Finding the Language of Flowers

Sometimes a book shifts something within and makes you look at the world differently. Other times, a cover lures you. As a writer, I choose novels I feel will be a worthy investment of my reading time. ‘The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart’ by Holly Ringland did more than that – I took that journey with Alice, learned the language of flowers and found my own.

This year, the winter solstice arrived and put an end to weeks of much needed rain, revealing the bluest sky that was full of possibility. I was a third of the way through Ringland’s novel, when, in the company of my four-legged girl and another dog I was minding, I decided to take my walk into the bush rather than along the beach. I felt like the child version of Alice in Ringland’s story who was enticed by the pathway that led through the bush to the river. As I walked, like Alice, the bush embraced me, and I needed to be nurtured.

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An Unlikely Pair: Mali (my girl) on left with Tiger

The earth had been washed clean leaving generous puddles that divided the tracks. Water, held in bowls of clay, would last the months ahead, ensuring the birds and marsupials flourish. Pools tinged aqua on their edges reflected the green foliage above.

I took the ‘Black Swamp’ track and came to where the path divides in three. I realised I had previously only ever gone left or right. On this day, I went straight ahead, towards the area that had been razed by  fire nearly two years ago. The landscape changed from the sandy forests where great silver gums pointed to a previous time. Wide-girthed eucalyptus trees revealed their age. Heavy branches of one, supported in the bough of another, creaked like the rusty hinges of a door… uncertain of allowing me access. I climbed a gentle slope and realised one particular eucalypt was scarred – a powerful reminder of the original custodians, the Jerrinja. A hidden secret that belongs to the Saltwater People and their ancestors.

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Scarred Tree on Jerrinja Land

Down into the boggy marshes where frogs gathered in a croaking choir. I picked my way through, trying to keep my feet dry. And then the path climbed, steeper this time. My phone’s satellite map told me of my location – a pulsating blue dot enclosed by trees. The dogs, nature and me. I had found the solace I was looking for. I breathed in huge lungsful of fresh air and felt the happiest I had in a long time.

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Nothing but Trees!

But something tugged at me to go further, deeper, just like the new scents that drove the dogs onwards. Blackened trunks became embedded in the brightest green undergrowth. The bush thinned and it was then that I came to a halt. A sweet honey aroma of wildflowers took me to an unfamiliar place. Wherever I looked, I saw their exquisiteness in varied colours and forms. Fragile yet hardy. I imagined myself as Alice, examining their beauty. But instead of putting them into my pockets, I took photographs.

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Colours of orange, red and yellow …

 

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Grevillea Family

Tiny stamens called for the birds, the bees and the breeze to carry their lives forward. It was as though the flowers were speaking ever so eloquently. Just as Ringland suggests –flowers are the words to express our thanks, our love, our sympathy.

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Feeling the freedom of life without time restrictions, I explored the essence of the bush for hours, until, urged by hunger, I decided to return. As I neared the quaint village of Myola, I was reminded of the callous nature of humans who use the track to discard unwanted objects that would never decompose. And a sadness tried to find its way in but I thought of Alice and her flowers and the beauty held deep within the bush. I arrived home and wanted nothing more than to finish the book. As with Alice, Holly Ringland’s novel evoked a fire that burns within my own heart, encouraging me to find the words and trust my own stories.

A few weeks later, I walked back to the place of wildflowers. The flowers I’d seen earlier had mostly fulfilled their lives and the colours of red and orange had faded. Instead, there were pinks and purples. And once again, I was entranced by the language of flowers and they spoke of happiness and peace.

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Purples and Pinks

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Happiness and Peace

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Graffiti Artists of the Bush

 

Dispersed throughout the bushland that hugs Callala Beach, are the most beautiful smooth-barked white gum trees that stand like pointers to an ancient world. During the day, their ethereal forms captivate and at night they stand conspicuously amongst their brothers and sisters of the bushland world.

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One of a variety of Scribbly Gums

 

The Scribbly Gum is in complete contrast to the rough, scraggly limbs of the revered Old Man Banksia. They stand shorter and slimmer than the robust Swamp Mahogany. The Scribbly holds out its limbs, smooth and glossy and often forms ‘wrinkles’ where the boughs meet.  Each of these beautiful trees are an essential contributor to the endangered Bangalay Sand Forest.

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Wrinkles

 

There are a few types of eucalyptus trees fondly named Scribbly Gums and they each received their title thanks to the Scribbly Gum Moth. These trees are constantly shedding their bark to not only reveal the smoothest of ‘skin’ but the signatures of a moth larva.

So how does this graffiti artist tag the bark of these magnificent trees? The eggs of the moth are laid between the old and new season’s bark. The moth’s larvae tunnel in loops and zigzags just below the bark’s surface. The tree sends out scar tissue which the caterpillars love to devour. They reach maturity quickly, growing legs before turning around to eat their way back out. Next, they leave the tree to form a cocoon and pupate. Not long after this the gum tree sheds its bark to reveal the secret signatures that make the Scribbly iconic.

Scribbly Gum Moth

The Ogmograptis scribula is rarely seen in
its moth form

 

These scribbles have been recorded by the first botanists that visited Australia’s shores as well as artists and writers. The graffiti artists of the bush have found a place in Australia’s culture.

Judith Wright’s poem called Scribbly Gum reveals an ancient language:

I peeled its splitting bark
and found the written track
of a life I could not read

Late Blue Mountains poet, Graham Alcorn wrote a poem: The Scribblygum Moth

Some chew up and some chew down,

This the philosophers might explain,

But the thing that causes me to frown,

The thing I’d dearly love to learn

Is what makes every Ogmo turn?

Off to the left, then to the right,

Another about turn, very tight,

Chomping a track, Forward and back,

On various species of gum tree.

 

And who didn’t love Snugglepot and Cuddlepie as a child? Their little gum-leaf banners were inspired by the secretive scrawls of the artist.

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Snugglepot & Cuddlepie’s  Scribbled Banners

 

A few years ago, a young school girl named Julia Cooke was obviously captivated with the scribbles on the bark in the bush. With a little help she discovered there were very different dialects amongst these scribblers and other researchers took up the chase! As a result, eleven new Scribbly Gum Moths were discovered, with three of them having an ancestor with a species that lived on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana.

All of this goes to show there truly is so much more to discover out there in that beautiful bush we are fortunate to have surround the coastal villages of Callala Beach and Myola.

The Stranding of the Sea Hares on Callala Beach

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Over the last few weeks I have had several conversations with fellow walkers as we stepped over hundreds of creatures that created brilliant purple stains upon the white sands of Callala Beach. Some of us tried to pick the slippery culprits up and toss them back out to sea, only to have our hands dyed violet. Others bent to observe their squishy little olive green bodies. None of us understood why there were so many. So, I decided to do a little Googling and found the Australian Museum and scientist Bill Rudman had a wealth of knowledge on these unusual little creatures with many curious qualities.

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I confirmed that they were indeed Sea Hares and aptly named due to their long tentacles that certainly resemble the ears of a hare. They are in fact slugs and part of the mollusc family. They have an internal shell and ‘wings’ that help them swim gracefully through the water, unafraid of any known predators. For it is not known what will or can eat a Sea Hare. They love hanging out around rocks and the intertidal zone where they are cleverly camouflaged.

Being herbivores, their favourite food is algae and seaweed. It is believed that the purple dye is a result of the Sea Hare dining on red seaweed. Every resident of Callala Beach is aware that when the southerlies hit and the swells surge with ferocity, we often find the beach draped in a vibrant red coat of weed that is the colour of shiraz. Delicious to a Sea Hare!

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And so why the purple dye? Bill Rudman’s research informs that the Sea Hare can store the noxious chemicals found in their algal food, especially from the red variety. Deposited in their skin, it is released when they feel threatened by predators. Apparently, it tastes horrible and a Western Australian species has even been known to poison dogs.

But, there is even more to reveal about this smooth secretive slug. Being a hermaphrodite, it has both male and female sex organs and when it is time to mate it revels in making this a very social affair! They invite their friends along and start a ‘mating chain’. The first slug will act as a female, then each other hare that joins in forms a link in the chain, acting as both a male and a female until the last one acts only as a male. The more the merrier they sometimes say!

Such a fascinating little marine mollusc that is rarely seen, has shown themselves in huge numbers, stranded and dying at low tide. I kept wondering why there were so many? Back to my trusty scientist who concludes that mass deaths of Sea Hares is fairly common. It seems that when conditions are favourable, and lots of shackling of Sea Hares has occurred there will be babies booming all over that red algae. Those juveniles will grow quickly and perhaps there were many chains connected and their life cycles just so happened that this mega population died at the same time. And then came the southerlies and washed them upon Callala Beach and we are left to wonder about what else goes on out there in the bay.

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Listening to Colour!

Recently, I was captivated by an intriguing interview with a colour blind artist named Neil Harbisson. He was born with a condition that means he can only see in black and white. As a result, he has had himself permanently equipped with technology so that he can listen to colour. Yes that’s correct – he can hear colour! Neil’s whole life has been seen in scales of grey and he is the first person to have an antennae permanently bolted to his skull. Neil’s colour sensor device has been described as making him look like a cross between an insect and a call centre worker.

He is claimed to be the first cyborg artist. A cyborg is a being with both organic and biomechatronic (biological, mechanical and electronic) parts. Colour emits frequencies and the antennae allows for vibrations to be picked up. This long bendy piece of technology arcs over the top of his head and holds an electronic eye, that lingers just above his own eyes. As it detects colour it sends frequencies to a chip installed into the back of his head and literally vibrates the bone in his skull. As each colour emits a different sound he has had to teach himself which colour is which by holding pieces of coloured card in front of his electronic eye. He learnt his colours just as a young child would. He memorised the names and the notes attached to each of these colours. After some time, Neil didn’t have to think about the notes, and the colours simply became perceptions, which in turn, grew into feelings. He began to have favourite colours.

When Neil began to dream in colour, hearing the electronic sounds in his brain while he slept, he knew that the software and his brain had united and he had truly become a cyborg. He is often seen wearing very bright clothing. For example, yellow trousers, a blue t-shirt and pink jacket. How does he decide on what to wear? He looks into his wardrobe and listens to the chords until he finds the tune he likes for that day. If he goes to an art gallery he can listen to a Picasso or a Van Gogh. For Neil, a trip to the supermarket is like going to a nightclub. Each product vies for his attention, especially the cleaning aisle, creating voracious pieces of music.

So as spring takes its hold and pushes aside the greys of winter, I wonder what Neil would think about the colours of Jervis Bay and its surrounds.

The widest blue sky, reflected in the aqua water, flanked by the whitest of sand.

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Callala Beach (Photograph by Trevor Smith)

To walk through the bushland around Callala Beach, brushing past blades of green.

Burrawang Photograph Rowena Sierant

Burrawang (Rowena Sierant)

To come upon a wall of wattle that whispers the hopes of Summer.

Wattle in Myola (Rowena Sierant)

Wattle in Myola (Rowena Sierant)

To look up at the eucalypts and hear the vibrancy of lorikeets, king parrots and rosellas. Their feathered sounds competing with their boisterous calls.

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To rise early and wander along the length of the beach, watching the sun rise.

Sunrise Callala Beach (Rowena Sierant)

Sunrise Callala Beach (Rowena Sierant)

The colours of nature bring such a wonderful feeling of gratification and pleasure. Neil can now enjoy this in his own unique way. I admire how he is so content with having the gift of being able to sense colour through sound. I can only wonder how the melodies of a Jervis Bay spring would play in his head.

Check out Neil’s TED talk:https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color?language=en

What Makes People Happy?

In the last week, I have read about two studies that delve into the subject of what makes people happy. The first study involved over thirty thousand participants and was conducted in Canada. It found that people living on streets with numerous trees (more than ten) felt better both mentally and physically than those who didn’t live under a canopy of green. The ‘tree people’ tended to live seven years longer and suffered less health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Another benefit of living on a tree-lined street was that it made one feel as though they had received a salary rise of up to twenty thousand dollars! In other words, you will feel rich when there are trees surrounding you that act like huge lungs absorbing not only the carbon dioxide and pollution humans create but all that negative energy that can intrude on one’s life.

I thought about my street in Myola, lined with immense eucalyptus trees. How I can walk, feeling protected and nurtured, under this shelter of shade on my short journey to Callala Beach. The word ‘eucalyptus’ comes from the combination of two Greek words, meaning well-covered. Surely, all this extra foliage must add years to the lives of my fellow Myolians. Seriously though, one reason why I moved to this area was because the community are a very content and cheerful bunch. Perhaps it has to do with all the trees that surround these towns.

Catherine Street, Myola

Catherine Street, Myola

The second study, conducted in Melbourne, reported that people who live in towns smaller than one thousand were significantly happier than those in big cities. The combined total of Callala beach and Myola is less than one thousand. Bingo! The reasons for this increased life satisfaction can be numerous. You will never come across a traffic light, and rarely will you see traffic congestion on your drive through Myola or Callala Beach. Crime in cities by far outweighs what you will find in these small towns. In small communities, people look out for one another. They stop, talk and listen. This sense of community is not very forthcoming in large cities.

I would like to add another ingredient to this recipe for happiness and that is living on the shores of Jervis Bay. Being able to walk the five kilometre stretch of Callala Beach every day enriches my life. Being able to take my dog on these walks makes it even better. In addition, pet owners are supposed to enjoy a greater sense of well-being.

Mali Jumping for Joy on Callala Beach

Mali Jumping for Joy on Callala Beach

The ‘Happiness Generator’ is on high at Callala Beach no matter what season of the year. Even if it’s a cold Winter’s afternoon, the tide is high and storms have turned the bay into a fierce creature that swells and surges towards the shores. When the frothing tongues of the sea come biting at your feet and you laugh racing towards the higher dunes to escape.

Storm

When on a Summer’s morning, your breath is taken away because you are forced to turn to the sound of a dolphin’s exhalation. And a pod swims past.

Resident Pod of Dolphins at Callala Beach

Resident Pod of Dolphins at Callala Beach

The exhilaration I feel when I step outside the front door and see a kangaroo on the lawn.

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Or if am walking down the street and find an echidna rummaging for ants.

Ernie the Echidna

Ernie the Echidna

In each of these moments, I feel such an extraordinary sense of delight. I feel like I belong to this place. I want to give back twofold what it gives to me. Big hugs to the trees, the nature and the other nine hundred and ninety nine residents in my small beach-side community. Together, we can feel so lucky. So privileged. So grateful. And of course, extremely happy!