Byron Bay

To The Lake Once More

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Near where I live is a ti-tree lake, known in local Aboriginal lore as the women's lake. It's believed that before white settlement the lake was frequented by the Indigenous women, the Arakwal clan of the Bundjalung nation. In particular, it's said that the pregnant women bathed in it because of the therapeutic properties of the ti-tree oil.

An unspoiled place, surrounded by bush, steeped in tranquility, and one white-winged morning in mid-winter I set off, via the beach, to spend some time there. En route I hoped to spot whales, for the Humpbacks were on their annual migratory path from the Antarctic to the tropical waters off the Queensland coast to breed. I was in luck. A mother and calf coasted just beyond the breakers, blowing spume and tail fluking. Seeing this play gladdened me, although it was neither my first nor my closest sighting of those lurching leviathans. My friends Trish and Wally Franklin, who have spent as much time in close contact with Humpbacks as any researchers on the planet, say that such glimpses satisfy "important human needs" which cannot be quantified in economic or political terms. The inner growth resulting from such encounters does not show up in the gross national product, or in the sterile bottom line of the economic rationalists.

In the 1950s Byron Bay was one of Australia's major whaling stations. By 1959 the Byron Bay Whaling Company was granted a quota of one hundred and fifty whales (who in those times averaged ten tons). But by 1960, the whalers had almost wiped out the humpbacks and the barbaric practice was finished. Attitudes, thankfully, have changed and these days the only whales being shot around here are those sighted through the telescopic camera lenses of the whale-watching tourists who cluster around the Cape during the migration season.

When the whales had swum out of sight, I dawdled a while near a colony of crested terns in case a couple of them decided to turn on one of their spectacular paired mating flights. But they were all occupied with what appeared to be their morning ablutions and grooming. A southerly buster ruffled their shaggy black caps so they resembled a bunch of preening teenagers with mohawk haircuts.

I turned inland, following a shallow amber thread of water back to its source. The lake's broad waters were placid and turbid as dark treacle, the perfect inscrutable consort for the faded sky which was dimpled by a white half-moon in the west. The tracks lacing the sandy shore cut through dense scrubby vegetation, a chaotic genius of canopy, understory and ground cover - wallum banksias, broadleafed paperbarks, ti-trees, swamp- and black she oaks proliferated, sheltering grass trees (fetching small fortunes in city nurseries these days), eggs and bacon bushes, lilies, irises, twining snake vines and the tiny ground-hugging and carnivorous sun dews plant which eats ants for breakfast.

Like so much of the Australian bush with its muted, grey-green and brown tones, this was not a place that socked you in the eye with a gaudy or grand beauty. But, alive with the croaky calls of wattle birds, the startling flashes of yellow on honey-eaters mid-flight, the thin notes of red-backed fairy wrens in the undergrowth, the murmurs of a zephyr through the tall, dry reeds, the bush radiated its own vibrant appeal.

That morning it was not a panorama I wanted (although the human eye naturally sees in panorama, in sweeps of roughly one hundred and forty degrees), but the intimacy of a sunny nook, so I retraced my steps to the seaward neck of the lake and, loose-limbed, all eyes, all ears, nestled against a grassy bank. A Welcome swallow flitted back and forth across the water, deftly skimming within inches of its surface. To my ears, its song was a long quiet, rambling twitter, but another bird would have heard the swallow's song as a much more complicated rendition. Such birdsongs often feature a detailed pattern of melody and rhythm, but they are broadcast so fast that humans can only identify them as a twittering, like a tape of our speech on fast forward. Although we hear sounds over a similar range to birds, they can hear ten times faster than us. Who then lives in the richer world, stereophonically speaking?

From the upper branches of a casuarina tree, a brahminy kite lifted off, performing a series of slow, fluid arabesques over the channel before cruising north on its solitary hunting rounds. On the opposite bank, the shallow water's slight ripples were mirrored as silver ribbons of wavy light on the pale, flaky trunks of paperbark trees. With a softened gaze, I watched those light waves. Time passed. I closed my eyes to help the entrenched, eagle-eyed observer in me, the one who always has to apprehend, to gradually let go. I allowed my shoulders to drop and my mind to be carried along as if by the water’s current. An image of my backyard heliconias came to me, bringing to light a dream from the previous evening. In that dream, the heliconias had "spoken" to me.

"See how we're always sending up new shoots? We let them all come up to the surface, to grow tall and stand together in a supportive clump. That's why we're beautiful." As psychological metaphors go, this certainly made sense to me.

I sat very still, breathing and listening, until the flickering light behind my eyelids faded out, until the place's serenity began to permeate me, until she and I grew seamless.

* * *

That evening, in my garden I sat on a rock and arranged around me a semi-circle of citronella candles. Under a fine spread of stars, I inhaled the candles' lemon scent and exhaled my thanks for all the beauty I'd encountered and absorbed in my time on this plane. Beauty, I realised, had informed and directed large tracts of my life, much as the stars have always done for mariners and for certain migratory breeds of birds.

Since childhood, my perception of beauty had been principally and inextricably linked to nature. Like a doppleganger sparking the embers of cherished memory, it lingered, even decades after the original physical formation had been obliterated by a dam, a freeway or a new housing development. In quest of beauty, I had variously moved house, borrowed money (to renovate), fallen in love, created a garden, travelled afield.

Yet as I pondered, a "modern", dissenting voice inside my head spoke up, playing devil's advocate, denigrating beauty and giving it a bad rap. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," it said, trotting out a tired and cynical cliché. I countered with Matthew Fox's claim that this facile and glib dismissal of beauty occurs because "harmony and cosmos are so little dealt with. Beauty alerts us to our cosmic connections." A dyed-in-the rainforest Romantic, I threw in some classic Keats, too: " ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ " And a succinct swipe of Blake: "everything that lives in Holy."

The dissenting voice grew a little shrill in its demands for me to recant: You Romantics live in a dream world, eschewing science and the hard, dark facts of life, it said. So I parried with a few insights from Peter Marshall's Nature's Web: "Romanticism not only offers a modern way of experiencing reality, but forms the basis of a truly ecological sensibility." For Romantics see the universe as a living organism, an organic whole. Through their exuberant pursuit of individual expression, they, like most ecologists, esteem unity in diversity. They have a love of unspoiled natural environments, of wilderness and pristine places. They intuit the divine presence in all things and in their desire to interpret nature, are avid explorers of all levels of consciousness.

What a tragedy of our times that beauty needs to be sanctioned, I thought. Fox claims that Westerners lost beauty when we lost the creation-centred spiritual traditions -- in effect, when we lost the cosmos.

And so the dialectics went, until, weary of them, I dropped into meditation... Afterwards, the candles were burning low. It was late and I wanted to sleep, for at first light I was going to the Belongil estuary to bird-watch.

This text is an extract from Love Letters from Mother Nature: A Meditative Journey, available from Byron Books, Fletcher Street, Byron Bay or online from Bruce Sims Books. Email: [email protected]

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