On the Verge of Isolation

Libby Robin

Along the dirt lane outside our house one can almost forget the twenty-first century and its pandemic, as one takes one’s exercise, seldom disturbed by a car. Indeed, the road’s most common wheeled vehicle is the mobility scooter of Kevin our elderly neighbour, who has lived on the street for close to eight decades, and although now long retired, still likes to be out and about, keeping the place tidy. He sometimes steps off his vehicle to rake up untidy branches and make small bonfires on the roadside.

Like most of our neighbours, Kevin lives in a small brick house built after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983. The heritage buildings in the neighbourhood were decimated, but many large street trees, mostly messmate and grey box, survived the fire, and have regrown new bark over their burned trunks. Their companion plants are usually blackwoods. The big trees seem ancient as they lean towards each other embowering the lane. Sometimes the wind gets up and then it is not just twigs and small branches that peel away. Big trees fall fairly often, bringing in the council contractors with chainsaws to clear the road. What is left behind each time is a gap, a tunnel for wind and dust that interrupts the otherwise naturally designed “Australian Roadside”, the classic picturesque rural vegetation as admired in the 1950s by the distinguished garden designer and motoring enthusiast, Edna Walling.

Figure 1. Our lane looking north: High tension wires glint against the storm cloud.

Our unruly little lane runs about midway between an old highway and the railway heading north-west of Melbourne towards Bendigo. Now that the old highway has been superseded by a freeway, this little corner has retreated into itself and regrown its bush and much of the character of the village that was burned down. Its charm lies in its ecological haphazardness, its rural, rather than suburban planning, and its rich other-than-human life. Within a couple of kilometres of our house in different directions, one can find road signs warning motorists to look out for koalas, for kangaroos and for wombats. We have also seen emus and echidnas nearby, and a variety of butterflies and frogs. I don’t keep a formal bird list, but I have seen about fifty species of birds in our garden, some permanent residents, some coming and going in different seasons.

The rural lane has a twenty-first century purpose as well. Strung down its east side (our side) are the tall power poles that carry high-voltage electricity. Everyone is rightly concerned that these be well-maintained, particularly since the terrible Black Saturday fires of 2009, when power lines ignited some of the worst fires. Our poles and wires are in good condition, but we welcome the “pole guys” when they come and trim the big street trees and any garden trees leaning towards them. The embowering of the lane is in part because the street trees have been trained away from the wires. All vegetation has to be at least seven metres clear of the high-voltage lines. The street trees can be large, because the poles have been set back from them on the house side of a verge of up to fifteen metres deep. But they have to lean towards the roadway, not the wires. Ride-on mowers are a signature of the neighbourhood: keeping grass short is a big job, neighbours told us when we arrived. The verge around our property adds about three quarters of an acre (a third of a hectare) to our mowing responsibilities.

The verge carries electricity, but it also creates a natural pathway for animals. It runs under a flyway for migratory birds, including long-billed corellas and yellow-tailed black cockatoos. During the Covid-19 lockdown it has had more human traffic than usual, but still not many cars. Neighbours walk themselves and their dogs. Sometimes they push a pram or a small child on a bike with trainer wheels. Covid-19 sharpens the need to find very local places for exercise and sanity in strange times.

The verge has become our “iso-project”. We don’t have a ride-on mower, and increasingly we don’t need one. Rather than mowing the grass around the poles, we are planting, restoring this little patch to be a real “nature strip”. It is not the suburban neat-green sort, but a place where small birds can find cover as they move around a landscape ruled over by Australian ravens, magpies and currawongs, and deafening flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos at sunset. Just over the hedge, in our garden, we have many charming small birds, what ornithologists call “little brown jobs”. Some are not merely brown. Eastern spinebills, spotted pardalotes, fairy wrens and a variety of honeyeaters are colourful. But they get the brown moniker because they move faster than one can focus binoculars, and have to be identified by jizz. With the cover of flowering shrubs, the smallest of them (the thornbills, silvereyes and firetails or Ninjas, as we call them) can co-exist safely with kookaburras, king parrots, rosellas and lorikeets and find nectar, insects and seeds to eat.

Figure 2. Looking south: Our plantings are on the left. The mulch is the remains of a fallen tree chipped by the Council. The roadsign reads “Dust Drive Slowly” (it is obscured by dust and rust).

I first encountered the idea of “gardening for birds” thirty years ago when I met Gwynnyth Taylor, a former president of the Save Our Bushlands Action Committee, a major conservation activist group that saved the Little Desert in north-western Victoria from unsympathetic agricultural expansion in the 1960s. The Little Desert is remnant bushland sandwiched between major wheatfields, blacksoil sheep country and the broadscale basalt plains of the Western District. Its poor soil and lack of trace elements make it still too expensive to “improve” to grow commodities, so it has remained undeveloped since the conservation campaign that I was writing about. Yet the environmental values of the area have made the Little Desert increasingly valuable as a tourist destination and bird-watching paradise, because the proposed development scheme never went ahead. When Ernst Mayr from Harvard’s Agassiz Museum of Comparative Zoology visited the Little Desert in 1959, he identified it as what he called a “barrier zone”, a crossover place where inland northern birds met those from the temperate south. It is still a biodiversity hotspot, and a crucial element for the Hindmarsh Biolink, an ecological corridor created by planting and preserving fragmentary public and private conservation refuges for animals and birds travelling across Victoria’s western pastoral country. The Hindmarsh Biolink was the brainchild of Bill Middleton, the arid-zone forester in Wail who had hosted Mayr’s visit to the Little Desert.

Gwynnyth Taylor led a conservation movement that came of age just as Australia was becoming more conscious of the environment, and developing a taste for “native” gardens and indigenous plants. In the early 1970s, as a result of the Little Desert dispute, the government established a new, independent statutory body, the Land Conservation Council (LCC), to review land use across the whole of the state of Victoria. This large-scale planning project built on the idea that some land is suitable for development, but some is better left undeveloped, for the benefit of nature. The LCC planning model was built on a philosophy that wise decisions need a mix of different sorts of expertise and good community engagement. By the end of the 1980s, the LCC had reviewed all the public land in the state, with a team that included forestry, agriculture, national parks, community conservation and regional interests. They mapped out levels of environmental protection appropriate to risk. The Little Desert itself was gazetted a National Park in 1988. But by this time, it was clear that the public land alone was not sufficient to save species. Conservation refuges were expanding to include private conservation on farms and in rural towns, including the Hindmarsh Biolink. Indigenous traditional owners were also beginning cultural tourism, and undertaking new traditional ‘caring for country’ work to maintain the Little Desert’s ecological values. The national park became a focus for new styles of conservation and restoration work.

Gwynnyth Taylor had a strong and intimate sense of plants and their place in the world. She was a horticulturalist, trained at Burnley College under Edna Walling’s practical tutelage. Like Walling, Taylor recreated nature’s patterns in her garden planning, using rock walls and screening shrubs, especially indigenous ones, to create bird habitats. When I interviewed her in 1990, she was long-retired, frail and elderly, and could no longer walk very far. But she was still gardening for birds. We sat in two chairs on the patio outside her small unit in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, catching the afternoon sun, while she told me about the Little Desert, about gardens and her philosophies of life. All around us grevilleas, westringia and leptospermum were flowering; each shrub was attended by insects, butterflies and small birds. Each “little brown job” was cheerfully extracting nectar, catching insects and generally busying itself preferentially just exactly where Taylor could watch them from her chair. Their purposeful engagement with her garden filled her afternoons with pleasure. Their twittering and chirping became her soundtrack and company. She kept fresh water for them in a bowl, and trimmed the finished flowers, but otherwise the garden looked after itself. As far as the birds were concerned, she was part of the garden furniture. They were untroubled by my presence too – this was where she regularly took her visitors whenever the weather was kind.

Over the weeks we have been in lockdown, we have come to appreciate the way our small additions to the nature strip serve the wider world. The garden and its surrounding verge provide shelter and food for passing and sedentary birds. Open paddocks are nearby – we have sheep at the end of our street, and the smaller birds, particularly, welcome the protection from predators it offers. The trees we choose to fill gaps in the street trees are compatible species, but young specimens, well clear of the lines. At the feet of the poles, where the wires run overhead, we are planting shrubs, colourful and textured. We are changing the “cricket pitch” look into a friendlier, habitat-rich verge. Already we are attracting interest: new small birds are venturing into even the smallest shrubs, sheltering from the wind as they seek out nectar and insects, just as they do on the other side of the garden hedge.

An ecological corridor is inclusive of all life, enabling parallel uses of plantings. It joins up many different destinations in accordance with the needs of the life-forms it shares. As we tend our new little plantings, staking them against the wind, watering them in and mulching around their roots, we are attracting other life forms too. It seems that we ourselves have become part of the passing landscape for exercising fellow Covid-19 dwellers. We exchange brief pleasantries with neighbours we have never met before. We now know their names, and they know ours. The verge of isolation is a new corridor of connection.

About the Author

Emeritus Professor Libby Robin FAHA is an historian of science and environmental ideas. She is Emeritus Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. Libby has published widely in the history of science, international and comparative environmental history and the ecological humanities. She has won national and international prizes in History (How a Continent Created a Nation), in Zoology (Boom and Bust), and in literature (Flight of the EmuThe Future of Nature).

Further Reading

Australia, NSW government. Office of Environment and Heritage ‘Corridors and Connectivity: Conservation Management Notes’ (4 pp) https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Conservation-management-notes/corridors-connectivity-conservation-management-notes-110657.pdf

Hindmarsh Biolink (now Hindmarsh Landcare Network) https://hindmarshlandcare.org.au/

Kendal, Dave, Libby Robin, Anna Wilson, Cameron Muir, Lilian M. Pearce, Sharon Willoughby, Ian Lunt, ‘Led up the Garden Path? Weeds, conservation rhetoric and environmental management’, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management. 24:3, 2017, pp. 228-241, DOI: 10.1080/14486563.2017.1300954

Lindenmayer, David B, and Joern Fischer, Habitat fragmentation and landscape change: an ecological and conservation synthesis, Washington DC: Island Press, 2006.

Robin, Libby, Defending the Little Desert: The Rise of Ecological Consciousness in Australia, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1998.Online: Rachel Carson Center, Munich: Environment and Society Online Portal for Environmental Humanities http://www.environmentandsociety.org/node/6811

Robin, Libby, The Flight of the Emu: A hundred years of Australian ornithology 1901-2001, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2001.

Walling, Edna M., The Australian Roadside, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1952.