The Roar of the Mountains

The clouds are spilling over Tugwell. It’s an inelegant name for such a lovely mountain, smooth with forest green, patterned purple where the shadows of the cumulous ripple over and away.

The clouds are collecting, the clouds now are releasing their water, the mountain is getting a pounding. That inelegant name, I’ve just found out, has a meaning.

Names shift and change over time; the so-new name of this mountain was given an old word, bent from the original over centuries of language shift. Not much more than a century ago, a Mr. Tugwell came this way, and his name has erased the old one. Mr. Tugwell’s ancestors were almost certainly once named Tucker, and a tucker was one who, after the cloth was woven, softened the rough-spun wool into something better for the body. To tucker cloth is to felt it slightly, making all those separate strands of the weave into one skin-like thing, warm and resistant to water. Over time and in most places the work of the tucker became mechanised, but in remote areas of Scotland the manual process continued. There the tuckers, known as the fullers or the waulkers, were women. Around a large table, women would gather and waulk the cloth with their hands and arms. To make good cloth required consistent pressure, so to synchronise the work of many hands they used the rhythm of song, chants of call and response. The soft slap of the wet cloth upon the wood made the beat, they chanted back and forth across the boards. To make it even was the thing, so they turned the long strip of cloth, passing it from hand to hand, clockwise around the ring of women, all women handled the entire bolt. This was the way differences between hands were smoothed, for all hands waulked all the tweed. The chants they sang were old tales, or improvised yarns of their days, their loves, their lives, told line by line, each line sung back to the teller: call and response, call and response. They sung their lives, their kin, the land, the sea. The long hours grew smooth and patterned with chant, the beat held the task in a kind of dance.

This was the way of the work, sustained in some places until the 1950s. They filmed it then, and so there is a record of it, and I listened to the songs and watched the women at their work, the susurrus of the cloth as it turned sunwise under their hands, the thud of the cloth as together they beat it onto the boards, the hypnotic song, the cloth sung, the work enchanted. For the word enchanted means to be inside the song, and to be inside the song changes the brain, it makes brain and being one rhythmic thing, it is the way of many of the old rituals of work, patterning the long and necessary labor with something akin to bliss. And together, for together tasks such as this were done.

Mechanization stole away the place of these rituals, without the work the songs were lost, the rhythm for singing of stories was gone. This happened all over Europe, the places where my ancestors lived, long ago.

The tucker did to the cloth what the rain does to these hills, softening and smoothing them, in rhythms faded from memory.

Our language is old, and times have changed, so we don’t know what is inside our words. I’d thought the name Tugwell somewhat ugly, slightly lewd, but now that I know the story of the name I see it linked to old ways, old ways of women working, and I wonder what songs have been sung through these hills here, sung for thousands of years by women at their collecting, at their weaving, spiraled baskets and eel traps, their sewing together of possum skin cloaks with needles of bone, with thread of sinew, the making of the things of their lives.

The old songs that once belonged to the mountain and were known by the Wurundjeri are not sung here now. The mountains that surround the little village of Warburton, no matter their beauty, are unsung. The roar now rises of the mechanized logging that is stripping the mountains of the trees and the animals of their lives. It is ripping up and burning the bones of the ancient trees, the mountain ash, these vast carbon stores, hastening climate change, making the forest many times more flammable, destroying the rainforest and desiccating the earth. But the brutality and ugliness, the stupidity and callous cruelty of that act is not going unnoticed. First Nations people are gathering alongside ecologists, and uniting with residents, the new people who love this place. There’s a rough weave of powerful stories uniting us. And the mood of this time is turning. There’s a chance we’ll halt the machines. But I sense these political sways won’t cease until these mountains are known again for their songs.

Learning to listen to Country requires slow and subtle devotion. It requires that our lives are radically intertwined with place. It means sustenance and succor comes from where we are. All this may lie on the far side of mechanization, when the machine roar is silenced, when our bodies at their work will find rhythm again, and the world will be quiet enough that our mammal voices can be heard amid the birds, the water, the wind in the trees. In the times we now live such a future seems ridiculously romantic. Until, that is, we put it into context. Living without machines is almost all of what the animal of us knows. That soft and deeply sensing animal is close in all of us, hidden beneath the mental chatter, the body stiffness, these symptoms of ancient sorrow. The grief, perhaps, of all that has led to the losing of songs.

To think like this is to play a long game. It’s to imagine that a time will come when we can slow enough to begin, again, to listen. To allow ourselves to hear the deep, old roar of the mountains. Then, eventually, perhaps we can hum, under the breath, with the breath, receiving and releasing the air. Pain will fill this space, and pain will empty, as the mountain’s vastness fills us. And from something that starts off little more than whispers, whimpers, and moans, I sense new song will come.

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