Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Gulf is Wide

Animals form an important part of the life and history of the human race.  Our relationships with them have taken many forms, and one of the most complex and interesting variations has been that of our relationship with pets.

Many people think that the earliest of those pet/helpers/companions were dogs - and yes, I know that some will say that cats were worshiped in certain places, long ago, but offering a feline deity food to appease it is different to sharing the table scraps with your canine friend.  Dogs turn up in human history in many ways, for good or ill, and our influence on dogs has been complex and far-ranging; just look at how many breeds of dogs now exist around the planet - between 200 and 400 'recognized breeds' depending who you ask, plus around 36 different species of wild dog.

Of course, people's attitude to animals - and in this case, let us specifically consider dogs - can vary from complete infatuation, through utalitarian, on to disdain, and, finally, phobic.  It would be fair to say that people from one group do not really understand people from the other groups.

The doting dog lover cannot understand how anyone could not love as they do, while the non dog lover cannot understand how anyone could let one inside their clean house, let alone on their bed, and as for kissing the dog, or letting it lick one's face - the shudder of horror that such a thought brings about would register on a seismograph.

It is one of the great divides that runs through the human race.  On one side are those people who cannot imagine living without the joy and pleasures brought to them by their pet.  On the other, are those who can live quite well without animal companions, and though happy to admire other people's dogs or cats or canarys, and even pat them, cannot imagine sharing their living quarters with any sort of animal - the gulf is wide.

Richard Glover's recent article about his past and present dogs lauded and waxed sentimental about the dogs in his life - past and present - as well as examining such feelings in other dog owners and their dogs, as far afield as Odysseus and Argo in The Odyssey.  There is no doubt that the company of a beloved dog is of great value to the owner, and the dog seems to gain much from the company of its human.  Likewise, companion and therapy dogs - not to mention guide dogs - are of great benefit to the humans in their lives.

There are times when dog and owner are not in the same place.  When the owner has gone to the office, or the shops, or on holidays, and the dog is left home, alone.  Some dogs seem to view this time as an opportunity to catch up on their sleep, to sunbake in peace, or, if they are young, to find all the things left outside that might need a good chewing.  Do they care that their owner is absent?  Are they happy to have some time to themselves?  Do they understand the daily routine of their masters, so that they are able to abide secure in the knowledge of the inevitable return of their human companions?

Many dogs, though, do not seem to understand their human's daily routine, and mark the absence of their master by howling, barking, or yapping constantly, beginning shortly their after departure, and ceasing just prior to their return - calling for their missing owner to come home and deal with all the threats the dog feels beset by during that absence.

Domestic bliss and neighbourhood peace returns with those absent owners, and the evenings pass routinely into the quiet of night, as the last blue flickers vanish from windows across the town, and sleep descends on the populace - two legs and four legs alike.

As the hours of darkness flow across the roof tops and swirl round the houses, nature is taking its course.  Sooner or later, bladders fill, dreams become restless, and people awake.  The four legged one may wake first and come snuffling and whimpering to their owner's bedside at 3am.  The beneficiary of all that canine affection will stumble from bed to door, let the dog out, and close the door behind it, before shuffling back to the bedroom.

The dog, having done its business, is now at leisure to notice all the little sounds and scents that inhabit the wee small hours of the night, as the possums, foxes, cats, bats, insects, frogs, and night birds go about their nocturnal duties.  Having noticed all those things happening out there in the darkness, in territory that, by daylight, belongs to them, the dog has no choice but to sound the alarm - loudly, urgently, even hysterically.

The owners seem oblivious to the cacophony, or are trying to ignore it by diving deeper into the depths of their doona, or clamping pillows to their ears.  It won't work, and they must know it, but they keep trying, until the dog begins scratching at the door that it knows must eventually open and admit it to the warm security of its owner's presence.

As the flakes of paint fall to the veranda boards, the gouges in the timber work grow deeper, and the dog's complaints grow ever more urgent, the owner finally admits that sleep will only be possible if the dog is allowed back inside. That chore done, he or she returns to the warm depths of slumber, secure in the knowledge that their dog is snoring at the foot of, side of, or even on top of, the bed - or the owner.

But the dogless people living nearby cannot be certain that is the case, and, while trying desperately to snatch another couple of hours sleep before the alarm calls them to breakfast and the morning commute, wait in a state of alert tension for the next explosion of canine angst - if not from that dog, then from the one across the road that, woken by the first dog, is even now prevailing upon its owner to let it out for walkies, and its own encounter with the terrors of the night.

The dogless person knows that there is no malice in the heart of the dog, and feels that it is most likely that the same can be said of the dog owner, and so will most likely operate on the principle of  "least said, soonest mended" while fervently hoping that one day the owner will break down only a few blocks from home and have to walk back to the house, thus learning first hand what their dog really thinks of their absence. 

The gulf truly is wide, and unlikely ever to be bridged.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

An Unintended Consequence of Steam Power.

In a country that is so often as dry as large swathes of Australia can be, a swimmable, fishable lake is a wonderful thing.  I am fortunate to live only five minutes walk from such a place - the only one of its kind that is open to the public across the width of the Blue Mountains.

 The wall of the dam is visible at the end of the leafy tunnel.

If you Google-Map-cruise along the Great Western Highway as it traverses the Blue Mountains - 60 kms from Lapstone to Mount Victoria - you will see a number of lakes wedged into the upper reaches of the valleys that cut across the great plateau.  Only one - the Glenbrook Lagoon - is natural, the rest were constructed at various times during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for water supply purposes.  Several, including Woodford Lake, Wentworth Falls Lake, and another at Lawson that was later replaced by the public swimming pool, were built for the railway as it traversed the Mountains. The line reached the hamlet of Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls) in 1867.

The dam across the upper reaches of Jamison Creek, Wentworth Falls, was brought into service in 1908 as a replacement for a smaller, unreliable reservoir on the north side of Lawson.  Wentworth Falls Lake was intended as a reliable source of water for the steam locomotives on the Blue Mountains line, that were, at the time, the fastest and most reliable mode of transport from Sydney to the agricultural lands beyond the ranges.  In the late eighties or early nineties, substantial work was done to the wall and spillway to improve the safety of the dam, and, in recent years, the local council has carried out improvements and additions to the picnic areas.

 The 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway at Wentworth Falls

The steam locomotives are almost gone from the Mountains line now, though occasional historical operations, mainly using the locomotives from the Valley Heights Rail Museum, still puff past the lake on their way to Katoomba or Mount Victoria, to the delight of the many locals and visitors who throng to the 10.5 hectare lake for picnics, kayaking, sailing, swimming, and fishing. A couple of times each year, the navies of the world also come to visit the lake. Do the visitors ever wonder at the way the level of the lake varies so little?

The lake sits in a basin that is fed by several small streams and some of those particular marvels of the Blue Mountains, the hanging swamp.  Sometimes, in long dry spells, Jamison Creek downstream from the lake slows to a silent trickle, and the lake level drops by several centimetres, but those wonderful natural sponges that are formed by the hanging swamps continue their measured release of water into the streams, keeping the lake alive. In the same way, they provided the Darug people with water, food, and other resources, across the millenia, and made easier the westward journey of Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth, when they searched for a road to the western plains.

While the tourists frolic, and the locals seek relief from the heat, a great variety of life also thrives in the cool depths of the lake, or among the reeds and forest around its margins.  Its surface is constantly disturbed by the ducks, water hens, fish, long necked turtles, and insects, that live there.  Around its shores can be seen possums, wallabies, and a fascinating variety of reptiles and frogs - and there is almost always blossom to be seen, if you look carefully.  If you can't see it, watch the honey-eaters and crimson rosellas - they know.

Further reading:  

[PDF]Jamison Creek Catchment Floodplain Risk Management Study and Plan

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Who knows where the words will take you?

Here is another little offering from a prompt-based session of our library writer's group.  This is the prompt that was offered to us for inspiration..................

 Someone throws a coin in a wishing well, what is their story?

I had no idea where this story was going at first.  It seemed important to establish an observer and a setting to be observed, so, after a few moments wondering where I might find an interesting wishing well, fragments of old stories and movies gave me the idea of a small square somewhere in Rome. I have tidied it up a little, and added a paragraph to round it out - it may yet act as the core of a longer story, or a scene in some larger work.  I keep all these little pieces - I often don't know from what dark corner of my mind they have emerged, and can never be certain that they may not come in handy one day.

We work to a time limit - from ten to twenty minutes is typical - so the pen needs to hit the paper fairly quickly.  During my first session at a writing group, the time limit seemed like a choke-collar around my neck, but it soon turned into a useful spur - I learned to start scribbling and see what words flowed onto the page.  

It is one of the most useful lessons I have thus far been given.  When the ink is not flowing, the story is not moving.  The following story was my response to this prompt -

The Well.

I normally take my lunch in a small piazza behind the Palazzo Grimaldi.  It's quieter, and more sheltered from the hot winds, than the larger, more popular spots.  There is an ancient bougainvillea that reaches out of a tiny garden to stretch its thick shade across a little stone bench.

It's comfortable, private, and peaceful - away from my co-workers and clients alike.  Almost no one else ever comes here, which is why I was so surprised to see a young woman from an adjacent office appear in the little square.  She had entered the piazza from the narrow lane that once allowed covert access to the Palazzo.

She paused and looked around.  I waited for her to greet me – Suzanna, I remembered her name at last – but the bright sunlight must have dazzled her.  I remained unseen in my little patch of shadow as she slowly advanced across the hot paving towards the ancient well.  Her eyes were lowered, and hands were clasped, as if in prayer.  A tiny gem crawled down her cheek, and I realised that she was crying.

She stopped a pace short of the ancient stonework, with its time-worn carvings that might have been satyrs and fauns.  There was a legend associated with that well, I knew – but what was it?  I ransacked my aging memory in search of the story.  The fountain that trickled from the mouth of what might have been a wolf had been filling that well since before the Emperors usurped the Roman Republic.

Healing, that was it – there was some legend of healing.  Very good, I thought, my memory is not yet completely washed away by the ebbing tide of years.  Though I felt that did not fully answer my query, and I dug deeper into my memory.   

Suzanna took two short steps and stopped again at the lip of the well.  Her lips were moving, as if in speech.  She unclasped her hands, reached into her purse, and, with a small gesture, cast three gold coins into the well.

They were gold, most certainly.  I have seen gold sparkle in the sunlight, more than once during my long years, and the splashes as they entered the water were heavy – far heavier than any splash our shoddy, modern, aluminium coins would have made.  Not just healing, I remembered, but childbirth in particular – that was the story around this well.   

Speak a wish, offer a gift, and the boon would be granted.  But not by any god known to modern man – this well was truly ancient.  Even the Roman historians spoke of it as old beyond measure, and claimed that its waters flowed from the hands of the nymph Egeria.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Favourite Trees

One of my favourite trees is the Narrow Leaf Ironbark – it looks as strong as it is.  The Narrow Leaf Ironbark was a mainstay of my farming days in the ranges behind the Central Coast.  Disliked by the local termites, its dark red timber gave me fence posts, stockyards, barns, chook-runs, two houses (one of which survived a side-swipe by a tornado - the weight of the ironbark frame probably helped keep it on its ironbark stumps), cattle grids, a TV antenna, retaining walls, firewood, and a ute tailgate.

Image result for eucalyptus crebra

When living, the camopy of its blue-green leaves gave shelter to my live-stock, and the small, creamy blossoms gave abundant nectar for my bees - making some of the finest, palest honey around. A mature Ironbark would house different species of ants at different heights along its trunk – as well as a range of frogs and insects, small birds, possums, koalas, and epiphytic orchids, including one variety peculiar to the Ironbark tree.

A healthy stand of Ironbark would shelter the birds and wallabies from patrolling Wedgetails, and give cover to the Black Cockatoos who darted through the canopy crying warning of the Eagles approach.

The Ironbark was a good mannered tree – rarely shedding limbs to the hazard of stock or farmer; its deep-furrowed bark clung tight during the fire storm and declined to hurl the flaming streamers that 
Blue Gums, Messmates and Stringybarks so often do – nor would it explode into a pillar of searing red and black, as the Turpentine is wont to do.  The corky looking bark would cling tight to the tree, forming deep fissures as the tree expanded.  Each season's new growth would show, for a while, long red fissures where the new layer of bark had formed.

That tough, corky looking bark would, when bush fires came through the forest, char on the outside, and protect the inner bark and sapwood from the heat - yet, when taken from the tree and dried, was sometimes used by blacksmiths and wheelwrights to make an extra hot, circular fire on which to heat and expand the iron tyres that were placed over the rim of wooden wagon wheels.  The tyre would shrink tightly onto the wood as it cooled, protecting the wooden rim and clamping the wheel tightly together.

To build with Ironbark timber brought harder work than lesser timbers asked of the tradesman – the  tools needed constant care; nail-holes had to be pre-drilled and the nail-points dipped in soap – but the job, once done, was good for generations to come.  A nail, once in, would never pull out.

And, if you wanted wood for the stove, it was best cut green – aged Ironbark would strike an angle-grinder style shower of sparks from the chainsaw, and the wood ate away at the teeth almost as fast as the teeth chewed up the wood.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Seeing the Trees within the Forest

In her book Understory, Inga Simpson shows that no matter how well you know a place, and how long you might live there, you can always be surprised by some new aspect of its shape, its story, and its inhabitants.  She shows, too, how perceptions can be shaped by the stories we have heard about the place and the assumptions we bring with us to that place - and how this can sometimes blind us to significant facets of the place and its stories.

Almost forty years ago, soon after I had moved to a valley that had once been the forested home of the Darkinjung People, I was working behind the bar at the Tavern that was the hub of the larger of the two villages in The Valley.  Wollombi drew its name, it was believed, from the language of those prior occupants, and signified either a meeting of waters, or a meeting place near the waters.  The other village was smaller, had a Spanish name - Laguna, possibly from a former soldier of Wellesley's Peninsula Campaign - and possessed only a Wine Bar.

A stranger of around fifty years of age came into the bar and bought a beer - he looked around and eventually asked after certain local names and families - many of them unknown to we newer residents, and most, long departed.  He was not, it turned out, a stranger to The Valley, but we were strangers to him. He had grown up in a narrow gully at the back of one of the many dairy farms that dotted the area during World War Two. After the war, he had left in search of work, as so many young men did.  Indeed, by the time I moved there, only one dairy was still operating, and the family that ran it were all well past retirement age.

He asked me, after a while "What happened to the hills?  Why did they let the place go like this?"

I asked what he meant, and he launched into a story about the hard work done by he and others, during and just after the war.  He pointed out the many forested ridges that surrounded the basin in which the village sat, nestled at the confluence of three small rivers.

"We had all those ridges clear" he said indignantly "and now they've let all the trees grow back"

He and his fathers, uncles, and neighbours, had ring-barked almost every tree on all the ridges visible from the tavern (which had been a wine bar, too, when he was young) and many other ridges further up and downstream.  He obviously felt that all their sweat and hard work had been wasted through neglect - he thought that the current landholders should have been vigilant and active in preventing any regrowth by trees. 

His tone and words told me that he believed that what they had done had been the right thing - an effort to expand the area of pasture available to the local dairies, at a time when the production of milk and butter was a vital contribution to the war effort, and a valuable addition to the local economy.  No doubt that was the story told to the farmers by the agricultural advisors of the day.

Now the hills were covered in forest again - a thriving mix of Ironbark, Stringybark, Grey Gum, Rough Barked Apple, and Blue Gum - and no local farmer would think to clear those steeper slopes again.

The erosion had been terrible, and long stretches of the Brook and of Yango Creek had seen deep, fish-filled waterholes fill with sand.  The grass growth had been worse without trees than with, and the forests were now valued as a resource that could be selectively cut through for logs, pit timber, fence posts, and firewood, as well as providing sheltered areas for the cattle during the worst of the heat and cold.

The new arrivals and younger people in the bar at the time were astounded at the story he told of dust, sweat, and hillsides covered in stark, silver-grey skeletons of the earlier forests - to us, the existing forests looked as if they had always been there - and yet he had been helping to kill those former forests only forty years earlier.  It was not the first time, either, as I subsequently was shown a very old photo of the hill behind the Wine Bar at Laguna, and it, too, was bereft of trees, though earlier and later photos showed plenty of them on the hill behind the buildings.  That picture dated to the end of the nineteenth centurey.  It seems the the fortunes of the local forest ebbed and flowed over the decades.

The few members of the older families still living in the area could have told us that story, though none did - directly.  One old ex-dairyman liked to recall, in a puzzled voice, how the area had been suddenly swamped by a surfeit of wombats, and that this had happened at the same time as all the koalas had vanished.  It was a mystery, he said, that no one had ever explained.

If we looked closely enough, the clues were there.  Although the trees that were killed in the great ringbarking effort had mostly fallen or been felled, and had been burned in piles, or carted away for firewood many years before that afternoon in The Tavern, there were still ancient stumps - mossy and half rotten - lurking in the shade of the new forest.  The man's story opened my eyes, and I soon found many more stumps as I walked the shady hillsides - some of them of a truly remarkable size.

One day, I wandered up across the western ridge of my farm - I had not had it long and was still exploring it a bit at a time.  I found a half a dozen truly enormous Blue Gums - tall, straight, and metres in circumference.  I wondered how such trees had survived, but the clue was in the shape of the gully they grew in - the confirmation came a while later when I talked to one of the older timber cutters in the area.

His comment?  "That gully had a double dog-leg in it.  The logs wouldn't shoot down, couldn't get a dozer up there to drag them out, and couldn't get a track close enough on the ridge top to winch them up.  We had to leave them"  He sounded so disappointed that he was never able to find a way to get at those trees.

Later on, I heard a story about trees that were even bigger, and still standing.  At the end of a narrow dirt road that snaked along the ridges of the Watagan Range, and plunged down deep, shady gullies to the upper reaches of the Brook that flowed through my paddocks, a small clearing had been set aside within the State Forest for campers.  The trees that surrounded that clearing, on the banks of a clear, pebbly stream, were huge.  Five or six people might have been able to link hands around the trunk of one of the smaller ones; to see their tops seemed impossible - they were too close to the clouds.

The Darkingjung, Awabakal, and Wonnarua Peoples walked among vast forests of such trees for tens of thousands of years - now a few dozen of those trees remain in odd corners of the range to remind us of what once was here.  When I had first bought the hundred acres of creek flat and ridge country that was to be my farm, I had walked among trees that seemed astounding in their size - yet it seems that almost all of them were barely moving into a stage we could call mature, especially compared to those might Grandfather Trees still lurking in their hidden corners.

I had made that all too common human mistake, and assumed that what I could see was what had always been that way.  In truth, that is so rarely the case, and if we look and listen carefully, the stories that will tell us what had gone before, and what might come again, are there, waiting.  But don't leave it too long - so many of those older story tellers are leaving us, and leaving behind no written or pictorial record.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Among the Trees

Inga Simpson has, with her latest work A Life with Trees, given us a poignant story of the constant tension between the dreams and desires we humans try to impose on "our" land, and the drives and needs of the manifold occupants - plant and animal - that were in and on that land before us, or that have arrived from elsewhere to enjoy the side-effects our decisions and actions have wrought upon that land.

Within its pages there is a resonance with my own life amid tree and pasture, and the attachment I formed to the landscapes within which I lived, and, at times, made my living.  Like her, I have moved more than once, and cleared and planted, trying to add my dreams and desires to the existing ecology, and like her I have had to compromise between dreams and the counter forces of nature and economics.

I have been enchanted by the grandeur of a place, and by the miniscule wonder and beauty that reveal themselves to the quiet traveller or sojourner.  The first view of any landscape, large or small, always contains more than the observer can take in.  We think we see it all, but our brain, as it usually does when confronted with large amounts of information via the senses, filters and simplifies - bringing to our consciousness the "big picture" first, and then the more easily identifiable aspects, with an emphasis on things about which we already have some knowledge.

Another view, in different light, weather, or season, and different aspects are highlighted - the big picture changes shape and gains texture.  Finer details begin to come to our notice, until we make that all too common mistake and think we know all about the place, and fully understand it.

Then the light changes again, or the temperature, or rain falls, or fails to fall when expected - and the view changes again as we notice previously overlooked details.  Carefuly nurtured plants die of drought, drowning, or unseen disease, while self-sown seedlings that weren't obvious only weeks before are suddenly flourishing.  Perhaps they were there all along, rendered invisible by our ignorance, or even misidentified as weeds.

Mature trees that somehow escaped notice for years, even as we lamented the absence of that species, appear under our nose (or over our heads), and supposedly rare and endangered ground orchids suddenly, and briefly, carpet a ridge top in flowers - no matter how long we dwell in a place, it can always surprise us.  And so we add to our knowledge of place, and as the surprise fades, we again grow smug about our understanding - until the next new discovery. 

The store of knowledge contained in Indigenous lore is astounding, but should not surprise - there have been many millenia of gathering knowledge, arranging it, piecing it together, and passing it on for future generations.  The Australian First Peoples have been living with this place for so long that they have seen it change as the most recent glaciation cooled the planet and lowered the oceans, and they have seen it change back as the planet warmed. 

They have seen old homes and fishing spots drowned by the rising oceans, and adapted as deserts grew, and forests moved and changed - all the while adding their observations and understanding to the songs that hold their memory.  Now they are seeing it change again, as human technological ability and desire for dominance once more overtakes human understanding and ethics.

A lifetime cannot be enough for a complete understanding of a place, an ecology - be it a forest, as in Inga's case, or a shore, or a marsh.  When trees can live for centuries, even passing a millenia or more in the sun and the wind, how can one person ever fully understand a forest?  But that person can live in the forest, and learn its rhythms, and love it -though those people who choose such a path are ever more often finding themselves at odds with that other branch of humanity, who, for whatever reason, see in a forest only a short term picture comprised of dollar gains and dollar costs.

Humans are creatures of story, and it is story-tellers like Inga who help people see the view that they may not previously have noticed - to see the intricate, essential to all of us, life that, without such seeing, they could too easily trample underfoot, or consign to the blade of the bulldozer or the teeth of the chainsaw. 

Understory tells of that tension between the needs imposed by "economics" and "society", and the needs of life itself - the constantly growing, moving web that makes our world liveable and beautiful, and without which no amount of money or economic growth would be of any use to the human race at all.  It is a story that has been told in other forms, about other places, by so many people - it needs constant re-telling, for all our sakes.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Graduate

Recently I watched The Graduate (Dustin Hofman, Anne Bancroft - music by Simon and Garfunkel) - made in 1967, the year of The Summer of Love.  The USofA and the world in general was in the throes of great social change.  The waves made during that summer spread through society - its morals, work, culture, and politics. The Graduate seemed to be meant to reflect the cultural clash between the generation that had survived World War Two, and their children.

At the time it was promoted as both a drama and a comedy - now, at times, in modern eyes, it seems quite creepy, and I struggled to find any humour in it at all.  Almost everyone in the movie is trying to impose their will on someone else.  Hofman's character seemed very wooden by any modern standard of acting - was that meant to depict some internal emotional turmoil, or perhaps an attempt to show a character we would now describe as "On the Spectrum"?

His treatment of the ultimate target of his affections - Elaine, the daughter of his lover - can only be described as stalking, and the denoument at the wedding looks more like an abduction than a mutual flight into a romantic future. Although Elaine finally reacts against the demands of her parents and older relatives by fleeing the church in which she was about to marry the man her parents had chosen for her, their reactions to each other as the bus takes them away from the church left this viewer wondering if she was already beginning to wonder which future was the frying pan and which the fire.

Image result for the graduate

I was in High School when this movie was released, and not quite old enough to be allowed in to the cinema to watch it on my own.  If I had seen it then, I wonder what effect it might have had on my developing adolescent personality.  The music was great, but the plot and resolution of the movie were disturbing, to say the least, and must have seriously confused many an adolescent as they went through that difficult time of trying to establish an identity of their own.

How, I wonder, would I have reacted to that movie, as a teen?  Watching it for the first time in my sixties was to see it through the eyes of someone who has personally experienced, as well as observed in others, the complications, both joyous and tragic, that love and lust can bring to life.  I am sure the two viewpoints are vastly different - have you belatedly watched a movie that was part of the canon of your youthful times, and how did you find it, compared to the way it was received back then?