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nature culture

nature culture

ross macleay

north bank
North Bank Institute of Independent Studies
Published by Ross Macleay, 2005
PO Box 153, Bellingen, NSW 2454, Australia

Copyright © Ross Macleay 2005

Printed by Griffin Digital

National Library of Australia

Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Macleay, Ross, 1954- ,

Nature culture.

Includes index.
ISBN 0 9757636 0 1.

1. Restoration ecology – New South Wales – Bellinger Valley

2. Natural history – New South Wales – Bellinger Valley
3. Bellinger Valley (N.S.W.). I. Title.


I Natural History 1

1. The Island, The First Time As Tragedy….……..…...…................….3

The fate of a rainforest remnant in the post-colonial lowlands
of the Bellinger Valley
2. Imagining The Pristine………………..…………….......................….11
What was the Bellinger Valley like before 1860, can we know,
and does it matter?
3. Tallowwood Country.….………...…..……………..…..…..................33
The evolution and ecology of the eucalypt forests and rainforests
of the Bellinger Valley and eastern Australia
4. Lantana……………………………………..….……….................…..…85
Portrait of a weed and what it does to the bush infested with it
5. The Fan…………………………….…………………….....................…95
The restoration of a bit of bush
6. Belonging And Naming………………………….….............…...........99
One person’s relation to a bit of bush
7. Ecology………………………………...………………........................103
The ecology of a house in the bush
8. The Dream; Or Unconscious Nature………….…....................…..117
How society fashions its nature and its image of nature, unaware
of itself; and how nature comes back to haunt it.
9. The Natural History Of Culture.…………………........................…125
A theory of cultural evolution outlined as the basis of understanding
the current state of our culture of nature

II The Image of Nature 135

10. Shallow Ecology, Or The Philosophy Of A Science....................137

The science of ecology, its concerns and its limitations
11. Out There In The Community Ecology, Or Natural Resource
The contemporary culture of ecosystem management and Landcare
12. The Image Of Nature……………………….……..…….....................185
How nature is represented not only in painting, photography,
cinema, TV, national myth, pop culture and environmentalism,
but also in national parks and wilderness.

12.1 …in Art......186

12.2 …as The Image of Australia......196
12.3 …as Environmental Issue......203
12.4 …as Environmental Norm......211
12.5 …as Bushfire......220
12.6 …as Nature-in-Itself......231
12.7 …as Sheer Appearance......234

III The Poetics of Nature 241

13. The Nature Critic…………………….………………..................…....243

Nature considered as an object for criticism
14. Natural Beauty………………………………………..................….....255
The aesthetics of nature explained
15. Works Of Nature…………………………………...…........................279
A proposal for an art and a poetics of ecological management
16. The Island, The Second As Farce…………………...…..............…293
The restoration of a rainforest remnant

Selected Source Notes…………………......……....……..............… 314



Natural History

The Island, The First Time As Tragedy
The fate of a rainforest remnant in the post-colonial lowlands of the
Bellinger Valley

…to grasp historic being in its utmost historic definition, in the place
where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the
place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being.

—Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Let’s just call it The Island. It’s had more than one name: Bellingen Island,
Bat Island, Paradise Island and others, official and unofficial. It’s been more
than one island: an island in the Bellinger River, sometimes south sometimes
north of the main channel; an island in time, the last bit of a fabulous past left
behind after the flood of modern history stripped the rest of the lowlands down
to grasses and weeds; an exemplary ecological island, a rainforest remnant,
alone, adrift and run to ruin in a floodplain of pasture and gardens, 4 or so
hectares made for students of the theory of island biogeography; and an island
city of grey-headed flying foxes—a Manhattan of bats. It’s even an island that
isn’t an island. It only becomes onedividing the Bellinger there at its tidal
limitwhen the river rises and floods around it. And when a real flood tops it
two or three times a decade, it goes underwater, briefly and altogether ceasing
to be. For a day or so it’s a mirage of rainy forest and wet bats moored over the
swollen stream
Somehow it didn’t just disappear forever in the overflow of history. It was
saved, but at a price. Everything had changed and everything had to be worked
on now, forever. All through the lowlands, grass had to be slashed or grazed,
forever. Weeds had to be controlled, trees had to be planted, forests tended,
lawns mown, gardens sown, animals fenced, ferals poisoned, forever. This was
the curse. The Island, which had looked after itself for a thousand years, now
had to be the work of human labour too, if it was not to fall into utter ruin.
It had all been Gumbaynggirr country once. About 1862 huts began to
cluster in the new clearings on the south bank of the Bellinger, just below The
Island. It was a year after the Premier John Robertson got his Crown Lands

Acts through the NSW Parliament, permitting citizens to select, occupy and
then purchase the freehold of land out beyond the towns and city. In the late
1840s and 1850s, the Europeans who came to the Bellinger had camped close
to the coast on the accessible estuarine reaches, a place to handle and dispatch
red cedar logs cut from the brushes on the lower river, and to run a few sheep
and cattle. There was conflict with the Gumbaynggirr and at one stage police
from the Macleay ordered the cedar getters back to civilisation and safety. Boat
Harbour, the new settlement, was a few miles upstream from an older one down
on the brackish reach at Fernmount. It was in the middle of the lowlands on a
red terrace above the river, as far up from the ocean as down from the junction
with the Rosewood at the bottom of the Dorrigo Mountain; as far up as shallow
boats could go before shoaling started, and as far downstream as freshwater
went. At a certain phase of settlement—before coastal and river travel gave way
to road and rail—north coast towns had a habit of falling into such places:
Wingham, Wauchope, Kempsey, Bowraville, Grafton. You could look from a
ridge in the new clearings and see the escarpment 1000m high to the north and
west, a forest tableau of illuminated spurs and plunging brushes changing from
morning to evening, from sunlight to stormlight, thrown up steep and high
around the lush bowl of the Never Never, the northern tributary that flowed
down to meet the Bellinger a few miles upstream from The Island. The never
never was beyond the back blocks then, now it’s the North Shore of the
Bellinger Valley. A few more miles up into the scrub, above the junction with
Rosewood, the course of the Bellinger narrowed into a meander between the
upper valley walls, along a floodplain where the small flats lie only on the
inside bends.
In 1869 a Police Station and Court House were built in Boat Harbour.
Afterwards all the main public and commercial buildings in the valley were
built there, and moves were made to call the town Bellingen. Bellingen had at
first been understood or misunderstood as the Gumbaynggirr name for the river.
By the time the town’s new name was official, the river had come to be called
the Bellinger. Both names had sprung from a source in Gumbaynggirr and been
taken into the current of English usage. The river, taking the inflection of an
active player, flowed better with that er ending. Some say the Gumbaynggirr
word for the river was Baliijir, others Bundarryuron. The more memory, the
more names.
Back when the town was founded The Island was a long load of deep
alluvium along the southern bank, curved like a huge fish steadying itself
against the flow. A dry chute channel, the bearer only of floodwaters, separated
it from the town proper, which was on a higher terrace to the south and east.
That terrace had been laid down as fresh floodplain 100,000 years earlier and,
as the river cut lower, the ancient alluvium had weathered into a bright red soil.
The southern chute channel had itself been the course of the river a little over
1000 years ago. During the intervening millennium The Island had been built in
layers of sandy silt each time floodwaters lapped out of the main northern
channel and spread south. It was a big fresh cake only a thousand years old.

Within a generation of the European arrival all the land around it was taken up
as freehold and cleared. The Gumbaynggirr tenure, of course, had been spirited
away. The Island itself was left with the title of Crown Land. It was flood
prone, and it lay in the long risky commonwealth of the river, right there beside
the town, a place unwanted but for sundry public uses, like collecting red cedar
logs that had been floated downriver for rafting the rest of the way to the
Just before 1900 most of The Island was put up for sale. The story goes that
someone thought it had potential as a market garden, but no serious buyers
came forward. No one seemed to want to buy an asset that could wash away.
People had a good sense that it was just a cake of sandy loam, a delicacy for the
appetite of the river. Less than an acre on the upstream end was all that was
ever sold. A small patch had already been cleared on the downstream end
around about 1885 and it had several feet of soil stripped from it in the next
floods. Perhaps the same thing had happened when most of the upstream
freehold was cleared. It is now a metre or so below the uncleared public land
immediately downstream of it. Through much of the 20th century, people would
drive to this clearing from town and park their vehicles there. Meanwhile,
weeping willows were planted around the public downstream clearing, and by
1900 the townspeople sought respite there from the hot summer that opened the
new century.
By intention or the lack of it most of The Island6 acres in the
middlemanaged to keep its old brush of lowland rainforest: buttressed white
booyongs and giant strangler figs, pepperberries, giant stinging trees, wild
persimmons and maiden’s blushes, red cedars, giant water gums, red and
yellow carabeens, socketwoods, dark laurels and weeping lilly pillies, bangalow
palms and lawyer palms, vines, lianas, ferns and orchids, pothos and giant
pepper creeping over the trunks and branches, hanging in long garlands, a high
canopy with flocks of birds feeding and caroling way above, fruits falling
through the dark foliage down to the soft earth. For those who arrived in the
early 1860s the Bellingen country was all dense thick scrub and the only place
you could see the sun was on the river bank. Between 1860 and 1890 nearly all
the lowland alluvial forests were cleared, except for this last patch on The
In 1900, after the attempt to sell it failed, the lower end of the Island was
reserved for public recreation and the preservation of native flora. Trustees
were appointed. The rainforest that had overwhelmed selectors in the youth of
arrival had disappeared by their middle age, too fast for listless social
consciousness to register what was happening until after the fact. The Island
was the one memento people managed to rescue as the noise of history woke
them from the dream of their past; and it was to stand there now next to the
town where fate had left it constructed, as monumental as any museum. Already
by then, public-spirited people were spending time and money, fencing the
western boundary. They were clearing paths across the Island, cutting ramps to
the swimming holes, enhancing nature with ornamental trees, and letting the

odd beast wander through to tend the undergrowth in a bucolic parkland. It was
mooted as a suitable nucleus for Botanic Gardens. All around, new farms were
cropping a flush of corn from loam that had cured for a thousand years before
the plough revealed it to the sun. They were milking cows, fattening pigs, and
sewing green pastures right down to the riverbanks and, with the advent of
paspalum around 1900, right back up the ridges under the standing columns of
ringbarked gums. Already though, with each flood, the river’s course was
changing, and its bed was shoaling as the channel widened and scoured into a
shallow stream flowing over gravely beds. And on The Island, those public
spirits were already removing lantana and noxious weeds.
70 years later The Island was still a cultural site. Toilets, dressing sheds,
paths, footbridges, swings and swimming holes had marked out its meanings on
the landscape. Establishing a culture in the process, people had mown lawns,
cleared vines, slashed weeds, planted trees, and spent summer days swimming
along the river, picnicking along the bank, creating memories. In most of these
signs and actions, the sense of it all needing up-keep was implicit. Weeds
brought from far away continents were tangling up the edges. Trees were
falling, floods were licking out big dollops of soil as soft as wet biscuit, and
right from the start, management problemsthe native vines growing in sunny
gaps and edges, the vicious barbs of lawyer palm, the hooks of cockspur, the
plate-sized leaves of stinging trees, and the chattering flying foxes hanging like
gargoyles in the nooks of the canopymust have seemed like signs of nature’s
own propensity to fall from grace. Those who liked their nature idyllic and who
had a sense of history worked on it according to the time, inclination and
methods of their day. They used brush-hooks, axes, slashers, fire, guns and tree
planting. On one occasion scores of azaleas were planted to enhance the
parkland. Their flowers were to be pastel relief from the serious excess of
green. Or at least it is said they were planted; none lasted. What lasted were
things like oranges and lemons, camphor laurels, mulberries, privets, jacaranda,
coffee, willows, white magnolia, celtis, Madeira vine, Wandering Jew and a few
species from other parts of Australia, like lemon-scented gum, silky oak and
black bean. It may have been a museum to the primeval forest, but like all
museums it was a kind of fantasy, partly an image of paradise, partly a chimera
of unreconciled desires and social antagonisms reflecting its own times as much
as the past, a fantasy whose conception was only half realised against the
relentless forces of time and nature and society.
After the floods of 1974, a couple of strangler figs, massive things 50 metres
tall and buttressed 10m wide at the base, fell in the middle of the remnant,
smashing everything underneath and opening a big sunny gap. Weedy exotic
vinesthe chief being Madeira vinegrew over the wrecks. They must have
lain across The Island like the rotting carcasses of beached whales. With a bit of
help from a fallen river oak and a bulldozer driven by a future mayor—worried
about erosion to a mate’s property, or so the story goesthe river changed
course around to the chute cut-off on southern side of The Island, where gravel
mining had already prepared the way. This became the main channel, a wide

shallow reach cutting back during each flood into the living sandy loam of The
Island’s high south bank. Meanwhile, under the giant river oaks and weeping
lilly pillies on the northern bank, the old swimming holewhere no one had
ever touched bottomfell into disuse and silted up. The low footbridge over
the river there was swallowed by silt and weeds. Old photos taken from the Red
Lead bank on the northern river terrace show kids in mid dive, their feet just
leaving the footbridge timbers, their fingers breaking the surface of the clear
green water, memories slipping into the past, behind them a lawn and then a
wall of jungle edged with planted red poinsettias. Others show half
recognizable members of the Society for Growing Australian Plants, the men in
grey trousers and white shirts, the women in summer frocks, sitting on rugs and
lawn, drinking tea and eating sandwiches and patty cakes. That was before.
Now fewer people came to the place, and the old island began to drift out of the
present and down the river into memory. It was so little visited by the late 70s
that the odd metropolitan settler was tempted to grow a little dope there. One
was arrested and got a mention in the Sydney papers. The grey-headed flying
foxes, who had long been visiting and camping on The Island, had the place
largely to themselves. Haunted by thousands of them, The Island was allowed
to disappear into the darker unconscious of the town. Only their humid odour
and their dark swarms flying out at dusk reminded people of the place, lying
there dying of shame.
Most of the old structure became a ruin of rotting columns covered in
Madeira vine. It had a kind of monumental grandeur standing up out of an
impossible tangle of exotic vines, scrub nettles and cunjevois, but it was the
poignant, decaying kind. Under curtains of vine, there was a shell of old, rotting
trees surrounding the widening, weedy hole in its heart. Across the ground, a
knee-deep carpet of Wandering Jew or a head high sward of palm grass stopped
any native seedlings from surviving. Even so, The Island at this stage may have
had more plant species than ever. Along with the relics of the past, there was
now an astonishing catalogue of subtropical weeds from all around the world:
Madeira vine, Wandering Jew, balloon vine, palm grass, mistflower, ageratum,
crofton weed, taro, castor oil, celtis, lantana, cape ivy, yellow ginger, wild
tobacco, privet, camphor laurel, queen palm, devil’s trumpet, coffee, canna lily,
green cestrum, turkey rhubarb, to mention a few. Once a stately museum of the
primeval, now a crazy run-down bat palace and weeds-of-the-world theme park.
Only a few people still worked on it, a bit like those science fiction survivors of
a nuclear war, working to shore up memories among the ruins of their destroyed
civilization. They organized the occasional working bee, brush-hooking
vinesnative or exoticlighting fires to burn off the aerial tubers on the
hanging vines, clearing undergrowth to replant trees. Most called for an end to
the bats and the destruction they wrought. The bats were easy targets,
defoliating and breaking anything that could still be called canopy, shitting
everywhere, panicking, fighting and fuckingnoisy, stinking, rotten
batsalways there to blame, these ridiculously inverted parodies of humans.

For most people it was easier to ignore the place. After all, like all the north
coast towns, Bellingen had always turned its back on the river. It was built to
face the other way, onto the main street where the proper business of the
everyday was done, and away from the idle stream. Except for a few public
places at crossings and swimming holes, all but landowners, cattle and
trespassers were cut off from most of the Bellinger. It was hardly a public asset,
and landowners and lessees were able to exploit it where need be for water and
gravel. And in order to seize and hold every last bit of grassy freehold they
would cut down the detested casuarinasthe river oaks that had once grown to
such an uncommon size on the Bellinger and sung like harps in the windand
they would cut the other trees that grew along the banks too, and then despise
the lesser weeds that grew back in their place.
For millennia—at least since the flush of wet climate that had followed the
last ice age—the river had been flowing through a narrow channel. Usually
there was a bank of deposited Holocene floodplain on one side and an older
Quaternary terrace or much older Permian bedrock on the other. The riverbank
trees were cleared and cattle waded and snacked on the mat rushes that held the
toes of the banks and the undermined banks crumbled into the floodwaters and
the channel widened with each big flood. Where the flooding river had once
lapped over its banks, dissipating its energy and dropping its silt through the
floodplain forest, now the widened channel held much more water and in each
flood a torrent barrelled down it, ripping it wider and wider. In a hundred years
millions of cubic metres of landscape and cadastre went down the river. Where
there had once been the odd grand river oak poking out of a gallery of weeping
lilly pillies and rainforest, now the oaks colonised the wide gravel beds in
droves, several to the square metre, with scarcely room for the rushes and
sedges to grow between them, racing to two metres tall in two years and making
a 30m open forest in 30. When new floods came, landowners resented the
regrowth. It seemed to be holding the gravel beds in the channel and sending
turbulence back to eat out their grassy freehold. On high banks they would see
the odd old survivor undermined, tipping in and taking a hunk of paddock with
it. They hated the things, they fought them where they could, but with little
hope of beating them. To wage war against the river oaks was to play into their
hands; they were born to rise and prosper in the devastation that the war on the
riverbanks created.
The river became the most ambiguous bit of local nature. It was the most
tormented by the curse that the modern world had brought upon itself and its
landscape. It remains a perennial object of desire and the valley’s central
symbol both of gratification and purity. Ever flowing, it could promise to each
new generation the endless beauty and bounty of natureeven as it
decayedbecause its beauty was great enough and its decay slow enough, for
each generation, in ignorance of the past, to briefly experience the childish
sense that it still flowed the same as ever. As if any river could ever be the same
river twice. You could still find a swimming hole, laze like an eel under the
weeping lilly pillies, with the fresh of water in your nostrils and the din of

cicadas in your ears, still catch a bass or discover a platypus. Hence, even as
sorrow welled up for its fading beauty, people would still exploit it with a
childish faith in the endless grace that only such beauty could offer. Besides,
fading beauty can be the most bewitching, and it had never got quite as seedy as
the other north coast rivers.
Delusions could arise and flourish, contradictions could seem like the
happiest of reconciliationsthe kind that could only flow from the grace of a
paradisal stream. Works of exploitation and restoration were deemed to
coincide: mining gravel out of the bed was thought to be the obvious way to
restore the deep channel; clearing the casuarinas from gravel islands was the
way to stop them sending floodwaters back onto eroding banks; cutting trees
from the banks was the way to stop them tearing away soil when floods
undermined them; grazing cattle right down into the stream was the proper way
to control the weeds that so cruelly colonised the cleaned-up banks. Keeping
the wound open would heal the sore. It suited people to have a good argument
about itthe river was a birthright, and a matter of passion and expertise for
everyone. Everyone was a bush hydrologist and aquatic biologist. Everyone
was a connoisseur and riverine aesthete, and everyone could reminisce. But the
turbulence of antagonistic beliefs and disputed tastes made the unruly society of
river politics seem just as wild as riverine nature. Both nature and political
culture were too powerful for puny human agency, so apart from the tyranny of
piecemeal exploitation and dicky restoration, adult society mostly ended up
leaving the river to cattle and kids and to the odd insignificant moments of extra
curricula life, while the wild and abundant nature of the river mutated into
malignant growth.
The Island epitomised the world of the river. There nature erupted into its
most weedy and ruined form. There, kids could get away from the parental law
and cut down trees, build cubbies, catch snakes. They still do; and they grow
dope, litter bongs and discard condoms under the flying foxes.
Its many names trace its places in social history: Paradise Island, briefly, for
the moment of its circumscribed beauty at the time of the fall; Jarrett Park,
arbitrarily, because most places in Australia have been obliged to wear an
Anglo-Saxon eponymin this case that of the first white child born in the
valley; Bat Island, with attempted drollery, for its gothic ruins; just The Island,
in familiarity, for those to whom it is the island; and Bellingen Island, politely,
for those for whom it isn’t, or from elsewhere. By the mid 1980s it had become
obvious to the experts, that if anything was to be done to save it, it would have
to be done fast, it would have to be done big, it would have to be ruthless, it
would have to be done with cash and herbicide, and if something wasn’t done
immediately it would all be lost. With instructions to investigate the feasibility
of returning The Island to parklandsuch was the imagination of the
pristinethe Bellingen Shire weed inspector flew over the disaster area in (it
was said) the helicopter the police used to find dope growers, and he brought
back the expected news from his reconnaissance. Everyone knew. What was the
point of doing anything if no one did anything about the bats? They would just

destroy whatever you managed to restore. And what was the point if the whole
course of the river was left full of the same weeds? They would all just come
back in the next flood. What was the point if you did not do everything,
everywhere in the catchment? What was the point if you did not do it forever?
What was the point of spending a fortune in time and chemicals on such a
dump? The best thing to do was bulldoze it all, make a few football fields and
return it to parkland.

Imagining The Pristine
What was the Bellinger Valley like before 1860, can we know and does it

…to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger

—Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History.

Like Australia, like everywhere, the Bellinger Valley has been discovered
many times. Therefore, its pristine beauty may well have faded before the eyes
of beholders, many times, like the past itself. There is the story that long ago a
man named Birigundah or Ulitarra came ashore from the direction of the
sunrise into the Gumbaynggirr country. He walked through the country north
of the Bellinger across to the ranges where he met a woman, strange or
perhaps misshapen in her form, whom he called Cowoongamba. She was
already here before him, but the story does not tell when she came or what was
here before her. Another story survives, telling how a station worker named
William Myles and two unnamed sawyers discovered the Bellinger in early
1841. It is now just a story, the barest bones of one.

The sublime surveyor.

History, as the telling of what has happened, is the tyranny of what survives.
This is all we have to tell us about the other history—history as it actually was.
Like Birigundah, the oldest story of this country comes out of the sunrise, from
generations of lost voices, crossing a gulf of uncertain comprehension at the
end of the 19th century, there to be recorded in the monstrous form of writing,
thereafter to survive through the subsequent generations of an anthropological
journal and an academic compendium (Ryan, 1988). Arbitrary and fragmented,
selected or discarded by generations of retellings, always ripe for
reinterpretation, history is never irrevocable.

In March 1841 Clement Hodgkinson, the Government Surveyor on the
Macleay River, travelled north to the Bellinger Valley with a party that
included two unnamed guides from the ‘Tanban tribe’, and William Myles.
Cattle, escaped convicts, exotic diseases, shepherds, stockmen or cedar cutters
usually went before official surveyors, but the surveyors were commissioned
clerks and they documented their deeds. Hodgkinson’s account was published
in London in 1845. It is the oldest written description of the Bellinger. On the
title page the author declared that the region was first explored and surveyed by
him. As a rule, in the thrill of discovery, people seldom remember how unlikely
they are to have been the first. Here the forgetfulness was a self-serving and
well-known symptom of the unconscious of European Enlightenment. To the
state of the land at that moment when western culture made its discovery of the
Gumbaynggirr countrythat state now forever lost, but briefly described, and
constantly re-imaginedwe latecomers still like to apply the adjective pristine.
Cause precedes effect, precedent governs what follows, and in the intimacies
of love, ownership, and contract priority claims priority. It rules in logic and
causation, ethics and the law, affectively and effectively. For narrative animals
like humans, in a world where time has only one direction, what comes first
commands attention. It can usefully fascinate us and, in turn, so easily bewitch
us. Throughout the history of its use and reuse, the sense of the term pristine
has drifted from the Latin meaning former to take on the bewitching
connotations of primeval, untouched, unspoiled and perfect. Pristine nature is
supposed to be the pure state of nature. Authentic nature. Natural nature.
Hodgkinson recorded his very first view of the valley as sublime, the same
kind of view that we still expect to experience at lookouts, the kind that
Gertrude Stein once said she likedbut would prefer to turn her back on.

The view from the range was magnificent. At our feet was the narrow
glen of the Bellengen, choked up with dark, impervious brush, whilst
immediately opposite us on the north side of the river, a gigantic range
rose up in perpendicular buttresses, three thousand feet high, and the
total altitude of the range could not be less (judging from analogy)
than five thousand feet. Opposite the point we had attained, the
outline of this high range was a level table land, but nearer the coast it
became broken into an undulating outline of steep, conical summits.
Exactly opposite us, in a deep cleft, a beautiful cascade dashed down
several hundred feet perpendicular, like a long band of silver,
glittering in the rays of the declining sun; to the east we could discern
the dim outline of the horizon over the Pacific Ocean; and turning to
the west, mountains rose in varied contour, whilst snow-white clouds
floated in serpentine wreaths among the narrow glens, and dark
mountain recesses. (38-9)

Distant mountains, snow-white clouds. Apart from that impervious brush

and the Pacific, it could almost be any ranges, anywhere. Height and distance

abstract enough detail to make sublime views all much the same. They are less
a view of nature than, as Wordsworth advertised, ‘the emblem of a mind
sustained by recognitions of transcendent power.’ Sublime sensibility had
become a received way of seeing mighty nature as sheer spectacle, at once
apprehending the dreadful power of it and feeling the elation of being above it
all. In fact it had become a way for exhilarated viewers to get an exalted view of
themselves, an ecstatic aid to self-construction. What we get here is
Hodgkinson’s reproduction of a generic prose that can scarcely be called his
alone. He is able to use the cadences supplied by custom to climb to a lofty self-
perception. Sublime experience was all too tempting. It had already become a
set piece in the rhetoric of surveyorsand all well before Eugène von Guérard
gave us the painted images of what would become its definitive Australian
colonial form. Descriptions like this now remind me of Paul Keating’s
linethat unless we latecomers woke up there would ‘always be the feeling
that we didn’t quite belong, that we’re not serious, that we’re just here for the
Modern society’s first take on the Bellinger signaled the coming usurpation
of an old order. What distinguished that pristine world was not in the sublime
apprehension but in the detail that Hodgkinson momentarily transcended as he
paused there above it all before his descent into the valley. It was some of this
difficult detail that his kit of ‘scarlet woolen shirt and light kerseymere trousers
doubled in kangaroo leather down the leg (50)’ was designed to keep at
baythe ticks, the mosquitoes, the leeches, the stinging trees. And later, with
the aid of time and writing and the considered acts of description, depiction and
publication, he would rise above it all again. The descriptions in the journal are
mundane and conventional. Fascinating in their brevity, their omissions, the
familiar arbitrariness of their selection, and their vanished subject matter, rather
than in any abundance of extraordinary content, they flicker before us like some
old phantasmagoria. Anyone seeking an image of the past pores over them
trying to decipher the dream landscape of this discovery, trying to recover the
fleeting image of the dream, searching for more meaning. We stare at the text,
reduced to gleaning whatever detail we can, hoping to save something of what
was here before, and as it actually was. Yet these few fragments of text are
almost all we have, like the few remaining fragments of the original floodplain
forests. All we seem to save is the precious, melancholy sense that there is
nothing left beyond the text.
That tableland was the Dorrigo PlateauDundurriga in the Gumbaynggirr
language, but according to a white legend, named after a Don Dorrigo, a South
American military adventurer who come upon it from the direction of the Great
Dividing Range and who was the first to take red cedar from the plateau. Those
steep, conical hills were The Dome, McGrath’s Hump, Dibbs Head, Moombil,
Goobergooberyam, Roogatargah, Wondurrigah, Tucker’s Knob in the distance,
and Coramba, alone and tucked back out of site as the escarpment slides around
and down and into the sea from the depths of which the remaining peaks
surface here and there as the Solitary Islands. James Cook called the islands

that when the Endeavour sailed past in 1770, and he called it a hilly country
with the lands near the shore of a considerable height (Evans, 1969). That
cascade must be the one on Water Gum Creek at Darkwood dropping down
from Mountaintop. The exultant surveyor must have been standing somewhere
up on Diehappy Ridge. It’s quite a long way up the valley. Why did
Hodgkinson strike out from the Nambucca across all that rough, difficult ridge
country to that particular point? When you stand at Mountaintop now and look
back over it, ridge after forested ridge ranges back into the hazy distance. Why
didn’t Hodgkinson just walk up the sandy beaches and then follow the
Bellinger up from its mouth? Grazing land was always an official goal, so he
hoped to be able to judge ‘if it were a stream of some importance (27)’ and
perhaps come upon some hidden grassy valley amongst all that rugged forest.
The route he chose precisely avoided the grassier coastal forests, forests that
were kept that way, in parts at least (although this is a moot point) because they
were occupied more intensively by the Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr and fired
for hunting, health, thoroughfare, camping and ceremony. Perhaps the coastal
route seemed too easy, or already discovered, and as modern adventurers still
do, he wanted to create an experience worthy of the words he’d write. Such
adventure had to be given an original and sacred purpose: to cross the ranges,
to visit the unvisited, to view a promised or undiscovered land, to discover an
important river and its source.

Selective quotation

How reliable are the words Hodgkinson wrote? On the descent into the
valley the party ‘traversed a thicket swarming with fire-flies.’ Fireflies today
keep to the calendar. In the valley they first appear on a warm September
evening, maybe after a shower of rain. Their winking constellations fill the
thickets of nightfall, but these evening shows last no longer than a month. On
the cooler plateau the little flashing beetles have their fairy-month in
midsummer. Hodgkinson says he saw them in the late summer month of March.
Are these the same species of lampyrid beetle that still now light up spring
evenings in the forest, members of the genus Atyphella? Has a species become
extinct? Are the seasons all changed? Is Hodgkinson elaborating his tale,
compounding events from different seasons?
What about the ‘pretty bush with crimson flowers’ that Hodgkinson found
on his second visit twelve months later. This time he had travelled from the
coast, up the estuary to ‘the fresh running stream…as clear as crystal in a
narrow bed of large shingles.’ The pretty bush was growing ‘in those parts
uncovered by water' (59). Was it a red bottlebrush, a small tree that grows on
the gravel benches of some of the other coastal rivers, and that is now a
standard native plant of Australian gardens? Nowadays I doubt if they or any
other pretty bush with crimson flowers grows wild on the Bellinger. Although I

have seen one flowerless candidate near the Never Never junction, cropped low
by cattle almost beyond recognition, I wonder whether they ever did.
And how reliable are words like Hodgkinson’s when others select them?
Like the landscape itself, the modern imagination of the pristine is a battle of
interpretations. How pristine is pristine? Before the whites? Before the
Gumbaynggirr? Before fire and eucalypts? Before the break up of Gondwana?
Was Australia in 1788 a landscape of big well-spaced trees in open forests and
grassy woodlands, tended and kept clear by Aboriginal burning? Did the
impenetrable forests of the east coast come up after the big old timber was
logged or cleared and the land was abandoned to European mismanagement?
Could you ride your horse through it all at a canter?
In the contest to describe pristine Australia the running has been made by
two main versions: grassy forest and dense treesprobably because social
conflict induces arguments that line themselves up on one of two sides. If you
hint at agreement with one claim of one side, the other side will line you up on
it to attack you. Behind this battle loom different ideologies of land
management, and especially one big question: to burn or not to burn. In a recent
battle over the pristine Benson and Redpath (1997) boxed quote for quote with
Ryan, Ryan and Starr (1995) taking a few swipes at Tim Flannery (1994) as
they went. Implicated in or drawn into this dispute are the credentials of green
and anti-green ideologies. Literary writers on Australian nature like Eric Rolls
(1981) and Les Murray (1997) have favoured the open forest story. They say
the dense forests of the east coast only came up after the Kooris were
dispossessed. Behind this question about whether to burn or not to burn there is
another (for some) bigger one: how untouched was the Aboriginal landscape?
Did Aboriginal people transform the landscape with fire? Had their forebears
migrated to Australia and burnt out the habitat of the ancient megafauna and
hunted them to extinction? These questions go right to the notion of
unhusbanded terra nullius. They seem to threaten the modern notions of
wilderness. Is wilderness just terra nullius for greens? Was the pristine
landscape a great culturescape whose continuous transformation at human
hands now licenses the transformations of industrial agriculture against the
preciousness of greens?
These days almost no one knows a wet grassy forest on the east coast
because so many of the moist eucalypt forests are choked by lantana, or by
introductions from East Asiathe privets and camphor laurels that come up in
thickets on formerly cleared ground. And where there were brushes of
rainforest or open forests of eucalypts on the alluvial flats, there are now
agricultural grasslands. Get rid of the lantana though, and the tall moist
eucalypt forests that grow in the ridge and gully country surrounding the
Bellinger floodplain start to look a bit like some of the places in Hodgkinson’s
description. They become accessible. Even without traditional burning, the
floor is often covered with dwarf panic and basket grasses, blady grass and
ground ferns. This is pronounced on the ridges and as you descend into the
gullies where the soil moisture persists, understorey trees and shrubs, and then

rainforest trees, shrubs and vines become denser. When it’s not snagged up
with lantana there is a structured understorey of red ash, blackwood, cheese
tree, native laurels and myrtles, palms, native grape vines, giant raspberries and
prickly sarsaparilla.
It’s easy to quote Hodgkinson to make it seem that the pristine vegetation
was grassy foresteven in the Bellinger valley: ‘We found ourselves on a
beautiful grassy forest bank, overlooking the river Bellingen' (39). As
Hodgkinson ascends the upper Bellinger he describes

The small clear plains, covered exclusively with coarse broad-bladed

grass, growing as high as a man’s middle, and having the appearance
of small wheat fields; the grassy forest flats were principally wooded
by that species of eucalyptus called Forest Mahogany. I halted for the
night on a grassy flat on the brink of the Bellingen. (40)

This sounds like blady grassImperator cylindricaa fire tended species

that grows throughout subtropical and tropical Australia and Asia. It follows
slash and burn farmers around, taking over old gardens. Its underground
rhizomes are sweet with stored sugars. Burning it would flush out sheltering
reptiles, and bandicootsthe small marsupial that sneaks up and steals the
campfire in a Gumbaynggirr story. Afterwards the rhizomes send up green
shoots, and a rough salad of woody seedlings sprouts that attracts red-necked
pademelons and swamp wallabies out of the brush to browse the glade at dawn
and dusk. Hodgkinson’s eucalypts sound like tallowwoods or maybe white or
red mahoganies. There is no mention here of dense undergrowth or prickly
raspberry, or climbing lawyer palms and sarsaparilla vines. A few days later, on
his way back to the Macleay, Hodgkinson describes

…the steep slopes of the range we were upon, the dazzling whiteness
of the branches, and the upper parts of the trunks of the huge
blackbutt trees, and the grassy slopes bathed in mellow moonlight…

On his second visit, this time down on the Bellinger estuary somewhere near
where the Pacific Highway now crosses it, he writes

I struck across the country to the northward, and arrived on the main
branch of the Bellengen, exactly opposite a verdant plain of very
pleasant aspect, about 200 acres in extent, covered with broad bladed
grass and high reeds. (56)

And from a vantage looking further north:

The high range, dividing the Bellengen and the Clarence river, throws
off, near the mouth of the former, a low range of hills, extending along

the coast, and which continued past the Solitary islands. The country
between these hills and the sea appeared to be grassy forest land. (65)

This must be where Bongil Bongil National Park now is. A place then where
old growth eucalypts dominated everything elseexcept perhaps in the moister
rainforest gullies or where trees had fallen. Or so it seems from the cursory
descriptions. Between 1870 and 1916 the best timber was cut outall the
straight logs without barrels up the middle hollowed out by termites or fires, the
legacy of centuries. By the time the Forestry Commission was established in
1916, Pine Creek was regarded as cut-out’. Under new management, foresters
went through the bush highgrading it by ringbarking all the gnarled, hollowed
over-mature trees that were suppressing younger, straighter, regrowth. Those
trees were also providing nesting places for greater gliders, yellow-bellied
gliders, sugar gliders, quolls, possums, owls, parrots, cockatoos, and tree
creepers. Then came the big cuts of the Second World War, the plantations of
the 1950s and 60s, the battle for Bongil Bongil in the golf course and resort
bubble of the 80s, and the koala wars of the 90s. Now it’s a place sometimes
choked with lantana, sometimes a clear run of blady grass and soft ground fern
and gristle ferns under blackbutts, sometimes red ash gully rainforest and
flooded gums and tallowwood, sometimes hoop pines on Pine Creek,
sometimes foredunes of coast banksias loud with Little Wattle Birds, sometimes
dense littoral rainforest of tuckeroos and riberries, sometimes paperbark and
swamp mahogany forest on coastal creeks and lagoons, running all the way
through the coastal foothills from Urunga to Bundagen to Muttonbird Island,
the most southerly of the Solitaries. The breeding home to thousands of wedge-
tailed shearwaters, Giidayn Miiral is Muttonbird’s Gumbaynggirr name. Its
pregnant lens of black rock is mantled green with kangaroo grass, red-flowered
coral pea and blue-flowered commelina, succulent and bright and fertilized by
the bird shit.
The island used to be a few hundred metres offshore, cradled by a bay that
curved north from a headland called Garrambila or Corambirra. Garrambila
looked at Giiday Miiral across blue water and imitated the rounded mass of its
partner. Now there’s no longer an island. It’s at the end of the Coffs Harbour
breakwall, an umbilicus of rock gutted from Garrambila and thrown out straight
from the beach. At the same time, from the broken carcass of Garrambila itself,
what the poet Robert Gray calls another rough intestine of stone was drawn
forth by the quarriers, only to fall short of the island. It is the southern wall of
the harbour. It goes nowhere. When James Cook and his crew passed the
Solitaries, they steered along the shore all night 3 leagues from shore, having
advantage of the moon. Giidayn Miiral had long been a revered place where the
crippled Moon, covered in sores and carried by his people, bathed before dying
and being buried. The moon rose again, waxed and waned and only men could
go out there to gather the gibbous eggs of the shearwaters from their burrows
among the tufts of grass.

People like grass. They tend their grasslands with fire for hunting, their
pasture with their cattle or slashers, their lawn with mowers. The Aborigines, it
is said, kept many a forest and woodland grassy. In the service of grass they
burnt along their thoroughfares on the coastal plains, river flats and along
travelled ridges leading up to the escarpment, broadcasting fire in their travels
and shaping the bush to their economic and ceremonial ends. They burnt grassy
headlands for vantage points, grassy forests for hunting, burrawang groves for
fruiting, campsites for protection and ceremony. It was the Wintarn people of
the new, green blady grass who took compassion on the disembowelled Moon
and carried him to his gunyah. Surveyors like Hodgkinson had an eye for the
grass and sought it out. And nowadays most of what used to be the forested
floor of the Bellinger valley is grassland. People wanted it that way, and put a
lot of work into it. They still do. They have to. It takes a touch of sublime
transcendence, a little aesthetic distance, to fancy the dark romantic brushes
with the leeches and ticks and giant stinging trees. The brushes were what
Hodgkinson had to get away from before he could turn them into subject matter
in his adventurer’s tale. Nowadays, few could endure the psychic effort needed
to like or ignore the weedy scrub that colonizes neglected pastures on the
floodplain. Few could endure the social stigma of letting it all go and turn into
rubbish. A ‘beautiful grassy forest bank overlooking the Bellinger’probably
made and tended by the Gumbaynggirr and the native herbivoresis a place
where Hodgkinson’s party could simply find themselves, as if on a spiritual
quest. Where they see grass, people take comfort in it. They find words or
words find them. Leaning and loafing back on it, Walt Whitman called grass
the flag of his disposition. The Europeans had the whole of the pastoral
tradition back to Virgil and Theocritus and beyond from which to draw pleasant
associations. And on hearing the news that that they would be returning home
to Tanban, Hodgkinson’s Dunghutti guides ‘indulged for two or three hours in
loud singing as they lay extended on the grass' (43).
These passages about grass are selective quotation. The images of grassy
Aboriginal forests and woodlands are retrospeculation. Historical accounts are
always selections, and what gets selected is not simply a matter of the writer’s
authority. The author’s dedication to truth notwithstanding, selection can go on
over his or her head. In the battle to imagine the pristine, the comforts and
profits of grass always had a habit of colonizing the colonial imagination. But
romantic sensibility and the sublime aesthetic had also colonized the European
imagination. A stage in modernity’s aesthetic self-formation, they had defined
themselves precisely in antagonism to the older pastoral aesthetic comforts. For
Immanuel Kant it was a matter of ethical self-formation: sublime transcendence
was primarily a matter of self-transcendence. Years before, Edmund Burke had
already theorized and sanctioned its place in English culture.
From Hodgkinson’s journal, by which time Romanticism and Enlightenment
had become official culture, we can easily fill in the ‘luxuriant vegetation’, the
dense rainforest ‘brushes’, and the undergrowth that selective quotation can
clear away. In a drawing of ‘Natives spearing fish in the Bellengen River’

Hodgkinson shows a luxuriant, quasi-tropical lagoon. In the foreground, beside
a group of Gumbaynggirr fishermen, bangalow palms arch over giant flowering
spider lilies. Across the estuary, in the middle ground blackbutts climb above
littoral rainforest and mangroves. A little further away grassy woodland runs up
a slope. You can see the shadows of the individual trees there thrown over the
broad open ground. And in the background conical peaks loom out of the mist,
a multiplication of the single cone of Nunguu Miiral, looking all too much like
a range of volcanoes. The hair of the men, tied in plumes on top of their heads
emulates the artifice of those peaks or the extravagance the palm fronds. It’s a
European vision of the South Pacific. Just how much is matter of fact, how
much artifice, how much romance, how much an artifact of faltering execution,
it is difficult to say. As a whole it is a picturesque combination, but it is a
combination of certain matters of fact, of brushes and grasslands, of estuarine
foreground and rugged background.
Most of the contemporary citations that I have read from Hodgkinson seem
to be selected as testimony to the rainforest of the pristine Bellinger Valley.
You come across them in local histories and environmentalist documents. Sure,
they are traces of romantic sentiment. Searches for the pristine or the past as it
actually was—forested, grassy or whatever—seldom avoid that. In 1912, a
generation or more after the fact, the District Forester, E.H.F. Swain estimated
‘the area of the original softwood brushes of the Bellinger River was probably
something like 60,000 acres of the richest soils of the whole 300,000acres of
the watershed' (8). The rainforest romance is rooted in fact. Hodgkinson himself

In the brushes here [on the southern Kalang arm of the Bellinger] I
saw the finest cedar and rosewood I had yet noticed; I also saw several
creeping plants, climbing among the trees, which were quite new to
me. (37)

Or, from the main arm of the river:

In a straight line of ten miles, we crossed and recrossed the river no

less than twelve times; this was unavoidable on account of the steep,
inaccessible forest banks, which formed tangents to the convex bends
of the river on either side. Our course, therefore, lay from necessity
along the alluvial land, which consisted of brush, cedar plains and
forest flats. The brush contained the finest cedar and Rosewood I have
ever seen; the trunks of these trees were often six feet in diameter, and
ninety feet high, before they threw out a single branch. (40)

This is the most common image of the pristine on the Bellinger—a place of
rainforest brushes and big timber, of Red Cedars and Rosewoods. I note that,
just as in the latest Macquarie Dictionary, there is no mention of booyongs.
Buttressed white booyongs would probably have been a typical tree in the

floodplain rainforests. With deep red-brown timber, strong, heavy and straight
grained, they were sometimes called ironwoods or stavewoods. Slow growing
denizens of mature, complex forests, with their silver trifoliate leaves and
plump fruits winged with platinum foils, they still grow on Bellingen Island—
they dominate the place—and on some little protected flats up on the
Rosewood River, but they have been wiped out on the nearly all the floodplains
now, and with that, they’ve gone from the Australian vocabularyalong with
socketwoods, carabeens, red beans, cudgeries, muskwoods and pepperberries.
As the symbols of a legendary, plundered wealth, it is only the red cedars
(Toona ciliata) that prevail.
Many think they are rare these days, standing in name alone. However these
close relatives of the Indian toon grow throughout warm rainforests from the
NSW south coast to Indonesia. Certainly big ones are scarce.

The cedar and rosewood grew to a very great size on the banks of the
Bellengen; the red cedar, (Cedrela toona,) was remarkably tall and
straight, for this kind of tree is in general more gnarled than the
common Australian trees. One cedar, which was lying prostrate, was
measured by my men, and its straight trunk was found to be eighty
feet in length before it threw out a single branch. (58)

Since the fall from the pristine, the age of giants has passed. You can still
find a rare old grove hidden away on some creek above the upper Bellinger,
protected by terrain, secrecy or honour. However the red cedar tip moth,
Hypsipyla robusta, can now manage to find all the Bellinger seedlings. Its
caterpillar eats out the growing shoots, making that ‘gnarled form’ the norm in
most places cedars now grow or are grown.
Among the few giants that remain from the old floodplain forests are the
strangler figs. There are several kindssmall-leaved, black, deciduous, Port
Jackson, and Moreton Bay. Each has its funereal foliage, the Moreton Bay’s
brushing back light and rusty in a breeze. They became a standard in early
colonial horticulture. Sydney’s parklands are still full of them. Old farms on the
Bellinger often still have one somewhere, the branches cropped to cattle height,
throwing a wide deep shade. In the forest they start life as epiphytes in high
branches and drop roots to the ground like big cello strings against the bole of
the host tree. Eventually the strings filigree into a network, they thicken, and
then they enclose the host. Because they grow from the top down, those planted
in the open or those that have sprouted on cut tree stumps tend to have shorter
trunks supporting their broad crowns. They grow fast, so most of those on the
floodplain now have probably grown on stumps since the valley was cleared,
but a few relics remain toothe tallest ones. There are still a few of them
looking down over the little patch of rainforest on The Island, unsteady on their
tilting or rotting trunks. Hodgkinson describes Moreton Bay stranglers on the

The enormous fig-tree was very common here; the fruit was now ripe,
and scattered in great quantities on the ground. We ate plentifully of
these figs, as their flavour was agreeable enough, being of an acid
sweetness. Large numbers of the crested flock pigeon were feeding on
this fruit. (33)

And along with flying foxes, fig birds, bower birds, parrots, pigeons, doves,
honeyeaters, possums, lizards, fruit-fly, you name it, they still do—although
nowadays you usually see the flocks of topknot pigeons feeding in the camphor
laurels that have come up as weeds wherever the cleared land has been
neglected. Nowadays few people would dream of eating the seedy fruit of wild
figs. The sweet maggoty flesh ferments on the ground. And as far as the
banality of contemporary horticulture is concerned, figs are now just too
preposterous. With their big, buttressed bases, wide branches, vast greedy roots,
great height, and soft wood, they crack open drains, lift foundations, swallow
up backyards, and drop limbs on cars and children. And that ferment of fruit
and fauna is all too much.
Some other surviving floodplain giants go unseen because they go against
legend. Like selective quotations, many an oral landscape myth has been
selected to imagine the pristine in a convenient ideological form. On the
Bellinger today, and on the other nearby coastal rivers, it is solemnly held that
the casuarinas or river oaks are not native to the area. Rural myth has denied
this species the prestige and authenticity of the pristine or the nativeit’s
tantamount to saying it’s just another weed. I have even read Landcare
literature that calls them weeds. The pressures for this process have been
strong. Many despise these trees. They could only belong to a world after the
fall. Since the clearing and erosion of the floodplain, they have successively
colonized riverbanks and gravel benches left raw by flooding. They are seen as
redirecting floodwaters away from the channel that they have colonized and
against adjacent, privately owned banks. When they become big trees they can
topple and rip out hunks of alluvial land, reminding people of a wild and
changing nature that defies cadastral order and the inalienable rights of
property. Yet Hodgkinson saw them there in the Gumbaynggirr country where
he first came upon the Bellinger. He marveled at them. Like so many things in
the land of former times they were giants.

The Casuarina also grew to such an uncommon height, and its foliage
assumed such an unusual form, that I thought at one time it was a
species of pine. (40)

The next day he saw ‘narrow, lightly wooded flats, with patches of Swamp
oak (Casuarina paludosa) growing among the shingles of the stream' (41). He
and his contemporaries merged swamp oak and river oak into one species.
Despite pine-like forms, the name oak was applied because of the oak-like grain
of the timber. Neither oak nor pine, the casuarinas are Casuarinas for the way

their fine branchlets hang like the feathers of cassowaries. Sometimes
casuarinas are called she-oaks to distinguish them from the venerable patriarch
of European timbers. Swamp oak (now called Casuarina glauca) grows on the
estuaries. River oak, Casuarina cunninghamiana, grows upstream on the fresh
water reaches. Hybrids grow where it is brackish and the two species overlap.
There are still a few of the old river giants standing on the banks of the
Bellinger and the Never Never. The river oaks are a bit like other elements of
the pristine that selective social consciousness has liked to erase.
The image of the past must pass through the filter of ideology. In so many
historical accounts of eastern Australia, the two great categories might be brush
and grassy forest, but this is itself an image filtered into the black and white of
an enduring ideological antagonism. There to be noticed in Hodgkinson is the
record of a mosaic of vegetation types, even though the simple contrast is also
implicit in Hodgkinson’s own interpretation: for his horses, for his camps, for
thoroughfare, and for agriculture, Hodgkinson sought out the grass; the brush
and everything else was to be endured. But then that everything else that is
endured is eminently suitable for embellishing his explorer’s journal.

On the other side of the Algomerra, we entered a dense brush,

which continued unbroken for several miles. Here we had to
dismount, and assist the blacks in cutting a passage for our horses
through the masses of briers and creepers, that bound the trees
together. On emerging from this brush, we continued crossing a
never-ending succession of densely wooded ranges, and brushy
gullies, containing small gravelly water-courses, and at length reached
one of the main streams flowing into the Nambucca. It was about one
hundred feet wide here, being a limpid, shallow stream, with a
gravelly bed. On entering the brush bordering on this river, we
experienced considerable annoyance from the great quantity of nettle-
tree saplings. My hands and arms soon ached from the poisonous
touch of its leaves, and our horses suffered very much; one of them
threw himself on the ground, snorting convulsively with pain. The
nettle tree attains a very large size at the Macleay and the Nambucca,
being often six feet in diameter, and of a corresponding height; its
wood is very soft and spongy, and its leaves, which are of great size,
resemble in shape the leaves of a mulberry, and at the same time
possess the bright green velvet appearance of a geranium leaf. The
slightest touch of one of these leaves occasions a most acute stinging
pain; but horses suffer infinitely worse than men from contact from
the leaves of the nettle-tree, as their skin rises in large blisters, and
great temporary constitutional derangement seems to take place. Our
blacks killed a large carpet-serpent near here, which was carefully
preserved for their repast. (29-30)

Our course now lay along the rapidly ascending bed of this torrent
for some distance, until masses of fallen trees, choked together in one
inextricable mass, forced us once more to enter the brush. We found it
so dense that we were obliged to cut every yard of our way; night was
coming on, and to increase our discomfort, it began to rain heavily.
The brush-leeches, issuing forth from the dank rotting leaves, soon
attacked the calves of our legs; at length we got into more open brush,
and finally reached the forest on the narrow spur we were ascending.
Dwarf palms, and ferns, however usurped the place of grass; it was
now night, but still indispensable that we should reach a place where
grass was to be had. (35)

Hodgkinson saw little of agricultural value in the place. The ecological

complexity was all too much noise for agricultural design to simplify. He
frequently refers to the inutility for agriculture, ‘being nothing but alluvial
brush land, or heavily timbered abrupt mountains' (60). Before you could get
anywhere you would have to go back to a clean slate.

If agriculture were sufficiently profitable in New South Wales to

cover the expenses of clearing land of heavy brushes, the rich narrow
glen of the Bellengen, might in that case be highly available,
especially if rice, cotton, tobacco &c. were the objects of cultivation.

Agricultural designs had driven the colony west across the Blue Mountains
into the grassy woodlands of the western slopes. In many cases the graziers just
followed the paths blazed by the wandering cattle themselves. Along the north
coast from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay, it was the cedar getters who first
cut their way like miners into the brushes of the dark valleys. Just before he left
the north coast, Hodgkinson heard that cedar dealers had got a boat over the
Bellinger bar, and sawyers had gone over from the Nambucca to cut cedar.
Hodgkinson himself went on to become Assistant Commissioner of Lands in
Victoria where in 1866 he set up the first state forests. In less than a century,
the great alluvial brushes and the forested ridges of the Bellinger had been
logged of their cedars and cleared for farming. Never cultivated for rice, cotton
or tobacco, they were cropped for maize, grazed by cattle, scoured by floods,
and, having proven to be of dubious agricultural utility after all, forsaken to
forest regrowth, subtropical weeds, hobby-farm beef cattle, and a late twentieth
century metropolitan diaspora.

Re, re, re, re,

Restoration of landscapes, regeneration of vegetation, rehabilitation of

rivers, re-establishment of wildlifein the modern culture of nature, the end of

each undertaking is imagined, almost without hesitation, as a return to some
imagined pristine state of nature, some paradise lost. Otherwise whatever is still
sort of pristine is locked up in a reserve. Such is the norm that defines the
poetics of nature. It exerts a force that binds scientists, environmentalists,
technocrats, managers, engineers, and community volunteers against the
centripetal force of their otherwise relentless specialization. Even when I read
restoration ecologists getting circumspect about the pristine and talking about
ecosystem condition and function instead, I sense they are still benchmarking
their condition and function with the pristine. Strange that the technocratic,
managerial society of nature suffers this epidemic melancholia. Nostalgic for
the past and the natural, it indulges its furtive aesthetic unconsciously under the
guise of functional ecosystem management. This is perhaps an understandable
ploy—given that loggers, land clearers and so called developers seem to use the
concept pristine even more often now than environmentalists, but in negative
formulations to assert the fallen state of whatever bit of regrowth they want to
exploit. At a seminar on wetland management a thoughtful participant
diagnosed the nostalgia for the pristine before suggesting that we should not be
trying to restore wetlands as they used to be; we should be creating them anew.
The response to such a notion though is that complexes of co-evolved species
fit and work together, but that made-up complexes are unlikely to. It is with
good reason that instrumental ecologyand ecology is always an instrumental
sciencelooks to the past as it actually was in order to create the future.
Walter Benjamin once said that recognizing the past ‘as it actually was…means
to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger' (1970, 257).


The past is always just an image of the past. Little that is empirical is left in
historythat is, little that anyone can witness again for themselvesother than
the surviving documents. Until there were durable linguistic documents there
were only words written in air. History as we now know it and as opposed to its
older sister myth could not get properly started. But, of course, there have long
been other non-written signs that have more or less enduredall documents in
their own way. Things like images in stone or wood or pigment, and the tools of
everyday lifethe more durable forms of what anthropologists call material
culture. Even the words of oral poetry were made in such a way that they
endured by using the pleasing mnemonic technologies of song and prosody to
make myth more than just the ephemeral, spoken word. And then there was
To those who can read it, landscape is a catalogue of stories and concepts.
The comings and goings of oceans, volcanoes, glaciers, tsunamis, rivers, the
works and relics of ancestors, the scares of war and agriculture and industry,
lines of travel and transport, the style and locations of camps, towns and cities,
the distribution of wealth. We have always needed to write our memories onto

the stuff of landscape because there was never enough room in our brains; but it
is not just a case of landscape and memory. It is landscape and memory, myth,
lore, history and science. Everywhere places have their portion of spirit and
eventfulness: here Birigundah met Coowoongamba, there, at the head of
navigation, the town of Bellingen appeared, this hill was once one of Birigun’s
yams, that is an unknown grave. Every bend in a road or river, every house in a
street, every hole in the ground, every tree, every blade of grass tells something
to someone.
In Australia the whole melancholy landscape looks like a battlefield where
wars have been fought between industrial agriculture and the Aboriginal
country, between conservationists and exploiters, between fire and rain,
eucalypts and rainforest, grass and trees, pasture and bush, native vegetation
and exotic weeds, nature and culture. Yet somehow modern society has an
extraordinary capacity to forget itself or hide from itself. It has an unconscious
like Freud’s Wolfman. People are astonishingly practiced in not seeing this
great battlefield, yet it is as stark as the line the highway cuts through the bush,
deep into the geological strata. People think that only Aboriginal society sings
and recites its landscape, but all societies do thisalthough perhaps more
prosaically. Aboriginal landscape culture should remind us of what is universal
in cultures: Humans store information in their surroundings. They can
remember more then. The classical rhetoricians didn’t invent the technique of
memorizing things by associating them with places and images. They just
developed their own formalized art of memory by working with the kind of
memory nature bequeathed humans. When people find out about the riches of
traditional Aboriginal landscape culture, the landscape culture of modern
societyalready an unapprehended default settingslips further from
recognition. At best it is understood as modern society’s functional division of
the landthat is town, that city, that bit is rural, that bit forest, that bit national
parkbut uncomprehendingly this is not taken as a story signified in
landscape. It is just the present and ‘planning’ and given. Perhaps there is a
kind of repression going on here, as if people cannot bear to contemplate the
atrocities and vandalism wrought by the society they think of as theirs. Or
perhaps the functional differentiation of post colonial life has alienated
landscape from us latecomers by voiding it of dreaming and allowing it only the
most profanely functionalist of functions, one of which, namely recreation and
tourism, must impossibly bear the burden of surrogate for sensed lost meaning.
When European monks were copying manuscripts in the Middle Ages, they
sometimes took an existing manuscript, erased it and then reused the erased
parchment to write a new text. The new text was called a palimpsest. In a
landscape, stories are erased and written over with new stories. In Australia the
palimpsest of modern society has been written over great swathes of the
traditional landscape. Even where a bit of the old meaning remains it has often
been translated into a modern idiom. What has been lost? Fascinated and
frustrated by this question, modern society falls into answering it obsessively
with its imagination of the pristine. The pristine, however, is not to be

understood primarily as referring to untouched nature. That is a secondary and
partisan meaning, one that has often prevailed in the battle over the imagination
of the pristine and been grafted on by the romantic evaluation of extra-human
nature, and one therefore that may well be in cahoots with the colonial
convenience of terra nullius.
So as well as the written text there is landscape. It is mundane and
conventional. By virtue of the familiar arbitrariness of its selection, it reads now
like a phantasmagoria of mute damaged nature. We pore over it trying to
decipher the dream landscape of the pristine, searching for more meaning,
hoping to save something of what was here before and as it actually was. All
we seem to save though is a sense of melancholyespecially since the
linguistic culture that would give it words in which to speak and reveal its
historical character as a catalogue of stories and concepts has by now been
almost completely silenced.

Natural justice

For the colonists, the place was fallen right from the start. If it wasn’t the
difficult terrain and the brush, there was the melancholy truthto be put out of
mind if at all possiblethat there was another people living in this place. The
coastal Aborigines were friendly to Hodgkinson, but he did not meet anyone at
all up in the valley. On his second visit in 1842, he left the coast and started to
go up the Bellinger again. As well as being accompanied by guides from
Yarrahapinni, a local coastal man nicknamed Bellengen Billy took the
opportunity to join the party. Only a day’s walk above the tidal limit, and still
well downstream of where he had reached the previous year, the surveyor
struck a problem. The guides, who were well out of their country, and the
coastal man who could hardly have left his, pressed Hodgkinson to turn the
expedition around and head home. They had seen fresh tracks and were worried
about the hostile intentions of people who had come down from the Dorrigo
plateau. There might not have been any Aborigines who spent most of their
time in the deep steamy valley. It seems to have been a wildish place secluded
between the coast and the plateau, perhaps a place for thoroughfare, seasonal
uses or ceremonial visits. There are still stories that the Kooris called it sickness
country, but I have only heard them from white, metropolitan immigrants of the
1970s who, new to living in the bush, seemed to suffer more than their share of
infected sores and diarrhoea. Whatever its origin—black or white dreaming—
the story explained the authentic trauma of the sores and diarrhoea. It could be
used to complain about one’s lot while ignoring hygiene or avoiding
antibiotics. Complete with its own claim to Aboriginal authority it was ripe for
the invoking. Meanwhile for the first white immigrants, whether on the coast or
the plateau or even in the more secluded valley, the Aborigines had got here
first, way back in the dreamtime of prehistory.

So in this alienated landscape, an unpeopled pristine was a dream from the
first moment. If only the place had been as empty as the desire transferred to the
expediency of terra nullius would have had it. Sure, the ‘corees’ were helpful
for the most part. For a couple of red flannel shirts, or ‘the promise of a
tomahawk … and plenty of tobacco’ Hodgkinson could engage men as
guidesbut only after waiting through ‘a grand corroberree.’ ‘At length, … a
cessation took place in the obstreperous singing, and frantic gesticulations,
which create such intense excitement in the Australian savage during his dance,
and the performers … cast themselves down exhausted before their fires' (51).
Hodkinson appreciated the natives relish for their country and its
provisionsfrom the fat cobberra, (a wormlike, shell-less mollusk they dug
like marrow from rotting snags in the estuary) to the fish, snakes and lizards
they snaffled along the way. Yet, as the description of the corroberree
indicates, their interests and his were often frustratingly at odds. Otherwise the
natives were a hostile disappointment or a lurking danger in the thousands of
little undeclared wars by which the white invasion proceeded, best ignored if
possible and played down by a kind of stoic, British dispossession into a
bureaucratic bother. By Swain’s account—third hand history written in 1912—
the bush on the Bellinger around 1850 ‘was infested by aborigines, numerous
encounters occurred, and eventually the police came over from the Macleay and
ordered the intrepid adventures back to civilization and safety' (12).
Hodgkinson reports (second hand) one scene in the many theatres of the
colonial wars

About that time [March 1842] the blacks, from the sources of the
Nambucca and the Bellingen, had committed several outrages on the
sawyers, who had lately proceeded to the former river to cut cedar.
One sawyer had been murdered most cruelly by the savages, who
attacked him and his companion whilst felling a tree. When his body
was found, it was ascertained that he had received more than fifty
spear wounds in different parts; one spear had transfixed his kidneys,
and even the soles of his feet had been pierced. His arms were
dreadfully fractured, evidently whilst he was in the act of raising them
to protect his head from the clubs of the natives. A retaliatory
expedition was accordingly organized to pursue the aggressors, and
endeavour to seize those who had been chiefly concerned in this
murder. In the course of the chase, the sawyers, aided by some of the
MacLeay river blacks, succeeded in approaching the encampment of
the natives in the dead of night; and the next morning, on their making
resistance, the whites poured a volley of ball and slug among them,
and killed and wounded several. If I may credit the report of an
eyewitness, most of the wounded blacks sprang into the water, where
some of them were apparently seized by sharks attracted by their
blood. Several other affrays had taken place about this time, between

the natives and parties of white men, in which the former were the
aggressors. (48-9)

Hodgkinson’s might not be the first European report of the Bellinger valley.
In the autumn of 1841 similar events were taking place on the tablelands
immediately to the west.

‘Squatters’, hemmed in by the daily encroachment of their agricultural

neighbours, bought out by monied land proprietors, or pressed by
their own rapidly-increasing flocks and herds; sought in more distant
regions of the interior of this great ‘terra incognita’ those broad acres
of hill and plain, so absolutely essential to the success of their pastoral
avocations. (Eldershaw, 62)

This is a quotation form Finney Eldershaw’s Australia As It Really Is,

published in London in 1854. Eldershaw was one of this ‘adventurous band’
that had squatted on the northwestern New England tablelands. He has left an
account of how, after ‘hardships and privations’, the squatters became settled.
However, having themselves been pressed by economic and agricultural
necessities, the squatters had in turn pressed upon the lands of their Aboriginal
neighbours. Eldershaw’s account never entertains such a thought. It is as if the
unknown character of this terra incognita was an inducement to suspend
reflection and thereby empty the country of any others who might belong to it
or to whom it might belong. Such was the social unconscious of colonialist
society, effortlessly emptying cognitive, ethical, legal and geographical
experience of Aboriginal societyat least until a crunch came. When the
Aborigines resisted encroachment by spearing sheep and cattle, and eventually
‘massacred’ three shepherds and carried off two thousand sheep, Eldershaw
concluded that ‘patience and conciliating care’ were no longer enough against
‘the horrors and atrocities’ which resulted from the ‘peculiarly treacherous and
unequal warfare’ with the Aborigines. Ten of the squatters undertook the
‘painfully imperative task’ of pursuit and vengeance. The Aboriginesadults
and childrenwere slowed down by the task of driving sheep. Using fire,
spears, boomerangs and ambush, they had to fight off their pursuers in a series
skirmishes as they fled east across the tablelands. Eventually the two parties
arrived at the high cliffs where the tableland falls away into the coastal valleys.
Nowadays it is said that where the cliffs are highest, at Nguloongeer on the rim
of the upper Bellinger Valley, the Darkies Point massacre took place.

Here a scene of most astounding wildness was presented to our gaze; a

perfect amphitheatre lay beneath us formed by a mass of perpendicular
rocks, whose bare and rugged faces would have afforded scarcely
sufficient room for an eagle’s nest. Except that about midway from the
smooth bottom of the glen, on which the campfires dimly blazed, and
the height on which we stood, there appeared to be a rough projecting

ledge running around nearly the entire of two opposite curves of this
strange quarry like spot. A few moments examination revealed to our
wondering senses the wily stratagem by which these savage warriors
had intended to beguile us into almost inevitable destruction.
The projecting ledge of rock, which was about a hundred feet
below us, and apparently about a similar height above the floor of the
gap, was thickly thronged with the fighting men of the tribe, each
armed powerfully with heavy spears, but most of them carrying a
boomerang and a waddie. Huge stones, also, lay piled about,
apparently from their position destined for warlike purposes; and we
but in this instance approached with the incautious haste which
usually distinguishes the white man’s way of dealing with these much
despised Aborigines, our total destruction could hardly, in all human
probability, been avoided. Hurriedly edging our way towards the
mouth of the apparent ascent to the rocky platform, we were startled
by the discharge of a gun proceeding from the party below. An
ominous stir among the Blacks in the direction of this spot alarmed us
for the safety of our friends, and reminded us of the necessity for
immediate action.
Pouring in, therefore, upon the eager but unconscious crowd below
the contents of ten barrels, a fearful change was effected in their
savage glee; a scream of mingled consternation and surprise, a rush in
reckless despair towards the only means of escape from their exposed
and dangerous elevation; a murderous and tumultuous struggle
amongst themselves; their yells of mingled hate and agony, as
grappling together in the last grasp of death the foremost of them fell,
urged over the ledge’s brink by the pressing crowd behind that madly
hurried on, into the yawning sepulchre beneath, was all of the horrid
scene that the increasing darkness of the night enabled us clearly to
We now reloaded, and our party from below pushing forward to
the scene of the conflict, poured in a deadly volley upon the thronging
crowds that lined the rocky entrance to this fatal ledgeback flew the
despairing retches from that dreadful spotagain a volley from our
party on the heights dealt frightful havoc upon their ranks. The utmost
wildness of despair now seized upon them all; some actually dashed
themselves in frantic violence to the depths beneath, in utter
heedlessness of life. One solitary tree grew in this fatal glen; its
topmost limbs reaching almost to the level of their feet; with faint
remains of hope, some of the youngest and most active of the tribe
sprang at its fragile boughs in vainfew grasped its treacherous aid,
where, quivering for a moment on its yielding branches, their latest
shrieks of dying agony, mingling with the mass beneath, too plainly
told the dreadful fate they sought to shun, but only had anticipated.
Sick of the horrid carnage below, I fain would have retired from the

dreadful spot, but all my efforts, entreaties, threats, were utterly
useless. Shot after shot, with curses wild and deep, the excited fellows
launched at their hated foestheir butchered comrades’ blood was
that night fearfully avenged! (71-72)

There are several similarities in these descriptions of massacres. In the same

year, events seem to mirror one another at either end of the Bellinger valley. In
each case, the colonial law is ignored, blame is unilaterally attributed to those
not writing the history, and the instruments of vengeance and terror are invoked
in the name of justiceas often happened in the remote parts of the colony. We
may conclude that such actions actually happened, and in both places. They
were part of the past as it actually was.
However, there are also many similarities in the ways of telling these stories,
similarities that indicate a mythic reconfiguration of events right from the first
telling of history. Hodkinson’s own phrase—if I may credit the report of an
eyewitness—is already a hint to be on the lookout. In each story, avenging
Nature, as it were, enacts the retribution. In each case it is Nature that is
responsible for the otherwise unspeakable deed of torture, so that the civilized
avengers can esteem themselves as sublime observers of a cruel spectacle. In
each case the Aborigines are reduced to a hopeless and pathetic fate. In each
case they are massacred. In each case there is an enthrallment by the dangers of
the natural world, a fascination with the abjection and humiliation of other
humans suffering and panicking, and an emphasis on the cruelty of human,
specifically Aboriginal, malice. Just which of these features indicate actual
events and which indicate narrative poetics is a moot point. However the
number of features is surely evidence of the kind of generic confabulation that
empirical historiography must consider not only as a problem for the truth of its
own stories, but as part of the very subject matter of those stories. The generic
deeds, events and plots have been selected by social pressures brought to bear
during the telling, variation and retelling of narrative accounts: to hive-off
responsibility for the cruelty of massacre onto Nature itself; to justify the terror
as natural justice in which Nature is both judge and executioner; to tell an
historical allegory foretelling the final and inevitable victory against an enemy
whose fate is hopeless; to advertise the success of the reprisals; to teach an
emphatic lesson of terror; to amplify the esteem for those who undertook the
‘imperative task’ and who lived to tell the tale by enlarging the passion and
drama of their experience; and to invoke the old emotive drive of the poetics of


The fascination with the pristine is not new. Those colonizing Anglo-Celts
carried with them the images of Arcadia and Eden, of pristine paradise, and
paradise lost at that—images at least as old as writing. The once and future

golden age had long been imagined, as in Virgil’s fourth eclogue, where ‘soil
will suffer hoes no more, nor vines the hook.’ Pastoral and then Romantic
nature have probably been symptomatic of an urban hankering after the charms
of nature. The charms of nature might not have been uppermost in the minds of
timber getters and selectors, but it was not long before the bush turned into a
sentimental custom, and the old subsistence practices into rites. But, in most
places, the bush was a paradise lost right from the starta kind of fallen,
melancholic nature of hard-leaved eucalypts, brooding grey-green open forests,
endless, drab or dry. It took a bit of sublime apprehension, or the relief of a
creek or river or a ferntree glen even to start to love ita bit of poetry or
painting or hunting, shooting, fishing or bushwalking.
Whether the imagination of the pristine haunted traditional Aboriginal
society is another question. It's there in modern Aboriginal society, but is it a
symptom confined to modernity? There is a beautiful story that has been told in
several of the languages of Northern Australia—admittedly a world away from
Gumbaynggirr country. A northern Gunwinggu version told by Jimmy Midjau-
Midjau is retold by Ronald and Catherine Berndt (178):

Dog, Durug and big red Kangaroo, Gulubar, were men at Adbaldi.
Kangaroo said, ‘You try to paint my body to make me look attractive.’
So Dog got his ochres and clay and painted him to look like a
When he had finished, he said it was Kangaroo’s turn to paint him.
‘I have drawn you well. Now make me look as pretty as I have made
you.’ So Kangaroo set to work and began painting Dog. But he did it
in a different way, and made him look like a dog. When Kangaroo had
finished, Dog looked at himself in the water and thought how ugly he
looked. He was angry: ‘I drew you well, made you pretty; but you
have made me like a dog, ugly!’ And he continued, ‘Now that you’ve
made me like this, I will bite you: it’s your own doing, you made me
like thatwith a long nose, a long tongue and long teeth. I’ve got to
chase you and bite you.

Constant telling, variation and retelling have refined this moral tale into a
polished narrative of ideas. I venture to say that is about how self-description is
mediated by others descriptions of oneself and by the social means available for
self-description, and how, in turn, this alienated description of oneself is made
real in one’s own ethical self-construction. This, though, is just one
complicated interpretation. Distillation to utter clarity has left a story
transparent to many readings.
Yet, apart from the poetic perfection, the story seems still to register
something of its genesis in the contingencies of the ecological history of
Aboriginal Australia. Surplus historical contingency is just the sort of thing that
the refinements of oral poesis might have discarded in the selection of what is
ethically and metaphysically illuminating. The historical detail that seems to

have left its trace in the story of Kangaroo’s Deceit is the late arrival of the
dingo or wild dog in Australia. Compared to marsupials like the kangaroo, the
dingo is a johnny-come-lately with no autochthonic credentials at all. This
diminished native status was much referred to when justifying dingo culling
after a couple of them recently killed a child on Frazer Island. Other placental
mammals, like flying foxeslate-comers compared to the marsupialsget
tarred with the same brush when it suits cullers. Dingoes have probably been
here a mere 5000 years. We humans have been here much longer. Kangaroos
much longer again. The pretty face of the kangaroo is just the kind of thing that
goes with the refinements of the old order. The ugliness and troublesomeness of
dingoes are just the kinds of things that disturb that pristine order. Yet this
disturbance of the old order is occasioned by its authentic dwellers, by
Kangaroo’s own deceit.
Time also enters this story in another way. This is a story about how deeds
in an ancestral past have left their mark on the world. Time in this case might
be so-called Dreamtime, time eternalized by narrative poesis acting under the
pressure of metaphysics’ hunger for timelessness, or time detemporalized by
cultural forgetfulness confronting its immemorial duration, but time
nevertheless, and pregnant with itself as well as its issue. And like the
imaginations of the pristine, this too is a story about a fall from grace, and
about loss and regret and knowledge. Only in time do we see the consequences
and so the meaning of actions.
It seems to be the case that the further modern society sees itself severed
from the nature in which it senses it must have originated, or deprived of the
nature that it senses it must have sacrificed, the more that natureand
especially the still standing indices and ruins of itseems to take on a aura. In
Australia, three values at least coincide in this: the dazzling wealth and beauty
of all those living thingsthe ‘value of biodiversity’ according to the rhetoric
of environmental managerialism; the inalienable right, glory and authenticity of
the first, the former, the primordial; and the value of the sacrificed thingthat
value that may only be experienced as regret or, at best, as a promise of
redemption. Common to all stories about the pristine is the melancholy sense of
time that haunts the ever after: that only in time may we understand meaning,
but therefore too late and therefore as loss.

Tallowwood Country
The evolution and ecology of the eucalypt forests and rainforests of the
Bellinger Valley and eastern Australia.

Depth casually beginning all around, at a little distance.

Sky sifting, and always a hint of smoke in the light;

you can never reach the heart of a gum forest.

—Les Murray, The Gum Forest

Eucalyptus microcorys F. Muell. Tallowwood

Tree to 40m (occasionally 60); bark persistent, red-brown or brown-
black, flaky-stringy (with included mica-like flakes)…Abundant in
wet forest or rainforest margins on moderately to highly fertile soils
often on slopes; north from near Cooranbong. NC, CC; Qld.

—Flora of New South Wales, vol. 2.

Where I am writing is tallowwood country. Eight species of eucalyptus grow

herewithin a few hundred metres, here in these ridges between Bellingen and
the sea. All of them could be called gum trees, and so could four more species
that are almost eucalypts: bloodwood, angophora, brushbox and turpentine. For
the record, there are three or four hundred other plant species here as well. But
it’s tallowwood—Eucalyptus microcorys—that is the signature tree. It’s on all
the ridges and in all the gullies.
To distinguish these timbered hills from the river flats down along the
Bellinger, people usually call it ridge country. Fine sediments were laid down
250 million years ago under a Permian sea and afterwards pressed, twisted and
fractured into micaceous slates. Here and there, wrung from these tortured
metasediments, seams of white quartz have pooled and congealed. The present
ridges and gullies have been carved back out of this amalgam. Dark brown
topsoil covers slaty clays. The clay is yellow on the drier ridges, red and
dispersive where moisture has done a lot of leaching, dense and pale like kaolin

in low waterlogged places. There is a glut of aluminium and iron, a lack of
phosphorous, calcium and magnesium. It is richer than much of the tired old
geology of the Australian continent, but not as rich and yielding as the estuarine
and alluvial loams a few hundred metres away down on the flats. Occasionally,
jagged clots of the quartz, stained reddish by iron, find themselves at the
weathered surface, like little asteroid belts wandering through geological time.
Washed white by rain they sit like tokens on the forest floor. Few people know
that if you pick them up and rub them together in the dark they shimmer like
summer lightning. Triboluminescence. At odd locations, a spade sunk into the
soil will strike a hunk of foreign river stone, one side smoothed by water the
other flaked to a sharp edgea tool left up here on a ridge in what is now
forest, generations agoor a shard of willow pattern, a horseshoe, a length of
fencing wire, a rusty horse drawn plough, a steel Flag Ale can, an oil filter from
a bulldozer, a dope grower’s watering gear, or the gutted body of a 1960s
Holden. Time transforms artifacts from useful to eyesore to ruin to archaeology
to geology. That single tine plough has become beautiful. The rusty EH Holden
is being redeemed. Archaeologically, it is already curious; aesthetically, it is
already amusing. We visit it on our walks there at the head of Wreck Gully, and
stand around it reading the number plate and wondering. If we were kids we
might sit in it and turn the steering wheel. Upside down. The flaked stones wait
in dreamtime, forever useful and intriguing—almost geological.
Alongside the tallowwoods you will sometimes find (and, if you are me,
sometimes confuse them with) white mahoganies. Tallowwoods have longer,
stringier bark with, here and there, little wafer thin tiles of bark plated over the
fibres. Beneath the weathered grey-brown of the outer fibres their bark is a
bright tan, and from beneath that tan, tallowwoods glow a gorgeous honey, as if
the colour of the timber or of the clay beneath the tree is shining up through it.
It has a deep like fat says someone in a poem of Les Murray’s. The white
mahoganies emanate a more sombre brick red and the colour of their timber is a
paler honey. You will also find Sydney blue gums (Eucalyptus saligna and
hereinafter simply called blue gums), flooded gums, blackbutts, grey gums and
ironbarks; and, down where the gullies run out into coastal wetlands, swamp
mahoganies. There are the eucalypts’ closest relatives, the pink bloodwoods,
and on the highest driest ridges the smooth coast angophoras; and the cousins,
the lush brushbox and the tough turpentine. All tall forest trees. All seeming to
pick up their hues from the palette of the earth and the sky: barks of slaty blue,
grey and black, kaolin white, ochre and red, evening pink and storm mauve, all
touched by the blue-grey wash of hard light, weather and age, and all changing
too, so that what is drably called grey gum can be bright burning orange or cool
lime when new trees step out of old; or what is coolly called blue gum can be
hot pink and lemon as well as steel, sky, slate and ocean blue and all in one
month; timbers brick red, honey brown and earth brown, ochre and pink; leaves
draining from an ungreen country whatever fraction of colour they need to turn
the surfeit of sunlight into sugars for themselves and for lerps, cicadas, gliders,
flying foxes and honeyeaters to suck on. When you are standing in it, this

country just looks like eucalypt forest, mainly tallowwood forest, all around
you. Whatever rainforest there is here is rainforest-with-eucalypts. From a
distance the country looks like eucalypt forest too; and nearly every spring it is
all mottled with the heads of the tallowwoods in creamy flower. No other tree
seems to flower with such regular profusion. As if to mark the flowering,
tweeting scarlet honeyeaters and kok-kakking little wattlebirds arrive in the
ridge country. They join the resident eastern spinebills, little and dapper in their
busy flight, and the Lewin’s honeyeaters, who more or less own the place or act
like they do and who announce the flowering, like they announce everything,
with staccato fanfares. The honeyeaters can’t lick much nectar from the dry
cups of tallowwood flowers though. Instead it is insects that get among the
stamens and pollen, bugs and beetles that are there for the picking of
songbirdsthe loud little thornbills and warblers, the golden whistlers, and the
suave grey thrushand for any peckish honeyeaters busy feeding nestlings and
fledglings and looking for a bit of insect protein. The honeyeaters, as honey
eaters, are all celebrating the tallowwood flowering by feeding on the
chandeliers of flowering mistletoe, the Amyema miquellii that hangs from the
eucalypts and caricatures their foliage.
Each of the eucalypts finds its places among the others and according to the
peculiarities of its physiology. Communities of various species seem to
defineat least for the sorting habits of human reasonkinds of plant
communities, but fuzzy kinds. People say, with confidence, this is tallowwood-
blue gum forest, that up there on the ridge is blackbutt forest, down there in the
gully it is flooded gum forest, down on the lower floodplain along with the
rainforest, the swamp mahogany, the paperbarks and the swamp oak forests
there were once red gum forests. The ecological peculiarities of each species
seem roughly to predict their layout across the country, and then the flukes of
history leave their traces like a million imperfections in the general plan. Where
a fire got started and licked up that spur from the bottom of the gully, clearing it
of scrub, and where there was a surfeit of seed from two old flooded gums and
of sunlight on the clean dirt, there now grows a stand of flooded gums, young at
only 50, 35 metres tall, straight and polished. The Flooded Gums we call
themloud with summer’s cicadas, the sound of the heat says Robert Gray.
The witching hour is noon in the gum forest says Les Murray. The Flooded
Gums is a monoculture broken only by a couple of pink bloodwoods and a
tallowwood, although that is ignoring the vines and shrubsthe morinda,
sarsaparilla, orange thorn, saw sedge, grey myrtle, hard quandong and fairy’s
paintbrush, and many others that grow as understorey. 100 metres further up the
spur the flooded gums give way to tallowwoods, blue gums, bloodwoods and
white mahoganies. There is a slightly different understorey here, and there is
one single Symplocus in itthe only one for miles around. A few old black
ironbarks, that must have once spread there branches here over open ground,
mark the changeover to the forested ridge that we now call The Symplocus
Ridge. This ironbark is Eucalyptus ancophila, a scattered species found only in
the moist low ridge country of the Bellinger and Nambucca valleys.

In the next gully to the west, where a road was cut across the hill 20 years
ago, tallowwoods came up in the mineral soil next to mature trees. Follow the
same road around the contour to the shadier western side of the gully and there
you strike young blackbutts, 20m tall, offspring of big trees seeding on the
ridge above. Blackbutts tend to be in drier or better drained sites. They
dominated the dry main ridge just above, so it was mostly their seed that
happened to fall on the open subsoil. Even then, if the soil had not been open
and ample enough to accommodate the blackbutt’s rooting demands the
seedlings might not have prevailed. Their trunks are rough on the bottom and
smooth-barked from halfway up. The rough barked butts are often left burnt
black by fire. None around here less than 40 years old bears this sign. The Big
Blackbutt on the West Bank has been hollowed out on its northern side by
hundreds of years of fire and termites. Scribble moths incise intricate doodles in
the smooth pale upper barkas they do on the several species of scribbly
gumswriting out the journey of their lives on the decorticating parchment. Up
on the ridge-lines and high spurs, the blackbutts are interspersed with little
gatherings of grey gum, their old grey bark peeling back to expose smooth
patches that sparkle orange and lemon and alabaster in the summer rain. Among
the gums, there are carpeted groves of feathery forest oak (Allocasuarina
torulosa) and declining colonies of Maiden’s wattle, and still plenty of
tallowwood, the odd white mahogany, occasional brushbox, and, at the very top
on the slaty primary ridge, the dimpled pink torsos of a few coast angophoras,
far from the Sydney sandstone that I think of as their home.
The buttery timber of tallowwood with its tight interlocked grain, is
beautiful for anything that must take wear and weather, even without treatment
for preservation. Hard, very strong, very durable, easy to polish and
comparatively easy to work, it makes the strongest scantlings, frames and
bridges, the most enduring fences, the sleekest outdoor deckings, railings and
furniture. Indoors, it reveals its genius in the tight spring of the best dance and
gym floors, and in the lines of fine furniture. The architect Richard le Plaistrier
calls it the doyen of North Coast hardwoods. Unless it’s green you can’t nail it,
but he uses it well-seasoned, second hand in fact, and takes the time to join it so
cleanly it could be dismantled and live on in a succession of buildings. Unless
you are a termite or you like your hardwoods soft, it is the most prized of
hardwoods, especially from a tree that has been given time to fully grow. But
growing it frustrates the expedient spirit of forest managerialism. And like most
eucalypts around here it languishes under the cruel greenish gentility of
‘selective logging’. Eucalypts can need a bit more disturbance than that. Leaf
litter and the fungi that it incubates are death to eucalypt seedlings. So is
excessive shade. Foresters resort to fire, soil disturbance and more extensive
felling, and that can work with blackbuttsbut it all depends on the heat of the
fire, the amount of soil disturbance, the drainage of the soil, the area of the
felling coup, the availability of ambient seed, exposure to frosts, the seasons of
herbivores, and other factors too numerous to be enumerated, let alone
controlled. Tallowwood is too capricious for the managerial spirit, which deems

it too slow, too frost prone, too susceptible to insects, or too something or
other. The growth of postcolonial weeds defeats tallowwood too. Do the
seedbed preparation and the conditions are perfect for the lantana, broad-leaved
paspalum, and native vines that make life difficult for seedling and juvenile
tallowwoods. Where there are, as yet, few weeds and no lantana, up on the
Eastern Dorrigo say, I have seen blue gum and tallowwood forest erupting in
the wake of a fierce fire the way lowlanders can only dream of, or the way they
think only blackbutt can grow. Down in the valley though, there is no sure, one-
off action to get them growing, the economies of managerialism can only afford
what is one-off, and it ends up that no one wants tallowwoods anymore. They
just complicate things. For practical purposes, very little is actually known
about the life cycle of any but a handful of species. Under unconscious, or at
least seldom acknowledged pressures, forestry has evolved into fast and
relatively predictable blackbutt regeneration (It is only fast and predictable on
certain sites). Otherwise it’s plantations of blackbutt, the fast growing flooded
gum, or oddities like the exotically fast and faddish Dunn’s white gum, a tree
from distant pockets on the Nymboida and the Border Ranges. Industrial forests
are sown to haunt the future, the nightmare landscapes of an unconscious
society, generated when alienated timber demands, abstract growth
expectations, projected sawmill demand, fashion and promotion come up
against the uncomprehended ecology specific to every metre of ground and
every species. And as with dreams, the whole process is rationalized
retrospectively, heedlessly: everyoneforesters, managers and criticsthink
they have understood everything all along.

Laurels And Myrtles

John Milton began Lycidas, his formal, pastoral elegy on the drowning of a
fellow Cambridge scholar, with botany.

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,

Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

Verse like this is supposed to have become almost incomprehensible.

Samuel Johnson had already said as much about Milton back in the 18th
century; and literary critics have kept on saying it. Some of them in the late 20th
took pride in lamenting that, to untrained readers, an elegy like Lycidas
epitomizes artificial, ornate, alien verse, beyond passion. For most of us, they
said, it was as dead as the subject matter of the elegy itself: the drowned scholar
with the pseudonym of a dead shepherd, and the fossilized flora excavated from
the Greek of Theocritus and the Latin of Virgil. In order to melt meaning from

the frozen European metaphors and thaw the references to botany, pastoral
elegy and classical myth, readers would be condemned to persevere with a
kindling of footnotes, allto make what use we still can of Milton‘canker to
the rose’ of poetry.
A particular problem in Australia, supposedly, is that all the stuff about
European vegetation seems irrelevant for antipodean readerslike Christmas in
summer. Complaints about the irrelevance or foreignness of European nature
culture are still an everyday part of the pop analysis of Australian culture.
Really though, it is nature that has become foreign and incomprehensible. With
the functional division of landscape, and the specialist division of intellectual
labour, nearly everything has become incomprehensible to nearly everyone,
nearly everywhere. Nature is just one other uncomprehended, alienated and
unnatural department of modern life, like Miltonic verse.
It would have occurred to only a few then, here in the Bellinger valley or
elsewhere on the east coast of Australia, that the most common local family of
plants is the myrtle family. And their berries are harsh and crudewooden, in
fact. Eucalypts are myrtles and their fruits, the gumnuts, are like woody
berriesprotective capsules with a few little valves engineered on top to let the
seeds out when they and the time are ripe. Eucalypts are the most common
myrtles here or anywhere, the generic genus of Australian trees. Pink
bloodwoods and smooth angophoras are myrtles tooso closely related to
eucalypts and so patently ‘gum trees’ that they are allowed the name of
eucalyptus, in the broad sense at least. And there are still other local myrtles
with woody brown fruits: brushbox, bottlebrush, paperbark and turpentine. This
is their country too.
With more succulent berriessome harsh, some crude, some quite
palatablethere are rose myrtles, plum myrtles, native guavas, rhodamnias and
the lilly pilliesblue, purple and plain. Outside my window crooning regent
bowerbirds are tousling the branches of a rhodamnia, picking the berries as they
ripen red and blackred like the dot on the regent’s golden brow and black as
the feathers that frame its flashing golden wings. A Lewin’s honeyeater is
sneaking among them too, stealing the same fruit. Last night flying foxes were
squealing in the same tree, down low and feeding on the fruitunusual for
them but this is a dry, unfruitful year. A month ago the sunny air was electric
with the odour of rose myrtle flowers and loud with feral bees. In a month’s
time the fat black tree skinks will be gleaning the red berries dropped by the
Lewin’s and they will be leaving the seeds on our veranda in their juicy
droppings. We will be sampling the blue lilly pillies, making jam from the
brush cherries that grow on the creeks and behind the beaches and eating the
jam we made at Christmas from the riberries that grow down in the littoral
rainforest. All up, within a birdcall of here there are 24 species of myrtle
belonging to 12 genera. And maybe 60 species within a bat flight.
There are also 9 species of laurels in 5 genera. Like the myrtles that have
succulent fruits, the laurels are rainforest trees. Pluck their dark, oily drupes
before the pigeons or bower birds do, shatter their leaves in your hands, and

you can smell the rainforest in the nearby gullies, the aroma of jackwood,
murrogun, white bolly gum, and the native cinnamomum. So if it’s the flora of
death and poetry you wantmyrtles and laurelsyou could forget Milton’s
Arcadia and come here. Or better, read Milton and recognize it all around
youornate and alien.
The third big family of trees in the local forests is less well known. Its
formal name is the Sapindaceae. Its uncommon common name is the Soapberry
family. It is the lychee family, or the native tamarind family. Like the
sapindaceous lychee, many of the fruits in this family have a smooth seed with
a juicy aril wrapped wholly or partly around it. The aril and its seed are
enclosed together in a thin shell that splits and peels back to show the aril off.
Birds go for the bright aril and drop the seed. There are 11 species of them
here, belonging to 10 generamainly small to medium sized trees: guioa and
foambark both very common, native and green-leaved tamarind, steelwood,
blunt steelwood, red and yellow mischocarpus, and alectryon all at home in
lowland rainforest; a few tuckeroos, a tree of coasts and estuaries here at the
end of the estuarine influence, and maybe still a few shrubby hopbushes last
relics of an almost forgotten fire. Related to lychees they may be, but the only
one that we eat from this forest is the native tamarind. Their straight sinewy
trunks manage to hold crowns of big compound leaves above the tangles of
viny scrub at the ends of gullies. The panicles of fruit are nearly always too
high to pick. Plentiful on the tree, we get the dropped ones the birds waste
while they’re feeding, enough to make small jars of golden jam. They are not
related to the leguminous tropical tamarind; the sour fruit must have evoked the
name. Besides the 24 myrtles, the 9 laurels and the 11 species in the
Sapindaceae family, there are also 15 grasses the second largest family in
factlurking in this supposedly grassless forest, and 13 orchidsthe third
largest, yet seldom seen, so ingenious is their cryptic artcontriving fleeting
beauties in improbable places. 300 or so indigenous plant species belonging to
100 families are at home just around here in this ridge and gully country, this
tallowwood country. In the last century or so, 50 more exotic species have also
found a home here.
The myrtles with succulent berriesalong with the local laurels, the
Sapindaceae and too many other species to listare usually called rainforest
trees. They are seldom as big as the eucalypts, which, with the other woody
fruited myrtles, make a tall open forestthe so-called eucalypt forest. This
non-rainforest is what people would just call the bush. The other conspicuous
trees in this local bush are casuarinas (the forest oaks) and the acacias. The
acaciasblackwoods, black wattles and Maiden’s wattlesare short-lived
down here in the valley and can dominate the earlier stages of regenerating
forest. Up on the cooler Dorrigo plateau, as in Tasmania and Victoria, the
blackwoods grow into forest trees with a purplish timber, hard and bright as
glass. Down here, their growth is forced in the humid subtropics, and the larvae
of the turquoise diamond weevils do not give them much more than a dozen
extravagantly fast growing years. Although they burn bright and clean in a

stove (once it is burning hot), they are ecologically much less bushfiery than the
eucalypts, and in large parts of Australia acacias replace the eucalypts. In the
mulga it is too arid. In brigalow, they can form a scrub unkindled by eucalypt
All around here the fiery eucalypt forest and the un-fiery rainforest are a pair
of ecological antagonists playing off against one another. At one extreme on the
ridges there are those hard leaved or sclerophyll forests that get too dry for the
rainforest plants to establish and thrive, that are too given to fire if and when
there is a spark of ignition. At the other, in the deep moist gullies, the southern
slopes, the richest soils, the beachside fringe, and the watered river flats there is
rainforest. In between, which is nearly everywhere, is the strange, contingent
wet sclerophyll forestcalled wet because of the rainforest understorey and the
metre and a half of rainfall, and sclerophyll because of those hard-leaved
wooden towers of eucalyptus rising above everything else and kindling it all
with their dropped sticks. It’s a forest that lacks an essence, that lacks a simple
history, so old and enduring it exceeds individual human observation, so young,
so contingent, so given to catastrophe it defies determinate description, so big,
so everywhere, you try but cant ignore it, a probabilistic complex of tall myrtle
fire forest and sombre laurel and myrtle scrub, qualified by wattles and forest
casuarinas and more species than you can poke a stick at.
I can walk out my front door and walk for days from here near sea level right
up the escarpment to Tuckers Knob and around the rim of the valley to Point
Lookout and never get outside this distinctive matrix of eucalypt forest with
rainforest gullies. After reaching Point Lookout I could probably walk through
eucalypts all the way to Melbourne, following the Great Dividing Range for a
thousand miles.

Eucalyptus sensu lato

Australians travel hundreds of kilometres and see the same trees over and
over and over again. Eucalypts. Roadside landscape is experienced as
unrelenting repetition. James Cook’s comment on sailing up the east coast was
that the country did not produce any great variety of trees. The young Charles
Darwin, fresh off The Beagle in 1836, saw ‘extreme uniformity…so wearisome
to the traveller’s eye.’ From the backseat of the car the word is boring.
Australians though could travel anywhere and see different trees everywhere
eucalypts so astonishing in their evolutionary variation on the one theme
that Darwin, comfortable deciphering the diversity of his Galapagos finches,
must have been dazzled beyond discrimination. Like Darwin, Australia is just
passing through. It lives elsewhere, distracted in its own imaginary nation. This
eucalypt country is its antipodes, good mainly for the export of icons,
metaphors and national frisson back home from its tedious wilds.
Roadside bush beyond the 60km/hour zone is not popular culture. It is not
an easy read. Only if you practice and work at it does the depth and intricacy of

this minimalist text begin to reveal itself. Otherwise it is needless packaging
between the cities, farms and tourist attractions, as interesting as shredded
paper. In nature, as in art, people often mistake overwhelming complexity for
minimalism. Mathematicians know that noise is just another name for
complexity that defies interpretation. In the bush, it takes an effort to decipher
all that hard green noise. When you work at it though, the order and beauty is
bewildering. Too bewildering. You have to get out of the car sometimes to take
a closer look at the most charmless roadscapes, or behind the flora
highwayensis that the Road Traffic Authority decorates its dual carriageways
with to reassure travellers they have not left the Australian imaginary. Drive
from Sydney to the Bellinger and as the country passes by, the kinds of
eucalyptus change with soil type, moisture, elevation, fire regime and the
accidents of history. Down on the Hawkesbury sandstone it’s the burly torsos
and lushish crowns of smooth angophoras, fire charred red bloodwoods,
scribbly gums graphed with bush sine waves. On the creeks and estuaries
beyond the Hunter its flowering forest red gums full of friar birds, blackbutts
singed by fire, or, beyond the big mini Uluru, swamp mahoganies and prickly
paperbarks on the Boolambayte Overflow, leafy primitive phantoms fenced
away from cars and modernity. From the Wang Wauks north, in the tall wet
forests it is straight flooded gums, their trunks smooth as pale steel above palmy
gullies, and blue gums, and tallowwoods, orange in the sun, black and red in
the rain.
If you travel the high road instead, the New England Highway along the
Great Dividing Range, you get far enough from the coast to see white boxes
and some inland red gums, high enough to see snow gums and black sallee. On
the high country near Armidale graziers tried too hard to carve their imagined
England into the bush and ended up with a landscape where the eucalypts could
no longer grow back. In disbelief that their recalcitrant, century long foe could
so suddenly give up the ghost, people inferred the existence of a new disorder,
called it eucalypt dieback, and sought its cause. Research was overwhelmed by
beetles, grubs, wasplessness, fungus, fertilisers, climate, grazingindeed by all
the diverting diversity of ecological causationand, as such matters at hand
displaced agricultural history and fading memory, blame was distributed over
the handy hypercomplexity of immediate causes.
After turning east at would-be-English Armidale, you pass by permutations
of peppermints and stringybarks, mountain gums and snow gums on the high
Snowy Range, brown barrels, messmates and white gums on the Dorrigo
volcanics, and, as you drop down off the Dorrigo and into the tall subtropical
forests of the Bellinger, a signal band of white-topped box marks the 600m
elevation between the top and bottom waterfalls on the steep road. No matter
which way you go, wherever you pass, there are several species
togetherusually several that are hard to differentiate. The mix of species
changes; it changes proportion or one species disappears or another appears.
Trees of any one species change their appearance throughout a year or in

different places or under different conditions, but only enough to make that
species look like another species that looks much the same anyway.
It is hard to say how many species of eucalyptus there are. It depends on
who is counting and just what they think a species is. Some would put it closer
to a thousand, but let’s just say that there are over 700 hundred species of
eucalyptus in the broad sense, that is, including the 100 or so bloodwoods and
the dozen or so angophoras. Only 12 of them grow as natives outside
Australiain New Guinea, Timor, Sulawesi and Mindanao; and only 4 of those
are not native to Australia at all. Only one, Eucalyptus deglupta, lives beyond
the line that Alfred Russell Wallace drew in the 19th century through the
Lombok and Makassar Straits, and the Sulawesi Sea to mark the separation of
Australian from Asian biota. It might also be the only eucalypt to have crossed
the line between fiery sclerophyll forest and rainforestalthough that depends
on what you are prepared to call rainforest. The norm (if not the fact) seems to
be: if it has eucalypts in it then it can’t be rainforest. Here on the east coast
though, there are many places where eucalypts that germinated centuries ago in
the ashes of some ancient fire now tower over dense rainforests that have grown
up underneath them, the ferment of the wet forests slowly consuming the aging
gums. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The acacias, with over 750 Australian species, could be said to rival the
eucalypts as the typical Australian species; and with another 450 acacias spread
over every continent except Europe, they presently make up the biggest single
genus of trees and shrubs. Compared to the eucalypts though, no genus is so
distinctively of one continent. Few genera so dominate their forests and
woodlands. No flowering plant grows as tall, as hard, as tough. Nothing could
forge so much hard wood out of nothing but ash and hot sun and hard dry earth.
Nothing could thrive so much on the drama of firethe fiercest element, and so
much the destroyer of life that many are unable to concede that evolutionary
theory could allow a living thing to be adapted to it. Over 20 of the 40 tall
forest eucalypts grow in the little valley of the Bellinger. Over 60 species grow
here on what people from New South Wales call the North Coast.
To identify a eucalypt the first thing you are likely to look at is its bark.
Does it have smooth bark, like that of the pale flooded gum that peels away
every summer and drapes the understorey in streamers of tan ribbons, or is it
smooth bark shed in scales, flakes or patches? Although the term gum tree is
used for any eucalypt, in its strict sense it designates the smooth barked ones. If
the bark is rough, is it stringy or fibrous or hard or fissured or tessellated? Is it
rough on the butt and smooth on the upper trunk of the branches? After the
bark there are other things to look for. You are probably going to have to find
the woody fruits to identify a particular specimen. Eucalypts can be very
sparing with their fruit though and what fruit there is might only be on branches
20 metres above the ground. Many times I have scraped around on the ground
under a tree looking for fallen fruit, fruitlessly. Professional seed collectors
sometimes resort to high-powered rifles to blast limbs off. Others use bows to
shoot ropes on arrows over the limbs, pull up saw chains and fiddle about

pulling each end of the rope trying to cut the limb off. For identification, the
questions to ask of the fruit are: how wide is the woody capsule, how round,
how deep set the valves, how many valves, how wide the rim, does the rim
slope up or down?
A lot of plant recognition comes down to rough familiarity, to just knowing
without being able quite to articulate the distinguishing features. Like chicken
sexing, you look for the look. Some people like to see the colour and texture of
the timber, or to look at it in the ground and see if it has withstood termites and
fungi for a hundred years, or only five. Rough familiarity provides many
opportunities for reckless claims to knowledge. Around here any bit of deep red
hardwood, especially on an old house, gets called red mahogany. Were there
once forests of this species that are all cut down now? Or is some of it blue
gumblue gums have red wood tooor what? Maybe attractive red timber
attracts an attractive name. Sticking to the external appearance, I often find that
I call something a tallowwood, a messmate or a white gum and afterwards
someone points out it’s a white mahogany, a brown barrel or a blue gum. There
is the taleapocryphal, cautionary or gloatingabout a specialist in
classification, a taxonomist, who had presided over the hair-splitting of what
had been thought of as one species of ironbark into several new ones with new
names. Taxonomists, as a species themselves, are split into splitters and
lumpersthose given to splitting species up and those who lump them back
together. This man was given two specimens picked from a single ironbark
belonging to one of the species that he himself had distinguished and named.
He identified the separate specimens as two different species. He was a real
In 1853, after only one year in Australia, the Liverpudlian collector William
Swainson claimed to have identified 1520 species of eucalyptus in Victoria
alone. He had managed to up the total from the paltry 160 known when he had
arrived. According to this arch botanizer each species could be read as an
indicator of the particular nature of the country where it grew (Hay, 2002). He
claimed species grew along lines that traced the mineral veins running through
the earth beneath, and, with gold fever running high in the colonies, he
predicted that gold could be discovered by the gum species that grew above the
seams. His fiction had a vein of truth: there is no doubt that when you are trying
to identify a eucalypt it helps to bear in mind where a tree is growing and what
kind of country it belongs to.
In Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus, specimens of every species in the genus
are brought from all over the country and planted on the one property. For the
hand of the owner’s daughter, suitors have to identify every species. Like Bail’s
plot, such an arboretum is a kind of monstrous contrivance. It is a strange
violence, an alienation of the spirit of eucalypts. People acquainted with their
eucalypts usually know them by where they grow: they know the ones in their
part of the country; or they can identify a species by knowing where it comes
from. A eucalypt planted away from its natural country is a nameless anomaly,
a failure to appreciate spirit of place.

The tiny seedlings of most gums come up with kidney-shaped or y-shaped
cotyledons. Cotyledons are the ‘first leaves’. They emerge from a seed the size
of a grain of sand. Identifying seedlings is a challenge in itself. The juvenile
leaves that appear next in the seedling’s development are typically quite
different from the adult leaves. They are opposite one another on the stem,
often round or symmetrical, and often dusted with a protective glaucous bloom.
Juvenile leaves might also sprout as new growth after fire or injury, as well as
on seedlings. To complicate matters, many species display several intermediate
stages between juvenile and adult leaf forms. Adult leaves are no longer
opposite one another, the pairs having become separated by uneven growth
rates on either side of the branches. They are usually slightly curved, broadest
at the base, and asymmetrical about the mid-vein. The upper and lower surfaces
can be almost indistinguishable. They hang side-on to the sun, their hard blades
slicing the hot rays and holding on to water. In the wet forests of the Bellinger
though, the most common species have the luxury of leaves with distinct upper
and lower surfaces. Even so, a lot of light streams through the crowns of the
trees, washing out rich, shady hues from the understorey of the forests, while
the big trees pump the soil dry beneath a litter of desiccated sticks and bark.
The leaves are usually only of limited assistance in identification. They can all
look pretty much the same. Gum leaves. Crush them in your hands anyway and
smell the oil. Which nuance of eucalyptus is it? Is it light or lemony, heavy or
peppermint? Flooded gums and blue gums can look awfully alikeas adults or
seedlings. There are nuances of tallness, straightness, paleness of gum bark,
height of the stocking of rough bark. The reported occurrence of hybrids makes
identification more problematicor else it is used as an excuse for the inability
to differentiate. The woody fruitsusually the best indicatorare not available
until a plant gets old enough. A friend who runs a nursery can pick the
seedlings apart by smellthe blue gums have a stronger eucalyptus smelland
despite a dark predawn start and missing labels, he has been confident enough
to dispatch large orders into the field on the strength of his nose.
Sometimes the arrangement of the flowers may help distinguish species. The
inflorescences of different plants have names that sound like fairies and
spritespanicle, raceme, cyme, corymb or umbelaccording to how the
groups of flowers are arranged and branched. A eucalypt inflorescence is called
an umbellasterthe term for a collection of flowers arising more or less from
one point at the end of a single stalk. Strictly, an umbellaster is a compressed
dichasial cyme. There are usually 1,3,5,7,11,15, or 23 flowers in a fully formed
umbellaster, because, as dichasial cymes, umbellasters branch according to a
simple repeated process. Dichasial cyme refers, by way of its Greek etymology
(cyma or wave, chasial as in chasm or gape) to the algorithm generating the
fractal geometry of the umbellaster: Successive waves of flowers branch out in
pairshence the di- prefixfrom beneath the flowers of the preceding wave. If
we take the basic or degenerate case as 1-flowered, the next combination in the
series is generated by a pair of flowers being initiated from the base of this first
flower. Subsequent combinations are generated by further pairs of flowers

arising from the bases of flowers that were initiated in the previous
combination. The next complete combination after the 1-flowered case has 3
flowers. From each of the bases of the 2 new flowers, 2 more arise to give a
total of 7. From the bases of the latest 4, 2 more each arise to give 15. This
gives a sequence of 1,3,7,15… as familiar to any mathematician as 2n – 1. It is a
formula that haunts all of nature as, I suspect, it would haunt all possible
natures—or at least the ones where they have set theory and logic. In the cases
of 5, 11 and 23-flowered combinations, new flowers have been initiated from
only half the available locationsa dichasial cyme being built by 2
monochasial branchings. Of course, to confuse casual observers, it is common
for some of the buds to abort or drop or be dislodged, thus obscuring the
underlying order. Eucalypts are experts at disguising their underlying symmetry
and order. Because the flowers all branch out from the same point, rather than
along the length of a stalk, the cyme is said to be compressed. Different flower
numbers in different species arises from natural selection tweaking the
algorithm. The local eucalypts mostly seem to have 7 flowers per umbellaster.
Sometimes 11. I can’t help but expect some ingenious numerical or
numerological function lies in this fact, that it is a small sign encrypting a
design that exceeds human explanation; and I find it somewhat disappointing to
conclude that it is may well be an evolutionary concomitant of other
adaptations, say optimal presentation of flowers to pollinators, given a
particular bud size and the inherited branching mechanism. Yet although this at
first strikes me as a bland adaptationist rationalization, I offer it as a provisional
shorthand or cipher in the hope that it may stand for inscrutable events lost in
the depths of time, just as the simple and beautiful number of flowers at once
indicates and occults the excess of history and incident involved in its
generation and distillation precisely by its timeless and perfect mathematical
The most prominent parts of the flowers are the stamens. Because an
umbellaster is a compressed cyme, all the flowers are at the same level on their
main supporting stalk and the stamens taken together present a kind of pompom
for brushing pollen onto foraging birds, bats, bees and beetles. Other myrtles
like the paperbarks and bottlebrushes do something similar, presenting their
stamens in their own versions of pompoms. Eucalyptus flowers don’t appear to
have petals at all. Nor do they appear to have sepalssepals being the row of
petal-like bracts that are attached to most flowers immediately below the petals.
As it turns out, the distinctive little cap that falls off an opening eucalypt bud is
made of the fused petals or sepals. This cap is called the calyptra, eu-calypt
being Greek for ‘well capped’. The size and shape of the calyptras can help in
identification. Red gums have long, pointy cones like dunces caps; blackbutts,
white mahoganies, blue gums and flooded gums have those classic acuminate
or rostrate hemispheres, like the tops of tiny minarets. This pointed
cupolasometimes with a bulbous basemight at first seem to be an over-
elaboration of the dome’s spherical perfection. It has capped Islamic buildings
since the 8th century, worked its way up into the Austria via the Moorish

architecture of Spain, shed snow from the domes of Russian churches,
orientalized Victorian follies, bonneted gumnut babes and advertised
postmodern mallsoften with connotations of excess. The utilitarian eucalypts
though discovered its pragmatic virtues millions of years ago; and they still do
it to perfection, engineering it in miniature and in abundance all through the
bush. Fashioned by evolution from the petals and sepals that nature had on
hand, it is a neat shape for packing down long stamens ready to flex out as soon
as the cap is lifted. Once shed and sprinkled like little seashells over the forest
floor, the design still asks to be used. So bulldog and jumping ants stack them
over their mounded nests. They shed weather, warn passers by of the fierce
inhabitants, and please the eye.
Different eucalypts, different calyptras. Angophora flowers actually hold on
to their 5 petals and so have long been excluded from the Eucalyptus genus.
Bloodwoods have two calyptras, one of fused petals and one of fused sepals,
but they are in fact more closely related to the angophoras than they are to the
rest of the eucalypts, and at the end of the 20th century they were split off into a
genus of their own, Corymbia. Blue gums, flooded gums, grey gums, swamp
mahoganies and grey ironbarks have two calyptras, and they belong to the
largest group of eucalypts, the Symphiomyrtusa group of over 300 species.
Blackbutts and white mahoganies belong to the second largest group, the
Monocalyptus (over 120 species) and they have a single calyptra of fused
sepals. Tallowwoods don’t have a completely fused calyptra. Theylike
Eucalyptus guilfoylei in Western Australiahave free sepals and only partly
fused petals, and you can see the suture lines along the junctions. They are on
their own in their own group, the Nothocalyptusfrom the Greek nothos
meaning ‘mock’ or ‘illegitimate’ or ‘bastard’. In genealogy, they are thought to
have branched off the Symphiomyrtus line some time after it had branched from
the Monocalyptus. Meanwhile, all these eucalypts in the strict sensethe
Monocalyptus, Symphiomyrtus and Nothocalyptusshare a more recent
common ancestor than they do with the bloodwoods and angophoras, which
had already branched off the family tree long before.
It is hard to make a strong case for ecological preferences based on the
subgenus that a gum belongs too. It is said that the Monocalyptus tend to be
able to exploit the poorer soils, and certainly blackbutt can live on sand and the
impoverished soils of the local ridges as long as the soils and rock allow the
extensive root penetration that the trees rely on to mine enough nutrients. White
mahoganies may need a bit richer substrate but they can live where the root
penetration is limited. Monocalyptus are not so renowned for drought
resistance, but at least here in the wet subtropics where droughts are not so
severe, the blackbutts must be numbered among the tall forest trees that thrive
on the drier sites. They also seem to be particularly allied to fire, partly because
they, like other Monocalyptus, are intolerant of soil fungi. The local
Symphiomyrtus are on the better soils, displaying a preference that is supposed
to typify the subgenus; and most seem to be able to occasionally germinate and
survive without fire, suggesting that they share a Symphiomyrtus tolerance for

soil microorganisms. They are seldom called on to display the drought
tolerance for which the subgenus is renowned, but then in dry times when
everything can look pretty sad, I can hardly recall having seen a local eucalypt
look anything but happy. Most of the adaptations for fire, drought, moisture,
soil type and successful germination are variations on common themes that
have appeared here and there throughout the eucalypt family tree. Separate
eucalypt lineages have converged at similar solutions to commonly encountered
ecological problems. Adaptations for these ecological functions have evolved
separately in various branches of the eucalyptus genus with the result that using
such features as the basis for differentiation of subgenerathat is for the
differentiation of the branches of the family treeis unreliable. The
homologous features in the eucalyptshomologous features being those shared
traits that are the result of and indicate direct ancestral and genetic
relationsneed not be those that are most obviously adaptations for the
ecological nuances of fire, drought, soil, and moisture.
Although regulated by somewhat arcane conventions of naming and priority,
taxonomythe classification of plants or animalsis now primarily a matter of
drawing a family tree. Working out genealogy though is not always a simple
task when the only records that ancestors have left are those written in the
physical features of their now living descendents. Species have long been
identified and classified by careful scrutiny of such features, and there have
always been concerns about which were the most reliable features. Throughout
the history of taxonomy, features that may have been useful for identification
and classification have not always proven to be useful for classification based
on evolutionary genealogy; and, of course, the ideas of evolutionary biology,
their importance for classification and of the very historicity of nature itself
have undergone quite turbulent social evolution since the 18th century. Through
most of this period, taxonomists have had to erect their systems on shifting
As far as identification went, Ferdinand von Mueller, one of the first
systematic European botanists to make Australia his home and to devote the
time and energy needed to study the eucalypts, argued that dried specimens of
collected flowers and fruits sent back to the herbariums of Europe for
classification were, in the absence of bark samples, likely to be misleading.
Although he had wanted to do the definitive work on eucalypts himself,
Mueller could not extricate himself from his interests in Australia, and, in those
days, Australia was deemed too remote from botanical society to satisfy the
arcana of taxonomy. Mueller was just too busy doing eucalypt biology in
Australia to go and be the authority on it somewhere else. He sent specimens to
England to another botanist, George Bentham, who never visited Australia.
Acknowledging the limitations of classification from afar, and his debt to
Mueller, Bentham compiled descriptions of 134 different species of Eucalyptus
and published them in 1866 in the third volume of Flora Australiensis. Mueller
himself worked on his ambitious Eucalyptographia, a ‘Descriptive Atlas’ of the
genus, and along with Joseph Maiden after him, helped produce a classification

system based to a large extent on descriptions of the anthers, the pollen
receptacles on the ends of those long eucalypt stamens. Meanwhile, the
implications of evolutionary theory were becoming increasingly important,
especially for classification based on genealogical relations. It became apparent
that using combinations of several featuresincluding leaf veins, seed shape,
and calyptrawas necessary for classification into groups based on the
principle of shared recent common ancestry. These features were a better guide
than height, bark, drought resistance or lignotubers, all of which had evolved
independently in different branches of the family tree. In the absence of
molecular analysis though, it took taxonomists a lot of work, and a lot of
argument, to establish what features and combinations of features were the most
reliable indicators of shared ancestry, and why. Now, when physical
observation extends to the molecular level and to inferring differences in the
genetic codes for features rather than just differences in the features themselves,
genetic relations can be established to a high degree of likelihood.
Yet, as with human genealogy, questions remain about just where to draw
the line when separating and naming the lineages of a family tree, so there are
conventions to assist in making determinations that are as arbitrary as the
naming codes in a patrilineal society. Once the branches of the tree are
determined, questions arise about precisely how the branches of the family tree
are arranged and how the arrangements should be namedwhether for example
there are lineages branching off common ancestors nested within larger
branches; and how names should correspond to such arrangements whether
for example the members of a named group should all be descended from a
common ancestor which is also a member of the group, and in turn, if such a
group is split into two or more groups, which of the new groups should retain
the old name. In this last case, the group to which the originally described
specimen belongs retains the name by dint of priority. Unlike the lumpers, who
would like to call everything Eucalyptuseven the angophoras and
bloodwoodsthere have long been splitters around who would like to divide
the dynasty of eucalypts into smaller branches. Mightier than the chainsaw, a
stroke of the taxonomists pen can denude large tracts of country of their
eucalypts. That is how, in the 1990s, the bloodwoods disappeared from the
forests of Eucalyptus. The same could happen to hundreds of Acacia
speciesgone from the bush forever and replaced by the Racosperma, the old
name that the likes of Bentham and Mueller used for them.
The first eucalypt specimen to be given a modern scientific name was red
bloodwood. In the 18th century the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné proposed a
system in which a species was to be designated by the name of its genus (e.g.
Eucalyptus) followed by the name that designates the specieshence,
Eucalyptus gummifera. Though his binomial system was adopted, the arch
namer himself is best known by one nameLinnaeus. Daniel Solander, Joseph
Banks’ Swedish assistant and a student of Linnaeus, applied the name
Metrosideros gummifera to a specimen of red bloodwood found while the
Endeavour was at Botany Bay in 1770. It looked like it belonged to the

Metrosideros, a genus of South Pacific myrtles that includes the New Zealand
pohutakawa. Now planted extensively along the urbanized NSW coast,
Pohutakawa has flowers that look very like a red eucalypt blossom. However
there are many howevers: Red bloodwood had a D’harawal namepossibly
Terri’yergro (Hay, 5); Solander did not actually call it Eucalyptus gummifera;
the name he used, Metrosideros gummifera, was misapplied because Solander
mistook the genus, and besides, the name and a description were never
published and therefore the species was not named according to the procedure
demanded by convention; when a description was at last published, the official
name used was Eucalyptus gummifera; and, as it has turned out, red bloodwood
is no longer Eucalyptus gummifera anywayit’s now Corymbia gummifera.
Red bloodwood is either a catalogue of misnomers or a wealth of aliases. The
only name that stuck from Bank’s and Solander’s efforts was gum, and, indeed,
red bloodwood is not a gum in the strict sense of a smooth-barked tree. The two
botanists noticed that a red, water-soluble gum was commonly exuded from
wounds on tree trunks and that it congealed on the bark into rough crystals of
kino. They gave the general label ‘gum’ to all the trees that exuded itthe
eucalypts, the angophoras and the bloodwoodsand from the beginnings of the
penal colony in 1788, the term was adopted as the common common name. The
classic smooth-barked, kino-exuding gum that Banks and Solander saw at
Botany Bay and that First Fleeters saw at Sydney Cove wasn’t a Eucalyptus
either. It was Angophora.
One of the Monocalyptus group is Messmate or Eucalyptus obliqua, a tall,
stringy-barked, forest tree on the cold, high basalt country west of Dorrigo, the
country that looks down on the headwaters of the Bellinger. In 1777 David
Nelson, a botanist on Cook’s fateful third voyage collected some Messmate
from wind sheared trees much further south at sea level on Bruny Island just off
the coast of Van Diemen’s Land. After his return to Europe the specimens sat
in the British Museum where they were eventually examined by a French
magistrate and botanist, Charles Louis l’Heritier de Brutelle. L’Heritier
published his description of Eucalyptus obliqua in late 1788. This was the first
published naming and description of the genus. By this time Nelson had
returned to the Pacific as Bligh’s botanist on the Bounty, charged with the duty
of selecting and tending breadfruit specimens. Nelson had been able to
introduce the officers and crew of the Bounty to the Tahitians, with whom he
was already acquainted. Apparently Tahitians, the mutineers and Bligh’s
supporters all respected him. Six months after L’Heritier’s publication however,
Nelson chose loyalty to the Bounty’s commander and he ended up in the long
boat with Bligh and 17 others on their 6000km journey across the Pacific,
around Cape York, and on to Timor. Nelson was the oldest member of the
party. He came down with a fever just before the end of the voyage and he died
shortly after making landfall. If ever the eucalypts were to be split into a
number of generaand it has been suggestedthen, by right of priority,
messmate and its immediate kind, the subgenus Monocalyptus, would win the

sole rights to the name Eucalyptus, and I suppose we would be calling flooded
gums symphiomyrtles and tallowwoods nothocalypts.
Priority of naming is one thing, priority of the thing named, another. The
eucalypts probably first appeared about 55 million years ago, at the beginning
of the Tertiary period, not long after the extinction of dinosaurs. There is fossil
evidence of eucalyptus from Patagonia and New Zealand as well as Australia.
Piecing together the history of the genus though is risky. Even the history of
piecing the history together is clouded; contemporary paleobotanists have
expressed skepticism about past collection, documentation and identification of
fossils purported to be Eucalyptus (Hill, 411). 24 million years ago, by the
beginning of the Miocene epoch in the mid-Tertiary, Eucalyptus and the related
myrtlesbottlebrushes (Callistemon), paperbarks (Melaleuca), and teatrees
(Leptospermum)had emerged with their typical woody fruits, hard leaves and
showy stamens, and they had started to radiate across the continent. Nothofagus
(southern beech) and pines like the auraucarias, Podocarpus and Dacrydium
were widespread throughout the great tracts of southern rainforest. They grew
with subtropical and tropical species too, forming rainforests perhaps without
any precise likeness among modern forest types. Nothofagus still grows in
refuges today. It grows with those Messmates up on the moist edges of the high
Dorrigo escarpment covered in dripping moss and felt ferns and orchids.
Araucarias grow on the Dorrigo too in the warm temperate hoop pine rainforest
that is so typical of the eastern plateau. When I try to imagine the old southern
rainforests I picture the Eastern Dorrigo. As the climate cooled and dried, these
rainforests started to be broken up by more open forests and grasslands.
Casuarinas became a feature with their wiry feathery branchlets, and acacias too
started to appear. Dacrydiums such as Huon pine are now gone from mainland
Australia altogether, finally exiting to Tasmania only during the last glacial
period when human technology had already made the continent much more
fiery. The only Podocarpus now in the Bellinger Valley is the plum pine, with
its resiny, gelatinous blue fruits, growing in the lowland subtropical and littoral
rainforests. In the Miocene, the rainforests still dominated but the climate was
changing and grasses and sclerophyll species (like the eucalypts), whose hard
leaves may well have been initially an adaptation of rainforest ancestors to low
soil nutrients, were gradually finding patches of dry country to their advantage.
This was the beginning of the great and enduring division of the hard leaved
sclerophyll forest from the softer mesophyll rainforests. Here in the Bellinger
valley I need only walk 100 metres from where I am writing to see it still
written on the bush.
2 million years ago, by the end of the Tertiary period, the highlands of the
Great Divide had been pushed up, creating enough topographic variation to
isolate populations. There was a mosaic of soils of varying texture and fertility,
and the continent was undergoing a long drying process that proceeded in
fluctuations driven by glacial expansion and contraction at the Earth’s poles.
These were the conditions with which natural selection worked on the incipient
eucalypts, although even then the genus was still only one player among many

in the long drama. While the rainforests contracted and expanded in a gradual
withdrawal to the moistest refugia, grassy sclerophyll woodlands and forests of
casuarina, acacia, southern cypress pines (Callitris), and eucalypts (among the
other myrtles) extended their dominion, expanding and contracting in
complementary fluctuationssometimes isolating populations, sometimes
bringing them back together. Tree lines moved up and down mountains causing
similar periodic isolation. Rainfall zones and fire regime areas would shrink
and fragment then regrow and rejoin. Changes from one kind of soil landscape
to anothervolcanic to metamorphic to sandy sedimentary to
alluvialisolated populations as well.
Unless a number of individuals of a speciesa populationis isolated from
the rest, it is a bit tricky for the natural genetic variation that arises during
evolutionary history to be preferentially selected and so result in the
adaptational differentiation of the descendents of that population from the
descendents of its cut-off, sister populations. If the descendents of populations
that are beginning to branch from one another interbreed, their genes all flow
together again into one pool. All the individuals remain as one breeding
population, and one lineage. Although each step of natural selection may be
simple, the resultant process of evolution is not. There are different views on
how species can and do diverge, and, for that matter, on just what a species is.
Given the climatic changes and the variations in topography and soil, it is
generally thought that the eucalypt species have differentiated from each other
by spatial isolation of populations, followed by generation of new features and
then selection of these features as adaptations in each of the different isolated
environments. Such a process is called allopatric evolution, as opposed to the
trickier sympatric evolution, in which a parent species differentiates into
separate lineages in the absence of spatial barriers to gene flow. Allopatric
differentiation of eucalypt lineages has been going on all through the great
environmental fluctuations of the late Tertiary and down into the Quaternary,
the present period that began less than 2 million years ago.
During the Quaternary the glaciers at the earth’s poles have expanded and
contracted in 20 cycles or warming and cooling, 9 in the last 700,000 years.
With each glacial cycle, isolated eucalypt populations diverged from one
another genetically and in their physiological features. Some were adapted to
poorer soils, some to richer soils, some to sand, some to heavy clay, some to
severe cold and frosts, some to wet feet, some to periodic inundation, some to
salt, some to long dry periods, some to fires that were rare or cool, some to fires
frequent or hot. More and more combinations of these features were expressed
over a growing range of new species. When glaciers contracted to the poles
during warmer periods, some eucalypt populations with common ancestors may
well have been brought back together. They may well have started
interbreeding, but their descendents may also have been less fit compared to the
separate lineages. Hybrid crosses of modern eucalypt species are said to be
common and as individuals they may well be vigorous trees. I am a bit skeptical
about reports of hybrids, but not when I am looking at stringybarks in the

tablelands. Every stingybark up there can look like a mixture of species, which
is a measure of either my inexperience or their promiscuity. Blue gums
hybridize with bangalays and, some say, flooded gums. In the 1980s, the
tropical bloodwood, cadagi, was the subject of a strange planting fad in the
coastal subtropics. While postmodern real estate developers were besotted by
the instant tropicana of progress palms (Arecastrum ramanzoffianum), plonking
them around every urban subdivision, golf course, resort, mall, motel and
service station, mainstream modern reafforesters were equally smitten by the
fast-growing, big-flowering gum with the tropical rainforest cachet. Cadagi then
became a new feral, pollinated by flying foxes and with a sticky seed spread by
(of all culprits) the amiable native bee, Trigona carbonaria (Low, 2002, 195).
Little and stingless, the social Trigona still manages to stuff the odd gum tree
hollow with waxen blobs of raw honey, despite being harassed by the feral
honey bee. Cadagi has now apparently hybridized with a local bloodwood, the
northern spotted gumto the detriment of the spotted gums’ timber quality and
the chagrin of foresters. Even so, hybrids often prove less fertile in seed
production, or the seedlings of hybrid parents prove less hardy, so selection
may still end up favouring the distinct species.
The most famous environmental pressure on eucalypt selection has been fire.
On no genus of trees has fire quite written its meanings with such variety and
eloquence as on eucalypts. Different types of fire have selected different
adaptations in different species of eucalyptus, and, as fire and eucalypts have
worked in cahoots, the eventual continental dominance of fire has corresponded
with the dominance of eucalypts over other species. Until as recently as
130,000 years ago, during the last interglacial period, eucalypts still had to
share the stage in the drier open communities with less fire hardy species like
the casuarinas and callitris. Fire from lightning ignited vegetation that had been
dried out by drought, but grassy forests and woodlands of the more fire
sensitive sclerophyll generacasuarina, callitris and acaciawere still
widespread. Rainforest species, as well as forming rainforest proper, probably
occurred in mixed plant communities with these same more fire sensitive
sclerophyll species. Such forests of casuarina and callitris still occur today.
Stands of river oaks (Casuarina cunninghamiana) still line streams like the
Bellinger and broaden out over wide gravel beds; swamp oak forests
(Casuarina glauca) spread out beyond the salt marshes and onto the sweeter
soils of the estuarine fringes; Port Jackson cypress pines (Callitris rhomboidea)
grow with banksias, black oaks (Casuarina littoralis) and Dorrigo white gums
around some of the headwaters of the Nymboida catchment. Each community is
likely to slowly accumulate an understorey and then maybe a dominance of
rainforest species. In the Bellinger valley you still see impressive river oaks
poking their crowns above riverine rainforest, and swamp oaks and coast
banksias (Banksia integrifolia) above littoral rainforest. Even more impressive
are the fat mountain banksias (also Banksia integrifolia) making a last effort to
keep their crowns above an engulfing temperate rainforest up on the ranges.
These though are mementos of an earlier era. Nowadays this understorey of

colonizing rainforest flora usually occurs with eucalypts in what, here along the
east coast, is the distinctive wet sclerophyll forest. Every eucalypt species in
this ridge country can at some stage find itself emerging from a rainforest, its
enduring form the last vestige of a fire or some other long forgotten
disturbance. Still, back when casuarinas and callitris maintained wide
dominion, fire was already common enough to have become a major selection
pressure on eucalypt evolution.
Features like woody fruits, preferences for sunny terrain and bare soil and
fungus-free seedbeds, the habit of dropping tons of flammable litter, the release
of seed after the drying out of fruits, the ability to re-shoot from lignotubers and
epicormic budsdormant buds on the old woodwere all useful where
periodic fires struck. Those who are uneasy about saying eucalypts are adapted
to fireas if nothing could rightly be said to live like the alchemists’
salamander thriving in the midst of flamethose who prefer to hedge their
claims by saying that ‘no species is adapted to fire per se (Benson & Redpath,
322)’ are not saying something that applies only to adaptations for fire. In
evolution, nothing much is adapted to anything much per se. Evolution is
always a matter of using designs that are on hand; selection always confers the
functional status of a design retrospectively.
Lignotubers are woody underground stems that store resources and that are
capable of re-shooting should the above ground parts of the plant be killed.
Lignotubers were useful for other things besides fire. Just what their original
function was is anybody’s guess. As is typical of natural selection, a feature
initially selected for one function is there for the taking should it turn out to be
useful for satisfying a new need or exploiting a new opportunity. Features that
had probably been selected for the assistance they gave in the increasingly
common dry, cold and infertile country of the Tertiary and Quaternary periods,
found new functions. Most but not all eucalypts have lignotubers. Species that
do, have found them useful as reserves when drought has withered their foliage
or when herbivores or frosts eat them back to the ground. They turned out be
useful when fire burned them back too.
Woody fruits protect seed from many predators, and from dry conditions
until an opportunity for likely germination arises. They also protect seed from
fire. And once fire starts to act as a selection pressure on eucalypt fruits it starts
to select certain fruiting features. Low shrubby eucalypts often have bigger seed
capsules. Being closer to the ground they have to withstand closer, hotter
flames. The tall moist forest eucalypts like tallowwood, blue gum and flooded
gum have small fruits. Tallowwood fruits are almost fleshy rather than woody.
Blackbutts and white mahoganies have slightly bigger and woodier fruits, and
there are tribes with quite large fruits. These species sometimes grow in tall
moist forestblackbutts can reach 70 metresbut they often grow in drier
more fire prone places too, and those that do tend to have the larger fruits.
Nearly all eucalypts are adapted to fire in some way, but there is no typical
eucalypt response to fire because there is no typical fire. It is received wisdom
that the bush needs fire, or eucalypts need fire, but these platitudes are such

appalling simplifications that they might as well just be described as wrong.
Eucalypt ecology is nothing if not diverse, surprising, mysterious and defiant of
banal claims. Fierce it may be, but fire has its nuances in different seasons,
different times of day, different weather, different terrain, different vegetation,
or different eucalypts. It might be lit by lightning, by intentions wise and
foolish, or by events accidental, arbitrary or unknown. It might crawl down into
a cool gully and just stop in its tracks. It might kindle in sticks, flare in grass
and die in rainforest. It might send up smoke from a spot, pool it for weeks in a
valley, or turn the sky brown and the sun pink. It might brood out in distant
ranges and glow red at night along the ridges. It might flame up a spur, climb
like the devil into the forest crown, blast firebrands and ember clouds across
rivers, highways and suburbs in wild summer wind. It might rise up to become
the weather as such, the volatile air alight, and as pure infernal storm sweep like
an angel torching the innocent, passing-over the lucky, or persevering to torture
the hapless and reduce them to nothing. It is a mongrel of the stochastic, the
determinate, and the non-linear. Sometimes it just leaves a charred ground
cover, sometimes a canopy of singed brown leaves, sometimes black stumps
and white ash. Sometimes it colour codes the changes in topography, black on
the ridges, brown on the spurs, green in the gullies. Otherwise the colours
might trace the brush of wind or the fluky contours of strange mathematical
attractors. The nuances of catastrophe are reflected in the adaptations of the
different species of eucalypts, and fire history gets printed in the patterns of
different species that grow where fire has behaved differently.
Depending on how they recover from fire, eucalypts are often loosely
differentiated into sprouters and seeders, but they run the range between the
two. Any given species can employ a range of adaptations, depending on the
rigours of the fire. Sprouting new leaves, whether from underground
lignotubers or from epicormic buds protected under the thick bark of the trunks,
is an adaptation for leaf loss, whether caused by herbivores, drought, frost, or
fire. Most of the eucalypts around here resprout after most fires. A season after
burning, young tallowwoods have sprouted all the way from their lignotubers
up to the top of the pole. They form their own cylinder of foliage. After the
same fire blue gums have struggled just managing to refoliate their highest
branches and having to shed dangerously thick plates of scorched bark. The
bloodwoods and forest blackbutts along the highway this year have tarred
trunks and branches closely feathered with leaves, and they pass like lines of
black dancers waving green plumes and cropped tassels. Shorter blackbutts on
sandy coastal dunes can look like malleesshrubs with several stems that
sprout from a lignotuber. On the big forest ones, the butts stay black for years
as the crown re-establishes that signal eucalypt shape: tufts of curved leaves
filtering light way out on the end of wiry, radiating branches.
The seeders are so called because they tend to rely on seed for regeneration.
Trees can be killed by fire. It depends on fire intensity, it depends on species, it
depends on age, it depends on whether they have been hollowed out by termites
and burn fiercely from the inside out like a burning chimney or whether fire

sweeps by them in a rush. They can be effectively ringbarked, and if they have
no epicormic buds below the ring, or no lignotuber they die. Old age can reduce
the likelihood of a tree’s having epicormic buds. Or sometimes one side has
already been burnt out by a previous fire, and if the other side goes the tree
dies. All eucalypts must be seeders eventually, and most are sowing seeds as
well as resprouting, but those most obliged to rely on seed after fires are those
least likely to survive the fires that burn through their forest and they have to be
able to produce seed before the next killer fire. These species often occur in
moister forests that are less frequently burnt. They produce a lot of wood and a
lot of sticks, and when they do burn it can be as fierce as bushfire gets. Flooded
gums are mainly seeders. They grow in moist forest; unlike their cousins the
blue gums, they are one of the dozen or so eucalypts that don’t have
lignotubers; and they are less likely than most eucalypts to re-sprout after a fire.
Like most eucalypts they require a seedbed that has had the litter removed,
otherwise the seedlings are susceptible to attack from microorganisms in the
litter and soil. They also need sunny locations. Like all the local wet forest
eucalypts, they do not thrive as seedlings under an existing canopy of their
Woody fruits that dry out, open their valves and release their seed, may be
adapted for an area where a rainy season is preceded by hot dry weather. The
same feature works when spring fire opens gumnuts before summer rain. The
seeds of the tall local eucalypts are shed in hot, dry weather, or from broken
branches, but they get eaten by insects, or otherwise fail to germinate. If they
fall on bare open ground, with only a bit of grass they might germinate and
survive, but rarely. After a big fire, the chances that the seed will drop on a
sunny, litter-free, fungus-free, ash-fertilized seedbed, are pretty high. Then they
can germinate in great numbers. A lot can survive, grow vigorously and
compete with one another. After 10 years and 20 metres a few have won
dominance, still dense as hairs on a dogs back, their crowns still pointy or
monopodial, and in need of thinning to a forester’s eye. They shoot for the sun
and jettison dead sticks like giant’s spears as they go. After 50 or 100 years they
are big hard poles, some now skewy, still self-thinning, the crowns spreading
into uneven sympodial arches. They are flowering and fruiting, still growing,
dropping heavy limbs now and just starting to form hollows worthy of a bird or
mammal. In the absence of fire, some kind of disturbance is needed that
removes canopy and presents bare mineral soil to the suna landslip, erosion
or deposition, drought, or a bulldozer. Otherwise, in the wet climate, under the
shady canopy and with mouldy litter, only the rainforest species germinate,
perhaps to thrive, perhaps to struggle.
Every time I make some careless remark about eucalypts and fire going
together, someone, rightly, cites a counter example. They have seen eucalypts
establishing in pasture grass on a slashed ridge, or in an old banana plantation,
or on a slip, or where a road went through, or on flood silt, or on soil made bare
by a long dry. They could even, as far as I am concerned, cite plantations,
which are, in the big picture just another form of natural regeneration for those

species that have turned out to be adapted to the particular selection pressures
prevailing in modern silvicultural environments. Without underestimating the
self-perpetuating dominance of the eucalypts in the fire regimes of Quaternary
Australia, I suspect that the cherished view of eucalypts exclusively as fire trees
underestimates them and ignores at least four things that are very important in
the success of eucalypts. 1. The long time of a eucalypt’s lifemuch longer
than the puny time of casual human observation, which can hastily conclude
that the poor eucalypts are not regenerating without that ‘good burn’. (They can
wait.). 2. The unrivalled dominance of eucalypts in size, height, and nutrient
use (They make it hard for others to get what they need.). 3. Their incumbency
and their numbers (Incumbency is the first step in persistence). 4 Their patient
and ever-ready opportunism (They are always prepared). There are many
species of eucalypt, and, very few utterly dependent on fire. When people talk
about eucalypts needing fire they like to cite one famous species: the mountain
ash of Victoria and Tasmaniathe tallest species of all and the one that most
dramatically combines big wet forests with huge fires and massive single-age
seedling regeneration. But it is only one species of many. The closest Bellinger
analogue might be flooded gum. People seem to like calling them fireweeds,
bestowing with fond irony the disparaging title of ‘weed’ on such a dominant
tree. Eucalypts are fireweedspioneers of scorched earthbut very long-lived
ones. In a long life opportunities for fire-free germination become highly likely.
Give them an opportunity only once in 200 years and they will dominate like
tyrants for another 200, making life difficult for many other species, especially
when soils and rainfall can be less than generous. Then, so given to
manufacturing dry fuel, they will keep on making fire conditions useful for their
own succession yet again. Eucalypts and fire stack the odds in each other’s
favour. Yet to say that they and fire go together is vague rhetoric and it should
not be used to imply the necessity of fire. Strictly, eucalypts don’t need fire, and
if you have eucalypts, fire need not follow nor need there have been a fire in the
past. But then again, nature was never big on necessity, just contingency, and
the eucalypts have had that sown up.

We might look at the flowering and fruiting of the different local gums and
expect to see adaptations to different environmental requirements expressed
thereinwe might assume the importance of reproduction is likely to be
expressed dramatically in different flowers and fruits. However flowering and
fruiting traits can seem poorly differentiated between the gums, their functions
indistinct or cryptic. This is really not surprising in such a closely related group
of speciesnot when the inherited floral and fruiting designs may work in a
variety of different predicaments, and especially not when you consider that
floral similarity and fruiting similarity epitomize the features that taxonomists
traditionally used to ascertain familial relations. Like so much of the continent,
the local forests are nectar forests. Nutrients may be in short supply but sunlight
isn’t and these forests pump enough photosynthesized sugar around in sap and

nectar to feed a host of mammals, birds and insects: gliders, possums, flying
foxes, honeyeaters, parrots, lorikeets, bees, cicadas, lerps. The myrtles as a
family and the eucalypts as their dominant genus feed a lot of creatures, and in
many cases they trade off nectar for pollination.
In the case of flowering, it is the obvious variations on the common theme,
in particular the variations in flowering time and nectar, that seem to attract
most casual speculation about ecological functions. Here in the ridge country of
the Bellinger, most of the eucalyptsflooded gum, blue gum, swamp
mahogany, grey ironbark, tallowwood, white mahogany and pink
bloodwoodflower more or less annually. Grey gums only seem to flower
every second year. All these species get their budding and flowering over
within one year, and their fruits ripen into woody capsules over the next. The
tallowwoods put on a reliable display, most years between spring and early
summer, but they are stingy with nectar and can probably afford the show.
Flying foxes, honeyeaters and lorikeets can’t be bothered with them. There is
not a lot of nectar around at all during this time and honeyeaters lick nectar
from the mistletoes that parasitize the eucalypts. Flying foxes may find
themselves driven to dependence upon ripening fruit in orchards. In the
tallowwoods, insects have to do the work of pollination. Even so, a botanizing
friend was once kept awake at night camping with his children under a
tallowwood full of flying foxes. Perhaps, like many of my ‘tallowwoods’, it was
a white mahogany. Down in the wetlands, where water is seldom too scarce, the
swamp mahoganies can afford to be generous most wintersas can the forest
red gums, in early spring, on the estuarine flats. The birds and bats rely on
regular nectar-producing species like these. The wide roaming bats can exploit
species that flower at irregular times too. Coast angophoras, for instance, are
irregular flowerers, but when they do flower during the odd early summer their
bark peels like sun burnt skin and they pile their flowers on their crowns like
dollops of zinc cream. Their cousins, the pink bloodwoods, pile their flowers
on too, but with yearly regularity, here in the luxurious late summer after the
rainy season has arrived, and they and the flying foxes lap up the luxury.
Blackbutt flowering is another story. While most species flower at set
seasons, you might see a blackbutt flowering in any month of the year. The
heaviest flowering seems to have two peaks, one in February and one between
May and July (Law et al, 2000). The actual process of floweringfrom the
formation of the tiny pin buds to full bloomusually takes more than 2 years.
It may take more than 5. Eucalypts elsewhere do this too. Being able to hold
flowering until rain sets off full bud development may be an adaptation to the
continent’s cycles of drought. Good local flowering often comes 9 to 12 months
after good rain. In most species, it is not always obvious though just what the
best predictor of flowering is. Low temperatures prior to budding seem roughly
to predict flower abundance in tallowwoods, white mahoganies and blackbutts.
El Niño events three years before flowering have been correlated with abundant
flowering in flooded gums and blue gums, but a precise causal connection here
seems a bit tenuous. El Niño corresponds with dry years, so maybe the

flowering is initiated by the wetter La Niña seasons that follow. White
mahoganies, blackbutts, tallowwoods and grey gums can hold onto their buds
and flower after a low fire; they can also flower within three years of a fire that
scorches their crowns. White mahoganies and blackbutts actually seem to
flower well in places where there has been relatively frequent firing;
tallowwoods and flooded gums don’t.
In the case of the fruits, apart from the size and woodiness of capsules, a
close look at the seed can sometimes be revealing. In late January the pink
bloodwoods bloom in soft corymbs, like cream over their outer foliage. Around
here, they are scattered everywhere through the hardwood forests. Down on the
coast they grow in strips of woodland behind the coastal dunes. Look at a ridge
in the distance and the flowering bloodwood crowns look like flecks and
dollops thrown here and there among the rest. They have bigger gumnuts and
bigger seeds than most of the local eucalypts. What is most distinctive though is
that they, like many other bloodwoods have winged seeds.
The bloodwoods are a mainly tropical genus. They grow in the northern
woodlands where grassy understoreys burn frequently during the dry
seasonbut not so fiercely as to burn the canopy trees to the ground. Pink
bloodwoods are very like the red bloodwoods that so often growand with
much less of a scatteralongside the coast angophoras in the dry sclerophyll
forest on sandy country like that of the coastal dunes or the Hawkesbury
sandstone. In both species the pink wood is insinuated with seams of red kino.
Pink bloodwoods occur more often in the tall moist forests, up here, further
north. They grow as short trees in the coastal woodlands as well as taller forest
trees here in the gullies. This might explain why they, like the reds, have been
selected to maintain large, almost identical fruits as an adaptation: both species
need to protect seeds from close flames. The shortly fibrous, tiled bark on the
pink bloodwoods’ trunks might look a little softer and pinker to some eyes than
red bloodwood bark, and it extends further along the small branches. The surest
way to tell the difference between the two species though is to look at the seeds.
Like Eucalyptus seeds, red bloodwood seeds are not winged.
Most of the eucalypts in the Bellinger forests, have small fruits with little
seeds like grains of sand. You can collect gumnuts, put them in a paper bag to
dry out, and after a day or two, the valves open and release the seed. This is the
way to collect seed from any of the eucalypts, angophoras and bloodwoods. The
ripe seeds that have formed after the ovules in the flowers are fertilized spill out
in amongst what is mainly ‘chaff’the left overs of sterile or unfertilized
ovules. If you sow the seed and chaff under a very thin cover of soil and keep
things moist, the tiny seedlings with their kidney shaped cotyledons will peep
up after a couple of weeks or so. They are easy to grow. When tallowwoods,
blue gums, flooded gums or blackbutts drop seeds from fruit drying out on their
brancheswhether from dry times, or from fallen trees or branches, or after
firethe seeds scarcely scatter further from the parent than the distance of a
crown height. Although I have seen odd seedlings several hundred metres from
the nearest potential parents, wind will seldom carry seed far enough to find the

right conditions for germination. These species come up best in droves close to
parent trees after a disturbance like fire. Some, such as blackbutt and flooded
gum, may dominate as almost monocultural, even-aged stands over various
kinds of understorey: neat blady grass under regularly fired blackbutts; palmy
rainforest under either species if fire is kept at bay for long enough and
moisture is reliable. The more mixed forests of tallowwood, blue gum and
others, including blackbutt and flooded gum as well, are the result of a mixed
history of fires in different years and seasons, of different intensity and extent,
of other kinds of pre-germination disturbance, of seedlings competing with
resprouting trees under different amounts of defoliated canopy, of browsing
swamp wallabies wiping out isolated seedlings, of variation in substrate, soil
texture, nutrients, moisture and aspect, and of seed availability dependent upon
incumbent parent trees. Pretty well all these species grow at a fast rate, if they
find the right conditions. If the soil is heavier and restricts roots, white
mahoganies will outstrip blackbutts. If there is a bit too much dappled shade,
tallowwoods and bloodwoods may out-compete most others. Where seedlings
are frosted, blue gums will grow better than tallowwoods. Where fires burn
through young spars tallowwoods may resprout better than blue gums. Flooded
gums prefer the lower well-watered sites, but with poor drainage they will yield
to pink bloodwood, red gums or swamp mahoganies. If or when longicorn
borers then attack them, yellow tale black cockatoos descend on the ailing
saplings, chop deep into the wood, the tops snap in the next wind and their
lives are overa common fate for some of the plantations on lowland ex-
pasture country. On the Bellinger ridge country where slope, aspect, moisture,
soil texture and fire conditions can change every few paces, almost anything
approaching a birds-eye view looks onto a mixed forest. There has been such a
finely tuned selection of the different eucalypt adaptations that they can pick
out subtle and cryptic changes across a landscape that outwardly all looks the
same. It can make species selection in eucalypt plantations a wonderful
mystery, an onerous responsibility or an expensive mistake. Plantings can fail
in droves: you do things 90% right, as a grower once said, and they go 100%
Because they are winged, pink bloodwood seeds can float further on the
wind. They can carry far enough through or over a forest to find a little gap.
They don’t need much open ground. Like their tropical cousins that can persist
as seedlings in the understorey of open northern woodlands, they seem to
tolerate a little shade as seedlings and germinate even with a little grass and leaf
litter lying around. Red bloodwoods, unlike their northern cousins, are so much
a part of the southern dry sclerophyll forests that they have not maintained the
winged seed, and instead their seed-shape has been selected for the winning
strategy of seedling germination in areas cleared by fire. The scatter of pink
bloodwoods through the forest here seems to be the result of a seed designed to
find germination and seedling conditions that may be scattered intermittently
throughout the forest after small disturbances or patchy fires.

When the bloodwoods are flowering and the bats fly out from Bellingen
Island just on dark, they need not go far to feed. Instead of all streaming up or
down the river to stands of ironbarks or paperbarks, their formations quickly
break up over the forests as individuals fly low, or circle back looking for
blossoms. If you sit out in the forest watching the evening sky change down its
colours, in the last light you will see the big soft black wings wafting low over
the canopy, and hear themwhopf, whopf, whopf. In nearby bloodwoods you
will hear them chatting and grizzling. All night they will be coming and going,
talking, arguing, licking nectar from among the stamens, and flying from tree to
tree with pollen dusted on their noses. A clamour up close, their cries through
the distance and the forest and the warm moonlight and the humid air are muted
to a sweet tinkling like little bells signaling the blossoming trees. You can lie in
bed and listen to it, against the white noise of the Pacific way off and sounding
low like the the shell of the moony sky cupped over the earth.
Because most seeds don’t move far, the mother generations are often still to
be seen somewhere nearbyunless they have all gone up in fire. The fathers
though may be much farther away. Eucalypt pollen is more mobile than its
seed, so pollination is the main way that eucalypt genes get a spread on. Some
eucalypts have a lot of nectar; bats and birds feed on them and they can transfer
pollen anywhere from metres to kilometres. Beetles and bees use both nectar
and pollen and have a shorter range. Grey-headed flying foxes can fly from tree
to tree, from ridge to ridge and from Bellingen down to the coast or up to
Dorrigo and back in a night. They can carry pollen on their furjust as they
carry the seeds of rainforest fruits in their mouths and gutover long distances.
For all this, and in the absence of good empirical evidence, it seems likely that,
as with most dispersal adaptations, the probability of pollen moving long
distances is still much less then it is of moving just a short way off. Even so,
perhaps some of the eucalypts and bloodwoods have managed to evolve an
intimate relation with nectar feeding bats, having emerged from the hot house
of eucalypt evolution under selection pressures for species pollinated by long
distance night feeders. For instance, the bloodwood and angophora habit of
showy flowers at the ends of the leafy branches suggests some adaptation to
larger, nectivorous pollinators with good distance or night vision. The limited
dispersal range of seed makes long distance genetic dispersal by pollinators a
potentially valuable feature if populations are being fragmented by fire or cold
or aridity.

The last glacial period began about 80,000 years ago. Things got drier and
colder over tens of thousands of years. Initially rainforest araucarias like hoop
pine expanded their range as dominant trees, perhaps because among rainforest
genera they are hardier in cooler, drier conditions. Eucalyptus, casuarina and
grasses took over more country too, and between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago,
as the glacial period moved to its climax, the rainforest retreated to small
refugessmaller than todayand grassy sclerophyll woodlands of eucalypts
and casuarinas became dominant. Especially the eucalypts. The araucarias

retreated. Bunya pines were forced back to a couple of isolated mountains in
Queensland. A handful of Wollemi pines managed to survive in little gullies in
the Great Divide behind Sydney, undiscovered by fire, and, until a few years
ago, by modernity. As well as the altitudinal movement of treelines and the
reduced rainfall, there was increased fire activity. Otherwise there might still
now be more casuarina and callitris forest around. Two things happened.
First, the eucalypts were able to set up a kind of self-perpetuating regime.
Not only did they thrive on fire, fire thrived on them. They make wood when it
is wet and shed it as fuel when it is dry. The big moist forest species throw off
branches as they grow. The smooth barked gums shed patches or long ribbons
of bark every summer. The litter under blackbutts or flooded gums, say, is built
as one would build kindling for a fire: fine bark and dry leaves, a lattice of
twigs and sticks, dry branches and logs, and plenty of space for oxygen.
Second, by 40,000 years ago, we humanscreatures of firehad arrived;
and eucalypts were pre-adapted to us. Precisely how much selection of eucalypt
adaptations has occurred in that period of occupation is unclear. Species
adaptation demands evolutionary timescales and useful genetic variation.
40,000 years, or 80,000 since the beginning of the last glacial expansion is, say,
400 to 2000 tree generations, and although it may be possible to estimate how
much random genetic variation can get clocked up in that time, it is more
difficult to calculate how much might result in selected adaptations and species
differentiation. For the rate of morphological change and speciation is tied to
the temporal and geographical peculiarities of population isolation, and the
more or less rapidly changing pressures of selection. The Casuarina family has
only about 100 species, 65 of them in Australia. Because they disperse their
pollen and seed on the wind, species are able to sustain common gene pools
over greater distances than the eucalypts. As a result, with less isolation of
populations, there has been less differentiation into separate species. As the
common names of casuarinas suggestsriver oak, swamp oak, beach oak,
forest oaka single species tends to occupy each kind of habitat, wherever that
habitat occurs. Like the eucalypts they colonize disturbed sites, although
chronic fire disturbance puts a casuarina species at a comparative disadvantage,
perhaps to the extent of local extinction in the short term and evolutionary
extinction in the long. They do well on mineral soils, and like the acacias they
have symbiotic relations with bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen. Yet unlike
the eucalypts or the acaciasboth of which have less dispersive seed and
pollenthe casuarinas have a single species where the other genera may have
half a dozen. Here in the Bellinger ridge country, forest oak is encountered in
more types of forest than any single eucalypt, or for that matter, any single
species of tree except perhaps blackwood. It is the one and only forest casuarina
in this ridge country, where there are a dozen eucalypts. Despite the recent
peculiar selection pressures of human industry on the eucalypts, it seems most
likely that, when brought to bear on a genus with the limited seed and pollen
dispersal range, all those glacial cycles over the last 2 million years and more
were probably great generators of the diversity of modern eucalypts. Yet, since

our arrival, the appointment of forests, scrubs, grasslands and woodlands about
the countrythe structures of those communities and the range of species of
plants and animals that live in themhas proceeded at a thoroughly social,
even if supra-individual timescale. Human technology brought a regular and
persistent source of ignition and an intentional consciousness bent upon
shaping country according to certain ends. Although still subject to the great
temperature and moisture fluctuations of global warming, to the mighty force of
a fire nature that could defy all human intention, and to an immemorial process
of social evolution that far outlived individual intentions, there was now a
cultural as well as a natural history of fire and the eucalypts thrived as if their
creation had anticipated its coming.
As the continent came out of the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago,
the rainforest crept out again from its small refuges. The long isolation of
subpopulations of the various rainforest species still shows up in the genetic
dissimilarities within species. It probably also shows in the impoverished
biodiversity of modern rainforests. The available suite of rainforest species in a
given area is still somewhat less diverse and the community structure less
sophisticated than it would be if many more species had had the time or means
to move further afield from their ice-age refuges (see Walker, 1990, 27). The
accelerated plant movements of modern society demonstrate that many quite
restricted and rare rainforest species thrive beyond their pristine 1788
distributions. Some thrive so well that they get labeled ‘environmental weeds’,
although they may only be decolorizing country that they lived in before the
last ice age. Most characteristic in this recent era of rainforest expansion has
been the wet eucalypt forestthe wet sclerophyll forest. Those in the Bellinger
are typical of the east coast. Tribes of 20 or so tall eucalypt species tower over
an understorey of rainforest species that have managed a slow and halting shift
out from their refuges, colonizing moist gullies, southern slopes, and richer

Wet Sclerophyll Forest

Ecologists are natural historians as much as they are experimentalists. They

can’t help themselves. They are preoccupied by certain stories, each kind with
its own timescale: the long history of natural selection; the life history of an
organism; and the assembly and development of a community of organisms,
like a forest. With brains and words designed for telling stories that occur at the
timescale of a human life, we can be perplexed by the transformations of
evolutionary time. Failure to think according to evolutionary timescale can
bamboozle our chronological nous; it can make people think chickens might
have preceded eggs. In evolutionary stories things can be utterly changed in
kind, like the metamorphoses of mythology: one species, we say, becomes
another. Yet it is all just a matter of the simple repetition of generations, of one
life after another, parent and child.

The life story of an organism has a neat beginning, middle and end. It has a
main character that tells its own story to itself and times it by the internal clock
of its own growth and development. This self-reference gives an organism a
natural unity. Even so, the life of a eucalypt is almost geological compared to
ours, and to that extent a bit difficult for us to grasp. How long does one have
to observe a population of eucalypts to get an adequate idea of a typical
individual’s development, survival and reproduction? Does one have to see
what happens during a slightly drier century or millennium? Almost every
organism in the forest is poorly known, but even such an enormous, obvious
thing as a tallowwood lives so long that it is very difficult to observe it in all its
phases. It might reach 20m tall 10 years after germinating, usually a little
slower than a flooded gum or blackbutt, but like all the tall forest eucalypts it
can grow fast and in the right place faster than them. It might be 20, or 40 years
old when it flowers. It might be 100 or 150 when it develops its first hollow,
somewhere for a glider to hide, or a parrot to nest, or even an owl. At 300 or
400 it might be 40m or 50m tallnot the tallest of eucalypts by any
meansand 6m or 7m around the base. It will probably be hollow up the
centre, a great flue cut by termites after water and fungus have leached and
fermented the heartwood long enough to make it palatable. Perhaps the hollow
will be plugged with clay, or perhaps, if it can work its way in, charred and
fluted by fire.
Tall trees, tall stories. Here on the subtropical east coast the tallest eucalypt
was said be a 76m flooded gum near Buladelahthe so-called Grandis Tree
from Eucalyptus grandis. When forestry surveyors measured an anonymous
79.22m white gum (Eucalyptus nobilis) in a stand of giants up at Cunnawarra
near Point Lookout, the Grandis supporters promptly saw to it that their local
champ was remeasured at 84m plus. The tallest eucalypt at present is a
Mountain Ash (E. regnans) in the Styx Valley in Tasmania. It is 96m tall.
Mountain Ash in Victoria and Tasmania grow to 80m, have been measured at
99m, reported at 130m and made legendary at a primeval 150m. Even Mueller
lent his name to that legend. The American wilderness man, John Muir had to
come to Australia to dispel it and protect the reputation of the Californian
Redwoods. But, the story goes, the mountain ashes bigger than the redwoods
had already been cut down. Tall trees, tall stories. Legend aside, the fall back
has been that the redwoods are gymnosperms and not really flowering plants, so
the eucalypts are the tallest flowering plants in the world. Whenever people see
a big tree they wonder how old it is. Big size suggests big time. The Grandis
Tree is estimated at only 400 or 500 years. Grandis grow fast. They are big
weeds. Size always seems to offer a way to see through the obscurity of time:
space is obvious and present; time is mostly long gone, its present fleeting, its
traces perplexing, its nature mysterious. The dimensions of time may well be
traced in those of space, but enigmatically.
Compared to the life of a tree, the life of a forest is longer and messier. For
want of a main character organizing and therein referring to itself, it is
misleading to call it a life. With a miscellany of characters that may live for a

millennium or a day, a forest not only defies the format of a life, it defies both
the time an observer has to spare and even the comparatively brief duration of
the scientific culture whose concepts the observer brings to the theory-laden act
of observation. Not only in everyday imagination, but in scientific research,
spatially conditioned differences have to substitute for temporally conditioned
ones. We have to observe forests at different stages of development by
observing different forests in different places, but this is not always a good
substitute in the all too historical discipline of ecology. Scientific thought
works away incessantly, wheedling its way out of the chronic complication of
history’s particularity, trying to rescue whatever is effectively universal. The
plot of natural selection may be a very general plot, applicable to all species,
but the evolution of any given species is utterly particular. The biography of an
individual tallowwood is particular, but by belonging to what is virtually a
natural kind of thinga speciestallowwoods share physiological features
and, all things being equal, lead similar lives. Tallowwoods are of what is
effectively a type, virtually permanent in its characteristics, because the
timescale of natural selection is so vast compared to the life of an individual
that tallowwoods, generation after generation, are effectively all pretty much the
same. Forests, on the other hand, are much less effectively distinguished this
way; the general plot of the history of a type of forest is much less likely to
match the salient events of the particular plots of particular forests.
The story of a forest’s process of assembly is called a succession. To give it
a beginning, the simplest plot starts with a clean slatesay the ash bed of a big
fire, the mineral soil a land slip, or the mash of a bulldozed clearing. Already
plot is being deformed to pander to human intuition. As the poets have long
known, narratives have to start somewhere, anywhere, and always in medias
res, in the middle of things. You make the best of it, or, like the poets, a virtue
of it. The clean slate is as good a starting point as any mainly because human
agriculture is so given to cleaning slates. It is also a way of starting with the
conceptually simple, or simplified, and proceeding to the more complicated.
The trouble is even those three types of clean slates are contaminated by their
differences. Rainforests successions are often described as a kind of relay, in
which species colonize the forest in a definite order. Some species are said to
pioneer the clean slateannual herbs whose seeds are blown in on the wind, or
short-lived shrubs and trees. It is another metaphor. The pioneers sound like
they prepare the way, as if the succession were organized in stages to reach a
designed end, and all species were not just utter opportunists and in it for
themselves. At the second stage, birds and wind bring in the seed of slightly
more long-lived, fast-growing treestrees that still like high light levels. These
species germinate and start to take over. Around here there are seeds like those
of blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), seeds that have lain dormant in the ground
from the old ex-forest, and they, if they haven’t already, germinate. Along with
blackwood, species like red ash, brown kurrajong and pencil cedar take
advantage of the sunny conditions. These pioneer trees grow to form a canopy,
and this creates the slightly shadier conditions exploited in turn by the species

of a third stage. These species are longer lived, they can germinate and grow
amongst other vegetation and litter, grow in partial shade and perhaps, at least
as seedlings, may not be able always to endure the harsh sun and the
fluctuations in heat and water that effect open country. They arrive by birds and
wind, and fruit bats. Some like weeping lilly pillies, blue quandongs,
blackbeans and native chestnut arrive by river and line banks. The precise stage
to which a species belongs becomes unclear. Those of the so-called third stage
are said to create the conditions for the mature phase rainforest species, the long
lived trees that germinate in low light, but the whole pioneering idea, the idea
of preparing the way, is getting more unclear too. Someseldom those with
windblown seedpersist and fruit as denizens of the shady understorey: native
gardenia, hairy walnut, white bolly gum. Others like black and white booyongs,
rosewoods, Dorrigo plum, red beans, black beans, pepperberries, or yellow
carabeens persist and grow at low light and then, years later, when an old tree
falls and a gap forms in the canopy, are able to finally push their way up. But
they are all different and I don’t like these lumped together lists. They are like
conceptual detention centres. From the high canopy, species with windblown
seed can now disseminate themselves. Those with succulent fruits rely on birds
and bats or rats. Some like the Dorrigo plum, the rusty plum or the hairy walnut
have heavy fruits the size of cricket balls. Where once they could rely on bird,
marsupial or reptile megafauna, they now depend on rats, floods and primate
megafauna for dissemination. These ‘four stages of rainforest succession’ are
not set in stone like the Stations of the Cross, although sometimes people talk
as if they are and match it with their reverence. People replanting rainforest can
discuss the question of a species’ proper stage as if it were a point of theology.
Really, this notorious 4-stage doctrine of successionits recent cultural
ancestors in northern NSW are Hopkins (1981) and Floyd (1991)is just a
way for booting up to the task of plotting the natural history of a rainforest, and
that was how the ecologists meant it. The vines to tangle it up, the herbivores to
nibble it down, the ferns and orchids to deck its halls, the storms and floods and
chainsaws to topple bits of it, the drought to whither it and the fire to burn it
have been left out. It is a perfunctory concoction, mostly false and a terrible
To remedy the artifice of starting with a clean slate there needs to be some
account of the process of gap regeneration, whereby the rainforest is said to
routinely make ongoing repairs to itself (Another metaphor). When a tree falls
in a rainforest, if the gap left in the canopy is big enough and the sun hits
enough ground, species that germinate in higher light or heat conditions like
giant stinging trees or red cedars or cudgeries colonize. Sometimes the mature
phase species that are lurking in the middle layer get their chance, sometimes
vines and lianas like the native grapes, often already present, erupt all over the
damaged canopy. Gap size and incumbent species determine just what happens.
In chronically wind disturbed rainforestscyclone forests they are sometimes
calledviny canopy can persist indefinitely. Vines are often left out of the
picture, but vines make up 30% of rainforest canopy. As well as being called

closed forests because their canopy provides over 70% cover from the sky,
rainforests are also called vine forests. Light-loving lianas such as the tendrilled
grapes and twining blood vine hang from the high branches having hitched a
ride up on growing trees; lawyer palms hook their way up through the shade on
long vicious barbs; giant peppers creep slowly up wet trunks along with
climbing ferns and pothos and eventually clothe the trunks in a dense shag.
The relay plot is applied to rainforest, but there is another kind of plot in
which the species that come up under the initial conditions on the clean slate
persist indefinitely until the slate is cleared again. On the ash bed of a fire,
eucalypts, sclerophyll shrubs, bracken, grasses and sedges may colonize, and,
then under a regime of fires that return more or less every year or every few
years, the same trees, shrubs and herbs persist because other would-be
colonizing species cannot survive the fires. The species that can survive the
fires are already present anyway and, in the case of eucalypts, they can create
the very fuel and conditions that make regular fire so highly likely. After fire,
they re-sprout again or germinate from seed again. Over time, there may be a
little shifting in the proportions of the various species. Frequent firing removes
species that don’t have time to seed or the ability to keep resprouting between
burns, and it favours those that can resprout or re-seed themselves. In a dry
sclerophyll forest where eucalypts drop sticks onto an understorey of
sclerophyll shrubs, or in a grassy forest or woodland where perennial grasses
like Imperata grow up every wet season and dry out into a neat crop of fuel, fire
can become as regular as ignition allows it, and the initial composition of fire
hardy species is likely to persist. Sometimes, where there are callitris or
casuarina or acacia, a relay process might get started. If it is wet enough and the
soil rich enough, as it is in much of the Bellinger valley, a faltering relay of
eucalypt forest and rainforest may get starteda wet sclerophyll forest.
As long as fire and drought stay out of the wet eucalypt forest, the rainforest
species gradually colonize it. Birds and bats bring in seed from the drupes and
berries of laurels, myrtles and grapes, from the arils of the Sapindaceae, and
from hundreds of other succulent fruited trees and vines. Bangalow palms begin
to appear as odd seedlings and in 30 years steep moist gullies turn into viny
palm groves. Fern spores blow in and the fiery blady grass and bracken give
way to tree ferns and gristle and rasp ferns. Drought and fire test the limits of
the rainforest. One dry spring a small fire may crackle down through the fallen
sticks and branches of the eucalypts on a drier ridge, petering out in the fine,
thatched litter of a patch of forest oaks (Allocasuarina torulosa)the local
casuarinas beloved of the glossy black cockatoos who can spend all day in one
grove munching the winged samaras out of the cones. Or if it is fiercer, the fire
might burn beyond them, popping their steamy trunks, and coming to a halt
where the spur drops southwards into a brushy gully. Like the acacias, the
forest oaks burn dense and hot in a stovethey were the standard fuel of wood-
fired bakers ovensbut their litter is less encouraging of bushfire than that of
eucalypts, and the trees more susceptible to it. They can only shoot again after
cool fires. Anything hotter and they rely on seed. Here on the east coast the

winter rains of the continent’s south have given way to the humid, rainy
summers of the subtropical and tropical north. With the summer rains, burnt
white mahoganies or blackbutts will replace their singed leaves, blue gums or
tallowwoods may re-leave or they may have to germinate from seed, the blady
grass will send up its green spears and fluffy flowers, and a bracken plant that
may be 500 years old will curl its succulent fronds up out of the ashes from its
network of starchy rhizomes. Otherwise or elsewhere, beyond the incursion of
the fire, the wet sclerophyll forest becomes dominated by rainforest species, and
gristle and rasp ferns are joined by or give way to shield ferns and prickly tree
fern. Sometimes the rainforest can persist in the moister gullies, protected long
enough for the windblown seeds of cudgerie and red cedar to colonize gaps; or
sassafras and socketwood might make their way in. Even coachwood or
booyong might eventually arrive. After centuries, fire-sown eucalypts may
tower as ancient monuments over a fully constituted rainforest, the gums
eventually rotting, collapsing and leaving only the dense brush. Chances are it
wont happennot over centuries when El Niño driven droughts are coming
and going in great cycles of rising and falling fire risk, and the great greedy
eucalypts, their roots establishing command over every nook of the soil, are
pumping the water out of it, robbing the rainforest colonizers until their leaves
droop and fall and even the hardiest turn into living or dead fuelbut it can
and does.
Most of the time these so called gully rainforests are somewhat depauperate.
Growing along gullies surrounded by fired eucalypt forest restricts the sources
of incoming seed. Growing on poorer, slaty soils rather than basalt or alluvial
soils reduces the likelihood of the nutrient loving species with their soft
extravagant leaves and favours the thrifty sclerophylls. Growing as rainforests
with a short life expectancy reduces the likelihood of species that colonize the
more mature phases of rainforests. Fast colonizers, bird-dispersed species,
species that coppice after the odd fire, and species of poorer or drier soils
predominateoften of uneven age, often multi-stemmed, often of only
moderate height: the laurels like jackwood and murrogun; myrtles like scrub
turpentine, native guava, lilly pilly and the quasi-eucalypt, brushbox;
Sapindaceae like tamarinds, foambarks and guioas; the ubiquitous red ash,
blackwood and cheese tree; on the warmer aspects, cudgerie, white beech, red
cedar and red bean; on the cooler slopes, caldcluvia, possumwood and
sassafras; and everywhere the vinesgrapes, morinda, melodinus, giant
raspberry, cockspur, lawyer palm, and prickly sarsaparilla.
I often think the bush around here might as well be called grape forest as
tallowwood country or ridge country, or wet sclerophyll forest. The two native
grapes that own the placeCissus antarctica and the five-leaved Cissus
hypoglaucabelong to the same family as the wine grape. They are big fleshy
lianas. They look strong enough to swing on and are sometimes called monkey
vines. They have been called water vines too. They almost spurt water when
you cut them and, it is said, cedar getters and old bushies used to cut them for a
drink when they were up in the bush away from streams. With their neatly

forked tendrils, the vines climb the shrubs, trees and other vines of rainforest
regrowth and eucalypt understorey, tangling their heavy foliage over whatever
they can. In winter to avoid the goannas the baldy pigeons rustle and flutter in
the tangle, courting and nesting and calling with a short om and a long low oom
that haunts the ridges and gullies. When the vines are dropping fruit the wonga
pigeons walk beneath them pecking it up. Like their domestic cousins the
grapes have bunches of dark blue berries, ripe with a glaucous bloom in late
summerplump-seeded, thick-skinned grapes whose tannin can screw your
face up when you eat them, and dry your mouth out. They can, nevertheless, be
made into a jellya little astringent maybe, but dark and sweet. The berries of
C. antarctica are bigger, plumper and juicier than C. hypoglauca, and better for
jelly. It is a culinary niche though that has not led to much of a local grape
People who like trees, including many a rainforest regenerator and many a
eucalypt forester, are circumspect about grapes. There is no doubt they can
form a persistent viny scrub and make the development of a tall tree canopy a
slow process. Grape growth can only be called rampant, and cutting a bit back
from the odd entangled tree is hardly going to endanger the vigour of an
individual vine let alone the viability of a population. While we sleep, these
locals are busy growing, seeding and spreading themselves around with the
assistance of hordes of bowerbirds, catbirds and Lewin’s honeyeaters, and with
a virulence that is admirably weed like. It is partly perversity, partly loyalty to a
nature that decides its own directions, and mainly just affection for the plants
that this country belongs to as much as the eucalypts that makes me let them do
their thing and scramble over almost anything they choose. Anyway, policing
grape would be a full time job. More than anythingexcept maybe nowadays
lantanawhat marks the moist gullies of the local wet sclerophyll forest is the
dark green of the viny grape scrub, highlighted by the gold of the shoots,
tendrils and flowers. Walking through the tangle can be slow, but at least these
vines don’t cut, prickle, burn, abrade, jag or hooktheir ropy loops are as
reassuring as low solid swings, their leaves are as comforting as their suede
indumentum. Walking with the wongas beneath the vines in late summer, the
ground bountiful with blue fruits, the air with fermentation, I daydream about a
grape culture or cuisine or industry or fortune, truly of this grape country.
Unlike the open fire forest, the rainforest understorey casts a deeper shade
and a leafier litter. It is already likely to be thickest on the moistest sites,
protected from the harshest sun and the hottest winds, and on soils lower down
in the gullies where there has been more enrichment by deposition. Its fallen
leaves fertilize the woody litter of the eucalypts, hastening the breakdown by
insects, fungi and bacteria. Its more shallow-rooted trees and vines more
equitably share the commonwealth of soil moisture. Its fallen wood is usually
softer and quickly rotted by the living organisms protected under the shady
canopy. Foliage is softer, moister and less volatile, and for want of dry wood
and kindling the rainforest resists future fire incursions. While it is getting
established a mild fire might not get into it. Even a bigger fire might just singe

the dry fronds of palms dotted along its edge it. Otherwise, a long drought, the
dry foliage of a wind smashed tree, and a spark from humans or lightning, and
firemaybe the first one in 50 or 100 or 500 yearseats back into the wet
forest or opens it up, the next time to consume it. Some of the rainforest species
may coppice and recover and certain patches may survive, while the phoenix
eucalypts rise once more.
In the wet sclerophyll, changes staged by the colonizing rainforest are
anything but inevitable. They are like the European revolutions of the 19th
century, which, according to Karl Marx writing in the 18th Brumaire of Louis
Bonaparte, ‘interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to
the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful
thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts,
seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new
strength from the earth and rise again more gigantic before them, recoil ever
and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until the
situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible.’
In the pattern of the rainforest and eucalypt forest, as it is laid out over the
landscape, the change from one to another can sometimes be abrupt. At other
times the two merge into an ecotone, part eucalypt part rainforest. In fact, wet
sclerophyll forest is more or less all ecotone. Just why there is more rainforest
in one place and more eucalypt forest in another, is partly determinate, partly
the result of iterative processes, partly intentional, the rest random. Gullies,
southern aspects, good soils and soil moisture are all favourable for the
rainforest and causally they are confounded with one another. Once rainforest
gets started, it, like the eucalypt forest, is self-perpetuatingbut only weakly.
People like to think or hope that if they grow rainforests plants in eucalypt
country they will ward off fire, but they need the consistent moisture and aspect
as well, and they need a large enough patch so that fire wont eat into it and they
need to be spared bad droughts and big fires. There is no sure conversion of just
any bit of wet sclerophyll country to rainforest, and the drier it gets, the riskier
it gets.
In its risky interrupted relay, wet sclerophyll forest recapitulates the great
fluctuating dramas of the longer biogeopraphical struggle between rainforest
and sclerophyll forest. What makes its present form distinctive in that long
history are the dominance of the eucalyptus genus, the ubiquity of human fire
and 10,000 years of warm moist conditions. The abrupt changes from rainforest
to grassy eucalypt forest, so often described in early colonial accounts, lead
many to conclude that wet sclerophyll forest is an artifact of the new colonial
fire regimes, a rank eruption occasioned by neglect, by new weedy species like
lantana, by ignorance of traditional fire management, and by subsequent
reification of that ignorance in new fire practices designed now to reproduce a
mistaken image of the pristine. The abrupt changes from grassy eucalypt to
rainforest were partly the result of patterns of burning and herbivory, partly
determined by certain forest types, and partly by forest age. The Aborigines
burnt with no need to worry about wildfires consuming buildings and little need

to extinguish a fire once started. Because they burnt according to the different
uses and significance of different kinds of countryhusbanding game
populations, clearing passage or views through in one place, preserving useful
fire sensitive plants in anotherburning intentions were confounded with the
determinate fire ecology of the different kinds of vegetation, one reinforced the
other, and perceived structural divisions between different vegetation types may
have become somewhat emphatic. As modern fire culture reifies its image of
nature, albeit imperfectly across the landscape, Aboriginal fire culture also
reified its understanding of country. The works of both however could not help
but be exceeded by the power and persistence of extrahuman nature and
unintended social nature, no matter how much they might be reconfigured in
retrospect as intentional.
Despite deliberate burning and the historically unprecedented increase in
sources of ignition, the rainforest during the last 10,000 years managed to creep
back out of the refuges to which it had retreated during the last ice age. What it
crept out into though, was a country where eucalypts now reigned. I suspect
that in the remote rugged country of the Bellinger valley, rainforests and wet
sclerophyll forests were mighty enough forces of nature for them to persist and
perpetuate themselves more or less beyond the immediate intentions of most
Gumbaynggirr custodianship, as they still do beyond the meddling and
management of busy modernity. Wet sclerophyll forests would have exceeded
human designs. Deliberate burning would have defined their extent somewhat,
but wildfire, whether anthropogenic or from lightening strike, may well have
accounted for much of the burningas it does nowburning that would have
stencilled the erratic proportions of eucalypt and rainforest across the remoter
ridges and gullies. Deliberately designed burning would have most affected the
coastal foreststhe areas of higher occupancygrassy woodlands and open
forests on the estuary and river flats, and the main ridges used to travel to and
from the Dorrigo Plateau.
Once a forest of big eucalypts is established with an understorey of perennial
grasses, sedges, lomandras, and ferns, rather than an understorey of small
rainforest trees and vines, the structure may become somewhat self-
maintaining. To get established the eucalypt seedlings may have come up in
droves, or the trees may be of mixed ages, but over 50 or 100 or 200 years they
thin out. Hotter fires at odd intervals might disrupt this, encouraging continual
regeneration of youngish eucalypt poles from seed and lignotubers. Nowadays,
agricultural herbivores like cattle might graze out the sweet grasses and leave
eucalypt seedlings and shrubby, viny or weedy growth. Otherwise, under big
gums, colonizing trees and shrubs can struggle to germinate. If they do, they
might not survive the delectation of wallabies, or the Medusa crowns of sawfly
larvae writhing as they eat their way along each leaf blade, or there are
droughts, fires, or soil that fluctuates between waterlogged and bone dry.
Combine small fires and the proclivity of wallabies and kangaroos for grazing
patches of burnt ground and the understorey can become less shrubby and less
diverse. Big gums can dominate in the competition for water and nutrients;

perennial grasses, sedges, rushes and herbs can ride out the cycles of dry and
wet years. Particular species of eucalypt on certain country seem given to
forming forest like this. Forest red gum, once common on heavy soils along the
coast and coastal floodplainsand therefore on the first kind of country to be
selected for farminggets its name because forest was used to specifically
designate land, as Governor King said in an 1805 letter to Earl Camden, ‘such
as abounds with Grass, and is the only Ground which is fit to graze. According
to the local distinction the Grass is the discriminating Character and not the
The coastal forestsespecially the forest red gum and kangaroo grass on the
heavier soilsand the blackbutt and blady grass on the better drained coastal
soils and on the ridges are still grassier than forests in the shady gullies or
further up the valley in the shadow of the 1000m escarpment. They are seldom
as tall, or as protected from fire as the forests in the deeper gullies, where the
tallest eucalypts and densest rainforest grow. A mature red gum forest might
have had trees as widely separated as ½ to 2 crown widthswhat would now
technically be called a woodland or even an open woodlandwith as few as 30
big trees per hectare. Other grassy forests like blackbutt were probably more
closely spacedsay a quarter a crown width and close enough therefore to be
called an open forest. Rainforests are closed forests. The crowns touch or
overlap. In wet sclerophyll forests the tall eucalypt crowns are less than a
quarter of their width apart and the understorey is a more or less closed forest
of small trees, shrubs and vines. People argue passionately about how dense the
Aboriginal forests and woodlands were. It is part of the argument over the
changes between traditional and modern burning, about how country should be
managed and about how good or bad fire is. Ecological categories are
confounded with historical, political and ethical ones. Questions about what the
bush looked like should be answered with questions: Where? When? What kind
of bush? At what stage of succession? On what soil? Based on whose report?
Whose evidence? Whose speculation? It is too simple to say that modern wet
forests are cluttered with poles and shrubby understorey because of failure to
burn them or burn them properly. Like all history, like this history, the search
for answers is a romance, but reports and descriptions are equivocal and best
read as pieces in a satire.
As the summer rain clouds roll around the edge of the escarpment, they drop
rain up there that the coast misses. The coastal rainforests were found in their
distinctive littoral form on well-watered sands behind foredunes, as gallery
forests along estuarine creeks, as patches on the flood plain dotted through a
mosaic of swamp oak and paperbark swamp forests, sedgelands, and red gum
forest, and strung along some of the deeper coastal gullies carved back up into
the metasediment ridge country. The coastal eucalypt forests are the only forests
on the Bellinger nowadays that are open and grassy enough for eastern grey
kangaroos to graze, and I would guess that they were traditionally burnt for
hunting not only this, the largest of the local marsupials, but other smaller
fauna. On the lower Bellinger flats, on the farming country just down below

these ridges where I am writing, and on soil derived from estuarine silts
deposited during the last 100,000 years, there were once red gum forestsopen
and grassy and typically managed by burning. It was lined and dotted with
patches of rainforest, swamp forest, and sedgeland. Now though, hardly any of
this survives, having been replaced by feral grasslands lined with drainage
channels and dotted with camphor laurels. As a nutritious eucalypt that is
fancied by koalas, the forest red gum flats would have been a place for easy
hunting of this slow arboreal marsupial. Perhaps too easy. Would they have
been hunted down to fairly small populations? Koalas are now confined to
feeding on the tallowwood, grey gum and forest oak up here in the wet
sclerophyll country on the ridges. They seem quite common. It is a place also of
shy swamp wallabies, turkeys, pigeons, tree goannas, carpet snakes, brushtail
possums, bandicoots, echidnas, gliders, a number of smaller mammals, many
smaller reptiles, and 100 species of birds. Yet whatever is now conspicuous
may be a misleading indication of the fauna found and hunted in the past, so
great are the changes to the land. Besides, now and in the past, casual reports
may be a misleading indication of the status of the fauna, so obscure are the
fluctuations of animal populations to reliable observation, let alone explanation.
Beyond the grassy coastal and estuarine forests, frequent patch burning
might have been most common on travelling routes along the river flats and up
to the escarpment. Grassy glades amongst the brushes on the river would have
been places for camping and hunting pademelons and wallabies, small
browsing macropods who may have assisted in the perpetuation of such glades.
On many of the ridges and spurs leading to the plateau there are clusters of
shining burrawangs, cycads with big nuts that were eaten after baking,
pounding and leaching out the toxins. Cycads fruit well after burning and
elsewhere they were burnt in order to induce such fruiting. Up on the plateau
there were little grassy plains, fired and frosted into the brush, recorded in early
European descriptions, and some still recorded now as traces on the landscape
itself. Little Plains at North Dorrigo takes its name from a few grassy acres
beside a creek once fringed with teatree and cassinia, now by privet. The town
of Dorrigo took advantage of another grassland on the slopes beside the
Bielsdown. ‘We suddenly enter one of the little “plains” or meadows,’ wrote
the botanist Joseph Maiden (4) in 1894, ‘and are fairly in Dorrigo.’ He saw the
plains dominated by flowering kangaroo grass and something else he took for
Sorghum plumosum. Although he saw ‘specimen trees dotted about as in a
gentleman’s park’ (4), legend has it that no tree ever grew in the grassy little
plains, nor ever will. Nor ever should. Cedar cutters and the first selectors
found the clearings prepared for them by the Gumbaynggirr and the winter
frost, there in the heavy quilt of rosewood rainforest that grew on the well-
watered basalt soil. Otherwise this highland rainforest was broken only by small
patches of white gum—and less often, blue gum—that had managed to take
advantage of a drought, a landslip, an odd burn or the odd patch of poorer soil.
Mostly the eucalypts were ‘on the skirts of it (never penetrating beyond the
fringe)’ (4). Further east, off the basalt and on the metasediments, the plains at

Killungoondie were fired and kept open by the Gumbaynggirr through
otherwise great sombre stretches of hoop pine and coachwood rainforest. Only
now are they being colonized by thickets of black oak (Allocasuarina
littoralis). I imagine Killungoondie must look like somewhere from the last ice
ageafter the onset of human fire and before the consummation of the
dominion of eucalypts. Quite a bit of the valley and the plateau was tended by
fire, and like now there was a lot of ridge country in the valley foothills covered
in an open forest of old eucalypts that made life difficult for the woody and
viny understorey of wet sclerophyll to establish itself in the understorey of grass
and ferns and herbs, but even so, the earliest written reports of the Bellinger
emphasize its dense junglestall, brushy and varied on the river flats, harder
and viny under the eucalypts in the gullies or around the estuarine fringe.
In the moments that have passed since the European settlement, the ecology
of all these forests has been transformed. There are now new kinds of upheaval
rivalling and perhaps exceeding those of the Tertiary and the early Quaternary.
The ages of axe, cattle, plough, bulldozer, chainsaw, forestry, post-
Gumbaynggirr burning and, most of all, the global cultigens of modern
agriculture and horticulture have changed the eucalypt forests again and again
and continue to change them. At the hands of farming and forestry we have
remade the forests according to our disaffected image of them, reifying their
perceived charmlessness in the tracts of weedy undergrowth that we are now
left with. Seen from a high vantage they still blanket ridge after ridge, broken
only by grassy farms along the rivers. Mountains are waves in the ocean of the
gum forest. They loom at the back of every landscape in the Bellinger valley as
if they have always been there and always will be there. But we utter parochials
in time, we are like mites even when it comes to the brief timescale of the
revolutions through which the eucalypt forests have been lurching for just the
last 100 years.
Except when we refer to them by the dismissive term regrowth we hardly
see the passing of time that is so scratched and torn into them, and so graffitied
over them that it defies historical disentanglement. We probably don’t want to;
we would prefer distance and bogus invocations of timelessness to render them
poetic. Most of them were ringbarked and burnt by the time of the First World
War. Old photographs from the early 20th century show forests of dead pillars
running way up the ridges, often with a shag of ferny regrowth already erupting
beneath them where there weren’t enough brushhooks to control it. In Winter’s
Afternoon, Bellingen, Elioth Gruner painted a valley of grassy hills rolling
beneath the blue silhouette of McGrath’s Hump. This was 1937. There is the
odd remnant stag, and the odd gum or scrub tree where now there would be
ridges and gullies of regrowth, lantana and camphor laurel. Most of the blue
backdrop behind the valley’s cleared farmland was country that had started out
as old, over-mature forest with few trees that did not bear the scars of fire,
termites and time. By 1912, much of the lower altitude ridge country had
become steep farmlandcountry burnt, fenced and brushed for rough grazing.
A grass from South America, paspalum (P. dilatatum), promised a way of

transforming the lower spurs of the despised hardwood ridges into some kind
of pasture. According to the District Forester, Edward Swain, before 1905 only
the flats—25,000ha—had been selected and cleared for corn and cattle. By
1912 a further 30,000 ha—nearly all lower ridge country was selected and
being cleared. Most of the rest stayed with the Crown and ended up as state
forest. It had all been cut over for the best and easiest trees by the First World
War, and afterwards it was gone over with axesringbarking the rest of the
old, hollow trees. Farmers did this on the freehold in order to burn it and keep it
clear. Foresters did it to grow straight, even-age stands. High-grading they
called it. Swain (1912) wrote:

The original forest, according to the Bellinger pioneers, was almost

park-like in its growth, and low lateral branching was thereby
permitted…Since the advent of settlement, however, several agencies
have operated to clear the forest floor of its dominating carpet of
native grasses, and allow the upspringing of hardwood seedlings,
many of which are now in the spar stages, and because of greater
density are of a much better timber quality than was produced in the
primeval forest.

Agriculturally, the Bellinger had been one of the last valleys cleared and one
of the poorest in the state. Few families grew rich off it. They cropped corn and
grew veggies on the small river flats, eked out a living from grazing and dairy,
and cut timber from the ridge country. Then, year by year, with the droughts of
the Second World War, the big flood of 1950 that washed away the bridges and
shut down the little farms up the river past Darkwood, the shrinking of family
size, the relentless tightening of the market and regulatory screws on the dairy
industry, people had to walk off the land. In the 1960s Australian Paper Mills
bought up many of the ridge farms in the lower valley country nearest to the
port of Coffs Harbour. They planted thousands of hectares of flooded gum and
blackbutta sign that timber was the only industry that the combined
environments of markets and ridge country could support. By the 70s and 80s,
when most farming had shrunk to small scale beef grazing supplemented by off-
farm income, and a metropolitan population had extended itself to the north
coastthe land of its childhood beach holidays and its rainforest
dreamingregrowth had taken back the ridges again for the eucalypts, the
second time round with an understorey of wattle, red ash, lantana, camphor
laurel and privet scrub.
Large areas thickened up with young forest. The stuff the farmers had been
battling, burning, brushing and grazing for half a century, became decorative
backdrop to lifestyle. The stock had long ago grazed out the sweetest grasses
and encouraged woody shrubs and treesgums, wattles, red ash, and lantana.
The new irregular burning, part deracinated tradition, part haphazard, part
wildfire, encouraged bracken, blady grass and especially weeds. During nearly
a century of clearing and burning, grazing, logging and regrowth, reclearing

and regrowing, successive waves of exotic plant species made their
appearances, each taking up its distinctive place in the understorey scrub and
each affecting the still ruling eucalypts in its own way. Lantana was common by
the end of the 19th century. Joseph Maiden saw it lining both sides of the road
when he traveled from the river mouth to Bellingen in 1894. There had always
been targets for the sardonic contempt these forests evokedstumps, regrowth,
ferns, undergrowthand lantana was to out-perform its many indistinguishable
native rivals for this role as the dominant species of rubbish. It dominated the
understorey of the moist regrowth, poisoned cattle (at least the red flowered
variety did), and wrote itself into the popular culture of the landscape. The
terms, regrowth, rubbish and undergrowth all became as confused as the tangle
of lantana scrub that had come to characterize each of them. They all existed to
be cleaned up. The understorey of rubbish dragged down the status of the
regrowth wet sclerophyll forest, and while the gums came up as thick or thicker
than ever in many places, they had trouble out-competing lantana down in the
wettest gullies. Especially when regrowth was establishing in wet years
alongside forests that were already full of seeding lantana.
When attempts were made to clear or clean up the regrowth, the rubbish or
the understorey, it came back more rubbishy. A new exotic invader would
appear. Camphor laurels had been planted late in the 19th century as shade trees
on the cleared landscape. The shade from old eucalypts was too thin. The old
scrub trees were too tall and too weak when left out in the paddock after
everything around had been cut down. Camphor laurel was shady, fast growing,
Chinoiserie, andyou never knowit could turn out useful in the medicine
cabinet or a linen chest. It was an irresistible horticultural curiosity. It was also
a survivorideal for planting in public places. Some of the biggest camphors
in Bellingen still grow on the main street, planted in front of what was the old
school and is now the Shire Council. Trees started to seed, first one generation
then the next. Topknot pigeonsinitially decimated by the loss of their local
laurels in the alluvial brusheslearned to feed on the oily drupes and spread
the seed. Compared to lantana it was a slow succession of long generations, but
the camphors gradually staked out the flats and richer gullies as theirs. They
came up near houses, in parks, along fence lines, beside rivers and creeks,
under ringbarked stags, under the eucalypts in the gully countrywhere ever
the rushing flocks of topknot pigeons regurgitated and dropped their seeds.
Even by the end of the 20th century though, they had still a long way to go to
reach their potential.
While the camphors were taking their portion of the wet sclerophyll forest so
were the waves of small-leaved privetalso from China. At first the red soil
rainforests of Dorrigo had been domesticated by rolling kikuyu pasture
portioned between privet hedgerows and windbreaks of Monterey Pine. Later,
radiating out from towns and farms where they had once been planted and
trimmed as hedges, the privets took over water scoured gullies, neglected
fencelines, abandoned hillsides and patches of bush. They did the same down in
the valley. Each generation flowered and fruited and moved on to remoter

gullies and remoter hillsides, spread by birds and bats. By the end of the 20th
century the privets lined creeks and gullies in dense multistemmed droves, yet,
like the camphors, they too were only just starting to achieve their potential.
After a century and a half of introducing self-perpetuating pasture grasses,
the Department of Agriculture fulfilled its sacred bureaucratic destiny and
finally hit upon a species of South American paspalum that could out-compete
the natives in the new wet sclerophyll forests. Paspalum dilatatum seed had
been sown into the ash beds of cleared forest from the end of the 19th century,
but it would not grow in shade. Along with the prized kikuyu, stingy carpet
grass and stingier whiskey grass, it dominated the perennial summer grasslands
of agricultural Bellingen. Now however, broad-leaved paspalum (Paspalum
wettsteinii) arrived on the scene from South America to finally offer a shade
tolerant pasture, a miraculous understorey grass for a more and more tree-
conscious grazing industry. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s it was sown under gums
and into forest where the understorey had been ‘cleaned up’. Farmers could
now clean up the rubbish and grass it down with a Landcare grass. To stop
erosion and feed cattle, it was sown on steep banana country, scoured creek
banks and cleared gullies. It was sown into State Forest and under eucalypt
plantations to encourage a bucolic understorey that would value-add beef and
beauty to industrial timber factories. By 2000 it had worked its way into a good
proportion of the tall forest remnants at the back of farms, seeding outliers into
good forest, hitching rides on wallaby and stock and boots, proliferating into
swards at any hint of ground or canopy disturbance, along roads and wallaby
tracks, on land slips, riverbanks and water scoured ground. Although it had not
managed get through bureaucratic and political filters and work its way onto
official lists of the serious weeds of moist forests, it was busy working along
with lantana and privet ensuring that native grasses, rushes, sedges and herbs
disappeared from landscape and memory.
As new weeds arrived one after another to take there places beside and
beneath the eucalyptus, so did new technologies, each seeming to be pre-
designed for the use of one or other of the weeds. As if designed by lantana,
bulldozers could clear a gully into a steam pudding seedbed of caterpillar-
tracked clay, hastening the old work of axes, bullocks and fire. Fences and
shade trees attracted birds, brilliantly, to drop the seed of camphors and privets.
Slashers could brush back native regrowth to a heavy sward of paspalum, and
even bring the seed in on their tyres without trying. It was all a beautifully
designed, seamlessly functioning ecosystem, a nightmare realization of the
wildest dreams of ecosystem managers.
What many see now as timeless forest is the regrowth that signified the
failure of farming to turn all those ridges of unruly timber into corn or milk or
beef. Various ages of plantation and regrowth, each distinctive for its weeds,
swallowed up old farms. Still standing here and there in the regrowth forests are
the ruins: giant stumps with axe holes above the buttresses where axemen
wedged step-planks as platforms for felling, the last ringbarked stagsa
century old now; house piers, footings, fence posts and rusting wire; orchard

relics China pears, persimmons, guavas, poorman’s oranges, mandarins,
mango trees, macadamias and mulberries; and self-propagating bush lemons,
passionfruit vines and cape gooseberriesa legacy some might number among
the weeds.
The eucalypts, the long-lived weeds of fire and catastrophe, have so far
seemed to hold their own, even prevailed. Appearances may be deceptive
though, because their life cycle is so slow, and the ongoing changes to their
regime take a long time to express themselves. The main weeds of the wet
sclerophyll are weeds of the rainforest component, of the ground, shrub and
small tree layers. They erupt when wet eucalypt forest is logged or cleared,
especially in the deep moist nooks of the gullies, and they now grow through
most of the forest that is adjacent to farming and forestry country on the
Bellinger lowlands. In the tangle of weeds, the rainforest trees struggle, but the
eucalypts can struggle too. Many tracts of former eucalypt country have now
been reduced to a weedy, viny scrub clamouring over the corpses of collapsed

John Lewin’s watercolour of Evans Peak (1815) was commissioned by

Lachlan Macquarie. The Governor of NSW at the time, he wanted paintings to
record his first official crossing of the Blue Mountains. Lewin saw the
continent disappearing into the distance, the thick smoky sky, the hazy washout
of light over the hard leaves, the eucalypt crowns asymmetrical, sympodial and
silhouetted on the ridges, the dollopy forest texture on the spurs and peaks, the
scrubby gully between the grassy woodland slopes. Best of all is the portrait of
that awkward stingy-leaved stringy bark. Lewin did not get it to decorously
frame a vista. It insisted on standing too far over on the right. Bark, dead sticks
and leaves hang from the odd branch and they are shed thin and messy on the
ground. The colonial coroner and scientific draughtsman, painter of fish, birds,
plants and insects had the sensualist, empiricists eye for things that venerable
generations of painters, distracted by oil, grand designs, or the burden of
national and picturesque intentions, could not allow into their works.
Received art history has it that the landscape set an historic task for the
imaginative appropriation of the country, and that the eucalypt was the central
icon of that landscape. In order to become Australia—to mature as a nation—
the nation had to see the eucalypt truly and take its image to heart. Peter Conrad
and Philip Adams only recently agreed on ABC Radio National that Fred
Williams was the Australian to finally nail this holy grail of national aesthetic
maturity. Yet this true image of the eucalypt has been discovered, lost and
rediscovered by the various non-utilitarian departments of spiritartistic,
botanical, nationalist and environmentalistmany times. The iconography’s
history, has not been a gradual progression to a culminating realization, but a
series of fits and starts, slips and recoveries, the same epiphanies experienced,
forgotten and reiterated generation by generation. Received histories of a
national aesthetic sensibility maturing in a long struggle against old fashioned

distaste for the bush seem more like commentator’s personal aesthetic
development writ large. Either that or they are simply equating the aesthetic
progress of modern art (and its new ways of seeing) with maturing national
landscape sensibility.
Well after Lewin, the task for John Glover, not long off the boat from
England, is still supposed to have been that of getting the look of the place by
getting the shapes and hues of the eucalypt crowns. He sort of did, so we are
told, in paintings like Paterdale Landscape (1835) although he could not quite
resist giving a picturesque swirl to branches that, according to official modern
iconography, should have been more sticky. Even an untidy fallen branch
would be said to suffer from its intention to frame a vignette of the painter’s
cattle. In other paintings, Glover brought sentiment to the gum tree landscape,
elaborating it with small groups of Aboriginal people in the receding middle-
ground, in part heedless of their impending exit from it, yet in part a
valediction. 50 years after Lewin, Louis Buvelot’s contemporaries declared that
he was the first to make eucalypts properly aesthetic. He sort of was. Again. Yet
being feted as the first to capture the poetry in them is another way of saying
that he bent the eucalypts to a preformed aesthetic sensibility. In popular
national consciousness, it was the Heidelberg painters, at the end of the 19th
century, who seemed at last to get it right, complete with a bit of Australian
Impressionist light to show off the bush, and, in the laboured major works, lost
children or battling selectors to give that mere bushnow devoid of Aboriginal
societya bit of human interest and aesthetic weight. Afterwards, the likes of
Hans Heysen and Albert Namatjirra, and endless imitators, instituted the iconic
Gum Tree Picture: a smooth-barked guma time-scarred river red gum or a
sinewy ghost gumframing a distant range, a road or gully wandering away
into the wide middle ground. That pretty much describes my own first work in
oil, painted as an eight year old Impressionist with a set of colours my sister
had given me. In later years Fred Williams was to develop a vocabulary of
eucalypt ideograms, importing a bit of abstraction and hard edge from New
York for the big gallery works. He showed how the gums wrote their signatures
across different stretches of country, country that could now be imagined as a
canvas itself. In Lynn Onus the gum tree bush ended up as indigenous
postmodern, decked sardonically with roadside consumer culturestuff
chucked out of Andy Warhol’s car I’d sayand fenced off, by a cyclone wire
installation, like property where trespassers will be prosecuted.
Throughout this colonial and post-colonial history, it has never been the
case that the newest immigrants, as opposed to the native born ‘gumsuckers’,
could not appreciate the gums. While Buvelot, fresh from Switzerland in the
1860s, was being feted in the 1870s and 80s, native-born bushmen, who could
skite they’d learned a thing or two about the bush, were hard at it ringbarking
the forests and woodlands and marking out their new tenure in waves of dead
eucalypt spars. So matter of fact. Ferdinand von Mueller, another European
immigrant, was forced to watch the eucalypts he’d planted in the Melbourne
botanic gardens, grubbed out by the good citizens, who hankered for a greener,

grassier look. Dubbed Baron Blue Gum, he was sacked from the gardens’
directorship and the resources he needed to complete his ambitious
Eucalyptographia were withdrawn. Whether in images or elsewhere, the culture
of eucalyptus has been more like an intermittent, evolving system of social
antagonisms than a progressionanalogous, in a way, to the interrupted course
of eucalypt evolution or the natural history of a wet eucalypt forest.
This says something about the cultural nature of the sublime impulsethat
distinctively if not exclusively modern drive to appreciate what defies aesthetic
sensibility, whether one’s own or that of the society. The ugly, the awkward,
the wild, the foreign, the forbidden or the new are redeemed, renovating
sensibility in the process. In the modern encounter with the Australian
continent this impulse has been used to construct a national iconography and
make an alien country into a homeland. For native born and immigrant, it is a
typical experience to learn to love eucalypts and the bush, a supposedly
subjective matter of aesthetics which has been put to common national use. Yet
although the subjective experience of gum tree sentiment has been a powerful
influence on national history, the progressive aesthetic appreciation of
eucalyptus and the bush has been enacted in individuals’ experience in a way
that reflects its ambiguity in social history. In turn, the sublime response has
been put to the task of savouring that ambiguity.
Social evolution is a very different thing from individual development, and
antagonistic pressures steer the streams of modern culture in sometimes
opposed, sometimes entwined currents. On the one hand, there have been and
remain the usual, and often locally urgent pressures, for doing away with
eucalypts and their culture: securing your rights to land by clearing it; ensuring
where your next meal or dollar is coming from; doing what you have done
before and know how to do; and in the end carrying on these practices for their
own sake, or as custom, or right or as the deliberate declaration of a right. On
the other hand, there are recurring, non-aesthetic pressures for a eucalypt
culture. There is the appreciation of their utility in forestrya pressure that
often seemed inherently contradictory to 20th century environmentalists. There
is the all too remote, sometimes mythologized utility of gum trees in the
ecological management of salinity, water tables, climate and biodiversity, a
utility appreciated, at least implicitly during the 19th century, and emphatically
in the late 20th. All of these combine and curdle with a nationalist affectation
about the bush that can be affectionate, ironic and deprecatory. In such a social
environment, the evolution of eucalypt poetics is as complex as the evolution of
the eucalypts themselves amidst the historical struggles of drought and rain, and
fire and rainforest. Despite the status of the eucalypts as a national symbol, only
someone steeped in Aboriginal custom would break off a branch to decorate a
body or a place, or to celebrate circumstance or occasion. No one decks the
halls with boughs of blackbutt or picks a vase of bloodwood flowers. For the
rest of us, the spiritual labours, like all labours, have been divided, the special
task has been definedagain and again it seemsas that of capturing that
‘look’, and this spiritual duty has been conferred upon painters and

photographers, professional and amateur. Non Aboriginal Australia, during our
recreational momentsif we are not busy painting or taking our own gumtree
picturescan relax and check out the achievement of the image culture in the
nation’s books, galleries, tourist shops, living rooms and, of course, national
Compared to the gum tree vista, the lush rainforests, the open grassy
woodland, the sunny beaches, the cool streams, and the sublime views,
compared to all these, the tall wet eucalypt forests can shun human passion,
interest, comfort, affection, perception, and conceptualization. Especially the
regrowth. Apart from distanced prospects blue with haze, the relief of tree fern
glades, or the spectacle of primeval giants, people have seldom painted or
photographed the tall wet sclerophyll forest. A likely contender is the tapestry
in Parliament House. Arthur Boyd designed it, but I’d say it might be dry not
wet sclerophyllquite a different look and quite a touch of the Heidelberg to it.
Fred Williams is a better example. He has sort of done it, with a fair bit of
abstraction. When you are in a position to see these big wet forests, you are
inside them and then everything is too close and crowded to get a fitting vista,
the depth only casually beginning all round, at a little distanceand there is
too much greenery and it’s too drab and, more often than not, weedy at that.
Cutting down the foreground was part of an artist’s job in the 19th century
(Bonyhady, 193-209), and contemporary gum-tree pictures of the Bellinger still
make the most of the pastoral prospects bequeathed by the ringbarkers. The
seemingly practical problem of getting a look insinuates itself into individual
psyche as uninterest, and into aesthetic society as a void. Few artists have
discovered a vocabulary of ideograms adequate to these particular forests, a
vocabulary adequate to the crowded experience of being in them. There are for
me painters of the tallowwood country, who live in this ridge and gully country,
not who have found solutions to these problems but opportunities in them.
They are not opportunities though that have yielded logos for the art market.
Dedication to the immense particularity of this crowded kind of nature is not an
easy road to recognizable, retail style. Among many things, Ted Hillyer has
turned to the forms cut into the forest by the light and spaces of coast,
escarpment and culture. Joseph Conroy has looked at the meeting of clouds and
canopy or turned to the nature morte at his feet, and painted still lives of the
same intricate eucalypt litter that was eventually to kindle, fire up and consume
many of his works, and that then, as a flame in the night, become a new subject
against the blackened background.
Otherwise the crowded tall wet forests remain largely uncaptured,
unobjectifiable objects of distracted, uncomfortable apprehension, framed
occasionally as noisy compositions in the glossies of bureaucracies and NGOs
promoting the natural environment. No wonder burners think they are untended
modern wildernesses of crowded spars and impenetrable undergrowth.
Aesthetic sensibility demands a good burn. Most landscape painters have, like
the farmers, moved further and further into the open country and especially,
when it comes to national art, into the spiritual comfort of the pre-mythologized

interior, consigning the unframeable tedium of tall hardwood regrowth to
scenic blue backdrops or a cultural unconscious of forestry and
environmentalism. Wet sclerophyll is not the official light, look or landscape. It
is a failure to confront the continent; it is cringing on the coast. Apart from
strong timber, most of which can only be nailed green or drilled, they yield too
little to have inspired more care, affection or passion than that which comes
with the rough pragmatics of hardwood forestry, or the worthy but selective
sentiments of green primevalism, or the ceaselessly restaged antagonism
between the two.
Beyond this antagonism over custody, few would think of this eternal
backdrop to Australia, this backdrop supplied by utterly extra-human nature, as
something whose poetic role would ever be more than that of the iconic one,
that of an object for national imagesmostly in the background. The forests are
just brute, physical facts. You either cut them down or you save them. Yet in
this age of images when all things become images of themselves, eucalypts can
be no exception. So to work on the image of eucalypts you have to work on the
eucalypts. It is the same with most of nature now. I painted the eucalypt forest
for a while, and then found I could not help working on the thing itself. Of all
things in the bush though, eucalypts seem the most intractable, the most
unyielding to anyone who would actually like to work on them. The bush has
always signified the most recalcitrant streak in nature and hence nature in its
most refractory otherness. And eucalypts are the epitome of this bush. So it
turns out that even bush regeneratorsespecially bush regenerators like
meseem to be dwarfed by eucalypts, in space by the physical presence, and in
time both by their endurance and by the bustle of all that goes on inside them.
As Baudelaire said of the city, the eucalypt forest changes faster than the
human heart. And slower. Here in the Bellinger, we just walk under them most
of the time like they are the great givens of nature, timeless pillars busy holding
up the still or windy sky over our little world—and this is only the regrowth.
We just employ ourselves weeding the understorey and letting the rainforest
species colonize. In the backs of our minds we rely on the mighty eucalypts to
just look after themselves in the long termcome fire or ferals. Or perhaps we
try to not think too much about it. That’s easy. We can only do what we cannot
help doing. Those who try burning in order to regenerate them encourage other
sclerophyll plants, and weeds, but unless they burn the fire that particular
eucalypt species wantand they all want different kindsthey too just manage
the understorey, the lignotubers and the epicormic regrowth. Foresters in the
wet forests have lost the will, the means, the skill, the inclination, the historical
ecological conditions, the management structures and the market environment
to regenerate all but a few species. Theirs has been and remains a practice with
limited functions and one scarcely ever conceived as poetic, let alone
undertaken as such. Few people get to see eucalypts come up at their
instigationon the forest edge or somewhere else where deliberate and
designed disturbance has been undertaken. Mostly they come up despite our
intentions after a wildfire, or along the edge of a new road on bare subsoil that

only a callous engineer, busy at some task in another department of economic
life, would dare cut into the living earth. Or they come up as cheap life in flood
deposits in risky droves of seedlings, and someone who gets down on their
knees and notices them and fences them off from stock can at least say that they
have assisted them, like the humblest of servants of even more humble beings.
All we can do is not let the opportunities pass, which they mostly do, rare and
Of course, you can plant them. That’s what most do. They give reasons like
forestry, firewood, integrated land management or carbon credits. I am talking
about the big local forest trees. They stick them in clapped out pasture or
eroded gullies or where it’s too harsh to get anything else to grow. They might
have a windbreak, a wildlife corridor or koala habitat in mind. It is a green
thing or a natural resource management thing. Beauty, like the flowers, is
seldom mentioned. Gardeners are warned against them. Only the odd one slips
into a backyardthe sign of a horticultural novice or philistine, a hopeless
bush romantic; or else someone has a big yard.
Personally, I hate planting trees. I don’t like all the botherdigging all
those holes, getting the seedlings to the holes, putting them in, watering them,
mulching them, putting guards around them, collecting the empty pots. I hate
working bees plantings even more. Afterwards, some force of nature like a
swamp wallaby or a vandal comes along anyway. One snacks on the
seedlingsalways only the planted seedlingsas if they are sweets served up
on a plate; the other labours blissfully and purposefullyalways only on the
planted seedlings too. Or there is frost or drought or insects or fungus or god
knows what, each working to restore the natural design. Worse than the
planting, I never know what to plant or where. It keeps me awake at night. As
soon as I plant a tree I see how wrong I have been to do it. Everything I plant is
in the wrong place and I think everyone else plants the wrong things in the
wrong places too. People often say that they don’t like seeing trees planted in
rows because it looks regimented and unnatural. I think every planted tree looks
like thiseucalypt plantings especially, because nearly anything looks
regimented compared to native forests that have been laid out across the
landscape as ecological noise. And when you think about the nuances of a site
and the disgustingly profligate culling of natural seedlings it is no wonder that
so many eucalyptus plantations look sad or odd. How can planting at a
cutthroat thousand trees or dollars per hectare rival the idiotic abundance and
magnificent waste of nature. It’s all so disheartening. Sometimes only the
wallabies and vandals cheer me up.
I have seldom met anyone who has actually forgotten about forestry or
carbon credits or riparian rehabilitation or growth rates or establishment
success and everything else, and set out to restore or imitate from scratch what
might be thought of as a natural eucalypt foresta wet sclerophyll forest say.
Not anyone who advertised it anyway. I am not sure whether people are only
willing to admit to humbler intentions than emulating the nature of eucalyptus,
or whether they are not willing to admit to such a humble intention. I suspect

people’s diffidence about this hides their equivocationand the eucalypt’s.
Perhaps, of all plants, eucalypts and the bush they create are the most
problematically natural and unnatural at the same time. For 40,000 years they
have been fashionedfrom their landscape deployment right down to their
genesby human fire, making them unnatural. But 40,000 years of human
burning can only have affected eucalypt ecology in a way that exceeded human
intentions, making them natural. But they have been regularly burnt several
times within an individual’s life and burnt according to traditional cultural
intentions, making them unnatural. But they live so much beyond a single
human life and their evolution stretches out beyond the persistence of any
culture, making them natural. And when people now make eucalypt forests they
plant themin rows mind youmaking them unnatural. Yet if people did not
plant them, there would just be degraded pasture and no amount of just waiting
for them to regenerate or burning to encourage them would bring them back;
and when the right species are planted in the right place and they get away, they
can start to look like a forest monoculture of even-age self-sown juveniles
powering away monopodially after a fire, and so unnaturally natural. They defy
easy understanding. I have had a go at describing their rag-tag history, not their
essence. They haven’t got one of those.

Portrait of a weed and what it does to the bush infested with it.

The floras all call it a shrub but it isn’t really. It is a scrambling climber or a
shrubby scrambler. In the absence of anything to climb over, it scrambles back
and forth over itself, criss-crossing canes that harden into a perplexing shrub-
like lattice with light green leaves and multicoloured flowers. The light canes
are square in cross section with rows of sharp little recurved hooks along the
four edges. The rough, toothed, ovate leaves grow in neat pairs on opposite
sides of the canes. Given the support of shrubs or trees, it drapes its canes over
them, holding on at first with the little hooks and climbing eventually up to a
height of 10 or more metres. As the stems thicken and loose their hooks they
hang off the trees like smooth, pale lianas.
Under the tallowwood and blue gum forest on the main ridges, the
understorey is a tangle of lantana, 2 or 3 metres high. It is thick and lush during
warm wet whether and becomes thin and twiggy when it is dry. Higher up on
the driest ridges under blackbutts, grey gums and forest oak, it is nearly always
a bit thinner and twiggier. Where it is lush, it grows up over the understorey
treesthe cheese trees, the red ash, the blackwood, the guoia, the scentless
rosewood, the foambark, the malletwood, the sandpaper figbending them
over and breaking them off. It is too thick to walk through. Its sticks poke you,
the little hooks on the branches scratch you, and the rough leaves when brushed
past give off a volatile aroma of musty sage and old moth balls. Well clothed
and shod, you can make your way slowly, pushing through it, trampling over it
or crawling under it, finding a line of least resistance, but seldom being able to
go just where you want toto the base of that tree, along that gully, under
those giant raspberriesand never getting an opportunity to trace the contours
of the landthe little gullies, rises and depressions, the shapes of shrubs, ferns
or herbs, or fallen logs or termite mounds.
Said to be descended from native plants in the Caribbean and South
Americaand probably native itself to the greenhouses of 18th century
EuropeLantana camara now grows all around the world as a weed of the
humid tropics and sub-tropics. It is one of the most famous weeds in
Australiaalmost the generic weeda prominence recognized in its status as
an honorary, if feral, native. A member of the Verbena family, the classification

of lantana is complicated by the horticultural selection that went into its
breeding. This selection was done using specimens of uncertain origin whose
offspring have in turn had extensive dissemination. Legend has it that Linnaeus
himself managed to name it twiceLantana aculeata as well as Lantana
camara. Lantana comes from a Latin name for the European wayfaring tree
Viburnum lantanathe two species have similar looking flowers and leaves.
Kamara is Greek for an arcade or covered carriage or anything with an arched
cover. I’m not sure if that is where the camara comes from but it makes me
think about tunnelling under arching canes of a lantana thicket and leaving little
arched spaces that serve as children’s hideaways. For taxonomic convenience
and in the absence of extensive DNA testing, the several recognized varieties
are grouped as one species. Varieties differ in their chemical constitution,
susceptibility to herbivores and parasites, flower colour, leaves and stem
morphology. Popular culture distinguishes two varieties growing wild on the
North Coast according to the dominant flower colour: the red and the pink. Get
a bit more technical or look a bit closer and you will see five varieties—pink,
white, pink-edged red, red, and orange—each with its distinct combination of
cream, yellow, lilac, red, pinkish, reddish and orange buds and tubular flowers
bunched together in its flowering heads near the ends of the canes. Each flower
is a thin phial of nectar. They are fancied by the local eastern spinebill
honeyeaters, as apparently the native lantanas of South America are by
hummingbirds. To complicate things, most of the individual flowers are two-
toned. What we used to call pink and red around here are strictly white and
pink-edged red.
The red lantanas are supposed to be poisonous to stock, causing liver
damage and pathological sensitivity to sunlight. Swamp wallabies graze on (at
least) the local white lantana all winter in the local gullies, trampling over it,
thoroughly defoliating it and doing more damage than any other herbivore,
mammalian or insectivorous. Of course, it all grows back thicker than ever in
the summer. As a plant that epitomizes weeds, lantana has long been a favourite
subject of trials and speculation about biological control. In 1902 one of the
earliest reported attempts at biological control tried 15 insect species to control
lantana in Hawaii (Thomas & Ellison). Similar trials in Australia have met with
a consistency of failure that must be said to epitomize weed responses to
biological control in general. Lantana holds the Australian records for the
earliest introduction of a biological control agent (1914) and the most
introduced agents (at least 24) (Adair, 191). The difference in lantana strains,
particularly in their toxicity, is often cited as contributing to the difficulty of
finding control agentsroutinely assumed to be pests that eat or blight the
thing back in its natural home. Nothing controls every strainor any strain, for
that matterbut then what would have fed on it back in those European hot
houses lantana calls home? When a friend had the gorm (or gall) to suggest at a
conference that swamp wallabies were a biological control the gormless
laughter verged on derisive. The fact that no one thinks of marauding swamp
wallabies browsing a gully full of lantana back to bare trampled canes as

biological control, says something about the heedlessness of searches for
biological control. So they press on between the carrot of the miracle and the
stick of the unmiraculous, always busily looking forward to the next possibility
that might just appear out of somewhere in South America; always excusing the
latest unmiraculous results with the wise counsel that any introduced insect or
fungus was never going to be a single fatal blow but only one tool of ‘multi-
pronged’ control; always using that weedy-word ‘control’. It grows anywhere,
means anything.
The searchor rather the foreshadowed, recommended, hoped for, believed
in, or eschatological searchfor the philosophers stone of biological control is
a seductive ecological custom perfectly adapted to the cultural rationale of
‘environmental weeds’: ecological controls must exist somewhere otherwise
lantana would be out of control everywhere, which would be an affront to the
balance of nature. Control must therefore come down to a question of how
many components of those balanced, faraway ecosystems we have to introduce
here, in order to balance our own. ‘Balance’ is a weedy word too. In the natural
history of weed control culture the value of searching is balanced against the
unlikelihood of finding. Perhaps if swamp wallabies were insects from South
America, they would have been granted the prestige of ‘possible agents’ and
given a role in ‘integrated weed management’.
The pretty flowers and the ability of this climber to climb back over itself
and form thick bright green hedges and bowers are the features that attracted
the interest of gardeners. Specimens probably arrived in Australia some time
before 1840 from stock that had been earlier introduced to South Africa.
Lantana was already on the North Coast by 1848. While staying with the Innes
family at Port Macquarie, Anabella Boswell recorded in her journal for 31st
March: ‘We have been busy tidying up Lantana Bower, but so many young
plants have sprung up they quite spoil the place, and are likely to become a
nuisance.’ She also remarks that the plant had been brought to Colonel Innes’s
garden from Alexander Macleay’s extensive botanical collection in his garden
at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney. The fruits are little blue-black drupes, sweet and
sort of edible when ripe, and said to contain poisonous triterpenes when green.
Native birds such as Lewin’s honeyeaters, currawongs and bowerbirds eat them
and spread the seeds around. In comparatively little time, and with a little
assistance from gardeners looking for pretty, acclimatized plants, and loggers
and land-clearers disturbing soil and understorey and canopy, the birds
eventually managed to spread lantana right through the moist forests of the east
coast of Australia.
It has its uses. The leaves are just about hard and rough enough to sand very
soft smooth wood for a very short time. The canes have been cut and chewed a
bit on the end and used to ‘brush’ teethsomewhere where they don’t have
toothbrushes. Camping on a coastal inlet, some friends once wove a fish trap
from the canes and caught a feckless Wobbegong in it. Best of all, the parti-
coloured flowers can be pulled off in handfuls to make splendid confetti for
weddings, parties, and impromptu decorating. And there are always the little

blue-black fruitssomething sweetish to taste, at least they are not as
poisonous as when they are still green, and besides it would be hard to eat
enough of them.
Down off the tops of the ridges and spurs where the forest gets moisterand
still under the tallowwoods, blue gums and flooded gumsthe lantana gets
thicker and it climbs higher in the trees and over the shrubs. It gets laced
occasionally with giant raspberry, prickly sarsaparilla, cockspur, lawyer palm,
native grape and morinda vines, so when you are pushing or crawling through
you are likely to be torn, stabbed, hooked, tripped of strangled by one or other
of these. Occasionally there are patches where a rainforest understorey of
jackwood, murrogun, possumwood, sandpaper fig, palms and tree ferns
manages to push the lantana and the vines up enough to make crawling under it
easier. Where trees fall and sunny gaps form, the lantana grows thicker.
Walking through gaps is not an option. In the bottom of the gullies it is all gap
and therefore full of impassable lantana. The narrow rainforest gullies were
cleared for grazing, but with too much competition and shade for grasses and a
decline in grazing numbers, and the lantana invaded with a vengeance. Here the
mass is 3 metres high, in a thick snarl. Stems shoot over one another and over
the ground, rooting and re-rooting. Few other plants grow apart from giant
raspberry and native grape vines or sometimes just a little twiner maybe, like
the forest glycine. Any trees struggle under the combination of lantana and the
native vines. Eventually they die.

Throughout its modern history, the bush has regularly (though by no means
universally) been imagined as an uninviting place. To many eyesmost
famously Darwin’s when he travelled form Sydney up to the Blue Mountains
during his Beagle voyagemuch of it has been a drab and melancholy place of
shadeless hard leaved trees, tuneless birds, and sun-bleached ground littered
with strips of bark, sticks and leaves. It was seen as melancholy and fallen right
from the first encounter, never blessed with a pristine beauty, but only ever old
and worn out. At best it could be graced by distanceas picturesque
background to rural life or the hazy blue backdrop of sublime vistas. When
people drive now along the highways of the east coast, there is a relentless
sense of its dull damaged form strung out endlessly along the road. The
monotony is broken only by the bleak scare tissue of hot service station towns
and half-hearted holdings hacked out of the bush. It all brings on a familiar
weariness and an impatience to reach destinations.
Even the tall moist eucalypt forest around here was seen this way. It never
quite achieves the lush charms of the rainforest, let alone the comforts of
flower-strewn temperate woods. From the nineteenth century it was seen as
being good for hardwood forestryalthough in need of good silvicultural
discipline to get more trees of decent form. Otherwise it was a problem for
agriculture, full of tough, greedy, hard-leaved trees, difficult to clear, quick to
grow back, and messy and unpalatable when it did, slow going on foot, horse or

vehicle, and full of discomforts and unseen dangers like snakes, ticks, spiders,
and lacerating vines, and those desperate, terrified screams at nightnot, in
short, a place to venture into unwarily. ‘Only strangers, the very poor and the
dead walk in it,’ wrote Les Murray (1997, 57). ‘Of the living, no-one who
belongs to the bush walks any further in it than they can help.’ Stories and
pictures of lost children are customary in Australian arteven in Aboriginal
traditionand in contemporary news. According to Meaghan Morris (2001),
the experience of non-specific panic in the bush is a well-known cultural
symptom, a “narcissistically ‘bounced’, accusatory historical gaze.” Wariness
of it and boredom with it are each instilled in the young for their own and their
parents’ comfort, and carried as habits into adult life. This is one version of a
process that might be called the infantilization of culture. It operates, for good
and ill, in the evolution of a wide range of social formswhether in the
acquisition of languages and literacies or in the market dominance of fluffy
white bread or bad Hollywood movies. Childish habits become traditional
forms of adult society. When the alien, unentered eucalypt forest of the east
coast was cleared or logged or grazed or burnt and thereafter developed a
dense, impenetrable lantana understorey, it regrew in an exaggerated image of
the bush’s already alien character. This reified forest was even more
impenetrable and therefore further alienated. Few people see a bit of bush and
just walk straight into it. What for? It’s not our culture. It is just not done. And
especially not if lantana is blocking the way. You can’t get into it. As for the
rainforest gullies, they just became solid lantana with no overstorey of trees to
at least give the consolation of a forest structure. We might like to put this
down to neglect or abandonment, but if so, it is neglect and abandonment as
self-replicating forms of culture.
Weeds are despised but, for most people, weeding is even more despised. It
is drudgery, and, if it comes to it, expensive drudgery. So the vast lantana
scrubs rarely attract any remedial work apart from the easy exercise of waiting
for biological control. Under the pall of anticipated drudgery, and with the
widespread sense of the impossibility of successful control, social forms that
either deny any long-term problem, or even value lantana take on a lease of life.
As a lush understorey, lantana has a nice green look to some eyes, a look that
relieves the drabness of the native vegetation. Lantana quickly covers exposed
sites so it has long been credited with preserving soil and habitat. Soil erosion
and habitat loss are almost universally claimed to be undesirable and so lantana
has taken on a certain conservation value. ‘Without lantana the whole valley
would have been washed out to sea.’ ‘It was the salvation of a lot of this
country.’ These are phrases from lantana culture, a culture that rescues
whatever virtue it can from a necessity made real by its own declaration. ‘It’s
Tim Low, maintaining his pitch in The New Nature (2002, 91-3) and The
Feral Future (1999, 240-1) has given us a recent version of this culture. Native
animals are said to depend on lantanabees live in its stems, birds feed on its
flowers and fruits. When a patch was weeded in Vaucluse in Sydney in the

1960s, the last mainland population of the eastern quoll lost its cover and died
out. Not only are these things true, they are legends.
In The Sydney Morning Herald (17/8/2) Low was quoted saying ‘there does
not seem to be anything that can replace it.’ The environmental consultant,
Mike Olsen was quoted saying that ‘it’s filling an ecological niche.’ There is
always something tautological in the way an adapted species is supposed to fit
its niche like a glove. Try defining a niche in terms of the particular
environmental conditions and role that species are able to occupy, and try doing
it exhaustively and exclusively so that you distinguish the precise conditions
and precise role of a particular niche, and pretty soon you start defining the
niche by its occupant. ‘Very few native plants furnish food and shelter for so
many,’ says Low (2002, 92) ‘…it has become a keystone species for wildlife.
No other weed so ingratiates itself with animals. If lantana disappeared
overnight most whipbirds would be homeless and many wallabies would die
from dog attacks.’ The Herald article says whipbirds and scrubwrens
‘disappear’ when you weed lantana out. A little grammatical tinkering to
change the past tense ‘disappeared’ to the universal present and what
researchers saw once under particular conditions in Queensland becomes a
universal truth. Happily the whipbirds and scrubwrens around here have
ignored thisbut then here, the disappearing lantana didn’t do it overnight.
That only happens in the land of outlandish hypotheses.
If its not lantana's function for wildlife, it is its function in forest
regeneration: ‘When rainforest is cleared it’s the first plant to clothe the bare
earth, before the rainforest returns’ (2002, 93). Trivially, pretty soon there can
be nothing that can replace lantana, insofar as it is lantana doing whatever it is
lantana does, in precisely the way lantana does itunless it is lantana itself. In
this though, lantana is pretty much like everything from thistles to wild
blackberries to Tasmanian tigers to unicorns.
Lantana, like the one hundred and sixty odd plant species that have
colonized the country around here where it has been weeded out, ‘is integrated
into the environment.’ There are twenty native species that are new to this place
since the lantana has disappeared. The lantana must have effectively displaced
or even replaced them for half a century, yet now it seems nothing is supposed
to be able replace it. Once people start declaring tautologies and pleonasms as
world historical conclusions, all sorts of empty notions start to look like
surprising ecological findings, or else just plain undeniable common sense.
Lantana becomes a refuge for the slippery rhetoric of a book’s sales pitch.
Niches for non-sequiturs open up in the argument landscape of environmental
culture. An environmental consultant can say ‘It has become such an intimate
part of the whole process that we are not going to be able to change it,’ as if
intimacy implies inevitability. The intimacy of ‘intimacy’ and the holier-than-
thou holism of ‘whole’ join emotive forces with the technicality of ‘process’ in
a claim that is even better adapted to the disturbed landscape of environmental
culture than the lantana is to the disturbed landscape of the forest. ‘It is not
worth controlling anymore.’ The point is though, it is quite a good thing to

weed lantana out, if you are interested in just seeing something that is beautiful
and intricate. You can readily get rid of it and then watch the native species do
that ‘clothe the bare earth’ thing.
Finally the folk culture of lantana promises an eventual homecoming
anyway: it is believed lantana eventually just dies out anyway and the native
bush takes overall is redeemed by time and succession and good old nature
itselfa dubious or at the very best a specific observation that has conveniently
been universalized into a consoling prophecy of a happily drudge and weed free
future. For an authoritative and thus reproductively successful ancestor in the
genealogy of this idea there are remarks in a paper on rainforest regeneration by
Alex Floyd. (1991, 25), and also in Low (2002). For a grain or two of salt
though, there are studies that describe just how persistent lantana scrub remains
(Gentle and Duggin, 1997; and Fensham et al, 1994). I look to my own
experience, waiting for the stuff to just die out of the local gullies. I have been
waiting for years now and there is not much dying outexcept of native trees
that have struggled on and on and ended up succumbing to the stuff.
Even if it is hard to like, Australians have spent a lot of time learning to like
the harsher realities of nature. Forms of acquired taste seem to be the opposite
of the infantilization of culturebut I am not sure that they are not almost the
same thing sometimes. The transcendent aesthetic efforts of sublime
apprehensioncombined with its penchant for ignoring detailthe grudging
fondness that comes with time and memory, and humorous resignation
attributed to experience have all been enlisted in the development of lantana
culture. By naming and getting a cameo in Ray Lawrence’s film, it put another
seal on its status as a rich cultural symbollantana, those three evocative
syllables, with a lilt to rival the labials of Nabokov’s Lolita or the lush
modulations Lana Turner.
The present situation is that, informed ecology, conservationist values and
the biogeographical history of lantana notwithstanding, a particular attitude to
the bush, a particular image of the bush, a particular evaluation of lantana and a
particular theory about lantana populations have all become self perpetuating in
the popular culture of eastern Australian environmental management. This is
reflected in the documents we produceand not simply in the spoken and
written ones but in the living ones as well. It is reflected in that particular,
lantana-infested version of material culture we on the North Coast call the bush.

One of us at least, had been weeding out lantana for agesthe one who had
been foolish enough to suggest wallabies as biological control. Picking up her
long-handled loppers in the afternoon, walking down into the bush, cutting
plants at their base, pulling up the stems and attached roots, sometimes resting
on a stump and having a look around and watching a yellow robin homing in to
make inquiries about the newly exposed ground. After rain, seedlings of red ash
or blackwood might appear. Or clematis, grape, raspberry, tamarind, cudgerie,

red cedar, white beech, or brown kurrajong. Occasional fronds of gristle,
ground or rasp fern would start to multiply. Sandpaper figs, scentless
rosewoods, cheese trees, brush capers and guioas that had been bent over under
the lantana would straighten and expand their crowns. She was careful to leave
all the native vineseven the vicious flesh tearers, jaggers, stabbers and
stranglersand although they still had a go at us, without the lantana they did
not seem to trouble the trees anywhere near as much. As the dead lantana sticks
dried out and fell to the ground, the lie of the land was revealed. The whole of a
forking spur and the gully in between the forksThe Blue Gum Forest and the
South East Cornerwas rediscovered. It was like finding a new country or a
lost country brought back.
Eventually I started helping, instead of just walking through the new land in
a gratified daze. One day, at a place that came to be called The Conversion Site,
I saw some shield ferns, and it entered my head that the bit of lantana in the
little gap under the tall red ashes could just be weeded out. Just like that. And it
stayed in my head. Everyday I found just another little bit that took my fancy.
We walked and worked and weeded in places we never walked before,
uncovered dried up waterfalls, unknown plants, secret places. Instead of
looking uniformly dark and musty, the deeper gullies became lively with shapes
and hues and spaces that had all been censored. Where there had been just
vegetative noise, an elaborate harmony developed. Instead of smelling of stale
sage and naphthalene we could smell sassafras and soil and water and clear air.
Besides the ferns and seedlings, panic and basket grasses began to run over the
floor of the forest, blue lobelias and pastel flowers appeared like new
constellations. Clumps of forest sedge, fine-flowered finger grass, wild
raspberry, native lemon grass and ginger grew. We had never thought of the
forest as a place of grass and flowering herbs, but that was what it really was
and wanted to be. We saw orchids that looked like nothing we had ever
encountered: potato orchids, grub orchids, beard orchids, midge orchids. We
had to invent names for them. On valley floors we found sedges coming up that
had never grown there before, and pollia, aneilema and nettles, and the big
bright green cunjevois with summer flowers like fleshy aerials transmitting a
sweet electric scent through the still shadows and sunlight.
Because we went over every inch of land as we weeded, we saw everywhere,
and every plantsingle specimens of unanticipated species like helicia, hairy
rosewood, maiden’s blush, black apple, Oliver’s sassafras, cabbage palm, the
blue-leaved grey walnut, giant blood vine, and furry milk vine. We found a lot
of specimens of the rare clear-sapped milk vine that had to be untwined from
lantana as we weeded it. We had to hide it in the foliage of other plants
otherwise the wallabies or possums would it eat it back to the ground as soon as
they found it exposed. And there were plants that we had never encountered
anywhere else before, that just seemed to come up under the new
dispensationthe rare Senna acclinis whose hard seeds must have rested for
god knows how long in the ground, the small-leaved bleeding heart, and the
bell-fruit tree. It was like the sleeping beauty, as if for half a century the whole

place had been drugged by lantana balm and now we were clearing the air and
scratching the earth’s back and it was stretching and turning over and waking
up to memories almost forgotten.
And every animal. When it was wet, leeches were alive on the ground,
undeviating in wild blood-lust, or we found them later gorged and slobbering
around our waists and ankles. We found shellback ticks behind our ears, under
our arms, in our groins, crawling on our hairthe only wild animal that I have
never actually seen in the bush, but only on humans or domestic animals. In the
humid summers it would be mosquitoes and midges, and in late summer the
tiny grass ticksbaby shellbacksmigrating by the thousand up legs, seeking
a sweaty sanctuary to embed themselves in the skin. From itchy experience you
learn to notice them in time to wash and scrub them off. You learn about the
paper wasps to. They are exacting teachers. Bitten once by a paper wasp you
leave that patch unweeded until winter. There were jumping ants decorating
their mounds with tallowwood calyptras, red ash capsules or the fringed leaflets
of blue-skin wattles, jumping at anyone who blundered upon them or who
dared to weed a seedling from their front porch, or dropping from branches
onto necks or arms, biting the unwary with venomous resolve.
Crawling through a viny gully on a warm summer evening you might come
face to face with a little angle-headed dragon edging its way around the trunk of
a sandpaper fig. Or if you were sitting, resting, it might signal its presence by
running over the dry leaves. A goanna would eye you from the bloodwood you
had forced it up. A fat land mullet would slip its sleek, black body under the
edge of a fallen log, a kilo or two of solid skink. A marsh snake might slip away
under your feet, or bird alarms might go up around a carpet python trying to
idle along a liana. Swamp wallabies would lurk in cissus, browsing on any old
leaf, until they could no longer help but make a jump. A little one padded
around me one day thinking I was a tree fern or something. When I whistled
like a bird it twitched its ears with curiosity, and finally thought it wiser to lope
away up a gully. Wongas would fly up off the forest floor as you approached,
their wings whistling with the effort of lifting those fat pigeon breasts. Brush
turkeys patrolled the forest, raking up litter, whipbirds called to one another
across your path, Log-runners tried diverting your attention with their cry of
‘quick quick quick’. One little brown bandicoot would turn over the soil and
leaf litter under an entire patch of weeded flooded gums, digging holes a foot
deep into the subsoil, cone-shaped to fit its nose or to sprain your ankle. Male
koalas would start grunting or females start screaming back up the gully where
you had just been walking, as if they had waited for you to move through before
they gave themselves away. Or you might see one taking advantage of the clear
passage to walk where the lantana had been weeded. It was easier going for
Noisy pittas appeared one summer and stayed, as if to take advantage at last
of the clear run across the forest floor. ‘Walk to work,’ they said, or ‘Squawk
the squawk,’ every evening. And suddenly we started finding the empty shells
of giant snails left by the pittas along the gully floors. There was a dead pitta on

the track one evening, so small and frail under its feathers, a little bit of clear
sky blue against its dark olive back, the deep fading gold of its breast, and the
red and the black. But there were still pittas. And then there was always the
next evening, the next patch, cutting around that new fig near the fallen flooded
gum, following our noses, wandering apart and whistling to one another like
Lewin’s honeyeaters to keep track, getting back to somewhere to see what we
had missed before it all grew back too much, pulling up stems that had layered
under the leaves, or new lantana seedlings, watching and wondering about
whatever little thing came up, seeing what wallabies would graze back to twigs
or the ground, and always pushing a little further up the gully, finding a new
place, even just reaching an arm a stretch further through the vines to get that
stem at the limit, or just finishing off those last few up there before it got too
dark. The same and new every day. Other things came up too, things we did not
want. Lantana was not the only weed, and weeding it out created an opportunity
for newer, more treacherous intruders like broad-leaved paspalum, crofton
weed and even a catsclaw creeper. They weren’t as much fun but we just
weeded them out too. On winter evenings squawk the squawk at sunset said
time to go home, and the yellow robins would chirp to one another down
among the tree trunks and pipe our easy walk back along the wallaby tracks,
dreaming or whistling.

The Fan
The restoration of a bit of bush.

The Fan is just one place, a triangle of land at the bottom of a gully. We
weeded everywhere and everywhere we found a name. A gentle pubic mound
between two joining branches of the gully, its full name is The Frangipani Fan,
from the tall native frangipani tree clinging on the edge where the western
branch suddenly cuts deep. From the road around the back of the gully, we used
to catch sight of this tree when it flowered, way down below us, through the
viny scrub, surrounded by lantana. It was the place there was no way to. The
closest we got in thirteen years was once when we pushed our way through to a
tower of vines on the eastern side of The Fan, gathering the fruits of Rubus
nebulosa, the giant native raspberry vine.
Over the years we weeded our way down through the tallowwood forest and
then the vine forest on the eastern side of the gully. We reached The Big Red
Bean in the eastern branch of the gully, and at last discovered what we now call
The Lost Rainforest on the steep slope overlooking the northern side of The
Fana tangle of cissus, prickly rubus, vicious calamus, and (back then) lantana
thrown over a canopy of caldcluvia, possumwood, sassafras and white beech.
As you cross these gullies, slope, aspect, soil, moisture, and seasonal
sunshine all change constantly, and the vegetation changes with them.
Everywhere is what ecologists sometimes call ecotone—a zone of transition
between two ecosystems, between rainforest and eucalypt forest. Viny gully
rainforest takes over from the open eucalypt forest where moisture is more
persistent. Of course, ever since the turn of the centurywhen this country was
first ring-barked, burnt and fencedaxes, chainsaws, brush hooks, bulldozers,
cattle, weeds and ferals have toned up those ecotones even more.
Only real estate agents seem to be confident giving this weedy, gully scrub
the name rainforest. It doesn’t really get an official label in Alex Floyd’s
(1990) classification of rainforests, because tallowwoods, flooded gums and
other eucalypts are often a part of the picture, or more often, there’s a stump to
remind you that they once wereand may well be again. Floyd’s classification
applies to relatively mature and persistent rainforest communities, those that
seem to havein the past at leaststood the test of time, their integrity
uncomplicated by eucalypts with their dry, fiery, catastrophic histories. In order

to describe the kind of closed forest that grows in these gullies now, let’s just
call it a Red Ash-Jackwood alliance with a Cudgerie-Red Bean-Red Cedar-
White Beech suballiance on the warmer sites and a Sassafras-Caldcluvia-
Possumwood suballiance on the cooler, damper southerly sites. It’s a bit
misleading though, that these vegetation alliances are conventionally named
using dominant canopy trees, otherwise the cissus vines would get their names
in there too. So would the lantana. The Fan was pure lantana scrub, two or three
meters deep and thick.
We started on The Fan itself by weeding a path straight through the
scrambled mass of lantana, just so we could cross from The Big Red Bean and
stand at last under the falling frangipani flowers. By weeding, I mean cutting
the lantana stems with loppers, reaching down and pulling the stems out by the
roots, and so gradually wrestling our way through the prickly tangle. Really, it
was easy bush regeneration. No deadlines, no management plans, no
community liaison, no grant applications, no herbicide, no planting, no plastic
tree guards, no vandals, no horror weed species. It was pure lantanaso dark
and thick and layered and abnormally mulchy at the bottom that almost nothing
else grew there. Apart from one common native speciesthe slender forest
glycine that managed to twine its way through the matrix of the lantanawe
found a small sassafras, an unexpected little patch of bracken, and the odd
struggling frangipani seedling. We had no trouble persisting with the task. It
was a pleasure. It was like wrestling. We even worried that we might eventually
Two of us weeded in the late afternoons, and not always at The Fan. It was
one site along a front, so we didn’t do it all at once. We took three summers to
cross the fifty metres of Fan, and as we pushed into the wall of tana the
regenerating vegetation came up in waves behind us.
So here we were on The Fan, having weeded down to bare ground and litter,
and under the open sky. Now we would be able to compare The Fan’s
succession, starting from scratch, with the usual models. Rainforest
regenerators seem to await the four stages of succession like the second
coming. It is not always clear though whether a particular model is being used
as a prediction or a norm. Whatever. The trouble is that vines, herbs and fauna
get scant mention in most versions of the models, yet they insinuate themselves
into the actual works with a vengeance. Fauna, especially the swamp wallabies
and us, have been major players on The Fan, greatly affecting the flora. And
when Time comes on stage it is extravagant, rehearsing more structural and
floristic combinations than models dare dream of, running whole generations of
seedlings, only to cut them down for the sake of some herbivore and start again.
If you classify plant species by their typical stages, or stages by their typical
species, everything was a bit of a jumble. On the other hand, if you just call
what happens in the first five years Stage 1, then Stage 1 consisted of many
stages. Like Russian Dolls it was stages all the way down. So far, things have
gone like this:

The lantana that we had missed during the primary weeding
resproutednever from roots, only from stems. Lots of seedlings of
Phytolacca octandra and P. americanum appeared. So did broad-leaved
paspalumthe accursed, shade-tolerant pasture grasscarried in (I think) on
wallaby fur. And there was wild tobacco, white passionflower, whiskey grass,
crofton weed, spear thistle, thick head, Indian strawberry and Mullumbimby
couch. All exotics. But, along with the forest glycines that had survived the
shock of the primary weeding, there were seedlings of prickly nightshade
(Solanum prinophyllum), kangaroo apple, native frangipani, brown kurrajong,
red ash, sandpaper fig, blackwood, trema, pencil cedar, and the odd white
cedarpresumably the offspring of a parent growing halfway up the eastern
ridge. I think most of thesethe trees at leastwould be called Stage 3, but
they had not read the stage instructions and came on well before cue.
As we followed up pulling out the exotics, the swamp wallabies cleaned up
all the woody native seedlings, except for the white cedars, pencil cedars,
frangipanis, and the prickly nightshadethe low, prickly annual whose
constellations of blue flowers would eventually mark the completion of the first
year’s regeneration. By then, pittosporum beetles were defoliating all the
frangipanis and borers were finishing off all but one of the pencil cedars. When
the exhausted nightshades mulched before our eyesleaving only their fruits,
like purple eggs in nests of pricklesthe sedge, Cyperus tetraphyllus, and the
umbrella fern, Pteris tremula, revealed themselves, showing us that at least
nothing was eating them. Where we weeded paspalum, the sedge in particular
got the chance nowadays denied it by the grass.
After two years, the umbrella ferns lost vigour, and rough ground fern
(Hypolepis muelleri), having apparently colonized by spore, took off with the
sedges all over the parts of The Fan that had been weeded early on. The patch
of bracken asserted itself too for a while, and forest lobelia, wild raspberry,
ginger, forest pennywort, centella, dianella, native bryony, muehlenbeckia,
morinda, pollia, two kinds of aneilema, and two kinds of cissus were all there.
In the winters, the wallabies trampled and burrowed through the ferns, browsed
on the trees and shrubs (except for white cedars), and generally lurked, as
swamp wallabies do. When you walk onto The Fan, you hear them thump as
they jump away, and it smells of wallaby. In nearby gullies they spend the
winter eating and trampling their way through fields of lantana. Now, in the
fifth summer, the downy ground fern (Hypolepis glandulifera) has also
apparently colonized by spore, and along with wild raspberry it’s all through
the first areas we weeded. So too are many seedlings of many more species.
Weeds now so dominate moist, sunny sites that this kind of native
herbaceous community is a rarity on the North Coast lowlands. It is also a rarity
because of the way we restore rainforests. Rainforest regenerators seem to like
to go for the quickest establishment of tree canopy possible, ‘skipping stages’,
‘speeding up succession’, sacrificing unnecessary vines and herbsand their
attendant fauna. Canopy is a defining feature of rainforests, and, of course,
canopy makes maintenance easier, reducing the resilience or increasing the

generation time of most weedsa handy mix of essence and efficiency. And it
seems that not only is canopy our tool for our intentions, it’s the rainforest’s
tool as wellits ‘own’ functional adaptation for its ‘own’ self-perpetuation.
This suspiciously neat coincidence of human and ecosystem teleology is so
irresistible, no wonder canopy becomes the be all and end all. Meanwhile the
passing pleasures are forgotten as just thatmerely passing.
The pleasure of The Fan has not been that of reaching targets, achieving
outcomes or satisfying performance indicators. We haven’t restored a pre-
designated and persistent natural community, whose credentials are now there
to be contemplated once and for all. Instead, we’ve had the pleasure of
following the peculiar detailsmany of them inconsequentialof a long slow,
convoluted narrative, with us as players. Because of the accidents of natural
history, each stage following each treatment has been slightly different from the
corresponding stages set in motion by earlier treatments. And as we have
worked our way across The Fan, various stages of ‘Stage 1’ have all been
arrayed behind us in a kind of tableau of that history.
After five years there were still no trees except for the few white cedars, the
one original little sassafras, a stunted pencil cedar, and some struggling
frangipanis. It seemed like a grove of widely spaced white cedars might be
developing as the tree canopy. Something I have never seen. Is this natural or
unnatural history? Shouldn’t we be busy trying to get a real rainforest with a
real canopy up on real trunks? In nearby gullies, red ashes, cudgeries, red
beans, red cedars, sandpaper figs, brown kurrajongs or pencil cedars readily
take off. More often than not they carry a heavy blanket of cissus and rubus up
with them too, to form the canopy. Here it’s different. Everywhere’s different.
Every time’s different. Here at The Fan we like our Swamp Wallaby-White
Cedar-Ground Fern suballiance. And, anyway, it won’t last. No end of
restoration is ever the end.

Belonging and Naming
One person’s relation to a bit of bush.

…to adventure for a change in one place.

—Jack McLaren, My Crowded Solitude

Who belongs to what, or what belongs to whom? I walk up the spur behind
the Red Cedars, the Cedars Spur it’s called. My hands and eyes have been all
over this country. Even so it is always changing and always new. Immediately
behind the deep shade that the cedars cast I draw my hand along the strong
familiar blades and culm of a gymnostachys up to the blue fruits. A little further
on, I put my nose up in the air and try to trace the source of the fleeting odour
of bolwarra, sweet like the vanilla and olive oil in an old Greek milkbar. It
reminds a friend of her aunt’s kitchen in Friesland. I slip under a cockspur
without getting caught and address it as my friend, brush by the sweet, musky
foliage of wild raspberry, climb over an even mat of litter under a grove of
forest oaks and sit looking back down through the trees over the Red Cedars,
over the forested spurs that run away to the south and the east. There is a whiff
of wallaby in the air, sweet as urine and fur. One has been resting here. Grey
Thrush is singing like an angel above menot an angel in reverence or awe of
god, but an angel delighting to explore and play the range of its voice. Grey
Fantail comes to chatter to me between titbits taken on the wing. I sit and wait
as long as I like and visitors keep coming: a varied triller just above, trilling to
another down the spur; king parrots chiming way up in a tallowwood before
screeching and belting off; a turkey scratching its way up the slope until,
coming out of a scrub turpentine thicket, until it notices me and goes about on
its black rudder of a tail and paces back into cover. In the distance I can see the
blue-grey eye of the Pacific on the left and the perfect cone of Nunguu Mirral
on the rightalso known as Valla Mountain and Pickett’s Hillbut from here
there is no sign of the farms in the Bellinger valley or of the river and roads that
pass along the valley between me and Valla. It could all be bush. It could all be
1000 years ago. Can I say that I belong to this country?
Belonging is like belief. I don’t think it matters to me. ‘Most of all, I feel
connected’ says Peter Timms in the final sentence of Making Nature. What is

this longing for connection? Connection to what? Perhaps I am just modern and
my condition is what Georg Lukacs called transcendental homelessness. If that
is what I am, then it is something that I am not unhappy to be. I am particularly
pleased to think that for some reason this is supposed to be a cause for regret.
All the same, if I am to be transcendentally homeless, then I would prefer to be
that here and happily in this forest, where every tree and vine and herb is
familiar and surprising and a delight, where every little place has a name and a
story. I would prefer simply not to be concerned about whether or not I belong
to this place, right here where I call nearly all the birds that call by their first
name and where even the shy forest wallabies relax their wariness and watch us
come and go. Blissfully, they pursue their purposes among our belongings,
properly beyond belonging. I don’t have to sit up under the forest oaks and
assure myself that I feel connected. I don’t know what it would feel like to feel
connected, but it sounds like being caught in someone else’s category, a
category that I don’t belong to.
Places name themselves here, or the names just happen. We are their
mouthpieces. We find ourselves uttering them as we emerge from the trance of
close attention, of going over every square metre of them with our hands and
our eyes. The Red Cedars grow in a patch of rainforest on a little level stage of
land about 40 metres above see level. I am on the Cedars Spur above the Red
Cedars. The gap in the forest canopy on the western side of the Cedars Spur is
the Top Gap and below it the steep shady slope of caldcluvias and
possumwoods that we call The Original Rainforest because that was the little
patch of rainforest we saw when we first walked around the back of The Glow
Worm Gully following the 40m contour. Below the Red Cedars to the east there
is the steep vicious tangle of prickly giant rubus vinesThe Slippery
Slopewhere we had to weed the lantana, stalk by stalk, from the matrix of
rubus. To the west there is another slope of caldcluvias and possumwoods and
cissus. For a long time we did not know it was there, so years later when we
discovered it, we also discovered its nameThe Lost Rainforest. To the west
again there is The Shelf a place of ground ferns, saw sedge, lawyer palm and
pink hibiscus; and below The Shelf, The Ledge of bangalow palms, tree ferns
and vines above the gully called The Glow Worm Gully. Going down the gully
there are places named The Fan, The Big Red Bean off on a side gully, The
Confluence where the Glow Worm, Gate and Big Red Bean Gullies meet, and
at the end of The Confluence, The Boat with its flooded gums and pollia and
The Big White Mahogany on its bow. Up on the eastern slope are The White
Beeches, and further along, the little patches of sassafras between the
gumsThe Sass Pockets. Down past The Boat, past The Sandpaper Figs
towards the little dam, the gully changes name to The Dam Gully. The western
side of the gully is The West Bank. From north to south The West Bank is
divided into The Lone Sassafras, The Laurels where the two big murroguns
grow, The North West Bankan open gap, The Lone Tamarind, Gate Spur and
Gate Gully. The western side south of Gate Gully is called The Western Slope.
Along here, below The Turkey Track that follows the top of the ridge, there are

The Blackbutt Spur with The Big Blackbuttits ancient top knocked out and
its northern side hollowed out by termites and fire, The Wreckwhere
someone dumped the dead Holden back in the 60s, The Wreck Contour and
The Wreck Gully, and The Entrance Track, the way we crawled and scrambled
onto this place the very first day came here, and The Entrance itself framed by
the looping stems of palm lilies. Below the dam on the east is Woman’s
Worlda moist, tangled viny place where men are loathe to venture. But on the
west there is still no known name. No one has seen it yet or heard it. No one
has spent enough time there.
Across on the other side of the main ridge where it branches out of the
Cedars Spur below the Red Cedars are the Traffic Lights, and the Snig
Tracka spur up which a friend and I winched a big tallowwood log. We tried
at first to roll it up with crowbars, only to have it roll back down just as we
reached the top. And there is The Snig Track Edgenow called Cudgerie Edge
because of all the cudgeries that grew up there after we weeded out the lantana.
The seed was blown in on the nor’easter from the big cudgerie at Cudgerie
Corner. Further down the spur you pass The Pointstwo fingers of vine-
covered trees that point out into an open gap that is being colonized now by
pencil cedars. Beyond The Points are the Big Dead Tree and the land to its east,
the Dead Tree Extension. South of the Big Dead Tree where a jackwood and
red ash forest grows on the bottom of the spur as it spreads out between two
joining gullies is The Groin. Just to the west of The Groin in a gap next to some
shield ferns and orange lomandras there is The Conversion Site, the little place
where I first started weeding out some lantana with the inkling that I would not
be able to help coming back the next day, and the next. And the next. It was as
good as a vision of the future can get. The Groin itself opens out into a gravelly
sluice where privets and paspalum used to grow, and it runs down to The Big
Dam. Now its ground ferns and red beans and all sorts of other things. On the
northwest, at the bottom of Symplocus Ridge, is a stand of straight flooded
gums, 30 metres tall, surrounding a couple of their older spreading
forebearsThe Flooded Gums. On the south, on the right looking down the
gully is The Wedge and, further up the hill, The Triangle. Below The Big Dam,
on the south is The North East Corner. I am glad we know these names. I can
say that I am going to the Big Red Bean and it’s as good as a grid reference.
Better. Topography of course gets lost in a tangled string of language when it
comes to naming these places one after another. I could draw them on a map,
but really they are places spoken of and reached on foot.
Walking through the forest one day, a friend who lives in wheat and sheep
country said ‘You can own this?’ Where he lives its acres, paddocks, pasture,
stock and crop that you own. Or a ute or a house in town. These things just feel
like commodities, possessions. And you can see them. Everywhere is a vantage
point, almost as good as the mapmaker’s. Here what comes with the acres is
forest, a daunting abundance of it, busy producing itself and full of birds,
wallabies, koalas, possums, snakes, lizards, the lot. All singing their own song,
screeching their screech, owning only themselves. You and they can’t inventory

it or them. From anywhere you can see almost nowhere else. Everyone and
thing is too busy. Ownership: it’s a word for life coaches, counselors, lawyers
and real estate agents. Goethe said ‘what you really own you can’t throw away.’
I like Walter Benjamin’s shocking definition: ownership is the most intimate
relation we can have with things. Yet if ownership were a right, it would be like
any right, problematicin law, in the execution of power and in the nature of
the things owned. As a relation it is tenuous and impermanent.
I sit on the Cedars Spur under white mahoganies, blackbutts and Maiden’s
wattles. Through the tree trunks and shrubs I can see a little bit of the road 50m
below me. A vehicle could pass and I could just watch it go by without being
seen. Without dogs, no one would find me here. I imagine if they came for us in
the night we could slip into the forest. They would run into it, collide with it,
and we’d be safely up some gully. I notice a noise like a distant train or a plane.
Up here sounds reverberate against the ridge and sound unfamiliar and
directionless. Gradually I realize that a helicopter is throbbing over the next
ridge, busy keeping the cold eye of the state on its subjects, entertaining those
inside it with that sublime view of all beneath. Suddenly, loud and dark, it rises
over the Turkey Track—the dirt road that follows the main spur from the ridge
down to the river—and it patrols along the spurs 200m to the south. It turns and
flies northeast surveying the main ridge and the gully that runs down to The Big
Dam. I lose sight of it until, unexpectedly, it starts roaring above me and behind
me, chopping back along the primary ridge. I see it for a moment back up
through the thinner foliage of the grey gums and forest oaks up along the spur.
The thin canopy blows out even thinner under the rotor. It is as loud as an angel
and so close I can count the rivets and I wonder if there is any chance that they
might not be seeing me. Hardly, but it must just be casual entertainment for
them up there, just work, just looking. Like an animal I sit still and press myself
up against the southeastern side of a white mahogany, while leaves and broken
branches spit and whip in the downdraft. Looking cool under this thing must
look very uncool from up there. It passes slowly over the forest then tilts and
rides away, hovers for a moment above the Turkey Track, then it throbs out of
sight westward, searching elsewhere, the grid references of its big cold picture
ticking over on its G.P.S. All it has left behind is a shower of leaves and the
smell of fuel, like steel pheromones.
Exhilarated by disdain I walk back down the spur, under the Cedars, quickly
cross the track near the Traffic Lights, make my way down the Snig Track
Edge, past Cudegerie Corner, The Points, The Big Dead Tree, The Conversion
Site, and The Rusty Plum, keeping to the wallaby all the way.

The ecology of a house in the bush

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Ecology, oeco – 1873. [  G. ökologie (Haekel), f. Gr. ’ôιĸος

house (used for ‘habitat’): see – LOGY.] The science of the
economies of animals and plants; that branch of biology that deals
with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their
habits and modes of life, etc. Hence Ecological a. Ecologist.

—Shorter Oxford Dictionary

In etymology and my experience ecology begins at home.

The leaf-tailed gecko steps out at night from behind a painting or a
cupboard. It is like the moon stepping out from behind the horizon. At some
stage you just look up and notice it looking back at you. You wonder when it
got there, and by what practised and inscrutable movement. Sometimes it stalks
on the verandah, devouring funnel webs, brown trapdoors or grey rattlers in its
cool light. Sometimes you notice it during the day. Day or night, mostly you see
it waiting somewhere while the world goes through its changes. Waiting is one
of its talents. So is likeness. Indeed waiting is a kind of likeness. A lot of the
world does not move much, and the gecko imitates all that motionlessness.
Still, like the moon, it gets around.
Our house is a place for things to step out into and be noticed. The
abstraction of architecture makes a clearing in the visual noise of the forest. It
removes the dapples and the darknesses of leaves and bark and shadows that
rustle around the gecko. The gecko can imitate the changing moods of its forest
surroundings and disappear into them. However, having fixed itself like an
ornament to the wall, the gecko can’t help but look artful to us. It’s on
exhibition like the paintings it hides behind by day. Patrick Cook once called it

art gecko. We call Gecko by name and talk to it, but it replies with its own
studied disregard, bordering on disdain. Even with its bulging eyes it can
manage a kind of scowl. Motionless and in muted umbers, it is busy fooling
potential passing spiders, and doesn’t like to be disturbed during the longueurs.
It is said by us that the gecko is so seldom seen moving because it moves with
an alacrity that dodges perception, displacing itself almost instantaneously.
When actually caught moving it slows to a prissy gait, part mince, part slink.
The fastest observed speed is a grudging scurry at just the right pace to suggest
neither discomposure nor willingness.
Like all the creatures we see in and around the house, Gecko demands to be
addressed or described only in a way that honours it in, and leaves it to, its
ordinary particularity. That is what is extraordinary about it—and the other
creatures too. To paraphrase Judith Wright, the gecko is perfect in the gecko, as
perfect as the five fingers of the little gloves that it sheds along with its
gossamer jump-suit. It leaves these things discarded behind jars and under
bookcases. It leaves little turds too, dark and crunchy with the exoskeletons of
insects and capped by a neat, white calcareous tip.
It has been a custom of philosophers to hold that nothing is distinguished in
its particularity without drawing on the resources of the universal. That may be
why, like the Moon, the proper name of a leaf-tail gecko is the same regardless
of which common-noun leaf-tail gecko is being addressed. A proper name
denotes an individual. Leaf-tail Gecko is every leaf-tail gecko’s name—or at
least one of its names. They have nicknames too, mostly for private occasions.
It’s the same with all the animals around here. A description of something in
particular calls forth the universal because, as the poet Richard Wilbur said, a
thing is most itself when likened—like the gecko, which is most like itself when
likening itself to something else, like forest litter. Or like the gecko’s tail, which
is most like itself when likened either to a leaf or to the gecko’s own head. It’s a
decoy for the head and good enough to fool a predator who has not noticed how
much it looks like the self-similar graph of a Mandelbrot set. Shed when
attacked, this artifice writhes in overacted agony as the gecko, with a cool head
and low dudgeon, slouches offstage. Then it grows a new tail like a new leaf.
Diver’s facemasks or glass bottom boats nullify the visual noise at the rough
surface of the water. We live in a device like this. Our house is a device for
looking into the forest. When frogs hunt on the windows we have an intimate
view of their underparts. Birds and wallabies come close up to the windows.
But it is more than this. In removing the distractions of the forest the house
makes its own habitat. It is not just a window on the forest, it is a little
ecosystem laid within the forest. It is kind of lure.
Any observation is more or less invasive, more or less governed by its own
uncertainty principle. Changing the circumstances in which the thing is
observed changes the nature of the thing observed. Are we seeing the leaf-tail
gecko being a proper leaf-tail gecko or are we seeing a creature beguiled by this
artificial habitat into being an artifact? Perhaps in this respect our house is as
innocent or as guilty as the big dead tree that we watch from our verandah.

Without that tree things would be different, but we wouldn’t know half of what
was going on. Birds land on this tree, some of whom we seldom see elsewhere.
Likewise, lizards land in our house, lizards we seldom see elsewhere. Like the
gecko they stay and rent rooms. It’s habitat. Roof skinks, also known as tree
skinks, lounge in the ceiling and come out on hot days. Murray’s skinks hang
around the sink and windowsills day and night like kids at a mall. Weasel
skinks, land mullet, blue-tongue and common or garden skink all visit here or
live here. We know them all by their first names. Weasel, Roofie and Murray
we seldom see elsewhere. This is lizardland. It is like an island of reptiles, like
New Caledonia. Any time wildlife officers visited our house they could charge
us for keeping native animals. To sell the house would be illegal trade in native
species. I don’t know what a leaf-tailed gecko fetches these days. We could be
sitting on a fortune.
Can a house be an ecosystem? The term sounds technical and the system part
makes it sound like something that’s unified by its own organizational integrity.
The trouble is that most of the ecosystem-type things that nature has on offer,
things like wetlands, forests or rivers, are pretty vague, as vague or vaguer than
a house. So to me, our house seems like a good or even an instructive candidate
for a smallish ecosystem.
It depends how vague you want to be but I would like to think of the Dead
Tree as part of our household ecosystem too. It’s as good as a sculpture in the
garden. The Tree is just far enough away to miss the house when it falls. It is
the last left of the forest ringbarked a hundred years ago when they cleared and
fenced this ridge country. A slender tallowwood, not quite the giant that many
werethe many that collapsed under their own slowly rotting weight in the
closing decades of the 20th century. It still stands above the regrowth. For how
much longer? An osprey has landed in it to eat a silver bream brought up from
the estuary in its talons. On summer evenings, dollar birds launch themselves
from it to pluck insects out of the glowing sky. Then sit in it and contemplate:
ek, ek, ek. A goanna climbs it, warming itself up in the last sun for a final rush
on a baby dollar bird that just manages to fly off just in time. The parent
harasses the goanna until it slinks into a hollow for the night. After a wet week,
sacred ibisessick of waterperch there over several nights. On April
mornings butcherbirds rehearse canons announcing the coming of a new and
brighter kind of blue in the sky. Sugar gliders emerge from its hollows and
launch themselves down into the darkening blue gum forest. A koala sleeps in
the forest oak that brushes the dead tree’s trunk. The bowerbird club meets up
therea couple of dazzling black and gold males and a dappled committee of
perch shufflers. Or its fig birds instead. Or blue-eyed satin bower birds do the
bower bird plunge down into the forest below. Spangled drongoes shuffle and
cackle and flick their tails around in it. On hot spring mornings a sacred
kingfisher utters an interminable ki ki ki… ki ki ki ki ki… ki ki ki k… Three
glossy black cockatoos, talking quietly to themselves, waft over into it from the
forest oaks where they have been crunching cones all day. They fan their red
tails as they land. Three big yellow tailed black cockatoos lope over the treetops

and land on it, the juvenile squawking non-stop. A tiny scarlet honeyeater sings
about having the tip at the top to itself, so does a tiny mistletoe bird. A crested
hawk pecks at a frog, a grey goshawk pauses and watches, one year a brown
falcon uses it as base, one morning three honking sea eagles overwhelm it,
shaking its wood as they land. A green tree snake climbs it, finding a purchase
up vertical timber with nothing but a bare abdomen on rippling grain. Green
Tree Snake also hunts around the frames of our doors and windows making its
curves rectangular. Is it artificial to square a serpent? It snaffles a Tyler’s tree
frog asleep in a hat on a rack on the verandah, and as it gapes around its prey it
flashes the aniline blue scales of its throat.
One day after lunch I was on the phone and I could hear someone in the
kitchen washing dishesthat lovely light ringing and clattering of cutlery and
crockery. It means someone else is doing the washing-up. Just as I hung up I
heard a loud crash. Oops, I thought, and called out. Is everything OK? No
answer, just more clattering, but not so comforting anymore. Still calling out, I
walked across the breezeway and into the kitchen. No one had done any dishes
—certainly not the goanna who was stretched out on the bench feeling and
tasting its way through the clutter with its forked tongue. A metre and a half
behind the tongue, its tail was making mild havoc among plates, glasses and
assorted items of food. When they feel threatened, goannas scurry up trees for
protection. The particular species here in this forested country is the tree
goanna or lace monitor. It is a typical site to see them holding onto a tree trunk,
dark grey and filigreed with bands of pale ochre like a fine dot painting. Don’t
run up the wall I thought as we made eye contact. Goannas make a precise and
reliably consistent assessment of adult humansthey retreat. Thank God. Not
always so with children. A knowing goanna will threaten a child, at least to get
them to drop food. And babies? Well I am glad no one had left a baby alone in
the kitchen. Come to think of it, a big goanna with food in its jaws or its sites
will stand its ground and huff and puff at an angry adult human. Its teeth and
claws are sharp. They make you think twice. I have watched them steal a fat
nestling pigeon, a friendly tree skink, and a trapped black rat (trap and all),
powerless to do anything about it. I have friends who have grabbed big ones by
the tail to get them out of a chook house. But a metre and a half of muscular
carnivore is a bit close when held at arms length. Thankfully, this day, this
goanna bailed outoff the bench, onto the floor and out the back door like a
naughty dog. Thankfully there was not too much wild scurry. A quick check
revealed a smashed bowl on the floor, a derangement of our lunchtime dishes,
and a missing wedge of cheese, wrapping and all. We got off lightly. Lucky it
was an average goanna and not one we call Komodo.
That’s the opportunistic visitor category. When it comes to the preferred
habitat category, the goanna habitat is roof. Goannas like to spend the night and
the winter in hollows in trees. If there is an entrance under eaves into the
ceiling cavity, that will serve the same purpose nicely. If there is no entrance,
but one can be made by pulling back a bit of poorly fixed timber, that’s fine.
Goannas can do that. We had various goannas in our roof for years. On summer

mornings as the corrugated steel started to stretch and creak with the heat, the
resident goanna would stick its head out under the top ridge, pretty as a prow
maiden surveying the ocean of forest, ready to start the daily patrol. The goanna
would stay over-winter too, occasionally getting restless in its torpor and rolling
over and shuffling loudly above our heads. When the weather warmed up again
in August the daylight patrols could start again. When all the roof’s weak points
were closed, the goanna, evicted and disgruntled, mooched around and probed
under the eaves to no avail. That is ecology too: habitat competition. Relegated
once more to the status of opportunistic visitors, Goanna and Komodo walk
around the house and through the breezeway eyeing us with scorn but scooting
up a tree if we get a bit menacing.
With the goanna out of the roof, it is even safer for the roof skinks (Egernia
mcpheeii). Here is a dark, fat 30cm of skink that likes hot weather by day and a
ceiling space by night. It pokes around the edges of the house, hiding under
furniture and clutter, and scuttles when approached. It ventures out into the
vegetation to snack on the fallen berries of rose myrtle and blue dianella, and
into our house to glean fallen crumbs. At one stage we could not work out what
was hollowing out bananas on a bunch in the corner of the kitchen. Just when
we were jumping to the dismal conclusion Ratty (unwanted interloper, another
story), Roofie climbed into the basket and stole the show.
Roof Skink fancies a bit of fruit. It is tempting to put a bit on the ground to
see Roofie eat it. As long as you keep still Roofie will approach. You can even
feed some Roofies by hand. In return for feeding Roofie a bit of banana, we get
a kind of pleasure. There is a food-for-pleasure symbiotic exchange that meets
the needs of both species, and the requirements of ecological
terminologyunless you think this feeding thing is not to Roofie’s benefit in
the long run, or unless you think our mere pleasure is not properly ecological in
a good businesslike food or mating or competition kind of way. Roofie will
climb onto your hand and eat, and try biting your finger on the way. It is a
friendly questioning kind of try. And it will do the same to your toe if that is the
first bit of you it comes to.
With Hunter it is worse. The following is a confession extracted from the
other human in the house:

I first saw Hunter in the screened space between the beam on top
of the north wall and the rafters. It was small and looked like a garden
skink but it was a strange place for a garden skink to be. They like to
scuttle around in the sunny spots on the veranda. A closer look
showed it to be shinier than a garden skink, and as time passed it grew
bigger than any garden skink I’ve seen. When we found our lizard
lapping splashed water near the kitchen tap we decided it was a water
skink. After this we left a little bowl of water for it near the tap. At
first our little friend was called Lizzie. Its favourite place was still on
the screened area where I first saw it. It liked this place because here,

the screen designed to keep insects out was keeping them in for lizard.
Lizzie had a new nameHunter.
Hunter wasn’t always a good hunter. It would spot its prey, wag its
tail like a cat, and pounce. But too late. When the weather was hot and
dryusually in Octoberthe inappropriately named March Flies
would appear in large numbers. I took to swatting them and putting
them somewhere near Hunter as an easy target. Hunter liked this
innovation. Eventually it would run up before I put a fly down and
snatch it from my fingers. Fingers without flies also became attractive.
I worried that Hunter was losing its hunting skills, and when
insects were scarce and Hunter was in the wrong place, I would lure it
with my fingers onto the palanquina vegetable scrubber that it
rather liked to climb onand take it to the insects to do some real
At some point we realized that Hunter was bigger or smaller or
shier than the last time we had seen it, and we realized that Hunter
was not just one lizard. Word had got around.
I don’t really believe in feeding wild animals but I had become
corrupted. And so had Hunter. The pleasure of having a lizard eat out
of my hand and show me no fear had seduced me. When the weather
was cool and there were no insects around I would feed Hunter some
rice or wet bread. Hunterone, two and threewere all looking fat
and sleek, and they didn’t wag their tails much any more. I had gone
too far. It is winter now and Hunter has gone into hiding. When it
warms up and Hunter comes back I’ll be strong and let it hunt for
We did eventually find out Hunter’s real name. My cousin, who
knows about these things, said Hunter was a Eulamprus murrayi or
Murray’s skink. Should we change Hunter’s name to Murray? I don’t
think so. But if I don’t change my ways maybe I should. Murray
sounds more like a lounge lizard.

Needless to say, the Other Human wasn’t strong. Years later, Hunter still
hangs around the sink and windows. Tiddlesyoung Hunterscome, catch
midges, wave their tails, and grow or go. There is Kitchen Hunter and Bedroom
Hunter. One Hunter, Hunter the first, lost a tail and became Oblong. Oblong
and Hunter II had what looked like a contest. Courtship, mating and aggression
can all be a bit confusing with skinks. Hunter gnawed at Oblong’s stump, drew
blood and Oblong disappeared for months. When Oblong came back, tail
largely regrown, Hunter and Oblong had a rematch. Oblong looked very strong,
but after a long day of jousting, it was Oblong who came and visited us down
where we were sitting drinking tea at the end of the bench, made what we later
understood was a farewell, and then dropped down off the bench, walked across
the floor, out the door, across the verandah and off into the gathering dusk. We
were never sure whether it had been vanquished or whether it had proved its

point and had left for new adventures. Another reason for all Hunters being
called Hunter or for all Geckos being called Geckles is that it softens blows to
the heart. The Hunter you meet this evening at the tap can be the same Hunter
that took its swag and walked out into that dusk so long ago.
And another reason is because, as in Louis’s case, Louis is a character
played by many actors. And Louis is a character. The generic Louis. Always
busy and a busy-body and bossy and a dog in the manger and a sticky beaka
kind of comic rogue. Louis is a would-be boss of the forest but too small to
push anyone around other than other Louiss, and any of the small birds at the
birdbaththe red browed finches, grey or rufous fantail, thornbills brown or
striated, fairy wrens or scrub wrens. The birdbath is another one of those
devices for observing the creatures of the forest. Louis will try and boss bigger
birds, and is cheeky enough to have some success if it catches them in an
unwary, flighty or can’t-be-bothered-resisting kind of mood. Yellow Robin is
about Louis’s size or a bit smaller. Yellow Robin is solid though, with a
formidable little insectivore’s bill, and a composed nature. Louis can move a
young yellow robin but adult Yellow Robin stays put. Louis’s antics are an
irritation for Yellow Robin, occasionally to be rebuked. The little birds can
drink and bathe happily if Yellow Robin is guarding the pool and in a good
Louis has finished off the last of the little blue berries on the dianella lily
outside the window. They had been dangling off the ends of their stalks,
glowing the way blue snooker balls glow. Louis would sneak in and take them.
Roofy had been trying to reach them but could not stretch out far enough from
the sculpture next to them, and the dianella culm could not take Roofy’s (also
known as Fatso’s) weight. The palm lily berries are finished now too, and Louis
is in the geebung above the bathroom getting its tongue into the nectar of the
small yellow flowers. The rose myrtles are dry this year and Louis seems to be
leaving thosetheir time will comebut the elderberry panax fruits are turning
mauve and Louis is already picking them, one by one. We watch through the
window while we eat breakfast. Most of the time, Louis can find some little
black trema fruits to pick, and when snake vine fruits turn from green to yellow
to red, Louis is ready for them, one by one. A bit of this and a bit of thata
little bit of a lot of things, as long as it is a fruit with a bit of soft flesh
somewhere, or a flower with some nectar. Louis has even landed on my knee,
too intent upon examining a bunch of bananas next to me to see me. And
especially when nestlings are being fed, Louis picks insects from the spiders’
webs in the corners of the windows or huntsmen spiders from the verandah
posts. At dusk Louis might just fly into a shrub near the eaves or a hanger under
the eaves, tuck its head under a wing, fluff its feathers and sleep the night
oblivious to our comings and goings.
Just for the record, Louis’s dad refers to John Lewin, the early Australian
colonial painter. Lewin was one of the first Europeans to paint the look of the
bush. Louis is one of the looks of the bush around here, and the look of the
bush is Louis’s. Louis tends it, watches it, eats it, sows the seeds in it, and there

is always a Louis calling from somewhere, loud and fast, announcing how fine
it all is. Our garden is Louis’s garden. Who says of the birds that neither do
they reap or sow? Louis’s Garden consists of all the infill species, the usually
unnoticed things, the little lilies and climbers, the small trees and inconspicuous
shrubs. Louis’s Garden is a tribute to all the plants that are, as the gardening
books say, of no horticultural value.
I am worried that this house-as-ecosystem conceit sounds cute, confiding
and contrived. Perhaps writing about this ecology this way has everything not
going for it. Firstly, it’s too anthropomorphic. Or is anthropomorphism just a
dirty word? To understand an animal you have to think like an animal, but to
think like an animal you can’t help but think like a human thinking like an
animal. I often think people bending over backwards to sound scientific and
only allowing themselves to indulge in prescribed terms like mating, territory
and competition sound awfully anthropomorphic. It is just that they are
anthropomorphic in a rather dismal way. Science is not inhuman so if I want to
understand animal behaviour I will anthropomorphize like an amused scientific
human. The bans on anthropomorphism are a bit like the old behaviourist bans
on using intentional idioms in psychology. Louis acts like an artful character
out of comedia del arte or like Bugs Bunny, and that is a good start to
understanding. Our anthropomorphized descriptions might not get all the
causes and motives and functions right when it comes to describing Louis’s
actions, but if you don’t treat Louis as one of us animals, if you don’t factor in
intentions, you won’t get far. More science will polish the description up, and
gives a pretty good basis for predicting just how Louis will act. One of Louis’s
charms by the way is to be so predictable just when he thinks he is being so
clever and unpredictable.
Secondly, apart from confusing the concept of an ecosystem, isn’t this
household ecology a bit unethical? It’s not only feeding lizards that is shameful.
Building a house in the bush is irresponsible. People editorialize against this
kind of thing. They do it after bushfires; they do it when criticizing urban
encroachment. We worry about it too.
Some visitors are not quite at home. There is the echidna who sniffs around
the footings and through the breezeway at night, its quills tinkling against the
bricks and paving. I like to get up and see it. When you meet an echidna it rolls
up and sinks into the ground. Literally. It has the uncanny ability to borrow
straight down underneath itself and present only a defensive array of spines
sticking out from the ground to any would be predator. When you go outside at
night to see what is sniffing and snuffling around the breezeway, it is always a
delight to meet Echidna nosing about and licking the termites (unwanted
interlopers, another story) into line. What is not a delight is that the pavers
don’t yield to Echidna’s earthy, downward inclinations. Echidna only has the
role up option and the huddle against the equally unyielding wall option. For
Echidna, pavers are wrong.
For us, snakes are wrong. This is lizardland. Green Tree Snake and even 2m
of lurking carpet python are welcome, outside at least. But we draw the line at

venomous. Occasionally on warm summer nights a small-eyed snake will slither
under your feet on the verandah. Our snake book, Graeme Gow (1989), says
prevalent in rocky areas. That seems to explain why Small-eye likes the paved
verandah and why it likes to spend daytime and wintertime coiled up in a nook
in the brickwork steps. If you are inside with the doors open on a summer night,
Small-eye is inclined to sneak in through an opened door to join you. Small,
skittish and black, small-eyes don’t herd well, and they make me skittish too.
They don’t go for cover, they go for panic and display of aggression, but if you
have a good snake herder (e.g. the Other Human) and if you notice the snake
before it is too far in, it can be ushered back out. Small-eye has a small mouth
that would hardly get around a finger but Grahame Gow says: has been
associated with an adult fatality. The Funnel Web spiders that like to walk in
on warm rainy nights have been associated with an adult fatality or two too.
They are famous for it. They are a worry. Their look alikes, the Brown
Trapdoors, have us worried too. They make us wary of our spider identification
skills. Gecko likes them though. It must be the balance of nature. One night I
was woken from sleep by a bite on the neck. It drew blood. My first thought:
where to wrap the pressure bandage for a neck bite. It’s a rhetorical question.
There is no answer. It was only when I found an angry longicorn beetle buzzing
on my pillow that I realized I did not need an answer.
The ecosystem of the house starts and finishes in different places for
different creatures. For Small-eye the paved area out the front and through the
breezeway is its habitat. For the Swamp Wallaby it isn’t. Wallaby will browse
its salad of almost every local herb right up to the window as long as there are
no pavers in front off the window. They must like to leave the V-shaped indent
of their passage in the feel of the forest earth. For most of the birds their habitat
ends where the breezeway starts. Only a few will fly through it or land in it:
Louis, Yellow Robin. But the non-bird habitat really starts seriously at the
doors and windows.
You understand this when birds blunder in through a window, or worse, into
a window. The pane that is. The former look so forlorn. Yellow Robin,
confident and confiding outside, is reduced to a panicky captive cornered on a
sill or up under the ceiling. Likewise suave Grey Thrush, the musician. Outside
its clear powerful call dispels all cares. Inside it is reduced to complete anxiety
and stunned pathos. Outside, Grey Fantail twitters and gossips and parades and
fans and wags its tail, announcing its every arrival and filling the air with its fly
catching flits and turns. Inside it is glum and quiet and tiny. You can open all
the windows and doors and these masters of space still cower up in some corner
stupefied by the uncanny topology. Eventually you have to take them in your
hands, firm enough to catch and hold them, gentle enough to save their delicate
bodies. Nothing is as touching and tiny as a warm bird under its feathers
cradled in your hands. Their panicky shit is warm on your palm. When you
open your hands outside they sometimes pause for a moment, taking in their
deliverance. Then you can see the beauty and power rush back into them from
the bush all around, and they’re gone.

Maybe the only thing more touching than a bird in the hand is a bird on the
hand. Brown Thornbill used to come and take hair to build its nest. It began by
taking hair that had been untangled from a brush and dropped on a potplant.
The Other Human taught it to take hair held in the hand. Standing on its little
stick-legs it looked you in the eye and tugged the hair from your fingers. When
I tried to photograph it standing on a hand and taking hair it landed on my head
and tried to tug the hair from there. Tiny and beautiful it tried to pull hair from
a friend’s arm, a big man’s arm. We knew when it was coming. For such a little
bird it has a big, rich warble. It can still come, in name at least, to the birdbath
or to gather hair for a nest.
The window pane hitters hit with a painful thud. At best it is a glancing blow
and a rest on a branch is enough to recover. At worst it is a fatal head on at high
velocity, as when a dove is commuting through the columns of the forest and
mistakes the pane for just another rectangle of open air. One year we had to use
clay to paint pictures of predators on the glass. Otherwise we don’t wash the
Or there are the frogs that hunt happily on the windowpane—outside. If they
are unfortunate enough to come inside their propensity for seeking out nooks
and crannies is fatal. They are magnets for dust and fluff and hairs.
Occasionally we see pathetic little balls of tangled fluff limping in dusty
corners. I am not a great rescuer of wildlife but a bleating tree frog or a dwarf
green tree frog bound in hair and dusted into an advanced state of desiccation is
my specialty. I put it in a bowl of water and using tweezers and a magnifying
glass I disentangle it limb by limb, digit by digit. From the trauma of
entanglement and the microsurgery of disentanglement they recover under a
stone on a stump with plenty of hiding holes. It seems to work.
Or there are the fireflies that blunder in on September evenings and waste
there blinking until they flicker out. Normally, after their bright silent jangling,
they would settle back down under the leaf litter from which they rise again the
next evening. We have to close the doors and windows and watch from the
verandah. Insects are a whole study in them. Some are completely at home.
Black ichneumon wasps with curly orange antennae leave paralyzed spiders in
neat little tunnels of clay masonry. Curly lays its eggs in the tunnel with the
spiders and the larvae hatch and consume live spiders preserved by the
paralysis. Mudwasps build mud nests on walls and ceilings, paper wasps build
paper nests on beams, masonry bees burrow into walls, carpenter bees colonize
holes in timber posts, gormless sugar ants intoxicate themselves in sweet traps
of jam, sugar and wine, golden silk taffeta ants clinch one another on the beams
and rafters, little black ants make their inscrutable migrations in and out. Others
—March flies, assassin flies, beetles, bugs, cockroaches, moths, crickets—
blunder up against screens and glass and might not seem at home. But looks
deceive. They are an ecosystem service, live prey for Hunter. The odd jumping
ant or bulldog ant ambles in then tries to prey on us. On warm summer
evenings when storms start to break, everywhere becomes a muggy atmosphere
of flying termites. Louis picks them out of the air. Yellow Robin picks them off

the posts and pavers. They don’t so much come into the house. The house finds
itself in the termisphere. They circle around lights, plummet into food, drop
their wings, crawl into crevices, under clothing, into bedding. Enough have
found their way into my mouth for me to know they taste woody and oily.
What good is a house in the bush? What good is this imposition? It depends
what you do with it. As well as using it to see into the bush, you can use it to
listen. On spring mornings everything begins with a click in the dark. And then
another, and then: Click click. Click click. Click click. In the dark as dawn
begins and only in spring. It keeps going. It is the first bird. Others start the
same way, measuring the end of the night. One down in the blue gum forest
going: Click click. Click click. Another down in the tallowwoods, another back
along the ridge. Click click. Click click. Not together in one rhythm, but
together in many rhythms. What can they be? How can I say they are the yellow
robins? How can these confiding little birds that gently chick chick chick to one
another in the evening forest and pipe a clear repeated note amongst the blue
and brown columns be so loud. How can they crack that predawn air like that.
You would think they were whipbirds, or at least like whipbirds waking and
warming up. You have to go down and see them doing it before you can know.
Yellow robins, the first birds.
Still dark and in the distance, kookaburras, in big trees down on the edge of
the forest and the open country, doing kookookookookookookookook. The
second birds. Down there it would be an explosion. Up here they are just that
distant familiar sound. Everyone knows this sound. Today a bar shouldered
dove starts next. Cookawook cookawook. Pause. Cookawook cookawook. Or
cawooca cawooca, depending on how you hear the stress.
My mind dreams off and when it comes back I hear more birds now. They
have all been starting up: a Lewin’s honeyeater staccato, a high scarlet
honeyeater, a grey fantail excited by morning, a whipbird too now with its long
low note drawn to a cracking loud close, then another whipbird in the vines
whistling a little automatic reply, a fantail cuckoo doing its downward trill, the
click click still going click click, golden whistlers going wild back and forth to
one another, a grey thrush doing almost the same call but in a richer, fluty
voice, a distant butcher bird trying out its perfect notes, a bright little wren
fanfare, and a multitude of warbles, trills, chirps, and chatter from all those
small brown birdswarblers, gerygones, thornbills, scrubwrens. Everyone is
going loud and bright nowgod its loudas the dawn light has started to pick
out colour from the black and white of the click, click. Click click. Click click.
Holding it all together, so many different voices singing so many ways in one
piece of dawnsong. So loud. Each season with its composition.
On an autumn day you can walk outside and have topknot pigeons take to
the air. The rush of a thousand birds makes the sound of air. A kind of big
feathery hush. They shuffle themselves around in the crown of a tallowwood
showering regurgitated laurel seeds down through the foliage. When you get
too close they flock off along the timbered ridge, then wheel around in the light
over the sunless morning gully.

This morning was a true summer morning, or at least, of a certain kind of
summer day. We have already had those dark overcast days of high summer
with heavy cloud and warm drizzle holding off the sun and just the murmur of
cicadasthe summer of hot nights and steamy days. First thing this morning,
lying awake, I could hear the cicadas, not whingeing, singing. Non-stop, full
voice, washing over the morning. The zinging air and distance muffled a wonga
pigeon way away in the northern forest pumping its wot wot wot wot wot wot
… non-stop, and another somewhere answering with the same eternal question,
sounding the depth and distance of the timbered ridges. I got up and stood
outside in the forest, pissing and facing east, the soft offshore air pressing
against my back, still cool and new out of the receded western night. The forest
was so dark because the sky was so light and its blue so deep and clear.
Everything was advertising a hot day, one of those days when cicada noise can
hurt the ears and end up driving people crazy, just like music.
Besides listening and looking, a house in the bush is the best base for
working on the bush. You walk out your door and you can look after things
without having to form a Landcare group, draft a management plan, apply for
funding, drive to working bees, and overcome or tolerate the thousand
disincentives to doing good things. And outdoors still sort of feels like indoors.
It is possible that if the whole valley were subdivided into bush blocks, the
bush would be kept in much better condition. Possible but unlikely. People
would mostly just clear house sitesi.e. get rid of the bushand not look after
it anyway. As happens with many a tool though, a house’s most adroit function
often goes unappreciated until it dawns on you that you have been using it that
way for quite some time.
The house is like the gecko. It waits. That is its real talent. As the gecko
demonstrates, there are few better ways to observe nature than to let it come to
you. Just take a seat on a log in the bush, sit still and keep quiet. A house is like
a log you sit on in the bush. For a very long time. The house does the waiting
for you while you get on with other business until something comes by. To
whatever has the power of waiting, the secular approximation to the power of
everlasting presence, eventually something comes. It might not be the Messiah.
It might not be someone heralded by the gossip of the grey fantail chatting at
the birdbath in the evening. But it will be someone. Just Grey Fantail is
someone enough. Even just Louis is.
At five to eight one evening a someone knocked on the back door. No one
ever comes to the back door, and not at night, and we had not heard anyone
drive up. When the Other Human opened the door, a koala pushed past and
walked straight in, uninvited. It paused and looked around and blinked. A baby
on the back was looking over its mother’s head, like a jockey. I blocked the
entry to the kitchen and ushered our visitors through the other way. The koala
walked through to where the TV was on and sat on a rug on the floor. Kerry
O’Brien was doing an interview. We flitted around opening doors and windows
while we made small talk to our guests. We said things in sing-sing voices,
while the koala, blinking, watched Kerry, and the jockey peered at the screen

between the mother’s ears. The last thing we wanted was for them to feel
uneasyand start climbing. For one uncomfortable moment our adult guest did
decide to climb onto a chair, but for an arboreal marsupial it did not climb very
well, or it was half-hearted. A koala’s skill base is limited to meeting a narrow
range of needseating leaves, climbing and sitting in gum trees, ornamenting
the view from our verandah, sleeping, grunting (males), screaming (females),
sex sometimes I suppose (I have seen a grunting male whip a long penis about
as a female screamed off in the distance) and just walking througha list that
does not seem to include climbing onto chairs. The mother blinked, slipped,
and settled its pointy bum back on the floor. I suspect that if koalas had self-
esteem it might be low, but they don’t seem to need it. When Kerry wrapped up
the 7:30 Report, Koala and child saw an open door, toddled out to the
breezeway, and headed off. ‘Bye,’ we said, and watched the mother amble up
the front path into the dark, the rider high on its mount, looking into the night.

The Dream; Or Unconscious Nature.
How society fashions its nature and its image of nature, unaware of itself;
and how nature comes back to haunt it.

The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the bush,

interprets itself.

—Marcus Clarke, 1876, Preface to Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Sea


Nature is like the dreamwork of society, sometimes coming to us as

transcendent vision, sometimes delusion, sometimes delightful fulfillment,
sometimes nightmare come back to haunt us, an unreal part of the real world.
What we call nature around here in the Bellinger Valley and in most of
Australia, these leftovers and selections of a society strangely unconscious of
the secret purposes and ministry of its works, cannot be entirely repressed; nor
can we so successfully delude ourselves that it does not sometimes declare
itself, strangely interrupting our experience, invading the logic of the everyday,
supplanting common expectation, substituting images, juxtaposing and
transferring objects of desire and loathing. As a dream is supposed to be to the
dreamer, so nature is baffling evidence of a kind of social unconscious, the
existence of which is seldom acknowledged, a social unconscious that is like a
force of nature.
Sure, the living nature we still have is the outcome of the natural selection
and evolution of species, but the nature now scattered here and there as bush is
also the result of social selection and the evolution of culture. Nature is a
cultureeven in wilderness, where it is used to represent what is utterly
natural. And what we take to be utterly natural is 2nd nature nownot only in
the common sense of something we take for granted as it is (in this case we take
it for granted that it is natural, untouched nature) but in the philosophers’ sense
of a new nature which is the product of human works. Some of it is replicated
and selected in the deliberate genres of nature reserves and national parks, in
the management of the rainforest or wetland or grassy woodland, in the
threatened species recovery program, or in the construction of the lookout or

the walking track or the tourist centreeven if we are not quite conscious of
these things as genres. Or it is in the genres of agriculture, silviculture,
gardening, landscape architecture or restored bushif we would call these
things nature. A lot of it though is selected unconsciously, because, whether or
not we reproduce nature’s genres deliberately, we are hardly aware of the
existence of social selection processes that often defy expressed intentions and
exceed personal time scales, other than in the sense that we might be wearied
by certain processes that strikes us as arbitrary, and seem to be estranged from
our control, processes for example like what the ecologist Eugene Odum called
the ‘tyranny of small decisions’ or what others, with a worldweariness or
hardheadedness that encourages resignation, refer to as ‘just progress’what
you can’t stop. Common sense is not accustomed to describing the world in
terms of such processesother than vaguelybecause social selection
processes, even though they may be the result of many individual human
actions, are primarily selections of functions that work for the things being
selected and not necessarily for us. In its conscious or unconscious cultural
forms, nature has been socially selected for its adaptations to human use, abuse
and neglect. Because of this, the nature we have is selected by a natural social
process that can be as wild and as alien to us humans as a wilderness or a
wildfire. Wilder.
Think of nature’s untold case history. Formerly the heaths, the grassy
woodlands, the dry and wet eucalypt forests, and the rainforests were placed
about the country according to 40,000 years of Aboriginal culture, especially
fire culture. This, like all multigenerational culture, wildly exceeded
consciousness by exceeding individuals’ intentions and their lives' timescales;
and like a lot of fire it exceeded the intentions of people too. The great time
taken to fashion a cultural biota ensured a social unconscious, but then the
invading European culture was utterly unconscious of the culture of others and
thought the land it ran wild over and the culture it trampled over was all just
some pure state of naturealbeit a nature of the bastard or fallen kind. Now,
200 years later, there are all those bits in national parksabandoned they were,
locked up they say. These bits were left over after the agricultural land-grab.
They were adapted to modern society simply by the negative virtues of their
steep topography, poor soil, remote location and lack of commodity. It is
strange to think of lack of commodity as a function, but it has been functional
for the survival of these bits. Afterwards, the same features turned out to work
in quite a different way. This time they enabled survival in a society that wanted
to set up a museum of pristine nature or a fantasia of virgin nature, and behold
out there beyond the bitumen there were genres of this very nature already
waiting to be folded into the care of society. Yet again in history, cultural forms
may have been variable, but their social functions were even more so. These
places found that they could survive in a society where it had been decided that
what was called its natural environment was the most important tool it had at its
disposal for engineering water quality, maintaining agricultural productivity,
earning the tourist dollar, healing the sick at heart and saving the planet from

ecological catastrophe. It was to be slotted in as a supplier of ecosystem
services, just one other part of society’s fully functionalized landscape.
Some of this preserved nature is unreal vision. Such is the picturesque
backdrop of the Bellinger escarpment, the blue hardwood forests, the
succession of fading ridges that line up between the plateau, the Nambucca
Valley, the Pacific and the sky. It works by its feature of sheer appearancea
camouflage that fools any animal so fascinated by the sensuousness of looking,
not to mention the modern sensibility of sublime contemplation so carefully
cultivated since the 18th century. Initially, this form of aesthetic culture had
itself been socially selected in order to preserve the dream image of mighty and
glorious nature once the real thing had started to look a little too beholden to an
alien and arbitrary power monstrously born from the matrix of human
Close up, a lot of this nature is a delight. Some dreams are sweet. The bright
streams full of green bass, fat eels, blue yabbies and sleek platypus, the lapis
lazuli of quandongs, the garnet of wisteria seeds, jewels in the rocky pools,
water dragons sunning on a snag, the wind combing chords through the harp of
casuarina, the remote wild forest blinking with firefliesthese indices and
images of the past, places where it is so hard to banish any notion that this is
not all absolutely untouched and remote from the havoc of modernity, so
successful are the illusory or delusory devices of the social unconscious.
Then there is the other kind of river, the lowland river running through
agricultural or urban landa kind of recurring nightmare in which we go over
and over the traumatic events of clearing, and weed growth, erosion and
shoaling, over fishing and feral fish, eutrophication, and salinationthings that
resist assimilation into the self image of a society that wants its nature
abundant, obedient, beautiful and enduring—all at once. In such repetition,
unconscious society erupts as ugly nature. It pricks itself again and again with
this cruel irritation, tormenting itself for gratification and indulging images
prurient with desire for misery and ugliness.
Then there are those bits of bush beside the road, the bush slashed by the
bitumen, the road-world oozing into the raw wound. Take that unsettling dream
landscape along the Dorrigo mountain road, of black booyongs, purple cherries,
pothos and stinging trees. It is not so unsettling though until you stop the car,
climb the safety rail and step into it and feel the dreamlike estrangement
occasioned by that simple transposition. Into this new world the unconscious
has discarded Coke bottles, Mac packs, dirty nappies, car tyres, the whole
catalogue of consumer cultureall its rotting flowers used, all
disposedlittered with booyong petals among the images of an unused
rainforest that is too useful for accommodating the spent designs of the
packaging industry not to exceed, in its uses, merely good intentions. All this
stuff arranges itself according to some curious super-human sorting
processessomething like the kind that arranges sand precisely between the
Pacific Ocean and the east of the continent, or dust in corners. Litter, like sand
is not deposited at random. It has its appointed places in the unconscious nature

of society and the unconscious society of nature, placed by dreamwork
deliberation along the littoral of trunk roads and highways. In the kind of
critique idly entertained while driving past, that road might be construed as an
abrupt violation of the rainforest, an emblem of a hasty, unreconciled society.
Yet in this functioning modern landscape there is flawless integration of the one
upon the other. The rainforest as National Park is still there and visited by
virtue of the road system. Viewed from the car, the forest works perfectly,
concealing the debris of consumption and beautifying the drive. The road
frames it like a picture. Even these thoughts, occurring to the daydreaming,
drive-by flaneur in the rainforest city, arise from the scene of passing beauty,
the luxury of it so conducive to them. Beyond the safety rail is only a bad
dream if you step into it.
Down in the Bellinger valley much advertised for its beauty, again there is
the sudden juxtaposition of road slicing now through the tallowwoods and blue
gums. It is so banal and familiar this roadway through eucalypts, but only
because it has the familiarity of a recurring dream. It is a dream that almost
fulfills the desire for a locomotion that undoes time and space, and yet it is one
in which our intentions become estranged from us and in unruly eruptions make
arbitrary reprisals, whether in rank growth of pasture grasses that have adapted
human pastoral intentions to their own roadside interests, or in the raw open
flesh of the clay cutting now populated by privets regurgitated from addicted
pigeons and mangled into hedges by quick and dirty bank slashers. This
roadside nature is the landscape of suspicion, shallow graves, paranoia and
roadkill, a place for a serial killer to hail you down, or where you would not
want to break down at night. You find yourself walking along it, on a different
planet from the passing cars. By day a wallaby carcass lies in dust just beyond
the gutter, leaking odour and flesh into the buzzing sunlight. By night the moon
spills onto the gum tree branches, a little seeping down into a gully clogged
with trunks, and cars come by lighting up the place under their surveillance,
hurling girders of light and dark around the nightscape, and passing like
asteroids huge and fast into the depths of space.
Especially on the North Coast of NSW, the nation would see itself as a
coastal culture, even entertaining itself with holiday criticism of its ignorance of
a geographic heart, reading from the colour supplements as it lies on the beach.
Yet it lives far away from both. Apart perhaps from lowland rivers, nowhere is
so cruelly a dystopia as the culturescape of coastal bush, the land of the holiday.
Few forms of nature are so poignantly displaced by social selection from the
powerful and persistent human yearning that exists for them. A repeated and
persistent custom, vernacular towns of skillion fibro have been thrown up in the
lee of headlands and foredunes, edged by dead lawns, and sporadic eruption of
rattling progress palms and desultory hibiscus. Even if you didn’t have to clear
it to get the truck in and the frame up and a bit of sandy garden, you can’t keep
the pyrophytic flora of the heath and open woodland running gloriously right
up to the door, so you destroy the beauty that you might have wished to steal.
You mow your rectangle of dry couch into the galaxy of flannel flowers. The

towns are on sheltered rises, slightly above the sandy, often-swampy soils and
behind the beaches that run north of each headland to the next head and the
next town. In the slapdash antagonism of townscape and bush the former
humbles the latter with its easy, careless triumph and lets its detritus leak into
it: dead cars, plastic bags, weeds. This repeated form is the outcome and image
of a social antagonism. On the one side there is an insouciant make-do holiday
society and a calculating make-money society that exploits it and calls itself
development. On the other, there is the society that has walked into shadeless
wallum and seen its thousand beauties: bristling and curling sedges, lilies,
orchids and rushes, peas and banksias, stingy xeromorphs luxuriant with posies,
and wallum rocket frogs thick as grasshoppers and fattened on nothing but lean
white sand. As an antagonism of societies spawned by all four of monetary
calculation, aesthetic thrill, holiday indolence, and fond reminiscence of the
fibro weekender, it can abide or sleep within individuals regardless of whether
they take the green or the other side when it comes to politics. The form of
nature it generates has been selected as at once the most beautiful and ignored
of bush. Infinitely subtle sandy heath, woodland and wallum, the floral
orchestration of fire history and minuscule altitude changes and drainage
patterns, have been hacked back into a rectilinear disorder by the cadastre of
weekender yards, sandmining, lousy poor grazing, faddish teatree oil
plantations, golf courses, expanding residential and resort real estate and
landscaping. Even now the national parks mostly cater for visitors at the
remaining grassy headlands, sheltered beaches, weedy littoral rainforests and
the sandy beach dunes, bright green with bitou or brown with sprayed bitou,
leaving the glary heath to firefighters and service tracks, to the technicians and
to the lovers of nature, and to the nor’easter blowing off the surf in the
afternoon. They are places whose tattered spirit has been selected by and for the
holiday, adapted to its yearning for beauty and pleasure and summer and the
sea, and also to its indolence, perfect in their design for all this.
Or there is the great ocean, all sea surface full of clouds, painted by a
thousand winds and torn not only by dolphins, whales, and gannets, and the
tailor running along the coast, but by long lines and drift nets and rusting hulls
and Sargassos of plastic and oil, disguising the absences beneath with its
bewitching surface.
Then there are those bits that we would work on and restore. The culture of
ecological restoration is like a dream in which our intentions are repeatedly
frustrated. The dreamworks of society transfer desire for restoration to works of
planning, access, signage, fencing, fund raising, monitoring and tree planting.
The Landcare viewing platform raises us above the bizarre circus of bitou and
gloriosa, so we can watch the 4WDs gunning down the beach. With the logic of
the fetish, each of these cultural forms thrives and reproduces itself in a society
where restoration and weeding epitomizes drudgery, where what we need is
more information, a whole of landscape approach, and current best practices,
where erecting signs and building fences is quick and unambiguous work,
where what you need is planning, promotion and education, where you can do

anything if you have funding, and where the tree is the symbol of nature and the
tree planting ritual raises awareness, gets the public involved, gives the kiddies
ownership. Restoration society is brilliantly adapted to this kind of
environment. In our dreams, most of what the dreamwork delivers us is offices,
meetings, forms, acronyms, regulations, plans, promotions and people to work
on them, ambitious beginnings without the persistence for ends, and for brief
moments we encounter a genre of nature persisting as planned, inventoried
fragmentsbehind fences, advertised by signs, tattered by the tread of distant
bureaucrats, weedy with management plans, funding applications, uncompleted
intentions, flagging resolutions, fructifying with a fantasia weeds and planted
trees, like the furniture of dreams, an arbitrary array, in various conditions of
health and various stages of growth.
In some places another genre of nature is evolvingone that has
transcended the nostalgic aesthetic of native vegetation and wildlife and the
functionalist, environmentalist cult of biodiversity. We can see cultural
evolution at work. It is like watching generations of bacteria being selected for
antibiotic resistance. A new beauty is born adapted to our capacity for
superceding our older aesthetic sensibilities or for just growing used to things
or for putting up with them, or to our indolence, our cold hearts, our ignorance,
our willingness to praise any green or wildish thing, our capacity not to notice
incremental degradation or to assimilate it as a necessary cost of progress, or
our squeamishness about keeping on taking up green arms against weeds and
ferals in the ruthless war that Les Murray calls ‘merciless rearrangement of the
whole earth…passionate with altruism as ever inquisition was’to all or any of
the above. An aesthetics of nature evolves in which we make a virtue of
overwhelming contingency and our own idlenessin which, for example,
camphor laurel and lantana thrive, where deer browse, horses range, trout are
stocked, wild pigs snuffle and foxes stalk. It is not simply that they are such
resilient species; rather, as such resilient species, they themselves become
multiplying symbols of vigorous, majestic and abundant nature. If plants, they
are valued for providing habitat, stopping erosion, conditioning soil, looking so
lush and green, flowering profusely, and screening off roads. If animals, they
delight as wild and free, as warm and cuddly, as instant heritage, as sport. And
although these features might not seem like adaptations for the restoration
culturea culture that overtly functionalizes native species and secretly,
guiltily aestheticizes themthey are nevertheless adapted to restoration culture
simply by virtue of the fact that, as so ecologically resilient and invasive, they
thrive on restoration culture’s immense capacity for prevarication and neglect,
its capacity for merely planning, its capacity for self-diversion, its capacity for
delay, and its incapacity to manage any more than fragments in a landscape.
In this dream we frame our drives with avenues of camphor and privet, deck
our riverbanks with willows, blossoms of catsclaw and curtains of balloon vine,
gaze across an untouched wilderness of lantana where no foot may tread, park
behind coastal fore dunes in the flowering glades of bitou and gloriosa lily,
witness the inauguration of bamboo and queen palm groves along the coasts

and rivers, celebrate and preserve the proud tradition of barreling down long
beaches in four wheel drives, and fight to preserve the pristine ‘new nature’
where feral pigs, donkeys, camels, cats, horses and wild deer wander ‘here and
there,’ as Blake would have it, ‘to keep the human heart from care’. Not the
‘old fashioned’ nature of nostalgia, natives, the national parks services and
environmentalism, this traditional postmodern new nature, the consummation
of the Quaternary, is a kind of advertising landscape replete with images from
the iconography of globalized, infantilized desire, the place to sell a new car
before a mob of brumbies, or a holiday in palmy erotica exotica. If you don’t
like it, tough. While you’re grieving or whingeing, social evolution is making
this, for most, the stuff of fond memory and experience, and biological
evolution is getting on with it, working away developing a new range of pests
and predators to devour this delicious over-supply of new naturebalancing it
all out in the end if you like, or lurching to over correct itand this wild ride is
no more or less wild or a dream than the precious, authentic pristine it is
relentlessly superseding.
Meanwhile, in some places the nostalgia is indulged and fragments are
restored as dream images of the past. Some of this is so close to us though that
it is still hard to know whether we are dreaming or not. But we well know the
experience of waking up from the past andif we have not just forgotten about
it in the dazzling new lightseeing our dreamwork defamiliarized as we recall
and retell the dreamlike events of the past, busily unconscious of our secondary
elaborations. We have seen the best intentions and the best works revealed as
well meaning folly: those riverbank restorations of the hardly distant past that
pulled out the snags and planted willows and privets; all those curious tree
plantings where achieving canopy, farm forestry, remnant connectivity and
provision of wildlife habitat were believed to be nature’s own multifunctional
road back to a pristine future. Unwaking, we dream on, assuming that this all
happened only in the past, before ecological enlightenment, when those well-
meaners who came before us did not understand. But we would do well to
expect that we too participate in the eternal recurrence of stupidity, and to see
the signs of the same kind of things happening now: in the current best practice
ecosystem function rehabilitation; in the cost effective programs; in the sound
of rainforest canopies going clunk as they close over the swish-swish of the
sprayers underneath; in the acres of wood-chipped plantings; in tree, canopy,
koala, and getting-the-kiddies-involved cults; in our dear natives coming back
to haunt us like Hitchcock’s Birdskiller currawongs and kookaburras, noisy
miners, swarming lorikeets, koala plagues on Kangaroo Island, pittosporums
worse than privets; in the shuffling of troublesome vines, nasty thorns and mere
herbs off into some lurking oblivion; in the selected hierarchies of
environmental weeds; in the antagonistic mystifications of fire culture lurching
between the good burn and universal exclusion; in the time-bound cultures of
agricultural and engineering technologies like herbicides or earth movers or
‘integrated pest management’; in the deformations of nature and aesthetics by
markets, efficiency, managerialism, funding cycles, and publicity. And in all the

other unnamed and as yet undiscovered places where we are all proven wrong.
And then there is the society subdivided into functional subcultures where, with
one hand we desperately restore a pathetic little bit of nature over here
according to our time bound understanding, while with the other we damage all
that over thereat an almost effortless stroke.
So society fashions its nature and its image of nature, mainly in the
unconscious selections of a kind of daytime torpor: seldom aware of its
intentions, for all its busy planning; seldom aware of its work, either in
apprehension of the task at hand, or of the deed in the doing, or in
understanding the result; only to be granted indications of its meaning in
images as cryptic and forgettable as dreams. Like the TV, nature is just over
there in the corner somewhere and just on.
The very fact that nature epitomizes self-generation and that its plethora of
self-serving organisms and physical recalcitrants is ultimately uncontrolled by
human intentions, now seems consistent with its character as unconscious
society. For the term social unconscious designates those processes that exceed
society’s would-be description of its would-be self-controlled self. On the one
hand, the malignant self-generation of brutalized naturethe eruption of weeds
and pest animals, the ugly and cruel consequences of air and water pollution,
and all the anti-products of so called production and progress constitute the
nightmarish eruption of this unconsciousa nightmare visited on us by the
abuses of social history. On the other hand, the wild forest and river of the
Upper Bellinger, Rosewood or Never Never overwhelms like an awesome,
beautiful, haunting dream. It blesses us like a long, deep, dreamy rest.
All this might sound like a dream itself, a delirium, yet it is scarcely an
exaggeration to say that it is cautious description, prosaic, barely metaphorical.
It follows from careful scrutiny and scrupulous description of the historical
genesis of the social phenomenon that we call nature. What follows is how I
think nature could get to be this way.

The Natural History of Culture.

A theory of cultural evolution outlined as the basis for understanding the

current state of our culture of nature.

The objectivity of historic life is that of natural history

—Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Warning: Nature Is Not Natural.

The physical world, the essence or nature of a thing, that which is not
culture, that which is self-generating, all that beautiful stuff out there in
national parks, etc, etc. The word nature is famous for having too many
meanings, for being too ambiguous or too hard to define. No one can list all the
meanings. They’ve tried. Anything that has a history, said Nietzsche, cannot be
defined. And no doubt, this concept nature has got a history. Whatever a word
might mean though, its uses are another matter. And like the thing nature, the
concept nature has appeared again and again in societies, or in conversation or
thought, because people have always had one or another kind of use for it.
Ambiguity itself makes it very useful. People can think they are talking about
the same thing when they aren’t. Or different things when they aren’t. It helps
them to agree or disagree—whichever they prefer. Cunningly, the word can
refashion its meaning mid-sentence, letting a sentence look as though it has
more meaning than it deserves. Surreptitiously, one of nature’s meanings can
easily become a fetish for another, making things so mysterious. Just take this
as a caveat.
Personally, I like to use nature instead of environment or natural
environment. When Tim Low says he cringes at the word nature, he speaks for
the times. But even though it sounds a bit dated and precious, I don’t mind. It
lacks the cheap technical prestige of natural environment. I prefer nature’s
cheap poetic prestige. And I prefer an old anachronism like nature to a new one
like the natural environment. And I like to have something nice and material to
point to when people start extolling the virtues of spirituality. I like to be able

to use nature to refer to the objects of the physical world, which, as far as I am
concerned include the objects of the biological, psychological and social
worlds. Bodies, minds and societies are among the most wonderful and peculiar
bits of nature.
The recurring inclination to define the concept nature is probably a
symptom that, as with the thing, people are seldom fully conscious of just what
they are doing with it or to it. Even less are they aware of what it is doing with
them. It is an all too useful miasma of connotations. While they are busy not
really thinking what they are doing with it, it is using them to keep itself alive
as an evolving concept on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
One of the things the ambiguous old concept does is hide society from itself.
And the thing nature is used to do this too. We find it so easy to hide ourselves
and society behind its vast and dazzling presence that we are reluctant to accept
that we and society are lurking in it and haunting it everywhere. It is a kind of
sleight of hand—an illusion that society uses to fool us. Even ecologists are apt
to comply by seldom writing humans into the inventories of the species in the
bits of nature they study. They are quite scrupulous about this. Homo sapiens is
one of the most important speciesperhaps what some ecologists used to call a
keystone speciesin all the earth’s biological communities. Everything on
earth is somehow at our mercy, if only at the mercy of our capacity for
destruction. For this reason alone, society must be understood as a major player
in the ecological processes of those peculiar objects that make up what we like
to call the natural environment. No wonder it is we humans then that so often
come back in the form of nature to haunt ourselves. Ecology that ignores
society can scarcely claim to be ecological. Yet it is not only our capacity for
destruction that matters. Although custom conceives nature as the antithesis of
culture, this custom itself belongs to our peculiar culture of nature. Nature is
culture—high culture and pop culture—and it’s big. The provider of natural
resources and ecosystem services, the object of scientific and aesthetic
experience, nature is not only used and abused, exploited and wasted, it is sold,
imagined, promoted, admired, explained, depicted, defended, conserved,
managed and restored.
Even so, when contemplating a sublime landscape painted in the 19th
century, Robert Hughes scoffed at the idea that nature is a cultural construct.
And he was right enough. This is just a platitude that does neither nature nor
culture justice. For although nature is a culture, it is more instructive to assert
that culture is a natural construct. Cultural theorists, especially when teaching,
insist upon emphasizing that something or other is a cultural construct. They
are at pains to do this precisely because culture is like nature. It carries on the
construction of its cultural forms in a natural and unnoticed manner, as if it
were natural. Cultural construction is just culture’s nature.
In a meditation on wildlife, the American naturalist Aldo Leopold wondered
whether ‘human populations have behaviour patterns of which we are unaware,
but which we help to execute (186)?’ Are there social processes which, rather
than being collective acts of individual volition are somehow supra-individual

processes. He suspected that there were and that our knowledge of them is
‘largely ex post facto.’ It seems that there is a kind of human or social nature
that is wild in its own way, wild enough to exceed human intentions and, at
least until after the fact, human awareness. Going on over the heads of
individuals, a bit like Adam Smith’s guiding hand, society has its own history,
the objectivity of which is that of natural history. Nature has its own cultural
history and culture has its own natural history. How best to describe this natural
history of society is what concerns me here. For nature not only has its natural
history as nature, it has its own natural history as a cultural form. Without a
good description, the natural history of culture may be barely registered except
in a certain arbitrary defiance of our intentions and then only subliminally as
something uncomfortable or alien. When this happens in social or political life
we are likely to attribute it to the human agency of others, or to that supra-
individual bogey that we like to designate with the anonymous pronoun they, or
to that bad old deep down human nature. We hold dear the notion that all
social phenomena have their origins and persistence in individual will, whether
we delight in freedom or shrug things off to some unchangeable, miserable
human essence. However what most interests me is when a circumstance that
strikes us as beyond our control seems to have its origin in the natural
environment, as it does for example in the features of a national park. In cases
like this we might just be making the mistake of accepting such a circumstance
as a given of natural nature when in fact it is a social phenomenon.

The Natural History Of Culture

Even though ecology can ill afford to ignore society, social science can ill
afford to ignore biological thought. By this though, I don’t simply mean the
environmentalist commonplace that economics should take the ecology of
resources into account. What I mean is that a kind of processone that is very
well known to biological thoughtcan be used to describe and explain many
familiar but otherwise mystifying features of society, features that exhibit their
own self-perpetuation and determination. The process is a selection process,
and a theory of social (as opposed to natural) selection can be used to describe
the nature of many social phenomena. Such a description then provides novel
explanations and surprising predictions about the social phenomena so
The best-known selection process is what Darwin famously described as
evolution by natural selection. In natural selection, genes are copied, often with
slight variation, and then they are selected according to whether the functions
of the features that organisms have because of these genes have led, on average,
to better survival and reproduction of the organisms. This is a particularly brief
and inadequate description of a process of which there have been all too many
brief and inadequate descriptions. Most people think they know enough about

natural selection to think that they know what evolution is all about anyway.
However, for an idea that is part of the educated common sense of modernity it
is notoriously misunderstood. This is mainly because selection, as an
algorithmic process, is apt to generate mind-boggling results from the
remorseless repetition of quite simple steps. For such a brilliantly simple idea,
natural selection is not simple.
In social evolution by social selection the things that get copied, also often
with variation, are cultural forms. When stories are told and retold, when
something or someone is imitated, when documents are copied, when
something is learned and taught, when clichés are uttered and re-uttered, when
anything is communicated or when any formality, manner, genre, custom,
tradition or institution is reproduced, cultural forms are getting copied. The
sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1984) contended that society is best conceived as
a collection of communications. Such a description of society, he claimed, is
more useful than the notion that society is a collection of people. The stuff of
society is this galaxy of reproducing cultural forms. In social evolution they are
copied, often with slight variation, and then they are selected according to
whether the their physical, symbolic or semantic features have functioned, on
average, for the good of their survival and repeated copying. Thus cultural
forms evolve according to the strictures of a selection process that is Darwinian
in its algorithmic form but social and communicative rather than biological and
genetic in terms of the content or stuff it works on. I admit that this is as brief
and inadequate a description of social selection as the description of genetic
selection above. Many have provided more exhaustive accounts from David
Hull (1988) to Daniel Dennett (1995) to the Journal of Memetics.
This theory of social selection is a contested science. Is it a real science or
not? It will just have to prove itself by its adequacy to descriptive and
explanatory demands. Like any science. Any validation, like that of any
science, would be stronger for being supplemented by the convergence of the
theory with other scientific disciplines, just as natural selection has been
convergent with knowledge in genetics, ecology and geology. For my purposes
here it need only be virtually or effectively scientific. Like any science.
The science of social selection has been called memetics. One of the
problems people have with accepting such descriptions of society is that the
replicable units in the selection processthe forms of cultureare sometimes
called memes. The term sounds like a label for selling a fangled thingo of
dubious ontological status. Whatever memes are supposed to be, people are
disinclined to countenance their existence. The term was coined (as an analogy
with gene) by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, almost as a
throwaway, in his pop science book pitched with a marketable anti-humanist
title: The Selfish Gene. With that pedigree, meme sounds like the jargon of
catchy sociobiology, and for that matter, a concept that seems destined quickly
to go the way of humours or spirits or phlogiston or some dizzy household
detergent additive. Whatever its fate, the term denotes phenomena that belong

to cultural theory, social history, and social science, rather than biology or even
sociobiology. Society is a universe of replicable cultural forms or memes.
Just what is one of these replicable forms of culture? Surely if they had to be
labeled memes they can’t just be these things we have been making and
copying for yearswords, clichés, stories, films, jokes, songs, genres, tools,
gardens, forests, national parks, images, financial transactions, moral actions,
acts of war, rites, rituals, traditions, procedures, protocols, methods, forms and
formalitiesotherwise we would have noticed them. Are they mental things in
brains or are they in the physical copies or are they gestures or actions? These
are ontological questions, questions of existence. It is worth recalling that genes
had a skeptical ontological reception when they were first mooted. Indeed,
despite their undoubted material character, just what a gene is is still by no
means a simple question. Just how a gene is defined depends upon what kinds
of operations are being described, and this depends upon the branch of biology
in which the operation is relevant. Population genetics, evolutionary biology,
taxonomy and biochemistry all prefer to conceive genes slightly differently.
Also recall that Darwin himself had managed to describe a selection process
pretty well without describing just what was getting copied. He had to speak
about inheritance between generations without having a clue about the
mechanism. He was a natural historian, not a geneticist. No one was then.
As I have said, I just want to use the explanatory power of a selection
process. My concerns are epistemological, or ‘how and why’ questions, rather
than ontological or ‘what’ questions. In this I am only following the
inclinations of modern science. Ontology otherwise is too much like
metaphysics. In accordance with empirical science, and like the anthropologist
Dan Sperber (1996), I insist that the explanations of culture only commit to an
ontology of quite material things: representations in the mental sphere, that is
neurological events in brains, and representations in the public sphere, that is
physical objects and actions. Whether the replicable forms are in the brains or
in the public sphere or both, or whether you want to think, by analogy with
genetics, that the mental phenomena correspond say to the genotype and the
public forms to the phenotype, or, as I am inclined to, vice versa, I agree with
Sperber that the causal chain of mental object - public object - mental object -
public object - and so on is what is crucial. What matters is whether these
objects are empirical enough, stable enough, and causal enough to be observed
or inferred as copied objects in a selection process that runs through social
history. For my purposes here (if not for a full explanation) these forms might
as well be the physical, observable copiesthe observable forms of cultureas
long as they (like genes in natural selection) satisfy the conditions needed to
make them operational objects in their own kind of selection process. In fact
this is why no one noticed them before. Although people noticed the replication
of words, stories, jokes, garden design, institutional procedures, traditional
practices, etc, and although it is our quite normal recognition, labeling and
reproduction of these things that constitutes their operationally distinct
character, no one actually noticed these things as operational objects in

selection processes. They are probably even less likely to notice it in the case of
what we are apt to think of as nature or the natural environment. National park
design, the biodiversity we value, the kinds of places reserved, the tracks, look
outs, facilities and interpretative centres, ecotourism practices, picnicking and
bushwalking cultures, environmental laws, bushfire management practices,
environmental management and restoration techniques and aims—all these
things are also cultural forms undergoing replication with variation and
If they are to operate as the things copied (sometimes with variation) in a
selection process, then the following conditions must apply. They must at least
embody a discrete amount of information. As with genes, what gets transmitted
from one generation of cultural forms to the next is, in abstract, information. (I
should say though, that there is no such thing as information abstracted from a
context in which there is something or someone to interpret it. In the case of
genes that would be the cellular environment; in the case of cultural forms that
would be human minds.) They must be members of a lineage of copieseven if
sometimes with variation between copiesand the tendency of the copies to
change through the lineage from copy to copy should not exceed the pressure of
the selection process to favour the survival and subsequent copying of certain
forms over other forms. (Williams 1966, 25; Wilkins 1998). If a cultural form
were to change in a way that exceeded the social selection pressures, then it
could not be seen as adapted to those social selection pressures. However
society is well supplied with cultural forms that satisfy this proviso. The
selection pressures are exerted by the physical environment of the copies, in
particular by the physical media and environments in which the copies are
embodied, by the mental or psychic environment that interprets the copies as
well as storing the information and initiating its replication, and by the social
environment of other copies. Thus a cultural form like the safely fenced lookout
platform is copied over and over again and persists because it meets persistent
social and psychic pressures to look at views from a safe vantage.
The cultural nature of humans evolves faster than the genetically
conditioned biophysical nature. In turn however, the biophysical nature of
humans is an especially persistent selection pressure in the evolution of culture
and to that extent accounts for relatively persistent features of culture. On the
other hand, cultural forms that are free from such persistent pressures (such as
say the colour of the safety rails) may be copied for reasons of fashion, but due
to there being much less pressure to eliminate variant copies (as there is in the
case of look-outs without safety fences at all) the features of such forms tend to
undergo a certain amount of random drift. Even so, compared to the clothing
that people wear at the lookouts, the colour of the rails is probably less prone to
random drift. For reasons having to do with a relatively persistent cult of
naturalness, wood-grain, brown and green seem to have persisted pretty well as
railing colours in local national parks. Of course, the national parks themselves
make up a lineage of copies of what is the most common kind of modern nature

reserve. They are institutions sharing inherited features that are adapted to the
specific legal, national, scientific and recreational environment of the times.
As part of the educated common sense of modernity, it is often assumed that
the power of the theory of natural selection lies in its enabling us to cobble
together genealogies of species, to discover missing links and branches of
families, and to reveal the origins of species. No doubt human nous is
fascinated by stories, gratified by the plausible historicist explanations they
offer and charmed by myths of origin. However such a use squanders the
explanatory power that description as a selection process supplies. As the
evolutionary biologist George Williams (1966) emphasized, it is the fact of a
genealogical process of selection that enables evolutionary theory to be used in
turn as a theory of the functional adaptation and biological design of organisms.
The same goes for social selection. It is a theory of the design and adaptation of
cultural formsdesign for and adaptation to the psychic, social and physical
environment of society. Piecing together genealogies is most useful as a stage
in the explanation and prediction of function and design, and in many cases
these defy the expectations of historicist plausibility. Given the branching tree
of cultural genealogy, most searches for single origins of cultural forms are
futile, most myths of origin invalid.
One origin of these ideas on the history of ideas lies in that most original
and ironically titled work of natural history, On The Origin of Species. Another
lies in Darwin’s critic, Friedrich Nietzsche—although the author of Genealogy
of Morals is more a critic of Darwin’s English temperament than of his
genealogical cast of mind. In accounting for evolution by selection, the features
of organisms are not traced back to origins, but are accounted for as having
been inherited from their ancestors because they did the job for those ancestors;
and they had better do something nowany which awayif they are going to
get passed on again. And in the course of history, the function of an inherited
feature may well change; where natural history provides design, survival and
selection may well find new uses. Some bones in a reptiles jaw turn out to be
useful in mammals’ ears. Skin flaps for cooling are found to be useful as skin
flaps for gliding. Likewise in social nature, a memetic feature such as
punishment is adapted, as Nietzsche showed (213), to satisfy many ends: such
as quarantine, retribution, vengeance, rehabilitation, memorial, or triumphant
indulgence of malice. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘the actual cause of a thing’s origin
and its eventual uses, the manner of its incorporation into a system of purposes,
are worlds apart.’ ‘While forms are fluid, their meaning is even more so.’
In the postcolonial culture of nature the bush has been adapted to many
social ends. Initially a by-product or leftover of the agricultural and urban land-
grab of colonialism it works now as recreational parkland, travelling stock
route, undispensed common land, forestry, conservation of flora and fauna,
protection of water supply catchments, scenic backdrop, restitution for
indigenous dispossession, and wilderness to name only a few of its functions.
Thinking about the history of social phenomena as a genealogy of the
replication and selection of cultural forms is very useful as a way of describing

certain more or less persistent features of society, and discovering their
functions as socially selected cultural phenomena. Given the variety of
functions to which a single form may be put and the selection of forms based on
their functioning for the perpetuation of the form itselfand not necessarily for
the individual humans who deliberately or inadvertently replicate itmost
speculation about authentic or original function is vain, and myths of authentic
function are wrong-headed. Instead, the theory of social selection enables
predictions about the function of a particular cultural feature and about the
particular environmental pressurespsychic, or social or physicalthat a
feature is designed to deal with. By describing and discovering the kinds of
social and psychological selection pressures operating in the environment of the
particular cultural phenomenon, it is possible to discover functions that might
otherwise not have been recognized at all. One of the insights that such a theory
gives is that many features of society have functions for themselves that are
quite surprising or unexpected. Society can be both counterintuitive and
operating against our interests. This is because cultural forms, like genes, are
selected for features whose function is their survival and reproduction, and not
necessarily ours. What they do for themselves is not necessarily what we might
think they do for us or what we think we are doing with them. These ideas are
the key to sober understanding of what might otherwise have seemed like a
delirious description of nature. They demystify a culture of nature, much of
which is a kind of unconscious culture. How then may this theory about the
natural history of culture be applied to those bits of culture that we think of as
natural heritage in order to see how they have a natural history as culture as
well as a natural history as ecosystems?
The cultural forms by which we know nature are replicated by our own and
nature’s devices and selected by the pressures that we, deliberately and
inadvertently bring to bear. I don’t simply mean the landscape art, photography,
ecological science, management plans, environmentalist literature and all the
other images and documents of our culture of nature. More on these later. They
belong to the image of nature. They are all commentary, translation and
annotation to the primary forms of the culture of nature, namely those that are
embodied in physical nature itself: things like national parks, nature reserves,
marine reserves, and various bits of bush, coast, ocean, rivers, public or private
land and all the plants, creatures and geophysical feature that they comprise.
Consider one local genre: the lowland, floodplain rainforest remnant.
Besides the few hectares of bat ridden brush at Bellingen Island there are
similar remnants on the North Coast at Wingham Brush on the Manning, at
Coramba on the Orara, at Susan Island and Maclean on the Clarence River, at
several places on the red volcanic soil that once supported the Big Scrub, at
Stott’s Island in the Tweed River, and at many more smaller, less public
patches dotted along streams or about paddocks. Persistent pressures of social
selection have led to similarities in their form, similarities that might otherwise
be thought of as just plain naturally natural. These shared features are
maintained by the persistence of pressures selecting successful features through

time. In some cases, certain features may have performed different functions at
different periods of the remnants evolution. Indeed such features have persisted
because they have performed different functions when needed. At first it might
seem that these remnants are not a lineage of cultural forms, but rather at best,
the similar results of similar selection processes operating as a kind of parallel
evolution on unrelated natural objects in different areas. However it is because
of their shared culture of management—whether it be the past unconscious
management of which they seem like the accidental leftovers, or the modern
culture of conservation and restoration of which they are an articulate
expression—that they are a lineage. Each of these forms of culture is a lineage
and so therefore are its products or expressions in which one may observe
features that have been replicated from remnant to remnant.
For instance, these thoroughly cultural forms are always remnants, small
patches from a few hectares down to a few trees. Small size was an adaptation
to ancestral selection pressures: large patches were cleared for agricultural
exploitation of the alluvium; small patches survived as nooks or crannies on
flood prone land or steep banks, and as public recreation or natural heritage
areas. High flood risk, steep riverbanks, proximity to towns in need of public
land for common utilitarian, recreational or natural heritage purposes have all
been adaptations. Even though small size was often a concomitant feature of
these, it did of itself act as a disincentive to clearing, so it was selected as an
adaptation itself. Yet although functional in the past, small size might seem no
longer to be an optimal adaptation. It doesn’t to conservation ecology. For
conservation ecology, small size means fewer species. Small size catches up on
remnants in the form of ecological invasions and subsequent structural and
biotic degradation. In an environment of chronic flooding, cattle grazing or
recreational traffic, small size makes for rainforest remnants that are weedy or
weed prone. However many or most of these small remnants are now
intensively worked upon in order to maintain there weed free forms. In the
context of social selection small size and proximity to towns, rather than
operating simply as potentially lethal ecological features can be selected as
advantageous features. In defiance of ecological theories of fragmentation,
small size can become useful. It is an adaptation to the limited management
capacity of restoration culture and to the modern circumstances of tenure and
demographic distribution. And what may have once been a cause of lethal
variation to a remnant—that is a cause of its degradation—can now be a cause
of beneficial variation that increases the remnants’ chance of survival as
management changes and as biological forms like species composition and
structure change with it.
Three of the remnants are next to towns, near the heads of riverine
navigation and permanent freshwater, and they are long-term flying fox camps.
Flying fox camps are unconscious cultural forms in themselves, strangely
natural and unnatural. Social preferences for the location and structure of towns
and remnants—the selection pressures to which the remnants are adapted—
match the preferences that flying foxes exhibit in the selection of their camps:

the remnants are last relics of natural heritage, they are adjacent to streams, they
are an optimal solution to the problem of available freshwater and proximity to
the coast. Like litter along the highway littoral, flying fox camps are not
positioned at random. Flying foxes make their own urban centres where we
make ours. They can see the generic features of these remnants, and add
themselves to the production and replication of the generic mix. And now the
ecological management of remnants for flying foxes reproduces itself up and
down the North Coast.
Tree canopy is a feature of these restored remnants. Indeed it is an aesthetic,
technical and (given the bats’ adverse effect on it) political problematic. It is
not simply a fact of or a defining feature of any rainforest and therefore of these
remnant rainforests. Canopy is a norm of rainforest restoration culture,
replicated and selected for the convergence of its functional role for efficient
weed management and its defining status in popular rainforest ecology.
Vegetation made up of tree canopy species is socially more successful than viny
canopy or gap vegetation. Up and down the North Coast it is replicated and
selected as the reified form of lowland rainforest. That is, it is made into the
real form.
These municipal micro-wildernesses may seem too small and too much the
product of human actions to be properly called nature except in the
philosophers’ sense of 2nd nature. The national park is the authentic cultural
form of natural nature. The rainforest patches are all remnants evolved from the
little bits that were once gratuitously cut from the cloth of the pristine lowland
rainforests; and though they are now somewhat stylized images, or even to
some extent arbitrary symbols, of those pristine forests, I cite them precisely
because they epitomize the status of all nature here and now on the North
Coast: the rainforest remnants, the coastal bush, the escarpment national park,
the state forest or ex-state forest, the bush on steep land at the back of the
farmat the scale of private ownership a kind of functional analogue of the
escarpment national park which is located at the back of the agricultural
lowland landscape. Each of these genres reproduces its forms and each form
persists in an evolving lineage because it was formerly adapted to specific
social selection pressures and it is now adapted not only to such modern uses as
biodiversity conservation, public recreation, natural heritage, tourism, and the
aesthetics of nature, but to many less well recognized and less well intentioned
uses. In each we may discern the eerie repetitions and the social maintenance of
persistent cultural forms of nature. Our relations to nature are social relations,
relations of humans to one another. For nature is a sign through which we
speak. Yet it is, like language, a system of signs that exceed our intentions, and
as they say of language so we may say of nature: it speaks us. This is the nature
of the nature we love. It escapes our intentions both as wild beautiful nature
and as a cultural form.


The Image

Shallow Ecology, The Philosophy Of A Science
The science of ecology, its concerns and its limitations.

We have no sound notions either in logic or physics; substance,

quality, action, passion, and existence are not clear notions; much
less, weight, levity, density, tenuity, moisture, dryness, generation,
corruption, attraction, repulsion, element, matter, form, and the like.
They are all fantastical and ill defined.

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, §15

The Philosophy Of Science Meets Ecology

Philosophy, science and the philosophy of science may have been born
together of the same inquiring impulse, but they have been defining themselves
and separating into their own departments ever since. In the 14th century
William of Ockham’s via moderna plainly differentiated itself from the old
metaphysics, seeing no need to encumber nature—already bewildering enough
—with a clutter of unwanted objects and contrived explanations. The rule of
cutting back on metaphysical clutter still goes by the name of Ockham’s Razor.
In the 17th century both Bacon and Descartes again declared independence from
the past while philosophizing about modernity’s prodigy: science. Works like
Bacon’s Novum Organum (the greatest work of English prose not written in
English) and Descartes’ Discourse on Method are seen as seminal in the
department of learning now called the philosophy of science. They seem to
stand at the threshold of modernity like prophetic manifestos declaring the
philosophical intentions and protocols science was thereafter to fulfill. Yet
while philosophy was being philosophical, science was too busy becoming
science to take a lot of notice. Regardless of philosophy, science just does the
philosophy it needs to do in order to do its science.
As a philosopher, if not as a mathematician, Descartes turned out to be of
little relevance to the physical sciences. His rules in Discourse on Method (§2)
about dividing big problems up into parts and directing one’s thoughts to the
simplest building blocks of understanding amounted to a renovated version of

Ockham’s Razor. As for the search he conducted in the Meditations for
foundational, indubitable truths—that was a very big distraction. It was
founded on little more than a kind of architectural faith that the value of
knowledge, including scientific knowledge, depended upon the certainty of its
foundations. Aristotle had written about such foundational principles, or first
philosophy as he called it, in the Metaphysics. So Descartes was not so
detached from hand-me-down tradition as he declared. What he did was first
philosophy, the second time round. It is unfortunate that he did not apply his
methodological doubt to the received notion that the certainty of first principles
was somehow so important. Combining faith in certainty with abstract
scepticism has been a bad philosophical habit ever since, and very hard to shake
Descartes was inspired by a modern belief in individuality, by its
authenticity when compared to doing philosophy by committee, and by its
achievement when compared to rehashing inherited doctrine that ‘several hands
have sought to adapt’. Perhaps it was due to these sentiments that, apart from
finding certainty in Godthat least empirical and least certain thing of
allDescartes claimed to find it in, of all places, the most obscurely subjective
sphere: the hidden inner place where the ego describes itself to itself for itself
with that all too ingenious argument cogito ergo sum—I think therefore I am. It
may be fun for philosophy students to get their minds around, but the cogito
line was only half clever. Once philosophers started to question what was doing
what and therefore what, the argument started to come apart. Whatever our
manner of speech may suggest, the ego, thinking and existence are not as simple
as we might fool ourselves into thinking. Meanwhile, not much at all is certain,
and nearly everything is susceptible to abstract skepticism. The problem for
knowledge was how it could get anywhere given that uncertainty was
But science forgot this problem and just got on with the business of getting
to know about thingsas adequately as it could for its purposes. This is what
an organism does—or a subject, as the philosophers used to say. That is,
science itself followed Bacon’s, and the organism’s, pragmatic approach. It was
cunning, sensualist, and empirical, and it was so busy at it that even Bacon’s
philosophy of science was of little explicit relevance to it. The chemist and co-
founder of The Royal Society, Robert Boyle, is said to have remarked that
Bacon wrote natural philosophy like a Lord Chancellor. He was after all Lord
Chancellor and just laying down the law.
What empowered physical science was not certaintyand certainly not
certainty certified by obscure inner life and an old con artist called the ego
doing some trick with mirrors. Science’s strength lay in its relative validity.
Although some of its propagandists might like to think so, science is not about
absolute truth. Use the word relative though and you risk being accused of the
dreaded relativism. Someone reaches for their gun. When I say relative validity
I mean that some knowledge is better than others for the purposes at
handwhich is certainly not the relativism of any knowledge is as good as any

other. Some things are much less uncertain than others. For validity read
something half-hearted like adequacy, pragmatic like usefulness, or arrogant
like power. There is no way you can observe something without having an
observer, and therefore the observer’s subjectivity to deal with. That is just the
nature of observation. Empirical science dealt with the difficulties of such
unavoidable subjectivity by multiplying them. Among other things, it hit upon a
very useful social selection pressure for the validation of its knowledge:
empirical observations were to be open to scrutiny by a second observer. Such
was the social and normative nature of empirical observation: less than certain,
it was a subjective observation of an object, but one that was to be itself, as an
observation, openly observable by others. Think of the demand that
experiments be repeatable, or more trivially that a technology works for all to
Partly as a result of having to achieve relative validity, there developed not
one unified science but many sciences, each one concerned with the particular
problems of explaining its own subject matter as best it could typically using
whatever mathematical tools it had on hand. Science is not, as some of its
devotees like to think, a single system of knowledge, nor, as its weaker critics
parody it, just one system of knowledge among many knowledges. It is many
branches of knowledge rooted in a shared system of strong propositions about
certain fundamental physical processes. Although the sciences more or less
share certain norms about empirical observation, publication, mathematical
rigour, theoretical reduction and internal consistency, and although they also
share ideals about consistency with one another and translation between one
another, they are not all perfectly reconciled, and they do not all speak the same
language. Although they are very closely related disciplines describing almost
the same set of phenomena, even classical Mendelian genetics cannot be
perfectly reduced to molecular biology (Hull, Rosenburg, Sterelny & Griffiths).
The biological sciences are also given to explanations that use functional
descriptions—say of the hows and whys of the workings of an organism—
rather than descriptions in terms of physics or chemistry. The functional
properties and relations of organisms can be realized by many different physical
mechanisms and the same physical mechanisms can operate in many different
functional contexts. Reduction from functional to physical descriptions is not
necessarily useful nor, when one functional description must be reduced to
several physical descriptions and vice versa, even feasible. This problem seems
even more glaring when, in a case internal to ecology, there is a problem of
translating between population zoology and botany on the one hand and
community ecology on the other, and reducing the latter to the former. The
sciences are divided by the differences between their objects, by their particular
instrumental imperatives, by the kinds of descriptions they find useful or
feasible, and therefore by what Imré Lakatos (1970) called their research
A research program is characterized by core ideas whose validity is
maintained almost as a methodological principle. If empirical data appear to

provide evidence that falsifies one of the core ideas, it is assumed that some
other proposition must be reformulated, not a core principle. The adaptationist
view of evolutionary biology is one such research program. As its critics like
Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have complained, adaptationism
quarantines its core principles from empirical falsification. However it all
depends how metaphysical you want to get about your core principles (i.e. how
much you deem them to be indisputable principles) and how much you want to
insist upon their ontological foundations (i.e. how much you believe in the
kinds of objects those principles deem to exist). As the philosophers Kim
Sterelny and Paul Griffiths (1999) point out, there are degrees of adaptationism,
depending upon which core ideas are held most firmly. One might hold that
natural selection shapes most of the significant features of organisms, and that
all of these features are adaptations. One might take the less theological view
that only natural selection can explain complex adaptations. Or one might
simply hold that the concepts of design, adaptation and selection provide good
methodological principles to organize theoretical and empirical evolutionary
biology. Sciences cluster as research programs around core ideas because in
doing so they satisfy not only some Cartesian principle about the division of
larger problems into smaller ones, but, more urgently, pragmatic imperatives.
Leaping to a universal science—although it might seem to offer more efficient
explanations by reducing two sciences to a single common set of core ideas—is
easier said than done.
While intellectual labour divided its tasks between the sciences, the arts and
the humanities, philosophy persisted as something of a secular habitat for
universalist aspirations. A lot of philosophical thought about the sciences was
given to positing a unitary science and therefore to taking one science, typically
physics, as the single norm of a proper science. In its less reflective forms it
probably still does. The presumption was that until, say, ecology or sociology
could do science like physics—or indeed as physics—they would not be real
sciences. Until a science could be reduced to the language of physics it could
not be regarded as fully scientific. As it has turned out though, since there are
many sciences, it is difficult to formulate any universal theory of the sciences.
In the event, different sciences have inspired or demanded different
philosophical reflections. Sometimes the reflections have been epistemology—
the theory of what knowledge is and how science can or should discover it;
sometimes they have been a complaint about the epistemological predicament
of a particularly dismal science; sometimes they have been a sociology of how
scientific societies have functioned or function; sometimes they have been a
philosophy of the history of science. Sometimes even ontological concerns are
raised about whether or not the objects that a science deals with are real and
exist independently of our concepts.
Take the philosophy of biology. Among other things, it has been a discipline
concerned with the epistemological status of biology compared with the other
sciences. For other sciences tradition still demands that we read physics or
chemistry. It has also been concerned with the implications of such things as

genetics and evolutionary theory. A great deal of philosophical effort has been
devoted to questions about how these biological theories can best conceive of
their objects: What are genes? How do we relate genes to microbiology? This
stuff has been grist to the mill of philosophy of science: in the problem of
reducing genetics to microbiology, biology has supplied an exemplar of the
disunity of the sciences. Just how does evolution work? What is an adaptation?
What is a species? As attempts to clarify biological thought, these questions are
not only philosophy of science, they are also a kind of metabiology: the
philosophy biologists have to do in order to do biology. But does biology have
implications beyond its discipline, perhaps even beyond the curricula of
philosophy of science—implications for so-called philosophy itself.
Wittgenstein thought that ‘the Darwinian theory has no more to do with
philosophy than has any other hypothesis of natural science' (4.1122). Bertrand
Russell thought much the same. However, evolutionary theory has led to
evolutionary epistemology, wherein the theory of knowledge becomes the
theory of how an organismany organismcan know something, what kind of
action that ‘knowing’ can be, and how organisms got to be able to do this thing
called ‘knowing’. As a result of this kind of reflection, the philosophy of
biology has foreseen its own end, and that of philosophy itself, in something we
might as well call the biology of philosophy. This, by the way, is the kind of
premonition of self-annihilation that is quite common in such a self-reflective
discipline as philosophy. It has all the trappings of philosophy itself. Such a
biology of philosophy would be the culmination of the project that the Harvard
philosopher Willard Van Ormand Quine (1969) long ago dubbed epistemology
naturalized. This is the kind of thing that really puts paid to the old Cartesian I
think. The biology of philosophy would understand the nature of knowledge by
recognizing that what we can know and how we can know it is something given
to us by nature. Knowing, thinking, believing, desiring, feeling, emotion,
consciousness, and self-consciousness, are all illuminated by such a project. So
is the philosophy of language. So are society and science. In the case of humans
I would say that all this depends on the nature of society as well as the
biological nature of brainy human bodies; and to support such a claim I would
simply cite the significance of scientific culture itself. So epistemology
naturalized demands a sociology as well as a biology of philosophy. Even so, in
order to think about how nature could construct knowing organisms and
societies, one cannot avoid thinking about the problems of what knowledge
would be given any possible knowing subject, and any possible nature. These
are eminently philosophical problems. They still look like problems for
philosophy itself, but they are informed by biology and not only by mathematics
and logic (philosophy’s traditional stable mates).
What then of the philosophy of ecology? Is there such a beast? What is its
relation to the philosophy of biology? And would it have anything at all to
contribute to philosophy? Many would probably think it is just another term for
environmental philosophya term for speculative thought, political
programmatics or personal opinion about environmental ethics under the

gathering clouds of ecological catastrophe. Yet we also have a philosophy of
the science of ecology. At the very least such a discipline can be the self-
description of ecology itself, sometimes worried, sometimes self critical,
sometimes prescriptivethe philosophy ecologists do in order to do ecology.
Even so, if it plays either the methodological handmaid of ecology, or the
legislator of ecological theory, it may well be ignored by ecological practice
that is too busy just getting on with doing ecology. Philosophy of ecology can
also be a reflection on the culture of ecology. Or maybe it might just try to
advise ecology that ecology itself is a hopeless task. Either way the philosophy
of ecology can inquire into how and why the social phenomenon called ecology
is whatever it is.
Ecology is a dismal sciencemore or less as dismal as economicsbut, like
economics, it is only as dismal as its expectations are ambitious and its
questions overweening. This is because what started as a discipline concerned
with the relation of an organism to its environment became a discipline
concerned with the everything else of environmenta big vague subject, but a
fascinating one. All too fascinating. In his Critique for Ecology (1991, 6-14),
the ecologist Robert Peters expressed misgivings that ecology is not as
competitive, high pressure or interactive as other sciences. Ecological papers
have a longer half-life than those in other disciplinesbecause new
developments in ecology are not rapidly overtaking one another. They also have
a higher rejection ratebecause the reviewers’ expectations about just what
constitutes proper ecological research is more a matter of taste than in other
disciplines. Ecology is not always quite sure what it is about. Ecology is also a
parasite of other sciences, tending to cite papers in non-ecological journals
more frequently than ecological papers are cited in them. It is a consumer rather
than a producer of knowledgea kind of interdisciplinary affair in an age
otherwise marked by specialization. This is one indication that ecology is less
likely to contribute to philosophy than vice versa. If philosophy is to be
handmaid to ecology it is a case of the master humbled by the servant: ecology
is struggling to look after itself; it hasn’t the wherewithal to help others. Several
features prejudice ecology’s scientific status: its ideological connection with
environmental politics; its widely being taught and practiced in applied form as
environmental management; and the false popular notion that it is not as
mathematically demanding as other sciences. Last in his list of ecology’s
symptomsand in Peter’s opinion its most telling deficiencyis that the
practical environmental problems that ecology should solve are not being
solved. All of these things go with ecology’s reputation for being a soft science.
The problem for the soft sciences however, is that they are, because of the
nature of their objects, the hardest. If ecology is in some senses a social
scienceinsofar as humans and society are things that ecology can ill afford to
ignorethen that makes it even softer and therefore even harder.
The term ecology was coined by Ernst Haeckel, and it was inspired by
Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Since the relations of organisms to their
environments were of such evolutionary significance, a term that referred to the

systematic study of such relations was a ready cultural adaptation to post
Darwinian scientific society. It may well be said that the term ecology was
coined after the fact of the discipline itself, and that the first great achievement
of ecology was, indeed, the theory of natural selectiona theory that could be
said to mark the differentiation of ecology and evolutionary theory from one
another and from their cultural ancestor, natural history. Some might also say it
was ecology’s last great achievement.
Darwin himself treated environment as a kind of black box. Knowing just
exactly what was going on out there around a particular lineage of organisms
was not as important as assuming that a lot was going on no matter what it was.
It was terribly complicated and it had mostly been in the past. It was much
easier to observe the features of the organisms instead of all that environment.
For all his experience of the diversity of natural history and the examples it
supplied him in the sustained argument of Origin of The Species, Darwin could
not hope thoroughly to analyze the complex and obscure detail of an
organism’s historical environment. Instead he concentrated on the organism and
on the way its physiology was an index of the selection pressures that had been
exerted by its evolutionary environments. The process of inheritance with
variation went on, as it were, within the lineage of organisms. Beyond that, all
of that environmental complexity fell under the abstract term selection. By this
schematic conception, Darwin and subsequent adaptationist theory defined its
way out of the problem of the difficulty of environmental complexity, and in a
manner that has worried many a thoughtful student with the niggling sense that
a tautology lurked in the catch-phrase notion of survival of the fittest. It looks
as if fitness is defined by survival of the selection process. However the
contingent status of fitness is conferred by the fact of selection, while the
concept of selection stands by definition for the mess of environments that have
surrounded the ancestral lineage of organisms. This was, in fact, a handy old
scientific ploy: to solve problems by convention. Newtonian physics, for
example, had made life easy for itself by defining force and momentum and
energy in ways that, at the time, were most mathematically convenient, and
which now seem so natural: physical nature could be divided and had, as it
were, divided itself at its mathematically given joints. Likewise, for operational
convenience, nature could be carved into organism and environment, and the
indescribable complexity of environment could be referred to the much more
discrete adaptations of the organism itself. By virtue of its own self-referring,
self-maintenance, and by virtue of the relative historical persistence of its
lineage, the organism was effectively one of a so-called natural kind or species.
It was therefore a much better behaved scientific object than an environment. It
is also better behaved than an ecosystem or community, or various other such
things that ecology has used to try and carve environment up into something
more useful.
The concept gene is also, for that matter, quite well behaved. It is
noteworthy though that Darwin had to treat the mechanics of inheritance as a
black box too. As things turned out, genetics has proven to be a science whose

once utterly cryptic objects are quite conducive to observation, theory and
technological application, and its contributions back to evolutionary theory
have been very handy. Not as much can be said for the science of environment.
Its subject matter compared to that of genetics is so visibly obvious yet so
theoretically intractable. Apart from its being such a miscellany of objects, there
is a appalling excess of history and contingency over general laws. Darwin’s
theory, as one of the characteristic stages in the developing historical
consciousness of modernity, had actually assumed the mutability of the eternal
species themselves, but it had been able to demonstrate how, out of the obvious
and fleeting mutability of the generations, those species could become
apparently, relatively or effectively eternal. Perhaps Darwin’s theory was the
progenitor of ecology’s hopeful project because it seemed to discover one way
of looking on messy historical matters with the eye of relative eternity, and
clawing back a little universality from a surfeit of particulars. Sadly however,
humans had never had any trouble thinking that species were eternal;
disabusing them of that had been the problem. In the division of the sciences,
evolutionary theory held on to quasi-eternal timescales and ecology took on the
profane riff-raff. Environments, ecosystems, communities, populations and
whatever other objects ecology set its sights on were never going to be so easy
to conceive as species.
Natural kinds of things they may seem, but neither an ecosystem nor a
community is one of a natural kind in the sense that philosophers of science use
the term. It is not one of a class of things that exhibit characteristics that are
strictly or effectively universal. It is not such a wonder then that ecology’s
interest in the bits and pieces of environments, and also its holistic ambitions
present it with a hotchpotch of different kinds of objects that do not seamlessly
combine into discrete, unambiguous wholes. Knowledge of these
heterogeneous objects like ecosystems, communities, populations, and food
webs, must be derived from several other disciplines, and because science is not
a unified discipline with a single language, the languages of these descriptions
are not always inter-translatable and the descriptions of one set of objects (e.g.
the organisms) are not reducible to or compatible with descriptions of another
set of objects (e.g. the geo-physical or the biochemical). Coining terms such as
ecosystem or community to refer to composite phenomena or more hopefully to
emergent phenomena is to risk abstractions that reduce or sacrifice relevant
information. Throughout its long history, nature has managed to build some
composite phenomena that have emerged as systemic wholes. Organisms are a
composite of cells, and cells are composites too, yet both may be described as
emergent phenomena, that is, at a level of description that need not revert to
description in terms of the composite elements. At stages of evolutionary
history these things evolved into self-referring systems. In turn, cooperatives of
individual organisms have evolved in social insects like ants. In human society
we can observe the emergence of wholes from composites of individuals. These
social things though are already starting to exhibit less than a systemic self-
reference. Only by the ingenious definition of society as a system of

communications rather than of people can a social systems theorist like Niklas
Luhmann make the claim—much disputed at that—to be working with discrete,
emergent objects that yield useful sociological universals. Beyond these things,
most of ecology’s composite phenomena are much messier than the deceptively
singular terms that refer to them. And mere faith in their being emergent
phenomena is not enough. Aspirants for holistic ecology have the habit of firing
off accusations of reductionism, but they practise it themselves with the
vengeance of justified sinners. The pseudo-emergent composite phenomena that
have interested ecology—classically, ecosystems and communities—are not
effectively of a natural kind, they share few useful, measurable properties, they
can seldom be causally related without ambiguity, and they are seldom
amenable to reliable prediction.
A science that is concerned with well defined, causally discrete kinds of
objects is more likely to generate a reliable body of predictive theory than one
that deals with the kinds of composites and vagaries that interest ecological
inquiry. Think of physics and chemistry. We get the feeling that these sciences,
within their carefully prescribed horizons, get a hell of a lot right. Forget
absolute truth. There might be concepts that need correction at times and new
objects to contemplate, but the descriptions and explanations are remarkably
adequate to their objects, accurate in prediction and very useful for our
technological purposes. With the aid of a bit of calculus, everyday descriptions
of certain of our common experiencesfalling bodies, accelerating vehicles,
discharging batteriescan be reduced to precise (and predictively accurate)
physical or chemical descriptions. In physics, whether we’re describing lead or
feathers or wood, mass is mass, a kilo a kilo. Not so in ecology. In ecology
those feathers might have a duck in them—a duck with a mind of its own. The
reduction from the level of lead or feather descriptions to that of a description
of sheer mass is really a reduction of information. We lose the duck. In physics,
information in one description can usefully replace the unwieldy surfeit of
information either of many descriptions or of a complex ecological description.
Any information lost or ignored is of little relevance, so the reduction may be
deemed at least effective if not exhaustive. Those who think these sciences
pretty well get their prescribed department of reality down pat are sometimes, in
philosophy of science circles, called realists. Other sciences might have to posit
whatever makeshift entities they need in order to get whatever epistemological
purchase they can. Such sciences have been termed instrumentalist.
By using the terms realist and instrumentalist I don’t mean to suggest that
the objects of an instrumental science like ecology don’t have any real existence
independent of us and our concepts. In some philosophical contexts these terms
are used to distinguish between the attitudes of being ontologically committed
or not to the objects of a science, or indeed to the objects of everyday
experience. My use of these terms, however, is epistemological, not
ontological. It is a matter of knowledge and power. The sciences all share an
instrumental imperative but different sciences want to move and shake different
kinds of objects with different kinds of physical or functional organization

operating at different spatial and temporal scales. This disunifies them.
Ecology’s instrumental intentions force it to use concepts that refer to only
roughly differentiated kinds of objects. The instrumental purposes of the more
realist sciences do not demand such a sacrifice. They have the good fortune to
be interested in well-defined kinds of objects. This is not much help though
when it comes to describing and explaining the objects of particular interest to
the more instrumentalist sciences. A quasi-functional quasi-systemic thing like
an ecosystem is made up of functional systemic things like organisms, and
organisms are made up of physical particles, but imagine reducing a description
of an ecosystem to particle physics. If it were feasible it would be useless.
Consider that problem in the biological sciences of translating between
descriptions of the functional physiological features of organisms or the
Mendelian genes for such features and descriptions of the nucleotide
biochemistry of the organisms’ DNA. It is not possible to reduce a set of
descriptions at the former level to a single explanatory description at the latter
level, or vice versa. An observable feature of an organism may be due to any
one of several biochemical descriptions; or a particular nucleotide configuration
may explain one or another of several features. As Alexander Rosenberg
argues, this is because natural selection selects an organic feature for its
function, and it is effectively blind to the precise molecular biology that causes
that feature. For this reason Rosenberg characterizes biology as an
instrumentalist science. Technologically it is pretty effective. Translating talk
about physiological features and Mendelian genetics into talk about DNA gives
plenty of epistemological and technological purchase. Each kind of description
has it uses and depending upon your purposes, one may be more useful than the
other in order to get the job done. This is characteristic of an instrumentalist
science. Genetics is a successful instrumental science because it does in fact
still have remarkable powers of reduction. Ecology is another matter. Trying to
understand and manipulate an ecological community by reducing community
ecology to population zoology and population botany is much less feasible.
Ecology is given to functional rather than physical and chemical descriptions,
but even the functional descriptions of the different ecological subdisciplines
with their different ecological objects and interests do not translate well
between one another. Yet this is just the sort of translation instrumental ecology
has to do all the time.

The origin of ecological objects

Community ecology is so conceptually complex that we rarely have

any difficulty in explaining any result we encounter, have very little
difficulty believing the explanations, and may feel that we even
expected the result.

—Stuart Pimm, The Balance of Nature?, 388

Not just ecology, but all the biological sciences are descended from the older
discipline of natural history. Their differentiation from natural history is a
feature of modern scientific society. The main differentiating trait has not
always been the development of a consistent body of predictive theory, but
rather the development of a set of norms, particularly the norms of empirical
research specifying the rigours of observation, statistical inference and
publication. Sometimes—especially in ecology—these norms can seem to have
taken on a life of their own, the show of compliance seeming to be more
impressive than the body of valid claims and predictions that their institution is
expected to generate. Biology is liberated from the accidents and the
particularities that characterise historical descriptions when it can generate a
body of claims that apply to each and every process or object that is of a kind.
What may be said of a kind may be said of any individual that belongs to
that kind, and hence is very useful when making predictions. In addition, unless
objects can be observed as objects of a kind, then the repeatability of empirical
observation becomes unachievable. The observation may still be empirical and
open in the sense that it is of something external, spatio-temporal and physical
—i.e. it is not an inner observation of a mental phenomenon—but it is a once
only observation, an observation of something imprisoned, not in inner life, but
in the particularity of history. In order to make predictions, a science must be
able to properly and clearly designate the kinds of things that, as it were, are
given to it by nature. Its concepts must refer to the salient phenomenaor as
Plato said, ideas must rescue phenomenawithout letting whatever is relevant
fall through the net of its observations, and without letting itself be distracted
by a multitude of extraneous details. Science is quite an art. Socrates used the
term natural kind in Plato’s Phaidros when talking about the way science must
carve nature at its joints and not break up any part as a bad carver might.
Of all the modern biological sciences ecology is the one that is least
differentiated from natural history. It has managed to apply the norms of
empirical research, but has been less successful developing a resourceful body
of theory. This is because of the subject matter of ecology: it is a science that
has not yielded, and by its interests perhaps cannot yield, much in the way of
concepts that can refer to natural kinds. Thus it is a science that has had
difficulty replacing particular historical descriptions of processes with general
descriptions of kinds of processes. None of the concepts ecosystem, community,
population, species, habtitat, niche or adaptation could be said to refer
unambiguously to natural kinds. Perhaps population, and species come close.
Under the eye of eternity, a species is subject to mutability and not strictly a
natural kind; but for many of the purposes of a merely human if not a
geological timescale, it is effectively so. Meanwhile it is hardly worth
mentioning things like biodiversity or keystone species. None of the concepts
succession, assembly, competition or population growth/declineto name a
few of ecology’s favouritesrefer to processes that can be easily reduced to

general descriptions. At best, perhaps population dynamics have some nice
mathematical descriptions. As for properties like resilience, persistence,
resistance or relations like carrying capacity, species/area or predator/prey,
they are the stuff in trade of conservation and restoration ecology. Ecosystem
managers want to know how resilient a small population is, how resistant a
community is to weed invasion, how large an area a viable population needs.
Yet each of these relations and each of the processes depends upon the primary
conception of objects like community or population. And they are all so fraught
with irreducible historical contingency that researchers find themselves loath to
make particular predictions from any general theory. At best all these concepts
are given to us by our meddlesome, conniving human interests—by human
nature—and they say as much about us as about the rest of the world that we
would like to carve up in to them.
Here the philosophy of biology, as a reflection on the biology of
epistemology, can assist the philosophy of ecology. The insights of
evolutionary epistemologyboth natural and socialcast some light on
ecology’s epistemological labyrinth, if not to lead us out at least to show how
we got here. The things that our ecological concepts designate seem like such a
mixed bag because our interest in them is result of the jumbled history of
genetic and social co-evolution. The things we have developed our most
intimate relations to thingsrelations such as sustenance, shelter, ownership
and belongingare precisely the objects that now interest ecology: ecosystems,
species, populations, communities and areas. When we gather oysters from a
seashore we gather a certain species from a certain ecosystem. We have been
doing folk ecology ever since we evolved, just as we have been doing folk
physics, psychology and sociology. We have developed terms for communities
and species and for cobbling together as best we can the useful explanations
and natural histories that we have needed as ecological players. The terms and
explanations may not carve nature at joints of its own but we use them to carve
it up as well as we can for our own purposes. All humans are genetically
predisposed to recognise species and populations for good evolutionary
reasons, even if what we call a species is anything but a simple type of thing.
Despite the natural human ease with which we identify a species as a type, it is
actually a very complex, composite individual—a temporally strung out
population of genealogically related organisms—not clear cut and quite
difficult and contentious to define. Compared to the time-span of a human life
though, the features of its individual organisms do usually appear persistent and
clear cut, so that we may refer to the species as a kind in order to satisfy such
everyday and evolutionary significant interests as, for instance, eating it or
avoiding it. Or, as I am doing here in relation to the human species, to refer to
its relatively persistent and therefore effectively universal epistemological
The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr had a revealing experience when he
compiled a bird taxonomy in a remote area of the New Guinea highlands. Apart
from the local highlanders lumping two little warblers together as the same

species, their classification and Mayr’s were the same. They agreed on
hundreds of species. A dollar bird is a dollar bird is a dollar bird. The members
of such a species are highly likely to recognise others of their kind. This is a
very good adaptation for successful mating. When members of a species are
differentiating their own kind from others it is temptingand usefulto say
that nature is making its own distinctions. Such species are anything but
arbitrary categories. The recognition of different speciesat least of bird
speciesis pretty much pan-cultural. It is effectively, if not strictly, a human
universal. Effective is good enough. Biologists have differed over just what the
status of a species is. Stephen Jay Gould (1987, 173) used Mayr’s story, and
similar evidence from other ecologists and anthropologists to argue that species
are “real” units in nature as a result both of their history and the current
interaction among members. However this does not make a species a natural
kind in the sense that a natural kind is a strict universal. The evolution of
species is ultimately a matter of branching family trees, so when it comes to the
fine taxonomic point of drawing a line between one species and another, the
final cut can often seem somewhat arbitrary. It is as arbitrary as the separation
of parent and child. Yet nature discovered virtual reality aeons ago: when it
comes to natural history what is real is virtual reality or effective reality. It
seems to have been philosophers, like Plato, who were fooled by nature and got
it into their heads that the only things that could be really real had to
beglorious confusionideal. Although the term real unit might traditionally
(and confusingly) have been used to refer to strict natural kinds, Gould’s view
—with his real couched in scare quotes—is not really at odds with Darwin’s
view that we have to treat species as…merely artificial combinations made for
convenience. It is just that it would be inconvenient indeed to ignore the
effective units that natural selection has occasionally managed to generate. In
fact, natural selection itself is effectively a natural kind of historical process.
Natural history might not generate perfect natural kinds, but members of most
species are about as close as ecological objects get to being instances of such a
thing, and the ecology of such species enables many a reliable prediction.

What about ecological objects other than species? As members of the human
species we are by nature very interested in biological communities and
ecosystems, whether they are cultivated crops, or forests, gardens, grasslands,
woodlands, rivers, lakes, dwellings or whatever. A particular biological
community is an individual thing, but our human nous enables us to abstract,
albeit with some conceptual violence, a typology for our descriptive and
managerial conveniencea convenience that ecological communication could
hardly do without. Ecologists around here readily refer to Tallowwood-Blue
Gum Forest or Blackbutt Forest or a White Booyong Rainforest. Community
typologies however are fuzzy, and fuzzier still in the predictions that they
enable. All Blackbutt Forests are sort of the same—computerised measurements
of similarity are generated to cluster similar forests under the same name—but
they are not always usefully the similar enough.

One ambition ecology has had has been to try and find some general
principles of how these things called communities develop or are assembled.
Succession is a kind of historical processthe process of the development of a
community. Unfortunately though, kinds of succession look like they are going
to be at least as fuzzy as the kinds of communities that are going through the
succession. Successions of a kind of ecological communitywhether a
Tallowwood-Blue Gum Forest, or one of the many ‘kinds’ of lowland
subtropical rainforestseem all to be more or less different from one another.
There is pattern there to give us hope of a universal theory, but just not enough
pattern. Too much relevant information is lost in any explanatory description
that purports to be universal to all successions of a particular kind of
community. A process like succession is always somewhat subject to the
accidents and specificities of its particular history: whether it was a dry year or
a wet year, whether there was seed available for this species or that species,
whether those wallabies grazed it or not, whether highly competitive,
historically unprecedented weed species like lantana or Madeira vine were
present or not.
Succession is an important concept in ecology, because a valid theory of
succession would provide the scientific framework for engineering community
restoration. And restoration ecology is of special interest because of the
damaged state of so many prized ecosystems. Ever since F.E. Clements’ Plant
Succession (1916) there has been a debate about whether succession was
individualistic and largely determined by unpredictable historical events or
whether it was governed by developmental rules. In its strongest versions the
developmental school has conceived ecological communities by analogy with
organisms: it has argued that community development is controlled by the
community itself. The different schools of thought were already implicit in
Clements. Although his theory of community succession is usually cited as one
that understands succession as a usefully predictable process of development
towards a final climax community, Clements recognized that the appearance of
a species in a succession depends on particular factors. He also said that the
real control, however, is exerted by the factors of habitat (Booth & Larson,
211). That is, the conditions applying within the community itself determine the
successful appearance of species, somewhat like the way the condition of an
organism controls its development notwithstanding the variable circumstances
of its environment. If we take a strong organismic view of succession,
engineering community restoration could amount to sitting back and letting
nature look after itself. As I said, there is pattern in succession but not enough
—certainly not enough to just sit back and let communities restore themselves.
Communities and successions are just not that predictable.
Perhaps by some clever, counter-intuitive take on things we might
eventually distinguish objects that are very like what we now call communities
or ecosystems—composites of organisms and physical phenomena—objects
which will be best described not at the level of the bits and pieces of organisms
and processes and such that make them up, but in terms of emergent processes,

the way Newtonian mechanics does not describe all the atoms in a projectile,
but only the behaviour of their combined mass. Or, as the theory of networks
and of self-organising systems suggests, we might develop a mathematics that
enables us to carve nature at unforeseen joints. But the new ecological objects,
properties and processes that such mathematics define might not be exactly
communities or ecosystems or resilience or successions. If we find them,
although they might be of little interest to us now (we can’t even say what they
are yet), they will be useful to know about and we will become interested. On
the other hand, there might not be any such things to find.
One half-clever contrivance that long interested ecologists was the niche, a
term first coined by C.S.Elton in 1927. In the 19th century the Latin word
habitat became a general term of Natural History, used in its floras and faunas
to refer to the area, the station or the kind of landscape in which a specimen
was found. It is still a common term of folk ecology. Niche is a bit like the
ecological heir to habitat—habitat rejigged to produce a useful concept given
the new paradigms of evolutionary and ecological biology. Using the concept
niche to refer to a set of functional opportunities for (and constraints to)
occupation within a community—opportunities and constraints to which an
organism might or might not be adapted—ecology has tried to develop an
operational partition of the big concept of ecosystem or community down into
useful ecological somethings. Conceiving new ecological objects called niches
seemed like it might have been just counter-intuitive enough in a certain
ingenious way to rescue important and useful attributes of communities.
Similar communities in different places often seem to share similar
functional niches occupied by similar if unrelated species. In Australian tall
forests, marsupials such as possums and koalas seem to occupy something like
a warm-blooded arboreal herbivore niche. In South America a similar niche
might, I expect, be occupied by species of monkeys. It looks like there might be
some general functional pattern here whereby we can predict the functional
assembly of communities. Niche theory for example proposed rules of
assembly, such as the principle of competitive exclusion: namely, that when two
species compete for the same niche, one will eventually exclude the other.
(When Jared Diamond proposed community assembly rules in 1975 he
included similar precepts: namely that some pairs of species never coexist,
either by themselves or as part of a larger combination.) It is debatable whether
such a theory should be empirically falsifiable or whether it should be some
core principle of the research program of niche theory. It does look like it might
be useful for predicting the outcomes of ecological invasions. More often
though, I suspect, it is used after the fact to explain them. Lantana is sometimes
said to be a successful invader because it out-competed native occupants of the
same niche. But just what niche is that? The scrambling-shrubby-bird-
dispersed-colonizer-of-disturbed-moist-forests niche? What about the fact that
lantana also competitively excludes trees (which would seem to be occupiers of
quite a different niche) or that it coexists with native, scrambling, shrubby,
bird-dispersed colonizers of disturbed moist forests like cockspur and giant

native raspberry? I feel the urge to just talk about a lantana niche, or better still,
just lantana, and leave it at that. As soon as two species look like they might be
occupying the same niche, the definition of the particular niche is deemed to be
falsified rather than the principle of competitive exclusion. That comes with the
whole research program package of niche theory. Despite efforts to define a
niche wholly abstracted from any particular species—e.g. as a
multidimensional hyperspace of physical and biological variables—pretty soon
things get so complex and detailed that you end up defining the particular niche
by the particular species.
No wonder one of the main debates about niche theory has been about
whether a niche could be defined independently of a particular species that
might occupy it. Since the niche is conceived like the glove that a set of
adaptations fits into, it seems like a way to provide a usefully abstract division
of communities based on an important idea of evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary theory seemed to provide the clever way of carving up
communities into operational units. A community could be seen as something
constructed from a set of such functional niches. However, demands for
precision in defining the functional parameters of the niche lead back to
defining the niche by the species that occupies it. So why not just define the
community as a set of organisms in the first place? Well, there is no reason
except that by doing so the description crashes back into the particularity that
you were trying to avoid in the first place.
There are other problems with the theory too. The idea that a community is a
system of functional niches making up a working whole looks like a modern
descendent of a notion that has persisted throughout the course of natural
philosophy and is still strong in popular ecology: the old balance of nature.
Nature does nothing in vain, says the Aristotelian precept. As Thomas Browne,
the 17th century essayist and natural philosopher, put it: ‘Natura nihil agit
frustra, is the only indisputable axiom in Philosophy; there are no Grotesques
in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary
spaces.’ This is almost a 17th century formulation of niche theory. People like to
think that each of the different niches (or the organisms that occupy them) has
its allotted place in the design of the whole. This way of thinking has a lot in
common with the notion that community succession is analogous to the growth
and development of an organism. Something recycles this litter, something else
that litter. Insectivores do insectivory, herbivores do herbivory and so on, all
working together when and as needed. When ecosystem managers talk about
the functionality of rivers or wetlands or forests, projecting their own
managerialism onto nature, they are usually taking some encouragement from
this old and enduring precept of balance and design. In modern versions of the
balance of nature it is typically human destruction that upsets the balance. This
kind of thinking conveniently allows humans to do so by preconceiving them as
outside nature. With the old habits of nature’s providence and teleology lurking
behind quite of lot of conjecture about niches, it is not so surprising that the

operational division of a community can end up getting more and more
metaphysical, more and more divorced from empirical nature.
The immense effort that has gone into formulating some general assembly
rules for communitiesparticularly since Jared Diamond published his
tantalisingly unsatisfying suggestions in 1975has resembled the search for
the philosophers’ stone. Useful certainly, but we still await its evolution like
that of alchemy into something as useful as chemistry. Perhaps forever. Yet,
even if communities and ecosystems are not well conceived as organized
systems, community ecology and systems ecology have their uses. Along with
population models, they have provided a modicum of conceptual structure for
description and analysis of the functional dimensions and operations of
ecosystems. Even if it is only a makeshift for modeling the way an ecosystem is
put together, and even if modeling produces weak predictions, some of the
predictions that management demands are at least generated. On the other hand,
a lot of ecological labour is devoted to fancy techniques of limited usefulness
—‘techniques in search of problems,’ Kirkpatrick (294) calls them, citing
satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems. Socially, doing
such science has satisfied the bureaucratic demand to appear to be managing
and conserving ecosystems according to the best standards of scientific society,
and it has employed a generation of ecology graduates collecting data,
developing models and running them, even while they have consoled
themselves with the vision of more data and better models. Much of the time
though this kind of science has only been useful for explanations after the fact
—explanations based on assumptions that no-one is ever going to be able to put
to the test—while the management has proceeded on ground often without
much benefit from the science at all. At some stage most ecosystem
management has depended upon the little natural histories—or myths—that
managers tell themselves.
Predictive ecology, or ecosystem or population modelling, cannot say
everything about the natural world that we want or need to say (see
Kirkpatrick). Descriptions of particular observations seldom fit neatly into
known and well-theorised kinds of ecological processes. Just keep a naturalist’s
eye on nature and you will be entertained by novelty for life. So natural history
lives on not only as observational grist to ecology’s mill, but also as the only
discourse that would account for all those complexities that exceed the
conceptual reduction. More than any other biological science, ecology has
evolved to serve two masters: to be general enough to make predictions, and
not to sacrifice relevant particulars. It is not easy. To protect their validity,
general claims have to be confined to circumstances so restricted as to verge on
particularity (to a particular kind of community in a particular place and time);
or hedged with provisos about confidence (we need more data and better
models); or so general as to be trivial, or quarantined against empirical
falsification deep within a dubious research program (principles of competitive
exclusion, or Diamond’s assembly rules). Typically, too much of any particular
information that gets sacrificed for the sake of universality turns out to be

relevant. Ecology’s function as a reconciliation of natural historical particulars
and scientific universality is a dream function. It survives in the attempt to do
both, not in the achievement of both. As an artefact, it is just as telling about
the human species and about society as it is about its would-be ecological
subject matter.
Although ecology might like to propose general theories with high
predictive power, a lot of ecological papers report research that has collected
specific data and crunched the numbers in order to make particular observations
about particular species or communities. You might hope it is supplying basic
data for the big models, but at best we learn something about particular
members of a species in an experimental context, and we can use it to make
predictions about other members of the species in a similar context. On the one
hand, in its concern with humble details, this is not so different from the
everyday work in all sorts of instrumental sciences. The bread and butter of
experimental ecology, the kind that graduate students practice and the kind that
fills most journals, is testing based on the statistical procedures known as
hypothesis testing and analysis of variance: replicated plots, treatments and
controls, and crunching data to see what statistically significant conclusions
may be drawn (Underwood, 1997). On the other hand, rather than a great
advance on natural history, such ecology is just the continuation of natural
history’s uncompleted project—which by no means counts for nothing. It is a
delightand a useful oneto learn how, for example, slight changes in water
depth, salinity and the duration of inundation can determine where cumbungi,
giant jointed twig rush, common reed or water ribbons will grow in a swamp.
When it comes to communities or ecosystems the predictive power is reduced
because we have not got the same effective degree of universality as that which
applies to the members of a species in an experimental context. By observing
several communities of a kind we might be able to use statistical inference and
what we know about particular species to make more or less accurate
predictions about what will happen to a particular community if we do such and
such to it. When it comes to practice, would-be universality must rely more or
less on the rough expectations supplied by models or the generic narratives of
natural history.
I should say, in an aside on the philosophy of statistics, that the words more
or less need not be an embarrassment. They need not be used loosely. The
cunning of statistics is that it supplies a way of assessing the validity of claims.
How more or less accurate are they? Statistics is not a way of describing some
supposed objective randomness of the world. Randomness is, after all, neither
absolute nor out there. It is a measure of our subjective incapacity to compute
and discern pattern in things; and it is a matter of degree. Observation is
necessarily subjective and statistical inference is a way of dealing with the
problems of subjectivityagain by multiplying them. It gives a means of
subjectively assessing the value of subjective observations of complex events
whose randomness consists in their irreducibility to the terms and nous at the
observer’s disposal. Sometimes the randomness comes from the errors of

measurement, errors in the procedure and machinery of measurement that
cannot be eliminated from experience or experiment and that must remain
inscrutable to the observer. This is the case in the estimation of a physical
constant like the speed of light. In ecology the randomness more often comes
from the inscrutability of the objects. By making observations of many objects
of a kind we can average them in order to produce results that are more or less
repeatable. Most ecological statistics are used to make particular observations
with a weak power of generalisation rather than, say, to estimate something as
objective as a universal constant. As in the case of the repeatability of empirical
observation, statistics makes use of norms. The best known are the importance
it places on estimators like mean and variance, and on p-values or significance
levels. By these conventions, statistical practice can coordinate the observations
of scientific society and compare the likelihood—the more-or-lessness—of the
validity of explanations. Powerful explanatory discoveries in science are not
everyday. Statistical inference is one way of grinding out claims of at least
assessable validity about the things that fascinate our subjectivity even if they
exceed its cognitive desire. Statisticians debate these things though. There are
schools of thought. That’s why there is philosophy of statistics, and this is only
one brief take on it. When all else fails of course, we narrative animals are
always ready to draw on experience and the jargon of ecology to confidently
cobble together natural histories that explain it all to us anyway. The discussion
sections at the end of ecological papers are like a sigh of relief.
Conceived initially as a science of the relation of organisms to their
environments, ecology and its objects of interest still make their appearances
according to the familiar concepts of folk science and folk natural history. In
this pool of shared understanding, the biological world is divided according to
common human interests handed down by the past. We think of ecology as a
modern science, and it is, but it is haunted by interests and concepts that weigh
on us with all the weight of their obscure, unreflective past. These interests and
concepts refer to things that society has deemed worthy of working on and with,
but the history of these concepts is, as I have suggested, one of generations of
selection resulting in inherited formsboth interests and conceptsthat have a
kind of arbitrary quality. Although their relevance is given to us by our own
nature—by our natural and social history—they are not, as it were, natural
kinds for themselves. They are the ends of our interests. As such, they are final
causes as Aristotle and the philosophers called them, rather than effective
causes. As Bacon long ago warned ‘they are clearly more allied to man's own
nature than the system of the universe; and from this source they have
wonderfully corrupted philosophy' (§48). Ecology’s objects of interests and
how we conceive them are adequate when we have nothing else and have to
make do; and we have to make do because these have been and remain the very
kinds of things that are of particular relevance to us. Ecology’s adequacy then,
is an adequacy for certain instrumental purposes and for this reason ecology is
an instrumental science—all too instrumental.

In the hurly burly of instrumental endeavour, ecology has to rely on rough
and ready translation between the functional descriptions of its quite different
and often-irreconcilable kinds of objects of interest. In the process it can
succumb to confusion of what is functional for human interests and what is
functional for other ecological objects. In its more naïve pop ecology moments
it can assume that certain ecological objects, e.g. other organisms or natural
ecosystems, have human interests at heart. Even scientific ecology runs the risk
of assuming such an abstract, providential kind instrumentalism that it can think
of itself as the antithesis of an instrumental science, as the purest and most
natural of the natural sciences.

Ecology, pure and applied.

The simplest reality we can come to terms with is that people who
inhabit our study landscape and own the fragments we study are the
most powerful force acting upon them, yet we tend to ignore them in
favor of examining ‘natural’ forces such as edges, climate, and so

—Francis Crome, 1997

As well as its unreconciled ambition to be both an historical and universal

science, ecology has another symptom of schizophrenia. Despite holistic
aspirations, it cherishes the thought of a nature without humans. Because of
holistic aspirations, it nurses a fascination for a nature in which humans are
insignificant. Of course, as an instrumental science it is anxious to develop
efficient technical processes: it sees the advantage in observing things in
situations from which all but specific experimental treatments have been
excluded. Undertaking some defined and repeatable action on the objects of
interest and then letting them behave themselves as they naturally would is a
paradigm of efficient practice. All of the physical sciences just want to get a
look at nature behaving naturally, without humans blundering in and
confounding things. Even the social sciences betray a hankering for this.
Ecology though, has evolved as a modern science just when all too much
earthly nature is showing the ugly symptoms of its abuse at the hands of
humans. A first response has been to urge that whatever remains of undamaged
nature be left well alone. This nature, protected from human meddling, has
taken on a special place in modern sensibilitythe nature, which in existing for
itself, has become the very image of nature. This sensibility doubtless touches
those inveterate nature lovers, the ecologists, who are busy making a living out
of doing science on the object of their desires. Aesthetic impulses resonate with
those of scientific society, and inherited scientific and aesthetic commitments to

extra-human nature persist as a kind of second nature in ecological practice. So
ecology has a habit of studying so called natural ecosystems rather than human
ones. It inventories species for the ecological communities it studies, seldom, if
ever, listing Homo sapiens, even when H. sapiens is the most significant
population affecting the community. Sometimes a kind of theodicy lurks in
ecology: nature’s providence is assumed; no need to justify its ways. Although
instrumental researchers who are looking for management procedures might try
to eliminate confounding human intentions from their ecological subject matter,
nature itself could well hijack their research with its own wilfulness and
autonomy. Restoration ecologists have been known to have their doubts about
testing the efficacy of their methods: whatever their theories, whatever their
experimental treatments, nature’s self generating capacity may well confound
things and ‘reduce the value of restoration as a crucial test of understanding'
(Jordan et al, 16; see also Bradshaw, 28). Nature may well take over and do its
own thing—by definition the right thing—making all human efforts ill
conceived. Given a metaphysical commitment to the primacy of extra-human
nature, perhaps it is a little scandalous to suggest that ecology is merely an
instrumental science.
Even if such a theodicy, the instrumental quietism that attends it, and the
rigorous dualism of humans and nature that feeds them both, are ecologically
untenable, it is still a bit demeaning to call ecology an instrumental science. In
common sense, an instrumental science is an applied science and contrasted
with pure science. It is a commonplace in scientific society to say that pure
research is ultimately more useful than applied research. Pure science is
supposed to discover how things work in themselves or in general. Like all
platitudes its truth is worn as sheep’s clothing for falsehood. It promises the
power of universals, even if in ecology the details have a nasty habit of getting
in the way. True or not, it persists because scientists want to direct their own
research to their own interests; because the critique of market or political
directives needs a ready-made argumentespecially one that can cite
usefulness; because, if a science is worth doing then like anything worth doing
it should be worth doing for its own sake; and because, as the pure form of a
science, it just must reveal the most profound findings. It has its analogue in
artistic society in the critique of art that is not for art’s sake. Surely ecology is
worthy of the dignity of a pure science. Surely ecology should be describing
and explaining how nature works rather than meddling and manipulating it.
Surely it has got to get the former right before it can even contemplate the risky
business of the latter. If only it could be a science purified to untrammelled
observations of natural history and with a body of theory synthesised from
sublime observation, brilliant thought experiments and dazzling mathematics.
Or if it cant quite do things that way, it could settle for some big time
modelling, or for the bread and butter of hypothesis testing and analysis of
variance. Anyway and meanwhile development of applications and
management procedures is for the mere technicians of applied ecology. Given
that ecology has traditionally had such a peculiar fascination with the extra-

human, it would be more demeaning for it than for any other science if, after
all, it were really the most beholden of the sciences to arbitrary or impure
human interests. Surely ecology has always been the purest, the most pristine,
and the most disinterested of the sciences, just as its principal object of study
has always properly been pure, pristine nature.
When the idea of a little applied ecology is entertained, in order to solve
some pressing ecological problem, there is an unreflected desire for
technologies that are purely, authentically ‘ecological’: water treatment
technologies made of real ecological objects like reed and sedge communities
rather than artificial chemicals or physical filters; cropping systems based on
natural community succession rather than tillage or herbicides or genetic
engineering; rainforest restoration that uses foliage canopy cover; biological
control of pests or ecologically ‘integrated’ pest management rather than
chemical pesticides; riverbank stabilisation by planting trees and rushes rather
than construction engineering. To imagine and desire that ecological
management technologies, of all technologies, should be the most authentically
ecological might seem like a case of confounding ends and means, and of being
confused about ecology’s extra-human purism. After all chemicals, genes,
physical objects are all, in their own ways, ecological. In popular culture the
great technological ask of applied ecology is to use authentic nature to save the
environment. This is when the idea of big applied ecology is entertained.
Nature is advertised as the best tool we have for regulating and safeguarding
human habitat. All that biodiversity out there saves us from stuffing up the
planet. It keeps farms and cities viable. When things get this big though, and
the story becomes TV infotainment, ends and means really get confused.
Forests, they say, are the lungs of the earth, but when a researcher finds that a
rainforest is a net producer of greenhouse gasses this becomes the story:
Rainforest Causing Global Warming! Things reach such a state, only because
we have become inured to selling rainforest as a tool of applied ecology. We
forget that, whether or not it is a means, rainforest is more importantly an end.
Nevertheless perhaps an instrumental ecology does suggest that sometimes the
apparently more ecological means might be, in the long run, and for wisely
conceived ends, more effective. Provided we have not deluded ourselves about
our goals, this looks like a question for ecological research, that is, it would be
a matter of risking a bit of applied ecology in order to find out the answer.

Ecology may be an instrumental science, but for what purpose?

Management, of course. In a managerial age, management is just the word we
have for everything worth doing. It is also just the word for what we do to
everything else when we let it do its own thing. It makes things sound busy,
efficient, useful and above all not unmanaged. Everything else is just dreaming.
Ecological management could stand for all sorts of things in all sorts of
environments. It could just as easily refer to regulating the air conditioning in a
skyscraper or the genes in a crop. However ecology has cultivated a particular
set of interests in certain natural objects. Agriculture can be conceived as a kind

of applied ecology. Cropping, say, is a matter of manipulating a community
succession under strictly controlled conditions. We might conceive the
prehistory of ecology in agricultural terms—just as Darwin used pigeon
breeding as an introduction to the idea of natural selection—but modern
ecology has an almost defining interest in objects and processes that
deliberately distinguish it from the starker instrumentalism and simplifications
of agriculture. It has tied one instrumental hand behind its back by not being
contented with such strict control as would allow, say, a crop—a population
that is also effectively a single species community—to occupy a central place in
its research program. That’s agricultural science. Ecology, having become the
scientific vehicle of modernity’s incorrigible interest in the biological riches
bequeathed it by natural history—the things beyond the pale of agriculture and
industry—got the job of finding and solving the problems that dog and
diminish those riches. Ecology is a shallow science, its objects so intractable to
theory, because its subject matter is so deep, so historically deep.
Conserving and restoring these biological riches, so long in the making, has
a peculiar historical interest for humans, particularly here in postcolonial
Australia. So many Australian ecosystems, which are the result of long and
gradual evolution complete with a resident human population for the last
40,000 years, now degrade under the new dispensation of globalized, industrial
culture. If we start to think too generally about ecology we start to question
whether this long evolved nature should have a special significance for applied
ecology, and whether yesterdays GM crop, say, should not be just as much its
subject matter. Or whether conservation and restoration ecology should lead to
any more important reflections on the philosophy of ecology than, say,
agricultural ecology. Or whether conservation and restoration ecology should
not be just one example among many of applied ecology, with no special claim
to being the epitome of applied ecology. Yet once we start to doubt the prestige
of certain ecological subject matter, I suspect that we are starting to think too
generally about ecology. Like the natural heritage that most interests it, and
because that natural heritage is what most interests it, the science of ecology
has an historical particularity that limits philosophy’s power to generalize about
it. Of course agricultural systems and air-conditioned buildings are
environmental issues and fit subjects for applied ecology. Yet even if the pre-
eminence of conservation and restoration ecology over the applied ecology of
agricultural systems or air-conditioned buildings were in doubt, the specific
historical problem of defining the proper subject matter of ecology, and the
consequently arbitrary domain of its subject matter, would still limit the power
to generalize about ecology. Not only is ecology’s subject matter rendered
intractable by its historical content, ecology’s constitution as a science is
steeped in a specific historical context and therefore as the subject matter of
philosophy, ecology itself demands reflection that registers its historical
This is because of ecology’s special historical place in the critique of
instrumental reason. Too much science has got away with pleading abstract

pragmatism. It has validated its claims simply by citing that some practice
works best. It wears the blinkers of specialization and assumes that it need not
be critical about concepts like ends and best and useful. Ecology can’t do this.
Nor can it shun instrumentalism or pragmatism. The opposite in fact. It can
only recognize ecology’s peculiar instrumental predicament, and wonder at its
constitutional shallowness. Ecology developed as a science around a specific
research project: to be instrumental reason’s own means of redressing the
environmental problems it has created, problems seemingly inherent in its
attempted mastery of nature. Right back when he was spelling out the ways and
means of instrumental reason, Bacon had to speak in a paradox about it.
‘Nature,’ he said, ‘is only to be commanded by obeying her' (§129).
There are quite a few old standards in critical environmental philosophy.
One is the critique of Francis Bacon’s environmental legacy. All it takes is
couple of quotes from Bacon’s Novum Organum. Bacon gets the blame for
science and science gets the blame for this mess the planet is in. It is rivaled in
frequency only by the critique of the Bible’s declaration of the human right to
mastery of nature.
Even one of my favorite writers on nature tries it. A Long Walk in the
Australian Bush is a walking meditation on the nature of southwestern
Australia. William Lines and a comrade take a long walk along the Bibbaluk
track and it turns out to be a road narrative of infamy and shame, a journey
through country trashed by cruel use and passionless neglect. Whether
contemplating the managers of CALM (the Orwellian name for the Western
Australian department of Conservation And Land Management) or bored,
supercilious tourists, Lines can reveal what is truly strange and astonishing in
common human behaviour. Among his many reflections though there is the
following narrative:

Scientific narratives about the world and our place in it are usually
based on premises first articulated by the Englishman Francis Bacon
(1561-1626). Bacon rejected Aristotle’s advice that we look on the
physical world with wonder, awe and reverence. (154-5)

God knows Lines had cause for complaint and his essay delves into the
occasional delights of diatribe. But the story about Bacon is as throwaway as
the litter of consumerism that the walkers find along their way. Lines knows
how all those advertisements for the existence of choice in consumer society
take place against an unconscious society of what are already relentlessly and
inescapably chosen forms of life. The same unfreedom haunts us when it comes
to the reproduction and consumption of ideas. Rather than leading inquiry
through problems, stories like the Bacon yarn are well adapted to the task of
gratifying an unreflected habit of thought, a wild desire for handy historical
explanation. They use us for their survival and reproduction. Sure, Bacon can
be quoted saying things like: ‘Let mankind regain their rights over nature,
assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power whose exercise will

be governed by right reason and true religion' (Novum Organum §129). He can
also be quoted saying that ‘nature is only subdued by submission' (§3).
Consider this:

In short, we may reply decisively to those who despise any part of

natural history as being vulgar, mean, or subtle and useless in its
origin, in the words of a poor woman to a haughty prince who had
rejected her petition, as unworthy and beneath the dignity of his
majesty: ‘then cease to reign;’ for it is quite certain that the empire of
nature can neither be obtained nor administered by one who refuses to
pay attention to such matters as being poor and too minute. (§121)

This is not a rejection of physical wonders. It is a defence of the useless

minutiae of nature, the mere particulars ignored by grand universal vision. And
the poor woman’s reference to the desire to obtain and administer says as much
about the blind ambitions of modern instrumentalism as of haughty princes.
Applied in ecological science, Bacon’s arguments could be a critique of those
excuses for technocratic exploitation that presume to dogmatize on nature,
concealing complexities with convenient abstractions.

They who have presumed to dogmatize on Nature, as on some well-

investigated subject, either from self-conceit or arrogance, and in the
professorial style, have inflicted the greatest injury on philosophy and
learning. [Bacon is referring to the devotees of Aristotle here,
generations of natural philosophers dazzled not only, understandably,
by the brilliance of Aristotle's writing, but, perniciously, by the sheer
authority of the legacy that had come to bear his name.] For they have
tended to stifle and interrupt inquiry exactly in proportion as they
have prevailed in bringing others to their opinion: and their own
activity has not counterbalanced the mischief they have occasioned by
corrupting and destroying that of others. (Preface)

Of course, to claim that Bacon’s argument is a critique of technocratic

ignorance is anachronistic, just as the standard attack on Bacon is. Actions and
deeds, including written documents, survive and reproduce in different times by
using the same inherited features in different ways with different meanings. So-
called great works, the ones that survive the judgement of history, are able to
address the desire for meaning over and over again. The actual intentions, the
real meaning of the authors, often belong to that impossible romance goal of
historicismthe past as it actually was. History can never do better than find
the past as documents that survive or are reproduced in the present. ‘Every
image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its concerns
threatens to disappear irretrievably' (Benjamin, 1970). Because it is the fate of
historical objects to face the problem of persisting through or reproducing

themselves in every age, it is not just the predicament of historical inquiry, but
its methodological principle, to reveal the meaning of old ideas by shedding the
light of the most recent thought on them. At best history can be a satire quoting
documents selected by the ravages of time.
The applied ecology of restoration and conservation develops the paradox
that Bacon appreciated in instrumental reason to its nicest conclusions. Only a
violent dualism of nature and humans, and an absolute and dogmatic critique of
instrumental reason could lead to ecological quietism. Inherent in ecology’s
utterly instrumental predicament, the paradox injects ambiguity not only into
the traditional problem of instrumental science—namely into the question of
efficacy of means—but into the formulation of wise ends. Useless objects—
scrub, wilderness, swamp, heath, Lewin’s honeyeaters—have come to be
conceived both as ends and useful means. The deeper the historical threads
woven into nature’s fabric, the more value ecology suspects it of, whether as an
end or a means of instrumental ecology. Modern societies, in their own ways,
conserve or restore whatever nature they regret having lost or would regret
having lost, inventing all sorts of utilitarian rationalizations for doing it. You’d
be forgiven for thinking it was really an affair of the heart, and almost a guilty
one—for which ecology is the post hoc rationalization.
Blissful contemplation of nature and ecological observation almost become
one: watching the little thornbill nabbing the aphid, the echidna with its tongue
in the termite track, two rearing black snakes rivalling one another in a dance,
the goanna swallowing the fledgling dove, the osprey lifting the mullet over the
river bank, the little fantail feeding the fat cuckoo are all as ecological as they
are aesthetic observations. All too happy, such a coincidence smells
suspiciously utopian to managerialism’s long cultivated masochisma habit
developed by can-do functionalism for cutting to the chase, i.e. to the product.
The result is that ecology as an instrumental science is apt to misconstrue its
ends. It has a pinched notion of function. Sure, it can see a point in thornbills,
or rather in insectivore management, but selling the ecosystem function of
teams of thornbills for agriculturethat would only happen in a joke about
wide-eyed of organic gardeners. At best, practical farmers or international
agribusiness might glance at an article about scientists somewhere overseas
caging wrens in hydroponic greenhouses. Otherwise it is about as silly as
leasing echidnas for household termite control or harnessing black snakes to
our chariots. Functionalist management becomes so intent on not losing the
plot, that it loses sight of its ends. They just don’t look enough like product.
However, to use thornbills and echidnas for something else that’s supposedly
more important than they are is not the primary application of this ecology.
Ecology is for the pleasure of thornbills, echidnas, black snakes, goannas,
pigeons, ospreys, mullets, fantails and cuckoos. To feel OK about this,
management has had to label them biodiversity. It makes them sound more like
product or heritage or useful.
Restoration ecology is sometimes suspected of being in cahoots with
exploitation. Its instrumental intentions are advertised as successes and used to

license ecological destruction. Afterwards we can put Humpty Dumpty back
together again. When he was Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony said that
Fraser Island could be sand-mined once the community becomes more informed
and enlightened as to what reclamation work is being carried out by mining
companies. Such suggestions have flushed elaborate defences out of
environmental ethicists. Roger Elliot (76-88) argued that restoration is faking
nature. It is inauthentic like a faked painting. There is no need for metaphysics
though. Just the empirical will do. Cheap restoration ecology is not that good.
Like I said, ecology is shallow to start with. And the words in the Doug
Anthony type line are even cheaper than the restoration they advertise. You
only have to consider the time and the investment of natural history required to
build the wealth of an ecosystem to see that restoration ecology is no excuse for
destruction. Natural history is deep and time is money. If you want good
restoration you will have to spend more time and money than the mineral sand
is worth. And all the volunteers in the world have got enough to do. Sure you
can rebuild some things quicker than others. An old growth forest might take
300 years. A heath might take 20—if you are really good and lucky. And Roger
Elliot will be calling it fake anyway. You might as well destroy and rebuild
Opera Houses or break legs and reset them—and, of course, go without opera
or walking while you are doing it. Restoration begins with conservation.
In conservation ecology the critique of instrumental reason is not so
poignant with paradox as it is in restoration ecology. Yet although conservation
looks like it leaves all instrumental meddling to ecological restoration,
distinctions between conservation and restoration ecology are not so
fundamental. It’s all management anyway. Whether it is busy making reserves
or restoring them, ecological conservation can hardly sit back and pride itself
on being the absolute negation of instrumental intervention.
How else to manage nature but like engineers of nature? You keep an eye on
it to see that it works, or you work on it until it works. The restoration
engineers have a machine to tinker with and they learn about it by tinkering. An
ecosystem in need of restoration or management is like a machine that is not
workingif it is permissible to use this misleading metaphor about an
ecosystem working. Many have done so. Many have said it is like a broken
clock. You try somethingclean a connection, fix a spring, re-align a
gearand see what happens. Only nature is not a machine for doing things. It
is a machine for doing a hell of a lot of nothingingeniously, uselessly, with
absurd flurry, with appalling waste, with dreadful efficiency, to no endand in
doing so it manages, fiendishly, to appear as though it works, as though it is
busy doing something and it has all been put together by some ingenious
designer, as though it has its climax and unity, perfect, balanced and complete.
Wonderful accident, beautiful illusion, sublime and ridiculous. You try
something: you kill the weeds, you burn the place, you flood it, you plant
something, and you wait and see what happens; and then you try something
else, you kill the feral animals, you bulldoze the place, you salt it, you treat it
with kid gloves; or you try the same thing again; and again; and again. Or you

try one thing after another after another after another. Or maybe it is more like
weaving—textile engineering or handicraft—and you find that you can gently,
patiently knit its damaged fabric together. Or you find that you will kill it with
kindness. Or you find that you must violently overthrow the damaged order. Or
you find that you only damage it with cruel blows.
As many have said, here is the raw material of ecological science (Jordan et
al). We learn about ecological objects and processes by working on them. Time
and again environmentalists resort to saying that what we need before we do
this or that is more research. When it comes to restoration though, the only way
to do research is to do a bit of this or that and see if it works. Here and now,
ecology is primarily conservation and restoration ecology. And ecological
restoration is the great laboratory for ecology.
Because of its peculiar interest in objects so complicated by their history,
ecology can’t avoid the historical complexities of its subject matter. Natural
history has its role in formulating both the end and means of restoration and
conservation. Show a bunch of naturalists and ecologists a patch of bush and
they will start running a speculative history on what it might once have been,
how it got to be the way it is now, and what is likely to become of it. No
wonder. Humans are animals who, thanks to their own natural history, are
peculiarly adept, narrative animals. It is our habit to divide the firmament of
time into beginnings, middles and ends, befores and afters, causes and effects,
thereby to make sense of it and help us plot our courses of action. The term
natural history originally referred to inquiry into natureto what has also been
called both natural philosophy and natural science. It is still sometimes used to
refer to the study of organisms in their natural habitat too, but with the
increasing differentiation of evolutionary and ecological science from the old
concerns of the naturalist, the term natural history now has to designate a
slightly different, less formal or rigorous kind of ecological discourse, a certain
kind of narrative knowledge of naturethe kind that a naturalist, a restorer or a
scientist has by dint of long experience rather than by theoretical hypothesis,
rigorous observation, and statistical inference.
Natural histories see patterns in ecological processes, but usually they are
patterns somewhat casually observed. Humans are a little too fond of the good
story, and always ready to cobble events together according to any handy
rationale. The chronological and causal patterns of our natural histories are
inveterately unreliable. If it’s not our bad storytelling habits, which may at least
be made subject to the checks of empirical norms of observation, it is the
unpredictable subject matter itself. When we use natural histories to plot the
courses of action we undertake when working on nature, no wonder we have to
be prepared for things to happen in more or less unexpected ways. Then we
have to include these more or less unexpected events in our continuing natural
history of a particular community. This is why restoration ecology often relies
on what is called adaptive management. You try something and then, depending
upon what happens afterwards, you then repeat what you have done or try
something else. You keep building on what you have, a principle that implies

that you start where you already have something to start with. The fact that
restoration ecology is not entirely unsuccessful shows that we have descriptions
of ecological processes that are adequate enough for the purposes of
restoration. The fact that we have to follow a procedure of adaptive
management implies that our predictions about what will follow from a
particular management action may be fairly weak but not hopelessly
Adaptive management follows from Bacon’s maxim about commanding
nature only by obeying it. With so many different kinds of communities and
every community different in its own way, what rules are there to obey?
Contingency rules but there are some patterns. Experimental ecology beavers
away to formulate some; modeling runs some scenarios in the hope of
predicting some outcomes; natural history adds its genres; and adaptive
management supplies what can only be called experience. Adaptive
management is designed for contingency. It lets the bush teach us its rules, or
break them. It lets the bush decide. If such and such obtains, try this. Otherwise
try that. See what happens and move to the next operation in the algorithm.
Funny: the first great ecological theory was an algorithmic one: natural
selection. Ecological modeling is already doing ecology a bit like this. However
the models are mostly too slow for the practice and too slow in feeding their
predictions or enough predictions back into restoration practice, which still just
has to carry on by experience and the seat of the pants. Adaptive management
almost runs its own model for itself, there on the ground (or in the water) with
the actual stuff of nature itself. Somehow ecology has to do science and
mathematics that can make good such a predicament. That sounds like it is half
exhortation, half announcement, half proclamation, half manifesto, half wishful
thinking—which, suspiciously, adds up to two and a half statements in one. Just
the kind of philosophy of science that science usually ignores.

Last minute conservation and adaptive management based on narrative

experience might not fully live up to the great historical destiny of ecology: to
rescue the future of nature. According to Peters (10) this is the real test for
ecology as a science. ‘The problems that ecology should solve are not being
solved. They are worsening, growing more imminent, more monstrous.’ This
more than anything shows ecology’s weakness as a science. In its greatest task
it seems ecology’s diffidence about the humans in its study landscape could be
its fatal flaw.
If there were such a thing as social will, failure to solve ecological problems
could be attributed to the lack of social will for solving them. Outside
ecological society most ecological problems are not registered as at all pressing.
Inside ecological society, apart from the purist and quietist distaste for applied
ecology, much more time is spent making and responding to speech, print and
graphic forms of culturethese matters are more pressingthan on the actual
work of ecological restoration and management, so the problems grow and
become more difficult to solve.

Perhaps ecology should paraphrase and take to heart Karl Marx: ecologists
have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to
change it. If its instrumental failure demonstrates ecology’s weakness as a
science, then the problem for ecology is not just one of devising techniques of
restoration; it is one of devising techniques that will solve the social problems
that thwart ecological restoration. However this would demand that ecology
treat society as one of its most ecologically significant objects, that it see itself
as a social as well as a physical science; and that it solve formidable problems
of sociology, both political and epistemological. Ecology would have to get
shallower and therefore harder. In society as in nature massive contingency
rules, but some patterns emerge. In society it might seem that people are free to
change themselves and to change cultural forms, but to some extent the pattern
that emerges in society is testimony to these things being less than amenable to
freedom and change, and more like forces of nature. Again the processes look
more algorithmic than like the stuff of big decisions, leadership or one fell
swoop. And even if ecological restoration that worked on society as well as
nature were not suspected of being social engineering, or even, in managerial
parlance, managing cultural change, it would still be quite extraordinary. No
other science has to do such a thing—that is flout the circumscription of its
proper subject matter. Physics, chemistry, even medical biology do not have to,
nor could they, solve sociological problems. Sociology itself can’t solve them.
All this is politics and public policy. Like any physical science, ecology has a
constitutional incapacity to think about the social character of both the objects
it studies and of itself as a discipline. By a kind of catch 22, ecology at its
shallowest is constitutionally a thoroughly instrumental science yet it is also
constitutionally incapable of being instrumental in the solution of its most
important practical problems.

Out-there-in-the-Community Ecology, or Natural
Resource Managerialism
The contemporary culture of ecosystem management and Landcare

(Warning! The following paragraphs contain language that may offend.)

Expect from me no word of my own.

—Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta

Landcare, Bushcare, Wetlandcare, Coastcare, Dunecare, Rivercare, Caring

for Country. Who cares? The neatest, correct answer is the community.
Whatever that might be. If the community did not exist, repeated references to
it would have given it its own kind of reality: it is out there, people are out
there in it, and whether you are out there in it or in here pointing out at it, you
can’t ignore it. Neither can ecologists. It’s a fact of nature, like climate.
Environmental management sometimes gets divided into two types: the
lock-it-up kind and the out-there-in-the-community kind. In Australia at least.
The former builds a system of national parks, public reserves and
environmental law. In doing so it bureaucratizes nature. It might also, to some
extent, be defying the ideology of deregulation and the privatization of public
assets, as if it were the last bastionor consolationof socialism. I might add
that locking it up is a misleading term for freeing nature up from abuse and
degradation. Although its success has been meager, it is the best Australian
environmentalism has managed to do. It is still an uncompleted project. The
out-there-in-the-community kind (the OTITC kind) manages environmental
issues outside the state nature reserve system, the issues impacting on farms and
other private land, and at various community spaces like riverbanks, urban
parkland, beaches and roadsidesplaces where stakeholders decide they just
have to do something about the state of things, places where the state can’t or
won’t or doesn’t want to, or where it is not wanted, the places all those cares
were set up to care for. With government assistance, and some careful naming,
branding, packaging, networking and selling ecosystem services, Landcare et
al have come to denote the official form of community in environmental
bureaucracy, a top-down promotion of the bottom up, or as they say, linking

top-down processes with grass roots concerns to achieve positive outcomes.
It’s all about communication. It is a bureaucratization of nature too, proceeding
through a piecemeal bureaucratization of this thing called community. (Of
course the word is not bureaucratization it’s management.)
Obviously, this is a division too simplistic to be trusted. Perhaps the lock it
up kind is mainly conservation and, the OTITC kind is mainly restoration
ecology, or natural resource management. Perhaps the former is more
professional and more a matter of state conservation agencies and
environmentalist politics, the latter more dependant upon volunteerism, farmers
and the community. Rough divisions, rough alignments, dot point ways to
explain the world. Whether one or the other of the two kinds of
environmentalism is more important, urgent, feelgood, sexy, radical, cool,
conservative, green, leftwing, rightwing, feral, family-oriented, selfish,
community-minded, hands-on, pragmatic, technically difficult, scientific,
worthy or heroic is not my concern. Nor is getting the balance right. That is the
job of OTITC environmental bureaucracy: to move on from the well-known
social antagonisms of ecological politics. It is the constitutional principle
around which its managerialism is organized, as a pearl is organized around a
grain of sand or pus around a splinter.
Before I go further I had better comment on the ownership of the words I
have been using. The following is a list of suspect terms used so far in these
paragraphs: caring, the community, out there, lock-it-up, issues, impacting,
spaces, stakeholders, branding, packaging, networking, selling, ecosystem
services linking, processes, grass-roots, positive, outcomes, communication,
biodiversity, management, natural resource management, feelgood, sexy,
family-oriented, community-minded, hands-on, getting the balance right, move
on and ownership. There may be more. They’re not mine. I try to avoid using
themespecially when they lurk in certain much-practiced phrasesbut often
I find them using me (and others) anyway for their own propagation.
Environmental managers become quite lackadaisical. They never wear
protective clothing when they handle words like these. It’s an OH&S
(occupational health and safety) issue. They only seem to glove up to draw
scare quotes around words like nature and natural. Irony, italics or scare quotes
are like condoms: they don’t always work and they are a bit of an encumbrance.
Amongst other things, these words, like mucous, manage the irritations in the
system of OTITC ecology, soothing it and clogging it up.
Grumbling about the abuse of language has become a cliché. Certainly since
Orwell’s essay on politics and language, it has become a standard genre of
diatribe indulging its own indignant melancholy. One of its own abuses of
language has been to proclaim and lament the decline of the language. That’s
one of Orwell’s—what he would have called inflated style or pretentious
diction or maybe dying metaphor. As Orwell said, we all do it, if only because,
as a great tradition in the philosophy of language has concluded, language
speaks us rather than the other way round. For having been so often repeated,
the complaint about the abuse of language now needs to be rethought in order

to be thought at all. Otherwise a writer can use it as a tool for self-
aggrandizement, concealed ad hominem arguments, revenge for being ignored
or harshly judged, or the idle indulgence of offended sensibility. That is, to
abuse it.
Repeated formulations, excused by some as efficient communication, cast
their referential moorings once redundancy makes them needless of
interpretation, and imperceptibly they undergo semantic drift, foregoing any
function of incisive observation while still pretending to it. They are adapted to
the trivial demands of topicality and immediate conversation. Clichés and
platitudes are summoned without effort to fill the void of conversation or the
space on a page. Especially when combined in vague combinations, they pad
the differences between interlocutors with the loose packing of ambiguity. Once
combined in incomprehensible or inconsistent formulations, bored distraction
or infinite logical possibility forestalls disagreement. Among other functions,
use of the lingo is a membership card that gets you in the club. Once inside,
many thoughts are prescribed; original thoughts are proscribed. The danger for
anyone who tries to think and write what is not already predigested is that their
ideas cannot infiltrate, let alone nourish the culture they want to address, or it
gets them into trouble. The culture is self-perpetuating. In the presence of
repeated stimulus, sensitivity to deceptions or mistakes becomes dulled;
misapprehensions become received wisdom; not only facts but also mistakes
become norms.
Now. Let me cite a brief description of out-there-in-the-community ecology
based on a scientist’s field observations. The observations were apparently
made at various sitessteering committees, public meetings, workshops,
forums, seminars, field days, occasionally perhaps the sanctified elsewhere of
the coalfaceand they are worthy of an ecologist’s wit and attention for being
populated by the following species: representatives of local and state
government agencies, non-government organizations, business and community
groups, environmental managers, scientists, stakeholders, community leaders,
landowners, farmers, locals, indigenous representatives, mums and dads,
meeting hounds, spanner throwers, revelers, warriors, obfuscators and, of
course, ordinary people from OTITC. (I have augmented this species list the
better to indicate the biodiversity of these gatherings):

In among this remarkable and almost bewildering arsenal of social

interaction I was hoping to find advice about how I could effectively
assess the relative impacts and hence importance of multiple
environmental pressures in priority setting exercises involving a range
of government, community and scientific stakeholders. I found the
strong-willed and non-compromising position adopted by ‘warriors’
perplexing. But it was not the warriors who really concerned me. My
bigger concern was the evident distance between local communities,
local governmental officials and scientists. [My italics]

Although this follows a witty introduction, that first sentence gives the
reader’s mind nothing but encouragement to wander off. Not because it is too
longit’s notnor long-winded. Anyway, there is such a thing as a deep
breath, and a concept that is worth a long sentence. That final phrase, beginning
with about, is probably incomprehensible. Perhaps the sentence means
something like I wanted to know how to work out the importance of different
environmental pressures for different people in different places. It is a case of a
scientist stooping to write prose like an envirocrat, perhaps stooping to
conquer. It is the generic style of natural resource management, a culture that
shares its stylistic and intellectual features with other forms of contemporary
managerialism. Despite the use of I, the prose is anonymous because it is the
system itself speaking. An envirocrat like me has to read far too much of this
sort of stuff, and in order not to write it has to go to lengths that are unlikely to
prove worth the effort. Not to talk this talk is to risk incomprehension, pity or
contempt. If you aspire to being an environmental communicator it will be your
stock in trade. Since it is merely incomprehensible in the conventional manner,
everyone will understand it without anyone having to think. This particular
sentence marks the point where an amusing and to that extent a discerning
paper gets stuck in prescribed thought, or stuck in prescribed unclarity of
thought, the permutations of the permitted phrases only allowing so many
comprehensible sentences. Breaking that long phrase up would force
clarification, but clarity would have revealed trivial or redundant ideas, and the
avoidance of such a revelation is a major function of the phrase. From here on
the article reads like most other priority setting exercises, assessment and vision
reports, opinion pieces and mission statements circulating in the envirocratic
Envirocrats are of course common at the kinds of meeting being described.
The article refers to the genus under two speciesgovernment officials and
environmental managersand makes it clear that the author is a scientist and
belongs to neither. The managers, the article complains, ‘have a stronger say in
environmental decision making’ at such meetings than ‘local communities’ or
‘scientists’. The scientist might like to keep a scientific distance from the
environmental management culture, but this description can’t help but sound
like yet another self-description of envirocratic society. Such is the gravity of
the managerial system. It absorbs descriptions of itself into its own system and
into its own generic styles, whatever the professed profession of the author. The
Wentworth Group report—a recent authoritative overview—is an envirocratic
not a scientific document. Even if its authors thought of themselves as
professional scientists they managed to promote themselves to honorary or de
facto environmental technocrats. They managed to say little that was of other
than envirocratic interest. Documents that succeed in belonging to another
system, the scientific one say, are, for their troubles, seldom going to have as
much say in environmental bureaucracy. They are too technical. Talking the
managerial talk is one of the things you have to do to have more say, although
the trouble is, if you can only get away with saying what is not worth saying,

it’s difficult to say what having more say is worth. It is these systemic
gravitational forces that lead to that evident distance between managers,
scientists and people OTITC.
Ecologically, it could hardly be otherwise. It follows from the predictable
response of managers, scientists or people OTITC to the most immediate
pressures of their respective social environments. The internal social pressures
in each of their working worlds are more urgent than those exerted by the other
groups. This may be so obvious it goes without saying. Among ecological
technocrats and ecologists it also goes unsaid because it seems like social
science, not environmental management or ecology. Outside social science it
does not have the habitat of its own social system so it is discarded into a kind
of social unconscious. In order to achieve currency, any would-be envirocratic
communication, including a scientist’s critique, has to be understood, accepted,
and reproduced by natural resource managers. Creativity seldom extends
beyond traditional genres such as a blueprint, a restructure, a program rejig, a
vision statement or some obligatory new acronyms to advertise innovation and
product differentiation. In most cases of course ideas will be reproductions
rather than original insights. Already-reproduced ideas are thereby proven in
their reproducibility—a feature that, despite the prestige and because of the
difficulty of innovative science, is also important in the everyday scientific
world. In either system, pretty much everyone is communicating in the same
language and communicating much the same things most of the time. It is, as
they say, all about communication. No wonder managerial language thrives.
Since locals have one another, government officials have officialdom, managers
have their networks, and scientists have their colleagues and the institutions of
empirical science as their main environmental pressures, it would be perplexing
indeed if the members of any of these different social systems, or the systems as
such, did any more than just bump up against one another and register one
another as irritations or minor perturbations. They are forces of nature.
With all of its internal communications whirling around in their busy
constellation the natural resource management system is characterized by its
own inertia, but seen from afar it gradually changes. The bureaucratization of
nature has evolved through many stages. Typically a new stage evolves because
it can thrive in new circumstances where previous stages demonstrate their
inadequacies. Thus the national parks systems evolved because there was a
social niche for a new kind of reserved nature, a nature whose resources were
not simply timber or water or soil, but wildlife, indigenous flora and fauna,
biodiversity, even, by a suspicious blurring of the nature/culture divide,
indigenous cultural heritage. The older natural resource bureaucracies now
manage a lot of country clapped out by agriculture and forestry. So although
compromised by their historical role in its degradation, they have inherited a
role managing ecological restoration. National parks services persist as agents
of conservation ecology and have dabbled more in restoration ecology only as
they have been handed degraded country from their bureaucratic ancestors, as
more of it has been found worthy of locking up. Greens, who have fought long

and hard to lock up nature, still guard the separation of these bureaucratic
powers, wary of combining conservation with resource management and
thereby handing back what conservation ecology has managed with so much
effort to salt away.
Landcare evolved because it was adapted to top-down and bottom up
pressures. Small-l landcare was happening already in the 1970s and 80s.
Conservation volunteers, landholders, farmers and peripheral government
projects where doing ecological conservation & restoration. Big-L Landcare
was a badged political contrivance devised to reconcile ecological conservation
and restoration with private farming and agribusiness. It was about
communication and working in partnership with the community. It was adapted
to the political antagonisms and the adversarialism OTITC, and designed to
take advantage of the private motives of individual and the public culture of
volunteerism by giving financial assistance. Win win.
Because evolving environmental law had burdened national park and state
natural resource managers with the task of policing compliance, they were not
well adapted for sidestepping the antagonisms OTITC. There are all sorts of
rationales offered for why park rangers get saddled with uniforms—tradition,
OH&S, they look smart, they look robust, they save workers’ clothing costs,
they look uniform, they badge employees, they signify a certain level of
officialdom, and most important in this context, they make staff look like
friendly nature police. Environmental law is seldom policed by real police. It’s
not like real law. Non-compliance has been a de facto right of freehold title and
an Australian way of life ever since the Rum Corps grabbed development acres
of prime Sydney real estate. The law has been feeble and prosecution for non-
compliance has been half-hearted. Regulators and nature police struggle in
OTITC ecology. Instead of conservation, their main effect has been to maintain
that ‘evident distance’ between the bureaucracy and OTITC, and this has
hampered conservation and restoration on private land. Not only landholders
intent upon ecological degradation, but also those planning restoration try by
fair means or foul to avoid getting obstructed in the envirocratic pipeline. As a
result, local and state bureaucracies can plan and regulate restoration and
conservation all they like, but they can’t do much OTITC. Hence the need for
Landcare and its sisters, the unbureaucratic bureaucratization of OTITC
ecology. The individual coordinators and the committees of Landcarers who
employ them are sometimes tempted by the sensed, temporary power of
regulators. However, apart from ensuring that the limited funds at their limited
disposal are used by people OTITC actually to restore and conserve their bit of
nature, policing compliance is not a primary function. Indeed it is a function to
be avoided precisely in the interests of achieving outcomes. Compliance is a
curse on those who have to compel it.
It might be imagined that the Landcare bureaucracy evolved to execute non-
bureaucratic actions such as the famous on ground work, or that state
environmental bureaucracies do this. They seldom do however. Primarily they
produce inventories of biota, maps, databases, management plans, feasibility

studies, directives to contractors, technical advice and liaison to people OTITC.
They distribute and account for certain forms of financial assistance and
remuneration to contractors and landholders, and they regulate management in
order to ensure accountability back to the bureaucracy, the government and that
final placeholder in the political system, the taxpayer who is, of course, OTITC.
Desktop management, facilitation, PR and networking are cheaper and deemed
to have a big multiplier affect on the natural resource dollar. And they are less
likely to be perturbed by external irritationsespecially nature. As databases,
programs, networks and other structures grow they exert greater and greater
gravitational force, drawing all into their orbit, all eyes fixed on their dazzling
screens. Management plans, inventories, financial records, monitoring and
evaluation do, to a certain extent get read outside the system, but their main
function then is to satisfy legal, political and, still, internal pressures. Their
main circulation (if they circulate and get read at all and do not just get filed) is
still within the system. Their main bureaucratic function is to dot all the legal
i’s and cross all the political and public relations t’s, rather than to get read or
reflected upon. Apart from the educational stuffand these are the merest tip
of fascinating mountains of knowledge kept as arcana for envirocratic
plannersprobably the only ones that get read OTITC are things like the
published environmental assessments that green activists have to read. These
are mainly read to find missing dots and crosses, and they draw the activists
into the dispiriting bureaucratic orbit. In an immune response to this
bureaucratic infection the green lobby develops symptoms of doctrinalism. The
doctrine’s precepts are adapted to the imperative not to let the agents of
degradation loophole there way around regulations. Whether or not they are the
best means of long-term conservation and restoration is less pressing. In turn,
the regulations and the bureaucracy are adapted in response to the pressures
brought to bear by environmentalist doctrine. The whole process takes place in
the social environment of envirocratic politics. The natural environment is less
immediate. A similar process takes place in the contest between bureaucracies
and farmer’s lobby groups. Meanwhile, dullness is a fine adaptation for a
document designed to be not read. Bulk is too. Where dullness is not available,
confidentiality and intellectual property are bogeys used to prevent a
document’s escape from the system. Even the published educational stuff gets
utterly corrupted by managerialism. In the guise of promoting awareness or
sharing knowledge, it reifies limited attention spans by keeping it simple and
selling dot-pointed vision on eye-glazing glossies. God help the audience that
wants local ecological detail and technical questions answered. Despite the
desire to have a say, having a say is seldom the main function of documents in
this culturecertainly not having a say beyond the orbit of the system.
I assume that those multiple environmental pressures back in the anonymous
quote, the pressures that need assessing in those priority setting exercises, are
supposed to be of the biophysical kind rather than the equally problematic
social kind. Even though the author is a scientist, it is not society that he writes
about scientifically. That would have to be sociology. Yet, although he is an

ecologist he is not writing about society ecologicallynot if society is a major
ecological player. He is ignoring the ecologically significant social pressures.
The description of the social interaction begins as one of exasperated wonder,
amusement and aesthetic appreciation, but the reflections on the task of social
interaction and building links between science and the community sound as
vague as a bureaucrat or someone OTITC discussing the finer points of
empirical or theoretical ecology.
Even though ecology has scarcely managed to drag itself up out of the
primeval swamp of natural history, social science has an even more difficult
task to separate itself scientifically from the folk sociology and psychology of
everyday life. Everyone claims expertise in these folk sciences simply as a
birthright. Yet society is a strange and fascinating thing, much stranger and
much more fascinating than pop psychology or envirocratic sociology with their
reports and vision statements, clichés, catchphrases, pleonasms, non-sequitors
and acronyms, would ever be able to recognize and describe. In fact the half-
baked social science of those reports and vision statements is better thought of
as among the natural wonders of society. All those explanations of society are
themselves strange and fascinating social objects. Rather than explaining
society, they contribute to its complexity, making it all the more in need of
explanation. Categories like community, out there, big picture and the triple
bottom line become the obligatory descriptors of the only possible world that
anyone is game to call the real world. Question concepts like leadership or
outcomes and people look askance. But this famous real world is mostly all
image. It can scarcely be anything but what we are required to talk it up into. A
society is like that—a galaxy of communications in which the most misleading
are the received descriptions of itself—so the reality is mostly unconscious,
making it effectively non-existent. Assumed knowledge of society and everyday
familiarity with the community breed contempt for thoughtful reflection—as all
that half hearted, recycled prose demonstrates. Sociological and psychological
findings popularized for community consumption sound like the bleeding
obvious, self-improvement or marketing tools. Original reflections mostly
sound odd or irrelevant. Having made the effort of objectification they are
estranged from their object—i.e. from the society that can no longer find the
comforts of its misleading self-descriptions repeated therein. So catch 22: once
they no longer talk the talk, they are ineffective.
Politics is applied social science, a technology of social management
sometimes described as the art of the possible. I certainly can’t claim a talent or
relish for it. To me it looks like having a say in natural resource management is
mostly a matter of things like mundane observation, political cunning, dogged
persistence, the right friends, attention to detail, earning respect, being driven
by a vision that is not too visionary, i.e. detailing plans that others can agree
with, being one step ahead, setting agendas, knowing how to play the game, and
good fortune. Just being a head kicker or a mover and shaker are not enough. I
can only approach the society of natural resource management as its amateur
naturalist agog at its wonders.

You may have noticed one species that is not listed in the observations of
biodiversity at community meetings: the environmentalist. They may be there as
representatives of community groups (i.e. green groups) or in amongst those
warriors who are presumably of various persuasions. However
environmentalists are often absent by choicetheir own or others. They are
said to prefer the lock-it-up kind of environmentalism. They may in fact be
excluded for harmony’s sake from many environmental discussions of the
OTITC kind, in order to get the farmers on board. There are all sorts of
pressures, assumptions, and agendas operating in these OTITC situations,
beginning with the selection of those who get the seats at the table. It makes
management easier. Another unlisted species is the ecological restorer or bush
regenerator, but then this is an unscheduled threatened species. In lip service at
least, its habitat is sanctified as the coalface or on-ground. It is quintessentially
OTITC. However the bureaucratization of nature is evidence of the ancient
hierarchy in which intellectual labour ranks above manual labour. Its effect is
immense. Hardly anyone really wants to get their hands dirty, especially when
they would get paid poorly for their efforts. Managerialism absorbs almost all
the action, and that includes managing a modicum of the budget for physical
labourfor the menial necessities, for a few sexy projects, and for some carrot
to tempt volunteers.
Terms that fall too often and too easily from managers’ lips deserve a
scrutiny that might seem excessive. Let me begin by analyzing out there in the
community into two components. First the community. When managers or
leaders or legislators or even two or three people gathered together register the
irritations from outside their own system, they find it convenient to describe
them by using a singular term to designate a seemingly single phenomenon. The
term environment is used to denote the complex of an organism’s surroundings
simplified in the image of the organism’s own unity. Likewise management
uses the community to reduce its environment to something simple. Such a term
enables what is utterly disunited and unwieldy to stand in the system’s
conversation as the single object of its ministry, service and manipulation,
administration to the needs of which should not be complicated by the fact of
the contradictory character of those needs, especially not when the function of
management is to move on from conflict and antagonism. As such, the
community has a peculiar value in the conversation of a managerial system: it is
the goose that lays its golden eggs, the almost sanctified, almost powerless
source of its power, the propitiation of which and seeming responsiveness to
which may justify and preserve its systemic existence and that of the individual
managers within the system. There is evidence of this seeming responsiveness
in the evolution of the term community, and indeed in the fact that the term
itself is perhaps more substantial for the system than whatever vaguely irritating
object it pretends to refer to. The present legitimate term must have passed
through gates of selection erected and later torn down throughout the history of
the society. The gates bar old terms as primitive and taboo and allow new terms
through precisely for their seeming to signify the antithesis of the outmoded

and taboo ones. Hence the specific historical nuances of terms like citizens, the
people, the masses, the society or the public make each one of them sound in its
own way anachronistic, improper, illegitimate or downright unneighbourly
when compared to the community. Margaret Thatcher declared society dead,
and the way we use community now, her declaration seems to have been timely.
However this string of more or less passé terms should also warn us that the
present incumbent is also temporary. Each of the terms represents an adaptation
to local pressures, in particular to the demands that no term should be seen to
be revealing the social antagonisms that management is charged with making
disappear. Each of the predecessors of community appeared to be becoming
partisan in some rapidly changing world. The masses sound undifferentiated
and unfree. Society sounds like socialism. The accusation politically correct can
still be used to damage the legitimacy of terms, and could even soon prey on
community, so long as it does not itself fall victim to the modish evolution of
platitudes and find its own powers removed. I have heard people use
neighbourhood as if they were becoming wary of the community. Soon you
might only be able to get away with saying the family.
The evolution of other managerial terms proceeds similarly in a kind of
ceaseless arms race of new terminological adaptations succeeding one another
in successive historical contexts. For instance, managerial problems are
relabeled as issues and to that extent and in that historical moment signify that
they have been addressed and we can all be a little less negative about them.
And of course bureaucracy itself became anachronistic once bureaucracies
were to think about themselves as selling themselves and their product. They
ceased to describe their operations as bureaucratic, which long ago had
derogatory connotations, and became managerial, by which term I choose to
denigrate them here. In managerial parlance metaphors, already platitudinous,
get extended to allegorical lengths, mainly because managerial systems like to
describe themselves thoroughly in the terms of their latest official vision. As the
market had displaced social democracy, managerialized bureaucracy embraced
the market as the model for its self-description. The descriptions are a bit like
medieval allegory working at different levels of metaphor. Apart from the
dominant level of the market there is a spiritual level in terms like vision and
mission. And at the secular level, the community remains as a kind of homely
cipher for that residue of civil society that could not be entirely subsumed as
staff, customers, clients or followers. By the way, don’t let it be said that I am
being negative about the community. The community is like motherhood or the
family. Although I am tempted to call it a necessary evil, all I should say is, it’s
all we’ve got so read the label. Whatever the community denotes, in some of its
forms it deserves to be defended against its lip-service devotees. Therefore, two
cheers for the community.
Second, out there. The X-Files registered out there’s popular reputation as
the place where the truth is. The phrase locates the source of truth, power,
authority, data, information or knowledge elsewhere and thus away from where
it would be questioned as self-serving or subjective. As an external guarantee of

authenticity it distracts a managerial system, and its critics, from the system’s
own arbitrariness and from any worry that things could be otherwise. It also
distracts a system from its own contradictions, in particular from the
contradiction between, on the one hand, its own self-generating existence and,
on the other, its self-description as being entirely dependent upon and at the
service of what is outside it, namely out there in the community.
The fully formed phrase out there in the community has many uses: to
suggest that the speaker can read the popular will and takes its issues on board;
to imply that the speaker speaks for that will and at the same time decorously to
distance the speaker from the hoi polloi who are merely out there in the
community and not in here speaking. Its use is a display of democratic
intentions, a waylaying of suspicions of professional or envirocratic elitism, an
advertisement of one’s appreciation that others OTITC, specifically volunteers,
must do the ecological management or restoration work, a veiled renunciation
of one’s own individual responsibility for doing or not doing the restoration,
and of course a seeming reference to some actual thing that is out there,
something whose members share some kind of collective interest and some kind
of systemic unity themselves. Despite users’ intentions, the term can usually be
read as a pretty reliable symptom of some degree of paternalism, slight of hand,
conceptual cloudiness or unfreedom on its user’s part. Whenever we think we
are using it, it is probably using us, piggy backing its replication and
dissemination on the back of our often less than honourable, less than
conscious intentions.
If a community is anything, then it is more like a can of worms or a
multitude of evils than the unproblematic unity that the simple singular term
seems to denote. It is a hotchpotch of people, sometimes fractious, sometimes
just shambolic, less ideologically consistent than the scientific or envirocratic
communities because the members don’t share a unifying a system of social
discourse and their views are not so subject to a regular set of pressures that
would determine conformity of discourse. It is hard to imagine a community
forumone that is representative of the communitythat would not be divided
ideologically and personally and that is not, on many occasions, prone to
vexatiousness. It is no wonder then that when natural resource managers and
scientists meet with people OTITC, the managers and scientists, who each
represent a relatively united or consistent ideology and who are paid to turn up,
have ‘a stronger say in decision making.’ Given that the ‘government officials
and environmental managers’ hold the purse strings, plan the management, and
are employed as intermediaries between the political system and the electorate,
it is also little wonder that they have more power than the scientists, whose
power hardly extends beyond the laboratory or the ivory tower. Although
managerialism has pretended to functionalize the role of manager as just
another division of labour, the ethical prestige and self-esteem that goes with
leadership have hardly been renounced by managers, and the managed still
resent their powerlessness—the more so for the sensed illegitimacy of their
managers’ prestige.

At a meeting between natural resource managers, scientists and people
OTITC, the fractiousness of the community is exacerbated and the democratic
credentials are belied by the arbitrariness of just who turns up (unpaid) and
what hidden agendas and personal animosities they bring. 90% of a public
meeting can lie under the surface. And it can be more like the seething entrails
of a beast than the cool gravity of an iceberg. To make matters utterly confusing
(to me anyway) part of all this seething is that people are actually reading these
entrails, and feeding their superstitious readings, rumours, theories, suspicions,
enmities and idiosyncratic proclivities back into the seething mix. Also, part of
the seething is the managers’ unstated agenda. When they call meetings and
seek community representatives, their work is made easier if they can play with
a stacked deck. They assume they have to, otherwise the meeting will be a
shambles and it won’t get the best outcomes. Meeting-wise, that’s world’s best
practice. Or it is second nature and they do it unconsciously anyway. Out of
these convolutions of feedback all one can hope for is a kind of emergent,
superordinating pattern, or maybe just a bit of good old settling down. As with
ecological restoration, this takes time.
As if to let the community itself speak, the article cites a speech from
someone OTITC:

Surely someone with wisdom and respect could have guided us

rapidly through the mire and helped us work through the conflict and
growth process? I think our lesson is that we did not seek such
guidance, we had a chance to have a say and we took the time to do
this in our own way rather than deal skillfully with that and rapidly
move on to focus on the bigger picture.

‘How can we move forward,’ the article asks, ‘and ensure that we can
undertake valid scientific assessment in unison between scientists and
community members and more effectively jointly influence environmental
decision making?’
Three points about this:
First. This belated request for guidance is interpreted as ‘a positive
exception’ to the way that ‘at least some members of the community do not
make it easy for scientists to become actively involved in decision making or
on-ground assessments.’ But doesn’t it just flatter the presumed wisdom of the
scientists (and the natural resource managers, and the would-be community
leaders) who like to fancy they could lead this unruly beast through the mire? I
suspect that ‘someone with wisdom and respect’ might not be someone who
sees their self-appointed role as that of a guide: the two attributes might be
mutually exclusive. Doesn’t this call, like calls for leadership, also sound a bit
desperate, the desperation or even resentment of someone whose seeming cry
for help is really a denial of responsibility or an apportioning of blame to some
non specific others who have failed to provide leadership in the past? Why
didn’t they guide us? How could they have just dropped us in this mire? I

would also predict that if a community committee did seek guidance, such
guidance would probably be provided by some facilitator or community liaison
officer and it could well be abysmal. If it wasn’t, the committee members might
well not appreciate it anyway, no matter how well delivered. Diplomatic
delivery would meet with disregard. Strong advocacy would be taken as
pushiness. Expertise would be too technical. The voice of experience would be
dismissed by impatience. Especially when working through a conflict and
growth process. I suspect the cry is just another way of saying surely we could
have had the benefit of experience without having to go through the
Second. How about, instead of rapidly moving on to focus on the bigger
picture, we apply ourselves at our own pace to the job immediately at hand.
Why move on and in a hurry and for no better reason than getting a look at
some picture that is too big and too limited in its detail? Indeed isn’t it a bit
fishy that this person from OTITC is talking in, or being paraphrased in
managerialese. And just in case all this seems like too harsh a judgement of the
community, remember that the community, by definition, is out there, and not,
like this paraphrased representative or the paraphraser himself, in here at the
Third. That how can we move forward sentence is another mind number. I
quickly gather the fruits of stylistic analysisthe platitudes like move forward
and decision making, the worthiness of in unison, the double-barreled adverb
effectively jointly, the redundant environmentaljust to show how talking the
talk so diverts us that we can be deceived into thinking that decision making is
itself the proper end of our endeavours. As with that conflict and growth
process and rapidly moving on and focusing on the bigger picture, it is a way of
not thinking much and not doing much either.

Science may be what scientists do, but knowledge and especially a little
knowledge are what everyone does. It’s dangerous and fun. There is a folk
science of ecology that is as passionate and half-baked as the pop psychology
and pop sociology with which it is so synergistically and inextricably
combined. This body of knowledge may well be as inconsistent as the
community is divided, but it is as powerful an epistemological force as any in
OTITC ecology. And it is as powerful an ecological force as climate, soils,
markets and managerialism. While it is, of course, a force of nature in political
environmentalism, here I am concerned with its influence in ecological
management and restoration. Under the sanction of common sense it is able to
present itself as pretty much indubitable. It is a set of social assumptions whose
validity is assumed to be manifest to all. Edmund Husserl (1954) called such
shared, mutually manifest assumptions the lifeworld. 20th philosophers of
language discovered again and again that there can be no communication
without some such social basis. As such it informs the judgements of scientists
and environmental managers as much as those of people OTITC. As I have
said, ecology evolved as a modern scientific rationalization not only of the

already specialized disciplines of natural history and natural philosophy but of
this common sense understanding of the natural world. The lifeworld
understanding of ecology (or society), although it evolves somewhat under the
pressures exerted by scientific ecology (or social science), persists as a shared
conceptual domain, if only because the pressure to communicate persistently
maintains it in some formhowever much it is perennially changeable and
contestable around the edges. This makes the synergistic mix of lifeworld
ecology and lifeworld sociology that famous common ground between
scientists, managers and people OTITC, and also therefore that dreaded place to
link up and that dreaded place from which we can all move forward together.
The received opinions of OTITC ecology, like all repeated platitudes, suffer
their own deformations of meaning and use. Misapprehensions and self
deceptions have thrived, and having thrived become norms. Scientific concepts
feed back into the content of the lifeworld, for lifeworld science is not innate
knowledge unmediated by cultural evolution. Indeed, the term pop ecology
better describes folk ecology in its contemporary cultural form. Most of what
enters pop ecology from science does so half-baked, which is hardly surprising
when scientific ecology itself is hardly a completed project. When the adequacy
of ecological concepts to their objects is blurred by constitutional limitations to
empirical testing, terms struggle to keep to a strict sense, and feedback from the
scientific to the pop scientific world becomes as risky as feeding beef waste
back to cattle or photocopies back into a photocopier. Likewise when a science
is burdened by irreducible historical descriptions, and when chronic seat of the
pants instrumentalism is always tempting weakly generalized descriptions into
prescriptive formulation. Likewise also when claims to knowledge are
motivated by the need to delude either oneself or others, in which case magical
prescriptions, rural myths or unconscious judgements of taste pose as
knowledge claims in pop ecological management. This is mostly armchair
instrumentalism. Just what kind of ecological effect pop ecology has, is no
doubt poorly indicated by the saying a little knowledge is dangerous. However,
the concepts of pop-ecology have ecological consequences and to that extent
demand the attention of ecological research, even though that would illegally
cross the border between ecology and the social sciences.
Among the myths and magic that persist in this part of the world are things
like: the tree canopy will shade out the weeds; a strangler figs planted in a
camphor laurel will eventually kill the host. My favorite is the one about
lobbing a few ripe chokoes into a lantana scrub and letting the ckoko vines
blanket the scrub and hey presto—no lantana and more chokoes then you can
eat. Then again why would you want to get rid of lantana when it is an
important native bee and bird habitat or a pioneer for rainforest regeneration or
a vital soil conditioner? Or camphor laurel when it is important pigeon feed and
arboreal mammal habitat. Lantana and camphor are not the only serious weeds
of native vegetation with redemptive powers. Broad-leaved paspalum is a
Landcare grass and an excellent understorey in forests. Maybe one of these
legendary prescriptions might have appeared to work once somewhere, or

someone thought it did. More likely they just hoped it would. In the report,
hope turned into fact and rumour did the rest. Along with dredging native
wetlands to free them up and get the water flowing deep and clear these or
getting these formulations have a stubborn persistence that only wishful
thinking could give them. I hear them all the time. But they are not my main
concern here. There is the more serious stuff. The stuff that sounds universal
and wise rather than half clever and wishfully ignorant.
There are now scores of theses-cum-prescriptions with an unassailable status
in the lifeworld of OTITC ecology, and pretty much everyone is OTITC
assuming them. To intone them at a meeting or to powerpoint them on a screen
is to automatically earn the nod of assent. Or of dozing off. To challenge just
one is pretty much to lose it. You will be laughed at. Let me list some. There
are the realities of the present predicament: that there is so much to do; that we
have not really even started yet. There is the first principle of means: that
without funding nothing can really be done. And the principles of the necessity
of promotion OTITC: that sexy projects are a priority; that the community needs
to be educated; that the kiddies have to be involved; that environmental
awareness needs to be promoted. There is the first theorem of consolation; that
although we haven’t really even started yet at least we have been raising
awareness. There is the principle of whole-of-community involvement: that
liaison is fundamentalwith local government, the National Parks service, the
Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, Aboriginal Land
Councils, stakeholders,… and of course people OTITC. There is the
metastrategic principle: that things have to be prioritized. And there are the
strategic principles: a management plan is a priority; seeing the big picture is a
priority; having a whole of landscape strategy is a priority; connectivity is a
priority; targeting the top of the catchment is a priority; targeting hot-spots is a
priority, a scatter gun approach is not; and without clearly defined goals,
outcomes can’t be measured and are therefore useless. Then there is the
principle of what we need is more information, i.e. research, monitoring and
evaluation: since all our knowledge is best brought together so that we can all
see that big picture all at once and undertake informed decision making, it is
vital to establish, or better still, to work towards establishing a set of metadata
for a standard across-the-board format for project monitoring (data are good
but metadata are better); without more baseline data, measures of outcomes
and therefore outcomes themselves will be useless; we need more research,
whether for getting that baseline data or because ecosystems are too complex to
risk touching without more data. And finally there are the principles of
practicality: that we can’t be precious, we have to be pragmatic; and that there
is no point doing it if it’s not world’s best practice. You read all of these and
you pretty much have to agree, don’t you.
They have the buzz of managerial style. They are conditioned by ecology’s
epistemological vagaries and its urgent but unclear intentions. (Little wonder
then that managerialism, thriving on vagaries and vaguely grand intentions,
should have so thoroughly invaded pop ecology. Little wonder that, other than

ecological management, it is hard to think of a general term to describe both
restoration and conservation ecology in one go.) These principles might not
sound like scientific ecology, but that is because they are lifeworld ecology and
therefore they have to be something that not only scientists would say. Whether
you are a scientist, an envirocrat or OTITC, to cast doubt on, or express
misgivings about any of the principles of OTITC ecology is to risk intellectual
or even ethical condemnation. Not to take them as common sense begets
incredulity. At best you must be naïve, stupid or a crank; at worst, negative.
I am happy to assert the contrary of each and leave it at that. Together they
constitute a terrible impediment to ecological management and restoration. To
reread them and consider how their negations could be true is a revealing
exercise in ecological thinking and in thinking about society as an ecological
object. And about ecology as a social object. I’ll leave it to the reader.
Although I am only an amateur naturalist of society, I find it useful to
theorize that social institutions, bureaucracies, managers, or people OTITC can
be predictable in their own ways. As forces of nature they are a bit like floods,
droughts, vandals or herbivores. I have known restoration projects in which
bureaucracies can be worked around, like mountains. They can be predictably
slow and really don’t want to know what really matters. Or they are like drought
or fire or floods: they have their uses as long as you don’t get caught in the
middle of them. I feel a kind of security in this, as I do in the predictable
randomness of vandalism. On the other hand, bureaucrats or managers should
not be confused with bureaucracies. Unlike bureaucracies or mountains they are
people and they appreciate the little things of life. Vandals are people too,
although for the purposes of ecological restoration they are like a species of
herbivore. The principles of OTITC ecology are also like a force of nature.
When you encounter them OTITC, do so with a light heart and cunning. Avoid
a head on assault. Attend to the ecological or ethical detail. Go and do some
restoration somewhere else. Like weeds they require patience and persistence.
Unlike weeds they are not especially rampant at the coalface. And there is
another force of nature: some people OTITC are actually busy doing ecological
restoration instead of just being predictably uninterested or vexatious. Such
people are predictably going to do restoration, and persist. You don’t need the
softcore porn of a sexy project to arouse them. They’re already in bed with
nature. Since, in adaptive ecological management, you keep building on what
you have, they are as much something to build as a good reach of river or patch
of bush. Targeting them is a better bet than targeting the top of the catchment.
Given the thoroughly social nature of nature, they are the best thing to build on.
Their works are the primary documents of OTITC ecology.
Disquiet about the delays of ecological restoration and the pathologies of
environmental bureaucracy are legion. Conference papers, journal articles and
opinion pieces reflect on this problem, offer critiques of social organization,
diagnose the pathologies of environmental managerialism, keep our spirits up
by re-assuring us that at least we are raising community awareness and
building community capacity, and draft blueprints on ways to move forward.

Even if all this activity is not exactly causing what it is diagnosing, most of it
doesn’t help. It gets society wrong and it gets nature’s social nature wrong.
Planners and change-managers trick themselves into thinking they can solve
social problems by first making society simpler to conceive. So they
misconceive it. It makes the thing familiar and it does the job at hand. That is, it
makes planning easier, and outcomes definable and therefore measurable,
achievable and accountable for. Getting the timescales wrong is a typical form
of simplification and it feeds the habitual sense of social and biophysical inertia
that haunts restoration ecology. Natural resource management always appears
to be only just getting started because ecological processes and restoration
mostly happen at timescales that exceed easy intuition. Not only nature but also
society moves in ways that are mysterious to the human sense of time. Neither
natural systems nor social systems conveniently synchronize themselves to
human lifetimes, terms of government, yearly budgets or everyday activity.
Social goals are disputed to begin with and so are means. Then, society
changes, science changes, technology changes, and goals and means end up
changing quicker than ecosystems. They become outdated when they are half
completed. When even our intentions about nature end up defying our
intentions, how can nature do anything but elude our plans and predictions?
Sure we might number the months or years in our timelines, and flowcharts but
abstract chronology is too neat for all the tangled processes of ecological
society all working at different timescales. Natural resource management
exceeds conceptual integration, except perhaps at some such emergent level as
that described by social selection—but then the social phenomena that confront
us are likely to be alienated from our intentions to the point of downright
arbitrariness. Similar problems beset environmental management in the spatial
dimension, not only because mastering space takes time, but because land
tenure alone ensures that both the ideological antagonisms and the functional
differentiation of society are spread out like a dog’s breakfast over the
culturescape. The dots just don’t join up.
And managers and everyone OTITC love the dots to join up. We like
corridors and connectivity and the maps and flowcharts that go with imagining
it. Desires to see the big picture, to integrate landscape scale and local
processes, ecological scales and institutional structures are the barely disguised
re-statements of the original desire to restore nature itself. Like a fetish, we
transfer desire from the seemingly unattainable (a well-engineered natural
environment) to the seemingly attainable (a well-engineered social structure for
working towards a well-engineered natural environment). Although we appear
to be prescribing the social means to ecological goals we are substituting
descriptions of ecological goals with descriptions of social goals and assuming
they can be achieved in the no less intractable matter of social organization.
One way we make it seem less intractable is by another misapprehension. We
fail to see that biophysical objects are the primary social objects in the culture
of nature: as well as being just rivers or bush or biodiversity, rivers, bush, and
biodiversity are the principal documents of the culture of environmental

management. The social organization of such a culture is not primarily in
offices and institutional structures and maps and flow charts or even OTITC. It
is actually, dare I say it, on the ground. You don’t build community capacity or
raise community awareness much at all without working on these documents.
Culture and nature can be separated in analysis but not in the substance or
practice of nature culture.
Health and education systems have their managerial symptoms, but they are
rooted in the bodies and minds they work on. Natural resource management
barely touches the ground. It is more entertained by the groundless problem of
itself. Its apparent fascination with its own administrative organ is the result of
its social ancestry and social pressures. Health must, as it were, get its hands
dirty. There are urgent imperatives of life and death, and there is the historical
prestige of the physician’s healing hands. Education need only work on paper,
screen and talk. Those are the tools at the coalface of minds. But natural
resource management, which must literally get its hands dirty, has little pressure
to work on the ground—its primary medium and object. It prefers paper and
pixels. There is no sense of personal life and death urgency. Its social
forefathers have been administrative, regulatory and passive conservation
agencies. Not everyone even agrees it has serious job to do, especially not on
their land. Funding is scarce. To such a social environment the system is
perfectly adapted: it’s a filter-feeder in a muddy, low dollar, low nutrient
habitat and its administrative organ has hypertrophied into managerial foie
gras. Its distinctive call is the abracadabra that attracts the trickle of the
envirodollar and, it is said, multiplies its power: the community.
An envirocratic colleague once proposed delivering a paper at a Landcare
conference entitled ‘Ad hoc is good’. Circumstances, ad hoc or otherwise,
prevented him from doing so. Perhaps such an idea had little hope of ever
getting a hearing because it sounded too flippant or too negative to get a place
on a tight programa program that had to demonstrate deference to the
received principles of natural resource managerialism. He was right though.
Projects do not have to all link up in an integrated landscape scale
approachnot all or even the majority of projects. Not initially. Ecologically,
linking it all up is a case of fighting against some of the most implacable
ecological forcessocial forces as powerful as gravity. Some goals are distant.
Linking up is a means that is so distant it looks like a goal. It just can’t be the
first thing. When objects and ends exceed our understanding, and where, in the
absence of understanding, platitudes thrive for giving us false comfort or bogus
understanding, muddling on and working away is the only prescription. Each
deed is one step in an algorithm of adaptive management. Ad hoc is good
mainly because just doing it, or even just thinking clearly about it, is mostly not
what restoration society, with all its busy managers, is doing.

The Image of Nature
How nature is represented not only in painting, photography, cinema,
TV, national myth, pop culture and environmentalism, but also in
national parks and wilderness.

Being is unrecognizable unless it succeeds in seeming, and seeming is

weak unless it succeeds in being.

—Gorgias of Leontini, c. 430 B.C.


Nothing now escapes the ontological capers of becoming an image—not

when all of life, in Guy Debord’s words, presents itself as an immense
accumulation of spectacles. Not even cultural criticism, which deteriorates
from copy to copy, and degrades into cliché and the image of critique.
Everything that has directly lived has moved away into representation. Try and
discover the real thing behind its image and it will disappear altogether. In
societies where modern conditions prevail, image making is like
commoditization: it is a force of nature. Nature cannot help but be product,
commodity and image. Yet surely nature, of all things, should remain solid and
resist melting into the air of mere image. Is anyone really going to be able to
spirit away nature with a bit of that old postmodern magic? Only, I suspect, in
all those clichéd images of a postmodernism degraded for the sake of slapdash
critique. Anyway, if they tried to, it would come down on them ruthlessly.
When it did though, they would probably be watching it live on their TVs, even
as the firestorm hit the house, consuming the TV and them as they consumed it,
all melting into air, into thin air. As the image-makers say, it’s all about image.
Hence this album of the images of nature by means of which people pursue
their social relations to one another by enacting and experiencing society’s
relation to nature.

12.1 …In Art.

That Milky Stream; Or Landscape Art

Contemporary nature photography has a habit that is quite bizarre and pretty
much run of the mill. It is the custom of depicting clear streams with milky
water. In photo after photo wild rivers look as though some white pollutant is
seeping into the water. The image of flowing water is blurred by prolonged
exposure of the film. Yet how odd to deprive the camera of its nimble power to
hold water’s shape, to disclose a unique instant in the clear liquid’s ceaseless
flow or still the detail of turbulence. What shape is turbulent water? What must
it really look like? Without photography, the longing to see such a thing would
epitomize impossible desire. Before photography, painters, even idle watchers
from a bank, would have sold their souls to see this.
In order for these milky images to be published over and over again, the
culture of nature and the minds of nature’s devotees must press photography to
adopt this devious adaptation. The problems of shutter and film speed on a
shaded riffle might account for some of these imagesat least they used to
oncebut more than that, there is a genre of stream photography here that
licenses or demands the exhibition of images that might otherwise have been
discarded as blurry failures of execution or blots on the landscape. How could
such a genre evolve?
If I think of the history of those images of milky streams or, at least initially,
if I remember my own experience of them, the Franklin Dam campaign comes
to mind. In the no-dams campaign such photos came to symbolize the wild,
undammed river. Think of Peter Dombrovskis’ icon of Rock Island Bend. Bob
Brown (1984, 60) once said that showing pictures of the Franklin allowed
nature to speak for itself. Back in the 1890s in Melbourne, the Argus had said
much the same thing about photographs of Sassafras Gully taken by Beaky
Campbell and R. S. Sugars. They were silent but telling protests against the
destruction of forest in the Dandenongs (Bonyhady, 123). 20 years earlier,
Joseph Bischoff’s Blue Mountain streamscape, The Valley of the Grose (1875),
complete with milky water fountained through sandstone boulders, joined a
photographic custom already co-opted into conservation rhetoric by Carleton
Watkins’ 1860s photos of Yosemite (Bonyhady, 195). Over a century later, it
was still supposed to be the voice of nature, beyond rhetoric. Yet, from the
moment watery nature was photographed at a slow shutter speed and
encouraged to speak like a milksop, it ceased to speak for itself. Constrained to
emphasize nature’s naturalness, it skirted expectations and started signifying
murkier things.
At first perhaps it might just have been a way to make water’s path visible
and indelible. It perhaps started to signify free flow, or, more murkily, in its
whiteness, purity. From there it was not far from being taken as some kind of
watery Victorian fairy gossamer, and on it goes to soporific Arcadian

enchantments and heavy New Age ethereality. That is just a hypothetical
history. In the social game of association and semantic selection, layer upon
layer of sensibility, at first delicate, is superimposed on fleeting perception in
an extended series of little semantic events, almost imitating the moment-by-
moment prolongation of the photographic exposure. Soon what was transparent
image becomes opaque, and then a murky symbol. The sign given by nature has
drifted into graceless arbitrariness and stale convention. What might have been
a bright image of clear water becomes an unnatural emblem of naturalness,
instantly recognizable for years to come in advertisements for everything from
wilderness to washing-up liquid.
The milky riffle is not a likeness of a natural streamobviouslyit is an
icon of naturalness. In fact the word icon has become a bit of an icon. It comes
from the Greek for likeness, and the philosopher C. S. Peirce used it that way in
the terminology of his semiotics to distinguish likenesses from symbols.
Symbols, for Peirce, were signs that signify by convention, signs that bear no
natural or obvious relation to what they signify. Semiotics has long emphasized
that theirs is an arbitrary relation to what they signify. Nowadays though, an
icon is usually an emblem. The word has undergone a change in its semantic
function. And an emblem is a picture that has undergone a change in its
semantic function. It has become what Peirce called a symbolno longer
transparent and pictorial, but conventional and arbitrary in what it signifies.
Although an icon may have begun life signifying just what it depicts, it has
become a conventional way of symbolizing something else, the way a gum tree
picture signifies an Australianness of landscape, or a lyrebird signifies the
National Parks service.
Deconstructing the algorithm of an image’s evolutionif it is still possible
to work back through the successive layers of variation and selection that have
turned a clear natural image or a brilliant act of capture into an opaque,
arbitrary signis not a way of getting back to the source and finding the
authentic original meaning, or the thing-in-itself. Just go down to the river for
that. What matters at the end of such a process are not the first things, but the
last things, the images we end up with and in whose image we end up seeing
the things themselves.
Such processes take place all through the image culture of nature. Landscape
for instancenot just on the wall but from the look outis country as image,
the spectacle of land. Images of nature cease to be signs that signify by virtue of
their likeness to what they represent. They take on a portion of meaning that is
theirs by the grace or burden of custom, and they start to signify things other
than what they are images of. So if landscape is country as sheer appearance,
the country itself becomes more and more hidden behind that bewitching
spectacle of appearance. Landscape images cease from showing us the land
itself and start signifying certain social attributes of being land. They start to be
used rhetorically to persuade, to advertise, to console, to stimulate, to frame or
grasp or make one feel at home. They become signs of relations like ownership,
appropriation, patriotism, power or aesthetic transcendence. They become

themes abstracted from nature upon which painters undertake variations in
colour, shape and line, variations that are a responses to artistic tradition and
ways of seeing rather than the images of things.
Landscape painting is bound by the iron bands of its conventions, its
allowable material utterly circumscribed, the scope and detail of its look rigidly
censored in an unconscious conspiracy of painters and viewers. Landscape
painters would not deign to reproduce the Philistine, coffee table stuff of most
nature photographers, let alone wildlife photographers. Land only for
themwildlife looks like kitschand the art consists in the way the paint
scapes it, and maybe, to add a dash of meaningfulness, puts some figures in.
Like the painter, the viewers inclining their heads in appreciation fancy that
originality consists in new ways of looking or seeing or showing, ways of
displaying what oft was seen but ne’er before so captured. However the credit
landscape painting is given for showing us nature and how to look at it, and, in
Australia, for disclosing the nation to itself, scarcely conceals how captive we
are in the narrow reality that the genre allows. I feel annoyed for the landscape
painters and photographers whose images are stolen, despite their intentions,
for national histories of their genre or for myths of national self-formation. Not
only does it have little to do with nation, the best landscape hardly dares to
show us nature, let alone capture it. Subjectivity is present in works almost as a
thing falling away, overwhelmed. I think this about the paintings of the
Bellinger School. Its attitude is not capture but gratitude. With astonishment, it
accepts the gifts that nature gives it—shapes, spaces, colours, lines—as things
for it to work with. It is amazed at the shape of that slab of sunlight, the muted
colours of that hill, the uncontrived composition of leaf litter, or the squiggles
of those trees. Style becomes a matter of courteously, carefully picking up the
The willingness to follow this amazement though is probably what leads
landscape painting away form nature and at first to the revelations of formalism
and stepwise by influence and derivation to its dead ends. Landscapes become
like caricatures. Once someone has struck the mould, or found a vocabulary of
features, artists reproduce them as quick and clever ideograms. Eventually, like
the gum-tree-scape, they degrade into logos. The take on reality is completely
artificial, yet so effective that we take landscape’s conventions, arbitrary as they
are, either for clear images of the thing itself, or as brilliant painterly
contrivances whereby the thing in itself is captured wild. Original or skilful
execution reveals an artist’s mastery of the historical implications unfolding
strictly within a genre. Though nature, as Goethe said, has the power to make
even a moderate talent perceptive in its presencewhich is why really careful
drawings always give us pleasurethe power to incline the head of the viewer
lies in what the painter paints: the picture, not the thing pictured. In turn, the
thing pictured starts to look like a picture.
We come to see nature itself as a canvas. Modern landscape has been
founded on the contemplative tradition of experiencing nature as sheer
appearance, indeed according to some customary kinds of appearance, kinds

that indicate the limit of or reify what appearance can be for us. The bush
morphs into landscape and becomes a place alienated form the kind of intimate
experience that was conveyed by say a French Impressionist. One ironclad
convention of Australian landscape, one that almost defines it as art, is the
sublime apprehension of this pre-alienated landscape. The subject of landscape
art is, as the environmental management term would put it, at a landscape
scale. Since realism is a driving ambition behind such painting we believe in
the realism of the images. In order to do so the bush is made into a place of
intrinsically heroic proportions, lacking intimacy of colour and form and
demanding to be represented by a kind of painterly equivalent of the
mythologised national laconic. The Australian impressionism of the Heidelberg
painters is said to be conditioned by the landscape and the bush itself. It is a
view that sits plausibly with the notion that culture grows out of land, but the
supposed realism that the Heidelberg painters are still credited with is more a
case of their participation in romanticized national virtues of stoicism and
laconic representation. This sent all those 20th century painters out into the
desert, instead of idling around the bush in Mosman or Coogee. Imitating the
19th century explorers became a rite of artistic passage. Meanwhile the intimate
representation of the bush is mostly to be found in Aboriginal painting in
genres descended from traditional Aboriginal representation that fall outside of
landscape and morph into contemporary abstraction, or in genres that fall
outside of art altogether, such as botanical illustration or kitsch.
Actual works of nature are utterly unlike this sheer appearance; they teach
us how much landscape is founded not only on conventions but on conventions
of what appearance is, can and should be. Landscapes, not just on canvas but
even wild vistas or prospects seen before us, are cryptograms of specific stages
in artistic history, not natural history. Landscape painters show us emblems of
ourselves, human being not natural being. So completely does the genre take us
in that we are for the most part unconscious that landscape is the negation of
nature. Perhaps nothing prevents us more from seeing nature and nothing limits
our aesthetic experience of it more than the great tradition of landscape. The
same should be said of landscape photography toowhether we are looking at
others’ work or taking our own. We are like the character in the Truffaut film
who has to frame everything like a camera between his fingers.
Landscape photography is probably more difficult than painting. That is just
its historical predicament: So easy and democratic is the technology, so difficult
to rescue style from the oligarchy of advertising. Landscape painters, according
to Louis Aragon, ‘even the most gifted of them—became true ignoramuses'
(Benjamin, 2002, 241). This began when they saw that the camera was a
competitor and they tried not to do things the way it did. Perhaps now this is
what those milky stream images are about. Perhaps photographers saw the
camera as too easy too and tried not to do what it did. Peter Dombrovskis,
whose best photographs turn away from landscape views to meditation on
nature’s minutiae, apparently did not have a high regard for Rock Island Bend.
Even without milky water, such images are degraded to the status of

advertising. They are the stock in trade of tourism, environmental rhetoric,
promotions, education, and national art. Like visual muzak, they appear on
glossies with that tedious sheen that deflects all our idle glances away from
what little is left of their subject matter and into a realm of redundant messages
so instantly recognized that you can’t bear or bother looking any further. Your
eyes can glaze over. There is nothing to see anymore. You cant even light a fire
with the stuff, or mulch a patch of weeds. Any message of such iconography is
subdued by the iron hand of conformity. The wilderness calendar shall have
rugged landscapes mellowed by morning or evening light. The latest car shall
be displayed before a backdrop of sea cliffs or wide brown land. The stream
shall be naturalized by milk. Of course, we were all postmodern once, and
maybe this would all be just good old postmodern nature by now, but we still
yawn and take it seriously enough not to risk doing away with it because we
expect it and expect that everyone else expects it. Certainly, no one seems
nostalgic yet for all this old pop cultural naturalism. We still think it’s timeless
Nature, rather than yesterday’s Nature. We are not game to grumble about it
because that would not be being positive. Someone might think we are sick of
nature itself. It would only encourage them to trash more of it. That is the
trouble with natureit’s just natural and givenso the images of it start to be
taken that way too. Worse though, unless it is rediscovered in the flesh, nature
itself starts to be a yawn.
When, as in Dombrovskis later work, photography meditates on natural
detail, the effect is still not one of intimacy but of sublime apprehension. The
beauty remains that of something seen with an estranged rather than a familiar
eye. It still owes its sensibility to the genre of wilderness photography, a genre
in which Peter Timms (2004) diagnoses rugged, anti-intellectual inclinations, as
a result of which it exhibits both a resistance to the less salutary excesses of
fashionable artworld innovationalism and a ‘certain degree of stagnation.’
These images of plants and rocks and lichens might scarcely escape the
iconographic gravity of advertisements for the natural environment. Yet the
subject matter, although it promises intimacy and familiarity, at first disguises
and then reveals something about nature even in its minutiae: that it is almost
terrifying in its unconcern for others. This is worth showing. It is still
something astonishing about nature, and for that matter, humans.
Perhaps it is time for landscape no longer to be view or prospect or generic
formality. Art has often rescued itself by rescuing the object, and with it
subjectivity, form the burden of convention. Perhaps it could turn to the details
of natural historywhere once it illustrated those of religious, classical or
social narrativeand do it using the sensuous potential of empirical science,
although nature documentaries and wildlife photography might suggest this is a
vain hope. Perhaps the dissociation of scientific from artistic sensibility, in
painters, photographers and viewers, makes landscape art no longer possible
beyond its now aging customary forms, and therefore no longer possible as new
and therefore, as modernity demands, as art. Except, predicaments like this are
just what original art gets us out of or makes a virtue of and only in a way that

we least expect until, in retrospect, the solution seems to have been waiting to

Cinema Landscape

Reviewers of Australian movies like to say, landscape is a character. To

someone lost for words it’s a cliché that must seem an insight. When
Australians tell themselves they need a film culture that tells stories about
themselvesanother clichéthey seem to think landscape tells that story.
Sure, landscape asks to reveal its natural and cultural history but Australian
cinema seldom lets it. As visual propaganda it ends up being a consolation.
When reviewers can only praise the excellence of the performances, the sets or
the special effects we should suspect that this is just consolation for
disappointment in the film. It is the same when they praise the landscape
cinematography. Everything that damages landscape photography damages
landscape cinematography, for cinematography is bound not only by
convention but by money. Even cinema’s gift of motion does not rescue it.
Although landscapes do move and movies show movement, it is usually the
camera that moves. The camera tracks or pans or zooms. The landscape remains
big, still and timeless. That is the image of the nature of Australian landscape. It
is always a view, seldom a place, never a character. It is never so intimate or
responsive. At most it broods. In the iconography of Australian cinema it is the
marketing opposite of quirky, which is reserved for the suburban comedy. Apart
from being view, landscape is emblem. It is unselfconsciously like landscape in
an ad for the latest car or tourist destination. Cinema that uses landscape as if it
was made to give us gorgeous images, or worse, images of the nation, robs
landscape and cinema at the some time. For a quarter of a century though,
Australian audiences have been admiring Australian landscape cinematography,
mainly just proud of ‘the image of Australia’. Perhaps the worst moment in the
cinematography of Australian landscape is in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
where costume and decorative backdrop combine with quirkiness in a confused
promo for patriarchal schmaltz in drag. The compositions seem to come from a
pattern book of received imagery, each selected as a prescribed symbol and
seldom blessed by the intimacy of what Raymond Durgnat (195) called the
‘bundles of feelings’ associated with the characters’ experiences. Landscape
may only show nature as alien, undifferentiated oblivion, at once decorative
backdrop and symbolic. Its talent insulted, no wonder it broods. In Picnic At
Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) it was spooky bush Gothic. There is a
tradition of bush panic in Australian culture and the superstition that generates
it might be fitting subject matter, but the sad old attempt to add a dash of
Gothic and forge a bit more Australian meaningfulness and mythicality from it
is little more enlightened than the superstition itself. In Japanese Story (Sue
Brooks, 2003) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002) landscape is the
automatic signifier of wide brown land and alien desert heart, pure nationalist

iconography. Perhaps it was foreign for the Japanese man in the former and the
stolen girls in the latter. However any geological insight or passion from the
geologist in the former would have dissolved the brooding mystique. Any from
the tracker in the latter would have dissolved his as well as the land’s. In each
of these cases the elements of nature are shuffled round as pieces in the film’s
emblematics resulting in varying degrees of deformation to the reality that was
actually being imprinted on the film. Of course cinema can hardly deny the
emblematic potential of its images. Sometimes I do have to admire landscape,
as in the wild ranges through which Jimmy Blacksmith flees to his tragic end,
or in the wide-open soundscape of the roadside in Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds
(2002). And it comes as a relief to see a film like Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker
(2002) or Rachel Perkin’s One Night The Moon, which are frankly
melodramatic and emblematic in character, landscape, painting and song. There
is a lot to be said for Andre Bazin’s insight regarding the most fulfilling gift of
cinema—namely the way it can just show the moving physical world as it is, as
if there was no deforming intervention between the thing shown and the viewer.
All that is emblematic can and will then form for itself anyway. In Australian
cinema though we don’t see the physical detail for the big emblems. They come
first and take over.

The TV Ecologist; Or Nature On TV

They take for granted that, in the postmodern world, TV has

supplanted nature.

—J. Hoberman, 1987

We know the rules. TV nature documentary rates best when it is about

charismatic megafauna; remarkable photography should be set off by
hackneyed voiceover; the entertainment should turn natural history into
historical romance or an investigation mystery in order to sell 19th century
science (evolution) or 20th century pop ecology (biodiversity, conservation) or a
national advertisement (glossies that move). The take home message is that
there are killer whales out there, or gorillas or polar bears.
This is educating the community. I heard an environmental theorist make
this claim about the edifying function of nature TV. I suspect she was right
insofar as this does appear to be a conscious ambition, and not one of the other
9 out of 10 unspoken or unconscious ones—which can include nationalism and
lifestyle. It is a sad ambition though. If this is the primary function of nature
docoes, then it seems to be showing people out there in the community that
nature isn’t out there with them but somewhere else, and perhaps a little bit in
the past. Although I cant go to the Arctic or Galapagos or Patagonia (and
although I am glad the Parers did) I would prefer to see (as I did once in a doco
whose title now escapes me) scientists working out the fruit dispersal ecology

of small rainforest marsupials, or describing the ecology of a place that was
close to their heart and the object of long and curious observation (as in Places
of the Heart on the ABC’s Reality Bites). Instead there are great barrier reefs of
nature docoes on exotic tourist destinations and megafauna spectacles and none
on the nature of Kur-ing-gai, which is just outside the backdoor of 15% of
Australians, or on the nature just out the back door of most of the viewers. Shot
in some unidentified elsewhwere or some iconic Kakadu or Kimberley, nature
docoes are tales of deracinated wonder or national tourism strategies, not
natural history. They are feats of photography, but abstracted from nature.
Photographers produce astonishing images. Someone then compiles a magazine
from it and a script is dashed off as if to patch the images together or to fill the
silence. All the brilliant conceptual content in the images is sacrificed to the
conceptual ambitions of a brochure. It is not an essay in natural history or
ecology. It is televisual muzak.
TV is vision, but we are told this so often we had better treat it with
suspicion. Actually, TV rivals the second commandment in the bans it places
on images. It represses vision with the ruthlessness of serious neurosis. Think
of the taboo on maps and diagrams. David Attenborough seldom says where he
is, let alone shows a detailed map. TV maps are few and far between, they are
mean in what they show, and they must only last long enough to be not
contemplated or scrutinized. They must only last long enough to be experienced
as mere images of maps, not to be read as a maps. TV is supposed to be about
images, not about reading. Why this secret ban on knowledge, all this
mystification. Is it to protect the secrecy of locations? A freemasonry of nature
photographers? Is it all to make it palatable to the kiddies? Perhaps maps don’t
move enough. Perhaps, because of the small screen and the big pixels, the map
can show Africa in green and maybe the course of the Congo in blue but never
the dot in red where they are filming these chimpanzees. Is it that TV nature is
not vision but only feats of photography? Is it also to protect a certain fictive
licence that the doco makers like to exploit? Maps are an index, pinning images
to the world and reducing a show’s freedom to move unnoticed between
locations and make up the usual trite story about the vision. Drawing maps
forces detail to intrude, reduces the flexibility of production, and constrains the
story. It properly acknowledges ecology’s proper spirit of place. Producers,
however, know they know that viewers don’t want detail.
TV censors images the way it censors almost any non-redundant
information. Just as engineers build a lot of redundancy into signals to ensure
the accurate transmission of information, TV producers build a lot of
redundancy into TV to ensure easy transmission of an easy message. In this the
programs are the same as the ads. Ads work better maintaining known product
sales than flogging new product. TV is mainly about being knowing in a
relaxing, stimulated sort of way, and not about getting to know something you
didn’t already know. And what I know is that only a fool would watch TV
nature docoes expecting to learn more than that there are big animals called
killer whales out there.

By the way, as well as being vision, TV can show vision that moves. Better
still, just as the microscope released us from the confines of human spatial
perception, slow-motion and time-lapse give access to the non-human timescale
of most of natural history. They can reveal the very fast and the very slow. We
can see not just flowers blooming but, as in the BBC’s The Private Life of
Plants, how busy plants are and how slowly and purposefully they are
hastening: the growth of a blackberry is revealed to be also movement and with
a goal. Population dispersal is so slow as to be counterintuitive; evolution even
more so. If we cannot film them, we can animate them by using the conceptual
power of a diagram that moves and changes.
Enter the technology of computer-generated images. Just as TV nature
shows feats of photography, computer animation can show feats of animation.
What goes on show turns out to be a half acknowledged natural history of the
technology itself. Widespread praise for the images in the Walking With
Dinosaurs series, seemed to ignore the clumsy gaits of the Cretaceous players
for no better reason than that the images were state of the art, as advertised, and
teams of scientists and technicians had worked on them. The praise ignored the
clumsy execution as blissfully as the TV technophobes ignored the opportunity
to depict Mesozoic evolution not as historical romance but as a counterintuitive
history waiting to be rendered comprehensible, even to children. The only
historically revealing thing in the show was that the digital images looked like
they have been exhumed from a time capsule buried during the early Silicon
period in the Late Postmodern. As for the plotsscenarios I suppose they
arenatural history becomes sci-fi, sit-com or soap, with a pretentious voice-
over. Geological timescale and a Pangaean landscape (It mostly looks like the
retouched New Zealand of Lord Of The Rings) become grandiose backdrop to
personal evolutionary dramas played out like scenes from a bad video game
crossed with The Bold and the Beautiful and Hammy Hamster’s Adventures on
The Riverbank. This stuff was supposed to appeal to the kiddies, and give
junior dinosaur lovers the world over a bit of authorized palaeobiology in
palatable fast-food, video game form, while their parents could nod knowingly
about advances in image technology and be assured their offspring were not
just off the streets but giving the play station a rest. Wouldn’t it be nice to have
a bit of old newsreel from the Cretaceous; even some stills; even a fossil and a
bit about the science of palaeozoology or evolutionary biology rather than this
day in the life of the extinction of Rex the Tyrannosaurus?
It gets better. We get a reality TV take on nature too. In a British
documentary called Going Ape, living with chimps is pitched as a primate slant
on Survivor. The talenttwo missing links from the genus Homorun with
chimpanzees, living off chimp food and not even carrying water bottles because
chimps apparently don’t. The pitch is: Chimps are so like us that if we weren’t
such thirsty wimps we could live like them. The show demonstrated that the
adventurers shared more genes with chumps than chimps, but also that you can
sell a nature doco on the most craven of pretexts.

Nature’s other place on TV is in the news, not that nature is often news.
Mostly it’s timeless and there is nothing much new about it. It is just nature and
it is out there doing pretty much what nature does most of the time and year
after year. Besides, only vision is news, the corollary of which is that only
vision becomes history. Tidings come second, if at all. So only when it is
spectacular in its disasters and its aftermaths, is nature the talent: earthquakes,
tsunamis, floods, storms, droughts and fires. If it is caught live nature becomes
as good as sport, for sport is made-for-TV history as it happens—the dream
news of televisual culture. All TV news—and therefore history, and therefore
natural history, in the age of TV—aspires to the condition of sport. Otherwise
nature news is just a quirky filler like human interest, or it is a public service or
a poetic essay for late in the bulletin, or it’s not on the news but on the 7:30
Report as a story on environmental politics that they have got in the can for one
night this week when they don’t have to cross to the Prime Minister, or to
Washington, or Djakarta, or, for that matter, to the background on the bushfires
that headed the night’s news.
I heard someone say that they had built a replica of Shakespeare’s house that
was more like Shakespeare’s house than Shakespeare’s house was. Well TV
nature is more like nature than nature is. This is the case on two levels. First,
the places and animals on the docoes, or the natural disasters on the news look
more like nature than nature does when you are there. Not much nature appears
to be happening when you are there because it is just being natural (that is why
the photographers have to hang around waiting for ages). We know this
because, when we actually see this nature that is more like nature than nature is,
we say things like ‘It was like watching a movie’ or ‘It was like you see on TV.’
Second, what we are seeing and being knowing about when we watch nature on
TV is mostly the nature of TV itself.
When people say that we should not separate ourselves off from the natural
world, that we and it and the whole are all connected, and that what we are
doing is impacting on nature so badly because we are part of nature but we are
forgetting that we are, I don’t think that they mean that TV is nature, but that is
only because they, with the aid of many social institutions and much ecological
trompe l’oeil, have made quite an effort to forget this and as a result they are
not thinking anywhere near as holistically as nature actually is. TV is more like
the hurricane or killer whale or polar bear than it is like the images it shows of
these things. In the world of culture, TV is a force of nature. In its own effects
on the world, particularly on human populations and their habitat, it is as
ecological as the weather. It is like climate change, sweeping over us
relentlessly, and unlike the greenhouse gas induced phenomenon, its existence
and effects are pretty much indisputable and already faits accomplis. So since
TV is nature in tooth and claw itself and most of us are television ecologists
with PhDs or equivalent in the discipline of its natural history, and we observe
the small screen with sublime knowing eyes, I think we can say that only a
dysfunctionally close, myopic, scrutinizing viewerlike someone with autistic
tendencies or someone with a hell of a lot of sophisticated-high-cultural-

criticism equipment or moral-panic equipmentis going to not turn it off or
not just leave it on and do something else, and instead, look at it in just the
right unironic, unsublime, unbeing-knowing way (and we can all do this too or,
as they say, role play it, because it is just another part of being knowing) needed
to see past everything else and peer down through all the recursions of TV’s
wildly self-referential nature to something like the natural environment as it
actually is or even just to an image of it. And mostly, that natural environment
is just not going to be there, not just because the nature doco is just one modest
genre among many more banally immoderate ones, or because nature on the
news is just one very occasional bit of vision, but because when you stare down
through recursion on recursion, and through images of images, what is there is
not much more than a grain of nature in the oyster of the medium and, indeed,
once it has completed its function of irritating the televisual system into its
immune response, the grain can mostly just disappear. All that is left is the after
image of a killer whale and the magnificent autoimmune response of TV to
If TV has supplanted nature, it has supplanted it like the shopping mall has.
It has supplanted it as something to do, or as a place to stroll, or as something
to leave on in another room, or to turn off. It has supplanted it recreationally
not ontologically. Even then, nature as in the natural environment is still a
lifestyle choice. Ontologically TV, like the mall or the killer whale, is nature
too. Like the killer whale or the ant it is approximately amazing.

12.2 …As The Image Of Australia

The Bush, Or The Nature Of Australia

Explainers of Australia to Australians sometimes ponder the canonization of

Ned Kelly. Perhaps they cannot really believe Ned’s status. After all, his story
is a bit dull—more the stuff of the remaindered pop literary novel than the
legend that a people cannot help but recite. All too aware of the nation’s
foundation well after the great age of myths and in the empty age of humdrum
modern history, Australian mythographers imagined they had little else to work
with. There was an empty landscape out there and someone had to be made to
appear in it. Sidney Nolan did the traditional, profound artistic thing: he
fashioned a figure to fill the void. He had to make myth because myth, like war,
is what is great and profound. Nation is the handy, profound theme lying
around in the junkyard of themes, and myth, like war, is the expected thing for
a nation. So, although perhaps not intending any national mythography himself,
Nolan put a figure in the empty landscape of, variously, Australian culture,
Australian mythopoesis, and the Australian bush. Robert Drewe, Peter Carey,
Gregor Jordan and many a would-be mythographer have followed suit, spinning
yarns and turning profits, all doing their bit in various states of national self-
consciousness, to build the thing up, until the myth making itself has become a

social phenomenon, a media event, a myth in itself. So the real great Australian
myth is not the Ned Kelly story, or Gallipoli, but the myth-making, the quest for
spiritual profundity, the quest to fill simultaneously the empty heart of
Australia, the empty inspiration of the artist, the empty page or the empty
The emptiness could be spiritual, existential, or just plain idle. Ned is not so
much an Irish-Australian Robin Hood, a defender of battlers, a rebel, a tragic
hero, or a symbol of Australians’ much mythologized ideology of underdogs,
larrikins, and anti-authoritarians, as he is a placeholder, a cardboard cut-out,
just as Nolan depicted him, a cut-out who has grown and grown in just the way
mythological figures do, because of the peculiar selection pressures for national
self mythologization at work in Australian society. If Ned hadn’t existed then
Australia would have had to invent himand it did. The bush is just like Ned:
something that we might find a bit dull really, but we need it to make ourselves
seem interesting. We need it as the backdrop to our Neds. We need the image of
nature for the sake of Australia’s image.
People want certain words to be takenor mistakenin many ways. It
might be a way of making something big, many faceted and mythic. In one of
its guises, the bush can refer to any bit of native vegetationwhat is also called
the natural environment if you need to sound technical. In particular, it is used
to refer to any bit of useless, hard-leaved vegetation growing on infertile,
uncultivated soilssometimes called scrubor to vegetation that is not
rainforest (also called scrub). In another sense, the bush can refer to rural
societywhat political language took to mincing up in the phrase rural and
regional Australia. In its most general sense, the bush is a term for everything
that is not the city, socially or biologically. As the saying goes: Sydney or the
bush. In this sense it matches the etymology of the word country, the old
European term that was to designate what is not (as in contra) the city. In
Australia country used to mean rural and regional Australia before that
catchphrase became the way to sound inclusive, and before bush took hold of
urban namedroppers wanting to sound au fait with bush lore. Bush, like Ned, is
schmaltzed rough Irish to the genteel Anglo-Scottish country. Like mate, it is
often larded with an over-familiarity that sounds ingratiating, over-familiar,
patronising or patrioticbut it can’t answer back with a line like …and don’t
call me mate! Nowadays country is used by Aborigines for their country, and
by more cautious non-Aborigines trying to avoid landscape because landscape
is supposed to sound like a European imposition on Aboriginal country. Land
is variously what people own, what Aborigines belong to, what farmers are on,
the bush (in all its senses), or country (in all of its senses). Landscape is what
painters do, what land managers work on, or the scale (i.e. landscape scale) at
which they would like to imagine us all doing their work. Countryside is
something in England or Tuscany or somewhere. Only sometimes do bits of it
turn up in Australia.
There is no doubt that the bush can be plundered for the mythologization of
the nation’s spiritual predicament. And it is no wonder that a particular version

of the way society reflects geography took hold of the national imagination,
namely the suspicion that, like the continent itself, Australian culture has an
empty heart; that it is, at heart, a desert devoid of myth.

The red centre, the dead centre. So it has seemed to European eyes.
The centre, the heart, of this continent remains little known,
threatening even, to those of us who have clung for dear life on its
coastal fringes. It feels unnerving to be this far from the ocean.
Ignorant of the geographic heart of the land, have we at the same time
blinded ourselves to its spiritual heart?

Many have written this or something like it. It is a traditional way of saying
something that passes for profound analysis of Australian society. It is also a
guiding and self-fulfilling myth. The nation must struggle to face its spiritual
void, and not just, like me, cling for dear life to these coastal fringes. Think of
Voss, or the historical accounts of explorers, or all those paintings of landscape
that are never just nature pictures but sublime expeditions in spiritual
colonizationglorious negotiations with, comings to term with, and capturings
of some true Australia. Nowadays heroic tourists still re-enact the explorers
quests in their travels; and they re-enact the artistic quest in their photos.
Meanwhile those coastal fringes remain as little known as the rest of the place.
Less. They are the unconscious nature that we drive by or fly over on our way
to the holiday. The bush as spiritual void or as something dangerous to come to
terms with or as a kind of Arcadia—these are all romantic delusions.
There are few objects so resolutely kept unconscious in Australia as the
bush. Perhaps only the beach rivals it. It’s done by constant exposure.
Knowledge is assumed by everyone as a national birthright, and it is understood
and explained by a litany of platitudes. A topic for all seasons, the bush is
always ready for slotting into the weekend magazines as the object of careless,
assured, knowing articles on bushfires, bemused foreign tourists, the world’s
deadliest snakes, the dead heart and the wide brown land. Nothing is deemed
better to demonstrate any topic’s intellectual worthiness than a display of its
relevance in the interminable discourse of national definition. The bush ceases
to have biological and geophysical substance and becomes a cipher about
Australia maturing as a nation.
Pressed for a winning environmentalist argument, the ecologist Hugh
Possingham suggested that a compelling reason for conserving biodiversity is
the national one of forging an identity by developing an intimate relation with
the bush. He was falling back on an old standby, patriotism as the last refuge of
justification. Tim Flannery, in an Australia Day address about the land called it
‘the only thing we all, uniquely, share in common. It is at once our inheritance,
our sustenance, and the only force ubiquitous and powerful enough to craft a
truly Australian people.’ Geography is supposed to be destinybut in Australia
it somehow hasn’t been yet. Perhaps because Australia is many places and

Australians don’t share it all in common. Or perhaps we are just modern and
living somewhere else.
There are some such as the legal academic Helen Irving who say that calls
like Flannery’s for an Australian culture grounded in Australian nature ‘feeds a
distrust of the foreign’. Irving’s bit of off-the-rack critique appeared in a semi-
glossy that runs a lot of lifestyle cultural criticism between uppish-market car,
holiday, furniture and tech ads, the Fairfax Good Weekend, (1/2/3). As an
argument it is specious enough to get people in. Irving uses the argument as a
lemma to singing the praises of a supposedly maligned Australian city culture.
In order to praise the city she makes a straw dummy of the bush advocates. Her
argument turns on a sleight of hand: having got readers to suspend disbelief in
the fact that no one is being forced to choose between Sydney and the bush,
Irving concludes that ‘we should not be forced to choose between them.’ One
thing is for sure though, what Possingham, Flannery and Irving all share is that
pronoun we. And it’s not we the people, it’s we Australians. I can’t see why,
whoever we are, we would want to defend Sydney or the bush as merely
Australian or merely ours.

Natives; Or Nature In The Garden

By natives I don’t mean indigenous people or people born in and of a

particular place. I mean plants. But not quite plants in and of themselves and
not quite plants native to a particular area. In Quadrant once, Leonie Kramer
chastised multiculturalism for being a concept and an ideology whose very
name and concept was as absurd conceptually and ideologically as, say,
something called horticulturalism. However natives are an instance of
horticulturalism, although, if it is any consolation, perhaps not a very
multicultural horticulturalism. Natives are more a kind of horticultural or
environmental nationalism than a selection of plants of entirely local
provenance or in proportions that reflect the given proportions of the natural
vegetation composition at a particular site. To make this quite clear: in Sydney,
which has been built on some of the most beautiful heath in the known
universe, and where plenty of people have sung the praises of, declared
allegiance to and prided themselves on native gardens, no one has ever planted
a garden of natives that might reproduce the wonder that their suburb has
obliterated. Well, maybe someone has, but if so, I would need to see it before I
would be convinced. A native gardena truly native garden, rather than just
nativeswould demand of the gardener a ruthlessly purist horticulturalism and
a willingness to get rid of nearly everything that was in the garden at first, a
heartless determination to insult all one’s well-meaning (or sometimes I suspect
garden-manipulative) friends and refuse all those gifts of cuttings, pot plants,
prized hand propagated seedlings (and from native seed too, collected ‘on our
holiday’) and the like. Instead of a set menu, gardening is a bit like a bring-a-
plate barbecueat best with a theme like ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘SE Asian’ or
‘Indian’, or in the case of a native garden ‘Australian’.

Gardens are like families: you can’t choose them; and most are a bit
unhappy in much the same way. Gardeners are mostly bowerbird types who
can’t forever resist that grevillea from Queensland with the mauve flowers, that
boronia from Victoria, or that flowering rainforest tree from Mullumbimby.
Everyone is a sucker for a little deviant something sometime, and in gardening
deviance is straight. There are a lot of good native gardens, but like most
Australian gardens their sensibilityacknowledged or notis kind of camp.
Outside of being an absolute zealot, a mad-eyed fundamentalist or a bio-Nazi it
would be impossible to mount the single-minded vigilance and evil herbicidal
genius needed to plant and police the purist native garden of your absolutely
unalienated pleasure. And even then, in Sydney say, the urban transformation
of famously sandy soils into a complex irrigated anthropogenic geology of
topsoil-imported, subdivision-levelled, horizon-shuffled, run-off-enriched,
garden-fertilized substrate would make most heathland xeromorphs turn up
their leaves trying to get their roots out of the eutrophic concoction. So show
me that garden of Sydney flora in Sydney and I will expect to find a maker who
exhibits one or all of the above psychopathological traits, and a pleasure garden
that is more a sadist’s den, a reign of terror or a state of emergency. Ah, but I
would love to see such a thing. More than the most pristine wilderness.
And if the native garden is a national thing it is, like the nation, a bit
multicultural. So the native garden will have that jacaranda from South America
(‘We couldn’t cut it down’ or ‘I always thought jacarandas were native’), those
camellias from China (‘I have always loved camellias’), gladdies (‘The bulbs
keep coming up, and you have got to admit…’), an orange or a lemon (‘You’ve
got to eat’), lawn (somewhere for the kids to play and still more national than
natives), weeds (of course) and the red bottlebrush, the five cultivars of
grevillea (to attract the birds), the small ‘flowering’ gum, the teatree, the
ambitious stab at a waratah or a Christmas bush or a banksia from WA (usually
at some stage of unsuccess), andmandatory now on first plantingthe
woodchip mulch streamed off into the gardening and landscaping market from
shiploads of chipped eucalypt forests that once grew in a native forest as remote
in mind and geography as possible. Yes, that is the native garden; and you
don’t have to water it, and it looks after itself.

Bush Tucker

Pablo Neruda began his autobiography declaring that those who had not
walked through the great Araucaria forests of Chile had not walked on earth. I
would say something similar about eating the Araucaria nuts of the Bunya
Mountains. Out of the heavy green spiked cones that drop like maces from
these great Gondwanic conifers come fresh cream coloured nuts, as plump as
bantam eggs, as fragrant as lychees, as sweet as chestnuts, dense and waxy.
Proceeding autobiographically: one way I was led into the bush was by way
of my mouth, by taste. The brilliant flower strewn heaths of the Sydney
sandstone would not be considered the most fruitful country, but tasting the

little green fruits of the five corner and the ten corner, sipping flowery nectar
from banksias, grevilleas and mountain devils, nipping a leaf of sweet
sarsaparilla in my front teeth and sucking the bitter sweet as I walked, or
carrying a skinned geebung in my mouth for an hour and sucking at its matted
chocolate bitter sweetness were all part of finding my way into that country.
These are all walking foods, things idly chewed and sucked while doing
something else. My guides on these walks were Joan and Alan Cribb (1976).
Blessed by unappreciation, no one thinks to commodify them and they
therefore remain in a kind of paradise of unforeclosed bounty. Not like that
peculiar market culture of bush tucker.
From out of the intersecting social pressures of
commodifiabilityperceived entrepreneurial opportunity, ease of propagation,
culture, harvesting, distribution, market demand, Australianness, and culinary
convenience, all with token nods towards Aboriginal cuisinesa strange
postmodern culture of bush foods evolved in the last decades of twentieth
century. Lemon myrtle, wattle seed, rosella jam (not actually native), riberries,
crocodile and ‘coat of arms’ (a national variation on ‘surf and turf’ combining
the emblematic kangaroo and emu) are all more or less tasty commodities that
evoke this culture. Fungi—forest mushrooms, puffballs, russulas, wood ears—
don’t stand a chance. Too ephemeral, too hard to identify, too dangerous.
Native yams, wombat berries and orchid tubers, too meager. Midgim berries,
too small to harvest. Cobra or jidee, the shellless wood boring estuarine
mollusk, too slimy, too hard to harvest. Scrub nettle, stings too much. Seaweed,
not Japanese enough. Bush lemons, passionfruits, guavas—all growing feral in
the Bellinger valley—and weedy greens like amaranth, not Australian enough.
Bunya nuts, too long to grow, too hard to shell, too much trouble.
Strange that Macadamia nuts are seldom thought of as bush food. Likewise
seafood. It is always kangaroo, croc, lemon myrtle, bush tomatoes and
wattleseed. It’s always anti-regional because it proceeds from those nationalist
ideas of the bush or Australia being all one place and all marketable as a
package. It is always postmodern because the uses and recipes have all been
made up for the last book. There is no thousand years of cultural selection
stored in a particular dish. Instead it always nods in the direction of Aboriginal
food but prefers to plate a roo with drizzles of riberry rather than throw a whole
beast on the coals and divide the meat and offal among those present.
So there a couple of bush foods I would just like to praise. One is the native
raspberry or Rubus rosifolius. Just rubus will do. It gives off an extraordinary
musky scent when you brush through its low green prickly foliage. A Dunghutti
acquaintance told me his mother used the aromatic tea made from the leaves for
treating bellyache. They can form a dense cover in moist forest clearings,
initially colonizing by seed and eventually establishing and shooting up from
rhizomes and growing to a metre high. In a succession of regeneration that
followed the weeding of lantana in the bottom of a gully, it took five years for
them to become the dominant species. They came after the ground ferns and
before perennial herbs gave way to tree and vine canopy. They flower best after

rain in spring or autumn. The bright red fruits that follow the white rosy flowers
are regarded as kid stuffcolourful but insipid, the sweetness falling far short
of the red advertising, a little too seedy, something to taste or nibble while you
walk past. They too fall into that unforeclosed bounty of the bushwalk category.
You occasionally hear people recall having picked a saucepan-full in their
childhood. Maybe their mothers cooked them. Recollection fond, current
estimation indifferent. That seems to be as much of a culinary tradition as they
have been deemed worthy. But that sweet scent of the foliage is there in the
fruits too. It is like nothing else, except perhaps the essence of all the world’s
rubus distilled into one species. That bright red does not advertise the simple
gratification of sweetness but instead a complex aromatic pleasure. Cook this
fruit or make jam from it and it has no equal.
The other is the bunya. When I first began collecting the fallen cones from
under the limited number of mature female bunyas I know, I used to worry that
they would become a widely eaten item and that the source would dry up
meeting a huge demand. Now I know that at the end of nearly every January I
can find enough to keep the pantry full for the month or two they keep fresh.
Quite a few people have tried bunyas. Some collect the odd cone. Few eat them.
Fewer eat them in any volume. Most people who have tried them seem to have
had them roasted, like chestnuts. They steam and pop and split and squeeze
some of their flesh out of a woody shell that is about the thickness and texture
of one layer of peeled ply. I guess the great crowds of people who used to travel
to the Bunya Mountains in southern Queensland and who would climb the 50m
trees using notched toe-holds so that they could get the earliest and most
aromatic nuts would have eaten a lot this way. But the great indigenous bunya
culture has passed on without much in the way of heirs. No one, say, roasts
fresh bunyas and sells them in the street. Roasting them is something people
might do once or twice with a few nuts as a curiousity at a late January
barbecue. This is one way to cook Bunyas. It is bit unreliable: the nuts can
explode if you don’t nick them before roasting; a lot of flesh can be lost; the
flesh can dry and burn; the hot nuts are hard to peel. It is mainly a supposedly
fun thing to do.
I suppose opening the nuts is an issue. By issue I mean that it is a problem
that hangs around at a level of consciousness just high enough to discourage
efforts and just low enough for no-one to care: whenever the possibility of
eating bunyas comes up the issue is lurking if not articulated. It is the same with
most nuts, which are sold shelled. With a whole bunya cone in handall 4 to 9
kilos of itthe first thing is to break it up by removing each of the large green
spirally arranged scales and stripping each woody, egg-shaped seed (the nut so
called) from its housing in the scale. Given reasonable fertilization, one cone
yields a basket of 70 or so nuts. I prefer then to split a fresh nut with a cleaver,
length wise, and to remove the shell and red brown skin. I then poach the two
halves for 20 minutes. If I want the nuts whole, I peel them with a strong hand
and a pair of pliers, but this is slower. When a poached nut comes out of the pot
it is smooth, dense, slippery, soft and aromatic, and ready to eat plain. When

you are ready for sacrilege you can toss it in macadamia or olive oil or butter
and herbs. Most people think chestnuts when they try to think of how to use
bunyas. The nuts are alike in requiring a similar amount of preparation,
different in that the bunya is much more waxy than floury. Some might think of
the jackfruit nut dishes of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Bunyas are perfect poached
in aromatic stocks with things like chili, turmeric, galingale, garlic, shallot,
ginger, coconut and yes lemon myrtle. Or slowly cooked with meat and stock or
tomatoes. The main thing is not to let them dry out. I have also chopped or
ground the boiled nuts and used them in sausages, stuffing for poultry and
pesto, and in sweet cakes, and nut loaves. The main problem in baking is the
tendency for the meal to dry out and bake hard. You can also dry the nuts to a
chalky consistency and grind them into a sweet, light flour—a bit like the pulse
flours used in Indian and southern European cooking.
I think the classic way to cook bunyas is like Brillat-Savarin’s unknown
‘new star’: it’s waiting to be discovered. But you need a culture to do that, and
not the niche market culture of bush-tucker. So I am told, one guru of the niche
read and reified its requirements by giving the sweetest plumpest bit of the bush
no chance of taking off. So weighing in at a creamy, plump 8-10gm per peeled
nut with 40% carbohydrate, 10% protein and 2% unsaturated fat, Bunyas are
deemed to be too slow to grow, too unknown to consumers’ tastes, too risky to
market, too difficult to open, too slow to harvest, and too low in returns to be
considered as a commercial food crop. They’re not our culture.
Last week I visited a bunya plantation—a couple of thousand trees on a
couple of hectares up on the eastern Dorrigo. Last year two friends and I took
what we wanted from tons and tons of bunyas left to sprout and rot on the
ground. NSW State Forests grows wood not food. Who would want the things?
When I got there last week they had cut down 90% of the trees. The wood I
have heard is supposed to be the best native timber for guitar soundboards.
Taking 90% of the males, and leaving 10% of them to fertilize the females
would have been too much like finesse, way beyond the market driven
incompetence of industrial forestry. Approximately 0% will end up in guitars.
Meanwhile we can all just sprinkle lemon myrtle over everything and taste
authentic Australiana that way.

12.3 …As Environmental Issue

Apocalypse Yesterday, Or The Natural History Of The Future

We are futurist to the point of bigotry

—William Lines, 2003

The futuristic is the theology of modernity. Histories of the future are its
guiding myths. Out of all proportion to its truth or beauty the future’s highly
schematic, counterfactual history is nowadays told more often than that of any

other time and in more versions. In environmental culture, the future outdoes
the pristine as the most imagined of times, and as even more imaginary. For
there is nothing about it. The fact that the future is not a fact and that most of
its histories are as wrong as holocaust denials should alert us that the primary
function of future histories is anything but truth. At their best they are aids
proper to teleological prudence: you acknowledge some future event or
circumstance not as a necessity but as some possible end that you have to work
at either avoiding or achieving. However future management has become a
funded department of intellectual endeavour and, in the ruthless separation of
social functions, social commentary, prediction, planning and action are
severed from one another. They are separate divisions of labour, separate social
systems. The histories of the future become disembodied myths, ads, daydreams
or fantasies, their teleological design redeployed to some other function. They
take on a life of their own.
Most future histories are allegories of the more or less recent past told on the
pretext of interpreting the present predicament, and indeed, we are so late
finding out about the present that it is something we are obliged only dimly to
foresee. Almost every invitation to provide some comment on the meaning of
contemporary events is interpreted as an invitation to speculate on the future, to
consider something like, but not quite the same as, fate or destiny, to reveal
yourself as a prophet and take pride in your story before its proof. We are all
familiar with the way that the news, when it becomes news commentary,
degenerates into a history of the future. This follows from the intimate relation
of time and meaning: the meaning of events is revealed in their outcome. To
validate an interpretation of the present, a commentator borrows from the
judgement of implacable history, but before it’s either implacable or history. It
is an all too tempting transaction, far less risky than futures trading, because the
debt may well be forgotten by the time history matures or fails to mature.
Histories of the future try to buy prestige and maybe political change with
cheap words. It’s advertising at its most obsessive—whether for the product or
the teller—and it sounds depressingly (and predictably) like the last few years
being writ larger, and again and again. The environmentalist canon has a future
day of reckoning as an article of faith. Technophile future optimists are happy
to announce a coming golden age, taking advantage of the future’s vast
conditionality, since it allows them to loosen all ecological, technological and
social constraints. Both sound like the nightmares from the past.
Ten or fifteen years ago it was common to hear environmentalist celebrities
warn of ecological catastrophe in ten years time. This precise dating was a
worryand sometimes out of the mouths of scientists who would quibble
about the accuracy of carbon dating or hedge guesses with phrases like
sometime in the Pleistocene. The fact that it has not happened might have made
environmentalism a thing of the pastwe and nature suffering all the more for
it. The problem was that those great communicators of environmentalism were
players in a political system where they could resist anything but political
fashion and rhetorical temptation, and they resorted to good old apocalyptic

claims. They forgot that it takes more than fashionability to survive in
modernity’s wilderness of fashion. Nothing in modernity can afford to become
dated, and within 10 years they managed to make their future of nature seem so
dated that only some kind of camp sensibility might have been able to revive it,
at least until it comes back into fashion like the 1970s. They were far too ready
to ignore their own advice about looking at the long term, and to exempt their
rhetorical actions from their own precautionary principle. And they forgot
about the nature of nature and the nature of the war waged against it.
It is mainly a long, relentless tyranny of small decisions. It is a social
phenomenon largely alienated from individual human intentions and arbitrary
in defying our individual interests in good human habitat. Its support is
widespread and often unconscious, and those who carry it out usually have an
office and they generate cash from it to keep it going. They justify their actions
by saying that the effects will be negligible, and any mess will be tidied up
(they will replant the trees), and they have little trouble concealing the fact that
immense historical changes to the cultural forms of nature are the algorithmic
outcome of negligible actions repeated. It is second nature and we are all
conspirators. Worse, as it proceeds, we warm to it, depend on it and live off it
as we would if we had never had it so good, and we entertain ourselves with
our histories of the futureabout that frog breast-stroking in the warming
cauldron of history, the ecological rivets popping one by one from the fuselage
of civilization, extinctions accruing like the debts of profligates, football fields
of rainforest disappearing, transgenics breeding, plagues spreading, teratogens
insinuating and oceans risingallegories that are as much about the teller’s
mood as the time’s troubles in the form of sci-fi, urban myth, and Hollywood
disaster entertainments for aficionados of apocalypse and post-apocalypse
genres. It can all sound like the fun the faithful had with their interpretations of
the Book of Revelation.

It should be no surprise then that there are those who are skeptical of the
warnings of environmentalism. There are debates over the existence (now or in
future) of global warming, over what it will entail, over whether we can stop or
ameliorate it, over whether we should, over whether there is an environmental
crisis (now or in future), over whether extinctions are increasing and whether it
matters anyway, over whether it is just a blip in the magnificent cavalcade of
geological time, or over whether we have never had it so good. Bjørn
Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist more the work of a prurient
contrarian than a skepticattracted some dismal reactions. First (and most self-
servingly) there were those who embraced the opportunity of a gospel justifying
their own faith and misdeeds. Then there were those who demanded Lomborg’s
official censuring by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty. A
committee was convened and it deemed that Lomborg’s book did indeed ‘fall
within the concept of scientific dishonesty’ and was ‘contrary to the standards
of good scientific practice’, although they absolved Lomborg of dishonest
‘intent or gross negligence’. It did all seem a bit like an inquisition against

blasphemy in a discipline (i.e. empirical science) whose strength is that claims
must openly face negation by good research and well argued denial. After all
the book was just another diatribea constitutionally one-eyed genreeven if
its rhetorical ploy, aided by a fanfare of footnotes and abetted by the Cambridge
University Press imprimatur, was to look like a formidable scientific treatise. It
is a ploy that is not exactly unknown among the ranks of environmentalists.
Lomborg’s one-eyed contrariness towards evidence for environmental
problems deployed a method of self-deluding selectiveness that is quite
common in scientific culture, especially amongst propagandists for abstract
skepticism. Indeed, it is not so different from the methodological skepticism
used by the critics of scientific culture who have twigged that nothing that is
merely empirical can be guaranteed by the hallmark of certainty. Maybe it
might have been better for critics to entertain, and be entertained by, the book’s
theses and to use them to sharpen wits instead of being provoked into a moral
panic that the message would set back the environmental cause for years. The
blasphemy panic demonstrated the way that rhetorical demands can distort
scientific culture and nature culture: we either censor ourselves (as we do
unhesitatingly when it comes to the aesthetics of nature) or would like to censor
Third (most dismally) there were those unprepared risers to the bait who, in
the face of Lomborg’s datacopia, were reduced to blithering calls for assertions
of faith in some kind of Green credo of apocalypsethat we should believe we
are coming to some terrible end but yes, if we have faith, we can do something
about it.
Lomborg’s work answers a common kind of controversialist desire. Perhaps
it is a feature of contemporary society this cultural warrior stuff, the arse end of
the debates between right and left. It fills opinion pieces and pulp non-fiction.
People get their daily dose of gratification reading it. It stimulates by mild
irritation, but the pleasure is slight, like squeezing pimples or scratching
mosquito bites. The book was not so formidable or entertaining as its ads
blurbed, and scarcely well enough argued to reward its reading.
Environmentalism, so in need of a critique, did not get the criticism it deserved.
Lomborg strings together a lot of iconic moments in the history of exaggerated
environmentalist rhetoricthe Litany he calls itand shoots off at them in a
scattergun approach that tries to look exhaustive. It is too broad, too shallow
and too piecemealnot unlike a lot of environmentalist tracts, whether
programmatic or managerial. Like all bad critique it defeats straw dummies. It
refuses to entertain and thereby be confronted by the strength of its opponent’s
thinking. In doing so it fails to marshal that strength in its own theses on what
is wrong and what we should do, theses that are more promised than delivered
In Lomborg’s chapter on biodiversity, beyond questioning exaggerated
claims about the rate of species extinctions, Lomborg limits himself to a fly
over discussion of the value of biodiversity and a quick critique of theories of
island biogeography and habitat fragmentation. He asks but avoids answering

whether biodiversity is important. This is a hard question and deserves better
than the glib answers, environmentalist or Lomborgian. He argues by
formulating what he presumes to be accepted popular opinion (or the glib
environmentalist opinion) on such a questionnamely that what matters for
most people is big charismatic fauna rather than insects and bacteria, and that
the latter might at best be valuable for drugs and as yet unknown economic
uses. He then refutes these postulated popular opinions, by saying that mostly
biodiversity is about insects and such, that people have been misled to think
otherwise, and that there is not a lot a pharmacological or other economic value
that can be easily retrieved from such biodiversity. He then implies dismissal of
the whole questionwithout having actually mentioned the standard
ecotechnocratic claim that biodiversity provides ecosystem services, such as,
for example, the food chains and niches we need for natural resources.
In his critique of theories of island biogeography and related theories of
fragmentation he tries to take on what must be seen as the highly conjectural,
empirically dubious theoretical basis for so much conservation practice and
politics in Australia. He counters theories about the relation between area of
habitat and species diversity (and extinctions) with a couple of
counterexamples. There is no shortage of them, especially if one’s theory
extrapolates from the biogeography of oceanic islands to that of isolated
fragments on a single landmass—that is fragments of one type of community
(such as rainforest) in a matrix of another type of community (such as
agricultural grassland). Despite, and also because of, its applied ecological
relevance, nothing makes ecology seem so dismal a science as its theories of
fragmentation and their empirical counter-instances. Yet Lomborg botches his
critique by underestimating what he is criticizing. In Puerto Rico he cites
research that says in the colonial period 99% of the primary forest has been
cleared, that some has been replaced by secondary forest, and that of 60 bird
species 7 have become extinct. However, he says, there are now 97 species of
birds. How fortunate! He does not say where they come from and leaves us to
wonderor to assume that colonial forest disturbance has somehow created 44
new species or that 44 species from other places have invaded in the colonial
period. Sooner than going to Lomborg’s source to seek the information his
argument omits, I would prefer to help Lomborg mount the same argument
about Australian mammals. There have been 10 extinctions (6%) out of the 146
species in 1788 when the First Fleet landed (Fox, 1995); but there are many
more mammal species now when one counts the introductions that have gone
feral. And for good measure, in the case of plants, there are about 100 extinct
(0.5%) out of the 20,000 in 1788; but there are many more introduced weeds to
more than replace them. There are about fifty new self-propagating species right
outside my door. I must assume that Lomborg neglects to say of Puerto Rico
what I have neglected so far to say of Australia: that although there are more
species of mammals and plants on the continent, there are 10 fewer mammals
on the globe. As far as Lomborg is concerned though, we mustn’t have needed

them. It all seems so far away from here in the tallowwood forest. I don’t think
he mentions weeds at all.

Meanwhile. Stories about the future always lack detail. This is true of the
science fictions as well as the ecological models and the niggling
environmentalist worries about the future. The detail is the most unpredictable
stuff, and, of course as detail it is merely mere and not important in the big
picture. This makes images of the future variously simplistic, schematic, and
strangely archaic lookingeven futuristic visions, utopian and dystopian, are
hideously lacking in the cultural and natural complexity of contemporary life.
Because nature is so dazzling in its particularity, the future in its lack of detail
looks denatured. I cannot think of a futuristic science fiction that was full of
wild nature. It is as if the very genre of history of the future is conveniently pre-
denaturalized just for these allegories of ecological dystopia.
I don’t believe in optimism or pessimism. I can never remember which is
better: only half empty or only half full. Whether you are an optimist or
pessimist seems irrelevant. Self-styled optimists seem a bit desperate. So-called
pessimists seem to have to remain cheerful to help the optimists forget their
desperation. Choosing one or the other seems like no more than swearing to an
article of faith, and I reject the faith that foists these categories on us. It only
brings environmentalism back to the vexed but banal question: Whether, given
the talk of apocalypse and faith, there is too much religiosity or spirituality
about environmentalism or at least little too much zealotry. Plenty have said
so: some, who in what they see as a sadly faithless age, envy the green faith;
others who worry that it is a problem in a fortunately faithless age. Frankly,
things just look pretty bleak already to me. There is a lot of wreckage piled up
already and things are scarcely getting better. And I can’t worry too much about
the future when we haven’t got over the past.
Citing apocalyptic history of the future as the ground of environmentalism is
useless theologizing a lot of the time. It is a bit like that disembodied voice long
ago in Roman times proclaiming the death of the Great God Pan. The death of
nature has been predicted, proclaimed and happened many times. It was
apocalypse yesterday for a lot of nature, and a lot of people are quite used to the
post-apocalypse world. They have grown to quite like it. They have known
nothing better, weeds are just another bit of biodiversity, things are going all
right, and we will take care of things through good old human ingenuity. That’s
progress. The forests of the Bellinger are full of the scare tissue of lantana,
privet and camphor laurel. It is just a pitylike the Murray being full of carp or
the river red gums dying or there being a bit too much salt in places or there not
being much grassy white box woodland any more, but that is all water under the
bridge and a small price to pay for modern prosperity. People who worry about
it are told to move on and lighten up.

Selling Nature

By the late 20th century a distinct and unprecedented discipline of

environmental philosophy had developed. It had a long cultural descent,
paralleled in several societies, and in its latest modification it had all the
features it needed to colonize and propagate itself in the society of late
modernity: it described and theorized the sensed urgency of the ecological
predicament; it worked at providing reasons justifying the practices of the green
social movement; it was able to articulate a political program for the green
movement; it was able reflect on and generate its concepts within the existing
social environment of popular and academic culture; and it was able to supply
its thought according to the demands and standards that had come to
characterize those of the discipline called philosophy. One of the more
persistent features of this environmental philosophyone that might almost
have seemed like a defining featurewas a search for the true ground of
environmental ethics.
This was typical philosophy. You keep questioning reasons until you arrive
at the ultimate reason. Ethics has chronically been diverted by metaphysics, and
in this search for ultimate reasons you plum the metaphysical depths for the
ultimate metaphysical or ethical principle. It had all the features of philosophy
in its often naïve but enduring quest for first principles. It is enduring because it
finds a recurring psychic environment, in each human generation, namely that
of the naïve philosophical psyche that needs to seek reasons and can do so
obsessively at least until it recognizes its own behaviour as a proper and new
object for scrutiny. Someone might then see that their metaphysical needs are
little more than those of winning at argument, or of no longer being
discomforted by doubt and uncertainty, or of finding that life is deep and
meaningful after all, indeed deep and meaningful in a way that is comfortingly
consistent with and justifies their other interests, or of getting out of the torment
of obsessive questioning by reaching a final answer. One of the most successful
and popular lines of environmental philosophy, the one that in opposing itself
to anthropocentric ethics has been dubbed ecocentrism and that includes, at its
most ontologically profound, deep ecology, was successful because it was so
well adapted to some or all of these needs.
William Lines (2003, 94) grounds a critique of the Australian Greens, on the
ecocentric principle that they have fallen into thinking we conserve nature for
people’s sake, whereas we should conserve it for its own sake. ‘ “Maximizing
human welfare” is not the chief concern of conservationists who have a
broader, more radical and more generous view of protecting all life. They seek
to save nature from humans, not for humans.’ Lines is by no means the first to
feel and gratify the need to supply such a principle, but it is the weakest point in
his critique. The need to cite the most profound and general foundation
produces the most abstract and least solid notion. The hoped-for killer
argument is dead on its feet. Firstly, to cite the notion of doing something for
humans, implies that we all share understanding of what for humans means. Yet

this is anything but agreed. That’s what the antagonism between nature and its
sacrifice is all about: what is for Lines is very different from what is for one of
nature’s exploiters. To assume otherwise rigs the argument by premising it with
its conclusion. It puts the cart before the horse. Much the same would apply to
the notion of saving nature for nature’s sake. Like humankind, nature does not
have any self-same sake, nor, for that matter is there any reconciled totality of
all life. Even less than human society, is nature or life a matter of unitary self-
interest. Taking almost as much rhetorical license as Lines, I would prefer to
say we save nature from humans for humans.
The idea that we justify saving nature either for human welfare and survival
or else for its own intrinsic value does not properly present the options that
environmental argument has available. The only sense in which I would be
happy to say we save nature for its own sake is if it meant much the same as
when we advocate art for art’s sake. Except that art and nature are life for life’s
sake. Nature is that part of life which, as Nietzsche said of art, is the great
stimulus to life. I want nature like I want artto live the good life. Call it the
pursuit of happiness. A society devoid of nature, and art would be an unhappy
one. The sense then in which we might say that we save nature for human
welfare need not be that which implies that we need nature for our survival and
as the guarantee of the resources our lives depend upon. Let’s say we could get
away with trashing quite a bit of this precious natureas many believe. There
might have been immense amounts of work that went into it—the work of
evolution—but it’s just useless heritage like art. For that matter we could trash
art as well. Lets say we lived in a world at last uncluttered by yellow robins and
dry sclerophyll forests and seashells, and, for good measure, dancing and
pictures and movies and songs. We would just be that bit closer to a totally
fictionalized breeding and survival battery for humans. Hardly living, barely
What can’t be sold has its uselessness thereby demonstrated. Hence so much
society is about selling itself, and saving nature for humans is one way
environmentalism is solda limited and self-deceptive way. An ecosystem is
sold on the basis of its ecosystem services. Sometimes these so called services
are sold as functional for landholders. This is common in the Landcare
movement. However when landholders see no point in saving some bit of
rubbish or woody scrub the appeal is made to saving the stuff, or other stuff like
water quality or river ecology or biodiversity, for more than just landholder
interestfor downstream or the ‘community’ or the nation or ‘our kids’. I am
with Lines on this. The undoubted wisdom of a saving such things for such
reasons is not enough for me. It is merely a matter of a very abstract
functionality, functionality schematized according to the most limited economic
or utilitarian values. The farmer or landowner who has reestablished a Grassy
Red Gum Forest on the Bellinger flats and who has dotted it with patches of
Lowland Rainforest does not exist. Mere biodiversity is not ‘functional’
enough; there isn’t much downstream (except for ocean) for water quality; and
why go to the expense and trouble just to waste that expensive alluvial land.

Saving or reestablishing that mosaic of lowland open forest and rainforest is
only for nature lovers like Lines and me. We want it not just for its economic or
agricultural or utilitarian functionality. I want it for the good life; and for Lines
it wants for itself. Obviously, neither argument is the last word; but nothing is
the last word on anything. Because selling nature is the main thing, we are told
we should not say this because the landholder is never going to buy it; but not
to say it is to censor the theory of nature and curtail the culture of nature. It is to
persist in a kind of irksome, repetitive somnolence, barely conscious, like the
delirium of a sleepless night. Some might say we want nature for non-utilitarian
reasons, dusting off the old aesthetic line that Kant called functionality without
function (Zweckmäβigkeit ohne Zweck). But society has had enough of this
view too that art and nature are just beautiful and useless. Nature, like art, is so
generous in its uses, so liberal in its functions, so concrete in its defiance of
abstract functionality and so excessive in its catastrophes that beautiful nature
serves notice on the dysfunctionality of our stingy system of accounted for

12.4 …As Environmental Norm

Ecosystem Services

The CEO of an NGO in environmental management PowerPoints® vision

and mission onto the screen. It is a flow chart of the organization’s positioning
in the ideology spectrum. One end is labelled pragmatic, the other
idealist/purist. This is one of those diagrams of the explained world, the arcana
of everyday ontology. In the ensuing catechism the CEO prompts, ‘Shouldn’t
this organization be positioning itself at the pragmatic end?’ and a ripple of
assent runs through those assembleda collective show of thoughtfulness.
Pragmatism is one thing that deserves to be rescued from its proudest
devotees, lest it be devalued by equating it with some ugly makeshift of
ecosystem functions.
Environmental managers talk the talk about restoring ecosystems and
ecosystem services. Confronted with the predicament that restoring certain
biological communities to their former condition is either impossible or
impractical, they suggest that the appropriate mission is one of restoring
ecosystem function or functioning ecosystems. What does restoring ecosystem
function mean? And what does it mean to say function? An organism has
features whose functions are the survival of that organism and the reproduction
of offspring with inherited genetic information. But ecosystems are not
organisms with adaptations for self-maintenance and reproduction.
Landholders on the North Coast estuaries see people on the fresh reaches
planting the densely rooting lomandras (Lomandra hystrix) on their banks.
They assume that they should be able to plant lomandras on their banks. But
Lomandra hystrix grows on the alluvium of the fresh reaches. Cheated of this

tool, people assume that there must be an estuarine functional analogue. Surely
nature has provided such a species because estuarine banks need bank
stabilizers too. Nature works that way doesn’t it? If there is functional niche,
nature, like a boutique supplier, supplies the design that is lacking. That is the
balance of nature, or evolution, or something. But there is no functional
analogue of Lomandra hystrix on the brackish reaches; and besides the purpose
of Lomandra hystrix was never bank stabilization, until someone recently
noticed that they did actually do this. People’s faith in ecological functionalism
has yet again blinded them to the subjectivity of function: functional design is
not for nature, but for the organism (the subject) with the design. Down on the
estuary there are just other riparian things doing their own riparian thing:
mangroves, sea rushes, swamp oaks, lots of things and they are more or less
useful for the same freehold functions. Meanwhile the ripariana culture caters
to the functionalist delusions, and the boutique market for lomandras is
extended downstream and out of its zone.
The most famous genre of diagrams of the explained world is the list of
points, the A, B, C… A natural history of this kind of list would have to
consider its adaptations to planning documents and mission statements, to
media like the overhead and computer projection, to genres like the report, to
communicative ends like summary, management and education, to the
typography of the dreaded bullet, to the epistemological expectation that
adequate explanation should exhaust the received categories of understanding.
(Now there was a list). Other features of the list are an ambiguous implication
of priority in the order of things listed, and instant communicabilityensured,
mostly, by the customary redundancy of most of the listed information. After
all, the honest function of a list is to remind you of what you already know; you
don’t want to forget to buy bread on your way home. Otherwise, usually the
only way to read a list is between the lines; this is the only way a list
communicates anything but an all too familiar, and therefore redundant,
Typical of lists of the explained world, lists of ecosystem functions are
usually neither exclusive nor exhaustive, nor are the categories all of the same
kindbut they look like they sort of are. They include, willy-nilly, nutrient
cycling, water cycling, carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and perhaps
food chains, predator-prey relations, successions, and biodiversity (always
biodiversity). And the beauty of a list is you can always make it longer or
hodge-podge it up a bit by adding more or less extra-curricula itemstourism,
community education and aesthetics are old stand-bys even if they might not
seem quite like ecosystem functions. Whatever. To instant environmental
understanding, it is undemanding to infer that the function of trees is carbon or
water sequestration or soil conservation and, of course timber down the track;
the function of tight nutrient cycling is water quality; the function of
insectivorous birds is to control insect populations; or that stacking a lot of
interdependent species together (i.e. avoiding monoculture) is for hedging
ecological bets and maintaining a balanced, stable ecosystem. Nature never acts

in vain. It’s all connected, all designed, all workingand for people out their in
the community and for the future generations in a technocratic, cost-benefit
analysis, sustainable development sort of way. Such faith in ecological function
is a modern refuge of theological teleology. It asserts environmental providence
and justifies the ways of nature to men. Almost an item in the lifeworld of
environmentalist society, it is not uncommon to hear someone ask, or even to
catch oneself scratching and wondering just what is the reason for having
paralysis ticks? Or leeches?
But if any biological community functions, then, one way or another, every
biological community functions. Leaky toxic chemical dumps are ecosystems
that appear to function pretty well as toxic chemical dumps with their own
kinds of fauna and flora, their own nutrient regimes, their own successions.
Sadly and happily, nothing is forever in nature and, like even the most
imposing forest or the plutonium blasted test site, the toxic dump ecosystem
won’t last forever. Give it time or half a chance and nature is unstable,
unbalanced, immoderate, profligate, haywire, madcap, strange and antagonistic.
Whenever the word function is used it is worth asking the first question of
functional analysis: function for whom or what? And when environmental
managers talk about ecosystem functions they usually mean what environmental
budgeters like to sell as ecosystem services: water cycling, carbon
sequestration, biodiversity, and such. There is a complacent misunderstanding
that these functions for us are also functions for the ecosystems. There is also
the comforting assumption that restoring ecosystem function, is the same thing
as restoring community composition, traditional Aboriginal country,
biodiversity, and landscape scale systems. I suspect though that these are
mostly unreconciled ends.

Natives and Weeds, or The Bush and Not The Bush

Some weeds are called environmental weeds to distinguish them from

unwanted species on farms or in lawns or gardens. They are weeds of the
natural environment. They invade the bush.
In the Bellinger Valley, Parramatta grass is a weed of pasture but not an
environmental weed, it is said. Paspalum and kikuyu are pasture grasses but not
environmental weeds. It is said. One species of paspalum—Broad-leaved
Paspalum—is a pasture grass that can grow under trees. Farmers plant it so that
they can have the best of all possible worlds: pasture and trees. It is perfect.
Except, it is an invasive weed of moist forests. It may be said that it is an
environmental weed, but its agricultural value makes natural resource
managers careful about what they say. No one seems game to list it officially as
an environmental weed. All this kind of talk assumes one thing though. It
assumes that there is a line that is drawn, or can be drawn, between the bush
and the non-bush. Or is it between the natural environment and the unnatural

It’s obvious isn’t it? There is the bush over there, where those gum trees are,
and this here is not bush. It’s farmland. It has been cleared. It used to be bush,
but not any more. That is essentially bush, and this, in essence, isn’t.
History is an acid for dissolving essences. It transforms things utterly, into
other kinds. Here where I now sit is in the bushit’s the natural
environmentand a little over a century ago it was bush too. But around 1900
the big trees were ring-barked, the smaller ones were felled, the place was
burnt, the stumps grubbed, paspalum (not broad-leaved paspalum) was sown in
the ashes, and post and wire fences divided up the land. They ran up from the
alluvial river flats, onto the slaty clay soils of the spurs and gullies, all the way
to the main ridges. By 1920 it was grazing country, sometimes rough and steep,
a lot of it erupting as regrowth, but with a bit of river flat as well, people could
squeeze a living from it. Cattle ranged through the ring-barked pillars and
shaded themselves under a few spreading blue gums and tallowwoods. But it
was still like an unruly colony at the limit of the civilized world. The
indigenous bush kept fighting back, farmers kept burning it back to kill the
woody growth, and ran their cattle through it to eat off the green pick, and
sowed more grass if they could afford itat least in the most accessible and
fertile reaches. People continued to log the forested remnantsmany of which
were State Forestand they might also have re-cleared a patch of wattle
regrowth and grown a slash-and-burn cash crop of peas or beans. After the
Second World War bulldozers and chainsaws were enlisted in the struggle.
Driven to submission, some patches became persistently grassy, others kept
struggling back to reform a regrowth forest of eucalypts and wattles and
lantana. Eventually the slash-and-burn and the burn-and-graze economy fell
into decline, milk and beef markets squeezed the struggling cow cockies,
houses were abandoned, the lantana infested regrowth swallowed the ridge-and-
gully country, and a paper pulp company—Australian Paper Mills—planted
flooded gums on cheap old cattle properties. After the 1970s a metropolitan
diaspora arrived, bought up the repristinated backblocks of what Les Murray
called the land of the holidayof their childhood holidays that isand the line
was drawn. It was even clearer than the line the old settlers reported between
the rainforest brush and the gum tree bush, because, although it was drawn
imperceptibly by the many small decisions of agricultural history, it was the
famous anthropological line between nature and culture drawn their on the
great diagram of the landscape. This here is essentially bush, even though 70
years ago it was ridge grazing country up the back of a farm. And anything that
grows in it that’s not native is an environmental weed. That country down there
is farm even though a century ago it was bush and the farmer still has to slash it
and graze it and fertilize it and sow broad-leaved paspalum on it to stop the
bracken, blady grass, wattles, lantana, privet, camphor laurels and
eucalyptsthe rubbishfrom taking over.
The line drawn between native bush and exotic vegetation is also drawn at
the level of individual species, but determining what is native is not always
easy. If a plant or animal was here before European culture arrived it is usually

called native. All this can sound a bit strange to someone from another country.
In Asia and Europe thousands of years of Neolithic agriculture combined with
climate change since the last ice age and there is little cultural memory of plant
invasion. In Australia such memory of invasion and with it the degradation of
natural beauty is part of individual memory. Migrants have to learn it. It’s part
of native nature culture. It can all seem terribly culturally constructed and
therefore ideological or arbitrary. Justifications based on arguments about
conserving biodiversity can sound like desperate excuses for mindless
perpetuation of anachronistic lore or mere taste. Hair splitting and quibbling
can sound like medieval theology. Problems arise when we don’t know the
historical biogeography of a species or when a species fails to behave as
decorously as we expect natives to do. Around here privet and camphor are
weeds. Lantana is a weed too but some have come to think of it as an honorary
native. People often think of wild tobacco as native, and many who know of its
exotic provenance still think of it as a harmless exotic. I think of passionfruit,
bush lemon and cape gooseberry as harmless, indeed fruitful exotics. Exotics
like jacaranda, Rhodes grass and broad-leaved paspalum are often mistaken for
natives. Natives like river oak, cockspur, mistletoe and burrgrass are accused of
being exotic weeds. The line between native or not can be a fine one: silky oak
and black bean are natives on the Orara River, 50km north of the Bellinger but
are they natives on the Bellinger valley? Even the botanists and biogeographers
puzzle over plants such as tropical chickweed, five-leaved morning glory, and
Sigesbeckia indica, and sometimes mutter provisos about weedy natives or
about cosmopolitan natives. We place a lot of store by history but can we
always know it and is it the best standard? Are humans more native than
Dingoes because they were here long before them?

Standards: Deriving Norms From Natural History

What is history good for when it comes to the history of nature? Is natural
history just a quaint old nature lover’s way of cobbling together stories about
casual observations that lack the rigour of empirical biology and statistical
Many things in the culture of nature can be characterized using historical
terms. A little historical reflection can save us from being used by parasitical
terms like environmental values or biodiversity or ecosystem services or even
the environment. Karl Marx once said that the past weighs on the brains of the
living like a nightmare. Consider the inherited burdens of feuds and
warsagainst one another and against nature! In these wildest, most alienated
kinds of society, forms of life like punishment, tit-for-tat, retribution and
revenge prey on humans for their own survival. But the past is not only present
as a nightmare; it is also present as wealththe immense, accumulated
commonwealth of nature. A beautiful creature doesn’t evolve overnight from
clay. A rainforest doesn’t work just by throwing all sorts of green things
together on a clean slate and letting it all sort itself out into some complex

order. Compared to that of a weedscape, whatever order there is in a biological
community like a rainforest or a heath is something that has taken a long time
to sort out and build up. The labour of nature was going on long before
humans, who are one of its products, got into the act.
There have been countless generations of suffering and failure that have
gone into the design of the smallest insect and the design of its relation to other
organisms, and therefore into the design of the relation of those organisms to
one another. Suspicion of things artificial implies an appreciation of this
immense labour of natural history, although when, say, Immanuel Kant
expressed his misgivings about artifice at the end of the 18th century, he could
hardly have appreciated just what natural history had to do with it. When the
philosopher, who had seldom if ever left Königsburg, says in his Critique of
Judgement (§22) that we would tire of the neat rows of a pepper plantation long
before we would tire of the surrounding jungle it is because there is more order
and more history in the ‘free beauties of nature’ than in the regularity of the
planted rowsso much order and so much history that it can look random or
arbitrary. That is what biodiversity and the Threatened Species Act are all
about. Random, it turns out, is just another word for complexity, for a surfeit of
information beyond our powers of reductiontoo much order built up by too
much history, so much order it no longer appears orderly. Arbitrary is a word
applied to things whose design is estranged from our designs and
understandingoften as the result of its being the effect of an
unreconstructable historical accumulation of design upon design. This is why
we cannot imitate or emulate nature by throwing plants and animals together at
random or arbitrarily. Nature looks random and arbitrary quite often where it is
designed in its own inscrutable way.
We cannot expect to build functioning ecosystems by throwing things
together according to their separate functions (nor, for that matter, at random).
Though each might thing be chosen because it is conceived in abstract as
serving a function that the community would seem to needthis is the beetle
that pollinates the tree that shades the shrub that feeds the bird that spreads the
seed...each component has its several needs and several functions and several
relations to other components, most of which will scarcely be
appreciatedespecially given the limited idea of function that haunts our
particular brand of instrumental reason. The trouble with instrumental reason
and its call for pragmatism is that it is not instrumental or pragmatic enough. It
is mean and puritanical about function. Assembled with the utmost care, all
those components would hardly be likely to get on togethernot without one
of the assembled species being the humans who will tend the species and
maintain the order. It is hardly an advance on the pepper plantation. Remove
the humans and the place would become an abandoned weedscape. We have to
read off the components of a collection that works together and the process for
assembling the components from what natural history has bequeathed us. The
natural history of nature is about the best plan, the only plan we have of what
works in a complex way. And I don’t mean this just in the reduced sense of

working as a functioning ecosystem; I mean it in the sense that we speak of an
artwork working. Natural history provides us with the genres of the poetics of
Natural historical descriptions are apt to be transformed into prescriptions.
Humans are inveterately given to turning facts into normsor for that matter
mistakes into normseven though the philosophers have long doubted the
propriety of deriving an ought from and is. There is a fascination with the
pristine that often drives environmental histories—especially in Australia.
Consider works like Eric Rolls’ Million Wild Acres, Stephen Pyne’s Burning
Bush, Tim Flannery’s Future Eaters, Marcia Langton’s Burning Questions,
David Horton’s Pure State of Nature, or even Tim Low’s Feral Future.
Lurking behind their fascination with natural history is not only a nostalgia but
with it a kind of will to power: to declare the facts of the pristine world is to
declare standards for working on nature. Just how natural the natural history of
Australia is has been a central theme in all these works, with only Horton
preferring to argue for a pure nature mighty enough to overcome the ecological
consequences of all human labour up until the unleashing of modernity’s
destructive technology. A second questionthat of the normative value of the
pristineis not entirely unconscious in these works either, but there is less
specific articulation of it. It is mainly there by implication in arguments about
which description of the pristine represents the past ‘as it actually was’. Where
this is the case though, the question of the normative value of the pristine is, as
a rule, answered in the affirmative without actually being asked; and the
question of the possibility of historical narrative’s adequacy to such a thing as
the past ‘as it really was’ is answered in the affirmative too.
This question has been a constant one in the philosophy of history. The
notion that history’s task is to describe the past by careful reference to and
argument from the empirical sources is a fair enough thing. It is the only thing.
If you are serious, its pursuit is unavoidable, yet unavoidably it’s a kind of
romance quest. For a start, those empirical sources, if they are documents, are
already, as documents, primarily only evidence of themselves as communicative
acts of the past, and not of the acts and events they might describe. It makes for
a past that must be inferred from the more or less dubious testimony of only
those documents that have survived the ravages of the history, and from a
palaeontology and archaeology of fossils and artifacts whose individual
persistence is massively contingent. This predicament demands a view of the
past as anything but irrevocable. While the events of the past fade, history
revises its image, giving the impression that it is becoming clearer all the time.
To an extent this may be true, as the technical and theoretical means of
historical science improve. But then, in order to tell the history, the meagre
empirical evidence must become part of the premises of a narrative argument.
All history is narrative history, but what people often mean by the phrase
narrative history is a narrative that is plausible in a good-read kind of way; and
the formula for plausible, pop-literary good-reads is hardly the formula for a
narrative that is adequate to the past. There has to be a poetics of narrative at

work when telling natural history, as well as a poetics of nature when working
on it.
And still the freedom of specifying norms and standards cannot be ignored.
It is implicit in the fact that there are many versions of the pristine, depending
on how far back in time you go; and where you go back in time. In Australia?
Before modernity? Before humans? Before the great environmental upheavals
of the late Tertiary? The Pre-Cambrian? Tim Flannery toys with introducing
Komodo Dragons to replace an iota of the goanna megafauna that has
disappeared since human occupation. Marcia Langton and many others might
fancy some tradition of Aboriginal fire culture. David Horton would like to
steer country back to a less fired up flora and fauna, claiming that this was the
Aboriginal pristine anyway. The pristine has a different value in the Aboriginal
north from the more thoroughly colonized south. Beyond Australia things are
different too. Northern hemisphere temperate ecology is young and simple
compared to the long evolved ecological relationships of Australia. Thanks to
glaciation of recent ice ages, Europe was almost made for being shaped by
thousands of years of cultivation and plant invasion. The disputed validity of
claims about the pristine should be a reminder that the freedom to derive a
norm from a factwith no license in logicimplies the freedom to derive it
from a mistake anyway.
In the curiousity about the pristine, the natural history that weighs on us
most is that great and still obscure one of the future. In natural history, we pore
over the events of the past in order to predict or prescribe the events of the
future, forever and rightly anxious that, whatever we decide, time will prove it
more or less wrong in fact or unhappy in performance.
The predicament of assessing the truth value and the normative value of the
history of nature should remind us of the same predicament that confronts
historical narratives in what we like to designate as the more strictly human
context. As the latter gives rise to a poetics of narrative, the former demands a
poetics of nature.

History, Big History, Or Even Bigger History

When are questions about history too big to be relevant any more? What is
the point of weeding out the plants that have all run wild through the bush,
when after all, they are now here to stay? It is now natureeverchanging, never
resting naturethat grows all these weeds in this country. Even if we weed one
place once, we can’t weed every place all the time, and populations of weeds
and feral animals are still growing nearby either waiting for the next fire, flood,
landslip or bulldozer to colonize, or they are already just invading the bush
under normal, relatively undisturbed conditions. It has taken little more than
200 years for them to all run wild, and even if we ceased introducing
acclimatized exotic speciesthe pasture grasses, the garden ornamentals, the
water and aquarium features, the GM strainsthere are quite enough here
already. Their invasion is relentless and they have hardly begun to strike. In 5,

10, 100 years wont a big fire rip through it and everything will be back to
scratch? In 1000 years, no matter what is done, won’t it all be what we now call
a weedscape? If we want to love nature, shouldn’t we learn to love the coming
After more than 200 years of modern globalized plant dispersal, the flora
and fauna of Australia has changed once and for all. Here we have performed
just another great unrepeatable experiment. It is like two super continents
bumping together, Gondwana and Laurasia brought back together by ships and
planes to form a New Pangaea. I said you can’t just throw everything together,
but of course here we have just thrown everything together, the new with the
old, and with no worries about any ‘ecosystem functions’ at all. And it works!
We still have ecosystems!
And it will take time to sort itself outto find species, for instance, that will
happily grow along the humid subtropical riverbanks with Anredera and
Balloon Vine and Catsclaw. Maybe to find a whole suite of species that get
along together in what we might call the future plant communities of Southern
Pangaeathe bamboo and queen palm forests, the camphor and privet
rainforests. But on the other hand there are always a few things that grow
anywhere and if twenty pan-subtropical weeds dominate the places where once
the astonishing lowland subtropical rainforests grew, then these are the new
ecosystems of New South Pangaea
Ecosystems are changing. They have always changed. Change is relative.
Time is a matter of timescale. Different biological changes have different
timescales: different rates of growth, reproduction, dispersal, successions, the
natural, genetic selection of species and the gradual emergence of relatively
self-similar communities of interacting species. Society changes too and
different social processes have different timescales: rapid thought, conversation,
fashion, a lifetime, a generation, a custom, a tradition, the social, memetic
selection of customary cultural forms, the long time of civilizations, and the
natural selection of the human species. Nature culture has changed a lot in the
last century and in the last 1000 years. The passions and obsessions of these
times are unlikely to be the passions and obsessions of the future. Natives are
time bound.
The genres of nature change like the genres of art. But would anyone say
about art: ‘Why make tragedies? Why make comedies? Who will want such
things in the future?’ Well, even though tragedy and comedy have been around,
in one form or another for a long time, why should they or, for that matter, art
itself be expected not to change, not to come to an end? Yet like art, the poetics
of nature is not hopeless simply because we are all at sea on an ocean of
change. We have always been all at seadespite the various foundations we
have tried to assert: gods, religion, the moral law, theology, first philosophy, a
priori truths. And yet in all this, we are always working on the mobile, floating
base given us by history: the nightmare and the commonwealth. This is why art
is not just anything and why the poetics of nature is not just anything and
therefore nothing. Sure art and nature are contingentthings could be

absolutely otherwisebut this is precisely the condition for the poetics of
nature, not the condition for deeming the whole undertaking pointless.

12.5…As Bushfire

Fascinating Fire

Every spring the smoke appears over the Bellinger Valley and the North
Coast. You see a plume seeping up from a gully or from a spur tucked away
somewhere, and another and another, pooling in a seam of air and lying idle
over the warming land. Up close you might see a thin line of flames crackling
through leaf litter, flaring in blady grass, sketching a clean patch of black, fresh
with white ash. With a bit of wind or heat it might lick up into bushes and
worry the leaves. Clean up that patch of bush, tidy up the roadside, get rid of
the regrowth, reduce the fuel load. It is time for a good burn. It’s a rite that has
persisted from the days when the east coast forests were ringbarked and burnt.
It was and is as if in this place the fires that had cleared the forests of Neolithic
Europe up until the end of the Middle Ages could be resurrected, their power
felt and wielded again. After the initial clearing, seasonal burning became a
way of clearing away the dry grasses left over from the last season or burning
back the regenerating bush. When it got warmer or rained, up came green pick
for grazing. Croppers burnt stubble to kill disease, untangle the way for the
plough and get a pulse of nutrients from the ash. After the might and glory of
the flames comes the clean slate, that perennial, unobscured object of desire fit
for the revelation of the earth’s renewed riches.
It is an old urge and a widespread one. In the Mahabharata, Krishna and
Arjuna travel through a forest that Agni, the old Vedic god of fire is preparing
to burn. The Sanskrit name Agni is cognate with the Latin ignire. Even Krishna,
the lover of natural abundance, agrees with Agni’s argument that the searing
fire will renew the life of the forest. Is there a society where fire the destroyer is
not also fire the renewer?
Dean Yibarbuk has said ‘We don’t necessarily see fire as bad and
destructiveit can be good and bring the country back to life.’ To preserve the
Manangrida country Yibarbuk encourages the knowledge and practice of
traditional burning. Neglected and irresponsible fire management have led to
wild summer fires, damage to certain plant communities and animal
populations, and weed invasion. Knowledge of burning is not implanted in the
soul. It is not a birthright, it is culture. And it is not just ritual, it is
technological. Nowadays though it has to be adequate to the postmodern social
and ecological predicament.
The idea of reproducing the pre-1788 fire regime is one of the great themes
in the imagination of the pristine. If only the Aboriginal fire regime could be
rediscovered, we would then have the lost key to the continent’s repristination.
It is a persistent subtext in the expressions of a particular Australian bush

romance. While the ecological conditions and the Aboriginal society of the
north are changing, down here on the east coast the fire culture is already
transformed. All that remains of the Aboriginal country is encrypted in the
scattered ruins of the traditional nature left lying around the country, and in
rumours and interpretations that have come out of the past. It is a history of
selective quotation and Chinese whispers, the usual social conditions for
engendering myth and legend. And fabulous fire is already the natural subject
of myth even without this process of selective replication of stories from the
People like to call on old descriptions. During the high summer fires of
2002, Bob Carr recalled the accounts of smoke seen from the deck of the
Endeavour in 1770. Cook’s journal often uses the phrase smoke in several
places, or something like it (Evans, 1969). For those gazing at the pleasing
variety of ridges, hills, valleys, and plains, all clothed with wood that loomed in
the west beyond the barrier of history and surf, smoke, the sign of fire became
primarily the sign by which they knew the country to be inhabited. Whether this
was campfire or bushfire or wildfire smoke or smoke from a fire kept burning to
light more fire is seldom made clear. 50 km south of the Bellinger on a high,
round point, Cook made special mention of fires that produced a great quantity
of smoke. Cook called it Smoky Cape. From the quantity it sounds like a
bushfire. An account from the Gumbaynggirr past suggests that the first fire
was a large log burning on a mountain and protected by two Coomburra in the
form of eagles. Two young women sent by their people to get the fire were
refused it and they in turn refused to bring game to cook on the fire. Then a
bandicoot man crept up with a grass tree shaft, the plant of choice for making
and carrying fire. He stole the fire, and the Coomburra rolled the log down the
hill and could not stop it. North of the Bellinger, in Bundjalung country, the
Endeavour journal describes smoke again and people nearby trudging along
carrying palm leaves. The English assumed that the sight of their ship sailing
past would have been little less stupendous and unaccountable to the natives,
than a floating mountain with all its woods. Yet the people on shore seem to
ignore the ship or are oblivious to it. In all descriptions spoken across the
distances of time, interpretation and culture, there is as much to puzzle over as
there is evidence to marshal or claims to venture.
The Endeavour sailed past in Maya month of autumn rain and rank
vegetation. If you sail or fly from Sydney to Brisbane now and see smoke all
the way, it will probably be August or September, the height of the season
when modern tradition dictates burning off, or hazard reduction. On the
Bellinger, early spring is dry enough to get a burn going and late enough to
make any later too late. Any later and it’s too wet or too dangerous. Any earlier
and it’s too wet or too cool or you can put it off until later. And September is
late enough to get a decent burn, decent enough to get way.
Claims by modern burners that they are just following the traditional land
management of the Aboriginal society are, in most cases, post hoc
justifications. Just how much the modern rural fires of eastern Australia, or the

prescribed burning in tracts of bush, or the hazard reduction conducted on
urban fringes might be social descendents of Aboriginal burning is obscured by
the lack of detail about what features of these practices might be inherited and
by the fact that land management by burning is virtually universal in human
societies. It is difficult to find direct cultural ancestors in the social evolution of
burning because fire culture is highly likely to be the result of convergent social
evolution. It is a social practice waiting to happen with no want of precedent.
Nevertheless, if the modern burning society of the east coast cites Aboriginal
burning as a forebearand it does, even if in ignorance of any detailed
understanding of the social functions of Koori firethen an ancestry is
established by reification. Society is like that. And fire culture is the epitome of
reification: if you declare fire to be the rightful heir of bush management
practices, fire gives you the power to make the declaration good. Or rather it
will make good its own claim: it gets away and fends for itself.
It is around the element of fire more than any other that the problem of
confusing history’s factual and its normative value infects the natural history of
Australia. Fire dominates the ideological problem of establishing historical
facts and environmental norms because fire is natural and cultural, a material
and a tool, problem and solution, old and wild, powerful and destructive, at
once obvious in the traces it leaves and effective at destroying evidence. And it
is so much a shaper of Australian nature, now and in the past.
The archaeology of pre-invasion fire on the east coast is not clear. Different
evidence comes from different locations, and different methods of
reconstructing fire histories produce different interpretations. A recent
examination of charcoal and pollen in Jibbon Lagoon in Royal National Park
south of Sydney (Mooney, Radford, Hancock, 2001) indicated a low frequency
of fire when this was D’harawal country. Just how the D’harawal people lived,
and precisely where and when they stayed in different places are unanswered
questions that have bearing on interpreting the data. Initially after their
dispossessioni.e. up until the early 20th centuryfire frequency seems to
have declined even further. Then, when modern Australia arrived with a
vengeance, up the frequency went to unprecedented levels. Other studies done
in other areas tell a similar story, some don’t. Tell an anti-burner this and the
interpretation is: ‘The increased frequency in the 20th century is the result of
more sources of ignition.’ Tell a burner and it is: ‘The increased frequency is
the result of fuel build up and changes in vegetation structure due to the
cessation of Aboriginal fire management.’
Even if we knew the Aboriginal fire regime, could we ever reinstate it, given
that so much modern fire culture now is wild and unlawful? Indeed, at what
level of social and spatial organization and at what kind of timescale can a
given society’s fire history be seen as a regime anyway, rather than a variable
sequence of unpredictable events, a mix of the ritual, the official, the criminal,
the ecologically determined, the accidental and the just plain stochastic? How
much of that regime is a result of human freedom or law? And how much is it

the result of wild naturewhether the wild nature of both lawful and unlawful
society, or that of extra-human nature?

Every summer the news turns to bushfires. It is a media event. A photograph

on the front of the Sydney Morning Herald in early January 2002 shows two
shirtless boys paddling a canoe in deep green water up one of the sunken
sandstone valleys of Port Hacking on the southern edge of Sydney. You can see
the oysters on the golden rocky edge. The bush of Royal National Park runs
right down to the water’s sandstone trim, and a metre above the water, fire is
running through the litter and up the trunks of red bloodwoods. People who
have spent the morning at the beach would be looking up from the city through
an orange sky at a pink sun. From the suburbs you can look out at night towards
the bush around Sydney and see the aura of fires along the sandstone ridgelines.
Up here on the Bellinger this wild fire time comes and usually goes earlier in
the season, before the Christmas holidays, usually with less ferocity. At night
last spring you could stand down near the mouth of the Bellinger and look back
up at the escarpment and see a fire burning way above the valley like a red
dragon along a high spur of the escarpment. When they are further south
bushfires are summer holiday news. While people in Sydney are thinking about
evacuating we pull a TV outside into the warm summer dusk and drink beer
and watch fires on the news. There will be opinion pieces about it all inside the
holiday papers. It makes exciting entertainmentunless you live in a house on
the edge of the city and the bush and you have to face the treacherous thing in a
howling hot westerly, or you find yourself, as it were, fighting the thing, in
heavy clothes and cruel heat, wild flames boiling your blood, smoke in your
lungs, ash in your mouth, hour after hour, day after day.
Inside the paper and on the TV news there are the usual stories about the fire
fighters. There are the stories of loss (the houses, the photos, the lives,
everything), about the politicians flying in to be seen commiserating with the
victims and looking like they are overseeing the fire fighting campaign, the
photo of a shirtless man in thongs, shortly before his death, squirting water out
of a garden hose, stories about lightning, stories about arsonists and how if we
catch them nothing is too good for them, stories about the lack of preparation,
opinion about the irresponsibility of the National Parks Service and
environmentalists, about the lack of burning off, about people who build their
houses in the bush, about how fast it moved, about firestorms, about fireballs,
about how all the fires joined together in a giant ring of fire, and about
sightseers hampering emergency services. There will be vision of the smoke
and the pink sun over the centre of Sydney, stories about how the experts had
or had never predicted this, questions already being asked, and the
announcement that the blame game has started. Much of it is understandable.
There is nothing so fierce, so unstoppable, so crazy, so implacable, so deadly,
and so fascinating as a big fire on a stinker of a day. Mythology is the only way
people have to adequately describe it. Even so, the same old monsters always

sound so pathetic in the attempt—half technical, half hyperbolic: flashpoints,
fireballs, firestorms, infernos.
Fire journalism can barely tear itself away from what it thinks is the human
story. On the spot footage might show some spectacle of nature, mayhem and
anguish, but then comes the personal perspective—the first and last resort of
the aftermath coverage. The genre is a straightjacket. Generic victims pick
through the smoking ruins, wonder why their house went and that one next
door didn’t, crack hardy about rebuilding, grateful for saving their lives, the
dog or the photos. The anniversary reflections show the closure or the lack of it
a year on. The journalist asks how do you feel? Forced by shock, courtesy and
circumstances, stunned people answer like readers from preordained scripts.
First the fire and then the media rob them of their individuality. Gawking at
fires is judged harshly. It interferes with emergency services during the fire, it is
grotesque during the days after, and a year later it is not letting sleeping dogs
lie. Yet TV fire news and docoes are mostly pure gawk. They insult the
subjects. The human-perspective stuff is the epitome of gawk; and, apart from a
few platitudes about fire being a part of the Australian bush, the media avoid
the natural history and science of fire and the technicalities of preventing,
avoiding, fighting and surviving fires, on the thick-headed assumption that
natural history, science and the technical matters of fire are somehow not
human interest. At best you get a Koperburg or Winter from the Rural Fire
Service. They’ve got a job to do so they are not averse to telling viewers two or
three things worth knowing about fire. You might fluke a premasticated bite of
a Cheney on fire behaviour, but no more than can be expected to interest TV
audiences. And you won’t get an ecologist. No Gills or Bradstocks. No way.
You don’t want to know about the finer points of cauterizing a wet eucalypt
forest of its rainforest understorey or its mistletoes. That’s not fire in its
spectacular self, and its too technical. All you need to know about it is fire is
part of the bush. It’s legendary and you already know it. It is all part of the
summer news ritual, ready-made vision and copy especially welcome when it
happens over the news void of Christmas. Somehow the abstractions of
spectacle and trauma are human, but the concreteness of knowledge and
experience isn’t. But then news consumerism prefers to flog the proven
gratification of the abstract, rather than risk the concrete.
The personal perspective leads in to the blame game. People see the victims
or the weary fire fighters and want to say whose fault it all is. Arson is on the
increase, says a politician or a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, but from
the days when the Kooris broadcast burnt or selectors cleared land and their
heirs wielded the fire stick, it has also become more criminalized. Deliberately
lit fires are a tradition, but the modern state has made a habit of criminalizing
and psychopathologizing traditional forms of power and violence and
monopolizing the legal forms of such things. Modern social organization,
especially the spatial organization of rural property and suburbia makes
traditional burningwhether in its Aboriginal forms or its wild-colonial
formsdangerously anachronistic. If arson is on the increase it is because

unofficial fire lighting has been criminalized to protect property, and like other
forms of violence, in its spectacular televised forms it kindles its own profane
copycat genre. The burning up of evidence and the difficulty of catching in the
act skew the caught unrandom sample of arsonists into a bunch of simpletons,
disturbed young men and the odd person who gets off on all the excitement
they generate. Pyromaniacs? Attention seekers? Loners? Reprobates? Stupid
kids? Careless smokers? Fools? Rogue firefighters? People and politicians can
indulge in a little fuming, but the psychopathology of arsonists is mostly
beneath the dignity of the main ideological game.
In Australia every inch of ground, every ridge, every gully has been fought
over by fire and rain. In the balance fire has had the better, if only because the
works of rain are long and slow and always fraught with the possibility of
catastrophic failure. Fire on the other hand need not only build its empire by
degrees, it can attack and win in one great holocaust. This argument between
the elements has been matched by a social formthe long historical battle
between burners and anti-burners. When fire is in the news everyone becomes
an expert on fire. Bushfire lore is taken as a birthright in a society where fire is
a social rite and fire culture is a social conflict sport. Fire is a compelling object
of fascination, and in the course of mesmerized attention, society divides itself
up over the fronts of old antagonisms. Each side can summon up its scientists.
The inquiry into the 2003 Canberra fires had to stop the opposing sides calling
experts to continually rebut one another. This conflict is like a wildfire itself.
Find yourself on one side of the front and you get stuck there. Opinions are
lined up for you on the other side to fight and your own opinions are lined up
for you too. We say we hold an inquiry to learn from our mistakes but the
conflict drives it to other purposes: to point the finger, to punish the feckless, to
exalt the chair, and to promote those who covered their arses.
Aborigines, settlers, cockies, prescribed burners, foresters and rural bushfire
brigades have all used and advocated firewith many justifications, the most
winning of which is that fire is, as they say, inevitable. They can say that,
because it is self-perpetuating—not only naturally but also culturally. There
will always be someone who cannot resist a technology that uniquely combines
such great power with so little effort. Immense workhowever imprecisecan
be done for almost nothing. In the cultural war burners think of anti-burners as
a naive bunch of gentlemen foresters, intellectuals, greenies, townies, bleeding
hearts and do-gooders.
The anti-burning ideology sides with the lush and fertile sensuality of
nature. Fire destroys plants and animals, stops the natural succession of
rainforest and less fiery vegetation, sends organic matter up in smoke, wastes
nutrients and adds CO2 to the atmosphere. Greens are almost always wary of
fire. On the other hand there is a kind of staid gentility in not burning.
‘Intellectuals in particular,’ writes Stephen Pyne are ‘ever distrustful of open
fire in all its varieties' (238). For many ‘the spectacle of fire is embarrassing and
unwanted’…with a ‘low-tech folklorish image' (240). There is almost an anti-
sensual, wowser streak in the bans on fire. They are a bit like bans on

imageshumourless, priestly, power grabs. Fire, like the image, is wickedly
fascinating. Dazzling appearance and brutal fact, a wild, dangerous, gratifying
and turgid mix of nature and society, of norm and fact, of cause and effect, fire
emulates in the environmental sphere the dangers, fun and excitements of
sexuality in the psychic sphere. Once, an old neighbour laughed and told me, he
could flick a match off the back verandah when a hot westerly was up and get a
fire that would burn through to Bundagen and the sea. The great eastern
firebreak. The only decent burns in 50 years had been his, and the last one had
happened over 25 years ago now. Gleeful in recollection, half mythic, half
joking. You don’t get the chance to have fires like that anymore. Someone had
to stop the fun. There is also a sensed Luddite streak in the anti-burn ideology.
Ever since Prometheus the dangers of technologies have been a perennial cause
of complaint, and fire is the arch technology. Of course for these and other
reasons there are in fact plenty of intellectuals fascinated by fire. They sense
that bans on fire do have a certain similarity to forms of religious and scholarly
disapproval, they like the idea of Aboriginal fire management, and they know
about native vegetation that is adapted to fire. And then there is always that
world-weary knowledge of the bush and human folly.
It is now a commonplace that because Europeans did not understand the
bush and its custodianship the modern bush has become dangerously volatile as
a result. As John Birmingham writes (1998, 129) ‘The firestick kept the forests
clear of choking undergrowth and promoted plants which responded to fire as a
natural part of their life cycle. When the Aborigines were driven away, this
ecological regime, thousands of years in the making, was disastrously
undermined. Fuel loads were the problem. Fuel loads and human folly.’ This
kind of thing is uttered again and again by all those old softies inclined to a bit
of hardheaded world-weariness. It is as poignant and sentimental a claim about
the pristine as any other. Burners are hopeless romantics. Most of all the burner
romance loves it that the bush, the national icon of national icons, is adapted to
fire. It needs fire they say.
Like many environmentalists, David Horton (77) has reacted to the claim
about native plants being adapted to fire. ‘It is difficult to see how such an
adaptation could evolve.’ It is as if, in Horton’s case, a certain sensibility cries
out, surely life itself cannot be an adaptation to what is its complete negation:
fire. Claimed adaptations to fire could only be merely indirect or ‘the incidental
effect of some other adaptation.’ ‘Many plants are adapted to the environment
in ways that also happen to be valuable in times of fire.’ I would say however
that this is precisely a description of how an adaptation to fire would evolve by
natural selection.
Adaptations do not come from nowhere. The inherited features of plants of
animals are selected for whatever function they perform, provided it increases
the average fitness of organisms that carry genes for that feature. Throughout
the course of natural selection the functions of inherited traits change. If a
heritable trait no longer serves any function for a lineage of organisms it is
likely to degenerate in the absence of any selection pressure for its

maintenance. On the other hand, if a lineage has an available inherited feature
that has been selected for ‘some other adaptation’, and that feature eventually
turns out to be useful for survival or reproduction over many generations in a
persistently fire prone environment, that feature then suffers a favourable
selection pressure for its persistence as an adaptation to fire. The ability to
survive and reshoot after fire or to maximize seed germination or seedling
survival after fire are precisely adaptations to fire. That ability to reshoot may
well have been inherited from ancestors that used it survive heavy grazing by
herbivores, or defoliation in drought, but what came first does not matter as
much as the latest use. In evolution, authenticity by priority must cede primacy
to whatever comes after the fact. In the prolonged absence of fire such species
may become rare or extinct. Since many species are at an advantage where fire
occurs the use of fire in ecological restoration can increase the diversity of the
regenerating plant speciesespecially if some places are burnt and some aren’t,
and some are burnt at different frequencies and different seasons. Some species
do well without it; some do well with it. Some like it hot, some don’t. Some
like it often, some rarely. It depends on how they recover from fire and how
they reproduce themselves and how quickly they reach reproductive maturity.
The fire itself wont rid the bush of the problem of exotic weeds—it might
encourage thembut it is still an important tool of ecological management
(McDonald, Wale, & Bear). Some bush though just doesn’t need or want fire.
Why would you want to burn a rainforest? Or would you want burn out a wet
sclerophyll forest with a rainforest understorey that had taken 50 or 200 years
to develop, just to make sure the eucalypts regenerated before they died? But
then again, a roaring wildfire might just burn into wet forest because the drier
forest on the ridges around it had so much fuel that the fire built up into
something fierce enough to consume a rainforest.
Just as persistent fire or water puts pressure on a lineage to develop suitable
adaptations, ideological alternatives lead arguments down certain paths of
adaptation. The opinion that Horton expresses is well adapted to a social
environment where counter arguments to the claimsvalid or outlandishof
modern Australian burning culture find automatic refuge. In arguing against the
romantic burners, romantic environmentalists will often favour a plausible
claim because it gives comfort, it augments the armoury of counter-arguments,
it helps to allow no exceptions and no room for one’s opponents to manoeuvre
in polemic. In the bush a box of matches is more persuasive than any other
argument, so anti-burners need all the arguments they can get.
Every summer comes with a fire warning. A rainy spring and the prophets
warn of a fuel build up. A dry one and it’s a tinderbox out there. Everyone’s a
Nostradamus but none, no matter how much they might like to savour the
indignant pride of the unheeded, deserves much credit for prophesying fire. A
hot dry December is quite enough to cause bad fires somewhere, hazard
reduction and normal rainfall until 30th November notwithstanding.
Hazard reduction, backburning, and prescribed burning for ecological
management are all properly part of fire culture. It is hard to argue against the

principle, even if only because fire is needed to respond to the pyrogenic
culture in the first place. The situation is like that of warfare where violent
means must sometimes be the response to violence. Yet like war, fighting fire
with fire comes with its own catch 22. The culture of hazard reduction is a
hazard. The apprentices and self-styled experts of fire culture are important
causers of fire. Of the 4 fires that have burnt within a kilometre of here in recent
years, all were started as hazard reduction or burning off. One got away while
its novice lighter had an afternoon nap. The origin of another is a mystery
shrouded by embarrassment. One fumed under a pile of litter that had been
raked up and collected to protect dwellings. It crept underground in a root and
flared up at 10 o’clock the same night, consuming the works of art it had been
lit to protect. One lurked in a windrow that had been lit in midwinter, burnt
slow, deep and intense along the heart of a heavy log and then sent up a plume
of smoke three months later when it emerged at the other end and kindled some
blady grass on a hot September afternoon. The last two, probably the last three,
were lit with care, experience and good intentions. Even when the most
experienced do everything 99% right, fire can go 100% wrong.
Cool burn a eucalypt forest as late as September and by October a litter of
leaves crisped on their branches by the burn will have been shed and ready to
pick up sparks on a fiery day. Unless ground fuel is reduced everywhere every
year, fires can, under normal summer conditions, get into canopy. A heat wave
with a scorching westerly can always blast through. With the problems of built
property limiting the extent of broadscale broadcast burning, and with limited
opportunities of weather and labour to kindle a burn, not enough vegetation can
be burnt, and reduction must be limited and strategic. When they talk strategy
people like to talk about burning a mosaic. It’s a word like balance or diversity.
It has enough ambiguity to have community appeal, and it implies an
appreciation of uncomprehended complexities. Some burnt areas, some
unburnt. Some recently burnt, some long unburnt. The burnt bits where you
want them for fuel reduction strategy, protection of property, conservation of
flora and fauna, enhancement of biodiversity. Nowhere burnt too often or too
seldom. Everywhere done decorously. The rainforest down there and a mosaic
of drier forests in various stages of succession up here—the grand, beautiful,
clever, diverse, Byzantine masterpiece of burning mosaics, a tour de force in
space and time. If only fire, feral and fascinating, furious or finicky, were so
compliant. If only the disposition of property, the weather, the arson, the
accidents, the greenies, the burners, time and money would give us a chance. If
only hazard reduction, biodiversity, property and living close to nature weren’t
so thoroughly irreconcilable. Where such natural inconsistency and ideological
conflict prevails, received wisdom likes to have it that thorough planning must
be the answer. At least it is a democratic gesture, a hopeful diversion from
pragmatics and the fall back you might just need when it comes to the blame
game. Still, in no field of ecological practice is muddling on and putting out
wildfires when called on so patently (and literally) the predicament. Burners say
the complexity is no excuse for doing nothing. But fire is too fascinating

anyway. Society couldn’t bring itself to do nothing if it tried. Doing a bit of
burning here—not enough and too much. Houses there, bush here, a firebreak
there, a plantation here. Hazard reduction over there. It getting away here.
Letting a wildfire burn there, fighting it here. And firing a few shots in the
blame game too. It’s a mosaic out there all right. It’s Byzantine.
Some say fuel reduction may temper certain sites for 15 years but 2-4 years
is more likely. Most of the fuel has replenished by then. And it is only
tempering. It will not stop bad fires, although it might reduce the intensity
where it counts. It is a way to divide a landscape into a better strategic
organization. And then the burning creates bush that is full of plants adapted to
fire and with a tendency to build up dry fuel and burn again. As such burning
creates the need for more burning to reduce the fuel load, and the more you
burn the more you commit yourself to fire in future, whether prophylactic or
destructive. In turn, all our burning is risky and much of it is lawless. Around
here it’s a lawful risk in winter and early spring and a lawless risk in late spring
and summer. Everywhere is different though (a fact that certainly feeds the
confusion about the past and about what to do now because claims about say
the Victorian bush or the Sydney sandstone are not valid when transferred to
the mixed eucalyptus and rainforests of the Bellinger). Still, such great power
comes from a single spark its almost irresistible. And technological society is
inevitably pyrogenic. We litter sources of ignitionwhether immediate sources
like stray sparks and cigarette butts or potential sources like glass and metal.
Our fire culture is a wild and alien beast, and its wildness is amplified by fire’s
own wild, implacable life.
The bush has changed, but not in the simple sense that fire romantics dwell
upon, namely in the sense that it has been abandoned to excessive growth and
wilder hotter fires. Nowadays we own immovable property like the houses we
live in. When the news says no property was lost this means no buildings were
lost. It might stretch to a timber plantation. But it seldom means bush, which
implies that the bush must be seen as either ever-present (i.e. burnt bush is still
bush) or renewable (i.e. it all grows back), or it needs the good old good burn
anyway, or it is not a commodity that you can call property, or all of the above.
In a world that is present as a universe of commodities, almost invariably this
immovable property incorporates most of that world, notably that portion of it
to which we establish our most intimate and financially pressing relations. It
might not seem so at first, but this is the biggest change in the bush. That is, it
is the biggest change in the bush as a form of societywhich is what it was and
what it still is.
People build their houses in the bush and therefore, it is said don’t
understand the bush. Every summer after houses burn and suburbs flee, voices
of popular wisdom make the declaration with a weary shake of the head. It
feeds a certain schadenfreude that unAustralian or Utopian green naïveté has
had another little comeuppance.
Build your house in an urban or rural landscape and you can shade it with as
many trees as you like. You can let your garden grow into a forest or a jungle or

a tinderbox woodland. But build your house in the bush and you have to clear
the bush from around it by at least 40 metresparticularly on the side from
which the wild hot winds blowand mow your lawn low or pave over the
ground so that there is no vegetation or litter to fuel an approaching fire. That
is: build your house in the bush and get rid of the bush. If you live in the bush
you can’t live in the bush. Of course this is not a paradox that defies resolution.
You can build your house in the bush and many do, but to do so is a treat, a
luxury, a risk, a folly, a compromise, an illusion, a maintenance problem, or, in
many places a contravention of planning regulations. Not everyone is like the
architect Richard Le Plaistrier. His appreciation of the temporality of a building
in the bush implies that part of its beauty lies in the risky pact it makes with fire
and time.
The strategy of fire exclusion and fire prevention is a Sisyphean labour.
Burners would say Utopian. Fighting fire with fire sounds witty, daring and
bold. It’s kind of can do. Rain fights a fight like conservationists: gains are
slow and incremental and never free from the threat that they could all be lost
with the next entrepreneur or the next government; its enemy is as persistent
and self-perpetuating as capital. Fire fights like market forces. It always has the
capital of flammable vegetation and, when it consumes it, the flames only
generate more. Nothing better illustrates the wild extra-human character of
society than fire-culture. The purported inevitability of fire may be a socially
normalized inevitability, but it is such a powerful one because so many for so
long have bent their own intentions to it that nature too is given to upholding it.
No doubt humans cause most fires, not lightning. Causes include hazard
reduction, burning off and back burning gone wrong, inadvertent escapes,
cigarette butts, stupid boys, and arsonists. Some say glass and metal litter can
do it too. The figures are not always very good, but according to Stephen Pyne
(7), ‘during the 1970s in Victoria, lightning was responsible for 24% of fires’,
but accounted for 60% of acres. Lightning fires are most prominent where
humans live least and when weather is hot, dry and stormy, which might
explain why they consume the most.
The intentionsby no means coordinated and consistentof millennia of
burners are nothing compared to the self-perpetuating forms of super-individual
society and the fiery cultural nature that has evolved. But then each generation
takes on the supposed facts of that fiery nature as its norms, and, lo and behold,
recognizes in them after all its own cherished intentions. What remains
unconscious is the existence of the extra-human dimension of the social
process. Fire exclusionists can’t seem to shake the notion that if humans cause
most fires then humans can stop it. It’s like capitalism or war. Humans, they
say, make history. But they neglect to appreciate how they must make it with
the materials inherited from the pastin this case the fiery, self-perpetuating,
pyrogenic past.

12.6 …As Nature-In-Itself

Wilderness, Or Nature Without Culture

The best place to see images of nature is where nature is an image of itself:
e.g. in wilderness (and in this it is exactly like TV). Only when seen as merely
the image of nature is wilderness released from the awful burden of naturalness
that is assumed to be underwritten by its ontological preponderance. Now, like
TV, nature is another medium.
Wilderness, so called, is a curious concept. In Australia it sounds a bit
American. Critics of the concept, especially the Aboriginal ones, point out that
traditional Aboriginal societies had no such concept and no wilderness as such:
the concept and the thing is an imposition of the invading society.
In fact, the invading society is an imposition on itself, and wilderness is an
autoimmune response of that society. Wilderness was created by it as a place
where its imposition upon itself was not to be allowed, where it was to be cured
by cold turkey. That imposition upon itself was an imposition on its
naturenot only on its remoter nature of wild places, animals and plants, but
also mirrored, as it were, in its most intimate human nature. It should not be
imagined that wilderness is something extra-humaneven one of its most
renowned American advocates, Aldo Leopold, is wary of that. That would be a
case of self-delusion, of taking a norm for a fact, an index for the thing
indicated, an image for reality. For wilderness, precisely in its being a
deliberately maintained image of extra-human nature is thereby most intimately
human. It is a case, to return to Adorno’s words, of grasping nature, ‘in the
place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being.’ Wilderness
is a time-bound concept as much as it is a space-bound thing. Yet, by the norms
of its constitution, it would like to be bound neither in space nor time— nor for
that matter, in normativity. Like its extra-humanness, such unboundedness is
what it represents.
Even though made from the matter supplied by nature, even though an index
of nature and its history, wilderness is an image of naturenature as the
modern spectacle of nature. Not only photographs, TV wildlife documentaries
and CDs of birdsongs and whalesongs, but now nature itself is an image of
Wilderness is a genre of nature, like pastoral. It is a modern form with
special appeal to modern sensibility, but it certainly has ancestral forms. Indeed
its ancestral formin this case its material homologous formwas in the great
tracts of wild country from which pastoral, among other genres of nature,
differentiated itself, the country whose ‘appearance,’ in Samuel Johnson’s
words was ‘that of matter, incapable of form and usefulness, dismissed by
nature from her care and left in its original elemental state’ (Williams, 1973,
128). Like traditional Aboriginal societies, it seems Johnson’s inchoate
modernitynot to mention the nature itself of his daydid not countenance a

concept of wilderness, except as a kind of antithesis of nature that lay
elsewhere. In colonial agricultural societies like America and Australia, this
otherness of wilderness took on its own generic prominence as modern forms of
the aesthetic consumption of nature became second nature and as the colonial
frontier that had marked the end of the pastoral and the beginning of the
elsewhere started to sense its historical and spatial culmination. Wilderness
became included in the socially recognized forms of nature precisely in its
value as outside of social mediationa self-contradictory prescription, but one
that was easily instituted and maintained. It was assisted in this by the aesthetic-
cum-ontological status it already had as ‘appearance’ in such as Johnson’s
By its wildness and size it is cognate with the modern idea of sublime
nature. For that reason it is most often consumed from lookouts or planes or on
TV or just as a big roadless patch on a map. Otherwise it is the object of an
adventure: wildwater rafting, mountaineering, or at least a long bushwalk. Just
as the sublime became especially poignant at a certain historical moment, so did
wilderness. For it is part of the same aesthetic phenomenon and it has it
historical genesis in the same context of industrialization, colonialism, travel,
the rise of the middle class and tourism.
In order to maintain the institution, standards have been drafted about the
exclusion of roads, the limits to allowable ecological effects of agricultural,
silvicultural and industrial society, and minimum area. Setting up this
institution makes the differentiation of wilderness a matter of convenience, a
matter of kind rather than degree. It distinguishes wilderness from related
smaller genres: nature reserves, national parks and such. All of these though are
kinds of fiction with their own version of willing suspension of disbelief.
Wilderness as mere image, mere fiction? This claim would be scandalous if
it weren’t so easy to dismiss as trite postmodern claptrap. It would be the sort of
thing that gets criticized for playing into the hands of nature’s enemies, but
wilderness is, after all, just so out there, so material, so ontologically weighty.
Like the character in the Leunig cartoon, we do not even have to see it to be
reassured. It is one thing that can just exist unseen, utterly defying Berkeleyan
Idealism, emanating its natural healing beams. But let’s get our thinking
straight here.
It is a delusion tantamount to believing in complete fictions to think that
images and fictions are not made out of stuff. Nothing is not made out of stuff.
What images and fictions are is special stuff that signifies usually quite
complex thingsobjects, actions, series of events, conceptsin typically quite
elaborate ways, including ways that need in no way be dependent upon the
existence of whatever is represented. Wilderness and the other genres of nature
are made out of living ecological stuff but we perceive all that reality as
inveterately semantic social animals. It is not as sheer abstract stuff but
meaningful stuff in our meaningful world. Even to say this stuff is ecological
reveals my own sense that its very materiality might be indicated by this term of
empirical science, i.e. of the distinctively modern high cultural form through

which so much of my and your perception of nature is semantically mediated.
Walking the wilderness track I don’t see stuff-in-itself when I look beside me.
As Kant long ago made quite clear, any such thing as some kind of pure
objectivity of things-in-themselves, is beyond our experience. The best we can
do is conceive that there might be such a noumenal or purely intelligible thing.
I see a tree goanna scrambling up a red ash. Others who don’t know this
country only see a big lizard on a dappled tree. When people from my culture
walk through a wildernessor one of the smaller scale genresthey are likely
to see a lot of extra-human nature, but to believe this is extra-human nature they
have to do quite a bit of trompe l’œil and a lot of willing suspension of (dis)
belief. They have to ignore themselves, they have to ignore the path, they have
to ignore the distant park boundaries, they have to ignore the park management
and the Wilderness Act, they have to ignore the norms and the society and
nation state that has instituted this bit of extra-human naturalness as one social
and functional category of landscape in a thoroughly apportioned landscape,
and they have to ignore all the work of arguing in favour of getting this place
declared as National Park or Wilderness. Most of this is easy. Not only are we
extraordinarily well practiced in this illusion, wilderness itself works very
wellits prized attributes of remoteness and uncultivatedness are especially
usefulto conceal all the attached strings and stage devices it uses precisely to
create its fiction. Out of sight, out of mind. In fact though it is virtual reality: it
is hard to actually not believe in the fiction that it signifiesso hard that almost
everyone does believe it.
There is an old and persistent suspicion of images and fictions. The 2nd
Commandment forbade them, unequivocally. Absolutely no images of
anything, it says. That is the literal King James, and even fundamentalists sin
like devils against it. Plato would have banned images from his republic too.
We may kid ourselves we are well over this but, in one form or another, images
remain all too, or at least just a little too, fascinating. They are still suspected of
being variously distracting, delusive, not the real thing, mere copies, idolatrous,
fetishistic and dangerously influential. Think of pornography, violent movies,
advertising, TV, video games, and the various moral, political and aesthetic
panics they beget at some time in the quarters of almost all of us. The thinking
is that, ontologically, images are obliged to cede absolute priority to whatever
they represent, and if we don’t get this straight we open ourselves to moral,
political and (in the case of environmental ethics) ecological danger. To say
wilderness is an image or a fiction smacks of saying it is not the real thing and
not worth believing in and we might as well log it or clear it or dump waste
there. I think that this kind of thinking though is precisely a case of having
confused the representation with the thing represented, and it actually confirms
the suspicions of those who feared the delusory power of images.

We seem compelled to profess to some credo, to deliberately confuse norms

for facts, and invest the socially instituted form of wilderness with some kind of
ontological preponderance. To believe in it! Perhaps this distortion of our

understanding follows from the need to defend these images of nature against
their destruction: to give no rhetorical quarter and then to believe the rhetoric.
No doubt a lot of eco-political rhetoric distorts our understanding and
appreciation of natureespecially our understanding of the aesthetics and
poetics of nature. However, what I like about wilderness, and all those related
genres, is that, like fiction and unless we delude ourselves, they frankly invite
suspension of belief. They allow us not to get all fundamentally ontological
about nature and its naturalness. And even if we are thinking functionally about
nature that is not a bad thing. It allows us to free functionality from its usual
narrow ideological confines, which have, time and again, with a kind of
puritanical greed, misunderstood the ecological functions of nature for us.
Indeed usually it is the vulgar functionalist concept of nature that is taken to be
its fundamental ontological status. The pristine or even extra-human nature of
which wilderness and the other genres are images are utopias of function. In
existing only for itself, the wide-eyed Ground Thrush I see walking along
before me in the bush is an epitome of design working for us.

12.7 …As Sheer Appearance

The Origin Of Views, Or A Prehistory Of The Image Of Nature

In our different ways we all bring a little bit of ignorance of history

and add it to the pile.

—Don Watson, ‘Garibaldi in an Armani Suit’

What is the origin of the custom of looking at views from the tops of
mountains? One story has it that on an the 26th April, 1336 the Italian poet
Petrarch was the first to discover or invent this experience when he and his
brother and their two servants climbed Mont Ventoux in southern France.
Could this have been the beginning of a new aesthetic sensibility, of a certain
way of looking at nature? When Clement Hodgkinson gazed down on the
Bellinger Valley from Diehappy Ridge was his experience of a kind that began
with Petrarch and that has been reproduced again and again down into the
contemporary culture of nature?
In a letter to his Augustinian friend and confidant Dionisio da Borga San
Sepolcro, Petrarch said he wanted to see what so great an elevation had to offer.
If what you see from a mountain is nature, then this was an experience of nature
as sheer spectacle, useless spectacle. There is a related and perhaps competing
story, one about mountains only becoming good taste—in European culture at
least—in the 18th century. Both stories are likely to be elaborated with the
assertion that before a certain sublime sensibility became part of European

culture, mountains were seldom visited because they were considered to be ugly
and frightening places.
Petrarch was inspired by a passage in Livy’s History of Rome (4.21) in
which Philip II of Macedon climbs Mt Haemus in Thessaly. Legend had it that
two seas were visible from the top, the Adriatic and the Euxine or Black Sea,
and that the Danube and even the Alps could be seen. Philip did not climb
Haemus for the hell of it. According to Livy he wanted to keep his soldiers
active, and also to remove any suspicion that he might be thinking of war with
Rome. Perhaps the Romans were supposed to think that Philip had become
obsessed by mad athletic diversions. At the same time though, Philip believed
that the view would assist strategic planning in a war with Rome. He thought
the spectacle might have a use. On his descent, Philip said nothing to contradict
the old stories about the extent of the view. Livy doubted the stories and
thought Philip just wanted to avoid the subject altogether for fear of being
ridiculed for putting his men through a futile expedition. Livy reports that the
king and his party were distressed and dispirited by the climb; but they do seem
to have salvaged a sacred purpose from the failure of their military aims, raising
alters and making sacrifices to Jupiter and the Sun before they descended.
Apparently they did not salvage an aesthetic purpose, but note: often the
aesthetic is the profane, modern descendent of the sacred; and in turn, Jupiter,
the thunderer, and the Sun are deities that have an ancestry in natural wonders.
Petrarch observes that various writers had disagreed on the truth about the
extent of the view from Haemus. He himself takes an empiricist’s approach to
the academic dispute. Had he not been a long way from Haemus, he would have
just climbed the thing to see. Being in France he repeated the experiment, by
climbing Ventoux instead. In the history of nature culture a comparable
question about truth claims arises: How does one verify the claim about
Petrarch being the first sublime mountaintop viewer? It is one that is harder to
answer though because, while Petrarch could just climb Ventoux, and more or
less repeat the experiment, the events of history happen only once upon a time.
They disallow the repeatability of empirical observation. The only things that
are empirical in historythe only things that a researcher can observe again
and againare the documents. That is why history could scarcely get started
until the technology of writing was invented. The question about who was first
may be an appropriate historical question, but perhaps a better one is why are
historical accounts so fascinated by claims about who or what was first? For it
is the pernicious habit of historiography to satisfy this particular fascination by
ceasing to be history and reverting to origin myths. I might add that myth is a
kind of narrative well adapted to the social environment of oral communication.
In the absence of writing, accounts of observations are more subject to variation
and, in the absence of their original accounts, the variants are then subject to
selection according to uses such as plausibility or entertainment rather than
according to the accuracy of the variant or its adequacy to events that can no
longer be observed. It is all Chinese whispers.

On top of Ventoux, Petrarch opened a copy of Augustine’s Confessionsa
gift from Dionigi. It opened by chance, or grace, or narrative contrivance—even
Petrarch’s documentation of his climb is a secondary elaboration of events that
are now as lost to observation as a dream—at the following passage. Petrarch
read it out loud:

‘And men go about to wonder at the heights of mountains, and the

mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit
of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they
consider not.’ (Petrarch, Letter)

This turns Petrarch’s narrative to devout thoughts on the uses of spectacle

and to its spiritual contemplation. In fact all of Petrarch’s letter is written as a
kind of allegorical romance leading to this end. Meanwhile, Augustine’s
reference to the might of nature says something about the history of wonder at
natural phenomena: whatever Petrarch may have been first to do, it had a well
known social ancestryso well known that Augustine had referred to it as a
bad habit centuries earlier.
Rivers rise all over their catchments. Stand on the trachyte cliffs of
Barangarnyatta or Point Lookout, or Nguloongeer or Darkies Point. You can
see the water weeping out of the rock walls at your feet. You can hear the
Bellinger rising in the deep forested valley far below. It also rises way over in
the Never Never, Rosewood and Kalang Valleys, and down at Bishops,
Diehappy, Boggy, Cemetery and Hydes Creeks, and in all the other creeks and
little gullies that flow off all the ridges. Trace a river back from its mouth and it
is an indefinitely branching fractal that ends up covering everywhere in the
catchment. The one-dimensional line of the river branches so much it becomes
a two dimensional surface. Its sources are marked by every dot of rain that falls
on the catchment. History is like the Bellinger, or the Nile. There is no source.
History cannot be a search for the origin, because there is no one origin. The
origin is everywhere, everywhen.
Trace an idea back to its origin and the historian must follow a branching
ancestry of transmissions. Along any branch there will be separate traditions
joining, and also reticulations in the lines of transmission, where joining
traditions reveal common ancestors; and there will be drastic transformations in
the meanings of expressions or stories or actions as they are adapted to changed
social circumstances, and there will be great gaps in the map where loss of
historical knowledge means no lines of transmission can confidently be drawn
any more. During their ascent, the young Petrarca brothers meet an old
shepherd. He is like one of those wild hermits in some old romance. He tells the
brothers that 50 years before in the same ardour of youth as theirs he had made
the same ascent, and presumably just for the hell of it, and he got nothing for
his pains but fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and
briars. However his attempts to dissuade the brothers only increased their
desire to proceed. They are a bit like the first two siblings in the folk tale who

ignore the wise advice of a disguised wizard, advice that the blessed third
sibling is kind enough or cunning enough to attend to. But in this story there is
no third brother. Thereafter, the Petrarca brothers’ ascent signified youth’s
suspicions of old warnings, as well as the curiosity to see what could be
seenboth of which are venerable, but not exclusively, signs of modernity.
So Petrarch repeated the act of climbing a mountain and looking at the view,
an act that had had a military function for Philip of Macedon, and an act that in
the telling had led to a description of a view that was designed to excite
wonder. If the veracity of the description of the view from Haemus was
questionable it is precisely because of the power of mountain views, like
storytelling, to produce wonder and, by transference, to produce embellished
descriptions designed to evoke wonder. Clearly, the function or the meaning of
mountain views can change not only throughout a thousand years, but also
during a single conversation with a shepherd. And it changes again, as Petrarch
up on top reads from Augustine, and picks up another branch of traditiona
branch about the significance of all merely worldly wonders. And another
onethe branch about the human soul as the proper object of contemplation,
the humanist branch already growing in the proto-modern Augustine, and one
that would remain a theme in the aesthetics of nature precisely because nature
would always seem imperilled by its inhumanity. Petrarch was abashed at the
words he read from the cunning old convert (Augustine had already had his fill
of such worldly pleasures as love, art and nature) and he was angry with himself
for still admiring earthly things when nothing is wonderful but the soul, which,
when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. In fact Petrarch is not so
unlike Philip of Macedon: he salvages a sacred meaning from his profane
Similar pressuresthe guilty sense of the apparently sensualist value of
natural spectacle, the sense of its lack of serious human relevance, and the
ambition of achieving a fitting philosophical gravitymade just the
environment for eliciting a similar reflection from Rousseau 400 years later. In
the fifth of the walks in his Les Réveries du promeneur solitaire Rousseau
wrote that the happiness that nature gives us is nothing external to ourselves.
Even Kant, an admirer of Rousseau’s and who of all philosophers is the first to
give nature its due in aesthetics, could not help but make the aesthetics of
nature’s sublime vistas a prelude to moral edification:

Therefore nature is here called sublime merely because it raises the

imagination to a presentation of those cases in which the mind can
make itself sensible of the appropriate sublimity of the sphere of its
own being, even above nature. (Critique of Judgement, §28)

Having been emptied of humans, especially for the for the sake of its
sublime form, nature seemed be left wanting human interest. For Kant, the
aesthetic contemplation of nature becomes a kind of resolution of tension
between the alien might of extra-human nature and moral reason. Something

similar is happening in contemporary Australian nature culture in the critique of
the concept of wilderness as a kind of terra nullius for greens. There is a
persistent feature of the culture of nature here, a pressure to justify the
indulgence of the contemplation of nature. In response, nature, as a form of
culture, changes. It takes on different functionssacred, aesthetic, ethical and
politicaland, therefore, different justifications in different circumstances.
In relation to such sophistical justifications, Socrates the city dweller’s
appreciation is the best: expecting nothing of trees and the countryside, he
experiences them with sheer delight and gratitude. No one, by the way, bothers
to ask whether Socrates was the first to discover or invent the pleasurable uses
of shady creeks and loud cicadas or the sweet scents and breezes of summer
when he and Phaidros went down by the Ilisosthe little creek below the
Acropolis. There, the bare footed philosopher lay back on the grassy bank while
his protégé read out a discourse on love. In this case, Socrates explicitly credits
Phaidros with prior knowledge of the delights of the place and Socrates,
delighted too, thanks him for being such an admirable guide. Socrates confesses
to Phaidroswith that patronizing Socratic irony of histhat he had gone as a
stranger into the country. As befitted a lover of knowledge, he was a city
person. The men in the city had been his teachers, not the trees or the country.
Socrates goes on to describe how the inventor of a form of culture—Socrates
had in mind the technology of writing—cannot anticipate the uses that will
subsequently be made of it.
The same goes for stories. Petrarch’s account of his climb has itself changed
its uses. What began as a story about a reflective and pious meditation
addressed to a religious confidant now persists in modern tales about the origin
of Renaissance humanism and about the origin of the significance of
mountaintop views. There is that other story about the origin of mountain
aesthetics in the 18th century that can be used to explain this feature of modern
culture too. As in Raymond Williams (1973, 128) version, it can quote
Evelyn’s 1640 description of the Alps with their strange, horrid and fearful
crags and tracts. It can quote Dennis’s ruins upon ruins, in monstrous heaps,
and Heaven and Earth confounded; or Samuel Johnson’s the appearance is
that of matter, incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her
care and left in its original elemental state. And then it can quote Thomas
Gray, in 1739, just a decade before Burke’s aesthetic treatise on The Beautiful
and The Sublime, saying not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff but is
pregnant with religion and poetry. The transformations of these stories have
given their retellings and re-readings leases of life by virtue of their adaptation
to a commensurably persistent social pressure exerted by a widespread custom
of historicism: a prevailing habit that seeks to explain a social phenomenon by
tracing it to origins, a habit in response to which the work of historical inquiry
itself gets adapted by transformation into a mythology of origins.
The observer of sublime vistas is, as Williams noted, a self conscious
observer, an observer observing his or her own observation, regulating the kind
of attention and constructing the self doing the observation in the process. No

doubt this reflexivity applies to reflective types like Petrarch and for that
matter, Augustine. Reflexivity, as thinkers from Hegel to Anthony Giddens
have stressed, may be a feature of modernity, but it has been around a long
time. What seems especially to characterize modernity’s reflexivity is that as
well as individual self observation and self consciousness feeding individual
self-construction, modern social organization is generated by a dizzying loop of
feed back between society and its self descriptionshowever much mistaken or
simplisticwhich become reified as the nature of society itself.
In its primary movement, the sublime is a reflexive gesture. Maybe the
subliming of the experience of mountains happened more than once because if
there weren’t something to sublime then it would have had to be invented to
meet the need for an object to aid reflexive ecstasy. Following the plot of the
allegorical quest, Petrarch went looking for something, so he was sure to find
something. Now, long after lookouts have become utterly banal, the sublime
persists as a way of aesthetically consuming almost anything. It is the self
conscious renovation of sensibility, the extension of sensibility beyond its banal
objects to carve out a department of aesthetic experience and move it like a
bubble through the worldany world: up mountains in Petrarch’s 14th century
or the Romantics 18th; into city crowds in the flaneur’s 19th; or into the
shopping mall in the postmodern 20th. This intensely reflexive steering of
aesthetic consumption may be modern, but this modernity thing has many
ancestors, and certainly not only in the West, and it has been going on,
fashioning itself out of the cultural bric-a-brac of the past and getting its forms
selected in fits and starts for quite a while now. In such a social evolutionary
process things that look like they have been there since the start, or even like
they were the start, can look inevitable; but their functions have been changed
and their persistence and recurrence can be simply because they can function in
different ways in different times and be adapted to different social pressures.
Williams himself called the new 18th century attitude not an alteration of
sensibility; it is strictly an addition to taste…the wild regions of the mountain
and forest were for the most part objects of conspicuous aesthetic
consumption… a form of fashionable society, and a forerunner of contemporary
tourism. Mountainous terrain found itself in an age of increasingly industrial
capital, middle class wealth and a shrinking natural environment pre-adapted to
a new kind of marketed sensibility. The most persistent pressure though to
which perilous heights and wild tracts are tailored is the old physiological one:
In a world of light and flesh, natural selection has fashioned sight from
scratch many times, extending perception way beyond the confines of the
observer’s flesh, and in such visual animals as ourselves sight is the body at its
most brilliant. Its extraordinary biology is objective observation incarnate,
conceptual understanding embodied in the senses, the source therefore of
knowledge and power.
Yet precisely for its power of extending flesh beyond itself, vision is riddled
by contradictions. The amazing combination of sensuality and distance, of flesh

and spirit, makes it constitutionally duplicitous. It is at once the most refined
and the most sensuous of the senses. At times just looking is the finest form of
appreciation, the image of disinterested contemplation. At other times it is
profane and voyeuristic. Vision is credited with rising above the material, and
indicted as an indulgence of power exercised at a heartless unfair distance,
sensual and detached, safe and dangerous, fascinated and disinterested, erotic
and uncommitted. This is quite enough to give the object of vision the
reputation of a fetish. It is declared a mere image and therefore counterfeit, and
looking is declared taboo. And therefore it is a taboo deliciously to be broken.
No wonder the visual image is the image of the image, and no wonder
looking became the customary mode of experiencing nature as an aesthetic
object. In looking we make nature in the image of the artistic image, especially
in the view. The view is nature as sheer appearance, and a chief ancestor of the
modern transmutation of nature into the image of nature.


The image of nature—whether spun by media networks, greens, advertisers,

the arts, the sciences, the schools, the National Parks and Wildlife Service,
bureaucracies or governments, each to their own ends—cannot just be censored
by decree, nor deconstructed and laid safely aside. As the image-makers say,
it’s all about image. Perhaps it was ever thus for such an imaginative, semiotic
animal as Homo sapiens. In fact most of what anything ever reveals of itself is
its image, and everything now, including nature, is made in the image of its
image. In fact nature has to be an image of itself, and this raises a question.
Now that nature has to be made in the image of itself, is there some art that can
make a virtue of this necessity? Can truth and beauty—or what tradition
denoted by these words—still be enough?


The Poetics

The Nature Critic
Nature considered as an object for criticism

Hitherto I had carelessly generalized with regard to Nature. Now I


—Jack McLaren, My Crowded Solitude

There is good surf and bad surf. At Hungry Head I swim out through the
white water out to the sky blue and other blue swells. Fish stream and thrash
about a little further out, making their own white horses. I think of sharks and
hope for dolphins. I have to swim hard to get over a sizable wave before it
breaks. The surf is bigger than I thought, but not too big. Big enough and
curling over into the full water of a high tide. I let the rushing curve of the wave
sweep me up its face and slip me through its curling lip and shoot me out the
back of everything into the calm water behind and the thing I see when I open
my eyes is a gannet gliding by under the crest of the next wave in the set,
tipping its great wing against the water. It turns and casts an oceanic eye at me,
like a lone pilot in a white passing plane. Like the sea, its unconcern is utter and
unrehearsed. Like me it is another being, eyeing. I ride over this wave with
enough time to graph the famous curve, wondering what its name and the x, y, z
and t of its equation might beall four of its stately, timely dimensions
hastening through their partial differentials until that t hits the break point
where calculus gives way to turbulent topologyand watching a young body-
boarder riding it and studying the maths from his end. I position myself for the
third wave and there is no one else near me. It’s free, like money on trees, and
peaking just to the south of me where, having loomed up out of the Pacific, it
has lifted its head and paraded itself, just here and now, once only on the east
coast, and I am able to swim just four good strokes to get it to take hold of me.
This feeling of being taken, of being lifted and falling and floating and
accelerating at the same time, of having to give yourself to it in order to catch it.
It is Bacon’s maxim about only mastering nature by obeying it. Hardly
mastering. With my right arm stretched forward across the wave’s open face,
holding me up on the curving surface, and my left arm back along my side and

my left hand open like a fin and extended out from my side a little to support
me on the steep face, I fly across it. Holding myself high on its face at first to
feel the power and poise of it, I then let myself fall fast enough to rise up again
with the rising curving water. Once up again I see the wave getting steep for a
long way in front of me and, knowing that big open face is all about to close
out, I let myself fall again, this time diving down into the base of the curve into
the water, and I turn to slip out of the back of the wave like a dolphin, letting its
power propel me scot free of the white water. Still in the blue unbroken water, I
can smell and hear the marine zing of the froth and turbulence closer to the
shore, I can see a footloose kelp wandering over the clear sandy bottom, and
there is another gannet, a motley young one this time, sitting on the surface.
The set is finished and it is a clear swim back out. I turn on my back, rest my
arms and, breathing hard, I fin my way back out on the rip, watching that blue
sky and the green shore where in summer the low swifts arc and comb insects
out of the sky back behind the beach just above the figs and red beans and
brushboxes on the bluff. The onshore wind has not started and there may still
be a light offshore disciplining the rows of waves—like a ballet not an army—
getting them to hold their heads up, keeping them neat, brushing back the spray
behind them, like mermaid hair. Dolphins roll through the fine breeze-wrinkled
sea, like coastal shipping saluting with their fins, blowing with the easy power
of big mammals and passing north. The folding waves force air out like oceanic
breath. I go down to the beach in the morning, hoping that the sea it will be yet
another form of this beauty and not be choppy, wild, sloppy, flat or any other
kind of unsurfable or not worth surfing. It is never the same twice.

The linguist Wilhelm von Humboldtthe brother of Alexander, the

naturalistonce criticized a grand, rocky landscape for lacking trees. Or so
Theodor Adorno says in his Aesthetic Theory (106). Personally, a lot of sunsets
look overdone to me, and sometimes those green lakeside forests of the
temperate northern hemisphere look a bit bland and chocolate box compared to
a swamp heath or gum trees. They remind me why a painter like Jean-Baptiste
Corot could quip that nature had too much green. Or maybe something similar
is happening when I complain about the surf. Adorno goes on to say, ‘the
stubborn insistence on using one’s faculty of judgement even in the presence of
natural givens is naïve, to be sure. But it also points to a relationship with
nature that is incomparably more intimate than the one implied by complete
satisfaction with it.’ While such a judgement may imply a wish to have nature
conform to meddlesome and time-bound human purposes, it also follows from
a philosophy of nature, like Goethe’s, which ‘interprets nature as intrinsically
Reflection on the aesthetics of nature should not turn too quickly to the most
abstractto big questions like ‘What is the aesthetics of nature?’ How does it
relate to the aesthetics of art? What is natural beauty?’ It seems unmade
nature’s sensed lack of aesthetic credentials can compel such grand reflections,
but perhaps prematurely. The pressures of academic society force reflection

onto such limited abstractions because the felicities of a digressive, interpretive
essay—especially on nature, which is wrongly supposed to epitomize the
uninterpretable—would be quickly censored as idle indulgence: abstractions
have philosophical cachet; single categories can be analyzed until the
theoretician can be satisfied at having left nothing unsaid; if abstract categories
are explained everything else that is merely particular is supposed to follow
from such generality. Yet like art, nature is too quick and too contingent for
ponderous categories and it quickly eludes them. A few stillborn conclusions
are the only issue of such prescribed academic labour. Like artworks, natural
objects rival one another, and artworks and natural objects rival one another
too, as if to annihilate their aesthetic competition, at least in the moment of
their beholders’ consciousness. All is emulation, and in emulation there is a
kernel of imitationas the common confusion-cum-etymological convergence
of the two terms impliesfor rivals would negate one another, but according to
some shared standards or virtues that are preserved and enhanced in the
negation. As with artworks, this emulation is expressed in the rivalries of taste,
not only between one person and another, but between different moments of
one’s own experience, between one wave and the next.
Walking with friends, half by misadventure half by adventure, through
swamp heath, one remarks on the gis of a bee-eater, explaining the term gis as a
birdo’s term for the look and movements of a bird. Another explains the
different flowers of this heath and that heath, this sedge and that sedge. One
sticks his arm down into the peaty soil, displaying the layers of its caky depths
and speculating on the geological recipe. Another presents to us the red of
dragonflies, the craftwork of spiders, the microcosm of a beetle’s back. Another
mocks all this stopping and starting and natural history, feeds us chocolate,
reminds us we have miles to go before lunch, and wants to accuse whoever got
us in this mess. We all struggle with pleasure through dense, prickly flowering
heath, wet under foot, slowly enough to enjoy all the more of it. One follows
and composes poetry in the rear. There isn’t a single moment of abstract beauty
Most reflection on art is critical and appreciative rather than philosophical.
But such reflection gives art its due and in doing so is more philosophical for
not having stolen the art out of the philosophy of art. On the other hand the
aesthetics of nature is philosophically impoverished for their being so little
criticism of nature.
In national parks, not only tracks, lookouts, visitor centres and
interpretational signs, but animal populations, river styles and community flora
are, like the surf, matters for critique; excess of woodland, lack of grasses and
sedges, rainforest fetishes and places with too many weeds should attract
critical appraisal. Oceans, surf, forests, deserts, tourist attractions, lookouts,
roadsides, bush at the back of farms or beyond the quarter acre block are all
deserving of critique. I walk back from surfing through a strip of littoral
rainforest and note the beautification: two or three newly planted progress
palms (Arecastrum romanzoffianum) plonked into a viny gap of prickly

sarsaparilla, each palm framed from the leaf-litter by little white rings of pale
sand; the sand along the side of the path dug up to level a bed for a white quartz
garden and heaped up over the adjacent ground where weeds have started to
invade beneath old riberries, tuckeroos, coogeras and figs that no-one seems to
see. I then drive through dense bristling wallumone of the most beautiful
things on earth (as Edward Abee says, there are many such places)past a
football field carved into the middle of it, with progress palms (again, always)
planted along the road for instant beautification, instantly exotic, instantly sort
of tropical. But it is not just these things I want to criticize. They are what
might be called unworthy of criticism, like vandalism. At best kitsch, they are
not like nature seriously, imaginatively meant as nature. Nature is too good to
be left to the travel writers. As well as literary, cinema and art critics there
should be nature criticsespecially now that we are doing such a lot of making
it, presenting it, framing it and selling it. Without them, mentions of the
aesthetics of nature will only signify some vague, trifling, emotional bonus,
something so merely subjective before all that objectivity of nature. We write
our meanings all over nature, not only projecting ideas, but carving and
moulding them into its materials. And then we like to read them back,
confusing the written and the given. We delude ourselves that the eternal book
of nature is being revealed to us as unadulterated appearance, beyond meaning.
When you climb up the escarpment above the junction of the Rosewood
River with the Bellinger you reach the basaltic cap of the Dorrigo plateau. After
the humid valley, Dorrigo is another countrythe air cooled by altitude, the
rolling plateau cleared into green grasslands divided up by privet windbreaks
and ploughed paddocks of red volcanic soil. Stretching east along the
escarpment there are the sweet smelling coachwood and sassafras rainforests of
the Eastern Dorrigo. They are growing on metasediment, not volcanic soils.
Driving through it you wonder whether you are in Australia or somewhere lost
in geological time. Above their sombre Gondwanic greens rise the black masts
of hoop pines. Along the misty ravines, old Antarctic beeches that have grown
there a thousand years hold on to the past. The beeches grow out to the west of
Dorrigo too, back up into the high trachyte country above the head of the
Bellinger where the white gum, messmate and snow gum tablelands suddenly
end and the land drops away under misty rainforests down towards the coastal
Right on the edge of the escarpment, just where the road climbs out of the
Bellinger valley and onto the plateau, is Dorrigo National Park. Just here,
spilling over the edge of the escarpment above Rosewood River, there is a little
bit of the old rainforest that grew on the richest Dorrigo soils, the
superabundant rainforests that were relentlessly cleaned off the red basalt soils
less than a century ago. ‘Rosewood country’ people still call it. Farmers still
point out a spur or a couple of trees in a paddock and quote their grandparents:
‘That was all rosewood country over there.’ But it wasn’t just rosewood
country, it had hundreds of tree species, and whereas the richest subtropical
lowland forests were characterized by white booyong, up here at 800 metres it

wasif it was anything in particularblack booyong, with its dark buttressed
trunk, big glossy palmate leaves, and plump seeds winged with pale gold foils.
Years ago, when I first walked into this high subtropical rainforest it was
like entering an old museum. The cliché for rainforest is cathedral. As if its
former sacred function had been superseded, here the great cathedral, buttressed
and vaulted, had been transformed, like so many others, into an attraction for
dutiful, uncomprehending tourists, like me. Even then, the handrails were worn
smooth by generations of hands, the path under Crystal Showers muddied by
thousands of trudging feet. The trees were like old exhibits. The biggest
carabeens, rosewoods, booyongs, crabapples, socketwoods, and stinging trees
had old labels on them in copperplate or gothic script. The names sounded like
archaic poetry out of another century, left overs from forgotten forms of life.
The whole place signified a kind of resigned farewell to a once glorious nature.
Here, it seemed, time was deemed to have completed its great works long ago.
Now we could only look on and marvel at luxurious works that modern
efficiency could not afford and precious time could no longer allow. Huge
trees, dying in the natural course of things, looked like worn-out, irreplaceable
exhibits waiting for forlorn curators to dismantle them. Even then, my sense
that it was a museum may also have been an intimation that, unconsciously, the
main exhibit was not nature so much as an old apprehension of nature. It was a
museum to a bygone mode of exhibition and a bygone concept of nature partly
because it was a museum to nature as bygone.
It is still a bit like this, but now the style of exhibition has altered slightly
with the times. There used to be visitor centre at The Glade. Now, at the
Rainforest Centre built in the early 1990s a kilometre further north along the
escarpment, you can still see an exhibition of rainforest paraphernalia. My
favourites are still the stuffed animalsa moth-eaten feature that was there on
my first visit, purged from the exhibits in the 1990s and reinstated after a
refurbishment in 2001. The stuffed animals are my favourites because they still
seem properly and preciously moth-eaten and museal, like a childhood stamp or
rock collection. I like the rock and fossil exhibits too, and the samples of
timber, for the same reason. Most of the exhibits though are designed with the
edifying purposes of rainforest interpretation and promotion. Some quote old
customs of collection and recent customs of interactivity at the same time, using
drawers to hide treasures. But as with most museums, the thing that
distinguishes the latest refurbishments is that they still seem to be unaware of
their own time-bound look. Their quotations look like they date from the good
old days of postmodernity. Meanwhile, the best inroads into the interpretation
of the rainforest are in the bookshop next door. And then, somewhere outside,
there is the rainforest itself.
The soft, prolific greens replace the hard-leaved eucalypts as you drive
under the lip of the escarpment at the end of the drive up the mountain. In the
National Park itself the rainforest proper is first encountered on display beneath
a raised skywalk that reaches out from the escarpment over a viny canopy. This
is a kind of architectural folly, at once a fetish that keeps leech-ridden nature at

a decorous remove, and a birds eye view of the usually unseen canopy and
down the Bellinger valley to the sea. And then, for walkers, there is a gentle,
paved pathThe Lyrebird Trackthat slips down out of the sun and links the
Rainforest Centre with The Glade. With a bit of effort you can get a wheelchair
along it. There is another raised walkway just before The Glade to allay the
onset of boredom. It leads walkers up through whatin theoryis the middle
level of rainforest structure. Here one encounters habitat for a series of signs
about the birds and mammals that you probably haven’t seenthe dazzling
regent bowerbird, the nocturnal flying fox. Or you used to. Apparently it has
been updated too. Beyond The Glade, the track curves around below the
escarpment through the columns of black booyong, yellow carabeen and
rosewood forest. It is called the Wonga Walk. It passes Crystal Shower, which
looks like an old postcard, and Tristania Falls, which sounds (and looks) like a
place for the lovelorn to end it all. The track finally circles back to the
Rainforest Centre, satisfying those who can’t bear to retrace their steps6.6
km of dark unadulterated rainforest, except for a little tall eucalypt and
brushbox at Hardwood Lookout where you briefly come off the volcanic soil
and walk out to the end of a metasediment spur.
It all has a kind of massive built structure, adorned with the endless detail of
floral invention. You can stroll through the great halls and promenade to
ambient music piped in by real birds. Often though the staff at the centre must
forget to put on the music, or the house musicians are put off by noisy
interlopers. The forest can go quite. Tourists can remark on how little wildlife
there is. They seem to be overwhelmed by the monumental quality of it all,
which obscures any sense of animate life. But hurrying tourists approaching
their 6.6km goal can be obtuse too. They can walk past a performing lyrebird in
the middle of loud electronic variations on other bird’s themes as if it were just
another audio-visual. No wonder they miss the yellow robins watching from
tree trunks, the scrubwrens and ground thrushes among the ferns, the parrots
and pigeons in the high canopy, or the pademelons, wallabies and ringtail
possums secreted from dawn until dusk. It is like wandering uncomprehending
through a grand museum whose treasureseven just those that are not in
storageare too plentiful, too demanding, and, by the end, all looking alike.
For many, the walk is now a procession between stations labelled with
interpretive plaques. What is designed as the interpretation of the forest
becomes the actual meaning of the foresta series of goals to relieve the
longueurs of a surfeit of natural historywhile the meaning written in leaves,
fruits, birds, beasts and flowers goes unread for want of the literacy that the
plaques are supposed to redress. Nowadays though, the literacy advertised on
the plaques is that of ‘environmental education’, a literacy of ecosystem
functions, of leaf litter recycling, of niche and adaptation, and not the
mysterious medieval catalogue of trees. At the end of the walk, the effort of
having passed all the interpretation stations and walked the allotted kilometres
is consummated with coffee and cakes at the Canopy Café, light entertainment
by a crooning grey thrush and a couple brush turkeys, and the satisfaction that

one’s leisure time has been purposefully spent. The whole experience may be
had, as one of the rangers says ‘with your feet never touching the ground.’
It has not been easy for me to see it as nature, or at least not present-day
nature and ever renewing nature. Like many a great work its intentions seem to
have been foreclosed by traditional interpretation. I have felt a bit suffocated,
like Isabelle Archer in Henry James’ Rome. Yet, again like a great work, it
turns out to be alive to endless interpretation. Indeed as living naturehowever
well this is concealedit is endlessly reinterpreting itself. I have had to read it
closely though. I have had to get off the track, away from the program of
designed visitor management, get bushed in it and sit down amidst lawyer vine
on hunks of blown larva to see beyond the imposed order, to see the huge
rosewood disappearing into a strangler fig or the tiny red mite lost on a thigh,
and to look at it again and again, working out what is what, distinguishing
shield ferns and blood vines and flagellarias from the background of venerable
enamelled greens, watching ephemeral showers of booyong, rosewood and
carabeen seeds litter the stage, noting the themes and variations of birds, the
entrances and asides of animals, the parade of short-lived species germinating,
growing, fruiting and dying as gaps where trees have fallen repair themselves.
And then there is the slow procession of great time as millions of booyongs
appear, endure, succumb, appear again, endure again, succumb again so that in
50 years one may become a small tree and in 150 one may join those selected to
reach the canopy and flowerin the pageant that takes place only in certain late
summers of their own concerted choosingall around the edge of the
As well as wandering at leisure over the last bit of the basalt shelf I have
been able to walkmore purposefullyway down below it too, along the
Rosewood River. I have visited the remote terrace of giant ringwoods, easily
the largest and most monumental collection of a species that grows naturally
only in the Bellinger and Nambucca valleys. I have crushed the leaves in my
hands and smelled the fragrance of aniseed. I have felt the warm wind whistle
out of one with a hollow trunk. I have walked up to and stood under that secret
grove of old red cedars on McGrath’s Hump, on one occasion losing a local
Bellingen historian and the oldest member of our party. While he temporarily
suffered cramp, the rest of the party remained intent on its goal. Eventually he
decided to walk back to the river by an old track he remembered from years
before. To his discomfort he found it overgrown with prickly vines and lantana,
almost impenetrable. But not so discomforting as meeting the State Emergency
Services search party back where we had started out, and having to endure the
chiyacking with his cup of tea. I have seen all the deep green holes along the
bouldery Rosewood, each with its attendant 10 kilos of long-finned eel. And I
have walked through the last uncleared alluvial flat of Lowland Bellinger
rainforest where you can climb up 20 metres through the hollow centre of a
strangler fig, like climbing a belltower of gothic filigree that leans out over the

I have also been able to experience it all as ambient backdrop, for that too is
proper to aesthetic experience, just as we have to experience architecture, as
Walter Benjamin said, ‘in a state of distraction’, or as we may experience even
the best music as background to everyday life, or as, in the morning I have seen
the dolphins passing, bait darting, and terns eyeing and diving while I was
surfing. Memorably, a talkative friend once spent the entire 6.6km of the
Wonga Walk and a coffee and cake at the café telling me an astonishing,
convoluted philosophical tale linking Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language
philosophy and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of narrative, via the Russian
Revolution, Bakhtin’s brother, the White Russian army, and a roundabout
journey from the USSR to Britain via the Middle East. I still wonder how
apocryphal it all was. So now the walk still evokes images of this seldom seen
friend and his act of storytelling. It never calls to mind the wonga, the fat steel-
blue pigeon with the white necklace, whose loud, relentless call and ringing
wing beats I have never actually heard there on the track that someone chose to
name after it. It should be called The Turkey Track but, in describing both the
primates and the avifauna, that was apparently rejected as too inappropriately
appropriate. As is the case with works of art, even the most specific and
contingent occasions of personal experience, even the most idle thoughts, can
enrich the object, as if to testify that what seems utterly subjective is actually
part of the objective character of aesthetic objects, and that it is the multitude of
individual experiences, as well as self-persisting nature itself, that makes the
aesthetics of nature more than merely subjective.
Perhaps, in my experience of the museal Dorrigo rainforest, I was jaded
right from the start. This rainforest is so accursedly natural it is unnatural. And
people just gush so much about rainforest. It makes me want Humboldt’s rocky
hillside without the trees, or some dry tufts of barbwire grass and bull ant nests
under the hot sun, and not these venerable carabeens. I would just as soon poke
about under the 10m high bat-shorn canopy of stinging trees down on the little
remnant of lowland rainforest on Bellingen Island, or in the sad little bit of
swamp heathJohn Birmingham calls it ‘swampy-looking pissed-out
bushland’left beside the road at Coffs Harbour airport, or the long hot forest
that lines the Pacific Highway from Urunga to Ku-ring-gai, full of plastic litter.
I would certainly like others to see these placesespecially the litterers or the
road makers or the air travellers. Just to see them. In fact the neglected half-
landscape left in junked semi-ruin by the quick just-get-what-you-can culture of
grab-grab, make-do-for-now-only pseudo-progress repristinated with a bit of
exotic beautification is, despite what I said above, a most important object for
the nature critic. It is an undiscovered continent of unredeemed beauties.
Perhaps the thing that sounds naïve about Humboldt’s critique is not the
wrong-headedness of judging nature’s givens but the particular genre of
judgement. Like his brother, Humboldt was one of the most interesting thinkers
of his time, but this particular judgement of the treeless landscape sounds a bit
glib. It sounds too much like it is based on the all to common notion that
aesthetic judgement, whether in matters of art or nature, should come down to a

knowing censure or the mere thumbs-up or thumbs-down of satisfaction. No
doubt too much critique of art, literature and cinema is of the advertising blurb
kindthe excessively adjectival kind that gets quoted to sell a book or an
exhibition. Or it is the inevitably false kind demanded by circumstances when
acquaintances in the cinema foyer want to engage us in the conversation genre
of instant Judgement; although demanded under polite duress, such judgements
come back to haunt us. A lot of the rest is of the know-all would–be editorial
kind in which self-assured style arbiters parade the most contingent or passing
judgements of taste as if they were unimpeachable aesthetic truths. Like a critic
of the arts, the nature critic needs to be able to make more than glib or bantery
one-line judgements. And the surprisingly uncommon ability to carefully
observe and truthfully describe one’s own subjectivity and its response to
objects should never be relinquished just for the sake of never appearing to
reveal anything less than self-assured taste. Glib good taste is much easier than
the trials of critical observation, self-observation and reflection, and the
attendant risk of looking stupid.
The nature critic needs to open up to the experience of the natural object—
even to bad surf. Any critic needs to be open to the experience of the thing
otherwise it is not allowed to show itself and be seen in the terms it demands.
We should not censor the claims that things make and then judge them on the
basis of such an inhibited experience of them. Almost anything deserving of
harsh judgement will reveal its limitations according to the same terms it would
like to claim as its own. This is why hypocrisy is a typical symptom of bad
nature, as of bad art. However, opening up to nature, like opening up to art,
does not merely mean exposing ones unformed sensibility in order to
experience authentically natural responses. Walter Benjamin said somewhere
that the better the theoretical understanding of art, the richer the appreciation.
He argued by analogy, citing what for him seemed like the more obvious case,
namely, the way that an understanding of natural science enhances the
appreciation of nature. Benjamin’s argument needs to be made both ways.
There is no better gloss or footnote to nature than science. Opening up to nature
means asking of nature as many questions as one can, in order to elicit all the
responses and suggestions that such a complex object may make. This means
that opening up to nature is not something done in a kind of natural innocence
unencumbered by the baggage of learning. The more you know about nature,
the more you see, the more it reveals, and the more you realize you don’t know.
The aesthetic experience of nature is something done by drawing on all of one’s
experience and all of societyscientific, artistic, ethical, political. This is one
reason why the loss of so much of the Gumbaynggirr culture is a loss twice
over. Not only did colonial society clear away so much of the traditional nature
but what was left was desolated of its meaning. This is why so much of the
nature of Australia, insofar as it would seem pristine, risks hypocrisy.
Nature may not be intrinsically meaningfulunless, that is, there is a bit of
conscious, semiotic nature like us around to read a meaning. Then all that limits
what it has to say is our ability to read it. It is a mistake to think aesthetics is

just something to do with the senses or with subjective perception. The
aesthetics of nature is a matter of meanings, including scientific meaning and
the meaning of the passion that it excites. It is with meaning, whether
ambiguous or precise, conceptual or not, that nature responds to questions the
way any object of wonder does.
Questioning is another name for wonder, the way a child wonders how old
the yellow carabeen is while hiding between the buttresses. What are buttresses
for? Why are those mistletoe leaves like the leaves of the gum tree it’s growing
on? Has anyone ever used a walking stick made from the stem of a walking
stick palmthat miniature palm with the red fruits? Are they red because you
can eat them, or because you can’t? What tree did these speckled flowers fall
from? Why were they made to look so beautiful? What is the difference
between beautiful and pretty? How did those lianas climb all the way up there?
Where do the pademelons go during the day? How much do stinging trees
sting? What must it have all been like a thousand years ago? Who walked
through it then and what did it say to them? Was this rainforest always here?
Why doesn’t the rainforest grow out again over the cleared plateau?
And nature answers in many wayssometimes in the finest detail;
sometimes neither speaking nor concealing, but indicating; sometimes as
Heracleitus said the Sibyl did, ‘with raving mouth, unadorned, reaching out
over a thousand years’; sometimes with more questions: that carabeen is as old
as a giant yellow carabeena few hundred of years if you guess. Or do the
science and carbon date it! Trees may use the buttresses bequeathed to them by
evolution for many thingssupport, breathingbut what I find fascinating is
this: I think an adaptation implies a function, yet I find no satisfaction in any of
the speculated functions for this so common feature of rainforest trees. Again it
seems there is scientific labour to be done here: Would such research identify
functions? Or more profoundly, could it demonstrate that not all selected
features have functions? Fascination with the wherefores of features and their
functions, can lead thought as much towards profundity as myth: Until someone
say found a function for mistletoes’ imitating their host’s leaves, who says that
they are alike? The child or the tree or the mistletoe? Meanwhile, I would love
to try a walking stick made from walking stick palm, but I could never cut one.
The fruits were not made red for us, but they are red so that something like a
bowerbird or us might see and eat them and spread their seed. Try them anyway
because, like bowerbirds, we were made to see red. Don’t try the cyanic blue
fruit of the little honeysuckle bush beside it though. No tree bears those creamy
flowers flecked with purple; only the wonga vine. They were not made
beautiful for us. They are pretty when we pick them for ourselves, and beautiful
in their unconcern for us. Those cissus vines climbed up on the trees while the
trees were growing up to fill a gap; those lawyer palms climbed up slowly out
of the shade, hooking their way up on the trees that were already there.
Pademelons and all the animals can disappear into the forest only revealing
themselves to those with eyes to see, or those who can sit quietly and wait, or
those who come at dawn or dusk. Brush your arm on the roughness of the

stinging tree leaf. It asks you to brush it with its look like a big pale green heart.
Look closely at the roughness and see that it is made of small curved needles,
syringes of sting. Feel nothing for a second and then feel the first sharp
moment, and then the daylong lingering sting, and feel the memento of the
sharpnesswhenever you wash your handswhere your body likes to keep it,
deep in your armpit. What must the forest have been like a thousand years ago!
It must have been something like this, but its old voices have become almost
silent, and forever. And beyond that, even this forest was not always here.
Meanwhile, now everything has changed again. It would take a thousand years
and a thousand wills to get something like this forest to grow out over the
plateau again. People are only just startingif all that a few have been doing
could yet be called starting.

Natural Beauty
The aesthetics of nature explained

I realized before long that the knowledge they had of nature was an
entirely vulgar one that wholly failed to meet my requirements; that
they were merely specialists of feeling and totally ignorant of its

—Louis Aragon, Paysan de Paris

The justification for pretense to disengagement derives from our

Victorian habit of marginalizing the experience of art, of treating it as
if it were somehow ‘special’—and, lately, as if it were curable. …I
cannot imagine a reason for categorizing any part of our involuntary,
ordinary experience as ‘unaesthetic,’ or for imagining that this
quotidian aesthetic experience occludes any ‘real’ or ‘natural’
relationship between ourselves and the world that surrounds us.

—Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy

‘Philosophy of art usually lacks one of two things: either the philosophy or
the art.’ So Friedrich Schlegel said. Something similar happens in the aesthetics
of nature. It usually lacks two of two things: the philosophy and the nature.
Quaint, dry or irrelevant, aesthetics is merely academic. Art mostly gets on
without it, setting a cultural pace that leaves aesthetics way behind. In the case
of nature, aesthetics gets acknowledged on occasion as a matter of inexplicit
thrills, a bit of an embarrassment. It’s a word that makes some people say they
want to reach for their guns. You see it listed as a value in bored intros to plans
of ecological management, or as the last reason why a patch of bush should be
preserved: biodiversity, tourism, recreation, biochemical or genetic resources,
water catchment protection, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, etc,
etc…and, o yes, aesthetic values. There it is at the end, ad hoc so it’s not too
embarrassing. It makes the list that bit longer. It might appeal to someone,
maybe even the right someone. It’s a sign of the author’s cultural sensitivity

and a sign of the documents exhaustive consideration. Beyond that, aesthetic
matters don’t matter. They are unexplained and deemed inexplicable.
For all that, aesthetic motives are more prevalent than the culture of nature
likes to admit. Most environmentalist arguments camouflage aesthetic
intentions in functionalist rationalizations. This way they can survive and
reproduce in political, and market environments that would otherwise be quite
hostile. In 1864 in Man & Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by
Human action, the geographer G.P. Marsh argued that human production was
destroying the fabric of nature on which humans ultimately rely. This is
sometimes cited as the first explicit statement of such a sentiment. Modern
environmentalism owes its genesis and success to this timely hybridization of
aesthetic and functionalist judgement. And it is not just a camouflage or a
subterfuge. Ecology makes valid claims that turn out to be consistent with
norms in the aesthetics of nature: callous destruction of natural beauty does
come back to haunt human natureit doesn’t just rob those nature-loving
ecologists of their favourite subject matter. However, because aesthetic claims
are regarded as suspect in the worlds of the market, politics and science, there is
quite a bit of pressure for deception to be employed in environmentalist
rhetoric. Repression of aesthetic motives and even self-deception about them
turns out to be a good working strategy. Lest it should leave itself open to
suspicion and rejoinder, environmental culture shuns aesthetic reflection,
thereby diminishing the passion and intelligence of experience. In
environmentalist polemic and ecological management, aesthetic experience is
only the means to other ends. As emotive it is used to sell some arguments but
deemed to jeopardize others. It bubbles along in unconscious, or furtive forms
until the weekend where it might inspire the Landcare group, or, more likely,
the picnic or bushwalk. At best, as recreation or lifestyle, it can be sold to make
a tourist dollar from the well enough to do. Natural beauty is the inspiration of
much artistic expression and many a traveller’s tale, but so seldom does it
inspire philosophical reflection, critical judgement or attempted explanation
that it has a reputation for defying all three.
Nearly all disputes about nature are aesthetic, whether consciously or
(mostly) not. The usual suspicions about such a claim are just hoodwinked by
some prissy concept of aesthetic. When it comes to evaluating nature, the
serious task of living a good life is allowed almost nothing to do with it.
Natural beauty sounds too much like sheer luxury, an insult therefore to those
who can’t afford it: if it’s only a luxury, nature deserves to be expendable.
Those who argue this way—and it still insinuates itself deep into the common
sense of the age—are the heirs of the old middle class trust that the worthwhile
riches of the past and nature have been gathered and stored forever in the
museums and theme parks of the present even if only for the pleasure of an elite
elected by the happy accidents of a history whose fortuitous character dissolves
political qualms and clears all conscience. By rights, the same should (and
does) go for art and what’s called cultural heritage and any other form of
wealth that has been spirited away from those whose experience of it is deemed

by the same argument to be expendable, and yet in whose name the argument is
piously invoked. Science seems useful and might be exempted, and sport is
inalienable and definitely exempted. Environmentalism, like someone trying
too hard to look serious at a funeral—or useful—takes refuge in sober clichés
like sustainability, ecosystem services and maintenance of biodiversity. And it
takes comfort in a consoling naturalism where almost irreconcilable ends such
as biodiversity, ecosystem functions, whole-of-landscape management, and
contradictory aesthetic tastes are unquestioningly reconciled nevertheless. Ends
and means get mixed up in a miasma of rationalizations. On the one hand, in a
typical functionalist argument, predicted global warming portends gloomy
social consequences and the bleaching of coral reefs is suggested as an
indicator of the warming effect. Yet preserving coral reefs is a reason for
avoiding global warming before it is a means to predicting it or confirming it:
bleaching in itself is a bad end. On the other hand, in an affronted reaction to
the technocratic calculations, ecocentric thinkers advocate nature as an end in
itself, claiming that coral polyps have a right to exist for their own sake. We
find that what’s called environmental philosophy ends up in a school debate
over whether the malaria protist should exist for its own sake too. In the
process, narrow-minded functionalist reason seldom gets exposed for what it is
—i.e. not nearly functional enough. It is so clumsy and dysfunctional that it is
incapable of ministering to the serious matter of aesthetic life and the pursuit of
happiness. Coral polyps, while happily existing for their own sakes, deserve,
even in their utter unconcern for us, to exist happily for ours.
Why find functions for nature or art? It is like finding functions for living.
As in the case of art, there are theories that explain and excuse nature as
therapeutic, cathartic, spiritual, uplifting, universal, morally edifying, cultural
heritage, good practice for real life, materially useful, profitable, or good for its
own sake. Modern environmentalism is usually forced to use the excuse that
what gets called the environment is either useful and profitable, or else
venerable and vulnerable national heritage. Good for mumbling or intoning,
depending on the context, the cliché high conservation value comes in all too
handy. The task of arguing for nature or art reduces us to finding functions, for
functions are the inflated currency of impoverished reason. Yet, as life, these
things have no functions, not even for themselves. We make great social and
intellectual efforts to distinguish art from life and aesthetic nature from life,
forgetting in the process that this is just a manner of speaking and that the
reason we are distinguishing art and aesthetic nature from life in the first place
is precisely because they are such important parts of life—parts we live for—
and not something other than life.
It is received wisdom that if we abandon nature to aesthetics we abandon it
to mere subjective taste, for which, as is well known, there is no accounting.
However, for the functional necessities of ecosystem services, we assume that
we can render accounts. Think tanks of ecosystem economists make careers out
of pricing them and thus making them comparable and exchangeablemostly
ignoring the fact that markets price things, not economists. Come to think of it,

price is as obscure and alien and arbitrary as taste. Only its numerical character
makes it seem transparent and objective: you can readily know and compare the
price of everything even if you know the value of nothing. Really, Karl Marx
was right: price is a queer thing abounding in metaphysical subtleties and
theological niceties. I am almost tempted to say it is subjective, but it is no
more or less subjective than tasteeven if the taste of others may sometimes
seem unaccountable. What is much more interesting about both price and taste
is their peculiar character as objectively obscure or alien or arbitrary.
It seems that aesthetic Judgement can hardly be reduced to anything like a
precise and consistent science, and in naïve common sense it is simply assumed
to be about ineffable matters that can only be felt. Feeling is the most vague and
abstract sphere of experienceas Hegel rightly observed in his lectures on the
philosophy of art. Certain categories of feeling may quickly come to mind. We
can all sort of describe our own inner experiences such as pleasure, joy,
anxiety, sadness, anger or whatever. Although they are hidden from the direct
observation of others, and although they are often confused, the evolution of
language has at least bequeathed us words to denote these obscure things that
we all seem to share and understand. But few words for would-be aesthetic
feelings come springing to one’s mind, and hardly in any natural, exhaustive or
universally acknowledged taxonomy. Is aesthetics just too subjective? Too
inward for speech to frame. Well no. People forget that when they see beauty in
a flower, they have no trouble finding others who see it too. Aesthetics, whether
in art and nature, is also about, must be about and is primarily about what is
concrete and objective. Apart from the objective human nature that all those
subjects share and share words for, there are the objects themselves of aesthetic
experience, the objects in which, as our language tells us, beauty inheres: this is
why the aesthetics of nature can’t lack nature. People seldom think about this
when they hear the word aesthetics. They think vague feeling rather than detail
and meaning, and mere vagary enlists a vocabulary too impoverished for people
to engage properly in everyday talk about the aesthetics of nature. It is an
embarrassment really.
One of the few words that has any sort of aesthetic credentials is beauty, but
it is not enough. It is called upon to do too much, and to many it sounds too
precious, too limited, too old fashioned, too quaint, too subjective. Serious art,
for instance, does not like to let itself be seen being too much interested in
beauty any more. Sublime is another word that comes to mind, but it is even
quainteran epithet for advertising lookouts, mountain resorts and the tourist
attractions of a bygone age. Even while Wordsworth was describing sublime
views and banking their memory for his geriatric consolation, August Wilhelm
Schlegel was already calling the sublime a laxative for intellectual constipation
(Luhmann, 89). The sublime at least has a long and interesting history, but its
meaning has been unstable and its references always vaguely hyperbolic and,
like everything in aesthetics, vaguely ineffable. During the 18th century though,
the two terms—beauty and sublime—were selected by philosophical culture to
meet the demand for a technical division of the firmament of aesthetic

experience. By the late 20th century the pair had become an exemplary binary
opposition for students to practice their deconstruction on.
In Molière’s La Malade imaginaire, in the burlesque of a student’s
admission to his doctorate, the student opines that opium induces sleep by
means of a vertus dormitiva or a sleep inducing principle. Beauty and the
sublime are a bit like this. They are used to render whatever induces aesthetic
experience thinglike and therefore conceivable. Commitment to the existence of
such things should be made with an appropriate ontological levity. Theorising
in terms of such things is not so much wrong as inadequate. They wield so little
explanatory power. Still, at some stage in the historical evolution of aesthetics,
positing a vertus dormitiva or two was an important theoretical move.
In western philosophy the two ideas go back to the ancient Greeks, but in
1757 Edmund Burke wrote his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our
Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful: with an Introductory discourse
concerning Tastein response, it is said, to some passing remarks of Joseph
Addison. Eventually, after Kant had offered the world his Critique of
Judgement, the two terms seemed to stand with as much authority as the same
philosopher’s division of reason into pure and practical, of knowledge into
transcendental and empirical, of propositions into analytic and synthetic and of
the action of thought into subject and object. When Kant proposed categories
people took notice, so that, even in the late twentieth century, postmodern
theorists who had deconstructed most things, were still trying to describe
aesthetic phenomena by resorting to re-jigged versions of the concept of the
sublime. Admittedly, ever since Modernism, theorists have been reticent about
beauty and ironic about the sublimealthough this was partly to protect the
concepts against inflation and devaluation. The sublime and the beautiful, a pair
that epitomizes a kind of make-do ideology, have lived on to give aesthetics at
least the starting point of a tradition.
The sublime was experienced in the presence of the overwhelming might of
naturebut only at a safe distance. Nietzsche said we only liked mighty nature
because great human beings were lacking. Grand views, wilderness, wildfires
and waterfalls would all fall under the label sublime. Beautyin a kind of
oppositional reflexwas often associated with the detail. If sublime was grand
and limitless, beauty was otherwise. Kant’s Critique is the definitive work, so
in his words:

The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of an object, and this

consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object
even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its
presence provokes a representation of limitlessness. (§23)

The oldest and most persistent theory of beauty—Pythagoras’s—says beauty

consists in harmonious proportion. Which either makes beauty sound very
simple and dull or doesn’t get us far and doesn’t answer much. It doesn’t
explain the appeal of dissonance for instance. Kant has at least got more to say.

He saw the limitation in which he said beauty consisted, as a matter of apparent
design, as a matter of beautiful objects seeming to be so formed as if for some
inscrutable end.

Self-subsisting natural beauty reveals to us a technic of nature which

shows it in the light of a system ordered in accordance with laws the
principle of which is not to be found within the range of our entire
faculty of understanding. (§23)

From this Kant drew a more detailed distinction between the two categories:

…that if, as is allowable, we here confine our attention in the first

instance to the sublime in objects of nature (that of art being always
restricted by the conditions of an agreement with nature), we observe
that whereas natural beauty (such as is self-subsisting) conveys a
finality in its form making the object appear, as it were, preadapted
to our power of judgement, so that it thus forms of itself an object of
our delight, that which, without our indulging in any refinements of
thought, but, simply in our apprehension of it, excites the feeling of
the sublime, may appear, indeed, in point of form to contravene the
ends of our power of judgement, to be ill-adapted to our faculty of
presentation, and to be, as it were, an outrage on the imagination, and
yet it is judged all the more sublime on that account. (§23, my italics)

It is in this quality of the sublime’s being an outrage to the imagination that

the sublime has descended into modern aesthetics, because so much of the
revolution of sensibility in modern aestheticsespecially in arthas consisted
in outraging taste and calling on a kind of the sublime sensibility to transcend
and to redeem this outrage. The unstable meaning and vaguely hyperbolic
reference of the term sublime is apparently the result of sublime apprehension
turning on itself and subliming itself.
A striking feature of Kant’s aesthetic theory is that it was primarily an
aesthetic of nature rather than art. Aesthetic theory has mostly had it the other
way round ever since. You get the feeling that Kant wasn’t someone with a
compelling interest in or knowledge of art. He never discusses a particular
artwork the way he might the song of a nightingale. This may just be because of
the persistence of his habit of philosophical abstraction, but if so, it is a habit
that allows the experience of unadulterated beauty only after having made
abstraction of the dark subject matter that could haunt, say, a human song. ‘The
bird's song tells of joyousness and contentment with its existence. At least so
we interpret nature—whether such be its purpose or not' (§42). Without
abstraction of the sense, Kant could hardly have listened to say Don Giovanni
with the same disinterest. Both a natural philosopher with an early interest in
cosmology and a man attracted to the thought of Rousseau, it is perhaps not
surprising that he thought an interest in natural beauty was ‘the mark of a good

soul (§42)’, whereas, he thought this was not necessarily so in the case of an
interest in artistic beauty. There is a sense in Kant that art was all too subject to
the corrupting possibilities attendant upon human freedom. Freedom lay at the
heart of his differentiation of art from nature. It lent the ancient distinction its
peculiar poignancy for the 18th century and for the subsequent romanticism of
nature. Willful artifice could only beget artificiality.

Art is distinguished from nature as making (facere) is from acting or

operating in general (agere), and the product or the result of the
former is distinguished from that of the latter as work (opus) from
operation (effectus). (§43)

What have these far away 18th century European thoughts to do with the
bush? Firstly, shouldn’t I be writing about the nature of Australia as an
Australian reflecting on Australian sources? It’s a problem—this expectation to
be always being Australian. It gets in the way of seeing the bush. Like Europe,
Australia is mainly somewhere else. There are some words written by Umberto
Eco that have been struck on a brass plate and set in the paving of the forecourt
of the Sydney Opera House: Australia is not only the Antipodes. She is far
away from everything, even herself. What epitomizes this is the old pop literary
myth in which Australian nature is prepackaged as daunting, hard to like,
something that requires us to sublimely overcome our fears, something that
only the rugged bush legend or the artist as hero can come to terms with it.
This bit of pseudo-heroic blather obfuscates the aesthetics of nature, insists on
alienation where there is mostly affection. It is in fact a descendent of European
tradition, yet it is an adaptation corrupted by heedless rehearsal and role-play,
and it is thus more estranged from the bush than its aesthetic ancestors. Theirs
is a promise of the intimacy of experience that we find constantly giving the lie
to the myth. It is even in the experience of those most new to the bush. We read
of it in Watkin Tench’s descriptions of the bush or see it in John Glover’s
paintings. The dangers of the bush demand no more respect than the city’s. It
will kill you but it’s decent says a character in Les Murray. What I am reflecting
on is the aesthetic experience of the bush. Although I don’t want to sacrifice its
particularity, I do want some explanations—and not just national myths that
simply demand more explanation—so I need general explanatory terms.
Everyone has some of these terms—beautiful, sublime—lying around in the
shed of ideas, like tools losing their edge. When it comes to nature, Kant as
much as anyone described and calibrated the way we use them. Only they are
not as useful as they might once have been. They need sharpening with better
explanations, and they need to be supplemented with other concepts.
Second, what I like about nature is in the particulars, in the inexhaustible
detail and design. I find myself wanting to comb the foliage of a herb through
my fingers and wonder what it is and why its flowers might have five petals and

not four. Is it for lovers? She loves you, she loves you not? The detail that I
especially like is the narrative detail—what happens in what sequence and
when and how and why and with whom or what: the daily goings on and the
annual departure and return of certain birds; the surprise of a new arrival; the
succession of herbs and flowers and ferns and vines and trees, sometimes as
expected, sometimes against expectation and yet revealing a curious new
consequentiality. It is not just the unfolding observation of these things but the
unfolding relation to them (and to others through them) like the gradual
acquaintance of a shy swamp wallaby, or the tending of flowers or lizards at our
fingertips. Although Kant appreciated nature’s details and designs, he too
tended to make it vague and abstract, perhaps for the sake of philosophical
generalization, perhaps so his experience of natural beauty was not adulterated
with the darker purposes of nature.

Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist

knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in
the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this
natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty. (§16)

This habit of thought turned out to be well adapted to the pop aesthetics of
the bush. Repeated more for its adaptation to specialization and the division of
labour, or to habitual thoughtlessness, it has lived on to alienate aesthetic
reflection and therefore aesthetic experience from the bush. Nature as the object
of aesthetic experience is supposed to be non-conceptual and non-intentional—
a view not so far removed from the notion that aesthetic experience is ineffable.
It misjudges aesthetic experience of nature, ignoring the other side, namely that
like art, and for semiotic animals like us, nature speaks. Nevertheless it became
the popular prescription for the aesthetic experience of nature. Beauty and the
sublime remained too abstract and therefore, as modern art suspected, too vague
and superannuated, to explain the aesthetics of anything much anymore. They
are nouns coined to give a false sense of definition to intangible abstractions
drawn from innumerable instances of experience, to give certain vague feelings
a certain certainty. Sure we know what it is to experience them, but to name
them explains nothing. They demand explanation and so does all the other
aesthetic stuff, the content of aesthetic experience that exceeds them. We best
appreciate nature when we know something about it, when we know enough
about it to actually see it, when we are not merely experts in feeling. I
appreciate this when I walk with someone who knows and notices things that I
don’t, who spots bird’s nests, animal traces, mushrooms, and insects, who hears
and knows frog calls and bird alarms, who reads the history of a place from the
rocks and plants, who dawdles and peers and takes ages just to walk a kilometre
of track, who is the first to set off up a creek or a hill and the last to get back
and who doesn’t bother to reach the top. Even a child can sometimes instruct a
field ecologist or an indigenous expert in some of these things. There is too
much to see, and maybe that is why so much aesthetic reflection cannot help

but abstract too much detail. Or maybe it because, as a stylist, nature is
unsurpassed. Like a supreme artist it seems to understand that those things are
best that best withhold meaning, an eloquence that demands confidence in the
wealth of one’s meaning and very great technique. Yet as a result nature seems
mostly to just go over people’s heads. Its eloquence may be sensed but it
escapes articulate consciousness or analysis. Most people are more familiar
with the kind of curious contemplation demanded by nature—at once fascinated
by detail yet blissed into abstraction—when walking through the mall and
browsing through the supermarketthe blissful urban analogue of the
bushwalk. Vague aesthetic feelings about nature go with the vision of nature as
a vague blur of green, a backdrop to lifestyle. The unreflective aesthetics of
nature ‘annihilates all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade;’ but
even in Marvel’s poem this annihilation is only one intoxicated moment among
the many pleasures and the sharper stings of his garden.
Third, modern artistic culture has used a cultural descendent of the sublime
sensibility in its ongoing revolution of sentiment. This has now to be adapted to
the poetics of nature. The old sublime view of nature seems like an escape from
nature, and when nature is so badly done by, the idea of sublime safety from
nature looks a bit domineering, and a bit ridiculous. It lives on in the thrill of
the wilderness experience, and of course in lookouts, cable suspension cars, and
those raised walkways through or over rainforest canopyway above the ticks,
leeches, and stinging trees. It’s pop nature culture. Part of sublimely
transcending the old experience of nature is to supersede the old vague, abstract
feelings of sublime views, the frisson of the so called wilderness experience,
not to mention the customs of the pretty chocolate box lake, the view at sunset
or the gum tree framed view. One thing I like about the Dorrigo Skywalk—the
walkway that runs off the escarpment and looks down over the rainforest and
the Bellinger Valley—is the way it gets you up to the beautiful detail that you
seldom see: coachwood flowers turning into galaxies of red stars over the
foliage, black apples ripening within reach, feathery sassafras seeds blowing
away in the wind, and wonga, cissus and staff vines like a net all over the top of
the canopy for carpet pythons to stalk ringtail possums through. Of course I still
walk out to the end and revive the old 18th sensibility, gratified and elated,
looking way down on the big bend of the Rosewood River with its various
types of forest mapped in their allotted hues over the ridges, and then to the
Bellinger Valley, beyond McGrath’s Hump, with its little patches of pasture cut
out of the dark cloth of the bush, and way off in the east, the sea, the sea.
In Australia it is a common experience that a taste for the bush has
superseded an earlier taste for less sophisticated, less demanding, less satisfying
forms of nature. The role of unsophisticated nature has usually been played by
the infantile fare of Northern Hemisphere greenery and scenery. Europe seems
uncultured when it comes to nature. In Australia nature could seem Modernist
or avant-garde or difficult, while in Europe it cannot help but seem a little naïve
or primitive. Kitsch even. Perhaps this accounts for some of the distaste for the
bush and for the eternal recurrence of real estate subdividers equating

development with bulldozing it. Also in Australia, personal ontogeny has
recapitulated national phylogeny. The country was colonized by a sublime
sensibility that acquired a taste for the gum tree picture, a sensibility which
replaced, and thereby rendered more infantile, the taste for the easy aesthetic
comforts of green and pleasant land. The great theme of Australian landscape
painting, the central tradition of Australian graphic art for 200 years, was the
development of techniques and a sensibility for capturing the nature of
Australia. According to official interpretations, if not those of the artists, this
has been how the project of artistic modernity has understood itself,
transplanted to the shores of Terra Nullius. Let me announce, in order to
anticipate with due irony, a critique of the sublime colonial gaze that must
surely suggest itself to habituated cultural criticism: The continent was
colonized by an inherently violent and aesthetic sensibility of power, a way that
western sublime sensibility had of capturing landscape. From Lewin to Glover
to von Guérard to Heidelberg to Heysen to Nolan to Williams to Robertsonin
this sequence lies the progress of an invasion; call it the mental fight that
accompanied European invasion from the First Fleet to the Wik legislation, the
image of nature that realized itself in the new culture of nature. The Darkies
Point massacre has its spiritual analogues on revered display in the galleries of
Sydney and Melbourne. This driver of the development of an aesthetic of nature
is not so far removed from the wild human nature of domination. But it is just
another detail in the sublime and beautiful aesthetics of nature, just more matter
for aesthetic sensibility and practice, just another thing for nature to show us
and another reason why we need judgement and critique of the historical detail.
It is time for a culture of nature in which nature is not only beautiful or
sublime or ineffable, but outrageous, astonishing, imaginative, original, ironic,
parodic, comic, prosaic, political, theorized, disputed, riddled with isms,
unorthodox, eloquent or self-critical, and full of details and stories and
meanings and nuances. This is an all too adjectival way of putting it, like a
book cover blurb. What matters is what is in the book of nature. What’s in the
book of nature is just as all these adjectives would have it. Only custom seems
to inhibit our experience. Now that we cannot avoid a poetics of nature, it is
time to sublime our experience of nature. So what interests me most about that
Skywalk with its bit of rainforest is that it is an historically specific bit of our
nature culture and that, like a lot of popular culture, it naively expresses
awkward unreconciled passions that have been laid down in the geological
strata of social history and then faulted and folded into the arbitrary and
anachronistic juxtapositions of contemporary experience. It is a symptom of the
unconscious of our nature culture. And this supplies the opportunity for the
culture of nature to reflect upon both nature and its own nature. We boast that
even children are sophisticated readers of our popular culture, but show me the
child wise to the culture of nature. That skywalk is a kind of folly and fantasy
object. If only it were more articulate and expressed as a beautiful joke played
by nature, including our own nature, on ourselves. If only we were as much
connoisseurs of nature as of art—let alone of sport.

Fourth, we can no longer quite distinguish art from nature in the way Kant
didnot when we are working on restoring and managing and protecting
nature. Since we are busy making nature in accordance with a certain image, we
need to talk about a poetics of nature, a matter not just of contemplation but
also of design and works.

Yesterday I searched all afternoon for two lines of poetry, vaguely


Nature is fond, I sometimes think

Of Trinkets, as a Girl

To find that particular sentence amongst all the little poems in Emily
Dickinson’s collection (this was poem number 833) was like finding a
particular leafthat half eaten one with the waving row of sawfly larvaeon a
big tree. The pleasure of such a search lies in the distractions along the way.
They are like the little grey fantail that lands, looks, talks and flies on; the
brown thornbill on its little bird-legs tugging a tuft of hair on your arm; the
striated thornbills in a bevy at the birdbath—little as bees Judith Wright called
them, the scrub wrens gleaning insects from the leaves, exemplars of the
happiness of preoccupation; the hapless blossom spider brought home on a
picked flower; the tiddler skink on the sill; the cricket tinkling somewhere in
the summer night; the mosquito orchid; the toadstool growing from the basal
bark, the fig seedling in a fork; the insect lost in the vast world and its own
precious business; the nanotechnology of the ant; the one midge in the
constellation before my eyes; the tick in your eyelid; the butterfly blown out
beyond the surf; the little tern slicing into a big wind and dodging breaking
swells. Even imperial poetsVirgil, Oviddeclared it permissible to compare
small things to great.
The day before yesterday I was walking through a big rainforest with some
students. We were all looking up, marvelling at the size of the trees. When we
looked down it was to admire the base of a yellow carabeen 4m across with its
flying buttresses. One student put his hand on a buttress, like a dancer putting
his hand on a partner’s waist, taking the size and balance of the tree.
In this big rainforest I am reassured by a dense brake of shield ferns, knee
high, a profligacy of seedlings, and a scattering of flame tree flowers or
rosewood seeds. In a damaged remnant or a replanted forest I would not see
this. Happily, a little further on, in a tallowwood and blackbutt forest growing
on a different soil, there was a sward of little seeding grassesbasket grasses
and dwarf panic; little flowersblue lobelia, violets white and blue, mauve
pastel flowers, white pratias; tufts of lomandra with orange scented flowers and
lemon scented barbwire grass; orange one-petal flowers; fruiting banana bush,
its regular form like a perfect miniature of a tree. In other places there are

brakes of rasp and gristle ferns. Under forest casuarinas there is a fine thatch of
shed branchlets. All these small beauties I take as signs of well-being; they
seem like intimations of cosmological order.
Ecological managers search for focal species and indicators that signify
healthy ecosystem function. They might prefer to drop the health metaphor and
say something like assess ecosystem condition. A range of ants, for example, or
frogs, fish, or mites, are said to be useful as indicators of ecosystem condition,
and research is done demonstrating a correlation between, say, ant populations
and vegetation condition. So far so good. Yet then, with a displacement of
desire as ruthless as any fetish, ants are promoted as useful—that is as a useful
indicator of the condition of vegetationeven though, to anyone but a skilled
entomologist, the general vegetation condition is easier to assess than that of
the ant populations. The wonderful ants are demoted to functionaries, to
indicators rather than the thing indicated, when in practice they are not such
useful indicators anyway—other than of themselves if you can find them. Yet at
last they sound useful. Something similar happens when people commend the
value of biodiversity. Biodiversity is a bean counter’s word for natural beauty.
It pairs down nature’s excess of beauty and design to something with quasi-
scientific, bureaucratic respectability. It sounds useful for something else and
gets beauty past the superegos of ecotechnocrats, environmentalists and
scientists without them feeling guilty, and past the state and federal ministers as
well. Ah, the charming neurosis of envirocratic management: It diverts its
desire to respectable parts, revealing its passion only by a certain furtiveness
that is almost touching. It busies itself with the trouble of appearing to make
things work by parts, rather than finding the parts there already blissfully
making themselves, delighting and surprising us.
Kant, like many others, felt bound to preserve something of the irrationalist
mystique of beauty (§39). Despite the prejudice that the rational takes
precedence over whatever might claim to exceed rational conception, even the
so-called West has, in its central tradition, asserted otherwise. At the very least
it has drawn endless inspiration from the antagonism of reason and the intuition
of unreason, savouring them as irreconcilable. Diagnoses that the West is
pathologically hyper-rational are in fact internal to the Western tradition and
merely of one party. The bourgeois himself, that parodic figure of the West
whose antipodean heirs live on in both the aspirational suburbs and café
society, liked to have his art irrational and life rational—or so Theodor Adorno
said somewhere. Just saying that beauty exceeds rational conception implies the
limitations of concepts and the importance of some supplementary aesthetic
intuition—and vice versa. Kant held that we do not need a conceptual
understanding of something to grasp its beauty, but I would say that concepts
instruct us in our aesthetic intuitions and that such conceptual understanding as
we have raises the bar that beauty exceeds. Hence our wonder and admiration
of it. One need only walk in the bush with someone who knows it and someone
who doesn’t to realize that the former sees while the latter is blind. Perception
is not just some sensory window through which we all get bathed in the same

sunlight of unprocessed information. Information is not out there; it is what is
perceived—a phrase that translates the Greek αι’σθητικός or aesthetic.
Understanding is a condition of perception too, and of the quality of intuition.
Without understanding and experience people simply would not see all those
species of ants; the bush would be just a pastiche of greens. Even landscape art
makes a virtue of its constitutional blindness to the beauty of nature: painters
blur their eyes and look for form and colour; art photographers don’t want to be
confused with wildlife photographers or botanical illustrators. As Schönberg
said, painters paint pictures, not things. Their works, as essays on seeing seeing,
presume they may or must suspend understanding of the things they paint or
photograph. Most of the understanding they show is understanding of the
landscape tradition. Meanwhile, faintly praising those ants for their role as
indicators is just a hamfisted way of acknowledging the beauty of them and of
the vegetation, a beauty that exceeds even the entomologist’s concepts,
including now, this new conception of how certain species tell us specific
things about the bush they live in. The effortless abundance and intricacy of its
beauty demonstrates the genius of bush and the vanity of our contrivances.
Recently after visiting some gardens in the Blue Mountains I found myself
having tea at a café in a national park. I had seen one quite beautiful garden
with rhododendrons, azaleas, peony roses, clematis, bay laurels, maples, the
works; and another that, more by necessity than virtue, juxtaposed
rhododendrons with the bush they’d been plonked into. The former was all
labour, artifice, passion and magnificent tizz, a traditional Blue Mountains
garden, a beautiful Eurasian-Himalayan fantasia 1000m above sea-level and a
world away from Australia. The latter carved and inculcated itself into the bush
as gracelessly as a highwayor a suburb. It was an emblem of the way
Australia has half plonked itself onto this continent. It is repeated everywhere
as towns and suburbs eat, dribble and plonk their way into the bush, evenor
perhaps especiallywhere natives are planted.
I have never seen a garden though that came close to the perfection of the
bush. Never. Planted forests are the same. Gardens of Australian natives are
too. Or they’re worse. Beautiful gardens are too simple or too c