Down & Dirty: Discovering Our True Nature Through Having Our Hands In It

Human Nature

Spending time in nature whether going for a walk in a forest or gardening, we may just discover what it is to be human, and what our true ‘nature’ really is…

Green Expectations

I spent the morning with the lovely members of Native Plants QLD Gold Coast. I learned about plant propagation and literally getting my hands in the dirt being shown how to prepare and pot plant cuttings. There is so much to discover from the combined knowledge, experience and passion of others.

Touching the earth
A butterfly in our garden that I happened to see after an information night I attended by the Native Plants QLD Gold Coast group a few days ago.

Butterfly Garden

A few days earlier I attended an information evening by the same group. It was on how to attract butterflies to your garden by planting butterfly food and caterpillar host plants. Graham McDonald, who is a commercial native plant grower shared his knowledge, passion and photographs of local butterflies.

I walked away both times with some young plants to grow in my native garden patch at home, as well as shared connection for our unique flora.

Phillip Island Hibiscus
A precious living gift can take us on a journey of discovery. This propagated Phillip Island hibiscus insularis, a critically endangered species piqued my curiosity to dig deeper.

Norfolk Island Hibiscus

As I left the propagation bee this morning I was given a young endangered Phillip Island Hibiscus – Hibiscus insularis. It is such a rare plant, found only on a small barren island south of Norfolk Island.

This 190 hectare island was devastated due to the introduction of pest species such as pigs, goats and rabbits during Norfolk Island’s penal colony era. These animals caused the destruction of plants, leaving the island almost completely devoid of vegetation. The effectS of massive erosion, gave the island a reddish brown colour.

The entire natural extent of the species is just two small clumps, and each clump apparently consists of multiple stems of a single genotype.

This critically endangered plant has been propagated to increase numbers and has been brought back from the brink of extinction. However, its genetic diversity is extremely low.

Stories like this remind me of the importance of preserving our natural heritage and biodiversity. It also reminds me of how easy this can be lost forever.

Esme Lahey Environmental Park
Peering up at this rainforest giant. This tree is reputed to be over 1000 years old when it died. A sign along the pathway in Esme Lahey Environmental Park tells how this dead tree would have once been a habitat to millions of life forms over its life time.

Esme Lahey Environmental Park

After this morning’s propagation session I decided to go up to Tamborine Mountain. It was drizzling yet I wanted to soak in the beauty and biodiversity of this incredibly beautiful area.

Esme Lahey Environmental Park is a tiny 1.5 ha patch of forest set amongst surrounding residential properties. It has a small creek that runs through the forest.

Close to nature
The flat bitumen path within Esme Lahey Environmental Park ensures that the experience of being in a forest to touch, smell, hear, and taste is accessible to all. Being close to nature is a humbling experience and can only be experienced by immersing ourselves in it.

The park is remnant temperate rainforest that has been regenerated by local residents and Tamborine Mountain Landcare. A few years ago it was a swampy, weed infested area. Today it is a beautiful slice of green. It is an island of biodiversity which is accessible by all with its flat bitumin pathways and sign posted throughout. Here visitors can learn and appreciate the unique flora and fauna and natural systems of temperate rainforests.

What makes us human is nature
I often come to this patch of remnant rainforest up on Tamborine Mountain to simply sit still and be in nature. I often sit in awe and think about the people who had the foresight and greenitude to restore this piece of nature. I think it is nature that makes us human, and maybe human nature isn’t our negative side but the side that keeps us humble and grounded. To access our human side I think is about spending time in nature.

Rainforest Corridors Project

A brochure at the start of the walk describes how Tamborine Mountain Landcare is regenerating rainforest on the mountain. Their plan is to connect remnant rainforests by planting up creeks and valleys to allow the movement of fauna and the transference of plant species.

Restoring nature
One of the places we visited on the Gold Coast Catchment Association Crawl was Camp Bornhoffen, in Numimbah Valley, close to the NSW border. The work that is being done is creating a bio corridor connecting World Heritage listed Lamington and Springbrook National Parks.


The previous weekend I was privelged to join the Gold Coast Catchment Association for their annual crawl. This year it highlighted the work local groups and contractors are doing in Numimbah Valley to restore, regenerate and reconnect forest habitat.

I was inspired by the passion and can-do attitude of these people and groups who literally get their hands in the dirt and get things done. They don’t talk about helping and healing the environment, instead, they are on the ground quietly and humbly doing their thing.

Getting close to nature
The pathway that leads through Esme Lahey Environmental Park is dedicated to Valerie Sweet. The dedication plaque talks about her deep passion for nature and how getting close to nature she believed was therapy for the soul. I think getting close to nature is what makes us better human beings.

Humus Beings

I have discussed in previous blogs about how the word ‘human’ comes from the word ‘humus’ or ‘earth’. We are literally ‘earthlings’. Yet the true earthlings are those that humbly go about healing the earth – who are humble, and open to the earth teaching them.

Humility comes from the same root as humus and human. I experienced last week a lot of this in the people I met. They didn’t claim to know it all, even those who have been working in land restoration for decades. Instead they allow the earth to teach them through observation.

Wildlife bio corridors
A contractor from Ecosure who is telling our group about the lessons they have learned restoring a heavily weed infested and degraded site. It will be a a vital habitat link connecting Lamington and Springbrook National Park.

Earth Wisdom

One of the key learnings I picked up from these people was to simply slow down and allow the earth to reveal its secrets.

Rather than going into an area and removing every single noxious weed and then mass planting at once, it was better to have patience and do things in ‘earth time’.

Many of the areas were heavily weed infested or degraded. For instance, removing all weeds in sloping areas may cause erosion and may require a gentle long term removal of weeds. This prevents destabilisation of banks and soil loss.

Beneficial Weed Retention

Another key learning was that it is sometimes beneficial to keep certain weeds for some time as they may attract birds who in turn help deposit seeds from surrounding forests and so assisting the native regeneration of an area.

These weed species such as wild tobacco provide perches and shelter for birds as well as help maintain a microclimate in the forest.

Identifying plant species
A tiny seedling emerges from the ground in an area that has been cleared of weeds. Painting a circle around the seedling ensures that it isn’t accidentally trampled on or mistaken for a weed species. Given the chance, rather than having to replant a site, nature can often take its course as dormant seeds begin to sprout.

Letting Nature Take It’s Course

Sometimes, what I learned, was all we need to do is give nature a helping hand and then just let nature take its course.

By removing weeds over a period of time we give nature a chance to regenerate an area naturally. Often, once weeds are removed, it gives a chance for dormant seeds to begin to sprout. It is then a matter of visiting a site regularly, knowing which seedlings are weeds, removing them and allowing the native seedlings to grow.

Working with nature is a humbling experience
Ben explained to us the humbling experience that restoring a degraded site can be. He discussed the learnings along the way together with the many challenges. We can all learn from each other and the earth as she reveals her secrets.

Humble Beings

What is probably the biggest learning of the past couple of weeks is that of all the people I have met who are doing amazing things with the environment, none of them claim to know everything.

They are like pioneer species on the edge of a rainforest. They lean towards the light and grow fast with newly gleaned knowledge. They are continually being open to allowing the earth to teach them.

From propagating plants, to revegetating and restoring degraded environments, no one has all the answers. It is a continual learning curve where even university trained scientist with years of field experience still learn new things from those on the ground.

Gardening can teach us a lot about patience and experimentation
Tending my patch of earth over the past few months is a continual learning process.

Grounding Experiences

I have spent the last few months planting and experimenting with my small patch of dirt. I have over 100 plants in a 100 odd square metre tiered garden plot. It has been a learning curve seeing how different species grow and thrive in different parts of this garden and others don’t fare so well.

It is through getting my hands in the earth and experimenting rather than purely through reading books can we really learn.

Combine this with the practical wisdom of those around us, from scientists, gardeners, citizen scientists, commercial growers, all everyday people, can we all continue to build a knowledge base.

Learning from nature
This once weed infested site becomes a testing ground for the contractors who have cleared it of weeds, who were generous in sharing the learnings they have gleaned from their hands on work.


Walking through the patch of remnant rainforest today, having learned a lot through the humbling experiences of those helping to bring back forests to health and those who have a passion growing native plants, it added another level of appreciation in me.

There is a certain buzz I feel, that is no doubt commonly experienced by gardeners, scientists, and nature lovers. It is a feeling of deep gratitude and appreciation for the incredible biodiversity of our natural world.

Greenitude is that feeling of gratitude when contemplating nature
Whether walking through a remnant rainforest or learning about a critically endangered hibiscus on a far away island fills me with awe and gratitude for the incredible richness and biodiversity that we have on this planet we call Earth.

For me, walking through a tiny patch of restored remnant forest, or finding out the back story of a critically endangered plant on a desert island where only two clumps remain, to simply observing plants growing in my patch of dirt fills me with great joy and passion. It is this feeling I have often referred to as greenitude.


Knowledge is best gained through experience, whether our own or through the wisdom of others. Walking through Esme Lahey Environmental Park today I recognised that passion that drives fellow nature lovers to give back to their environment and get their hands in the dirt.

As I turned each bend in the path I better understood the energy and vision that went into restoring this remnant forest.

Greenitude is the passion of discovery in nature
On the Gold Coast Catchment Association Crawl we visited this particular site that will connect the two national parks. The contractor stood in front of a patch of a rare species of plant that looks very similar to a noxious foreign weed. With the area having been cleared of weeds, these plants naturally regenerated. The passion and joy as he recounted discovering these plants was palpable. This was greenitude right in front of us, and it felt good to be able to share in his experience.

Stay Humble

For everyone, each day is literally part of a journey of discovery. The word ‘journey’ comes from Old French and meant ‘day, a day’s travel, or a day’s work’.

Where will tomorrow’s journey take you? What new things will you learn? Remember, as Steve Job’s once said, to ‘stay humble’, to never stop learning and most of all to always stay close to the ground and your hands in the earth.

Earth to earth, dust to dust
Rainforests show us how everything is broken down back to earth,. A fallen log and leaf litter, with the aid of fungus and other living organisms, break these down to life giving humus. It is dirt that gives new life.

The Dirt

One last thought. Isn’t it ironic how our Western culture has become averse to the very thing that gives us and teaches us about life.

We talk about getting ‘dirty’, and about ‘soiling’ our clothes. The earth that gives us life, the earth in which we grow our food has become something we need to wash our hands off.

How to save the earth
The best way to save the Earth is t to get our hands into it. To hold it in our hands. To smell it, touch it. To remember we are of the earth. It is through reconnecting to the earth will we have any chance of discovering our true human nature and saving ourselves.

Saving The Earth One Handful at a Time

Even the roots of the word ‘dirt’ means ‘excrement’. Something that is excreted, filth to be removed from us.

Many speak about saving the environment, and yet are afraid to get down and dirty. I think by simply getting our hands in the earth regularly, by growing things, by learning from nature, that we can become more humble, more human, and ‘save the earth’ and ourselves simultaneously.

What do you think?

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  • Denise Lepore

    Thanks David – – as always lovely photographs and thoughts!! Thank you for sharing both!!!!

    • David Cuschieri

      Thank you Denise. Glad you enjoyed the read. xx : )

  • Paul Herman

    You dirty man. Great photos and philosophy.
    The dirt is just out the front door.
    Its good to plant children in it, even if they eat some.

    • David Cuschieri

      Yes its good to be a dirty man : ) Extreme hygiene is literally killing us. Yes, good to plant kids in the dirt and to eat some too. We need more bugs in us so that we can develop greater resistance and less allergies.

  • Loretta

    Really inspiring! Thanks for attending a few of our Native Plant Qld Gold Coast activities. It’s a small but passionate group always eager to share our time and talents.

    • David Cuschieri

      Thank you Loretta. It’s a great bunch of people with lots to offer and share. Hope to join the next activity with you all.