Secret love

Secret love

My dad was a man of few words, except when he got together with a few mates and spun such yarns that Mum would roll her eyes behind his back. He worked hard as a labourer all his life and, despite having left school at thirteen to help on the family farm on the New South Wales north coast, he was an avid reader. He was quietly committed to truth, hard work and a fair go but he had a secret love, a passion which he indulged whenever he was blessed with a free day at the weekend.

No other woman; no secret ambitions to be rich or famous or even to simply hold down a decent job that didn’t make his bones ache at night. Dad’s secret love was the forest, the sub-tropical rainforest of the Great Dividing Range that soared over the Tweed Valley, holding it snug in its wooded embrace before the green hills flattened out and swooped away to the sea far below. He loved the eerie majesty of impossibly tall trees strung between with monkey vines, lianas and dangling green creepers, some with exotic red flowers or unusual fruit that neither bird nor beast ever touched. I can see him still, standing in the misty silver shafts of light that hung down slantwise from the hidden sky above, lighting up the narrow waterways at the bottom of the ravine-like folds of beaten copper. And the smells, the acrid fragrance of the accumulated leaf mould, the sweet lilac flowers of the white cedar trees in bloom and the purple berries of the blueberry ash, squashed between his leathery brown fingers.

A fallen giant. Image: Gabrielle Gardner

He’d don his old slouch hat, boots with khaki bo-yangs over the top to keep out ticks and leeches, and for the latter, should they find themselves attached to his flesh, a handful of coarse salt straight out of the kitchen salt dish and into his pocket. Then he’d stride away, taking shortcuts across the hills, along trails and timber tracks that would get him into the scrub sooner than if he stuck to the road. The dog begged each time to be allowed go but he insisted she stay. Even a dog was too much company. He wanted to be the only intruder there and knew that a dog would disturb some of the very things he wanted to see.

When finally he invited us kids along — usually one at a time — we saw that he entered the rainforest as others might enter a temple of worship, after first slashing at the lantana that invaded the edges of the forest voraciously, pushing its way in where it had no place to grow. Once past this, we would come upon the taller trees of the forest edge, the Native Tamarind with its handsome foliage, leaves shiny green on one side and velvety brown on the other, the mighty Black Bean trees whose long, hard seed pods he sometimes brought home for us kids to float like little boats in the creek, and occasionally, the startling red of the Illawarra Flame Tree or the pale pink of a Satinwood in bloom, emitting that distinctive fragrance from its rough brown bark. He knew them all by their common names or names that he had made up, often slapping their trunks, shaking his head and looking up in wonder.

Deeper in the forest he would lead us along the plunging gorges where Bangalow Palms, tree ferns and Burrawangs filled the ravines with lushness, holding their secrets in damp, green silence far below the towering canopy of the forest giants. When he directed us to look up, we had to hold our hats on, feeling the dizzying sway of our own bodies as we adjusted to the soaring cathedral of treetops above us. He loved to grab hold of the pale grey roots of the strangler figs that brought both life and death into the forest, enclosing and eventually strangling other tree trunks with a voracious root system like some strange creature from a storybook, while offering their fruit as a major food source to birds and bats alike.

Tree ferns. Image: Gabrielle Gardner

He taught us to walk silently, ever-vigilant for dry sticks that might crack underfoot and reveal our presence to the shy creatures he so longed to observe; he knew more secrets than just the strange habits of the forest trees. He knew that the mysterious call of the whipbird in fact came from two of these little scrub dwellers calling to each other across the forest, heedless of the intruders below, though even he had never seen them. He knew of the wondrous lyrebirds and had watched them scratching busily, kicking leaf mould and debris out behind their own long-tailed plumage. He grinned as he nudged us, pointing out the silly old bush turkeys, patiently bobbing along, strolling and scratching in search of grubs and insects in the mulch of the forest floor.

And his triumph — his greatest prize — the sighting of the male Satin Bowerbird, preening and prancing, bowing and jumping around in his own purpose-built honeymoon suite, his feathers in impossible shades of blue and black, performing shamelessly in an effort to persuade his bride-to-be that he was the one for her. In the bower we eventually saw, from our hiding spot in the undergrowth, a blue peg, blue ribbon, blue cardboard and even a little muslin bag of a discarded Reckitt’s Bluebag, just like our mum used to use in her rinse water on wash days.

Umbrella ferns. Image: Gabrielle Gardner

I know now that he is long gone how he must have longed to tell everyone back home of his finds, must have wished he could describe the dancing bird and the miraculous bower he built for his chosen mate. He had the words all right and would have been able to make the forest inhabitants come alive to his audience, but he just couldn’t get the stories past that great lumpen barrier that filled his chest and kept him silent in the company of his own family. What if he looked silly? What if they laughed at him? Though his heart seemed to expand with the longing to express what he had seen, the words mostly stayed locked inside him and for years — before we had nagged enough to persuade him to take us with him — we could only wonder at where he’d been and what he did there.

My memories are sometimes mixed and perhaps faulty. What I do know with certainty is that my father’s love of the forest, the awe in which he held all its inhabitants and its own special majesty, have been passed on to me and my siblings, never to be weakened by time or absence. I remember every seed, feather or leaf he brought home and the reverence with which he regarded them, the homage he paid.

Thank you, Charlie Murray, for this enduring, inestimable gift.

Banner image courtesy of pattyjansen / Pixabay.

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