Sympathy for the Devils


Even when reduced to a mass consumption, school dinner, kind of experience, travelling by boat should still have a deal of romance attached to it; maybe even a taste of adventure.  The search for the room and the fist thump checking of bunks and pillows should add rather than subtract. The view from the window, rounded at the edges but not really a porthole, should be far more interesting than the view from a car.  There should be places to explore and things to discover.  There should be deck quoits and leisurely strolls before retiring to a cabin for drinks and nibbles.

Reality bites as I brush the rice off my chair to sit and eat my one price, all you can eat dinner. Fear of a rough crossing and the prospect of becoming reacquainted with my food at a later date takes the edge of my appetite.  Some people clearly do not suffer from such apprehension and feel the need to make the most of the one plate offer. 

The boat kicks up clouds of mud and silt from the floor of the bay.  Silver gulls haunt the turbid water, looking for food, fighting for air space.  Small shudders pass though the whole boat as we start to move.  The combination of sensations makes the boat feel like a slightly unstable shopping centre.  Much as I hate to say it, the whole thing is vaguely unpleasant and I am pleased to get back to the cabin.  We select bunks and I turn in for the night early.

It’s clear I need a holiday; something to sluice away the end of year deadline stress.  Something to press the reset button.  Somewhere.  Almost anywhere.  I sleep fitfully, as if the anticipation of relaxation is causing stress itself. 

In the morning, I can see Tasmania sliding past the window – the town of Devonport on the Mersey, a kind of mixed metaphor of colonial history and memory.  The near passes quickly, the distant more slowly.  My brain suffers from a kind of parallax as well, like it’s running at two speeds; I can’t put down work yet, even though I want to pick up the holiday.  My head hurts.  I’m pleased to have arrived in Tasmania, and even more pleased that Sal says she will drive. Under an opening blue sky we head west. My head is fogged in a way that the view is not; I close my eyes.  Slowly the fog lifts.  Slowly I unwind.  Slowly the holiday clock takes over.  It’s a relief.


Tasmanian Native Hens feed by the side of the road, running through the vegetation with comic strip energy.  Even my foggy brain can see the humour and value in these birds.  A Wedge-tailed Eagle floats over the road, looking for food less active than the Native Hens.  In Tasmania such road kill is never far away.  By 10 am we are almost five hours past breakfast and in need of fuel.  The adults select coffee, the kids, biscuits.  Neither helps the five (or is it nine) serves of veggies a day count.  Frankly, I don’t give a damn. 

We are still on the north coast of Tasmania, the coast that faces the mainland of Australia.  We are yet to turn south to meet the west coast, with the cleanest air in the world and views that show the curve of the Earth.

Tasmania sits below the southeast corner of the Australia, hanging like a little goatee beard from a hipster chin.  It’s island off an island status makes it different from the rest of Australia; making it feel more isolated than its continental cousin. Bass Strait, windy, storm driven and studded with dozens of islands, separates Tasmania from the mainland and allows it to exist in ways that are different from the mainland.  Tasmania has a different scale to the rest of Australia – smaller distances, smaller towns and a landscape that creates grandeur from detail, rather than intimacy from isolation.  These are not bad things.  The bends in the roads and the happenstance discovery of isolated pubs, give the place a feeling of England, yet the shapes of the trees, the colour of the leaves and the animals on the sides of the road are resolutely Australian.  It is a place to summon unexpected memories, misplaced but powerful, as well as a place that presents the new at each corner twist; a powerful combination of the seemingly familiar and the plainly new.   

As we move further into the day and further from our drop off point the sights on the side of the road change.  The Native Hens seem to disappear.  The grass becomes longer and the road kill fresher.  Disappointingly this is how we see our first Tasmanian Devil. Heavy set at one end, with sharp pressure point teeth at the other. A black body, the size of a large cat or a small dog, with white patches, bloodied in death, curled by the side of the road.  This may just be the loss of one individual, but it is a loss none the less.  For all the greenery, for all the soft and welcoming looking places hidden behind hills and in the watery necks of valleys Tasmania has become a graveyard, rather than a sanctuary for the Devils.

As we drive on I hope it’s not the only one we see.

Forests.  Grass plains.  Edges and distant views unbroken; but also damaged land, hollowed by mining and cut by saw.  Open coops, caught with tree stumps and sometimes piled with the unwanted brash of harvest.  Uniform replanting, blue gums maybe, fenced and restrained.  Eventually we step off the made road and on to the less certain surface of gravel and stones.


The road is pale and crystal rich, made from the spoil of a local mine.  The crystals sparkle in the sunlight, dampened by the slight rain that fell before the Sun came out.  Stones rattle-tick onto the wheel arches of the car, and the voice of the tyres changes from the dull roar of the tarmac to a less predictable, scatter chat, tune.  Small washouts and potholes rattle the car and bounce the view.  The change feels like a passage to somewhere a little more wild. It feels like you have stepped off the map of the everyday and into a world of greater possibility and surprise.  It may be an overstatement, but as we leave the tarmac it feels like the holiday has begun, and all that went before was just travel.

We head west and south.  Despite the evidence to the contrary it feels like we are going downhill.   We head towards the sea, but you wont not have known it.  The road stays unmade, rough and loose enough to be thankful that the engine pushes all four wheels.  Such a reaction may be more a product of clever advertising than real need, but the rattle snick-snack of gravel on the car plays on my mind and I am glad of our consumer choice.  Eventually the road enters woodland, close grown and damp.  Some say tigers still live here – striped, pouched and thick tailed, hiding in the darkness.  My head reaches a different conclusion to their presence than my heart, but both know we are about to enter the realm of the Devil.

Even though it’s broad daylight – in a cloudy sort of way – I keep expecting things to bounce out of the bushes by the side of the road.   A few parrots and smaller birds, like wind blown leaves, rush across the road, but little else distracts from the task in hand.  We head down hill, past roughly cut road signs and over clatter loose wood plank bridges.  A sign, half clothed in moss and fallen twigs promises we only have 200m to go; and it does not lie.

The small village of Corinna – although that’s not the correct word, but none seems to exist – appears suddenly around a corner.  The trees step back from the road to create a small open space, and a single and long abandoned petrol pump acts as a town marker post.  Low slung buildings, mainly wood with tin roofs and soft red brick chimneys pop from the grass.  An old pushbike leans against a fence, and two fishing rods lean on the bike.  The road ends at the Pieman River, where a ferry waits for onward travellers.  Corinna probably still exists because of the ferry.  A bridge over the Pieman would encourage you to keep moving, to push on towards the south-western wilderness, but now there is a reason to stop and stay.  The river still acts as a temporary barrier, less formidable than in the past, but a reason to stop none the less.  A man, who from his voice I know to be Scottish and a lady, who I take to be French, meets us.  Their status as a couple remains a point of contention for the length of our stay.  We are pointed in the direction of our small house with the kind of relaxed efficiency that acknowledges that five minutes really does not matter in the scale of a whole day.


A notice outside the front door warns us not to leave our boots outside over night, lest they be eaten by the Devils.  A note by the back door could have alerted us to the minefield of wallaby droppings beyond and the presence of sun-worshiping snakes.  Such information suits my way of thinking far better than the reams of paper advertising pizza and burgers that you find in the more sterile places of the world.  Devils to the front, snakes to the rear.  Splendid.

Corinna only survives because people stop.  Once it was a mining and logging town, extracting the bones and flesh of the region that is now called The Tarkine.  Today the people who stop probably look for other natural wonders. 

The Pieman River acts as both a destination and barrier, and because we stop it becomes the focus of the next few days.  If we had been able to pass over the river with little more that a short period of increased caution, we would have tried to spread our attention far and wide.  But as it is, we stay put, and use the river as both an attraction and a conduit.  With steep banks coated in tall trees the river gains protection from most winds, so it lies flat and undisturbed, and shelter can always be found if the wind does catch the surface. 



It’s clear that the rain is not far away, but the morning seems to offer some promise; the afternoon forecast makes me wish I had an open fire before which I could toast my toes. 

The scrape of plastic canoes over gravel sets my teeth on edge – although it’s markedly better than the sound of aluminium Grummans (oh, the memories!).  With the dynamic design of a cheap bathtub, these canoes are wonderfully stable; the idea family boat.  We head down stream, towards the distant sea, a convoy of two – a boy’s boat and a girl’s boat.  Slight twists of vapour rise from the water in the chill of the morning air.  Ducks take flight in fright at the bright coloured boats and the far carrying voices.

It’s been a while since I paddled a canoe.  Soon I feel the familiar discomfort of kneeling with just the edge of the seat providing support.  Plant the blade, pull back straight and let your top hand drop. Twist your fist out and down to turn the blade and the push away.  The ABC of a J stoke comes back; surprisingly fluid and smooth.  The boat moves forward in a series of regular shallow curves, pushed one way, pulled back the other by the movement of the blade in the water.  Straight lines in a canoe seem largely mythical.  Little whirlpools of turbulence form behind the boat – making it seem like the boat is still and the water moving; only the shifting perspective of the trees clearly shows that we are making progress.

The water is glassy still and its perfect surface makes the tiny showers of rain that defy the forecast look more serious than they really are.  Paddle bubbles, formed by over eager blade strokes, mix with others that rush to the surface from the deep water.  It’s tempting to think of fish or the clumsy legs of giant crayfish – but chances are it's just decomposition and swirling waters.  But the fish fantasy is much more enjoyable.


After a while The Pieman is joined by The Savage River, and we head up the tributary to look for the wreck of the SS Croydon; Australia’s largest freshwater wreck – a claim to fame that smacks of desperation.  It sank on the 10th of May 1919, a popped hull plate thought to be the cause.  The best part of 100 years has left little above the surface, but below the tea coloured water you can still see wooden boards, handrails and open hatches, all furred with silt.  A quick sweep of a paddle blade lifts clouds from the boards and metal, the dead boat rising in the water like a ghost.  I imagine the flanks of silver fish brushing through the sunken boat, the slow rot of wood and rust of steel.  A kingfisher flashes down the river, a strike of electric blue.  A heron, all stillness and patience, stands by the water’s edge, awaiting the chance to strike in a different way. From the low water vantage of a canoe, the world comes to meet you.


The next day, under gun metal skies, we tour down the river in a veteran old lady of a boat.  Built from a fine, honey coloured timber called Huon Pine, the Arcadia II was build in 1939 and has had a variety of jobs – today she carries tourists up and down the Pieman.  There was something reassuring about the clear and obvious craftsmanship that had gone into this boat.  While the world sat at the edge of war, somebody took the care to shape and mould wood so that the handrails on the steps fitted perfectly into the palm of your hand.  At the mouth of the Pieman was a small settlement, reachable by land only by a long and rough track.  Many of the vehicles that had made that journey were sitting in various states of decay around the small houses – some would say shacks – that were half hidden by the remaining vegetation. The buildings were often painted in bright colours, blue being very popular, and were almost universally adorned with found objects and home made signs.  Only one building seemed to have a resident – a man, maybe in his 60s, maybe much younger, but just weather beaten, sitting on a rough wooden bench with large cup of tea.  He did not return my greeting.  I suspect that if I had waited long enough I would have heard people playing banjos.


The beach that overlooked the ocean was paved in sections by greyed, river washed tree trunks.  Some looked to have escaped from the grasp of loggers, with square cut bases still bearing the mark of saw and axe.  Most were twisted and broken back to a semblance of nature.  All have been delivered to the beach but the force of the Pieman and the downhill pull of flooding water.  It was a place where the illusion of wilderness was strong – although the presence of beach weeds and recently abandoned fire sites said otherwise.  Some wild, but tiny, creature managed to bite me in a dozen or so places through the legs of my trousers; the bites raised to little red wheals that itched beyond the measure of their size.  In the end, only long sea swims, or a pre-dinner whiskey could dull the irritation.

Beyond the beach edge there was nothing and everything.  Far enough south to skip the tip of Africa so they say and then collide with South America.  Maybe half a world in a single view, and maybe a place where you could see the curve of the Earth.  The Crows Nests of coming ships growing into view before the solid and walked decks.   A place to take in the sea air, longer over water than anywhere else on this watery planet so misnamed as ‘Earth’.  A place to wonder at the wildness that existed here before rubber boots grew on trees, before the sound of boat motors came loud on the wind and the before the click of camera shutters became a proxy for memory.

On the far bank of the river, high in the trees, two pale patches resolve into White-bellied sea eagles.  My thoughts on the return journey are full of wildness and wilderness.  Full of the fitful movement of wind blown plants and the slow accumulation of sand.  That night I dream of an open ocean and a deepening sea.



We had hoped to see platypus in the Whyte River, a tributary of the Pieman, but we were becoming concerned that in a while we would not be able to see the path.  A slowness of travel, or a miscalculation of distance, meant that we were deep into dusk when the lights of Corinna started to show through the trees.  This was something of a relief.

The hub of Corinna is the bar, restaurant and shop that sits just before the road ends and becomes a river.  A veranda wraps around two sides of the building, both with views towards the river, making this a great place to plan for tomorrow and an even better one for a beer at the end of the day.  Finally we got to play a few games of quoits, and the evenings were punctuated by the tick tock of table tennis games.  Father and son games, where I now have to concentrate like never before, as day-by-day H’s head slow creeps past my shoulder.  As I return a shot, I notice movement in the darkness of the car park below.

A patch of darker darkness detaches itself from the shadows and moves with a rolling gait into the slight light of the open spaces in front of the ferry.

“Devil” I call, maybe a little too loud, dropping the bat as H returns the ball (he claimed the point).  There are few places in the world where you can see Devils and not be in the grip of some form of religious fever.  The dark shape freezes in the middle of the car park and seems to be waiting. I raise my camera, more in hope than anticipation, and hear the focus hunting back and forth, searching for some form of certainty to lock on to.  All it finds is darkness.  I take a shot anyway.


The devil, which by its size is a young one, moves on through the car park, skilfully avoiding the few pools of light that may have given me some hope of focus, and pauses to sniff the night air. There is no question that it knows I am there.  Even if my scent was masked by wood smoke and cooking smells, I know that I am being observed in the downstream air.  The devil enters the dark shadows of the scrubby woodland and disappears.  It seems to merge into the darkness rather than leave it.  It’s like a state change, where it went from one form of hidden to another one.  When you see things like this, it’s not hard to imagine where tales of shape-shifters and magical animals originate.

And across much of this island state a similar, but far more profound kind of shift is robbing the Tasmanian wild of its last large carnivore.  A facial cancer, fatal and specific, has spread through the population of Devils like wildfire.  Strange in its passage, and unknown in its origin, it has reduced the Devils to near extinction in many places.  Only on the West coast do they remain even common.  And what is saddening is that we don’t really know if this is due to isolation or due to some difference in these Western devils that keeps them safe.  If it is just isolation, every day brings a real threat that whatever barrier keeps the cancer at bay will be breached and this last stronghold will also fall.

Now, any of you who have had the misfortune to deal with cancer may be cocking an inquisitive eyebrow here.  How does a cancer spread like this, from population to population?  That’s not how it normally happens.  But this cancer is not like most others – it spreads by contact between the Devils.  When a Devil with a tumour bites another, there is a chance that some of the tumour cells will be transferred to the healthy one.  Once in the healthy Devil, the cancer cells can begin to grow, to gestate like some parasite, until the tumours that form around the Devils face prevent it from feeding and it starves to death.  But even this is not the end of the strange story of this cancer.

The immune system of animals is exquisitely tuned to the chemical markers of their own cells – the markers of self.  The immune system can detect which cells are its own, and which are foreign.  So, if the cancer cells truly were a parasite, the immune system of the Devils would detect them and attack them.  But by some other chance of history and genetics Devils posses very little variety in these chemical markers of self. So, the cancer cells go unchallenged as they are passed from Devil to Devil.  The immune system is blind to the threat, only finding cells it sees as self; cells that would normally be safe, cells that are meant to be there.  Cells that won’t kill them.

If this cancer takes the Devils and drives them to the same fate as the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon, then the wilds of Tasmania will have lost something unique and special.  If the cancer means that Devils can only survive in zoos and sanctuaries, then they will be diminished and so will we.

As I look into the sundered darkness where a Devil once stood, I hope they will remain and persist in the wild. But knowing where our priorities lie it’s not easy to be hopeful, and it’s not hard to have sympathy for the Devils.



I was not born here*

I was not born here.

But I choose to live here.

I am, like all but a few, a transplant.  An alien come lately to this land. Transported by choice and chance from one end of the world to another, arriving partially formed and full of brave ideas about shape and space and the turning of the world and the place of the seasons.

But most of what I knew when I arrived turned out to be wrong.  Most of the knowledge I had gathered had to be unlearned and reshaped.

When I work in my garden, in summer dust or winter damp, the plants that look old and sick or tired often have pot-bound roots.  Tight packed roots that go round and round within the boundaries of a long gone pot.  Roots shackled to a ghost.  Old formed, shaped elsewhere, rejecting the call of new soil, rejecting the chance of novelty and change.  These are roots that cling to the past, never making a connection with the world, the soil, in which they now grow.  These are the roots of plants that will never thrive.  These are the roots of a plant that will often die before its time.

The roots I brought with me to Australia had first grown in the soil of Somerset; damp soil, mild soil, soil that flooded in winter and rarely dried in summer.  My roots expanded north where, baffled by soils poisoned by the hand of industry, they grew sick.  Good luck transplanted them into the stony, but fertile ground of the Lake District, where more good luck started my journey to Australia.

Roots grow used to their own soil, and take time to react.  They are not fast paced like leaves that can blow in the wind and take on new patterns and ways of growing.  Leaves react to surface changes – the rules of sports, the sizes of drinks at the bar and the name of clothes you wear to swim – changes that can be swept away with just the stroke of a pen or the turn of a celebrity’s phrase.  Roots live at a different pace, in a deeper place.  Roots respond to the slower reality of place and time.  They respond to older rhythms, and, in the form of their growth, they hold a history of where they stand.

The pace of modern life encourages us to grow leaves, but we would be better off tending to the growth of our roots.

Roots need feeding and gain much from the sugar of daily leaf life – but their domain is that of soil, of water and of space.   To give myself some understanding of the place I now was, I went in search of those same three things.
First

I have been in Australia for less than two weeks, mainly in Melbourne, head spinning and my roots looking backwards into the security of the past, when I first visit Wilson’s Promontory.  There are headlights in the rear view mirror and darkness on the sides of the road.  I do not really know where I am.  I have no sense of where I am going.  North and South seem reversed, east and west a mystery.  There are bright and mobile eyes shining in the grass and two watchful pairs glittering from a roadside tree.

We pull the car over to look; a koala and fur-clinging baby are wrapped around a twiggy thin trunk.  This is an unlooked for novelty.  If ever there was a moment when I step through the back of the wardrobe and know that I have entered a new land, this is it.  I can feel both the uncertainty and the excitement of the new and (for me) the unknown.  New places are shaping around me.  We drive on into the darkness, knowing that behind me the door has closed on the possibility of unknowing.

There are more eyes in the darkness, more reasons to stop, but in the end the pressure of arrival overwhelms the instinct for investigation.   We drive on in leaf edged darkness with the brightness of road signs and white lines for guidance.

Any arrival at night keeps things hidden.  Only a wobbling circle of torch glow shows the way; only the brightened end of the tent gives up its secrets.  Starlight.  Moonlight.  Waves crash, solid and distant.  As I sleep that first night, sounds and smells start to soak into the soil around my roots.  The loft of the sleeping bag feels warm and familiar; a kind of home, but all else is new.  Dawn reveals the detail that the night had hidden.  A passing burrow-bound Wombat.  The laughing call of a Kookaburra.  The startling brightness of Rosellas, waiting with a well practised eye and a persuasive tilt of the head. A tangled bank of new diversity now surrounds the tent, last pitched on the open fells of the English Lakes.  The morning coffee tastes the same, but little else does. There is novelty at every turn. I have that kid in a toyshop feeling of excitement, where everything is new and desirable.  I pack my bag with far too much gear, still loaded with the possibility of unforeseen rain or unseasonal frost.  My seasons have not adjusted, my expectations have not adapted.  I carry the burden of unknowing into a summer morning.  By the end of the day my shoulders feel a pressure caused by that lack of knowledge.  But every dusty step and every rucksack creak brings a small grain of knowledge.  And when that knowledge reaches my roots they begin to change shape.

Black shapes in the treetops follow us at a safe, but inquisitive, distance.  In other places or other times this may be unsettling.  A murder or an unkindness.  Worse still, a parliament.  But this is something far more welcome.  With calls like tin whistles and children’s toys, a group of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos seem to be shadowing our passage through the bush.  Wonderfully large and impossibly exotic to eyes raised on eave-stuck sparrows, I cannot help but stand and watch.  It’s impossible not to see human characteristics in such birds, and it’s perfectly clear how myths and legends could be built around them.

Trees push branches over the paths, casting welcome shade and softening the sharp edges.  The views are concealed by a cloth of blue grey leaves, most noises are covered by the warm hum of insects and all but the strongest smells are masked by the vapour of oils leaking from the hot leaves.  This is a smell of childhood winters, of oils dripped on pillows or pyjamas, to push back the congestion of winter colds.  These are memories from dozens of years and thousands of miles away.  The taproot, around which change will come, still runs deep.

I spend my first Australian camping night at Refuge Cove.  Neither that remote or that unusual, it is, none the less, remarkably different from that English fell side.  Sleep does not come easily as I listen to new noises and imagine their source.  There is nothing to be afraid of, but there is much to wonder about, and my brain buzzes at a rate that precludes sleep.  I wake the next morning with a dry mouth and a sore right shoulder.  Tea fixes one and stretching does little for the other.  Nobody else seems to be awake as I walk down towards the arc of beach inside the headlands that form the refuge.  Silver gulls sit on the golden yellow sand, and waves, slight in the early brightling sun, wash up the beach.  My tea is warm but overdrawn, bitter, but necessary.  I have never woken in a place like this before, but I know that it will not be the last time that I do. Something grows, some connection forms.

From that moment onwards, from that first morning tea, I will never feel strange calling this place The Prom rather than by its full name. I have gained a degree of familiarity; we are on first name terms.  Later that morning I leave Refuge and pass back through Sealer’s, places with abbreviated names, places named in the same way I named fishing spots and pubs many years ago.  Places that you thought you knew, places where you knew you could slow down, stand still and grow roots.

Winter

If you go in the summer you see one side of the Prom; if you go in the winter another one is likely to come looking for you.

Summer is all crowded tents and bikes lent into bushes or left flat on grassy banks.  Summer is all teenage romances and the heartbreak of the end of two weeks at Tidal River.  It’s an outdoor cinema, queues at the bathroom blocks and the near constant smell of barbeques.

Winter is empty, with single figures in the distance, scarf wrapped and gloved.  Winter is the company of Sooty Oystercatchers and Hooded Plovers on the beach. On most days you are glad of a coat and grateful for a hat.

In winter, the wind and rain pluck at door edges, coat cuffs and zip lines. On winter days the winds are from Antarctica and the rain is heavy and always cold.  But it is the time between the rains that makes the difference.  In winter the air is crystal brittle clear, the views go on forever. Rain may rattle at the windows, but it washes away the grit and dust of summer to leave the air as clean as anywhere on Earth.  Each breath, each lung full a tonic for the hazy days of summers and weeks in a lifeless chill-filtered office.  On the headlands, even on the beach, it may be easier to sit than to stand, but it is always easy to breathe.  And if the rain does not stop, what of it?  The technology that took us to the Moon also gave us waterproofs and warm clothing.  The empty paths are calling, and the short days of winter bring out the animals.

Wombats by the side of the path, a chunky animal that leaves a remarkable cubic calling card.  Kangaroos and wallabies, fleet on their large feet, still flee from disturbance, but pull up much quicker than in summer.  With paused, over the shoulder glances they hold their ground and wait for the fright to pass. Emus stride around, often in loose groups, peck, peck, pecking at the ground.  Without the constant background noise of summer visitors to drive them away animals appear in a way that gives a hint of possible past abundance.  Every winter bush holds the chance of a discovery or sight in the way that the summer never has.  On campsites, slow to recover from the summer suffocation of plastic tent bottoms, Galahs mine for roots and shoots.  Slow rhythmical digging, moving forward a step at a time, normally in company, often quietly talkative.

Winter rains after the dry of summer bring forth growth.  To think of this southern winter in terms of its northern namesake is to miss the point of the season.  This southern winter is different, lacking the stillness and plant sleep of the north.  Where the grass grows it is fresh and green.  Kangaroos, wallabies and wombats gather where the food is good and the living is easy.

About half way along the road from the park gate to Tidal River is an area of open ground and winter growth grass.  This is an abandoned World War 2 airfield, a left over from when the Prom was used to train Commandos in arts far more deadly than camping and nature study.  Today it is home to the kind of wildlife beloved of tourist brochures and overseas travellers.  We call this area Icon Field – and so do the select band of visitors we have shared it with.  Nothing in wildlife watching is completely reliable; but Icon Field is as close as it gets.

Maybe it’s the contrast with the often-grey winter skies, or forgotten sunglasses, but when the sun shines in the winter the beaches are so bright they hurt your eyes.  The light bounces back from sand grains so uniform and perfect that they squeak underfoot as you walk.  It is almost impossible not to scuff your feet, so wonderful is the startled sound the beach makes under footfall. Squeaky Beach indeed.

Winter rain runs down the rounded faces of the rocks and boulders bringing out the rich golden colours.  Crystals catch the light and sparkle as the ever-present wind ripples the sheen of water that covers them.

In winter The Prom is alive in a way the brutal heat of summer supresses.  It’s open and wild.  It’s not quite free of human forces and interruption, but it’s very close.  From choice, I now go there in the winter.
Fire

The Prom was not the only place to burn that year.  The fire season ran long and hot; we all awoke, one Sunday morning, to find that whole communities had disappeared overnight, that so many people had died that even the term catastrophe did not have the full measure of what happened on the hills just an hour or so from Melbourne.  Fire had taken control of the landscape and reshaped it, just as it may have done in the past.  Fire made a mockery of our belief that somehow we live above the laws of nature, that the natural flow of cause and effect could be circumvented by technology.  It made a mockery of our claims that we understand the land on which we live.   The fire landed a hammer blow on communities that had developed, quite literally, in the line of fire.  I have no idea how people could recover from that kind of loss.  And visiting the fire grounds, even to support those who survived, felt dangerously close to a kind of ghoulish voyeurism.

But visiting the bush was different; the bush would recover as evolution selected.  Seedpods cracked open after the fires had passed and smoke triggered the release of millions upon millions of seeds.  Fire is as much a part of our ecosystems as wind and rain, and at the Prom I was able to see the first, baby steps of regrowth.

I had watched the fires track over the Prom from their lightning strike origins in the east towards the sea to the west.  Winds fanned and fed the flames and fires skipped ahead of the main front, seemingly eager to reach the sea.  In some places it did.  No human lives were lost, and people suffered no more than inconvenience, stress and the disruption of plans.  But what the fire did do was wipe the slate clean of years of growth.  The slow process of succession, the tic-toc clock of ecological change, was taken back to almost zero, and the land would have to recover.

It was over a month after the fires had died before I managed to get back to The Prom.  Concern over safety, of falling trees and broken paths, had kept the park closed, but now it was open.

The sea was still sparkle blue, the rocks a rich gold.  The sky was still huge out over the fringes of the Southern Ocean, but much of the land was charcoal black and ash grey.  A dense black that sucked in the light, so that it looked like the land was covered in standing shadows, and a pale grey that looked as if a mist had settled, solid, on the ground.  Although the fire fields had long gone cold, burnt leaves were still falling.  The bare bones of the land poked through where the land had been stripped of its softening growth.   Now that the plants had been stripped away, the full detail of the land showed through.  Dozens of hills and sand dunes, distinct but small, lined the road where before the bush had given an illusion of smoothness.   The shape and colour of the land was hauntingly familiar; pockmarked and grey it looked like a black and white – grey scale really - picture from the Western Front, but with mud replaced by dry ash.  And no matter how hard I looked it was almost impossible to reconcile the vision with the memory.  So much had been taken away that the reference points were all gone.  And when you did find some place – a turn in the road, or hillside crag – that seemed familiar, it was just a fragment.  It was like meeting a work mate unexpectedly at the pub and knowing you know his face, but not being able to work out from where because all context had been lost and the face was dissociated.  Pulling to the side of the road I got out of the car and the landscape still smelt of smoke and ash; the scent given off by old bonfire sites and campfires being turned over before a new fire is lit.  Even a few strides through the charcoaled bushes left your legs black scored with the calligraphy of fire.  So present were the ghosts of the fire that the black lines were drawn without me being aware I was being touched.  The lines were now.  The fire was history.  But a new story was being written on me.

But just as happens in a war, there are survivors of even a landscape wide fire.  Gums that had been scorched rather than incinerated were already putting out new shoots and leaves.  Buds protected by insulated bark or fed from underground stores of food, swelled to produce new growth.  The limbs of trees were coated with a haze of new leaves, so that they looked fuzzy and ill defined.  As the wind fluttered the new growth, the black of the fire-scarred branches below showed through, so that the whole limb seemed to ripple in small waves. At ground level, shoots, strong and green in the abundant light, pushed through the charred soil.  Everywhere life was awakening from an ash bed.  For a place that had been described in the media as ‘destroyed’ there was an abundance of life.

It would seem that I am not the only one who needs to grow roots in the reality of Australia soil.

Through summer sun and winter rain, through the acrid smell of old smoke and rush of new growth, my roots expand and reform.  Each step, each season, adds to the accumulation of experience.  And with experience comes knowledge, and the slow shift of assumption and expectation.

I was not born here.


But now I live here.

(* This is a piece I entered for a writing competition, organised by The Nature Conservancy in Australia.  Unfortunately, I did not make the final short list of pieces.  I have posted it here in its original form - i.e. without images.  Let me know what you think)