Matt Cameron from the New South Wales Office of Environment has commissioned me to create a colouring book about the Riverina Grasslands, which are found in south central New South Wales and northern Victoria, and are home to many specialised plant and animal species. In February this year I travelled to Oolambeyan National Park, on the Hay Plain, to observe and draw the wildlife of this ecosystem. My reaction to the old Oolambeyan Homestead is described in a previous post. Today’s post tells of how I went about ‘getting to know’ the grasslands so that I could create a series of drawings for the colouring book.
Early morning, Oolambeyan National Park. 25th February 2016.
Everyone seems lighter, relieved. Released. The heavy heat of the last few days has lifted. Even the hot relentless summer sun is veiled by clouds. The birds are more active (or are we just more active in watching them?). I walk out of the homestead, and down the track past the old shearing shed, across the low sandhills and towards the grasslands.
Black box trees spread their arms wide, dead claws arching over and reaching down to the dry yellow pasture below. Sombre pale-green leaves hang, barely moving in a breeze that is the coolest felt for days. A crested pigeon whoos from somewhere. Red-rumped parrots make high-pitched squiggles with their voices. Noisy miners argue about something.
Choughs are a sudden inky-black in this otherwise soft-hued landscape: a squadron of slightly goofy, black assassins, who run about in conspiring groups like teenage girls. Then lift off on venetian-blind-white/black wings, with sad cries.
A small section of rainbow is smeared against the bank of clouds to the south. Despite the cool breeze and the cloud, it’s still forecast to reach 41 degrees today. The flies are becoming friendly. As I clear the black boxes the horizon unfurls and I see the twin smear of the rainbow descending to the northwest. Anymore efforts to rainbow-ness (i.e. the filling of that generous arc) are likely to be sabotaged by the insubstantial, scrappy clouds and the wide dry land below. It’s getting hotter, and the flies are buzzing around my face and crawling on the page as I write.
Beyond the trees I walk out onto the ‘red’ clay soil, which is actually a very pale terracotta hue. This is where the grasslands come into their own. Except for the almost comical mop-top shapes of a few young western myall trees. For most trees cannot survive on clay soils in areas where rainfall is low.¹
Some find grasslands confronting in the way that a black hole is fathomless. The eyes cast around for a point of interest, a point of relief. And instead there is the almost perfectly horizontal line of the horizon and a huge sky taking up most of the view.
Below me on the ground are a whole lot of low-growing, poorly leaved, straggly plants. Most are prickly. All are small. They barely cover any ground (especially now, in late summer). The bare dirt flaunts its nakedness, in open scorn to these pathetic plants. Lifting my eyes I see these embarrassing excuses for fodder repeat their drab patterns until the greens and pale blue-greens and grey-yellows of the dry dead ones merge into similar-coloured smudges across a vast plain that ends with a dark lumpy blur of myall trees on the far horizon.
But then, I look closer. Each plant is gamely surviving out here in the 40+ degree heat of summer. Each plant is spikey and plucky and tough and ballsy and ruggedly tenacious, in its own way.
(Sunlit-pink galahs fly over, calling, against a dark-grey-cloud sky).
Yes, there are spikes and prickles (3-corner jacks, bindi-eyes, copperburrs, etc.) in a wide range of shapes and designs. In situ, on the plant, they are magnificent defences against the appetites of sheep, rabbit and kangaroo. Some leaves are furry, some leaves are folded now, many have a white cast of specialised hairs to protect against water loss, against UV radiation.
As I walk, I see changes in the pattern and composition of the plants. My mind’s eye is reconstructing what this would have looked like – when in full-flower, last spring – from the dried husks of the plants remaining. Here’s a field of pink Ptilotus lamb’s tails, interspersed with golden Chrysocephalum paper daisies. Then, in this patch, the golden paper-daisies dominate, and were mingled with white-petalled Rhodanthe daisies, white flowers of the grey germander, and all around the soft blues of the various saltbushes and copperburrs. Grasses would have been growing up and all around: light green with fresh growth; seed heads poking up and waving over. Tiny crinkled rosettes of the saltbush seeds are still plastered on some Maireana stems, like miniscule satellite dishes, miniature hollyhock towers. Absent now (hidden as seeds and bulbs in the soil) – but no doubt beautiful last spring – would have been the nodding heads of pink and purple pea-flowers, the slight, erect garlands of vanilla-lilies and Early Nancies, and the white-pink open faces of Convulvulus, the bindweed, on scrambling stems.
And then – with naming – the pitiful, samey, straggly plants diversify, expand, into a fascinating cast of characters. Coming on and off stage as I walk slowly through this vast plain. I start seeing the patterns: these ones more likely in the soaks, these ones everywhere, these ones only in patches. I meet them and recognise them. And each story expands and unfolds until there is a drama raging beneath my feet bigger than the sky and somehow more accessible because it is earthy and alive and struggling like us weak humans to eke out an existence. Despite the searing engulfing summer heat and cruel droughts, the relentless bite of sheep, roo and rabbit and the frigid winters. They are here. They have probably been here for thousands of years. They persist.
- An excellent paper has recently been published by Rod Fensham, Don Butler and Jenny Foley which explores the factors behind this important vegetation dynamic : Fensham et al (2015) How does clay constrain woody biomass in drylands? Global Ecology and Biogeography
The story of how I created the Riverina Grassland colouring book is continued in How to draw a grassland, Part two: Ecology in pictures.