Impression & Feelings - Mr. Michael Modini
[S.B.C. Teacher]

            Mr. Michael Modini

Every Day Is A New Adventure


For two months in late 2002 I was a student teacher in Hong Kong, on an international placement íV together with ten other Australian students íV organised by our university.    We were accommodated at one of the colleges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and each assigned a school (mine was in Kowloon), where we would assist in teaching English to Hong Kong students.  I enjoyed my time in Hong Kong, and I enjoyed meeting the students of St Bonaventure College and High School.  Looking back, I think I learned more from those students than they were able to learn from me.


One of the things I appreciated most about Hong Kong was its beautiful landscape (shan shui íV 'landscape' íV means 'mountains water' in Cantonese).  The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is justly proud of its 23 Country Parks, which cover roughly 40 per cent of  its entire land area.  While I was in Hong Kong I enjoyed hiking through three different Country Parks: Tai Lam (with the school Geography Club) in the New Territories, Pok Fu Lam (with a fellow-student from Australia) on Hong Kong Island, and Lion Rock (with a group of students) in Kowloon.  I was impressed by both the beauty of these places and the care and respect lavished upon them by the people of Hong Kong.  I would have liked to visit more, but two months just wasn't long enough to hike every weekend and still have time to experience the many other attractions Hong Kong has to offer.


The two months passed too quickly.  I kept in my pocket a list of things I wanted to do in Hong Kong, but towards the end of my stay I realised there just wasn't time to do everything.  My last day in the S.A.R. was a Monday, and I had already said goodbye to the students and teachers at my school.  The flight to Australia was to leave Hong Kong International Airport that evening, and a car had been booked to pick up the Australian students from our accommodation at 3.30 p.m.  By the time I had packed and done all the other necessary tasks at C.U.H.K. it was midday, and I had three and a half hours to spare.  Without looking at my list I knew there was still one thing to do.


Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by the story of a Rock.  It is a rock that crowns a hill in the south-eastern part of the New Territories and which, viewed from certain angles, resembles a woman, staring out to sea, with a baby on her back.  An ancient legend tells that this woman was the wife of a fisherman, and whenever her husband was at sea with the fleet she would climb the hill with her child to watch for his safe return.  One night, during a terrible storm, the husband didn't return, and the woman, waiting on the hill with her child, was struck by lightning and turned into stone.


My parents had a copy of a book based on a movie based on this legend.  As a child, I was fascinated by the book and the story it retold.  The pictures in the book evoked beautiful images íV of Hong Kong and its people, of the grandeur of nature, and of the power of story-telling.  The actress who played Mei Ching was Nancy Kwan, who in the 1960's was popular in both Hong Kong and Hollywood, and the movie was called The Magic Stone.  As a child, I particularly liked looking at the pictures of Mei Ching on the hilltop with her baby, and then the lightning, and then the Amah Rock.


When I came to Hong Kong in 2002 I looked at several different guide books about the S.A.R.  I was surprised to find one which, when describing the Amah Rock, mentioned that according to the legend the fisherman's wife took two babies with her to the top of hill íV a girl (the elder child), which she carried on her back, and a boy (the baby), which she carried in her arms.  I was surprised to read this because the book I had grown up with mentioned only one baby íV the boy, which Mei Ching carried on her back.  On my last day in Hong Kong I decided I had to solve this mystery and see the Amah Rock for myself.  Was Mei Ching carrying one baby or two?


For some complicated reason I no longer had my guide book, and I did not like to ask my fellow-students to lend me one of theirs, since they were all busy packing their books into their bags.  I realised therefore that I was going to have to find the Amah Rock by myself: I would just have to take a chance and hope that my adventure would be successful.  I also hoped that I would be able to achieve it within the limited time frame of three hours.  Although I had spent all my money and was returning to Australia a poor man, I still had an Octupus card with enough credit on it for two trips on public transport íV and, if I was lucky, a bowl of fan.


Leaving the University, I walked to Tai Po Road and caught the first bus heading south in the direction of the Lion Rock Tunnel.  I got off the bus at a place where I had seen some stairs leading to a public walkway crossing over Lion Rock Tunnel Road.  At the top of these stairs was a path which led away from the road and civilisation and onto the natural beauty of the hillside.  It was a warm December day, and I was soon sweating as I hiked higher up the hill.


Eventually the path branched into two, and I was uncertain which fork to follow.  While trying to make up my mind, a man approached from the eastern fork, walking briskly as though he were hurrying for the bus.  I excused myself (in English) and asked if he could tell me which path to take for the Amah Rock, and he was kind enough to retrace his steps a short distance in order to point out to me a sign post íV a sort of mile post about a metre high, like an oversized cricket stump, with a picture of the Rock, an arrow pointing in the direction to walk, and also (I think) the number of kilometres to the Rock.  I thanked the man, and again when he told me to take care of my safety because I was walking on my own.


The distance to the Rock was further than I thought, and I knew I would have to walk quickly if I was going to return to C.U.H.K. before 3.30.  I pressed on, walking further and higher up the mountain.  Every time the path branched into two there was another sign post to show me which fork to follow.  It was amazingly quiet, and I seemed to be the only person on the path.  Exhilarated by the fresh air and mountain scenery, I was soon singing a silly song, and I forgot to watch where I was going.


Soon the path took me through a tiny village of perhaps half a dozen houses, but although an unfriendly dog barked, and some startled chickens clucked at me, there seemed to be nobody about.  I passed through this settlement and along the rim of a lush green valley and eventually came to another settlement íV perhaps just two or three houses íV further up the hill, also apparently abandoned.  Passing through this second village I then came to a small stream where íV suddenly íV the path came to an end.


I was very surprised.  I tried to find a connecting path on the other side of the stream but encountered only thick undergrowth and overhanging branches.  Confused, I returned to the row of houses, and, hoping that I would not wake someone from their midday sleep, I knocked on one of the doors.  There was no reply.  After knocking several times I called out íV 'Hello!  Is anybody here?'  Still there was no reply.


I then returned to the village with the chickens and the dog, and called out again, 'Is anybody here?'  The dog barked a couple of times and then stopped, and all I could hear was the steady buzzing of insects in the midday heat.  I seemed to be alone.  I hesitated íV should I go back to the stream, and look once again for a path which perhaps was hidden from my view?  Or should I go back down the mountain íV perhaps wasting precious time, perhaps having even to abandon my search?


The decision was suddenly made for me.  As I stood in front of the house with the chickens I heard a sharp CRACK from the other side of the lush valley íV the sound, perhaps, of an explosion.  I looked across the valley to where another small group of houses stood, but could see noone.  I called out, 'Hello!', but everything was quiet once again.  Then, suddenly, the same sharp sound.  I do not have much experience with guns or firecrackers (they are banned for personal use in Australia), but the thought crossed my mind that perhaps this was what the sound was.  I decided to go back down the mountain!


And I'm glad I did, because I soon saw that I had missed a sign pointing to the right path, which, if I had followed it earlier, would not have brought me through the two villages.  I still don't know what it was that made that sharp sound, but I'm glad that I was directed onto the right path.  This new path soon brought me to the edge of a deep cement ditch, a sort of storm-water catchment which looked to have been cut along the circumference of the mountain itself.  The path now followed the storm-water channel, a trail circling the mountain in a wide arc.  I continued walking and started singing again, feeling sure that I would soon arrive at the Rock.


But the path was longer than I thought, and as I got hotter I stopped singing.  I was glad that it was December, and not summer, or even November.  I knew that I would have to find the Rock soon or I would not have time to return to C.U.H.K. before the car left for the Airport.  I kept on walking, and the road kept on winding around the mountain.


Eventually I came to a sort of shelter where two men were conversing.  They looked as surprised to see me as I was to see them.  'Excuse me,' I said.  'Can you tell me where is the Amah Rock?'  But they did not appear to understand me.  'Amah Rock?' I asked.  They shook their heads in bewilderment.


I pulled out the list from my pocket and, finding a blank space on the paper, I drew an outline of the Rock and showed it to the two men.   'Mong Foo Shan!' they cried, and used a stick to draw the route in the sand.  It seemed that I still had some way to go.  'Doh je,' I said, and pressed on, thankful that I had now learned the Rock's Cantonese name íV 'Bitter Woman Mountain'.


I kept on walking; the trail continued to wind around the mountain, along the edge of the storm-water channel.  A wooden railing separated the path from the trees which covered the lower slopes of the mountain and eventually, as I became thirsty, I stopped to pull a bottle of water out of my bag, which I drank all at once.  I then leaned against the railing and pulled out a packet of peanuts, which was all the food I had left.


Suddenly I heard a swooshing sound, and saw a flash of movement.  A large monkey íV a macaque íV was running along the path towards me.  It stopped a short distance away, and I realised it wanted some food.  I now know that it is illegal to feed the monkeys in Hong Kong, but at the time I thought that since I was a visitor it was best to be friendly, so I threw some nuts onto the path.


Before I could gasp for breath I was surrounded by monkeys, converging on all sides from all directions, some even running along the handrail.  There must have been about thirty or forty íV some small and very cute, others huge and hairy and much too close for comfort.  I had been reading the story of Sai Yau Geh (the 'Journey West' of the monk Tripitaka and his friend the heavenly Monkey), but nothing I had read about monkeys could have prepared me for the shock of being the object of so much simian attention.  I realised they wanted some food and I threw them a few more peanuts.  Imagine my surprise when one of the larger monkeys suddenly grabbed the packet from my hand and ran off with it, spilling the nuts everywhere.


I had nothing further to offer the monkeys, so I wished them 'good day' and kept walking.  There was now a sign pointing to a path up the hill, crossing over the storm-water channel and offering two different routes to the Rock íV one more than and one less than one kilometre.  I took the shorter path, which then led through thick plant growth and the surprising coolness of overhanging shade.  The path then crossed a flowing stream and ended at a flight of stone steps carved into the side of the mountain.  Suddenly the sun shone and I was on a hilltop plateau and standly directly in front of the amazing Amah Rock.


The first thing I noticed íV apart from the size of the Rock íV was the colourful graffiti painted its side which resembled a line of multi-coloured people (or aliens) holding hands and dancing around the Rock.  I was reminded of some similar paintings I had seen on a wall of Mount Beerwah, one of the so-called Glasshouse Mountains of south-east Queensland and which, according to Aboriginal legend, is the pregnant mother of the other (smaller) mountains of the Glasshouse group.  I wondered if there was something about mountains and motherhood that made people want to touch them and be near them and paint pictures of people on them.  I realised that this was a place where people had been coming for hundreds and thousands of years, and would continue to come for as long as the Rock stood on the hill.


I stayed just a short while with the Amah Rock.  I took a photo of the view (the Shing Mun Channel and To Lo Harbour) at which she gazes, then took a photo of the Rock surrounded by the people who had painted themselves upon her.  I must say the Rock does not look as human close up as she does at a distance, and those parts of her which look like her babies are also hard to distinguish.  But íV that's right íV I did say 'babies' because, close up, I got the feeling that she is carrying one baby on her back (perhaps a girl) and another in her arms (perhaps a boy) and another (or perhaps more) still inside her to which she has not yet given birth.  She is a sort of Rock Mountain Mother, and the stream which runs down the mountain and into the To Lo Channel is the natural stream of her tears.



Post Script: Directly beneath the Amah Rock is a path which leads straight down the mountain to the intersection with Hung Mui Kuk Road, which in turn leads straight into Tai Wai.  I took the K.C.R. back to C.U.H.K., where I had just enough time for a quick bowl of rice, and to make a couple of last-minute phone calls, before leaving for the Airport and Australia.


The Monotremes of Australia


According to scientists, there are three classes of mammals: placental mammals (which includes most of the mammals in the world, including human beings), marsupial mammals (which includes kangaroos, koalas, possums and others whose babies live for a time in their mother's pouch), and monotremes íV the only mammals in the world which lay eggs.  The first class can be found all over the world; the second is found mostly in Australia and the nearby islands (although the opossums are found in the Americas as well); and the third is found only in Australia.


According to the scientists, there are two types of monotreme: the echidna and the platypus.  Echidnas are relatively well-known to Australians.  They are fairly common íV except in built-up areas íV and can be found all over the country.  Small, with a slow, rollicking gait, they are solitary animals (except in the mating season), and each echidna has its own 'territory' of several hectares.  They forage for  up to 18 hours a day, looking for food (such as ants, worms, termites and other small creatures) whose electrical signals they detect with a long and sensitive snout, and which they gather and crush with a long tongue.  When not looking for food they sleep in hollow logs, bushes, rocky crevices or burrows no longer used by other animals.  Their short, powerful limbs are built for digging íV the claws on the hind feet are long, while those on the front feet are spade-like íV and they can bury themselves in the soil in the space of a few minutes.


To an observer, the most distinctive feature of the echidna is its spines íV the animal's furry back and sides are covered with stout, sharp spikes, which protect it from predators.  When threatened, the echidna rolls itself into a ball.  My dog is particularly excited by echidnas, perhaps because they have an interesting smell.  Whenever we are walking and he finds an echidna, he barks in a distinctive way so that I know what he has found, even if I am some distance away.  The poor dog cannot understand why he can't put an echidna in his mouth without feeling a sharp pain and finding a spine hanging from his bleeding lips.  He also can't explain how the echidna can curl itself up into a little ball while he is standing there barking at it, and how the echidna can then quietly disappear into the ground while he is watching.  It's a bit of a mystery.


It is not generally known that the echidna is a relatively long-living animal: it can live for up to 50 years.  It is also a surprisingly good swimmer, which may be a link to its cousin, the platypus, which can be found swimming in rivers and creeks.


The platypus is less well-known than the echidna.  This is because they are found only in the southern and eastern coastal regions of Australia, and also because they are in danger of extinction because of the destruction of their natural habitat caused by pollution and urban development.  The word platypus literally means 'flat foot', and their webbed feet look very much like the feet of a duck.  The rubbery bill, also, resembles the beak of a duck, which is why the little creature is often called a 'duck-billed platypus'.  The platypus also has a flattened tail in the shape of a paddle (useful for swimming), long, sharp claws (useful for digging), and soft, thick, water-resistant, brown fur.  Like the echidna, the platypus is a solitary animal; it sleeps in burrows in the river bank, and the female lays only one or two eggs at a time, at times leaving the babies in the burrow while she goes to look for food.


Whenever I pass by a creek or a river where the water is swift-flowing and there are places for burrowing and plenty of vegetation and other types of water-life (such as insects, worms, small fish or shrimps), I look to see if I can find a platypus.  I have succeeded only once.  Although there are several places in my local area where íV people say íV a platypus lives or once lived, they are shy creatures, generally only swim at night, and are not often seen by passers-by.  To make sure of seeing one, you would need to visit the creek in the very early morning, but usually all you can see are the bubbles and mudslides where the platypus has been.  If you really want to see a platypus close up, you have to go to a zoo.


The echidna and the platypus are the only types of monotreme you can read about in books.  There is another type, however, which is not very well known outside Australia íV the bunyip.  Some people say the bunyip is a mythical creature íV from an Aboriginal legend, perhaps, or invented by early European explorers who couldn't explain some of the strange, scary noises they heard in Australian swamps.  There are no bunyips in the zoo, and no documentaries about them on TV.  I have never seen a bunyip, and from what I have heard, I hope I never will!


Some people say the bunyip looks like a cross between a seal and a big black dog.  Others say it looks like a rather large calf, with a mane like a horse, a hump like a camel, fins like a fish, and a tail like a crocodile.  Some say it eats only swamp-grass and plants, while others say it tears apart meat with its sharp teeth.  But everyone agrees that the bunyip has a fierce, frightening bark, and lives in water holes far away from civilisation.  Most people who come into contact with a bunyip are generally not seen again.  Actually, I am not sure that the bunyip really is a monotreme, but I don't think an animal this scary could hatch out of anything that wasn't an egg.

The Franciscan Love of Nature

St Francis, the poor man from Assisi, often talked with the birds and animals, and comforted creatures that were sick and wounded.  'Animals are also creatures of God,' he said, 'and we should love them.  Our first duty to our humble brothers (the animals) is not to harm them íV but it is not enough to stop there.  We also have a higher mission íV to be of service to them whenever they require it.'  Pope Pius XI wrote about this humble man: 'St Francis was led to love all things which he knew had the same origin as he, and in which he recognised the goodness of God.'  For this reason he declared St Francis to be the Patron Saint of All Nature, and on October 4th (St Francis' feast day) animals are blessed in churches all around the world.

Since the time of St Francis, the saints who follow in his tradition have also been infected with his love of nature.  This may derive, in part, from the natural beauty of the mountains of Umbria, the region of Italy where St Francis lived and contemplated the love of God for all things.  In the thirteenth century, Umbria was also a haven for many kinds of animals.  One day, St Francis and some of his friends were walking near Spoleto when St Francis suddenly saw a great flock of birds feeding on the ground.  There were doves, crows, sparrows, swallows, and all kinds of birds.  St Francis, in his usual unexpected manner, ran towards the birds, greeting them enthusiastically.  Amazingly, the birds didn't fly away but waited patiently for him and listened to him when he said: 'My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him.  God gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need.  God made you noble among all creatures, for without sowing or reaping, you receive God's guidance and protection.'  Then he walked through the middle of the flock before giving the birds his blessing.  From that day on, St Francis made it his habit to remind all birds, mammals and reptiles to praise and love their Creator.

Another time, when St Francis was speaking during a religious service he was interrupted by a flock of noisy birds.  To the surprise of everyone present, St Francis turned to the birds and asked them to be quiet íV and they remained quiet until he had finished speaking!

One year, during a severe winter, the little town of Gubbio was being terrorised by a pack of wolves.  The townsfolk were especially afraid of one very large wolf, and they asked St Francis for help.  St Francis said he would talk to the wolf, and he went into the forest to find the animal.  When he came to the wolf's cave he called: 'Come out, Brother Wolf!', and the wolf came out.  St Francis and the wolf sat down together and the saint could see that the wolf was cold and hungry.  He began talking to the wolf, telling him that he knew how hungry he was and how he had to hunt for his food, but he was wrong to terrorise the good people of Gubbio.

St Francis told the wolf that he would arrange with the people of Gubbio to feed him íV but, in return, the wolf must promise never to attack any animal or human again.  St Francis put out his hand, and the wolf bowed his head and placed his paw in the hand of St Francis. And so it happened íV Brother Wolf continued to live near Gubbio, and the people of Gubbio fed him.  He went in and out of the town as he wished; he harmed no living thing, and even the local dogs did not bark at him.  He was loved and respected by everyone, and he reminded them of the time when St Francis was among them.  When Brother Wolf died he was greatly mourned, and he was buried in the churchyard, near the walls of the church itself.

St Francis is best remembered, perhaps, for his invention of the nativity set.  It was St Francis who, one snowy Christmas in Assisi, first brought an ox, a donkey and a lamb into a church and placed them around a wooden manger filled with straw, in which he placed a sleeping baby.   This representation of the Christ child, new-born in the stable of Bethlehem, has become known and loved throughout the world íV a favourite symbol of Christmas and of the Incarnation of God as a human baby.

Like St Francis, his friend and follower St Anthony is also remembered for his love of animals.  Originally from Portugal, St Anthony became a Franciscan friar in Italy (his favourite city was Padua) and preached in southern France.  In those days many people disagreed with the official teachings of the Church, and they were especially dubious about the Church's reverence for the Eucharist.  These people once publicly challenged St Anthony to prove that the Eucharist was the living body of Christ.  St Anthony, in reply, asked that a hungry mule be brought before him.

While the unbelieving people watched, St Anthony prayed, then prepared a great pile of hay, and then stood patiently nearby holding the Eucharist in a monstrance.  The starving mule was brought out, but íV to the amazement of the crowd íV it ignored the pile of hay.  Instead, it knelt down and bowed its head reverently before the living body of Christ held by St Anthony.


On another occasion St Anthony's listeners laughed and criticised St Anthony's preaching. St Anthony said: 'The fish will listen, if you will not!', and he walked to the bank of a nearby river, where he began preaching.  All at once a school of fishes gathered, lifting their heads above the water and listening with opened mouths to the saintíŽs message about God.


It is difficult, perhaps, for someone who lives in the 21st century, to think of these stories as other than pious legends.  Perhaps 'Brother Wolf' was no more than a local bandit who reformed and mended his ways.  Perhaps the pious donkey was a figment of medieval imagination.  But these stories about St Francis, St Anthony and the animals do show us that when an intelligent person refuses to listen to God's words, God may use the example of dumb animals to show how little wisdom that person really has.  St Bonaventure says that the Incarnation of Christ and the Redemption are the crowning glory of God's work for humankind and the supreme purpose of all creation.  For St Bonaventure, the Incarnation and Redemption should be the focus of our spiritual life, and they can be discerned through a true Christian understanding of Nature.


St Clare, another friend of St Francis, also had a great love for nature.  St Clare encouraged her sisters to: 'Praise God for every green and flowering plant that you see, for every human being, and for every creature.'   Whenever she looked at a flower, a sunrise, the ocean, the animals, the moon, the planets and stars, St Clare saw in them the wonderful reflection of their loving Creator.  God gave us the world and its creatures for our use and our happiness, and it is our responsibility to treat them wisely, and with reverence and compassion.


Blessed John Duns the Scot also had something to say about creation.  John, from Duns in Scotland, was another follower of St Francis and well-known for his subtlety and learning.  Duns Scotus taught a theory of predestination according to which Jesus is at the centre of creation (the world of nature) by virtue of his human nature which unites itself with the (divine) Word.  According to this theory, the wonders of creation exist in respect of and in relation to the perfection of created nature which is the human nature of Jesus at the centre of creation.


In recent years there has been an increasing development in ecological awareness and a recognition of our human need to honour and care for our humble planet Earth.  This is not just a matter of spirituality and theology but also a matter of justice, and something towards which people of all nations and faiths need to work together.  In 2002, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople stated together that 'the relationship between God and humankind brings a fuller sense of the importance between human beings and the environment, which is God's creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love'.  When we walk in nature and contemplate the wonders of the world, therefore, let us follow the examples of the great Franciscans íV St Anthony, St Clare, St Bonaventure, Blessed John Duns Scotus, and of course St Francis, Patron Saint of Ecology, himself.


Laudato si, mi signore, per sora nostra matre terra,

Laquale ne sustenta et governa

Et produce diverse fructi con coloriti  flori et herba.

(All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,

Who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits and

coloured flowers and herbs.)

                       St Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of the Creatures

           Michael Modini   1 st May , 2003