The things no one sees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underwater recordings at Burrima
Underwater recordings at Burrima

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

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

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

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

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

The autumnal crescendo

Recording under water from the boardwalk at Burrima
Recording underwater from the boardwalk at Burrima

As the chill of winter touched the Western Plains, I headed north again for another weekend in the Macquarie Marshes. It was early May. This was to be a quick, overnight trip to document another stage in what I hoped to be the wetland’s recovery from years of drought.

…the silence of the cold autumn night was marked by the rasping calls of plovers guarding their territory from night predators…

Since my last visit at the end of February, the water had arrived – spreading across the reedbeds and channels, seeping slowly into the deep cracks and crevices of heavy grey soils, soaking parched and burnt roots in the Nature Reserve and on the fringes of “Burrima” – burnt in a fire at the end of October last year. Intermittent bubbles of air rise through the stained water, as water slowly bleeds into pores of air in the dry soil.

A bubble filmed underwater in a lagoon at Burrima
A bubble filmed underwater in a lagoon at Burrima using the Olympus Tough camera

The transformation has started. It’s by no means complete and to say there was an overwhelming presence of bird and insect life would be a gross exaggeration. At least there were few mosquitoes. However, the silence of the cold autumn night was marked by the rasping calls of plovers guarding their territory from night predators. Small numbers of ibis could be seen stalking their way through shallow waters on the edges of the timber, ducks and water hens called across the channels of water behind stands of reeds , and the woodland birds tittered and twittered between high branches and reed thickets, including some inter-species bickering. A black swan, Burrima’s namesake, flew overhead late on Saturday afternoon, as kookaburras chuckled in the dying light.

A kingfisher in the woodlands at Burrima - photo by Cameron Porteous
A kingfisher in the woodlands at Burrima – photo by Cameron Porteous

There was recent evidence in the mud of pigs and kangaroos having been there , but I only sighted two roos across the plain in the early hours of Sunday morning while I was out flying the drone. Thankfully I didn’t encounter the big feral boar I’d been told about by “Burrima”‘s Aboriginal cultural adviser and long-time resident of the area, Bertie Bartholomew.

The plain to the west of the woodland belt that fringes the “Burrima” wetland has also seen rain since February. The light grey, gilgai-pocked soils blanketed in leafy, woody Marshmallow and the invasive shin-high Noogurra burr with its spiny fruits was thick on the ground – both very effective at covering the vast lines of foot-swallowing holes that exist in these soils.

Mounds of closely splaced Poverty bush and saltbush seemed brighter than I remember in February – washed of the layers of dust that had blown across the western plains over summer. Dispersed amongst the prickly shrubs, on what is still bare ground, are clumps of now denuded Darling lilies and stands of Native tobacco with their tall bouquets of delicately petalled white flowers.

Flowering Native tobacco plant on the plain at Burrima
Flowering Native tobacco plants on the plain at Burrima

Standing guard over the plain at “Burrima” are two ancient Coolabahs estimated to be at least a thousand years old. Thick, gnarly and twisted like rooted serpents. The old giants have mostly likely witnessed the dynamic state of the wetland over centuries, and the impact its flux and flow has on the populations of vertebrates and invertebrates who call this place home – the permanent residents and the visitors. These wizened guardians were the focus of my pre-dawn Sunday morning, as I flew my drone over and around them, panning along their thick, old arms, slowly and lovingly, as the rising sun bathed them in golden light.

One of the two ancient Coolibah trees on Burrima bathed in the early morning light
One of the two ancient Coolabah trees on Burrima bathed in the early morning light

There’s a constructed tension that exists between having a full field recording kit with lots of empty SD cards and short time-frames to work in.

Arriving with the usual expectations, I had my recording plan on paper, a checklist of equipment and what I would capture with it – with just enough room in the schedule to ‘go with the flow’. The use of underwater cameras and microphones, along with a new infra-red field camera set up to run overnight overlooking a lagoon on the edge of the Nature Reserve, yielded some unexpected but interesting results. Yet this visit had me struggling with frustration at the lack of control over what was being offered up. The clock was ticking and I felt I had little time to simply be still – to really listen. The birds were coy about being seen, there was no frog song, and the waters still trickling into lagoons and shallow water holes were turbid from the construction of the boardwalk that now loops for 1.8km through the woodlands of “Burrima”, amongst the River Red Gums and out to the open reedbeds and the boundary with the Nature Reserve. In truth, my expectations were arrogant.

What I missed, until I gave into the serendipity forced upon me, was the quiet beauty of what had happened in the intervening months since my last visit; the hint that with a wet winter and the promise of more environmental flows this is just the crescendo, spring would bring the real action. There’s a constructed tension that exists between having a full field recording kit with plenty of empty SD cards and a short time-frame to work in. Learning to let go is something I’m working on – still, after all these years. I bow my head to Mother Nature, who always tends to have the last word.

In the meantime, there’s funding to secure, stories to gather, more reading and research, ideas to be exchanged with those who care deeply for this land and believe in the power of art to bring others into the conversation. I’ve barely begun.

Marking time

Setting up camera trap with ZOOM H2n mounted on top
Setting up camera trap with ZOOM H2n mounted on top

I’ve started to lose track of how many days I’ve been at home now as part of our contribution to the Covid19 containment measures. Each day is much the same and much like the day before. Mind you, the only real difference to pre-Covid times is my week is no longer punctuated by coffees and long lunches with friends through the week.

As much as I’m missing my those face-to-face social interactions, I’m also getting anxious about missing the incredible transformation happening in the Macquarie Marshes. There’s been 260mm of rain across the area since the beginning of the year, and flows from the Macquarie reached the wetland in early March.

Water in the Macquarie River flowing north to the Marshes
The blue arrow indicates where the water in
the river on 29 February. The red square is
Burrima.

I’ve seen photos of the reeds sticking their heads above water, bouncing back from fire and drought. I’ve also photos of some of the fauna – water birds and turtles. I now want to hear the change – the bird song, the croaks and gronks, the rustle of wind through the reeds – gone the crunch of brittle red gum leaves underfoot. I want to smell the dampness of the soil, that in February crumbled and sifted through my fingers – the expectation being it’ll squish and bubble like clay in my hand. And gone will be the stink of rotting kangaroo carcases, now underwater – water that dragonflies use as their performance stage.

I’m now marking time. Watching updates from afar, reading, thinking, chewing over ideas, and preparing for my next trip to Burrima with experiments in my back paddock. I’m looking for markers of change – macro investigations under water and above ground, that clearly say this landscape has entered a new cycle.

Silent symphony: the “Burrima” baseline

Pulse of the Wetland artist, Kim V. Goldsmith
Kim V. Goldsmith on location at “Burrima”

What would you expect to hear at dusk on the edge of a wetland?

A chorus of frogs, chirruping birds settling down to roost for the night, the mechanical whirr of various insects, interjections from some of the noisier avian species? Don’t forget the whine of mosquitoes.

Would you expect to hear silence?

As Pulse of the Wetlands went into full-force planning in February, a reconnaisance visit was made in late February to the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust owned property, “Burrima”, nestled in the middle of the western boundary of the northern marsh of the Ramsar-listed Nature Reserve. It was to be a quick, overnight stay to gather information, make observations, test a few recording techniques and essentially gather baseline recordings of the site while it is still in a drought state. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been up there for about 25 years.

Chenopod shrubland at "Burrima"
The black soil plain of “Burrima” with prickly Poverty Bush and saltbushes form the chenopod scrubland.

I knew water in the Macquarie River was slowly making its way north, destined for the Marshes. I’d been hearing about it all week in the news and on social media platforms. Knowing that rain in the area had been localised and patchy, I felt I was racing the water to capture the site in its true drought state. Project manager for “Burrima”, Dave Duncan told me the property was “as bad as it could get”.

On the back of prolonged drought, part of the block burnt in a fire that took out 3,000 ha of the Marshes in October 2019. In the north-east corner of “Burrima”, the damage was clear. Reed beds, lignum and red gums were blackened or turned to ash. Rain a few days later saw the reeds reshooting, and there has been some epicormic growth on some trees. Some are gone for good. The stress of the drought and little or no storm rain at the start of 2020 has been too much. Large expanses of the black soil plains — chenopod shrubland and Coolabah-Black Box woodland that effortlessly merges — fringing the western side of the wetland are bare except for prolific scatterings of tiny, white shells, the odd roly poly, and large scalds dotted with poverty bush and various saltbushs, the stunning white petalled, glossy leafed Darling lilies pushing through the grey crust.

“Burrima” is a perfect location for a project like Pulse, as it’s a valuable snapshot of the main vegetation communities of the Macquarie Marshes – the dry chenopod shrublands, coolibah woodlands that rarely or occasionally flood, a flooded river red gum forest that is sometimes dry, and a slice of the core North Marsh reed bed – part of the largest reed bed in southern Australia.

River Red Gum forest and reeds at "Burrima"
Drought-affected, scorched River Red Gums and reeds that have reshot from the October 2019 fire

On the afternoon of my first day at “Burrima”, as the day gradually warmed to about 30 degrees (very mild by usual standards), and the little black flies threatened to carry me away but for my fly veil, I scoped an area to set up camp in the north-east corner of the block. It was an area that was within easy walking distance to capture both the river red gums and the reeds, with a clear view over the Nature Reserve. It was a contained area, but I still chocked up 8km walking across the site from each recoding location, between mid afternoon to 9.30pm.

Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve from "Burrima"
Set up to shoot a sunset time lapse video from the boundary of “Burrima” and the Nature Reserve

By the time the sun started to fall over the canopy of the red gums, I was setting up tripods with video cameras and recorders in various locations. I’d made a recording schedule throughout the afternoon, with a sequence designed to cater for the location, the technology and the planned recording time. I was using a Lumix 100 compact camera for a 3.5 minute 4K resolution time lapse (7,000 shots over 2 hours), a Garmin VIRB 360 for 5K resolution (shot in RAW) 360 video across two locations at varying heights (perspectives), the drone in 4K in Tripod mode using the birds-eye-view gimbal position across dry channels and reed beds as well as out on the black soil plain, a Lumix GH4 was also set up to capture the reeds at dusk and the Nature Reserve at dawn, along with two ZOOM sound recorders capturing 360 atmospheric sound, as well as lavs and a shotgun mic on the H6 to get more directed atmospherics. I had also played around with the contact mic on trees earlier in the day but have come to the sad conclusion the mic is damaged. The light on this late summer weekend was perfect, particulary in the early evening and following morning…not to forget I was planning to shoot into the dark as well. What was unexpected was the lack of sound – other than the constant buzz of flies and brief scolding chatter of the Willie Wagtails.

As I woke at a pre-dawn 6am the following morning to set up for the morning shoot across the Nature Reserve, the birds slowly joined me. It wasn’t a cacophony, as I often experience at home on my Dubbo bush block, but it was an almost lazy arrangement of woodland birdsong that included the Willies, galahs, ravens, magpie-larks, ringneck parrots, wood ducks, and a few wrens who were darting about fallen timber in the reeds. Thankfully, the flies were slow to rise too.

Sunrise at "Burrima" over the Macquarie Marshes northern Nature Reserve
Sunrise at “Burrima”

The night spent lying in my swag from the back of the ute, staring at a ceiling of stars from behind my fly/mozzie veil, it struck me again how there was no soundtrack to the light show. Other than the whine of a mosquito or two, there were no frogs or insects keeping late hours, only an occasional burst from the Willie Wagtails and one other bird I didn’t recognise. I’m a light sleeper but no noises woke me through the night – only my hips on the thin swag mattress caused me to toss and turn.

Finishing up about 7.30am at the north-east corner, I made my way back to the “Burrima” shed to get some low-level footage of the black soil plain using the drone. I recorded some atmos from this site using both the ZOOM H6 and the H2N 360 recorder. In 15 minutes of sound recording, only a few raucous galahs, a caroling magpie, and the raven calls echoing through the red gums in the distance broke the early morning silence.

Ancient Coolabah tree in the woodland ecosystem of "Burrima"
An ancient Coolabah tree in the Coolabah/Black Box woodland of “Burrima” – Dave Duncan standing at the base.

The presence of the Darling lilies on the plain hint better seasons may lay ahead. They’re known for being more abundant in sparsely-timbered, flooded areas. I hope they’re right and that on my next visit, the birds, amphibians and insects have regrouped into a truly glorious wetland troupe of choristers.

Darling lily on the plains of "Burrima"
Darling (or Macquarie) lilies

Follow the progress of Pulse of the Wetlands on Facebook and Instagram @GoldsmithStudio.

Additional reading:

Macquarie Marshes watering events 2019/20

Eye of the Corvus: the first ecoPULSE project

Well before ecoPULSE came into being, the work that set the framework for these art-based projects was Eye of the Corvus: Messenger of Truth.

Highly intelligent, ravens and crows (corvids) reveal some of the complexities involved in survival, and the strategies other species employ to make their way in the world. Our worlds have co-evolved – with references in the stories of ancient and contemporary cultures – so what makes a species so resilient in one part of the world, and not in another? In Australia, corvids are thriving and adapting. In Iceland, they’re under threat.

We have come to forget our minds are shaped by bodily experience of being in the world — its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits — as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.

ROBERT MACFARLANE, LANDMARKS

Eye of the Corvus: Messenger of Truth aims to present the landscape from the perspective of these birds, underpinned by scientific understandings. What might be revealed to us about the current state and future of our world through the eye of these birds?

As an artist and a lover of the natural environment, I’ve had a long-held fascination with birds in my creative practice, for their role as indicators of the health of the environment, and how we interact with them based on the value we afford them.

Over two+ years (2018/2019), in two countries at opposite ends of the world, both remote with extreme climates, a selection of cameras and sound equipment was used to capture the rural, peri-urban and urban landscapes of Australia and Iceland from the eye of the bird. The resulting work was shown at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, New South Wales from 14 December 2019 – 2 February 2020.

Eye of the Corvus, Kim V. Goldsmith, 2019