BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > AT BALDY'S FEET
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We sat in the water
Turn yourself into a tree?
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I was obsessed by Mount Baldhead. I could see
it from the back of the school where I worked. If I drove out the
Lindenow road, I saw it behind Mounts Taylor and Lookout. If I stood
on the bluff where the Mitchell turned to enter the lakes, and ran
my eye along the horizon, Baldhead was there, supreme, in my mind,
lordly, full of meaning.
What meaning? I could hardly answer that question
in those days, because what I felt was still forming. I’d given
up believing in God some years before, but still had need of a unifying
thought. I need it to this day. The mountain known as Baldhead – snowgrass
on its pate, not trees, in those days – promised a vision of
unity because one could see it from the lowland, and from its peak
one could find the connection: the Nicholson rose at one’s feet,
gathered run-off from surrounding ranges, and took itself, a river
now, to the lakes, and, after the lakes, the sea. This too, the ultimate
destination, was visible from the peak and, as I said before, one
could look back from the lowland and see where it all began.
As a young
man, I found this vision to have a power I couldn’t
explain. It didn’t answer any questions, but it resonated in
my mind. The distant peak had a god’s eye view, and the same
view, looking back, gave me a feeling of acceptance, something that
didn’t come easily to a restless young man. Looking back on
my struggles to make the world coherent, I can see why this backwards
and forwards vision, lowland and distant mountain, was so appealing.
It was, in my mind at least, a closed system containing everything,
especially if I added to the vision the stories about Baldhead which
friends in my town had told me.
I was always driving out to my mountain,
driving around it, driving near, finding new ways of approach. I felt,
though I rarely told anyone this, that I could never be lost in that
country because one glance at my mountain would let me know my direction
for getting home. Its profile was as familiar as that. In my tiny
car I sidled along the ranges that led away from it, I stopped and
explored, I walked about, and then I pressed on, adding more to the
scraps that dangled, now, from the central story of my life. Not an
explanation, but a view that satisfied.
The reader will have noticed
that the vision I am talking about was from a peak, or, if looking
back, included, and respected from afar, my chosen peak. It was personal,
therefore, and full of pride. I liked my drives, and my walks, to
be high. I liked to look far and wide, to have everything at my eyes’ disposal,
as it were. To go down, to go in, was good, but to be up, and looking
wide, was better. That was how I was at that time.
Then something happened.
I was driving back from Mount Baldhead one afternoon, scanning the
gaps between the trees, when I thought I saw a clearing far below.
I stopped the car and moved about, trying to pick up what I’d
seen. Yes. There was a clearing that I’d
never noticed before. I asked Sid Merlo and his brother Pud, two men,
many years older than me, who’d been brought up in the area. ‘Marthavale,’ they
told me. ‘Used to be a bit of a cattle run down there, well,
for a few years anyway.’ I wanted to see it. ‘There’d
be a track,’ they told me, ‘but what condition it’d
be in, would be hard to say. Best to have a look.’
bush men, and that meant caution. I, on the other hand, thought my
Volkswagen could go anywhere. I’d visit this Marthavale.
I kept asking questions of the Merlo brothers. They didn’t know
when it had been settled. They didn’t think it had ever produced
much, but it had been a useful place to hide stolen cattle. ‘Nobody
went lookin’, out there.’ Their brother Jack, they told
me, had ridden to Marthavale for some reason, and, in trying to get
home by night, had become lost. His only chance, he decided, was to
give his horse a loose rein, and it brought him home. This meant crossing
the Angora range, running south-east from Baldhead, and finding the
Merlos’ cottage – the post office, in those parts – at
the mining settlement of Brookville, on the other side of the range.
found the track – the turn-off, as the Merlos called it – to
Marthavale, and one day at the height of summer I followed it down,
taking with me a girlfriend, a nurse – erotic word to men of
my age– a young woman called Evelyn who liked to explore.
We sat in the water
We sat in the water, talking of this and that. Eventually we got
back into our clothes, started the car and climbed out of the valley.
Getting out seemed much quicker than discovering the deserted property,
and much easier for us than for Jack Merlo, all those years before.
It was only a matter of minutes before our overgrown track rejoined
the road to Mount Baldhead, used on working days by trucks going to
and from their mill. The sun was lowering as we reached the top of
the range, and the great bowl before Baldhead was beginning to darken.
A few minutes later I put the headlights on in case we met anything
coming the other way. We didn’t. We had the whole day to ourselves.
What had happened between us, and what had not, was ours alone. I
felt I’d faced a judgement, and hadn’t fared very well.
I never went back to Marthavale, with Evelyn or anyone else. It was,
for me, and I suppose it still is, a place of failure, a place where
the irresistible encountered the immovable. Desire and what human
beings want to turn desire into. Desire and love, selfishness and
unselfishness, reach their balance in a flash. Once they’ve
settled wherever their inner forces place them on the scale, there’s
nothing that can be done, except to proceed or to step back. We’d
not lain on those grassy mounds, Evelyn and I, and we would only harm
each other if we stayed together. She left. She got a job in another
town, I saw her once or twice, then we let each other go.
Strangely enough, we met each other again, years later, and made
love easily. Freely. Willingly. It’s a simple thing to do but
as we all know, it can be more difficult than almost anything else.
Making love, the acts of sexual union, allow feelings to flow and
there’s no masking or disguising what those feelings are. Hatred
and contempt can rush like a current between two bodies interlocked,
and can do it as easily as tenderness, affection, or the most wondrous
love. When you’re making love you know what’s going on
inside the other person and they know what’s happening in you.
At the time I’m describing, the day of our visit to Marthavale,
Evelyn and I were ambivalent about each other, which means, of course,
ambivalent about ourselves. It’s hard to love someone properly
unless you have that level of self-acceptance which is the basis of
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On one of my visits to the Yahoo my Volkswagen had to nose through
mist. Forest and track were dripping wet. The miners were not at their
hut that morning, so I showed my companion – I think it was
Evelyn, but I’m not sure – the hut, the mine shaft, the
crushing plant and the vegetable garden, fenced to keep out wallabies,
and then we drove out again, still through the mist. I’d heard
bird calls while we were on the Yahoo, and thought they were all from
the same throat – a lyrebird. Driving out, we disturbed the
songster, and he dashed in front of the car for a few paces before
scrambling, half-fluttering, into the bush beside the track. I found
this most exciting. The bird was very beautiful, and it had the odd
effect of making me feel that I belonged in the deep, dripping valley
nearly as much as it did. If I’d been one of the miners I’d
have said I was completely at home. As it was, I was a visitor, but
visitors had rights of belonging too. Looking back on that noisy German
car and its impetuous driver, I’m not so sure, but at the time
I felt a keen sense of belonging to the place. An explorer had to
find his way in, after all.
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yourself into a tree?
The most sobering observation of this
area came on a day when I took my friend Les Johnson into the hills.
We drove out from Bruthen, along the range that leads to Mount
Sugarloaf. Somewhere along the way we dropped off the range and
found our way down to the Nicholson. I seem to remember that we
were close to its junction with the Yahoo, but on the other side
of the stream from the new mine. When the ground flattened out,
near the stream, we got out and walked. It was a cool day, overcast,
and the place we were exploring was deeply enclosed. We had a car
to get us home but, walking among the scraps of a place once inhabited
by miners, the comforting features of civilisation felt very far
away. We found relics of what had once been dwellings: a rusty
iron roof held up, now, by blackberries, a few sheets of bark,
curling with nothing to keep them flat, and holding tiny pools
of water. We saw broken bits of camp ovens, and mounds of gravel.
The ground was disturbed in places where someone had flattened
the earth with a shovel before erecting a tent. There were remnants
of cars – an ancient
battery and a couple of long-flattened tyres. It occurred to me
that men must have come out to the Nicholson, mining, when the
economies of the capitalist world collapsed in 1929. For years
afterwards, until war broke out in 1939, societies were in turmoil.
Families huddled together, trying to maintain themselves, others
broke apart. Men went walkabout, as they said, borrowing an aboriginal
term, looking for something to support them when they couldn’t
support anyone else. It was a time when individualism went sickeningly
out of control. Men wandered, tramped, begged and stole. Others
reached further back in their country’s history and looked
for gold. Gold! There was little of the 1850s excitement in the
1930s, only the desperation of trying to survive. Now that vast
areas of the state are embedded in national parks and forest reserves,
it’s hard to remember how desperate individuals, fortune-hunters
possessed by the frenzy of searching, roamed places forgotten today
in search of …
… something. When human society closed down access to the
means to live, men turned to the land, hoping that it would provide,
as it had – sometimes – for the fortunate of those earlier
gold rush years. Men went bush, nosing about, shooting a bird, a
fox or a wallaby, anything they could eat. They trapped, they put
nets in streams. Few white men ever stayed long enough in one place
to grow vegetables, as Chinese miners did. At the bottom of the Nicholson
valley, at Baldy’s feet, they’d have been wet, cold and
hungry. They’d have seen the sun for a few hours in the middle
of the day. News of the outside world would have been brought in,
inaccurately enough, by new desperate men, replacing those who’d
moved out. Some of them, thinking themselves well set up, would have
arrived in cars …
Les and I nosed about, not unlike the miners of thirty years before.
Our car, out of sight but ready to go, was a couple of hundred metres
behind on the track that had brought us in. We picked up scraps,
bottles, a bit of what might once have been a sardine tin. ‘Eating
out of tins,’ Les said. ‘None of these fellas knew how
to live off the land. They’d have been all right if they had.’ I
agreed. It all looked pretty desperate. ‘They told each other
they were mining,’ Les said. ‘I bet none of them ever
made a quid out of gold.’ We looked at the bush around us,
lovely in its way, but inducing despair if you looked to it for comfort. ‘Let’s
go upstream,’ said Les. ‘See what else we can find.’
We strolled on. There was a trench of sixty to seventy metres, dug
to take water from somewhere to somewhere else. We couldn’t
quite work out what it had been for. Then we came on two cars. They
were black and had probably always been black. They were also rusty.
Their wheels squashed what was left of their tyres. ‘They
got’em in here and they couldn’t get’em out,’ said
Les. ‘Maybe they just ran out of petrol.’ He was beaming. ‘Quite
a way to the bowser, down here!’ We went to the nearest one;
I no longer remember what brand of car it was. There was a tree,
a sapling, in such a strange place it took us a moment to see what
had happened. The bonnet, or lid covering the engine, had been left
up by whoever deserted the car, all those years ago, and it was still
open. The seed of a eucalyptus tree had germinated in the soil beneath
the engine, the seedling had begun to grow, had found a way to the
sky between engine and bonnet, and was a man’s height higher
than the car it had grown through. Les laughed. He and I were an
unlikely pair of friends, different in almost every aspect of outlook
and education, but each of us always knew what the other was laughing
about. ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it?’, I said. I put
my head over the rusty engine and looked at the ground. The tree
had a good grip on the soil. I said, ‘I suppose you could cut
it down if you wanted to move the car, but …’
I pointed around. Les grinned, and did me the courtesy of looking
where I was pointing. There was bush, bush, only bush, as far as
the eye could see, which wasn’t very far. ‘What happened
to these fellas?’ said Les. ‘They disappeared, and they
turned up here. Then they disappeared from here.’ He looked
around at the imprisoning bush. ‘Once you get out here, you’ve
hit rock bottom, I’d reckon. So where do you go if you hit
rock bottom and you can’t get up? Thin air?’ He waved
his hands. ‘What do you do? Turn yourself into a tree?’
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