30/04/14 | News
Loss of innocence
I’ve had a strange month. Sometimes it seems that life arrives at you in disconnected waves, which you ride, one after another, with no awareness of the waves following behind.
A month ago I was enjoying spring on the Côte d’Azur (not pictured above). Everywhere, roses and wisteria and fruit trees were blooming, and a frantic and systematic pruning of every form of plant life seemed to be underway. Footpaths and walkways were thick with the clippings of the standard oranges that lined them and the air was thick with the scent of their blossom; olive trees were being thinned out and shaped. The aim, I remember reading somewhere, sometime, is to create a framework that birds can fly through. By the time a tree had been pruned, sizable birds, whole flocks of vultures probably, could have flown through their branches. At first I winced at the sight, but I came to love the laciness created, the ways plants could be organized to enhance vertical space, architecture, the notions of procession and enclosure and social discourse, even life itself. The effect, after a while, was of order, tranquility, civility. It all seemed, much like the French themselves, incredibly stylish.
Back in Melbourne, on a sunny day last week, I began to prune an ornamental pear tree in our garden in the French manner. I had a bush saw, loppers and secateurs which I hung from convenient twigs, and I set to with abandon, working my way up through the tree, branch by branch until the ladder wasn’t tall enough, at which point I stepped neatly into the tree and continued, keeping in mind images of well organized and shapely olive trees that knew who was the boss. My tree lolled about like the recalcitrant teenager at the back of the classroom. No matter. I climbed higher, supremely confident of my head for heights, and the security of my purchase and footing.
And then, without warning or even the slightest sense of unease, I began to tip backwards, away from the branch I was lopping. And my movement through the tree continued, with me bashing into and scraping across the edge of the shed roof and continuing quite slowly through more branches, then open air, and more air as time slowed. I hit the ground sitting, and right up until that point it wasn’t too bad (though not desirable, obviously). I have no memory of seeing anything on the way down so that for the first time I understand why, in footage of people falling, they don’t just reach out and grab onto that convenient hand hold that they’re falling past. In that moment you, they, the falling object, is moving in a different plane, almost a different world. You are racing through invisible stillness, and the stillness and the movement do not connect in ways that end well.
I knew instantly that something bad had happened, something beyond winding, and lay back on the prunings, groaning. Children, dogs, partner, an ambulance crew arrived in due course and in a very short space of time I was being moved with the greatest care, as if were a fantastically fragile log, from one flat surface to another into the great white drum of a CT scanner. I’d broken a vertebra. The pain was considerable, but I was grateful to be experiencing it.
I’ve heard so many horror stories in the last week, of people falling from trees and ladders, sometimes from ridiculously low points, who are now paraplegics or worse. I don’t deserve the outcome I had, to be able to wiggle my toes and go and stand under the tree and look up again through the branches that I looked through while waiting for help. There is no reason to it all.
I was surprised by the lack of judgement from the ambulance guys and from nurses. One said only, ‘We do take risks; we push ourselves; that’s just what people do’. It’s true.
Gravity and fragility: I can’t get them out of my mind. I can’t stop feeling them. Awareness of gravity, a physical sensation, rolled through me in waves for days afterwards. I suppose it could have been a disturbance of my inner ear, but I wasn’t dizzy. For a while I wondered if the feeling was a setting on the hospital bed designed to relieve pressure points or stimulate blood flow, and got my partner to rest his hand on the bed to see if he could feel it; but it was undetectable to him. It was as if my body knew that its proper place was beneath the ground, that its drive was in that direction, and that it had been thwarted in that aim.
On the third day, when I was allowed to sit up and lower my legs over the bedside, the effort was monumental, as if I now knew my true weight, which was gravity10, and my previous carefree movements through the world had been just a matter of, well, mind over matter.
And as for fragility, people’s actions, even the actions of people in books or films, perturb me. I feel the landing of a jump, the sight or the thought of a fall, or the tug of a dog on a lead, in my spine and I wonder if and when it will wear off. I’ve lost my innocence, my sense of invulnerability, and I miss it. I’m afraid it will too, because then vigilance might let up, and I might be carefree again, and then anything could happen. The waves are connected; if only I could forget that.