In The Living Mountain, Scottish walker, Nan Shepherd, wrote, “The thing to be known grows with the knowing.” She was referring to how much larger the mountain felt after she explored it slowly and observed it through all her senses. How can a setting grow after exploring it thoroughly? Surely once you are familiar with it, a place should feel smaller – be less of a mystery?
Perhaps this is true of a human construction like a home. When I moved from a tiny cottage into an enormous five bedroom, two bathroom homestead with a huge kitchen, three living areas, and long hallways, the building felt cavernous. In the early days, I was often disorientated, but over time its proportions shrunk. The same could be said when I moved to my first city. I thought I would never learn the crazy maze of streets in the central business district of Brisbane, but as I explored, eventually they too diminished in size.
When it comes to a forest, this is not always so, at least in my experience. At first glance I only see a path, trees, rocks and streams.
With continued exploration I notice the life abounding in a single tree – in its bark, leaves, hollows, and root system. Instead of viewing it as one habitat, I discover worlds within worlds. Worlds under rocks and leaves. Worlds on, under, and inside logs. And of course, there is the microscopic world.
I begin to notice the changes that daily weather fluctuations produce, the changes of the seasons, and the long term changes of climatic events such as prolonged droughts.
Populations change as creatures migrate with the seasons. A forest is not contained like a building structure. It is bursting with life and increases with size as we understand it more deeply. How do we measure its sky and the depths of the earth below?
In the winter and early spring of 2017, I walked the trails to Mt Cordeaux, Bare Rock and Gap Creek Falls in Main Range National Park, Queensland, again and again, with no intention but to observe and record as much wildlife as I could. Sometimes, I spent hours in one five metre section recording the birdlife that visited a single flowering grass tree stalk.
I had not read Nan Shepherd’s book back then, but after my experience I tend to agree with her. I thought I knew the trails of Mt Cordeaux, but I realise now how much bigger they really are. The more time I spend there, the more I realise how much more there is to discover. The trails have stretched. The proportions have ballooned. The mountain has indeed grown, and I will never know it completely as it is always changing.
We often comment how much bigger things seem as a child and attribute this just to being comparatively smaller than our surroundings, but I wonder if there is an additional reason. As children, we experience time and the senses in a different way. We may marvel at the way light flickers across a wall, the rough texture of tree bark, the patterns of clouds, or our changing shadows.
We may notice an ant crawling across a path or the crackle of dried leaves under our feet. Summer days are endless. We explore and experiment. In our wonderment, the world seems enormous.
Perhaps as we age, become slaves to the clock, and are burdened with responsibility, our eyes become blinkered, or develop filters that blind us to the small details. In the rush of an adult life, we miss much. Some things indeed seem smaller. Life is now about schedules and commitments and there is never enough time. Exercise is about average speed, distance, and calories lost. It’s no longer about climbing a tree, counting petals, or pausing to lift a rock.
As we lose the eyes of a child maybe we start to live life more from the outside. As Nan Shepherd wrote, to live a full life perhaps we need to go back deep inside ourselves and we achieve this by venturing outside to explore the world with all our senses. John Muir, naturalist and advocate for wilderness areas in the United States, had a similar thought when he wrote these well-known words:
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, I was really going in.”
In this blog post I wanted to show how big Mt Cordeaux really is by sharing a few images of my wanders from last year. From hour to hour, day to day, through the seasons and the years, the mountain is in flux.
Flowering Xanthorrhoea (grass tree) stalks attract numerous species of birds including scarlet honeyeaters, Lewins honeyeater, yellow-cheeked honeyeater, white-naped honeyeater, silver eyes, and eastern spinebills.
Grass trees are one of my favourite native Australian genus. You can read more about them in an earlier blog post here.
A spotted pardalote couple building a nest in a ground burrow eyed me suspiciously. Usually, they dig tunnels in banks.
Parrots such as crimson rosellas gave the solid green canopy a splash of colour.
And hyperactive thornbills tested my reactions.
A male satin bower bird caught a snack while I rested at a lookout.
I stalked Albert’s lyrebirds for hours and only produced a few blurry shots even though their territorial mating calls rang out almost continuously in August.
Mt Cordeaux is a mycologist’s delight. During winter, I noticed over thirty fungi species.
In late winter and early spring, massive rosettes of flowering giant spear lilies, Doryanthes palmeri, draped the walking trails at the top of Mt Cordeaux where the cliff face is covered in them.
These may grow to three metres tall and four metres wide and are xerophtyes, meaning they require little water. While they have become popular in gardens, weed invasion, frequent fires and illegal seed harvesting have reduced their numbers in the wild.
It may take over thirteen years for them to flower, and I wonder at the age of the specimens on Mt Cordeaux. Indigenous Australians roasted the flower spikes and mashed the roots into a pulp to make cakes.
Obviously, they also provide a food source for many birds and insects.
King orchids, Dentrobium tarberi, grow in my garden, but to see them flowering in the wild on the rocky cliffs of Mt Cordeaux felt more special.
Many small details of life can also be discovered on the mountain if we are patient and take the time to look.
The subtropical rainforest of Mt Cordeaux is fringed with fire-tolerant eucalypt forest which provides a buffer for the rainforest’s edges. The sharp contrast between the rainforest and surrounding vegetation means a great variety of plant communities can be found, supporting many species of fauna. It also means a more interesting walking experience. Cool, dark rainforest can turn abruptly into bright open woodland.
We can describe Mt Cordeaux in terms of its geographical physical dimensions but to describe the life it contains, from the tiniest of microscopic creatures to the tallest of trees would take a library. And there is also its ancient geology and the human cultures it sustained for thousands of years. The mountain is indeed growing, in life forms and history. At each lookout, Mt Cordeaux walkers can view many other mountains, all of which are growing too, and are much larger than we may think at first glance.
I wish to thank all my valued reader friends for your continued interest and support over the last four years. I hope your holiday season and new year celebrations were joyful and I wish you all a fulfilling and peaceful 2018.