Monday, December 29, 2008

A hard day's print

I finally got to print my pattern today. That big Western press turns out to be Very Hard Work. This evening I feel like I've had six hours of cardio and pumping iron at the gym (on top of my four hours of communting because the trains are on Christmas holiday timetables).

For a start, the press is too wide for me to reach all the lays and grippers to get the paper straight by myself. You have to stand on a pedal to lift the grippers, and if I ran around the other side of the press to reach that end of my big paper, I couldn't be standing on the pedal. Thank goodness Tiffany was volunteering at the Museum today, as she was willing and able to help me with positioning almost all of the twenty or so prints I took.

When it came to turning the cylinder with the paper attached, it was too heavy and the sweep of the handle to high and wide for me to manage with one hand, which was problematic as I felt I needed to keep one hand on the paper so it wouldn't fly off into space or the inky rollers. Eventually (after only about four or five bad prints) Tiffany and I worked out the best way to do it, so that half way through the turn I entrusted the paper wrangling to her and threw all my body weight via both arms into a smooth sweep of the cylinder, inevitably ending with a spontaneous grunt and a little bounce as both I and the paper suddenly came round to the end of the cylinder's turn.

The heavy workout on the cylinder and the full-body stretches with the lays and grippers were interspersed with the on-going inking drama. I won't even tell you about the performance I went through buying the inks and then trying to mix the tint I wanted before settling for the ubiquitous shade of green that characterises half my possessions, (which I really intended not to use this time, really: its embarrassing to have that much of one colour in my life).

No, the main inking drama was due to the broken oscillating roller only oscillating in one direction, so I to slowly push it back the other way every two or three minutes. If I got distracted for say, five minutes of struggling with the grippers or something, then the ink got all stripey and I had to manually oscillate in both directions at length to make up for my neglect.

Plus, since my pattern is made up of about 30 different kinds of old worn-out type and not even seven (7) hours of makeready persnickitiness could achieve uniform height, I had to supplement the (semi) automatic rollers with some judicious hand rolling before every print (and don't forget that the form is so wide I have to stretch my body right across it, or run around the press, to reach the whole thing).

Since hand rolling was only half way to helpful, I soon started reinking the oscillating roller between every single print as well, even though its cheating because a good printer doesn't use more ink to cover up the inadequacies of her composition. But I did today. Because, well, I was really running out of options and with only two weeks left in Melbourne, I am running out of time at the Museum.

However, before I launched into the hard work and intense concentration of printing my big pattern, Sakura kindly helped me take some proofs of the Jewish logos on the small press that she's been using. They turned out really well, most of the chops in surprisingly good condition given their age and the circumstances in which I found them.

I'm going to take a proof of this with me to Temple Beth Israel next Shabbat and see if I can get some of the older congregants to help me identify all the old Melbourne institutions represented here. If any readers would like to see a higher resolution photo of this proof, and perhaps discuss future uses of this resource, please let me know.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Mermaid treasury

Soda water and mint leaves from below...
Christmas evening in Rayna and Karl's backyard.

I'm in another Etsy Treasury, with a charming mermaid theme. Check it out in the next couple of days before it disappears...

Kate, Anita and Rayna as we sit down to a delicious Christmas dinner in Rayna's backyard.

Old Paper

I'm almost ready to print, after 25 hours of composing, proofing and make ready (7 hours just for sticking pieces of paper on the back of each piece of type to bring it up to the same height as all the others). Since I don't want to waste expensive paper, most of my proofs have been on some very old newsprint that was lying around at the Museum. Old newsprint is brittle, weak and discoloured, but it seems to be a fashionable look. At least four people have gotten very excited about the paper when I showed them my proofs.

Perhaps people focus on the old newsprint because they can't think of anything nice to say about my proofs. I can only bear my proofs right now for technical purposes, knowing that once I print on Italian 200gsm hot pressed cotton rag paper with carefully mixed translucent ink, it might start looking how I want it too. Maybe people are politely deflecting attention from my ugly proofs onto the funky old paper.

It's the vintage look I guess, that genuine 'old' faded paper look that an acid free paper would only achieve after a century or so of careless stewardship, but that newspaper takes on after a day or two sitting in the sun. The newsprint I'm proofing on has probably survived twenty or thirty years of warehousing and virtually crumbles at touch.

It's one of those things where I can see that something is attractive in the current fashion, and if I squint and tilt my head right I can like it well enough as irony, but I know it's not for me. I'm too practical I guess to be seduced purely by the look of it. I need to see that it will do what I want, and other than the ephermeral purpose of showing me which pieces of type I need to lift, old newsprint offers me nothing as a printer or book maker.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ambient City

The sun broke out for a couple of hours yesterday and I celebrated by joining in with Unsilent Night 08 for an ambient music tour of Melbourne's CBD. Having downloaded one of several music tracks composed especially by Phil Kline I was provided with a old fashioned megaphone to plug into my MP3.

About 16 people each pressed play simultaneously on our boombox, ipod, megaphone, transistor radio or laptop. The different tracks of a beautiful ambient composition combined differently depending where you walked within the group, and of course for the innocent bystanders who came out of their shops to listen to the ethereal music drift by.

It was a glorious way for me to see the city as a newcomer. Following our leaders meant I didn't have to put any of my brain into navigating* but could just gaze around enjoying the cityscape/soundscape. It was like being inside a music video, something I like to evoke with Brian Eno on my headphones, but this time I was sharing with our group and with everyone we passed by. Better than drugs, man.

We were led through a variety of acoustical and visual environments, narrow cobblestoned alley ways, upmarket malls, bustling main streets, Christmas throngs in a department store. I kept looking up, craning to see the tops of the skyscrapers shifting against the blue sky as I walked or admiring the decorations on the nineteenth century architecture. At eye level there were fabulous shop windows, glimpses of urban domesticity, and brick walls covered in colourful street art. We moved past bakery and restaurant aromas to stinking garbage cans, spilt beer and stale urine, past heady perfume counters to exhaust fumes. Our celestial music was supplemented by piped Christmas carols, and engines, conversations and best of all, a choral group.

While our Silent Night crew assembled on one side of the State Library steps, synchronising our boomboxes and megaphones, another group was practicing singing on the other side of the steps. They turned out to be an community chorale setting out to sing anti-consumerist songs while wandering through the CBD. Towards the end of our respective journeys, our two groups met, one on each side of a narrow lane. For a moment, we paused, looking at eachother like a music video cliche of gangs meeting for a dance off, and then both groups stepped out into the lane and started dancing and singing together and stopping the traffic.

My heart may belong to the forest, but this is what cities are good for.

NB If you are on Facebook you can see more pictures of our UnSilent Night 08 adventure here.

*So disengaged from navigation was I that at one point I actually walked into a bollard and now have a large purple bruise swollen up on an intimate and tender part of my body.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A forest of type

After twelve hours it's nearly finished: the rainforest pattern viewed from the top .

One of the things I most enjoy about letterpress is the pace, slow and deliberate. This is not the way that professional printers did it of course, because they were caught up in a chasing deadlines and money, which is why hand composing was eclipsed by linotype in the 1880s. But hand composing is my meditation, my creative process (one of them) and I like to do it slowly. Mostly I have set my own writing in fairly conventional rows of type, but sometimes I like to use the typefaces as shapes and create patterns without (textual) meaning.

The project I have started with at the Melbourne Museum of Printing is proving to be fiendishly time consuming. It's a large (40x60cm) pattern, intended to evoke the complexity, density and lushness of the rainforest edge (inside healthy mature rainforest it tends to be very open below the canopy). I am pillaging every drawer of sans serif type I can find in the Museum, mostly extracting 'O's 'S's and 'V's, with a few other letters for variety and volume. I didn't want to have any avoidable areas of white space, but I have pretty much run out of suitable type, so there are going to be a few white patches, hopefully covered up the with overprinting to come later.

I have used every size of sans serif I can find; from condensed grotesque wooden type so big that its not even numbered (well over 100pt) to a miniscule 8pt Gill. I've spent about 12 hours on it so far, and am almost ready to take the first proof. At which point, all the variations from type-high will be revealed and I will have to painstakingly go over the whole thing and build up the low type with make ready. This is inevitable whenever you use old wooden type and/or mix together different type faces.

Working in the Museum means a lot more (knowledgable) people are looking over my shoulder as I work, than I was used to at Te Kowhai. It's reassuring to know there's good advice and a helping hand when I need it.

My large patterned piece is also raising a lot of eyebrows and the most frequent comments express concern for how long it will take me to dis it after printing. The limited bench space at the Museum is littered with galleys filled with projects that visiting printers abandoned without dissing, so it is an understandable concern. Dis-tributing the type back into the 20+ drawers from whence it came will probably take as long as the composing did, but I have taken methodical notes and am psychologically prepared for it!

In the dusty chaos of the most accessible of the Museum's warehouse storerooms I found a drawer of old Jewish organisation logos and ornaments. Here they are, being set up for proofing, as soon as I can access a press.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Letterpress at last

The old sign built into the Salavation Army Printing Works building, near Parliament.

One of my two reasons* for coming for Melbourne was the Melbourne Museum of Printing. The museum offers access for artists to use some of the tiny proportion of their collection that is accessible and in working order (95% of it is in storage!). While I was in the rainforest I had lots of time to think about my next letterpress projects, but I didn't want to decide exactly what I would do here until I saw what was available.

Now that I have seen the Museum, there are three opportunities I am interested in taking up while I am here: printing big, learning the Ludlow and using Hebrew typefaces. Over the next month or so, I'll be trying to do as much with these three opportunities as I can, and of course, documenting the highs and lows of the experience here.

The three presses they have working and available are all proofing presses, with very large flat beds. After the limitations of the Arab's tiny platen, I am keen to print BIG, so I have started my first project on the largest press, making a poster. The first stage of my design involves a setting patterned background, using some of the museum's large collection of typefaces as shapes (rather than meaningful text).

A small section of the pattern I am laying out in wooden and lead typefaces, on the bed of the big Western proofing press.

I intend to overprint a poem onto the background pattern in a bold black typeface which I will create using the Ludlow Typograph. I'm keen to learn how to use this machine, as there is one in Mareeba which I might be able to use when I go back to Queensland. It produces a similar outcome to a Linotype machine (which the museum also has in working order) but requires handsetting (which I love to do) instead of keyboarding. And its a much smaller and easier machine to use for creating lines solid lines of type.

Some of the wooden Hebrew type available at the Melbourne Museum of Printing

On my second day at the museum, I made friends with a wood engraver called Jennifer who is using the old Albion press. She directed me to a couple of trays of wooden Hebrew type. She had no idea how significant this would be for me, as I spent a lot of time last year wishing I could find some Hebrew type to use in my Do the Dishes book. There are three incomplete sets of large type, but enough to use a Hebrew word or two here and there. Now that I know the type is available, I'm thinking about how I can make the most of it.

The Hebrew letter shin- isn't it a beautiful shape, like three candles in flame.

*The other is to spend time near my beautiful daughter, Louise.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Concrete Jungle

In the ladies room at The Order on Swanston Street

After a week in Melbourne, I'm starting to get the hang of it. At first I felt battered by the violent contrast between Cape Tribulation (pop. 85 people deep in the tropical rainforest) and Melbourne (pop. 4 million people crowding in a chilly drought). The culture shock and climate shock were overwhelming and exhausting for a few days. But (thanks in no small part to the endless patience of Rayna and Louise) I'm no longer in a constant panic of disorientation or hayfevered from sensory overload.

Renaissance Bookbinding, where Nick Doslor's Vandercook press is buried under mountains of books awaiting bindings.

I'm coping by thinking of the city as a system the way that the rainforest is a system. There is chaos and mystery in both environments, just as there is also an internal logic governing each element within the environment and its relationship to the other elements. In both environments there are fascinating, delightful, beautiful and awe inspiring things that bring me joy: but I find I am laughing out loud more in the city. In both environments there are dismaying, disgusting, scarey, tiresome things that challenge me: but the city's disappointments are familiar rather than novel.

Girl on the 220 bus, Saturday night

Right now I'm looking back on my seven months in the Daintree as the culmination of a seven year cycle of desiring introspection and solitude. Spending this summer in Melbourne hints that the next seven year cycle of my life may be more outwardly focused, active and social.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Last Impressions

On my last afternoon, Rob surprised me with a champagne picnic on the beach.

My last weekend in Cape Tribulation was a glorious farewell to a dream come true. The thing about dreams come true (I'm realising with the perspective of someone facing her double 21st birthday tomorrow) is that a dream come true is not an end point. It might be a culmination, a reward, a blissful interlude or a turning point, but then life goes on.

Rob demonstrates how to shatter the peace of the ponds by jumping into the plunge pool, which has been a lifesaver over the past weeks of extreme heat- some days I was in and out of the water every hour or so.

So after spending half my life dreaming about living in a treehouse in the Daintree, I actually did it for half a year. Some things about the experience aligned with my hopes: learning to understand the rainforest and being inspired by its beauty, peace and mystery. Other things surprised me: like learning to love the beach and being inspired by the Great Barrier Reef.

Later on my last afternoon we were invited to go sea kayaking. I'd been out the day before, but in the rain, so the chance to go again with Paddle Trek in perfect conditions was too good!

It's been an intense, challenging, relaxing, fun, emotional, productive, hard, inspiring, frustrating, lonely, educational, beautiful and surprising six months. I left Cape Tribulation with new skills, new friends, more than a dozen new poems, two new websites and a fantastic tan.

Despite all the many delights of that tropical rainforest: despite my deep and abiding love of the birds and trees and butterflies and coral and despite my addiction to a warm climate, I now know I can't live there forever. It's too damp to make books or even own them; and too isolated for me to make a living or a social life. So I'm moving on, in search of a warm home where I can have a comfortable and productive life, balancing access to the natural world and stimulating society.

I've got a bit of travelling to do though, before I can settle down, so off I paddle, into the sunset....

Paddling round the Cape with Paula (in the back).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Farewell to rainforest animals

I'm counting down my last few days in Cape Tribulation, spending as much time as possible out in the jungle or on the beach while I still can. These final days here are proving to be a wildlife bonanza for me. I'd like to think the animals are showing themselves as a personal favour to me, but the truth is that this stifling heat at the end of the Dry season is a time when animals are very active: mating, nesting and whatever other mysterious animal motivations get them out in the open.

This cassowary crossing the intersection of Camelot and Cape Trib roads is on the cusp of adulthood. His big brown but is still in juvenile colours, but the rest of him is all grown up.

Driving in and out to town last week I saw nine cassowaries on the road in one day which may be some kind of Cape Trib record. Five of them were chicks, two I'd seen before with their dad, wandering aimlessly around the middle of the road while cars stopped to enjoy the sight. The other three chicks were tiny hatchlings, no bigger than chickens with their stripes still very distinct; it's very unusual to see three siblings, usually they come in pairs.

Tragically one of the adult cassowaries I saw that day had just been hit by a car, the third cassowary automobile fatality that I know of in the past two weeks (the others were at Mission Beach to the South). The cassowary wasn't dead yet when we drove past, but apparently the rangers have a policy of not trying to nurse them to health, as they are such difficult animals to care for. The people who had already stopped (presumably including the driver that hit it) looked as devastated as I felt to see it. This incident brought home to me how important it is to scare the cassowaries off the road when we see them, not stop and gawp, let alone feed them from cars, all of which just reinforces their lack of road-sense. There are only about a thousand of these amazing birds still alive, with only a fraction of their original habitat left and reamed with roads, we need to slow down and scare them away!

Last night I went on a guided night walk through the Cooper Creek Wilderness, and got to see lots of wildlife. Mostly insects and spiders, quite a few tree frogs, some sleeping birds and lots of Boyd's forest dragons. The forest dragons are the chilled out dudes of the night forest. Generally posed vertically on tree trunks, poised for hunting, we also saw many babies just hanging out on branches and twigs looking incredibly relaxed, their human-like hands clasped or drooping.

But what I really wanted to see was 'furry cuteness', and not just melomys (native mice) or (native) white-tailed rats who I interact with inside the house all too often (I caught a kitchen melomy in a plastic bag the other day). My wish came true near the end of the guided walk with two red legged pademelons, the only ground dwelling wallaby in the wet tropics rainforest. Furry cuteness embodied, click the link to see .

The python being pulled out of the chicken coop with its chicken-sized bulge clearly visible.

Our guide also pointed out a tiny but highly venomous Small Eyed Snake. Last weekend I came across two snakes all by myself. The first was an Amathystine Python curled up in a nesting box in the neighbour's chicken coop when I went to collect the eggs. The snake had already eaten a chicken. Lawrence Mason came over at my request and wrestled it out of the coop and into a pillow case. The Amathystine python is so named because of the beautiful irredescent sheen on its scales in the sunlight. I was struck by how vigorously muscular pythons are, this one really didn't want to be stuffed in a sack and twisted itself around and and around before Lawrence succeeded and took it away to relocate on a bit of the rainforest where he takes guided tours. In fact he let it out on the track just in front of a tour group. Later I heard how my python had heaved its chicken-bulge over a log before slithering off into the jungle to finish digesting.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cape Tribualtion Time Capsule

Rob's latest project is a couple of Time Capsules being concreted inside one of the moai* . All sorts of locals, and some guests, have contributed interesting items including books, seeds, honey, clothing, photos, letters, newspapers, magazines, menus, brochures, posters etc. There are two capsules, one to be opened in 19 years on Rob's 65th birthday, the other to be sealed 'forever' for archaeologists to discover thousands of years hence, a testament to the rock solid nature of Rob's moai construction. By then, nothing else may remain as evidence of human habitation at Cape Trib (except presumably fifty years of indestructable and ubiquitous plastic rubbish), but those moai will stand in the jungle forever.

My contribution to the time capsules were two copies of my latest attempt at making books in the rainforest. I wanted to make a book as a thankyou gift for Rob who has been my WWOOF host for six months, giving me this amazing opportunity to live immersed in an inspiring, challenging, stimulating environment. Rob's Place is the result: the text is a poem I wrote a while ago about the Rainforest Hideaway, the photos include several I've already published here on Bibliophilia. I had the pages laser printed (and, oh, I can't wait to get back to letterpress... soon!) but the covers are made with some of the botanical handmade papers I made on the Sunshine Coast earlier this year.

I made an edition of eight: one for Rob, one for each of the time capsules, one for me, one in an exhibition in Mossman and the rest for sale on Etsy. It wasn't any easier making this book than my first attempt in the rainforest many months ago. The Dry season meant the paper wasn't buckling but I still had to contend with lack of light and flat work surfaces as well as excess uncontrollable dirt. Plus I was trying to make them without Rob noticing, so they'd be a surprise, and my life here is completely lacking in privacy, so that was hard too!

* Moai are Easter Island heads. Rob has now made three moai at Cape Tribulation, two out on the roadside and one next to the fishpond. You can see photos of the construction methodology on this post. They are solid concrete, built to survive cyclones and rapacious jungle growth. The time capsules are where the brain would be on the moai by the fishpond.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Secret revealed

I won't bore you with my lifetime history of dental trauma, but let the phrases 'panic attacks' and 'resistance to analgesics' provide some context for this triumphant story.

My last one and a half dentist visits have been easy, relaxing and if not exactly pleasant, then at least not unpleasant. Today I almost fell asleep several times, that's how relaxed I was.

The difference is not in the dentist, but in my mind. Half-way through the writhing agony of my second-stage root canal I had this thought: wouldn't it be nice if dentists arranged for a foot masseuse to work on the other end of our body while they did their drilling? And I started to imagine, in exquisite detail, having my feet massaged. So absorbing and delightful was this fantasy that I was surprised and a little miffed to have it interrupted by the end of my dental treatment.

So when I went back for stage three today, I launched into my foot massage visualisation as soon as I settled into the chair. This time I included skillful reflexology and Body Shop Peppermint Foot Cream, and kept it going the whole session, eventually extending into some Thai massage all the way to my buttocks. I would have drifted into sleep a few times but for some pesky drilling.

It is possibly the first time in years I haven't had to stop dental treatment for second and third helpings of painkillers that just didn't seem to work. How miraculous to have my mouth functioning again within an hour of the session finishing, and not to have my jaw aching from so many needle jabs. The most traumatic part of the whole experience was paying for it (which as it turns out was due to this).

It seems too good to be true, but it is truly too good a secret not share. Next time you go to the dentist, I recommend a DIY imaginary foot massage, it makes all the difference.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Riding bareback in the Coral Sea

Me on Morgan on Myall Beach, Cape Tribulation

Years ago I woke from a dream about riding horses in the surf, suffused with a sense of joy and bliss and peace and pleasure that carried into my waking state. This seemed surprising, since I didn't really associate either the ocean or horses with those feelings. But it was a powerful dream and over the years since I have used it many times as a visualisation to represent self love and self nurturing.

So a couple of weeks ago, when I was walking along the beach and saw a group of people taking their horses into the ocean, I recognised the scene from my imagination. I had been thinking for a while that I might like to do the Cape Tribulation Horse Rides, but all the excuses I've ever used for never riding* had been keeping me from taking the opportunity this year. But when I casually asked Juliette if she would she like to go horseriding during her visit here, she instantly and enthusiastically agreed so I was committed. I kept busy 'til then so that I wouldn't have to think about all the things that scare me about riding, and suddenly it was time to get on a horse.

The horse riding groups don't usually swim in the sea, so I assumed that was a special treat kept for experienced riders only, and that as a total novice my horse would just be walking tamely along the beach for photo opportunities as most rides seem to do. But when Steve picked us up to take us to the horses, he said there were only three of us going on the trek and that we would be going in the water!

I think the knowledge that I would soon be in the sea with the horses was so enticing that I forgot to pay much attention to my old fears, and instead summoned all the theoretical knowledge gleaned from reading KM Peyton novels to try to ride as well as I could. I was even comfortable enough to actually get impatient with the slow walk to the beach, at least until we tried trotting and I discovered how painful that can be, bouncing up and down on a hard saddle.

Morgan after his dip in the sea.

Finally, on a ribbon of silver sand between the azure sea and the jade-green rainforest, it was time to strip the humans down to our bathers, and the horses down to their halters. First we led the horses into the warm water where they pawed at the water and Morgan immediately lay down and had a roll in the shallows. It was a little scarey to have my bare feet so close to his big hooves under the stirred-up sandy water, especially as once Morgan had his roll, he clearly felt that one dip was enough and kept trying to go back onto the shore. I had to be very firm, and tug him hard to follow the other horses into deeper water.

When the water was deep enough we climbed onto our horse's bare backs which is considerably less secure than riding on a saddle, and more so, I suspect, when your bare legs and the horse's back are both slippery wet! But I was less scared in the water than I had been on land, since I figured the water would cushion a fall. Of course I didn't fall off though, I just squeezed my legs (consequential inner thigh pain is still making stair climbs a challenge) and held on tight to Morgan's mane as we walked into deeper water.

I had to work hard to encourage him to go deep enough to start swimming as some of the other, more enthusiastic, horses were doing and as I have dreamed for so many years. We got pretty deep but he couldn't be persuaded to swim. Even so, it was a dream of 'joy and bliss and peace and pleasure' come true.

Back on dry land, I discovered that Morgan's most notable personality trait is that he has to lead all the other horses off the beach. Steve and Sarah said it was 'his five minutes of fame', and indeed as soon as he was allowed to, he set off with sure purpose, heading south towards the mangroves. It was the only part of the ride where we weren't following the other horses and I shared in the pride and pleasure he clearly felt as we walked tall along the sand.

Once we were back on the trail I had to be quite firm with him about not bending down to eat grass. He was very enthusiastic at every chance to canter, taking off earlier than the other horses ahead of us. Cantering caused me to giggle with terror which I tried to disguise as enthusiastic yee-ha's, which probably only egged Morgan on to greater speed. But by the last canter Iwas starting to believe I wouldn't fall off immanently, the hysterical laughter wasn't bubbling up spontaneously and my yee-ha's were of unambivalent delight.

We followed winding trails through paddocks and rainforest, glimpsing gorgeous sea views and crossing creeks. Near the end of the ride we stopped for afternoon tea and a (people-only) swim in Myall Creek. I felt both safe and challenged, and enjoyed a new (tall) perspective on some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

I have to endorse the other comments I've heard from many visitors, some of whom have ridden horses all over the world, that the Cape Tribulation horse riding experience is outstanding. Those twenty minutes with Morgan in the Coral Sea stands out as one of the greatest highlights of my six months at Cape Tribulation (along with snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef).

The grin of a woman holding onto the male who has just made her dream come true


* I was once, briefly and unmemorably, on a horse about 30 years ago, so for the purposes of this post, let me write as though I've never ridden before, because that's certainly how it felt.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Tropical Fruit Cookery

It's officially Dry season here in the rainforest which means the weather is humid and steamy, but the ground is dry. The fruits available at the local markets have changed from the mid winter selection I wrote about in June.

Yellow sapote cut in half

I've gone mad for eggnog smoothies. Yellow sapote is, unromantically, known as the 'egg yolk fruit'. It is the colour and texture of a hardboiled egg yolk, and kind of sweet and bland. Blended with whatever other soft fruits are left over from the guest's breakfast platter
(white sapote is best, black sapote turns it a very unpleasant colour), some yoghurt, apple juice and most importantly cinnamon and vanilla, I enjoy something approximating a tropical virgin eggnog.

Eggnog smoothie

I helped out at the Exotic Fruit Farm for a few hours last week and Alison gave me a couple of breadfruits to experiment with. Breadfruit is amazingly versatile and generous. Unripe breadfruit it's used as a savory vegetable, and overripe it's good baked in a sweet batter.

Breadfruit: ripe on left, unripe on right.

The white spots on the skin of the breadfruits are latex sap which is a sticky leakage from the unripe fruit that totally covered the knife I cut it open with and had to be removed with kerosene. There are a few latex-leaking fruits around. Whenever I eat abiyu, no matter how careful I am, I always end up with sticky lips for the next few hours. It's probably lucky there's no one round here to be kissing with, since as Alison says, its a long term committment if you've both been eating abiyu.

Overripe breadfruit flesh ready to mix into batter

But back to the breadfruit. First I scooped out the mushy insides of the overripe specimen and realised I had enough to try two different recipes: (they all seem to require one cup of breadfruit). I made a slightly sweet, slightly spiced, quick bread which was demolished by two boys on a break from filling Easter Island heads with concrete.

Remains of breadfruit bread

Later I made doughnuts which were delicious, if slightly burnt. Its been years and years since I made doughnuts but they still always remind me of Jo who gave me her doughnut recipe when our daughters were very small. I went through a brief doughnut making binge, got very fat and had to stop. But even decades later I remember how hard it is to not burn sweet batter in a wok full of hot oil.

Breadfruit chips (uncooked)

The a couple days later I chopped up the underripe breadfruit into chips, tossed them in spicey dukkha (breadfruit chips would be too bland) and roasted them. Some of them were quite tough, and I'm not sure if that's because I didn't remove enough of the core, cooked them too long, or used the fruit too soon. But we ate them all anyway, before I remembered to take a photo.

The newest additions to the Cape Tribulation moai family.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Do the Dishes in Noosa

This book is on exhibition on the Sunshine Coast at the moment, part of the Books '08 : Back to Basics exhibition at the Noosa Regional Gallery. I haven't heard from anyone who's seen the exhibition which seems to be much smaller and lower key than previous NRG book exhibitions I've contributed to.

If anyone in SE Queensland has seen the Back to Basics exhibition, I'd love to hear about it and see photos of the other books on show.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

True Blues

True Blues

I would speak every word with the pure compelling light

of the Ulysses’ flashing flutter.

That heart-skipping blue, the colour of delight

lit from within like an exhalation.

I would see every sight with the iridescent shimmer

of the Quandong fruit.

Sapphire spheres dotting the rainforest floor,

shining violet indigo like magic candy.

I would touch each thing with the neon tips

of the Staghorn coral.

As they glow underwater like azure stars

reaching out from a tangle of grey to grasp at life.

I would stand on this ground with the deep intensity

of the blue sea star.

Toeing between the rocks in rich cobalt velvet

settling on any surface with serenity.

Crocheted Blue Sea Star on baby beanie.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Butterflies, dead and alive

Back at Cape Tribulation it is butterfly season. It is not uncommon to see a mixed dozen in one place at the same time. The most glorious are the Ulysses, with their vibrant, metallic azure wings, but they are all gorgeous: the tiny creamy ones, the big black ones, the myriad of different blues.

It's not easy to take good photos of butterflies, as they move so fast (especially the Ulysses- fastest butterfly in the world). Often when butterflies do sit still for a minute they close their wings and hide their prettiest aspect.

When Rob found this dead Blue Triangle (what a prosaic name for something so lovely) in the carpark he called me out to take a photo of it, but its kind of raggedy and well, lifeless.

A few days later I got lucky with this live, but somewhat lazy (female Orchard?) Swallowtail, down near the beach. I was looking out for crocodiles, but was more than happy to get a couple of in-focus snaps of this beauty.

The Daintree is not the kind of rainforest that has big, showy, colourful flowers. Instead, the splashes of colour among the green are from new leaves (which emerge in cream, pink, red or purple before turning green), pale fungi in every shape and texture, lolly-coloured fruits and along the edges, the beautiful butterflies. They are like flying flowers; delicate, ephemeral, fragile and exquisite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cape York Pt 4- Fire Forests

I inhabited a vivid tropical rainforest landscape in my imagination long before I ever came to the Daintree. No such anticipation prepared me for the dry sclerophyll forest that characterises most of the Cape York that I saw.

My eyes, saturated with five months of Cape Trib's chaotic greenness (on top of a lifetime of New Zealand's verdant pastures and olivey dense bush) were shocked by the dominance of brown, grey, orange and black in the landscape. It took me until Weipa (near the end of the trip) to begin to understand that there is a unique, stark, beauty to this dry open forest.

Scorched pandanus seeds

The Language of Forests tells me that dry sclerophyll forest "can survive a fire; although the crowns of the trees may be burnt, they will regenerate from epicormic buds buried within the bark. Species of the understorey may recover from fire by shooting from underground rootstocks. Dry sclerophyll forests are characteristic of soils of low fertility."

Notes from my journal:

Cape York is the driest place I have ever seen.

We are driving through an eerie landscape of dead grass,
widely spaced spindly gum trees
and endless termite mounds,
like gravestones,
like castles,
like ruins.

Inside a termite mound

It's an apparently lifeless landscape.
The few cattle we see, silvery brahmins, are so rare that they appear like a mirage.

Termites on charred bark

I don't know if I can write poetry here on Cape York.
I don't have an emotional involvement,
I am only passing through,
glancing around without committment.
Without love there isn't much poetry.

And anyway, this place beggars the language
(as Apsley Cherry-Garrard* said about Antartica)

The forest by the beach in Weipa is a strange deserted landscape. I am the only one here. Me and some burnt bicycles.

Smoke on the horizon
smouldering landscape
crisp, scorching, charred.

Brown and grey smoke
billowing up out of the mangroves
skimming the horizon
across Albatross Bay.

I am choking on the testosterone in the air.

It's very open where the fire has been recently
but elsewhere its dense with long dry grass.

I took charcoal rubbings of iron bark, a smudgey maze.


Last day, Coen, on the rocks:

What is this firehorse to make of this fire forest,
smouldering into stark beauty?

What a long line of sight between the trees:
it is a place to aim far.
Aim big, this place tells me, and don't act alone.

I bring my arid heart
to this arid land
and set fire to my feelings.

To look through the fire forest
is to see myself from afar:
the undergrowth flared off,
scorching my stiff scars
setting off my untamed heart again
thump thump thump
leaping across the landscape like a kangaroo

There is such sweetness here in the regenerating green
life comes bursting out of the ashes
like water sparkling between rocks.


*Author of The Worst Journey in the World, possibly the best book title in the world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cape York Pt 3- Settlements

Pearl divers suit, inthe museum on Thursday Island

Not very many people live on Cape York. It is possible to drive all day and pass just a couple of isolated compounds. Where these included a roadhouse selling fuel and other necessities for travellers we often stopped for a break. As the Cape juts into the Torres Strait (the island-dotted sea that separates mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea), the local population is an intriguing mix of Torres Strait Islanders (a Melanesian culture), Aboriginal Australians and tough outback white Australians.

Unloading the barge at Seisia

We camped a few nights at Seisia which is the settlement around the wharf serving Bamaga, the largest of the little towns near the top of the Cape. Seisia was unmemorable except for the excitement of watching the weekly barge being unloaded with fuel (the communities' electricity is all diesel generated), food and other goods. It is desperately hot, with few trees to provide shade, and the tantalisingly clear azure sea is said to be full of crocodiles so swimming isn't an option. However, Seisia (named by combining the initials of the first six family to settle there mid-20th century) does have the advantage of being handy to such tourist attractions as the Tip and Thursday Island.

Looking west from the start of the headland track to the Tip. The boat belongs to a chap who had sailed solo up the east coast from Brisbane, recently survived a crocodile attack, and was desperately looking forward to getting to Seisia for chocolate, coke and jelly snakes.

The Tip may be an iconic spot, as the northern most point of mainland Australia, but it is refreshingly unmanaged, confusingly unsignposted and thus satisfyingly challenging to get to without actually being a difficult walk. Those of the party who could, all scrambled out over the rocky headland, from which you can look simultaneously at the Coral Sea and the Torres Strait. I have visited the equivalent spots at the tips of the the North and South of New Zealand, so I add this to my collection of photos of myself standing on godforsaken yet symbolic rocks.

Meliors at the Tip

The day after the Tip, Juliette, Johanna and I took the ferry to Thursday Island (TI). I enjoyed the tiny museum tucked into the underground rooms of the old garrison; TI was long considered of strategic importance being located on the narrow channel between Australia and Asia. The museum included indigenous artifacts (lovely carvings), pearl diving and beche de mer history and a huge old lighthouse lamp, bigger than me. We also visited the local cemetery which was divided by culture so that the austere Japanese pearl divers graves contrasted with the lavishly colourful indigenous graves across the lane.

Pearl divers' section of the cemetery

Other things to do on Thursday Island: visit two funky old churches, the classy arts centre (the only architecturally designed contemporary building I saw on the whole of Cape York, it was just like going home for lunch) and shopping! TI is the commercial hub for the Torres Strait and there was a whole street of shops to browse, several of them quite good. The sheer novelty of seeing books, clothes, cosmetics for sale was fun (until you see the inflated prices) but my favourite was the locally designed bead jewellery. Unfortunately that was the day I hit a cashflow crisis that was to constrain the whole second half of my trip (and due to bank error is still continuing to keep me broke) so I couldn't actually buy anything.

The lighthouse lamp on Thursday Island

Back on the mainland, Bamaga also had shopping: a supermarket and a small cramped novelty/dry goods/souvenir shop, both enclosed inside the kind of disturbing security cage that was a feature of every commercial building in every indigenous community we passed through. In Bamaga we stocked up on necessary supplies for the next stage of our camping trip, but we didn't really get into serious retail therapy until we hit Weipa (where the prices are more comparable to Cairns). My enthusiasm for wearing crocs (the only footwear I brought on the trip with me) infected three other members of the party and in Weipa they all got some too.

The only 'crocs' we saw in Weipa, and they were harmless

Aside from my brief but pleasant commercial transactions with various indigenous people on the trip I only had one extended encounter, with an Aboriginal lady in Weipa. She wandered into our tent in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep and since I am insomniac and was closest to the door I responded first. As I led her out of the tent and tried to keep her quiet, I realised that while she was very confused, she wasn't drunk. Later Kerry suggested that she was an ex-glue sniffer which made perfect sense, since she seemed too young for the dementia-type behaviour she was exhibiting.

She told me that she had driven up from Arakun (a couple of hours away) with some other people who went off to Napronam to drink. She didn't want to be around drinking people (a sentiment I can fully empathise with) so she was wandering around Weipa in the middle of the night, halfheartedly looking for an address where her sister might or might not be staying. What she really wanted, she said, was to come and sleep in our tent if we would just give her a blanket.

I couldn't help her, not having a blanket to share, or considering it appropriate to invite a stranger to sleep in our tent full of other people's children so I handed her off to the camp manager who obviously had been woken this way before and was immediately aggressive, inviting reciprocal aggression from the confused lady. I shamefully snuck off into the shadows while they shouted at each other. I'm not proud of that, I just couldn't think what else to do.

The history of European-Indigenous relations in Cape York includes some of the most horrific stories in Australian history (including, but not limited to, the Jardine brothers in the nineteenth century* and the wholesale removal of the Mapoon community at gunpoint to make way for Comalco's mines in1963. Yup, that's only 45 years ago, when my confused tent lady was probably a kid). There are some very positive initiatives occurring now to try and turn things around**, but it still looks to me as though most of the black people on the Cape are in general still much worse off than most of the white people.

There are apparently only two places on the east side of Australia where you can watch the sun set over the sea (or in this case the mangroves). Unfortunately some of the local ladies consider that the best way to enjoy the sunset on the beach is by driving quad bikes up and down with their children, directly through groups of sunset tourists trying to appreciate the peaceful beauty of the scene.

Weipa is the richest settlement on the Cape York, being a mining town. There is not much there if you are not a miner or a fisher. The best thing about Weipa for me was the birdlife which was the most abundant and diverse I have seen yet in Australia. The worst things were the mosquitoes, the humidity, the frustration of not being able to swim in the croc infested waters... But I also enjoyed our bus tour of the town and mine, wandering in the fire forest by the beach (more about this in my next post), watching the sunsets and visiting the library to research the history of a commercial spaceport once proposed for the town. But four days there was more than enough for me, I was keen to get back to camping on the rivers and being able to swim in clean fresh water instead of the dirty campground swimming pool full of active boy children.

Strip mining bauxite at Weipa (bauxite is what aluminium is made out of). To get a sense of the outrageous scale of these machines, note the driver standing outside her cab while her truck is being filled.

*I couldn't find a link to the Jardine story that doesn't present them as plucky heroes defending themselves against a plague of hostile savages and I refuse to endorse that version of events.

** cf arts in the Torres Strait, employment in the mines