After diving headlong into the first few chapters of John Blay's much anticipated final part of his forests trilogy Wild Nature: Walking Australia's South East Forests (NewSouth Publishing, 2020), I feel on edge.
Blay is a well-loved nature writer and his delightful prose and profound insights have enamoured readers with Trek Through the Back Country (Methuen Australia, 1987) and On Track: Searching Out the Bundian Way (NewSouth, 2015), both providing a source of wisdom and wonder.
But in Wild Nature, in whichBlay takes us on a trek in a giant circle from his home in Bermagui through the forests of south-east Australia, we are also exposed to a voyeuristic peek into the 'forest wars' - a period of time late last century when foresters and conservationists fought tooth and nail (and more) over tenure of these natural treasures.
"It seems everybody has a different paradigm of forest. One person, for example, might only see the forest as a koala habitat while another might regard it as a unit of the economy or a source of jobs," explains Blay, adding, "people defend the forest they know".
However, I soon realise that far from being an unwanted distraction, Blay's sub-plot on the forest wars actually provides crucial context to an inspiring journey of discovery into the heart of a vast and contested wilderness. It allows the reader to not only realise what natural values we may have already lost, but also to gain a deeper understanding of what can still be preserved for future generations. This is especially true along the 'Great Escarpment', an area Blay defines as "that complicated edge where the Monaro tablelands fall away steeply to the coastal valleys, tall trees, a rich but secretive wildlife, trails that criss-cross, and their mysteries".
Unlike Trek through the Back Country, where Blay rode a mule through the forests of Wadbilliga and Deua National Parks, Wild Nature is not one continual journey, rather a narrative based on field journals from three decades of Blay's treks into the bush and enhanced by research and oral histories that he has been recording since 1975.
Although Blay prefers to walk solo ("why is it my senses feel so free when it's just me and nature"), on many of these field trips he is joined by Jacqueline, his long-term companion, as well as a revolving cast of ornithologists, ecologists, rangers and even loggers.
His hike through button grass heath of Tabletop Ridge with botanist Jackie Miles is particularly memorable. When the pair crouch down to look across the button grass, Blay brings us with him, "it looks as though you are in the midst of a balloon parade, the flower heads floating in thin air atop slender stems". Classic Blay.
Along the journey, he delights us with descriptions of creatures we all know, such as gang gang cockatoos "like a group of old men at a bar, slightly drunk, sociable", along with insights into those we aren't quite as familiar with, like the Warrigal spirit dogs. "The best I could hope for would be to hear another chorus with the full moon," he reveals, while yearning for another encounter with the metaphysical dogs on the Warrigal range.
Blay also shares many moments of personal revelation, like when a flock of rosellas vanish after flying into a waratah tree.
"The rosella colouring so exactly matches that of the waratahs, they become invisible," he eventually realises, hailing the moment, "as one of these ecstasies of the wild, one of those signposts that keep leading me along the trails day after day".
Even for the most dedicated armchair nature-lover, Blay will have you reaching for your walking boots and poncho as he leads us off the beaten track to far-flung places like Yambulla Creek, the location of some of the oldest 'fish tracks' on Earth, or to one of Cuttagee's [near Bermagui] most remote, hardscrabble valleys where he recorded a lyrebird "that in one early morning oratorio mimicked over 42 species of birds". Wow.
When he walks through places that have been heavily disturbed by logging and land clearing, Blay admits he "feels lost".
"I can't find the life of the place," he explains while navigating through Devil's Creek, a logged area in the Tantawangalo, adding "its flow is gone, perhaps until a time after it recovers".
However, by the time Blay emerges blistered and sodden from the forests of the escarpment and reaches the long windswept coast and the Nadgee wilderness area, he gets his mojo back well and truly. Here, away from the sound of bulldozers in logging coupes, Blay triumphantly announces, "everything is where it should be and more".
At several points, Blay grapples with the challenge of capturing the beauty of nature on camera. For example, when trying to photograph a wombat emerging from its burrow near Nunnock Swamp, Blay curses, ''when the shutter on my camera clicks, it's gone". "The camera's a disruption," he later states, adding "why the need to record little events when the mind can do better".
Blay also attempts to explain why, despite their beauty, the forests of the south-east are often overlooked when discussing Australia's natural wonders. "Unlike some national parks which boast singular iconic qualities that knock your socks off, that you can take in from a lookout, then put a tick on your list, the South East Forests National Park is a composition on a much more complex scale ... no single postcard view can do it justice."
While this may be the case, in penning Wild Nature Blay paints a vivid picture of the natural wonders of our forests in a much more detailed and engaging way than any photograph could ever hope to.
Wild Nature is available from August 1 at bookstores and online from southeastforests.com.au
The meaning of nature
While immersed deep in the wilderness of south-east Australia, at regular intervals in Wild Nature John Blay reflects on the meaning of nature. At one point, after witnessing a "glowing aurora-type light over Cape Howe" he questions the way so many of us 'consume' nature - through television documentaries.
"Nature's not to be put on an altar, frozen in time and space, to be worshipped from afar," asserts Blay, who despairs for "the new generations who aren't getting any actual, practical experience of nature in the wild".
"David Attenborough tells us stories about nature, but they are no substitute for the real thing," explains Blay, adding "he will take one gorgeous image and place it beside one from a few thousand kilometres away and in half an hour he will present one sight after another that nobody will ever see together in real life."
"This is an artificial view of nature that is likely to confuse children into expecting nature to reveal one wonder after another as it is on TV," exclaims Blay, warning "don't mistake such flashiness for nature".
Blay argues the best way to appreciate nature is to experience it. "Only by spending time there do you find how to see nature, to truly see what's there in front of your eyes," he declares, adding "only by questing, by being shown, by learning, by accepting wisdom does wild nature reveal itself."
While your akubra-clad columnist agrees with Blay's sentiments on nature documentaries, it's also important to note that often it's these very programs (along with books like Wild Nature) which inspire people to venture into the great outdoors and discover nature for themselves.
I think the widespread use of social media, where so many people try to impress their 'friends' by editing images with all manner of light and colour filters to purposefully alter the appearance of a location is just as concerning. There's much chat about 'fake news' but when it comes to nature, 'fake photos' are just as prevalent.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: Synonym for accord
Degree of difficulty: Easy
Last week: Congratulations to Michelle Paxton of Chisholm who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo, sent in by Barry Mayfield, as the entrance to the Snowy Adit tunnel several kilometres down the Snowy River from Island Bend.
"An adit is a tunnel driven to intersect another tunnel [in this case the Island Bend to Eucumbene Dam tunnel] so as to remove spoil from the tunnel via a short route," reports Barry. If you look closely you can see a UBR logo which stands for "Utah-Brown & Root Sudamericana, US contractors who worked on the tunnel.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday August 1, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
Have you heard of Cathcart Johnny? Living in tree hollows and surviving on a diet consisting mainly of bread and road kill (really) and occasionally spotted by travellers when travelling down Mount Darragh Road near Cathcart [between Bombala and Bega], he's been an enigma for several decades.
Not one for attention, when vehicles stop near him, Johnny almost always turns his back on them. However in 2003, on one of his many walks through the area in researching Wild Nature, John Blay found Johnny "walking the road looking for fresh road kill", his cheeks and skin "blackened from chilblains" and asked for a photo. John's gentle nature and understanding of the bush won him over and he readily agreed.
"He stretched his back, clasped his hands and gave me the biggest smile," recalls John who describes him as "a beautiful man".