On a warm weekend at the end of February 2021, I returned to the Macquarie Marshes to spend a night on “Burrima” – almost 12 months to the weekend since I made my first field recording trip.
I have a sharp memory of that first visit, camping in a dry channel on the north-eastern boundary of the property, alongside the Northern Nature Reserve. The flies were thick and it was hot. There was the stench of dead kangaroos rotting under the giant River Red Gums left standing after three years of drought and the fire that had ripped through the Nature Reserve and into Burrima the previous October. The ground was bare and the reeds were like straw, some burnt like stubble, tender green shoots sprouting beside their charred stumps on the back of a few summer showers.
But that night brought the biggest shock. Silence. As I lay in my swag under a tarp in the back of the ute, I listened carefully for the sound of the Marshes at night – for a whisper of wind rustling the reeds, a wild pig rooting around, the hoot or squawk of a bird settling in for the night. There was nothing except for the whine of one mosquito trying in vain to get through the fly veil that I’d worn to bed.
Fast forward to late February 2021 and not only has the Marshes undergone a transformation, so to has “Burrima”. The construction of the concrete boardwalk through the trees and reedbeds was just getting started when I visited last year. Now, it’s settled into the landscape, the reeds growing over, through and around it. The observation tower on the north-east boundary with the Nature Reserve has a valance of reeds at its base. Flowers and saplings are pushing their way into the picture, while the River Red Gums have left their imprint on the boardwalk – leaf-shaped tannin stains stencilling the path where it winds through the stands.
The silvery floodplains normally dominated by saltbush are now splashed with the striking yellow of Wilcannia or Yellow Garland lilies, along with a few of their white Darling/Bogan lily cousins, through which large mobs of emu chicks and their Dads forage.
The reeds are so thick in the lagoons and channels now, the water birds are forced on to the more open areas of water. The weekend I was at Burrima, the lagoon was populated by pelicans, plumed whistling ducks, black swans, little pied cormorants, Australasian grebes, and Intermediate egrets. The wrens and bees were making a racket in the flowering lignum beside the lagoon, and the woodland birds held court amongst the River Red Gums and reedbeds, shouted out by the reed-warblers. A flock of magpie geese made their way overhead in the very early hours of the morning.
The transformation that’s occurred over the past year hasn’t just been within the Marshes.
On this overnight trip, the deep of night was still quiet, but not in an unnerving way. There were definitely more mosquitos, enough to make sleeping in my car slightly uncomfortable in the muggy heat of late February. I ran my AudioMoth acoustic recorder through the night, and between dusk and dawn, there wasn’t much happening. The frogs were quiet despite frothy evidence of breeding still happening in the watercourses. The morning chorus of woodland birds began as I woke in the dark to start recording the sunrise.
My focus for this trip was to collect a couple more stories, set up some contacts in the area for events later in the year and 2022, and document what I heard and saw 12 months on. I was also keen to collect material around the idea of access or lack of access to the Marshes. It’s something I’ve been pondering for a while and had discussed in some detail with my Mosses + Marshes collaborator, Andrew Howe. The results of my sound recordings on the exclusion fencing (designed to control kangaroo movements into Marsh country), fences on the roadside of the Nature Reserve, and the locked gates that control public access to the Marshes, have been incredible. I’m really excited to have this material to now work with. There’s a little taste in the sound mix with this time-lapse video of the sun rising behind one of those locked gates.
The transformation that’s occurred over the past year hasn’t just been within the Marshes. I feel I’ve been transformed in the process of travelling to the Marshes from my home base at Dubbo – a 500-600km round trip depending on which way I go; in actively listening for those hidden elements of the landscape, a process of deep listening that gives voice to the wetland and surrounding floodplain, at the same time slowing time, my heart rate and breathing. There’s a physical transformation as I begin to understand where I am – on ancient land that has been witness to centuries of changing climate, changing cultures, changing land uses and management, but a land that isn’t often heard. Yet her voice is remarkable. Her resilience is too…but maybe not to the degree it once was. The people who speak for her know this – the stories I’ve gathered make this clear regardless of the politics.
My job now is to bring the voice of the Marshes to the fore. To allow her to speak for herself in a way that even those who know her intimately won’t have heard. I hope you’re intrigued by what her message might be. I am.