Last week I talked a bit about how the Weald and Downland Museum was a special place for me and how it had a distinct sense of place. Today I want to talk about a favourite place that is a lot closer – 14,500 Km closer to be precise. But first I want to differentiate between sense of place and spirit of place.
Technically speaking sense of place is typically applied to urban and suburban areas and used to characterize the relationship between people and spatial settings It is the characteristics that make a place special or unique and foster a sense of belonging. Exposure to an environment through childhood play, the role of family, culture and community all combine to establish environmental preferences later in life. Which is a roundabout way of saying that if you were brought up in a certain setting as a child you’d like that setting later in life. This can be seen in a lot of rural communities where young people leave for the economic opportunities offered by cities only to return later when they want to raise a family or eventually retire.
Spirit of place is usually applied to a rural or a relatively unspoiled or regenerated place and is a bit more of an airy fairy concept. The soul, for want of a better word, is formed by the apparent characteristics (both positive and negative) of a place and these qualities are talked about by artists and writers, They are also the subject of myths, folk tales and certain celebrations. The characteristics then help people form associations and attachments with the land. The Romans called the concept Genius loci and believed that every place had a protective spirit which was depicted in their religious iconography as a youth holding an item such as the horn of plenty, a libation bowl, or a snake (symbolising fertility and a connection to Mother Earth). Indigenous peoples see a landscape defined by guardian spirits, supernatural beings, and ghosts. Here in Western Australia the Nyoongar people describe their relationship with the Swan River through the Wagyl or rainbow serpent. Geographical features were created by the Wagyl as it made its way along the river and these sites were considered sacred. It all sounds like a load of cobblers but in the Twenty-first Century we are seeing people who feel a sense of alienation looking to re-establish a connection with the natural world with a combination of environmentalism and spiritual beliefs such as religious naturalism.
We came to live in York in 2004 and we both fell in love with the landscape – the rolling hills, the farmland and the wandoo forest. In fact we developed such a deep connection with the landscape that when we moved to Tasmania for a couple of years we pined for it. The sense of dislocation was visceral and we found it exceedingly difficult to adjust our arts practice to the Tasmanian landscape – we missed the big blue skies and the open woodland, the smells, the sounds, the red dirt and the quality of the light. To put it bluntly we felt like we didn’t belong in Tasmania – we belonged in York. So we returned and the relief we felt on doing that was palpable.
I have a couple of places that are really special – they are both patches of remanent woodland with granite outcrops, amazing varieties of orchids and birds. I’ve had many magical moments in them like when an echidna literally bumped into me as I was photographing, or the time when I was so engrossed photographing some flowers that I didn’t notice the mob of kangaroos that settled around me and I only noticed them when I stopped and it only seemed right to stay there sitting on the ground with them. Last week I was out photographing orchids in the late afternoon, the light was turning golden and the shadows were lengthening. A couple of kookaburras were calling out to each other. It was nice to lie under the wandoo tress and look at the clouds scudding across the sky. A sublime experience and I couldn’t think of any better place to be. A spiritual experience? Yes most definitely.
The other night I had trouble getting off to sleep so I had a look at Australia’s National Broadcaster’s – the ABC – catch up TV service on the internet which is called iView. I was looking for something not too exciting, that would be soothing and comfortable. So I was trawling through the arts documentaries and I found a program called the Repair Shop and the one particular episode that appealed featured the restoration of a 1930’s portrait of Shihan Yukio Tani who is the man largely credited with introducing and establishing Japanese martial arts in England so I tuned in to watch. The history of the painting and its restoration was vaguely interesting but it was the location of the filming that was particularly engrossing. It was filmed at one of my favourite places – The Weald and Downland Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, England. The museum is comprised of a collection of fifty vernacular buildings from the south-east of England that were built between 950AD and the 19th century, along with gardens, farm animals, walks and a mill pond. I was last there in 1991 and so the the TV program was a huge nostalgia trip for me.
As a consequence I started thinking about the museum, the village it is based in and when I worked there in 1981. The next morning I scuttled off to look at my photo archive and find some pictures that I took on my last visit. It was really nice to revisit through those photos, it was almost like reliving the past. Gerry Badger the photographic curator and critic in his 2007 book “The Genius of Photography – how photography has changed our lives” said that there were “basically three photographic subjects – people, things and places” (page 131). So obviously my photos of the museum fall into the places category. However Badger goes onto quote from the American landscape photographer Robert Adams who said:
“Landscapes can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together … the three kinds of representation strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life” Robert Adams (p 154, Badger, G: 2007, The Genius of Photography)
The geography is simple the museum is located in Singleton which I’ve always regarded as the quintessential Sussex village. Well it was until the mega rich started buying rows of cottages and knocking them into one large house only then not to live in them but visit once in a blue moon. The village is roughly seven miles north of Chichester, the town where I lived from age 10 to 23, on the South Downs. The autobiography is that I went to work at the museum as a summer job in 1981 with my then girlfriend. She worked in the tearooms and I was a general dogsbody. It is the job I’ve enjoyed the most out of all the jobs I have done and I really enjoyed working with the people there. The dubious metaphor I suppose is that the museum presents an idealised view of what the ideal English village should be like – quaint old buildings nestled among bucolic rolling green hills inhabited by happy people. But all that doesn’t matter in many ways because to me it was and is a special place and the fact that 57 year old self still appreciates it as much as my 18 year old self is important.
Now it is fair to say that Australia is home to some pretty strange animals. One only has to look at the Platypus, the echidna and even the humble kangaroo. To my mind one of the strangest is the musk duck (Biziura lobata). They can be found on fresh water lakes in the southwest corner of Western Australia.
What makes them so strange? Well to start with they don’t quack like a duck. They emit a sound that is more akin to a demented sonar. They are rarely seen on land and are reluctant fliers. On the water they float very low in the water often giving the impression that just their head is above the waterline. They are prolific underwater swimmers staying under for as long as a minute and diving up to a depth of 6m and demonstrate incredible agility as they do so. In appearance they are a very dark grey to black, have a stiff tail and broad heavy bill. The males are considerably larger than the females and weigh over 3Kg while the females can weigh up to 1.5 Kg. This makes them the second heaviest diving duck in the world. The males also have a strange leathery lobe under the bill, and in the breeding season they have a very strong musk odour hence the name. The courting behaviour of the males is quite striking – they strike the surface of the water with their feet then immediately after make a couple of clucking sounds followed by a lot of whistles and a grunt. This is repeated very five seconds or so for as long as half an hour. The first time I encountered this was at Lake Seppings in Albany. I heard these odd splashes and weird sounds repeatedly coming from just beyond the reed beds but couldn’t see what was causing the commotion. As I continued walking the reeds parted sufficiently and with the help of standing on a nearby bench I was able to see what was going on. It really is quite a performance and once seen never forgotten. In Perth Musk Ducks can be seen on both lakes in the Yellagonga Regional Park and Herdsman Lake. Hard to see at first so listen for the strange noise and you’ll soon find them.
They are not hunted as they are not considered nice enough to eat and the only thing that threatens their status is the clearing and draining of wetlands.
Originally what is now Lake Claremont was a swamp with a series of small pools edged with reeds and then surrounded by paperbark trees. There was abundant plant an animal life and it was an important hunting and gathering place for the Mooro clan of the Nyoongar in the warmer months of the year.
In 1831 European settlers began to clear the land for farming and by the 1890’s there were market gardens and a then state of the art dairy farm. Things looked good and the area prospered. However, this state of affairs was short lived as by the turn of the Twentieth Century the water level rose and the farms were flooded and a permanent lake which rises and falls with the seasons was formed. In the 1950’s Claremont Town Council reclaimed large areas for a rubbish tip and renamed it Lake Claremont in the process. In the 1960’s it was decided to beautify the lake and its surrounds. Sections were infilled to create a golf course and the school playing fields. In time two small bird sanctuary islands were created and there has been a move to manage the the lake in a more ecological manner. The Friends of Lake Claremont are an enthusiastic and very active bunch of local residents and volunteers who have undertaken to assist in the conservation and enhancement of Lake Claremont. There activities have been crucial in weed eradication programs and revegetation projects working in tandem with pupils fromScotch College and Graylands Primary School. They also have annual public events including Clean Up Australia Day, National Tree Day and Celebrate Lake Claremont Day (community fair). More details can be found on their website.
So that was then and this is now. What does the lake offer today? Well the wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain are internationally acknowledged as a bio-diversity hotspot having a greater number of endemic species than most other regions in Australia. Since colonisation three quarters of the wetlands have been drained for urban development. Those that remain are adversely effected by the introduction of feral animals and plants. In this context Lake Claremont is like a biosphere. In the past ten years or so eBird Australia has listed 116 species of bird that can be found on or around the lake which makes it somewhat of a birders paradise. The path around the lake and the bird observation platform make it easy to spot birds all year round. To make it so that you know what you are looking for you can down load an illustrated brochure listing the birds from the Town of Claremont website.
In addition to the nature based activities there is a 3 Km dual use path that circumnavigates the lake which is very popular with walkers, runners and cyclists. Dogs are welcome on a lead. The walk is enjoyable all year round and if you start the car park and head off in a clockwise direction then you can stop at the TeeBox Cafe shortly before returning to the car park. For the youngsters who need to burn off some energy before looking at the ducks there are two playgrounds. If dad doesn’t care for looking at the ducks then he has the option of playing a quick nine holes of golf.
This nature photography lark is a lot harder than it looks. I follow a couple of YouTube channels from the UK that weekly show the host going out to some location to photograph and /or film a particular animal or plant. They always find it and always get good images. My experience is a bit different to that. I find that you can go out with all the best intentions in the world, but if nature isn’t playing ball then you don’t get anything. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve set out to look for the Cleopatra’s Needles Orchid (Thelymitra apiculata) driving 100’s of kilometres to find absolutely nothing. Take last weekend. We were down in the South West of Western Australia as my partner was again playing in a croquet tournament. So I’d researched what was about in terms of birds and orchids and set out to several locations with a specific list of what I wanted to photograph. The first stop was Malbup Creek Bird Hide where I wanted to see tawny frogmouths and white-bellied sea-eagles. Well I spent a nice morning at the hide without seeing them. I did get a nice shot of a shelduck and the local kangaroos were hamming it up for a photo.
The next stop was Locke Nature Reserve looking for common helmet and midge orchids. Well after a couple of hours of scrabbling around in the undergrowth fighting off the unwanted attentions of the local mosquitoes I’d found lots of them, but none in flower. There were some Splendid Fairywrens in the nearby bushes but they really didn’t want their picture taken and kept dancing out of the way every time I got close. On the walk back to the car a couple of Western Yellow Robins flew slightly ahead of me. They would stop and perch periodically and I was lucky enough to grab a few frames.
My last spot was Westbay in Augusta looking for scented autumn leek orchids. Now I’d seen them before at this location and knew where to go. They weren’t there. Not a one was to be seen. But I did find some autumn leek orchids – close enough so I photographed them. Funnily enough the autumn leek orchid has a much more pleasant scent than the scented variety which has decidedly unpleasant pong.
So there you have it another rewarding trip. I may not have found what I was looking for but I found other things and really enjoyed my time in the bush and that is what it is all about.
* This weeks musical reference is of course U2’s song I Still Haven’t Found. My favourite version is the one on 1988’s Rattle and Hum album.
That destination is Bold Park which is quite a unique place in the Perth Metropolitan Area. The park was established in 1936 and named after some bloke who had put in lots of time in the City of Perth local government – which is all a bitboring. Much more interesting is that it is 437 hectares of remnant bushland on the Swan Coastal Plain comprised of banksia and tuart woodland. Tuart forest (Eucalyptus gomphocephala) was once a major feature of the Swan Coastal Plain with trees of up to 40m in height and providing a unique ecosystem. On colonisation most of the tuart trees were cleared for farming and for it valuable timber which is dense, hard, water resistant and resists splintering. The last remaining tall tuarts are found in the Tuart Forest National Park. There a couple of remnants of smaller trees around the Perth Metro Area such as those found at Mindarie Dunes and Bold Park. The park is situated in City Beach just off Oceanic Drive and can be reached by public transport.To say that the park is popular is an understatement, I went on a Saturday morning and it was absolutely heaving – so this is not a wilderness experience, but an urban walk on the wild side.
Speaking of walking there are over 15Km of walking trails of varying distances – the longest one, which I just did, is the Zamia Trail which is 5.1Km long over rolling terrain on a crushed limestone base which means you can comfortably push a stroller or pusher. If you are going to do the walk I suggest parking at Reabold Hill car park. This is a good place to commence the trail, but also it enables you to make a side trip unto the summit of the hill where there is a viewing platform. This is the highest natural point on the Swan Coastal Plain at 85 metres above sea level. This means on a nice clear day you can see the Indian Ocean, Perth CBD, Rottnest Island, Kings Park, and the Swan River. While pedestrians and cyclists can access the park at all times vehicular access is limited as follows:
1 April to 31 October – 5.30 am to 7.00 pm
1 November to 31 March – 5.30 am to 8.00 pm.
The trail is well sign posted so there is no need of a mud-map which means you can just get out and enjoy it. I walked this in winter so there weren’t many flowers out – a few banksias, grevilleas and cockies tongue. I was more interested in the bird life and the Botanic Gardens and Park Authority put out an excellent brochure you can download detailing all 91 species that can be found. There are numerous other animals such as brush-tail possums, bats, loads of reptiles including snakes of varying descriptions. Considering how many people were about I was surprised at how many different species of birds I saw. I even literally stumbled over a very sleepy and grumpy bob tailed lizard (Tiliqua rugosa), trying to warm up on the path in the sun having woken up from brumation.
The recent lock downs for the COVID 19 outbreak had a very strange effect. Living in York we don’t visit the coast very often, but as soon as the Western Australian government said we could leave our region all I wanted to do was go to the coast. I suppose it’s a bit like being on a diet and then spending all day obsessing over food. Well with the lockdown over we put the dog in kennels and headed down to Mandurah for a couple of days to get an oceanic fix.
Now the plan was to spend three days visiting some reserves around, but as Robert Burns once said “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”. The first spot we went out to was Lake McLarty, but there was no water in the lake and no birds to be seen. To cap it all the weather was grim – a storm front was closing in. So we decided to cut our losses and head in land to Pinjarra and walk along the Murray River and visit the Edenvale Heritage Tearoom. Well the tearooms were still shut because of COVID so we settled for a walk along the the river.
The next day the weather was grimmer than the previous day’s. We were wearing enough clothes to make Captain Scott of the Antarctic fame look severely underdressed. The morning’s activities were to be based at the Creery Wetlands Reserve which was only a short way from where we were staying. Although wet and bitterly cold we had more success than the previous day. It is amazing how much wildlife can be packed into a small area just minutes from a city centre. If you are in the area it is well worth visiting, don’t let the fact that the entrance makes it look like an off-shore detention camp put you off. As you cross the bridge you get the feeling a couple of Border Force goons could jump out of the bushes and indefinitely detain you. Once in side you can commune with nature to your hearts content.
What do you do when you’ve got 2 hours to kill while in the Wheatbelt metropolis of Northam? Go looking for Black-fronted Dotterels that’s what! These busy little birds can be found on the muddy shoreline looking for insects and small molluscs.
OK that maybe a little bit melodramatic, but there was no doubt that getting out and about after a few weeks of lockdown was a bit of a rush! So where did I go? What did I do with this new found liberty? Well I went to Wongamine Reserve near Toodyay to look for two types of orchid and do the walk trail. Pretty sad eh?
The reserve isn’t really visited any more the gates are locked and many of the signs broken or over grown. In fact speaking of overgrown the walk trail is so overgrown in places that I suggest that if you do want to visit and walk there that you take a GPS and download the walk track from Trails WA and follow that.
Was there anything positive about the visit? Well yes there was actually. The woodland is home to quite a variety of bird life – I didn’t photograph any as I was not carrying a suitable lens as I had gone to photograph orchids. I would expect from walking through the bush that would be quite a display of wildflowers in spring which would make the journey well worth while. There were quite a few species of dragonflies as well which at the time surprised me for some reason.
Did I find the orchids? Well the Winter Spider Orchid is only 6cm tall with a 2cm flower and the Crinkle-leafed Bunny Orchid is 10cm tall with a 9mm flower and considering that the reserve is 330 ha of bushland I think I did well to find anything at all. I didn’t find any Winter Spider Orchids, I have photographed them before at Babakin, but I found lots of the Bunny Orchids. In fact I never seen so many Crinkle-leafed Bunny Orchids before. So all in all it was a great day out.