How to see in the bush

The best way to understand an area is not to tramp though it. Find a quiet place and sit there. Look at what is growing around you - the small plants covering the ground (there'll probably be dozens besides grass), the small shrubs then climbers, plants that ramble or twist or twine. Look for plants growing on high rocks, on tree trunks or from high branches. See what plants are flowering or setting seed or look like they might be dying back.

        

Then come back to that same spot - again and again. Try to come back in dry times and compare your spot with what you saw before. Try to come back after a drought has broken - or after fire - or in a very wet year.

        

The bush isn't static. It is constantly changing - and the only way to know an area or begin to understand it is to live there - or come back time and time again.

Don't Just 'Go Bush'         An extremely wise man (who I won't name but you may have read his books) once told me that when he decided to move to Australia he knew he would have to prepare himself to really see the land. He read all he could before he came here, so he'd know what to look for - then spent a year just looking.

        

You'll see more in the bush if you do some reading first, about animals, lizards, snakes, flowers, birds...         Often when people go into new areas of bush they go 'cold turkey' - expecting to understand or notice things in an area they've never been before, just by following the map or track. But even with those you will miss a lot - that rustle in the undergrowth that's a ground thrush, perhaps, the gully where the lyre birds dance - you'll only see them if you creep up - the koala colony in the trees by the creek, or the bunyip swamp just past the waterhole. Even if you have guide books to tell you what birds you see, what flowers are blooming, you'll miss so much that an experienced guide might show you.

        

If at all possible find someone who knows the local area and can tell you what to look for - the local National Park workers, local farmers - or just someone who has walked that way many times before.

        

Do not make the mistake of so many who express disdain for books and information, claim 'not to need' to know the names, distribution and habits of plants, animals, fungi, insects. Sure, this is only the beginning of knowing an area - but it is an important beginning and certainly enables most humans to find a way in.

        

You will be surprised and delighted how having a mental framework and some little knowledge will assist you to discover the bush. Not because all knowledge is held in books and theory, not at all - in fact once you have read and memorised and disputed with all that the authorities have recorded you can begin to build up your own body of observable knowledge and if you go on for long enough and deep enough something akin to wisdom can be acquired.

 

Using All Your Senses        

Nowadays we mostly use only two senses - our eyes and our ears - and we severely restrict how much we use of those. In the city or suburbs there is so much you want to forget about, that you learn only to half use your eyes and ears - how not to hear the noise of the traffic at night when you're trying to sleep or the ads on TV. How not to see the neighbour's washing or ugly billboards, How to forget about all the unpleasant 'crowded' things of modern life. We tend to see things with a narrow vision, not a wide one - just to see what we are looking at directly, instead of being aware of everything around.

        

I'd been living here for years when this suddenly changed. i was sitting up by the 'dragon pool' - where the water dragons sleep on the rocks on cool days, or dive into the water and sit an the bottom in the heat. Suddenly I realised that the way that I looked at things had changed - I was looking with the corners of my eyes, I was seeing the whole world around me, not just the bit in front - was automatically 'feeling' as well as 'seeing' how the water ran down to the creek, how the grass changed as the slope grew steeper, how the birds flew with the currents of the wind. It's hard to actually describe what happened - because there are no real words that suit it - but when it happens to you you'll know what I mean.

        

It is the same with hearing. In noisy places you learn 'not to hear' a lot of what's happening around you. But in quieter places you get used to all the usual sounds - and will notice a new noise immediately. (I find it hard to sit still at friends' houses in the suburbs - every time a car comes along the street I automatically want to get up to investigate.)

        

We've all but forgotten our sense of smell, too - unless we sniff at something deliberately like dinner, or a perfume, or to see if something's gone bad. We no longer use our sense of smell to tell us about our surroundings.

        

Or our sense of 'feel' either - like the feel of the air on your skin.

        

Next time you are in the bush, shut your eyes. Find out what you can 'see' in the darkness - how the air on your skin is dry or moist (and how it changes when you walk from a sunny track into a cool wet forest - or even get close to a creek). 'Feel' the air in your nostrils as well as using your nose to smell - you'll feel how the air seems 'thicker' at dusk, or 'heavy' before a storm.

        

Learn to smell - learn what a creek smells like - the scents of water and wet soil, what different winds smell like - a southerly smells quite different from a north-west wind.

       

Learn to notice what your body is telling you. Lizards get cranky before a fierce storm (I once saw tens of lizards tearing at each other, biting at throats and twisting with tails - and then the most extraordinary thunder storm I have ever seen came up the valley - and sent me and the lizards scurrying).

        

People get cranky before storms too - or old injuries ache before a change in the weather - and there are dozens of other ways our bodies sense what is happening in the world around us. We still pass on folklore about ants and birds sensing storms - but we've lost touch with what our own bodies tell us.

        

Many people see the bush with lots of other people - a party of bushwalkers or a school excursion. While these are fun - and you can learn a lot - you still won't experience as much of the bush as you would if you went by yourself - or with just one other person.

        

This is partly because animals hear - or smell - large numbers of people and stay away - but also because when you are with other humans you are 'human oriented' - you are chatting or thinking about the person beside you - you're not really part of the bush at all.

Go by yourself         The best way to see the bush is to go by yourself - or to go with a party, but find a 'special spot' of your own - and just sit there for an hour or so, smelling and feeling and watching what happens around you. Don't think about dinner or your blisters - just try to be as aware a you can be of your surroundings.

        

If you do decide to go into the bush by yourself, leave a note saying exactly where you are going and when you will be back AND STICK TO IT. Even if you are safe, other people can worry - and go to a lot of trouble traipsing after you. There have been an awful lot of Search and Rescue missions that have been called out for overdue walkers, who have simply decided to spend another night or go out by a different track. Consider your fellow humans too - not just the other animals around you.

 

How to find a wombat in the bush

 

1. Look for droppings (scats)

Adult wombats leave about a hundred scats a night - if there are wombats about, you will soon see scats.

        

Wombat droppings are usually grassy looking, dark brown to black in dry seasons and green in lush times. Adult wombat's droppings are usually large and squarish and they'll be very visible - deposited on any high point around - rocks, fallen logs, your boots. However, dung beetles very soon break up wombat droppings, so within a few hours they can turn furry or start to disintegrate - except in cold winters when they freeze in shape.

        

Baby wombats mostly leave their droppings hidden under a bush and they will be smaller and moister and slightly pointed at the end that comes out last. A wombat will mostly leave some of its droppings in the same place every night.

        

Once you get to know the scats of one wombat, you can usually recognise them and be able to tell which wombat has wandered where and even when by the freshness of the dropping. Other wombats - but not us olfactory challenged humans - can tell much more about a wombat from its scats - if it is on heat, feeling aggressive, how old it is and probably many other things. (Don't ask me for more - I'm human.)

        

Wombats also leave scratches and scent markers for other wombats - but again, what they communicate is mostly a wombat secret.

 

2. Look for wombat holes

A wombat hole isn't a reliable guide to whether there is a wombat about - it may have been unused for years. Look for fresh digging, prints, scratches and droppings. If the leaf litter at the front is undisturbed and there is grass growing that hasn't been tramped down, it is either an unused hole or the wombat is using another entrance.

 

3. Look for wombat sits

These are often high on a ridge or hill, looking out over a view - which I suspect wombats 'see' by their sense of smell. There won't be droppings there but there will be nearby.

 

4. Look for dust baths

Places where a furry animal has rolled in the dust.

 

5. Look for wombat tracks

A wombat's front paw print looks a bit like a dog print; the back print looks a bit like a very small human footprint. When a wombat is trudging along normally the front and back prints are close together, but when they are running they will be further apart.

        

You'll find wombat tracks in sand by creeks, bare soft dirt, by wombat holes. If you are in doubt about a wombat's presence, rake sand around the hole entrance and check it for prints next morning.

 

6. Look for wombat scratches

Wombats love fresh dirt and will often scratch it - or just scratch wet lush ground to see if it is good for digging. Wombat scratches though can be confused with scratchings made by other animals until you become familiar with them. You may also find parallel wombat scratches on the ground near their droppings.

 

7. Smell

Wombats have a very definite wombat scent - and another even stronger scent when the females are on heat. Once you learn it, it is impossible to mistake - and sometimes even a poor smeller like me can track a wombat by its odour.

 

8. Bones

Most wombats die in their holes, but a few years later the burrow will be 'spring cleaned' by another wombat - and dogs and foxes and goannas may drag them out too. You can tell a wombat skull by the two long front teeth in the upper and lower jaws, with smaller teeth much further back.

 

9. Listen

Around here the most obvious noise is the scratch - again, unmistakable after you have heard it once. You can also hear grunts, huffs, snarls, yips if they are mating and other wombat noises - but the scratch and the sound of grass or tussock being torn in wombat teeth will often carry fifty metres or more on a still night.

 

10. Watch

Wombats are creatures of habit - though they do vary their routine fairly often. But if a wombat comes to a certain pool to drink at dusk, a certain patch of grass to eat at 1 am, likes to scratch on that branch etc, you will probably find them there the next night - or even the next month. (But probably not

© Jackie French