February 2024

Essays

Notes on a disappearance

By Connor Tomas O’Brien
watercolour and pencil drawing of plains-wanderers

Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841), watercolour and pencil drawing of plains-wanderers. Image courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Urban spaces, camouflage and the fate of the plains-wanderer

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, an eccentric American artist-naturalist refined a unified theory of invisibility. Animals, suggested Abbott Handerson Thayer, were inherently visually self-obliterating. Every creature was cryptic, their markings designed for one purpose: to melt into their surroundings.

By way of demonstration, Thayer produced two masterpieces. In the co-created oil painting Peacock in the Woods, a Magic Eye puzzle of an artwork, one of the world’s most showy avians disappears near-completely into foliage. The work is reproduced at the beginning of his second masterpiece: Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, a lengthy treatise positing that we – as animals, regardless of our class or genera or species – wear our habitat upon our coats. If a creature does not appear to be donning camouflage, the thesis runs, it is because they have found themselves out of place, thrown into stark contrast against the wrong backdrop. Concealing-Coloration, fittingly, is officially attributed to Thayer’s son, Gerald – the work’s primary author concealing himself in the pages of the work, in plain sight.


I am travelling out of Melbourne to learn how to be invisible, tracing a trail of double disappearance: of habitat loss giving way to local extinction – background and foreground vanishing in tandem. A path of the Anthropocene unfurling.

The map I am following is hand-drawn, loose and rough, the 1926 creation of polymathic environmental historian Athel D’Ombrain. On it, circled towns across Victoria (Coburg, Keilor, Geelong, Lismore, Pyramid) mark the “old haunts” of the plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus), a plump, cryptic, nearly flightless bird that is now rarely sighted in the state. In contemporary guidebooks, the “natural” range of the plains-wanderer has been reduced to a tiny sliver along the Riverina bioregion, where the Murray sluices a border between Victoria and New South Wales. On the map before me, though, the bird wanders much of the south-eastern corner of the mainland. To explore old species distributions is to experience an expansion of the more-than-human world, of suburban and industrial landscapes repopulated by remarkable beings.

The vanishing of the plains-wanderer coincides, geographically and temporally, with the vanishing of the plains – and so, to trace backwards is to often find both bird and grassland in unexpected places, one in the presence of the other. According to an 1868 letter to The Australasian, the plains-wanderer was once “flushed” by a hunting dog in Brunswick, four kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD. Now this suburb is dense with concrete and scaffolding – apartments and townhouses plugging gaps in the streetscape, gardens shrinking as floorplans expand. To build more intensively here, the pro-development argument runs, is to help safeguard the city from further outward sprawl. There is a soundness to this logic, but it relies on a forgetting of what was here before. To learn that the wanderer was once sighted so close to the city is to see the urban grid dissemble itself, giving way to expanses of kangaroo grass and lilies and orchids.

Australia’s inner-urban spaces are still – albeit, often in compromised form – zoöpolises: environments shared among creatures, drawn together in a precarious transspecies cosmopolitanism. In Brunswick and other suburbs abutting Melbourne, humans share backyard gardens with possums and magpies and dragonflies, currawongs and painted lady butterflies. On warm evenings, golden orb-weaver spiders craft nets under moonlight as curious flying foxes pass above. There are spoils to be had for these creatures that can make cities home: successions of fruiting plants, arranged neatly for the taking, thousands of floral species laid out compactly, offering hyper-specific ecological niches in easy range.

The zoöpolis, however, does not permit all creatures. It favours adaptable opportunists and turns away those more delicately connected to the particular ecologies urban development has effaced. The plains-wanderer is an especially fussy species, sometimes referred to as the “Goldilocks bird” due to its preference for grassland of precise sparseness. In just the right habitat, with just the right background, the wanderer can recede into total camouflage. Lying on its belly, it takes on the speckled sepia hue of volcanic basalt; upright, it becomes a button wrinklewort, eyes and beak appearing as yellow flowers. This magic trick is the result of precise collaboration between rock and plant and animal, but it is a fragile illusion. Outside of captive breeding, the plains-wanderer cannot survive in spaces where it can’t readily disappear – and so it is a species of double vanishing.


To camouflage oneself is to play a game with other creatures – to convince them that you do not exist, parrying their gaze with tricks of the light. The word “camouflage” camouflages its own etymology, blending languages, obscuring its origins, though its weave of French, Medieval Latin and Proto-Germanic orbits around the concept of wrapping oneself in fleece or fur: to hide in hide.

Abbott Handerson Thayer was not the only artist to find endless fascination in the “obliterative power of markings”. Across World War II, cubists and modernists and surrealists were recruited as camoufleurs, redirecting their practice towards the goal of human invisibility. Each would discover, as British printmaker Julian Trevelyan had, that camouflage involved more than the painting of a “rash of squiggly green patterns”. It was, instead, pure surrealism: the systemisation of confusion, of paradox and mimicry, of modifying the shade and hue of the world to generate targeted psychological disorientation.

In Australia, wartime camouflage took the form of strange and sudden “re-wildings”: of military bases on the outskirts of major cities suddenly disappearing under artificial hills and grasslands, flanked by false trees and papier-mâché animals. The point of such camouflage is not the creation of a perfect simulacrum, but of misdirection. One strategy is to bewilder, but another is to bore, encouraging the perceiver to believe there is nothing within view worth examining, and to direct their gaze elsewhere.


In Concealing-Coloration, one of Thayer’s greatest insights is in his unpacking of our cross-species capacity for environmental ignorance – our tendency to direct attention so unwaveringly to what we deem interesting as to render most of the world peripheral. This glossed-over world does not merely consist of small and cryptic creatures; it can extend to averting our gaze from entire landscapes we mistakenly consider empty.

Much of Melbourne has been built on grassland once frequented by the plains-wanderer, across the once vast expanse of the Keilor Plains. By the side of the Calder Freeway, some of the last remaining pockets of the plains are now being divvied up, plastered with “for sale” signs promising lucrative development opportunities on ostensibly vacant land. As late as this century, the plains-wanderer was seen nearby these lots, its range abutting the then limits of the city’s eastward sprawl.

From the moment of European invasion, much of Australian country was framed as “empty”, the recognition of the fullness and presence of place only registering after the clearing. Even now, studies suggest that grasslands are conceptualised as barren land, and are uniquely reviled. There is a strange selectivity that prefigures the parcelling of the natural world into “wilderness” or “wasteland”. In the settler-colonial mind, writes environmental historian William Cronon, “God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall”, but never in the swamps, or in the grasslands. In the scheme of planetary time, the human value judgements placed on landscapes are fickle and fleeting – to think of a “swamp” as a worthless emptiness is now passé; such spaces are now “wetlands”, alive and complex – but the damage that can be meted out to an ecology while it is misunderstood can be enduring. Cryptic landscapes, like cryptic creatures, are liable to disappear quietly while they go unacknowledged and unnoticed – slipping under the radar, invisible, then gone.

In 2000, a small team of urban ecologists surveyed the volcanic plains west of Melbourne, field-checking against a 1985 map that marked out every remnant patch of native grassland. In the 15 years between visits, almost a quarter of Melbourne’s remaining grassland had been destroyed by development; another fifth had been overrun by weeds. While following the old path of the plains-wanderer, I repeat the experiment, passing through industrial parks where wind howls through wide corridors of concrete. Rapidly, the map produced by the ecologists two decades earlier comes unstuck from the territory. One of the “irreplaceable” ecologies on the researchers’ 2000 map has been abbreviated into an eerie, conciliatory rectangle of grassland in the middle of a housing estate. Beside a locked gate, a tiny sign on a chain-link fence is all that exists to mark the site as a place of environmental significance: “No unauthorised entry, no garden waste, no rubbish dumping.”

Many of the few remaining grassland reserves are treated similarly, ringed with tall fencing to keep out tramplers, dog walkers and orchid thieves. The value binary is brutally arbitrary: if tussocks of kangaroo grass happen to fall under state government custodianship, they are part of a wilderness so precious as to require protection from human intrusion; if they sprout anywhere outside of the fencing, they can be poisoned or churned through to ready land for development. In both cases, there are few inducements to look further.

I make my way to the last remaining pocket of remnant grassland in the suburb of Sunshine, about 15 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. It is likely the wanderer once lived here, but there is no chance it could now. Much of the plant life is now non-native, an imperfect match for the colours of the wanderer’s feathers. The area is unfenced and open – the flora spills onto the road, unbounded – and it is possible to explore the degraded ecology. There’s little risk of trampling the grasses: dirt paths slice through the land, forming the ghostly outlines of a future suburb. On Google Maps, the street numbers of non-existent buildings overlay the grassland. I walk along one of the dirt “avenues”, currently inhabited by thistle-thickets and clusters of wheel cacti, counting the lot numbers – 23, 24, 25 – while picking up plastic jetsam that has blown in from a nearby industrial estate. The researchers who conducted the earlier study would classify this area as having ecologically collapsed. This place has suffered from a particular lack of attention, in which land that has been uncared for is subsequently deemed unworthy of care, ostensibly too far gone to recover.

Each lot in the Sunshine grassland has its own listing on an estate agent’s website, where the land is described as “up-and-coming”, perfect for investors to “land bank” – to hold, undeveloped, sometimes for decades, as its value appreciates.


Perhaps it is that we fail to see ourselves in grasslands, and in doing so fail to see anything – neither the wanderer, nor the landscape itself. In determining what environments to consider worthy of notice, forces of attraction circulate, drawing us towards those beings and assemblages we can most readily anthropomorphise, regardless of the vastness of taxonomic distance.

In this way, forests readily command our attention. Trees may be materially dissimilar to humans, and yet, they have “arms” that reach for sunlight, and bodies that grow tall and wizened, stooping as they senesce, their personalities enrolling them into emotive entanglements with the humans who notice them. There is a particular eucalyptus in a backyard several houses from mine that moults bark to reveal shiny “skin” beneath, and on crisp winter days I imagine it shivering. Council programs, meanwhile, allow residents to write emails to their favourite trees, framing them as silent listeners:

How are you? How old are you?
I’ve always wondered about you …
I hope they don’t knock you down.

These relationships seem as real as any other, especially if they are accompanied by an ethic of care. Noticing one tree, after all, is the first step towards noticing a forest.

There is no equivalent focal point for this kind of human pathos on a grassy plain. Tufts of kangaroo grass do not readily bear our anthropomorphic projections. It seems difficult, after all, to imagine writing a confessional email to a tussock of long-haired plume-grass – though perhaps this simply displays a failure of imagination.

In 2017, artist Zheng Bo transplanted weeds (often grassland species, albeit “out of place”) into industrial lifts within a Shanghai art museum. Visitors, entering the enclosed spaces, stepped up to a microphone and were asked to speak to the plant species they so often ignored or denigrated.

In a cultural centre in the suburb of Broadmeadows, north of the Sunshine grassland, there is a two-metre “tree” woven from rushes and tussock grasses and lilies. The Galgi-gnarrak Yirranboi Tree, crafted in 2003 by weavers from a wide variety of backgrounds, serves as a literal and figurative entwining of nature and culture: a means of spinning the grasslands into visibility. The role of this art piece was the same as Zheng’s weeds-in-the-gallery: to help communities engage with a plant community that is misunderstood and ignored.

When I talk with a friend about the fenced-off slivers of grasslands wedged inside Melbourne’s suburbs, I can feel myself being drawn to a non-relational mode, lapsing into the language of inadvertent disregard. “It’s so depressing,” I say. “They’re like these strange voids.” What I mean to say, I think, is that the grassland spaces feel uncomfortable because they are detached from community, appreciable only from behind a chain-link, with nothing to help passers-by readily understand or acknowledge what is inside. Instead, I feel I have inadvertently conveyed the opposite: a sense that the grassland is simply empty space, an invisibility.


I travel further north, 200 kilometres beyond Melbourne’s city limits, to Terrick Terrick on the Patho Plains. On the century-old map I am consulting, the plains-wanderer’s presence has been marked here, now one of the only regions in the state within the bird’s present range. I arrive as the last of the day blazes orange, pitch my tent in twilight, then listen to the plains in darkness. Online, I have heard the wanderer’s call – a low-pitched, slow, almost mournful “moo” – and this sound, or something like it, seems to drift across the fields. Sound travels strangely in grasslands at night, though, defying distance; more likely, what has made its way to me are the conversations of sheep in far-off paddocks.

The plains-wanderer is a cryptic creature, and evidence of its existence has always taken an uncertain shape, mostly hypothesis and conjecture. The bird is always in a state of vanishing, but as time passes, its vanishing is increasingly geographically circumscribed. As early as the 1890s, naturalists expressed fears that the species was heading towards extinction, but it is rarely clear whether the absence of the wanderer is due to local extinction or to a failure of human observation.

Across the fields of Terrick Terrick, ecologists play their roles as observers in this ongoing game of obliterative uncertainty. In 2020, these plains were scattered with hollow, polyethylene imitations of the wanderer, packed with the same Little Hotties Hand Warmers that fans stuff in their gloves at the football. Roaming researchers tested whether their replicas could hide from the view of spotlights or thermal scanning scopes. There is something charming about the reversal: ecologists as camoufleurs, taking on the role of the bird, challenging themselves to hide-and-seek.

Other wanderers have been fitted with trackers, glued or affixed via tiny harnesses. Even so, they are almost impossible to find. While hidden, they watch the watchers, shifting their bodies around the grassland, forming an imperceptibly rearranging landscape. Conservationist Greg​ Ogle recalls the chase: “We’d hear the tracker a hundred metres away, beep-beep-beep – then we’d walk towards it, and it would somehow be two hundred metres in the opposite direction.”


In 1973, novelist Peter Matthiessen set out in the Himalayas, hoping to catch sight of one of the world’s most cryptic species. His resulting book, The Snow Leopard, serves as a meditation on the camouflaged world. It is also, as M.R. O’Connor noted in The New Yorker, a work that underscores the difference between seeing and perceiving: “If Matthiessen had merely wanted to set eyes on a snow leopard, he could have driven from his home on Long Island to the Bronx Zoo”.

Just as it is possible to see without fully perceiving, it is possible to perceive a creature without seeing it. To search for the wanderer is to force oneself to look, perhaps for the first time, at the grasslands.

I walk the fields of Terrick Terrick, the vestiges of old farming properties, fenced into connected paddocks. It is virtually impossible to spot the wanderer in daylight; in full sun, it is a species of perfect stillness and disguise. Along the fence line, a brown falcon – a natural predator of the wanderer – rests before taking flight. From different vantage points, we both scan the field. It is a strange thing for two creatures, for entirely different reasons, to be searching in vain for the same prize. I have been told that birds of prey watch humans, hoping they might lead them to their quarry. In this case, there is a mutual observation taking place: each species hoping to free-ride on the perception of the other.

On web forums, queries about the subjectivity of colour perception are perennially posed: “How do I know that my ‘yellow’ is your ‘yellow’?” Thayer considered multiple species’ shared inability to spot camouflaged creatures as a kind of solution to this question of subjective sensory experience. For a bird of prey and a human being to struggle to spot the plumage of the wanderer in grassland suggests we must see similarly – that our eyes and mind have converged in capacity and motive.

Camouflage is not simply a representation of place, but of place through the eyes of its predators. After all, over the span of millennia, it is the predators who paint the colours on the coats of pursued creatures, reinforcing the markings on those beings that prove unnoticeable and uncatchable. The falcon is dusty and countershaded, but it is more conspicuous than cryptic. When it hovers, it is a dark speck in a bright sky – easy to spot. The magpies and magpie-larks around the grasslands are even more obvious. They have the luxury of visibility. The world has not rubbed off on their plumage; they have not become the plains. For them, the grassland is an ecosystem, but not one they are inextricably tied to. The conspicuous high-contrast colouration of magpie plumage, of course, is not arbitrary; rather, it is a different kind of mystery entirely.

When the plains-wanderer is discovered, it is often through the augmentation of sight – with devices that transfigure heat to light – or through an acceptance that vision is not the only source of truth. When the wanderer appears in the archives, in “sightings” across the 19th century, the bird is most often carried in the mouths of dogs, who have been drawn in by scent. In areas where grasslands have not been cleared and the wanderer persists, new creatures skulk nose-first through the plains, unbothered by the visual invisibility of prospective prey. Foxes, introduced to Australia for recreational hunting, continue to hunt without us. Their success demonstrates how different their subjective world is to ours: “their” grassland is not the grassland of the falcon, or of the human being.


If to “see” a cryptic animal involves setting one’s senses upon it, to perceive it is to pay attention to the space surrounding it. The wanderer’s pickiness – its unwillingness or inability to inhabit a landscape that isn’t “just right” – invites us to consider how one might eke out a living in a grassland as a ground-bound bird with a nervous disposition. Suddenly, the plains are spun into visibility: not as an emptiness, but as a home.

Researchers have proposed a “golfball test” to identify suitable habitat for the plains-wanderer: if 18 balls are dropped within a square metre of grassland, 15 to 16-and-a-half must remain visible for the land to be of suitable sparseness for the bird. With some imagination, we can consider why this might be so. The grassland becomes a space of lookout, of keeping lines of sight open that stretch for hundreds of metres, and a space of hideout, of inhabiting a paradox in which one can see everything and is perceived by nothing.

There is an anthropocentric aspect to this – the fate of any “charismatic species” is to bear our skewed human projections of what it might be like to “be” them – but to perceive the wanderer necessitates a meaningful stretching of subjectivity to meet another being on their level, and in their space. To do so is for the grasslands to unfurl in patterns of flood and fire and grazing, spurring invisible local migrations of wanderers away from newly inhospitable tussocks and towards those patches that are most homely. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, humans participated in this process of home-making. Author and farmer Bruce Pascoe presents images of grasslands, prior to European invasion, as harvest fields, threshed and burnt. Closer to Melbourne, accounts have been recovered of Wurundjeri and Wathaurong practices: kangaroo grass growing in the rich soil of a previous year’s controlled burn, regimes of gathering, digging and fire, and tubers and seeds traded across the plains, extending the range of lilies and orchids. Contrary to our dominant understanding of a healthy landscape as a lush abundance, it is in sparseness that grassland species – whether plains-wanderers or murnong yam daisies – are granted the more valuable luxury of space.

Slowly, the grasslands seem to be coming into view; perhaps too late after having been subjected to 200 years of erasure. In one reserve, abutting the You Yangs west of Melbourne, wildflowers bloom under the care of a Wathaurong cooperative. Across the volcanic plains, home gardens are being used to grow grassland species for seed-saving, one ecology overflowing into another. It is still unlikely that many of these spaces will ever again be suitable for the plains-wanderer – the conservationists I speak to admit that birds always fare poorly when reintroduced from captive breeding. On the Patho Plains surrounding Terrick Terrick, meanwhile, clearing still continues on some farmlands in which the wanderer has been sighted. Within the local community, there is a schism between those who perceive the wanderer and those for whom it remains invisible.


In Australia, a number of cryptic species have become cryptids – animals whose present existence has shifted into the realm of speculation. Folklore blends with history until, in some cases, it is no longer possible to determine whether a species existed at all. Thylacine, yarri, yowie – a spectrum of real and imagined creatures that are now connected by virtue of being hidden from human view.

For cryptic animals, there is a blurring of the line between existence and extinction. The contraction of the plains-wanderer’s range has created local populations of cryptids: wanderers whose existence is now purely hypothetical, until it isn’t. Over the past decade, individual wanderers have inexplicably appeared across Victoria, near Castlemaine, Geelong, Croydon – sites more than 100 kilometres from one another. Where there is one bird, there must be others, but these populations rapidly recede into speculation.

As a thought experiment, Abbott Handerson Thayer invites us to imagine a naturalist impressed by the flamboyant conspicuousness of butterfly wings. The naturalist passes by 99 butterflies that have successfully concealed themselves from view, noticing only the bold patterning of the 100th butterfly. “The ninety-nine successful disguises have made no impression at all,” Thayer writes, and so the naturalist believes all butterflies are easily perceptible, having missed the entirety of the invisible world. The plains-wanderer, too, is a reminder of our capacity for double ignorance: not simply to fail to see the invisible world, but to fail to perceive what we can’t see, forgetting that it exists at all.

 

This essay was the winner of the 2023 Nature Writing Prize.

 

Connor Tomas O’Brien

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Melbourne-based nature writer, graphic designer and educator.

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