In an altered state (part 1)

The flight left Australia at 11 am on Wednesday. 20 hours later I had checked in to my hotel at 1 pm on the same day.

America.  Arizona.  Scottsdale.



Still in the dark of the night before, the alarm on the bedside table sounded trill and annoying.  I had not slept well.  An unfamiliar bed, with too much empty space.  My body was in America, but its clock was still in Australia – somewhere in the future.  The room lacked for nothing that I needed and contained nothing that I wanted.  Dangerously, I closed my eyes for a while to listen; there were none of the familiar noises, no wheel squeal of metal on metal as the first trams move through the early morning, no sounds of approaching footsteps as the kids come down to continue – seamlessly – the conversations of last night.  Words flow from them like falling water, which sleep freezes and morning thaws.

The alarm sounds again, and I get up.  The carpet feels different underfoot.  I can’t find my shoes.  It’s the second of ten days that will contain three Wednesdays and only one Thursday.

Peeping through a gap in the curtains is the quickly growing light of my first morning for 36 hours. I only know it’s morning because of the clock. I feel old.

My head hurts, my fingers feel like sausages.  Something has disconnected my senses from my brain.  Fragments. Splinters. I look out of the window.  A car drives through the car park.  It feels strangely reassuring to know I am not the only person awake.

I hate jet lag. The thrill of travel mitigated by a lack of sleep and an unwound body clock.

At the breakfast bar, a lady who looks no more awake than I feel – Helen Cortez – points at the food and says, “Help yourself, sir”.   I pour crispy sugar cereal into a paper bowl and drizzle on no fat milk.   She points at a row of sweet, snow pale, bread, and says, “This is for toast, sir”.  The formality makes me smile, but in my befuddled state the help is welcome.  I manage to find the thin, bitter coffee without help.  The spoons are plastic.  I butter the toast with a bendy knife.  For all of Helen’s attention I do not really enjoy breakfast.  

Beyond the sliding doors birds are calling. I recognise none of them.  Collecting my bag I walk outside and sit on an ornate, Greco-Roman concrete bench.   A large dark bird, like an elongated crow, lands on the roof of a parked car, its beak curved down towards its chest, its voice a series of rattles, whistles and croaks. Even in the three quarter light of morning its plumage ripples though shades of blue and black; sometimes one, sometimes the other; often a mixture of both.  A duller bird, more brown than blue, lands on the same car roof, and the volume of noise increases.  A new blue-black bird arrives and a squabble breaks out.  I left home in late summer, but maybe, here in Arizona, there is an early hint of spring in the air.  A motorcycle drives nosily through the car park, and the Great Tailed Grackles trade courtship for fear.   All three birds take to the air, flicking their great tails.

Cold air and caffeine, sugar and the sight of new birds, combine to start the reconnection of brain and senses.  I suspect the silhouette at the very top of a nearby tree is a humming bird.  Briefly I become surprisingly awake.  The silhouette departs, the tour bus arrives.  “Get in the front” the driver says, “it’s the only seat left”. I walk around the front of the bus, towards the left hand side to get in, but decide that it would be best if I did not drive.  Laughing at myself, I walk back to the right seat, the correct seat. 

The humming bird adrenaline seems to have worn off already.

I enjoyed the wait more than the breakfast.


I know it’s not the wrong side of the road – but it surely feels like it.  Many of the cars look the same, and the road signs are the same colour and in the same language, but it’s the driving that gives me a firm sense of being elsewhere.  A small owl by the roadside and a median strip studded with cactus complete the “I don’t think we’re in Victoria anymore, Toto” feel.  I check my watch – back home my kids would be coming back from swimming, and an early autumn evening would be drawing down towards darkness.  Here, the thin light of the morning Sun is shaded by cloud, and a light rain falls.  Rain in the desert once more.

Our driver has a singsong voice and a tendency to repeat himself.  The bus slows as we pass over a glassy irrigation canal.  The canal is over 330 miles long we are told.  330 miles!  What we are not told is that water is the stolen body of the Colorado River, which now does not reach the sea and has not done so in my lifetime.  In the fields by the canal irrigation, sprinklers stutter back and forth, shooting water onto a half empty soil.  In the rain. 

Out past the fast food stores and car yards, cacti spread their film famous silhouette arms.  Many have holes in the base and limbs.  Owl holes.  Woodpecker holes.  Gun shot holes – a strange sport.  Bushes with green stems conserve water through the hard times by doing without leaves.  The palette of colours runs to pale grey greens in the plants and red in the soil and stone. If it was not for the cacti I could be back in Central Australia – maybe a little less red, and a little more developed, but the connection is clear.  Two deserts full of red rocks and life you can see nowhere else.  I see the desert of Arizona alone in a group.  I wish my trio of redheads were here.

The bus turns off the highway and follows a river along a small, roughly paved, side road and into a busy car park.  There are about a dozen motorbikes and two other small tour buses parked under the arms of the Arizona sycamores – the trees pale and leafless, the bikes shiny and polished, the buses garish with slogans. 

The trees are beautiful, but that’s not why we are here. Beyond and through the branches a rectangular structure, a building, sits within a natural cave in the rock face.  The sharp corners of the building contrast with the dull, plastic, edges of the cliff face.  The building glows a light red orange, the cliffs shine a chalky white.  On closer inspection the building is pock marked with stones, and its origin as baked mud is clear.  50 or so feet above the valley floor this was a multi-storey home to a thriving community that channelled the waters of the river towards their fields, fed their children and lived in the cool shadows of their cliff cut homes.  These were not just hunter-gatherers, these were farmers who relied on the waters of the river and their crops of corn.  These were farmers who, sometime around 1450, packed up their belongings and left.

Today the building is known as Montezuma Castle, a name that is wrong on both counts.  It’s not a castle, and Montezuma was born 100 years after the building was abandoned.  The name is a hangover from the early days of European exploration, when the lens of cultural assumption was applied to all that was found.  If the native people on the area were already “known” to be primitive, anything that suggested “culture” must have been created by somebody else.  So the castle and the connection were (and are) a mental invention born of assumptions that we now know to be untrue.  The question that comes to mind is “why do we still use this name?”

(As a kid I was taught that the great rock that sits in the centre of Australia was called “Ayers Rock” – it had been named by the first European to see it.  But it has an older, more authentic name, “Uluru”, and that is generally how it is now known.  Changing the current names of ancient places cannot alter history, but if we acknowledge what has gone before, it may help alter the future.)

Without being able to see inside the building itself it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like behind the thick mud walls, high above the valley floor.  But I can be sure that when they pulled up the ladders that reached down to the ground – either in fear or from habit – they would have had the same concerns as we do; the future, the weather, their children.  They were no more primitive than we are – it’s just they had yet to invent the TV or mobile phone.

At the time of abandonment, a great drought covered the lands that were to become the south-western states of America.  The rains failed.  The rivers failed.  The crops failed.  And in the end, so did this cliff cave community.  Did the leaders of these people insist that there was no real problem?  Did they say we have always had droughts?  Did they say that the profits of doom were crazy, that there was no cause for alarm?  Did they keep saying these things as the families walked away from their homes and into a future unplanned?

If they were truly like us, I suspect they may have.

The past mirrors the present and the future seems more uncertain than normal.  We cannot just walk away from our homes in the hope of future return.  We cannot just hide the ladders in the bushes and hope that things will turn out for the best.  I think of the government back home, and realise that I may not be the only one who is not yet fully awake.

It’s no longer raining and the sky is a crisp blue, but in the distance there are dark clouds.   A winter wind picks fallen brown leaves from the ground and spins them upwards. A blur of bright colour moves with the leaves, and lands, feather fluffed, on a branch.  Behind me I hear the thin call of an unseen bird.  The bird on the branch is a Spotted Towhee, the unseen caller a Brown Creeper – the existing wild gathers round to remind me of the wonders that we can still see, and in the appreciation of that wild there is (as has been said before) a world of possibility and hope.

The path back to the van weaves between Arizona sycamores, their branches bare, their smooth, thick trunks a patch-work of bark flakes.  Any trees within reach of the path have been rubbed smooth by the passage of hands, polished by the impulse to reach out and touch.  A woodpecker flies from the highest branches and a smile lights my face.  The nearing horizon threatens rain, but briefly the valley is bathed in sunlight.  Weather. Climate.  Culture and change.  

Back in the car park the motorbikes are still there, but the garish vans have moved on, replaced by others.  Another gust of wind lifts leaves from the ground and sends them spinning over a rough stonewall.  The farmers are long gone, the river has returned.  If there were ever places where we should listen for the possibility of ghosts, it would be places like this.

We drive away. The landscape moves by at speed.  The rain returns in short sharp showers.  Cold seems to seep through the windows.  I wish I had brought a thicker coat.  A grove of pecan trees.  A casino on an Indian reservation, taking money from the people who took the land.  It may be profitable, but I doubt it’s equitable.  One shower falls as thick rain, or thin snow.  

We arrive at Sedona.

The sky clears, but the threat of more rain remains.

I am finally awake.

The circle completed.

The holidays are over.

It’s well past New Year.

It’s a while until my birthday.

It’s a long time until next Christmas.

It’s summer now, but soon it will be autumn.

Spring seems distant, winter a memory long gone.

We seem so still.  Still, while time and the seasons turn around us.  So still that we do not notice the movement and flow.  We embrace the myth of stillness and solidity, seeking refuge from the circles and cycles of change.  Yet everyday we pass through and over, everyday we spin and change.  Every single day we play a part in the circle completed.  


It’s much cooler on the water than on land; wind washed, sea sprayed.  As the land draws away and we move out into the Bay, shapes grow from the sea surface to form solid objects.  Islands, natural and manmade, channel markers.  Bright signs that warn of danger, bright signs to keep us safe.  The bow of the boat skips on the waves and people laugh at the salt spray shower.  Protectively I fold my arms across the binoculars that hang from my neck; other people wipe the sea from the lenses of their glasses and cameras. 

I love being out in the bay. With its own protective arms of land, it’s a reversal of the way maps were once drawn, with the land surrounded by an encircling sea.  Only if you look out to The Heads can you see past the land and out through the ocean haze.  The Heads are the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay, a passage through which ships must be piloted by the skilled and the experienced.  Its shallow reefs of sharp rocks and ancient flooded cliffs have claimed many boats.  The rest of the bay is seemingly benign, where the chance of striking rocks is low.  But the shark tooth of stone is replaced by the soft hand of mud.  To be in the middle of the sea and know the depth is less than two feet is strange.

For large boats to move through the Bay they need to follow the ghost of the old river that flowed when the world was still iced and so much water was held, frozen, on the land the sea shrank and pulled away.  Subtle shifts in the cycles of Sun and Earth, deep shifts in the behaviour of the Sun, pushed the Earth and its water in the direction of ice and cold.  Those cycles still exist; but other, newer, forces are pushing the Earth’s water in another direction.  We have left the time of ice and are entering a time of greater water.  The ice retreats, the oceans grow.  The beach comes to us as we go to the beach.   On the ocean there is no stillness, only flow and change.

When we arrive at Mud Islands the boat cannot find a gap in the weedy barrier that fringes the dry land.  We try one place, then another; eventually we find a breach and wade ashore.  There is movement all around.  We are surrounded by flying, calling birds.  Young birds, some not yet airborne, some uncertain on new found wings.  Adult birds, still crisp in breeding plumage, hover over the younger ones calling in shrill, sharp voices.  Most of the birds are Crested Terns, some are Silver Gulls; all are combinations of white and grey.  The terns sport a dark head and wind blown crest, the gulls blood red bills and feet.  Within one small patch of sand, adults and their young scream and fight, feed and fly.  In four weeks this part of the beach will be empty, and the only sign of what was here will be the flickering wings of the dead, buried in sand, taken by chance or illness or the losing hand of genetics.  But on this day we land to a beach full of life, and the embracing sand will have to wait for the cycle to come full circle. 


The walk around the islands starts at the end. 

On departure, things unneeded on the journey are left in the blue-green bushes to await the return of their owners. 

Many walks start and end at the same place – the resuscitative evening stroll, the ambitious mountain walk (planned to impress), the pram push that sooths both adult and child.  But most of these walks are only circles in a mathematic sense – they begin and end at the same place, they have no repeat sections.  Net analysis would see no difference in them from a perfect circle – a journey that rotates around a fixed point.  But the journey around Mud Islands is almost a circle in a real sense – albeit, the type of circle drawn by an unsteady infant hand. 

From the air the islands take the form of a yin and yang sign, with the upper and lower portions of one reaching out to hold the other.  Ocean currents and the whim of drifting sand fill the space between the two with shallow, bird rich, water.   Some areas are always underwater, some are only fluid on the highest of high tides, and some have remained dry for a few years.  Today’s aerial photograph may show the current shape, but maps and charts cannot catch the cipher that is the form of these changing islands.  Even if you walk around the island to find its form, the shape of the journey will be determined by the state of the tide.  A walk two hours later or earlier would have yielded a different shape.  Our knowledge of the exact attributes of the island are as fluid as the water that surely surrounds it. 

At present the island can be reasonably expected to be more or less where we expect it to be.  At present we can reasonably expect the walk around it to take about four hours.  At present we can reasonably expect to find birds of a certain type on the islands.  But the fine details of these expectations are conjecture.  On all of these points we can have confidence, but not certainty.  It’s an important point.  Whatever cycles drive the dynamics of the island and its populations, we can have no absolute certainty about what we will find when we visit.

This is the basis of real knowledge; the acknowledgement of uncertainty.  Once you have absolute certainty about any issue, you no longer need to think, you no longer need to question, you no longer need to take responsibility for the consequences of what you hold to be true.  And people who offer absolute certainty are asking you to give up that most human of gifts; the gift that took us from the thrall of disease and the spectre of hunger, the gift that took us from the cave to the near place of space.  The gift that allowed us to look far beyond the limits of the human eye and the reach of the human arm – the enquiring mind.

That’s an interesting thought to come from walking around a small island, loud with the call of gulls and terns, and far from the places where most learning is offered.


Lunch is taken by a large shallow pool.  Waders, themed variations in leg length, bill shape and degrees of grey-brownness wander in the water.  Wade. The long legged in the deep water, the short in the shallow.  A few ducks make good on the promise of buoyancy and in the distance white pelicans and black swans might be standing or they might be floating.  Beyond the island, but before the haze blocked shore, a huge boxy ship passes – trapped between two lengths of land, shipping in the channel. Importing TV’s, exporting jobs.  Goods, capital, labour or the unrefined bones of the Earth - the currency flow of a system that makes light of human needs.  A system that seems to know the cost of everything, but misunderstands its value. A system that makes much of choice.  Choice that is, as long as you can pay.


The mud is soft underfoot and the water is comfortably sun-warmed.  Birds scatter as we wade towards them, keeping to the shallows, heading for the far shore.  A strange white bird brings us to a halt in the water.  With a long beak and legs it’s not like any bird I have ever seen.  It turns out to be a Bar Tailed Godwit, stripped of colour by some strange combination of genes and metabolism – it is called, technically, leucistic.  It looks out of place, but seems at home, settled in its flock, feeding like all the others.

The water shallows and the mud firms as we approach the land; shells and the ghosts of crabs gather in the shallows.  Living crabs sidestep the issue and move back to deeper water.  Silver shadow fish dart away.  Some of my fellow walkers swap shoes – wet to dry – just before the land sinks again.

Around the bend of the island, scraggy leaf bare bushes grow almost to the water’s edge.   Each bush is collapsed in the middle, compressed by nesting pelicans.  Most have have long since left the colony, and now feed out in the bay. 

But not all.

A head, strangely remote from its body lies in the sand.  It looks more geological than biological, more fossil than fowl.   Further down the beach a whole bird lies like an arrow head on the high tide line. Its wings are open but still, its beak open but silent.  Members of the group express a kind of horror at finding a bird like this.  One clamps her hand over her nose and mouth and runs quickly past.  “It stinks”, she says.  While there is some truth in this, it’s an overstatement.

I get the feeling it may be the largest thing she has seen dead – most dead creatures have been rendered down to bite size pieces, with a name that hides its origin.  Beef instead of cow.  Pork instead of pig.  It seems the birds – chicken, turkey, goose – are some of the few meats we eat that are given a real name.

It may have been her first encounter with wild life – and the gap between the words is intentional.  Wildlife may come to your garden or walk past your concealing hide.  But wild life is evidence of the real nature of life.  Life is wild, full of death as well as life.  Driven by change and uncertainty.  Much of what we do everyday shields us from the wild life and to be brought face to face with its reality on a sunny beach day is a shock and a surprise.  The bird is dead, but its chicks may be alive.  The sinew and flesh may have lost the spark of life, but the matter will be recycled and reborn.  Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen: all the base elements that combine to form the remarkable chemistry of life will go round and round and round.  It is true that we are star stuff, born from collisions in the furnaces of suns uncounted.  But we are also Earth bound, tied to the cycles of the wild.

The pelican is having its complexity unwound.  The flows of energy needed to keep together its atoms – as uncounted as the catalogue of stars – no longer flow and from complexity comes simplicity.  But in the future, when all the strands are broken, from simplicity complexity will once more arise.  No hands from outside of the world of nature, no intervention from forces beyond recognition. Just cycles of matter and flows of energy. 

The pelican is gone, but the cycles are not.   One day I may, unknowingly, meet part of it again.


We return to the beginning.

The afternoon draws on.

The tide turns.




And new beginnings.