Following wildlife trails

Our walk started with quite a deal of eager anticipation and bids to return to familiar places:

to the bark tree to play with the long strips of bark;

bark play

to the lake to see the swans;

running to greet swans

and to the Ngaraka Shrine to see the bones.

We noticed a couple of emerging trends on this walk.

Firstly, it was clear from questions like: ‘I wonder who lives in that tree?’ that more children were taking the initiative to find out who lives in particular habitats and to lead the group to their finds.

looking at bugs in bark 2


While at the bark tree, one child observed that the bark was a home for a nest of spiders and gently lifted a piece of bark to show others.


bugs in bark close up



Looking closer, the children could make out a mix of eggs and newly hatched young emerging from the furled bark.  Although white, minute and barely visible, the children were still able to see the eight legs of the small creatures.


Secondly, we noticed how the wildlife was beginning to draw the children to follow new trails.

IMG_5591It was by following their new swan ‘friends’ (as one child called them) that the children came across an enticing new trail.  After about five minutes of close communing with the children at the water’s edge, the swans eventually turned and swam to feed on a stand of reed beds further along the shoreline. Heading off along the bank in pursuit of the swans, the children came across a track leading under the casuarinas.

They ventured through the tunnels formed by low hanging casuarina branches and into a secluded opening, framed by lapping water, bulrushes, bushes, moss and brambles and scattered with the odd piece of discarded rubbish.  There was no oblivious rushing through this new place. Rather, the things that made up this micro-world – such as submerged driftwood, glass bottles, thistles and soft fronds – drew and held the children’ attention, prompted exclamation and slowed them down. It seemed that every new thing they noticed generated their curiosity and excitement and enhanced the momentum of their engagement.

sticks in water 2

They played there for ages – pulling branches out of the water and trying to tug a waterlogged polystyrene cup in to shore. Periodically, they spotted the swans through the reeds, feeding quite close to them.

touching nest feathers


A bit further along the same trail, some of the children stumbled across something very special – a large round mound made out of casuarina needles, with a central depression.

In puzzling over the find, one child observed ‘I can’t see any eggs’, while another replied ‘but I can see some feathers. That’s clue that it might be a bird’s nest.’



The children were quite tired after following all these lakeside trails,. They stopped to rest on a platform seat before heading back up the hill, and then realised that there was an expanse of ants’ nests spreading out below them. Scurrying ants captured their attention for some time. They observed that when ants ‘work as a team’ they get a lot done. They are learning that if they are still, and just watch, the ants will ignore them.

looking at ants








The Ngaraka Shrine was our last stop. As before, the children immediately ran to the ground beneath the structure to find the kangaroo bones – picking them up without hesitation, handling them, feeling them and inspecting them closely.  Even though this site has quickly become a favourite attraction, it is the disconcerting affect of these bones that remains as at least part of its allure.

making bone music 2


The children couldn’t resist striking the bones against the metal to make tolling sounds  again – although without quite as much force as last time. Some experimented with a new sonic method – rubbing the bones up and down the rusty poles.


After rubbing a bone for some time, one child noticed it had become a dark pink colour. She commented ‘I can see some skin’, inviting others to join her: ‘rub so you can see some skin’.   Given that some other children had just declared that the kangaroos were ‘killed’ and the bones were ‘dead’, this was a somewhat startling connection. And yet at the same time, this child’s rhythmic rubbing to find the hidden flesh of the bones seemed to revitalise the presence of kangaroos at this site.

The week’s trails led us to all sorts of stimulating, provocative and mysterious encounters. It was an action-packed and adventurous walk.

Returning to familiar places and encountering new wildlife

Returning to the same places is one of our main strategies for deepening understanding of who and what lives in the grassy woodlands and for building convivial relations with the local wildlife. By returning to familiar places and wildlife habitats over time, we are also hoping that the children will come to notice the way things change, as well as what is new or unexpected.
As we re-visited some of the sites from our first walk, it soon became clear that the  children are keen to reconnect with the familiar.But they are also compelled to look closer, to begin to differentiate and to start to think differently about what is happening.

bones-close-up-300x225At our first stop, ‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the lost Koori’, the kangaroo bones immediately recaptured and held the children’s attention. Instead of tentatively inspecting the bones and wondering about their origins and volume, as they had on the first visit, this time they got straight into closely examining them. They focussed upon the different types of bones, identifying them with confidence as they picked them up: ‘this is a leg’, ‘this is a nose’ or ‘an arm’. Finding a piece of jawbone with several teeth intact was of particular interest.

To re-invoke the haunting sounds of the first visit, a couple of children started rhythmically beating the metal shrine with the bones. They were cautioned by another child not to beat so hard. She seemed to be attuned to the fragility of the fragmenting bones and concerned that they might be damaged.


The children’s growing confidence with the familiar sights and sounds of revisited places was also apparent in the new initiatives they took to find out ‘who lives here’. On the first visit, we were intent on drawing the children’s attention to the presence of wildlife. On this visit, we noticed that the children themselves were calling out ‘it’s a clue!’ when they spotted a hole in the ground or a scattering of poo, and were inviting each other over to inspect the signs and work out what animals might have left them.

watching swans on lakeWe ventured a bit further down to the lakeside. The children spotted a pair of black swans swimming nearby. They watched intently as the swans changed direction and swam directly towards us. It appeared that the swans were as interested in us as we were in them. As they glided over to the water’s edge right in front of us, the children’s curiosity intensified.

A small group called out welcoming ‘hellos’ and encouraged the swans to come out of the water: ‘come out swannies, no need to be afraid’, ‘come and eat, we have plenty of grass for you’.  Negotiating the proximity zones of interspecies encounters is always a sensitive move, akin to what Donna Haraway calls the ‘dance of relating’. From the human side, there’s a tension between the thrill of coming so close to a wild animal in its own territory and the disconcerting question of safety – especially on the first encounter when it’s still so uncertain.
When the swans eventually waded out of the water and approached us, the welcomingwatching approaching swans children also moved forward to greet them. One child exclaimed: ‘They’re coming close. I love them coming closer’.  Other less confident children drew backUp close, the vibrant red colour of the swans’ beaks and their extraordinary necks drew comment. One child noted that the shining red beaks looked like lollies. Other children commented on the differential scales of bodies, comparing the swans’ long necks to our short ones, and to the even longer necks of giraffes. One or two children interacted directly with the swans, asking them questions like: ‘have you got a baby?‘ This was a special meeting. There was an intimacy to it. The children seemed to be moved by  this mutually curious encounter with intelligent wildlife so radically different to themselves.


After noting with a tinge of disappointment ‘Oh – they’re going now‘, they called out a chorus of ‘goodbyes’ until next time.


Maybe knowing that we will return to the familiar and encounter wildlife anew is already part of the way children experience this place.



Tonya and Affrica

Reflecting on the scale of our common worlds

The children seemed to enjoy our first walk, despite the unseasonal autumn heatwave. We were all keen to get to know each other and the wildlife that lives in the grassy woodlands where we will regularly walk. There was much enthusiastic spotting of birds, insects, and rabbits, as well as following clues and tracings – like spiders’ webs, animal scratchings, mysterious holes and poo.

How lucky are we to have such rich nature-culture environs so close to the centre. The grassy woodlands are heritage listed for their high environmental value. According to the ANU site inventory, this is a rare remnant ecology, resembling pre-colonial times, and very bio-diverse. The area is also full of amazing landscape sculptures that speak directly to this place and its entangled human and nonhuman past-presents.


Koori shrine childrenTo set the scene, we stopped at the sculpture: ‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the Lost Koori’. The first thing that grabbed the children’s attention was the pile of bones on the ground – so many of them. Clearly confronted by the realisation that they were standing on bones, they picked them up to feel them and take a closer look. They asked lots of questions about whose bones and how they got to be there. The children seemed to be variously impressed, relieved and concerned to learn that they’re actually kangaroo bones. Someone asked if the artists had killed the kangaroos to make the sculpture. This encounter with bones triggered memories of finding dead animals on other walks. There were lots of stories.

Some children started striking the bones against the rusted metal frame. The haunting sounds of bones on tubular metal seemed to momentarily toll these past events into the here-and-now. Click here to hear the children’s tolling sounds …


We spoke about the fact that Kooris have lived in this country for a very a long time and that the shrine sculpture is here to remind us of this. We’ll keep returning to it at the beginning of our walks, and keep remembering.


Reflections upon the scale of both time and space featured in this first walk. Some children intently zeroed in on the micro-worlds of small creatures and felt the enormity of their own bodies in comparison to those of tiny bugs. Others noted that ants themselves vary in size and how even a small ant can carry an object much larger than itself.


A sudden loud explosion, that reverberated across the lake, took us all by surprise. It prompted the birds to fly away shrieking and provoked the children to speculate once again. Some of the theories included dynamite, road works, an alien spaceship, a volcano erupting and asteroids or meteors hitting the earth. Quite a seismic jolt beyond the world of ants!

Affrica and Tonya

Weathering in wild weather times

In our initial exploration of this walking place, the intense heat of the morning sun provides a none-too-gentle reminder of the wild weather times in which we live. The presence of the sculpture ‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the lost Koori’ (Mundine and Foley, 2001) also reminds us that while we only pass through this place briefly, the process of weathering continues unabated. The rusty red steel frame and bleached kangaroo bones beneath attest to the ‘weathering’ wrought by sun, rain, wind and cold. At the same time, I reflect that this is not only the ‘weathering’ of erosion, corrosion and decay, but ‘weathering’ as resilience and a lively continuing of peoples, stories, memories and materials that linger and move through this place along with the ever-changing elemental conditions.


The relationship between humans and weather is complex. It is easy to think of the weather as somehow external to us, or something that happens ‘to us’, when we venture outdoors. Tim Ingold (2007) challenges the idea that humans and weather can be neatly distinguished from each other, by proposing instead that we are part of a ‘weather world’, mingling with the elements in ways that are inseparable. Over the coming months I plan to engage with new ways of thinking about children’s relations with the weather. By walking in this place with a small group of children, parents, educators and researchers, I am interested in exploring questions such as: How might we attune more closely to the everyday affects of the weather? Are there ways that we can think about human/weather relations that could open up new pedagogical possibilities for environmental education in early childhood settings? And how might our immediate weather experience provide insights into the wider challenges of climate change? Given that humans are deeply implicated in the changing climatic patterns the world is experiencing, these questions are also posed within an ethics of responsibility to better understand our own part within the ‘weather world’.


‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the lost Koori’

The photo that signposts our new research collaboration features a sculpture called ‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the lost Koori’. This Indigenous remembrance sculpture is set in the grounds of Canberra’s Australian National University campus – the place where we will soon walk with children and wildlife in these wild weather times.


The sculpture is the work of renowned Aboriginal artists, Djon Mundine and Fiona Foley – constructed in 2001 out of kangaroo bones and paper bark (seen on the ground) and a steel tubing frame that has now rusted its sheltering form into the landscape.

Standing aside one of our soon-to-be regular walking tracks, it bears witness to the legacies we inherit in this colonised land. As a permanent landscape feature that ‘refigures presences’ (as Fikile Nxumalo puts it in her most recent publication), it will act as a reminder that we always walk in the footsteps of others. As we pass it by, we will remember that this is Ngunnawal country, and that this land has been traversed, imprinted, shaped and reshaped for millennia by all sorts of beings. As a constant reminder that we dwell upon and move across land that is not just ours, we hope that this sculpture will prompt us to keep pondering the implications of our own entanglement in the messy colonial and ecological inheritances that make up this place.