Flushed with energy drawn from the returning Sun the oaks start the boom period of their boom and bust leaf economy. Only later in the year, as temperatures fall and the light begins to fade will they close down the leaves; shutting down the unprofitable branches, waiting for the next upturn in the flux from the Sun. The temptation to draw meaning from the brightness of spring feels as unavoidable as it does natural. This year the leaves seem even brighter than usual, the number of greens seem to have expanded and my mood expands to fill this new horizon.
My son was born in the spring, his arrival coinciding with new leaves and bright flowers. That was more than a decade ago – I’ve been a father for ten years and a dad for somewhat less. Some years were lost to the storm inside my head – but spring, if it means anything at all, is always about growth from existing roots. Even in spring nothing comes forth from nothing. Seeds and roots, bulbs and branches, create an illusion of newness, rather than newness itself; growing by the same means that make the buds swell and burst. People are the same. Given the chance they can grow and change, but like plants they will always be rooted in their own past, always connected to things that could have been. The new leaves that grow from the cold grey limbs of winter are related and dependent on the growth of last summer. If a new mind grows, its roots lie in the past as well. An understanding of this connection brings strength not weakness. It brings resilience not fear. Spring is not possible without winter; and we all need spring, but some winters are almost too long to bear.
The road out towards the Grampians is long and for the most part straight. It’s been improved in recent years and the journey flows along with few hitches and fewer squabbles. We stop for coffee and food - a bowl of strangely orange chips arrives at the table. Long journeys are no place for health food. Back in the UK, in the distant past, I hitch hiked for miles fuelled by coffee, donuts and a sense of optimism. Over time I shed the donuts, kept the coffee and refound the optimism. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos mine for roots in the grass by the side of the road. Ravens pick at the scattering of road kill. Black-shouldered Kites hang in the air. Travel, movement and food. Tyre noise on the road. The relief of a roundabout in Ararat. Kangaroos in the paddocks outside of Halls Gap. We arrive at a cold house, unpack and light the fire. A collective sigh of relief from all of us as the holiday moves from epilogue to Chapter 1. As we settle in for the evening there are ‘roos in the garden and a chorus of frogs from the other side of the fence. Ah.
The window blinds rattle as I pull them up. Something spooks from the garden, vaults the fence and pauses. My first thoughts go to kangaroo, but there was something not quite right about the movement. Just over the fence a small deer stands and stares back at me. Its front left foot hovers above the ground, frozen halfway through an alarm stamp. I think about reaching for my cameras on the table behind me, but I know the deer is watching me, hanging on the turning point of flight or fight, with a flight being the better, the more likely, option. Its hoof moves slowly down towards the ground, not in a single fluid motion, but in a series of still frame pauses. Even when the tip of the hoof touches the ground the knee stays bent, the leg held back for a warning stamp or a sprinter’s push. Then a change sweeps over the body of the deer, as it relaxes from tip to toe. The elevated hoof rests firmly on the ground; the body looks alive and less like a carved object, the head turns slowly away from me. The tension that was obvious, but which I could not really see in its absence, seems to have left the deer. It walks into the shade of the pushing forest trees that hang over the fence. Within three strides it’s almost invisible, within ten it may as well have been a ghost.
The kangaroos on the vacant block next door seem less disturbed by the flickering movement of a person at a window. They graze with a lazy looking efficiency, and lever themselves around with their thick muscular tails. Each and every movement seems slow and considered, even when they bounce it seems to happen in slow motion. Larger, fence hopping jumps seem to come from nowhere, from energy stored in ways which are invisible below the skin. Some lie down to eat – reducing the need to hold themselves up: these animals are true energy misers. Most shake their head from time to time, chasing flies from around their ears. A few are very large, a few very small. They may be hanging around in loose, extended, family groups, held together by the pull of kinship and genetics. The weather was set fair and for a while at least the sky is clear. I stand beneath an oak tree and look through the branches, past the tissue thin leaves and into a deep blue sky. The leaves lack the improbable tessellation of summer and sun specks freckle the ground. Small insects pass in and out of the freckle beams, specks of life brought out by the warmth of the sun. Winter passes into spring sunshine.
We walk old walks, embracing the familiar routine of too many treats and too few kilometres. Red dust spills from the wheels, packs into the arches, powder coats the windows. Shingleback lizards shuffle across the road, and we pass the evidence that many don’t make it. Maybe I should have an “I slow down for lizards” bumper sticker. Mt. Zero stands proud of the land around it – “pyramidal” according to the guide book. Flowers punctuate the sides of the path, some are commas that cause a slight pause, others are full stops that bring us to a halt. All are wonderful to see. We count types and lose our place in the mid-twenties. Most remain unnamed, few remain unobserved. Steeper sections of the path require you to put hand on rock where skinks flee from human touch. Views open in all directions, studded with fields of bright yellow canola (sounding so much nicer than looking at oil seed rape) and olives.
A shingleback lizard – a kind of large skink – stops us in our tracks. It lies along a shallow stone groove, overlooking the path, soaking up the radiant heat and the early stores of rock warmth. Occasionally its long blue tongue slips out of its mouth and over its eye. It only seems to lick its left eye, the one facing me, the one looking at danger. Its tail is head shaped, or possibly its head is tail shaped. Allegedly this is a form of defence, where predators have a half chance of attacking the wrong end. Natural selection would favour those that attack the middle and never get tricked. Other people hurry past, and despite our words seem not to be interested. One person says, “It looks like a dinosaur”, but hardly breaks stride as he walks by. The shingleback waits patiently as I snap away; on the return leg of the trip it has moved on.
At the very top of the climb we are greeted by tiny wasps and floating swallow tail butterflies. The wasps form an ever moving cloud and the butterflies are single points of movement, casting swift shadows on the bare stone. Both resist photography; the wasps because of their tiny size, the butterflies by ceaseless, unpredictable, movement. The landscape seems to rotate about this point – in one direction ranges of hills stretch with fading colour into the distance, in the other the landscape becomes flat. This point would be a map maker’s dream, a clear fixed point of triangulation and measurement, an origin to hang other places from, a point of observation bathed in clear spring sunshine.
We start off early the next day to beat the crowds and avoid the heat of spring’s first warm day. The Pinnacle is a classic, and very well worn, walk in the Grampians. Its full length takes you from Halls Gap on the valley floor to a rocky balcony that leans out from a steep rocky face. In the past gaining the Pinnacle itself would have been a test of nerve and balance, but now it’s fenced in and convenient steps take you out to the final point. This is understandable, but unattractive; a fence to stop the unwary or unfortunate from regaining the valley floor in a rapid, but fatal, fashion.
(I have to take Sal to the station in Ararat. She catches a Melbourne train to attend a funeral. An old friend has been taken from his family, taken from his work. Taken by cancer, capricious and random. The low afternoon sun casts long shadows. They reach across the fields and point towards the road. Between the shadows are open bright spaces, but it’s the shadows that seem to define the shape of the land. I can’t help but think over other the other Shadows that lay within in our lives. The kids in the back seat talk about other things, unaware, as they should be, of what is going on inside my head. The shadows grow and merge, darkening the end of a bright day. By the time we reach home it’s dark inside and out – but light comes in a flashed smile and a question about dinner. The Shadow retreats as I light the stove and stoke the fire.)
When the Sun drops behind the long ridges that flank the roads in and out of Halls Gap the temperature falls quickly. A kind of hushed semi-darkness grows quickly in the new gloom, animals start to stir, and the spaces under the trees take on a new life. We are sitting at the end of a no through road, surrounded by gum trees and bird calls. Kookaburras call, laughing through the sunset. Cockatoos and corellas gather in noisy flocks. Kangaroos grow bold in the darkness and move on to people’s lawns and into people gardens. Bats flash overhead. The kids can hear them; I no longer can – that part of my sensory armoury long since lost to teenage concerts and middle age. Blackbirds sing with slightly throaty voices; an imported sound from elsewhere, when home was very distant and very different. The headlights of an approaching van briefly dazzle, cutting back the night vision, bringing on a brief darker darkness.
Tonight we have a guide, Noel, to take us into the forests. We are given torches with red lenses, a light we can see, but nocturnal animals cannot. Primitive night vision gear for us diurnal primates. The lights flash, waved by young excited hands, forming faint beams through a light night time mist. Occasional moths flicker in the torchlight, seeking food or mates, fleeing from bats.
The other adults in the group keep their torches focussed on the ground, looking for roots and tripping points. Missing the point of the whole thing really. As we cross a bridge a mother Wood duck moves her ducklings from a fox proof mid-river log. I’m going to feel bad in the morning if I find chewed feathers and blood. A group of Kookaburras, possibly a family, gather on a high, bare branch. They shuffle a little closer in the light. Maybe birds are better at seeing red than the mammals. A crashing in the tree tops brings a poor sight of a Brush-Tailed Possum. Our accompanying night walkers become excited, my kids ask if it’s the same sort of possum that eats our vegetables at home and tries to get into our dustbin. It’s with a heavy heart that I admit that it is. A Powerful Owl calls from the darkness, and the wing flaps of another bird – not a silent owl – add to night music of frogs and small insects.
Two Ring-Tailed Possums – another familiar species – skitter through some low bushes. They seem to scan the sky with anxious eyes, maybe they have heard the Powerful Owl as well. They stand on their back legs and every muscle in their bodies seems tense. It’s not a fight or flight situation – fighting would be pointless. It’s a feed or flee situation; a calculated wager between nutrition and danger.
Impressive spiders move over the forest floor with sets of tiny jewel eyes flashing back the torch light. They may not be dangerous, but I still don’t want to find one on my arm. P finds a scorpion, which freezes in the torch light, but eventually relaxes and walks on. I envy her sharp eyes. She is visibly pleased with herself.
As was drop back towards the river a Tawny Frogmouth drifts across the path in front of us and lands on an open branch. Its head scans back and forth, looking for prey and sometimes looking at us. It falls towards the ground and bounces back with something in its mouth – maybe a spider, maybe P’s scorpion. Eventually it losses interest and flies off.
Tiredness is having the same effect on my kids as we go back across the bridge: the ducks have not come back.
The fire flares with new wood and the kids soon settle to sleep. I think about light and dark. I think about finding and looking. I fall asleep hoping that tomorrow will bring more spring sunshine.