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] 

Thursday 1 September 2011

Raven Mad

‘”Nevermore”, quoth the raven’ - Edgar Allen Poe

Why do corvids get such mixed reviews across so many cultures? What have crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and their clan done to deserve our generally negative view of them? Words might have something to do with it. Perhaps colour too.

Words first. When extremely hungry, you’re said to be ravenous, and are likely to gobble your food greedily. Just like a raven? Well, no. The word ravenous has its origins in the Latin word rapina (whence words like rape, with its implications of preying upon and plundering).

The bird word, raven, has an entirely different etymology, going right back to the Old High German word hraban. Any guilt about its greedy or plundering ways is surely guilt by association.

But then colour is added to that prejudice. In ancient folklore, from Hebrew to Roman to Australian Aboriginal, the crow was originally white. It was only made black as punishment. An example is the story of Wakarla the crow, from the Adnymathanha people of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Because of the crow’s lack of respect for his elders, Wildu the eagle punishes Wakarla by turning him black using smoke.

Urrakurli the magpie, not quite as culpable as Wakarla, is only half-punished, ending up black and white. For the Adnymathanha these tales contain moral lessons that are reinforced every time they see these ubiquitous birds. And clearly they’re not alone in associating ill omen and evil cunning with these black birds.

A Torresian Crow in the Northern Territory 
However it’s not all bad press. A few years ago I spent time in Alaska and became familiar with the northern raven, Corvus corax. Its guttural croak, half a register higher than Australia’s ravens, is one of the signature sounds of Sitka. The raven features positively on totem poles and in local Tlingit legend, according to which the raven not only brought daylight to the people, but also taught them how to speak.

Having spoken with Tlingit people, I would back up Sitka writer Carolyn Servid’s observation*:

Listen to Tlingit language being spoken and it’s not hard to understand the legend.

I’ve not heard any similar legend among Aboriginal Australians, but given our broad, nasal, laconic manner of speech, I’m tempted to believe we learned it from crows and ravens! Not that we should equate the corvid’s yokel Aussie drawl with a lack of intelligence. These birds are emphatically NOT drongos (even if the bird of that name happens to be a corvid.) Rather studies of crows and ravens have shown them to be quick learners, innovators in fact.

The New Caledonian crow, Corvus moneduloides, for instance, has been observed fashioning and using tools. You can see an amazing example on this YouTube clip 

Despite their brain power, ravens are not invulnerable. As a frequent visitor to New Zealand, I was surprised by the apparent absence of corvids there. I discovered that there had once been a New Zealand raven, Corvus antipodum. When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived, they introduced Pacific rats (kiore). These voracious rodents ate raven eggs and chicks, and humans also hunted the adult birds. 

Astonishingly, given how smart and adaptable ravens are, they were extinct before the first Europeans visited Aotearoa. It's an all-too-familiar story for New Zealand birds, which evolved in the absence of predatory mammals.

Back in Tasmania, forest ravens, Corvus tasmanicus, are one of the most commonly seen birds. Bands of sub-adult ravens, seemingly fully grown, sometimes congregate in the trees around our house. Up to forty birds hold the equivalent of teen “raves”. Their loud – some would say lascivious – kaark-aaarrrk  calls multiply and echo through the bush.

This morning a plump individual alights on a bare branch near our deck. It exudes health, its feathers glossy like black silk shot with deep purple. Its legs appear a little lighter, hooped like stockings. The raven is not much under 60cm long, and maybe 700g in weight. I look into its knowing eye, and wonder. Given the healthy appetite of just one bird, and its capacity to clean up whatever it can find, what would forty or fifty of these birds demolish?

Perhaps there's another way to think about it. Without these intelligent and resourceful scavengers, how different would our bush appear?

A forest raven about to do what it does best 

[* in her delightful essay Raven, in Wild Moments (ed. M. Engelhard), 2009]