Category Archives: Rebels

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.

 

We need to talk about Pauline

“One Nation sends mixed messages, and its followers are able to live with policy blind spots, just like other Australians.”

WITH no result on election night, it wasn’t too surprising when people came up to our market stall at Cleveland in South East Queensland on Sunday morning asking who’d won. We weren’t selling anything, but petitioning voters in the federal electorate of Bowman about marriage equality. Recognising the rainbow flag and the symbol of national lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, many assumed we were a good bet to talk politics.

I did an eye roll after I mentioned to a punter that one thing was sure: Pauline Hanson had been elected to a Queensland Senate spot. This shopper jumped in with a couple of perceived positives about Pauline. “Not many people really take the time to find these things out,” she said. A bit chastened, I back-pedalled behind my concerns about how Hanson will vote on marriage equality.

But it bugged me. The petition I have been championing since April across the region I’ve lived in for almost four years has led me to feel I have a place in this community, whereas my sudden education about Pauline Hanson’s popularity reminded me with a thud that the place I am living is Queensland, One Nation’s spiritual home.

Screen shot 2016-07-05 at 10.27.27 AMWith nothing new to report on vote counting, the media flocked to Pauline Hanson’s press conference on Monday. Twitter exploded. The mainstream media followed. News Corp’s was the first lead story I saw, with the headline: “What Pauline Hanson thinks”.

As a former sub-editor, I thought it was either a lazy header or one dripping with irony. The story behind it proved to be no story at all, just a list of direct quotes from Hanson’s presser (sourced from Australian Associated Press) interspersed with capitalised sub-headings. The only journalistic intervention was filtering out the clearest quotes from the Hanson press conference and packaging them in easy-to-consume bites.

I scanned through the list to find meaning. It was in the last two lines: “ON MEDIA TREATMENT ‘Don’t take me out of context what I’m saying here at all’.”

Irony, then. One way to capture Pauline, unfiltered.

Not quite believing what I was reading, I sought a recent precedent for what I saw as a dumbed-down approach to reporting Hanson. Buzzfeed wasn’t as stripped-back as NewsCorp, but in late 2015 it ran with what looks like dialogue in a screenplay when seeking more information on James Ashby’s role on Hanson’s staff. Their reason: Hanson Redux is big on the legal threats.

Twitter storm

No Fibs’ editor-in-chief Margo Kingston took to Twitter Monday afternoon with her eyewitness accounts of Hanson from the late 1990s:-

She also linked One Nation to the growing popularity of offshore processing of asylum seekers:-

Margo followed this up with an opinion piece in The Guardian – her debut on that news source – in which she appealed to Australians to “have the conversation” with Pauline.

da16197630f4974d2bc7fad3b990db88Despite Margo’s experience in the Hanson space (she wrote the definitive book about Hanson – Off The Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip) her suggestions garnered Kingston a lambasting on social media.

Somewhere between Hanson’s second chance in parliament and Kingston’s experience of the real woman, is there a way to understand what One Nation wants without getting labelled a Hanson apologist or a sneer?

An education

Overnight, a German friend posted Pauline Hanson’s infamous “Please Explain” 60 Minutes video on Facebook, which I had never seen in full. When it was first broadcast I was living in the United Kingdom, unaware, as so many were, that the seeds of Brexit were already growing in the widespread dissatisfaction of the post-Thatcher years.

I watched it Tuesday morning with great interest, Margo’s appeal in my mind, seeking any evidence of commentators or others giving Hanson the chance for a dialogue.

I found it in the last third of the clip (after 22’00”). To her credit, Hanson visited Palm Island in 1996 as the independent Member for Oxley after Charles Perkins (deputy chairperson of the now defunct ATSIC – The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) challenged her to see the region in addition to having such strong opinions about it.

Hanson met a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) women, perhaps community elders. One addressed Hanson calmly and said: “You are a very young person. You’ve quoted your age as 42, that is still very young. Not so much in age, I’m not talking about years, but knowledge. What I would like you see you do, Pauline, is get educated.”

This was before the international media’s presence at the Sydney Olympics raised Australians’ level of awareness about ATSI language groups. The concept of Aboriginal Knowledge (that which you seek from community Elders) was not widely known enough for the journalist – or Hanson – to realise how uninitiated we all were in the way ATSI communities operate.

Hanson’s immediate reaction was not recorded in that interview, but by the time she was back on the couch answering Tracey Curro’s quite calmly-delivered question about xenophobia, Hanson was not about to admit she was proposing simple solutions to complex problems.

“Those people are there because they want to be there, and it is causing problems, because they want to live there,” she said of the generations of Palm Island residents, descendants of the penal colony created there.

“Where would you suggest they go?” Curro asked, neutrally.

“I’m not saying they up and leave, but they’ve got to accept it, that they are away from mainstream Australia,” Hanson relied.

A telling precursor to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s 2015 description of ATSI communities as a “lifestyle choice” two decades later.

For many progressives, that’s the end of the conversation.

Let’s talk

In the past two days, I’ve been trying to find a primary source for the positives that the punter at Cleveland used to convince herself that a vote for Pauline Hanson was justified, and I just cannot find one. They’re an urban myth that wouldn’t bear publishing here.

trudeI could have asked her why she voted for Hanson – ‘had the conversation’ with her – but on reflection she was defensive, and so was I. What would I have said if I found her misquoting incomplete half truths? What would she have done if I’d pressed her to come up with proof?

When pressed to give answers in 1996, Pauline Hanson retreated into an old saying about having to be cruel to be kind when it came to Palm Island, and perhaps nothing has changed in two decades.

The divide between ‘ordinary’ and ‘privileged’ Australians observed so effectively in Kath & Kim served as a more palatable way to have the conservation in the wake of One Nation’s demise, but it’s disappeared from our screens in time for Pauline’s return.

Hanson Redux is moving at pace, although it is fluid. On Tuesday’s ABC Radio National morning radio news, One Nation supporters distanced themselves from the racist and anti-Muslim elements of Pauline Hanson’s Monday press conference.

Labelling such differences as hypocrisy isn’t helpful. Like all political parties, One Nation sends mixed messages, and its followers are able to live with policy blind spots, just like other Australians. Labor’s policy match with the Liberal’s on offshore detention of refugees comes to mind.

But I am not so sure about having the conversation.

Perhaps conversations are not on Pauline’s agenda this time? During a hung parliament, do conversations revolve around listening and understanding, or do opposites simply thrash out the horse trading in the pursuit for power, legislation by legislation?

Talk is cheap, and if we were brave enough, we’d admit we just don’t like having conversations with other ideologies. We leave that to those we elect, Pauline Hanson included.

If we cannot live with what the politicians are saying to one another, we do something, like petitioning in public, or creating new political parties… hey, did I just find common ground with One Nation through nothing more than a conversation with myself?

This article also appears on No Fibs

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Germaine Greer’s telling understory

A writer’s review on Germaine Greer’s White Beech.

“Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans.”

ON the 2006 death of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin at the barb of a stingray, Germaine Greer infamously declared: “The animal world has finally taken its revenge”.

Portrayed as uncaring in the international media, Greer was at the time custodian of a piece of South East Queensland rainforest, in the midst of rehabilitating it from a dairy farm, banana plantation and logging resource.

The habits of local flora and fauna were commanding her attention as a cross-section of living ecology and heritage, but she was also making it the subject of what surely ranks as the greatest feat of research ever undertaken on the one plot of Australian land.

The result was published as White Beech, and it’s quite a read.

Once again, Greer provides an enormous wealth of research, so much that White Beech is as much a textbook as it is a memoir.

Her deft search for any semblance of Aboriginal ownership of the land is bravely captured, and it’s a necessity in a book which tackles the very notion of land being property, but it’s so dispassionate the writer opens herself to controversy in a manner which has now become like clockwork.

Greer pushes the boundaries of archival knowledge further with each of her books, but as a memoir I felt White Beech to be a bit of a let down. Surely there is plenty more to know about the process of rehabilitating the forest, the obstacles Greer faced and the stories of those who helped her.

germaine-greer-bee_2800078aWhile she describes pivotal encounters with several animals at Cave Creek over the years (particularly the bower bird who Greer says called her to purchase the place), these vignettes reveal plenty about the author’s true affection for the natural world, but they also suggest Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans, and this is perhaps why there is little human drama in the tale… but let us in on the reasons!

Can this be the same writer as Daddy We Hardly Knew You, which blended tremendous accounts of human frailty with the elemental environments that story traversed?

Revisiting where she was at with the rainforest at the time of Irwin’s death would have been an interesting plot point. Perhaps the controversy was painful, but it would have made for more courageous storytelling.

Yet you can see Greer trying. Whole conversations are published in inverted commas, but they don’t ring true as real dialogue, despite having the odd colloquialism thrown in. Great literary non-fiction this would be, if it framed the story of Cave Creek in a classic story arc, which I refuse to believe was impossible, given ‘one woman and her forest’ has all the hallmarks of the greatest plots.

Greer lets her academic front down for a rare moment in the chapter ‘Bloody Botanists’ when she speculates on the sexual orientation of naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, after revealing she also feels Australian icon Sir Joseph Banks may have been a perennial bachelor for a reason.

“You have to wonder whether plant-hunting was a way for gay men to escape from societal pressure,” she writes.

Do we have to wonder? Given her ability to research literally anything, what prevented Greer from leaching the archives on this subject? Evidence on Banks and Leichhardt’s contemporary Matthew Flinders has fleshed-out a living, breathing homosexual mariner.

She could also take a leaf out of other writer’s forests, like that of E.M. Forster, to find what she has in common with LGBTI wordsmiths, plantsmen and women, and their sense of place.

If Greer was willing to do more than write about her gut feelings, it would set her apart from the one-dimensional approach to nature (human and otherwise) she observed so bravely in Steve Irwin.

“The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss,” Greer wrote in The Guardian on the occasion of Irwin’s death, just one peak on her climb to the summit of understanding what she so deftly captures in White Beech.

‘Diary of a Conservationist’ would have been a better subtitle, had White Beech revealed more about Greer than her cracking research skills, for a conservationist is what she became in her rainforest years.

Because I suspect this transformation involved much more than research.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.