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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

After the storm

A massive storm had passed through town earlier in the week, and the children had many stories to tell.

One child told us of a tree that had fallen across their driveway.  Another recounted how she was in the car when the storm hit. There was a crack in the sky. It was too noisy.  We had to stay in the car and wait for the storm to finish.

We set off on our walk anticipating that there might be signs of the storm. We stopped at a look-out wall to survey the area and talked with the children about what types of things the storm might have left behind. Fallen down things or lots of water, a few thought.

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We could see that unseasonal snow capped the distant mountain-tops.  That was a sign. There is not usually snow in October.  And closer in we could see the ground was littered with tree branches and bark.

As we headed down the hill, the ground became more and more sodden.

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There were puddles everywhere.  Eventually there were so many puddles that they had joined together in what the children called a ‘big lake’.

They spent much time wading through the water and seemed to enjoy testing out the transformation of their usual walkways into these elongated water-ways, exclaiming over and over: ‘So much water. It’s so deep’.

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Some children noticed that the ducks too had come ashore to enjoy the sodden landscape.

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It is unusual for the ducks to be sitting out in the open and not to move when the children approach. Nestled right down into the saturated grass, they seemed to be sun-baking and reluctant to give up their warm spots.

The best find of all came towards the end of the walk – an enormous eucalyptus tree sprawled across the ground!

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This was clear evidence of the storm.  ‘It came down in the storm. I think it was not very strong.’ But it was so big, it was hard to imagine what it would take to blow it over: ‘I think the wind must have been blowing at 350 to knock it down’

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In a chorus of excitement, the children rushed towards the fallen tree. It instantly reminded them of the fun they had had at their last fallen-tree playground, and of the disappointment they felt when it was chain-sawed up and taken away.  They exclaimed: ‘At last. I was hoping there would be another tree fallen down’. ‘Let’s go and play on it’.

A few children peered under the roots to notice the water pooled there, while others lost no time clambering straight onto the wide and inviting tree-trunk. Very quickly, there was a line of children crawling along the massive horizontal trunk, edging their way along towards the tangle of top branches. They behaved a bit like a procession of ants.

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However, this time the children didn’t get far with their wild-weather tree play. A nearby park ranger was clearing up after the storm, and advised that the tree wasn’t safe to play on.

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He had already chain-sawed some of the smaller broken branches, and he was concerned that this might make the tree unstable in places. As we moved away from the tree, we explained to the crest-fallen children that sometimes storms could leave debris that was not always safe to play on.  They reluctantly accepted this. They could see in this case that the sheer size and mess of the fallen tree were reasons to exercise caution.

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As a final stop on the way back, the children were drawn to their familiar ‘rabbit’ hideout,  under the weeping wattle tree – only to notice they could barely crawl under the heavy drooping branches. Clearly this home had also taken a battering in the storm.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Threads of connection

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Finding stillness on a windy day

On this cool, windy day, the children scuffled along through the autumn leaves.

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Some ran on ahead before playfully falling to the soft grass aided by the gentle force of the wind. One child took advantage of the large fallen leaves, setting them to sail on the lake as little ‘rafts’. Another gathered a bundle together to take along with her.

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This autumn day also seemed to invite a multitude of birds to the lakeside surrounds. Some ducks came to visit the children while they were ‘fishing’.

ducks visiting east lake

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In the distance, a flock of Cormorants perched on a rocky outcrop.

The children were captivated by the stillness of the birds, whispering quietly ‘they are standing like a statue’.

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When a helicopter flew overhead, the unexpected noise disturbed the birds setting them in flight.

Despite this flurry of activity, it was the memory of the birds as motionless on the rock that seemed foremost in the children’s minds. A few commented for some time afterwards ‘I think they were statues, because they were not moving’.

 

 

It is easy to get caught up in thinking that children need action, motion and excitement to draw and keep their attention. Yet, on this windy walk, as on others, it was just as often the small things that were still or barely moving that captured their curiosity.

 

caterpiller.JPGFor instance, as a group of his friends ran through the leaves, one child spotted a small caterpillar on a leaf and gently lifted it out of the way to a safer place.What was it about the unassuming presence of this small creature, in midst of such activity and commotion, that first drew his attention?

 

 

 

Noticing these child-bird and child-caterpillar interactions reminds us that the intimacies of stillness can be as compelling as the excitement of movement on a blustery day.

Wet Walking

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Walking on this first cold wet day did little to dampen the children’s enthusiasm and energy. If anything, they were enlivened in new ways as they tested out the feel of raindrops, of slippery wet objects, and drew in the new smells arising from the damp earth.rain - tasting1 crop rotated version           rain - tasting2 crop rotated version

A number of the children found different ways to feel the rainwater. One child reached out and ran her fingers along a cold steel rail to collect several drops before bringing them to her mouth to taste. Another turned his head to the sky, closed his eyes and poked out his tongue. He then wandered around for sometime, collecting as many drops as he could in this way. When asked by the adults to describe what the rain tastes like – he seemed bemused. Perhaps he was intent on catching rain on his tongue for other reasons – to feel the coolness of the drops, to sense the weight or force of falling water ….? Not all sensory experiences are easy to articulate.

However, it was clear that the childrenlooking were affected in new ways on this wet walk.Some children knelt down to investigate the new sponginess of the grass. They commented that the earth smelt wet. Screwing up her nose, one child declared that the rain made everything smell ‘disgusting’, like ‘yucky wet poo’.

A group ran to find shelter under the glossy dense canopy of a kurrajong tree where the ground was still dry.

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The children noticed some of the differences that wet weather made to familiar sites.

bones green in rain

At the Koori Shrine, the kangaroo bones had changed colour.  They had taken on a distinctively green hue, revealing the ways in which rain activates the mossy spores that are otherwise barely visible on their sun-bleached calcium surface. IMG_7845

A couple of children picked up the green bones and continued their ritualistic scraping on the frame of the sculpture. This time, instead of producing a bell-like sound, the friction of wet bones on metal was clearly cause fragments of bone to disintegrate and stick to the rusty surface.

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The nearby sculptures that the children have named the ‘donuts’ are always a draw card. Their smooth low surfaces are perfect for the children to drape their bodies on and to practise balanced walking. In fine weather, the children have felt how the smooth masonry surface absorbs and holds the heat of the sun. In the rain they found that the surfaces were not only cold, but also very slippery. They had to attend more carefully to securely navigate their footing.

 

Because this was our first wet walk, it was also the first time we had encountered puddles.

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The water that had pooled on the bike path proved to be a predictable magnet – especially to those children who had worn their gumboots. With intent focus, the children repeatedly jumped in the puddles. Their efforts had multiple effects. Their boots made loud splashing sounds which they tried to amplify by jumping more and more heavily. The impact of their jumping bodies caused the water to shoot up into the air, and after the event, to ripple out in concentric circles. Testing the limits of their force, the water finally (and inevitably) splashed into their boots and wet their socks. All part of the children’s wet weather worlding experience.

 

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As well as their own bodily encounters with the wet weather world, the children came across other species that were differently affected by the rainy weather.

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For the first time, they found a line of mushrooms that had sprung up close the lake foreshore. Aware that mushrooms can be poisonous, and they should neither eat nor even touch the ones they find, they limited their curiosities to looking from a respectful distance.

 

 

Another unexpected find was a dead rabbit. It was a sad but also rare opportunity to see IMG_7867a rabbit up close. Without any obvious marks on its body, the children wondered how the rabbit might have died – ‘maybe he ran too fast?’ one speculated. One child was particularly concerned about the apparent vulnerability of this dead rabbit, so clearly exposed to the cold wet elements. ‘He might get all wet’, she said as she and the others looked down at the still small body.

 

 

 

Weathering in wild weather times

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

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

Tonya