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?