A walk in the bush

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mist over Yengo National Park at dawn

This week's blog is a bit 'random', as my offspring would say, as I have been unexpectedly away from my desk, trekking through the bush seven hours a day for the last three days and thus unable to prepare the blog I had intended to write - all in the name of science. I was helping (or possibly hindering) with my daughter's honours year research study - carried out with the approval of the National Parks and Wildlife Service - examining small mammals in bushfire-ravaged regions. The area we traversed, deep in the Yengo National Park, was remote and isolated: an experience both liberating and rather terrifying for a city-dweller such as me - and one which took me back to the bush properly for the first time in some 40 years.

Young Corymbia (Eucalyptus) foliage

I grew up in the Blue Mountains, our house being right opposite a large tract of natural bushland, and when I was a child, the gully was a playground for me, my sisters and the other kids who lived in our street. We spent hours roaming around down there, discovering an enormous cave, which became our headquarters. We built cubbies, played wonderful games of hide and seek, and had many adventures, which would probably be deemed highly dangerous these days - but as long as we came home for dinner, our mothers didn't seem to worry too much.

Lambertia formosa

I can't say that when I was young I took a great interest in the native plants that grew in our gully, except for those that for some reason or another tickled a child's fancy. Over the last few days, I have encountered plants that took me back to those happy days of my childhood, but I saw them with new eyes: as a gardener. One flowering plant I instantly recognised as what we used to call 'honeysuckle': we used to pull off the flowers to drink the sweet nectar at their base. I now know this is actually called Lambertia formosa (3m, also known as honey flower or mountain devil) , a member of the Proteceae family. It flowers through most of year.

Another food-related plant that we used to take note of was one with a small bright yellow and brown pea-like flower, which we called 'eggs and bacon'. This too I have seen this week, and identified it as possibly Dillwynia juniperina (prickly parrot pea, 2m). Even after all these years, it was immediately familiar. It only had a few blooms: it generally is in full flower in late winter and spring. Overall, there was not an abundance of flowers in the bush, but those that we saw, such as the silky purple, iris-like Patersonia sericea, glowed like a smattering of beautiful jewels amongst the grey-green foliage.

Seedpod of Banksia serrata

The region I have been in this past week has many Banksia species, and I remembered how fascinated we used to be by the seedpods of the old man banksia (Banksia serrata, ht 10-15m) with its amazing scary 'faces' with strange lips and eyelids: we pretended they belonged to some weird alien. The bush where we were is covered with these at the moment, and I stopped to stare at the quirky seed pods. But now I also appreciate the wonderful gnarled shape of the branches of this tree and its wonderful chunky foliage, which looks as if it were cut with a pair of pinking shears. Many of the Banksia in this region are regrowing after fire, with fresh, lush leaves.

Young Xanthorrhoea australis

From an adult's perspective, I also admired the variety of textures that abound in the Australian bush. My childhood impression was that the plants in the bush all had the same small-leaf texture. But I noticed this week the many contrasts to these: the beautiful linear form of the now very trendy grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis, ht to 2m at maturity), and the graceful weeping foliage of Casuarina stricta (ht 10m) in one area of the park that we visited; along with the bold leaves of juvenile gum trees and thin curly leaves of what we used to call old man's whiskers, but which I now know is Caustis flexuosa, a perennial sedge, which still does remind me of a strange green beard.

Burnt gum tree

The fire-blackened trunks of many of the noble old gums in the area also brought back poignant memories of my childhood gully, which was totally destroyed by a bushfire in the mountains in 1968, that burnt down more than 80 homes. It was quite horrible seeing our bush reduced to a blackened sea of stumps, which glowed bright red for many nights after. I never went into the gully again after that, as the bush suddenly seemed sinister and menacing, and perhaps for that reason I never became interested in bushwalking as an adult.

Cute antechinus

But standing in a pristine wilderness as I did this week, with total silence all around, it is hard not to be awed and amazed. And I have learnt new skills: such as how to distinguish between such native mammals as an antechinus, a dunnart and a bush rat. I have to take my hat off to my daughter, for her resilience in carrying out such an arduous study and her patience as I scrambled arkwardly up the cliffs on my hands and knees, lost of vital tools, and botched many attempts to 'help'. As for me ... a cappuccino in a crowded metropolis is beckoning for tomorrow, but I won't quickly forget my walk in the bush.