Jan 31


“Well, according to my calculations, we’re still heading due north.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Chris!”

* * * * *

I watch now as a spider makes its way across a miniature ecosystem of semi-submerged willow leaves, matted in various shades of decomposition. It moves from the leaves and continues its path across the still water under the banks of the river, denting but never breaking the soft, brown mirror. And I know why.

* * * * *

Yeah, fair enough, Mum. I had actually hesitated to share my thoughts because it seemed ridiculous to me too. For one thing, we couldn’t possibly still be heading north.

* * * * *

“It’s the tannin from the button grass out in the south-west catchments that gives it the colour”, I’d heard my father telling a visitor. I don’t know how many times I’ve repeated this fact to my own visitors since. It’s had a power of its own; more than just knowledge, it’s somehow defining knowledge. I’ve clung to it as a touchstone of my identity, but for a reason I can’t fathom. After all, up until that point in time, the Huon River was brown, but I don’t think that I’d ever wondered why.

It occurs to me that this was true for many things. I’d always liked scientific facts, but I wasn’t hungry for them. I liked learning why things were the way they were, but it often didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know, until I did know; learning about adhesion, cohesion and surface tension, and the sphere-like feet of water-traversing spiders, opened up another way of looking at the world, but until that layer of the world had been exposed, not knowing it had never made me feel any the poorer.

The Southern Cross was like that. Mr Richards really seemed to be enjoying himself when he drew the constellation on the blackboard and joined the dots, extrapolated lines, made bisecting perpendiculars between the Pointers and, hey presto, there was south, determined entirely from the night sky. I went home and tested it out that evening underneath our clear, star-dense sky, and tried to imagine the scenarios in which it might save my life one day. I couldn’t really imagine any; our own block of bush was too small to ever get truly lost in, and that’s the only bush where I could ever picture myself. There was a vague notion that I may get lost in “a bush, one day”, but I had no idea where such a bush may be. There wasn’t anywhere I particularly wanted to go.

And yes, another thing – Mum was right; it was a stretch to think I could add anything constructive to the exercise of driving home, by navigating from the stars. I was the son with no sense of direction. The only one who had gotten lost in the big department store – an early memory composed only of remnants of the reality: fragments of abject loss, a haze of tears (first warm, then cold), and relief, tempered by the more enduring realisation that things like this happen, and therefore could happen again. Yet another way of looking at the world.

And  that, of course, is the problem with having your eyes opened to a new perspective. It begins to inform everything. The glossy hard cover of my first biology text book summed up its focus with its italicised subtitle, A Systems Approach. I eventually became so accustomed to viewing the world as a set of interrelated systems that the visual beauty at the surface was eroded by the considerations of the hidden tensions and stresses. The soaring wedged-tailed eagle was no longer an emblem of freedom and majesty, but rather a picture of life on the edge of death, a balance between conserving energy and expending energy to hunt, just to secure energy for the next hunt. Seeing an animal was indicative of a ‘population vector’ that would have an influence on other animal populations, and on vegetation and ‘vegetative competition’. Even turning on a tap invoked a consciousness of pipes depressurising, bladders depleting, circuits closing, and valves opening, as well as metabolic pathways, photosynthesis, and water cycles. Nothing was simple anymore.

A splash behind me heralds the start of the platypus’ evening expedition. I turn to look, despite knowing I’ll only see tell-tale ripples. It likes to set the terms of engagement, and that usually means only catching a glimpse in the early morning, when it seems quite inquisitive, almost playful, popping up for a look over there, then here, then there. Apparently, they swim with their eyes closed, which always makes me think it must be quite an achievement to find their way anywhere. Worse than heading home in the dark.

Mum never liked driving at night, but we always seemed to be doing just that whenever we went out. We always seemed to be the last to leave. This time, it was from Port Arthur, where my parents had attempted to impress upon us the historical significance of the buildings in the context of our convict ancestry, before catching up with long-lost relatives in the area. Dad had stayed behind, since he was going to be working in the region in the morning, but Mum wanted to get us home.

Port Arthur had chiefly left me with a new understanding of ‘drab’, mingled with something approximating a numbness, which I decide now was probably my reaction to my own lack of response in the face of the gravity of the situation that we were clearly failing to appreciate. As a child, seeing how the sandstone steps had been worn down by trudging feet was far more impressive than the fact that the steps themselves may have been laid there by great-over-and-over-again-grand-whosey-what. I realise that the converse is now true, and ponder whether this is because we all recognise the influence of our origins the older we get, or simply because I cling more to heritage the older and more panicked I get about not having done anything. Probably both.

The subsequent family reunion was as enjoyable as it could be for an intensely self-conscious and shy child. The highlight was a machine that turned normal cordial into soft drink – unheard of in our family which had resisted colour television until the mid-1980s. The latter half of the day was pleasant enough, but I wasn’t disappointed to leave, and the car, with its deceptively soft-looking vinyl door trims, kept promising to lull me into the relative comfort of sleep, if I would only let it. If I would only stop looking at the stars. We should be heading south by now.

I settled my head into the corner of the car’s interior where the back seat met the rear door just over the wheel arch. The door trim pressing on my ear felt fine, as did the edge of the seat belt, but I knew my ear would feel like it had been pinched for hours when I woke from the journey. But I’d decided to doze into that strange mixture of bliss and discomfort, oblivion and awareness that is a childhood homecoming-by-car, waiting to be roused by the familiar patterns of inertia on the route’s corners, signalling that we’re close to home, and about to endure the horrible ordeal of being woken up just enough to be able to stumble through the motions of getting into bed. It strikes me now that I’d forgotten all those sensations, until I’d had children of my own and, through seeing things through their eyes, had remembered them again.

Thinking of bedtime reminds me that it’s getting late. The river continues bubbling over the rapids upstream, but it’s long stopped throwing sunlight back with the incessant sound. The evening mood has clocked on for its relatively short shift, and taken up position with the gum tree silhouettes. A quartet of plovers flies downstream close to the water’s surface, seemingly upsetting themselves with their own echoed cries. I wait for them to pass and skim one last rock over to the logs lodged against the other riverbank, and then turn to head home. “Come on guys, it’s time to go.”

After the usual protests have died down, I’m invited to inspect the driftwood and pebble worlds my children have created in the last hour. While their creativity amazes me, I find my praise has a hollow ring even to my own ears – somehow sounding flat and empty – and hope that they’re able to discern my respect amongst the words they’ve heard so often; breadcrumbs by which to find their way to confidence.

Once the goodbyes have been said to the hand-built realms, we scramble back up the riverbank and stroll across the lush, alluvial paddock. “Dad?”, my daughter begins, as she puts her hand in mine. I wait lazily, hoping I won’t have to prompt her to get to the actual question. She obliges. “Did you used to love the river when you were our age?”

“Not so much when I was your age, but when I was a teenager I did.”

“Why not when you were our age?”

“Well, I didn’t really notice it was there.”

“But you lived here, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but remember Nanna and Pop couldn’t swim, so they didn’t like us to come here. And besides, there are lots of things in the world that you know about without really knowing about them.”

“Like what? I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well… did you know that you can use the Southern Cross as a compass?”

* * * * *

“Oh no. Where are we?”, says Mum as she pulls over and fumbles for the interior light. I climb up a level of consciousness, and, from the barely noticeable tingling in my ear, register that I can’t have been asleep long. I drag my eyelids apart and the road sign in the headlights comes into focus: Black Charlie’s Opening. We’re heading up to the east coast.

She puts the map down. “We must’ve missed the turnoff to Hobart.”