The one-legged swan

[Walk – 27 April 2017]

We decided to walk to a different place today – to the lakeside cove due east of the Centre. We’d noticed before that lots of water birds often hang out in this cove.

As soon as we arrived, the children spotted a pair of swans standing on a grassed area by the lake’s edge. As we got closer, they noticed that there was something curiously different about one of the swans. It only had one leg.  This prompted much discussion: Swans don’t have one leg. Swans have two legs. They never, ever have one leg. Never, ever.

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Despite having only one leg, the swan was perfectly balanced, occasionally pecking at the grass and at other times looking up at the inquisitive children.  Taking all this in, the children started to wonder how the swan could have lost its other leg.

They started talking to the swans: ‘Hello Hello’ they chorused, slightly mimicking the swans’ honking tones.

standing one leg1

 

 

A couple of the children began to mimic the one-legged swan: I’ve got one leg.  I can balance on one leg. This quickly caught on, and soon all of the children were trying to balance like the one-legged swan.

In the midst of all the action and excitement, the swan quietly put down its concealed second leg. Oh! Look! It’s got two legs! It was hiding!  It was as if the swan had tricked them. The children laughed and laughed. swan two legs

As the swans started to walk towards the water, a couple of children noticed that one was scratching itself. This familiar action prompted them to further identify with the swans’ embodiment: ‘I scratch when I get itchy’ and  ‘I do too, like when I get a mosquito bite’.

For the rest of our walk the swans paddled in the shallow water, following us along the edge of the lake. Some of the children had noticed the swans pecking at grass earlier, and decided that grass must be what swans like to eat.

They kept feeding grass to the swans at regular points along our walk, explaining  ‘Looks like they want more dinner. They want more grass. The wind is blowing it away. They really like it. …. They are still following us.’

The gentle autumn sun made us all feel like staying outside a little longer. Some children lingered by the path, and after spending time finding an ideal ‘writing’ stick, started scratching images and words across the path. Some wrote their names while others drew pictures. I’m drawing a machine, one explained.

drawing with sticks4drawing with sticks3

drawing with sticks2

Initially, some expressed concern that the drawings would get rubbed out, perhaps because ants, people, tractors might go over it. However, this was only a fleeting concern. Quickly absorbed in the new activity, the children seemed content to work with the dirt path as a temporary surface.

As we headed back, the wind picked up blowing the dust around, already lightening the trace of the children’s markings on the ground.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

rabbit-artefact   piles-of-dead-rabbits

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.

rabbit-map

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’.

 

What remains

This week, the children carried magnifying glasses. The first things that drew their attention were the kangaroo bones at the Ngaraka Shrine.  Some crouched low, studying intently the intricacies of the bone textures and shapes.bones through glass

Others walked around holding their magnifying glasses up to the sky.  This led to an unexpected discovery as one child, holding a magnifying glass at arms length, found that it made things appear upside down.  Others soon caught on and the children delighted in this new way of looking at each other and more distant objects such as trees – ‘Everything is upside down’ and ‘You look upside down.

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Before long, the children remembered their favourite spot from the last few walks. ‘Let’s go to the fallen trees!’. They ran in eager anticipation towards the site that had become so familiar.

heading to trees

But what disappointment! Where the tangled trees had once lain sprawling and invitingly across the ground was now a bald clearing. There was nothing remaining of their favourite fallen tree playground but some sawdust and a few scattered bare stumps. The area had  been ‘cleaned up’, as had the small shelter the children had built with the branches.

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Oh no‘ they kept repeating in shock. After recovering from their initial dismay and disbelief, the children started to reminisce  – ‘I remember I used to crawl along this’ and ‘Now I can’t climb on there anymore’. They noticed a pile of tell-tale sawdust and fresh cut marks, quickly connecting this with the recent work of chainsaws.They examined the sawdust trails with their magnifying glasses, thinking they might lead them to the culprits – the ‘bad’ people who had sawn up and taken away their fallen trees.

 

trees gone cut traces                         2016-08-18 10.39.47

With some encouragement, and their magnifying glasses still to the ground, they eventually set off towards the kangaroo grasslands, looking for new trails.

There, they found ample evidence that the rabbits were out and about again. There were new scratchings everywhere. As well as plentiful signs of rabbit life, a small group of children stumbled upon the remains of yet another dead rabbit. Its decomposing body held their attention for quite some time. Armed with their magnifying glasses, they intently studied the details of the rotting corpse – spotting a centipede crawling inside the stomach cavity, noting that the fur was coming off the skin and there were lots of exposed bones. ‘I can see where its eyes were’, ‘I can see its nose. Its nose is peeled’.  ‘Hey guys’ they called out to alert the other children, ‘dead bunny, another dead bunny, with a centipede on it!’ The subsequent discovery of tufts of rabbit fur in a nearby grass clearing seemed to trigger their imaginations of yet another crime scene, and as with the cleared fallen-tree site, they started speculating about what might have happened.

dead rabbit - 18 aug walk

As if mapping the action, one child offered this explanation: ‘Maybe a fox grabbed the bunny and pulled out its fur, and then picked it up and ran over here, and killed it. But it didn’t eat it all, and it ran away down there’.

This reminded another child about the day that a fox killed her pet chook. There was an air of sombre acceptance about the fate of small animals who become prey to others – a moment of fatalistic reflection on the harsh life and death realities of the food chain. ‘I’m sorry this happened to you bunny’ declared one of the children.

With the remains of the fallen trees and the bunny now witnessed, registered and remembered, it seemed the children were ready to move on. After all, it was a lovely sunny late-winter day, with the promise of spring to come, they wanted to be out in it. A bit like the rabbits, they returned to whole-heartedly immersing themselves in the warming world around them.

grass rabbits

This meant that the rest of the walk was spent by many ‘being rabbits’. Pealing off their winter coats, many children hopped enthusiastically through the grass. Eventually tiring themselves out, they found a small weeping acacia to be their new tree-cubby ‘rabbit home’.

rabbit home2Uncannily, this walk, with its unfolding theme of (tree and rabbit) loss, remains and remembrance, was intermittently marked by the sounds of the Long Tan Vietnam memorial event, being held at the nearby Australian War Memorial. It started early in the walk, with the arresting distant boom of repetitive cannon fire. By the time the children had become rabbits in the grass, their play was accompanied by the reverberating sonic roar of a large formation of vintage war planes circuiting the city. The planes did several laps and were quite deafening as they zoomed directly overhead.  For the children being rabbits under the weeping acacia, this reinforced the need to further retreat into their bushy hide-away:

We don’t like noise

Those are army planes’

We don’t like noise or army planes

We like hidingrabbit home3 sleeping

This is the perfect spot to hide

‘I’m going to be sleeping now’ [snoring sounds]

‘This rabbit is sleeping

Uh oh! Person!  Evacuate, evacuate!’

No, we just have to hide a bit more. No one can ever see us’.

When it was time to return to the centre, the rabbit children had to be enticed out of their new hiding place with the promise that we would soon return.

trees gone carrying last bit

 

One child carried a souvenir from the cleared fallen-trees – a remnant branch that she had held onto resolutely for most of the walk.

While in many ways this walk was marked by the memorialised sounds and visions of loss and destruction – there was nonetheless a strong sense that ‘what remained’ was far from a static, mournful and lifeless shell of past lives and events.  The children seemed very able to respectfully witness, grieve, remember and move on, and in the process, to creatively transform the remains of the past into an emergent and lively present.

 

 

Threads of connection

rainsun contrast

On this walk, we skirted the edges of alternating sunny blue skies, and looming dark rainclouds. This unstable weather brought with it the interchangeable experiences of brightness, shadow, warmth and cold and a continually shifting and enlivened quality of light.

One child commented that the trees were ‘sparkling’, as the sunlight caught on the multitude of fresh rain drops on the leaves.  Another child compared this to being out in the night, recalling that when he looked up at night time it was all ‘sparkly’ from the stars.

beetle camouflagedbark with shadows

On the damp ground, the saturated vegetation was rich in tones.

The children noticed the deepened colours of the bark, leaves and grass, both in shadow and in sunlight.

The base of a eucalyptus tree was littered with long strips of newly fallen bark.  The children were intent on finding the longest possible piece to play with.  Once located, this length of bark accompanied the children for quite some time. They took it in turns to carry it along with them.

puddles and bark1 croppedpuddles and bark

 

 

 

 

The children seemed to be holding onto the long bark as a thread of connection; one that linked them together as they walked and as well as acting as a moveable thread of attachment to the entities and places they were passing by and through.

One of the most notable things they came across while walking with the bark was (yet another) dead rabbit. This one lay exposed on its side on a grassy hillside. Once again, they started to guess about what had befallen it, with thoughts ranging from ‘maybe a fox got it’ to the more frivolous suggestion that ‘maybe the Easter Bunny hopped on it‘?  The children stood gazing at the rabbit for quite some time. It was only at the prompting of the adults that they moved on.

dead rabbit no 2

The lake water was higher and rougher after an extended period of rain. The children thought it was ‘a bit like a flood, and noted that the water ‘is nearly up to the trunks’ and ‘its got bigger waves.
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When one of the adults mentioned that the water looked browner than usual, a child responded with the unexpected conclusion: ‘there must be a rabbit in the water’.  Although now standing at the lakeside, he seemed to be drawing stronger threads of connection back to the earlier encounters with dead rabbits than to the particular qualities of flood-waters.

 

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.