Cicada Days

As a harbinger of warmer days to come, it’s hard to go past the cicada. It might be due to the combination of a dry winter and a warm start to spring but in recent weeks there have been discarded cicada shells all over the place. Fence posts, brick walls, tree trunks – all are seemingly dotted with husks, cast aside as cicadas move on to their final phase of life. During the day the air often thrums with their calls. Usually camouflaged by leaves, they are hard to spot unless being chased around the neighbourhood by hungry birds.

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After the countdown, they go over the top, grey shapes in the grey dawn, clambering out of themselves (Cicadas by David Campbell)

Cicadas were captured as temporary trophies when I was a kid, with a league ladder of varieties according to scarcity. The common Greengrocer wasn’t given much weighting; Yellow Mondays were a bit harder to find, Black Prince cicadas were highly sought, along with the noisy Double Drummer. The cicadas would be brought to school in ice cream containers with holes punched into the lids, to be admired and swapped before the cicadas were released.

There are Miller or Floury Baker cicadas, covered in fine, silvery hairs. I haven’t seen a Cherrynose cicada, but they are meant to be more common on the coast. There are Red-eyes along with smaller varieties such as Fairy, Maiden and Midget.

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A shell on the left, a cicada getting ready to emerge on the right

It is mainly the male cicada who sings by flexing their tymbals which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. They drink and eat using their beak or rostrum, and begin life as an egg embedded in a tree limb. When the egg hatches, the ant-like form falls to the ground and digs until it finds roots to feed on. Cicadas can remain underground for anywhere up to 17 years, according to the species. It is an active life spent feeding and tunnelling.

As nymphs, they return above ground and climb the nearest tree to shed their exoskeleton. Their wings inflate and their bodies harden. They search for a mate with males singing to attract females, and the cycle begins again. As an adult they have a short life, usually only a few weeks.

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Greengrocer

There are over 3,300 varieties around the world, and a couple of unusual Australian cicadas are the Blue Moon and Bagpipe Cicada.

There is a lovely poem about cicadas by David Campbell here.

Do you have cicadas in your backyard?

Main source of information on cicadas: Cicada Mania web page. It is brilliant – hover over a link and the mouse arrow turns into a cicada!

[Photo: Greengrocer cicada]

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A Little Bush Wander

Recently I had a short wander through a small section of the extensive Blue Mountains National Park. This park is part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, which covers nearly a million acres from the outskirts of western Sydney to the central tablelands, right through the upper edges of the Blue Mountains. The main park entrances are at Glenbrook, Wentworth Falls and Blackheath. My group wander started at the base of the mountains at Glenbrook.

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Canopy of gum trees

There are a myriad of tracks and avenues for exploration from this entrance, and the wander started from the Euroka campground, a popular camping and picnic spot. It is a lovely space with kangaroos, kookaburras and cockatoos in abundance and obviously at ease with the flocks of people who come and go.

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Grey gum scarred by sugar gliders

Appreciating some of the flora in this part of the park was the purpose of the wander. Whilst I can identify common plants and trees, the specifics of large plant groups such as eucalyptus trees largely elude me. To be fair, there are over 700 species. During the wander there were many grey gums, including some marked by sugar gliders as they sought access to the sap. One of the ways to differentiate between eucalyptus trees is by the shape of the gumnuts.

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Flowering wattle

Wattles also have a huge number of varieties, and their bright blooms make them easily identifiable. Close inspection revealed various insects living off the blossoms.

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Close up of casuarina tree

Yellow and red bloodwoods were scattered along the walk, as were blueberry ash and casuarinas. The casuarina, also known as she-oak, is a large and graceful tree, known for the gentle rustling sound of breeze through its leaves. There were many smaller plants and masses of ferns including thick patches of maidenhair fern.

Eastern Rosellas

Eastern Rosellas near their nest

Above and around us were many birds, from the bossy strut of sulphur crested cockatoos at one of the picnic sites, to the blue flash of kookaburras flying past. A pair of eastern rosellas were spotted nesting in a gum tree, and a pair of Australian wood ducks were perched on a tree branch. A family of wood ducks were seen on the way out with seven fluffy ducklings – a fitting end to a lovely wander through the bush.

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A family of Australian wood ducks

When was the last time you were able to go for a bush wander?

[Photo: one of the kangaroos resting near the camping ground]

A Clutch of Camellias

The early blooming Sasanqua camellias herald the start of months of delightful displays of colourful blossoms. Next to flower are the Japonica camellias, which are able to cope with shade and filtered light, and the Reticulata varieties which have gorgeous large flowers. Camellias flower from autumn through to spring depending on species and variety. They are usually long-living, with some surviving over 100 years. The Sinensis camellia from China is the tea plant, but it is rarely spotted in most gardens.

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I love the density of the petals in this variety

Camellia colours range from white, pink and red to maroon and purple – almost black – flowers. And their names are colourful to match: Bob Hope, Contemplation, Cornish Snow, Happy Holidays and Early Pearly are just a few. The hybridisation of camellias means there are thousands of different plants available, and flowers range in size from small, tightly petalled blooms to the more flamboyant varieties, nearly the size of a bread and butter plate. White camellias were a symbol of New Zealand women’s right to vote.

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Alba plena camellia

This greenhouse favourite of Christmas time, with its beautiful waxy bloom and glossy leaves, is hardier than most amateurs imagine, and does well if kept clear of severe frost and intelligently handled … The red and white selfs are the best and most floriferous, but there are pretty striped and fringed sorts procurable. Pears Cyclopaedia, 1932

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A tinsie camellia

The camellias bloom in winter when the skies are cold and gray,

When the sun shines at its weakest and the spring seems far away …

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A variegated camellia

In shades of pink and creams and reds the colours one might name,

Each is an individual for no two look the same

(from The Beautiful Camellias by Francis Duggan)

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An espalier camellia spotted at Mt Boyce Nursery

the camellia pushes against the warm glass,

it has been looking into this room for 150 years

(from Halfway up the Mountain by Dorothy Hewett)

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Even the bees love camellias!

Do you enjoy the beauty of camellias in your part of the world?

[All camellias are from my Mum’s garden, except for the nursery example]

Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]