Thursday, 16 July 2015

In the La Trobe Reading Room

[Nature Scribe ventures inside for a change. A poem about being in one of my favourite indoor places in the world.]

In the reading room,
That sacred place of words,
A child calls out in another tongue.
Or perhaps the wordless tongue of everychild.
She, liking the effect, sounds it again
And again, filling the dome.
How could I frown or shush?
For this too is sacred.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Up Snowy River Way

Outside the house there’s a shushing; a faint rushing, distant, easy to miss. But it’s an invitation. 
We’re staying to the east of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, at my brother-in-law’s property. The house sits in bushy hills high above the Snowy River, but in still weather the small, enticing sound of its fast-moving waters reaches the house.

A couple of days later we’re walking down the steep farm tracks that should eventually lead us to the river. It’s a crisp, blue-skied winter’s day. We’re happy to meander along the tracks, following the loose, thumb-nail kinds of directions you get from locals. Occasionally we spook kangaroos – tall eastern greys – that silently lope away, more out of caution than fear. But when we surprise a single sulphur-crested cockatoo, it shreds the sky with wails fit to wake the dead.
As we descend we gain glimpses of the snow-covered ranges that give the region its name. Despite the cold, there’s little ski-able snow as yet. What has fallen has largely melted, adding to the roar of the river’s waters. We’re hearing that sound clearly now, like a constant gale blowing through trees, except there’s not a breath of wind.
Tyre tracks diminish as the track steepens, replaced by ‘roo, wombat and other animal prints. Something cloven-hoofed has come this way too, deer perhaps, or goats. It’s now steep enough for mountain goats. We use our trekking poles to help us down, both thinking ruefully that we’ll be climbing back this way.
The Snowy River gained fame through A.B. “Banjo” Paterson’s 1890 poem, “The Man From Snowy River”. Two states, Victoria and New South Wales, share the river, and both vie for the right to claim the legend as their own. It’s a rare thing for Australians to engage with poetry, so perhaps the tussle isn’t such a bad thing. 

Less helpful is the "wild bush brumby" legend derived from the same poem. Wild horses, and the persistent advocacy for their presence in these ranges, has caused a great deal of environmental damage here. Cloven hooves and thin, slow-to-develop soils, don't mix well. Goats, horses, deer - all hard-hoofed and feral here - do far more damage to soil and vegetation than the soft-footed kangaroos and wallabies.  
Upstream of where we are the river is involved in another legend, the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This massive hydro-electric and irrigation scheme, begun in 1949, comprises sixteen dams and several power stations. The Snowy River is one of the rivers whose waters are used and re-used in the scheme. 
Its flow is strong and turbulent as we clamber down to its banks. Frost lingers where the slanted sun can’t reach, and we’re cautious climbing over the lichen-encrusted granite cobbles. As the river roars, we find a sunny spot to have lunch. 

We have two small thermoses of soup, and a little bread. But we’ve forgotten our mugs, so have to take it in turns to sip soup from the tiny demitasse lid. We decide we’re part of the slow food movement, and gladly so here, now: with the sky a deep blue and the snow-fed waters tumbling and chuckling around us.
As we eat we spy a snowy-coloured goat grazing its way down the opposite slope. It moves slowly, unconcernedly, now in sight, now hidden behind bushes. At this distance, perhaps 400 metres, it could be mistaken for an animated snow-gum, angling downslope in search of water. Towards the end of our slow lunch it gets there, stopping to take a few sips of the snow-chilled water, before ambling off through the stream-side scrub.

We move off too, though our steep route doesn’t allow for ambling. Instead we shorten our poles, put our heads down, and trudge back up the way we’d come. We’re almost pleasantly surprised at how quickly two legs and a bit of will can gain altitude, and we say as much to each other - once we regain our breath. 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Farewell to the No. 47 Bus

Commuting wouldn’t feature in many people’s top 10 list of most-enjoyable-things-to-do. Getting to and from work, especially in cities, is surely a big component of the grumpiness summed up as the daily grind.

Whether we’re drumming the steering wheel impatiently in a traffic jam or squeezed uncomfortably against a stranger on the bus/train/tram, few of us look forward to commuting.

[A typical Metro Bus in Hobart:
pic courtesy MetroTas]
So it may seem strange for me to say, after 24 years of the same work-a-day travel routine, that I will miss my commuting. Perhaps it’s partly owed to the blessing of living in a small, human-scale city. It may also derive from the city-ward half of my commute being always on foot, with part of that along a pleasant track away from traffic and close to bush. But it’s also that I will miss the people I commuted with, now that I have retired from full-time work; now that my commute will be the short climb into my writer’s loft.

Each leg of my commute had its pluses and its minuses. I love walking, so the city-ward trip was a pleasure in itself. I long ago decided, perhaps inspired by a brief student-years career as a postie, that “neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow” would prevent me from walking. At times it could become an epic five and half kilometre walk, and a good test of all the waterproof gear I could throw at the conditions. But there’s a perverse joy in pushing through gales and storms.

The walk could also yield joys of a different kind, as I’ve described elsewhere, Wallabies, birds, even the odd platypus or snake have made surprise appearances along the track. But there were also the regular walkers who I met and chatted with. The foremost, and most deliberate of these was my wife Lynne. She always joined me on her non-work days, and we invariably walked first through our back bush rather than down the road. We found that walking together, side by side, was a very fruitful way for us to discuss any and everything. And sometimes nothing at all. When we'd meandered through the bush back to our road, she would turn left for home. And I would turn right and take the Rivulet Track towards the city.

[Along the Rivulet Track, South Hobart] 
Further down the track, a popular dog walking space, I often seemed to share doggy tales with strangers and acquaintances. At other times I might discuss wildlife, or walking, or politics with other walkers. And just occasionally we’d get personal, and death, grief, love or faith would tread the track beside us.

Of course the down side of the walk was that I was going to work. As good as that work could be, it was still work. And most work has elements of drudgery or conflict or stress alongside its rewards. Given the choice I’d rather have been walking in the opposite direction, towards the mountain.

[The allure of kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
My usual homeward commute was on the Number 47 bus, and the people on that bus became (literal) fellow travellers – and sometimes friends – on the larger journey of life. Through long exposure and a degree of pushing beyond polite chit-chat, we managed to have some amazing conversations. For us this was never a head-in-my-newspaper type of commute. Births, deaths, marriages, illness, politics, retirements: none of these seemed off limits. And because the No. 47 bus heads towards what some have dubbed “Greenie Acres”, we inevitably talked about environmental issues. It wasn’t that we all agreed on these, but it was something most of us were passionate about.

Soon after I first started catching the No. 47, I remember one commuter growing rounder and rounder as she reached the advanced stages of pregnancy. When her baby joined her on the bus a few months later, he became “the bus’s baby”. That he has now started university is both a surprise and a signal. Perhaps I’ve been catching this bus long enough. Perhaps it’s time to let the next generation make what they will of this ordinary but amazing mode of transport.

As for me, I will keep my “Green Card” bus pass, and will still catch the No. 47 bus from time to time. And the walking will definitely still happen. I even hope to keep in touch with some of the other Rivulet Track walkers, and their dogs. But no-one should be surprised if, every so often, I turn left instead of right, and head up that mountain.

[What awaits on the mountain!]