Returning to the River

I’ve just come back from camping and I’m drying out tents. Huge cubist polyester birds in hues of green, stretched by rope hanging over our back courtyard between a row of pencil pines and the fence. Defeated by the alpine rain and now drying, so as to be packed away. Soon the array of camping gear around the house will also be filed away to distant corners and hiding places. The underside of our bed will become an impenetrable block of chairs, tents and camping mattresses, not to be emptied and dusted until the next time we need the ‘gear’. This is camping for the inner-city dweller.
I went back to the river. Not any river; the King River in North East, Victoria. This river supplies and feeds the King Valley, its agriculture and my home town. A thriving tobacco industry existed back then, our Italian families had settled in the area and contributed to the major part of that local industry. As children and teenagers we spent long hours in the river’s not quite tamed waters. In swimming holes where ‘snags’ or fallen logs and other uncertain things hid, where occasionally we could even see a snake swimming.
All along the valley, the river’s flood plains were seasonally under threat from floods. The King River flows into the Ovens and it is there that my home town of Wangaratta lay under regular threat of flooding until a levy bank was built around it’s perimeter. I remember seeing a VW Beetle that had been swept off the flooded, washed out road near the town of Cheshunt, ending up three hundred metres downstream, wedged in a River Red Gum. Apparently its driver had to sit there above the flood waters and wait to be rescued.
I also remember the men of the town leaving work to help sand bag houses that lay close to the flooding One Mile creek. My father, old Bill and I in a row boat as we rowed through the flood waters at the garage where dad had come to work after he had to leave the family farm as a young man. We rowed through to collect the tools off the back of a truck dad had been working on. Old Bill who wasn’t so old back then, rowing. Bill, wirey in stature, toughened by growing up in the the Great Depression, a carpenter who would never buy a new piece of timber, when another could be recycled.
I came to Melbourne and the other world cities I have lived in because I needed them. I needed their knowledge. I needed to know that what I had within me would not be lost and could be connected with the great artistic narratives of the world. Or maybe I came because Greg who was with me when I was painting in Dad’s garage, told me he could not see me staying in Wangaratta. Greg who would scramble to hide my Beastie Boys tape (which he quietly hated) in my Valiant before I could find and play it loud as we drove down to the local swimming hole.
I returned to the river. We have found a place with a beautiful swimming hole not far from from Lake William Hovell, an imposing man-made lake that sits in the hills at the base of the Alpine region. We swim, we eat; we try to avoid the rain, but inevitably get rained on. I go to rest and to be with my family. Actually, I spend most of my time working, setting up camp and cleaning, but it is all done in the context of these magnificent mountains and I seem to soak up the essence of them like I soak up the water.
In the past I have often gone to actively look for inspiration for my work, sketching and collecting, but not this time. After a busy year and with my head full of such stuff as art school budgets, course plans and even the pressure that I place within myself to produce something out of my painting days I have in my own studio, I allowed myself not to feel I had to produce anything. I needed to let go.
Upon arriving I soon realised I was operating as camp manager and parent, always slightly anxious and always looking, checking and cross checking for logistics and possible dangers. Very far from my artist mind and any notion of creativity. I wanted to feel something deeper and thankfully as time went by I found that the environment began to seduce me with its complexity and strange, stark beauty. My sight or the way I saw things began to change. Beauty, or what I call beauty, filtered into my consciousness. I was awed by the erosion of the river into the bank and the smooth river stones imbedded in an overhang which formed part of a layer that was intertwined with tree roots from a tree that perhaps one day will just lean over and fall into the river.  While swimming I could look up at this fusion of elements and species, seemingly random yet so intricately magnificent. A little slice of the complexity of the universe laying at edge of the river with moss, little ferns, the alien blackberry bushes and countless plants and bushes sitting on a loose arrangement of precariously undercut river stones, roots and earth.
I began to reflect on the King River as a source. It’s river stone beds and shallow streams, sometimes bubbling around arrangements of boulders, sometimes disappearing into deep, dark, still waters, which had never been beautiful to me when growing up and I had never thought of its significance in our lives beyond its supply of water. The river as a source which had branded a primordial sense of dependancy and intimacy within me over my half life time. The river that constantly flowed, had always flowed, will always flow. The river that bound us around itself and preserved us. I slowly connected to the idea of source and slowly felt that my own dependancy on this source was being revealed. That I had felt a need for years now, to constantly return to this source. I began to connect with the notion of origin and that just as I sat on the banks of this river or swam or drank from it, all I could ever do was draw close to it, to be within in, return to it. I had to return to this river. I have always returned to the King River.
In the city, as I studied art, I was taught to question the idea of source or origin. So I went looking for another way to understand what we were and how in encountering each other we could understand ourselves. I found the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas who had settled upon building an understanding of ethics based upon encounters between people. Meaning and ethics are derived from encounters and the values highlighted by those encounters.  So, that is often how I live, understanding myself through encounters with others, in the negotiation between myself and others. Returning to the idea of source is for me, to step back to absolute origins where meaning is not negotiated, it already exists.  Call it Logos, God or call it the creative universe, which ever way, meaning and values begin to reveal itself in the text of the mountains and the water. The complexity of this universe is not negotiated when I immerse myself in it, rather it is read, as the veil of everyday life falls away. Meaning and values are observed or perhaps experienced through the magnificence of what one is looking at. Celtic spirituality speaks of certain places where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. For me the veil at the King River is thin, falling away easily to reveal a deeper sense of self, with a stronger current of creativity at its origins.
If the town in which I grew up in is culture, mixing and clashing, negotiating meaning within encounters and reimagining; if Wangaratta is everyday life with all its distractions and tensions, then it sits, unbeknown to itself as a beneficiary of the river that gives it life, a beneficiary from a source that is far more magnificent in scope and complexity than the physical town itself, and yet mostly unrecognised or unnoticed until the floods come.
Awakened by the river and its surrounds, I began to use Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, whereby you write three uncensored pages every morning, first thing. This is a fantastic un-blocker for creatives and I am once again blown away by how effective it is. What a thin veil exists between our everyday selves and the inner creative self that links back into our own creative origins. I found myself further able to imagine and see.
Today would have been the third day I used Julia Cameron’s exercises. I woke up, took my journal, a few books and a pen and I went outside to begin my Morning Pages. I sat in a chair beneath my drying tents. I sat and stared at the magnificence of the forms, the tension in the fabric, deep caverns and the ropes. With other equipment scattered and visually intertwined amongst the forms, I was overcome with new ideas and inspirations. I did not feel that I was producing anything or offering anything for negotiation. I simply had seen something and the implications of that something lept onto my mind from its source. I felt like I was receiving a present as child. I had received.
I drew. I imagined a new work.  How thin the veil between ourselves and our creative origins.
Written by Marco Corsini