Rabbits in the Grass and Stinky Fish

As we finally move into cooler Autumn weather, we’re starting to notice how the change of seasons affects the children’s wildlife interactions. The kangaroo grasses have grown tall and are seeding. There are no reptiles to be seen now, but the rabbits seem to be thriving. Now that the snakes have gone, the children have started to venture into the grass in pursuit of the rabbits.

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The children are very attuned to the feel of the grasses on their skin. Some reported that the grass was a bit scratchy on their legs. They reached out to test if the grass was “spiky” or “soft”, running their hands up the grass stems to the seeds on top, noticing that the different parts of the grass have different textures and feels.

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When the children approach the grass, they often see a rabbit dash out and head towards the warren at the rock wall. The children can see that rabbits are very shy and very fast. They figure out that these rabbits not only like to eat the grass, but they also like to hide there, now that it’s so long.

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As one group of children started to play a game of hide and seek in the grass, another child appeared to make the connection between this game and the rabbits’ behaviours. Dropping down into the grass, he called out: “Look, I’m a camouflaged rabbit. I’m camouflaged in the grass”. This idea seemed to catch on and suddenly there were a few children who became rabbits – crouching down to hide in the grass, and then suddenly popping up, when disturbed, and hopping away.  They kept repeating the phrase ‘I’m a camouflaged rabbit’ and spent some time munching on imaginary carrots.photo

 

It’s always interesting to how the children’s encounters with other species, even fleeting ones like these, stimulate their curiosity about what it would like to be that other animal. And they exercise this curiosity about ‘other-than-humanness’ in very embodied ways. Their ways of becoming another animals is very corporeal and multi-sensory . In this case, the children not only moved their bodies in rabbit-like ways, but they did so as they moved through rabbit territory. So presumably they felt the friction of the grass against their bodies as the rabbits do, and smelt the same grassy smells that the rabbits smell. This is about as close as any human being can come to rabbit being.

 

The children’s curiosity about other creatures is no less so when they are dead. In fact dead creatures seem to be even more compelling. As we walked across the grass next to the lake, we came across four large and rotting dead fish. They looked like carp. As with the kangaroo bones, there was a certain amount of discussion about how they they came to be there. Many of the children were keen to take a look, despite the stinky smell.

photo[1]Holding their noses to get as close as possible, they noticed many things – including the scales falling off the skin, and the exposed ribs and backbones. Some saw bugs crawling in the stomach remnants – which they referred to as “muck”. One astute child commented that another animal must have been eating the dead fish as half of their bodies were gone  – “maybe a fox?” he suggested. They seemed quite fascinated by all of this, but in particular they were transfixed by the faces, and the ways in which the fishes’ gaping mouths gave them a certain foreboding look. A couple of children surmised from the look of their faces that they were “bad fish” and this is why they were dead. They speculated that you could tell  if they were good or bad fish “because of their mouths”. This seemed to resolve something for them, about the scheme of life and death.

Having satisfied their curiosity, and without any apparent sentimentality, they were happy to leave the dead fish and head back up the hill towards the centre, stopping briefly to remember the lost Kooris at the Ngaraka Shrine.

 

 

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;

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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

‘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.

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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.

Affrica