”Naming things gives you some familiarity with it so it’s not just always strange and odd.’’ Associate Professor Darryl Jones, Griffith University
You can learn about a lot more than turkeys from the turkey man.
Ok. He’s not just the turkey man. He’s Associate Professor Darryl Jones, urban ecologist and Indiana Jones of the city streets.While I’m learning about the Australian brush turkey at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha, Jones takes time to point out other interesting wildlife and plants.
Yes — dragons really do exist in Australia. The first reptile we come across is the eastern water dragon (Physignathus lesueurii), Australia’s largest dragon lizard. It hangs out in trees and swims too. Now that I’ve seen one and put a name to it, I’ve been noticing them all over the city. I even had lunch with one at the Queensland Art Gallery cafe.
Names are important because they help us distinguish one person from another or one reptile from another. Imagine you’ve walked into a conference room and everyone turns and looks at you. You don’t know the names of anyone there or who they are and they don’t know you. You don’t belong. That’s what it’s like being a serial migrant.
Because language is crucial to us, naming something is one of the first steps towards acknowledgement, intimacy and connection. Naming something gives it a presence. After we know the name of a megapode or a reptile we start filing away other information on it. Take that eastern water dragon in the photo above with a red patch on its chest. No, it’s not tomato sauce from the cafe, the big guy is a mature male.
Naming wildlife and plants is making me more aware of my surroundings. It gives me a new way to connect with people around me, simply by asking questions.
I follow Jones around the gardens, dodging sprinklers, and staying in the shade. A pied cormorant above (Phalacrocorax varius), spreads its wings to dry them beside the pond. The bird, found all over mainland Australia, spends up to 40 seconds under water catching fish.
We talk about Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen), the most common bird here which becomes aggressive during breeding season, swooping and attacking cyclists and pedestrians. Jones points out a Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) at the top of a tree.
We walk by a huge Moreton Bay fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) with its buttressed trunk. I was in awe of these strangler figs when I first moved to Sydney. But I had no idea how devious they were. The seeds germinate in the canopy of another tree and then grow and drop roots to the ground, strangling the host tree.
I like the fat-bellied Kurrajong or Queensland bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris). The trunk can reach 2 metres in diametre but it’s not to be confused with the massive boab trees (Adansonia Gregoii) of Australia’s west.The boab trunks are hollow and at least two of these trees, which are culturally significant to the Aboriginal people, were used to hold Aboriginal prisoners in the late 1890s. These two trees are believed to be over 1500 years old. The inside-the-trunk floor space for one of them is estimated at 100 square feet.
Jones stops to show me marks from a beetle in a grey gum tree and then notices possum scratches. We often see these nocturnal creatures tight-wire walking from the street pole to our house, or we’re woken at night by them jumping from trees to the corrugated metal roof over our bedroom.
We hang out with the hardhead ducks (Aythya australis) and the dusky moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa) and I spot a turtle sunning itself. It’s a Brisbane short-necked turtle (Emydura signata).
I know I’m not going to remember all these names but if I learn one a week, I’m sure I’ll be closer to connecting with nature here.And maybe even belonging.