15 December 2016
Eco-sci-fi and a mountain
by Marty Branagan, School of Humanities, University of New England
After a week’s hard driving from Armidale out to Dubbo, Coonamble and back to help Aboriginal artist Michael Brogan set up a very post-modern exhibition in a funky gallery converted from a Greek art deco café, I was well ready for a break on my trip to Tamborine Mountain. I pulled off the road at Cunningham’s Gap and made my way up into the pocket of rainforest of the Main Range National Park. The park seems perched precariously between the cleared land on either side, where small stands of dry sclerophyll forest seem the best you can expect.
Up and around the mountain winds the track, through deep forest, gradually losing the ceaseless rattle and roar of the giant trucks moving all that stuff we apparently need. Gradually the bird calls take over. There’s a goanna scuffling across the track, disturbing its rich red-brown soil. A glimpse of the vast valley below. A sharp peak to the north, one side bright vegetation lit up by the afternoon sun, the other ancient, sheer stone – a beautiful blue. A dry creek bed filled with giant grey boulders, tangles and green moss on the side of massive roots of the giant above. I feel like I’ve come home at last.
Higher up I again sense the fragility of the rainforest; a fire has swept through, changing the undergrowth. There are blackened trunks, grass trees verdantly springing back to life. One large tree falling can change the whole dynamic, letting in too much light. There’s a drying wind.
Nevertheless, I’m refreshed and inspired as I head down the mountain, stopping precariously to photograph it from a road cutting. Giant 4WDs sit on my tail, forcing me to ignore the scenery and drive faster than I’d like, honking when I slow to let them pass. In Beaudesert I try to find a tap to refill my water bottle and I stock up on groceries (although there turns out to be a good range of organic produce on the mountain). It’s hot and I have a slight headache from my visit to the Cheese Factory near Stanthorpe. I’d just wanted cheese, but the jovial proprietor had insisted I try his port, which led on to the mead, cabernet merlot and shiraz. So much for a dry week!
Up the narrow, sharply winding road to Tamborine Mountain at last, through majestic stands of trees, past a strange rock formation, a Bavarian sausage place, a winery, a distillery, fruit stands, Balinese massage, cafes and restaurants, terrific views I will come back to contemplate and sketch at, and finally I reach Sandra’s, nestled in the rainforest. She gives me a warm welcome, shows me around the cool, stylish accommodation. There are flowers and avocados on the bench, brochures about the area, books about the flora and fauna, a terrific library in the bedroom. The kitchen is well equipped, with solar hot water and a window onto the lush garden. The main room is spacious, with maps, artworks and inspiring photos on the walls, Persian carpets on the tiled floor. My solar-powered transistor can pick up multiple stations, including Classic FM, old favourite 4ZZZ, and a multicultural one – a relief after my trip near Hanson heartland, where I could get only one station – country and western. Sandra tells me about a poets’ night at the local Irish pub, so I wander down there after a cuppa, siesta and sandwich, stopping to observe the full moon rise – the closest and brightest for 68 years.
The poets are a friendly mob, ranging from a renowned 90-something poet, Raymond Curtis, who recites from memory a moving poem about Moreton Bay, to a young buck with ripped jeans and a goatee, who struggles with the microphone as he performs his first original poem. Many women recite, evocative imagery about love and loss, bodies and nature, in South African, German and broadly Australian accents. The main act is David Peetz, who is witty, amusing, animated and passionate, with some scathing commentary on globalisation, sexism, capitalism and Australia’s callous treatment of refugees. He leaps up on the bench at one point, later collapses on the ground, concludes by running out of the bar. It’s great fun, washed down with an obligatory couple of pots of Irish beer. The evening ends with some tributes to Leonard Cohen, including a wild version of Hallelujah by Susannah Lathlean, and others by Margie Rose and Seamus which have the whole crowd roaring along.
On my way home under the full moon I see a possum. A choir is singing in a church. There are some excellent paintings in the lawyers’ window. Culture is everywhere and I’m reminded of my partner’s words the day before – that humans are capable of such wonderful things, and yet allow such terrible things.
The next day I’m straight into the rainforest – bangalow palms, Canungra bloodwoods, staghorns, bleeding heart, a baby bunya. There’s cool fresh air with spring perfumes. Lomandra, ferns, walking stick palms, dendrocnides, coachwoods, elephant ears, huge eucalypts. Native ginger, a squashed frog, an orgy of flies on the picnic table. Vines like cords communicating between the strangler figs. Patches of warm sun, a deep grey cloud above exciting the forest with a promise of rain. A blue dragonfly. The bells and buzz of birds – wompoo pigeons, regent bowerbirds, some screeching corellas high in the canopy. Something huge and prehistoric swooshes by fast. A bull ant kindly decides not to bite me; instead she walks away across the fallen orange and red leaves. A bush turkey honks and walks close by, proudly displaying the land rights colours. The presence of Aboriginal people, and Judith Wright, can be felt. I’m ready to write.
Over the next week I attack my novel, a work of eco-sci-fi called Locked On: The Seventh and Most Illegal in the Hitchhikers’ Guide Trilogy. I skim across and then scour through ten chapters, sorting them into passages to definitely keep, those I’ll definitely discard, and possible ones. Others I cut or put aside in other documents. I input a few notes and ideas from a bulging folder, and take off on a few new directions of dialogue or text. In all twenty-seven separate word documents get amended.
It’s delightfully quiet, apart from a few trucks on Wednesday, tip day. I walk a lot, including a trek up a rainforest creek to its source in a vineyard, and finally get to do some yoga and meditation. I do a few jobs in Sandra’s lush garden in the afternoons, and investigate the village’s galleries and op shops. In the evenings I watch the news with Sandra or go with her to a lookout to eat pizza. As my physical and mental health returns, so my writing improves. Thanks BREW!
22 August 2016
Like a Homecoming
by Johanna Garnett, PhD candidate, Peace Studies, University of New England
I left Armidale on a dry, frosty Northern Tablelands morning and arrived at my retreat 6 hours later, as the red sun was setting on a musty, green mountain. Of course I got lost in the twilight (GPS cannot be relied on at this height apparently) but Sandra guided me in over the phone and was waiting, welcoming me.
Before moving to Armidale I lived in the Tweed valley for 30 years; in the caldera shaped by an ancient volcano. I come from this landscape; this flora and fauna and arriving on the mountain felt like a homecoming, soothing to the soul and fantastic for the writing process. I quickly settled in and took myself off to the local Italian restaurant and returned ‘home’ that evening to peace, quiet and a creative space all to myself and began writing – what bliss!
My PhD is a study of environmental peacebuilding in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). My thesis is based on a case study into a unique environmental peacebuilding initiative that has been developed by Myanmar nationals, in an effort to address some of their serious and pressing socio-ecological issues. These include deforestation, land grabbing, soil degradation and water pollution, all of which are impacting on local communities and traditional livelihoods. A grassroots, environmental, social movement organisation, the Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED), has established a school and eco-farm in Myanmar and has designed an environmental adult education (EAE) program aimed at agrarian youth. EAE is a transformative education that is a hybrid of environmental education (EE) and adult learning theory. NEED is educating young adults from a variety of ethnic groups, from rural areas throughout the country, in land law, human rights, environmentalism and the practice of permaculture for alternative community development. NEED has created a learning community, a space for new ecological voices and perspectives. The objective of this research is to see how this particular EAE model is contributing to environmental peace in Myanmar.
When I arrived on the mountain I had chapter deadlines looming for my PhD and was feeling quite stressed. During my time at Sandra’s I was able to clarify many points, and through this uninterrupted writing process give voice to my participants’ concerns as well as articulating their responses more clearly. I left with a tidier computer and a tidier mind, ready for the final push (I am due to submit in 2 months).
I feel absolutely blessed and so thankful to BREW and Sandra for giving me this opportunity and making it such a wonderful experience. Sandra is a wonderful host, knowing when to provide space and when to offer support.
I wrote this little poem on my last day.
I Have People Who Would Miss Me
I want to wander off into the seemingly endless green
Wrap myself around a tree; lay my cheek against its cool bark
I want to slip off down the sparkling stream
Slide under the water, feel the bubbles against my skin
I want to fly away into the beautiful blue sky
Soar on the wind, above the clouds in the valley below
I want to bound, from stone to stone
I want to swing in the vines
I want to curl up inside that tree
I want to sit on this rock forever
But I can’t
I have people who would miss me.
9 March 2016
Ten days on Tamborine
by Professor Darryl Jones, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University.
You don’t have to convince anyone attempting to write anything substantial – a thesis, a scientific paper, a grant application, a book – that time and solitude are literally (literary) priceless! The ragged, chaotic end to the last academic year seemed especially frantic; too much to do in too little time for too little point. The day I was able to caste it all aside and escape to Tamborine Mountain felt genuinely like liberation.
Sandra Sewell’s half-house within the towering rainforest and Eucalyptus grandis trees of the Knoll on Tamborine Mountain was ideal. Quiet (the birds and crickets ensured that it was not silent), secluded and just a little Spartan, the place was also as remote as I wished to make it. When I needed a break, turning right at the front door took me up the road into the dripping, verdant depths of the tropical rainforest, left a decent walk to the cafes and delightful library of North Tamborine village. But mostly I was more than content to hunker down over the laptop and lose myself in the task at hand.
This setting would have been ideal anyway, but the very smells and strange sounds of the place were more than just a nice place to concentrate. In a previous life (or so if seemed) I had spent several years on this mountain, searching out the secret lives of the local brush-turkeys. These remain among the most enjoyable, instructive and illuminating times of my life. To be back was more than a nice reminiscence: it seemed like an inspiring and invaluable opportunity. Whatever the mysterious reasons, it worked! I had hoped to complete an entire chapter of this book. I actually finished two, effectively and very satisfactorily, completing the whole thing.
I am immensely grateful for this eco-writers residency. Enormous thanks to BREW and especially to Sandra who knew just how much contact was needed.
Below is a section of the final chapter of The Birds at My Table, composed during my last days on the mountain.
Taking feeding wild birds seriously
The birds at my table are very impatient. I am just back from yet another trip and there has been no food on the feeder for an entire week. That was deliberate. It was difficult decision to make but in the end, I decided not to arrange for anything to be provided while I was away. Yes, I know (I can feel the emails and tweets building up already) that I broke the feeder’s Golden Rule: Once you start, don’t stop. And I did so intentionally, perhaps even defiantly. Was this blatant cruelty, willful neglect or straight-out stupidity? Don’t I care about ‘my’ birds after all? After I up-end the cup of wild bird mix, and retreat inside to watch the lorikeets jostle and grumble as I sip my coffee, I reflect on the unforeseen dangers of acquiring knowledge; sometimes the things we learn can lead us to reconsider our ideas and maybe even our actions.
This has been a long and fascinating journey, metaphorically, emotionally and physically, including a lot of air miles. Along the way I have been challenged, astonished, appalled and uplifted by what I have seen and heard. As is so often the case, when I started this journey I thought I didn’t know much about the topic; now I know that to be true. Even though I have gathered together enough material to fill a sizeable book, I am even more acutely aware of how much we don’t know about the feeding of wild birds. There must be literally hundreds of books describing how and what and where to feed birds in many countries but the amount of research investigating what this means, for people, ecosystems, landscapes and the birds themselves, is shockingly inadequate. We have barely scratched the surface of the many vital questions that need to be answered. I think that this is changing, and I hope this book pushes things along. You see, I think that there is a lot at stake here.
Your humble feeder takes on a new glow of relevance. It may simply be a way to attract nice birds or it may have a role in saving the world. Whatever its place in your life, it is most certainly more than just a place to see birds. Your feeder is one link in a gigantic chain, a strand in an enormous web, a station in a global communication network. Your private, personal action of providing food for birds changes the structure of an entire, interconnected ecosystem. Your decision to help alters the dynamics of the evolutionary process, and may assist in the process of natural selection in the form of facilitating the spread of diseases. Your feeder is connected, ultimately, to my feeder. My practices, in turn, will affect what happens at your place, eventually.
We think our feeders are for the birds. Our feeders are actually for us. But the birds don’t seem to mind. They continue to willingly bring their lives into ours by visiting, and so offer us wonder, hope, knowledge and pleasure.
6 October 2015
Justine Philip enjoys Blue Bucket
Our very first resident writer, Justine Philip, spent ten productive days at Blue Bucket last month. Read her report below.
BREW residency, Blue Bucket, September 2015, by Justine Philip
On September 20 2015, I drove 7 hours north of Melbourne into New South Wales, and up the Olympic Highway. After the recent rains, I travelled through the greenest countryside I have seen in Australia. I reached Blue Bucket cabin, 27 k’s out of Young, just before sunset. This was the start of my 10-day residency with BREW, Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers.
I am into the last stretch of writing for my PhD thesis, due 9 February 2016, and arrived at Blue Bucket cabin with three years of data, a mountain of books, and a deadline on my seventh chapter due in mid October.
The thesis documents the cultural history of the Canis dingo; exploring their 5000 + year history as a go-between in the physical and spiritual worlds of the Aboriginal people, followed by a 228 year long (and still running) frontier war with agrarian society.
My research has included collecting data from archives and natural science stores in Museum’s from London to Moscow, a six week residency at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington DC, and shorter journeys within Australia. So the topic was well travelled, and it was wonderful to get a chance to sit down and write undisturbed and immersed in a protected zone adjoining the Dananbilla National Park.
The first morning I woke up to find the whole valley cloaked in low-lying clouds. Islands of trees and fields appeared as if floating above the cloud line from the cabin. This was the perfect time of year to visit – the mornings were icy, so I started each day lighting the cabins old potbelly stove to keep warm, and writing at the desk close by, overlooking country.
My thesis unearths an often-turbulent shared human-dingo history. It is over 204 years since the first “Plan for the Destruction of the Native Dogs” was announced in Sydney town – on offer was a generous bounty, one gallon of spirits in return for each complete skin of a fully grown native dog, and half a gallon of spirits for a pup skin (Sydney Gazette 18/01/1811). Supplies ran out at 80 gallons.
Since then, every tool in the pest eradication kit that can be used against the dingo, has. Poison was employed from 1814, with baits applied in increasing intensity over the following decades, to the point that the longest chapter in my thesis has been dedicated to the history of poison and dingo control.
The chapter starts with the discovery of strychnine, increases in velocity and intensity up to post-World War 2, where aerial baiting campaigns launched an unprecedented scale of lethal controls across agricultural zones, amid enthusiastic newspaper headlines:
“November 11 to be D-Day for Dingoes” (Courier Mail 1946)
“Air blitz on the dingo” (Longreach Leader 1947)
“Air war against dingo” (West Australian 1948)
“Aerial War Against Queensland Dingoes” (Canberra Times 1946)
“Record Air Raid on Dingoes” (Argus 1948)
Since 1946, millions of baits containing lethal doses of strychnine or 1080 poison have been dropped from aircraft onto breeding grounds, national parks, and vast landholdings across the continent. The most successful bait rate recorded is 715 poison baits per wild dog/dingo kill. This is considered an exceptionally good outcome economically, and for industry and the environment (Thomson 1886).
Blue Bucket provided the perfect environment to tackle this mammoth topic. The cabin nests in the buffer zone of the Dananbilla National Park. I was on my own for most of the 10 days, surrounded by a thriving population of kangaroos, echidnas, kookaburras and cockatoos, and a chorus of local cattle and sheep. Twice in ten days, my little VW enjoyed the ride up 2 k’s of dirt road to the nearest bitumen, and on to the local town for a fresh roasted organic coffee at the ‘Art of Expresso’ in Young.
Barbara’s company and hospitality was an inspiration. I caught sight of her during first three days working on her land – out chopping wood and moving fallen trees up to the conservation zone, to help retain topsoil across the rocky floor of the native pine forest.
My task was much less strenuous, I worked my way through a maize of papers and notes on toxicology and the dark arts of pest control. Barbara was nearby at her residence for the first three days, and patiently listened to my monologues at the same time as introducing me to the exceptional local red wine – at the end of my 10 day residency, I drove home via the visitors information centre in Young to purchase some impossible to find, beautiful, rare regional wine to take with back me.
The cabin was wonderful – I was far from roughing it in the wilds. It has electricity, hot water, stove, comfy armchair and double bed, so I had to make a big deal about lighting the potbelly stove each morning, collecting firewood, the outhouse, the wildlife etc. so my teenagers back home did not get the impression I was just on holiday. My phone received emails and limited contact with the cyber world too, so it was a highly productive stay.
Many thanks to Barbara Holloway for her generosity, and to the BREW committee for accepting my application for the residency and for starting such an inspired project – I am looking forward to reading all the chapters, papers and accounts that emerge from future BREW residents! Now, back to the thesis…