There is an oak tree not far from my front door, where I live in one of Canberra’s older suburbs. As it has grown, it has surpassed the borders of the property, and at some point, in concession to its age and grandeur, a new boundary fence was built to accommodate its curves. Since then, the oak tree has continued to grow, further warping and bending the blue Colourbond.
The huge tree shelters the entire yard, within which sits my studio. Much of the year it drops acorns and I lie in bed listening to them pinging off the tin roof. In autumn, it pours vast piles of leaves upon everything, which the owner of the property carts away in a trailer. Living beneath it, I am dappled with the shadows of oak leaves as I wash the dishes, watch TV or eat a meal. Brushtail possums conduct extensive and bloodthirsty military campaigns from its branches, which provide easy access to roofs and gutters.
It is a beautiful old tree. But there is also something deadening in its dominance, its apartness from this place. I wonder what was here before? What wildflowers blew in the wind on this slope before the oak took root? What grasses held the soil and what mammals, insects and birds foraged here?
Oaks were planted, as streets and house allotments were laid out, in 1920s Canberra. These were still raw new housing estates when my mother’s family moved here in the early 60s. Now, less than 100 years later, they are considered part of the grand old Canberra establishment, just a stone’s throw from Parliament House.
In the time of the Anthropocene, our surroundings reflect us. In Australia, our landscape speaks of our often confused and un-tethered place in the world, as well as the richness and destruction that are our ever-present companions.
The oak, beautiful though it is, is a legacy of attempts to impose one place on another. Even today on the outskirts of Canberra (as in many other places), landscapes are being bulldozed to make space for an ever-expanding human footprint. The destruction goes mostly unremarked because the dry grassy plains studded with scraggly gums and hardy wattles are neither dramatic nor picturesque enough to be considered significant. Instead, they’re often seen as in-between spaces, with little intrinsic value of their own.
There is a degree to which these things matter to me out of concern for the natural world – a desire that it remain intact, immaculate, incredible. But it’s about a need to quell the separateness I feel. I want to see out from the overpowering branches of the oak tree, to know my home.
Where and how does one begin such a task? The way you start any relationship – with an introduction, and a desire to learn.
Have you heard of the Austral toadflax (Thesium austral)? Listed amongst the endangered and vulnerable species of the Australian Capital Territory, it is described as a wiry-stemmed herb with white flowers. Threatened by grazing and invasive weeds, it now remains only in nature reserves. Or perhaps the pale pomaderris (Pomaderris pallida) is familiar? A small round shrub with narrow leaves covered in a dense mat of soft, star-shaped hairs. Its fruit are small three-chambered capsules, filled with black, shiny seeds.
The official lists include detailed beautiful descriptions of plants, reptiles, amphibians, and birds – the quiet exact poetry of science. For almost every entry, there is a plea for more knowledge. Many of these species – close to the ground, small of stature, are unlikely to elicit the notice of most.
One Sunday morning I join a wildflower tour in a nearby nature reserve. When I arrive, there are fifty people in Covid-19 facemasks queuing to register their attendance, more than double the 20-person attendance cap.
Reverently, gently, we tiptoe through the flowering woodlands of the nature reserve, careful not to squash minute purple fringe lilies or carnivorous rainbow sundews. Our guide points out yam daisies, native buttercups, bulbine lilies, and several rare orchid species. The pale pomaderris, whom I met amongst lists of the vulnerable online, is here in real life, a celebrity. It has finished flowering for the season, its clusters of off-white blooms dried and dull.
The tour is a lesson in how to see. The details required for identification, the characteristics that allow for survival. We hear stories and names and make associations, and so we remember. By naming and learning, we create stories of things, and so begin to see them.
Perhaps now, fifty more people will recognize the pale pomaderris and know its name. They will think of it if they encounter a shrub with small hairy leaves and clusters of white flowers and know that it is something special and rare, existing in a place where it belongs.
From the top of Red Hill the sounds of construction and demolition from the city suburbs rise to meet the hill sounds; wind, insect and bird calls thread through she-oaks. You can see Canberra’s landmarks from here, the giant flagpole of Parliament House, the chunky brutalism of national institutions, and the lake – the Molonglo River dammed and dispersed.
As a child in the 80s, I played in the bushland surrounding this hill. Then, it was just ‘the reserve’ to us and a great place for imaginary games. To many it was a no-mans-land, even a dumping ground for household rubbish.
On a cultural landscaping tour of Red Hill, Tyrone Bell, a Ngunawal elder (although the word is typically spelt Ngunnawal, Tyrone prefers this spelling, suggesting it is closer to the original pronunciation) points out evidence of ancient human presence on the hill. He picks up a stone, pointing out how it has been subtly hewn for cutting. Once people camped on the saddle beneath the hilltop, he says. He identifies plants and their uses – a plant to stun fish for easy catching, an acacia for washing, wood that makes carrying containers, and medicine plants.
As a child, I knew none of these things. The tour shifted something in me. Beyond aesthetic appreciation or the conservation value of this place, it dislodged a kind of terra nullius that still existed, unacknowledged and embarrassing, in my brain.
Intellectually, I’m very much aware of and recognize the 60,000-year habitation of the Australian continent. Yet, it is another matter to populate the spaces I know with that reality. It is another matter to feel deeply that human lives can be intimately engaged with a place through survival, a sense of belonging and loving so powerful as to exist beyond choice.
We have come a long way since my childhood. The bushland here on the hill is valued and cared for. There are signs recognising it as a precious remnant of Yellow-box Grassy-woodland and a local Landcare group has been awarded for their efforts. But are these actions part of a way of being that is itself grounded in separation appealing to a care for other rather than of self?
I have often heard the words ‘caring for Country’ and not really felt the reciprocal relationship they imply. As Tyrone Bell said that day, so simple you could miss its meaning. “The bush was like our supermarket.” The bush is filled with resources that will sustain you if you know it, care for it.
In colonial Australia, the early lie of terra nullius helped to muddy assumptions about what and how this land can sustain – a peculiar contradiction in a place that continues to harbour the oldest continuing human culture in the world. That first vital misunderstanding started, it seems to me, with an inability to see this place and value it.
Living under the oak tree, I despaired at the connections severed, the scale of the destruction wrought, and what it meant in terms of belonging to this place. Later, amongst the protected species lists online, I read about a little plant called the button wrinklewort (Rutidosis leptorrhynchoides), a small daisy with a round yellow flower.
In western Victoria, near Caramut, a single specimen was found living alone in a landscape from where it had otherwise disappeared. And people rallied. They baked cakes, raised funds, cross-pollinated, collected seeds, germinated and nurtured. A small population, seeded from that one plant, is now watched over by local farmers.
This is a love story. What else can it be? A love of place, and a need for belonging, to slowly stitch connection through seeds and earth, effort and attention. Perhaps these things – to belong and to know – are indeed necessary for our survival?
What has been lost can be hard to bear, but the land too is alive. It continues to reinvent itself, to incorporate interlopers, as it has always done.
And perhaps we too cannot help but be changed by the place we live. I have Russian and English heritage, so I bear the brunt of living under a harsher sky than my ancestors. My skin responds to the stronger sun, the dryer air by producing spots, various discolorations and moles requiring removal. Perhaps, in future generations, this predisposition for skin cancer will disappear from my bloodlines, moulded by this place, more in tune.
Sitting in the bushland of Canberra’s Mt Ainslie, I do not have digging or pollination skills to bind me to the web of relationships in this place. But I can sit and be, and describe what I see:
“Coarse-skinned casuarinas line paths carpeted with their needles and seeds like intricate wooden jewels, or tiny grenades. The pale trunks of gums glimmer from slopes covered in grasses, tethered streamers that flow with the current of the wind. Paper daisies pop out fluffy seeds to be carried away, and here and there, the blue stars of royal bluebells shine amongst the grasses.”
Words to speak of the beauty around me are what I have. I bear witness, I name with language and create meaning. Our dance of love and destruction continues. The irony of our species is that the two are bound together. As I set out to learn about the place where I live – a journey just beginning – I realise all I need to do is to pay attention for separation to fade away, and love to appear.