Q&A with Of the Mosses’ Andrew Howe

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

READ IT HERE

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

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

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

Hidden sounds of the Marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories can shape the future

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

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

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

Stories make us feel part of something.

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

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

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

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

The stories we share require us to be present.

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

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

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

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

Regional Arts Fund Regional Arts NSW logo and acknowledgement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donna Haraway

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

On wing and water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The things no one sees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underwater recordings at Burrima
Underwater recordings at Burrima

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

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

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

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

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

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