The Walking Weeder: Marianne Bate and the Grose River Catchment

marianne bate doing bushcare in the blue Mountains

Marianne in the swamp pulling out broom. (Hamish Dunlop)

Story and photos by Hamish Dunlop

Marianne Bate is passionate about the bush, fascinated by people and ‘relentlessly positive’ about how we can better care for the land we live on. Meet Marianne, and discover the difference Bushcare and Landcare make to people and places in this piece by Hamish Dunlop.


Key Points:

  • Marianne Bate is a Mt Victoria local who makes an amazing contribution to the environment and her community.
  • She co-ordinates the Mt Victoria Bushcare and Landcare group and helps people with their private properties.
  • Through her own actions and by inspiring others she positively impacts her own environment and everything downstream from it.

Marianne Bate makes a huge contribution to her community: both to the environment and people. She’s coordinated the Mt Victoria Bushcare and Landcare group for 10 years, and independently helps residents and landowners with their properties too.

New neighbours are welcomed, and Marianne organises around anyone who needs support. By all accounts, she also makes delicious cakes! Weeding and walking, especially when done together, are activities for which there is never enough time. In conversation, I find her incredibly modest and unassuming. She’s a self-confessed ‘doer’, but much of what I find out about her is through others: something indicative of her character.

The Blue Mountains Midge Orchid.

The Blue Mountains Midge Orchid. (Hamish Dunlop)

A native meadow in the making

Getting out into the field is something Marianne relishes. “I’ve got to show you what we did on Sunday. Our little team!” she enthuses, as we arrive at the Mount Victoria Cemetery. It’s not the weeds that take centre stage, but the natives. She points out trigger plants and bright yellow native daisies. When we find the first of three species of orchid, we are both captivated watching how parts of the flowers vibrate in the breeze.

The cemetery is on the edge of the upper Grose River catchment. Right next to the Mount Victoria village is where water first forms into creeks that, 40 km due east, flow into the Nepean. For the Bushcare group, it’s the home to some unique plant species. It’s an interface between private and crown land, and the National Park as well. “I think we have a responsibility,” Marianne says, “to manage how we influence our local area, especially with respect to what effects that has downstream.”

mt victoria map

Marianne pointing to the creeks that form just east of Mount Vic Flicks. (Hamish Dunlop)

One of the orchid species we find at the cemetery is the Blue Mountains Midge Orchid. “It’s only found in the Mid and Upper Mountains,” Marianne tells me. We look at the coreopsis too, the yellow flower that adorns many roads and railway tracks. What the group dug out on Sunday is lying on bare patches of earth drying out in the sun. “It’s important to stop the coreopsis here,” she says. “The next stop is the National Park.”

Bushcare

Elissa McFarlane is a Bushcare Officer at Blue Mountains City Council. She’s been working with Marianne and the Mt Victoria Bushcare and Landcare group for two years. Elissa describes Marianne as warm and generous; someone who creates a sense of togetherness within the group. She says her knowledge of natives, weeds and the interconnectedness of ecosystems inspires people. “It takes someone special to bring people together in the way that Marianne does,” Elissa says.

Steve Gero is a teacher at Mt Victoria Public. He and his family are regulars at the Bushcare mornings. He echoes Elissa’s comments about Marianne’s welcoming and inclusive nature. “The way she talks to the kids is so lovely,” he says. They love going up to her and showing her things. She always stops what she’s doing and shows great interest: a real childlike excitement. Living down the road from Marianne is great too. We feel as if our families know each other. It’s special to have them in our lives.”

Coreopsis or Tickseed growing next to the railway line in Blackheath. (Hamish Dunlop)

Steve feels strongly about volunteering too. He says he feels good looking after little patches in the neighbourhood. He also thinks it’s important for his children. “Bringing the kids to Bushcare gets them outdoors. It exposes them to plants, plant identification and the idea of weeds and healthy ecosystems. It’s also important for them to see us volunteering. To get it on their radar that this is something that people do.”

marianne bates in swamp

Marianne pointing to the swamp in the Grose River upper catchment. (Hamish Dunlop)

Irish Strawberry Trees

Marianne credits bushwalking as one of the main drivers behind her interest in addressing weeds. “When you know what pristine bush looks like, you see when non-native species start making inroads.” It was almost 30 years ago that she came across ‘a forest’ of Irish Strawberry tree saplings on the edge of the park while walking her dog.

Irish Strawberry Tree fruit

Irish Strawberry Tree fruit

Talking to Chris, the National Park’s ranger at the time, led to the Upper Grose River being added to the Great Grose Weed Program. “One thing I can say is that once you start seeing a weed, you can never unsee it! That makes walking my dog Milo with Ian quite challenging at times!”

The power of observation

Observation and looking for the causes of things is one of Marianne’s well-honed skills. “Finding the first lot of Irish Strawberry trees on the edge the National Park taught me something about how residential areas effect the land around them,” she says. “The saplings came from the trees that lined the highway. Seeds can be washed down and birds can spread seeds too.”

himalayan honeysuckle in blue mountains swamp

Marianne spotting Himalayan Honeysuckle in the swamp. (Hamish Dunlop)

When I mention Irish Strawberry trees to Elissa at Bushcare, she laughs. “She’s still going after that one!” Mina Howard, a former District Governor of Rotary, and a Mount Victoria resident, concurs that Marianne is always on the lookout for weeds. “She’s amazing. Dedicated to Bushcare and Landcare and selfless when it comes to the environment and the community.”

Weedy Creek

The colloquially named Weedy Creek is the only water course that crosses the highway from the residential area and feeds into the headwaters of the Grose River. The impact of this creek and what it carries can clearly be seen in the swamp at the top of the watershed. There is a mint infestation and Himalayan honeysuckles are sprouting. Soft drink bottles have made their way downstream too.

Experimenting with holly

“Being on a highway corridor with residential areas adjacent to catchments and the National Park makes acting at a local level critical,” Marianne says. “If I’m chatting to someone who has holly in their garden, I might ask if they’re wanting to keep it. If not, I’ll offer to kill it for them.”

Marianne is keen to emphasise that there are differing opinions on how best to kill holly. Her method does not involve immediate removal. In her experience, holly that is cut down and painted with herbicide is sometimes followed by regrowth that’s harder to treat. She favours a slower process with better statistical outcomes.

belladonna lily weed in the blue mountains

Not Holly, but a weed nonetheless! Marianne with invasive Belladonna Lily. (image supplied)

“I use a very slow acting technique,” she says. “I drill the trunks and fill the holes with Glyphosate. It can take up to a year for a big holly tree to die, but it’s a reliable process. Safety is incredibly important,” she continues. “Using herbicides requires appropriate skill, experience and protective equipment.”

Community recognition

Engaging with the community is not something everyone can do. It takes the application of care and attention to the environment and people. In recognition of her Landcare work, Marianne received the Landcare Legend Award at the 2019 Annual Bushcare Awards. This award recognised her ability to generate positive environmental outcomes and strengthen community relationships at the same time.

marianne bates landcare award

Marianne with Mayor Mark Greenhill at the 2019 Bushcare Awards (image supplied)

Covid weeds

During COVID, Marianne would meet with a few friends in the swamp to weed. The swamp burnt as part of the backburn to protect Mt Victoria from the Grose Vally fire in 2019/20. She says it was a great opportunity to be in nature and weed out the gorse seedling that had germinated because of fire.

“It was so much fun,” she reveals. “We got to watch the bush come alive again. Initially the swampy areas were emerald-coloured islands in the black. The sundews came back first. Wallaby poo appeared. The ants came out of the ground and the frogs resumed their choruses. It was truly beautiful.”

Drosera or Sundews coming back after the fires.

There is a wistfulness in how Marianne continues. “Connecting with place does something to you. I’ve found this especially true around extreme events such as a drought, flood, and fire. To go down into the swamp and watch how the land was trying to recover was healing. And we hoped that pulling out gorse and broom seedlings – our bit – was going to help.”

To be a swamp

While Marianne values the social and voluntary aspects of Bushcare and Landcare groups, she thinks its educational value is paramount. “A large percentage of bush in the Blue Mountains that’s not in the National Park is on private land. The Bushcare and Landcare programs provide a way for people to learn about how to manage their own properties,” she says.

ant nest entry tunnel

Ants entering their nest through a fibre and mud tube. (Hamish Dunlop)

Sometimes people message Marianne with images of plants and she helps where she can. ‘You’re right! That’s definitely a weed.’ is sometimes the reply. She stresses that managing weeds is not a war won in the short term. In the 1960s and 70s the Sydney-based Bradley sisters developed the Bradley Method. This emphasises clearing small areas around healthy native vegetation to facilitate bush regeneration. By focusing on what you are protecting, on something beautiful, you also don’t get overwhelmed by how much weed needs to be removed.

“You can’t necessarily pull everything out at once,” Marianne says. “That opens up the possibility of erosion and flow on effects can create a great environment for different weeds. Bush regeneration is about observation,” she says, “and understanding how things are connected. ‘What will happen if I do this or that?’ Asking questions. There’s also an important element of strategic trial and error.”

Snakes and butterflies

After doing a loop of the swamp we walk back towards the cemetery. A red-bellied black snake glides across our path and, further up the rough track, the air is dancing with common brown butterflies. Many species of ants are busy on and under the ground; some have built tubular entryways out of plant fibres and mud.

“This is what it’s about,” Marianne says, appealing to the untouched bush we’re walking through. This is why it’s so important to learn about where we live and make the contributions we can. I’ve observed how the small actions of a few people can make a difference. A sense of achievement comes with that. It’s something everyone can experience.”

Marianne next to a recovering Eucalypt burnt in the fire. (Hamish Dunlop)

Standing in Marianne’s driveway, we look at an incredible healthy patch of native Weeping grass. Over years, Marianne has removed the Cotoneaster tree that was there. “I’m not quite sure what to plant,” she muses, but sometimes I see the grey kangaroos have had a nibble. They are common around the streets up here.”

I’ve learnt something of what Marianne does for her community in the few hours we’ve spent together. Before parting, I put this to her. She pauses and defers to others, but her earnestness paints the backdrop to someone with enormous empathy for people and place.


Take Action:

  • Take advantage of Bushcare and Landcare groups to find out how you can better manage your own property.
  • Make observing a habit. Marianne says it has a way of connecting you with the world.
  • Learn about one weed and do something small to support the Upper Grose River catchment.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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