As the chill of winter touched the Western Plains, I headed north again for another weekend in the Macquarie Marshes. It was early May. This was to be a quick, overnight trip to document another stage in what I hoped to be the wetland’s recovery from years of drought.
…the silence of the cold autumn night was marked by the rasping calls of plovers guarding their territory from night predators…
Since my last visit at the end of February, the water had arrived – spreading across the reedbeds and channels, seeping slowly into the deep cracks and crevices of heavy grey soils, soaking parched and burnt roots in the Nature Reserve and on the fringes of “Burrima” – burnt in a fire at the end of October last year. Intermittent bubbles of air rise through the stained water, as water slowly bleeds into pores of air in the dry soil.
The transformation has started. It’s by no means complete and to say there was an overwhelming presence of bird and insect life would be a gross exaggeration. At least there were few mosquitoes. However, the silence of the cold autumn night was marked by the rasping calls of plovers guarding their territory from night predators. Small numbers of ibis could be seen stalking their way through shallow waters on the edges of the timber, ducks and water hens called across the channels of water behind stands of reeds , and the woodland birds tittered and twittered between high branches and reed thickets, including some inter-species bickering. A black swan, Burrima’s namesake, flew overhead late on Saturday afternoon, as kookaburras chuckled in the dying light.
There was recent evidence in the mud of pigs and kangaroos having been there , but I only sighted two roos across the plain in the early hours of Sunday morning while I was out flying the drone. Thankfully I didn’t encounter the big feral boar I’d been told about by “Burrima”‘s Aboriginal cultural adviser and long-time resident of the area, Bertie Bartholomew.
The plain to the west of the woodland belt that fringes the “Burrima” wetland has also seen rain since February. The light grey, gilgai-pocked soils blanketed in leafy, woody Marshmallow and the invasive shin-high Noogurra burr with its spiny fruits was thick on the ground – both very effective at covering the vast lines of foot-swallowing holes that exist in these soils.
Mounds of closely splaced Poverty bush and saltbush seemed brighter than I remember in February – washed of the layers of dust that had blown across the western plains over summer. Dispersed amongst the prickly shrubs, on what is still bare ground, are clumps of now denuded Darling lilies and stands of Native tobacco with their tall bouquets of delicately petalled white flowers.
Standing guard over the plain at “Burrima” are two ancient Coolabahs estimated to be at least a thousand years old. Thick, gnarly and twisted like rooted serpents. The old giants have mostly likely witnessed the dynamic state of the wetland over centuries, and the impact its flux and flow has on the populations of vertebrates and invertebrates who call this place home – the permanent residents and the visitors. These wizened guardians were the focus of my pre-dawn Sunday morning, as I flew my drone over and around them, panning along their thick, old arms, slowly and lovingly, as the rising sun bathed them in golden light.
There’s a constructed tension that exists between having a full field recording kit with lots of empty SD cards and short time-frames to work in.
Arriving with the usual expectations, I had my recording plan on paper, a checklist of equipment and what I would capture with it – with just enough room in the schedule to ‘go with the flow’. The use of underwater cameras and microphones, along with a new infra-red field camera set up to run overnight overlooking a lagoon on the edge of the Nature Reserve, yielded some unexpected but interesting results. Yet this visit had me struggling with frustration at the lack of control over what was being offered up. The clock was ticking and I felt I had little time to simply be still – to really listen. The birds were coy about being seen, there was no frog song, and the waters still trickling into lagoons and shallow water holes were turbid from the construction of the boardwalk that now loops for 1.8km through the woodlands of “Burrima”, amongst the River Red Gums and out to the open reedbeds and the boundary with the Nature Reserve. In truth, my expectations were arrogant.
What I missed, until I gave into the serendipity forced upon me, was the quiet beauty of what had happened in the intervening months since my last visit; the hint that with a wet winter and the promise of more environmental flows this is just the crescendo, spring would bring the real action. There’s a constructed tension that exists between having a full field recording kit with plenty of empty SD cards and a short time-frame to work in. Learning to let go is something I’m working on – still, after all these years. I bow my head to Mother Nature, who always tends to have the last word.
In the meantime, there’s funding to secure, stories to gather, more reading and research, ideas to be exchanged with those who care deeply for this land and believe in the power of art to bring others into the conversation. I’ve barely begun.