Anyone from Europe or America can step into the Australian forest and feel at once the first settlers' confusion. Often I imagine the view of an escaped convict, running into the woods as so many did. He's heard that if he kept going, he'd come out in China.
He runs through a wood of low sinuous trees, pounding an orange-brown earth punctured by blinding shards of sunlight. He runs, but he's not sure he's moving. There's little undergrowth, so he can run in any direction, but the same low woodland is everywhere. Soon it seems, in the corner of his eye, that the trees are running too. They rush along beside him, creating a treadmill effect that will wear him out until he collapses, a heap of nutrients for their gaping roots. Suddenly, he flushes a wallaby or kangaroo from its daytime bed; as it bounds off at warp speed, he wonders if he's seen a distended, two-legged deer.
I've had all these experiences, and each time I've felt invited to see not just through my educated eyes, but also through the eyes of the illiterate convict, who'd never been out of Gloucestershire until he landed here, and ran.
He's right beside me when I hear the sudden crack of a high-pitched whip; the whipbird, I think, but to my convict the forest is echoing the whips of his captors, as though every tree is spying for the state. Then, in the distance, we hear a high, short peep, repeated once per second for a seeming eternity; I think it's called a bellbird, but he hears only a metronome counting out his life, a parody of his flagging heartbeat. At once, the entire forest bursts into cackling, a deafening, maniacal sound that will remind the northerner of excited monkeys, its pitch and volume rising slowly like a threat; I know this to be the work of a few hidden kookaburras, but I agree with the convict: it really does seem that the forest itself it taunting us. Finally, a high woodwind offers a few serene bars of twelve-tone ruminations, seemingly random notes dashed off at ten per second; I hear an Australian magpie, but my convict feels only a startling beauty, as though he were glimpsing an alien maiden between the shafts of blinding sun.
Perhaps, he thinks, this could be paradise on earth if only he could grasp its way of being. But the way is so strange that he'd have to erase his whole identity, die in all but body and give way to a new self.
The dying, at least, is imminent. At last there's a bird sound that the convict can recognize: the croak of a raven once, twice, three times. But the third croak is different: it goes on and on, dropping in pitch and volume until nothing remains, as though the bird is being sucked down an echoing tube. His last words, he imagines, will sound like this.