Dawn and dusk

I could tell it was going to be cold. The roof window was shining pale in the early dawn light, the last of the stars were still there. Early and cold. There was a visitor in bed, a refugee from the cold end of the house, but she was asleep and she was very, very warm. Early morning walks can be difficult when a small person wants a cuddle. I dozed.

Sometime later - 5 minutes 15 minutes, who can tell? I pushed myself out of bed. It was still just as cold, but the light was brighter and the stars were gone. I pulled on a thick jacket and grabbed hat and gloves. Dawn deserves stillness, and you cant be still and shivering all at once.

There had been a heavy frost overnight and the cars parked behind the hut were crusted in ice. The chicken wire on the boardwalk was outlined in a diamond coat that crackled underfoot. There was not a breath of wind, flat calm. Even now the touch of the sun was melting the ice on the boardwalks. They became wet in the sun and were icy in the shade, making nonsense of the slippery when wet sign.

Birds began to emerge from the bushes. A family of Fairy Wrens - superb - was hopping along the boardwalk in two footed jumps. Darting from place to place, hard to follow, impossible to freeze. A male and his lady friends fuelling up for a day’s work. Needle bills and sharp eyes finding food that seems invisible to me, pecking at old wood and fallen leaves. Across the river Thornbills called and buzzed. A few feet off the ground, working their way through the bushes, dining at a different restaurant to the Fairy Wrens. Separate species, separate niche. Classic ecology before my very eyes.

The still of Tidal River was broken by the swirl of a fish, a thin fin breaking the surface of the river, gone in a flash. A slow sinking bait, on light tackle may have tempted it, but rod and line was not this morning’s game. Waiting was. A little cormorant flapped down the river - its flight laboured rather than graceful - and landed on the far side of the river. Maybe it had fishing on its mind as well. Something crashed through the bushes behind me - maybe a late to bed wombat or a startled wallaby, I couldn’t tell. I had been out almost an hour and had yet to see another person.

Even in the calm of the morning the river was not a mirror, the flow of yesterday's rain buckling the surface. On a riverside branch a spider web dripped with morning dew. The river lined with paperbarks twists, plastic, through beds of reeds. Fishing platforms with knife notch rod rests sit unused by the river’s edge. One has a swirl of scales by the seat, salmon scales from yesterday's catch.

The river emerges under a serpentine bridge and is flanked by hard packed sand mud. Perfect for summer beach cricket, empty today. Pacific Gulls peck and search at the water’s edge, their huge beaks, bigger than any other gull, cutting weed and water as they search for food. The river picks and chooses where it goes over this part of its journey. One year to the left, one to the right, but in the end it meets a rocky outcrop and cuts left towards the sea. Here the river is studded with rounded rocks and the water runs deep around them. In these deeping pools swim large shoals of small fish, hidden by water as dark as Yorkshire tea. The passing of time and the rhythm of tide and flood have left stripes on the rocks, lines of lichen and algae that mark bands of tolerance. More niche separation. Down where the river meets the sea the Silver Gulls and Crested Terns dot the sand. Sometimes they fly, mostly they stand.

Somebody else walked onto the beach. My illusion of solitude was over, and I left the walker to find their own. It was time to go.

The frost on the cars and boardwalks had gone, and in the huts I could hear the clatter of waking. The smell of coffee, bacon and toast - the holy trinity of holiday breakfasts - wafted past. I opened the door and walked into my cabin - I was surprised how warm it felt. The kids told me they were still cold. The day moved up a gear.

Whisky Bay lies a short walk from the car park, but even this is enough to make it much quieter than Norman Bay. Even in summer it’s quiet and in winter it can be deserted. Even if company does arrive it seems not to stay long. Sooty Oystercatchers probe the wave wash, Ravens haunt the strand line. They skip fly with short flights along the beach, flicking their wings into place when they land. From a distance, in the fading light, they look like holes in the beach. A day that seems to have only just started is coming to a end. The sun is low in the sky and the weather has changed. Patches of cloud and scattered showers. A rainbow arches across the day’s end, and the sky turns golden. The kids play in the sand dunes, more erosion in an hour than the rest of the year.

The rocks of Whisky Bay now have three layers of gold on them. The stone itself is an orange granite, crystalline and rough, weathered into rounded shapes by pounding waves. As the waves splash they create the perfect place for an orange lichen. Fungi and algae linked by a common body and a shared fate, add a further depth of gold. The lichen smoothes the rock surface, fills the gaps between the crystals but stops with an almost ruler line at the highest point where the high tides reach. And then on top of the gold of stone and lichen comes the sinking evening light.

One end of the beach lights up in the low angle rays, while the other provides the backdrop for a show of molten light. This time the rainbow's arch does not lead to the pot of gold, for it lies over the horizon and brightens the sky. If there is not gold there, then it must the fires of some lesser known Mordor, for the sky is on fire. But as the sky grows paler I plump for sanctuary of gold.

The sun slides below the sea and the light begins to fade. Cold starts to creep back over the beach, but the kids seem indifferent. After three more one last goes we walk back to the car. A wombat hurries across the road, thick barrel body and stout legs. A blink and you’ve missed it fox darts in front of the car and is gone and the wind has a chill that was missing only 20 minutes before.

We head for home. I open the door and walk into my cabin - I am surprised how warm it feels. The kids tell me they are still cold. The day moves down a gear.

Bud Burst and Flower Fall

Walking may only really be a pleasure when you don’t have to do it. In an age obsessed with speed - speed dating, broadband, the direct way rather than the best way - walking can feel like some ancient form of wisdom that has only just been rediscovered.

As a kid I walked. I walked over to Stratton to fish for carp - with little success. As a teenager I walked. I walked to Norton to buy The Guardian - the local shop did not stock it, its owner thinking it a symbol of creeping socialism or feeble mindedness, or possibly both. As an adult I walked. I walked in the hills by myself, with friends and sometimes with groups of kids who wanted to be elsewhere.

In the end walking changed. It became an escape from the stress of a job that was killing me. I walked when I could. But I only did it because I was cross, or frustrated or just plain sad. Walking became a something else, and it didn’t really matter what else, it was just not the other. But it was inward looking and I knew I was doing it because of problems elsewhere and so the simple pleasure of the movement and presence was lost.

One of the (many, many) good things about changing job is that I have walking back. I walk because I can, not because I will explode if I don’t. It’s like finding an old friend I thought had gone forever, and the best thing is that this friend really likes to walk. And as I walk I can see what is going on, for I am no longer looking in but out. With the possible exception of swimming - impractical even in a wet winter - or crawling - which is really only suitable for religious pilgrimage, and even then it's just a marker of how widespread an idea of stupendous stupidity can become, or for children - walking gets you closer to where the action is than any other form of movement. Cars and trains are too fast, bikes require you to keep too close an eye on the traffic around you less an errant Landcruiser pushes you off to where noticing is no longer possible. I knew somebody who made a case for horseback being the best form of transport, and I am in no position to argue. But I would have thought the sheer financial pain of owning such a beast would have crushed you before you ever mounted up.

So I walk. In shorts. In most weathers. My kids seem to find it funny when I arrive home looking like a drowned rat and small pools form at my feet if I happen to stand still. And this winter I have got wet reasonably often, which is a good thing when the dams are almost empty and we can only use water in the garden on even number days and then not on Wednesdays (or some such rule that I have forgotten and will have to look up).

So I walk. And for the first time in many, many years I can feel the seasons turning under my feet. I don’t listen to the same radio segment on the way to work, I listen to different birds. The Grey Backed Butcher birds are calling, setting out their stall for the ladies. The Magpies are carolling in a way that I can’t really describe - a beautiful mellow organ sound, sometimes loud and clear, sometimes whispered under their breath, a gentle sub song, as if they are practising. Or just doing it because they can. Pigeons chase and bow and spring into the sky with clattering wings. Straight up, stall, glide away, so characteristic they you can tell exactly what they are in silhouette. The sky changes and you have to stop and look and wonder. Pink fluff driven by a crossing wind dashes across the sky, pale blue background, darkened fore.

It can be pink underfoot as well. An early spring carpet of fallen flowers. A similar difference from childhood - the first sign of spring not a carpet of living flowers, but a carpet of fallen winter blooms. Heaping up along wall lines and gutter edges the flowers of winter fall as spring begins. Browned off flowers fall to the floor as around them other buds start to swell and burst. On a windy day you walk through a confetti of falling petals, as the plants react to the turning world and celebrate the union of warmth and longer days. And while it is clear that come the ending of the year there will be a divorce, just for now we are in the honeymoon period of spring, and all seems well. In sheltered corners the leaves of autumn are still heaped, but now they are coated with fallen flowers, layer upon layer, season after season. Weather history in dampened piles.

You can get carried away looking for spring, with every day seeming to be winter's last. Strange that it seems that way, for winter has only just begun, and must have hurried past. While working in the garden I found a small lizard, hibernating in a lost plastic cup, buried by the growth of last summer. I put it down somewhere cold, and finished my work. But when I returned to look more closely, the lizard had gone. It must have been shaken enough to have stirred. Maybe it was waiting there, half in winter, half in spring, waiting for a season’s end and a season's beginning.

Walking at a time of change is a matter of small observations of the bigger picture. The orchids are back, on the nature strip at the end of the road. This must mean I have been doing this for almost a year, because they were one of the first things I noticed and wrote about. The magpies are starting to fight, picking on the younger birds, who seem unwilling or unable to fight back. The conflicts look merciless, with the younger bird on its back as the adult batters it with its beak. This really is a pecking order. Yesterday morning I saw a butterfly - white and cold, with stuttering flight and a boundless optimism in its survival.

Not all of these changes are for the better. The garden next door has trees that show small purple fruit. They stand up from the foliage, like upside down bunches of grapes. The blackbirds love them, and so, unfortunately, do the fruit bats. I don’t know what they taste like but they don’t seem to do the insides of the bats any good at all, and the liquid goo that leaks from the bats does not do the outside of my car any good at all either! Not having to deal with the toxic sludge of bat poo that has been casually flung on to your car overnight is another reason to walk to work.
Gardens and rough edges are brightened by wattle flowers. Showing every shade of yellow. To say that wattles are just yellow is like saying leaves are green. It’s true, but it’s a simplification to the point of falsehood. Some are yellow with green, some yellow with orange and some manage to be yellow and gray. While some are just plain and simple yellow, but they make a display that is anything but plain.

Down one of the side streets on the way home I notice a display of pink cherry blossom, but at the same time I shiver and wish that I had a hat - or that I had not worn shorts! Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But then the magpies and butcher birds are setting up shop and advertising what they have on offer, so maybe I’m not ahead of myself at all. I’ll have to wait and see what it’s like tomorrow.

After the Gold Rush

Arriving anywhere at night is a double edged sword. A combination of excitement and frustration. After a remarkably simple drive north we arrived at Castlemaine, in the dark and eager for dinner. Arriving in a planned town has considerable advantages, especially if you have no idea where you are really going. You come to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the grid layout, where mistakes can be rectified by turning left (or right!) and repeating the action until you return to square one. Such planning may exclude the romance of country lanes, but it aids navigation. Arriving almost anywhere in the UK results in you being sucked into some arcane one way system that uses roads laid out in the stone age for the benefit of cattle drovers and devised by people who take public transport to work because the roads are so bad. We were never lost in Castlemaine, because three left turns would bring you back to where we started from. Three left turns in Chilcompton or worse still, Kendal, and you would be headed for a different county, or possibly Wales, Scotland or an increasingly narrow track destined for the ocean. What straight roads lack in charm and photogenic plasticity they make up for in practicality. So, after a few loops of Castlemaine, we found our accommodation. Blood pressure returning to the normal range we ordered a beer or two. Ah. Some dark brew with a rabbit on it from Healesville. Splendid.

The upside of arriving at night is the surprise of dawn, or, as my children did not bounce in to greet me in the half light of the waking day, the surprise of late morning. Bright sunshine flooded a room otherwise filled with heavy French furniture and slightly teacherly notes about wet clothes on beds and not retuning the TV. The view from the window suggests that Castlemaine sits in a bowl as the horizon was ringed with trees. The surprise of clear distance, a very different view from the back fences and streetlights of home.

Parrots nipped off the buds of the birch tree outside the window, male blackbirds flew in noisy battles around the roof tops and garden edges, the females watching from carefully selected vantage points, checking, awarding points for style, composition and technical difficulty. Are the males aware of this selection pressure? Are they really only feathered automatons? In the roof edge gutters House Sparrows squabbled and called, spooking at shadows, some sparrow sense tuned in to things we cannot know - maybe fleeing from fear itself. Ravens beat steady paths across the sky - crow flying - to the wooded horizon. Magpies swirled in combative circles, with frantic wing beats and from the distance floated calls of Corellas, which sometimes flash white against the clearing sky. A surprising roll call from a second storey window.

Daylight allowed Castlemaine to show another face. At night the grid of streets had been simply convenient, now the straight streets' sharp corners allowed us to see the town in long views. The buildings seemed strangely grand for what is really just a small country town. Deep shaded balconies ringed the upper floors of many buildings and a number of shops seemed overly grand. Castlemaine is a town with a past, and that past ran with gold. The hills, creeks and quartz veins that surround the town once supported a gold rush of world scale. Gold fever expanded the town and the revenue paid for the grand buildings.

Now many of them are falling into a gentle form of decline. Old paint flakes from the walls and the detail of the buildings speaks of a time when money was of no object and all that really mattered was than the job was done properly. Some of the buildings have seen better days. The Imperial Hotel may have been grand back in the days of empire, but now it has fallen on hard times. Even the sign for the licensed second-hand merchant has almost fallen from the door. But all around these fading buildings there are signs of rebirth. Castlemaine draws in tourists and visitors - people like me - as it once drew in diggers. Now the gold standard is a good coffee and fine food rather than a productive mineral claim.

During the life of these fields enough gold was won from the ground to run the “War on Terror” for a month. This is not meant to suggest that this was a small amount of gold, for that is not the case. The rivers of money that built substantial towns like Castlemaine and Bendigo now flow elsewhere, and I suspect that the legacy of that money may be less long lived. Like many other Australian towns Castlemaine was asked to give up its young men to a foreign war - just as small country towns and wounded communities are doing today for another war. Outside the RSL you can see the memorials and spoils. Artillery pieces from both world wars, and smaller plaques to the savage little wars of peace. The spoils - German guns from WWI were placed away from the main street, while the decommissioned Australian guns from WWII were front and centre. Only a few years separated these wars, these guns, and it is frightening to think that under slightly different circumstances they would have been aiming at each other. Soldiers from small towns with names largely ignored by the sweep of history intent on destruction. With a sun bright sky overhead it really is hard to comprehend what these guns actually mean, what they were actually built for.

In the afternoon we headed for Bendigo, another gold town, but with a mining industry that is still alive. The economics of gold mining here are balanced on a very fine edge. Gold prices fall and the mines are in trouble. In the past gold was won with such abundance and such relative ease that huge fortunes were made. Bendigo is Castlemaine’s big brother, but they share a liking for flamboyant buildings and symbols. In the middle of town Queen Victoria looks down on the passing crowd and behind her the spire of a church marks the horizon. Here in country Australia we have a vista dominated by church and state, both looking back to the other side of the world. The buildings have lions and fine detail, and without any surprise, there is a large war memorial.
There was an exhibition in Bendigo of paintings by McCubbin, one of a group of Australian impressionist painters who were amongst the first artists to see Australia for what it was. It was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly the pictures themselves were wonderful, full of real colour and distance. They looked like Australia. Prior to these paintings Australian landscapes had looked like England, but with gum trees. This group of artists looked and saw in a different way to those who were before them. I suppose you could say that they paid closer attention to what they were seeing than to what they had been taught. That does not seem a bad idea!

The second remarkable thing about the exhibition was that it was in Bendigo’s own art gallery. These paintings were nationally important works and here they were in a smallish regional town in a gallery that would have been the envy of many larger European cities. You could almost hear the old gold shovels digging inside the building - it was not built by gold, but it was built because of gold.
By the side of the road between Castlemaine and Bendigo there were large boulders, heaped up or displayed. By one of the junctions they were arranged in a rough circle. They seemed to suggest the old stones that dot the landscape of Europe - menhirs and such like. But why do that? It makes no sense. Why not pay attention to the bones of our own landscape, rather than make it like another one. This is what McCubbin was doing, but it seems that not everybody has noticed.

That evening the setting sun put on a display that was fitting for a town of gold, and the old buildings of Castlemaine looked new again in the evening light. Former banks, old shops, weathered brickwork and window frames glowed once more. Along a long street the sun picked out a memorial to past glory and death and then the sun passed. Another gold rush over in a gold rush town.