Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Part I

The Tempest

I

Early in the year 1918 two great storms visited the coast of North Queensland. One centred off the port of Mackay, four hundred miles to the south of Dunk Island, on 21st January, and the other about twenty-five miles to the north, on 10th March.

Forty-eight hours prior to the Mackay storm premonitory effects were observed here, succeeding a memorable tidal jumble. During a breathless calm a mysterious northerly swell set in. To ears accustomed to the silence and the musical whisperings of a sheltered bay, the roar and burst of the breakers of a wind-forgotten sea suggested a confused mental picture — a blending of black and grey without form.

Heaving, as with deep-drawn breaths, out from the beach the sea seemed to be both restless and angry, as glistening rollers heaved themselves on to the strand, to be shattered into spray. They rifled the Barrier Reef, threw on the sand lumps of coral to which brown seaweed hung, like the scalps of mermaids, and swept them to and fro with savage persistency. They brought driftwood from afar, and claimed all sorts of sun-dried relics from previous depositary moods.

After a time the sea became silent again, with a sparkling, wavering ripple, while the noise of its assault on the mainland beach had the tone of distant, unceasing thunder.

Ten days before the second storm, while the sky was cloudless and the air serene, a change in the quality of the heat was felt. During the first three months of the year — the period of heavy rainfall — the temperature is generally humid., Suddenly it became dry and burning, with a tingling intensity, as rare as uncomfortable. For the time the moist vapours of a mild steam-bath were dispersed by scorching breath as from a furnace, to the discomfort of animal life and the injury of vegetation.

Early on the morning of Sunday, 10th March, the sky became overcast. A fresh southerly breeze had sprung up during the night. A short, confused sea tumbled in the channel, and the usually placid bay mimicked its sport. With fearsome steadiness of purpose, the wind developed as it veered to the east. At 5 p.m. it was travelling at furious speed, twisting branches from trees and thickening the now gloomy skies with leaves. Consistently with the strength of the wind the barometer fell until between 9 and 10 p.m., when, with a conglomeration of terrifying sounds varying from falsetto shrieks to thunderous roars, the centre of the cyclone seemed to bore down on the very vitals of the island.

The devastating assault lasted about half an hour; it was followed by a lull, succeeded by another attack of violence from the north and north-west; then, as orderly as the storm had developed so it subsided.

With the barometer at 29.90 at 9 a.m., who would have prognosticated a dangerous cyclone within twelve hours? Mark the regularity of the derisive finger that, having failed to herald the storm, acted as a servile registrar of its various phases at the moment of occurrence:—

9 a.m. 29.90
Noon 29.40
3 p.m. 29.70
4 p.m. 29.60
5 p.m. 29.50
6 p.m. 29.60
7 p.m. 29.30
8 p.m. 29.18

As the 8 p.m. observation was taken, the unassisted finger dropped 2-100ths with a jerk, and within a few minutes the demons of the air were crazy with fury. That was the final reading for the night, for the crisis came with such ferocity that the wreckage of parts of the house made the site of the instrument inaccessible; nor was it possible to consult it again until shortly before nine o’clock the following morning, when it stood exactly at the point from which it had begun to move twenty-four hours before.

Only while the core of the storm was passing was lightning seen or thunder heard. Then the whole mass of tumultuously-racing clouds and vapour was luminous at frequent intervals, and the rumble of the thunder almost continuous — but the glow was weak and tremulous, and the thunder timorous, as if the electricity was a cowed captive at the chariot-wheels of triumphing Wind.

Throughout the night rain was incessant; but its torrential tramplings on the resonant, ceilingless roof were not to be detached from the discordancies of wind and wave, save only while breath was held in expectation of whatsoever might happen after the terrifying lull. The gauge overflowed at 10.50 in., so that the exact quantity for the twenty-four hours during which all ordinary concerns and interests were wafted aside cannot be stated; but, by comparison with results of previously recorded deluges, the fall must have exceeded 14 in., the greater volume of which should be ascribed to about five hours.

Being in perfect sympathy with each other’s fury, wind, rain and sea, in a common tongue, spoke threats of ruin and devastation, and fulfilled them all in more or less degree. And it has to be confessed that the crash and confusion of the awe-inspiring night, after three years of healing, still ring in the ears.

While the rage lasted, a slight degree of comfort was attained from considering the suddenness of the storm and its very violence. At its lowest the barometer indicated nothing out of the normal; but its marvellous activity as the wind gathered in force, the sensational drop immediately prior to the crisis, the recovery as the depression passed over, and the subsequently revealed fact that the course of the storm was brief — little over a hundred miles — show that it was home-brewed. Subsequent information proved that the dangerous phase was not experienced for more than twenty miles to the south and twenty-four miles to the south-west.

II

Having thus disposed of the formalities of a great occasion, the pages to follow will be devoted to a review of its consequences, not to human beings — and they were sad and disastrous enough — but to the natural features of the island, as they came to be revealed.

At sunrise on Sunday a leafy wilderness; at sunrise on Monday a leafless wilderness, wanting only grey skies, snow on the hills, and ice on the pools to suggest an English winter scene. Along the beach, on the flat, on the spurs of the range, astonishing transfiguration. The shrub-embroidered strand is now forlorn, its vegetation, uprooted and down-beaten, naked roots exposed to critical view. Not a shrub has escaped, and broken and shattered limbs of tough trees appeal for sympathy. The country is foul with wreckage.

Rain ceased two days after the storm, giving way to dry air under a cloudless sky, and the effects of the visitation were revealed in harsh crudeness and nakedness. Not a single tree escaped more or less serious injury. Those not uprooted or broken at the trunk, are almost limbless and entirely leafless. Instead of a compact mantle in various shades of green, hills and spurs — and even valleys and the rims of ravines — have assumed a tattered and frayed raiment of brown, as if a mighty flame had singed the verdure.

All the minor secrets of the land are bare; the “verdurous glooms” of yesterday are open to the inquisitive sun; the streams, fair-running but foul-tasting now, are blocked with decaying vegetation, and the flat lands are strewn with fallen timber.

Ravished by the profligate wind, once tender and lovable scenes flaunt their wretchedness and woe, and seem to appeal for consolation. The islet in the bay-hitherto a garden to the water’s edge, offering to the admiration of the sun and sea masses of golden-brown orchids and red clumps of umbrella-trees, of incomparable luxuriance and beauty — is but a bare rock with a forlorn crest of seared shrubs.

Let the dreary picture be blotted for the time by recollection of the endearing past.

Huge coco-nut palms, that a few hours ago might have vaunted their stately straightness, lie uprooted or broken at the base, or lean at pitiable angles. Some lie fifty yards from the spot where their fronds saluted Sunday morning’s sun, yet still carry fragments of their burden of nuts. What significant illustration of the demonism of the wind does a fallen palm present! During ordinary gales the fronds stream before the wind like the loosened hair of a woman, offering to it coy resistance; but, subject itself to the tormenting cyclone as the palm-tree may, lean in obedience to its will, bow before its strength, sway to its caprices, there comes a time when graceful acts are of no avail. The wind will have its savage way. The wailing palm is prostrated, torn and dishevelled, carried along as if it were a straw, and piled with other trophies of victory and violation in calamitous heaps.

The veering of the wind to the north-west, since it took place about the hour of high water, occasioned a tidal wave, evidences of which strew the green places of yesterday a hundred yards beyond the strand. Shrubs four feet high are buried in white coral sand. Here, amidst the desolation, an artificial flower-garden, acres in extent, has been created by the successive action of wave and rain. Thousands of small shells from the bleached hordes of the reef are stranded with the concavity uppermost. Then the nor’-wester swept the surface of the new sand, leaving each shell resting on the summit of a sturdy little pinnacle. At first glance the scene is that of a magically-planted field of strange, white flowers, the single atonement for the ravages of the dark hours. Here, too, every exposed rootlet, every twig and fragment of drift-wood, is the crest of a sand-ridge in miniature, telling the direction whence came the wind’s final onrush.

Forlorn birds, made tamer by one irresistible touch of Nature, flit mournfully among the battered branches. They are silent. None of the cheerful jeers and chuckles of the scrub-fowl comes from the trampled jungle; the great flight of terns, which settled on the sand-spit on Sunday and sat in a dense crowd, head to sea, has been dispersed. A solitary, wind-wearied gannet sleeps, head under wing, in the sun.

Thousands of maritime birds were killed, and those of the land suffered in like degree. Here the only species which seems to be in pre-storm numbers is the swiftlet, the home of which, in secret places among huge granite rocks, was safe against the shake of anything less than an earthquake.

Some shy birds have been made confiding by the stress of hunger. This is specially noticeable among the fruit-eating pigeons, which frequent the jungles. For several days these beautiful birds swarmed about the ruins of the aboriginal settlement on the mainland opposite, perching in protected spots at dark after a great deal of preliminary fluttering. This voluntary faith in the goodwill of man on the part of a timorous bird shows that the storm had destroyed its supplies and shelter. Although many species have been seen since the perfidious date, they have not made free with the dwelling, possibly because a few acres of jungle still stand, fresh as ever, at the head of a deep ravine.

The roof being off the store at the settlement, bags of sugar were soon converted into syrup, which soon attracted swarms of bees of Italian descent, and for days overindulgence in heady nectar seemed to be borne without disorderly effect. As time passed, however, many became bloated, and, being tipsy, passed from the stage of excited good-humour to almost helpless pugnacity. Unable to fly, they crawled and staggered and rolled on the ground, and savagely attacked bare-footed trespassers, illustrating the ease with which industrious and provident bees fall from grace under the temptation of a superabundance of stimulating sustenance.

Conversely, there is a change of outlook, equally quaint, among certain birds. Cockatoos had acquired a taste for the seeds of citrus fruits, to the dismay of owners of groves, but in consequence of the loss of the entire crop these birds have not been able to indulge the habit. Moreover, the figs and the wattle-seeds generously supplied during normal times being non-existent, the noisy birds have fared ill. For many weeks after the disturbing event few cockatoos visited the island. In the past many reared broods in the security of this sanctuary, making morning trips to the mainland for food and recreation among the more numerous communities there, and returning shortly before dusk. Recently fairly large flocks have resumed their accustomed journeys to and fro, proclaiming the hour of departure and arrival with discordant cries.

Many scrub-fowls on the Isle were killed by whirling missiles from the groaning trees. In two or three instances incubating mounds of renown, in which chicks had been hatched from periods traditional to the blacks, were destroyed; and at least one of recent origin, and under frequent observation, was swept away by the tidal wave. But after an interlude the industrious birds began to chuckle and crow in the bedraggled jungle, and to rake over the thick carpet of fallen leaves in the forest. Now attempts are being made to gather the material, of which there are superabundant supplies, for new mounds. All through the forest where the soil is light and friable the indefatigable birds work with energy, and with much noise during the evening; for the white ants, having come to their kingdom, must be kept down, and the capacity of the scrub-fowl for such food represents a prodigious natural check.

It will be seen, then, that what Shakespeare might have termed “this great perturbation of nature” had its effects on things small as well as great, some of which operate generally to man’s disadvantage. It destroyed thousands of molluscs, tore up acres of what we are satisfied to call seaweed, displaced coral by the ton, and made in the shallow waters a maze of snags. On land, in common with distressed birds, millions of insects cast themselves on the hospitality of human brings, to our dismay and discomfort. Among the many species came thousands of fruit-moths from the desolated banana-grove, invading the house after dark and settling on maturing bunches, until each fruit was covered with living mosaic. Dusky, greedy, gross of habit, they feasted the whole night, and with quivering wings deposited their ova, retiring to obscure places for the day. Their enemies — bats and nightjars — having been decimated, their numbers were almost overpowering, so that for decency’s sake the fruit that attracted them had to be destroyed. And yet the pomelo and the lemon and lime trees, broken and crippled, are already displaying flower-buds, and with the tender green of new leafage emblematize the most alluring of the cardinal virtues — Hope.

III

The loveliness of the Isle is of the past; but do I love it the less while it bears the stripes of its chastisement? Shall I not rather attempt to comfort and soothe it and heal its scars? Behold, how it blossoms in its distress!

Did I not, years ago, banish certain garden creepers to the jungle, in the hope that sooner or later they might wrestle successfully with coarser-fibred natives, that seldom displayed aught but foliage? Have they not now come to their own, taking advantage of the downfall of the crude and intolerant rioters which flourished rampantly when all was calm and well? And are they not offering tribute of blooms in half-forgotten and unexpected places? Even a great, bullying, maniacal wind has its compensations. Here they are presented in masses and garlands of pale lavender.

Much is to be learned from such phenomena. Certain features of the Isle, often conned but never understood, are invested with fresh interest, and have become amenable to inquiry. For instance, cannot it now be anticipated that the effects of the storm, instead of being inimical to plant-life on a large scale, may prove to be beneficial in the most sumptuous style?

Many forest trees were uprooted, or broken down, or reduced to a branchless, leafless, almost limbless state — forlorn relics, so that in the despondent phase dismal pictures were evolved. Would it not take a score of consolatory years to restore the beautiful foliage and hide the disfigured trees? How soon did Nature begin her soothing duties!

In the shattered forest the sun searched out spots sheltered from its rays for many a generation, and germinated seeds of jungle plants which had been dropped by careless birds or carried by idle winds. A thick undergrowth is springing up, which from present appearances may permanently transform the country. Instead of forest, there will be forest in the process of conversion into jungle, and in years to come there will be specific jungle vegetation.

Instead of permanently destroying vegetation, the big wind will have to its credit denser and more beautiful growths; instead of grassy glades, an almost impenetrable entanglement; palms will sprawl over lofty trees; huge vines, with stems as thick as a man’s thigh and bearing pods a yard long, will spread a network over all; and instead of the forest’s comparatively dry surface will be maintained a moist, sweet-smelling soil, and steamy conditions and half-lights. In time, too, the gradual accumulation of vegetable mould must tend inevitably to the enrichment of the land. We mortals are apt to fly in the face of Providence, to rail against decrees that cannot be resisted, and bemoan their effects; whereas, if we were able to look a month or two ahead, and were wise enough to interpret Nature’s laws, we might conclude that the results would be to our ultimate pleasure and profit.

Occasionally, a single victim presents in its fall a more striking picture of disaster than a number of others piled up in hopeless confusion. One such — a soft-wooded tree which some call the “sunflower,” and the natives “gin-gee”— lies not far away. It stood in a hollow some yards from a low gully, so protected that the insurance of holding-roots seemed, perhaps, superfluous. Taken at a disadvantage, its collapse is pathetically complete. Trunk, limbs and branches lie smashed and shattered as if the tree had been broken on the wheel under the rigour of the Inquisition, its seemly proportions, huge leaves, and crown of golden flowers utterly and completely desolated. Yet in other localities other specimens, tried and toughened by the experience of many a storm, stand but slightly affected, to the wonder of those who know of the tenderness of the white wood.

Even in so imperfect and slight a reference to the stability or otherwise of the trees of the afflicted coast we cannot omit the hibiscus. In the van of beach vegetation on such occasions, it must bear the brunt of the attack of the surges. In very few instances was the tough and pliant wood broken, although twisted into strange shapes; but the shrubs met the fate of the frontal line, being uprooted and overturned so that hardly a single specimen escaped. However, the fact that seeds are produced in great quantity gives hope that the beach may soon be redecorated with the familiar soft foliage and the great yellow bells.

After such a visitation, probably the most conspicuous trees of the coast are the tea-trees, for the lustful wind tore off their weather-stained layers of bark, revealing naked limbs and branches of a pale-red tint. The tea-tree’s bark is composed of an infinite number of layers, thin as tissue paper; within a few weeks of its ravishment, the exterior became white, and, contrasted with the seared and stricken forest, each looked like an emblem of purity and an example of strength. How few of these magnificent trees were overthrown whose roots had obtained secure hold! Few were snapped below the spring of the branches, or otherwise mutilated. Most were stripped of foliage, but slender branches and twigs stand out as an elaborate fretwork against the sombre hue of the battered and slowly recovering background. Over a fair extent of country not a single instance of an uprooted tea-tree is to be seen, save where the tidal surges had attacked its base; and hundreds exultingly display clean trunks and limbs and all the elaborate and beautiful complexity of branches and twigs, now glistening with silvery leaf-buds. Wrong as it would be, on such evidence, to ascribe to this particular species supremacy on the score of durability, yet as far as visible signs may give assurance, it makes excellent claim thereto.

Different, but scarcely less sturdy, stand the bloodwoods. Few are uprooted, fewer broken at the trunk; but how horribly are most maimed and disfigured! Limbs lopped off, they stand gaunt and grotesque, with few evidences of life save a profuse crop of leaf-buds, soon to develop into what at first glance seem artificial rosettes of leaves along the stumps of branches. But for these superabundant buds, the woeful and distorted forest through which Dante passed in the infernal regions could scarce have provoked more dismal reflections.

Less at ease under extraordinary conditions, the Moreton Bay ash-trees suffered greatly. In the thick of the sheltered forest they lie, scores uprooted, scores severed at the trunk, and most of them more or less seriously mutilated by loss of limb. This tree is more susceptible to decay than bloodwood, and offers more inviting food to white ants, though when seasoned it becomes almost imperishable. In the general disaster huge trees involve the ruin of lesser trees of other species; but when the cleansing fire breaks out Moreton Bay ash will burn, root and branch, to a white ash.

Forest mahogany, or mess-mate, another eucalypt plentifully represented, shows contemptible subservience to the will of the wind in all phases of disastrous ruin; and in its perversity it will not burn unless logged into masses and heaps. Thousands of prone trunks will litter the forest until the white ants complete their office.

Of the wattles, that which is known locally as the black — the toughest and the densest — behaved with the greatest staunchness, though many were destroyed by the uprooting and severing force of the wind. It would seem that the weak spot of many a specimen was about ten or twelve feet from the ground; at least, thereabouts the trunk was often broken. Another species, lacking a familiar name, but often more conspicuous because of its size and the richness and fragrance of its bloom, fell like ninepins, few being broken. The favourite habitat of this species is sandy flats, where the foothold is insecure. The storm there cried “Havoc,” and let slip all its dogs of war. The scrub wattle went down placidly, for in its home the soil is soft of surface.

Figs, soft-wooded, but willing to bend before the wind, do not show very serious effects, though many in exposed parts were cast down. Slim shrubs of upright habit and pithy texture escaped almost scot-free, being pliable and submissive, and pandanus palms stood the test bravely in comparison with many trees which vaunt a tougher nature.

Most of the jungle being in sheltered aspects, it is difficult to apply the gauge which might serve for forest country; but elsewhere it is said that the tallest and hardiest trees succumbed. For the most part the fate would be a common one, since few of the denizens of the jungle are independent. An entanglement of serpent-like vines of gigantic strength is over all, binding tree to tree, and when a single giant falls it may bring ruin to an acre.

The records of experienced and competent observers preserve proof that birds and other creatures are endowed with sensibilities so much more acute than those of human beings as to seem by their actions to forecast changes of the weather. Gilbert White, of Selborne, mentions that before the end of an exceptionally severe frost roosters which had been silent “began to sound their clarions, and the crows to clamour as prognostic of milder weather.” It may, therefore, be reasonable to attribute to snakes, as well as to birds, the faculty of prevision of so great a storm before indications of its approach were given by the barometer or were perceptible to human beings. Such a theory, indeed, has the support of facts. Lesser frigate-birds rarely visit this part of the coast save in advance of foul weather. Ten days prior to the event a large flock appeared, wheeling high up in the sky. These, or others of the species, were seen each day until the morning of the outbreak, and reappeared in diminished numbers the day after. It may be that, as the storm became localized, the birds fled before it; they came back when the wind changed to the north, so battered and dishevelled that the fresh breeze thrummed on taut but ragged wings, and the confident flight of the past was reduced to evident efforts to keep on the wing. Several worn-out bodies were found on the beach.

Unaccustomed silence on the part of swamp pheasants for more than a week following the black-letter day, led to the conclusion that many representatives had been exterminated; but it was soon discovered that, although quiet, the birds were with us, having been, apparently, frightened and saddened by the storm. Even now (1918) they seldom tell of their presence; but the time will come when forest and flat will resound again to their mellow voices.

One, at least, of these birds affords proof of the dispersing effects of the big wind. So far as years of patient observation are to be trusted, no swamp pheasants existed on any of the isles of the Family Group other than this, the largest and best watered. A few weeks ago, when passing the isle of Timana, three miles to the south, the happy sound of a contented bird came from it, leaving no doubt that the bird, slow, weak and clumsy of wing, had been driven from Dunk Island when the change to the north occurred.

Before the event which brought ruin and dismay to many, no bird was more frequently seen, more admired, and more welcomed than the frail little thing which takes its familiar name from the sun. For many weeks afterwards no sign of it had been seen, nor had its thin, squeaky note been heard; and it had been regretfully included in the list of permanent and regretted losses. Then, in the quiet of a lustrous and lazy afternoon, one of the living jewels came to feast among the red hibiscus blossoms. It received a joyful though suppressed greeting. Without its sunbirds the Isle would have lost no little of its glitter.

This imperfect review of the effects of the storm on bird-life ought to include brief reference to an element which may have good results indirectly. Immediately after the storm it was evident that many land snakes had been killed, bodies being seen among the long ridges of rubbish on the beaches. For two weeks prior to the event quite a number of reptiles known to the blacks as “Wat-tam” congregated about the poultry yard, and it is safe to say that few escaped the alarmed vigilance of a black boy, who believes in the legend of the extraordinary viciousness and the venomous qualities of a snake which men of science hesitate to pronounce dangerous. About a dozen were shot. Subsequently, reflection on the invasion provoked the theory that possibly the snakes had an instinctive premonition of the disturbance. Lesser frigate-birds did give warning. Is the most subtle of the beasts of the field to be denied so beneficial a faculty? Not a single specimen has been seen since, and it is likely that snakes of such habit would be serious sufferers during a whirl of limbs and branches, and that birds generally would ultimately benefit by the destruction of many enemies.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/banfield/ej/b21l/chapter1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32