RED EARTH ECOLOGY: A weekend with the Dirt Angels


By Havoc!

Every autumn for the last three years the team at Red Earth Ecology (REE) has gathered burners and locals of the Riverina together to push beyond the idea of just Leaving No Trace. We Gift back to the country that hosts Burning Seed, our annual celebration, with a planting of native trees, shrubs and grasses in the small town of Matong, close to Red Earth City.

How many people came this year to support local biodiversity? The answer is 42. We converged on North Matong Road over the ANZAC Day long weekend at a carefully selected private property, about 15 minutes from Red Earth City. Jo Roberts (Whisper), former Kids Camp team leader, has moved on from nurturing the children of the Burn to put her wisdom and energy into bush regeneration. REE is supported and partly sponsored by the Burning Seed LNT team.

Red Earth angels

You turn up to “plant trees” but the process happens at a pace where you work in small, informal gaggles, so you yarn as you go under the autumn sun. You get to really know people outside the glorious chaos of the Burn at this pace. The kids have an amazing time too, making dirt angels, riding bikes and lighting random fires while the grown ups mostly work at planting or preparing meals.

The land has been tilled in rows ready to plant before we arrive. We travel along these avenues in teams of 3 or 4 with a bucket of seedlings, some cardboard guards and what I affectionately call the nature bazooka (a red contraption that digs perfect little seedling-sized holes in the ground). The earth is pressed in around the base of the delicate plant, a cardboard guard on a bamboo stake is placed around it for protection and eventually the water truck ambles along, watering in each little baby.

Mornings start with yoga and evenings are spent under the full moon around the fire or turning in early to genuinely rest and recuperate. We listen to Elvis on slightly warped vinyl while eating the best local lamb cooked in a camp oven (but of course the vegans were catered for with the utmost diligence).

Expert local knowledge

The Red Earth Ecology planting is a warm and fuzzy thing in which to participate. There is something about burning that means you do things that teach you great lessons in ways you never expected, and you often get more than you bargain for. The knowledge of the planting weekend organizers and participants provide me with a great opportunity to learn about the local country, native birds and indigenous land management.

I am delighted when I overhear Monkey and Whisper discussing which plants needed to go where. There are 4000 seedlings on the trailer this year and four zones being planted out, my assumption is that we just whack them in wherever, like I do in my kitchen garden. Instead I discover that each bucket of plants is very carefully curated.

The Curated Bucket would make a fabulous theme camp right? In this case it means there are areas that look like scrubby paddock for years but they can turn into a canoe ride in the right (or wrong) conditions – like we saw last year at Red Earth City with a wetland where we expected to see a Minty Country Club. So these little seedlings going in have an expertly planned future. The right plant species in the wrong spot is as useless as pasties on a green ant, so watching community knowledge step forward and curate this seemingly random bucket of plants makes my heart sing.

Another major lesson comes when I ask Whisper about the focus of the plant choice. We are planting habitat corridors between the Matong and Ganmain State Forests, in areas that are like pit stops between vantage points in the landscape, and we are restoring habitat for lizards and birds in particular. The plants chosen are mostly seed bearing rather than nectar bearing, to redress a habitat imbalance in the region for seed-eating birds. The Thornbill is a particular favourite being encouraged back to the land.

I’m blown away by the fact that Australian indigenous (and therefore sustainable) agricultural management thrived for tens of thousands of years before European settlement and that there was a “food bowl” of grain bearing grasses that stretched from Perth to the Great Dividing Range; 10 times the size of what is now considered “arable land” with post-colonial food production methods.

Across geographical and language barriers our traditional land owners nurtured the survival of these food sources for animals and themselves alike. Red Earth Ecology has chosen several of species of this type to go back into the landscape.

Absent friends…

Respects are paid to absent friends. One whole avenue of plants is dedicated in loving memory of Natalie Etherton, beloved wife of Ray and mum to Fletcher, whom we lost this year. Burners being burners we giggle as ashes are sprinkled down the nature bazooka, knowing if a whole row failed it did for the right reasons.

An enormous thanks is owed to our gracious hosts Sonya and Dave, to our fearless leader Jo (Whisper) Roberts and the whole LNT team and participants. The Thornbill thanks you for supporting its habitat in particular and I am thrilled to report that Communal Effort is alive and well at Burning Seed!

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