When I was a child, I thought mangroves were very ugly. Repulsed by this alien environment, teeming with mosquitoes, crabs and other creatures I disliked, I declared one day that I wished they could all be cleared away.
Very patiently, my father explained that mangroves were the nurseries for fish and crustaceans, that they provided habitat for many birds and animals and protected the coast from erosion. Although I still found them unpleasant, I began to view them with greater respect.
Subsequent documentaries on the subject awakened a fascination with these bizarre plants, their aerial root systems thrusting upward from the mud, their crowns forming dense thickets of grey-green foliage.
I now live in an area a few minutes’ drive from a tidal estuary, one of the many fingers of Broken Bay which probe the native bushland around Sydney’s northern reaches.
This morning I wandered along the boardwalk, enjoying the solitude and bird calls, the sunlight glowing in the shallows, the reflection of an impossibly blue sky on the incoming tide.
It is an uncanny feeling, walking through the mangroves – strangely beautiful yet almost claustrophobic, a primeval landscape which hints at the incalculable age of this ancient continent.
The sun sets rainbows dancing on the glossy leaves – a colourful counterpoint to the grey, turgid carpet of mud with its spikes of mangrove root.
It whispers memories of its traditional custodians for whom the ecosystem held tremendous cultural significance, in addition to providing food, medicine and materials. These were the Guringai people and they have left their mark upon the landscape with rock carvings. (These will be the subject of another blog post at a later date.)
Each turn on the path offered a different view, rich colours and dense textures…
I love this timeless land – the quiet beauty of quiet backwaters where time is measure by the slow growth of prehistoric plants…
and the endless motion of the tides.
It is a place where stagnancy and fecundity live side-by-side, ugliness and astounding beauty. These words are human constructs, value judgments we impose on the natural world. As it has done for millenia, the mangrove swamp will continue its work of filtration and nurturance. To enter this realm is to move back in time and dwell, if only for a moment, in the land as it was before the tall ships came.