Cathedral Thinking by Juanita Broderick
Juanita is an emerging writer who lives in a small town in rural Victoria, on the unceded land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. She has only recently tapped into a deep desire to write. Having successfully navigated away from a long career as a professional photographer, Juanita is now completing her arts degree in anthropology and creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
After Andri Snær Magnason
There is a man sitting outside a café in Reykjavik harbour, drinking his second double espresso and writing a eulogy for a glacier.
The man takes a crumpled packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket, digs out the last one, and stares vacantly across the harbour at the Harpa Concert Hall. It is perched on the edge of the water like a giant metallic beast from the future; scales glinting in the sun. He lights the cigarette, and while the match burns down until it singes his finger, he wonders what kind of world the glacier was born into. He quickly waves out the match, places it carefully in the ashtray with the others, and squints out at the bay through an exhalation of smoke.
What did it feel like, to be alive ten thousand years ago?
Katja Edelmann is driving a rented Audi north from the Munich airport towards a nursing-home in Aalen, where she will help celebrate her grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday. She has flown in from Reykjavik, straight from an interview with a climate scientist, who gave her a view of the world so immense, it has dislodged something solid, deep inside her. And while she was busy navigating her way out of the airport terminal, her story on the disappearing glaciers of Iceland was rewriting itself in her brain, without her even noticing.
As she drives further from the airport, the terrain beyond the Autobahn slowly transforms. As if in a time-lapse. The distant hills become dotted with clusters of fretworked farm-houses, and patches of thick forest appear. Familiar landmarks pass by and scenes from childhood visits with her grandmother layer themselves upon the landscape. For an unsettling moment, time no longer has a linear flow.
Katja looks at the clock on the dashboard and decides she needs one more coffee before re-uniting with her German relatives. She hates that it will make her late, but she’s been up since four a.m. and is starting to feel the ache in her throat that comes from holding in too many emotions. Or from smoking too many cigarettes, she’s not sure which.
She takes the next exit into a Raststätte the size of a small town and drives to the furthest end of the parking area. She pulls up in front of an enormous tree at the edge of the bitumen, turns off the ignition and sits in the car for a moment. The tree before her is a splendid, twisted old thing. An oak maybe. There’s a crow sitting on an outstretched branch, its head cocked and alert, examining her carefully. She leans forward over the steering wheel, and watches its inky feathers shimmer blue-green in the sun.
‘We are living in biblical times,’ the scientist had said to her, just a few hours earlier. He had paused, offered her a cigarette and explained, ‘when geologically-scaled events like ocean acidification and species extinction happen on a human time-scale, reality takes on a mythical quality.’ He had looked at her with an intensity that reminded her of an ex-lover who had become unhinged, some years ago, obsessed with dark internet conspiracies.
As Katja gets out of the car, the crow makes a sound like a baby wailing. It hops, open-winged along the branch a few times before flying off. She watches it disappear into a row of birch trees and it occurs to her that she has been writing the wrong story.
She buys a coffee and a packet of throat lozenges and takes them back to the car. The crow reappears abruptly in a blur of black. It hops along the same gnarled branch and stares at her. She sips her coffee and stares back, admiring the magnificent oak in which it is perched. Yes, definitely oak.
She remembers a story her father once told her about the wooden beams in the roof of a dining hall in Oxford. The building itself was over seven-hundred-years-old, but about a century ago—her father had explained—an infestation of beetles was found in the huge lengths of oak that were supporting the roof. Unsure where to find such massive pieces of wood to replace the beams, the college council called on the college forester for advice. Unsurprised by the situation, the forester said something like, ‘I’ve been wondering when you lot would turn up!’
The forester explained that back when the college was built, six centuries earlier, a grove of oak trees was planted to replace those very beams. The inevitability of a beetle infestation at some point in the future was calculated into the construction. And this knowledge was passed on from forester to forester, down through the generations: the oaks in that grove were for the dining hall in Oxford.
Why do we no longer hold our vision so far into the future? She suddenly realises that the story she needs to write isn’t about climate change. It is about time.
‘We have to change the way we think about time,’ the man in Reykjavik had said. Cathedral thinking, he had called it. Cathedrals in Europe would take generations to build. Hundreds of years. Fathers would lay the foundations, knowing they would never see it finished. And their grandsons would teach their sons how to chisel rocks and place stones, one upon the other, knowing they would be long dead before the first congregation gathered under its vaulted ceiling.
Katja checks the time on the dashboard again. She unwraps the lozenges, pops one in her mouth and starts the car. She regrets smoking so many of the scientist’s cigarettes.
‘Katja, Schatz! Wie geht’s? You’re here!’
Her uncle engulfs her in a joyful hug as she enters the foyer of the nursing-home. She laughs and hugs him back, apologising for being late. ‘Ach, don’t worry about it. Oma is in the dining room with everyone, go in, I’m just organising the cake.’
Katja is taken in by her relatives: into the room and back into their lives. Her grandmother is helped out of her chair and gives her a long, surprisingly firm hug. ‘How long are you staying this time Kati?’ she says, her voice slower and deeper than Katja remembers.
‘Just a few days, Oma, but I will make the most of every moment.’ She smiles and gives her grandmother’s hand a squeeze. As Katja helps the old woman back into her chair, her cousin appears with her newborn son asleep in her arms. ‘Hallo Katja! Meet Ulli…’ She reorganises her body to reveal a tiny pink face in the bundle folded into her arms.
‘Hello Ulli,’ says Katja, touching his soft fuzzy head. She tries to imagine what the world will be like in the year 2118, when this brand-new human turns one-hundred.
The line between past and present blurs again as Katja is immersed in an afternoon of conversation and reminiscence. Jan finally arrives with a birthday cake big enough for Ulli to take a nap on, and someone leads them in song.
A middle-aged woman with wild hair and thick-rimmed glasses approaches Katja with a plate of birthday cake in each hand. ‘The last time I talked to you, you were writing a story about some Aboriginal people—trying to save those trees in Australia.’ She hands her niece the slab of darkly layered torte, the thick white frosting threatening to topple to the floor.
‘Oh, my! Thank you, Tante Lina,’ Katja says taking the plate. ‘Yes, you’re right. That was couple of years ago now.’ Her mind cast back to the sparse, dry landscape of central Victoria, and the scorching summer that she wrote about those trees. Eight-hundred-year-old birthing trees. Sacred to the local Djab Wurrung people, they were to be cut down to widen a section of highway. She had spent a week at the protest site, camping alongside those magnificent trees and their custodians. She felt the distress of the Traditional Owners as they talked about the importance of the tress, and the sacred land that they were on. How that land connected the Djab Wurrung people to their ancestors, to the beginning of time.
Fifty generations of women had birthed their children under the protection of those trees, and countless generations of women and trees were in relationship before that. For the Djab Wurrung, the past, like the present, was always all around them. For them, the horror of colonisation was ongoing.
‘What ever happened to those trees? Did you save them?’
‘No.’ She swallows a mouthful of cake but forgets to taste it.
When she visits again the next day, Katja finds her grandmother alone, dozing in a large hospital-grade recliner in her room. Katja sits down opposite her and quietly watches her breathe. A nurse marches in announcing teatime and clunks a cup of tea down on the small table in front of her grandmother, startling her awake. This small violence makes Katja want to follow the nurse down the corridor and yell at her. Instead, she bundles her grandmother into a wheelchair and drives her to Bucher-Stausee, the place her grandmother took her swimming as child.
‘I haven’t been here for a long time,’ says the old woman as Katja slowly wheels her to the edge of the lake.
The two women watch the ducks bobbing up and down on the water, and Katja listens to her grandmother talk about her husband. A good, kind man, who always gave her the best of everything he had. The old woman tells of long-ago adventures with her favourite uncle, who had secretly taught her to hunt rabbits in the spruce forest behind his house. She tells of a dear friend, her closest, oldest friend, who helped her care for her husband when he was dying.
All of them, already claimed by God, she says.
She tells Katja of her mother, Hildegard, a fierce woman born in 1891 in a small town near Berlin, in what was then Prussia. The daughter of a carriage builder, she would frequently test drive her father’s handiwork, to his continual horror.
Hildegard’s great-grand-daughter looks out over the water, and counts back in her head how many great-grandmothers it would take to get to the time when the birthing trees were just saplings; to when a stonemason in Paris was laying the foundation for Notre-Dame. Twenty? Fifty? For the now dead glacier, fifty human generations was surely just a blip in its life. Eight-hundred-years ago might have felt like its last hours on earth. Did it feel the oncoming warming, the shifting of ideologies and warring of men? Did it sense then, the stirring of a population about to explode?
‘Do you think God has forgotten me?’
‘Technology has given us the power of gods,’ the scientist had said, looking down at his hands like he was confessing something. He paused, looked up, and gave Katja a beatific smile. ‘Of course, the problem is, we lack the wisdom of gods.’
A crow hops along the branch of a tree, where a parking lot will one day be built. A young man in Paris gently lowers the foundation stone at a construction site on the edge of the Seine. A forester in Oxford presses a row of acorns into the soil. And a eucalypt seedling, fifteen-thousand kilometres away, has just broken through the earth.
In Iceland, a glacier heaves and groans.
And the man in the Reykjavik café still can’t figure out how say good-bye to a ten-thousand-year-old god.