Notes from the Field (iii)

The last few months of this year were unbelievably hectic, being filled with conferences and travel. Despite the exhaustion occasioned by running around the country, I met plenty of great people and listened to some wonderful papers.

At the beginning of November I flew to Sydney to listen to and present at the Australian Women’s Writing Symposium, which I wrote about here. I returned to Brisbane to do my marking, then came back to Sydney to speak at Quantum Words, a science writing festival organised by the NSW Writers Centre – a post about this is in the pipeline.

I’d booked a week of annual leave to try to finish my Praed book at my brother’s place in the Blue Mountains, but as it was the first time I’d stopped properly for a while, I got sick. I also ended up having to finish my marking and write conference papers, so that was a bit of a disaster.

 Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Then it was back to Sydney for the ASLEC-ANZ environmental humanities conference, where I presented on two ecobiographies, Dick Roughsey’s Moon and Rainbow and Margaret Somerville’s Body/Landscape Journals. There were wonderful keynotes at this conference, including Alice Te Punga Somerville, Elspeth Probyn and the wonderful artist John Woolsley, pictured here with his taped-together notes. Alice stressed the importance of included Indigenous scholars in one's work. 'Who's in your ecology?' she asked. 'And does it include Indigenous academics?' It's a point worth remembering & acting upon.

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Alas I could only spend a day at this conference, as the next day I headed down to Wollongong for the Colonial Formations conference, which was just fantastic. I wish it hadn’t been on at the same time and that I could have stayed there for longer. In a keynote, Jane Lydon discussed how anti-slavery contexts were applied to Australia, for example the second fleet to Australia was contracted by slave owners, and the 1830s saw the height of anti-slavery discussions but it was also when colonial violence was endemic in the south west. She referred to the limits of empathy, in that we might feel but not act and a representation of suffering might obscure a slave's subjectivity. Coldness and compassion are two sides of a coin, which I thought was an interesting idea. There was also the secrecy of massacres - the frontier violence of Myall Creek was obscured for decades. Even Rosa Praed, writing about the Hornet Bank massacre decades afterwards, distorted her narrative.

Then there was an absolutely brilliant panel on collectors. Deidre Coleman of The University of Melbourne spoke about Henry Smeathman (1742-1786) an entomologist about whom she is writing a biography. In 1781 he wrote an essay 'Some account of the termites, which are found in hot Countries', and Deidre looked at how he used the termitary and the way in which termites colonised as a metaphor for human colonisation. She also described how insects helped him to communicate with a range of classes, including wealthy collectors and the people of Sierra Leone, where he collected. He sent natives to collect for him but their curiosity and bartering was overwhelming and drove him nuts. Ann Coote of UNE then spoke about Indigenous guides and collectors in a very clear and well laid-out presentation on why Indigenous people agreed to collect for Europeans. Reasons included obtaining useful goods and information, personal prestige, communal stability and the protection of Country by controlling the movements of collectors. Jude Philp, senior curator at The University of Sydney, then talked about collectors in Papua New Guinea in the 19th Century, and how some of these made their way into Aberdeen University so that people in Scotland could know something of Papua New Guinea. And Simon Ville, a professor of economics and business history at Wollongong, ended the session with a discussion of how the commerce of collecting - how prices were negotiated, for example, or the reputation signalling of naming.

 View from train window.

View from train window.

It also happened to be the last day at the university for my good friend and former poetry teacher, Alan Wearne. At lunch we had a coffee and Alan printed out his latest poem for me. Then I caught the train back to Sydney, a trip which is simultaneously too long and invested with my ambivalent memories of Wollongong, but also very pretty.