Learning the language

One of my favorite authors, Barry Lopez, once gave advice to an aspiring writer, concluding with “Get out of town.” Only when you get far away from home do you face the necessity of learning new languages, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. It stretches you in unexpected ways.

I’m out of town now – way out. So far out that moss grows on the south side of trees – trees that never lose their leaves, that cast a lovely pungent scent, and that bear odd names: she-oak, black peppermint, coastal wattle, banksia, prickly box.Banksia serrata I am so far out of town that Orion has tipped upside down in the night sky, wallaby and pademelon are the local, equally common and voracious version of deer, and the constant roar of surf plays background for utterly unfamiliar birdsong and the chatter of cicadas. When I catch sight of something that I think I know – say, a weeping willow – it is usually, just like me, introduced. Likewise, in the midst of all this strangeness, it astonishes me to come across a butterfly that I instantly recognize – a painted lady. But an Australian Painted Lady: Vanessa kershawi. How did that happen?Vanessa kershawi

I knew that being in Tasmania and New Zealand would provide a different view of biodiversity, but what I didn’t anticipate was becoming a three year old again. I am continually asking Peter, our patient host at Windgrove (www.windgrove.com), “What’s that? What’s that?” And, because virtually everything is new to me, I have no filters for the uncommon, the extraordinary. When your senses are trained and attuned to a particular context, the slightest sound or movement doesn’t put you on alert. Here, not yet knowing the significance of anything, everything becomes significant.

toolsWith Peter’s help and some Tasmanian field guides in hand (building the toolkit), I’ve begun the first steps of learning what’s here. I am, in effect, undergoing the very education in biodiversity that I want to explore during my Fulbright project. This is an unexpected benefit, and one that is beginning to yield insights into what it takes to become familiar with an unfamiliar ecosystem. kookaburra2One of the most important is understanding the dynamics of the landscape and the environmental effects of variables like climate (this area is experiencing drought right now) or invasive species (that kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree just off the deck in the welcome rain, laughing).Even though English is spoken here, I feel like I’m learning a new language: individual species are the vocabulary, while how they fit together within their ecosystem is the grammar.

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And, speaking of language, I am doing that other three-year old thing: inventing names. Bottle bird, toilet seat skink, flame butt, sugarberries. Eventually maybe I’ll figure out their real names.

 

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I’ll be putting lots of new photos up on Flickr (sidebar), identifying and commenting on them as I am able. Feel free to visit Dan’s site as well, www.panopicnic.com. It’s not every traveler who gets to have a professional photographer-spouse tagging along, but I got lucky.

 

 

 

Lifeline

The stream at Jemicy has no official name.  Sometimes after a dry summer, it is barely a stream at all – just a rocky, damp ditch winding from a sporadic seep at the northern edge of the school’s property and under a broken-down corrugated fence at the southern end.  At some point in the land’s history, well before the original farmland was developed here, the stream must have been a far more powerful force to carve out the deep, narrow valley that now forms the recess play area.  You can still get a sense of this force after a heavy rain, when the banks are scoured clean, the grasses in the narrow floodplain are flattened, and debris gets deposited in unexpected spots.

boysstreamBut most of the time these days, the stream is a benign and beguiling place, its waters an attraction unlike any other. Right now, the stream is strewn with fallen leaves, the water glimmering in the small spaces between them. Many animals are still active in the extended warm spell we’re having.  Every day during recess, I find two new middle school students hanging over a log across the stream, searching for crayfish. Downstream, another group of boys dares each other to vault across the water with a long bamboo pole; at least one always manages to land squarely in the mud to the cheers of his friends. When I introduce children to the woods, we go first to the stream, where I show them that they can orient themselves from its course to all other places.woods3

Disputes over water rights happen here too.  Children with forts downstream frequently accuse those upstream of blocking the flow of water, or of contaminating it with mud.  There is no official policy as to what can or can’t happen in the stream, but when  activities seem to be having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, they are curtailed.  The discovery of clay deposits after a spring flood scoured a bank launched a frenzy of digging and the creation of a pottery business.6996_394811800596324_1086335970_n  This had to be closed when the fragile bank collapsed.  Just this week, I informed a group of middle school boys that the fort they had held for several years in the middle of the stream would be designated a recovery zone in a few weeks. This came as little surprise to most of them, as they had been asked numerous times over the past year to scale back their dam-building and other activities. “But why?  We’ve been working here since we were 6 years old!  Can’t you please let us stay?” they begged.  I pointed out that when they were six, their activities had little impact, and that with each passing year, they had managed to alter the landscape and stream ecosystem more significantly. It was time for them to acknowledge this and move to a location that was less sensitive to disruption – away from the stream. One tried to argue that they needed water “to do anything fun,” but one of his friends nodded. “No, there’s a lot more things that need that water more than we do.”

The next day at recess, the boys were gone from the fort.  I thought perhaps they had abandoned the woods altogether, but at the lunch bell, as I was leaving the woods, I found them in a new location near the top of the hill.  It was an old fort that had been worked on and left last year, a jumble of old concrete foundation pieces, gravel, and a few perimeter trees.  I complimented the boys on their new location, and pointed out a deep gully worn through the middle of their territory. “Looks like you may have water after all,” I said, and explained that this ditch was an erosion problem caused by storm water runoff from the middle school wing and had never been adequately managed.

“So, it would be a good thing if we tried to fill it in!  Or caught the water to make a pool in our fort!  Or piped it into an irrigation system!”  They headed off to lunch talking excitedly about their plans.

New life for the lifeline?