Sunday 29 August 2010

How Green ... and Gold .. is My Valley

[a Silver Wattle coming into full bloom, South Hobart, Tasmania]

It happens late every August. Yet even after 24 years here, it can still catch me unawares. Content in my Eeyore stoicism towards Hobart’s winter, I am sure that the gloom of winter is still in full control. Then one day I notice the glow: feeble at first, and only on the odd tree. But within a week or two a slow tide of luminous gold begins washing up our valley. It starts close to sea level, and climaxes some weeks later not far below the Organ Pipes on Mt Wellington.

It is the annual blossoming of the silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) a common, quick growing and short lived tree. Although common (and disparaged as unspectacular in Wrigley and Fagg’s Australian Native Plants), silver wattle in spring seems to me a most wonderfully Australian tree. It is as though it has distilled summer’s sunshine, matured it through winter’s long dark nights and short cold days and then, come spring, has flung the sunshine willy-nilly onto every available branch.

Each blossom – and there must be hundreds of thousands per tree – becomes a perfect sphere. But peer more closely and you’ll see that each globed blossom in turn contains globelets. As each of these matures, it unfolds, sending a radial burst outwards, giving each whole blossom the appearance of a Roman candle caught mid-explosion. Each blossom is in micro what the whole tree, indeed the whole landscape, becomes in macro: a slow explosive burst of spring exuberance.

[some silver wattle blossom close-up] 

This botanical gusto extends to the blossom’s perfume. If, at first whiff, an individual blossom has only a faint scent, en masse the scent is altogether less modest. It fills the valley with a thickly sweet, almost dizzying tang. Taken together these sensory bursts make wattle blossom time one of the happiest and surest signs of spring. It is enough to turn any Eeyore into a Tigger.

Vertebrates and invertebrates soon join the party, visiting the blossoms day and night. Moths, butterflies, beetles, bugs, bats, birds and even mammals feast on the distilled sunshine in one form or another. Perhaps they know, happy thoughts notwithstanding, that the flowering of the wattle is far from the end of winter. Without fail there will be more snow before the year is out. Eeyore can’t always be wrong.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Winter Glimpses

"Do I look like I'm laughing?" A young kookaburra contemplates a winter's morning in Hobart.


Sweet, soft, all enveloping: a gently persistent rain tips from ragged easterly clouds. When it rains like this, a few hours can feel like forever. And a day, with a fat and tattered grey curtain drawn across the face of Kunanyi/Mt Wellington, can have me wondering whether the mountain exists anymore.

It is the first decent rain of the winter, possibly the whole year. The gutters, clogged with eucalypt droppings, have overflowed all night, plashing and gurgling, disturbing the dark so sweetly it is hard to complain.

Not Laughing

Kookaburras don’t belong here. That’s what I tell a visiting Norwegian naturalist. They see things differently in Europe, where borders and allegiances shift – as much for wildlife as for people – and concepts like wild, native and endemic are relative.

So when the car we’re travelling in bumps a flying kookaburra, and I fail to stop and enquire after its health, my Norse passenger is horrified. I tell him not to worry, that in Tasmania kookaburras are introduced, and therefore feral pests. His outrage grows further, and the rest of the drive is awkwardly quiet.

All life, of course, has an intrinsic value. Had I stopped, sought and found that kookaburra, and looked it in the eye, I could not have disregarded its welfare so easily. When we are face-to-face, it is harder to dismiss care.

Like the kookaburra we come across in a frosty hollow one winter’s morning. It is young, its plumage yet to settle from punk to prime. And it appears injured, not flying but flopping and half-heartedly hopping away, one wing trailing. I am trying out a new camera and keen for a close-up, I creep closer. It stays put, so I move even closer. The kooka barely blinks, just occasionally raising its hackles or looking sideways for emergency exits.

We are eye-to-eye for several minutes. The young bird looks exquisitely healthy: plump, dazzling of eye, immaculate of plumage. Has it crash-landed on a maiden flight, and been genuinely injured? Or is it just cold and faking it? Whatever its story, it is certainly not laughing.

I think of my father hand-feeding kookaburras in parts of Australia to which they’re native. They would fly to him, but to no-one else, sometimes landing on his hand to receive a morsel. After Dad’s death, our family made kookaburras a talisman to his memory.

So feral or not, as I leave this Tasmanian ring-in, I wish it well.