Nurturing Nature The Way Forward

Happy-earth-day

World Environment Day was celebrated on June 5, but perhaps celebrated is the wrong word when you examine the state of  Earth. These statistics and photographs are quite depressing. How I wish people could appreciate and value nature like poet Joyce Kilmer.

His poem, Trees,  although criticised for being simplistic and sentimental is a classic that everyone remembers and quotes – many writers would wish for such an enviable record !

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The poem automatically springs to mind whenever I am in a botanical garden, a forest, a wood, or just walking down the street!

Trees  by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Tree blossoms despite
Salty air and sparse rocky soil
Resilience plus!

Sturdy trees stand firm
Withstanding storms their purpose
Golden harvests win

Cherry blossom time
Nature blooms in profusion
Fat and happy ducks

ducks Aspendale spring in suburbs

I don’t know when I became enamoured with trees -I think that’s one of the gifts I’ve received from living in Australia. My early years growing up in a housing estate in Scotland didn’t contain many trees!

However, living in Croydon in 1962, we were surrounded by trees to climb, to lie under for shade, to feast off when plums and apples grew, to strip and use as make-believe spears and guns in our childish games or have plum and apple fights, and to harvest as kindling and firewood for Mum’s Raeburn stove and the living room fireplace.

We took these magnificent living structures for granted, used and abused them, rarely appreciated their beauty, or significance for the planet’s survival because of their amazing capacity to stay alive, regenerate and survive against all odds.  Knowledge, appreciation and inspiration came later.

Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.

Kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of pot holes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.

Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia
possums peered down chimneys three,
but the dunny banished down the back
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny, were not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run

During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.

A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.

When I came to live in Mordialloc in 1984, I was an adult, soon to become a young mother. When John and I began to renovate our new home, plus create a garden, I not only noticed the trees, but became fascinated and attached to them. Involvement in a local conservation group meant I was even more captivated, not only interested in the environment, but ecology. I formed an emotional attachment to Mother Nature.

The Chestnut Tree
Mairi Neil

We cut down our chestnut tree today,
a sadness gripped my heart –
will the pain ever go away?

The tree was diseased, slowly dying
Attempted cures failed –
we stopped trying.

It was like saying goodbye
to a much-loved friend …
Is this how we all end?

The tree dominated our backyard
soft green foliage a contrast
to fruit, spiky and hard.

Veil-like shadows of leaves heralded spring
lazy days sitting beneath branches
listening to blackbirds sing

The baby lying on a blanket mesmerised
while a breeze rustled leaves and
birds and bees danced through the trees

In summer it delighted with endless charm
a shady spot for the wading pool
sun’s rays could not harm.

Warm balmy evenings, relaxing in easy chairs
sipping cool drinks at sunset
peace and tranquility, forgetting cares

Cherished memories; strong boughs hanging low
hooking the toddler’s swing
pushing the old tyre, oh so slow…

In winter, stripped bare, unattractive
as if the alien climate
is kind only to natives.

All living things eventually die
there’ll be other reasons to laugh
other reasons to cry.

seasons will come and seasons will go,
there’ll be other trees to nurture
other memories to sow.

When I put together an education kit about Bradshaw Park and discovered just how important trees were to the indigenous Australians I’m ecstatic much of this knowledge is captured in the beautiful tranquil Milarri Garden Trail  at the Melbourne Museum. It’s sad how easily generations of knowledge and expertise can be lost.

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Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

Celebrate parks and open spaces
How they let us breathe and play
They put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
Adding beauty to the everyday
Wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
Exercise and be healthy they say
They put smiles upon our faces

In childhood egg and spoon races
Kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even crocquet
Celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
We must put smiles upon our faces

In the future they’ll look for traces
Of how we spent our lives each day
They’ll dig up parks and other spaces
Perhaps put names to forgotten faces.

Trees, the bush, flowers, gardens – anything to do with nature can inspire me to write and I try and encourage my students to observe, reflect and write too. Inspiration is everywhere – even at Bentleigh Railway Station – this tree fascinates me as I wait for a train after class – an amazing example of how trees flourish against the odds.  It stands proud amidst concrete,  buildings, pollution and neglect, roots bulging through the fence, clinging to concrete wall. And then there is the building in the city with shrubbery sprouting like hair from a rooftop garden and trees straight and proud sentinels at the entrance.

Bentleigh station 2

melbourne city copy

HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Shadows on the hill
Early daffodils shimmer
Caught a winter chill

Beneath skies of blue
Swaying fields of amber grain
Bow heads, pray for rain.

Age does not weary love
Nurturing flowers and shrubs
Investment in health

Tranquil forest scene
Paths hidden and overgrown
Does danger lurk there?

A trip to Tasmania in 2008 to spend two weeks in the wilderness of the Tarkine was a spiritual experience as well as an exercise to prove I was still fit and capable of carrying a backpack and camping, after a bout of ill-health.

I defy anyone to visit this unique area and remain untouched by the timeless beauty, the unbelievable diversity. Experience  awe while in the presence of trees hundreds of years old, or in the case of Huon pines, thousands of years. I felt privileged to be in their presence, but also humbled by my insignificance – any time I spend on earth as transient as a leaf in comparison to these ancient monuments.

I came home rejuvenated and enervated after being close to what must be one of the most beautiful forested areas in the world. An area so many Australians value,  yet for decades has been under threat by miners, loggers and even so-called ‘eco-tourism’.

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Currently, Australians are increasingly aware of the effects of climate change, the need to invest in renewable energy and divest from fossil fuels. I worked hard for Environment Victoria during the last state election and will do so again. Our political masters want us to believe the biggest threat to our world is terrorism, whereas I believe  environmental disasters pose a greater threat.

Writing is one way I can express how I feel, but also encourage others to do the same. We only have one world, let’s look after it – trees are its lungs – acknowledging their value and importance is a good start.

Winds Of Change
Mairi Neil

I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind
I wonder at the foolishness of architecture
I hear the sighs of lovers and the curses of farmers
I see the cricket matches and the collapsed houses
I want to travel the world and display my power
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I pretend that I am always in control
I feel the power of Mother Nature’s other children
I touch the clouds and make them weep
I worry that there are places I cannot reach
I howl and keen in the eye of the cyclone
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I understand the flutter of a baby’s hand
I manipulate heaving white horses
I whisper soft sentences and rant furious prose
I try always for my poetry to be heard
I hope always for a memorable role
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind.

Possums – Playful, Pesky and Prolific, Provide Plenty to Ponder for Poetry and Prose

Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?             Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Summer in Melbourne means active possums –– love them or hate them, everyone has a possum story –– encounters sad, joyful, poignant, funny or infuriating. Great fodder for writing whether in poetic or prose form, short story or memoir. Unfortunately, the days of prolific numbers of the Australian native in Melbourne, long gone as suburbia encroaches and destroys their habitat and domestic pets make war.

Midnight Visitor

Aurora barks and whines to be outside
Swallowed by the darkness, no need to hide.
I hear her snuffling at the back fence
Low moans and whines –– my muscles tense.
What’s wrong girl? Come inside! I demand
Edging forward, she ignores the command.

A sudden scuffle and my peripheral vision
Spies a tiny possum frozen in foetal position
Atop the fence post out of Aurora’s reach
Terrified, the baby clings like a furry leech.
Aurora growls to let the possum know
This is her territory now and it must go!

Calm down girl, I whisper, he’s doing no harm
Moving closer to the bundle, I turn on the charm,
But the little visitor fearing two enemies’ wrath
Finds new strength to take freedom’s path
Along the palings the tiny possum hastened
Leaving one black dog thoroughly chastened!

Mairi Neil 2014

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Australian possums are a diverse group, ranging from tiny gliding possums to large agile climbing brush tails and cuscuses. They all live in trees, although some take up residence in roofs, adapting well to urbanisation and the destruction of their habitat by scavenging in gardens and rubbish bins. Here’s one having fun in the grounds of Melbourne University, in Carlton, coming out to forage when most of the students have left for the evening.

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Shadows

Plaintive song resounds
in University grounds.
Students hurrying home
ignore skeletal branches
of winter trees, oblivious to
a bird’s lament.

The mournful song
recalls dinosaur dynasties
amid a whirr of bicycle wheels,
footsteps, ring tones,
mobile conversations
and Ipod seclusion.

The full-throated celebration
announces dusk,
a melodious call to rest
lights douse, shadows deepen,
doors lock…
and the campus empties.

Crowded trams trundle past
bathed in artificial sunlight
beneath a star embroidered sky.
Tall grey buildings cover the bones
of long forgotten species
The call of birded tongue
a melancholy echo.

Mairi Neil, 2008

In Melbourne an enterprising business operates: Pete the Possum Man. But be warned, as a protected species, Pete may remove them from your roof, but if he lets them out a few yards away, they’ll be straight back inside!

In Canberra, an old friend from university days has a constant battle with possums who have a penchant for her roses. When I last visited, before we could go out for the day, we had to search through the undergrowth for her shoes, the weapon of choice she uses at night if she spies the little critters munching on the flowers. (Aurora barking saves my roses, but the possums keep my camellia on high alert!)

In April 1996, new laws to encourage responsible pet ownership and protect native wildlife, came into effect across Victoria, concerning the keeping, control and conduct of domestic cats and dogs. Cats had to be registered as well as dogs. Kingston Council, along with others, added laws to foster harmony between the cat and dog owning public and the rest of the community as well as to protect the environment and wildlife.

That Cat Next Door

That cat next door is such a pest.
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest.
She crawls and creeps
Even pretends to sleep ––
until…
With a great big pounce
Over the shrubs like a ball she’ll bounce
And with her mouth open as if to yawn
She’ll snap at the birds feasting on the lawn!

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest ––
but …
No matter how expertly she hunts her prey
They always manage to fly up and away.

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks, with zeal and zest ––
but …
Shining silver bells around her neck sway
They tinkle and jingle a warning each day

Look out! Look out!
Little birds fly away
Come back! Come back!
When that cat’s gone away.

Mairi Neil, 1998

Despite some encounters being less than positive, I love possums visiting my garden and believe firmly in the motto ‘live, and let live’ after all they were here first.

We arrived in Australia in the summer of 1962, on December 16, a week before Christmas. Dad’s cousin Kitty lived alone in the Croydon family home and welcomed us into the rambling old weatherboard set in several acres of land, remnants of a timber mill and orchard.

The ramshackle house, rusty machinery and trees gone to seed, a readymade adventure wonderland for 6 children used to the concrete pavements of Greenock, a shipbuilding town, on the River Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow.

That first summer we discovered the difference between blue tongue lizards and snakes (not much in the fright factor!); how to silence noisy cicadas by stomping near the roots of trees; that kookaburras always laugh when you do something stupid, and they love raw kangaroo meat, swooping low in the evenings to steal from the plates of pet dogs and cats.

We also discovered eating fresh plums can give you hives, and the jam Mum made not quite as delicious as the bramble jelly she made in Scotland, but still yummy. We couldn’t pick the blackberries in Croydon because they were considered a weed and the bushes sprayed regularly with poison.

The days of roaming free from dawn to dusk were heavenly, especially after being aboard a migrant ship for over a month. However, the nights battling mosquitoes (mossies) sheer hell! The tree canopy ideal camouflage for those vicious blood suckers. We looked like the Apaches from Hollywood movies, daubed with Calamine Lotion instead of warpaint as mum tried to stop us scratching and tearing at our skin. The pungent blue smoke of mosquito coils still clings to the inside of my nostrils, as does the vinegar compresses used to counteract the itch and sting of burning skin after too many hours in the sun.

The Australian bush holds delights and dreads. We watched out for the ubiquitous redback spider on the toilet seat, the bull ant bite to toes frisky and free in flapping thongs, and discovered first hand what ‘play possum’ meant, and that acidic possum pee is deadly and stinks!

Our summer freedom changed for the daily routine and discipline of school in February ’63. I started at Croydon Primary School along with brothers George and Alistair; older brother Iain and sister Catriona enrolled at Croydon High School. At the high school, uniform was compulsory (and expensive), but Iain looked smart in brand spanking new white shirt, striped school tie, grey trousers and grey v-necked school jumper with a riband in the school colours of rust and blue. The family budget wouldn’t stretch to blazers, but the jumper was an acceptable everyday substitute.

A couple of weeks into the term we set off for school, but only got as far as the clothesline where we found a tiny possum practising a tightrope act. It may have been its first sojourn alone, or perhaps it had become separated from its family –– whatever the reason, it now had an audience of five wide-eyed school children eager to give it a cuddle.

Brother Iain, the family animal expert took charge, having owned a hamster and a rabbit in Scotland as well as claiming the family Collie as his dog. The possum froze and ‘played dead’. A quick conference and in our ignorance, we decided the possum would make a wonderful family pet. We’d put it in the old disused chook house for safe keeping until we returned from school.

Iain prised the possum from the clothesline and murmuring soothing words cuddled it to his chest. It rewarded him by peeing on his new school jumper and as the shock made him relax his hold, the baby possum leapt back onto the clothesline to reveal how well the tightrope practice worked by scampering along and leaping into a nearby tree. (Ringtail and Brushtail possums have tapering prehensile tails with coiled tips, which they use as a fifth limb. Their digits are arranged so they have a pincer-like grip and long-pointed claws are not to be challenged!)

A day burnt into our memories as the possum pee scalded Iain’s new school jumper, which had to be thrown out because the smell remained despite repeated washing. Like Queen Victoria, Mum was not amused, but we learnt an important lesson about not interfering with wildlife unless absolutely necessary for their welfare, such as a recent intervention by my daughter’s boyfriend when he came to the rescue of a frightened possum trapped in the ladies toilet at the community house where I work.

There had been an electrician working in the roof during the day and a hatch had been left open. A possum found its way into the roof, wandered around and didn’t notice the open hatch. He fell through the cavity and how he managed to avoid going straight down the open toilet bowl is a mystery because the short distance left little room, or time, for recovery of balance. A middle-aged matron went to use the toilet and screamed. Although by the amount of possum poo I swept up later I’m not sure who was the most traumatised!

Glen to the rescue – we had no idea how the possum would react after being trapped for hours and the frightened matron said, ‘it was huge’. A plumber who works for a local council, Glen assured us he often had to remove possums from strange places. Wearing leather gardening gloves and armed with a towel, our knight in shining armour opened the door – and closed it at once. He leant against the wall and took a deep breath, ‘that bugger’s huge!’

It was a hefty adult male possum and its terror had turned to fury by the sounds coming from behind the toilet door. We closed all doors into other rooms and opened the front door wide. Glen would have a clear run along the corridor once he caught the possum. And run was certainly the operative word.

The rescue over in a few minutes; no time to film the hilarious scene as Glen grabbed the possum, struggled backwards from the toilet, rushed towards the door with a frantic grunting possum clawing to be free. Within seconds it leapt free from the towel (or was let go?) to speed outside in a flash of grey fur and growls.

Of course, not all possums survive and when I walked my daughters to school we occasionally came across a dead possum. Distressed, yet curious, they’d have a strange fascination for the horror the transformation of death brings, as children often do.

Poor Little Possum

Poor little possum what happened to you?
If you were human, you’d be cold and blue.
I know you are dead, so still on the ground
The only sign of life, ants scurrying around.

Poor little possum, did you fall from a tree?
Attacked by a cat, you didn’t expect to see?
And then too late – caught unaware
To now loll lifeless with eerie empty stare.

Those glassy eyes, a fixed vacant glare
While hair from your tail fluffs in the air
Your partly-open mouth shaped in a grin
Tips of sharp teeth protruding from within

Did you die of fright? A dog’s sudden movement
Creating a hullabaloo you fell to the pavement?
Did modern disease snatch life’s breath away?
Toxic sprays, car exhaust fumes, air thick grey.

Curled paws reveal claws, perhaps your just asleep –
Tip-toeing nervously closer we dare to peep –
To examine your stiff body, look for a wound
Hope no horrendous injury will make us swoon.

Perhaps you did succumb to ghastly pollution
Although much more likely to be electrocution
Destroyed habitats mean possums struggle to survive
Poor little possum, I wish I could magic you alive.

Mairi Neil 1994

However, my daughters still giggle about an incident at Mordialloc College when they were teenagers. There was a ‘smokers’ tree’ at the edge of the school grounds where smokers gathered beneath a huge gum, to escape detection. One day, lounging and smoking, they chatted and laughed while feeding pieces of fruit to a possum. A teacher was spotted making his way across the oval, everyone jumped to stub out their cigarettes. Terrified by the sudden movement, the possum reacted by running up the trouser leg of a nearby boy – all the way to his groin! The smokers club ‘freaked out’ and forgot the threat of approaching authority!

I’ll save other stories for another day, but encourage writers to share theirs. This passing parade of possum poems, pictures and paragraphs sparked by my travelling daughter who has recently returned home. She looks out for possums on the overhead electric wires on our nightly walks and it is lovely to see her childlike excitement. These walks, our way of meditating to appreciate the beauty of our environment and our many blessings.

Moonlight Walks

Sea breeze absent
Some trees stark statues
beside the fluttering
foliage finery of those
sprouting new life,
shelter for nesting birds
and energetic possums.

Eyes drawn heavenwards
to a rosy sky spreading
bright benevolence below,
to soften the menace of dusk;
harsh reality of empty streets.

Darkness holds no fear
under a glowing orb
and sequinned sky
Their brilliance
a balm for melancholy —
whether brief painful thoughts
or permanent struggle
with life’s tribulations.

Time to ponder the vastness
and possibilities
of an unending universe —
the majesty of a sky
carpeted with twinkling stars.

Recall a tender kiss
soft as a breeze.
Hear the whispers
from the village that is a tree.
Feel Life pulsating in the breath
and beauty of nature’s rhythm
as shadows dance into light.

© 2014