The last day

31 October, 2021

Day 31 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Back at the edge of the Sports Field Lake. I’ve been coming here to Nangak Tamboree to write now for an entire month. I didn’t know, at the start, how or even if it would work out. By about day three I decided I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I settled into a rhythm.

It hasn’t always been easy. This month of writing coincided with an extremely stressful and far too busy time, so some days I’ve resented having to come here and other days my visits have been far too brief. Some days I’d think in advance about where to go (like walking the moat or visiting the Wildlife Sanctuary) and even a topic to think about (like the sculptures), but most of the time I simply wander off and see what happens.

I’ve seen and spoken to people working hard and thinking deeply about this place and how to work with it to make it more open for more people, and safer and healthier for more creatures and more local plantlife. I’ve watched the many ways people and wildlife use it already.

Tree by the water

In this month, the acacia and melaleuca bloomed and faded, tadpoles hatched, nests are full of fledglings, and the wallaby grass is throwing up seed heads. Of course, the weeds and introduced grasses are shooting up everywhere too. It’s going to take years to manage this area of Nangak Tamboree into a revegetated, welcoming space. If the work already done around the Gresswell Ponds, Fozzie’s Waterhole, and along the moat is any indication, it’s in good horticultural hands, along with the wisdom and energy of the Narrap Rangers. Other parts of the Nangak Tamboree project may not seem quite so glamorous, like digging holes in the car parks to install reed beds for storm water drainage, but it’s specialist work, and all for the greater good. Cleaner waterways make for happier turtles.

I’ve learned a great deal in this last month: how to identify different ducks (although I still can’t tell one pigeon from another); about flax lilies and fairy wrens and darters; about storm water courses and aquatic plants; and about walking and stillness. I can tell wallaby and kangaroo grass apart (I think), and all this bird-spotting has rekindled a childhood love. My camera failed early on so I’ve had to use my phone, and its inadequacy in the zoom department has spurred me on to think about the kinds of photos I want to take when we’re back out in the world (and order a new camera).

I’ve learned a little about the recent history of the area, which I’ll continue to research. I’ve learned that I have too many projects at once and need to calm the fuck down, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me – several of whom have been telling me that for years. On the other hand, if you teach at a university, you are meant to have a lot on. And on yet another hand, which is exactly what I need, everything is so fascinating and I have ideas bouncing around in my head all the time.

But I hope I don’t lose the slowness of walking and writing practice. And slow reading, for that matter. This month I’ve also been slowly rereading War and Peace, my favourite book, as part of #TolstoyTogether, a global shared lockdown reading project. I tried it last year and then got so carried away with the story I raced ahead. Typical. This year I am trying very hard to only read the day’s allotted chapters. (We’re up to 1812, and the war is heading towards Bald Hills – this is the real test of my commitment.)

So here we are at the end of the month and the end of lockdown. I can walk here today without a mask. Everyone says we’ll soon be back to normal. (By that, I don’t even mean the idea of ‘COVID-normal’ embraced by politicians.) But we won’t or at least we shouldn’t. Because we know and see the world differently now. Instead of getting back to normal, let’s remember the small pleasures and daily lessons of hyperlocal living.

Today, a cormorant drying its wings on one log, a darter on another. Little lorikeets hopping along a branch. The drum band at their rehearsal in the bush. An ant crawling across the page of my notebook. The water glittering in the setting sun. The breeze rippling the lake. Corella cries. Spring warmth.

Peace.

Dead trees in lake, sun behind them

Calm after the storm

30 October, 2021

Day 30 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

A perfect, almost-still morning in Nangak Tamboree, after the wildness of the past 48 hours.

Path walking towards the lake, edged by trees and long grass

It’s the second-last day of this little writing project, and I’m revisiting a couple of favourite spots – places I will continue to visit. Today’s it’s the ‘beach’ at the top of Sports Field Lake, but there’s only one chair left here. The other one has probably been blown across to Altona, like that flying trampoline. I can hear the sounds of an actual sports team training on the other side of the water. Haven’t heard that for a while.

Oh, no – I see the missing chair. I recognise that glimpse of slender grey bar sticking out of the water. I grab a stick and retrieve it from the lake. It’s not quite Excalibur, but I feel triumphant nevertheless, and lean it up against a tree trunk, where it drips water in a channel through the dirt.

Coots duck and surface, and startle away from me. Fair enough. Across the water, my old friend the Darter is drying his feathers on a fallen tree trunk and shouting at the sky every so often.

Another Darter, a female this time, with caramel feathers, surfaces quite close by and I see now why they are also called Snakebirds. She vanishes and must move fast underwater, because her long neck and dagger-like beak emerge many metres away. She launches herself into the air while her body and wings are still submerged, becoming half-bird, half-waterfall, then drags her feet across the surface before taking flight in an elegant arc across the lake.

View through acacia shrubs across the lake to the island.

There are so many fallen trees and branches down across the state, and this place is no exception. But so many other things have changed in the time I’ve been coming here to write. Lockdown is over now and today is the first day we are allowed to leave the city. So soon, we’ll hit the road to (at last!) get up to my little place in the country to check on it, do some fire season preparation, and spend the night. It feels extraordinary to go somewhere that is not the same as every other night for the past many months. Again. I remember this feeling from this time last year though, and I’m not going to fall for that optimism again. Anything could still happen with this pandemic.

We’ve gone, in the past month of me walking and writing here, from an enforced five kilometre limit to ten kilometres, to 25 kilometres, to the city boundaries, to the state borders. Our horizons keep changing, like a cinematic zoom.

But let’s not forget these little local spaces we’ve explored in such detail while we’ve stayed so close to home.

I’ll be back tomorrow to say goodbye. But I guess I won’t really leave Nangak Tamboree.

Sign showing the way to the university and the creek

Thunderbolts

28 October, 2021

Day 28 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

This is the sound of an extremely silly person walking in the bush in a thunderstorm.

Sound of rain and thunder

Half an hour earlier, I was safely at home in my study, on a Zoom call with colleagues all over the state, and everyone watching the rain radar for the storm that was about to hit.

‘I’d better go,’ I said with a carefree laugh, ‘or I’ll be walking in the rain.’

Hilarious. I head to campus to walk through yet another area of bush that I drive past often and never visit. We have so many areas like this – stretches of thick bush that aren’t on the way to anywhere in particular. Some appear almost like glorified nature strips, until you stop to look, and wander through, and then you realise how expansive, how diverse, how precious they are.

Which is how I come to be walking through the North Bushland Reserve, which also comes under the same Trust for Nature conservation covenant as the Wildlife Sanctuary. It adjoins the Sanctuary but my previous reading of the Nangak Tamboree map had me thinking that it was inside the fence – not this familiar forest I drive by so often.

Looking up at trees from the road
View from the campus ring road

I know, I get my terms confused at times, but Nangak Tamboree doesn’t mean the whole campus, just the waterways and the wildlife corridors. So I imagined this area was out of my scope, as it were, until yesterday. Sitting behind it are the Terraces, formerly part of the Mont Park complex and now among our more elegant buildings – and doubling as a COVID-19 vaccination centre. There’s a great potted history of some of these buildings here. If you want to read more about the Mont Park complex, you’ll have to wait, as I have borrowed every book I can find from the university library.

Old, handsome, red brick buildings
The terraces

Yesterday I realised I’d missed this bit, so here I am in the bush. Forest. Copse? If the pond up the road can be a lake, this can be a forest. If it was in France or England it’d be a wood. Anyway, it’s thickly forested, and wooded, and bushy, so you can take your pick. And it seems to me to be slightly different vegetation from other areas. It’s relatively higher ground here and perhaps drier, with lots of acacia, younger eucalypts, maybe melaleuca and hakea.

And a great many fallen trees. Acacias don’t live long, and they do have a habit of falling over. Eucalypts have a habit of dropping branches – widow makers – as anyone who is still living with the emotional scars of reading Seven Little Australians knows only too well.

So I’m tripping gaily along a narrow path, when the heavens open. That’s fine – I’ve brought my rain jacket. Then thunder starts pounding overhead, close. Too close. Lightning glitters against bruised clouds.

And the trees start moaning.

They can do that, you know.

Spooky bush

Don’t worry. I survived. Clearly.

Now I’m sitting in my car in good old car park 6, in damp clothes and boots, scribbling this. It has to be the least scenic writing place so far in the 28 days of writing Nangak Tamboree.

But that was a truly excellent storm and I’m not all that sorry I got caught in it. And we have at least solved one question: the area will now forever be known as Moaning Tree Forest.

Sanctuary

27 October, 2021

Day 27 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

At last! The missing link in the waterways.

Like most of Melbourne, the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary has been closed for weeks – months. But as an outdoor space, with no contact required of visitors, it has been able to re-open this week.

The Sanctuary is as old as the university, which just tells you everyone had their priorities straight from the beginning. It spreads over 30 hectares and is now protected by a Trust for Nature conservation covenant. The land was once a farm, then part of Mont Park, and includes areas that were once recreation facilities for the patients, like a croquet lawn and cricket oval. That means that while the vegetation now looks substantial, much of it has been reintroduced.

But there are some truly magnificent and very old trees.

Huge old red gum
River Red Gum, estimated to be 450 years old

The older trees are mostly River Reds, but there are also stands of Ironbarks, Manna Gums and what might be Red Box – many of which, I imagine, are around fifty years old and were planted in the early years of the sanctuary. The regeneration work goes on – there are quite a few areas fenced off to protect the flora inside.

When you visit a wildlife sanctuary, you are on the lookout for creatures, right? And I guess I am, but I don’t seem able to concentrate on peering into bushes or focusing binoculars. There are all the usual avian suspects of course, croaking and squeaking and quacking, and I do spot a brushtail possum’s brushtail poking out the hole of a nesting box that is possibly not intended for someone their size.

But it’s actually the trees that are the show-stoppers here, even the younger, possibly self-sown, eucalypts and maleleucas, underlined by local grasses and swathes of goodenia, everlasting daisies, and pomaderris in bloom.

Path through scrub

And of course the waterways. Again, these were dug as part of the creation of the university, and creeks are channelled between them, but I imagine these were planned following natural water courses or seasonal creek beds. So this is the core of Nangak Tamboree, the connected waterways running down from the high ground in Gresswell Nature Reserve and Gresswell Hill, into the alleged lakes at the bottom of the Wildlife Corridor, gathering run-off from the lower slopes on the old hospital site, through the Sanctuary, into the campus moat, where it combines with a creek running underground (now) from Bundoora park, into the campus lake system, and down to the Darebin Creek.

If you can’t visualise it as a system, here’s my little Google map of writing sites.

The sanctuary has its own system of waterways: two waterholes out the front, the reddish pond I admired through the fence yesterday, expansive swampland, and a series of lakes and connecting creeks, with – you won’t believe it – names like Main Lake and Eastern Swamp. (Seriously, someone has to get onto naming all of these waterways properly. That makes two Main Lakes at one university. And name them after trees or creatures, not former Deans. Or maybe ask the Wurundjeri Elders if they would like to put words to them.)

Swamp with trees and reeds
Eastern Swamp

The names may be prosaic, but the waterways are lovely to look at, and are home to endangered Dwarf Galaxia and other fish and eels, a gazillion frogs, and many waterbirds, as well as of course providing water to everyone else who lives here or passes through the bio-corridor, from bats and flying foxes to wallabies and pardalotes. (All I see are a few ducks and a pair of coots diving in the reeds.) In one spot, I walk along an ‘isthmus’ (I definitely approve of that name) with Main Lake on one side, and on the other, a waterhole filled with Water Ribbons (Cycnogeton procerum) while on its banks a line of Manna Gums shed their own ribbons of bark.

Now that’s poetic.

Main lake, ringed with trees
Main Lake (no, not that Main Lake, the other one)

Billabongs & ponds

26 October, 2021

Day 26 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s the last few days of my time walking and writing here, so I headed off with a plan to walk along a neglected stretch of the waterway. But:

A) I failed.

B) Of course, it isn’t neglected, it’s only me who has neglected it.

This is the water that curls like an offshoot of the campus moat, around the back of the Sports Centre, flows under the circle road and ends up in a pond in the Wildlife Sanctuary (which, oh joy, oh rapture, has re-opened so I’ll be visiting in the next few days). It begins with the Infamous Overflowing Lake. I expect it is linked below ground with the moat, as there are suspicious mounds leading from one to the other. They could be Viking burial mounds, or drains. Hard to tell.

Infamous Overflowing Lake
Infamous Overflowing Lake

The plan was to walk around the north of the lake/pond/billabong, because I know the way is blocked on the other bank by Sports Centre fences. But no. It’s blocked on both sides now, because the car park next to it hosts a COVID-19 testing station. It’s not busy yet, but there’s usually a long queue of cars – I’ve been in that queue several times myself. (The car park on the other side is now used for the COVID-19 vaccination clinic; both good uses of public property in a crisis.)

It turns out, though, that this is a very pleasant place in which to be prevented from walking any further. There are picnic tables and, like the rest of the campus, it’s beautifully landscaped – here with grasses and great patches of Brachyscome multifida, or the purple cut-leaf daisy, with its almost permanent happy wee flowers. On the bank, a cormorant stretches its wings in the early morning sun, and lorikeets, as usual, sweep low overhead. All these spaces I never use or even stop to admire. I vow to come back often when we return to campus.

I’m thinking about this cultural walk I did a few years ago in the middle of the Melbourne CBD, along the river bank. It was led by Dean Stewart, to introduce people to the Indigenous history of Birrarung, or the Yarra River. I learned a great deal from Dean, but today I reflect on one thing he said: he shows people old drawings of the south bank of the river, before it was filled in and built over, and asks them to describe it. Older people say it looks like a swamp. Kids say it’s wetland. How our perceptions change over a generation.

And in a country often suffering through extended drought, you’d think we’d be more careful with wetland. As we are here.

Cormorant stretching in front of water

Anyway, no luck walking this way. I retrace my steps past the Sports Centre (empty but soon to re-open, when hopefully my fencing club starts training again – nature is healing!) and cut down a driveway I’ve passed a million times, past the tennis courts and a stunning row of callistemon in full scarlet glory. To my right are some nondescript buildings I never knew existed until COVID meant our mail didn’t get delivered to the office any more and we had to find it ourselves, somewhere over here. I climb over a bank, which I suspect doubles as a levee. On the left, the rock climbing wall. All those people who were inspired by the Olympic rock climbing will be hitting that hard in the weeks to come.

Beyond the bank is the other end of the Infamous Overflowing Lake, and the sounds of very happy frogs. I walk to the end and discover a very impressive-looking something-or-other. I have no idea, but I’m going to say it’s a local version of the Thames Barrier. Or at least Eildon Weir. Here, I assume, because I’m not volunteering to dive in and check, the water flows under the Thames Barrier and the road and into the billabong on the other side, which is in the Wildlife Sanctuary.

Once, a few years ago, I saw an echidna waddling across the road right here.

It’s too early to go in, so I just stare through the fence into the sanctuary. It’s shady by the banks and the normal muddiness of the water is accentuated by some kind of red algae or other growth. It’s quite pretty, for algae.

Muddy waterhole
The pale headless blur on the log is a Darter

Nowadays, I always glance at the water here as I drive past, after a few trips to South Africa where every waterhole is a wildlife-viewing adventure. As if I’m going to see elephants bathing or at least roos drinking, but there’s never anything.

Or so I think. I walk along the fence and disturb a Darter. She flaps across the top of the water and settles on a tree branch, away from the pesky walking creature trying to take photos through cyclone wire. And who can blame her?

Signs

25 October, 2021

Day 25 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Sign completely covered in graffiti

I think this sign, which is very small and surrounded by long grass, tells us we are not allowed to fish, swim, paddle canoes, or … I don’t know, maybe waterski? surf ski? on the university lake system. Maybe it’s diving, which frankly I wouldn’t recommend either, because I’m sure the water is filled with dead tree trunks and I have no idea how deep it is.

Needless to say, I’ve seen people doing most of those things, although not until recently, and they can’t be blamed given the state of the signage. When I visited Nangak Tamboree a few weeks ago, on a lovely spring day, a family was paddling happily along the banks of the Sports Field Lake in an inflatable canoe, and three people were fishing (one coarse fishing, which you don’t see often here). I’ve certainly noticed a few kids swimming here over summer, and some just the other week. I’ve written about the uses we make of open spaces, but we also make use of open waterways. Even little lakes like these.

I have seen a couple of whopper fish leap here, but just out of the corner of my eye. I suspect they might be carp. Vermin fish for most of us, but apparently fine if you know how to cook them properly. I’ve seen plenty of tadpoles and in a sign of deep maturity resisted catching them and carrying them around in a jar. I bet there are eels and yabbies in the system too. I could ask someone, but if they answered with really intriguing information, like, ‘Oh yes, we’ve been stocking the lakes with golden perch as an aquaculture experiment,’ I might be tempted to get out my fishing rod, and unfortunately I can’t pretend I haven’t seen the sign.

There’s another No Fishing sign, and it’s my favourite, because it’s right out in the middle of the lake on an island where nobody would ever see it. (I took this with my zoom camera.)

'No fishing' sign

So really, you’d have to be swimming or paddling your canoe in an unauthorised manner already to know that you weren’t allowed to go fishing.

Luckily, staring at the water for hours is permitted, and indeed encouraged.

Apparently they used to have raft races and all sorts of shenanigans on the campus moat. In spite of the lack of warning signs, nobody seems to be tempted nowadays, though who knows what students in the residences get up to after hours. But since there’s a perfectly lovely pool in the sports centre, I guess the brownish duck-infested moat is not as alluring as it might once have been. Or students are not as daring.

But this is the sign that first caught my attention, tied to two star pickets hammered in to the earth by the side of the bike path. It explains what Nangak Tamboree is and means, what it’s for, and also about the cultural burning carried out by the Narrap Rangers.

I am very fond of an information panel (especially in a cute little kiosk with a map), labels in museums, interpretative signs (there are some further down the creek telling you which birds to look for), and hokey little panels remembering people or events. Apparently the Nangak Tamboree project will eventually involve a great many interpretive panels and I am totally here for it. My favourites are those along the Yarra River, in Heidelberg and out in Eltham and Warrandyte, featuring the Heidelberg School and other artists and the scenes they painted right where they painted. (Actually, my favourite in the world are along the site of the old Berlin Wall, but that’s another story.)

I am not as fond of signs ordering you about, but I do appreciate how the signs around here are a bit half-hearted, like maybe we’d rather you didn’t fish or paddle your canoe, but we don’t really mind that much, and certainly not enough to put up new signs all the time if they get tagged.

But seriously, don’t dive.

Empty places

24 October, 2021

Day 24 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s late Sunday afternoon on an empty university campus.

Lockdown is (mostly) over. Semester 2 is over. There’s nobody here at all. Not even the turtle.

It’s not much of a day for picnics, I admit. It’s also the first weekend that people have been allowed to visit one another at home, so nobody needs to sit around in the cold wind on soggy lawns any more, unless they want to. And will they want to?

A couple of people stroll past, but it’s nothing like it was a couple of weeks ago, with cyclists and joggers and little knots of people eating or playing cards or throwing frisbees.

Theatre steps and stage looking across moat to buildings
View from the cheap seats at the Moat Theatre – that’s my office window, way up top in the background.

I reckon the pandemic has changed our relationship to public spaces. When all you can do is walk up and down or go to the supermarket, when public and community spaces like libraries and pools are closed, when social spaces like sports competitions and choir practice are cancelled, and when cultural spaces like theatres and bookshops and cinemas are shut, where do you go? When you work from home, or can’t work, what even is a workplace?

And what do you miss?

How do we use the spaces we have, the spaces we’ve barely seen, the spaces we’ve discovered? The spaces we’re totally sick of seeing? And what will happen next?

Of course, the way we use places is always changing. This morning I leafed through a book called Lost Melbourne, which is fascinating and full of brilliant photos, but also sad, thinking – especially just now – of all the beautiful old buildings pulled down over the last few years. Last week, they knocked down the old Theosophical Society building in Russell Street, dammit, to build a hotel. I wonder what the Melbourne CBD looks like now: last time I was there, months ago, there were already so many shopfronts plastered with ‘To Lease’ signs and dark, empty restaurants, but also new tower buildings that I swear have popped up while we’ve all been at home.

This is Wurundjeri country and it was never ceded, but has changed beyond recognition. Only a few glimpses of what it once was remain, in Nangak Tamboree and Gresswell Nature Reserve. Once it was once a dairy farm for a hospital and now it’s a university, and has been for fifty years.

Enormous red gum stump
Truly massive and ancient River Red Gum stump by the moat (honestly, it’s as big as a truck)

The Port factory where my grandparents worked is now apartments. The South Melbourne Market, where they took me shopping, pushing a repurposed pram loaded with potatoes and lettuces, has been reinvented as a sophisticated foodie destination. Once, your choice was a bucket of chips or a jam doughnut (an excruciating choice, mind you, normally solved by Pop buying us both while Nan wasn’t looking). I live in the old Olympic Village, which was turned into public housing after the 1956 Games, and now ugly townhouses are popping up everywhere – on the positive side, it’s also a Transition Community.

Lockdown felt like it would never end, but it has. The pandemic changed everything at once and then for months felt like nothing would ever change. And then did that all over again. It’s not surprising none of us remember what day it is any more. In the time since I decided to walk and write in this place each day as part of my daily exercise in deep lockdown, we’ve moved from being restricted to five kilometres from home, to being allowed to exercise pretty much anywhere, and leave home for any reason … or no reason.

Now I think about it, we might even be able to work back on campus by the end of the month. Maybe.

Soon it won’t be empty any more.

Tangled branches against a cloudy sky

Habitat matters

23 October, 2021

Day 23 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Beyond the Nangak Tamboree creek-side revegetation area, huge fences have gone up. They’re starting work on the next tranche of sports developments.

I’m told that the new complex being purpose-built for the Matildas is re-using the former golf range on Plenty Road, abutting the cemetery. That seems like sensible recycling of land that hasn’t been public for years. It’s already flat and the old growth was cleared away years ago.

But next to it, where I stand today, even with its weeds and deposits of old junk and hills of dirt dug up elsewhere and dumped, this is a wilder place. There are many generations of trees, indigenous grasses and shrubs, and it’s home to all kinds of creatures. Right now, up on this hillock, I can hear dozens of frogs, and red-browed finches and red-rumped parrots are feeding in the long grass around me.

It might have been regenerated, like the area inside the fence. But instead it is being flattened out and turned into yet more sports fields, this time for the State Rugby Centre.

This is the area I walked through the other day with Tony, the project manager, and he explained the many careful processes that have been put in place for the redevelopment. So I know that each tree in this area has been audited by an arborist, and the plants surveyed by experts. That the clumps of endangered Matted Flax-Lily can only be dug up, propagated and replanted following a three-year approval process and careful consideration. That before any trees are knocked down, zoologists will come to relocate any creatures who live in them. That nesting hollows can be removed intact and relocated into other trees or to the Wildlife Sanctuary. That trunks are kept for habitat in waterways. That several key precious trees will be kept, and designs will revolve around them. That any trees removed will be offset either by planting elsewhere in Nangak Tamboree or on campus, or elsewhere in a formal offset program. That the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri-WoiWurrung people, have been consulted and are advising on cultural heritage and awareness. That the design will feature careful landscaping and bring people to the area to enjoy the adjoining bushland, lakes and creek even more.

I also know that many big developments don’t bother with any of that, but this project team genuinely worries about all of these issues. And that the Nangak Tamboree waterways and revegetation project is a massive reparation process.

I get all that.

And yet…

And yet…

Offsets are not habitat.

Sports precincts for elite sports are not public spaces. (But universities are.)

Consultation is not the same as rights.

Mitigating loss is never as good as preventing it in the first place.

Tube stock planted now will not be wildlife habitat for years – maybe decades.

Remnant bush, even if a bit dodgy, is rare and precious.

Footy fields are not.

(And I say that as someone from a serious sporting family.)

waterhole, grasslands, trees.

That’s all. It’s going to happen. It is already happening.

It’s not really anything to do with me, but it makes me sad.

Heating up

22 October, 2021

Day 22 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Still and warm this morning – feels like summer is finally on its way. It’s the kind of day that has you checking under the log before sitting down, and has people in fire-prone areas cleaning out gutters and revving up the brush cutter. A cap and sunblock morning. A first day out of lockdown morning. There aren’t many people around. I imagine they’re all getting their hair cut and having breakfast in cafes for the first time in months.

Lake surrounded by trees.

I pass the Council rangers on the walk here, getting ready to burn weeds in Banyule North Grasslands.

‘Good day for it,’ they say. I ask them how they go about the work, and they tell me they don’t do spot burns of individual perennial weeds, but rather patches in between ‘the good stuff.’ (I wish they’d come sort out those pesky ash trees that keep reappearing in my garden.)

On the way back, I watch them for a while, as they move slowly in a widening circle out from where they’ve previously planted ‘good stuff’ like kangaroo grass and everlasting daisies. You’d hardly know they were burning, as it generates very little smoke, and even though it’s warm the grasslands are pretty soggy underfoot and the grasses have not yet died off. It’s not a cultural burn, I don’t think, as those are usually in autumn, but the Council recognising ancient practices for managing vegetation in this country.

In between, I’m sitting on the good old fallen log beside Sports Field Lake, counting birds and trying to school myself on different types of ducks and pigeons. I’m not bad on ducks now, but pigeons, I’m sorry, all look alike, unless their hair sticks up in which case I can spot the difference.

In the dead tree beside me I can see at least four nesting hollows – one pair of galahs, two for Rainbow Lorikeets, and one for Mynas. There are more promising-looking hollows, but nobody has poked a head out of those yet. And that’s just one tree. Trees are bloody good, aren’t they? Should be more of ’em. It’s basically an entire apartment complex of the avian world, with panoramic views and pool.

The lake water’s muddy, but apparently quite clean. It seems even more opaque than usual after all the rain, which is excellent for reflections. I mean, what more can you ask of a lake, really?

Lake with dead tree and reflection

Caring for the land

21 October, 2021

Day 21 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

There’s always someone caring for the land around here.

Most of the time when I walk along the creek, there are Council rangers on either Darebin or Banyule bank (or both), and workers mowing or slashing or spraying or whipper snipping. A couple of days ago, I passed two ute-loads of rangers out on the Banyule North Grasslands who were hand-weeding around newly planted patches of kangaroo grass – with those little pokey things we use in our veggie patches. Slowly, carefully, lovingly.

You can see generations of care all around here. There are callistemon planted along the banks (I’m not sure I’d choose them for that spot, but it must have been years ago) and further south a truly impressive bank of hedge wattle and prickly Moses. Both are far too symmetrical to be natural, but they are lovely, and the wattles, in particular, are home to many small birds.

Wattles in flower

I found this terrific short video about Friends of Darebin Creek and the Sweepers who pick up other people’s rubbish. It’s worth a look, even if only to get some great footage of the creek, but also a timely reminder about what flows along with all the storm water we’ve had lately.

But I’m not down there today. I’m at the other end of Nangak Tamboree, in Gresswell Forest Nature Reserve – in fact, technically it’s not part of Nangak Tamboree, but it is, if you like, the other end of the eco-system that Nangak Tamboree connects. A few days ago I walked through the Wildlife Corridor that connects to this area, and today I’ve come to walk in the Reserve itself, which is much bigger and fenced off to protect the wildlife. It is obviously popular with the locals, who are strolling, jogging and exploring along wide, well-maintained tracks, and with the birdlife, which is so prodigious I don’t know where to look next.

It’s remnant bush, but very different to the creekside: higher ground mostly, although there are still tiny creeks running through it into wetland areas. Scrub, rather than grassland, with Hop Goodenias as big as a car rambling under tremendous old eucalypts – Yellow Box alongside the Red and Manna Gums. Fallen branches are left where they land for habitat.

Yellow flowering bush under tall trees

In fact, I’ve never seen the Goodenia so big, and I’m thinking now I may have made a strategic error with the two I planted in my front garden last year. Another example of care: my council runs a Gardens for Wildlife program, where they tell you all about local flora and fauna, help you design your garden, give you a plant voucher and a nesting box, and empower people to care for threatened or precious species by creating habitat. Which is a backyard version of what we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks.

And people do care for places by being here respectfully. Of course the workers and volunteers have a program of maintenance, weed management and revegetation. Wildlife volunteers and local vets and refuges care for injured creatures. But we all help by walking here, admiring everything, noticing if something’s wrong or hurt, logging birds or bugs in citizen science counts, or simply keeping to the tracks. We help by not wrecking the joint, taking our rubbish home, not killing anything. A low bar, I know, but it’s progress.

Yesterday, walking past the Nangak Tamboree revegetation area, I met Glenn, one of the Wurundjeri Narrap Rangers who are managing the cultural burns in the area, and advising on the project. (They were meant to burn yesterday but there’s been so much rain it’s been postponed.) It was Glenn who suggested moving the Frog Hollow. The last couple of weeks, the Narrap Rangers have been out spraying the invasive introduced grass with an agent that dries it off, ready to burn. They burn in patches, controlled and careful. We’ve heard a lot more about the wisdom of indigenous fire management since the 2020 bushfires, but this is gentle but dramatically effective weed management, blending scientific and cultural knowledge. He told me how the Flax Lilies had come back after the initial burn, and that kangaroo and wallaby grass would spread down the hill and re-establish itself quickly. He reckons it’ll take three to five years to get it how they want it.

Glenn said he’d spotted a brown snake the other day, near the ‘mother tree’, and as a former snake catcher he picked it up to have a good look. His colleagues apparently weren’t quite so enthusiastic, and since a brown can kill you about ten times over I’m not surprised. Rare around here, he reckons, but tigers are everywhere. He says all this with a grin I have seen on snake catchers before – they love snakes almost as much as how talking about snakes makes other people squirm. He also said there were roos in the area, though I haven’t seen any – that’s not surprising in all this high spring grass. They are pretty good at not being seen. I’ve seen them on campus from time to time, in the evenings, and once all the way down the creek near Darebin railway station. But never here.

Which brings me back to today. I’m sitting on a bench by the track, thinking over the past few days, when something thumps gently in the bush next to me, and I look up into the eyes of an Eastern Grey. Some people come along, chatting away happily, and it startles, and leaps off into the bush, followed by a friend I hadn’t even seen.

Kangaroo in scrubland

Even when you’re writing, don’t forget to look up.