The rain in Brisbane at night
Writing of the Australian night, David Malouf says the “world slowly recreates itself as sound”.
The sound of rain, glorious rain, pelting down on the roof, the tonk of heavy raindrops on the the skylight in the kitchen, spattering on the terracotta tiles of the veranda and rolling over the the taut snare-drum formed by the swimming pool cover, a dance of water vapour shimmering over the rubbery trampoline leaves of the palms surrounding the house. (Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on August 25th 2007.)
The sound of eucalypts gasping greedily at the water cascading down their silvery trunks. At last, not just a shower that muddies the topsoil; but a thorough persistent downpour, drenching the roots.
A melancholy absence of noise from the birds, bats and reptiles for once cowed into submission. Although winter’s nightly performances are more subdued than the genuinely loud ‘wall of sound’ of summer, there’s still usually a raucous chorus of bats, kookaburras, mynah birds, cicadas, and what I can only assume is the Outboard Motor Toad. Suddenly, they’re not singing anymore.
The sound of an impromptu transient waterfall below the cantilevered terrace, as guttering that had forgotten that rain could be like this gives up the the ghost and hurries to spill the water overboard. These waterfalls add temporary spectacle to this corner of the house, shifting the architecture subtly, as underneath the terrace becomes a cave behind a waterfall curtain wall, familiar from old Tarzan movies and the like. As opposed to the box-like traditional European form, a modernist or sub-tropical house, with its cantilevered balconies, veranda, long overhanging roof and built with stilts or props over a hill, will always provide opportunity for its condition to be altered by weather, either through the interplay of sharp light and deep shadows cutting new angular shapes, or creating these kind of atmospheric grottos to shelter under.
(This is a beautiful house, built by emigre architect Vitaly Gzell in the late 1950s. Gzell was largely unknown on the world stage but contributed many distinguished buildings to a city, in this case Brisbane, working within an honest everyday modernism which was both appropriate to the terrain but also nudged architecture forward here, within a very conservative climate. As much respect is due to these little-known local architects, working diligently to transform cities and architecture, as to their more-lauded counterparts who flit across the surface of the globe.)
The sound of a city breathing a collective sigh of relief, as this torrential rain should mean that the dreaded level 6 water restrictions are put off by a month or so. (Level 6 is detailed here; it includes a total ban on outdoor watering, topping up pools, external washing of houses, incl. windows etc.) The local rag — the Courier Mail — gives its front page to a satellite image of the rain clouds approaching the Queensland coast a couple of days ago, large letters proclaiming “TWO DAYS OF HOPE. Could this band of clouds deliver a month’s reprieve from the state’s water crisis?”.
To manhandle my favourite Peter Cook quote: when it rains in Brisbane now, nothing else is as important as the rain. The rain used to come here in the summer, great thunderstorms at the end of each day, puncturing the thick geodesic dome of hot air that had enveloped the city throughout the day, generated by 35°C heat and subtropical humidity levels. People in warm climes will be familiar with that kind of rain. I’ve seen it in the southern, eastern Mediterranean and the Mid West of the United States. Shocking, electric storms that come and go without warning. I was caught in one last year in Brisbane, crossing the bridge from the South Bank back towards the city, entirely unprepared. It was as if each step was accompanied by someone chucking a bucket-load of water over me. It was like going for a swim, fully-clothed and standing up. Those daily summer thunderstorms, familiar to much of Australia, just don’t happen as much any more, apparently. And in winter round these parts, people say it rarely rains like this, hence the cautious excitement.
In Brisbane, people are already used to measuring the effects of climate change in millimetres, days, months. Many measure the amount of falling rainwater daily, comparing notes, keeping track, discussing whether they’re in a rain shadow or whether to install rainwater tanks, limiters on showers, change what’s planted in the garden, and how much fell in the catchments for the dams surrounding the city. Many people already understand that x millimetres of rain equates to y additional days of water supply in the dams. Few people elsewhere are as acutely aware of this exact relationship to be able to accurately articulate the relationship between daily rainfall and daily water supply. There are personalised water assessment forms and water savings plans, the Target 140 initiative, developed by the Queensland Water Commission, as above average water users are targeted in order to reduce their consumption. If, as Tim Flannery suggests, Australia is a harbinger for the rest of the world in this sense, we could learn a lot from the various tactics being deployed here to raise awareness of the need to change habits to do with water usage.
Earlier, I happen to chance across a passage by brilliant Brisbane writer David Malouf, from his collection of short stories ‘Every Move You Make’:
Just five hours south off a good dirt highway, it is where all the river systems in our quarter of the state have their rising: the big rain-swollen streams that begin in a thousand thread-like runnels and falls in the rainforests of the Great Divide, then plunge and gather and flow wide-banked and muddy-watered to the coast; the leisurely watercourses that make their way inland across plains stacked with anthills, and run north-west and north to the Channel Country, where they break up and lose themselves in the mudflats and mangrove swamps of the Gulf. [from ‘The Valley of Lagoons’]
Compare that with the image of the Murray-Darling rivers barely limping to the ocean now, one of the world’s greatest river systems artificially enhanced in order to fulfil its raison d’étre.
Hear that, though? It’s the sound of murmuring that any lasting reprieve from the drought might actually cause Australians to ease off on the changes, as some begin to slowly raise an eyebrow at the kind of personal life choices required to really do something about it. You wouldn’t want to wish a drought on anyone, and everyone wants it to break, but it has certainly focused the collective mind. It might prove to be the significant issue in the forthcoming election. It ought to, reprieve from drought or not. Australia has a fairly shocking record environmentally, both in terms of individual footprints and national policies. Given the relationship between that, the viscerally obvious effects of the Big Dry, and the abundant resources the nation has to hand, Australia could lead the world out of this mess. That would be a good story to tell one day.
The rain has just stopped. It’s 3.25AM. (I’m jetlagged.) It’s suddenly very quiet. A dog barks. At least I think it’s a dog barking.
[We arrived in Brisbane on Tuesday, part one of the Great Migration South completed. Sydney on Monday. I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that I move to Australia and the first weather I experience is a fairly decent facsimile of a cold, wet autumn day from the Sheffield of my youth. But hearing the rain here had new meaning, and this was a different quality of rain altogether.]
See also: Suspended at a junction in time: Australia, Silent Running, The Drowned World and the University of Queensland and The Shock of the New World, with respect to the flora and fauna of Australia
This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on August 25th 2007.
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