The Island’s Caretaker

By Mirko Bonne February 17, 2015

Tell It to the Bees: Australian Journal 16

My fear of the sea floor’s rapid drop into the submarine night beyond the reef, of encountering a moray, a fear as old as my thoughts of what could happen if a shark, a spider crab, a school of poisonous jellyfish trailing yard-long strands of burning nettle hooks, a grouper… my fear that panic could seize me in the water is too great for me to go swimming and snorkeling with the rest of the group. I gaze out at the water. I don’t dive, but my eyes dive down.

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A pale turquoise sea turtle lollops past. A fish swims by so close to the boat that I freeze in wonder: so big, so bright red, almost perfectly round and striped black. And several pale-brown sharks, not very big, but big enough, circle around, crouching as it were, making a school of fusilier fish part before their flat snouts and whir off in different directions like finches before a buzzard.

After returning to the ship, several snorkelers post the photos they’ve just taken on Facebook or wherever, while I gaze over at Woody Island, a clump of mangroves where access is forbidden, and probably impossible. At least I certainly wouldn’t survive there long, what with my fear of those creatures waiting for God knows what in the salty mud between the tidal trees.

Bell Rock-Leuchtturm vor ArbroathOn Low Island there’s a lighthouse that was imported from Scotland in the 19th century – it might even be the work of one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s relatives, who were among Scotland’s leading lighthouse builders.

The island where the Scottish lighthouse stands is so tiny that a ten minutes’ walk takes me past the same seagull standing just as before in the sand, looking at me questioningly.

A museum little larger than a bicycle shed covers the history of Low Island, the first island in the Great Barrier Reef to produce all its electricity solely from the wind and the sun. But then, it has only one inhabitant.Low Isles

And not always the same one. The island’s caretaker switches every three weeks; the Low Isles Preservation Society LIPS organizes the volunteers. The “Sailaway IV”, a sailing catamaran whose diesel motor is used only near the coast, is taking the past weeks’ caretaker back to Port Douglas: a stocky elderly lady who talks about the cooperation between the LIPS and the local aborigines.

The skipper of the “Sailaway” recalls a caretaker from his boyhood. In 1972 the man took his two sons out to the island in a dinghy to save them from an approaching storm, and none of the three was ever seen again.

The only person shocked by the story is me. After all, Australia is the continent of disappearance, so much so that you have to wonder whether Australia as a whole won’t vanish from the earth someday, just like that.

WallabyEverything disappears here. Person after person gets lost in the outback. Whole swathes of land burn. A tornado destroys the sugar cane harvest. A prime minister sinks into a kelp forest. Animal species seem to die out overnight. A river dries up. People clear forests that for thousands of years have housed koalas, and bats that exist hardly anywhere else in the whole endangered batless world.

Everything belongs to an endangered species, everything is endangered, mangroves, platypuses, dingoes, parrots that now exist only in zoos. Restaurants catering to day-trippers keep pythons in glass cases, and barbed-wire cages house wallabies with eyes so sad that they bring you to your knees. No one knows whether the Tasmanian tiger still exists. They’re looking for it, but decades on, it still hasn’t been found.

Lagoons turn into train stations; droughts devastate a region as large as the great country of Poland. Tasmania’s aborigines were wiped out, except for one woman and one man. And another man, charged with the care of a coral island, rides out onto the sea with his sons in a little motor boat.

He rides and rides and rides and rides and doesn’t even notice that he and the two boys are long dead.

Photos: green turtle (1), lighthouse at Arbroath, Scotland, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather (2), the Low Isles in the Great Barrier Reef: Woody Island, left, and Low Island, right (3), Wallaby (4)

 

Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

The Fig Tree

By Mirko Bonne December 1, 2014

 

fig tree 1

Summer’s rubbish everywhere, plastic splendor on every slope. Tossed away, trodden flat, left lying, forgotten – the packaging of what once was, and is never to return, bottles of all colors, rust-corroded tins, a faded bag, a torn suitcase. Cars abandoned years ago by the roadside, wrecks, half-cannibalized, half-decayed, shat in, besmeared, oil-slicked. You squat, eye caught by something pale on the asphalt, and see a little goddess doll, with just half a head, no more body left, but Aphrodite’s smile on its lips. In the dry grass, layer upon layer, lie the remains of what couldn’t be stuffed into the crevices and niches of these walls whose stones have been used over and over, over and over again. Severed power lines in the trees, a branching of wires. On the beach a tide of toothbrushes, a spume of bags and bottle tops, caps and pens, laces, buttons, and the faded blind eyes of stuffed animals.

fig tree 2

On the tiny Greek isle of Symi, just a few sea miles from the Turkish coast, a house stands in the upper town of the fishing harbor, its roof beams, walls and floors prized open by a tree that has claimed, bit by bit, the abandoned masonry. The beautiful dark green fig grows on the junk and trash that is tossed in through the windows – tossed as though into a shaft in which the inevitability of decay merges with emptiness, and time and death fade in the face of sheer life.

Feige in Santa Barbara

 

 

 

 

Photos: Plastic in the Mediterranean near Rhodes (1), house with fig tree on Symi (2), fig tree in Santa Barbara, California (3)

Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

Kathrin finds beauty

Tempelhof Airport, in the middle of Berlin, feels like a relief. It ceased running in 2008 and thanks to engaged communities fighting for public access, it became the city’s biggest park in 2010. Whereas Berlin has swallowed me up in the past, I can choose to vanish in its fields. My ears hear layers of distant sound, people are flying kites, rare birds suddenly give company. Its beauty derives from being an industrial ruin; a vacancy in the middle of city life. Though I have always loved the atmosphere of functioning airports and the promises they hold, their symbolism has become more difficult to embrace in our age. Maybe Tempelhof seems comforting because Germany feels like a big productive machine, eating its way into our last quiet places, unstoppable. Climate Change will bring about more of these ruins, I expect.

[Kathrin Bartha is a PhD candidate at Berlin. Her hometown Frankfurt houses one of Europe’s biggest airports.]

[Photographer - Veronica Bartleet]

[Photographer – Veronica Bartleet]

Remembering a boy in a tree fishing for carp

The dam is at the bottom of the street where I lived as a teenager. This Christmas, I went for a walk and ended up here, ambushed by nostalgia and belonging. I escaped from this daggy Adelaide suburb as soon as I could.  I stood at the dam, now landscaped, with a fountain and a boardwalk for birdwatching. Back then it was a pool of muddy water where the boy I liked would sit in a tree and fish for carp.  I was reminded of the simple consolations that this suburb and the water and trees nearby will always be a part of me.

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Jo Case is a writer, editor and festival manager who lives in Footscray and grew up in Adelaide.

Boab Dreaming with Stephen Muecke

The Sydney City Council cleared some trees at the end of our street, opening a space right at the beginning of King Street, the main drag. On impulse, I wrote to the council suggesting they plant a Boab tree. I said this tropical variety could be iconic; it might become the ‘Newtown Boab Tree’. It would welcome strangeness while also being a sign of global warming. Andrew from the Council rang me within a couple of hours. He was sympathetic and said he’d put the idea to a meeting – though of course, those responsible for streetscapes had a master plan … Master plan? I should have known.

Boab Dreaming - Words Stephen Muecke, image Joe Muecke

Boab Dreaming – Words Stephen Muecke, image Joe Muecke


Stephen Muecke lives in Newtown, Sydney. Young Joe lives in Copenhagen.