Seek Out What Makes Us Unique
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow of Australia

Denise writes today about a topic that is timely for all of us. She writes about the introduction of non-native species in her country, and the effect it has on the landscape and on the life that it sustains. As traveling photographers we should require ourselves to learn as much as we can about the native flora and fauna of the countries we visit, and celebrate them through our photographs. Yet so many images are spoiled by non-native species in the background of otherwise indigenous subjects. Don't be one of those shooters who overlooks the obvious out of ignorance.

What is beautiful in the nature that surrounds us?

If you asked my neighbors and fellow citizens in Australia's Northern Territory, I'm sure most would point to bougainvillea, frangipani, or any of other thousands of ornamental plants that have been brought to Australia since white settlement. In the Top End where I live, garden upon garden down every street features introduced plants from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Residents in Darwin have actually fought to retain Poinciana, a native of Madagascar, and Mexican coral vine, species that are gradually smothering those few patches of native monsoon forest still found in the city. Even some of our legislators and public servants appear to prefer the colourcoordinated beds of variegated shrubs and golden potato vine Ipomoea batatas aurea that are finding their way into road plantings.

To many who live here, such introduced plants are the

"familiar" and native flora, the unknown.

And I used to be no different. I spent my early childhood playing in English-style gardens of roses, grape hyacinths, flowering cherries and jonquils that surrounded flowering cherry and pear and pomegranate trees. But then we had to leave our grand house in Adelaide, South Australia, when my parents separated. My mother found a home for us, a fibro shack a few miles from the ancient River Murray, Australia's biggest river. There, an Aboriginal woman, Mrs. Knight befriended me. And educated me.

We would go on long walks through the bush. With Mrs. Knight I discovered original Australian beauty - brick-red sand dunes studded with rolypoly bushes taller than I! There were acacias, delicate herbs and fine grasses in countless hues and tones - olive, green, brown, russet, copper and bronze. Near the water, stood stately, gigantic red river gums. We would follow the tracks of tiny lizards and marsupial mice, as finely incised into the sand as any of the chiselled detail in a Michelangelo marble. And at sunset it was as if a mighty hand had spilled filagree gold upon the hills. Eucalyptus scent lingered in the afterglow, and followed us home under a pitch sky of spilled diamonds.

Coming to the Top End thirty years ago, I discovered other landscapes no less beautiful. There were gold-topped emerald grasses blanketing floodplains that stretched as far as the eye could see, turquoise billabongs embroidered with tiny butter-yellow fringed lilies and giant erect rose-pink lotus. I love the dark monsoon forest through which sunbeams shafted to light upon a crystal dewdrop, a fragrant white jasmine flower, the scarlet fruit of a native passionfruit, or veined maroon beauty of the new leaves of a native vine. There in the gloom - the luminous blue-purple wings of an Oakblue butterfly now you see it, now you don't. The little creature settles, and disappears, its fawn-brown underwing to become just another dead leaf.

I found in Top End woodlands and forest and escarpment the grey-greens and olives and rust and yellow ochres that typify Australia. But there were other hues as well, exquisite colours to rival anything I'd seen in the gardens of Singapore or Australia's Gold Coast. There were the smooth salmon pink trunks of Eucalyptus tintinnans, as sensuous as a naked woman. There were glorious orange, scarlet or pink staminate blossoms of Eucalyptus sp. and grevillea.

The gold-orange flowers of one tree, Grevillea pteridifolia, drape cold dry season nights with an all-pervading scent of nectar. I have been known to rise from my campbed, unable to sleep until I find the source of that delectable fragrance and lick the flowers like a possum, until every drop of that delicious brew has been drunk.

I also discovered dangers in such landscapes; the stinking heat of midday, venomous snakesI fought one off as an eight year oldspiders the size of one's hand; and thorns like daggers. In the stunning Top End wetlands lurk estuarine crocodiles. Readers may think it odd, but I believe those dangers enhance my entrancement with the mysterious beauty of this country.

Of course there is an important role for introduced plants. But until recently it has been open slather. Over 27,000 plants have been introduced to this country, twice as many as there are endemic flora. Some have become weeds, among them plants that cover existing vegetation so completely so that even if removed the original flora couldn't return. These "transformers" plants are responsible for native flora and some fauna becoming extinct across thousands of square kilometres of Australia.

Native plants aren't just pretty. In the Top End as in other countries, native flora form part of a complex, this one food for the larvae of a butterfly or moth, that one with a root or fruit utilised by indigenous people as well. There is blossom laden with nectar for birds, bees and any stray camper who cares to sup.

What if our birds were threatened the glorious rainbow-hued Gouldian Finch, the emerald and scarlet Red-winged Parrot, countless flocks of leafgreen and yellow budgigards wheeling as one above a waterhole; our bronzewing pigeons? What about our marsupials the giant Red Kangaroo, koala, the wombat. Imagine the outcry if we decided to do away with them all, and establish bear, antelope, monkeys and elephants. Yet our plants are even more integral to Australia.

Once upon a time an old man who called me "auntie/mother" played for me, on a didgeridoo, or mako as it is called in western Arnhem Land where the instrument originated. Ngangawadj (meaning nephew/son) had once been taken to England by the Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, to play for Queen Elizabeth.

I don't know what he played for the Queen but he honoured me with his songlines. With music Ngangawadj drew Kakadu, his country, in sound describing creek lines and billabongs, rock and escarpment. And there were trees, important, sacred trees colour, leaves, texture.

My indigenous relatives and myself have plant dreamings. Plants belong to one or another moiety, depending upon shape, colour, venation and size.

Yet many indigenous people are internalising the western concept of beauty. And who could blame them?

Even the resorts of Kakadu National Park are surrounded with exotic floral beautiespink and red hibiscus, cerise bougainvillea, yellow Allamanda sp. variegated Acalypha sp. Walk out the door of your accommodation and there are the exotic beauties hitting you in the eye.

So, now plants such as hibiscus, crotons, and ixora are being taken into Arnhem Land. And with each plant goes links indigenous people have with their dreaming, country and culture. Will all become like the suburbanites of Darwin and Palmerston, pretending that we're not caught between the ancient continent of Australia and the sky?

The old man is now dead. Can his sons play the songlines? Or are they interested? I don't think so. They will know what visitors and other "white" people want, from the riotous colour surrounding Kakadu resorts, to the make-believe songs of didgeridoo artists.

Will those of you who visit the Top End join us in making this country into an "everyman's" land a monoculture of plants that spreads across the globe? I hope not.

If you are visiting our country go beyond the lawns and colour-coordinated plantings of the suburbs and resorts, and seek out the ancient plants and landscapes that sustained our fauna and indigenous people, and made Australia unique. Let it be known that you haven't come to the Top End to see a clone of Singapore or Mexico City or even Australia's Gold Coast. You have come to see, and know us.
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow has had a career path 'like a mad dog's dinner,' ranging from music teacher and buffalo shooter to biologist, guide, lecturer, cross-cultural consultant, author, and illustrator.

A member of the Kunwinjku peoples of NW Arnhem Land, she is the family snake-catcher and a dab hand at catching pigs with a castnet! She also mediates in times of family trouble. Lawungkurr, a name given to her by the clan matriarchs is the name of a long-dead but still highly honoured woman of her clan. In 2000 Denise was contracted to work as interpreter/transcriber on the Lonely Planet's Guide to Aboriginal Australia. Denise also lectures in environmental studies for the University of New South Wales' summer school. Birders everywhere are going to love her latest book, Bird's of Australia's Top End. See more of her work at