Fighting the invaders
He is lean and fit, with a cropped white beard, and so shy it feels an imposition to interview him. But once he starts talking about the land, Ralph is in his element. He is the property maintenance guy at Bundanon, one of Australia’s foremost artist residencies, but there is more to Ralph than that, as there is more to Bundanon than art.
“Haunted Point,” he names the place I’ve been walking to most days, through the cedars to the river.
Ralph co-ordinates the Landcare team that tends to Bundanon’s vast, diverse 1100 hectares, near Nowra on the NSW south coast. They are making a difference. Three years ago, the lantana was impenetrable. Now it’s been grubbed, you can see through to the Shoalhaven, all around the point. It is dark and quiet, not a place to picnic. There are wattle trees, soon to flower, and where lantana once grew, a layer of green across the ground.
Arthur Boyd’s homestead, on the land of the Wodi Wodi of the Yuin nation, was left to provide a place for artists to retreat and create. Gradually, the board has realised the importance of the land itself, and is reaching out to the scientific community and traditional custodians in its efforts to restore it.
Ralph, with knowledge that lies somewhere between the two, is a linchpin.
“I’ve had a lifelong interest in flora and fauna. I grew up with a father who took me into the bush from when I was knee-high. He’d pick me up from school, drive over to Mount Ousley, pull over to the side of the road and get out the shotgun and shoot a rabbit for dinner. We used to sit down to meals that were all grown, hunted or foraged. That was just how we lived. My father started a co-operative in Balgownie [a northern suburb of Wollongong] during the Great Depression. He was shaped by that a lot.”
We rattle in his ute over the potholed road, climbing gradually through the bush. Spotted gums dominate, tall, dappled, from flesh hues to green, with rangy canopies dangerous in high wind. “Corymbia maculata,” Ralph uses the botanical name. “They have a hard, strong grain and are good for boat building.” He gets down to etymology, decrying the mimicry in local cedar and mahogany. “She-oaks,” he points out, “are so called because they’re weak timber.”
I wince at all the she-oaks I’ve planted in my books, vowing to favour casuarina forevermore.
Up on the ridge, the corymbia drop away, replaced by scribbly gums, grey gums, some bloodwood. They stunt and twist from the skeletal soil. Ralph reckons rainfall has changed in his lifetime. Along the base of the Nowra escarpment were water basins, once. “You can’t pick anymore what’s happening with the weather. That’s just an observation. Because I was a fettler, I remember the big floods that washed away the tracks. We’d be out in water waist high, stopping trains.”
Son and grandson of a coalminer, Ralph did well at school but initially eschewed tertiary education. There was fettling for 15 years, other odd jobs. He read a lot. Finally, he began to study environmental science at Wollongong University but quit after a year, due to his father’s illness. “Shiftwork at Woolworths seemed a better option.”
We walk through scrub to Coolendel Lookout. Bush spreads to the western horizon, ridges like bones through the blanket of green, elbow bend of river glinting in the sun. It’s one of Ralph’s favourite places. He remembers coming here after shiftwork, to eat his breakfast. “And a big diamond python would be stretched along that rock in the sun. Every morning.”
He regrets not finishing that science degree. “I’ve a lowly Cert III in conservation,” he self-deprecates. “I haven’t had a high-achieving life, but whatever satisfaction I can get now I hope would be through improving my knowledge, seeing the Landcare movement prosper and extend the science-based part of Bundanon.”
“Are you winning the ‘war on weeds’?” I ask, as we drive back down.
“Yeah, there’s been definite progress with the Living Landscape project, which has been going for four years or so. Bundanon is as good as a national park in its own right. It’s got so much river frontage. Rivers are your best corridors. They offer every gradient. They connect like fingers, offering ways for things to move and radiate out, plants and animals. Fauna especially.”
We wonder about the river flats before colonisation. Ralph mentions Bill Gammage’s writing, and revised thinking that early European paintings of Australia may have depicted landscapes with accuracy. Grassy riverbanks true to life, green rolling hills. The sophisticated reach of Indigenous fire management crucial to the maintenance of undergrowth may be impossible to retrieve.
I think of Haunted Point, and so many rivers across this continent, places of beauty and devastation.
“Nobody knows where the name comes from, actually,” says Ralph. “It could be referring to something before, it could be Aboriginal. Nobody knows.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Fighting the invaders". Subscribe here.