24 Mar 2023
VIRTUAL FAMILY BUSHWALK - ALBERT PARK, VIC AND LAKE GWELUP, WA
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To help inspire Australians to take time out for nature, WWF-Australia’s Indigenous Content Specialist, Dr Vanessa Barnett, takes us on a ‘virtual family bushwalk’ to much-loved nature places in a journey of healing across Country.
Words by Dr Vanessa Barnett
As a proud Yamatji person who grew up in gum tree drenched areas of Western Australia, adjusting to life in the beachside bustle of St Kilda has been a very unique quest. Throughout my life, reconnecting to places of natural, cultural and family significance has meant travelling to rather remote places around WA’s Wheatbelt region or deep into the bush.
The recent loss of my beloved Nana, Jean Margaret Latham, has called me back to the little towns of Coorow, Waddy Forest and (yes, no coincidence) Latham. To return her physically and spiritually to Yamatji Country. In the lead up to my return, I find myself seeking solace amongst nature (or the closest approximation that St Kilda can offer).
Like a magnet, I feel drawn from my nearby apartment to a tiny pocket of sacred Boonwurrung Country, hidden amongst the serpent-like tarmac of Queens Way and St Kilda Rd.
Within this culturally-significant sanctuary of native bush, grasses, and wetlands lies the Boonwurrung Corroboree Tree, or 'Ngargee' Tree. It is a sacred 20-metre-tall red gum believed to be up to 800 years old.
For hundreds of years, it has served as a ceremonial and meeting place for the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boonwurrung Peoples.
In front of the Ngargee tree, there is a yarning circle created from red gum trunks where visitors can sit, take some time to pay respects to the Traditional Owners of the land on which the tree stands, and generally reflect. I sat down with my husband, paid my respects and thought about my Nana.
My Nana loved bushwalks and living amongst nature. She was always on the road, but when she stayed in one place for a time, it would be nearby beautiful nature places of cultural significance – Kalbarri, Thundellara, Mollerin and places along the coast of Yamatji Country.
As I walked along the pathways of this bush tucker-laden Aboriginal garden, I spotted bullibulli (Gunditjmara), also known as Kangaroo Apple, or Bush Tomato (Solanum laciniatum).
In this little sanctuary amongst the metropolis of Melbourne, I remembered back to the oddly wonderful, medicinal concoctions my family would make from time to time (such as ‘bush tea’). Too bitter for some but therapeutic to anyone happy to drink it.
As I travelled under the gum trees, I’d smell the branches and feel the bumpy spots on the spotted gum leaves. The scent took me to moments when eucalyptus is used for spiritual cleansing, for healing.
I returned from my walk knowing that healing was so far from over, but the journey towards it had begun. Walking in the ‘mini bush’ made me think of Mum, who has taken me on nature walks my whole life. I reached out to chat about my experience in that sacred garden quietly existing next to the Melbourne Grand Prix circuit. She revealed that she was actually on a bushwalk when she received the phone call that Nan had passed.
“Nana loved the birds”, Mum said. “She loved all the birds, but she particularly liked the butcher birds.” It wasn’t much of a surprise that Mum was on a bushwalk when she received this news. Mum definitely inherited Nan’s love of nature. And given that this much-loved nature reserve is not far from her home, she’ll often spend mornings or sunsets spotting birds in the trees and along the water’s edge.
As a fellow writer, lecturer and researcher, my mother Dr Robin Barrington and I have professional lives that often urge us to seek out natural spaces to recentre our minds when too many thoughts are swirling around.
“I love the walk into Lake Gwelup because the trees overhang and it's shady”, Mum reveals.
“It provides a really lovely habitat for different kinds of birds, including, you know, mopokes (Southern Boobook Owl) and all sorts of parrots. You even see kangaroos nearby.”
The Noongar Nyakinyaki and Noongar Balardong Peoples refer to the rainbow bee-eater as "birranga". This bird’s looks and personality make it extremely unique, and as a totem animal in the eastern Wheatbelt of WA, it is extremely significant. The birranga’s Creation Story tells of how a rainbow shattered and its colourful shards fell to Earth. The vivid colours of the rainbow bee-eater gives away the fate of the shards. Another favourite culturally-significant bird is ngolyenok or ngolak (short-billed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris/baudinii)). They can be found noshing on banksias amongst the trees at Lake Gwelup.
“Nana always used to say when they came in, ‘It’s a sign of rain’. So, when I see them, I see them as a hope for some rain”, Mum said. Not too far away from the ngolak or short-billed black cockatoo’s favourite spots, you can find bird species like djayarra (corellas) and koonyenok (sacred kingfishers) chatting to each other on nearby branches.
But Mum’s favourite spot for birdwatching on Lake Gwelup is by the lake itself.
The great egret is the ‘sheriff’ of Lake Gwelup, and it’s entertaining to watch him try to keep order over a wetlands area with so many bird species.
“You can see by the way he walks, you know, he's pretty upstanding”, Mum happily muses. “He covers a big area. He just goes round and round, patrolling the lake all day long. You see him in all parts of the lake. So yeah, his territory's pretty wide, actually”. Mum admits his self-assigned authority over independent, somewhat agnostic species like the nankeen night heron is somewhat questionable.
Connecting with nature as a solitary exercise can be extremely therapeutic and rewarding. But for my family and others, nature is something that brings us together. That reminds us where we come from.
Weeks later, under the big salmon gum tree at Waddy Forest where Nana is now laid to rest, Mum and I spread everlasting seeds, held each other and spoke to her. I walked away knowing she is now and forever at home on Country, under her favourite tree. And that her love of nature continues within us.
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