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The day the light came on

I worked as a forester and lived in Northcliffe and Pemberton, deep in the karri country, for many years between 1962 and 1975. It was a wonderful life, combining adventure, glorious surroundings, memorable comrades and professional challenges. There were also moments of drama.

The young karri forest forester – near Northcliffe, 1970

The most fearsome of these was the time Jim Loverock (the Assistant Forester at Northcliffe), Dickie Dean (the Bush Boss for Bunnings Sawmill) and my colleague Steve Quain and I were driving in Jim’s Land Rover along KTC Road in the Babbington State forest, southeast of Northcliffe. We were on our way home after an inspection of Jim’s treemarking, checking on the standard of the mill’s bush operations and looking at some issues relating to post-logging regeneration.... a fairly typical day for foresters of that era.

All of a sudden we found ourselves engulfed in one of those intense cyclonic windstorms that occasionally rampage through the karri country during the winter months. It was a blustery winter’s day, but we had no forewarning of the storm. The wind went from blustery to gale force in minutes. Huge trees started going down, and great limbs crashed onto the road around us. Although Jim had stopped and was almost standing on the brake pedal, the Land Rover was flung and buffeted about. By a miracle we escaped unscathed, but it was a near thing. The road was completely blocked, and it took hours to cut our way out, our only implement being Jim’s treemarking axe.

I was also once caught in an ice storm in the jarrah forest and hailstones the size of oranges came crashing down, bouncing off logs and tree stems and tearing off leaves and branches from the canopy above. This occurred in the days before we wore safety helmets in the bush, and I felt very vulnerable. Luckily I heard it coming, a heavy wind in the tree crowns, followed by the rattle of small-arms fire as the hail storm bore down on me. Just in time I spotted a large jarrah tree with a deep hollow in its base. I ran across and slipped inside, heaving a sigh of relief. But when I leant back against the inside of the trunk, I could feel it swaying and gyrating. I decided that if it started to go, I would have time to make a run for it, and stayed until the storm passed, an over-confidence that amazes me in retrospect. I was lucky to get out of that one as well.

A happier memory, but also in some ways a vaguely unsettling one, was of the full lunar eclipse that cut across the southern forests of Western Australia in November, 1974. I had read in the newspaper that the best place to observe this eclipse was on the coast immediately south of Northcliffe, so on the appointed day, and strictly in the interests of science, my Assistant Forester Ron Kitson and I drove down to Point d’Entrecasteaux, where a great cliff looms above the little holiday and fishing settlement at Windy Harbour. A knot of about twenty assorted people had gathered at the lighthouse there, mostly Northcliffians, but with one of two technical types from the city who had set up astronomical instruments of some sort.

The cliffs at Point d’Entrecasteaux

It was a lovely clear day. The gulls were wheeling and crying, swallows and terns were darting about on the cliffs, and the sky was cloudless. From our vantage point on the headland, we could see way out across the sea to the southwest and lo! Precisely at the predicted minute we saw the approaching lunar shadow racing towards us, a great arc of darkness. In a moment we were in gloom, then a moment later in total darkness. The birds were stilled and silent. A second or two after this, almost with a grunt of surprise like a heavy sleeper who has overslept his alarm clock, the automatic light of the lighthouse came on above us, and the beam began its blinking sweep.

After about five minutes we could see the reverse arc of daylight approaching as the far side of the moon’s shadow passed. There was a moment of instant-dawn and then it was mid-day again. The lighthouse shut down and the birds arose.

Despite the fact that it was expected, and that I already knew all about the phenomenon of the lunar eclipse, it was an eerie experience, and gave me an insight into the alarm and anxiety these events caused to early human societies.

Besides I knew about alarm and anxiety, having once been nearly hail-stoned to death in the jarrah forest and then later pummelled by a winter storm on the KTC Road.

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