The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales/Chapter 8

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I regret, that not being a naturalist, I can give no information with regard to the natural history of the country, which is likely to prove interesting to the scientific world; still, as a few observations on the obvious peculiarities of nature may prove so to the general reader, I shall give mine merely with the remark, that not being scientifically acquainted with these subjects, I shall not answer for the accuracy of anything not apparent to an observer of ordinary intelligence and information. In the first place then with respect to the formation of the country. The stone most common near Melbourne is a whinstone of a grey and sometimes of a brown colour, which is known to the settlers as iron stone. Sandstone is also found, some of which is an excellent building stone. Granite occurs of a very fine quality in the hills about twelve miles to the northwest of Melbourne, and also at Station Peak, about thirty miles to the south-west. Limestone is found near Station Peak, and along the south coast both near Geelong and towards Western Port, on the other side of the bay. Quartz rock and slate are found mixed with the trap formation about forty miles to the west of Melbourne; and granite occurs again at Mount Emu, about eighty miles further in the same direction. Beyond that, to the westward and southward, the country is chiefly of the trap formation, and other traces of igneous action are very obvious; Mount Elephant, Mount Rouse, Mount Eels, Mount Eccersley, and many others, being evidently the craters of extinct volcanoes; and over the whole country are found pumice-stone, scoriæ, and a quantity of small pebbles, of a glazed metallic appearance, something resembling shot, which appear evidently derived from the same source. Lignite is found on the shores of Port Phillip, near Western Port. Some fossil remains of a very large size have been lately discovered near Macedon; hut it is not yet ascertained to what animal they belong. They have been sent to England, I believe, to Professor Owen.

In a previous chapter I have remarked upon the soil of the district.

The principal trees are the six kinds of Eucalyptus, namely, the white gum, the red gum, the bastard box or peppermint, the box, the stringy bark, and the iron bark. All of these have leaves if not identical, yet so nearly similar, that to a casual observer they appear alike. Hence the varieties are generally distinguished by a name indicating some peculiarity in the bark or timber. Thus the stringy bark derives its name from the nature of the bark, which, when stripped, can be beaten into fibres resembling those of the cocoa-nut used in the coir rope of India, and from which a rude kind of rope is sometimes made. Use is also made of this bark, as well as that of the box tree, to roof the huts of settlers in whose neighbourhood it abounds. The fibrous nature of the bark of this tree makes it peculiarly inflammable. This produces an extraordinary effect in those forests where they have been singed, as most of them have been, by the bush-fires. You see a thick forest of peculiarly straight trees, reaching to about one hundred and twenty feet in height, and without a branch for about seventy or eighty feet from the ground, with their round, straight stems perfectly black, while the branches at the top, and the underwood at the bottom, are of the most brilliant green, looking as if a forest of gigantic ebony rulers had taken to budding like Aaron's rod. It is a singular fact, that the white gum sheds its bark every year. When this process is completed, the trees of this species have the appearance of having been stripped of their bark* their smooth, white stems forming the strongest contrast with the black trunks of the stringy bark, with which they are sometimes, though not often, mixed; for here, as I believe in most aboriginal forests, one tree, with its appropriate underwood, prevails for miles, and then another as exclusively occupies the adjoining tract, there being but tittle intermixture, save on the confines of their respective domains. Though all the trees of the Eucalyptus family have leaves so very much alike, (something similar also to the English sally tree,) yet does the dissimilarity in the bark create such a difference of character, that two trees can scarcely be more unlike than the iron bark and the box tree; the former with a rough bark, something like that of the cork tree, and of a rich brown colour, while the bark of the latter is of a silvery white, very much resembling that of the British ash. This illustrates a remark which I have met with in a book of directions for pencil drawing, which states that the same handling may be used for the main body of the foliage of every tree, reserving the distinctive touches for such parts as come sharp off the light, and more particularly for the stem. All the varieties of the Eucalyptus family produce a highly astringent gum or resin, which varies slightly in the different kinds. It is not transparent in any, is very brittle, and not adhesive. The gum tree is also remarkable for producing manna, which (though quite different from the manna of commerce) answers completely to that described by Moses as the food of the children of Israel in the wilderness. It is found in the mornings under the trees, and disappears in the heat of the day. It occurs in small masses, resembling in form and colour pieces of ordinary starch, though scarcely so large or so white. The taste is very much that of macaroons, sweet, with a flavour of bitter almonds. I say this is distilled from the gum tree, though many people suppose that it is secreted by an insect, known to the settlers as the locust, though not really of that family. My reason for imagining this to be an unfounded supposition is, that I have found manna under trees when there had not been a locust in the neighbourhood for months; in short, I think I have established a clear alibi. The leaves of all these trees are highly aromatic when bruised. Next in importance to the Eucalyptus family come the Mimosas. Of these there are nine varieties with which I am acquainted in the Port Phillip district, and I know that there are several more; of these the principal is the lightwood or blackwood of the settlers. It is a beautiful tree, something like the ilex or holm oak of England, but of a brighter green. In rich lands (of which, indeed, it is a common indication) it grows to a considerable size, and the timber is sometimes used for making furniture. The gold, the silver, the green, and black wattles (of the settlers), with several others which have received no distinctive names, are varieties of this family. They are all very graceful shrubs, and though differing from each other in several respects, are all adorned in spring with clusters of golden flowers, which have the perfume of the, May-thorn. The bark of the green and black wattles is that which forms so valuable an article of export. Most of the varieties of mimosa produce a gum which is highly adhesive, transparent, and tasteless, having, in fact, much of the qualities of the gum-arabic. When to these are added the bright green cherry tree, or Australian cypress, the melancholy sheoak, and the deformed honeysuckle, there is left but little in addition to the minor shrubs to fill up the forests of this part of Australia, which, however, are deficient neither in beauty nor variety. It is known to most people, that all the trees of this country are evergreen; but the leaves being small, the foliage light, and the colour of the young shoots of the tenderest green, they have nothing of that gloom which has induced a French writer to characterize evergreens as the mourning robe of summer, but the gay attire of winter. On the edges of swampy rivers, and in swamps generally, grows the tea tree, which is so called from its leaves being occasionally used as a substitute for tea. It is a sure indication of a spring when there is no surfacewater.

There is a considerable variety of beautiful flowers at Port Phillip, (though in this respect it falls short of Sydney.) Among these are conspicuous the Epacridæ, the Kennedia procumbens, or scarlet, pea-shaped creeper, the beautiful purple creeper, (Glycene decurrens,) the geranium, the pink convolvolus, the mesembrianthemum, and the native indigo. But the most peculiar, as well as one of the most beautiful amongst them, is a species of waritau, the flower of which grows in a cluster of six or eight petals together: the petal is of a peculiar shape, something in the form of an ammonite shell. There are two varieties of this flower—one a bright red, going into white, and the other orange: they have that beautiful waxen appearance also observable in the epacridæ. In the red variety, the stamens form an important feature, being very numerous, and of a brilliant colour. It has been said that the plants of New South Wales have no perfume. This is not the case; all the varieties of the mimosa have a scent much like that of the May-thorn, only more powerful. In general the most brilliant flowers are not those most highly perfumed. The geranium is, however, an exception to this rule. This plant has another peculiarity, that, although in its flower and general appearance nearly identical with some of the European pelargoniums, it has a tuberose root. The sarsaparilla has lately been discovered in the Port Fairy country. It is said to be of good quality; but this remains to be proved. Of the native grasses there is a considerable variety. Of these the kangaroo grass is the most succulent, and makes splendid food for horses, cattle, and sheep. I do not think a horse will do more work on any kind of feeding than when fed on this grass, after it has begun to be turned by the sun. When eaten down close it forms a good sod. In addition to the grasses, there are numerous herbs, of which stock of all kind are very fond; and there is scarcely any shrub which they will not eat with avidity during part of the year when the leaves are tender.

I may here mention a singular fungus, which emits a brilliant, but pale green light at night. In the day it is of a dead white colour. I have seen it as much as four inches in diameter. The eatable mushroom is very plentiful, and of large size.

Most of the four-footed animals, and many of the birds of the country, are pretty well known by description. The kangaroo is still found in great abundance in all parts of the district which are thickly wooded, well watered, and not stocked with sheep; as wherever these animals graze, they banish not only kangaroos, but horses and cattle. Whole herds are to be met with in the Dandenong district, within twenty miles of Melbourne, which is almost entirely a cattle country. There are two species, the forester and the brush kangaroo The male of the former species, when full grown, reaches the height of six or seven feet when sitting on his gams, and is, when brought to bay, or (in the language of the Australian Nimrods) set up, a formidable antagonist, tearing the dogs with his hind claws, and sometimes even attacking men. He is called an old man. A friend of mine, not much used to the bush, was rather shocked by one of our shepherds telling him, on his making some inquiries about the sporting in that part of the country, that he had only on the day before "missed fire at an old man." The brush kangaroo is much smaller. Opossums, flying squirrels, kangaroo rats, and wild cats (a kind of weasel), are plentiful all over the country, and form the chief support of the natives. The wild dog, too, I regret to say, is not on the decrease, and their boldness is matter of serious annoyance to the sheep-owner. The emu is well known, and I need do no more than allude to it. The egg of this bird is something smaller than that of the ostrich, and of a beautiful dark green colour. The wild turkey, or rather bustard, is found in great abundance in many districts of the country. I have seen as many as forty together in a flat of not more than thirty acres. I counted them out of curiosity. They are generally very wary, and it requires a good deal of management to get within shot. The best plan is to have a horse that will stand Are, and you then have a good chance of getting close, as they do not much mind a man on horseback. I have been so close to them in this way as to be tempted to fire my pistol at one of them. They are excellent birds to eat, in flavour something like the grouse. The outside part of the breast is dark brown meat, while the part next the bone, as well as the legs, are white. The bronze-winged pigeon is one of the easiest birds to shoot; it is by no means shy, and is very good eating. They are birds of passage, and abound in summer. If you wait near a water-hole about sunset on a warm evening, you may shoot a great number. There is a great variety of wild ducks, and teal. Snipe are plentiful in the western country at the latter end of winter and beginning of spring. The Australian snipe is a larger bird than the common gill snipe of the British Islands, and is, I believe, more nearly akin to what is called the solitary snipe. Quails are abundant all over the country. White cockatoos are good eating, but are watchful, shy birds. Besides these, which are interesting in a culinary (or perhaps it would sound better to say in a sporting) point of view, there are thousands of parrots, parroquets, and lories of various species, and of every colour in the rainbow. It has been said that there are no singing birds in Australia. This is not the fact; and I believe it was originally said to finish an antithesis, that as the flowers had no scent, the birds had no song. There are many undistinguished little birds that warble very sweetly. There are perhaps no professionals, like the lark, the nightingale, and thrush, of the British Isles; but there is very good amateur music amongst them. The robin-redbreast is worthy of particular mention. It is a beautiful little bird, with black and grey body, and bright scarlet breast; also the sky blue and black wren, known as the superb warbler. There are also numbers of swallows, which are so familiar, that it is difficult to keep them out of the huts. They differ from the European swallow in having more of a bluish tint in the dark parts on their backs, and a kind of brick-dust colour about the throat. They also warble very sweetly. There is a crow in Australia exactly similar to a rook, with this exception, that they have white eyes, and their caw has a most ludicrously dismal sound. The shrike crow, the magpie of the settlers, is very numerous, and has a deep melodious whistle, which always announces the dawn of day. Cranes are numerous; one of these (the native companion, as it is called) is about six feet high. The hawks are also a very numerous tribe, and consist of a great number of varieties. The eagle hawk is a large and handsome bird, but is, I believe, an impostor, being neither an eagle nor a hawk, but only a vulture. I should not omit honourable mention of the laughing jackass, whose name (derived from its loud peculiar note) is familiar in Europe. It is an ugly grey bird, somewhat larger than a crow, with an amazing strong beak, with which it has the reputation of destroying serpents.

There is much to interest the entomologist at Port Phillip. Ants are very numerous, and there is a considerable variety of species. One of these is called the soldier-ant; it is about three quarters of an inch long. Two of these animals will, if irritated, fight until one of them is killed—whence the name. These insects are of all sizes, from that of the soldier-ant down to that of a pin's head. There are luckily no white ants amongst them, and those which there are, are not troublesome; indeed they are sometimes of use, as they destroy fleas, which abound to a great extent all over the country, and are a great nuisance. Mosquitoes are seldom troublesome; they are dreadful at Sydney. There is a great variety of spiders, the largest of which is called the tarantula, and by the old hands the triantelope; its bite is said to be poisonous; but I never knew any person to be injured by it. There is an insect called the mason-bee, which builds up a kind of cell in the chinks of a wall, or other convenient spot, in which he stores up great numbers of spiders of the most beautiful colours—some green, some yellow, with enamelled looking backs of different colours and patterns. I have seen as many as fifty in one of these cells, all in high preservation. There is also another singular-looking spider, with black body and red legs, whose style of colouring gives it something the effect of a mail coach. Locusts and grasshoppers sometimes appear in great numbers, and do considerable damage in gardens, but do not at all approach the descriptions which one reads of the African locusts.

There are several kinds of poisonous snakes; but they are not numerous. November and March are the months in which they are most seen; they never appear after April or before October, The natives are sometimes killed by them; but I do not recollect hearing of a white man being so.

In this catalogue I have limited myself principally to those animals which force themselves on the attention of mankind by the possession, or reputed possession of some useful or noxious quality, or by some other means, and which therefore may prove interesting to any person thinking of emigrating. It would be easy to swell the list almost indefinitely; but I see no good to be attained by doing so.