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Roadkill

It’s a smoky day and the western sky is red and grey. I drive away from the sun towards town. On a straight stretch on the lefthand road verge there is a kookaburra, upright, watching me pass. I slow, pass it without incident, wonder if it is sick because it does not fly away.

On the way home I think of it again, decide to stop if it’s still there, to make sure it can fly – see if it will allow itself to be chased away. I pass a black cat on the roadside, eyes bright in the headlights. It stays clear. As I near the spot where I saw the kookaburra, I watch for it on the right. But something looms pale coloured and fluffy on my side of the road. It is too tall to be a dead bird, I think – but then I am close, and it is, and I drive over it, wheels to either side of it. 

I stop beyond it, park in the gravel, leave the dog in the car. With the vehicle off it is quiet and dark. There are the gentle rustles in the bush, the sense of the spaces of paddocks, the distant sound of the sea. There are no cars, no sounds of people.

I walk back. It is surprising how far I have come, driving at 90, between deciding to stop and stopping. I can see nothing in the gloom at first, and then the pale shape emerges. I shine the torch. The kookaburra is on its side, one wing is extended to the sky. As I approach it waves a little in the breeze and I start: it seems alive. Closer, and I see its eye, the one not planted on the road, is open. The wing is fanned, as though in death one half of it continues to fly. The eye seems bright, alive. I turn the bird with a stick and its head flops, the brilliant wing falls. I roll it onto the gravel.

*

Nearly a year on and it is early morning in the forest. The kangaroo on the roadside, flat on its stomach, is fresh: there seems no hint of the roughness in the coat or the darkness around the eyes to signal the presence of flies and birds and beetles.

I stop, and again the distance to walk back along the sloping shoulder is unexpectedly great; the forest unexpectedly quiet. I spend so much time spent driving through quiet places with road noise and engine noise and conversations and music. Don’t spend enough time stopped to listen, with no cars to ruin it and no one to talk to.

This roo looks as fresh as I thought, but it has grown stiff and feels hollow already. I lift one hind leg and roll it half over: it is a male. There is a small matting of blood on the other side of its body, mixed with faeces, involuntarily expelled. 

Crouched there on the roadside with the dead roo, its eye open to the sky, I am not sentimental. But it is powerful being close to wild death, with its sharp, immediate reminder of wild life.

I remember others, with more sadness. A wombat, somewhere, years ago; such a solid creature. A small wallaby on the road to Meekatharra – this one we watched breathe its last. A wedge-tailed eagle on the Nullarbor, except this I don’t really remember at all; only my mother talking about it many years later. An echidna, feet to the sky, on the edge of the Hume Highway in Victoria.

And always, with the animals recently dead, the sense as I walk to them along the gravel shoulder that they might jump up as I near them, just to surprise me. But they never do.

Feature image: Nicolo Bonazzi

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Tropical Queensland

From the dry of Western Australia’s Swan Coastal Plain at the end of summer to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland – a long way and a world apart.

It’s a work trip, but nonetheless there is time for nature – mostly incidental, because in a leafy town like Maleny, in humid, bursting-with-life-Queensland, there’s bush and birds everywhere.

The Glasshouse Mountains, seen from Maleny.

Mary Cairncross Park near Maleny

  
Mary Cairncross Park, with vines thicker than my arms. Birds everywhere – my colleague stops often to listen and point out their individual calls. Most of what we hear we do not see.

A pademelon in Mary Cairncross Park

Now, after a week of meetings I’m waiting at Brisbane airport to return to WA. Conversations this week have brought to the forefront of my mind – once again – questions of connection to place. As always with new people, I must explain why I say I am “from” Fremantle, yet also “from” East Gippsland. Having many layers of identity when these layers refer to two different, faraway places seems odd to others.

Often, it takes too long to really explain what I mean. According these two places the status of “I am from here” does not seem to do justice to either. For one, it neglects the years of family history that count for as much as my own years there. For the other, it neglects the choice to return, nearly two years ago now, many years after leaving for new places. Yes, to some degree I have come home, but the other home remains, the feel of the land there waiting to be recalled, remembered – revisited.

Southwest across the Alps.

Three days in Thredbo

I’m  in the dining room of a lodge at Thredbo Alpine Village, watching sunlight fall in fast-moving patches down the face of the opposite slope, by turns illuminating the lines of the chairlift as strings of silver or softening the bush into shadow.

Patches of bush are courted by blank grassy stretches, the long areas cleared for ski runs and now, in late autumn before the snow falls, criss-crossed by mountain bikes, walkers and maintenance vehicles.

Coming to Thredbo was a result of going with the flow. A friend and I intended to go away – somewhere quiet – to write. She planned to work on her thesis and I to work on various  writing projects. But her research into alpine invertebrates requires a bit more field work, so we came here, and while I spend time writing she is out at various spots along the Rams Head Range or the Dead Horse Gap Track, setting pitfall traps and photographing grasshoppers.

The view from the lodge at Thredbo.

The dining room at the lodge with a view of Thredbo’s ski slopes.

I have come here to write, but could not resist going for a hike, too – across the undulating alpine slopes from the top of Thredbo’s only summer-operating chairlift to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko at 2228m elevation.

Kosciuszko is an easy-to-reach summit by the standard of world peaks: the chairlift takes you to an elevation of 1925m so it is a climb of 300m over an easy walk of less than 7km one-way.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

Nonetheless, walking to Kosciuszko’s summit felt momentous in the way of measurable achievements: it might be derided as a mere hill by the standards of mountains on other continents, but it remains Australia’s highest and it has an ancient geological history.

At the summit, it was noisy with the caws of the Little Ravens who gather on the rocky peaks to feed on Bogong moths. To the west, the Australian Alps lay in a smoky purple haze, layer upon layer of ridge fading into the distance.

In walking from Thredbo to Kosciuszko, I followed in the steps of thousands who have walked that way before me. The walk is ‘paved’ by a raised metal walkway, designed to keep walkers off the vegetation and to impede the flow of water as little as possible. I only saw one person stray from the beaten track, into the boulders near the Kosciuszko Lookout.

I left early enough to beat the crowds on the way out, but on my return passed dozens of teenagers, some cheerful, others looking mutely resentful at the prospect of the climb ahead of them.

The beaten track

Across the alpine landscape towards the Main Range and Kosciuszko.

On the return trip I stopped by the small creeks that are the headwaters of the Snowy River. I have spent so much of my life in the foothills of Australian mountains in Victoria, but if I ever previously visited the Snowy, it was when I was very small and I have no recollection of it.

It seemed important to stop by the water and notice it: the beginning of a great river, albeit one that is dammed and diverted and changed beyond all recognition from its ancient past.

Wolf image by Shawn Kinkade

Ecological hope: on George Monbiot’s Feral

Off the coast of southern New South Wales, the albatross appeared at first singly, then in twos and threes. On the third day of sailing from Sydney to Eden, eight black-browed albatross swept around us on their calm, broad wings.

I did not grow tired of looking at them: distant against the waves with the naked eye or seeming, when seen through binoculars, to be gliding at great speed yet so near.

One afternoon after the birds have been absent for a while I look across to the eastern horizon and see that one has returned. This bird is different to the black-browed albatross. Languidly soaring across the waves, it banks and I see its enormous wingspan, white back and speckled pattern leading into dark wings.

It is not until I look at the bird book later that I realise it is a wandering albatross. I am stunned: the wandering albatross is something out of seafaring mythology, yet it has come soaring into my presence, gliding into my modern world, enlivening another day on the ocean.

Feral by George MonbiotI feel an uplifting of the heart; a passion kindled. To see these birds up close, determined in their line of flight, their sleek perfectly white bodies bright against the rich grey on their wings, is to feel humbled and hopeful.

Hope has been on my mind since reading Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (2014), by British journalist George Monbiot. He argues that hope is vital if humans are to feel any sense of belonging in an ecological world.

Monbiot’s Feral is at its heart a piece of nature writing; a project driven by the need to escape the constraints of modern human existence. He writes of paddling out to sea, seeking a place in which he feels ‘a kind of peace’:

The salt was encrusted on the back of my hands, my fingers were scored and shrivelled. The wind ravelled through my mind, the water rocked me. Nothing existed except the sea, the birds, the breeze. My mind blew empty. (p16)

I began reading Feral when I joined the HMB Endeavour as crew in late 2014. Two months later, after two stints on the ship and with an interlude hiking in the bush in between, I felt that Feral had played some role in shaping my relationship with both the sea and the land during that time.

Monbiot writes beautifully of the natural world but he also has important arguments to make. He argues that humans have lost their connection to the natural world and that we are poorer for it. The loss of this connection is damaging to wild places but to humans as well – so for our own sake as much as for the sake of ecosystems, we must ensure that wild places still exist and that humans can access them. Humans themselves need to be ‘rewilded’.

Rewilding is a relatively new term, yet is already defined in a number of different ways – perhaps most widely as meaning the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems. It has entered the conservation lexicon, including in the form of conservation groups Rewilding North America, Rewilding Australia and Rewilding Europe. The latter defines rewilding loosely as an approach to conservation where ‘the concept of wild nature and natural processes is accepted as one of the main management principles’.

So how does this relate to humans? Monbiot sees rewilding as an opportunity for humans to be re-involved in nature – as ‘an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world’ (p11). This might sound like public relations speak for an ecotourism outfit, but the lack of engagement in the natural world is at the crux of Monbiot’s creeping sense of dissatisfaction with the civilised life he leads.

In the book’s first chapter, he writes,

If you are content with the scope of your life, if it is already as colourful and surprising as you might wish, if feeding the ducks is as close as you ever want to come to nature, this book is probably not for you. But if, like me, you sometimes feel that you are scratching at the walls of this life, hoping to find a way into a wider space beyond, then you may discover something here that resonates. (p11)

The second and lengthier part of Feral‘s argument is about the rewilding of places and landscapes. Wild places, for Monbiot, are places where the trophic webs function properly and ecosystems are species-rich. They are places where humans do not interfere, except to reintroduce missing key species that enable an ecosystem to function and ‘ecological processes to resume’ (p8). This reintroduction, if done right, is the catalyst for rewilding the land.

Monbiot argues for the reintroduction of large herbivores and key predators to enable the full functioning of trophic webs in natural ecosystems. The most famous example of a reintroduction of this kind is that of wolves into Yellowstone National Park – a move that quickly proved effective at reducing populations and changing behaviour patterns of the elk that were damaging the Park’s vegetation and river banks, leading to flow-on impacts for other parts of the ecosystem.

The Yellowstone National Park reintroduction appears to have worked, with beavers, birds and fish among those who benefited from the changed behaviour of the elk. Monbiot argues that certain reintroductions are required in the UK to re-establish functioning ecosystems.

Monbiot wants people to resist their impulse to control, corral and tidy wild landscapes, but he is equally aware that many ecosystems are far too damaged for us to simply step back and allow rewilding to happen on its own accord. Reintroductions of keystone species might go part of the way to restoring natural processes, but it seems simplistic to assume that this will be enough in most cases.

Here in Australia, the concept of rewilding – of allowing wild processes to proceed without human interference – is severely complicated by the fact that much of our flora and fauna has evolved in conjunction with the land management practices of Aboriginal people, particularly in relation to fire regimes. Reintroducing keystone species and walking away is not going to solve all the problems that Australian ecosystems face.

Feral is set almost entirely in the UK, with examples drawn from other parts of the world. For an Australian reader it is fascinating because the UK and Ireland deal with an entirely different set of historically created ecological problems than what we do here in Australia. Australians tend to view our fauna and flora in a black-and-white fashion as either native or introduced – present prior to European settlement or introduced by Europeans – but arguments about what constitutes native or introduced in the UK are much more fraught.

Monbiot argues that European conservationists in the traditional mould are highly conservative (linguistically this makes sense) and aim only to ‘preserve’ nature as it was in their own childhoods or in recent historical memory. Thus the desolate moors of Wales are considered in need of conservation – something Monbiot considers absurd given the paucity of species in these ‘moonscapes’. Sheep-damaged moors have been the norm in the UK for such a long time that few people can envision a more species-rich, functioning ecosystem such as might have existed before sheep came to dominate the landscape.

Albatross and shearwater from onboard Endeavour. Credit Suzannah Marshall Macbeth

Albatross and shearwater off the coast of NSW.

I understand Monbiot’s yearning for nature. I feel it when dolphins come to play in the port of Fremantle in WA: they are wild things brought so close, yet in the midst of a city I am painfully aware of how distant they really are.

I feel it when I walk through the bush and do not understand its structure or the animals that live in it and cannot always identify invasive flora.

I feel it on the open hillsides of East Gippsland in Victoria when I try and reconcile my love of a landscape that is part of my childhood with the destruction of functioning ecosystems that accompanied the clearing of it for agriculture.

At sea, with albatross soaring around me, there is a sense of hope, but this too is transient and perhaps misplaced. Visually the ocean off the east coast of Australia seems untouched, but that is partly because the currents have taken our litter away to an ‘island’ of rubbish in the middle of the Pacific. Monbiot’s chapters about the sea are amongst the most powerful in the book, perhaps because it is harder to see or understand the impacts of humans on the ecosystems of the sea.

As well as hope, Monbiot’s book provides a stark reality check about the challenges our ecosystems face. It is a powerful reminder of the complexity of the natural world and of how important it is to the health – physical, psychological and emotional – of humans, even if most of us have become so far removed from nature that we barely notice its absence.

Monbiot puts into words a yearning for nature and the desire to understand it that is powerful and vital for us all.

Feature image: credit Shawn Kinkade

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A third lost birthday

Geographically, I am as far away from Ensay now as ever; as far away as I was through all the years growing up here in the west and thinking about a tiny town in the east.

J, who we lost on 16th June 2012, would be 85 if she were alive today. On each of the last two lost birthdays (2013 and 2014), I have written about loss and grief.

Among the emotion for a person very dear to me and to many others, place and geography are always present. Perhaps this is because it is easier to write about leaving a place at the end of an era (I can and do go back to Ensay) than it is to write about death, the most permanent of losses.

I am further away now and going back is physically, geographically and financially harder. My much loved kelpie M, from Ensay, lives in Fremantle with us now. It is unlikely that she will ever return to her hometown, and while she may not mind that her life has so comprehensively changed, I often think about her distance from home and it makes me sad.

In the love and responsibility I feel for her, I want her to be happy, even while knowing I cannot really know what she feels. When she runs along the edge of the ocean, with joy in every bound, I think I can safely say that her canine instincts and energy are exercised here despite the absence of sheep.

South Beach winter 2014 crop

M at the beach, part of her new home in the west.

There are figs on the tree in our sandy backyard in Fremantle. Figs are one of those fruits that must inevitably end up in jam, because there are just too many to use them all in other ways, although the lorikeets and wattlebirds would disagree. They gorge on the soft fruit, and from the pulpy mess left behind or from fruit that has split in the heat, pink juice runs down the leaves and drips on the sand below.

So my mind goes from figs to jam, and from jam to J: I still use jars that have her writing on the lid; jars that once contained satsuma plum jam, or apricot or melon and ginger.

I can see that my thoughts are circular today: from Ensay to Fremantle and back again; back and forth across the great distances of this country, from one home to another.

In Melbourne over the five years I lived there, Ensay was close; I felt that we shared the same air. Perhaps it is because I know the route to Ensay from Melbourne so well – the drive is measurable by familiar landmarks.

Here in Fremantle, Ensay is a flight away, and flying is necessarily disconnecting. I feel that I am in another world. M brings me back: she is fully from that other world and yet she is here with us, real and present and connecting us across the distance.

There are times when that distance evaporates: all the space between here and Ensay, between here and J, is gone in an instant. It is particularly so at those times when grief returns, as it does unexpectedly on occasion and always with an all-consuming intensity.

The last time this happened was at The Waifs concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre in December. The Waifs speak to a Fremantle audience because they are so wholeheartedly Western Australian, but they speak to me – and no doubt to others – because they understand what it means to be irrevocably connected to a place.

For me when I hear this song, love of place translates to love of the person who represented that most-loved place – and so a song about a hometown reduces me to tears over her loss.

When I die won’t you bury me,
in the town where I was born.
Most of my life I’ve been wandering free,
but when I die I wanna go back home.

I have transcribed those lines from memory – I don’t dare listen to the song in case that grief returns. It might be an appropriate day for such grief, but life goes on and I have two job applications to write and friends to meet for dinner tonight. Others from Ensay have gone on from this world since J, and I am aware of a feeling in me that grief for one person must somehow diminish as time goes on and as others grieve those they have lost since.

Oh, how distant and unreal this life feels. This life? Is it Ensay that feels so far away, so unreal? – or is it this life here in Fremantle that really feels unreal, today of all days? It is ironic that this town, here, is where I was born – yet that Waifs song makes me think only of J and of Ensay, the place where she no longer lives.

Fremantle Emergency sign

12 days left in the life of Fremantle ED

Walking past Fremantle hospital in the middle of the day, I could have sworn I heard a man yell, cry out in pain. The ambulances are lined up outside emergency. The sound is ghostly, distant: it has not the immediacy nor the closeness of the emergency department.

I walk on into town, wondering. In early February this ED will close, closing with it years of history, of people in and people out, late at night and in the middle of the day. When I was at university, I had a friend who, for our literary journalism project, spent nights in the ED, watching the people who passed through there, listening, writing. I never saw his finished piece but I often think of the image, the student writer in the corner, taking in the pain, the frustration and the boredom.

In reality I can only imagine Fremantle’s ED, a compilation of the external impression of the place from my younger years and all the time I spent in EDs in Melbourne more recently. The two combine to give what is probably an entirely unrealistic picture of the place . But I don’t really want to go inside just to check if the image in my mind is anything like the reality.

From Fremantle Primary, it's barely a stone's throw to the ED.

From Fremantle Primary, it’s barely a stone’s throw to the ED.

Tim Winton wrote an article in The Guardian not so long ago about hospitals and living in the shadow of them. He lived opposite the Alma Street mental health unit of Fremantle Hospital. For me place casts a longer, metaphorical shadow as I live several streets away, removed from some of the drama Winton experienced. He describes visitors to the hospital as operating ‘in an unrelievedly histrionic register’, providing for constant entertainment on the surrounding streets.

Winton writes of people around the hospital bearing ‘their own narratives so openly’ – body language ‘heightened’, discretion gone. For me, living further away, the hospital is more occasional in its drama: secrets and people spill out onto the street with all the untidiness of a fracture, or of a split bag spilling grain onto the ground – but it is irregular and random. Sometimes, walking past, Fremantle Hospital is just a big building and all is quiet.

Living a little further away from the hospital itself, it is not the patients – current, past or future – that I see regularly, but rather the health professionals. They are everywhere: parking their cars in the primary school during the holidays, squeezing them onto the sandy front verges of nice people like us who don’t have respectable lawns. They pack their cars tightly onto the vacant block up the hill from the school and are endlessly creative in finding ways to park for eight or ten hours for free.

12 daysOr they are walking through the park on their way to work at 7am (sometimes they are running, if it’s gone 7 already); they are riding by on all manner of bikes in their blue scrubs and their sensible shoes. They are female and male, young and occasionally old.

In the mornings, they seem organised and focused. The ones on foot almost always have coffee. But I don’t see them in the evenings; our schedules must be out. I often wonder how these same people might look at the end of their day in the big hospital building. How do they feel? And how will they feel when the hospital they work at is out in the suburbs by the freeway instead of right here in the middle of Fremantle?

For Winton, this hospital’s location is defining:

Our hospital was not the modern, discrete, Australian campus set in awesome suburban isolation like a hyper-mall, surrounded by a vast moat of car parking. This was the inner city, a neighbourhood of narrow streets and workers’ cottages, and the hospital had long outgrown its original footprint. The old Victorian building was buried amid hulking brutalist slabs. They didn’t just tower over the surrounding streets; they seemed to project outward.

It is the metaphorical shadow of the place that projects the physical shadow far beyond. This image of Winton’s stuck with me most of all:

I often looked up at that dreary tower as the sun lit up its windows and thought of others staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our day, oblivious. All that yearning spilling down amid the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.

In less than two weeks that shadow will begin to fade. There will be no ED or facilities for children. Emergency mental health services will go too. Parts of the hospital’s specialist functions will remain, including aged care and non-emergency surgical procedures. The rest of it is headed for the new Fiona Stanley hospital, in the suburbs by the freeway.

Does this mean the yearning will cease to spill down across our roof tops? Perhaps, and perhaps too we will no longer be reminded on a daily basis of the fragility of life. It is hard not to think of it, in the shadow of Fremantle hospital.

Endeavour and Eden

This town called Eden is just as green and picturesque as the name suggests, but how that wind blows! On the hill north of Twofold Bay, where a hilly outpost of the town is separated from the rest by a narrow, low spit of land between bay and ocean, the wind tears in from the south. The water of the bay is ruffled and bright in the sun.

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I am here in Eden with the Endeavour replica and her dark heavy rig stands out against the water of the bay. Yesterday 660 people came aboard the ship to see her and imagine something of life in Cook’s time. This interests me less than the sight of the ship herself and the way tall ships are so entirely unique in filtering into their background of wave or bush and seeming so at home yet centuries out of place.

I remember coming back to Endeavour in the RIB when we were on the Hawkesbury River in September and losing sight of the ship against the headland behind her, so well did she blend into the bush.

On Endeavour, I often think of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and the way he describes a ship from the point of view of a young indigenous boy coming into King George Sound in Albany in the nineteenth century, folding away its wings like a pelican coming into land. (I don’t have the book here so I can’t check the accuracy of my memory of the image.)

I thought of Scott’s image as we passed Botany Bay on Endeavour on Tuesday last week on our way south from Sydney. As I wrote on the Australian National Maritime Museum blog for Endeavour, I imagined Botany Bay as it might have been in Cook’s time. I did not expect to see the cranes of a major commercial shipping port silhouetted against the sky on the far side of the bay.

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Pelicans coming into land in a bay… and pelicans floating on the wind above us today in Eden. Seventeen pelicans, seeming to move diagonally rather than forwards then circling and wheeling before returning to a formation of sorts then ascending away from us to the south.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, but in my absence I have been writing more than usual – for the ANMM’s Endeavour blog, not my own. So far, I’ve written about four voyages on Endeavour and there is one more to come. In some, I could have written many more words of reflection and imagery of the sea, the ship and the wildlife. This post captures just one small element of that which has not made it onto Endeavour‘s blog.

I hope there will be more to come when I am back in Fremantle, with the ocean just visible from the kitchen window.