Tag Archives: Australia

Photos from Royal National Park

An hour’s train ride south of Sydney
Hiked 10 km on the famous Coast Track
Probably one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever visited

I believe those flowers are Heath Banksia (Banksia ericifolia), though I could definitely be wrong.

Anyways, it was just a fantastic walk. Coming to visit this park again may have actually become the #1 reason I would want to come back to Australia, overshadowing anything in Sydney or tropical north Queensland. Actually, the Great Barrier Reef comes close as well, but who knows how long that’ll be around. But yeah, my walk covered only the tiniest sliver of the park’s territory, and there’s some really different habitats in the other corners that I’d love to see someday. Just a great park in general, it gets my highest recommendation.

As for Sydney, I browsed through a Sydney Food Guide in the bookstore, and have now singled out some completely clutch hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the labyrinth commonly known as Sydney Chinatown. For dinner today, I walked into what looked like one of those apartment/business building complexes that nobody actually uses, went up one floor, and suddenly found the best Japanese ramen noodles I’ve ever had, for five dollars total. Swish.

But I’m also leaving for home on Sunday. Honestly, my fond memories of the program are much less intense these days, so it feels like the right time to head home. I had a great time on this mini-vacation, but it’s definitely time for me to dive back into the real world. See you there!

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Wanderlust

Elegans

Mentioned this earlier, but the past month has been really hectic, as I’ve worked on my Directed Research project. All said and done, I have a 24-page document on my hands, clipped into a nice professional-looking binder, and one of the best achievements in my academic career so far, I really couldn’t be prouder.

Some interesting results were teased out, and there’s been talk of publishing it, probably joined along with some of my classmates’ research and some further research to be conducted by next semester’s group. More interesting was a conclusion I reached from my results, which I assumed to be completely logical and already part of common knowledge, but may actually represent a revolutionary concept in plant evolution. What. I refuse to believe that this is actually a radical new idea, but my research professor seems convinced that it’s new. So we’ll do some reading up in our free time, to find if that’s truly the case, and publish that too. I’d rather not discuss it on here, for fear of mischievous bandit scientists publishing before us, so ask me about it in private if you really care. No offense taken if you don’t, haha.

I had to give a presentation on my research as well, and the professors liked it enough to give me a shot at presenting it to the public, at the semester-end Community Night. I didn’t stress out much, figuring that the audience would mostly be the local yokels or kind senior citizens without the slightest comprehension of what I was talking about. The day before the presentation, I learned that this assumption was actually false, and that the audience would essentially be a panel of scientists from the local universities. Gulp.

Fortunately, my high school debate training proved useful, and so I spoke with my best speaking voice and made a pretty powerpoint, all so that people would be bowled over by the presentation skillz and wouldn’t actually listen to what I was saying, haha. Nah jk, I did actually stick some content in (unlike some of those local debate tournaments years ago, good times). I got some good compliments afterwards, some of which were surprisingly laudatory and sincere, so I’m glad that all went well.

And then, suddenly, that was it. The program was over. There was barely enough time for a farewell dinner, and then we left the rainforest forever, in the darkness of three in the morning. Before I realized it, we were standing in the Cairns airport hugging out our goodbyes and laughing over jokes a few final times. A solid group of us were on the same flight to Sydney, but three of us were staying in Sydney while the rest were flying on to the States. That produced a particularly preposterous farewell, as three of us went to the baggage claim while the rest went to the international terminal, with those two destinations in opposite cardinal directions, 180 degrees. Final hugs and goodbyes, and then we turned our backs and walked away. Straight out of a movie, I tell you.

Cultural Vertigo

The experience of being in Sydney was utterly overwhelming. That’s the blunt way to put it. To spend three whole months hiking through the lush rainforest, completely immersed in the wonders of nature, and then to suddenly emerge into a tree-less skyscraper metropolis, swimming through massive hordes of businessmen, shoppers, and tourists was possibly the biggest shock of my life. I was totally overwhelmed. I met with a friend from the program for dinner, and she had been overwhelmed to the point of wandering through the city until she found a park with trees, and collapsed in its shade to recover. I really cannot emphasize enough just how overwhelming Sydney was.

Over the next few days, we slowly adjusted to the tempos of city life, and I can say that after three days, I was pretty much acclimated to civilization once again. But it wasn’t satisfying. Walking for 30 minutes through a city is absolutely nothing like walking for 30 minutes down a forested path. The long walk from my hostel to downtown Sydney is more stressful than I thought any walk could possibly be. It’s the crush of people, the blaring traffic, the flashing lights: there’s no room for solitude, reflection, or an appreciation of one’s surroundings. In any other context, I can tell that I’d probably love Sydney, there’s a great range of interesting shops (including one of the best record shops I’ve ever seen), lots of interesting people to observe, and of course incredible architecture and art, Sydney Opera House being just one obvious example. But coming here right after this program felt totally wrong.

Wonderland in Alice

And it was in that mindset that I escaped to Alice Springs, near the very center of the continent, the Red Centre. Most visitors to the Alice use it as a base camp for excursions to Ayers Rock/Uluru, that famous red monolith that’s in the Outback Steakhouse logo, among other places. Uluru and the Sydney Opera House are undoubtedly the two biggest landmarks in the country.

But I didn’t come to visit Uluru. It seems like the type of landmark that is completely overrated, and not worth the significant resources required to visit it. It’s just a large red rock, after all. Granted, I’ve talked with not one, but several people who were of the same mind before they visited the Rock, but were totally blown away once they got there. That weighed on me very heavily. I may never be in this part of the world ever again. Sydney and Cairns perhaps, but not the Red Centre. So this may be the literal Chance of a Lifetime to see a Global Landmark, such as if you were in Egypt and refused to go see the Sphinx or the Pyramids of Giza. But in the end, I made the decision to forgo a visit. It was either going to be too expensive, take up far too much time, or both.

My plans for Alice Springs were first, to see the famous dry Outback landscape that I didn’t get to see in tropical northeast Queensland, and subsequently, to see the impressive array of new birds associated with that environment. The latter point may have been more important. Predictable, I know, haha. Birds are probably the subconscious goal of every trip I do, everything from a walk on campus to an airplane flight to an Outback outpost.

The trip to Alice Springs was immediately therapeutic. It was the perfect marriage between the natural immersion of my program and the cultural values of the big city. I got wireless internet in my hostel, and three blocks away I was out of the city and into the Outback. Being able to go on long hikes helped immeasurably to clear my mind and relieve all the stress I’d accumulated from the shock of city life. On Tuesday morning alone, I hiked over 14 km of the Larapinta Trail, which stretches for over 200 km in total. I wanted to go longer, but I forgot to pack a lunch, haha. I could have gone all day, even despite the heat, and the swarms of flies.

On a side note, if you’re ever in Alice Springs for whatever reason, I would strongly recommend staying at the Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. It is the best hostel I have stayed at anywhere in Australia. Great rooms, great location, and the friendliest staff ever. Best hostel. Also, the Italian restaurant Casa Nostra is extremely delicious and relatively cheap. I haven’t even found anything that good in Sydney yet. So go there.

Cheers

And now I’m back in Sydney. Perhaps it’s because I knew what to expect this time, but I wasn’t so overwhelmed this time around. However, I do plan on taking long train rides out to the nearby National Parks, which should be great. I’ve given up on taking photos of the Sydney Opera House, first of all because it’s impossible to capture its full beauty, and secondly because it’s not like you guys haven’t seen pictures of the thing before. Trust me though, the pictures don’t do it justice. Sydney Opera House = best house ever. I can also now say that I’ve seen an event inside the Opera House. I would’ve loved for it to be some orchestra performance or, heck, an opera, but I settled for an Aboriginal film festival, which was incredibly well done and mostly quality, worth the price of admission (free) and definitely then some for sure.

So with my remaining three days, I’ll be searching for birds, sweet records at the record shop, and gawking at the Opera House some more. Really what I should’ve been doing in the first place. I can’t even remember what I did the first time around in Sydney, other than stagger around confusedly and then gawk at the Opera House some more.

Alright, got some photos left over:

Brainstorming for my research paper topic

Forty Mile Scrub National Park, where we did a lot of our sampling

Standley Chasm, in the West MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs

Calling In All Kinds

I’m done with Finals! But before you get jealous, and envision Roger lying beside some totally clutch lagoon with sea turtles lazily swimming by, my situation is actually slightly more complicated. Though I’m done with Finals, that means that I’ve started on my Directed Research project, a massive effort that will consume my life for the next month.

I’ve chosen to have my project advised by my Forest Management professor, a jolly young guy who’s totally obsessed with trees, cricket, and his fiance. There’s four other students doing their research with him, and us five students have already started forging close bonds.

Warning: A lot of Biology nerdiness ahead

Dr. Curran’s overarching research goal is basically to investigate drought resistance traits that are present in dry rainforest trees, and use those traits to predict what wet rainforest species would survive the increasing aridity associate with global warming.

I was reading his PhD thesis, which basically concerns the same topic except applied to the less seasonal environments of New South Wales, when I stumbled across a really intriguing result that was almost lost in the depths of the thesis. He found an extremely significant relationship between leaf size and the angle that leaves hang under the branch (leaf angle). Extremely significant, in that the P-value was less than 0.001. That’s intense.

The relationship between the traits was positively correlated, in that leaf size will increase with leaf angle and vice versa. However, there were two species with very high leaf sizes and leaf angles, and if you took those out of the analysis…suddenly you got a negative correlation, and it was still statistically significant! I was completely blown away by this. Dr. Curran explained it by tying it in with drought resistance strategies, which I’ll buy. A positive correlation implies a tradeoff between leaf size and leaf angle, which would likely work for the larger-leaved deciduous species who are drought avoidant. For the smaller-leaved sclerophyllous species though, it seems that they adopt a different strategy, where both traits are favorable and ensure that the plants are totally drought tolerant.

So my research will be specifically focused on this relationship between leaf size and leaf angle, and also any other significant combinations of coordinated traits. Dr. Curran found those results in the dry rainforest of New South Wales, and I want to see if they apply to the dry rainforest of Queensland, which is far more seasonal. Even more interesting, I want to see what kind of relationships appear in the wet rainforest around the Centre here, since Dr. Curran didn’t investigate that in his thesis. I am really, really excited at seeing what comes out of this.

End Biology nerdiness

Since we want to compare trees in wet rainforest with trees in the dry near-deserts, it was necessary to take a field trip out into the Outback! So last week, we spent three days at Undara National Park and Forty Mile Scrub National Park. We pretty much worked from dawn to dusk to collect samples to bring back to the lab for analysis. It was completely exhausting, but possibly the most rewarding field work that I’ve ever done.

We did get one break though: the park rangers gave us a free tour of the famous Undara Lava Tubes. Basically, this massive volcano erupted thousands of years ago, forming huge rivers of lava. Awesome. The surface of the river hardened, forming this solid shell of basaltic rock, while liquid lava continued to flow through. You can still witness this occurring in Hawaii. Today, there aren’t any more rivers of lava sadly, but you can still see the hardened lava tubes, which basically look like long, cylindrical caves, filled with bats. It normally costs quite a lot of money to get tours of these lava tubes, but as research scientists, we got the tours for free! Other highlights of the trip: two Emus around the campsite, and a stop at some relaxing hot springs on the way back, which was really surreal. It was just this normal-looking creek flowing through a forest, but you step in the water and it’s boiling freaking hot.

And now for the past few days, we’ve been collecting the wet rainforest data, finishing this afternoon. I’ve been ripped apart by wait-a-while thorns, but I’ve managed to successfully avoid both stinging trees and leeches, with today probably being the last day I will ever encounter the stinging tree. A sad day to be sure, I shed many tears. After this, it’s a week in the lab processing data, and then I’m getting started on that 40 page paper I gotta write. Gulp. It’s looking like you may not be hearing from me much for the rest of April.

So I guess I’ll leave with some more photos then. I haven’t gotten to the internet cafe in several weeks, so these are all old pictures, from the trip to Chillagoe back in February.

The Royal Arch Caves, which are actually aboveground, inside the hills.

At the swimming hole. I think this is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

A road sign on the drive out. This is no joke, it’s apparently a very serious problem, and we had a few close calls ourselves.

Kickin It With Cousinz

Looks like I’ve been out of touch for a number of weeks, but I sort of have an excuse: I’ve been traveling around for most of it, on various field trips.

Daintree National Park

The Daintree protects some of the few remaining coastal rainforest left in all of Australia, so it merited a visit. It’s also the wettest region of Australia, and we happened to visit during the Wet Season, so surprise, it rained for three days straight, the entire length of our stay. But we’re used to that now; it wasn’t as bad as the deteriorating cyclone that dumped rain on us for five days straight, without stop, in early February. Ah, life in the rainforest.

Ever on the lookout for new birds, I was hoping for some of the lowland specialties, but struck out on almost all of them, only Bridled Honeyeater was a worthy pickup. Noisy Pitta was the main target, but none were seen or heard during our stay. The other amazing lowland bird we were hoping for, the Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher, did fortunately make an appearance at the Mardja Boardwalk. But I’d already gotten this bird over Spring Break, near the summit of Mt. Whitfield north of Cairns. For the record though, it remains one of the most spectacular birds I have ever seen in the wild. The other cool bird we got was a Cassowary crossing the road near Cape Tribulation, with two chicks in tow!

On our final morning at our secluded rainforest hostel, we were sleepily munching on cereal when a thunderous crash happened, in the direction of some of the cabins. We rushed over to the scene, and Ian was smart enough to grab a First Aid kit. What we found was pretty sobering: the loose waterlogged soil had caused a massive tree to fall, right onto one of the cabins. We swarmed around the cabin, knocking on the few remaining doors left standing, looking for the injured, but thank goodness, we found that the cabin had been unoccupied at the time. Ten feet away from the tree, in the next cabin over, a mother had been sleeping with her 11-month old child. She was pretty shaken up by the close call, but talk about being fortunate.

The other occurrence of note in the Daintree was a stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. You don’t get to pick your flavors, you have to get Today’s Special, which is a mix of four flavors. We got Wattleseed, Soursop, Passionfruit, and a fourth fruit that I’d never heard of, forgot the name of, and tasted like deliciousness. Actually, in general, it was the best ice cream I’d ever had, despite the fact that three of the four flavors were completely new to my senses. It was so, so good. Holy cow.

James Cook University – Townsville

Just two days after returning from the Daintree, we departed for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament at James Cook University in Townsville. Being one of the better players in the program, I signed up for an entire day’s worth of games, knowing full well that I was about to get physically hammered. Temperatures climbed into the upper 90’s, and the air was incredibly dry, making for a really strenuous environment to do heavy exercise in. I made sure to keep hydrated, but halfway through the first game, I was getting dizzy spells, a really terrible sign. Worse yet, the tournament organizers failed to provide the usual bagels and bananas for the players, making it tough to find the necessary calories.

Our ragtag team played surprisingly competitively, against the full-practicing JCU teams, and in our final game of School for Field Studies vs. James Cook University, we almost pulled off the upset. Two absolutely epic points dominated the middle of the match, as both teams played tough defense, and drives down the field were shut down just before the endzone. I was physically doing better than a lot of my teammates at this point, with fresher legs, so my defensive assignment was to shut down their captain Megan, the quickest player on the team, with a constant source of energy. I kept up with her through the first epic point (won by us) and through most of the second epic point, but nearing the end of that point, both of us absolutely hit the wall, and just stood there, planted to the ground. She dug deep and made one final desperate cut, I caught up, and that was it, we were done. On the other side of the field, JCU scored the point, and it took the last of our energy to get off the field. I spent the rest of the day gulping down water, dried bananas, and pizza, and passed out on the bus home. The next day was pretty brutal, but man, the whole tournament was worth it.

Coming up next: homestays, and directed research. Or, in the short-run, a.k.a. tomorrow: finals.

Some more photos:

Mossman River, in the Daintree

And I want people’s opinions on this. It’s a poster I made for my Socioeconomics Values & Environmental Policy course, based on a paper I just wrote. All the students are making posters, and the best one is getting presented at a conference in New York. I just made this poster for fun, but I showed it to a few people, including a professor, and they seem to think that I’ve already clinched the trip to New York. That can’t be true, right? It’s fun to look at it, but there’s no way I can present this at a professional conference, is there? Anyways, let me know what you think of it!

Leeches attached: ~100 (Woohoo!)
Leeches that have feasted upon my blood: 6
Brushes with the Stinging Tree: 2

The Big Twitch

Just finished reading The Big Twitch, by Sean Dooley. Mr. Dooley is a comedy writer for TV shows by day, and a fanatical birder…also by day. I think he just sleeps by night, like most people.

Anyways, The Big Twitch is the story of how Sean Dooley spent one year trying to break the record for most birds seen in Australia in one year, an event creatively known in the birding community as a Big Year. But more than break the record, Mr. Dooley wanted to completely smash the record by reaching the previously untouchable level of 700 species in one year. The previous record was 634 or something. It was an ambitious goal, but Mr. Dooley felt that he had a reasonable chance of accomplishing his goal.

He does a pretty good job of keeping both birders and non-birders interested in his story, mixing in his tales of chasing down rare birds with his absurd adventures on the road. Another major theme of the book is his terrible luck at finding a steady girlfriend, as a fanatical birder, and how this Big Year attempt probably won’t help things any. Not only do the chapter headings give an update on how many species he’s seen thus far, but also how many girlfriends he’s gone through, a number which pretty much stays at zero all the way through the book. Ah, life as a birder, that’s the life I love.

Halfway through, it sorta became apparent that he’d break the record. Why else would he write the book? So then I started to wonder: is this a storybook ending where he gets a girl too? And that’s when I realized: oh no. This is like a romantic comedy! I’ve been tricked! Those scoundrels! I was lured in with the promise of rare birds, and got suckered into reading a romantic comedy! Kinda reminds me of a movie that came out many years back, I think it was called Forget Paris? It starred Billy Crystal as an NBA referee, and all I noticed during the previews was footage of guys like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley draining jumpshots and making fun of Billy Crystal’s hair, and I almost went to see it until my dad rescued me from the abyss by mentioning that it was actually a romantic comedy, probably advertised as a sports movie to sucker boyfriends and husbands into seeing it with their giddy girlfriends and wives.

Fortunately though, Dooley gets one satisfaction but not the other: he gets the record, but on his first date of the next year, the girl, “with eyes like a Rainbow Pitta’s wings…” thinks he’s crazy and doesn’t follow up with a second date. Sorry Dooley old buddy, that does sorta suck for you, but c’mon, you got to see a Red-capped Flowerpecker! Doesn’t that make it totally worthwhile?! Sad thing is, some would argue that yes, yes that’s totally worth it. Hah.

The unromantic fanaticism of these guys really is quite amazing. Dooley is tortured by the constant struggle of how one can possibly nurture a relationship when an Eyrean Grasswren has just showed up six hours away. But there’s no way he can compromise and bring the two together either; you just can’t drag a girlfriend into a ten-mile hike through odious swamps just to see a small brown bird to add to the year’s list.

That’s the tension that makes the book work so well, the push-and-pull between the birding world and the normal world. The other two Big Year accounts I’ve read (Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, a great book, and Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, historically important but not as good of a read) probably appeal only to birders; by the end they start reading like a laundry list of birds seen or missed. By contrast, The Big Twitch is a very accessible read that a non-birder could certainly appreciate, and a birder would also approve of. Well done Dooley, best of luck with the birds and the chicks, mate.

Edit: Just noticed something really weird. In the cover photo above, both birds are Red-browed Finches. On the copy I borrowed, the guy is holding what I think is a Rose Robin, and peering off to the right is a Regent Honeyeater or something, I haven’t checked the guide to ID either of them. I wonder if different copies have different birds on the cover? That’d be pretty cool.

………….

So now I’ve moved on to Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The New York Times surveyed a vast array of American literature critics to compile a list of the Best American Novels of the past 25 years, and Underworld clocked in impressively at Number Two, just behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’m a hundred pages in, and I’ve already been taken to the verge of tears. What was the reason, you might ask? Of course: sports. Baseball. The account of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The joyous players, the ecstatic fans, a city rising together, that kind of stuff just kills me every time. Great book so far. But back to sports: as much as I love those sorts of miraculous moments in sports, I absolutely cannot stand sports movies. Actually, I can’t think of a single one that I actually enjoy. As a kid, I really loved Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield, but I’m way past that point now. Well, in hindsight, those movies were sort of ridiculous, and would probably be entertaining for camp value. Can somebody arrange a viewing? But in general, I don’t like sport movies, because you know what’s going to happen. It’s the unpredictable and unscriptable stuff in the real world that gets to me. Remember the Music City Miracle? Holy cow, I’m tearing up just thinking about that thing. Sports are so great. Tar Heels, don’t let me down.

………….

np: The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’. These are among the most awkward lyrics I’ve ever heard, they’re just laughably horrendous. The music though, woah. The hook in the chorus is incredible. I start air-guitaring and screaming along to it, but then the lyrics I’m singing just crack me up and I burst out laughing. How frustrating is that. This song could’ve been Song of All-Time, but silly Billy Corgan had to slap on angsty goth-poetry that doesn’t even make any sense. The opening line: “The world is a vampire…” and you’re already down for the count, pounding the floor in laughter. Endless lols. I wish I could listen to this song with alternate, better lyrics. Oh man, what if Dan Bejar wrote the lyrics for ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’. Best song ever, or, best song of all-time? Tough question.

Also, I saw that the new Rosebuds albums leaked, haha. Listened to the first song, and was really disappointed it. Shucks, what happened to these guys? They were Raleigh’s great shining hope for indie rock salvation, and after the brilliance of The Rosebuds Make Out, they just haven’t gone anywhere. There were a handful of nice songs on the Unwind EP and Birds Make Good Neighbors, but it doesn’t look like this new one’s going anywhere. In general, 2007 has been a bit of a disappointment, though clearly I’m missing out on a lot by being abroad with very little internet. Can people give some 2007 recommendations, including stuff I’ve already heard but may need to revisit? Much appreciation.

………….

More Australia photos:

A little baby Stinging Tree!!! Adorable.

Whiting’s Fragment, which is the world’s smallest fragment of type 5b ‘Mabi’ forest left in the entire world. My partner and I did some surveys of frog populations in this fragment, and believe it or not, both of us actually got lost in there. It’s some of the densest forest I’ve ever encountered, and blindly hacking through it at night didn’t help. Somehow, we managed to get hopelessly lost.

Whale Rock, at Granite Gorge.

Green ants. That’s the queen in the center. They’re actually edible, and delicious: they have a sharp citrus taste. Unreal.

Getting Through the Former World

Australia

Largely because of its long geographic isolation, Australia has a lot of unique, endemic species, and some of the particularly charismatic ones have become symbols of Australia. Kangaroos, Koalas, Cassowaries, the world knows about all of them, and you’ll find them in all the major zoos (except the Cassowary, which is very difficult to keep in captivity). Some of those charismatic species I’ve already seen, but many I haven’t.

Kangaroos – The Red Kangaroo is the really large one that everyone’s seen in zoos. I haven’t seen that one, it largely lives in the desert interior, so maybe I’ll see them at Alice Springs after the program. But I have seen its smaller cousin, the Grey Kangaroo. I’ve also seen a lot of the other large marsupials, including Agile Wallabies and Mareeba Rock Wallabies, which live in the drier regions. The only one I regularly see in the rainforest is the Red-legged Pademelon, which is cinnamon colored, with brighter rufous-red legs. The cool thing is, they look exactly like kangaroos shrunk down in the dryer, they’re the size of our cottontail rabbits back home, proportioned like kangaroos! During the day it’s really hard to get a good look at them though, they’re extremely skittish, and will hop away long before you know they’re there. But during the night they’re very active and they’re everywhere, you just need to bring a spotlight out into the dark. The other cool ‘kangaroo’ I’ve seen is the Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo, probably the most well-known denizen of the Atherton Tablelands where I’m studying.

Cassowary – pwned

Koala – I have no chance of seeing this in the wild, I’m not going to the right parts of the country. So the only experience I’ll have with these is that scarring experience in Kuranda.

Wombats, Echidnas, other assorted marsupials – probably not likely, but honestly I haven’t done the research to find out.

Emu – on our two trips into the appropriate sorts of habitat, no luck. This may be difficult until I get to Alice Springs, and even then it’s not a lock. I’m crossing my fingers.

Platypus – On the evening of the first of March, we went to a local farmer’s property to learn about rainforest restoration. As a bonus afterwards, we stopped by an overlook on the Barron River to look for platypus. They’re really tough to spot. Two individuals popped their heads above the water for a breath, and were gone a second later. So all I saw was the bill. The things are a lot smaller than you probably think too. But at least I can say that I’ve seen platypus in the wild now.

Hungary

Instead of heading to the pub to celebrate my 21st birthday last night, I watched the film Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies). On paper, it’s about a small Hungarian town, torn apart by a mysterious circus that features a giant dead whale. That makes it sound almost like a comedy, but that’s the furthest you could get from the truth. Werckmeister Harmoniak is slow, tragic, moving. It’s also one of those pretentious art films that looks really beautiful, but whose main point sails over your head. I don’t have a clue what Bela Tarr, or the original novel’s writer, was trying to say. My guesses on the theme range from the Soviet occupation, the false optimism of capitalism, revolution in general, or the dark side of human nature. I really don’t know. I doubt I ever will, even if I watch the film ten more times.

Despite that intellectual confusion, Werckmeister Harmoniak is possibly the most beautiful film I have ever watched, in terms of cinematography. In the Mood for Love doesn’t even hold a candle to Werckmeister Harmoniak, something I didn’t believe was even possible. Shot in black-and-white, every image slowly soaks into the consciousness, and stays there. I could turn off the subtitles, mute the sound, and Werckmeister Harmoniak would still be a powerful film. If you want to see a really beautiful movie, watch this.

Deep Underground

I’m finally on the verge of finishing John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a tome which has taken me nearly a month to get through. It’s a collection of five books about American geology, and American geologists. But this is not a geology textbook; I doubt I’ve learned all that much about rocks that I didn’t already know. This is a collection of thoughts, stories, anecdotes, ideas about geology, and the people who study geology. Over the past few months, John McPhee has grown to possibly become my favorite author, fiction or non, and as his supposed masterwork, I had to get to Annals at some point.

Book One, entitled Basin and Range, deals with the series of mountains and valleys found in Utah and Nevada known as the eponymous Basin and Range, and follows Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes through the rock. It started off fairly slow; I honestly wasn’t all that interested in the Basin and Range geology itself. What really got to me was the history of geology, as presented by McPhee, as the book began to wind down. Those portions of the book were among the best writings I’ve ever seen out of him. Unlike the typical McPhee book, which I always feel start off brilliantly but then run out of steam, Basin and Range built to a magnificent conclusion, and is one of the most striking works in McPhee’s catalog. Highly recommended.

Book Two, entitled In Suspect Terrain, follows geologist Anita Harris, and concerns itself with the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and how they came to be. I’ll be honest: this book was boring, slow, and way too long. And that’s all I really have to say. It was by far the worst McPhee book that I’ve ever read, and the only one I really haven’t enjoyed in any sort of capacity. Terribly disappointing.

Book Three, entitled Rising from the Plains, works itself around Wyoming with David S. Love, preeminent Rocky Mountain geologist. I was surprised at how linear the narrative was at times. I generally know McPhee as someone who jumps all over the map, delicately threading a narrative through that you don’t even begin to notice until the end, and that’s the brilliance of his work. In here, a lot of the book follows Love’s biography chronologically, and I’m surprised at how competent of a storyteller McPhee can be. I love his writing for the small details he notes, the absurd humor he discovers in them, and the subtle ways they are tied to the big picture, so it was interesting for me to watch him try his hand at working only with the big picture. I think he largely succeeded. His painting of the landscape around Jackson Hole was especially evocative. This is not representative of McPhee’s usual style, but it’s still a very good read that I’d certainly recommend.

Book Four, entitled Assembling California, follows Eldridge Moores around California, Macedonia, and Cyprus, in a quest to understand how California’s rocks could become so radically different from the rest of the country’s. Like Basin and Range, this one started off quite slow, as a whole lot of rocks and rocky structures were described. That’s the whole point of Annals I guess, to describe rocks, but those were probably my least favorite parts. The conclusion to Assembling California, however, was spectacular, as McPhee described tales from the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. I have never seen McPhee write so dramatically, and he pulled it off really well.

So now I’m starting on the final book, entitled Crossing the Craton. It’s very short, and from what I hear its only purpose is to settle things down after the fireworks of Assembling California. So effectively, I am finally finished with Annals of the Former World. Hurrah. McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his work on this book. In my mind, he undoubtedly deserves a Pulitzer, but maybe not for this book. In general, he spends too much time talking about rocks, when his strength is with people.

Surprisingly, I’ve found one other McPhee reader here, who’s read many of the same books of his that I have. She strongly recommended Encounters with the Archdruid as her favorite, so that will likely be next on my list of McPhee. In the meantime, once I finish Crossing the Craton, I’m moving on to The Big Twitch, the autobiography of a fanatical Australian birder. That shouldn’t take long, so warming up in the bullpen I’ve got Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which should be a good one.

From Tallahassee to the Dark Hillsides

For the first few months of its existence, this site served only as a log of my bird sightings in and around Swarthmore, remnants of which still survive in the address and the archives. This past summer, I made a decision to experiment with opening up the blog, to incorporate more of my thoughts, ideas, and occurrences. My only fear was that this would turn into an emo diary, a scenario which I wanted to avoid at all costs.

I’m not bringing this up because I’m about to go into emo mode; I might indirectly, but that’s not why I brought the history in. I wanted to mention that history because the very first non-bird-related post I ever made on this thing was a first-impression review of the Mountain Goats album Get Lonely.

At the time, I simply wrote that it sounded very different from a typical Goats album, but that I might get used to that new sound, and grow on the album. That never happened. Darnielle mentioned to a Pitchfork staffer that the only people who could fully understand the album were people who had gone through ugly divorces, or rough breakups from other very serious relationships, as those are the lyrical and musical themes which the album addresses. Thankfully I’ve never found myself in any of those kinds of situations, and subsequently the album never did anything for me. I think Pat summed it up well in his WSRN review: Get Lonely is an album that can be appreciated, but it’s difficult to enjoy, and actually, you’re probably not even supposed to enjoy it. I thought that was spot-on.

But now that I’m trying to get through my own breakup (though thankfully it was an amazingly clean one) this album is getting to me hard. I know people who listen only to happy and melodic music because they always want to feel joyful, and people who listen only to chill music because they always want to feel relaxed. I’ve never been the type to do that, I try and find music which matches the mood I’m in, to complement it and make it that much more powerful. So it means a lot to me when I say that Get Lonely is hitting me harder than any other album has at one point in time. Every song on the album, up to and including ‘Woke Up New’, is wrenching my heart apart on every listen, that’s all I can say. To me, right now, at this moment in life, Get Lonely is a perfect statement of how I’m feeling and how my days are going.

I did mention, however, that it’s only true up to ‘Woke Up New’. None of the remaining three songs do anything for me. I have a few theories on why that’s the case. First, ‘Woke Up New’ is unquestionably the emotional climax of the album, and the rest is the come-down that inherently comes off less dramatically. Second, ‘If You See Light’ is unquestionably the worst song on the album, and kills off any potential emotional impact that the remaining songs could have. Or last, Darnielle has sequenced the album chronologically/autobiographically, and the last few songs don’t make sense only because I haven’t reached that part of the recovery process.

In reality, it’s probably a combination of all three factors. I will note that the final song, ‘In Corolla’, sounds like it has to be the conclusion to the recovery, when Darnielle has finally gotten over his breakup, and life is back to normal. Connected to that point, it’s also the song most similar to the traditional Mountain Goats oeuvre and style. But right now, I can’t relate to it at all. Maybe in a few months, I’ll listen to it a few times, move on, and close the book on Get Lonely. But for an album intended for those poor souls coming from dark places, ‘In Corolla’ seems like an awfully out-of-place closer that’s sickening when placed next to ‘Moon Over Goldsboro’ or ‘Maybe Sprout Wings’; it’s not even optimistic enough to serve as some sort of goal or light at the end of the tunnel, it just feels wrong. ‘Cobra Tattoo’ may have been a better closer for the record. Small quibbles aside, Get Lonely is hitting me hard right now, and it’s changed my perception of what Darnielle is capable of as a songwriter.

Back to Australia

A lot of my photos are now uploaded, so I’m going to post them here in a series of short sets. Eventually I’ll get caught up with the present day, and try and post photos continuously from there. The Atherton Internet Cafe was significantly faster this past Friday than it was before for some reason, hence the successful photo uploading. Let’s hope that new speed sticks around.

Paterson Creek, which runs through the property.

Waterfall on Paterson Creek. There aren’t any land trails to this spot, so the only way to get here is by wading upstream a fairly good distance. Even further upstream there’s a few more waterfalls, but none of them are quite as photogenic.

Dan standing among the roots of the Cathedral Fig, whose canopy was posted earlier.

The Kangaroo Cafe in Malanda. Obviously that’s not a real Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo up top, it’s just a sculpture.

Leeches attached: ~85
Leeches that have feasted upon my blood: 4

Rolling Down the Esplanade

Most weekends here, Saturday is like a weekday, filled with classes and field exercises, and Sunday is our only free day of the week, which most people spend lazily lounging around the Centre, reading books, listening to their iPods, and watching the rain. This weekend, we were tipped off on an Australian Soccer preseason game being played in Cairns, featuring two of the top teams in the league, and so we made plans with the staff to skip out early on Saturday and spend that night and all of Sunday in Cairns instead of at the Centre. Probably glad to get those troublesome kids off their hands, the staff agreed, transportation was arranged, and by Saturday afternoon we were off into the city, for the first time all semester.

Even Saturday morning was a bit of a break from class. The day started with community service work, as we helped TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (we’re on the Atherton Tablelands, I have no idea where the Evelyn Tablelands are, sorry Evelyn!)) plant rainforest tree seedlings on an abandoned farm on the banks of the Barron River. Trowels in hand, we removed saplings from their pots and carefully planted them along the existing rainforest edge. Our little group of 16, including a one-armed kid (dislocated elbow from frisbee two weeks ago, not a fun thing to watch), with the help of a handful of regular TREAT volunteers, managed to plant over 2000 trees in just over two hours’ time. We were rewarded with an incredible barbeque at the planting’s end, I drank a lime-flavored drink that looked like mouthwash but tasted like lime brilliance, and we headed off to the Yungaburra Markets, a monthly event where vendors from all over the region gather to sell their goods. We had been regaled with tales involving firebreathers and jugglers performing amongst booths filled with inventive crafts and fresh fruits, but instead we arrived at a nearly desolate field populated by a handful of small gift sellers. The only substantive purchase made was a VHS copy of Biodome, if that says anything at all about what was available. How disappointing, but we were assured that this was not normal, and vowed to return next month. Afterwards, I followed a few of the girls into a nifty-looking shop in downtown Yungaburra, which turned out to be an unfathomable mistake as the girls spent the next hour trying on skirts, asking for my wholly uneducated opinion on them. I emerged completely shell-shocked and shaken to the bone, and we drove back to the Centre for a short afternoon of lectures before we finally loaded up the vans and headed into Cairns.

Cairns is the one large city in our area; it’s large enough to have a busy international airport, to give you a rough idea of its size. If you plan on ever visiting the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll ultimately come to Cairns, as it’s the gateway to the Reef which everybody comes through. Because of that, it’s a really touristy city, there’s Tourist Information Booths on nearly every block in addition to the dense concentration of Outdooring and Diving stores. To us though, it was civilization, and a chance to escape the increasingly suffocating boundaries of our relatively remote Centre.

We stayed at Gilligan’s Backpackers, a hostel in downtown Cairns, and though I’ve never stayed at a hostel before, you really don’t need to have any points of reference to tell that Gilligan’s was an incredibly nice hostel. It didn’t feel like a hostel at all, it felt more like a luxury 4-star hotel for young, attractive people. Instead of a ballroom, there was a nightclub attached to the hostel, and instead of fine dining, there was a retro bar and casual restaurant where I munched on Fish and Chips while watching rugby on a massive wall-sized television. But we didn’t stay at Gilligan’s for long, we dropped off our stuff and hailed a taxi to get to the football game.

I may have misled some people with information about this game, and part of it is due to my own misunderstanding: we were not going to watch a rugby game, or a soccer game, or an American football game, we were here to watch Australian football, a unique sport endemic to this continent which is best described as a cross between soccer and rugby. Instead of carrying the ball in for a score like American football and rugby, teams tried to kick the ball between goalposts like in soccer. Or at least, that’s as far as we could tell. None of us knew the rules as the taxi rolled up to the stadium, and as we bought our tickets for the uncovered, outdoor spectator area, it started to rain. By the time we found an open place to stand on the hill, it was pouring, driving rain. And it didn’t let up. We got absolutely soaked. My rain jacket was overwhelmed and even my t-shirt underneath got waterlogged. My khaki shorts got totally saturated, and even my boxers were dripping wet and soaked with rain. At times, it was raining so hard that we couldn’t even see the players on the field. It was pretty much a stereotypical Idiot Male scenario; men drinking beer and disregarding the pouring rain to watch guys on the field throw a ball around and then smash everyone into the ground. It was a total blast. At halftime too, a bunch of little kids were brought on to play some Australian soccer, and we all jokingly picked our Fantasy Stars of the Game as the uncoordinated schoolkids bumbled around in the rain. After they were done, some of the guys ran down to the field to high five their fantasy stars, and then the rest of the kids too. Hilarious. I don’t even know who won the game, we couldn’t see the important part of the scoreboard and didn’t really know the rules anyway, but we wooped and hollered and had a great time anyways. After the game, most of the group went clubbing, but instead I went to bed. Srsly, can you see me in a dance club? Ever? If I had to choose between clubbing, or helping girls shop for skirts, I’d probably…throw spears at Woolly Mammoths and watch football. And that was Saturday.

On Sunday, I didn’t feel like wandering around the city with bitter, hungover college kids, so I got suckered into joining a group of girls to ride the Skyrail into Kuranda. The Skyrail turned out to be a cablecar ride over the canopy of a rainforest, and it was one of the most touristy attractions I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, everyone else realized this too, and we spent most of the ride mocking the tourist brochures with our now superior knowledge of rainforest ecology. Near the end of the ride, we stopped over at an overlook to see Barron Falls, a very impressive waterfall that was swollen way past its usual capacity by the wet season that we’re in. The Skyrail journey ended in Kuranda, a town which seemed to be populated entirely by tourists or tourist shopowners, I’m not sure if it has any permanent residents otherwise. How absurd.

I soon found out that the whole reason the girls were here was because an Animal Park in Kuranda allowed you to hold a Koala, and so the girls were just OMG KOALAS and Blaine and I were suddenly trapped. We got to the park, and spent some time looking at kangaroos, wallabies, monitor lizards, and some other things, but then as we got closer to the Koala enclosure and the girls saw the Koalas for the first time, they started squealing, I just about lost my hearing, and wanted to blow up the sun. The girls paid another fifteen dollars to have their pictures taken while holding the Koalas, and as they posed with the Koalas and the other girls squealed even higher, I was crossing my fingers for apocalypse. By the end, I’d gotten dragged into a group photo with the Koalas, which I hope to never lay my eyes upon ever, and Blaine and I finally escaped the Koala enclosure. Oh well, I guess that was their payback for the Australian Soccer game, well-deserved then. Which ultimately means that I’d rather stand in the pouring rain for three hours watching a sport that I don’t even understand, rather than hold a koala? Amazing.

We rode the Skyrail back to Cairns, and headed for the famous Esplanade, a street along the beachside with tons of shops, restaurants, and a saltwater swimming lagoon. But once I got to the Esplanade, I saw something that I hadn’t seen in more than a year, and missed sorely: the ocean at low tide. Exposed mudflats. Shorebird habitat. Crunchtime.

Lauren and Blaine and I, the three birders, spent two hours on the Esplanade, and only covered 100 meters of its length, a frighteningly slow pace. The reason: in those two hours, we found almost 25 new species of birds for our lists, probably the highest density of new birds we’ve had all semester. I doubt that the Esplanade is an especially great birding spot in the grand scheme of it all, but since none of us had been to the Australian coast before, all of these birds were new for us. Even the abundant gulls flying around were a new species, the Silver Gull. The evening closed with massive flocks of Pied Imperial-Pigeons wheeling over the city, another exciting new species for us, and we hopped back into the vans. Before we even knew it, we were back home at the Centre.

In two weeks, we’ve got our mid-semester Spring Break, and I have no idea what I’ll be doing. Since I don’t want to go horseback riding for five days, or spend ten hours driving stick shift on the left side of the road down to the reportedly ‘totally sick’ Whitsunday Islands like other members of the group, I may be stuck with the Koala girls again. Hopefully, no more Koala-holding or skirt-shopping will happen, but even with those nightmare occurences, it was still a fun weekend. Rehab is going well thus far.