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nature_essay

nature_essay

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Published by Stephen McAlpine

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Published by: Stephen McAlpine on Jan 27, 2011
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03/07/2013

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Living on the Edge
Observations from the Darling Scarp 
At first glance I thought they were skylarking apprentices, warming up with a playful joustprior to a finger-numbing six-thirty start. But the sharp sun rising over the scarp wasplaying tricks. On closer inspection I saw the pugilists for what they were; two WesternGrays going toe-to-toe on the compacted building site, more Sumo than Queensbury, bothteetering dangerously close to the retaining wall and its three metre drop. A casual glanceat me, a sneaky bit of biffo after the bell and they were gone, loping up the hill and backinto the scrub: Foreman and Ali bouncing off to the National Park before tomorrow
ʼ
ssecond round.The suburbs end with our street and the bush begins. Nothing
ʼ
s official, but the evidencestacks up, even without Google
ʼ
s damning map. We live on the fringe. We are neither upnor down. And we are the last street on mains LNG. It
ʼ
s as if the company literally ran outof gas when it looked up the scarp, and seeing the gneiss and granite it would have tobreak through, decided to call it quits. The water company is made of sterner stuff. Ithangs in for another twenty or thirty kilometres or so, before it too eventually loses heart,leaving the grunt work to tanks and bores. Even that bastion of the can-do Industrial Age,the railway line, packed up and went home some time ago, leaving the curiously wellmaintained Swan View railway station behind. There it stands in weatherboard and brickon the edge of the John Forrest National Park, all eager and cute, like a scrubbed-uporphan on open day. The abandoned track is now the bridle trail that swathes up throughthe hills and into the national park itself. Four hundred thousand bricks of Victorian railwaytunnel lie a kilometre or so inside the park, offering a three hundred and forty metre walkfrom entrance to sunlit exit; Dante
ʼ
s Inferno, yet not without hope. It is dank and darkenough even in the summer glare to give my daughter a chill of excitement when we walkit.To live on the fringe means to live on the edge of something. But on the edge of what?The view from my back verandah down the coastal plain to the city
ʼ
s towers gives me asense of metered, mechanised distance. Perth
ʼ
s night time lights allure me with latemodernity
ʼ
s promise of commerce, progress and leisure. But the view up the hill from myfront door, broken as it is by the scarp
ʼ
s final push, is a reminder that we also live on theedge of something primal and vital. There is a mean streak east of the fringe which cannot
Living on the Edge: Observations from the Darling Scarp
1
 
be tamed by meek green signs that read “Kalgoorlie 570” or “Meekatharra 750”. A twohour walk down the hill in the heat of summer would require a stop-off at every corner delito buy water. A two hour walk up the hill in the same conditions could well kill if one took awrong turn. To live on the scarp is to live in a state of limbo - a meeting point of the wildand the tamed. The city draws our interest, but we cannot afford to turn our backs.The scarp was thrown up by inconceivable forces millions of year ago. In the few shortyears since European settlement we have chipped away at its surface, pocking it withquarries and timber mills. Faced with the need for building materials the nineteenth andearly twentieth century pioneers pillaged most of its ancient hardwood - the national parkbeing a notable exception - marking out their patch with place names such as MahoganyCreek and Sawyers Valley. The leaner, tightly packed regrowth is but a parody of that talltimber, lulling Sunday drivers and weekend 4WD clubs into a sense of “the natural”. Butwhat took humans effort and iron to achieve, the environment can do without raising asweat. Our forebears hid the evidence of their over-enthusiastic milling in Perth
ʼ
s buildings,along Fremantle
ʼ
s jetties and packed onto European-bound ships. The overkill was laid outin railway sleeper rows throughout the SouthWest. Beyond the reach of decent rainshowever, the land to the north and east of the scarp had no tall timber to hide. “Trees? Notrees here,” it says, “None that would interest you anyway.What drives our interest in the land? Our European history, rooted as it is in the quest toconquer and tame, suggests an unabashed commercial interest, a utilitarian contractbetween us and a compliant land. We are primary producers after all, first sheep andwheat, now minerals. Yet white Australia has, to a large extent, failed to see
design 
in thelandscape; any sense of a spiritual purpose or ontological foundation. American writersand artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on the other hand, sawsomething holy and other when they gazed out over the canyons and grasslands. RobertHughes muses that “If American nature were one vast church, then landscape artists wereits clergy.”
1
During America
ʼ
s early days Western Christianity
ʼ
s still robust spirituality had arole to play in informing humanity
ʼ
s relationship to the land, and American writers andartists drank heavily from Jacob
ʼ
s well. Hence from the outset the New World was referredto in deliberately eschatological terms. The Puritans were coming to the New Jerusalem astheir early place names betray. Even the Deists of America
ʼ
s eighteenth century revolution
Living on the Edge: Observations from the Darling Scarp
2
1
R. Hughes,
American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America 
(London: The Harvill Press, 1997) 139
 
2
. That they didso under the auspices ofneoclassical Reason rather than Religion was not enough to quell this sense of the landshaping the eternal destiny of the new arrivals. By the time Australian pioneering had builta head of steam however, Deism itself had withered on the vine, leaving behind themeagre, anaemic husks of pragmatic secularism. The result has been a “can-do” attitudeto the land divorced from any grand narrative. This loss explains not only the twocountries
ʼ
different approaches to their physical landscapes, but to their politicallandscapes as well. The inauguration of a new American president is, in thecountry thattrialled the separation of church and state for the rest of us, a deeply spiritual event. Whata contrast to the swearing in of an Australian Prime Minister! The recent effort was akin toan embarrassing shotgun marriage, signed off in a registry office that forbad confetti.Here on the scarp the admittedly successful results of our pragmatic approach to the landhave been in evidence most weekends since the start of the current mining boom. Early onSunday mornings, when the roads are generally emptier than usual, huge groaning primemovers piggy-back ore trucks up and down Greenmount
ʼ
s killer gradient; giant metal snailsmaking a slo-mo dash to safety before the sun really gets going. They stop to take abreather at the top of the hill in a purpose-built siding near Hovea, allowing up to onehundred trailing motorists, ant-like in their impatience, to make up for lost time. Upwardsthey go, past our Lilliputian homes, heaving up to the mines, their gargantuan Tonkapayloads as shiny as Christmas. And downwards they crawl, bearing broken-toothed,battle weary veterans, coated in MidWest pindan, snorting and limping their way to theheavy industry strip in the Swan Valley for repairs.It seems the world cannot get enough of our land. There is so much land out east of herethat we are digging it up by the huge yellow bucketload and shipping it overseas to anyonewho makes a decent enough offer. The Karara Ridge in the state
ʼ
s mid-west is onehundred billion dollars worth of iron ore that we are offloading to the Chinese.
3
Singaporehas increased its land mass by twenty per cent since the nineteen-sixties due to sanddredging, some of it illegal.
4
Yet five decades of sending soil offshore hasn
ʼ
t so much as
Living on the Edge: Observations from the Darling Scarp
3
2
REM
ʼ
s song,
Cuyahoga 
, tells of the forefathers
ʼ
failed attempts to start up something new, using theCuyahoga River in Ohio as a cautionary tale. It was the scene of a massacre of native Americans, then laterity experienced a rare river fire due to the high levels of toxic material it contained.
3
P. Barry,
ʻ
China
ʼ
s Quarry
ʼ
 
The Monthly 
59 (2010) 36 - 40
4
http://www.dredgingtoday.com/2010/02/14/sand-war-singapore-vs-neigbours/ sourced Sept 1 2010

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