True to form, I’m writing an update for an event months after it occurred – this time it’s the Aust & NZ chapter of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture (ASLEC-ANZ) biennial conference, which was held at the University of New England in Armidale. This was one of the best conferences I’ve been to, rivalling another which was also held at UNE – the 2015 Association for the Study of Australian Literature on ‘The Power and the Passion: Contemporary Australian Literature and Politics’. Maybe it’s because I can stay at Parental Unit’s & therefore the anxiety of conferences is mitigated, and/or maybe it’s because the folk are UNE are really nice. Below are my notes from the conference, which come with the caveat that there might be some errors because I am never 100% sure that I can hear everything properly.
The conference was from Wednesday 13th – Friday 15th February. I caught the tiny plane down from Brisbane, which I loathe because it gives me claustrophobia and the vibrations from the engine rattle through my body, but the 1980s safety card never fails to put a smile on my dial (no Gone with the Wind! It’s outrageous).
On Wednesday morning (and every morning thereafter) Parental Unit kindly stopped by Seesaw Coffee to service my caffeine addiction then drove me to the uni, though the organising committee also helpfully arranged car pools, bus & coffee for other participants from the Goldfish Bowl. Once I was dropped off at UNE, I located other friendly environmental folk plus my lanyard, which was the best lanyard I’ve ever had because it was compostable.
Uncle Colin Ahoy generously welcomed us to Anaiwan Country, and the Dean of HASSE, Professor Michael Whitmore, welcomed us to UNE. Then there was a brilliant plenary panel from Carolyn Briggs, Gabi Briggs & Callum Clayton-Dixon, chaired by Kate Wright, on the Reclaiming Anaiwan Language project. Here’s a vid which explains the work which the group is doing.
As Callum pointed out, the reclamation project does not rely upon government funding to survive or progress, and nor is the group willing to use government funds, given that the government is a legacy of (and perpetuates) colonial rule, so donations are welcome. This is a really important project, as language comes from Country, as Callum explained, so the restoration of language goes some way to restoring Country. He also described how he had been out in the area a while before and it was like a dystopia, given the drought, tree clearing and the hardening of the ground from sheep’s hooves, which made me think of Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius, which I set as a text in my Oz Lit course.
One of the great things about placing this panel first in the conference was that it acknowledged Aboriginal custodianship and set the tone for the rest of the proceedings. As one conference member noted, the Acknowledgment of Country at the beginning of each subsequent paper was like a pulse through the conference.
After that was the first trio of papers, of which I was a part. I presented an update on my 2014 article on climate fiction & referenced James Bradley’s Clade and Jennifer Mills’ Dystopia by way of example, and also mentioned the impact of climate change on non-fiction by way of Delia Falconer’s brilliant essay in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘The Opposite of Glamour’. She has also published a follow up essay, which is compelling reading. I also mentioned Austlit’s soon-to-be-released dataset on Climate Change in Australian Narratives, which is spearheaded by scholar Deborah Jordan. In this panel I was alongside Fiona Utley, a philosopher at UNE, and Ian Collinson of Macquarie University, who spoke about popular music and the environmental crisis – an element I’ve never really thought of before, so it was eye (or ear?) opening. Also, my dad took a break from his renos, changed his shirt & cycled up to the uni to listen to my paper, which was lovely of him.
After that was lunch (all vegetarian!), and then a set of papers centred around Storying with Nonhuman Beings and Concepts. Grace Moore gave a fantastic paper on Trollope’s descriptions of mining, and Kay Are of Melbourne Uni drew on Vicky Kirby’s ideas in relation to biosemiotics, raising the interesting question of whether the world wants to know itself by telling its stories through us.
The next keynote was a wonderful presentation of Dan Hikuroa from the University of Auckland on ‘Te Awaroa – the Voice of the River’, which was about granting rights to the rivers in New Zealand. Dan is an Earth Systems Scientist who incorporates mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) into his work, drawing together Māori science and Western science to benefit communities with whom he works. Much of his presentation was in Māori and it was such a pleasure to hear the language tumbling into the room.
Bushfires were raging near Tingha at this time, and as we boarded the bus to go to the community gardens, the sky was an apocalyptic orange. I sat next to a poet who had grown up not far (in Australian terms) from where I’d been raised – she was from near Coonabarabran, & I from Boggabri, & I’d met her earlier in the year at a conference on postcolonialism and climate change at the UNE campus in Parramatta. It was lovely to catch up, & also nice, I reflected, to have a year book-ended by environmental conferences.
The event at the Armidale Aboriginal Community Gardens exhibited of a series of portraits of local Aboriginal Matriarchs by local Anaiwan woman, Gabi Briggs, honouring matriarchs who played important roles within their families, clans and wider community. The images were fantastic - bold and strong - and there were lovely people to meet, speeches and a dance performance from a young woman, but I was pretty whacked after a day of trying to hear, & I knew once the sun fell I wouldn’t hear anything as I wouldn’t be able to lipread, so I had to cut my time short & head home.
Day 2 began with a keynote from Gomeroi lawyer & poet Alison Whittaker which absolutely knocked my socks off. She described the consumption of her poems at events such as the Sydney Writers Festival (where attendees touched her on the arm for being ‘brave’) alongside the injustice of deaths in custody (out of 150 referrals relating to deaths in custody, only 11 were referred for investigation, 5 went to court, 1 was convicted & then was acquitted) and asked us: where do we locate justice-seeking literature when it doesn’t locate justice? She also called for a focus on black joy, particularly given how white people absorb & adjust (to the point of ignorance) to black suffering.
The next session I attended was a panel of writers from the University of Wollongong; Joshua Lobb, who’s just released a book, The Flight of Birds, Catherine McKinnon, who published the acclaimed Storyland, and Sue Ballard, a New Zealand curator & writer. Their process was collaborative – they had written the pieces they read out together – which to me, as a writer who works predominantly on her own, was fascinating. Their writing, which was on things nuclear, was also very good.
As it was Valentine’s Day, at lunchtime I bustled off with some other folk to declare love to a gum tree. A scientist met us near said tree and told us how last year 70 trees were removed & chipped because management were worried about them dropping branches onto people, but after some protests & a campaign they stopped chopping them down. However nearly 400 trees are listed for removal in the future. The scientist read his paean to the tree, then leapt over the ground and hugged the trunk.
Due to tree poems, I missed a bit of the next panel, but listened to poet Kate Middleton’s musings on the ghosts of people who had been exiled because of leprosy. In the next suite of papers, Alexis Harley discussed mycelium & fungal narratives, & described how if logs with fungi spores are bashed a bit, fungi sprouts more than it otherwise would (which I thought was a perfect metaphor for the stressed out, precariously placed, and brutally productive 21st C academic), much to gourmands’ delight; Emily O’Gorman presented her research on Indigenous women who weave sedges & rushes from three particular wetlands in the Murray-Darling basin, & illuminated their ongoing connection to Country; and Kate Judith presented on storying with mangroves. The writing of those three papers wended in and out of their ecosystems in lovely ways.
That evening there was a poetry reading at the Armidale Tree Group, & then the conference dinner at the Goldfish Bowl, but I had to bypass those events as I was worn out from listening all day, even though the loop systems were great and people took care to use the microphones, which was such a boon for me (usually there is no hearing equipment or it doesn’t work).
The AGM was held the next morning at 8.30am. I’m not a good morning person, but staggered in on time with a coffee. Usually I avoid AGMs they’re too hard to follow, but this was a small group which meant I could hear, which I appreciated. And then it was time for a series of plenaries and keynotes. The first was a video conference with ecofeminist Greta Gaard on air, which was apposite given that the sky was still smoky from the fires, although by the time her presentation finished (apparently canned smog was a thing in the 60s!) I realised how lucky we are in Oz to have largely clean air. This was followed by a plenary on the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, which was superb in the way that it drew together artists, scientists & farmers. One of the things I loved about this conference was that it went beyond the academy & engaged with communities and organisations, which is so important in terms of getting knowledge out of the ivory tower. This was followed by a keynote from Thom van Dooren on moving & growing a population of Nihoa Millerbirds to Laysan Island in the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands, as a way of creating an insurance population in the face of climate change, and the implications of such assisted colonisation in the context of the ongoing history of dispossession of Kānaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiian people. The final plenary was a rountable on remembering Deborah Bird Rose, who sadly passed late last year. It was very emotional and I felt for the presenters, who had been friends with Debbie. They created a moving tribute to her amazing and world-changing life and work, and it was a fitting and poignant end to the conference that was, as a fellow attendee said to me over coffee, full of people who thoughtful and well-intentioned. I agreed with that wholeheartedly, as I’ve never felt so well cared-for as a deaf person at a conference.
There was a final event, a screening of Terror Nullius at the Belgrave Twin Cinema. The movie looked really good but I had pretty much used up all my powers of concentration and, from past experience, the loop system at the Belgrave doesn’t work. So I said my farewells, went home & drank wine in front of the TV with Parental Unit & their dogs.