The Difference Weather Makes

The rain that had been gently falling all morning was just starting to ease when we set off. We had a quick talk about what we might find after the rain and someone suggested that the ants might not be out and about today, because they prefer hot sunny days.

The children were keen to follow tell-tale signs of the recent rain. Some pointed out the glistening droplets they saw lying in the folds of leaves. A couple of children stopped to brush the rain off one of the sculpture labels, using the water to clean it and make it shiny.

Someone suddenly noticed a glimpse of sunshine had just broken through the clouds overhead. ‘Look, look behind you I can find blue sky. I can see blue sky!’. Something was shifting.

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Raindrops, mysteriously suspended in air, drew the children’s attention to a large spider web under the fir trees. They were captivated when they noticed a prominent golden orb-weaving spider in the centre of the web. It was at perfect eye-level for them and they spent a long time closely inspecting the spider’s long stripy legs, the intricate forms of the web, and the strange leaf-like object that was trapped in it. The children were not sure if the spider was eating this trapped object of not.

They also noticed that there were mushrooms popping up through the ground. They were definitely not here last time and the children surmised that it was the rain that was making the mushrooms grow. When they looked around, they could see that there were quite a few different kinds.

One mushroom looked like it had been eaten and the children pondered on what creature might have done this – ‘a rabbit’ or ‘a possum’ were two suggestions.

The wet weather had made the kangaroo bones at the Shrine ‘a bit sticky’. boneThe old, weatherworn bones have started to fall apart when the children handle them. They always love to rub the bones against the rusty metal frame to see the marks they make.

In the wet, the marks were more prominent than usual. On closer inspection, the children could see that what looked like white chalk was actually tiny fragments of soft bone stuck to the rust.

A fan-shaped nature-art installation in a clearing under a bush caught our eye. It was made of carefully arranged pinecones, bark and brightly covered leaves.

When questioned, one child thought ‘a squirrel’ might have made it. We talked about how squirrels don’t live in Australia. They made another couple of tentative suggestions ‘a possum?’, ‘a bunny rabbit?’. It was interesting that the children were keen to attribute the assemblage to a wild creature and no one mentioned it might be a human creation. Maybe it was their intent focus on exploring the wildlife in these bush surrounds, or perhaps a sign that the children’s thoughts are not yet filtered through the western nature-culture divide that attributes cultural artifacts to humans alone?

By the end of our walk, the sun was well and truly on its way out. So was the birdlife. Suddenly, our attention was directed upward as the air filled with birdsong and the becoming-blue sky was punctuated with the flash of brightly coloured parrots.

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The children were transfixed watching a flock of crimson rosellas darting through the treetops, and a pair of king parrots eating in a nearby eucalyptus. A number of them recognised these parrots as the ones they had seen at home or in their local park.

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In continuity with the art-nature-culture assemblage that we had witnessed under the bush clearing, a pair of magpies perched high in the nearby bird-tree sculpture, started warbling their distinctive song.

On this walk, we were struck by just how much the weather influences the rhythms and movements of all life forms, including ours. And it illuminates our experiences. When it shifts, it makes such a difference, refocusing the children’s attention from one thing to another – from the micro-worlds of raindrops on leaves and spiders webs, to the expansive bird-filled skies.

Getting a sense of the place

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Most of the children are new to our walks this year. As with last year’s group, their initial task is to get to know the plants and animals that live in the grassy woodlands heritage park adjacent to the Centre. Right from the moment we set out, there was a palpable sense of eagerness and anticipation to do this.

We had barely arrived in the parklands, when they children started running to find the wildlife, exclaiming ‘there’s a rabbit hole’ and ‘look at the ants’. The ease with which the children shifted their attention from running through a large space, to focussing upon the micro-worlds of other lives around them was a pertinent reminder of how often it is the children who draw us (adults) in to notice things that might otherwise escape our notice.

According to the routines we established last year, we stopped first at the Indigenous sculpture: Ngaraka: Shrine for the Lost Koori. We talked with the children about how the shrine can help us to remember that others were here before us, and that we walk on Aboriginal land, the land of the Ngunnawal people.  The children repeated ‘Ngunnawal’ several times and seemed to enjoy the feel of the sound rolling off their tongues. It was as if repeating this word  marked the beginnings of the processes of remembering.

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The kangaroo bones scattered under the shrine immediately drew the children’s attention. Following the lead and routines of the two children from last year’s group, they picked up the bones and began gently rubbing them up and down the shrine’s upright rusty poles. The marks left by the crumbling white bones reminded the children of chalk. ‘It’s just like chalk’ they remarked several times. Something about handling the crumbling bones and the rhythm of the rubbing seemed to be also part of the embodied process of remembering.

 

We noticed straight away that the ants were very active and spoke about why this might be.  Several children noted that this was because it was sunny and we discussed how they like to come out of their holes in the dry, warm weather. One child wondered ‘what do ants eat?’, and for the rest of the walk we looked for clues that might provide an answer.

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Under the trees, we found an ant that was carrying something round in its pincers. One child suggested it might be a little pebble. Eventually the ant dropped it and we picked it up and looked at it closely.  It took a bit of handling and close scrutiny to work out that it was a seed of some sort. We also spotted  seed-carried-by-antants crawling up a nearby bench, clustering around something red and sticky. The children figured this was ‘jelly’ or ‘jam’, no doubt left by a previous human visitor.  From these observations, the children gleaned that ants like to eat seeds and sweet things.

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Before we left, we had asked the children to look out for the plants and animals that live in this place. But they were actually doing a lot more than just looking.  They were continually reaching out, touching and smelling the multitude of living things around them. They were getting a sense of the place in very hands-on, engaged and sensory ways.

One child called us over to look at a ‘cactus’ which on closer inspection turned out to be a prickly scotch thistle. ‘Can we touch it?’ several of them asked. They reached out gently, wanting to feel the spikiness of the plant while also taking care not to get hurt.

We stopped at a big sheltering peppercorn tree, which looked enticing and promised to be housing all kinds of living creatures. The branches were hanging low to the ground, at child’s-eye level. One child immediately picked a leaf frond, rubbed it between his fingers and then lifted it up to smell. There was lots of interest in what was making the strong smell, and soon all the children were touching the low-lying leaves and spotting bunches of green ‘berries‘ hanging amongst them. After picking them, rubbing them between their fingers, inhaling the distinctively peppery smell and offering them around to each other – ‘smell this one’ and ‘this one smells very strong too’  – they came to the conclusion that they were not berries but peppercorns.  One of the educators pointed out that these berries might have been ‘bush tucker‘ for the Ngunnawal people.

 

Venturing further under the tree, the children spotted dried insect shells stuck to the lower trunk. ‘Maybe they’re lobsters’ one child speculated, but another corrected him ‘no they’re cicada shells‘. One of the children who was very familiar with cicada shells told the others ‘you can stick them on your t-shirt’ but we decided that we’d leave them there.

When asked what sounds they thought cicadas might make, the children spontaneously joined together in a loud chorus of high pitched buzzing sounds.

The children were only just starting to get a sense of the life in these grassy woodlands  when it was time to go back. It was hard to leave, as there was so much to more see, touch, and smell.  We headed back to the Centre with the promise that were many walks ahead of us, when they would be able to explore the rocks and the lakes edge that they could see at such an enticingly short distance away.

 

Another grassy walk

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The kangaroo grass heads were almost level with the children’s along some sections of the track. Scattered amongst the native grasses, the delicate rattle grasses attracted our attention – and a couple of the children reached out to roll their weeping shell-like heads between their fingers, and to pick them like a bunch of flowers.

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Inevitably, some of the spikiest and stickiest grass seeds lodged themselves in the children’s shoes and socks. So the walk was punctuated by regular stops to pull them out.

One group of children were intent on picking grass-seed heads to make posies and decorate hats. They were quite preoccupied with this task, repeatedly declaring their love of the grasses and of the art of decoration. ‘Now that I’ve made this grass posy, I can get married’, one of them declared.

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Throughout the walk, the children expressed a heightened awareness of the grass, and its various functions and affordances. One child drew everyone’s attention to a flattened area of dead grass, ‘Look, a kangaroo grass bed’ she confidently proclaimed. ‘This is where a kangaroo lay down to sun itself’.

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Others noticed a pile of grass stems and heads scattered on the ground. On closer inspection, they could see that ants were swarming all over the grass stems. They discussed how they were probably picking up the seeds and carrying them down their holes ‘to feed the queen ant’.

Others still, decided that lying around in long green grass and enjoying the warm sun, like the kangaroos do, is particularly enjoyable. They kept commenting on how soft and comfortable the grass was – like a bed. They made grass pillows and covered themselves with grassy blankets, settling right in.

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Weed killer had been sprayed around a park bench that the children were playing on. We warned them not to touch any pink patches of grass, because the pink colour indicates poison. One child, in particular, became fixated on the implications of poisoning the environment. She wanted to know if we would get poisoned if we walked on the grass with our shoes on, or only with our shoes off. She wondered what would happen to the animals that touched the poison grass, and in particular, the rabbits that ate the grass. ‘I think they might have died because they ate the poison grass’ she said, remembering all the dead rabbits that we had seen on earlier walks. ‘I don’t know why people poison the grass and kill the rabbits’ she added, struggling to make sense of such acts.

A couple of children were so attached to the grass that they carried some back to put in their lockers.

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Holding onto the grass seemed to trigger reflections upon its significance to their family life. As we walked, one child told us that her whole family likes grass. Her aunt’s horse eats grass. Her dogs eat grass when they feel sick, and they like to sleep in grassy beds. In fact, her house is full of bits of grass that the dogs bring in from outside. Another explained how her mother uses dried grass to make hats. ‘She made the hat I’m wearing out of grass’ she declared proudly, and asked me to take a photo of it.

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Making Things

 

During our routine visit to the Ngaraka Shrine, we noticed that the children are now handling the kangaroo bones with the kind of confidence that comes from familiarity.  One child picked up a large pile of bones and held them close to her body.  Seeing this random assemblage, another decided it would be a good to ‘make’ a kangaroo by reconstructing a skeleton.  They spent some time picking up various bones and trying to ‘fit them together’.

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It is now late spring. The wild flowers that carpeted the grasses a fortnight ago have either succumbed to the campus maintenance mowers or to their own seed cycles. The children commented on the ‘swishy’ and sometimes also ‘scratchy’ feel of the grass around their ankles and a number had to stop to pull prickles out of their socks.

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Others gathered up soft clumps of dried cut grass and pondered which animals, apart from horses, might like to eat it. They thought that ‘maybe the rabbits’ might also enjoy a meal of ‘hay’.  But there were other grassy re-purposings in store.

 

 

Down by the lakeside, we stumbled across a scattering of partially assembled objects made out of grass, reeds, twigs and bark. ‘Someone else has been here and made these things’ the children observed. They eagerly picked up the objects to examine their structures and test out their various uses.  A couple of boys adapted a braided ring, made out of bulrush stalks, as an addition to their usual stick ‘fishing rods’. Pouncing on a large mat, woven out of reeds and bark, they dragged it to the waters edge: ‘This is a raft – look, look it’s a raft – put it on the lake and we can make it float. … Yes, our raft is floating. … Oh no, its sinking. Pull it out of the water.’

Other children were closely inspecting the materials and techniques involved in making these objects, and wanted to have a go.  So we sat down awhile under the cool shade of the casuarinas and worked on some of our own creations.  We selected the longest and strongest reeds and plaited them together to make our own ropes, belts and braided rings.Combined with feathers and flowers, they made great decorative accessories.

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One child settled himself comfortably at the base of a casurina tree, and made small structures by standing several small sticks together. ‘I’m making lots of sculptures’, he explained, and then described each in turn. ‘This one’s a little shrine, but it doesn’t have bones, it has grass’. And pointing to another, ‘you can actually climb up this one, so it’s kind of like an obstacle course’. 

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After a time, various bugs (such as spiders and slaters) came crawling around the sticks. The child declared this was a shelter for the animals: These sculptures are so bugs and beetles and all sorts of animals can take shelter. See look [a spider] is near my sculpture.  They might be going to my shelter to have a look. … I’ll make some little furniture. Well the grass in there is for being comfortable and here’s some moss to go in this one. 

 

At some point in the midst of all this creative activity, we spotted a number of slightly submerged stakes in the lake – only just protruding.

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It was then that we recalled the plans of the art student we had met a fortnight ago. He had been making stakes from the fallen tree to hammer into the lake floor. He had planned to place things on top of these stakes to give the appearance of something sitting on the water. We realised that this must have been the site where he continued to work on his art installation. The grass and stick assemblages that he had left behind had inadvertently inspired the children in their own creative ‘making’ endeavours.

 

 

Re-emergence

The children were bursting with energy on this walk. Full of excitement and attentiveness, they seemed as enlivened as their fecund surrounds. They were quick to notice that the rabbits were looking very fat after feasting on the lush green grass, and that the grasslands spreading down to the lake had turned into a carpet of wildflowers, harbouring the occasional poppy. Spring has finally sprung!

shrine-bone-rubbingWe stayed a little longer than usual at the Ngaraka Shrine to the Lost Koori. As well as remembering those who came before us, the children were fast to resume their ritual tapping and rubbing of the kangaroo bones on the steel frame, re-evoking pasts in the present. The tolling sounds seemed particularly alive too. They were richer and more resonant than the slightly duller tones of saturated bones on metal made on previous wet weather walks.

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As we approached the still-swollen lake, someone asked if it was a river. Perhaps they had recently seen the nearby Murrumbidgee River in flood and recognised something similar about the spreading water? This led to a conversation about the difference between lakes and rivers.

The children quickly noticed an unusually large scattering of rubbish and debris along the lake’s edge. They could see that it had been swept in from the lake: ‘The rain made the lake come up and the rubbish floated to the shore and got left behind.

We talked about how some of this rubbish might have started off on the streets of the town, and been washed down drains and into the lake – it took some pondering to think about the journey that a piece of rubbish from so far away might have taken only to emerge from the water where we now stood.

A small moth flying past distracted the children from the rubbish, and they were soon off following the fluttering trails of several moths and butterflies, eagerly looking for another as soon as one disappeared from view.  ants-looking-againThese meanderings led the children an ants’ nest that they had not visited for a while and that had seen little ant activity over the colder months.

There was much talk about the return of the ants and wondering at the comings and goings of the ant colony. As they watched the ants drag food down the hole, the children mused on where it could be going: ‘maybe they are taking it to the queen ant’, ‘the queen looks after the eggs’ and ‘she would need lots of food to lay all those ants’!

There was also puzzlement about how the ants navigated their way through the complex nest. One child asked: ‘how do they know which hole to go down?’ while another asked ‘do ants dig?’ The children’s attention turned to the ways the ants went about making their nests, watching as they carried up small stones from underground: ‘one ant is carrying a rock’.

 new-shoots-on-treeNearby was the first of the fallen trees that the children had enjoyed playing on. We asked them if they noticed anything different about the tree. They immediately remembered that it was ‘the big storm that knocked it down’. On closer inspection, however, they could see that one of the main trunks was now sprouting new shoots. It was regenerating despite that fact that it had almost been fully uprooted. The children soon realized the significance of this: ‘I think it’s going to make a new one’ and then ‘we can climb on it again’.

They were eager then to see if the second fallen tree that had crashed to the ground in the recent storm was still there, or if the ranger had already sawn it up and taken it away. This was the tree that the ranger had declared unsafe and they weren’t allowed to play on.

It was still there – cordoned off with plastic warning tape. A sculpture student from the nearby ANU School of Art was doing something with the smaller broken branches and the children gathered around him to watch. He was sharpening the ends with a small axe, making stakes out of the branches.

He was more than happy to talk to the children about his project. He told them that he wanted to re-purpose some of the tree’s damaged timber for an art installation that he plans to locate in the lake. The stakes will support his sculpture. The tree will then become a part of a new structure, rather than simply being sawn up and turned into mulch. He explained that this was his way of expressing something about the connections between people and the environment. We were invited to come along next week to see him working on the next stage of the project.

As we climbed the last hill to the centre, a couple of the children carried with them their own sticks they had retrieved from near the fallen tree. ‘I’m going to make a sculpture out of this’ one declared.

After the storm

A massive storm had passed through town earlier in the week, and the children had many stories to tell.

One child told us of a tree that had fallen across their driveway.  Another recounted how she was in the car when the storm hit. There was a crack in the sky. It was too noisy.  We had to stay in the car and wait for the storm to finish.

We set off on our walk anticipating that there might be signs of the storm. We stopped at a look-out wall to survey the area and talked with the children about what types of things the storm might have left behind. Fallen down things or lots of water, a few thought.

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We could see that unseasonal snow capped the distant mountain-tops.  That was a sign. There is not usually snow in October.  And closer in we could see the ground was littered with tree branches and bark.

As we headed down the hill, the ground became more and more sodden.

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There were puddles everywhere.  Eventually there were so many puddles that they had joined together in what the children called a ‘big lake’.

They spent much time wading through the water and seemed to enjoy testing out the transformation of their usual walkways into these elongated water-ways, exclaiming over and over: ‘So much water. It’s so deep’.

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Some children noticed that the ducks too had come ashore to enjoy the sodden landscape.

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It is unusual for the ducks to be sitting out in the open and not to move when the children approach. Nestled right down into the saturated grass, they seemed to be sun-baking and reluctant to give up their warm spots.

The best find of all came towards the end of the walk – an enormous eucalyptus tree sprawled across the ground!

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This was clear evidence of the storm.  ‘It came down in the storm. I think it was not very strong.’ But it was so big, it was hard to imagine what it would take to blow it over: ‘I think the wind must have been blowing at 350 to knock it down’

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In a chorus of excitement, the children rushed towards the fallen tree. It instantly reminded them of the fun they had had at their last fallen-tree playground, and of the disappointment they felt when it was chain-sawed up and taken away.  They exclaimed: ‘At last. I was hoping there would be another tree fallen down’. ‘Let’s go and play on it’.

A few children peered under the roots to notice the water pooled there, while others lost no time clambering straight onto the wide and inviting tree-trunk. Very quickly, there was a line of children crawling along the massive horizontal trunk, edging their way along towards the tangle of top branches. They behaved a bit like a procession of ants.

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However, this time the children didn’t get far with their wild-weather tree play. A nearby park ranger was clearing up after the storm, and advised that the tree wasn’t safe to play on.

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He had already chain-sawed some of the smaller broken branches, and he was concerned that this might make the tree unstable in places. As we moved away from the tree, we explained to the crest-fallen children that sometimes storms could leave debris that was not always safe to play on.  They reluctantly accepted this. They could see in this case that the sheer size and mess of the fallen tree were reasons to exercise caution.

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As a final stop on the way back, the children were drawn to their familiar ‘rabbit’ hideout,  under the weeping wattle tree – only to notice they could barely crawl under the heavy drooping branches. Clearly this home had also taken a battering in the storm.

Bunnies Alive

The children have had enough of dead bunnies. They told us so in no uncertain terms. ‘We don’t want to see any more dead bunnies. We only want to see ones that are alive!’

They’re still mulling over all the rabbit carnage they witnessed on display at the National Museum of Australia – coming to terms with the realisation that full-scale wars against rabbits are part of the settler Australian story. They told us that they’ve been thinking about how ‘the farmers snapped the rabbits’, about how ‘the rabbits were running around everywhere’ and ‘they were scared’, about how there were ‘so many dead rabbits’, ‘hundreds and thousands and millions of rabbits’. ‘It’s not fair what they did to those rabbits’. One child reflected that rabbits shouldn’t eat the poisoned carrots that the farmers put out for them, because ‘the carrots are just a trick to kill them’. It was clear where their sympathies still lie.

They also admitted that they felt scared watching the rabbits being killed on the film. They wanted reassurance this kind of rabbit killing only happened ‘in the olden days’. They still seemed a little unsure about why so many rabbits needed to be killed, but the idea that ‘they eat too much grass’, ‘there’s none left for the people to look at’, was offered as one possible explanation. This led to a discussion about how some other animals might starve to death if there are too many rabbits and they eat all the grass. They remembered how in the film there was no grass left, ‘there was just dirt everywhere’. They pondered on how everything has to eat something else to stay alive: ‘bunnies eat grass’, ‘foxes eat bunnies’ … ‘but no one eats us’ added one child quickly.

The need for reassurance extended to a desire to see some live bunnies ‘not just dead ones’ on this walk. So we decided that we would go on a ‘live bunny’ hunt – not to harm them, but just to look at them. We agreed that we would need to be quiet so as not to scare them.

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Fortunately we spotted quite a few, some babies amongst them, grazing on the hill. With much ‘shhh-ing’, the children set off in pursuit. One child declared that she was being a rabbit, and that this would help her to get close. They were surprising good at staying quiet, but they weren’t so good at sneaking up.

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As the children barged towards them, the rabbits fled down the hill and straight into a patch of lomandra grasses. The children wearing gumboots followed them inside, but the rabbits were long gone down their burrows. img_6533-1They found plenty of fresh rabbit holes however, as well as other ‘clues’ like rabbit fur and rabbit scratchings.

img_8461Their second attempt at live rabbit hunting was a more measured one. The children slowly and stealthily snuck up the hill this time, heading towards a couple of rabbits they could make out behind some bushes. This time, they managed to get quite a bit closer before the rabbits turned and bobbed away.

 

Just seeing some healthy live bunnies hopping away was reassuring.