This morning just as the sun rose in the east, I arrived at the summit of my oft-climbed Mount Canemumbola. At the dawn of day a sense of time hangs in the air, one is aware of the immense ages of time involved in wearing away the acid volcanic rocks laid down more than four hundred million years ago, in the Silurian age. In the time since that event, the forces of water, wind and time have worn these rocks down and shaped the landscape we know today. The gradual flattening out of the landscape has created the floodplains of the Boorowa catchment. Larger floods have deposited silt from the Boorowa landscape out on to the floodplains of the Lachlan over millions of years.
As the thin light spreads through the air, it has a misty, almost milky effect, the eastern sides of the gentle hills warm almost imperceptibly. The Boorowa river meanders around the hills that gradually rise towards Oakhill and Mount Geegullalong. The long tree-shadows stretch to the west and leap over the hills. These shadows will shorten, and then gradually elongate to the east, until the sinking sun, bathed in its own gore, becomes night.
But on this day one of the great sights of the natural world in the sparse remnants of the grassy box woodland ecosystem is about to unfold. As I descend the western slopes of Mount Canemumbola are bathed in the early morning light, and then suddenly the iridescent green flash of the sunlight catching the wings of a flock of superb parrots flying against the grey-green foliage of the yellow box trees. The bright yellow of their cheeks, and a scarlet flash beneath…..chirrupping as they fly. As I have been standing still for about five minutes, back they come flashing past again to chatter about the morning’s doings in another group of box trees on the southern slopes of the mount. And here they come again, this time more than fifty, side-slipping into the box trees, incessantly talking. In the trees they become invisible, their colours are only revealed when they emerge into the light. Perhaps there are some parallels in this, with our inability to see the connections and diversity in landscapes until we realise we are also truly part of the pulsing, humming, living Earth. Seeing this is a process, a journey of the mind, often born of unease or tension and coupled with humility.
Once, on a bus trip looking at river and land issues from Gunning, the source of the Lachlan, to its terminus in the twenty thousand hectare Cumbung swamp, I wrote this limerick.
When you land on the plain out at Hay,
And you’re only there for a day,
You feel puny and small at the size of it all
And you wonder, ‘what part can I play?’
After looking at the Lachlan River on that trip I wrote this.
The Lachlan runs west to the plain
It resembles a sewer or drain
With it’s banks torn apart
By the European carp,
Will we see it run pristine again?
This was written after seeing the deeply incised Lachlan looking quite forlorn, full of dead trees, and wondering whether the exchange from diversity to the simplified landscapes of cotton fields and nut trees was, after all, a worthwhile trade. I recalled hearing Lance Parker from Hillston, saying that when he was a boy the Lachlan at Hillston was ‘as clear as gin, you could see the aquatic grass beds and see the native fish’. Lance was a school teacher and he was a son of the Lachlan river, he loved it and set about trying to breed native fish. He cracked the secret of the trigger for spawning. A rising river and increasing water temperature. No-one had discovered this before and Lance began breeding his native fish and stocking the river with them. The European carp was well established in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers and with their sucking mouth and habit of eating the grass beds on the river floors, they changed the habitat that suited the native fish. Lance had a vision that if you kept up a program of restocking the rivers each year with native fish, they would eat many of the carp fingerlings and eventually the old carp would reach the age at which they could no longer breed and the balance would be swung back to the native fish. Like many a good idea, Lance’s vision for the Lachlan was not acted upon.
The Lachlan has many structures across its fourteen hundred kilometres length. Large dams impede the progress of native fish, both up and down the river, thus altering forever the natural breeding cycles. Weirs have the same effect, and so at great cost several fish ladders have been built to allow the native fish access once more. Some clever research showed that the carp could be separated from the native fish due to the greater jumping activity of the natives when they came across the barrier at the top the fish ladder. The carp are effectively ‘drafted’ into a wire cage where they are harvested for fertiliser.
By the 1930s there were only sparse remnants of the once abundant and dominant chenopod shrublands of the Riverine and Hay Plains. Francis Ratcliffe, an English scientist, who became the first head of the CS and I R (the forerunner of the modern day CSIRO), wrote about the causes of the degradation of the scrubland vegetation, in his book, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. The tapping of the Great Artesian Basin made it possible for stock to graze every acre of the large western division stations. The water was ancient and under pressure, which meant it did not have to be pumped. Bore drains ran for miles on the contour and dry land could suddenly run livestock. The arrival of rabbits in the late 1880s and the millennium drought, led to much of the saltbush being ringbarked by rabbits; much of the saltbush was killed. Currently we still do not account for the consequences our activities have on the ecosystems where we grow food and fibre. This must change if there is to be any chance of future generations seeing abundance and diversity; and for diversity to exist just for its own intrinsic value.
Mary White, in her wonderful book, Listen, Our Land is Crying, recounted the story of the swift change in vegetation on Steam Plains, at Conargo. It is a story of change from a diverse woodland, shrubland, grassland, to almost mono-cultures of exotic annuals, mostly wimmera rye and barley grass. In places where land cover was lost in big droughts, the soil drifted to the point that fences were built on top of fences buried by drift. This occurred in only one hundred and fifty years.
Thus were diverse ecosystems dispersed against the hastening settlers hungrily getting their hands on areas of land they never dreamed of in their countries of birth. Their flocks and herds swarmed over the landscape, the aboriginal communities were sometimes treated kindly, but mostly when they resisted the taking of their food sources, they were swept aside leaving an unspoken legacy of viciousness in the minds of generations to come. This is what 1930’s anthropologist, Bill Stanner called ‘the Great Australian Silence’. Until we stop worrying about what it might cost, and fashion a just dialogue that we can be proud of, including compensation for past actions, we will never be fully Australian and able to live at peace with first nation people and ourselves in this country we call ‘our home’. The recent Uluru meeting of aboriginal people and their suggestions of a way forward seem to be running across the shoals of political speak.
In this dry spring at Boorowa the plants are showing their ability to survive dry seasons. The current climate we are living in is much more hospitable than in former times. During the Pleistocene, (2.6 million years ago to about 11,000 years ago), the climate in Australia was twice as dry and four times as windy as now. Many of the big Blakeleyi red gums on Allendale are covered in bud, and most of the yellow box trees are flowering profusely, these species lived through the Pleistocene. Beneath them is a carpet of aborted flower capsules that fell before they flowered as a response to the dry conditions. A safety strategy (extra capacity), born of deep evolutionary time as the proto-Australia started its long forty five million year drift north after stretching and rifting and eventually breaking away from Gondwana. The Wallaby grasses are making seed heads close to the ground, an energy-conserving strategy, and all plants are moving into reproductive mode. The remnants of the once diverse native flora know how to survive the conditions we call drought. They carry the genes of their ancestors that survived the harsh, dry, windy conditions of the Pleistocene.
The species farmers have sown using the Industrial Agricultural model, species such as Cocksfoot, Phalaris, Lucerne, Sub Clover, Prairie Grass, Fescue, and herbs such as Chickory and Plantain have been chosen for their vigour and competitiveness. Most of them come from the Northern Hemisphere. Their big drawback is that they are not really suited to our soils, so we have to spend money trying to alter the soil conditions to suit them. This means capital expenses for lime, inorganic fertilisers, weed control. If we fail to manage them properly, that is, to allow them to recover from grazing, they will quickly thin out and need to be resown. This is a huge capital cost, one from which it is hard to make a return that justifies the expense. In selecting and introducing these exotic species, farmers are unwittingly being enticed onto a treadmill of increasing purchase of products and often a spiral of debt from which they find it hard to escape. Thus the business model of the suppliers of products seems almost foolproof….apply the research that shows increased yield, purchase ‘improved’ seed, fertilisers, herbicides, apply two and a half tonnes of lime per hectare to correct the soil acidity related to too much nitrogen from clover. If unplanned grazing is practiced, pastures like this will need resowing every five to seven years, the cost of sowing will not have been recouped and the whole cycle of resowing, fertilisers, herbicides begins again. It’s a good deal for the supplier, but not so for the farmer, or the land.
Like the Superb Parrots we cannot see in the trees, so also, we fail to grasp our place in the living world, until we have come into the light of consciousness.