Solace in suburban nature

Solace in suburban nature

The lockdowns of last year made many of us confront our lives and our circumstances in an entirely new way. With one foot out of my parents’ home in the western suburbs of Melbourne, another foot precariously reaching out into the teaching profession, I spent much of my time in the unsettling mid-space, not quite here nor there. Many of the things which had given me my identity – travelling, music gigs, weekends wandering in nature – had fallen away, and as I and those around me grew more and more unhappy, I suddenly found that there was increasing strain on my relationships with my employers, my family, and my partner. They, along with the life in which I had made my home, were gradually closing on me.

Two things remained open to me while I was in lockdown. The first was the dull heartbeat of the natural world I could find in the suburb I lived in. The second, its gatekeeper – a shot of electricity in her brown eyes as a lead is dragged from its shelf, a half-hop of excitement and a shiver of anticipation – a little yellow Labrador named Orchid, who alone never, ever, made things less bearable than they already were.

My dog, Orchid.
Orchid, gatekeeper of my suburban nature walks. Image courtesy of Brady Hamilton.

Orchid and I would go out each day, most days twice. The neighbourhood was mainly Bradford pears, ornamental trees notorious for their unattractive smell in spring and their tendency to split and drop large branches – ours had done this recently out of the blue, the trauma from which was still written on its thin, leaning trunk.

It would take a few streets before the fresh chill cleared the stale air from my lungs, and I noticed my breath, especially the outbreaths, which in the mornings condensed into little clouds, before disappearing in a second into the sky. Orchid sniffed at patches of lawn, deep in thought, one paw held up above the dew-soaked ground beneath her. She moved hurriedly, sometimes circling back, but usually casting her attentive gaze over the built-up urban landscape beyond us.

There isn’t much one would consider typically romantic about the ecology of the inner western suburbs of Melbourne. However, cut off from the ocean and the forests, the lakes and rivers, the part of me that craved those things reached out instead to the little interactions and quirks of the suburban life that I encountered on these walks.

Orchid and I walked beside two areas of remnant grassland each day: one small patch beside the footpath, which is intermittently burned or sprayed with herbicide, another beyond the creek, surrounded by the new housing estate on each front. The brown tinge hovering above them, waving in the breeze, was something that I was once told was a sign of a healthy grassland, though I’ve never been able to verify this, or know why it would be the case if true.

Remnant grassland beside Jones Creek in Melbourne's west.
Remnant grassland beside Jones Creek in Melbourne’s west. Image courtesy of Brady Hamilton.

These remnant grasslands, little parcels of land fragmented across the suburbs, are perhaps our most interesting ecological communities out this way. Rather fittingly, what is most evident about these grasslands is that they are inaccessible. They are hidden behind wire fences, sometimes shoulder-height, sometimes much higher, and in some cases protected with barbed wire. The grasslands of urban Melbourne that are left are so rare, and for this reason have a gravity beyond their appearances – it is for this reason that we are often locked out, why warning signs threaten the onlooker who gazes at an ecosystem on life support.

Orchid and I circled around a little stretch of Jones Creek, in which some ducks played, an ibis sometimes among them, their collective sounds crowded, not unlike a chat in the lunchroom. There was something organic about it, alluring, gentle on the ears. I breathed easily for a second, standing there, listening to them, watching a Magpie hover over the tussocks in the grassland and lean into a slow glide to land on a rock, where all it did was sit proudly in the morning glow.

I listened to the song of other Magpies up ahead on the path, a sound which has punctuated every morning of my life here. They have made their homes in the Sugargums which are paved through the parklands of the area, often in straight lines. These trees, not native to the Victorian Volcanic Plains, were initially planted as windbreaks in what must have been farmland out here, and now they were among the only trees I got to walk beneath each day during this extended lockdown.

Though regarded as an environmental weed in Victoria, especially to lowland grasslands, these trees are precious to me. They are the stage upon which all manner of things happen in the neighbourhood. They are home to honeyeaters and Magpies, ravens, and at times to enormous flocks of corellas. Each day, I would see a handful of these inhabitants and their little interactions: two Crimson Rosellas a branch apart, a Willie Wagtail sniping at a raven several times its size, a few Sulfur-crested Cockatoos blindingly white in the foliage up high. In summer, when these trees explode into little cream-white flowers, the buzzing of insects around their lower branches is delicious.

‘I listened to the song of other Magpies up ahead on the path, a sound which has punctuated every morning of my life here.’

Orchid and I walked beneath these trees, hearing the lush songs of the birds in the early morning light, and though my shoulders were tight and my eyes heavy from my laptop screen, the trees and the birds didn’t mind, they went on just as they do.

Initially planted as windbreaks, these Sugar Gums were the only trees I would walk beneath each day. Image courtesy of Brady Hamilton.

When I returned home from these walks, my mood already dipping once again, I’d let Orchid out for a drink and stand for a second on the lawn. As she was lapping up the water, I would look up at the same Sugargums I’ve lived beneath for twelve years. I know everything about each of them, I know where they twist and where they shoot straight upwards, know which branches have come down over the years and as I looked at them from the house, I would know that they were just a few months away from bursting into flower.

The coming together of things, that was the element which was missing from our lives during the lockdowns of last year. The sense of anticipation for something good and new, something to offset the dread of the everyday. This had been stripped away until only dread was left. Things did not patiently coalesce, they only held still, suspended in the mid-space before my lost gaze.

It was not so in the trees, in the stream, and in the clouds. The gathering rain, the obtusely beautiful morning. It was a world happy without us, perhaps a glimpse at our smallness.

I wish I could say that all these things announced something, and I wish I could call it hope, but really it wasn’t hopeful in any straightforward way. Instead, it was indifference. I was so glad that the sky was there, that the worms still bunched together when rain was gathering in the clouds above, that the creek crept downstream and the birds met in trees. In the late winter evening, the frogs would chorus without the faintest awareness of how our lives were like a held breath. It was a deaf ear when the whole world manifested itself as endless noise.

That, for me, was sometimes enough.

Banner image courtesy of Brady Hamilton.

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