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.

Stickiness and sticks

We started our walk by taking some time to lie on the grass – to simply be there and attune our senses to where we are and what is going on around us.  The children noted the grass was ‘prickly’, ‘furry’ and ‘soft’. While some children lay still, others invariably rolled around or got up and moved around to try lying and sitting positions in various spots close by.

From this perspective, some of the children’s attention was drawn to a pile of pine cones; the very same type they had looked at earlier in the Centre when they had broken one open to see what was inside.

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The old brown cones were distinctly ‘spiky’. Yet, it was the green ones – which looked smooth and inviting – that surprised us when we picked them up. As one child commented ‘it’s very sticky’, with others chiming in ‘sticky, sticky’!

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The tacky texture of the pine sap on our fingers acted as a reminder of this sticky encounter for some time after.

In all of our walks the children have interacted with the sticks that are scattered around. At various times they have all picked up sticks to carry with them, whether it be big, small, forked, leafy, rough or smooth.  Sometimes they drag the sticks behind them, use them to poke at holes in the ground or prise the bark off trees.  Some also use them playfully, tickling each other with the soft fronds of a fallen casuarina twig.

Today, the children spent much time ‘fishing’ with an assortment of sticks and pieces of reed.  Bending over the water’s edge, the children called ‘come on fishy’ and ‘come on, you can make it’.

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At various ants’ nests, the children stopped to observe the flurry of activity.  On previous walks, we had talked to the children about not stomping on the nests or poking things down in the holes so the ants wouldn’t get cross or upset.  The children seemed to remember this, standing mostly at the edges and noticing how the ants would go about their business (and even crawl over the children’s shoes) without causing any harm.  ants and sticks1This time, they adopted a new method for enticing the ants to come a little closer. Picking up a nearby stick, the children laid it gently on the nest, entreating the ants to crawl on to it and towards their hands. Occasionally, if the ants were not quite active enough for their satisfaction, the children would bang the nest with the stick to get a reaction, before reminding each other that it might be best to keep the stick still.

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Reflecting on the relations between children, sticks and wildlife, it seems that sticks are more than simply random inert tools. Strategically positioned, they might entice ants to move in a direct line towards children. Straddling above- and under- water worlds, they might attract unseen fish and, at the moment of touch, connect them back to children. The sticks materialise seamless interconnection – lining up bodies and providing a tangible conduit between human and nonhuman wildlife. It’s clear that sticks allow children to exceed the physical limits of their own bodies – to reach out and touch inaccessible wildlife. But perhaps they also forge more affective connections for the children, akin to what Sara Ahmed calls ‘sticky attachments’. These are the kind of emotional relations that bind subjects together across difference. In this affective sense, the sticks could be functioning as ‘sticky’ lines of attachment, adhering or bonding the children with the hard-to-reach creatures of this place.

Some unusual finds towards the end of our walk had the children puzzling.

artefact 1Along the bank was a series of wild (human) creations including combinations of feather and pine cones, grass woven into the forks of trees, a canoe-shaped formation of sticks and a tangled mass of netting hung high in the branches overhead.

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After following this little trail of mysterious clues, one child observed ‘I think someone’s been making lots of stuff here!’

The children dragged some larger sticks back to the Centre to add to their own creative project – a fence interwoven with pieces of wood collected over time.

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Perhaps this creation is another way of articulating the sticky entanglements of grassy woodlands wildlife and their own lives in this place?

 

Visible signs and hidden worlds

As the children become more familiar with the places we visit, they ask if we can return to particular sites.  This week we had requests to go the rocky bank and to the pathways under the casuarinas along the water’s edge.  The children were particularly keen to see if the birds nest (from last week) was still there. The nest was located; though it was in a somewhat disheveled state and showing little sign of habitation.  lake return

While we were pondering on the presence of the nest, a water bird feeding in the reeds captured the children’s attention.  Noticing that this bird was more easily frightened than the swans, the children approached cautiously; tip-toeing and whispering ‘shh’ to each other in their attempts to get a closer look.  From a distance of several metres the children followed the bird as it darted through the reeds and grasses and eventually back to the water.

Purple swamp hen

One child commented that he loved the way the bird ‘ran so fast in the water’.  Later, after the walk, the children looked through a field guide to find the name of the bird – it was a purple swamp hen.

We found that following the movement of the birds through air, water and land required us to adjust our own modes of moving if we wanted the birds to stay a while. Observing in this way required us to pay close attention to both the bird’s and our own presence.

In thinking about other animals that live here, we soon came across a different type of challenge: how could we possibly come to understand the habits of the wildlife that live beneath the surface?  We have witnessed an ant dragging food to its nest, but it soon disappears to territory that is invisible to us.  There is so much more to this place than what we can see, and attending to what lies beneath is not an easy task.

This week, the children had a chance to wonder at these hidden underground worlds. On our approach to the rocky bank (a steep incline covered in large rocks, small trees and shrubs), several scuttling rabbits caught the children’s eye.

rocky bank - on way

Some rabbits were startled and ran away across the grass, while others retreated to their burrows. Through all this activity, the children’s attention was drawn to the multitude of rabbit holes in the rocky bank. Peering into holes, and discovering new ones concealed by over-hanging rocks, kept the children busy for sometime.

standing on rabbit burrowThey became aware that underneath them was a network of tunnels where the rabbits lived: ‘I’m on the top of the rabbit hole’ exclaimed one child as he stood on a rock, while others called out ‘I can see another rabbit hole’ and ‘there’s so many’.

There were also clues as to how the homes were made, such as piles of dirt out the front of the holes and fresh scratching. The children enjoyed the feel of the newly turned dirt. It was easier to pick up and move around than the hardened earth elsewhere.

Towards the end of the walk, some children lay down in the cool, damp grass in the shade.  Watching the children enjoy the soft and prickly texture of the grass was a reminder that there are many ways we can get to know this place. It is not only about what we can see, but also about what is hidden and what all our senses might reveal.

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