Keeper of Place

A set of words lodged in my bones some years back, spooling a line of questioning that has thrummed away out of sight ever since. They were spoken around a campfire on a remote northern beach of Nootka Island on the traditional lands of the Nuchatlaht people, off the west coast of British Columbia. We were partway through a sea kayaking trip circumnavigating the island, a trip that was quieting all of us through the vastness of the sea we were traversing and the challenge of the paddling. Expedition leader Corey had established an after-dinner ritual of reading a fragment pertaining to encounters from the day’s journey.

His reading that evening was taken from Ecological Literacy by David Orr, the words he read quiet and firm. ‘The plain fact is that the planet doesn’t need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places.’ The words lodged deep at the close of a day in which we had encountered wonder and devastation side by side – the wet furred tumble of sea otters up close and the white glint of orcas far off, salmon farms and their incongruous fencing of the ocean, and the ground zeroed stumps and craters of clear-felled cedar forests.

That day helped sharpen something I’d been noticing for a while – my antenna for ‘people who live well in their places’, folk with the knowledge and hands to restore and renew in defiance of what seems to be our larger human pattern of destruction. What did it take to become a keeper of place? What shapes a person to walk pathways of deep apprenticeship and dedication? I started to seek such people out – farmers and fisherfolk, botanists and artists, poets and foresters – encountering diversity in personality and inclination, the focus and intent of their work, but also common threads. Their knowledge is detailed, experiential and born from love, accompanied by a perspective that looks beyond human time. All lead lives that are mostly lived outside, with hands of practical bent. Last of all, they are people I find because others point me their way; their knowledge a community reference point not because it is loudly proclaimed or advertised, but because it has been quietly lived, hard earnt and of value to a people and a place.

When I moved to the southern corner of Western Australia last year, I quickly discovered that Mark Parre is the reference point for anything plant related in these parts, his name mentioned to me over again from different parts of the community – farmers, town folk, forest defenders, local government workers. ‘Oh, if you want to learn about plants around here, you need to talk to Mark.’ With all roads pointing his way, I called him up and commenced an ongoing conversation with this learned student of ancient karris and salt-strong winds and the long and deep custodianship of Country by Minang and Bibbulmun Noongar.

ON MY FIRST MEETING with Mark, he arrives at our farm at 9am on the dot in a battered red four-wheel drive, his small dog wagging her tail from the back seat. He’s here to do a site visit and species survey. After greeting me with a smile, he gestures towards the dog. ‘Hope it’s okay Meeka comes with me, she needs me today because she’s been on her own a lot this week.’ Meeka trots along behind him, nosing the ground as Mark moves from the car towards the peppermint tree grove that stretches behind our cottage, greeting them with affection. ‘Ah, now, look at these peppis’ – his nickname for Agonis flexuosa, commonly known as West Australian peppermint by whitefolk. Mark, I quickly learn, is precise in his naming of plants. Botanical names roll out of him like a song, usually preceded by Noongar names, but on their use he is quick to qualify: ‘They are the ones to speak for this country we are on, Bibbulmun Country, I can’t speak for it.’

Mark Parre greets a karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor). Minang and Bibbulmun Noongar country, Western Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan

We walk on from the peppis, through the old garden and orchard, with names and descriptions, history and points of identification rolling in a steady rhythm of recognition and greeting. His intimacy is humbling, even in the face of his reputation, but unsurprising given the dedication Mark has taken to his work as the revegetation officer at Denmark Shire for almost thirty years, a role which started with him establishing a seedbank. He has gone on to restore plant communities across a wide variety of sites throughout the region, from old gravel pits and sand mines to town blocks, public spaces, weed-infested native bushland and fire-impacted areas. Important work the world over, but given particular weight in this south-west corner of Australia, which has the highest concentration of rare and endangered species on the entire continent. It is one of the world’s thirty-four internationally recognised biodiversity hot spots – defined as regions ‘where exceptional concentrations of endemic species are undergoing high rates of habitat loss’.

Together we walk slowly, stopping often to stoop, squat, reach; investigate a leaf, branch or seed. The names keep on rolling, decoding plants which to me are mysterious new acquaintances, but are old friends to Mark. Eucalyptus patens, the blackbutts in damp corners of the lower paddock, and ‘Ah, Anarthria scabra’, for the sedge-like tufts which remind me of lomandra at home. ‘This beauty is Podocarpus drouynianus, the emu plum’, for a striking green shrub I’ve been puzzling over. I quickly learn Mark is precise in his classifications, sedge from herb, soak from swamp, slender tree frog call from that of the moaning frog. I’m cursing my lack of Latin, and madly try to scribble and listen and watch at the same time, spelling botanical names in wildly inventive ways.

Pausing at the gate of our top paddock, I ask him how he goes about restoring a new site. ‘I start with taking a good look, not just at the plants, at what seed is emerging, but also the geology, the soil and the history as far as I can make it out.’ He waves his hands up at the jarrah trees ahead of us; ‘A lot of people just focus on the trees, but you need the middle and understorey, too.’ He goes on to explain how if you get the spacing right, across all the layers of shrubs and trees, by the third year, branches will be touching. That way you start to own the niche, which is a term used for the specific role or job a species performs in an ecosystem. ‘In good bushland, when native plants own the niche, you get no weeds. Seed can blow in, but it won’t express because the niche is occupied. So the first step is to occupy the niche.’

Which begs my next question, about how you know when to intervene and when to get out of the way. He stops walking and squats down. ‘This here,’ he says, touching a slender jarrah sapling at his feet, ‘when I start seeing what I call volunteers, little seedlings like this, that’s when I know, okay, there’s no weed competition happening, or even if there are weeds, if there’s natives starting to germinate and grow, then you know you’ve kickstarted something that’s going to keep going.’

It takes us four hours to walk around the rest of the farm, given the frequent pauses at each new plant, but also to watch the black cockatoos, discuss the kookaburras and identify frogs in the wetlands below the dam. Our walk finishes back at the peppermints, and Mark nods over at them in farewell. ‘You can chop a peppi back at the base and it will go, hey, off we go again.’ He chuckles.

‘Life force, that’s what they’re strong in.’ He places his palm on its trunk. ‘That and their roots, they’ll invade anything’, and with a smile and a hug he takes his leave.

A WEEK AFTER HIS VISIT, I receive a species list, neatly handwritten, grouped in the order of our walk and listing his references for plants he needed to cross-check, with a cover note that advises us to start our own herbarium in a scrapbook in order to build familiarity with the plants on our property. He also tells us to keep in touch with any questions and to drop in and visit him at the Shire nursery in town. A few weeks later, on a Tuesday morning, I head in to spend a couple of hours with Mark, potting up and pricking out seedlings destined for a site he is working on at Wilson Inlet. I meet Terran, his apprentice who, judging by his energy and attention, is as passionate about the work as Mark. Seated around a table with the other volunteers, we plant seedlings from trays into bigger pots, and I can see Mark is a practised hand at working with people, moving with gentleness and humour, but also stepping in to correct technique or quietly point out an error.

‘Education, broadening this work out to other people is important,’ he tells me. ‘I do as much of it as I can. I have two groups next week from the TAFE and agricultural college doing a seed collection course, going on country, and you know it’s what human beings have evolved to do, forage.’ He considers seed collecting to be foraging, he tells me, his hands busily potting up as we’re talking, the movements so practised he barely needs to look. ‘The sound of wattle pods being pulled off a tree, that’s a good sound. That’s what it’s all about. The touch, the sound.’ He finishes five trees to my one. ‘If they can ever make tools as good as our hands, someone will make a fortune, but they will never get there – there’s nothing as sensitive or perfect as our fingers.’ Mark talks slowly and deliberately, yet his sentences often lift up suddenly in delight. He has the botanical precision of a scientist and the wonder of a child. I pick up a particularly leggy seedling waiting to be repotted, stretching far taller than the rest, a sheoak whose botanical name, I am gently informed, is Allocasuarina fraseriana, and he touches it with his forefinger. ‘This one wants to go somewhere, wants to touch the sky.’

Mark Parre. Photo: Nic Duncan

A COUPLE OF MONTHS LATER, with a few conversations in between, I visit Mark at his home. The day is skin-prickling hot for these southern parts. As we approach the house, I can feel the temperature drop a few degrees on my skin for, of course, it is surrounded by carefully considered trees, the front door shaded by a towering boxelder maple. He pauses on the front step to tell me that if you look on Google Earth, you can see that the elder is much bigger than his house, ‘and I quite like that’. Both back and front doors are open, a breeze flows through his home, which is built of the earth where it stands, the roof buttressed with karri beams, the walls rendered with karri loam. There is a wide branching tree painted on the blue wall behind the stove, the benches lined with fruit bowls piled full with homegrown plums. We sit for a while over a cuppa in the dappled light, before setting out to walk the land. I ask him how he came to live a life of plants and restoration. ‘It was always in me, I think.’ He pauses to point out the apricot, apple and plum trees he is ‘wilding’ down an erosion gully. ‘They’re growing just off what they have. If they get really thirsty, I’ll throw them some water but I don’t want them to get addicted to me.’

We walk on, the heat building, a steady rhythm of dry leaves and bark crunching underfoot. ‘I grew up in Virginia until I was twelve. My old man was in the US Navy and as a young boy I just rode my bike everywhere – I was always going down to the swamps and the bits of wood that were tucked away, and that was where we played and made cubbies, same as kids do now if they get the chance.’ We’re walking the northern side of the land where he has lived for decades, an undulating twenty-five acres riven with erosion gullies and old sandpits that he is working to restore. He tells me this was the scrubby backblock that was left uncleared and used as a sand mine back in the day, while the rest of the more ‘valuable’ country around it was razed for farmland. We pause again for him to point out a Wollemi pine he grew from a cutting and planted under a canopy of bush further up a gully, then returns to my question. ‘When I was twelve, we moved to Australia, and found a thousand-acre block of land near the Stirling Ranges. Dad wanted to farm, and I got to know the bush there.’

We continue walking, Mark speaking in his slow intentional way. ‘It was amazing. It was full of smells, some plants smelt like they’d been dead a long time and some plants smelt like honey. And right up the back corner of the block there was a short stumpy jarrah tree with an eagle’s nest wedged in and it would have been, oh … ’. We pause and he stretches his arms out to show me its size – about two-and-a-half metres wide and nearly a metre thick. ‘They’d been there a long time. And so that was my place. I still dream about that block of land.’ We move on along the track, flanked by tall jarrah and marri trees.

‘I’ve always understood the complexity of vegetation, even when I was a kid in Virginia, I was aware of what was there. You had groundcovers, you had shrubs, you had trees, you had poison ivy, you had plants you needed to recognise and know. I understood that complexity and, as an adult, I wanted to be part of the environmental movement in this way, hands on’.

We stop beneath a towering lean of a marri tree, its bark rippled and grooved, the top crown of leaves crisply dead. Furrowed lines across Mark’s forehead replace the smile I’ve gotten used to seeing, and his talk slows further still.

‘The marri are really sick, like they are nearly everywhere. Their deep water has been exhausted for decades and hasn’t been replenished. The ancients on this block – we have ones here who’d be 300, 400 years old – are dying, as are the younger ones too. They are just not able to handle what’s happening with the changes in climate.’

Mark shakes his head, looks across at me. ‘The forests are dying across the world, this is a reality that can’t be denied. From the arboreal forests in the north and the forests in the Americas that are being logged and bulldozed and burnt, to our forests here dying from climate change. That’s what this forest I live in is doing, dying from climate change. These marri have fungal diseases splitting the bark and killing shoot tips, and they’re trying to recover, shooting back epicormic growths along branches, trying to grow new canopy, but they don’t have the water that they need, that deep water that always sustained them isn’t there now.’ I can feel sweat running down my back, Meeka is looking back at us with her tongue out, panting. Unbeknown to both of us, the heat of the day is fanning flames of a bushfire a few kilometres from my home. A fire that will rip through houses and farms and forests, fuelled by erratic winds and uncharacteristic heat for this part of the world.

Walking on through the trees, those who are growing and those who are dying, conversation flows easily from one topic to the next. I ask him a question I’ve been nursing, having witnessed his references to and great respect for First Nations culture. How does he hold the inheritance of colonial white Australia with his life and work on unceded Noongar land? ‘I have learnt so much from the Elders. This great southern strip of coast is such beautiful, soft country and I’m so grateful that the Noongar people looked after it the way they did for many millennia. It’s wonderful that their knowledge is finally being acknowledged and respected, but people want to grab it. Rangers that I’ve worked with often tell me about the pressure they get to share stories, folk asking, “Did the elders teach you about that plant?” And they say “Na, don’t know anything about that”, because they say those asking, all they want is something they can shove in their books and print. They have taught me so much, and I don’t share what’s not my knowledge without asking permission.’

We have circled back to the garden around his house, and his home nursery – full of blueberry seedlings, pecans and acacias, feijoas and avocados and bags of foraged sea grass which he uses in his potting mix. Here, our conversation turns to plants that have filled his cup, have brought him to tears or laughter. He looks at me across the seedlings, his eyes glowing over his long beard. ‘The old trees. I’ve met old trees all over the world and they always touch my heart. We have conversations. When I was in Pondicherry in India, I met a mango tree in the botanical garden, planted in about 1840. Its girth was bigger than my table here, maybe one-and-a-half metres around. I went up and said hello in my hippy dippy way, gave it a hug and, as I was admiring it, looking up into its canopy, “Dunk”, a mango dropped to the ground right next to me.’ He pauses, shakes his head. ‘That was a special moment for me. But I’ve had special moments with many trees. Trees on my home block here, they’re old, and they’ve touched me.’ The ground and table between us are dense with plants. ‘There’s no rationale to my growing, it’s more a compulsion, but then I’ve always found rationale to be overrated.’

It’s past lunchtime and I reluctantly take my leave. Phone calls on the drive home alert me to the fire before I get close to town and I can see for myself the smoke building over the road home, which is now shut. I manage to dart through a back road before it, too, is closed. The flames burn for days to our east until the heat and wind eases.

Two weeks later, as I write this, there is smoke in the air from the fireground still smouldering. Weeks in which I have seen a farmer we know bulldoze giant karris to the ground in order to make way for cattle and tidy the paddocks. I think across the fire, across the valley, to Mark tending his trees, tending on the side of life. It is mid-February, what he calls the time of the golden karri, for this is when they shed their white and grey bark in long ribbons to glow through the forests like smooth slender suns. Each morning walk, I visit a cluster that have survived logging, bulldozers, fires and drought, have outlived those who walk beneath them and those who paid them no heed. They rise long and strong as a river, and where they stand, they hold their earth in place.