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EPIPHANY

 

Day merging softly into the cool winter’s night. Soft blue shadows deepening to black with the early evening light. A perfect sunny day proceeding into a perfect nocturnal mirror, stars shining brighter by the minute as the last light fades behind me to the west.

Gently tired after a long day of work around my land, showered and clean, the vista from my verandah overwhelmed me. Forest, and the dipping and rising of the eastern horizon, while the escarpment of the caldera to the north loomed over the ancient rainforest now inky black in shadow. Not an artificial light to be seen, as it’s always been from here; as it will always be, hopefully. Not a mechanical noise to be heard; only the stillness of nature, now silent in one of those rare times when all the teeming life of that rich landscape seems to take a breath, as one.

I couldn’t help myself, from breaking the silence. Spontaneously a loud, pure cooooeeeee, broke loose from my being, the perfection of the moment expressing itself in sound. Out it flew, across the valleys before me, over the cauliflower form of the trees, the great forest.

And back it came. Four or five times my cooo-eee returned to me from across the valleys and hills, from here and from there, nearer and further away, softer with distance until it was no more than a whisper of coo-ee.

Oooh, sweet ecstasy. A life-changing ecstasy; I knew that I was actually part of the whole exquisite thing; life, nature. Not separate, not an observer mentally looking and understanding, judging or feeling it as an outsider, apart from everything else. No effort, no thoughts; just recognition, knowing, for the first time.

Tomorrow as I worked or walked in the forest, a great branch – a ‘widow-maker’ as they’re prosaicly called – may fall on me. Dead, instantly, and in the heat and fecundity of the rainforest, if nobody found me, it would not be so long before I’d be reduced to a skeleton, consumed by the forest itself, by bacteria and moulds and worms and enzymes. Composted, to feed the forest, to be a part of it, albeit in a transformed state.

I could also hire a huge bulldozer, a squadron of men armed with large chainsaws, and in a short time, the great forest would disappear, be consumed by Man’s desire and power to do what he wished, regardless of all else except himself. Me.

Or I could work and play, create and transform, with an awareness and intention to heal and nurture that land, to work and be a regenerative element in the whole remarkable play of plant and animal, bacteria and funghi and enzymes; all the seen and invisible elements that make the miracle happen.

Ah, an epiphany, the moment that sealed my path ahead, in the moment that an echo returned. We all seem to live mostly in shadow, unconscious for much of the time, automatically living out lives with little reflection. That cool evening on the verandah of my little hand-hewn house in the forest, changed everything, still haunts me beautifully, wisely reminding me back on my true way.

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NOT A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP.

We left the Bloomfield River at first light, in anticipation of a long hoof down to Cape Tribulation. First the climb up the escarpment from the River, then across the open forest plateau, before descending down into the full-on rainforest and along the track just in from the beaches to Cape Tribulation. Nearly forty kilometres, so we’d certainly need the full day.

A great day to be doing the walk, and we were sweating like pigs by the time we’d scaled the hill and were tramping across the plateau. Feeling good though, and seemed to be doing well time-wise.

Wow, what an incredible contrast there is to reach the end of the flat stretch. Baking in the semi-sunshine, it’s easy to make good time through the wooded grassland. Where the plateau tumbles down to the thin coastal plain though, everything changes. Sheltered from the blazing sun by the escarpment, the dry open forest transforms to an impenetrable wall of dripping green jungle, with the track violently cut through it a few years earlier rapidly swallowed up and over-shadowed by the towering rainforest trees.

Down, down, down the ‘road’ slides, demanding constant maintenance just to keep it open for the 4-wheel drive soft-arsed ‘adventurers’ who ply it. Crazy, pretending to insist on motor access to a world where Nature rules so imperiously. The highest rainfall in the country falls in these parts; more fool the arrogance, which thinks to dominate Her.

We arrive at the foot of the escarpment, only mildly lacerated by the treacherous What-a-while vine that drapes the path wherever the sun offers encouragement. The beach is only a hundred metres from the track here, and the sound of lapping waves seduces us to pause for a short break; it’s only early afternoon – we’ve made good time – and will surely reach Cape Trib by nightfall at this rate.

We follow the sinuous path that has been compacted through the roots and vines  by years of walkers before us, to greet the Coral Sea and catch our breath.

Catch our breath is right, and not only with the view, for beyond the aquamarine coast and well short of where the horizon should be, there is a black line and threatening thunderstorm. It’s  heading onshore, and fast, leaving no doubt about the transformation about to unfold.

Action stations! With a ridge pole offered by a fallen branch slung between the limbs of a mangrove tree, we frantically gather palm fronds to fashion a shelter, creating a thick, sloped wedge against the approaching deluge. The dense forest on the inland side protects against any possibility of rain entering our refuge from that side.

By the time the first drops are splattering thunderously on the beach ten minutes later, we are high and dry and well prepared, even to the point of smugly coaxing life from the small fire we’ve lit. There’s no shortage of driftwood and forest litter to ensure we had a healthy stock of fuel to cook ourselves a cuppa tea, and later a meal.

Enthusiastic with the instant house we’d created, our plans to reach the Cape by evening had been shelved. The idea of battling through torrential rainfall and swollen creek crossings has no appeal at all, and even seems downright foolish to consider.

It’s no passing thunderstorm, but a fully-fledged that sets in for the rest of the day, bucketing down, imprisoning us in out makeshift shelter. But hey, we’re dry, well fed, and enjoying this romantic unexpected highlight to our tropical adventure. What could be better? No worries at all.

None at all, until way beyond nightfall. The rain had eased by then, though way too late to consider walking any further, so we cooked a very Spartan meal with the limited food we’d carried, and Kerrilyn curled up to sleep while I continued toying with the fire, mesmerising myself in the flames and coals.

All good, for an hour or so. Then, as the wind died away completely, the sounds of the night began to intrude. The forest stirs under cover of darkness, and another world begins it’s shift. Small voices and exclamation, smooth calls, in sharp twitters, dulcet whistles and strange songs. Other noises too: the percussion as twigs and branches, fronds and leaves fall from on high; rustling of small bodies swishing past leaves; dragging of material over the back there, and now actually quite close. Hmmm, and what can that be? The sound of footsteps cracking dry  branches, over to the left, closer the creek.

Oh shit! Surely not? The thought dawns on me, of what sort of creatures might be making these various noises of the night. What could that one be? Foot on wood, and sound of dragging. Something quite heavy even; a larger animal apparently. It occurs to me that we’re in forest that  is the territory of animals quite different than those found in the sub-tropical rainforest where we’re from,  a couple of thousand kilometres further south.

For example: crocodiles! Enormous, powerful, lightning-fast, saltwater crocs, live in exactly these hereabouts. Huge, cold-blooded, jaws like elephant-traps, reptilian carnivores certainly partial to a morsel of sweet human flesh for supper. Fucking hell, what an idiot I am. Huddled under a open palm-leaf lean-to, with nothing more than a blazing brand and Swiss Army knife to protect us.

Now the Swiss are the ingenious creators of a pocket knife that performs quite a remarkable number of functions very well, but among them there is nothing designed to tackle a tonne of ravenous reptile that wouldn’t raise a crocodile sweat in take out a pair of brainless hippies dreaming of romance. Fucking hell again; there’s absolutely nothing to be done, except wait. And listen.

All night long I wait, and listen, and wonder, while my wife snoozes peacefully on, sometimes snoring quietly, oblivious to the mortal danger of possibly becoming a midnight snack for a monstrous killing machine. How many words can I find to describe this situation? Dumb, crazy, idiotic, stupid, stoned, naïve, barmy, insane, thoughtless, imbecilic, gormless, mad … well, who cares how many. Dead men tell no tales.

Well, clearly there was no crocodile. Dawn finally fades the night towards day, a million sleepless moments later. The day is grey and threatening, quite apart from any animal threats. I prepare a sweet chai to fuel our flight, rouse Kerrilyn from her innocence, and explain our precarious situation in few words. Having washed down a bowl of basic muesli with the chai, we raise camp, bid farewell to our refuge, and set out for the Cape, still some hours away.

Ha, not more than five or six metres behind our shelter, there is an enormous leaf and twig dome, several metres broad and almost a metre high; a bush-turkey’s next. All night long, the fellow has been foraging around in the forest, scavenging material to maintain the nest, adjusting and rearranging to maintain the perfect temperature in the next to incubate his eggs, burrowing his head in the pile frequently to gauge the warmth of the decomposing material. Just right for hatching.  My sleepless night has been disturbed mostly by the noise of a medium sized ground bird fussing around with his nursing.

Reaching the track again, we are stopped almost immediately by another bird, ambushed by a cassowary on the path, ten metres or so ahead of us. Though not rating in comparison with six metres of teeth and muscle, it’s quite intimidating nevertheless, confronted by a two metre tall flightless bird with a reputation for having a cranky foul humour and occasional fierce aggression towards featherless bipeds like us.

He stands his ground, apparently well aware of his capacity, and fossicks for breakfast while we respect his ritual. Appetite sated, he eventually retires deeper into the forest, and we continue on our way.

A wet day, of intermittent squalls, fording swollen creeks, looking out for reptilian locals, but seeing none. Almost an anti-climax to yesterday’s night of anonymous rustling. I  might think twice in future, about romantic sleepovers on tropical beaches.

NERAKUTTASWAMY – THE LITTLE JACKAL

Nerikuttaswami – The Little Jackal

He wasn’t always a nice man, living up to his name. A cantankerous coot, as someone described him. In the one aspect, he would growl and curse, and lament his travails, and in another, he was soft and sympathetic, caring and accepting. More a pussycat than a wild dog.

He had his reasons, and motives for grumbling too. Nerikuttaswami wanted a green holy mountain, and the world seemed against him succeeding. He planted and planted, and planted. Good for him, for having a try. Even if they were all eucalyptus; he did his planting in the seventies and eighties, before awareness of appropriate species gained root. I suppose that he just thought a green, forested mountain was better than a brown pile of rocks and clumpy grasses. Very few on his seedlings survived.

He was an aesthetic, living in a stone hut a hundred metres or so up, and as much as he had renounced the world of material attachments, his yearning for the childhood memory of the smell of gum trees in his nostrils may have gotten the better or him. Just one of his seedlings had survived as a rangy tall sentinel watching over his failures, right next to his hut where he was able to zealously guard it. The rest of them had long perished, some from drought and withering heat, but the majority hacked away as thin seedlings for the small but treasured fuel wood that they would provide.

Nerikutta was an Australian in his past life, and that origin still snuck out every now and again, in ways apart from the choice of the trees he planted. Built like the proverbial outhouse dunny (Australian slang for an ‘long-drop’ toilet shed, built separate from the house), he was short and squat, and usually skull-shaved; he would have made a good school rugby lock-forward in his youth.

I suspect he took a shine to me as a fellow rabid tree planter, as well as a fellow Ozzy. We spent some time together up on the mountain, discussing reforestation strategies, occasionally drifting away when reminiscences distracted him, of early days in Tiruvannamalai, where he’d lived for many years, and sometimes to escapades he recalled from his wayward youth. The consequences of his debauched life there in the western suburbs of Sydney finally jolted him to his senses and precipitated his flight from the city, and then the country, as he struggled to find reason in his life.

India was where he found it, in a life so far removed from booze and burn-outs on the tarmac of suburban streets. He dropped all that and entered another world, of renunciation and years deeply immersed in a search for truth and meaning. Whatever he found, he kept to himself, and his only outward activity beyond the bare necessities was devoted to the mountain, and how he might clothe the barren Siva lingam in trees.

He was ahead of the times though, when reforestation would become a crusade, and most locals simply ignored his passionate mission, or did their best to frustrate it, pulling out what the goats did not uproot, or burning them on their cooking fires. And if that did not thwart him, the mountain seemed bent on doing so. Apart from Siva being the Lord of destruction and re-creation, in His mountain manifestation as Arunachala, He took the form of Fire. So flames raged up the slopes every year, burning away what little vegetation existed, offering a little ready fertility in the form of ash to feed the grasses that would be harvested for thatching, almost the only productive resource that could be exploited from it. A forested mountain? The crazed fantasy of a God-touched fanatic, surely. Matches made sure of that.

He’d all but given up by the time Apeetha dreamed our project into being, and while he encouraged such efforts, his own experiences had embittered all hope he had for success. That cynicism seemed justified in our first futile efforts, which suffered the same fate as his. He railed about the lack of consciousness and sheer vandalism.

One day Nerakutti and I were walking together near the Ashram, heading for a chai shop to refresh ourselves. On this particular scorching hot day, he was chattering along, actually telling a profane tale from his youth. Very much in the “bloke from the suburbs” mode. A small woman in a sari of the poor, approached us, clearly recognising him, for she pressed her palms in devoted greetings, adoration in her eyes. She fell to the dusty street and prostrated, touching the feet of my craggy companion. I watched him transformed in an instant from that ordinary ‘bloke’ from Sydney, into the holy man of her devotion.

He bent and touched her shoulder, returned her Namaste respectfully as she hauled herself up from the dirt, and we moved on towards our chai, almost as if the interruption had not occurred.

A few months later, after a bout of illness, he was found one morning, in the cross-legged lotus position of meditation. Dead. Grace to a frustrated tree planter.