Category Archives: Issue8Nonfiction

Leichardt’s Trilobite, Jamie Derkenne

Derkenne

The road north east of Singleton in the Hunter Valley passes through gently rolling country, alongside huge open cut mines and cattle pasture until it reaches the Glennies Creek Dam and skirts around the east side of Lake St Clair, a body of water two kilometres across and about eight kilometres long dotted with grassy islands, built specifically to supply water to the coal mines.

Past the dam the road starts steeply climbing towards the Mount Royal National Park through hilly grasslands. Soon after, the landscape loses its cultivated aspect and takes on a wilder appearance. The road narrows, becoming rutted dirt. A huge boulder tumbled from a ridge above lies in the middle of the road in such a way that the car can barely inch pass.  Massive stinging trees 40 metres high with large light green heart-shaped leaves sweep their branches low over the road dappling the shafts of sunlight. I once stood barefoot on a stinging tree leaf that had been rotting in a pool of water long enough for it to appear black. The touch caused excruciating pain lasting days. Interspersed among the stinging trees are native tamarind with leaves two thirds of a metre long, and mossy stands of Antarctic beech, a tree that grew in South America and Australia before they cleaved off the Antarctic continent. Creepers, thicker than a human arm stretch from trunks to the canopy, and thick carpets of lichens and mosses cover fallen branches. Apart from the National Parks trails, the forest is all but impenetrable. The air becomes cooler, less dusty and more humid. Lyre birds, mimicking chainsaws, reversing graders and people chatting call from the forest depths. The walking trails are so deeply littered with leaves that I nearly step on a coiled yellow and black tiger snake, all but invisible in the litter, slumbering in the middle of the path in a patch of sunlight. It watches me warily as I walk around.

The next day I park at a small picnic area that has a lush green lawn manicured by grazing potoroo, wallaby-like creatures no more than 50 centimetres tall. The lawn leads to a path that scrambles steeply up through strewn boulders and rocks to Piri’s Peak. The vegetation quickly changes from rainforest to open woodland, with large eucalypts, some so ancient they have been hollowed with age, so that it is possible to stand inside the tree. The path narrows, and follows a ridge line and then a narrow rocky ledge until it reaches the peak, from which Mount Royal and the never ending ranges and valleys stretching to the horizon can be seen. On the way down mists roll in, making it difficult to discern the path.

Along a road, stopping for thermos coffee and to admire the view back across the descending hills to the lake I pick up a gritty piece of limestone. A cold rain spits. I finish my coffee and head back to the car and just before I chuck the stone, I stop still, staring at what is in my hand. It takes me a while to realise that what I am holding is a rock that has the clear impression on one of its faces of a trilobite. Leichhardt’s trilobite. Ludwig Leichhardt, the explorer who disappeared without trace in the immense deserts of Northern Australia.

Trilobites are creatures that lived between 520 and 250 million years ago. The earth was very different then. The dinosaurs had yet to evolve. Huge insects, some with wingspans measured in metres, hovered among the horsetail and fern trees that would eventually fall, decay and pressed by the weight of eons become the coal that is mined throughout the Hunter Valley today. Trilobites were early creatures but they were not simple. Some evolved eyes so complex that they had depth of field and a lack of distortion that humbles the human sense of sight.[1] Others had sensory pits capable of detecting tiny vibrations and faint molecular traces. The number and variety of these organisms indicate that they were not only abundant, but survived for more than 270 million years. A cataclysmic event 250 million years ago, possibly a huge asteroid impact, wiped out 96 per cent of all marine life, including the trilobites and 70 per cent of land animals.

The forest I stand in is not pristine: it was once logged and has supported humans for eons. Some of the blackened trunks tell of past bushfires, and despite the present dampness one can easily imagine the litter of dead tree fern fronds making excellent incendiary fuel. The forest is old, older than knowing, older than the memories of the Wanaruah, whose home this was for eons until 1826 when they were nearly wiped out by invading pastoralists.[2] What I see, looking around me is very much what Ludwig Leichhardt saw when he stood here in 1843. He wrote: ‘Here I believe I saw a trilobite. Although I could not find this small fossil again, so I would like to make later observers aware of this location.’[3]

The trilobite I hold in my hand is only two centimetres long. It has a three lobed body (hence the name), no visible suggestion of legs, and large compound eyes only faintly visible. It is not a fossil that is in the same league as the huge trilobites patiently extracted from the Moroccan slates. It is an indistinct fossil, but there is no doubt that Leichhardt would have spent some time examining just such a specimen. Such fossils were at the time on the cutting edge of science. Their mere existence tested the faith of men such as Leichhardt. How do you reconcile religious belief with a fossil that clearly shows a creature that lived, prospered and evolved into all sorts of shapes and sizes so long ago that it is outside of human imagination to envisage the passing eons?

Born into a Lutheran family, Leichhardt remembered with affection the church of his childhood. He maintained his religious beliefs, but grew independent of church teaching. He told his friend Eduard Hallmann, an atheist who asked him about life after death, ‘I only know the following to be sure: as organisms, we will decompose, and new life will come into being from the individual elements’. It was not a theistic view in the modern sense but Leichhardt wanted to believe there was some divine spark in humanity. Hallmann retorted ‘Fair, unfair, good, evil, it is all null and void. Nothing is intrinsically good, nor evil … everything is as good as everything else’.[4]

Such troubling views were not limited to Leipzig friends. Riding through similar country to Mount Royal in northern NSW, Leichhardt had gone to Neale’s station, where he met a prophet of sorts, a tall white-haired man with a flowing beard who told him he preferred the company of his Newfoundland bitch and Galway pony over humans. They chatted for hours. The hermit explained he had less time for religion than he had for people. The Bible was abominable: ‘God is an irrational assumption, the soul is nothing but the puff with which the servant girl stirs up the fire’.[5] This strange land he was traversing was questioning the very limits of Leichhardt’s being.

Leichhardt has been in the area for two months. He had ridden up from Newcastle to Glendon Station in December, marvelling at the searing effect an intense drought was having on the landscape. ‘The vegetation begins to wear a sickly appearance for want of rain,’ the Maitland Mercury reported.[6] It was through a hot, harsh and barren landscape that Leichhardt made his journey to the lush rainforest at Mount Royal. As he travelled north he would occasionally glimpse through the trees the high mountains of the Barrington Range to the north. Had it been July or August he might have seen snow covering the higher peaks. Apart from the dam, the roads and tracks he took were the ones that still exist, and indeed the ones that had existed for millennia. The early explorers did not attempt to barge through the sometimes dense upland forest and lowland rainforests of the region, but followed the paths of the traditional owners, the Wanaruah people. From St Clair station he was guided by an old sawyer who had been tree felling in the area for nine years along the Mount Royal path. It was 26 January, 1843. As he rode up, Leichhardt busied himself with his geological observation, including his notes on the trilobite. The track to Mount Royal would have been quite obvious skirting east of Carrow Brook at the base of high tree covered ridges to the east and south. Leichhardt wrote of how the valley grasslands gave way to rainforests along the creek as the valley narrowed.  Higher up, he saw stands of tree fern among the dense scrub formed by various trees. Here, Leichhardt wrote carefully with his only writing implement, a pencil, the thing to be avoided was the ‘nettle tree’ with its broad heart-shaped leaves.[7]  Today this landscape is cleared pasture with much of the lower-lying land under the water of Lake St Clair. Leichhardt appears to have been captivated by the rainforest along upper Carrow Brook and its tributary gullies and by the new plant species and their growth habits he was observing.

‘The creepers became very numerous, the native vine stretched from trunk to trunk and made the scrub almost impenetrable. Mosses hung down in long garlands from the branches, lichens covered rocks and living and dead plants.’[8] He noted other fossils along the creek: spirifers, brachiopods, bivalves, ancient corals and sponges. At the foot of Piri’s Peak he roasted a potoroo and then followed a path which left the rainforested valley and its meandering creek, up a sledge track used by bullock teams to haul timber. The three kilometre path he found ‘extremely steep’.  He wrote: ‘We gained one terrace after the other, always sandstone covered by forest.’ He stopped at the base of a steep grassy ridge to camp.[9]

As he was preparing camp his horse broke its bridle and ran off down the track it had come. He walked some 45 kilometres down the valley and back up again looking for it. His companion decided to ride back to Glendon, Leichhardt decided to stay put. He made himself a home in the butt of a huge hollowed tree, lining the floor with tree fern fronds. During the following days he climbed Piri to watch the sun set. In his tree hollow house, using a saddle as pillow, he watched a wallaby graze in the thick grass. He watched the Orion constellation and the brightest star cluster in the night sky, Sirius, wheel overhead while the forest chattered with the echoing voices of flying squirrels. The next day he found his horse and rode back to his camp, rebuilt his fire and hung some pressing papers out to dry by draping them over a nearby branch. An ember caught the papers, burning them and a shirt he had hung out to dry. Later that night the same fire ignited the tree fern fronds he was using as his bedding, burning his blanket and more clothes. A day later he lost the one and only pencil he had been using to keep his diary. When it started to rain, he decided he’d had enough, and returned to Glendon, where he stayed until 4 March. The night he left a large comet illuminated the sky with its long bifurcated tail.

I stay at Callicoma Hill, in a small, comfortably appointed hut heated by a Rayburn. There is enough solar electricity to run a radio and a reading lamp. The owner, Martin Fallding, a keen conservationist, has left his own written account of Leichhardt’s journey through the Mount Royal area, including the fact he believed he found a trilobite. Even though it is October the night is cold. I walk outside to investigate the snarling of mountain possums and startle a mob of kangaroo grazing just outside the door. There is no moon, but the silhouettes of the nearby trees can be clearly seen. As the kangaroos thump off I look up and see an immensity of stars and the faint glowing pin-pricked clouds of the milky way, stretching as a red, green and purple band across the entire sky. In cities and towns such sights are impossible. A cluster of meteors silently curves over the earth, glowing white for a few seconds before being extinguished.

I live in a world where we are cocooned from the immensity of existence by comforts and knowledges of modern life, but holding that trilobite in my hands for a brief few seconds I understand how a young German natural philosopher would have felt, gazing out on the vast and unknown landscape from his tree hollow, watching the immensity of the stars above, having cradled the immensity of the ages, a fossil imprint tens of  thousands of times older than all of human existence, in awe of the inability of even human religions to explain the never ending wonder.

[1] Zigmond, Richard E. “Trilobite eyes: calcified lenses in vivo.” Gen. Comp. Endocrinol 18 (1972): 450.

[2] Connor, Linda H. Climate Change and Anthropos: Planet, People and Places, Routledge, 5 Feb. 2016: 53

[3]Fallding, Martin, and Doug Benson. “Adventures, hardship and a scientific legacy: Ludwig Leichhardt’s 1843 journey to Mt Royal in the Hunter Valley, NSW.” Cunninghamia 2013:322

[4] Finger, Hans Wilhelm. Ludwig Leichhardt: Lost in the outback. Rosenberg 2013:13.

[5] Rothwell, Nicholas. “Explorer Ludwig Leichhardt’s adventures into the great unknown” The Australian October 19, 2013. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/explorer-ludiwg-leichhardts-adventures-into-the-great-unknown/story-fn9n8gph-1226741751520.

[6] Fallding 308

[7] Fallding 310.

[8] Fallding 310.

[9] Finger 65.

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