A Haunted Wood

Image via Akseli Koskela
A creek, billabong and bridge in a classic Cumberland
Plains Woodland setting.
Last week, on an extremely cold July Sunday, Esther and I made a visit to Mount Annan Botanic Gardens, which I have written about previously. In addition to a Swamp Wallaby, Kookaburra, feral rabbit and some other brightly coloured species of birds, we also stumbled upon a haunting memorial to Australia’s “Stolen Generations”.

The biggest hurt ... was having my mum chase the welfare car. I’ll always remember it – we were looking out the window and mum was running behind us and singing out for us.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The plaque on the stone reads: “ ‘The biggest hurt, I think,
was having my mum chase the welfare car. I’ll always
 remember it – we were looking out the window and mum was
running behind us and singing out for us.’ Stolen Child

Image via Akseli Koskela
Another haunting voice from the past: “ ‘They just came
down and said, “We’re taking these kids.” They just take you
out of your mother’s arms. That’s what they done to me. I was
still at my mother’s breast when they took me.’ Stolen Child
Image via Akseli Koskela
It reads: “ ‘There are still a lot of unresolved issues within
me. One of the biggest ones is I can’t really love anyone
no more. I’m sick of being hurt. Every time I used to get close
to anyone they were just taken away from me.’ Stolen Child
The Stolen Generations were those Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who were forcibly taken from their families under the auspices of various State and Commonwealth government directives, beginning prior to the formation of the Commonwealth itself, right up to the late 1960s. The history of the Stolen Generations has been well-documented in the Attorney-General’s Bringing them Home report and also in Phillip Noyce’s outstanding film Rabbit Proof Fence. In the Australian High Court case of Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 1, it was argued that one of the State government acts authorising the forced removal of children from their families, the Aboriginals Ordinance Act 1918 (NT), amounted to an attempt at cultural genocide. However, the High Court rejected this reading of the facts, on the specious grounds that, as the act in question was posed in terms of “paternalistic protection” of the Aboriginal children in question, the necessary “intent” to destroy an ethnic or racial group was lacking. Seems to be saying if a government phrase an act with enough hypocritical verbiage they can enact anything.

Every time I used to get close to anyone they were just taken away from me.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Black and white tree trunks standing side by side.
I found this memorial particularly stirring. The Cumberland Plains woodland setting of the memorial seemed somehow fitting for such a memorial. Before the arrival of the First Fleet under Governor Arthur Philip, most of the Sydney basin was Cumberland Plains woodland -- so it seems a fitting place, for people who have been stolen from their culture and traditions to try to regrow those old links with their culture, even if, due to the passing of time, some of that renewal has to have something of an artificial character. Walking along the memorial, the woods seemed pregnant with the ghosts of the past, as conveyed by the simple and honest quotations from adult survivors of this state-sanctioned kidnapping.
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Moreton Bay Figs

Image via Akseli Koskela
After backing-up the length of a football field I managed
to fit an entire tree into the frame. 
Oak trees are not native to Australia and are therefore quite a rare sight in Sydney. Which is something of a shame as they really are mighty trees and quite spectacular to look at. They are also particularly tree-like, I often think the oak embodies a sort of Platonic essence of trees. But for all that, we do have an equally impressive tree in Sydney, which for what it lacks in Platonic tree essence, more than makes up for in tree character.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Esther looking-up at a lichen-covered ancient fig. The
side of me prone to hyperbole likes to compare it to some
sort of gnarled-old-man of the forest, as if from one
of the works of Tolkien. 
Moreton Bay figs are common across a great swathe of the Eastern Seaboard of Australia. The planners of Rose Bay, whoever they were, in there infinite wisdom thought to plant rows of these mighty Figs along the harbour-side promenade and in Lyne Park and whenever I go to the Rose Bay Ferry Wharf I get a chance to marvel at the Gothic colonnade formed by these trees.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A Gothic colonnade of Moreton Bay figs.
Image via Akseli Koskela
Is there not something altogether monstrous about the
proportions of these trees -- whose limbs, thanks to their
buttressing roots, are able to to stretch long boughs
towards you from so far away?
What’s more, these old figs around Rose Bay are not unimpressive in size either. The cathedral arches, medieval buttresses and architectural proportions of these trees were not the only ways in which they reminded me of the Notre-Dame de Paris -- trying to get a photo which captured the entire tree, I was transported back to a memory of having to keep walking further and further backwards, till Esther, standing at the doorway, was a barely visible ant, trying to get the whole Cathedral in one photo.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The Moreton Bay fig betrays its murderous intentions
in the aerial roots it sends down from its upper boughs.
Although these particular figs were planted, generally the Moreton Bay fig is what is called an “epiphyte”. In the world of trees, this means the tree is a “strangler”, the seeds find there way into the boughs of other trees high-up in the canopy thanks to the birds who eat the figs, from there, with access to plenty of sunshine, the trees send roots back down to the earth; twisting and coiling their way around the torso of the host tree as they do so. Eventually, smothered within the choking embrace of this Gothic enclosure, the host tree is no longer able to get any sunlight and dies. In particularly old strangler figs, the host tree rots away completely leaving an empty cavernous space, like a crypt or sepulchre for the forgotten host tree.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A young Moreton Bay fig beginning its life in the
crevice of a host tree -- and you thought it looked cute.
Although the Moreton Bay Figs that I photographed stand innocent, you can see their murderous intent in the aerial roots that they drop from their branches. Perhaps a bit more malign than your everyday oak, but it seems strangely fitting for a continent that was to be the home of a colony settled by convicts.
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Mount Annan Botanical Gardens

Image via Akseli Koskela
The view from Mount Annan out towards Menangle.
Image via Akseli Koskela
Another Southerly view from Mount Annan.
Last weekend, Esther and I visited the “Australian Botanic Garden: Mount Annan”, which along with the “Blue Mountains Botanic Garden: Mount Tomah” and the “Royal Botanic Garden” make up the three Botanic Gardens in Sydney. The three gardens have something of a division of labour -- the Blue Mountains garden is a “cool-climate” botanic garden; the Mount Annan garden is an “Australian natives” botanic garden; and the Royal Botanic Garden, is of course the original botanic garden built on what was previously the Governor’s “demesne” or “domain” and converted into a botanic garden in 1816.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Gum trees in the afternoon sun.
Image via Akseli Koskela
The beginning of the Southern Highlands.
Walking around Mount Annan last week, I could see why they chose it as a site to specialise in Australian natives, it’s just such a dry-looking place. You will notice from the photos that the landscape looks typically Australian. But you will not get any clue from the photos that the week prior to us visiting had been a week of almost incessant rain across Sydney. In fact, I was walking around the garden in a pair of plimsolls, because my more trusty everyday shoes were at that moment sitting at home in the balcony in the hope that they might dry-out. I must have put those old shoes back in their box when they were still wet, because when I took them out they had a good covering of mould and a green shoot sprouting from under the soles!

Image via Akseli Koskela
The Blue Tree -- don't ask...
Another thing you wouldn’t notice from the photos is that it is the middle of Winter down here. Australian natives don’t tend to lose their leaves and if you do see a tree without its leaves it’s most likely dead. Like the blue painted tree that we came across out in the middle of the garden just before leaving.
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Talking to Yourself

Image via Akseli Koskela
As cute as he is, it's not rational to talk to him -- he doesn't
understand a word you're saying.
It’s been said that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness. But surely that means all the world’s mad because everyone’s done it - at least once.

Surely you’ve been caught talking to yourself before - in childhood perhaps? I remember my own childhood running around muttering fantastical conversations between knights and sorcerers under my breath as I sought to re-enact some sort of Arthurian Romance playing in the garden. Another alternative when compelled to play by myself was the ubiquitous “commentator’s voice”, which I know I wasn’t the only child to have recourse to, as I kicked a football around passing it to myself and imagining future glory leading the Eels to Premiership victory.

Even as adults people continue to talk to themselves. What about that passive aggressive muttering that occurs when a large and rude person steps in front of you in a queue. Something about the role of mothers in teaching manners, or perhaps an idle reflection on the patent visibility of queues? Because of course, I’m sure if the gentleman or lady in question were to turn around and query whether you were directing such comments to his or herself, especially if the person in question was a large bogan with a violent aspect, I’m sure you would maintain that it was nothing: “just talking to myself.”

The plausibility of this excuse bears testament to the fact that even bogans occasionally can be found “talking to themselves”. What about, for example, the “That’s how it’s done!” that might slip out during a “Eureka” moment?

Or talking to your computer? Like that’s rational.

Talking to other drivers on the road -- ditto.

“Talking to Go--” “Um, let’s not go there.”

The worst is when you remember something funny or think of something funny and nearly laugh or you do laugh or you’re trying not to laugh and maintain a straight face but the best you can do is only one side of your face -- so that one side of your mouth rises up in a bizarre sort of schizophrenic smile.

That’s when your afraid people think you’ve got some sort of mental condition.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A metaphor for random thoughts -- unconstrained by the
limits of language.
The reality is that we think in words. Our thought is expressed, and indeed constrained, by language. Surely I’m not the only person who has some sort of continuous dialogue running through my head as I go about my daily routine? I remember once speaking to a friend about the phenomenon of having a song stuck in one’s head and the friend mentioned that she couldn’t imagine not having a song stuck in her head -- but what I find even more difficult to imagine would be to exist without some dialogue of words running through one’s head. In fact, I can’t imagine conscious thought without words.

It’s not quite as socially acceptable to comment on though. Whilst people complain of having certain songs stuck in their heads, I’ve never heard one complain having a fantasy interview on The 7:30 Report stuck in his or her head before.

Because that’s something I do all the time. I see a politician on the news one night and often can’t but think what I would’ve said in the circumstances or how I would’ve phrased a particularly unpalatable policy position.

I anticipate, in my head, things that I might say in a future conversation that I will have to a person who I’m on the way to meeting. Like a sort of rehearsal of the funny events or observations I intend to relate and hope to receive some sort of positive feedback from.

This post, for example, began it’s life as a running dialogue in my head on the nature of why it is socially unacceptable to talk to oneself. The genesis of which came from accidentally muttering under my breath after receiving a text message on the train.

When I was a child I used to imagine myself as an adult and famous, after having for example, realised my ambition of world conquest, and sitting with Parky:

ParkinsonImage via Wikipedia
A childhood ambition of mine was to be interviewed
by Michael Parkinson.
Parkinson: “But did you always know that you were going to be world dictator? I remember in your book at one point it says that as a child you had ‘strong premonitions of future greatness’ and I find that that drive must have been necessary to achieve what you have achieved.”
Me: “Well, as a child I always greatly admired Julius Caesar and I was conscious that I would like to emulate his great achievements. I’d also like to recognise the influence of Sid Meier’s celebrated PC game “Civilization” for making me realise that world conquest was a legitimate ambition --
Parkinson: “Yes, as you mention in your book, through world conquest comes world peace.”
Me: “Yes, that’s exactly right, and that’s what I set out to achieve in my life.”

As you may have gathered, my ambitions have been somewhat revised downwards since those ambitious childhood years. I think it might have had something to do with my school career’s advisor. I don’t think he considered it a very realistic ambition. In fact, I think I remember him being not at all convinced by the “world peace” argument either.

Yes that’s right, I remember now, I was referred to the school counsellor after that discussion. I think his report to my parents said something about concerns regarding “delusions of grandeur” and “megalomania”? Something like that.

But I digress. Now, what was I talking about? Oh yes, those first signs of madness.
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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Image via Akseli Koskela
Crystal Castles at the Big Day Out in Sydney 2011 --
that was a night out!
Having surrendered the joys of previous Saturdays to that unproductive and vaguely remorseful feeling that generally follows a Friday where a lot of money has been spent and way too much alcohol consumed, I’ve learnt to mistrust my judgement as to the appropriate time to go home on a Friday evening.

There are simply too many vitiating factors that allow a contract with one’s sensible sober self to be able to be set aside. For example, obviously a contractual term specifying “one drink” should be read as “one round”. One drink is one round, everyone knows that, you can’t let someone buy you a drink and not return the favour; and if you’ve bought three or four drinks for everyone else you’ll want to get your money’s worth. Additionally, if the current establishment is a bit quiet, going somewhere more lively is always going to imply an obligation to stay at that place a bit longer. Midnight is really two, that’s another element to remember in the construction and interpretation of contractual terms with your evening self. You’d know this if you’ve ever tried to act on a commitment to go home at midnight - the first hour of the day is also the liveliest hour of the night. It’s almost impossible to leave when so many other people are obviously having fun, even if you’re not.

Although, to be fair, the idea that you can just make do with three hours sleep and then you’ll be fine is really nothing but a convenient legal fiction and in truth a most mendacious lie.

So it has come to the point that during the cold light of day I now view my night-time self as a person of Mr Hyde type malevolence. For example, last Thursday I went to see an event that was part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival: the Chaser’s “Empty Vessel”. As a precaution I put no less than five alarms on my phone between the hours of ten and eleven-thirty reminding me to go home at the end of the event. Being a Thursday I could brook no chance of waking up hung-over for work. I don’t really think this is socially acceptable after you’ve completed your first under-graduate degree. Not to mention the fact that it’s not exactly professional either.

Anyway, the scary thing was that as I was diligently putting reminders on my phone to keep my night-out self on the path of the righteous, I could just picture myself later surreptitiously deleting them from my phone and dancing with wild abandon in some King’s Cross den of iniquity.

OK, maybe that last line was half fantasy -- deleting them from my phone and ordering a second round in any case. Because the second round is no longer lying to yourself. After the second round you’re on a night-out.
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The Station Platform Campbelltown

Campbelltown StationImage via Wikipedia
Campbelltown Station.
“Excuse me, do you have one dollar for phone call?” I am asked by a ruffled looking man with a thick beard and an accent of some indefinable sort.

I stop eating my apple and look at him. He is wearing sneakers and a navy blue suit which looks un-ironed on him, flecks of grey streak through his black beard and hair. He could be a swarthy looking Russian or an Armenian or from somewhere similar. Without saying a word I reach for my back pocket. He takes this gesture for an acceptance and thanks me but not waiting for his coin takes a seat at a bench. I give him two dollars, the only gold coin I have in my pocket, and he then lies down on the bench and shuts his eyes as if to sleep.

The station guard walks down the platform.

“Where are you going mate?” Which station are you going to?” He asks, waking the vagrant.

“The city,” mumbles the other.

“Well you can’t sleep, you’ve only got eight minutes. You can’t sleep and miss this train like the last one.”

He’s not going to the city, I reflected to myself. Didn’t have a phone call to make either — he has no-one to call. No more than he has a place to go to. I reflected on this strange enforced wandering of the life of a vagrant.
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The Blue Mountains

Image via Akseli Koskela
The fog gave the town a quiet mysteriousness.
Last Monday, Anzac day, Esther and I, getting away from the city and all the “old diggers” headed up to the Blue Mountains for the day. It’s not that we have anything against war veterans, it’s just the jingo-istic patriotism and fake solemnity and nationalism of Anzac day is getting increasingly unbearable. I suppose Anzac day always had a nationalistic element that sought to glorify war, but I get the distinct impression, that as the years pass and the memory of the horrors of World War II fade, that the tone of Anzac day is evolving from a day of sombre reflection to one of bellicose flag-waving similar to that which has taken-over Australia Day.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The cooler climate of the Blue Mountains led early settlers
to plant European trees and create English Gardens in an
attempt to recreate the "Old Country".
The Mountains however remembered the spirit of the day. From Lithgow, to Blackheath to Katoomba, the mountaintop towns were enveloped in a great grey fog.

Leaving Sydney at the break of dawn we arrived in Katoomba on the train at nine in the morning, the fog gave the town a quiet mysteriousness. We caught a bus to Echo Point and after talking to a lady at the Information Centre who told us that in this weather walking to the Ruined Castle wouldn’t be a good idea we departed in search of the Ruined Castle.

Image via Akseli Koskela
In the shadow of a looming mountain, almost completely
swallowed-up in the fog.
I know, you’re reading “Ruined Castle” and thinking there were no castles in Australia. What was this? Some early colonial fort? Some rich pasturalist’s folly? Sadly, nothing so grand, the early colonial forts were directed towards the sea and Australia’s pioneering pasturalists hadn’t the imagination to build themselves a European-style castle, not even a folly. The Ruined Castle is a strange rock formation that, seen from afar, looks uncannily like a ruined castle. Of course, on a day like last Monday there was no chance of seeing it from afar, and as we never got near so far as our intended destination on the waterlogged muddy track that day, we didn’t get to compare how close the rock formation resembled a castle at a closer inspection.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A Ghost Gum in the mist.
The forest though was altogether otherworldly. There is a species of Eucalypt commonly called the “Ghost Gum”, named for its ghostly white pallor. In the silver-grey light of the fog, these strange trees had an ethereal presence, which combined with the architectural gracefulness of their long slender branches to make them seem like the marble pillars of some pagan temple. The surreal imagery stimulated the imagination like a strange narcotic, the naked limbs of the trees at times seemed like dancers locked in a final pose of supplication to the sky; seen from a different light, with strips of bark hanging from the branches like so many nooses from a gallows the forest took on altogether different hue.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Is it just me or do these trees not look like they are reaching
out towards the sky?
I’m glad, however, that I took some photos (if you click on them you will be able to see them in their full-size) because in reality my purple prose and unimaginative metaphors give no justice to the stately grace and serene quiet of these trees standing quietly in the mountain fog.