Online Only

Fire on the mountain

Slugs, snails and survival

Image credit: Michael Murphy

 

WHEN THE HARDY folk of Narrabri want to forget a drought that has overpowered the land, when they want to see farther and wider, to be still, to remember the natural order of things, many head to Mount Kaputar. Up there, high on the hulking skeleton of an ancient volcano, it’s said you can see 10 per cent of New South Wales on a good day. Lava moulded the mountain seventeen million years ago, piercing a soft spot in the Earth’s crust and rolling over the countryside. When it cooled, it left what’s now the Nandewar Range; Kaputar is its highest point.

If you’re driving north along the Newell Highway in north-west NSW, Mount Kaputar rises suddenly from the dry plains – a 1,500-metre monument to the continent’s hellfire past. Millennia of wind and rain have shorn the range into a zigzag of plunging gullies and knobbly peaks. Kaputar overlooks it all, forest clinging to its once red-hot flanks.

Some ten million years ago, after Australia tore free from the Gondwanan supercontinent and drifted north, the land began to dry. Rainforest receded to the coast and many plant and animal species died out. But Mount Kaputar’s altitude meant its wildlife was spared: its high plateau became, and remains, a cool, wet refuge above the hot plains – a place of alpine gums and biting breezes, fast-rolling mists and winter snow.

And on rainy nights, when cloud hangs low over Kaputar’s peak, the mountain hosts a slimy synchronised dance of sorts. Fat pink slugs, some longer than a human hand, slide out from the earth – sometimes just a few, sometimes in their hundreds. From deep in the damp – no one quite knows where – they glide up rock faces and tree trunks in shocking shades of bubblegum and flamingo, sashimi and blood plum, carnation and coral, glazed bodies glistening as they feed. When morning comes and the mist rises, the slugs slip back to their subterranea, awaiting the next wet night.

This single mountaintop is the only place on Earth you can see this primeval show. Because when the Gondwana Rainforests shrank coastwards, Mount Kaputar’s creatures were left marooned. Here the slugs evolved, spanning time with carnivorous snails, hairy snails and translucent snails, an insular community of biological quirks found nowhere else.

But this island in the sky is not invincible. When its equilibrium is upset, as so often happens on our tottering orb, Mount Kaputar’s slugs and snails are cornered: creatures wilder and gentler than we’ll ever know, left to an uncertain fate.

 

FIRE LIVES ONLY in a matrix of oxygen, fuel and heat. Take one ingredient away, and fire ceases to exist. Provide enough of each, and a fire will burn to infinity.

About one fifth of Earth’s atmosphere is oxygen. No other known planet has enough oxygen for fire, as we know it, to burn: gravity feeds oxygen to the base of a flame, shooting hot air upwards to create a quivering amber teardrop.

Plants create both the oxygen a fire needs to burn and the fuel that incites it. Leaves, twigs and loose bark carry a bushfire, easily igniting and skipping ahead of the fire front. Old logs, parched shrubs and tree branches burn next; tree trunks usually go last, smouldering long after the front has passed.

In the spring of 2019, Mount Kaputar was drenched in fuel. Australia had borne three years of drought; November would be the nation’s driest on record. At Kaputar’s summit, the drought wasn’t obvious. Pink slug sightings were down, but occasional rain and mists provided moisture enough for the trees and grass to hang on. However, the lower slopes were dying. Trees had finally succumbed after months of sucking hard on cauterised soil, their canopies turning a sick coppery beige.

Rebecca Tribe, a Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer, walked Mount Kaputar’s trails in the months before the fires and recalls the forest floor snapping underfoot. ‘We hadn’t had rain in ages, not decent rain anyway,’ she says. ‘The trees were dying; all the leaves were falling off. I thought “yep, it’s not going to take much for it to go”.’

Bushfires also need heat. It might come from campfire embers, a machinery spark or an arsonist’s lighter. In the case of Mount Kaputar, it was delivered by two lightning strikes.

In mid-October 2019, a dry thunderstorm hit. Lightning kindled two bushfires on either side of Mount Kaputar National Park: one in the Upper Bullawa Creek valley and another south-east of Mount Dowe. The fires smouldered unnoticed for a day or so. Then on Thursday 17 October, smoke was reported on both sides of the park.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) official Peter Berney, based fifty kilometres west of Mount Kaputar at Narrabri, was immediately concerned. The park had burned before, but conditions were ‘just massively, unseasonably dry’, Berney says. ‘As soon as the smoke sightings came in, we knew it was serious.’ An aircraft was dispatched to confirm the bad news. NPWS officials started mapping the fires and working out how to contain the flames.

Tribe recalls seeing the fire develop throughout the next day. ‘It was a haze to start off with, but as it got bigger and bigger you started seeing the plumes,’ she says. ‘We got a pager message asking if anyone was available for shifts that night. I rang up and got put on the list to head up.’

Three RFS trucks left Narrabri about 6.30 pm on Friday 18 October 2019 for the hour-long trip to Mount Kaputar’s peak. As they approached, twin cenotaphs of smoke rose from each side of the range. Tribe and her fellow volunteers arrived at the summit and got to work on the Barraba track, which winds down the mountain’s eastern slope. It was the only chance to catch the Upper Bullawa Creek fire before it reached the summit. ‘We spent all night there, doing backburns and protecting stuff on the other side of it,’ she says. ‘We spent twelve hours walking up and down the hill. We were buggered.’

Tribe and her young family spend a lot of time at Mount Kaputar. In winter they head up to see snow, and on misty mornings they sometimes pile into the car to go slug-spotting. Tribe says it was ‘a worry’ to know the fire was headed for the summit.

‘It’s really beautiful up there. The kids absolutely love the slugs – they’re pretty cute, to be honest. We’ve seen the little bubby ones and big ones. Every time you see them, it’s just as exciting as when you saw them the first time,’ she says. Tribe knew fire crews may have been torching slug habitat, but says as the larger fire loomed below ‘we had to burn’.

After a long night on the mountain, Tribe and her colleagues were grimy and spent. They called off and the next shift headed up. It was Saturday morning, and a warm, windy day was predicted. Berney, stationed at the incident control centre at Narrabri, knew the next twelve hours would be bad. ‘The fires did nothing for a day and a bit,’ he says. ‘But then in a few hours, they did everything.’

 

IN THE LANGUAGE of the Gamilaroi people (variants: Kamilaroi, Gamilaraay and Gomeroi), the word Narrabri translates to ‘forked waters’; it’s where the Namoi River splits into Narrabri Creek and, further downstream, Horsearm Creek. Namoi is thought to derive from the Gamilaroi word ‘ngamu’, meaning the mother’s breast: sending forth an elixir to nourish the continent.

Indigenous Australian cosmology dictates that everything on Earth is reflected in the night sky. To the Gamilaroi, the stars and dust lanes of the Milky Way are known as ‘warrambool’: big river. And within that spiralling sky river, the Milky Way’s bright centre represents fire; the haze is tendrils of smoke. Water and fire, fire and water, reflected in the star world as one.

The lands of the Gamilaroi extend from the top of the New South Wales Hunter Valley to just over the Queensland border, west to Walgett and east to the Great Dividing Range. Mount Kaputar lies at the centre.

Written records suggest Gamilaroi people climbed to the cool of the Nandewar Range mostly in spring and summer. Aboriginal sites in Mount Kaputar National Park include campsites, rock carvings, axe-grinding grooves and a possible stone arrangement at the Kaputar summit.

Gamilaroi man Greg Griffiths lives at Gunnedah, just south-west of Narrabri, and works as an Indigenous knowledge holder. For the Gamilaroi, Mount Kaputar is a significant ceremonial place. ‘We go there to learn about how things came to be – about the land and the environment and our relationship to it; who we are as a people,’ he says.

Griffiths tells how his ancestors went to Kaputar for teachings on the rainbow serpent, a creation spirit. In Indigenous Dreaming, Earth lay dormant until one day the rainbow serpent emerged from the ground. As the creature pushed upwards it created mountains and valleys, including the Nandewar Range.

Steven Booby, another Gamilaroi man, was born and raised in Narrabri. He left town to study and returned fifteen years ago; he now works as an Indigenous cultural practitioner. Booby says Kaputar is a significant teaching place for the four family groups that make up Gamilaroi society. ‘It gives instruction to us on who we are, and how we are to live with everything and all things,’ Booby says. ‘Down here [on the plains], it’s all women’s law. Up there, you’re connecting with father’s law. The big creator, the big fella.’

Each family group inherited specific plant and animal totems. At Kaputar, the Gamilaroi would learn how each totem represented an unbroken connection not just to kin and all living things, but to the stars and creation itself.

Neither Griffiths nor Booby knows precisely how the pink slug fits into this totemic system. Booby tells me they ‘taste like chicken’, before smiling: ‘I’m only pulling your leg.’ Then he becomes serious. ‘I don’t know the full extent of the roles and responsibilities of the snails and the slug and what role they played within those family groups,’ he says. ‘I think, over time, that knowledge is asleep at the moment.’

That knowledge is asleep. It’s a potent phrase. A story untold, lying fallow in the earth, waiting to show itself.

Europeans began to colonise the region in the 1830s. The Gamilaroi had a name for them: wunda, meaning white ghosts. But the new arrivals soon proved themselves nothing if not corporeal beings. Wielding guns and grog and smallpox, they killed Gamilaroi people with brutal speed. In 1826, Gamilaroi people were thought to have numbered about 10,000. Thirty years later, the population had fallen to below 1,000.

By 1848, cattle and sheep runs had overtaken most of the region. Unfettered grazing upset the region’s fragile balance of soils and grasses. It also denied the Gamilaroi food, culture and access to the lands that animated their being. Today, farming, mining and logging continue to claim dominion over land into which Gamilaroi lives are bound.

Booby recalls standing at an old travelling stock route on the plains east of Narrabri in October 2019, watching the bushfires worsen. Amid the chaos he saw order: a natural law unfolding. ‘It was such a horrible energy. It was almost like a volcano erupting again. However that energy came to be – maybe it was just years of irresponsible land use – it manifested in this ferocity, this entity with a life of its own,’ he says.

‘Water has been removed from country…and we’re wondering why these droughts are becoming longer. At some point in time, if you do enough stupid shit, what’s going to happen? Either we are going to destroy ourselves, which may happen, or goonimaa [Mother Earth] will do it for us.’

At 9.30 am on Saturday 19 October, the fires on both sides of Mount Kaputar were idling predictably. However, relative humidity – the amount of water vapour in the air – was at 21 per cent, less than half you’d expect for so early in the day. In short: the place was primed to explode.

About 11 am, the fires stirred. The wind picked up and flames began cantering up the slopes, leaning into the hill and super-heating the fuels above – a self-creating being, at once made of its surroundings and undoing them. At about midday, flames claimed much of Mount Kaputar’s summit.

The two fires would eventually converge into one mega-fire, burning about 20,000 hectaresa third of the national park and most of the pink slug habitat. The inferno would not be contained until early November, when the rains finally came.

 

ADAM FAWCETT STOPS abruptly, holding up a hand that cautions me to walk no further. On a log at his feet, a red-bellied black snake lies twirled around itself, lustred in the morning sun. ‘Let’s not go that way,’ he says.

It’s early December 2020 and I’ve met Fawcett, a NPWS senior project officer, to look for snails at the top of Mount Kaputar. More than a year has passed since fires plundered the national park. Large tracts of bush are still recovering, but the patch we’re standing in didn’t burn – in fact, recent rain has left it thrumming.

We veer left through a thicket of snow grass, giving the snake a wide berth. The air smells faintly of nutmeg. Around us, electric purple wildflowers dangle from long stems, and creamy gums shed ribbons of bark.

I’m not expecting to see a pink slug. It hasn’t rained for a few days, and the sun is out. But I’m hoping to see a few snails. Together with the slug, about twenty species of snails were, in 2013, declared an ‘endangered ecological community’ – the first such legal listing of a land-snail assemblage in Australia. The community predominantly survives only at altitudes above 1,000 metres on Mount Kaputar – a ten-square-kilometre final stand.

The slug is the best-known species in the group, but perhaps not even the most fascinating. One snail is bristled and hairy, and some are so small you could fit several on your pinkie fingernail. Most species are vegetarian, but several are cannibals – following the pearly trail of other snails before launching their slow-motion attack.

Fawcett stops to turn over a log, exposing the darkness beneath. We stare for a few moments, our eyes adjusting to the micro scale. A three-toed skink writhes about, and hundreds of white ants jostle and weave. Ribbed worms, sensing the influx of light, wriggle further into the earth.

In the immediate wake of the fires, no one knew if the snails and slugs – which are actually a type of mollusc – had survived at all. One Australian Museum expert estimated 90 per cent of pink slugs had died. But when the rains arrived, slugs and snails started to appear in small numbers; the question then became how many were in hiding.

Fawcett turns over another log, and we peer into the impression beneath. ‘Oh, guess what!’ Fawcett exclaims. He points to a plain brown snail – quite a pleasant-looking fellow, really – burrowed into the shell of another.

‘That’s a Nandewar carnivorous snail there and it looks like he’s feeding on another one. That’s pretty impressive, I’ll take a photo of that,’ says Fawcett, taking out his phone. ‘They eat insects, worms and other invertebrates. But size matters: if they’re big enough and can take on their own kind, it’s open slather.’

As soon as the cannibal snail takes hold, Fawcett explains, the victim has no way to escape. ‘There’s only one entry point to the shell, so the bigger one just inserts their mouth and starts eating.’

While some snails dine on each other, the vegetarians eat leaf litter, fungi and algae – breaking down the forest floor and, when preyed upon by bigger animals, passing nutrients up the food chain. The slugs, too, occasionally make a gunky meal for kookaburras and currawongs.

Over the next hour or so we pick through the bush, peering under rocks and logs. Under each lies a diorama at once rhythmic and chaotic, neighbourly and cruel; every patch of earth its own cosmic drama, the miniature bedrock of terrestrial life.

Fawcett gently rolls a slender log, and green ants scatter. Nestled in the dirt beneath lie five glass snails, their translucent chocolate shells flecked with gold. ‘The shells are almost clear,’ Fawcett says, pointing to one. ‘If you look closely, you can see their heart beating.’ I don’t pick the snail up, loathe to disturb it further. But I picture the faint flutter of its heart, beating in perfect rhythm, tiny tributaries irrigating its pale organs.

When a fire tears through snail habitat, shells are often the only part of the animal left. But at West Kaputar Rocks, next to the summit lookout, the fire let fly with such ferocity that it torched the underside of rocks; not even shells remained.

However one morning in November after a thunderstorm the night before, Fawcett woke early and headed to the rocks on a hunch. He would soon make a joyous discovery: the pink slugs, at least, had survived the fires in decent numbers. He found one slug ‘just sitting there on the rock, at the edge of the road’. He texted snail expert Stephanie Clark, who was asleep in a nearby cabin, and then he walked on.

‘I saw another two slugs. Then further up the road there were five, then Stephanie came down and by the time we were finished looking we had over forty,’ he says. ‘They just kept coming out of the rock.’

Clark, one of Australia’s foremost malacologists, has been studying Mount Kaputar’s slugs and snails since 1989. She had never seen a pink slug in the flesh, except for a freak discovery a few days earlier when, digging into leaf litter, she found one curled in a piece of bark.

Clark knew the fires had caused some slug casualties – ‘I’m sure some were barbecued,’ she says dryly – but she was confident others had survived. ‘They’ve been living in what we call Australia for many millennia, so they obviously have ways and means of coping with fire.’

Snails escape heat by sealing off their shells and becoming dormant, but slugs enjoy no such protection. Instead, they descend into the rayless depths of the earth. I ask Clark: what happens in this slug underworld? How deep are the crevices into which they delve? Where do they go, and what do they do, for those weeks and months between rain?

‘I have no idea,’ she says with a laugh. ‘We really know nothing about most molluscs. Even garden snails, we don’t know half the things that they do. Adam and I found all those slugs out on the rock. But I can tell you, we could have looked all day, turning every rock and thing in that area, and would not have found a single one.’

 

THE DAY I leave Narrabri, I stop at a petrol station on the way out of town, fill up with fuel and buy the local paper. The front page is given over to a single story, headlined ‘$1 billion spend on gas project over five years’. The photo features five sheeny-faced men in business shirts, standing abreast. In the centre is Kevin Gallagher, chief executive of gas company Santos; senior council figures stand either side. The event was the mayor’s Christmas party; the men each flash a crinkle-eyed smile to the camera, as if at the fading end of a laugh.

Two weeks earlier, the federal government had granted environmental approval to Santos’ Narrabri Gas Project, a contentious plan to drill 850 coal-seam gas wells in the Pilliga Forest. Many locals welcome the jobs and money that will flow; several I spoke to were excited Bunnings is finally coming to town. The project is at the heart of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plan to reboot the post-pandemic economy by expanding the nation’s gas industry. Gallagher told party guests his company would spend $120 million on the venture over the next two years and then, if all goes well, another $900 million in the three years after that.

Size matters: if they’re big enough and can take on their own kind, it’s open slather.

For almost a decade, the project has been overwhelmingly opposed by farmers, Gamilaroi people and the broader community. To reach the gas, Santos must drill through the aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin and then pump in chemicals. Scientists warn the work may permanently contaminate the basin’s groundwater, the oldest of which is two million years old. Many Gamilaroi people believe the water represents the rainbow serpent itself, rising to the surface and giving life to the land; some say the creature still dwells in the basin’s ancient depths.

Earlier in the trip, I’d asked Gamilaroi man Steven Booby what he thought of the gas project. He paused for a long time before answering. ‘They’re saying “okay, there’s a village site over here and a hearth site over here and a culturally modified tree over here, and we can protect those physical objects”,’ Booby said. ‘But the intangible values behind them – say, what certain waterways mean – people can’t see, touch and feel those values. And when you manage those places as physical objects, those values are never going to get looked after.’

Two weeks after my visit to Narrabri, in late December 2020, a group of local farmers filed a court challenge to the project, arguing the New South Wales Government’s approval failed to properly consider the climate damage it will cause. That harm would be both global and close to home; for the slug and snail populations at nearby Mount Kaputar, climate change may well mean their endpoint.

Research shows the predicted global temperature rise is likely to put the pink slug, and many of the mountain’s snail species, at very high risk of extinction. Already trapped at the highest reaches of an isolated mountain top, there is no cooler place to which they can flee when the world warms. Millennia-old miracles, slated to die out on our watch.

I didn’t see a pink slug during my trip to Mount Kaputar, though it turns out I was travelling in their wake. As I followed Adam Fawcett along a bush track towards the end of our walk, he stopped at a young snow gum and gestured at the trunk. Etched onto the bark were hundreds of small, overlapping circles forming a series of wobbly lines: slug feeding trails.

‘Algae and bacteria and mosses and all sorts of things grow on the bark,’ Fawcett said, explaining they form a film that the slugs scrape off with ‘teeth, of a sort’. He pointed to the lower set of trails. ‘These are quite fresh here. But up there, those are older, they’re fading.’

I followed those trails with my finger, imagining the slugs’ dawn glissade down the trunk, and scoured the leaf litter on the off chance that I’d spot a disappearing fuchsia tail. I didn’t, of course. Nearby, snails silently churned the soil, their stippled shells spiralling outwards like nebulae, like time itself. But the slugs lay deep somewhere, revelling in their razzle-dazzle pinkness, pulsing with the life force that wreathes all of creation.

And there they’ve abided, over months of bushfire and virus and panic and terrible despair. Above the earth as below, this time has affirmed all creatures prey to nature and circumstance – many mortal hearts beating inside brittle shells, their life on Earth no longer a given.

In this adrift moment, when so much that we’ve contrived has been undone, perhaps we might hesitate before we build anew: see farther and wider, be still and remember the natural order of things.

 


This article is part of The Elemental Summer, an online series featuring writing from a selection of Australia’s most respected thinkers on climate. 

Don't miss out on our next Elemental Summer piece! Subscribe to our mailing list by clicking here.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review