Friday, August 27, 2010

Return to Dolphin Beach

This past weekend, it was time again for the semi-annual-ish Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach conference, affectionately known as PBDB (pronounced "pay-bay-day-bay," if you're a native). For those of you who need a refresher on the concept, PBDB is a teeny little workshop-style conference on topics in philosophy of biology (duh), which brings together philosophers and biologists (and one wayward psychologist) for a weekend at the Dolphin Beach Holiday Park just outside of Moruya Heads, New South Wales.

Michael and I headed down to the coast in a hire car early on Friday morning, stopping in Braidwood on the way for the traditional lunch of savory pies at the Braidwood Deli. We skipped the steak-and-Guinness flavor in favor of the veggie curry.

Then we picked up our groceries for the weekend in Batemans Bay, and made it to the cabins by early afternoon. Michael wasted no time in settling in:

There were two talks in the evening, after everyone had arrived, and then we all grilled dinner together under the stars. Following dinner, we decamped to the beach for drinking and general merriment. The moon was too bright to do any proper stargazing, so we didn't feel at all bad about brightening things up with a beach bonfire.

What makes PBDB a unique conference is that it puts first emphasis on the place, not on the work. Sure, we're all there to listen to talks and give feedback and talk about intellectual issues, but it would be a crying shame to be stuck inside doing that when there's a beach literally across the street from our cabins.

For that reason, all of the talks are scheduled for the late afternoon and early evening, to allow plenty of time for beach-ing beforehand and for dining and chatting afterwards. And, for that reason, Michael and I found ourselves on Shelly Beach on Saturday morning, tugging on our wetsuits in preparation for a snorkel in the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

(Sartorial aside: The guy at the dive shop said that I was lucky he could find shoes that would fit me; it's the smallest size they make.)

The water was crystal clear and shockingly cold --- about 15 degrees C (that's about 60 degrees F, if you're keeping track) --- but I could hardly feel it inside my wetsuit and through the excitement of paddling around the cold-water corals and kelp forests. It wasn't the Great Barrier Reef, to be sure, but it was no less intensely thrilling for that. There were tons of fish of all sizes, my favorite of which were the pufferfish who buried themselves in the sand with just their bulging eyes showing, and darted quickly away on seeing us swim by.

After about a hour of snorkeling, we warmed up and dried off on the sand, then went back to the cabins for a grilled cheese lunch and hot showers before the afternoon talks. I took a bit of a break between two of the talks to wander around the grounds and say hello to the kangaroos eating grass between the trailer hook-ups.

On Sunday morning, we snorkeled again, this time at Mystery Bay. Luckily for us, the sun and tides held, and it was again an absolutely perfect day for being in the water.

We managed to make it quite far out despite a strong current, for which I think I should be grateful, since the work of swimming helped to keep me quite warm. We saw more pufferfish, a few solitary large fish, and several large schools of small fish darting in and out of the kelp. Michael's advisor, who has taken up marine biology as a serious side-interest, even spotted an octopus:

It was hiding under a rock formation just at the entrance to the cove, in water so shallow that I could stand in it. I definitely would never had seen it without PGS's help, and even after he pointed it out, all that we could see were its eyes and a swirl of tentacles that it had drawn in around itself.

Luckily, that wasn't the last of the natural highlights. On Monday morning, on our way back to Canberra, we drove to the far end of Dolphin Beach and spotted a pod of dolphins swimming just offshore... well as a whale!

I know it's a little hard to see, but trust me, it was there.

I love Dolphin Beach not only for the marine life, but also for the birds. This one is a red wattlebird:

The kookaburras on the grounds are quite used to humans, probably because they've been fed sausages off of the barbies one too many times. This one flew right up to our porch railing and let me get really close:

Given all that, it's not hard to see why this is far and away the best conference I attend. Sure, it was a little difficult to sit through academic talks after I'd been snorkeling all morning, and it's also true that every single article of clothing ended up covered with sand and had to be washed --- twice! --- upon our return to Canberra. And it must be said that this year suffered a bit by comparison to last year: no dramatic night skies, no bush poetry, no skinny-dipping in the phosphorescent bacteria... But I can't possibly argue with three days of glorious sunshine, swimming, good friends, and good times. Now that's the kind of philosophy I can get into.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two in the bush

People keep asking me why I'm in Australia. "Oh," I tell them, "It's a work trip. It's a really productive place for me to get writing done, and I've got a bunch of projects that I'm planning on finishing up." And it's true, I swear! But no one really believes me. I just don't understand why not.

Fine, point taken.

That's a view from this past weekend's amazing Aussie adventure trip down to the New South Wales coast. Michael and I stayed at Kim and Mel's bush house ("bush" being Oz-speak for "rural area") on the border of the Bodalla State Forest and just a few kilometers from the ocean. It's not officially in a town, but the nearest one is Central Tilba (not to be confused with Tilba Tilba, which is down the road a bit).

It's about three and a half hours away from Canberra, on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. Michael bravely did all of the driving on the left side of the road, and on some pretty rough unpaved terrain at that, for which I am very grateful. I did try my hand at it, briefly, when I was sure there would be no one else on the road. It's profoundly disorienting. I suppose I could get used to it if I had to --- but I don't have to, so I won't. It's ever so much easier to just hang out in the passenger seat and try not to squirm when the left side of the car gets a little too close to the edge of the road.

We started the trip on Saturday morning at the Exhibition farmers market to the north of town.

It didn't have quite as many produce stands as our market at home, but there was still a lot of nice vegetation to choose from, and there was also one stand selling some awesome aged goat cheese. Oh, and vegetarian curry puffs. And spring rolls. Should've skipped breakfast.

On the way down to the coast, we stopped in Braidwood, as is traditional, to pick up some veggie curry pies for lunch. We weren't hungry at the time, so we got them cold to-go and heated them up in the oven once we got to the house. Yum. I can see absolutely no reason why savory individual-serving pies are not being sold in the US. They're a perfect little self-contained meal, and you can fill 'em with anything you have on hand. Anyone looking for a business opportunity?

We made it to the house by late afternoon and started off by doing a little exploring. The place itself is rather modest, so I won't describe it any detail, except to say that it's terribly drafty and only heated by one ancient wood-fired stove, which is nowhere near the bedroom. An excuse for extra snuggling, I suppose?(1) Anyway, we got a lot of practice in building fires, and luckily eucalyptus makes excellent kindling.

The point of the excursion wasn't the house itself, obviously, but the grounds.

There's a veranda that extends along one whole side of the house, and it overlooks two terraced lawn areas. The top one is quite a thin strip, with a few trees and a patch of flowers, but the bottom one is larger and has a trampoline.

Let me try that again: OMFG THERE'S A TRAMPOLINE!

Guess even I can't be staid and scholarly all the time. Whee!

Further down the hill, there's a small pond, covered entirely in green scum and the happy home of what sounded like several hundred frogs. Around and beyond that is wild eucalyptus forest, part of which shelters at least two families of lyrebirds.

For those of you who don't know what a lyrebird is, you must hear it to believe it:

We only caught one glimpse of one of them, late at night, as it was running through the bush and up the driveway --- damn, it was moving fast! I guess that compensates for the fact that it can't fly. It looked like a cross between a black cat and a small turkey, with a huge flowing tail. Completely impossible to photograph. But I did get a recording of one of them singing:

Given that lyrebirds imitate sounds in their environment in their song, I can only assume from this recording that R2-D2 lives somewhere down in the gully, and possibly has a typewriter.

There were dozens of other birds on the property as well, most of which I didn't have a chance to photograph, so you'll just have to trust me that I saw close to twenty different species, including the truly magnificent yellow-tailed black cockatoo (which, in case you're wondering, is a black cockatoo with a yellow tail. No joke!).

This tiny one is a male superb fairy-wren, who wouldn't quite hold still for the camera:

Here's brief video of an eastern spinebill, who liked to attack his reflection in the side-view mirrors of our car. I really enjoyed listening to his voice; it's such a lovely melody.

On Sunday, we explored the local beaches. We started at the Wallanga Beach, just on the opposite side of Central Tilba from the bush house, which is accessed by following the signs to the cemetery, parking next to said cemetery, then climbing over the wooden access point so as not to touch the electric fence. Ah, Australia.

It was way too cold for swimming, so we just strolled along the surf and peered into the tidepools.

There were a number of very cool seabirds hanging around, including a sea eagle, which could actually hover in mid-air. Didn't manage to get a good picture of it, but I did capture these two pied oystercatchers, who, true to their name, were digging in the sand for their lunch.

We drove up the coast a bit to get to some of the other beaches, and it was on the way back from 1080 Beach that I spotted the first wallaby on the side of the road.

I know that I've posted that picture before, but I think it bears repeating, don't you? It spooked when the car got too close, but it did put us on the lookout for wildlife. Sure enough, Michael saw a second one just a little ways up the road towards Mystery Bay, and this one held still for its glamor shot:

Kim says that they're swamp wallabies, aka "swampies." I say, "Awww!"

We tried using the large floodlight back at the house that night to see if we could find some more, but to no avail, despite some promising rustling in the bushes down by the gully. We spent the rest of the evening banking up the fire, stargazing, and making curry with some fresh red curry paste that we got at the market.

Monday, our last full day at the bush house, started off with a bit of exploring around the property, mostly down by the pond in the gully. A tree had fallen across it in the latest storm, making a nice warm spot for sitting and watching the tadpoles swim around in the shallows.

Michael, feeling in touch with his hippie California roots, encouraged the still-upright trees to stay that way:

Then we scared up a few lizards from under the leaf litter near the driveway:

There was also a gigantic monitor-type lizard sunning itself on the side of the road as we drove into Central Tilba for a look around. So it was good day for reptiles, but not so much for mammals: We spotted two more wallabies grazing on the side of the road, but barely had time to see their tails as they hopped away. Since there wasn't much to see in Tilba itself, apart from a nice woodworking gallery and some touristy shops and a truly ancient general store, we drove back up the road towards the house and past it, heading up to Mount Dromedary, one of the highest peaks in New South Wales.

We soon found that we couldn't get very far, as the paved road degraded to a dirt road and then to a 4x4 track soon after that. We limped on a bit in the car, but decided to turn back when the road crossed over a fast-running stream and into a large slick of mud. I'm not sure we would have been able to explain adequately to the rental agency why there was a broken axle and flooded tires in our poor little Toyota Corrola, even if we could have gotten a cellphone signal to contact a tow truck in the first place. Instead, we pulled off to the side of the stream and made the acquaintance of a curious, and very large, kookaburra:

The rest of our explorations on the mountain turned up no more wallabies, alas, but there was some beautiful and wild Australian scenery, and a typically overly-hairy Australian caterpillar.

Since it was getting dark, we headed back to the house and cooked up a batch of homemade pumpkin and ricotta gnocchi that we'd gotten at the market on Saturday. We'd been planing to go out spotlighting again, but it started to rain. Although that plan was spoiled, it was infinitely relaxing to be lulled to sleep by the soothing sound of the rain on the roof --- not to mention the knowledge that the main water tank would be full to the brim for our morning showers.

Tuesday morning it was still raining, nixing my plans for one last bounce on the trampoline before saying goodbye to the place. I guess I'll have to come back.

1. Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, provides the best description of (and defense for) this kind of sleeping:
"We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A musical interlude

IPoL presents

a Tilba Tilba Production

(to the tune of "Let it Be", with apologies to The Beatles)

Maestro, if you please...

When I find myself at Kimbo's bush house
This marsupial comes to me
Hopping through the forest:

And in the hour of twilight
You were standing in this place, I see
Because you've left your tracks here,

(C'mon, everybody sing!)

Wallaby, wallaby
Wallaby, oh wallaby,
Are you too shy for photos,

(Take it home, guys!)

Wallaby, wallaby
Wallaby, oh wallaby,
You're my swampy sweetheart,

And the crowd goes wild! Thank you, thank you! Goodnight!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The importance of kangaroos

Just to prove that I'm actually in Australia:

It still seems indescribably strange that something of this size and shape, which moves by hopping rather than walking, should be living comfortably in a scrubby forest. I know that that's just bias on my part --- I happen be used to deer and raccoons, not kangaroos and possums. The wonderful thing about travel is the way it makes me realize that it easily could have been the other way around.

These photos are from a hike (er, bushwalk) up Mount Ainslie, which we took our first weekend here.

Mount Ainslie is one of two main peaks (hills, really) in Canberra, and provides a wonderful panoramic view, which I took in upside-down:

Michael, sensibly, stayed upright:

Our friend Daniel, who joined us for the hike, even took some videos of the kangaroos, which are absolutely worth watching if you've never seen them in action before. It also drives home rather vividly the fact that kangaroos, large though they are, are quite well camouflaged --- I was there when these videos were taken, and even I have trouble spotting them unless they're moving.

Coming from North America, I expected kangaroos to hop like rabbits or frogs, since those are the only hopping animals I'm really familiar with. But they don't. No wonder the earlier European settlers were so stymied in their attempts to draw and describe the animals here. Just check out this early drawing of a kangaroo:

See? Looks nothing like the real thing. I'm tempted not to blame the artist --- he just had absolutely no frame of reference for what kangaroos should look like. But rather than relying on his eyes and his hands to capture what was in front of him, he allowed his pre-existing notions of animal shapes and structures to get in the way. That's the importance of kangaroos, and the lesson that I try to take to heart when I travel: to see things not as I expect them to be, but as they truly are.