On Wednesday, I went for a walk to find a wishing well. I’d heard about this place, and seen signs pointing to it in the Morton National Park, near Bundanoon. It seemed like a good place to visit in the few days remaining before the new year, an auspicious spot to contemplate the year to come. Resolutions seem all too likely to result in bad conscience later on — I prefer the idea of new year’s wishes (keeping in mind the old fairy tale warning, be careful what you wish for…)
On the way, I came across an echidna, snuffling in the bush. She put her sturdy front claws up on an old log and blinked in my direction, sniffing the air, before waddling away on her ancient looking legs, black and yellow spines smooth against her body. I took this as a good sign.
The account I’d heard of the wishing well led me to imagine it nestled in a glen. I expected that at some point I would leave the fire trail style track I was following through eucalypt forest near the edge of a cliff, and descend via a narrower track into rainforest, before reaching a shadowy and mysterious place, suitable for magical transactions.
There’s a spot that fits this description called the Fairy Bower falls, which I visited last time I was in this park. I remembered being enchanted by a glistening curtain of water adorning the rock face, and tantalised by the sound of a large bird beating its powerful wings ahead of me as I climbed back out of the valley. At one point on that earlier walk, I noticed tufts of very soft grey hair on the track, and turned a steep corner to discover fresh entrails laid out in the middle of the path. There was nothing more of the animal that had been taken, probably a possum or glider. I gazed up the enormous trunks of the nearby gums, but never did see the bird of prey.
When I came to a neat sign reading “Wishing Well,” I was still on high ground, however, and there was no sign of a track leading downwards or anywhere, for that matter. Next to the sign was a spot for a car, and beyond that a rocky area stretching away. Slightly confused, I walked up onto a kind of rock platform and was surprised to see what appeared to be a large metal cage perched at one end of it. On closer inspection, I realized that I had found the “well,” a natural formation in the rock. It was remarkably round and quite small – less than a metre wide and deep, filled with rainwater and lichen. In the mud at the bottom, visitors had tossed a few coins. What had appeared to be a cage was actually a large, clumsy but solid fence, constructed around this small depression in the rock. Presumably it was designed to guarantee the safety of young children, who might be left unattended at the “well” by extremely careless parents.
Needless to say, the fence dispelled any sense of mystery or wonder that might have been evoked by the curiously symmetric hole in the rock. Instead, the unattractive, oversized barrier emanated a vaguely menacing sense of the reach of institutionalized paternalism all the way into this relatively remote spot in the wild. At the same time, this effort to guarantee the safety of tiny tourists seemed touchingly naïve and inadequate. A few steps from the fence, a child bent on self-harm could easily throw himself off the rock ledge into a small valley where with a bit of luck he could be bitten by a snake, or perhaps be taken by a bird of prey, his entrails to be discovered later by startled bushwalkers…
I sat down on the sun-warmed rock a short distance from the “wishing well” and pondered the strangely myopic and earnest attitude of the National Park rangers who, I supposed, had erected this ungainly looking safety structure.
Then it dawned on me: of course, the primary purpose of the fence was not to protect unsupervised toddlers from drowning, but to protect the relevant authorities from the possibility of being sued. That’s why there are similar barriers at every official lookout in the park, partially obscuring the view, right next to vast, unfenced stretches of cliff where there is nothing to interrupt the line of sight or of accidental flight.
These barriers don’t relate in any very practical or commonsensical way to the visible, material world, the landscape or the people hiking across it, looking at views and making wishes. But this makes perfect sense once you realise that they are there chiefly to protect an abstract legal identity. The objectionably solid fence in front of me unveiled itself as an oddly metaphysical entity, a creation of law, whose true purpose and meaning could only become fully apparent in the actual or merely anxiously anticipated context of a courtroom.
This was at once depressing and intriguing. Ever since Australia was colonized by the British, the powerful and sometimes violently fictional constructs of Western law have been getting in the way of any more graceful, sensitive, or simply sensible way of relating to the natural environment and its inhabitants, here. But the presence of this fence also demonstrated the potential of wishes. If an idea, shared by enough people, can cause a bloody big metal fence to appear on a rock in the middle of the wilderness, where it clearly doesn’t belong, then what other, more beautiful and apt creations (or disappearances) might result from well-formed wishes, the kind that an echnidna might lend a little of her spiny magic to support?
May all your new year’s wishes for 2012 be true, and come true.