A decapitated carcass is at my feet. At first glance it’s not obvious the head is missing, or what the body is besides some feathers; the chest is pealed back like raw curtains and a nation of ants are at work. The site/sight, while impressive in its own gruesome, practical way, is too hard to stomach for any sustained period. Its missing head, the march of ants on offal, the white feathers scattered among the bark like confetti or the forgotten skin of a burst piñata—I realise all these details slowly, reassembling the bird’s body from the glances I take between curiosity and sickness.
A few hours later, when he arrives, I ask if he’s seen the bird. The dead one, I add, in an attempt to clarify the question. ‘Probably a chough, I’ve been shooting the bastards with an air rifle and tossing them at the tip, but I may have left one about.’
The gun is there, underneath a shade cloth on the table in front of the corrugated-iron shack he has dubbed HQ. We walk to the crime scene, only ten or so metres away, white feathers fanning out in dirt from the carcass. At first, seeing a handful of white and black-grey feathers beyond the exposed innards, I’d thought it was perhaps a seagull.
But what seagull meets such a gruesome end here, 135 kilometres north-west of Sydney, on the lip of the Capertee Valley?
‘That’s no seagull.’ Case closed.
‘But it’s no chough either.’
So I was not the only one finding it hard to identify the ceaselessly disappearing fleshy mass the ants worked to disassemble. He leans in close, closer than I could, looking past the static of frantic ants, and identifies our victim. ‘It’s the duck.’
It is the duck. I hold my vision with it now. The head is clean off, a smooth slice through its throat. We follow the feathers. Fossils of a recent life-or-death pillow fight. They’ve settled on the ground like fat snowflakes in a fairly even coverage, but a violent plumage can be traced from the decapitated bird before us, up past the permanently mounted caravan and towards the property line—a fence between his patch and a dirt road that leads to maybe a dozen more properties. One of them is home to the local publican and his family, who preside over the local, the Capertee Royal Hotel, first opened in 1870 by James Shervey, a 20-minute drive away.
The ducks are the reason he’s shooting the choughs. The choughs have been muscling them out from the dam, hassling the Silkie chickens too, and eating all they leave behind when conceding and flying, rather than staying and fighting. He calls the choughs bastards, pricks and dicks, and while they don’t seem too sinister when perched, they have the undeservedly entitled attitude of schoolyard bullies when approaching.
I ask him how to spell it. ‘C-H-O-U-G-H. Like Gough Whitlam.’
With their dark feathers and downturned bills a stationary chough could be mistaken for a crow, but in flight the white feathers of its underwing are revealed. When excited—intimidating ducks or Silkies, or the betrothed pair of lorikeets, recent arrivals, perched most often in the Capertee stringybark behind the shed—the eyes of a chough swell, the red of them illuminates.
They are notorious birdnappers—known for stealing the young of other families to strengthen numbers in their own brood. The sabotage from neighbouring chough families, predation from nest robbers such as curra-wongs, and starvation pose the three biggest threats to a chough chick’s survival. His air rifle is the biggest threat to those fully grown.
Choughs are not brilliant flyers, practical but far from agile; they have a 45-centimetre wingspan and a slow, deep way of flapping it about. On the ground it is clear why he thinks they are bastards, pricks and dicks. Unlike other birds momentarily ground-dwelling, which hop or waddle awkwardly, the choughs really swagger. A flock, or better yet a gang of them strut out an imposing gasconade.
That’s why he’s been shooting them with the air rifle. That and the .308 are too loud in the valley. Even up on the lip, 800 metres above the floor, there are large gold and brown torsos of rock that thrust themselves above tree level and, towering, echo such a shot in conversation two or three times.
The valley spans 30 kilometres at its widest point, and is an important breeding site for the regent honeyeater, an endangered bird with a body flecked with black, white and gold, its tail feathers fat stripes of brown and yellow. In contrast to the beauty of its feathers is the pockmarked pale face, a miniature moon, cratered off-white that earned the bird the earlier name of warty-faced honeyeater. The painted honeyeater is common to these parts too, as are the rockwarbler, swift parrot, plum-headed finch and diamond firetail—a small finch less extravagant than its name suggests, but handsome nonetheless; a dry-red beak and bands of white, black and tan feathering.
Last time he used the shotgun it was pointed at a Silkie, tiny things a little smaller than a bowling ball with plumage like shampooed cotton. There was nothing left, he says, but a handful of feathers. The next two Silkies went more traditionally with the butchers-block approach. Axe on the chopping block. Heads lopped off. Bodies hung like bats and drained—careful not to let it stiffen. Then scalding, picking and washing. By the time the feathers had come out there was about as much left of them as the one that had faced the .308.
A kangaroo, though, would give a lot more meat, enough for two for a month. There was one just there, he says, pointing vaguely, lazily, to anywhere close enough for an easy shot, a certain shot. He’s re-creating the scene that took place this afternoon on the far side of the property where two saggy horizons of wire, camouflaged in scrub by their rust and partial collapse, mark the border with Gardens of Stone National Park. Across an unknowable boundary, no discernible difference in terrain, is Wollemi National Park. The gun wasn’t at hand then, or in the retelling.
Wollemi sits on sedimentary strata composed of Narrabeen and Hawkesbury sandstone and shale, the Illawarra and Singleton Permian coal measures, and the Wianamatta shales. Mines are the major source of employment in the region, and have been since the late nineteenth century. When the railway arrived at Capertee from Wallerawang in 1882 the mining of local mineral sources—coal, limestone and oil shale—provided work to keep as yet unlucky prospectors around a little longer.
Today the only major road to Lithgow (the nearest city at around 40 kilometres south) takes you past the Xstrata-operated Baal Bones Colliery, which caused a stir in 2011 with fears the neighbouring Wolgan escarpment would collapse amid the mining. It’s difficult not to conjure an image of the prince of hell to accompany the black artificial mountains they build, harvesting with less precision than the ants. Flesh-flecked coal viewed from afar appears like a negative, an inversion of the busy darkness that danced on the duck’s exposed flesh this morning.
Remaining daylight hours are punctuated by the occasional phuph of the air rifle, and the less frequent ornithological outrage that follows a successful shot, if that’s what you’d call it. Wollemi is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out’.
The next morning all that remains of our crime scene is the feathers. I ask if he had tampered with the corpse. Negative. ‘The ants,’ he explains.
Crannies in HQ—beneath a bed, in a kitchen cabinet, on an uneven beam that supports the corrugated roof—are laid with rat-traps. Mostly, anything smaller than a fist that finds its way inside is free to stay. The doors and walls are patchy in places, and hold no signification of property for what else lives here. He explains that a trapped and killed rat tossed outside will be gone in a day once the ants arrive.
They were working tirelessly yesterday, a pheromonal bustling, but the absence of any skerrick of a skeleton makes me uncertain. Meanwhile, another duck is on death row, but this time we know who will take its life. He will.
The initial victim, now a meal for ants, was a mother that had recently birthed a small brace of ducklings, been struck with an injury (or perhaps post-natal exhaustion) and resigned to self-imposed inaction, rarely moving from her post partway between the water’s edge and a wattle flaring with spring’s assistance. We are still uncertain how she got from there, around the murky shore of the dam, and across the dirt road guttered by parallel greying gum stumps, to where we found those first signs of struggle. ‘Elephant graveyard’ theories are posited—the duck knew her time was here, and wandered out of sight of family to die with dignity—but fail to gain much traction.
The father of her offspring is the next in line to go. He’s been behaving in much the same way as the choughs, it seems. He too is a bastard, a prick, a dick. And with him it’s undeniable. The only other male is new on the scene. Washed-out Dalmatian colouring on its head, rich orange bill and flashes of deep olive and teal in its otherwise black back. He is a plump and personable duck that, knee-high to me, inverts the old adage with his size.
All attempts he makes at socialising with the females—a softly speckled white and grey one in particular, which appears to have reciprocal emotions and intentions—are rapidly thwarted by the chough-spirited, pristine white male duck. He grunts and scrapes and throws his weight around, tantrum-esque if it weren’t so forceful. When the black-backed duck makes towards a potential mate, he is inevitably intercepted by the white duck, which plays the angles and shepherds him away, an aggressive water-borne herder. On the rare occasions when the black-backed duck can get close enough to manufacture a mood, perhaps even commence coitus, his nemesis soon arrives to pry the two apart, bill snapping.
This patch, his patch, is mostly sandstone, shallow soil with few nutrients; a dry creek (perhaps a minor leak from Coco Creek) across the narrow property margins; a wonderful craggy mess with a scribble of bulldozed dirt veins running through it. Some of the climbs are so steep that, standing upright, your face feels inches from the same stone debris and caramel soil on which your feet, calves tight, hold you. The last unpolluted river in New South Wales, a perennial stream named the Colo River, flows east from its rise at the confluence of the Wolgan and Capertee rivers, north-east of Newnes on the Great Dividing Range, and lies largely weaved through Wollemi National Park. Maybe it leaks into Coco when things aren’t so dry.
He’s too high up for richer soil, the basins and land on Wianamatta shale grow better, on that earth you can have stock graze. But he’s eager for his plot to be self-sufficient. That’s why he’s keen on kangaroo. It’s mid September, enough sting in the sun to produce at least a smell from the duck’s corpse by mid afternoon.
Twenty years ago, in the bush beyond the border, David Noble, a field officer of the Wollemi National Park in Blackheath, exhumed a species. Prior to his chance discovery the Wollemia, a genus of coniferous tree in the Araucariaceae family, was known only through fossil records and thought to have become extinct two million years ago. Noble had stumbled upon a grove of Wollemia nobilis, an Australian species of the Wollemia now known as Wollemi pine (despite it’s not being one, technically). It’s true family, Araucariaceae, can be traced back 200 million years to the Triassic period, and the oldest known fossil of this particular genus stretches back almost half as long, some 90 million years. Noble has discovered a Lazarus taxon, a living horticultural dinosaur. Elsewhere on its family tree are more familiar branches that haven’t battled with resurrection: kauri, Norfolk Island, hoop, bunya and monkey puzzle pines.
Shortly after Noble’s initial September 1994 discovery, two more groves of Wollemi pine were found growing nearby on moist ledges in a deep rainforest gorge. The exact location of all the wild groves is a closely guarded secret, since isolation is crucial to the species’ survival and natural regeneration. Today adult Wollemi pine in the wild number less than 100.
The Wollemi pine was listed under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and the wild groves were believed to have played a role in inscribing the Greater Blue Mountains area on the Heritage List in December 2000.
At the National Arboretum—250 hectares showcasing more than a hundred different forests and comprising rare, threatened or culturally significant tree species from around the world positioned on the outskirts of Canberra—Wollemi pine are grown for conservation and data collection.
The country’s largest botanic gardens, located at Mount Annan in south-west Sydney, supports a seed bank housing about 6000 vacuum-packed foil packages of seeds, representing about 4000 species, most of which are native to Australia. Crucially, the cache contains the rare Blue Mountains Eucalyptus copulans; the rare Nielsen Park she-oak (Allocasuarina portuensis), which takes its common name from the reserve in Sydney’s eastern suburbs at which it grows; and, of course, the Wollemia nobilis. These are part of recovery programs for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and research by the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust.
The remains have been tampered with. The scratch of chickens and ruckus of the ducks further scatter the detached snowflake feathers of the deceased. I read up on ants. They’ll strip a bone bare, but they won’t eat it. We’re still missing a skeleton. And we still don’t know where the head is.
The duck is slowly cooking, but it smells more generally of animal and death than any distinct sense or scent of warming poultry. At this time of year, and on into summer, the pendulous foliage of the Wollemi sports lighter coloured tips, shades of Granny Smith, in contrast to older foliage of deeper, darker green. It’s bark, less affected by the weather once in maturity, resembles the back side of a Crunch bar held under a magnifying glass, the spheres of bubbling chocolate fixed just so with the help of puffed rice. Like coffee beans whole, but bruised and damp.
When winter comes and with it frost, the Wollemi pine will become dormant, its growing buds developing a white waxy coating that is stained in parts the colour of ruby grapefruit juice. This wax will protect the growing tips and is thought to have helped the species survive multiple ice ages.
He was wrong about the ants. We’ve been here two nights now, and this morning find, about ten metres from the original site of death, behind a tuft of tussock grass, the skeleton, most of the organs gone, but an assembly line of ants still working to stockpile minute mounds of meat for the queen. Chickens peck at the carcass indiscriminately, taking just ants or flesh (what tough strings of it are left) too into their beaks. The chickens are voracious, degrees away from cannibalism.
Standing at the dam’s edge are the rusted blue-grey statues of two heron, thin serpentine necks fixed in the act of craning south-west. That way lies the hand-built jetty-cum-deck (its partially submerged supports are trunks of trees felled while drawing roads) crowned by two and half walls of laurel-green corrugated iron, a roof of the same, all attached with roofing screws to more locally sourced gums. The structure’s tongue-in-cheek misnomer—the yacht club—is spelled out in red letters four inches tall, screwed onto the half wall.
At its end a plastic slide that dips once, then again, has been salvaged from a back-yard jungle gym, dipped in chocolate-brown paint and bolted on. The almost four-foot drop from its end to the opaque bronze surface; that non-space made more obvious by previously submerged height markings scratched with white-out on the black metal legs supporting the slide, presently in plain view; the once damp shins of these legs, dried again and now exposed, rusted to match in colour the murkiness of the water that once kept them wet; all of this is a reminder that more rain is required. A slice of water the size of a netball court and three foot deep—where could it have gone and how?
Research conducted by Forestry Planta-tions Queensland and the Mount Annan Botanic Garden has shown that, compared with the production of other Australian natives including grevillea, banksia and eucalypts, the Wollemi is in the low-water-use category. Commercial services giant Rentokil (of the many pies in which their fingers are burrowed, indoor plant hire is one), conducted their own research into Wollemi water consumption, the results of which consolidated those above:
The Wollemi Pine has a remarkable ability to tolerate soil dryness for an extended period of three weeks under medium to high light conditions with fluctuating temperatures between 5°C and 30°C—a unique feature to this species which is not evident in our comprehensive range of traditional interior plants.
In 2006 the first limited release of propagated Wollemi pine—292 plants—were auctioned off by Wollemi Australia Pty Ltd (a subsidiary company of Forestry Plantations Queensland, the principal commercial plantation forest grower in Queensland) under licence from the Botanic Gardens Trust (Sydney). Averaging around $3600 per tree, there was one group of 15 trees sold as a single lot for just shy of $150,000. Royalties (the auction raised $1.59 million) from sales were used to fund conservation of the pines and other rare and endangered plant species. Wollemi Australia also publishes the Wollemi Watch, a quarterly newsletter for ‘Wollemi Pine enthusiasts everywhere’. The most recent issue, number 14, was released in 2007.
Botanic gardens around the country—from Sydney to Southbank Parklands—care for and display such propagated pines. Sir David Attenborough planted the first Wollemi pine outside Australia at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 2005. The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh (Scotland) and Glasnevin (Dublin, Ireland) have followed suit, with varying degrees of star power ceremoniously breaking the soil. Else-where internationally propagated pines have taken root in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Taiwan, Japan and Canada.
While things at the Wollemi Watch seem to have slowed down somewhat since 2007, the popularity of its patron plant, and the intrigue it attracts, have not. Despite the perilously low wild population, propagated pines are remarkably unfussy. Once they’ve established roots, they are fast growers and can gain half a metre to a metre in height a year. The largest Wollemi in the wild is 40 metres tall, with a main trunk of 63 centimetres in width. The Wollemi is fast growing in light, favours acid soils, and temperatures from –5 to 45° C. A grove of Wollemi pines planted in 2009 at Inverewe Garden, Scotland, believed to be the most northerly location of any successful planting, survived temperatures of –7°C during the winter of 2009–10.
Granted a licence to propagate and market the pines, since 1996 Wollemi Australia has promoted the ‘propagate to regenerate’ approach: purchasing a plant for your own garden as a grand gesture of protection against extinction. I have no intention of disputing that approach.
The anthem of the bush is no longer punctured with the occasional phuph of an air rifle solo. Dad left yesterday and put it away I don’t know where. Despite the blood of a few choughs and Silkies on his hands and the bark-strewn dirt; despite the price on that duck’s head that he’ll soon claim; despite the rats, and if his shot or nerves improve, a roo; he offers this patch, his patch, his own contribution to preventing extinction.
The cast of turtles that were so close to being empty shells plucked from the middle of Glen Davis Road or just beside it, rehabilitated in the dam, each eventually left that wet nest. He wrestled back from a goanna’s grip Sasha, the Akita-Dalmatian cross. He coaxes into nets with mince yabbies that he then brings onto the bowing wood of the deck, where they are admired, fed more mince, and resubmerged, returning to the heard but not seen fish and frogs that he also feeds and marvels at. The ants that eat whatever’s left behind or out, anything asleep, are part of the place, as are the nine shoulder-high wattle bushes emerging from the reeds around the dam—all owe, in some small part, their ongoing existence to him. There is also, to the left of the caravan, a small army of succulents that he cultivates.
He has fostered a totality of nature that, if not having sprung into being here, at least congregated beside the dam; it’s a small circle of life alongside a small, wet, bronze one that gives and sustains it. All this is due to the devotion of a man who shoots birds and builds them houses; a man who, out of kindness and compassion for one duck having a hard time of life, would kill, cook and eat another so that he may help to clear the cluttered path of the first.