Round and round and round

Politicians Change. Governments change. Day length changes. Temperature changes. Things continue to change. The only constant is change - trite, but true.

Some of these changes are most noticeable at either end of the day, in the mornings and evenings. Some may only be noticeable when the unemployment statistics are published or when you notice the size of your tax bill. Many things people seem not to notice at all.

It was cold on the way to work, breath in the air, hands in the pockets, chill on the legs. Breath in the air is a clear marker that things are on the move. I like the idea that you can see your own contribution to the water cycle. It seems to be vapour made visible - although it's not really that at all. When the morning brings fogs or mists you swim through a thin soup of water - condensation on the fine hairs of a woollen scarf, droplets of water in the junctions of leaves and stems, pooling liquid on car roofs and painted fence rails. On some mornings the water thickens to ice on the window of the car, ramping up like a wall at the edge of the wiper's sweep. Liquid, gas and solid, water's triple point of being. Each merging into the other, each moving through the roundabout of states.

Birds in the trees bring a rain of drops and a scatter of leaves. Bright sunshine will cut through the haze and burn off the mist, although it can linger in dips and hollows. It hangs in pockets by the rail lines, drifts in smoky fingers between close packed trees. On some early autumn mornings ponds and rivers smoke as they give up their water to the sky. I wonder how long it takes for the outward breath to become the inward drink? Do we ever meet the same molecules again as they flow round and round and round?

Some people say they would not drink recycled water - but what else do they think they are drinking? Up in the hills behind Melbourne I visited the fenced and protected catchments that trap our water. They cannot really be visited because they are fenced off from the public in fear of contamination and pollution. In many ways this works - Melbourne’s water is justly famous for its quality. It sits in stark contrast to that of London, or greater still Adelaide. But the catchments that rest behind the barbwire fences and locked gates are connected to the rest of the world by the cycle of water. The water that flows from my tap was once in the sea, once in the air, possibly once in the bladder of an otter, a kangaroo or a moose. Such things are inevitable. Can we keep pouring this resource down the drain, or flushing it away? Water can be used over and over again, so why only use it once?

Above the water of Sylvan reservoir, which was rather sylvan in outlook, swallows flew and hawked for insects, some flew low and cut their beaks briefly through the water - drinking. A bird called from a water tower and a heron stalked the damp edges - hunting. But I watched all this through a fence. More than anything else this seemed to say that this part of the world was elsewhere, that what it gives could not be obtained if humans were there. That the resources we need and places that provide them are separate from us. And in that separation lies dissconection and misunderstanding. “We should have just built more dams” a woman said. And I was tempted to ask “and how would we fill these dams if it no longer rains?” But I suppose arguments about resource management with relative strangers would be considered a little strange even if she started it! I felt like a coward as I let it pass, but it may have been for the best.

To be able to watch clouds from above is a rare treat. We study them from below, or walk through them if they join us at ground level. But to be above the clouds is truly to be high. The view from a plane's window opens up across a cloud prairie as far as the eye can see, but this view comes with many problems. Cramped legs, stiff back, plastic food, DVT and the fear that striking up a conversation with the person on the next seat will have you branded as a madman, a terrorist, or just out of touch with social norms.

But to walk through the cloud layer and to emerge into the sun bright landscape above is a rarer treat indeed. While the valley floor may be shrouded in a gray death shroud that robs the world of colour, the upper slopes can be bathed in light. Entering such a place is like coming upon a long sought for understanding, where sense and purpose come together and show you things you never knew before. Leaving the clouds allows you to see but not be seen, not from below at least. Such sights are rare, seeing what you see rather than what we have been told to see. We need to look like this more often.

Behind the play park, away from the calls of children fighting for access to the monkey bars, there was a nature trail. Often such things are disappointing, with interpretive signs telling you what to notice, causing you only to look at what has already been noticed. Here it was different. If there was any information provided I missed it - but there were numbered posts. A 3 lurking by the side of the path for reasons that were neither plain nor explained. It became a good game to try to work out why the sign was there - what were we supposed to be seeing? Yet the numbered trail did not stop the kids from finding other things - under bushes, growing from trees, hidden.

As we walked into the trail, from open amenity grasslands to woodlands the temperature fell, and as we walked into the gully bottom that the trail followed it fell even more. Eventually it became cool enough for our breath to show again. It was a return to the chill of early morning. Under the shadow of the dam that formed the reservoir we could see that we were pushing water into the air. Would it drift over the dam wall to be trapped by its liquid form and brought back to Melbourne? Would it drift away from the dam and over the sea, next passing through a living thing in Mexico or Madrid or Moscow? This great cycle of water - the endless recycling of atoms - can be traced back into deep time, all the way back to time zero and a very large bang if you try hard enough. It seems remarkable to breathe out materials that have been present since the dawn of time, atoms that have tracked through all the stages of history. Atoms that can only be broken - split - by the violence of human ingenuity.

Water was not the only thing on the move. Under trees, in the grass, hanging from trees and growing from wooden seats abundant - often impressive - fungi grew. If water is recycled through the action of temperature and pressure, then many other atoms are brought back to into use by the action of fungi. Large things, complex things, insoluble things rain down from life - wastes, excess growth, junk caused by wear and tear. This rain would stay in that form for a long time indeed without the action of fungi. The often slimy and occasionally smelly process of decomposition breaks this rain of material back into small, simple and soluble materials that can be reused - over and over again. Recycling was not the invention of hirsute greenies in the 1960’s, it's been going on for ever. It built me, you and the cat next door. I get my kids to breathe on the tomatoes in the garden - get the carbon dioxide moving around!

Fungi really do seem to have a bad name. Toadstools. Poisonous. Danger - don’t go near. It seems that the belief in miasmas still haunts fungi - if you even walk past a toxic one you will drop dead! Never mind the fact that the atoms we are built with have been recycled by mushrooms and their allies.

As I said a while ago I think fungi confuse people - their appearance too rapid for them to be plants, too rooted to be animals. Some kind of hybrid thing, built for confusion. Autumn is the prime time for them - thriving in the cooler damp conditions - neither fried nor drowned.

Under the pine trees in the damp cool shade mushrooms grew. Large ones, one with red spots. Classic fairy tale mushrooms. We may not meet the elves or unicorns of legend, but these mushrooms are plucked straight from the pages of myth. A lady with an eastern European accent told me not to eat them - and to avoid the “yellow stainers” further up the slope. Reasonable advice by the sound of it. The classic mushrooms are Fly Agarics, and they may be no more native to Australia than the rabbit or cane toad. These ‘shrooms are alien in every way.

Out on the nature strip the fungi produce another story book classic - the fairy ring. Although this one is truncated by a tarmac edge. A classic rural event, sliced off by urban sprawl - only this time it's just on a small scale in my garden, not nibbling away out the edges of the habitats that remain. Growing out from the single point of origin they become circles as they grow older. They seem more than suitable for small people to dance within. And my kids do.

Water, carbon, oxygen, stuff - round and round, again and again. Natural cycles that process our limited matter. Without ‘shrooms and clouds nature's clock would have run down years ago.

Wandering About at The Prom.

We had missed the rush hour, but we still caught traffic on the way out of Melbourne. It seemed inevitable. Any escape from the urban area requires a period of slow moving traffic, a psychic speed bump to bring you down to the required velocity. A period of trial by boredom, where a manual car seems a mistake. Although we were planning to go south, we had to go east first. Out past the recent urban growth and the factory shops with poorly spelt names and promised discounts. Out past graceless shopping complexes striving for attention, calling for customers. Out past gated communities promising security and rural charm and probably delivering neither. Not fully urban and long past being rural. Neither arse nor elbow as my father would have said. Not everybody wants to, or can afford to live either the inner city or the rural dream, but surely our planners can do better than this?

When you finally leave the built up areas it does not necessarily get any better. On the edges of small market garden farms, which were still growing food, were placards announcing that the properties were for sale. Offering opportunities for more houses. Will the people in those houses eat the plasma screen TV’s around which they huddle? Will they drink the condensate that forms on the windows of their hermetically sealed homes? Will this only stop when we have paved the world and no longer call it Earth, but Concrete or Stone. Cut off from everything. Surely our planners can do better than this?

As we continued east the car became a sun dial and long shadows pushed out in front, reaching the corners before we did. Scouting the land for all that follow. The low angle light cuts the landscape, sculpting every crease, every fold of the landscape. Small features cast long shadows and draw attention to themselves. In the high light of midday such features go unnoticed, but as the light falls they become clear. Strange that you can see better in a dimming light.

The light had failed by the time we reach Foster and we walked into town in darkness. For once it was almost a real darkness, the kind of darkness I knew as a kid. Although it does not last long, there are no street lights and no traffic. Once you sort out your eyes it’s surprising how much you can see in the dark. The pale road stretches on before you, trees are outlined against the sky, and the sky itself is crowded with stars. When you enter the patchy gloom of widely spaced streetlights it seems you can see less than in the dark, and you dash from light to light. You look for the next light and ignore everything else but that. The street becomes a chess board of attention and ignoring, dark, light, dark, light and eventually you reach your destination. In our case, the pub!

Typical warmth flowed from the door and soon an amber pint was awaiting the arrival of food. Raffles followed, with chances of meat trays and vegetables. My companion won a pack of industrial beer. This was tweeted and he was mocked (deservedly)!

There was a distinct chill in the air the next morning as we walked over for breakfast. There was not a “heart healthy omelette” in sight, and I wolfed down each mouthful. Tea. Toast. Ready to go.

My companion proudly announced that his pack was half the weight of mine, and unfortunately he was correct. Cockatoos called and wattle-birds squawked tunelessly as we pulled away. The land outside the Prom is dairy country, with wide fields and scattered farms, some of which are for sale. Magpies and ravens play chicken with the cars, picking at road kill and cutting it fine as the cars pass by. Black, feathered patches show where miscalculations occurred. Un-natural selection, weeding out the crazy, brave or the slow witted.

Entering the park offers the normal transition from open to closed and it pays to reduce speed. In a vehicle versus raven encounter, the car wins. When it's vehicle versus wombat there are no clear winners, except maybe the repair shops! Regular roadside bodies show where somebody, or something, failed to pay enough attention.

The Prom continues to recover from the fire, and for the first time there were Icons on Icon field. Icon field is an open patch of land, surrounding a former air field (nobody really calls it Icon field, so please don’t look it up on the net!) but the name often fits the bill. Wildlife icons parade for the benefit of watchers. This time there were Emus. Large and flightless and forever tainted by Rod Hull, they stroll and peck in small loose groups. Close by they have empty eyes and a hole in the side of their heads. They do not radiate intelligence! They really do look like walking feather dusters. A single wallaby stares from cover.

The car tyres skitter clack over the cattle grid at Darby River. Wide pale reed beds and a dark river. It's uphill from here on until the sea bursts into view. Coasting to Tidal River. Just beyond Darby River there were Purple Swamp Hens by the side of the road. Large water birds with red beaks and crowns, they peck at the grass, and squabble with each other. Chasing across the road, another animal with a death wish.

Walking away from Tidal River the sharp footstep grind of the path's gravel settles into a routine. The motic heart-beat of the walker, counting out the journey there and, eventually, back. Small adjustments to belts, buckles, straps. Did I lock the car? Did I pack the spare socks? Did I ………. Did I …….., eventually the routine takes over and I know all will be well.

The air has lost the dust heat haze of summer, the colours bright and clear. How can something so familiar still be so surprisingly beautiful? Up over Norman Point to the two Oberon’s. The first is small and intimate, with a short curve and waves breaking on a steep beach. Is there anything as white as the wash of a wave on a bright and empty beach? Foamed breakers churn and hiss and roll back to the sea. Half way across the beach a stream makes its way to the sea, going home at last. It flows down the beach like a flood. Mostly sinking into the thirsty sand, but making slow progress down the beach. Is this some trick of the tide that pushes the river away, only to allow it back when its back has turned?

Oberon Bay is long and flat, a walking beach, with a larger stream and quieter waves. The sand is patterned by the feet of crabs, small sand balls formed by busy legs. At the far end of the beach a group of Pacific gulls loafs by the waters edge, Sooty Oystercatchers stab by the ebbing waves and the bodies of Shearwaters - Mutton Birds - litter the beach. A dead seal, a shoe, scraps of timber. But mostly the call of the sea and the voice of the wind.

We turn inland, through burnt bush and past granite boulders. We are passed by runners on an ultra-marathon. Brightly coloured and lean. Do I feel admiration or pity as they move on? One tells us he is injured, but only has “five K’s” to go - so that’s all right then! Over the spine of the Prom and down onto the eastern side. This is the long way to where we are going. But long is often better here. In the suburbs where I live, a good way is often shorter, faster, with no tolls or traffic lights. Here it is different, good can be mean long and steep or even difficult, because the values are different and you are looking for different things. The straight path may be fast, but it is not always best.

The eastern path pulls steeply up from the end of Waterloo Bay and heads inland. Eventually you can see back along the beach, with its perfect set of sine wave folds, made by some physic of wave and sand and wind. This path seems less used, the plants push towards you and you brush them aside as you walk. This is a tactile path, rich with the scent of bushes. The path hugs a contour, and often cuts across the tops of small, stone filled valleys. Here you get sharp corners and the sound of hidden water, running over stone and under hills. At each turn of the path the vegetation seems to change, suddenly open or closed or low. The alchemy of rain and slope, aspect and soil, height and geology producing a patchwork.

Soon the Lighthouse, our goal, comes into view. A distant but welcome finger on a headland. The final few minutes are some of the hardest of the day. Anybody who has used the Irishism “May the path rise up before you” has never had to rise up that path! Steep. Straight. And at the end of a long day. The information boards take on a sudden interest, each opportunity to be distracted is grasped. Eventually, even this slope ends and we are greeted by the Lighthouse Keeper - she offers us cold water, a generosity beyond repayment. The Lighthouse buildings have been converted into accommodation, and mighty fine it is too.

We pass the sunset with chocolate and whiskey. Pale colours paint the sky, a wombat grazes nearby, the flash of the lighthouse ghosts the distant hills. Rondondo Island looms out of the sea - a pyramid island in the classic style, loved by H.G. Wells and Steven Spielberg. In the past it would have been a mountain top, now a island.

Sleep came surprisingly slowly in a strange bed. I dreamt of falling. Maybe the motion of the day caused such things. Was I kept awake by distant whale song? The unconscious call of the waves? The unfamiliar wart hog snuffles from the bunk below?

The next day dawned wet and gray, a world robbed of colour. A lost homing pigeon sheltered from the rain as we walked down the hill - far easier than upward brother. Would we get back home before it? The day would improve with every step, blueness replacing gray. Colour leaching back into the view.

There are short ways and long ways, easy ways and harder ways. You need to pay attention to the way you choose.