Walking, Not Knowing

Nodding Greenhood orchid (Pterostylis nutans) with pollinator

Walking, Not Knowing.

If I don’t know I don’t know, I think I know.
If I don’t know I know, I think I don’t know.
– R.D. Laing, Knots (1970), p. 55

In knowing, soul or mind abandons its unity; it cannot remain a simplex; knowing is taking account of things; that accounting is multiple; the mind thus plunging into number and multiplicity departs from unity. Our way then takes us beyond knowing […]
– Plotinus (204-270 AD), The Enneads VI, 9.4

All know the Way.
Few go it.
– Bodhidharma, 7th century founder of Zen

Let me take you for a walk in the wild section of our twenty permaculture acres at Bundanoon on the southern tablelands of New South Wales. We shall be moving through a small remnant of an Australian endangered ecological community, the Southern Highlands Shale Woodlands. The way is not long.

In 1689 Basho, Japanese Zen practitioner and haiku poet, embarked on the two and half year walking trip he described in his classic Narrow Road to the Deep North using the ‘haibun’ form, a combination of prose and haiku. This haibun will be considerably shorter, as will our walk on a narrow track heading south.

If we rush, it will take us about five minutes and we will see little. Let us go slowly now. The city and career are far away in space or time. No need to rush anymore. Time to read country, to ‘feel its patterns on our skins, breathe its air, write its names’ (Mark Tredennick). As we attempt to write its names, how much are we actually understanding? How much of our naming is but the obvious tip of a huge iceberg of profound ignorance beneath the surface? Is our way, perhaps, one of both knowing and not knowing? Even, in moments, of unknowing, of not knowing we know?

Slope

Springtime. It feels shady, dappled, quiet with the strange deepening silence of large trees standing closely together. The air is still. This is the eastern lee of the south-facing slope, mostly wind-free. Here one feels most ‘away from it all’, sheltered, secluded; it is our property’s locus amoenus, its ‘delightful place’. Neither our house nor Stan and Bev’s, our cashmere goat-keeping neighbours’ to the east, are visible. It is a small, contained place, walled in by trees and the hill itself. Both from the upper slope and its base on the flat, there is no horizon, but if you look upwards patches of sky are visible through the branches of the eucalypts.

The only sounds here may be the sudden cacophonous protest of a gang of four or five well-named Noisy Miners flitting from tree to tree, glaring down with heads cocked, defending their territory against our (or any other) intrusion. That this omnivorous, small-bird-destroying generalist species is the dominant one in this section is in itself a sign of ecological disturbance: they have moved from their original woodland habitats in central and western NSW, now degraded or destroyed by agriculture, into the simplified, mostly understorey-free habitats of the suburbanised east.

There may be other sounds, however. In 2003, on a rare seven-year cycle, there was a two week-long storm of sound. Cicadas had emerged from their brown shells pinned to the tree trunks and were now holding the world to ransom. Their unremitting, ear-splitting techno-sound so filled the skull that skull and space seemed one.

At the top of the slope, the thickly stringy-barked (though certainly not ‘messy’) messmates and finer-barked peppermints as well as the odd blackwood are regenerating well amongst light grass and bracken, self-seeding over from the large trees and Hobsons’ extensive woodland to the north., as understorey-depleted as it is by horse grazing. The messmates, the first eucalypt to be botanically named by Sir Joseph Banks (E. obliqua), are easy to identify by that unsymmetrical, oblique leaf base which apparently so stood out for the first European botanist on Australian soil.

oblique scimitar
your leaf, straight stringy trunk
twists through timber knots

Looking at the ground most of the year you can see the hardness of the earth, even when there is an understorey of soft maidenhair ferns, a little bunch of rasp ferns, bracken, mat rush, blackberry. In that hardness and dryness there always seems to be a certain strange ‘sadness’, an ‘otherness’. It seems less humus-earthworm-and-snail than lignite-ant-and-termite country. Fire country. Perhaps we Europeans have just not been here long enough for it to have lost that otherness.

As we descend the slope, you can see the messmates and peppermints giving way to river white gums and manna gums, probably exploiting moister and clayeyer soils. Manna gums are also known locally as Snappy Gums because of their limb-dropping habits. They are thus unwise to have near houses or to stand under in windy conditions. A problem for humans may be a boon for our co-animals, however: their frequent limb dropping also means they may readily create those increasingly scarce, and thus increasingly valuable, tree hollows for bird or small mammal nests.

Here they mass strongly down along the creek line: thickly covered stringiness of trunks giving way to smooth white or grey-mottled yellowish wood often elegantly emerging from a short collar of rough bark. Although these trees seem to prefer the moisture of deep gullies, lower clayey slopes or alluvial soils, they are also the fire plants (‘pyrophytes’) par excellence. In the summer bushfire season these long bark ribbons hanging from the trees can become flaming torches that assist the flames ascend the tree and, whipped away by fiery winds, help the fire spread more swiftly. Although there are no fire scars on the trees here, such is the ever-present potential reality of destruction that comes with the privilege of living in south-eastern Australia, the continent’s ‘great fire triangle’ between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Rooted in moister soils, throwing their flaming ribbons to the wind, these trees seem to connect and express fire and water, the great conflicting elements, in some macabre paradox.

white trunk mushrooms
up through long veils of bark, food
waiting for your fire god

The ‘manna’ in their name also bespeaks another ambiguous and consoling perspective: where there may an infernal hell of fire, there may also be a delicious heaven of manna, of sweet nourishment, at least for possums. The ‘manna’ refers to the sugary sap that exudes from any wounds in the tree. Possums sometimes milk them by making incisions in the trunk.

On the track here I have some favourite spider sites. The Blue Mountains Funnel Web spider’s hole is a little lower down the slope at the base of a large messmate and in the cleft of a fallen limb jammed into the ground across the track. In spring this hole, featureless over winter, gradually regains its characteristic silken trip wires. I often check the hole during my daily walk, repressing the urge to tug at a silken string and feeling a strange affection for this particular unseen representative of one of the world’s most toxic spiders.

A little further on downslope there is, about 20cm above the forest floor, a seemingly unstructured mess of minute tangle-web spider nets which connect with old blackberry canes and, above them, the web of a leaf-curl spider. A chaotic tangled web is now, since the advent of genomics, increasingly our prevalent image of natural evolution, replacing the previous simplicity and vertical tidiness of the tree of life. Also in biology it seems the more we know, the less naively simple things become.

Here the tangle-web spiders seem to catch mainly small midges in their nets. Whether there are any interactions or relationships between the two so very differently sized types of spider (beyond sharing the same space), I do not know. Nor can I name the tangle-webs: there are two families with about twenty nine genera in Australia, and heaven knows how many species.

To observe nature more closely is to strongly feel how little I really know, and to feel encouraged to do a little more research and continually refine the pleasure of observing as an amateur naturalist. Particularly the insect world has more recently been my great teacher in this. George Seddon once noted that Australia was really the country of insects. With between 15,000 and 20,000 different species of insect just feeding on eucalypt and acacia leaves in Australia, or with up to 700 different invertebrate species found in the canopy and up to 200 arthropod species on the bark of a single eucalypt, there are an awful lot of teachers out there. Where to start?

My own ignorance is fairly equitably shared, however: so little is generally known about huge and important sections of Australian biota like the invertebrates or fungi. It has been estimated that only about 10% of Australian fungi have been described, for example. The sad danger is that this ignorance might never be really overcome, even before many species are lost forever. This is not only because of Australia’s expanse, high biodiversity, recent European settlement, rapid and destructive development, but also – in contrast to the northern hemisphere and its many amateur ‘bug-hunters’ – because it lacks a critical mass of informed amateur naturalists. So here is, beyond the personal need, another more altruistic motivation to walk, observe, note, conjecture, and, where possible, attempt to understand country on a daily and seasonal basis.

Creek

We are now at the bottom of the slope and walking about twenty metres across a grassed flat towards the creek. The creek, meandering away invisibly to the west through the dense trees, shrubs and blackberry, is the centre of the property in several ways. Literally, its watercourse quite neatly bisects the property into a southern and northern section. Figuratively, the creek is also a kind of spiritual centre to the property, its sinuous watery spine as it were. It is the quietest, wildest place, the most bio-diverse, a healing place.

However, the creek is not always a creek in the cosy European sense of a perennial ‘stream’ or ‘brook’. The protean creek has two, possibly three, very different lives, different personae, a little like the post-modern self perhaps. In summer or in drought it is usually empty of water, a dry channel, perhaps still containing a puddle or some moist earth here or there, the strongly meandering physical structure of its flats and hollows clearly visible as you walk along its course.

Being so bio-diverse, the riparian section is the most biologically valuable area on the property. The canopy-dominants are the manna and river white gums, peppermints and the odd messmate with a sub-dominant layer of blackwoods becoming increasingly prevalent. These, when form-pruned, valuable cabinet timber trees, are often adapted to rainforest-sclerophyll edges and may in time shade out more of the light-adapted understorey plants, with unknown but probably wide ramifications for the whole woodland system.

rainforest edge, best
of both worlds, janus split in-
to deep red cabinets

To date I have found over sixty species of plants and fungi, mainly in the understorey of course. Heaven knows how many more there may be that I have not yet been able to identify. We are lucky that this section of the original 200 acre dairy farm had obviously not been grazed for many years. All our neighbours’ understoreys have been almost totally denuded by cattle, horse or goat grazing. One of the first things we did was to fence off the riparian woodland section from our sheep grazing and agro-forestry slope.

It is a peaceful, interesting place to be, full of little changes and surprises when you observe it closely and frequently. One of the seasonal botanical pleasures is to come upon one of the four precious species of native orchid growing only here. Each has special, fascinating characteristics. There is the leafless Hyacinth Orchid with its beautiful, small bright pink speckled flowers clustered up its dark stem, unusual in its summer flowering and more coastal than montane in distribution. Its peculiarity is that it is a saprophytic orchid, i.e. it is not only partly dependent on the fungal mycelium for its nourishment like all orchids and most other plants, but is in fact totally dependent on this subterranean mycelium: fungus-like, it has ceased photosynthetic respiration and thus lacks all chlorophyll. Is it still a ‘plant’ or some strange new hybrid organism that has plant tissue and reproduces like a plant but feeds like a fungus?

In spring there is the Tiger or Golden Donkey Orchid, the bright yellow flowers of which, with two little ears at the top and two beard-like tufts at the bottom, mimic pea flowers in order to attract native bee pollinators. There are also the two species of autumn-flowering Greenhoods which spread both by vegetative reproduction and an ingenious form of cross-pollination: they trap gnat, small fly or mosquito pollinators inside their hoods and physically force them to receive a spot of glue and pollen before escaping.

Part of the thrill of discovering orchids is also informed by knowledge of the paradoxical nature of these beautiful plants. They are both extremely old and resilient and extremely vulnerable. The latest research has shifted their botanical age even further back from 45 to about 84 million years. This means orchids survived the great mass extinctions about 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and then rapidly proliferated into today’s 28,000 or so species. At the same time these plants, in Australia at least, are very vulnerable, particularly to grazing of any kind (like vanilla lilies, they are a favourite of kangaroos) and to changes in fire regimes.

In another typically Australian irony, these beautifully delicate little plants are, despite all appearances, in reality as ‘pyrophile’ as the tough eucalypts that tower above them. Many Australian orchid species will not flower properly without the stimulus of hot summer fires and this is an ecological pulse we – ignorant of evolved fire regimes – can unfortunately no longer provide down here at the creek without almost certainly destroying the rest of the significant vegetation. One day they may simply no longer appear. Our enjoyment of them is thus always – more than with other plants – touched with a sense of possible impermanence, of transience, of the cosmic realities of change, death and transformation. In their unassuming, silent way they seem like little meditative reminders of the need for both resilience and the practice of detachment and letting go.

fragile roo food, soft
half-mushrooms trapping midges
fine phoenix in flames

In spring there is no northern hemisphere-style burst of obvious energy and bloom. Australia’s ways are older and more subtle. The European eye needs much training to discover the fine differences that make up its immense species wealth. I am still puzzling out the precise differences between manna, mountain grey and river white gums on the property. Only finely detailed comparisons between basal collars, leaves (adult and juvenile), inflorescences, fruit and flowering times can lead to a degree of certainty, at least where they have not hybridised among each other and thus demolished all neat taxonomic classification.

After sufficient rain at any time of the year the creek will start to flow and become a very different creature. The external pulse of upstream water will turn the creek from a billabong or dry and statically resting system to a flowing, dynamic one. There will be small waterfalls at two places in the creek channel upstream creating the tranquil sounds of flowing impermanence, the freshness of negative ions enlivening the surrounding air. Downstream where the creek loses its distinct channel, the water will spread out sideways into a larger grassy wetland area before entering the lower dam. Thus, within perhaps 150 metres of creek line, we have on our property a riverine microcosm of a whole river system: from mountain waterfalls to mid-range channel to open floodplain and estuary, ending, temporarily, in the ‘ocean’ of the lower dam.

The rain will have also filled the ferns and tree lichens with greener colour and vigour, the latter now more starkly set off against the gleaming black of wet bark. I have noticed the same effect even after a mere mist, as if the lichens were sucking moisture from the air like bromeliads. At seven hundred metres and enjoying a maritime influence from the east, we get a lot of mists in Bundanoon.

Humble, unprepossessing lichens represent one of the most interesting, cryptic and highly developed forms of ecological mutualism in nature. Fungi and algae cooperate in synthesizing many absolutely unique organic compounds that exist nowhere else in nature and seem to protect these very slow-growing and long-lived organisms from herbivores and parasites and possibly help obtain nutrients and water from harsh environments. The fungi and algae even seem to blur into one although they belong to different Kingdoms of Life. The fungal filaments and algal cells become thoroughly entangled and in many cases even establish direct contact between their cell membranes, thus facilitating reciprocal interchanges of the nutrients, hormones and molecules that are jointly synthesized by the two organisms. The theoretically separate fungi and algae are usually not found free-living and most appear incapable of reproduction or survival without their symbiotic partners.

There, however, may be the proverbial rub. In terms of human psycho-pathology, and thus of course illegitimately, we could here speak of a ‘malevolent symbiosis’, ‘confluence’ or ‘morbid co-dependency’. Pursuing the crazy anthropomorphism, the ‘pathological’ nature of this relationship between fungi and algae may also become manifest (as in humans) under conditions of extreme stress. When low light intensity impairs algal photosynthesis – as may in fact be happening here at the creek as the understorey blackwoods expand –, the fungus may actually injure or kill its associated algal cells. Conversely, if mineral nutrients are readily available in the environment, some algae may actually ‘divorce’ their fungal partners and, at least temporarily, take up a free-living existence.

Married or divorced, how lichens actually reproduce is still a mystery and no one has ever seen the spontaneous or artificial formation of a stable lichen from its separate partners. Yet another blank page for scientific voyeurism to fill in.

two in one soft house
grey trunk hair revived by rain
your sex secret

After rain there is also an opportunity to make some non-chemical bush regeneration work easier and more efficient: the blackberries will be much easier to dig or pull out of the moist earth and thus give native competitors a living chance. Although much reduced by laborious slashing, grubbing and goat-tethering efforts, there are still quite a few blackberry thickets along the whole riparian zone. Blackberry removal is, like most human interventions, ecologically ambivalent however. On the one hand, native plant competitors (and their attendant invertebrates) like, for example, blackwoods or the small-leaved native raspberry will be provided with opportunity to expand into the vacated niches. Problematic opportunist fauna like rabbits, hares and foxes will also be denied hides.

On the other hand, we no longer live in pre-European, pre-blackberry ecosystems. It seems to me that the first, and still ecologically naïve, bush regenerators may have often disregarded such realities, and in so doing may sometimes have inadvertently created new problems. I am referring not merely to the negative ecological effects (particularly on the all-important soil food webs) of the copious amounts of herbicides often used in mainstream bush regeneration, but to the sometimes counter-productive faunal repercussions of wholesale ‘environmental weed’ removal. It is, for example, now well known that certain native fauna have adapted to introduced opportunist species like blackberry or lantana, indeed have become dependent on them, often due to the removal of native alternatives. I have often noticed the beautiful, now increasingly rare, resident Superb Fairy-wrens hopping about in the prickly blackberry understorey, obviously safe from bird predators like Noisy Miners or Currawongs and possibly enjoying the odd berry seeds with the rosellas.

Thus, ecologically, I may be robbing Peter to pay Paul: what my blackberry removal may be providing in opening up niches for native plants I may also be taking away as protective habitat from the Superb Fairy-wren. I could try introducing other local native prickly species (like blackthorn or needle hakea), with unknown consequences. Such are the dilemmas of ecological forest management, always judo, never a war.

Wetland

Leaving the eucalypt and acacia-dominated riparian section, we walk south along a mown path through a small open tussock, sedge, reed and grass wetland area that stretches from the eastern fence marking Stan and Bev’s property to our large upper dam to the west. The wetland area on the left seems visually quite uniform and ordered when you emerge from the chaotic high diversity of the woodland. On the right, the open expanse of our large seven megalitre dam brokenly mirrors every shifting shape in the wind-driven sky. This is very restful, giving the eye a breathing space from the structural and botanical complexity of the forest.

Again, as so often in Australian flora and ecosystems, there may be more to the wetland than first meets the eye. As a mixed terrestrial/aquatic system or ecotone it mirrors the creek in its changing seasonal personae. Technically, it seems to be (in the possibly Euro-centric terminology of science) a ‘fen’, i.e. a wetland that is not permanently wet like a swamp or bog but intermittently so after heavier or longer rains, here mostly in the cooler periods of the year when there is also less evaporation.

Faunal surprises can happen even here in what seems a fairly uniform ecosystem. One day, while walking with our border collie Billy, I noticed a fairly large spider sitting in its perfect orb net spun between some common rushes along the track. As I watched it, Billy approached and suddenly I was flabbergasted to see the spider change its triple-striped body and become a fascinating, psychedelically shimmering white. It was Argiope trifasciata, a form of St Andrews spider that apparently uses this dynamic colour shift to ward off potential predators. Unfortunately, three days later it was gone and I never saw it again.

In our profoundly disturbed world, wetlands now raise some entirely new issues. Each spring I am thrilled to note the first sighting of our annual summer guest, Latham’s or Japanese snipe. This amazing, relatively small bird (usually there are two of them) flies here all the way from Japan, Siberia or Alaska. It thus directly connects us to the North Pacific, making the fact of global ecological interdependence not just a theory or virtual screen experience but an actual face-to-face reality.

The joy of this recognition, however, is now a little tempered with the knowledge of new, less thrilling possibilities. Potentially, migrant birds can also be vectors of the avian flu virus. Of course such birds have always been potential vectors of various organisms and diseases, one theory being that the horrendous flu epidemic that killed more people in 1919-20 than the First World War was also transmitted by birds. Today, however, bird habitats have also been severely reduced by development: 50% of wetlands have been destroyed globally in recent decades. The result is that there are now more intensive reservoirs and breeding grounds for lethal disease in the few remaining over-crowded ones and in the farm ponds, paddy fields etc which wetlands birds will use instead.

The snipe and the wetland would – like the manna gum, the orchids, the lichen, the blackberry – seem be not only important organisms but equally important teachers of spiritual paradox. Could it be that ecological interdependence always has two necessary sides that can never be entirely separated: the joy of life intertwined in benign association, protection and support as well as the ever present reality, or potential, of intense suffering, devouring and death? Who knows?

Meanwhile,

reed warbler sings
among long rustling reeds
bowing with the breeze

This I know.

[first published in Island No. 121, Winter 2010]

The creek at 'Gundungurra'

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 18, 2010.

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