by Louisa Atkinson
On Wednesday Sue from Whispering Gums discussed Louisa Atkinson’s pioneering nature journalism. The following is Sue’s selection from the series by Atkinson, “A Voice From the Country”.
IT was a bright pleasant day when we started, with rather a numerous party, in search of a choice and beautiful fern, which is hitherto unknown to us except in that especial gully, and the waterfalls. For a short distance we followed a surveyor’s road along the ridge of a hill, and then plunged into the green bosky shades of the dell; water clear as crystal encouraged a luxuriant growth of cryptogameæ, which clothed each rock in green velvet pile, or in the form of ferns, clustered in every crevice and patch of sand. The course of the gully for the greater part of its length is almost lateral with the range, yet it has a sufficient declivity to cause its waters a tumultuous series of rapids and falls. On the occasion of this first visit the water was low, and the volume of the stream inconsiderable. In many places it had worn for itself pools in the surface of the rock, sandstone stratified with quartz pebbles and ironstone, varying from a foot to six feet, or upwards, in diameter; at other times it gurgled among the broken masses of stone, or disappeared beneath the overshadowing ferns.
To describe these plants, and indeed the flora of the glen, requires the pen of a botanist. We added twenty-six distinct varieties of fern alone to our Hortus siccus, and established rooted specimens in our little fernery, of the greater number of these. Some were almost microscopic; others varying in their proportions to the graceful tree, Dicksonia antarctica of Labiel, some of which must attain a height of thirty feet. Parasites and orchideæ clustered on the rocks and fallen timber, and even clung to the growing trees. Several varieties of plants with rooting stems served to clothe the trunks of the trees in green. The shade was deep, for high hills rose abruptly from the stream, often broken by masses of rock towering far over head, and affording shelter for that wonderfully fleet-footed and agile creature, the rock wallaby. Many of these boulders presented cavities excavated by the atmosphere.
The silence was almost oppressive; the very birds were silent. But on that first visit the merry voices of childhood and the barking of dogs put silence to flight; — it was on our second visit that the full solemnity of these voiceless solitudes struck us. Shortly after the junction of another stream with the one we were pursuing, the Long Fall begins. Looking downwards, little could be seen. The water flowed almost imperceptibly over a steep incline, and was lost to sight beneath the overarching branches of fern trees. Further than that we did not then penetrate, but retraced our steps, enjoying at once the raptures of a lover of nature and art; objects for the pencil everywhere presented themselves.
Our second visit was more adventurous. A sawyer’s road leading along the ridge of the hill conducted our steps to within a short distance of the top of the gully, immediately above the long fall, and here quitting the road, a brief walk through a scrub, chiefly composed of a dwarf mimosa, now in bloom, Eucalypti, the wooden pear, Xylomelum pyriforme, and waratah, led to the point of the spur. The view was extensive and solemnising in its utter solitude, its extent and beauty—this feeling of the littleness of man, and supremacy of the Creator, is a sensation which we always experience in such scenes.
On the one side ran the deep glen, on the other the mountain fell rapidly to the low cultivated land, screened from view by the forest; but in the vista, formed by the gully, farms and woodlands interspersed, extended like a richly worked carpet, and then the high hills on the opposite side of the gully, bristling with wood and rock. Slowly and cautiously had the descent to be accomplished; now a huge rock to pass round, now a fleeting sand to mistrust. The recent rains had swollen the stream, and its roaring added not a little to the wildness of the sounds and sight; save for that all was so still—then comes a cry again and again repeated, almost overpowered by the waters, but evidently the utterance of pain or distress—our dog! it is not to be seen; we raised our voice in vain, and sadly concluded that it has lost its footing, and the cries were its, as it fell lower and lower into the abyss of leaves and waters spread in such profound shadow beneath us; but no, Aime bounded forward, and we remembered it was the note of the pheasant, or lyre bird. On first approaching the rocks crossing the gully, one of these birds fell, so rapid was its flight to the shelter of some tree ferns at the bottom by the stream, and with a few springs disappeared in the thicket. Strange as it may seem, though often within sound of this interesting bird, it was the first one which in a living state and at liberty we had had the opportunity of observing. The great length of the tail, which it carried during flight in a horizontal position with the body, gave it the appearance of being a large bird indeed. Knowing that their habits were so far gregarious as that three or four went together, the bird being alone occasioned some surprise. Arrived at the margin of the stream, we once more stood at the top of the first leap of the Long Fall, but on this side could get about twenty or thirty feet from its commencement. The body of water was so augmented as to present a foaming white mass, which, dashing down the declivity, leaped out of sight beneath the drooping fern branches. The fall is not grand, but pleasing, particularly from its situation and accessories.
On a third visit we crossed the stream, and, ascending above the rocks immediately margining the water with great difficulty made our way to a rock, commanding a fine view of some, perhaps 100 feet of successive falls; the bed of the creek being rock the water is much shattered, and looks quite white. Hoping, further down, to be able to descend to the actual foot of the cataract, we pursued our way, but the stream had evidently cut its course through a cliff of red sandstone; the bottom of this cleft was clothed in a luxuriant growth of trees and creepers; here the scene was very different to that we had just left; but more striking than the confined beauties visible in the shady bosky dell we had recently emerged—from that had been a pre-Raphelite study.
The cultivation in the lowlands was again visible, framed by high hills towering up from the river cliffs. The tree tops were absolutely enveloped in creepers, so as frequently to conceal their own foliage. The rush of waters were very audible, but they were un-seen, with the exception of a small tributary stream falling from the opposite hill.
Owing to the increase of water the bed of the stream could not be followed as on the occasion of our first visit; and in trying to keep equidistant from the top and bottom we reached a dizzy height, where progression was nervous work—every faculty being centred in selecting the safest path, we were startled by a shriek and the rush of some object over our head—it was the pheasant leaving her nest. Judge, ye students of nature, of our feelings, so rarely is the nests of this bird seen that we were informed by Mr. J. Douglass, who is well acquainted with the solitudes of the Kurrajong, that he had seen but two, one placed in the centre of a grass tree—his opinion is, that the hen lays but one egg, an idea verified in this instance. The nest was oval in form, the entrance being in the sides; it was placed on a rock, quite up to the edge; it was carefully constructed of the fibrous roots of ferns, and lined with feathers; the egg was much rounder than a domestic hen’s, and larger; the colour dark ash brown, shaded with black. The egg was too great a treasure to be left, though nest-robbing is our aversion, and it is now under a setting hen, who turns and treats it like her own fair ova. Should we be successful in domesticating this noble addition to the poultry yard, we shall indeed be delighted.
Not far from the pheasant’s nest, we encountered a rock wallaby, a rich-coloured specimen of kangaroo.
Since writing the above, the hen has broken the pheasant’s egg.
Atkinson, Louise, “A Voice From the Country: the Kurrajong Falls”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Aug 1860.
Thanks for posting this Elizabeth. I think it is a lovely example of her writing and her love of nature, notwithstanding the sad last line!
It is! And very evocative of the area.
You’d know more than I, of course, though I love the Blue Mountains and have been there several times.
I’ve only ever seen a lyrebird once – driving over the mountains to Jervis Bay.
I wonder know if I’ve overlooked ‘pheasants’ in other early accounts not knowing the writer meant lyrebirds.
Reminds me of Miles Franklin writing of (and wearing the fur of) ‘native cats’. I still don’t know what she means.
You hear quite a few lyre birds in the Blue Mountains still, Bill. No idea what MF meant by ‘native cats’ though. Maybe they were feral ones, even then?
Tiger Quolls according to Wiki (I wonder how many years have gone by without me bothering to look it up)