Mongrel Country

It is mongrel country, this place I have come to know. Second-growth forest on ground too steep to farm or run horses. Walking the land, especially in the warmer parts of the year, is tough going. Most of our annual ninety-five inches of rainfall is concentrated over a few months in summer, washing away driveways and vegetable beds. The rate of growth – particularly of weeds and vines and creepers – is extraordinary. And yet you can’t grow much to eat, not without hard work; the topsoil soon becomes thin and rain-leached.

Shrugged in between the Blackall Range and the beaches of the Sunshine Coast, this part of the hinterland is a place often passed through or overlooked. The Range lords it over us, with its European-style gardens, tourist towns and spectacular views to the coast, while we crouch in the foothills.
On one side of the ridge, over tree-covered hills, you can glimpse the sea. Up the coast, the volcanic peaks of Mount Coolum and Mount Ninderry dominate. According to Gubbi Gubbi story, they were rivals for the affection of Maroochy, a beautiful young woman. A fierce battle saw Coolum’s head knocked off into the ocean to become Mudjimba Island, Ninderry turned to rock, and Maroochy’s flow of tears formed the Maroochy River.
This was all cedar country once, blanketed with the red-timbered trees Judith Wright called ‘gardens in the air’ for the world of ferns and epiphytes growing in their dense crowns. The Gubbi Gubbi call them Big Fella Wootha. The cedar-getters came and cut down all those big fellas and went. Landers Shoot, straddling a ridge, is no longer a town but a location. It was once the end point of one of several ‘chutes’ for sliding logs down from the top of the Range.

Landers Shoot is named for Englishman, Edmund Lander, the first non-indigenous squatter in the area. He leased parcels of land much larger than this one, runs of 16,000 acres each, occupying, for a time, all the country between the Mooloola and Maroochy Rivers. He ran cattle but made his money from cedar. When the cedar wood was exhausted, the timber-getters started on the eucalypts. The biggest and best were taken first. Later, settlers cleared the rest to make way for dairy farming and fruit crops: citrus, pineapples, macadamias, lychees and strawberries. You can still buy fruit from roadside honesty stalls, just as I remember from holiday road trips to Noosa as a child. The Big Pineapple still stands, too, albeit rather faded: a fibreglass testament to the 1970s passion for ‘big’ things.

There are no cedars here now. They generate few seeds and the first, second and third waves of felling, burning, and clearing did not give them the chance to produce new shoots in the way of eucalypts. With the forest’s balance destroyed, most trees that did survive the cedar getters were wiped out by the Cedartip Moth. Hypsipyla robusta (Moore) Lepidoptera attacks the new, or “leading”, shoots on red cedar trees. Belated attempts to re-establish cedars were unsuccessful because young cedars growing together in a clearing are more susceptible than those growing in the scrub; the Cedartip moth prefers to lay her eggs in full sun. In order to flourish, cedars need to grow in the shade of other trees.

The trunks of felled giants left behind, too large to move or hollow inside, still rot on the slopes. A couple fell strategically, forming mossy bridges over our creeks. Only a couple of original trees, thick pink bloodwoods protruding above the canopy, remain, named for the red resin exuded if the trunk or branches are damaged. Their timber is less valuable than that of other hardwoods because of the veiny networks of this resin. While no doubt a practical consideration for builders and cabinet makers, I can’t help thinking that if all trees could bleed more of them would be left standing.

We bought this land not to harvest its trees but to live among them. Our cottage is made from the wood of cedars, given a second life here in the shade. One of the many attractions of the timber for building is its disinclination to rot and lack of appeal to termites, which we are grateful for. The musician, architect, and activist, Noel Gardner, who designed the house and lived here for 25 years, utilised local and recycled materials wherever possible. The trunks of the few trees cleared to build the house serve as pillars and posts, stones from the property were used in the studio walls, and timber windows and doors, reclaimed from demolished houses, feature coloured hand-made glass. Noel pointed out two particular bricks in the fireplace taken from Brisbane’s Bellevue Hotel when it was controversially demolished by the Deen Brothers in 1979. A newspaper photograph documents protestors clashing with police and a long-haired Noel leaving the site in his flares, a brick in each hand. Our floors are brush box, the kitchen benches stringy bark and red gum. The cedar boards forming the cottage’s exterior, however, are from somewhere far away, too young to have been harvested here, or to remember its ancestors once growing where the house now stands.

I am ‘a hill woman’, I am fond of saying, or ‘I live among trees.’ Trunks crowd around our cottage and studios, visible from every window and only an arm’s length from the deck. We live on a spine, the ground dropping away sharply either side to mossy-banked creeks that run in chorus when it rains. Our height puts us among the treetops, with the birds. When we bought the place, the agent told us Noel had someone do a reading of the land: apparently we are on a dragon ley line, a source of creative energy. I sometimes imagine the dragon coiled beneath us, our spine tracing hers, and wonder what would happen should she wake or stir. Caught by surprise, we might tumble off, or the cottage wash away in the rain. When her patience is exhausted she might shake us off, flinging us far out to sea.

This country is not what it was. Although remnants remain, the ancient cedar forests with their buttressed roots once enswathing these hills are beyond my imagining: the stuff of dreams and fairy tales. I long for a glimpse of the “primeval forest” Ludwig Leichardt described in 1843, perhaps imagining it swallowing him up, although it was the vastness of our desert that claimed him in the end. Sepia photographs do not really capture what it would have been like to live among those trees and, more often, record the heroic process of cutting them down and hauling them away.

The trees that surround us now are wet sclerophyll survivors: brush box, tallowwood, pink bloodwood, grey gums, with some iron barks and flooded gums on the drier slopes. There are even a few smooth-trunked spotted gums, which, around here, you are more likely to see lining the roads as telegraph poles: their reward for growing so tall and straight.

There are spindly rainforest trees I am less familiar with: myrtle, ficus and beech. Numerous species of lillypilly, with their cream blossoms. One bears a sweet red fruit we use to make lillypilly ice cream – an annual treat. The established acacias – hickory wattle, black wattle and blackwood – are dying off, victim to a grub or borer that brings the yellow-tailed black cockatoos. One sits a little way off, head cocked and squawking, while the other rips the bark from the tree. A new crop of feathery wattles, all of the same age, have sprung up unprompted to replace the old.

Ferns and palms intensify in the riparian areas. A vine forest of liana and epiphytes has crept back in. Lantana, too. This unwelcome and rapidly-spreading immigrant – regarded rather like the Brisbanites and other Southerners buying into the area – has an upside; it creates a thicket-like undergrowth the shy swamp wallabies love. And it does have a pretty flower. On the first day of a Paris holiday (having just spent the winter ripping the prickly-caned interloper out by the roots), it was with a disapproving eye that I spotted pots of lantana among florists’ artful street side arrangements.

Country like this is dismissed, in many contexts, as second growth or regrowth. Inferior and no longer pure. Yet, left alone for forty or fifty years, in a warm climate with high rainfall, this place has returned to something wild. Even over five years, I have witnessed the mongrel in this country fighting back, the forest becoming more dense, more diverse. Bird and wild-life has intensified within the protective cover of tree canopy, middle storey and understorey. The rare tusked frog and endangered green-thighed frog call from the dams and creeks. Koalas are confident enough to waddle down the driveway and climb trees above the house or settle in a branch in full view of a window. Robins, wrens, pardalotes and parrots bathe on the deck while we breakfast. As one European visitor commented, it is ‘like living in a national park.’

True wilderness, carrying the weight of all our romantic notions, is hard to find these days. Of course old-growth forests must be protected; of course endangered habitats must receive special attention. Surely, though, with what we now know, all forest and bushland is valuable. Every tree. Regrowth – even mongrel grow-back after our own excessive harvesting – is still growth. Much of our remaining bushland falls into this category. It is where our wildlife have retreated and adapted to, and while it is arguably worth less, it is not altogether worthless. Least of all to us; after all, it is our habitat, too.

Environmental Impact Statements, commissioned by utility companies and the like, rate places like this as “low value” despite forming part of a coast to range wildlife corridor, linking rainforest and wetland areas, and providing refuge for species at risk. Pristine landscapes, remnant and old-growth forests are of obvious and immeasurable value. Yet it seems perverse that land in recovery should be considered second-rate, even disposable, and previous mismanagement used as justification for further destruction.

Thoreau’s Walden Pond, celebrated in all its glorious detail in that benchmark of nature writing, Walden, was second growth: “a young forest of pitch pines and hickories.” It was hardly wilderness, only a few miles from Thoreau’s home town of Concord. Walden’s close observation and philosophical reflections elevate Walden Pond to something larger, universal: the act of writing about the place he knew and loved preserving it for all of time. Thoreau’s words have also inspired thousands to set off into the wilds and write about the places they love.

Like so many writers and artists before me, I have fled the city for the hills. Chosen to live on the fringes. In retreat. Yet this is not my country, not the place of my birth or the land of my people. I have no claim to root here. I was born far away on a property much larger and browner. Most of the land there was cleared for farming, much of it flat. The ground sucked dry. Few original trees remain. Their ghosts stand in the paddocks, dropping grey limbs, for farmers to plough around.

Rich veins of gold once ran beneath the skin of the earth there, and it was gold that brought my forefathers. It was rich farming land then, too. In most winters, the paddocks still run soft and green. A trigsite of stony hills, pock-marked with mines now filled in, makes for poor farming, but is covered with ironbarks, wildflowers and wildlife. It was to the hills I retreated even as a child, camping out alone with rocks, trees and stars.

The dominant memories of my first growth are of dust storms and drought, and struggle. The property has been in my family since the white ships arrived and yet, somehow, it is not where I am at home. With me, an only child and a woman without children of my own, the line ends; the land will pass out of my name. Perhaps this knowledge meant I began letting go early on. Or perhaps my interior landscape germinated elsewhere.

I came to these hills via somewhere else and somewhere before that. Cityscapes, with their hustling energy, while fuelling a career and social life, did not give me room to pause, did not foster the words. This is the green regeneration I longed for while stunted in offices, meeting rooms, and apartments. The warm. The wet. Proximity to ocean. The quiet. The scope to settle into the soil. In the spaces between trees my breath slows and my mind clears and the words come.

This is not my blood’s country and yet, it is home. Interloper I may be – as most of us are on this continent – but I live here now. I am not a visitor. These are the hills to which I chose to return: self-sown, like the volunteer growth surrounding me.

While there are others like us, dotted around, cherishing what they can, most locals do not live as we do, or share the same concern for trees. We assumed others choosing to live in the hinterland would have a similar appreciation for nature. That they do not should not have been a surprise. For those whose families are from here, there is a long history of battling with the landscape to survive or eke out a living, which has shaped their responses to the environment, just as dust shaped my own response to the country I was born of. There are other reasons why people move here, too, which have more to do with cheap estate housing and rising costs on the coastline.

Between two towns, a few minutes to rail, shops and school; Landers Shoot is hardly isolated. A short drive to the beach. Only an hour and a half from Brisbane. Yet even to locals, it is somehow remote and second rate; ‘Oh, you live out here,’ they say or ‘I didn’t realise you were this far off in the sticks.’ A gravel road and a long, winding driveway somehow represent distances too vast to cross. Brisbane friends do not visit at all. It is as if we have left the state, or the plain in which they live.

When journeying home from Brisbane by rail – through dense rainforest, tunnels carved through hillsides, and past the family of volcanic plugs that are the Glasshouse Mountains – it is difficult to ignore the rapidly spreading development along the train line. Even more striking is the way most of the population huddle together in towns, as if afraid of nature, of trees, of forest. At best, they cling to the edges, safe inside fenced estates named Riverdale, although there is no river, on treeless streets called Tallowwood or Macadamia, honouring the trees and orchards that made way for their black-roofed homes.

Many of our townsfolk live in the same postcode but not the same place. They construct their houses so as to remain as separate as possible from nature, protected from its seasons, its creatures, its subtleties: strangers in their own landscape. Burly tradesmen look past all the beauty, eyeing our trees and undergrowth with suspicion. ‘Aren’t you worried about snakes?’ they ask. ‘Bushfires?’ We are mindful of both, of course, but these are not the fears that keep us awake at night. Clearing, development, extinction; these are the real threats, not just to our personal comfort or lifestyle but to wilderness in this area, and for life on this planet.

One or two Australians die each year from snake bite. Over two hundred die crossing the road. And yet it is the bush we are afraid of. Connection to landscape, so important to our sense of national identity and our literature, is surely a connection with our imagination, ourselves. Perhaps this is what we are really afraid of, the primeval forest somehow still out there at the end of our gardens and off unsealed roads. As if admitting we are part of something larger would be to relinquish all control over our lives.

There are discomforts. We share our home with geckos, who hang their discarded skins from the rafters. Sometimes they float down, ghostly white and still intact: an all of body fingerprint. Or just a curled glove or hood-like tail. Unfortunately, they also poop. In dry winters, the native mice come hopping in for food, gnawing holes in any edible (and sometimes inedible) item not locked down. Spiders find the rafters and beams ideal for spinning up webs. We have to be vigilant for termites. During summer storms, new leaks appear, or a branch falls on the roof or across the driveway. The road out floods. Mould, the only unwelcome shade of green, encroaches. Mosquitoes are a whining irritant. Conversely, if winter rain does not come, we run out of water. Gardening or wood gathering expeditions must conclude with an all over check for bloodthirsty ticks. All this is a small price to pay, however, to live among trees, in the constant call of birds and frogs. To fall asleep to the hooting of owls beneath a sheet of stars.

It is not land that everyone could love. Or afford. It is not, after all, much use. Except to treechangers and birdwatchers. Writers and artists wanting to live in quiet privacy. Apart from a few vegetables, we produce only words.

To live with nature, to become attuned to a place’s seasons and particularities, the subtle changes, is also to connect with our subconscious: the subterranean hills and forests and streams of our own mind. Contemplating any scene or vista, we bring as much to it as it brings to us: a shared cultural memory built on fairy tale and folklore, myth and legend, art and literature. The bushland of our imagination has grown from stories: understorey, middlestorey, canopy, emergent, remnant, regrowth. To be at home in nature’s stories is to allow ourselves to run wild, to explore the infinite landscape of memory and imagination. Experiencing a little fear and wonder is a good thing. It reminds us, for a start, of our place in the world; it doesn’t revolve around us.

It takes time to know a place, to see it. To become comfortable. Longer to begin to capture it in words. Although condensed into one calendar year, Thoreau stayed at Walden Pond for two years and took many more to finish Walden. Living through each of the seasons is a start. But seasons and years vary, patterns emerge, new details come to our attention. Like many nature writers since, Thoreau did not stay. He returned to the town. Most writers also need the nourishment an urban environment provides: the company of like minds, bookshops, libraries, galleries and a steady income.

To spend time in nature and write about it is one thing. To live in a place, to make it your home, is another. It takes time for the country and the imagination to begin to align. For story and syntax to fall into step. To begin to pick up the feeling of the place. As Mark Tredinnick points out in his essay, ‘Catching the Lyric of the Country’, it is difficult to leave behind the European pastoral and capture the “local lyric” of Australian landscapes. We need to be at home before we can find the words.

Barry Lopez has spoken of the modern tendency to depersonalise the language of nature. The language of litigation, for example – as the fate of our landscapes is increasingly determined in the courtroom – is deliberately generic. Words like ‘hill’ or ‘river’ are used in a way that does not raise any particular image, bleaching the individuality of a place, its history, and any sense of connectedness. The nature writer works to counter this attack on the language of landscape, attempting to describe a place in precise and evocative ways in order to capture something of its distinctiveness, its value: to make it real for others.

Writing nature is an intersection of art and science; while based in fact, the real and three-dimensional, it is an inherently creative process. A taprooting of the unconscious for image and meaning, a connection between inner and outer landscapes. I do not know the language of trees, although if I listen, I sometimes hear them speak. It is to my imagination I must go to interpret and translate. And it is to the reader’s imagination the nature writer appeals. To cultivate a sense of landscape transcending the limitations of geology, geography, flora and fauna. To nurture a place existing in our consciousness as well as on the map and offer a pathway through the wilderness. To move beyond gothic representations, the fearful othering of our landscapes as hostile places against which we must pit ourselves and fail. To counter the exoticising of nature that keeps it out there, a two hour drive away. To resist the temptation, even with the knowledge of the harm we have done, to pity nature, to feel sorry for her and lock her up. A literature of landscape celebrates; it reunites us with all the beauty and possibility of a landscape as it is now, as it was, and as it will be.

As gardeners and silviculturists know, seedlings grow more quickly than advanced saplings when planted out: they adapt better, grow stronger, and soon become part of the land. They are the trees of tomorrow. This is the long view we must take, planting new trees, nurturing new growth and regrowth. Writing these new landscapes, documenting our relationship to nature, to country, and to place, keeps the dialogue open. This, too, is the long view, to create a shared, imagined future out of which forests will arise.

The true language of landscape, however, is something to strive for but never achieve. I have known this place for such a short time and imagining its future is even more difficult than picturing its past. However earnest my endeavours, no matter how closely I watch and listen, this place can only ever be my arboretum. To describe, to attempt to ‘capture’ a place, even in words, is to be apart. An observer rather than a participant.

This scrap of mongrel country reafforests itself and lives forever. It nurtures and indulges me through my short life as it does its other creatures. I can only plant seedlings and wait for the words to come. I am a woman of the hills. I write among trees.

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