Friday, June 29, 2018

Resolute and the lagoon

Many, many years ago a young cattle man walked the shores of Broke Inlet carrying a saddle on one shoulder and a shotgun over the other. The shore was wide and long, pocked with holes where the swans had been feeding on the underwater cockles just days ago. Undersea ripples shaped like the roof of one’s mouth were still printed into the sand. The man noticed, of course, that the sand bar had been breached, that the water had rushed out to sea after smashing into the bush for six months, but he had future quarrels on his mind and thirty more miles to walk.

He couldn’t have walked that beach 8000 years earlier because the inlet didn’t exist and anyway, he was a white man who didn’t exist either back then. The inlet then was a valley treed with jarrah and karri and alive with birdcall. By 7000 BP (before present) the water came up. I’ve dreamed about this event. I swam through the forest like a seal through kelp. According to oral histories the water came up fast, a cataclysmic happenstance. The inundated trees all died. Cow and Calf became the islands that you can see today, two islands side by side, shining white when the sun hits them.

In those olden
days there was a large plain extending from the main land out
to the White-topped Rocks, about nine miles out from Cape
Chatham. On one occasion two women went far out on the
plain, digging roots. One of the women was heavy with child,
and the other woman had a dog with her. After a while they
looked up, and saw the sea rushing towards them over the great
plain. They both started running towards the high land about
Cape Chatham, but the sea soon overtook them and was up to
their knees. The woman who had the dog picked it up out of the
water and carried it on her shoulders. The woman who was far
advanced in pregnancy could not make much headway, and the
other was heavily handicapped with the weight of the dog. The
sea, getting deeper and deeper, soon overwhelmed them both, and
they were transformed into the White-topped Rocks, in which the
stout woman and the woman carrying the dog can still be seen. *

The inlet had a wider mouth back then and stayed open to the sea through all the seasons. The water was very salty and home to oceanic fish, molluscs and plant life. There was a tide, governed by the moon. Because of the tide and changing times, people built fish traps, beautiful stone wall arcs into the lowest tide. Mullet, bream, herring, pilchers, flathead and leatheries would swim over the walls on the high tide and be trapped there when the tide receded.

Then about 4000 years ago the rain fell less and the lagoon began to close herself against the sea, sealing The Cut with white sand, a place where the plovers began to nest. Because there was no longer a tide, the people began a new form of estuarine fishing, herding fish using brush wood into the traps, now reinforced with built-up sides of wood and bark. This was the new kind of Noongar fishing that early Europeans reported seeing.

The young man carrying a saddle and a gun may have mused about these things or he may have worried instead about his reception when he walked into the Nornalup homestead. Resolute was his father’s favourite horse. They were driving cattle down to the coast to graze for the summer. He and his little brother had tried to ford the Shannon in the wrong spot. He’d lost three heifers and Resolute to the bog at the mouth of the drained inlet, before turning the rest back. He’d had to shoot them as they gasped for air above the mud. The Meadowman patriarch would not be happy.

The drowning of Resolute and three heifers happened in the bog of the Shannon mouth about eighty years ago and today I am watching the water come up every day with the winter rains. One morning, after days of my boat getting swamped and the water pushing into the bush, I’ll wake up to an eerie silence, like the whole world has drawn breath and held it. Swan holes and ripple marks will people a wide and long beach again. I will not have a gun or a saddle on my shoulder but I’ll always be mindful of Resolute and of the drowned forest as the water comes up. Again.

* R. H. Mathews, ‘Folklore Notes from Western Australia’, Folklore, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1909), pp. 340-342, p. 341.
(Below are images of the same beach, two days apart.)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Half moon says hello to Venus

YES I know it's three o'clock in the morning here but it is the the winter solstice. Happy Winter Solstice folks! From now on in we'll be driving the long roads into work that are getting lighter every day. Tonight our family celebrated as we do every year, by setting fire to stuff. Here is a pic of Venus being a total queen and photo bombing our bonfire.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Still life with cat

There are layers to that title seeing as Bobcat is so old now that her body (and to be horribly specific her urinary tract) is failing. I can't bring myself to do it though. Anyway, a favourite pastime this season of the year is to collect fungi in the forest and, if the spores are brown, make spore prints on paper. I cut off the stalk and leave the mushrooms gills down on paper overnight. Next morning all of the spores have fallen from the mushroom and created a kind of mushroom ghost on white paper. This particular print is blurred because the shroom was a bit too big. They grew in dinner plate gatherings on the driveway and I was pretty excited because they looked like fieldies and I was gonna eat me some mushroom steaks. The problem was they tasted bloody awful, so bad I wasn't sure if I was going to have to make a town dash to the nursing post. Nothing happened, as this post will tell you. I made some prints instead of eating them. I came home one day to see that Bobcat had walked all over it.
So ... when the day comes I will have her art to remember her by.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Precious Bone

I posted the previous yarn ‘Understory’ as a prelude to this one. You can find it here.

This year I taught an Indigenous studies unit at the uni. Living in the bush requires residents to be ‘agile’ as the Prime Minister put it recently, defining our need to have at least three jobs in the gig economy to survive in rural areas.

Anyway, I’ve been working for this department in other capacities for quite a few years and when I was given the new unit I noticed that for the field trip, our remote campus was not afforded the same opportunities as those in the city. They were going to Wadjemup or Rottnest Island where hundreds of Aboriginal men were historically incarcerated in a campaign to remove strong, young Aboriginal men from their communities.

I decided that my regional students would go out to the massacre memorial site at Cocanarup for our field trip, and so a few weeks ago we met below the campus building, breathing early morning mist as we piled into a little bus.

We drove east for three hours. It’s often the flatlands out there, farming country punctuated by the skins and skulls of wild pigs hung on fences, roadhouses peopled by indifferent staff and stubble piled against fences after the last blow. It’s soldier settlement country; land given to returned servicemen after the war. A gift. Here is some hard scrabble country for you to eke out a living, said the Gifters.

We went past there to salmon gum country. I took my students to the old cemetery to show them how Noongar people were segregated in those days, buried in unconsecrated, unmarked graves. There are two graveyards; one for Noongar, the other for the whites. A husband and wife are buried in separate graveyards. She was Aboriginal. He was white.

At this point I began to realise I was responsible for mental wellbeing of my students and also for Swan who’d come along in a cultural awareness capacity. I’d given them all the information – the newspaper archives, chapters from books and reports of the massacre – but this was the first time I’d taken them onto this country. The country is really powerful. It’s both grim and, beautiful. Amongst the garden in the centre of the Noongar cemetery lay the skeleton of a boomer kangaroo.

After fuelling up in town and buying some excellent Chico rolls, we drove back out of town and went down to the river. Since the floods last year, the river’s course has changed and everything looks different. The flood was so violent that it carried the bridge a few hundred metres downstream. It’s difficult to orient yourself when a river course has changed, and when we got down to what used to be a rocky fording, the swathe of deep sand and the enormity of that river flood made us park the bus and walk in to John Dunne’s grave.

John Dunne’s behaviour was the reason for his execution and the subsequent retribution. As I walked past his grave to the riverbed, I asked Swan, ‘What do you think?’ I knew that the massacre started around here somewhere. ‘Just leave things where they are,’ Swan said. ‘Don’t pick up anything.’ This reminded me of one of his colleague’s advice years before. ‘Don’t move anything around out there.’

I could see from the smashed trees above the trickle of water that the river in flood must have been three hundred metres wide a year ago. I began to feel anxious because floods like these reveal all kinds of ghosts and bones. What do we do, if we find bones?
‘Just don’t move anything.’
I told my students as they roamed the riverbed, taking photos and picking up stuff. ‘Please don’t take anything away from here.’

The riverbed was covered in every kind of stone imaginable, every colour, every texture, it was all there. It was like beach combing after a storm where the freakiest shit had washed up.

One of the students found a bone then, sticking out of the riverbed. It looked like a femur, or a human hip bone. She said, does this look like a human bone to you? And I agreed that it did.

I had a stinker of an emotional reaction to her bone find. I know the history of the massacre and I’ve spent a fair bit of time in this country. My sister is the children’s librarian in a nearby town where a patriarch had shot dead his whole family only a few days before. She’d recited baby rhyme time to all of those kids. Somehow, I managed to emotionally conflate these two massacres more than 130 years apart. I felt so angry and useless about our ongoing predilection for human violence. Swan headed up the track towards the bus.
‘People!,’ I exploded to the woman who’d found the bone, as we left the river. ‘Fucking people!’ I was close to tears.

We took photos of the bone and I sent them to someone I know at Aboriginal Affairs. I rang him that night to talk about the process from here on in. He thought the bone looked too ‘robust’ to be human. One of his roles is to organise reburials of Aboriginal remains when bones have been disturbed by floodwaters, industrial earthworks or sand dune shift. He sent the photos to the officer in charge at the local police station. This protocol seems to work well: when somebody finds skeletal remains, the police work out whether the bones are human or animal, and then, whether they are part of a recent crime scene or an historic Aboriginal burial. If they are deemed the latter it’s referred back to Aboriginal Affairs.

I spent a week thinking and dreaming about this bone, this person, thinking about the massacre, wondering how, when Dunne gets his gravestone with white pickets all around it, the people’s bodies were piled in a mass grave on the riverbank. How many more miles might this femur have walked? It’s easy to lose sleep over this stuff and yet the dead no longer care (hopefully). That bone.

A week later my contact at the department said that he’d heard back from the police. It was an animal bone.

Oh. Mixed feelings soundtrack. So, if it wasn’t a human bone then my last week of anguish and raging against humanity was entirely misplaced. I didn’t want to feel disappointed that it wasn’t a human bone, but I did feel disappointed and so I felt bad about that. ‘Well, I guess that is a good thing,’ I replied via text to him. This emotional dissonance plagued me until the next day, when he forwarded me an email from the police department’s forensic anthropologist. She wrote that the bone was not human but quite possibly from … wait for it … a PREHISTORIC QUADRUPED.

In other words, a giant freaking wombat. You know, mega fauna. I got the email right before the next class with my students after the field trip. Not many of them knew about the bone find. I’d kept it quiet because I wanted it to go through official channels. But when I told them the story and read out the email you should have seen the bouncing going on in the room. We went down to the river and found MEGAFAUNA!!!

I rang the officer in charge at the local police station. He was so excited. He’d gone to the river and dug up the bone. When he got the report back, he’d taken his kids down to the river to talk to them about dinosaurs and megafauna. ‘I was here during the floods,’ he said. ‘I was the first to lay hands on the man who drowned here. That river. That river changed its course during the flood.’ He went on to say that it was possibly not a hundred-year flood but a thousand-year flood. He wanted Noongar people to come back here.

‘I just want to take out a shovel and dig up more stuff on the river,’ he said. ‘There must be gold there but prehistoric quadrupeds, that’s amazing!’
‘Don’t go rogue on me, mate,’ I said. ‘Let me sniff around the archaeology department and the museum first.’

At this point there was radio silence from the local Noongar who I’d been in contact with. I began to realise that archaeologists converging on this area, digging up bones, was probably not such a great thing.

‘Just don’t move things around out there,’ he’d said to me all those years ago.

Still. I sent the photos of the copper’s dug-up bones to a paleontologist at the museum. He replied two days later, ‘This is a cattle bone. This is not a prehistoric quadruped bone. This is a cattle bone.’ Those were pretty much his exact words, two weeks after I took my students to massacre country at the river. It was quite a downy, uppity, downy kind of fortnight.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Dogs have Dreaming

Recently a bloke turned up at my place at dusk, looking for Cootamurrup Beach. He pulled to a stop and my dog went bucketing outside, barking. He stayed in the car and wound down the window. ‘Gidday. I’m lost. Is she going to take my leg off if I get out?’
Of course, she wouldn’t, and I’ve stopped catastrophising these days about pig hunters and the other wild men peopling these woods. I called Selkie back and he cautiously climbed out of the car.
This short interaction made me think. For starters, that dogs are excellent companions to lone women and it makes sense that Blackfoot women were among the first to domesticate wolves. Tim Flannery writes, ‘Intriguingly, their stories often involve wolves helping women and in Pierotti’s experience wolves and wolf/dog hybrids have a natural affinity for women that is only rarely seen when they interact with men.’
And secondly, the presence of my dog actually changed this person’s behaviour; he stayed in his car and spoke to me through the open window. The ability of an animal to change a human being’s behaviour is, to me, quite remarkable. We are so used to thinking it is the other way around.

About 26,000 years ago a child and a dog walked deep into a cave to find the Room of Skulls, were the cave bear skulls can still be seen. They walked together, the child slipping once or twice and stopping to clean the torch on the wall. An epic adventure for any child, this one must have been great because the art and the cave bear bones in the Chauvet Caves had been abandoned for thousands of years, and because she had a dog with her for company. Not long after they left the cave, the land slipped and covered the entrance. Their footprints and the smear of charcoal on the cave wall were trapped in kind of cryogenic state until now. Recent radiocarbon dating established that these two wanderers were the oldest solid example of a relationship between humans and canines.

I watch my dog on the day we are burning off. She sits close to the flames licking at the understory. It’s warm and she is completely comfortable with fire. It is a primeval instinct. She and every other dog know that where there is fire, there is human company and possibly even some chop bones.
She climbs under the bed during a thunderstorm. Some dogs just run, run for miles until they are exhausted and lost. People sometimes think this response is against their better survival instincts. But the dogs know. They remember these things. Sky sparks were the beginning of the apocalypse when asteroids fired the earth. They remember the catastrophe. That’s why they run.

So she is not only a beautiful, nervy, dingbat flirt - the Blanche du Bois of Broke Inlet - but also my faithful helpmate hound. There are some favours I could do without though. This morning while walking on my Morning of the Earth beach, she came bursting out of the storm tide scrub with a decomposed kangaroo leg between her teeth.

Photos by Nic Duncan.
Quotes by Tim Flannery, ‘Raised by Wolves’ in The New York Review of Books, 5/4/18.