August 2014

Now is our time to return something to the earth

When our actions deplete or lead to the destruction of species, surely we need to pause, says Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill.

BY Catherine McCahill SGS

It was the wombats I wanted to see. Of course, I didn’t really expect to see one, but I at least wanted to see evidence of their presence and I wasn’t disappointed. Like many Australians, I am fascinated by this furry, rotund, nocturnal creature – one of our endangered species. However, I’ve only seen them in cages or dead beside the highway.

On the 26 hectares of Cumberland Woodland along the Nepean River at Camden, south-west of Sydney, set aside for ecological regeneration, there are at least four wombats. As for most wombats ‘in the wild’, they suffer from lack of food (mainly grasses), predation by feral animals (foxes and dogs) and the scourge of sarcoptic mange (scabies). Life has been tough for them. That is, until Brendon Levot and Daryl Wells from Toolijooa Environmental Restoration arrived.

In 2012, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan entered into a contract with the NSW Government’s Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), to set aside a piece of land near Camden, in the Macarthur Region, for ecological restoration. Under what is called a BioBanking agreement, the OEH provides funds for the gradual restoration of the land. Each year, agreed outcomes – the removal of feral animals and weeds (including trees) and regeneration of native species – must be achieved so that money can be released for further work. The Sisters contracted the work to Toolijooa.

Along with other members of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ Creation Resource Team, I recently visited this BioBanking site. The restoration work is clearly evident. This land, severely overrun with African Olives, Prickly Pear and other weeds is starting to breathe again. Cumberland Woodland is just that – grassed, open space sustaining regal gums. But the African Olives have choked it; the native birds and other fauna have left as the grass and lower vegetation have disappeared.

Where strips of African Olive have been removed, the native grasses are moving back. The process is slow (a 20-year target), so that the native fauna can maintain their habitats and return slowly to the land. When the gums have space, they too regenerate. New shoots delighted us.

The wombats are also recovering. Those shy creatures that burrow deep into the earth and only come out at night, require well-planned care. Brendon Levot has set up an ingenious device for delivering a small amount of insecticide along the back of the wombat as it enters its burrow. With weekly doses for eight weeks, the mange-causing mite has been controlled. The wombats are healthy again. One of the females has just given birth. The patter of tiny feet might be heard at night, we think. We saw the prints in the loose earth.

Each year, the Swift Parrot goes north from Tasmania for winter. With less than 2,000 of these parrots left in the wild, it is endangered and rarely sighted on the mainland. This year, however, at least ten such birds stayed over for a few weeks at Camden. Perhaps they also are pleased with the regeneration.

Bell Minahs are not native to this ecosystem, but they came with the African Olive. The small native woodland birds were forced out. Where the olives have been removed, the Bell birds are gone and the natives are returning.

When we gathered as a Congregation in 2011 for our chapter, we renewed our vision statement, and in particular, committed ourselves to creation. The BioBanking project at Camden is one small, but not insignificant aspect of that commitment.

Each morning, we rise to praise God in the Psalms. Consciously, deliberately and reverently, we join in creation’s song of praise. With all God’s creatures, we praise the maker of all things. As Australian theologian, Denis Edwards, says, we “see ourselves as interrelated with other creatures before God in one community of creation”. In this place, with this project, our prayers and our contemplation are in harmony with our work and the use of our material resources.

O God, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:24)

Over 100 years ago, the Sisters purchased a piece of land at Camden to establish an orphanage. In 1957, the ministry focus shifted to the education of girls with an intellectual disability. Today Mater Dei School “provides therapy, education and residential services to children and young people with developmental delay and intellectual disability”. The land associated with the BioBanking project is one part of this original purchase.

So for over 100 years, this land has been a home for sisters, children, teachers and others. We are recent custodians compared to the Tharawal People who first lived in this place. However, we have enjoyed the land that we have grown to love. Now is our time to return something to the earth, to embrace seriously the biblical imperative. Made in the image of God, we “are called to work with and care for God’s creation as God does”. Denis Edwards argues that we have a responsibility “before God for the good of the community of creation”. This BioBanking project gives this responsibility a concrete reality.

As women who follow the Rule of St Benedict, we make a vow of stability. For many Benedictine women and men, this vow is interpreted in the sense of staying in the same place, often for life. For Sisters of the Good Samaritan, it means amongst other things, persevering in the way of life, of staying with each other in the communal journey of seeking God. I think it also means staying connected with the earth, caring for the environment in which we make our home.

This project, and my immersion in it, has led me to ask myself about my care for the environment wherever I live. What are my practices when it comes to preservation of the natural ecosystem? What is my commitment to the flora and fauna in each locality?

So often, we who have come to this land in the past 200 or so years have tried to tame it, to remove the native vegetation in favour of our preferred plants, and to introduce our animals. This is obviously what the first European settlers in the Macarthur region did. The African Olive was hardy and meant to provide the root stock for edible olives. It went wild.

We could shake our heads and wring our hands at the stupidity or carelessness of those settlers. I wonder though, are not many of us doing the same? We want colourful gardens and we plant lilies, gazanias, lantana, pigface and other ‘hardy’ flowering plants. When they fill the garden, we dig them up and throw them in the rubbish and so they find their way into native bushland and take over.

We want pets. Sometimes though we are unable to care for them, they become feral and decimate native fauna. We introduce species without considering the consequences on a finely balanced ecosystem.

I am not saying that we should not have gardens or farm the land. I am not that idealistic. I am certain though, that we have grave responsibility for the “community of creation”. When our actions deplete or lead to the destruction of species, surely we need to pause. We can make a difference. We have the capacity to destroy or to build up. Let’s opt for the latter.

Along with Daryl Wells and Brendon Levot, our Creation Resource Team was delighted to experience the regeneration due to the BioBanking Project. We know the wombats and the other native species are living better. As we continue to commit ourselves to creation, each of us knows that small things can made a difference.

Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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