Freelance Science Writer & Editor

The cool shade of trees

An occasional blog about plants, people and landscape.

Discovering the sublime in the nature on our doorstep

Viki Cramer - Wednesday, July 06, 2016

When environmental scholar and writer George Seddon arrived in Perth after more than six years living overseas he wrote that he felt cheated. ‘The country was all wrong.’ This was not the Australia of his childhood memory, spent in the fern-tree gullies and on the high plains of Victoria.

He thought the trees were grotesque parodies, gaunt and misshapen. The weathered soils of the Swan Coastal Plain provide miserly nourishment, and the plants growing there appear, at first, all dull grey and scratchy. Their sparse canopies provide little shade.

Spending our leisure time in such a tangle of drab grey-green bush might seem the antithesis of what many of us seek from our interactions with the natural world: a sense of vastness, magnificence, infinity. Too feel small in a big landscape. Or as the eighteenth century Romantics described this power of nature to humble us, we seek the sublime.

The immense openness and isolation of the desert. The cathedral-like atmosphere of the tall forests. An expanse of empty northern coastline. These are the ‘destination’ ecosystems we dream of escaping to whilst stuck in the snag of the daily commute.

Gnarled banksia woodlands and unassuming native grasslands? Well, maybe not so much.

Yet environmental writer Emma Marris points out that our unconscious ranking and sorting of nature into human-centric categories of greater and lesser value means we may be missing out on a great deal of pleasure to be gained by engaging with the everyday nature that surrounds us.

What’s more, the humble ecosystems to be found on our doorsteps of our major cities are likely to have as great a conservation value as the big landscapes we dream of ‘out there’.

Victoria’s native grasslands

Victoria’s native grasslands are one of Australia’s most endangered ecosystems. These extraordinarily diverse grasslands lie on the volcanic plains to the west of Melbourne. Like other native temperate grasslands in Australia, they provided obvious pastures for the first European settlers. Their fate then followed that familiar story-line that haunts so many Australia’s ecosystems found on ‘productive’ soils: overgrazing, fertilising and changes in fire regimes were followed by cropping and in recent years, expanding urbanisation. First degradation then loss.

Less than 1% of the original extent of these grasslands remain as small patches nestled amongst paddocks and growing suburbs. Without careful management of fire or grazing to remove excess biomass, the grasslands can become just that – grass. And while there is much to admire in the muted tones and sculptural grace of the flowers of kangaroo grass, it is the spring fireworks of daisies, lilies and orchids that give a healthy grassland a delicate beauty. They require careful and close observation to be best appreciated. There’s the orbed lemon-heads of scaly buttons, the flared petticoats of milkmaids, and the soft flails of the blue devils.

Perth’s banksia woodlands

As you drive past them on your way to somewhere else, Perth’s banksia woodlands seem not much more than a collection of misshapen trunks and branches twisted at awkward angles, underlined by a mass of straggling shrubs united in their general appearance of only just clinging to life. In late November there is the flare of the native Christmas trees to delight your eye as you round the bend. But, at 100 km per hour, there is little else to distract you from your journey.

If you did happen to stop at the right time of year, you could chance to discover that the delicate patterning on the cone of the firewood banksia is an exact replica of a pair of fashionable fishnet stockings, with intricate double-lacings of thread forming interwoven diamonds. When you run your fingers over the black netting you feel the small mounds of flesh rise up through the fabric. A climbing sundew sends its shoots of cupped anemone-hands upwards, each fingerling tipped with a tiny globule of red, awaiting the hapless insects that stumble into it. Then there are the orchids, here bound to the earth, not to the trees, as are their larger, showier, tropical cousins. In their petals you find the legs of a spider, the ears of a donkey, the pink skirts of a fairy.

These woodlands are also exceptionally diverse. The deep sands that they lie on are of little value for agriculture. But they are close to the ocean, and the woodlands have the misfortune of sharing the length of the Swan Coastal Plain with a city whose ever-extending north–south sprawl is dictated by both geography and lifestyle aspirations. Banksia woodlands now exist only as a scattering of remnants within the Perth metropolitan area, and ongoing urban expansion is likely to lead to the loss of almost 10,000 hectares of the woodlands that remain.

The sublime at your feet

George Seddon came to realise that finding a sense of place in the more subtle landscapes where ‘the hand of man has been heavy’ meant taking an interest in the small things at our feet. If we take the time, we can find a sense of the sublime in the contemplation of wildflowers and the patterning of bark, or in thoughts of how plants make their living. And perhaps we will also find that the value of the patches of grass and bush within our cities and suburbs is not just to the plants and animals within them, but in the pleasure they add to our everyday lives.

George Seddon (2004) Sense of place: a response to environment. The Swan Coastal Plain, Western Australia. Facsimile edition. Bloomings Books, Melbourne.

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    Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
    Viki Cramer   PhD BSc
    Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
    Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
    Perth, Australia
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