Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A walk on the mountain

The weather was cool when I woke this morning and so I went for a walk on the mountain near my house. I used to go up there every day and once autumn comes I probably will again. The area is part of a nature reserve so that, although it's very close to the centre of the city, it has mostly been allowed to remain as pristine bushland. You almost always see at least a couple of kangaroos - and more often great mobs of them - and occasionally, if you're really lucky, a lone wallaby. I once saw an echidna crossing one of the pathways and I have spotted tawny frogmouths from time to time.
I never used to like bush much. This was partly stubbornness on my part. I knew lots of keen campers and bush walkers when I was young and most of them seemed to be slightly evangelical about Australia's great outdoors. As they usually emerged from their stays in the scrub looking as dishevelled as banksia men, their insistence that it was lovely out there didn't convince me - and anyway I hate being told that I will absolutely adore something. I don't know why but I almost immediately decide I won't.
The other factor at work, of course, was unfamiliarity. Although I'd been brought up on Mary Grant Bruce and travelled to Australia a lot in my childhood, I never lived here full-time until my teens. The part of Australia we always came to when I was a kid - the Western District of Victoria - is pretty heavily farmed in any case. I love that landscape, but there is little bushland left there any more. I had lived in the tropics as a small child - in Malaysia - but thereafter I'd been brought up in England. There to qualify as pretty a landscape is usually lush and also fairly obviously tamed by man. The countryside has been lived in and cultivated for so long that all its wildness has vanished. It is cut up and controlled and tidied and designed. And it is very green.
The bush is none of those things. At first, to the European eye, it can look dusty, rather colourless and extraordinarily untidy. The ground is littered with dead wood and bark and from a distance the lower trunks of most of the trees look as if they are covered in peeling wallpaper. The foliage of everything merges initially into a uniform greenish grey.
But then, if you walk through it every day, you start to see things you didn't notice before. The messy bark scattered over the ground is just discarded wrapping paper. The trees have cast it off so that the beautiful silky surfaces of their trunks can be seen. Some of them are pale and smooth, the colour of ivory, some have wavelike patterns rippling through them, some have stripes of deep grey and livid purple, like the pelts of wild animals.
After a while, you realise that the leaves of the plants are not all one colour either, despite what you originally thought. It turns out that there are endless variations in their pale shades of green. Soon you begin to recognise the small signs of change and growth in the plants you pass as well. You notice when new shoots or tiny flowers start to emerge. There is nothing splashy or vivid about the process. The bush doesn't erupt in unignorable colour or burst out in rich green leaves like the horse chestnut trees in the avenues of Europe's cities. The bush is not showy or gaudy; it's self-effacing. In fact, it's almost secretive - but that's what in the end I find especially appealing about it. If finally its subtle charms reveal themselves to you, you feel special, as if you have been initiated into a select and rather sophisticated group.

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