Friday essay: reckoning with an animal that sees us as prey — living and working in crocodile country


A crocodile known locally as ‘Barrat’ emerges from the water of the lower Daintree River, Far North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

Michael Bradley, James Cook UniversityThe wet season in tropical Australia begins with tension. Physical tension, caused by the friction of earth and clouds. Mental tension, caused by the heat, and the expectation of rain and relief. It is also an ecological tension, where every plant and animal is poised — genetically, physiologically — to grow, reap, sow and copulate within a few short months.

We call it the build-up. The tension builds, and then it breaks. It was at the point of breaking when Val Plumwood, a young philosopher from the temperate south, was taken by a crocodile.

She was an environmental activist, exploring Kakadu to experience the wilderness she’d had a hand in protecting. She was paddling upstream in a small, red, low-sided canoe when it began to rain. There are many attacks on visitors to the tropics, especially those in small watercraft, but we know more about this one than any other.

Val Plumwood.
CC BY-NC-ND

When Val began fighting for the protection of wild places in the 1970s, the saltwater crocodile was rare almost to the point of extinction. By the mid ‘80s they were protected, plentiful, and in remote places, lacked memory of the hunters’ gun. When Val climbed into her vessel that morning in 1985, she did so in good faith. They were not a known threat to someone travelling by canoe in a back channel lagoon.

But crocodiles are a threat. Young salties eat fish and crabs. As they grow, they move on to larger prey — dogs, pigs, people, horses and buffalo. Our species fits comfortably in their diet, slipping into the line-up between pigs and horses.

Crocodiles may be opportunistic hunters, but their encounters with prey aren’t chance. They think about it. They watch, and they learn. Wash your pots and pans on the riverbank every evening, and you are inviting an attack. For people along the coastline of the tropical arc between Eastern India and Australia, they colour the water’s edge with a lurking malice and the threat of a violent death.

A crocodile in Kakadu.
Dean Lewins/AAP

We share our world with other dangerous animals. Sharks, for instance, kill every year. Poisonous snakes too. However, there is a difference. Snakes strike when threatened, usually by an unintentional kick in the ribs. Sharks do bite when unprovoked, but rarely, and they almost never consume us. We share our beaches with them, but you can spend your life in the water and never get bitten. The saltwater crocodile is a different beast, and it boils down to intent. As crocodile researcher Professor Grahame Webb has put it:

There is no way of avoiding nor sugarcoating the predatory nature of saltwater crocodiles. If you dive off the Adelaide River bridge, 60 km east of Darwin’s city centre, and start swimming, there is a 100% chance of being taken by a saltwater crocodile. It is not the same as swimming with sharks.




Read more:
Crocodile culls won’t solve crocodile attacks


Fear and fascination

Like Val Plumwood, I too had come up north from the temperate south, and was not used to sharing my world with something that wanted to eat me.

There is a mountain range in north Queensland, cut off from the mainland by the sea. The space between is filled with a tangle of mangrove trees and snaking waterways. Heading down one of these channels in the early morning, my small boat cut around a bend, and on the far bank I saw a crocodile basking in the sun.

Hinchinbrook Channel, North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

I eased back on the throttle and let my boat drag through the water. This was my chance to see one up close, as long as I didn’t scare it off. I was a young scientist, new to the tropics, and hadn’t yet seen a croc up close. I’d glimpsed them sliding off the banks as I motored past, or as eyes above the waterline, following my boat with interest.

I drifted closer, engine idling.

It was big. I turned the engine off to let momentum and the current take me closer. I didn’t want to disturb the creature. Apart from the occasional snapping of pistol shrimp in their burrows, the air was still and quiet. The forest around us was a deep green, reflected in the greasy green of the water. The mud bank was almost black with silt; waist-deep, from recent experience. I could see the heft of the animal as I approached.

Its muscular tail rested in an arc, and the great mass of its body bulged, unsupported on dry land. It didn’t flinch as I drew closer, it held its jaws open in a permanent, basking yawn.

Now I was close enough to see very clearly its long pointed teeth ringing the muscular bed of the lower jaw. I could see sinew and texture in the enormous muscle that connects upper and lower jaw, allowing it to slam the two shut with the bite force of Tyrannosaurus rex. I could see it too well. Current and momentum had conspired to bring me right to the bank where the animal lay. I was no longer worried about disturbing the creature. I was within striking distance. I was an outsider, intruding, and I was afraid.

The fear and fascination never quite reconciled. I had seen the crocodile as an indicator, both in the ecological sense, as my training had described, but also in a personal sense.

A crocodile in the mangroves of the lower Daintree River, Far North Queensland.
Kevin Crook

Ecologists like indicator species, because they tell us about a complex world in a very simple way. They stand in for a whole range of factors.

A caddis-fly larva can tell you about the purity of the alpine pond you found it in, how recently it was frozen and the stability of the seasons. A stingray can tell you about the flooding patterns of a sandbank and the abundance of invertebrates therein. They do this just by showing up. Crocodiles, to me, indicated nutrient rich tropical waters providing a glut of large bodied prey. Warm winters and big barramundi.

The author baiting a camera trap.
Sheree Marris

They indicated the sanctuary of the wild. Here was a place beyond the realm of humankind, remote, beautiful, and my place of work. They punctuated the landscape, and their presence transformed the place. In the temperate south, a bank in an inlet might be a good place to pull up for lunch, or cast a line. Here, it’s a place you don’t want to linger.

A floating log becomes an object of suspicion, and the value of a swimming hole, no matter how inviting, is measured in downstream barriers. We tend to hold crocs up as a symbols, and dangle the fact of their existence in front of southerners and tourists to prove our rugged credentials. But I had not reckoned with the animal itself.

As I fumbled for the ignition, the crocodile turned its full attention to me and slid down the bank. In one easy motion it slipped under the surface, and swam toward our boat.

I kicked the engine into gear. As the roar of my 15-horse motor sped us to safety, I wondered how on earth we live alongside these creatures. I also wondered how many of those 15 horses that croc could eat in its lifetime.

Living on the water’s edge

Crocodiles are not symbols — I was about to learn — they are living beasts capable of real material damage. I could venture into their world, but spent most of my time high above the waterline. For other people in that Indo-Pacific arc, contending with these animals is daily life. Work brought me to the islands of Papua New Guinea, where crocodiles are a threat to both people and property. While it might sound far flung, New Guinea is closer to my home in North Queensland than any Australian capital. It’s part of the same great landmass of Sahul, and shares a recognisable fauna and flora.

In the places I worked, people built their villages at the water’s edge, on volcanic black-sand beaches. That strip of coast contains all of everyday life; houses, fishing nets, canoes, livestock, children, dogs and cooking fires. So, when the largest reptile in the world crawls from the ocean of a nighttime, and carries away a squealing pig, it seems a reasonable price to pay. Especially considering the other potential prey sleeping in their beds.

Moving through a back channel of the Langalanga estuary, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Michael Bradley

I came across one of these sacrificial pigs, postmortem. I was investigating the small estuaries along the coast with a local man named Alfonse. We turned into a small creek, hidden from view by the angle of its entrance and a tall forest of mangrove trees. Estuaries in the tropics have a certain smell caused by things that want to rot, but don’t have the air to do so. Sealed under the mud, they turn black and change their chemistry. Mixed in with this is the salt, and the fresh-sap of the mangrove leaves. Some people hate it, but I relish it.

This creek had an altogether different odour. It was the smell of rotting flesh, but not the dry waft of roadkill by the side of the road. This was wet-rot. The pig had been stashed in a dead tree on the bank, and its skin was beginning to trail in the current. Crocodiles don’t like a fresh kill; they like to let it soften. That pig would have fed a village and perhaps been the central meal of a wedding or a funeral. Now it was bloating in the muddy water.

On a different trip, Alfonse told me the story of a fatal attack in his village. Alfonse is a serious man with a young family, a gentle sense of humour and a legitimate hatred of Malaysian logging companies. We were working in a system called the Langalanga, a great palm swamp, almost cut off from the sea. In the slanted afternoon light, the marine palms reflect crazily on the black water, and their fruit-rot nectar clots the air.

Some of Alfonse’s family were camped on the edge of the swamp, and had set out in a canoe to collect mussels — a happy scene repeated on occasion throughout the seasons.

A few years back, another family was doing the same, when the father was taken by a crocodile. As he was being dragged under by the legs, his wife held on to his arms, and in that brief battle there was enough time for him to say “take care of the kids”. By the time I left, a man from our team was taken by a crocodile somewhere in that same labyrinth of palms.

Late afternoon in the palm swamp, Langalanga estuary, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Michael Bradley

We are food

Crocodiles are murderous creatures. Not indifferent to our suffering, but actively in pursuit of it. They crave us, like we might crave a pizza, and they act on those impulses.

Val Plumwood learned this too, from the vantage point of her red canoe, as her path converged suspiciously with a floating log. The log was a crocodile, and from that point on, she was prey. The animal charged her craft several times. She tried to escape by climbing an overhanging tree. It burst from the water between her legs and clamped down on her torso. In that moment, in the force of realisation that accompanied the puncture wounds to her abdomen, she saw very clearly that she was food.

Murderous creatures: a crocodile in Kakadu.
Dean Lewins/AAP

She was thrown into a death roll — crocodiles thrash with such force that all the air and struggle is sucked out of their prey, which they then hold underwater until drowned. Val, somehow, survived this experience. It was then repeated.

Incredibly, she surfaced and climbed to safety in the overhanging tree. She was plucked from the tree again, by her left leg, and the horror was repeated for the final time.

But, inexplicably, the crocodile’s jaws relaxed. Val wrestled free and scrambled up the mud bank. Her lower half was shredded, and she could see the raw meat of her leg muscle hanging from the bone. She staggered back through the bush until she began losing consciousness.

She gave out at the edge of the swamp, as the wet season floodwater rose around her. Here she accepted her end as food for the crocodiles waiting in the rising lagoon.

We know so much about this attack because Val survived it. But also because she was a philosopher. She didn’t just survive it, she thought about it, she examined its consequences, and she wrote about it.

The Australian philosopher Val Plumwood pictured in 1990. In her work, Val interrogated the human-nature dualism that lies at the heart of modern culture.
Wikimedia Commons

One of the key Australian thinkers of our time, she challenged the way we look at the natural world. It took her the rest of her life to fully reckon with the experience of being prey. The result is a revelation of a book, pulled together posthumously, (Plumwood died of a stroke in 2008), called The Eye of the Crocodile. Val’s experience has become a centre point for me, around which all my encounters with crocodiles now pivot. The anchoring wisdom in a confusing set of facts and impulses.

At the heart of her insight is the knowledge that we are food — “juicy, nourishing, bodies” for the rest of the animal kingdom. We forget that. Or perhaps, we never really come to know it. Val knew, but when she found herself as prey, she rejected the idea. I’ll let her speak for herself here:

My disbelief was not just existential but ethical — this wasn’t happening,
couldn’t be happening. The world was not like that! The creature was breaking the rules, totally mistaken, utterly wrong to think I could be reduced to food. As a human being, I was so much more than food. Were all the other facets of my being to be sacrificed to this utterly undiscriminating use, was my complex organisation to be destroyed so I could be reassembled as part of this other being?

With indignation as well as disbelief, I rejected this event. It was an illusion! It was not only unjust but unreal! It couldn’t be happening. After much later reflection, I came to see that there was another way to look at it. There was illusion alright, but it was the other way around. It was the world of ‘normal experience’ that was the illusion, and the newly disclosed brute world in which I was prey was, in fact, the unsuspected reality, or at least a crucial part of it… both I and the culture that shaped my consciousness were wrong, profoundly wrong —about many things, but especially about human embodiment, animality and the meaning of human life.

In the end, we are just another animal, scratching around on the surface of the earth. Like a few other terrestrial vertebrates, we sometimes forage in shallow seas and there, form part of the coastal food chain. In the Indo-Pacific arc, at this moment in ecological history, that food chain finishes with the saltwater crocodile.

They are simply the inheritors of their evolutionary mantle, held long before we ever dipped our toes in the water. In our brief history on this earth, we have rarely been at the top of our own food chains.

We are food, and not just for crocodiles. We live our lives trying to avoid eye contact with the fact, but it is always there in our peripheral vision. We are victim to a constant gnawing of insects, bacteria, fungus, and when we die — no matter how hard we try to bury and embalm — we finally succumb. Diseases like Ebola haunt our collective imagination, but their worst symptoms are simply the failing of our own immune system to hold back the flood of decay that will find us all when we stop breathing.

‘Life as a circulation’

Ecologists no longer talk about food chains as if there is a top and a bottom. Food loops, cycles of productivity and nutrients, hold the great ecosystems of this earth in place, as vast organised structures of recycling viscera. Our denial of our place in them is what Val came to see as “dualism” — the belief in a hierarchy of nature with ourselves at the top; different, unique, separate. Outsiders on our own planet. Because of this, crocodiles seem like monsters of a senseless world, a world to be feared.

We think of ourselves as somehow separate from the rest of nature’s bloom and rot. This man vs wild illusion butts up against reality in ways that now threaten our existence.




Read more:
Meet North Queensland First, the party that wants to kill crocs and form a new state


The experience of being outside of nature allows us to deny the urgency of the many crises now facing our planet. We see the signs, but it is easy to distance the collapse of the natural world from the continuity of our own lives, and hold an unreasonable faith that the human world will go on indefinitely. But this is denial. Nature, as we know, can crush us in its jaws. To face the reality that confronts us as a species, we must feel like insiders — part of our own planet. But what would that look like?

In Arnhem Land, where Val was attacked, people have lived alongside crocodiles for thousands of years. They see themselves differently — not as outsiders, but as part of the landscape. Indigenous philosophies, such as those of the Yolngu, see human or animal life as existing for others, not just itself. The crocodile is not hideous for eating humans. They are animals to be understood and respected, through the kind of insider knowledge gained over thousands of years. They take life, but are also capable of acting in good faith.

A saltwater crocodile named Brutus pictured on the Bloomfield River, north of Daintree in Queensland, in 2014.
Mike Darcy/AAP

Their maternal tenderness is equally important. They punctuate the landscape as powerful beings, reminding us to tread carefully, because the world is not arranged for our pleasure alone. This resonated with Val who understood “life as a circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors”. Death, whether by crocodile or otherwise, is recycling, a “flowing into an ecological and ancestral community of origins”.

In the time it took me to write this, a man named Andrew Heard was taken from his dingy in that tangle of creeks in North Queensland where I still work. The police found his vessel upside down and some of his remains in the mangroves. They caught a four-metre crocodile, cut it open, and found the rest of him inside.

Then they killed another one. We could just keep going, get rid of them all. Fifty years ago, we almost did. At a time like this, with everyone reeling in shock, and grappling with some measure of personal fear, I understand the impulse.

I’m going out there again tomorrow, as usual. Older now, my fear and fascination have turned into something else. Despite their intentions for us, I like having them around. To me, they are indicators — but they indicate more than warm winters and big barramundi. They indicate a living world, giving and taking, and a society that’s starting to find its place in it.

As I motor down the creek, they punctuate the landscape, reminding me that we’ve decided, together, there are lives that matter beside our own. That despite the pain we may face in the future, we’re beginning to find our way. They indicate hope.

This essay received an Honourable Mention in the 2021 Nature Writing Prize.The Conversation

Michael Bradley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grey nomad lifestyle provides a model for living remotely


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Grey nomads are champions of a radical type of portable urbanism as they travel to far-flung places like Lake Ballard in Western Australia.
Image courtesy of Tourism Western Australia, Author provided

Timothy Moore, Monash University

Every other year, retired couple Jorg and Jan journey some 5,000 kilometres in their campervan from Port Fairy in southeastern Australia to Broome in the far northwest for a change of lifestyle and scenery. There they catch up with other couples from across the nation, who often converge on the beach for communal dinners. Jorg and Jan’s break lasts several weeks.

They are two of tens of thousands of retired adults travelling independently across the continent at any given time in search of adventure, warmer weather and camaraderie after a lifetime of hard work. These part-time nomadic adventurers, or grey nomads, have recast the image of Australia’s ageing population. Rather than being inert and conservative, or in need of care, these older Australians are champions of a radical type of urbanism: dwellings are mobile, infrastructure is portable or pluggable, social networks are sprawled, and adherents are on the move daily or weekly.




Read more:
Grey dawn or the twilight years? Let’s talk about growing old


Nomads driving along Meelup Beach Road near Dunsborough.
Image courtesy of Tourism Western Australia

Grey nomad is a term used to describe Australians over 55 years old who travel for an extended time – from weeks to months – and cover more than 300 kilometres in a day across semi-arid and coastal Australia. The term was popularised following the 1997 Australian documentary Grey Nomads, which captured the phenomenon of older travellers who made their homes wherever they parked.

What is the scale of grey nomadism?

Travellers, including grey nomads, contribute to a “roaming economy”: decentralised dwelling results in decentralised spending. The Western Australian government estimated in its Caravan and Camping Visitor Snapshot 2016 report that 1.54 million domestic visitors spent time in caravans or camping, contributing more than A$1 billion to the state economy.

According to the Campervan & Motorhome Club of Australia, RV drivers spend an average of $770 per week. And their value to a remote place extends beyond economic capital to human capital. Grey nomads often provide labour (such as gardening, house-sitting or their pre-retirement professional skills) in exchange for a place to park or for extra income.

Nomads relax at a caravan site in Esperance.
Image courtesy of Tourism Western
Australia

The availability of caravan parks, campsites and public parking reserves is essential to attract the grey nomad to regional towns. According to a 2012 report for Tourism WA, A Strategic Approach to Caravan & Camping Tourism in Western Australia, the state had a total of 37,369 campsites at 769 locations. In addition, remote private properties are becoming available through apps such as WikiCamps Australia.




Read more:
Grey nomads drive caravan boom but camp spots decline


But while many nomads go off-grid, carrying their solar panels and generators, others are just looking for free reserves to park in. Beyond the site and its amenities – such as power, water, showers or flushing toilets – qualities such as “authenticity” are important to nomads, as highlighted by Mandy Pickering. Sites should feel remote rather than urban.

Will future generations be as fortunate?

The rise of the grey nomad over the past half-century has been made possible through the ability of ageing Australians to fund this retirement lifestyle. They might sell their houses (some may simply benefit from having secure accommodation), withdraw their superannuation or receive government benefits. Nomadism is a reward after a lifetime entangled in an economic and social system that keeps the individual tied to a stable workplace and place to live.

Aerial view of Osprey Campground near Ningaloo Reef.
Image courtesy of Tourism Western Australia

For future generations, the outlook in terms of grey nomadism being a viable retirement lifestyle is not especially bright. Home ownership is sliding out of reach for many younger people. And many are enmeshed in the gig economy, meaning they are not receiving employer superannuation contributions.




Read more:
Renters Beware: how the pension and super could leave you behind


Future generations may be so much in debt or living in such straitened circumstances that they cannot retire to a life of leisurely travel.

While grey nomadism might not be a sustainable model in the future, the lifestyle demonstrates how future generations of nomads – not necessarily grey – can live cheaply while populating regional centres for weeks or months, bringing economic and human capital to these remote places. These nomads will be able to work on their laptops in the public libraries, cafes, share houses and co-working spaces of country towns, accessing work remotely through cloud-based telecommunications.

They might not come in campervans but be dropped off in driverless vehicles; vacant campsites might become sites for small cabins. Or, as these nomads will be looking for temporary accommodation, spare rooms or entire houses might be made available. To find these dwellings, they might use apps that bring great efficiency to managing housing occupancy, enabling the “sharing” (renting) of unoccupied space for days, weeks or months.

Are regional towns ready to embrace these “emerging nomads” who are attracted by affordable living costs, network coverage, fast internet speeds, great weather, temporary housing options and unique regional identities, as the grey nomads were before them?

Grey nomads are recognised as a group that requires distributed infrastructures. They demonstrate a capacity for domesticity and urbanity without boundaries. The grey nomads are the precursor to a new generation that might not only want to travel, but need to in an economic environment that is not static or stable. And that will mean they can no longer afford to stay in one place.


This article was co-authored by Amelia Borg, a director of Sibling Architecture and a Masters of Business student at the University of Melbourne.

The Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point, with the latest series focusing on the regions. You can read other articles here.




Read more:
Off the plan: shelter, the future and the problems in between


The Conversation


Timothy Moore, PhD Candidate, Melbourne School of Design, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before



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Australia’s coastline has moved before thanks to changes in sea level.
Flickr/Travellers travel photobook, CC BY

Sean Ulm, James Cook University; Alan N Williams, UNSW; Chris Turney, UNSW, and Stephen Lewis, James Cook University

With global sea levels expected to rise by up to a metre by 2100 we can learn much from archaeology about how people coped in the past with changes in sea level.

In a study published this week in Quaternary Science Reviews, we looked at how changes in sea level affected different parts of Australia and the impact on people living around the coast.

The study casts new light on how people adapt to rising sea levels of the scale projected to happen in our near future.


Read more: Cave dig shows the earliest Australians enjoyed a coastal lifestyle


Coastal living

More than eight out of every ten Australians live within 50km of the coast.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global sea levels are set to increase by the equivalent of 12mm/year, four times the average of the last century.

A major challenge for managing such a large increase in sea level is our limited understanding of what impact this scale of change might have on humanity.

While there are excellent online resources to model the local physical impacts of sea level rise, the recent geological past can provide important insights into how humans responded to dramatic increases in sea level.

The last ice age

At the height of the last ice age some 21,000 years ago, not only were the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets larger than they are today, but 3km-high ice sheets covered large parts of North America and northern Europe.

This sucked vast amounts of water out of our planet’s oceans. The practical upshot was sea level was around 125m lower, making the shape of the world’s coastlines distinctly different to today.

As the world lurched out of the last ice age with increasing temperatures, the melting ice returned to the ocean as freshwater, dramatically increasing sea levels and altering the surface of our planet.

Arguably nowhere experienced greater changes than Australia, a continent with a broad continental shelf and a rich archaeological record spanning tens of millennia.

A bigger landmass

For most of human history in Australia, lower sea levels joined mainland Australia to both Tasmania and New Guinea, forming a supercontinent called Sahul. The Gulf of Carpentaria hosted a freshwater lake more than twice the size of Tasmania (about 190,000km2).

Our study shows that lower sea levels resulted in Australia growing by almost 40% during this time – from the current landmass of 7.2 million km2 to 9.8 million km2.

The coastlines also looked very different, with steep profiles off the edge of the exposed continental shelf in many areas forming precipitous slopes and cliffs.

Imagine the current coastline where the Twelve Apostles are on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and then extend them around much of the continent. Many rivers flowed across the exposed shelf to the then distant coast.

The steep cliffs at the Apostles, off Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, look like parts of the ancient coastline of Australia.
Flickr/portengaround, CC BY-SA

When things warmed up

Then between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago, global climate warmed, leading to rapid melting of the ice sheets, and seeing sea levels in the Australian region rising from 125m below to 2m above modern sea levels.

Tasmania was cut off with the flooding of Bass Strait around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea was separated from Australia with the flooding of Torres Strait and creation of the Gulf of Carpentaria around 8,000 years ago.

We found that 2.12 million square km, or 20-29% of the landmass – a size comparable to the state of Queensland – was lost during this inundation. The location of coastlines changed on average by 139km inland. In some areas the change was more than 300km.

Much of this inundation occurred over a 4,000-year period (between 14,600 and 10,600 years ago) initiated by what is called Meltwater Pulse 1A, a period of substantial ice sheet collapse releasing millions of cubic litres of water back into the oceans.

During this period, sea levels rose by 58m, equivalent to 14.5mm per year. On the ground, this would have seen movement of the sea’s edge at a pace of about 20-24m per year.

Impacts of past sea level rise

The potential impacts of these past sea-level changes on Aboriginal populations and societies have long been a subject of speculation by archaeologists and historians.

Map of Australia showing sea-level change and archaeological sites for selected periods between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. PMSL=Present Mean Sea Level.
Sean Ulm, Author provided

In his 1970s book Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia, the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey hypothesised that:

Most tribal groups on the coast 18,000 years ago must have slowly lost their entire territory […] a succession of retreats must have occurred. The slow exodus of refugees, the sorting out of peoples and the struggle for territories probably led to many deaths as well as new alliances.

Archaeologists have long recognised that Aboriginal people would have occupied the now-drowned continental shelves surrounding Australia, but opinions have been divided about the nature of occupation and the significance of sea-level rise. Most have suggested that the ancient coasts were little-used or underpopulated in the past.

Our data show that Aboriginal populations were severely disrupted by sea-level change in many areas. Perhaps surprisingly the initial decrease in sea level prior to the peak of the last ice age resulted in people largely abandoning the coastline, and heading inland, with a number of archaeological sites within the interior becoming established at this time.

Cross-section profiles of the continental shelf at Port Stephens, NSW (top) and Cape Otway, Vic (bottom). PMSL=Present Mean Sea Level.
Sean Ulm, Author provided

During the peak of the last ice age, there is evidence on the west coast that shows people continued to use marine resources (shellfish, fish etc) during this time, albeit at low levels.

A shrinking landmass

With the onset of the massive inundation after the end of the last ice age people evacuated the coasts causing markedly increased population densities across Australia (from around 1 person for every 355 square km 20,000 years ago, to 1 person every 147 square km 10,000 years ago).

Rising sea levels had such a profound impact on societies that Aboriginal oral histories from around the length of the Australian coastline preserve details of coastal flooding and the migration of populations.

We argue that this squeezing of people into a landmass 22% smaller – into inland areas that were already occupied – required people to adopt new social, settlement and subsistence strategies. This may have been an important element in the development of the complex geographical and religious landscape that European explorers observed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the stabilisation of the sea level after 8,000 years ago, we start to see the onset of intensive technological investment and manipulation of the landscape (such as fish traps and landscape burning).

We also see the formation of territories (evident by marking of place through rock art) that continues to propagate up until the present time. All signs of more people trying to survive in less space.


Read more: Buried tools and pigments tell a new history of humans in Australia for 65,000 years


So what are the lessons of the past for today? Thankfully, we can show that past societies survived rapid sea level change at rates slightly greater than those projected in our near future, albeit with population densities far lower than today.

But we can also see that sea level rise resulted in drastic changes to where people lived, how they survived, what technology they used, and probable modifications to their social, religious and political ways of life.

The ConversationIn today’s world with substantially higher population densities, managing the relocation of people inland and outside Australia, potentially across national boundaries, may provide to be one of the great social challenges of the 21st century.

Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University; Alan N Williams, Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW; Chris Turney, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of New South Wales, UNSW, and Stephen Lewis, Principal Research Officer, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs



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A drain carries water but does little else, but imagine how different the neighbourhood would be if the drain could be transformed into a living stream.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Lot sizes and backyards are shrinking in Australia at the same time as building density is increasing. So we cannot afford to overlook the potential of existing – but neglected – spaces in our suburbs, like drains.

In denser living environments, we will need new types of green and open space to meet the needs of residents.

One such overlooked space is the urban water drainage system. As part of my research I’m examining the potential of a co-ordinated and integrated network of suburban streams.


Further reading: If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


The largest water catchment in the Perth metropolitan area is Bayswater Brook (previously called the Bayswater Main Drain). Largely for the purpose of improving water quality, in recent years work has begun to remake drains running through the suburbs into “living streams”.

Aside from the obvious benefits of water purification and stormwater management, these networks of suburban streams can be re-imagined as preferred paths through the neighbourhood.

Using established drainage routes capitalises on their existing connections through a suburb. This network could amplify the connections between parks and other green areas, providing a rich soundscape of birds, frogs and insects, and a diversity of sedges, rushes, melaleucas and other vegetation along the banks.

Look at the big picture

While the conversion of old infrastructure into living streams is not new, it has as-yet-unrealised potential to rehabilitate the large sections of open drainage that run in visible, connected ways through our suburbs. This elevates the idea of a living stream to a multi-layered ecosystem, one that includes multiple drains across the suburb.

The Bayswater Brook permanent drainage system runs through the northeastern suburbs of Perth. These drains can be dangerous and public entry to these areas is prohibited out of necessity.

Access barriers are unsightly but necessary because the existing drains can be dangerous.
Author’s own

The drains run along the rear of mostly low-density housing, hidden from streets.

An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth.
Google Earth

Their condition is typically marked by weeds, minimal vegetation and stagnant water.

Fenced-off areas offer no public benefits to the neighbourhood other than drainage.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

The sheer number of these open drains across the metropolitan area offers a compelling opportunity to reconceptualise the system as a holistic and integrated network of ecologically restored streams. This requires co-operation between multiple levels of government.

A project by WaterCorp in Western Australia (which manages drainage infrastructure) has begun inviting local governments to submit proposals for use of the green space around drains. These are currently for small portions of the larger network, such as a pop-up park planned for a basin in Morley.

The benefit of doing this in a co-ordinated way – rather than single stream restoration – lies in the possibilities of making these spaces a genuine alternative to the street.

What are the benefits?

Typical drains (above and below) add very little to neighbourhood amenity.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, Author provided

By activating unused, off-limits areas at the back of houses, we can turn public space “inside out”. Providing a sequence of accessible paths creates a new option for pedestrians away from roads and cars, but still with an established, clear route through the suburb. We can have a space that is buffered from traffic noise without the isolation of an empty park segregated from main thoroughfares.

Many studies have convincingly found connections between the sounds of waterscapes and restorative emotional states and views. Having multiple entry and exit points as the streams thread through the suburbs would heighten the spaces’ usefulness as everyday pathways. Children could walk along the streams to school, or adults could take a short cut to catch the bus to work, maximising this kind of beneficial interaction with water.

Recreating natural habitats would also increase biodiversity and create a multi-sensory environment, as well as a cooler micro-climate. That would make it an even more attractive place to be in hot months. Encouraging a more natural flow of water through the streams would also reduce biting midges and mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water.


Further reading: Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Potentially the most convincing reason for local governments to rehabilitate drains is that living streams increase neighbourhood property values. Research has shown the effect is significant. In the Perth suburb of Lynwood, for example, median home values within 200 metres of a wetland
restoration site increased by A$17,000 to A$26,000 above
the trend increase for the area.

This in turn can support increased density. High quality nature spaces potentially offset the sacrifice of the usual backyard area, by increasing the number of people with direct access to these spaces.

Turning an urban drain into a living stream opens up a world of possibilities.
Author’s original render

The ConversationThere is a growing imperative to remove the false choice between designing for people or for nature. Remaking our old infrastructure for many new uses offers multiple benefits to our ecology and well-being. When a drain becomes a living stream it doesn’t just provide a new kind of open space but adds a new dimension to enjoying, and moving through, your suburb.

Zoe Myers, Research Associate, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2011 Review: New Species Still Being Discovered


It seems incredible, that even now, new species of living organisms are still being discovered by science. Perhaps you would be forgiven for thinking that only very small creatures and some plants are all that remains to be discovered. However, there are large organisms being found as well.

In Australia, a new species of dolphin was recorded.

However, it is not all good news, with some species becoming extinct as well.

Read more at:
http://news.mongabay.com/2011/1226-new_species_review_2011.html