The watershed

Chris Armstrong

 

1 Heading out

 

Autumn clouds are scouting the mountains

heading for high points on the range

 

at Weeping Rock and Eagle’s Nest they settle

the divide between sky and forest

 

the way lovers thread themselves through each other

weaving possumwood and rain

 

times like this people stay inside, head for shelter

when it fogs in, he goes out

 

laces up his solitude and walks off track:

camera, cooker, curiosity,

 

a pack of reasons strapped to his back

walking through snow grass

 

he picks up observations, has cliff edges in mind,

crosses three rivers before they are named.

 

 

2 The first river —Styx River

 

The Styx River feeds down to a big logging area

of hardwoods from the Point Lookout Road

to Kunderang Brook. He tells me this is where you’ll find

tall-country timbers: stringys like messmate,

brown barrel, silvertop stringys

the big white ones: Shining Gums, Ribbon Gums.

He tells me how his pop used to eat,

his right hand like a pistol,

just a pointer finger and thumb.

Pop gripped the knife like this—

pointer finger stuck out,

thumb tucked around the handle

like he was ready to shoot the kids.

Pop was an old sawmiller

lost five digits to the blade,

two left, three right, which reminds me

my old farrier had three fingers on each hand.

He once told me about the old mill he worked

on the Red Hill Road near our farm;

it was vacant land when I was a kid,

all sawdust, eighty years deep.

My farrier told me the sawdust was on fire

in its heart, smouldering

it could never be put out

burning deep underground,

it would burn for another sixty years.

Now they’ve put houses on top so maybe

he was pulling my leg or someone’s pulling theirs.

 

 

3 The second river —Bellinger River

 

The old man’s beard drips, drips —

turns clouds into rivers where he is

 

bush bashing, stepping over

nests of light fallen through the canopy

 

laying broken on the forest floor.

This stretch from Berarngutta to Darkie Point

 

is the watershed for the Bellinger River

and at this point blood will be the flow.

 

He is shadowed by views of the valley below

and one particular tree. Despite faint remains of bark

 

he feels unsheathed in this fatal glen

where cliff meets crown and foliage meets feet

 

for once upon a time, in this enchanted forest, were those

driven to take a fragile chance, to leap,

 

to grasp in treacherous aid, the quivering

the yielding branches where a lyrebird perches

 

mimicking the white tree creeper,

a peregrine falcon, the pied butcherbird,

 

singing as if telling a selected history of each story

picking out sweet highlights but never giving full account

 

never true to itself amongst the ferns. What is

a lyrebird’s first song? Is his call hidden among the retelling?

 

Of course superb these thoughts and the lyrebird

with his polygamous dance scraped amongst leaf litter

 

displaying a tail of stammering quills like a historian.

The second lyrebird he encounters is the kookaburra

 

and yellow-tailed black cockatoo in the weeping forest

near an old path that leads to the edge of sorrow

 

across the broken line of escarpment that hides

the bones of rock fallen from Ngoolungeer

 

and his third lyrebird, startled out of foraging by these questions,

splits a single note half beautiful, half terror

 

and something of truth, as if only here

at Darkie Point can the honest alarm call be sung.

 

 

4 Writing this out

 

It is by no means my intention to dwell

upon the subsequent details

of this miserable catastrophe. But,

I must write this out of myself

the way he walks out his cares.

I, too, am sick of the horrid carnage

of repetition, am aching from revisiting

intent and guilt, worn down by truth.

 

 

5 The third river —Guy Fawkes River

 

On his last day of walking, the pack is lighter.

He emerges into one of those empty places up high

 

a rocky lookout where cool temperate echoes

buffet the rainforest canopy and he walks what remains

 

of wilderness. He stops to drink at the end

where a rivulet of water decants itself

 

through swathes of saw-sedge, fallen beech leaves

orange pasted to green moss. The topo shows what this is:

 

the rise of a river that conjures memories of a walk he took

downstream among brumbies grazing easy flats

 

wild dogs along the stock route, tall oaks whispering

deserted stockman’s huts, fencing wire strewn,

 

a peach tree where it shouldn’t be

farmers’ friends poking through his socks

 

and above all this, the mighty Ebor Falls frozen one winter

like a miracle so you could walk on water beneath icicles.

 

 

6 The back wash

 

These stories break

from the cascade of his thoughts

as shards to cool the comfort

of a Cointreau in camp where the smooth night

conjures the past, and settles on fact

that the Major who named this river

made up his title and laid his pistol inside the Aboriginal’s mouth,

blew the unfortunate’s brains out,

and shrugged off the truth that it was a midsummer

morning manhunt and as leader of a doubtful posse

they failed to catch their real culprits.

 

On his last day

the Major died

of bronchitis and gentle decay,

took a final breath and then

rode a wagon to town

in a coffin. A bitter life,

and lonely, disinherited from worth,

married late, once and not for long,

loved his station manager’s wife instead

so his adopted and reputed daughter, inherited

three thousand two hundred acres of freehold—

the Guy Fawkes River Run—

with two thousand head of cattle owed to the bank.

 

So it seems, poets are not the only ones

who live in debt but at least some of mine

will be paid down in words, for I am working here

in the backwash of all that wisdom

and he is walking in it.

 

 

NOTES: “The watershed” is a response to a number of massacres, murders and killings in the New England and Dorrigo Plateaus during white settlement in the mid to late 19th Century, including one documented massacre where an estimated 200 Aboriginal peoples were driven off the cliffs of the New England Escarpment at a place called Darkie Point in what is now New England National Park. That same massacre is the subject of Judith Wright’s poem “Niggers Leap”. Several lines in the Bellinger River section borrow words and phrasings from a first hand account given by a local graizer, F Eldershaw, in an 1851 publication Australia as it really was: An Adventure with the Blacks which I subsequently read in Bruce Elder’s Blood on the Wattle, (New Holland Press 2003 p 115) but which was originally published in Baal Belbora: the end of dancing by Geoffrey Blomfield who re-discovered and  published Eldershaw’s writing. The historic details of “the Major” in the final section come from Dardo Arevalo’s Dorrigo and the Carlist Wars Connection.  The line “I am working here in the backwash of all of that wisdom” is from a Mark Tredinnick interview, ABC Radio National, Poetica, interview 12 April 2014.

 

Chris Armstrong is a writer whose poetry has been published in Griffith Review, Overland, Eureka Street and Cordite, as well as regional anthologies. She won second prize in the 2015 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and in 2014 was awarded an ASA Emerging Writers Mentorship for her first poetry manuscript.

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