I am walking behind my daughter as she explores the rise and fall of a playground bike track, a black rubber surface painted with white dividing lines to resemble a road, when I hear something unexpected: a chorus of frogs, so loud I can hear it across a large, empty sports field. I feel the urge to investigate. Where is the frog habitat here, I wonder? This area has been shaped and designed for the comfort and use of human beings like me: people who drive their cars to green spaces so their children can play on pretend roads, preparing themselves to be the drivers of the future. This park is not an area I think of as ‘natural’, but it could be nature adjacent, and that’s enough to make me look beyond the playground’s boundaries. I hold my daughter on my hip, and we venture across the soggy grass towards the nearest water source, a stormwater drain. There is a swirling mass of clouds above us, dark grey towards the horizon, and the sunlight that pierces through illuminates the landscape in high contrast. It would be a beautiful moment if we were in a National Park, but it’s a concrete drain at the edge of a sports field in suburban Mulubinba Newcastle – what beauty lives here?
We stop at the edge and peer down at a trickle of brownish water. The wide, flat concrete bottom is silted up with a layer of mud that I wouldn’t want to touch. My ears have deceived me: this isn’t frog habitat – too open, without the shady spots and native vegetation they need for protection. The chorus that was so loud and beckoning just moments ago has hushed, but the drain presents an intriguing ecosystem, so we take a moment to observe. Grass and other weeds grow at the furthest edges of the mud, an island of debris has formed around two overturned shopping trolleys, and on the grassy bank on the far side of the drain there’s a line of temporary metal fencing and the orange polypropylene mesh barrier of a construction site. A little further back there’s the familiar bottle green walls of an enormous warehouse: it’s a Bunnings, though I don’t often see it from this angle. Usually, we go in the front door to buy seedlings and potting mix on a Saturday, like all the other local families.
“Balloon,” my daughter says.
She draws my attention to a white balloon on a string caught in the bushes where the concrete drain becomes a creek with more natural edges. I’m proud that she knows the word, and I praise her, though I feel a pang of sadness that a waterway-polluting piece of plastic is the thing she feels excited about naming. In the introduction to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane says that the nature vocabulary of children is shrinking, replaced by words more suited to navigating an online landscape. That’s why I’ve come looking for frogs – it’s not enough to point to a drawing of a generic green frog in a children’s picture book and say ‘frog’. I want her to know about the species that live around here: their names, what they sound like, what they look like, what they need to thrive.
I want to know for myself, too. Knowing more about the natural world is what keeps me grounded in the present, especially at times when my mind spins off into future-worry. For the past few years, I’ve been looking more closely at places like this – local areas that I might have ignored or devalued because they weren’t pretty or interesting or wild. Observing what’s around me is a practice I developed as a creative response to restriction: the geographic restriction of lockdowns, the psychic restriction of pandemic anxiety, the time-based restriction of parenting a small child. At the beginning of 2020 I enrolled in a PhD, intending to write about coastal Mulubinba Newcastle and climate change. I conceptualised the project as a letter to my (then imaginary) child because I thought that would be a good way to think through weighty issues like environmental responsibility and what we owe future generations. Thankfully I didn’t get too far down this track before my project was derailed by the pandemic. I don’t think I could have sustained thinking and writing about the future in that way for three and a half years, even without the pressure of adapting to disruptions.
A month into the first lockdown, I was taking a mental health walk on the beach when I heard Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason speak on Emergence Magazine’s podcast. He was talking about climate change and the limitations of language: “When you talk about the future, it becomes vague because, of course, the future doesn’t have anything. The future doesn’t have smell, texture, emotions. Like when you hear a word like ‘ocean acidification,’ it’s not connected to anything. It has no cultural significance. It’s just ‘ocean acid-i-fi-ca-tion’. What is that?” Magnason explains that writers need to make those connections and give these words more substance: “I can’t say, ‘Things are enormous in the twelfth degree.’ I can’t scale up my language like you can do with numbers. The only way to scale up language is by using poetry, grandmother’s mythology, and all sorts of methods of storytelling that humans have used since stories were told for the first time.”
At the time of listening, I was deep in my own worries about the future – about the pandemic, and the Black Summer fires that had smashed records for climate-fuelled devastation in Australia and then just as quickly disappeared from the news headlines. Magnason was talking and writing about the future, yet he didn’t cause me to go into an anxiety vortex like every other piece of writing on climate change. If I wanted to sustain myself while doing environmental writing, I could learn from his approach. I stopped listening to podcasts on my walks and started looking at what was there on the beach: shells! If you had asked me, some years before, to name a few of the seashells that wash up on the beaches of east coast Australia or the sea snails that live in rock pools and the low tide areas of the rocky shores, I would have struggled to identify more than an oyster and a limpet. The word ‘shell’ had no substance for me. It was just ‘sh-e-lls’. If I didn’t know shells, how could I know ocean acidification, and what it could do to sea snails? I thought of myself as a person who loved nature or was at least very pro-nature, but I didn’t even know what lived around me, within a five-kilometre radius of my home.
Lockdown changed that for me, and for many others, judging by the amount of art and writing and zines dedicated to ‘nature observations on a lockdown walk’. When I started writing about my experiences with ‘extremely local’ nature exploration, and the driving curiosity I felt to learn more, to see how this small bit of the natural world connected to other bits, I wasn’t thinking that this was the environmental writing practice that would become my PhD project, but that’s what happened. It started with rock pools, spread into pockets of urban bushland, and more recently it’s had me tromping into coastal estuarine swamps to look at waterbirds. Everywhere I have gone, there is always more to see than you might first assume. If the future doesn’t have anything, like Magnason says, what does the present have? So much! So much, to the twelfth degree.
When people ask me what my PhD is on, and I say it’s creative writing, they want to know what that means. A creative PhD? But aren’t PhDs for scientists and people who are, you know, actual doctors? I could throw a term like ‘practice-led research’ at them, but instead I say that I go out to local ecosystems, and I keep going back to the same places again and again until I can say that I know a little more than I did before, and then I write about that process and how it has changed me. Each time I go walking, seeking new experiences, my ties deepen, and my environmental vocabulary grows. I am forming my own relationships with local ecology, something I might not have done if I’d sat at home just thinking about the environment.
I call this work an eco-memoir because of the reflective mode and personal focus, but to me it feels very different from the experience of writing a memoir. My memoir, How to Be Between, took me nine years to write, and there were months when I felt so mired in the past, I was worried I’d get stuck there permanently. Maybe it’s a first book thing: trying to say everything at once, the definitive story. I feel happier now that I have lowered my expectations. I’m not trying to say everything, or say something important about climate change and how it will affect the places I’m writing about and what we need to do, now, to save those places for future generations. I’m just trying to make a connection, to give these places texture and emotion. You don’t have to write about ‘the future’ to write the future. Writing about the present inevitably shapes the future. It’s what gives the future substance.
My daughter and I wander up the edge of the drain towards the creek bank, and that’s when I see them: two small birds with black breast-bands and eye masks, black-tipped red bills, and bright red eye rings. I’ve startled them: they take flight on long, sharp wings, and land twenty metres away, behind the shopping trolley island. I only glimpse them up close for a moment, but I know what they are: Black-fronted Dotterel. Small plovers that live at the margins of wetlands and rivers. And, it seems, stormwater drains. Until recently I would not have known what these birds were, but I’ve been going out into the Coquun Hunter River estuary to count waterbirds with the Hunter Bird Observers Club. I’ve seen this species twice before: once in Hexham Swamp, and once on Ash Island. Both times they were pointed out to me by far more experienced birders; this is the first time I’ve seen them by myself. But I’m not ‘by myself’.
“Black-fronted Dotterel,” I say out loud, so my daughter can hear.
There’s a reverence in my voice; I can’t quite believe they are here. In an instant my perspective shifts: this isn’t a dismal drain, it’s shorebird habitat. Open space, muddy margins, very shallow water and a clear view of approaching raptors – this is the kind of place they love. It’s a bit shabby, and I’m dubious about the quality of food they might find in that mud. This watercourse winds through many suburban backstreets before it arrives here, ready to make its final voyage through the estuarine swamp and into the river. But the drain is promising enough for the dotterels to come here to rest or forage, to make their living. You could feel hopeless about this – the challenges birds face trying to survive in the modern human-built environment, with its trademark lack of generosity towards other forms of life. Or you could feel hopeful. Perhaps if they can survive here, I can too. And perhaps I can do something, however small, to help them along.
I want to get a closer look, so I walk back to the car for my binoculars and the baby carrier. Next to the car park is a large pond with White Ibis and Masked Lapwings and rafts of Chestnut and Grey Teals. In the overgrown reeds around the pond, I hear the frogs again. So this is where they hang out.
“Tock-tock,” I say to my daughter. “It’s a Striped Marsh Frog.”
I’m trying to hold her attention as I put her into the carrier. I very much want to count the birds that are in the pond and log them in eBird, an online database of bird observations.
“Crick-crick-crick. It’s a Common Eastern Froglet.”
She has no interest in this commentary. Now that she can walk, she doesn’t want to be restricted. She kicks her legs and yells, and I can’t hold my binoculars still enough to see anything. It’s no use – the dotterels have disappeared. I take a moment to commit the feeling of this place to my memory. It’s time for us to head home.
Bastian Fox Phelan writes about bodies, binaries, place and environment. Phelan’s debut memoir, How to Be Between, was published by Giramondo in 2022. Their writing has been published in the Guardian, Sydney Review of Books, The Suburban Review and Island magazine. Phelan is a PhD student at University of Newcastle, working on an eco-memoir about building their relationship with local ecology in Mulubinba Newcastle.