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 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 about Country using traditional language, it’s akin to hearing the land speak, a lyrical language that belongs to the Country as much as to its people — sounds reflecting the meaning of words and phrases.
The man who would replace Oxley as survey-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.
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.
She whispers to us, sharing secrets only those who take the time to lean in and learn will ever hear.
Kim V. Goldsmith, artist
Colonisation and subsequent years of white policy attempted to scrub the language from the land. Despite efforts to erase Indigenous languages, traditional words embedded themselves in a way that often saw them hidden in plain sight – many in the property names given to land holdings or towns. While great work has been done reviving some Indigenous language like Wiradyuri, Ngiympaa, Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay, others have proven more difficult to piece back together.
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, Bathurst Regional Council have resolved to support an application to the Geographic Names Board for the dual naming of the Macquarie River, to include the Waradyuri name of Wambuul, which has also be been adopted by some as far north on the river as Dubbo.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.