Connection and respite for an inner-city dweller

My ten-year-old Jack Russell, Bonnie, has no idea what’s going on. She takes shelter in the car as my husband and I finish putting up our tent in the now pouring rain.

The downpour caught us unawares. It seemingly came out of nowhere and drenched us in warm, flat raindrops for fifteen minutes solid, and then was gone as quickly as it came. Sun shining once more, the ground began croaking with Lesueur's Tree Frogs (Litoria lesueuri).

Then, completely saturated, we realise the fly is on inside out.

I begin to laugh hysterically.

Bonnie curls into a ball on the driver’s seat and looks away. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering why on Earth we would load up our car with stuff, drive three hours, stop on a patch of grass at a country campground and put on this show. And then sleep in it. For two nights.

She’s a city dog, and we are city people.

 Lesueur's Tree Frog ( Litoria lesueuri ).  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Lesueur's Tree Frog (Litoria lesueuri). Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

We live in Melbourne’s central business district, amongst the constant hum and buzz of sirens howling, evacuation alarms whoop-whoop-whoop-ing, and trams rattling down streets, dinging their bells at risk-taking pedestrians. Motorbikes weave and hammer down roads, people swarm, and the construction of high-rises is ceaseless.

This heaving urban jungle, this synapse, this cell, this landscape, is our home, and despite being so connected, there remained a disconnect, until I started looking…

There’s a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, to which all the Rainbow Lorikeets flock. It amuses me no end to approach this tree, stand under it, and listen and stare at the absolute chaos going on within its branches. What is it about this tree, and not the others like it, surrounding it, that attracts these birds to this one in particular?

The Gardens are also home to a community of brushtail possums who can be found in the hollows of the elm trees, or sometimes, in the public recycling bins, staring out, wide-eyed. And springtime brings swooping Magpie-larks to the Gardens, relegating us, and all the other dog-walkers to the safety of the north-west corner for at least the next two months.

 A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

The months of spring also bring on the budding of the plane trees. Planted on many city streets in Australia and around the world for their pollution-resistance and deciduous form, these trees are a nightmare for allergy sufferers. The jury is out, however, on whether it’s their pollen, their trichomes, or other allergens, which cause the eye-watering, sneezing and runny noses.

Either way, springtime in the city is the time for me to stock up on antihistamines so I can keep exploring and discovering, and recently, I’ve found that a there’s a family of sparrows in my neighbourhood who have been progressively stealing pieces of our brush-mat fence in order to build their nest.

I’ve watched them on-and-off for several weeks now, and our fence is getting thinner and thinner. I don’t know where they’re building this nest; I just know that it must be robust, and I do hope, comfortable.

There’s a buzz that comes with visiting the city, but when you live amidst this buzz, and work in it as well, it becomes a source of exhaustion that I need to escape from regularly.

I seldom see a horizon, and I crave the sounds familiar to my upbringing: wind in trees, waves crashing on shorelines, cicadas chirping, owls hooting, and twigs snapping underfoot.

And whilst I like my escapes to be weekend-long, to places I can access via our freeway network of human wildlife corridors, sometimes respite must be closer to home.

 A Blue Devil ( Eryngium ovinum ), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Blue Devil (Eryngium ovinum), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Fortunately, here in Melbourne, I am surrounded by beautiful urban parks which provide me with a taste of this escape I crave. Royal Park, just north of the city, is one of my favourites. The big grassland circle is a snippet of the previous landscape, now fragmented by development.

Here, Bonnie and I walk a lap of the circle, then lie in the grass and wonder what it was like, right here in this spot, 500 years ago…


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Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel is an environmental scientist who escapes the rush of city life by donning her mask and fins to explore local underwater worlds, or her hiking boots to explore Victoria’s national parks.

She’s an avid home cook and shares all her recipes on her Instagram account, @thenostalgicvegan.


Banner image courtesy of Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel.