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. 

Discovering Strathbogie to invigorate the imagination

The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.
All other wars are subsumed by it


The war is the war for the human imagination.
No one can fight it but you and no one can fight it for you.
— Diane Di Prima

I want to speak of a wild place. I want to tell you what it means to love a place that is threatened. I want to tell you of small actions that can change things.

I consider that I know the forest fairly well, fairly intimately, not as a botanist or expert in any field of forest lore, but as a man who likes to meet the forest as a conversation between feet and fingers and senses, between leaf and trunk and the herb-rich forest floor. Who would plant his toes in the deep mulch and moss of our forest, like roots in the rich soil.

Simeon Ayres believes that encouraging others to develop a deep connection with the Strathbogie State Forest is vital in ensuring its protection.  Image: Michael Flett

Simeon Ayres believes that encouraging others to develop a deep connection with the Strathbogie State Forest is vital in ensuring its protection. Image: Michael Flett

Four years ago, I put up my hand to lead visitors on walks through the Strathbogie State Forest. Impacted by logging, the communities that surround the forest have come together to work out how to protect it. Guided forest walks are one way that the Strathbogie Sustainable Forest Group is currently highlighting the significance of the forest and why more Victorians should help to conserve it.

There are very few folks these days who walk in the forest, who choose to spend time out there, in a swag under the stars and the watching gums, exploring the origins of a creek, following that ridge line to the unnamed peak. As I see it, there is the chance that those who come and explore the forest might fall in love with it.

Logging is one of the major threats to Strathbogie State Forest and the fauna that inhabit it.  Image: Michael Flett

Logging is one of the major threats to Strathbogie State Forest and the fauna that inhabit it. Image: Michael Flett

Those Sunday afternoons have been a time of great revelation. Hundreds of people have joined together to walk on place. We have explored together this beautiful and overlooked corner of the world, we have walked with the old timber getters, with botanists and storytellers, with those who know where gold was mined. We have spotlighted the highest density of Greater Gliders in Australia. Explored for mushrooms and fungi, bushfood and medicine plants, visited the places where the old Mountain Grey Gums and Peppermints are twisted and aged far beyond the first days of white settlement. We have felt the brush of the wings of the Powerful Owl as dusk falls and the tips of the trees on the high mountain turn vivid pink.

Many have joined us for these explorations, coming from all walks of life to this forest. To this unpeopled place, save for a few pig hunters and motorcyclists. Why so few people now? These days, when the nature documentaries are shown in vivid, widescreen technicolour, it seems that we are still interested in the world around us. But it no longer fulfils the need it once did. 

Immense eucalypts, Powerful Owls and Greater Gliders are just some of the impressive organisms to be found in this ancient forest.  Image: Michael Flett

Immense eucalypts, Powerful Owls and Greater Gliders are just some of the impressive organisms to be found in this ancient forest. Image: Michael Flett

Once there was a time when more of us knew the language of wild places, when we could hear the songs of the wind, the language of birds, when we could follow the braille of tiny marsupials wending their paths, when our vision was wider, when we were immersed within the great conversation of the wild. The country was once our imagination; our minds did not halt at the skin upon our foreheads - we were part and parcel of it, we were not separate. 

In the early 21st Century, we seem to have outsourced our imaginations to television, social media, and handheld technology. With this outsourcing, I wonder if we need the forest anymore, whether the lack of respect with which we treat this otherness that we encounter, the damage that we are visiting upon this planet, are simply symptoms of our collective loss of imagination. We must remember, too, that losing habitat and species is like losing a language.

In the week when the last male Northern White Rhino died in Kenya, I asked myself, ‘What is it I can do?’ If we are not careful, it will be the last Greater Glider or the last Powerful Owl, or any of a vast number of smaller birds, mammals and insects. In answer, we must turn to our wilder places and once again engage in a conversation with all that we still have.

Simeon Ayres is a farmer and small business person from Strathbogie who holds a deep affinity for the country he lives in.

Banner image courtesy of Michael Flett.

Wollongong to Melbourne

This is a guest article by Anna Senior.

Since early morning I’ve been driving across the Gippsland plain in my van. I’m on my way to Tanja on the south coast of New South Wales, from Melbourne where I’ve recently moved. The Princes Highway cuts a straight path through this region, across undulating farmland. It is all cows and grass, with only scattered paddock trees and the odd remnant stand of roadside red gum. In a moment, the yellow light of the farmland gives way to filtered greens. I’ve been on the road for close to five hours and have just entered the south-east corner bioregion. On the map it’s a large green mass, spanning south-east New South Wales and north-east Victoria. This is a vast forest, uniquely intact, connecting the coastal heaths to alpine meadows hundreds of kilometres away.

Just out of Tanja the road begins to wind, through tall Spotted Gum forest and Burrawang Cycads. After a while I register that my cheeks have started to ache. I notice I’ve been smiling away, alone in my van, since entering the forest and my mouth cracks into an even wider grin. I’m struck by how much I am affected, simply because I am surrounded by trees. It’s a bittersweet feeling, like finding something precious I didn’t know I’d lost. I’m suddenly aware that the life I’ve been making in Melbourne has been deficient of one very important thing: a connection to nature.

Spotted Gum (C orymbia maculata ) on the road through Bermagui, New South Wales.  Image: Anna Senior

Spotted Gum (Corymbia maculata) on the road through Bermagui, New South Wales. Image: Anna Senior

More Spotted Gum on the road through Bermagui.  Image: Anna Senior

More Spotted Gum on the road through Bermagui. Image: Anna Senior

The same Spotted Gums grow around my childhood home. At the northern extent of the bioregion, our property edges onto Morton National Park. Growing up on the edge of this forest, I spent my days scratching up my legs in the Blady Grass and scrambling up Black Wattles (Spotted Gums are dead straight and useless for climbing), one arm usually clutching a beloved and tolerant pet chicken. Wildlife encounters were ubiquitous, even in my bedroom. This was a giant octagonal building, constructed by my dad from repurposed ironbark sleepers. The sleepers, having shrunk slightly since instalment, had small gaps between them, and so my walls were a semi-permeable membrane to the outside world. Most nights wombats would thud around underneath the floor, their shufflings familiar and comforting. Antechinus would frequent my room at all hours, and were particularly amusing when observed in the day, tugging tenaciously at the corner of a rug, completely unfazed by the curious child watching a metre away. These same antechinus would get themselves into obvious digestive strife by sampling the odd custard tart left out in the kitchen.

As I grew, I began to build an understanding of my surroundings which seemed to differentiate me from my friends in town. Snakes and spiders and leaches were not scary. The bush was an extension of what it meant to be home. It was where I felt most at ease, but was also endlessly fascinating and amusing. A favourite game was to pick blue objects from the house; magnets, straws, string and leave them outside on the table. The following morning when I found my offerings decorating the shaded arbour of a Satin Bowerbird, a glow of satisfaction would stay with me all day.

The delight and comfort I felt in my surrounds as a kid grew to intrigue and a keenness to study. I left home for a science degree at Wollongong University. Wollongong’s suburbs are sandwiched between omnipresent sandstone cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. Life was about flinging yourself into that ocean, on a board or floating in a sea pool, staring up at that escarpment. In the southern suburbs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos would leave the forested slopes in the morning, fanning their way out in huge raucous drifts, and returning like clockwork on twilight to roost, tearing up verandas and decks in their path.

Spotted Gum at Anna's childhood home.  Image: Anna Senior

Spotted Gum at Anna's childhood home. Image: Anna Senior

To the north, the spit of land between the escarpment and the ocean is precipitously narrow. Up there, the landscape felt wild and prehistoric. The haunting calls of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and Green Catbirds drifted across the slowly gentrifying suburbs and rolling rainforest hills. Many sessions at the Headlands Hotel peaked as we watched processions of Humpback Whales breaching against a backdrop of pinks and oranges as the sun set. What became the important places of my twenties have names like Burning Palms, Fairy Meadow, Sublime Point. Evocative and reverent of nature.

After eight years in Wollongong, I moved to Melbourne to start a PhD. Within a few weeks, I happily discovered the Merri Creek and Yarra trails and have treasured them ever since. I knew I would need them. I was well aware that spending time in green spaces has a positive effect on mental and physical health. I was pretty sure both would be challenged by the slog of relentless study. Still, I threw myself into enjoying what Melbourne has to offer. I found it’s not just reliably good coffee and bars. For me, Melbourne is all about diversity, choice, inclusivity, community. All things to embrace. However, that morning driving through the forest it struck me that feeling connected to nature is intrinsic to my essential wellbeing. And it’s something I can’t ignore or substitute. This may sound like a fairly obvious observation to make given my background, but in the past being in nature was not something I had to think about, much less prioritise.

With this newfound awareness of self, I’ve discovered another great thing about Melbourne. The city is accessible to an incredible diversity of ecosystems. A short drive can have you revelling among the tree ferns and sentinel Mountain Ashes in the Dandenongs or hiking the snow-covered Mount Baw Baw. A longer trip can have you searching for the fabled white wombats of Wilsons Prom, or staring down at an Owlet Nightjar secreted inside the hollow of a Little Desert mallee. I will make sure I enjoy such experiences along with the good coffee, until the Southeast Corner calls me home.

Anna Senior is a PhD student at Monash University studying the ecology of some of Australia’s rarest lizards. Through her research, she hopes to increase awareness and contribute to the conservation of Australia’s lesser known wildlife.

Banner image courtesy of Anna Senior.

The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill,  Mandrillus sphinx  (photo by Joel Sartore).  Image: CSIRO Publishing

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx (photo by Joel Sartore). Image: CSIRO Publishing

‘Zoo’. Oops, did I just say a bad word? Zoos are places of captivity, four walls (sometimes a roof) and metal bars, right? No animal should ever live there. Or, are they a refuge, a place for rehabilitation, research and conservation? Perhaps an animal (or species in general) could benefit from a zoo? Jenny Gray’s book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation asks us to question our conventional understanding of zoos (well-run zoos, that is!), highlighting not just the conservation efforts they undertake, but also our own philosophies as to how and why we should care for an animal’s mental and physical wellbeing as we would our own.

Gray begins by tracing the history of zoos, detailing the shift from the private menageries of the rich and powerful of antiquity, the public gardens of the late 1700s filled with exotic creatures (hence ‘zoological gardens’ i.e. ‘zoo’) and finally, to the modern-day zoos that feature in many of the world’s major cities. One constant has remained, however: the lingering, almost instinctive imagery of imprisonment that comes to mind when people hear the word ‘zoo’. Unfortunately, it is this bias which can influence people’s understanding of what a modern-day zoo is and how it functions. Being careful not to paint all zoos with the same brush, Gray clearly defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. By taking your hand, walking you through the history of zoos and the evolution of our philosophies regarding animal rights and welfare, Gray is able to relieve you of any preconceived notions of what a zoo is or might be, and opens your mind to the ethical considerations and dilemmas zoos must face.

Fighting Extinction campaign logo.  Image:  Zoos Victoria

Fighting Extinction campaign logo. Image: Zoos Victoria

Fully aware of what a modern zoo is and how it functions, Gray prepares you for what constitutes the bulk of the book. Throughout the next few chapters, the reader is introduced to a variety of ethical philosophies central to defining a well-run and compassionate zoo. Although philosophy can seem daunting, Gray cleverly builds up this section in complexity, allowing you first to understand the basic principles of animal welfare and rights through concepts like the Five Freedoms (freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express natural behaviours, freedom from fear or distress).

The real crux of the book delves (not too deeply but quite succinctly) into the complexities around ethical behaviour in general, in particular consequentialism (how the value or righteousness of an act is judged by its outcome), virtue theory (largely concerned with the character of people - are we creating ‘better’ people?), and environmental ethics (understanding that nature’s value isn’t limited by its value to humans and that all life is central to the value of nature). Gray presents a well-measured balance of rational arguments when addressing each of these ethical philosophies in the context of zoos, their operations, and conservation in general. Credit is freely given where due and in cases where Gray disagrees, arguments are confidently and soundly rebutted. To this end, Gray is able to gently place you well inside the camp of ‘zoos can really be a modern-day ark’. Importantly, by this stage, you are well on your way to understanding the basics of key ethical philosophies which empower you to make your own, well-informed decisions.

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed.  Image:  Elmira G.  on  Unsplash

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. Image: Elmira G. on Unsplash

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is what a ‘wicked problem’ is – problems where solutions don’t come easily, are neither right nor wrong, and often result in some form of negative consequence. Many of us remember the case of Harambe, the gorilla that was shot dead to protect a child who’d fallen into the enclosure at Cincinatti Zoo in 2016. Opening with this well-known story, Gray introduces several, real-life ‘wicked problems’ (my favourite part of the book!), asking us to consider what we would do were we a zoo. Now armed with a sufficient understanding of zoos, ethics, and animal welfare, you get to choose the outcome. Suffice to say, these wicked problems provide a genuinely great kick-starter for opening dialogue at a dinner party. Ultimately, the purpose of this section of the book is to experience the process well-run zoos undertake and the raft of possible consequences they must consider. No longer heartless menageries, zoos must balance the weight of outcomes for the animals in question and ourselves. Ask yourself, what would you do?

My only criticism of the book is that although aquariums are initially included in the strict definition of a zoo, aquatic examples are limited in their reference. In later parts of the book, I felt as though the concept of aquarium was divorced from that of a zoo. Many examples of animal treatment in the book are limited to ‘terrestrial’ zoos and although not dismissive of aquatic examples entirely, often the focus is on marine mammals (i.e. whales and dolphins). Being a marine biologist, I feel that this minor issue with the book is reflective of our relatively limited understanding of marine life (particularly fish) and our comparative distance in affections for them – for many, fish lack the cute and cuddly factor. Personally, I would have liked to see a little more focus on animal welfare in the context of aquariums, but this by no means detracts from the great value and insight the book provides.

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species?  Image:  Cris Saur  on  Unsplash

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species? Image: Cris Saur on Unsplash

Gray is undoubtedly a leader in conservation, in both its theoretical and practical application. The book makes a strong case for rebranding zoos as ‘arks’, a place of refuge and an important tool in aiding conservation efforts. As I read the book, I not only became increasingly appreciative of ‘compassionate conservation’ and how such treatment aids the wellbeing of an animal, but importantly, I found myself reflecting on my own actions towards those I care for, human and animal alike, inside and outside the zoo.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Mahatma Ghandi

You can purchase your copy of Zoo Ethics from CSIRO Publishing.


Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

Banner image by Ian McGrory,