Tardis-like: “Something with a larger capacity than its outward appearance suggests, or with more to it than appears at first glance.”
During Covid-19 travel restrictions in Queensland last year, I gained a new appreciation for a location very close to home. A two-kilometre section of Six Mile Creek became my hiking Tardis.
As I explored it on a daily basis, this tiny reserve turned into a boundless universe of discovery. I still visit this natural Tardis as often as I can, especially when world events leave me feeling small and powerless.
It’s not always a conventionally beautiful place. Some days I have to navigate around used syringes, condom wrappers, takeaway food containers, soiled nappies (diapers), and cigarette butts.
Despite the littering and graffiti, life still survives and even manages to flourish in this tiny reserve, giving me hope. As I continue to record my observations of its treasures, this short ramble has expanded into a pleasurable marathon, with no finish line in sight. It’s not just a Tardis, it’s a Never-ending Story.
In her deeply moving Irish memoir, Thin Places, Kerri ni Dochartaigh reflects on her childhood surrounded by devastating violence, and discusses how places that heal and comfort can take many forms:
“Places that anchor, nurture and hold us do not have to be beautiful, cut-off, or even what might be described as wild. I’m not just talking about forests, mountains and wild coves. I am also thinking about supermarket car parks with even just one tree, the back of housing estates where life has been left to exist, dump-piles in burnt-out factories where insects glisten, dirty streams at the edge of things – full of waste but still brimming with something like renewal. Places can be abandoned, dangerous, rugged or broken – haunted by the ghosts of dark memories – but they might help us find a way through, a sense of safety – even for just a little while. There is so much life in the places around us and sometimes, for some of us, this helps us to value our own life. Maybe even at times when the act of staying alive is a daily struggle.”
In Western cultures, past attitudes towards the natural world have often focused more on how we can use it – what we can take from it, or how can we conquer it. Even those of us who don’t want to abuse the natural world still take from it when we escape our busy lives to grab some healing and respite on a bushwalk. It’s often still about ourselves – about what nature can give to us. About how much we need that walk. We still take, even if it’s just in an emotional sense.
How do we give back to the natural world some of the sustenance and healing we receive from it? For thousands of years, the Traditional Custodians of this continent have known the importance of the land and how to care for it. Listening to their voices is a crucial first step in learning how we can foster a more balanced relationship with the natural environment.
A practical way we can attempt to give back to the land is to walk through it gently, unblinkered and unrushed, recording and sharing what we’ve carefully observed. The more we see, understand, and appreciate the natural environment, the more capable we are of sharing with others the importance of protecting and nurturing it. When we love something deeply, we fight harder to protect it.
Although I have many observations to share from my hiking Tardis, I’m limited by reduced data capacity. I hope you’ll still enjoy this small sample though, and understand why it appeals to me so much.
On the banks of Six Mile Creek grow a couple of Corymbia ptychocarpa, (Swamp Bloodwood). These gum trees delight me with their clusters of bright pink blossoms, appealing pods and large leaves.
I look forward to visiting them almost in the same way I anticipate meeting up with an old friend. What news have they for me today?
Sometimes they boast clouds of native and introduced bees feasting on nectar. Birds and butterflies often join in the banquet. I wonder what it is like to be a tree, anchored to the ground, visited by hungry hordes.
Other trees provide nesting opportunities for rainbow lorikeets, pink galahs, cockatoos, wood ducks, crows, currawongs, magpies, and many other smaller species.
One day, a search for koalas yielded a highly camouflaged tawny frogmouth nest instead. Males incubate the eggs during the day, while the female keeps watch in a nearby tree. Their flimsy nest of twigs built in a fork doesn’t look structurally sound, but the population of Tawnies appears to be secure.
While sulphur-crested cockatoos and galahs are known to eat crops, many people are unaware that they also eat the roots and bulbs of weed species like onion grass. Here in my Tardis, the cockatoos regularly munch on roots and bulbs.
There’s a bird I often hear but rarely see at Six Mile Creek. Unlike other cuckoos, Pheasant Coucals are not nest parasites. They form lasting pairs and build platform nests in weedy thickets or long grass in my hiking Tardis. These are made of sticks and reeds, and lined with grass and leaves.
Males usually incubate the eggs, but both parents help with the feeding. Being clumsy flyers, they are more likely to run into groundcover to escape. I often see them scurrying across roads, reminding me of giant mice.
Tall grasses and water reeds are the haunts of wrens, finches, and golden headed cisticolas, but they often elude my camera. Most of the birds and reptiles in my Tardis are skittish for good reason. Increasingly, this small reserve is being abused by locals and visitors. It is the only location where regular walking has not reduced the hesitancy of birds towards me.
Many waterbirds find sustenance in my hiking Tardis, but rarely allow me to approach. Sacred kingfishers also inhabit the creek, and are probably the most tentative of all the bird species I come across.
When I was a child, I’d spend hours watching skinks sunning themselves, snapping up insects, and displaying territorial behaviours. Occasionally, the timid Six Mile Creek reptiles allow me a few moments of admiration before they disappear into dark waters or leaf litter.
For extra fun, I set myself small challenges. How many spider species can I observe on my Tardis hike? Spiders can be masters at camouflage, mimicking, or hiding. There is much life that can be missed if we don’t actively search for it.
I also like to collect images of strange insects I see. On every visit to Six Mile Creek, I find something new. One afternoon, I thought I would break this record and not find anything unusual, but just as I was leaving at sunset, I noticed a strange silhouette along a lantana stem. On closer inspection, I discovered these odd looking bugs. There appeared to be multiple stages of development grouped together – adults, nymphs, and eggs.
Lantana Treehoppers, Aconophora compressa, are sap-sucking bugs and belong to the family Membracidae. Insects in this family have a pronotum that extends back over the abdomen between the wings, but many species like the Lantana treehopper, also have a pronotum that extends forward, so that the insects look like thorns on the host plant.
Lantana has attractive flowers, but is an extremely invasive introduced species, often choking out native vegetation. One of the ways scientists have tried to control it in Queensland and New South Wales is through the introduction of lantana bugs from Mexico. Unfortunately, these insects have now been found to attack some other plant species, and they don’t always tolerate the very high temperatures of a Queensland summer.
What is this next weird creepy-crawly? It’s a lady beetle larva. How often do we notice the spotted adults but miss the larval stage in our blinkered rush?
As most of you know, I’m a fungus fan, but one day the behaviour of a lone fly overrode my mycology obsession. I found myself lying on the ground for 20 minutes, observing the oddly territorial behaviour of this small beastie perched on a fungus.
Instead of flying away as I expected, it stood its ground and seemed to develop an aggressive stance. I was intrigued.
Fortunately, a naturalist came to my identification rescue with an enthusiastic email about these fascinating creatures:
“It’s one of the fungus flies, the maggots of which eat mushrooms. I see them occasionally and they’re very easy to observe. They are even reluctant to fly off as you pick the fungus they’re attending. These are usually males that use the fungus’ cap as a sentry post from which to defend their territory. I’m pretty sure yours is the Pale-footed Fungus Fly, Tapeigaster argyrospila, but can’t be 100% positive. It’s certainly a Tapeigaster species and looks very like argyrospila, which is known from SQ. I don’t have much literature on these flies, but they do interest me greatly. Fungus flies should not be confused with fungus gnats that are also common around fungi.”
I regularly feel like an oddball for being so fascinated by insects, but these email responses remind me that there are plenty of other people out in the world who are just as intrigued by them as me.
Now, just in case I haven’t bored you enough with my gushing entomological enthusiasm, I have one last strange creature to share with you. If you slowly approach eucalyptus or acacia trees, you may find these highly camouflaged alien-looking critters.
This is the nymph stage of a species of Australian Eurybrachyidae, subfamily, Platybrachyinae – a kind of planthopper.
Here is a less alien-looking adult form of Eurybrachyidae and an empty nymph exoskeleton (exuviae) below it.
Notice the eye-like spots on the rear of this adult species which probably help to confuse predators.
When the weather sends wildlife into hiding, I set myself other challenges, such as photographing tree trunks. I take pleasure in the great variety of patterns, colours and textures.
I even amuse myself by collecting human-made objects for my Tardis album, including this array of floating balls.
Sometimes, my nature adventures at Six Mile Creek remind me of opening up Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. I enter a grove of trees. Within the grove is a single tree. Within that tree is a branch – a twig – a leaf. On the leaf may be a cocoon. Within the cocoon is a developing larva. The larva has micro-organisms living on it. Within each micro-organism are cells. Within each cell is a whole other world of intricate structures and processes. Life is endlessly fascinating.
When we feel tethered by geographical boundaries, it can be heartening to remember that we all live within a Tardis. All around us are vast unseen worlds – worlds within worlds. The microscopic world is infinite. On our skin, in our lungs, and in our intestinal system, millions of organisms exist. There are unseen worlds above and below us, within us, and drifting past us. We breathe in these worlds every second of our lives. Many seemingly small spaces are actually vast beyond our comprehension when we consider the microscopic worlds they hold.
Here is one example of the amazing invisible world all around us. I used to believe these rainbow sheens at Six Mile Creek were oil pollution, but sometimes they are just the result of microorganisms known as “iron bacteria” or “iron-eating bacteria.” These are commonly found in soil, surface water and shallow groundwater, and derive their energy from oxidizing ferrous iron.
Apparently, one way to try to differentiate between oil contamination and iron bacteria activity is by trailing a stick across the surface. Oil will continue to swirl, while the colourful filmy sheen from iron bacteria will tend to break up.
Within our artificial geographical boundaries, we are never completely disconnected from the rest of the world. The air we breathe and the water we drink have been recycled for thousands of years, connecting us to past, current, and future generations.
Geological and biological landmarks also connect us to the past and future. Towering trees and ancient rock formations have sheltered and been touched by generations before us. I take comfort in this. The sea, land and sky are much bigger than all of us and hold us in a giant embrace of connectivity. We are never truly alone.