Bridge to Another World

It’s a clear morning. The land beyond Tullamarine is so flat and expansive that the big blue is overwhelming as I walk down the lane towards Rouk’s paddock. I hear the warble of magpies, which still sounds robotic to my untuned ear, and the harsh croaking of a raven in the treetops. Against a distant fenceline I make out the shapes of kangaroos standing at attention. Further still rise the hazy towers of the CBD, looking neat and contained from this distance. And in the foreground, striding forward to meet me, my closest non-human friend: my horse, Rouk.

In July of 2015 I found myself driving out to Gisborne with my now-husband to look at a horse. Why two student inner-city residents should be looking at a horse was a question we chose to avoid. The fact was there was an ex-racehorse in poor condition being given away to a good home and I had a feeling that this was an opportunity. Back then he had a thick coat that disguised the prominent ribs beneath and went by the name Picture. We pretended to have a proper look at him and assess his movement but really it was already decided.

Like me, this horse was originally from the UK. Several years before, he’d been imported from England to continue a racing career that ended shortly afterwards due to injury. When we took him on, we named him Rouk from a Scots word for sea mist, both as a throwback to our shared homeland and to acknowledge that he is a part of the natural world that we could never own. It was a name that projected nothing and expected nothing.

Photo: Alex Mullarky

Photo: Alex Mullarky

I had been living in Melbourne for a year when we brought Rouk into our lives. Although we had been doing our fair share of hiking and exploring, I was still a country girl living in the city for the first time in her life, and I had been finding it hard to cope with so much less green and sky than I was used to. Now I had not only an excuse but an obligation to get out of the city multiple times a week, to spend an hour or two hours or maybe an afternoon out in the sunshine with grass beneath my boots. While I negotiated a relationship with this horse, I found that something unexpected was happening concurrently. In getting to know Rouk, I was getting to know this country.

At that agistment I had my first sighting of a wedge-tailed eagle settling onto a branch, swarmed by magpies. Over a period of several days around Christmas, I saw three, sometimes four, gliding over the paddock one after the other. When my parents came to visit, they were astonished to see three startled kangaroos leap over the electric fencing just metres from where we stood with Rouk, then disappear across the field. The dam on the property was a hub of activity for waterbirds, and I loved to watch the horses wade in and drink among them.

We are at a new property now where I drive past hundreds of kangaroos at dawn and dusk, even with the city’s lights glimmering not far behind me. Every evening a flock of corellas navigates noisily from tree to tree; one morning they are disturbed and swoop down across the arena, dozens or hundreds of pink-tinged birds shifting sharply upwards over our heads. Rouk doesn’t seem to notice. When I lead him back to his field we pass the usual wagtail hopping around the legs of a neighbouring pony, waiting for the insects turned up by its hooves.

Photo: Alex Mullarky

Photo: Alex Mullarky

The two of us walk in the footsteps of European colonists and the horses they brought with them. Both caused ongoing disturbance and imbalance in the country, ecologically and in other ways. I have seen more rabbits and foxes - those unwelcome invasives - at horse properties than I have anywhere else in Victoria, and ‘horse-sick’ paddocks where nothing grows beneath the hooves of its confined occupants.

But where properties are actively managed by the environmentally-minded, I have also seen the impact of this non-native species genuinely minimised. There are people and organisations out there who demonstrate that being a horse person and an environmentalist are not mutually exclusive. Since neither horses nor human development are likely to disappear from Australia anytime soon, our only option is to find balance. Horses did not evolve within this landscape, so it is our responsibility as their custodians to enable them to live in harmony with it.

A partnership with a horse is a privilege because these animals are a bridge. As a domesticated species, they offer us the opportunity to move with their hoofbeats, to see through their eyes, to be a part of the world on their terms. In a time when it often feels like we are becoming increasingly distanced from the world around us, it is a horse that has enabled me to discover my wild Melbourne. How did you discover yours?

Banner image by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra

Celebrating 300 Facebook likes: Wild Winner

To celebrate reaching 300  Facebook likes we held a competition inviting our followers to describe a "wild" place around Melbourne special to them. Our winner, Carol, was awarded a free poster of her choice of photographs from our Gallery.  

Here is her inspiring and descriptive entry:

There's a special place less than 7km from Melbourne just around from the oldest stone building on Point Gelibrand. A shell-lined track leads through the coastal saltbush (hiding rakali and tiger snakes) and out onto the sand and rocks where crested terns, cormorants and sooty oystercatchers explore each nook and cranny for crabs, blennies and the occasional blue ringed octopus. If you sit quietly, with your back to the Mobil oil tanks and BAE boat builders, you can hear the sheoaks whispering in the breeze and imagine what it might have been like almost 180 years ago.

A Night With Tim Flannery


Professor Tim Flannery never planned to become a scientist. Discovering ‘more new species than Charles Darwin,’ was never a major life goal, nor was becoming one of Australia’s most important proponents of climate change action. Instead he was to become an English teacher, while spending his weekends searching for fossils at Black Rock beach in Melbourne.

However, this was not to be. Tim Flannery has become one of Australia’s most successful and influential scientists, while also communicating his love of natural history through both novels and television. As such, Flannery has the ability to demand quite the audience at any speaking engagement. Monday night’s conversation with renowned journalist, Anne Summers, was no different.

However, it’s Flannery’s latest, and perhaps most significant achievement that brought such a crowd to the Melbourne Town Hall. For many years now, Professor Flannery has been a strong advocate of climate change action, as both a scientist and head of the Climate Commission. Now, after the Abbott Government brought down the Climate Commission in one fell swoop, Flannery has gone on to bigger and better things in heading up the Climate Council.

Professor Tim Flannery launches the Climate Council

Noticeably, the pride swells in his voice as he begins describing the Climate Council’s early success; ‘It’s true. I was terrified the morning we launched the Council because if we didn’t get the public support, it would have sent a terrible message.’ Instead, the reverse occurred, with the Council raising well over one million dollars to date and Flannery couldn’t be happier. With sincere gratitude, he then said directly to the audience; ‘Thank you so much, you’ve done a great thing for your country.’

However, Tim Flannery’s initial exposure to the issue of climate change was surprisingly humbling. After being asked to report on the issue to the South Australian government, it was only then when he realised just how big a problem it was. ‘My colleagues in South Australia in the climate area were pulling their hair out at the lack of public interest. If I as a trained scientist can have overlooked the importance of climate change, what are the chances that the average person on the street has done the same, and that’s when I decided to make the switch.’

The importance of Flannery’s burgeoning interest in climate science cannot be understated, as it instigated somewhat of a watershed moment in Australia. He has since written an outstanding book on the subject (The Weather Makers) and raised considerable awareness both at home and abroad, despite some strong opposition. Remarkably, Flannery has even faced death threats for communicating the clear, factual science of climate change. When asked if he was scared of the perceived threats, he said ‘No, I don’t usually get scared by that sort of thing, but I get dismayed.’ This proved a poignant moment in the night, with Flannery clearly still saddened by the strong rejection of the science he is trying to communicate.

Naturally, Summers pushed the conversation in the direction of addressing climate sceptics, including the absurd politicisation of the issue. While being somewhat diplomatic with regard to climate change sceptics, it’s something Flannery has little time for; ‘Once you engage with this sort of information, you give people credibility that they otherwise wont have.’ Flannery then commented on the methods some journalists use to mislead the public on climate science; ‘If you’re thinking about buying influence, you go to the least informed because they’re the cheapest. Throw in some misinformation, don’t make it too complex, and you can buy influence cheaply.’

The conversation then quickly turned back to the science, with Flannery emphasising the importance of the next few years. ‘I don’t think we have crossed a tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting close. This decade is the one that really counts. If we can get our emissions trajectory on a strong downward slope, we’ve got a chance of avoiding that tipping point.’

Summers then asked about the potential effectiveness of the current government’s plan of direct action, with Flannery’s answer managing to draw a few laughs; ‘Well Anne, what is direct action? I don’t think anyone knows, we’re waiting to hear?’ Unsurprisingly, it’s an economic approach that Flannery suggests will achieve the greatest effect, suggesting ‘if you ask economists what the best way of dealing with carbon pollution is, they’ll say put a price on it… because it works.’

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

Flannery then extends his commentary to the management of the Australian environment as a whole; ‘Ecosystems are important; they’re what sustains us. What we don’t do, so often in environmental issues, is ask where are the key issues and then cost effectively address them.’ Its here where the normally softly spoken Flannery raised his voice somewhat, the passion obvious as he reflected on Australia’s current environmental policies, ‘we don’t seem to prioritise; we don’t seem to hold people accountable. If we fail and species go extinct, who is accountable?’

Despite the apparent dire situation, Flannery remains hopeful; ‘I do have a deep faith in human nature, I do have a deep faith that we’ll deal with this issue when we understand what’s at stake.’ Throughout the 90 minutes for which Flannery was on stage, this was the point to which he kept returning to and reinforcing – the need for education and understanding of the issue. It’s a notion that’s unfortunately lacking across a number of issues in which ignorance breeds resistance.

Arguably the best part of the night came as Anne Summers finished her interview and allowed the audience to question Flannery. The questions were far reaching from in depth climate science to Flannery urging the general public to stand up and take action. In particular, his suggestion for younger people, ‘If I was a student now... I’d get involved with organisations that are dealing with clean energy. Certainly get involved with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Or I would get involved with politics.’

His answer for dealing with climate sceptics is brilliantly simple, suggesting that the basic question of ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ is enough to encourage people to stop and think. Flannery then reinforced this by suggesting that ‘a lot of their problem is they’ve stopped listening. So I think that question is really important as it re-engages them.’

Importantly, an event such as this highlights how vital scientists like Tim Flannery truly are. Not only are they fantastic researchers, but also they’re wonderful and engaging communicators prepared to speak out on important issues. Mention must also be made also of Anne Summers, who proved to be an excellent interviewer, never rushing Flannery through his anecdotes or answers to her questions. Those in attendance have been given one powerful thing tonight – hope. The fact that Flannery remains confident that climate change can be curtailed serves as sound advice for us all to not give up just yet. 

Research: What impact does capture have on shark populations?

A Port Jackson Shark. Photo: The Age Newspaper

A Port Jackson Shark. Photo: The Age Newspaper

Elasmobranchs (sharks & rays) are amongst the most vulnerable animals to fishing pressure. Using species found in Port Phillip Bay, one of our members, Leonardo Guida, and his partner, Derek Dapp, explain how their research will improve both our understanding of elasmobranch biology and their conservation.

Check out Leo's amazing work in the video below thanks to Monash University's Faculty of Biological Science!