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.

 

 

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.

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.

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’.

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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.

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?

 

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