...French By Nature

18 February 2016 Ricky French

...French By Nature

FOR THE MEMBERS of the French Island Ecology group, taking a drive around their island home is a good chance to take a look at, ah...everything.

“Look, a fungus and a beetle! The fungus is quite big…I think it’s Amanita ochrophylla, but I’m open to correction. And the beetle is a...gosh, I don’t know!”

There’s not much Fay, Clive and Chris don’t know about French Island, a place you’ve probably never visited. A place so ignored by the rest of the country that three people have taken it upon themselves to catalogue and study its every detail. A place that shares my name but is a lot more interesting. A place as enchanted as any fairytale, if you know where to look. We looked everywhere.

“This place is huge,” I remarked to Clive, for nothing escapes my eagle eye. Someone else also had an eagle eye – a wedge-tailed eagle taking flight. Its massive wings unfurled, it flapped once, twice, steadied itself and rose into the chilly morning air. It wasn’t the only show-off lurking round. An autumn bird orchid had poked its preposterous head through the soil and stuck its sticky tongue out. “I like orchids,” I confessed to Clive. He politely scoffed.

“A lot of people like the orchids, but we have so much else here.” I thought back to my encounter last year with the birdwatchers in the Kimberley (‘The Twitching Hour’, Ed#469) who put it this way: how can you not be interested in the world around you?

The world around you is also under you. If it’s not under your nose, it’s under your foot. Chris would pluck a piece of grass and display it in the palm of his hand as though it were a precious jewel and explain in bewildering detail its life cycle and interaction with the ecosystem, before apologising for his vagueness and adding, “But you should really ask Clive, he’s the ecologist.” The grasses had the best names: weeping grass, common love grass, boarded panic grass.

We drove along muddy trails, past regenerating bush, swamps, wetlands, along firebreaks. Every so often someone would thrust an arm out the window and holler “Stop! There’s some Utricularia lateriflora!” We would pile out and confirm that this was indeed the case.

“What’s that?” I would say.

“You might know it as tiny bladderwort,” Fay would say.

“Ah, yes, of course,” I would reply, but truth be told I have never known a bladderwort of any size and do not intend to. I learned more names, and rolled them over my tongue all day: creeping monkey flower, dwarf skullcap, sneezeweed, blue spike milkwort, trailing speedwell, variable stinkweed, tangled bedstraw.

We visited the mangroves on the coast, and I looked for crabs under rocks. Chris admonished me for not replacing a rock exactly as I found it. “That’s someone’s home, under there.” Elsewhere on the island people were making their homes from abandoned prisons, chicory kilns, even boring old wineries. But the place belonged to the pobblebonk frogs, the dusky woodswallows, the jewel spiders, the wretched koalas.

The great thing about French Island is there are bugger all people to muck it up, but they still try. A new kind of plant was slated for introduction in the 1960s: a nuclear power plant. While today, the Port of Hastings proposal is threatening to do its worst on nearby wetlands. Heroes like Fay, Clive and Chris are not doing their small, selfless, good thing for the planet; they’re doing it for one particular patch of the planet: their home. All around the world are similar people, guardians of their own backyard.
And me? I added valuable insights: This place is huge. I like orchids. What’s that? The ferry arrived and took me back to the dreaded real world, while Fay, Clive and Chris made plans for tomorrow’s cataloguing, discovery and complete immersion in our infinite, overlooked, mad, mind-bending natural world.

by Ricky French (@frenchricky)

Want to read more of our columnist Ricky's outdoor adventures? We're sharing a collection of them as part of the countdown to our 20th Birthday. Click here for the final instalment.

This article first appeared in Ed#483 of The Big Issue.

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