Seeing the Trees and the Forest: Attending to Australian Natural History as If It Mattered

By Stewart, Alistair | Australian Journal of Environmental Education, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Trees and the Forest: Attending to Australian Natural History as If It Mattered


Stewart, Alistair, Australian Journal of Environmental Education


Introduction

In December 2005 the Australian Museum announced that it would cease to publish the magazine "Nature Australia" due to falling subscriptions and financial pressures. I was at once saddened, angry, frustrated, disappointed, and if the truth be known, not particularly surprised. I felt this was the death of a flagship of the culture of natural history in Australia. As I tried to secure a copy of the last edition (my membership having just run out) I discovered that the magazine had not been available at newsagents in my area for a number of years. One of the reasons cited by the Australian Museum for withdrawing the magazine, other than financial, was the quantity and accessibility of material available on the web (Howarth in Williams, 2006). At a time when Australia has one of the highest rates of land clearing of any developed country (Australian Conservation Foundation, 2001), high rates of species extinctions (Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2001; Greuter, 1995), high rates of urban living (in 2001, 66% of population lived in 5 major cites and 87% in cities and inner regional areas) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003), combined with one of the highest levels of endemism of any continent (Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2001), I wondered about the importance of a culture of paying attention to our surroundings, of knowing something about our more-than-human (1) neighbours.

Natural history as a cultural activity is well established in Australia. One has only to look at the number of bird, animal, and plant field guides that are available in bookshops or accounts of naturalists or natural history (see for example Moyal, 2001; Nikulinsky & Hopper, 1999; Pizzey, 2000; Somerville, 2004; Tredinnick, 2003; Woodford, 2001, 2002). However, I suspect that most Australians, on the whole, have fairly limited knowledge of their local native flora and fauna. In The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery (1994, p. 400) expressed concern that high levels of urbanisation in Australia have result[ed] in a dramatic decline in urban wildlife, and in generations of young Australians growing up in concrete jungles without any opportunity to learn first-hand about or experience their unique wildlife heritage. Without that, there is little hope for the future indeed". Flannery (1994, p. 403-4) goes on to suggest that continuing urbanisation is further alienating people from their environment through reducing people's capacity to learn about aspects of the land in bushland and native gardens. How many people, for example, could name 8-10 overstorey tree species, 2030 understorey species, 60-80 bird species, half the terrestrial or arboreal mammals, or any of the frogs, reptiles, or bats of their local area? Not to mention the insects, spiders, fungi, grasses, mosses and lichens! I would argue that at no other time in the Australia's modern history has it been so important for Australians to know who their more-than-human neighbours are, understand how they live, and take an interest in their well being and survival.

As I sit writing this paper I can hear the rasping cough of a male Eastern Grey Kangaroo in the bush outside my office. This distinctive sound is a form of submissiveness: the coughing kangaroo is acknowledging the status of the dominant male (Aldenhoven & Carruthers, 1992). The small mob that frequents the bushland beyond my office consists of three does, each with joeys, and two adolescent and two adult bucks. As a keen animal watcher, I wonder about the lives of these kangaroos: how old are they, how far do they roam, how has this last summer been for them, what troubles them? As an educator I use the more general guiding question 'Who lives here and what is the nature of their lives?" to teach about the natural and cultural history of places we visit or live with (2). In this paper I will use this concept to highlight where I perceive there are some gaps in Australian environmental education discourse about pedagogy that draws on and reflects the natural history of Australian places. …

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