Monday, 1 May 2017

Art for Nature's Sake

  It always seems to me that artists, photographers and musicians appear to have a special connection to the natural world. Maybe, because of their creative empathy, they have a heightened sensitivity to the world's, beauty, wonder and awe.

  Whenever a fundraiser is organised to protect forests, bushland or marine environments, guess who always put their hands up first to contribute time and talent? Yes the financially challenged artists. And when my local paper, the Manly Daily, asks for photographic contributions from the readership...the subsequent published works invariably seem to be of seashores, birds, animals or trees.

  It’s a strange compulsion that beckons humanity to paint but, like many others, I too was drawn to examine and attempt to represent some of the miracles of nature through art. I could never hope to do any of it justice of course. In fact to me, nature, at every level, is already in a state of perfection (although human behaviour is probably the exception to that general rule).  In an era when the world is losing so much of its precious wild things and wild places...just capturing it on canvass, began to seem a futile waste of time.  

  So, I decided to try and convey an environmental message through the imagery. At least that way it seemed slightly more constructive. Maybe I could, in a very minor way, help communicate the urgent plight of our world to a new audience and gradually, bit by bit, collective consciousness might work to turn things around?  OK OK its a ridiculous concept but it’s all I've got to work on at the moment!!

 Here are a few examples of my small scale environmental campaigning through art.


This piece, titled "Ascension" represents the view, looking up to the sky, through trees in a forest clearing. Conversely, others feel it is more indicative of looking down into a deep ocean. The materials used are acrylics, inks and bitumen on sheet aluminium 



This work, using similar materials,is titled "Feeling a bit Fragile". It represents a frenzied planet earth under intense stress in a volatile universe.


 There is an old English proverb that states, 'the eyes are the window to the soul.' This saying stems from a passage in the Bible, Matthew 6:22-23. According to Scientists, patterns in the iris can give an indication of whether we are warm and trusting or neurotic and impulsive. I'm fascinated by the deep and inscrutable eyes of reptiles. There seems to be an ancient but impenetrable wisdom emanating from those dark pools of life. This image was painted on canvas using acrylic paint,inks and bitumen.




A highly regarded local environmentalist used to hold an annual fundraiser to help protect Tasmania's ancient forests from industrial logging. This painting is called "The Last Tree Standing" and represents a devastated landscape with one sole tree surviving...a casualty of such rapacious logging practices. In Tasmania, large areas of forests are clear-felled, bulldozed and burnt- the trees being wood-chipped and sent to Japan to be made into paper. In recent times some of the high conservation forests were given World Heritage status and protected as part of a momentous agreement between the logging industry and environmentalists.


The Australian government wants to log these ancient trees once more.
 Australia's Prime Minister (and local MP), Tony Abbott, sought to de-list 74,000 hectares of these unique forests from the World Heritage register, making them once more accessible for logging and taking us back to the dark ages.


This painting represents the precious ocean environment that encircles Sydney. In fact there are more marine species found inside Sydney Harbour than around the whole coastline of Britain!  The NSW government is currently working to reduce marine sanctuary protection and has put a moratorium on declaring any new Marine Parks.  


Recently on Manly Beach, community members gathered to protest against weakening marine sanctuary protection.


This piece, called "Green Confessions" was exhibited in the 2013 Warringah Art prize within the "Waste to Art" category. It was produced using paper, paint and inks on an sheet aluminium base.  Warringah Council replaced their Flannel Flower logo (representing our local native flora) with a soulless stylized W shape. This work included numerous Flannel Flowers with the word "sold" emblazoned across them. This was to represent the ongoing loss of our beautiful, and colourful, bushland with the ugly sprawl of encroaching housing developments. The change of logo, without community consultation seemed to epitomise this bleak scenario.


This piece was hung in the Warringah Art Exhibition in 2000. At that time there was a huge community campaign to stop the "Ardel" housing development at Frenchs Forest destroying pristine bushland in the Manly Dam catchment. Its long term effect would also reduce water quality and impact on aquatic fauna (such as the unique Climbing Galaxias fish). The metallic fish skeletons with the title "Manly Dam's Future" contributed to the protest.



"Echidna Speaks" is a small 'Waste to Art' sculpture which was a finalist in the 2016 Northern Beaches Art Prize.  Made from salvaged, scavanged and discarded materials, it highlighted the threat to wildlife from the proposed Manly Vale School expansion. Rather than adopt the original concept design Dept of Education Planners wish to situate new premises on top of the school's outdoor education area. Fire regulations mean that habitat for 6 threatened species will have to be cleared for a huge fire break if this design proceeds.



This is a photograph (using a macro lens) of some tiny mould spores on a gardening glove. It was one of five works chosen for display in the 'Four Elements Earth' exhibition in Nov 2016 (Northen Beaches Creative Space). The message here is that we tend to ignore the fragile beauty all around us whilst only valuing distant views.  If people can really appreciate the small miracles in their surroundings..maybe they'll be more protective of nature??



Another semi abstract image with an environmental message. This time the viewer has to piece together their own sentance from ellusive words scattered amidst the disembodied eyes. The gist is that the natural wealth of the world is being spruiked and sold off to "customers".


This piece is painted on aluminium and the design created using a sgraffito technique.  It pays homage to indigenous art.


This is a photograph (using a macro lens) of a brown striped marsh frog tadpole -filmed on top of a delicately decomposed leaf.  My love of nature emanated from observing the teeming but largely unnoticed world within a backyard pond.


This image is of frentetically interweaving tubes, worm or snake like structures...incredibly ..whilst I was painting it...I was visited 3 times by a real life green tree snake !! (see below)



Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Re-Wilding A Sydney Backyard

 When I first came to the Australia from the UK, I had a fondness for the environment but knew virtually nothing about Australian nature.  Years later, when I moved from inner city living into a suburban house with a backyard, something special happened. Fascinating visitors such as Blue Tongue Lizards, Leaf Tailed Geckos and Possums provided magical wildlife encounters and my conservation passion, long suppressed, became reignited. As a result, when fragile bushland was threatened by a development nearby, I joined an action group. And, when the local council began planting native plants along a degraded creekline, I started to sit up and take notice.
Discovering a baby 'southern leaf tailed gecko.
When the ‘windows of awareness’ gradually began to open up, I realised that I needed to acquire some knowledge of native plants and environmental weeds. I really wanted to plant some genuine natives...and not the hybrid ones with showy flowers that you find in Bunnings.

 Later I discovered that, in Sydney, each suburb has its own original suite of endemic native plants which are vital in supporting local biodiversity For example there are nearly 1,000 wattles (Acacias) native to this continent but only 7 were endemic to my area.
One of my 'local' wattles:- Acacia Linifolia
 It subsequently dawned on me that almost every garden in my street had no indigenous plants at all. What was worse, many of the plant species visible, such as Agapanthus, Cotoneaster and Privet. were invasive weeds which spread into bushland reserves and actually caused harm. The irony was, none of the local plant shops even sold species which belonged in the area. To find them you had to travel to obscure specialist outlets or wait for the occasional Council native plant ‘giveaway’. Something had gone horribly awry in this city of Sydney. I realised that the original rich biodiversity had largely been scraped off the face of the earth, just like the indigenous people who once occupied this unique place. Meanwhile the current population seemed overwhelmingly unaware and unconcerned.

 Amazingly the Sydney area has more native plant species than the whole of the UK, they have a subtle, fragile beauty and have evolved both to live on the nutrient poor “Hawkesbury Sandstone” soils and adapt to climatic extremes.  But try telling that to the gardening commentators in the media.  Unfortunately, growing local natives is not good business as it doesn’t profit multi-national fertiliser, pesticide or horticulture interests.

Local bushland:-genuine 'Hawkesbury Sandstone country.
 I realised that my new philosophy was to do the polar opposite of what the so called “Garden Gurus” were advocating.  My plan was to remove all “foreign specimens” that were not of habitat value for local wildlife.  I would plant species that were endemic to my area (trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses); identify any remnant natives and carefully retain them; remove weeds by hand and commit to never using commercial fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. I might occasionally use a weed killer made up of 99% white vinegar and 1% detergent.

A fish pond was transformed into frog habitat featuring a self seeded. 'birds nest' fern.
 Interestingly, my neighbours remember when my standard “quarter acre” backyard contained only a solitary lemon tree (which was given a stay of execution) and little else. But past decades have seen various plantings and re-growth.  The house was built on remnant bushland in the 1920’s and since then suburbia has filled in most of the remaining undisturbed natural areas in the neighbourhood. I often think that what is now happening to the Amazon rainforest in terms of land clearing, happened in this very place, not so long ago.

 At this stage I should recommend an excellent book “Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney” By Les Robinson, which helped guide my progress. This amazing work contains invaluable information on our native flora including traditional Aboriginal uses for “bush tucker” and medicine.

 My garden contained a large lawn area of Buffalo grass, several Radiata Pines, a smattering of eclectic garden species and a few natives.  On the edge of the lawn there was actually some naturally occurring native grass Microlaena Stipoedes, some native Geranium (Geranium Homeanum) and some native Violets (Viola Hederacea) plus some naturally occurring Commelina Cyanea (which was eaten by early European pioneers to prevent Scurvy).


The native commelina..yes you can eat it !

A few years beforehand I had followed the current trend and planted a vegetable garden but I decided that even this had to go and it was ultimately replaced by natural vegetation. Luckily there is a fantastic organic food market nearby for delicious supplies and also a wonderful community garden if I get the urge to plant more veggies.

 It’s been a gradually transition but over a few years a large area of lawn has been dug out and the native grass has gradually taken over. A smaller area of Buffalo Grass was replaced with a groundcover called Dichondra Repens.
A native ground-cover has replaced my lawn
 I no longer have use for a lawn mower! Endemic species of Grevillea, Hakea, Correa, Banksia, Persoonia, Angophora, Eucalptus, Bracken and Blady Grass etc are growing well and providing food and habitat for wildlife.  Additional accommodation has been provided by the way of various nesting boxes. 

A Hakea in flower
 Insects such as Blue Banded Bees, Mud Dauber wasps and Golden Orb spiders are proliferating.  A fish pond has been transformed into a frog habitat which has also spawned an abundance of Spectacular Dragon Flies.

A Golden Dragonfly.
 A ban on toxic substances means that butterflies and cicadas can fly around more safely. Caterpillars are allowed to chomp away to their heart’s content. This type of garden requires virtually no watering; falling leaves don’t have to be swept away (as they provide natural mulch) and the local possums kindly provide their own brand of proprietary fertilisers.

 I have also converted the “nature strip” of foreign grasses and weeds in the front of the house into a mini habitat area with Lomandras, Dianellas and trees. (again, this is now a mow free zone).
Now it really is a 'Nature Strip'
 American Gardener and Writer, Benjamin Vogt struck a chord with me when he wrote this: - “We need to stop gardening solely for ourselves and see the incredible, beautiful, soul-magnifying existence that happens when we open up our gardens to the rest of the local environment by using native plants. We believe in giving to the needy and poor of our own species, and to other causes near our hearts, why not the birds, insect pollinators and amphibians in the gardens we supposedly cherish so much?”

 As the years go by, the native garden becomes more and more established and only occasional hand weeding is needed.  Additional species are occasionally added from a recently established community native plant nursery where volunteers propagate tubestock with seed collected from nearby bushland reserves. I sometimes try this myself with mixed results!

The “re-wilded” suburban backyard has provided greater biodiversity, a better connection to nature and more enjoyment whilst it has removed the time, cost, and energy of mowing, fertilizing and “manicuring”.   It’s the ultimate “win win” gardening experience!

The re-wilded native garden.



Check out the story by Robin Powell in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum pages
 siren-song-of-backyard-wilderness-in-Manly-Vale-   and have a look at her blog post on this garden"Wilding the backyard"