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


If in these writings the subject of the March cyclone crops up with irritating persistency; if, indeed, it becomes as intrusive as King Charles the First did in the memorials of the famous Mr. Dick, peradventure pardon may be granted; for, after all the event was real, and has stamped itself so deeply on the face of the land that no glance is free from impressive reminders of its hasty coming, brief term, and boisterous disrespect towards the concerns and sentiments of human beings.

Yet it may be quite possible to say certain pleasant things about the event, and to speculate whether it may not have beneficial results as time passes. Indeed, already incontrovertible evidence exists on the latter point. Within a few weeks after the storm two strange grasses appeared in three different localities — within a few feet of high-water limit in two places, and about fifty yards therefrom in another area over which the tidal wave had romped. Soon the cows showed that the grasses were good, substantiating the welcome of man. It is safe to say that these grasses had not previously been included in the island flora, nor had any of those to whom they were pointed out ever seen them either. One of the visitors who shrewdly examined both is a man of wide experience as a grazier in North Queensland, a cattle-owner, and one who takes more than ordinary interest in the dietary of his herd. He was unable to identify either, and was astonished when proof of the cows avidity for them was pointed out.

My well-informed friend is apt in the opinion of abnormal developments in various directions traceable to that fateful whirl. Do they crop up not only in connection with plant and bird life, but also with the actual life of the island itself? Did not the storm cut deep furrows here, raise ridges there, amend the shore-line beyond belief, and subject the mental processes of its inhabitants to a vigorous but not to be despised treatment which has brought about subtle changes of temperament — something beyond “the immediate material compulsion of life?” Can it be other than a pleasant and proper duty to register from time to time, as they become obvious, some of the physical changes due to such an exhibition of magnificent and supreme force?

Much might be written of the more simple problems which affect the shore-line. Let it be said that the tidal wave swept over an isolated rock mass known geographically as “the Forty-foot Rock” and locally by the less significant but better-sounding title of “Wolngarin,” and it will be the more readily understood how the shore-line in more impressionable material was cut up and transfigured. The work of repair began almost with the next high tide, and has been slowly maintained since; but between the ordinary tidal range and the limit of the advance of the tidal wave over the flat shore, raw sand still lies, with here and there shoots of buried shrubs peering through the repugnant covering. In this inhospitable element, and just beyond high tide, several species of plants have shown themselves, inclusive of watermelons, tomatoes, (not of that degenerate variety which sometimes crops up in unexpected places, but good, rotund, sweet-flavoured sorts), the beach hibiscus, the native cabbage, that lovely silvery-leafed shrub known as SOPHORA TOMENTOSA, the poona oil tree, with its coppery new foliage, many small and vigorous plants of the umbrella-tree, and several varieties of grass.

There is, therefore, actual promise, within seven months from its desolation, of the restoration of the admirable and lovely features of the strand-line; but on the weather aspect, where for the greater extent compact vegetation overhung the sea, the band of bare, hot rock, forty feet wide, will probably remain until many wet seasons have encouraged the successive encroachment of adventurous vegetation.

The “vagrant wheat” which came wellnigh to maturity on the coarse sand of the spit may be satisfactorily accounted for; but these plants were not the only ones to sprout. Others sprang up in other situations, mystifying the observer as to the origin of the seed, and seeming to establish their right to occupy the barren margin of the Isle, and to proffer, as did Herrick’s, twice ten to one for each bushel sown.

The most prodigious, if not the most remarkable of the vagrant plants of the beach was a single specimen of the castor-oil plant, which on being transplanted into garden soil developed hugely. Whence did the single seed come? True it is that some years ago seeds were sown half a mile from the spot where the plant established itself; but since none came to maturity it would be vain to look for a local origin for the wanderer.

So far only two of the plants that have undertaken the care of the shore-line are to be credited with special qualities for the work, one being the more wiry of the running grasses previously mentioned. This has already highly commendable results to its credit; and it is to be noted that, though the seeds must have been wave-borne, and that all the plants are growing in sand, those which lie close to high-tide mark show indifferent resistance to the scalding of sun and sea. What a recent writer on the entertaining subject of tidal lands terms “vegetable groynes” are necessary influences in the restoration and maintenance of shore frontages. It will be interesting to note the part taken by the self-sown plants in a great natural process, the beginning of which occurred, as has been said, within a few days after the destruction of the first and second lines of defence against such assaults of the sea.

Readers of Rudyard Kipling’s SECOND JUNGLE BOOK will remember with joy and thankfulness how with elephantine vigour the jungle was let in upon a village, the inhabitants of which had earned the displeasure of the “man cub.” Let the great wind of half a year ago represent the wild creatures that acted on the suggestion of Mowgli, and see how true to nature are the writings of men of genius. Over a considerable extent of this Isle the wind did uproot and trample down the great crop of trees, so that the scene was distorted and rumpled; but what is the result? Vitalizing sunlight was let into many a shadowy spot; seeds from the jungle which had lain dormant for many a year germinated under its influence and that of warm rain; and now, instead of a shady forest, there stands a mutilated one, with an undergrowth of jungle vegetation which promises to become dominant in the fight for supremacy. This thick undergrowth excludes grasses and low shrubs, and is too succulent to burn, so that the promise of the immediate future is a change from forest to damp jungle with its cooling airs and earthy scents.

Truly, there are infinite problems to be watched and waited for.

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