Simin: I love it. I just want to devote all my life to the Cooks river.
Sarah: We’re at a salt marsh on the banks of the Cooks. The tidal river runs from Yagoona in Sydney’s southwest to Botany Bay, emptying into the ocean just next to the airport.
Simin: I find it so pleasant when you’re working with the people. Always nice people.
Sarah: So you’re weeding – what are you pulling out?
Simin: Farmers Friend, all over.
Sarah: It’s about 9 o’clock on Sunday morning and Simin is standing in waist-high grass pulling out weeds that cover her in thistles and burrs.
Sarah: A lot of people find weeding annoying
Simin: It’s really good it’s actually addictive, it’s therapeutic for the mental, slowly release the negative energy.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Allely
Olivia: I’m Olivia Rosenman, and this is Brain on Nature, a podcast about the benefits of spending time in the natural world.
In this episode we’re going to hear about the Cooks River Mudcrabs, and how volunteering for a local environmental organisation can help deepen your connection to nature.
Sarah: How can that relationship become two-way? The next step is giving back.
Olivia: A few weeks after meeting Simin at the salt marsh, we rode our bikes along the river to meet her and her friend Farah in Campsie.
Sarah: They both volunteer for the Mudcrabs, an organisation that rehabilitates the river and regenerates the bushland around it.
Olivia: The Cooks was once Australia’s most polluted River but the Mudcrabs have been working for years now, to change that.
Farah: We saw all this rubbish. So we thought maybe we can help to clean up the river. All I want to do is to to have that feeling of connection that, you know, because love is not just a word is more like an action for me. And to show your action, you got to do something about it.
Sarah: One of the main activities the Mudcrabs organise is a volunteer army of litter pickers who scour the banks of the river picking up endless tides of trash in and around the water.
Olivia: In making this podcast, we were inspired to join them, and discovered just how addictive and satisfying collecting rubbish can be
Farah: I do it most of the day…I take my plastics, two plastic shopping bags… I just fill it in and maybe every day two plastic bag.
Olivia: Farah and Simin met at their local Campsie shops.
Simin: I was in the shopping centre and I saw someone is a talking Persian. I think farah she was with her sister talking Persian. And then I said, Oh, are you persian? Farah, she said, Yes, I am Persian, where do you live. She said in the Gould Street, the same as Street I live. And then so yeah, just you start to get the friendship together,
Olivia: Their friendship developed on the banks of the river.
Simin: we talking together about the, you know, the river, how helpful we are very lucky we have this in Campsie…I said, we are so lucky we have to do some things…. And One day I was passing there, I saw the Mud Crabs Group and they cleaning up the river.
Olivia: We’re sitting drinking tea with Simin and Farah in front of a generous spread of sweet biscuits, cakes, baklava, and a special Iranian fruit leather.
Farah: When I moved into Campsie was 2010, and I was working at that moment, so I didn’t have any free times. So I started walking on the river and I fell in love with the river…I felt a really big connection with the river…and I saw the river and I said, What can I do that and really…feel that connection even more…So Simin and I, we sometimes we were walking and we saw this mud crab people working…. I think been three, four years, no five years.
Olivia: Farah was working as a midwife but since she retired, she’s dedicated much of her time to rehabilitating the river with the Mudcrabs.
Farah: They really know the nature, or they have really knowledge about the biology or birds or animals or, you know, the water and the creatures. So it really gives you a lot of information that you really didn’t know before… We are we are doing something and a new person comes. I can actually explain to them and i say, Oh, I didn’t know this before. So I’m kind of becoming a connection between people and those expert,… So the young people will come. And I tell them which ones are weeds and which one, you know, how to plant and how far do you have to go? And a lot of things I can tell them because they’re unconsciously you learning so much. What’s your dogs name, Angel Floss –
Sarah: As well as litter picking, Simin and Farah are regulars at bush regeneration sessions – weeding, planting, watering to restore the natural ecosystems along the banks of the river.
Simin: You learn a lot about the nature, and it makes your brain is very flexibility, open of the diversity of the lives in the world…I get the knowledge and this is makes me happy
Farah: But I always look at the river as my mother or the Earth mother. I don’t know. I never looked at this scientifically, and all I wanted to do is to to to have that connection.
Sarah: Back at the Salt Marsh, we’re getting the introduction to the site from the site coordinator.
Russell: This used to be a tip. Sorry originally it was a beautiful salt marsh but then when white settlers came, marshes were regarded as waste lands so then it became a tip, especially in the 50s and then in the early 2000s the then Canterburhy council….they’ve bulldozed it out and allowed the natural process of nature for the saltmarsh species to colonise…..
Sarah: This is Russell Cayer. He used to work in biotechnology but since he’s retired he leads the volunteers who meet once a month at the salt marsh to restore its complex ecosystem.
Russell: From the river margins up where the tide actually floods the area on a continuous basis you’ll get this low growing thing called bearded glasswort, samphire or Sarcocornia Australis. And in other areas where it’s not contaminated it’s sometimes used as a garnish on food and things.
Sarah: Russell guided a group of us to remove the invasive weeds to allow these natives to flourish. Along with some other more unusual obstacles
Colin: I knew we were getting more tropical but I wasn’t expecting to see…
Simin: I didn’t know if I should pick it up
Olivia: That’s a coconut!
Russell: Yeah pick it up, it’s rubbish
Simin: I looked at that and I said is this nature
Russ: I think I’m standing on a bit of sarcocornia. So getting back to what makes it a saltmarsh which we were just going through. It then gets drier we’ve got native cooch over here. Genus called…then fade under below. Talks about reeds etc….
Olivia: This is one of 12 bushcare sites along the river, a number that’s growing constantly.
Peter: We just started a new one last month and the one before that we only opened probably three or four months before
Olivia: That’s Peter Munro
Peter: My role with the mud crabs is Nefarious, I suppose. I’ve been involved from the very beginning, but. It’s multifaceted.
Olivia: Peter’s a retired psychologist and dedicates much of his time and energy to regenerating the Cooks River.
Peter: We moved here in 2004 and discovered the river, like many of us. I had never lived in Sydney. A lot of my life and hadn’t I’d heard of the Cooks River, but I knew nothing about it. And very quickly, we started walking along the river and we saw this man who was Chris Bartlett. We didn’t know that, but he was there picking, pulling rubbish out of the river.
Olivia: There was lots of it.
Peter: Well, it was dreadful. It was a sea of plastic bottles. All the mangroves at low tide were just littered with literally a sea of bottles and rubbish bags. And Chris lived across the other side of the road. He was quite an eccentric man. He died in 2012. He was a guy that just did it. And so he started going down by himself and he rode a pushbike and had a whole load of stuff, bags and grabbers and things. And we saw him pulling litter out and I asked him what he was doing and he said, I do this regularly to try and get some, get rid of some rubbish. So he said, if you like I’ll take your phone number and ring. You went next time…So we started gathering people that started coming along… Chris was a meticulous record, a record keeper and after every event he would go back home up… and he’d write the name of every person that came. If it was a clean up, what was taken out of the river, the number of bags, if it was a planting event, every single tree that was planted and the name of them in Latin… very quickly that group started to grow and Chris would be ringing 50 or 60 people on a Friday night to say, I’m going down to Boat Harbour tomorrow morning at 8:00 if you want to come along. And I suggested to him that we should start using email. LAUGHS WHAT YEAR WAS THIS 2004
Olivia: it’s amazing how many people don’t actually know about the Cook’s River.
Peter: Yeah it’s interesting because it is very narrow, there’s not many car roads across it, so there’s not a sense of. It’s quite enclosed and and locked, locked away in a sense.
Sarah: It is like it’s sort of like you have to almost form a relationship with it to, to like kind of fall in love with it and engage with it…I feel like you sort of need to sink into it to appreciate it.
Peter: Yeah. And I think out of that same concept comes the idea, the drive to help it, to rescue it, to do something, to be active and to be instrumental in in its recovery. I think that, you know, once you get to know the river, you want to do something. You don’t want to just…I think I’m Extrapolating to others but me I don’t want to just enjoy it. I want to be instrumental in undoing the damage that’s been done and caring for it.
Olivia: So you’ve been here almost 20 years. How have you seen the river change over that? Over that time?
Peter: The most dramatic change is one… the removal of the litter. The fact that you know, that the container deposit scheme came in and there was an almost, you know, a very quick change in the floating litter which was mainly bottles…the other thing is the number of people that use the river has gone up exponentially and much more so since Covid you know the number of people along the river just exploded and people being out in in nature…It’s interesting, I was I was involved in a meeting recently and Sydney, someone from Sydney Water was there and they were saying that the Cook’s River is the most. Um. Engaged community of…, any of the water courses that Sydney water has to deal with. They’ve got the most switched on and connected community um …they said it’s quite noticeable that it’s highly active, aware and switched on community.
Olivia: Pretty much every weekend and some weekdays too you can find Mudcrabs working at the Cooks River. Some of them have grown up along the cooks.
Kevin: When I was like a child at primary school kid, there was a tonne of rubbish in the cooks river. I’m sort of surprised to see how clean it is, by comparison.
Sarah: We met a real range of ages. I assumed when I spotted high school student Kevin weeding on a Saturday that he had been dragged along by a parent. But he was there on his own steam.
Kevin: It’s really enjoyable, it’s relaxing, and otherwise I probably wouldn’t wake up at 8 on a saturday morning
Judy: I live alone and I live in a flat and, you know, I’d go nuts if I didn’t have this at the end of my street.
Sarah: I’m standing with the Mudcrabs at another site in Hurlstone Park. It’s a sandstone outcrop higher up on the banks, where a footbridge crosses the river.
Judy: And the mud crabs itself are so they’re so accepting and inclusive…you know, like you can come as much or as little as and as I’m getting older seem to be coming less (laughs), it’s a bit naughty of me. But anyway….yeah you just forget yourself and your troubles for a while, you know, a couple of hours. , the change we’ve made, it’s just fantastic.
Judy: My name’s Judy: Seabyrne and I just live in Foorde Avenue there
Sarah: Tell me what you saw before.
Judy: Oh, just well, this was just just a bit. Grass and weeds, but also rubbish. You know, people would just dump the rubbish here. And even, you know, like that wheel, they will dump their rubbish over the cliff. It was shocking. And so now people are more aware of that. Like if that happened…And so it just doesn’t happen anymore because I think people are much more caring about it or would
Sarah: So before it was just grass and people would dump their rubbish. And what are we standing in your life now? Tell me what you what you’ve what you’ve helped create?
Judy:Oh, well, it’s a little bushland. Yeah. You know, that was Doug’s idea was not so much a little garden as just bring it back to bush. That’s why it’s really thick, lots of undergrowth, the grasses and then the different trees and the smaller trees for the birds…you know, they used to be wrens here and then they disappeared because they’re too small and the wagtail too, I think the big birds would just chase them off. And now they’re back because they love these little bushes with the prickles gives the, you know, it gives him protection. Yeah, yeah, it’s sad. I love those. So yeah, like the first time was after a mud crabs thing, and then Liz suddenly saw these blue wren and we went, Oh, it’s really exciting. ..
Sarah: I push through the dense shrubs to find more volunteers enthusiastically pulling out invasive species.
Sarah: What motivates you to come and do this on a Sunday morning?
Kai: Oh, well, I think at the moment, I’m not doing like, I’m not doing full time work, so it’s nice to fill a bit of time and it’s nice to have like, be a part of the community and like get out and experience the sort of natural environment that I live around because I do a lot of walks along the river and cycle around a bit.
Sarah: He’s one of a newer breed of younger Mudcrabs turning up to help regenerate the Cooks River.
Kai: My name’s Kai Bhullar. Um, and I live up on the Canterbury Racecourse.
Sarah: what have you got in your bag there?
Kai: So this is what it was called Turkey Rhubarb? Yeah, turkey rhubarb.. Yeah, yeah. It’s just got like massive tubers. Yeah, it takes a good while to get to the very bottom and dig out like a huge tuber that feel like it’s very satisfying when you actually do it.
Doug: I’m Doug Benson and I’ve actually a been botanist all my life….And I’m a local here and part of my encouragement here was that as a botanist, I wrote things that told people what to do without doing a lot of it myself, except in my garden. And this has been a chance for me to put into practise these things and to modify them and so as they go along. So I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing the results over the ten years here and another site and so on that we have. So it’s just been a really good learning experience.
Sarah: The Mudcrabs help educate the community about how the Australian bush is not tidy like an English garden.
These bush care sites are being meticulously cared for but to the uninitiated they can look unkempt.
Doug: that it’s not necessarily neat and it’s spiky. We use things that are spiky and so on because they’re good. Habitat for birds protects the birds from cats and so on. I think that that’s it’s nice for people to see that…in a sense, it’s glorified gardening. But you do get a lot from it because it’s gardening. It’s not directional. You’re not trying to end up with a row of camellias neatly pruned along here. You’re trying to let nature run through and see what happens. So when the drought, when these things die and we had a big banksia die, we just say, Well, that’s it. It, it got to the stage. It was growing in a spot where it wasn’t wet enough to cope with the drought and it died. But we’ve got another one over there and that one’s doing okay. [00:17:02][66.6]
Sarah: Doug literally wrote the book about the Cooks River plants – it’s called Missing Jigsaw Pieces: The Bushplants of the Cooks River Valley. So he’s super passionate about the bushland returning to the area.
Doug: I live for that. I was…. At the age of five. I had a garden and a trolley. There’s a picture of me with the trolley, with a succulent in it, carting it somewhere. I’ve just lived with plants all my life. And when you get depressed these days because the world is a bit difficult when you watch the news every night. Uh, there’s something about knowing that plants are… That nature is there ignorant of what’s happening and of course, it’s not that it doesn’t care, it responds. But it’s… there’s a lot of vitality in it. In a funny way…if we all disappeared, you can see what would happen. A lot of these plants would all survive. They’d be happy and spread, the bush ones. Some of the weeds would survive and spread, too. And in the long term, a nature will take over a destroyed Sydney shore. You can just see a vitality in nature that’s that it’s going to be there come whatever sort of disasters we provide. Yeah, yeah. So it’s it’s a positive thing seeing plants grow. That’s all I can really say is Sarah: thank you. go and chat with Liz she’s been here since the start etc thank you doug lovely to meet you
Sarah: Doug sends me over to chat with Liz and she starts telling me a story about a weeding dilemma she had.
Liz In the middle of winter I came and saw a haul of turkey rhubarb, flowering, great bunches of it. So I just came in here and start putting it all out. And then I looked up and this little nest sitting and I realise the turkey rhubarb is a perfect camouflage for this nest. And I think it’s fabulous the business because it was the middle of winter, but I was mortified and I so went, Yeah, oh the to. I thought it was two little plastic balls at first of all, that’s in kids might have put in their eggs. So then I kind of backed off when hid behind the wall over there to look and say some distressed bird came and I didn’t ever see another bird there. And a bit later on those, I came back. I didn’t like to go too close. I thought I could see some little furry thing, but I’m not sure it was very early in the year.
Sarah: That is a dilemma. So how long have you been involved with this bush care site?
Liz: Probably about 12 years, 13 years, something like that. Pretty much since it started
Sarah: And what have you seen like that? Tell me what you see now compared to what you saw when you first started.
Liz: It’s completely, it’s totally transformed… None of these, all these different variety of plants were not here. So we had to do revegetation here rather than regeneration because there’s nothing around to regenerate from.
Sarah: What’s the difference between revegetation and regeneration?
Liz: Well regeneration is, where you can just stop interfering with the environment and then things will grow again. So there’s some good examples of that in Wolli Creek, where there’s a lot of natural bushland still there. And where they’ve had adjacent meadows, which have been regularly mowed by the council. They’ve got the council to not mow certain areas. And then there’s enough bird activity and seed dispersal that plants are just growing. So that hasn’t been planned or organised, whereas we’ve chosen which plants we’re going to put in here. We’re using all the plants absolutely from this area. So we’re very… we won’t put in coastal banksia here. So sometimes people come and offer us plants that don’t really belong exactly here. But we’re a bit purist here under Doug’s tutelage….and tried to choose things that would create that habitat. So for example, for the Wrens, a lot of hakeas, is both areas because they’re both quite prickly…
Sarah: And the wrens like prickly plants do they?
Liz: Well, they like them because of who they keep out. So they’re small, they can get in. So there’s some connection. There’s a somebody who is in the street who loves cats and her cats roam free. So trying to make an environment that’s not very attractive for them is important.
I wander back down the sandstone cliff to find Doug again.
Doug: We expanded along there. And finally, with this in here was just a BlackBerry covered, weed infested thing…So it’s been really good,. [00:09:26][17.0]
Sarah: Has it? And do you notice that the biodiversity is improved? Yes.
Doug: Yes, that’s how we did it. We had our performance indicator Sarah: KPIs Yes, our KPIs. I was of wildlife birds. When we see blue wren come back because there’s not a blue wren here, you can imagine just grass and they like cover. And so after about four or five years, we did actually see blue rinse in our nesting here and we’re now getting other things, other birds coming in as well. So yes, that worked. And the other KPI that I quite liked was that you could take a primary school group through and teach them ecology. So you could say, okay, here is the shady bit with the ferns and you can see it’s wet and that’s along here. And then you could take them up to the top site. And here’s the dry a bit where you have different plants and he’s the river with different plants. And it’s actually works as you know, you can use it in any sort of to teach that level of environment. Yeah. And the third thing was that people feel that it feels like the bush.
Peter: How do you measure the health of a river like this? You measure it by the biodiversity. You measure by what’s in the water, how clean the water is. Um, and ironically, talking about people in nature, I think the worst thing for the river is people. And I’ve always advocated for parts of the river that are humans are excluded from because we’re just such a destructive species
It’s interesting the word nature I’ve sort of bit I resist that a little bit because it’s used so family to to you know people I love nature what’s you know and I but I think there’s no doubt that being out in the in a a natural environment, you know, with with sun and grass and plants and wind and etc., is crucial to it. I mean, that’s that’s our DNA. I think it’s vital to…Um, you know, if you want to destroy a person, lock them away out of contact with the natural elements. So…No doubt about that, that that’s an important aspect of mental health.
Simin: You know, when I lost, my dad, I came for the nature. I was looking at the tree. I said that that’s the big lesson. Losing is the part of the life. That’s it. It’s helped me for myself, you know, just for health, you know, for the mentally, it’s helped me a lot. I just take this opportunity to thank you for the nature and the people involved with that in the cooks river.
Sarah: Thanks to the Inner West Council’s environment grant for supporting this episode. And thanks to the Cooks River Valley Association. Special thanks to all the Mudcrabs for helping the river to thrive.
This episode was hosted and produced by Olivia Rosenman and Sarah Allely. Sound engineer was Isabella Tropiano, theme music by Jonathan Zenti.