The first whoosh of spring
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The first whoosh of spring

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions. Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the cafe, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.

An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting. They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were - our country was - under attack, we were being invaded.

<i>Illustration: Jim Pavlidis</i>

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Except we weren't. My imagination was simply getting carried away with itself. Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but - thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars - there were no explosions. It was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn't know. But those young military men and women, they were real enough, they are real enough, because I'm currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy. No, it's not the most bizarre holiday you've ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy. It's just that, courtesy of the University of NSW, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I'd even visit, let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some - many, most - may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn't always entirely obvious (or true).

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Spring. The season of growth between winter and autumn, it is like last week's fly-past, a celebration, a reward, for getting through three long, slow, deliciously - deliriously - miserable months of winter. But it's also a pause, a refuge, a salubrious sanctuary before the dreadful onslaught of summer, which really does seem to be getting earlier and earlier. Summer: what a bastard it is; all the bushfires and blowflies and sunburn and sleepless nights. How would we be without the respite of September, October, and November? These three glorious months. They're about sap beginning to shift again. About soil squirming itself back into life. About chooks returning to the lay - is there anything that says spring better than the first warm backyard egg in your hands?

This season is about jumpers being washed and forgotten, about doonas being put away (one of them at least), about soups going off the menu and salads coming onto the menu, about showers no longer needing to be so skin-pinkingly hot. It's about finally recycling the empty port bottles and lashing out on a half-decent vodka, though what the Russians know about spring is anyone's guess. Spring for us here in Australia is about sleeves rolled up and the first hint of a tan, which we all know is bad but we admire it anyway.

It's about the bead of sweat that trickles down your chest as you dig in this year's tomato plants. It's about a garden that no longer looks like death warmed up, even though that's exactly what it is.

Spring, however, is about more than this, much more. Because it's about hope; that is its raison d'etre. Trust, confidence, revival. Faith, assurance, buoyancy. Optimism. Oh optimism, which you'd think is an anathema to someone like me, a life-member of Melancholics Anonymous, but it's exactly what I need. Because it's exactly what we all need. Hope. That life gets better. That our worst fear won't be realised. That we can achieve what we've set our hearts on. I like what the US playwright Jean Kerr says about all this: "Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn't permanent". The poet Ogden Nash said something similar in "Goodbye, Old Year, You Oaf or Why Don't They Pay the Bonus?" (1935): "Man is a victim of dope/in the incurable form of hope".

Somehow, though, this seems just a little trite or supercilious, or just plain cute, when I consider why it is that we need a place called the Australian Defence Force Academy. If we agree that nations have the right - moral, political, even ethical - to defend themselves, then a unilateral ambition should be that those who are going to do that defending, whose fingers are on the triggers, are as informed and thoughtful as possible, perhaps even erudite. And that's mostly what I, a professional day-dreamer, see as I wander about the well-kept campus: good young men and women who do appear to be bound together by some things that are pretty well lost to me: a willingness to protect, and an unshakeable patriotism, and a belief that our way is definitely the better way, the best.

So. This is my spring.

And this is my hope. That planes won't scream across our skies - or anyone else's skies - in anger, that bombs won't explode, that young men and women won't have to scramble to sirens. That we don't have to invade or protect. It's an ideal, isn't it, but surely, if anything, that's what this season is all about: dreaming up the idyllic, the supreme, the superlative. And it's all quite useless, because the messiness of life - and the salvo of summer - is always there, just around the corner.

But now, right now, this very moment, is our chance to simply enjoy something as innocuous as better weather, as fuller gardens, and revel in the fact that there is nothing more brilliant than a hen's egg in the palm of your hand.

  • Nigel Featherstone is the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the UNSW Canberra/ADFA. His most recent work is the novella I'm Ready Now.

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