Finding Peace in Turbulent Waters

I've always loved the beach in winter. Fierce, rolling surf; stark winds that knock the breath out of you and shower a veil of saltwater over your face; a sense that these ocean waters have been there forever, oblivious to human life and death, yet existing to invigorate our sense of self and also to dispel it. Whether or not we feel a connection to the ocean, it remains.

But this is not unusual. Nature often complements the way we humans think and feel. Although still existing on its own, the natural world can mirror both the best and worst parts of ourselves, whether we want it to or not.

Karen Viggers’ The Stranding aptly demonstrates how fiction plays a part in revealing the intricate and sometimes fragile bond that we share with nature. Set on the coast of New South Wales in the small rural community of Merrigan, this novel is, at its heart, a love story, although not your typical one. Washed up and soon-to-be divorcee Lex Henderson arrives here from Sydney, having purchased a secluded old coastal house that looks out onto the tumbling ocean. A quiet new start is what Lex is hoping for, but it’s far from what he gets. Meeting the locals, he realises that his purchase of the house has sparked some unwanted interest in him, as it previously belonged to a long-standing local family. But Lex has a secret, and he revels in the seclusion of his new home as he attempts to come to terms with a past tragedy.

Image: Allen & Unwin

Image: Allen & Unwin

He unknowingly befriends a descendant of the family, Callista Bennett: an artist who resides deep in the nearby forest where she takes inspiration from local nature to create beautiful, thought-provoking paintings. From the beginning, Lex and Callista’s relationship is an explosive one, going from friends, to hesitant lovers, to something else much more complicated. It's not difficult to be frustrated by the lack of awareness between them, and the decisions they make to the detriment of their deeper connection. The story follows their experiences over the time Lex stays in Merrigan. From demonstrating the intricacies of rural town life, to depicting the very real struggles of love, marriage, family, and being human in a changing world, this book definitely covers a lot of bases.

Lex becomes increasingly obsessed with the whales seen migrating along the coast, from both an emotional and historical perspective. Poring over the dusty books left by the previous owners of his beachside home, Lex is angry to learn of the family’s past connection with whaling, and is confused by their current involvement in the local whale-watching industry. Simultaneously, Callista is battling her own inner demons. A family that she lacks a connection to, a past that she'd rather forget, and the struggles of a, well, struggling artist all make for the never-ending chaos that is her life.

Whilst raising issues of whaling and environmental protection, the novel is by no means didactic. It instead explores both the restorative and thought-provoking power of nature; how it brings people together, but also pushes them apart. Lex’s choice to come to Merrigan and experience the surrounding natural wonders speaks volumes about the emotional impact of the environment. His escape from the city, whilst also an escape from his job, ex-partner, and secret tragedy, represents his willingness and need to be immersed in nature in order to heal. Not a new idea by any means, but one beautifully depicted through Viggers’ writing. Nevertheless, she doesn't paint eastern Australia’s unforgiving coastline as a perfect world. Rather, natural landscapes are portrayed as rugged, complex, frightening, and at times very dangerous. If anything, though, this enhances their power to restore the emotional wellbeing of Lex and Callista as individuals, whilst complicating their already fraught relationship.

As the two are still attempting to navigate the troubled waters of each other's lives, a whale is beached in Merrigan, sparking the most climactic chapters of the novel. The panic that ensues raises some surprising ethical questions. Should we rescue or euthanise stranded whales? Is whaling ever an acceptable practice to participate in? What part does the media play in animal rescues? The event also introduces the very clear message that both Lex and Callista are also stranded, each experiencing intense feelings of isolation, even in the company of those who love them. The book is just as much about Lex and Callista's emotional stranding as it is about the beaching of the whale.

Viggers' work suggests that ocean waters can be both restorative and destructive.  Image:  Iqbal Muakhid  /  Unsplash

Viggers' work suggests that ocean waters can be both restorative and destructive. Image: Iqbal Muakhid / Unsplash

But it's the way Viggers describes the natural surroundings of Merrigan that made this book a memorable read for me. There are passages that explore the fierceness of the sea ('The sea battered at the sand like a great foaming beast and hunks of seaweed were strewn thickly all the way from the water's edge to the high tide mark.') and passages that reveal the calming qualities of ocean waters, and the overwhelming sense of both belonging and loneliness that they instill ('Looking out across the flickering sea he watched the swell rolling in... He felt his breathing slowing, deepening. The rhythm calmed him. The rhythmic emptiness of the endless sea.').

Perhaps what I liked best was how casually Viggers treats issues of nature and environmentalism within the wider fictional story. Not in a callous sense, no, but rather in a way that highlights the presence of nature without over-emphasising it. Otherwise, I feel, the work would have read more didactically. This strategy, whether intentional or not, also zeroes in on a question close to my heart - how do we bring nature to the fore of fiction without it seeming obvious, or overly purposeful?

Many readers read for enjoyment, and not for education, so including themes such as climate change and the human-animal relationship in a subtle, albeit significant way is an important technique that I believe more authors should employ. Human relationships equal human interest; finding a way to demonstrate the importance of nature whilst exploring what it means to be human could potentially encourage readers to come away from a book with more than just a good story. Can fiction result in deeper connections to nature? We can't definitively say just yet. What can be said, though, is that nature itself, both its restorative and its terrifying side, provides a means for some of us to look deeper into ourselves, understanding identity, relationships, and ecology just that little bit better.

You can purchase your copy of The Stranding from Readings. For more information on Karen Viggers' work, visit her website.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Sho Hatakeyama / Unsplash

Slowing Down to Rivertime

“It makes me feel so small, but part of it all… and I realised how glad I am to be right here…”

Trace Balla’s books Rivertime and the sequel Rockhopping take you into a world of adventure, curiosity and love for nature – and instead of being a far-off, inaccessible land, the books take place right in our backyard.

In Rivertime, we are introduced to Clancy, a young boy who is (reluctantly) being taken on his first outdoor adventure by his Uncle Egg. He is as unenthusiastic as I remember being when I was dragged by my parents on what I considered “boring” family holidays out in the bush. At first Clancy is not happy – he sleeps terribly on the hard ground and he misses the telly.

What follows, however, is a beautifully relatable story of slowing down and truly appreciating the world around you. Trace Balla has captured that all-too-familiar childhood experience of being dragged somewhere you thought would be incredibly dull, and finding out it wasn’t so bad after all!

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

The cartoon style of the books allows Balla to introduce us to the vast range of native flora and fauna in her chosen area. In Rivertime we experience the Glenelg River in western Victoria, with images of red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead, pied cormorants drying themselves in the sun, and long-necked turtles swimming below. Each tiny drawing is labelled, giving the reader just as much to explore on the pages as Clancy has in the story.

For me, Rivertime captured what we are often looking for when we head to the great outdoors – that feeling of getting in touch with the pace of nature. As Uncle Egg says when asked why they don’t have a motor for the canoe they are paddling: “That’s the whole point, not to go fast.”

In Rockhopping, the characters head to the Grampians with a plan – to search for the source of the Glenelg River. We explore with them the different habitat of the ranges, and the sense of adventure and curiosity that the characters show makes you want to get out there yourself.

Not all goes according to plan, however, and Clancy ends up alone in an isolated part of the National Park. At first, he is nervous and lonely – but then he realises “… I was wrong, I’m not in the middle of nowhere! I’m right here. In a rock shelter, on a beautiful mountain range among the other mountains, on this amazingly alive planet, spinning in the universe.”

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Image: Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Balla also pays homage to the traditional owners of the land, and in her research the author spent time with the indigenous people of the area to learn how they felt about their homes. What she learned comes into the books, for example in traditional names like Billawin (the Victorian Range) and Bochara (parts of the Glenelg River), as well as knowledge of bush tucker and rope-making techniques that are thousands of years old.                                                                                  

These books give kids a glimpse of the diversity, and history, of places that are right on our doorstep. There is so much information in there, it’s clear that Balla has done her research, going on both trips multiple times herself!

What these books really highlight though, to both kids and adults, is what you can see if you take the time to look. The simple act of slowing down and actually seeing the world around you helps you appreciate nature for the wonderful diversity and uniqueness that it possesses – and unlike a lot of children’s books, this is an adventure that we can all take.

As Clancy notes of an orchid he finds and decides to draw:

“The closer I look the more details I see”.

You can purchase your copies of Rivertime and Rockhopping from Allen & Unwin. 

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.


Banner image courtesy of Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin

Our Home in the Wilderness

The wind outside comes and goes in fits of undirected rage. It hurtles past my window and drowns out the calls of the fledgling raven in the tree outside. Squat and downy, it grips swaying branches with fresh, uncertain claws. Yesterday it was marvellously sunny outside, and now… well, it isn’t. Such variable weather is an oft-cited trademark of Melbourne and surrounds, and is something Melbournians enjoy brandishing as a testament to the fact that we live in a land of extremes. Yet, for the young raven outside, Melbourne’s weather is perhaps one of the least extreme of the forces that influence its daily life. 

Indeed, all cities – not just Melbourne  – are places of stark contrasts. Worlds of conflict and polarity, where squat and downy lives must eke out an existence. As Associate Professor Kirsten Parris writes in her new book Ecology of Urban Environments, cities are ‘where the best and worst of human existence can be found, and where habitats constructed for people can complement or obliterate the habitats of other species.’ To study these contrasts and complements is to study urban ecology: a relatively young discipline and one that Parris defines as ‘the ecology of all organisms – including humans – in urban environments’.

Few fields of study could be more relevant to the life of the young raven outside my window, and fewer still could hold such timely pertinence for the contemporary hominid that sits at his computer writing about it from within warm walls. For, the world around us is changing and if we are to preserve ourselves, as well as our squat and downy friends, we must have knowledge. Parris captures the essence of our transformation of the planet – no more obvious than in urban environments – with a preface in the form of a poem by Mark Knopfler:

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was best
Made a home in the wilderness

And so goes the story across the planet. A story that began some twelve thousand years ago in the Middle East and one that has been repeated and reenacted at an ever-increasing rate across the globe. ‘Globally,’ writes Parris, ‘there were 740 urban areas with a human population >500,000 in 2008, including 22 with a population >10 million’.

In some regard, I’ve come to treat my copy of this text in the same manner my parents regarded our family medical book. We once saw that book as an essential tool for diagnosing illness and subsequently, treated it in accordance with the expert advice contained therein. Yet, in many ways what Parris has written is far more relevant to my life than such a medical text. That old, dusty book had information on any number of illnesses likely and unlikely to occur to the average human. Meanwhile, the issues and processes Parris describes are almost all relevant to any one of us, and at any given time. It is accessible too and while perfect for students, researchers, and policy-makers, I can’t help but feel it belongs on the shelf of the “average” family. What is written here can be seen, and heard, out my window: the construction of urban infrastructure including many surfaces impervious to rainfall, the removal of native vegetation and the planting of exotics, the hum of road traffic, the streets lights, the runoff, the waste, the dogs and the cats and the net-entangled fruit bats. This is a book about you and me and the community in which we are apart.

That community is shaped by our own actions – something we are often naive to. I can recall receiving noise complaints from neighbours whilst living in an apartment building – perhaps I was reading too loud – but the complaints of the natural world are often less obvious without the adequate training. Parris goes some way to highlighting our subtler but no less significant impacts, and provides some serious food for thought: ‘Human preferences … influence patterns of activity in different parts of a city, such as which places are visited, when, by how many people, and what they do there.’ For example: ‘Nature enthusiasts may be most likely to walk through parks of remnant patches of native vegetation in spring and summer, potentially trampling plants or disturbing breeding birds.’

The ever-hungry, black shape huddled in the tree outside is testament to the unequal impacts of urbanisation on our native biodiversity. Ravens cope well in urban environments– hell, they cope well under most circumstances – but many species do not, and as Parris notes, ‘The particular characteristics of urban habitats can result in the formation of novel ecological communities, some of which have no obvious analogues in natural environments.’

This inequality of the urban realm extends to our species also, and Parris dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. As Knopfler puts it:

Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war…
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there’s no work here to be found

Parris highlights several relatable issues, such as access to urban parks and open spaces, the unequal distribution of noise and air pollution, and the dependence those of us living towards the edges of urban sprawl have on cars for transportation.

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

And there’s the rub. Just like the poem’s narrator, we have but one home and ‘We’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed’. Knopfler’s poem is an ominous tale of socio-economic downfall in big cities, and Parris does well to include it in her text. The impacts we are having on the natural world spin a no less foreboding yarn, and this book is an essential start to crafting a happier ending.  

Maybe my squat and downy friend outside will one day fly away, but there seem fewer and fewer places left for it to go where it won’t be touched by an urban world.   

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you care to understand the processes at play around you and your home. 

Head to the Wiley website to purchase your copy. 

Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

Review: Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes

The quintessential farm usually consists of large expanses of cleared land, primarily dominated by exotic crop species or pastoral grass for livestock. The clearing of land for agricultural practices is often accompanied by a reduction in biodiversity, and consequently a decrease in the ecological processes that a healthy ecosystem performs.

Ecologically sustainable farming practices can help mitigate some of the impacts on biodiversity due to agriculture. Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes is a guide to these practices, discussing which are the most effective in restoring ecological processes on farmland. Across six main chapters, the authors ask ‘how can we maintain or even increase food production without undermining the productive capability of farms and without significantly eroding biodiversity?’

Birds, the most diverse group of vertebrates found on farmland, can be beneficial to farmers, as they contribute to natural pest control, plant pollination and even seed dispersal. The chapter dedicated to birds discusses whether implementing nestboxes really affects the number of bird species at a location, as well as the importance of paddock trees and remnant vegetation. Native mammals are discussed in a similar fashion, although invasive species such as the red fox, European rabbit and black rat are also examined.

One great aspect of this book is the way that the authors explain the processes behind the science. For example, the chapter on reptiles includes topics such as ‘How are reptiles surveyed in agricultural landscapes?’, ‘A way of categorising reptiles’ and ‘How are lizards measured?’. These insights allow the reader to better understand each topic, and the practices they are discussing.

The text also discusses the important role that invertebrates play in agricultural landscapes, as they contribute to many crucial ecological processes, including pollination, seed dispersal, and the recycling of organic matter, as well as being food source for other animals. The role of ants on farms is a particular focus of this section, as is the effect that plantations have on butterfly species.

Farmland vegetation is also covered, including how vegetation cover and attributes change with time, and how this change can affect the animal species found at planting sites. The effect of livestock on vegetation cover and condition is also discussed, and the importance of large logs and native grasses for biodiversity touched on.

Of particular interest to me was Chapter Seven: ‘Managing wildlife friendly farms’. This chapter ties together the previous topics, and explains the do’s and don’ts of managing an ecologically sustainable farm. Habitat protection and restoration is discussed, as is the importance of evidence-based farm planning.

Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes explores ecologically sustainable farming in short and concise chapters, but manages to do so without sparing the science or importance of each topic. The authors explain the science behind the findings, allowing the reader to better understand the text, and also manage to slip small snippets of interest into each chapter. This book will prove valuable to anyone managing agricultural land, but is also an excellent read just for interest’s sake. The authors’ book dedication to ‘the many farmers…doing outstanding restoration and management’ also highlights some of the important work being done by farmers in the fight to protect and enhance our nation’s biodiversity.

 This book belongs on your bookshelf if... You’re interested in agricultural ecology, you manage a rural or agricultural property or you want to learn more about the biodiversity found on farms.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Emma Walsh

Emma Walsh is a science graduate who enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. In the past, she has worked as a wildlife presenter, and enjoys teaching children about our native wildlife and its conservation. Her other interests include gardening and bushwalking.

Cover image via Wiki Commons/Nick Pitsas (CSIRO).