Paganism is a lot of different things to different people, we all bring different skills, values, and viewpoints to paganism and often derive different things from our practice both in a community setting and working solo.
Recently several friends and I decided that it was time to do the Goldfields track, a walk that starts at the top of the picturesque Mount Bunninyong on the edge of Ballarat and ranges across the countryside through forest, bush, farmland and a number of rural towns. It terminates in Bendigo some 210kms from its start.
What does this have to do with paganism you might be asking yourself? The short answer is everything and nothing, depending on what you bring to it and what you take away from the experience. For me, as someone who identifies as a Druid, my connection to the land I live, work and practice paganism on is important. In ADF (Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship) we are encouraged to understand the land we live on, in a real, meaningful way.
Living in rural Australia you find that you often drive everywhere, and glimpse only but the tip of what is around you. Since I moved back to small town living I’ve spent the time exploring patches of what is around my new home and getting to know the land on my terms. Now as we trek through the many legs of the Goldfields track, I am being exposed to things I didn’t know where there, learning about the history around me, connecting with the land and its spirits and being shown things about myself, my companions and the world I hadn’t expected.
As I write this I am sitting in front of a fan on a scorching summers day five legs into this adventure, contemplating what to write about our experiences so far and how to describe them. I guess I’ll start with one of the things that has impressed me the most. How resilient nature is, there have been sights along the way that illustrated this perfectly even as it broke my heart to see how careless in general we humans are with nature and our surrounds.
We’ve found waterways running clear and beautiful where it seemed so unlikely, animals living in places that seemed so befouled by human interaction, plants reclaiming what used to be theirs, and a strange kind of harmony that has been reached between introduced species and native flora. While this resilience exists, it is not ideal that we go about our lives not thinking about how we impact the planet we live on.
Something else surprising was the discovery of places and spirits that demanded attention along the way, these took place in the form of offerings mostly – a few fresh snap peas and some fresh water here, some almonds and fruit elsewhere, since we were traveling light we gave what we could spare. It did not go unappreciated. While these interactions were startling, enjoyable and I think positive on both sides it left me with an unquiet sensation, a series of thoughts that I could not hope to put together in this article about our responsibilities to this land we call home.
One thing about the area we are walking is there is still a heavy presence of the history of mining throughout the region. You cannot go far through the bush and forest here without seeing subtle signs of the deep scarring that the land here felt during the gold rush (and beyond in some places). It doesn’t matter how tall the trees, how many birds, lizards and kangaroos you see. It cannot hide the capped mineshafts, damaged waterways, remnant structure and deep slices into the earth are everywhere here.
I’ll leave you for now with some photos from our journey so far, and would encourage others to try this in the area they live in.
Birds of Victoria
For those of us residing in the depths of suburbia with its manicured lawns, high fences and vast stretches of asphalt and concrete, it can feel hard to connect to nature. For some, all nearby parks are sporting fields and forests are out of reach. Despite urbanization placing a low priority on creating a harmonious environment to be shared among all species, some have succeeded in adapting to this new industrialized world. Birds are one of these success stories; filling the air with their song alongside the ever-present thrum of busy roadways.
Learning about the native species with which we share a home can be an empowering and rewarding experience. Standing outside on a pleasant sunny day and not being able to distinguish and name many of the subconsciously familiar sounds we hear is a symptom of the problem of the modern, urban disconnection from the natural world.
Australia has over 800 species of bird, almost half of which are found nowhere else in the world.
It can be tempting to view the natural world as distant and outside the boundaries of the mundane; the prevalence of birds are a reminder that we are part of a natural community of living beings. This season, why not join us in getting to know some of our feathered neighbours.
The Grey Butcher Bird
The grey butcher bird is a passerine bird (a perching bird with three forward facing toes, and one back) with a large head, black eyes, long hooked beak and plump body. Its monochromatic plumage features a black head with a white collar, dark wings and pale undercarriage. A close relative of the magpie and currawong, nesting butcher birds are known to swoop when they feel threatened.
A handsome, serious bird with a piercing gaze, butcher birds have adapted well to urbanization. An aggressive, territorial predator, the butcher bird is named for its habit of impaling and butchering its prey on thorns, crevices or tree forks. Prey may be then kept in such a larder for later consumption or used to attract mates.
The butcher bird fills a similar ecological niche to the Northern hemisphere shrike; although shrikes are sometimes referred to as butcher birds, the species are unrelated; one of Australia’s many examples of convergent evolution.
Often mistaken for the cuckoo shrike, butcher birds are smaller, rounder birds with an average length of 27cm. They have a magnificent, varied, fluting song, using their voices to demarcate territorial lines; putting their entire body to work in creating incredible volume.
Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike
Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes are shy, unassuming passerine birds who subsist mostly
on insects and occasional fruits and seeds, typically feeding on the wing. Continuing
the tradition of European colonists struggling to comprehend Australian native wildlife, Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes belong to the Coracina family; they are neither cuckoos nor shrikes. Preferring any woodland habitat except rainforests, Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes are found Australia wide and are common even in the suburbs.
Elegant in grey with a black eye mask that becomes larger with maturity, they are slightly smaller than magpies, averaging at 34cm in length. Often mistaken for the smaller Grey Butcher Bird, the Black Faced Cuckoo shrike has a longer, sleek body and flighty temperament. They can be identified at a distance by their distinctive habit of shuffling their wings after landing.
If you’ve been out walking late at night and heard a soft, two-part call similar to that
of a dove, it’s likely to be originating from Australia’s smallest owl, the Southern
Boobook, also known as the Mopoke.
Named for the sound it makes, this charming, wide-eyed, true owl feeds on insects and small vertebrates, including mice, microbats and other small birds. An abundant and adaptable species even in the depths of suburbia, the Southern Boobook is 25-35cm in length with brown plumage with white flecks, with grey, green or yellow eyes.
While throughout history the owl has often been portrayed as a bearer of ill omens, the Southern Boobook is considered beneficial to human habitation by controlling rodent populations. The Southern Boobook can be found everywhere in Australia except for the most arid desert regions. The Southern Boobook can even be found in open farmland, requiring only a few high trees to provide sufficient roosting spots and perches for hunting.
This article first appeared in volume 3, issue 5 of our old newsletter, Spokes of the Wheel.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons