I live north of Brisbane, Australia, on the shores of Moreton Bay. This is paperbark country, or was. A place where blue gum woodlands once sank into grassy paperbark swamps which themselves interlocked fingers with muddy inlets flanked with mangroves. The marine grey mud extends up below my house. If I dig down about a foot it is there, beneath the gravelly burnt remains of coal from steam trains that once brought city people here to convalesce by the sea. Now the marine clay is a vestige of the swampy place that was here before my house was built.

Most of that forest is gone, replaced by roads, houses, sports fields, a racetrack, the freeway, shops. Here and there it pokes through the built environment and gasps up into the suburb. And there are the places deliberately set aside by a wise few, for preserving examples of this previously rampant nature.

If you go there you’ll see the paperbarks, ragged textured trunks, dark spiky leaves, not hanging: green splintered, splay-fingered. And when flowering, masses of creamy bottlebrush flowers. The insects can be heard feverishly zooming and buzzing on high. As lorikeets feed their shrieks are softened by mouthfuls of nectar, the sweetness seems to temper their raucousness. But once sated they tear off like green rockets, yelling in the ecstasy of the sugar rush. There is the intense blue dart and flick of the forest kingfisher. Then it sits perfectly still, pertly on a branch, peering at you down its long beak, a sceptical professor of the swamp. On the ground is a mass of grasses and sedges, yellowed or light green, rampant, to your knees. And blechnum ferns and twining plants. Orchids would grow here once, before they were all taken by collectors. Majestic Phaius orchids with towering arrays of starry deep-pink and white blooms, punctuating the dappled light.

In summer the heat and closeness can be overwhelming, the mosquitoes fierce. But when this place was flooded, in the height of the summer wet, I chanced upon a pair of magpie geese and their brood. Sliding serenely on the dim glinting water in the shade cast by the paperbacks. Slipping quietly out of view amongst the sedges. A small gift on Christmas Eve, hidden in the paperbark swamp right next to the row of factories, and within walking distance of my house.


This post has also been published in the online magazine Nature Writing.