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THREE PROSE MEMOIRS


This place's / saving graces


The frog calendar has come down, replaced by one called "spectacular birds".

The January bird is the fairy penguin, most definitely not an inhabitant of these parts, though I remember them from my days in Wellington, New Zealand, where they would often live beneath seaside houses, & from a visit I made to Phillip Island, about an hour south of Melbourne, where their evening exodus from the sea is a tourist attraction.

The December bird, the tawny frogmouth, I haven't seen around here, but I have come across them on our regular trips up north, one instance in particular, driving through sugar cane country at night & being confronted by one in the middle of the road, guarding a mouse it had just caught, stubbornly refusing to budge from its prey so that we had to drive off the edge of the road to get around it.

But the ten remaining birds do live hereabouts, half of them—pink galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, blue-faced honeyeaters, blue-winged cockatoos & lorikeets—regular visitors to our garden; & two more—black swans & royal spoonbills—share the lagoon at the bottom of the street with the pelicans. There are peacocks in the local Botanical Gardens about a kilometre away & it's not unusual to come across them wandering about the nearby streets. & I have seen a bush turkey meandering down a street in the middle of town on its way to the grassed precincts of the old railway station.

The final bird is the brolga, a large crane which lives in swamps & wetlands. On one of my drives around the backroads of the area, probably about thirty kilometres away from home in a straight line, I came across a flock of about a hundred gathered around a farm dam. They are incredibly elegant, &, when they socialize or engage in courtship rituals, they dance. Fantastic to behold! "[They] bow, advance & retreat, trumpet, & fling objects in the air" to quote my bird book.

There are other birds around that I would class as more spectacular than some of the ones in the calendar. I'd include the black cockatoo rather than the white; would include some smaller birds such as the double-barred (owl-faced) finch, or the sacred kingfisher; would pick the jabiru before the spoonbill; would definitely include the coucal pheasant.

& they're just a few of the birds you get around here on a regular basis. There are about another twenty varieties of honeyeaters of various sizes, ten or so different birds of prey, there are more parrots, swallows, waterbirds, fantails, cuckoos. Such an abundance, keeping me sane during the day.

The night sky is the other benefit in living here. This year has apparently been designated the year of astronomy, & it was pointed out in an article announcing this that "a fifth of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye due to artificial lights blocking out the view of the stars."

It was something that was very apparent when we lived in Sydney, & I suppose it's the same in any big city where there's light pollution. Half the time you could barely see the stars, &, even then, only a small proportion of them. Up here it's a different story. There is minor pollution from the city lights, but over the hill, away from us. If I go outside, it's a black night sky I'm confronted with, & the stars are so clear. Perfect viewing for such occurrences as the recent one where Venus & Jupiter were close together, & both within the arc of the new moon. A natural smiley face—though in the northern hemisphere, with the moon arcing downwards, I believe it was a frowny face that was created.

This year the astronomers of the world are trying to persuade cities to turn off or dim many of the lights that stay on overnight. In a recent article in the journal Nature, Malcolm Smith, an astronomer at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, wrote of the project:

"Without a direct view of the stars, mankind is cut off from most of the universe, deprived of any direct sense of its huge scale and our tiny place within it."

sortie

Beneath the commercially-done signs offering various brands of alcohol there is a hand painted one advertising whole pumpkins for sale tied to a telegraph pole just before the hotel. Horses are tethered in the carpark. I am driving along the Capricornia Highway, which is the road on to which I usually exit on my cross-country, get out of the house for a couple of hours, "just drive" sorties.

But this time I'm heading in the opposite direction, going inland instead of towards the coast, still looking for my grail, the secret bridge across the Fitzroy River. I have bought myself a new map, & it shows a road some kilometres up & off the highway that appears to traverse the river somewhere near its headwaters. But the off-roads I pass are poorly signposted, are usually rough red clay, & are all definitely, to flatten the key of that character in Catch 22, minor minor minor minor. Besides, I've got the small car, & it is lower to the ground.

Apostle birds gather in their groups of twelve beside the road. Crows are regularly on the road, hop off at a leisurely pace as cars approach. I see minimal roadkill for them to feed on. One dead rabbit, & one flattened fox, a readymade fashion accessory. Plus, of course, the ubiquitous stripped tyre rubber, roadkill of a different nature. A dead crow is very rarely seen. &, this time no native animals, which is pleasing.

It is raining lightly, but this landscape reflects the threat of water rather than the presence of it. Countless dry creekbeds, some of which I pass over a couple of times, including Bone Creek which lives up to its name; floodways, & flood-height indicators, these only marked up to a metre, but I've come across some that go up to a height of six metres. A couple of the waterways actually have water in them. One is covered with algae which probably means it is just pooled around the bridge, but the other, a river, has muddy water flowing, an indication that somewhere further inland it has been raining a bit more heavily.

I realise that I've passed where I needed to turn off, but carry on for a while, end up doing about 100 kilometres on the outwards leg. I pass a sign welcoming me to the Central Highlands, another warning not to bring cotton seeds in. Probably erected by Monsanto. There are quite long stretches of straight road, a speed limit of 110 kph for much of it. A reasonable amount of traffic, but not heavy. Annoying more than anything. The caravans of the grey nomads, & several 'wide loads', usually portable housing, for which you have to pull over & straddle the edges rather than risk being scythed by them.

Then there are the coal trains running on the rail line that parallels the highway for some of the journey. Humongous things, two engines at the front & another in the middle. I counted 84 wagons on one of them – pulled over to count them, got dizzy doing it – each wagon probably 15 metres long, each containing 80 tonnes of coal. Headed for the power station which consumes, I think I read somewhere, the equivalent of 8 train loads everyday. Will check up on that. Coming in from the vast opencut coalmines further inland, not all that far from where I end up today. Going lentement, lentement on their laden journey, much faster on the return trip.

Just like me. But I don't give off nearly as much greenhouse gas.


driftglass

I have written elsewhere of the images of childhood I carry with me, like extra vertebrae or ribs; mountains, trains, the sea. What I have probably not spelt out is the fact that these are fractals, that within them there are patterns within which are smaller patterns. The mountains devolve to become separate mountains, & not just mountains but within them states of being, distinguishing marks. How high or low the snow is; where & when they are seen. Trains can be the grit from a coal-fired engine coming through the not-closed-in-time carriage windows as the train enters a tunnel, or the sound of a train in the distance, or the enormity of a local coal train, seemingly two kilometres long as, powered by several engines, it heads towards an export port or a power station. When I have to stop the car at one of the number of level crossings within this city, I do not become frustrated by the delay but am quite relaxed, even if all that the train is carrying are containers. Even though there are no longer guard's vans to mark the end, just a single light bolted to the last bogie.

& the sea. There are few offshore islands in New Zealand, so the horizons stretch unbroken. South America off to the east, Antarctica to the south, a few Polynesian islands to the north but the ocean mainly uninhabited till you reach Siberia & Alaska. Only to the west is there a landmass of significance, Australia, but even here the latitudes overlap only partially, so that if you started from far enough south you could keep going until Africa was reached.

The sea. I almost drowned in it when I was two, wandered away from my sister's care & was found floating face down in the water. There are beaches of black sand, coloured by the oil they contain. New Plymouth had oil derricks almost on the water's edge, continually pumping away. (Just over the railway line to the port, with, when looking from the sea side, the single dormant volcano Taranaki, in English Mt. Egmont, upthrust as a backdrop.) I can only remember the one white-sand beach, Oriental Bay in Wellington Harbour, created from the ballast carried by ships coming from Europe. The beaches are often isolate, foreboding, lined by papa foothills & cliffs. The mountains of N.Z. were amongst the highlights of LOTR. The beaches featured in Xena, Warrior Princess.

I would walk them, confronted by sea lions & seals & pelicans. I would pick up or wander amongst starfish or shells or kelp, the washed-up tree branches. I would often find driftglass.

In Australia, too, I have never lived far away from the ocean. But it is a different environment. Built-up, often to obscene levels as in Surfers Paradise. Civilisation intrudes, the detritus of civilisation fouls the tides. Shopping bags, & PET bottles that don't mutate in the way that glass does. The beaches are hard to reach – thirty kilometres in Sydney is over an hour's drive in heavy & frustrating traffic. Hedonism when you get there. Nowhere to sit in lordly & isolate splendour. There is too much at your back to be able to think clearly about what is in front of you.

Here, where I am living now, the beach is the same spatial distance as in Sydney, much closer temporally. But there are resorts & marinas & the tourist trade. Built up, becoming a high-priced suburb, unattractive. Still somewhere I go to occasionally, when the need takes me, but for a quick fix as it were, a drive along the foreshore, stopping only briefly, preferring to take in the ocean by osmosis.

There are sideroads running off the drive to sea, but never explored until yesterday. One ends at a boatramp on the river, just after you pass a meatworks – which, when I top the peak in the road near home, I can see in the distance lit-up at night far across the flood plain - & an open chapel built during the second world war by the U.S. servicemen that were stationed here. Further down the main road, just after the roadside fruit stall – "95% locally-grown produce" – where we sometimes buy pumpkins & papaya & pineapples, & just before the sideroad where the signpost points to a crocodile farm, there is another road that we took for the first time. & it led to a beach, a kilometre or so long, sheltered by a natural outcrop of rocks on one side &, on the other, a breakwater constructed from jagged stone, thrown together, without smoothing, so that those who wish to fish from it have to pick their way very, very carefully no matter what their footwear.

A beach with a row of houses running along it, mainly simple beach houses, holiday homes, though there are a couple of more substantial structures that have been built, fortunately, with a consideration for the place. A deserted beach, only a couple of people casting lines in the shallows & a couple of kids with boogie boards. Sunflowers planted in the dunes, a regeneration project underway. Places to sit comfortably in the shade. A barbecue area.

On the beach pods of seaweed. Small balls of sand cast out by the tiny crabs that live in holes. Shells. Strange lines that seem to have been made by worms, raised where the use is recent, depressed, etched, where the tide has come in & collapsed them. A few starfish. The water surprisingly warm.

&, the first time I've seen any for more than thirty years, pieces of driftglass. Milky when dry, transparent when you dip them in the ocean.


Mark Young's most recent books are Mineral Terpsichore & Ley Lines, both from gradient books of Finland, & The Chorus of the Sphinxes, from Moria Books in Chicago. A new collection, some more strange meteorites, came out from Meritage & i.e. Press, California / New York, in early 2017.