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Jewels of the desert

Life on land

“There is the cleanness, a clarity of light that defines the desert plants in all their fascinating forms. And here a lizard wanders to a nearby shrub in search of an insect meal”.

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

November 29, 2022

These plants remind me of one rather wonderful trip to dry country with artist and old friend John Wolseley, it all seems long ago. There have been more recent adventures with John, our trips from Tokyo to the Whipstick Forest to work on the documentary about the making of Midawarr and the food plants of East Arnhem Land.

A painter of birds 2005

“As a painter of plants, birds, land and the natural world, I have always done my own kind of research. As I draw a feather, I’ll search for the identity of the bird to which it belonged; and then I will be led to draw the bigger patterns. For instance, how the bird migrates across vast continents or how it rides the thermal thunder clouds. I like to connect the miniature of things to thoughts about the immensity and power of the living world. When researching I can be nestled in the miniature and intimate and then, the next moment, find myself flung into the stars”.

Intimate and miniature again we pore over John’s new collection of works of insects and their lives. All on paper sourced from our master papermaker friends in Japan with the help of Nahoko in Gifu. So in these works there is both connection to the natural world and connection to other cultures. The Japanese would certainly approve.

The Japanese of course maintain a great fascination for insects as we discovered when living almost next door to the Nawa Insect Museum which was always busy with throngs of school children, family outings and very serious elders interested in the subject. There was always a friendly greeting from museum director, Hideo Nawa, who seemed fascinated by the attention we were giving the museum and our daily walks through Gifu Coen. 

Christmas day, now something of a tradition if we find ourselves in Melbourne, was spent with Pearson (Longman Penguin) colleagues, friendships that span half a century. There was of course the usual over sampling of Australian wines and great food.

The thought of Penguin takes me to old friends and to some of the authors that had a great influence on our lives. This leads me to Gerald Durrell who has accompanied my thoughts throughout the year.

Gerald Durrell in the early 1970s

“Ah, but, people say, that is what happened in the old days; it does not happen now. You’ve got reserves and so forth where the animals are safe. We do not do that sort of thing nowadays….. What is generally not realised is that if you look at a map of the world and see the areas that have been set aside for reserves for wildlife, it makes an infinitesimal pinprick on the map [and that includes Australia]; the rest is all a gigantic reserve for mankind. And even if you have reserves, you have to have adequate resources to run them properly [and that includes Australia]. Most governments are reluctant to pay out money for the preservation of habitat or fauna (unless there is some great public outcry and the animal in question happens to be particularly attractive) [even this no longer works in Australia], and many others do not have the necessary resources”.

What Gerald Durrell does for me, and I have taken to always taking along one of his many books on our journeys, so wherever we are in the world I can dip into a passage or chapter. However depressed one might feel about the state of the natural world in a particular place knowing that Gerald Durrell is there in our thoughts somehow strengthens our resolve to continue.

Parrot Pea

Murray country, Northern Victoria

Now back to John all those years ago and in Murray country in Northern Victoria:

“Embers glowing. The candles illuminating the great trunks of the Red Gums – small flies tickling my ears – big fish sploshing in the great unseen river. There’s that lovely musical rustling of that fallen tree in the river, which always sings, and those watery explosions as carp launch themselves out of the water…. Today I had my breakfast in the Dingle and carried the two tables down to the bank to the flat bit by the water. I took out of my envelope of Taman Negara leaves and drew them on the branch shapes I had water coloured yesterday”.

Waddy Wood 

The Franklin and Tasmania

In this story and as another year fades, we want to remember botanists David and Rosemary Bellamy. We also want to remind everyone of David’s courage in joining the Franklin River campaign in Tasmania, he told me once that it nearly claimed his life, instead he found himself in the Risdon Prison for trespassing on Hydro Electric Commission Land. David was one of nearly 1,500 people imprisoned during the campaign to save the Franklin.

In mid 2008, it was to be a quarter of a century later, that a dinner was held in Hobart to celebrate the High Court’s decision to stop the construction of a dam on the Gordon River above the Franklin River. David’s entreaty and contribution to try to stop the destruction of the natural world was noted by Bob Hawke (Australian Prime Minister 1983-1991).

"We are now faced with an unprecedented environmental challenge. The Gordon below Franklin was of course a major issue, but relatively speaking it pales into insignificance against the massive challenge that we as a world are facing now…. What is the greatest obligation that politicians of every party have towards their families now, to their kids, their grandkids and their kids? It is that we take action to pass on to them a planet which is inhabitable, viable and enjoyable". 

What a long way from that place Australian’s find themselves today.

Butterfly Bush

Notes on Australian plant life

There are many Australian plants that are now rare or endangered (Australia has about 28 per cent of the world’s rare and endangered plants). Many plant species now exist in isolated pockets, this also has an impact on other species that depend on these plants for survival. For example the Drooping Sheoak is the primary food source for the endangered Glossy-black Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami. Because of the scale and remoteness of many landscapes, new plant species can still be discovered, a recent example is the Bush Tomato species Solanum ossicruentum.

Plants we came across included: Butterfly Bush Petalostylisl abicheoides; Yacca Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata; Parrot Pea Crotalaria cunninghammi; Spring Pod Cassia Senna circinnata; Waddy Wood Acacia peuce; Book Leaf Mallee Eucalyptus kruseana; Porcupine Grass Triodia irritans; Woolly-calyxed Eremophila Eremophila lachnocalyx; Pearl Bluebush Maireana sedifolia; Flowering Lignum Eremophila polyclada; Bush Tomato; Desert Rose; Dense Cassia Senna artemisioides ssp. Sturtii; Needlebush Hakea leucoptera; Salt Gum Eucalyptus salicola; Native Pear Marsdenia Australis; Silver Mallee Eucalyptus crucis and Drooping Sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata.

Desert Rose