Listen, listen, listen to the birds

After the success of our crowdfunding campaign my partner and I headed up to norther NSW to learn bird language and nature awareness with American tracker, Jon Young.

A view of our campsite.

My first day of learning bird language was difficult and confusing. We were sent out to find sit spots with a simple instruction to observe tension vs relaxation in the birds around us. It seems easy enough but the diversity of Australian song birds, the high activity of spring and the amount of territorial aggression made it extremely difficult to weed through the complexity to make any sense of the whole.

The debrief with my small group felt long and tedious, the blind leading the blind, it was hard to know what to share or what to listen for. At the end of that first session though I felt like I was beginning to get a sense of what is ‘baseline’ behaviour as opposed to alert or alarmed. It seems that in the Australian landscape it is silence that speaks loudest! The bush is rarely quiet unless there is some kind of predator nearby.

The view from my sit spot for the weekend.

Jon was very clear that Australia is an unfamiliar landscape for him. He didn’t try to teach us about the specificities of the local flora and fauna, instead he taught us a process for engaging with the more-than-human and generating our own connections and understandings. In fact, I observed that he rarely asserted his own knowledge at all, preferring to tell stories that left us to join our own dots.

What we did learn though, after we had started making our own observations, was patterns for how birds communicate and what they might be saying. These patterns are not based on the specifics of bird evolution or biology but where birds tend to fit within an ecosystem. For example Australian birds will go silent when there is an aerial predator on the wing, just like birds in other countries.

I am already putting some of the processes we learned into practice. In my morning sit-spot (at Highfield Park) a pair of magpies landed 15 metres away and looked me over. Rather than staring at them like I usually do, I avoided eye contact and tipped my head away from them. The magpies walked closer, eventually crossing my gaze a mere 2 metres in front of where I was sitting. Having been a dog owner I am familiar with using body language to communicate with animals but I had never thought to try it with birds.

I feel like I have taken the first steps on a long and exciting journey! My knowledge and my sense of connection will only continue to grow.

Wild at heart

I love this article from the Huffington Post UK. It’s an elegant articulation of a number of complex ideas that seem to be coming together in the human psyche at the moment. I have noticed though, that there tends to be an othering of nature that happens as part of this narrative of reconnection. 
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I agree that it’s easier to see ourselves as part of a greater whole when we are overwhelmed by the more than human. Going to places that haven’t been obviously rearranged by human hands can be a humbling experience and that humility is crucial to the shift in consciousness that is needed. But unless we can bring that humility and that recognition of our place in the larger whole into our cities and human communities, our work will be fruitless.
 
This is a critique borne of my own frustration. The conditions of my life require me to live in the city and give me very few opportunities to ‘escape’ into the wilderness. I need to be nourished and nurtured by the more than human world as much as anyone but I can’t do it in the traditional way of ‘going bush.’ I am slowly developing practices for myself that help me ground my sense of connection in the places where I live, work and play. Perhaps the judge sits in my own heart but I feel these practices are overlooked or undervalued by my deep ecology friends and by the broader narrative of ‘nature connection.’ As though they are merely stop gap measures until I can get out into the ‘real’ wildness again.
 
If we are truly to see ourselves as part of nature rather than dominating it we need to radically rethink the dichotomy that says ‘nature’ is in our national parks and not in our cities. We need to take our hearts, awakened to wildness and use them to see the land where we live. Our great teachers in this could well be our children, the young ones haven’t yet learned to pay more attention to ‘human’ objects over non-human ones. Those of us who don’t have children may have memories of the way we used to play, the trees and flowers that drew our attention. The things that fired our imaginations and filled our hearts with joy. As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it we need to “Let the soft animal of [our] body love what it loves” and we need to do it wherever we are. 
 
The day after my walk along Back Creek, a gathering entitled “Rewilding the Urban Heart” was advertised on Facebook – to say that I am excited would be a massive understatement.

Remembering Back Creek

Yesterday a friend and I walked the length of Back Creek for the first time. Our conversation meandered with our feet and the path of the creek. There are traces of stories all along the length of it. At the time it seemed mundane and ordinary but now in reflection moments leap out.

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The meeting of two waters is always sacred, so it is with the mouth of Back Creek. There is even a circle of trees there, waiting patiently to hold space for us. A little further on the creek passes over rock. Striations mark the passage of millenia and show that the rock now lies perpendicular to its origins. I stopped for some time contemplating it and hardly believing my eyes for the creek has cut a channel through the rock almost half a metre deep. This then is an ancient path, perhaps the oldest of the creek’s modern length.

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The story of colonisation is writ large, the creek subjugated and sent through concrete tunnels. For much of the length there is park to remember the creek bed that was and manage the inevitable flooding. In other places we were forced to search the curve of the land for traces of it. It wasn’t hard to see, a dip at the bottom of a hill and what a beautiful way to look at the suburbs. We laughed at the houses, built in the low point, no doubt the rains bring regular floods. What foolishness! Isn’t that colonisation all over? Write our will on the land as if it were an empty page and live in houses that flood.

I am tempted to get chalk and draw it back in, to show people what the land is saying.

Other places had other stories to tell, stories of hope, renewal and care. At the end of South Surrey Park it looks as though the creek has been reclaimed, reopened to sun and sky, lovingly surrounded with indigenous plants. That whole park and several other sections of the creek have been similarly tended with care and an eye to a brighter future. There are still places where you can stand and lose all the roaring, grating noise of modern life. I don’t know whether it is my ears or my heart that are becoming attuned but I am finding more and more of these places – urban oases of wildness and peace.

The source of the creek is mystifying, lost in a jumble of houses not even a path to show where it might have been. The land there is like a bowl, so I suppose it all collects water that feeds into the creek. There is a little park where I imagine the head of the creek might have been. An expanse of grass, a couple of park benches and a curious bluestone circle. We both wondered how it came to be there, the park and the circle seem like a fitting monument to the birthplace of a creek. I sang to it, a river song, to let it know I remember and perhaps to help it remember itself.

This was the first time I have walked the creek but it certainly won’t be the last. In responding to the creek I have accepted a responsibility and I want to honour that, for the creek and for myself.