March 26th 2013
Yin and Yang- The Weather Maketh the Writer
And now for a special treat. Magnetic Island has been home to journalist, novelist and former Head of JCU's Journalism Program, Lindsay Simpson, for some years. Lindsay was recently short-listed for The Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize, and as part of her reflective essay deals with Magnetic Island, we are indeed delighted to publish the work below. Lindsay is also soon to conduct a six day "Life writing in the tropics" course in conjunction with Australian Yoga Retreats near Cape Tribulation. There is a link at the end of Lindsay's story.
Yin and Yang- The Weather Maketh the Writer
The green tree frog feels like the skin of a drowned man. Its owner has scooped it out of the toilet bowl and hands it to me smiling.
My fingers have closed around it before I can mouth: 'No.'
This is an initiation rite on Magnetic Island, one of the few islands on the Great Barrier Reef to have a postcode, where tree frogs live inside toilet bowls for months at a time. Newcomers see green splayed toes like flattened spiders as they lower the lid of the bowl and wonder how long they have been there- these voyeurs to the perfunctory calls of nature. Whenever I rescue one from the claws of a cat on the veranda or the dry interior of the house where they come for the wet season, I associate their touch with that first cold antiseptic encounter.
Learning how to walk through the dead leaves and avoiding the death adder, one of the most venomous snakes in Australia, is another initiation rite on this island. Unlike most snakes, it does not move on approach using the leaves to disguise itself waiting in ambush for its prey- small mammals. After being bitten, our Cairn terrier, Camus, takes fifteen minutes to die, its poisonous venom mercilessly attacking the neurological system so that his last breath is a convulsion as we sit helplessly by. There is only one vet on the island and it is a Sunday.
Behind our house, the loud rasps of the tree frogs blend with more reviled croak of the cane toads that merge with the drumbeat of torrential rain which floods the creek. Christmas is the season for tropical rain on Magnetic Island. White 'utes'- Australian for utilities - fly past with tinsel wrapped around their 'roo' bars designed to protect the cars from being damaged although there are no kangaroos on this island. The only marsupials are wallabies, koalas and possums. At the local Wildlife Care group, I learn to stop for roadkill. Once, at night driving in our Landrover we see a dead wallaby. My fifteen-year old daughter urges me to stop.
'It could have a baby in its pouch, Mum,' she says.
She jumps out. In the headlights of the car, I see her waving. Her eyes are wide. She is carrying a tiny bundle. A foetus - a metre away from its dead mother - hairless and blind. Perhaps weeks old. We drive to the wildlife carer who lives in the same village and all the while, its arms are flailing, seeking life it cannot have. In the tropics so often, it is a matter of life and death.
When the rains arrive, the creatures unite against the 2000 human inhabitants. Water fills the dry creek beds and batters against the humble dwellings. People stay indoors hiding from the God weather. Our tiny island, 11 kilometres across, lies vulnerable in the path of potential cyclones.
'Cyclonic' refers to inward spiralling winds that rotate in the same direction as the Earth. In the southern hemisphere, the winds rotate clockwise. In the North, they are anti-clockwise. Tropical cyclones have a warm core whereas Arctic hurricanes are freezing. My life has always been lived in opposite poles: weather that is wild and uncompromising. My early childhood was spent in the far north of Scotland. I was born in a small fishing town called Wick not far from John O'Groats, and across from the Orkneys in the district of Caithness. In a book with black and white photos I have kept since I was 20, headscarved, housewives peg out washing in treeless, bare fields. Winds whip sheets from white chilled hands exposed to primeval elements. When I seek a literary connection to my roots, I find Robert Louis Stevenson's description of the place that possessed 'no beauty, bare grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea'. He learned how to deepsea dive in the town harbour that once boasted the largest herring fleet in Europe.
I return there for my 50th birthday from the Antipodes with empty pockets seeking to be replenished with memories. Those who venture down the road less travelled do not have time to reach deeper soils. They are forever uprooting what has been created seeking other pastures to sow. In later life they seek memories as though finally recognising how the shape of the past has shaped them and how understanding that past might help understand the future. In the lobby of the old, blue-stoned hotel, I meet the manager who resembles William Hartnell from the original Dr Who. Where, I ask him is the Henderson Memorial Hospital? Although I know it has long since been demolished, I have to know where it once stood. Fifty years ago tomorrow, I say to emphasise my need for the information, I was born there. He looks at me quizzically pointing across the road to the grassy knoll. 'So was I.' There is silence. In that moment, I realise that this is the reason I have travelled across the world to meet this man who once lay crying in the crib next to me. He has a connection to me that no one else can have. And another start of realisation. That I too must look that old.
My first home is a sunlit field and beyond, cliffs and wild seas, where once a wooden house stood. 7D The Airport. The airport is still there where my father once worked. I sneak photographs furtively outside the security gate, in these post 9/11 days of anti terrorism laws. The field ends in jagged, windswept cliffs. I've always been drawn to the ocean, standing on the edge of cliffs, teetering on the abyss watching the fury of the waves crash below. I imagine, if I had stayed here, sitting at the upstairs window of that wooden house writing into nothingness. Seaside views are the views of the writer, the vast emptiness of sea and sky representing a canvas of possibilities but the epic of horizon mapping the impossibility and magnitude of the task of capturing a narrative. Letters, bouncing impossibly off the waves as the writer stares out to sea.
En route to Scotland, I visit Dylan Thomas's seaside house in Laughame, Wales at the mouth of a river, perched on a cliff. Thomas wrote of this seascape of inspiration. He lived with no money, two bicycles and three young children. Pressing my camera on the glass of his writing house, I inhale the chaos, the crumpled paper, the view, the nostalgia of it, preserved like jam in a jar. In the house that is now a museum, I pour over snippets of his life and am more convinced than ever that writers need
landscapes and weather.
After the glaciated hills of Scotland, my adolescence was spent in Swaziland, a small kingdom in Africa that reaches temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the lowveld. In my later adolescence l moved further north to Malawi, the land of the long lake. I was 18 when I arrived in Australia where volatile weather reigns supreme and where strange creatures still live, remnants of another epoch. Isolated for around 40 million years, the original species were protected from other species trying to colonize, so the primitive beauty of creatures I encounter in the far north, like the cassowary, and the duck-billed platypus resemble Hollywood creatures from Jurassic Park.
My adopted continent straddles 29 degrees south to 46.5 degrees south encompassing a diversity of weather. The weather forms my connection to the land as it has throughout my life. Extreme weather. It flings me out of complacency to confront the essence of life sweeping me on to my next adventure. In Australia, I live forty degrees south where the weather blows straight from the Antarctic and, in the extreme north which experiences intense tropical heat. In 2002, I meet a fisherman in Tasmania, who like Quoyle in The Shipping News, has brine in his veins and lives by the wind and the weather. We buy a 62-foot gaff rigged schooner built from the last of the Tully rainforest and move north. Life is to be lived. That has been my motto. Rten brei, the Tibetan word for synchronicity, working on intuition and being open to coincidences.
One of my first commissioned pieces of work in Australia was to document the small island of Tasmania with less than a half a million souls for Australian Geographic. Tasmania in Australia's far south was sometimes left off the maps in some of the earlier drawings and is the home of the legendary Looney Tunes' cartoon character Tazzie devil. The island was to become my home for ten years. Tasmania sits in the Roaring Forties, based on the forty-degree latitude that cuts across this isle. Sweeping in from the Southern-Ocean for most of the year, the Roaring Forties ensures that the weather is the source of all conversations as icy breezes whip through planned picnics and ten metre waves test even the most seasoned of sailors. On top of ice age dolerite mountains, like Mt Wellington overlooking the capital city of Hobart, winds can blow up to 150 kph. Here is an island of primeval beauty where the ancestors of its Gondwanaland trees were found buried under the ice in Antarctica proving it was a continent it once shared. Charles Darwin celebrated his 27th birthday in Hobart collecting fossils from expeditions he undertook in his three-week sojourn. Mt Darwin was named in his memory. One bushwalk, accompanied with the children, we attempt to find the crater of a meteorite that crashed into this mountain 750,000 years ago, but to no avail. The views across the wild western side of the island and river plateau before make up for the failed mission.
In the South West wilderness of Tasmania, I join scientists searching for burrowing freshwater crayfish that can live up to 1000 metres above sea level. These little critters resemble giant prawns or miniature lobsters and they live in the same burrow for generation after generation. Their presence is a reminder that these mountaintops were once underwater. The Bathurst Narrows is an inlet crossed by those on Tasmania's most popular walking tracks, the South Coast Track. In the dark waters of the narrows, there are creatures which live only metres below the surface that have never been named. The water, blackened by the tannin from tea trees, tricks these ancient primitive creatures- rays and jellyfish - into believing they are hundreds of metres under the ocean yet they are close enough to the surface for scientists to study. While walking to the Narrows, I lose my way for five hours in the wilderness. I stray defiantly from the path to follow the view of the water and then an hour later, I no longer have a clear idea of where I am going. I sing the Julie Andrews song from my childhood: "I have confidence in sunshine..." I am alone at the end of the earth. This continent, unlike many others, did not experience volcanic activity or the same extent of glacial activity, so its rocks and soils remained largely untouched except by erosion and deep weather. I am struck, even in my fear, by the ancient landscape that has remained relatively unchanged from what I am seeing today. But there is the danger of night falling and the cold claiming me. Stumbling through knee high button grass, I climb down gullies and throw myself bodily against strangulating vegetation in an attempt to reach the other side of the gully. Heading closer to the inlet, where at least the ground is level, I cut my hands on the glasslike shards of mussels on the giant rocks near the shore. The only footprints I can see are from wombats. The only sign oflife is a ground parrot scurrying into the undergrowth apart from a whip snake slumbering to my horror on a rock. Reaching the Narrows finally, I whistle the tune our family use for our dog. Far below me, I hear an answering cry. It is the father of my children who has sensibly taken the duckboard track. Climbing up on to the mountain ridge, an eagle swoops. I am rescued, exhausted and it is another four hours back to camp.
A memorable few days back at the base camp, I hunt for swamp antechinus and explore the little runways made by native mice in the long grass. They have satellite cities like our own spread out suburbs. I imagine them speeding past each other at night, for they are nocturnal, on their own highways in their own little worlds.
My last attempt at a literary tome, before I left this island in 2005, is to immerse myself in three nineteenth century diaries: a Governor's wife; a Commandant and a storekeeper. Weaving their words, I retrace the steps of Lady Jane Franklin, as she walks across the island on foot, sleeping on fern mattresses while her Governor husband, Sir John Franklin names mountains and landmarks along the way. They pass through a region called Transylvania where a convict who escaped from the west coast ate five of his companions before successfully walking the breadth of the island. I spend time on the windswept craggy promontory that was once a boys' prison, Point Puer, next to the penal settlement of Port Arthur, imagining boys as young as ninewho have been transported across the seas jumping from the cliffs into the sea below. Ah, but that is myth, says the tour guide. Documents, she says almost spitefully, have long since been lost in many of the fires that burnt through Port Arthur penal settlement. The boys' voices, however, echo through the paperbarks. Like so much on this island, the past lies under the surface. I struggle to describe the melancholy of the place. It is an island where the recording of its past is secondary to expunging it. The subject matter of my second book about Tasmania confirms this point. Walter Mikac, a pharmacist, wants to write a tribute to his wife, Nanette. Nanette and their two daughters, Alannah and Madeline, were killed in the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Thirty-two others lost their lives at the hands of a lone gunman. Walter seeks to put up wooden crosses to commemorate where they fell on the road, but is told by the management authority that the crosses are to be removed and stored "in deep archives" for future generations as though the enormity of the tragedy should be wiped from the collective consciousness as if the event never happened. A similar sentiment filled the colonial newspapers at the tum of the 19th century after the penal settlement fell into decay, its inhabitants long gone. Raze it to the ground, the letter to the newspaper cry, in this place of beauty and English oak trees and sandstone ruins that defies its bloody past.
When I finally take my leave from this island, a student who is a mountain guide, takes me for a bushwalk to bid farewell to Tasmania. But on our return, darkness closes in and we miss the track, plunging into icy tarns. On the hilltops the silhouettes of leafless trees look like black witches hair against the lightning that streaks across the sky. The weather has conspired against me. Returning to the car, I discover I have left the lights on and the battery is dead. We are stranded 25 kilometres from civilisation, shivering into the darkening night. In my last week in Tasmania, the island seeks revenge at my departure.
Outside the sky is Turneresque streaked in lighter grey as the sun struggles to break through. Along the esplanade, the south-east trade winds buffet this tropical island, which is much closer to the equator than that colder isle. The palms along Nelly Bay beach bend to the wind. Soft, thumping sounds on the couch grass remind me to avoid walking under the fronded canopies and the random missiles of coconuts. Here, the mountains are not dolerite but granite, pink and warm full of energy. Volcanic episodes have turned up the earth and revived its growth. The hoop pines are also from Gondwanaland but this time they grow amongst boulders, the island's trademark which crowd the hills around the island as though thrown from a giant's hand. Haphazardly, they form shapes like misshapen heads and sleeping crocodiles.
The cyclone watch is far from over. Then I hear it - a hoarse, persistent cry. What bird is that? On Magnetic Island we are woken at dawn to the curlew chorus, the cockatoos and kookaburras and rainbow lorikeets. Once, after returning from New York I dreamt l was in a roof garden on top of a skyscraper. But then I awake and realise before I am back with the birdcalls from our tropical island. From the haunting flute of the Brahminy Kite to the cooing of the Emerald dove and the cacophony of the Kookaburra. I walk out on to the deck suspended above the creek at the back of our house. In winter, the water is reduced to a trickle. In the luscious undergrowth, butterflies, electric blue and blacks and greens flutter past. I follow thesound across the pawpaw tree until I see two rainbow lorikeets sitting on a branch. One is hunched over the other, shoulders up high its neck stretching forward. Like a mother to a chick it has its beak down the other bird's throat while its partner, wings back in submission, croaks insistent gratitude. I watch as the stronger bird flies to the deck and the other one follows. Lopsided, it hesitates, perching on a branch, all the time keeping up the hoarse, continual cry. Then, I see the problem. One of its eyes is missing. Several times it tries to reach the deck, one wing lower than the other, but there are wires underneath the railing that it can't see. I scurry into the fridge and find a piece of rockmelon, which I partially scoop out leaving the juice to pool on the fruit. I leave it on the railing near where the bird sits, then retreat into the house and watch. After several more attempts, the lorikeet finally lands, screeching all the while. It finds the rockmelon and begins thrusting its tongue into the juice. I quietly imitate the whistle of the lorikeet I use each day to call them from the eucalypts for the early morning feed, trying to connect through bird language. Then I talk to it quietly, soothingly. Ever so slowly, the lid on its eye closes. Finally, it begins to eat, but half heartedly, not in the competitive flurry of the birds who arrive for breakfast. I return to my work, leaving two grapes split in half on the deck. Half an hour passes. Then I hear it, an urgent hoarse cry from high above us in the eucalypts. The lorikeet looks skywards. Its sojourn over, wings back, it leaves the deck and flies to the source of the noise: its blind mate.
I wonder how long they have been plying this creek, flying among the giant eucalypts, adjusting to the arrival of the humans, rooted at least in land that is still theirs. It defines their cycle of life and death. They are unfazed by the call of the next place to call home. Whereas I look beyond the gum trees, past the granite-bouldered mountains to the horizon and wonder what will shape my next adventure.
To find out about the writing retreat Lindsay will be conducting (Click here)