Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Home of the Rainbow

[rainbow on Bruny Island, Tasmania. Photo by Lynne Grant]

Why are there so many songs about rainbows? – Kermit the Frog (song by Paul Williams)

I sometimes feel I’m living in the home of the rainbow. By accident more than design, I happen to live where the morning sun meets the mountain mists. Particularly in the cooler seasons, when clouds hug the mountain’s flanks and the rising sun projects straight up the avenue, rainbows are an amazingly regular phenomenon.

I think of rainbows as a classic case of science meets poetry. The science, first described by Descartes in the 1630s, and later refined by Isaac Newton, seems as eccentric as any poem. The essential explanation is that when sunlight meets a water droplet, it bends as it enters the droplet, reflects off the back of the drop, then bends again as it exits the drop. 

As different parts of white light bend (refract) at different rates, the rays are split into their component colours, splaying like a deck of cards: red on top and violet on the bottom. That makes a rainbow a display of light that’s been bent, bounced and re-bent: measurable, predictable, beautiful. 

The weirdness doesn’t end there. A rainbow is actually a complete circle: the top rim of a cone of light. The observer stands at the narrow point of the cone looking top-ward. But because most observers are on the ground, they only see a part of the circle, as though the cone is partially buried.

Aeroplane passengers and mountaineers often report seeing the full circle, as there is no ground to interrupt the full display. A circle, by definition, lacks a beginning and an end. So you’d imagine this lack would kill off the legend of a pot of gold at rainbow’s end. Add the observation that as you travel toward the end of a rainbow, it keeps moving ahead of you, and you’d think the hopelessness of the chase would be irresistible. Yet somehow the science never quite buries the romance.

Being a hopeless romantic, I once took our (then) young children out to look for the end of the rainbow. We wandered up the valley, rugged up against the cool, moist, morning air. A fresh rainbow had formed just up valley, and we wanted to get amongst the treasure.

Our eldest daughter Sally decided to run ahead, quickly followed by the others. At one point the rainbow seemed to enclose us all. Excitedly Sally called out that she was at the end of the rainbow. “It’s right here! Come and see!” But Stuart, who was some twenty metres back, called out that, No, HE was at the rainbow’s end. Not to be left out, Heather and I were sure that WE were right in the middle of the rainbow.

As a father I know that you can’t always please everyone. But I’m glad to report that at the end of our mini-expedition, we were all able to say, with equal scientific accuracy, that we had each been to the end of our own rainbow.

My justification for that bold statement is that a rainbow really ends in the observer’s eye. The projection of light that is a rainbow is seen uniquely by each person observing it. Each falling water drop actually flashes its colours to the observer for just an instant, before another drop takes its place. And that makes the show subtly and uniquely different for each person seeing it. If that isn’t a treasure, I’m not sure what is.

Maybe that’s why there are so many songs about rainbows.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Look, Up In The Sky!

[A special light: Sunrise over a frozen pool, Mt Field, Tasmania]

[Life is full of surprises. Try looking skyward sometimes ...]

I was watching a short clip from a new film, when my eye was caught by the quality of the light. It was an ordinary outdoor scene somewhere on a non-descript part of the Australian coastline. It may have been cinematographic trickery, but to my eyes there was something about the light that immediately said “Tasmania”. So I was not surprised to learn that much of the film – including the clip I had seen – had indeed been shot in Tassie.

To me one of the subtle secrets of Tasmania is the soft and slanted light of our non-summer seasons. Years ago, when I proposed writing a regular column in the local newspaper, one trial piece referred to the autumn sun as “spreadable like butter”. I was amused when the editor – a crusty old tabloid man – referred to this bit of writing as “almost poetic”. What amused me most was that from him, this was criticism! (Need I say he didn’t choose to publish the pieces?)

But back to the light … I’m talking about the times of the year when fewer visitors come to the island; when the sun blesses rather than burns; when warmth can be found in a north-facing boulder nook or against a stone wall. And when spiders take to the air!

I was reminded of this migratory burst when driving back through Sheffield last week. A barrage of spider strands was floating across the fields, each an elongated exclamation mark of hope highlighted by the subtle, slanted sunlight. 

It was apparently a perfect day, and the perfect time of the year, for spiders to cast their fate to the wind, and go ballooning! This may sound fanciful, but the most efficient way for many species of spider to disperse is through so-called ballooning. To do this a spider will climb to a high point, and release a thread of silk into the air. With the right wind conditions the silk will fan out down-wind, forming a kind of two-dimensional spinnaker.

The spider will eventually let go and sail into the wide yonder, hoping for the best. Ballooning spiders have been found in the ocean; on newly-erupted volcanic islands; on glaciers and ice-caps; on the tops of the highest mountains, in fact anywhere that the wind might take them.

They are part of what ecologists refer to as aeolian plankton: the myriad life forms, mostly invertebrate, that can be found in the atmosphere at any one time. We expect birds and bats to take to the air, but sometimes forget that seeds, spores, eggs and even complete life forms such as spiders and mites, can spend a considerable time in the ether.

Only when the light is right will large vertebrates like ourselves even notice the amazing, drifting diversity of life around, above and occasionaly upon us.

Thursday 13 May 2010

A Shack By Any Other Name

[Nothing beats the glowing heat of wood burning!]

Where you stay for a weekend away depends very much on where you live. I don’t mean which geographic area you visit, but what you call your temporary abode.

In much of mainland Australia it’s called a holiday house, a holiday home, or perhaps a weekender. Sometimes Aboriginal names, such as gunyah, mia-mia or humpy might be used, or even the PNG-derived term donga.

In New Zealand you get away to a bach, a crib or even a whare (pronounced “forry” – a Maori word for hut). In Scotland a humble hut is a bothy, a more palatial get-away is a lodge. But in Tasmania, no matter how grand or humble, it’s always just a shack.

Whatever you call it, there’s something pared down and simple about life at the shack. It seems to be about getting reconnected with each other and with the environment. Obviously it’s a tradition that spreads far beyond our shores.

In Scandanavia there is a long tradition of what they call friluftsliv (translated roughly as “open-air life”). Many seaside, lakeside, forest and mountain areas are set up for this friluftsliv. To help foster a love of all things outdoors, cabins or shacks can be built on some public land. However they may only be used in holiday periods, not as permanent residences.

In the case of Norway, the whole outdoor tradition, with its emphasis on being in touch with the grandeur of its landscapes, has been crucial in shaping Norwegian national identity. In that vein I wonder: is it a stretch to say that shack life is part of the Tasmanian identity?

Not that you have to own a shack. Most of us have managed to borrow or rent one at some stage. That very fact – the quasi-socialist redistribution of shack property – feels like part of the deal.

There also seem to be unwritten customary laws about what a shack does or doesn’t have. Few have dishwashers or phones, but most have lumpy lounges and beds. The pots and pans must come without matching lids. In fact matching anythings, whether cutlery, crockery or bed linen, is the exception rather than the rule.

If the shack has a television it’s usually the sort that has a coat hanger for an aerial, and requires more skill to tune than most mere mortals have. I recall one particularly apt piece of “percussive maintenance” I tried on an ancient set while introducing my children to the delights of Jacques Tati. While we could hardly see the picture, we managed to hear the wonderfully strange soundtrack of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday between my thumping and tweaking of the television.

A recent shack stay on Bruny Island brought back many such memories, and generated more than the usual level shack envy in Lynne and me. We went as far as pricing a shack near the one we were staying in. That a one bedroom shack near Dennes Point could have a $350 000 price tag set our dreams on their ear. Working until we’re 95 just to pay off a part-time play-house seems a little excessive.

Somewhat sobered, we sat back in front of the glowing wood heater in the borrowed shack, thinking of all the things that appealed to us about shack life. The simplified life seemed to be at the heart of it. Even standing at the sink and washing up by hand seems to simplify life, perhaps by slowing everything down. But that particular stay was also highlighted by the wood heater, and that gave me a sudden brainwave.

Some years back we had all but pensioned off our wood heater in favour of the “simple, clean, no-fuss” heat pump (a.k.a. a reverse cycle air conditioner). I didn’t miss the hard graft of gathering, chopping and carting wood. But oh how we missed the loving glow of wood burning!

So to our new house. It too had a heat pump in the main living area (yes … “simple, clean, no-fuss” etc!). But the other half of the house used to be an artist’s studio, which we turned into a study/library/sewing/writing and guest sleeping area. It was a creative use of a large space, but during the cold months it was not very inviting.

Two problems – no shack, and a cold half-house – seemed to point to one lovely solution. Put in a wood heater! And then the brain wave. Why not call the old studio our shack? When we want that simplified life, and that warm glow of burning wood, we simply retreat to “the shack”! We leave the phone, close the door to the main part of the house, and we’re in the shack. No travel time, no ferries, and so far not even a television.

And the best part? The Scotsman in me loves the fact that we’ve saved $348 000 by adding a fire to what we already had, and calling it our shack!

Friday 7 May 2010

On My Watch

Nothing’s sadder, I know, than the passing of time. (Neil Finn, from “English Trees”)

The trouble with normal is it always gets worse. (Bruce Cockburn, from “The Trouble With Normal”)

[a young Tasmanian devil in Tasmania's Central Plateau]

[some natural reflections on progress - and its opposite]

I was born in the optimistic afterglow of World War 2: a classic baby boomer. We weren’t rich, but there was work for everyone, and nobody seemed to starve. The privations of war had departed by the mid-1950s, and if everything was bland, I was too young to notice it.

I was fed an educational diet of science and progress. I came to believe that I could do anything and be anything as long as I gained a good education. To students of the 60s and 70s, the world was knowable. And if you knew enough you could improve the lives of everyone in the world. (Yes, altruism was part of the diet too.)

Many Pooh sticks have passed under the bridge since that rosy era. I like to think that I haven’t been totally pincered by those twin ghouls of middle age: cynicism and disillusionment. But I am finding it harder to be optimistic about human progress in the face of what’s happened here on earth on my watch.

Take road kill, for instance. An odd place to start, admittedly, but in the 1980s, when I first began driving around Tasmania, there was lots of road kill. And most notably, there were large numbers of Tasmanian devils among the animals skittled on our roads. As the top carnivores and scavengers in Tassie, they were naturally attracted to clean-up the dead animals on the road verges; often becoming victims themselves.

In the early 1990s I remember writing a small leaflet explaining to tourists that the amount of road kill was ironically an indication of a healthy population of mammals. By the end of that decade dead devils were already becoming scarcer, and we were starting to hear about a deadly facial tumour disease that was decimating devil numbers.

Sadly it has proven far worse than decimation, which literally means the death of 10%. If there was such a word, we might talk about the nono-decimation of devils, because in some areas devil numbers have been cut by around 90%.

By very unhappy coincidence the fall in devil numbers has occurred at the same time as the European red fox has been (maliciously) introduced into Tasmania. Foxes had been introduced here for “sport” (ie fox-hunting) in the 1800s. Their failure to survive was laid largely at the feet of Tasmanian devils. Devils were believed to have targeted fox cubs, thereby outcompeting them.

To my mind those who deliberately brought foxes in from mainland Australia in the late 1990s rank as environmental terrorists. Had they tried to time their ghastly work better, they could scarcely have managed it. Slipping foxes in via the Bass Strait vehicle ferries, and releasing them close to Devonport and Burnie, they happened to find a place where devil numbers have historically been low. The devil facial tumour disease knocked those numbers even lower, giving foxes a window to breed and spread.

But why am I so concerned about foxes? Here’s a short list of some of the species that are threatened by this voracious predator.
• eastern barred bandicoot
• Tasmanian bettong
• long nosed potoroo
• eastern quoll
• southern brown bandicoot
• long tailed mouse
• velvet furred rat
• New Holland mouse
• hooded plover
• little tern
• fairy tern
• ground parrot
• ground thrush
• painted button quail
• great crested grebe
• green and gold bell frog
• tussock skink
• glossy grass skink.

On the mainland of Australia, foxes have driven some of these animals to extinction. They have also taken a terrible toll on agriculture, especially sheep farming.

That two such tragedies – the demise of the devil, and the rise of the fox – have happened on my watch is profoundly sad to me. That there are many Tasmanians who don’t know and/or don’t care about this is even sadder. Is it the unregenerate baby boomer in me that thinks ignorance and malice need to be combated?

Since wringing my hands won’t do much good, I’d prefer to say how we can ring in some changes. If you even suspect you see a fox, or find any other evidence of one in Tasmania (unusual scats, den sites, stock kills), then put aside your scepticism and call the Fox Hotline 1300 FOX OUT (1300 369 688). And support the work of the Fox Taskforce, who are doing a tough job in the face of a public that is all too easily led to doubt the presence of foxes here.

And as for the devil, you can donate online to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal at www.utas.edu.au/devilappeal. It seems apt that reaching into your purse (the Latin word is marsupium) could help save the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial.