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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Control burning

This is something I wrote first in 1994, but this weekend, the air of Sydney is heavy with the smoke of control burns: we have had a number of lush years, and the standing fuel loads are high.


I got up early one Sunday to drive my older son down to the ferry wharf.  We live on the top of a hill, and as we pulled out of the drive-way, the hills to the north were almost hidden in smoke, each ridge more hazed than the one before.  Angus suggested that there would probably be more smoke haze before the day was out.  The trees on our hilltop were motionless, and so I had to agree with him.  We have had several mild and calm days, and the control burners have been out in force, getting ready for the coming summer.

These people have a simple aim: reduce the fuel levels close to any natural or artificial barrier that might slow the progress of a fire.  Get rid of the dead fuel on the ground, they say, and you can stop a fire anywhere.  Roads and fire trails often travel along ridges, and these can be used to stop fires dead, provided the available fuel has been burnt before the fire comes through.

A wildfire feeds on the gases that explode out of the fuel as the first searing blast leaps forward.  The drier the fuel, and the more finely divided it is, the more gas it produces in the first moments, and the worse the fire becomes.  If the fine, dry, standing fuel is burnt out before then, the summer wildfires will be starved.  That is why we burn the bush each year in winter and spring.

Aborigines "using fire to hunt kangaroos" by Joseph Lycett: like many early
white visitors, Lycett failed to understand the science involved.
Our natural environment has been regularly burnt, perhaps for the last 50 000 years, so our plants and animals are adapted to that sort of regime.  The original owners burned the Australian bush, clearing the undergrowth.  This helped them find the best track from A to B, it improved hunting, and it brought on new growth for prey animals to feed on.  So every living Australian plant is long since adapted to recovery from burning, the rest are long dead.  Equally, the bush animals which exist today are those which are well-equipped to escape from fire.

If we burn different patches in different years, we get the whole of a bush area running through a mosaic of stages.  In this way, nearby unburnt areas can first supply a refuge for the animals, and then later be a reservoir of seeds and immigrants to repopulate the burnt areas after the fire.  These small fires are slow, low in heat, and give wildlife a chance to escape to neighbouring areas.

Some people say that ‘conservationists’ oppose the practice.  This committed conservationist does not oppose it, because control burning kills feral plants and weeds, limits the spread of feral animals, and maintains the biodiversity of an area.  It is far less harmful than a rampaging wildfire every twenty years.  The opponents are mostly people who let emotion get in the way of good sense.

The most effective method is to make regular burns along roads and ridge fire trails, making a site for a fire break in time of need.  Of course, the cowboys who give 4WD off-road vehicles a bad name are forever demanding more roads and better access into wilderness areas, as though letting hoons in will somehow stop the fires from happening.  We need the fire trails, we need the fire breaks in moderation, but we don't need any more hoons in the bush.  The fire trails must be securely locked off, and we have to steer a middle ground between the mad green disease and organised ruthless perpetual arson.

Control burning must be carried out with care, whether it is the mosaic form or the roadside form.  Personally, I favour regular roadside burns to eliminate the weeds which grow there: cars are a major transport method for weed seeds.  This has been proven by analysing (would you believe it?) the sludge tanks of car wash establishments!  A good fire every year or two, penetrating five or ten metres from the road's edge, will see off most weeds, for they are unused to regular fire, and unable to penetrate beyond the disturbed roadside verges in any case.

One Sunday afternoon, in spring, 1994, we visited a favourite bush area, one that was badly burned in then previous January.  It is on a ridge fire trail with a large area of waratahs on its north side, which should have been blooming by then.  Waratahs have large spectacular red flowering heads, rather like the related Protea, and well worth the walk.  As we walked, my son and I played our usual spring ‘spot the species’ game, while my wife, a better taxonomist, pointed out all the ones we had missed.

Running across the photo, you can see the fire trail we walked in on.
Duncan and I found thirty species in flower before we got to the waratah patch.  All the way along, the southern side of the track showed unmistakeable scars from January's fires, even now, while the northern side seemed almost to be unmarked.  The fire fighters had clearly burnt off the southern side to make a fire break, and we started to gather hope for ‘our’ precious waratahs.  But just before the waratah patch, the wildfire had jumped the track, and the whole site was burned out.  We found maybe fifty young waratah plants, and many of the larger plants had survived, and were suckering nicely from the blackened trunks.  There would
be no flowers in 1994, and only a few next year, but 1996 should easily make up for it.

The fire had only run a small distance beyond the waratah patch: far enough to do significant short-term damage to the patch, but also far enough to ensure that there will be waratahs there for many years to come, sprouting from the ashes of their predecessors.

We climbed to the top of the next hill and looked at the plumes of white smoke rising all around us.  I wondered how many other waratah patches were being licked into shape, somewhere inside those burning areas.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Engravings at dawn

This was written quite a few years back, but soon enough, I will be taking newest grandchildren out like this. The photos here are all more recent, because we keep hunting, and keep recording.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Er collectors call this "a shield" — but is it?
Up in the early morning, long before piccaninny daylight, I look at the night sky to make sure there is no cloud, then I awaken my younger son.  His older sibs lack the resilience to tackle a pre-dawn scramble up a rocky hillside, but he seems to have inherited a wild and scatty nature that makes such things appeal to him.  He must get it from his mother, because she has elected to come as well.

All the day birds are silent at this hour, though I can hear one mopoke making his mournful cry of ‘more pork’ away in the distance.  We hurry into the clothing we laid out the night before, grab up the rucksack of water bottles, coffee flask and fruit, and then we sneak quietly out into the car and away.

In sunlight, water on the rock makes the images show up.
This is the only approved way, but there are lots of wrong ways.
We head for a small mountain, half an hour north of our home through the dark and deserted streets.  We pass just two other cars on the way out, and my son points out a smudge of light in the east, just before I stop the car.  The moon is about four days past full, so it is still up, and there is light to see by.

This is a wrong way. Some idiot has scratched the surface,
and missed the line. Notice the 38mm 50-cent coin for scale.
We all know how to walk quietly through the night bush without a torch, but the moon will help us see any wildlife still out on the hillside in the cool pre-dawn.  Dawn is close now, for the day birds are staking out their territorial claims with considerable gusto.

We have been this way be
fore, and we know from the tracks and scats we have seen that there are quite a few mammals in this area, so we walk quietly.  There is barely any breeze, but what little there is blows towards us.  We maintain our hope, but we also maintain our pace, for the wildlife is a secondary concern this morning.
Professionals (I'm not one) carry proper scales like this.
On a rock ledge that looks out to sea, there is a swarm of faintly engraved animals.  There are at least eight kinds of fish, lizards, and many other shapes that are too faint to see clearly.  We are here now because the early morning sun will have to slant across the ledge, bringing the faint grooves into sharp relief, and we plan to photograph as much as we can.  The engravings are at least 200 years old, but probably they are older, very much older.

I first heard of this ledge from a friend.  Some years ago, I carried his book on the area up here, and followed his vague instructions.  He is delightfully vague, as I discovered when we collaborated on a book some years ago, but I think the vagueness here may well have been calculated to make those lacking commitment retreat in dismay.  Anyhow, at first, I managed to get lost all over the mountainside.

These are probably eels. There is often a pool nearby.
After a while, I found three small groups and one very good site, but I eventually despaired of ever finding the famous ledge.  Heading back to the car, I went across country and stopped on the edge of a small cliff line to drink some water.  Stepping forward to look over the edge, I realised that I was about to tread on a whole mess of fish.

Most engraving sites are in places with good views, and this one is no exception.  From here, you can see the highest of Sydney's city buildings, some 30 km to the south.  Close by in the east, you can see Pittwater, the next harbour up the coast from Sydney, a few small patches of settlement, and a huge expanse of unbroken bush, with the Pacific Ocean lying beyond that.  By careful selection, you can see the view almost as it was before the white man came.

Probably meant to be a goanna: see my
previous entry for more on these animals
As we step onto the top level, the sun shows suddenly in the east.  I hurry my son back down the track, so we can watch it rise once more, then we scramble back up and sit behind the ledge.  Now we can relax, eat, drink, and search the bush below with our binoculars, looking to see who is late in getting to bed.  After the fires last year, we only see two wallabies and a couple of moving blurs, probably bandicoots.

It will be maybe half an hour before the sun is high enough to show the engravings off to their best advantage, and my wife begins to speculate.  The main engraving site on this mountain, after this one, is believed to be where the women went to give birth.  This mountain has most of the main food animals on it that women used to catch: could it be a ‘women's business’ site?

The sad fact about these sites is that nobody knows enough about them to say anything at all with any real certainty.  The people who knew the answers nearly all died within a few years of the arrival of the first whites, mainly from disease.  The remainder had their society shattered by the trauma of their losses: with few descendants to pass their culture on to, they took their surviving secrets to their graves.  Her theory sounds like a good one, we decide.

We know how they were made, though, because when the makers died, there were some works-in-progress. The makers used a larger stone as a hammer, and pecked small holes in the stone by hitting a piece of ironstone. Then they used something like ironstone to gouge a groove, joining the holes.

By now the sun is just beginning to slant across the rock.  My son sets up the camera on a tripod, lays a metric scale on the rock, and we start photographing systematically.  We repeat this every five minutes until the grooves start to fade with the rising sun, and then retreat back down the mountain.  Fruit may fend off hunger, but now we need a serious breakfast.

This is an emu, but from this angle, it is upside-down.
As we turn into our driveway, a black 4-wheel drive churns past in the street with its top is down.  Two women, one short and one tall, both dressed as Valkyries, all blonde plaits and plastic horned helmets, hurl the Saturday papers onto our front lawn.

The stereo in their car is playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, and they are lustily croaking all the ‘Tojohojo’ bits and giggling as they go.

We call this a spirit figure.
The Fancelli sisters, it seems, are filling in for somebody.  I rather suspect that it will not last for long — Wagner is not popular with the locals.

I must tell you all about them, one day.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Tales

This is a new, all-singing, all-dancing  Australian social history, and it's in e-book format, because that way, I can offer the reader >1200 hotlinks to the sources that I used. It is just a tad under a quarter of a million words, in 48 chapters.

You can buy it from Kindle for $4 (US or ~$5.27 AUD) right now. If you go to that link, you can view the first six or so chapters for free, using the 'Look Inside' link on the left.

And there's a great deal more background on the book if you look at this link.

What I am trying to do before I get old and gaga, is  quite deliberately to subvert the way people see e-books: this work is self-published, but that's because no commercial publisher has yet realised that there are really exciting things you can only do by exploiting a new medium.

I have no plan of going gaga soon, but I want to put my feet up in the next few years, and then howl with mirth as newbies realise I was right, and try to claim my ideas for themselves.  They are going to have this priority claim to get around :-)

How is this book subversive?

This is history like you never saw before: it is participatory history, where the reader can become a player.  You don't have to, but I hope you will.

If you are Australian, this book fleshes out the bald, dead-white-male hero story you learned at school. It introduces new characters (not all of them white, or male, or heroes); provides contexts; and encourages you to ask your own questions.

And if you have the misfortune not to be an Australian, Mark Twain explains why you should read this book:
“Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”
Here, you will meet reformed would-be assassins who fought bushrangers; the first cases of redbacks on the dunny seat; the truth about bunyips and the crocodile in Sydney’s Rocks; methods for getting rid of fleas; how horse thieves worked; what had to be done before paddle steamers could run on the Murray River; the Russian invasion ‘scare’ in Melbourne; duels fought by foolish men; a scandal over a dead horse; cruel treatment dished out to coolies; wrecks, floods, bushfires, droughts and plague; booms and busts; early schools and early poets: some sublime and some awful.

The real history of Australia, the untold stuff, has many diversions, like the case of the society ladies who stood on their chairs, waving their handkerchiefs: their action was one of the starting points for the book, and in chapter 48, you will learn why they did it.

The real Australian history is very different from the packaged stuff that you get from written and dramatic fiction in books. The judges weren’t all monsters, screaming “Hang Them!”. Judges often worked very hard to save prisoners from the gallows (even Samuel Burt, who really wanted to hang!). That said, quite a few of the convicts were serious villains, who did far more than “steal a loaf of bread to feed their hungry children”.

Then again, some of the other convicts were political prisoners, and at least one was falsely convicted: you’ll find all of those here, and you’ll also learn that transported convicts weren’t kept below decks, in chains, the whole voyage — and Norfolk Island wasn’t always the hell-hole it was in later years.

Then again, the people they called squatters weren’t always rich, the first bushrangers weren’t thieves, and Edward Hammond Hargraves wasn’t the first to discover gold — in fact, he never did discover gold, but he conspired to make Australia’s gold rush happen. Oh, yes, and if you learned about the explorers at school, they weren’t all heroes, some were villains, and some of them were fools.

The surprises don’t stop there: specialist pedants will tell you that Matthew Flinders was the first to use the name ‘Australia’, but this book offers two earlier documented sources for that name. Then again, pop history has swimming only starting with ‘neck-to-knee’ costumes in the 1890s: sorry, but your ancestors, if you are Australian, probably skinny-dipped. Certainly, the nation’s first swimming races came off with it all off, so to speak.

In short, this book tells it like it was, but more importantly, in the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the sources, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and
* what happened next?

Come on in: the water's fine!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Our Easter is in the autumn

Easter in Australia is a major holiday period.  Our schools have a four-term year, with the first two terms being divided by a break beginning around (or before) Good Friday and running through the following week.  Nominally, it is autumn, but this blog includes a dozen or so species of wildflowers that were photographed, in bloom, in the sanctuary where I work on North Head, on 11 April 2017.

Our seasons are weird, as I said before. Anyhow, the first six are: three banksias and three Acacia species.

Many Sydney people will be off to the coast, or inland, or anywhere, queuing in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, just to escape the crowds.  We who stay here say nothing about how Sydney at Easter can be very quiet indeed, for most of the remaining locals gather in just a few crowded venues.

In a research plot, fenced from rabbits,
the flannel flowers and wattle do well.
Here is a flannel flower or Actinotus,
called by that name from the feel of the petals.
Australia is a nominally Christian country, but once again this year, we will be reminded of just how nominal that allegiance is.  All over the nation, churches will swell to almost-full, as they only ever do at Christmas and Easter, but even then, few churches will overflow as they did in my youth.

Australian people seem to be able to find the comfort they need in more material things.  Perhaps we miss the symbolism northern hemisphere people get from celebrating the Resurrection in the spring.

Lambertia sp.
Epacris longiflora, long known also
as Native Fuchsia
Be that as it may, it is still autumn for us now.  We have just had two days in a row with 20 degree (C) temperatures in Sydney.  Over the Easter weekend, we have been promised maxima of 25C each day.

In Canberra, and in the mountains west of Sydney, and in the more pretentious suburbs, their foreign deciduous trees are turning to autumn colours and losing their leaves.  Elsewhere, people grow sensible Australian trees which are never bare, except after a bushfire.

One year at this time, a small bushfire broke out on the next ridge, smothering us in smoke.  It was a minor burn, though it crowned once or twice, sending flames up into the sky, and raining ash on the the houses nearby.

The blaze was soon controlled, but it's an ill wind, they say.  During the holidays that year, I found time to poke around the burnt areas, to see what relics I could uncover of the earliest inhabitants, whose engravings dawn many of the sandstone rock faces throughout the bush.  After a fire, many of these surfaces become accessible for the first time in maybe thirty years.

The clean smell of bush smoke was actually a blessing, for there had been a smell of mothballs on the bus, as woollen jumpers (our name for what others may call a pullover or a sweater) are resurrected from storage for yet another year.  All over Sydney, electric one-bar radiators are being pulled out and given their annual run-in, adding a distinctive burnt dust smell to the great indoors.

Our old dog always recognised autumn.  He would lie curled on his bed in their conservatory each morning, rather than standing hopefully and peering through the glass at us as we ate breakfast.  The humans are often a little less wise, and many of them will be swimming still. perhaps I will be among them.

Glycine, a delicate member of the pea family
We are ambivalent about our autumn.  Many people will cross the mountains to Bathurst on Thursday and Friday for a weekend of camping, drinking, and motor-bike races, but many will decide that it is too cold for a last swim, and spend their time in museums and art galleries.  After six years working in the museum industry, I have some sympathy for my former colleagues as they prepare for the onslaught of the masses.

Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower,
is around for most of each year,
Few people will go walking in the bush, which is where you will find us in the next week or so, making the most of the peace and quiet.

My wife and I found a whole new series of rock engravings two weeks ago on an isolated ridge.  We will work our way slowly along the ridge, following the fine smooth sandstone bed that attracted the artists. 

Hakea or needle bush
Not all sandstones are the same, but this stratum was once a washed-out river bed, filled later by sand that was particularly pure and free of clay, making a smooth, flat, tough sandstone surface to work on.

The bush tracks around Sydney are deserted right now, partly because there are fewer flowers blooming, maybe as few as a dozen or so species right now, and also because it is also Easter Show time.

I go to ‘the Show’ about once in ten years, and always come away swearing I will never do it again.  It looked for a while as if we would be going this year, and I found myself looking contemplatively at places I might fall from, breaking a leg as I land. That would  have saved me, but strategically placed rain did the job instead. Now the crowds will be too large.

Woollsia pungens commemorates an early Australian botanist,
William Woolls. Like Grevillea buxifolia, it flowers all the
year, almost.
One thing is certain: you will never find me travelling the roads at Easter.  There are just too many people driving at Easter.  Not that they can drive fast, of course, but there will be an ill-concealed fury in their driving that I have decided I can do without.

It would be enough to have to mill around the Royal Agricultural Society Showground with 150 000 other people, growing footsore and weary, getting annoyed by either dust or mud or both, becoming exasperated by outrageous prices, and yet somehow being entranced by some of the sights and smells that return me to my childhood.

Instead, I am at home, doing a last listen to the mp3 files version of my next book, a massive Australian history, as big as three normal paperbacks, which will be called Not Your Usual Australian Tales.

I will have more to say about that in a week or so, but here's an anecdote from the end of my foreword:
On a personal note, I have another reason for doubting paper records: I was born in Queensland in the latter days of World War II. When my father, who was in the RAAF, moved north into “the islands”, my mother flew to Sydney with me as a babe in arms on an Air Force Catalina.
The RAAF was subject to inflexible regulations, and the number of passengers allowed on a Catalina was restricted. An Air Commodore on the flight ordered that I be embarked as a Gladstone bag, and that was how I appeared on the manifest, so anybody would seek in vain who sought evidence of my travels on faded, curled, foolscap sheets.
I am grateful to the Air Commodore, but according to my mother, not the most reliable of witnesses, I showed my gratitude at the time by throwing up on him. I tend to believe this, because I have always been a bit of an anarchist at heart, but posthumously (so far as he is concerned), I express my thanks to that kindly and probably slightly smelly Air Commodore.
Still, neither my travel nor the arc allegedly described by my stomach contents appear anywhere in any surviving record. There is a lesson there for us all.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Life in Hyde Park

The easy way to Sydney's Hyde Park is by train.  There are two stations on the city circle that drop you off there: St James station at the northern end, named for the nearby early colonial church (designed by that great convict, forger and architect, Francis Greenway), and Museum station at the southern end, not too far from the Australian Museum.  Any number of buses run along Elizabeth Street past the park.

The pleasant way to get there is to walk.  Hyde Park lies along the eastern side of the main city district, so you can reach it by heading up almost any east-west street in the middle of the city.  If you miss it, you will probably bump into either the open grassed areas of the Domain, or the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Between them, these three open areas make an almost continuous belt of green, penetrating more than a mile from the harbour, up into the CBD.

There are no real times for Hyde Park to be open, and no gates or fences to keep you out, but it may not be the best of places to wander in the middle of the night.  It is not, however, a muggers' paradise like Central Park in New York.  Not yet, anyway...  On the other hand, it would be a shame not to go there at night, for the giant Moreton Bay fig trees are filled with tiny bud lights, making the park a fairyland for young children.  Fairyland with a bite, maybe, for you will often hear the harsh squabbling of the fruit bats as they feast on the figs overhead.

Tawny frogmouth, Middle Head, Sydney.
There are birds as well, ranging from daylight's noisy, pushy gulls and pigeons, to ibis with long curved beaks, prowling the garden beds and spearing the soil in search of worms.  By day, there will be a couple of tawny frogmouths, owl-like birds which imitate dead stumps, sitting motionless somewhere in the park, their disguise betrayed only by the spatter of white droppings beneath their favourite roost.  At night they hunt insects and small mammals, but by day, they remain motionless.

In about 1992, I was working nearby, took a camera into the park in the early morning, at a time when I calculated that the perch would be in sunlight, and took several careful photos.  An old man, one of life's less fortunate beings, wandered past.  He stopped to see what my target was, and said gravely, ‘Excuse me, mate, I think that kookaburra's dead.’  Then he wandered on without waiting for a reply.  Next came one of the gardeners, wanting to know how I had stuck ‘that thing’ up in the tree.  She had been working in the immediate area for a month, and had never noticed the bird on its branch, just three metres up.

The gardeners know all about the other wild life in the park.  There is an active population of possums living there, and the thick leaf litter of the garden beds provides a rich source of invertebrates to stoke a food chain which is also supported by the park's visitors.

The invertebrates have mostly come in with potted plants at various times, and include some rare treasures.  Around that time, I worked at the nearby museum, and we were in the habit of paying serious money to get Peripatus, velvet worms, from Victoria, so we could show these unusual animals to people.

Velvet worms have stubby little legs, and look like the missing links between the worms and the arthropods.  They catch their prey by spitting sticky slime at them, but they look delightful, with a jet-black matte skin.  You can imagine my delight (and the museum accountant's annoyance) when a children's workshop that I was running started to find velvet worms in leaf litter samples from Hyde Park!  Later, we found giant pseudoscorpions, 5 mm in length, and all sorts of other treasures that the passing tourist would never know about.  My friends the gardeners were equally excited when I took part of our catch back to show them what we were getting.

Once upon a time, it was just a race course and a cricket ground, sometimes referred to as ‘the exercising ground’.  By 1816, it was Hyde Park, but even in 1840 it was nothing grand.  Mrs. Charles Meredith called it ‘a park utterly destitute of trees . . . merely a large piece of brown ground fenced in, where is a well of good water, from which most of the houses are supplied by means of water-carts.’
Hyde Park in the 1850s: no trees, but sheep as lawn mowers.

Here, that usually reliable observer was a little off beam.  After the original water supply for Sydney, the Tank Stream, was completely polluted, Busby's Bore was established.  The ‘Bore’ was a long sloping tunnel, running down from swamps in what is now Centennial Park to Hyde Park.  From there, the water ran in wooden above-ground pipes to the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets, high enough for the water carts to be filled by water pouring from the pipes.

At least one modern guide-book to Sydney tells a sad tale of the convicts toiling away with windlass and bucket, hauling water to the surface, but the whole tunnel was started at the lower end, at ground level, and was always drained on gravity.  The only thing to be hauled out by windlass was the rock spoil from the tunnel, once the tunnel had gone far enough to make it difficult to haul the spoil back to the lower opening.

Water remains a theme throughout the park, with fountains and pools in many places.  The Archibald Fountain at the northern end is a delight when it is running  On a more serious note, the southern end of the park contains a large War Memorial and the Pool of Remembrance, which seems mainly to commemorate fallen leaves and ice cream wrappers.
The Archibald fountain can be fun when the wind blows.
The statue of James Cook at the southern end was set up where he could look down on the harbour, but now the trees have grown, buildings have sprung up, and poor old Cook is more or less landlocked.  Still, the statue can, if viewed from the appropriate angle, cause uncontrolled lewdness and hilarity in most adolescents, due to a most unfortunate telescope.

Hyde Park is largely a passive activity area, although the old men who play chess there are anything but passive, crowing with delight as they capture each other's pieces.  This activity is well worth watching, but be warned: they can be scathing in their response to those who offer advice.  Their version of chess is a no-quarters form of psychological warfare, and no prisoners are taken.

Anybody who walks there often gets to recognise the regulars, like the man with the long pole who goes around putting slices of bread in the trees for the possums, the power-walkers, the dawdlers and the bird-watchers.  The gardeners know the regulars as well, and when a flower bed is cleaned out in the early morning, the flowers are saved in bundles, and handed out to the recognised faces as they trudged along the gravel paths.  In a city of five million people, it is nice to know that there can still be a sense of community like that.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Goanna Friends

16 February 1788 An alligator, ab’t 8 feet long, was seen close by where I go to birdlime just behind the camp, and has been seen among the tents at night more than once.— Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, HRNSW (2), 394.
A lace monitor (goanna) from Phillip's The Voyage to Botany Bay, 1790.
Gum trees in Australia are often identified by their bark type.  Stringybarks and ironbarks are fairly straightforward, and bloodwoods have a bark filled with gum pockets that spray out at you when you hit them with an axe.  Other gum trees have smooth barks which are kept that way because the outside layer of bark dies and peels off regularly.

In some cases, the bark lies thick on the ground, keeping down other plants that might compete for precious water, but the smooth-bark habit has another advantage.  It keeps a nice clean surface on which animals may leave their tracks, on which animals must leave their tracks, if they are to climb the tree.

One of my favourite picnic haunts is a clearing, close to a stream, surrounded by smooth-barked apples.  At least half of that name is self-explanatory, although the tree is a relative of the gum, and certainly bears no apples.  The smooth pale bark of these trees is a perfect place to go detecting, looking for signs of previous climbers.  No possum can climb up to its nesting hollow without leaving scratches, no bird can perch on a low branch without leaving claw marks, and no goanna can climb, looking for eggs, without leaving signs of its passing.
Perentie, a different sort of varanid, seen near Uluru.

Goannas are varanid lizards, members of a group that is mainly in Australia, but found also across Asia and Africa.  Their most famous member is undoubtedly the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which is about 3 metres long, and able to attack children or sleeping adults.  We used to have an even bigger giant varanid in Australia, up until 30 000 years ago, about 7 metres long, but the biggest Australian varanid today is only about 2 metres in length, and much less fearsome.

Mind you, that was enough to convince the early white settlers that there were ‘alligators’ around Sydney, and just recently, an alarmed tourist claimed to have seen a ‘crocodile’, probably at my favourite picnic site, but it was only a goanna, an old friend that we greet each time we stop by there.  Goannas are carrion eaters, and I suspect that it makes quite a good living from discarded scraps and from people like us, who feed it deliberately.

The goannas are supposed to get their name from a fancied resemblance to iguanas, a completely unrelated bunch of reptiles, but they are themselves, all 25 species in Australia, along with the other fifteen or so, scattered around the world.  You can find them scattered right across Australia.

A goanna on the prowl has a slightly evil look to it.  They walk with their upper leg joints held out horizontally, and there is an almost calculated threat in the way each foot is lifted, rolled around, and placed on the ground, like a sailor swaggering down the street.  The goanna holds its head high, then lowers it to the ground, moving it from side to side, and it flicks its tongue in and out, tasting the air to see what may be on offer.
Lace monitor, Port Stephens.

For a slow-moving menace, the goanna has an amazing turn of speed when it is threatened.  It rushes at the nearest tree, and hurls itself up the trunk, moving quickly to the far side of the tree.  Walk around to the other side of the tree, and the goanna will move with you, keeping a handy barrier of timber between you and it.  Goannas do not trust humans more than they have to.  Except in open country that is.  Frighten a goanna on a treeless piece of ground, and you may find yourself playing the part of a tree.  Avoid this if you can, for all tree climbing animals have sharp claws.

A treed goanna may be persuaded to leave its shelter, provided a reasonable offer is made to it.  Anybody who has ever kept poultry in Australia will know that there is one thing a goanna cannot resist: the chance to get its muzzle dripping in egg.  Put a hen's egg at the bottom of the tree, stand back about six to eight metres, and hunger will soon overcome its sense of distrust.

Turning around on a narrow tree trunk ought to be something of a challenge for something as long as a human, but not for the goanna.  Deftly, it turns from head-up to head-down, and stealthily approaches the egg, watching its watchers as it comes.

Goannas use their tongues only to sense things, and never to eat, so the feeding goanna needs to slip the egg into its mouth before crushing it.  If ever a reptile could be said to exhibit sheer sensual pleasure, it would have to be a goanna, sitting at the base of a tree, with traces of egg white and yolk dribbling down from its mouth.
You can find them close to homes, but they usually move away.

Many Australians accept without question that the goanna is an evil animal.  They will assure you that goanna bites ‘come back’ each year for seven years after you have been bitten, that they are venomous or worse.  Some Australians will make every effort to run over a goanna, believing that they are protecting the cuddly birds by doing so.  They have been conditioned to this by children's stories, and by a judgement based on appearances rather than knowledge.

In truth, a goanna bite might go septic on you, for they are great eaters of carrion.  Certainly they take a few eggs, but they also take lizards, snakes, and other invertebrates.  However you look at it, their reputation for evil is greatly exaggerated.

Many years ago, I worked as a ranger in a local National Park.  There was a large goanna in the park which was in the habit of basking on a rock, just below a lookout.  We park workers would often time our labours so that we were near the lookout at lunchtime, so we could take our break there, looking out over the sea and admiring ‘our’ goanna.  Looking back, it was unwise, but we got into the habit of sharing small bits of our sandwiches with our friend the goanna.  We would show our goanna to people, and encourage them to share suitable food with it as well.  After all, it was a carrion eater, so a dead sandwich would be no worse than any other dead thing, we thought.

Lace monitor, Port Stephens.
That argument was even more misguided.  One Sunday, I arrived to find some distressed people at the lookout.  A lout had proven his heroism by dropping down onto the warm rock, and smashing the goanna's skull with a stone before driving off.  Sadly, I picked up the body and I carried it around with me for the next hour or so, while I was on duty in the area.

Our goanna did not die entirely in vain, for I managed to explain in gentle factual terms to any questioners that this was an old friend, done to death most foully, and to no purpose.  I would add that we would at least be able to investigate its stomach contents to see what it had been eating, and I probably won a few hearts and minds that day.  I did not mention that we would probably find sandwiches as a major item.

I like winning hearts and minds to good causes.  It is something I do well, and I have no qualms about using whatever subterfuges and histrionics are needed to achieve my ends.  And while I feel that the ends properly justify the means, looking back, I cannot help wishing that I had not had the necessary means that day.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Villains

This is an amended version: I have been lazily thinking of this as Not Your Usual Villains, but it's actually Not Your Usual Australian Villains! Update March 25: the Kindle version of this book is now available at

I have rumbled from time to time about a planned series of e-books, using up my leftover notes to write some fun history. One of these is now ready to go, though some portions have already appeared here, like my tale of Moondyne Joe, a sort of bushranger,  a wicked publican, and others.

Now here's another taster from the collection: once I have done this, I will create the Facebook page for the book, and then set myself to work, getting Not Your Usual Australian Villains out on Amazon Kindle.

The book is a set of essays adding up to about 80,000 words on topics that mainly relate to colonial history, though when I look at women wearing trousers, that story comes up to 1950 (which many young'ns already think of as "history"). My book, my rules, but it's an amusing read.

A wicked legal clerk

The management of the law in the earliest colonial days was something of a problem. The first Judge-Advocate, David Collins, lacked legal training, but he had common sense. The second Judge-Advocate, Richard Atkins, was also the fourth, and he served throughout Governor Bligh’s time. Unfortunately, he was a drunkard and a crook, and even John MacArthur called him “a public cheater living in the most boundless dissipation”.

MacArthur later wanted to prosecute Atkins for libel, but that may have been just a ploy: suffice it to say that there was no love lost between these two villains. Roger Therry describes the situation from hearsay, but it seems to match the facts:
The Governor [Bligh] was also placed in a position of great embarrassment from the want of competent legal assistance. The Judge-Advocate, Atkins, was a person of no professional mark, and was besides of a very disreputable character. There is no term of reproach too strong to apply to him, if what Bligh reported of him to the Secretary of State be true, — “that he had been known to pronounce sentence of death when intoxicated!”
With Atkins was associated one Crossley, holding no office nominally, but really performing the principal functions of the law department. He was a convict, whose true character is disclosed in the enormity of the crime that caused him to be transported. His case was this: Crossley had resorted to the ingenious device of putting a living fly into the mouth of a dead man, and then guiding his hand to trace his signature to the writing that purported to be the will of the deceased person.
Upon the trial, he swore, with audacious assurance, “that he saw the testator sign the will with his own hand while life was in him!” In passing sentence on his conviction for perjury, Lord Ellenborough took the opportunity of congratulating the profession in getting rid of such a pest. Moreover, he had been convicted of swindling in the Colony. Much should be pardoned to the erroneous courses of a Governor who was obliged to lean upon the support of such a worthless pair for legal assistance…
— Roger Therry, Reminiscences, 75.
Therry went on to outline some of the ways in which the activities of Atkins and Crossley served to push the Rum Rebellion forward. There can be no doubt that the real villains in that piece were the rebellious officers who would, in an honest world, have been convicted of treason, but Atkins and Crossley helped cause the trouble.

Just recall that if somebody swallows a fly, you can console them with the thought that they have life in them.

Don’t say it to a lawyer, though, or you may be seen as a villain.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A judge of poetry

Any polite biography would have to list Barron Field as lawyer, poet and scientist. He was a passable lawyer, most of the time, and well-informed on matters of science. His poetry was another matter, though there were some in England who admired what others called mere doggerel.

Still, when he published his First Fruits of Australian Poetry in Sydney in 1819, these were the first alleged Australian poems to appear in book form. When Barron Field edited and published his Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales [1] in 1825, it included two chapters (chapters 6 and 13) by Allan Cunningham. So Field could mix it with the best when it came to the sciences.

Yet if he was a passable scientist, Field was less skilled at taking Australian animal life into poetry. I cannot bring myself to offer more than one verse of his Kangaroo, which surely eclipses anything written by Erasmus Darwin or William McGonagall. We would get good poets in due course, but it would take time.


To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the cameleopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther-size,
Thy fore half, it would appear,
Had belong’d to some “small deer,”
Such as liveth in a tree;
By thy hinder, thou should’st be
A large animal of chace,
Bounding o’er the forest’s space;-
Join’d by some divine mistake,
None but Nature’s hand can make-
Nature, in her wisdom’s play,
On Creation’s holiday.
— Barron Field

The problem for Australia’s earliest poets, Robinson, Field and Wentworth, at least, was that they were English-educated gentlemen, and their imagery had English roots. Still, Field did a decent job in two sonnets on Australian historical themes:


Note: In this sonnet, the barrack tow’r is the fort at Bare Island on Botany Bay.

I have been musing what our Banks had said
And Cook, had they had second sight, that here
(Where fifty years ago the first they were
Of voyagers, whose feet did ever tread
These savage shores) - that here on this south head
Should stand an English farm-hut; and that there
On yon north shore, a barrack tow’r should peer;
Still more had they this simple Tablet read,
Erected by their own compatriots born,
Colonists here of a discordant state,
Yet big with virtues (though the flow’ry name
Which Science left it, has become a scorn
And hissing to the nations), if our Great
Be Wise and Good. So fairest Rome became!
— Barron Field

On visiting the spot where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks first landed in Botany Bay.
Here fix the tablet. This must be the place
Where our Columbus of the South did land.
He saw the Indian village on that sand
And on this rock first met the simple race
Of Austral Indians who presumed to face
With lance and spear his musket. Close at hand
Is the clear stream from which his vent’rous band
Refreshed their ship; and thence a little space
Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound
Of Christian burial better did proclaim
Possession than the flag, in England’s name.
These were the commelinae Banks first found;
But where’s the tree, with the ship’s wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass — ‘tis classic ground!
— Barron Field

One thing that people notice about Field is his name, which must provoke the question: what were his parents thinking? The answer is simple: they were thinking of his mother’s maiden name: she was born Esther Barron.

[1] Barron Field (ed.), Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales by various hands. London: John Murray, 1825.