Notes from the Field (iv)

I headed to WA again in late November for conferences & research, and took my boyfriend with me so I wouldn’t have to drive & bushwalk on my own. We stayed in Fremantle and I left him to his own devices while I went to the Ecological Society of Australia conference to listen to a symposium on Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge. There were plenty of interesting presentations, such as the investigation of dieback in culturally significant Melaleucas in the Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area in northern Australia. The results of Western scientific methods of investigating dieback corresponded with the information derived from interviews with senior traditional owners ie both methods indicated that 70% of the problems were caused by salinity and erosion from pigs and buffalo. Another team monitored bilby populations by drawing on Indigenous ecological knowledge on where bilbies were distributed an how they liked to live, and combined this with their data on population levels. I was dismayed to see that these bilbies had once lived in the eastern states too but now their last stronghold is in Indigenous land that covers the deserts of WA and the NT. Their populations had also shrunk in quite a small space of time.

Some of the presentations also described different models of working with scientists. Some maintained their autonomy and slowly built up relationships with stakeholders, others are employed via the federal government, but worryingly funding for this is not secure. The Country Needs People campaign is raising awareness about this – you can head to their page to read about the work rangers do and sign a petition to support them. Speakers also stressed the importance of collaboration, rather than appropriating information, or coming in and doing a project and leaving again, rather than forming continuing relationships.

As a literary scholar at a conference for scientists, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to understand anything, but the presentations were all clear and straightforward.

Then we headed down to the south west, stopping on the way at Lake Clifton, which houses thrombolites (our ancestors!). Annamaria Weldon writes about this lake in The Lake’s Apprentice and the area was beautiful – the light silvered, the lake choppy and foamy with wind. The b/f, whose first degree is in ecology, looked around for bugs while I took photos.

We headed on to Margaret River, through which I’d travelled when researching A Curious Intimacy, but never stayed at. We were a little way out of town in a lovely house among the eucalypts. Nearby was an abandoned vineyard through which wallabies hopped.

I needed to get to know the area, so I’d arranged a tour with Sean Blocksidge, who was informative, funny and very personable. I couldn’t get over how blue the sea and sky were. A few wildflowers were still out; it had been an incredible season because there’d been quite a bit of rain, but generally the rainfall is decreasing. The wineries also use a lot of water so it’s uncertain what will happen to them as climate change affects the area. Sean took us canoeing on the Margaret River, which was still and tranquil, and showed us a part of the Three Capes Track. I also just about turned inside out when I saw the Nuytsia floribunda was in flower - botanists in England were desperate for this plant but they could never get it to grow, because they didn't realise it was a parasite. I hadn't seen it on previous trips because it only flowers at Christmas (and is known as the Christmas tree, although the Noongar names for it are moojar, moojerool, munjah and mutyal).

We did another tour with Josh Koomal Whiteland which was fantastic. Josh is a Wadandi man, and he's now based in Dunsborough. With a stick he drew a map in the dirt of the different groups which lived in the south west, and explained about the six seasons, and how eating different plants and animals is contingent on their breeding or flowering times. I wished I could have learnt more about this, as it made my brain explode, I but figured he needed a tour that interests a wide range of people (it also included a look around Ngigli Cave where he played his didge, which was wonderful). Josh had a great sense of humour and a gentle disposition. A snake lived near the drain, so he got out his stick in case he needed to move it on. ‘It’s their place, too,’ he explained.

Another highlight of the trip was having a cuppa with Bernice Barry, who has published a very detailed and extensively-researched biography on Georgiana Molloy, The Mind That Shines. There were plenty of parallels between her own life and Georgiana’s, and after researching Rosa and Maud Praed for so long, I wondered if, as researchers, we’re drawn to those whom we have synchronicities because we understand their motivations and actions. At any rate, that sense of connection is important when you’re working on a project that takes a long time, otherwise you’d get bored and walk away.

We were heading to Augusta the next day to have a look around, and Bernice suggested we check out the granite rock where Georgiana sometimes collected (and would have had to get there by boat). She also recommended Castle Rock, to which Georgiana dreamed of moving, and when we got there I could see why – the water was exquisite. I was bitterly disappointed that I hadn’t packed my swimmers, but the b/f said we could come back – I hope so!

Thence it was back to Fremantle for the bi-annual InASA conference, the theme of which was ‘Encountering Australia’. I presented my research on ecotones and caught up with some fab folk who I hadn’t seen for a while, and listened to a splendid keynote by Kim Scott on the importance of listening to and growing Noongar language.

Before we caught the plane back, we ducked into the art gallery to see the ‘Unknown Land’ exhibition, about Europeans’ first views of Western Australia. I’d seen a few of these in books, but I hadn’t known that Louisa Clifton, who came to Australia as part of the ill-fated Australind settlement in the 1840s, was also an artist. Her lithograph of Koombana Bay was intricate, its muted, melancholy blues very unlike the bright seas we'd seen, although that could just be my interpretation as I know she wasn’thappy about having to leave England. Women didn’t get much of a say in those days.

I was a bit sad to fly back east – I loved Freo and the south west is a marvelous and overlooked part of Australia – but after a month of living out of a suitcase I was also desperate to wake up in my own bed, tend to my beleaguered plants, and get a coffee from the café on the corner.



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.


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.