in southern Australia, still unable to relate to the non-European seasons of my childhood. And knowing my life so far, we might not end up in southern Australia or Austria at all!
I still devour books and in particular I’d love to read more books that are not only interesting, beautiful stories in their own right, but which also accurately describe the rhythms and sensations of the region they are set in. It doesn’t matter whether they are children’s books or a memoir, whether they’re set in Provence, Tahiti, Mongolia, Adelaide or Bristol – whatever they are I’d love to hear about them. What is your favourite book and the place and environment it describes?