Last weekend Emily and her parents took me out into rural NSW to plant trees for birds. One thing I especially enjoy about Em is her taste for quirky adventure.
The site was a plot of farmland near what was once the shale-oil production town of Glen Davis, now long since hollowed out, about a four-hour drive from Canberra. The bird was the regent honeyeater, a bird I have never seen partly because it is endangered due to habitat loss, hence the trip. We all got up around 7:15 AM on Saturday, bounced around our little one-room cabin getting ready, then were on-site planting trees from 8:15 AM.
I can’t remember the last time I planted a tree. I might have planted some vegetables in a brief stint volunteering for the Yale Sustainable Farm, but I’m not quite sure. For reference, it is hard work. You’ve got to dig a hole at least a foot deep, remove the mini-tree from its little plastic pot without (if possible) breaking up the root structure and the soil it holds together, and cover up the roots with fresh soil from the side of the hole. At least in this dry valley, you still want to leave the tree at the bottom of a small depression, so that whatever water happens by that square foot of land will trickle down to the bottom instead of just running off. Finally, you leave the tree with a cardboard guard wrapped around it, presumably so that kangaroos and other critters don’t eat it (although the planting area is fenced off with barbed wire).
The four of us planted over a hundred trees, about one every three minutes for six hours. I can’t say it was entirely fair that Em’s dad was the one digging all the holes pretty much the whole time, but there wasn’t anything else he would rather have done. I took a crack at it with one of the giant mattocks we had lying around. I got through about five holes before I had to stop and go back to folding the little cardboard guards again. Dads are tough.
After the planting was done, we drove rather aimlessly around the countryside, stopping frequently and going into reverse occasionally when one of us saw an exciting bird. By “one of us” I mean “everyone in the car but me”, and by “exciting bird” I mean “pretty much any bird at all”. They kept a tally of bird species seen over the weekend (fifty-five); I enjoyed the sunshine and took plenty of landscape photos. I’m keen to know more about the geology of the area; there are plenty of oddly-shaped, craggy rocks lying around, such as what I imagine one might see in Montana or South Dakota.
There was a dinner later on that evening for all the volunteers; we got there a bit late, and there was little food left since all the vegetarians usually get to go through the queue first. (Baseline unfairness: meat-eaters also sometimes eat vegetables.) There weren’t many of those in any case — this is cow country. Turns out the group of a few dozen volunteers planted 2,300 trees this weekend, including the 100,000th tree for the group. One of the group claimed to have sighted a couple of regent honeyeaters just before leaving the site, to everyone else’s simultaneous delight and consternation. Em’s dad also made the rounds with a photo of a “mystery bird” we’d had trouble identifying earlier. They had tiramisu for dessert.
On the trip home Em was very intent on spotting an owl, and had her nose plastered to the car window hoping to see one. We now have a running joke that owls don’t exist, since she’s looked for them on other occasions and we haven’t yet seen any at all. After the requisite amount of taunting, we eventually arrived back at the cabin (without seeing any of these putative owls), and, without too much further ado, collapsed.
While I was typing the first draft of this post on Saturday morning, the others were sitting out on the back porch, with a view of the incredible mountains, watching a suite of little finches and wrens hopping about on the tree. There was a robin or two also, although these robins have yellow bellies instead of red ones. Ah, the natural world.