I sit on the southern slope of Nest Hill, looking back across the Murray Valley from its very edge. This is the watershed – the northern side of Nest Hill falls into the Murrumbidgee. The view takes in the Kosciusko Main Range, south to Table Top, and out across the eastern Riverina to the western plains beyond Yerong Creek and Henty. I can make out the path of the Olympic Highway heading north from Albury by following the Benambra Range out towards Culcairn. Looking back to the East, I can see the trucks on the Hume as they make their way across the Billabong Creek flats, a line of trees along the fence drawing my eye to the line of the Freeway. Beside me is an enormous old Red Box tree, taking the brunt of the winds that tear across all that space. It is unmoved, as it has been for hundreds of years. Below me, on the steep slopes, is a woodland that is in places almost a forest. From here it looks implacable, in the way the old look to the young. I am young and have much to learn from this old woodland.
I walk down the hill into the trees. This steep piece of country is a remnant of the grassy-box woodland ecosystem that once covered most of what is now the prime agricultural land often referred to as the sheep-wheat belt. This patch has been grazed, but never cleared as it is too steep to plough. This did not prevent the erosion of the drainage lines to gullies though. These deep, raw-looking gashes are recovering, however. The gullying occurred suddenly during the rabbit plagues of the 1930s, but you could be forgiven for thinking it has happened more recently. As with so much in life, the damage was quick, the recovery incredibly slow. Now, however, there are many good-sized trees growing in the gullies, there is cumbungi, and moisture in the creek. The banks are stable. Now, wombats have moved into the creek, making their burrows in the steep washed out banks where it is easy digging.
This country is habitat for many endangered woodland birds, such as the diamond firetail, the regent honeyeater, the varied sitella, pardalotes, treecreepers and thornbills. It is also home to other honeyeaters, robins, willy wagtails, weebils, and jacky winters. There are of course also other larger birds about. I have seen kookaburras, magpies, choughs and crows, as well as rosellas and cockatoos here on the edge of the woodland, in the boundary areas between the farmland and the trees. But it is the smaller birds who live in the denser wooded area where they have many places to hide that make this area so special. I sit quietly under the canopy and listen. Sometimes the noise of birdcalls can be astonishingly intense and varied.
Under the canopy is another world. It is quiet, in that it is sheltered from most ambient human noise. Up on the hill, beside the open farmland I could hear distant agricultural machinery, vehicles on the road, and a surprising amount of aircraft, both large and small. But down the slope, nestled in the folds of the hill and settled under a tree, these sounds no longer reach me. Instead, the country is alive with sounds of other life. The creak of boughs in the breeze, a small scurrying reptile, birdsong, the slow shuffle and snuffle of wombats or echidnas; occasionally the heavier sounds of swamp wallabies or kangaroos who are invariably more surprised to see me than I am to see them. They stare with such innocent eyes, but they always break and run – their experience of the human element has been invariably one of danger.
Yet, this is what I seek – the solitude from the human world, and the connection with other forms of life. It gives me great peace. I have begun to speak to the animals, and the birds, to ask their permission to simply linger amongst them like this. They listen, briefly, often putting their heads on one side as if they can’t quite believe what they’ve heard. Then their instincts take over and they flee.