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Underworld

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.

1.

Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree-trunks, she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out… It seemed to be still daylight there. ‘I can always get back if anything goes wrong,’ thought Lucy…

CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

My father’s love of snorkelling began at a place called Erewhon. Or perhaps it began with a book. It’s more than sixty years ago now, so details can be hard to pin down.

I don’t know where, or exactly when, I first discovered that it was possible to look beneath the surface of the ocean, but I do know it was with him. It would have been around the same time as he began introducing me to the equally transportive powers of literature. We started with the Narnia books, and moved on to the Greek myths and most of Dickens.

I’m perhaps six or seven that first time, kneeling in waist-high water at a beach, I don’t know where, the sand pressing up under my shins, the sun on my unprotected back, the snorkel’s rubber taste in my mouth. I bow down to put my face into the water and feel for the first time the surprise that I am out of my element but can still breathe.

Is this a real memory or a composite of many childhood days at the beach? All I’m sure of is that he’s there to guide me, just as he held his hands under me in the water urging me to kick as a toddler, or taught me how to time the start of my swim so I could catch waves without a board.

Eastern Blue Groper

Eastern Blue Groper. Photo: Sylke Rohrlach

Decades on, I have been through that portal hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, on different continents, among tropical corals and the sweeping kelp beds of the Southern Ocean. I’ve dived to collect fragments of weathered tile from the sea floor off Italy’s Amalfi Coast, swum with turtles on the Great Barrier Reef, followed the stately blue gropers around the rocky coastline of my Sydney home, explored a second world war wreck in the Philippines, transformed into a coral reef by omnivorous nature.

‘Do you scuba dive?’ people always ask, as though that’s the proper grown-up thing to do. But I prefer the snorkel’s precarious territory, there on the boundary between two worlds. ‘You’ve always been drawn to the liminal,’ says an old friend when I tell him I’m writing this essay.

The snorkel is my low-tech worm hole, transporting me instantly into a dimension of strange creatures, governed by different physical laws. I am the outsider here. Time slows. I am more alert, more sentient. Yet all it takes is a tilt of the head for me to be brought back by the shrieks of children from the beach.

2.

When we are far away from here we will think back with longing to these days. To hours that will never return, to people we shall probably never see again, and to the wonders of the sea… No matter where we swim, the great unknown is always ahead of us; we never know beforehand what we shall encounter the next moment, nor can we ever say with assurance that we shall get back to shore whole.

Hans Hass, Diving to Adventure

We learn nature from our parents, or at least I learned it from my father, walking the high places, plunging into oceans. There were crazy, ill-prepared walks where we got lost on mountain ridges as night fell and snow came down. Interminable coastline treks where, thirsty, I begged to be allowed to drink sea water after our bottles were emptied.

My father had to find the natural world on his own. His parents, at least when I knew them, were resolutely indoors people. Old-fashioned even for their generation, they inhabited a dark apartment lined with treasure cabinets, dressed always as though they might unexpectedly find themselves at a funeral.

Erewhon was my father’s escape from that interior life. The guesthouse, owned by distant cousins at Cowes on Victoria’s Phillip Island, no longer exists though the point it stood on still bears the name. Back in the 1950s, it was a place of wholesome fun and manly escapades. Its name, Dad explains, was Nowhere backwards, the ‘wh’ treated as one letter. He’s never made the connection to Samuel Butler’s eponymous novel, with its satirical portrait of an imaginary land somewhere off the Australian coast.

It was at Erewhon that my father met Barry, a young man with an infectious appetite for danger. Barry would swim out daily across the deep water to the jetty in the centre of town. He horrified the guesthouse owners when he convinced their son Bill to swim into the cavern beneath the island’s famously violent blowhole. He introduced my father to snorkelling – taking him to a spearfishing competition which Barry, of course, won – and to the other world of Wilsons Promontory, where they snorkelled wearing woollen jumpers for insulation from the cold.

The Prom is the southernmost tip of the Australian continent, a remnant of the ancient land bridge to Tasmania. It has other names with much longer pedigrees – Yiruk, Wamoon – names unknown to us when we explored its wild landscapes on family holidays. Thomas Wilson, whose name it now bears, was a London merchant, and friend of navigator Matthew Flinders. Wilson never saw the place.

More than half a century since my father’s first snorkelling expeditions, we are planning a multi-generational return to the site of so many childhood adventures. ‘Will you come for a snorkel with me at the Prom?’ I ask Dad. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘Maybe. It’s probably easier for me than walking these days.’

We agree. At the end of January, we will go to Wilsons Promontory, maybe even snorkel together. And, on the way back to Melbourne, we will visit the place called Erewhon that no longer exists.

Talking about his youthful adventures has made my father nostalgic. ‘Postume, postume, anni labuntur. Alas for the days that are passed, the years that are gone by,’ he declaims. Who wrote that, he wonders. Was it Virgil? No, not Virgil. Horace, I suggest. My father’s passion for Horace, his tendency to ascribe every random quote to the Roman poet, is a family joke. ‘No, it’s not Horace,’ he says musing, oblivious to my gentle mockery.

I look it up later. It’s Horace.

3.

Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon

The last time I snorkelled at Cabbage Tree Bay on Sydney’s North Shore, bluebottles trailed their long tendrils around my arms, neck and thighs, leaving painful red welts that took hours to subside. But today I sweep untouched over the amber seaweed forests, the rocks covered in purple and green lichen, hearing my breath loud through the snorkel. It’s early January. There are hundreds of people on the beach, a slick of sunscreen riding the shallow water, but once I’m out and away I soon find that  other world.

In this aquatic reserve, underwater life is abundant, despite occasional illegal forays by recreational fishers. More than 160 species of fish and 50 of marine invertebrates live here, I’m told. I swim past glittering curtains of tiny pelagic fish, billowing and retreating as one with the swell. A large blackfish grazes on the cunjevoi. Sea squirts, we called them when I was a kid, pressing our heels down on them to make them spray. A ribbon-shaped fish rushes past. It could be a piano fangblenny, also known as the hit and run blenny, from its habit of lunging forward to bite scales and skin from other fish before quickly retreating to prevent any counter-attack. Schools of mullet sweep by, glinting in the refracted light, while translucent jellyfish drift slowly on their parachutes. Hordes of striped mado jostle along, and a large bronze fish pokes baroque fins and headpiece out from the weed before slowly backing under again. I dive down, bubbles popping from the end of my snorkel, but it’s gone.

I kick across to the other side of the bay, over the central desert plains, the graveyard of shell remnants washing to and fro beneath. And then, as I approach the rocks on the western side, I see it: the iconic Sydney fish, the blue groper. Named for its supposed resemblance to the groupers of the northern hemisphere, it is really a wrasse though you’d never hear a Sydneysider call it that. Today’s groper has just a touch of blue on its brown body, a sign that it is beginning the transition from female to male, gender-bending behaviour that is not unusual in fish. Clownfish do it in the other direction: when the senior female dies, the largest male will change sex to take her place, which rather undermines the plot of Finding Nemo. Nemo’s widowed father would have responded to the loss of his mate by transforming into the family’s mother.

Gropers of whatever sex are generally placid creatures, ambling slowly around the rocks in search of sea urchins. Their portly bodies and lack of fear of humans made them such easy prey for spearfishers they were nearly wiped out in the 1960s. Spearing them is now banned. This groper, though, is in an uncharacteristic hurry, frantically paddling small fins to propel it at surprising speed across the rocks.  I follow, beating my flippers as fast as I can, but the fish is soon lost to sight among the weed.

Back on the beach, I pull my mask off, and feel the familiar soreness at the base of the septum, an ache that wrenches me back to childhood. ‘Weren’t the cuttlefish amazing?’ a nearby woman says. I didn’t see the cuttlefish.

4.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’

‘It’s down there,’ my father says, gesturing at a low shelf in the room that holds his library, several thousand books devoted to art, history, science, the classics. ‘It’s just a great big folder that has more in it than it can hold properly.’ This is his library catalogue, page after page of closely written entries classified according to an obscure personal system even he no longer quite understands. We’re looking for the book that was his other pathway to the underwater world.

The Austrian zoologist and diver Hans Hass was once a superstar in diving circles. He rivalled Jacques Cousteau in his day, though he’s pretty much forgotten now. Hass somehow managed to spend much of the second world war diving around the Aegean, excused from German military service because of poor circulation in his feet. ‘I loved that book,’ Dad says. Hass was his role model, the archetype of the adventurous young man.

The book is not in the catalogue, though, and nor can we find it on the shelf. We eventually unearth another of Hass’ works, Adventures Under the Red Sea, sitting beside books by Cousteau and various cavers and other kinds of explorers. ‘So I’ve put that under geography, have I?’ Dad says, disconcerted.

Classification is always fraught, I reflect, thinking of all the ways nature resists our human desire to put things into neat boxes: the egg-laying platypus assumed by early European scientists to be an elaborate hoax, viruses straddling the border between life and not-life, seahorses refusing to comply with our definition of male and female, the air-breathing lungfish.

The only copy of Diving to Adventure I can find for sale online is in the UK so I order it – the postage costs considerably more than the book – and wait.

The book when it comes is like an emissary from another time, an era of casual sexism and racism, one when it was possible to both love nature and see it as something to be conquered. Hass is entranced by the beauty and diversity of the marine life he discovers: ‘Today, in the twentieth-century, where are there regions still so virginal and untouched, places where magic has never been profaned by man, where everything still remains as it was when no man lived on earth?’

Not for long. Hass’ first response to the sight of a new species is to reach for his spear. Diving in the Caribbean shortly after the outbreak of war, he has assembled a long list of ‘trophies and collections’ he hopes somehow to get back to Europe:

salted shark skins, which we intended to have made into leather coats; dried ray tails with brightly polished sting; flexible riding quirts made from the backbones of sharks; the shell of a sea turtle that Joerg had killed with a splendid thrust through the neck; the dried head of a young hammerhead; the inflated skins of some porcupine fish; bright-coloured shells; snails; mounted fish heads…

And that’s without the specimens they had collected for Vienna’s Natural History Museum.

Hass and his companions fund their expeditions by selling fish to restaurants until they find a more lucrative opportunity in the reef . They start diving with an axe so they can harvest the most shapely corals to sell to tourists.

This was a time when the world belonged to adventurous young white men, when the oceans seemed infinite and inexhaustible. Nature was an adversary: heights to be scaled, depths to be plumbed, poles waiting for flags to be planted on them, and wild animals to be slaughtered. My father’s early forays into snorkelling were also hunting expeditions – though lack of skill and inadequate equipment meant they were generally unsuccessful.

As we stumble into the anthropocene, we’re more likely to see nature as vanquished, or at least gasping for a last breath as the tide of our demands invades its lungs. There are too many of us, with all our memories and desires, consuming the world’s resources, crowding into its wild places to collect the experience of nature. The oceans are acidifying, the corals bleaching, fisheries are exhausted and a microplastic gyre covers hundreds of thousands of kilometres in the doldrums of the Pacific. Videos go viral on the internet: a seahorse swimming with its tail wrapped around a cotton bud rather than a branch of seaweed, a diver off Bali swimming through a school of floating plastic, interspersed with the occasional fish. Even pristine Wilsons Promontory has been invaded by a plague of ravenous, all-consuming sea stars, imported as larvae in the bilge waters of ships. Snorkelling Sydney’s coastline, I have adopted the habit of gathering plastic for removal as I swim.

5.

The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor. Time walks beside us and flings back shutters as we advance; but the light thus given often dazzles us, and deepens the darkness which is in front. We can see but little at a time, and heed that little far less than our apprehension of what we shall see next; ever peering curiously through the glare of the present into the gloom of the future, we presage the leading lines of that which is before us, by faintly reflected lights from dull mirrors that are behind, and stumble on as we may till the trap-door opens beneath us and we are gone.

 Samuel Butler, Erewhon

I did not get to snorkel among sea creatures at Wilsons Promontory and I did not get to go back to Erewhon with my father.

The day before we head to the Prom, it’s 42 degrees in Melbourne as I run around buying provisions. I wilt in the heat as my phone predicts wind and rain for the week ahead at Tidal River, with maximum temperatures of 18 and 19. ‘Don’t kill each other,’ a friend says.

I drive my parents down, through the gentle green hills of South Gippsland, across the swampy isthmus that links the Prom to the continent. The mountains surge before us, and I am as newly astonished as though I had never been to this place before. It looks like a piece of Tasmanian high country weirdly transplanted to the Victorian coast, I say to my daughter, who nods.

The weather bears no relationship to the gloomy forecast: it’s mid-20s, sunny, no wind. We swim, kayak, walk, eat good food, and reminisce. My father is no longer the powerful athlete of my youth, though at some level he may still believe he is. On this trip, he hasn’t been able to make it down to the surf, but he has swum in the river, launching himself into the peaty, brown water to make a few of his familiar slow freestyle strokes, before bobbing weightless beside me. Up on the nearby pedestrian bridge, his 10-year-old granddaughter is queuing next to the No Jumping sign with the gang of kids waiting to leap into the water below.

I think about the stories Dad has told me, all the adventures we have had, together and apart, about his friend Barry who never got to be an old man. He crashed a light plane somewhere near the You Yangs when he was in his thirties, taking Dad’s cousin Bill with him.

On the fifth night at the Prom, I am woken in the dark hours by my parents’ voices. Dad sits tensed on the side of his bed, breath urgent and rasping.

The ambulance takes over an hour to get into the national park from the nearest town. We wait, Dad tensing to breathe, fists pressed down on his thighs. They have to drive slowly at night because of wildlife on the road, one of the paramedics explains when they eventually get there. The town’s other ambulance is out of action after hitting a kangaroo.

They do their obs and help my father out to the ambulance. He wants to know if he’ll be able to come back. It’s possible, they say, after he’s been checked out at the hospital in Wonthaggi. As dawn breaks, my mother climbs in beside him and they drive slowly out of the campground.

I’ve been awake since 2.30. My brother has followed the ambulance to collect my mother and bring her back. My father too, perhaps, though I’m not really expecting it. I’m pretty sure I won’t be staying, that I’ll need to take my mother home to Melbourne.

So I should try to get the planned snorkelling done, though it feels more like duty now than pleasure. At the information centre, they recommend the southern end of Picnic Bay. ‘It can get a bit choppy,’ the ranger warns.

I walk along from the car park at the northern end of the cove. A sheet of water on the gently shelving sand creates another sky beneath my feet, a wobbly reflected sun moving ahead of me with every step. The rocks at the southern end are studded with tiny mussels against a bed of orange lichen. The swell sweeps in against the rocks, throwing spume into the air. I’m alone in the water, thigh deep, snorkel and mask in hand. The waves push me onto a spur of rock, the sharp shells. Blood trickles down my leg. Mortality is on my mind.

‘If it’s too rough at Picnic Bay, you could try the northern end of Normans Beach,’ the ranger had said. This wide sweep of sand where the Tidal River meets the ocean is sheltered by two mountainous headlands so the swell is quieter. Who was Norman, I wonder, and what is the real name of this place, the one it held for millennia before my ancestors came?

I leave the rest of my family playing in the waves and swim flipperless to the northern end where granite flanks plunge straight into the sea. I look down through my mask. Sand motes swirl in the turbulence against the smooth stone of the headland. There’s no weed, no kelp, no small fish, not even any crevices in the endless rock wall that might harbour life. I lift my head, suddenly overwhelmed by my aloneness in this desert place. I swing around and start the long swim back to where the others are cavorting in the waves.

Dad doesn’t make it back to the Prom. The doctors at Wonthaggi diagnose a heart attack and have him transferred to Melbourne. He’d been drowning from the inside, we’re told, his lungs filling with fluid as his heart failed.

Before I leave with Mum the next morning, I walk to Normans Beach one last time, determined to catch a wave for my father. It’s too sheltered here for bodysurfing and my efforts are thwarted. I’m gripped by a sudden superstitious belief that his survival now rests on my success in riding the break into shore. I’m blue with cold before I finally manage it. When I tell him the story later in his hospital room, he says ‘good girl’, nodding with approval. Catching a wave is better than any expression of open grief.

‘I guess I’ve climbed my last mountain,’ he says when he is eventually discharged from hospital. Then, recovering his cheer: ‘Well, with my body anyway. I can still climb mountains with my mind.’

Back in Sydney, I borrow The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from my six-year-old godchildren, one of the first stories my father read to me so long ago. ‘It’s very old,’ says my godson, handing the book to me. It’s the same edition I had as a child, and as I open it and start to read I can hear my father’s voice speaking the old-fashioned English dialogue, sweeping my own six-year-old self through the wardrobe into another world, one where strange creatures live in the wild places and children have adult powers. I could weep now, sob and howl, but I’m still holding tight, swimming hard against the swell.