The movement to reclaim Victoria’s flowering grasslands

An edited version of this article was first published by SBS’ NITV. You can read it here.

In a public park in Melbourne’s quiet seaside suburb of Altona, two worlds collide. One is a thick carpet of unremarkable green lawn. Introduced to Australia by pastoralists in the early 20th century, Kikuyu is a grass from North Africa and it covers almost the entirety of the park, suffocating anything that happens to be in its path.

That is, except for a rustic post-and-rail fenced in a 3 by 3 metre square. Unlike the manicured turf, this small space is teeming with life – flowers the colour of the sky and the sun, with names like Shiny Everlasting and Blue Pincushions gently tumble over each other as shimmering bronze tufts of Kangaroo Grass sway in the breeze. The air is tinged with the faintest hint of chocolate, effusing from a bright purple flower known as the Chocolate Lilly. Through this ecological tapestry weave and scuttle a myriad of insects like grasshoppers, native blue-banded bees, skipper butterflies and colonies of ant species.

This special space, part of the Lost Lands Found project, is a small patch of reclaimed Altona ecology, re-acquainting locals with 55 species of Indigenous wildflowers, grasses, herbs and lilies that once flourished throughout the area.

“It’s part ecological restoration, part public art installation,” says Dean Stewart, Victorian Wemba-Wemba Wergaia man and creator of the project.

“Lost Lands Found is like a moment frozen in time – it’s what the natural ecology of this very spot used to be like. A time when there were emus and echidnas wandering through these areas and goannas climbing up the trees. It gives the general public an idea of what has been lost and hopefully what they can do about it.”

You see, only 200 years ago the whole of western Victoria – stretching from the Plenty River in Victoria almost unbroken to the border of South Australia – was covered in rich flowering grasslands. The third largest of this ecosystem on earth, these grasslands provided food for humans and animals, stored and sequestered carbon, and stopped raging wildfires in their tracks.

However within only 60 years of European settlement bringing with it grazing hard hoofed animals that compacted the once friable soil, and the more recent widespread use of superphosphate fertilizer and unbridled urban development, today less than 1% of Victoria’s flowering grassland ecosystems now remain intact.

“The reason why Victoria was settled was because of these grasslands. They were supporting an entire Indigenous economy at the time and that was basically displaced for sheep,” says Nick Williams, urban ecologist at the University of Melbourne.

In three generations we have gone from one of the richest grasslands on earth to one of the most critically threatened, Dean says.

“Destruction of the grasslands has not only affected the plants, it’s also wiped out the homes of 99% of the Indigenous birds, animals and invertebrates from the same spot. It’s an absolutely catastrophic devastation of our own backyard.”

And it’s a devastation that most people don’t know about, says Frank Fardell, Team Leader of Conservation and Environment at Hobsons Bay Council.

“There’s a big disconnect between the Australian community and our natural environment. Most of the grasslands people see by the side of the road are semi-degraded and are not representative of how these ecosystems once were,” he says.

“Lost Lands Found is critical in bringing grasslands into the community’s focus before it’s too late.”

Restoring the flowering grasslands

With the threat of grassland extinction looming, Lost Lands Found is first about restoring the land to some semblance of its original ecological state.

To do this, Dean followed a process known as ‘scalping’ or removing the top layer of soil.

“This removes most of the weeds and gives native seedlings a better chance at surviving,” he says.

He then scattered mallee root charcoal over the site, paying homage to his old people’s traditional firestick farming.

“Grasslands are traditionally managed with fire so there would have been a lot of charcoal present in the soil,” says Dean, who was also a professional re-vegetation and conservation coordinator.

Plants were grown from locally sourced seed by Newport Lakes Native Nursery and Westgate Biodiversity Bili Nursery.

“At a genetic level, all the plants are well over 20,000 years old,” Dean says.

He also added logs to encourage native insects back, as well as scattered mussel shells.

“The mussels are an ode to the families who gathered here for thousands of years,” Dean says.

Lost Lands Found really identifies what a grassland might have looked like prior to European settlement, Frank says.

“It brings the best of the grasslands right to the community’s eyes. “

Taking the time to connect – and reconnect

The 1% of remaining grasslands (called ‘remnants’) are mostly in places where people don’t really go – along roadsides, train lines and in cemeteries.

In stark contrast, Lost Lands Found brings a symbolic remnant grassland to a busy public space. In doing so, it encourages passers by to stop, get curious about the world under their feet with the hope of inspiring people to make deep personal connections to their local ecologies and landscape.

“The flowering grasslands make you need to stop and look,” Dean says.

“By looking into the intimacies of the flowering grasslands and taking that time, it helps ground us as individuals back into the place. Until the industrial revolution, that’s what people did around the world.”

And like any art piece, Dean says, everybody will find their inspiration in different ways.

“Some people will be inspired by the purples, others will gasp in amazement when they first see the blue banded bee. Everybody has their own eye for intimacy and beauty. This little space will hopefully help people rediscover that in their lives,” he says.

With such beauty hidden in plain sight, why haven’t grasslands been better protected?

“For most of the year, native grasslands appear as drab paddocks…it is only during spring and early summer that the diversity and small scale beauty of native grasslands becomes apparent,” Nick says in his book Land of Sweeping Plains: Managing and Restoring the Native Grasslands of South-eastern Australia.

And when you have a society that doesn’t have time to notice and appreciate this small-scale beauty, it’s easier to de-value it.

“I want to give people that opportunity to take the time and make friends again with the natural world,” he says. “Whether we believe it or not, us city slickers need to realize that we are still part of the natural world.”

“These Flowering grasslands are really one element of addressing humanity’s need to re-nurture and reconnect with our natural world.”

This first Lost Lands Found installation has been initiated through a partnership with Hobsons Bay City Council’s Arts Culture and Heritage Unit as part of its Art in Public Places program.

“Creative public interventions like this work have the ability to disrupt and challenge the way we view our public space. The siting has been a really important factor for the work and we are delighted with how the community have responded,” says Tania Blackwell, Coordinator Arts and Culture, Hobsons Bay City Council.

Workshops covering drawing and weaving have helped local residents to articulate a deeper connection with the grasslands.

“I am really interested in basketry. The whole act of basket weaving is meditative and relaxing. Just doing it, you feel more connected to nature. It was really lovely learning from an Indigenous journey woman [Donna Blackall, Yorta Yorta and Taungurung woman] who told us stories while we chatted and weaved,” says Kate Douglas, an Altona local.

“The workshop opened a completely endless world of what you can weave. I now look at all these plants and think about what their characteristics would be for weaving. It’s completely blown my mind.”

“It was also really eye opening as to how beautiful the grasses were when you look at them close up. For example, I’ve never really appreciated Dianella but when I started drawing the flowers I realized how amazing their shapes are.”

The workshops also helped Kate rediscover her creative side, and rekindled a sense of community.

“I went to arts school 30 years ago but have been really struggling to get back into drawing. I found being in that environment with no pressure and everyone chatting was so much easier than sitting at home by yourself trying to draw.”

“A few of us who attended the workshop wanted to continue with it, so we have decided to set up a drawing group. We’ll be getting together around each other’s kitchen tables and drawing indigenous plants.”

And it’s also inspired her to plant some indigenous grasses on her nature strip.

“I used to think that anything that wasn’t grass was a weed, whereas now I am aware of what the indigenous grasses look like. I notice the light shining on them and how they wave in the wind. The different shapes and forms gives the land so much more depth.”

We all call this place home

Altona is the first site of the Lost Lands Found project, with a number of sites under development around Melbourne, says Stewart.

“I’m creating a jigsaw of grassland projects across as much of the Melbourne metro area as I can. It would be great to see a green wedge of indigenous Flowering Grasslands running through the middle of our concrete jungle,” Dean says.

At present Dean is creating large Flowering Grasslands spaces in the University of Melbourne Parkville, all Swinburne University Campuses and hopefully RMIT CBD including the Old Melbourne Goal site and a Museum Victoria gateway initiative.

Bringing this endangered landscape back from the brink is going to take us all, Dean says.

“Caring for Country isn’t just for Aboriginal people, it’s about us all. We all call this place home now and we all have to look after it,” he says.

“We need to change our paradigm if we want to survive as a community on this place as people have done for thousands of years.”

“We all need to get on our hands and knees and weed out the introduced grasses and plant indigenous grasses, flowers and lilies. We need to get our fingernails back into the earth again.”

Inspired? Here’s how to help grassland restoration efforts