In silent ca­ma­raderie

A bush re­gen­er­a­tion project in Wahroonga do­ing so much more than just clear­ing un­wanted weeds

Monthly Chronicle - - Local Hero - Jenny Bar­lass

A group of men in high viz jack­ets and hats work in si­lence, the shrill chirrup of the ci­cadas the only sound pierc­ing the quiet.

Armed with small hack­saws and saws, the six men hack away at the lan­tana and weeds en­croach­ing on the land at Ju­bilee Oval in North Wahroonga.

An in­quis­i­tive wal­laby might drop by - but rarely a word will be spo­ken be­tween these men all day - yet that’s just how they like it. For this is no or­di­nary work­force, but the re­mark­able Ku-ring-gai Coun­cil Bush Re­gen­er­a­tion Project.

Co-or­di­na­tor Mick Marr, trained in bush re­gen­er­a­tion and with a wide range of coun­selling and anx­i­ety qual­i­fi­ca­tions, over­sees this group of up to eight mid­dle aged men. They all have in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties in­clud­ing autism, Down’s Syn­drome and one uni­fy­ing con­di­tion - ex­treme anx­i­ety - and there’s no ver­bal in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the men.

Na­ture the healer

The heal­ing pow­ers of ex­po­sure to na­ture are widely doc­u­mented - but this 25 year-old project takes that to the next level.

“When they ar­rived, these guys were all in­sti­tu­tion­alised as high sup­port clients, and you couldn’t take them out,” says Mick, who’s been do­ing this for 15 years.

“Here they’ve learned how to so­cialise, per­form tasks and feel val­ued. Now they can be near other peo­ple, go into pub­lic on day trips with car­ers or to the park or play bowls. They’re able to func­tion more in the world.

“Their trans­for­ma­tion’s been en­tirely through com­ing here for the bush re­gen­er­a­tion. They feel safe in the bush, it calms them down. And I prac­tice Cog­ni­tive Be­hav­iour Ther­apy with the guys, which is ba­si­cally just telling them what’s go­ing to hap­pen and when. So they come to know what to ex­pect.

“This helps with the anx­i­ety - with the CBT they start to learn to trust you and re­lax in your com­pany and in each other’s, and then the anx­i­ety is re­duced.”

There’ve been in the past phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tions as the “clients” came to un­der­stand how to be­have, and Mick ad­mits his early days there were “stress­ful”.

“But I love the job - bring­ing the bush back to life, be­ing a lone boss and help­ing the guys. I’m quite at­tached to them af­ter ten years of them com­ing here.”

It’s shock­ing to learn that peo­ple with autism used to be taught to com­mu­ni­cate with sign lan­guage so while Mick prefers to qui­etly chat, the guys sign with each other when they do feel like com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

You have the sense that this has been a long jour­ney they’ve all been on, to­day re­flected in the re­laxed de­meanours of the team and the huge swathes of lan­tana they've cut back, the buf­fer be­tween both the bush and the oval.

In fact they’ve cut down three hectares of 3m high lan­tana over the last three years, as well as prop­a­gat­ing seeds and grow­ing na­tive grasses.

But aren’t the creepy crawlies which put many peo­ple off back­yard gar­den­ing an even big­ger is­sue here? In fact the op­po­site is true: “We’ve seen plenty of snakes - brown, red belly, and pythons - but fear of snakes is a learned be­hav­iour and the guys just walk away when they see one,” says Mick.

Other bush ad­ver­saries in­clude painful jump­ing jack ants and of course ticks - so they go into bat­tle fully sprayed and cov­ered head to foot. Then there was the time they en­coun­tered “hun­dreds of fun­nel web spi­ders when we were in Pym­ble - we just had to aban­don it be­cause it was too dan­ger­ous,” laughs Mick.

The na­ture of the work is repet­i­tive, but that’s what’s sooth­ing and com­fort­ing to the men. They re­ceive a mod­est re­mu­ner­a­tion from ser­vice provider House With No Steps in Bel­rose - if it were more, they’d lose their pen­sions, so it’s not re­ally about the money.

An­drew is the “most changed per­son,” says Mick. “He used to live in a house with two sup­port work­ers be­cause his be­hav­iour was so chal­leng­ing. But he can hold a con­ver­sa­tion when he wants to.”

“I like weed­ing and saw­ing trees,” says An­drew with a grin, “and I’ve seen wal­la­bies and tigers in the bush.”

Calling out for more bushies

To make an even big­ger mark on the area and on the lives of other blokes like these, Mick is calling for both more clients and more peo­ple with sim­i­lar skill sets as his, to ex­pand the work he does.

“We need another me,” he says, “some­one with a Cert 3 in Bush Re­gen­er­a­tion or Com­mu­nity Ser­vices. Then we could get more clients and trans­form this space even more.”

And trans­form some more quiet lives along the way.

*If you’d like to find out more about work­ing on this project, call House With No Steps 9451 1511 and ask for client sup­port.

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