Landscape and place in writing is as much a character as any protagonist. The landscape we reside in, and travel through, shapes us with the same inexorable force as wind and water sculpt the hills around us.
In writing we strive to recreate, in someone else’s mind, the place we are describing – a place the reader has more than likely never seen.
And so we write of the eerie ticking and clicking of the mangroves at low tide. The innumerable creatures there, the trees themselves, creating an audible backdrop to the area. The mysterious slide of something unseen over a mud bank, the far cry of plovers and the shussing lap of the ocean against the saturated shoreline.
Tentative on our human feet, the upward thrust of half sponge-half stick roots, the sharp shells, the sliding unsteady mud and the constant movement of the tide pulling our vision one way while our feet feel the opposite. Here we are clumsy and large, twisted branches reaching down to catch and grab. A physically unsettling landscape, wet and pungent with decay, shining us with a sheen of humid sweat.
Or think instead of wide prairie lands where seed heads ripen purple and blow in the constant wind like waves on a wild sea. The wind singing in tight strung fencelines, alluring and uncanny as any siren song. Above, a sky ripped here and there by high-lashed cloud heading somewhere else, as a hawk hovers motionless on a thermal current. The constant wind on our face, air so dry it hurts to smile, to speak even, and the smell of ancient dust rising from your bootheels.
Stalks of grass, tall as your thigh, brush through your fingers, whispering all the while. In the distance, as far as your eye travels, is more and more of the same. And you are tiny here in this place, surefooted as a goat.
On a wet street in a foreign city, the swish of tyres and the soft glow from storefronts reflected in puddles. A dribble of water along the gutter and the gurgle of a stormwater drain. People walk by, heads down, huddled under umbrellas or holding coat collars against their throats. Under the scant protection of a dress shop awning the cold tugs at your ankles still you are held there by the increasing ferocity of the rain and the hypnotic cadence of a conversation drifting from the interior in a language not your own.
Finally, a dash is made for the hotel, two blocks away down a side street and you navigate the stiff wrought iron gates, the small curved stairs, the door which opens inward rather than out. Inside is all warmth, a promise of hot soup coming from the petite dining area. There, you take a seat by the window and hook back the heavy curtains, wondering at your solitude and the comfort you have unexpectedly found there. Outside, a woman rides a bicycle through the wet street, a spray of mist flying up from the back wheel. She wears a powder blue coat which has folded back against itself and flashes a grey satin lining. Even drenched, she is smiling.
It is too easy, given the complicated nature of human beings, to become tangled in the depiction of character in writing. Sometimes it is better to let them do their own thing and concentrate instead on where they are doing it and how that might affect mood and action. In Robert Macfarlanes’ beautiful work Landmarks, he explains how ‘language is used not only to navigate but also to charm the land. Words act as a compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.’ In writing the landscape, we find ourselves.
Leslie Thiele is a writer based in the south west of Western Australia. Her short fiction centres around her characters reactions to the world they live in and social change. A keen student of human nature in all its manifestations, Leslie drops people into imagined situations and environments and waits to see what they will do. Recently completing her Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and literature at Edith Cowan University’s regional campus in Bunbury has further refined her writing and led to her gaining recognition for pieces of her work in various competitions, events and spoken performances. Skyglow is her debut collection of short stories.