Violent Ends: The Arts of Environmental Anxiety
National Museum of Australia, 11 June 2009
CAROLYN STRANGE: I’d like to open by paying respect to the Ngunnawal people, but also by acknowledging the institutional support that’s made today’s event possible: the ANU’s Research School of Humanities, the Fenner School of Environment and Society, the Research School of Social Sciences, and the National Museum. As this rather long list of sponsors suggests and as the four conveners mentioned also suggests, Violent Ends is a collaborative event and although academics and scholars are the conveners, it’s an event in concert with visual artists, dancers, poets, writers and musicians as well as social scientists, humanities scholars and scientists.
Today’s event also features specially commissioned work, including the first element you'll see Jessica Weir’s video We Need Rain (in collaboration with the Murray Lower Darling River’s Indigenous Nations) and Water/Marks, a dance work by Laura Boynes and James Shannon. At the end of the day we’ll be energised by a live performance of an excerpt from Glenda Cloughley’s The Gifts of The Furies.
What has brought us together, and why are we here? There will be several points in the day where you can voice your thoughts - and I should also point out that the entire day will be audio recorded and the event will be uploaded onto the National Museum of Australia’s website, along with still images, sometime likely in August.
But let me begin by discussing what inspired the event organisers to integrate art and science. Even if we could hide from the daily onslaught of gloomy headlines and environmental taskforce updates, there have been plenty of events recently to raise alarm - from unprecedented deluges to epoch-making fires, from rising sea levels that threaten to engulf whole worlds, to hourly counts of species wiped from the planet.
It is enough to leave one anxious.
But what are those of us unskilled in environmental or natural sciences to do with our anxiety?
The arts answer that call even if they do not lead directly to solutions.
'Lament for Gaia'
[Audio recording of choir performing 'Lament for Gaia']
CAROLYN STRANGE: Connecting intellect, affect and emotion in words, movement, images and sound we explore in today’s event the space between science and sentiment, rationality and imagination - from the global to the local - and toward a vision of action, driven not just by anxiety, but by hope.
Art for the Anthrocopene
WILLIAM FOX: Good morning my name is Bill Fox. I’m the director for The Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, United States. And I’ve been fortunate enough for the last three years to be a visiting fellow here in Canberra, both with the Research School of Humanities at ANU, and at the Centre for Historical Research here at the Museum. So, it’s a remarkable pleasure for me to be here as a co-convener at an event hosted by these various institutions this morning. And Carolyn Strange, especially a ‘thank you’ to you.
The books I write are about human cognition and landscape. I was brought here as a writer. And these books have everything to do with art, the environment, climate change, and Mandy Martin. Mandy is one of Australia’s major painters, of course, but she’s also known globally as an important artist. She was born in Adelaide and she’s exhibited in numerous countries. She was a founder of the Environmental Studio at ANU School of Art. And she’s currently an adjunct professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society. So please help me welcome Mandy Martin. [applause]
WILLIAM FOX: Mandy, your painting Thunderstorm over Paestum, after Turner, after JMW Turner, this is the image on the Violent Ends flier as well. This connects us here in Australia with the grand European tradition of the romantic sublime. And that’s a movement that arose, in part at least, as a reaction against the initial industrialisation of the world, which is when we began to release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Did you have that in mind at all when you were painting this?
MANDY MARTIN: Turner associated lightning with the monuments of dead religions and I’ve made a painting from his sketch, a small sketch of the demise of the ancient Greek era of civilisation. And I’ve been interested in painting images of human weakness or folly in the face of climate change, which is why I painted this homage to Turner. Turner was not the first artist to observe violent climatic conditions and to see them as metaphorical. And Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, which everyone in the room would be familiar with, was also a document of the Maunder Minimum: a partial ice age during that period of European history.
WILLIAM FOX: Well, looking at the show here, Mandy, in your retrospective that you have at that Canberra Museum in gallery right now, there’s this large iceberg floating in this black sea - tremendous painting. It’s part of your series that’s called Wanderers in the Desert of the Real. What does that mean? And why is this iceberg one of those wanderers?
MANDY MARTIN: Well, Tom Griffiths, who’s sitting over here and he’ll be talking this afternoon, actually took the original photograph. And I’m indebted to him. I’ve never been to Antarctica. I don’t know if I really want to go. But, I have flown around an iceberg marooned off New Zealand, and even landed on it, but on UTube, I’ve done it in virtual space. [laughter]
The Wanderers in the Desert of the Real series, that prefix comes, I’ve used it in 2008 and 2009 series of paintings. It comes from a post-modern philosopher, Slavoz Zizek. And the full sentence, which I first encountered in Martyn Jolly’s article in a monthly in Art Monthly in May 2007, reads ‘Our reliance on prostheses has turned us all into wanderers in the desert of the real.’ So I’ve created a whole array of wanderers, and we’ll see some of those in the next sequence.
WILLIAM FOX: You know, this next book that I’m working on - the book that I’m here for actually this time and to work in part with Will Steffen - is called The Art for the Anthropocene. And I talk about your work in the global context in that book, of how landscape, art and earth system science developed together. And as part of that history, how your art often proceeds actually from the industrialised landscapes of Australia - so from icebergs to industry.
MANDY MARTIN: I believe we need to look at climate change, not only from the global view point, but the local. And today, we go from the global to the local. But, this is on a site where Wallerawang is less than an hour away from where I live in central west New South Wales. And it places me squarely in what, for those of you who read Guy Pearse’s last quarterly essay on coal titled Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the End of the Resources Boom, says effectively is the greenhouse ghetto of Australia. So, that’s where I live. He continues, ‘Each advance in our coal-fired development has made emission cuts harder: a new aluminium smelter powered with coal, for example, is the emissions equivalent of adding a million cars to our roads: if we attract four new aluminium smelters, the greenhouse benefit we might gain from putting solar hot-water systems on every house in the country would be erased’.
And for those of you who actually do get Quarterly Essay, Guy’s got a four-page response to letters to that article in the current essay. And it brings us up to date on what’s happened in May. And I think he will have to keep doing it.
WILLIAM FOX: You know in this last book of mine that just came out called, Aereality: On the World from Above, Mandy and I had taken a flight together over the Cadia Gold Mine, another one of Australia’s industrialised landscapes. And this is one of the paintings from that experience.
MANDY MARTIN: Yes. I live in an absolutely idyllic landscape, but this also is on the horizon from where I live. It’s the second biggest open cut in Australia. There’s also, on my doorstep, a constant reminder of the real environmental price we pay for our vanity. Because essentially 97 per cent of the gold dug out of the ground is used for jewellery and bullion, and three percent for dentistry and so on. All this for the havoc it wreaks on our environment. The sheer consumption of fossil fuel is absolutely staggering, and electricity, 42,000 litres of diesel a day, three percent of the New South Wales power grid, the machines never stop running - all for 750 ounces of gold a year, worth about US$950 an ounce.
WILLIAM FOX: We have the same thing where I come from, in the State of Nevada, where they take down entire mountain ranges and turn them into things that look like ziggurats. Making gold for gold Rolex watches. It’s amazing. Mandy, your wanderers really wander. They go from these natural phenomena, such as icebergs, to industrialised landscapes. How do the paintings talk to one another, and how do they talk to the larger world?
MANDY MARTIN: The Wanderers’ works are deliberately in dialogue with each other. And this is an installation shot of my exhibition last year, at Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney. You can see some of those paintings that I’m referring to, the Tailings Dams there on the left. So, that painting... During this period of heightened awareness of global warming, the dialogues are obvious, but I’ll lead you through a couple of them. On the right hand side there, there’s a painting called Tanami Spinifex Fires. I’m really interested in the functioning and resilient landscape, as well. I’m not just all doom and gloom. It’s always in my mind’s eye, and that’s the reason for painting that particular landscape. One that of course faces the threat of climate change, obviously. I do spend a lot of time working on environmental projects in the arid zone. So, that is part of my community of interest. My dialogue, this afternoon, with Libby Robin is about that specific thing.
WILLIAM FOX: I flew in from Los Angeles, actually to come here a couple weeks ago. We have these cataclysmic fires in Los Angeles, almost in direct opposition to this enormous urban grid that’s been created there, what is, in essence, a semi-desert. Here, as in Los Angeles, fire and flood are part of natural cycles. We have floods in Los Angeles, too. They’re not just violent ends, but they’re also renewals, of a sort.
MANDY MARTIN: I see the termite mounds as one of the natural world’s great triumphs. They are magnetically in line north-south, and they have complex adaptations for cooling and warming. They are miracles of engineering, and the natural cooling towers next to... I put these next to the man-made cooling towers from the power stations. This is the cool spinifex fire, either lit by lightning, or by passing Aboriginal traditional owners. And it’s back in the spinifex, but it will soon have a bright green shoot. So cool fires are good fires. And this landscape relies on cool burning for its healthy resilience. The other painting in the installation shown at Roslyn Oxley was Deluge after John Martin. I’ve often referred to John Martin, known in his day as Mad Martin. Of course, I’ve often been called that, too. Because he outrageously designed systems for underground sewerage in London, and flood controls for the Thames, which, during that period, was pretty radical. There’s an echo also of the Chiliastes, who earlier predicted the demise of civilisation. And Martin reflected the late nineteenth-century Millenialists’ fear of the industrial era, and destruction of the world, as we know it. He used motifs of towering waves, and the world rent by earthquake. And in his painting of Macbeth, there’s an icy green glacier that fingers its way into the middle of the picture.
WILLIAM FOX: Humankind’s interventions in the landscape, these attempts to control fire and flood and ice, have long been understood by artists to quail in the face of nature’s power. And Turner, of course, as an artist, expressed that as well as anyone. Which is why, I suspect, you quote him as much as you do in your work.
MANDY MARTIN: Yes. I feel Turner in Hannibal Passing the Alps hits with precision on the human folly to believe that we, in our insignificance, can face insurmountable odds. Also our vain glory and faith in believing that we can, literally, move mountains. Still, it seems our gaze was indeed malevolent, and we’ve literally destroyed in this period of the Anthropocene, all that we believe we own. And also, our spiritual centre. Having said that, for me the use of the sublime, of course, is an acknowledgment of that very spiritual centre. As Imants Tillers says in The Monthly, I think in his credo this month, of course in making art, could there not be a spiritual centre.
WILLIAM FOX: Yes. Another famous example of the romantic sublime of course is a painting by Casper David Friedrich, Wanderers in the Mist, or Wanderers above the Sea of Fog, an alternate title for it. It shows a man dressed in a Forester’s long coat contemplating the infinite aspect of nature. For me, at least, this is a relatively rare aspect in your work, where we actually have a figure in your landscape. That’s because I don’t know all the paintings.
MANDY MARTIN: If you look closely at the survey shown over at CMAG, at the moment, you’ll see there are a few figures tucked in there. But yes, no, I agree with you, in one sense. The figure running through the dust and smoke in this painting, for example, is fully vulnerable and this painting brings together the cumulative interests from the past decades for me. There’s a genuine fear for not only ourselves, but the future of the Australian landscape that we inhabit.
WILLIAM FOX: Alexander von Humboldt started setting connections between climate and the environment during his expeditions in South America, at the turn of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. And Frederic Church, the artist of course, followed his footsteps, literally, up the avenue of the volcanoes to make these paintings that represented the system of the world. It’s these huge encyclopedic paintings. And Mandy, I find your work falling in that tradition precisely. There you are, out on expeditions, for example, in the desert. Making these paintings that pull together the world. I think you’re doing that in a tradition that is very particularly Australian, in part because we’re here in a continent that is the most vulnerable, potentially, to a violent end. So, I think your work fits within this tremendous, at least 200-year tradition of work like this.
I also just want to say that I think the world has a lot to learn from Australia. And I think part of what we have to learn is not just the potential for the violent end, but also that for the renewal. And I always see those possibilities in your paintings as well.
MANDY MARTIN: Thanks, Bill.
WILLIAM FOX: No, thank you very much.
Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance
CAROLYN STRANGE: Well, that was a multi-sensory experience. As we promised at the beginning, we’re bringing science and the arts together today in various ways, and that was one example. So now we do so by asking a scientist and a humanities scholar to provide responses to the film. After which, we’ll open the floor to questions for a few minutes.
Associate Professor Roger Hillman teaches in Film Studies and German Studies here at the ANU. He’ll be speaking first, followed by Professor Will Steffen who is Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute. They’ll both speak for about five minutes each on their impressions of the film, from their various points of expertise, and then we’ll allow you to offer your comments and questions.
So, Roger, if you would like to begin please.
ROGER HILLMAN: Thanks, Carolyn. It’s probably very apt for the film, we can’t see human faces out there. We can see figures in a very dark landscape. I’ll just touch briefly on two aspects of this film: firstly, the balance or relationship between the soundtrack and the images we’re seeing; and secondly, a very brief potted film history, putting this film in some sort of context.
The soundtrack here, clearly, is crucial for this film, and it’s a very different kind of a balance either to ethnographic film - although the images seem to be crying out for some sort of documentary approach - and also a very different balance to a standard feature film.
I think most ethnographic filmmakers would be suspicious of the use of mood music in the first place, let alone one that’s a wall-to-wall soundtrack for the entire film, and yet that’s the direction that many, at least, of these images are pointing us in.
In terms of feature films, of course, we’re missing entirely here the two normally crucial levels of the soundtrack - dialogue, and for that matter ambient sound, natural sounds. So the overall sense is very much of a hermetically sealed off reality. I think that’s an issue for the film, and I would be very interested to hear your own reactions to that aspect of it, apart from anything else.
It’s as if the seething humanity we’re seeing there is under the microscope of the camera lens, and it’s neither emitting sounds, nor seemingly conscious of sound, and yet sound dominates.
A relevant category here, I feel, is that of - I think it was Steven Feld, the anthropologist, who coined this phrase - something like 'sonic territories'. The question arising from this, I think, use of sound in the Philip Glass soundtrack, is part of the loss of what makes humans human, their loss of any sense of sonic territories, something which they can identify with, in terms of a sonic landscape, a sense of being at home acoustically, et cetera.
Very briefly, what that balance takes us to in film history, I think, is silent cinema. Where, again, it was never silent, for a start, but it was free of dialogue, and it was free of ambient sound. So you had images, and you had a soundtrack which, frequently at least, could be varied. In other words, there weren’t too many silent films that had a set soundtrack. It usually depended on the inclination of the honky-tonk pianist, or the full orchestra if you’re in a New York cinema, on that particular night.
But there were exceptions to that. One interesting exception, I think, from the late 20s was Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, which is not totally unlike this film, I think. The dramatic balance in silent cinema was similar to what we’ve got here, except for that fact of the soundtrack itself being interchangeable. Whereas, I don’t think we could imagine anything replacing that. We might wish we could, at times, at parts of the film, but the Philip Glass soundtrack is obviously a crucial part of it.
Secondly, most of you will be too young for this, but I remember in the 50s, as a kid, finding a very impressionable experience in Cinerama. Some of the sort of approach to imagery here I think, is in that direction, of films that were coming out in the 50s and 60s in Hollywood, which basically were attempted nature documentaries, and above all, with that larger than life sense of the screen and the screen in interaction with particular sound effects.
The German filmmaker I’m reminded of, to a degree by this film, is Werner Herzog, which might sound very surprising, but a couple of Herzog’s documentaries, actually made on both sides of this particular film, are not unlike this, the early, quite crazy Fata Morgana is very much a lament for civilisation, and what has happened to civilisation in relation to the natural landscape.
And a film made after this one, and perhaps even more striking, is his Lessons of Darkness, which has some of the most stunning visual images in the history of cinema, until one realises that what we’re seeing is the burning oil wells of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, and that Herzog has persuaded a pilot to take him up above all this, and photograph it, as if it were his own private apocalypse. He has a very interesting soundtrack relating to that too, part of which is Wagner’s Ring, which is particularly apt.
Philip Glass has made two other films, I think, worth mentioning alongside this one. I mean, he’s set a whole number of films, but The Thin Blue Line about Randall Adams’ fight for justice against the Texan legal system, has perhaps the best use of Philip Glass’ music, because of this very quality of circularity, of going nowhere, matches in that film perfectly the Texan legal system. And so it almost is as sort of a sonic equivalent of what we’re seeing on the screen.
Where Philip Glass I think also works extremely well is in the film The Hours, where the rapid repetitive quality creates a sonic editing device to link the lives of the three female leads in that film, and thereby span the historical eras that they represent.
The final point, I think, in this roving gaze across cinema history, has got to be digital cinema. That the effect of this ant heap of humans in time-lapse photography in particular, it’s nearly always slow-motion or time-lapse. We very rarely see them in real-time. Points to, I think, what we’ve become far more familiar with film and digital images.
The name of your symposium, Violent Ends, in that sense, I think, is directed at humanity, at least as much as at the landscape.
I might leave it there. Thanks, Carolyn.
CAROLYN STRANGE: Thanks very much Roger. Will?
WILL STEFFEN: My perspective is obviously quite different coming from a science background. What I took home from the film, is it really picked up very well one of the phenomena that we’re talking a lot about these days. That’s the concept of the anthropocene - the fact that humans have now become so active and so large in numbers, that they are, in fact, rivalling or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. But in particular, there’s an aspect of the anthropocene and the stage of the anthropocene, which that film, in fact, picks up perfectly, even before these concepts were developed in science. That is the concept of the great acceleration. The post-1950 absolute explosion of human numbers, human economic activity, technological activity, and so on.
I thought that film did a fantastic job of picking up the great acceleration, that is, what we could probably do in a hundred scientific papers published in Nature.
The things that it really captured were, one, human numbers. There were always many, many humans, even though it was basically set in one country. Even more importantly, was the freneticism of the activity, which is embodied in the word acceleration. I could show you any number of graphs that capture that, in terms of numbers and rates of change and so on, but he captured it beautifully, both in the music and in the images and the time-lapse of just the sheer freneticism of the activity of humans.
Roger pointed out another aspect which is really interesting. That’s the sealed off feature. In the film, humans are virtually sealed off entirely from nature. There is a beginning sequence where we see a natural world, then we have a very, very short transition of some human dominated landscapes, of agricultural landscapes, and mining, and so on.
Then, almost the entire rest of the film is in an urban setting, urbanisation. So, I think this sealed off nature is important in two ways. It picks up the urbanisation, and the fact that a growing number of humans are now, in a way, sealed off from the natural world that supplies ecosystem services on which we depend. Part of that being sealed off is a loss of hands-on, day-to-day knowledge of what the natural world is really like.
It’s interesting that if you look at urban areas, urban citizens, in general, are better educated than rural people. Many of them have taken ecology. Some of them have even taken ecology at the ANU, and universities like this. So they have a good textbook knowledge of how nature works, but we’re losing the hands-on knowledge of people who live in nature day in and day out, and make a living more directly from nature. This is part of the sealed off nature, I think, that the film really picked up.
The last point I want to make, is the violent ends, the endings, the very foreboding ending that this film had. Most of the threats that were depicted in the film were human made threats, more directly against other humans. There was obviously the atomic weapon, there were all sorts of weaponry shown, and then there was the last image of a missile coming down.
It was a little bit before its time, probably. What it didn’t really pick up, was the threat, simply of the numbers and the freneticism of humans, which is the threat we’re seeing now. That’s the threat of, not ashes falling from the sky, but many tiny gases being emitted from the surface going into the sky, which is one of the major threats, along with many others.
But I think that then captures the theme of this workshop on Violent Ends, and the last comment I’ll make is that the types of changes you may trigger with such frenetic activity and such numbers of people, are so-called abrupt changes, non-linear changes in the Earth’s system. Things that happen fast, and all out of proportion to what’s driving them, and that, of course, brings you to a violent end.
So, I think, in a way, this movie obviously was some decades old, and in some regards, it was dated, but in some other ways, it’s very timeless, because I think it’s picked up some of the major trends that we see in the human enterprise today.
The Art and Science of Resilience
LIBBY ROBIN: My subject is the art and science of resilience. When we talk about global change, we’re talking science. Most analysts begin as climate or earth system scientists. Global change is bigger than climate change, but the climate change is one of the drivers of this idea. Science is the most usual approach, even though these scientists realise many factors together are creating unprecedented conditions for our planet as a whole. But I’m here to tell you how art got in on this gig.
First some background: we’re seeing changing carbon and methane cycles alongside increasing population, increasing industrial pollution, global financial systems, and growing poverty. All of these together are a socio-ecological system. Scientists are mapping the ways wide reigning elements feedback and accelerate change and often make the next state of the system more unpredictable.
The idea of resilience comes out of this sort of science. Resilience refers to the capacity of a social ecological system to withstand perturbations from shocks, to rebuild and renew itself afterwards. No longer are we seeking sustainability, which implies a steady state system, but rather we’re considering the resilience of the system itself under conditions of change. This particular way to study environmental anxiety has an international following, and last year there was a World Congress on resilience in Stockholm, which I attended.
The Congress was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a new interdisciplinary centre that researches complex social ecological systems and seeks to apply its findings to management and government practices for living with change.
The Centre defines resilience as the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop. The Centre is interested in local Swedish governments, but its outlook is global. Its business is mostly conducted in English, and it has close associations with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
One of the elements that signaled to me that this was no mere science congress was that the talk fest was complimented by an exhibition to explore the artistic dimensions of global change and resilience thinking. Changing Matters (or is that Changing Matters?): The Resilience Art Exhibition was curated by four people: an artist, a professor of strategy, an ecological economist, and a museum curator. It showed at the Royal Swedish Museum of Natural History.
The artist Peter Hagdahl invited fellow artists to contribute, to interpret, examine, and raise questions about dynamic transformations using sculpture, installation, photography, video and sound.
The installation I chose from the exhibition is called Sealed Prototype. It’s the work of an artist, Gunilla Bandolin, and a historian of science, Sverker Sörlin. Sverker has lived and worked so much of his life in the far north of Sweden, near the Artic Circle. The Prototype is the classic 760 model Volvo - ‘Vovo’ as they call it - introduced in 1982 as Volvo’s first luxury car for executives. It’s a commentary on the politics of the 1980s when Swedes wanted both equality and luxury - a sort of ‘champagne socialist’ reference in Australian terms, but they call it a ‘Sossecontainer’ - a Social Democrat container.
But how is it sealed? It’s sealed with animal intestines. Not seal intestines, as are common amongst certain polar peoples like the Inuit in North America, but the principal is the same. People where seal intestine anoraks to keep them dry in their kayaks. They must be totally protected from the icy seas and driving rain. The sealing must be perfect. Animal intestines, although very soft, are strong and completely protective.
In this work, new and inherited knowledge are united. The artists used the work to ask questions: ‘Our developments and technological advancements have benefited us; but how do we now behave in an age where the negative effects of inventiveness and efficiency start to show? Hard and soft, old and new - where do we meet?’
Frances Westley, the Canadian professor of strategy comments, ‘Art is deeply engaging. It makes cultural landscapes out of physical spaces.’ And this is exactly what the soft internal animal engineered Volvo does. It also captures the interdependence of development and ecological systems, the central concern of resilience. The Volvo offers a new perspective on nature, and this is why it’s valued by Claes Enger, the Director of the Museum, who sees art as ‘making room for the unexpected’.
I couldn’t bring in much from this exhibition as an image. Many of the works in Changing Matters were themselves dynamic. Artists used video and moving sculpture. One of the most compelling pieces could not be displayed in the Museum at all. It had to have its own sound space, a soundproof marquee directed on the Stockholm University campus, outside the Great Hall where the Congress was taking place.
It was a sound sculpture called Bacterial Orchestra by Olle Cornéer and Martin Lübcke. It was a self organising, evolutionary musical organism comprising several audio cells.
Channelling Griffith Taylor’s Environmental Anxieties
CAROLINE STRANGE: Griffith Taylor from 1880 to 1963 was an anxious man. Anxious to be respected as a geographer and meteorologist, who’s insight into the environmental limits on Australian settlement and agricultural expansion has recently won him admirers. The opposite was the case in the early twentieth century, a point in the nation’s history when nationalist boosters with bloated dreams of boundless opportunity ruled the day. In the post World War I period, anyone wishing to court public favor with Parliament or the press had to tow the Australia Unlimited line or face public scorn or charges of disloyalty.
Taylor knew the risks of contrariness, but he was more anxious to be noticed than to be liked. And he never doubted that he was right - the telling mark of the self-styled prophet. So he talked and wrote and talked and wrote. Not only from his post as the founding Chair of Geography at the University of Sydney, but to anyone he hoped to convert to his way of thinking; from the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science, to the Boy Scouts.
But words on their own were never sufficient for Taylor. His original images appeared in his written work, making him an effective exponent for his creed of cautionary environmental determinism. A century before PowerPoint, he perfected the art of the illustrated lecture.
He rarely spoke publicly without a lantern slide projector, in which he placed his handcrafted images. Not of maps, as this geographical chap might have been expected to use, but his ‘Griffograms’. The name one of his colleagues invented to describe diagrams that were designed to strike the mind through the eye.
In his old age as Taylor, the proud scientist, looked back over his career, he said of his Griffograms, ‘They are my art’.
Glacier in Retreat
TOM GRIFFITHS: Exactly a year ago, when I was in Greenland, I sailed perilously close to fragmenting icebergs in an ice choked fjord. I learned later that three to five people die every year in that bay from doing this, mostly Inuit fishermen from a small community of 5000 people and 8000 sled dogs. There’s a famous Inuit fatalism in the face of powerful elemental forces. The great mature writer, Barry Lopez, author of the book Arctic Dreams, wondered what it is like to live in a world where swift and fatal violence is inherent in the land, where suddenly in the middle of winter and without warning, a huge piece of sea ice can surge hundreds of feet inland, like something alive. Or, where an overturning iceberg can generate a ten meter tidal wave and swamp a fisherman.
I was in Alluitsup, under the eaves of the bergs, in Biscoe Bay, at the mouth of the fastest moving glacier in the world. It is now moving 40 metres a day and its pace has doubled in the last decade.
Last November, Greenlanders decisively voted yes in a referendum seeking complete political autonomy from Denmark. This yearning for independence is built on economic optimism about climate change and also on a cultural confidence about long-term Inuit environmental resilience, because as Greenlanders would put it, they survived the Little Ice Age of five centuries ago and the Norse settlers did not.
So Greenland, where increasing numbers of people are dying each year because glaciers are turning into rivers and sea ice has become a dangerously unreliable highway, is nevertheless a part of the world where people can be upbeat about climate change, and where nationalism and global warming are intriguingly and positively linked.
The glacier I visited is a physical and political frontier of climate change. This is where US Senators fly in to get a visceral sense of what greenhouse gases are doing. When you contemplate a carving glacier, you are witness to an ancient, timeless, remorseless natural force - one that makes humans seem trivial, expendable and irrelevant. Ice is abiotic and inhuman.
Yet with what we now know of global warming, one can no longer regard carving ice as simply natural. The pace of the event implicates us. The same industrial capitalism that has unleashed carbon has given us a planetary consciousness that reveals a carving glacier as not a random local act of nature, but instead as the frightening frontier of an irreversible, global, historical event.
So in the early twenty-first century, when you contemplate a retreating glacier, what do you feel? Of course, you are overwhelmed by a timeless wonder and a primal fear. But now there are other feelings too. Moral anguish about humanity’s responsibility, political passion to reduce greenhouse emissions, apocalyptic doom about our prospects, and even perhaps an opportunistic zeal about what your nation might have to gain in the short term.
When discussing the independence vote, some Greenlanders noted that once their ice sheet melts, Denmark - one of the flattest countries in the world - will be underwater anyway. Nationalism can look pretty parochial.
As well as thoughts about the future, the contemplation of ice can provoke a different and deeper sense of history, that boundary between nature and culture - which environmental scholars are always trying to blur - has been violated in the modern era in the most unexpected and shocking way.
Humans have registered on the Earth’s meter as a geological force. Ice may at first seem glassily abiotic, inhuman, and ahistorical. Yet we now know it is a supreme archive. Melting glaciers have been compared to burning libraries. Ice cores from the great polar ice sheets are giving us discriminating annual data of atmospheric change going back hundreds of thousands of years.
The only way to make sense of our current predicament is to look deep into the ice we are losing. It is to go back to the last big Ice Age and beyond, to times of rapid and substantial temperature change. And when we are searching for human parables about surviving really significant climate change, the most compelling examples are not the Inuit people of the northern ice, but the Aboriginal people of our own land.
Thus, while regarding Artic ice, I was struck by the fact that the most inspiring deep time human story for this planetary moment comes from our own backyard, from our own desert, because it takes us, if not into the ice, then certainly into the Ice Age - into the depths of the last glacial maximum of 20,000 years ago and beyond. Into and through periods of temperature change of five degrees and more, such as those we might now also face.
When Europeans look at a retreating glacier, they’re often prompted to tell you that humans and their civilisations are products of the Holocene, the stable interglacial of the last 10,000 years, and that we’re all children of this recent spring of cultural creativity.
By contrast, an Australian history of the world takes us back to humanity’s first deep sea voyages of 60,000 years ago, to the experience of people surviving cold Ice Age droughts in the central Australian deserts, and to the sustaining of human civilisation in the face of massive climate change. This is a story that modern Australians have only just rediscovered, and now perhaps the whole world needs to know it.
Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinction: The Ecological Humanities and Unloved Others
TOM GRIFFITHS: Welcome back ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to be chairing this next session, which involves Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren. We’ve been talking today about the bringing together of science and humanities, and it is of course 50 years since CP Snow delivered his famous lecture about the two cultures. So it’s very appropriate that we investigate and explore the benefits of bringing those two cultures together today.
And this phrase that we’ll be talking about in this session, the ecological humanities, is really a coming together of scientific ideas and bring it into the heart of humanities - bringing humanities’ perspectives into scientific understandings.
And the ecological humanities is a field that really, in many ways, has reached definition through conversations that began amongst scholars in Canberra, very much led by Deborah Rose, who has, until last year, been based at the Fenner School here in the ANU, and is now a Professor in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University.
Debbie is an anthropologist, philosopher, and historian. You’ll almost certainly know her wonderful series of books, Dingo Makes us Human, Hidden Histories, Nourishing Terrains, Reports from a Wild Country and so on. Books which really draw on her deep and sustained research into Aboriginal Australia. There’s a book on the way now called Wild Dog Dreaming, and she and Thom have together edited the ecological humanities corner of The Australian Humanities Review. It’s well worth chasing that online, for these kinds of conversations.
Thom van Dooren is an environmental anthropologist and philosopher. He completed his PhD in the Fenner School here. He’s now a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Together, Debbie and Thom are working on a book, the title of which we’ve given to this session, the title being: Unloved Others: Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinctions. And so they’re both investigating, in a scholarly and profound way, the meaning of extinction, and asking that question of a more-than-human world.
So Debbie and Thom, thank you.
DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Thanks Tom. We were invited to talk with you about the book that we’re putting together, Unloved Others. We felt that rather than talk about it in the abstract, we’d talk from within the book. So, Thom’s going to talk to his chapter, and I’m going to talk to my chapter.
But I just wanted to start by saying a few words about the work we’re doing together around what we’re now calling Critical Extinction Studies. In the ecological humanities we’re aiming to work across - and, in fact, really demolish and nullify - the nature-culture binary that has been such a profound influence in Western thought and action for so long, and that we now understand to be a huge part of why we’re in the mess we’re in.
Part of that nature-culture divide is the divide around humans and animals. It’s been another foundational pillar of Western thought, of how and why we humans aren’t animals like the rest of them.
Critical Animal Studies wants to do away with that binary. Not to do away with difference per se, but to ask: what do we share? How are we different? Are our lives entangled? What does it mean to be one species amongst many, rather than the sole, or superior, species over and above all the others?
Bringing that kind of Critical Animal Studies thinking into questions of extinction - what does it mean to be a member of the species that is now causing this huge cascade of extinctions on earth? What ethics and obligations does that call from us? What does it ask us to rethink about who we are, and how we fit?
We’ve both gotten a lot of inspiration from the great conservation biologist Michael Soulé, who is worried sick about extinctions, as any thinking conservation biologist is, I’m sure. He says: people save what they love. And he’s so despairing over whether we can love enough to save enough. My book, Wild Dog Dreaming, is subtitled Love and Extinction. But as Thom and I got talking about how people save what they love, it obviously then brought forth the question: what about all the unloved others out there?
THOM VAN DOOREN: That’s actually the title of our edited book for which this is the subtitle. It basically takes a series of case studies, and has 13 chapters of creatures that are not charismatic, I guess. And so often don’t get a lot of the attention, either from conservation work, or in the media, or in the popular imagination. There are 13 contributors from around the world; we have a lot of really wonderful people on board. To name a few, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing from the University of California in Santa Cruz, and James Hatley, who Deb will mention in a moment. So, a range of philosophers and historians.
DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: A couple of people here today - Kate Rigby, Jess Weir.
THOM VAN DOOREN: Yes, that’s true. That book will hopefully be out sometime soon. Were you going to say something about James Hatley?
DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: No, let’s just plow on.
THOM VAN DOOREN: Maybe I’ll just talk about the vultures now. As you can see from the name of the session, we’ve been asked to talk specifically around those themes of the unloved and the disregarded. In my work on Asian vultures in India, people often recount to me having seen huge numbers of vultures along the banks of rivers in India, for example, feeding on the dead floating by, whether they be cattle, or people, or whatever bodies float by in the river.
That’s something I’ve actually never seen, although I can imagine it. But as the years go by, that’s something that I, and anyone else that hasn’t seen it, is increasingly less like to see. Quite simply, I suppose, because the vultures are all dying.
In the past two decades, the populations of vultures in India have plummeted. Now, they estimate that between 97-99 per cent of all the vultures in India are gone. Basically, they’ve been poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug that’s given to cattle.
When the cattle die, the vultures consume them, and that anti-inflammatory, Diclofenac, causes kidney failure and eventually death for vultures in quite a painful way. A lot of my earlier work’s been on ethics of pain, and the experience of pain, for vultures and others, in these processes of extinction.
Today, I’m going to focus a little more relationally on some broader issues around what it means to be unloved and disregarded. Obviously, both those categories - the disregarded and the unloved - are complicated.
While we might talk about vultures, for example, as being not very charismatic, and lots of people talk about Indian conservation as tiger-centric. For obvious reasons, I guess, the tigers get a lot of the attention, a lot of the money. We shouldn’t forget that there are lots of people in India who do love vultures.
There are lots of people who love all of these unloved species, and who dedicate a lot of time and attention to them. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for example, in India it was very difficult for a long time to get the Indian government involved and concerned about the death of all these vultures.
I’ll give you a little bit of background, quickly. India’s a country, as many of you would probably know, that has quite a strange and interesting relationship with cattle. It’s a country that has more cattle than any other, except possibly China. I suppose there’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing as they both go back and forth about which one has the greatest number of cattle in the world. Either way, they both have an awful lot.
But the thing that’s interesting about India is that very few of them actually get eaten. For various religious reasons a lot of them are skinned, but most of them end up in cattle dumps, or on the edges of villages. It’s traditionally been the vultures that have been relied upon to take care of them; take care of an estimated five to ten million cow, camel and buffalo carcasses every year.
I have a lovely quote here from Susan McGrath from the Smithsonian magazine, which I think captures some of this. She says: ‘As many as 100 vultures may feed on a single cow carcass, stripping it clean in 30 minutes. 2000, 3000, even 10,000 vultures swarmed the larger dumps in the early 1990s, the huge birds lapping at carcasses with their leathery tongues, thrusting their narrow heads neck deep to reach internal organs, tussling over choice goblets of meat.’ It’s quite a scene, I guess.
As you can tell from that little quote, it takes many vultures to clean a carcass, and they’re not always good sharers, but they are highly sociable and communal creatures. They’re often living in colonies of 20 or 30 birds, sometimes up to 100 birds, building nests in trees and on cliff edges, hanging out as close as they can to dumps and slaughterhouses, building nests that they line with wool, skin, dung, and rubbish.
So they have quite a proclivity for the macabre, if you like, which has earned them a bad reputation in a lot of countries around the world. I know they pop up in Disney films, and all over the place, always in the villain role. I guess they’re sort of dark creatures, and they don’t get a lot of attention from... Their conservation efforts haven’t captured the public imagination, I suppose. [laughter]
Nonetheless, the roles they play in ecosystems are vitally important. And this is part of the tension that we’re so interested in, that even these creatures that are unloved in so many ways are so important. In the past, vultures have helped to contain the spread of disease from rotting carcasses, by quickly and completely consuming them.
In their absence, though, these five to ten million animal carcasses have made room for explosions in populations of stray dogs, rats, and other fast breeding scavengers. It’s estimated that in the last decade or so, there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of stray dogs in India.
That increase in dog populations brings a lot of problems that I’ll talk about in just a second, briefly. But also, the rotting carcasses that aren’t cleaned anywhere near as completely, or as quickly as they once were by the vultures, who are very efficient, have led to other problems, like the spread of anthrax, which I won’t get into.
But just to focus on the increase in dog populations for a moment - just to give you one example - increases in dog attacks on people in India, but also increasing the spread of rabies, which is endemic in India. India has 60 per cent of the world’s rabies deaths: it’s between 25,000-30,000 deaths a year. One death every 30 minutes, basically. And with the extra 30 per cent in the wild dog population, obviously there are grave fears that those numbers will increase.
But just to try and stretch out the unloved, and the disregarded, to try and focus on how that might extend beyond the vultures. What I’m doing in some work at the moment is focusing on how these knock-on effects - things like anthrax, and rabies, and dog attacks - the burden of those things usually falls disproportionately on the poor. So they’re kind of an additional disregarded category, if you like, that comes with the vultures in some way.
87.6 per cent of rabies deaths in India are in the low socio-economic groups. Most of them adult men, which introduces a further pressure on families, without fathers and people to earn wages, in some cases. And there are all sorts of flow on problems associated with the fact that it’s primarily poor people, in that education programs haven’t worked. Only 20 per cent of people get the anti-rabies treatment, and only 20 percent of that 20 per cent get the full treatment of drugs. And all these factors are compounded by the fact that we’re dealing with people in the poorer socio-economic groups.
Those aren’t all of the diverse impacts of the death of vultures on the ecosystems in India. But I think they’re so interesting because they show the way in which humans are, as Deb was talking about a moment ago, embedded in ecosystems and dependent on services, if you like, that ecosystems provide. And how, when those relationships are unmade, if you like, and some creature, some species, disappears, there’s this ripple of further impacts which draws humans in, and draws the poor in, in a disproportionate way.
I’ll wrap up there, but I wanted to finish with the, I think, really important point that this disproportionate impact on the poor is a very common occurrence. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example, points out that the burden of environmental change, the burden of ecosystem diminishment, always falls - or very, very often falls - on poorer socio-economic groups, who aren’t buffered, if you like, by a stronger position in the markets. Who aren’t buffered by technology, and who are so immediately dependent on ecosystems and species that are, all too often, disappearing and dying around us, at the moment. Thank you. [applause]
DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: As you’ve heard, I moved to Sydney not too long ago, and I’m not a city person. If I had had a choice out of places I would least like to live, Sydney probably would have been pretty near the top of the list. I found it very stressful, and it’s been quite a challenge to try to make peace with the fact that I live there. A sort of turning point for me was when the Grevillea Robusta in the neighbour’s garden flowered, and the flying foxes came swooping in. For about two weeks, the night was just busy all night long with flying foxes. In a way, they kind of humanised Sydney for me, and made it possible to feel like that was a place I could live. I was just incredibly grateful to them, and I decided that I wanted to... Well, what can I do? I’m a writer, I’ll write a paper about flying foxes.
I’m really interested in animals who are both loved and hated. My book, Wild Dog Dreaming, looks at dingoes, who are an endangered and protected species, and also are classed as vermin, and can be shot and poisoned and everything.
The same is true with the grey headed flying fox in New South Wales. It’s a protected species, and then every year the New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service issues licenses to kill. Far more people kill than are actually licensed, and nobody’s ever brought to court over that.
It’s that entangled site of being both endangered and vilified, protected and killed, that I find really fascinating. Part of the fascination is that it means that if one can have an impact, things could change. It doesn’t have to go the way it’s going.
The thing that completely fascinated me when I started doing some deeper research... I knew a lot of stories about flying foxes from my research with Aboriginal people. When I got into the other literature, the scientific literature in particular, and the historical literature, to discover that actually, the kinds of events that we think of as so paradigmatic of contemporary modernity are all events and processes that flying foxes have experienced exactly the way humans have.
It was one of those moments when I realised that this human-animal division just isn’t there when we think about what is the modern world, what are some of the big characteristics of the modern world. Flying foxes have experienced warfare; they have experienced man-made mass death. They have experienced famine, urbanisation, new emerging diseases, climate change, biosecurity. As well, they’ve experienced conservation, and a lot of NGO impact. It was those kinds of issues that I wanted to explore in this paper, to tell a story of modernity through a flying fox experience.
I’m not going to tell that story here, but there’s just a couple of points I’d like to bring out. One is that flying foxes are co-evolved with the Myrtaceae family, which includes all the eucalypts and melaleucas who are some of their great foods. So they’re co-evolved with them. There are also some smaller ones that are co-evolved with rainforests. They’re a keystone species. They’re long-range pollinators and seed dispersers. And if the flying foxes go, rain forests will almost certainly go.
If flying foxes go, all types of eucalypts and melaleucas, that are increasingly fragmented through habitat destruction, will be less and less capable of sustaining their gene pool. And less and less capable of making the rapid adaptations that they will surely need to cope with climate change. So, there is a whole bunch of other creatures here who are part of the flying fox story.
Well, their favourite foods are eucalypts and other Myrtaceae. And because they’re losing their foods, because of all the habitat clearance, they go for orchards. And it’s the orchardists who are allowed to kill them whenever they want. And they’ve done some really extraordinary things including the now illegal electrocution grids that really did terrible things to flying foxes.
I have a section on genocide and speciocide. Or genocide and pteropus-cide, as actually some biologists are terming it. Pteropus is the Latin term and pteropus-cide is the targeted, man-made, mass-death, murder of flying foxes.
And I’ve felt that in treating human and non-human deaths as separable and different kinds of events, we actually miss the fact that in the anthropocene, the deathscapes, that we are witnessing aren’t confined to any one particular species. As Tom was saying: ‘they ripple, they spread and we’re all implicated in them’.
These really neat conservation biologists who are working with flying foxes talk about a black hole of death. So, you’ve got the orchard, and you’ve got the flying foxes coming to eat, and you’ve got the orchardists killing them. And when those flying foxes are all dead and or dispersed, here’s the orchard and more flying foxes come. And then they get killed. And more come. So it’s become this black hole where more and more and more flying foxes get killed.
And then I think the point that wants to be drawn... The people working with flying foxes stop here, but the point that wants to be drawn is that this black hole does not orient itself to say, ‘I will only consume flying foxes’.
This is a kind of death vortex that keeps dragging. It drags in flying foxes. It drags in those who are implicated within flying foxes. So, as flying foxes are wiped out, as I’ve said, the rain forests will go. And the electrocution grids were made illegal on the grounds that the flying foxes were essential to the future of the Daintree and other rainforests.
The black hole of death doesn’t exempt humans either. The more direct way in which humans are implicated is that three new diseases have appeared in flying fox populations. One of which is the lyssa-virus that’s closely related to rabies that Tom was talking about.
These diseases have appeared because the flying foxes are under such stress. The more stress they’re under the more prevalent the disease becomes. At the same time, the more stress they’re under, the more people like me and others who want to assist flying foxes are exposed to the lyssa-virus and other viruses.
Obviously the smart thing to do would be to stop stressing flying foxes. But the public health response thus far has been to try to say don’t ever have anything to do with flying foxes, declare flying foxes a no-go zone, which in fact would add to the distress.
And I close this paper with the words of one of the Aboriginal women I’ve worked with for a long time in the north. A couple of years ago, when I was there for a visit, she took me by the hand and said, ‘Come on down to the river. Let’s have a little chat’, that we would always do. She would just tell me about what was happening and everything. And on this occasion she was really, really upset. She said, ‘You’re not going to believe what that white fellow done do this time’. They came through all the communities and they told everybody, ‘You can’t touch flying fox anymore. You can’t eat them, you can’t hunt them, you can’t touch them. They’ve got disease that might make you sick. Don’t have anything to do with them.’
This young woman is a flying fox woman herself and she said she just wouldn’t wear it. She said, ‘We don’t listen to them. We don’t listen to them’. She said, ‘Those flying fox, they’ve been here forever just like us. We’re not worried’. She said, ‘They’re family’. And I think, to me, that’s one of the most important lessons or ideas that comes out of the work we’re doing, is how we’re all co-implicated in what’s happening right here on Earth today.
Poetic Meditation: Disowning
WILLIAM FOX: This is going to less a meditation than a pomatum, some kind of ending before we take a break. I started out my life as a writer, writing poetry. I still write poems. I’d like to read the last poem from Reading Sand, which was my selective desert poems 1976 to 2000. Just to give you a little bit of context for this, most of the nonfiction books that I write have to do with cognition and land, how we as human beings turn land into landscape, terrain into territory, space into place. Almost all of that arises from the poetry that I’ve written in the past. That preoccupation stems from the poetry, not the opposite way around.
It’s a bit of schizophrenia in my life, that I spend most of my time speaking as a nonfiction writer giving lectures speaking about things like the cartographic imperative. I don’t often get to come into this arena and do a poem, so thank you for the opportunity to do that.
It’s in four parts. It’s called Disowning,and you’ll hear the resonance with some of the things that have been talked about today.
One. Go to the desert. Lie down on what the map would show to be a line. Pick yourself up. Find another line. Lie down. Get up. Erase all the lines this way and that. Think of it as a poem without line, without lines between lines. Think of it as picking up a lie.
Ecological Consciousness and Local Action: Prophetic Voices of the Limestone Plains
LIBBY ROBIN: A talk from Dr Kate Rigby from Monash University, whose work is at the intersection between ecology, religion, philosophy, and literature. She’s from Monash University, but she’s really from Canberra and she’s come home. She’s going to talk to us about Ecological Consciousness and Local Action: Prophetic Voices of the Limestone Plains.
KATE RIGBY: The limestone plains, of course, is what this region was dubbed by early explorers and settlers, and I am going to end up talking about some local action here in Canberra of a prophetic nature. But I’m going to begin at some remove from here both in time and place. In fact I’d like to kick off with a quote from the German-speaking Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka. Actually I’m also a Germanist. I can’t resist putting some German stuff in. This is how the young Kafka once described the function of literature in a letter to a friend:
I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So it can make us happy? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Kafka’s violent imagery here possibly owes something to the rebellious spirit of youth. And it certainly betrays a classically modernist conception of the vocation of the writer - to shock, rather than to please his readers. But there’s also an echo here of the Jewish prophetic tradition, and it is this that I want to pick up on today in relation to the arts of environmental anxiety.
In the Biblical tradition that haunts Kafka’s work, the role of the prophet is not to predict the future, but to remind the people that if they carry on as they are doing, the future will be exceedingly bleak.
By contrast with apocalyptic narratives, in which a cataclysmic end is seen as inevitable and even embraced as a necessary precursor for a glorious new beginning, the Jewish prophetic writing assumes that no matter how dire the current situation might seem, there remains a chance that the worst can be averted on condition that the people change their ways in time.
The central trope of prophetic writing is that of turning and returning on the part of both the people and their god, whose relationship is conceived as dialogical. Prophetic speech is called forth by the cry of the oppressed. And the prophet is both implicated in and wounded by the wrong-doing he or she sees driving the world headlong into catastrophe.
Prophetic speech is enabled by imagination, and fueled by a sense of justice. The imagination, that is, to see beyond and through those conventional attitudes, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour that engender or support oppression and wrong-doing, and the sense of justice underpinned by compassion that cannot tolerate complacency in the face of another’s suffering.
Enabled by imagination and fueled by a sense of justice, prophetic speech is also profoundly poetic, using figurative language to undercut ideology. Breeching the fortress of royal consciousness, the mindset of mastery and privilege that renders us insouciant to the suffering of others and unmindful of our own vulnerability, the prophet speaks with the voice of grief, but also implicitly or explicitly with the voice of hope.
Prophetic speech incites lamentation in order to engender transformation at the same time that it warns of what will ensue if the people fail to heed the call. In the Hebrew Bible, the dialogical relationship between people and earth is triangulated by the figure of the land or earth, which is often shown to bear the brunt of human wrong-doing. In the drying up of the land, and in the dying of their fellow creatures, the people stand accused of breaking their covenant with God.
Because of this, we read in Jeremiah 4:28, for example, ‘The earth will mourn and the heavens above grow black’. And again, in Jeremiah 12:11, ‘They have made it a desolation. Desolate, it mourns unto me. The whole land has been made desolate, but no one lays it to heart’. There is a suggestion here that among other things it is precisely in their failure to lay it to heart, to cherish the land - that the people are courting catastrophe.
Drying up or mourning - amazingly the Hebrew verb used in these passages means both. The earth itself cries out and the prophet exhorts the people to heed its call by turning back to God and forestalling divine vengeance.
Well, this Biblical motif of the drying up or grieving and mourning of the earth is echoed in a secular key, in work of the pre-eminent Australian eco-poet Judith Wright. Here I am reminded in particular of her extraordinary poem Dust, penned in the war-torn, drought ridden summer of 1942-43. This is how it goes:
In this work of eco prophetic witness, Wright traces the dawning of ecological consciousness. As the speaker of the poem moves from resentfully blaming the land for failure of the harvest, the remnant earth turns evil, to acknowledging her own culpability in the disastrous consequences of this drought. ‘The dust accuses’.
For she comes to realise, this was no purely natural disaster, but a natural/cultural hybrid wrought by the mismatch between the distinctive climatic patterns, soils, and biotic communities of the southeastern Australia and the agricultural practices, social relations, and cultural attitudes of its European colonisers.
The earth that is now running with the wind, having previously been stolen from its Indigenous landholders, is said to be steel shocked - forced to breed an unaccustomed harvest for the private profit of its new owners. Settler Australians, who evidently value it primarily as a means of achieving upward social mobility for their son, who must never break his body against the plow and the stubborn rock and tree.
This aggressive and exploitative attitude towards the colonised land pertains to what the speaker finally recognises as the wrong dream. Responding imaginatively to the cry of the earth, Wright issues an urgent call for a new way of thinking and being - a new ethos of right relationship with the land as a necessary precondition for collective survival that our son’s sons may harvest and be fed.
Well, in the context of climate change, this poem ought to speak powerfully to the people of Canberra, a city to which Wright herself was drawn in the early 1970s in connection with her work for the Whitlam government on the first national inquiry into the condition of Australia’s natural environment.
Now as I see it, the relevance of Dust to the limestone plains is twofold. Firstly, according to paleoclimatologist Timothy Barrows, the Canberra region is likely to be particularly hard-hit by global warming, becoming considerably warmer and dryer than previous projections have estimated. In the dust storms to come, here on the limestone plains, the weather itself will accuse us.
Secondly, Canberra is, of course, the federal capital, and if cataclysmic climate change is to averted, our national government in consult with others around the world must take urgent and courageous action, overruling narrowly commercial interests and countering those whose desires to control and consume the earth as Wright so clearly recognised have for too long been allowed to prevail in our society.
If such urgent and courageous action is not taken soon it is most unlikely that our children’s children will harvest and be fed.
Well fortunately, Canberra is not only the seat of government, but also a city of inordinately articulate, creative, and increasingly concerned citizens. And it is with their voices that I would like to conclude. Actually, you’ve already heard from them yourselves this morning in the excerpt from Glenda Cloughley’s remarkable work of contemporary eco-prophetic work, The Gifts of the Furies - another song from which will be sung later this afternoon.
Although inspired by Greek tragedy rather the Hebrew prophets, this work too speaks with the voice of grief but also of hope. Responding to the cry of the oppressed and lamenting the consequences of human wrongdoing, the Gifts of the Furies calls for radical change in order to avert catastrophe.
Here too, the land is drying out. But rather than mourning to a god beyond, Earth is conceived here as prosecuting her own suit. In the mythic guise of Gaia’s avenging Furies, Earth itself threatens to wreak disaster should the people continue to transgress her ancient laws: ‘I’ll bring droughts and fire and filthy skies. I will scorch the farmland and torch the forest. I will raise the oceans, drown the cities, and spare no human being’.
Well, in Glenda’s rewrite of the classical Greek tragedy, this violent end is averted by the mediation brought forth by the figure of Ethos, the embodiment of civilised wisdom, whose statue incidentally graces Canberra’s city centre.
Ethos prophesised, ‘Only when reason and love sing together will cities and nature be reconciled’. This is the kind of love that seeks above all else the flourishing of the other. A love that longs for the flourishing of Earth’s more than human life, with all its beauty and terror, now and in the future.
Untempered by such love and at odds with laws of earth and sky, the Gifts of the Furies warns us. The logic of the city today, largely driven by powerful political and transnational commercial interests, will be the death of us all - rich and poor, human and non-human alike, albeit poor and non-human for starters.
Canberra’s chorus of citizens continues to engage audiences locally, but hopefully also nationally and perhaps even internationally, with their compelling performances and inspiring conversations, disclosing through story and song the catastrophic implications of the wrongdoing of which we are all to a greater or lesser extent both the victims and perpetrators.
They will be helping to facilitate the grieving process that I believe is a necessary precondition for the kind of radical action that might yet reconcile our cities with the Earth.
In conclusion then, it’s my hope that works of the eco-prophetic imagination, such as the Gifts of the Furies, will be able to bring an axe to the frozen sea within us, to recall Kafka. For as we’re reminded by Ethos, lament is the start of renewal.
Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve
LIBBY ROBIN: In this second panel of the Diptych, Mandy and I want to turn to the local, to the local end of the arts for environmental anxiety.
The Desert Channels Project, which we’re talking about today, is about the impulse to conserve. It’s in three parts: a book, an art exhibition, and an educational package. We’re working with a range of contributors: some scientists, some artists, some historians, and a number of people from local communities.
Let’s begin with the Desert Channels. Where are they?
MANDY MARTIN: They’re in the south west Queensland, where all the rivers of the Australian arid zone rise. In this region, the rich but erratic river channels and Mitchell grasslands have supported sheep and cattle grazing for over a century. On the western edge of this country, we find the bare burnt oxide gibber plains, and the Simpson Desert’s red sand hills. These are the colours that dominate my paintings.
I’ve been visiting this area for many years, for a decade I suppose. Particularly since 2003, when Bush Heritage Australia bought its first property on the edge of the Simpson Desert. These desert channel landscapes were all painted on location in the three years between 2002-2009, at Ethical Cone Cravens Peak, which were formal pastoral properties, which now are owned by Bush Heritage Australia and run as conservation reserves.
LIBBY ROBIN: Can you tell us a bit more about this attachment to this country, and also bush heritage?
MANDY MARTIN: I’ve painted this country for every year over a decade, as I said. Initially my painting trips were part of a series of collaborative, interdisciplinary environmental projects. I went out there with people like Tom Griffiths, and scientists, and ecologists, and we did a number of environmental projects. Some of you might be familiar with Watersheds: the Paroo to the Warrego, and Inflows: the Channel Country. It was on the Inflows trip (and Tom was there in 2001) that we first visited the Sydney University zoologists at the Ratcatchers Camp, as it’s called, on Ethabuka station. As a direct result of that visit, my husband, Guy Fitzhardinge, who’s a conservation-minded grazier, began a process that led to the eventual purchase of Ethabuka.
I’ve run art workshops out there at Ethabuka, for Bush Heritage supporters, and one of my friends, the architect David Lees, has flown up from Melbourne today for this forum, and he was one of the people along to those workshops. I also chose the area for my master class, and ABC series Painting Australia in 2007.
LIBBY ROBIN: What draws you back?
MANDY MARTIN: I love the arid zone. I think a lot of us do. I want to paint functioning landscapes where they still exist, and in the face of environmental threats from global change, conservation initiatives in this region are important. I like to involve my art in conservation politics. Guy is active in a number of conservation groups, including Desert Channels Queensland, which is an NGO, and an important natural resource management group. He’s also chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetics, which is seeking ways to include conservation outcomes in production initiatives.
LIBBY ROBIN: I became interested in this region because I’ve been researching the history of these new private initiatives, where conservation is working outside National Parks. The Sydney based zoologist that Mandy mentioned, Chris Dickman, and his students have been studying the ecology of marsupials, reptiles, and birds in this area for 20 years. This region contains some of Australia’s most important arid zone habitat. Biological studies in this area have been important to understanding ecology across the continent.
Chris is the other editor on this project, with Mandy and me, and he’s guiding us in the science. I’m working on the text, coordinating the authors, who come from a variety of backgrounds, while Mandy’s developing the visuals. These are not just her own paintings which we’re seeing here, but also other contributors' artistic works and photographs.
Mandy, can you tell us a bit about how, as an artist, you came to work with scientists, historians, and others?
MANDY MARTIN: My father was a scientist; my mother was an artist, so it was easy. My daughter’s a dancer. Over 30 years, I’ve made paintings exploring the impact of European settlement in Australia. I’ve often couched the works in the language of the romantic sublime, as we discussed earlier today. This visual language shaped and coloured settler views of this continent.
I like to use the model of the nineteenth-century explorer artist, working as part of a scientific exploration team, and then adapt it to suit modern environmental projects. The artist explorer mode informs both subject and the style of my paintings, and the way in which I execute them.
LIBBY ROBIN: But how do you actually paint as an artist explorer, in a landscape, with other people?
MANDY MARTIN: Perhaps I can read you a bit from my diary of the 18th of April this year, which is the last trip when we were out in the Simpson Desert, where I think about some of the tensions and benefits of working in a landscape with a team:
I’m painting an east-west transect of ‘S’ bend on Mulligan River, at Craven’s Peak today. I started my first canvas at eight a.m. Somewhat reluctant to leave camp because all our team are there, talking with Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle’s Ratcatcher crew from the Zoology Department at the University of Sydney. Last night we had quite a celebration. It was strange to have about 30 people all camped in a place so remote. A crowd that size could only ever have been there like that in pre-European times.
LIBBY ROBIN: This is a region outsiders only visit with permission of landholders. Few people visit this camp site on the Georgina River, almost on the Northern Territory border, where Mandy was painting and I was writing the same day, working on my part of the project. But how does an artist respond? What’s truly local about the colour and the dynamics of the Simpson? What should we be valuing aesthetically, Mandy?
MANDY MARTIN: I want to develop marks and a palate, a new vocabulary, I suppose, for Australia’s arid zone. We need to understand it in its own terms. My landscape studies are mimetic but not without drama. Each place is carefully fixed in time. As I said, leaves are not often green round and fleshy, they’re more commonly grey spikes. A landscape seemingly with nothing in it actually is full of incident. Painting and selecting what to keep in or leave out is complex. There’re so many accidents of nature. The sun shifts rapidly and changes everything suddenly. And shadowing is rarely dappled as much more often sharp and unforgiving. Fixing the light and shadow is a major decision that reveals the drama in the landscape.
To capture the real colour of the sand on a canvas, for example, I add a little bit of metallic copper oxide, which, as it contains mica, always has a flat surface and reflects the light just as sand particles do in the sun light. I want to show the place as it is and also to show it has aesthetic value.
LIBBY ROBIN: The project is all about different values. Bush Heritage owns and manages properties for biodiversity conservation. Most of its neighbours are producers of cattle rather than biodiversity. Many of these people are also passionately concerned about conservation. Biodiversity is the basis for one sort of conservation. Among pastoral neighbours there is also a passion for cultural heritage, both Aboriginal and pastoral.
Water is a major concern across the whole community. Artesian flows have been slowing down and the rivers may be threatened by climate change. We may even see a collapse of this complex local system in our lifetimes. People fear that in this country they love, they may be about to witness a violent end.
'Reconciliation' from The Gifts of the Furies
[Audio recording of choir performing 'Reconciliation' from The Gifts of the Furies]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
Date published: 17 August 2009