Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Fiesta of Birds

It was almost incredible. I couldn't stop smiling. A chase between the Brahminy Kite, Ravens and Currawongs. They swooped low across the river, up and down, then coasted along the river bank, into the treetops, around and back again as if dancing. Close they came. Sometimes it looked as if the Kite was chasing the smaller birds; sometimes it looked the other way around. The currawong sang as it flew. Was the Kite on guard and protecting its homeplace from marauding flyers? Or was it a question of territory? Either way it was an honour to see such a rare site. It was awesome, beautiful, and a privilege just to stand and watch.

My friend Amy Lenzo who produces the Beauty Dialogues blog wrote recently about a phenonomen called Stendhalism. This is the feeling of awe in the presence of beauty. She writes:

'It was named for the French poet Stendhal because purportedly he was so dazed he could barely walk while admiring the beauty of Santa Croce (apparently he wrote eloquently on the subject in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio).

'Much of our language around beauty references this beguiling aspect of her nature... she's 'dazzling', 'stunning'; we're 'mesmerized', 'astounded', 'dazed' and 'amazed' when we look into the open center of her mystery...

'Sometimes I think this sense of awe, or internal 'opening' as I experience it, is close to the very essence of beauty, of what makes something beautiful. But what is it that triggers a blow-out of the senses and an inability to contain that much pleasure, that much beauty?'

The river valley spreads its beauty along the watery flow snaking its way from mountain to sea. I gasped with joy at the beauty of the birds' dance, the majesty of the Kite, the glorious song of the currawong, the speed of the raven and more. All around the river the other birds seemed indifferent to the action above. Butcherbirds. Wille Wagtails. Tiny birds flitting through the undergrowth. And more.

Earlier as I stepped into this wonderland I saw a smallish turquoise jewell in the trees. A kingfisher. My first on this river. It was a day of discovery and a real feast of colour. And there was still more to come.

King parrots dashed past the branches showing off their bright red and green feathers. Higher overhead a flock of cockatoos shrieked laughingly as if relishing the day; I relished it too. I looked up continually there was so much to see. Pink and grey galahs settled onto their high treetop homesteads, bobbing in and out of their tree hollow nesting places. Grey teal ducks swam on the glassy water. Even the wind was quiet.

Then the tranquility of the place was shattered by two jet skis mashing the mirrored liquid into waves that spread across the river. Brrrgggmmmm Brrrrrrggggmmm Brrrrggggmmmmm....

And then they were gone.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sacred Elemental Ecology

The river is flowing, flowing and growing down to the sea,
The river is flowing, flowing and growing down to the sea,
Mother carry me, your child I will always be.
Mother carry me, your child I will always be.

I learnt this chant many years ago. The flow of the song, the flow of the words when sung with others, over and over, is a powerful symbol or metaphor for the flow of life, the flow of knowledge, the flow of ecological and ecospiritual wisdom.

There is a wisdom inherent in the elements, water, fire, earth, air, that guides the spirit of the planet. This lush spirit flows in the movement of the ecosystem, the planetary turns and the tidal exchange of fresh and salt water. At the moment and globally, these spiritual and elemental dimensions seem out of balance: there's terrible floods in UK, widespread forest fires in the Mediterranean, while in Australia there were huge floods a couple of weeks ago in Victoria which broke the drought, but the drought is still raging in the heart of Brisbane's river city.

Humanity also seems out of balance. Australia has become a more stratified and snobbish society says social observer Hugh Mackay. And it's also a less nature-engaged population in part due to the techno-managerial imperative and a faster paced life which has resulted in a community somewhat disconnected from their place in the natural order of things. But we're also dis-located/dis-placed through the unthinking destruction of habitat.

In New South Wales a positive human-ecological note. A recent survey of environmental attitudes (2007) showed that most people are concerned about, and value the natural environment, with 90 percent citing water as an issue of great concern, with global warming not far behind. But this leads to a paradox - whose needs are paramount: human's or nature's? There is a dialectic at work here, between the reciprocal relationship with the natural world where nature is viewed as having intrinsic value (an end in itself), and the anthropocentric viewpoint with nature being seen in utilitarian (human use) terms.

Anthropocentism focuses on environmental quality as far as human needs are concerned. In contrast, biocentrism or ecocentrism takes account of the quality of the ecosystem and ecosystem 'services'. But generally in this society, there is a desperate lack of awareness about the needs of nature, about the ecological patterning within the land (earth), air, water and fire.

For many industrial-directed folk, the earth is valued for its economic usefulness to humans despite the talk on sustainabiity and the triple bottom line. And as global warming rears up like a firey dragon, the earth is becoming increasingly valued for its ecological utility - as a source of carbon credits which can be traded in the global marketplace. But such a view leaves the spiritual and religious values of nature out in the cold.

But not out of the hearts of nature carers. The wonderful nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore (2006) takes up this issue of the significance of religious and spiritual nature connections in an article about the values of old growth forests. She writes that these magnificient groves of ancient trees 'speak with an uncommon power of the imagining and feeling part of the human mind. They have the power to make a person fall silent with wonder and gratitude, to deepen a person's connections to the wellsprings of life and death and mystery' (2006:1120).

Wonder. Gratitude. Existence. Mystery.

A similarly evocative idea was raised earlier by Neils Elers Koch (1997) from the Danish Forest and Landscape Research Institute, who says that:

'The forest has always - and probably in all cultures - been a source of many intangible values such as religious feelings, spiritual values, peace, etc. In many cultures the forest is a symbol of the mother, or the forest is considered as an archetype. The forest as an archetype means that symbolically it reflects the basic structure of the unconscious, the undefinable, essence of life and existence ... If foresters do not respect these values they may reduce the quality of life and create large conflicts with local society.'

Like forests, the Brisbane River, as well as other riverine systems, can be seen in such instrumental terms as providing peace, tranqulity, beauty and joy. There is a gentle beauty about the flow of the local river, with its rise and fall in tune with the ocean. It's beautiful now but along the trail you can see the memory of the once magnificent old growth forest that stood here - huge tree stumps of rainforest that shaded the river and provided habitat for myriad creatures. An image taken in 1866 held in the State Library of Queensland shows a gigantic spreading fig tree along the river. An ant-like sized person stands beside the flying butresses and is dwarfed by the tree's mammoth size.

Kathleen Dean Moore says that forests of such cathedral-like trees invite 'a sense of wonder - radical amazement at life on this majestic scale' (2006:1121). That sense of amazement and majesty still lingers even if the trees have long disappeared. Could they come back? Well yes, if we replant them and nurture their growth, habitat and beauty.

Connecting to the ancient forests, the river valley, the urban wilderness, brings benefits in terms of human health and wellbeing. Being in the outdoors, on land or with water, can positively affect physical health in terms of exercise. It can also lead to spiritual renewal, a reduction in stress, a gaining of insight as well as personal transformation. These aspects are well documented in research. Of particular interest is the work of Frances Kuo and others from the University of Illiinois on the reduction of some illhealth symptoms such as ADD and ADHD in children (Kuo & Taylor, 2004) and obesity in children and adults.

In terms of social health, the provision of natural spaces in inner city environments can also have a positive effect on the reduction of crime and enhancement of community safety. This work from Kathy Wolf from the University of Washington is worth investigating by local councils and NGOs here. Greening the city would be more quickly enhanced if the social as well as the economic benefits of tree planting in urban areas, shopping centres and car parks were publicised.

The therapeutic benefits of being in nature, connecting to the delicate and often subtle rhythms of the natural world are at the heart of ecopsychology and earth-based therapies like hortitherapy, pet therapy, and environmental psychology. There is a documented link between the health and wellbeing of the human community, and the health and wellbeing of ecological systems. It's only natural.

Going riverwalking and working with the local Bushcare group both help to repair the human soul and the earth's.

Department of Environment and Climate Change, NSW, 2007, Who Cares about the Environment in 2006,
Koch NE, 1997, Forest, Quality of Life and Livelihoods, 5, 25, XI World Forestry Congress, Antalya, Turkey, October 1997.
Kuo FE and AF Taylor, 2004, A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study, American Journal of Public Health, 94, 9, 1580-1586.
Moore KD, 2006, In the Shadow of the Cedars: the Spiritual Values of Old Growth Forests, Conservation Biology, 21, 4, 1120-1123.

Monday, July 23, 2007


The bandicoot lay dead on the middle of the trail. What killed it? I tried to surmise whether it had been knocked by a car, or attacked by a feral cat but it lay peacefully on the path and there seemed to be no visible signs of attack. I buried it in the bushes.

The bandicoot is a nocturnal animal and this was the first one I'd seen. I'd been wondering where the small marsupials were. I'd seen the occasional ringtail possum running across the electricity wires at dusk and spied their nests in the tree branches, sometimes with a small prehensile tail hanging down from the compactly woven possum-house. And I'd fed the visiting brushtail in the back garden. Walking along the river I often expected to see wallabies bouncing along the bushy riverbank but I had not imagined to see a bandicoot.

A local ornithologist came walking by, binoculars around his neck. I asked what birds he'd seen. 'Just the usual,' he said. So I told him about the bandicoot and his reply was, 'Well, every bandicoot has its day.'

The University of Queensland is doing research on these charming creatures still managing to eke out an existence in the pockets of fragmented bushland in Brisbane's suburbs. It's called: 'Life in the suburbs: the ecology of the northern brown bandicoot in suburban Brisbane.' The research is being conducted by: Sean Fitzgibbon and Anne Goldizen. In the website of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group, they say:

'The northern brown bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus) is a small marsupial that is able to survive in suburban areas, where patches of bushland occupy only a tiny fraction of the landscape. Bandicoots reside in these patches during the day, but often venture by night into people's backyards and adjacent parklands to forage. They are very secretive, and often the only sign of their presence is the conical holes they leave in the soil surface as they dig for insects and plant matter.

In the hostile suburban environment, bandicoots face an array of threats unlike those in extensive natural bushland, eg. domestic cats and dogs, human activity (esp. cars) and a severe lack of suitable daytime habitat. So what is it about bandicoots that allows them to persist in suburbia, when so many of our native mammals become locally extinct?

This project focuses on a few suburban bandicoot populations on Brisbane's southside, and is aimed at understanding how bandicoots survive (and seem to thrive) in these areas. Mark-recapture programs have been established to look at reproductive output and timing, as well as population density and demography. Radio-telemetry will also be used to study the movements of individuals, so that home ranges and activity patterns can be estimated. This results of this project will assist the conservation of more specialised mammal species that would normally become extinct in the face of urbanisation.'

For me, the sight of the bandicoot was both a gift and a reminder. The gift is the knowledge that small marsupials live along the river. The reminder is the knowledge that we need to take care of small native animals, to keep the bush, to save the trees, to stop the destructive development.

Sustainable urban development is possible. Retaining the bushland and creating sustainable housing is possible. People living side by side with bush and small mammals is possible. It requires commitment, care and understanding. And it requires seeing and connecting meaningfully with nature.

I have discovered that there is a difference in the way people see the natural enviroment. Some people see nature in the foreground; they see the flowers emerging, they hear the plovers overhead, they witness the magnificent sunset over the hills, and they smell the ground after rain. (What rain?) While for others, nature is in the background, or does not seem to be there at all.

People who drive to work comment that the only thing they see is traffic, asphalt, cars, jams, and they find it difficult to describe what natural elements they would see if they had to walk to work. They don't seem to notice the cerulean blue sky. Or the trees along the roadway, the glimmering river water, or the weedy plants pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. It's hard to imagine that nature is invisible.

The death of the gentle bandicoot is a reminder to take care, to question, to protest unsustainable development, to join with others in rejoicing the bounty of the natural world and pay homage to the shy creatures of the bush.