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Beyond the break: on writing The Deep Field

As often as I can, I surf at Tamarama, a rocky cove just south of Bondi. From over the back break you can see the coast as far south as Malabar; to the north your view is blocked by the ridge of South Bondi as it rises above Mackenzies Bay. The broken sandstone of the cliffs is a dirty brown, vegetation clinging to its crevices, stained here and there with the oxide leach of the stormwater that pours down their faces when it rains. And above the clifftops the ugly forms of flats and red-rooved houses stand higgledy-piggledy, testament to a century of bad planning and second rate architecture.

The surf at Tama is big and often treacherous. Catching waves means avoiding both a nasty boil that swirls around the base of the cliffs at the south side of the cove, and the shelf that lies beneath the water to the north. But the clean break and the fact the surf can be running even when everywhere else south of the harbour is flat makes these worth putting up with.

But my reasons for surfing there have as much to do with the physical experience of Tama as they do with the surf. Tama is quieter than Bondi, and often, especially in the winter months, it can be almost deserted. Over the back break it is often almost silent, the only sound that of the waves as they break shorewards, the occasional shriek of the gulls.

Out there, in the quiet, it is easy to forget the waves. As the swell moves beneath you, steady as a sleeper’s breath, it often seems that you are caught in a kind of time out of time, something transitory and fragile, yet tensile too, like the resisting tension of water’s skin.

In this state I find myself aware at some deep level of several things, all interconnected. First the immensity of time itself, the ancient cliffs, the ocean, the depth of the water beneath me, all parts of something older than human minds can easily grasp, and of something that will endure long after we have gone.

Simultaneously though, it seems that in each moment of that immensity there is an order that is repeated, time and again, as the clouds pass overhead, breaking and reforming; as the waves roll in; as my heart beats in my chest and the ripples move outwards across the water from my body. And somewhere in between there is a sense of oneness, of unity, a sense that the world I see is not parts but a living, breathing whole: rock, wave, sky, bird; one thing in many bodies, like the wheeling patterns of schooling fish or flocking birds.

It took me a long time to manage to articulate these three things. For a long time there was only the moments when I felt that apprehension of something powerful yet unspoken that I think we have all felt at one time or another, that sense that we are on the brink of an understanding we cannot quite discern. I suspect some people would call this apprehended but inarticulate sense of a deeper understanding a knowledge of God; I do not, although I suspect it is as close to religiousness as I can come.

Unravelling this understanding began in Fibonacci sequences, that curious sequence of numbers that is repeated throughout the plant kingdom. Pine cones, flower petals, seeds, sepals, time and again they count out the same curious pattern: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, each new number the sum of the last two. The reasons for this pattern’s proliferation are complicated, and I have no intention of going into them here, but the Fibonacci sequence is only a highly visible example of nature’s tendency to form patterns, usually mathematical. It is almost as if, as Immanuel Kant declared, “God has put a secret art into the forces of Nature so as to enable it fashion itself out of chaos into a perfect world system”.

One of the most beautiful of nature’s patterns is found in the spiral shell of the nautilus, with its curved chambers. Today there are six species, but once there were many more. Palaeontologists have classified at least 17,000 species of extinct nautiloids and ammonoids (primeval cousins of the present day nautili), this extraordinary profusion of variety remembered only in the fossil record.

It is these fossilised remnants, the stone spirals of these now vanished species that lie at the heart of The Deep Field. For in them I saw an expression both of the movement of life across time, its ebb and flow, but also of the sense of unity I feel as I float off Tama. Beautiful, geometrical, they seem to allude to a deeper meaning, yet even as they hint at it they are mute, as silent as the stone they are made of.

Set just over a decade from now, The Deep Field turns on three very different love stories: an affair between a photographer and a blind palaeontologist; the story of the photographer’s relationship with her twin brother, now vanished; and the story of her passion for another man several years before. Beginning with the shells, their fossilised traces of the distant past, it spirals outwards towards the infinity of space, a motion marked out in the stories of the characters. Indeed, its title, The Deep Field, is what we call the outermost horizon of the Hubble telescope’s vision, the teeming galaxies so far away that their light has travelled eight billion years or more to reach us.

In The Deep Field the characters became voices that let me speak about what I feel out there over the break. In their stories, in the world around them, and in the photos and writing of the photographer and the palaeontologist, I found myself able to begin to make sense of this sense of unity, of the way that change is part of continuance just as death is part of life, and all these things are themselves part of some deeper pattern, at once, just like the movement of the swell beneath my body and board or the spiral form of the nautilus’ shell.

Originally published in The Courier-Mail,
© James Bradley, 1999