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Art, science and connection to place

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Artist ecologist Paula Peeters talks about the process of capturing the Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands of the Molonglo Catchment in her recent colouring book ‘Wondrous Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands: a colouring exploration of a diverse ecosystem’.

Words by Annabel Boyer, photos by Karen Williams

Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands stretch from western Victoria to southern Queensland, close to where Paula Peeters lives near Lamington National Park in Queensland. Theoretically, she could drive down the road from where she lives to document the correct species and ecological components. But for Peeters it is about much more than that. It is important to get the feel for landscape itself and how an ecosystem is shaped in a place, to connect to a place on a deeper level through its details.

“The hills and the valleys in the Molonglo region have got particular configurations,” she said. “And it’s also things like the shape of the trees. Woodland trees tend to have a spread-out canopy, and then particular species of trees have a particular shape, leaf colour, bark colour, all that sort of stuff as well.”

“And then there’s just things like the colours you encounter, so in that landscape often the grasses look kind of yellowy and the tree canopy is of a certain colour, so you are taking in all sorts of differences.”

This sense of place is key, she said to what she is trying to do with her work in encouraging people to connect to nature through their local environment and from there to care for it.

“I just want people to be aware of what an incredibly diverse and beautiful ecosystem it is,” she said. “For me the awareness and the connection comes first and for people to be ‘Wow! I didn’t realize there was so much out there on my doorstep that is amazing.’”

“I’d like that to happen first and then if that happens, then those messages of how to care for a grassy woodland come across.”

Peeters spent three days immersed in the remnant patches of box-gum grassy woodland in the Molonglo region taking photographs and observing, in preparation for drawing them. The trip took in the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan rivers, Wandiyali Environa Wildlife Sanctuary and Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary.

Her guides were Molonglo Conservation Group’s President Karen Williams, ACT Government ecologist Martin Henery, and Carolyn Larcombe from Wandiyali Restoration Trust. The work was commissioned as part of a project to raise awareness of the remnant Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands, a critically endangered ecological community, the still survive here.

Peeters has spent most of her career as an ecologist and naturalist and so brings a scientific lens to her work. She is unusual in that she is able bring together the skills of a scientist with those of an artist, marrying together species information and ecological understanding with the beauty and wonder that draws people in.

“I have these concepts about the structure, function and species composition of an ecosystem in my head and then it’s about going out into the landscape and going to sites where those concepts are realized,” she said.

“It differs from the process of a lot of artists I know in that the concept is there first and then it’s a matter of going on site and really absorbing the elements of that particular place and just trying to collect a whole lot of material and impressions with photographs that I can then take home and work from.”

The result is a treasure trove of detail, depicting everything from the flowering grasses and insects that live amongst them, to the birds of the canopy and secretive creatures that burrow underground. With a key at the back that identifies the different species depicted, the book serves an educational purpose to learn about the diversity of these local habitats.

You can find Wondrous Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands: a colouring exploration of a diverse ecosystem for free download on Molonglo Conservation Group’s website.

You can learn more about Paula Peeters and her work from her website

This project was supported by the ACT Government, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

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