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Jane Caro: Out bush

Published 13 Apr 2020 

When writer and self-confessed city-slicker Jane Caro takes an opportunity to venture west, it leads her to experience all the highlights and some of the lowlights of life in the field.

A Western Pygmy Possum in hand. Photo Kieran MacFarlane.I was holding a tiny pygmy possum – all huge black eyes and droopy ears, weighing in at a hefty 3 grams. I was instructed to hold it gently but firmly, which I tentatively attempted to do.

It was not an experience I had ever expected to have – as any casual observer could tell by my lurid, hot pink manicure. I was a city-slicker and then some.

I just hoped the unnatural hue of my nails was not scaring the poor little creature that lay, heart thudding, in my palm even more than it already was.

How had I – the aforementioned city-slicker – found myself on this Bush Heritage reserve two hours drive north of Albany, Western Australia? Well, I was invited to come and so, in-keeping with my policy of saying yes to left field requests, there I was.

And, notwithstanding the early hour (the staff at Michael Tichbon Field Station like to examine their traps before the sun can do any damage to the animals that may be within), the copious quantity of tropical strength insect repellent I was doused in or the oh-so-flattering (not) insect net I wore over my hat, I was having the time of my life.

A Honey Possum (Noolbenger) peeps through Jane Caro's manicured fingers. Photo Katelyn Reynolds.The biologists, ecologists and volunteers working out of Red Moort Reserve were kind enough to ignore my incongruous manicure and treat me as one of them.

As I say, the day had started early (up at 5.30 am) but it had also started well. I had been warned that I might not be lucky enough to see one of the endangered species Bush Heritage is monitoring – the threatened Carnaby's Cockatoo – but no sooner had my expectations been kindly lowered than an entire flock of the birds appeared in the sky.

The professionals from Bush Heritage treated every living thing with respect and care.

It didn’t matter if it was beautiful like the cockatoos, cute like the Western Pygmy Possum and the two Honey Possums we found at the next trap site (also tiny and big-eyed but with longer snouts), scaly like the numerous skinks we saw (who knew there were so many species of little grey lizards?), hairy like the Wolf Spider or striking like the Bobtail Lizard with a peach coloured head.

Writer Jane Caro delights at her first encounter with a Honey Possum, or Noolbenger in Noongar. Photo Katelyn Reynolds.The measurements, weight, gender and, if female, pregnancy of each animal was carefully recorded. The possums were all given a drink to rehydrate them before they were released.

One Honey Possum was gently placed in a melaleuca with yellow flowers almost as lurid as my manicure.

We explored more sites and then toured around the surrounding properties. It was Spring, but despite the melaleucas and carpets of bright yellow, pink and white Pom Pom Everlasting flowers, I was told that the usual wildflower display that Western Australia is so famous for was poor this year because of the drought.

A Western Blue-tongue Lizard captured during fauna surveys on Monjebup Reserve, WA. Photo Kieran MacFarlane.And there it was - the dreaded ‘d’ word. Having come from drought-stricken NSW, I had hoped to escape the sense of being so parched but I knew I hadn’t the minute one local volunteer who invited us in for a cuppa told me that the only crime as a guest in his house was to waste water. This left me in a terrible quandary when I needed to pee. To flush or not to flush, that was the question.

The Michael Tichbon Field Station is a brilliant, architect designed, home-away-from-home for the staff doing this important work. It’s not luxurious. We self-catered (I brought the wine) and all the common rooms are open to the elements (including the flies) but the bedrooms (I slept in Bob Brown’s bed, I was told), toilet block (self-composting, of course) and showers are all under cover and well screened.

The Michael Tichbon field station is a hub for researchers to work from in the Fitz-Stirling region. Photo William Marwick.I was delighted to have been allowed to be a fly on the absent wall watching the gentle and serious experts painstakingly recording the revival of these previously cleared landscapes. I was reminded forcibly of their work’s importance when I returned to the bushfire hellscape on the east coast and the consequent loss of over 1 billion native animals.

I couldn’t help but think then of the wide-eyed, trusting little Pygmy Possum that I had held in my hand and wonder how such a tiny creature could ever survive our rapidly changing climate.

The people at Bush Heritage are doing all they can to preserve our natural environment and the creatures that rely on it. We must all, city-slickers included, do what we can to support them and save our natural world. It’s not just the futures of the pygmy possums, skinks, spiders, millipedes and bobtails that depend on it, it’s ours too.

Jane Caro AM is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and social commentator.

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