Down the Mountain
Shawn counted free-standing trees on his train trips to the city – he loved them no matter how scungy they were, or how boxed in and harnessed in backyards or designated bush reserves. They had shifted him to a city office away from his job as a ranger in the rainforest with wombats, kangaroos and different types of snake but he told himself to relax about the dislocation. The other passengers were mothers, with their hands full with toddlers and their distractions, stressed men performing calculations on iPads, and a few Chinese tourists photographing the world. Closer to the city, school children came on clutching sporting equipment and suburbs became denser, more crowded. The traffic was chaotic.
The trip took an hour and a half from newly minted places where residents could catch a glimpse of the sea, across working class semi-detached units and dilapidated public housing then into the inner city where being cramped and closed in had become convenient and fashionable.
Shawn imagined what it was like back on the mountain at that time of day; the odd car as parents dropped their kids off at school, swinging arcs of birds, and a few eagles setting out, huge trees, and places where white fellas shouldn’t go. It was a part of his mind that hadn’t been colonised or filled in. He also began to recall why he loved the place and the reason he was always called back to it.
* * *
Even though most of the mountainous hinterland away from the coast had remained relatively untouched over the years, soft clichés had taken over the rest – eco resorts, houses with pacific ocean views, cute lifestyle cafes; ‘untouched’ rain forests; a whole range of ethical others validating business below. Shawn had lived there for years (as had his parents) and he went to the primary school on the crest of the mountain. He would always wander the back tracks finding animal scats and markings.
There were also other things up there, so they said; the Yowie, an elusive creature, dating back into aboriginal dreamtime, which farmers had seen in the half light of dusk, loping along and then disappearing into the bush. Some said, ‘he’ looked half man, half kangaroo, with luminous eyes and giant limbs – one of those stories that seemed to have been made up to suggest that Australia hasn’t been totally tamed; thank God there was something we still couldn’t control.
The irony, in this case was that Shawn had seen one when he was fourteen, way up a bush track, where there hadn’t been a sound other than the cracking of a few twigs under foot. That day he was with a mate and it was also dusk, and there was just enough light to encourage doubters and that part of the mind that needs logic. Always after that he noted the entrance to the track where it went sideways from the main road and a new cutting put in place after heavy rain. Shawn didn’t want to tell anyone else, especially his tradie mates, as that might make it real which might encourage more interlopers. The secret though had got out to a few friends.
Intruders like the motorcyclists who made the road up the mountain a racetrack on weekends as they defied the hair-pinned bends and on-coming cars, creating enough noise to frighten away any yowies that were left. Relaxing at a coffee shop half way up the mountain, they compared close shaves, fiddled with their helmets and swaggered about in their leathers. And they gathered at a pub at the foot of the mountain, arranging their bikes in circles, and exchanging stories. ‘We beat it today,’ they told each other, as if the ride was one of the last frontiers. An uncharitable observer would have said, ‘O really – some people shouldn’t be allowed to travel’.
Shawn was always excited talking about the nature on the mountain; he laughed at his own allusions and how, like all the growth on the ground, they spread sideways, that there were linking stories, if only we were open to hearing them. Sometimes, he seemed terse, because he couldn’t understand how others weren’t as passionate as he was. Almost out of character he’d often forcefully say: ‘I KNOW the place’. He had always confided in friends about his desire to write about it, and he had published a few bits, but apart from his day job, his kids, and his general enthusiasm, the energy hadn’t been able to build up enough to take it anywhere.
Warwick, a mate from interstate (who wrote a bit) used to visit, even though he found the mountain road frightening, because he was used to flat places, where he could usually see what was coming, but he was always encouraging about the writing probably because he knew that there still weren’t enough redemptive stories told by white men about ‘country’, by sometimes quoting a fishing friend of Shawn’s who was also into stories of renewal. Warwick also knew that stories weren’t ‘about’ anything as such.
Yet, one day, he told Shawn to shut up and not apologise anymore for his lack of confidence. Their banter had been all pervasive, sometimes touching at the edge of being unable to even approach the enormity of such a task. Shawn had been laughing at the end of most of his sentences, giggling and deflecting attention, and Warwick had heard the stories of people who wanted to write if only they had the time (and even though sympathetic) he was exasperated as it sounded a bit too much like his own laziness. Maybe Shawn was afraid of being alone, the loneliness of sitting with himself?
He was home, receiving the instant affection of his two children, their banter competing with the birds on the balcony and splashing from the swimming pool when Warwick said, ‘You know like most people, your children are your books’, a mushy thought he’d been entertaining for a long time. Perhaps it was his way of trying to find out where love comes from, and where it finally goes.
Shawn had always made notes, but his filing system always failed as he prided himself on being spontaneous, so on the whole, his idea of writing swung around a fulcrum of only doing it when he felt passionate. He could entertain friends with marvellous stories about the mating habits of birds, the signs to look for when investigating migratory ones; basically, why animals did things, and they were attentive as much as anyone could be surrounded by mobile phones and computer games. Warwick said, ‘You shouldn’t talk about it so much, you’ll exhaust the moment,’ but Shawn always kept going, as he knew that he had to speak out for endangered species, and for that which we take for granted.
In any case, he enrolled in a ‘nature writing’ course at the local library. The convener was an author who had a successful book based on a rainforest further north, and she saw the brimming life force in him. The other participants seemed to think that ‘nature writing’ was a good idea, and that was fine, but there was something indelible in her gorgeous portraits of owls and her delight in describing how rainbow lorikeets love to chat. ‘It’s all to do with the eye, whether you can trust yourself to see past the surface,’ she added, as she illustrated her point with some of her ink wash paintings, where distance and objects were fused, and she also asked everyone whether they were able to take the point beyond their initial enthusiasm.
But Shawn was like friends who were struggling to survive, some driving up and down the mountain every day to work, or to ferry their kids to school; such was the price of living with nature, so it was hard to explain to his practical mates that there was another world, and to write about it legitimate, if there was little money involved. Warwick was always Zen about the task with clichés such as ‘It is a marathon not a sprint’, but Shawn’s mates had concerned disbelief in their eyes.
Yet he was determined to take something from the workshop, instead of it being just another intellectual shopping trip of some kind, so he created a filing system to clear the mind of initial digressions, and to hopefully create a list of possibilities with headings such as, ‘What to concentrate on?’, ‘What do I want to say?’
Robert and Ruth, his nearest neighbours on the mountain were enthused by the prospect of such organization as they had heard him going on and on at barbecues about his love of the place, and the need to get it down. Shawn had also been talking a lot about how distressed some white men and women are about wanting ‘country’, ‘so much so they have to build everywhere to show us they are here, and they make a lot of noise doing it’. In more alcohol-fuelled moments he even repeated the refrain, ‘The city has won’, but it was more huff and puff than anything else as he knew that the land could never be totally defeated. The signs were there – the violent storms and the long dry spells of climate change, even on his mountain.
But Robert didn’t quite understand what was at stake, because for him everything should be like his new addition to the house which opened up the possibility of a better view of the ranges from the dining room, and he was a driven man who was in search of specific explanations. His happiness then was always external, and it was no co-incidence that he had met a lost American (almost a mirror image of himself) in the Numinbah valley, who was into molecular biology, whose impatience was palpable. So, he set off to make Shawn into a successful author, and said he would organize for a publisher to meet him.
He told Shawn that he’d set it up, at the pub at the foot of the mountain, where yowie stories have been told. Somehow he knew a bloke who published books in Brisbane that were about ‘searching’. He told Shawn that he’d ring him when he had a convenient date. ‘You know, mate, he might be interested in your encounter with the yowie, it could be a bestseller as it has a hook, and a mystery to unravel.’ Robert just wanted to solve the problem of Shawn’s frustrated creativity in ways that only he could understand – be forthright, research the market and try to create media interest where people are screaming for attention.
But the meeting with the publisher didn’t come to much. The publisher arrived with his laptop, and of course, his mobile which rang constantly, giving the impression that he was sought after and always in motion. He was someone who thought to stay still would have been a death wish.
Shawn explained that he had hundreds of stories to tell to people who might listen, and on the question of writing about when he saw the yowie, he doubted whether it would work as there had been hundreds of such encounters over the years and that he was a ranger and he wasn’t famous.
On a wall above the bar there were yellowing press cuttings, and a newspaper report of the day the Channel 7 chopper landed in the hotel car park, when they briefly needed a story about ancient Australia. But it really was just another story of conquest, so he told the publisher that, if he wasn’t interested in some of his observations about the native animals and the illegal tree clearing that’d been going on, then he would go home and he was also changing his job and returning to work at an animal shelter near the mountain.
Also, that indigenous people had already told the story, so we should leave it alone, adding, ‘I’m going home, up the mountain, but my eyes will be on the ground. I can’t contain any of these stories – they aren’t just mine’.
Phillip Edmonds taught creative writing at Griffith University and the University of Adelaide. He was the editor of Wet Ink: the magazine of new writing between 2005 and 2012. His most recent books are Tilting at Windmills: The literary magazine in Australia, 1968- 2012 (University of Adelaide Press, 2015) and the short story collection The Soapbox (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018).
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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence