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eco-PULSE Project Updates

Pulse of the Wetland

March 2020: Silent Symphony: the “Burrima” baseline
May 2020: Marking time
May 2020: The autumnal crescendo
June 2020: The things no one sees
July 2020: On wing and water
July 2020: All earthlings are kin in the deepest sense: Q&A with Andrew Howe
August 2020: Stories can shape the future
September 2020: Hidden sounds of the Marshes
October 2020: Q&A with Of the Mosses’ Andrew Howe
October 2020: Finding common ground

Magpie goose above Macquarie Marshes

Sonic Territories: Galari

December 2020: Giving the Galari her voice
January 2021: A tale of two rivers

A tale of two rivers

Galari at Tupra near Oxley, December 2020
Galari/ Lachlan River at Tupra near Oxley

The Galari/Lachlan River is the fourth-longest river in Australia. It flows through the lands of the Wiradyuri, Nari Nari and Yita Yita Nations starting on the Breadalbane Plains near Goulburn (696m above sea level), terminating at the Great Cumbung Swamp near Oxley on the Hay Plains (about 70m above sea level).

Recording sites, December 2020
Where the Lachlan meets the Murrumbidgee, at the Great Cumbung Swamp

The river is considered the lifeblood of the Lachlan Valley and the plains at her flank and feet. Today, the Lachlan River supports towns, industry, agriculture and the environment. However, the Galari of 2020 is a very different river to the pre-European version. Seeing her in the heat of an early summer after years of drought, it’s hard to believe this river could have supported any traditional hunting and gathering life – managed or otherwise. The channels of the Great Cumbung Swamp I witnessed about 50 kilometres west of Oxley in December 2020, with tannin-tinted water cutting through flat, grassy paddocks were choked with carp, stirring clouds of mud. Fish nets set up over several days in the area captured nothing but carp – hundreds of them, although yabbies and some big, healthy turtles, including the long-necked, Broad-shelled River Turtle (Chelodina expansa) rarely caught in the mid to upper Lachlan, were present at almost all sites.

Carp control underway in the lower Lachlan sees tonnes of the fish commercially netted and processed for liquid and pelleted fertiliser. Department monitoring shows no shortage of carp in the system despite the commercial enterprise, but the good news is yabbies and turtle species are also evident. The upside is carp are a food source for colonial waterbirds. Images: Kim V. Goldsmith; netted fish (image 2): Mal Carnegie, Lake Cowal Foundation

The poor representation of native fish and impacts of a carp dominated system is typical of a regulated river’s lower reaches, which is a result of almost no consumptive demand and sustained low operational base flows almost all year round. While I didn’t have time on this trip to witness it for myself – reports of positive outcomes from recent floodplain inundation resulting from environmental flows* were creating a buzz within the team. The Southern Bell Frog (Litoria raniformis) and Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) were heard calling for the first time in a long while, box and gum trees were thriving, and waterbirds were seen congregating in their thousands at individual wetlands along the system.

One of the success stories from recent environmental watering is Moon Moon Swamp (north of Booligal) – a River Red Gum lined open water body up to around 1.5 m deep in general, fringed by lignum swamps. From October to December 2020 an estimated 600+ colonial waterbird nests counted of mostly Little Black Cormorants, but also Little Pied Cormorant, Great Egret, Royal Spoonbill, Great Egret and Australian Darter. Images of nests taken with a zoom lens.

About 100km south of Moon Moon Swamp, 70 threatened Blue-billed Ducks were recorded in one survey alone during the December 2020 field trip by Warren Chad for NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment’s Environment Energy and Science Group (NSW DPIE EES) waterbird monitoring program. The species likes deep water, and the Lachlan appears to be a stronghold. It’s also been spotted at various other wetlands during spring/summer 2020 thanks to environmental flows.

Images of Moon Moon Swamp and nests: NSW DPIE EES

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, carp now account for 90% of the fish biomass (total weight of fish caught) in some areas of the Murray-Darling Basin. They’re highly adaptable and thrive in degraded riverine environments, like the Lachlan. What came first? The degradation or the carp? Either way, carp symbolise what less than 200 years of European settlement has done to the river.

The lower Galari and the Great Cumbung Swamp are choked with carp

A century of progress has brought with it not only a higher quality of living and the ability to support more human life than previously, but the building and expansion of dams and the resulting regulation and sharing of water have meant there are trade-offs. It’s a tight-rope act, and there’s no safety net or easy compromise. Like in every river catchment, everyone seems to have an opinion and a voice in the sharing debate but the river in question.

My trip to the Great Cumbung Swamp in December 2020 was to watch and listen – to both the river and the people who know her from years of close observation. I took some kit with me to capture what I could where I could, but I knew I’d most likely come back. The team I joined came from across NSW in passionate and dedicated support of the organiser, Jo Lenehan, from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment at Cowra – who has a working title longer than most to match the task of managing over 1400 km of regulated river and some 400,000 ha of floodplain. From Booligal to the Great Cumbung Swamp, they undertook bird counts, fish and frog monitoring, as well as talking with landholders, community and traditional owners about how best to manage and preserve what’s left of this compromised ecosystem.

As the team met with the local community, I wandered. I squatted beside the edge of the Murrumbidgee River, listening to the woodland birds, insects and water; I stuck my underwater camera into the turbid shallows of channels capturing carp as they swarmed; and my AudioMoth acoustic recorder spent the night beside the still waters of the Galari near Oxley capturing the night sounds of frogs, birds, fish and turtles, and the dawn chorus. Over dinner and breakfast, I had the chance to talk with various members of the team about what they do, what they’ve witnessed, and what they hope for the future. I was fortunate enough to have a long conversation with Wiradyuri Elder, Uncle Ray Woods, about the importance of the Galari and Murrumbidgee to his people.

Dawn chorus on the Galari at Tupra, December 2020 (recorded on AudioMoth)

By the time I got home, I’d done 1300 kilometres in two and a half days. However, there’s still much more of this river to explore and sample before what she has to say tells the full story – that includes the story of her vital, life-sustaining partner, the expansive alluvial floodplain and aquifers.

*I captured an image of the e-water release from the spillway at Wyangala Dam in October.

Sound and video footage on this field trip were captured using the Olympus Tough Tracker action camera, RØDE lavalier mics into the Zoom F6, AudioMoth acoustic recorder, and poorly improvised hydrophones in the form of a ‘sacrificial’ RØDE SmartLav for iPhone with animal bone sinker (instead of JrF hydrophones inadvertently left at home…650km away). The soundtrack on the carp video is a mix of native sound from the Olympus Tough and the SmartLav mic. Images 1 + 2: Kim V. Goldsmith; image 3 of the artist: Mal Carnegie, Lake Cowal Foundation

Associated posts: Giving the Galari her voice, December 2020

Giving the Galari her voice

Kim V Goldmsmith sound recording on the Galari/Lachlan River
Recording on the Galari just below Wyangala Dam (photo: Shani Nottingham)

Just as Pulse of the Wetland was getting underway this year, I was given the news that my application for a 2020 residency with the CORRIDOR project (tCp) near Cowra was successful. It was March, and the world was in the midst of panicking about a pandemic; no one really knew what was ahead and how we’d navigate life in a pandemic. Even travelling 250km north-west of Dubbo to continue my field recordings in the Macquarie Marshes seemed to be off-limits for a time.

The CORRIDOR project residency involved a series of virtual presentations and break-out sessions over several months – a COVID adaptation, with creative and science professionals discussing photo-media, curatorial practice and writing, traditional ecological knowledge, music, poetry, soundscape, earth sciences, plant pathology, and astronomy. Eventually, each of the artists in the program would have time on site the property near Wyangala, where we could explore ideas that had been brewing during the online PD LAB. My time came in two rounds, in August and October 2020.

The tCp property is a remnant of what was a much larger pastoral holding on the Galari/Lachlan River, downstream of Wyangala Dam (built 1928-1935, enlargements completed in 1971, and an expansion announced in 2019). The residency is centred on an enormous early 20th century shearing shed with rambling, overgrown timber yards and old cedar trees – bigger than any I’ve seen on “inside country”, and renovated shearers’ quarters providing a communal living experience with other residents. Perched on a hillside, littered with large tumbling granite boulders, overlooking the river below, my feeling on arrival was one of claustrophobia – something those born and bred on the plains will understand. The sun set and rose from behind the hills, my gaze restricted on three sides.

Early morning at the CORRIDOR project
Morning view from the CORRIDOR project, August 2020

I’m not unfamiliar with the rolling landscapes of the Cowra and Hilltops area. My first visit to Cowra was as an agriculture student in the late 1980s. I returned over the years to visit friends and eventually my work as a specialist rural and natural resources communications consultant brought me back to the area to work with farming and NRM agencies and groups. However, it’s the first time I’ve had to consider this landscape from a creative perspective.

…each river has its own voice, its own unique sonic qualities.

As an artist, my practice hinges on using technology to give the natural environment a voice or to offer a new perspective. I’m also a storyteller with an interest in the narratives we develop to explain our relationship with the environment. And my first love is sound. This was my starting point.

The first stay at tCp in August was about listening to and observing the landscape – one the river dominates both historically and from a geomorphological perspective. I brought most of my recording kit (sound and video) and sampled different sites across the property and upstream on another beautiful riverside block, thanks to the Cowdery/Gower family. You may think recording one riverine environment would be much the same as the next, yet, each river has its own voice, its own unique sonic qualities.

Lachlan River below Wyangala Dam
Boulders beside the Lachlan River below Wyangala Dam

Having spent my time between visits to tCp reading and researching the valley and the river, I returned in October with a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do. The project, Sonic Territories: Galari had started to take shape. Talking over the concept with residency geomorphology tutor and fellow artist, Simon Mould, I knew much of what I’d learned over the past year in the Macquarie Marshes would give me the knowledge and confidence to create a body of work that would give the Galari her voice – all 1440 kilometres of it, from the headwaters to the Murrumbidgee River.

With a project brief to direct the remainder of my time at tCp, I set off to continue sampling the river within several kilometres of the property, including Wyangala Dam. The residency also gave me the opportunity to talk over the presentation of the concept, build key contacts in the area, and talk with Orange Regional Gallery curator, Lucy Stranger, about my practice and work. Before I left at the end of October, the next field recording excursion was already in planning for early December – much further afield.

Wyangala Dam e-water release, October 2020
Wyangala Dam e-water release, October 2020

Associated posts: A tale of two rivers, January 2021

Finding common ground

Macquarie Marshes signpost

…it’s very pretty – one of the words that (with) landscapes we don’t use enough of…

ERIC FISHER, FORMER MARSH GRAZIER, “Wilgara” Quambone

Over the past six months of working on Pulse of the Wetland, I’ve been collecting stories from people who have a connection to the Marshes.

It’s been a mix of identifying individuals I knew had a story to tell and approaches from those who were prepared to contribute. There are stories I would still love to have part of this collection, but it’s up to the individual to want to share it. And the reality is time and money can be limiting factors. Since February 2020, I’ve driven more than 3,800km to collect material for the project. The grant I received during the year from the Regional Arts Fund administered by Regional Arts NSW will cover a fraction of the time spent researching, planning, field recording, and editing.

So, why undertake something like this?

I come from a journalism background and I strongly believe first-person storytelling is a powerful form of communication. It has the capacity to foster inclusion and connection, rekindle memories, shape and re-shape ideas, clarify misconceptions, and imagine new futures.

Stories reflect who we are.

The stories I’ve been recording are to become part of the Pulse of the Wetland works I create but they’ll also form an online archive beyond the project that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Stories recorded to date can be heard on the Story Maps page. Pins on the map indicate where each storyteller first experienced the Marshes or spent significant time. Locations I’ve done field recordings for the project are also marked on the map.

Does ‘God’s own country’ have a future?

Ebenezer Hayden has eight decades behind him now and has known the Marshes since he was a child, when his father took up J-Block (now part of the Northern Nature Reserve) in 1945. He’s mustered cattle through reedbeds described as being 17 feet (about 5 metres) tall, a fearless horse rider who lived in an era that has since disappeared. He described the Marshes more than once as “God’s own country”.

The one thing that strikes me as I listen to each of these stories is that despite the water politics that swirl around the Marshes, everyone is in awe of the beauty, the diversity of life and complexity of the landscape — from those who know her intimately, to those who visit occasionally.

Some are more hopeful than others about the future of the Marshes, but surely agreeing on something as simple as the inherent beauty of a place, even before we agree on the irreplaceable value of the wetland ecosystem to future generations, forms the foundations for reaching consensus about how to meet her future needs.

Kayaking in the Marshes (photo courtesy of Carollyn Fisher)
Kayaking in the Marshes (photo courtesy of Carollyn Fisher)

I see the Marshes in an entirely different way now to when I first moved home…it just has a magic feel altogether, being out there walking around…just being out on Country where our mob have been walking around here for centuries, or thousands of years actually.

Kevin ‘Sooty’ Welsh, Wayilwan artist, Coonamble

It does get into your blood, definitely. I think it’s the beauty and the changeability.

Carollyn Fisher, formerly of “Wilgara” Quambone

One of the things that is great about it is it is seasonal changing and it’s very pretty – one of the words that (with) landscapes we don’t use enough of…the colours and vegetation, wildlife, birdlife, it’s just a very, very magic place. It’s hard to explain it, there’s probably not words good enough.

Eric Fisher, formerly of “Wilgara” Quambone

It’s got to have the wet and the dry to operate, and of course, then it floods and there’s this explosion of life in the Marshes and it’s wonderful! I’m a bit high, I think!

Janice Hosking, birdwatcher, Dubbo

The boom and bust cycle has fascinated me – the explosion of life that occurs on reasonably infrequent big flooding events is mind-boggling, and that’s what’s made the Marshes famous. But I’ve come to learn the Marshes has many characters and many moods and it’s very important to understand the wetting and drying cycle for the survival of the Marshes.

Gillian Carter, formerly of Nevertire and author of The Macquarie Marshes: an ecological history

We’ve got a long connection with this part of the country…the Marshes have increasingly been held up as being a vital part of the landscape and as an irrigator and extractive water user I’ve had a belief that if we’re seen or portrayed in some quarters as being a problem for the Marshes…we had to be part of the solution, we had to understand the Marshes and we had to learn what made them tick.

Tony Wass, formerly of “Mt Foster”, trust holder of “Burrima”

I still love the Marshes – God’s own country.

Ebenezer Hayden, formerly of “Noonbah” Quambone and former Marsh block lessee

It becomes an area that’s important for a whole range of biodiversity – vegetation, animals, birds, frogs…it’s unique in that system and it’s that landscape…The Macquarie Marshes is that big mix of areas that get wet regularly and areas that don’t. Understanding how all that fits, to me, is part of understanding how it’s going to look into the future.

David Duncan, Macquarie Wetlands Association

..that Marsh country is some of the best country for cattle in Australia…The Marshes was full of life, you know birds and pigs…and roos and emus and all the different sorts of water birds. It was pretty.

Bill Masman, “Roumani” Carinda and former Marsh block lessee
Magpie geese fly above the Monkeygaa Swamp, Gibson Way
Magpie geese fly above the Monkeygaa Swamp, Gibson Way

This project was made possible through a Quick Response Grant provided by Regional Arts NSW through the Regional Arts Fund, an Australian Government initiative supporting the arts in regional, remote and very remote Australia.

Q&A with Of the Mosses’ Andrew Howe

I’ve been working collaboratively over the past 18 months with Andrew Howe (UK) on our Mosses and Marshes project, documenting my part of the project here. I share what I’ve been doing in a Q&A with Andrew on his website, Of the Mosses.

READ IT HERE

Murmuration at Whixall Moss, UK
Murmuration at Whixall Moss, UK (photo: Andrew Howe)

Read more about how Andrew is working on the raised peat bogs of Fenn’s Bettisfield and Whixall Mosses on the border of England and Wales.

I did a Q&A with Andrew about his project and work in July 2020.

Hidden sounds of the Marshes

Field recording in the wetland
The StealthCam and AudioMoth set up for a night of recording on a lagoon. They captured lots of swamp hens, ducks and insects, with frog song the dominant soundtrack.

When water returns to a wetland, you expect it to bring the sounds of life — insects, frogs and birds in full song, the trickle of water, wind in the treetops and shuffling through the reeds. You hear these things as soon as you step into the landscape. And so it was on my recent return to “Burrima”.

The woodland birds, dominated by the reed warblers, create a wall of sound that surrounds you on entering the shady depths of the River Red Gums. Water flows gently through channels, pooling into lagoons, where swamp hens and ducks screech in protest at being disturbed. Focussed on what was happening at my feet, I almost missed a black swan overhead attempting to fly into a stiff headwind before sweeping around to take the easier route. Back at camp, shrill kingfishers pierced the hot afternoon air. In the cool of the evening, when the frogs took centre stage, a bittern boomed somewhere in the distance. It was the first time I’d heard one in the field.

It was a stark contrast to the silence I experienced in February when camping overnight in one of the channels, lying in my swag staring at the starry night sky through the mesh of my fly/mosquito veil, ears straining to hear something, anything. An unnerving silence in the stillness of the night, the leaves of the River Red Gums lay dry, burnt and brittle on the ground, scattered amongst the carcases of dead kangaroos, and the reeds were just starting to reshoot from the base of charred stalks — a small sign of resilience following years of drought and a lightning fire in October 2019.

My mid-September trip was organised at short notice after weeks of watching weather apps — a 24-hour window to grab what I could before forecast weekend rain arrived, enough to make access to the site impossible for some time. This was my fifth trip to “Burrima” for the year, each visit noting changes since the baseline recordings made in February.

Kim V. Goldsmith recording using a hydrophone
Not all water weeds are equal when it comes to recording them photosynthesising. It took a couple of hours of sampling throughout the afternoon to find waterwort gave the best performance.

On each trip, I draw up a recording log of what I want to capture. I’ve experimented with a range of recording equipment that to date has included time-lapse cameras, a field trap camera, an underwater action camera, a drone flown at low level, hydrophones, contact microphones, shotgun mics, a 360-sound recorder and an acoustic field recorder. The visuals are certainly interesting, particularly when layered and abstracted. I envisage the end works to have both visual and sonic elements, however, the audio is what really highlight the changes in the wetland over the past seven months.

Two of the most exciting sounds I’ve recorded to date came from this trip. In the middle of the hot (30 deg C), spring afternoon of my arrival, I captured the sound of bright green mats of waterwort sitting on the bottom of channels and lagoons, fizzing and popping under the water as they released oxygen, part of the photosynthesis process. In the cool of the following morning, I re-visited the giant, ancient coolabah trees on the floodplain and captured the sound of water passing through the cells of a thick, arched branch growing from the base of one of the trees, along with deep rumbling noises of the tree moving and vibrating in the wind.

These sounds are inaudible without the assistance of technology. What made it possible to capture them were my new Zoom F6 field recorder with 32-bit float recording options allowing for a distortion-free dynamic range, combined with upgraded contact mics (the c-series made by Jez riley French) that have a wide frequency response. I also use JrF hydrophones, but the results from pairing them with the F6 have been much better than the Zoom H6 which has been my field recording workhorse until now.

I see incredible value in visiting the same location repeatedly over time, each trip informing the next. My intention with Pulse of the Wetland was to work across other locations around the Macquarie Marshes, and while I’ve sampled these areas throughout the year and they have been part of my wider research process, the time I’ve been able to spend doing durational recordings on the one site has created an understanding and intimacy that would not have otherwise been achieved. It’s something I’m hoping will come through in the finished works.

Kim V. Goldsmith on site in the Macquarie Marshes
In the arch of a giant, ancient coolabah tree, one of two at this site that has stood watch over the floodplain for hundreds of years.

Stories can shape the future

Interviewing Les Trindall at Coonamble in 2017
Interviewing Les Trindall at Coonamble in 2017 for The Long Paddock (photo by Joni Taylor)

I’ve been telling and sharing people’s stories since my uni days of the late 1980s when I became a reporter, then editor, of the student newspaper.

During my time as an ABC Radio Rural Reporter in the 1990s, I saw the radio connect people across a vast area of inland NSW; it was the stories we shared that created those connections. Our listeners felt like one big community despite the geographical spread and diversity of interests.

Stories make us feel part of something.

An important component of the Pulse of the Wetland project is story mapping – attaching the stories of people with a connection to the Macquarie Marshes to places in the wetland and floodplain area.

I’ve been recording audio stories over recent months and have plans to do more, including recording my own. In order to make this part of the project accessible to more people, I’ve created a process for contributing stories to the project. All the details are on this site.

This isn’t about being political, although I acknowledge that precious landscapes like the Marshes will always be political – be it about water, land or culture. The personal stories that underpin the politics are about gaining greater insight into our role in the ecology of the area, formed from our interaction with all the other living organisms in the environment that makes the wetland what it is today. There is more than one perspective, one experience that shapes our interactions.

Some don’t have enough words to adequately describe their feelings about the Macquarie Marshes, and others describe their experience and history in great detail. Some don’t want to share their story, and that’s OK too. It is personal and if the landscape is to be valued, it should be personal.

The stories we share require us to be present.

Given how difficult the Macquarie Marshes are to access, these stories also provide an opportunity to learn more about why they need to be valued and perhaps even gain insight into how we might craft and share a common vision for their future.

I’d encourage anyone who has a history and love of the Macquarie Marshes — whether you’re a regular visiting twitcher in awe of the birdlife, an artist inspired by the patterns and cycles of the landscape, a scientist who has conducted long-term monitoring in the Marshes, a landholder or manager who knows the area like the back of your hand, a traditional connection to Country that runs deep in your veins, or fond childhood memories of the area — please consider sharing your story.

If you find the story contribution process too difficult, please contact me and I’ll work out a way to record your story.

This project was made possible through a Quick Response Grant provided by Regional Arts NSW through the Regional Arts Fund, an Australian Government initiative supporting the arts in regional, remote and very remote Australia.

Regional Arts Fund Regional Arts NSW logo and acknowledgement

All earthlings are kin in the deepest sense: a QandA with Andrew Howe

Whixall Moss UK at dawn
Whixall Moss, UK, at dawn (photo: Andrew Howe)

Andrew Howe is a visual artist, based in Shrewsbury UK, using walking as inspiration for painting, drawing, photography, books and digital media. He explores how people interact with their environment, and how layers of historical activities in the landscape create the identity of places. Andrew is working collaboratively with me, Kim V. Goldsmith, through our involvement with the international Arts Territory Exchange. He has started documenting his part of the project online through his blog, Of the Mosses. In this Q&A he talks about his work on the project, centred on Whixall Moss — part of the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border.

There needs to be space for imagination, curiosity, unanswered questions.  

What drew you to the idea of working collaboratively on the issues faced by the Mosses and Marshes?

The opportunities facilitated by Arts Territory Exchange to collaborate with artists in other parts of the world are particularly exciting because of the possibility to gain an insight to another artist’s practice within a different culture, to exchange ideas that give fresh impetus to our respective practices, and to share the experience of creating new work that would not have been possible alone.  For two artists who make work about place and the environment, there’s also the chance to learn about another location and to compare how environmental challenges are manifesting.  External views on places we grow familiar with — maybe too close to, could be really valuable.

After some preliminary exchanges on work local to our homes, it became apparent that water was a common feature of our work and there was an interesting connection between RAMSAR wetland sites located slightly further afield, but which we’d each studied previously.  I had already begun making work in response to the area known as the Meres and Mosses.  Linking with the corresponding work you’re doing at the Macquarie Marshes creates an international dimension that could become far more appealing to a wider audience.

Murmuration at Whixall Moss, UK
Murmuration at Whixall Moss, UK (photo: Andrew Howe)
You’re working across the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border, with a focus on the Whixall Moss. What sort of environment is it?

The site is a lowland raised peat bog, Britain’s third largest and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a European Special Area of Conservation, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

It formed about 12,000 years ago, after glaciers retreated leaving a melt-water lake which became populated by swamp and fen plants, and Sphagnum moss. This acidified the groundwater, stopping plant decay and allowing peat to form a large dome.  The Mosses wetland habitats support rare species of birds, invertebrates, small mammals and plants.

The nature reserve is mostly accessible to the public, covering an area of about 2,400 acres (about 970 hectares).  When you are in the middle of it, it feels like a huge expanse of mostly open heath and bog in a fairly isolated part of Shropshire, which itself is one of the most sparsely populated counties in England.  Although the site does attract visitors, it is not difficult to find oneself experiencing the wildness of the place in solitude.

Bitumen tanker, Whixall Moss UK
Bitumen tanker, near Whixall Moss UK (photo: Andrew Howe)
What are the issues there?

The principal environmental issue is that, for a number of decades, peat was extracted from the Mosses and the land was drained to lower water levels in order to do this, and to construct a railway and canal across it.  As a result, the raised peat bog collapsed.  Natural England is carrying out the BogLIFE project to block drainage and cause the water levels to rise again and help regenerate growth of sphagnum moss.  This will, over a long time, cause peat to form.

Peat bogs are a vital carbon sink. Once it is cut, this carbon is released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.  Climate change will in turn impact on the biodiversity of the site.

At Furber’s Yard on the edge of Whixall Moss, the issue is that this former scrapyard was left with mountains of end-of-life vehicles and tyres.  A remediation scheme has been established, led by Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to clear the site and to create conditions in which it could return to a wetland landscape.

Tyres at Furber's Yard on the edge of Whixall Moss UK
Tyres at Furber’s Yard on the edge of Whixall Moss UK (photo: Andrew Howe)
Given these works deep dive into multiple narratives, from the historical to the scientific, how do artists work through all this information to arrive at a body of works?

All artists will no doubt follow different processes.  I do a lot of walking and site investigation, I read widely, and look for connecting themes and contrasts.  I juxtapose ideas and see what interesting combinations and perspectives emerge.  Very often something stands out in a new light, this might be a result of historical or scientific information, or it may be something that is harder to define, a visual or other sensory revelation that sparks the imagination in the viewer.  I try to aim for something that is authentic to the place, but not too literal in presenting information.  There needs to be space for imagination, curiosity, unanswered questions.  

There’s always a relationship between the creator and the viewer or reader.  Working in collaboration is slightly different, since the artists will respond to each other’s work, so in effect, the collaborator becomes the viewer.  

Collaboration can range from individual responses to work made by others, to exchanging work that begins to cross-fertilise ideas in an ongoing dialogue, to a joint work in which the individual inputs might be difficult or impossible to identify.  At this stage, there are no fixed ideas about what the outputs for Mosses and Marshes will be and it might be that we make a range of different types of work.  I liken the process to creating a constellation of points of meaning, allowing the viewer to connect up the points with their own interpretation.

Artefacts, by Andrew Howe
Artefacts, by Andrew Howe
What mediums are you playing with to do this?

Photography is my primary means of recording walks, although I collect a wide range of material.  These have included other digital media, sound and video, but also physical objects found on site, such as an array of artefacts from the old car scrapyard, which I have treated as archaeological finds.  The photography is often not the finished output but more like an ongoing record of observations.  My default medium then is in painting and drawing, so I made a sketchbook of studies, which has become an artist book in itself, and from that I have made larger pieces.  I have also made a couple of series of prints as monoprints and collagraphs using the found objects, maps, tracings and photographs as references.  

These could then be sources for collaborative response.  Thinking about your work in digital media, I’m putting together short sequences of images and sound that could be incorporated into a joint piece.  I was also hoping to make something using site monitoring data as a way to highlight the importance of scientific analysis of sensitive landscapes.  I was given access to environmental monitoring data, including groundwater records, by Natural England, so I have been looking at ways to convert the data either into a visual output or into sound – a reinterpretation of site characteristics which could be interesting to compare for different places.

What do you see creative projects like this achieving, particularly given the collaborative nature of this particular project?

Hopefully, it can engage people in a wider debate about the future of wetlands and similar sites and the role of humans.  The collaboration can help highlight the value of global connectivity and interdependence, and raise awareness of the plight of places beyond our horizon.  The time for taking action against the environmental crisis is well overdue, and the majority of people know they need to do something.  

Artworks can continue to drive motivation for action, but I see creative projects like this offering a way for people to reflect on the situation and test out what it would be like to value the more-than-human on new, more equal terms.

It has been said recently, referring to the Covid crisis, Black Lives Matter and inequality in general: “we’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat”.  This is true for the environmental crisis too, except that no boat is going to be big or strong enough to resist the storm, so we need to imagine and adapt to a future in which people adopt a humbler relationship with other lifeforms:

All earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and it is past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word.

Donna Haraway

Haraway, Donna; Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making KinHistory of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165. www.environmentalhumanities.org. ISSN: 2201-1919

On wing and water

Australian white ibis roosting on the deeper channels
Australian white ibis, Burrima (9 July 2020)

The Macquarie Marshes are recognised internationally as a birding ‘hotspot’, despite there not being many accessible places to get into the heart of the wetlands*. Ninety per cent of the Marshes are privately owned, and short of public road access points and travelling stock routes (see p45 Bird Watching Trail Guide), there aren’t too many places that allow you to see the 239 bird species that make the Macquarie Marshes home, or at the very least, use it as a stop-over spot. The terrain itself, particularly during wet cycles, makes it difficult.

How we expect people to value these landscapes when access is so restricted? If only the scientists and land managers are allowed to experience them, it makes the understanding and appreciation of them very abstract concepts for the rest of us.

Having recently made my fourth trip to the Marshes since February, when the area was still showing the effects of prolonged drought, I’ve started to see life return with the water. It’s certainly not been an instant recovery, but slowly and surely, with more water promised over winter and into spring, life is returning as the vegetation regenerates and starts to support the water and woodland birds.

A kite flies over the reed-lined channels in the River Red Gum forest
A kite flies over the reed-lined channels in the River Red Gum forest

Spending time on this last visit with a passionate birder and Marshes advocate, I saw more birds than previously, with great anticipation now for what might be revealed in further excursions in late winter and spring.

It was interesting to hear how some of the birds we spotted are having their moment in the sun, as the water re-enters the system, in particularly the mud or shallow water waders like the dotterals and stilts. Even some of the aquatic vegetation now evident in shallower channels will start to disappear as the reeds spread.

In just a few hours during the middle of the day, across two sites (one in the North Marsh, the other between the North and South Marsh on Gibson Way), we saw and heard: black-fronted dotterels, black-winged stilts, a whistling kite, Australian white ibis, tree martins, a grey fantail, willie wagtails, a sacred kingfisher, cockatoos, lapwings, blue and white-winged fairy wrens, finches, what sounded like a butcher bird, and the signature wetland song of the reed warblers. Then further south, numerous black swans and a couple of intermediate egrets (alongside grazing cattle), a harrier, and moorhens. These are just the species I had time to make a mental note of on the day. I was there to listen and learn on this occasion, not to record. I only had my phone to capture photos.

For future overnight trips, I’ll be on the look-out for the sounds of the barking owl and southern boobook, and maybe in the spring, the threatened Australasian bittern (the holy grail), all with distinctive calls. I’ve now earmarked a few spots where there’s evidence of bird roosting activity (not those specific species) and I’ll do some durational video and sound recordings with the field camera and acoustic recorder in these locations on my return. Fingers crossed.

Looking towards the southern part of the Marshes
Looking towards the southern part of the Marshes from Gibson Way

I’ve been largely working from the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust owned property, “Burrima”, over the past six months due to the incredible accessibility there, particularly for overnight use of my tech – a tricky thing given the nature of the environment and how much tech hates being wet. However, there are a few other sites along the system that I’m planning to explore despite issues of accessibility, that skirt around the Ramsar areas of the Marsh. It does make me wonder how we expect people to value these landscapes when access is so restricted**? If only the scientists and land managers are allowed to experience them, it makes the understanding and appreciation of them very abstract concepts for the rest of us. And yes, I understand the fragile nature of the area in terms of its habitat for nesting waterbirds, and the impact access may have on the operations of private property.

Water and reeds on private property
Water and reeds on private property

The project behind these excursions, Pulse of the Wetland, aims to not only document the recovery of the Marshes from prolonged drought and fire but present the wetlands in a way not easily or normally experienced. Using a range of cameras and microphones mostly between dusk and dawn, the resulting digital works, alongside stories of the Marshes from those who know and love the area, will offer a snapshot in time that aims to explore just what the Marshes’ communities and advocates hope for the future of this dynamic and complex ecosystem. The plan is to present the works back to the community as well as exhibiting internationally.

* See National Parks and Wildlife brochure on the Macquarie Marshes: The Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve is surrounded by private land and has no public access...Recognised for its important wetlands, access to this nature reserve is limited to management and research staff. NPWS manage the Nature Reserves.

**NPWS have been informed of the Pulse of the Wetland project and have to date declined to respond to requests for information or access.

Bird foot prints in the mud flats on Burrima
Bird foot prints in the mud flats on Burrima

The things no one sees

Underwater at Burrima
Gas bubble surfaces, Kim V. Goldsmith, “Burrima”, 7 June 2020

It’s a way of understanding the seasons, the interrupters, the demise or reshaping of a landscape and all it contains.

Recently, the Aboriginal concept of looking to listen, listening to see was flagged in conversations I’d been having. I hadn’t heard it phrased like this before, but I understood immediately that it’s a way of describing ‘deep’ listening.

Proponents of ‘active’ listening in the sound art world will understand the idea as well – it’s a foundation of durational listening. However, for those who need to ‘read’ the landscape, it has even greater meaning. It’s a way of understanding the seasons, the interrupters, the demise or reshaping of a landscape and all it contains.

I had another opportunity to spend a few hours in the Macquarie Marshes at the end of autumn, on the property “Burrima” – owned and managed by the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust, who have generously given me access to the property for Pulse of the Wetland. It’s a remarkable slice of country given its location on the boundary of the Ramsar listed Northern Marsh, managed by National Parks and Wildlife. “Burrima” offers an accessible (if not comprehensive) snapshot of the iconic Marshes wetland environment – from the reedbeds to the River Red Gum forests, Coolabah/ black box woodlands, and out to the grey, saltbush covered floodplains.

The trust, along with other partners, have invested heavily in building infrastructure on the property that will allow visitors to experience the wetland, in all seasons, without having to get your feet wet. A 1.8km boardwalk meanders through the woodland and forest to the edge of the reedbeds, with an observation tower overlooking the Northern Marsh. Over time, as the evidence of construction subsides, the reeds will grow through and over the boardwalk, channels will reform and the water will clear, and hopefully, with more water at the right time, new trees will start to replace the ones damaged by years of drought and last year’s fire.

But I’m now left wondering will visitors to this remarkable site really look to listen and listen to see just what makes up this wetland ecology?

…of the 2 hours and 53 minutes of audio captured, there are only 20 minutes where you can’t hear a human voice.

About 90 visitors were at Burrima the day of my late autumn visit, there to see the facilities they and their friends have invested in. It was a lovely social outing on a stunning autumn day, after months of inactivity thanks to COVID-19. No one except the project manager at “Burrima” knew I would be recording audio on the day, as well as looking to gather some more underwater video. I’d set up my recorders before the crowds arrived and left them alone at the base of a walkway over one of the water channels – chasing fish, guessed to be native perch of some sort, that I’d seen wallowing in the silt of a channel.

While I told a few people over lunch that I’d set up the video and audio recorder, and some had already noticed the poles strapped to the handrail. Everyone joked about the ‘interesting’ conversations I may have captured as I promised to delete anything too compromising. Listening back to the soundtrack though, most believed my tech was a water flow monitor…and stated with great authority.

Underwater recordings at Burrima
Underwater recordings at Burrima

What really surprised me is of the 2 hours and 53 minutes of the audio captured, there are only 20 minutes where you can’t hear a human voice. Admittedly it was a relatively small part of the 1.8km boardwalk loop that was being recorded, but it was obvious as people made their way around, they were enjoying talking loudly with each other. The birds could barely be heard. Only one group even made a comment about what kind of bird they thought they may have heard at that spot…and yes, it probably was the Australian Reed Warbler.

There were hardly any large birds to be seen on the lagoons, despite having been told earlier in the day there had been, including pelicans. I went back mid-afternoon to retrieve my gear, accompanying a group of friends. I was keeping an eye on the shallow waters for the small fish I’d seen on my last visit. My initial research indicated they’re possibly the invasive eastern gambusia, Gambusia holbrooki or mosquito fish, that compete with and prey on native fish. Updated information suggests they may be native Carp gudgeon – but I don’t have a conclusive answer at this point in time.

I eventually found some, setting up to video about 5 minutes of them moving through the shallows. I wasn’t to know they would be the only fish I’d record that day. The bigger fingerlings found earlier proved to be too elusive for my time-lapse camera. What became even more exciting though was that in post-production I discovered I’d captured gas bubbles coming from the underwater roots of Phragmites australis (common reeds) that hadn’t regenerated post-fire, revealing a part of the Marsh that we don’t usually get to see or consider.

Working in the field surrounded by people is far from ideal. But to be fair, it hadn’t been the intention of the day. It has raised a lot of questions I need to consider for Pulse of the Wetland and is making me think more about the barriers to deep listening…and there were some very ‘interesting’ conversations.

Below the waterline, gas bubbles surfacing from the roots of wetland reeds, while small fish swim through the shallows. Above the water, a lunchtime lull in the constant chatter of human visitors to the wetland, the birds fuss loudly in the canopy above the reedbeds.