"back-paths of the dark earth"

   October 2002 — text by Austin Pick

We just had our Spring Break. On the 30th of September I departed for Lamington National Park, a World Heritage sub-tropical rainforest just three hours south of Brisbane, where I spent a glorious week bouncing around like an elf. Funny enough, but it didn't actually rain the entire time I was in the rainforest; Australia is currently experiencing a rather severe drought. I arranged this excursion by taking a Rainforest Ecology Field Studies class, so was under the pretense of studying ecology for the week. I was one of two americans in a class of thirty or so, and immediately met an eccentric collective of charming Australian earthies. We camped in a shaded alcove, bandicoots and pademelons padding around in the dark searching out my crumbs of cracker and hummus, my little morsels and inklings of buttered dreamscape... and awaking each morning to an unbelievable clatter of rainforest birds throwing their voices and hailing the dawn... 

Lamington National Park lies in the hinterland of the Gold Coast on the border of Queensland and New South Wales, and runs right up the crater rim of Mt. Warning. It is an incredible tract of mostly pristine and primeval sub-tropical rainforest, a canopied cloud-catchment spanning the ridges of a beautiful and dynamic region. Lamington is one of the few places harboring forests of Antarctic Beech, enormous thousand-year-old trees, remnants of the ancestors of an ancient age, when Australia, South America and Antarctica were fused. The archetype continent of our oldest cellular memory...

We woke early one morning and sat quietly in the forest, listening as the ensemble of hidden birds began their strange serenade in the still dawn air, recording the frequency of various' species calls along a time axis. In this way we were able to clearly see how the different species take turns and share the air space, as it were. We ventured out late at night to shimmering creeks and pools, listening in on the conversations of rainforest frogs, led by a professor so proficient in mimicking calls that he could actually speak to frogs, discerning their location and scooping them up to allow us a closer look at these little bug-eyed wonders, including a marsupial frog who carries tadpoles around in two hip pouches. We tramped through patches of forest close in proximity but ecologically distinct, puzzling out the reasons for the differences and the specificities of flora.  

Lamington is home to two species of bowerbirds, birds whose males construct ornately landscaped dancing stages on the forest floor, where they promenade around in order to attract mates. We observed male Satin Bowerbirds meticulously arranging their collections of exclusively blue objects —feathers, flowers, berries, straws and wrappers and camper's clothespins— and a small secret stash of yellow flower petals that they hold in their beaks during the courtship jig.

We took a few other group excursions with our relaxed and perceptive professors, but for the most part we were one our own, left to explore the seemingly boundless majesty of deep forest. We were each required to formulate and conduct an individual research project, so I chose to study the habitat and distribution of the mygalomorphs, the infamous funnel-web and trapdoor spiders. The Sydney Funnel-web spider, a related species not found in the rainforest, is the most aggressive and deadly spider in the world, and its cousin species in the rainforest have a nasty reputation as well. Studying these spiders is not as stupid or as dangerous as it may sound, however, although it is a bit exciting. While their burrows become somewhat easy to find, these secretive spiders are nocturnal and remain deep in their lairs during the day. I learned to develop a sense for them, if you catch my meaning, learned to see the forest for the spiders, to see the forest as the masterplan of this enclave of sinister predators haunting the buzzing underbelly of the damp and humid night.   

This is the secret and magic allure of ecology, to attune to a particular aspect of the greater scheme and focus one's perception and feeling for a place on a slender yet intricate and dynamically interconnected angle. I learned to cruise along the tracks in intuitive grace, eyes gliding methodically through the bends of light and foliage, picking out glimmers of thread, tubes of leaves angled out of the litter, mossy almost imperceptible disc-doors like lidded eyes peering from clay embankments. Once I developed an eye for them, I discovered that these spiders are everywhere, hundreds and thousands of them stalking the insect world with cunning ingenuity. Several nights I ventured out into the late cold with a professor and a few friends to observe these little black monsters at work. Using a red filter because they are sensitive to light, we crept along in the eerie crimson glow, kneeling before embankments, before these wicked spiders leering at us from their funnels, tensed with hungry patience, before trapdoors propped open slightly by telling black legs. We happened upon a slow beetle and realigned its path, watching with boyish fascination as it wandered... too... close — and disappeared in a striking black moment, withdrawn, knifed in the back, poisoned and suckled in the depths of the earth...

After a few hours of research one morning, I strapped on my hiking boots and tramped far out into the dense greenness, mind tumbling easily, down into a deep valley thick with ferns and waterfalls; through ravines of incredible scale, crisscrossed with massive fallen trees and glowing tropically in the afternoon light; to the lip of an impossible gorge descending into the mists of waterfall cascades; and finally to Echo Point at the crater's rim, jutting from the thick forest and offering a commanding view of Mt. Warning in the distance. I stood alone on the point, calmly surveying the canopy and watching the play of cloudshadow and sunkiss in the yawning valley, while beautiful blue-and-red parrots darted playfully overhead and along the treetops. After some moments with the Quiet I shouted LOVE! into the abyss —what else to shout in such a land?— and listened as my blessing echoed back and forth back and forth throughout the canyon, over and over and on and on...

I went on other hikes as well, sometimes alone to do research or observe wildlife, sometimes tramping along having wild conversations with several spritely earthies, wonderful quirky ecology students who delight in bending their forest-mind on all sorts of acute angles. We tramped out to Python Rock for lunch one day, a precarious sun-glazed ledge leaning out towards the wider lands at the edge of the rainforest, and as we reclined this pixie named Danielle piped on a little african flute, slipping beautiful lilting melodies into the inviting gorge...

We took several enchanted nite walks along thin pathways thick with vines and ferns, our torches wafting through the forest in the green-glow of some ancient tribal procession, catching the telling eyes-glimmer of creatures lightly prowling—possums, bandicoots, wallabies, geckos... and, high on the trunk of an impressive tree, the orange-eyed gaze of a large huntsman spider, poised and leering... On our last night four of us descended into the cool quiet and through the open arch of the Wishing Tree, anciently arched into oblivion, carrying our sincerities upwards into darkness and shining cosmos... we recounted our childhood fears, trying not to scare eachother too much as we tramped in rhythmic fluidity, humming and bopping along, all the way to Glow-worm Gully, deep in the forest, where we sat in quiet awe...

Glow-worms are the larvae of some flying insect, and create burrows in damp banks where they hang a tiny bead of phosphorescent saliva that attracts their diet of gnats. In the darkness the gully glows with ephemeral blue starlight, in the darkness the earth meets the sky, suggesting gorgeous mythologies, a gateway to the dreamtime... On our return we rattled an Indiana Jones jungle bridge hanging over a valley of massive ferns, talking of the fractal geometry of nature, the fractal geometry of thoughts, the ecology of consciousness... and with such naturalness that it was almost imperceptible, we turned off our lights and all slipped to seating in the damp darkness on the bridge, feeling the rustle of the forest and reclining our minds in meditative peace, and as I wafted along new back-paths of consciousness I suddenly had a vision of myself as huntsman spider saw me from his patient canopy view, myself a small vaporous shadow lightly pulsing and melding with the greater darkness of the night... and since my week in the rainforest I've had several dreams of descending into funnel-webs or ducking behind trapdoors, flying down dark white tunnels to strange earthy back-path worlds within the dust and dirt...

There is a treetop walk at Lamington that begins at the crest of a hill and allows one to walk out through the canopy 20 meters above the forest floor, providing views of the incredible diversity of fauna living on the trees. From this walk there is an enclosed ladder leading another 10m up a huge tree to a platform that presides over the canopy and offers a stunning view of the Great Dividing Range. Perched high in this gracious tree, I saw the most incredible sunset I have ever seen, a wash of brilliant pink light over the gentle fold of the mountains.   Unforgettable.

Then returned from the rainforest in time to see the Queensland Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven's 5th... A rousing finish to another incredible week in the land of Oz.  

Scrolls on... Wishing you all the very best.

Yours with Love, A


Australia/New Zealand: Ch.2 | Ch.3 | Ch.4 | Ch.5 | Ch.6 | Ch.7 | Ch.8 | Ch.9

ancient forest (from net)

Funnel-web spider at the entrance of its lair (from net)

The Tree-Top Walk (from net)

Moran's Falls (from net)

Ancient Nothofagus (from net)

the lost world (from net)

Australia/New Zealand: Ch.2 | Ch.3 | Ch.4 | Ch.5 | Ch.6 | Ch.7 | Ch.8 | Ch.9

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