Paul McAuley

Austral (extract #1)

We walked every day. Ten kilometres, twenty. Stopping now and then to pick berries or dig for tubers, to nap for a couple of hours in some sunny spot before moving on. I was young and strong and sturdy, and despite her new energy and purpose Mama sometimes struggled to keep up with me. She taught me how to choose a good site to make camp, how to find the runs that small animals used in the undergrowth, and make wire-loop traps and set them just so. She taught me how to light fires with a fire plough, a bow and drill, with a lens shaped from clear ice. How to build a shelter by notching a young tree’s trunk and bending and staking it to form a ridge pole and weaving walls on either side from cut branches. Now and then we’d sleep in one of the old ecopoet refuges. I’ve already told you about the one tucked into a ravine, its flat roof covered in boulders. There was another hidden behind a waterfall, and one cut into a ledge high on a slope with views down the length of Andvord Fjord, steep slopes crowded with trees rising on either side of a crooked sleeve of vivid blue water, sparkling waterfalls unravelling past cliffs, and a little cluster of black roofs, the fishing village of Puerto Constitución, gleaming at the shore near the fjord’s mouth.

There was a sadness to those old refuges. An echo of lives lived and long lost. Like the abandoned winter station we found in Green Valley, where volunteer saplings grew amongst raised vegetable beds in smashed greenhouses, army graffiti was scrawled on the walls of wrecked labs, and the broken foundations of a cluster of cabins long ago burnt to the ground were smothered in drifts of blue-berried honeysuckle. We spent a day there while Mama picked over the ruins, possessed by the ghost of her black dog, and I thoughtlessly gorged on raspberries growing wild in a walled garden and fell asleep on a cracked slab of concrete in the warm sunlight.

There were old gardens scattered throughout the coastal forests. Some bounded by rough stone walls overgrown with moss and ferns, others squares or rectangles scratched into stony earth on slopes that faced south-east and caught the most sunlight, or patchworked around huts built of earth-chinked stones and roofed with plastic sheeting weighted down with rocks and wired to rotted batteries that had once stored electricity generated by solar paint. Most of these plots were overgrown with weeds, only a few edible plants remaining, but occasionally we came across fields that had been cleared and replanted with neat rows of crops. White lupins, blueberries and lingonberries, sea kale, the inevitable Eskimo potato.

Once, we came across several square fields of dwarf barley etched on a hillside. Wire fences to keep out reindeer, a gravel road wandering down into the forest. Mama froze at the sight of them, said that while the replanted fields were mostly likely cultivated by half-and-halfs, these were something else. Some kind of experiment left to grow over summer. Like the spruce plantation it was a stupid waste of land, a reversion to the bad old days of the oil age when agriculture had been dominated by monocultures that used more energy, in the form of fertiliser and fuel for machines, than was harvested. People never learned, Mama said. Especially the rich, who made fetishes of things that other people couldn’t afford. That barley would probably be used to make bread sold for silly amounts of money, or to brew rare expensive beer drunk by the same kind of people who used ice ten thousand years old, brought up from deep cores in glaciers on the mainland, to chill their drinks.

Like those barley fields, Mama said, every biome quickened after the retreat of the ice – salt marshes fringing the mouths of meltwater rivers, forests spread across valleys, alpine meadows on high rocky slopes, moss lawns in cirques which had once been tamped full of snow and ice a hundred metres deep – were human artifacts. But they weren’t parks or gardens, ever the same like so many pictures. They didn’t evolve in a linear predictable manner towards some stable end point, but were in a constant state of dynamic disequilibrium. It was not possible to completely describe the state of a biome at any particular moment, nor was it possible to predict future states, but you could sketch the broad limits of possibility, and because they weren’t as rich as natural ecosystems and changes driven by global warming were still ongoing, the biomes of the peninsula required a certain level of protection and management. Exactly how much protection, how much management, had been endlessly debated by ecopoets in their heyday, most favouring a light touch and the gradual introduction of new species to increase diversity and robustness. But after their caretakers had surrendered or had been rounded up, most of the biomes had been left to grow as they would, and it was a tribute to the clever designs of their initial states that they had survived as well as they had in the past couple of decades.

Anyway, Mama and I skirted those fields, wary of drones or cameras that might be watching over them, and hurried on into the forest on the far side. We were ragged and sunburnt and lean. We lived on what we could forage and catch. We avoided other people, made long detours around villages and settlements. I swam several times in the sea, in churning surf, amongst slicks of bull kelp, once amongst penguins that shot past me like torpedoes, trailing long wakes of silvery bubbles. Mama swam too, but never for very long – the water was too cold for her. We saw fish eagles play fighting above a fjord, locking claws and plunging towards the water and breaking apart at the last minute, over and again. And on our traverse of the Forbidden Plateau we descended into a crevasse and clambered over blocks fallen from ice bridges that curved overhead and found at its far end a cathedral vault and a tumble of ice descending into depths we did not dare to investigate, everything lit by a glow as blue and holy as radioactivity.

The days and days of walking blur together. It’s hard, now, to sort dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges bare as the moon stretching away under the cloudless sky. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rocky shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elf stone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really see people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of drums in my blood.

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