Lakeside at last

[Walk – 13 April 2017]

We had promised a walk to the lakeside.  Despite the children’s determination to get to the lake, they still moved slowly, distracted by various sightings on the way. Many were keen to point out changes they noticed since our last walk.

orb spider remains

One child rushed over to tell us that the Golden Orb spider was gone, and when we looked closely we could see that there was nothing more than a few strands of web remains.

Others ran to the exact spot where tiny, delicate mushrooms had been spotted previously, only to be disappointed to find they had gone.  Fungi nonetheless still featured on this walk, and it wasn’t long before there were exclamations of ‘look, look mushrooms … lots of mushrooms!’. These mushrooms were mostly old and decaying, but nonetheless intriguing.

following ducks

The sighting of a small group of ducks near the water’s edge drew the children’s attention and hastened their arrival at the lakeside.  Knowing how easily the ducks are frightened, they restrained their desire to rush and tiptoed towards them. Once we arrived under the soft, drooping branches of the foreshore Casuarinas, the children settled in to the environs of the waters’ edge.  This was the first time this group of children had been to this part of the lakeside before. They were soon collecting feathers, navigating the slippery moss at the water’s edge and ‘fishing’ with sticks – repeating the previous group’s favourite patterns of activities.

 

Once again, the combination of sticks and water seemed to offer a compelling invitation for the children to pause and connect with underwater life.

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Unexpectedly, a swan glided up through the reeds and startled the children by coming within a few metres. This provoked much discussion: Look a swan! I think its looking for its baby.

After the walk, when the children recalled this chance meeting, they responded with many excited ‘swan’ noises.

On our walks we have at times stumbled across a variety of ephemeral, almost whimsical, human-made installations.  This walk was no exception. As the children ran off calling to each other ‘Come on, let’s go to the next forest’, they soon slowed as they entered the next stand of trees.  Several curious artefacts came to light.  One woven reed structure had been constructed the same height as the children’s heads, so they could walk under it and imagine what it might be.  The children’s speculative musings stretched from spiders to washing lines:  Someone made this.  It looks like a spider web. … Maybe it is used for washing. It could be for washing.

As we headed back to the Centre, the children noticed an interesting tree.  At first, it wasn’t quite clear why it was so striking, and only on closer inspection did we discover it was ‘half dead and half alive’. tree half dead alive1

Even more intriguing, in between the two trunks – one of which seemed clearly dead and the other alive – was a third with some newly sprouting leaves. tree2

The children seemed to sense a certain ambiguity as to whether the tree was living or dying as they reached out to gently touch the textures on the trunks.   IMG_7763

 

As a couple of the children climbed through the lower branches, another heeded ‘Be careful. You might take all the skin off it’.  This reference to the shedding bark captured a sense of vulnerability that seemed to surround this otherwise imposing and tall eucalypt.

 

 

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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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.

 

 
possum in tree watching boy

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’.

green tree frog

 

 

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.

sniffing jonquils       in tree cubby

 

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.

After the Rain

After a few days of steady rain, and with the sunshine starting to break through, we set off to see what animals might be venturing out of their shelters after such a long period of wet weather. The children were definitely feeling a bit restless and cabin-bound. They were very bouncy – itching to get outside and have a good run around.

A number of the children mentioned the rainbows they had seen that morning, noting that rainbows only come out when there is both sun and rain together. They clearly understood that rainbows signal emergence at the transition between wet and fine weather.

cocky

The first thing we noticed was that the cockatoos were back. We instantly recognised their incessant screeches and when we looked up, we could see that they were upsetting a family of noisy miners nested high up in the eucalyptus trees. The plucky small miner birds were swooping the huge cockatoos, and finally succeeded in driving them away, amidst a crescendo of squabbling and squawking. This noisy burst of action turned out to be the liveliest moment on the walk. The sun was struggling to fully emerge, the wind was bitterly cold and there were few other creatures to be seen.

 

The ants’ nests were damp and sodden. They seemed deserted. It was only when we looked closely that we started to spot first ‘one’, then ‘two’, then ‘three’ ants out and about, but they were moving very slowly – as one child noted ‘maybe its because of the cold’. Studying a nest intently, one child commented ‘It looks like the bark got pushed on to it’, providing a unique perspective on the way that the fragments of sticks, bark, and earth had weathered together.

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There were two fresh holes at the edge of the nest. We could see that they both had ants working away near their openings. The ants were pushing out the debris that the rain had washed down.

green groundcoverred mushroom

Water saturated ground has generated all kinds of spongy growth, much of it vibrant in colour. The children were attracted by the verdant green ground cover that had appeared since the last walk, and they enjoyed its soft and springy yielding feel under their feet. The odd bright and colourful mushroom also caught their eye.

smooth barkfeeling bare trunk

The pale trunk of a Eucalyptus tree was glowing in the semi-sunlight. It bore the marks of its previous dark grey bark, now shed and lying in long shreds at its base. One child reached out to touch the bare trunk, getting a feel for its new slippery smooth texture.

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The enveloping canopy of the peppercorn tree provided temporary shelter from the cold wind. Its low broad branches proved irresistible for those children who like to climb. They found perches in its boughs, rested their back against its coarse trunk, and wrapped their bodies around its solid limbs.

dismembered dead rabbitFollowing their regular sightings on the last few walks, the children were on the look out for dead rabbits. They deliberately tried to remember where they had last seen one and to find it again. One child was a bit hesitant, saying she didn’t really want to see a dead rabbit again. Yet, when the dead rabbit was found, she became quite animated and rushed off to share the news with others. Perhaps it was because the find was a little more noteworthy or gruesome, as this dead rabbit was well and truly dismembered. Its hind legs were separated from its torso and its furry remains were scattered around. dead rabbit in half

In passing on the news, the child described the detail: ‘There’s a bottom and two legs. And there were other pieces’. A few of children gave this rabbit a name – that’s ‘the dead bunny of half’ [laughter]. ‘Maybe someone chopped it in half?’ one pondered. ‘Must have been a fox’ another wisely surmised.

 

The wind was picking up force when we all decided it was time to head home. After starting the walk with some gusto, the children had run off their pent-up energy, seen enough damp, soggy, wildlife – dead and alive – and their fingers were cold. Presumably feeling like most of the animals that live here, they were keen to retreat to a sheltered place. We returned to the warmth of the centre.

 

Sheltering

Snow clouds were gathering over the Brindabella Mountains, and when the westerly wind gusts blew across from them, we were pleased to be so rugged up. One child noted the force on her body when she commented ‘I’m trying to walk this way but the wind is pushing me back that way’. It was definitely not conducive weather for animals to be on the move – there were very few out and about. We didn’t even see any rabbits run out of the grass. We asked the children to think about where the animals go when it’s so cold.

Rabbit grass home

They found the first possible answer to this question in the tussocky grasses  – a round hollowed out form that they hadn’t noticed before. It was not quite a burrow – more of an above-ground hole. It looked like the kind of place where an animal might temporarily stop for shelter, rather than permanently live. We weren’t sure if the rabbits made the hollow shelter, or some other kind of animal. ‘Could be a rat?’ one the children suggested, but the rabbits had definitely used it.

rabbit grass shelter

 

We knew this as they’d left their tell-tale scratchings and droppings at the front door. Once the children’s eyes were attuned to the shape of this grass hollow shelter, they started to notice that there were quite a lot of them. ‘Here’s another’ someone would call out, inviting others to run over and inspect.

 

 

 

 

 

rabbit toilet

 

In stark contrast to the noticeable physical absence of rabbits in the grass, there was (as always) abundant evidence that rabbits still live here – in increasingly large numbers.  Rabbit markings – scratchings, burrows, piles of poo – have become a ubiquitous feature of the landscape, seemingly reshaping it now on a daily basis. The children have become so accustomed to the signs of rabbits everywhere, that they’ve become quite blasé about them. For instance, they’ve taken to regularly chanting ‘Another rabbit toilet’ in ‘ho-hum’ tones, as they walk along.

 

dead rabbit no3

 

They were not quite so blasé when they came across yet another dead rabbit, lying next to a burrow. These encounters with dead rabbits have become a regular occurrence, and we’re beginning to really wonder what’s going on. This time, the rabbit’s body had been partially eaten and was starting to decompose. ‘I can see the spine bones’ one child commented – perhaps also recalling the kangaroo spine bone fragments they often identify at the shrine.

 

 

The semi-enclosed pathways under the casurina trees beside the lakeshore are always a drawcard, but they exerted a specific kind of pull in this weather. The children quickly ran across the exposed open parklands to get there. Once ‘inside’, they came across a pair of wood ducks and a few purple swamp hens also sheltering in this relatively protected space.

watching swamp hen

 

They immediately stopped running, clustered together and started to creep along – trailing the shy swamp hens. ‘Shhh’, ‘shhh’, they kept reminding each other to stay quiet, knowing from past experience that the swamp hens are very easily startled and would fly away if someone made a loud noise.
blanket for fish

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of children started gathering fallen casurina branches and throwing them into the lake. When queried, they explained that they were ‘making a warm blanket for the fish because they must be cold’.

 

On our way back to the centre, the children couldn’t resist stopping off at one last favourite spot. This time it was the covered thicket of garden bushes that drew them in. They’d inspected its dark understory many times before, for animal traces. Today it became the children’s own shelter – their ‘home-corner’ cubby.

home under bush

 

Lively routes and grounds underfoot

 

pinecones drawing

 

We took paper and pencils with us on this walk, and the children experimented with drawing and rubbing various textured objects such as bones and pine cones picked up along the way.  The pine cones created spiky patterns across the paper.

 

 

 

 

 

One child decided to draw a map, explaining: ‘This is the shrine. This goes to the donuts. And this goes to the bird nest. And this goes to the forest. And this goes to the museum.’

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The lines represented the routes the children often take when walking between key sites. It seems these routes are significant to the children’s growing appreciation of this area as an interconnected landscape, as well as their own sense of connection to it.

 

 

 

 

 

While we are walking from one site to the next, the children often stumble across unexpected small finds. They must be watching their feet, and being so close the ground, there are lots of small things scattered along the route that catch their attention. Having spotted them, they are often compelled to stop and pick them up in order to inspect them more closely. In this instance, it was the attraction of a piece of discarded bark that caused one child to stop, pick it up and inspect it and for others to gather around. Breaking open the bark, she saw it was imprinted on the inside with tracing marks – evidence that some grub must have lived there. On closer inspection she could see that a wood borer was still burrowed inside a crevice in the bark.

borer

She spent some time trying to entice the grub onto her finger: ‘Come here little caterpillar … Don’t be shy’. It finally emerged from the crevice, though still resisted crawling on to the child’s finger.  The child observed how tightly it was holding on to the wood: ‘he’s really sticky’. She found that turning the wood over and shaking still failed to dislodge the creature: ‘It can’t even fall off!’.

 

 

Some other children stumbled across another puzzling find.  They spotted a large brown skin casing  lying on the ground near a small hole. This drew speculative comments such as: ‘It looks like a millipede’ and ‘Maybe it just got out of the hole’.

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Others soon called out: ‘more over here’ and ‘I found a little hole here’.

Casing

 

We discussed how this was not a creature that was dead or ‘squashed’ (as some children had thought at first), but rather a discarded skin or casing that was soft to touch and empty inside. Whatever creature had been living in the ground had now emerged and taken on a new life form. We wondered what it was.

 

A dead beetle was also spotted with its head some distance from the body: ‘Someone broke its head off’ one child observed.

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Another child stayed with the beetle for a while, covering it with leaves and saying: ‘I’m going to make it a house so it can sleep in it’ and musing ‘maybe it’s just sleeping’.

While walking along, it’s not just the ‘where we’re going’ that the children are focused upon. They are very much in the moment, closely attuned to the minutia of their surrounds, and curious enough to want to pursue any small and unexpected encounters in the lively grounds underfoot. These, in turn, provoke questions about when and whether found small creatures are dead or alive, how we might respond to such finds and what remnants might reveal about what a creature once was or may now be.

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.