The seat

This is a guest article by Wendy Cook.

I am sitting on a wooden seat in my favourite place in the Brisbane Ranges National Park, swinging my legs. The seat, designed and built by a former park ranger, has a sloping back, and with feet well off the ground, everyone who sits on it soaks up their surroundings, relaxes and soon finds their legs swinging. It’s a cool October morning and I’m enjoying the warm sun and the view. In front of me are knobbly grey and red rocks, with a scattering of pale green and grey circles of lichen. They are the top of a small cliff, below which are bare twisted branches, black and grey, a reminder of the intense bushfire that tore through here in January 2006. 

The view from the seat.  Image: Wendy Cook

The view from the seat. Image: Wendy Cook

Although it is over ten years ago, the dry rocky soil makes recovery difficult. Many gum trees resemble small bushes. Fresh green leaves highlight the tops of a few. The soil between them is still bare. The seat miraculously survived the fire, unsinged, although nearby trees are blackened. In the valley and on distant hillsides the effects of the fire are less obvious. Trees are still less dense than they were and tall black trunks stand out. On one, I see a white pair of cockatoos. Raucous calls alert me to two more Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flying overhead.  A small dark bird of prey soars and dives over the valleys and hills. I hear quieter calls of many birds, chirps, chatterings and chimes, some sounding like musical conversations. A little bird with a grey back and an orange-brown breast lands, partly hidden, in a nearby tree, perhaps seeking insects. 

Taken seven years after the bushfire, this photo shows recovering eucalypts and bare soil.  Image: Wendy Cook

Taken seven years after the bushfire, this photo shows recovering eucalypts and bare soil. Image: Wendy Cook

A Red Beaks Orchid ( Pyrorchis nigricans ).  Image: Wendy Cook

A Red Beaks Orchid (Pyrorchis nigricans). Image: Wendy Cook

As I write, a small shiny dark brown beetle with reddish legs lands on my pen. The sunlight catches its wing cases, turning them dull green. It spends a couple of minutes exploring my pen, hand and paper, then flies away. On the red gravel, sand and rocks beneath my feet, little black ants work, heading out from their hole at the base of a rock, searching with pauses as they spread out from its central point, returning in haste with morsels of food for their nest. One pushes ahead of it a dull yellow wattle flower fallen from a bush growing up from below the cliff edge. The faded bloom is huge in comparison to the ant. It turns backwards and pulls it prize down into the hole. Nearby on the rocks, I see a larger ant, one of my favourites, also black apart from a golden abdomen glistening in the sun. 

A black ant with its golden abdomen glistening in the sun.  Image: Wendy Cook

A black ant with its golden abdomen glistening in the sun. Image: Wendy Cook

I think of the discoveries I made on my walk here. The bush is full of flowers, with species changing with the soil type. The most colourful area is through a heathland of poor soil.  Among the eucalypts grow grass trees with long narrow leaves. The central leaves stand tall like a spiky haircut, surrounded by a long drooping fringe. Below this is a jacket of brown dried leaves, and for the older plants, a black trunk, straight or crooked, and perhaps branched to two or more shaggy heads. The smaller grass trees create a circle in the dirt around them, where the pointed leaves touching the ground are swayed by the wind.  Around the grass trees are the flowers.  Orange, yellow and red peas mix with white flowers of teatrees and everlasting daisies and curly red blooms of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea, found nowhere else in the world. Buds on long stalks sprouting from a circle of leaves promise lilies yet to come. A cluster of wattle bushes dangle green seed pods edged with red. Crane flies cling to grass blades with their long legs. Their narrow wings spreading outwards are transparent, patterned with brown veins. 

Grass trees are a common sight on the journey to the seat.  Image: Owen Cook

Grass trees are a common sight on the journey to the seat. Image: Owen Cook

A view of grass trees and wildflowers.  Image: Wendy Cook

A view of grass trees and wildflowers. Image: Wendy Cook

The red flowers of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea ( Grevillea steiglitziana ) growing with Parrot-pea (Dillwynia sp.)

The red flowers of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea (Grevillea steiglitziana) growing with Parrot-pea (Dillwynia sp.)

A crane fly.  Image: Wendy Cook

A crane fly. Image: Wendy Cook

A wallaby and I startle each other.  I watch as it hops away, quickly vanishing among the grass trees. I find a large wide feather, white and fluffy near its base, brown towards the end, with darker brown patterns across the middle.  It lies on top of the leaf litter near the base of an old stringybark. A hollow is burnt into the tree’s base. Its top is broken off and its branches are twisted. I see two holes in the trunk with bark torn off around the entrances. Birds or animals are nesting in these hollows. Perhaps the feather fell from a young owl, learning to fly, or its parent delivering food.

The feather found on Wendy's travels.  Image: Wendy Cook

The feather found on Wendy's travels. Image: Wendy Cook

To me, the walk, and especially the seat, is a magical place, peaceful and full of life, with a wonderful view of hills and valleys, becoming paler in the distance. The horizon is fairly flat, with faint blue hilltops showing just above it in places. The only obvious signs of humanity are a pale gravel road winding down to a picnic ground, out of sight, and up again over a distant hill, sounds of faraway traffic on a busier road, and the seat.  Perhaps you too have your own magical place to visit and enjoy nature.

Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.

Banner image courtesy of Wendy Cook.

Don't Miss the Trees for the Forest: An Exercise in Mindfulness

Every time I hear this saying (in its proper order) I always find myself digging my heels in and thinking about the pleasure I find in small moments. As the original saying encourages, I feel like there is a lot of focus given to the ‘bigger picture’ in our everyday lives; on tomorrow or the next week, with little importance placed on the here and now (unless, of course, you have a deadline).

With these everyday pressures, I find that the small moments in life, like watching a bird nest or appreciating the way the light shines through a tree’s leaves, are overlooked or lost. However, I've found that when I pay particular attention to some of the smaller details around me, they can have an almost magical effect on my day.

Interactions between birds can be easily missed when you don't pay attention, such as that between this adult and juvenile dusky wood swallow.  Image: Sarah Bond

Interactions between birds can be easily missed when you don't pay attention, such as that between this adult and juvenile dusky wood swallow. Image: Sarah Bond

There is one instance recently where this magic clearly comes to mind. I was sat inside eating my lunch and just happened to glance out the window. By some chance, I was sitting in such a way that I had a perfect view of an enormous tree in the distance that was head and shoulders above the other surrounding trees. I marvelled at its size and wondered what animals might call that tree home. I smiled to myself and pondered whether small fledgling birds would set such a tree as a challenge to try and reach the crown.

Such thoughts will usually lead me down the wonderful path to daydreaming – an unproductive task when viewed from the work angle, but a very critical respite for the brain and a wonderful way to cherish what is seen around us.

Enjoying the small moments - the unexpected ones and those elements that are missed by the unobservant - can also help to create a special bond with an area. Whether this is watching nestlings grow up outside your office window, or sitting on the grass and enjoying the shade under a tree, there are so many ways to appreciate the little things in the outdoors.

Making up stories, as I happened to do briefly on the day in question, is also something that should not be reserved for childhood nostalgia but relished when viewing nature. The incorporation of light imagination into our viewing of nature can help us to become inquisitive about what is happening around us and seek out answers to the questions that may randomly strike when creating a story.

Having spent my life learning about the natural world, I feel that there are many small details that I marvel at and discover when thinking of them as a story. They also create strong memories of the local area and pull out tiny details that might otherwise be missed, such as the sound of the wind blowing through the trees or the smell of an ants’ nest next to a path.

Insect species, such as grasshoppers, are one of the most difficult aspects of nature to take notice of, usually due to their size.  Image: Sarah Bond

Insect species, such as grasshoppers, are one of the most difficult aspects of nature to take notice of, usually due to their size. Image: Sarah Bond

I often wonder, though, what is it that other people see and experience? Unfortunately for those stuck in the mentality of the forest before the trees, I know this answer is ‘not much’. But having been trapped in this mentality myself, I know there is hope to start looking for the things deemed insignificant, or noting the unexpected in the world around us.

I have started to make it a permanent part of my day to take a few moments and marvel at something surprising in my immediate surroundings. On this particular lunchtime, it just happened quite spontaneously and I feel that when I return to that same seat again, my eyes will alight, if only briefly, on the distant tree. For now, I will look forward to the tiny details that I hope to see tomorrow. What will be your surprise? Don’t forget to sometimes look past the forest and see the trees.

Sarah Bond

Sarah is a botanist who works at a local indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne. She is interested in engaging the public with the conservation of local flora and fauna.

You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond

Banner image courtesy of Sarah Bond.

The Nature of Podcasts: 10 Wonderful Stories About the Environment

Podcasts may be hip but with hundreds to choose from, how can you find a good one? Where do you find the best podcasts about nature?

It’s your lucky day. Dig out your headphones, plug in and tune out, as we present 10 great short stories about nature, science and the world around us. The emphasis is on storytelling, not education or politics, and none of these episodes could ever be called dull or boring.

You don’t need a new app or software to play these episodes; just click on the big red Play buttons below and enjoy. If an episode does not play on your device, I have also included a link to each producer’s website, where you can stream or download the episode and listen to more great stories. All of the shows are available on iTunes.

Let’s Do Ecology!

Not sure where your life is heading? Worried you’re drifting? Maybe you should study ecology. Seriously. This is a wonderful tale of how one woman discovered science, herself, an axe-wielding professor, and lots more when she enrolled in an environmental science course. Enjoy this great stage show by Erin Barker from The Story Collider. It's the perfect story for first year uni students - drugs and swear words aside. [14 minutes, Web Site]Language warning: not for kids.

The Ant Wars

Ants in the kitchen? Count yourself lucky. When Argentine Ants invaded the USA, they formed huge colonies, hundreds of hectares in size, and the borders between the colonies turned into death zones.

Radiolab is the podcast-to-end-all-podcasts with amazing sound, editing and story-telling. It’s supposed to be a “science show” but you’d never guess. Join Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich in one of my favourite episodes, on the Argentine ant invasion. [20 min, Web Site].

No Dams

Somewhere in the ABC's archives there must be an oral history of the environmentalists who saved the Franklin River in Tasmania. This is the equivalent tale from the USA. It's a fantastic story by the The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, about the damming of America's rivers and the activists who tried to save them. Be inspired. [33 minutes,  Web Site].

Sounds of the Forest

Every week, Ann Jones creates a new episode of Off Track, the ABC’s radio show and podcast about the “great outdoors” – nature, travel, history and the environment. When I emailed Dr Jones to ask about her favorite episodes, she generously suggested this story, describing it in this way:

I love it because it’s immersive – it isn’t just someone stuck in the studio talking about nature – you actually get to hear the nature: the black cockies, the mozzies, the Leadbeater’s possum, the frogs and machine gun birds.

And it’s not just a species checklist, you can hear the air in the trees, the movement of leaves settling into the wet earth, the sticks being moved by tiny animals emerging from their hidey-holes and it’s all interpreted by Professor David Lindenmayer, a superb scientist and a magnificent translator of the many languages of the natural world.

The crescendo of this episode still brings me to tears.

The SoundCloud link above contains a 2 minute excerpt only. The link below contains the full story. [26 min, Web Site].

The Venus Thieves

One argument for saving a rare species is: it may contain a chemical that will be useful in the future. But when people think a rare species does have medicinal properties, the outlook can be grim. Just ask a rhino. The Venus Fly Trap is fast becoming an endangered species because of rampant poaching. The reason? Fly trap smoothies are being touted as a dodgy cure for cancer. The team at Criminal produce fantastic podcasts and this episode about the illegal trade in Venus Fly Traps is a beauty. [21 min, Web site].

A Terrific History of Twitching

By all accounts, the award-winning H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald is an amazing book. Regrettably, it is still on my must-read list. Earlier this year Macdonald gave the closing address at the 2015 Sydney Writer’s Festival. Her erudite and entertaining speech provides a short history of natural history – especially bird watching – in Britain. If you ever thought twitchers were a wee bit strange, you’ll soon learn why. Tune in for a fantastic history of bird watching, starring playboy falcons and Nazi skylarks. [36 min, Web Site].

The Lawn Wars

Would you go to jail for some grass? Not the kind of grass you smoke (or the kind other people smoke), the green stuff that people water and mow. No compilation of podcasts would be complete without an episode from Roman Mars, the podcast king of Radiotopia. This episode of 99% Invisible explores the social world of the urban lawn and the deadening impact of drought, climate change and water shortages – issues we are bound to hear more about in the future. [18 min, Web site].

American Hippopotamus

This true story is bigger than a hippo – and a lot longer too. Released by The Atavist magazine as a three-part “podcast”, it would be more accurate to call it a “free audiobook”. Either way, it is an extraordinary story about a real plan to introduce hippopotamuses to the USA, for meat and to control water weeds. If two and a half hours on hippos sounds too much, take a peak at the first installment and see if you can stop. The best is in Part 3. You can read the story on the web too. [Episode 1, 30 min. Entire story, 2.5 hours. Web Site].

On Meditation and Mindfulness

After six hours and nine shows on nature, you deserve a rest. This story has nothing to do with nature. It all takes place indoors; mostly inside someone’s head. It does focus on meditation though: an important activity in our ever-busy world. And Harvey Keitel has a lot to say too.

Everything, Nothing, Harvey Keitel is my favourite podcast of all time. It’s clever, creative and so damn funny. The story was created by Pejk Malinovski for the BBC and has been replayed on ABC’s Radiotonic, Radiotopia’s The Truth and others. This version comes from The Truth. See if you can relax with Harvey Keitel. [20 min, Web Site].

Share your favourite podcasts?

These entertaining episodes should keep you occupied for hours. Why not share your favorite podcasts with other listeners? We’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below.


The header photo of iPod earplugs is manipulated from an original photograph on Flickr, taken by Juliana LuzSome rights reserved.