Sites revisited: Memories and dilemmas

There were no surprises on this walk. Instead, the children retraced their steps, recalling events associated with sites they had visited previously, reminding us that place is a strong repository of memory.

As usual,  the children looked for interestingly-shaped bones at the Ngaraka Shrine and tried to identify them. We had our regular discussion about shrines being places for remembering, and the children noted, as before, that this shrine is the place to remember ‘the kangaroos that have died’ and ‘the Aboriginal people that were here first’. A couple of children set about constructing their own mini-shrine out of bones – a shrine within a shrine.

shrine within a shrine

 

up rabbit wall

 

As we headed off down the hill they searched for the possum tail they had found on the last walk at the ‘big teeth’ sculpture. It was nowhere to be seen, so they abandoned the search and quickly scrambled up the rock wall, pausing briefly, as they usually do, to inspect the rabbit burrows before heading off to the lakeside.

 

water  concentric circles

Unlike on previous walks, there were no waterbirds to be seen this time. In their absence, the children engrossed themselves playing with sticks and stones. They used the sticks to splash the water and prod the little pebbles at the water’s edge. They threw the pebbles into the water, trying to propel them out as far out as they could. The concentric rings that spread out from the impact of stones on water became the mark of a successful throw.  The water afforded familiar patterns of response to their stick and stone incursions.

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Sifting through the multi-coloured pebbles, the children were keen to find some ‘precious stones’ and ‘jewels’. The potential ruby turned out to be a piece of red plastic, ‘maybe from a bike light?’, and on closer inspection, a look-alike ‘emerald’ was just a worn fragment of a broken green bottle.

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IMG_0820A large shiny object, which looked a bit like a big smooth rock from a distance, turned out to be a plastic bag full of sand. These rogue pieces of waterside trash prompted the children to reflect upon the hazards that plastics pose to water-birds and fish – ‘they can die from eating the plastic’. The conversation was a repeat from previous visits to the lakeside and a reference to knowledge gained in the classroom. The children were clearly grappling with what they might do with this disturbing information. And once again, they faced the dilemma of wanting to protect the wildlife by removing the plastic from the beach, but at the same time remembering that they are not supposed to pick up trash.

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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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.

Dead bunnies

Our plan for this week was to follow up on the children’s different kinds of rabbit interactions and engagements with a visit to the Rabbits in Australia exhibit at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It’s an easy walk from the Centre – or so we thought. As we set off, we were buffeted by cold, wet, westerly winds. There was fresh snow on the mountains overnight, and we could feel it in the wind gusts. So much for the spring weather we’ve been enjoying recently. If felt like winter had returned with vengeance.

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Heads down and braced against the wind, we’d only made it as far as the first road crossing when we stumbled across a sodden rabbit head. Even though the children have become quite accustomed to finding dead rabbits, it was a bizarre find, and seemed like an eerie sign. We continued on, but the discovery of the severed rabbit head prompted the children to break out into a nervous rhythmic chant: ‘dead bunny head, dead bunny head’.

 

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It was a relief to get to the museum, out of the elements and into the warmth of the foyer. We made our way down to the ‘People and Environment’ gallery, which houses the ‘Rabbits in Australia’ exhibit.

In line with the theme of this particular gallery, it explores the diversity of relationships that different Australians have had with European wild rabbits, since they were introduced by setters in the mid 19th century. These include some Indigenous people’s incorporation of wild rabbits within their narratives and cultural artefacts, rural settlers’ reliance on rabbits as a free source of food during the depression years, and the sale of rabbit pelts for a livelihood.

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Predominantly though, the exhibit features the wide range of tactics used by farmers and government authorities to try and halt the spread of rabbits and to reduce their numbers. This information is conveyed through film footage of fumigating and ripping burrows, accounts of the release of the rabbit calisivirus, and displayed artefacts like sections of the Western Australian rabbit-proof fence, old rusty traps, and a .22 rifle.

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The children were clearly taken aback by all this emphasis on killing rabbits, but their reactions were also mixed. They were openly curious about the technologies of rabbit hunting. Many kept asking how the rabbit traps worked, and didn’t seem that impressed with the explanation. They struggled to understand why so many rabbits needed to be killed, and how they were harming the environment.

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When they watched the large neon map of Australia up on the wall light up in red to show the rapid spread of rabbits across the continent, it did seem to help them apprehend the scale of the rabbit problem, with comments like: ‘There’s a lot of rabbits in Australia, yeah’ and ‘Woah. Rabbits all along Australia’.

 

 

However, most of all they expressed a great sympathy for the rabbits. As they clustered around a small screen to watch a documentary ominously entitled ‘Menace of the Rabbit’, they were aghast at the sight of so many rabbits being slaughtered and skinned. ‘Poor bunnies’ they kept repeating, and ‘that’s so horrible’; ‘that’s not fair for the rabbits’.

Back in the big open space of the main foyer they seemed to have recovered from the shock of these images. Setting aside the heaviness of the newly dawning realisation about the significance of invasive rabbit populations and the cruelty of human retaliation, they quickly fell back into the comfort of their customary rabbit play.

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Laughing and scrambling across a long lounge with holes in the back at each end, they called out gleefully: ‘we’re rabbits and we’re going down into the rabbit hole’.

 

Warming Up

Nearly everyone eventually took off their jackets on this walk. It’s starting to warm up – enough for a number of children to swap their beanies for shade hats – and for underground life to be stirring and slowly emerging on the surface. We spotted our first baby rabbit venturing out of its burrow, and lots of purple spring flowers. Snake season looms, and we’ve told the children that it’s no longer safe to run into the long tussock grass to play rabbits.

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The lake is full to the brim after so much winter rain. There is one particular lakeside spot under the casurina trees to which the children return time and again. On this occasion, they really settled in – presumably because the warmer weather makes it more conducive to hang around at the water’s edge.

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A group of children started laying casurina branches in the water as ‘homes for the fish’. This gradually shifting into ‘We’re making beds for the fish, so that they’ll come and we can catch them’. After some uncertain conversation about how they would pick the fish up, once lured into these homes or beds, a few children wandered off to find trusty stick ‘fishing rods’. Some also went looking for ‘bait’.

 

 

The fishing activity was engrossing. There was a lot of serious ‘shh-ing‘ going on, lest the fish be scared away. It seemed like the hope of a ‘catch’ was enough motivation to maintain their focus and attention for quite a while.

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cormorants

 

Once abandoned, the children were quick to refocus their attention upon the next group game. The adults were trying to get them to watch 3 cormorants that were diving for fish out on the lake, but the children were more intent on heading up to the rock wall where the rabbits live.

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As soon as they reached the top of the wall, they dived straight under the weeping acacia tree that has been their favourite ‘rabbit’ hideout on the last few walks. As if injected by a new surge of energy on this relatively warm day, the gang of ‘rabbits’ took on a whole new aggressive persona. No longer huddling under the tree to shelter from the cold winds and avoid being spotted, they loudly declared themselves to be ‘carnivore rabbits’ that ‘like eating people’.img_6469 The leafy rabbit hide turned into a mustering point where squadrons of ‘killer rabbits’ plotted and launched their repeated raids – attacking the adults standing around outside.

Once again, the high-spirited ‘rabbits’ had to be coaxed to leave their tree-hide when it was time to return home.

Returning to the fallen trees

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The children were keen to return to the fallen trees, which have become a favourite playground over the last week. We had intended to look for animals in their branches, but there were still few to be seen out and about in this cold weather. Instead, quite a few of the children themselves became tree animals, resuming the play they had started on the previous walk.

 

 
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One child became a possum, climbing on the branches and hissing at the children below. He was looking to see if they had any food for him to eat. The children are familiar with possums. There are plenty that visit the preschool playground at night, leaving their tell-tale possum poo on the paths and in the sand pit. In lean times, it’s not unusual for the children to see them during the day, staring down from their vantage points above. They come out when they smell the fruit and are waiting to eat the scraps.

The possum boy in the fallen tree was enjoying the view from above. He stared intently to see what was going on below, and then crawled along the trunk, hissing loudly to attract the attention of a group of children at the ‘top’ end of the tree. They were being koalas in the leafy canopy. They were too preoccupied with the business of hiding in the leaves to notice him. ‘I’m a camouflaged koala’, they repeatedly told each other, and ‘I’m eating leaves’.

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Another child, who had been quietly watching the possum, decided to follow suite. He started off as a baby possum, crawling along the same tree trunk, but suddenly changed his mind and declared himself to be a ‘transformer green tree frog’. ‘Look I’m a hopping green tree frog’ he said.

 

 

 

Apart from the children, there were few live animals to be seen in the fallen tree. However, some long-gone small creatures had left behind their tell-tale marks.

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One of the bare tree trunks was imprinted with the long, windy tracks of previous wood eating occupants, and another spotted by insects holes and pimpled with the small raised bumps of insect larvae.

The children were fascinated with the patterns and textures of these bug habitats. They ran their fingers over the lines and bumps.

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Paper tracing worm marksworm mark rubbings

Inspired by the insects ‘drawings’ on the wood, they made their own imitations with paper and pencils – tracing the lines and making rubbings of the textured surfaces.

By now keenly attuned to the different kinds of markings on the trees, some of the children took another look at the wrinkles in the bend of the tree trunk. They had been running their fingers over these wrinkles on the previous walk. They noticed that they were not like the lines carved by the bugs, but couldn’t quite work out how they had come to be there.

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They were not so perplexed by the ‘cut’ in the trunk, however, which they immediately identified as a ‘bleeding sore’, and as evidence that the tree had been injured when it fell.

The children’s close and pensive inspections of all these scars suggested that they had a sense of the fallen trees as more than just their playground. Although mysterious and not always easy to ‘read’, the inscriptions they were tracing on the surface of the tree trunks, seemed to bear witness to the fact that these trees have had their own lives and stories to tell.

 

Following our noses

We started this walk by following our noses – like dogs do – and immediately stumbled across some sweet smelling signs of spring-to-come!  A flowering daphne bush and a lone bunch of jonquils.

We experimented with rubbing leaves between our fingers, and sniffed the oily scent that they left on our hands.

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The ‘dogs’ ran into the variegated tree cubby to have a quick sniff around, but after noting the damp smell of bark, and a whiff of wet rabbit poo – everyone seemed to burst into faster-paced animal play. There was more yapping, leaping, bouncing, flapping, screeching and growling than smelling going on.

Standing on the lookout wall, just behind the donuts, the children took in the panoramic view – down the grassy slope to the kangaroo grass, the large eucalyptus trees, the lake, and beyond to the distant mountains. ‘It’s beautiful’ one boy observed as he gazed out. In the distance, we caught sight of the first live rabbits we’d seen out and about for ages. They were just little dots, cautiously hopping around the edges of the long grass. Without the binoculars we couldn’t really see them properly. Below the rise, some of the children spotted some leafy branches sticking out on an odd angle.

As they ran down the hill, the full story revealed itself. It was a whole clump of toppled eucalyptus trees. ‘The storm must have blown them over’ someone observed. ‘Maybe it was on the day that it snowed?’ It was clearly the work of a massive force, for the trees had been lifted out by their roots and smashed to the ground. Their broken limbs were lying about, all entangled. The scene of stormy destruction was hard to imagine on this still and tranquil day, when it just seemed alluringly like an adventure playground.

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The children swarmed over the fallen trees. There was so much to see and everything was at eye level. They inspected the mangled branches, the exposed roots, the crumbling bark and soil, the wrinkled elbows on the trunks, the marks and bugs on the leaves. It didn’t take long before the children were wrapping their own limbs around those of the entwined trees.

 

They spent a long time climbing along the horizontal branches, straddling them, wriggling along on their bums, lying on their tummies and gripping with their arms. A group of the tree climbers turned into growling ‘tree bears’ and one boy became a whistling bird. His whistles seemed to prompt a nearby magpie to break into song.

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The children could have played in these fallen trees for hours, but lunchtime was fast approaching and we had to make our way back up the hill. We’re all hoping that they will still be there the next time we walk.