Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Window and Chair

Wwoofing at Rainforest Hideaway usually means cleaning several bathrooms a day and yesterday meant helping to clean out the grease trap (yuck!) and sometimes involves not-very onerous tasks such as painting this window.
The window was a joint effort between Rob and I. It's done with special glass and fake leadlight paints. We left some of the window blank in our rainforest scene so that the real rainforest outside the window becomes part of the picture too.
On a sunny morning, at least in mid-winter, when the low sun angles in the right way, it casts jewels of light onto the staircase leading to where I sleep. The living room at the bottom of the stairs is a work in progress towards our goal of lighting the fire one cool evening and sipping port in front of the flickering flames.

Rob would like to have us all seated in furniture handmade from gnarled tree roots. He's made a start with this chair which, when viewed from the dining deck (up a different set of stairs) looks very much like an Ent escaped from Lord of the Rings. It took five guys to wrestle the Ent in from the pathway it was blocking during the sculpting process. The ratio of seat space to room occupancy is not terribly efficient (this is a chair which favours very narrow bottoms yet requires a whole corner of head space), but it has such character!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Marrdja Mangroves

Remember the original Star Wars movie, where the young Luke Skywalker visits with Yoda on his home planet? Yoda lives in a dark, creepy, misty, muddy place seeming to consist entirely of gnarled tree trunks and buttress roots.

When I first visited the Marrdja Boardwalk, which passes through several diverse mangrove and coastal rainforest ecosystems, the mangroves reminded me of Dagobah and I wouldn't have surprised to see a short, wizened, big-eared, sci fi puppet waddle out from behind a buttress root saying, Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.

But I would have been less surprised to see a crocodile, and in fact was keeping a close watch out for them. No crocs either, thankfully, though I felt pretty safe high up on the boardwalk.
In New Zealand there is only one species of mangrove, but here there are dozens with all shapes of brightly coloured flowers and seed pods and best of all, amazing root systems. It really is like being on another planet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Beautiful and Terrible

Beautiful and terrible, the rainforest

has no sympathy for human weaknesses,

human needs.

‘Here you are,’ it says. ‘Deal with it.’

And covers your feet in tiny itchy red lumps.

‘Listen,’ it says, ‘listen to the cooing

of the wompoo pigeon, the screech

of the catbird, the whispery whistle

of cassowary chicks stalking their way

across millennia of preserved prehistory.

Stop whining about the damp, the heat, the cold, the insects,

the cost, the rain, and your rotting clothes.’

The rainforest says, ‘Open your eyes and look,

look again, again and again and

every time you’ll see more, see new,

see different, there’s no end to what

can be learned here if you pay attention.’

The photographs are of a Strangler Fig Tree near the start of the Marrdja Boardwalk near Oliver Creek, Cape Tribulation. Strangler Figs start as an epiphyte, draping down and around a tree and eventually choking the host to death and becoming a free standing tree in its own right. They can grow incredibly huge and intricate. This one probably was growing on a palm which bend under the weight and died pretty young, leaving this amazing lattice arch.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

For the courageous collector

I have proved that it is actually possible to make an artist's book in the rainforest. It was not easy, it was not quick, it didn't turn out quite as I hoped and there will not be an edition but it is done and (ironically) it is called Dry.

Why was it harder here, than back home in my well organised, well lit, dry studio, or even in my bedroom, or a kitchen table at a housesit? Ah my gentle readers, sitting in your civilized homes and offices far from the tropical rainforest, allow me to elucidate.
(Soft focus caused by camera steaming up)

For a start, the rainforest is never dry and although there are days when it is not quite as damp and muggy and relentlessly moist as usual, paper never really stands a chance of staying free of ripples, mold or general fragility. Then there's the ever present dirt. Most obviously there is an endless supply of gecko shit and bits of dead insect falling onto every surface with alarming frequency. You wouldn't expect the rainforest to be dusty, but it is and the prevailing wind keeping a haze of rainforest detritus blowing through the windowless, doorless rooms of the house and adhering to the damp paper.

But worse is the dim lighting. Natural light is never bright this far down the triple canopy and the super-efficient bulbs running off solar power are not exactly glaring nor well-placed for measuring out equilateral triangles in light pencil onto textured handmade paper. The best surface available for measuring, cutting and gluing is the big handmade table in the middle of the deck-come-living room which is the centre of the social life of the B&B. But best is a relative term for a beautiful, funky table with a surface that maintains the quirks and irregularities of the tree trunk from which it was hewn. And of course, whenever I spread out my paper and tools, someone wants to come along and eat lunch or drink a cup of tea, prompting me to quickly sweep my activities into the corner of the table furthest from the comestibles.

All these challenges have slowed me down but not daunted me! Dry was completed today. It's made out of Chinese Burr paper that Helga and I made on the Sunshine Coast in April. The paper was a bit ripply to begin with (due to not being dried flat for long enough) so I gambled that the moist air would enable my manipulations to ease it into a useful state as I made the book, and that's worked out all right. Not having a press, nor being willing to turn the moldy books around here into a makeshift press, my book is pretty springy anyway. The paper has also been dribbled with watercolour paint allowed to spontaneously flow and soak into the unsized paper.
The text (about drought, the first section of the Water Rights poem in this post), is handwritten, since I don't have access to a press, or indeed even a laser printer, here.
The structure is an experiment with folding a string of equilateral triangles, intended to evoke a kind of flowing stream of paper and text which, in the end, I consider to be only partially successful. To read the text you have to keep twisting the accordion folded triangles in a bit of a tricky way which requires courage and creativity from the reader. Since even my less demanding books often evoke anxiety in a reader figuring out how to open each page, this one could induce palpitations in a nervous novice.

So its probably a good thing that it's a unique book, that I will not be putting myself through the angst of trying to create an edition under rainforest conditions (besides, I have used up all the Chinese Burr paper on just this one copy). Instead, I will start working on the next, completely different book, one that I hope will overcome the environmental challenges in a more satisfactory manner.
Dry, for the courageous and creative collector. POA

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Cooking with Tropical Fruit

Star Fruit

How many times have I intended to write a post about tropical fruit? I think I've procrastinated in part because I have yet to get enough really good fruit photos to illustrate. Well, that may never happen, due to the tendency for fruit to get eaten before it is photographed. So you'll have to make do with the photos that I do have.

Dragon Fruit growing on its cactus plant

Some of the fruits are more luscious looking than they taste (e.g. dragon fruit) and some taste best when they look really really bad (e.g. sapote and papaya). Some fruits are freaky looking but kind of bland (e.g. rambutan), and some are pretty ordinary looking and taste sublime (e.g. mangosteen). And here in the tropics where the fruit can be picked ripe and eaten fresh, familiar fruits such as pineapple, lychee and mango taste completely different, and infinitely better, than the (in retrospect) awful imported versions I knew in New Zealand.

Unripe mangosteens

At Rainforest Hideaway B&B, my wwoofing duties are not onerous and my favourite jobs are preparing breakfast for the guests in the morning and dinner for Rob and myself in the evening. Breakfast here includes a platter of tropical fruit chunks which this week has included mame sapote (aka pumpkin pie fruit) and black sapote (aka chocolate pudding fruit).

Tropical Fruits Breakfast Platter
(top row: honeydew melon, mame sapote; middle: pinapple; bottom row: dragon fruit, rollinia, s
tar fruit; sub-bottom row: banana)

Like many of the tropical fruits, sapotes seem to be extremely variable in flavour depending on the specimen. When you strike a good one, there is nothing better, but an average sapote is, well, pretty average. In texture they are creamy, and in taste they are not particularly sweet, but rather subtly flavoured. Mame sapote when ripe looks like a moldy grapefruit from the outside but the flesh looks like a reddish cooked pumpkin. It has a slightly sweet pumpkin-ish flavour too.
The black sapoteis not as bad looking on the outside (like a granny smith apple) and looks like the darkest chocolate pudding on the inside yet does not actually satisfy the needs of a chocoholic. Every day there's been leftover mame and black sapotes after breakfast to experiment with and see if I could make something really delicious.
Here's what I have discovered. The two sapotes, mashed smooth and mixed together with a tangy plain or vanilla yoghurt, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and a grating of chocolate taste like heaven in a bowl. Alison informs me that mame sapote smoothies are all the rage in Cuba, and that a squeeze of fresh orange juice and a teaspoon of cocoa makes chocolate pudding sapote really live up to its name, but I haven't gotten to try that version due to the lack of both those ingredients in our kitchen.

What the Hideaway kitchen is fully and completely stocked with is pretty much every ingredient known to Thai cookery. I think I'd eaten Thai food maybe twice in my life before this month. My old adverse reaction to the heat of chillies always put me off as I used to get a sore spot between my shoulder blades whenever I ate hot foods but since I stopped with the flour and dairy, I can eat heat- go figure!. In contrast, Rob loves Thai kai so much he attended two Thai cooking schools while vacationing there during the Wet Season this year. He's bought all the makings and has the little cookbooks the school's provided. So, without having any real familiarity with Thai flavours or textures I've started teaching myself to cook Thai, and braving the heat, and enjoying myself.
As well as curries, fish cakes and pad thai I've made the Green Papaya Salad a few times, because green papaya is something that is very readily available in this part of the world. You might have to wait days or weeks for a ripe papaya, but there'll always be a green one somewhere!
Ripe papaya is luscious and sweet and red and squishy (and looks almost rotten from the outside). Green papaya flesh is white and firm and juicy and bland. It grates as easily as carrot and the salad is made by pounding all the raw ingredients in a mortar and pestle and letting the juices seep together... tomato, green beans, fresh chilli, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, and sugar (everything Thai has sugar in it). When I hear the words green and salad, I tend to think of cool and soothing mild flavours. Well, green papaya salad is like juicy fire!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Viva Moss Vegas!

The beautiful raintrees of Mossman

It is exactly four weeks since I rode the ferry North across the Daintree River and became a rainforest-dwelling wwoofer. Today I took the ferry South, heading for an exciting day of shopping in Moss Vegas, as the nearest actual town with actual shops and actual services is known to locals. I was hitching a ride with Alison, the wwoof host I stayed with a couple of weeks ago, who lives around the corner from my current Hideaway home and makes a weekly trip to Port Douglas via Mossman.

Being driven along Cape Tribulation Road generally strikes me dumb with awe and often moves me to tears with its beauty. Today gratitude for the long-awaited ride kept me making conversation despite the distractions of several types of dense forest crowding and overhanging the road. Every trip across a creek or river involves craning my neck for a glimpse of a crocodile, especially on the short ferry ride, since the Daintree River is the only place I have ever actually seen a croc in the wild. But the conversation was riveting and enlightening, thanks to Alison's comprehensive local knowledge, and I learned a lot about the history and hidden complications of power supply, generation and usage North of the River (more on this another time).
Sugarcane with Daintree National Park on ranges in background

South of the River, the landscape changes dramatically and abruptly to a sugarcane monoculture (where 170 years ago there was only rainforest). And then of course the exquisite coastline appears on the left, today a silvery mirror of placid sparkling Coral Sea, highlighted by densely forested islands and headlands visible in various directions. And then the ute coasted to a gentle halt on the side of the road. Diagnosis: fuel filter problems. Attempted solution: kangaroo hopping a couple of hundred metres at a time in slow motion around a several kilometres of narrow windy coastal road, causing some lip-chewing near misses as impatient fellow travellers passed us at speed on blind corners. Final solution: pulling up at a safe spot on Rocky Point, with great cellphone reception and calling RACQ (equivalent to NZ's AA).
View North from Rocky Point to Snapper Island (so called because it resembles a croc gliding through the water...)
and Cape Kimberly hiding behind the tree

While waiting to be towed Alison and I admired the view, enjoyed the sunshine and then the shade, I scrambled down the rocky slope and dabbled in the warm water's edge for a while, and then we both realised that we could take advantage of the cellphone reception so utterly lacking at Cape Trib. Alison had a hilarious video call with her sister's dog and I texted my daughter and my best mate in NZ.
Flat-bed Tow Truck lifts Hi-Lux

The tow truck driver and Alison shared increasingly outrageous shark and crocodile tales all the way into town and then, at last, I was let loose for some retail therapy on Mossman's main street. As well as my own extensive and diverse list of needs I had various errands to run for two friends. So starved am I of consumerism and sophistication that Mossman's choice of not one but two chemists, two haberdasheries, two clothing shops, two electrical shops (etc) was unbearably thrilling, and shopping was not the chore I often find it to be in more regular circumstances. I found some great books and an orange fleece jacket in the one op shop and managed to get all the other important things on my own list, as well as a television aerial and shower unit(!) for Rob.

Mossman having only one supermarket and one organic cafe, Alison and I bumped into each other twice before our arranged meet-up at the library. Sadly for me, the ute didn't take long to repair and I only had a few minutes to flick through the two excellent books I quickly found on rainforest and indigenous values before I was collected for a beautiful and uneventful ride home.
Daintree River from the ferry, with tourist cruise looking for crocs

I just had time to copy into my notebook this quote from Marius Jacobs, which articulates my own nascent ideas so well:

Knowing a tropical rainforest is like 'knowing' a city. To grasp all that happens is impossible, yet a good deal of understanding and meaningful knowledge can be gathered as a basis for what we do... good or bad.
In the process of getting acquainted, this relationship develops according to the interest, capacity, keenness, curiosity and fantasy of the person and to such a relationship there is no end...
[S]he then realises [s]he receives more than [s]he gives, an affair with terrible difficulties, to be sure, but which, once overcome, results in something sublime.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Fancy seeing you here! (Mid-level)

Sitting above the bottom canopy

high enough to glimpse blue sky and shafts

of sunshine but too low to feel the heat,

the forest floor is invisible

beneath mandalas of palm fronds.

Here in the middle level, the second canopy,

the view ahead is all vertical columns reaching

straight up and straight down to invisible destinations;

columns swagged with familiar vines.

These old acquaintances were once only known to me

as clipped and controlled little pot plants

sitting separately in shiny urns

on hard grey carpet, trying unsuccessfully

to disguise the miserable forest

of cubicle dividers in our second floor office.

Flaccid under fluoro lighting

breathing badly conditioned air from corner ceiling vents

doled a weekly dribble of water

and trimmed of the first signs of decay,

those office mates were tame avatars of

the uninhibited natives clinging rampant here.

Gnawed by wild animals,

yet covering every available trunk that ever sees sunlight,

all tangled together with a previously unimaginable diversity

of twenty-metre-dwelling plants.

I am looking for tree snakes

but I give myself over to a fantasy of supplying

offices with appropriate foliage:

definitely, the seried shark’s teeth of the wait-a-while

would be more honest in the workplace,

to snag the wage-slaves’ city clothes;

yes, surround the photocopier with

the tender pink tips of something so delicate

it grows along spider silk,

yet so ruthless it strangles saplings;

and for head office,

a spiraling double-helix

that chokes the life out of its host vine

and remains a free hanging corkscrew

with no visible means of support.