Wilderness Journal #027
This Journal’s all about Nature Book Week, which runs from 5-11 September. Check out the series of events we have lined up, with panel discussions with writers and scientists, to read-alongs and kids’ questions. It culminates with the announcement of the winners of the 2022 Environment Award For Children's Literature and the brand new Karajia Award.
Mirning Elder and Karajia Award judge Bunna Lawrie introduces the Journal and the power of story.
Photograph above of Fiona McMillan-Webster by Trent Mitchell.
The Power of Story
Words by Bunna Lawrie
Welcome to this special edition of Wilderness Journal celebrating Nature Book Week, a time we consider and explore the power of story.
My name is Bunna Lawrie. I’m a Mirning Senior Whale Songman from the Nullarbor sea coast. My great-grandfather and my grandfather—they were the great Karajia. Karajia are the storytellers and the carriers of the stories from the Dreamtime. You could say they’re walking encyclopaedias—just like I am today.
And now we’re sharing these incredible works of our people [through the 2022 Karajia Award for Children’s Literature]. This is a great way to share our beautiful stories. It brings pride, it brings joy… it brings inspiration. We have to pass our stories down… the younger kids need that understanding.
Today we have a big opportunity for telling stories through books. It’s incredible. Every tribe and every clan has a story to share and a picture to paint.
Karajia Award for Children’s Literature judge Bunna Lawrie and Karajia Award shortlisted author Boori Monty Pryor spoke about the importance of stories and storytelling for Nature Book Week.
The Age of Seeds
In her new book The Age Of Seeds, science writer Fiona McMillan-Webster explores the remarkable ability of plants to store genetic information for thousands of years. Seeds are a scientific marvel that McMillan-Webster explores through the lens of human history. Here she explains the physics behind seeds’ time-travelling abilities and why she finds the world of seeds so fascinating.
You studied physics with a PhD in biophysics, what is it about seeds that fascinates you as a physicist?
The thing that fascinates me most relates to the types of seeds that can tolerate drying out. Such seeds can handle environments with extremely low humidity—think deserts or other places with prolonged dry seasons.
Many of these seeds can also endure droughts, sometimes for years on end. They’re able to do this because, as the seeds dry out, the matter in their cells gradually shifts away from a liquid state and towards a glass-like state. From a physics perspective, glasses are really interesting and still a bit mysterious. Neither quite liquid nor fully solid, they occupy a place in-between with attributes of both.
How does a seed become glassy?
As moisture levels drop really low, the molecules in the seed’s cells—the DNA, the proteins, everything—it all slows down and crowds together.
As a result, the cellular matter remains disordered, like it would be in the busy, fast-moving liquid state. However, it becomes so compressed that many strong, close bonds form and everything holds its shape like a solid.
This glassy state enables seeds to resist oxidative damage so they can endure long periods of dry weather without ageing too much. Yet it’s not so energetically stable that a seed gets trapped like this forever. When moisture levels rise, the molecules begin to flow again. Life speeds back up and, with this, comes an opportunity to germinate.
I love that some seed-producing plants figured out how to use glass physics to their advantage.
Do you have a favourite type of seed?
It’s so difficult to choose a single favourite, precisely because seeds are so widely varied and wonderful—each tells an amazing story, if you look closely enough. But one of my many favourites are the ‘fire followers’ or ‘fire ephemerals’.
These plants, which appear in a multitude of different plant families, produce seeds that germinate after fire. In some cases, fire’s heat helps release the seeds or even triggers germination, but in others, seeds lie in the soil for years waiting for specific chemical compounds produced by burning plant material.
These compounds end up in the smoke and ash and eventually settle on the ground. Although the seeds are dormant, they can detect these fire-borne chemicals which then, along with a suite of other environmental cues, trigger germination.
Because Australia has been such a dry, fiery continent for millions of years, a large number of fire followers evolved here. The shy feather flower (Verticordia fimbrilepis subsp. Fimbrilepis) is one, so is the pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii), which hadn’t been seen in parts of New South Wales for decades yet bloomed after the megafires of 2019/2020.
It's a compelling survival strategy—by germinating soon after a fire, the next generation has a chance to flourish in the presence of fresh post-fire nutrients, while the probability of the next fire is still low. There’s something both clever and hopeful about this.
The Wilderness Society started Nature Book Week to celebrate the power of story to connect people with nature. As a writer and scientist what do you think is the power of science through storytelling?
Human brains seem to be hardwired for stories. We tend to make sense of the world around us through narrative because stories provide an effective way to organise and process new information, understand its context, and make new connections.
Stories also offer an important emotional synergy between a storyteller and their audience. Though we’ve probably always sensed this phenomenon deep-down, it’s increasingly being backed up by neuroscience.
In fact, studies involving brain scans show that, as a story is being told, the same regions of the brain light up in both the speaker and the listener. This includes areas involving sensory processing and also occurs in brain areas involved in regulating emotions, empathy and moral processing.
In other words, stories help to place the storyteller and audience on the same wavelength. Changes in understanding can lead to changes in behaviour. So, stories about nature and science, when well told, have the power to change perspective, improve the way we connect with each other and with nature, and can definitely inspire action.
Do you have a favourite nature book? In particular, do you have a favourite fiction nature book?
Rebecca Giggs is one of my favourite nature writers. Her book, Fathoms, takes us on a deep dive into the world of whales. In addition to her beautiful prose and intricate descriptions, I love the way she takes the reader with her as she learns about the topic. I think that inviting the reader to join you on a journey of discovery is a wonderful approach to conveying information about science and nature.
I was inspired by this when set out to write The Age of Seeds. I’m a science writer, not a botanist or plant physiologist, so I wanted to take readers with me as I discovered the fascinating hidden world of seeds, in the same way you might excitedly tell a friend about something amazing you just learned.
As for fiction, I loved Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing for its mesmerising descriptions of marshland ecosystems. Through some wonderful prose that at times borders on poetry, she conveys the richness and dynamism of marsh biodiversity.
I’m also currently reading The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, part of which is told from the perspective of a fig tree. The fig tree as a first-person character works beautifully, allowing the author to go into compelling detail about the connections trees make with one another, the expansive yet hidden networks of roots and fungi, and confront other critical environmental issues such as habitat loss. This information is woven into the tree’s life story in a way that really connects with the reader and heightens empathy.
In The Age of Seeds you describe seeds as time-travellers—what is the most fascinating story you unearthed from your research into some of the really old seeds found?
It would have to be the story of the Judean date palm seeds. This variety of date palm was thought to be extinct until a 2000-year-old Judean date palm seed found at an archaeological site in Israel turned out to still be alive! Not only did it germinate, it’s since grown into a lovely big date palm tree.
As I explain in more detail in my book, the fact that this and a few other incredibly ancient Judean date palm seeds have germinated reveals a capability for astonishing longevity under the right conditions. Precisely what those conditions are and why those date palm seeds and not others were able to live so long is still being studied. It’s still a bit of a mystery, but that’s what I love about them.
If you were to see these seeds, they looked so very unremarkable—like just a handful of plain brown date pits, a bit rough and time-worn. But not only did each contain a still-living baby plant, they reveal just how good some plants are at enabling their genes to time travel into the distant future.
If you could create a seed packet for someone in the future—what Australian seeds would you put in it?
There are so many amazing Australian seed plants and I still have much to learn about them. I would instead defer to Indigenous knowledge-keepers whose people have been on this continent for thousands of generations.
From plants with medicinal value to food plants to keystone and foundational plant species upon which entire ecosystems rely—these would all be vital to include.
But it’s not enough to save just the seeds, it’s also important that those seeds remain linked with ancient cultural and ecological knowledge, which can reveal a plant’s importance both to humans and to its habitat. Such knowledge can also reveal how to care for many plant species so that they thrive in both the short term and over long arcs of time.
A great example of this kind of seed preservation work is being done by women ranger groups on the Dampier Peninsula in the northern Kimberley. There, groups including the Nyul Nyul rangers and the Bardi Jawi rangers are collaborating with Environs Kimberley to establish the Kimberley Community Seed Bank. They are collecting and preserving seeds from the endangered Monsoon Vine Thickets (MVTs), and then using these seeds to help revitalise damaged areas.
This effort relies heavily on a wealth of traditional knowledge about the plants in the MVTs and goes to show how valuable ancient knowledge systems can be when it comes to protecting and regenerating the environment.
Fiona McMillan-Webster joins author / illustrator Caroline Magerl and authors Samantha Wheeler and Dr Sarah Pye for the panel Threatened Species Day—Telling stories to save nature. The discussion takes place at Where the Wild Things Are, West End, Brisbane Qld, 6pm, 7 September.
The Age Of Seeds: How Plants Hacked Time And Why Our Future Depends On It by Fiona McMillan-Webster is published by Thames & Hudson.
Trent Mitchell, Queensland-based documentary photographer and first-time contributor to Wilderness Journal, is currently working on a new book of photographs, Mullet, in support of Brain Cancer research. He continues to fossick for jewels & photograph the sea.
A Life In The Wild
In her own words author Danielle Clode reveals the deep passion she has for wildlife having grown up surrounded by nature. It's a lifelong interest that once saw her take up a career in environmentalism with the Wilderness Society. Now a zoologist, she explores the surprising world of koalas and what can be done to save them in her upcoming book Koala: A Life In Trees.
Photographs courtesy of Danielle Clode
I grew up as an only child on the outskirts of Port Lincoln and spent a lot of time exploring in the bush and on the beach, sometimes with friends but often by myself. Later my parents moved onto a boat and I spent several years sailing around the coast of Australia with them and I think this experience gave me a really strong appreciation for nature and the wildlife around me.
I loved reading as a child and I particularly liked books about nature. I loved stories about children who had to fend for themselves in the wild, like R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling.
To be honest, the books I liked best were the ones that didn’t have people in them, where the animals were the main characters—like Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby, Sama by Guillot René or White Fang by Jack London. I think that was also the appeal of Rudyard Kipling—my favourite story of his was The White Seal.
We lived in a caravan on a bush-block in Port Lincoln for a while and I loved the magical landscape of moss and limestone under the low tea trees, which made little cubby houses to sit in. When we lived on the boat, my favourite place was sitting by the bowsprit as the boat went over the waves, especially when dolphins swam in the bow-wave and swivelled around to look up at me.
I always wanted to be a marine biologist when I was young, but as I got older I decided I wasn’t any good at maths, so I couldn’t do science. When I went to University I did psychology as part of an arts degree and discovered that I really loved science as a way of thinking and solving puzzles. I did an honours project in animal behaviour in the zoo and when I applied to do a doctorate at a university in the UK, they put me in the zoology department and I’ve been a zoologist ever since. It’s funny the way you always seem to come back to the things you love best.
When I returned to Australia I wanted to work in conservation and environment. My first job was as the national administration co-ordinator for the Wilderness Society—which taught me a lot about policies and procedures, but also environmental activism, community engagement, fundraising and marketing, which have all been really useful in my later work.
I’m not sure I can remember a time when I wasn’t aware of certain Australian animal species being rare or endangered. Australia’s wildlife is globally unique and diverse due to a combination of Australia’s size and the length of its isolation. The former gives us a lot of species while the latter has given them a long evolutionary history without disruption by other species—and also made them vulnerable to extinction once other species arrived.
Australia’s particular climatic conditions have also had a big impact on the evolution of modern species and the way they’ve adapted to environmental unpredictability.
Koalas are one of our most recognisable animals, but also one that people know very little about. I was really puzzled by the fact that they were simultaneously ‘endangered’ on the east coast, yet thriving in the southern forests—even though there isn’t much difference in habitat or conditions. I thought they’d be a fairly simple animal to understand when I first started my research, but actually they are incredibly complicated and even though we know more about them than most other Australian species, they’re still a bit of a mystery!
There are a lot of myths and assumptions about koalas—that they are a bit slow and stupid, and on the road to extinction. What I’ve realised in writing about their history and ecology is that they are actually incredibly resilient with an amazing capacity to bounce back from terrible population collapses. But there are lots of fun things about koalas too—like their fingerprints, their astonishingly large caecum (compared to our residual appendix), having a two-pronged penis, two opposable thumbs on their hands and a super tough reinforced rump.
Koalas are certainly facing a crisis of disease, deforestation and development in the northern part of their range. And climate change is likely to have a significant impact on their ability to survive in some areas and on their food supply. But the number one factor affecting koalas’ ability to withstand these impacts is lack of habitat. Without large areas of interconnected forest, koalas just don’t have anywhere to go, to space themselves out appropriately and reduce the negative effects of disease and overcrowding.
Planting trees and protecting habitat—particularly large, old food trees—is vitally important for koalas everywhere. With enough of the right trees, they can survive many other factors, even living in the suburbs. We have to do a much better job of sharing our habitat with other species and co-existing with them.
I think stories have been really important for inspiring change, particularly in children. I’m sure a lot of my childhood reading was really important in inspiring my interest in conservation—especially books like Blinky Bill, which were part of a campaign to protect koalas after they were hunted to near extinction in Australia.
It’s interesting that in adult fiction, we often focus on the things we fear the most, rather than the solutions for the problems we face. We certainly need to face up to the problems but we also need stories to help us find answers and to inspire us to find better ways of living than we currently do.
Danielle joins a panel talk for Threatened Species Day—Telling stories to save nature, also featuring authors Alison Binks, Andrew Kelly & Claire Saxby. It takes place at Readings, Hawthorn, Melbourne, 6pm, 7 September.
Danielle Clode is a biologist and award-winning natural history author. Koala: A Life In Trees, published by Black Inc, comes out in October
7 September is Threatened Species Day, which takes place during Nature Book Week. Read the poem below from Year 6 student Lucia, who won last year's POEM FOREST Threatened Species Prize, and find out how to enter a poem for this year’s competition, open to students and teachers. POEM FOREST plants a tree for every poem entered!
I, The Mountain Pygmy Possum
I, the mountain pygmy possum,
have been curled up under the snow.
Three meters down I made my nest
for seven months, you know.
It's getting hotter, which is hard,
running over all that rock.
I eat moths, seeds and berries,
as many as I can stock.
There are 2000 of us left,
we are very endangered.
We were thought to be extinct,
but were rediscovered by a ranger.
Can you maybe help us out?
Just little things like planting trees.
Especially mountain plum vine
My favourite, sure to please!
It's easier now that it is spring,
Running around under the banksia blossom.
I get to play with my friends,
a free life for Pygmy Possum
Last year, over 5,000 trees were planted at The Australian Botanic Garden, restoring endangered woodland.
It's not too late to enter POEM FOREST 2022, with submissions for poems closing on 23 September, 2022.
In Astronomy: Sky Country, authors Karlie Noon, a Gamilaraay astronomer and science communicator, and Krystal De Napoli, a Kamilaroi educator and astrophysicist, ask for a reconnection between the earth and sky.
As you'll see in the following extracts, the night sky is not a separate entity to the earth, rather it is a reflection of it. As the authors' important work in the series First Knowledges reveals, the stars are integral to First Nations culture, and have guided the environmental and cultural practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first scientists, for millennia.
Yuludarla – The Dreaming, the artwork detail used on the cover [of Sky Country] and reproduced in full above and on the inside covers, speaks to the deep connection between the spiritual, celestial and terrestrial realms. The Dreaming provides the matrix from which our physical world is formed, and without it, our world would not exist. For everything that exists around us, there has to be an entity in the Dreaming that dreams it into being. In this sense, the Dreaming always was and always will be. It came to be when the creator of all that is dreamt the first dream, and from this first dream came everything else.
Danielle Gorogo is a Clarence Valley First Nations artist living in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. She is a direct descendant of the Dunghutti, Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung nations. Danielle’s multifaceted cultural heritage, which includes First Nations Australian, Papua New Guinean, Māori and Micronesian ancestry, is reflected in her art.
Star maps were another technique developed by nations to aid travel. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi nations used ‘patterns of stars to represent routes of travel on land’. For example, each star in a constellation refers to a specific landmark on the ground, while the pattern as a whole indicates direction. The landmarks may be features such as waterholes, or indicators of where direction may need to be adjusted. As shared by Uncle Ghillar in a paper by Robert Fuller and colleagues, one star map describes a 600-kilometre journey from Goodooga, New South Wales, to Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland. Goodooga is represented by Gamma Sagittarii (γ Sagittarii), and the route goes via Dirranbandi (Sigma [σ] Librae), St George (Girtab), Surat (Sargas) and Roma (Eta [η] Scorpii) until it reaches Carnarvon Gorge (Zeta [ζ] Scorpii) [see above].
These stars do not serve as a to-scale map of the land, but reflect the easiest routes to traverse as they relate to specific land-based waypoints. The star maps are a valuable reference when teaching new learners about important routes of travel between communities. Their shape can be kept in mind whether one is travelling by day or by night. Being the easiest and most trusted ways of travel, the star maps set the foundation for what are now some of New South Wales’ and Queensland’s major roads. The Goodooga star map described by Uncle Ghillar can be overlaid across the Carnarvon Highway, which connects Goodooga to Carnarvon Gorge; the traditional waypoints have become key towns and cities such as Dirranbandi and St George.
The Celestial Emu
If the sky is not visible, how can we practise the traditions related to it? Preserving our dark skies all over Australia, not just in a few select places, is integral to protecting nocturnal animals and Indigenous traditions. Further, since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge often links to a physical place, it is a way that heritage can be physically protected. For the story of Gawarrgay, the physical place is the Milky Way, observed in the night sky from Earth. But there are places on Earth of particular significance to this story. One is the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park near Sydney, which contains over 1500 pieces of rock art with many motifs relating to sky knowledge, including the Pleiades and the Celestial Emu [see above]. The Celestial Emu engraving is approximately 8 metres in length and aligns with the positioning of the Celestial Emu in the sky during the winter months, a time important for male initiation ceremonies. This is of course only one example of the rich culture and knowledge contained in rock art in significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander places.
For Nature Book Week, Wilderness Society CEO Matt Brennan spoke with astronomer Karlie Noon, about her book Astronomy: Sky Country, on Facebook at 12.30pm on 6 September
Astronomy: Sky Country by Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli, published by Thames & Hudson Australia.
From the Archives: One Small Island
Ten years ago, One Small Island won the 2012 Environment Award For Children's Literature. Co-authored and illustrated by Coral Tulloch and Alison Lester, the book charts the remarkable geological and ecological history of Macquarie Island, its degradation from European exploitation and subsequent recovery.
A speck of land between New Zealand and Antarctica, the island's penguin and seal populations were wiped out for fur and oil in the 1800s, while cats and other pests ravaged its birds like the now extinct Macquarie parakeet. But there is hope as humanity came to understand the island's scientific importance, giving it World Heritage protection, while extensive pest eradication schemes have seen native animals and the vegetation recover.
We spoke to the authors about One Small Island's legacy and what Macquarie Island is like today.
As far as I know, apart from the baiting program being incredibly successful, the return of foliage has been incredible.
This baiting of rodents from islands is a really successful program and is being used at so many locations throughout the world. The eradication of pests is ongoing of course.
Macquarie Island is such an important island for the wildlife that rely on it to breed and to survive and for its endemic plant life. And for humanity, apart from its incredible value for what it has been able to tell us in geological terms, its positioning is of high value for monitoring the oceans, air and atmospherics to study climate change.
This tale of the island really stands as an analogy to other places on Earth, so the book itself can be read as an historical tale of what we do as humans and what we can achieve to rectify our past actions. In this way, the book itself has been used widely by schools, both primary and secondary, as the basis to run their own environmental enquiries.
So, I think books such as this have a long life, or do have long lives, as they are a message, an example, a cautionary tale… and this is why it is still loved and used today.
I'd like to think that children who read the book 10 years ago would feel hopeful today. One Small Island is a (very small) example of intervening to right an environmental wrong.
I don’t like putting the burden of my generation’s mistakes on today’s children, but I think kids are generally very aware and interested in the world. And I’m constantly meeting young adults (who might have read the book as kids) who are switched on to living in a sustainable way and actively working to save the world.
One Small Island is a great story, seeing the island push up through the waves, grow into a paradise, be ruined by man and then rescued. It's so dramatic.
I guess island eradications of pest animals are easier because of their size and individuality. Tackling cane toads or buffel grass on the Australian mainland for example must be almost insurmountable. I think it's important to have success stories like Macquarie Island or life would be too depressing!
Watch a reading of One Small Island by Alison Lester, and pick up a copy of this classic book below.
One Small Island by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is published by Penguin, imprint Picture Puffin.
Wilderness Journal book
Wilderness Journal: Stories of nature and people is a beautiful collection of material from Wilderness Journal. Our very own nature book.
We thank our contributing artists, scientists, photographers, poets and writers.
We’ve worked hard to make it the best thing possible, classical and beautifully unexpected, with the very lightest footprint.
Purchasing the book supports the work of the Wilderness Society.
We thank all the artists, photographers and scientists who've given their work to this edition. If you have anything from your own archive to share, get in touch.
If you haven't signed up for the Journal you can do so here. And take a look at past issues of the Journal below.
We recognise First Nations as the custodians of land and water across the continent of Australia and pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge sovereignty was never ceded.
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