Saturday, 2 September 2017

Close to the wild

So here’s a full page advertisement in the Fairfax ‘Good Weekend’ magazine, offering a journey with the Sami people of Lapland during their spring reindeer migration. A gorgeous photo shot from above, by a drone presumably, of a reindeer herd peeling around a human.

The relationship is symbiotic: the reindeer have come to depend on human assistance to survive through the winter, eating the lichens their humans uncover in the snows. Fourteen days in Lapland would be wondrous, but the realities beneath the gloss of tourism make me mad.

White people have only just finished taking Sami children from their families to rear them in 'white' families: now we’re good friends, soaking up a life lived close to the wild. A little bit of danger to ease our urban ennui.
In the fine print, I see that those of us who can afford it will be 'skiing between islands on frozen seas', and sleeping in ‘luxury domes specially shipped from Switzerland’. We'll be flying in from around the globe for this indulgence, the whole exercise accelerating the melting of the Arctic ice on which this way of life depends. Get it before it melts, and let's hope the Sami make a buck out of it too.

Can’t we do better than this? Not on the other side of the globe, but right here, in our own country? I’m working on the Country Plan for the Wotjabaluk Peoples, Wimmera mob. Yesterday, I located a photo for one of their special places, a place called Goyura, near Hopetoun in the north east Wimmera. The Barengi Gadjin Land Council holds title to a 2.02 hectare freehold property, and manage it on behalf of the Wotjobaluk Peoples, whose connection with this place goes back a very long time. There are woodlands with the grassy, saltbush understories that once graced this landscape, and remnant River Red Gums across half the property. Traditional food plants are plentiful and there’s evidence of gatherings and food collection near this property.  

Now here’s a place to get closer to the wild, camping out with the people from this Country, if they wanted that. Drive 3 hours from Riddells, set the stew cooking in the camp oven, sit around the fire. Talk. We might hear stories of this place, stories of dispossession and persistence, of families torn apart and knitting themselves together again. If we paid for the company of an ethno-botanist or an archaeologist, as these high-intensity tours do, perhaps we could contribute to piecing together a shared appreciation of Country. Yarning around a fire would go a some way to healing our relationship with Country.

We could do this, if we had the imagination. It would do as much to sharpen our care for this land, I mused to myself this week, as measuring its destruction. I had an email about a new analysis by Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at ANU. Costanza was one of the guiding hands behind the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2001 to 2005, which brought together the work of more than 1,300 experts to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. A decade on, his latest study lets us choose our future from four different scenarios: depending on the scenario, the global value of ecosystem services will decline by USD $51 trillion/yr or increase by $30 trillion/yr. That’s handy to know, but only if it fuels our advocacy and a bit of local action.

Talking of local action, Alice Aird and Helen Scott from Newham and District Landcare came to our AGM and briefed us on what they've have been doing to protect roadside vegetation, that nondescript bush flicking past your car window.... until you stop the car, let your senses settle, and get down close to these remnant grasslands, tiny wildernesses Alice called them, a tightly knit association of grasses, lilies, mosses, ants, native bees, worked out over millennia. Right here, right now.

Feel the wonder and fragility of it, and send our prayers to the Sami.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Thursday, 24 August 2017

For more than the view

I know a couple who walk in the Macedon Ranges. They drive out from Melbourne for the day, and their idea of walking is to cover territory. 18 kms, 20 kms, in all weathers. They arrive back at our place for a cuppa, glowing. I listen to their talk about the distance covered, in what time, with that bemused attitude the old have in the face of the energy of the young.

They used to invite me, but I declined. I don’t want to walk that fast, and there’s always work that needs doing around the property. The one time I did say yes, some years ago, we went up a stony, exposed slope so fast that I found myself unaccountably out of breath, my heart running very fast. This was the tachycardia I had been scrupulously ignoring, that came and went and came again until I and half a dozen medicos settled the matter in an operating theatre. Alright, I had very little to do with it, though they couldn’t have done it without me!

Anyway, I’d written off that kind of walking as ‘not my thing’, and my friends had given up inviting me. Then one Saturday recently, she was busy and he still wanted to walk, and out of obligation really I said yes, plus there was a promise of a short walk, just 12 kms. We drove up past Mt Macedon village, turned right into a steep cleft in the range, and parked beside what the map told us was the Macedon Ranges Walking Trail. Tight steps winding up, a slope as stony and exposed as the last time I was here, and winter’s chilling wind.

This time, my pulse lifted and levelled to a satisfactory work rate. Up the slope, onto a broad hilltop of small trees and grasses, then to a good dirt road. The blood and oxygen flowed, with air so sweet and cool! With the benefit of a little altitude, I found my breathing rhythm and my stride. Trees rose on every side, and the track wound on ahead. Then it came to me, or truer to say, I walked my way into it: ‘Ah, this, this is why you come here!’ My companion nodded, beaming - ‘But of course!’

We walked. The sun came out, lighting up the hillside, then retreated behind cloud. The trees and understorey adjusted themselves in the most subtle ways to changes in slope and aspect. We traversed a living land. Eventually, we came to the picnicked parts, rounded the lake and headed back down the same track, different taken this way and as fresh as the upward journey. Thigh muscles complained but held good down the final steep slope to the car, and then to sausage rolls at the Trading Post. Magnificent!

The next day, I was digging through digital folders, tidying up, and came an interview with John Berger. After his success with ‘Ways of Seeing’, Berger turned his back on London and the art scene and settled in the mountains of the Haute Savoie in France. A passionate intellectual, he lived and worked alongside the peasants there for the rest of his life. Of that place, he said: “This landscape was part of my energy, my body, my satisfaction and discomfort. I loved it not because it was a view – but because I participated in it.”


Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Friday, 14 July 2017

Bush Ranging

I’m just in from my first patrol through Barrm Birrm in my new Subaru Brumby. The elderly among you will remember the Brumby. 4WD, highway speed of 90 kmh. Tough as old boots—I had one once on a property, used it as a motorised wheel barrow. Carted a lot of field stone from my neighbour’s paddock.

Now I’ve got one care of my dear friend Tom, the itinerant academic, who’s gone to a real job in England. A couple of weeks ago, getting ready to go, he said: “How about I leave my Subaru at your place. Then you can drive me to the airport on Sunday night.” I’ve been wondering what to do with the Brumby. Took if for a run down to the shops, and everything seemed to work okay. On the way back, I saw fresh tracks going off into Barrm Birrm, and thought, time for a bit of 4WD action.

I poked my way up the track, and blow me down, there’s a couple of lads from Sunbury cutting firewood. Now that’s bloody stupid, first because the trees in Barrm Birrm are useless as firewood, second because fallen trees are habitat, third, and most distressingly, the lugs who cut timber insist on driving off the tracks to park right beside the tree they’ve chosen. I appreciate that the point of having a 4WD is that you can go anywhere, but this damages the complex of grasses, lichens and small shrubs that holds the surface together.

A campsite that appeared late this summer. Significant damage to understorey and trees.

Nature Lovers, there’s a lot more of this happening. The hills are alive with the sound of chainsaws. They’re coming from Sunbury, they’re coming from Romsey and Gisborne, with their “go anywhere I want” attitudes, to get firewood and most recently, to camp out. I like these guys (typically, they’re guys). They like getting out into the bush. They’re not slumped in front of a screen. But with Sunbury set to double, we have a problem! As visitors increase, so does the rate of degradation in Barrm Birrm, this year, by an order of magnitude.

Clipping on my Bush Ranger badge, I stopped the Brumby and we had a yarn. The Brumby turned out to be a good starting point. I empathised with the need for firewood, but managed to say on parting that driving over the grasses stuffs them up, and that if they wanted to be environmentally responsible dudes next time, they could park the big machine on the established track and carry the firewood to the vehicle. Carry it 10 metres. In these small acts hangs the fate of our planet (sigh!).

13th August, 3-4.30, join us at Riddells Landcare’s AGM, and we’ll pursue the theme with Alice Aird and Helen Scott from over the hill at Newham and District Landcare. They’ve been campaigning to get residents and the Shire to look after roadside vegetation. I think of them as Bush Rangers, a species of citizen scientist, out on the ground, keeping a look out for what’s happening, ringing bells and insisting that people think a lot harder about the impact they are having on this beautiful place we live in. Google “Riddells Creek Landcare” for location details of our AGM, and please know that you’re very welcome.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Out in the open air

I am a TV addict. Early in my adult life, I realised how easily I am seduced by the thrill of the entertainment offered by television. I came to notice the emptied out, unsatisfied feeling I had after being hooked up to the machine. Going back for another program didn't shift the feeling. So I went cold turkey, and haven't had a TV in the house for 30 years. This gives me more room to do the things I’m really interested in, and living at Riddells, that means more time outside, in the open air.

One caveat: feeling dissatisfied with television does not apply to a closely contested AFL game. And a confession: when I travel and stay in hotels, I find it impossible to resist turning on the tellie for a bit. On a recent trip, it was the weather news that impressed me. Little arrows flying in from the north east, and running up against the edge of the lows bearing down on us from the west. The graphics really showed what was happening, and the commentator seemed to have a lively interest in weather, though she had to keep making light of everything (because it's all entertainment!).

Standing outside at Riddells in the middle of the day, in surprisingly hot weather the week after Easter, I thought of that colourful animation of the weather as an inside the house experience. So different to the way you read the weather standing outside your house. Nestled in the valley up beside Gap Road, the wind quickens and I look to the horizon. The clouds are thickening up, but will we get rain out of this? I'm sizing up what's happening with my own senses and my own brain, my own animation of the weather. Inside, on the tellie, it's all about entertainment - oh what fun we're having with the highs and lows in Australia. Standing outside, the situation is personal, and has more weight. It's about my house and vegetable garden, how the creek is doing, and beyond my small valley, the state of the wider countryside as this warm autumn persists.

No, this isn't the weather coming, it's a beautiful evening sky from our long autumn, 2017

Tuning into what's going on in the place you live is one of the principal pleasures of living in the country. I know everyone raves about it - "living in the country". When the Forum for Democratic Renewal asked people what they love about living in the Macedon Ranges, they said - living in the country. A bit of space around you.  A wide sky, the bush, your senses expanding into the natural world. Every couple of months living here in the open air, I realise that I'm hearing something new, or seeing something I've walked past every day. 

Driving into Melbourne on the Calder, I notice that my eyes are following that trio of birds as they dart over the freeway - my vision in its standard setting now includes the flight of birds! Amazing! Sitting in the valley, I hear the wind moving, ruffling up the trees in the garden, and down in the creek, and in the pines in my neighbour's block, and in Barrm Birrm behind me. It's a large soundscape, and I take it in now without conscious effort, without instructing myself to do this.

It's not all ice cream and lolly pops outside. The cold will come, and we'll be snuggled up by the fire, happy to be inside. But it seems to me that the inside life is in its place, and happier for that, when I pay attention to the life going on outside. The wind moving, the clouds coming in, wondering whether there's rain there - that reading of the weather, like so much of my time outside, is a deeply pleasurable human thing to be doing.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare