Urban Nature Study – Part 1

Earlier this year I volunteered to take part in an Urban Nature Study for an Honours student at the University of Wollongong. The study involved two Zoom interviews and three urban walks. On these walks I was required to take notice and record my interactions with urban nature. This included what I could hear, see, smell, and feel. To help me remember what I observed I made notes on the voice recorder app.

During the walks I was encouraged to take photos of the things I saw. It was pretty much the perfect sort of study for me! To top it off it we were still under some COVID restrictions so it was not as if I was doing anything else.

The student has submitted her work and I have permission to publish my contributions. I am not sure what her ‘findings’ were. Here is the first of my 3 walks. I have changed some of the street names.

Urban Nature Diary Day 1 – 13th June 2020

Saturday Beach Walk

My walk today was one of the two routes I take frequently. I call this route my “beach walk”.  The other is my “neighbourhood walk”. I sometimes run these routes rather than walk.  Today, I ran part of the way and walked part of the way as I was stopping to take photos. All up it took me about 1 hour 20 minutes.

This route takes me along Crown Street, past the hospital and railway station into the CBD, I then walk down to Smith Street and head to the beach from here. I walk past Levendi’s (a cafe), along the harbour, past the lighthouses and then past WIN Stadium. When I have the time (as on weekends) I extend the route and walk along the beach to the end of the golf course cut back up Swan Street under the railway bridge, up Gladstone Street, X Ave, Y Street, and then finally back onto Z Street and home. This is a little over 8 km. If I’m in a hurry, I cut back up to the WEC (Wollongong Entertainment Centre) and head back home through the Mall. If I’m running, I can do it in 50 minutes.

And we’re off…

This morning I left home at around 7:30 AM. There was a partial cloud cover. It was fine and crisp. It had been raining overnight so there were puddles and wet leaves on the ground

My phone said it was 12.7oC and dead calm.  I had dressed in long tights and a long sleeve lycra hoodie, joggers and socks. I normally listen to music or podcasts while I walk. Today it was a podcast.

The ground was wet, and the leaves made it slippery, so I picked my way out my driveway. The large liquid amber at the corner of my driveway drops so many leaves and I have slipped there before so I am always cautious.

The creepy tree

Just before you get to the hospital there is a huge Morton Bay Fig in a tiny park. There is very little room left in the park for anything but the tree. (Image 1) I really like this tree and have wondered how old it is and what it must have been like before it was hemmed in by the road and houses. It would make a good climbing tree as the branches hang down low to the ground. However, it would be near impossible to climb as the limbs are very broad and smooth. The buttress roots spread out for at least 5 metres in all directions.  I call it the “creepy tree” because it does not matter what time of day it is, the massive tree is always casting a shadow on the park. It smells dank and composty.

Image 1 – The Creepy Tree

Noisy traffic in the shopping precinct

The noise of the traffic makes it hard for me to hear any birds, but I did notice some dead or close to dead earthworms who had boldly ventured onto the pavement when it was raining and had now become trapped on the drying pavement. A bit of styrofoam captures my attention and I get annoyed and feel that the hi-fi store (likely source of the foam), should be held to account for the amount of foam that blows out of their bins and ends up as pollution on the street near their shop.

This part of the route is in my opinion, nothing but “urban”. It is paved and built up. There are few gardens as most of the premises are commercial. In the CBD itself, the council is attempting to green things up. (Images 2 – 4) 

It’s sad to see that their bright little street flower boxes are the target of vandals (Image 5)  If there are council workers watering the plants or replanting what has been ripped out, I’ll thank them for their work so hopefully they don’t get too downhearted that not everyone appreciates the little bit of colour the boxes provide. I notice the raindrops sticking to the leaves of plants. (Image 6)

Wollongong Harbour

Once I get to the harbour, I join the many others who are enjoying a walk or a run on this nice morning. The clouds are making a dramatic backdrop to the little lighthouse and Belmore Basin. Some pelicans are preening, and people are out in kayaks paddling on the smooth water. (Image 7)

Image 7 – Belmore Basin

There is a reasonable swell and some surfers are clustered at the end of City Beach. The water must be colder now as most are wearing wet suits.  (images 8 and 9)

It’s warming up and I am regretting that I didn’t wear a T-shirt and jacket rather than the hoodie which I can’t take off. 

Image 10 – Dead Calm

On the Beach

It’s dead calm.  (Image10) the air is clear and fresh, but I lament that it is not as clear as it was a few weeks ago when we were deep in COVID lockdown and the sky had a fresh luminous blue with no pollution hanging about in a brown haze.

Image 11

Once I get to WIN stadium and the footy field/golf course junction I head down to the beach. I take a lot of energy from the ocean and enjoy seeing it every day. For me, it’s peaceful and rugged and energising all at the same time. It’s mid tide so there is some compacted sand to make the walk easier. I have to dodge a few incoming waves to prevent getting my shoes wet but this adds to the fun. The sand shows evidence of last night’s rain with the little pock marks dimpling the sand. (image 11)

There are a few shells. (image 12) Last time I was on the beach there were lots of rocks and pebbles at the wave line and I notice that this time there are very few rocks. I wonder if they were carried away by last week’s big surf or if I was at a different part of the beach. Up ahead I see the little pebble “garden” I was looking for and figure that they do probably get moved as a result of the tide. (image 14.)

Image 13 – Roof tile?

Not a rock

I take especial interest in an unusual green “rock” (Image 13). I pick it up and turn it over in my hands. I decide that it’s not a rock after all and probably a piece of roof tile that has been washed down a creek. I’m on the lookout for sea-glass[1] as I collect interesting bits of that.

This is an off-leash beach but there are few dogs. A couple of gulls fly past skimming close to the sand. The air smells salty but since there is no wind to whip the sea spray into my face, I don’t taste it.

As I re-join the road and the buildings, I can hear some rainbow lorikeets squawking and fluttering in a large flowering gum near the dog training park on Swan St. There are some magpies or crows cawing as they fly overhead. I pass a garden which has some nice succulents spilling over the fence and I break off a small piece to bring home and plant in my own garden.

The home stretch

I am about two kilometres from home and I am now very much regretting the choice of outfit! The sun is rising higher and I am getting hotter! It’s a balance between going faster to get home quicker and overheating! On Gladstone Ave there are a few private gardens with some lovely old roses, but today most only have a few straggly petals left. There is also a house with a reasonable size quince tree. They don’t pick the quince and they fall on the ground every year. Each year I say to myself, “next year I am going to knock on their door and ask if I can have them before they go rotten!”

The large date palms on X street, always make me think of the cover of Hotel California (an album by the Eagles).

(I included that detail because the person doing the interview was very young and possibly not a 1970’s music fan!)

I cut across the little park on the corner of X Street and my joggers get wet from the grass.  The Bird of Paradise flowers catch my eye and a few spiders’ webs in the neighbour’s garden are glistening with rain.

I am home and it’s time for a cup of tea!


[1] Glass that gets washed up onto the beach and has been made smooth and translucent by the action of the sand and waves.


A Win-Win!

I’m a bit of a research study enthusiast and this study combined a few things I like to do, walk, take photos and write! In addition to that I was helping someone out so it contributed to my happiness! Doing good for others boosts your mood! As I said I have not seen the student’s finished work or even really understand the purpose of her study. However, having to stop and think about how I interacted and experienced nature in my urban setting was interesting and made me feel a real sense of connectedness.

Apart from this study I am also participating in a two long term health studies. One called the 45 and up study which has a long questionnaire every 5 years; and another 3 year study on dementia and lifestyle which has frequent questionnaires which alternate between eating and exercising habits. Once each year there is a comprehensive set of cognitive and memory tests.

I have also just done a five week stint being a “patient” for a trainee medical professional to assist them with their tele-health skills.

Being a writing frugalist, I wasn’t going to “waste” an extended piece of my own writing without including it here! It was a win-win! She got some observations for her research: I got a blog post! (Maybe 2 more if I publish the others!)

Tears for the Liquid Amber.

I live in a duplex which is tucked away behind a big old house. You can’t see my place from the road and when I give directions to people I usually say

“There is a really big tree at the top of my battle-ax driveway. It’s huge, it’s the big one at the bottom of the hill you can’t miss it… park near there.”

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Liquidambar styraciflua – the American Sweetgum.

I am close to the city centre, in an older part of town. Acre blocks that once accommodated grand homes have been divided and conquered by three storey unit blocks, villas and town houses that characterise urban living. Stands of established trees line the roads. Gum trees, jacarandas, Illawarra flame trees and a few liquid ambers jostle for their place in the sun and suck up the scarce water in this dry Spring.

My “landmark” tree is in the garden of a house that was built in the late 1870’s. It is not a native Australian species so it’s likely to be the same age as the house; around 150 years old. Three people could barely make their arms stretch around its girth and it towers above the telegraph poles by at least another half-pole height.

Last week a hand-written note appeared in my letter box…

Letter

Yes, with much regret… but it is required.

The tree crowds the house and low sweeping branches shroud it in darkness all year. The curious roots are lifting the house off its piers and they clog the drains, shattering and choking the pipes of the surrounding properties in their search for water. My duplex neighbour built a ramp so we could get out of our shared driveway because the pavement had lifted a full 20cm requiring heavy footed acceleration to get out onto the road and catapulted us dangerously into the path of unwary pedestrians.  Every autumn, it drops bazillions of russet and yellow tree-stars and spiky green seed pods.

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“Bloody tree” I would shout silently as hours of my precious weekend were filled sweeping its dropped clothes. I’d curse it and its deciduous-ity every time my green waste bin was too full for another load.

I know it must go. I know it will only continue to cause damage to the house in front. I understand all that but I still feel like an accomplice in a murder.  I stare up into the dense green canopy that only six weeks ago was nothing but bare sticks and marvel at the speed at which the green buds have developed into soft bright leaves, miraculously photosynthesising away without so much as a whir. The endothermic sink to all the exothermic reactions which go on around it. The beautiful, majestic giant has been faithfully pumping oxygen into our air for one and a half centuries. It has survived droughts, flooding rain, industrial pollution and developers.

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If you have a spirit dear Tree, I hope you understand that you have grown too big for this small place. You are a danger. You should have been planted in a wild open forest somewhere in Europe. You are not from here but were carried over the seas. You found a home and thrived, perhaps planted by an English wife trying to make Wollongong more like a fairy meadow with a showy display of autumn colours. I doubt it ever got cold enough here to allow you to become spectacularly red and show your true colours. (Like these ones from Bright in Victoria)

Your bare wintery limbs burst forth with buds and marked our Australian seasons in a way not matched by the eucalypts. They don’t change, their leaves hanging limp and dull olive, all year-round, the seasons marked by the roar of cicadas and not by the fall of leaves in June or the greening of fresh buds in late September.

I wonder how many children tried to climb you as you grew? How many picnickers did you shade before your big block was subdivided into smaller and smaller plots? Are there any pets buried beneath your wide spread boughs?

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Will you feel the chain saw as it removes your limbs one by one? Will you feel the mulcher ripping you into nothing but sawdust?

I hope not. I am truly sorry if you do and I hope I do not hear you scream in pain in my dreams. I feel for you.

Thank you tree.

Thank you for greening my neighbourhood.

Thank you for making oxygen every day.

Thank you for being a home to countless birds, bugs and grubs.

Thank you for being beautiful.

Goodbye sweet tree.