By Peter Papathanasiou
It’s been nineteen months since I last wrote for Caught by the River. It’s no coincidence that my son is also nineteen months old. It’s been a joyous but expectedly busy time.
Today, we’re going for a walk through the Australian bush. I’d done the same thing with his mum nineteen months earlier in the hope the exercise and movement would bring on labour. It didn’t, but I don’t consider our son’s desire to remain in the womb as a reflection of any aversion to nature. Since his birth, he’s been up the mountain in an all-terrain stroller pushed by his mum, and in a Swedish-designed ergonomic carrier strapped to his dad. But we’re a big boy now and can walk independently. People warned me the time would pass quickly. They were right.
Of course, a doddering toddler now means that any excursion takes twice as long. My son walks at half pace and is continually distracted. He stops to collect sticks, investigate burrows, and point at things in the trees and sky, crimson rosellas and glossy black cockatoos. I marvel at his inquisitiveness with the world, at his attention to detail, spotting birds looping overhead and rabbits darting through the scrub. On this overcast afternoon, I’m hoping to show him some native animals. Kangaroos are most likely; their spherical black droppings are everywhere. Spiny echidnas and swamp wallabies and wombats are rarer. But all appear to be hiding. The landscape is undulating, dotted with scribbly gums, drooping she-oak, and red stringybark. The vegetation is dry, influenced by aspect, slope, fire history, soil depth, and human activity. There’s even evidence of Aboriginal campsites, deposits of chert sedimentary rock once used to make stone tools.
Slowly, with peeks of the late summer sun on our backs, we make our way up the mountain’s western side. On the eastern side are a vineyard, solar farm, scout camp, and shooting range. But between them is a pine forest and labyrinth of mountain biking tracks. ‘That’s for when you’re older,’ I tell my son hopefully, imagining the two of us one day riding our bikes together. But he’s not listening, and instead fascinated by a squashed bottle cap covered in red fire ants. My own ears prick at the familiar sound of rubber crunching on dirt as two riders come hurtling down the trail. I crouch down low and hold my son close to make sure he doesn’t unexpectedly dart across their path. Dressed in garish fluoro colours and on equally bright aluminium frames, the bikers consciously slow as they see us, and we acknowledge each other with polite nods. From the other direction, riding up the mountain, comes an old bloke, shirtless, his back the colour of golden bronze. He’s puffing hard but still manages a smile.
I eye the trail leading up the pines with longing. I would normally ride my bike in the late afternoons around this time, but my son’s arrival saw me pushing my outings back further into the day, into early evening and night. Eventually, I had to purchase a bike light. Not only did it sharpen my senses, but a whole new nocturnal world opened up. Tiny bats hunted insects at dusk. Sugar gliders leapt from tree to tree, licking sap from seeping acacia wounds. Boobook owls peered out from high branches with their big eyes and mysterious faces. I even saw the odd sheep, which had somehow lost its way from nearby grazing land. But the most striking of all were the enormous spiderwebs, illuminated silver bright by my cluster of six LEDs. The golden orb spiders were busiest after rain, and spun their incredible webs with astonishingly quick speed that stretched between the pine trees and across the single tracks. Regrettably, these webs were usually unavoidable when riding down the steep descents.
‘Come on,’ I urge my son, and lift my sneakered feet, pretending to jog up the track. He smiles broadly and giggles, commencing to stamp his own feet and trying to run behind me. His sandals stick under his feet and I’m careful to turn and position myself to catch him, knowing that he could fall facefirst into the earth at any moment. Still, that’s how kids grow and learn, and it’s usually not anything that can’t be fixed with a cuddle after a little cry. Sadly, those moments will also be gone soon.