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The Big Wet: history, art, science and community in the desert channels

Mandy Martin, Libby Robbin, Chris Dickman and Guy Fitzhardinge, 22 October 2010

MIKE SMITH: It’s my pleasure to welcome you to today’s event on behalf of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia. My name is Mike Smith, a staff member in the centre, and my role today is to chair the proceedings. We are here to celebrate two things. As you can see, the title is The Big Wet: history, art, science and community in the Desert Channels. We are celebrating both an exceptional year when there are huge amounts of water moving down these inland river systems - the Cooper, the Mulligan, the Georgina and Eyre Creek. As anyone who has tried to cross this region recently will know, large parts of it are impassable. It is quite a remarkable season.

We are also here to celebrate this book Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve, which celebrates this remarkable landscape. It is quite a remarkable collaboration between community groups, scientists and artists and a very beautifully produced book by CSIRO Publishing. There are quite a large number of contributing authors. It would be very useful, if there are any contributors in the audience, for them to raise their hands so we get a sense of how many we have.

LIBBY ROBIN: Come on, photographers too.

MIKE SMITH: We have a good sprinkling. Although we are not calling today a launch, it is one of a series of rolling events that celebrate this book, with the main launch at Longreach.

In the order of the speakers, we are going to move from environmental history with Libby, through to art and aesthetics with Mandy. Then we will move to science with Chris Dickman, New South Wales Scientist of the Year, who is delayed by Qantas at the moment. And we will move on to community with Guy Fitzhardinge, and Guy also represents Desert Channels Queensland, one of this fine book’s sponsors. Speakers will have ten minutes each. We will start with Libby. I will ask each of our speakers, who probably are well known to you, nonetheless to introduce themselves when they step to the lectern.

LIBBY ROBIN: Thank you very much, Mike for that. I am Libby Robin. I work at the Fenner School for Environment Society at the Australian National University this half of the year. The other half of the year I work down here at the National Museum of Australia. So I come from both places. I would like first of all to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people on whose land we are having this forum. I particularly want to thank the National Museum for hosting this event and for the hard work of Leanne, Phillipa and Anne and also our media people - and a special thank you to all of you for coming.

Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve combines the voices of art, science and history. Our community is the distinctive Desert Channels region of south-western Queensland, source of Australia’s major inland-flowing desert rivers. Some of Australia’s most interesting new conservation initiatives are in this region, including partnerships between private landholders, non-government conservation organisations that buy and manage land, including Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and community-based natural resource management groups such as Desert Channels Queensland. These new private conservation initiatives are becoming one of Australia’s important ways to conserve country and expand the national estate of protected lands. Other Western nations have a much longer history of philanthropic support and land purchase, but here this has been a sector developed over not much more than a decade - history in our own time.

A project with many players quickly gathers its own momentum, particularly if Mandy Martin is involved in my experience, and today I want to talk about that momentum: how we found ourselves working to create a book of 46 contributors, many of whom are here today. I want to consider how artists, scientists, historians and local people with strong views about their communities worked together. I also explore the role of history in such a project. So that is my job today, to be the historian, and this is after all a museum of history.

Almost all of the book’s contributors are conservationists, but they have different impulses to conserve. Some focus on biodiversity loss and habitat restoration for animals. Others are more concerned about restoring strength to the communities of this remote region. Cultural heritage is important too, whether it is pastoral history or Aboriginal traditional values. The idea of country is central to conservation and is something that includes both nature and culture, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal understandings.

Rivers are a big focus in this project. Rivers, and their intermittent flows, unite and divide the country as they flow inland towards Lake Eyre reaching there recently for the first time in many years, and still filling as we speak. Flows create hope and positive moods. One significant group most concerned about rivers met together in Birdsville in May 2009. Eighty traditional owners worked there to develop a conservation charter to conserve their song-lines. Whitefellas might call them rivers, but traditional owners regard them as cultural.

The idea that people are good for conservation is widely shared. Wild is not always positive; it can mean feral camels, donkeys, horses and invasive plants. If there are no people, ferals and weeds will destroy the very biodiversity that defines native Australian ecological systems. Others on this panel will speak more about this. Mandy selected photographic images showing people doing the conservation because humans change habitats for good or evil. Many great natural history photos are there too, as you see, but most carry at least traces of people and their actions at many scales.

Conservation biology in this place has a distinguished scientific history, including two decades of ecological work by Chris Dickman, who is on his way as I speak. His work alerted people like Guy [Fitzhardinge] and the board of Bush Heritage to the unique biodiversity values of the pastoral properties Ethabuka and Cravens Peak and encouraged them to buy up these key properties on the edge of the Simpson Desert for nature reserves. My own training is in history, particularly the history of science, but I have now worked for a decade in interdisciplinary environmental studies.

My task on the editorial team was to coordinate the words for the project, while Mandy dealt with visuals and Chris, the science. Guy represents here the community, Desert Channels Queensland, which was one of our big sponsors. We all worked together. It was like conducting a choir, giving each a part and a balance with respect to each other’s stories. We all want to reach readers from beyond the region. This place is part of a national and global story too. We open with a prologue - Mike Smith and I wrote this - placing the region in a continental perspective. Then we are welcomed to country by Iningai custodian David Thompson, born and raised in Barcaldine. Next we arrive with Chris Dickman as our guide.

We structured our book following Mandy’s aesthetic. The 4x4 suites of artworks dictated that we should have four parts: place, landscape, biodiversity and livelihood, with four chapters in each. Mandy’s work aesthetically frames the place and our ideas about conservation, and of course 4x4 vehicles take us all around this region of dunes, swales, sandstone ridges and flood plains.

The book is about partnerships that conserve landscapes, livelihoods and communities together. Some contributors wrote whole chapters; many contributed short text boxes, adding local and technical commentary where relevant. We had fabulous photographers - thank you, David [Taylor] - sculptors and installation artists as well as Mandy’s fine painting. The aim was to combine art, science, history and local knowledge to present a textural and visual understanding of the country. This project explored the impulse to conserve by engaging the contributors as subjects, agents of their own research, not people interviewed and reported about in metropolitan frameworks. The writing and visual work is active and collaborative, informed by a personal sense of place. As the back cover blurb explains:

Desert Channels explores the impulse to protect the varied biodiversity of the region, and its Aboriginal, pastoral and prehistoric heritage, including some of Australia’s most important dinosaur sites. The work of Alice Duncan-Kemp, the region’s most significant literary figure, is highlighted. Even the sounds of the landscape are not forgotten: the book includes a CD by Alaskan radio journalist Richard Nelson talking to ecologist Steve Morton at Ocean Bore in the Simpson Desert country. The twitter of zebra finches accompanies the interview.

So we celebrated the region’s highly original conservation partnerships: between science and society, between pastoral enterprise and biodiversity, between natural resource management groups and traditional owners. How then to finish the book? This was my challenge. I got the last chapter. In it I tell a global story of the ecological science that was built in this place - how animals, plants and ideas were taken back to laboratories in major Australian cities and to a number of American ones too. Over about 50 years, Sandringham Station, now next door to Ethabuka but once including some of it, has been the node for the global science of arid zone animals.

The project demanded collaborative, cross-disciplinary thinking - something beyond disciplines, beyond the academy, beyond community and beyond the capability of any one, two or three of our 46 perspectives to capture. For global insights, I was inspired by the economist Richard Norgaard, who was a participant observer in the Millennium Assessment, the review of the state of the ecological world at the turn of the millennium. He argued that at a time of despair in the science of ecosystems and their very obvious decline, there was just a glimmer of hope coming from the growing capacity of the community of experts drawn together in this exercise to deliberate and form a ‘collective analytical ability that was more than the sum of their individual contributions’. They took an open view on both scientific and cultural perspectives, juggled ambiguity and didn’t drive for closure. That was the important message from the millennium assessment.

South African historian Jane Carruthers has also explored some of the ambiguities of the conservation of elephants in Africa’s national parks. She argues that the deeply cultural dimensions of such work demand conceptualisation by humanities and social science thinkers alongside natural scientists. Norgaard and Carruthers each make a case that the expertise that matters in big complex decision-making tasks is based as much on public citizenship as on disciplinary training. Expertise as engaged informed citizens is as essential as technical expertise in negotiating and decision-making.

One of the emerging roles for museums is to enable all sorts of people with interesting stories to tell them themselves and to tell them in ways that enable equality between voices, and tolerate incommensurability. Aboriginal people have been asking for spaces to tell their stories their own way for years, and this Museum tells many of these stories very successfully. There are other local voices that also need space and a context to be heard.

The idea of ‘citizen science’ has a long history: private citizens teach themselves the science they need to be public activists. This is not about formal science training, but rather about understanding enough about science to communicate salient issues. A citizen humanist is more difficult to describe. Human ethical values are the backbone of public debate, but humanistic perspectives are sometimes not valued because they are not perceived as technocratically expert. Excellent writing, aesthetic or poetic skills can highlight the human voice. Unlike the scientific work, which is regularly team generated, humanists are often soloists and this can mean their voices are omitted.

The task for the editors of Desert Channels was to conduct a grand choir of voices and instruments. We found some harmonised with each other easily, and others challenged the rules of music. We wanted all the perspectives on conservation to be heard, separately and together. A collective endeavour must pay respects to the individual positions because conservation means different things to different people: the impulse to conserve is personal. The challenge is allowing the sounds to work together, not necessarily to resolve all in total harmony, but rather to respect ambiguity, even disharmony. Conservation brings out the contrapuntal, melodies in opposition to each other. But dialogue together is richer than any solo voice alone, and the deliberative process is fundamental to good conservation outcomes.

The demand for disciplinary multiplicity and, increasingly, interdisciplinarity, creates opportunities for an environmental history that defines itself as a metadiscipline, rather than a subdiscipline of history. Time is important to conservation. One old conservation narrative trope moved from pristine to degraded to restored, but this is too simple. The pristine is in fact the human past: ‘the land is not as God made it, but rather as Aboriginal people made it’, in Sylvia Hallam’s words. Time matters and the idea of a timeless past is inaccurate and unhelpful.

There is a particular imperative to consider time in a place like Desert Channels with boom and bust cycles shaping ecology. Years of the floods like this year with a big wet are peaks of human and ecological activity. Not all years are alike. Time is essential to a sense of place. Some environmental historians are coming to history from climate science, where, as Sarah Cornell and her colleagues recently put it:

The study of past climates combined with contemporary models is becoming a powerful tool for constraining what is plausible and possible in hypothesising about the future.

It is often these people - not the professional historians who take the time dimension for granted - who urge us all, historians included, to grab the ‘learning from the past’ debate by the horns.

Environmental historians intellectually travel alongside scientists, but environmental history is not science. Environmental ideas are framed by ecology and economy, earth science and system science, and increasingly there is a turn to human dimensions - the psychology of change or rural sociology, for example. What environmental historians can add are reflections on how we got to where we are now, the context for our conversations about conservation. The conservationists in this project all seek to shape better outcomes in the real world, and realise that aiming for an idealised pure nature is not going to help. Stories of past human practice are integral. What we work to save from change, or to manage for the future, is a human decision, but it is also limited by what is possible.

So the craft that has gone into this very interdisciplinary book is a form of artisanal scholarship. It is scholarly but it is also schooled by life, by the use of hands in the real world. We have approached the relations between people and the non-human environment with flexibility, through narrative and citizenly concern. I am not suggesting that understanding conservation imperatives in the Desert Channels region is only possible through history, but rather that an historical frame of mind here enabled a new synthesis that was sufficiently ambiguous and open-ended to contribute to discussions well beyond the Desert Channels. Thank you. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: Thank you, Libby. We will save questions until right at the end when the panel will field questions as a group, and now over to Mandy to talk about art and aesthetics.

MANDY MARTIN: I am Mandy Martin and I am also an adjunct professor at the Fenner at the ANU here. Thanks Libby for your comments. I must say working with editors of Libby Robin and Chris Dickman’s calibre was pretty amazing on this project, and it certainly meant that it happened very effectively.

Libby has covered a few of the comments I wanted to make, particularly about the structure of the book. Obviously this book has a landscape horizontal structure which is very different for CSIRO [Publishing]. With its 4x4 format - by now you have seen the powerpoint through once - you will see all of the images are in sets of four. As Libby described, the book is in four parts, and each section is marked by four suites of my landscape studies for the seasons 2007, 2008 and 2009, and each of those studies is also painted in four parts.

Almost without exception the images either include people or are certainly the result of human artifice. These strict rules I felt were important, because this book is about the impulse to conserve and that is an impulse which only humans have, not plants or animals. Animals clearly have a sense of aesthetic but humans have a highly evolved one, which is fundamental to our appreciation and understanding of landscape.

CSIRO Publishing has never published a book with so few scientific images and so many pictures of people, let alone one including so many artworks! The reason for placing aesthetic evaluation alongside other forms of environmental and historic evaluation of the Desert Channels was well expressed in our epigraph by the eminent David Lowenthal:

All environmental concern, if not anthropocentric, is humanly generated, voiced, and valued. Ecology’s mission is restoring not just ecosystems, but the human communities that sustain and are sustained by them.

I was ecstatic that David gave us his permission to use this quote from a paper that I think he has just given in Istanbul in September where he was awarded the biennial Forbes Prize for ‘conspicuous service to conservation’ by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

We were fortunate that the final season of our work out in the Desert Channels was the wet one, and has continued to be so, making the launches - you will see a couple of images at the end of the powerpoint of the launch in Longreach and Bourke at the end of September - feel more like we were in the tropical north. I think we had 17 contributors at the launch in Longreach, which was fantastic, and most of them were local stakeholders, graziers, Indigenous owners and photographers. It was wonderful that they were there.

As the name implies, Desert Channels usually is precisely that, and the water courses I have painted were dry or drying up until the season of 2009 when both Ethabuka Springs, after its restoration by Bush Heritage Australia, and Pulchera waterhole, also on Ethabuka reserve, were looking wonderful. Libby Robin swam up and down Pulchera waterhole for an hour and a half having close encounters with low-flying brolgas and a number of the seven species of fish while I painted.

Fortunately we were able to include plenty of wet images in the book. The classical aerial photos by David Taylor, who is sitting up the back here, a grazier and pilot, captured just how amazing the transformation of the land by the water has been. In the past few years aerial landscape images of these major Desert Channels flood events have entered the national psyche.

The book tries to capture some of the individual aesthetics, including local aesthetics, of the Desert Channels. Simon Campbell, who is another grazier and Renaissance man from Blackall, makes sculptures which are a lovely example of what I call local aesthetic. One of his works during the floods in January and again in September 2010 has become a water installation, and you will see that in the images up there [image shown].

A number of the artworks in the book are by people who don’t call themselves artists but express their aesthetic response to the landscape through artistic gestures, like Simon Campbell and also Nella Lithgow. Nella is co-manager of Cravens Peak reserve on the edge of the Simpson Desert, and her found and ephemeral sculptures happen as she works around the expansive property.

The book is a celebration of what people in the region value visually about their place and what visitors might find when they visit. The voice and the presence of the traditional owners of the Desert Channels is present throughout the book. As Libby said, the welcome to country by David Thompson, who also gave a powerpoint for our welcome to country at Longreach, is a wonderful piece of writing and it’s accompanied by a 4x4 of Iningai hand stencils.

In this presentation I haven’t included any of the terrific early historic photos of Aboriginal people. Many of the photos are from Darrell Lewis’s collection - Darrell is here in the front row - but, because of copyright permission, I didn’t want to seek copyright yet again to show them in this context. There are some pretty amazing photos in the book, some of which have never been published before.

You will see on the powerpoint [image shown] a fairly unusual 4x4 set of sculptural pieces which are in the Queensland Art Gallery by Kalboori Youngi from Bedourie and these date from the 1930s. I have also included a wonderful Pituri basket from the Queensland Museum collection.

The other major aesthetic contributions to the book are the sculptural works by Faye Alexander. These are constructed from wire and found objects retrieved from rubbish dumps in the Desert Channels. Many of us, like Faye and I, have worked long and hard on developing a desert aesthetic and I talk about mine in the book. But what is so pleasing is to celebrate the large scale of the aesthetic of scientists, historians and other desert channellers who were constantly capturing the ultimate photo of a windmill at sunset, close-ups of reptiles or flowers, or tracks on beautiful red sand dunes with their cameras and taking these images back to the rest of the world to reveal their own impulse to conserve a unique and fragile landscape.

My Desert Channels landscape studies were all painted on location in the three years between 2007 and 2009 at Ethabuka and Cravens Peak, two former pastoral properties now conserved by Bush Heritage Australia as conservation reserves. They are located in the Simpson Strzelecki desert bio-region of Desert Channels Queensland. I have painted in most of the six distinctive bio-regions of south-west Queensland since 2001, but because I feel a strong connection with these reserves and their conservation imperatives I wanted to paint them more intensively. It was in 2001 that I first met Chris Dickman, too, out at Ethabuka reserve. I particularly wanted to visit these places over a sequence of years and seasons to try to amass as much visual research on the sites and the ways they respond to dry periods and the wet.

Little has ever been painted or written about the landscapes where these inland rivers rise. Desert Channels landscapes are not just the places where the rivers rise but often where they peter out. There is a conversation between desert and channel in these landscapes that cuts both ways and creates a unique landscape form.

I wanted to record in a simple way, through landscape studies made on location, the diversity of the landscapes and to capture what is special and worthy of preserving in them. I deliberately choose ordinary or unsensational places to paint, places encountered by chance rather than by design.

Aesthetic evaluation is a useful environmental tool, particularly when landscapes are under direct threat from development. We are familiar with threats that have reduced the natural wonders of landscapes to industrial or urban dross. It can, however, be more difficult to identify threats to diffuse landscapes like the Desert Channels. Here we see cracking clays, gibber plains, sand dunes and sometimes the famous flows. Such features are alien to those of us from temperate country of the south and are different from the well-watered tropical north as well. What is special about this landscape? How can it be conserved?

We might have a good idea of what a tourist comes out to this part of the world to see and maybe have some knowledge of what Indigenous land owners and settler Australians want to preserve about the landscape in general terms, but there is still a lot of detail missing. Those interested in strategic and economic value in the landscape sometimes refer to the aesthetic qualities as the ‘view-shed’ or ‘visual catchment’, using metaphors based on ‘watershed’ and ‘water catchment’. Environmental impact statements required in connection with development applications use these terms. Even in the remote country of the Desert Channels, one sees the impact of mining, exploration, urban settlement, maintenance of the road system and tourism, and everywhere the impact of the grazing industry. Such impacts are not always particularly compatible with the healthy functioning of this complex independent set of land systems.

Aesthetic evaluation demands a visual vocabulary with which to assess the landscape. I see this process as being similar to collecting scientific data. It is an intensive process based on sampling and resampling, reliant on a consistent methodology or approach and susceptible to interference from many variables. Ultimately, its aim is to represent the diversity that makes functioning landscapes visually pleasing.

Desert Channels landscapes are visually pleasing to me but for many people who have never been in a landscape, it is difficult to know what to ‘read’ or how to ‘see’ it. So I stand in the blazing sun with flies crawling into my eyes and up my nose and into my paint for eight to ten hours working on a set of four paintings, tramping back and forth between the canvasses spread around the landscape capturing different viewpoints. Why don’t I simply photograph or write down these visual qualities? I often do these things as well but, as an artist, I intuitively select and exaggerate features in the landscape, sometimes rearranging them to make a coherent visual composition. Artists open up a path for viewers to see the visually valuable or special features of a landscape.

Some landscape assessments are done in words but my evaluations are visual. The art work is the document and it aids different ways of visualising the place, just as a scientific assessment can aid consideration of animals or plants or water flows, by documenting their roles in the landscape. William L. Fox, exploring the relations between landscape and cognition in interdisciplinary projects like this, says:

Maps are paintings, paintings are strategic documents, documents read like poems, habitat becomes sculpture, and sculpture erodes into an archaeological ruin.

Each reading informs the next. By working with ecologists, historians, pastoralists and others with viewpoints on the landscape, the aesthetic view is integrated into a larger project that can value - and perhaps conserve - landscape in more ways. Thank you very much. And thank you especially to a number of special friends who have travelled from quite a long way away to come here today - from Adaminaby, from Cowra, from Albury and so on. Thank you for all coming. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: Thank you, Mandy. What you are beginning to get a sense of is that this wonderful book sketches out the personality of a region. Of course, as we look across the Australian arid zone it’s not just a uniform region. Deserts are as differentiated as mountains, forests and coastlines. As we look across the region we have the Burrup, the Pilbara, the Nullarbor, the Red Centre and of course we have this remarkable region where these inland rivers run along the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert and out on the eastern side of Lake Eyre, a region with its own very distinctive personality which is coming through very nicely in today’s presentations.

We are going to skip science for the moment while we await Chris’s appearance and we are going to move on to Guy Fitzhardinge who is representing community.

GUY FITZHARDINGE: Thanks, Mike. On the screen you will see a map of the Desert Channels area. There is one comment first of all that I would like to make: isn’t it funny the way it always seems to be that the community comes last, and yet no conservation can happen without the community? It’s really important to talk about people in this; it’s really important to think about people. We very often talk about the things that we don’t have in common; we need to talk a lot more about the things that we do have in common. I think that’s one of the major things that is highlighted in the book.

For most of the people here today, I suspect you have not been into this country so I would like to talk about the social landscape quickly. On the left-hand side of the map that line going up to the top is the Northern Territory border, and west of there is basically the Simpson Desert. It goes almost all the way until you get to Alice Springs as just a series of big, red sandhills. No-one knows that country better than Andrew Harper, in the back row there, who takes people on cameleering trips in that country. Every person that has been on that trip says it’s absolutely fantastic, there is so much life out there.

That line extends up basically to the Barkly Tableland in the north, and it’s only there that we begin to get into the big pastoral properties. The line on the west basically demarcates the pastoral industry. There is only one property on the western side of that and that is called Tobermory. It’s a long, narrow property with next to nothing there.

If we move around to the north you begin to get into the Mount Isa area and you begin to get in a lot of cattle country up in there. They are reasonably big properties with breeding cattle mainly. Mining is a big issue in that area, and that area has higher rainfall too. The rainfall tends to increase as you go to the east. Then you begin to get into the Blackall country and you begin to get into sheep country there where you have a whole series of properties that are relatively small - we are talking about properties of 100,000 acres or something like that - and they tend to get smaller as you come south. The rainfall tends to diminish from east to west and north to south in that area.

If you can imagine a ring around basically east to north in there that is where all the people are. In the Channel Country itself you have a series of really big properties. It’s more or less not breeding country, just for fattening. Most of the big pastoral companies are in that area such as the North Australian Pastoral Company, Kidman & Co., Stanbroke and Diamantina. If you can see Longreach, which is on the eastern side of the map, if you are going to drive from there to Boulia, for example, that is an eight-hour drive. If you are going to drive from there down to Birdsville say, it takes nine hours. We are talking about a large area of land.

We have a largely sparsely populated area on the west and a lot more people on the east. On the eastern side of that area, too, is where we have basically the major problems coming in just in terms of conservation. We have weeds; we have a lot of grazing pressure coming in; and we have a lot of feral animals, such as pigs. If we try to visualise that area as a big basin, we have a lot of stuff coming in from the east and the north and eventually it is going to find its way down south. One of the big challenges up there is to try to prevent these things going south. Already I believe we have the first of the cane toads in Coopers Creek. So it’s an area that we basically need to quarantine if we can.

Desert Channels Queensland was formed in the mid-1900s. It was a community organisation governed by a board of community people. We talked about a range of local issues out there that concerned the pastoralists out there, which were weeds, for example. In those days there was a program out of the Commonwealth government that focused on a regional delivery model so that it was part top-down and it was part bottom-up. That worked reasonably well in that country because everyone felt an ownership for it.

With the advent of the current government it became more of a top-down approach and there was language used like buying outcomes. Conservation is not a shop. We don’t run a special this year on the Great Barrier Reef and we don’t run a special on something else next year. We need to realise that it needs to be a bit of top-down and it needs to have a lot of community participation in it as well. In these big areas out here where you have few people, one of the things we really struggle about is that basically the costs are very high.

What I would like to return to is the area of common interest. In the process of compiling the book, one of the things we did was travel around and talk to a lot of pastoralists and landholders. There are a lot of common themes in there: a lot of care about the landscape; a lot of concern about the landscape; and a lot of worry about weeds, feral animals and camels and these sorts of things. What we need to do a lot more of in conservation is to harness these sorts of sentiments, and we need to work together as a team. The top-down model has not been terribly successful in that country. For example Desert Channels Queensland used to employ 23 people has now gone down to 12. We used to do work on something like 75 per cent of all the properties in that area. Now it’s basically nothing like that at all.

There needs to be a greater will to work in areas that are not seen as areas under risk. One of the things we tend to do is we tend to wait until things are in real trouble and then we say, ‘Well, we have to do something about this.’ This area that we are talking about is in reasonably good shape but there are a whole series of risks out there that we need to be dealing with. The book tends to identify these risks and it tends to show more or less the community spirit to address these things. We need to be working on this a lot more than we are doing at the current time. I think that everyone that has not been out in that country can rest reasonably assured that there is a lot of care being taken out there, but there are things that need to change.

One of the things about the book is that it chose the range of values out there and I think it points forward in the way of seeing that the sort of conservation we need to do needs to be all-inclusive conservation: we need to include the government; we need to include the local people; and we need to include everyone in between. So with that I might end, thank you.

MIKE SMITH: Thank you, Guy. I think what we might do now is move straight into questions. If and when Chris appears, we will give him the floor. I am sure Mandy, Guy and Libby would be very happy to field questions and would also be very interested to hear from other contributors to the book if they would like to say something.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for those presentations. They were terrific. Jon Altman [Centre for Aboriginal Economic Research, ANU]. I guess I wonder listening to the presentations, except maybe for Guy’s at the end but also having read the book, whether it’s too beautiful and celebratory. I say that bearing in mind Libby’s point that you are trying to reach out to public citizenship about this region, and it just seems to me as a sceptical social scientist that the visual images don’t show enough of the ugly side of this region. I know the words reflect some of the concerns about risk. The images to me are wonderfully beautiful, very evocative. They tell me something about what we might risk but they don’t tell me much about what’s gone wrong in this region already. So I wonder if you would like to comment about that.

The other comment I want to make is about politics. If I put this region and overlay it on a map of Australia and the Indigenous estate, there is no Aboriginal land in this part of Queensland and I guess I wanted to invite some reflection on that. Aboriginal people have historically been emptied out of this region or urbanised. What potential is there for this region to have Indigenous protected areas, land rights, native title claims and determinations like we have seen in other parts of Australia? And how might that repatriation of Aboriginal land enhance the environmental and cultural values of this region?

GUY FITZHARDINGE: I might have a go at the first but not the last bit. Jon, I think there is a philosophical question here as to whether you try to preserve the things that are intact or you spend the money on the things that are on the way down, declining. There is a further question in that, too, there are probably some things you can throw all the money in the world at that we have lost completely. So I don’t quite know where to stand on this.

People need to recognise there are a lot of values out there that need preserving but they also need to recognise there are a lot of threats out there as well currently and we need to address those threats. In terms of threatened species, for example, I think what we do is basically we turn up at the funeral. We need to be very careful that, in terms of landscapes and whole systems like this one is, we don’t turn up at the funeral like the Murray-Darling Basin. In regard to your second question, there is probably someone more competent to answer it than me.

MIKE SMITH: Given that Chris has arrived, we might just hold this discussion for the moment and give Chris Dickman the floor. Thanks, Chris.

LIBBY ROBIN: It’s not Chris’s fault that Qantas cancelled his flight.

CHRIS DICKMAN: Many thanks, Mike and Libby, and my apologies to all for throwing an element of disruption into the schedule. Science, I guess, is often seen as a slightly arcane enterprise. It is often thought to be carried out by people who maybe are a little bit odd, a bit eccentric; people who like to wear white lab coats, strong glasses and so on; people who get excited about very strange things and perhaps miss their flights from Sydney when they should be on them. But beyond these stereotypes is a more generous view of science; that is, we can view it as a way of knowing, a way of gathering observations of the natural world and trying to assemble them into some sort of order that we can then use to make sense of and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the natural world and the patterns and the phenomena that we encounter on a daily basis.

In the Desert Channels, this broader way of knowing isn’t really very new. The Aboriginal people have been making very detailed observations of the passing of life and the changing of the seasons over many thousands of years. They learnt to read the seasons; they learnt where to find food, shelter, drugs and other resources that were needed for daily and longer term life; they learnt how to manipulate the environment as well through processes such as fire and in doing so gained a deeper understanding of the environment in which they lived.

There was a question just as I was coming in that asked about what has happened to the Aboriginal people in that part of Queensland. There has been a real movement of Aboriginal people off the land. I can’t really add much more to what Guy had to say about that, but it’s been quite a long term and very sad process.

Over 100 years ago the first of the pioneer pastoralists began to move into the Desert Channels region. They were probably a bit puzzled by what they saw at first - the more optimistic ones among them came in looking for the inland sea and I guess they didn’t really find it. Perhaps if they had gone this year they might have been more successful because it looks a bit like an inland sea out there at the moment! But they also learnt to read the seasons in other ways. They learnt to read them so that they could run livestock, and probably the most proficient of all of the early pastoral pioneers, Sidney Kidman, used his reading of the land to gain a huge empire which enabled him to run many hundreds of thousands of head of stock through the Desert Channels and elsewhere.

A little later, after the pastoral pioneers began to move in, the first waves of naturalists and others came in - the first geologists, geographers and people interested in the biota. They began to map the land. They began to take more detailed and perhaps more systematic observations of what they were seeing and began to assemble the great diversity of things in the Desert Channels region into something that they felt was more comprehensible. It’s hard to single people out, but among the early naturalists of the period Hedley Finlayson was probably one of the most important: a chemistry teacher from Adelaide, he would make forays into the arid zone every year when he could get away and left a lasting legacy. His book The Red Centre: Man and Beast in the Heart of Australia has become quite a classic of not just exploration but of European understanding incorporating Aboriginal information as well into our understanding of central Australia and how it works. Later people came, like Dick MacMillen, eco-physiologist from the US, Tony Lee, Steve Morton and Pat Woolley. Julian Reid is a later one who is amongst us today, and waves of other people have come in more recently to try to figure out how this amazing part of the world works.

If we take the collective wisdom of the people who have lived and worked in the Desert Channels, I think all would agree it’s quite a unique place. It is the world’s largest internally draining system. I guess the Lake Eyre Basin really doesn’t have much equivalent anywhere else, and the Desert Channels region is the northern part of that - the headwaters of some of the major rivers that flow. It has a highly unusual geology and series of landscapes. It’s highly biodiverse with a very large number of endemic species, although not all of them are doing very well. There are a number of threatened species that occur in the Desert Channels region and nowhere else. It is also highly biodiverse in that, if you go to any patch of land throughout most of the Desert Channels, you will find a very large number of species of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates. Some of these are outlined in the book itself but I would like to highlight two groups because I am more familiar with the lizards and the small mammals.

The lizards are the most diverse in the Desert Channels region of any arid region on the planet, so too are the small insect eating small mammals, the dasyurids. There are more species that occur locally in this region than anywhere else. Not only is the present-day fauna diverse but so too was the fauna in the past. Some of the fossil discoveries that have been made in parts of the Desert Channels country are quite startling - huge marine reptiles that plied what would have been seas around 150 million years ago and land-based dinosaurs that rival some of the biggest dinosaurs that have been found anywhere. When you take all of this together there is an understandable impulse to conserve what is in the Desert Channels. We know that it is pretty special. What we want to do is try to find ways to make sure it is maintained into the future.

My own work in the region began over 20 years ago when I was lured out there by these wonderful stories of biodiversity - weird animals and weird plants that could be found out there - and by curiosity as well about how what appeared to be such a very harsh environment could support so many species.

In that period, in the last 20 years, we have made a number of quite interesting discoveries. We have affirmed the boom and bust nature of the environment but also have been able to show that it’s perhaps more extreme in terms of its unpredictability than in other arid environments elsewhere. This means there are very big consequences for the biota. If you are an animal or a plant you have to find ways of riding out the extended drought periods. It’s not so bad perhaps if you are a plant: you can do that by producing seeds that kick around in the seed bank for 20 or 25 years. But if you are an animal you have to adopt other strategies. You can stay put like a desert frog, go down a metre and don’t come up until there’s another heavy rain.

If you are not able to do that, then you might have to be mobile. You might have to develop the ability to track the shifting of resources as they occur across the landscape. We have discovered that the small mammals of the region are extremely mobile, more so than any other desert mammals that we know about in the world’s other deserts. Perhaps also to cope with the unpredictability of the environment, the rodents and some lizards as well are very omnivorous. They will take whatever foods are around. They can’t afford to be specialists simply because particular kinds of food won’t be there all the time. You have to have the ability to move from food to food as one source dries up. There are a number of other factors that seem to be associated with the unpredictability - very flexible social behaviour, and so on.

Then there are other processes like wild fire. We were fortunate to see the effects of a wild fire that ripped through about half our study areas in the Simpson Desert in 2001-02. The fire itself had no direct effect on the small mammals and lizards that we were studying. It did remove the above-ground vegetation which didn’t then return until the rains again. Although the fire itself didn’t have any direct effect on killing the animals, as we might have expected, it did allow for feral predators - foxes and cats - to move in. Without the sheltering cover of vegetation the small mammals and lizards were just an open smorgasbord for these new creatures in the environment, and the populations of many of the native species nose-dived as a consequence. So we found a number of things that perhaps weren’t readily apparent before.

Science also is giving an indication of what we might expect for the future. One of the big concerns in the Desert Channels, as elsewhere, is the effect of a warming climate. The climate is not just going to warm, it is going to do different things in different areas. The predictions for the Desert Channels region are that the northern parts will remain reasonably wet and they will continue to get summer rainfall. The more southerly parts will become drier and the whole region will become hotter. There will be an increase in the variance in these properties too.

What it suggests perhaps is that on-site rainfall, particularly in the more southerly parts of the Desert Channels, will become less important. The region may become more dependent on the filling of the channels themselves from rainfall that falls in the north. If we have extended droughts and then greater deluges of rain when they do occur, it may mean that the already very clear boom and bust cycles of the environment that we currently have been measuring may become even more pronounced. This will put even more onus on being able to stay put over very long periods to ride out the drought periods and then survive the big floods when they come.

The science has been quite intriguing in giving us insight into how the biota live and into the shape of the landscapes. It is also giving us an insight, an inkling, of how the biota may respond in the future if the predictions of climate change that we have at the moment are accurate. Well, that’s probably more than enough. I will stop here and take my seat. If there are any questions about any aspects of the science that I have covered or that I haven’t covered, I am happy to try to take any questions. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: Thanks, Chris. I think we can resume questions now. Jon [Altman] left some fairly hard-edged questions hanging over us. We may want to return to those if someone in the audience would like to run with them.

COMMENT: My name is Tom Griffiths. I was a contributor to the book and I wanted to have a go to responding to Jon Altman’s very good question about Aboriginal history of the region and particularly of dispossession. My contribution was about the history of the frontier and particularly about a white writer Alice Duncan-Kemp who grew up with Aboriginal people in the district.

Aboriginal people were savagely and systematically removed from the Desert Channels. There was a hard-fought, bitter, brutal frontier war in this region, and then in some areas just submission and dispossession; in other places there were some negotiated compromises. On a property cattle station called Mooraberrie on Farrars Creek just near Diamantina, Alice Duncan-Kemp was born early in the twentieth century and she grew up with Aboriginal people looking after her. She learnt their language, their culture, and in half a million words in four or five books she celebrated their lives in that area. The people she grew up with were Aboriginal people fighting to survive, to hang on to their land and to stay in that area.

The secret history of the region is not just that of warfare and dispossession but also the history of Aboriginal labour on those pastoral stations. You might visit a white pastoralist today and find on his mantelpiece a photograph of him as a child with Aboriginal nannies. So there is a very deep and continuing Aboriginal history of the region.

Part of the story - and part of the story I try to tell in my contribution - is that not only are Aboriginal people marginalised in white pioneering story telling but so are those white pioneers who were sympathetic to Aboriginal people, so are they marginalised. Even though Alice Duncan-Kemp wrote half a million words about the area, she is very little remembered in the area today. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature celebrates the only writer of this district as Barcroft Boake, who visited the area for two months and wrote one poem about it, but overlooks the half a million words of Alice. Why? Partly because she was a woman in a largely male-dominated pastoral industry but also because she was so sympathetic with Aboriginal people and she wrote about them about with such insight and understanding. It’s not only the Aboriginal people of that area who are often marginalised and forgotten, but those who sympathised with them as well.

Jon’s question is a vital one. There are now, as far as I am aware, two native title claims in the area and both relate to the district in which Alice Duncan-Kemp grew up. Her words are vital to justifying that kind of claim.

MANDY MARTIN: Jon Altman, you have stirred up a real hornet’s nest here. I also need to respond to your comments. If we wanted to do a book about the rape and spoliation of the Desert Channels, I don’t think we would have had the willing partnership and involvement of all the contributors. It was important because the book is about the impulse to conserve, to look at the most positive manifestations of that.

As an artist who is renowned for their dark paintings of spoilt landscapes and industrial landscapes, it’s often quite an effort for me. A number of images have popped up in the studio over the last ten years which are actually to do with the more negative aspects of apocalyptic landscapes I have driven through in the Channel Country. One of the pleasures of doing landscape studies of the sort I do - they are basically like drawings but they are done with colours and pigments - is that I can actually talk about the positive aspects of those landscapes. But yes, point taken. Watch for the sequel. It won’t be popular.

QUESTION: Gillian Taylor, landholder from Albury, New South Wales. Going on from what Mandy just said, I enjoyed the whole concept of the book and I felt there were lots of positive aspects in it but, as Jon said, but there was also the darker side and a lot of photography certainly depicted that. There is not a thriving industry happening out there. The pastoralists in many cases are doing it hard, which was reflected in a lot of the visual images portrayed - from my interpretation. I have a question to Guy, Libby or anyone - you mentioned about going bottom-up and top-down. Now that a lot of the big pastoralists are caring for a lot of the land mass up in the Channel Country, what is their approach to the impulse to conserve with the financial issues and also education that is now available to people?

GUY FITZHARDINGE: Thanks, Gill. There is a lot of commonality of purpose but basically the question is how you get there and at the end of the day it is always to do with money. I think a lot of us would share the same values together, but the bottom line at the end of the day is, of course, money. One thing that drives behaviour that people forget about is the market system itself. While people are rewarded for production and productivity, in a market sense really they are not rewarded for sustainability. Until we turn that around and we are able to develop a market system that basically rewards people for doing the sorts of things that we want them to do, it is going to be very hard to make them change. I think everyone will change as much as they can. But the changes we need out there are fairly fundamental changes, and I don’t think they are the changes people are able to make on their own.

Just to wind you back a little bit, in exactly the same way as we have a boom and bust ecology out there, we have a boom and bust economy out there as well. When you get seasons like this, people make a lot of money out there. But I would say in the last eight to ten years they have probably lost a lot of money out there. One particular property that I know weighed all the cattle on and eight months weighed them off again, and there was an increase of just over a million kilos of beef on that property. If you work that out at $1.85 a kilo that is a fair bit of money they have made in that period of time. But in other times they can’t run any stock at all. I hope that answers your question to some extent; I know it doesn’t fully.

MIKE SMITH: I think Mandy would like to respond.

MANDY MARTIN: Just a quick follow-up from there: in 2001 Tom Griffiths, Guy Fitzhardinge, Jane Carruthers and I were working on another project called Inflows: The Channel Country out in the desert channels. That had arisen out of the whole debate about irrigating from Coopers Creek. The main people running the Coopers Creek Protection Group were graziers from the Windorah region. In this particular book we have people who support the Wild Rivers legislation and others who obviously oppose it. The important thing is to try to find forums where there is enough consensus to come up with an overall picture of what it is that characterises certain landscapes as worth preserving. Those initiatives are all from land owners basically, if that is another answer.

GUY FITZHARDINGE: Can I make one other observation too: we were out there a few years ago and we travelled around to five of six different pastoralists out there. We stayed with them for a while and talked to them about conservation etc. Then at the end of the time when there was a certain amount of trust built up, we said to them, ‘Could you take us out to your favourite piece of landscape, something that is close to your heart?’ None of the landscapes we were taken to were anything like productive landscapes, they were basically landscapes that were special in some way that had nothing to do with production. The thing is people value it out there. I think they share the same values as we do, but it’s hard for them to express it sometimes when they have to make their living out of that country as well.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, my name is Don McDonough. I work as a volunteer in Michael Jeffery’s office doing restoring the landscape project. The question is directed towards the scientist. I guess a lot of the problems that we have in this project is that both politicians and bureaucrats require scientific proof that something is going to work. We have come across a lot of examples of where science can’t explain what is actually happening in nature. I wonder if you experienced that out there and found there are quite contradictory issues to what you would have expected as a scientist.

CHRIS DICKMAN: That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of the things that we have been finding over the years have been really quite unexpected and we are really learning as we go. Even on the last trip we had out there in June this year, we had a revelation that probably should have occurred to us some time earlier in the piece but it took us 20 years to get there. It is an incredibly diverse landscape where you don’t get all the answers at any one time.

In terms of the scientific basis for trying to manage the landscapes, we still have a little way to go. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. I think it also means that we shouldn’t be aiming for absolute quantification. There is often the belief that, before you can act, you need to know all the answers in advance. In many situations the precautionary principle is probably a much better thing to invoke, where you have reasonable grounds to act because you think you may be going down the wrong path and you want to come back. You may not be certain that you are going down the wrong path but there are enough indicators that you are. I think we are probably in that situation where we don’t have all the answers but we are probably far enough down the track to know that we should be going in another direction.

LIBBY ROBIN: The other half of your question is about certainty. If you haven’t got certainty and you are a politician, your other option is community - and communities do speak to politicians. I think in asking for scientific certainty about certain things you can go so far but you can also then take what you have and work with the community top-down, bottom-up, across. We haven’t talked much about insiders and outsiders. Bush Heritage is an organisation funded by people in the metropolis trying to do things for country, people who volunteer - like you, in fact - to make sure that the best options are there. But the community is the people who live there and also the people who care. We wanted to have good science, and Chris’s wonderful science is one of the reasons that Bush Heritage is there, but we also want to have community. When you say: how do you motivate politicians? Votes. It’s quite simple.

MIKE SMITH: We have time for a couple more quick comments or questions. They don’t have to be questions.

QUESTION: Guy, what is your background? And Chris, what was your revelation?

GUY FITZHARDINGE: I am a farmer from central New South Wales.

CHRIS DICKMAN: The revelation - I guess it’s slightly embarrassing to admit. Spinifex is the dominant plant that occurs over all of the sand dune country in far western Queensland and much of the Desert Channels. We might have suspected it was important in many ways, and we have evidence that it is. We thought that after a big rainfall event over the summer it would always produce flowers and seeds. That seemed to be what we found every time it rained heavily: flowering spikes would come up and seeds would be produced. There were one or two anomalies in the records where smaller summer rains didn’t seem to produce the same magnitude of response. The spinifex would still flower and apparently seed, but we wouldn’t always see the flocks of budgies and seed eaters coming in and we wouldn’t see a response from the native rodents.

This year there was a very big summer rainfall and the spinifex flowered and it looked incredibly productive, but in fact there were no really big influxes of budgies, zebra finches or doves, and the rodents didn’t do a thing. We began to scratch our heads and it dawned on us that, although the spinifex looks as if it’s being incredibly productive, in fact it’s not. It’s flowering but it’s not producing seed. There seems to be a refractory period of perhaps five or six years between rainfall events when the spinifex is able to actually produce large amounts of seed.

So with rainfall events that happen to be three or four years apart - this year’s rain was only three years after the 2007 big rainfall - these periods may be too short for the system to reboot. There’s a period of perhaps five or six years, looking back at our records now, where we think the desert really doesn’t have the ability to come back to life in the way that we might expect. It appears to, and that is what has deceived us. That is why it perhaps took 20 years for us to get this particular revelation through.

MIKE SMITH: It’s important to mention at this point that there is only a handful of ecological research stations in the arid zone that have records that span more than a couple of decades. Ethabuka is one of them; Koonamore in South Australia is another one of them. But it is only with these long runs of records that you can start to see the dynamics of the country in the way Chris has been talking about them.

As we wrap up today I would like to return to our title ‘The Big Wet’ and, if he will indulge me, I would like to ask a friend of mine to give us a report from the field, from a man who has spent six months walking his camels across the region, unbogging them. Andrew, would you give us your impressions of the Desert Channels region from this year?

RESPONSE: Andrew Harper from Australian Desert Expeditions. I should point out that Mike is one of our valued members on our research advisory panel who has travelled with us for many years.

As we have all seen, the desert this year has been one giant puddle referring mainly to the Simpson, specifically the northern and eastern sides or western Queensland. We have been out there since April this year. We walked right across from the western side to Ethabuka, to Cravens Peak and then down into the Simpson Desert National Park. Where we left the northern Simpson Desert approximately five weeks ago they had had 31 inches of rain since January.

I have never seen the desert look so green, so prolific and so alive in my 16 years of wandering around the place. The amount of feed was fantastic. It is now the second or third year in a row where there has been enough seed for the birds to reproduce and we are into a second and third generation there. It is totally alive. It really is in the boom cycle well and truly, and it looks like it’s coming up for another one. It’s been a logistical nightmare to get around but, hey, that is part of living out in that part of the world. I would say to any of you in the room who haven’t travelled to that part of the world, as Guy was saying in his presentation, it’s a huge area but it’s well worth a visit. To try to understand how it works in this sort of year would be well worth a visit for any of you.

I have one quick question for Chris as Guy mentioned about cane toads: bearing in mind their relentless march across the Top End is going to be disastrous for that part of the world, the boom and bust flood pulse cycle of the river system in the catchment, how will that impact on the cane toads and their march south?

CHRIS DICKMAN: I think we can probably expect to see cane toads washing down some of the major channels, and there is some evidence that that has been happening this year. I guess what we don’t know is how long they will persist. My feeling is that, in the drier reaches as the rivers move further south, the cane toads will end up in ecological traps. They will survive there while conditions are good but then they will probably not persist as the conditions heat up. They don’t have the ability of the native species to dig down deep, slough off the skin from the outer part of the body and go into a torpid state for long periods. So I suspect that we won’t see them in the usually dry parts of the Desert Channels but we will see them coming in intermittently more and more frequently.

MIKE SMITH: Thank you for that. I will draw the proceedings to a close. I want to remind you that the bookshop does have copies of Desert Channels if you would like to buy the book, and the three editors will be down in the bookshop shortly to sign copies, if you would like them to sign copies. Thank you all for coming. It’s been a pleasure to have you.

Date published: 15 November 2010