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A good question



“Why is the gorse growing with other plants, and not much out on the open areas?"


Each Friday for the last couple of months, students from Alice Miller School have come to Barrm Birrm for environmental volunteering. I have showed each group around, then set them to digging out gorse in a creekline in Barrm Birrm. I was worried they wouldn’t be interested, but they have been.


Digging out gorse is not a simple task. Getting down along the root deep enough to pull out the plant requires dexterity in handling a physical tool, and they had to get a feel for that. Identifying gorse amongst other plants which are small, or prickly, or both, was a new thing too. No, that one is sweet bursaria. No, not that one either! It looks a bit like gorse, but it's soft to touch.


That hairy one isn't gorse because it's soft to touch, not prickly. And it spreads outwards, like this, staying close to the ground.


And it's not this, this is prickly, but it is the lovely Prickly Moses, with its flower buds just forming.

Aha! This one is gorse! It's prickly, and it is growing up along a single stem, which runs down as deep as the plant is high.


How do we introduce young people to environmental activism at local scale?


They know the world is collapsing, and that what's behind that is the assumption that humans are here to take what they want. They know that big solutions are needed, and care for the natural world, but what do they know of small and local action?


The Friends group or the Landcare group look around at the aging faces at committee meetings, and wonder what will happen when they give up the ghost. Young kids like short sharp hits of excitement, before they move onto the next sensation, or back to the grind of schooling. Then they disappear into adulthood, and later, parenthood, and we don't see that much of them for thirty years. Thirty years from now, it will all be over Red Rover!


What can we do now that registers local environmental work with the urgency and wonder we come to feel later in life?


This is the line of inquiry behind what we have dubbed 'Free Range Kids'. Alice Miller students have been a test of the idea that simply being out in the bush, with a practical task, might have an impact. Each week has held a lesson for me as the organiser. Last week it was simple enough, something every teacher knows: that without girls in the group, the boys stop digging and invent physical, competitive games, like throwing their mattocks to land pick-face down into the soil.


With the girls there, they have all settled happily to digging, chattering about movies and songs and clothes while they worked, but was anything else going on? Was anything about ecology growing up there amongst the chatter and the plants?


Then this week came a question from one of the boys. He had noticed that the gorse didn’t seem to grow in the open grassed areas, but it did in the vegetated patches. Why was that? he asked.


That’s a keen observation, and a good question, and I didn’t immediately have an answer. But later, looking over where the students had worked, I realised that it’s moist where plants cluster together, and the soil has built up there, as the plants drop their litter. Gorse must like that too. It grows where the native plants grow.


It's difficult to pick out the gorse plant here beside the left-hand tree. Here's a photo of it after I gently extracted it:


Noticing the association between plants, and wondering what is going on – that’s ecological thinking. You examine the relationships between living things, and how those relationships support the life of all the living things in that place.


Out in the bush, these associations are happening simultaneously at micro-scale, to gully scale, right through to the macro-scale of a whole valley. You can describe this in abstractions, in a classroom, but getting up close to those relationships is also instructive. That's what we have been doing digging out gorse.


It’s the end of semester now, and the teacher behind the visits is leaving the school. Will another teacher at Alice Miller pick up this activity? I hope so, for the sake of the kids and what they get from being here, and for this bit of bush and the help it gets from them.


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