A couple of years ago while working as a rainforest guide, I was asked to undertake a private rainforest walk with a difference. You see, the young Italian honeymooners who had hired me were blind. Obviously this meant expressions such as “look at this,” and “can you see the”, had to be abandoned and emphasis shifted to other senses. We walked very slowly, listening, smelling and touching. I have to say, it was one of my most rewarding and memorable experiences.
For when you try to relate to a blind person it forces you to look at your surroundings in a completely different way. From this, I learnt to enjoy the forest by touching it instead of just looking at it. The variety of different textures amazed me. I knew they’d always been there, but until then I had ignored them and focused on what I could see. There were different textures of bark, from very smooth to very rough. On the bark there were soft wet mosses, rubbery lichens and odd feeling fungi. You could feel the grip twining vines had around their supports. Leaves ranged from young and supple, to old and hard. Some were covered in soft hairs, while others were smooth to touch and some were rough and scratchy. It’s a pity that as children we were always being told to look, but don’t touch. It has left us with an under utilised sense of touch and in effect has created a kind of invisible barrier between the natural world and us. I can’t resist running my hand through the leaf-blades of Grasstrees as I walk past them. They look spiky and sharp, but are actually quite flexible and smooth, and I love the way they spring back into position defying your attempt to rearrange them. Before they open fully, banksia flowers feel artificial, like they’re made up of thousands of tiny loops of thick nylon fishing line. And how can I forget about the sandpaper fig. It lives up to its name. The leaves are rough enough to sand timber or file fingernails.
Of course there are many more, but why read about it when you could be experiencing it for yourself. Next time you’re shopping for plants, use your hands as well as your eyes, you might choose a plant just because you like the way it feels.
(Published in Cairns City Life magazine, March 2008)