Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Nature Writing Prize - Award Speech

[excerpt from the presentation speech for the 2007 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize]

Nature is something worth celebrating in Tasmania, even if some of us tend to take it for granted, believing we have “an awful lot of it”. In thinking about how we don’t always appreciate the wonders around us, I thought an analogy might be the dolerite that is so evident here in Hobart. Many of us look out on the columnar dolerite cliffs of Kunanyi/Mt Wellington – the so-called Organ Pipes – every morning over our Weeties … or looking around perhaps gluten-free muesli might be closer to the mark. At any rate, dolerite is just part of the backdrop to our days.

Yet in global terms it is a rare igneous rock. It was first formed during the tearing apart of Pangaea some 200 million years ago. Without resorting to volcanic eruptions or other glowing flows of molten material, a staggering 15 000 cubic kilometres of dolerite welled up below the surface. Once the surface rock was worn away, dolerite would leave its mark on nearly half of Tasmania.

Do we ever stop to ask what dolerite is really like? What kind of neighbour it makes? To walkers and climbers it is friendly and reliable. Feet and hands find it answers their needs with a sureness that can be comforting, at least on casual acquaintance. Our dog might have told a different story after a long day on the Western Tiers. His regular habit of covering the ground three times – out, back to check, out again – combined poorly with the shark-skin roughness of the rock. Towards the end of the day the pads of his paws were abraded so badly that they bled, and he limped wretchedly. Even so he would neither slow his pace nor alter his rule. We finally had to pick him up and carry him the last kilometre back to the car.

So I should have learned. Yet many years later I found myself learning afresh the lessons of dolerite on a high level traverse of the Du Cane Range. The navigational difficulties presented by its enormous boulders forced us to clamber up, over, around and down countless dolerite faces. As I slid face, feet and fingers down my umpteenth rock wall, pressed hard against it by my heavy pack, I gained the kind of intimate acquaintance with this rock that had me feeling like a failed rock-whisperer. If only I could have commanded the rocks to throw themselves into the sea, I might not have ended the walk with raw and bleeding fingertips. Or perhaps I could have worn gloves!

Still such close and painful acquaintance can have its compensations. Who, for instance, could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of lichen on dolerite? The rock’s often finely pitted surface, its native acidity, the clean air of its favoured haunts all help it to contrive myriad niches for lichen. And who could remain unmoved by the lichen’s amazing variety of colours and textures? What from a few metres away appears a flat grey turns, on closer inspection, into a symphony of subtle tones. There are unnamed shades of grey, green, black, red, orange, yellow, brown and white.

And that is just the clothes the dolerite wears. Let your walking boot dislodge a small boulder and you may literally scratch the surface of this impressive rock. Beneath its surface – providing you and your walking companions survive to inspect it – you will see a hidden masterpiece in grey and blue, with accents supplied by the sparkling faces of crystals coming to the light for the first time in perhaps 150 million years. If you also detect the flinty whiff of freshly concussed rock, you may be thankful that bleeding fingertips is the worst you have.

So next time you look up at the mountain, pause and think your own grateful thoughts toward this foundational part of this beautiful place. Asking us to stop and think such thoughts is one of the key roles of nature writing.
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