Saturday, November 23, 2013

Two Moons

The day done, I return home to my studio apartment. As I pour myself a glass of red to quench my winter thirst, I look up to the skies outside my window to find two full moons floating outside; one true and one illusory, fashioned by the optics of my double glazing.

I've just received a signed copy of Ray's book of short stories titled Two Moons and I'm pleased with the coincidence. 

Ray Jarvis, almost single-handedly responsible for setting up Australia's robotics community guided my fledgling efforts in the field during the five years of my PhD. He once told me that if he hadn't become an engineer researching and building intelligent machines, he would have been a writer.

Ray wrote prolifically in the last 18 months of his life, even as the mesothelioma in his lungs drained the life force out of him. The seeds for the disease, fibres of blue asbestos, had found their way into his lungs more than 50 years ago, in the now abandoned mining town of Wittenoom in far north Western Australia. There they remained, until Christmas 2012, when diving into a friend's pool overlooking Hyde Park in Sydney's CBD, he found himself short of breath and was diagnosed with the disease shortly thereafter.

As a young electrical engineering student, Ray found himself in Wittenoom in 1960, looking for a summer of adventure and hoping to earn a bit of money. He worked hard under the unforgiving desert sun, fixing power lines and surveying the surrounding land with theodolites to work out the most efficient way of levelling it. At the end of his stint in the desert, he found himself tanned and buffed and rich enough to afford a girlfriend.

Ray, in the prime of youth, Wittenoom, 1960
This town, with its surrounding spinifex country-side, vast open spaces and raw beauty, camaraderie between immigrant workers and the one pub where parched miners came to share a drink, lends its name to two of the stories in his book, one written before his diagnosis, and the second, book-ending the first (in the words of his daughter and editor Julia Gentil), written shortly before his death.

Two moons, the title of the book and one of its short stories, is about a solo traveller in the desert who sets out on a mission, a walk across the alien, red soil of the outback in search for an elusive something, something that flickers briefly in the vision of a dream. This nebulous quest is revealed to him in its entirety only when exhausted, water supply depleted and miles away from rescue, but trusting in his will and intuition, he finds it, a beacon of reflected moonlight in the lightly rippling waters of a rock pool.

Moonrise over Lake Mungo

The story resonates strongly within me, as many moons ago, I had embarked on a similar journey, a solo adventure through the lake beds of Mungo, a series of interconnecting lakes in outback New South Wales, once full, but dry for the past 18,000 years. Recent heartbreak had led me on a quest, a quest for something that I was not entirely sure of, through this graveyard of Australian pre-history, Mungo man and woman excavated here being the oldest specimens of homo sapiens found on the continent. The protagonist's nocturnal walks across the desert in Two Moons reminds me of my own midnight rambles across the moon-drenched landscape of Mungo, hoping to be consumed by my achingly beautiful surroundings.

Lunette bathed in moonlight

Ray courageously refused all treatment for his mesothelioma, preferring to spend what little time he had with family and friends. He believed that he should be able to do what countless other men and women (including the inhabitants of a wetter, pre-historic Mungo) had done before him. I spent a day with him, his lovely wife Irene and two dogs this July, just a few days before I got news of my acceptance as a post-doc at KU Leuven. We repaired the conical roof of his eccentric octogonal outhouse, beautifully designed and built by him in the backyard of his beachside, Mt. Martha home. It was exciting work: the calculations of quadrant angles, the cutting of transparent, plastic sheeting, its hoisting all the way up to the roof some 12 metres above the floor with the help of a giant ladder positioned at the centre of the outhouse and Ray seated below, whispering instructions. I will treasure that day with Ray for the rest of my life. 

Tonight, as I turn the pages of his book, I miss him and wish I could've spent a few more afternoons building things with him. I hope that I can live my life with the same intellectual vigour, work ethic and kindness that he had and then, when my time comes, slip away quietly with the same grace and courage that he displayed. 

Two Moons is available from

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