A few sky bright shards of childhood memory linger. Skippy. Rolf Harris. People with skin so black that the light seemed to sink into them. Australia seemed so far away that it may as well have been the moon. Manchester was a long way away, Melbourne impossibly so. I only knew one family that had been overseas. The world was small, green, damp and English.
Fast forward to today and my own garden is a mixture of the then and the now. A strange combination of the visitor and the migrant, the welcome and the regretted, the native and home grown. The sparrows search in trees that shade our poorly placed western windows and, until it succumbed to disease, a gum tree grew by the back fence. I doubt that it was planted, it was a wild seed that found a place in its native soil and was allowed to stay. It found a kind of homecoming. It made me jealous.
The shells and the stones both tell a story. The birds under the eaves and the trees in the gardens tell another. Layer upon layer. An onion skin reality, where each new layer does not bring you to the middle, but exposes another surface in need of exploration. Some layers come as a shock because they are new, while others surprise, because rather than difference, they reveal conformity. This, in a small way, is what I have written about up till now. The shock of discovery and the journey towards some small way of knowing.
When I did manage to look what I saw was unfamiliar, and what I recognised was unwelcome. Banks of flowers in the Grampians that I could not name, and sparrows and blackbirds dismissed as pests. When I saw rabbits I knew the harm they did, but still liked watching them – the same with foxes. I once watched a family of foxes through the fat lens of a telescope, seeing into the darkness when the human eye failed. It was a splendid, comical sight, with the cubs ambushing their parents and the parents rough and tumbling with each other and the cubs. Once they disappeared from sight they probably moved off to drive a small native mammal to the edge of extinction. How is it possible to enjoy such a sight, when I knew what the consequences were? Then I found out that some branch of my wife’s family released rabbits into Australia. Ecological curses don’t come much harsher than that. The fact that they now eat my mother-in-law’s garden seems to be a nice act of ecological circularity.
Trying to understand a new place seems to butt up against that classic quantum problem of not being able to measure two things at the same time. You can measure speed but not direction, or the other way around. So in a place that’s new if you concentrate on one thing, you lose sight of another. And when you regain sight of the thing you have lost, it’s changed.
When I first travelled out to the west of the state I saw flocks of white parrots – Short Billed Corellas. The maps said I should find them there and find them I did. Sometimes on the ground, gathering at field edges, mining for roots and sometimes in the air in noisy, loose flocks. They were where conventional wisdom said they would be – and this was easy to understand.
But this winter they have moved into the suburbs. By concentrating on location I’d lost track of movement. The Corellas were feasting on Liquid Amber seed pods and flying over my house, calling me to peer out of the window regardless of time or purpose. I found a flock on the road, on the way to work, and I stopped to photograph them. They owned the place. As cars inched their way through the flock I had to shoo the birds out from under the wheels. It was as noisy as before and now some birds mined the nature strip rather than field edges. Was this an expansion or a return? And how would I recognise the difference anyway?In the last week I’ve found two species of lizard around my house – and bear in mind that we are solidly into winter here, so it’s not prime lizard season. If I find one more species that’s the same number as the whole of the UK. A Southern Marbled Gecko, with splayed sticky feet, rushed out from beneath a bag and hid under the coat stand. When it sat on your hand you could see its ribs pumping in and out. It was a little over an inch long. Last night, as I split the wood for the fire, a skink of some sort shot out from under the bark of a log. It had lost the tip of its tail in the past and it scuttled away, probably less than pleased to have been disturbed. Reptiles are still a novelty. When I left the UK I had seen two thirds of all the species of snake to be found there, which seems impressive. But what it means is that I had seen both of the common English snakes, and had never seen a Smooth Snake – a rare southern heath dweller – and that sounds much less impressive than before. I could probably exceed that count within a kilometre of my house right now.On most days I can find invertebrates in my garden that you would only find in nature reserves in the UK. A Praying Mantis that would stretch across the palm of my hand calmly lays its eggs just outside my front door. It leaves a shiny, silver package; something to check each day as I go to work. As a kid I watched Raft Spiders fishing in wheelbarrow sized ponds near the village of Street. These are the UK’s largest spider; but really they are not that big. As far as I am concerned Huntsmen are big - and ugly - and distinctly unwelcome as they walk along the bedroom wall, up on to the ceiling and (in the worst part of this journey) across the ceiling above the bed, down the curtains and out through the window. Once that journey is over I can unclench my toes and almost relax. If an invertebrate can have a sense of theatre, then a Huntsman has it in spades. I found one a while back, sitting on a brick wall. Just lurking there on the edge of a pedestrian’s peripheral vision. Any further away and it would have been hidden, any further out and it would have been visible before you drew level with it. I actually think it was hoping to scare its prey to death. It almost worked. In the past all this weighed heavily on me – I felt I did not know any of the names, any of the stories, of the things that I saw or the places I visited. But that wasn’t true. What was true was that I was not ready yet for them to become part of my own story. I was not really here, and I was sure as hell not there either. I was trapped in between, looking for one and finding the other. Heavy clouds stacked around me. It seemed that even in drought the sun did not shine. The tug of deep, lifelong interest dragged against the sheet anchor of despair. Each day the line between them grew tighter and tighter until it pulled me out of shape and remade me in a way that I hated.
When the force grew too great, the line snapped, and without an anchor I fell. I grabbed the only thing I knew I knew. I pulled my family in tight around me, and hoped that the storm would pass. Eventually it did. But what I saw when the clouds cleared surprised me. It was not the damp woodlands of Somerset, the cold shores of Northumbria, the open hills of the Lakes, but it was a place I recognised. My insistence that this was a place I could not understand was a recipe for disaster, a philosophy of despair, I had to open my eyes and pay attention.
I had planned to write this as my 50th post – as some kind of way-point on the way to who knows where. But I forgot. I was too busy looking. I was too busy becoming less of a stranger in a land that becomes less strange with each passing day.