This project has been developed on the traditional lands of the Wayilwan Nation, whose connections to the wetlands known as Maliyanga Ngurra*/ the Macquarie Marshes, dates back thousands of years. Pulse of the Wetland is the Australian component of the international MOSSES AND MARSHES collaborative project, exploring the connections, complexities and hidden layers of the wetland and surrounding floodplain as communities consider the future of this landscape.
This project began with a residency at the CORRIDOR project near Cowra NSW in 2020. Over two months a series of field trips were undertaken around Wyangala Dam and downstream. A field trip to the Great Cumbung Swamp was made in December 2020. The project is ongoing as time and budgets allow. New work has been created from this project that will be released later in 2022. MORE ABOUT SONIC TERRITORIES PROJECTS
Inhalare came about from the need to connect with other artists during periods of COVID restrictions and celebrate natural environments close to home that sustained us during those periods. There are 12 artists involved in this project from across regional NSW working in sound, text and visual art. MORE ABOUT INHALARE.
ClimateCultures is a network of over 200 artists, curators & researchers in many countries, including across the UK and other parts of Europe, as well as in North America, Australia, and India. Andrew Howe and Kim V. Goldsmith are members of ClimateCultures.
Creating multiple points of connection to our backyard environments
Kim V. Goldsmith, lead artist and Inhalare project coordinator
During 2021’s COVID lockdowns and periods of self-imposed isolation, I walked my back paddock several times each week, often photographing or videoing these walks on my phone. Sometimes I made sound recordings with a binaural headset.
The area I traversed is encased by my garden fence to the south, and rusty barbed wire and ring lock fences shared with neighbours to the north, east and west—patched and pocked with kangaroo holes. It’s about 10 hectares (or 25 acres). Having lived here for 13 years, I thought I knew it well. When thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the world as I was in 2019 (pre-COVID), I can visualise it in fine detail—the cool, dark tree-lined gully, ducks swimming on the dam, thickets of lichen and moss-covered cypress pine, giant black-red ironbarks oozing sap and scrubby wattles, the high, exposed quartz-jewelled ridge where the kangaroos camp, and open, grassy woodlands with giant box trees.
The sounds that are part of this small parcel of land are the sounds of home for me, as my home and garden are part of this landscape. They include the song of dozens of woodland bird species, frog song after rain, crickets, the rustle of a breeze through the grass, wind in the tops of the trees, overhead planes coming into land north of us, the neighbours’ barking dogs, crowing roosters, screaming children, revving engines, thumping bass, leaf blowers, and lawn-mowers—all part of life on the peri-urban fringe.
Always looking for projects that excite me and keen to create an opportunity that would connect me with Australian artists whose work I respect and admire, I started thinking about a way of allowing these backyard environments to be further explored, peeling back their layers to discover or rediscover new or hidden elements such as the subterranean sounds I’m so fascinated by, in turn, reconnecting with these places that sustain us during times of restricted movement with a renewed appreciation.
My thoughts initially swirled around just the sounds of these environments, but the challenge of writing in a new, succinct way where each word carried weight, and challenging artists to respond to these sounds and words without being able to visit the places that evoked them, became an intriguing prospect. So, the idea became multi-staged.
Transforming familiar landscapes into unfamiliar territories
Approaches to the first group of artists were made in early August 2021. Only one artist on my list said they were too busy, everyone else was excited to see where this would go.
It was a leap of good faith on the back of a proposal that documented some ‘loose’ ideas under the title of Inhalare, the Latin word for ‘to breathe upon’, more often used by singers using a technique called inhalare la voce or inalare – to ‘inhale the voice’. The idea of breathing upon places in our backyards seemed appropriate for the times.
The six artists who ‘signed up’ were given a brief with ideas about the colonising use of language and its inadequacies to communicate experience and express communion with the more-than-human world. I added ideas of deconstructing language, humanising the natural world, and reconstructing familiar territories in new ways. I referenced the writings of Charles Foster, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Lesley Head, and invited each artist to produce works that allow others to hear, feel, and taste these places. Nothing too challenging.
Following a successful grant application for COVID money put up by Create NSW in the second half of 2021, by mid-December 2021 I had six edited soundscapes and short text works of 150 words or less. This was just the first stage. Our text editor was Dr Liz Charpleix, who I’d worked with on the Mosses and Marshes book.
The Stage One artists are Andrew Hull (Bourke/Mildura), Danja Derkenne (Little Forest), Dr Greg Pritchard (Wagga Wagga), Anna Glynn (Jaspers Brush), Jason Richardson (Leeton), and me, Kim V. Goldsmith (Dubbo).
The challenge of creating multiple points of connection
The six soundscapes and writings covered a vast range of natural environments across New South Wales from the rainforests of the South Coast to a national park near Bourke in Western NSW, the Marrambidya/ Murrumbidgee River near Wagga Wagga and wetlands near Leeton in the Riverina, to the Callitris glaucophylla (white cypress pine) thicket of my back paddock near Dubbo in the Central West.
With the support of NSW regional arts organisation, Orana Arts, we hosted an online roundtable event in mid-December so the Stage One Inhalare artists could talk about their work and environments. It was the first time they had come together. It was also where the Stage Two artists were named and introduced. These were the artists who would be responding ‘blindly’ to the soundscapes and text works, creating an A4 sized work about the site without being able to experience it for themselves. Thankfully, all six of the visual artists on my list for Stage Two had responded with a resounding yes to my project pitch.
The second stage of the project kicked off at the start of February 2022. This part has been much harder to fund, as it falls between funding rounds and is the start of a new year that is just warming up. I’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign for Inhalare through the Australian Cultural Fund (as part of a year-long ecoPULSE campaign), but we haven’t quite made $1,000—about $2,000 short of what is needed to pay the artists. This is where artist/ project managers dig deep, investing heavily in the projects we initiate. Most of the artists have been prepared to produce work without the fee, but that’s not equitable or fair.
It’s now the end of February—the first month of a two-month creation period now over. The visual artists are at different stages of developing their responses. As I did with the Stage One group, I check in every two to three weeks to see how everyone is progressing, and update them on plans for the project. One artist has already completed her work—a stunning response to a stunning soundscape and text. Others are still working through ideas. Like the Stage One artists who were challenged by the possibilities and complexities of their chosen environment, or the much remarked upon word count restriction, the visual artists are being challenged in different ways. There’s excitement, but there’s also the weight of expectation of dealing with the work of another creative and a responsibility to the environment we’re creatively exploring.
This period of contemplation prompts a deeper connection with and appreciation of the layers within natural environments that invite us to draw closer, to listen more carefully, choose our descriptions more wisely, to engage our imaginations, emotions and senses. These works are as much for the more-than-human worlds we’re celebrating as they are for our human audience. To do any of this successfully, we need multiple points of connection.
The Stage Two artists are: Vicki Luke (Table Top), Libby Wakefield (Southern Highlands), Dr Carol Archer (Bulahdelah), Clementine Belle McIntosh (Gilgandra), Edgar Alvarez (Coonabarabran) and Amanda Thomas (Lake Macquarie).
Art and the environment are for everyone
Stage Three of Inhalare is about presenting the sound, text and visual works. One of the elements added to the project early on was the idea of making the artworks as accessible as possible to everyone, regardless of age or ability. It goes back to the idea of multiple points of connection. We’ve included audio recordings of the text works, audio descriptions of the visual works, and a range of accessibility elements are being planned for the website to digitally support the exhibition in its physical space.
With the possibility of a grant to help promote and develop the accessibility elements, all 12 artists committed to a show at SPACE Gallery in Coonabarabran for mid-May 2022. This will be the first time all the works come together, allowing for not only multiple points of connection to the environments at the heart of the project, but multiple points of access to them.
SPACE Gallery is run as a not-for-project social enterprise space in a town that’s the gateway to some of the State’s most beautiful and interesting natural environments—the Warrumbungle Mountains and Pilliga Forest. It’s run by its founding director, Allison Reynolds, an artist and passionate arts accessibility advocate who is also part of an artist-run initiative in Coonabarabran for artists with disabilities. Her guidance and support are going to be critical to getting this point of connection right.
The hope is that once we see how the elements work together, we can take it one step further with the sound artists/writers and visual artists collaborating to develop more expansive, immersive, multi-faceted creations for bigger gallery spaces, maintaining the accessibility elements that allow for a more inclusive and memorable creative experience for all.
What’s the end game?
Initially, this was an excuse to work with artists I’ve long wanted to work with. Making art in regional Australia can be isolating and connections with like minds is critically important to my practice. Inhalare has also more than met the ecoPULSE brief I set in 2020 of exploring regional futures through enquiry, creativity and connections. The project has become so much more than either of those objectives.
As an environmental artist, I always hope to create enough interest in my work that might lead someone to think about the natural world a little more, or a little more deeply. To think they might be inspired to ask a question, look something up, explore their local neighbourhood or further afield, learn more about or act on an environmental issue is a bonus. Audiences need to start where they are now, but to do so they must have access in a way that invites or excites. I believe Inhalare can do that.
Inhalare/breathe upon will be at SPACE Gallery, Coonabarabran, from 15 May to 16 June. Further details to come.
ecoPULSE is a web-based project platform developed by Kim V. Goldsmith in 2020 to provide an online ‘home’ for collaborative environmental and social ecology projects across regional territories of Australia and beyond.
The artists’ response to the Mosses and Marshes International Panel Discussion
In early November 2021, an international panel was convened to discuss the entangled in alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and valuing special environments. The goal was to determine if we needed to consider different ways to inform and shape the future of the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses and Macquarie Marshes, and environments like them.
The online event was organised in partnership with Dubbo Regional Council in New South Wales, Australia (part of the Macquarie catchment), and facilitated by their Cultural Development Coordinator, Jessica Moore.
The panel consisted of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. They were Tim Hosking (AU), Kate Mildner (AU), Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan (AU), Dave Pritchard (UK), Dr Tim Acott (UK) and Robert Duff (UK). There were also six provocateurs from both countries raising issues that were then addressed by the panel, in front of an audience on Zoom.
As organisers of the event and co-leads of the Mosses and Marshes project, Kim V. Goldsmith and Andrew Howe see it as just the start of many more conversations to come, online and offline in their respective communities as well as globally.
These are their thoughts following the event.
KIM: I remember when the conversation started between us about the possibility of an international panel event, I was putting together a grant application over the summer of 20/21 to include public programming around the project from my end. I think was looking for a way to pull our two wetlands together in both my mind and the mind of the public — to show that while there are differences and we’re separated by huge distances, we have so much in common. My thinking took shape around what that might look like off the back of an email sent to you from the Ramsar Culture Network’s Dave Pritchard in July 2020, where he wrote: I’d be keen on anything that expands perspectives on intangible values (such as aesthetics,creative inspiration, sense of place, re-framed understandings of environmental change etc), explored through ecological or socially-engaged arts-based enquiry, as part of the rubric of “cultural ecosystem services” in the Ramsar Sites context. That definitely had me thinking!
Andrew, what were you thinking about how this event might fit into the project and its objectives, before the event?
ANDREW: Objectives I had in mind for the project included using art to build stronger connections with the natural environment, to transform how we think about a place and a changing environment, and to imagine how interdependence between humans, land and ecosystems might build sustainability. I thought the panel could contribute to each of these objectives, and particularly the last of them. Considering interdependence requires an understanding of multiple perspectives and I saw the event offering great potential to bring many voices together from two geographies that could not be further apart.
You and I both have backgrounds linked to environmental science and the arts, and we have tried to maintain multiple lines of enquiry during the project and in our dialogue. During our global collaboration, we have both communicated with many different people connected with the wetlands from scientists, land managers, other artists, writers and members of the local communities. But all of these conversations must ultimately be filtered or mediated by the two of us in steering the art project. So, I saw the panel event as a means of expanding the debate in an entirely different way. Bringing those different disciplines/areas of interest and different cultures directly into contact might just make sparks fly to raise issues we could not have brought to the fore ourselves. And yes, like you, I hoped that despite the differences between the Mosses and the Marshes, we might find there are more issues in common than perhaps we imagined.
KIM:Fast forward several months to a successful grant application and the signing of a partnership agreement with Dubbo Regional Council to facilitate the event, we brought together six panelists and six provocateurs (from the UK and Australia) in front of a live, international audience on Zoom, on 11 November, to consider and discuss alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and possibly valuing special environments like the Mosses and Marshes, to help inform and shape their future. It felt like a big moment. There’d been a lot of planning and preparation to get to this point and at times I had to keep reminding myself that it was us, as artists, who had managed to make this happen.
What did you think we might achieve once that Zoom session was underway?
ANDREW: It was something of a leap of faith because you and I were not participating directly in the debate nor were we the facilitator. We had curated the event by selecting the panelists and provocateurs with some guidance to them around the topic, but from there on everything was dependent on what people actually said on the day. I just hoped that we could achieve a sufficiently comprehensive, informed and robust coverage of relevant issues with responses from all the participants so that it would be possible to identify where there was consensus (or at least recognition of similar views), points of contention and areas of uncertainty. The discussion might spur some of the participants into taking actions to follow up or respond to some of the issues. As we have found, the discussion has been extremely fruitful in yielding a range of issues for us to highlight and make further provocations for action.
Kim, there were a few variables to pin down in deciding on the format for the event, what did you find to be the main decision factor?
KIM: Having run a few online talk events over the year leading up to the panel discussion, I had started to work out what worked and what didn’t. I’ve always been a fan of ABC TV’s Q&A TV program format, and couldn’t see why something similar wouldn’t work on Zoom.
I know we spent some time considering the topic and whether to explore intangible values alone or be more provocative by suggesting alternatives. I think Dave Pritchard set the record straight at the start of the panel discussion, saying it’s more about being clever with allowing a plurality of multiple values operate together, inviting challenge and reframing the questions to find new solutions to some of the issues we’ve been exploring…and that’s where artists can play a role. He also mentioned the need for a more holistic approach to understanding what makes a place. I think this is where the stories shared with Fleur and Locky Magick Dennis from Milan Dhiiyaan became so powerful in this discussion. These experiences and perspectives are not often shared with an international audience, or as we found out, even within our own regions.
ANDREW: It was important to hear Fleur and Locky speaking so powerfully with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people. Their references to the missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation and a fundamental lack of access to Country made for uncomfortable, but necessary, listening. What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.
These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It feels like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. What signs of hope do you see?
KIM: It does seem like an impossible seismic shift is required, and not just in the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours. The acceptance of Indigenous knowledge bases seems to be long overdue, and I think that came through in the discussion.
ANDREW: So Kim, what do you think were the key themes emerging from the discussion?
KIM: Plurality of perspectives and values, along with a more holistic approach and access (including safety or feelings of safety) were distinct themes throughout the discussion. I do think the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the panelists and provocateurs that came together for this event underscored the need we have for diverse knowledge bases and perspectives, and ways of understanding how wetlands are meaningful and important to people, to use Tim Acott’s words.
ANDREW: There is a trend towards recognising “softer” or intangible values associated with wetlands and other natural landscapes in decision-making alongside the measurable social, environmental and economic values. Natural capital is commonly referred to in projects and methodologies are becoming more established for taking this into account. But other cultural values, like memories, stories and sense of place, are some way off from finding a means of being accounted for in a balanced, holistic decision-making framework.
KIM:I agree. It’s a bit too far to the left of those scientific or evidence-based values. Perhaps the adoption of Indigenous knowledge though might make room for some of those other ‘softer’ cultural values. We’ve started that process in a small way by collecting audio stories and providing room for the community to contribute to the conversation.
A few times in the panel discussion, the need to broaden our timeframes was raised, particularly on a policy level – which as we know is so often determined by political cycles. Was this something you were thinking about at all when we started this project? I’m not sure I was thinking of this as an ongoing project when we first started talking in 2019, but it seems inevitable now that there’s a need for it to be ongoing. Don’t you think that too is a short timeframe compared to how we need to be thinking about the future of the wetlands?
ANDREW: History in the landscape is always something that interests me, and as I came to know the Mosses, I realised that it had a story going back 10,000 years to at least the last Ice Age. And so that was one comparison I was interested to make with the ancient landscape of the Marshes. However, I wasn’t necessarily thinking very far into the future. The climate and biodiversity crises are upon us and demanding short term action. When Robert Duff talks about the restoration of the peatbog taking many centuries to recover, that is a timescale that I was certainly not thinking about when we started on the project. It has certainly registered in my thinking now, and I feel challenged to explore notions of cyclic time, parallel timelines and other alternatives to linear timelines.
I was open-minded about how long the project might continue. I knew if I invested time, energy and creative thought into a place, I would inevitably become attached. I have no ancestral roots in Shropshire, although I have lived here for 24 years, but having got to know the landscape and some of the people associated with the Mosses, and having learnt more about the Marshes, I feel a commitment to “seeing things through”. As long as the project offers interesting challenges for my artist practice then I’ll be keen to keep the project going.
KIM: A couple of the key things that came from the event that I want to follow up on are first, the issue of bringing more voices to the table (including future generations), and secondly, access to the land itself for those here now. The Values. Voices. Action. consultation as the follow-up to the panel event is just the start of this for me. I think more might happen even within some of the government departments that had representatives at the event. It’s going to be important to listen to those here and now about what we’re doing today (regular self-reflection required) – even if we don’t agree with them, as a provocateur, Anna Martin of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust put to us. Where do you see it going for you at this stage in the project? After all, you did say at the end of the panel event that this was possibly the end of the beginning!
ANDREW: This aspect of the debate brought to mind that my namesake, Sophie Howe, was the world’s first and so far, only Future Generations Commissioner, a role she has held for the Welsh Government since 2016. She has led high profile interventions around transport planning, education reform and climate change. This is the kind of future planning cutting through the short-termism of typical political cycles that must continue to be adopted elsewhere.
I think there is a discussion to be had with those involved in planning and managing wetlands or associated restoration projects to see whether creative approaches led by artists, like the Community Voice Method described by Tim Acott, could work alongside other engagement approaches to help support decision making with a view to developing new frameworks that take account of intangible values.
In terms of other voices to bring to the table, I am reminded of Dave Pritchard’s points about “listening to the river” or the voice of the wetlands itself, and I need to further investigate what this really means because it is not just about making more sophisticated sound recordings and field research.
KIM: I love that idea of a Future Generations Commissioner! And the Community Voice Method struck a chord with me too, as it’s a process I’ve used over the years, without thinking of it as a tool as such. I’m also interested in the Kitchen Table Conversation method (currently being used as a community consultation tool by independent political candidates), as a way of making people feel more comfortable about engaging on difficult issues. These are all things I need to pay more attention to in terms of why I’ve used them in my work.
One of the things I’ll remember for a long time after this discussion picks up the issue of being holistic that Dave Pritchard summarises so well, and Kate Mildner made it clear in terms of what the guiding principles are around what values are put on different parts of the landscape. So often, Governments determine what those values are when prioritising resources, that top-down approach — something Terry Korn alluded to in his provocation. But as Locky Magick Dennis said, “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.
ANDREW: It’s a powerful analogy. Possibly the point goes a little further in that all the related wetlands and ecosystems are inextricably linked and interdependent, sometimes in ways that might not be easily apparent. A case might be made for losing one wetland because there are insufficient resources to sustain it, and maybe it might be argued there are adequate habitats available in other wetlands. However, these ecosystems are so complex, loss of habitat for any one species could place further pressure on the species populations in similar habitats elsewhere, with direct and indirect weakening and then loss of that species and other dependent species. The whole system will likely suffer ongoing decline and possible collapse.
KIM: There’s so much more to think about and discuss from this event, but I guess the other thing that shocked and surprised me somewhat was the idea of these landscapes being threatening, which was discussed after artist, Sue Challis’ provocation and confirmed by Fleur Magick Dennis as being something very real for Indigenous people wanting to access Country. I feel safer in these places than I do in the suburbs. That’s obviously a privileged position. How are people ever going to want to have access to or feel connected to these special places if they can’t feel safe in them?
ANDREW: These were valid points that do need to be addressed. As Sue suggested, this is an issue for society in general and not just wetlands, but there is something about the remoteness of wetlands that I totally understand could create a feeling of risk, even if this is more perceived than real. Both Dave Pritchard and Tim Acott suggested that there is an ongoing transformation happening with public perception of wetlands from that of wasteland to a rich resource of huge environmental and social benefit. The language used and tone of discussion in both education and media have key roles to play in continuing to change public perceptions.
The access to Country issue raised by Fleur is similarly concerning and somewhat different to the risk Sue referred to. I started out on this project looking at the human impact on the Mosses peatbog ecosystem but as time has gone on, land ownership and access has taken on greater prominence, as I think it has for your work Kim?
The Mosses are in public ownership under the stewardship of Natural England and its partners, but it was not always the case, nor is it the case for many other peatbogs and other wetlands across the UK which remain in private ownership with limited or no access. The systems of power originating in land ownership dating back centuries were reinforced by land grabs and exclusion through the Land Enclosures in England and Wales, and the Clearances in Scotland. This same mindset was in play during the colonisation of lands beyond the UK’s shores. Obviously, this is a huge and complex issue, which is beginning to be acknowledged more openly. We can only play a small part in keeping attention on it.
KIM: A small part, perhaps Andrew, but I think art has the power to cut through on some of the difficult issues and transcend the politics. When art, science and community come together though, that’s when magic can happen!
I recently observed the thread of a conversation on a Twitter post by Professor Euan Ritchie of Deakin University suggesting the ecological and conservation community needed to reflect deeply on ideas and narratives that had questionable outcomes for biodiversity.
You could hear the frustration in the tone of Ritchie’s tweet and responses. His post and threaded comments referenced conservation triage, environmental offsets, the assumptions made on the back of expert elicitation in place of a lack of data, and of course, funding. It was at best a snapshot of just one of the conversation threads happening about how the current modus operandi is not working.
We need a pluralistic dialogue
One of the outcomes of the past three year’s work on the Mosses and Marshes project has made it very clear that in the case of the Maliyanga Ngurra/Macquarie Marshes, there’s a need to do something differently. As Professor Ritchie says in the thread of his Twitter post:
We can have academic discussions all we want, and we do, but the facts and outcomes speak for themselves. We urgently need to do things very differently.
The same could be said about politics, at all levels. Even grassroots political conversations around the future of these fragile ecosystems are adversarial. The echo chamber endures and there are several voices unheard in the process, Traditional Owners and the environment being two.
One of the collaborative videos works Andrew Howe and I created for the Mosses and Marshes exhibitions is called The tone of things. The idea underpinning the work is explained in the exhibition statement:
Tone tells the truth even when words don’t. It’s hard to define. As humans, we understand the influence tone can have on conversations, on trust, on decision-making. The more-than-human world of the wetlands generates their own tone. Too often though, when heard together our tones are discordant.
We need a pluralistic dialogue or conversation, based on multi-disciplinary collaboration, with a vastly different tone and intent if we’re to enact any real change with any real future benefits for these environments. The conversations can’t just be academic, scientific, economic, cultural, or political.
Professor Ritchie referenced an Environmental Conservation article by Megan Evans in his Twitter thread, about a review of major conservation themes in literature and historical shifts in the framing of conservation. In the article summary, Evans writes:
Greater critical reflection on how conservation science might better accommodate multiple knowledges, goals and values could assist in ‘opening up’ new, legitimate pathways for biodiversity conservation.
Imagine the possibilities if we could inquire into nature from a range of perspectives?
Sustainability, for example, is not a law of the universe—ecosystems change, species come and go. It is, instead, a human construct, based on value judgements—we want to conserve some biodiversity, but not the Coronavirus. The concept only has meaning when choices are made about what timescale to define and how wide a net of interdependencies to consider. It is consequently as much a cultural matter as it is a scientific one.
This is exactly where arts-led approaches can often contribute most: transcending sectoral boundaries and fixed ways of thinking, exposing preconceptions about how long is ‘now’ or how big is ‘here’; and cultivating the imagination to ‘see differently’.
The voices of our six panelists will be supplemented by provocateurs (through pre-recorded videos) from Australia and the UK with an interest in the Mosses and Marshes, and a live audience who are invited to comment and ask questions throughout the one-and-a-half-hour event. It’ll be recorded and put online to continue the conversation over the coming months.
It’s not about changing minds overnight, many of whom are already invested in their chosen position. The art of persuasion is a dark art given much discussion or debate today is about competing monologues playing to the already convinced, rather than expressions of genuine responsiveness. However, I am hoping there will be considered contributions and genuine provocations put forward with the intention of listening and considering the responses, not just throwing bones into a dog fight.
We need the willingness, space and time —while being aware the clock is ticking on these issues, to consider alternative perspectives. Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition in 1958:
…if we inquire into nature from the standpoint of astronomy we receive planetary systems, while if we carry out our astronomical inquiries from the standpoint of the earth we receive geocentric, terrestrial systems.
Imagine the possibilities if we could inquire into nature from a range of perspectives?
REGISTER for the International Panel Discussion, being hosted and facilitated on Zoom, by 9am AEDT, 11 November. This event is a partnership with Dubbo Regional Council and is supported by Orana Arts.
Mosses and Marshes is now 10 days out from opening its first showing at Qube Gallery, Oswestery UK on 1 October. Since July, there’s been a growing intensity around the development of words, sounds, and images around this project, that’s had my UK collaborator Andrew Howe and me in daily communication. It’s the time for details.
Self-made man-about-everything, Seth Godin is often quoted for his views on the creative process. He writes in The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (2020) there is no magic in the creative process, you simply “Start where you are.” If we’re quoting authors with a profile and looking to counter this view, Elizabeth Gilbert is the go-to. She wrote a book called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2016). For the record, I tend to agree with Godin but I do like this line from Gilbert: Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
For the past six weeks, four days out of every seven has been spent working on the Mosses and Marshes book layout, pouring over essay drafts and edits to the book with our sharp-eyed editor, Dr Liz Charpleix, as well as trying to get a body of artwork completed that pays tribute to the time we’ve spent researching and being in the field, and to the people who have contributed to our understanding of these special environments. On many days in recent weeks, it has felt like a chore (which is no reflection on my project collaborators).
I’ve been documenting the process of bringing the Mosses and Marshes research and fieldwork closer to being artworks each month in Cadence (the ecoPULSE blog) since my April post, The necessity of ‘awkward silence’, where I wrote:
The process of enquiring, documenting, recording, dissecting, exploring, and creating is a messy one, there are many tensions, but like the practice of any craft, it takes time to reach a point of satisfying resolution. The stories given up to me by the Marshes will reveal themselves in good time, no doubt with a good dose of ‘awkward silence’.
While creativity might not be magic, it does require a few mind games, trickery, and deals with myself along the way.
There has been much awkward silence since April, as I’ve sat with the work in its many versions. Eventually a familiar feeling takes over, the wave of anxiety fuelled not just by rapidly approaching deadlines and competition for my time from other commitments, but the chafe of COVID restrictions as we adjusted to life in lockdown.
Carving out time shouldn’t be an issue when you can’t go anywhere — at least that’s what I told myself. While creativity might not be magic, it does require a few mind games, trickery, and deals with myself along the way. There’s a discipline to creativity that Godin references when he says: “You simply start where you are.”
My days on Mosses and Marshes have been carved up each week into two days on the book and two days fine-tuning videos and soundscapes. I work for clients in a creative capacity the remaining three days of the week. There have been weekly to-do lists, pages of notes, whiteboard scribblings, and post-it notes adding additional layers of information to this process that allows me to start wherever I am that week or day. It feels anything but creative. Then there are the public events to organise around the exhibition and book launch, a different way of thinking to that required when I’m lost between the layers of my video and sound editing software.
The countdown to opening an exhibition on the other side of the globe is now days not weeks away. At the end of this physically and mentally exhausting process is the privilege of not just having a voice on issues I believe in but giving a voice to those who are not often heard on these issues — in this case it’s Maliyanga Ngurra*, the Macquarie Marshes. The creativity comes from years of practising my craft and refining my skills from project to project while reminding myself to experiment and play when I can. I rely on that for times like this when the pressure to get things right feels like a growing lump in my chest that won’t be exorcised until the works stand alone in public.
At this point, I wish to thank those who have helped get the Australian arm of Mosses and Marshes to this point. Firstly, Andrew Howe and Gudrun Filipska of (Arts) Territory Exchange — without you, this project wouldn’t have happened. David Duncan and the team behind Burrima and the Macquarie Wetlands Association made much of my work in the Marshes possible by facilitating year-long access to the Northern Marsh from the end of the drought to the return of the water. There have been others who have prompted, poked, questioned, and guided me along the way in official and unofficial capacities, whose advice and published research I have greatly appreciated — including but not limited to Dave Pritchard, Tim Hosking, Shona Whitfield, Darren Shelly, Dr Tim Ralph, and Dr Heather McGinness. Creative and cultural advise has been greatly appreciated from Jamie-Lea Trindall, Alicia Leggett, Jessica Moore, Lydia Halcrow, Sooty Welsh, Fleur and Locky Magick Dennis. To those from the Marshes communities who shared their knowledge and stories with me, thank you. You have illustrated how important human connections to this special landscape are to its future. You can hear these stories for yourself in the Macquarie Marshes Story Map. Finally, a big thanks to our generous crowdfunding supporters and the government bodies who believed in our project.
EXHIBITION + BOOK:Mosses and Marshes opens at Qube Gallery, Oswestery UK on 1 October. The Mosses and Marshes book will be available for sale in October (date to be confirmed), A$25/￡15.
ARTIST TALK:A Mosses and Marshes artist talk will be held via Zoom on 14 October. REGISTER HERE.
PANEL EVENT:The Mosses and Marshes International Panel Discussion is being held on 11 November via Zoom. This is an ecoPULSE event in partnership with Dubbo Regional Council. Registrations open on 30 September.
*Maliyanga Ngurra is the name for the Macquarie Marshes Traditional Custodians of the Wayilwan Nation wish to see adopted. The use of this name for the Marshes in the project has resulted from discussions with Wayilwan cultural educators and practitioners, Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan.
At 5pm on Saturday 14 August, the State of New South Wales went into a COVID-19-responsive lockdown. The regional City of Dubbo and its local government area had already been under stay at home orders for three days on the back of growing active COVID cases; the region’s Indigenous population dangerously exposed. Sydney, our State capital, has been in lockdown since 26 June – nearly two months, with slow to implement restrictions now encompassing the State.
At about the same time Dubbo was waiting to hear of the first active COVID cases following multiple positive sewage test results, in early August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report was released with what was described as “a reality check”. My Twitter feed swung from lockdown blues and finger pointing over COVID management failures to pleas from the environmentally conscious to hold governments to account and the need to act now in order to turn back the tide of climate change.
Two weeks into the eighth month of the year 2021, I was unable to face more bad news, with little energy left to scream about poor Australian leadership putting vulnerable regional communities at risk from the Delta variant of COVID and add my voice on the call to act on climate change. Then there’s the guilt of feeling I really have nothing to complain about.
My want is to shut my front gate, turn off my devices and ignore the world. Yet, the idea of walking away from two things I’m passionate about – regional communities and the environment, seems inconceivable.
Having grown up in a conservative rural community and all that entails, I’ve spent years trying to cultivate a more balanced view of the world – listening to multiple voices, reading, thinking, philosophising, trying to be open to new ideas and perspectives on issues. It’s underpinned my work as a journalist, communications specialist, artist, and I hope, as a human with an understanding that I’m part of the solution and not just the problem.
Despite this, I’ve been wanting to scream and rant in a quite irrational way. I’m angry. I’m angry with individuals who believe the rules don’t apply to them or are taking some personal stand against authority (not those who truly have not understood the poor public communication); angry at the politicisation of the pandemic and climate science; angry at the ego-driven leadership we’re subjected to when what we need is long-term vision beyond election cycles…and probably an angry in a sad way that there will be no ‘normal’ again on any front.
I’ve been trying to keep my anxiety under control by taking afternoon walks, sitting in the sun at lunchtime, knitting in the evenings (a childhood skill I’ve resurrected to stop me constantly checking my phone), connecting with friends, and my art making. I could so easily shut that front gate for weeks on end and spend my days working on the Pulse of the Wetland/ Mosses and Marshes pieces that have deadlines now shadowing them, and the book that we’re publishing as well.
Realist me finds solace in my art making during times of crisis, particularly when the bad news is coming thick and fast…
I’m in the post-production stages of this body of work and have been for some time. When I’m editing, I lose all sense of time, completely absorbed in minute details of building my soundscapes and visuals, searching for just the right sound or tone, or imagery that tells the story but allows for imagination, transitions, effects, levels and layers.
At the same time, I’m still talking to people about the project, reading and researching, listening to podcasts and interviews – gleaning ideas and information to feed into work even when it’s in post-production. The other night I was listening to an ABC Radio podcast with primatologist, Jane Goodall about humanity and hope – perhaps I was searching for something to hang on to.
I drifted in and out of sleep as I was listening, waking momentarily to hear her say: I talk about how we’re the most intellectual creature to ever walk the planet, but we seem to have lost wisdom. That means there’s a disconnect between the clever brain and the human heart…I really believe that only when head and heart work in harmony we can truly attain our true human potential.
Goodall went on to speak truths I hold dear before I drifted into deep sleep: It’s now been proven scientifically that being in nature is beneficial for us, even necessary for us, because we are a part of the natural world and we depend on it for everything…We need nature and instead of that, we’re destroying it.
Jane’s book, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet is coming out later this year. Despite having witnessed some of the worst of human nature and our fraught relationship with the natural world, Jane appears to be a glass-half-full kind of human. I recently saw a question on social media asking potential respondents if they were an optimist or a pessimist. I responded that I was a realist. Dictionaries describe a realist as a person who accepts and deals with things as they really are. This position informs how I approach my artmaking.
Realist me finds solace in my art making during times of crisis, particularly when the bad news is coming thick and fast – there’s a freedom to explore more optimistic and pessimistic outlooks without straying from the facts, my centre line. In the attention to detail required of sound and video editing, there’s also a stillness of being in the moment, cloistered by studio headphones, focussed only on those clips and grabs relevant to the narrative, removing all the distractions and noise of an outside world.
…this outdoor stillness is my deep connection with the more-than-human world that keep my glass half full.
It’s mentally and physically challenging. Hours of editing creates intense pain in my neck and shoulders, radiating down my back and into my hips. By late afternoon I need to take a long break, to shift the pain from my body by walking – striding out in time to my breath, stopping to observe the gentle flow of water beneath my feet or to inspect smooth, lace-like lichen on rocks and branches, macropod prints in dark mud, or to peer below the glassy surface of pooling water at a microcosm of life oblivious to the worlds’ woes before bending back, eyes skyward to appreciate the graceful swoosh of a raptor slowly tunnelling on invisible currents. Along with the silence of the studio where my senses are honed in on my field recordings, this outdoor stillness is my deep connection with the more-than-human world that keep my glass half full. Even this is a privilege by most standards.
Mosses and Marshes opens at Qube Gallery, Oswestery UK in October. The Mosses and Marshes book is due for release in October too.See the Events page for updates.
If you’d like to support the work of ecoPULSE, including future projects, you can donate via the Australian Cultural Fund over the next 12 months. Donations over A$2 are tax deductible.
Need some lockdown timeout? Take a walk through my back paddock in later winter. Best listened to with earbuds or headphones for a binaural experience.
Taking concrete ideas and making them abstract, or tangible values and pulling them apart to find the intangible, are processes my Mosses + Marshes partner Andrew Howe and I have been working through for the past two years.
Research and reading copious pages of factual historical and scientific information on our respective wetland landscapes fuels the ideas that drive our creativity – along with a smattering of philosophy. Some parts of my research have been sketchy and disjointed despite months of enquiry – my cultural investigations fall into this category. I’m still working to fill those gaps, albeit at the wrong end of the process when time is working against me.
Amid my frustration, I’ve had to decide whose story I am trying to tell. I can’t tell everyone’s story – nor should I. I can only invite those, who can, to join me in sharing theirs.
Pulse of the Wetland and its contribution to the international Mosses + Marshes project is about sharing the story of a beautiful, complex, nuanced ecosystem that is the Macquarie Marshes; gently peeling back the layers to listen and appreciate there’s another more-than-human world we too rarely experience or understand. It’s a voice not often heard.
The creative output of Pulse of the Wetland is purely fictional and some of it is purely abstract. However, 12 months of gathering sound and video recordings every few months, combined with nearly two years of research, conversations with scientists, land managers and community via the phone, Zoom and over coffees, long and short emails, and hours of thinking inform this abstract fiction.
Abstract thinking allows us to take concrete ideas and those things that we know to be true, that stand before us, that we can see, hear and touch, and turn them inside out. It allows us to think beyond ourselves and see broader connections.
One of the collaborative works Andrew and I developed recently was a spoken word sound piece integrating sound recordings from our respective wetland environments. Andrew started it, emailing it in a rough form for my feedback. His words and ideas stirred something in me – I immediately wanted to respond. It was the most emotional response I’d had yet to our shared work. I was excited about the idea of walking north to south across the globe – from the Mosses to the Marshes, under a shared sun and moon, stopping to appreciate the small sonic detail of our surrounds and our connection to something bigger than us. You can hear distinct changes in atmosphere as you transition from the Mosses to the Marshes. As you get into the Marshes the sound of underwater insects and tadpoles click and whirr, and frog song fills the night. On their own, these are abstract recordings, but together, layered under the spoken word, they create a sonic narrative to can transport you across hemispheres.
That sound work is I am Walking, one of the tracks in the sound walk Andrew developed for the Mosses Art Trail in the UK, launched on 3 July. It’s one example of our creative response to concrete research, observations and documentation. Facts and raw emotion on their own don’t often solve problems, and while we’re not out to save the world with this project, we are keen to reveal new perspectives, bring fresh voices to the table – particularly those that have been voiceless, and reimagine our collective future in a world where the connections are evident.
To hear the Fenn’s and Whixall Moss sound walk offline (from anywhere in the world), download the Echoes app (click on the icons below via your mobile to find the app). When you have it downloaded, search for the Fenn’s and Whixall Moss walk. Click on the walk, then hit the download button under the title (Mosses and Marshes walks) – it’ll show you how big the file is. Once you’ve downloaded it, you’ll be able to access it offline by going into the menu (the hamburger at the top left) and clicking ‘downloaded walks’.When you click the START button, a map of the walk comes up. Click the hamburger menu on the right top of your screen to see each track (echo) on the walk. You can toggle the Autplay option in the top right – turn it off to manually play the chosen track. These walks have been designed to be listened to with earbuds or headphones for the best listening experience.To STOP the walk, click the hamburger menu on the top left of the screen and then the STOP WALK button.
The vision of ecoPULSE is to create a safe space to talk, share, think and plan a future that’s inclusive of all of us, human and more-than-human.
ecoPULSE has an ambitious mission – Exploring regional futures through enquiry, creativity + connections. Creativity is fed by enquiry and connections help extend the ideas and conversations that evolve from that creativity. But for me, it always comes back to the creativity. Art has a power to cut through where other forms of communication can’t.
I’ve had some fantastic conversations with scientists recently, who understand – or at least they tell me they understand what it is I’m trying to achieve through ecoPULSE and the projects in the Macquarie Marshes and Lachlan River catchment. As encouraging as that is, it’s only when the enquiring output of scientists comes together with creative applications that I believe we have any chance of creating alternative perspectives to consider – perspectives that may be far more inclusive than those we’re currently debating.
The vision of ecoPULSE is to create a safe space to talk, share, think and plan a future that’s inclusive of all of us, human and more-than-human. Our ecologies and our futures are intertwined in a multi-species world where we’re reliant upon each other. The issues are nuanced, layered and complex – there are no easy answers and to borrow an idea from US-based provocateur and academic, Donna Haraway, we must stay with the trouble. As an artist working in the environment, I’ve noticed a void where some voices aren’t heard in the debate about what should be conserved, preserved, compromised or sacrificed; voices that are muted, marginalised, lost in the loud emotions, or simply not understood.
I often talk about the use of field recorded sound as a powerful way of revealing hidden elements of the landscapes I work within, be it the gurgle and vibrations inside a thick, gnarly, old coolabah, or the fizz and pop of water wort photosynthesing underwater in the afternoon sun. I’ve captured the glooping suck of mud around the roots of wetland plants, the angry attack of meat ants on a foreign body in their nest on the floodplain, and the singing vibrations of high tensile wire carving up public and private property across the country. What I’m really doing with those recordings is giving a voice to these elements of the natural world and the territories they inhabit.
The use of underwater cameras in running streams within the reed beds of the Macquarie Marshes, small fish bumping and sweeping past the lens, or within a writhing mass of European carp choking the shallow channels at the end of the Great Cumbung Swamp, bring another perspective to a world we rarely think about, little less visit. We only see what exists within a human field of view range or personal experience.
These sounds and moving images tell a story; stories that are just as important as those shared with me by humans inhabiting these landscapes. One of the best known of these types of ‘natural world’ stories are David Attenborough’s documentaries, created using the latest digital technology and with huge budgets. But you don’t need a film crew and a screen to access them for yourself, they’re on offer to anyone who chooses to lean in and be attentive. It’s about listening – actively, deeply, beyond your own breath.
Haraway’sbookStaying with the Trouble explores more hopeful ideas for existing in the world today that aren’t centred on anthropocentric or capitalocentric concepts. She suggests, revolt needs other forms of action and other stories for solace, inspiration, and effectiveness. Haraway believes storytelling is essential to the practice of thinking and essential to the stuff of living: It matters what thoughts think thoughts; it matters what stories tell stories.
Today’s stories about the natural world revolve around the values we attach to the environments we live within, the triple bottom line of productivity economics, social or cultural values, and biodiversity. They’re no longer enough – if they ever were. The currency of these values continues to be debased.
If our multi-dimensional, multi-layered and connected ecologies are to have a future, we need a new language for and process of valuing the natural world, beyond the metric – where fat ducks of the wetland are not tied to the production of fat cattle.
In her recent book Summertime: reflections on a vanishing future, Australian academic Danielle Celermajer, taps into the idea of alternative values, querying the perceived value of the land she was looking to buy, posing some important questions in the process.
Within the world of the real estate market land is worth as much as people are willing to pay for it; its value is an entirely comparative and competitive artefact. But what about the value of the life this place could open up for us and the others (human and other-than-human) with whom we could share this life? What about the land’s intrinsic value, one that cannot be tagged against any currency or measure by any metric, one that does not change over time because it has no quantity? What about its value understood as the life, presence and relationship of all beings that make the place what it is: the rainforest, the animals, the river, the shifting light on the escarpments? And what about the value and meaning this place once had (and still has) for the Aboriginal peoples for whom it was and is Country? What of the thick relationship between traditional custodians and place which we – the settler colonial society – have decimated, leaving nothing but the name of the river, recalling an Aboriginal man we killed?
Danielle Celermajer, Summertime: reflections on a vanishing future
My formative years of tertiary education were in the study of systems agriculture at Hawkesbury Agricultural College(HAC). Barely 18 years of age and from a conservative multi-generational farming family where only male heirs inherit farms, I was keen to understand and experience a new way of thinking about agriculture. My interest at the time was beef cattle genetics and marketing.
Systems thinking in the Applied Science degree I studied at Hawkesbury was about understanding and dealing with real-world problems through the study of frameworks, patterns, cycles, and interconnectedness. It was project-based, methodology-orientated learning in the field with a key competency being our ability to effectively communicate processes and outcomes. In the 30+ years since I left Hawkesbury, I’ve come to see its profound influence on my arts practice, not something I’m sure the Faculty of Agriculture ever intended.
In my weekend travels, I was listening to ABC Radio National’s The Minefield and a discussion about the neglected practice of attentiveness, with reference to French philosopher, Simone Weil. I love these conversations for their expansiveness, not providing answers but exploring possibilities. US philosopher, Rebecca Rozelle-Stone talked about the work of Simone Weil on attentiveness, the idea being it’s not just the time spent on something, but giving it space, and not expecting immediate answers – the ‘awkward silence’ many of us are conditioned to ‘fill’. Rozelle-Stone referenced the origins of attentiveness coming from attendere – to stretch toward, implying tension. Tension that can come from trying to over-ride the tendency of personal ego to project, to reply, to tell someone else’s story before they’re ready.
If we refuse to see the world as it is (or other persons as they are), then we cannot respond appropriately, honestly, or with true compassion. That is, when we are inattentive or distracted, or when we project pleasant (but distorted) illusions in place of real beings or situations, then our energies are really in service to our own desires — our egos.
Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, April 2021
So, as I come to a point in my work on Pulse of the Wetland and the impending deadlines for its inclusion in the international Mosses + Marshes project, I need to sit with these ideas of multilayered ecological systems, stories of solace and hope, systems thinking and the real meaning of attentiveness, as well as the many other threads of ideas that have surfaced over the past two years. The process of enquiring, documenting, recording, dissecting, exploring and creating is a messy one, there are many tensions, but like the practice of any craft, it takes time to reach a point of satisfying resolution. The stories given up to me by the Marshes will reveal themselves in good time, no doubt with a good dose of ‘awkward silence’.
Keep in touch with the progress of ecoPULSE projects via the monthly/bi-monthly ecoBYTE e-news for coming events, or check into our Events page.
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 + Marshescollaborator, 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.
The English language dominates the world with its constantly evolving collection of words and phrases in the form of slang, hashtags, incoherent phrases complicated by jargon, acronyms and clichés, and words of the year shaped by world events and culture.
It’s a universal language used by business, governments, tourism, international relations, entertainment and pop culture. The World Economic Forum estimates about one in four people speak English, but it’s not the dominant natively spoken language. Chinese and Spanish take out first and second position. Not surprisingly, the number of English speakers use it as a second language.
English lovers will argue it’s a rich language, a descriptive language. But just as we gain words in our official dictionaries each year, so we lose some. With the passage of time some words become obsolete from underuse.
Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or place struggles to find purchase in our minds or hearts.
Tim Dee, writer and broadcaster
In his book, ‘Landmarks’, Robert Macfarlane writes: What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occurring in English too – and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialised vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy and urbanisation. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ – meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.
He goes on to comment there are fewer people now able to name the specifics of natural phenomena, and once they go unnamed, they largely become unseen. Quoting fellow writer and broadcaster, Tim Dee, he writes: Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or place struggles to find purchase in our minds or hearts. Powerful words that leave one feeling a great sense of loss.*
English word descriptors can be powerful, thought-shaping tools that can often set the scene for how we value an environment. Australian writer and researcher, Cameron Muir, wrote of the Pilliga Scrub (now more broadly known as a forest) in a blog post, 30 July 2014: The Pilliga is a beaten-up burnt-out forest where the creeks flow underground and the trees grow barely as wide as a child’s arm. Its grasses have been eaten and its soils pulverised, its timber ringbarked and wood-chipped. It is criss-crossed with fire breaks and narrow old logging roads. Wild boars tear out from its sandy watercourses and wind whips dust into your eyes here.
And yet there are a bunch of people lining up to get arrested – to turn their lives upside down – for this ‘scrub’.
Muir is referring to the fight against coal seam gas extraction in the Pilliga. It’s often in situations like this, when there’s a resource to be extracted that the value of English words, the language of commerce, relates directly to the value of place. It’s not a coincidence that words like ‘desert’, ‘swamp’, ‘scrub’, ‘marsh’, ‘bush’, ‘bog’ or ‘backwater’ are used for those parts of the environment deemed to have little value. They’re almost dismissive terms.
The naming of places was often the only pleasure within our reach…
John Oxley, explorer and surveyor
On an expedition to ascertain the course of the Lachlan River, and explore of the western interior of New South Wales, following a course north along the Macquarie River, explorer, John Oxley journaled on 30 June 1818: These plains were entirely barren, being evidently in times of rain altogether under water, when they doubtless form one vast lake: they extended in places from three to six miles from the margin of the stream, which on its immediate borders was a wet bog, full of small water holes, and the surface covered with marsh plants, with a few straggling dwarf box-trees. It was only on the very edge of the bank, and in the bottoms of the bights, that any eucalypti grew; the plains were covered with nothing but gnaphalium: the soil various, in some places red tenacious clay, in others a dark hazel-coloured loam, so rotten and full of holes that it was with difficulty the horses could travel over them. Although those plains were bounded only by the horizon, not a semblance of a hill appeared in the distance; we seemed indeed to have taken a long farewell of everything like an elevation, whence the surrounding country could be observed. To the southward, bounding those plains in that direction, barren scrubs and dwarf box-trees, with numberless holes of stagnant water, too clearly proclaimed the nature of the country in that quarter. We could see through the openings of the trees on the river that plains of similar extent occupied the other side, which has all along appeared to us to be (if anything) the lower ground. We travelled in the centre of the plains, our medium distance from the river being from one to two miles; and although we did not go above thirteen miles, some of the horses were excessively distressed from the nature of the ground.
There was not the least appearance of natives; nor was bird or animal of any description seen during the day, except a solitary native dog. Nothing can be more melancholy and irksome than travelling over wilds, which nature seems to have condemned to perpetual loneliness and desolation. We seemed indeed the sole living creatures in those vast deserts.
He concluded that day’s entry by writing: The naming of places was often the only pleasure within our reach; but it was some relief from the desolation of these plains and hills to throw over them the associations of names dear to friendship, or sacred to genius.
What of the names that existed prior to Oxley’s 1818 explorations? When listening to traditional custodians talk of Country using traditional language, it’s akin to hearing the land speak, a lyrical language that is Country and belongs to Country as much as to the people who speak it — sounds reflecting the meaning of words and phrases.
The man who would replace Oxley as surveyor-general of NSW, Thomas Mitchell, made his own explorations of the western interior 28 years later. He wrote in his journal on 22 February 1846: The use of the aboriginal name of this river is indispensable amongst the squatters long its banks, who do not appear to know it to be the “Darling”. It is most desirable to restore such rivers to their proper names as early as possible after they have been ascertained, were it only to enable strangers to thereby avail themselves of the intelligence and assistance of the natives, in identifying the country by means of the published maps. The river Castlereagh is known to the natives as the Barrón; Morissett’s Ponds, as the Wàwill; and the lower part of the Macquarie as the Wammerawa.
He referred to the word Wammerawa two days earlier on 20 February 1846, also marked on the map of the expedition, alongside R. Macquarie (towards the top of the map below):
They were still in the attenuated channel of the Macquarie, here called by them Wámmerawá, the course of which river is continuous throughout the marshes; and marked by some high reeds greener than the rest, even when the reeds may have been generally burnt. These reeds are distinctly different from the “balyan,” growing on the marshy parts of the rivers Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, and Millewà; the former being a cane or bamboo, the latter a bulrush, affording, in its root, much nutritious gluten. We found good grass for the cattle on both sides of the water-course, which was fringed with a few tall reeds, near which the pretty little Kochia brevifolia observed at Mudá on the Bogan, again occurred. The native name of the spot was “Warranb.”
In the case of the Wammerawa, the name for the river appears to have stuck for a period following Mitchell’s excursion. There are several references to the river and surrounding district as the Wammerawa in newspaper reports between 1866 – 1875. The name was also adopted as the name of an NSW electoral district between 1920 – 1927. However, in 1950, the Lithgow Mercury reported (with some surprise it seems) that “The Western River Has Two Names”: Not many people know that the Macquarie River has another name – the Wammerawa River. This was indicated in a Government publication received recently. From its source to where it joins the Darling (sic) River there are 140 tributaries of the Macquarie.
The name continues to pop up in official documents over the following decades, a 1970s document on the restriction of removing trees from NSW watercourses has the dual names of the Macquarie and Wammerawa River. The name is officially acknowledged today as a variant for the Macquarie River and the name of a Walgett parish in the County of Clyde. Anecdotally, it would appear the name isn’t widely known today. It should be noted that the Masman family property near Carinda also bears the name.
She whispers to us, sharing secrets only those who take the time to lean in and learn will ever hear.
Kim V. Goldsmith, artist
There is currently no Wayilwan acknowledgement or recognition of the word Wammerawa. However, the Wayilwan name for the Macquarie Marshes has been adopted by the local community—Maliyanga ngurra, meaning Eagle’s Camp or Morning Star’s Camp*.
More broadly, there’s been a desire in some sectors to see dual names or traditional names reinstated. The Barka or Baaka is now regularly used alongside the naming of the Darling River. In the upper Macquarie catchment, Wiradyuri Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALC), local government and community the length of the Macquarie River have supported dual naming of the Macquarie River to include the Waradyuri name of Wambuul. This has had the support of Wayilwan communities on the Wambuul, through Warren LALC. It’s ultimately a decision for the community and traditional speakers of the language to determine how the language is preserved and acknowledged. The wider community will, over time, absorb this language that comes from those decisions and the land.
The days of Australia being a multi-lingual or even a polyglot nation may be getting closer, perhaps bringing us that little bit closer to understanding the need to listen to the land that sustains us. She whispers to us, sharing secrets only those who take the time to lean in and learn will ever hear.
*Milan Dhiiyaan have assisted the community of Warren and surrounds in the adopting Maliyanga ngurra as the Wayilwan name of the Macquarie Marshes