A few hundred metres down the track, the bush swallows me. I am not in an outer suburb of Newcastle anymore; I am ensconced in remnant spotted gum territory, the calls of cockatoos in high-definition surround sound as they come home to roost. It’s early spring of 2021, in the middle of the second COVID-19 wave, our second lockdown, but for once I am not glued to my news feed, watching the daily tally of infections, hospitalisations, deaths. I have my phone out, but I’m using it as a tool to help me get to know the beings that are alive in this place. I’m walking at a pace that would barely register as exercise on my FitBit, but that’s not the point. I’m looking for new friends—by ‘friends’ I mean plants, and by ‘new’ I mean new to me. There is so much I don’t know, and the not-knowing is what drives me to look and listen in a way I didn’t pre-pandemic, and at the same time my lack of knowledge is a source of comfort. To walk and discover what I don’t know is a balm to my anxiety-riddled mind in these times.

            Alongside the path through George McGregor Park, flowers of the pea family peek out from soft foliage: the yellow blushing faces of the graceful bush-pea, the violet of hardenbergia, the pale lilac of heathy mirbelia. Down in the leaf litter, a tiny flower is held aloft on a green spike with a single leaf; its glistening white petals are pinkish at the tapered tips. I haven’t looked closely enough to see the distinctive curved column and fringed, yellow labellum that indicate this flower’s family: Orchidacea. Later, when I upload the photo to a citizen science app called iNaturalist, I identify it as Caladenia catenata, commonly known as lady fingers.

            I’m new to plant identification. Before this, it was rock pools that held my attention. With the help of AI computer vision technology and a technologically linked community of natural world enthusiasts on iNaturalist, I came to know hundreds of marine animals, their life cycles, their world between the tides. Now I am learning to differentiate between types of trees, between shades of green.

            Further along the path there are profuse growths of a tall shrub I haven’t seen before. It has bunches of pale green winged fruit that look like flattened unripe cherries. This plant looks like a weed to me—its leaves are vivid green, and too abundant—but iNaturalist tells me otherwise. This is Dodonaea triquetra, or common hop bush. I read about it on my phone as I stop to catch my breath. It seems that white settler-colonisers believed this predominantly Australian genus to resemble the fruits of the hop bush (Humulus lupulus), and in the white colonial tradition, applied their own names to this plant (both common and the Latin binomial), disregarding the names traditional custodians had used for millennia.

            Whenever I go on my nature walks, I try to balance the excitement I feel for my new hobby as an amateur naturalist with an awareness that Western science is not the only valid knowledge system. There are plant names in Awabakal language that I don’t know, and a depth of traditional knowledge that is not mine. I remind myself that there is a difference between identifying and understanding, between information and connection. Citizen science is a way in, though, a way for me to introduce myself to this place. A way for me to make conversation with plant beings, although I never presume to know their whole life story, their intricate web of relationships.

When I studied biology in high school, I was fond of reciting the hierarchy of biological classification: life, domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. The eight major taxonomic ranks had a buoyant, sing-song quality when I said them out loud. It was like a poem. I always thought of myself as an arts person more than a science person, but taxonomy appealed to me—I liked the idea that organisms could be named, defined, and classified. That all things belonged somewhere, that they could be separated into discrete categories based on their characteristics, that there was an ‘arrangement method’ for the chaos of life. This was somewhat at odds with my experience as an adolescent human being. I didn’t know where I belonged, how to define myself, or what labels to apply. I would spend many years searching for a way to classify myself, before learning to embrace my own between-ness, the ways in which I did not fit into categories of gender, sexuality, personal identity.

            Yet, the part of my mind that enjoys sorting and labelling and orderliness persists. I’ve come to accept its presence alongside the freedom-seeking, rule-breaking aspects of myself. It can be useful for doing detailed work or remembering facts. But if things become unbalanced in my world, it becomes a nuisance. Left unchecked, it can begin to establish itself in areas of the mind where it will do no good. At times when life becomes scary, or challenging, or stressful, or when going through major life changes, I am vulnerable to infestations of ‘thought weeds’.

            Just as Australia’s Delta wave kicked off, and my anxiety was rising rapidly, I found out that I was pregnant. Along with the excitement I felt, there was a definite note of terror. I was not yet able to receive the vaccine that was slowly being rolled out across the nation, and I was vulnerable in a way I had never been before. At a time when the news was flooded with stories about sickness and death, my fear outgrew my hope, and the thought weeds began to creep in. For many months, they ran rampant, their vigorous growth blotting out the sun, sucking water and nutrients from other modes of thinking. My days began to lose their colour, their vibrancy, their diversity. Learning to identify thought weeds is the first step but removing them is not a simple process. It takes time and effort to recover. Beneficial species must be planted—other ways of thinking that support the whole system.

I return to George McGregor Park many times throughout my pregnancy. I want to be in the world, moving my body, breathing without a mask, but I need a place to hide from human contact, to be ‘in the weeds’: defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a place of safety, or seclusion, that allows a person to hide from the action, an opponent, etc. The ‘action’ is normal human activity (shopping, socialising, eating out), and my opponent is an airborne virus.

            The reserve is quiet and beautiful, but it has not been spared the litany of abuse by human activity since colonisation. Invasive plants and animals, urban development, coal mining, pollution, rubbish dumping—there’s history, even here in this small reserve. But human hands have also been at work attempting to restore balance. Some parts of the reserve have been given more care and attention, allowing native species to regrow and flourish, other parts are scrappier: grass and weeds grow waist-high, thickets of lantana glow bright green.

            At the start of the track into George McGregor Reserve there is a sign explaining that the site contains significant species: threatened black-eyed Susans and small-flowered grevillea, squirrel gliders and powerful owls, and the mature trees they rely on. Landcare volunteers have been rehabilitating this site since 2003, removing weed infestations and converting vacant grassy areas back into bushland. They describe it as ‘part of a large, isolated patch of remnant bushland surrounded by urban development’—bordered by the suburbs of Rankin Park, Elermore Vale, and the John Hunter Hospital. At the northern end, the reserve connects to another remnant of spotted gum-ironbark forest, Jesmond Bushland. On a satellite map, it’s a green heart in the middle of the suburbs.

            I think about bush regeneration as I walk in George McGregor. A ‘weed’, according to the OED, is any herbaceous plant not valued for its usefulness or beauty, or regarded as a nuisance in the place where it is growing, esp. when hindering the growth of crops or other cultivated plants. Often the best approach to removing invasive weeds is eradication, through manual removal, burning, or applying poison. But there’s another way of looking at weeds, one that I heard about on an episode of the Canadian podcast Future Ecologies. Nick Reo, an Anishinaabe man, professor, and invasive weed specialist, asks of weeds: ‘What’s their role in the community? And then, what responsibilities, if any, do we have towards them as members of that community?’

            When I apply his thinking to the problem of thought weeds, I begin to recognise their role: it’s my system’s inbuilt mechanism to keep me, and my growing baby, safe from harm. A little anxiety is useful, but issues arise when danger is all you can see—when the mind tries to identify and categorise all things as safe or unsafe, good or bad, black or white. My responsibility, I realise, is to ask each worrisome thought, ‘What is your role? Are you keeping me safe, or are you keeping me contained?’ Each time I walk in George McGregor Park, the nuisance thoughts grow a little quieter. As their stranglehold lessens, I begin to see that there is room for joy, hope, flourishing.

After passing through the stand of common hop bush, I scramble down a rocky hill and step over a small stream—Kayutibbin Creek. I can hear frogs calling, so I open another app, FrogID, to record a 60-second clip of their song. This will be listened to by researchers at the Australian Museum, and in a few weeks I will receive an email from the FrogID team, identifying it as the call of the red-backed toadlet, a pretty little frog with a black underside and a vibrant crimson back. In the email, there’s a personal note thanking me for this important recording—they are happy to know that frogs have started calling here again after drought and floods, and they encourage me to return and record in the same place. Before the researcher commented on my recording, citizen science seemed like a fun game, collecting identifications in my app like a Pokédex. It’s the first time I consider that what I am doing has value beyond satisfying my own curiosity.

            I cross a makeshift wooden plank bridge over a small pond, and as I climb up a hill, I come to a small clearing carpeted in bracken fern. Ambling along the path in the last rays of sun is an echidna. I’m ecstatic at the appearance of this charismatic monotreme—I snap photos like it’s a celebrity. But it’s not just the echidna that I think about, later, when I reflect on this first tour of George McGregor Park. And it’s not the animals that draw me back, again and again, over the course of the following year.

            On the other side of the clearing, down another hill, I meet the creek again. On its banks is an enormous spotted gum, its roots drinking from the groundwater, its branches spreading like veins across the sky. I feel like I have reached the inner sanctum of the reserve, with the tree as sentinel, protector, keeping watch. I’m so moved by the sight of this giant that I do something I don’t normally do. I walk up to the base of the tree and place my hand on its trunk. The bark is cool, and hard, like something that is not alive, but the difference between a living tree and dead wood is clear to my senses. I imagine that I am hearing water in its sapwood, and the passage of nutrients and minerals through the inner bark—food that has been exchanged with the mycorrhizal networks that wrap around the root system.

            Touching the tree, I feel that I am greeting someone. Not just someone, but someones, because the tree is not a single entity, but a web of relationships. I inhale the scent of humus, and with this breath I take in the spores of nearby fungi, the oxygen the tree has produced, and phytoncides—the volatile organic compounds it uses to protect itself, and which also benefit my human immune system. I am connecting myself to the wood wide web, an intelligence that extends beyond the realm of naming, classifying. For a moment, the part of my mind that is busy processing thoughts switches off. I take a break from trying to order the universe and I sink into the true wisdom of my species—that we are never discrete, separate beings, we are always a part of something bigger.

            Under the shelter of this mature tree, this grandparent of the forest, I feel safe. With my voice, my human language, I say hello; with my touch, I introduce myself, a warm-blooded mammal. I am learning to listen for a reply. In my belly, another someone is growing. I place my hand there. When she arrives, she will already know this place; she has been listening, too.