Tag Archives: Dr Laura Brearley

A Community in Action

Dr Laura Brearley

Terry and I have been walking and filming in the Coastal Woodlands over the last couple of weeks. We’ve also been spending time with singing and ukulele groups who have been learning the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the outro of a film we are making about the precious Western Port Woodlands, currently at risk from sandmining expansion. 

We have been inspired by the community’s willingness to come together and raise their voices in this way. This week, we have worked with two of Mandy Farr’s local ukulele groups, one at the Warrawee Senior Citizens Club in Inverloch and another at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre. There we were joined by members of the Bass Coast Post community and the Gippsland Singers Network. We have filmed the Vocal Nosh group at St John’s Uniting Church in Cowes, as well as some Coastal Connections participants singing outside the Wonthaggi Arts Centre. In the middle of the week, a group of us sang together and went for a walk in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve, led by knowledgeable birder and conservationist Gil Smith. Last weekend, the Melbourne Climate Choir gathered in a park in Brunswick to sing for the film in support of the Western Port Woodlands campaign. The Climate Choir brings together members of different choirs from across Melbourne to support environmental actions. 

Next week, the U3A Choir on Phillip Island will be learning and singing the ‘Are You Listening?’ song. We will also be filming members of the Melbourne-based ‘Music for a Warming World’ collective and a choir from the ‘Save Western Port’ community, who are offering their support from the other side of the Bay in Balnarring. 

Nicki Johnson is a musician, an environmental activist and the Program Coordinator at Community Music Victoria. We have worked and sung together in environmental and intercultural arts projects in Bass Coast and beyond over a number of years. Nicki performed at the 2019 Island Whale Festival and has facilitated singing and ukulele workshops at Community Music Victoria’s Music Camps in Grantville. Terry has made a short film about Nicki’s work as a singing leader which reveals her commitment to climate justice and her approach to interweaving music and environmental action:

Nicki believes that community music can play an important role in raising awareness about environmental issues. In her words …

‘Music has a way of bringing us together.  If we venture into the areas of despair and grief, we won’t be able to get any work done. If we don’t feel hope, we can’t go forward effectively. I love to facilitate conversations and sing songs about the planet and the responsibility we have for making sure it is as healthy as possible. 

Singing and playing music opens us up. When we sing with people, our breathing and our heartbeats synchronise and we become one organism vibrating together. This opens our hearts and our senses and we are able to connect. I think the ability to feel connected to other people and to experience empathy is the thing that will really enable us to make a difference. 

I love that when we sing together, we start to resonate together and our hearts open. Singing is 90% listening. Ideas of blending and harmony are not just aural concepts. A choir is a living organism that can teach people how to be in harmony. Harmony is a lived experience. Giving people the opportunity to be heard is a powerful way to move forward together.’

Dr Peter Dann is another community leader who raises environmental awareness and inspires action. Peter is the Research Director of the Phillip Island Nature Parks. He has been working for over forty years in wildlife conservation, with a particular interest in seabirds and shorebirds, the ecology of islands and the conservation of threatened species. Peter was a guest speaker at a General Meeting of the Phillip Island Conservation Society held earlier this year. The topic of his presentation was ‘Ten Remarkable Things about the Natural History of Phillip Island: A Personal List.’ It was a compelling presentation, informative and from my perspective, very moving. Peter’s commitment to conservation was clear, as was the sense of care that has underpinned his decades of scientific work in the field. 

One of the ‘remarkable things’ he spoke about was the successful introduction of a population of Eastern Barred Bandicoots to Phillip Island (Millowl), now extinct in the wild on the mainland. After a successful trial release on Churchill Island, they were introduced to the Summerland Estate on Millowl. Their numbers are growing and the bandicoots are now doing so well, they have also been released onto French Island. 

A sense of possibility and agency was also central to Peter’s story of the buy-back of the Summerland Estate on Millowl, which has enabled the on-going restoration of the Little Penguins’ habitat on the Peninsula. Peter’s stories are engaging and inspiring. I wrote two children’s songs in response to his stories, one about Eastern Barred Bandicoots and one about Little Penguins. Over the coming months, I will be teaching the songs to local children and telling the stories about the conservation work that inspired them. The world our children and grandchildren are inheriting needs stories like these. Here are the links to the songs:

There are many reasons to feel discouraged at times in the conservation field. So much has been lost and continues to be threatened. It’s easy to slip into a sense of despair and powerlessness. The conservation work that Peter as a scientist and Nicki as a musician undertake is vital in the deepest sense of that word. 

On Saturday 17th July, COVID-willing, you can also be part of this life-affirming work that calls for the protection and preservation of the natural world. The Bass Coast Artists Society is hosting an event, Halcyon Harmonies and Reflections Exhibition’ at the Goods Shed in Wonthaggi. There will be photographs on display and local musicians will be performing all day. At 2.00pm, we’ll be facilitating a Pop-Up Conservation Choir to learn and sing the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the Coastal Woodlands film. You are warmly welcome to join us. The lyrics and recording of the song can be found here.

And if singing publicly is not your thing, there are other ways you can be involved. You can learn to sign-dance the song (a slow form of deaf-signing) or you can be there to simply witness the strength and resolve of our community in action. 

To learn more about the Save Western Port Woodlands campaign and become involved in a range of ways, go to http://www.savewesternportwoodlands.org/

Nicki Johnson with partner Craig Barrie at the 2019 Island Whale Festival – Photo Teresa Cannon
Mandy Farr’s Ukulele Group at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre – Photo Terry Melvin

Written by Dr Laura Brearley
feature photograph: Walking in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve with Gil Smith and friends – Photo Laura Brearley

Love Songs for Whales… & A Creative Invitation

by Dr Laura Brearley

The Whales Are Back

The whale migration season off Phillip Island has begun again and the texts have started to arrive …

  • Wednesday 29th May 9.45am

First Island whales this season. Two whales off San Remo jetty, heading to Cape Woolamai.

  • Tuesday 4th June 3.31pm

One humpback sighted 1.4 kms of the Nobbies, heading towards Pyramid Rock.

  • Friday 7th June 10.48am

One humpback whale, close to shore at Cape Woolamai.

We live at Cape Woolamai and although I was deep in work at the time that this third message came through, I answered what I felt was a call to action. When I arrived at Anzacs Beach at Cape Woolamai, the car park was full. A crowd of people was standing looking out to sea. There were families with children and people who had never met before were talking and laughing with each other. Just as I had, everyone there had dropped what they were doing when that text came through. Excitement was in the air and it felt like a shared experience of connection with the whales, as well as with each other.

I’ve noticed this sense of connection on whale cruise boats too. We board the boats as individuals and when the first whales are sighted, any separateness between passengers seems to dissolve. We sing and clap and whistle to the whales, reaching out to them together. Sometimes, they’ll swim along with us, even diving under the boat. If they’re feeling playful, they seem to dance in the water, breaching and splashing with their bodies and tails. It’s a profound experience to be part of that joyful play.

The whale at Cape Woolamai a few days ago was surfacing from time to time. I found it moving to see a whale in this early stage of the season and to know that the age-old cycle of the whale migration was underway again. With all the human interference of the natural world and the damage done, the rhythm of the migration endures. It is larger than all of us and that is a wonderful thing.

Humpback Whale Research

Over the last few weeks, I have been in touch with members of a team of international scientists who have been undertaking research on whale songs for many years. Led by Dr Ellen Garland (St Andrews University, Scotland) and Dr Jenny Allen (Griffith University, Queensland), the research has been tracking how the songs of humpback whales are transmitted over time and distance in the Pacific Ocean. The two lead researchers, Dr Ellen Garland and Dr Jenny Allen, have both expressed interest in the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival.

Their research has shown that whale songs are communicated across the South Pacific, moving from populations from eastern Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east. The whale songs appear to come originally from the Indian Ocean, west of Australia representing a transmission of almost 10,000 kilometres. The research team has found that thousands of male humpbacks can synchronously change their song to a new version introduced from a neighbouring population in as little as two months. Their research in song learning has revealed that humpback whales employ some of the same learning strategies as songbirds and humans when acquiring a new song.

Below is a short film about this research:

Creative Responses

With the support of local First Nation community members, Bass Coast Shire Council, Destination Phillip Island, Community Music Victoria, Cowes Uniting Church, we are currently organising the Intercultural Arts Program ‘Balert Yirramboi’ of the Island Whale Festival happening in Cowes on Phillip Island on the 5th – 7th July, 2019.

A talented group of musicians, artists and cultural advisors is coming together to help celebrate the whales through song, story, dance and collaborative art-making. Activities will include Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace which weaves together music, art and science.

Jazz pianist, Steve Sedergreen, is composing music in response to the scientific whale song research. During the Festival, he will be performing his new composition with his long-time collaborators, Wamba Wamba didgeridoo player, Ron Murray and jazz drummer, Mike Jordan. Camille Monet, who is coordinating the Collaborative Artspace at the Festival, will be facilitating arts activities in response to the whale song research. Participants will be invited to create visual responses to the whale songs, making patterns on long sheets of paper which will be carried in the Whale Parade at the end of the Festival. Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir has generously gifted local Boon Wurrung language to a Whale Song Cycle that I have composed and that Trawlwoolway artist Lisa Kennedy has illustrated.

Creative Invitation

We would like to extend a creative invitation to you. If you are someone who loves whales and is interested in creative collaborations, song-writing, poetry or story-telling, there is an opportunity for you to share your ideas and make a contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Whale Festival.

If you are seeking inspiration, one way of getting focussed is to reflect on some core questions, such as …

  • Why do you love whales?
  • What do whale songs stir in you?
  • What does the sense of connection with whales feel like for you?
  • If you had a message to send to the whales, what would you say or sing to them?

If you would like to make a creative contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program, please send an email to Laura Brearley  laura.brearley@tlc21.com.au by COB Friday 28th June, 2019 with your contact details and a brief description of what you would be interested in sharing at the Festival, eg song, poetry, story. The program has been designed with activities in which creative exchanges and collaborations can occur. The copyright of all material will remain with the contributing artists.

The full program of the Island Whale Festival is available at: http://islandwhales.com.au/program/

Many events are free and bookings for ticketed activities can be made on-line.

And … next time you hear that there are whales off the coast, and you are nearby, just stop what you are doing and take some time to be near the whales and feel the gift of their presence. I suspect they will feel you too.

-Dr Laura Brearley

Featured image ‘Whale Tail’ by Lisa Kennedy