The things no one sees

Underwater at Burrima
Underwater at Burrima
Gas bubble surfaces, Kim V. Goldsmith, “Burrima”, 7 June 2020

It’s a way of understanding the seasons, the interrupters, the demise or reshaping of a landscape and all it contains.

Recently, the Aboriginal concept of looking to listen, listening to see was flagged in conversations I’d been having. I hadn’t heard it phrased like this before, but I understood immediately that it’s a way of describing ‘deep’ listening.

Proponents of ‘active’ listening in the sound art world will understand the idea as well – it’s a foundation of durational listening. However, for those who need to ‘read’ the landscape, it has even greater meaning. It’s a way of understanding the seasons, the interrupters, the demise or reshaping of a landscape and all it contains.

I had another opportunity to spend a few hours in the Macquarie Marshes at the end of autumn, on the property “Burrima” – owned and managed by the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust, who have generously given me access to the property for Pulse of the Wetland. It’s a remarkable slice of country given its location on the boundary of the Ramsar listed Northern Marsh, managed by National Parks and Wildlife. “Burrima” offers an accessible (if not comprehensive) snapshot of the iconic Marshes wetland environment – from the reedbeds to the River Red Gum forests, Coolabah/ black box woodlands, and out to the grey, saltbush covered floodplains.

The trust, along with other partners, have invested heavily in building infrastructure on the property that will allow visitors to experience the wetland, in all seasons, without having to get your feet wet. A 1.8km boardwalk meanders through the woodland and forest to the edge of the reedbeds, with an observation tower overlooking the Northern Marsh. Over time, as the evidence of construction subsides, the reeds will grow through and over the boardwalk, channels will reform and the water will clear, and hopefully, with more water at the right time, new trees will start to replace the ones damaged by years of drought and last year’s fire.

But I’m now left wondering will visitors to this remarkable site really look to listen and listen to see just what makes up this wetland ecology?

…of the 2 hours and 53 minutes of audio captured, there are only 20 minutes where you can’t hear a human voice.

About 90 visitors were at Burrima the day of my late autumn visit, there to see the facilities they and their friends have invested in. It was a lovely social outing on a stunning autumn day, after months of inactivity thanks to COVID-19. No one except the project manager at “Burrima” knew I would be recording audio on the day, as well as looking to gather some more underwater video. I’d set up my recorders before the crowds arrived and left them alone at the base of a walkway over one of the water channels – chasing fish, guessed to be native perch of some sort, that I’d seen wallowing in the silt of a channel.

While I told a few people over lunch that I’d set up the video and audio recorder, and some had already noticed the poles strapped to the handrail. Everyone joked about the ‘interesting’ conversations I may have captured as I promised to delete anything too compromising. Listening back to the soundtrack though, most believed my tech was a water flow monitor…and stated with great authority.

Underwater recordings at Burrima
Underwater recordings at Burrima

What really surprised me is of the 2 hours and 53 minutes of the audio captured, there are only 20 minutes where you can’t hear a human voice. Admittedly it was a relatively small part of the 1.8km boardwalk loop that was being recorded, but it was obvious as people made their way around, they were enjoying talking loudly with each other. The birds could barely be heard. Only one group even made a comment about what kind of bird they thought they may have heard at that spot…and yes, it probably was the Australian Reed Warbler.

There were hardly any large birds to be seen on the lagoons, despite having been told earlier in the day there had been, including pelicans. I went back mid-afternoon to retrieve my gear, accompanying a group of friends. I was keeping an eye on the shallow waters for the small fish I’d seen on my last visit. My initial research indicated they’re possibly the invasive eastern gambusia, Gambusia holbrooki or mosquito fish, that compete with and prey on native fish. Updated information suggests they may be native Carp gudgeon – but I don’t have a conclusive answer at this point in time.

I eventually found some, setting up to video about 5 minutes of them moving through the shallows. I wasn’t to know they would be the only fish I’d record that day. The bigger fingerlings found earlier proved to be too elusive for my time-lapse camera. What became even more exciting though was that in post-production I discovered I’d captured gas bubbles coming from the underwater roots of Phragmites australis (common reeds) that hadn’t regenerated post-fire, revealing a part of the Marsh that we don’t usually get to see or consider.

Working in the field surrounded by people is far from ideal. But to be fair, it hadn’t been the intention of the day. It has raised a lot of questions I need to consider for Pulse of the Wetland and is making me think more about the barriers to deep listening…and there were some very ‘interesting’ conversations.

Below the waterline, gas bubbles surfacing from the roots of wetland reeds, while small fish swim through the shallows. Above the water, a lunchtime lull in the constant chatter of human visitors to the wetland, the birds fuss loudly in the canopy above the reedbeds.

Published by Goldsmith's Studio

Digital media artist, creative content producer & instigator of ART e-Parties.

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