I smelled the early September pink jasmine this morning, on the short walk between my home and the place I work. The sweet scent on the wind was strong enough to pull me from the edge of whatever social media vortex I was teetering on, neck bent, phone in hand. I stopped and stood still for a moment, slowed my breath, and I swear I felt the rush of freshly oxygenated blood. When I pause like this, remembering my body, I find myself involuntarily bringing my hand to my throat.
Springtime in Sydney feels more like a slow easing into summer than a season of its own. If it were a colour, it would be a blurred and deepening haze, somewhere between yellow and orange. The air slowly starts to thicken, and with the frizzier hair and the patch of shine expanding across my forehead, I start to remember that to be alive is such a deep and palpable pleasure. These months of emergence – after the dry, gnarled skin and sapped energy of winter; before the height of summer bears down with its oppressive heat and high winds – are a window on nature’s eroticism.
In Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (Picador, 2018), in which the author interrogates her obsessive need to record her life in diary form, she writes: ‘to the laws of supply and demand the real world is immune’. She is writing about observing minute changes in her infant son as he grows. That these small changes are so normal, so expected, and mostly out of her control, renders them colossal in Manguso’s vision. She describes seeing a rainbow every day on the Hawaiian island where her husband grew up. ‘Rainbows are so common there, they print them on the drivers’ licenses,’ she writes. ‘They are no less amazing for their prevalence. Ditto birds, trees, stars, clouds, children, and so on.’
Imagine spring, or any season, really, working to ‘supply and demand’. The natural world does not care what we might tire of. It is for this very reason I work so hard to pay close attention to the growth around me. Until very recently, the natural world has behaved of its own accord, without human intervention. Now we find ourselves living in a period of human history where the mining and burning of fossil fuels has irrevocably altered the climate.
The air slowly starts to thicken, and I start to remember that to be alive is such a deep and palpable pleasure.
For Manguso, the daily upkeep of a diary was an attempt to retain some degree of control over the very time in which she existed. But just as the natural world is immune to laws of supply and demand, our very existence is immune to that desire for control. Our life does not depend on documentation, but it makes sense that when confronted with how brief our personal time is, we work hard at it. Like Manguso, I derive so much meaning from keeping a record of my life. I have never kept a daily diary, though, and am envious of writers with the ability or discipline to do so. My record-keeping is more haphazard – snapping the afternoon sky on Instagram; revisiting archived text message history; writing that seems to come all at once, between months of empty, circular thought. What I do share with Manguso is a fear of forgetting the small details that make up a life, even as she writes, ‘the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time’.
In writing Ongoingness, Manguso was attempting to consider time outside of herself, which requires first a fundamental understanding of herself as existing within time. She does this by observing the shift in the way she records time. For twenty-five years, she kept a meticulous record of each day. The diary was insurance against forgetting anything important but the problem is such an exercise can render everything important. How does one decide what to keep and what to discard? Rereading decades-old entries, Manguso finds events she’d previously ascribed significance to that she can now barely recall. The biggest influence on her all-consuming diary habit is the birth of her son (tellingly, the book’s subtitle is The End of a Diary). The arrival of new life modifies Manguso’s position within time, while also lessening her obsessive need to beat time by recording it. There is new life in the world, as there always has been. Life’s ongoingness becomes a comfort, a surety. Ongoingness charts how one personal experience of time changes with the event of birth.
Imagery of spring in the popular conscience has always revolved around birth, newness, infancy. The association of spring with fecundity is indelible; themes of birth are built into the very language we have for the season. We plant seeds, encourage and monitor growth. We take root. The eroticism of spring, though, runs deeper than a desire to procreate. I experience it more as a desire to stretch, to touch, to open up. To become present in my body in a way that the natural world can amplify and mimic at the same time. In spring, the whole world becomes erotic – we blush, we bulge, we stretch and strain. I’m thinking of an eroticism beyond the purely sexual – it’s an eroticism rooted in a sense of heightened awareness. Picture the separating of lips, the halted breath, the post-sneeze gasp of a pollen explosion.
Plants mirror the human body – think of the arteries and veins running through a leaf – and there is a long history of plants as erotic imagery. Think of the phallic anthurium, of labia-like orchids. It’s worth noting that (as is so often the case with images of what society deems feminine) men have sought to control this narrative, too. The flowers of the clitoria ternatea, commonly known as the blue pea or butterfly pea, were named for their resemblance to the human clitoris by the Polish botanist Johann Phillipp Breyne in 1747. For decades after, (male) botanists objected to the name on grounds of vulgarity. The name, like the plant, has survived. The body is everywhere to be found in nature.
In spring, the whole world becomes erotic – we blush, we bulge, we stretch and strain, an eroticism rooted in a sense of heightened awareness.
In 2016, the Tate Modern hosted a retrospective of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers, inviting the public to challenge assumptions – assumptions put forward by male artists and critics, including O’Keeffe’s own husband – that her works were euphemistic of genitalia. O’Keeffe herself denied the association. To her, the paintings were an exercise in seeing. By magnifying the flowers so that they become almost abstract, O’Keeffe insists on slow and considered attention from the viewer. To my mind, the resemblance to anatomy is irrelevant – it is the insistence on slowing the body, on letting time pass while one simply looks, that is truly erotic.
Along with the new pink jasmine, I’ve noticed, too, the gradual turning out of bright orange clivias. There is a house a few doors down from mine with nothing but clivias planted all the way from their front door to the edge of the street. I often wonder who lives there, and whether they are the ones who decided on that plant. For so much of the year, their four or five steps from front door to gate are through nothing but a deep and dark waxy green. And then, for a few weeks – maybe around two months, I suppose, if the weather is right – their yard is alive with orange. The clivias are like trumpets flush with blood. They feel perfect for this erotic vision of spring: opening, unpeeling, ripening. This season always feels orange to me.
The real colour of the last cold days of winter, hinting at spring’s coming, is the pink magnolia. The dark and vivid pink is so pleasing against the grey wood. It’s almost too lazy a symbol for growth – the bursting of colour through the grey – but the sense of new life in those small buds is near tangible. The way the magnolias open themselves up always remind me of that Neruda line: I want / to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees. Who wouldn’t want to make someone rise and open like that? Magnolias are sensual like this. They are hands and they are lips at the same time. I think clivias are mouths, too, and I think they are necks. Clivias are the hollow of a collarbone. And it is around the neck that I feel spring the most – exposed to the air again, getting a little more practice at moving the jaw upwards, the face up to the sun, or tilting the head to the side to wipe away the beginnings of humidity’s damp clinging. When my hand rises to my own throat, it’s like the pink jasmine, inching its way along the surface, clinging, holding.
Magnolias are hands and they are lips at the same time. Clivias are mouths, too, and they are necks, the hollow of a collarbone.
I recently sat in a bookstore and listened to an author speak about their recent fiction, which was heavily influenced by climate change. The author’s response to a question of why they write about climate was that they couldn’t imagine writing about anything else. They didn’t know what kind of planet their school-age children were going to inherit. I listened, with quickening breath, and felt a familiar heat inside me. It’s the same heat I felt in 2017 when (how could I have known this would become a regular occurrence? ) Donald Trump first threatened nuclear war via Twitter. My flesh’s response to existential threat is to throb, to remind me of my mortality, which feels so intrinsic to my sexuality that at times it is difficult for me to separate the two. When everything feels so final, there’s little else to do.
I wonder how Manguso might conceive of ongoing time with the existential threat of climate doom hovering overhead. Life may be a force indifferent to time, but it is not – and this we know for sure – indifferent to nature. Industry, and the governments propped up by it, have for most of recent history worked hard to usurp nature. I find it difficult to stop in the street and inhale that first jasmine without feeling a creeping sense of finality.
Living with knowledge of the Anthropocene makes conceiving of time as ongoing both urgent and near impossible. Is it really true that I am living through the planet’s final hot flushes? When I ask myself how many more springs I might get, what I’m really doing is reminding myself to let the fervid bloom be felt while I still have the chance. It begins with returning to the body, though the real work of paying attention must go further, beyond the self, and this is what Manguso’s reflections remind me. It is the small moments – of attention, of unfolding, of breathing in – that make up a life.