Connected to nature

November 2017

Guest speakers with Trust for Nature's Ben Cullen (2nd from right).

Speakers share the love

A tiny Leadbeater's Possum flashed up on the screen. There it was cupped in a pair of human hands - staring straight at you.

Then just as quickly it was gone. The next slide materialised and the presentation continued.

The possum had disappeared into a digital black hole. That's what extinction looks like. Nothing.

It was a moment to concentrate the mind in the darkened theatre at Melbourne's Library at the Dock.

Fifty people were there for a Trust for Nature event entitled Protecting Landscapes for Flora, Fauna and People.

It was a night to be reminded that nature needs us more than ever. And that we need nature, too.

Speaker after speaker shared fond memories; that sense of wonder during a riverside ramble, of camping under the stars, of discovering creatures that share the earth with us.

That time of connection.

Photo courtesy Dan Harley

A possum and a sense of place

For Dr Dan Harley, there is still hope for the lowland Leadbeater's Possum. A threatened species biologist at Zoos Victoria, he is at the forefront of efforts to save Victoria's critically endangered faunal emblem.

Apart from captive breeding programs, he has been working with Trust for Nature on what he calls "Town Planning 101".

That means creating "homes" and "highways" where possum families can survive and thrive. At a basic level this involves conserving and restoring what little possum habitat we have left in lowland areas where more than 95% of its favoured vegetation has been wiped out.

While most public attention has been focused on the campaign for the Great Forest National Park in the Central Highlands, important habitat sites for lowland possums still exist around Yellingbo and through the Yarra Ranges.

That is where Trust for Nature has been concentrating its efforts, helping secure more than 150 hectares of private land over time - land that is now held by the Crown as part of the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. The land includes the kind of dense swamp forest preferred by not only Leadbeater's Possums but also the critically endangered Helmeted Honeyeater.

Referring to the possum, Dr Harley said: "Trust for Nature has played a fundamental role in the protection of the last lowland Leadbeater's Possums at Yellingbo. The best habitat for the possum in the reserve was secured by the Trust - without it, the population would probably now be extinct."

Only 38 lowland Leadbeater's Possums are left in the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. But Dr Harley believes the area has a carrying capacity of 300 if habitat can be improved through revegetation, stimulating natural regeneration and improving hydrology.

Dr Harley also recounted many evenings spent in search of the possum, an elusive creature that weighs less than an apple and is expert at hiding from view.

"The forest at night is an extraordinary place," he told the audience. "Searching for Leadbeaters has taken me to hidden gullies and starlit glades. What this possum has done is give me a sense of place."

The Yarra. Picture: Nick Carson

Water becomes us

The theme of landscape in our lives was taken up by Maya Ward, author of The Comfort of Water, her account of a journey with three friends from the sea to the source of the Yarra River.

The book describes not only the ecological and cultural history of the river, but also the power of the natural world to transform lives.

Maya reminded people of a vital life-giving connection: Melbourne derives 70% of its water from the Yarra and its catchments.

"Human beings are about 70% water - so we are more Yarra than anything else," she said.

She gestured outside to the Yarra waters lapping at the Docklands wharf and imagined it as it once was - a place of giant Paperbark trees and tannin-stained wetlands.

This was the world of the Wurundjeri.

'Aborigines on Merri Creek' by Charles Troedel

A word from Uncle Dave

If anyone intrinsically gets the connection between country and being, then it is Wurundjeri elder Uncle Dave Wandin.

"We've been nurturing this landscape for 30,000 years in Victoria," said Uncle Dave. "We've lived through an Ice Age and we've lived through climate change - and we survived. So it's good to ask Indigenous people how we did that."

One of the ways the Wurundjeri managed the country was burning grassland to germinate new growth. But they listened to the land before lighting fires and were careful to avoid the hot season.

"Our people adjusted the landscapes not only for themselves but also for the animals. We observed and we learnt."

Uncle Dave, whose totem name is 'possum', heads up a Wurundjeri team that has been working with Trust for Nature on pest animal and woody weed control on private properties in the Dandenong Ranges. This developing relationship is bearing fruit in shared knowledge and skills.

As Uncle Dave told the Docklands gathering: "We all need to work together to care for this country."

The future happens now - Professor Andrew Bennett

Time to choose carefully

The nature of Victoria has changed dramatically since European settlement. At least half of Victoria's native vegetation has been cleared, including 80% of the original vegetation cover on private land.

The remaining 20% of native vegetation on private land provides habitat for at least 30% of Victoria's threatened species populations.

"The future is not somewhere we are going, it is something we are making," said Andrew Bennett, Professor of Ecology at La Trobe University.

He encouraged people to think about what kind of landscapes they would like to live in and visit years from now.

When making their reflections, he asked people to also consider if there is a relationship between the pattern of landscape and human wellbeing.

Professor Bennett's presentation underscored how all Victorians are connected to the land management decisions that are made today, tomorrow and forever.

Meanwhile, somewhere out there, a tiny possum stirred in its nest.

(main banner image of Leadbeater's Possum by Sarah Summers, Zoos Victoria)

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