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A Remnant of Rainforest

This time last summer, my partner, two-and-a-half-year-old son and I, journeyed to Robertson, NSW, a small country town in the Southern Highlands, south west of Sydney.

We were on an odyssey to find our new hometown away from the city, where we could have space (oh, the glory of enough bedrooms), a sizeable backyard, and access to quiet walks for me and our city-phobic cattle dog (I prefer to walk like Emily Brontë trudging across the moors; she is inclined to round up skateboards like sheep. Needless to say, we need to walk alone in nature, together).

As unoriginal as this search has now become in the era of Covid-19 and the subsequent boom in regional relocation across Australia, the truth is that I had felt the call to leave Sydney for years. Each year the urgency increased within me, until I could no longer tolerate traffic, the constant whirr of industry, and the lack of easy and solitary access to nature. I couldn’t take any more climbing overpasses with a pram and kid and dog, constantly having to leave our little terrace to let my son exert energy somewhere outdoors; daily impracticalities which weren’t smoothed over by the emergence of another craft brewery in a former industrial warehouse.

Famously home of the movie Babe, the Big Potato and artist Ben Quilty, Robertson held a mystique for me from afar, perhaps due to utterings of its reputable greenness, picturesque rolling hills and an infamous mist that sweeps through the village. I daydreamed of idyllic country scenes: living in a cottage with a smoking chimney, holding my son by the hand as we jumped puddles near a paddock, him poking his hand through a wire fence to pat a horse.

After inspecting our perfect family home in town and letting it go because it was also the perfect family home of a competitive group of cashed up relocators (and, admittedly, because my heart hadn’t put down roots in Robertson after only twenty-four hours), we decide to go for a wander. It is an unusually hot day and after a quick Google search for shady local spots, we find Robertson Nature Reserve – a 0.6 km rainforest walk negotiable for toddlers.

A sign at the walk’s entrance tells us some of the history of the reserve. Out of the estimated 2450 hectares of dense rainforest known as the Yarrawa Brush that covered this area, only this patch remains, a mere 5.3 hectares left behind by settlers as a quaint reminder of the original landscape. The destruction of the brush was a brutal affair for rainforest and remover alike. Yarrawa, the Aboriginal word meaning ‘greedy, voracious, shark-like’ describes the impenetrable density of the original forest which was cleared throughout the latter part of the 19th century without the aid of chainsaws and bulldozers; just man and his axe versus ‘the thickest jungle in the colony’.

It is the third day in a row of a summer heatwave, and taking a single step inside this cool temperate rainforest is the first natural relief we have felt since the heat began. If we were to take a single step outside what is now a distinct borderline between cleared and uncleared, we would soon begin to sweat. It is a startling juxtaposition reserved in this moment just for our little family. We are the only ones here inside this micro-climate, cooling down and looking up.

I could, if I let myself, sink to my knees onto the path that cuts through this tiny throwback patch and weep. For the fact that even in this miniscule fragment of original cover, life carries on in song, albeit a stripped back version of the audible biodiversity that once called this rainforest home. It is at once moving and mournful to be here.

How striking that there is life at play within this tiny enclave, that such is the spirit of nature that it retains its potency and majesty as long as it is left to do so. And how tragic that this is all that we have preserved of the layers of co-existent life of this once sprawling rainforest, from the insects crawling in the understorey, to the bowerbirds artfully decorating on the forest floor, to the crimson rosellas high in the treetops.

I want to weep for this rainforest’s good spirited making do with what we have left it, for the fact that the canopy still grants me and my family shelter from the searing heat, it still offers us what it can. I am overcome by the fact that we as a species often refuse to be humbled (don’t we?), to be awed and inspired, by what already exists without our hand. I find evidence of this when I later Google the Robertson rainforest and discover a disgruntled tourist review on Trip Advisor: ‘The short bush walk trail is just that – [a] narrow trail through some overgrown vegetation. No view, nothing. There are much better bush walking trails even in the middle of Sydney.’

Instead of weeping, however, I walk, through this little circuit of rainforest, this miniscule patch that remains, like a living museum, grateful for the reprieve from the heat, and so humbly in need of nature’s cover, in both physiological and psychological senses, that I vow, as I toddle behind my son, to do more to conserve what is left of it.

Watching his little neck craning up to see what bird is making the scratching sound above him, I can think of no allegiance I would rather form – one to him, and to the places left that may grant him shade.