In Place

October 2018

When I tell people I'm a mountain person, I'm hoping they'll talk to me about what makes a place important to them so I can understand more about my place. Some people can fit in anywhere but most have preferences. There are those that speak with yearning, as if in exile, and later I discover they've named their property after this place. Usually we get no further than talking about big skies or low horizons but occasionally these conversations can shift into the more intimate ways that particular places can make us feel at rest or complete. Common ground is that sense of belonging to a landscape that's found its way inside us. Connection to country prompts questions about Indigenous authority but it's unlikely that this sense of belonging is inherited through any ancestral affiliation or childhood imprint. I'm from generations of coast dwellers, yet the mountain landscape I look out from has been inside me all the time 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 unbounded like a spirit-being without concern for gravity or the continuities of time. If I drop in like this I'm mostly at rest in some reverie, half-awake to murmurs of memory. But there's a two-way flow to these experiences because when I'm actually here, at least one layer of my perception is moistened with the residues of my imaginary visits.

If you could join me and we went there now, we'd go back in time to a sandstone rise roughly in the middle of a mountain pass. We'd move a few fallen sticks aside and lie on our backs in dry leaves among scribbly gums (E. rossii). This little community of trees grows nowhere else around here and gives the place a sense of wholeness. The slender stems that we can see reaching into the high canopy are gently swaying. Tiny clusters of curved leaves are nodding and glinting against an impossibly blue sky. We hear the underside of their sliding, slivering movements. Bringing into focus the framed sky shapes, a slow-as-growth, insistent but acquiescent branch-dance begins to be apparent. It's like a ballet, 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 turn - a matching response.

Further down, it's clear that some of the younger, more slender, single stemmed trees have not lingered in the half-light but 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 - legs are spread. The lower regions of the smooth grey trunks bare the calligraphic traces of the looping tracks of moth lava. A couple of very old trees with gnarled calloused bark - 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 crimson rosella glides through. There's an airiness - a serene place of captivating reverence, soft rustlings, and wafting scents of eucalyptus.

For all their varied characters, ages, and temple-like solidity, these scribbly gums also go through a collective and dramatic seasonal transformation. The main event usually begins with the rising summer heat in mid to late December. The cool, smooth, grey bark of the bigger trunks suddenly develops cracks. Then the bark peels back into ringlets and begins to fragment into bright red shards as if some inner oxidising furnace had been kindled to the point of explosion. With each breeze, littering flakes of bark-fall settle around the bases of the stems so that the contrasting red ground cover makes the trunks appear like young sprouts - bright yellow. In a normal summer the process takes about ten days. Rain invariably follows and the yellow colour of the bare trunks washes off to resemble a kind of parchment, upon which, new moth calligraphies are revealed. Then, very slowly, almost imperceptivity, over the next few months, the skin of the trunks turns a pale mottled grey. I have a strong affinity with this annual transformation and call it the great shedding.

I once made childhood drawings of these 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 there in front of me - outlined on the horizon. I felt as though I'd just stepped into my future. I have a clear memory of saying, that as soon as I could legally drive a car, I would go to those peaks on the horizon and live there. But it was not until my early 20s that I encountered Harry Harris, a Coonamble cattle dealer, who sold me Wheoh (also known as Bugaldie Gap) - a small portion of a property which had been incorporated into the Warrumbungle National Park.

A couple of blurry photos bring back fading first impressions - 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.

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 at a place on the western end of a high ridge 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 a psychological uncovering of the strata of memory as a descent into the hard ground. In the narrow monotony of so much effort, what came at me was probably some artefact of muscle or body memory. It threw up the residual presences of voices and regrets. I dwelt on my failings. It was a painful - even punishing, physical and mental experience. I look back on it now as a journey into the unconscious and my own great shedding of youth.

The anxieties that engulfed me came in long waves where tension was followed by release and misery by euphoria. Over time, these waves seemed to stretch out for longer periods but the peaks and troughs deepened.

This sense of motion and even of shedding is also reflected in the contours of the landscape. 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 (possibly Kawambarai), 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, breaking 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 little town of Coonabarabran.

Having at its core a gap - forming 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 - and time. The forces of these movements range from tectonic upheaval, where great sheets of rock detach from high cliffs, to extended moments of such stillness that silence has weight. At night, the projections of the topography seem to be purposely calibrated to mark the apparent movement of the moon and stars.

Most mornings as the western cliffs of Saddleback ignite and the east-flooding sunlight pushes a line of shadow across the arc of the valley curve - only to retreat again in the evening, the rhythm of the day can be sensed as the course of an invisible pendulum. I love the way passages fleetingly open as certain parts of trees, bushes and even patches of grass - light up, as if illuminated from within.

During the day and often at night Saddleback seems to breathe. Volumes of air rise out of the gorges to the north to wash over the cliffs as if a storm was raging on the other side. But it's the motion of tiny airs and draughts - those ephemeral puffs and eddies that 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. There are also moments of perfect stillness, with not a breath of air, when the leaves of a single tree or bush suddenly begin to shiver and stream in response to some private ferment. Occasionally, little pockets of warm air slip by as if radiating from the bodies of invisible beings. In most cultures it's the big powerful winds that have names but these spontaneous little wafts and rustles engender presences that must surely have been an integral part of an Indigenous cosmology. Circular stone arrangements, sharpening grooves and some struck tools 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 find myself wishing there was some mystic process that could bring them back from a hiding place - that these stories had a life beyond memory and affiliation.

And yet, beyond a pervading sense of absence there are also raw energies that, through time, gain significance without being fully understood. 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 the dominant mountain, Bulleamble, marvelling at the spectacular line of peaks that run down into the western plains like the backbone of some half-buried creature, I had an out-of-body experience. I felt myself rising about 50 metres 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 experiences. Some invoke supernatural forces. Others say that 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.

One day I had a strong waking dream. 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. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the stone. It was the same sandstone as beneath the scribbly gums; flat, not quite round, and about the size of an outstretched hand.

That was the extent of the waking dream. It was vivid, powerful, and memorable. I thought little more of it except that I decided that the next time I went to town I would check the culvert for the stone. I was not expecting much. 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-world gift suddenly became something I was ill-equipped to manage. But it seemed like a good idea to act as if I knew what I was doing. So 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 somehow malignant, I returned it to Flaggy Creek where, within days, a flood carried it away. Then, more years later, when I saw it for the gift it was, 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. The charred stump of the tree still has the stone inside.

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 association through a lifetime that now give it meaning. I've no idea what to call it or if a name is needed. As a physical object it's just a stone. Whatever power it has belongs to my internal landscape and is beyond my rational mind. 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.

Here, among the scribbly gums, we can shift into the present. The bush fire that was always expected, and will certainly come again, has been and gone. It's been six years since it asserted its ecological right-of-passage. Heat and flame scoured every surface and left a silent, skeletal world - suspended. Many of the trees are dead and I mourn their loss like old friends. The canopy I showed you is gone and the larger trees are collapsing; their heavier branches dropping away like the life-promising epicormic shoots. All around, grey leaning limb-wrack and shatter is spatially disorientating. The tall house I'd built as a young man, in a space among these trees - carefully, is now a home for ants beneath rust-brown twisted roofing.

Some of the trees have re-sprouted from their roots with three or more stems competing. I count them. The grove is rising again through a thick, almost impenetrable, understory of wild hops. Each year a different understory species takes advantage of the last and dominates the cycle of succession. I'm now an old man but I too have begun again - the fire has made me bolder and more assertive - more confident. I've set up a saw mill and am turning the dead mountain Stringybarks into shelter. Birds are returning. Barring another fire, I'm guessing it'll be 70 years - maybe more, before the canopy of scribbly gums closes again in what is called the climax.

Bush fires, wild storms, floods, falling in love, the wildness of children and grandchildren are mainly outer events that compact to mark moments in the span of a life passing. Some leave physical traces that wear into rounded fragments of memory and story. The inner events don't compact, erode or decay. They can expand with the significance invested in them but they leave no traces. When one of my daughters presented me with a rain-stone she'd found I realised she had her own inner world of engagement.

Past, present, and future have become like transparent overlays leaking-into each other. Although my brief human span seems hopelessly out of scale with the power and volatility of the energies around me, I remain in place here - privately and gratefully enveloped in an enchantment continuously refreshed by the restless, bristling adjustments of life on the ground beneath sky.