by Janeen Samuel
It looks like black porridge. Thick black porridge that has glooped and swirled under our feet in wide ropey arcs and then set. Frozen in the act of gurgling down the throat of the earth.
The gleams of our headlights pick out the tops of frozen ripples and little else. Here at the end of the tunnel, all light is swallowed up in the blackness of basalt. And it’s chilly. Hard to believe that when this pool was liquid it shone with a fierce orange heat. I’ve watched videos of eruptions from Hawaii and seen how the molten rivers race, the air above them shimmering with heat. Then their tops cool and crust over while the lava beneath flows on. I know, because I’ve heard my husband explaining it so many times, that this is what happened here. That’s how this tunnel formed, forty thousand years ago. I’ve seen the long treacly drips hanging from the ceiling and running down the walls, frozen in time like this swirling floor. The flow and the movement is easy to see but the intensity of the heat remains, for me, unimaginable.
Beside me, I notice Estella is shivering. Her husband and mine are standing at the end wall, their heads together, earnestly disputing. They’ll be a long time, I know. I’ve been in here before when Mike’s been showing fellow geologists around his patch.
“Would you like to go back out?” I say to Estella.
“Yes, please.” Her teeth are chattering. It’s surely not that cold, even for someone from the Philippines. I guess her discomfort is with more than the temperature.
It takes us a while to make our way back toward the tunnel mouth. There is a huge pile of rubble to climb – great blocks of basalt fallen from the roof. Estella is not ideally clothed or shod for scrambling over rocks in the dark. I would have lent her more suitable footwear, but her feet are too small for anything of mine.
Once we’re over the rock pile we can see the entrance, a broad half circle of light framed by the silhouettes of ferns. But getting there involves a circuitous route with more scrambling over rocks and straddling deep holes. Estella follows me trustingly, only here and there accepting my offer of a steadying hand. She’s game, I’ll give her that.
Arrived at the tunnel mouth, I pause. Facing us is a steep slope covered in a tangle of green. We are the bottom of a deep cup, a hole that formed long ago when this part of the tunnel collapsed.
“Do you want to wait here or go up to the surface?” I ask her. “It could be a bit dry and hot up there.”
“Here is fine.”
So we each find a flattish rock and sit down, under the high arch with its dangling ferns. Many of them are dry and dead. Hardly surprising, since we’re in the grip of one of the worst droughts in history. Not that history goes back very far – a mere hundred and eighty years in this part of Western Victoria. Which looks pretty meagre when you set it against forty thousand. Forty thousand years, that’s how long these holes have been providing refuges from the sun and the wind. In this hole, and others along the line of the lava’s flow, grow ferns that are found nowhere else away from the East Coast.
I ought to be making conversation with Estella. We could have a long wait here. I know what Mike and Jonathon are like when they get into a technical discussion. But I find her hard to talk to. It’s not that there’s a language barrier. Her English is perfect, as you’d expect of someone who used to work as a co-ordinator for an Aid Agency. Jonathon met her when he was seconded to a dam project in the Philippines. I’ve known Jonathon, as Mike’s friend and colleague, for a long time. I knew his first two wives. I like him. More than that, I’m fond of him. But I wouldn’t be married to him for anything.
Maybe that’s why I feel ill at ease with her. Maybe I’m thinking of Dickens’ Estella, the girl who was reared to have no heart. Or maybe, if I’m honest, I’m just put off by her immaculate make-up and clothes.
I look around me for inspiration and say the first thing that comes into my head. “You know, I really admire plants.”
“Oh, yes,” she says, but a little uncertainly. “I love flowers too.”
“No, but I mean, they’re so brave.”
“Er… Janet, how can a plant be brave?”
“Sorry, that’s not the right word. Stoical?” But it’s hard for a vegetative life-form to be anything but stoical. “Plucky. That’s the word. Sort of Boy’s Own and stiff-upper-lip.” She’s looking really perplexed now, and no wonder. “Sorry, I’m not making sense. Forget it.”
“No, no, I am interested. And I like to talk.” She looks back down the tunnel. “They are not coming yet. Can they be lost?”
“They’re fine. I just meant, well, look at those ferns up there, growing on bare rock. They don’t have any choice where they land but they don’t give up, they just get on and make the best of it.”
She looks up, tilting back her head with its jaunty red hat. “I think some of them have given up.”
“Maybe. Hopefully most of them will come good when it rains. If it rains.” I don’t want to admit that this may be the end for some of them. That, after all these years, climate change may be the one thing they can’t survive.
“And more than that,” I persist. “You’ve got to remember, all this” – I wave my hand at the ferns around us and the slope before us covered in bushes and creepers – “was originally just like the floor back there. Just bare barren black rock, after the eruption.”
“Yes, I know about that. It was like that after Mount Pinatubo erupted. Where people’s farms had been it was just black stuff and they couldn’t go back. They were all camped in one of the football stadiums in Manila because there was nowhere else for them to be.”
“Oh.” I am abashed. Here we have been showing off our volcanoes, boasting about how they’re not extinct, just dormant, and all to someone who comes from a country of live volcanoes. I remember when Pinotabo erupted, back in the 90’s. I was still at school and we did a project on it. We had marvellous sunsets, from the smoke. We enjoyed them with a clear conscience, knowing all the people had been evacuated safely. I never thought about the long-term effects.
“What happened to them in the end?”
“I don’t know.”
She sounds indifferent. Uncaring. For a moment I’m shocked. Then I realise it’s probably the way you have to be, in a country where so many are in dire need. I once went to the Philippines, years ago. I saw the appalling conditions under which some people lived, with scarcely more choice in the matter than those ferns above my head. I even saw Mount Pinatubo. And now I come to think of it, I remember what Mike told me: when it erupted it spewed out not lava but ash, which turned to black mud in the rain. So presumably by now those ravaged farms are once more covered in plants. No doubt that rich black soil was the reason people chose to live there in the first place, in spite of the risk.
But I don’t say all this Estella. I get the feeling we’re not connecting. That science and the natural world are not exactly her thing. We sit in silence again. The only sound comes from the sunlit world above our heads – a twittering of thornbills in the bushes at the hole’s rim.
I shift my chilling buttocks on the hard rock and gaze idly at the other rocks in front of me, at the thin layer of green moss covering their blackness. It must have been like this up above us once, after the lava had cooled and lain a few years in the sun and rain. Bare rock with nothing growing but mosses and lichens. Mike and I once visited a place where a volcano had erupted forty years before. It was in Iceland; we’d gone there to a geology conference. Jonathan was there too, I remember, with Wife Number Two who was decidedly not enjoying herself. It was so dull and desolate, she said, staring through the bus window at the acres of black rock covered with a grey-green fuzz of lichen and moss. To me it was fascinating, even uplifting – all those valiant colonisers clinging to the rock, nibbling away at it, breaking it down little by little.
That’s how it must have been here. First the mosses and lichens, then the ferns, last of all the so-called higher plants. Which are not only higher, of course, but also deeper. You can see their roots in some of these tunnels, forcing their way down through fissures. They hang in glistening curtains or snake across the floor, searching, always searching for moisture.
How long would it have taken? Only a few hundred years, maybe, from lava waste to grassy woodland. Trees have learned to grow quickly here. When we arrived this morning, Jonathon looked around in amazement. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “Last time I was here there wasn’t a tree in sight. It was like a desert.”
Mike and I looked around too, complacently, at the stands of wattle and gum, all grown up in the score of years since the sheep were fenced out. Estella’s tropical eyes saw it differently. “It still looks like a desert to me, Jon.” I don’t think he heard her; he’d already started carrying on to Mike about rampant Greenies who plant trees all over geological features.
Now, Estella interrupts my thoughts. “What you say about plants being brave, Janet, I think maybe that is an English idea. There is a poem I learned when I was studying English at University. It’s about daffodils.”
“Daffodils? You mean tossing their heads in sprightly dance?”
“Not William Wordsworth. It was by Rudyard Kipling.”
“Kipling and daffodils? I thought he only wrote about wolves and elephants.”
“Oh, no, he wrote lots of different things. We had a guest lecturer from England who liked him so we studied his poetry.” And she quotes: “This season’s daffodil, she never hears what change, what chance, what chill, cut down last year’s; but with bold countenance, and knowledge small… I think ‘bold’ is like ‘brave’, isn’t it?”
“More or less.” I would never have thought to link Estella with English poetry. “Why were you studying English? I thought you’d done science?”
“No, I have an Arts degree. I was only in administration.”
“You probably know more about English literature than I do.” I look at her, perched uncomfortably yet somehow elegantly on her rock, with a smear of mud now on her crisp daffodil-yellow shirt, and I wonder why she married Jonathon who is interested in nothing but rocks and fossils. She must, surely, have had other options.
“Oh, no, I am very ignorant. But I think what it means is, the daffodil is only brave because it is ignorant too. It is easy for plants. They don’t know what has happened to the ones who went before them.”
“Yes, of course.” Is she just making polite conversation, or is she telling me something? “All the same,” I say, “once they do find out what they’re in for, they keep pegging away at it.”
“Pegging? What is that… Oh!” she interrupts herself. “Here they come.”
Mike and Jonathon are already over the big rock-pile and winding their way into the light. Jonathon, busy expounding some theory to Mike, gives Estella a brief nod and goes straight past her and up the slope. It’s left to Mike to turn and give her a helping hand up the steep bits.
The sun assails us as we reach the surface. A hot wind is combing through the sparse brown grass, and the blue-green leaves of the wattles are furled against it. Yellow grasshoppers leap and whirr. I watch Estella’s nose wrinkle and I know she is still seeing it as a desert. A hostile place. For myself, with the image of bare black rock fresh in my mind, it is miraculous. Just the presence of brown soil between the rocks is a marvel.
Mike points up the valley to the mountain that is the source of the lava. Nobody could mistake it for anything but a volcano; it has the classic conical shape. It looks, indeed, rather like Mount Pinatubo, though on a smaller scale. I’m about to point this out to Estella when Mike says, “There’s an actual open volcanic vent a bit south of here, that you can climb down into. Not today, though; we’d need ropes.”
“I would like to see that,” says Jonathon.
Tomorrow then. You are staying tomorrow?”
“No,” says Estella. “We are going to Port Fairy tomorrow, Jon. We are going to that art exhibition, remember?”
“Oh, well,” Jonathon looks at me. “I’m sure Janet would take you.”
I hesitate. I don’t mind an outing to Port Fairy but that’s not the point.
“It will be nice if Janet comes with us, but you are taking me.” Estella’s voice is quiet but firm. “That was our arrangement. A day for you with the volcanoes, then one for me at the coast.”
“Hmn, yes, but…” He gives Estella a half-petulant, pleading look. Behind him, Mike grins and winks at me. It’s a wink that says, Here’s old Jonathon about to get his own way as usual. Estella looks back at Jonathon in silence, her face still. A bold countenance. And Jonathon clears his throat and says, “I suppose then, in that case… Sorry, Mike, I do seem to have a prior appointment. We’ll have to do the vent next time.”
We wave them off to Port Fairy next morning.
“It won’t last,” says Mike. “Jonathon’s too used to having his own way.”
I’m not so sure. Whatever the winds of chance that blew her to him, now she’s there she’s getting her roots down and she’s not going to give up. Jonathon may be a particularly tough chunk of rock, but Estella, I suspect, is one brave daffodil.
Janeen Samuel lives in South-West Victoria, a region with lots of craters and caves and other volcanic features. When not exploring these, above or below ground, she writes short fiction and poetry. She has had pieces published in, among others, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Award Winning Australian Writing.
Photo credit: Ken Grimes.