River of Little Worries

We were north of the Proserpine River, east of Myrtle Creek, west of Shute Harbour and south of Airlie Beach. Our settlement was called Mount Julian, but it was no more than a bushy outcrop, an exaggerated hill on the Donadelli farm, hemmed in on all sides by sugar cane.

Our house was home to more wildlife than people. Snakes, insects, arachnids, amphibians. Frogs in the toilet cistern, snakes in the downpipes, mosquito wrigglers in the rainwater tank. Frogs being killed by birds, birds being killed by snakes, snakes being killed by dogs, dogs being killed by toads. 

It was a green colosseum. Eat or be eaten. 

I would have been no more than a mouthful for anything hungry. I was not very big. My father was short and Chinese. My mother was short and Scottish. I was bullied in the lunch hour by the racist kids at school.

But at Mount Julian I was a little worry, just a reckless kid in the bush. In the dust of cutting season, I’d ride my Malvern Star dragster down a dirt track to a remote reach of the Proserpine River to throw a handline from a riverbank that always seemed to be moving. If it was raining, the floodwater would roar through there, dragging whole trees away. I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My parents didn’t know the risks I took. 

One year I found a dead Pilot Whale lolling in the shallows of the river. I waded through dark water to pull a tooth from its mouth with a pair of Dad’s pliers. I left that whale tooth out in the sun for the black ants to clean because I wanted it on a chain around my neck, as if I’d conquered the beast. But the rotting smell never faded, and I couldn’t tolerate wearing it. 

This was the same river that they now run crocodile tours on. But back then, during the 1970s, crocs hadn’t been seen for decades. The last reported attack happened in 1933. Two girls from Pindi Pindi, a small settlement 45 minutes south went missing while they were riding a horse over a flooded crossing. One of the girls was found drowned. The other’s body was retrieved from the stomach of a five-metre monster. But that was ancient history to a kid. 

Fear didn’t register on my tiny mind. I would happily use my drag net at the river mouth, walking neck deep into dark water. I once felt a heavy weight pushing at the net, searching for a way out. At a guess it was a stingray or a wobbegong, but it could have been something much worse, so I dropped the net to let it escape. Until nature happens to you, it’s a benign thing. 

When we moved to Mount Julian in 1970, we’d been in the house just a month, when nature showed us what it was capable of. Cyclone Ada, a small but intense system took all our roof tiles away and blew in Mum’s prized plate glass windows. The new carpets were soaked. Dad was hit on the head by a piece of ceiling. Our neighbour was sheltering in a fishing boat in Cid Harbour with a mate and he survived, but the mate drowned. 

I enjoyed the cyclone. It was exciting. We had weeks off school while our house and the town were rebuilt. To me, a cyclone meant holidays at home watching the river rise and the farm turn into a sea. It meant a day off from the bullying and racism. It meant cooking all meals on our wood-fired barbecue and playing Snap with my sisters, by the light of a hurricane lamp. 

Later on, in 2017, I watched Cyclone Debbie tear through the Whitsundays. I watched with a sense of dread from Brisbane, where I now live. I understood the impact the cyclone could have on life and property. But also, as Debbie tore roofs off Proserpine’s houses, I watched from the perspective of somebody who believes in climate change. 

When I recall the postcard memories of my childhood now, they look different. That nostalgic image of a farmer running a kerosene line of ignition down the length of a sugar cane field, with roaring flames consuming acres of green behind him looks environmentally reckless. I remember the bandicoots and wallabies running terrified and smoking from the fire. The once magical black rain of cinders falling down over the school oval now gives me Black Summer vibes. The dead whale in the river, once an excitement, is now a harbinger. 

I worried little while I was growing up. I blindly assumed that nature was my playground. I thought my world had been vetted by the adults and therefore it was safe. I don’t think that anymore. The scientists are worried about the effects of climate change. I can’t ignore their warnings. I can’t just think that the effects they describe are not there because I haven’t seen them yet. Just like the crocs in the Proserpine River. 

(First published in WQ magazine, Issue 276 “Climatic”, Mar 2022 – May 2022)

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