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Boorna Waanginy

Ah, Perth, how you confound all expectations and surprise us – not just one or two of us, but thousands of us, your citizens, your old and young, your new arrivals and your home grown.

Above your bright skyline where the neon of commerce and mining glow cruelly against the night sky, above where your humble ferries ply a bright-lit trade against river darkness, where your once-contested bridge sweeps arcs of headlights across the Swan, where your sea of suburban light reaches out to darkened hills – above it all as a yellow moon breaks free of clotted clouds, new light is created and thousands of us walk beneath its thrall in many footed darkness among strangers and among friends.

We were meant to pass through six seasons experiencing it from within, but instead hung back to watch it from afar – reptiles scamper up the foremost eucalypts; giant numbats meet and play against the trunks. The music changes, and fire comes, red and orange and crackling-quick. (It’s for this I stand among the trees later, trying to imagine the reality of these sounds outside the safety of art.)

I love the rain most, bright and loud and reminiscent of the sound of raindrops on hard baked ground; then cracking thunder and lightning illuminating the stately gums. Later, the black cockatoos wheel – this, too, is impressive not only from afar as on a stage, but from within: I look up and the dark shapes pass across the canopy above my head.

These are the sounds of my childhood, of the bush that I know and that I imagine – louder and nearer to one another than ever. But here the seasons are narrated by Kim Scott, and there are six: Makuru, Djilba, Kambarang, Birak, Bunuru and Djeran. This is Nyoongar Boodja, Nyoongar land, and these seasons mean more than any European sequence of seasons ever could.

Beyond the six seasons a familiar voice, with the intonation of a practiced storyteller: Noel Nannup‘s voice amplified alongside that of conservation biologist Stephen Hopper, acknowledging the ancient nature of the land, the plants and animals that live here, and the depth of Nyoongar connection to it. Here, the first sense of the message that this path through Kings Park brings to us all: that what has taken aeons to grow and develop can be lost in the blink of an eye.

And it’s our eye that’s blinking, our time in which a mass extinction is unfolding, our watch upon which the ecosystems of the South West are being destroyed.

As people walk through the changing lightscape, or sit on the grass to watch and listen and wait for each cycle to reveal itself, the stories shift: from the Nyoongar story of Jindalee and the Spirit Children, creating the milky way and sending the colours of the rainbow to earth to daub the birds and the flowers; to the harsh sound of radio clips, combining the statistics of extinction and species loss that we hear on the news into one devastating string of voices.

As the scale of species loss is revealed, the brightly lit canvasses of the trees are turned out, one by one, the foliage melding into the darkness beyond. The meaning is clear.

Onwards, down a narrower tree-lined avenue where smoky blues illuminate us, hundreds of us, walking into the twilight past specimens from this land. Leaves and flowers, and things that are perhaps animals, swing in jars above us, lit like specimens in formaldehyde. They are just a little too far away to see clearly. Too far away to grasp, slipping away like the species they represent.

The most solid thing I can pin my thoughts to in this kaleidoscope of impressions, sound, colour and light, are the words visible on one row of jars: Beeliar Wetlands, January 2017.

Collected from the Beeliar. It is not the only message that pins Boorna Waanginy to the timely, specific instance of destruction that we witness daily: at the final point of the journey, as people appear in a giant projection to talk about the totems they have adopted, there is one that draws a cheer and a clap.

Kate Kelly, ever so brief and succinct: my totem is the black cockatoo, and I commit to saving the Beeliar Wetlands.

Across the seeds of change, sown as lanterns in great arcs on the sloping hillside, the voices of the young and old speak of their totem. I remember Noel Nannup speaking, around the fire at Replants in Fremantle, of how it is each person’s responsibility to know everything there is to know about their totem. Every little thing. I remember this in his storyteller’s voice, and so the message of hope of Boorna Waanginy’s finale rings true. All these people have adopted a totem, whether they are Nyoongar or not, because with a totem comes responsibility to protect. With this, perhaps we might all play a hand in trying to turn the tide.

And so the tide of people turn away from the extinctions and the hope, into the darkness of Kings Park. In the dark we meet others we know, friends among the tens of thousands of strangers that walk here this night. All around us are those who have walked with us, on Nyoongar Boodja, through this journey of sound and light.

To read more on the audacity of Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak and for some stunning photos, see The Guardian.

Playing among industry

Across the harbour I see a fin slice water, enough to keep my gaze. I’m not expecting much today: it’s muggy, no seabreeze to speak of, the water silver still.

It seems to take only a second to cross the bridge when you’re not paying attention, but when you are, it feels like you have whole, multiple minutes. Precious minutes as the train takes you ever onwards and you’re waiting for another break in the surface of the water.

Don’t have to wait long today – another fin slice then a leap, so quick and far enough away that you retain only the perfect image of the arched dolphin, dark against the water. And then, once you’ve rounded a bend and your view of the water is nearly at an end, three more –  one dolphin after the other crests the water ever so slightly, barely breaking its silver surface.

Another leap, quick and glimmering, brief suspension above the surface, belly glistening bright.

From the viewpoint of a train carriage of commuters at the end of a hot day, between car carrier and cargo vessel, between north wharf and south, you have this: tiny, distant silver dolphin bodies above silver harbour surface.

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Roadkill

It’s a smoky day and the western sky is red and grey. I drive away from the sun towards town. On a straight stretch on the lefthand road verge there is a kookaburra, upright, watching me pass. I slow, pass it without incident, wonder if it is sick because it does not fly away.

On the way home I think of it again, decide to stop if it’s still there, to make sure it can fly – see if it will allow itself to be chased away. I pass a black cat on the roadside, eyes bright in the headlights. It stays clear. As I near the spot where I saw the kookaburra, I watch for it on the right. But something looms pale coloured and fluffy on my side of the road. It is too tall to be a dead bird, I think – but then I am close, and it is, and I drive over it, wheels to either side of it. 

I stop beyond it, park in the gravel, leave the dog in the car. With the vehicle off it is quiet and dark. There are the gentle rustles in the bush, the sense of the spaces of paddocks, the distant sound of the sea. There are no cars, no sounds of people.

I walk back. It is surprising how far I have come, driving at 90, between deciding to stop and stopping. I can see nothing in the gloom at first, and then the pale shape emerges. I shine the torch. The kookaburra is on its side, one wing is extended to the sky. As I approach it waves a little in the breeze and I start: it seems alive. Closer, and I see its eye, the one not planted on the road, is open. The wing is fanned, as though in death one half of it continues to fly. The eye seems bright, alive. I turn the bird with a stick and its head flops, the brilliant wing falls. I roll it onto the gravel.

*

Nearly a year on and it is early morning in the forest. The kangaroo on the roadside, flat on its stomach, is fresh: there seems no hint of the roughness in the coat or the darkness around the eyes to signal the presence of flies and birds and beetles.

I stop, and again the distance to walk back along the sloping shoulder is unexpectedly great; the forest unexpectedly quiet. I spend so much time spent driving through quiet places with road noise and engine noise and conversations and music. Don’t spend enough time stopped to listen, with no cars to ruin it and no one to talk to.

This roo looks as fresh as I thought, but it has grown stiff and feels hollow already. I lift one hind leg and roll it half over: it is a male. There is a small matting of blood on the other side of its body, mixed with faeces, involuntarily expelled. 

Crouched there on the roadside with the dead roo, its eye open to the sky, I am not sentimental. But it is powerful being close to wild death, with its sharp, immediate reminder of wild life.

I remember others, with more sadness. A wombat, somewhere, years ago; such a solid creature. A small wallaby on the road to Meekatharra – this one we watched breathe its last. A wedge-tailed eagle on the Nullarbor, except this I don’t really remember at all; only my mother talking about it many years later. An echidna, feet to the sky, on the edge of the Hume Highway in Victoria.

And always, with the animals recently dead, the sense as I walk to them along the gravel shoulder that they might jump up as I near them, just to surprise me. But they never do.

Feature image: Nicolo Bonazzi

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Tropical Queensland

From the dry of Western Australia’s Swan Coastal Plain at the end of summer to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland – a long way and a world apart.

It’s a work trip, but nonetheless there is time for nature – mostly incidental, because in a leafy town like Maleny, in humid, bursting-with-life-Queensland, there’s bush and birds everywhere.

The Glasshouse Mountains, seen from Maleny.

Mary Cairncross Park near Maleny

  
Mary Cairncross Park, with vines thicker than my arms. Birds everywhere – my colleague stops often to listen and point out their individual calls. Most of what we hear we do not see.

A pademelon in Mary Cairncross Park

Now, after a week of meetings I’m waiting at Brisbane airport to return to WA. Conversations this week have brought to the forefront of my mind – once again – questions of connection to place. As always with new people, I must explain why I say I am “from” Fremantle, yet also “from” East Gippsland. Having many layers of identity when these layers refer to two different, faraway places seems odd to others.

Often, it takes too long to really explain what I mean. According these two places the status of “I am from here” does not seem to do justice to either. For one, it neglects the years of family history that count for as much as my own years there. For the other, it neglects the choice to return, nearly two years ago now, many years after leaving for new places. Yes, to some degree I have come home, but the other home remains, the feel of the land there waiting to be recalled, remembered – revisited.

Southwest across the Alps.

Three days in Thredbo

I’m  in the dining room of a lodge at Thredbo Alpine Village, watching sunlight fall in fast-moving patches down the face of the opposite slope, by turns illuminating the lines of the chairlift as strings of silver or softening the bush into shadow.

Patches of bush are courted by blank grassy stretches, the long areas cleared for ski runs and now, in late autumn before the snow falls, criss-crossed by mountain bikes, walkers and maintenance vehicles.

Coming to Thredbo was a result of going with the flow. A friend and I intended to go away – somewhere quiet – to write. She planned to work on her thesis and I to work on various  writing projects. But her research into alpine invertebrates requires a bit more field work, so we came here, and while I spend time writing she is out at various spots along the Rams Head Range or the Dead Horse Gap Track, setting pitfall traps and photographing grasshoppers.

The view from the lodge at Thredbo.

The dining room at the lodge with a view of Thredbo’s ski slopes.

I have come here to write, but could not resist going for a hike, too – across the undulating alpine slopes from the top of Thredbo’s only summer-operating chairlift to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko at 2228m elevation.

Kosciuszko is an easy-to-reach summit by the standard of world peaks: the chairlift takes you to an elevation of 1925m so it is a climb of 300m over an easy walk of less than 7km one-way.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

Nonetheless, walking to Kosciuszko’s summit felt momentous in the way of measurable achievements: it might be derided as a mere hill by the standards of mountains on other continents, but it remains Australia’s highest and it has an ancient geological history.

At the summit, it was noisy with the caws of the Little Ravens who gather on the rocky peaks to feed on Bogong moths. To the west, the Australian Alps lay in a smoky purple haze, layer upon layer of ridge fading into the distance.

In walking from Thredbo to Kosciuszko, I followed in the steps of thousands who have walked that way before me. The walk is ‘paved’ by a raised metal walkway, designed to keep walkers off the vegetation and to impede the flow of water as little as possible. I only saw one person stray from the beaten track, into the boulders near the Kosciuszko Lookout.

I left early enough to beat the crowds on the way out, but on my return passed dozens of teenagers, some cheerful, others looking mutely resentful at the prospect of the climb ahead of them.

The beaten track

Across the alpine landscape towards the Main Range and Kosciuszko.

On the return trip I stopped by the small creeks that are the headwaters of the Snowy River. I have spent so much of my life in the foothills of Australian mountains in Victoria, but if I ever previously visited the Snowy, it was when I was very small and I have no recollection of it.

It seemed important to stop by the water and notice it: the beginning of a great river, albeit one that is dammed and diverted and changed beyond all recognition from its ancient past.

Wolf image by Shawn Kinkade

Ecological hope: on George Monbiot’s Feral

Off the coast of southern New South Wales, the albatross appeared at first singly, then in twos and threes. On the third day of sailing from Sydney to Eden, eight black-browed albatross swept around us on their calm, broad wings.

I did not grow tired of looking at them: distant against the waves with the naked eye or seeming, when seen through binoculars, to be gliding at great speed yet so near.

One afternoon after the birds have been absent for a while I look across to the eastern horizon and see that one has returned. This bird is different to the black-browed albatross. Languidly soaring across the waves, it banks and I see its enormous wingspan, white back and speckled pattern leading into dark wings.

It is not until I look at the bird book later that I realise it is a wandering albatross. I am stunned: the wandering albatross is something out of seafaring mythology, yet it has come soaring into my presence, gliding into my modern world, enlivening another day on the ocean.

Feral by George MonbiotI feel an uplifting of the heart; a passion kindled. To see these birds up close, determined in their line of flight, their sleek perfectly white bodies bright against the rich grey on their wings, is to feel humbled and hopeful.

Hope has been on my mind since reading Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (2014), by British journalist George Monbiot. He argues that hope is vital if humans are to feel any sense of belonging in an ecological world.

Monbiot’s Feral is at its heart a piece of nature writing; a project driven by the need to escape the constraints of modern human existence. He writes of paddling out to sea, seeking a place in which he feels ‘a kind of peace’:

The salt was encrusted on the back of my hands, my fingers were scored and shrivelled. The wind ravelled through my mind, the water rocked me. Nothing existed except the sea, the birds, the breeze. My mind blew empty. (p16)

I began reading Feral when I joined the HMB Endeavour as crew in late 2014. Two months later, after two stints on the ship and with an interlude hiking in the bush in between, I felt that Feral had played some role in shaping my relationship with both the sea and the land during that time.

Monbiot writes beautifully of the natural world but he also has important arguments to make. He argues that humans have lost their connection to the natural world and that we are poorer for it. The loss of this connection is damaging to wild places but to humans as well – so for our own sake as much as for the sake of ecosystems, we must ensure that wild places still exist and that humans can access them. Humans themselves need to be ‘rewilded’.

Rewilding is a relatively new term, yet is already defined in a number of different ways – perhaps most widely as meaning the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems. It has entered the conservation lexicon, including in the form of conservation groups Rewilding North America, Rewilding Australia and Rewilding Europe. The latter defines rewilding loosely as an approach to conservation where ‘the concept of wild nature and natural processes is accepted as one of the main management principles’.

So how does this relate to humans? Monbiot sees rewilding as an opportunity for humans to be re-involved in nature – as ‘an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world’ (p11). This might sound like public relations speak for an ecotourism outfit, but the lack of engagement in the natural world is at the crux of Monbiot’s creeping sense of dissatisfaction with the civilised life he leads.

In the book’s first chapter, he writes,

If you are content with the scope of your life, if it is already as colourful and surprising as you might wish, if feeding the ducks is as close as you ever want to come to nature, this book is probably not for you. But if, like me, you sometimes feel that you are scratching at the walls of this life, hoping to find a way into a wider space beyond, then you may discover something here that resonates. (p11)

The second and lengthier part of Feral‘s argument is about the rewilding of places and landscapes. Wild places, for Monbiot, are places where the trophic webs function properly and ecosystems are species-rich. They are places where humans do not interfere, except to reintroduce missing key species that enable an ecosystem to function and ‘ecological processes to resume’ (p8). This reintroduction, if done right, is the catalyst for rewilding the land.

Monbiot argues for the reintroduction of large herbivores and key predators to enable the full functioning of trophic webs in natural ecosystems. The most famous example of a reintroduction of this kind is that of wolves into Yellowstone National Park – a move that quickly proved effective at reducing populations and changing behaviour patterns of the elk that were damaging the Park’s vegetation and river banks, leading to flow-on impacts for other parts of the ecosystem.

The Yellowstone National Park reintroduction appears to have worked, with beavers, birds and fish among those who benefited from the changed behaviour of the elk. Monbiot argues that certain reintroductions are required in the UK to re-establish functioning ecosystems.

Monbiot wants people to resist their impulse to control, corral and tidy wild landscapes, but he is equally aware that many ecosystems are far too damaged for us to simply step back and allow rewilding to happen on its own accord. Reintroductions of keystone species might go part of the way to restoring natural processes, but it seems simplistic to assume that this will be enough in most cases.

Here in Australia, the concept of rewilding – of allowing wild processes to proceed without human interference – is severely complicated by the fact that much of our flora and fauna has evolved in conjunction with the land management practices of Aboriginal people, particularly in relation to fire regimes. Reintroducing keystone species and walking away is not going to solve all the problems that Australian ecosystems face.

Feral is set almost entirely in the UK, with examples drawn from other parts of the world. For an Australian reader it is fascinating because the UK and Ireland deal with an entirely different set of historically created ecological problems than what we do here in Australia. Australians tend to view our fauna and flora in a black-and-white fashion as either native or introduced – present prior to European settlement or introduced by Europeans – but arguments about what constitutes native or introduced in the UK are much more fraught.

Monbiot argues that European conservationists in the traditional mould are highly conservative (linguistically this makes sense) and aim only to ‘preserve’ nature as it was in their own childhoods or in recent historical memory. Thus the desolate moors of Wales are considered in need of conservation – something Monbiot considers absurd given the paucity of species in these ‘moonscapes’. Sheep-damaged moors have been the norm in the UK for such a long time that few people can envision a more species-rich, functioning ecosystem such as might have existed before sheep came to dominate the landscape.

Albatross and shearwater from onboard Endeavour. Credit Suzannah Marshall Macbeth

Albatross and shearwater off the coast of NSW.

I understand Monbiot’s yearning for nature. I feel it when dolphins come to play in the port of Fremantle in WA: they are wild things brought so close, yet in the midst of a city I am painfully aware of how distant they really are.

I feel it when I walk through the bush and do not understand its structure or the animals that live in it and cannot always identify invasive flora.

I feel it on the open hillsides of East Gippsland in Victoria when I try and reconcile my love of a landscape that is part of my childhood with the destruction of functioning ecosystems that accompanied the clearing of it for agriculture.

At sea, with albatross soaring around me, there is a sense of hope, but this too is transient and perhaps misplaced. Visually the ocean off the east coast of Australia seems untouched, but that is partly because the currents have taken our litter away to an ‘island’ of rubbish in the middle of the Pacific. Monbiot’s chapters about the sea are amongst the most powerful in the book, perhaps because it is harder to see or understand the impacts of humans on the ecosystems of the sea.

As well as hope, Monbiot’s book provides a stark reality check about the challenges our ecosystems face. It is a powerful reminder of the complexity of the natural world and of how important it is to the health – physical, psychological and emotional – of humans, even if most of us have become so far removed from nature that we barely notice its absence.

Monbiot puts into words a yearning for nature and the desire to understand it that is powerful and vital for us all.

Feature image: credit Shawn Kinkade