At last I’m here. It’s three o’clock on an autumn afternoon drenched in sun like eucalypt resin. Sitting under the arch of Natural Bridge, I watch Cave Creek tumble through a hole in the rock ceiling and waterfall over a log that must have washed down years ago. The water’s pressure has carved and smoothed the wood with such regular precision it looks braided: it might be a piece of civic art painstakingly fashioned by human hands. I puzzle over how I can tell it’s not. Something ‘artless’ about the angle: some ineffable quality, retained by the log in the stream, that would have been lost had an artist set out to copy nature.
For weeks I’ve felt the pull of this place. One morning I woke, felt a chill in the air, and was shaken by the fierceness with which instead of heading for a day of spreadsheets and politics I ached to be in Springbrook National Park. I needed to wake to whipbird calls and forest mist. I needed roaring water. I desperately needed glow-worms.
My husband was nonplussed. Spend a weekend in a national park. ‘What for? There’s nothing to do there.’ Raised in London and Sydney, my husband counts as ‘doing’ shopping, dancing, bowling, dining out and seeing the latest movies. Occasionally coaxed into the Great Outdoors he becomes a temporary fan of jet-boating, waterskiing, snowboarding, bungee-jumping and drinking cappuccinos in cafés with nice views. Sitting under a basalt arch for several hours, contemplating water and wildlife, does not meet his threshold for ‘doing’. It’s like the way people elbow you aside at lookouts because you’re gazing at the scenery while they’ve primed the iPad for a panorama shot: they’re ‘doing’, which entitles them to prime position at the expense of mere observers.
All I wanted was to spend some quality time with the flora and fauna that occurs naturally on the bit of the planet’s crust where I happen to have been born. Generations—whole societies—have done this every day of their lives. How has such a seemingly simple psychological need become so difficult to fulfil, requiring several weeks of planning and negotiation along with a small but not negligible budget?
Driving towards Springbrook yesterday with my tent and a few tins of food, I mused on the realisation that I’m better off than most of the world’s urban population, who lack the leisure, opportunity or place to wander and wonder at the natural world. It’s only thanks to the foresight and commitment of multiple groups and governments between 1922 and 2002 that Springbrook National Park even exists, a couple of hours drive from where I live. I just wanted to be there. I didn’t want to do anything.
Now, sitting on the steps down into the glow-worm cave, I gaze at the pocked ceiling still clearly visible by afternoon light. It’s hard to imagine a faux starry sky will soon replace it. There’s no trace of the creatures that will generate light: the rock looks completely bare.
They’re here, though, in pocks and crevices. The ‘worms’, the larval stage of Arachnocampa flava, live for six to 12 months in this cave, growing to three centimetres before pupating and hatching out as small mosquito-like flies. After that they survive only a few days—long enough to mate. Females lay eggs in the original colony, beginning the cycle again. At night the larvae let down silk threads beaded with globs of mucus, and use bioluminescence to lure midges to the original sticky end. Since the traps only work in places with no wind, and Queensland glow-worms need a warm environment with high humidity, this cave is one of very few habitats in which the species can survive.
The idea that national parks are intended to preserve unique species like this holds on, at least in the rhetoric of websites. According to the Wikipedia definition:
a national park is a park in use for conservation purposes. Often it is a reserve of natural … land that a sovereign state declares or owns. Although individual nations designate their own national parks differently, there is a common idea: the conservation of wild nature for posterity and as a symbol of national pride.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the Inter-na-tional Union for Conservation of Nature created definitions for national parks, these emphasised the preservation of ‘one or several ecosystems not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation, where plant and animal species, geomorphological sites and habitats are of special scientific, educational, and recreational interest or which contain a natural landscape of great beauty’. Such definitions prioritise the role of national parks in preserving species, with educational, aesthetic and recreational aims coming second: ‘Visitors are allowed to enter, under special conditions, for inspirational, educative, cultural, and recreative purposes.’
In other words, national parks are supposed to be among the precious few places where, when push comes to shove, the need to sustain non-human ecologies in the long term trumps the short-term economic interests of humans. To date, the Commonwealth Government National Parks website concurs with this philosophy: ‘National parks are usually large areas of land … protected because they have unspoilt landscapes and a diverse number of native plants and animals. This means … commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly monitored.’
Like zoos, national parks have several purposes. The foremost is to protect native flora and fauna. But national parks are also there so Australians and foreign visitors can enjoy and learn about our unique environment, heritage and culture. The pendulum, however, appears to be swinging. Protections that took decades to achieve are in danger of being lost, and so are the species that may disappear before public interest swings back.
Part of the problem for non-human species is that evolution has favoured humans responding to what they can see. Relevant: anything big enough to eat us, or big enough to eat. Irrelevant: everything else. Larger species that find themselves on the endangered list—koalas, tigers, whales—may arouse our sympathies and support, since we’re biologically hard-wired to take an interest in them. Species that are small, shy, nocturnal, rare, well camouflaged, live in inaccessible places, or all of the above, are invisible to us and therefore easily discounted. Since the neocortex developed long after the limbic system, logic always comes late to the cognitive party: we know that pollinating insects, bacteria and fungi are vital to our survival, but since we barely see them, we find it hard to care.
Glow-worms have a chance to break the pattern. They’re tiny, but at night they become visible—spectacularly so. This cave attracts an average of 300 people per evening or 110,000 a year, earning tour operators $6 million annually. Commercial tours are encouraged by parks management, with the rationale that trucking in visitors to see glow-worms in their natural habitat will give humans a greater appreciation of the non-human, and thereby foster pro-environmental attitudes. At least, that’s what the info boards allege. It’s a great theory, but I’m not seeing it. Signs on all the fences surrounding Cave Creek read:
Visitors must remain on the formed walking track and viewing platforms. A restricted access area has been declared over the area bounded by the walking track as shown on the map. This is for the safety of visitors and protection of the glow-worm colony.
More signs explain, in reasonable tones and some detail that: Entering the creek bank vegetation and swimming in the creek harms the glow-worm and microbat populations as these activities affect their food. Glow-worms and microbats rely on insects for food. Insect larvae and eggs live in the silt of the creek bank and, when trampled by people walking along the creek bank, are washed away during a wet season. Pollution from visitors using insect repellent, sunscreen and leaving rubbish in the creek harms the insect food source of the glow-worms and microbats. Cave Creek is home to several frog species including the rare Australian marsupial frog, which may also be affected by visitor pollution.
Marsupial frogs! Is no-one else awe-struck at the very idea? Apparently not. Dozens of people are swimming in the creek, sloughing sunscreen and insect repellent. Kids throw rocks. Mothers in bikinis and bare feet gingerly pick their way among the ferns. Come on, that’s how you enjoy a creek. It’s also how you destroy one.
‘Who, us? We’re just a couple / a family of four / a group of ten. We’re not doing any damage.’
Didn’t you see the signs on the fence as you climbed through it? ‘They’re for the general public, not for us. Rules and regulations—bloody nanny state! I swam in this creek all the time when I was a kid.’
What about the glow-worms, the bats, the marsupial frogs(!), the eels that have migrated thousands of kilometres from the Coral Sea to reach this place, metamorphosing from saltwater creatures to freshwater ones along the way, and will someday make the long trek and miraculous transformation in reverse, provided they’re allowed the peace of this creek to eat and grow? What about them?
Shrug. ‘What about our fun day out?’
This is an imaginary conversation: I haven’t the brass to challenge these trespassers. What authority do I have to stand up for the rules, for logic, for non-human species and our ultimate dependence on them for our own survival? A ranger in uniform could do it, but I haven’t seen one all day. Sunday—I guess Parks and Wildlife can’t afford the penalty rates.
It’s getting darker here in the cave, though the forest outside is still warm with reddish afternoon light. I begin to notice flickers in the darkness, and thrill to the knowledge that little bent-wing bats are on the move.
A man comes in with two teenage daughters and casts his torch around. The bats move over the wall like faint scribbles: projections, infinitesimal shadow puppets. When the dad throws his light on the ceiling I see walnut-sized balls like little black apples, each suspended on an impossibly fine stalk: a harvest of tiny curled-up bats hanging by their toes. I feel guilty for enjoying the bats. Without the dad’s torch, I wouldn’t see them. Do not shine your torch light on cave walls or ceiling, says the sign on the stair rail. Glow-worms mistake artificial light for sunlight and stop feeding, which interferes with their growth and slows their life-cycle.
A tour group of two dozen or so enters the cave. They’re in high spirits, chatting loudly. One woman walks down on her own, gives the waterfall an appraising frown, takes its picture on her mobile and heads outside with an air of having ticked that off her list. A boy of around seven arrives before his mother, greeting her in thrilled tones as she click-clacks cautiously down the stairs: ‘Mummy, this I believe is my home!’
‘Why?’ Mummy sounds alarmed. Then popular culture provides an explanation, and she asks with a note of relief, ‘Because you’re Batman?’
‘Ye-es,’ wavers the young man, immediately trading his original impulse for this less amorphous idea his mother can understand.
Not being Batman or his mother, I remain stuck with the amorphous thought: this, I believe, is my home. I feel Australian here. And I have no idea what I mean by that. It’s not a geopolitical or cultural identity; not Team Australia Australianness, or even the Henry Lawson kind. I’m not a member of the Yugambeh people, the original human custodians of this area. Before them came 23 million years of recent history: a volcano centred on present-day Mt Warning erupted, cooled and eroded away, eventually producing—among other features—Natural Bridge, the bluish milky tinge of creek water lying over basalt, and a perfectly round sinkhole in the ceiling just north of the ragged opening the creek pours through.
The ecosystem here is sub-tropical rainforest; part of only 0.3 per cent remaining, continent-wide, since the time of white settlement. The creatures are here because of the plants, the plants are here because of the soil and water and climate, the soil’s here because of the rocks, plants and animals. The specificity of all this circularity and interconnectedness, captured in the Yugambeh legend of how Jabreen created this land with water—the fact that this place can only be in this place, could not exist anywhere else on earth—maybe that’s what I mean by Australian.
I’m aware of the ridiculously inaccurate, inadequate word I’m attempting to press into service. When people from Melbourne or Sydney call themselves Australians, I honestly don’t know what they mean. I’ve found cities are much the same all over the world. Uluru, Kakadu, the Kimberly, Cradle Mountain—these are real places, grown out of the rock rather than perched on top of it. In this place, I too feel like something grown out of the rock.
The rock of this continent, maybe? But continents are all joined under the surface of the sea: it’s the same rock. This planet is made of the same elements as every other planet, every star and asteroid. No logical explanation, then, for why I should feel belonging here, when I don’t feel it in The Barrens outside Galway, or looking down on Vancouver Harbour from Grouse Mountain, or standing beside a furious geothermal smokestack in Hverir, Iceland.
Not my rock.
I remember reading that national parks are intended to be, in part, ‘a symbol of national pride’. Earlier today I encountered two young American men staring in fascination at a lizard sunning itself on the path. ‘Is it a snake?’ one enquired—standing close enough to suggest his question was more cerebral than evolution might have preferred.
‘It’s a land mullet,’ I said, delighted that the gleaming reptile tolerated us so close. ‘A type of skink.’ I pointed out the pademelon watching from behind a nearby grevillea, and the crimson rosella in a eucalypt overhead—I’m fairly sure the boys thought I was having them on. National pride. I speak with this accent and identify our animals by their funny common names as readily as I name my siblings. I know some of their scientific names, and those of their Indigenous names and stories I’m allowed to know. All this is as it should be: this, I believe, is my home. The national park reminds me.
Contention has raged for years over what you do in national parks. The previous prime minister announced that too much of our remaining forests were ‘locked up’ in national parks, and initiated moves to roll them back. Premiers and local councils since then have been all for opening up national parks to hunting, logging and grazing. The construction of a zip-wire in Kondalilla National Park is expected to attract 20,000 visitors a year, with proponents arguing that environmental impacts will be minimal because the stations will be attached to trees rather than built on the ground. Again, they argue that ‘there may well be a risk that in times to come people will not be aware of what is there and potentially will lose sight of the importance of preservation’.
According to this logic, a public that has been encouraged to experience the natural wonders of a place will defend its preservation. However, this assumes the public has the opportunity and power to ‘defend’ the place. The Queensland Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Act 2014 makes it illegal to oppose mining activities on philosophical grounds: that is, any grounds apart from direct economic impact, such as living adjacent to the proposed mine site. If a mining company wants to commence operations at Natural Bridge, only those living there will have legal grounds to object. Glow-worms traditionally don’t protest, sue or vote. They’ll just have to hope their habitat contains nothing of greater economic potential than themselves. And we wish them luck with that: it’s not working out so well for the Great Barrier Reef.
Evidence suggests humans are becoming increasingly polarised into those who value the non-human natural world and those who’ve given up on it. A 2013 study of 22,000 people in 22 countries (Globescan, 2013) found that public concern about six environmental problems—air pollution, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources, vehicle emissions, and fresh water shortages—was lower than it had been at any time since tracking began 20 years earlier.
Commentators then were quick to blame the global financial crisis, arguing that public indebtedness appeared to pose a much clearer and more present threat to people’s wellbeing than environmental jeopardy, which ‘for most people remains hidden from view’.
One of the original motivations behind the national parks movement, however, was the notion that human beings need more than economic prosperity to survive and thrive: we need non-destructive interactions with the non-human natural world, the environments in which our species evolved and to which our mental and physical well-being are still intimately linked. The idea that we as a population are turning off and tuning out is alarming, given how rapidly we’re losing these environments.
A typical public comment on the Globescan report opposes the immediate concerns of Westerners wanting to maintain their lifestyle to the ‘idealism’ of environmental conservation: ‘People are worried about having enough money to keep their house and put food on the table. Of course the environment is going to be relegated down. In hard times people are less idealistic. They can’t afford to be.’ But there’s nothing inherently impractical or ‘idealistic’ about preserving the non-human living world. Every species we lose robs us of the potential to learn something that may be vital to our own species’ long-term survival.
Take glow-worms. Arachnocampa flava produce light through an internal chemical reaction between a waste product and an enzyme. Nearly 100 per cent of the energy from this chemical reaction is turned into light, compared with the 22 per cent we’ve been able to achieve so far with our best light-emitting diodes. The waste they produce as a by-product is water. Copying nature has provided so many of our greatest innovations in architecture, engineering, chemistry, medicine and food production—how can we be so stupid as to allow the continued destruction of such useful blueprints just because we haven’t yet learnt
to read them?
Of course some of us have no respect for our own species, let alone others. Yesterday a driver lobbed an empty glass bottle from his window as I was negotiating a narrow section of road, bordered on one side by a cliff and on the other by a sheer drop of several hundred metres. The bottle rolled under my car, mercifully missing all four wheels, presumably coming to rest in roadside grass somewhere. Did the driver not think about possible consequences: if I’d swerved or skidded over the cliff, if the bottle had started a fire? My limbic system tells me he just didn’t care.
Then there are those who display a misguided appreciation for nature. Those so desperate for their personal experience of getting close to another species that they’ll destroy what they came to enjoy, believing they do little harm. A man at my Nerang River campsite early this morning was showing off to his wife and two little boys. ‘This river’s full of turtles,’ he said, tearing a piece of white bread into pieces to demonstrate. He cast the bread on the water and, sure enough, turtle heads appeared. Never mind that white bread, full of salt and sugar and preservatives, isn’t good for humans, let alone turtles.
But again I lacked the courage for confrontation. Didn’t want to look like a know-it-all. Didn’t want to make him lose face in front of his kids. I smiled weakly, fighting down the guilty knowledge that I too enjoyed seeing the turtles, and wouldn’t have seen them without this man’s unwitting environmental vandalism.
Then, some behaviours are completely inexplicable. On the plateau along the track to Best of All Lookout stands an Antarctic Beech: a number of trunks rising from a root mass more than 2000 years old. The moss-covered trunks are spectacularly beautiful—even without the knowledge that they’re remnant Gondwana vegetation, and this particular tree was growing in this precise spot when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. So I was shocked to discover a two-year-old banging one of the trunks with a plastic axe, happily shouting, ‘Cut, cut!’ His parents stood fondly watching.
I’m brave after all: I can initiate confrontation with a toddler. I stepped up and suggested smilingly to the little fellow, ‘Those are pretty special trees, don’t you think? You don’t want to cut them down?’ The child glanced uncertainly at his parents, who began to move off without meeting my eyes. ‘Come on, Adam. You can cut down some other ones.’
In a national park? I wanted to yell, but didn’t. What are you people teaching this child? That his own impulses are all that matter: that trees are for chopping down and axes are for chopping them, whatever the forest? I bet they’ve got him climbing through fences, too.
After so many hours scouring the walls, searching for the first tell-tale glow like the arrival of the evening star, I’m startled to see three tiny lights in a hollow just above my head. I watch these bluish stars, and over time the constellation grows—four, now five, now seven. After a while, a scattering across one of the far corners, like a spray of acne on a teenager’s face. Like stars, they seem constantly slightly out of focus: wonder is mixed with a yearning to see them more clearly. I sympathise with the child who yells, ‘Turn on the lights, I want to see them!’ But it disturbs me that no-one explains to him what he’s seeing; how turning on our lights will make them turn off theirs. And absolutely no-one is heeding the sign on the stair rail. Group after group comes in, talking loudly, shining torches, taking flash photographs.
The signs explain that flash photography damages the glow-worms’ developing eyes, making it harder for them to feed and later mate, endangering the survival of individual organisms and the colony. The flash will reveal a bare rock wall; at best, the photographer’s reckless act will yield some smears that might be out-of-focus city lights or stars or fireworks. Professional-quality non-flash images of glow-worms are readily available on Flickr, many under Creative Commons. Here again, our Neolithic urges are bad news for the species around us: some primitive hunter’s instinct says, ‘I must bring back to my tribe this image that I have taken myself.’
Here’s a group of some 40 people, mostly kids, all waving orange lanterns. If these are supposed to be some special lantern that doesn’t disturb the glow-worms as much, the sheer number makes a mockery of the concept. The cave fills with coppery light, and when a woman exclaims loudly over the general hubbub, ‘Oh how magical!’ I want to tell her it was getting magical a few minutes ago, in a brief lull between groups, before her crew invaded with the decibels and wattage of a small city. After they’re gone, the starry sky is noticeably depleted. Whether alarmed by the noise, the lights, the flashes or the crass stupidity on display, half the constellations have shut up shop.
The Waitomo glow-worm caves in New Zealand are managed by (Māori) descendants of one of the caves’ original discoverers. You travel by small boat through a glow-worm grotto, the lights above reflected in still black water beneath. With a guide in each boat there is no noise, no torchlight, no flash photography: you look and listen, breathe and wonder. Waitomo balances the needs of nature with the needs of visitors: it’s a long-term commercial operation with a commitment to place and to a continued livelihood for generations to come. Sensitive environmental management of the visitor experience is considered key. It’s a far cry from what’s happening here tonight.
But it’s been a while now between gaggles. About eight people remain in the dark. None of us is talking, showing lights or taking photos. I listen to the rush of water, and now I can hear an infinitesimal chittering sound. Since the echo-locating call of the little bent-wing bat is, at 54.5 to 64.5 kHz, far above the upper range of human hearing, I assume the sound I can barely hear is the whisper of tiny wings in the air, the scratch of toes on rock as they flit and settle. Now and then the air’s stirred, just above my hair or beside my ear, and while the bats never touch me and I can’t see them, we are exquisitely aware of each other.
Legs stiff from hours of sitting, I hobble to my feet—and find myself eye to eye with a pocket in the wall, where ten glow-worms shine brilliantly blue-green. They are no longer fuzzy and out of focus: I’ve entered my own personal galaxy. The pure, sharp, intense brightness of these calm stars penetrates to some place deep inside me. I remind myself that they’re not stars—somewhere in the dark are sticky threads hanging down to trap food for the glowing light that is the larva of an insect.
It’s no good: I’m in the grip of a cosmic wonder. Unimaginable distances among suns and galaxies insert themselves into my encounter with this creature so alien, so Other, it might as well come from another planet. I can’t conceive what it is to be this being, obeying the laws of a nature so different from my own.
Or is it? To eat, sleep, congregate with others of my kind. To turn off when my environment becomes overwhelming. To be vulnerable to destruction by the self-centred, the unthinking—I shudder again at the memory of that thrown bottle, the cliff edge so close.
Isn’t this the encounter national parks should give us? Not jet-skis and dirt bikes, glamping and horseriding and zip-wires, but this quiet confrontation with the non-human living Other, these questions of same and different, this recognition of aeons-old cosmic elements shaped into living forms and cohabiting one little blue planet in orbit around a G2 star? Me, my fellow humans, the bats and glow-worms, the eels and marsupial frogs and hundreds if not thousands of other species in this cave with us tonight: crickets, lizards, pythons, water plants, fungi, fish, spiders, bacteria, tardigrades. I see nothing but glow-worms and hear nothing but bats, yet the moment pulses with the life all around me.
It’s this moment I came for, after months of concrete and traffic and strategic plans and memoranda of understanding and parent–teacher interviews and news and Facebook and bills and a night sky glowing ochre with city lights that pale the few stars and push them farther away. I am an organism that evolved in this environment, not that one. Something fundamental in me needs this place.
I look around the cave and realise the quiet must have reached some critical mass, because the stars have come out again, more and brighter than they’ve been all evening. That great sweep up the west wall looks like campfires burning: I imagine a whole civilisation camped along the roads leading into a great city. That conglomeration of lights, there, could be a CBD. That startlingly geometric pattern near it—almost perfect concentric circles—looks like a henge; it suggests religious significance.
I’m alive to the irony: as soon as I’m looking at something truly and profoundly non-human, my mind starts throwing up human analogues. Our ancestors did it—culture after culture searching the sky for constellations, reducing the patterns they saw among the stars to human figures, endowing them with stories. Orion the Hunter has been a Shepherd, an Archer, a Fool, a Reaper and a Judge to different cultures: always a human being, something people can deal with. We constantly try to control the natural world, shape it in our likeness and our perceived needs. Why are we so ill-equipped to let the non-human be itself, and encounter it on its own terms? Can we learn a better way? Can national parks teach us?
Noise along the forest track: another tour group coming. I leave the cave quickly, not because I’ve had enough of the quiet light-studded stillness, but because I can’t bear to sit through another disturbance: light, noise, wilfully selfish flash photography, the inane things my fellow humans insist on shouting. I’m away down the lower track before the group heaves into view above: more lanterns, these apparently blue-white, so that once the mob hits the cave it will light up like a shopping-centre concourse. No sense of hushed anticipation—they’re shouting like villagers on their way to a harvest festival. It’s time I went home. I pause at a bridge to let yet another group go through. And I see something they don’t, intent on their conversation and mobile phones. When they’ve passed, I cross to the middle of the bridge and wait for their noise to
The lower reach of Cave Creek cuts an opening through both the falling ground and the trees above. Overhead is a river of stars—real stars, intensely white in a properly dark night sky—winding through the forest canopy. Below, the stars reflect in black creek-water. And, linking them together, blue-green and blue-white lights—here, there, up the creek banks and into the forest. Some are glow-worms but others are bioluminescent fungi: distinct mushroom shapes growing up the trunks of trees appear to float in midair. I read about these species on the sign boards, but having hiked into the cave before dark I’m only seeing them now. The effect is of an unbroken river of stars pouring down from the heavens: a loop, since what I see in front is mirrored behind me as the creek continues back upstream to the cave. I stand at the centre of a circle of stars, listening to the gurgle of water, the night murmurs of the forest and the singing silence of the cosmos.
I do nothing in the national park. I have no words for what the national park does in me. •
Andrea Baldwin is a psychologist and eco-writer based in Queensland. She holds PhDs in psychology and creative writing, and her work has been published in Meanjin and Islet.