Monday, December 15, 2008
I am in danger of becoming my nemesis school teacher, the history buff, that woman who glared at me over her weird glasses and decided that dead people were far more interesting than us squirming and very much alive 8 year olds. (She threw a duster at me once. She could have read my obituary and finally approved of me, if she'd been a better shot.)
Okay, not quite that crusty. But history grabs me. It grabs me the same way a good tale hooks me out of the present - which according to all the lotus-legged existentialists is where I should be - and back into Enid Blyton land, a far more pleasant place.
I've been reading about the initial European forays into our area lately. Their prepossessing assumptions that the land was theirs for the taking, classifying the plants, measuring the 'indians' and climbing mountains to view their new territory is quite astounding. Says I, with my computer and a car out the front, sitting in a tidy cottage overlooking the very same bay. It's difficult to remain indignant when we are so bloody compromised by our comforts and ancestry.
Anyway. I wasn't going to write about all that. No, it was cairns actually, those beautiful, ceremonial piles of weathered stone that humans need to build, and a particular character of these parts whom I shall name only as Cairn Man.
Vancouver had his men build two cairns, one atop Point Possession and one on Seal Island, adjacent to what we now call in peacetime, 'Whale World'. They built sealed bottles into the heart of these monuments, with notes inside advising of the HMS Discovery's visit.
After an English hiatus of ten years, in 1801, while William Westall sketched the island and the others killed seals, Flinders climbed to the peak of Seal Island and searched for this cairn. Everything was gone, the staff, the sealed bottle. Even the stones were gone.
Looking at Seal Island, I think that the stones would have been rolled by a bored sealer or Frenchman (after they discovered the promising bottle only contained a shitty piece of paper) down the smooth, streaked granite and into the sea. That would have been fun.
Maybe there's more to the disappearing cairn.
Reading this stuff brought to mind Cairn Man's plight. Aussie and I were sunning ourselves at gorgeous, deserted Whaler's Cove, when a fit-looking young man came and lay about fifteen centimetres from our camp.
Aussie smirked at me, because she just knew. She knew me well enough to anticipate my next sentence - "Hey mate! There's a whole beach here!"
"I always come to this spot," was his reply. "There's less march flies up this end."
For the rest of the morning he subjected himself to our snorts of laughter, every time he slapped one of those bloodthirsty march flies off his body.
A few weeks later we saw him again, at another little cove nearby. He waded shirtless through knee deep water, carrying two basketball sized chunks of black basalt. He looked amazing, if a little ... um ... demented.
"They've just knocked down my last one," he explained angrily.
I'd seen it. The cone of black basalt rose from a granite monolith surrounded by snow white sand. I'd even taken a photo. I told him this, forgetting all about the march fly incident, I was so impressed.
He laboured back through the water to get more stone. "Where are all the stones from the last cairn, the one they knocked down? Aussie asked.
"They're gone," he said. "They always put them back."
It gets better. Cairn Man built cairns all over the place. He told us some names and they were far and wide, east of Albany, to the islands and all over Torndirrup.
They get dismantled regularly and the sum of their parts scattered or placed back where they came from. I could tell that it absolutely infuriated him. In fact, it made Cairn Man so upset that it had become his mission to regularly revisit these 'destroyed' cairns and rebuild them.
I also realised that on the day of the march flies, he didn't camp next to us because we were the only humanoid females on the beach. It was simply his spot.
I walked away from Whaler's Cove that day with more questions than answers and I've been wondering about it ever since - in my Enid Blyton moments, usually when someone is saying my name over and over. That afternoon, Aussie was plagued with my text messages.
"Maybe he needs people to knock them down, so he has something to get angry about, a life purpose?"
"Who puts all the stones back? Why?"
"Why does he build them? Art? Beauty? Post-pissing?"
That was about eighteen months ago. I haven't seen any of his cairns for a while. I haven't seen Cairn Man either.
A few months after that day, Aussie and I climbed down into the cave at The Gap.
It's just past the Natural Bridge and you have to know how to find it. You have to trust, to squeeze through the narrow passageway and wriggle through the next. It's very claustrophobic and there are moments of real fear.
Then, suddenly, you can stand up and walk into a cavern the size of two classrooms. Graffiti going back to the 1950s is daubed all over the granite. The surf booms in your ears and you feel way below sea level, even though the flat earthen floor is bone dry.
We lit some tea lights and looked around us. As our eyes became accustomed to the light, we both laughed wonderingly at the complete cairn, right in the centre of the cave.
Post Script: Maybe I have not been looking hard enough. I found the cairn pictured above, today out at Torndirrup. And just as interesting, I found this carving in the stone beneath it.
"C. Keyser. 1957"