Rewilding Our Homes and Hearts

When I was a child I lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between it and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

emperor-gum-caterpillarThat was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as moths as large as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with sinuous grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. The heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

As a keen amateur naturalist, I’m fascinated by the notion of rewilding – restoring flora and fauna to their historical range. The theory has gained popularity after conservation success stories such as bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and the large-scale return of Europe’s apex predators like lynx, bears and wolverines.

Zealandia Sanctuary

Zealandia Sanctuary

New Zealand provides a shining example. It is restoring Wellington’s former water catchment to forest. The sanctuary known as Zealandia, is an ecological island in the centre of the city, and home to some of the country’s rarest species. Now an important tourist attraction, it’s responsible for increased sightings of birds like tui and the endangered kaka in surrounding suburbs.

Australia is beginning to embrace rewilding. Quolls, bilbies, bandicoots and bettongs are being returned to parts of their natural range. Plans are afoot to bring Tasmanian devils back to the mainland after a four-hundred-year absence. Many ecologists advocate reintroducing dingoes to control introduced pests like rabbits, cats and foxes – a concept I explore in my new novel, Journey’s End.

Yet rewilding isn’t restricted to sexy, large-scale conservation efforts. We can all play our part. Rewilding Australia founder, Rob Brewster, says ‘It’s about filling those vacant rock crevices, and hollow logs with the marsupials that evolved over millions of years to fill these niches. It’s about acknowledging that the world should be a wilder place – and that humankind merely shares a spot in this wild world!’

wildscapes_008And it can start in our own backyard. Wildscaping is the new gardening buzzword for mingling layers of native trees, shrubs and ground cover. Throw in a pond, a rock wall and a nesting box or two. This provides shelter and foraging areas for species that prefer different heights and micro-habitats. Then sit back and watch the garden come to life. Even pots of natives on a balcony provide vital habitat. Nature wins by growing stronger and more diverse. We win by reconnecting in a small way with the earth. Imagine local communities wildscaping schools, railway corridors, vacant lots and parks. Before long our urban landscapes could be transformed into thriving webs of life.

I’m very fortunate, where I live. Yet many of us lead lives so far removed from nature, that we rarely even touch the earth. We delude ourselves that we are somehow immune to and separate from the natural world. But at what cost? The cost to our declining environment? The cost to our hearts? Rewilding isn’t just for our land. It’s a concept for our minds and spirits as well.

Launch Of Journey’s End

JE LaunchThank you so much to the friends and readers who attended the recent launch of Journey’s End at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn. It was a great event. For those who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of the Q&A with Kathryn Ledson.

  • (1) Back in 2010, when you and I were sitting together in Andrea Goldsmith’s novel writing class with the rest of the LLGs, did you imagine we’d be sitting here today, barely six years later, talking about your 6th novel? How on earth have you managed to do it?

    Well, of course not. I didn’t think either of us would be here. It’s surreal, isn’t it? And I’ll remind you that you’ve published three novels yourself in that time Kath. What an inspiration Andrea must have been! I’m committed to writing a novel a year, so I take my writing time very seriously. I set myself a modest daily word count. Around a thousand words a day, and often less. But the point is I do write daily. It’s amazing how quickly the words add up.I’m inspired to take Steven King’s advice. He says when writing a novel you have three months. That the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season. It takes me a lot longer than that, but I always think of him when I reach the three-month mark, and I hurry up.

(2) For a lawyer, you know a hell of a lot about wild places and wild creatures. Where did this passion come from? Was it childhood influence or something that coincided with your change of career?

I think I was born this way. Perhaps we all are, it’s just that I never outgrew my natural childhood wonder at nature. I didn’t grow up in the country. We lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between us and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

That was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as stunning moths as big as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with snake-like grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. That heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

  • Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    (3) You’ve invented a new genre that we’re calling “eco-romance”. Some people are quite misguided about novels with romantic elements. They are often dismissed as being light-weight, poorly written, and so on. Your novels are far from poorly written – in fact, they are beautifully written, and touch on issues that others might prefer left unsaid. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve brought into the light in your other novels?

    A compelling story is always the most important thing for me, but I also explore rural conservation issues in all my novels. Brumby’s Run has cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country. Currawong Creek has coal seam gas mining on the Darling Downs. Billabong Bend has water use in the Murray Darling. Turtle Reef is about protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And the first novel I published a little eco/thriller/horror story called Wasp Season, is about invasive species – namely European Wasps. The wasp queen has her own point of view. You’d love her Kath!

(4) Let’s talk about Journey’s End – tell us first about Kim Sullivan.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan is the main character, and is a Sydney botanist. She and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment. They dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. However, when Kim is tragically widowed, selling up is the only practical option. She and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale.

The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all. The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals …

(5) You write emotion so well, Jen. I found myself hopping from laughter to tears to anger, even shame. All of your books have well defined themes. So what’s Journey’s End really about?

In some ways the novel is about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s also about Kim finding the courage to step outside her comfort zone and rediscover what’s fundamental and authentic in her life. When she sets about rewilding Journey’s End it’s not just about her land. It’s about her mind and spirit as well.

(6) We’ll talk more about that in a minute… I remember you saying once that if your characters must inhabit the city, then you get them to the country, as fast as possible. I’m keen to know about Tarringtops – where the property Journey’s End resides, and where Kim Sullivan takes her children. Does Tarringtops exist? Did you go there?

Tapin Tops National Park

Tapin Tops National Park

Tarringtops is a fictional blend of Barrington Tops and Tapin Tops – real national parks high on the Great Eastern Escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. And the character of Kim Sullivan is inspired by my old school friend, Kim Gollan, a real-life bush regenerator. She can’t be here tonight because she’s on remote Lord Howe Island, restoring habitat for the Lord Howe Island Giant Phasmid, the world’s rarest insect.

Twenty years ago Kim and her husband Pete established the Dingo Creek Rainforest Nursery at Bobin on the edge of Tapin Tops National Park. I’ve had the great privilege of staying at their nursery, and having a guided tour of Tapin Tops’ subtropical rainforest by two passionate botanists who love and understand it.

  • (7) I was completely convinced that Kim Sullivan is an expert horticulturist, and it’s hard to believe you’re not. How do you know so much about, for example, wild orchids, dingoes and trophic cascades? What sort of research do you do?– Well as you can imagine, having real-life Kim as my friend helped a lot for this particular book. But I’ve been an amateur naturalist all my life. I’m fascinated by everything wild and have some kind of David Attenborough complex. I read a lot of non-fiction. At the moment I’m reading a book called Once and Future Giants – What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Mammals. Also a book about Australian wildflowers, a book on Tasmanian history, and the 40th anniversary edition of Born Free by Joy Adamson, A Lioness of Two Worlds.
    Novels with similar subject matters are also must reads. For example, one of my works in progress has a fair bit of falconry in it. Reading novels such as H is for Hawk and My Side of the Mountain adds to the knowledge bank. I also immerse myself in locations when I can by taking research trips. When you visit a place, maps turn into landscapes and you get a feel for the people. And of course there’s always Dr Google
  • (8) Journey’s End takes us beyond Australia’s borders and touches on a very topical issue – racism. Tell us about Taj.
  • snow leopardTaj is an Afghani refugee who has been given asylum in Australia through the Interpreter Resettlement Program. He comes from Nuristan province in the north-east, an area which doesn’t conform to the stereotype of Afghanistan being a place of deserts and bombed out landscapes. Nuristan is instead a place of mountains, rushing rivers, and vast stands of oak, cedar and pine. These wild forests of the Hindu Kush reach all the way to the snow-capped summits of the Pamir range, known as the roof of the world. Next stop, China. Snow leopards and bears still live there. Wolves too.Taj is Tingo’s town handyman, but like many refugees, he once had a very different career. I’ve met a Pakistani taxi driver who was an orthopaedic surgeon back home, and a cleaner who was a lawyer. It’s hard starting out in a new country and Taj has a haunted past. It takes him a while to find his feet.
  • (9) As well as animals and the environment, children always play an important role in your novels. Taj has a very special relationship with both Kim’s children. Can you tell us about this? 
  • – Kim has two children, 11yo Jake and 7yo Abbey. Both children have highly emotional responses to Taj, who is working around the house and yards, preparing the property for sale. Jake hates him. The children’s soldier father was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and perhaps understandably, Jake can’t get past the fact of where Taj comes from. Abbey on the other hand loves him – she is drawn by the gift Taj has with animals, and by his gentleness.
  • (10) Journey’s End is a love story in more ways than one. There’s a gentle, budding romance, and a worrying one. This book explores the love between adults and children, humans and animals, female friends, animals and nature. For you, as its writer, which of these romances came most easily to the page?

    As you might guess Kath, the romance with the animals and nature came most easily. Followed closely by the love between the animals and the two children. I completely understand that intense childhood connection with the natural world. Because, as I said before, I never outgrew it.However, this time I didn’t have my usual struggle writing the human relationships. I think this is because of my respect for Kim and the fact that I’m secretly in love with Taj. He’s a wolf-whisperer. What’s not to love? 
  • (11) I think your books are more than just greatly entertaining. They’re important and I think should be widely read. For example, I love that you’ve shown in Journey’s End how we can SHARE our environment with its indigenous plants and creatures, instead of culling or destroying them. What else would you like your readers to take away from this story? 
  • – Journey’s End has several main themes. It’s about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s about finding the courage to live an authentic life. It’s also about overcoming prejudice. Both Taj and the dingoes are unfairly judged throughout the story, Taj by Jake and the dingoes by the town. Prejudice is a very destructive force that is based in fear. It’s only when people confront their fears that positive change can happen.
  • (12) Finally, I want to ask about your writing process. I was well into my third book before I discovered mine. Do you have one? What’s yours? 
  • – I write very consistently, daily if I can. I’m not a fast writer – a thousand words a day is about as much as I can manage, and I often write less, but it’s amazing how quickly the words add up. I edit as I go, producing very clean manuscripts that don’t require much redrafting.I do chapter summaries as I write, noting characters, POV, location, and main plot points. This is an invaluable tool during the redrafting process. If I want to add scenes I can see straight away where they will fit in best. I roughly plan the book before I start, putting plot points on a whiteboard, following a three-act structure. It always changes a lot in the writing, but it helps to have some sort of guide.
  • (13) And now, what next? It’s exciting. Are you allowed to tell? 
  • – I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new contract for a historical saga that will be out with Penguin in the first half of next year.They say history is written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It will begin in late 19th century Tasmania, and is the first novel of a trilogy. It’s the story of Luke Tyler, a man unjustly condemned to prison in his youth, and of Isabelle Holmes, the girl he loves. It follows their lives over a twenty-five-year period.CoorinnaLike in all my stories, animals play an important part. It will also be the story of one of the last Tasmanian tigers, soon to disappear from Earth after twenty-five million years. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. I think it’s time to fill the gap. 
  • The novel will explore the forces that caused the extinction of the greatest marsupial predator since Thylacoleo Carnifex the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years earlier. What if the ultimate culprits weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play? And could the heroic actions of one young fugitive determine the fate of an entire species? I’m having a lot of fun writing this one!

Release Of ‘Journey’s End’ & Giveaway

The time has come for some shameless self-promotion – the release day for my new novel, Journey’s End. Leave a comment about your favourite wild place to go in the draw for two signed copies (Aust & NZ addresses only) Contest ends Sunday 26th June.

JourneysEnd_coverWhen Sydney botanist Kim Sullivan and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment, they dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. Ten years later however, Kim is tragically widowed. Selling up is the only practical option, so she and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale. The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all.

The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals. Kim begins to feel that she might find love again. But Taj has his own tragic past – one that could drive a wedge between them that cannot be overcome …

I’m passionate about Australia’s flora and fauna and its magnificent wild places. There’s a world-wide movement afoot to reclaim territory for wilderness – rewilding. We’ve already lost so much. Conservationists are now trying to reverse this harm by restoring habitats to their natural state. I explore this fascinating notion in Journey’s End.            Most people have been aware at times of some primal core within them, which longs to break free of suburbia. Longs to escape deep into the desert, or high into the mountains. My main character Kim Sullivan acts on this instinct and I’m proud of her! Read the prologue to Journey’s End below.

Prologue

The day Kim Sullivan’s world ended was disguised as an ordinary Wednesday. She took the kids to school and did some shopping. She came home, put on the washing machine and went to make her bed. Scout poked his head out from behind the pillows. Kim picked up the old border terrier, and set him down on the carpet.

He whined, stiff legs scrabbling to climb back up. On the third attempt he succeeded and nestled down on Connor’s jumper, the one Kim slept with when he was away. His smell was in the weave. Scout had always been more Connor’s than hers. ‘We won’t have to make do with his jumper for much longer.’ Kim sat down beside the dog. ‘We’ll have the real thing home on Sunday.’

Home on Sunday. After years of deployments in war-torn Afghanistan, Connor would be home – home for good. It was hard to believe, a prospect too sweet to be true.

‘Daddy will be back from the army in four sleeps,’ Abbey had said on their way to school that morning, counting out the days on her fingers. ‘It’s going to be my show and tell. Mummy, do you think it will be good enough?’

‘The best ever.’

Jake had rolled his eyes. ‘What would preps know about the army? And Dad’s job is supposed to be a secret. You shouldn’t go telling everybody, Abbey. The Taliban might hear.’

‘I don’t think the Taliban will be listening to Abbey’s show and tell.’

Jake hadn’t looked convinced. He worried so much about his father.

Well, he didn’t have to worry anymore. In four sleeps Connor would be home and their new life would begin.

Her phone rang from the bedside table. Of course – that’s what she’d come in to find in the first place. ‘Daisy, what’s up?’

‘How about I pick your kids up from school this arvo, bring them back to my place for an early tea? Grace wants to show Abbey her new rabbit, Stuart’s been bugging me about having Jake over, and you’re always so tailspin busy before Connor gets back. What are you doing now? Cleaning behind the fridge?’

Kim laughed. She’d already done that. ‘Thanks. I want everything to be perfect. You know how it is when they come home.’

‘Steve’s lucky if I make the bed,’ said Daisy. ‘What’s the point, when the first thing we do is mess it up again? And I’m too scared to look behind our fridge. I think there’s a dead mouse.’

Kim shifted her feet as a flush of heat passed through her. Daisy was right. Nothing came close to come home sex, or waking up in Connor’s arms for the first time in months, or going to sleep knowing the man she loved was safe beside her. She sank down on the bed, dizzy with wanting.

‘Are you lot still heading off to your bush block?’ Daisy asked.

‘Just as soon as we can get away.’

‘Sounds like heaven,’ said Daisy.

That’s exactly what it would be.

Connor’s grandfather had left him two hundred hectares of land at Tingo, six hours north of Sydney, high on the Great Escarpment. Journey’s End. A property in his family for generations, although nobody had lived there for years. She could see it now. Stunning views across the mountains of Tarringtops National Park. Sharing a beer with Connor on the farmhouse porch, reconnecting. Watching the kids play on the old willow peppermint, its broad low branches just made for climbing. Talking about their future.

They had grand plans to restore the rundown farm to its natural state. It had been a shared dream since their first visit there, though more hers, perhaps, than Connor’s. She was the botanist. He was more interested in the wildlife.

But Kim had quickly fallen pregnant. Connor was promoted and went on the first of many overseas postings. And it had remained just that – a dream. When Jake was two, she started teaching horticulture at Campbelltown College, and then Abbey came along. Their lives were too full, too busy. ‘One day we’ll take off,’ Connor would say. ‘Use our saved leave and just go bush.’ That day was almost upon them.

Kim wouldn’t have heard the knock if Scout hadn’t barked. She glanced in the dressing-table mirror, running her fingers through her blonde hair then smoothing her shirt. Good enough. She opened the front door and blinked in surprise. Captain Blake stood on the step. He looked different somehow: sallow and slump-shouldered. Scout appeared at her heels, yapping in short, angry bursts.

‘Is Connor home early?’ she asked. ‘Should I pick him up from the airport?’

He shook his head. A cold stone formed in her chest and slipped down to her belly. ‘Is he all right?’

‘Let’s talk inside.’ He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, and she knew. The terrible truth showed in his swift breath, his guarded eyes, how he spoke – the fact he was there at all.

Kim put a hand to her heart. Panic claimed her, like she was walking too close to a cliff. Pain too. Her legs gave way, while white noise drowned out the Captain’s voice. Not Connor. Not her brave, handsome, clever Connor. Her best friend, her lover, her soulmate. What about their life together, their future? What about Abbey and Jake? She swayed alarmingly as the ground lurched beneath her. What about her? How would she live?

Happy Endangered Species Day!

Endangered Species DayLast Friday was international Endangered Species Day, designed to highlight the plight of many at-risk and critically endangered plants and animals. They are disappearing between 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate – with dozens going extinct every day. Over 40% of the world’s species are estimated to be at risk of extinction, primarily from human activities driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species and global warming.

Australia is far from immune. In fact it is facing an extinction crisis, with the worst mammal extinction rate in the world: 30 native mammals have become extinct since European settlement. To put this in a global context, 1 out of 3 mammal extinctions in the last 400 years have occurred in Australia.

Rewilding Australia 1I love to write about our unique wildlife, and the people who fight to protect these birds and animals. My current work-in-progress explores the concept of rewilding. Rewilding means restoring habitats to their original condition (as much as possible) and reintroducing animals and plants that are locally extinct.

Rewilding Australia is a registered charity that supports the reintroduction of our apex species like devils and quolls. With the re-establishment of these predator species, combined with a range of large-scale fox and cat control programs, our other smaller Quollsmammals may then be able to survive. Farmers and community organisations from all around Australia are embracing this vision and pitching in to help. Some examples include predator-proof fencing, breeding programs and protecting wildlife corridors. Click here to read a story on an exciting quoll rewilding project.

I’m excited about the concept of not only conserving, but of actively rebuilding eco-systems. It has also given me the idea for my new book. I’m sure the challenges involved will make for some dramatic story-telling!

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