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 it filled him with calm and a profound joy’. Quote from the novel ‘Seeds the Chronicle’
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 the 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
"The bushland has no spectacular beauty, no instant gratification - only an artless placement of colour, shape and shadow ... a purity of sound ... a fragrance of leaf and of earth ... and a quiet stillness. That is the true enchantment of the Australian bush. It reveals itself slowly to those who open their senses to it". Bush Seasons by Joan Semmens.
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, Eucalyptus, 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;
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.