Tuesday 27 October 2009


[a beautiful day in a beautiful place - with a sting in its tail!]

[Cradle Mountain reflected in Dove Lake]

At 1545 metres, Cradle Mountain is Tasmania’s fifth highest mountain. That’s not particularly high, even by Australian standards. But by those same standards it is a delightfully shaped mountain, satisfyingly “peaky”, and justly famous for its lopsided twin towers separated by a hammocky ridge, the whole often reflected in the flawless waters of Dove Lake.

I’ve succumbed to the appeal of its summit at least four times over the last three decades. Each climb has been different, but the most recent was more eventful than I’d have preferred.

Three of us were there – with dozens of others – on a rarely-perfect October day. There had been so much rain over winter and early spring that the creeks here had begun to flow clear instead of their normal beer colour, the tannins diluted to the point of invisibility. And if it wasn’t raining, wind and snow showers had gone to work. But on this day the weather gods had put aside their tools and gone for a smoko.

The mountain draws many walkers, not all of them ready for the challenge. We passed a number of walkers having difficulties with the steep dolerite scree that leads to a snowy amphitheatre beneath the final tower. One couple chose, not unanimously, to be satisfied with the northward view from the scree rather than the 360 degree summit vista. While there is nothing technically difficult about any of the scree, it does involve a certain amount of rough-house hauling of yourself up fridge-sized boulders. The contrast with the duck-boarded approach walk is too stark for some. On the other hand the dozens heading for the summit this day included children as young as seven or eight.

Once over the hump of the scree approach, there’s a steep side-slope to traverse. Except in the height of summer there is usually some snow here on the south-east facing slopes, over-towered as they are by tooth-like pillars of dolerite. The day was mild and sunny, so at this point the metre deep snow was soft and slushy. We took out trekking poles to help with balance and gingerly began to cross the side slope.

A year ago, almost to the day, I had paused here with my son and sons-in-law to slide down the forty degree snow slope in our wet weather gear. The few seconds of exhilaration had to be backed up by a far longer and more tedious slog back up the slope. Twice was enough for me, although some of the next generation tried it a few more times.

This time we were intent on the summit, so we by-passed the obvious sliding section. I was in front, and began to head up the very steep climbing chute, choosing to go to the left of a large rock. I remember gripping the rock with both hands, although one must have also been holding the trekking poles. From that semi-fixed position I kicked a step into the snow just beneath the boulder, and tested it briefly, before trying to heave myself upwards.

The step held only until I put real weight on it, then gave way, sending my left foot a metre lower than I was expecting it to be. That ripped my hands from the rock, flipped my feet skyward, and sent me careening backwards down the slope. I completed a one and a half backward somersault, landed on my back, then slid head first down the chute at what might have been described as an exhilarating pace. Did my life flash before me? Did I pray, or fling my arms over my head for protection? I quite honestly didn’t have time to do anything more than to think “Oh ... my head is likely to stop me by hitting a rock!” I’m not even sure an expletive popped into my mind, although I can think of a couple that would have been very suitable.

After a very rapid slide of maybe 25 metres, I stopped quite suddenly as my back – thankfully cradled by a day-pack – crashed into a suitcase-sized rock. I lay there, for the moment pain-free, thinking “ooh – I think I’m alright”. I then conveyed the same in response to Jim and Tim’s yelled query. Their next shouted words disconcerted me. “Don’t move!” Spinal injury? A huge drop just beneath me? No. “Gotta get a photo!" followed by “Bugger! Wish we’d got that in movie-mode.” Then I knew I was going to be okay.

A few careful minutes checking myself, talking with the boys, and righting myself, was followed by an extra cautious crawl up-slope to the start of the climbing chute. Twenty minutes later we were out on the summit - the sun shining, the breeze a mere zephyr - with me yabbering nineteen-to-the-dozen as you do when the adrenaline kicks in after even a mild shock.

And at the end I had no badge of honour, not even a decent bruise, to show for my troubles. Being joined on the summit by three youngish girls and their family seemed to underline that we had done nothing even slightly heroic. I think I can get over that. Two days later, such thoughts are already being replaced by a strong thankfulness that I was somehow cradled during my fall. I will live to walk another day, God willing!

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Words That Paint Pictures

[Essay introducing the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize 2009. Published in Island #118]

What if life really did imitate art? What if each of us was to throw a painter’s canvas over the place we lived? What expression of our place, our life in that place, would fill that canvas? Would it be only the universals of modern urban life: the concrete and cars; plasma screens and iPods; mobile phones and plush furnishings that are found anywhere human prosperity has reached? Would our canvas not also contain the colours of the earth beneath our feet; the dark fleeting dash of the wild creatures we share our place with; and the variegated textures of the plants that respond to the particular seasons and soils of our particular place? Wouldn’t we want to record the sudden colour splash and sound of the birds that flit and flutter through our bushes; or the whisper, whoosh and wash of the particular weather that is present only here?

The Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize was conceived in 2002 to provide an outlet for the very particular and concrete thoughts and feelings writers have about the natural world. Not just any natural world, but the particular part of the world they have thought on, interacted with and cared enough about to express in words.

Since the first biennial prize in 2003, around three hundred individuals have entered the Wildcare prize; nearly half of that number in the 2009 event. The prize has tapped into a feeling that seems to be abroad in our land: the feeling that here, in the early years of the 21st century, we Australians are finally ready to write our places into a new kind of existence. We seem eager to record in words the feelings and thoughts about being in this land that have only slowly come to the surface. It now appears important for us to read our landscape; to know our place; and to celebrate the particularity of where we live.

It’s not that disgruntlement with our leaders or perceptions of threat – the traditional motivators of environmentally-slanted writing – have gone away. Clearly the mainstream 'success' of environment as an issue, and the plethora of spin about 'clean and green', haven’t assuaged the concerns of writers. But something else is happening that is both beneath and beyond the world of headlines and politics. At last place is about more than postcodes, real estate values and the cache of locality names.

My own place is near the base of a collapsed layer cake, geologically speaking at least. It’s a cake that was baked over some 280 million years out of whatever ingredients fell to hand. Right where I sit the available element was mud; just above here it was sand, and top-most it was magma – three hundred metres of it – injected up through layers of previously ‘cooked’ sediment. Not a conventional way to ice a cake, nor a standard thickness. But whoever designed Tasmania had an inordinate fondness for dolerite.

The collapse of the cake has been barely noticeable on a human time scale. Nonetheless it has crumbled, and will continue to do so. A large scoop of cake was taken out of the mountain’s side just above here by ice as recently as ten thousand years ago. The tell-tale swale is an unmistakeable signature of ice. Vertical scars through the forest show the tracks of more recent major rock falls. Occasionally crumbs still fall from the mountain’s table, with dolerite boulders turning up even here in suburban Hobart.

To keep reading my place, I must augment the geological timescale with the much shorter-spanned biological ones. I learn that when the Permian mudstone was just ooze being washed into the Tasmania Basin, there were no flowering plants. Conifers, cycads, algae, lichens and mosses impeded the erosive running water, with bits of plants joining the shells in becoming fossils. It wasn’t until that basin had been filled, buried, hardened, and lifted back to an altogether unrecognisable surface that the rock saw its first flowering plants.

Over aeons wave upon wave of varied vegetation adjusted to the different climates, latitudes and altitudes that this mudstone has seen. Until today the shallow, impoverished regolith and soil that it produces, brings forth not the spectacular rainforests than can grow on richer soils in this climate, but instead a gnarled and humble woodland of silver peppermint, Eucalyptus tenuiramis. A spacious, easily traversed forest with crackling, straggly undergrowth, so quintessentially Australian that I half expect to find a Roberts or McCubbin character propped against a trunk, billy boiling, handing me a cuppa.

Above us Tasmania’s green rosellas might be feeding on seeds, chuckling and sweetly tinkling, reminding me why I always think of them as bell parrots. If disturbed their relaxed calling would be replaced by their more excited flight/fright call 'cussick cussick'. Are they perturbed by clinking currawongs flying low through the trees? In this stealth mode, currawongs are more intent on finding prey than drawing attention to their presence. By contrast when our apple crop is near to ripe there is no such silence. Their loud ringing calls spread the news to the whole flock.

Such are a few tiny daytime fragments I might read in my local bush. But if I’m tempted to think I’ve gained a degree of familiarity, night-time confounds me. After dark this bushland takes on a wholly foreign character. Were I adept at reading with my nose, as my dog certainly is, I could more readily comprehend the pages of this crepuscular life. Instead I’m left to look at the tracks and traces it leaves behind. Potoroo and pademelon runways; bandicoot diggings; scats, frass, fur and feathers: clues to a twilit life. They remind me how close to bio-illiterate I am, despite nearly a quarter of a century of living in and looking at the one piece of bush.

All of this may explain why nature writing is a hard-won form. Yes, any good writer should be able to write about the natural world. But to do it successfully, to do it in a way that rings true, requires the same kind of observational commitment that writers put into character, plot or sentence structure.

This year’s prize-winning pieces illustrate well the benefits of such toil. Whether describing human efforts to restore what once was, nature’s gentle irruptions into tangled urban lives, or the perils faced by all life forms, the felicity of the writing cloaks the observational labour involved. How encouraging that so many are so effectively taking on this labour of love.

Friday 2 October 2009

Finding Whirinaki

[written following a visit to the central North Island of New Zealand, September 2009]

Place names can ring like a bell, although the reasons for this may vary. I once lived near towns whose names I delighted in reciting: Cookamidgera, Mandagery, Mugincoble. The last, pronounced “Muh-JINK-a-bull”, was also a railway town, giving its nomenclature an onomatopoeic perfection.

For passing generations, Passchendaele and Pearl Harbour evoked the opposite of delight, and for some of my generation Lake Pedder still carries a plangent, melancholy note. Across the Tasman Sea Lake Manapouri and Whirinaki Forest sound all the sweeter for what might have happened there.

Whirinaki (the “Wh” is pronounced as a “F”) has long fascinated me. But it is early spring 2009 before I am finally going there. 25 years have passed since the logging ceased. It’s a clear and sun-filled day, and I’m in the company of Joe Doherty, a respected elder of the local Ngai Tuhoe Maori tribe. He and his family run Te Urewera Treks here in the eastern Bay of Plenty area, in the central North Island of New Zealand. Today I have Joe one-on-one.

On the drive up he is as happy speaking about his Irish ancestry as his long and local Maori heritage. But when we reach Whirinaki, the first thing he does is stop and pray in Maori. Or at least that’s my take on the Maori invocation or karakia. He pauses at the forest portal, explaining that he will acknowledge the creator and the spirit of the forest, and ask them to welcome us to this place. His voice is deep and his tone reverent, but the words scarcely penetrate the forest, seeming to be absorbed by the foliage.

We step into the ancient podocarp forest, once dubbed a dinosaur forest by David Bellamy because its ancestor trees were around in the Jurassic. If Joe’s prayer hadn’t already done it, the still, quiet and darkly green place would have quickly awed me. Great vaulting trunks of rata and rimu; matai and miro; totara and kahikatea burst from dense and deeply green fern glades. The sometimes fissured trunks are covered with delicate-leafed creepers and climbing ferns; the upper branches festooned with hitch-hiking epiphytes.

When Charles Darwin first stepped into a Brazilian rainforest, his breath was similarly taken away. “Sublime devotion (was) the prevalent feeling”, he reported, describing:

Twiners entwining twiners — tresses like hair — beautiful lepidoptera — Silence — hosannah.

For us there are no butterflies, but the hosannahs of kaka cascade down from the tree tops, part parrot-scratch, part song-bird melody. All else is muffled – our footsteps, our conversation – as though in a cathedral. As Joe quietly explains his karakia, it confirms my sense of its closeness to prayer. Surely part of prayer is a humbling and grateful recognition of powers far greater than the human.

I pause to wonder why I, as a Christian, do not stop to make this sort of acknowledgement in similar places. Walking through this botanical wonder, I also ponder how Christian notions of sin might apply to the destruction of the great majority of New Zealand’s podocarp forests. In 1947 the New Zealand Forest Service saw it in different terms, summing up with chilling pragmatism that "dairy farming demands such land (and timber) in the national interest and kahikatea forests are therefore impossible."
Against such a backdrop Whirinaki is a miraculous survivor; a virtual tree museum in national terms; a small arboreal throw-back. Today it is surrounded by a vast acreage of pine and eucalypt plantation, tree farms that deaden mile after mile of the drive down SH1 from Auckland to Wellington.

I first drove that road in the early 1970s, a wide-eyed and gormless Australian student on a fleeting visit. But even then I had a sense that the heart was missing from this countryside. Here in Whirinaki, 35 years later, might I have found its still-beating pulse? Here at least, the wonder of water and soil are still in the service of what has grown and flown here since the dinosaurs. As Joe tells me about the long human connections here, the picture widens. I gain a glimpse of a living system of plants and animals; humans and landforms, that indicate it’s even more than just the botanical heart of New Zealand’s North Island. We can have a place in the forests too. Darwin’s hosannah fits Whirinaki.