After a day and night of heavy rain and strong winds, gusting to forty knots across the bay, the quiet of the morning had about it an equal sense of renewal and abandonment. Branches lay snapped and scattered and whole trees uprooted. The water was brown and heaving as the bloated Logan River continued to empty itself into the bay, along with bits of tree, old jerry cans, pieces of furniture – I saw an upturned dining table and chair nearby – and an assortment of objects and plant life. The place had that lovely brackish smell, mixed with fresh algae, for here on the island, the fresh water from the wetlands is never far from the tide. Such a morning presented itself as an opportunity for a ride.
Heading west away from Centre Road, and sprinting somewhat for this rare opportunity of a wide, flat stretch, I thought I heard the sound of a straining vehicle, coming from the Watermouse. That is to say, from the Wallum wetland of paperbark and banksia, bungwall and sedge, on the western flattening of the island well before the mangrove shore. But the sound was disturbed by that of my spinning wheels and the rush of wind, so, slowing down and pulling up onto the rough verge, I discovered that this was no motor, but the electric clamour of hundreds of frogs come out after the rain. A wall of noise of the crispest, clearest acoustic, a concoction of beeps and clacks, base and treble, it was as much science fiction – a crazed overloaded motherboard - as it was a celebration of nature’s timely gifts.
The southward sweep of the cyclone had produced an abundance of water, overflowed the tanks, delighted the ducks, released the frogs, grew the grass, swelled the trees, strummed the nerves, soaked the earth, awakened the worms, sprung the spores of mushrooms, round and white like duck eggs, and flat and wide as pancakes; it sought out roof leaks, and made rivers and creeks of every earthly crevice, gutter and ditch. A creature’s first urge, on the morning after a big weather event says something about that creature’s nervous system. Mimmo, the cat, wandered slowly from the cosy nest he had occupied for the previous two days, and padded, inquiringly, into the garden, sniffing out the newly liberated smells, and touching the tips of things. I got on my bicycle, and searched the island, from one end to the other, for the newness of things, and that is when I found out about the frogs.
Was one of them the Wallum Froglet? The diminutive part of their name is no mere endearment, for these almost invisible instrumentalists measure no more than 15mm. I read that the males make a very high pitched squeak-like croak from their tiny elastic throats. The minute Crinia Tinnula – froglet’s scientific name – hides itself in shallow waters, in the acidic tea tree swamps of wallum country. It could have been he and his kin that I heard, rising to the surface amongst the deeper throated frogs. Or perhaps I heard the Olongburra, another wallum dweller, a sharp nosed little frog, with a ceeeeek….CRIK, pattern of call. Of what or whom comprised this ecstatic throng? A shimmering, bewildering and triumphant mechanics of throat and vibration. And why, why call out like this, why all this clamour?
I recently read in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, that where there are senses of one kind, there is a desire within the sensate being to be apprehended in like manner. She writes, “whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be touched.” (Arendt, p.67). This logic, this innate empathy, wraps being up with the world by which it comes to know itself, to be itself, by sending out, by expressing, and then receiving through the same sensory function to which it transmits. With this wall of frog sound, one imagines the passages of vibration, transmitting from the resonant air chamber, expanding under hundreds of tiny chins, and then vibrating in like manner, the tympanum of the ear, each one's own ear and another, and another, until, who knows, a voicing and a hearing become indistinguishable. I have experienced this strange confusion of stimulus that presents an experience completely at odds with what I know to be true. It happens sometimes when intoning exactly, the note that I am hearing, with more or less the same qualities of tone. At some point, it is no longer possible to tell apart one’s own voice from the note heard. The result is that you feel you are hearing with your mouth, and intoning with your ear. When there are many voices sending out, and many ears receiving, a single sound, from one vibrating chamber, divides itself amongst many, multiplying, incalculably the vibratory measure of that sound.
Hannah Arendt’s point in highlighting the binary operation of the senses, concerns the desire within living things, to appear! “It is indeed as though everything that is alive—in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others—has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” but itself as an individual.” (Arendt, ibid.). What came to light in that overwhelming close and constant weave of sound coming from the Watermouse this morning, was the fugitive nature of appearances. Not that they are deceptive, or treacherous, but that what appears may not always be what is seen. Does the visual frog lie hidden behind his sound, and though we may be deafened by his abundance of expression, is it that he will always remain aloof? Not exactly. For if a creature is its expression – in sound or vision or feel - then the frogs, though I could not see them, appear most emphatically! Furthermore, that which is apprehended by eyes or ears or touch, or, indeed, intuition, is resistant to translation. For example, the visual appearance of an individual is not translatable to its sonic appearance, and vice versa. We learn that the Wallum Froglet is small, but the sound he makes suggests otherwise, and this must not be taken as deception, for as long as we know him by his voice, he is, for he appears, truly enormous!
I did not linger around the swamps, for the mosquitoes, in their own special way, were making themselves appear in no mediocre terms. But I would like to have stayed and listened to more, heard them out, though who knows how long their concert would go on. I returned the next day on the mountain bike, coming up through the wetland tracks the back way, not from the road, but through the paperbarks, some still blackened by the recent fires, even as they dropped branches, now laden with water. There they were still, the frogs, and as far as I know they had not let up in all the thirty-six hours since last I passed by this way. What did I miss by slipping away early? For there was no structure or form to their work. But how different would my understanding be, had I remained quiet for an hour or so and listened carefully? They are still going now, I’ll bet, those bellowing little voice boxes, that were released with the coming of water, and that will be stilled with its dissipation. And this connection between water and song might be imagined as one of translation. While the sounds are the expression, or in fact the appearance of the frogs that they are, equally they are a representation of water, of weather, as it makes itself known to the frog. So when you hear a frog chorus, and immediately feel the closeness of water, it is not just that frogs signal the presence of creek or swamp, but that frogs, as sonic entities, are the translation of water.
However I look at it, at anything, it comes back to this: each thing, each sonority, each gesture, each touch and movement is an expression of the world that already comprises the thing, sonority, gesture, touch and movement. The mechanism of voice is the material occasion for the immateriality of sound, but as it voices, so it also reinvents the meaning of sound's immaterial richness.
Today we traversed the newly formed swamp on foot, gently manoeuvring the bikes across, took off our shoes and delighted in the cold, clean water. Tea tree water in Wallum swamp, is always amber…