In Place

September 2018

I'm a mountain person. I like solitude, cool air, high vantage points, rock under my feet, and the feeling of being enclosed by a broken skyline of crags and cliffs. Some people have no sense of where they belong; others fit in anywhere. Flat-country people open their arms to big skies with low horizons; coast people reach for headlands. A few, feel so out of place that when they have a surrogate home they prominently assign a name to it from afar, as if this public assertion has the power to call up the place they long to be.

Common ground is that sense of belonging to a landscape that's found its way inside us; places that make us feel alive or complete. Connection to country can prompt questions about Indigenous authority but it's unlikely that this sense of belonging is inherited through any ancestral affiliation or childhood imprint. I grew up near the sea. The central desert country spoke to my father. My mother spent 70 years refining a garden that resembled a forest clearing. Yet the mountain landscape I look out from has always been inside me and is inseparable from any sense of self I might have. I can't think of anything (apart from love) that when found has such a sense of rightness or enchantment.

Life can take me away from my mountain home in the Warrumbungles but it so closely resembles my mental or internal landscape that I can call it up anytime and glide around like a spirit-being without concern for gravity or the continuities of time. In this unbounded space I'm mostly at rest in some reverie, half-awake to murmurs of memory. Sometimes I'm working through the practicalities of habitation. Even with my feet on the ground, at least one layer of my perception is moistened with the residues of these imaginary visits. But the gains and losses of change mean there are certain places I can only return to in spirit.

If I could take you back in time to a sandstone rise in the middle of the mountain pass that is my home, we would move aside a few sticks and lie on our backs in dry leaves among scribbly gums. This little community grows nowhere else around here and these trees are people to me. The slender stems that reach into the high canopy are gently swaying. Clusters of curved leaves are nodding and glint against an impossibly blue sky. The wavy under-sound of leaf-slide smooths all separate movements into an over-rhythm of connected motion. Focus on the framed sky-shapes in the canopy and a slow-as-growth, insistent but acquiescent branch-dance appears. Branches curve away from each other as if mimicking please-go-before-me gestures - never colliding, always reaching for that last fragment of sky and with each change of direction - the symmetry of a matching response.

Further down, among bare stems and trunks, it's clear that some of the younger, slender, single-stemmed trees have leapt through the half-light and grown so vigorously that they've shot straight up to secure their patch of blue. Some (I'm guessing they're female) are overtly sensual with vulva-like skin folds where limbs fork - like spreading legs. The lower regions of the smooth grey trunks display, like tattoos, the looping calligraphic tracks of moth lava that give the trees their name. A couple of very old trees with gnarled, calloused knobs are drooling with a bitter tasting iron-red resin.

The dappled light that reaches the bark, twig and leaf-fall floor of this grove supports just a few sticky daisy bushes, orchids, cycads and occasional clumps of soft, slender grasses. A pair of crimson rosellas arc through. There's a gentle airiness, soft rustlings, and the wafting scent of eucalyptus. For all their varied ages and columnar stability, the scribbly gums cycle through a dramatic and collective seasonal transformation. It's an event that usually begins with the rising summer heat in mid-to-late December. The cool, smooth, grey bark of the bigger trunks suddenly begins to crack. Bark peels back into ringlets and starts to fragment into bright red shards as if some inner oxidising furnace had been kindled to the point of explosion. With each breeze, flakes of bark-fall settle around the bases of the stems so that the contrasting red litter makes the bright yellow trunks appear like young sprouts. Rain invariably follows and the yellow colour of the bare trunks washes off and bleaches to parchment, upon which, new moth calligraphies are revealed. Then, almost imperceptibly, over the following months, the trunks mottle grey. My strong affinity with this annual transformation has given it a name - the great shedding.

Far away, in childhood, I made drawings of these yet-to-be-seen mountains. The form of the landscape became such a persistent and recurring expression of longing that in 1965, when I was 16 - when I first saw the Warrumbungles in the distance from a friend's father's property, Mundroola - near Coolah, it was with a sense of recognition rather than astonishment that the same pointed mountains I'd drawn were right there in front of me - outlined on the horizon. I felt as though I'd just stepped into my future. I turned to my friend and announced that as soon as I could legally drive a car I would go to those peaks on the horizon and live there. But it wasn't until my early 20s that I encountered Harry Harris, a Coonamble cattle dealer, who sold me Wheoh - also known as Bugaldie Gap - a left-over portion of a larger property that had been incorporated into the Warrumbungle National Park to the east of Siding Springs Observatory.

A couple of blurry photos bring back fading first impressions: alert, wandering around in light, misty rain and climbing the sheer wall of rock that marks the southern boundary - a knife-edged igneous dyke known to some as Scabby rock and to others as Uncle Ernie's rock (after the remarkable (legless) Ernest Blackburn, an early owner of Wheoh). I'd like to say that I fell in love with the place immediately but the remnants of ring-barked trees and scattered evidence of failed agriculture gave the land a neglected feel. It took time to explore, attune, and begin to find my way in to its moods and rhythms.

After setting up a camp at the head of the gap, to the north of the scribbly gums, where there was a spring, I set about digging into the ground on the western end of a high ridge from where there was a spectacular view. Equipped with youthful enthusiasm, a pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, I dug right through summer to create a flat space for the foundations of a room loosely imagined as the southern wing of an octagonal tower.

The excavations became all-consuming; as much an uncovering of memory as a descent into the hard ground. In the narrow monotony of such effort, what came at me was probably some artefact of muscle or body memory. It threw up the residual presences of conversations and regrets. I dwelt on my failings. It was a painful - even punishing, physical and mental experience. Anxiety came in long waves where tension was followed by release and misery by euphoria. Over time, these waves seemed to stretch out for longer but the peaks and troughs deepened. I look back on it now as a journey into the unconscious and a self-reliant shedding of youth.

The motion of shedding and discarding pervades the contours of the landscape as well as its naming. The Warrumbungles was formed when volcanoes erupted through an ancient layered sandstone tableland and then weathered away leaving the stumps of domes, spires, dykes and sills protruding from forested ridges and deep gorges.

Only a few Indigenous names remain for these features. My favourite is the unused and all but forgotten Tha-a-ma. It's believed to be the phonetic spelling of the Aboriginal (possibly Kawambarai) name for Timor rock before it was anglicised. It's why we locals still say tImor and not teemor. Tha-a-ma means, the runaway. It's worth saying out-loud for its gentleness and, for a moment, it breaks the silence of loss - of that vast ... indefinite period of Indigenous occupation and voice. It so perfectly and humorously captures the sense of a landscape in motion, of what would otherwise be just a large rock, standing alone, half-way along the road to the Warrumbungles from the little town of Coonabarabran.

Circular stone arrangements, sharpening grooves and some struck tools also endure but it's hard to accept that the ancestral stories and inventions that once enfolded this place in a greater meaning are irretrievable. I wish these stories had a life beyond their long-lost affiliations; that we could retrieve them from a hiding place.

Having at its core a gap, a small pass in a line of bluffs and steep, cliff-sided mountains, Wheoh is energised by passages or pathways for the movement of winds, water, wild animals, shadows, machines, even time. The forces of these movements range from tectonic upheavals, where great sheets of rock suddenly detach from cliffs, to extended moments of such stillness that silence has weight. At night, the black broken skyline shrinks away from the glittering expanse of stars as if purposely calibrated to mark their apparent movement.

The rhythm of the day can be sensed as the course of an invisible pendulum. Most mornings the east-facing cliffs of Saddleback ignite and the sunlight floods in to push a line of shadow across the arc of the valley curve - only to retreat again in the evening. I never tire of the way passages fleetingly open as certain parts of trees, bushes and even patches of grass - light up, as if illuminated from within. As the day settles and the colours begin draining away, it's the dominant mountain, Bulleamble's turn to light up and glow to crimson before fading into darkness.

The breath of Saddleback pulses out of the gorges to the north to wash over the cliffs as if to the beat of a stormy coast on the other side. But it's the ephemeral puffs and eddies that seem to have a life and purpose of their own. I once saw a tiny white cloud drifting up the edge of the valley when a male black cypress pine discharged its pollen in the direction of a grove of females. During moments of perfect stillness the leaves of a single tree or bush can suddenly begin to shiver and stream in response to some private ferment. Occasionally, little pockets of warm air brush bare skin as if radiating from the passing bodies of invisible beings. These spontaneous little unnamed wafts and rustles engender presences that hover on the edge of consciousness. Named and described, they take on substance, character and power as they interact with other raw and unexpected energies persistently leaking through the misty shell of awareness and comprehension.

The clear skies of the Warrumbungles are favoured by astronomers and the full moon is usually so bright that walking among moon-lit shadows is a special pleasure. One night, when I was standing on a ridge below Bulleamble, marvelling at the spectacular line of peaks that step down into the western plains like the backbone of some half-buried creature, I felt myself rising into the air from where I looked down and saw myself located in space and time with a sense of exalted connectedness. It was like arriving at a set of pre-determined coordinates. All time - all movement - converged on that point. It felt like being at the centre of the universe but at the same time dissipated into its fabric.

Many people have reported similar out-of-body experiences. Some invoke supernatural forces. Others say neuroscience has uncovered disturbances or lesions in an area of the brain associated with spatial cognition. Regardless of the source of this experience, it was both life-enhancing and memorable. It was certainly a point from which I began to feel so integrated with my surroundings that any sense of separation belonged to a former life.

A strong waking daydream followed. I wasn't asleep, just consciously dozing ...

I was flying (like superman) about 20 metres above the route of the road heading east towards town. I became aware of being on a collision course with someone (male - not known to me) flying in the same way towards me. In slow motion we both straightened up into a vertical position with arms and legs outstretched. Below us, on the road, a green utility, heading away from town, approached a small open culvert where the road crosses Flaggy Creek. Our bodies collided very gently at the point of our belly buttons. At the moment of impact, a flat stone came out from between us and fell to the ground where it rolled on its edge along the side of the road for a short distance and then flopped into the water of the culvert. My attention was focussed on the stone rather than the aftermath of the mid-air collision.

That was the extent of the waking dream. It was powerful and memorable. I thought little more of it except that I decided I would check the culvert for the stone the next time I went to town. I was not expecting much. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the stone. It was the same kind of sandstone as found beneath the scribbly gums; flat, not quite round, and about the size of an outstretched hand. A week later when I went to town, it slipped my mind. But on my way home, I was approaching Flaggy Creek when my memory was jogged by a green utility passing on its way into town. By this time I had driven through the culvert. I pulled over and walked back. To my amazement and delight - there was the stone beside the road in the water just as I had seen it.

My delight was short-lived. As I picked up the stone I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my chest. The dream-gift suddenly became something I was ill-equipped to manage. When I took the stone home and put it into an old bath used to collect rain water, the pain immediately went away. Years later, believing the stone to be somehow malignant, I returned it to Flaggy Creek where, within days, a flood carried it away. Then, more years later, when I realised it was a communication from the land itself, I had no trouble finding it again in the dry creek bed. This time I stored it in the base of a hollow tree, up near the spring in the very centre of the mountain gap. The tree was struck by lightning and somehow twisted around the stone. In 2013 a bush fire swept through Wheoh. The charred stump of the tree still contains the stone - intact.

The significance of the stone is something I try not to rationalise or explain. I'd struggle to find appropriate terminology that wouldn't diminish the rich layers of associations of a lifetime that now give it meaning. As a physical object it is in no way remarkable or attractive. But I'm always aware of its presence - the feeling of revolving around it. It anchors me with an elasticity that lets me go but draws me back. I feel fortunate to have such a tangible and powerful introduction to what has become an extended conversation between my unconscious and the energies that have drawn me to this place.

Among the scribbly gums, we shift into the present. It's been six years since the bush fire asserted its ecological rite of passage. Fire was always expected, and will certainly come again. It arrived with a scale and intensity beyond my imaginative capacity to foresee. Heat and flame scoured every surface, shattered stone and left a silent, skeletal world suspended - the bare bones of the landscape.

I mourn the death of these delicate trees as I mourn the death of old friends and all the creatures for whom this was home. The canopy is gone and the older dead trees are collapsing; their heavier branches dropping away like the life-promises of epicormic shoots. All around, grey leaning limb-wrack and shatter makes what was familiar - strange. Rubble and ruin litter the space where I'd carefully built a tall house among these trees when I was a young man.

Slowly the grove of scribbly gums is rising again through an almost impenetrable understory of wattle and wild hops. I count the stems re-sprouting from their roots. Each year a new understory species takes advantage of the last and dominates the cycle of succession. It's a privilege to be part of the process of regeneration where past, present, and future are like transparent overlays leaching into each other. I'm now an old man but I too have begun again. The fire has made me bolder and more assertive - more confident. Birds return. Recently a goanna appeared. Barring another fire, I'm guessing it'll be another lifespan before the canopy closes again.

Bush fires, wild storms, floods, even falling in love, are events that compact to mark moments in the span of a life passing. Some leave traces that can wear into the rounded fragments of memory and story - narratives of endeavour, others leave no trace. I watch one of my daughters braid native grasses by instinct and receive the gift of a rain stone from the other. My son waits deferentially. I hope my children find their own place but there's an unspoken, shared language of the wild in us that has come with knowing this place.

My brief human span seems helplessly out of scale with the immense power and volatility of the energies around me, but I am in place here - privately and gratefully enveloped in an enchantment that is continuously refreshed by the restless, bristling adjustments of life on and off the ground - beneath sky.