Recreating the Country blog
‘As Parwon sat he could hear the music of his land, it was from the present and it was from the dreamtime. The music was a symphony, it was all around him and it was always there. The music was his home and filled him with calm and a profound joy’. ‘Seeds the Chronicle’ unpublished
Listen to the symphony
If you stand quietly next to a big old tree you too can hear the symphony. Its woodwind instruments are the breeze through the leaves, the creaking of huge limbs provide the percussion and its chorus of birds are the string and brass instruments.
Indigenous Australians could hear more subtle resonances of plants that enabled them to identify individual species from their unique sound. This remarkable skill was enhanced by their deep connection to the natural world and their ecological humility.
In our ancestral past we too had an ecological humility. We viewed all living things as equal beings that were part of our community. All life forms, no matter how small, were respected, protected and valued. This was the time of ‘animism’, a time before humans placed themselves at the pinnacle of creation and all other life forms became commodities that could be exploited.
Deep Ecologist John Seed argues that modern humans have created an illusion of separation and a belief that we can profit from the destruction of our own life support systems. He has developed practices to help people connect with nature. Click here to read about the philosophy of deep ecology
Adopting a position of humility and a willingness to put other thoughts from our minds is important if we want to hear the symphony in an old tree and connect more fully with nature. Our other senses also help us connect to the living environment.
A sense of awe - the sixth sense?
Standing under an ancient tree and looking up into its spreading branches can bring home its splendour.
It’s similar to the awe that you can feel looking at a star filled night sky. Yet the tree is a grounded universe to which we are all profoundly connected. It is home to a mysterious world of insects, birds and mammals that are constantly interacting and interdependent.
It’s something that we can touch, unlike the stars in the night sky
Touching a tree can also be a powerful experience. Matthew Silverstone in his book ‘Blinded by Science’ recommends hugging trees to absorb their unique vibrations. This physical connection increases our levels of hormones like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calmer and more optimistic.
My awkward admission is that I feel embarrassed when I hug a tree. I’m afraid that passers-by will think I’m a bit crazy. This embarrassed feeling is a symptom of my conditioning, living in a society that sees trees as inferior lifeforms. People who care about the natural environment are labelled by some as ‘tree hugging greenies’. This is a demeaning perspective that is still a very powerful social force. It’s an attitude that affects the health and survival of the whole of the natural world.
Imagine a modern society that incorporated aspects of animism. A society that valued all living things as part of their interconnected community. We could then express our appreciation of nature without the fear of ridicule? Then I could hug trees wherever and whenever I liked without feeling embarrassed.
Connecting to nature using our sense of smell is a delightful experience. We are lucky living in a country that has so many fragrant plants. The aromatic members of the Myrtaceae family are well known. The scent from a crushed leaf of a Lemon-scented Gum or a Lemon Myrtle is heavenly. Greg Trevena lists 28 species in his useful brochure ‘A guide to Australian Native Essential Oils’. Most of the oils that he lists are derived from the Myrtle family and includes ten distinct eucalyptus scents.
Our Mint bushes (Prostanthera sp.) are grown commercially for their remarkable and diverse scents. Calling them mint-bushes is a little unsatisfactory, because their scents are more complex than well-known mint herbs like spearmint and peppermint.
A walk through the bush when the Black Wattle, Acacia mearnsii, is in flower adds another dimension to the wilderness experience through its aniseed scent. It’s strong fragrance creates a heady aura surrounding each tree. Famous worldwide is the perfume scent derived from the Silver Wattle, A. dealbata. Its aroma is described as ‘wonderful, soft, subtle, sweet floral, honey and woody’. Though this reads like the label on a wine bottle, it throws out a challenge to slow down and explore the complexity of acacia scents when next we’re passing a wattle tree in flower.
Knowing that each Australian native plant has a unique smell opens up many remarkable and diverse possibilities. Crushing a leaf of an unfamiliar plant has become a habit for me now. I’m constantly amazed and delighted by the unusual scents that I discover.
This is an opportunity for connection and discovery where we need to tread carefully because of the risk of toxicity. Indigenous Australians had a depth of knowledge of plant uses for food and medicine that was encyclopaedic. Sadly much of this knowledge has been lost or is carefully protected as cultural property.
However some Australian plants are becoming widely known for their edible fruit, nuts, flowers and leaves. I like to include some of these in my own garden for their culinary benefits. I’ve been enjoying my first Muntrie berries, Kunzea pomifera, this year for their spicy apple flavour. Other edible species in my garden are Mountain Pepper, Tasmannia lanceolata (edible leaf and berry), Lemon Myrtle, Backhousia citriodora,(edible leaves) Macadamia, Macadamia integrifolia, (edible nut) Coast Beard-heath, Leucopogon parviflorus, (edible fruit) Chocolate lily, Arthropodium strictum, (edible tuber) Myrnong, Microseris lanceolata, (edible tuber) and Warragul Greens, Tetragonia tetragonioides (edible leaves), Australian Pigface, Carpobrotus rossii, (edible fruit and leaves), Ruby Saltbush, Enchylaena tomentosa, (edible fruit).
Eating produce from native plants helps build an appreciation of how they continue to support life in Australia.
Appearance is most commonly used in modern society to recognise plants. Certainly it’s very practical to use our sense of sight to differentiate between species. This is where our modern society excels.
Our most recognisable genus, the eucalypt, is so named because of the appearance of its fruit. It’s derived from the Greek words; eu "well" + kalyptos "covered". Eucalyptus fruit has a cap (operculum) that covers the developing flowers completely. When the flowers are fully developed the cap is pushed off revealing the beautiful and complex array of colourful stamen concealed underneath.
Our native plants are so diverse in their appearance that landscaping a new native garden is pure pleasure. The variety of leaf sizes, shapes and colours on offer, allows a designer to create endless contrasts and interest even in a small container garden. The flower colour and shape becomes a seasonal bonus for both the gardener and visiting wildlife.
In a visual sense the size of plants does matter because of its critical importance in the evolution of Australia’s unique ecologies. The vegetation layers that plants create in these ecologies is solely due to their range of sizes (and shapes) from small flowering herbs to breathtakingly tall canopy trees.
Clearing for agriculture has removed the middle layers leaving unnatural landscapes of mostly exotic grasslands and a diminishing few remnant paddock trees. They have become iconic on our farm landscapes and remarkable in their stoic adaption to the new open ecosystems that we have created.
Yet the power and beauty of these remaining old trees is undeniable. If you get close enough to touch the trunk and look into the canopy, do you feel impressed and perhaps humbled by its majesty?
A mindful meditation
That’s a perfect state of mind to close your eyes and quieten your thoughts as you listen to the tree’s orchestra tuning up - the woodwinds, the strings and the percussion.
Concentrate on the breath, slowly in and slowly out, recognising the soft floral scents that breathing conveys. In the quiet moments between breaths listen to the symphony and connect to a timeless experience.
Allow in a feeling of gratitude as you slowly open your eyes and appreciate the magnificence of the tree that you have been connecting too. Its then that you may appreciate the privilege of standing there in its shade and breathing in its purified and oxygenated air.
Other ways of connecting with nature can be explored in these blogs;
We’ve all played join the dots when we were kids and I remember being amazed and excited as the image of a kangaroo or a Wedge-tailed eagle took shape. Then came the even more interesting challenge of adding the colour that brought the image to life.
One of the biggest challenges facing Landcare this decade is connecting the dots and dashes. This is an essential process that will breathe more life into existing plantations (the dashes) and the remnant paddock trees (the dots).
A lot has been achieved over the past four decades putting trees on farms. We now have more shelter and we have restored some of the lost biodiversity. Though if we examine these planted landscapes on Google maps what do we see? A countryside of disconnected dots and dashes.
We have created islands of trees in open seas of cropping and grazing paddocks.
Breathing more life into plantations hints at the truly remarkable transformation that would take place. The many missing faces of Australia’s birds, mammals and insects that have been just surviving in isolation would appear when safe passage from plantation to plantation is established.
The island effect
Charles Darwin on his journey to the Galapagos Islands noted a reduced diversity of species on small islands;
‘The species of all kinds which inhabit the oceanic islands are few in number compared with those on equal continental areas’
This ‘island affect’ has been observed again and again in studies. A study of Lord Howe Island in 1984 showed that birds on islands face fifty times the normal threat of extinction because of their isolation.
If you have lived in an isolated country town you know how difficult it is to restock the pantry. Thank goodness we have safe roads to travel for supplies.
What clearing the Amazon rainforest in Brazil can teach us about island ecology?
A study of the Amazon rainforest confirms the fragility of island ecosystems. Scientist Tom Lovejoy studied forest plots of different sizes that were saved from clearing.
Initially he found that birds were able to move from the newly cleared areas of forest into the retained refuge plots. However the pressures of overpopulation on these ‘islands’ eventually caused bird populations to decline. And they kept declining particularly if there was an interdependence with other insect, bird or mammal species.
Birdlife Australia has been reporting on the ‘State of Australia’s birds’ for two decades and drew similar conclusions from their extensive observations. Clearing woodlands and forests causes the loss of an estimated 3,000,000 woodland birds each year. Small numbers survive in remnant small pockets for a short time but they are isolated, cut-off and slowly die out.
We abuse the land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. Aldo Leopold 1948
Paddock trees support the ‘island hoppers’
Paddock trees are vegetation islands on farms that provide homes for wildlife and sleepovers for migrating species. If paddock trees are within ‘line of site’ (25m – 100m), they provide critical links in the vegetation chain that supports the migration of many species of insect and birds. They can use existing old trees as stepping stones as they follow their habitual migration path for food or warmer weather. But these old trees are dying out and they aren’t being replaced.
Click here to read about how to protect and restore paddock trees
Can you imagine the frustration of driving to your favourite camping destination only to find that the road’s been washed out by a recent flood? Imagine if the sign said ‘sorry but this road has been permanently closed, you have to turn back’
Paddock trees provide so many key benefits to biodiversity and to farming that planting them across our rural landscapes is a logical first step to re-establishing the critical missing vegetation connections.
Paddock trees need companion plants
Improving the habitat under and around paddock trees is critical. It makes an enormous difference to their health and the diversity of wildlife that they support. Planting small indigenous shrub species & grasses under a tree’s canopy and taller indigenous understorey trees beyond the canopy builds in the layers of vegetation needed by the majority of reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, woodland birds and insects.
To read more about creating vegetation layers click and scroll down here
The extra birds and insects that are supported by these companion plants will help to keep the balance by predating insect pests that either defoliate the paddock trees or attack nearby crops and pastures. Include some nectar rich understorey species to support the host of insect eating birds, lizards, mammals, parasitic wasps, flies and spiders that are necessary to keep the defoliating insects in check.
‘A healthy bird community removes between 50% & 70% of the leaf-feeding insects from patches of farm trees and so plays a valuable role in keeping those trees alive’ Birds on Farms. 2000. Geoff Barrett
To read more about paddock trees;
Paddock trees - part 1. Their beauty and their bounty
Paddock trees - part 2. Their economic benefits on farms
Paddock trees - part 3. How to protect, regenerate and replant
Linking shelter belts
Shelter belts, woodlots and biodiversity plantings support a different group of wildlife that need the seclusion and resources of wider, mixed plantations. Linking them is a powerful way of providing the vital feature of continuous vegetation connections.
The Regent Honeyeater story illustrates the need to establishing corridor links.
The Regent Honeyeater, Xanthomyza phrygia is one of Australia’s most handsome honeyeaters. It has evolved over the millennia to feed almost exclusively on the nectar of Box Ironbark woodlands and forests.
Box and Ironbarks are hardy eucalypt species that originally formed a continuous corridor from Rockhampton in Queensland, through NSW & Victoria and on to Adelaide, SA. The Regent Honeyeater could once be seen flying overhead in flocks of hundreds as they followed the nectar flow of these eucalypts on their annual migratory journey from Queensland to South Australia.
Now most of the box and ironbark trees have been harvested for their durable and hot burning timbers, leaving only small isolated patches of the original corridor. With their habitat diminished and the opportunity to migrate interstate no longer available, the Regent Honeyeater population went into decline. By the early 1990’s less than 1,000 birds had survived.
The honeyeater was just the tip of the iceberg as many other bird, mammal and insect species were part of this remarkable ecosystem. A small snapshot of the other associated species that relied on the corridors of Box Ironbark woodlands were the Grey-crowned Babbler, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Sugar & Squirrel Gliders, Wood White & Imperial Jezabel Butterflies.
Significantly the annual migration of the Regent Honeyeaters was critically important for the Box Ironbark forests and woodlands.
It enabled them to adapt to the dramatic changes in climate experienced during the transition from the last ice age 10,000 years ago to the warmer climate we know today.
The honeyeaters carried Box and Ironbark pollen from Queensland to South Australia and back again giving the trees the genetic coding they needed to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. These trees no longer have the Regent Honeyeaters and their cohort fauna to provide this service and will not be able to adapt to the current climate change challenge.
Ecologists now talk about ‘composite provenancing’ to help trees adapt. This means planting some trees of the same species sourced from locations that are 2 degrees warmer to provide the necessary genetic adaptions to our warming climate. I'm sure you'll agree that this can only be seen as a stopgap measure that could never replace the complex system that mother nature had designed.
Fortunately the Regent Honeyeater project based in Benalla, Victoria has reversed the decline of honeyeaters locally. Since 1996 the Landcare community supported by local schools and the community have restored over 1,600 ha of Box Ironbark habitat. Regent Honeyeaters and Grey-crowned Babblers are now commonly seen around the Lurg Hills near Benalla
After a visit to the Regent Honeyeater project I published a review in the Australian Forestry journal. Click here to read
Ecologists now recommend that corridors need to mimic the natural bush, be wider and more diverse to be effective for most of our native fauna. These 'biorich' corridors can also provide a significant income to farms. Click here to read more about corridor design that mimics nature as well as providing significant income to farms
In 2019 the United Nations declared 2021 – 2030 the ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’.
We can each play our part by planting habitat on our properties, whether they are small and urban or large and rural.
If you have some acres, now it’s time to play the adult version of connecting the dots and dashes on an aerial view of your property. Making these links will allow wildlife to forage more widely for food and to migrate safely. Safe migration of birds and insects is also essential for both flora and fauna to evolve and adapt to our current climate change crisis.
Stephen Murphy is qualified in Geology and Environmental Management and has been a nurseryman and a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.