I was not born here.
But I choose to live here.
I am, like all but a few, a transplant. An alien come lately to this land. Transported by choice and chance from one end of the world to another, arriving partially formed and full of brave ideas about shape and space and the turning of the world and the place of the seasons.
But most of what I knew when I arrived turned out to be wrong. Most of the knowledge I had gathered had to be unlearned and reshaped.
When I work in my garden, in summer dust or winter damp, the plants that look old and sick or tired often have pot-bound roots. Tight packed roots that go round and round within the boundaries of a long gone pot. Roots shackled to a ghost. Old formed, shaped elsewhere, rejecting the call of new soil, rejecting the chance of novelty and change. These are roots that cling to the past, never making a connection with the world, the soil, in which they now grow. These are the roots of plants that will never thrive. These are the roots of a plant that will often die before its time.
The roots I brought with me to Australia had first grown in the soil of Somerset; damp soil, mild soil, soil that flooded in winter and rarely dried in summer. My roots expanded north where, baffled by soils poisoned by the hand of industry, they grew sick. Good luck transplanted them into the stony, but fertile ground of the Lake District, where more good luck started my journey to Australia.
Roots grow used to their own soil, and take time to react. They are not fast paced like leaves that can blow in the wind and take on new patterns and ways of growing. Leaves react to surface changes – the rules of sports, the sizes of drinks at the bar and the name of clothes you wear to swim – changes that can be swept away with just the stroke of a pen or the turn of a celebrity’s phrase. Roots live at a different pace, in a deeper place. Roots respond to the slower reality of place and time. They respond to older rhythms, and, in the form of their growth, they hold a history of where they stand.
The pace of modern life encourages us to grow leaves, but we would be better off tending to the growth of our roots.
Roots need feeding and gain much from the sugar of daily leaf life – but their domain is that of soil, of water and of space. To give myself some understanding of the place I now was, I went in search of those same three things.
I have been in Australia for less than two weeks, mainly in Melbourne, head spinning and my roots looking backwards into the security of the past, when I first visit Wilson’s Promontory. There are headlights in the rear view mirror and darkness on the sides of the road. I do not really know where I am. I have no sense of where I am going. North and South seem reversed, east and west a mystery. There are bright and mobile eyes shining in the grass and two watchful pairs glittering from a roadside tree.
We pull the car over to look; a koala and fur-clinging baby are wrapped around a twiggy thin trunk. This is an unlooked for novelty. If ever there was a moment when I step through the back of the wardrobe and know that I have entered a new land, this is it. I can feel both the uncertainty and the excitement of the new and (for me) the unknown. New places are shaping around me. We drive on into the darkness, knowing that behind me the door has closed on the possibility of unknowing.
There are more eyes in the darkness, more reasons to stop, but in the end the pressure of arrival overwhelms the instinct for investigation. We drive on in leaf edged darkness with the brightness of road signs and white lines for guidance.
Any arrival at night keeps things hidden. Only a wobbling circle of torch glow shows the way; only the brightened end of the tent gives up its secrets. Starlight. Moonlight. Waves crash, solid and distant. As I sleep that first night, sounds and smells start to soak into the soil around my roots. The loft of the sleeping bag feels warm and familiar; a kind of home, but all else is new. Dawn reveals the detail that the night had hidden. A passing burrow-bound Wombat. The laughing call of a Kookaburra. The startling brightness of Rosellas, waiting with a well practised eye and a persuasive tilt of the head. A tangled bank of new diversity now surrounds the tent, last pitched on the open fells of the English Lakes. The morning coffee tastes the same, but little else does. There is novelty at every turn. I have that kid in a toyshop feeling of excitement, where everything is new and desirable. I pack my bag with far too much gear, still loaded with the possibility of unforeseen rain or unseasonal frost. My seasons have not adjusted, my expectations have not adapted. I carry the burden of unknowing into a summer morning. By the end of the day my shoulders feel a pressure caused by that lack of knowledge. But every dusty step and every rucksack creak brings a small grain of knowledge. And when that knowledge reaches my roots they begin to change shape.
Black shapes in the treetops follow us at a safe, but inquisitive, distance. In other places or other times this may be unsettling. A murder or an unkindness. Worse still, a parliament. But this is something far more welcome. With calls like tin whistles and children’s toys, a group of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos seem to be shadowing our passage through the bush. Wonderfully large and impossibly exotic to eyes raised on eave-stuck sparrows, I cannot help but stand and watch. It’s impossible not to see human characteristics in such birds, and it’s perfectly clear how myths and legends could be built around them.
Trees push branches over the paths, casting welcome shade and softening the sharp edges. The views are concealed by a cloth of blue grey leaves, most noises are covered by the warm hum of insects and all but the strongest smells are masked by the vapour of oils leaking from the hot leaves. This is a smell of childhood winters, of oils dripped on pillows or pyjamas, to push back the congestion of winter colds. These are memories from dozens of years and thousands of miles away. The taproot, around which change will come, still runs deep.
I spend my first Australian camping night at Refuge Cove. Neither that remote or that unusual, it is, none the less, remarkably different from that English fell side. Sleep does not come easily as I listen to new noises and imagine their source. There is nothing to be afraid of, but there is much to wonder about, and my brain buzzes at a rate that precludes sleep. I wake the next morning with a dry mouth and a sore right shoulder. Tea fixes one and stretching does little for the other. Nobody else seems to be awake as I walk down towards the arc of beach inside the headlands that form the refuge. Silver gulls sit on the golden yellow sand, and waves, slight in the early brightling sun, wash up the beach. My tea is warm but overdrawn, bitter, but necessary. I have never woken in a place like this before, but I know that it will not be the last time that I do. Something grows, some connection forms.
From that moment onwards, from that first morning tea, I will never feel strange calling this place The Prom rather than by its full name. I have gained a degree of familiarity; we are on first name terms. Later that morning I leave Refuge and pass back through Sealer’s, places with abbreviated names, places named in the same way I named fishing spots and pubs many years ago. Places that you thought you knew, places where you knew you could slow down, stand still and grow roots.
If you go in the summer you see one side of the Prom; if you go in the winter another one is likely to come looking for you.
Summer is all crowded tents and bikes lent into bushes or left flat on grassy banks. Summer is all teenage romances and the heartbreak of the end of two weeks at Tidal River. It’s an outdoor cinema, queues at the bathroom blocks and the near constant smell of barbeques.
Winter is empty, with single figures in the distance, scarf wrapped and gloved. Winter is the company of Sooty Oystercatchers and Hooded Plovers on the beach. On most days you are glad of a coat and grateful for a hat.
In winter, the wind and rain pluck at door edges, coat cuffs and zip lines. On winter days the winds are from Antarctica and the rain is heavy and always cold. But it is the time between the rains that makes the difference. In winter the air is crystal brittle clear, the views go on forever. Rain may rattle at the windows, but it washes away the grit and dust of summer to leave the air as clean as anywhere on Earth. Each breath, each lung full a tonic for the hazy days of summers and weeks in a lifeless chill-filtered office. On the headlands, even on the beach, it may be easier to sit than to stand, but it is always easy to breathe. And if the rain does not stop, what of it? The technology that took us to the Moon also gave us waterproofs and warm clothing. The empty paths are calling, and the short days of winter bring out the animals.
Wombats by the side of the path, a chunky animal that leaves a remarkable cubic calling card. Kangaroos and wallabies, fleet on their large feet, still flee from disturbance, but pull up much quicker than in summer. With paused, over the shoulder glances they hold their ground and wait for the fright to pass. Emus stride around, often in loose groups, peck, peck, pecking at the ground. Without the constant background noise of summer visitors to drive them away animals appear in a way that gives a hint of possible past abundance. Every winter bush holds the chance of a discovery or sight in the way that the summer never has. On campsites, slow to recover from the summer suffocation of plastic tent bottoms, Galahs mine for roots and shoots. Slow rhythmical digging, moving forward a step at a time, normally in company, often quietly talkative.
Winter rains after the dry of summer bring forth growth. To think of this southern winter in terms of its northern namesake is to miss the point of the season. This southern winter is different, lacking the stillness and plant sleep of the north. Where the grass grows it is fresh and green. Kangaroos, wallabies and wombats gather where the food is good and the living is easy.
About half way along the road from the park gate to Tidal River is an area of open ground and winter growth grass. This is an abandoned World War 2 airfield, a left over from when the Prom was used to train Commandos in arts far more deadly than camping and nature study. Today it is home to the kind of wildlife beloved of tourist brochures and overseas travellers. We call this area Icon Field – and so do the select band of visitors we have shared it with. Nothing in wildlife watching is completely reliable; but Icon Field is as close as it gets.
Maybe it’s the contrast with the often-grey winter skies, or forgotten sunglasses, but when the sun shines in the winter the beaches are so bright they hurt your eyes. The light bounces back from sand grains so uniform and perfect that they squeak underfoot as you walk. It is almost impossible not to scuff your feet, so wonderful is the startled sound the beach makes under footfall. Squeaky Beach indeed.
Winter rain runs down the rounded faces of the rocks and boulders bringing out the rich golden colours. Crystals catch the light and sparkle as the ever-present wind ripples the sheen of water that covers them.
In winter The Prom is alive in a way the brutal heat of summer supresses. It’s open and wild. It’s not quite free of human forces and interruption, but it’s very close. From choice, I now go there in the winter.
The Prom was not the only place to burn that year. The fire season ran long and hot; we all awoke, one Sunday morning, to find that whole communities had disappeared overnight, that so many people had died that even the term catastrophe did not have the full measure of what happened on the hills just an hour or so from Melbourne. Fire had taken control of the landscape and reshaped it, just as it may have done in the past. Fire made a mockery of our belief that somehow we live above the laws of nature, that the natural flow of cause and effect could be circumvented by technology. It made a mockery of our claims that we understand the land on which we live. The fire landed a hammer blow on communities that had developed, quite literally, in the line of fire. I have no idea how people could recover from that kind of loss. And visiting the fire grounds, even to support those who survived, felt dangerously close to a kind of ghoulish voyeurism.
But visiting the bush was different; the bush would recover as evolution selected. Seedpods cracked open after the fires had passed and smoke triggered the release of millions upon millions of seeds. Fire is as much a part of our ecosystems as wind and rain, and at the Prom I was able to see the first, baby steps of regrowth.
I had watched the fires track over the Prom from their lightning strike origins in the east towards the sea to the west. Winds fanned and fed the flames and fires skipped ahead of the main front, seemingly eager to reach the sea. In some places it did. No human lives were lost, and people suffered no more than inconvenience, stress and the disruption of plans. But what the fire did do was wipe the slate clean of years of growth. The slow process of succession, the tic-toc clock of ecological change, was taken back to almost zero, and the land would have to recover.
It was over a month after the fires had died before I managed to get back to The Prom. Concern over safety, of falling trees and broken paths, had kept the park closed, but now it was open.
The sea was still sparkle blue, the rocks a rich gold. The sky was still huge out over the fringes of the Southern Ocean, but much of the land was charcoal black and ash grey. A dense black that sucked in the light, so that it looked like the land was covered in standing shadows, and a pale grey that looked as if a mist had settled, solid, on the ground. Although the fire fields had long gone cold, burnt leaves were still falling. The bare bones of the land poked through where the land had been stripped of its softening growth. Now that the plants had been stripped away, the full detail of the land showed through. Dozens of hills and sand dunes, distinct but small, lined the road where before the bush had given an illusion of smoothness. The shape and colour of the land was hauntingly familiar; pockmarked and grey it looked like a black and white – grey scale really - picture from the Western Front, but with mud replaced by dry ash. And no matter how hard I looked it was almost impossible to reconcile the vision with the memory. So much had been taken away that the reference points were all gone. And when you did find some place – a turn in the road, or hillside crag – that seemed familiar, it was just a fragment. It was like meeting a work mate unexpectedly at the pub and knowing you know his face, but not being able to work out from where because all context had been lost and the face was dissociated. Pulling to the side of the road I got out of the car and the landscape still smelt of smoke and ash; the scent given off by old bonfire sites and campfires being turned over before a new fire is lit. Even a few strides through the charcoaled bushes left your legs black scored with the calligraphy of fire. So present were the ghosts of the fire that the black lines were drawn without me being aware I was being touched. The lines were now. The fire was history. But a new story was being written on me.
But just as happens in a war, there are survivors of even a landscape wide fire. Gums that had been scorched rather than incinerated were already putting out new shoots and leaves. Buds protected by insulated bark or fed from underground stores of food, swelled to produce new growth. The limbs of trees were coated with a haze of new leaves, so that they looked fuzzy and ill defined. As the wind fluttered the new growth, the black of the fire-scarred branches below showed through, so that the whole limb seemed to ripple in small waves. At ground level, shoots, strong and green in the abundant light, pushed through the charred soil. Everywhere life was awakening from an ash bed. For a place that had been described in the media as ‘destroyed’ there was an abundance of life.
It would seem that I am not the only one who needs to grow roots in the reality of Australia soil.
Through summer sun and winter rain, through the acrid smell of old smoke and rush of new growth, my roots expand and reform. Each step, each season, adds to the accumulation of experience. And with experience comes knowledge, and the slow shift of assumption and expectation.
I was not born here.
But now I live here.
(* This is a piece I entered for a writing competition, organised by The Nature Conservancy in Australia. Unfortunately, I did not make the final short list of pieces. I have posted it here in its original form - i.e. without images. Let me know what you think)