When one is part of a picture, then one can often not see the picture. In the eastern part of Tasmania, in Freycinet National Park, there is a famous bay which, when viewed from an airplane, looks shaped like a kidney or a Parisian (common) mushroom. Yet, it has the much nicer name Wineglass Bay – probably because of the fact that wine grapes are cultivated in the area.
En route to the bay, I climb up to a viewing point from where I can see far out over the bay. From this point there is a path shaded by small eucalyptus trees and dry bushes that leads up to the northern end of the long, sandy beach fringing the wine glass like champagne bubbles. Here, the waves lash the sand with great force, ejecting their water tongues at top speed in the direction of the land and turning into foam, and then they change direction with a fine swirl before being swallowed up in a soft gulp by the fresh water mass that’s just arrived. The foam creates moist shadows on the beach that are erased within seconds, only to be immediately created again but in a slightly different form.
I walk southwards along the shadow – the further I come, the smaller the waves become, until eventually they just splash softly against the shore. The other end of the bay lies in the slip-stream of a small ledge. Here, there are gulls scattered along the edge of the breakers, the shadows of the stately trees bathe in the thin discs of water that criss-cross the flat beach. I sit on a stone and stick my feet out such that the sea can reach them at once – the water’s cold. In the bushes behind me a bird croaks in dissatisfaction, it sounds as if it’s whining in a commanding tone «Mami». Another creature squeezes out a «Please» – perhaps it’s also an «E.T.».
In time I realise that I’ve been drawn into the territory of a specific gull that chases away all other gulls with a guttural squawk and wide-open beak. I seem not to disturb the bird; perhaps it does not really know how to crack down on me. The creature has red legs, a red beak, and plumage into which the wind blows light grey and whitish tones while ruffling the feathers against each other. It swoops up and down before my feet – at a safe distance. Now and then it pokes its beak into the carpets of tiny mussels clinging to the rocks in the tidal zone. It does that not with concentration but with nonchalance – as if it wishes to show me that this is its feeding trough: «Here I can crunch and munch as much as I wish to – even if I’m not really hungry.»
My fascination with the gull and its territorial behaviour notwithstanding, I am really more concerned about the fact that I do not see or sense anything of the «Wine Glass» from which the bay gets its name – though I’m sitting where the lips would touch the rim of the glass. Of course, that’s naïve: what do I expect – that the sea here will smell of Riesling? What irritates me has more to do with a kind of deprivation of the power of language as an instrument to create order, which I believe I perceive here: before I embarked at this bay, its name had held a mystic sound full of narratives, meanings and resonances – now, with my feet in Riesling, there are just my own moods and the stories of a gull. I feel, as I have done so often before in my life, a sense of déjà vu. Many terms with which we name things function only from a certain distance – when one comes too close to the things, or probes into them, they dissolve. That means that at the precise moment at which we actually have to grapple with things, the terms with which we fix them in the world often no longer play a role. Perhaps that’s banal – and it probably simply has to do with the fact that the ascribing is essentially rigid, while the named (real) thing is dynamic. For me, however, the repeated experience of this dissolution of the meaning of terms holds a fundamental irritation – even if it can naturally make no difference to the gull, because it knows what should be understood when it opens its beak wide.
First Publication: 14-4-2014