Island Eleven – Isle of

Desert Illuminations
(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative
Imagination)

Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are
acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ under
international copyright law.
Image: All 5 images were shot on the author’s current block of land near Bendigo, Australia. The five
foot long snake skin image on page 4 does not belong to a red-belly black snake (as per the story) but
to its more dangerous/venomous cousin, the Eastern Brown snake. All image are copyright Ian Irvine
2012, all rights reserved.
Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series
drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of
the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.

Island Eleven – Isle of Desert Illuminations
From the Desert Prophets Come?
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight
through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.1
Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ‘a-kedia’ (from a-, ‘not’;
kedos, ‘care’) and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. It is akin
to dejection [tristitia], and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a
persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing monks
especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its
highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul ... 2

The two quotes above, the first from Henry Thoreau’s nineteenth century naturalist classic
Walden (or A Life in the Woods) and the second from Cassian’s Foundations of Coenobitic
Life, fifth century CE represent the two historic extremes of what we might call ‘drop out into
nature’ experiences. Thoreau’s ‘transcendentalist’ poetic was a Romantic derivative—the
Romantics of course courted the creativity and personal authenticity rumoured to arise out of
solitary experiences in the wilderness. Having imbibed my Romanticism via Coleridge and
Keats, as well as childhood memories of life on my grandparents’ farm in North Yorkshire I
was ripe, I guess, for one of the major ‘Romantic delusions’—i.e. that retreat to the country
(from community/civilisation) necessarily heals all wounds of the soul. I learnt, by bitter
experience, that it doesn’t. If you have ‘issues’, as generation Y puts it, they inevitably follow
you.
There is also a modernist existential sub-text to this impulse that certainly played into
my own fantasies of ‘escape’—after all Sartre and other existential writers suggested that the
self is only discovered, in all its complexity and authenticity, via withdrawal to some extent
from society. Solitude, however, could just as easily be found in impersonal urban crowds as
in the country. Baudelaire, in Paris Spleen, perhaps first captured the Modernist urge to
withdraw from the urban mass into a kind of heightened interiority:
Dissatisfied with everything, dissatisfied with myself, I long to redeem myself and to
restore my pride in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those whom I have
loved, souls of those whom I have sung, strengthen me, sustain me, keep me from the
vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes; and You, dear God! grant me grace
to produce a few beautiful verses to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men,
that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.3

The seven adults (plus my daughter, Lena) who bought a forty acre block on scrubland near
the small town of Wedderburn in northern Victoria—about 220 kilometres north of
Melbourne and 70 or so kilometres north-west of Bendigo—didn’t really have a well worked
out plan before arrival. We bought the land for 18,000 dollars on some dodgy five-year deal
and dutifully migrated north with virtually no idea as to how to make a living out of such
marginal ‘mallee’ country. Apart from four years as children occasionally visiting our
grandparents’ farm—with its deep, fertile Yorkshire soils and temperate weather
conditions—my brother and I had never actually lived in the country, certainly not in the
1

Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Chapt. 5 ‘Solitude’, p.90. Signet Classics, 1960.
Cassian (ed. Waddell, 1946, pp.229-231), De Institutis Coenobiorum (Foundations of Coenobitic Life). In this
text acedia figures as the sixth of the eight major temptations.
3
Baudelaire, 'One O'Clock in the Morning' in Paris Spleen (1970, pp.15-16).
2

Australian bush. We assumed of course as hybrid Brit/Kiwis that provided we had water
we’d be able to grow anything in the soil. The first hard lesson was that mallee top-soil is
often only two to three inches deep, thereafter one hits hard-baked clay and quartz. Many
other hard lessons followed.
We were a group of seven twenty-somethings with very few building and farming
skills who basically camped out (not unlike Thoreau) for two years in snake-infested mallee
country that had been mined since the nineteenth century for gold—first with picks and
shovels, later with bulldozers. In the summer the heat was unbearable—the temperature
regularly climbed over forty degrees—and in the winter the clear, cloudless skies meant we
received regular frosts. In some respects Wedderburn, and similar northern Victorian rural
towns, represent the very edge of Australia’s habitable interior—the land is arid, scrubby and
sensitive to drought.
Then there was the problem of no work. At first we didn’t mind this and we planned
eventually to grow all manner of crops for market. Meanwhile the dole, occasional farm work
(we picked tomatoes, for example, in the summer), and, eventually, shift-work in Bendigo,
kept us going financially as we sought to develop the ‘farm’! At one point my partner and I
were seriously looking at buying a small farm supplies business in the middle of
Wedderburn—it was selling for around 14,000 dollars with some stock on hand.
Apart from my brother, Andy, and his
partner, Christine, the other two ‘communards’
(James and Shayne) encountered similar workrelated issues and after the first summer we saw less
and less of them on the block. The idealism I’d
associated with Romantic notions of communal life
‘close to nature’ was gradually eroded by the harsh
realities of life in the Australian bush. I realised, for
example, that I was actually quite a social person—
not an urban person, but a person for whom
opportunities and varied experiences (especially
cultural experiences) were a must. Beautiful as life
could be relaxing at the top of a sparsely treed hill
observing the sun, the moon and the stars arc the
heavens at regular intervals, watching too, gigantic
wedge-tailed eagles riding the wind-currents 200
meters up as they searched for prey, there came a
point where I had to admit to Cassian’s
‘perturbation’ of soul. I eventually felt there were
other things I could be doing with my time besides
hiding away in the bush like some kind of wounded
animal. Cassian in his Collations (or Conversations) described the nuances of the hermetic
state with great precision—and here we need to remember that he and other monks were also
out in the near-desert as they fought the good fight versus the demon of noontide, otherwise
known as the sin/demon of Acedia/Tristitia:
We feel overwhelmed, crushed by dejection [tristitia] for which we can find no motif.
The very source of mystic experiences is dried up ... the train of thought becomes
lost, inconstant and bewildered ... We complain, we try to remind our spirit of its
original goals. But in vain. Sterility of the soul! And neither the longing for Heaven
nor the fear of Hell are capable of shaking our lethargy.4
4

Johanis Cassian, Collationes [or Conversations] (425AD) [IV, 2].

After a couple of years of navel gazing and child-rearing I realised I was feeling more and
more frustrated with the outward (as against the inward) direction of my life. Although I
loved the freedom of life on the block I found myself more and more bored and directionless
(particularly with reference to vocation) as the months went by—similarly my self-esteem,
always related to what I ‘do’ in the world, was in tatters—as a stay at home father I was
probably feeling the same kind of worthlessness many stay at home mothers encounter in our
society. Whilst my partner worked nightshift at a clothes factory in Bendigo I took care of
Lena and fretted about both my sense of dislocation from the workforce and my increasing
feelings of alienation within the relationship.
If there is such a thing as the ‘Demon of Noontide’
described by Cassian and other desert fathers I met
it on a glary January morning in 1989 with the
mercury soaring to 40 degrees celsius and the
afternoon heat still to come. Something—I was
about to find out—had made its home in the makeshift rubbish pit at the bottom of our block. We’d
situated it a long way from the house in amongst
old gold diggings and ominous looking seventy
foot iron-bark trees. Organic rubbish in hand, I
arrived at the pit and kneeled on one leg in
preparation for a routine drop-off. The pit was all
but full and thus probably in need of covering with
soil. As a consequence I tried to choose a spot that
still needed fill. As I leant over I immediately
registered a glint of something on the move to my
right, a split-second later I heard tin and plastic
collapse not a foot from the rubbish I was holding.
I froze in this precarious position whilst
attempting to adjust my eyes to the glare
emanating from the green waste in the pit. When my eyes had adjusted I straight away saw a
large black and red form slithering about in the rubbish—it was a seven-foot plus red-belly
black snake obviously unhappy about my presence. Frozen on one knee at the edge of the pit,
and fearful that in my terror I might overbalance and fall in, the snake and I eyeballed each
other uneasily for a good minute or two before the creature slithered a retreat to shadows and
hollows within the rubbish. This allowed me to withdraw slowly from the pit edge. I jogged
back up to the house uneasy and full of adrenalin.
In retrospect I probably came face to face with despised aspects of myself in that pit
(rather I projected despised aspects of myself onto the snake). Soon after this encounter I
realised I needed to re-enter the real world of work and responsibility.
Inevitably the ‘commune’ began to disintegrate and with it my attachment to Romantic
notions of ‘All Healing (an amiable) Mother Nature’ as well as any Romantic and
Existentialist notions of solitude as the precondition for self-knowledge. In truth we all had
better things to do with our lives. Andy and Christine were next to leave, soon after I returned
to university in Bendigo to study and a year later the relationship with Dalia, my partner of
six years, broke up. Miraculously, the block and the tiny house we’d lived in, was sold almost
as soon as we put it on the market in April 1991. Dalia and my daughter, Lena, were already
back in New Zealand and it was left to my friend James and I to settle the deal and clean-up

the block for the new owners—I still have the photos depicting our last day. They capture the
fact that the experience represented yet another defeat for me, another low point, another
failure. In retrospect I think I was perhaps re-enacting the loss of the family home in South
Australia back in 1976. My father had been injured at work and while the union battled for
compensation we’d been forced out of the family home into a flat for 18 months prior to our
leaving for New Zealand. I remember that period as the major low-point of my childhood.
By the time the ‘commune’ had failed I was into my second year of university studies
toward a B.A. Humanities and the course represented my one lifebuoy—all else was liquid,
nothing solid in sight. I knew unconsciously that if I let go of the course I’d go under. Luckily
the house sold or I wouldn’t have been able to study that year.
Although the experiment in self-sufficiency ended badly, there were
many amazing Thoreau-like moments between 1988 and 1991. I
learnt to play the guitar better, for example, and wrote many songs—
some with Andy and Christine. Admittedly most of what we
produced at that time was pretty crappy given our inadequate
musical skills but the point is that the immediate environment was
quite creative. Primal theory—I was still visiting Lionel Exell
occasionally in Bendigo (usually only when there was a crisis given
the cost and the distance)—influenced most of what I wrote at that
time and psychology doesn’t necessarily make for good art! I did
however manage to complete the draft of my first novel—a
Pynchonesque disaster that will never be published. I still remember
tapping away at an old typewriter I’d picked up in Bendigo at a second hand shop. I
remember writing during the summer, with the cricket playing on the ancient 12 volt black
and white television we owned—ironically many of the cricketers on screen were the people
I’d known or met as a nineteen year old keen on a future in the sport: Ken Rutherford, Steve
and Mark Waugh, Martin Crowe, Mark Greatbatch, Dipak Patel, Craig McDermott, Ian
Healy and so on. Lena would be wandering about, playing by herself, or sometimes with her
little friends Jared or Jessica. I often missed the freedom and timelessness I associated with
that Wedderburn block after I returned permanently to a more hectic life in Bendigo in March
1991. Interestingly, I never stopped writing fiction and composing music during those three
years.
The other good thing to happen during this period was that I became friends with John
Charalambous (probably the only other literary writer in the region) and his wife Evalyn—
they were the parents of the Jared mentioned in the last paragraph. I first met John at—of all
places—the Wedderburn pre-school group. Lena and Jared quickly became friends and
eventually Dalia and I went to dinner at their place. At that time they lived in a mud-brick
house on a twenty-acre block just off the Calder, south of Wedderburn. There were two large
dams on their block and the land itself was a wonderland of thriving trees, shrubs and
veggies—partly due to the irrigation methods they were using, and partly due to plant
selection. Evalyn was a primary school teacher and John had moved out of secondary
teaching into running a nursery at that point.
These days John is a nationally recognised novelist—his second book, Silent Parts,
has just been turned into a telemovie for national and international release in 2014. Back then
he was working away constantly at novel manuscripts and doing something I’d never
dreamed of—actually sending them out to publishers! To me, John and Ev were the cultural
hub of the town. Whilst the kids played in the gardens (occasionally dodging brown and
black snakes!) or in Jared’s room the adults would spend long, lazy hours drinking tea, eating
home-cooked food, singing songs (to badly tuned acoustic guitar) and discussing literature,

trees, fiction writing or anything else that interested us. Given I knew I had an immense
amount to learn about fiction writing I only actually read John some of my writing once in
those years—though I bombarded him and Ev frequently with my badly sung and badly
recorded original music.
I think sections of John’s first novel, Furies, were partly inspired by the disorienting
experience of watching my relationship with Dalia slide into chaos. I do not doubt that from
the outside it must have seemed very puzzling when we eventually split. The novel also
captures the essence of the Central Victorian landscape and climate beautifully as well as
providing readers with powerful insights into both the nature of life in small rural towns and
the challenges of baby-boomer notions of self-actualisation in the face of work and childrearing responsibilities. The novel is about much else besides and I recommend it to readers
of this book. John’s ‘Existential-Realism’ fitted well with my own world view and I’ve learnt
a great deal, over the years, from his professional commitment to writing. We also bonded
over cricket and even now, well past our respective sporting use by dates, we still like to have
a cricket net now and again in the summer.
When I returned to bush living (with Sue) in 1998 we deliberately chose a block of land that
allowed us to enjoy the peacefulness of natural living as well as the benefits of being within
fifteen minutes of Bendigo, a major regional centre. After a night or two in our ‘Thoreaulike’ log cabin back in 1998, enjoying the serenity of early mornings listening to native birds
singing in the large grey and yellow box gums that define the block, I wrote the poem ‘I Have
Rediscovered Darkness’. It’s about the aliveness of the bush at night. Many songs, poems,
stories, novel ideas and non-fiction essay or book ideas have followed.
I’ve come to believe that both a supportive creative network and daily experiences set
in the natural world are profoundly inspirational to writers and other artists. However, there is
something about the harshness of the Australian interior that resists what I call ‘pastoral
Romanticism’—basically transplanted European Romanticism. The Australian bush is
inspirational, I believe, precisely because it resists human attempts to tame/subjugate and
then Romanticise it once tamed. You have to work with the Australian bush to enjoy it—
something indigenous Australians understand implicitly. The ‘demon of noontide’, at least in
part, turned out to be the absence of a supportive creative community in Wedderburn (John
and Ev were really the only people I could relate to creatively).

Author Bio (as at May 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based
poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has
featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA),
The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence
(UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a
number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best
Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda:
‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three
books and co-editor of three journals and currently
teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as
the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and
social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on
creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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