Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"From One Quaking Tussock to the Next”: Walkers and Buttongrass

[A wry celebration of Tasmania's buttongrass: originally presented as the evening entertainment at a scientific workshop in July 2007]

Buttongrass, with it characteristic seed heads reaching skyward


Somehow I have found myself at a buttongrass management workshop. As a bushwalker, surrounded by people who love buttongrass, I wonder whether I should feel a bit like a train-spotter among railtrack engineers? Or a swimmer among hydrologists? 

Surely for bushwalkers, buttongrass is nothing more than stuff you have to travel over or through, at best an inconvenience, at worst a hated impediment. That kind of thinking has quite a tradition. Consider the following accounts from travellers over the last couple of centuries.

A track cutter’s attitude to buttongrass is typified by D. Jones in 1881.

“Whenever we could get a fine day we burned what we could, and the benefit to us was incalculable, rendering the travelling comparatively easy.”  

Fellow track cutter Thomas Bather Moore and his helpers similarly “put a match” to great swathes of moorland. He describes a typical instance near Frenchmans Cap in 1887.

“We found the fire had done excellent work and was still blazing ahead . . . The fires burned for a week, and cleared the hated buttongrass and bauera splendidly, in all directions for miles.”

From the same year here’s the more genteel James Backhouse Walker in his travel book “Walk to the West”.

“The worst of button grass is that the tussocks are so placed that [it] is equally difficult to walk between them as on them, and as the boggy ground is generally undermined by ‘crabholes’ made by a little land-lobster, you find yourself now twisting your ankle by an insecure tread on the top of a springy tussock, now plunging over the top of your boot-tops into a mud hole, each a sufficiently exasperating alternative. A few miles of this sort of walking tends to become monotonous.”

Onwards to the 20th century, at the beginning of which photographer JW Beattie made a trip into “the Barn Bluff country”. He and his party are benighted on the buttongrass plains beneath Mt Oakleigh, an experience he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed. 

“On we went … stumbling and splashing, moving slowly in single file. Sometimes down would go one of the pack horses, and the procession would stop until the order was passed along to move on again, then more stumblings, shoutings, boggings right up to the knees, complete collapses over the wretched grass clumps, wringing wet, and still on we had to move.”

Buttongrass in snow, February Plains, Tasmania


As the century proceeds, the feelings persist. Dr C.S. Sutton’s 1928 sketch of the vegetation of Cradle Mt. curtly tells us that buttongrass “occupies much of the wet, sour ground in the valley.”  Even the customary lyricism of Charles Barrett, in his 1944 celebration of Tasmania entitled “Isle of Mountains”, falls flat before our famous sedge. During a walk he describes “millions of little flower faces brightening the drab-coloured button-grass which flourishes in Cradle Valley.”

Keith Lancaster’s report of a Launceston Walking Club trip to Frenchmans Cap” in 1951, reinforces this desire for botanical diversity.
“The stretches of button grass along the Loddon Plains had their monotony broken by occasional Xyris, Patersonia and Styllidium blooms and several little clusters of the delicate little violet Utricularia.”

ET Emmett in “Tasmania By Road and Track” describes a trip on the Overland Track in the late 1940s.

“After lunching by the sandy shore of a pine-fringed lake all we had to do was to stumble through five miles of button-grass, cross a couple of rivers and follow a real track that leads to Cynthia Bay at the south end of Lake St Clair.”

Another public servant, former Conservator of Forests L.G. Irby, had a truly original take on what to do with buttongrass. He has left us an intriguingly titled two-volume work, “Conquest of the Button Grass Plains and Heathlands of Tasmania”. In it he outlines his experiment in transforming buttongrass plains into agricultural land. He claims “that excellent pastures can be established at a cost, ex fencing and farm buildings, not exceeding twenty pounds per acre” (this in 1955 currency). He also contends that these “formerly treeless wastes”  could be turned into conifer forests, producing millable trees with heights of 70 feet in 14 years. (I would suggest that leaking this report to Gunns might not be a good idea if you value the retention of buttongrass moorland as “treeless wastes”.)

Moving closer to our own era, C.J. Binks in his 1980 book “Explorers of Western Tasmania” gives a long and fair description of buttongrass, and its prevalence in western Tasmania. But in flatly disagreeing with Irby’s hopes, he declares that “button grass has so far defied efforts to tame it for man’s use.” He sums up tartly: it is “useless to man.”

Botanist I.J. Edwards, in “The South-West Book” (1983 edition) informs us buttongrass is the climax species on very poorly-drained sites in the south-west. His first-hand experience of walking there would be backed up by many a bushwalker. He tells us “progress over such an area is quite hazardous, as one must jump from one quaking tussock to the next.”

Let’s hear again the litany of buttongrass descriptors we have so far uncovered: hated, useless, wretched, monotonous, drab-coloured, insecure, exasperating, hazardous, sour, waste. If buttongrass were a child raised on that kind of language, you would fear for its self-image. Can we say nothing more positive about it?

With some difficulty I have uncovered a few passages that might be thought to reflect a little more favourably on buttongrass. Let’s return to 1887 and James Backhouse Walker, who eventually started to really see the buttongrass, even while calling it “a curious production of nature”. He continues: 

“A walk across the Western Country affords large opportunities for studying it at leisure. It . . .  is not particular about its abode. It is a thin leaved yellow rush growing in thick tussocks 2 or 3 feet across, and each tussock bearing a few flower stalks some feet long and about as thick as a stout knitting needle, adorned at the top by a seed vessel like a rounded marble or button – from this button it derives its name.”

At least he is really looking now, and eventually he can’t help but see some poetry in the views around the Navarre Plains. 

“The most striking were the precipitous bluffs and peaks of Mount King William rising in our front from dark green forest, beyond a broad foreground of button-rush plain glowing with every blended tint of yellow, red and brown.”

A very different poetry emerges a century later from Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray. After a visit to Tasmania in the 1980s, he wrote “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”, a poem that has been widely praised and anthologised. I suggest you don’t try to understand this poem, but rather just go with its flow of images and words.

“Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels,
jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages, peaty cupfuls, soft pots overflowing,
setting out along the great curve, migrating mouse-quivering water,
in the high tweed, stripping off its mountains to run faster in its skin.”

Murray goes beyond simply seeing. He is having total sensory immersion in buttongrass. Perhaps the first step to us achieving something similar is the simple act of standing. I literally mean standing still in the middle of buttongrass. Is there anything that can give you a greater sense of arrival in the Tasmanian wilderness than being surrounded by buttongrass? 

Consider what else you might experience. If it’s a hot day, you may feel the stored-up warmth of the peat radiating out towards you, the buttongrass stalks becoming antennae that focus the heat onto you. Or in the rain, cease your talk, soften your breath and listen. Can you hear the dripping of water from the stalks? Do the droplets runnelling down towards the heart of the grass make a sound? And when saturation point is reached can you make out any trickling, burbling or squelching coming from the earth beneath you? If you’re up early on a still morning, look for bedewed webs spanned between the patient stalks. Not one, not a few, but hundreds and thousands of exquisite ephemeral arachnid artworks.

When you’ve been in its midst for a while, you may even find yourself removing your hat in a mixture of awe and admiration for what this vegetation community has achieved. On the workshop's field trip many of us had the chance to do just this. For an hour or two we stood out in the south-west’s elements, thinking ourselves brave in our thermals and “Goretices” (that’s the official plural of Goretex). And then we scurried   back to our bus and returned to warm and comfortable habitats. 

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every week, every year, every decade, every century, every millennium for the last several thousand millennia, with no time off for good behaviour, these moorland communities have stood out there. Through sun and snow, freeze and thaw, flood and drought, fire and wind, buttongrass has not only stood, but thrived and spread to become the signature floral species of the south-west. It might not be greatly loved, but you have to admire its persistence and success (a bit like John Howard, I suppose).

Having gone from the sublime to the gor’ blimey, I would like to finish with reflections on the lighter side of buttongrass. I want to introduce you to three games that you might try when you’re next out among the buttongrass. 

Sometimes walkers CAN skirt the buttongrass

The first is a time-honoured game, and there are still some who like to play it, even if the correct attire is becoming harder to procure. My experience of this game, which I will call “Where’s Wally?”, dates back to the early 1980s. Picture the scene: my walking friends and I are in the Cuvier Valley, to the west of Lake St Clair. Remember that in this era Goretex is still a dormant synapse in some chemist’s brain, and we, like most bushwalkers, have been outfitted at the nearest army surplus store. Picture us in our khaki woollen trousers, our drab woollen jumpers, hand-knitted woollen beanies, ex-army boots and gaiters. As the rain descends I stop and drop my khaki canvas H-frame haversack, and reach inside for my state-of-the-ark oilskin.

But my companions have moved on into the gathering gloom. When I’ve finally got my jacket on, I look up to find that they’ve disappeared. Misty rain blurs whatever distinction there may have been between their clothing and the surrounding buttongrass. As an aside, I will confess that I’ve never actually walked with a Wally, but “Where’s Wally?” sounds better than “Where’s Jim?” or “Where’s Ken?”. And the effect is the same. My khaki-clad companions have become invisible against the buttongrass. 

So the aim of the game is simply to find your companions again. After 5 minutes of trying – back there in the Cuvier Valley circa 1981 – I began to feel a bit like a member of the legendary Heckarwee tribe. A congenitally short-statured tribe, averaging only 4 feet in height, they were said to wander around the 5 foot-high grasslands of Central America saying “We’re the Heckarwee!”

The second game sounds similar, but there are key differences. The aim of this game is to seek and find discarded footwear in buttongrass bogs. I call this game “Vhere’s Volley?” for reasons that might require a little explanation. For decades now walkers from mainland Australia, in particular those from NSW, have run a noisy campaign against traditional leather walking boots, preferring Dunlop’s lightweight tennis shoes known as Volleys. Here’s an early example of their propaganda taken from the book “Paddy Pallin’s Bushwalking and Camping” (1985 edition, written by Tim Lamble, pp 48-49). 

Intrinsic in the protection offered by a boot is the lack of care needed to place the foot on the ground. The picture of a relentless army, crunching its way across the country, is not far removed from the practice of some walkers. The lighter shoe reminds its wearer of the sensitivity of both foot and countryside.

This high-sounding rhetoric dissolves before the acidity of the peaty mud underlying buttongrass, which will soon remind the wearer that Dunlop Volleys were never made to stand up to Tasmanian conditions. They deteriorate rapidly on such trips, soon gaping, and leaving the tender mainland foot open to the elements. Even legendary NSW Volley walker Dave Noble confessed as much when he told aus.bushwalking that Volleys “tend to rot a bit quicker in the acidic buttongrass water - and you can only get about two weeks solid walking out of a pair.” 

But more than that, Volleys can’t always be successfully extracted along with the foot when you step into a deep mudhole. Thus do buttongrass moorlands become graveyards for inadequate footwear, and deliver us the wonderful game: “Vhere’s Volley?” For this game you simply need a rubber-and-canvas-seeking equivalent of a metal detector, and a pen and paper to keep score. I admit I haven’t tried it out yet, but I would envisage world record scores coming out of places like the Cuvier Valley.

The third and final game very neatly combines botany and ornithology. There’s a delightful synchronicity about it in our current context, as it features a bird that is almost totally associated with buttongrass. I’m referring to the ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). The alert among you may already be anticipating the name of this game, but I would urge you to hold your council for just a moment. My experience of this game is restricted to the area around Melaleuca in the south-west, but I understand it can be played in many other parts of western Tasmania, even at the Strahan airfield.

The key to the game is to find one of these birds before it finds you. This is easier said than done. I first played it on the boardwalk between Melaleuca and Cox Bight. As I walked along in a boardwalk-induced trance, I was startled by a sudden rush of wings. A brownish/greenish blur arced across the track, at a very low trajectory, and settled into the buttongrass some 20 metres ahead. Each time I came near, it would repeat the performance, doing so for well over a kilometre. And yet in all that time, despite having a good bead on the whereabouts of the parrot, I could never spot it before it flew off.

Of course the game is called “Where’s Wallicus?”, and I would encourage you all to try it out when next in the area.
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