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Nature writing

Eastern Curlews in flight

Nature Writing Part 3

By | Nature writing, News
Put A Bird In It by Julia Brougham

Birds in flight make air visible. Air flows through and within them as they fly through the air, inhabiting the spaces within and between each feather on a structure exquisitely evolved to enhance flight; strong, light, hollow, honeycombed bones; lungs full of elastic air sacs for super-efficient breathing supplying oxygen to a brain capable of very complex behaviour. No redundancy, no waste. Birds are the fastest, highest, most successful of all the animals that fly. Tim Low published a book in 2017, Where Song Began: Australia's Birds and How They Changed the World. But now we are changing the world faster than they can adapt.

The East Asian–Australasian Flyway runs from Siberia and Alaska down through east and south-east Asia to Australia and New Zealand, crossing twenty-two countries. Five million birds from fifty-five species fly from their northern hemisphere summer breeding places to Australia’s winter to rest and grow fat for the return, an inter-continental round trip of over 20,000kms each year. Dredging estuaries, damming rivers, building on wetlands; we are destroying the migratory bird stopover sites. Innate navigation systems and instinct drive them on. Fewer and fewer reach their destinations. These global travellers, following an endless summer, have been connecting continents for millennia but now they are becoming harried, unregarded, dispensable refugees.

The Bar-tailed Godwit crosses the Pacific Ocean from eastern Australia to Alaska, then returns six months later. All the Bar-tailed Godwits leaving Alaska stop at the Yellow Sea, between mainland China and the Korean peninsula, to forage and put on fat for the final week-long non-stop flight to Australia. A supremely athletic performance, it is one of the longest non-stop migratory flights known amongst birds. But the food-rich tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are disappearing rapidly. Industrial, agricultural and domestic sewage is changing the colour of the sea and contaminating the waters and habitats. 
Mural of the Bar-tailed Godwit, on Stockton Bridge
This picture of the Bar-tailed Godwit on Stockton Bridge is one of a set of new murals - worth a look.
The Eastern Curlew breeds in Alaska and Siberia and most of the world’s curlews spend winter in Australia.  Our moral contract to protect coastal wetlands for them and the other shorebirds should have high level oversight, but environment laws are wishy washy. Filled with aspirational words like protect, raise awareness, control dogs on beaches, practical, they are not enforced and are failing to protect the birds. “The Office of Environment and Heritage has identified no priority actions to help recover the Eastern Curlew in New South Wales”. Harried, unregarded, dispensable refugees in the estuaries of the Hunter River, Port Stephens, Clarence River, and Richmond River. What chance has a speckly brown bird, about the size of a backyard chook with a weird mournful call, against the dollar call of residential, retail, marina development, hotel, port facilities and tourism infrastructure? The graph of the world population of Eastern Curlews is curving downwards far more steeply than the curve of their remarkable 18cms long beak.

Eastern Curlews in flight
A bonus for Australia - our birds are the most musical, intelligent, aggressive and loud. For our backyard magpie we can add sociable, inquisitive and sometimes feared. 

Colin Thiele’s magpie “sits on a high, high gum tree and rolls the sunrise around in his throat like pink beads of light” and “tumbled the morning air around with so much happiness”. Want more of that?  Whistle and sing with them. Be happy-foolish and yodel wardle-doodle-dardle to them. They’ll listen and respond for their species name is tibicen, Latin for piper or flute. 

The castanet clatter of a beak, whack on head or bicycle helmet, sudden sound of fast-moving air through feathers, is a springtime contest - Big Daddy Magpie protecting eggs or chicks against strangers. Make contact and make peace with a food offering. Woo your local magpies with a handful of shredded cheese and talk to them quietly. They will remember and, as they live for around 25 years, for a long time.
Magsy a rescued magpie
Magsy was a rescue we had. She wasn't a well bird but after 11 months of care flew away from home to be with the wild ones.
There are around 870 species of birds living in Australia. Thirteen species have already become extinct and fifty are listed as threatened. Bird calls fill our bushland, wake us early in our suburbs and haunt us in the dark hours.  To lose any more to extinction would be absurd of us. Rude, careless, silly.
Julia Brougham HWC member and blogger about Nature Writing
About Julia:

Born in Bunbury WA, lived for six years in South Africa, moved to South Australia and with husband John lived in the Far West, the mid-North, Eyre Peninsula and Adelaide. Since 2002 we have become forever Novocastrians. 

In childhood my fascination with native plants and animals was heavily influenced by a Dad who had an affinity with animals of all shapes and size, and a Grandfather who took us on bush outings at weekends. Love of the natural world and volunteering as a landcarer on Ash Island are ways of connecting with people who combine ecological knowledge with scientific rigour and impassioned care of our natural environment.

Books and reading began early too. My reading habits are wayward and well supplied. We have shelves and cupboards full of books, sometimes in double rows. Becoming a member of Hunter Writers Centre has added to my book stacks as I became involved in the marvellous workshops leading me to new reading places like oriental poetry forms, modern American fiction, grammar and who knows where. 
The words I write daily as the current coordinator of a landcare group are, whether necessary administration or a creative writing piece, an act of advocacy for care of nature. Now more than ever the environment needs advocates who can speak for it and do it well.  To help this along I am hosting a new Meetup group "Nature Writing In Company" which will begin in August on Ash Island. Who knows where that will lead and who will find their voice.
map of ash island in the Hunter River

Nature Writing Part 1

By | Nature writing, News
Trees Are Company by Julia Brougham

Julia is a landcare co-ordinator on Ash Island in the Hunter River. We asked her to blog about Nature.

We were a rambling trio on Ash Island, strolling and looking, and we were suddenly transfixed. A lizard wrapped around the stalk of a tall skinny mushroom, munching chunks from the cap. The mushroom was growing in the leaf litter at the base of the old male plum pine tree, botanical name Podocarpus elatus. Termite tunnels filled the fissures of the tree’s scaly bark. A shelf-like bracket fungus, big as a hand, growing from the trunk. Spiders in rolled leaf shelters webbed to the branches. Spear shaped leaves whorled along the twigs and pointed towards the light. There it stood, the simple essence of a tree - trunk, roots, branches twigs and leaves. But, as a whole, it wasn’t simple. It was a company, a small ecology of nested, connected, and layered organic structures, each different in appearance but interdependent.  

We have an affectionate affinity for this particular tree, though we’d had no hand in propagating it or planting it. It is symbolic. The only one of its species surviving in a tiny remnant of the coastal rainforest that once covered Ash Island. 

In time it became a marker point, surrounded by thousands of other trees and plants as we worked together on the common goal of recreating coastal rainforest in the Rainforest Walk. Trees in company, people in company, because trees and humans are relational beings reliant on and cooperating with many other living organisms. 

Stand close to a tree. You and the tree are sharing the same air.  The tree does you a big favour, recycling the carbon you breathe out and giving you back more oxygen. The account it keeps of this exchange is archived in its growth rings. Long lived, trees keep our secrets in this incorruptible data set of seasons shared, of seasons fat with sunshine and rain, of seasons gritted thin with drought.  

The trunk of a eucalypt, botanical name Corymbia aparrerinja, stands at the centre of a national monument in Barcaldine, Queensland. It marks the meeting place of shearers whose failed strike in 1891 influenced the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Truth or legend?  Salvation Army musicians gathered under it and the locals named it the Hallelujah Tree. Decades later another local dubbed it the Tree of Knowledge, a name that stuck. People felt connected by that tree, projected memories onto it, shared its sparse shade in a place with few trees. When it died in 2006 - was it poisoned on purpose or in error - grief, anger, suspicion and accusations were let fly. The corpse of the ghost gum, its apt common name, was chemically preserved. Its progress to the next stage of the carbon cycle, the dissolving of its molecules back into soil and air, has been interrupted. For an indeterminate time, it will stay fixed at the centre of a cloud of myth, symbolism, dispute, and a tourism event with its own Facebook page. 

Tree-ness, the essence of being a tree. Trunk and branches enclosing spaces yet open to the sky. Tree-ness House in Tokyo, designed by architect Akihisa Hirata, is a tangled space, a house where inside outside is undefined.  Openings to the streetscape echo the spaces between trunk and branches, external greenery connects the layers into an organic whole.  The Japanese architect, living in a country which has given us shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, expresses his vision of tree as house, of a feeling hard to put into words, an attempt to bridge a gap between us and the natural world.  

“This project is a complex building of houses and galleries built in Tokyo, Toshimaku. One tree is organically integrated with a combination of parts having different characteristics, such as a trunk, a branch, and a leaf.  As with the tree, we tried to create an organic architecture that could be formed by a hierarchical combination of different parts such as plants/pleats (as openings) / concrete boxes.”

We project our personal needs onto trees and ask many services of them. Symbol, servant, protector, spiritual guide, confidante, colleague, therapist, cleaner, recycler, fellow activist, data mine, and messenger in an unequal exchange.

Quietly acknowledge everything trees give you.
Julia Brougham Bio:

Born in Bunbury WA, lived for six years in South Africa, moved to South Australia and with husband John lived in the Far West, the mid-North, Eyre Peninsula and Adelaide. Since 2002 we have become forever Novocastrians. 

In childhood my fascination with native plants and animals was heavily influenced by a Dad who had an affinity with animals of all shapes and size, and a Grandfather who took us on bush outings at weekends. Love of the natural world and volunteering as a landcarer on Ash Island are ways of connecting with people who combine ecological knowledge with scientific rigour and impassioned care of our natural environment.

Books and reading began early too. My reading habits are wayward and well supplied. We have shelves and cupboards full of books, sometimes in double rows. Becoming a member of Hunter Writers Centre has added to my book stacks as I became involved in the marvellous workshops leading me to new reading places like oriental poetry forms, modern American fiction, grammar and who knows where.

 

The words I write daily as the current coordinator of a landcare group, whether administrative words or creative words, are an act of advocacy for care of nature. Now more than ever the environment needs advocates who can speak for it and do it well.  To help this along I am hosting a group "Nature Writing In Company" that meets on Ash Island. Who knows where that will lead and who will find their voice.
Eastern Curlew

Nature Writing Part 2

By | Nature writing, News
Booklovers Dilemma by Julia Brougham

Bookshelves stacked high and in double rows squeezed tight. Bedside tables stacked with four or five books on the go. The numbers grow, the TARDIS Effect fails and the booklovers dilemma sneaks in with a strange urge to be sensible.  Bargain with self and make sober justification noises. Haven’t read this in years. Didn’t like it. So old the paper is crumbling so bin it. Buy another book only after donating an existing one, or a boxful to the University Book Fair.  Done!

That looks better, single rows in a semblance of categories. Here are the autobiographies, there the novels, behind the glass are the references. Mental pat on back for being sensible and logical. But the penguin copy of Anna Karenina stayed despite loose pages sticky taped together, spine bare, cover dog-eared. It was joined later by a hardback copy by a different translator. Then Christmas and birthdays. New books and no cull. An “I’ll just have a quick browse” through online booksellers, books from a market stall, and the bedside table still has four or five books on the go. 

Sensible be damned. When I’ve become star stuff again nobody will remember if my bookshelves were chaotic, overflowing or neat.  

I was four and adored being read stories from Uncle Wiggily On the Farm by Howard R. Garis. The small orange book, no pictures except one drawing of a top hatted gentleman hare, is full of benign and bountiful stories and ideas about animal people and nature. I keep it with other old treasured books. I read it again recently. The memories of times and places where it was read to me, and the readers faces and voices, don’t fade. If that book had been (sensibly) discarded for being past its usefulness during relocations across continents and states I would have lost one connection in my personal ecology of people, ideas and words. I’ll go with C S Lewis. “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
Take a step into a different place full of books, the library in the Schoolmasters House. Eighty metres of shelved documents, books, reports, maps, images, surveys and landscape analyses collected over twenty-five years of rehabilitation of wetlands on Ash Island and other places in the Hunter River estuary. It is the distillation of thousands of hours of study, old and new knowledge, insights, creativity, innovation, book design, printer’s labour, and plain hard slog. Students and researchers use it, schools bring in groups for environmental studies, and it is at the centre of a big outdoor classroom.  Faced with its possible disappearance, the Landcare group, 'Friends of The Schoolmasters House', formed from a core group of volunteers who have been part of the Ash Island revegetation since 1993. The Friends wanted the library to stay in place and the house to stay open. We solved that dilemma with a lease of the house and its piece of territory in the Hunter Wetlands National Park.

The library is significant for its close environmental and cultural connections to its location. The Friends are digitising the library, giving it a second form of life. Uploaded to Trove it will have a third life.  Awabakal and Worimi knowledge and practice is included and they share in the care of the island, as they have done for as long as it has existed. Ash Island is where the first European settlers, Alexander Scott and family, including his daughters Harriett and Helena, lived and where they painted their enchanting botanical illustrations of butterflies and flowers. Have an online browse through the Australian Museum to see the images and read the Scott papers. The plant species newly grown and planted on the island were recorded in Helena Scott’s looping script in 1862 as she rambled across 5000 acres through scrub so thick that sometimes it was difficult to penetrate even a few yards. The Scott family left Ash Island in 1866 and the land was sold as small dairy farms. Shelves of family trees, stories and pictures of the lives, loves and griefs of hundreds of island residents are visited by former farmers, tenants and their descendants. They remember a landscape where “there were never all them trees when we were here, you could see the river”. 

When the Friends arrive on site a small group of butcher birds, magpies and a cautious crow swoosh in, anxious for their handful of treated cheese shreds. Come to the island sometime and see for yourself.

 

Frog climbing
Eastern Curlew
About Julia:

Born in Bunbury WA, lived for six years in South Africa, moved to South Australia and with husband John lived in the Far West, the mid-North, Eyre Peninsula and Adelaide. Since 2002 we have become forever Novocastrians. 

In childhood my fascination with native plants and animals was heavily influenced by a Dad who had an affinity with animals of all shapes and size, and a Grandfather who took us on bush outings at weekends. Love of the natural world and volunteering as a landcarer on Ash Island are ways of connecting with people who combine ecological knowledge with scientific rigour and impassioned care of our natural environment.

Books and reading began early too. My reading habits are wayward and well supplied. We have shelves and cupboards full of books, sometimes in double rows. Becoming a member of Hunter Writers Centre has added to my book stacks as I became involved in the marvellous workshops leading me to new reading places like oriental poetry forms, modern American fiction, grammar and who knows where.

 


The words I write daily as the current coordinator of a landcare group are, whether necessary administration or a creative writing piece, an act of advocacy for care of nature. Now more than ever the environment needs advocates who can speak for it and do it well.  To help this along I am hosting a new Meetup group "Nature Writing In Company" which will begin in August on Ash Island. Who knows where that will lead and who will find their voice.