In a public park in Melbourne’s quiet seaside suburb of Altona, two worlds collide. One is a thick carpet of unremarkable green lawn, the other is a small patch of re-claimed local ecology.
Unlike the manicured turf of Kikuyu grass - introduced to Australia by pastoralists in the early 20th century - the 3m square, fenced in by post-and-rail, is teeming with life.
Flowers the colour of the sky and the sun, with names like Shiny Everlasting and Blue Pincushions, tumble over each other. The air is tinged with a faint scent of chocolate, emitted from a bright purple flower known as the Chocolate Lilly. Bronze tufts of Kangaroo Grass shimmer and quiver in the breeze.
Through this ecological tapestry a myriad of insects including grasshoppers, native blue-banded bees, skipper butterflies and colonies of ant species all weave and scuttle.
Part of the Lost Lands Found project, this small patch of reclaimed Altona ecology is re-acquainting local residents with 55 species of Indigenous wildflowers, grasses, herbs and lilies that once flourished throughout the area.
The creator of the project, Wemba-Wemba and Wergaia man, Dean Stewart, describes this window into the past as "part ecological restoration, part public art installation".
“Lost Lands Found is like a moment frozen in time – it’s what the natural ecology of this very spot used to be like," says Dean.
"A time when there were emus and echidnas wandering through these areas and goannas climbing up the trees. It gives the general public an idea of what has been lost and hopefully what they can do about it.”
Only 200 years ago the whole of western Victoria – stretching from the Plenty River in Victoria, almost unbroken to the border of South Australia - was covered in rich flowering grasslands. The third largest of this ecosystem on earth, these grasslands provided food for humans and animals, stored and sequestered carbon, and stopped raging wildfires in their tracks.
However, today, less than 1% of Victoria’s flowering grassland ecosystems remain intact, after the introduction of European settlement, with it grazing hard-hoofed animals that compacted the once friable soil, and more recently, the widespread use of superphosphate fertiliser altered the natural, indigenous habitat.
Nick Williams, an urban ecologist and author of the new book, Land of Sweeping Plains: Managing and Restoring the Native Grasslands of South-eastern Australia, says the native grasslands were the reason Victoria was settled, but in three generations went from one of the richest grasslands on earth, to one of the most critically threatened.
"They were supporting an entire Indigenous economy at the time and that was basically displaced for sheep,” he says.
“Destruction of the grasslands has not only affected the plants, it’s also wiped out the homes of 99% of the Indigenous birds, animals and invertebrates from the same spot. It’s an absolutely catastrophic devastation of our own backyard.”
Frank Fardell, Team Leader of Conservation and Environment at Hobsons Bay Council, says it's a state of devastation that most people aren't aware of.
“There’s a big disconnect between the Australian community and our natural environment. Most of the grasslands people see by the side of the road are semi-degraded and are not representative of how these ecosystems once were,” he says.
“Lost Lands Found is critical in bringing grasslands into the community’s focus before it’s too late.”
Restoring the Flowering grasslands
With the threat of grassland extinction looming, Lost Lands Found is first about restoring the land to some semblance of its original ecological state.
To do this, Dean followed a process known as ‘scalping’ or removing the top layer of soil.
“This removes most of the weeds and gives native seedlings a better chance at surviving,” he says.
He then scattered mallee root charcoal over the site, paying homage to his old people’s traditional firestick farming.
“Grasslands are traditionally managed with fire so there would have been a lot of charcoal present in the soil,” says Dean, who is also a professional re-vegetation and conservation coordinator.
Plants were grown from locally sourced seed by Newport Lakes Native Nursery and Westgate Biodiversity Bili Nursery.
“At a genetic level, all the plants are well over 20,000 years old,” Dean says.
He also added logs to encourage native insects back, as well as scattered mussel shells.
“The mussels are an ode to the families who gathered here for thousands of years,” Dean says.
Taking the time to connect - and reconnect
The 1% of remaining grasslands (called ‘remnants’) are mostly in places where people don’t really go – along roadsides, train lines and in cemeteries.
In stark contrast, Lost Lands Found brings a symbolic remnant grassland to a busy public space and in doing so encourages passers by to stop and get curious about the world under their feet, with the hope of inspiring people to make deep personal connections to their local ecologies and landscape.
“The flowering grasslands make you need to stop and look,” Dean says.
“By looking into the intimacies of the flowering grasslands and taking that time, it helps ground us as individuals back into the place. Until the industrial revolution, that’s what people did around the world.”
And like any art piece, Dean says, everybody will find their inspiration in different ways.
“Some people will be inspired by the purples, others will gasp in amazement when they first see the blue banded bee. Everybody has their own eye for intimacy and beauty. This little space will hopefully help people rediscover that in their lives,” he says.
“I want to give people that opportunity to take the time and make friends again with the natural world. Whether we believe it or not, us city slickers need to realise that we are still part of the natural world.”