Friday, 8 January 2010

Mere Words: Can Nature Writing Make a Difference?

[Photo: Buttongrass showing off its "mad metronome" stalks]


[The award speech for the 2009 Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize - adapted from a presentation given at the Wildcare Conference.]

I want you to come with me over the back of our mountain. With strong wings we can be in the far south-west in maybe 30 minutes. Once there we find a tweedy buttongrass moorland sprouting from the sodden ground all around us.

It is blustery, and the top-heavy buttongrass stalks wobble like mad metronomes to the wind’s wild music. As we walk we see that this tawny buttongrass carpets every valley out here. It laps up against the odd crag, smothers all more rounded eminences, and relents a little only in the creases and crevices. There it shares some space with scrubbier, woodier species, conceding a few contrasting greener swatches.

Extracting our boots out of yet another coffee-coloured bog, we are startled by a sudden rush of wings. A brownish/greenish blur arcs across the track, at a low trajectory, and settles deep into the buttongrass some 20 metres ahead. We walk towards it, but each time we approach, it repeats its ground-hugging aerobatics, doing so for well over a kilometre. In all that time, despite having a good bead on the whereabouts of the bird, we never actually spot it on the ground before it takes flight.

What we are following is, of course, a ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). It’s one of only three ground-dwelling parrots in the world, and is the species we have come here to see, and to help protect. Our team is an alliance of can-do, hands-on types, including rangers, scientists, land managers and people from potential funding and support bodies.

While the ground parrot is not an endangered species, it is rare, being found only in a few isolated places around the Australian coast. The heedless tread of human feet is one of its major threats. So, ironically, we’re walking here to see what can be done to protect a bird from people walking here.

Earlier advice has recommended that a boardwalk of parallel planking will help keep walkers on track and away from the ground-nesting birds. Our group agrees that this looks like a good project proposal, and funding is likely to result.

But let’s pause the scenario at this point. I want you to notice two things. One is that a worthy and practical conservation proposal is about to be funded – in an ideal world at least. Once the money is given, the professionals will get busy, and the volunteers will add their considerable weight to the cause, via bird observation, field assistance, administrative help and so forth.

But the other thing to notice is that a story is being shared about a place and a species that someone cares about. And the story involves putting into words, perhaps for the first time, something of how some of us really feel about a creature and its place. That is what nature writing is about: carefully and lovingly putting into words some of our connections with nature, whether in the wilds or in the cities and towns in which most of us live. It sounds straightforward, but in this country it is as rare as Pezoporus wallicus.

And that is part of the story behind this prize. The Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize is seeking to make words about nature a more central – dare I say more natural – part of our writing. It is about prompting us to find words – considered and caring words – about a natural world that gently insists we ignore or mistreat it at our peril. And it’s also about seeing Tasmania, this little island where wilderness is literally just over the mountain, as an eminently suitable place for a word-led resurgence of such thinking.
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