Sunkisses payback

I am taking a break from my usual nature rambles as I am undergoing a month’s radiation for a dangerous skin cancer lurking somewhere in my nose. Meanwhile I have to keep it out of the sun and can’t wear sunscreen on this tender part. It now looks very badly sunburnt anyway! Or blowtorched…

So instead I am sharing ‘Sunkisses’, a very relevant extract from Ch.16 of my first book, ‘The Woman on the Mountain’, and which was published as a stand-alone piece in a 2006 anthology, Stories for a long summer by Catchfire Press. I’m sure it will bring back memories for many!

The drawing was meant for that chapter, ‘Let the sun shine…’ but the publishers decided not to use illustrations in the end.

Sunkisses

Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt. 

Blossom bounty

A recent walk in Kattang Nature Reserve to check on the arrival of ‘Spring’ brought some surprises.

Like this common vine, Smilax australis, which I had never seen in flower.With true Aussie cynicism, it is often called ‘Lawyer vine’, due to its prickles… ‘once they get their hooks into you’…etc.

I am told that the photo also includes the smaller-leaved vine with black berries that is Smilax glyciphylla, the non-prickly relative.

This climber caught my eye but it seemed out of place and not quite right to be the Sturt’s Desert Pea that immediately came to mind. That’s because it’s not: it is Dusky Coral Pea, Kennedia rubicunda, say the wonderfully generous and informed people of the NSW Native Plant Identification FB group. They are very tolerant of the uninformed like me; I am learning a lot.

So a second surprise!

A much more familiar plant was this blooming Twining Guinea Flower, Hibbertia scandens, known as Snake vine at my Mountain, because when the clumps were ground trailing rather than climbing they often hid black snakes. I love the simple sunniness of these flowers. Large native buttercups!

The pink boronia flowers have been coming out for a while, but now bearing more blooms than buds.

Equally pretty, and about as scattered, were the sprawling patches of starry Wedding Bush, Ricinocarpos pinifolia.

No surprise, but exceedingly welcome, were the dominant many bushes/small trees of wattle. I have assumed this is Sydney Wattle, Acacia longifolia, but hope someone will tell me if not. Locals always know better than I do…

Palm rule

This Queensland rainforest surprised me by really being a palm forest. Their numbers impressed, as did their grass skirts of roots, mossed green.

This one had chosen to double up, to lead the fashion with a midriff top as well as peplum and skirt bottom.

The younger trees kept their roots well grounded; very wise on these soggy slopes.

There were a few other trees in the midst of the palms, like this large eucalypt with upper level hollow accommodation.

But as the walk was called the Booyong Track, it was not surprising to see several of these very large buttressed trees. At first I had mistaken them for the Strangler Figs with which I was familiar from my walks in Wingham Brush.

But I soon realised there were no other trees being harmed in the growth of these… and they were comfortable giving support and a leg up to such vigorous vines as this one.

And then I saw my Strangler Fig, lacing up around its host tree as tightly as any Victorian lady’s corset. Nature can’t be called cruel, but this does look rather murderous…

Green world

Some rainforests are so totally green that you’d swear there’s been a Photoshop filter applied. This one near Mount Tamborine was no different. Green moss, green light under the covering tree canopy.

Whether tree roots and buttresses or accompanying boulders, all were mossed green.

Some roots went underground and reappeared as shy knees and thighs, modestly mossed.

In some places tree roots embraced boulders as closely as if netted.

Vines as thick as my arms were doing a lot of embracing too, hitching a lift up to the light. This one was unusual in that several birds’ nest ferns, perhaps mistaking them for trees, had settled on them.

Other vines, as thick as many of the trees, astonished me with their girth and height… and likely age.

As the track was muddy, my eyes were carefully cast down, so the canopy was not much observed. Just as well, or I might have missed these fungi, bravely breaking the green dominance with their fluted and flared cinnamon rays.

Beyond bark

The day was wild and windy, the foliage being whipped about, so would not stand still for photos, but their sturdy trunks did.

And, focusing my eyes like that, the variety of patterns and textures was stunning.

Old, grey and knobbly; a bit like how I feel these days…

Or the same tree when young, looking like popcorn overly dusted with salt… or mistakenly, with icing sugar.

The higher, drier parts of this forest are full of fallen and dead ti-tree types, as well as leaning live ones, their shaggy grey bark almost an invitation to fire.

Others just as fibrous twist in less vertical paths to the sky, bearing memorial scars of lost limbs.

The more patchily shaggy paperbarks are often in damper areas, so do not invoke bushfire images as much.

The smoother barked trees sport subtle shades of lichen, pink and grey and cream and soft green…

Their more daring cousins add dramatic black highlights.

Other trees play it straight and go for flecks, but allow the adornment of twining wines for interest.

When texture fails to catch the eye, shape does. Why, when not apparently wind-formed?

Tangled limbs, whole meandering branches, clinging to cliffside meagre soil.

What’s not to wonder at with trees, wherever and however they grow?

Luminous lake

Queens Lake is large, and to walk around its shores is an ever-changing feast for the eyes. On this day the return walk was late, and the setting sun threw an especially vivid display of fiery gold across the water.

A little further on, and a hazard reduction burn far off across the lake punctuated the oyster leases with its plume of dark smoke.

Then the smoke became a cloud of its own, joining the mackerel sky in the water.

So many swift and ephemeral visual treats; fit for a Queen indeed!

Freshwater fans

I love the patterns moving water makes, on the surface below and on itself, and in its reflections.

At this beach, usually my eye is taken by those made the receding tide. But today this little stream of fresh water is coming from the land above, and it is one of many, although not all so vividly coloured. Croissants topped with apricot jam, anyone?

Kattang Nature Reserve rises above this beach, and today joins it with water.

As it makes its way to the salt sea, its ripples remind me of the cooling ‘skin’ when you test your homemade toffee or jam for setting.

I can hear water trickling further along from my amber stream, and see that there is is a steady veil of droplets from the bank onto the rocks.

This becomes a most beautiful series of convoluted fans of pebbles and sand and rutile, like layers of drapery, some creamily sheer, some bejewelled.

In other places, where no pebbles can contribute to the richness, the sand simply swirls with fine black traceries, fanning out to be lost on the smooth wet beach.

I feel so lucky to have seen these further examples of the extraordinary complexity of design and colour in nature., especially as they may not be there when next I visit this beach.

A forest for birds

Before entering this forest of the Henry Kendall Reserve I am bemused by the sparkles of sunshine beside opposing calm, the mysteriously varying ways of water movements.

The forest itself is equally varied, with many large and imposing spreading trees.

Others rise tall and straight limbed.  By the busy chatter of birds, darting tantalisingly close and away, too swift to photograph, the forest is a rich residence for wildlife.

It’s the sort of forest walk where you more often than not find yourself craning upwards to see what’s going on up there. A lot, from the noise!

But lower and nearer details occasionally catch my eye, like this textured casuarina bark…

Or this mossy hidey-hole, a dark refuge into which I do not intrude. Thankfully, this whole forest has life of its own, from birds to whatever lives here!

Forest gifts

After all the wet weather the swamps are still holding water… and reflections. Part of the coast walk here runs beside such swamps.

Large paperbarks make sinuous shapes as they stretch across the water.

Smaller ones stand straight and double up so seamlessly in the swamp below that the eye is deceived.

But there are many tree species in this forest, and some of the eucalypts are very large… and also sinuous. They must be in flower way up high, as the forest was alive with the chirping and chittering of multiple unseen happy honeyeaters.

It is winter so only a few blossoms are to be seen, like this wattle, but the flannel flowers are getting ready, beautifully backlit in a small clearing.

The territory in between tree tops and ground is well used, like this webbed hammock.

Some plants make use of the whole tree, securely latched on, climbing from ground to canopy.

This young fig tree grew upwards, but also chooses to send down roots to anchor itself to the ground. A bet both ways, to take advantage of all this forest can offer.

It certainly offers me more gifts than my eye can take in.

Tree flowers

Camden Haven’s Kattang Nature Reserve is full of flowers right now, but they are not the expected wildflowers of Spring, and they are mostly seen looking up.

Like this Casuarina, catching the eye with bunches of rusty red amongst the green.

But these flowers won’t produce any fruit or seeds, as they are the male flowers, growing at the end of the needle-like jointed branchlets we often mistake for leaves. Casuarina leaves are actually tiny scales at each joint.

The female trees are flowering too now, but much less conspicuously, hugging the branches in small red clusters.

It is they which will develop the woody seed pods, much beloved by cockatoos. In fact, I could hear one cracking them open for the seeds; I could see it too, but it was too well-hidden and backlit for a decent photo.

Banksias are the other trees in prolific flower now. Several varieties, with flowers and seed pods large and small. The honeyeaters were having a picnic.

May Gibbs’ wicked and hairy Banksia Men still lurk as large as ever in my imagination, but the bright flower candles eclipse them here.

The banksia trees dominate the skyline here and it is hard to stop looking up, to watch where I am walking. Too early for snakes, I tell myself.

But nearing the small paperbark swamp, now flowing under the track, I do, and am startled by bright red, not tea-brown. As if in step with the Casuarina flowers of both sexes.

To complement the reds, the wet weather has favoured the banks of mosses to delight me with green while I am looking down.

No need to wait for Spring when so much is happening in Winter!

Sea changes

I am looking down on the same rocks where my ‘Wild edge’ images were taken. But oh, what a difference in the sea at that edge today!

Gently lapping, not crashing; small frills of white instead of furious frothing breakers.  Even a few surfers paddling.

I have walked to the Charles Hamey Lookout in Kattang Nature Reserve and it does offer a view beyond my sea edge, a view of this amazing coastal complex of waterways, right up to brooding North Brother Mountain and beyond.

It is the combination of mountain and sea that appeals to me here so strongly.

But any tourist postcard can show scenic views; I am more attracted by details, often ephemeral.

If I look the other way from here, today it is the sea itself that takes my eye.

Peacefully rippling all the way to the horizon; not a whale in sight, but endless permutations of colour.

In the shallower waters near the land edge it is crystal clear and green. I have never been to the Mediterranean, but now I wonder how it could better this.

Then it deepens to blue-green, secretive of the ocean world beneath, and then to blue watered silk moiré, growing paler as it recedes to the sky edge.

As I retrace my steps I have to admire this rugged coast and its changeable neighbour, today deceptively gentle in its blues and greens beneath the equally unpredictable sky.

But if I look further north, the sea has turned silver, sparkling in sunshine.

What a visual treat it is to be witness to such free shows on offer from Nature!

Wild edge

This wintry weather comes with warnings of dangerous surf conditions — not that I’m likely to be trying! But I did want to look at such a sea.

And it was impressive. An awesomely powerful and persistent pounding.

The waves seemed to be doing their best to demolish the coastal rocks, rising like leviathans and crashing down in a lather of white and stormy brown.

On the horizon a chorus line of clouds meekly kept its distance from all this fury.

Each rock formation offered different resistance, allowing waterfalls of varying shapes to be created by the smashed waves. There was always another coming…

The rocks always won, directing the white flows to follow their lead, with no more choice than bridal trains.

It is a testament to the hardness of these edging rocks that they are not worn down but also an explanation of how the channels in between have been created.