WOMADelaide festival – going back to our roots

Womadelaide Indigenous artworks colour the lawns of Botanic Park

Going back to our roots at WOMADelaide


When the world’s famous cultural festival gathers on the slopes of Adelaide’s Botanic Park, you learn what lies beneath it.

As we prepare for this year’s WOMADelaide festival, let’s revisit the last one to whet your appetite for all things arty, cultural, and environmental. Marie Barbieri takes us on a stroll through the highlights from last year. Don’t miss putting the festival in your calendar again this year – on 6 to 9 March 2020 in Adelaide, South Australia’s capital city.

The 'leaf people' at WOMADelaide

The annual WOMADelaide festival is firmly rooted on Australia’s national arts calendar. It’s where harmonious voices sing from stages, where dextrous bodies dance to the beat of the drum, and where progressive minds converge to challenge the status quo hoping to inspire all to nurture and preserve our planet.

Womadelaide Welcome to Country by Jamie Goldsmith and Taikurtinna

Following Jamie Goldsmith’s Welcome to Country and performance by Taikurtinna, around 650 artists curated the magic of WOMADelaide over the March 2019 long weekend. And while festivalgoers practised their yoga poses beneath the shade of the Moreton Bay figs, and indigenous artists dot-painted their canvases in workshops on lawns, various discussions took place. In the Frome Park Pavilion, scientists, activists and thinkers exchanged ideas, providing food for thought to be digested long after the festival weekend ended.

Planet Talks

A dominant theme at this year’s Planet Talks was what lies above and below the soil line.

First up was Robyn Williams, hosting: Can Trees Talk, Think and Heal? Joining him on stage was Monica Gagliano: an evolutionary ecologist and author of Thus Spoke the Plant, Alex Gaut: co-founder of Nature & Wellbeing Australia, and Brian Pickles: a lecturer at the University of Reading and a pioneering tree-communication ecologist. Gaut started by asking the audience to raise their hand if a tree was ever significant to them. Most, of course, did.

WOMADelaide's famous flags

Williams said that plants memorise through epigenetics and seasons, and respond accordingly, and that some plants flower on a date rather than on temperature. So the impact of climate change, he warned, is breaking them.

Gagliano argued that trees and plants learn much like animals. “Plants can learn behaviours in three days,” she said. “Trees don’t have neurons and a nervous system, but they do use other cells to associate chemicals and movements to events. That’s learning. And the mimosa is a great example.” Pickles recalled running around and climbing trees in the forests of Scotland, and described what he calls: the Wood Wide Web. “The mycelium communication network is basically what’s happening underground,” he said. A tree, he explained, is not just a plant. It’s the consequence of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and roots. Fungi give trees nutrients and water, and trees give fungi carbon and sugar. Mycelia actually communicate from root to root. “This is where plant cognition comes in.”

Learning that trees share their food with each other underground certainly impressed the audience, which was soon asked to think long-term about industrial agriculture and the environment. For example: monoculture plantations are not natural, and they break ecosystems. Asked Pickles: “What can we do about it? We can plant the right type of tree in the right type of place.” Supporting this, Gagliano added: “Biodiversity works. The plants don’t need help. We do!”

The Magic of Mushrooms

Another related Planet Talk, The Magic of Mushrooms: a mycelial path to saving the planet welcomed mycologists: Alison Pouliot and Brian Pickles, Gavin McIntyre: bioneer and founder of Ecovative Design (sustainable mycelium bio-fabrication materials), and Mike Hornblow: mycotecture (mushroom architecture) designer.

Womadelaide Mike Hornblow addressing the audience during The Magic of Mushrooms Planet Talk-crop

McIntyre has been using mushroom roots to build plastics, and Mike has been working with him to build mushroom roots. We’re shown a polystyrene-like tub made of mycelium—a 100% bio plastic. McIntyre suggests he could replace the world’s plastic, but at the moment it’s just a local solution.

Mycelium can be broken down and reabsorbed in 45 days, and can be grown in abandoned underground mines. It is acoustically absorptive, fire retardant, aesthetically malleable, and strong and lightweight. Hearing that the bio-brick can be used in construction (and can even flower) drops the jaws of the audience.

Observing the enlightened, Pouliot says: “I’m excited to see so many fungal freaks in one place!” She adds: “And we talk about flora and fauna. But where is the third ‘f’? In Australia we have a mega-diversity of fungi. We’ve named 15,000 species of fungi, and undoubtedly have immeasurably more.”

McIntyre says: “Filamenti fungi can build structure autonomously, quickly, and to form: so we can shape them with a mould.” Hornblow is manufacturing building materials with fungi growing in kelp moulds. He believes that using kelp is key, because their presence mitigates climate change, so if we build a demand for kelp, we will build an industry for its production.

WOMADelaide's green corner

Environmental Stalls

Beyond the Planet Talks, information hungry festivalgoers busied WOMADelaide’s green stalls. BioR is a local grassroots non-profit group of fundraisers, all about Reconstructing Habitat for Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation.

With all donations going directly towards their projects, BioR’s aim is to establish trust funds that will bring regular income to continue their work on ecological and habitat restoration.

They share their skills and knowledge to restore and create new habitats on cleared and degraded land to prevent further loss of wildlife species. “We’ve lost eight bird species in the Mt Lofty area, and it could be 50 by the end of the century,” said Fiona Paton, calling it “an extinction debt.”

Womadelaide Fiona Paton of BioR

But their work goes beyond tree planting. One current project is on Kangaroo Island, where they are monitoring rare and threatened plant communities. Cygnet Park is a 200ha former sheep-grazing site, now being revegetated with contextual ecosystems (fortunately, the plant nursery here was spared in the recent bushfires). Their aim is to plant vegetation networks that build natural habitat for wildlife, such as the drooping sheoak for glossy black cockatoos.

Another BioR habitat restoration project is on 550ha Frahn’s Farm near Monarto. “We pledge $10,000 per year for the next five years to restore the land to allow dwindling woodland birds, such as the scarlet robin (our charity’s logo) to return and thrive,” said Fiona. A kangaroo-proof fence will allow native vegetation to regrow, and nest boxes acting as hollows in young trees have been installed for pigmy possums. BioR’s angle is to encourage people to offset their carbon footprint by reconstructing contextual environments and habitats in South Australia, and repay some of the debt.

WOMADelaide 2020 will take place 6-9 March 2020
Location: Adelaide, South Australia

Womadelaide Morning yoga

 Images: courtesy © Marie Barbieri

For more:



Marie Barbieri is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer. Based in Adelaide, she has a genuine passion for wildlife and conservation, and enjoys nature-based activities, dancing and yoga (and a fine cup of Earl Grey tea).

Join us on Our Planet Travel’s eco adventure: