For years I’ve been volunteering with environmental organizations, so it was natural for me to want to focus on environmental restoration during my trip with Todd around the Pacific. Back in March, I initially contacted Conservation Volunteers, which does projects throughout Australia and New Zealand, and in August I signed up for a one-day project in Sydney.
CVA partners with the City of Sydney to encourage residents to take ownership of their parks by getting involved with their upkeep and improvement. I looked at the list of projects on their website, which under “Get Involved” and then “Volunteer” enables you to select one-day projects or longer-term projects. I was able to look at projects online by clicking on a map in the right sidebar and chose “Eco-Therapy: Breathing Green Health into Moore Park,” an ongoing, weekly project maintaining and extending bush.
When I tried to register, the website kept asking me to pay, as if I were doing a long-term voluntourism project instead of a shorter, “local” project. Eventually, I sent an email to CVA and someone there put me on the list for the project and sent me a confirmation email. It instructed me to meet other volunteers at the Countrylink Terminal at the Central Station. I arrived 15 minutes early, which was a good thing, because I couldn’t find any sign with the word “Countrylink.” Finally I asked someone, and she said the entire terminal was Countrylink, and I should look around. So I walked around the entire station, and down a road a bit, and finally found the CVA van with Bria standing nearby.
She welcomed me, and I talked with another volunteer who was doing this kind of project for the first time. Then we piled into the van and drove to Moore Park, one of Sydney’s oldest parks. Along with Centennial Park, it forms the largest green space in Sydney.
When we reached the site, we found two regular volunteers already there, and our group was complete. On this Monday morning, our task was to extend a section of “bush” (Australian slang for native habitat) along a trail on the Downing Street side of the park. Much of the trail had already been weeded, planted, and mulched; our job was to dig out the mats of grass near a corner where a side trail fed into the main trail, to mulch to discourage weeds from sprouting in the future, and to plant dianella and acacia seedlings.
Bria handed out short mattocks and bags and buckets and showed us where we would be working. I got down on my knees and started wielding the mattock, feeling happy about what I was doing and enjoying the company. After I had filled up a bucket with weeds, I got out my camera and took some photos of the other volunteers. Bria identified some of the native plants for me and was sympathetic about the challenges of being in a place where few plants were familiar.
She told me that her particular Conservation Volunteers office was committed to establishing “bits of bush all over Sydney” to help native plants and animals thrive in the city. That kind of project is dear to my heart right now. At one point I was very much committed to restoring public (recreational) lands outside cities, but now I prefer to focus on improving habitat for plants and animals in cities, which in turn makes cities better places for people to live.
Another volunteer told me about a huge wetlands restoration project in Sydney Park, and I decided I would have to visit that park to check it out.
After we had dug out what seemed like acres of grass—although it was only a few square meters—we hauled mulch to the weeded areas and covered the soil to a depth of at least 5 centimeters (2 inches). That was rather hot work, and I was glad when we broke for lunch, even though I had been working only 2.5 hours by that point. At the most. Not to mention that I was working at sea level, which for a Colorado resident like me should be easy.
In the morning, Bria had placed the seedlings in water to soak up as much as they could, and after lunch we planted them. Dianella, which forms tussocks that stabilize the banks descending from the trail, could be placed about a meter from other plants.
The acacia tree seedlings (also called “wattles”) needed about twice that much space. We filled up the area we had weeded earlier and crossed the trail to find spots for the rest of the seedlings. Then we watered the acacia, which we marked by thrusting sticks into the soil next to them. That way, city employees could find them more easily on the next watering run.
Both dianella and acacia bloom in early September and have beautiful flowers, but my favorite plant was the banksia, named for Joseph Banks, botanist on the First Fleet. Bria called it a “major characteristic of Sydney bush land.” I saw both smooth-edged and serrated varieties.
By the time we finished, it was mid-afternoon, and I was tired. One volunteer walked home from the park, and the rest of us piled into the van and drove back to Central Station, where I felt rather ridiculous in my windbreaker and wide-brimmed gardening hat.