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

Sounds and Sweet Airs

I

During the first month of the present year of grace (1922) rain occurred on this Isle on seventeen days, mostly between sunset and sunrise, the heaviest for twenty-four hours being 3.48 in., and the total 19 inches. Compared with January last year there is an excess of 7.79 in.; and, since the opening of the wet season, according to local records, is significant of its character, it may be judicious to anticipate an average amount of rain during the next three months.

A friend, whose observations of the weather of the coastal strip between Hinchinbrook Island and the Johnstone River extend over the third of a century, asserts that the rains have been unusually late. With a trifle of mental exertion, a December that gave over 27 in. is recalled. In the succeeding year (1907) the wet season lasted until the end of May, over 63 in. having been registered by that date.

My neighbour is of opinion that Providence is too profuse of watery blessings during the cool season, such as has been our lot for a season or two, and regards as ideal the good old thumping downpour, beginning about seven in the evening and ending with a jerk about eight the next morning, from December to April, and just occasional and genial showers for the rest of the year. Yes; there is something to be said in favour of such a season. With a sound roof over one’s head, all neat and secure outside., the boats housed, the lamp alight, an absorbing book, and what matters the sound of the rain?

An inch of rain per hour for the best part of the night contrives changes of the daylight scheme, and sets the miniature fall half a mile up the ravine, among the palms and tree-ferns, roaring more truculently than thousands of sucking doves. Having found its melodious voice, it will continue its refrain for weeks — a musical competition with the fluent tones of the sea. Then there will be shallow swamps on the flat, alive and musical with frogs — gruff bass and shrieking treble, and all tones between, and every frog panting to be heard. All the lagoons will be full to the brim, and the brown crayfish, with dandy claws of blue tipped with red, will become busy in a gliding, stealthy way among the submerged logs where the eels grow fat.

During such a season, too, the rivers of the mainland send out to sea the makings of many rafts. Unattached, independent, aloof, the logs lurch and roll in the swell as the current takes them always, with rare exception, north, and on them journey white, full-breasted terns, to which one is inclined to say, “Whither goest? Your home is here.”

Every beach of the Isle is transformed. The big rain makes short cuts to the great sea, and the sea chokes the sluices with weeds and spoil, from which the sun distils a scent compounded of flotsam and drift that seems invigorating. At any rate, it may be enjoyed unrestrictedly, and, with a trifle added by imagination, may inspire many a romantic theme. As a tickler of the more subtle qualities of the mind, what is more effective than a pungency — agreeable or disagreeable? And can there be anything to excite unpleasant reminiscences in fresh incense from unpolluted gatherings of sea and shore? On such grounds is the revel in a hearty wet season founded.

Sodden to bedrock, the Isle flourishes. Every plant gushes with excess, and consequently suffers. Long, soft, sapful shoots hang limp and faint, and seemingly sorrowful, as tipplers from over-indulgence, when the sun disperses the low-hanging clouds. Good to behold is the magic of growth. It tells a heartening story. Untamed, unrestrained, untended — see what a crop of crudeness and waste!

The cool breeze blows in through the window. Likely it will be a night of reading to thunderous rhythm.

II

It came after unexampled drought. Far-off thunder had heralded it the day before; but heavy clouds had so often gathered and had dispersed without affording the parched soil any refreshment, that signs which under ordinary conditions would have betokened the break of the season were frankly discredited.

Filmy, heated vapour tinged the hills. The still, hot air, saturated with the essence of smoke from many “burnings off” on the mainland, quivered in response to the swiftly approaching disturbance. Clouds gathered suddenly. A startling clap of thunder sounded near by, and big, widely-dispersed drops began to splutter on the dust and to stutter on the roof. Other sounds were deadened.

Rain was so eagerly desired that, merely to enhance the pleasure of anticipation, we preferred to assert that it would not come. Most of the tall, blady grass had become as yellow as hay, and there were actually bare patches, revealing bluish-grey soil whereon the little blue doves squatted and pecked, almost invisible until sheer nervousness made them rise. Of other grasses and of herbs many had become crisp underfoot, and brown; but with the first gentle sprinkling dry soil and faded leafage sent up an incense as from flowers blossoming in the dust.

Another loud peal from a fast-gathering, ominous cloud — the base of which rested on the nearest hill, and began to descend, fixed and determined of purpose — and the welcome din began. All surroundings were blotted out by a grey mantle of warm but invigorating rain, while lightning played and thunder rattled and our spirits began to jubilate. The time of doubt was over.

In half an hour the smaller watercourses, where they were not banked up with leaves, ran headlong races to the flat, spread out into pools, and gave the soil more than it could gulp. Like a man rescued at the last moment in a dry and thirsty land, it could not absorb liberal helpings, but had to be content with trivial doles until it became accustomed to the effects of long-denied moisture. Soon the storm travelled across the sea, vapour gathered on the hills against an inky background, and all the birds began to call — the swamp pheasant the loudest and most mellow, the scrub-fowl the merriest, with its coarse hilarity and contented chuckles.

To the south the blue-black bank of thunderous cloud rested on the sea, with never so slight a blur where rain beat on the lustreless surface. Most of the Isles were hidden; some were mere misty blots, while those near at hand stood out preternaturally green and bold, with the slaty sea enveloping their fringe of mangroves. All this dull shade and breathless calm seemed to exist for a single purpose — to intensify the vividness of the nutmeg pigeons, that trailed in irregular procession from the mainland to the restful Isles. Snow-white and swift, they flew low over the sea in companies of ever-changing formation, and the islet near at hand suddenly seemed transformed — its almost leafless trees and shrubs burst in white bloom, and the blending of wing-beats and coos came as one of the pleasant sounds of early evening.

But sights and sounds do not sum up all the refreshing and invigorating elements which visit a scene blessed with a soaking and noisy shower after a period of silent, nerve-agitating drought. Walk along one of the many cattle-tracks through the forest, where all the trees are respiring.

Flowers are few, but the freshly-fallen and decaying leaves underfoot give forth an odour rich and varied; one must stop occasionally to fill the lungs with so potent and pleasant a balsam, and to give thanks for enjoying it on such a generous scale. All the air is saturated with its invigorating principles. Gums and wattles, the huge-leaved “gin-gee,” tea-trees, the ripe, orange-tinted fruit of the pandanus along the gullies, the big spreading figs on the edge of the jungle, the pungent native ginger, the full-fruited nutmeg, the few last flowers of the milkwood, the resiniferous gum of the “tangebah,” the patchouli-like ixora, and the sodden grass — all contribute to the medley of perfumes, and create a longing for some magic art by which the combination could be fixed, materialized, and sent to those who may still believe that Australia is a scentless land.

A mile away, the little pool of the jungle-entangled creek, which was opened up for the sake of our dainty jerseys, is all thick and brown with the scouring of many a loop and bend, and gives out a virile smell as of brewery waste; for is it not a solution of fermenting leaves of scores of different species of plants? Better so than to be tainted, as it was, with the remains of an inconsiderate eel, which died therein just when pure water was greatly to be desired.

But why think of the immediate past and its trivial anxieties and discomforts and apprehensions? Are not the little creeks flushed by over two inches of rain descending wilfully in one riotous half-hour? Is not fresh and juicy herbage springing from the warm, moist soil? Are not aged and sedate cows behaving like frisky calves, and calves, full to the lips with mother’s milk, gallivanting with that giddy irresponsibility which nothing but a calf may assume, and maintain the least pretensions to sanity? The air is cool and balmy; smoke-stains have been washed out of it, and the yellow beaches of the mainland and distant hills are as a new and glistening painting, with slaty clouds as a background.

Compare this mild evening, and all its pleasant pungencies and its vivid revelations of scenes that were blurred for weeks with haziness and smoke, with the past drought that is already almost incredible; and, if you are not harmonic and cannot sing a gladsome note, leave such gloating to the shrike-thrush, as he makes the gloomy dome of the mango resound with fluty whistling.

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