Salt Blood

I have written about freedive research on this blog here, here and here, but only just now managed to publish about it. Freediving is at its most basic just holding your breath and diving underwater. It is likely as old as humans. But in its modern recreational and competitive formation, it has been described as the second most dangerous extreme sport. It is undergoing a dramatic rise in popularity, with PADI, the largest global dive organisation describing it as the fastest growing segment of the dive market. I have been using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies (becoming as close as possible that which I am researching) to try to understand why.

My essay on freediving, ‘Salt Blood’ has just won the 2017 ABR Calibre Prize.

I wrote:

Mirroring our time in the tiny sea of the amniotic sac, freediving is the most profound engagement between humans and oceans: the unmediated body immersed and uncontrolled in saltwater. It is simultaneously planetary and intensely intimate – the ocean is both all around us and within us. That breadth of scale can be terrifying or reassuring. It is not about discovery, it is about recovery: we can freedive expertly from the minute we are born, but slowly forget. Continue reading

Risk Assessment

Pondi Unleashed Bulleteers, south India

I have nervously watched the institutionalised mayhem of Indian traffic for years, ‘safely’ as a passenger: India has the highest number of annual traffic incidents in the world. This year I actively took part – in Pondicherry I rented a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’. Old style, heavy, single-cylinder 350cc: lovely motorbike design dating from the year I was born.

Joining the traffic in the Bullet taught me many lessons – no helmet is better (improves peripheral vision); check the fuel tank (we pushed it down dusty roads for a kilometre the first day); it’s a delicate balance between assertion and deference in Indian traffic, and almost every Indian out-asserted me. Ananth Gopal was the perfect pillion passenger: balanced, navigating, laughing. Risk is broadened on a motorbike: Ananth, me, the people on the bikes next to me I might bump, pedestrians… It is all about flow: after ten days it was just exhilarating to negotiate insanely crowded intersections and nudge through crowded marketplaces. Continue reading

Truganini’s Island: Food, darkness and belonging

I have just spent ten days in Tasmania, presenting at a conference on Food Politics, with prominent food geographer Michael Goodman and RMIT’s excellent Tania Lewis as the keynotes. My presentation was on food and hunting in Australia and Sweden, based on a forthcoming chapter in a book co-edited by Lesley Head.IMG_0463

All the Nordic countries and Australia have traditions of hunting. For most of Australia’s human history, including colonial settlement, wild harvest from the sea and the land formed the human diet, and hunting was a normal part of activity and cuisine. These traditions continue in 2016, but are controversial and contested. In the Nordic countries, in part because of the historic traditions of friluftsliv and allemansrätten, wild food gathering including hunting is currently much more normalized, and in fact valorized in the rise of the ‘New Nordic Cuisine. The percentages of the population that are hunters in these countries are relatively similar, between 2-5%. Indigenous hunters, Aboriginal and Sami, are marginalized and often criminalized for continuing to maintain traditions millennia old. Continue reading

A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon – full-immersion methodologies

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For the last few years I have been approaching research using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies: ‘the method that requires investigators to become, as completely as possible, that which they wish to understand’ (Desmond 2011,  drawing on Wacquant 2004 – thanks to Christine Eriksen for drawing my attention to Desmond’s phrase). Consequently, my work on hunting (Adams 2013, Adams 2014, and another forthcoming this year) required me to acquire a firearm and appropriate licences and learn to hunt – to become a hunter.

Currently, I am following this approach with freediving research. Continue reading

One Blood

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Illustration for ‘The Jungle Book’, Detmold Brothers, 1908.

This coming month I have an essay published in the Indian journal Seminar, which I consider something of an honour. Seminar, which has a readership in the hundreds of thousands, is legendary in intellectual and policy circles in India. Ramachandra Guha, named as one of the world’s top one hundred intellectuals by ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine in 2008, described Seminar as ‘an indispensable national institution.’

It’s a unique publication: each monthly issue is themed, and contributors are invited by the editors. The September issue has contributions from researchers at Stellenbosch, Uppsala, New Delhi, Harvard and Chicago universities, amongst others. It opens with an editorial called ’The Problem’. The September issue is edited by Gunnel Cederlöf and Mahesh Rangarajan, and the focus is ‘Nature and History: a symposium on human-environment relations in the long term’. Mahesh is a distinguished Indian environmental historian and author of many books on conservation. He is currently Director of the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum in New Delhi, as well as being a regular election commentator in India’s national elections. Gunnel is Professor of History at Uppsala University and KTH, Stockholm, and has published extensively on India. Continue reading

On One Breath

Flying in to the Big Island of Hawai’i, the two largest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are capped with snow and surrounded by an aureola of clouds. Driving east to west across the island between the volcanoes, I pass through several climatic zones and multiple ecosystems. The journey takes me from the wet, windward eastern side to the much drier lee coast on the west.

It’s my second time on a tropical archipelago in a few months. In February I accompanied ten UOW undergraduates to India’s Andaman Islands for our pilot iteration of GEOG334 ‘Geographies of Change: International Fieldwork’. A great trip with a fantastic group of students – fun, resilient and very hard-working. Relevant to this research blog because each student completed their first ever independent research project while there, ranging from studying the territorial behaviour of damsel fish, to a detailed supply chain analysis of everything we ate. Great work.

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The Apneista team, Indonesia (http://apneista.com/)

But I’m in Hawai’i to continue research on freediving, which I started last year in Indonesia. Freediving, or breath-hold diving, is at once a commonplace and unique form of engagement between humans and oceans. Continue reading

Caught in the net of life and time: hunting

Last week Meanjin published an essay of mine. The tagline they used was ‘Michael Adams reflects on the relationships between hunters and their prey’. The Guardian has just reprinted it in their Comment section. The essay explores modern hunting, with some of it focusing on my own hunting. My thinking continues to evolve on these issues, and recent media indicates they continue to be important and controversial. Continue reading

‘Redneck, barbaric, cashed-up bogan? I don’t think so’: Hunting and Nature in Australia.

But please hunters, don’t try to wrap your pathetic, arcane blood lust in a pretty light by saying you’re protecting the environment or whatever.

Everyone who eats meat has blood on their hands. Everyone who lives, works, shops or drives in a deforested area has blood on their hands. Get over it. No one is innocent and the only difference is a Hunter is able to see where their food comes from.

The responses from redneck and cashed up bogans come as no surprise. To equate intelligence with nothing more than the possession of facts and academic achievements is indicative of the superficial mindset of said bogans. They have offered no new insights or valid justifications for their desire to hunt. Some even see themselves as conservationists. Hunting takes no skill other than stalk and shoot – as long as the target is hit, it doesn’t seem to matter if the animal is maimed or dead. They lack empathy and show no sophisticated social maturity. Ultimately the sign of a civilised society is how it treats its most disadvantaged members and species. Please go to America where rabid republican hillbillies will gladly welcome you back to the family. You’ve got nothing this country wants or needs.

Redneck, barbaric, cashed up bogan, I don’t think so. No I think just down to earth who enjoys living the outdoor life now and to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday living.

These comments illustrate some of the polarised positions around hunting in Australia, where somewhere between 300,000 to one million people hunt. I am working with people who hunt, where lives are sustained through the ending of the lives of others. Hunting is constantly controversial, with arguments ranging from ‘the first hunters were the first humans’ to ‘meat is murder’. But there are distinct cultural variations: there is a general acceptance of traditional Indigenous peoples’ hunting, while in middle-class Australia often an assumption that ‘shooting’ is a redneck activity. Across the world, there is a wide range of social attitudes and beliefs around modern hunting. Anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that in relationships between hunters and animals, there is ‘a working basis for mutuality and coexistence’. I have a paper just published in Environmental Humanities (their 3rd most downloaded paper in May) that explores some of these networks of relationship and respect.

CZ455 Lux – my small game rifle

 

Continue reading

Postcard from India Part 3

I am back in South India, this time accompanied by my family, to investigate field sites for proposed collaborative pilot projects with Indian colleagues. We are visiting three locations: a Kuruba tribal community and elephant camp in Nargarhole National Park; an organic farm in the Coorg District of Karnataka; and Soliga tribal communities  in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (known as BRT)

A young tiger at BRT (photo: Eva Hampel)

We were up before dawn on Monday to look for wildlife with a Soliga guide. I was happy to see just a black-naped hare, but as the drive continued we saw many gaur, India’s huge wild cattle; spotted deer, barking deer and sambar; and then, incredibly, a young tiger 15 metres from us. As I mentioned in my first postcard from India, tigers dominate conservation in India and often problematically. This was reinforced in later conversation with a Soliga elder, who expressed significant concern for the state of the landscape because of the longstanding suppression of fire and prevention of Soliga burning techniques, as well as a perceived sole focus on tigers. Lantana  has spread rapidly and extensively in the last 15 years, forming a monoculture understory. Local species used by Soliga have been displaced, to the extent that there are projects to create industries based on lantana as a substitute.

Village India (photo: Eva Hampel

The rest of our discussion explored the history at BRT of relationships between Soligas and the Indian Forest Department (responsible for management of protected areas in India). The advent of the Forest Rights Act has theoretically created the possibility for the return of some rights to Indian Tribal people but it is clear that the reality falls short. We discussed comparisons with the Australian situation of joint-managed national parks, and the possible opportunities presented by the 6th World Parks Congress to be held in Sydney in 2014.

Continue reading

Postcard from India Part 2

The European Cemetery, Bangalore

I intended to post this from Bangalore, but the combination of impending Christmas holidays for Australians, and a few too many things to do, has meant a slight delay. On my last day in Bangalore, Indian friends and colleagues helped me find the grave of my great great grandfather, who was buried there (in the ‘European Cemetery’) in 1905. I have family who lived and died all over India during a two hundred year love affair with the country, and next visit hope to track down some more family sites while also exploring potential research field locations in the Western Ghats.

THE WESTERN GHATS WORLD HERITAGE AREA

The Indian mountain chain of the Western Ghats is one of the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots. It was listed by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Area in July 2012, as a ‘serial nomination’ of 39 separate sites, all existing national parks.

There is no doubt that the Western Ghats meets the criteria for ‘outstanding universal values’ as described by UNESCO. The mountain chain extends almost unbroken for 1,500 kilometres from north to south parallel to the coastline of the Arabian Sea, and through six Indian states. It has almost unprecedented levels of biodiversity and endemism: nearly 4,000 species of flowering plants or about 27% of India’s total; 225 described species of reptiles, of which 62% are endemic; over 500 species of birds and 120 species of mammals. It has the largest global populations of the Asian elephant, and possibly of other mammals such as tiger, dhole, and gaur. The Western Ghats is also the origin of wild relatives of a number of cultivated plants, including pepper, cardamom, mango, jackfruit and plantain.

The listing however was despite IUCN, the expert body which carried out the assessment of its values, recommending that the World Heritage Committee should defer consideration of lndia’s nomination, partly on the basis of inadequate inclusion of 40 officially recognized tribal groups’ concerns and rights. Many of these tribal groups use the forests for hunting and other livelihood activities, and made a formal protest to UNESCO. However, India argued successfully in the St Petersburg meeting that the nomination should proceed.

2012 was the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, and there is still no process for formal representation of Indigenous interests. I have written a chapter analysing relationships at Uluru for a forthcoming book examining Indigenous interactions with World Heritage processes, to be published by IWGIA. AUSCCER postgrad Nick Skilton recently examined the current proposal for World Heritage listing for Cape York, and identified similar concerns about sites, boundaries, tenure and power. There is a growing sense that World Heritage listing is about national egos and pride – the Committee itself is increasingly politicized, and the nomination and assessment processes sometimes perceived as inadequate. Indian representatives raised concerns with the lack of Indian experience of the IUCN review teams, and their tight timetables. There are moves to create assessment teams with at least regional experience.

RICH INTERSPECIES COMMUNITIES – RECONCILIATION ECOLOGIES

From the macro scale of the Western Ghats, I have also been discussing the fine-grained relationships between people and nature at the scale of individual rural houses and the anthropogenic landscapes that surround them. Lesley Head has explored this relationship in Australia in a variety of contexts. One of my collaborators in India, bio-geographer Meera Anna Oomen, is from Eraviperoor, a farming community in Kerala, and her family have been documenting the species who share space with them.

Kerala  is a very interesting state – it has a literacy rate of more than 90% and strong support for women’s rights. Seventy percent of the population is rural, and there have been significant processes of land reform that have given many rural people some level of land security. It is a centre for the medical system known as Ayurveda (argued to be the oldest surviving medical system in the world) and is also spectacularly beautiful.

Rusty Spotted Cat – the smallest member of the cat family, common in Eraviperoor, Kerala

These agricultural landscapes provide effective habitat for many species. M.O Ipe and his daughter, Ashley Mary Ipe, have so far recorded 20 mammals, 162 birds, 23 reptiles and 44 native fish within the village area of Eraviperoor. For these ‘rich interspecies communities’ their presence is more than a substitution of a ‘natural’ habitat for a human constructed one. There are particular relationships between lots of these species and the human occupants that in many cases are millennia old. These relationships are at once deeply cultural and intensely practical, which is in some ways a hallmark of some Indian relationships to animals.

Early photo of a Kheddah operation

The domestic scale relationships link to the wider landscape relationships. There is currently intense discussion on the issue of human-wildlife conflict in a number of areas, with species including elephants. While Jamie Lorimer has written on this in Sri Lanka, there are interesting further complexities. One just published proposal in Karnataka involves capturing ‘problem elephants’ using a high-tech kheddah operation. The kheddah was introduced to southern India from the north-east by the colonial administrator G.P. Sanderson, and essentially herds wild elephants into a stockade, using kumkies, tame elephants. Current proposals involve a revival of the unique knowledge of local/tribal kheddah experts, combined with the use of immobilizing drugs to minimize injuries. One of the possible AUSCCER collaborations is an examination of whether the elephant knowledge of Kuruba tribal people can help address these elephant-human conflict situations.

AHOKA TRUST FOR RESEARCH IN ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT   (ATREE)        In my last week in India week I gave a seminar at the Indian NGO ATREE, overviewing Aboriginal involvement in conservation in Australia. ATREE has just been listed as one of the top 30 environmental think tanks in the world, and its work has many similarities to AUSCCER.

ATREE in Bangalore

The researchers and other staff have recently moved into a beautiful purpose-built office building on the outskirts of Bangalore. Some of the food served in the staff canteen is grown on the grounds, and the building has extensive landscaped open-air meeting and working spaces. It is currently set in farmland – coconut trees and buffaloes, squirrels and monkeys, on the edge of a small village – but Bangalore is developing so rapidly that the surrounding landscape will likely be large residential buildings very soon. In an interesting connection to my hunting research (paper forthcoming in Environmental Humanities), an Indian colleague told me about a displaced tribal group, the Narikuravas, who now in part subsist by hunting urban wildlife, harvesting the ubiquitous squirrels with slingshots and snares, and removing beehives from high rise buildings in Bangalore.

Bangalore is a centre for research on environment and society, with significant NGOs like ATREE and Dakshin  (who hosted my visit, and have provided much assistance), to major academic research organisations like the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute for Science, who also hosted my visit. Also here are the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and close by in Mysore is the Nature Conservation Foundation who also have a great blog. I have met people from all these organisations and more, and we are currently developing a program of future collaborative research.