Belongil Beach Dreaming

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The bush was dew-drenched, tinselled with spiders’ webs and ringing with euphonic birdsong. My cheerful anticipation was well-founded, for the morning produced some rich encounters. During the mere hour I spent tramping through the wetlands, I came by willy wagtails, whimbrels, galahs, a grey-tail tatler, pied oyster catchers and pied stilts, heaps of seagulls, wattle birds and the ubiquitous miners, a little egret, a striated pardalote, a scarlet honeyeater, two fig birds, a flock of barred godwit (recently arrived from Siberia), black spoonbills (looking like can-can dancers with their feathers ruffled), elegant white-faced heron, pelicans, eastern curlews, little black cormorants, a mangrove gerygone, Lewin’s honeyeaters, bar-shouldered doves, a grey fantail, a variegated wren, white-cheeked honeyeaters, brown honeyeaters, a pied butcherbird (with its flute-like notes, one of my favourite songsters), a southern fig bird, and a consternation of crows.

And then there were the ultra-shy birds I heard, but did not see. The distinctive whipcrack voices of eastern whip birds shot through the trees. In fact, this is antiphonal singing. Typically the male calls the first “whip” notes and the female responds with the final emphatic “choo-choo”. This duet is so perfectly timed that it sounds like the performance of a solo singer. Occasionally when I listened patiently I would hear a delay in the reply, and this holdup, I learned later, was possibly because the female was swallowing an insect when her mate had called. Sometimes, when the female’s reply is insufficiently prompt, the male will render the final notes himself.

I was also fortunate enough to see a pair of ospreys -- the female roosting in their huge nest of sticks on a man-made platform atop a disused telegraph pole, and her mate flying in with some slippery prey seized in his talons. Each river estuary can accommodate only one pair of osprey, which, these days, are endangered. Their numbers have been drastically reduced through the use of DDT which ends up in the sea and ultimately in the fish on which the birds feed.

Even a couple of yellow-faced honeyeaters, a formerly common species, which is now disappearing, put in an appearance. In the 1960s, they flew over this region (which for much of its geographical history was a refugium for flora and fauna) in flocks of ten thousand. Now they, like so many creatures, are slowly disappearing, beleaguered by habitat loss. All is not entirely well in the estuary itself, either. From the 1980s onwards, fish kills became common and the local council in conjunction with the community are now reviewing how to “manage” the estuary.

Passing through melaleucas, banksias, wattles and hare’s foot ferns defined and gilded by columns of morning sunshine, I lingered beside a cluster of paperbark trees in which dozens of rainbow lorikeets were feeding on the blonde blossoms. (Seeing lorikeets I often smile as they remind me of the locals’ term of endearment for Rod Gibson --the Poet Lorikeet of the Bay). The birds were inverted, their violet heads and their deep coral red beaks tucking in to their provender, their lime backs rounded; they hung superbly camouflaged like so many ripe avocados, except for their relentless shrill chatter.

But even their screeching was soon eclipsed by a large colony of Laughing Kookaburras whose full-throttle cackling was so raucous and prolonged, it rolled over me like a wave. A spontaneous laugh gurgled up from the low country of my own throat, and in that early morning mirth, in the thick of all that rowdy singing and wanton profligacy, those wild birds hit the bullseye of my joy, making a mockery of the “modern prejudice that clarity cannot arise from profusion,” making me realise that a sky without birds would be a barren sky.

Although “very few birds share exactly the same markings,” they do share something physical in common with humans: except in the hand region, the essential structures of the avian wing and human arm bones correspond exactly.

Plant life also shares a striking biological similarity to us. Or should we cite our similarity to them since, according to science’s view of how and when we all lobbed here, they preceeded us? Annie Dillard tells us that a molecule of chlorophyll comprises 136 atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen “arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring.” At the ring’s centre is one atom of magnesium. Extraordinarily, haemoglobin is identical to chlorophyll, except that its central atom is iron. Which means that we red-blooded beings are “kissing cousins” to the green growths all around us.

It would have been dicy to try smooching up to one of those big-billed kookas, but I did not hesitate to wrap my arms around one of those tall, flaky cousins, a melaleuca. The bark fragments, fair tokens of the tree’s benignancy, clung to my jumper, caught in my hair, and I gave thanks -- for the life within me, for the healing I’d experienced (psychological therapy has “no monopoly on the power to heal,” as anyone who has lived close to nature will attest), and for the fact that the monolithic, international holiday resort formerly proposed for this site had not gone ahead, and the rich, natural lifeforms around me had thereby won a stay of execution.

I picked up a dead branch and headed for the beach. Although there was no sign of whales, they could well have been “out there” in force for, as Rod has written: “They sing to each other with eerie noises beneath the membrane of the sea.”

Walking the shoreline, I became aware that I was expectant, on the alert for something -- movement, action, a flicker, a flash, a glimpse, a curiosity or distraction, a heart-expanding display, a defining moment. I have savoured the tonifying effects, the ephemeral highs of such “trips” (one overcast afternoon on my local beach I was thrilled to see a silver fish leap forward five times in high arcs; one evening, lying on the same sands, I saw a stunning succession of falling stars; one dawn a swarm of cobalt-colored bees blanketed the orange trumpet vine out back, and one sizzling spring day on deserted Tyagarah beach I was rivetted by a wallaby in the surf) and occasionally pine for more. In this grabbing mindset, how much of nature’s subtle refinements and graduations can I appreciate, or even notice? Or more pertinently, how much do I miss? To how much am I oblivious?

During my perambulation, trailing the branch in the soft sand behind me, I caught myself humming, an aimless spill of jaunty notes that filled me up and at the same time made me feel lighter. My thoughts turned to the Aboriginal songlines, those invisible pathways meandering across Australia: ancient tracks made of songs which tell of the creation of the land. It is an integral part of the spiritual fabric of tribal Aboriginals’ lives to ritually travel the land, singing the ancestors’ impassioned songs; singing the world into being afresh. In this way the land in all its guises, moods and incarnations floats through the plasma of their culture.

The Aborigines who still sing their land, sing not only to animals and plants, but also to the celestial bodies “such as the sun, the moon, the Pleiades and some of the stars, and also to such natural phenomena as sun-heat, frosts, wind and rain.” Perpetuating the universe in this manner, the singers embosom not only those things which give life and gladness to humankind but also those things which create adversity and distress. “Centipedes and scorpions, mosquitoes, flies and fleas, bull-ants and processional caterpillars, and the whole tribe of venomous snakes” are cited, too. As are dust-storms, whirlwinds and droughts.

Sharing in this unceasing work of renewing the universe, the whole tribe (and not just an elite group of holy ones) gains a sense of having a larger intention, a fixed design to bring to their own lives and to eternity. They believe that all the efforts of humanity are essential to maintain nature’s harmonious functioning.

These days, many Westerners are hungry for such Dream Time songs, stories and myths, but tragically, in the genocide that took place after the white settlement of Australia, so many of the Aborigines’ stories were lost (1). Still, white Australians are overdue to discover our own ways of relating to the land, to find our own forms of spiritual transcendence. Wholesale “lifting” of Aboriginal myths and totems from their original “cultural soil vitiates their power” and is merely another form of plundering; it violates the indigenous peoples as it diminishes the “thieves,” but not their estrangement from nature and its living spirit.

This set me wondering again about a riddle I’d been mulling over for some time: Have certain stories, songs, wisdoms, always existed a priori in the earth’s landscape or are they the projections, the inventions, of peoples throughout the ages? My instinctive response was that the former is true, a belief which I discovered (towards the end of writing this book) had been confirmed by James Cowan, an Australian poet and writer who has spent many years in the Outback with tribal Aborigines. Cowan maintains that the landscape is imprinted with its own metaphysical or mythic data, waiting to be invoked. Even if we are wrong on this score, there are Eastern masters and Western theologians who maintain that projections during one’s spiritual journey are essential, that without them the spiritual life (like love affairs) would not generate the heat to get started.

On the other hand, modern man’s imprints and physical projections onto the planet are only too scarifyingly real -- in the scouring of the land for metals, of the seas for food and oil, in the decimation of the forests, the poisoning of the waters with toxic waste, the staining of the sky with pollution and acid rain.

The poet and conservationist Judith Wright said way back: “As Aborigines know, we live as part of a great interwoven net of dependencies, which cannot be broken without serious results to the whole, and in which we have acted as the destructive rogue factor. The Law which Aborigines recognise is one of kinship with the natural, and the environmental disasters which we have invited are disasters to that whole community of beings...

“However unpopular the word has become, I suggest that we need a recognition that we are part and parcel of a sacred organic order of kinship in which, whether we know it or not, we were born and live.”

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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