Australia is famous for many things. One of which is the largest living organism in the world—The Great Barrier Reef—that sprawls across a large part of eastern Australia. And then there’s Ayers Rock or UluruAyers Rock in the north, Port Arthur way down in Tasmania, the Opera House, the Old Melbourne Gaol, and countless other convict houses that framed the history of this great country that remains a wondrous mystery to the rest of the world.

There’re so many cultural and monumental buildings and memories in this country that global history texts celebrate. And yet, there’re also so many iconic elements that go entirely unnoticed—even by Australians themselves. People talk more about the gorgeous wine regions* than about the more noteworthy things they ought to talk about. 

Here’s an example.

I was chatting with some friends, who come from various parts of the country and have travelled and lived much around the world, and I learnt that the world’s oldest living thing is right here in Australia, an unknown fact to most people.

It’s not the Reef. That’s the largest. 

The oldest is a natural phenomenon called stromatolite or stromatolith. My enthusiasm for geology makes up for my beyond pathetic knowledge of the science. Stromatolites are rock formations. They’re layers of sheet-like sediments of silt, limestone, and a single-celled microbe called cyanobacteria. The word’s root comes from Greek and translates to “stratum” or more loosely to “stony cushion.” 

Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia - Photo source: Wikipedia
Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Stromatolites are common and occur in many places. However, in Western Australia’s North Pole (apparently, WA has a North Pole of its own. Who knew?), you’ll find stromatolites as old as 3.5 billion years. They’re officially the oldest in the record.

The most extensive collection of stromatolites is in a Hamlin Pool in Shark Bay, also in Western Australia. These are about 4500 years old. And you can just as easily walk up to them as you would to a tree in your back garden.

We seldom appreciate the greatness within our reach. As in a game of hide and seek, we seek the special all around us, sometimes even going far off in the wrong direction, only to have equally uninformed guides misguiding us under the false impression of finding the right spot. And we think we’ve found it too—until we see it for real, and realise, that it’s been sitting in silence right under our noses.

*Don’t get me wrong—Australia is home to some of the world’s best wine regions. And it’s critical to showcase them too. I only call for a more balanced distribution of paparazzi.

Photo source: Wikipedia. By Paul Harrison.

The wait

I don’t believe in co-incidences. But I also don’t run away from them. Unable to write much today, I jumped from one tab to another on my browser trying to locate an idea that’d spark and open up my well of thoughts. It almost never works—I often read random things for hours before giving up on finding inspiration. I end up rambling or publishing a quick haiku.

Today, however, as I read through last week’s newsletter from the ACT writers centre (while this week’s newsletter lay open on the next tab), I stopped at this quote.

Waiting for inspiration to write is like standing at the airport waiting for a train - Leigh Michaels

I’ve heard it, or something like it, a hundred times before. It’s the standard advice any writer offers a wannabe. I’ve said it plenty of times too, to myself and to others. 

Waiting for a lightening bolt of inspiration to hit you is like taking the bus south and hoping it goes north. I know because I’ve done them both. Waiting is an excuse not to write. It’s a way to get around the larger fear that encapsulates your being, the uncertain possibility of an outcome you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. And I think that’s how writer’s block comes about. It’s a reason to avoid seating yourself on that chair and getting work done. That’s what happened to me.

This afternoon, I arrived at my local co-op ready to write. It’s a great co-working space—they sell bulk foods, snacks, and have free artisan (sourdough!) bread. The best part? It’s almost empty after lunch.

And so I propped my laptop on an empty desk, wandered around the shop, bought some onion and sesame seeds, got coffee, nibbled on some bread, read through notes from a panel discussion I attended two days ago, and got distracted at least ten times before the newsletter came as a slap in the face.

The only reason I kept avoiding the blank screen is because I wasn’t sure what to write. And yet, the moment I started, I knew what I’d write. That’s the biggest hurdle most people never cross—they linger at the beginning for too long, and give up just before they discover that a world’s waiting to unravel underneath their fingers.

If you’re interested: Read the full newsletter.

Of making art

“Do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

Kurt Vonnegut

I stumbled on this quote when I was least expecting to. But it made me stop and lean back in my cold, stone chair. It made me look out into the void, thinking, mind wandering, wondering about the undeniable necessity of art.

Remember when art was hobby? Singing, dancing, writing, painting, crafting—all of those were categorised as activities to do during your leisure. Stuff you do to de-stress, to clear the mind after a long day of work. That’s the mentality I grew up around. My family and teachers looked at art and creativity as an add-on to normal life—not life itself.

Kurt challenges that ideology. Creative thinking shouldn’t be allocated or limited to a specific time. Instead of looking at art as an activity for an appropriate time and place, we should think of it as part of our everyday lives.

Art is everywhere. From a puddle in the street and the graffiti on the toilet walls to an activist’s speech and signs on a protest. Everyone has it within them. And we should consciously choose to bring it forth and declare it as part of our personality—our identity.

Except, we don’t.

Think about it: what would people say if you skip home from school one evening? When and where I grew up, people would label me as crazy, undisciplined, and out of control. They’d blame my parents. A child dancing on the street is unruly.

In reality, though, it’s self-expression. Children will be children. And they shouldn’t be penalised for it. Our society has become so adept in suppressing the artistic and creative outlets of our younger generation that we’ve ended up with a group of people who’re too busy to have time for art in their lives. And thus, art is now luxury.

As Australia burns…

“We think most of the animals were incinerated – it’s like a cremation, […] They have been burnt to ashes in the trees.”

Sue Ashton, President, Koala Conservation Australia.

That line jumped out at me as I scrolled through today’s news. For a while now, most of New South Wales, Australia, has been burning. As of early morning today, a million hectares of land has burnt down, a number greater than the previous three years of bushfires combined. And it’s only spring. Bushfire season is only beginning in this part of the world, and even before its proper entrance, greedy fires are lapping their way into people’s homes and lives.

Yet, somehow as I read multiple articles mentioning three deaths and over a 150 destroyed homes so far, it didn’t hit me as hard as the incinerated koala bears. Though I haven’t lived through many global disasters, I have seen and heard of enough violence and terrorism to develop a mild numbness to human deaths. To me, it always felt like one group of humankind is always paying for the mindless blunders of another. 

This time, however, it wasn’t just the humans. This time, for the first time in a long time, vulnerable nature is suffering from its own wrath. That article put it well too. The precise choice of words got me unawares, gripping my throat, crushing, pulling the air out of it in such a slow motion that I wished it would hurry up and get it over with. The casualness of that word threw me off balance. It made me breathe in so sharply that my eyes teared up from the pressure and the pain that shot all the way through my body. 

Words are powerful. Saying that over 300 harmless, helpless, animals were crisped while they clung to their homes, paints a picture so vivid that readers would relive the moment again and again. It was strong, writing. As a writer of things myself, I admire the gallantry of whoever wrote that speech.

As a reader, listener, it triggered me. It’s made me abhor the world we live in. Although my mind accepts the direness that’s become the new normal in the state, my heart still clenches to think that at this rate, koala bears could be extinct in 30 years. 

It’s scary to imagine a species that I’ve admired, photographed, and smiled at, would die out right in front of my eyes, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The state government has declared emergency for the first time since 2013. According to meteorological forecasts, tomorrow (Tuesday) will cause more damage than we’ve seen so far. Greater Sydney, NSW, and parts of Queensland are expecting extreme bushfires—in addition to the 60 that’re still uncontained. Over 500 schools will be closed. Millions are evacuating to safer areas. High temperatures, low humidity, ghastly winds, and catastrophe await the state as it spends another sleepless night.

And someone said the climate’s fine.

The thing about routine

November is National Novel Writing Month. That means, aspiring novelists, and even established ones, spend an entire month feverishly writing a full-length novel of at least 50000 words. NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) is also a non-profit organisation that mentors participants, keeps them motivated with pep talks, and organises group meet-ups across the world for people to write together and make the most out their time this month.

November is also National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). For the less motivated and less ambitious than the NaNoWriMo participants, this month is all about posting at least one blog post a day. 

About five years ago, I tried NaNoWriMo and finished writing my first full-length novel. I was thrilled. Over the moon, to put it in figurative terms. The following year, I took up NaBloPoMo. And to my utter surprise, I managed to succeed in that as well.

Since then, though, I haven’t officially participated in NaBloPoMo or NaNoWriMo. I did challenge myself to finish a shorter novel (of 30000 words) during Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and I did. However, I have lost interest in joining others as they declared their big goals for November, of writing at least a little everyday so they can meet their goal. I have my goals too, but I no longer feel the need to broadcast them. And the reason for that, I think, is that ever since I did the one blog post a day challenge, I’ve been posting at least once a day. For over two years now, I’ve had a blog post go live every day at the same time. To do this, I’ve had to often force myself to write something every day. Some days it flowed easily, but some days it didn’t. Some days, while travelling in particular, I’d schedule a bunch of haikus to go live even if I couldn’t publish them myself.

Therefore, for the last three or four years, I’ve written and published every day. Some days I don’t do too well, but some other days, I impress even myself.

During this practice, I’ve learnt that writing something, anything, every day is a great way to keep the brain muscles oiled and nourished. I’ve now developed a certain itching in my mind whenever I don’t write. It’s become part of my routine to sit down for a while every afternoon, regardless of how busy I am, and write a few words about whatever strikes my fancy. 

You never know what such habits will lead you to. For me, it got me hooked into the art of telling a story in 14 syllables. I started writing a lot of haikus. I found stories in people I observed and translated them into short stories and 100-word flash fiction pieces. After all this time, these random pieces of work have become my life. Now, I’m making conscious efforts to submit my work to online magazines. It’s been a great journey so far, and I can only see it improving.

Routine life can be tiresome, yes. But sometimes, it can also be rewarding.