If the mine goes ahead, groundwater levels would drop by 50cm and wouldn’t fully recover for 200 years. And 2,422 hectares of native vegetation would be cleared.
I visited the site 16 years ago and, like the rest of the Western Australian outback, there’s a wonderful paradox where the land appears barren, but is, in fact, rich with biodiversity.
Native animals living in underground water, called stygofauna, are one such example of remarkable Australian fauna that aren’t obvious at first glance. These animals are under threat of extinction if the Yeelirrie uranium mine goes ahead.
Stygofauna are ecologically fragile
Most stygofauna are very tiny invertebrates, making up species of crustaceans, worms, snails and diving beetles. Some species are well adapted to underground life – they are typically blind, pale white and with long appendages to help them find their way in total darkness.
In 2016, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised against building the Yeelirrie uranium mine because it would threaten the stygofauna species there, despite the proposed management strategies of Cameco Australia, the mine owner.
Stygofauna are extremely local, having evolved in the site they’re found in. This means individual species aren’t found anywhere else in the world.
Despite the proponent’s well-considered management strategies, based on current scientific understanding, the EPA concluded that there was too great a chance of a loss of species that are restricted to the impact area.
And to get to the uranium deposit, the miners need to dig through the groundwater, a little like pulling the plug in the middle of the bathtub. Stygofauna have adapted to living at different levels of the water, so pulling out the plug could dry out important parts of their habitat.
Stygofauna are also susceptible to any changes in the chemistry of the groundwater. We simply do not know with confidence what mining will do to the groundwater chemistry at Yeelirrie in the long term. Various wastes will be backfilled into former pits, causing uncertainty for the welfare of surrounding stygofauna.
The approval conditions suggest that the mine should not be allowed to cause extinction – but if this does happen, nothing can be done to reverse it. And there would be no penalty to Cameco either – which has said it can’t guarantee such a condition can be met.
So are the economic benefits worth wiping out a species?
Short answer: no. But let’s, for a moment, ignore these subterranean animals and look at whether the mine would be beneficial.
Yeelirrie is one of Australia’s largest uranium deposits – and yet it has a low grade of 0.15% (as uranium oxide). This refers to the amount of uranium found in rock. For comparison, the average grade of uranium mines globally is normally 0.1 to 0.4% of uranium oxide (with some higher and others lower).
And Cameco’s Cigar Lake and McArthur River mines in Canada have typically been 15-20% of uranium oxide. Despite such rich ore, McArthur River was uneconomic and closed indefinitely in early 2018.
What’s more, the future of nuclear power is not bright. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the number of nuclear reactors under construction around the world is at its lowest point in a decade, as renewable energy increases. The amount of nuclear electricity produced each year is flat. And nuclear’s share of global electricity is constantly falling behind renewables.
But, in any case, we don’t yet know enough about these stygofauna to warrant their extinction. They could, for instance, have untold benefits to medical science, or perhaps have wider environmental and cultural significance.
And, ethically, what right do we have to wipe out a species? They have evolved and survived just like us. At the end of the day, there are much safer, cheaper, more ethical and cleaner ways to generate electricity to boil a kettle.
This research had a simple but ambitious aim: to develop new ways to save at-risk predators such as lizards and quolls from the devastating impacts of invasive cane toads.
All across tropical Australia, the arrival of these gigantic alien toads has caused massive die-offs among meat-eating animals such as yellow-spotted monitors (large lizards in the varanid group) and quolls (meat-eating marsupials). Mistaking the new arrivals for edible frogs, animals that try to eat them are fatally poisoned by the toad’s powerful toxins.
Steep population declines in these predators ripple out through entire ecosystems.
But we can change that outcome. We expose predators to a small cane toad, big enough to make them ill but not to kill them. The predators learn fast, and ignore the larger (deadly) toads that arrive in their habitats a few weeks or months later. As a result, our trained predators survive, whereas their untrained siblings die.
So as we cruised across the floodplain on quad bikes looking for goannas, each team consisted of a scientist (university-educated, and experienced in wildlife research) and a Balanggarra Indigenous ranger.
Although our study species is huge – a male yellow-spotted monitor can grow to more than 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 6kg – the animals are well-camouflaged and difficult to find.
Over an 18-month study, we caught and radio-tracked more than 80 monitors, taught some of them not to eat toads, and then watched with trepidation as the cane toad invasion arrived.
Excitingly, the training worked. Half of our trained lizards were still alive by the end of the study, whereas all of the untrained lizards died soon after toads arrived.
That positive result has encouraged a consortium of scientists, government authorities, conservation groups, landowners and local businesses to implement aversion training on a massive scale (see www.canetoadcoalition.com), with support from the Australian Research Council.
But there’s a twist to the tale, a vindication of our decision to make the project truly collaborative.
When we looked in detail at our data, we realised that the monitor lizards found by Indigenous rangers were different to those found by western scientists. The rangers found shyer lizards, often further away from us when sighted, motionless, and in heavy cover where they were very difficult to see.
We don’t know how much the extraordinary ability of the rangers to spot those well-concealed lizards was due to genetics or experience – but there’s no doubt they were superb at finding lizards that the scientists simply didn’t notice.
And reflecting the distinctive “personalities” of those ranger-located lizards, they were the ones that benefited the most from aversion training. Taking a cautious approach to life, a nasty illness after eating a small toad was enough to make them swear off toads thereafter.
In contrast, most of the lizards found by scientists were bold creatures. They learned quickly, but when a potential meal hopped across the floodplain a few months later, the goanna seized it before recalling its previous experience. And even holding a toad briefly in the mouth can be fatal.
As a result of the intersection between indigenous abilities and lizard personalities, the overall success of our project increased as a result of our multicultural team.
If we had just used the conventional model – university researchers doing all of the work, indigenous people asked for permission but playing only a minor role – our project could have failed, and the major conservation initiative currently underway may have died an early death.
So our study, now published in Conservation Letters, provides an unusual insight – backed up by evidence.
Moving beyond lip service, and genuinely involving Indigenous Traditional Owners in conservation research, can make all the difference in the world.
This research was published in collaboration with James “Birdy” Birch and his team of Balanggarra rangers in the eastern Kimberley.
The devastating bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 rightly captured the world’s attention. But what’s less widely known is that another World Heritage-listed marine ecosystem in Australia, Shark Bay, was also recently devastated by extreme temperatures, when a brutal marine heatwave struck off Western Australia in 2011.
A 2018 workshop convened by the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee classified Shark Bay as being in the highest category of vulnerability to future climate change. And yet relatively little media attention and research funding has been paid to this World Heritage Site that is on the precipice.
Shark Bay, in WA’s Gascoyne region, is one of 49 marine World Heritage Sites globally, but one of only four of these sites that meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing. The marine ecosystem supports the local economy through tourism and fisheries benefits.
Around 100,000 tourists visit Shark Bay each year to interact with turtles, dugongs and dolphins, or to visit the world’s most extensive population of stromatolites – stump-shaped colonies of microbes that date back billions of years, almost to the dawn of life on Earth.
Commercial and recreational fishing is also extremely important for the local economy. The combined Shark Bay invertebrate fishery (crabs, prawns and scallops) is the second most valuable commercial fishery in Western Australia.
However, this iconic and valuable marine ecosystem is under serious threat. Shark Bay is especially vulnerable to future climate change, given that the temperate seagrass that underpins the entire ecosystem is already living at the upper edge of its tolerable temperature range. These seagrasses provide vital habitat for fish and marine mammals, and help the stromatolites survive by regulating the water salinity.
In particular, extreme marine heat events were classified as very likely and predicted to have catastrophic consequences in Shark Bay. By contrast, the capacity to adapt to marine heat events was rated very low, showing the challenges Shark Bay faces in the coming decades.
The region is also threatened by increasingly frequent and intense storms, and warming air temperatures.
To understand the potential impacts of climatic change on Shark Bay, we can look back to the effects of the most recent marine heatwave in the area. In 2011 Shark Bay was hit by a catastrophic marine heatwave that destroyed 900 square kilometres of seagrass – 36% of the total coverage.
Some aspects of Shark Bay’s ecosystem have never been the same since. Many areas previously covered with large, temperate seagrasses are now bare, or have been colonised by small, tropical seagrasses, which do not provide the same habitat for animals. This mirrors the transition seen on bleached coral reefs, which are taken over by turf algae. We may be witnessing the beginning of Shark Bay’s transition from a sub-tropical to a tropical marine ecosystem.
This shift would jeopardise Shark Bay’s World Heritage values. Although stromatolites have survived for almost the entire history of life on Earth, they are still vulnerable to rapid environmental change. Monitoring changes in the microbial makeup of these communities could even serve as a canary in the coalmine for global ecosystem changes.
Coral reefs rightly receive a lot of attention, particularly given the growing appreciation that climate change threatens the Great Barrier Reef and other corals around the world.
The World Heritage Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are no longer enough to save coral reefs, but this logic can be extended to other vulnerable marine ecosystems – including the World Heritage values of Shark Bay.
Safeguarding Shark Bay from climate change requires a coordinated research and management effort from government, local industry, academic institutions, not-for-profits and local Indigenous groups – before any irreversible ecosystem tipping points are reached. The need for such a strategic effort was obvious as long ago as the 2011 heatwave, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Due to the significant Aboriginal heritage in Shark Bay, including three language groups (Malgana, Nhanda and Yingkarta), it will be vital to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, so as to understand the potential social impacts.
And of course, any on-the-ground actions to protect Shark Bay need to be accompanied by dramatic reductions in greenhouse emissions. Without this, Shark Bay will be one of the many marine ecosystems to fundamentally change within our lifetimes.
Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.
But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.
This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.
The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.
But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?
However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).
It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.
Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.
All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.
It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.
Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.
Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.
Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.
How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.
The West Australian government has committed to pursuing a World Heritage listing for the rock art of Murujuga. Murujuga is the Aboriginal name for the Dampier Archipelago and the Burrup Peninsula in north west WA and is home to at least a million individual works of art.
Australia has some of the world’s richest and most diverse rock art. While rock art is found all around the globe, Australia is relatively unique because here there are still cultural connections between rock art and the people who created it.
At present, Australia has only three cultural World Heritage sites (of which only one – Kakadu – is listed for rock art). In contrast, France has over 30 World Heritage-listed rock art sites.
I and my colleague Peter Veth have argued that Murujuga rock art meets three criteria for outstanding universal value: because of the creative genius and skill of the artwork; the extraordinarily old and continuous engraving tradition; and the combined cultural landscapes of the area, including quarries, living sites, and shell middens.
These illustrate significant transitions in human history in the face of major changes in sea level and surrounding environment.
Animals no longer found
When people first started using this landscape 50,000 years ago, it was located around 100 km from the coast. It was wetter and warmer than it is now – and the archaeological record of the coastal plain at this time demonstrates an entire group of animals no longer found in this part of Australia. Murujuga’s artists painted some of these animals, such as crocodiles.
Then, during the last ice age (between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago), the coastline was even further away (160 km). People were were living in the Murujuga Ranges at this time. There are a number of paintings of animals that are now extinct, such as thylacines and a fat-tailed species of kangaroo, which testify to the changing environment.
Then, as the ice caps melted and the sea level rose, people became more concentrated on the new coastal landscape. Recent studies across the archipelago have demonstrated the scientific significance of the outer and inner islands of this cultural land and seascape.
Dugong, turtles and fish
Around 8,000 years ago, people began to construct houses. Art production at this time was in full swing. The most recent rock art includes dugong, turtles, fish as well as the small rock wallabies and quolls that now live on the islands.
As well as houses there are myriad stone arrangements, standing stones and terraces. This is a monumental hunter-gatherer-fisherperson landscape, which rivals the period in Europe when people were constructing stone monuments such as Stonehenge (except in Europe this occurred thousands of years later).
The artworks in Murujuga were made on the rocks using stone tools. Together they show how people have been living in the region for thousands of years, first as hunter-gatherers, and later with a focus on fishing.
This rock art is still associated with contemporary traditions, ideas, and belief systems of traditional custodians. It is the widely-held belief that many Murujuga engravings represent and embody ancestral beings (Marga), while some of the standing stones are thalu sites, critical for the regeneration of key species such as a range of fish, birds and kangaroo, and even sandflies.
Five local Aboriginal groups hold native title in lands next to the archipelago – the Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Yaburara, Mardudhunera and Wong-gg-tt-too. Together, they are represented by Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which jointly manages Murujuga National Park with the WA state government. The peninsula and the islands are also listed as having National Heritage values. This listing excludes parts of the peninsula that have been previously damaged by industry.
National Heritage listing paves the way for Murujuga to become a World Heritage site. Recently, traditional custodians and others came together for a summit in Karratha and concluded resoundingly that World Heritage listing would be appropriate for Murujuga, and that it would help protect this extraordinary place.
Yesterday’s announcement is a significant moment for WA – which doesn’t have any Aboriginal cultural sites listed as World Heritage. And for the traditional custodians, it is the next step in their quest for recognition and greater protection of this place’s special significance.
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Placing Murujuga on the Tentative List is the beginning of the formal process to achieve World Heritage status. This will still take several years, but as the CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Peter Jeffries, said yesterday, the traditional owners are now driving the process.
The bird seen first time here
in forty years sings lightly
on the wire, you turn to touch
the shoulder of a friend
and turning back together
find nothing but sky
and wire trembling.
Brushtail possum evidenced. We had not seen one here in nine years, and there might not have been a sighting long before this. But there might have been. A possum or possums may have been driven out, removed from the roof cavity — there are, sadly, people who will do this and then exterminate them. But this too is conjecture, we’re only going here on the general condition of the bush block when we arrived — the 170 years of colonial erosion, the running of cattle and sheep and horses, the fencing, cropping (to a lesser extent because we are on the rocky northern face of a valley — that happens on the other side of the hills, a couple of kilometres away), and the machinery of colonial domestic presence — house, sheds, driveway, firebreaks.
Once, this area in the Western Australian wheatbelt, like nearby Goomalling (“Place of possums”), was prime habitat for brushtail possums. Even now residual and remnant York gum and jam tree woodland, granite boulders and granite outcrops, in patches of greater and lesser density, provide enough for native fauna to retain a hold.
Since we’ve been at Jam Tree Gully, we have removed internal fences, planted trees and — through not farming animals — allowed the beginning of a return of undergrowth. It’s an agonisingly slow process; this year is the first in nine years that we have actually seen, through self-generation, the reappearance of the shy sun orchid (a single example), scarlet runner (running postman) and a native fern.
I am talking about Ballardong Noongar boodja (country), and not “ours” but by the colonial reality of surveys and land titles, “allocated” as our domestic jurisdiction, the act of survey and property hierarchising entitlement (though mining companies believe they have even more entitlement than that, as, of course, does the state, as anyone can tell you who had “their” land reclaimed as part of the Cathedral Avenue widening of the road from York to Quairading and the destruction of hundreds of old-growth salmon gums, wandoos and York gums). As far as I and my family are concerned, we have an obligation to return this land to a health that though distant from its pre-colonial state of health, at least gestures towards it.
One of the dominant linguistic behaviours of our family residency in the area, of our presence, is to discuss what other living things we see every day, and how they relate to the country we see them on. Our son Tim, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, walks the block every day and reports back, verbally and on film, about what he’s observed. These are intricate and informed observations, cross-referenced with what is likely to be seen, differences in, say, behaviour (mating plumage, nesting processes, shifts in song, etc), numbers, and implication. Like his parents, Tim sees language as part of presence, and these observations are an essential part of his own poetry-making.
Similarly, I spend my time out on the block doing restorative tasks and acts, and working their language into the matrix of my writing. The language is in flux because rather than a taxonomy, a nomenclature of seeing and presence, what happens is that experience of habitat loss, and attempts at habitat restoration, place words, syntax and utterance as we have it under pressure.
Something else emerges, an active language of presence that needs to critique the ironies of its own impact, of its own vicarious (and direct) participation in the ongoing dynamics of dispossession and acquisition.
Neologisms and new nomenclature might be one outcome, but more often it’s a shift in what constitutes the observing eye and voice, what makes the self in the process. In poetics, we talk about the “I” in the context of the unified self and challenging the primacy of personal observation when language itself creates at the very least a simulacrum of self in which the poem is a cybernetic producer of opinions, surprise correlations and yokings, undoings and interjections. The poem itself is alive — made by the writer, it takes on a life of its own.
So, does this mean I am suggesting the poem itself, for example, channels the disturbances and distresses of country? Well, yes, up to a point.
The wasp making its mud cells and inserting caterpillars or spiders, stunned but alive with a wasp egg laid inside their bodies, to be eaten alive — in a state of life suspended — by wasp grubs, which break out of their dark cells into the light.
It’s a poem that needs no explanation if “made” — it works on levels of allegory, symbol, a glimpse of habitat, and so on. Or maybe something a little more acceptable to a readership which ultimately looks for affirmation of connection with the natural world while benefiting from capitalist exploitation of place (look around us), an echidna moving rapidly downhill, its quills liquid in the fractured light of late afternoon sun streaming over the rim of valley, through the York gum canopy.
We don’t see echidnas often here, but we see evidence of their diggings for ants and termites almost daily. And we see their scats. In fact, coming across scats is how we identify so much, including the brushtail possum. Scats, footprints, scratchings and sounds, especially at night. These languages are outside direct encounter, and often outside a description we might offer. Echidna sightings are coming less often, though evidence of their presence remains strong.
The poem interprets this as avoidance and strategy on the part of the echidna — we respect the not-seeing, and delight in the evidence of presence. Same with kangaroos. But in the case of eagles, the (illegal) killing of an eagle in a pair that were resident for many, many years, is an undoing that is hard to resolve under habitat-loss pressure. It is brutal. But writing about this loss, about the wrong done, cannot be a fait accompli — it must believe in the imagined presence as likely “return” as species, at least.
All life we see on the block is vulnerable to human violence — thrill-killings of animals are sadly not uncommon, and there seems a strong link between far-right politics of patriotism and shooting around the district.
Scramble-biking, bush-bashing and remorseless clearing are changing habitat around the zone we “protect” at a far greater pace than when we arrived. It’s easy to use the “fly-in fly-out” dynamic as a distraction for the massive abuse that mining is in Australia, and to separate social issues of employment and purpose when discussing the obvious (“clear-cut”) environmental abuses of miners and their protectors, but nonetheless it is a real impact on ecologies that needs to be factored in.
The psychology of the mine
The impact of flying, the obvious impacts of the mines themselves, but also the psychology of purchasing a country property within a couple of hours’ reach of the city airport to use as a base. So many of the farmlets and blocks around where we live appear to have been bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers (real estate ads often overtly pitch to FIFO buyers, and I offer anecdotal evidence of conversations direct and indirect with and involving neighbours), and in many circumstances the psychology of the mine looks as if it has been brought to those blocks — substantial bush clearing, clear indifference to wildlife, and a psychology of control, ownership and what manifests by intent or default as a disrespect of Aboriginal land rights.
Of course, such attitudes to country are not unique to FIFO miners, far from it, and they have found around them a context of receptivity to such ways. And I do not blame the individual miners for this per se, but I do blame the mining companies and those who facilitate the abuses of land by those miners. A work psychology too readily becomes a life psychology.
In creating writing that acts as witness to species loss, we too easily become contributors to the archive, to the seedbank of metaphors that substitute for the real thing. It’s like repugnant natural history collections that give us a record of so many lost species when the very process of collecting has been a part of that species loss. Science bears many moral ironies that I feel an active, restorative poem should not. I am not saying a poem shouldn’t ironise the limitations of its own production, its impacts on ecologies; in fact, the opposite. I am saying it should be aware of them and critique its own role in the destruction.
A poem having a role in destruction? I hear you wonder. How so? Because industrialised consumer life is impacting and many, even the most environmentally-minded, make their art through the tools of exploitation.
It becomes a question of genuinely weighing up the cost in terms of the benefit to the environment. Does getting the message out there regarding habitat destruction cost more morally and literally than not doing so? The notion of “costs” needs to be placed under pressure before we begin. An economics of the figurative needs to be held accountable, scrutinised.
Which brings me back to the language of participation, observation and instruction I intimated when talking of our son Tim and writing what’s happening on the block. My partner Tracy and I are often confronted with the horror of having to say, “We saw a lot of those (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, trees, shrubs, flowers etc) when we were kids, but not often now, or not at all.”
In many cases, flora and fauna we knew as children are now endangered or verging on extinction, not only within the physical areas with which we were most familiar, but across their range.
An example is the brown bittern, which I used to see and hear as a child when around swampy areas, and which is now almost extinct, certainly in the Northam region. Yet Tracy and I, travelling with Tim, had the remarkable experience of very likely seeing (unconfirmed sighting) a black or brown bittern between Toodyay and Perth last year. Tim, a most observant person, didn’t see it because he was studying something else outside the opposite window, and has been quizzing us about the sighting ever since. He has done a vast amount of research, and we have considered all other possibilities (too big for a little bittern, not the right size and shape for a night heron, a bird I know well), and so on. It was really, a notifiable sighting. Not in the sense of an “invasive species” (the irony!), but as an almost extinct species.
Would such notification lead to an invasiveness that affected its habitat more, or would it lead to protection? I consider recent sightings of night parrots in northern Australia, and wonder. The “understanding” to “save” can be so destructive — life, persisting against the odds, suddenly disturbed, fetishised, made vulnerable with over-attention. The “leave alone and stay away” approach can often be more effective. At least until the bulldozers arrive, which I’ve learnt over my life is eventually.
So, what do we do? Write a poem of resistance, of embodying the bird but not appropriating it in a poem, of keeping an eye on habitat and acting if it looks under threat?. Where a creature once was, a creature might be. Belonging and the marks of the endemic cannot be erased entirely with all the brutal means of survey and development, though the modus operandi of the state and its private apparatuses is to achieve that, and to convince us it’s been achieved. They want no comeback, to retrospective protections, and certainly no memorialising that cedes authority.
Brushtail possum evidenced. The nature of our interaction yet to be decided — largely by possum, but also by us. Possum enters poems, enters essays, enters stories. But does it become just a word, just an idea separated from its living life, it’s actuality? So easily, yes. Yet tense has a lot to do with it. As an active presence, not a thing of the past, and as a generator of sounds, movement and language. It is not an addition to here; it is here. It is not an exercise of painting a landscape; it is the land.
Language used in the poem needs to be alive to the visceral, to a future in which it is not archival but an active presence, a declaration of rights. How can this be achieved? That poem is trying to write itself at the moment, and is finding its feet, its fur, its eating-places and shitting-places. There is an obligation in how we write, and a social implication in all we write.
In the community of the poem, which is both inside the text and outside, a knowledge of species loss and its prevalence might inform an observing, interaction with and imagining of a creature (or plant) as not only at risk, and on the verge of loss, but also as a resistance to collecting, archiving and relegating. The creature isn’t “was” but “is”, always now. We, the readers and hearers, participate in the speech-making of the poem, participate in this “imagining, and acting, in a world”. There’s one biosphere of many worlds. In our writings we need to make the leaps, the segues, the conversations between the one and the many. Brushtail possum evidenced. Listen, listen — on the roof, now, tomorrow!
This is an edited version of a paper given at the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 48th Annual Symposium, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, held November 15 to 17, 2017, in Western Australia. The poem A Rare Sight is from John Kinsella’s The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Press, 1995).
As Cape Town counts down to “day zero” and the prospect of its taps being turned off, there have inevitably been questions about whether the same fate might befall a major Australian city. The most striking parallels have been drawn with Perth – unsurprisingly, given its drying climate, rising evaporation rates (which increase consumption and reduce water yields) and growing population.
So is Perth really running out of water? The answer depends on what type of water is being considered, and what constitutes “running out”.
When faced with this question most people think of drinking water, which is of course essential for household use.
It often ignores non-potable groundwater that is heavily relied upon in Perth to irrigate gardens, lawns, ovals, golf courses and market gardens. This water is also used by light and heavy industry, as well as being crucial to the health of wetlands and vegetation across the coastal plain.
Perth’s drinking water supplies are largely safe, thanks to early investment in the use of groundwater and in technologies such as desalination. But somewhat ironically, as this recent book chapter explains, the future supply of lower-quality water for irrigation and to support ecosystems looks far less assured.
The overall effect is that soils and vegetation are often dry, meaning that rainfall will be lost to evapotranspiration rather than running off into rivers and dams, or recharging underground aquifers.
At the same time, Perth has made major changes to its drinking water supply. The city now relies chiefly on groundwater and desalination rather than dams. For a variety of reasons, drinking water use per person has declined, most notably since the early 2000s when sprinkler restrictions were introduced. Some have switched to self-supply sources such as backyard bores, so for them total water use may even have increased.
Since the late 1970s, Perth has increasingly used groundwater rather than dam water. Seawater desalination has also grown to almost half of total supply. Even more recently Perth began trialling a groundwater replenishment scheme to recharge aquifers with treated wastewater.
With the declines in rainfall and streamflow predicted to continue, water security will continue to be an important policy issue over the next few decades. Although both are much more expensive than dam water, desalination and groundwater replenishment look set to secure Perth’s drinking supply, because seawater is virtually unlimited, and wastewater availability increases in line with the city’s growth.
Boosting drinking water supplies with desalination or groundwater replenishment is unlikely to resolve the pressures on non-potable supplies. To understand why, it is necessary to understand Perth’s unusual hydrology.
Most of Perth is built on permeable sand dunes, which can soak up even the heaviest rainfall. This allows runoff from roofs and roads to be directed into nearby soak wells and absorption basins.
About 70% of local road runoff and half of roof runoff already recharges the shallow unconfined aquifer, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess water in areas with sandy soils. As well as reducing discharge costs, this practice helps to ensure that bores do not run dry in summer.
Perth also has large main drains that are designed to lower groundwater levels in swampy areas and prevent inundation. Some of these waters could be redirected into the aquifer where there is a suitable site.
Investigations have also shown that the quality of treated wastewater can be greatly improved when infiltrated through the yellow sands into the limestone aquifer in the western part of Perth. It is suitable for irrigation after a few weeks’ residence within the aquifer.
Without these kinds of measures, local governments will struggle to water parks and sports ovals, to protect Perth’s remaining wetlands, and to safeguard the trees that help keep us cool.
So while drinking water supplies for an affluent city like Perth are reasonably secure, our vital non-drinking water supplies need to be augmented using some of the water we currently discharge into the ocean. As Perth gets even hotter and drier, and green spaces and wetlands are needed to provide much-needed cooling, we can no longer afford to let any water go to waste.