Saturday 30 April 2011

The Ants Are My Friends

Small wonders: ants follow a scent-line up a eucalypt trunk. 

I love a good mondegreen. By simple definition a mondegreen is a miss-heard song lyric, and one of my favourites forms the title of this post.

It refers to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, in the chorus of which he sings “the answer my friends is blowin’ in the wind”. It’s fair to say Bob was never the clearest articulator of lyrics, so this mondegreen, which makes the chorus sound like a friendship pact with the Formicidae family, was probably inevitable.

Most of us would probably have difficulty singing that pro-ant chorus with any degree of feeling. Put simply we’re not on very amiable terms with ants. Their ability to spoil our picnics and trample indiscriminately through our kitchens, is exacerbated by the capacity of some to bite and sting.

But what if we did learn to appreciate these little wonders? Moving to a house among the gum trees has made me think it might be possible. That house is built on the rear section of our old house block, in what used to be a eucalypt forest. When our children were young we often played up there among the trees, taking for granted that we would come across lots of small foraging ants.

We would occasionally pause to watch long lines of them climbing up and down the tree trunks. Awed by their gravity-defying abilities, we also wondered what they were after or where they were nesting. But soon we’d get back to our own business, and leave them to theirs.

Years later, when the new house was built, several of those forest trees were toppled to make way for it. Remove a tree and you remove what has been larder, road system, refuge, nest and meeting place for some ant species. Replace the trees with a building and, from an ant point-of-view, you lay out the welcome mat. Effectively you’ve put back some of their former resources.

So after all these years of admiring our small black ants from a distance, I now find I’m getting to know them up close. In fact a few of them are ambling up my computer monitor as I type. My guess is that they’re a small species belonging to the genus Iridomyrmex, which normally like to forage in eucalypt trees. Since our house has become a substitute tree, they are happy negotiating their way in, over, around and throughout our house.

Friendly advice: an ant monitors my computer  

If ants ponder, they may think it a strangely misshapen, rigid and hard-shelled sort of tree. On the other hand its hollows are vast, its hiding places legion, its “roads” neat and smooth, and its food supplies copious and replenished daily.

* * *

Today we head out into the local bush with our young granddaughters. I’ve given them the task of finding ant trails on eucalypt trunks. They search hard but find very few. We decide it must be ant sabbath. A long spell of fine, warm weather is ending, and perhaps the bulk of their labour is, for the moment, done.

I think of the Bible proverb that advises the lazy: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8, KJV) Perhaps today all has been safely gathered in, and our ants are indoors having whatever sabbath rest they’re allowed.

I had been keen to test out a theory on today’s walk. Having noticed that ants often climb on the northern or western sides of a tree (or a house), but seldom on the southern and eastern side, I wanted to test it with further observation. My conjecture is that they might favour the warmer, drier sides of these structures as these provide easier access and better shelter.

Today’s walk provides too small a sample to really test my theory, but we do get to see a few ant trails. In effect these are invisible pathways that follow a pheromone scent laid down by the lead foragers: more scent-line than song-line. A long and heavily-used trail may be the sign of successful foraging. But today we also observe numerous ants leaving from, and delivering to, a nest hollow.

We also notice how amazingly prolific these little invertebrates are. Everywhere our bush ramble takes us we find evidence of ants. There are ant in hills, ants on the ground, ants under bark, ants cleaning up the dead, even ants under attack (in the form of echidna diggings).

Somebody has to do it! Ants clean up a dead bumble bee. 

By dint of hard work and numbers, ants must be considered among the real movers and shakers of the animal kingdom. Their work in turning over soil, fertilising plants, and removing a huge volume of dead plant and animal matter means they literally help re-shape the face of the earth.

I learn that our Iridomyrmex ants even have a symbiotic relationship with certain caterpillars. In return for providing a security service to the caterpillars, they receive food in the form of a sweet secretion from the grubs.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that we’re actually in a similar relationship with ants. We just might not realise what good friends they can be to us.

Sunday 24 April 2011


Climbing above Lake Rhona, SW Tasmania on a perfect day 

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings – John Muir

Mid last century, as a small child, I was entranced by transistor radios. Our family couldn’t afford one, so I acquired instead a cheap crystal set, a primitive radio without batteries or power. It picked up radio waves, but without power it couldn’t amplify the sound. To improve the signal, we ran a copper wire around the house’s exterior brickwork, and attached the crystal set to this aerial via an alligator clip.

Hunched and hushed in bed at night, earphone in one ear, I would pick up faint sounds through the tiny device; words and music that seemed magic to my young ears. Even then I had an outward urge, a desire to tap into what was happening out there.

And then there were mountains, faintly and tantalisingly visible from the same childhood home. Combine an outward urge and mountains with an adventurous father, and a love for exploring the bush was all but inevitable.

Still, during my apprentice walking years, I quickly understood that bushwalking has a perverse economy. Not only do you do without many of the necessities of life for large chunks of time, you also suffer numerous positive indignities. You experience body-wide aches, voluminous perspiration, and frequent exhaustion. You expose yourself to dire weather, restricted rations, drastic toilet arrangements and almost constant discomfort.

Is it any surprise that first-time walkers often ask a less polite variation of "this is fun!?" Totting up the apparent economic equation, you'd have to agree with those who call economics the dismal science.

And yet – and perhaps this is why I failed economics – I believe there might be an alternative economy at work here. Why is it that so many walkers, even some of those same first-timers, start planning their next walk even while they're going through the anguish of their current walk? Why do we keep banging our heads against this particular wall?

"Are we having fun yet?" Climbing Mt Pelion East in sleet 

One walking friend opts for the endorphin thesis, explaining repeated walking as simple addictive behaviour. Certainly studies show that exercise releases endorphins in the brain. This in turn leads to what is commonly known as runner’s high, which can become addictive.

As a very part-time jogger who has never experienced runner’s high – but can vouch for runner’s grump, runner’s grumble and runner’s unprintable-expletive-dumby-spit – I would have to say I remain unconvinced.

I will risk explaining it a different way. Do we actually keep going back because we experience, and somehow get beyond, a walker’s low? While it would be foolish to argue that hard walking is a true parallel to serious illness or significant loss, the despair and ennui that sometimes engulf me on the hardest of walks, smell and feel kin to these. The worst moments can be accompanied by a deep psychic innertia that feels as insurmountable as grief or despair. How do you go on?

I think of the Samuel Beckett character in The Unnamable. "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." Somehow body and soul move on, to the eventual strengthening of both. And that’s the point: that in getting up and carrying on despite the agonies, we grow. Our psyche expands in ways we wouldn't think possible when we're in the midst of the suffering. (Just don't call it character-building!)

Another part of the explanation for our recidivist behaviour might be sought outside of ourselves. Many of us sense that there is something out there that calls to us. Scotsman David Craig, in his fine climbing book, Native Stones, plays with the notion that mountains are somehow alive. “How else to convey the sense that they are beings, whose company I need as much as people’s”.

This creates the tantalising thought that we might somehow have a relationship with these places. If so it would seem no ordinary reciprocal relationship, for how could a mountain need us?

Certainly on my side, the desire to be in the company of wild places is very real. Sometimes it feels like a form of occupation, a kind of reclaimation, even an expression of belonging. It is certainly no claim of ownership. Rather presence becomes a counterweight for absence. We have stories of gain to counter those of loss; return that stands against exile; fellowship in place of brutality; a tentative re-inhabiting that witnesses against genocide and extinction.

By the very ordinary act of being there, we also witness the passing of many things both ordinary and extraordinary. Our attachment grows, despite the wilderness’s seeming indifference to our presence. It continues as it always has. Yet by being there we can somehow tap into, and be fed by, that continuity. We begin to feel that we somehow belong.

If this were a reciprocal relationship, we would have to ask what the wild places receive in return? Is it possible that they gain a form of protection - albeit a tenuous form - from being loved by us? After all, aren't we humans known for protecting that which we love? Beyond waiting for us to go the way of the thylacine, the wilderness seems to have no other choice.

Meandering through alpine herbfields on a perfect south-west day 
Tonight is a clear autumn night. I am camped on an alpine beach beside Lake Rhona. The next day will be as close to perfection as a walker could wish. We will sweat up the steep slopes to the rocky plateau; we'll meander through the alpine herbfields; we'll scramble to the top of Reeds Peak and take in views that defeat superlatives. We'll then return to a calm and sun-filled beach, and soak our sweat-stained bodies in the icy lake.

But that's tomorrow. Tonight, 50 years after that crystal set, I lie hunched and hushed in my tent, listening still. There are no more than faint and hopeful whisperings from the mountain, but I sense I will not be disappointed.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Nature Writer: An Interview with Fortyspot

[Some of my thoughts about nature writing]

Fortyspot  is a blog run by Lyn Reeves, a Tasmanian poet, editor and publisher. Lyn recently interviewed me about my passion for nature and my love of the genre "nature writing". Here's the interview, interspersed with some of my photographs. It is reproduced with Lyn's kind permission.

Fortyspot: When did you first become interested in nature writing, both as a reader and as a writer? What attracts you to this form of writing?

PG: I think it’s come out of a lifelong love of the natural world. A childhood chasing butterflies and cicadas; keeping silk worms; catching skinks and so on. And devouring “How and Why Wonder Books” on volcanoes, dinosaurs and the like.

But it was reading Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in my 30s that really turned on my nature writing light bulb. It was like discovering a whole new planet that had barely been explored. Dillard is a writer who sees beneath the surface, and writes with a knowledgeable love of nature that leaps from the page.

That was the late 80s, and I spent the next few years trying to find more books like that. I’m strongly attracted to writing that shows me what’s hidden in plain view. I eventually decided to try and write my own local version of that.

Buttongrass and mountains, Southwest National Park 

Fortyspot: Who are the nature writers you most admire or who have influenced you the most and who you might recommend to someone wanting to learn more of the art of nature writing?

PG: I’d start with Annie Dillard and Richard Nelson. Dillard once told an interviewer “You almost have to hold a gun at my head to make me read ‘nature writing’, but I’ll crawl over broken glass for Richard K. Nelson.” Amen to that! I count Richard, who is based in Alaska but often visits here, as both friend and mentor. His “The Island Within” is breathtakingly good.

In a field generally seen as dominated by American writers, I should also mention classics like Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac”, Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” and the works of writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams.

But there’s a British tradition too, often more bucolic than wild in nature. The father figure is probably Gilbert White (“The Natural History of Selborne”), but others include 19th century figures like John Clare and Richard Jeffries. In the 1950s T.H. White wrote a memorable book in “The Goshawk”, but also had some wonderfully observed nature writing in his history/fantasy “The Once and Future King”.

Of the more recent Brits, I was also lucky enough to meet and spend time in the Tasmanian wilds with the late Roger Deakin. His “Waterlog” is a classic; charming, poignant, acutely observed, and as disarmingly eccentric as the author himself. Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and Kathleen Jamie’s “Findings” are two other recent book I’ve enjoyed and admired.

A couple of quality magazines that feature this kind of writing are “Orion” (from the US) and “Resurgence” (from the UK).

In Australia the list is thin. Eric Rolls’ “Celebration of the Senses” and “Doorways: A Year of the Cumberdeen Diaries”, and more recently Mark Tredinnick’s “The Blue Plateau”, are some notable exceptions.

King Billy pine at Lake Rhona 

Fortyspot: In 2002 you co-founded the WildCare Tasmania International Nature Writing Prize, the world’s first literary award for unpublished nature writing. What led you to do this, and how did you go about it?

PG: As I noted above, I believed there was a dearth of Australian nature writing. With this in mind I asked Eric Rolls where nature essays might be published here, and he indicated that the options were few. In 1992 I wrote an essay about this in Island (#53, 1992). It was a kind of “call to arms” for nature writers. It took nearly a decade, but I eventually took up my own call, and travelled to Britain, Ireland and the US to study the nature writing traditions there.  

I learned much, including that there was no writing prize anywhere – even in the US – for new nature writing. I came back and shared my findings with people like Pete Hay, and David Owen (then editor of Island), and we came up with the prize idea. When Andrew Smith of WildCare came on board as the major sponsor, we were off and running.

Fortyspot: The prize defines nature writing as literary prose whose major inspiration and subject matter is the natural world, not necessarily excluding its significance for humans and/or their interactions with it.’ How did you arrive at that definition and what were some of the models or templates that you had in mind as examples of the genre?

PG: Pete Hay essentially came up with that definition. He’d been teaching literature and the environment at UTas for many years. We didn’t really have any models or templates, we just knew that we wanted people to engage in a heartfelt and literary fashion with the natural world.

Winter scene: Walls of Jerusalem National Park
Fortyspot: From reading the entries and prize-winners in this biennial competition, can you describe the general direction or particular attributes that distinguish the works submitted as ‘nature writing’. Have there been any ‘stand out’ entries that you’d like to mention?

PG: The best entries tend to be grounded in a particular place, and offer a reflective and knowledgeable consideration of experience in that place. In this context Robert Macfarlane talks about the need for “prolonged acquaintance with a place” so that “the slow capillary creep of knowledge” can occur. I tend to think of nature writing as the “slow food movement” of literature. It involves patient exposure to place; unhurried collection of observations; methodical gathering of relevant detail; and judicious combining of those ingredients with the individuality of the writer.

The fast food versions of nature writing are likely to give superficial descriptions of peoples’ experiences in nature, or worse, offer unsifted thoughts on current environmental crises, such as climate change or drought.

As for stand out pieces, I’d rather not single anyone out. Instead I’d urge people to read some of the winning entries in Island magazines. Past issues that have WildCare Prize winning essays include 92/93, 101, 102, 109 and 118. And the next issue, # 125, will hopefully have the 2011 winning entries.

Wallaby prints in snow, Walls of Jerusalem National Park

Fortyspot: Would you agree that the genre of place writing is less developed in Australia than in North America where there is a strong tradition comprising works such as Thoreau’s Walden, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and the more contemporary works of writers like Barry Lopez, to name a few? Have you noticed a growing interest in the genre of nature writing in Australia in recent years and, if so, what would you put that down to?

PG: Yes, as discussed above, I think it is less developed here. But I also believe there’s now a burgeoning interest in nature and place writing in Australia. I think part of this is an expression of our desire to finally put down roots in this land, rather than simply camp on its surface. There may be a faddish element to it too, which could mean the spotlight will only hover here occasionally. But I think the more we live in this land, and reflect deeply on it, the more it will come out in our thinking, talking and writing.

Fortyspot: What suggestions or advice would you give to the novice nature writer?

PG: Spend time in the natural world; look deeply; be curious; ask a lot of questions; read widely; and then practice, practice, practice your writing. The good nature writers I know tend to be gentle and somewhat obsessive. It’s probably a helpful combination to cultivate.

My thanks to Lyn Reeves from Fortyspot for permission to reproduce this interview on my blog. Her blog focusses on writing about place. 

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Returning to Rhona (4)

Part 4: Wasting the Wilderness

Autumn 2011. Trip number 5 to Lake Rhona starts in the kind of summer weather we've not seen during summer itself. We cross a summer river, walk up a summer valley, feel the peat-bound heat of summer reflecting back at us fiercely. We climb that final summer hill and promise we'll slake our thirsts in the deliciously cool summer cup that is Lake Rhona.

Lake Rhona, with Reeds Peak behind. An idyllic scene, but the dead standing pines tell a story  

On every bushwalking trip I carry baggage. I don't mean the sort that fits inside my pack, but the emotional kind. On trips to Lake Rhona, the memory of the tragic loss of Lake Pedder is the heaviest of these, no matter how much I insist that Rhona and Pedder are completely distinct from each other.

I lost a sister to cancer at a tragically young age. To this day her now-adult daughters always remind me of her. That's not to say they don't each have their own unique and treasured identity. It's a simple acknowledgement of what gets caught in memory's net.

To walk through any part of the Tasmanian wilderness is to be reminded of its past: what it has lost; the threats it has faced; the threats it continues to face.

For me it starts with a loud absence: that of Tasmania's Palawa. In the 1830s escaped convicts, Goodwin and Connolly, reported seeing many Aboriginal huts in the Vale of Rasselas. Within decades they and their occupants had either died or been driven from the area.

Ironically the absence of their fire use opened the area to greater fire risks. Aboriginal burning was generally small-scale and out of peak season. Its main purpose was to clear localised hunting grounds. European burning was less judicious, and too often of a timing and scale that brought landscape-wide devastation.

Early on this was for exploration, mining and grazing. But later forestry burning had a huge impact too. Even Ernie Bond, who was not averse to burning his grazing grounds, was aghast at the effect of post-war forestry fires in the Gordon, Florentine and Rasselas valleys.

On my first trip to Rhona there was another piece of heavy "baggage". The summer before a hazard reduction burn in the Florentine had gone drastically wrong. The fire had escaped, burned through the Vale of Rasselas, and found its way up to a defenseless Lake Rhona.

The great majority of the stunning King Billy pine forest that lined its northern shore was burned and lost. Dead stumps still stand there today, the pines' residue resin keeping them preserved from rot, vertical but lifeless. Nature abhors a vacuum: eucalypts have largely filled the void, with just a few King Billys left alive to remind us of our folly.

A King Billy pine clings to life on the shores of Lake Rhona 

Meanwhile, back in autumn 2011. Exhaustion and a late arrival prevent us from keeping our promise to drink Rhona's cup dry. But on the way up we've also been discussing the touchy issue of toileting in this area. It has started us thinking about the quality of the water in the lake. By our back-of-the-envelope calculations, bushwalkers deposit around 1 000 "number twos" around the lake shore every year. This being an alpine area, we've learned that decomposition of solid waste is very slow. Essentially most bushwalkers here are "pooing in their own nest", to borrow some technical ornithological terminology!

Our inspection of the area immediately behind the campsite confirms some fairly squalid toileting practices. Solid waste and toilet paper are not hard to find. Some has been buried in shallow sand, an easy find for the wildlife. The presence of a bold - and very plump - native rat (probably Mastacomys fuscus) at the campsite has us speculating in a very ugly direction regarding its diet!

By mutual agreement our party has decided to walk the 100-200 metres out of the catchment area to do our "number twos". Another solution would be to use "poo tubes". This combination of biodegradable bags and large tight-lidded plastic "pots" (approx. 10cm in diameter) for storing and carrying human waste, is the ultimate "carry in, carry out" practice.

Lake Rhona water: as cool and clear as iced tea ... we hope!

Some find the thought of this as gross as considering the Rhona rat's diet. Many would prefer someone else take responsibility for removing their waste, hence the popular call for a fly-in-fly-out toilet to be placed behind Rhona's beach. Personally I hope we can learn from our wilderness mistakes of the past, and start to take a deeper responsibility for removing unnecessary traces from these wild places.

Friday 8 April 2011

Returning to Rhona (3)

Part 3: No Substitute Heart

An aerial photo of Lake Pedder, summer 1971. The beach, here at its summer maximum, is around 700m wide. (photo by Lands Department, courtesy  "The South West Book", eds. Janet Fenton and Helen Gee, 1978) 

"I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” – Vladimir Nabokov.

It's late 1971. The Vietnam War is grinding on, protest is in the air, and the straggles of my first beard are appearing. School's out forever, and some mates have invited me to Tasmania to climb Federation Peak and see Lake Pedder.

I am keen to test myself on Australia’s wildest mountain, and roused to anger by the impending destruction of this stunning lake. But I am also a penniless student, and ultimately I decline the invitation. It becomes one of the few regrets of my life, a mere lack of money now looking a feebly thin excuse.

By the time a job and money have come along, and I get to see the south-west, it is 1976. Lake Pedder, “the heart of the south-west wilderness”, is 20 metres beneath a hydro-electric impoundment. The new lake is becoming a fishing destination, its amazing golden/pink quartzite beach entombed in water, its new shoreline a beach-less scar haunted by skeleton trees.

To this day Federation Peak and Lake Pedder remain central to my personal iconography. Surely to anyone they could justly represent a wild, post-Pleistocene, dynamic balance; exemplary remnants of Tasmania’s timeless struggle with ice; the yin and yang of our wilderness. The one resistant, forbidding, defiant; the other yielding, welcoming, constantly changing.

It’s in this context, a decade or so after the damming, that I first visit Lake Rhona. Those who lead the walk are partly motivated by the supposed resemblance between Pedder and Rhona. There is still a keen grief at the loss of Pedder, ‘though some talk of the existence of Rhona as some kind of consolation. “Come and see what Pedder was like”, says one old-timer.

I can admit a fleeting, superficial resemblance between the two: both the results of glacial action; both possessing beautiful quartzite sand beaches. Yet as a student of earth science I know that the geological and geomorphological provenances of the lakes are very different. Pedder is in a basin at less than 300m altitude. It is broad, expansive, occupying an out-wash plain with the Frankland Range set back. Rhona sits at 900m, a compact alpine lake occupying a glacial cirque, tightly beset by the tilting Denison Range.

But forget the science! Hear what artist Max Angus says about the experience of Pedder.

No description, however detailed, could remotely convey the sense of awe and wonder felt by those who saw this magic place … the overwhelming sense is of space and light … you look at an infinity of sky and mountains reflected all around in the impeccable surface of the lake.” (from “Lake Pedder”, The Wilderness Society, B. Brown (ed), 1986)

Contrast that with my first experience of Rhona. We stagger down to the lake by torchlight, our group hopelessly optimistic and horribly delayed. We set up tents on a beach that is narrow, set about by trees and surrounded by what we guess to be vast heights, even in the dark. We are so exhausted we barely notice.

Lake Rhona: dark perfection and quartz sand beach nestled beneath the Denison Range 

And in the morning we know that we are in the presence of a beauty that is perfectly its own, and no substitute. Comparisons are odious, although the grief behind them is to be encouraged. In the presence of this small gem, it is fair, for a time, to feel the loss of the great jewel. Even if some future generation pulls the plug on the dam, I feel that it is unlikely I will ever see Pedder. I had my chance, and missed it: a double grief perhaps.

But Rhona remains, and I will not allow it to be diminished by asking it to be a substitute heart. Since that first visit, nearly 30 years ago, I have unrolled my magic carpet and journeyed to this perfect place four more times. Here it seems possible to join Nabokov in ceasing to believe in time.