Past Participle

Each footstep brings the sea nearer.  Each footstep makes the sound of the waves grow louder.  The horizon pulls closer and its importance grows.  You cannot escape the pull of the water.  The small island state of a larger island country continent is a good place to think about the sea.

By the time you reach the forth line of the national anthem you will have found at least two things.  Firstly you will have found the word “girt” – a word that is not in common usage today, and may never have been in the past.  It is apparently the past participle of the verb “gird”, which is the kind of definition that surpasses my understanding.   But it means to surround – and the line in the anthem has Australia girt by sea.

The second thing you will have discovered is the remarkable prescience of the author of the song.  Not only did he (for it probably was a he) recognize that Australia would be built on the resources that could be pulled from the ground, but also he noticed the importance of the sea.  Even that most girt and seaward of nations, Great Britain, does not mention the sea in its national anthem until the third verse.  Britain’s anthem spends a good deal time asking God to deflect assassins’ blades and counter the trickery of its foes before getting around to the fact that the sea may be of significance to an island.  And for all the iconographic images of the Red Centre of Australia, most of us live near the sea; hemmed by the Great Dividing Range between mountains – or what is left of their ancient roots – and the sea.  The myths may look to the inland, but the day-to-day reality looks to the sea, the beach and the waiting waters.

All afternoon the Sun had warmed the rounded granite boulder.  Now, with the sun slowly moving away, the boulder gives up its heat to the air, and to me.  Around my feet the crystal clear medium of the sea flows.  At the surface, the interface between two worlds, light bends and refracts to paint abstractions of the rocks and plants below.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  A wave rhythm, a wind rhythm, sways.  My stone becomes a point of stillness around which waves break, and the world turns.  I wonder how many other eyes focus on this far horizon, at the end of this day, to take in the possibility of things and to wonder at the path to the future.  Overhead Pacific gulls call and chase, a pair maybe?  The sunlit upper slopes of the Hazards grows smaller by the moment; capped with a shrinking gold crown, wrapped in an ermine white stole of beach sand below. 

Only half of the beach remains in sunlight.  A Pied Oystercatcher walks in and out of the light and shade and, unusually for this sand loving bird, walks up on to the rocks.  It lays its head to one side, and peers along the length of its beak into cracks and crevices, under stones and into shallow pools of water.  Unbothered by wave splash or the call of the circling gulls it goes about its business as the world continues to turn and the sun sinks.

I feel the line between my fingers tighten and then fall slack.  Seconds later it is pulled away by a sudden rush.  A fish has snatched the unweighted bait, and now it bangs and bores on the end of the line.  There is nothing between me and it but a tight line and a hook.  This seems the simplest, purest, way to fish.  Some people would say “but it’s only a wrasse” and I would shake my head and smile.  The males are large and splendidly coloured, with a bright blue throat and a palette of paler shade on the flanks.  The females are duller, a text book looking child’s fish.  Before I bait the hook I crush the barb with a pair of pliers, and to release the fish I just invert the hook without even taking the fish from the water.  I don’t embrace the idea that I have to eat all I catch.  There is a bounty to be gained from the sea beyond simple consumption.  The oystercatcher calls once to the setting sun, the top of Mount Amos has lost its golden crown.  The mosquitoes emerge and I depart.

Small waves rattle off the rocks below the pier and roll back out to sea.  A black and white dog sits in the morning sun.  People shuffle their feet and wonder how close they can stand to the boat without out making it clear they really, really want to get on board first.  We are invited to cross the gap plank, but the dog, the real owner, beats us all to the gun.  We pick and choose seats, trying to make sure we get the best view of something not yet in sight.  The coach captain of a tour group waves goodbye to his charges; do I see a look of relief in his eyes?  In jokes pass between the group that insist that they are not on holiday – they are on a tour.  The difference escapes me.  I smell sea salt and sun-block.  The dog runs laps around the boat, pausing to sniff hello to everyone.  The engines kick water behind the boat as we leave the pier and move under the Hazards and away from shore.

After a while the engines cut and we loaf in a small bay directly below our rented home.  I look back to where I looked out.  The rounded boulder.  The oystercatcher rock.  The sickle of white sand scattered with fast anchored boats.  This reverse brings a new and open view.  The mountain’s feet clearly set in the water seem broader than when you walk and sleep upon them.  They seem set further back into the land, with a sweep of gentle land between the top of the tide and the base of the steeper slopes.  When you look up from below the scale is distorted and all you see is steep.  On the sea, without the barrier of trees, you can see shape and scale in a way that is different from even a distant view on land.  After a while I work out why it’s different – there is no fore ground.  The sea stretches away from the boat, empty (but full of life) towards the shore.   On the land the height is foreshortened, at sea the distances become a cypher.  Things are near or far. There is almost no in between.  We pull out of the bay and shrink into the ocean.

Tall cliffs cut upwards from the surf.  They provide the visual anchor for the trip, which seldom stays far from land.  The ship’s captain woofs a greeting and steals a seat at the back of the boat.  The tone of his bark suddenly changes and he goes from being merely active to frantic.  Now at the very front of the boat he barks and barks at the water.  He has found dolphins; or maybe the dolphins have found us.  Either way, the boat has company.  Fins cut through the water, and pairs and groups of dolphins burst through the surface.  People gasp and point.  Cameras click.  Children laugh and pull on their parent’s arms to look at a spot in the water where the dolphins once were.  Some of these wonderful mammals keep pace with the boat, staying level without demonstrable effort.  Others surf the pressure wave of the bow.  They cut left and right, pull away and drop back.  The back of the boat seems to be a no go zone. There are splashes as far as the eye can see.   If this is not play I don’t know what is.  There is no doubt I could watch for hours.   Even the self-serving quest for that “perfect” picture takes a back seat for a while as I just watch.  There’s no real need to do anything other than watch.  But then the albatross arrive and the camera comes back to life.

Huge, grey and seemingly grumpy looking, these birds cruise, stiff winged over the peaks and troughs of the ocean waves.  Unbelievable, and in spite of the advertising assurances, unexpected.   With a wingspan greater than my height Shy Albatross reject their name and circle the boat.  Some people keep watching the dolphins unaware of the birds.  I try to watch both, but the albatross win.  Birds overtake the boat with barely a wing beat – how do they do that?  Pigeons with frantic wing beats may (or may not) outrun a stooping peregrine.  In both cases the source of speed is clear – fear and gravity.  But the albatross move past as if without effort.  We stand still and they move past.  Grace, power, speed, all combined in six foot of grey tone adaptation.  Not perfect, but so close that only the keen eye of evolution can pick one from another.  Human athletes could train forever, take whatever drugs they like, and still not gain the level of performance or grace shown by these birds.   We bounce on unsteady feet in the boat as the birds pull feather-rippling turns above us and skim within a quill’s breath of the water.  Their flight is rarely level, always fast.  They are in their element, while I am almost helpless on an adopted, but alien, field.  We may be girt by sea, but we will never be of the sea.

Disappointingly we are told we have to keep going so that we can keep to the published schedule – on a day like this I would have thought that the wildlife was the schedule.  But we have a date with oysters and a cool drink in Wineglass Bay.   

The wineglass is full of clear, crisp water.  The blood of dying whales has been washed away by the turn of the tide and the turn of the years.  What ghosts must sing here in the long dark of the new moon?  A source of misplaced pride in the past for those who would turn back the clock and let the seas run red once more. 

We play the Emperors New Clothes games of saying the oysters are nice – as if eating salt was a culinary event, but the cool beer at mid-morning is a delightful  memory of teenage Saturdays long gone.   The water below the boat is impossibly clear – the boat hovers on nothing and fish swim through empty space.   Swallows leave the wooded shore to dash over the sea in search of food.  People leave the warmth of the beach to wade in the sea in search of cooling current and gentle waves.   We look up to where we looked down from the day before.   The kids seem unconvinced that they were ever that far above the sea. 

On the return journey we again meet dolphins and albatross.  We pause and push the boundaries of the schedule to watch and wonder at the movement and the life.   The waves slap against the sides of the boat rocking it in slight sympathy to its own rhythm.  To regain a motion of our own choosing we burn oil and forget about tomorrow.  The dolphins cut their own path, the albatross slice their own way.  One can’t help but be impressed.

The shore side of the boat is crowded; the sea side largely vacant.  And in the noisy wave washed silence I imagine I am girt by sea, passed by dolphins and over-flown by albatross.  Familiar hills grow on the horizon.  The kids enquire about lunch and the illusion fades.  It’s true, no man is an island.  You can never, truly and only, be girt by the sea alone.

Earth, Wind and too much Fire.

Early morning sun lights up the pale trunks of the birch trees.  A magpie, head cocked to one side, inspects the edges of the flowerbeds and lawns.  Sharp eyed breakfast at a hooked beak point.  The tomatoes soak up what the hose offers.  I check windows and doors (again).  A yellow taxi does not seem big enough with bags and people inside.  No last minute returns for forgetfulness.  Always pack the night before. Always leave on a Sunday.  Always take less stuff.  Always check the weather.  And today – check the fire reports.

The weather has been warm and cold, record highs, surprising lows, but most of all, dry.  Nobody uses the word drought – not yet anyway.  But you can feel it building, the slow deep breath of summers running beyond season.  And in the weather silence you can hear a whisper that says fire.  Long grass, deep leaves, forest litter.  Crackle dry layers wait for the spark of conflagration. The careless act, the willfully stupid match strike, the lightening bolt – instant and Sun hot. 

We should be flying away from this, down to cool and damp Tasmania. But we aren’t.  There are fires where we are heading.  The next few days look uncertain.  Well laid plans un-made, cancellations needed, new bookings made.  The slow wind down of the first few days of a holiday does not happen. Hours creep past, time spent just to get to the end of the day in the hope that the next will bring better news.   We book a room in a place that some people consider “funky”, which I now understand to mean slightly run down, a little shabby at the edges and generally in need of a little more cleaning.  Excellent Internet access helps.  All of the windows are nailed shut – maybe this is what a Wi-Fi hot spot means. 

Smoke hangs in the air; a bitter taste grows in the back of your throat.  When the wind turns the air clears and a bright sparkling light forms.  It feels like a summer holiday.  But then the wind turns back and you remember the fires and the things they have taken.  I feel bad for feeling bad, as if a restless night’s sleep in a stuffy room is a real problem, as if having time to waste is a waste of time. Other families look lost, disrupted, in Hobart. Too many people wear dark walking shoes with pale socks and old, well loved, shorts.  There are long queues outside tourist offices.  Silver gulls fight over thrown chips, pigeons bob and spin to each other. I have lost nothing but imagined times and maybe a little money.  Plans have gone up in smoke, but plans are figments of an ordered imagination; constructs created by people who believe they can control the world.  Plans have no substance.  But elsewhere, real things are burning, there is real loss, the smoke is a tangible reminder.  I smell the smoke and try to get a grip.  Engage.  Move forward. 

Down in the harbor Hobart looks to the sea, to the south, to the Antarctic. A huge cruise liner sits next to a Sea Shepherd boat.  More than just size separates them.  Woven lines pull tight over cast iron bollards, metal penguins look out from their cast rocks. Even in the busy dock the water is clear, although traffic cones and a Panama hat form part of the reef around which tiny fish swim.  Starfish twinkle through the surface waves, muscles and oysters grow on the pier legs and a puffer fish, with its spines flat for now, weaves unconcerned from morsel to morsel.  The kids count jellyfish, and fishermen drop back undersized flathead. 

Behind the town sits the often snow dusted Mount Wellington.  Today the summit is shrouded with dull yellow green clouds.  A mix of water and smoke.  It is here that Hobart looks to the sky and to the things that lie beyond what we can see today.  We drive to the summit, more in hope of a view than an expectation.  The road winds, it’s steep enough to make your ears pop.  The trees grow thin and then by the sides of the roads are open fields of rocks, studded with twisted, wind formed trees.  Small lizards and large, colorful, grasshoppers sit on the rock tops, mini summiteers with no colonial flags or Sherpa guides.  My kids ignore warnings of twisted ankles and hospitalization and rock hop and balance around the boulders – helicopter arms twirl and spin.  They laugh.  They argue.  Without the weight of smoke curtailed expectation, they play were they are.  P finds a bright beetle. H burns the barely contained energy that threatened him with an internal conflagration and a mental melt down.  For different reasons we all enjoy the hill top space and the movement.

Even with the fire haze you can see for miles.  Hobart looks a stone throw away and you get a picture of how important this mountain is to the city itself.  A little bit of wilderness on the doorstep.  The plants at the summit are beaten down by winter cold, and grasp for shelter in bob buttons close to the ground or in the lee of rocks.  Many of the plants are hairy with lichen, that intimate combination of plant and fungi that thrives where life is tough and the air is clean.  There are more stones than plants, each shaped by the wind and the cast off water of rain and frosty days.  We all take deep breaths and look beyond the smoke and the fire.  Tomorrow promises to be a better day.  The wind has turned, the fire contained and the road opened.  A day to travel, 48 hours delayed, beckons.  We move towards where we want to be.

Any movement seems good after a couple of days cooped in hot or dull rooms.  But the air still smells of smoke.  The long roadside grass is baked to a yellow gold.  The colour of the cooler, but still hot, outer edge of a wood fire flame.  A colour that seems to invite fire, the crackle tongues of a summer running wild.  The roads sweep and turn – almost English – in tune with the ups and downs of the landscape.  Not the ruler drawn freeways of other places, but still the byways and highways of an older age.  Apart from the news on the radio and the smell in the air there is little to suggest what is going on around us.  Little to suggest the loss and damage that kept us in Hobart.  But this illusion does not last.

Around a corner, behind a hill, there are columns of smoke and faint drifting clouds rising where none should be.  The air thickens and fills.  Dense yellow green smoke drifts and covers the road.  I slow down and turn on my lights.  Cars coming in the other direction appear with little warning, as if solidified from the heated vapors of fire and lost trees.  Some approach too fast and with no lights, driven by immortals that know better than to follow advice, or heed warnings.  The smoke scatters the headlight beams, so the car is surrounded by light, but it’s still dark.  I drive within a halo of uncertainty. My foot rests lightly on the pedals, waiting to stand on the brakes. The kids in the back fall silent.   This is not how it is meant to be.  The smoke thins and I unpeel my fingers from the wheel.  They tingle with recovering blood flow, and the soft plastic below them expands back to its rightful shape.  Beyond the windows the landscape reappears, still dry and golden, but thankfully not burnt or burning.  Around mid-day we reach the turn off for Coles Bay.

The north side of the road has been burnt, deliberately so, to make a break between the possibility of fire and unburnt fuel.  It makes for a strange drive. Eventually we enter a landscape that is free from fire.  Small trees crowd the roadside, grass waves its dried heads around the roadsides and in the distance The Hazards begin to fill the horizon.  Shaped like the knuckles of a clenched fist they rise from the sea to dominate the delightfully sleepy Coles Bay.  A good shop, a splendid little restaurant and a world class view make this the most perfect of holiday towns – although what it would be like on a wet Wednesday afternoon in the middle of winter is another question.

Our house for what remains of the week sits in the lee of the Hazards, and what it lacks in view it makes up for in privacy.  We are greeted by a young Bennett’s  Wallaby, which has yet to gain the red neck that gives it its other name.  The kids, with a comic lunacy derived from mysterious sources, christen him Mr. Dude.  He stays with us all week.  The house has that strange combination of elegant lines and complete lack of functionality that seem to characterize modern houses.  

One cannot sit at the base of a hill for too long without looking to the summit.  And you cannot look at the summit for too long without planning to climb.  Mount Amos is the highest knuckle of the Hazards fist; elsewhere its 454 m of altitude would be overlooked.  But here each metre really is above sea level, as a cool, fish filled bay washes its feet. It invites you to climb.  And the park authority tries to stop you.  Its signs and leaflets use words like “strenuous”, “steep” and “treacherous”.  It is suggested that the young or the inexperienced stay on the beach. There is a sign at the end of the made path that basically says that there is a good chance you will die if you pass it.  This is clearly an exaggeration, both on my part and by the park authority – but the path is steep and it is almost always over, and sometimes up, solid rock.  In places where the shape of the land pushes people in to narrow strips, the rock has taken on a polished sheen.  A sheen that would indeed be very slippery in the wet.  But today it’s dry, and the rock is warm and grippy.  Which is a good job, because some of the walkers (possibly related to the high speed smoke drivers) are wearing shoes of limited utility.  Even my kids notice.

The route to the summit seems to follow a vein of quartz in places and the pale crystals climb the hill in front of you.  The landscape is scattered with time carved boulders, the broken edges of their ancient falls rounded by wind and water.  There are few sharp edges but many fine views.  P’s lack of years is made up for by a surplus of energy.  H’s lack of experience is made up for by a lack of peer driven apprehension.  Both skip like mountain goats.  Both smile and enjoy the feel of the rock and the taste of the barley sugar.

Before we reach the summit we walk across a shallow bowl, dense with head high plants and woven, contrary paths.  Rustles in the bushes, and branches that sway against rather then with the breeze, suggest we are not far from watching eyes. One last climb, up a walled gutter, hand pushing backwards on the right wall for support, brings us to the top. 

A view opens up before us.  A narrow sweep of bright white sand hugs the sea.  Two rocky arms sweep out and inwards to make a deep, sheltered bay.  This is Wineglass bay, the picture post card heart of Freycinet and (according to local myth) a destination less than 1 in 10 visitors reach.  The beach has been listed as one of the top ten in the world by some people, and the second best by others – as if the clear and obvious beauty of the place was not enough.  Would less people come if it was only the 11th best beach – would fewer photographs be taken?  The beach and view are unchanged by the ranking, but I doubt that is the case for some of the people who climb.  

While it’s clear that the bay is the shape of a wine glass, there is a disturbing edge to the name.  In the past, when the waters here were full in a way we no longer see, there was a whaling station in the bay.  As the whales were flensed, a word that conceals its real horror, the bay would flow red with blood.  The wine glass would fill with claret and the living rooms of Hobart and London would flicker with smoke free light. The wheels of commerce were oiled with the death and blood and horror that flowed half a world away.  Today, in a place of remarkable beauty, it feels as unlikely as it sounds horrific.

We settle back to eat sandwiches, still cool from the chill of the fridge.  Water never tastes as good as at the top of a hill.  For most of our lunch we are mostly on our own, just the view and us.  Just us and a small grey bird snatching crumbs from around our feet.  Just us a small wallaby that pauses to look back over its shoulder at us.  

We pack our bags and reverse our path.  Down the hill and back towards the sea.