June 21, 2023

Winter whales and Jane Campion’s The Piano

June is the month when I met Australia for the first time, coming in from a humid lush Virginia summer, off the plane in a pair of dungarees and a thrift-store-soft t-shirt. I knew cold, but not this combination of crisp air and bright light; nothing prepared me for the blue of a Sydney winter. Nothing prepared me for the way it could be freezing indoors and yet deliciously warm in the sun.

I have never met a city so oblivious to its winters as Sydney, so unprepared. Houses have gaps in the floorboards, vents in the walls and single-glazed windowpanes. Heaters are the temporary kind, and I think of mine now as a second pet, it follows me from room to room (and the dog knows to follow it as well). Twenty-three years later, I still dream of a properly heated house in winter: ducted heating, warm floors in a bathroom, insulated walls, windows that I can sit beside without getting a chill. But all of it is forgiven for the ocean in winter.

Malabar Headland National Park (whale splash). Author’s own.

I have written before about swimming through winter, and winter is also my favourite season to watch the ocean. The crowds of summer are gone, the carparks and streets are empty and so are the long lovely stretches of sand. The sun is still there, casting steep shadows in the afternoon, and the water has only the occasional swimmer and the black clad surfers, like seals waiting for the becalmed waters to bring another wave. The whole place goes quiet, peaceful: only dogwalkers and joggers on the promenade, sparsely attended boot camps gathering in the grassy parks. Twice I day I walk the dog to the ocean and watch the way it changes, the flat glistening surface of it, the roar of Maroubra’s thunder silent. But my eyes are always on the horizon now, alert for the telltale spray. The sign of the best part of winter: the whales.

Whales migrate up the east coast moving from their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean to their breeding grounds up in the South Pacific. They go north from May to July and return south, with their calves, from August to November. Like I trained my ear when I moved here to distinguish the subtleties of an Australian accent, I trained my eyes to distinguish the splash of a wave from the spray of a whale. It makes a fine mist which dissipates in the light. What grace whales have for their size: slick skin surfacing from the water, the flick of a tail, roiling the water from beneath. I stood on the Malabar headland this morning and watched one surface so close that I heard the huff of its spray, the sound of its call beneath the water. It fills me with awe larger than my body. Sublimity, which Kim Stanley Robinson explained to Ezra Klein on this podcast as beauty and terror combined.

These whales have been migrating past this coastline for thousands of years, and being here to witness this ancient journey feels like the rarest gift – like immersing myself in deep time rather than the rush and scroll of everyday. I always return home elated, wanting to capture some of that beauty, that sense of enormity beneath the still glistening skin of the water.


Something that art does, or can do, is show us different things at different times in our lives. I recently rewatched The Piano, as part of the Jane Campion retrospective at the Sydney Film Festival. The first time I watched it I was fifteen and it changed my perception completely. It was the first time I saw a film by a female director, a distinctly female gaze, and the tangle of desire, violence, beauty and music struck me like a bell. It stayed with me. Thirty years later, watching it in the auditorium of the Art Gallery of NSW I saw the same film with new eyes. Ada (Holly Hunter) is voiceless, and her only voice is her music (her art) yet the men around her won’t allow her to own it – even George (Harvey Keitel) insists on her body as a trade.

As a mother, I also saw the relationship between Ada and her daughter anew. How the daughter might turn on her mother, how the mother’s desire repulses the child. She must stay with me, Ada’s daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) says, again and again. She is happy to see her mother locked inside the house, she helps keep her prisoner, and only Alisdair’s (Sam Neill) violence changes her mind.

It is always the end of the film though that gets me: the penultimate scene. On the longboat, Ada puts her foot in the rope that is attached to her piano, which is being sent overboard (at her request) as she leaves her unhappy marriage and goes to Nelson with George and Flora. She is meant to have what she wants now: this shows us that perhaps she doesn’t. Perhaps what she wants is neither man. That moment when she steps intentionally into the coil of rope as it unspools. The gasp the only noise we have heard from her except in orgasm; a sound so close to that one.

The splash and then sinking as the piano carries her down and down the green blue depths, a single ankle attached to the thick rope, her black dress billowing above her head. We see her bloomers, her white petticoats, the cage of her hoop encircling her. Air bubbles and the steadiness of her gaze. And then a shift in expression, she has changed her mind, she struggles. We sit breathless while she frees her foot from its shoe and swims upwards, emerging to take a deep breath. Gasping again, for air.

Then that strange, high, whispery voice:

What a death.                       

What a chance.

What a surprise.

My will has chosen life.

Still, it has had me spooked, and many others beside.

…At night, I think of my piano in its ocean grave. And sometimes of myself, floating above it. Down there, everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby, and so it is. It is mine.

I knew at fifteen how I wanted to access this strange art: this way to juxtapose a drowned piano, the cage of a hoop, a rope tied to a floating shoe. I wanted all of this and the fierceness of Ada, the fury of that tight mouth and those unblinking eyes, silent in the mud and blood amongst Alisdair’s violence, sinking into her skirts soundlessly; the sheer strength of her will.

The gasp as the rope yanks her into the sea. The desire to follow her piano down, and the desire changing mid-sinking. The way, as artists, lovers, mothers, we can never find the right vessel for all of it.

Something always shifts.

I am still drawn to what lies beneath the surface: a whale, a piano in its ocean grave.

Still searching for sublimity.

Still finding my own sound.


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