Sunday 24 January 2016

First Impressions: The Patch, Part 2

Love at first sight? I’m not a firm believer. For me love often has a slow burn. Take kunanyi/Mt Wellington for instance. My first impression of it was probably no more favourable than that of Charles Darwin, who described it as “of no picturesque beauty” after his 1836 visit.

His view may have been coloured by his own gloom at the time: see my earlier post here. And my own less-than-favourable impression was doubtless related to first seeing it just 9 years after the catastrophic 1967 bushfires. Back then the mountain’s slopes were scarred by the grey ghosts of a vast burned forest.

[kunanyi/Mt Wellington at sunset] 
But now; how shall I count the ways in which I love this mountain? Allow me one. 

Shortly after first moving here, I am driving home at dusk. A sou’wester is easing after a cold, wet change. The sky is pale, drained of both light and dust. Against that sky the mountain is a decoupage in black, the line of it as crisp as the air, climbing uninterrupted to The Pinnacle. In the falling dark I am not seeing the actual mountain. But I am seeing its shape as a hint, a promise of altitude and wildness; of untamed cold; of uncounted future experiences.

When it comes to “my” patch of bush on the slopes of that mountain, I have more difficult accurately recalling my first impressions. I know that on moving to this place in 1986, I was all eyes for the mountain: that and the amazing garden I could scarcely believe had come with the house.

It was May, and the predominantly European and American trees were in their late autumn glory. As much as I loved Australian native plants, my head was still turned by that blushing northern deciduousness.

[The scarlet oak in its autumn glory] 
But it was a spacious garden – three quarters of an acre – and upslope, in the back garden, the native bush was dominant. Tall stringy barks and massive blue gums jostled with straggly wattle trees. A large, ramshackle chicken yard hogged the block’s best view. And beyond that, there was more bush, a lot of it.

Our children were young back then, and excursions into the patch of bush were only occasional. More often we were up there chasing our dog, a talented escapologist, able to leap tall fences in a single bound. Poor “Angus” contracted canine distemper on one early jaunt. He survived, but it left him with a nervous tick (chorea), which led us to mistakenly believe him mentally impaired. (He later demonstrated a quite startling intelligence: but that’s another story.)

[A blue gum at the edge of the patch] 
With Scottish Anglophile ancestry (now there’s a contradiction in terms!), I not only loved mountains, I also loved well-tended fields, hedges and other such English countryside staples. So when the drive/walk to and from the city took me past our local brewery’s small field, I responded much as I did to deciduousness.

As with those northern trees, the field would change dramatically with the seasons. Green in winter, it would grow lush and tall in spring, waving colourful seed-laden heads in the November winds, before turning golden in high summer. 

[Mowing the brewery field in summer] 
In a good year they might cut two loads of hay, leaving the field pale and stubbly until autumn’s cooler wet allowed new growth. That the field had a few poplars edging it added to that sense of gradual, perceptible seasonality. Much harder to notice, and far more complex, were the seasonal changes in our patch of bush. The field’s delights I quickly saw and enjoyed in those early years. Yet 'though it stood so close by, it took many more years, and a willingness to pay attention to detail, for me to learn a little of our native bush. But again, that’s another story.

[The Patch starts at the top of the field] 

Friday 8 January 2016

Notes From a Small Patch of Bush

[A preface to an occasional series about my local bush]

How do I – how does anyone – put words around a landscape? First I’d probably want to narrow down my definition of landscape. I would start with a “small patch of bush”, a walkable chunk of my local landscape.

[A grassy paddock marks one boundary of "the patch"] 
That “small patch” would be roughly framed by a few South Hobart roads; a vagrant bit of bush that has avoided being developed. I could add that the Hobart Rivulet runs through most of it; that the Cascade Brewery owns or leases the bulk of it; that it falls some 200m – steeply at times – from the lower foothills of the mountain, and towards the Rivulet and the Derwent.

I could go on to talk about its particular shape and dimensions. Picture it as a misshapen rectangle roughly 3km long by 500m wide, giving it an area of around 150 hectares or 370 acres. But to my mind such measures, and all of the descriptors above, are like IQ scores: they give only the roughest idea of one measure of something-that-might-mean-nothing-at-all. Once I lived on a flattish 1300 acre rural property. Describing its relatively featureless terrain wouldn’t have troubled anyone’s vocabulary. It certainly didn’t fire my imagination.

[Hobart city beneath the wintry summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
Not so these 370 acres. Here imagination bursts out of any arbitrary frame I might try to put around the “patch”. Because beyond our bush there is more bush, serious bush. It’s possible to walk through that bush – as I have done in the past – all the way from my home to the 1270m summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. And I needn’t stop there. I could go on over the mountain and keep walking into the remote south-west wilderness. I would need to cross only a handful of roads, most of them dirt tracks or fire-trails.

From where I write I look out on that bush and that mountain, and can plot just such a walk. It’s imagination, and not just personal history, that powers our sense of a place. And this place, this patch, with its actual connection into the wild, is one that has held my imagination, and given me a strong sense of place, for the 30 years I’ve lived here.

[A dragonfly: the bush is home to numerous such invertebrates] 
Still, so far I’ve said nothing that actually paints a picture of this bush: its plants, animals, history, geology, geomorphology. And all those “-ologies” do seriously contribute to our understanding of a place, a landscape. I have written, and will write more, about those aspects of the patch. But for this preface to further writings from my small patch of bush, I want to enter it imaginatively via one recent episode, and ask: what does the bush mean to my 20 month old granddaughter?

[Two of my granddaughters on the Christmas tree hunt: photo by Sally Oakley] 
A few of us are on a pre-Christmas excursion, hunting for some Christmas trees. It’s been raining, so our small granddaughter has her rain suit and gumboots on. They give her an added degree of determination, as if she had any need of that. Before long she shakes off any guiding hands, stomps along the track – straight through any puddles – and stops only when there’s something interesting to pick up and examine. That means about every 10 metres or so. It is a long excursion.

Only for the steepest bit of track does her aunty hoist her up for a while. When we reach the feral Pinus radiata trees, she’s down again, watching while we select a few. Things like land tenure, weed trees, Christmas, bow saws, even time itself are probably lost on her. 

[Our 20 month old granddaughter carries her Christmas prize: photo by Sally Oakley] 
But she carries one of the smaller prizes for a while, and I wonder. Will she remember the whiff of freshly cut pine; the soft swish of needles on her face; the feel of warm hands; the laughter and sense of occasion; the raucous cockatoos? And will she associate that with the bush, our bush, any bush? I suspect that’s how our imaginations start to be fired. And why we want to put words around our place.