Change while the nation stops

It’s the perfect traffic storm, and once more, at the start of a long weekend, I’m stuck right in the middle of it. Red taillights. Rainbow car colours. Jaguars. Silver top taxis. The speedo needle becomes a weather vein of discontent. I Play some new music but it leaves me Cold. Some song about Pandas, Pandas, Pppaaaaanandas. It rains heavily. When we do move the spray is thick. What lies beyond my own bonnet is speculative. I change discs for the Archangel. And the Red Rain is coming down, coming down all over me. Later a car cuts through the traffic left and right, fish tails, straightens and drives on. I slow even more and think about braking distances, lack of traction and the occasional failure of natural selection. I try not to embrace the collective drop in IQ that heavy rain brings on in drivers. A journey of 90 minutes takes three hours. I arrive tired. But I do arrive. It keeps raining.

Was it a bad journey or a normal journey on a bad night? Is this a rainy night or am I so used to dry ones that I have forgotten the reality of a wet road? How can we see what is change and what is normal? I’ve seen more rain in the last two years than in the other 13 I’ve lived in Australia. For me normal is dry and raining is different. Walking home in drenching rain a novelty, walking home drenched in sweat much more normal. I think about these things as I go
to sleep.

I wake to the normal / abnormal sound of rain on the roof and the sight of heavy grey skies. I start thinking again. How do we keep track of change in the natural world? Not the day to day changes of weather or the slow change of seasons, but the longer change of climate and growth. Can you really watch a place turn from grass to trees? Or does it happen suddenly in your mind when you realise a meadow is now a forest? Is this part of the problem when people talk of climate change, that our brains are not wired to see change over this time scale?

For most of the history of humanity I’d already be dead. The three score years and ten is a modern invention and to live beyond that age is an issue only of the current day. But our brains seem not to know this. In another time I would have in all probability died in childhood – vast numbers of people did. An early death and a youthful old age must have been common. And if you don’t live for more than 30 years how could the brain evolve to cope with changes that take place over dozens of decades or hundreds of years. Maybe we should ask the trees what they think – and if we look at their rings they can tell us what they know in the language of growth. Maybe we should ask the trees that felt the touch of animals now long gone and stood as watchers as the world turned and turned and turned.

When the rain stops we go for a walk around the point to the lighthouse. A walk only possible because of the turn of the tide. That’s a change you can understand. On the cliffs a huge slab of rock hugs the stones below it. Last week it started its journey down to the beach. But how long will it have to be there before people forget that it was not ever thus? Will it get a name – the table – and be visited for year after year by the same people? How long before the cliffs again take on the myth of permanence as they creep day by day inland? The rocks are old in a way we cannot really know and even if we can name the age does it really mean anything? Does five million years old really mean something different to just “old”? The rocks have been carved by the long slow hands of the sea and wind. Shapes form where none were before, and if chance shapes them in a way we like, they will be named. And somehow we think that naming will fix them. It becomes news worthy if they fall or change, but we forget that they were made because of change and that they will fall in the same way.

The beach below the cliffs seems to have less sand than normal and the city shapes of rocks poke through. Limpets clamp on to small depressions and lines in the rock. Tiny blue grey snails gather in lines where ancient changes made the rock weak and present a shadow of protection. Each wave brings in a small fleck of change. Change upon change upon change. Chance upon chance upon chance until we reach today and then we can look back on the winding path that brought us here.

Beyond the lighthouse the ruins of a war bunker look out to sea. Built to defend against a threat that never came to this coast. Build by a generation who must have thought it normal to go to war as their fathers and grandfathers had done. My kids corrupt its purpose and invite us in for tea and cakes. As I feed on their imagination I wonder what would have happened if a steel grey armada had sailed over the horizon and come here to wage war. In places like this the shadow of history seems much longer than normal. A sail boat passes where the battleships never came and I turn back to my kids as they offer me more tea and more cakes.

Back at the beach the gulls gather at the tide wash and search for dinner, the small waves turning over sand, revealing food. Squabbles break out over choice morsels found by the lucky or overlooked by the angry. On a fence a pair keeps watch for any change of chance. Looking one way, then another, then at each other. The necessary vigil of the chancer. Off shore a sunken boat, the Ozone, breaks down through the familiar alchemy of sun and salt and sea. It was sunk to provide protection from the forces of change, but now it’s all but overwhelmed. I plan to return in the summer for a closer look.

The kids play on the beach, larger than last year with more words. They can both read, they can both swim. The kids that are here now did not exist last year. This change is wonderful and strange to watch. Would I hold back change if I could – to spend more time here and now? To regain some of the moments lost to fear and to a barking black dog? I really don’t know.
This weekend was born from the Race that Stops the Nation. But does anything really ever stop? We may come back to the same places but we and it have changed. The only constant is change. Change keeps the world as it is; without it all things would tumble down to nothing. Change is the engine of the world.

We drive away, leaving behind a fleece jumper, a toy car, a book of stories and a single pink sock. Or maybe we left some of those behind last time. Or the time before.

Hello Johanna

I’ve been to the Otways before, but never to Johanna. It all seemed sort of familiar, but it really wasn’t. It’s only when you get ready for bed that you really begin to notice the differences. Before that it’s been a rush to get the car unpacked, find the light switches and work out how to turn on the oven. Eventually the kids are asleep and you can wind down from the day and go to bed. You get into the same side as at home, with the same book and bookmark, maybe even with the same clock. A glass of water on the bedside table. The same back and forth of conversation and plans for the next day. The same hissing flick of turning pages. But as you settle in the differences come to the fore. The sounds of the house settling down for the night are different. Logs crack and fall in the fire box, the bedside lamp may buzz. The dishwasher rattles and sings quietly until you turn off the light and then, in the darkness, it sounds like an express train – this is a strange phenomenon, but it seems to happen in every house I visit.

But mainly the difference comes from outside, and here the difference is the voice of the sea. As it grows dark – or as I become sleepy – the sea’s voice seems to come closer and closer until it whispers in my ear. A sound that is both gentle and violent. The in and the out of the ocean. A sea breathe. I always sleep well near the sea. Some people say it’s the sea air, I say it’s the sea sound. Like a lullaby from years and years ago, the sea’s voice reaches in and puts me to sleep. (Many years ago I lived on an island, almost on the western edge of Europe, surrounded by the sea – and its call was never silent. When I left and the voice was no longer there, I missed it, I felt lonely without it. Strangely I found an echo of it in the distant noise of traffic that was always there in the next place I stayed. In a place that had seen better days and felt ignored by the rest of the country I may have been making the best of a bad job, but that’s what happened).

As ever the kids arrive early and fill the space in the bed. Outside the sea calls. But there is something else as well, a gentle tapping and the buzz, rattle of wings from the window. When the blinds are open a tiny blue streak dashes away into the nearby bushes – it’s a Superb Blue Wren. Within minutes it has returned, pecking at the angle between glass and frame, a fragment here, a portion there. Every so often the bird would notice its own reflection, and driven by the hormonal imperative to defend place and space it would attack itself. With its beak pushed against the glass it would fly up in a whirl of tiny wings. Enragingly its reflection would do the same. For reasons as inexplicable as those that started the whole process it would end and the bird would drop back to the window sill and start feeding again. Later in the week I would watch the same bird (but how would I really know!) doing the same thing around the edge of the car’s windscreen. Food, frenzy and fighting all at the same time.

The beach was only a short walk away, ten minutes at the most and almost all downhill. Short steep uphills marked the slopes of old sand dunes, covered now in thick spongy grass. In places cows had poached the soil – around gates and feed troughs, along favourite pathways – and the sand broke through to the surface. For kids used only to cows on TV the real things are surprisingly large. And noisy. And smelly. I’m sure that the cows were thinking similar things about the kids.

The beach was that picture perfect combination of rock, sand and surf that lures people to their death somewhere around our coast every year. A deep tongue of greenish water cut past a rock bar and back out to sea. To fishermen this is a gutter – to most everybody else it’s a rip. Name it as you will, but it’s an undertow counter current that takes water – and you if you’re in it – away from the sand and back out to sea. It’s a naturally produced device to collect fish and drown the unwary. The water that gathers on the shore with each breaking wave takes the easiest route back to the deeper ocean, and the rock bar on the beach provides both a barrier and an opportunity. Being caught in a rip is like being trapped on a liquid conveyer belt, with a destination far off shore. Even in their smallest form you can feel the pull, and understand how water, soft and inviting one minute, can be deadly the next. You can feel how water can carve away the land and mock the defences that we put up to protect the coast. I fished near the edge of this rip later in the week (unsuccessfully again!), but knew not to wade too deep. And I retreated further up the beach than normal to await the bites that never came. For all the benefits brought by experiential learning, being trapped in a rip is something I can do without. RIP, rip. It’s probably a coincidence, but that does not mean it’s not significant.

On the other side rock bar that helps funnel the rip, the Johanna River comes down to the sea. It winds about as the beach levels out and dawdles a little before it meets the waves. Silver Gulls peck at the river’s edge and where the water comes through the dunes a White Faced Heron stands and watches. All the birds seem more timid than normal – maybe this beach is not as popular as others. The birds seem less used to humans, less acclimated to beach runners and splashing children. On the other side of the river a pair of Hooded Plovers run and peck. I don’t feel like wading today so the birds stay just a little too far away. The Plovers don’t do well on popular beaches – too much disturbance when nesting, too many misplaced feet, too many prying eyes. Just too much humanity. In the end they spook when a bird of prey flashes out of the sand dunes. They land a few hundred meters down the beach and start feeding again. Their lives a knife edge balance between the wasted energy of unneeded fear and the need to feed. Too much bravery and they get eaten, too much fear and they never have time to feed.

The kids are playing in the distance as we walk back to the cottage. This time the interest comes not from the size of the cows, but the sheer volume of snot running from their noses – that’s the cows’ noses just to be clear. That unique combination of revulsion and fascination keeps them interested - and in this case this could apply to both the cows and the kids!

Although the air is still, patches of grass shake and wave. What’sgoing on? Random patches of greenery move in ways that they should not. Silvereyes, small grey green birds, move through the plants with mouse-like movements. Darting from place to place, constantly on the move, constantly feeding – just like the plovers on the beach. When we get back to the cottage another flock is feeding in the flowerbeds that ring the front door. Many shots later I manage to capture a few of these fleeting birds. Overhead an Australasian Hobby flashes past, small and swift with glowing red brown underside. Tracking it was difficult with binoculars, but was next to impossible with a camera. It flies in straight lines and sweeping arcs, interrupted by sudden unpredictable jinks to the left or right. Each of these violent shifts marks an attack on a dragonfly. Eventually I watch the bird snatch a dragonfly in flight and eat it on the wing. It barely slows during the process. Fast food. The sun sets and we settle down for the evening, the sea grumbling in the background and the wind pushing the clouds into piles and pillars.

The next morning we set off on the short walk to feed the chickens and a longer walk to look for platypus. The chickens proved far more accommodating than the platypus. Standing looking across the fields the kids don’t know which way to go. Dozens of small paths flow out from the mud around the gate – cow paths that fan out to each corner of the green. “We need to go this way” I say. “Are you sure?” the kids ask. I realise that this is normal for me and very strange for them. As a kid I would wander around the fields and woods that surrounded my village. While there were marked paths, many were just smoothed lines in an otherwise rough field. You often wandered off the path when you wanted to go where the path did not. A walk would be a series of decisions that you made yourself. Over this farm gate, through that patch of woodland, along this stream until we can get over it. These were walks where you needed to “read” where you were going. It’s not that you were going to get lost; in fact you often found more than you lost. But unless you read the land you may not end up where you planned to be.

Most of the walks my kids have been on have followed paths that were built and maintained with the express purpose of getting to the place you were going. Tourist paths in National Parks are still controlled by the lie of the land, but they have been built with a more logical plan than those in the English countryside. They do not encourage wandering. They encourage movement. We follow no path at all but drop down a narrow spur, past a bridge and over a hill. It’s clear we are going in the right direction because we get to where we want to be. You could have probably got to that point dozens of other ways. This, and the small folded nature of the land, reminds me of England. The trees and the birds tell me I am elsewhere.

As we return to the cottage P finds an echidna. For all the memories and familiar wandering paths I can only be in one place in the world. All illusions to the contrary are false, all memories are simply that. I see the place for where it is, and say, once more, “Hello, Johanna”.