Making Things

 

During our routine visit to the Ngaraka Shrine, we noticed that the children are now handling the kangaroo bones with the kind of confidence that comes from familiarity.  One child picked up a large pile of bones and held them close to her body.  Seeing this random assemblage, another decided it would be a good to ‘make’ a kangaroo by reconstructing a skeleton.  They spent some time picking up various bones and trying to ‘fit them together’.

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It is now late spring. The wild flowers that carpeted the grasses a fortnight ago have either succumbed to the campus maintenance mowers or to their own seed cycles. The children commented on the ‘swishy’ and sometimes also ‘scratchy’ feel of the grass around their ankles and a number had to stop to pull prickles out of their socks.

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Others gathered up soft clumps of dried cut grass and pondered which animals, apart from horses, might like to eat it. They thought that ‘maybe the rabbits’ might also enjoy a meal of ‘hay’.  But there were other grassy re-purposings in store.

 

 

Down by the lakeside, we stumbled across a scattering of partially assembled objects made out of grass, reeds, twigs and bark. ‘Someone else has been here and made these things’ the children observed. They eagerly picked up the objects to examine their structures and test out their various uses.  A couple of boys adapted a braided ring, made out of bulrush stalks, as an addition to their usual stick ‘fishing rods’. Pouncing on a large mat, woven out of reeds and bark, they dragged it to the waters edge: ‘This is a raft – look, look it’s a raft – put it on the lake and we can make it float. … Yes, our raft is floating. … Oh no, its sinking. Pull it out of the water.’

Other children were closely inspecting the materials and techniques involved in making these objects, and wanted to have a go.  So we sat down awhile under the cool shade of the casuarinas and worked on some of our own creations.  We selected the longest and strongest reeds and plaited them together to make our own ropes, belts and braided rings.Combined with feathers and flowers, they made great decorative accessories.

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One child settled himself comfortably at the base of a casurina tree, and made small structures by standing several small sticks together. ‘I’m making lots of sculptures’, he explained, and then described each in turn. ‘This one’s a little shrine, but it doesn’t have bones, it has grass’. And pointing to another, ‘you can actually climb up this one, so it’s kind of like an obstacle course’. 

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After a time, various bugs (such as spiders and slaters) came crawling around the sticks. The child declared this was a shelter for the animals: These sculptures are so bugs and beetles and all sorts of animals can take shelter. See look [a spider] is near my sculpture.  They might be going to my shelter to have a look. … I’ll make some little furniture. Well the grass in there is for being comfortable and here’s some moss to go in this one. 

 

At some point in the midst of all this creative activity, we spotted a number of slightly submerged stakes in the lake – only just protruding.

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It was then that we recalled the plans of the art student we had met a fortnight ago. He had been making stakes from the fallen tree to hammer into the lake floor. He had planned to place things on top of these stakes to give the appearance of something sitting on the water. We realised that this must have been the site where he continued to work on his art installation. The grass and stick assemblages that he had left behind had inadvertently inspired the children in their own creative ‘making’ endeavours.

 

 

Returning to familiar places and encountering new wildlife

Returning to the same places is one of our main strategies for deepening understanding of who and what lives in the grassy woodlands and for building convivial relations with the local wildlife. By returning to familiar places and wildlife habitats over time, we are also hoping that the children will come to notice the way things change, as well as what is new or unexpected.
As we re-visited some of the sites from our first walk, it soon became clear that the  children are keen to reconnect with the familiar.But they are also compelled to look closer, to begin to differentiate and to start to think differently about what is happening.

bones-close-up-300x225At our first stop, ‘Ngaraka: Shrine for the lost Koori’, the kangaroo bones immediately recaptured and held the children’s attention. Instead of tentatively inspecting the bones and wondering about their origins and volume, as they had on the first visit, this time they got straight into closely examining them. They focussed upon the different types of bones, identifying them with confidence as they picked them up: ‘this is a leg’, ‘this is a nose’ or ‘an arm’. Finding a piece of jawbone with several teeth intact was of particular interest.

To re-invoke the haunting sounds of the first visit, a couple of children started rhythmically beating the metal shrine with the bones. They were cautioned by another child not to beat so hard. She seemed to be attuned to the fragility of the fragmenting bones and concerned that they might be damaged.

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The children’s growing confidence with the familiar sights and sounds of revisited places was also apparent in the new initiatives they took to find out ‘who lives here’. On the first visit, we were intent on drawing the children’s attention to the presence of wildlife. On this visit, we noticed that the children themselves were calling out ‘it’s a clue!’ when they spotted a hole in the ground or a scattering of poo, and were inviting each other over to inspect the signs and work out what animals might have left them.

 
watching swans on lakeWe ventured a bit further down to the lakeside. The children spotted a pair of black swans swimming nearby. They watched intently as the swans changed direction and swam directly towards us. It appeared that the swans were as interested in us as we were in them. As they glided over to the water’s edge right in front of us, the children’s curiosity intensified.

A small group called out welcoming ‘hellos’ and encouraged the swans to come out of the water: ‘come out swannies, no need to be afraid’, ‘come and eat, we have plenty of grass for you’.  Negotiating the proximity zones of interspecies encounters is always a sensitive move, akin to what Donna Haraway calls the ‘dance of relating’. From the human side, there’s a tension between the thrill of coming so close to a wild animal in its own territory and the disconcerting question of safety – especially on the first encounter when it’s still so uncertain.
When the swans eventually waded out of the water and approached us, the welcomingwatching approaching swans children also moved forward to greet them. One child exclaimed: ‘They’re coming close. I love them coming closer’.  Other less confident children drew backUp close, the vibrant red colour of the swans’ beaks and their extraordinary necks drew comment. One child noted that the shining red beaks looked like lollies. Other children commented on the differential scales of bodies, comparing the swans’ long necks to our short ones, and to the even longer necks of giraffes. One or two children interacted directly with the swans, asking them questions like: ‘have you got a baby?‘ This was a special meeting. There was an intimacy to it. The children seemed to be moved by  this mutually curious encounter with intelligent wildlife so radically different to themselves.

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After noting with a tinge of disappointment ‘Oh – they’re going now‘, they called out a chorus of ‘goodbyes’ until next time.

 

Maybe knowing that we will return to the familiar and encounter wildlife anew is already part of the way children experience this place.

 

 

Tonya and Affrica

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

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