Monday, 26 December 2011

The Nature of Christmas

I recently chortled at a one-liner that bemoaned crime in multi-storey carparks as “wrong on so many levels”. I thought to invert the line and apply it to Christmas, an occasion that seems to me right on so many levels.

Signs of Christmas: waratah blooming on Kunanyi/Mt Wellington 

 At the personal level I love the chance Christmas offers to stop and to get together with some dear ones. Socially I love the “good will” option that we might take up with our neighbours and acquaintances. Theologically I love that the birth of a child in poverty, in a dusty backwater of the Roman empire, caused – and still can cause – such ructions among the powerful and self-important. I even love the crazy hodge-podge of traditions, from the heart-stopping sublimity of some carols to the head-shaking silliness of a white-bearded fat man house-breaking through chimneys.

But when it comes to nature and Christmas, as an Australian I really do get a little stumped. So many of the themes and traditions of Christmas are based on winter solstice: the shortest and darkest days; the coldest and bleakest weather. It’s a time where hope can seem deeply buried. No wonder fatted beasts are slaughtered and ale flows free!

In contrast, we in the southern hemisphere have just passed the longest day. Far from scraping up cellared food, we are surrounded by the plump fecundity of summer gardens. There is a surfeit of light, and often of heat. Roasted meats, plum puddings and mulled wines can feel a little out of place, not to mention reindeer, sleighs and songs of snow.

So what have Australians done to “indigenise” Christmas? In the late 1940s, composer WG James and lyricist John Wheeler wrote a series of carols that wove Australian outback themes into a Christmas setting. I was part of a generation of Australian school children that learned to sing about brolgas dancing and drovers singing “noel noel”. 

Brolgas in a Kakadu wetland 

Despite their blatant artifice, they remain strangely affecting for me. So when, earlier this year, I actually saw brolgas dancing “out on the plains” of Kakadu, I was thrilled. Of course we didn’t have to go to Kakadu to find Christmas birds. This year one of the first sounds of Christmas morning in our bush was the soft “ting” of green rosellas greeting the dawn. These were my gentle Christmas bells, even if they were followed by the harsh “cark caaark” of some ravens: a reminder that softness is always tempered in Australia, even here in Tasmania.

A yellow-tailed black cockatoo decorates our banksia tree 

A few days earlier we’d been visited by some wise cockatoos, perhaps the same ones which came last Christmas. Again they became the most welcome of decorations, landing on one of the banksia trees I'd planted a decade ago. And again they feasted on the banksia cones, conversing in a very Australian way, via scratchy half-squawks and atonal squeaks. 

I guess Christmas is everywhere – and anywhere – if you care to look.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Meet The Quokkas

[Glimpses of South West W.A. - Part 2]

A quokka on Rottnest Island, Western Australia 

No doubt Paul McCartney only intended it as a witty one-liner. But when he called this place “the rottenest island I’ve ever been on”, he was neither the first nor the last to give Rottnest Island a bad name.

It started with Dutch sailors who bumped into the West Australian coastline, sometimes literally, in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Seeing the marsupial quokkas in large numbers on this island, they called it “Rottnest”, meaning rat’s nest. How they mistook a 3-4kg hopping marsupial for a rat is beyond me. But then I have never been at sea for months or years at a time. It does strange things to men.

So “Rat’s Nest” it became, and that was just the start of its ignominy. In the late 19th century the island, about 5km off the coast, became infamous as a largely Aboriginal prison. On our visit we hear stories about Wadjemup, “place across the water” in the Noongar language, from Lennie, a Noongar man.

He tells us how the Rottnest prison, built using mainly Aboriginal prisoner labour, held large numbers of Aboriginal men and boys. Many were imprisoned for breaking laws they could not even comprehend. As we look over the water towards the mainland, Lennie asks us to imagine how those men would have felt when they could see their home camp fires by night.

Dark past: a holding cell on Rottnest Island 

I am far from agreeing with the ex-Beatle about the island. It is a beautiful place, with miles of stunning beaches and coastline lapped by the azure tints of the Indian Ocean. And it has a fascinating history and an enviably laid-back feel to it. But the fraught and under-told Aboriginal history does sit awkwardly alongside the “million miles from care” tourism tag that “Rotto” – as most locals call it – carries.

There are other unacknowledged discrepancies like this in the west. It appears to be feeling little of the economic uncertainty hitting the east of Australia. Perhaps the enjoyment of prosperity in an enviably beautiful place is able to paper over cracks that might elsewhere be acknowledged.

I had earlier heard stories of the cruel and ignorant treatment of quokkas on Rottnest. During drunken end-of-year trips to the island, local youths had invented quokka soccer, a “game” that included these comely little marsupials being kicked to death “for fun”. It made international news in 2003, after which local authorities vowed to crack down on such behaviour.

A collage of scenes from Rottnest Island 

Despite their maltreatment, the quokkas on Rottnest aren’t fazed by human presence. I stand and watch a group resting in the shade of a shrub. Occasionally one hops out to prod and snuffle at the ground. To my Tasmanian eyes it is like a smaller version of our pademelon. Its movements, its pear-shape, its tapered snout, are all similar to my back-yard “paddies”. Apart from size, only its sandier colouring and noticeably more rounded ears are standout differences.

I stand quietly watching, taking the odd photograph, but mostly simply marvelling at the compact completeness of this wee beast. Its sweetly furred face, set with dark liquid eyes and a matching snout tip, would surely beguile anyone with a scintilla of creature feeling.

I consider again how authorities have responded to quokka cruelty. Somehow their message not to get “blotto on Rotto” seems as much to encourage as to discourage the kind of drunkenness that unleashes the dumb brute inside of us. Or is that being unfair to brutes?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Curious Karri

[Glimpses of South West W.A. - Part 1]

A large karri tree, Boranup Forest, Western Australia 

Perhaps it’s just me, but primary school geography always seemed full of trees. From the African savannah and the Amazonian rainforest, to the jungles of Borneo and the conifers of Scandinavia, other countries were where you’d find extraordinary trees. If Australian trees were mentioned at all, it was the jarrah and karri forests of Western Australia. And that may as well have been a foreign country.

I arrive in the Boranup Forest, in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, towards evening. We drive slowly past a fire crew that is marshalling traffic through a control burn in jarrah forest. (The same fire crews will soon be fighting the fires that devastate Prevelly and Gnarabup, but that's another story.)

The place we’re staying is less than a kilometre away. The evening is cool and overcast, and the fire is downwind of us. Curious, we return after dark to watch.

 The Boranup Forest burn-off at night

This is no inferno. Flames ripple and trickle across the forest floor; climb half-heartedly up trunks; lick lower branches clean of leaves. For the most part the sound is that of gentle waves on a distant shore. Occasionally there is a roar as flames create a Roman candle inside a hollow tree; a crash as those flames bring the tree crashing to the blackened earth in a spray of sparks.

In the morning the fire continues to creep through the jarrah. We drive a few kilometres away to an unburned karri forest. It is the first time I’ve seen karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor), and I’m keen for a close-up view.

We walk into the forest. It is still and quiet, except for the occasional cheee-wit of a golden whistler. That at least is completely familiar. Likewise the bracken undergrowth. Although it is a little late for wildflowers, there are hibbertia and crowea flowers that are not unlike eastern varieties.

But there is something else – something elusive – that distinguishes this from the eucalypt forests I am used to seeing “over east”. Although this is regrowth forest, maybe only a few decades old, the trees are already giants, already full of character. Their anthropoid curves and sleeves-rolled-up limbs give them a profoundly soulful presence.

Boranup Karri Forest 

I feel like a late-arriving dinner guest. The other “guests” have paused mid-sentence to turn and stare, benign but curious. As we walk back to the car I’m tempted to turn suddenly, to see if I can catch the karri turning back to their animated conversation. Perhaps next time.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Further Down the Track

[The Leeaberra Track Part 4]

We’d spent two restful nights at a great campsite, and half a day blissfully exploring upstream. The weather had cleared and was fine and mild. What could possibly taint our time in this beautiful place?

Shortly after seven in the morning Tim wandered over as we emerged from the tent. Pointing downstream, he suggested we should have a look. We pushed through bracken, clambered over and around a fallen tree, and there it was. The actual second Douglas River campsite. It sat high on the river bank, with direct river views, filtered sun, sitting logs and cleared communal eating areas. Perfect!

The Real Campsite: Ah well ... still a good place for breakfast 
Apart from castigating ourselves for the eejits we’d been, we did the only other thing we could sensibly do. We carted our gear the whole 20 metres to the “new” campsite and enjoyed breakfast at the best address in the neighbourhood, smiling sheepishly as we basked in its sun, sounds and sights.

When you camp by a river, whether at the wrong or right site, your walk from there is likely to be uphill. At least we were right on that count. A steep climb for a little over an hour started to bring us into country full of grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis).

Lynne takes a break among the grass trees 
If plants can have characters, then grass trees are the kind that would wear striped suits with loud bow ties! Starting as small clumps of spiky grass-like leaves (hence their common name), they are notoriously slow growers, advancing perhaps only a few centimetres per year. Plants develop a trunk as they grow older. Xanthorrhoea recover strongly after fire and other set-backs, often responding with a quirky growth habit, such as bent or multiple trunks, or crazily crooked flower spikes.

A Western Australian grass tree reaching sky-ward ... eventually 
When/if they develop a trunk, the elevated leaf clump comes to resemble a grass skirt, while the flower spikes projecting above the skirts have a spearlike look. It was the spears protruding out of fire-blackened trunks that led Europeans to call Xanthorrhoea “black boys”, a name now considered offensive.

On this section of the track I was more than once convinced there was a walker coming towards us, only to find I’d seen a grass tree in my peripheral vision. We enjoyed meeting these characters of the Tasmanian bush, and the change in vegetation they brought with them. But as we moved south down the track, part of which is an old vehicular track, we started to find clumps of dead and dying grass trees.

It was not the result of drought or fire; the usual suspects in Australia. It’s been caused by the fungus-like plant disease Phytophthora cinnamomi (sometimes called dieback or cinnamon fungus). As we walked south the carnage grew, as grass trees, and other species such as banksia and she-oaks, were dead and dying along the track.

The pathogen is introduced  and spread largely via human action. It spreads via mud on tyres, boots and camping equipment. The north-south only direction of this walk is one way in which its spread can be confined: that and the careful cleaning of gear that’s been in touch with soil or mud in infected areas.

 Dead and dying: grass trees, banksias and she-oaks in a Phytophthora-infected area

The haunting aspect of this disease is that its effect is insidiously selective. In the long-term the affected bush will still be populated by plants. It may look perfectly healthy, but that will be an illusion. It will be made up of only by those species that are resistant to the disease. Gone will be those species – like grass trees – which are highly susceptible to Phytophthora.

One day, a few weeks after the Leeaberra walk, I am walking down the Hobart Rivulet Track on my way to work. Passing the primary school my children once attended, I hear the familiar sound of children playing. At this distance the voices are generic, indistinct, and I imagine my children playing there still. I imagine the always-child in me playing there too. I become wistful about time passing, things moving on – even in two generations.

It gets me thinking about the legacy we have left in Tasmania, after less than ten generations. Down the Leeaberra Track, for instance, where is the sound of the real black boys playing? Further down the track will we lose the grass trees too? Change may be a necessary part of life, but do we want to be responsible for change that is harmful; change that impoverishes; change that is preventable? 

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Listening to the River

[The Leeaberra Track Part 3]

 Lynne and Tim at "The Growler", Douglas River

And on the third day we rested. I realise God managed to wait till the seventh day, but clearly we are not in His league. We had already planned two nights at the second campsite, so when the rain persisted through the morning, we needed little persuasion to stay in our sleeping bags.

All morning light rain fell, pooling in the tree tops, sending plopping drops, loud and large, onto our tents. The river shooshed along nearby; birds chitted and sang; we chatted, read or dozed, stirring only when bodily urges dictated. There is something profoundly satisfying about this kind of rest after exertion, especially when you are warm and dry and in good company.

Until well into the afternoon, the benignly wet weather continued to give us an excuse not to get up. We breakfasted in our tents, with only a quick excursion outside – during a dry spell – to boil the billy. But by late lunchtime our luck ran out: the showers ceased. Via negotiation hollered from tent to tent, we agreed to emerge for a late lunch and a “leg stretch”.

Rockpool detail, Douglas River 

Our exercise, carrying only day-packs and camera gear, comprised a very slow stroll up the very beautiful Douglas River. Deeply enthralled, we stopped frequently to photograph, share our finds, or just simply watch and listen to this lovely small stream. How perfectly Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” captures the spell that the river wove around us that afternoon!

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.

At our slow wandering pace, we started to notice detail: the varying sounds of water on rocks, the contrasting textures and colours of rocks, the changing smells from forest litter to waterfall ozone. One small waterfall we dubbed “the growler”, as its particular geometry gave it a deep, resonant “voice”.

A little further upstream we added to the bestiary when we saw a “crocodile”! Joint lines in sedimentary rock aligning with eroded holes to create not one but two stylised sets of croc jaws and eyes. Facing each other, they looked like some sort of primitive bas-relief of crocodiles kissing.

The "Kissing Crocodiles" sit above a coal seam, Douglas River 
Beneath our stylised reptiles, we were surprised again to find a coal seam with evidence of 19th century mining, in the form of an adit, a kind of horizontal shaft. Just how desperately difficult it must have been to mine and move coal from this rugged and enclosed valley is evidenced by the small scope of the extraction.

We noticed other less benevolent aspects of the river. Despite the bed of the stream being wide and well watered, we saw very few shrubs or trees at low levels. Instead we found freshly concussed rock, savagely pruned trees, and mounds of debris and flood wrack, some of it well up the river’s banks. Clearly the floods of the previous winter, and the winter before, had scoured much of the vegetation flat.

On a calm and gentle spring day it was hard to imagine this. But the occasional forest giant, dead, bare and lodged up the bank, gave us some idea of the ferocity of flooding.

A gentle river today, but the gouged tree tells another story
Eventually we wandered, hopped and scrambled our way back to camp. We had plenty to talk and think about. I found it interesting that a few short hours immersed in a place like this could have us noticing and naming features; pondering on significant events and changes; creating a kind of a mental map that meant more to us than the cartographic one. Given several thousand years, would these kinds of thoughts become song-lines? Or part of the dreaming? Was that how it worked for Aboriginal people who lived intimately with places like this for so long?

Whatever the answer, as I settled back into camp for a second night, it was more than the starry sky that had me feeling small – and young.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

And the Weather Gods Smiled

[The Leeaberra Track Part 2]

Ah, the pleasures of walking in spring in Tasmania! You never know what cards the weather gods are going to deal you. In that regard it's much the same as walking here in summer or autumn. Or winter, for that matter.

On day two the vague forecast for this part of the world is for late rain. But by the middle of the day the clouds are already thickening. After our morning being seduced by the cooling waters and other delights of the Douglas River at the Heritage Falls campsite, we discuss staying another night. We end up agreeing that we’ve seen the area's major sights, and convince ourselves that the clouds actually mean it won't be as hot as yesterday.

Consulting the map, we note that our ascent to the next high point is only about one and a half hours: a much shorter time – and smaller altitude gain – than yesterday. Surely it can’t be that bad? We sling our packs up onto logs, wince our way into them, and immediately feel our resolve eroding.

Fresh is a relative term here, but with slightly fresher legs and lungs, we manage to scramble up the slope, around or over numerous windfall trees. For most of the first hour it's sharply steep, but then it levels off accommodatingly. Tim’s theory is that there are always four false summits before you reach the top. We hope he's wrong, but by the time we reach the day's high point - the saddle near Lookout Hill - we seem to have confirmed his theory.

[Tim plunges through the ferns on the Leeaberra Track, Day 2] 

There are, of course, various ways to beat false summits. One is not to walk at all, but that seems lazy, if not cowardly. Another is to drop onto the ridge top by parachute or helicopter. I once did the latter, in the line of duty of course, landing on top of the Ironbound Range, on Tasmania's South Coast Track. After the peace-shattering chopper had left, I sampled the walk from the Ironbounds down to Louisa Bay for some map notes I was preparing. Carrying a day pack and talking into a tape recorder (yes, so last century!), I found the experience surprisingly unsatisfying, despite the stunning scenery. Maybe one of the rules of walk satisfaction is that you have to sweat and toil for your moments of joy.

Certainly at our saddle on the Leeaberra Track we’re sweaty and breathing hard, in need of a long drink and scroggin break. The promised rain seems to have vapourised, and the sun is back again, hot and strong. We don’t bother to find out exactly where the lookout part of Lookout Hill is. There’s eucalypt forest in most directions, and we're doubtful any high point will offer a less interrupted view than where we have stopped.

To the east we can see the long strands of Templestowe and Seymour Beaches. Further south we think we make out the township of Bicheno, tucked in behind hazy hills. As we guzzle water and Sour Squirm lollies, our conversation and imaginings turn towards the town, with its lattes and thick crust pizzas; its hot showers and soft beds.

What are we thinking? These are dangerous musings at such an early stage in a walk! With warning words against the "fleshpots of Bicheno", I hoist my pack and hurry off down the track, brushing noisily through a thick green understorey of hardwater ferns. The sound drags me back to the here and now.

For a time we're into the kind of easy rhythm that sometimes comes on the second day, especially when you're walking downhill. Still, it's a long march, and we're staggering again by the time we reach the next turn-off. I'm inclined to give the side-trip to Nichols Cap and Nichols Needles a miss; anything to get us to the campsite sooner. But I'm soon convinced that I may never pass this way again; may never get to see these unusual dolerite pillars up close again.

[Lynne and Tim on Nichols Cap, with Nichols Needles behind] 
We replace heavy, full packs with light day-packs and almost skip toward what proves to be a surprisingly spectacular sight. I've seen and climbed many dolerite mountains, and yet somehow these smaller siblings hold their own for being in this humbler east coast setting. From the bony prominence of the Cap we look down a quite vertiginous drop between us and the twin spikes of the Needles. But the wind is rising and the cloud thickening. It's time to strap on our engines of torture for today's final push.

We stumble down to the campsite late, but there's time to set up our tents and cook dinner before it's dark. Just as we finish it starts to sprinkle, and by the time we're into our sleeping bags, there's a steady patter of rain to send us to sleep. We're smiling: just occasionally the weather gods are spectacularly benign.

[Consolation: the second Douglas River campsite] 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Good Walk Spoiled

[The Leeaberra Track Part 1]

Below Heritage Falls on the Douglas River 

The obsessions of youth often signify something more than the object of the obsession. Girls and horses is one that’s been well explored, but there are many others. I, for instance, was obsessed with golf. By my late teens I had become good enough to play off a single digit handicap. Once I even completed an 18 hole round in one under par. This secured me a trophy whose uselessness was profoundly amusing. A cut crystal sherry decanter was not the perfect prize for a (then) teetotal 17 year old.

By my early twenties I had lost enthusiasm for golf, and was developing some sympathy for Mark Twain's summation of it as a good walk spoiled. Even at the height of my obsession I was at times distracted from golf by the flora and fauna on view on my home course. I remember staring boggle-eyed at spawning eels; pondering the amazing semi-submerged life of mangroves; being transported by the warbling of butcher birds; laughing at the acrobatic antics of galahs. It didn't bode well for my golfing future, but was certainly a pointer to interests that now predominate.

I was reminded of all this when we recently walked the Leeaberra Track in Tasmania's Douglas-Apsley National Park. The three day walk normally begins at Thompsons Marshes, inland of the east coast town of Bicheno. But severe flooding in recent years had taken out two bridges on the access road. Without a four wheel drive vehicle to get us to the track head, we were forced to walk an extra 5.5 kilometres up old logging tracks. It was like having to play golf off the back marker.

To add to our handicap, it was one of those rare October days that gets uncomfortably hot. The walk – from near sea level to 400 metres – proved cruelly, sweatily tedious. We had estimated it would take us between one and a half and two hours. It took nearly three and a half. We arrived at Thompsons Marshes late in the afternoon, thirsty, sweaty and feeling as though we had already done our day’s work. Welcome to the start of the walk!

Tim and Lynne at the "start" of the track, 3 and a half hours after starting!

A good campsite can cover a multitude of sins, and when we finally got to the first night’s camp beside the Douglas River, it turned out to be one of those. Nestled high on the river bank, beneath a canopy of tall trees, the site had most of what you could ask for, including some useful lounging logs.

The hot clear day had turned to a cool clear night, and after a welcome meal, and an even more welcome wash in the river, we relaxed against our logs. Stars pricked the dark above us. Robbed of some familiarity by the trees that blocked our view of their companions, the stars’ beauty and mystery seemed to multiply.

As the river shushed, and currawongs bugled a cheery last post, I contemplated getting out my tripod and trying for a long exposure shot of the canopied stars. But the physical and mental effort needed felt beyond me. Instead comfort, inertia and sore muscles prevailed. After a little more lounging and yarning, we stumbled off to our tents, and slept like our campsite’s logs.

From very early the birds were up and active. A tuning orchestra of calls drew me into consciousness, from the clink of currawongs, the ding of green rosellas, and the cheeeerr of fantailed cuckoos; to the chip of crescent honeyeaters, the weeee of firetails and the dizzy-dizzy-dee of grey fantails. You realise how tuned to birds you’ve become when you’re identifying their calls before you’ve even registered you’re awake!

The morning was set aside for waterfall visits. If you hanker after high mountains and expansive views, the Leeaberra Track would probably not be your first choice. But if you can’t get enough of running, tumbling, gushing, falling or tranquil rock-cloistered water, it’s near enough to perfect.

Tim takes a shortcut down the Douglas River

We picked our way down steep and sometimes slippery tracks – and non-tracks – to the two falls that neighboured our campsite: Heritage and Leeaberra Falls. This was as far as I had been on previous visits to the north of the park. I remember being surprised to find waterfalls of this height and volume in the “dry” east of Tassie.

Flowing water has always entranced me, and although the flow over the falls was more modest this time, it was still impressive enough to still conversation. Each of us wandered around the falls, photographed, or just sat contemplating the ever-changing interplay between fluid and rock.

We knew we soon had to return to the campsite and put those heavy packs back on. Yet somehow the night’s rest and our exposure to this beauty had already started to unspoil this good walk. We were ready for day two.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Seeing-Nose Dog

Our dog "Noo" enjoying the bush 

Quadrupeds are not meant to trip. So it is a little unsettling that our dog, Noo, has started tripping over on our walks through the bush. That she is also barking at shapes and shadows, and has a tell-tale milky film over her eyes, is enough to convince us of the hard truth. At almost fifteen years of age, she is starting to lose her eyesight.

She is going deaf too, seeming to ignore our normal whistles and calls, and only responding to loud claps and yells. I haven’t clapped while walking since we were advised to do this in the Alaskan bush, as a way of alerting bears to our presence. I’m still not entirely sure it wasn’t a joke they play on visitors, as they also told us to sing and talk loudly, and to wear “bear bells”. When you’ve behaved in such a loony fashion while walking, a little clapping and shouting seems quite ordinary in comparison.

When I was young my sisters and I used to debate which would be worse: losing your sight or losing your hearing. As my eyes age and glasses become an essential part of life, I admit to tasting slightly the grief of that power fading. If I was unable to hear music or birdsong or soft conversation, that grief would grow terribly.

Yet somehow I cannot project such grief onto our dog, even as I holler and clap my way through our daily walk. She sheds the years every time we are out, bounding puppy-like through the bush. Although she may stumble over the odd stick or rough spot, I would still back her to find her way home blindfolded. Nose to the ground, scanning territory like an ill-disciplined minesweeper, she has her number one sense fully and joyfully in operation.

"Noo" reads the bush through smell and taste 
I am a pauper in this smelling game. Deploying my mere five million smell receptors from 1.75 metres above the ground, Noo puts her 200 million receptors right onto the subject. She also uses 40% more of her brain to smell than I do. So rather than mourning her declining capacities, or metaphorically putting her out to pasture, I really should engage her as my seeing-nose dog!

I fancy, for instance, that she could tell me a great deal about the cast of characters that have had this bush as their stage all night. Here a pademelon or a family of possums; there a goshawk or a frogmouth. And she’d doubtless fill me in on the plot too: a dispute in this tree; a scent marking on that bush; an owl's pursuit and kill over there; plus the ordinary munch, scratch, hiss and growl of everynight in our bush.

While my life with dogs did not start auspiciously – my first childhood dog was a neurotic people-biter – I have since had four long-lived, characterful and faithful dogs. They have sometimes been hard work, as most worthwhile things are. But time spent with them in the bush has taught me new ways of looking and feeling and smelling and hearing. And their joyful dedication to the present tense is something I am constantly striving to learn. 

Dog tired! Our 1980s dog "Wup" shares a rest with me during a bushwalk (photo - KDM) 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Climbing With Darwin

The summit of Kunanyi/Mt Wellington from the southern side 

In February 1836, while on the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin climbed a mountain. It happened to be Tasmania’s Mount Wellington. For years it had been blandly labelled Table Mountain, but in 1832 it was renamed in honour of the victorious Duke.

Darwin’s ascent of the mountain took him five and a half hours. He blamed this slowness on the “stupid fellow” who guided him via the wetter gullies on Wellington’s southern flanks, rather than up the drier northern slopes.

I look out on those same wetter slopes from my writing desk. Although much has changed in the 175 years since Darwin’s walk, the gullies remain damp. It gives me some sympathy for the man struggling up the same creek lines that harbour the same tree-ferns, that produce the same gloomy shade”, he described.

But Darwin also carried some of that gloom with him. He had been at sea for nearly five years on what was supposed to be a three year voyage. Sea sick, home sick, perhaps sick-at-heart over the implications of his ideas, he was described by the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy, as “so much the worse for a long voyage”.

Certainly he was in no mood to be impressed by Hobart and its mountain when the Beagle docked. After comparing the town unfavourably with Sydney, he went on to describe Mt Wellington as “of no picturesque beauty.”  Yet he was still determined to climb the mountain. And rather than be easily put off, Darwin made two attempts to reach the summit, succeeding only on his second try.

On that fine and warm February day he was kitted out in walking clothes that would horrify the modern walker. They were basically the same as any 1830s gentleman’s street clothes. Ankle length woollen trousers were tucked inside leather boots; a coarse long-sleeved shirt and woollen waistcoat covered the body; a neckerchief covered the throat; a sunhat covered the head. He may well have discarded his heavy outer coat and pocketed his neckerchief, but his clothes would still have been heavy and cumbersome, his boots poorly suited to mud and slippery surfaces.

Dicksonia antarctica: lover and creator of "gloomy shade" 

I picture him on those slippery slopes, a scratched, muddied, puffing, sweating gentleman, tetchily at odds with his incompetent guide. Certainly in his journal he summed it up as “a severe day’s work”.

But once at the summit Darwin seems to have recovered some of his appreciation of life. “The day was splendidly clear, and we enjoyed a most extensive view” he wrote. He stayed on the summit for some hours, not returning to Hobart town till around eight in the evening. I smile at his inability to resist noting in his journal that he’d found a better way down.

Nonetheless I resist poking fun at the famous gentleman from this safe historical distance. It may seem fair to say that getting to the top of this particular mountain is nothing out of the ordinary. But in the context of his time, his health, his equipment, his food and the rigours of a long sailing voyage, he showed great stamina. Not many of us actually continue to push ourselves; to explore; to edit out the pain and sweat; the march flies, the heat, the sleet, the wind, the fog, the fear, the fatigue or whatever else might be involved in getting to a mountain summit.

That stamina in itself is enough to earn some small esteem from me, a fellow walker who has trodden some of the same fern gullies, reached that same unspectacular yet uplifting summit. That alone I can admire. And of course there is the person who this Darwin became, the famous Darwin whose mind and body ranged over some of the wildest terrain, and grasped at some of the hardest ideas possible.

But there is another Darwin, a kind of ghost-Darwin - one that is far more like you and me - that I fancy is always climbing that mountain. It mutters its way up the gullies; it heaves towards those summit cliffs; it humphs at inept companions; it mulls over its deep and dangerous thoughts; it is uncomforted over the absence of its loved ones.

Perhaps one day it will reach that summit again, and get some sense of rest and peace as it looks out over a world far grander than it - or any Darwin - could imagine.

Charles Darwin around the time of the Beagle's voyage 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Take Off Your Shoes!

God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses! . . . Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” Exodus 3:4-5 (abridged)

Sunrise and moonset over Kunanyi/Mt Wellington 

A friend used to frequent a place called Bastard Hill. When he asked why it was called that, a grizzled local replied “because it’s a bastard of a place”. It’s the kind of sensibility that has lead to place names like Dismal Swamp, Useless Loop, Mount Buggery, Bust-Me-Gall Hill and Stinky Bay.
When it comes to place names, Australians don’t get lyrical. We tend to call a spade a bloody shovel. We’re generally not good at poetics or reverence, tending to shy away from overt exhibitions of emotional connection. The exceptions that prove the rule are places like Uluru and, arguably, the MCG. The former is as close to a universally accepted version of holy ground as Australians are likely to get. The Melbourne Cricket Ground’s “sacredness” is only likely to be recogised by that vociferous minority of Australians comprising most Melburnians and the sports mad.
Off-shore you might add places like Gallipoli and Kokoda, but certainly the list of “sacred sites” is a small one for most non-Aboriginal Australians. I wonder if that reluctance to overtly own our connection to place is a short-coming worth working on. I think back to former Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray’s description of the Franklin River as a “brown leech-ridden ditch”. Surely that bluntness merely disguised a wish to exploit or harm that wilderness river.
In thinking about this in local terms, I realised with a slight shock that I have no name for “our” neighbourhood bush. I walk in it most days, whether for a 10 minutes dog walk; as a “long cut” on my way to work; or simply to get out and breathe, ponder, talk, exercise, pray, listen, explore or photograph. To us its either “the back track” or simply “the bush”. But should it have a proper name?

What might this bird orchid be singing? 
Freeing my inner Eeyore for a moment, I’d be inclined to suggest that there isn’t anything particularly spectacular about it. It’s a mixed forest of peppermint and stringybark eucalypt on steepish, flinty mudstone broken here and there by outcrops of sandstone. Although its understorey of shrubs and ground-covers sometimes approaches prettiness, it has been much put-upon over the years, variously fire-ravaged, over-tracked, eroded and beset by weeds. All in all most would feel it more holey than holy.

But what constitutes “holy”? According to the Talmud, “every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, 'Grow, grow.'” How mind-boggling is the thought of every living thing attended by a celestial maintenance team? Only marginally more boggling than the sight of the night sky above the bush; or the moon setting over the cloud-blanketed summit of the mountain; or a bird orchid rising in mute worship from this spring’s leaf litter; or a gang of black cockatoos flouncing and squawking their way through the forest.

The night sky over our bush 
Angels aside, the bush holds enough small wonders to still my soul every time I’m open to that. If holy ground is where you can feel insignificant and yet paradoxically connected to that which IS significant, then yes, this bush is holy ground.

Which makes it a place God can “call” to me from. I think it’s time to take off my shoes.

[I would like to acknowledge Barbara Brown Taylor's book "An Altar in the World" for seed ideas as well as the Talmud quote.] 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Wild Wet West

[Scenes from Tasmania’s West Coast]

[Roaring Forties waves pound the shore at Granville Harbour, Tasmania]  

It is an effort to get to Tasmania’s west coast – its actual coast. Even when you’ve reached the unofficial capital, Queenstown, the nearest accessible salt water is still 40km away by road. And what a road!

Tasmania’s road builders were reputedly paid by the curve, not by the mile. The joke is very close to the truth for the road between Queenstown and Strahan. In the 1930s, the Commonwealth government appeared keen to evade its obligation to pay for a road between the two towns. They thought that they would succeed by agreeing to only fund the construction of the road surface, but not any bridges or culverts.

I can picture the Australian government advisor poring over the map; looking at the rumpled topography; considering the drainage patterns; raising an eyebrow at the huge rainfall. Surely the impoverished State government, he eventually suggests, would never be able to cover the considerable expense of bridging such a route.

He hadn't reckoned on the engineering skills of a workforce used to constructing mine access roads in the wild and hilly west. Today the road is a testament to the cunning of the locals: a triumph of the "little" people over the big city sophisticates.

But the triumph comes at a cost for any road traveller prone to motion sickness. The notoriously winding road follows the contours and somehow evades all of the many creeks. We arrive at dusk, a little green, and mightily relieved.

The next day we explore the shores of Macquarie Harbour by mountain bike. Showers scud by, mud flies up from the wheels, and muscles unaccustomed to the work are stretched. We rest in the rainforest around Hogarth Falls. A deep still green pervades the place. Vivid lime green ferns, both terrestrial and epiphytic, are the highlights contrasting with the regal green of myrtle beech and blackwood, and the whisky hues of the creek water.  

[Forest scenes from western Tasmania] 

I have been in Fiordland, New Zealand, at the same time of the year. There similar forests are watered by similar clouds heaved onto the land by the same roaring forties. In Patagonia I’m told I could experience the same weather, see sibling forests also dominated by southern beech trees of the Nothofagus genus.

Gondwana may have separated nearly 100 million years back, but some of the genes are remarkably and recognisably persistent in these now geographically scattered forests.

A few nights later we sleep in a cabin in Corinna’s Gondwanan forest. The night is still, and remarkably silent. It’s the kind of quiet you can hear. Or perhaps that’s the sound of your blood pulsing. And then the rain comes, first tapping, then drumming, then thrashing and lashing and deluging on the roof just metres above us.

We’re in a rainforest: it’s what you would expect. But this is not ordinary rain. It’s borne by heavily pregnant clouds, which have sprawled down and broken their waters directly over us. The thundering gush makes conversation impossible, even if I wasn’t determined to try and stay asleep.

Here the water cycle is vivid and concise. Just a few kilometres downstream from Corinna, the Pieman River will swiftly return this newborn water to the ocean, although it will meet resistance from the incoming rush of gale-blown swells at the Pieman Heads. And the same winds will bring more clouds, low, fat and ragged, to dump yet more rain and hail on the already sodden land.

But in the morning the birds sing the silence awake, and the sun returns. In the forest, rising vapour interfingers with the growing sunlight, and all seems right with the world.

[Morning, Tarkine rainforest, western Tasmania]