Sunday 20 October 2013

When a Tree Falls in the Forest …

It is visually shocking, for sure. But that is lessened by anticipation. After all, I have come looking for a massive fallen tree in a tall forest. Something that has stood 60 metres on the vertical axis, and weighs thousands of tonnes, is always going to make a mess heading to the horizontal.

[The splintered ruin of a forest giant]
It’s the smell that surprises me most. Alongside the strong florist shop notes, and the fresh sawdust tang, there’s an odd smell, one I can’t quite place. Raw earth meets hospital perhaps? Some say you can smell death. Does botanical catastrophe also carry its own odour?

The scene is calamitous. Myriad torn leaves, still green, intermingle with masses of other twisted vegetation, frayed limbs, shredded bark, flowers, twigs, whole trees. We scramble up and over the mess, squelching, slipping on muddy earth or freshly-exposed tree cambium, scratching and smirching ourselves.

It was Wednesday of last week, after soaking rains and gale force winds, that a swamp gum (Eucalyptus regnans) lost its grip on the slopes of a hillside in Tasmania’s Mount Field National Park. It happens all the time, in the larger scheme of things. Fast growing, shallow rooted and enormously heavy, these tall trees all eventually succumb to the push of the Roaring Forties and the pull of gravity. We may not even have known about this one, but for the fact that it fell across the Lake Dobson Road.

[An intact section of wet forest, Mt Field National Park] 

Park rangers and road crew, with heavy machinery and chain saws, had worked for hours in heavy rain to clear the road. With their permission we’ve come to see for ourselves; to photograph and to tell a little of this giant’s story.

As we clamber up slope towards the base of the stricken tree, a pair of sulphur-crested cockatoos gossip in the tree-tops. Occasionally they wheel around, as though to catch the scene from a better angle. Is this rift in the forest news to them, even calamity, if their nest hollow was in one of these trees?

After a few minutes we reach the crater that used to be the tree’s roothold. It is vast, perhaps 12 metres across, and deeper than a standing human. It is half-filled with water, the same water that probably lubricated the tree’s former hold on rock and earth, that made this uprooting possible.

[Inside the crater (photo Lynne Grant)] 
As I stand on the crater’s edge, the fallen tree’s root base towers above me. Slabs of rock, some far larger than me, have been torn out of the earth with the tree roots. They give off a percussed whiff that mingles with a moist earthy aroma. The resulting smell is quite distinct from that of a dug garden.

Yet the upshot of this massive tree fall may not be that far from a thoroughly dug garden. Soil has been bared that was formerly covered; seeds have tumbled down along with all the other herbage; some formerly struggling saplings have narrowly escaped the crush. With light now flooding the space that was once shaded by the dead giant, new growth will soon flourish here.

[Among the still-standing giants, Mt Field NP] 
And the giant itself? It will continue to play horizontal host and home to all manner of fungi and mosses; vertebrates and invertebrates. Its long-gathered nutrients will gradually leak back into the soil: a slow, thorough recycling.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Last Time I Walked Nuala

We see it as a vast void, the divide between the wild and the civilised. A dog reminds us that, in this at least, we see poorly.

[Nuala in her prime] 
When exactly the “familiar” became accurate for Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog, is not a matter of precise history. But the wolf (lupus) part of its scientific name is a clear pointer to its wild origins. Domesticated though it is, watch a dog eat and you’ll find yourself in the presence of a latent hunter, scavenger and opportunist.

The last time I walked our dog Nuala, she felt like anything but a wild creature. As per usual I would cross that scant divide between our backyard and the bush. Just a few rough, rooty steps beyond our rickety fence is the bush. It has been a path of pleasure for Nuala (“Noo”) for the best part of her 16 years. Despite declining health, she seemed to return to full strength as soon as we went bush. Nose to the ground, eyes scanning, tongue lolling, legs-a-trot: she was made for this.

[Noo (right foreground) at home in the bush]
But last week’s walk was different. Limping and hesitant, she resisted the gentle pull on the lead as I urged her up the slope into the bush. With a little cajoling I got her up to the flat track. I took off her lead, usually a signal for her to run free, and Lynne and I began walking along the track. Noo could only manage to limp behind us, stopping to half-heartedly sniff something, before limping a little further.

We got about thirty metres or so up the track, and had to turn and wait. For years this has been her – and our – fitness track. We could walk hard uphill, fast along the level track, more usually both, until we were all well stretched. She, of course, would run twice the distance, just for the sheer joy of it. 

[Doggy delights: Noo laps up some wild water]

This time as we hesitated, Noo read it as a signal that the walk was over. She sat down to wait for us, breathing hard and looking uncomfortable. We took the hint, and escorted her back inside. That night she didn’t eat her dinner. During the night we heard her variously padding about the house, lapping her water, or lying down panting. After a few days of this, with little or no food staying down, it was time to see the vet. Deep down we knew it would probably be Noo’s terminal visit.

The vet was patient, thorough, and open to all possibilities. We gabbled a little, half delaying, half reminiscing. Our youngest daughter happened to be with us, the same one who had helped me choose Noo from a litter all those years ago. The three of us knew really what was best. Medically heroic measures might buy the dog a few weeks, but at the cost of trauma on her side. She had never been happy staying in hospital.

I made the call – though we all agreed – that we would end Noo’s suffering there and then. The vet gave us a little while to hug the dog, and each other, and to say our farewells. It’s strange how at such times laughter and tears both come easily. Stranger still to be there at the end of a life, and even to be part of the process.

Noo was essentially put to sleep with an intravenous overdose of anaesthetic, while six hands stroked and petted her. She breathed a few heavy breaths, and then she was gone.

In life Noo helped to shrink the gap between the wild and the civilised for me. My pup-in-wolf’s-clothing, she helped me to glimpse my own creatureliness and to see our bush and the wider world from a more connected frame. 

Adieu Noo, our dear, wild familiar.

Sunday 6 October 2013

9 Things You Should Know About Bushwalking

[A day walk in SW Tasmania: would I manage overnight walking?] 
So, you’re thinking of taking up bushwalking. Okay, you may call it tramping, hiking, or hill walking, but it’s really the same thing. It’s about strapping on a back-pack and boots, and getting out into the countryside for a good long walk.

In this case I’m talking about the multi-day version of bushwalking, the sort that is likely to require a tent. As it’s at the dedicated end of the walking spectrum, I thought you really should know a few things before you take it on.

1) You will be part of a strange, eccentric, oft misunderstood minority group.
Think I’m exaggerating here? Try this quick test. How often do you see bushwalkers in the print and electronic media? And in what contexts? Are they happily going about their enjoyable pastime? Or are they being rescued by helicopter from some dire precipice? Or are they being castigated for having the wrong gear; for following the wrong procedure; for not using – or using – a personal locator beacon?

You see, as a bushwalker, you are by definition taking the road less travelled. And it’s certainly not the road taken by the average TV camera person or reporter. They’ll only come out and film you/write about you when something has gone badly wrong.

Of course you may be among those who’ve come to accept that there’s more to life than what’s shown on the small screen. But still, it’s a little galling to be considered in the same class as Morris dancers, trainspotters and Mormons. I’ve recounted one of my own frustrating/amusing experiences with the media before here

2) You are going to know pain and discomfort.
Let’s not pretend that bushwalking can be made easy. That’s what footpaths – or better still escalators – are for. If you’re happy with where those can take you, then don’t take up bushwalking. Bushwalking almost inevitably involves going up hill and over uneven ground. And if it doesn’t then it involves the kinds of bogs, swamps, and jungles that are found on flat ground.

Carrying your own food, kitchen, clothing, accommodation and bedding on your back was never going to be easy. Even with all the best gear, carrying that lot up hill will be a workout. Some people go to gyms to get similar amounts of sweat going. Me? I prefer doing it in the great outdoors. But I’m not pretending that there won’t be blisters, cramps and even the odd tantrum or tear, along with the sweat.

[Getting to the top isn't always easy: Lk Seal Lookout, Mt Field NP]

3) Despite the pain and discomfort, you will find that you’ll want to bushwalk over and over again.
Yes, there’s an upside. Once you find that, you’re hooked for as long as your will and your body hold together, perhaps even longer. The numerous health benefits; the subjection to staggering beauty; the bonding with friends and family; the overcoming of challenges; the views from the top; the potential depths of reflection, of conversation; the wonderful taste of wild water, and of (some) food: all of these things and more are some of the reasons walkers come back again and again.

They deserve several blog posts of their own, but here are two previous attempts.

4) You will become very familiar with a great deal of weather.
Weather forecasts will never quite be the same again. You’ll either be reading the meteorological tea leaves because you’re about to go walking, or because you’re wondering how great/terrible the weather would be if only you were about to go walking.

And once you’re out there, there’s little you’ll be able to do about the weather, other than go with it. That level of humbling, by the way, is no bad thing (see previous point).

5) You will never EVER have a fully satisfactory set of gear.
Some will tell you that bushwalking is quite an inexpensive pastime. Certainly you can get inexpensive gear, or even buy it secondhand. But be warned that you will not only face the ignominy and discomfort of gear failure (yes, cheap generally means nasty here), you will also face the scorn of the gear freaks.

They are other walkers – probably the majority of other walkers – who have researched their gear purchases long and hard. They’ll forget your name as soon as you tell them, but they will NOT forget the six or seven adverse findings they once read about your particular brand of pack (or tent, or cooker, or walking poles).

[20 years worth of boots: Not finished yet!] 
Eventually you will find that your funds start being directed towards improving your kit. While this starts off as a perfectly rational desire for comfort or safety or lighter weight, it subtly, bit-by-bit, turns into an expensive keep-up-with-the-Joneses game. You’ll willingly play along, partly because gear is actually – on occasion – improved through research, but partly because it’s actually both fun and addictive. Like the surfer, you will live in the hope that somewhere just over the horizon is the perfect wave (or pack, or tent or cooker).

 6) You will never EVER get to the end of your list of places to walk.
This is not the same as the previous point, because it’s actually verifiably true. I have lived and walked in Tasmania for 33 years, and have been walking here that whole time. Yet there is not the slightest chance that I will walk every track that there is in this tiny State. Each walk becomes the genesis of the next, as you inevitably talk to your mates about where to go next, or to other walkers about the walks they’ve done.

Have I mentioned other parts of Australia or the world yet? Australia is vast; New Zealand is full of mountains and tracks, and that’s just the local neighbourhood. Enough said. Rejoice in making a list the bottom of which you will never reach.

[There IS walking elsewhere, like in the French Alps] 

7) Your vocabulary will start to include strange and obscure words.
If clag, gaiters, spondonicles, bivvy bag, Gore-tex and long-drop don’t mean much to you, don’t worry they will!  If you thought eVent meant some kind of happening; that Tyvek was used in building; that a spork was something out of Star Trek; or that whisper-lite meant you’d barely be able to hear it, then you have a bit to learn.

And that’s not to mention the strange accents you may pick up while bushwalking. If you’re anything like my walking companions and me, you may have different accents for different phases of a walk. We generally start with a faux-Irish accent, transition through a kind of Welsh-Pakistani-Pirate-ese, and head towards Russian, especially when faced with a difficult uphill section.

8) You may learn a lot about yourself and your walking companions.
Apart from picking up their accents, you are also likely – for good or ill – to share in their sense of humour, their dining preferences, their walking styles, their walking kit, and hints of their bodily functions that are stronger-than-you’d-like. This is, as they say, character building.

Of course the main aspect of character building will be what goes on inside your own head. It’s never only about what the landscape or the weather – or your companions – throw at you. It’s also about how you respond to it all. Bushwalking as self-help? Therapy even? You could do a lot worse.

9) You may learn a lot about this earth; its rocks, plant and creatures; and possibly even the universe.
Unless you walk with your eyes and ears closed, you will soon get in touch with the planet you’re lucky enough to be exploring on foot. If you have a little curiosity, you may find out some details of what it is you’re seeing, hearing, touching.  Keep that up for a few years and you’re liable to learn quite a bit. After a few nights under the Milky Way, transcendence might steal up on you. At the least you may be prompted to ask a few of life’s deeper questions. Like the origins of all this, and your own place in it all. Dizziness will sometimes ensue, but don’t worry: this is normal. Keep looking; keep asking; keep wondering. There are few better things to do.

 [A wedge-tailed eagle provides a transcendent moment on Mt Rogoona]
So there you are. You can’t say you weren’t warned. Bushwalking is not something to be taken lightly. If I had to sum it all up, I think I’d probably just say that bushwalking is actually quite a bit like life. It isn’t easy, but it’s certainly worth the effort.