Accidentally West.

A butterfly flaps its wings on the down slope of the Himalayas and later, far out to sea, a storm forms where one would not have been. The storm alters lives, but nobody blames the butterfly. John is attacked by a feral wheelbarrow and comes off second best. Later, but not that far away, I board a plane for Perth. My week changes, but I don’t blame the wheelbarrow. The tic, tac, toe of chaos marks out the squares across our lives. We think we are in control, but that seems to be a myth. Chaos is not in control either, but it does lie outside the door of order, scratching like a dog on a cold night. Desperate to be let in. Keen to enter our lives.

I arrive at the airport and check myself in. In a strange and marvellous plan the airline aims to improve its customer service by removing all contact with their staff. I suppose I could just shout at myself when my booking can’t be found, or ask to see my own supervisor to sort out any problems. But thankfully all goes smoothly. I recommend myself for a pay rise and go to find a coffee. The sparrows, which used to look down on the passenger queues, have shifted their disdain from the departure lounge to the coffee bar. Over double shot skinny mocha lattes they cast a critical eye over the passing hoards. To their chuckles I order my own coffee and feel thankful that I did not order a cappuccino. A mother struggles with three small children. The first is crying the inconsolable sobs of a child who has just realised that her beloved cuddly rhino has been left at home. In an unrelated trauma the second child is about to punch the third. In a few hours these kids will be glad that their mother has only been given plastic cutlery. I pray that they are not on my flight. There are no atheists in the departure lounge.

To avoid the possibility of having to give evidence in a murder trial I wander around the shops. Surely this must be the nadir of western civilisation. A place where the only way you can pass the time is to go shopping for things that you don’t need. Things that you will have to carry for the next however many hours in slowly disintegrating hand luggage, before throwing them in a bin or, at best, at the back of a cupboard, never to be seen again. Airport shopping is a sign of a culture in terminal decline. I read four pages of my book and realise that it is unimaginably dull. My spirits sag. I consider going shopping.

The call to board the plane comes as a relief and at the door of the plane I am finally spoken to by a member of the airline staff. “Down on the left, sir” – ah, the joy of human contact. People struggle to put grand pianos, entire V6 engine blocks and other things manifestly larger than the maximum size of cabin baggage into the overhead lockers. I help an old lady safely stow a fridge / freezer. She tells me it’s for her daughter. Ah, that’s all right then.
My seat is the outside of a double, an aisle seat thankfully. The window seat is occupied by a solid looking man with dark hair and a darker expression. I say “hello” and he turns to look at me with a practised glacial slowness which seems to be intended to unsettle. It works. He looks at me in a way that suggests he only just recognises me as a human being, and that any further attempt at conversation will result in my death. I realise that I may be in for a long flight.

Whoever said it is better to travel than to arrive never sat in economy on a Sunday afternoon. I flick through the channels on the seat back TV and pass an hour until some food arrives. My sullen travel companion does not get the meal of his choice, and I can feel the seat shaking. I steal a glance at his tray table and notice that he has arranged his knife and fork in what would be best described as “attack posture”. With one sweet single motion he could pick both of them up with his left hand and sink then into the middle of my chest. I try to eat my peas with a fork, but without moving my arms at the shoulders. Why do they serve one of the world’s only spherical foods on planes where there is no room for the acrobatics needed to get the damn things into your mouth? For all the enjoyment to be had from airplane food they may as well just puree the stuff and just give you a straw. “Not one of your most enjoyable offerings” Mr. Grumpy says to the hostess. I can see discomfort in her eyes. She also seems to be putting on a Kevlar flak jacket.

In a rare moment of humour the pilot welcomes us to Perth after “what I can only describe as an excellent landing”. We are warned to check that the bags in the overhead lockers have not moved. A young man with tatts and a high visibility waistcoat ignores the advice and is almost killed by an anvil. My silent travelling companion reaches for his strangely triangular bag. I suspect it may be a bespoke bag for carrying horses’ heads.

I meet up with my work colleague at the baggage carousel. His bag looks like the kind of case that contains nuclear devices in spy movies – metallic silver, tough and probably ticking. Although the rainbow strip strap around it makes it look less than sinister. My bag looks identical to everybody else’s. I immediately grasp the value of travelling with a bag disguised as a thermonuclear weapon – nobody is keen to steal it from the carousel! After a few false starts I finally collect my bag, and with a genuine sense of relief I head for the hotel. This is my second trip to Perth. The second time I have been here for work, and the second time that I have noticed how bright the light is here. My hotel is opposite the convention centre which is hosting an international conference on corrosion. Over dinner I hear talk of oxidation and reduction and sacrificial anodes. Galvanised by this conversation I go for a walk. The city skyline here is almost uniformly modern, shiny and reflective. A few older buildings are scattered in the mix, mostly dwarfed by their neighbours, the only curves in an ocean of straight lines. The atmosphere is young, possibly adolescent, but clearly energetic. It feels a bit like visiting your teenage brother and meeting all his mates for a night out. It’s a real contrast to Melbourne which seems more sedate, less ambitious, less self consciously rich. If Perth is your adolescent brother, Melbourne is your slightly middle aged aunt. Albeit an aunt that has connections to organised crime and likes motor sport, but an aunt none the less.

I have dinner with a breezy view of the Swan River, with gulls and loud music for company. I like the gulls, but the other I can do without. I don’t think you can tell how important a river is to a city until you watch it from above. Then you can see how the river and city work with each other. Do they fight? Do they blend?

The next night I walk up to Kings Park, which overlooks the city and attracts crowds on early summer evenings. I arrive just in time to see my chosen restaurant close. Ah. An avenue of smooth trees leads toward statues remembering past wars and hoping for lasting peace. Towards monuments remembering modern violence and rejecting the ignorance of intolerance, the casual brutality of the hidden bomb. Queen Victoria, World Wars and Bali side by side in a green space full of families and their often laughing voices. From inside the Bali monument you can look down on the city as the sun sets. Bright and shiny, modern and clean. I can’t help but be struck by how far we have come. As I turn to walk away, the walls around me remind me of how far we have yet to go.

On low growing plants Red Wattlebirds probe the robust red flowers - the colour and form a clue that the plants are pollinated by birds, the lack of scent another pointer. The wattle bird seems to show its reptile heritage more than most – the pattern on the wings, or the empty look in their eyes. Rainbow Lorikeets, an introduction from the east coast, flash between the trees with rapid blurring wing beats. Glossy black Ravens hop and skip on the grass, moving from picnic to picnic in search of food. A crumb here, a crust there. Some people throw food to the birds, some throw food at the birds. Kids. Family. Food. I don’t have these with me tonight. I head back down the hill.

Cutting a zig zag path down the hill is a set of steps called Jacob’s Ladder. It seems to be popular with runners who are sweating up and down the many dozen steps from top to bottom. Some pause half way, some don’t get that far. One carries a 20 kg weight in his arms. This seems a commitment beyond the call of duty, but he seems to carry the load with pride. The top of the steps is all serenity and memory, the bottom a tangle of roads and underpasses. There are brief glimpses of water on the way down – lakes and wetlands on the other side of the road. The path back to the hotel leads through dusty under bridges and over roads still busy with traffic. A group proudly wearing their Corrosion Conference name tags walks in the other direction. They seem to be happy, they seem to be getting ready for a big night – clearly ‘rust never sleeps’.

The next day I visit the wetlands by the roads. Back through the dark underspaces of bridges and footpaths. A magpie lark harasses a raven with a vigour which belies its size. Car noises echo from the bridge piles and an old man settles down for the night. The footpath becomes a bike lane and the sharp single ring of a bell signals the approach of another rider. It’s a shared pathway, but I feel out of place. I’m glad to get off the track and start walking around the lake.
The lake seems almost unnaturally green. Not green in a toxic sludge kind of way, but green in a life bursting, sustaining kind of way. In the quieter moments you can almost hear photosynthesis underway. The tearing of water molecules, the melding of hydrogen and public enemy number one, carbon dioxide. The place fizzes with oxygen and life. Down in the pond’s deeper depths you can imagine coal forming, slow and steady. Dragonflies flash past, and pause fleetingly on mud, marsh or stem tops. The whole place seems a counterfeit of the carboniferous.

The pond edge is thick with the movement of small fish. Slivers of life preyed upon by snake birds and grebes. One long necked, one short and stumpy. The grebe dives and swims, pushed by leaf feet and silvered by the air trapped in its feathers. When it reappears it shakes with a surprising violence that dimples the surface and scatters the clinging water. A night heron waits, primed in ambush for the unwary or the unlucky. Perched low to the water it waits and waits and waits. I move closer and for once it stays still. A bike rider in flame orange seems to upset it, and it walks deeper into its bank side bush. I never see it catch a fish.

Dusky Moorhen chicks follow their parents and are fed scraps of green. They peck here and there but seem to prefer to have their food chosen for them. Hardheads, cormorants, pacific black ducks – all passing on the energy trapped by the alchemy of photosynthesis, all pass their days within the sound shot of passing traffic, bike bells and the click of a camera.

The pond seems old, gentle and connected. I walk back towards my hotel, through streets that seem to be none of these. For all the bright modernity about me, it’s this little piece of the past that I will remember about Perth this time.

As if the stars had fallen

Nothing changes a landscape like darkness. As the primacy of the eye gives way the more subtle arts of ear and hand, as the surety of footfall morphs into the uncertain step, the world changes. For country dwellers the change may be less marked, used as they are to the changing of the day, but for city kids and urbanised adults the darkness of night is both unusual and scarce. From pools of yellow streetlights to the blue glow of TV’s, cities are full of light. The country is a different matter.

Down on Johanna beach at the failing of the light, the night and day merge uncertainly, with little ebbs and flows. Day hangs on to the western horizon and lights up the sky for one last hour. The colours reflect in the wet sand beach and hold on for one last minute. The surf break glows for one last second . And then, with the sun below the horizon, just a strip of light remains. The foam of the breaking waves seems to pick up the last few rays of light and glow, faint and even ghostly, into the darkness. They bring the waves of last light to the shore. Against the strange night light of the sky even the silver gulls are cast as black. Magpies carol from the dunes, and somewhere down the beach a lapwing calls in stress and alarm. This would be a night for whale song and stories, for the long reflective stare out towards the nothingness of the horizon. It would be a night for company. It would be a night to talk of the past and plan for the future. But with only the gulls and the waves, the sea and the darkened sky for company I walk back towards the cottage.

The eye takes back its primacy as I see the window light on the hill. Warm on a chill night with a sharp wind. Cows cough off to my left, in a way that suggests surprise or ambush. I woke one night, long ago, to a similar cough and watched deer walk through the campsite we were in. A dozen or more children and half as many adults sleeping under the stars – and three passing deer on their night time duties. The kids were buried in their sleeping bags, as much for security as warmth, and many of the adults were less comfortable than they claimed. In the morning no one else had heard or seen a thing. But the footprints were there, clear in the mud. I wondered why they had woken me and no one else. At that time I spent most of my time outdoors and regularly slept under the summer trees. Did that familiarity let me notice something new, even as I slept? If the same thing happened today, in the less familiar woodlands of Australia, would I wake? Or would I huddle in my bag, as much for security as warmth, and miss what the darkness brings?
Overhead the low evening clouds are grey and seem full of rain. Off in the distance the sun still shines, low and soft. It’s a sky that promises rainbows, and on this evening I’m in the right place at the right time. The skylight arch of colour is bright and clear, with a second, a shy sibling, higher and behind. The twice refracted light makes sky art at its best. It’s no less stunning for not being the work of God or the bright hand of an augury. It’s not a metaphor, it’s pure physics. And it’s still stunningly beautiful. The brighter of the two seems to cleave the edge of the sky – grey one side, blue the other. The moment I step from the car rain drops fall, fat and heavy. A short sharp shower over Lavers Hill, a passing storm, a clearing storm. The rainbow hangs over the hill and the gold pot seems in reach. We eat dinner in a pub, a curious mixture of the welcoming and the distant. We are welcomed in the bar by being shown we really should be elsewhere. The food is OK – “sound, but unremarkable” – a little more the fuel, but much less than art.

As the darkness gathers we pull into the car park of Melba Gully. Disappointingly there are two cars already there. The rain now falls from the leaves rather than the sky, and around the car bays you can hear the faint pitter tap of falling water. We get briefly lost in the car park – tangled in the switch back paths intended for wheel chair users. Eventually we find our way through the well intentioned maze and walk into the gully. These rainforest gullies are damp places, and for all the fact that this one has a path through it, they retain the feel of secret places. Old trees, not touched by fire, grow by the path side and tree-ferns hang over the path’s edge. For all their mystery these gullies are not untouched. The loggers axe and saw have left their mark, and in the daylight hours you can find odd, letter box shaped slots cut into the base of old tree stumps. These are where boards were forced into the wood to give a platform for the loggers. Now the stumps, often startlingly large, slowly rot back into the forest.

But in the darkness such things are only known, not seen. The kids, obsessed with light, need to be persuaded not to turn on their torches. Often the persuasion does not work. Slowly, as we walk deeper into the gully, it becomes darker and darker and eventually we find the stars. Not in the cloudy sky, but in the darkness of the path’s edge, where the tree ferns curtain the bank side. First one, then two, then many points of light come into view. An inquisitive torch light shows nothing, and when it is darkened, and your eyes have adjusted, the lights come back. It’s as if the stars had fallen and left their light in tiny sparkles. The truth is no less strange. The lights are glow worms – tiny specks of biological light that form constellations and galaxies in the darkness by the pathways.

The far end of the gully is marked by a waterfall and here the glow worms shine in greater numbers. They swirl along the edges of the stream and progress along fallen logs. The more you look the more you find, like looking out into space or back into time. The kids are surprisingly quiet. The torches remain off. With 20 minutes of darkness behind you it’s possible to see the little lights deep within the forest.

If I saw such things and did not know what they were, what stories would I invent to explain what I had seen? What fables would grow from these darkened gullies, where on this evening the stars did really seem to be in reach.