Continuing West.



After fours days of desk bound office work, six hours of fresh air had a predictable narcotic effect.  As we drove away from the Spectacles my eyes grew heavy.  In the sugar crash of the late afternoon I started thinking about coffee, and maybe a sly bit of cake.  If it had been offered, I would have eaten the last bit of nut slice that I knew was somewhere in the car. I think Stuart was saving it for himself! Grey clouds and light rain ended a good day.  There is a small cafĂ© next to my hotel. The coffee tastes good, the cake even better.   

Hotel rooms (well at least the ones I pay for) offer a kind of cramped intimacy – nothing is every very far out of reach, and whatever TV the room has looks like a widescreen.  But strangely the electrical sockets are always just out of reach of the power cords for my laptop.  I look through the images for the day, tag a few, and delete more.  A pre-dinner nap beckons.  I awake some time later to a dark room and the sound of shouting in the street. With sleep-dulled recognition I see that it’s well past the time to eat, and with that thought I crawl under the slight, scratchy sheets and go back to sleep. 

I may have woken in the night to the sound of breaking glass and shouting, but I may have dreamt it.  The maxim of early to bed early to rise holds true and a watery grey light flickers at the windows edge.  The charging light on my laptop flashes a green beacon in the corner of the room.  Clinging to my familiar domestic ritual, I make a cup of tea bag tea.  It tastes bitter and flat.  There is no shouting in the street.  There is no bird song either. 

Ruler straight roads and right angle junctions make for simple navigation as I walk towards the Swan River, the slippery heart of Perth.  Silver Gulls fight over scraps left on the pavement (it’s best not to ask).  A pacific black duck – on the flanks of the wrong ocean – preens its feathers in the liquid splash of an ornamental fountain.  Appropriate swans drift on the river and overhead, parrots call from the trees.  Behind me are the towers of the city centre, in front of me the silent river.  The old red of iron and the new blue of glass push hard against each other.  Middle-aged buildings, unloved for a lack of either history or modernity, are pulled apart to be remade in corporate image.  The wind whistles in the scaffolding pipes, a safety harness rattle flaps against an empty cage.


It’s cool but not cold.  Saturday morning hangs heavy with the echo of Friday night.  A long sleep and an early walk leave me ready for the wonderful excesses of the buffet.  I can smell bacon, coffee and toast – the holy trinity of breakfast.  When I sit down the food is piled high, but nobody else is there.  I live in a land of plenty.

It’s just after nine when I walk along Murray Street Mall; most of the shops are still closed and a small army of street sweepers are going about their trade.  A few buskers and street artists are setting up for the day.  And on street corners and under bus-shelters people are shouting again.  A small group of aboriginal people are wandering about the mall, shouting to each other and seemingly to the ghosts I cannot see.  Coke bottles, sludge lined with glue are passed around.  The living proof that Terra Nullius was a lie are dying on the streets of today.  A tall brunette, with long hair and longer legs, pushes a coffee in front of her like a shield.  She crosses the road and walks on the other side.  This creates an internal dilemma.  Do I do the same thing, to avoid the possibility of conflict?  Or do I stay on this side of the road to show some lame form of solidarity?  As I choose not to walk on the other side I realise that this decision is not about solidarity or even social justice, it’s about making me feel better about a situation that is way beyond my influence.  I can make some form of token gesture, but on that street, on that day, I know it’s about me and not the dispossessed.  And that realisation makes it even worse. A man with a badly cut head uses his football beanie as an impromptu bandage.  An ambulance arrives to help.  His friends gather around him, crossing the street in front me to do so.  The journey to their friend puts me on the other side of the road to the aboriginal people. I turn to walk back to the hotel. My cameras hang heavy. In a land of plenty, I have to wonder how such things can be.


The hotel room offers the kind of surrounds befitting my mood; low key, silent, unremarkable.  A text on my phone alters all that.

Many, many weeks ago, through the random collision of strangers, I met somebody who knew somebody I knew as well.  The seven degrees of separation myth crystallises into a greater possibility, and I make a contact.  In Muscat, Oman, at a conference dinner, in a hall studded with unused tables and unfurnished with alcohol, a conversation started to flow. A teacher, like me (well historically anyway).  An expat Englishman, like me.  A new Australian, like me.  And, above all else a birdwatcher – but one with a level of skill and experience well beyond mine. He lives in Perth, I live in Melbourne, and now I’m in Perth and the text is from him confirming the time and place of our meeting.  2pm.  Outside the hotel.  Bring coffee.  After the morning, it’s the splash of random, good-natured chance that I need to lift the gloom.  I check my lens, reformat the memory cards and buy some coffee.  I find a chair and wait.   A face, familiar but not seen more than handful of times walks across the street.  I had expected a car, but foot traffic is often faster. I meet David’s wife and we head off in search of birds.

The flow of conversation begins again and spins around birds seen and missed, back referenced to time in Oman.  Perth slides by, keeping on and on.  Many Australia cities were built in a way that was lazy with space, and Perth is no exception.  The house blocks are large, the nature strips wide and the roads even wider, but strangely some of the roads have no pavements; the garden wall meets the nature strip and nature strip the road.  This anonymous strip becomes a no mans land, pocked with old sofas and the beached hulks of great white-whale refrigerators.  The casual use of space speaks of a belief in endless horizons, never ending growth and the burning of fossil fuels.  The coming years may prove this to be folly.

We turn off the main road, heading along another with a military sounding name, and simply military straightness.  Eventually we arrive at Wungong Gorge, and pull into the otherwise empty car park.  Unseasonal dust spits from under the wheels, and a light dusting of birds flush from where the dirt fades, greening, into bush.  Once more I am in the premier habitat – the car park. 

That you see lots of birds in the car park is no flight of fancy.  Car parks often have that most valuable of wildlife resources, edges.  The open dirt of the parking spaces zones through moss and lichen to grass and herbs; from grass and herbs to bushes and saplings and finally into older forests.  In towns, car parks are squeezed into the dead spaces that retail rejects – but in the bush they are built next to interesting places, often natural places, places where things live.  The loss of ground seems more than offset by the gain in diversity.  The major problem of this habitat is their tendency to attract the thieving magpies of the human community.  Window smashers, lock forcers.  We leave the car more or less empty, and I carry far too much stuff.  It’s the penalty of excess.


The car park, with its zones and edges holds us for at least half an hour.  Urban myth has it that most visitors to National Parks never move more than 500m from their cars – in a place like this I can see why.  A White-breasted Robin flicks from up from the ground to land on a log barrier, only to be replaced by a Splendid Fairy Wren when it leaves.  Hidden Red-capped Parrots call from the trees.   On a down slope, along a fence line Red-winged fairy wrens move through the bushes, calling to each other and teasing us with little glimpses and half-clear sightings.  Eventually one breaks ranks and sits still long enough for me to see the chestnut colour – I hear a tick click into place in my mind.  As I swing the lens of my camera round, it remembers how it should be behaving and heads for cover.  I never see it again.

A vague track winds away from the back of the car park towards an area of battered looking bush and up on to a track of sorts.  We step over fallen trees and broken branches; the wreck of a fallen tree has been pushed over the path, hiding it.  Bird shadows move around the fallen branches, but they never stay still long enough to see.  It was like watching dust float and dance in window-streamed light, when you focus on one speck the observation pushes it over into invisibility and you lose it in the background.  I stand chasing shadows, while up ahead parrots call from the treetops and magpies trill and respond to each other.  I choose a way forward that looks more solid than the others, and stumble through the wreckage up to the track.



Although not old, the track flows in an old way – following contours rather than brutally cutting across them.  It feels like a route made for comfort rather than just speed.  Off to our left, down a steep slope, a dry looking valley leads back towards the parked car.    The slope is populated by triffids – or at least some strange plant with bud/fruits that look like spikey unattractive Kiwi Fruit.  Large bright butterflies flick up from the plants with eye-catching movements. Monarch butterflies – the same species that undertakes the famous migration through the Americas - spook from the plants as we brush them.  Its hard – impossible - to filter out the movement and my eyes dart from attention point to attention point.  Eventually I spot one resting and sneak up on it.  It’s not just the birds that are new to me.


The valley bottom is scruffy with weeds – blackberries – and abandoned fruit trees.  Small birds move through the undergrowth, difficult to follow.  But as they grow used to us and we grow used to them the watching becomes easier – and out of the movement Red Cheeked Firetails emerge.  Tiny, but robust, a small flock gathers and chases around a tree stump.  They flick over a low rise and disappear into the welcoming tangle.

Back at the car, back in the car park, we take a welcome drink.  This underrated habitat does not let us down.  Yellow Rumped Thornbills pick at the loose gravel and a Scarlet Robin flashes red from cover to an open bush.  Neither of them are rare, neither of them are ticks, but both of them are beautiful.  It seems a good way to end the day.


On birthdays



Prologue:

The strangest places in nature exist in the tangled web between our ears. The forests trails, the mossy paths and neural tracks of the mind need to be explored; else we are left wondering what lies over the horizon. In the end these journeys filter, blur and finally focus our understanding of the world around us.  We see what we see because of where we have been. This is a story more of places than people, a story of the way landscapes can come to mean more than just hills and valleys.  So, how did I get to here?

I was born in a thick-walled, small-windowed terrace cottage in the spring that followed a long cold winter.  Snow ghosts had hidden in the hedge banks until March.  I would later learn that the populations of herons and wrens had been laid waste that winter, the birds freezing to death in a frozen countryside. As I grew up, they grew back; loud voiced, sharp beaked.  The Cottage had a strange, organic kind of architecture, with surprising steps, stairways behind doors and only two rooms on the same level.  It had the ability to be cool in summer and frosty cold in the winter.  I was born in the one room with any heating – which we called the breakfast room, but was a room of all trades, the busiest room in the house.  Seventeen years later I watched my mother die in the same room.  Utterly helpless again.  A start and a finish, only metres apart.  If there was a moment when my childhood ended, it was that Sunday, in that room, as her last breath caught and failed.   And in that moment the arc of a journey began that only ended when I was able to sit, still and aware, and listen to the breathing of my own kids, warm in bed, under a watertight roof, in a country far away from the small and folded landscapes of Somerset.


Our house contained an odd mix of books, furniture, prize possessions and spots of growing, rain triggered dampness.  I had more volumes of Ladybird Books of the British Countryside than I did pairs of socks.  My father was the only person I knew who had a 35mm SLR – an Exa IIB to be exact.   He shot Kodachrome 64, which arrived in bright yellow boxes; frequently in the summer, only occasionally in the winter.  When I was ten I worn “wear test” shoes to school – a human product tester, with no need to buy shoes – and was given a pair of binoculars for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea. We had a car that broke down more often than I care to recall, a set of encyclopaedias that lived in the Lounge and no running hot water.  We took two weeks of day trips during the summer holidays, packing a picnic and following directions, written in pencil on a page of scrap paper, pinned to the dash.  A37, B3139 and onward.  When we arrived at the bottom of the page we were sent off to explore and to come back at lunchtime.   Outside of these days I walked when I could and caught the bus when I could not, learned how to cook and tie knots in the Scouts and discovered the private solitude of fishing.  Given the choice I chose boots over shoes and plain colours over patterns.  I loved being outdoors, but rarely strayed too far from home.  I missed things that many other people saw, and saw things that others missed.  From inside the family, the outside world looked odd, but I wanted to see more of it.  I privately worried about what other people saw and thought of our family when they looked in.   I moved away at nineteen and started to stop calling the village and The Cottage home. But for all of that, it’s still the place I look back to, still the place I type in Google now and then. (“In search of absent school friends”?)

It’s clear to me now that so much of what I have done ever since I left has been in response to the strange contradictions of luxuries and missing basics I saw as child.  The good - watch, look, record, read, try.   The bad – push family away, read rather than do, speak your mind at all times.  The ugly - well, secrets are secrets.  A strange blend of nurture that pointed me in the way of nature. 


An old rail line ran through the village, and it became both a route and a purpose.  You could walk it to get somewhere, or walk it to pass time.  The grey rail ballast was slowly being buried by regrowth, and the trenches and pillboxes of a global conflict were slowly sinking back into the ground.  There were flowers in spring, butterflies in summer and grasshoppers that could be caught between cupped hands.  Turn left at the bridge and you could walk to the old station, with its platforms, broken building stumps and the smell of cut wood.  Turn right and you could walk towards the tunnels or go further to Norton.  This was my tiny world, my patch, the place where I learned the taste of grass, the call of common birds and strange metallic smell made when you tried to knap flint. 

Beyond the bounds of this village parish there were places we visited in all weathers. The Mendips were normal, other places a little less frequent. Priddy with it pools of tempting rudd but easier perch, Roman stones, hill top barrows and henge ditch circles.  Velvet Bottom (really!) with an under-road tunnel and fine-cropped grass.  Charter House with its pond where I never fished.  Ebbor Gorge, Cheddar, Chew, Blagdon.  Beyond the Mendips there were the Somerset Levels, the damp sibling of limestone hills.  We called them the Back Streets of Wells, and were often lost in the criss-cross network of roads.  Eventually we would find a road sign to Glastonbury, Wedmore or back toward Wells.

Sometimes we would point the car in the other direction, towards Wiltshire and a patch of woodland called Brokers Wood – or just Woodland Park.  In hindsight it may have been the first eco-tourism venture I saw, but at the time it was a place with well labelled woodland paths and a brown water, clay based lake full of roach and carp.  This was the best exploring place I knew as a kid.  The map was simple and the paths clear.  Path 1 was the longest; it cut straight through the woodland in a direct fashion, and it was the most popular and the least interesting.  Path 7 was short and its route seemed to flow with the contours of the ground; it may have been an old badger path co-opted to human use.  You normally saw squirrels there, occasional woodpeckers and small flocks of unidentified warblers.


My landscapes were old, tended and familiar, with few straight edges and many hidden corners.  It rained at the due times – and the one summer it did not, it made national news and we called it a drought.  Late spring smelt of wild garlic and sounded of bird song.  Winters were damp rather than cold, and snow was a school stopping, day off treat. Alongside my preference for boots, I gained a love of the small, the concealed and the local.  I would not have been able to tell you at the time, but I gained a love for places that I could call my own.  They were my places.  Places that the wider world ignored.  Places that would never really feature in stories or TV shows, but ones I could visit again and again and never get bored. I’d know them for 19 years when I left.

The train arrived in Sunderland in the late afternoon; I loaded my bags into a van and was driven to the campus.  Twenty minutes later I was in a small room about eight or nine floors up a building that looked like a sinking ship.  It was the longest single journey I had ever made.  Out through my window were things that I had only ever seen on TV.  Industry, or at least its battered remains, and small houses huddled next to each other in the chill light. Pubs carried brands I had never heard of.  People still built things with their hands or dug coal from the Earth. People joined unions and were hated for it by a government that seemed to govern for other people in other places. I was a fish out of water, so I sought the beach.  Although the winds of the North Sea were always sharp, the beach had a feel I recognised from elsewhere.  Nothing else seemed the same.  I stayed for three years and, as is the way with students, explored the warm landscape of the bars more than the region. 


If Sunderland was a post-industrial landscape, then County Cork was a pre-industrial one.  In a single day I moved from a landscape dominated by the hallmarks of industrial decay to one that had never undergone industrialisation in the first place.  To my eyes The Republic looked like a modern country with an older landscape – and maybe both of these assessments were wrong.   I lived on an island with flower rich fields and otters for neighbours.  Over one horizon was America – a place of huge magnetic attraction to Ireland – and over the other was the UK – which was not as well regarded by many.  I watched dolphins in the evenings and wondered why I never got any mail.   I watched the sea sparkle and the sky become alive with a scatterwork of stars.  The sound of the sea, and washing that never really dried, became a kind of background noise that was unspoken, and constant. When I returned to Somerset it was made clear to me that I had not returned home, so I washed my clothes and left, and headed north to Gateshead.  As factory chimneys fell, and people burnt their garden fences for warmth, I tried to bring greenery back to rail lines, spoil heaps and foundry ruins. If the truth were told, I felt like I was marking time; unsure of both where and what I should be. Chance took me back to the countryside.  Back to a place of archetypes and other people’s poems.  To a place of Lakes, damp oak woodlands and open hilltops. 


There was 11 miles of lake just outside my window, birds in the trees, deer through the kitchen window and sinuous, ropey eels in the boatsheds. There were squirrels in bushes; Red squirrels, real squirrels, Nutkin squirrels - not the grey ones of Path 7.  There were daffodils in spring, but, as far as I could tell, not a host. On my days off I could wander on the fell tops with the clouds, never lonely, but sometimes lost.  The beaten tracks lead you to places that people painted and hug on their walls; if you left the tracks you could find rare moments of solitude.  Those places were owned by the ravens and peregrines.  A deep throated cronk or a blue grey flash.  If you only climbed to the top of the hill you shared your coffee with other walkers and food-stealing sheep.  If you kept going over the hump or stopped just before, you could make conversation with yourself or the wind or the passing birds.  If you can fall in love with a place, then I did.  It may have been busy most of the time, with walkers and school kids (who we encouraged to come), but with care and a bit of thought you could avoid the crowds and find a place to hide.  More than anything it became a place where you could lose yourself without getting lost.  A place where you could explore more than just the things marked on the map.  It was a landscape in which I began to understand that you could move beyond the things that you have been taught were true, that you could move past the beginning and ending that occurred in one small room.  It’s strange what walking up a hill in the snow can do for you.

But for all I loved the place that great celestial spanner thrower had other ideas and put one clean into the middle of the works. We went for a walk to the top of a hill behind work, and a few days later I showed her a woodpecker nest.  Things became beautifully complex and simple all at the same time.  In the end decision day came and I had to choose between a place and a person – which is as much of a non-competition as I can imagine.  And to clear up any possible ambiguity here, the person won. So I packed my bags (and boxes), archived my memories, climbed Golden Slipper with Callum and headed to Australia.



And one of those things was a mistake.  I spent the first few years in Australia refusing to look into the archives, even when I wanted to and grew resentful and tired.  I felt guilty about wanting to look there, and that stopped me looking elsewhere as well.  The combination of chronic under-observation and the demands of a vampire employer created a darkness that filled the spaces between my ears.  It would seep out in bursts of anger that fed back into the gloom and grew; the negative effects of positive feedback.  The anvil on my chest crushed more than my heart.  It made the prospect of continuing more ghastly than the prospect of ending.  It was up hill all the way, up hill every day and there was never a hint that the view at the top would be worthwhile, or even different.  It was a frightening place to be.  And just about the last thing I held on to, was that you had to keep trying.  One last push to a summit that was out of reach. Failure was weakness.  Eventually, inevitably, on a Thursday evening, I broke.  And rather than a dam burst of anger, it flooded out as tears.  I needed help and (luckily) I found it.  The reason for my journey was still by my side, and so were my kids.  There were two sets of independent ears to listen.  And there was a keyboard wired to a grey box.  And with it I started to write.  And in the substance of those last three sentences I found that the paths out of the dark forests of the mind were still open; overgrown, and under-walked, but still open.  The compass needle steadied and the maps made sense, the hill became less steep and the promise of a view ahead looked real.  You may never reach the top, but it’s important to believe that you can.  Clouds are part of the landscape, but nobody can live forever in the heart of a storm.

Now it was OK to access the archives and look around – the words I received and the words I formed gave me a reason to think and to pay attention again.  When I held out my hand people took it and held it, and I remembered how good it felt. The new and the old blended in ways that I never expected and memories would rise unbidden as a connection I’d never noticed before snapped into place.  (“A typewriter cackles out a stream of memories”).  The darkness recedes.  The anvil departed.  There are still shadows, but I’ve found a way to see into them.   They no longer scare (or scar) me as much. 

This is today’s versions of how I came to be here.

Epilogue.

Stories are not fixed, until they are written down.  And stories that are fixed may, eventually, come to be untrue.  In the retelling of stories we find new things and different pathways.  We find people who should be there, but aren’t and places that we have forgotten that we should have not.  Stories grow in the telling if you find people to listen and ask questions.  All of the posts that have come before this contain part of this story. While people keep listening I intend to keep telling the story ……..