Posted: July 31, 2017
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Whispering to Leaves and Speaking to Bark in the Australian Wet Tropics


“A traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants make up the chief embellishment”.

Although Charles Darwin said this almost two hundred years ago, his recommendation remains as valid now as it was then. Students of The School for Field Studies are not only travellers, but also the next generation of teachers and researchers. For those of them on a career path in the environmental sciences, a good appreciation of the foundational organisms of terrestrial ecosystems, plants, is paramount.

As a destination for field studies, the Wet Tropics of Australia is second to none in the diversity of landscapes and biota, relative to the restricted extent of tropical rain forest habitats in Australia.

Moreover, Australia’s tropical rain forests are a veritable living museum of primitive lineages of flowering plants, giving students an unparalleled opportunity to observe and appreciate how the first flowering plants that appeared on this planet may have looked like. But before this appreciation can happen, a more fundamental hurdle must be crossed.

Most of us are city kids, and have long been estranged from nature, and importantly, have never grown up with the culture to observe nature.

When first confronted with the tropical flora, such as that which surrounds the field station at Yungaburra, most of us would instantly perceive the hundreds of plants before us as intractable and indistinguishable green entities. There is even a technical term for this phenomenon – plant blindness!

Granted, not everyone has the desire, inclination, or need to learn the entire flora of any given locality. However, without the ability to at least see and differentiate plants, all the fascinating facts about a place would be little more than trivia, such as how the Wet Tropics cover 0.2% of Australia’s land area but has 25% of its plant species, or that it harbours 60% of Australia’s ferns, or 16 out of the world’s 28 basal lineages of flowering plants.

Surprisingly, one of the first steps of remedying “plant blindness” is simply to teach what a leaf is, and all that a leaf can be or look like. A student asked if I was kidding when I expounded “First, know thy leaf”.

Why not flowers? Firstly, field identification of plants, particularly in the tropics, is more heavily reliant on “spot characters” of leaves and bark, and secondly, knowing what is a leaf is the very essential step for paving a way to using any kind of available plant identification tool or key.

And therefore, one aspect of the natural resource management part of the Summer II course at the The School for Field Studies has been to guide students to be sophisticated observers of leaves, in other words, budding leaf whisperers.

With the awareness that many SFS students hail from America, I recall a favourite saying of the well-known American author Walt Whitman, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less the journey work of the stars.”

If the personal and academic journeys of our students have led them to Queensland to see and appreciate for the first time the nature a leaf, how serendipitous is it that the “journey work of stars” embodied within the leaves of the three thousand-ought plant species of the Australian Wet Tropics have also converged here, as if in cooperation.

And for myself as a guide having been a mediator of these interactions – what a grandiose privilege!

→ Rainforest Studies in Australia

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