Tuesday 19 February 2019

Narcissus and the Fire-Dragon

[Fungi and lichen on a sassafras trunk] 
Every trip has its backstory. They just don’t usually feel as earth-turning as this one. Normally it’s where to go; who can come; whether we’re fit enough; and who’s providing transport. This summer all that was deeply overshadowed, quite literally, by bushfires.

They began in late December 2018, when dry lightning strikes ignited several fires in the Tasmanian highlands. In what is starting to look like the new normal, thousands more lightning strikes occurred on January 16 and 29. I watched a simulation of the lightning storms as they crossed from north-west to south-east. It was as though a vast and merciless dragon was swooping and swerving across our island, breathing deadly fire, now to the left, now to the right. The fires started by the dry storms continued burning for weeks, along a vast front. By early February 2019, over 40 fires had burnt around 200,000 ha, almost 3% of Tasmania.

There’s a more personal slant to the story. By January 4 the Gell River fire in the central south-west had grown into a monster. As it roared down the Vale of Rasselas, a vast smoke plume spread westward, piling high into the sky behind kunanyi/Mt Wellington. An eerily murky pall settled over the city of Hobart for days. Nobody could breathe easy in any sense.

[Smoke 'erupts' behind kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
All day long we had the radio on, listening for updates, wondering if the fires would reach Hobart. We hastily worked out our fire plan, with southern Tasmania’s disastrous 1967 fires firmly in mind. That calamity claimed 64 lives, injured around a thousand, and razed 1300 buildings. If fire struck here again our plan was simple: get out early. Twice we packed overnight bags and precious items. We photographed parts of the house interior, in case we’d need to remember what was replaceable. The irreplaceable would be just that.

If that wasn’t unsettling enough, we were deeply troubled that the fires were burning through the heart of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area. They tore through wet highland forest and lapped up to the achingly beautiful Lake Rhona. All the while the weather stayed relentlessly hot and dry, the usually wet westerlies tight-buttoned and sober.

Fire sped east and south, igniting the ridges leading towards Mt Anne and its irreplaceable King Billy pine forests. They raged across buttongrass plains and up the slopes of the iconic Western Arthur Range. They menaced the majestic Gondwanan forest on the flanks of Mt Bobs, with half an eye on Federation Peak itself. They crawled across the Central Plateau near Great Lake, taking out some pencil pines, cushion plants and cider gums.

[A map of some of the 2019 fires, courtesy https://firecentre.org.au/] 

These are just some of the places I know personally. Hundreds of other precious wild places were burning at the same time, not to mention the forest and scrub fires that were threatening – and already destroying – homes and properties in the Huon Valley to the south-east. Up to 700 firefighting staff and hundreds more volunteers employed firebombers; helicopters; temporary irrigation systems; chemical fire retardants and just plain elbow grease to try and limit the damage.

It was in this context that I chatted with a couple of friends who are both senior fire managers. After talking about all that was being done to try and douse the fires, one simply added “Pray for rain!” I said I would, adding that if it helped I would even do a rain dance. (Not a pretty sight, we agreed!)

Gallows humour aside, I was deeply despondent, but also angry. It felt as though my heart country, those wild and wet places that are refuge for the wonderfully strange vegetation of old Gondwana, was under brutal assault. At the same time it seemed our political leaders were actively refusing to acknowledge that this – and the mass fish kill in the Murray-Darling; and the unprecedented bleaching of coral in the Barrier Reef; and the newly minted record hot/dry January all over Australia – resulted from climate change. And not the slow and incremental change we might have expected, but sharp and damaging change.

I did pray for rain, and I also planned to get out there – somewhere, anywhere – to feel the wilderness beneath my feet; the clear air in my lungs; and just perhaps to hear the whisper of Gondwana again.

With many of the usual tracks closed because of fire risk, we ummed and arred in the lead up days to our walk, trying to settle on somewhere we could still go. And then, of course, it began raining: beautiful, long, soaking wet rain. Where we live we had around 40mm overnight, with the promise of more to come. We could hardly complain, but the wet forecast further restricted our options. Be careful what you pray for!

[Our group shelters on the Narcissus Hut verandah] 
So, on a wet and windy Saturday, five of us finally found ourselves on the ferry trip up leeawuleena/Lake St Clair. Our far-from-adventurous destination was Narcissus Hut, just a few hundred metres from the ferry jetty. It’s not exactly the heart of the wilderness, but as we lugged our packs from the jetty to the hut, it felt good to hear the currawongs call, and the dollops of rain on the roof, and the whoosh and scratch of wind in the trees.

Narcissus Hut is the poor relation of Overland Track Huts. Most who reach it are intent on going somewhere else: either home via the Lakeside Track or ferry, or up to Pine Valley Hut for more exploration of the national park. We – and plenty of freshly arriving Overland Track walkers – soon learned that the route to Pine Valley was shut. So quite a few walkers hastily re-arranged their plans; tried to change their ferry booking; or simply decided to stay a night or two at Narcissus Hut with us.

[Pademelon and mother near Narcissus] 
With the exception of Jim, who loves a hut, we’d set up tents on the nearby platforms. Still, it rained a lot, and Narcissus is a small hut. So with everyone cooking inside, we cooked and ate in shifts. It’s always interesting to hear what walkers have thought of their Overland Track trip, and we had a fine social time conversing with walkers from places as far away as Macau, Venezuela, Alaska, Taiwan, Canada and France. But it wasn’t quite the wilderness time we were hoping for.

So on Day 2, regardless of the wet forecast, we filled our day packs with all the necessary gear, donned our waterproofs, and headed off towards Byron Gap. Less than 10 minutes into the walk I could already feel the wildness doing me good. After 20 minutes on flat boarded track, we reached a track junction in wet forest, and turned towards the Gap. Starting from an altitude of around 700m, we knew we had a nearly 300m climb to reach there. But the narrow, winding track through tall forest beckoned.

[Ascending towards Byron Gap] 
I won’t say it was easy: it took over 2 hours to get to Byron Gap. But I must say it was sublime. No one in the group had been on the walk, and I’d talked it up with phrases like “brilliant rainforest” and “superbly uber-green, mossy and beautiful.” My apprehension at having over-sold the area quickly dissolved, and the sighs and soft words of appreciation told me it was working on the others too. Never mind that it was raining, it was a rainforest!! Better still it was a glad, green and growing one. And for now at least, it was safe from the fires that we prayed were being taught wet lessons from this stern and insistent rain.

[An ancient giant in the rainforest near Byron Gap] 
I wonder sometimes whether my love for these Gondwanan forests verges on the mystical. The sassafras, myrtle beech, King Billy pine, celery-top pine, fern and leatherwood of these forests are plants with links back to the supercontinent of Gondwana. They’re kin to plants found in other former Gondwanan places like New Zealand’s South Island and Patagonia. They are also completely unlike anything I grew up with. Yet before I’d met them I used to draw forests just like these: with green mossy tree trunks, bright glossy leaves, ferns and a carpet of fallen leaves everywhere. And always there were waterfalls … and probably fairies too.

[Libby soaks in the green wonders of the rainforest] 
This childhood dream was dampened by sweat, rain and some blood-sucking reality by the time we stopped at the un-forested top of the Gap. After more than a month of heat, drought, and a lack of victims, a legion leeches warmly welcomed us to their world. Between showers and glimpses of nearby Mt Byron, we had a restless and rapid lunch. After plucking off as many leeches as we could find, we turned around and descended back to where we’d come from.

If tiredness and a slight itchy paranoia took some of the gloss from the wonders, it was still as marvellous descending through the forest as it had been going up. That green glow stayed with us back at the hut, and well beyond.

[Rainbow reflections from Narcissus Hut]
Narcissus and reflections: I suppose they go together. After a month under the dire spell of a this 2019 fire dragon, my mind wandered into the territory of myth. Perhaps I was hoping for a brave St George to slay this dragon. Instead, among our political leaders at least, I could find only a weak and witless Narcissus. 

[Narcissus prefers his own reflection to the beauty of Echo: artist Solomon J. Solomon] 
In the original myth a beautiful nymph named Echo fell in love with Narcissus. But he did not return her love. Instead he became so enamoured of his own reflection in a pool of water that he gazed at it day and night, eventually dying for lack of food and sleep. And Echo, broken-hearted, wandered into the mountains, where she pined away until only her melodious voice remained.

I know it’s not just our leaders who are focussed on themselves. So many of us are enchanted by how fine we look reflected in the glow of the things we’ve created. But it's not just about us. While we're busy admiring ourselves, and pretending we are masters of all, the world of nature, like Echo – and perhaps also Gondwana – retreats into the mountains and begins to fade away.