This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to nature writing titled the New Nature. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists and scholars to reflect on nature in the twenty-first century and to grapple with the literary conventions of writing nature. Read the other essays in the New Nature series here.
Parc: Old French, an enclosure of land or woodland housing game. As in A.Borde’s Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Helth (1542): A parke repleted with dere & conyes is a necessarye and a pleasaunt thyng to be anexed to a mansyon.
Leaving the train at the sliver of Engadine station I find a changed topography. The chicken shop has turned into a café slash hair salon, and there’s a fifties America-themed burger joint. A sign on the Princes’ welcomes us to Dharawal country. The people milling through the streets are younger and more diverse, some of them have fashionable hair and are accompanied by children in paisley. There’s an Aldi and a Coles, a Japanese restaurant and a Thai. I’m told now there are markets on weekends – when I was growing up here it was a charred sausage on white bread from the soccer clubhouse. The light has the same slant though, it stains the exhaust miasma from the highway in the same way, it drifts into the same wiry scrub, and vanishes into the same barbed warren of banksia and scribbly gum. Someone’s put up a rail fence, and there’s fresh gravel crunching beneath my boots.
I leave the path to cut east through the scrub. The distant train thunders behind me: it’s west. I have a compass on a length of guy line around my neck, and another in my pack. I don’t use them because I want to find the waterfall without help, as a test of memory or bushcraft, or some pointless Oedipal echo of an old atavism. Environment as a theatre of bloodymindedness: a thought as foreign to Dharawal as I am.
Halfway down the Uloola track there used to be an overgrown path off leading to Engadine Falls, a narrowly enclosed valley thunderous and misty in the wet, just a reverberant trickle in the dry. Some years ago a ranger decided it should be allowed to regrow, so now there’s a bank of clay and gravel covering the trail-mouth, and the path itself is indistinguishable from the other game tracks ribboning through the bush.
I pass old campsites, ash scattered beneath leaves and lichenous dust, the remnants of small brick and tin humpies from the Depression, when the homeless fled the city to the park to live on fish and rabbit. The more recent trespasses leave shattered glass, punctured lilos, beer cans and cigarette butts.
Further in, the creek-ditches run deeper, some dry, leaf choked, some murmuring down furred with damp ferns and moss into veins of the milky pipeclay the Dharawal use for ceremony. The furrows in the earth at a bend indicate an echidna, and further up in the bank are nest-burrows used by sacred kingfishers. I find a freshwater crayfish pawing the surface of a glassy pool, its burnt blue ochreous claws raised in ritual threat.
After a while I’m walking in reverie, feet finding their way by habit, treading a present leaf-humus shrapnelled with all the other fragmented impressions and tracks in the schist of memory. Kenneth Slessor, from ‘South Country’:
As if, rebellious, buried, pitiful,
Something below pushed up a knob of skull,
Feeling its way to air.
My father prepares a fire in the fine tangerine silica of a high sandstone overhang at Horseshoe Falls. Around him branches a mandala of perfectly preserved tracks – bird and marsupial hieroglyphs etched in fractal strata of simultaneous time, ribboned through with liquid serpentine wake. He cuts the green twigs for sausage spits without looking throws his clasp-knife point down into the dirt by his boot, like he does when he’s gutted a fish, and takes a match to his pipe.
Camping at Curracurrang, reeling in leatherjacket from the turquoise haze beneath the spray, pale flesh speckled with ash from the coals, rinsing metal plates with creek-sand, a vivid green frog eloping with scraps in a pale hiatus of torch-flicker. My brother abseiling into the hollow of Engadine Falls as a teenager, his suspended form limned in an iris of prismatic mist. Following the Waterfall track home in the dark as a teenager, a crescent of pale green eyes following me at a steady distance. Drifting home on the last train half-drunk and furry-mouthed, alighting alone at Engadine at three o’clock to be greeted by small families of Wallaroo or Rusa deer silently grazing on the grass of the rail embankment, unfazed by the ethereal passage of light.
Locking the keys in the car after dawn-fishing at Garie and walking ten kilometres along the rocks, ogling jewelled starfish, circling rock cod and blackfish trapped in peripheral tide-pools, baiting an anemone with a fingertip and watching its viscid red tentacles harmlessly grasp for prey. In the pool further up at Curracurang, my father’s massive shoulders speckled by fall-spray beneath me. The water felt mythic pelagic, and with the usual Freudian splendours he seemed some distant anthropomorph – a Norse god following the whale-road.
Climbing the craggy Garie escarpment, clinging to a honey-coloured sandstone overhang, inches from my right hand rears the head of a particoloured yellow snake, its tongue curiously stirring the claustral cave air. Walking back from Curracurrang along the jagged cliff paths last year, New Holland honeyeaters weaving the salt-heath and sedge I pause with my brother and his two young sons awestruck to watch a humpback teaching her calf to breach on the summer migration back to Antarctica.
I find the name Horseshoe Falls and a black and white photograph in the Sydney Mail on 13 May 1936:
THE HORSESHOE FALLS, ENGADINE
The falls (40 feet) are in the National Park,
The image shows a series of tiered cascades, the first one higher, the others less distinct, loops of white calico froth pooled in a silky black sheen. The upper right corner is intersected by what looks like a thick bough of stringybark. The picture doesn’t seem to be apropos of anything in the articles. An adjacent advertisement reads ‘Wise housewives always say LAUREL not just “Kerosene”’. Perhaps the editor just thought it was beautiful.
I find an article published three years earlier in the Sydney Morning Herald ,‘Hidden Waterfalls on Engadine Creek’, written by a whimsically named Horace A. Salmon:
Set in virgin forest country the upper fall is over 60ft in height, and plunges down sheer into thick jungle-like growth whence it goes singing on its way for two miles till it plunges over another another fall of 40ft. This fall is terraced with a pool at its base, the water falling like a veil softening the stern contours of the rock. Behind the fall delicate ferns flourish in profusion in nook and crevice. On the southern side the cliffs surrounded by eucalypts, fall sheer, while the northern buttress has decomposed to form a mammoth cave.
That sounds like the place. Somewhere in those years it gained a name in English, and lost it just as easily, part of the wider etymological dissonance of colonised place.
A 1915 Auction sale advertised subdivisions of the recently surveyed Engadine-Heathcote at the intersection of Waratah and the old Illawarra roads. When I missed the school bus I cycled the latter to a fire trail crossing the Woronora at a ford named the Pass of Sabugal by Thomas Mitchell in 1843, after a battle he fought in Portugal. Torrens Title for a deposit of three pounds in quarterly payments across ten years at five per cent interest. ‘The Sanatorium of the SOUTH COAST’ is twenty miles from Sydney, seven hundred feet above sea level. Right of the old Illawara there’s a vaguely sketched map of the National Park, and the ‘pleasure-grounds of the Port Hacking’. Further inspection reveals plans for a rail platform ‘at the nineteen mile post’ and ample opportunities for fishing, boating, and bathing at ‘minimum exertion’ and a guarantee of electric power by 1925. There’s also reference to the Christmas bush, waratahs and flannel flowers which ‘abound in luxurious profusion’. In the white spaces around faintly scratched hypothetical streets abound the words: crown, land, proposed, recreation, open, space, vacant. That’s the trouble with nostalgia, you inevitably tread on something sharp.
A dusky swamp wallaby hurtles from a tussock two feet away from me, thumping the ground with its hind feet to deter pursuit, it crashes through the scrub and vanishes just as abruptly. There’s a pale scribbly gum in front of me, Eucalyptus haemastoma, found only in Sydney, commonly known for the whorled hieroglyphs the scribbly gum moth leaves in its marmoreal bark. It’s resilient, and can live for over a century in poor sandstone soil. I guess it’s a remnant of the ’94 fires, a large central absence etched in char, from which four smaller trunks branch out, as if the tree had taught itself to grow in a mallee habitat after the trauma, taught itself another language to survive. Mallee a loanword from Wemba-Wemba, northwest Victoria.
There’s line from a poem about national parks by Mark O’Connor – ‘You could walk on a snake / with your mind on another continent’. It probably is.
The official guide to the Royal National Park published in 1902 is a horror for the modern ecological mind. Lavish praises for the convenience of introduced deer and trout, the planting of ‘thousands of ornamental and shade trees’. An anonymous author inspired to lyricism by the breadth and beauty of the park’s bird life, indifferent to what ‘few marsupials remain’, encouraged by the rapid disappearance of dingos and snakes ‘it is not the policy of the Trustees to nurture or foster the growth of pets’. There are descriptions of grass terraces, hatcheries, fishing resorts, boat rides for eight shillings, and a school built at Audley for the children of park employees. Casual erasures: ‘majestic trees, which for centuries have grown in solemn silences unbroken by man’s footfall’. Tony Birch talks about a particular form of colonial cognitive dissonance, through which the signs and habits of Aboriginal presence can cheerily be contemplated through a lens of presumptions antithetical to them. Seventy pages later the author delivers a detailed, purely aesthetic appreciation of some of the many carvings, stencils, petroglyphs, and axe grooves – some of which are no longer extant or accessible today. The sites are described as the traces of a ‘dead race’. The book was published three years before the implementation of the child removal policy.
The Australia behind the guide to the Royal, and behind the park itself, the country of its mind, was a different ethical space to the one we live in today, and vastly different to the country of Dharawal. With its pleasure gardens and ornamental trees, its boaters and waist-coats and penny-farthings on Lady Carrington drive, the past is absurd. But for all their blithe and brittle and destructive stupidity, these people lived here, or believed that they did. Beauteous amongst the beautiful, says the guide’s author, is the gigantic Gymea lily ‘which in proper season rears its elongated stem surmounted with glowing blossom.’ Philip Larkin:
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats
After walking a couple of k, as Dad would say, I find a gnarled old angophora, not technically a eucalyptus, but often called redgum or rosegum for the similar texture of the skin, rosy pale around the bowl, scorched red on the outer branches. Dharawal: Yeh-dthedeh – I reckon they knew it wasn’t quite a gum too –Yarr-warrah being blackbutt and Yander-airy silvertop. At this height, it means the soil quality is shifting. I’ve been moving downhill. I loop north, use the topography to find a creekbed and follow it through the brush. I follow until it broadens into a channel of pale stone. It’s mostly dry, but you can hear the flow of subterranean water at the bends. The country is changing, hills rising sharper either side, taller trees stitched with greener, softer shrubs.
In winter these banksias will be visited by black cockatoos bringing their young down from the mountains to visit the same trees with their liquid flight, and keening cries. After a few hundred metres the clay runs to smooth curves of eroded cetacean sandstone. A water dragon doesn’t hear me coming until I almost step on it. Perfectly camouflaged against the speckled rock it appears in a blur of motion and scurries through a crevice in the rocks below. A few moments of panic to be sure it’s not a goanna – they’re not venomous but their claws cause rapid infection.
Half an hour later the creek-bed has become a river-bed of wide planes of smoothly curved rimstone. The valley is abrupt, a sudden depth after all this ridge-scrub. The dimensions are recalibrated by larger silences, taller trees, a huge vault of fragmented boulders heaped below, stands of wiry ironbark and turpentine plunging their roots through the rocks into the richer shale soils below. A pale crescent of the horizon suggests the ocean, and so does the cool distance in the breeze. I plant myself on the edge and slice an apple and some cheese with Dad’s knife – brass inlayed rosewood, German steel, his initials, also mine, engraved on both sides.
Perhaps I remember him in the bush more vividly because it was one of the few places he was ever at ease. I was born when he was forty. By then he’d known twenty years of financial failure and mental illness, blunted by alcoholism and other addictions, which continued for the next twelve, when a brain tumour took him. He was a trained outdoorsman, and even towards the end he was physically competent. Perhaps he loved the bush because his eclectic nature made a sense there it seldom did – but I don’t know if he knew the place I know, here. He called grass-trees ‘blackboys’ and stressed the wrong syllable in Aboriginal, like everyone else, I guess. The bush has different silences, some are cadent, some are just absence.
To reach the foot of the falls I circle to the south along the ridge, where a series of jagged stone spurs forms a rough kind of switchback descent. In the past I’ve headed straight for the largest boulder, stared up at the overcast light slanting through the lichen and then pushed on. This time I pause on the length of a fallen angophora, like a shipwreck. Inside the bowl of the valley the sound of the pattering drops reverberates and multiplies, twinning strangely with the ventriloquial trills of a male lyrebird somewhere down the creek. I’ve never noticed it before, but there’s a sandy ledge leading up through some ferns under the fall’s southern flank. Something’s been clawing in the red dust beneath the sandstone lip. I follow its tracks further into the ravine and when I glance up I’m shocked to absolute stillness by burnt ochreous stencils of handprints and etchings of fish. Dharawal called red ochre ‘gubar’ and considered it the earth’s blood, it was ground by an initiated man and mixed with saliva or blood to make stencils. I’ve been taught certain forms of appropriate respect, and they come swiftly to mind, but something’s not quite right. The petroglyphs do look old, but not like others I’ve seen. The ledge is shallow. There’s no shellgrit in the dirt, the creek would be unreliable for other fish, and the ridge above is hard, infertile country. Further on the stencils give way to scrawled warnings, and the legend ‘Ethan’s place ‘74’ over a mound of shattered glass grimy with dust. Another adolescent fantasy of belonging.
What did I expect? Epiphany, an interior? Eldorado. Another colonial myth. Growing up here you wouldn’t think thing were even as old as they are. Like Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, there wasn’t any there there. Mitchell’s convict-cut road is smothered in indifferent bitumen, the few older houses are gone, replaced first with fibro cottages, then with brick and tile McMansions.
You can find the same spectral history in other parts of Sydney if you scratch the topsoil. The archives are crowded with the ruins of Georgian estates and Italianate villas, hundred-seat art deco theatres and libraries, sandstone churches, slate rooves and mullioned windows framed by gabled balconies. They’re mostly gone, paved over, obliterated in the innocent dullness of concrete. Sydney doesn’t like history because we know there’s blood in it.
And this place, with all its beauty. Sydney’s significant national parks are where they are because they border the arable alluvial soils of the Cumberland Plain. Greater Blue Mountains, Ku-ring- Gai, Sydney Harbour, Royal National: they’re all sandstone soil, places no one wanted to farm. They furnish an imaginary of the pre-colonial past – David Wenham landing at Wattamola as Arthur Phillip in Banished. But it’s an ecological fiction, a heroically battered cliff-side substituted for the firestick-farmed grasses of Eora hunting grounds, another foundational lie. Evelyn Araluen, from ‘Dropbear poetics’:
now here’s the part you write Black Snake down for a dilly of national flair true god you don’t know how wild I’m gonna be to every fucking postmod blinky bill tryna crack open my country mining in metaphors for that place you felt felt you somewhere in the Royal National
While I’ve been brooding the afternoon has deepened on me. The ironbarks have stitched themselves blue shadows and the light in the valley has thickened into a humid lustrous purple. I had an idea of pressing on, finding the oasis again, making another scratch in the dust. From one of mine this time:
Between motion and act - I wanted to say there’s map & step & boot & neck: in white space words fumble, & search their pockets for a footprint. ? well what saying now was I just inwit’s agenbite: fie or foh, or fum? pronounsynge þe rute impassible whee moste bigin agayne in a differently wrong direction: westwearde adj. the cours tranlatio n. thereof empire, disease from one body also metaphor n. Obs. sorry? terranullius - terræ filius: quod scripsiscrapsi there butbythegraceIamsofuckingtired.
The footprint is Robinson Crusoe’s. Describing the view from Wattamolla the author of the guide to the Royal refers to Cowper’s poem about Alexander Selkirk, the sailor upon whose experience Defoe based his novel:
I AM monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute
The eastward river bed is choked with boulders and bush, and I’m not the machete wielding type. Just on the footstep of civil twilight a wakeful mopoke chimes forlornly, looking down on me with quizzical curiosity in its amber gaze. Does it matter to the mopoke? Even if it is a prop in an ecological theatre playing to palliate colonial modernity, it hunts, it sleeps, it dreams.
Last year I heard Peter Minter lecture on Bill Neidjie, a Gaagudju elder who decided towards the end of his life that it was worth breaking law to impart his stories to Stephen Davis, resulting in the revelatory Story About Feeling (1989). I was astonished by its power. From the first poem, or lyric philosophy:
Listen carefully this, you can hear me.
I’m telling you because earth just like mother
And father or brother of you.
That tree same thing.
Your body, my body I suppose,
I’m same as you… anyone.
Tree working when you sleeping and dream.
Perhaps it’s enough, here. And perhaps it’s better to honour the past with silence, let a discarded name fade from the air.
I climb back up the spur of switchbacks and thread my way to the top of the falls. I can see sunset’s stain burning in the redgums and the white cockatoos are beginning their twilight work, Dharawal: Garawi.
I push back through the scrub and cut up in the general direction of the old path, which leads me to the Sutherland track with only a few doubles back. During research for this essay I learnt that the snake that surprised me when I was climbing at Garie wasn’t, as I assumed, a harmless diamond python, but a significantly venomous Broad-Headed Snake, not recorded in the park since the ’97 fires. Good news and bad news.
Soon enough I’m walking in darkness, the stars are azure bright, so I’m saving the torch battery. After a dark length of indeterminate walking I can see through the trees the distant space of an oval where I played soccer, past the shadow of the Loftus Tramway museum storage shed, where an old girlfriend and I snuck in to make out in the dust-slit warrens of green double-decked buses and drop-centre saloon trams from the thirties.
The world changes shape overnight and I tumble with it. Someone burnt the shed out three years ago destroying everything it contained. The museum volunteers and the members of the Old Sydney Album facebook group were devastated, an incomparable loss of heritage. Lying in the dark I think that’s why they dug this irrigation ditch, and I’ve broken my wrist.
We’re grateful to Create NSW for funding the New Nature project.
Anonymous. Official Guide to the National Park of New South Wales, Trustees of the National Park, Sydney UP, 1902
Anonymous. Sydney Mail, 13 May, 1936
Evelyn Araluen. ‘Dropbear Poetics’, Overland 230, 2018.
Les Bursill, Mary Jacobs, Deborah Lennis, Aunty Beryl Timbery-Beller, Merv Ryan. Dharawal: The Story of the Dharawal speaking people of Southern Sydney, Kurranulla Aboriginal Corporation, 2007.
William Cowper. ‘The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk’.
Jonathan Dunk. ‘Araluen’, Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, 2017.
Philip Larkin. The Complete Poems. London: Faber, 2012.
Bill Neidjie. Story About Feeling, Keith Taylor ed, Magabala Books, 1989.
Horace A. Salmon. ‘Hidden Waterfalls on Engadine Creek’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September, 1936
Kenneth Slessor. Selected Poems. Angus & Robertson, 1993.