Benton Ching
Entry #2


This week, I’ve been doing more walks in the Alpine National Park, collecting material through field recordings, taking photos and also making abstract impressions of the sites I’ve visited by making shadowgrams/lumen prints – a technique suggested by my friend Xander who’s a great photographer. With this residency, it’s nice having a simple process that lets me make work that tracks where I’ve been during the day especially since a lot of my focus has been capturing a sense of what it’s like to be here.

In the last week I’ve just finished re-reading Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. It’s a short novel that takes place as Einstein conceives his theory of relativity in 1905, and every chapter is a dream that features a different conception of time. One that stands out is the chapter for the 26th of April, which is when I went to check out the Basalt Temple (also the day I’m wrote this journal entry) – a huge granite deposit south of Mt Jaithmathang and the Tawonga Huts on the Bogong High Plains. 

Getting up to the peak of the Basalt Temple (which stands over 1670m) from the north requires one to do a little scramble up some Basalt mounds after ascending a little hill, after which you are treated to a vast mound of Basalt columns lumped onto one another as you face south. Not much grows up here, and you can’t really tell how deep down the mossy crevices between these columns go. Most of them are held together pretty snugly, but some massive slabs seem to be perched against the smallest of rocks fragments. It’s altogether not precarious but visually it give you the impression that it could all come tumbling down if you made too big a ruckus up top.

I sat up there for lunch, and the first thing I thought about was a project I saw a few years ago by researchers at ETH Zurich – Gramazio & Kohler, who they made these 3D printed rock structures using just rope and rock fragments held in place through a principle called granular jamming – the idea that aggregate granular materials old their form and behave like a larger solid when crammed together. I wondered whether the locked in lumps of basalt up top here were sort of held together like that (albeit at a much larger scale). 

In the chapter of Einstein’s Dreams mentioned above, time flows slower at higher points of elevation on Earth, which creates a world where everyone lives up in the mountains. Being up on this peak and making audio recordings, I wondered what the experience of sound (an inherently time-based medium) might be like up on the Basalt Temple in such a world. 

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking one is in a place removed from time when up on a mountain, which speaks to how remote the Victorian Alps feel. However, I think remote isn’t quite the same as untouched. This landscape bears the marks of humans activity, from times pre-colonisation to today. Sitting up the top of the Basalt Temple, I heard some motorbikes and chainsaws (?) in the distance, and a plane flying overhead. The tracked I walked in on and poles I followed in are no exception. Interestingly, I think I’ve had more mobile coverage here than in any national park I’ve been to in Australia or abroad!

Back on the topic of basalt, on the way into this side of the high plains you also drive past the Runied Castle, a wall of beautiful vertically aligned and tessellated hexagonal basalt columns that almost looks man made. Although, my favourite experience of basalt up here on the high plains was going up to the top of Mt Jim. On Mt Jim, there’s a magnetic anomaly. This is written quite ominously on maps of the region, and I wanted to check it out. Going up the top of the mountain, your compass gets thrown off by about 20-30 degrees. The leading argument for why it does this is apparently a huge iron deposit in the basalt that makes up the mountain. I wanted to test this out so I brought a magnet with me, hovering it along the ground as I walked around. I first noticed little bits of grit sticking to the magnet, then found larger grains and bits of rock sticking to the magnet. Eventually, I found bigger rocks on the top which stuck to the magnet. I took a small rock from the peak as a test, and weirdly it continued to produce the same amount of deflection when placed directly on the compass. Also none of the other basalt sites I went to seem to produce this effect. It made me think about how the Bogong moths electromagnetic fields to navigate, which made me wonder if they were often thrown off by this mountain and also if they somehow communicated this to one another. Maybe “magnetic anomaly occurs here” is also written in the cumulative cognitive map of the Bogong moths that congregate here over Summer.

On moths again, I also went up to The Horn, which is the highest point of Mt Buffalo. Here the rocks are mostly large, rounded formations of granite rather than basalt. I came this way to check out a cave where Bogong Moths aestivate. Being out of moth aestivation season, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see any moths. I was interested however, in the seeing the caves where the moth remains form peat (which I talked about in the previous entry). Having read about the leeching of arsenic from moth remains in the caves prior, I was cautious of touching the soil in the cave with my hands but did see lots of identifiably mothy bits in the ground including bodies, heads and wings. It wasn’t too deep or particularly resonant as a cave, but I took some impulse response recordings of the cave, and thought about how it might sound with thousands of shuffling moths moving around when agitated in the Summer. The cave didn’t produce any noticeable odour aside from being a little musky, which I was surprised by. It actually turns out that the smell produced by the nematodes that lures the moths into the caves is beyond the range of human olfactory senses.

The last entry ended with a question about artificiality and truth in art, particularly when taking the environment and place as your subject. One route is to make it documentary, but in so doing you also introduce an element of authorship, which is itself a narrative. I’ve been thinking a lot about fiction – science fiction in particular – where certain elements of truth (say extrapolations of scientific research) are used within a fictional setting to ask questions of the present. When working with field recordings, and sound more broadly, you often have to accentuate certain details by layering different sounds over each other which might not have been recorded at the same time. By working with material across different temporal scales, you embed an element of fiction/narrative into the piece to conjure a certain feeling. This calls to remind ideas about hyperreality - where the creation of representations sometimes appear truer than reality.

Some ideas I’ve been thinking about exploring or extrapolating through the work produced are the movements of the ecosystem here as a result of rising temperatures. There are certain movements I’ve been made aware of through reading papers. For example, it’s been suggested in a research paper from 2022 that a significant number of plant species (~30%) in the alpine regions are moving upslope as a result of rising temperatures. Eventually, this’ll mean the species at the uppermost alpine regions will eventually run out of real estate. For example, the Astelia psychrocharis, an endangered plant species here in Victoria, is expected to run out of space at the highest regions in NSW in less than 50 years. Furthermore, another paper released just this year looking at long-term climate modelling of alpine regions based on different emissions scenarios across the world grimly predicts annual snow cover in the Australian alps to fall by up to 78% between 2071-2100, and in the most serious cases possibly losing all snow by the end of the century.

Other movements I’ve learned from being here and talking to people. For instance, I learned from Madelynne that you can tell a cold snap is coming when birds flock down to Bogong village from the high plains, and also that when moth season is here in Summer, you can tell where the moths are aestivating across the alps by following the flocking and calls of ravens who descend on the caves and boulder fields to feast. 

For the next week I’m thinking about how to use fiction, primarily through sound design, to capture some elements of truth regarding these movements.

1 Auld, J., Everingham, S.E., Hemmings, F.A. and Moles, A.T., 2022. Alpine plants are on the move: Quantifying distribution shifts of Australian alpine plants through time. Diversity and Distributions, 28(5), pp.943-955.

2 Mitterwallner, V., Steinbauer, M., Mathes, G. and Walentowitz, A., 2024. Global reduction of snow cover in ski areas under climate change. Plos one, 19(3), p.e0299735.