I: Where else??
Low tide at Potato Point, a day before the temperature creeps up, while northern NSW and southern Queensland burn. People lose their homes and their lives and politicians pray and wrangle. It seems almost obscene to be walking along a deserted beach without a wisp of smoke in the air, although there’s a fair chance that my turn will come. I’m beginning to think about my fire readiness plan.
Meanwhile, fiddleheads unfurl; seaweed and feathers arrange themselves in aesthetically pleasing ways; and transparent jellies show a touch of pink and take on the form of stars.
On a day when I’m reluctant to walk, it’s the developing fiddleheads that draw me. A new frond is beginning to unfurl from the base of the tree-fern and a second frond continues its more advanced unfurling.
Macropods beside the emptying creek lounge, shape up to each other, and eye me off speculatively until they decide it’s time to take off.
At the southern corner of the beach, the rocks are smooth with round depressions tinged with salt. Shells lurk in the crevices, and pools gleam in the morning light.
The sea’s been busy transporting seaweed, pebbles and cuttlefish with stowaways: barnacles and tiny orange beetles.
I meet Maisie, a black Labrador, who bounds up to me in welcome. She’s on a diet and noticeably slenderer than she was two weeks ago. Her companion is pleased when I comment.
As I leave the beach, what I’ve up till now indiscriminately called grasses profile themselves against the sand: the bullet top of the knobby club-rush (Ficinia nodosa) which is apparently really a sedge, if you believe its family name, Cyperaceae,
II: Interlude – preparing for fire
No beach or bush this Saturday morning. Joe is out raking gutters beside the road. Those leaves that courted my camera last weekend are fickle: they now court fire and need to be disciplined.
The hoses laid down on the hillside below the house, the direction from which fire is most likely to come, are lying on earth raked raw recently, but they still manage to harbour new piles of leaves.
However the raking has revealed treasures. A colony of hyacinth orchids are budding amongst ash just above the house.
Dianella also awaits flowering, and hillside lichen looks quite healthy.
On Saturday night we have moisture, not enough to call rain, but enough to enable Joe to light the fuel stove which has been dormant for a week for fear of escaping sparks. Leaves are briefly dotted or smeared with moisture.
On Saturday night the water bowl just outside the living room window is visited by a vivid king parrot and six brown cuckoo-doves, an unprecedented number all at once.
III: Return to the beach
Low tide is late, and necessary for our respective aching bones: stepping out barefoot on the hard sand is therapeutic.
As Joe hares off along the beach undoing the knots a week’s raking has put in his back and knee, I grab the secateurs and cut a sampling of the rush / grass / sedge for scrutiny and ID at home.
Then it’s bend and rise to photograph sea-weed. That artist, the sea, manages miraculous variations on a theme in it composition and materials. Seaweed is never just ho-hum.
A hint at a new obsession – seaweed – appears. A clump has little round balls on it, something I haven’t noticed before, and nor has my more minutely observant companion in obsession.
When we pick up such a clump further down the beach, we notice little cups like the cups you see on lichen, and become more intrigued.
That’s not the end of things to mystify. What is that pale yellow cluster looking like a partly formed rose? And what about the white veil extruding from the helmet of the violet snail (Janthina janthina)? Not a veil it turns out, but a raft made of bubbles the snail holds onto with its foot. If it loses the raft it sinks and dies.
A walk at 7am yields a number of encounters with neighbours, quite unusual for me, and probably an indicator (if I needed one!) that I no longer walk at daybreak: Anne, who’s been living next door for months, whom I am meeting for the first time; Robin who’s lived just up the hill for four years and who I met for the first time yesterday; and Mal and Maisie, his black Labrador (for once I’m the one who remembers names – we often walk at the same time.) Could it be that I, the recluse behind a wall of trees at No 8, am becoming neighbourly?
I pay a visit to another familiar, the tree-fern of Riverview Street. Saying good morning to it is becoming a ritual.
The tide is quite low, and has stranded big pink jellies the length of my foot and mounds of bubble foam. I notice again a layering of paler sand in the corner near the boat ramp.
The morning light sharpens the outlines of the cliff face at the north end, showing half a chevron quite clearly. The tide is too high to capture the whole.
Because I’ve been visiting my tree fern I’ve been coming onto the beach across the dunes. This time, because I’m time-poor and back-achey, I drive down and go onto the beach via the boat ramp. A solitary fisherman leaves his boat rocking in the shallows while he parks his car-and-trailer, and then bounces out to sea for morning pleasures.
The sun has only travelled halfway along the beach, so the south end’s in shade and rocks that are usually underwater are exposed in all their detail.
The waves frill onto the beach, foam shadows in advance.
Solitary sea-gull and solitary woman stroll along, both accompanied only by shadows
Another day, the tide at the boat ramp is even lower. The beach is thick with seaweed, just in this corner, and flies are beginning to congregate.
The pounding music of a car car radio drowns out the sussuration of the sea. But I don’t mind. Two young men are having a ball, exercising on the shower rail, plunging into the water, extolling the virtues of cold plunges for health when I say g’day, and flipping from vertical to push-up pose in their exuberance. Maybe these tyre marks are the trace they leave.
My pleasure is more gentle, as befits the age gap: colonies of unsuspected cunjevoi. I usually see solitary cunjie uprooted and desiccating on the beach, not glowing with Irish green weed, as slightly milky water shimmers in and recedes.
I only manage half the beach. My back is not getting better, as I hoped it was at the weekend. I turn back leaving pools of cloud behind me.
IV: Fairhaven midden
Just off the coast road to Bermagui is one of the largest middens on the Australian east coast. Covering over seven acres and four metres deep, it contains the leftovers of many a feast over many millennia: bidiga (oyster), abalone, bimbulla (blood cockle), pipi and mussels.
I walk 300 metres down a track thickly paved with shells, Gulaga looming across the grey water.
There are canoe trees in the area (I don’t see them) showing where bark has been removed to make a boat for fishing on the lake and the sea, and to cross to Barranguba, the island off the coast of Narooma. Today it’s kayakkers in high-viz gear occupying the water of the Ancestors.
I reach Fairhaven Point, water shrinking on either side and a slight smell of rot, and stand thinking of the people of the past, now dispossessed, but reclaiming their history and their language, piece by small piece.
V: A final taste of Potato Point beach
I love the many moods of my beach in a way I don’t think I would love the same moodiness in a person. The mixture of sunlight and scowl would leave me wondering what to respond to. Not so with the beach. The combination is beautiful.
Infinite variety takes many forms. One day, the surface of the sand suddenly demands attention: it’s abrading the souls of my feet like coarse sandpaper, instead of being the fine hourglass-sand it usually is.
Seaweed holds surprises as well as familiarities. A floppy pinkish piece feels quite spongy and has the appearance of veins when I enlarge it.
Sadly, there is no longer a creek at the south end of the beach. A few years ago it provided the perfect paddling pool for Warsaw twins. Now it is the nursery for a new colony of beach spinifex; minute stalks with a bobble on top yet to show what they’ll become; and a proliferation of tiny purple flowers.
It seems fitting to end with a very windy beachwalk at very low tide, with no sign of promised rain – 80% chance they said. My son is at the same beach, not something that happens often, catching waves, taking respite from the very sad decline of Cruz.
Spinifex grass is everywhere, the tumbleweed blown loose from stalks. Some seed-heads roll towards me at speed, playing chicken. Others emulate Narcissus, looking down at their reflection in sand draped in receding water. Some take refuge amongst the rocks.