For some hours I had been travelling in station country up north through a woodland of Black Oaks (Casuarina cristata) that had varied in density on the landscape from a few scattered trees to the odd copse with one tree every five, ten or twenty metres. Then occasionally interrupted by a broad belt of Mallee (various eucalypt species). I made camp for the night in one of the denser thickets of Black Oak. Where the light wind whispered through their strange thin wire-like drooping foliage. Sighing amongst the branches like the voices of a gathering of ghosts, saying ‘you are alone here; this is a sad, sad place to be’. Breathing, whispering and sighing amongst themselves in some sort of conspiracy, as these trees are known to do. As though the place belonged to them and the advancing dark of the night.
So I quickly got my fire going to have the flickering flames and the crackling wood to protect me from whatever may lurk in the darkness. To make it home, at least for the night. But when I lay down on the ground close to this source of comfort, the fire gradually started to die, and the moaning whispers came back. I covered my face with my blanket and told myself there were no phantoms here; but I was on my own, and it was dark, and I couldn’t quite believe it.
I woke in the dark of the early morning of this night; the breath and shiver of the wind in the trees had stopped. There was no longer sighing voices but a low mist was stealthily drifting in. Everything was being enveloped in its shroud, up to the waist of the trees, but not the upper branches. It took in the wafting smoke from the dying fire, as though that was meant to be. With the mist came the very first dim light of the new day, but it was high above with the fading stars. It was still dark where I lay. With the Black Oaks standing around, their trunks as silent sentinels. Dark gross shapes, but their haunting sigh had gone, with the mist coming in; and I could see enough to know that all about me it was beautiful, and I couldn’t get back to sleep because of that.
Then just as the stars were losing against the strength of the light, but with the earth still wrapped in a shroud of dark ghostly grey, it came to me! The soft low oboe notes, the ‘plonk plonk de-plonk’ of a muffled bell, deeper into the copse. As the mist and the darkness still cloaked the tree trunks; keeping the rest of the earth silent and still. There it was again, ‘plonk plonk de plonk’, and again. With that, the mist was slowly and gently, forced to waft up into the branches, to keep the sigh and mournful breath away, as the sun rose. ‘Plonk plonk de plonk’ went the bell, and the sun broke the resisting mist, found a crevice in amongst the trees, with their ragged trunks and its light came rushing in; making the campsite divine, and more beautiful still.
With the light and its warmth the mist conceded defeat, and silently retreated, stealing away, and dissipating into nothing. As though it was never there, and with another ‘plonk plonk de plonk’ the dark azure sky exploded into sparkling opal blue. The dull grey trees were bathed in gold and silver; surprised and welcoming. Looking glad even! As though a little ashamed of their inhospitable voices of phantoms from the evening before. Then with the fire crackling again, as I poked and prodded and added sticks, the Bellbird seemed to think its job was done, and I heard it no more.
I was only eighteen back then. Almost a full life span ago in time. But of all the things and places I once knew, and since forgotten, those hours as the night advanced to day where the mist silenced the trees, and the Bellbird heralded the sun, have never left. Every time I hear a Crested Bellbird’s muffled tune, I’m taken back to that morning, that campsite. As much as one can grasp hold of a place and time, I cling to it for a few moments again. The mist and the phantom trees in the slowly growing light beautiful in their silence. Then the stab of golden sun, rushing in, through and around the trunks and grotesque branches, more beautiful still.
You cannot purchase such things as this. There is no price on it; and no matter how hard you try, even if one returns to the very same place, it remains elusive to you. Except…! When, or if you hear something from the past. Then your memory can place you there – Just for a moment!