In many of my artworks to date, I have depicted endangered species of Australian birds, especially parrots. Some of them are listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable, the lowest risk level, and others, like the Orange-bellied Parrot, are listed as Critically Endangered, which is “two steps away” from Extinction. (the next is Extinct in the Wild and then officially Extinct. done. dusted. bye-bye)

In addition to birds, I’ve recently begun looking into Endangered plant-life and I found out that one of the Eco-systems that used to dominate the ACT and parts of NSW is now Endangered; “Natural Temperate Grasslands”. This kind of habitat is dominated by native grasses like Kangaroo and Wallaby grass, tussocky grass and many small flowers and plants. There are very few trees, covering less than 10% of the area. There are also particular insects, lizards and birds that have a reliance or affinity with this habitat, such as the Golden Sun Moth.

The Pre-European settlement (so, pre-1800’s) extent of “Natural Temperate Grasslands” or NTE, is estimated at 470,000 ha. Now it is only present across 58,000ha meaning it has suffered a 98.8% decline! You can imagine how European settlers easily pictured the rolling grassy plains as prime sheep-grazing country and began its deterioration.
Some other factors in the loss of NTE have been urban/infrastructure development, invasion by weeds like exotic grass species and changed fire regimes.

an example of Natural Temperate Grassland

It’s easy to feel a kind of melancholy or hopelessness about these disappearing habitats and birds. When I depicted them in my work previously, I was alluding to the sadness of their impending loss but also trying to merely capture their present-tense beauty and unique qualities without any specific message; “this is them as their unique beautiful selves.”

But I wonder now, whether the sadness we attach to the loss of species is just a human projection of the fear of dying and loss? It’s also interesting to realise that cycles of extinction have been taking place since…forever.

Some suggest that whilst the demise and eventual extinction of particular species is a natural process that has been repeating ad-infinitum since we can fathom, the most recent period of loss is occurring 100x faster than previously (than previous extinction events, occuring millions of years apart).
Whilst previous cycles of extinction would have happened “naturally”, caused perhaps by changes in climate, ocean levels or eruptions etc, now we are adding in the reckless hand of that pesky Homo sapien.

So of course there are legitimate reasons to be angry and upset about the loss of species, for example where poaching or serious human error is to blame. For other cases though, where introduced species are encroaching on native species habitat’s or where the drought has changed a landscape so that a particular bird can no longer survive in that location, maybe we can take a step back from an emotional response and realise that, cruel as it is, nature is just fulfilling its cycle.

There were some interesting articles written about the way that funding is awarded to the rescuing of species that are on the brink, based ultimately upon their cuteness or popularity with the general public (ie Yeah! let’s pour loads of money into the conservation of those cute squidgy Koalas we love so much, but a green spotted tree insect? hmmm, nahhh.) Maybe we are wasting our time and money trying to intervene in an inevitable situation? I don’t know, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I want beautiful little Swift Parrots to stay in existence as much as the ANU researchers who are dedicated to studying and protecting them. But why are we trying to keep them on anyway? For our pleasure? for the future generations?

I suppose we are trying to keep all the links of the delicate eco-systems around us in place so that they don’t crumble further and another crucial link slips out of place.

Some of Australia’s threatened Parrots. L-R: Extinct Paradise Parrot, Critically Endangered Orange Bellied Parrot, Endangered Western Ground Parrot, Endangered Carnaby’s Cockatoo and Endangered Swift Parrot…

Another reason I’ve been thinking about this inevitable process of change and re-shuffling is from observing the natural surroundings of suburban Canberra. There are many designated Nature Reserves that lie around the edges of the Canberra suburbs, walking trails along hillsides, creeks, river tracks, grasslands. Walking and riding my bicycle around and through some of these reserves I’ve been noticing different species that appear in the different seasons. There are some spectacular flowers, fruits, trees and plenty of “weeds”.

What I’ve noticed is that if I were attempting to be a purist and only depict “native species” in my artwork, for example, I would be having to subtract a significant proportion of what I see in front of me. We have many designated “invasive species” in the ACT. They are considered introduced if they are originally from overseas or even from a different eco-system within Australia; if they are somewhere they haven’t been before.

Some of these weeds are beautiful. Pink climbing roses, purple flowering Patterson’s curse. Strange fuzzy leaves plants that look like cabbages. Tangled nests of prickly blackberries. They are undeniably a part of the landscape now.

Maybe, just maybe, we accept that environments change; that they are fluid and operating as they will. We can try and intervene in that (goodness knows we are excellent at meddling) or we can observe the beauty of what we see, accept that it has developed from something and will continue to change, without trying to get our itchy fingers in there to try and fix it. (* that said, I do think we have a responsibility to not make things worse, if it is within our ability and to not knowingly harm the environment…)

And it’s also interesting to note that a “weed” is just another plant. To quote from a book by Environment ACT, “Animals and plants don’t make distinctions between weeds and native species. Weeds to non-human organisms are just another plant…” What we have labelled “weeds” can actually make up 25-33% of the flora present in Natural Temperate Grassland and this does not necessarily transform the habitat because “species richness does not equate to dominance”… Interesting… I’m tempted to draw links here with multiculturalism and ideas about what is native and what is exotic…but that will need some more mental kneading first, I think.

“Hey! I’m not a weed! I’m just a plant who’s new around here!”

Soon, I think I’m going to make a series of works that document Natural Temperate Grassland and also these “invasive species”. A proud portrait of a sprig of Salvation Jane. A messy nest of flowering Blackberry bushes. A rosehip bush in all its prickly detail. Maybe they will make people squirm? Maybe they will just be a testament to the unique, details of the nature around us, now.