Landscapes of Our Hearts
159 pages

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159 pages

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Compelling, multifarious and essential.'
- Don Watson
'Drink in its wisdom.'
- Andrew Leigh, MP
On this ancient continent, waves of people have made their mark on the landscape; in turn, it too has shaped them.
If we look afresh at our history through the land we live on, might Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians find a path to a shared future?
An epic exploration of our relationship with this country, Landscapes of Our Hearts takes us from the Great Barrier Reef to the Central Desert, the High Country to Canberra's Limestone Plains. It is a book of hope and offers the possibility that a renewed connection to the landscape and to each other could pave the way towards reconciliation.
It will change the way you see this land.



Publié par
Date de parution 30 juin 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781760761349
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1250€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this publication contains the names and images of people who have died.

Chapter 1: The child s tale
Chapter 2: How did we get here?
Chapter 3: The land itself
Chapter 4: Settlers
Chapter 5: Blackfella, whitefella
Chapter 6: At home in a strange land
Chapter 7: Mapping Country
Chapter 8: Water, life, love and death in a dry country
Chapter 9: The trees that shape the land
Chapter 10: Values, rules and knowledge
Chapter 11: Who do we think we are?

The child s tale
The creek washed it,
the sun blessed it,
the dove sang it,
the song of the child yet to be born
Judith Wright, A Song to Sing You 1
I grew up in a rural English landscape where water was a dominant and ever-present feature. Across the meadow from our house in the village of Hadlow was the River Bourne, a minor tributary of the River Medway that divides the County of Kent and flows past verdant orchards and hop gardens before emptying into vast estuarine saltmarshes and merging with the murky waters of the River Thames at Sheerness. The Bourne has its source at the foot of the North Downs, a great ridge of chalk grassland along which runs the ancient Pilgrims Way, from Winchester in Hampshire to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, the greatest place of pilgrimage in mediaeval England.
Along the Bourne was a chain of water mills that provided the power for papermaking and flour milling, some since Saxon times. The still depths of their millponds were home to the ancient leviathan carp of my boy angler s imagination. The paper mills hark back to the life and times of the 15th-century merchant, writer and printer William Caxton, born in Hadlow, who introduced the printing press to England and was the country s earliest retail bookseller. The first book known to have been printed and sold by Caxton was an edition of William Chaucer s The Canterbury Tales.
I spent countless hours in the River Bourne, netting minnow or three-spined stickleback and turning over stones searching for caddis fly larvae, water beetles and their main predatory fish, the beautifully mottled, goggle-eyed bullhead. On one excursion I found a crude flint hand axe on the bed of the river. Its sharp edges rounded by aeons of flowing water, the axe had been struck from a larger core stone and was only half-finished, bearing the marks of where six large flakes had been removed. It fitted the contours of my hand perfectly. I knew immediately what it was, just from the feel and shape of the stone. Handling the axe for the first time sparked in me a heady mix of connection with place and imaginings of the past. The chalk of the North Downs had been cut through by meltwater rivers at the end of the last ice age twelve thousand years ago, exposing flint nodules that Mesolithic people used to make tools. The axe now sits on my desk, within easy reach, a reminder that the landscape of my childhood had been inhabited for millennia by successive waves of migrants and invaders, each with their own material culture, industry and influences on the environment.
Within a few miles of our house were Neolithic standing stones, the Bronze Age burial mound at Coldrum, the Iron Age Oldbury hill fort at Ightam, Celtic field boundaries and terraces cut into the chalky hillslopes, a Roman villa at Lullingstone and a scattering of Saxon castles and Norman churches. From our vegetable garden, my mother would sometimes dig shards of mediaeval pottery and very occasionally a tiny bronze Roman coin bearing the image of a foreign emperor. My country was filled with relicts, bygone stories and ancient pagan gods. The past and its people were all around. They were present in our speech: the dozens of English words with Latin roots that we spoke every day, together with borrowed words from Gaelic, Old Norse, Norman French, and German. Language and place are inextricably entwined. And as I learned about the history of everyday places, so they became more special and meaningful to me. Place, time, space and the constancy of change: geography and history merged into a seamlessness of belonging.
Much of the time I was alone, by choice, immersed in that flood-prone province of rivers and water meadows. I would walk from our house across to the Bourne and slide into its stream, over a shallow bed of flint cobbles, and wade to the deeper, muddy reaches lined with bulrush and weeping willow, the water filling my wellington boots. Near the village of Golden Green, the Bourne broadened and turned eastwards. A water mill had been on this spot since the time of the Domesday Book in the 11th century. Skirting the alluring but exposed millpond with its prominent no fishing sign, I would cross the bridge at Victoria Lane and continue on down a long, straight section of river divided by a slim island of impenetrable hawthorn thicket. Along the main branch of the river, shoals of sleek but elusive chub patrolled endlessly. Beyond was the lower reach of the river, meandering across its floodplain of fertile but poorly drained farmland, and flowing on to its confluence with the Medway near the hamlet of Snoll Hatch with its terraced cottages faced with red Kentish hanging tiles.
My mother taught me the rudiments of field botany, giving me a practical grounding in which plants had edible fruit, and when they were ripe, and which berries and mushrooms were poisonous. Later, as I learned to recognise the plants, especially those of wet places, I discovered how their common names served as vivid mnemonics of their identity: purple loosestrife, yellow flag, marsh horsetail, toadflax, hemp agrimony. These were names of imagination, embedded in folklore and everyday observation. My regular reading included my mother s well-thumbed copy of The Reverend William Keble Martin s masterpiece The Concise British Flora in Colour, which I still own, along with her copy of Sir John Hill s The Family Herbal, published in 1812. I learned that many familiar plants were not native to England but had been introduced before 1500, either accidentally or because of their value as foods or medicines, and had become naturalised. 2
I came to understand that each wave of human invaders had modified this landscape by introducing new plants and animals, clearing the extensive woodlands for cropping and grazing and developing new industries based around water, wood and rock: charcoal burning, iron working, timber production, papermaking. 3 The woodlands of Kent were managed by coppicing to provide a sustainable source of wood for charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces, and for fencing, poles and building materials. The copses, or coppiced woodlands, of my childhood were common and easy to recognise from the multi-stemmed trees formed by the age-old cycle of harvesting the young stems and their resprouting from the cut stumps.
Fishing was an early obsession of mine, and I bicycled down sunken footpaths and forgotten trackways hedged by blackthorn and ash, searching for secluded ponds and lakes rarely visited by other anglers. I picked out these promising spots from the much-consulted Ordnance Survey map pinned to our kitchen wall. Many places were on private land, and I trespassed my way shamelessly across the Weald of Kent. I taught myself to observe, be vigilant and become near-invisible in the landscape. On full alert for an irate landholder, my every sense was heightened. The unmistakable, pungent smell of fresh water mixed with mud and decaying vegetation is one of my most abiding memories of childhood.
When I was old enough to apply for a shotgun licence, I bought a cheap but reliable single-barrel Spanish hammerlock and roamed the woods and riverbanks rough shooting for wood pigeon, rabbit, hare and grey squirrel. I hunted all year round, but early winter was my favourite season for its stark beauty and stillness; the landscape transformed by frost and ice. Trees were bare of leaves and the watercolour palette of autumn tones had given way to a country of deep browns, greys and silvery white. Big turbulent skies and thin biting air threatened snow. Only hardy people ventured out of doors: tough inveterate walkers who knew the austere pleasure of being outside at that time of year; and farmers too, for some essential task of maintenance or the management of livestock. Rabbits were scarce but pigeons were still to be found, often in small flocks feeding on the turnip and sugar beet that were grown for cattle feed.
Shooting was for the table and pest control rather than for sport. My frugal mother, endlessly imaginative in ways to make ends meet for her family of six, grew much of our fruit and vegetables. Pigeons and rabbits made short work of a row of young peas or radish. I remember her early one morning leaning out of the landing window in her dressing gown with a look of steely determination on her face and my shotgun at her shoulder, having just dispatched with a single shot two fat wood pigeons that had raided her cabbages.
Our garden fare and game were supplemented by gathering from the hedgerows on long, often cold and rainy family walks. Rosehips, sloes, elderflower, blackberries, crab apples and damsons were transformed into wines, cordials, jams and pies. The plants and animals of the English countryside were a regular part of our diet long before the Wild Food movement became fashionable. For us, like generations before us, the hedgerows, woods and fields provided food for free, which was very much a part of what linked us to our landscape. When I recall those walks, down footpaths and damp lanes, I think of the oak, ash and thorn of Rudyard Kipling s A Tree Song . That ancient land with its sacred trees and myths and nature gods is the land that I walk in my memory of childhood.
Half a century on, and half a world away, a new river has become part of my life. Ginninderra Creek is a scruffy little stream that rises on the northern border of the Australian Capital Territory, flows over a dam and down a spillway from an artificial lake, Lake Ginninderra, and on through Canberra s north-western suburbs of Evatt, Melba, Flynn, Latham, Macgregor and Dunlop. The cycle path east from Melba along the creek towards the lake is popular with dog walkers. Occasionally the dog and I veer west, heading for Umbagong District Park, where axe-grinding grooves in the volcanic rock of the creek bed are a reminder of the first inhabitants of this region. Umbagong is one of over three thousand Aboriginal sites in Canberra. Scatterings of stone artefacts have been found on Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie and Mount Majura. These hills were vantage points and remain sites of cultural and spiritual significance for local Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. The site of the National Museum on Acton Peninsula was once part of a complex of ceremonial grounds extending across the floodplain of the Molonglo River, now partly submerged by Lake Burley Griffin.
Some of the plants along Ginninderra Creek I know from my Kentish childhood, though here most are regarded as weeds. Weeping willow is ubiquitous, as is ash, hawthorn, plum, blackberry, ivy, privet and poplar. Cumbungi or bulrush Typha domingensis, familiar in form though a different species from the English one, chokes the channel in many places, partnered with common reed Phragmites australis, with its feathery flowering heads. Flattened by regular flooding and dying off in winter, the reeds readily resprout and recover, trapping silt and raising the riverbed. The reeds and cumbungi have slowly expanded their range during the fourteen years we have lived in Melba, winning out against the alternating flow of the stream through flood and drought. In summer the dorsal fins of European carp break the surface of the drying pools. This fish that I so avidly sought out in the lakes and rivers of Kent is vilified as an introduced pest here, though an increasing number of anglers now fish for it. In England, European carp is also an introduced species, transplanted from eastern Europe where it had been farmed since Roman times, and spreading from ponds of mediaeval monasteries where fish substituted for meat on Fridays.
White poplar Populus alba, a deciduous native tree of Europe and central Asia, is becoming an environmental weed along Ginninderra Creek. 4 Like willows, poplars have long been a valued source of medicine in Europe; their leaves and bark have antiseptic properties and are rich in salicylic acid and vitamin C. Mature trees form dense woodlands along those reaches of the creek that flow through Evatt and Latham, their understorey permeated by the same smell of water, mud and decaying vegetation I remember from childhood. The poplars were first planted when the suburbs were marked out with surveyor s pegs in the early 1970s. The regular rows and generous spacing afforded to the young saplings have given way over time to crowded ranks of large mature trees. Beyond the boundary of this woody grid, younger generations have thicketed from suckers and seeds. The white poplar trees are gradually being removed because of their tendency to spread and crowd out native species. Their prodigious water uptake risks altering the water balance of the river valley. A couple of years ago, a crew from Territory and Municipal Services cut down the clump by Copland Drive Bridge and planted casuarina and grevillea in their place, but tenacious young poplar shoots have sprouted back. In autumn the falling leaves decay rapidly and are said to enrich the creek waters with an excess of nutrients that cause harm to aquatic life. I wonder whether there was much aquatic life in the creek left after it was dammed upstream to form Lake Ginninderra when the new suburbs were first built. But the white poplar are probably here to stay - there are almost too many of them to remove - and eventually they will become a naturalised part of the riparian landscape of Ginninderra Creek.
How and when will naturalisation occur? What does naturalised even mean? Ecologists define it as an introduced plant or animal that has become self-sustaining in its new environment. People have moved plants and animals to new landscapes, intentionally and by accident, for millennia. Some, like European carp, have been vilified as their negative effects on the environment have become apparent. Others seem to do no obvious damage, yet are maligned for their exotic status. Is naturalisation just a matter of ecological spread over time or does it imply a collective social change in viewpoint from enmity to acceptance? Is it any different from somebody saying I was not born here, but I have lived here long enough that I feel this is where I belong ? The word naturalised seems as enigmatic now as it did when I first came across it as a child in Keble Martin s Concise British Flora.
Dotted along the creek are clusters of rectangular plastic sheeting held in place by bamboo stakes, marking where native trees have been planted by local schoolchildren and members of the North Belconnen Landcare Group. A dedicated band of volunteers have devoted their time to caring for areas of heritage-listed native grasslands, clearing weeds and restoring the riverbanks. My former CSIRO colleague Ken Hodgkinson has spent years researching different ways of burning and mowing to encourage the diversity of native grassland plants along the creek, including rare lilies and orchids. The North Belconnen volunteers are just one of some thirty-six Landcare groups now operating in the Australian Capital Territory, up from thirteen in 1991. What started as a small grassroots community movement has evolved and grown to become an established part of Canberra s social and cultural life, working in sophisticated and successful partnership with the ACT Government, local businesses and researchers from CSIRO and the universities to care for the environment. 5
The community volunteering effort shows how important the local environment is to many city dwellers. The green spaces within the suburbs of Canberra are treated as equally significant as the grasslands by the volunteers, even though these places have been greatly altered from their natural states by development and the introduction of exotic plants. These novel ecosystems have been transformed from their original state by human agency, but have become accepted and valued for what they are, not what they once were. 6
New wetlands in Canberra have been built by the ACT Government to store, filter and recycle water to irrigate playing fields, supply habitat for aquatic plants, waterbirds, reptiles and fishes, as well as create new recreational, volunteering and educational opportunities. The ecosystem services derived from these constructed wetlands, along Sullivans Creek catchment in O Connor, Dickson and Lyneham and on Ginninderra Creek in Gungahlin, clearly benefit the community. These places are immensely popular with local residents for the amenity and aesthetic values they provide. Before Canberra was built, Sullivans Creek and its tributaries were chains of ponds, often isolated from each other during dry periods, and interspersed with narrow, perched floodplains and rocky gullies. These wetlands were never intended to restore the creeks to their natural condition, but are an imaginative and exciting way of enriching and varying the cityscape. By creating a series of planted ponds linked by a corridor of water and vegetation, they form a pathway for exploration through suburban blandness.
Heading westwards along Ginninderra Creek from our house, I come to Flynn and Charnwood, historically tough working-class enclaves of government rental housing. Now these suburbs are fast becoming gentrified as ex-government houses are renovated by first-time home owners searching for a bargain on the city s outskirts. In 2005, on my first walk along Ginninderra Creek through Flynn, I came across something that made my heart sing. Hanging among a dense patch of wild cherry trees was a battered glass wind chime, marking the neat entrance to a tunnel-like cubby house of carefully interwoven leafy branches decorated with strips of coloured ribbon. The floor had been furnished with a strip of worn pink carpet on which was laid out an old glass lemonade bottle and two plastic beakers salvaged from the piles of flood debris by the creek. The children who made this place special were rich beyond measure in imagination and innocent joy for the secret camp they had created on this shabby piece of waste ground. I turned for home and the sudden sound of the wind chime in the freshening breeze jolted my tears for the memory of childhood.
Children connect with nature and imagination even in the most unsightly of urban locations. Historian Graeme Davison grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon in the 1950s and would often play in run-down Lincoln Park among overgrown grass, broken bottles and vandalised swings and seesaws. But the park had once been a beautiful and sacred place. Its light sandy soil - a feature of the district - had nourished tall red gums and bracken undergrowth, a source of fruit and game for the Aborigines who met there for play and ceremony. In his thoughtful, evocative essay City Dreaming , Davison reminds us that re-reading our landscapes for evidence of their deep history includes re-interpreting our cityscapes: The cities were meeting places for Aborigines long before Europeans made them prime real estate. Davison s essay is subtitled Making Peace with Belonging . Today, Lincoln Park has been rejuvenated with a modern playground, bark chips and picnic tables and is the venue for the monthly North Essendon Farmers Market. 7
Beyond Flynn and Charnwood, Ginninderra Creek flows westwards past what is, for now at least, the last outer suburb and then through paddocks peppered with sheep dung to Ginninderra Falls, where water plummets more than forty metres into a great pool in a rocky gorge before flowing on to merge with the Murrumbidgee River. When my sons, Ewan and Angus, were young boys, we would come here occasionally to swim during achingly hot summer days. We sat in the creek above the falls with our legs blissfully outstretched, backs to the current, our hands splayed on the smooth rock to brace ourselves against the flow. The afternoon sun fell on the uplifted brown faces of my water-loving boys. Just above the steep rocky edge of the plunge pool was a narrow path leading downstream. On one airless day we found a dead brown snake on the rocks, not yet flyblown; its belly scales were broad and yellowish, outlined and speckled with patches of red ochre. Ewan, with a mixture of fascination and dread, prodded at the corpse with a stick. From then on he kept a careful eye out for snakes when near water, vigilance that paid off years later when he and his teenage mates headed out to the falls for a swim on a baking December day. Ewan spotted a brown snake, this one very much alive, and alerted the swimmers. He told me, I reckon I could probably outrun a brown, but I could never outswim one.
The Cotter River Reserve, known ironically by locals as Canberra Beach , and Uriarra Crossing on the Murrumbidgee River were favourite swimming spots too, especially when we first came to Canberra from the frigid grey west coast of Scotland. Here, in the bright sunlight, the boys found the company of children their own age and learned the social rules of their new land. As they mixed with other kids, their broad Glaswegian accents and vocabulary were rapidly displaced by the colloquialisms and drawling vowels of their schoolmates. My sons relished the freedom to play and explore at those special wild places on the edge of suburbia, but they also loved Weston Park on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and the grounds of Civic Pool with its shady walnut trees, close to the heart of the city. They made no great distinction between town and bush. For children, each place they make their own has a special set of attractions, both physical and created from the imagination of play.
But there were other special places too, further away and a lot wilder, where we would go to camp with friends during the Easter and Christmas holidays. One such place was the Snowy River. A two-hour drive south from Canberra took us to Jindabyne, where we turned off the tarmac onto the winding, precarious Barry Way. The unsealed road drops precipitously through rugged montane forest down to the river valley and then on to the Victorian border and Gippsland. We would head down the valley to the campsite at Pinch River and meet up with other Canberra families, pitch our tents, rig up tarpaulins over the communal kitchen and get a fire going. The mob of kids would head straight for the water. The Snowy is a fast-flowing alpine river and can be ferociously cold even in summer. Angus would stay in the water until his lips turned blue and I would have to drag him out, throw a towel around him and stand him, shivering, in front of the fire.
Ewan and his mate Blaine were older than most of the other kids and looked out for them, making sure that nobody wandered out of sight or did anything too dangerous. Ewan told me, We felt tough and responsible because we both owned pocket knives. We kept an eye out for the other kids, but we were a social group, a gang. Ewan s love of the outdoors, learned as a child, has endured into adulthood. He often heads off with his mates or his partner to one of the national parks on the south coast to camp and fish. The Snowy was where I learned my camping skills, he says. You don t try and make sense of why you love the environment when you are a kid. You just do.
It is April 2016. I am standing with my partner, Alison, and a group of friends on the beach at Trial Bay looking out across the flat calm of the sea to the mountains in the distance. We have rented holiday houses at South West Rocks on the central coast of New South Wales for the past several Easters. Before that, we used to go camping in a great unruly horde, but we adults are now in our late fifties and early sixties and our kids have grown up and mostly left home. Comfortable accommodation has a lot to recommend it at our time of life. To our right is the campsite overlooked by the ruins of Trial Bay Gaol. I enjoy walking slowly, inconspicuously, through the campsite to observe and compare the ingenious configurations of tentage that house the larger groups of families and friends. At one spot, a great Bedouin tent of silver tarpaulin supported by a forest of poles stretches over a ringed encampment of smaller tents, outdoor tables and chairs, a bar fridge and a television. A pile of bicycles of all sizes is stacked neatly nearby. This encampment could easily accommodate thirty people and looks almost semi-permanent, which in a sense it is. The people who inhabit it re-erect and re-model it at the same place each time they come here. All over Australia in the camping grounds of the coast and the inland, people come together at this time of year to enjoy the outdoors and have a holiday that is strongly orientated towards their children. It is an important form of ceremony, coinciding with the Easter holidays.
It is perhaps too much of a stretch to assume that just being in the environment imbues each generation of campers with a sense of place and a respect for nature. Many may come simply for the beach and the sea, for the conviviality and relaxation of an affordable holiday with family and friends. But it is a start. Author Tim Winton wrote of this Australian affinity with the outdoors as a filial dance with landscape that is part of our physical culture and speaks of an implicit collective understanding that the land is still present in the corner of our eye, still out there, but also carried within, as a genetic connection . 8
The city and the country merge in Canberra. From the vantage point of Mount Rogers, another favourite dog-walking haunt, Alison and I scan across the suburbs to the south and east and see the traces of streets partially obscured by trees and a multi-coloured archipelago of rooftops among a sea of green. The overwhelming impression is of a vast open forest, the woodlands of suburbia.
Mount Rogers Reserve is an in-between place, neither urban park kept neat with lawnmowers, bark chippings and municipal by-laws, nor national park with its unspoilt beauty and rules for the protection of biodiversity. For kids, the reserve is a natural extension of their backyards. The slopes are studded with grand old Blakely s red gums interspersed with younger trees planted by the Mount Rogers Landcare Group. At one spot a clump of straggly snow gums seems to emerge straight out of the rock. Here and there are the stumps of great trees, felled after European settlement at a time when the landscape was still open grassy woodland. Fixed to a lichen-encrusted boulder near the summit, a small brass plaque commemorates a much-loved companion: Scoobie, 2007, RIP . We come across this simple, moving tribute on a winter s day of frost and sharp sunlight. Our own dog, Ellie, a black-and-white hound of uncertain parentage, so in-the-moment and alive, is oblivious to our momentary stillness as she sniffs the frozen grass for the scent of kangaroos. She regards the roos with circumspection and keeps her distance, only half-heartedly giving chase after they have turned away from their brief stand-off.
We descend on a narrow path from the summit. A gaunt elderly man wearing a faded pink beanie approaches and stops to say g day. There is a pronounced tremor in his hand as he holds his stick. His dog, a shaggy Airedale cross, rockets out of the bush and chases Ellie up the slope. The man smiles with affection at the Airedale s playful triumph over the larger dog. We relax into conversation: the attributes of our animals, the beauty of the day and the simple pleasure of being in this place. The commonplace mateship of dog walkers.
The sun burns off the layer of low mist around Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie. In the distance are the snow-covered Brindabella Hills, their peaks like ancient ancestors looking down benevolently on Canberra. Our City Dreaming.
The natural places in which we learn about our environment as we are growing up have been called primal landscapes . 9 These landscapes of childhood contain and integrate the elements of the natural world - its structure, physical appearance, plants and animals - with its human dimensions: society, culture, family and economy. Learning to belong in these primal landscapes is to come to know and feel the relatedness of these elements and their significance to our identity. In Island Home: a Landscape Memoir, Tim Winton wrote of experiencing his childhood landscapes: Being short and powerless, kids see the world low down and close up. On hands and knees, on their naked bellies, they feel it with an immediacy we can scarcely recall as adults. Winton describes how children explore and observe: weaving a tapestry of arcane lore that didn t just make the world more comprehensible, but rendered it intimate, even sacred . 10
As children, we feel and sense as part of our learning. Being in nature as a child is to be immersed in a living encyclopaedia, with plants, animals, water, sand, rocks and sky instead of words. As we grow older, we unwittingly separate the visceral, sensate experience of learning and being in a landscape from the intellectual and the abstract. The landscape of our childhood might be a city park, an adventure playground with a creek and grand old trees or a coastline with lagoons, estuaries and melaleuca forest. Geography and ecology do not constrain the creativity of children. They will make a story and a game in any place out of whatever is at hand. What matters is that special places are accessible and visited over and over so they become familiar and have meaning.
I am from the country, born and brought up, but have lived in cities since my early twenties. In each place, I have found elements of the landscape that have deep significance to me. In both country and city, the landscapes of my heart were heavily modified by human influences throughout millennia. The contemporary urban landscapes of my adulthood, and those of my children s childhoods, are layered, enriched and synergised with connections, history and meaning from what has gone before. Graeme Davison summed up this idea: the river valley and the square: they are different, but complementary, facets of an authentic contemporary Australian urbanism. Without the first, our lives are too shallow; without the second they lack purpose. Together they may just possibly allow us to be at home. 11
In my home city of Canberra, that influence continues by the minute as new suburbs spring up to satisfy the seemingly never-ending demand for housing in this rapidly expanding capital. The new suburbs lack the street trees of the old. Roads are narrower, gardens smaller. Green spaces are fewer and more centralised. Unlike in the older suburbs, there is no network of laneways and paths winding around the backs of the houses, connecting streets and communities and forming shortcuts to the nearest shops. In the minds of the developers, pedestrians no longer exist.
Will the generations of children that come to inhabit these places learn to make peace with belonging in this landscape? The material possibilities of nature in their surroundings may have been constrained by the narrow geometry and self-interested vision of the developers, but perhaps the boundlessness of childhood imagination will win out against the odds. The parks and green spaces with their newly constructed wetlands will grow, mature and change over time, as will their meaning and relevance for the residents of these outer suburbs.
Learning to be in a primal landscape is a part of growing up, and also of growing old. It is a way to understand ourselves and how we got here by remembering and reliving how we first learned to interact with the natural world. The renewed way we can experience our adult environment by recalling what we experienced through our childhood eyes and ears, nose and mouth, hands and skin, hearts and minds is one of the surest and truest forms of knowledge I can think of.
Everybody has a unique experience and personal legacy of their childhood haunts. As we age, we realise that these differing experiences have helped to shape other people s world views in ways that may diverge from ours. My childhood immersed in the rural landscapes of south-east England motivated me to introduce my own children to nature and the environment in Australia and formed how I think about the wider world and the lives of people around me.
By comparing my experiences of nature with those of other people, I recognise that despite the differences of detail, we have much in common. The child within me identifies deeply with Winton s descriptions of the landscapes of his childhood and the process of learning about them. As an adult city dweller, I have the daily experience of Davison s river valley and square as complementary facets of contemporary urban life. Those holiday-makers at coastal campsites and the kids exploring the pockets of nature in their new suburbs make me smile with recognition and hope. I realise the human desire for connection with nature is deep, universal, compelling and persistent. That desire takes many forms and brings beauty and meaning to our lives.
Our childhood experiences also inform our reactions to how the natural world is changing. How do we respond when we see a landscape that was part of our childhood altered beyond recognition by urban development? I have felt a sense of loss, that the physical basis of my memory has been erased. The character of the place that was once there now exists only in my mind, and in the minds of others who might have experienced it. And with that loss of place comes a loss of self, a diminishment in my sense of belonging to that landscape. I cannot help but mourn that loss - it is a natural thing to do. But I also understand that changes to landscapes are inevitable. I reconcile these changes through the interplay between the physical world and the landscapes of the mind: the look and feel and smell and shape of the place where I grew up is altered forever, but what I hold in my heart and mind by way of memory and attachment defines who I am and will always be with me.
People make sense of changes in their landscapes in a variety of ways. We may view change as an unbroken series of historical transformations in land use and tenure. Or we might see the landscape as a faint shadow of what it once was and struggle to relate to what remains. Mourning for environmental loss or decline is called solastalgia and is a universal phenomenon. What we do next is what matters. Reconciling environmental change with disrupted feelings of place attachment can help us reframe our relationships with nature. From changing the way we think and act comes a sense of hope and agency for the future. But in attempting this reconciliation and making sense of the changes to the landscapes of our hearts, we first have to come to terms with how we got here.
How did we get here?
accused of history
many decide
not to know any
Les Murray, Three Observations 1
How have non-Indigenous Australians started to come to terms with the nature of the land and waters of this continent, and how do their experiences and perspectives contrast with, but also overlap, those of Indigenous Australians? These issues have absorbed me since I arrived in this country in 1994.
An abiding theme in the rolling, rumbling, edgy national conversation about what it means to be Australian is the relationship between people and landscape. Central to this issue are how place confers on many of us a deep sense of our identity and how our notion of who we are is reflected by the ways we interact with the landscape, its ecosystems, plants and animals. For Australia s First Peoples, their cultural and spiritual connections with the land are still there, but physical connections have often been severed or drastically changed following the arrival of Europeans. For non-Indigenous people, our responses to landscape have been influenced by cultural practices, behaviours, concepts and aspirations we brought with us from other parts of the world, and we have imposed ideas about the landscape in the West on this ancient land.
The First Peoples of this continent developed a detailed ecological knowledge of its landscapes, adapted to repeated environmental changes and evolved rules and responsibilities for looking after the land that led to deep moral, spiritual and creative attachments. As non-Indigenous people in particular have become less reliant on nature for our livelihoods, and more dependent on landscapes we manipulate and manage, we have experienced the tension between our desire for control over nature and increased vulnerability to natural disasters and extreme events. Under the paradigm of human dominion, nature is never in harness, only in abeyance: a single drought can wipe out a crop, but a series of droughts can wipe out an entire social-ecological system. By applying economic thinking to the environment, we oversimplify what is a series of complex adaptive systems. The belief in economic growth at the expense of the environment is the most dangerous idea facing humanity.
Literature scholar Brian Elliott explained the stages of the development of an environmental consciousness among non-Indigenous Australians: At first the urge is merely topographical, to answer the question, what does the place look like? The next phase is detailed and ecological: how does life arrange itself there? The third phase may be moral: how does such a place influence people? And how, in their turn, do the people make their mark upon the place? The final phase involves subtler enquiries: what spiritual and emotional qualities does such a people develop in such an environment? In what way do the forces of nature impinge upon the imagination? How do aesthetic evaluations grow? How may poetry come to life in such a place as Australia? 2
Elliott s phases might help us understand two seemingly irreconcilable responses to landscape by non-Indigenous Australians: unsustainable management practices by people who have had close connections with the land for generations, and conservation values held by city dwellers who have no long-term connection to the land. I suspect that people journey through Elliott s phases in personal ways at different paces. For some, the stark pragmatism needed to earn a living from the land leaves little room for sentiment and they may travel only as far as the first two phases. But others might walk the whole route in a few days when relocated from the city to a holiday bushland setting, reconnecting perhaps with some half-forgotten landscape of childhood.
I consider Elliott s phases a valuable way for thinking about the unfolding relationships between people and nature: the effect of place on people and the development of their culture and how, in turn, their beliefs and actions influence the environment. Overlaying these phases is the question of how might we situate these responses to landscape within a First Nations perspective in which Country, people, law and culture are one system, carrying responsibilities for care and management?
Poetry, storytelling and narratives of landscape and people can shape events as well as identities. Environmental historian William Cronon points out: the stories we tell change the way we act in the world . Cronon compares environmental histories of the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster of the North American Great Plains, where severe drought combined with inappropriate farming practices to cause soil erosion and environmental destruction. The dominant narrative of a better life inspired the hopes and dreams of settler farmers, which set the scene for what happened next: in a very literal sense the frontier stories helped cause the Dust Bowl . 3 Such a perspective applied to Australia shows that the narrative of pioneering farmers who rendered the land productive masks a two-hundred-year history of repeated experiment, failure, environmental damage, adaptation and learning. We are still settling Australia and learning the limits of what we can do to the land. Sometimes those lessons in ecology can slap us in the face.
The mouse plague of Walpeup
It is mid-May 1994 and I have been in Australia for two months. I am driving three colleagues in a Land Cruiser full of equipment to the Mallee Research Station at Walpeup in north-western Victoria to take samples from cropping soils for chemical and biological analysis. We are trying to figure out the details of how farmers can improve the health of their soils by ploughing in crop residues to increase carbon content and restore the soil food web.
We head across a flat landscape of endless paddocks of wheat stubble, punctuated by railway crossings and silos. Parallel low dunes and shallow swales, all that remains of an ancient seabed, are the only variation in topography. The tough, drought-resistant mallee woodland was cleared for wheat farming in the early 1900s, leading to rising water tables and dryland salinity. Patches of crystalline salt pockmark the paddocks.
The sun is going down as we approach Ouyen. An angry red-purple glow reflects off towering thunderclouds in the far distance. The Cruiser is the largest vehicle I have ever driven and the first four-wheel drive. I soon learn to avoid the blinding late-afternoon glare by angling the shade down to frame a slit across the windscreen.
As night falls, the narrow country road that passes for a highway curves south, then west again. I have been following a heavily laden road train for almost half an hour. On a straight stretch, I summon the courage to overtake. Just as I merge left, the road suddenly moves and shimmers in the headlights like a shoal of ghostly fish. In disbelief, I try to swerve to avoid the rippling mass. It dawns on me this is a massive mouse plague. I end up ploughing straight through it, leaving tyre tracks in my wake. I am shaken up and almost miss the turn to the research station, veering off the highway and causing the road train to brake sharply and flash its lights. In the visitors quarters, I fall onto my bed exhausted and traumatised.
Next morning I am awoken by a tapping noise on the window. I get up, open the back door and look out. Reaching up almost half its length is a sleek, fully grown brown snake, pressing its belly scales against the weatherboards for purchase and striking repeatedly at a terrified trio of mice that have somehow found their way onto the window ledge. The mice scurry back and forth in desperation.
Two days later we are still out in the paddocks, doubled over and whacking the last few soil corers into the salty ground. It has barely rained here for the last five months, apart from an unusual dump in early February. Annual rainfall is sparing and unreliable, only about three hundred millimetres. Temperatures hit the mid-forties in summer, with biting frosts in winter. Wheat yields can be well under a tonne per hectare - the average for Victoria is almost two tonnes - and next to nothing in saline areas. The sandy loam soil is bone dry. Who in their right mind would farm here?
We haul soil cores back to the vehicle and realise it is starting to smell bad and attract flies. Once we track the source to the decomposing remains of the night-time mouse swarm, we prise distorted bodies from the tyre treads with sticks.
I wander over to a nearby bit of remnant mallee to have a look and get away from the stench for a few moments. The understorey is dotted with weeds: wild mustard, saffron thistle and barley grass. Among the trees it is eerily quiet: no birdsong or insects calling. I walk further into the woodland and the weeds give way to bare ground, bark and fallen branches that crackle under my boots. Scraping aside a handful of leaf litter, I can see only meagre signs of life: a pair of dead pie-dish beetles, some flecks of anonymous silk webbing, the turd-shaped pupal case of a large moth.
In the paddock beyond, a mob of dusty grey sheep intermittently graze what little remains of the wheat stubble as they head slowly towards a drying dam. Ahead of me I notice a fox carcass, still with some remnant fur, but mostly ribcage, vertebrae and skull; the jaws are clenched in an awful rictus. On the fence, a sign bearing a red skull and crossbones warns that 1080 poison baits have been laid here.
As we pack the car to head back east, the wind picks up and blows clouds of red dust off the paddocks. Visibility is down to less than twenty metres as we turn on the headlights. Over the next few days the dust storm intensifies and spreads across south-eastern Australia. The dust is worsened by farmers burning off the stubble to prevent mice from sheltering in it, leaving their soils exposed to erosion. I start to realise something is seriously wrong with the ecology of this place. The mark of people on this landscape has not been kind.
A Declaration of Country
How we make our mark on this land and how, in turn, this land makes its mark on us by touching our hearts and minds, plays out in myriad ways. The triangle of relationships between landscape, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has shaped our history and will shape our future. Our differences in how we interact with the natural world often eclipse our shared values and desires: a sustainable future for subsequent generations, a commitment to caring for each other and the land, a sense of identity and belonging to the place in which we live.
According to opinion polls, the majority of Australians want reconciliation with and recognition of this land s First Peoples in the constitution. Aboriginal activist and community leader Noel Pearson observed: We start with a very deep reservoir of goodwill. And for those of us who believe it is important that Indigenous Australians have a rightful place in their own nation, the challenge over the coming period is to engage the rest of the country. 4 Journalist and Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi man Stan Grant writes of a Declaration of Country ; a new voice that speaks not only to Indigenous or non-Indigenous people but which speaks first to this land, our home. It begins with the first footsteps taken tens of millennia ago, and continues in the newest-born child of this land. It will live on in those still to come. A Declaration of Country must speak to us all. 5
This means learning about Country entails learning about each other. And by learning about each other, we make ourselves whole as a nation. It is something to strive for, to believe in, to be the work of all of us. This work will take us into deeply uncomfortable space. For some non-Indigenous people it is hard to face up to the narrative of blood on our ancestors hands and reject the myth of colonialism as peaceful, as progress, as civilising, as nation-building. In making a Declaration of Country, our landscape becomes the central stage on which our past, present and future play out. The desire to engage at a genuine and respectful level with this country and its First Peoples was present in those who came to Parliament House in February 2008 to listen to the Apology to the Stolen Generations and in the Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000 at which 250,000 people turned out in the largest ever demonstration of public support for a cause in Australia. 6 It is present in the clarity and forward-thinking contained within the Uluru Statement from the Heart :
This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature , and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty . It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia s nationhood. 7
The land is central to reconciliation because our nation was founded on the dispossession and displacement of its First Peoples. Zoologist Barbara York Main writes of this land as being twice trodden ground . First, it was marked by the footprints of the First Peoples, who left only signs and artefacts , then by European settlers, who have modified the landscape in accordance with the habits of Western civilisation and farming needs . Main contemplates this history and ecology from the perspective of the effect of place on human emotions as much as the effect of man on place and observes that the potency of place - of landscape - is sometimes of lifelong recurrence, even though its influence may be unformed, unvoiced. The need to revisit a familiar landscape is primal and deeply held. It is born from the connections with the places of our childhoods. In returning to contemplate a landscape altered beyond recognition, with only fragile remnants remaining, Main counters her despair by searching for a continuity in such change, thereby attempting a reconciliation . 8
We still have far to travel in reconciling with each other and this land. Those of us who are committed to walking together for a better future are used to the long haul. Short windows of opportunity to achieve change in ways people think and act tend to open up between long periods of stasis. Possibilities for incremental and transformational change are nuanced and interacting, sometimes travelling in sequence, sometimes in parallel, and we must navigate a perilous landscape of shifting social norms, short-term interests and populist political myths.
Election storms
Seventy percent of Australians are in favour of constitutional recognition for Indigenous peoples and almost eighty percent believe climate change is occurring, according to polls. Both issues have become politically contentious in public debates to a point of toxicity. At their heart is how people respond to change. In policy decision-making, opportunities for long-term change are assessed against short-term political threats.
It is early June 2016, three weeks into the federal election campaign. On a blustery Canberra Saturday morning at my local shopping centre, clean-cut young men in white moleskins and blue fleeces hand out leaflets for Liberal Senator Zed Seselja. I body-swerve past the grinning Zed supporters and almost collide with a Labor campaigner struggling to hold her placards from blowing away in the gale. The worst storm in forty years has just hit Sydney. The New South Wales coast has its wettest day on record, deluging the blue-ribbon electorates of Wentworth, Warringah and Mackellar, ripping land into the sea and destroying beachfront properties. Narrabeen-Collaroy Beach narrows by fifty metres as half a million cubic metres of sand wash away. Warringah Council is blamed for approving a sea wall but not constructing it. But politicians remain wary about making links with climate change.
The effects of nature on livelihoods are central in the 2016 election campaign. News breaks of severe coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and how bureaucrats at the federal Department of the Environment have censored a UNESCO World Heritage report on impacts of climate change by removing any mention of the Great Barrier Reef in case it damages tourism. 9 Federal environment minister Greg Hunt claims he is not aware of these actions and Australia is the global role model for World Heritage management. His assertion is at odds with his interim approval of the massive Carmichael coalmine in Central Queensland, a decision challenged, but upheld by the Federal Court. Hunt seems sincere in his belief that government investment in reducing nutrient runoff from sugar cane farms to the southern reef shows commitment to world-class environmental stewardship. Scientists beg to differ, having found the worst bleaching in the northern reef caused by ocean acidification and high water temperatures due to global warming. 10 Undeterred, Hunt says water quality can be addressed but Australia should not reduce its emissions - which will harm the economy - if other nations do not follow suit. He seems caught between concern for the reef and his government s support for coalmining. Yet eighty percent of Australians think the health of the reef should be prioritised over coal. 11
Fast-forward to the May 2019 campaign, branded the climate change election. Zed Seselja is returned as senator for the ACT, despite a lively dump Zed campaign. Scott Morrison is elected Prime Minister. A fossil fuel enthusiast, Morrison infamously brandished a lump of coal in parliament, urging: Don t be afraid, don t be scared, it won t hurt you. It s coal. Concerns on climate change are demonised by the Coalition government as leftist green ideology. Rights of Aboriginal people are dismissed: the Queensland Labor government extinguishes native title on 1,350 hectares of Wangan and Jagalingou country for the Adani coalmine.
Debates on coal and climate change are polarised into the tired old false dichotomy of economy versus environment. In an act of desperation to ensure support for the Coalition in Queensland, federal environment minister Melissa Price, a former mining company executive, approves the groundwater plan for the Adani Carmichael mine after pressure is placed on senior management of CSIRO and Geosciences Australia to endorse revisions to the plan that their scientists have not even seen. In an act of sheer gutlessness, the two agencies cave in and sign off. Two months earlier the CSIRO Staff Association wrote to the federal Minister for Science, Karen Andrews, to point out its science integrity charter had not been enforced by government or the CSIRO Board or Executive and call for improved commitment, especially since the public relied more than ever on independent science agencies to give evidence-based advice free of political interference. 12
In September 2019, Morrison addresses the United Nations, in a week when six million people worldwide protest for urgent action on climate change. He defiantly rejects criticism of his government s policies from those who willingly overlook or ignore significant and comprehensive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Morrison himself willingly overlooks or ignores the facts that Australia is the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, with some of the world s softest emissions targets, and that Coalition governments have consistently undermined investment in renewable energy and ignored pleas from our Pacific Island neighbours for action on climate change. 13
Two days before Morrison s defence, I listen to Greta Thunberg s impassioned speech at the UN climate summit: We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. 14 She targets world leaders lagging on emissions cuts, which need to increase three- to five-fold to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. It is clear that if governments do not act, trying to adapt to a warming planet will mostly be left up to its citizens. Morrison seems unaware that in a world that warms by three or four degrees, the economy as we know it now will no longer exist.
It is November 2019, six months after the election. Eastern Australia is ablaze, with fires burning across five states. The bushfire season has come in spring, six weeks early. In New South Wales, six people die, seven hundred homes are destroyed and the fire front is six thousand kilometres long at its worst. Fires surround and threaten Sydney. Former fire chiefs call on the government to act and warn that climate change is causing more severe burns and a longer bushfire season. They are castigated by government ministers for politicising climate change at a time of national emergency. Now is not the time to talk about climate change. But if not now, when is? The extent and severity of the fires are driven by large amounts of very dry fuel caused by the severe drought that has gripped the eastern states since 2016-17. Rainfall in the six months after the election was the lowest on record in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. High temperatures and wind speeds, combined with very low atmospheric humidity, turn small fires into huge infernos.
By the end of November, I am driving to work in a dense smoke haze from a bushfire at nearby Tallaganda National Park. I attend a lecture by disaster management policy researcher Steve Dovers. He talks about bushfires, climate change, droughts and floods as complex unbounded issues that challenge current institutional and policy settings. Dovers claims a major threat to change is the rise of populist policies and their influence on public debates. Populism dumbs down systemic issues, twists logic, denies complexity, manipulates uncertainty and promotes simple, superficial short-term solutions. He reminds us it takes courage both to admit political myths work because they appeal to emotions and to attempt to counter them with facts, evidence and reason.
By the end of December, in record-breaking temperatures, fires have intensified, spread and merged. Megafires are burning out of control across south-eastern Australia. Scott Morrison has returned a day early from his holiday in Hawaii and apologised for any offence caused in leaving the country during a time of national crisis. Highways are closed and towns cut off. In the bushfire zones, internet and mobile phones fail. Radio and word of mouth are the only sources of information. People and their pets hunker down on beaches to be near the water. Firefighters face deadly tornado-force firestorms that are generating their own weather systems. Four firefighters have died. Tens of thousands of tourists and residents flee popular holiday destinations at what is normally the busiest time of year. On New Year s Eve, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews asks the Prime Minister for assistance from the Australian Defence Force to evacuate four thousand people from Mallacoota. By evening, over a thousand people have converged on the evacuation centre at the Bega Showgrounds, with a constant stream of new arrivals. Service stations are only taking cash because electronic payments are not working. ATM machines are also out, so it is impossible to get cash. Some service stations have run out of fuel or have no power. Many people are stranded with not enough in their tanks to get out of the area.
By the second week of January 2020, conditions have eased a little and the nation starts to count the cost. Over two thousand homes have been destroyed, ten million hectares burned and twenty-eight people have lost their lives. Dozens of communities have been decimated. Countless wildlife and livestock are dead. This has been the worst bushfire season on record and we are barely halfway through. Imagine if it was like this every year or so under climate change. Is this the end of the Australian summer? Family memories of carefree holidays on the south coast are replaced by the trauma of the infernos. Instead of December being the time to head to the coast, the future holds the prospect of staying at home to defend property or leaving for an evacuation centre. Christmas Day and New Year s Day will become nothing to celebrate, just two more days of uncertainty, danger and fear.
Yet through all of this catastrophe, the climate denial continues. News Corp spreads disinformation that the fires were due to arson, reporting 180 arrests since October. The figure turns out to be grossly inflated. A spokesman for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service says fires were overwhelmingly caused by lightning. Executive chairman Michael Miller says, News Corp stands by its coverage of the bushfires. Right-wing politicians claim the fires have been caused by a build-up of fuel loads and dry conditions due to the drought, not climate change. They blame Greens for preventing hazard reduction burns. RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says this is nonsense: When you re running fires under severe, extreme or worse conditions, hazard reduction has very little effect at all on fire spread. 15 In a bizarre twist of logic, having claimed there is no direct relationship between climate change and bushfires , Morrison announces our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today . 16
Populist governments and their supporters in the private sector have arrived at positions of entrenched disregard for those who support the environment and want action on climate change, evidence-based policies, civil liberties, social justice, Indigenous rights, public benefits, freedom of political expression and public accountability. This translates to pursuit of policies to suppress citizens rights and censor information on the impact of climate change.
How have we arrived at such an impasse and why did we not try harder to counter what was happening? Can we move forward at a time when our planet is under such intense pressure that our very life support systems are threatened? 17 At the heart of this ideological conflict about environment is the clash between personal interests and those of others, especially future generations. It involves whether we are open to change in the face of new knowledge. We struggle to learn from our mistakes, so lessons have to be painfully relearned over and over: do not build on a floodplain, a storm-exposed coast or in a bushfire-prone forest. Do not use up all the water, harvest all the fish or chop down all the trees. Do not dump your waste in the soil, air, rivers or ocean. There will always be a price to pay.
Cane Country
I wipe the sweat from my eyes for the third time in a minute and dump another shovel-load of rich red-brown basalt soil into the bronze sieve my colleague Steve Rogers is holding over a nylon tarp. We transfer the sieved soil into a big plastic tub, seal and label the lid and lug it back to the Land Cruiser. Another colleague, Don Gomez, is busy marking out the next plot for us to sample. We are in a sugar cane paddock at the Tully site of the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations. It is oppressively humid and we are sweat-soaked and muddy. It is ten o clock in the morning.
Tully is in the wet tropics of north Queensland and is reputedly the wettest town in Australia. Over four metres of rain falls a year and the main street boasts the Golden Gumboot, a giant fibreglass memorial to the record eight metres that fell in 1950. The town nestles between two mountain ranges, a string of former volcanoes covered in dense tropical rainforest. Sugar cane and bananas grow like weeds in the fertile, moist conditions.
A long-running concern about the health of the Great Barrier Reef has been the fertiliser-rich runoff water that flows to the ocean from the rivers here, causing algal blooms. Algae feed juvenile crown-of-thorns starfish, which moult into adults, multiply and spread in plague proportions, feeding on corals and leaving dead areas of reef in their wake.
It is early September 2002. We have driven up from Townsville, stopping at the CSIRO laboratories to borrow a vehicle and equipment. We have a brief and tense meeting with a proprietorial senior scientist. Steve explains why we are here: to detect bacteria that remove nitrogen compounds from the soil and groundwater, causing less nutrient load to flow to the reef, reducing the risk of algal blooms. It is made plain to us, not in so many words, that we and our outsider ideas are not welcome in Cane Country.
The Tully field station seems deserted and we wander into a large room that serves as combined meeting place, library and tea room. At the table, two blokes stare into their cuppas and grunt g day. We organised the trip weeks ago but they feign ignorance of the arrangement. Steve repeats the soil nitrogen story. I look around the room. Slatted windows opening onto wide verandahs. Ceiling fans rotating lazily, stirring the muggy air. Elegant glass-fronted book cases made of local hardwood, stuffed with field notebooks and data that would never be written up. The men catch Steve s and my Pommie accents and their eyes narrow. They look at us with a mix of boredom and suspicion. Three smart-arse CSIRO blokes from down south here to tell them how to grow bloody cane and manage their soils, and two of them fucking Poms - what would they know?
To the west, the Tully River rises in the Great Dividing Range, flowing fast and clear over spectacular falls and through gorges in the Misty Mountains of the Wet Tropics World Heritage site and then down onto Cane Country. The river floods almost every year during the wet season, rising nine metres or more and saturating the nutrient-rich soil. The cane fields are bounded by drainage ditches that dump sediment and nutrients into the river, which broadens and darkens, meandering through more cane fields, littoral rainforest and paperbark swamp before discharging into the Coral Sea about twenty kilometres south-east of Tully. The area of the catchment under sugar cane and bananas has doubled to 28,000 hectares in the decade before our visit and nitrogen levels in the river have increased 130 percent. Annual nitrogen fertiliser application for bananas is almost half a tonne per hectare and about 125 kilograms per hectare for cane. 18
By early afternoon we move off the cane fields to an area of remnant rainforest. Palm fronds, spiky lawyer vine and fallen timber impede our progress. Trees with great buttressed trunks are festooned with mosses, basket ferns and dark bracket fungi. The soil is densely packed with thick, woody roots and we have trouble finding a spot to dig out samples. The canopy shades out most of the sun, increasing the humidity. We take it slowly. The air smells of sweat and decomposition.
In the late afternoon, we pack up for the day and drive into town to try to find coffee. A cardboard sign on a gate next to the takeaway shop warns beware of dangerous dog . We park next to a line of battered white farm utes. Our vehicle is conspicuously the newest and cleanest. A small boy wearing a torn Superman T-shirt and one yellow gumboot eyes us intently. A barefoot older sister appears and shoves a Paddle Pop into his outstretched hand. Steve says hi , but the kids ignore him. Everyone in the shop turns around and looks at us as we walk in. Three cappuccinos to take out, please, says Steve, hamming it up. The bloke behind the counter sniggers then scowls. Don and I exchange nervous glances.
We head back down the Bruce Highway, grubby, exhausted and dispirited but with the prospect of a decent feed to look forward to. Food is the great motivator for fieldwork. By the time we get to Townsville, we are starving but most restaurants have closed. We find a seafood place that is still open, but it is posher than we anticipated and we re too tired to shower and change. The waiter looks at us with mild distaste. We ll have two of those, please, says Steve, pointing to a large seafood platter on the next table, and a bottle of Riesling each. We reckon we ve earned it.
Back at the lab, Steve s boss refuses to sign off on his field trip expenses. We find the samples contain a group of free-living bacteria that can fix nitrogen, indicating the soils are partly self-fertilising, and another group that convert nitrate to nitrogen gas, removing the source of the pollution to the reef. If the growth of these bacteria could be encouraged by adding carbon to the soil, fertiliser inputs could be lowered, saving farmers money and reducing environmental damage. We write up our results and consider sending them to the sugar cane scientists in Queensland, but would there be any point? 19
Beliefs, progress and development
Our reality is based on what we believe, shaped by the values, rules and knowledge we consider credible, legitimate and important. Conflicts arise when values and beliefs are contested by people who hold different beliefs. Science is part of these sense-making processes, but in a complex, changing world, we face risks we cannot easily understand and that contradict our deeply held viewpoints. The method and rationale of science does not come naturally to most people, including scientists, because much of science is counter-intuitive. It requires a suspension of disbelief and a rigorous approach to assessment of evidence for us to accept, for example, that small changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide, a minor constituent of the earth s atmosphere, can result in an increase in global temperature. Psychologist Dan Kahan has found that people with different values will interpret the same scientific evidence differently to confirm their world views. Beliefs about the environment have come to signify the kind of person one is and what group in society one belongs to. Adopting shared beliefs is less risky than accepting contrary evidence: to go against group-think is to risk being ostracised. 20
That eighty percent of Australians prioritised the Great Barrier Reef over coalmining, however, is a hopeful indicator of the positive relationship between people and environment. The survey included citizens of all political stripes. The reef is not just a global biodiversity hotspot or an example of the achingly beautiful and inspiring landscapes and seascapes of this country. The reef also holds meaning for people, giving it a significance beyond its biophysical presence. What it means to people says something about who we are and what basic values we share. If we value it for its beauty and biodiversity, this speaks to shared aesthetic and ethical values on conservation and care for nature: its very existence engenders a sense of wellbeing. And if the reef is in trouble because of climate change, then what does this say about us? Can we claim to be protectors of the earth, or are we just stupid and selfish? Can we assert that the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of human dominion over nature is anything but wishful thinking? And if we have no dominion, would God not have made us better stewards?
According to environmentalist Beth Schultz, improving on nature is a euphemism used by resources industries to portray their activities as benign or beneficial. 21 The term improvement persists in usages such as improved pastures and landscape improvements , with assumptions about benefits of landscape design that ignore basic questions of improvement of what, for what, for whom and at what cost. But the history of improvement in Australia pre-dates the early colonial period, when the term meant clearing the land and cultivating the soil. First Peoples improved on nature, too, using burning, aquaculture systems and particular forms of cropping. 22 European settlers regarded the country as unproductive and set about felling trees to grow crops and raise livestock. For Aboriginal people closely observing the activities of the white ghosts , these were acts of desecration and signalled the invaders were here to stay. Land clearing became the harbinger of Aboriginal dispossession.
To British colonists, the natural landscape was alien and hostile. It could not provide for their growing population. The poverty of the land was indicated by what was perceived as the frugal diet and squalid living conditions of Aboriginal people. Governor Arthur Phillip observed: There are several roots which they Eat, and I have seen the Bones of the Kangaroo and flying Squirrel at the entrance to their huts, but Fish is their principal support which on these Shores is very scarce and I believe many of them are starving. 23 For Phillip, improvement was essential not only to provide for the colonists but also as a means for Aboriginal people to appreciate the benefits of the British presence. 24 First Peoples had adapted to an environment in which food resources varied in space and time. Certain foods were seasonally available at particular places but no one spot could possibly provide for all of their needs. As the anthropologist WEH Stanner put it: Phillip never comprehended how they could support themselves in what seemed to him the sterile and foodless bush. The whole system of nomadic ecology was so woefully misunderstood that, even half a century after the landing, the explorer Grey could still find pleasure in describing it. 25
The difference in relationships between landscape and people could barely have been more polarised than between British colonists and Aboriginal people. The British idea of landscape, which people settled in and modified to produce for their needs, was at odds with one in which they assumed Aboriginal people roamed from place to place within their territory in a cycle largely determined by the seasonal availability of food. This perception ignored the adaptiveness and functionality of Aboriginal dwellings and settlements, ranging from temporary shelters to permanent villages and houses built of stone. 26 From the different constructs of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships with landscape comes a host of other differences: in how society is organised, belief systems, codes of behaviour, how environmental knowledge is constructed, used and passed on, and in land and property rights and laws governing occupancy and use.
The British settlers lacked ecological knowledge or connection with landscape beyond the material resources it could provide. Aboriginal people laughed at the clumsiness and ignorance of the settlers as they attempted to adjust to the new environment. The motivation of settlers to learn about the landscape focussed on its physical layout and on finding well-watered, fertile land that could be prepared for farming. Improvement was a remaking of landscape into something familiar and agreeable to them: transforming an impoverished and savage land into a bountiful and peaceful place. The physical labour of improvement could be seen clearly, measured in acreages cleared, bushels harvested and heads of livestock raised. Such labours were considered heroic, with a strong moral dimension: this was very different from Aboriginal people s moral and spiritual relationship with the land, with responsibilities and obligations to look after it and complex systems of knowledge and law. Once the settler mindset was formed, the appropriation of Aboriginal land became the ruthless assertion by Europeans of exclusive proprietorial rights . 27
These two opposing environmental world views were on a collision course, with neither group knowing, or having the means to discover, the perspective of the other. British settlers used their philosophy and practice of improvement to justify taking land from Aboriginal people because they were assumed to lack permanent settlements or farming practices. 28
Over time, the British idea of improvement became fixed into a set of beliefs about the need for progress. Historian Geoffrey Bolton characterises the first generation of settlers as casually destructive , but their impact was restricted by available technology and manual labour. As landscapes were changed and First Peoples retreated from their traditional territories or to the margins of white society, so in the latter part of the 19th century, the full scale of improvement was unleashed: From the 1850s gold, railways and wire fencing would greatly hasten the transformation of the countryside, producing the landscapes which later generations would regard as typically Australian. 29 Acclimatisation societies were formed in order to import plants and animals from Europe that were considered useful . This practice was one of the settlers most powerful assertions of dominion over nature: a deliberate transformation of landscapes to replace the outlandish and seemingly useless flora and fauna with the familiar.
During the 19th century, free migrants came to Australia from Britain and Ireland, but also other European countries and China. Poor, illiterate manual workers escaped cruel conditions back home, gained a basic understanding of the opportunities in the new country and set about bettering themselves, mostly by backbreaking work on the land: prospecting, droving and trading. This philosophy of hard work, independence and bloody-minded determination has endured to this day. My friend Helen tells me about the attitude of her father, who was descended from Irish migrants and spent a harsh and impoverished working life as a gold miner in north Queensland. You worked every hour you could and relied only on yourself. To leave gold or minerals in the ground because they were on someone else s land or to avoid environmental damage were wanton acts of waste and stupidity; you would be letting down your family, future generations and your country. If you destroyed a landscape or polluted a river, that was the price paid. There were plenty more pristine landscapes out there.
Landless, poor British migrants were highly motivated to generate wealth in Australia, which translated into an environmental ethic of exploiting natural resources - soil, water, timber, gold, fish and game - at the expense of the land and its First Peoples. Terms like pioneer , settler and prospector have been used as euphemisms to cast these activities as beneficial to colonial society and economy, feats of progress in nation-building. Yet the white people who invaded Aboriginal land were involved in bloody conflicts. If not active participants, they were often complicit in keeping secret the ruthless brutality meted out to those communities.
The culture of forgetfulness and denial of these atrocities persists and one reason for that seems clear: to admit that Australia has a blood-soaked, racist past is to reframe the achievement of nation-building as a history of shameful acts of theft and murder. But there is a further aspect to the nation-building myth. The agrarian economy, except in South Australia, relied on slave labour from a convict workforce, provided to settlers by colonial governments. Some 170,000 prisoners were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1852, forced to work as farmhands, shepherds and labourers, often under brutal and dangerous conditions. Part of the process of overcoming this myth involves acknowledging that history and its ecological consequences.
Facing up to history and ecology
Negative effects of exploiting natural resources may appear in the short term, such as rapid soil erosion and siltation of rivers caused by mining and tree felling during the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s. In other cases, lag times between causes of ecosystem change and their effects are longer, as in the case of land clearing in the Murray-Darling Basin during the second half of the 19th century leading to dryland salinity in the mid-20th century. 30 Long-term damage from plants and animals introduced by acclimatisation societies and state agricultural departments between the 1850s and 1970s has transformed ecosystems. What is the opportunity cost to national progress of the damage caused by rabbits, foxes, deer, carp, cane toads, camels, willows, blackberry, lantana, serrated tussock, water hyacinth and gorse, and the resources spent on their control and eradication? As farmer and environmental historian Eric Rolls remarks of acclimatisation societies: there was never a body of men so foolishly, so vigorously, and so disastrously wrong . 31
The idea that the environmental perspectives of non-Indigenous people are related to their attitudes towards Indigenous people is an important aspect of the history of environment, people and culture in Australia. The perceptions by settlers of both the Australian landscape and its First Peoples as savage, impoverished, lawless, landless and unproductive provided a justification for dispossession and violence. The triangle of relationships between landscape, First Peoples and settlers that formed early in colonial Australia is still with us today in our profoundly different relationships with the natural world. How can we start to reframe the relationships between landscape and all of Australia s people in inclusive ways that respect our differences and build on what we share?
Coming to terms with history is linked to something many non-Indigenous Australians care about a great deal. Because history shapes identity, perceptions of our colonial ancestors as nation-builders and pioneers in taming the landscape are central to how we see ourselves, which is why discussions of the interactions between settlers and First Peoples have evoked passions, enmities, controversy and re-examination. Reframing these historical relationships would be enriched by a nuanced consideration of the role of the landscape and differing environmental perspectives in shaping interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
How we connect with landscapes relates to how we cycle between Brian Elliott s phases of environmental consciousness in complex and personal ways. Some people may fully embrace the spiritual and emotional qualities of landscapes; others may move only so far as the functional and the practical. In any community forum in regional Australia where environment and change are on the agenda, a spectrum of views will likely reflect the complexity and diversity of personal connections with landscape. A common vision for the future will be hard, but not impossible, to achieve.
Many non-Indigenous Australians have an uncertain sense of connection with the land, of trepidation about facing up to history and ecology. Yet the appetite is there for change. It is present in the goodwill that Noel Pearson recognises. It is expressed through the growing desire to listen and learn about this country and its First Peoples. It comes to life in the everyday acts of Australians who join together, share stories, support one another and, through so doing, find new ways of thinking and being. It means care of the land is an expression of our engagement and openness towards the slow and difficult process of reconciliation. Reconciliation involves developing new relationships with each other and our wide brown land and facing up to the challenges of adapting to environmental change.
A history of people and nature that is shared between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians will help us overcome some of the polarised thinking that has constrained our understanding of the limits and opportunities of our interactions with the environment. A shared history can enable us to imagine and create new relationships for the future. I believe that by looking into our landscapes and into ourselves, this might just become possible.
Making peace with the land
I drain the last of my tea, say goodbye to the farmer and thank him for taking the time to talk with me. I get into the vehicle and consult the map for a route across the dirt roads that criss-cross the landscape. It is an exquisitely informative map - or rather, a book of maps - showing the names of the properties and their owners, every track, fire trail and access point, creek and watering point. The map book is published by the Country Fire Authority of Victoria for use by volunteer members of local brigades. I have managed to borrow a copy and secretly hope I will be allowed to keep it.
To the south is Lake Wellington, surrounded by swamps and nature reserves. To the north the foothills and national parks of the Great Dividing Range. In between is the Gippsland Plains: a flat, fertile landscape of rivers and wetlands, family farms and close-knit communities. I head down a track bounded on one side by a ridge of stringybark forest, on the other by pasture and wheat paddocks dotted with large old trees. Stringybarks are a sure sign of poor soils, typically nutrient-depleted sands that drain freely, leaving the root zone dry until the next rain. The paddock trees are the forest red gum Eucalyptus tereticornis , which has the widest latitudinal range of any eucalypt, from Papua New Guinea all the way down the east coast of Australia. The trees on the Gippsland Plains here are a distinct sub-species: mediana . It is another soil indicator, preferring fertile alluvial soils on river flats.
People care a lot about the trees on these plains. The forest red gums have been suffering from dieback: a loss of canopy, a gradual decline in health, senescence and eventual death. Stands of silvery dead trunks line the Princes Highway from Stratford to Bairnsdale. Nobody knows what is causing the dieback but there are plenty of theories. Outbreaks of gumleaf skeletoniser moth Uraba lugens and sap-sucking psyllid insects have occurred from time to time, some of them severe. Runoff from roads, waterlogging and nutrient enrichment from fertiliser in paddocks are blamed too.
I have spent a month interviewing some fifty farmers about their management approaches, relationships with the land and their knowledge and research needs. Over time, my formal questions, read from a crib sheet tucked into my notebook, have shifted to open, reflective enquiries: Tell me a bit about how your management of the property has changed over time? , What influenced you to do things differently? , What is important to you about living in this place? We shift seamlessly from interview to conversation.
Most of these meetings take place in kitchens and on back verandahs and only rarely in the more formal setting of a lounge room. I am fascinated by how these interiors can belie my first impressions. One nondescript house with rusting farm machinery in the front yard contains an extraordinary collection of antique Chinese porcelain. A run-down brick bungalow houses a great dusty library of battered but rare Australiana. In another, original oil paintings by Frederick McCubbin hang in the hall beside a rack of well-worn raincoats and sweat-stained Akubra hats.
Occasionally we will head out to look at a favourite old paddock tree or some native grassland. I ask the farmers about their involvement in environmental stewardship. There are several active Landcare groups and a Conservation Management Network. Several farms I visit have signs for Trust for Nature or Greening Australia displayed on their gates. Many farmers are active in tree planting, restoring wetlands and tackling weeds. Blackberry, bridal creeper, gorse, broom and serrated tussock are the local scourges. But the members of Landcare groups are getting older and there is not much interest from younger people.
An old farmer in a weatherboard house close to the sea tells me his story about taking over the property from his father in the 1960s:
Wool prices were terrible and we were down to the bones of our arse. We could not afford to buy fertiliser or do pasture improvement work. One day I was walking across the back paddock and I saw this patch of a native grass species I hadn t seen before. Six months later the patch had spread, so I put up a temporary fence and let a few ewes and lambs on it. They did really well. I found other patches around the place and did the same thing, moving the sheep every few days. We stopped using fertiliser after that and switched from wool to raising fat lambs. It saved us.
The farm s transformation from pastures of introduced grasses and clovers to native species was due to weeping grass Microlaena stipoides , which produces beautiful, high-protein fodder. I suppose I invented my own form of cell grazing with native grasses, years before it started becoming popular round here, the farmer laughs. We walk to an area of revegetation along a creek line. He looks at me intently: I love planting trees. It helps me make my peace with the land. If I look after the land, I know it will look after me.
The land itself
Nor ask what beaches of the mind you trod ,
What skies endured, and unimagined rivers ,
Or whiteness trenched by what mysterious tide ,
And aching silence of the Never-Nevers .
Kenneth Slessor, To the Poetry of Hugh McCrae 1
On this vast arid continent, we cluster in the safety and comfort of the coast. And for good reason. What do we fear of the inland, beyond its dryness and remoteness? It is more than fear that keeps us wedged between ocean and outback. The Bush was long at the heart of our national identity, but that sentiment has waned. The rivalry between city and bush has become a tired refrain in our national discourse, a narrative that is fixed and polarising, its proponents unaware of an emerging fluidity, an adaptable plurality of place that encompasses both urban and rural. For many Australians, the reality is that they live, work, play, think, feel, dream and remember in more than one landscape, in more than one country. People have begun to recognise this and act on it, whether it be via the constant process of adaptation and reinvention of regional centres, or by telling new stories of invention and transformation about how we interact with the land itself. 2
Here are the stories of five landscapes - some might call them regions, it does not matter - each with distinctive features of climate, vegetation, topography, soils and water. They are places I have visited and have some knowledge of, however partial. The stories of other landscapes are best told by those who know them. I include a characteristic insect within each landscape as a reminder that people are only one kind of many inhabitants.
Cicadas at the coast
In January, the Great Australian Summer Migration is in full swing. It seems everyone has gone to the beach for the annual family holiday. Bookings for camping grounds, caravan parks and rental houses were made months or a year in advance. Families come back year after year to stay at the same place, often over a decade or more, even after their kids have grown up and left home. As temperatures hit the high thirties, Canberra empties of a third of its population, with families heading for the strip of coast that stretches from Jervis Bay in the north, down as far as Eden. Further south towards Mallacoota is where the Melburnians go, while north of Batemans Bay is within striking distance of Sydney. Canberrans may own a holiday home at Bawley Point or Broulee, and retire permanently to perpetual sunshine, Norfolk Island pines, coastal lagoons with water tanned black with paperbark, tea-tree and banksia, the beaches peppered with stranded bluebottle jellyfish, and the thump and whispered sigh of the ocean as an ever-present backing track to their now quiet lives.
But the soundscape of the coast in January is defined by a refrain more strident than the soothing ambience of waves: the insistent shrill of cicadas. The males produce the mating call from a pair of resonating, ribbed membranes on the abdomen known as tymbals that are covered by rigid plates. An air sac in the inflated abdomen resonates at the same frequency as the tymbals, amplifying the call from a soft chirrup to a penetrating screech. These insect bagpipers blast out up to four hundred pulses from the tymbals each second in a complex score of harmonics, tones and modulations. 3
We drive down from Canberra to visit our friends Megan and Hugh at Pretty Beach near Kioloa. They have camped here every summer since the late 1990s when their kids were little. The campsite is packed out, so Alison and I stay for a couple of nights in a small fibro cottage nearby. The dominant cicada here is the razor grinder Henicopsaltria eydouxii , named for its harsh, grating call that rises to a crescendo for several seconds before fading to a croaky buzz and then intensifying again. It is a hefty beast five centimetres long with striking orange-red tymbal covers and a black thorax marked by a brick-red W. This cicada is heard from Bundaberg to Bermagui. The raucous creatures fill the patch of spotted gum forest next to the cottage. The nymphs live subterranean lives for many years, feeding on the sap of eucalypt roots before emerging and climbing a short way up the nearest tree. They moult and leave behind a host of crisp brown skins on the lower trunks. The adults may live only a couple of weeks: their sole purpose is to mate and reproduce. 4
Down at the lagoon on an early morning walk, I scoop a spent, drowned male out from among strands of green seaweed and wrap it in my handkerchief to photograph later. At breakfast I unfold the hanky on the verandah table and find the cicada has unexpectedly revived. It startles me by letting out a series of short metallic rasps and then a full-pitched, ear-splitting shriek. I release it onto the trunk of a spotted gum, from where it flies off unsteadily into the forest.
Hugh tells me how at his primary school at St Ives in northern Sydney, he and his mates caught cicadas on the trunks of playground trees, attached a cotton thread to a slender leg and let the insects fly from their hands, paying out the string on their miniature living kites for ten metres or more before carefully reeling them back in. Common names of cicadas are colourful and lively, coined by children who caught and traded them like swap cards in an age before the internet, television and video games. Names like black prince, floury baker, red eye and greengrocer are well known to those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s or even earlier: some names were in popular use as long ago as the 1890s. Red treeticker, sand fairy and green bunyip are less familiar names, as is writer Clive James childhood epithet for the species that exudes a muddy-coloured liquid onto the hands of the unfortunate collector: the pisser. The most beautiful cicada was the Yellow Monday, James recalls. He was as yellow as a canary and transparent as crystal. When he lifted his wings in the sunlight the membranes were like the deltas of little rivers. The sun shone straight through him. It shone through all of us. 5
Smells as well as sounds evoke summer at the coast. Sunscreen and damp towels. Rotting vegetation in swamp forests. Kelp and dead toadfish along the high tide mark. The acrid iodine odour of a drying rock pool, its edges crusted with salt. Fresh-cut grass and lawnmower fumes in the tidy front yards. Melting bitumen. The close reek inside a hot canvas tent. The gagging stench of a septic system overflowing onto a back lawn. The faint honey perfume of melaleucas in flower. Summer s heat makes the smells of the coast more pungent and memorable.
Megan tells Alison about how she used to come to Bawley Point for family holidays in the 1970s. Back then the town was barely more than a sleepy settlement, the houses stretching only a short distance up the main street. It is a reminder how young many of these coastal towns are; only in recent decades have they established their present guise as tourist centres. As people in the cities have become more affluent and mobile, they have searched for summer retreats with the comforts of home.
Good arable and grazing land is rare close to the ocean; soils tend to be shallow and infertile and grassland soils are coarse and saline. The land at Bawley Point retains much of its native vegetation: spiky banksia heath, impenetrable tea-tree and sheoak swamp, and forests of red bloodwood, spotted gum and white stringybark that come down to the water s edge. The few Europeans who settled here during the 19th century made their living from fishing or the coastal shipping trade. The landscape was settled by Europeans almost a century later than the land west of the Great Dividing Range. The coastline, too, is young; only a few thousand years old, when sea levels rose to a maximum after the last ice age. At the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago, when the sea level was 120 metres lower than now, the coastline ran tens of kilometres further east. 6
By February, the razor grinders have mated, laid their eggs and died, and the holiday-makers have returned to school and work. By March, though the days remain warm, visitor numbers are a fraction of those during the summer migration. The coastal towns maximise what they can during the boom months to get through the lean times of autumn and winter. Whale watching brings in much-needed income during the quieter months. By April, humpback whales pass by as they migrate to calving grounds in tropical waters further north. They will swim by again in September as they head south to spend the summer feeding in Antarctica.
Coastal residents livelihoods have diversified in recent times with new arrivals to the landscape. In the hinterland, tree changers have set up potteries, native plant nurseries, art galleries, wineries, organic vegetable farms, berry and stone fruit orchards, cheese factories, smokehouses and craft breweries. The new wave of settlers sell their produce in the burgeoning farmers markets, food co-ops and fine restaurants that are now part of the South Coast Gourmet Food Trail. Artisanal has become the new organic. The television series River Cottage Australia , filmed in the Tilba Valley, promoted local food as a lifestyle choice.
New people have brought new ways of making a living beyond the limits imposed by seasonal tourism, agriculture and fishing. The coast and hinterland east of the Great Dividing Range offers reliable rainfall, fertile soils, good roads and locations within a few hours drive of major cities. Despite the changes to environment and communities, the shrill song of the cicada forms a constant refrain across the landscape.
There are tensions between the newcomers and the old families who made their living from trades, fishing, dairying and timber. Longstanding residents may benefit from economic diversification if they are employed in new businesses or are able to use the services provided, but high unemployment outside the tourist season and soaring property prices remain realities of life for them. 7 The contrast between communities was clear during a visit Alison and I made to the heritage village of Central Tilba: the public noticeboard had adverts for reiki and a string quartet next to ones for backhoe hire and plumbing services.
The bushfire summer of 2019-20 brought an end to the peaceful day-to-day existence of these towns. The new smell of summer is dense, choking smoke. As the recovery phase begins, dozens of communities struggle to come to terms with the enormity of events that have overwhelmed them: life will never be quite the same. When will the call of the razor grinder be heard again among the forests of the south coast?
Beyond New South Wales and Victoria, coastal towns become fewer and farther between. Great stretches of the Australian coastline offer harsh prospects for habitation, sparsely punctuated by small communities near the mouths of rivers and in sheltered bays. Along much of the coast of Western Australia the desert stretches to the sea. Across the Great Australian Bight is a rampart of limestone cliffs exposed to the force of Antarctic gales. The mangroves and mudflats of the tropical north with their massive tidal ranges, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity are harsh places to live.
Some people prefer to live in small, out-of-the-way places. Not for them the blow-ins and the public meetings about change and renewal. Middle Beach is off the highway and down a dirt road on the eastern side of St Vincent Gulf in South Australia. There is a campsite, a boat ramp, some fibro cottages and weather-beaten caravans. The nearest shop is a twenty-kilometre drive and the local doctor half an hour away. The few permanent residents have lived here for decades and are ageing and not in the best of health. There are hundreds of such places. Their future seems uncertain, but for the locals this is their home and heart. The pace of life is slow, and that is part of the appeal.
Various cicadas call their shrill and timeless summer song here too, though the local species differ from those on the New South Wales coast. Here, the eastern sandgrinder Arenopsaltria nubivena lives in the scrubby dune vegetation above the beach, singing in full sunshine. It is a small, dark-bodied species, and more sparsely distributed and less abundant than its eastern cousin the razor grinder. 8
Despite the slow pace of life, change is happening at Middle Beach. People complain the fishing used to be better and intrusions from the outside world fewer. A few years back, a dozen commercial fishers netted mullet and whiting, but with the new catch restrictions and marine reserves, the fishery has dwindled to almost nothing. Now it is hard to launch a boat from the ramp since the creek has started to silt up.
Down at the Middle Beach caravan park, the bleach-haired surfers in combi vans have long been replaced by middle-aged men in big four-wheel drives bristling with fishing rods and eskies, on the hunt for salmon, gummy shark and mulloway. The locals talk about how the storms seem more frequent and severe. King tides are coming further inland, ripping a new channel to the lagoon, flooding the road. But the residents reflect there have always been floods when a king tide was backed by a strong sou -westerly. The locals know how to cope; floods are a pain, but not a huge drama. Some of the scrub has died back due to saltwater ponding behind the dunes. Drifting sand covers potholes in the road caused by the floods and the bore water is more brackish more often. The council has posted a notice about community consultation on a new coastal plan and residents are worried they might be moved on. But where to? Nobody can tell them. The land and water have changed in ways that were barely perceptible from year to year. But over decades, looking back, the differences seem startling and radical.
Faced with these dilemmas, the local council bears the brunt. There is little to keep good staff here beyond loyalty to the community. The residents are concerned the council cannot protect the road from floods. The council has no money to spare for infrastructure, yet could have serious liability exposure if flooding worsens. Council staff struggle with a mass of state government policies on coastal emergency responses and adaptation to sea level rise. Yet the state bureaucrats are barely aware this community exists. For decision-makers in Canberra, Middle Beach is somebody else s responsibility. 9
High Country moths
It is a warm October night in Canberra. A chunky, mottled-brown insect flutters towards the light above the deck and alights on the arm of my chair. It is a bogong moth Agrotis infusa . A few moments later, another two fly in, pinging off the light bulb. The annual migration to the High Country has begun. The moths move south during spring, flying at night in huge numbers from their winter breeding grounds in Queensland, inland New South Wales and north-western Victoria before the onset of the hot, dry summer. On reaching the High Country, the moths cluster together in cracks and caves in granite outcrops, their wings overlapping, half-sleeping and fasting through the summer months, but becoming active an hour after sunset and before dawn when they fly in search of water from rain or dew before regrouping. In autumn, the moths return north and west to mate and lay eggs in the agricultural soils of the western slopes and plains of the Murray-Darling Basin, where the larvae are known as black cutworms for the damage they do to crops and pastures. Canberra is near the end of the migration route and hosts bogong moths in late spring every year. In good seasons their numbers are truly enormous, as in 1988 when they were attracted to the lights of the just-completed New Parliament House, blocking the air-conditioning system and their dead piling up in the courtyards. 10
The moths feed profusely during the spring migration, building up reserves of fat that they need for reproduction after they return north. Feeding takes place at dusk on nectar-rich flowers such as grevilleas, and the well-tended gardens of Canberra and its bushlands provide a rich source. Heading south to the Kosciuszko massif and west towards the Brindabella Range, they settle in the dense eucalypt forests of the slopes, sourcing nectar from any trees that happen to be in flower before heading up the mountain peaks to their final summer refuge. Ian Common from the CSIRO Division of Entomology studied the ecology of the bogong moth in the early 1950s. He surmised the spring migration and dormancy enables the adults to avoid the heat of the northern plains when suitable food for their larvae is scarce. The adults can return north in late autumn, ready for the return of favourable conditions in early spring. At his study site on the summit of Mount Gingera in the Brindabella Range, Common found half the body weight of the moths was fat. Their protein content was also very high. 11
More than sixty years after Common s work, my former CSIRO colleague Peter Caley was investigating if social media could be used to detect biological invasions, reasoning that sightings of migratory species might be reported on Twitter, and he chose the bogong moth as a target species. Caley and his collaborators validated the Twitter data by confirming the presence of bogong moths at the same study sites that Common had used. On visiting the summit of Mount Gingera, now in Brindabella National Park, they noticed there were no moths on the roof of an easily accessible overhang, yet many were present in tight crevices nearby. The team reasoned that something was removing the moths, probably a predator, and they set up a camera trap by the overhang. The footage showed feral pigs, but only sows and piglets, not boars. The sows were abnormally large, presumably from feeding on moths rich in fat. Pigs were checking the summit before the arrival of moths, having moved up from the valleys. The feeding of feral pigs on bogong moths was a new finding and shows both the adaptability of the pigs and the unpredictable interactions that can occur in landscapes modified by introduced species. This discovery is important for conservation: pigs do serious damage by digging up vegetation. Parks rangers had attempted to control pigs with poisoned baits, but without much success because the pigs, having gorged on bogong moths, were not eating them. 12
To escape the searing summers on the Limestone Plains, the region that has now become Canberra, Aboriginal people moved up to the mountains during the bogong moth migration, returning to the plains for autumn and winter. They scraped moths from the walls of caves into coolamons, skins and nets, lit fires on rock platforms, removed the embers and roasted the moths on these natural grill plates. They ground the moths into a paste and kneaded it into cakes, which would keep for several months due to the high fat content. Moth cakes were important items of trade. Clan groups collected and consumed bogong moths at sites in the Brindabellas, the Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps. Archaeologist Josephine Flood writes: This traditional food enabled large gatherings of as many as five hundred people from different friendly tribes for initiation ceremonies, arrangement of marriages, corroborees and exchange of goods. Aboriginal people are reported to have travelled as far as three hundred kilometres to such centres as Gudgenby,Jindabyne,Blowering and Omeo. Couriers carrying message sticks were sent out to summon the affiliated groups. The great stone at Uriarra Homestead on which moths were baked and ground was the base for the annual ceremonial bogong moth walk to the Bogong Range, west of the Brindabellas. The Ngambri and Ngurmal people hosted the ceremony that brought groups together to gather and eat moths and renew their connections of kinship and trade. The little raven Corvus mellori is a totemic animal for the Ngarigo and Ngambri people. These birds congregate in large numbers to feed on bogong moths. Their distinctive flocking and harsh, loud aark-aark-aark-aark call may have indicated to Aboriginal people where moths were likely to be concentrated. 13
Non-Aboriginal Australians have embraced the bogong moth as a cultural icon. Moths featured during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, invading the stadium and upsetting the athletes. Zoos Victoria has created a website, Moth Tracker: a place to record your Bogong Moth sighting and help critically endangered Mountain Pygmy-possums . (The moths are a staple food of the possum.) The spring arrival of the moths has become a feature of the cultural calendar, accompanied by newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, mostly a dull rehashing of the same basic facts about the moth. The exception is the local writer and naturalist Tim the Yowie Man, bogong moth champion, whose lively and informative weekly column in The Canberra Times has educated thousands of Canberrans about the environmental treasures of their region. In 2001 Matthew Harding and Ngunnawal artist Jim Williams created sculptures of giant moths at Acton Peninsula, once a major corroboree site. On Drakeford Drive is another sculpture, Alexander Knox s Moth Ascending the Capital . A third sculpture is Judy Watson s The Hearthstone at Reconciliation Place near the High Court, within cooee of the giant moth trap of New Parliament House. The hearthstone references the Uriarra (or Yuriarra) Moth Stone on which moths were roasted. In the hipster suburb of Braddon, bogong moth frittata and charcoal-roasted moths have been offered to diners, despite scares - now mostly negated - about high levels of arsenic from pesticides in the moths. Moth recipes appear on foodie websites and celebrity chefs enthuse over the nutty, subtle flavours. Inevitably, the moths have been branded the new bush tucker superfood and the bush muesli bar . And so on. 14
The High Country is criss-crossed with ancient paths, the tracks of the moth hunters in a landscape of past connections, now almost gone. Like the moths, the moth hunters knew two seasonal landscapes - the summer mountains and the winter plains - each with different purposes in their lives. During winter, cars hurtle down the Monaro Highway heading for the snowfields, providing rich pickings for the traffic cops who lie in wait on the long section south of Bredbo. The road traverses a great grassy valley and is notorious for wildlife collision carnage. The highway follows an ancient Aboriginal trackway connecting the Limestone Plains of Canberra with the Alps. The Alpine Way in Kosciuszko National Park and the Snowy Mountains Highway also follow the footprints of the moth hunters. The makers of these pathways used river valleys and mountain passes, which often marked neutral territory between Aboriginal groups. The squatters and settlers followed these tracks, broadening them with their cartwheels and the hooves of their livestock. It seems ironic that where the local Aboriginal people once hunted wombats and kangaroos, we now slaughter these beasts with cars on our way to our recreation in another former hunting ground, the land of the bogong moth. 15
The ancient trackways are being rediscovered. Writer and naturalist John Blay s tracing of the Bundian Way from Twofold Bay near Eden to Mount Kosciuszko is a compelling story of his connection with history and landscape. People walked the Bundian Way to head to the coast for the annual whale migrations and to journey inland for the bogong moth season. The path traverses the Bega Valley towards Bombala and Delegate and crosses the Snowy River through some of the most rugged landscapes in south-eastern Australia. The Bundian Way is the first Aboriginal path to be listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register and it has opened for cultural tourism, managed by Eden Aboriginal Land Council. In many places the effects of ancient land management are still evident. In reflecting on its significance, Blay wrote: I realised people visited not only because it s like a playground but for its intense spirituality To visit it is to acknowledge the old Aboriginal people over countless generations as well as Elders yet to come. And a step towards reconciliation. 16
I ponder this quote and its hopeful message. Can the rediscovery of landscape and history truly help make real the prospect of a national understanding and reconciliation? What place does the bogong moth hold in the emergence of shared narratives that unite Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in their love of country and sense of belonging?
Lerps of the inland floodplains
The rivers of the inland floodplains of the Murray-Darling Basin are lined with trees. The dominant eucalypts are the river red gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis and coolibah E. coolabah , found throughout inland Australia, and black box E. largiflorens , a signature species of the Murray-Darling Basin. The trees are where they are because they can tolerate prolonged drought and flooding; they can use fresh water but also highly saline groundwater and endure high summer temperatures but also freezing winters. 17
Six million years ago, the inland drainage basins of Australia were warm, wet places, dotted with permanent lakes and supporting diverse rainforest. As the climate dried, the lakes evaporated to saline crusts over oxygen-poor black mud.

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