7 October, 2021

Day 7 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

Reeds at the edge of the lake

I walk along the edge of the lake. It’s not yet warm enough for me to startle at every rattle in the long grass, but there are creatures everywhere. I can show you photos of trees and herons and the lake, and I will. But the horizon here is speared by a mobile phone tower and sports field flood lights. Behind me is a high factory wall. And on the edges of my hearing, forklifts, a truck beeping backwards, and a Council worker with a whipper snipper.

Marion Shoard has described the ‘edgelands’ of Britain: the edges of cities, the ignored interfaces where cities meet the countryside, where factories sprawl and spill into farmland and trees are cleared for housing developments. I think the word can apply where development meets remnant bush or regenerated places. Like this one.

My first job was nearby in Bundoora, a thousand years ago on the campus that is now RMIT, before the tram reached so far out of town. I can remember that feeling of passing from established suburbs built in the 50s and 60s, with shopping strips and the odd pub, hitch-hiking from the last tram stop or trundling on the bus past Mont Park and Larundel, through more recent housing developments which clung along Plenty Road. Beyond it was countryside.

So this was once on the edge, but the city now spills well beyond this place, gobbling up Mernda and sprawling out towards Whittlesea. As Shoard writes:

Although yesterday’s interfacial zones are often swallowed up by subsequent building, sometimes they survive as edgeland within built-up areas.

‘Edgelands’, in Remaking the Landscape ed. J Jenkins, Profile Books, 2002 (p124)

I grew up in a place like that – out on the eastern edge of town, in one of those housing developments ringed by bush and old orchards and big new roads. My childhood was marked by bushfires and droughts and blackberry-picking and either mud or dust. There was a filthy creek that ran dry over summer, and horse paddocks dotted with thistles, and an old stone settler cottage where we ran wild. (It’s all beautiful now: Mullum Mullum creek is regenerated, the cottage houses the Historical Society, and like here, it is no longer the edge of the city.)

So these places feel familiar to me. They are many things at once. An edgeland can look like a rubbish dump or a forest of weeds, but it can be a refuge for wildlife and indigenous plants, an escape for people who need it, or a green or blue patch of wild. And in many places, like this, they are being brought back to beauty. Or perhaps they always have an edgy beauty (to my eyes anyway) and regeneration is more about recreating biodiversity and creating urban spaces that are truly interfaces – between people, wildlife, plantlife, aquatic life, wind, water, sky, earth. The Nangak Tamboree project calls it ‘blurring the boundaries’, and I like that idea, but it’s also informed by the Wurundjeri community’s understanding of interconnectedness.

Today, I watch a simply enormous turtle warm itself on the far bank, right next to a football field. A heron struts along the bike path, refusing to pose for a photo.

White faced heron (I think)

Later I hear the heron shouting at something and silently salute Lian Hearn for naming her novel The Harsh Cry of the Heron, because it sounds like it’s being strangled. Such elegant legs and such a honk.

It’s one of those days that my mother would call ‘brisk’ and I would call bloody freezing. A bloke rides by and asks me the name of the lake and he, like me, considers ‘Sports Field Lake’ to be somewhat inadequate. Two handsome wood ducks preen and graze in the grass right in front of me, not in the least worried when I move closer.

Wood duck

They’re not listed in my Gould League series handy pocket guide to birds. It has let me down. But I do see that I have misidentified that fantail the other day. It’s actually a Jacky Winter, which I find thrilling for some reason, perhaps because Jacky Winter sounds like a saxophonist in a jazz band and not a tiny flittery thing.

Here we all are – me, the odd jogger and cyclist, a heron, a turtle, blokes on smoko from the factories, and who knows who else is going about their business in the treetops or under the water or in the long grass. Exploring edges.


6 October, 2021

Day 6 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

I’m sitting on a fallen log by the lake. It’s a bright, clear, breezy morning after days of grey sky and rain. After something like 245 days of lockdown over two years (and I managed to get locked down in Auckland as well over summer), we could do with a bit of blue sky. Light ahead, all that.

One small but seemingly significant aspect of lockdown is extreme hair length. None of us have been to the hairdresser or barber for months. So last night I hacked off all my hair. Had to happen. And this morning, out here, my ears and forehead are cold and it’s all my own fault.

This is a favourite sitting spot. I often see people here, resting mid-ride with bikes scattered everywhere, or feeding kids in pushers. There’s a young man who often practices tai chi by the water of an evening.

Dead trees in lake

It seems to be mowing time, after the rain. I walked along freshly slashed tracks to get here. Across the lake, on the sports fields, someone’s pushing a mower, leaving stylish lime green stripes in their wake. How strange, all these not-quite abandoned places, standing empty for so long during lockdown but kept on life support until the return of the (vaccinated) hordes in slightly-too-tight sports gear.

A jogger slogs past, puffing, feet slapping on the bitumen. I feel like cheering them on.

The water glitters in the early morning light, reflections rippling up under dead tree trunks. Three ducks zoom past, arguing about something. My handy pocket guide tells me they’re Pacific black ducks, although frankly up until now all ducks look the same to me. It’s the same handy pocket guide to birds as I had when I was a teenager, though. Do birds go out of date? (Don’t worry: I also have an app.) Some, at least, are extinct – more all the time – and some have taken over the world. When I first had my handy pocket guide (Gould League series, published 1969, though I bought this 1990 edition for an entire dollar at an Op Shop), ibises were dead exotic and Mynahs hadn’t yet pushed every other bird into the margins.

I spend quite some time trying to photograph a pair of Little Lorikeets before realising that the Rainbow Lorikeets on the other branch are taking it in turns to swoop at me. They’re nesting in a hollow. Everyone’s got the swoops lately. I move back so they don’t have to worry.

Rainbow lorikeet

A decent nesting hollow is as valuable as beachside real estate. They take years to develop. Here, and all through the parks around the area, trees are dotted with nesting boxes to compensate for all the nesting hollows lost in land clearing years ago. There are different designs for different birds and creatures (I have one at home for microbats).

nesting box high on a eucalypt

This one’s been colonised by bees. Not great for the intended occupant, but it does make an excellent mini-hive.

I’m sure they’re very cosy if you’re a possum or flying fox or rosella. It seems a sad business to be making plywood boxes when you could have just left the trees in the first place. But that’s where we are now – regenerating vegetation that’s been lost, cleaning up waterways, reintroducing species and keeping them safe.

See? Light ahead.

Familiar & unfamiliar places

5 October 2021

Day 5 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

What does it mean to know a place?

Are there places you really know?

And what does that knowing feel like?

At the weekend, I rode my bike around Port Melbourne. That’s where I was born, where I lived – all of us together in my grandparents’ house – for the first part of my life. Everyone we knew lived within a couple of hundred yards and we were related to half of them. All our family stories revolved around Port. I knew it better than I’ve ever known any place. It’s still lovely, but I don’t know it anymore. Our old house is done up and fancy and worth millions. They all are. The factories where my grandparents once worked have been turned into apartments where I couldn’t afford to live. But they knew that place, deep in their souls. Never lived anywhere else. It was part of them. It’s part of me, too, but in memory.

So maybe knowing places is about memory as well as about now.

I’ve lived in lots of places, different cities, different landscapes, even different countries. I’ve felt at home in places and homesick, unsettled and excited. There are different types of knowing.

One of the great nature writers, Nan Shepherd, lived most of her life in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, walked out on the mountain in all weathers, and watched them season on season, from the highest peak to the smallest insect. She felt, walked, listened her way into the mountains. And she wrote them, and in the writing was her knowing – or a way into knowing. And in the writing, she made one of the best books about a place: The Living Mountain.

On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of travel books by people who feel they know a place well enough after a few days or weeks to write a whole book about it (spoiler: they don’t).

Here, I walk on colonised land and the idea of knowing places is complex and conflicted. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have different traditions of knowing and being with country and in the past the way that has been privileged has been the European tradition – seeing country as landscape, or more often as resource. That’s changing. It has to.

I’ll write more about that another time. For now, what I’m trying to do is slow down and really look – for moments, for telling details – and feel my way into this place that I don’t know at all: Nangak Tamboree.

Rain drops on casuarina leaves


4 October 2021

Day 4 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

I walked quite a long way today: from home, meandering along the Darebin Creek to the Sports Field Lake, then almost completely around a huge section of grassland that’s fenced off for plant regeneration. work. I thought I could circumnavigate it, but there’s been so much rain I couldn’t get through the watery sections closest to the sports grounds. These are, after all, wetlands. And it is very wet.

But one advantage of that – more frogs! (This time featuring the distant roar and rattle of the Plenty Road tram for a touch of authentic Melbourne.)

This is the area I barely knew was here before a few weeks ago – I certainly didn’t register how enormous it is. It runs from the Darebin Creek bike path turn-off and pedestrian bridge through to Plenty Road. The majority of it is grassy Eucalypt woodland, spreading over undulating hills from lake to creek.

Stump in foreground, grassy woodland

It’s not untouched, by any means. It seems to me there’s an old house site at the top of the hill – perhaps a farmhouse – as there are old pine and fruit trees circling. Further down near the creek, you can see fragments of rusted metal sticking out of the mud – perhaps where cars were dumped decades ago. I skirted around what must be a huge pile of landfill, perhaps dug out for the lake or sports grounds years ago.

Galah in tree

There was nobody at all around, besides the usual feathered suspects (rainbow lorikeets, magpies), a galah nesting in a high hollow, dusky woodswallows, and some kind of thornbill in the paperbarks by the creek. I had to remind myself to stop and write instead of wandering about staring at things and wondering.

But I am wondering, so now I’m off to absorb a bit more history of these places.


3 October, 2021

Day three of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s swooping season here.

In other words, it’s magpie nesting time, when eggs and young must be defended at all costs from interlopers.

Swooping season was never a thing when I was a kid, even though magpies were everywhere near our house. I first remember hearing about it from people who grew up in Canberra, where children apparently lived in terror of springtime and everyone had a theory about how to prevent your eyes being plucked from your head by a marauding maggie.

I have been swooped a few times since, and it is freaky. But you know what is deeply unnerving? Being watched solemnly by dozens of magpies as you walk along. They’re on the ground. You’re way bigger than they are. They don’t care. They don’t shuffle aside. They follow you along the creek path to make sure you keep walking. Move along, pathetic human. This is our place.

So you do.

Don’t look back.

Darebin Creek track, on my way to Nangak Tamboree

But generally speaking, when they’re not psyching me out or swooping at my head, I love magpies. Most countries have birds called magpies, but they aren’t as gnarly as ours. And they don’t sound the same.

The carolling of magpies is one of the most familiar sounds of my childhood, along with a cricket broadcast on a distant radio and suburban lawn mowers. When I first moved back to Melbourne after a few years in NZ, I woke up and heard the magpies and wept. (In NZ you wake up to the distinctive warble of the tui, which is beautiful but not the same thing.)

If you’ve never heard it, here’s an adolescent magpie carolling by the creek. It has a few friends in the background.