Every day on the calendar has its host of holidays and observances, and February 2 is no different. The fortieth day after Christmas, it holds a special place in the religious calendar – the Candlemas feast. This holiday has its roots in northern hemisphere agricultural rites, and is a happy occasion for believers in different countries, who eat pancakes or other sweets in celebration.
In addition, biologists and ecologists around the world mark the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day. And while there’s every reason why this might be a fun day out, it has an element of concern attached to it.
Wetlands are important but fragile ecosystems. Lately, when I am in my hometown of Launceston, I have lately been enjoying walks along the rivers that define my town. These fringe places have been alive with birdsong and frogcalls, and the hum and buzz of cicadas and other insects.
But the reality is that as important as wetlands are, they are often unattractive to an eye trained by a tradition of aesthetic romanticism. Nor do they offer obvious practical advantages to human societies, and so we have, throughout the ages, drained and cleared wetlands, oblivious or careless about the disturbance it creates upon the habitat of so many of the creatures that pass in close proximity to us.
Take the hyperactive birdlife of Tamar Island, the location of my nearest World Wetlands Day celebrations. Here, in the middle of the eccentric tidal estuary of the Tamar, black swans teem and teeter; egrets and pelicans hover over the island; varieties of ducks or dotterels with quirky hairstyles bob along the gentle ripples of the water; grassbirds and fairy-wrens flit about the branches. Two of my favourite birds stomp around: the almost-but-not-quite elegant purple swamphen, and the utterly loveable ‘narky’ – the Tasmanian native hen – making its unmistakeable racket.
They are attracted to the rich resources of the river, as have all sorts of humans for millennia. Aboriginal societies, for thousands of years, recognised the busy estuary as significant and passed much time along its banks. Among other names, they knew at is as Ponrabbel or kanamaluka.
From the beginning of European settlement – from the first northern Tasmania colony in 1804 – sites along the Tamar were seen as important too. The earliest maps have Tamar Island charted upon them, although not by that name. Col. William Paterson made landfall on Tamar Island, in somewhat brief and unglorious circumstances, when his vessel got stuck in the mud around it – and Mud Island was thus its name for some time. So too was Pig Island.
The island was also used a base for the project of dredging the river and redirecting its flow in the 1890s; scuttled vessels from this era, such as the Platypus, are visible from the boardwalks.
Later used for agriculture, and the long-standing ecology of the place was jeopardised. But today the wetlands are open to visitors, with simple boardwalks connecting the mud flats and the island; the removal of a short-horned bull named Bruno was one of the last vestiges of introduced fauna, although there still remain scores of exotic trees. The wetlands continue to morph, adapting to the pressures of humans and climate.
World Wetlands Day is my kind of occasion. It is a moment to celebrate a complicated landscape, which is often very accessible and has a tangled history. It is an excuse to wonder, and to learn. By looking closer at an ordinary scene, by putting our hands in the mud or pushing through the reeds, we uncover more about the world we live in, and consequently find ourselves fixed more firmly in our place.
Go on: have a World Wetlands Day party. I’ll come dressed as a purple swamphen.