Category Archives: My Story

Searching for signatures in the dark

IF YOU’VE ever been caving, even one of those walk-in-walk-out tours where you don’t have to get your feet too dirty, you’ll know the experience does something to the soul.

“I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’.”

Perhaps it’s primal, a DNA memory from millennia ago when our ancestors found shelter underground? Perhaps it’s all those fairy tales reminding us that once upon a time there might have been something more in the dark than our elders were letting on?

It’s a frisson that people across the globe subject ourselves to daily, as tourism cave operators everywhere will tell you.

I had the chance to work at a cave system, one of the world’s largest, when I was a cave guide at NSW’s Jenolan Caves. Taking people into the dark recesses of the mountain was always a thrill, and I was lucky enough to be guided on a very special tour recently that was a real highlight.

Jenolan’s Arch Cave has been closed to the public since the 1930s, but late in 2017 I was granted access during a scientific inspection in order to find one name written on the cave wall in the 19th century.

Finding J. Falls

As a guide, the most intriguing stories I came across in my time at Jenolan are those that tell the tales of the people who went into the dark long ago.

SIGNATURE SPOTTING Dr Anne Musser, paleontologist and Jenolan guide, reading names on the crystal.

The first people of the area, the Gundungurra and Dharug, had long traversed the passageways and underground rivers, and their Dreamtime mythology included several of the cave systems in the NSW Central West.

By the middle of the 1800s, local settlers were regularly visiting the caves under the guidance of the local Whalan family, whose property at Oberon was one of the closest ‘gateways’ to the valley. They started the tradition of leaving names to record visitation, and, on occasion, the discovery of caves.

Most of what Jenolan guides related at the time I worked there came from the surviving oral traditions handed down by generations of guides before them, and one of the strongest stories concerned the discovery of a major section of the cave system by a local woman, Katie Webb.

I explored as much of her story as I could find, but there was another name that interested me, that of Jane Falls, whose legend at Jenolan include the possibility that she was one of the explorers to discover the system’s largest publicly open cave, the world-famous Lucas Cave, in around 1860.

The name Jane Falls polarises Jenolan guides. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s been bit of a male-dominated place in its time. Women have only been officially guiding tours since the 1980s, and between Katie Webb’s exploration in the 1880s and the next discovery of a cave by a woman there is a gap of more than a century.

The very idea that a woman might have discovered the Lucas Cave is confronting for some, which is one reason I suspect the issue of where Jane Falls’s signatures are remains a bit of a muddle.

‘J. Falls’ is credited as being one of the first European visitors to enter the Lucas Cave in newspaper reports from January 1860, but if that was Jane, she presents a conundrum for researchers. As was common practice, many of the signatures on Jenolan’s walls are initials only, so any appearance of ‘J. Falls’ could be one of three people: Jane Falls, her mother (also Jane), or Jane’s brother James, all Irish emigrants in the 1850s.

Nevertheless, a former colleague came across one trace of the Falls family in the Arch Cave, and so we went to see it for ourselves.

Graffiti

What became quickly apparent in the Arch Cave is that it’s a signature-rich chamber. Situated high in the Jenolan limestone, it was one of the earliest caves entered by European settlers, since it was easily accessed from the surface.

Like all caves, the major formations were named. By the time we were standing at the Assyrian Lion, identified as such for its similarity to those in the British Museum, we were looking at signatures scrawled in every direction, on walls, on crystal, and on the ceiling.

People left their mark using graphite pencil, or charcoal, or even the smoke from their candle, and in some places the names have quickly deteriorated.

I was struck by the possibility that we’d never find Jane’s name in this mass of graffiti!

A couple of side chambers required us to squeeze through into a narrower space where 19th century explorers had gone before, and I immediately saw the name ‘Edwin Whalan’ written boldly on a promontory of rock.

It made me chuckle. The Whalans earned their place in Jenolan lore, no doubt, but compared to some tiny signatures, the size and passion of this lustily scrawled Whalan moniker smacked of ownership.

A sweep of the torch above revealed other familiar names, but once again there were just so many. The Arch is a small cave but even so it would take hours and hours to search them all.

Some visitors had inscribed more than just names, also. Short poems, or expressions of how they felt, were touching reminders of the mysteries of the underworld, begging that question again, about why we come to gather in the dark and remember those who were here before us?

Curlicues

I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’. I stepped up for a closer look, and a shadowy word came into sharper focus. Most definitely ‘Falls’… my heart thumped. Most definitely a ‘J’ and an ‘A’. This was it! But standing there in wonder I had to admit immediately, this could be ‘Jane’ or ‘James’ Falls.

JANE’S NAME? The elusive signature of Jane or James Falls in Jenolan’s Arch Cave.

I grumbled at myself, and at poor handwriting, and the passage of time, then got a bit hopeful at the possibility of another name starting with ‘J’ and ‘A’ slightly above. Could this be Jane and James Falls, siblings on an expedition?

We took plenty of pictures and mused over the curlicues of the Falls signature. Nobody wanted to dash my hopes, but as our tour concluded and we journeyed out, I had to admit that it was not a conclusive sighting of Jane, not yet.

My search for her goes on, and will feature in plenty of writing to come, but to have stood in the dark where the Falls name was written, I feel closer than ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

Capturing the colours of Ngarabal country

“It was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.”

THIS writer and artist has been neglecting his blog. I’ve got a decent excuse, however: I’ve moved.

After five years living on Coochiemudlo Island in South East Queensland, my husband and I have returned to live in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

This place is border country, a series of high-altitude tablelands just south of the notional line on the map that separates Queensland from NSW.

COUNTRY COLOURS The views between Deepwater and Tenterfield in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

While living on an island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, we met many of the Quandamooka people, particularly artists. Here, in Ngarabal country, we’re aware of living close to one of the largest Koori language groups in this state: the Kamilaroi, and it’s been great meeting Kamilaroi people and their neighbours in nearby Ngarabal traditional lands.

Two years ago we attended the Myall Creek Massacre memorial, which commemorates one of the worst atrocities against Indigenous Australians.

That trip back to the place I was born inspired, in part, our recent move. The taste of the high country inspired several other trips, which became property and house-hunting expeditions from the Granite Belt to the New England region.

We saw some incredible landscapes, often bursting with wildlife. We encountered places where some big dreams had been broken over the years, and where people have found opportunities to make homes in all kinds of situations, many of them quite unconventional.

Often, I was reminded of Germaine Greer’s reforestation of a former dairy farm, also in the border country.

British novelist E. M. Forster’s sense of place often crossed my mind, also, particularly his unexpected acquisition of a woodland adjacent to his home at Abinger Hammer, not far from London.

VIEWS FOREVER Country west of Stanthorpe in Queensland.

We considered buying a five-acre block of forest so close to the border you could throw a stone interstate. We got very serious about an 80-acre lot of land in the western slopes, where emu walked on the horizon and people had come looking for gold, but found nothing.

The day we extended our search into the upland valley of Deepwater in NSW was crisp. It was July and there was frost on the car when we left the motel at Tenterfield to head into the old tin mining country of Stannum. A property we were shown there had character, but with all its living spaces on the shady south side, it was not a wise choice for life at a thousand metres above sea level.

Before lunch we found our way into the open land south of the Deepwater River, where an old railway property had been on the market for a couple of years. A former gatekeeper’s cottage, this 1885 double-brick dwelling had been lovingly restored and extended in the decades since the railway service north of Armidale had ceased.

GOING DEEP The Deepwater River in Ngarabal Country.

The nearby New England Highway had long since been rerouted, leaving this place and all its secrets in a world of its own, nestled between state habitat reserve and grazing property.

We loved it before we even stepped through the door, where the passive solar nature of brick houses meant the place was warm without even having the fire on.

Within weeks of arrival I was inspired to paint. The broad vistas of Moreton Bay were left far behind, and it was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.

I’d spent a significant proportion of my childhood absorbing these lands, and after spending time driving between Tablelands’ towns, the work flowed as quickly as paint blended with water on canvas.

It’s sometimes confronting being back. My family left this place on the back of several broken dreams of our own, but the landscape of this place is an incredible consolation.

Check out my online gallery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

“I noticed your profession, so I know you’re scum”

“I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers.”

A Writer introduces his latest book.

AFTER a career in publishing, marketing and other creative dalliances that was more like the verb (‘move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way’), I arrived relatively late to journalism.

A decade in, I received the comment in the title of this foreword from one of my social media readers. It was posted in reply to an appeal from me for the commenter to take in the whole of my 800-word piece before dissing the point I was trying to make.

The import was brutal. I was expected to step away from the debate about my own work. I was nothing more than the journalist who wrote it, not to be trusted on that basis alone. Had I persisted, the grab-bag of insults would surely have included ‘fake news’.

What on earth was I thinking, becoming a journalist in my forties?

Most of my journalism has taken place in the shadow of the social media’s rise at a time of enormous upheavals and fractures in the journalistic landscape. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to earn a living as a reporter and editor for almost ten years, usually taking positions that no-one else wanted because the pay was terrible and the prospects of advancement zero.

My first full-time journalism contract was inexplicably based on the template for engaging a builder. A year-and-a-half later, the boss tried to dump me because advertising sales were gently drifting downwards and he thought it better to install an unskilled family member as the writer.

I held my nerve, cited my tradesman’s agreement in an assertive conversation, and tried to imbue my employer with courage when he cried and begged me not to make him honour it.

This strangest of arrangements lasted until the office locks were changed on me before my final pay arrived in the bank account, and the first gap in my journalism career opened wide.

I did what so many of us do: I started a blog and learned to publish online. The lure of the Publish Button was strong but it hadn’t quite found the sweet spot to kill the media just yet, because soon enough I was asked to interview for a position at Fairfax Media.

As one of the company’s last sub-editors I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers, working with subs capable of taking the shoddiest copy and transforming it into double-page spreads with multiple lead stories, down-pages and briefs, all spell-checked and “legalled” in under 15 minutes.

It was an education like no other in a newsroom environment swiftly replaced by a landscape where news-making means almost nothing.

Along the way, my writing output increased to the point where I was often heard to confess that there’s no off switch.

This is undoubtedly due to the rise of digital and independent publishing tools which allow writers to reach a wider audience than ever before. Finding a readership is still the challenge it always was for wordsmiths, but securing our place in the flow of digital media is as easy as a username and password.

So it was a defining moment for me when seasoned journalist Margo Kingston, also formerly of the Fairfax stable, offered me the chance to write for NoFibs.com.au. The gig: a regular column. The subject: the Arts.

“The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality.”

Getting an encouraging green light from a respected commentator is rare. Doing the work for free, yet having editorial control, presented the perfect antidote to hours spent shaping the work of other journalists while still on deck as a paid, casual sub-editor at a Fairfax newsroom in Queensland.

The resulting output forms most of the articles in this volume, written over a four-year period (2013-2017) during which Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership was played out then snuffed out, leaving Australians to endure the fallout.

The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality, traversing the period when journalism as we knew it went into its death throes and started to slide behind pay walls.

They also document the final, frustrating years of Australia’s journey to marriage equality; the belligerent delays, missteps and guesswork in delivering marriage equality to a community in which 60 per cent of voters continually told our representatives that we wanted a change to the law.

Here lies the key to understanding every long-form title I wrote across the same period, and why I often crossed over into activism in addition to journalism.

Any ‘scum’ still writing articles for general readership these days are either overstretched under a masthead, or still plugging away independently for very little return, more likely nothing. This book is dedicated to every one of them.

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If you’re still reading this, just 800 words in with no digital bells and whistles to amuse you, your attention span is fit and you’ll probably make it to the end. If any of it leaves an impression, please take that incredibly rare action that is a gift to independent writers and a necessity if we want journalism to survive: share it.

An extract from Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.