A man in search of his soul

A friend told me there was a mushroom containing psilocybin which grew locally; he described this fungus in detail—small, with a dusty gold skin and, underneath, yellow-green gills tending towards cyan blue; the stems were slender and fragile, and they arched outwards at the bottom to make a characteristic pediment where they entered the earth. These mushrooms, called goldtops, tended to be found after rain where small impromptu streams carried the spores down forest paths; or under trees, also after rain. There was a particular spot in Patonga, the next village to ours, where they grew thickly in the park that runs along the shores of the estuary as the creek broadens among mangroves before narrowing again as it comes down from Patongalonga.

I was never able to find this particular spot, but I did identify the mushroom itself. My friend only ever ate the stalks, throwing the heads away because he thought there might be too much toxicity in them; but when I came to try them it seemed a waste to do that, so I would eat the whole thing. They had a pleasant taste, slightly nutty, inevitably mixed in with pieces of sandy grit adhering to the stem. I had my first one at the beginning of the path to the waterfall, where there is the remains of an old saw pit and a deep deposit of yellow clay, on the margins of which the goldtops sometimes grew. This day there were a couple of others I also picked, dropping them into my shirt pocket for later, then carrying on into the bush.

The sky was overcast, full of soft grey clouds moulded by wind currents into smooth creamy swirls. Below, the still, slate-coloured sea was cut through with purple lights like mica glints. Apart from the cries of birds sounding loudly, intermittently in the inert air, it was quiet as I walked up the path to the waterfall, which at this point runs past tennis courts and parallel to the road to a rich man’s house. You cannot see house or courts, but the concrete block fire station could be glimpsed through trees on the left, with a wide patch of burnt ground around it from when the Bush Brigade’s last barbecue got away on them. Then all of that, the rutted, clay road, the acrid blackened ground, the weeds encroaching from suburban gardens, fell behind as I entered the hushed green shade of the bush.

The path winds along the side of a ridge until it reaches the Ochre Caves, a massive outcrop overhang within which the orange and white sandstone, sculpted by wind and water into filigrees and curlicues like those in the morning's sky, is graffitied with names and dates of otherwise forgotten visits. Here there is a place where you can stand and hear the falling water echo from the rockface, very loud, right next to your ear, sounding much closer than the real waterfall chinking and glinting through the trees. I climbed up the damp slippery rocks to one side of the wide lip of stone over which the water cascades, and came out into a broad basin where the stream runs into a shallow pool. Water boatmen sculled the meniscus, their blurred shadows flitting behind them on the rust orange bottom. I crossed over to the other side and climbed up a sandstone shelf to the next level.

Here the stream meanders along a narrow causeway, with bush close on either side, the eucalypts leaning their still leaves over, the wattles dropping golden pollen down. Tiny beaches, miniatures of those on the sea shore, gather at the margins of the flow. I kept on walking up until the path faded to stepping stones in the creek, then went along a low sandy bank flanking a wide, deep pool with a rope swing hanging over it from the branch of a leaning tree. It was warm, and there was no-one around, so I took off my clothes and slid naked into the brown water, letting the encrusted salt from my last sea swim wash away. Then I climbed up over another smooth rock shelf to Pearlie Ponds.

Pebbles of red and yellow ochre lie in the water of the ponds, and people use them to draw with on the flat or sloping stone faces of the stream bed. There were fish and birds and trees, a rainbow, hearts with arrows, names, initials, dates, spirals, chevrons and random other marks. When it rains, the pigment washes off, leaving vague, faded outlines behind and sending coloured streams down over the rock. Sometimes charcoal from burnt trees is used, and then the black, too, runs down to darken the water. Impromptu fireplaces were scattered about the gallery, so it resembled a primitive campsite. Where the water pours over the shelf into the swimming pool below, the soft sandstone has been carved by hands or worn away and then it seems that this place is neither ancient nor modern but one where time has gone so far it curls around and finds itself back at its source.

The track leaves the course of the stream here and follows the contour of the ridge, but I continued in the bed itself, climbing up over massive tumbled boulders to another, smaller pool and then on past two huge rocks with the gap between them dammed by the flood-borne debris of fallen trees. The bush on the banks thinned to scrub and the sandstone outcrops showed pink and white and grey through the sparse tough vegetation. The ubiquitous grey-green was lit here and there with tiny trails of intense purple, or the bright crimson spider crouch of a hakea or grevillia, or the soft lavender of a small shrub with almond-shaped leaves. I began seeing spiders.

The first one was enormous, at least two hand widths across, poised on the underside of a great rock protruding out over a still black pool. Its reflection—attenuated thorax, bulbous abdomen, great jointed spindly legs—rose to meet it from below, like its Siamese twin, joined at the tail. A rock spider, I guess. Perhaps they stalk their prey across the quivering meniscus of the water, or perhaps they wait for some unwary creature to come down under on their rock. This one was immobile and anyway on the far side of the pool from where I was; the only way to approach it was through the dark water and, though it was not cold, I could not even imagine doing that.

Further on, as the slopes above get drier and harsher, the slit of the creekbed becomes even lusher and I stepped ankle deep in grasses which released a delicate fragrance as they were crushed beneath my boots; hearing the falsetto creaking of frogs stop as I came near, I began to run into the webs of golden orb weavers. These are large grey spiders with yellow and black legs, which spin an intricate web out of a tough and elastic thread of golden silk. They are complex, three dimensional webs around which, when they are established, gather the smaller subsidiary webs of smaller, subsidiary males, poised in their suburban outposts waiting for the opportunity to visit the centre and consummate their longings.

What is remarkable about the female golden weaver is the black and white pattern she bears on her abdomen. As I continued my walk, and found more and more webs blocking my path, slung between walls of greenery which, by now, almost met across the creekbed, these abdominal patterns seemed more and more like masks. Each one was different, yet each conformed to the primeval pattern of our kind: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, with tattooed or painted chin, cheeks and forehead. I did not feel threatened by these beings grimacing up at me; it did not alarm me to find, as it were, a sprite on the back of every spider: rather it seemed as if the richness of the world had disclosed another detail of itself, beyond, or behind which there were more, as yet hidden revelations to be had.

Deep in the valley, near the cliff face at its head, the big trees returned, with their smooth grey or white trunks, their gouts of red or amber gum oozing from wounds in the bark, their immemorial presence. Here the scrub was so dense on either bank that it literally joined above the surface of the water in a thick mass I had to push apart in order to go on, and there was no place for spiders to spin their webs. The stream was a tiny trickle, a mere thread of liquid in the electric green swampy grass where the sticky tendrilled red beaded pods of tiny carnivorous plants lay open.

At length I came to a deep, dark cleft in the rock, full of black water, with a mossy brown shelf at one end and a little stone bud at the other. Ferns and grasses leaned over the still surface. The silence of the afternoon was a deep bass hum under everything. I bent and saw my own face rising towards me. My lips touched the surface and the cold, colourless, sweet tasting water flooded into my mouth. I felt myself falling forward head first into that fissure and disappearing forever ...

The water dissolved the unspoken words of thought off my tongue, the voices in my head diminished and faded and a profound emptiness, echoed in the stillness of the grey green trees and grey tumbled stones on every side, took their place. It was as if I was myself at the heart of a web made, not out of golden silk or silver thought, but from the very silence itself. It was profound, by which I mean depthless; it was endless, by which I mean that everything there was, was underpinned by that silence, even the intermittent birdsong or the returning creak of the frogs; and as I moved it moved with me.

I left the source of the stream, climbing directly up one side of the valley, following the sandstone scarp around until I met the path, going on to the top of Gad’s Hill, then walking eastward along the Hope Range, that line of cliffs which defines the northern bank of the Hawkesbury River as it flows into Broken Bay. From there, you can see the whole panorama of the river system, with its humped bush-covered headlands, its long snaky inlets, its wide blue waters crossed by random white lines of boat trails and deeper, more subtle flows of tidal warps or riverine currents.

Coming down from the Hope Range, just past the massive orange overhang where pieces of chert and flint lie in fine sand by a cave mouth, a tree had fallen across the track. It was an old dead grey spike with its roots still clawed into the sandstone, charred black along one side in a bushfire, which probably became waterlogged in a storm and collapsed. The trunk split as it fell, scattering comb from a beehive across the brown metal and red clay track. I picked up a piece of it and sniffed the faint honey aroma rising from the waxy hexagonals. In some of the cells there were dead bees; they were the native kind, stingless, with striped conical abdomens. A few live ones were still clinging to the pale golden brown of the newly fractured comb left in the stump or hovering confusedly above the deep ebony of the old. Someone had been there before me, clearing debris from the track, taking whatever honey there was.

I went on, walking back down the fire trail with the piece of honeycomb in my hand, and saw a honeyeater singing on a branch, its neck taut and elongated, its throat swollen to squeeze out the liquid notes, in black silhouette before the yellow atrocity of the sky. Goldtops, I thought, over and over; golden weavers; golden sky: it seemed there was a perception behind every perception, the way on a sunny afternoon there is a shadow behind every tree. This regression is infinite in the merest sense of the word. It goes forever. The feeling of a moment draws back to reveal a glade beyond which comes the song of a lyre bird imitating a car alarm before the black buzzing of an aeroplane in the depthless blue of the sky. A line from Illuminations came: Arrivée de toujours, qui t'en iras partout. Arrival of always, which will go everywhere.


mark young said...

Absolutely bloody brilliant!

Martin Edmond said...

Thanks, Mark.

Okir said...

Wow. What can I say? Thanks for this little journey -- I needed that.


Martin Edmond said...

a pleasure ...

Mai Tuyen said...

thank you