In silent camaraderie
A bush regeneration project in Wahroonga doing so much more than just clearing unwanted weeds
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.