17 November 2018
Rufous whistlers & other companions
By Francesca Sidoti, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University
New South Wales is in drought when I come to Blue Bucket, but it rains on the third day. It smells of acacia, and the ground is often rocky. Everywhere there is evidence of care; roo-proof enclosures, wood laid horizontally along the ground to assuage erosion, plantings. Behind the houses, there is the carved track of an old river where the former banks rise above on either side, studded with layered rock almost like drystone walls. It is a beautiful landscape and one that you have to feel your way through with your feet.
I come to Blue Bucket to write about another place. Katoomba, where I live and work, nags at me. My mind worries over the town like a tongue worrying a patch of scalded skin in the roof of a mouth. I have come to start writing my thesis, and write about leaving town. My thesis argues that people and places are interwoven and that places live through our bodies, often showing up in surprising ways long after we’ve “left town” for good. I have needed to leave town to start the process, putting two hundred and sixty seven kilometres between me and the town that dogs me and that I love unreasonably.
There’s something about heading west of the Blue Mountains that is like a relaxation exercise, like those tapes that ask you to squeeze your toes hard and then release them, then tense your ankles and release them, and so on. By degrees, the body relaxes until I’m in Cowra, having a cappuccino, and basically bubbling. The body needs to relearn certain things on this journey; maintaining 100 kilometres an hour on what feels like a narrow road; how to overtake, how to reverse into a 45-degree angle parking spot. In the ten days I am here, my body will never learn how to climb over or through fences gracefully. When I go into Young mid-week to shop, the man at the liquor store says within about three seconds of my walking in, “So, not from around here?”.
When I arrive, Barbara is watching an echidna washing in a bird bath. We walk over to the Silver Box, which is a writing retreat fantasy. A desk and a comfortable chair, a view out the window to the valley, overlooking a line of trees that denote the creek. Everything has its place–a couch for afternoon reading, a table with a vase and a sprig of gum leaves, a comfy double bed where you can leave the blinds up and watch the valley change every morning. The orderliness of the Silver Box teaches me how restful it is to have places for things and to return them there routinely. A table and chairs are out front, underneath the shade, and I eat my meals here except on the colder days.
There is companionship at Blue Bucket. Not only Barbara, although here is a kindred spirit as Anne Shirley would say. Barbara shares her knowledge of this place as we walk along the lane or drive up to Koorawatha Falls and hike up to the top. Barbara shares her knowledge of the world I am trying to learn as well; the literature of place, the literature of Australia. It is Barbara who affirms the importance of trying to think about place without humans in it, and without a human purpose to it. It is a thought that hums along for me; I am infatuated with humans–even now I can’t write about my time at Blue Bucket outside of my own body–but the thought will continue to sprout. There are other companions–a Rufous Whistler who visits at a startlingly regular 11 am to beat his wings against the window and tap at the door with his beak. There are the superb fairy-wrens, Willie Wagtails, and the call of the boobook owls at night, as well as the regular thump of roos and wallabies moving in groups around the Silver Box. The wind blows hard on a couple of nights, and that is companionable too, as is the sound of rain on tin.
I don’t know any of the names of the plants, though the orchids that grow in the paddock at the front of the Silver Box are going to remain in my mind long after I return home. Tiny, almost ground-cover, they are a good sign. I resolve to learn more names to take more part in this loved landscape and this place of care.
At Blue Bucket, I write about places back home. As part of my research, Katoomba young adults took me to sites of significance for them, and I write of three of these places; Cahill’s Lookout, the streets of North Katoomba, and the places participants tried not to go. At the Silver Box, I play back the voices of people I spoke with and note the patterns, what is said and what is not said. I also write the introductory section about Katoomba, which I find easier to grasp from a safe distance. It is the greatest of gifts to be given a place and time to write, and one for which I cannot thank Barbara and BREW enough. It is perhaps only on re-entry that I fully realise how large a gift it is; my first day back in my regular life feels a bit like body-slammed in either the ocean or an MMA ring.
It is fitting that it is Barbara who introduced me to Henry Kendall, through her wonderful 2016 article ‘Conversing with the Undead in Australian Woodlands‘. Now, weeks later, I walk through Katoomba’s Civic Place (a grandly titled concrete gap between Katoomba Street and Coles) and read, for perhaps the first time, the sign there. Some fragments of Henry Kendall are on the sign, which I have walked past a vague million times before now.
‘And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling…
here dripping rocks gleam and leafy pools glisten…
welcome as waters unkissed by summer’
11 June 2018
Cry of the Curlew book launch
Allis Hamilton’s book of enchanting poems, penned at Pinchgut Creek, was launched yesterday at Dirnaseer Hall. After a sumptuous afternoon tea (thanks Gail and Rebecca!) we walked through the paddocks and along the Creek. pausing to hear Allis recite her exquisitely crafted words. A celebratory dinner then unfolded in the shearers’ quarters. Copies of Cry of the Curlew are available here. Thanks Merrill Findlay, Indi Taylor and Allis for the photos!
7 April 2018
by Jilda Andrews, Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Research Program, Research School of Humanities & the Arts, Australian National University
My time at Pinchgut Creek with the BREW network has been fantastic. At the final stages of my PhD thesis, the time and space, it was hoped, would help me get my draft to the next stage. The thesis entitled Encounters with cultural material in museum collections: An Indigenous perspective is a critical reflection and examination of cultural collections in museums, and what it means, as an Indigenous person, to access and make meaning from these. I draw from the article ‘Encounters with Stones’, a piece written about Pinchgut Creek by BREW’s Main man, George. In it, he writes of what it means to encounter Aboriginal stone tools on his family’s property ‘Retreat’. He considers how history is embedded within the present, and in our presence. He thinks on the ways he is implicated within these histories and futures. My thesis considers similar encounters, but with objects ‘off country’ — objects from my Yuwaalaraay country held in museum collections, and how those histories are embedded within our present, as well as representative of our dislocations from country. Two sides of the same story, both discussions about connectivity, and within the presence and absence of country and people.
All places, no matter how cleared, damaged, changed, hold stories like these. The Main family’s effort to regenerate the connections on their property, some might say, have brought some of these stories to the surface. This also happens with native grass seeds, I’m told, when the soil is healthy, and the biodiversity in the soil is working and functioning as it should, these seeds arise and can germinate again. Within connectivity there is regeneration.
Early on during my stay I helped with some plantings: yellow box, black locust and kurrajong. I also help plant some European oaks. We live in a changed land. Oaks and black locust, although not native, will do important ecological work and provide shade to stock, and help transfer carbon back into the soil. They’re also long-growing, and can grow to be huge. We also planted bunya pines — also not native to this area, but the same: are slow growing, grow to be substantial and will cool down the earth and provide sanctuary (and delicious bunya nuts) one day. Regeneration is not just about returning a place back it to its ‘native state’ after intense change. While many of us enjoy beef, lamb, pork and chicken (etc.), finding ways to value the lives of those creatures (as well as nourish our own) is as important as regenerating country back to the way we might think of it as its original, native state. What is a native state anyway? We know land has been managed symbiotically to provide for people for thousands of years, and has changed as a result of this, adapted and responded. We also know the climate is changing in unprecedented ways. Regeneration now is also about putting measures of resilience in place to ensure country can keep sustaining us and our ways in times of uncertainty.
Thinking about these little plants, their future, giving them the best chance of survival drew my attention to a tree guard in a paddock which seemed to have nothing in it. The tree planted there some time ago must have just not survived. There was another one not far from it – probably planted at the same time. I could see brown crispy twigs still standing on this baby yellow box tree. Standing still, leaves not fluttering in the breeze, birds not interested. After such an effort planting trees here, I thought I couldn’t leave it, so I gave it a sip of water. The next day, I went back and realised that it had a tiny speck of green on a leaf I must have missed. Gave it another sip. Next day went back again, discovered a tiny shoot, urgently feeding again with a good gulp. I have been back to that tree every day and seen it respond, and every day it gifts me another bit of green. Yesterday Chris and I laid down some mulch which had developed some funky fungi (this is a good thing, they’re making connections on a microbial level) which will be good nutrients for this tree when it gets a bit of health back and finds its feet.
Regenenation seems like a slow, long, almost life long, analogous process. Noticing regeneration through these little increments though, is incredible. I feel like I’ve been let into a secret conversation, I’ve found a (much slower) pace which has me conversing with country. In many ways, not only has this helped me recognise all the incrementals held within this thesis before I send it out to the world, but it’s changed the way I think about all these incremental responses bound together to tell our collective stories. For within these stories are moments which have caught the attention of someone or something, moments where connections have been made, moments of response, moments where there is more than one voice talking, culminating in a story of a strong, resilient and adaptive country that is lending us lessons on how to be the same.
31 October 2017
Beautiful Burrabungle joins the BREW network
Burrabungle is a 140 hectare property on the shoulder of Mt Korong, a striking mountain of granite in semi-arid north-central Victoria. For more information on this significant and peaceful retreat for writers and artists see https://thebrewnetwork.org/burrabungle/
29 October 2017
Layers of Pinchgut Creek
by Allis Hamilton, www.thestorytellingtent.com
I came to know about Retreat, the farm along Pinchgut Creek, on Wiradjuri Country, through the writer, historian, and curator at the National Museum of Australia, George Main. I first arrived at Pinchgut Creek one rainy autumn night. The air was rich with the smell of Eucalyptus, and flapping about everywhere were enormous moths, Trictena atripalpis, that wriggle up from the soil during autumn rains. I stayed for ten days and then returned for ten more, this spring, on a night when the wind whirled across the land like a pounding ocean. I spent my time at Pinchgut Creek observing the landscape and its plants, its creatures. I turned that time into poetry, photographs, drawings, new understandings.
I walk with George, and seven ten-year-old girls, into the fenced creek yard. As soon as we pass through the gate and into the re-vegetated area, the foliage changes. As Hunderwasser says ‘there are no straight lines in nature’. We weave around trees, turn this way and that to find a path; step over logs, around large tufts of grass – some so long they have fallen over and are slowly turning back into soil. We walk by the murnong patch that George has planted, see little evidence of any growth, yet – tricky things to propagate, I hear.
The creek has some large patches of erosion from last year’s heavy rains. In these places you can observe where water has washed soil from the base of trees that line the tall corner of the bank. Their long bony roots protrude to look like structures of an old bridge. It is evident to see one of the benefits the big old trees have to this creek bed, they hold the bank in place as best they can, whilst creating a skyscraper of homes for a multitude of creatures.
We meander up the creek through another gate and make our way across the dirt-clumped paddock to a huge yellow box tree. Its girth would be metres wide – hundreds of years old, or more. The girls scramble up the tree and I am sure it must love the attention and massage the small hands and feet clambering over its ancient bones give.
Beside the creek, I lean into a gnarled yellow box. Around me, a conglomeration of birds. In gratitude, I sing to them. My breath slows to that of this tree at my back.
I feel it brace me as only a tree can. The orchestra of birds natter about all they know, each in their own unique voice. High the swallows whirlpool above me, they appear to feel such joy at gliding and darting like, well, like swallows. I swallow gulps of air; giddy at the beauty, while close to the ground the wagtails, so many wagtails, dash and spin, dash and spin. Later, high in the air current a family of three wedge-tail eagles soar.
A week tonight since I arrived, and today was the biggest for me so far. Walked along the creek. Found a dead sheep, snuck up on a fox. I cried and grieved at the silencing of so many things this land has to say.
Though this farm, and its people are turning up the volume. Allowing the place to have its say, inviting the people to engage with its spaces and places. This place is not only restoring itself, it is re-storying itself, and I feel so deeply honoured to be a part of its story.
Pinchgut Creek is a beautiful place to write from. It is quiet, still and full of songs coming from the mouth of birds – the butcherbird at dawn, the boobook owl calling among the countless stars.
The Main family are inspiring and encouraging people, they are working to create a place of conversation, of education, of cooperation. I am grateful for their generosity and enthusiasm.
Out over those hills,
if my feet walked me there,
is the place of my birth.
The dirt tracks, the grasses,
the rocky hills that raised me;
this wind, its mesmerising
undulations lulled me into being.
This still earth holds me, sings
my song, or I it. This immense bowl
of sky, the soup my head bobs in.
I stood on another hill, near here,
years ago and the country spoke:
‘Come back’, it said, ‘and be with me
now you are grown and can really listen’.
And now, once more, I am here.
Alone, listening, quiet and present,
to her lulling song. This is what
she meant. To sit immersed in her,
my whole body becoming her,
still, lulling, listening. Today her song
is of the pressing wind, of rain.
21 October 2017
Rahamim Ecology Centre joins BREW
BREW is delighted to announce that Rahamim Ecology Centre in Bathurst, on the central west slopes of New South Wales, is joining the network. We’re looking forward to working with this vibrant and innovative institution to nurture writers and artists and foster the growth of ecological culture.
18 October 2017
Perched on the edge of the Wollumbin caldera
by Vanessa Bible, Honorary Associate, School of Humanities, University of New England
In mid-August I was grateful to receive an invitation from the BREW network to take up a ten-day writing retreat at beautiful Tamborine Mountain. The purpose of the retreat was to finalise my manuscript for a forthcoming book with Palgrave, titled Terania Creek and the Birth of Modern Environmental Activism.
Departing from Armidale, my journey took me through the region in which my research is focused. I drove the familiar roads through the places I love so much, chatting with the majestic mountains of Wollumbin and Blue Knob like old friends, feeling the warmth and vibrancy of Nimbin village as I passed through. I always feel so at peace in the Rainbow Region.
I arrived at the retreat in the late afternoon and was greeted by Sandra, who warmly welcomed me into her beautiful home. Basic, but great for writing – no television, quiet and peaceful, and wonderful green gardens in every direction. Chatting with Sandra, I learn that her research interests are very similar to my own. A booklet left on the table details the campaign to protect Knoll Road, and Sandra tells me about the ‘women of the mountain’ whose early pioneering efforts led to the protection of the rainforest.
There couldn’t be a more perfect setting for me to finish my own book on the campaign to save Terania Creek, the first successful anti-logging blockade to occur in Australian – and possibly world – history. Adding to the wonderful feeling of synchronicity I realise that I’m perched on top of the northernmost edge of the Wollumbin caldera, my old friend, whose fertile cauldron houses Terania Creek and the communities I love so dearly. I reflect on one of my favourite poets, Judith Wright. She also provides a connection Armidale, environmental activism, her involvement in the Terania Creek campaign, and Mount Tamborine. I feel a sense of resonance and purpose.
I establish a daily routine – 6 am rise, yoga, breakfast, writing, a walk down to the lovely and humble Main Street of Tamborine Village for excellent coffee, more writing, lunch, a walk on one of the eight dedicated rainforest tracks of the Mountain (one per day), and then more writing into the afternoon and evening. It works well and keeps me focused, and my daily rainforest encounters keep me energised and connected to my purpose.
On one of my walks at Witches Falls I see a female lyrebird. I feel so honoured that she chose to let me meet her; Sandra tells me she hasn’t seen a lyrebird in her sixteen years of living here. My favourite walk, however, is the one just up the road from Sandra’s. The Knoll is surely one of the most beautiful rainforests I’ve ever experienced. Such majesty and power, I feel a strong rush of biophilia – I love the Earth, I talk to the forest, I express my love, I hug trees (scientific research says this is excellent for one’s wellbeing!) This rainforest will endure beyond the human chaos outside it and everything will be alright. I could stay here forever.
After ten days I’ve made significant progress. In wonderful synchronicity, the rainforest has given me purpose and determination to tell the story of arguably the most significant rainforest campaign in Australian history. The manuscript is submitted now and has cleared its review, and will likely be published by end of year. I wish to share the final lines here:
‘Countercultural thinking has become central to our modern-day understandings of environmental issues, both intellectually and practically. There is much more engagement today with ideas and practices once deemed ‘alternative’: the counterculture has led the way forward in an uncertain environment. Environmental activism generated at the grassroots level continues to be one of the most powerful ways in which we can face the Anthropocene, particularly when we stand together as communities. The story of Terania, and the power of the movement generated since then, is testament to the importance and the power of grassroots action.’
We need to stand together, now more than ever.
Thanks to the BREW Network and particularly to Sandra Sewell – I’d love to come back one day to write about the relationship between biophilia and environmental activism. The place certainly cultivates such thinking!
15 December 2016
Eco-sci-fi and a mountain
by Marty Branagan, School of Humanities, University of New England
After a week’s hard driving from Armidale out to Dubbo, Coonamble and back to help Aboriginal artist Michael Brogan set up a very post-modern exhibition in a funky gallery converted from a Greek art deco café, I was well ready for a break on my trip to Tamborine Mountain. I pulled off the road at Cunningham’s Gap and made my way up into the pocket of rainforest of the Main Range National Park. The park seems perched precariously between the cleared land on either side, where small stands of dry sclerophyll forest seem the best you can expect.
Up and around the mountain winds the track, through deep forest, gradually losing the ceaseless rattle and roar of the giant trucks moving all that stuff we apparently need. Gradually the bird calls take over. There’s a goanna scuffling across the track, disturbing its rich red-brown soil. A glimpse of the vast valley below. A sharp peak to the north, one side bright vegetation lit up by the afternoon sun, the other ancient, sheer stone – a beautiful blue. A dry creek bed filled with giant grey boulders, tangles and green moss on the side of massive roots of the giant above. I feel like I’ve come home at last.
Higher up I again sense the fragility of the rainforest; a fire has swept through, changing the undergrowth. There are blackened trunks, grass trees verdantly springing back to life. One large tree falling can change the whole dynamic, letting in too much light. There’s a drying wind.
Nevertheless, I’m refreshed and inspired as I head down the mountain, stopping precariously to photograph it from a road cutting. Giant 4WDs sit on my tail, forcing me to ignore the scenery and drive faster than I’d like, honking when I slow to let them pass. In Beaudesert I try to find a tap to refill my water bottle and I stock up on groceries (although there turns out to be a good range of organic produce on the mountain). It’s hot and I have a slight headache from my visit to the Cheese Factory near Stanthorpe. I’d just wanted cheese, but the jovial proprietor had insisted I try his port, which led on to the mead, cabernet merlot and shiraz. So much for a dry week!
Up the narrow, sharply winding road to Tamborine Mountain at last, through majestic stands of trees, past a strange rock formation, a Bavarian sausage place, a winery, a distillery, fruit stands, Balinese massage, cafes and restaurants, terrific views I will come back to contemplate and sketch at, and finally I reach Sandra’s, nestled in the rainforest. She gives me a warm welcome, shows me around the cool, stylish accommodation. There are flowers and avocados on the bench, brochures about the area, books about the flora and fauna, a terrific library in the bedroom. The kitchen is well equipped, with solar hot water and a window onto the lush garden. The main room is spacious, with maps, artworks and inspiring photos on the walls, Persian carpets on the tiled floor. My solar-powered transistor can pick up multiple stations, including Classic FM, old favourite 4ZZZ, and a multicultural one – a relief after my trip near Hanson heartland, where I could get only one station – country and western. Sandra tells me about a poets’ night at the local Irish pub, so I wander down there after a cuppa, siesta and sandwich, stopping to observe the full moon rise – the closest and brightest for 68 years.
The poets are a friendly mob, ranging from a renowned 90-something poet, Raymond Curtis, who recites from memory a moving poem about Moreton Bay, to a young buck with ripped jeans and a goatee, who struggles with the microphone as he performs his first original poem. Many women recite, evocative imagery about love and loss, bodies and nature, in South African, German and broadly Australian accents. The main act is David Peetz, who is witty, amusing, animated and passionate, with some scathing commentary on globalisation, sexism, capitalism and Australia’s callous treatment of refugees. He leaps up on the bench at one point, later collapses on the ground, concludes by running out of the bar. It’s great fun, washed down with an obligatory couple of pots of Irish beer. The evening ends with some tributes to Leonard Cohen, including a wild version of Hallelujah by Susannah Lathlean, and others by Margie Rose and Seamus which have the whole crowd roaring along.
On my way home under the full moon I see a possum. A choir is singing in a church. There are some excellent paintings in the lawyers’ window. Culture is everywhere and I’m reminded of my partner’s words the day before – that humans are capable of such wonderful things, and yet allow such terrible things.
The next day I’m straight into the rainforest – bangalow palms, Canungra bloodwoods, staghorns, bleeding heart, a baby bunya. There’s cool fresh air with spring perfumes. Lomandra, ferns, walking stick palms, dendrocnides, coachwoods, elephant ears, huge eucalypts. Native ginger, a squashed frog, an orgy of flies on the picnic table. Vines like cords communicating between the strangler figs. Patches of warm sun, a deep grey cloud above exciting the forest with a promise of rain. A blue dragonfly. The bells and buzz of birds – wompoo pigeons, regent bowerbirds, some screeching corellas high in the canopy. Something huge and prehistoric swooshes by fast. A bull ant kindly decides not to bite me; instead she walks away across the fallen orange and red leaves. A bush turkey honks and walks close by, proudly displaying the land rights colours. The presence of Aboriginal people, and Judith Wright, can be felt. I’m ready to write.
Over the next week I attack my novel, a work of eco-sci-fi called Locked On: The Seventh and Most Illegal in the Hitchhikers’ Guide Trilogy. I skim across and then scour through ten chapters, sorting them into passages to definitely keep, those I’ll definitely discard, and possible ones. Others I cut or put aside in other documents. I input a few notes and ideas from a bulging folder, and take off on a few new directions of dialogue or text. In all twenty-seven separate word documents get amended.
It’s delightfully quiet, apart from a few trucks on Wednesday, tip day. I walk a lot, including a trek up a rainforest creek to its source in a vineyard, and finally get to do some yoga and meditation. I do a few jobs in Sandra’s lush garden in the afternoons, and investigate the village’s galleries and op shops. In the evenings I watch the news with Sandra or go with her to a lookout to eat pizza. As my physical and mental health returns, so my writing improves. Thanks BREW!
22 August 2016
Like a Homecoming
by Johanna Garnett, PhD candidate, Peace Studies, University of New England
I left Armidale on a dry, frosty Northern Tablelands morning and arrived at my retreat 6 hours later, as the red sun was setting on a musty, green mountain. Of course I got lost in the twilight (GPS cannot be relied on at this height apparently) but Sandra guided me in over the phone and was waiting, welcoming me.
Before moving to Armidale I lived in the Tweed valley for 30 years; in the caldera shaped by an ancient volcano. I come from this landscape; this flora and fauna and arriving on the mountain felt like a homecoming, soothing to the soul and fantastic for the writing process. I quickly settled in and took myself off to the local Italian restaurant and returned ‘home’ that evening to peace, quiet and a creative space all to myself and began writing – what bliss!
My PhD is a study of environmental peacebuilding in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). My thesis is based on a case study into a unique environmental peacebuilding initiative that has been developed by Myanmar nationals, in an effort to address some of their serious and pressing socio-ecological issues. These include deforestation, land grabbing, soil degradation and water pollution, all of which are impacting on local communities and traditional livelihoods. A grassroots, environmental, social movement organisation, the Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED), has established a school and eco-farm in Myanmar and has designed an environmental adult education (EAE) program aimed at agrarian youth. EAE is a transformative education that is a hybrid of environmental education (EE) and adult learning theory. NEED is educating young adults from a variety of ethnic groups, from rural areas throughout the country, in land law, human rights, environmentalism and the practice of permaculture for alternative community development. NEED has created a learning community, a space for new ecological voices and perspectives. The objective of this research is to see how this particular EAE model is contributing to environmental peace in Myanmar.
When I arrived on the mountain I had chapter deadlines looming for my PhD and was feeling quite stressed. During my time at Sandra’s I was able to clarify many points, and through this uninterrupted writing process give voice to my participants’ concerns as well as articulating their responses more clearly. I left with a tidier computer and a tidier mind, ready for the final push (I am due to submit in 2 months).
I feel absolutely blessed and so thankful to BREW and Sandra for giving me this opportunity and making it such a wonderful experience. Sandra is a wonderful host, knowing when to provide space and when to offer support.
I wrote this little poem on my last day.
I Have People Who Would Miss Me
I want to wander off into the seemingly endless green
Wrap myself around a tree; lay my cheek against its cool bark
I want to slip off down the sparkling stream
Slide under the water, feel the bubbles against my skin
I want to fly away into the beautiful blue sky
Soar on the wind, above the clouds in the valley below
I want to bound, from stone to stone
I want to swing in the vines
I want to curl up inside that tree
I want to sit on this rock forever
But I can’t
I have people who would miss me.
9 March 2016
Ten days on Tamborine
by Professor Darryl Jones, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University.
You don’t have to convince anyone attempting to write anything substantial – a thesis, a scientific paper, a grant application, a book – that time and solitude are literally (literary) priceless! The ragged, chaotic end to the last academic year seemed especially frantic; too much to do in too little time for too little point. The day I was able to caste it all aside and escape to Tamborine Mountain felt genuinely like liberation.
Sandra Sewell’s half-house within the towering rainforest and Eucalyptus grandis trees of the Knoll on Tamborine Mountain was ideal. Quiet (the birds and crickets ensured that it was not silent), secluded and just a little Spartan, the place was also as remote as I wished to make it. When I needed a break, turning right at the front door took me up the road into the dripping, verdant depths of the tropical rainforest, left a decent walk to the cafes and delightful library of North Tamborine village. But mostly I was more than content to hunker down over the laptop and lose myself in the task at hand.
This setting would have been ideal anyway, but the very smells and strange sounds of the place were more than just a nice place to concentrate. In a previous life (or so if seemed) I had spent several years on this mountain, searching out the secret lives of the local brush-turkeys. These remain among the most enjoyable, instructive and illuminating times of my life. To be back was more than a nice reminiscence: it seemed like an inspiring and invaluable opportunity. Whatever the mysterious reasons, it worked! I had hoped to complete an entire chapter of this book. I actually finished two, effectively and very satisfactorily, completing the whole thing.
I am immensely grateful for this eco-writers residency. Enormous thanks to BREW and especially to Sandra who knew just how much contact was needed.
Below is a section of the final chapter of The Birds at My Table, composed during my last days on the mountain.
Taking feeding wild birds seriously
The birds at my table are very impatient. I am just back from yet another trip and there has been no food on the feeder for an entire week. That was deliberate. It was difficult decision to make but in the end, I decided not to arrange for anything to be provided while I was away. Yes, I know (I can feel the emails and tweets building up already) that I broke the feeder’s Golden Rule: Once you start, don’t stop. And I did so intentionally, perhaps even defiantly. Was this blatant cruelty, willful neglect or straight-out stupidity? Don’t I care about ‘my’ birds after all? After I up-end the cup of wild bird mix, and retreat inside to watch the lorikeets jostle and grumble as I sip my coffee, I reflect on the unforeseen dangers of acquiring knowledge; sometimes the things we learn can lead us to reconsider our ideas and maybe even our actions.
This has been a long and fascinating journey, metaphorically, emotionally and physically, including a lot of air miles. Along the way I have been challenged, astonished, appalled and uplifted by what I have seen and heard. As is so often the case, when I started this journey I thought I didn’t know much about the topic; now I know that to be true. Even though I have gathered together enough material to fill a sizeable book, I am even more acutely aware of how much we don’t know about the feeding of wild birds. There must be literally hundreds of books describing how and what and where to feed birds in many countries but the amount of research investigating what this means, for people, ecosystems, landscapes and the birds themselves, is shockingly inadequate. We have barely scratched the surface of the many vital questions that need to be answered. I think that this is changing, and I hope this book pushes things along. You see, I think that there is a lot at stake here.
Your humble feeder takes on a new glow of relevance. It may simply be a way to attract nice birds or it may have a role in saving the world. Whatever its place in your life, it is most certainly more than just a place to see birds. Your feeder is one link in a gigantic chain, a strand in an enormous web, a station in a global communication network. Your private, personal action of providing food for birds changes the structure of an entire, interconnected ecosystem. Your decision to help alters the dynamics of the evolutionary process, and may assist in the process of natural selection in the form of facilitating the spread of diseases. Your feeder is connected, ultimately, to my feeder. My practices, in turn, will affect what happens at your place, eventually.
We think our feeders are for the birds. Our feeders are actually for us. But the birds don’t seem to mind. They continue to willingly bring their lives into ours by visiting, and so offer us wonder, hope, knowledge and pleasure.
6 October 2015
My residency at Blue Bucket
by Justine Philip, School of Environment and Rural Science, University of New England
On September 20 2015, I drove 7 hours north of Melbourne into New South Wales, and up the Olympic Highway. After the recent rains, I travelled through the greenest countryside I have seen in Australia. I reached Blue Bucket cabin, 27 k’s out of Young, just before sunset. This was the start of my 10-day residency with BREW, Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers.
I am into the last stretch of writing for my PhD thesis, due 9 February 2016, and arrived at Blue Bucket cabin with three years of data, a mountain of books, and a deadline on my seventh chapter due in mid October.
The thesis documents the cultural history of the Canis dingo; exploring their 5000 + year history as a go-between in the physical and spiritual worlds of the Aboriginal people, followed by a 228 year long (and still running) frontier war with agrarian society.
My research has included collecting data from archives and natural science stores in Museum’s from London to Moscow, a six week residency at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington DC, and shorter journeys within Australia. So the topic was well travelled, and it was wonderful to get a chance to sit down and write undisturbed and immersed in a protected zone adjoining the Dananbilla National Park.
The first morning I woke up to find the whole valley cloaked in low-lying clouds. Islands of trees and fields appeared as if floating above the cloud line from the cabin. This was the perfect time of year to visit – the mornings were icy, so I started each day lighting the cabins old potbelly stove to keep warm, and writing at the desk close by, overlooking country.
My thesis unearths an often-turbulent shared human-dingo history. It is over 204 years since the first “Plan for the Destruction of the Native Dogs” was announced in Sydney town – on offer was a generous bounty, one gallon of spirits in return for each complete skin of a fully grown native dog, and half a gallon of spirits for a pup skin (Sydney Gazette 18/01/1811). Supplies ran out at 80 gallons.
Since then, every tool in the pest eradication kit that can be used against the dingo, has. Poison was employed from 1814, with baits applied in increasing intensity over the following decades, to the point that the longest chapter in my thesis has been dedicated to the history of poison and dingo control.
The chapter starts with the discovery of strychnine, increases in velocity and intensity up to post-World War 2, where aerial baiting campaigns launched an unprecedented scale of lethal controls across agricultural zones, amid enthusiastic newspaper headlines:
“November 11 to be D-Day for Dingoes” (Courier Mail 1946)
“Air blitz on the dingo” (Longreach Leader 1947)
“Air war against dingo” (West Australian 1948)
“Aerial War Against Queensland Dingoes” (Canberra Times 1946)
“Record Air Raid on Dingoes” (Argus 1948)
Since 1946, millions of baits containing lethal doses of strychnine or 1080 poison have been dropped from aircraft onto breeding grounds, national parks, and vast landholdings across the continent. The most successful bait rate recorded is 715 poison baits per wild dog/dingo kill. This is considered an exceptionally good outcome economically, and for industry and the environment (Thomson 1886).
Blue Bucket provided the perfect environment to tackle this mammoth topic. The cabin nests in the buffer zone of the Dananbilla National Park. I was on my own for most of the 10 days, surrounded by a thriving population of kangaroos, echidnas, kookaburras and cockatoos, and a chorus of local cattle and sheep. Twice in ten days, my little VW enjoyed the ride up 2 k’s of dirt road to the nearest bitumen, and on to the local town for a fresh roasted organic coffee at the ‘Art of Expresso’ in Young.
Barbara’s company and hospitality was an inspiration. I caught sight of her during first three days working on her land – out chopping wood and moving fallen trees up to the conservation zone, to help retain topsoil across the rocky floor of the native pine forest.
My task was much less strenuous, I worked my way through a maize of papers and notes on toxicology and the dark arts of pest control. Barbara was nearby at her residence for the first three days, and patiently listened to my monologues at the same time as introducing me to the exceptional local red wine – at the end of my 10 day residency, I drove home via the visitors information centre in Young to purchase some impossible to find, beautiful, rare regional wine to take with back me.
The cabin was wonderful – I was far from roughing it in the wilds. It has electricity, hot water, stove, comfy armchair and double bed, so I had to make a big deal about lighting the potbelly stove each morning, collecting firewood, the outhouse, the wildlife etc. so my teenagers back home did not get the impression I was just on holiday. My phone received emails and limited contact with the cyber world too, so it was a highly productive stay.
Many thanks to Barbara Holloway for her generosity, and to the BREW committee for accepting my application for the residency and for starting such an inspired project – I am looking forward to reading all the chapters, papers and accounts that emerge from future BREW residents! Now, back to the thesis…