Sharing The Secret Part 2
Out at the Waddikee Tennis Club, the Friday night stories about skiing and kayaking exploits on flood-filled lakes turned biological.
“John you might know…. we saw all these worm things that weren’t worms floating on the edge of the Possum Flat lake”.
A quick google search confirmed my guess. Dylan and Chloe had seen blind snakes.
“What you mean they are snakes …. and they are blind?” No one clustering around the phone image had heard of blind snakes, let alone seen one. Buts that’s no surprise.
Although there are around 50 different species, most are seldom seen. These worm-thin, silver-pink snakes seldom grow longer than a school ruler, and never as thick as a drinking straw. They mostly live underground, which is why they are blind. They have a tiny forked tongue to prove they’re a snake and a pointy tail that would struggle to impale a marshmallow.
Blind snakes eat the eggs and larvae of ants and termites. Their scales are so tiny and smooth that ants can’t bite or sting them. Sometimes they are seen on the ground on warm nights, especially after rain, but I’ve seen way more blind snakes in the stomachs of feral cats than anywhere else. I’m hoping that one day I will discover a new species, gift-wrapped in tabby fur.
Like many other small and nearly limbless skinks and legless lizards, blind snakes often live in deep leaf litter that accumulates in dry swamps. These are the richest and dampest areas and usually hence the ideal place for many small reptiles. But when flooding rains arrive, this eutopia instantly changes into an inhospitable lake, and many thousands drown. Some are even noticed by passing kayakers.
Floods, like fires and cat guts provide amazing opportunities to find animals that are normally elusive. My most memorable flood-find was a marsupial mole that had drowned when a cyclone flooded the Great Sandy Desert inland of Port Hedland. This bristle-furred golden carcass could fit in the palm of my hand and remains the only mole I have seen in the flesh, despite knowing I have walked over them many times.
We’re going on a mole hunt
Marsupial moles are even harder to find than blind snakes, and, from the response at Waddikee, are just as poorly known. They are thought to only come to the surface if the sand is saturated, or if they are sick. Think about that for a second. Aboriginal informants and awestruck biologists believe marsupial moles eat, find each other, mate, give birth and suckle their young (in a backwards facing pouch so it doesn’t fill with sand) all in the sand up to a couple of metres deep.
Foxes are good at hearing and digging up moles. At some sites up to a third of fox scats have distinctive mole hair in them. Rarely their squiggly tracks can be seen on sand before they dive underground again. I’ve spent a couple of weeks out in the desert listening to their distinctive scratching noises with special geophones, metal disks spread out over the ground that enable us to pinpoint where they are and guess what they are doing. But by far the best way to find evidence of marsupial moles is to dig a grave-sized trench on the crest of a sandhill. After a day or so to dry out, the smoothed down sides of these trenches may reveal the near circular shape where torpedo-shaped moles have ‘swum’ through the sand. If the mole has been there recently, the uncompressed sand spills freely out of the hole, but older holes are only marked by a faint trace.
Digging mole trenches had enabled us to confirm that moles are more widespread than previously thought. I’d found them in the Great Victoria Desert near Maralinga, in very similar country to Secret Rocks. Indeed, the Pinkawillinie dunes and those stretching from Lake Gilles all the way to the Munyeroo coast near Cowell are essentially the extension of the Great Victoria Desert. Could moles live here too?
The January floods created a perfect mega mole trench when the biggest flood since the land had been cleared cut through dunes vegetated by centuries old native pines right next to Pinkawillinie Conservation Park. The resulting 3-5 metre sand cliff, stretching 100’s of metres, provided a far easier way of checking for mole holes than digging trenches with a shovel!
While others were assessing the damage to fences and paddocks, or skiing in newly-formed lakes, I rubbed down the sand-cliffs, searching for the tell-tale signs of moles. I found none in the dunes in mainly cropping land and, unfortunately for me, none of the massive dunes in the park had been cut by the floodwaters. It is probably unlikely that moles have joined other rare animals like sandhill dunnarts and malleefowl that spread from the Great Victoria Desert to the more isolated dunes of the Kimba district, but if you don’t look you won’t find.
Photo to follow next week, below.
Remember January 22, 2022?
Today was one of those dates I’ll remember for life. The Bureau had been talking up a big rain so last night I rushed home from the beach. Katherine and I had just completed an 18-kilometre addition to our feral proof Mallee Refuge fence at Secret Rocks, between Kimba and Whyalla. The tiny bandicoots reintroduced in July were raising their second cohort of twin joeys. Last week we caught an endangered sandhill dunnart and thrilled at the return of a pair of malleefowl. One cat or fox squeezing under where water had rushed, or worse still sauntering in if the fence had been knocked down, could quickly finish them all off.
Pelting rain on our iron roof snapped me awake at 4:10. The energy was contagious. I jumped into my bathers, donned a headtorch and ran outside. Through the torchlit rain curtain I could see water, the most precious asset in the bush, gushing out the top of our house tank. Between lightning strikes I scooped leaves and silt from the filter basket and was rewarded by the hollow sound of a tank rapidly filling. There was already 65mm in the gauge.
As soon as the feeble daylight had breached the cloud ceiling, I went out exploring. To my surprise a 40m wide creek was flowing across our driveway in a series of rapids. We’d lived here for 12 years and never even suspected this was a creek, only 500 metres from our house.
I was intrigued. Did this flow just get absorbed by the sandplain or did it end in a swamp? Boosted by tributaries from ‘Beer Rock’ and other local outcrops, the creek became wider rather than disappearing into the sand as I had suspected. Fortunately, the flow had spread and filtered through our new fence without any damage. Wherever I cleared debris from the netting, a gush of dammed back muddy water surged on downstream.
Relieved that ‘Surprise Creek’ hadn’t knocked the fence down I continued to follow it, paying more attention to the bush. The birds were also excited by the unexpected torrent. Rainbow bee-eaters, that had been surprisingly scarce this summer, noisily snapped up flying insects. Budgies and masked woodswallows, the most excitable of desert birds, wheelied around in noisy flocks. Spending my 20’s and 30’s in the desert at Roxby I always loved it when these desert nomads paid a visit. They had found the creek before me.
All the way from the house the creek had been flowing through mallee burnt in our big fires two summers ago. But now the creek demarked the boundary of unburnt scrub. Further along the creek marked the edge of a 2km long control burnt I lit nine years ago. I’d been intrigued by bushfire patterns since my first brief contract after Uni mapping fire scars in National Parks. Fire edges could often be explained by wind changes, and sometimes changes in vegetation. Previous floods of Surprise Creek had washed fallen combustible leaves from a wide strip of mallee, way more effectively than a dozen rake hoes or even the fancy new backpack leaf blowers we used to slow down our 2019 fire.
The trilling rattle of burrowing Neobatrachus frogs indicated I was approaching the terminal swamp, where a dune blocked Surprise Creek. I’d studied these turbocharged frogs at Roxby. When water from big rains percolated down to their cocoon of shed skin, the frogs scramble up through the mud, eat their old skin and embark on a few days of frenetic action. Females rapidly develop their clutch of eggs as they seek out the best calling male in the deepest pond. Lucky males, and sometimes some cheeky interlopers, grasp the slippery females with special glove-like nuptial pads and fertilise their string of eggs. The race continues as the tadpoles hatch and grow faster than any other tadpole in the world so they can metamorphose and bury themselves before their pond dries out. Seventeen days was the record in shallow hot ponds but taddies in deep cooler ponds could take over 9 months.
What about Secret Rocks fence?
If Surprise Creek had flowed so vigorously, I worried what damage had been caused to our fence where it crossed known drains. Secret Rocks, the iconic granite outcrop where Edward John Eyre was introduced to a reliable water source in 1840, was my main concern. That was where the bandicoots were, and I knew of three places where smaller rains had run water off the rock and through the fence.
I jogged through the mud back home, through another brief but intense storm. The deluge, or maybe the flooding of the trench where our internet connection runs, had shut down the internet - no BOM weather radar or even Facebook updates from neighbours.
I strapped a long-handled spade to my pushbike and headed off to check the 25km perimeter fence. Within 10 minutes of boggy riding my back tyre was flat. Worried about the bandicoots I ditched the bike and headed off on foot with my spade. Amazingly, the first drain I reached near Secret Rocks had not even flowed to the fence, the same with the second. This highest risk part of our fence seemed to have been spared the heaviest rain.
Trilling frogs that have been sought by local kids for generations were already amplexing in the rockholes. I counted 8 in one, 14 in another. My phone beeped with messages and I quickly learned that some mates near Kimba had received 220mm, others over 300mm, of rain - nearly three times what I had emptied from my rain gauge at home. Apparently there was more on the way.
With another 16km of fence to check I slipped back down the rock, taking the opportunity to slide down a mossy waterfall and past some rare acacias from the Botanic Gardens we planted last year. It had not rained for a few hours by now and the humidity was stifling, my bathers now wetter from sweat than rain. A couple of hours later I came across a lake straddling our new fence, flooding dense mallee on both sides and ruling out driving around this section of fence for weeks. This was the fifth site I found breeding frogs. Not having had a drink all day, I knelt down and sucked up eucalyptus-flavoured water, very different from the familiar rainwater flavour of rockholes or claypans.
Ironically, as soon as I’d had a drink I heard a distant roar, like the Perth-bound jets that flew over before COVID. But there were no planes in the sky, only a black cloud eerily bruised with green and purple. The birds that had been noisily feeding on flying ants and termites went quiet. From ahead a waterfall approached, roaring until it reached me. Suddenly the tracks along both sides of the fence turned to rushing torrents, racing toward the lake I had just drunk from. Then the lightning started. I’d been cracked by lightning before and didn’t fancy repeating the experience walking underneath the floppy overhang of a 2-metre netting metal fence.
As I jogged for home I noticed one of my cat-killing Felixers in danger of being flooded. I’d not even considered the likelihood of flooding when I chose this spot where I had seen feral cat tracks. I wasn’t the first to misread floods. The old Roxby Downs Homestead was nestled amongst the gums and tea trees of Chances Swamp, an ideal location until it was flooded to the top of the door several times, including in 1989 and 2007 when I was there. I wondered how many inappropriately located silobags, sheds or houses on the EP were also inundated or threatened by these unprecedented floodwaters.
Home came into sight as the dark afternoon faded into twilight. None of the fence was down, at least until the last deluge, which was testament to savvy fence alignment designed to avoid dunes, rocks and known drainage lines. Our workmate Cat Lynch was also relieved as my responded to all her worried messages. Centuries-old sandalwoods and pines near our house that survived the 2018-19 drought were already rejoicing, their roots probably drenched for the first time in decades.
Another 36mm in the gauge brought our total to 110mm for the day. Pikey on the radio announced his rainfall tally had smashed generational daily records just down the Cowell Road. Footsore on my couch, I giggled. Would Pikey and Rachel change the name of their farm from ‘Winter Springs’ to ‘Summer Torrent’? This unusual almost stationary tropical low had delivered a rain for the ages.
The thunder and pelting rain had stopped for now but there was something eerily quiet about the calm after the storm. Then it dawned. There were no giant rain moths bashing into our widows like flat tennis balls. I hadn’t noticed any of their tell-tale cases where they typically emerged from the ground after a big rain. Why were the dragonflies already here but the rain moths hadn’t made an appearance?
From studying the aftermath of floods in deserts I expected a series of plagues to follow a big rain like this; flies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, stink beetles, moths, mice and maybe even nomadic kites and owls. I was intrigued to learn how the mallee would respond. When would the rain moths or the lumbering bright orange jewel beetles emerge? How many of our new swamps would last long enough for tadpoles to metamorphose? I set myself a challenge of documenting the changes for a year, a year when we hoped to reintroduce more rare animals and threatened plants to this special drenched place.
Any notion that we were over-reacting to the Covid19 crisis were quickly dispelled by Thelma Eatts, one of the nonagenarians responding to my questions from the first post in this series.
Thelma had to leave school as a young teenager to work on the family farm when her brother went to war and she started nursing at the height of the Polio epidemic, after her sister had already contracted the terrible disease. Yet Thelma reckons the Covid19 pandemic is the most ‘drastic issue she can remember’, made worse by today’s increased population and much greater media coverage.
But fear was much more profound during the war than today. Whilst retracing the events leading to my Grandfather’s bravery award conferred posthumously after his plane was shot down over Kokoda, I could almost feel the ‘gut-wrenching fear’ that many of our service men and women felt during conflict. Unsurprisingly, that fear, combined with helplessness and deprivations, were profound on home soil too.
Patricia Baulderstone watched nearly every man in her street go off to be killed or destroyed by the war. She was more terrified of the war than Covid19 because there was nothing she could do to stop the cruel Germans or Japanese. Unlike the relative ease of self-isolation at home today, Pat recalls demonstrating she could ride home from Unley High within 5 minutes in the event of an air-raid, otherwise she would have been billeted out to one of the families in a big house with air raid blinds closer to school.
There was fear in the regional areas too. Margaret Reed, 94, was a teacher at the Terka one teacher school on the Gladstone railway line near Orroroo when a Japanese invasion appeared imminent. Local parents, fearing ‘the enemy’ would use the railway to storm their little town, dug a bunker near the school for the class to hide in.
The fear of Polio that was killing and maiming many people in the 1940’s was also a common theme of the respondants. Pat Baulderstone remembers father removed her siblings from school to stay with their grandparents to avoid infection after a well-known doctor's whole family contracted Polio. Her teachers were unimpressed, yet the schools all closed the next day. However, Merle Tynan, now 97, whose sister contracted Polio and had died by Christmas 1946 leaving behind young children, remembers a twist in the Polio response that may have informed the lack of school closures today. Although schools were closed initially to slow the spread, so many kids went to the picture theatre where they were more likely to be infected, the schools rapidly reopened, with strict rules ensuring kids outside regularly for fresh air.
My nonagenarian advisors have suggested we ‘play Monopoly or Scrabble’ to alleviate boredom at home over school holidays, so my ten year old daughter Jarrah and I had a game of ‘Take 2 Speed Scrabble’ with a Covid-19 theme
Despite the ration tickets, several nonagenarians recalled food shortages weren’t much of an issue because most was home produced. Celia Fleming even attributed her healthy teeth to the dietary restrictions. Maureen Trutwin however grew up in the city and remembers her father, who owned a grocery store in WA, being “hounded” by customers hoping to sneak some extra tea or sugar rations. Ken McEwin also recalls an undercover “black market” in ration tickets, including he and his 3 brothers ‘donating’ their clothing vouchers to his sister so she could buy her wedding dress.
Toilet paper was definitely not a needed or vaunted grocery item for anyone I spoke to. Maureen Trutwin’s frugal mother, who had grown up in the depression, insisted that their household exclusively used second hand paper in the toilet. Old newspaper was most commonly used but when green waxy paper from wrapping up apples was used, she had to be careful to select the non-shiny side for best efficiency. Margaret Reed also used newspaper before and during the war, and like many of us shook her head at the toilet paper stockpiling, which heralded the start of the Covid19 repercussions and identified as the most valued commodity for some in our generation.
Arthur Tynan, born in 1923, informed me that although I had presumed our state borders had never closed, interstate travel was also banned during the war when all the trains were commandeered for troop movements or other war efforts. Workers in industries useful in war times were not permitted to leave or change their jobs without a permit and women were called into manufacturing and farming roles.
But his wife Merle explained the opposite occurred after the war. Women had to leave work as soon as they were married to allow returned servicemen to work. Due to building material shortages they were not allowed to build a small house (1250 sq foot) unless they had two children. Fathers often helped by making clay bricks. Merle said that she was lucky because her parents allowed her young family a room to themselves, apparently a luxury. If a family had three children they were permitted to build a slightly larger 1400 sq foot house. Little did I know that government restrictions were partly responsible for the baby boomers!
Building restrictions and other deprivations continued long after the war as the economy slowly recovered. Ken McEwin remembers that it wasn’t until the 1950s that anyone other than a publican could afford a bottle of beer and forecast it would be many years before the economy would recover from the current crisis.
None of my nonagenarian respondents could recall rousing speeches or decisive leadership informing or instructing them of new regulations. They reminded me that there was far less media back in the 1940s but also less need for politicians and other leaders to justify or explain new rules. Rations etc were just accepted. Margaret Reed remembers school kids bringing iron or steel implements from home to be recycled for the ‘war effort’ and many people knitting, writing or cooking for soldiers.
However, when announcements needed to be made the mail system was incredibly efficient. Arthur Tynan received his conscription letter within a week or so of Australia declaring war on Japan in December 1942. There were two mail deliveries a day and even overnight deliveries between most capital cities. Imagine how Amazon would benefit from such efficiency today!
The oldies were eager to convey tacit advice to our generation in this tough time, similar to the mentoring they received from their parents whose lives were shaped by World War I and the Depression. Today, like back then, everyone needs to “make do the best we can”. There should be “no ifs and buts” about compliance in tough times, “everyone knows what they need to do”.
In a striking parallel to my epiphany when researching my grandfather’s life and death in Dear Grandpa Why? my nonagenarian informants expressed a hope that younger generations would benefit from the Covid19 experience by reflecting on, and valuing, our freedoms and opportunities.
Their stories reinforce that awareness, independence, resilience and willingness to adapt come best from experience rather than instruction.
I’m keen to learn which experiences from the current ‘lockdown’ are most profound for you and which may leave lasting benefits to yourself and our society.
So my questions to anyone under 90 this week are:
decisions and leadership based on expert advice have merit?,
home schooling and working brings mixed blessings?)
Stay tuned and respond here or please contribute on johnreadthepragmaticecologist Facebook site.
We’ve just got to do it, Part 1
Three months ago, like many Australians, I was ensconced in arguably the largest bushfire tragedy the world has ever experienced. Those fires focussed our attention on the safety and wellbeing of our communities and wildlife. We knew they represented the coup de grâce after an insidious and unprecedented hot dry period and we worried what the future held.
The term Covid19 and the expressions ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’ had not been coined when I was battling alongside the fire crews, although we knew about a nasty new flu affecting a Chinese province.
The New Years’ eve light show at home was very different this year while battling the bushfires
Yet Covid19, not our fires, will be remembered as one of the most influential global events for generations. I can recall horrific assassinations, wars, natural disasters and genocides, along with great sporting and cultural achievements. I recall my schoolkid fears about the Cuban Missile Crisis plunging us into a nuclear holocaust which cemented the nuclear disarmament ambitions of my generation. Whilst other tragedies have undoubtedly affected families or even countries more, I doubt whether any crises have affected our global community like Covid19. The September 11 terrorist attack and subsequent wars heralded a new world order, (we still can’t carry water bottle on planes) but Covid19 looks destined to trump even that shocking event.
Sporting competitions, artistic events and even the Adelaide Zoo that have remained open for lifetimes have been suspended. National and State borders have been closed and communities and families have been isolate.
But two recent changes in my life have really driven home the magnitude of Covid-19. Last week I was unable to hug my 81 year old mother, something that I have always taken for granted and treated as a given. But the Prime Minister’s declaration last week that funerals could not be held with more than 10 mourners was the ultimate wake-up call for me. A local lad killed in a car crash and the inspirational ‘Frog Man’, Mike Tyler, who passed away last week will not receive the goodbyes that they and their families and friends deserve. Mike’s wife, Ella lamented to me “The funeral was simply five family members in a stark room at the funeral parlour. No music and no friends to help us cope. Just an identification form to sign!”
The “frog man” Mike Tyler who passed away last week without the funeral he or his family deserved. (image courtesy of Ella Tyler)
Although I have been unsettled and shocked by these new rules, there is one small glimmer of hope. Our Prime Minister prefixed his announcement with the statement “I’m really sorry but we’ve just got to do it”.
I can’t recall leaders previously making draconian (or even unpopular) decisions with such serious social and financial implications on the basis of scientific evidence or opinion. In a small way I’m buoyed by their willingness to govern for the long-term benefit of society, of restricting the liberties of one generation for the benefit of another. I wonder where strong leadership could steer (or push!) our society and the role crises have in enabling such change.
Whilst we are living through this strange new world of social isolation, I’ve decided to compile a fortnightly blog, to place this event in historic context, to learn from past crises, discuss our current situation and dream about what can be learned for the future.
This week I am reaching out to nonagenarians, yes that’s right, those aged 90 or thereabouts, who recall the grief, fears and depravations of WWII and its aftermath. I’m asking how Covid19 compares to the 1940s and how they coped back then and what they learned from the experience?
In case you aren’t 90, or haven’t got a parent or neighbour you can quiz, your opportunity will come in following weeks when I explore our current fears and frustrations, how different leaders (national, state, local or sporting) are approaching the crisis and how we can learn from this unprecedented experience.
Stay tuned here and please contribute on johnreadthepragmaticecologist Facebook site.
Questions for 90 year olds
John L. Read, PhD, author-ecologist
Wakefield Press, Dear Grandpa, Why? Reflections From Kokoda to Hiroshima