Hanuman’s Ocean: Land and water at Rama’s Bridge

On the poet John Keats’ grave in Rome are the words ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ First reading Keats in my late teens, I have always held a mental picture of those words as his name traced on the surface of the sea. It is a wonderful image, the letters written in water, the dark mobile surface swirling and closing over each momentary mark.

Rama’s Bridge, NASA image

My second Asialink Arts writing project with EarthCoLab takes as its focus Rama’s Bridge, a shifting line of sandbanks, reefs and islands traced across thirty kilometres of ocean between India and Sri Lanka, connecting Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. Continue reading

The Sacred Conch: multi-species explorations in Palk Strait

‘For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,

And went all naked to the hungry shark;

For them his ears gush’d blood.’

(John Keats, Isabella. 1818)


At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, seven war conches are named as their owners sound them at the start of the climactic Kurukshetra battle, including warrior Arjuna’s Devadatta, and his charioteer Krishna’s Panchajanya. War conches are shankha, the same sacred or divine conch that is used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual, Ayurvedic medicine, Indian marriage ceremonies and numerous other occasions.

The conch seems an unlikely candidate to reach the level of reverence it does in India, and in fact in numerous other cultures. It is a large marine gastropod, a big sea snail. The specific animal revered as shankha is Turbinella pyrum, and is common on the southern coasts of India and Sri Lanka. In its living form it is not obviously attractive, the shell being covered by a dark brown mantle of soft tissue. Once processed, it is a shining white symbol of the divine. Continue reading

The very Australian camel

Just in time for Australia Day, AUSCCER’s Leah Gibbs talks with award-winning radio producer Michael Schubert of Soundminds Radio on the subject of the very Australian camel.

Their conversation challenges the ideas of ‘feral’ and ‘invasive’ species, and questions what it means to belong in Australia.

Tune in to the Community Radio Network at 10:45am EST on Thursday 26 January, or listen here.   Continue reading

‘Camel country’: on radio 3CR & Geoforum

Camels are the focus of this week’s ‘Freedom of Species’ program on 3CR Independent Radio. AUSCCER’s Leah Gibbs will be talking with 3CR’s Emma Townshend this Sunday, 17 May, at 1pm on 3CR (855am). You can also catch the show later as an MP3.

The interview comes on the back of a paper recently published in Geoforum, by Leah Gibbs, Jennifer Atchison and Ingereth Macfarlane, titled: ‘Camel Country: assemblage, belonging and scale in invasive species geographies’. Below is a taster of the published paper.

Invasive species and their impacts have become a focus of global environmental policy and action. Invasive, alien and in Australia ‘feral’ species have come to represent categories of destructive animals and plants that do not belong. They are frequently pitted against ‘native’ species, which are deemed good and do belong. But in the context of contemporary environmental change and uncertainty, established categories such as ‘invasive’ species need to be examined more closely.  Continue reading

Illuminating wildfire vulnerability through environmental history

The following is a discussion of how environmental history recently has broadened my understanding of wildfire vulnerability. It is based on my reflections from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in San Francisco, which together with the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Tampa bracketed my recent trip to USA. The purpose of attending both conferences was to share key lessons on gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience as presented in my new book. Yet, the format of my input to each conference was distinctively different. Continue reading

On ‘passing through places’, ‘so-far stories’ and movement improvisation

This post was originally posted on the ‘Working the Tweed’ site; a ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’ funded collaboration between artists and environmentalists in the Scottish Borders. The post is a conversation between AUSCCER’s Leah Gibbs, and Working the Tweed artists Kate Foster and Claire Pençak.

In the project Working the Tweed, we set out to work with different kinds of specialist knowledge. This yields various ways to think about the Tweed Catchment, and make different artistic connections and new kinds of maps. We are thinking through what we, as artists, might offer in engaging with projects that deal with sustainable land-use and the realities of environmental change. We are delighted to be able to converse with Leah Gibbs, a human geographer at the University of Wollongong, whose work concerns the cultures and politics of water. Leah has considerable experience of multi-disciplinary work focusing on land management. She explains her concept of ‘passing-through places’. This overlaps with Kate Foster’s ideas of documenting ‘so-far stories’, and Claire Pençak’s thinking on improvisation as a way to investigate relationship to place through movement.

KF: Leah, you have written about ‘passing-through places’, which is an intriguing idea and keeps coming to mind as we plan the Working the Tweed project. Can you explain why you find the concept of ‘passing through’ helpful, and how you came to adopt the term?  Continue reading

Aussie Rules, going down under and other clichés?

I’ve just arrived to a warm welcome at AUSCCER for a ten week visit from Durham University in the UK. After being installed at my desk with a computer now up and running, I’m raring to post on the AUSCCER blog. So a bit about my research. My PhD project is exploring the politics of creative practices, particularly performance, through a set of examples located in Bristol in the UK. Through theatre, spoken word and Carnival, I’m asking who can take part in performance in the city, as well as why and how they are able to do so. Broadly, this interrogates the relationship between creativity, memory and belonging, asking what ‘postcolonial’ might mean in Bristol, a city that grew as a node in the Atlantic slave trade, and as a site of settlement for Caribbean migrants from (eventually former) British colonies. Rather than focusing purely on the content of performance (ie variants on both Goffman’s and Butler’s differing theorisations of identity as performance), I have been interested in how contests over place and belonging emerge through the manners in which these events are put together, attended and disseminated. This relationship between creative practice and everyday life was what brought me to AUSCCER. The visit has been funded by my UK government funding body, the Economic and Social Research Council. Whilst here, I will be working with Professor Chris Gibson with the aim of submitting an article for publication by the end of my visit. I will also participate in the departmental seminar series, as well as engaging in many informal corridor, tea-room and coffee-based conversations!

Wood fires in the suburbs: affordability, a retro trip, or reconnecting with nature?

It is winter here in Australia, and at our place we have started lighting fires to keep warm.

I live in inner-city Sydney, in a reasonably densely populated but still decidedly suburban part of the city with small land parcels, and archetypal Australian varieties of Victorian and Edwardian terraces. Homes in our neighbourhood were built a century ago or more, with double-brick cavity walls, front verandahs and high ceilings.

Sydney is in a warm temperate climatic zone 34 degrees south of the equator. Hot and humid in summer, mild in winter with crisp mornings but pleasantly warm afternoons, most Sydneysiders spend more time and money on ways to cool than to heat their houses. Most inner-city homes were built with only one or two open fireplaces to keep warm. Central heating has never felt warranted in a city that is “cold” only for a few weeks a year. Open fireplaces have been mostly idle since the 1970s, with the advent of cheap gas, electric bar and column heaters (and with grimy memories of coal-fired smog). No longer a viable means to stay warm in winter, Sydney’s century-old open fireplaces and chimneys have instead become ornate “original features” that add to the heritage character (and price) of inner-city terraces.

In search of warmth

My own family has been arguing around possible ways to stay warm without consuming large amounts of electricity, and getting stung by increasing electricity prices. (The relevant state regulatory authority recently announced that electricity prices would rise by an average of 18 percent based on a mix of infrastructure investment costs and the introduction of a nationwide carbon pollution tax.) This was, for our family, a classic sustainability dilemma: with two toddler-aged children suffering this winter’s round of colds and flus, the house really does need to be a bit warmer on the coldest days. But for sustainability and financial reasons we don’t want to turn on our portable, and inefficient, electric column heaters. Installing reverse-cycle air-conditioning is an expensive initial outlay (as is installing solar energy panels), and in any case we’ve spent successive summers resisting air-conditioning on principle – so why give in to needing the very same technology to heat us in winter?

It was then that I remembered that our fireplaces were in full working order when we bought our house three years ago. These homes were originally built with capacity for lighting fires, and we have inherited this vernacular infrastructure. Why not use it?

I convinced the family that we should try lighting fires.

The return of the open fire

Since we started lighting the occasional fire, I have noticed other signals that the inner-city open fireplace is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

I took my kids to the local hardware store a fortnight ago. I knew I’d be able to buy open-fire fuel there. Sure enough, they did: there were bags of quasi-coal briquettes produced specifically for open fireplaces, as well as cheap bushwood, and a range of new “eco-log” products made of recycled materials. In fact, there were lots of options. Great piles of fire fuel. Palette after palette of it, surrounded by gaggles of inner-city types reading labels, hauling 20 kg bags of briquettes and boxes of eco-logs onto their trolleys. Waiting in the checkout aisles people spoke of better and worse fuels, the merits of eco-logs versus bushwood, and how to stretch out an open fire and minimise costs. And they also talked about abandoning increasingly unaffordable electric and gas heating.

I’m not sure whether this is a mere retro trip in honour of the romantic log fire, a means of middle-class resistance to state-imposed electricity price hikes, or a genuinely cost-effective alternative for households who are trying to stay warm on limited budgets.

Carbon, connections, contradictions

In the meantime, this prosaic example has made me rethink conversations had recently within AUSCCER. They include:

  • The ambiguities of calculating carbon emissions. Would lighting the occasional open-fire of this sort increase the carbon emissions required to heat our family, compared with electric or gas heaters? In the UK and North America, bloggers have debated this in relation to wood-fired home heaters, and there is far from consensus on the metrics. New recycled eco-log products do seem to significantly reduce emissions, according to research from the Canadian EPA, but the type of wood product burned can mean resulting carbon emissions vary by up to 75 percent. Exactly how this stacks up against electricity used to heat homes is moot, especially if we factor in local power generation systems (coal-fired power plants, by and large, here in Australia) and the temporal dimension. Here in Sydney, we are talking about much more highly variable, and more intermittent, heating practices than in colder climates. This rules out economies of scale and efficiencies gained by thermostat-controlled central heating. At the very least, future research could better model highly variable wood products, frequency of burning practices and carbon emission impacts of alternative energy sources used to heat homes in specific geographical contexts.
  • Dilemmas of decision-making in everyday life: my colleagues Christine Eriksen and Nick Gill have examined the complexities of landowners’ practices in relation to fire risk and preparedness on the rural-urban fringe. They argue that landowners bring “agency to bushfire preparedness in the relationships between everyday procedures, dilemmas, and tradeoffs”. There is a parallel, it seems, with decisions about lighting fires in suburban homes in the city: families operate around daily procedures (and occasionally change them), confront dilemmas, and make tradeoffs – not all of which are ideal.
  • Where are the consequences of our resource consumption patterns felt? Is it better that the pollution impacts of staying warm be felt locally rather than some place else? On the other hand, no-one wants to return to Dickensian scenes of urban smoke haze and coal-grime covered streets. What quantity of localised smoke is tolerable, and is it worse than shifting the pollution impacts onto distant others? The burden of transforming resource and energy use is unevenly carried.
  • The link between health and environment: research by Fay Johnston and David Bowman from UTAS has drawn links between wood fire smoke and increased death rates, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Their research was on an entirely different scale (landscape fires and widespread forest burning), but nevertheless there are open debates about health impacts of home fires too.
  • Ought the risk of such problems be measured against other kinds of complexities and materialities? Buying fuel, hauling it home and lighting an open fire makes immediate the materiality of the carbon being burned – as opposed to the distant, disembodied coal-fired power station enrolled when households habitually switch on (or simply leave on all winter) their electric heater. Every time I light a fire, I make an immediate assessment of the material being burned and whether it is worth it. We have open-fire movie nights, eat dinner in front of the fire, move our laptops into this one warm room and work their instead of at cold office desks. Sociality is a clear benefit. We appreciate the fire, its heat, its smell. Perhaps we humans are hard-wired to gather round fires: the hearth as a source of human communality. More prosaically, in our home we are, I would suggest, a touch more conscious of the financial and environmental sacrifices involved. We feel lucky to be toasty warm when the fire is burning, and are reminded of those without such means.
  • Human-nonhuman relations: might the wood fire renaissance be better framed in terms of debates about urban natures and the entangling of non-human others – such as fire – in suburban lounge-rooms? Are urban house fire tragedies more likely? My kids are certainly learning to appreciate the power and danger of fire.
  • Systems of provision: is government likely to have predicted this kind of switch? In some ways switching to wood takes households “off the grid”, but it connects households to other kinds of “grids”. What are the wider economic, infrastructural and resource use implications if everyone switched to this form of heating? How might shifting patterns of demand alter prices for fuel, availability of resources, or exacerbate downstream environmental impacts in unintended ways? Some eco-logs appear to be made from forest industry by-products here in Australia; others from recycled sawdust from Indonesia. Which are more likely to be linked to dubious forestry practices? Other eco-log products are made from coffee-grounds. Does that mean we need to factor in the chain of impacts related to coffee production as well?

Household decisions about resource use are evidently both economic and emotional, social and instinctive. Our choices are not simply determined by rationalist considerations of pros and cons, as if the total balance sheet of environmental and economic considerations were easily knowable and calculable in the midst of everyday decisions. I doubt any of the folk buying eco-logs at my local hardware store had done online research on comparative carbon footprints, but I bet they were acutely conscious of recent hikes in energy prices. The connected household makes ethical decisions within the tangible and knowable parameters of social life, entwined in wider networks and assemblages.

Like so many other everyday consumption choices, something as simple as lighting a fire seems on second thought irrevocably complex. Perhaps our open fire will be little more than a treasured luxury every now and then. Meanwhile across Sydney households are voting with their (cold) feet and revisiting wood fires, whether it’s ideal or not.

Household Sustainability: Challenges and Dilemmas in Everyday Life, is a new book co-written by Chris Gibson, with Carol Farbotko, Lesley Head, Nick Gill and Gordon Waitt, due for release by Edward Elgar in 2013. Chris Gibson can be followed on twitter: @profcgibson



Stamping on pests

‘Can you stamp on all the pest animals?’

Along the interpretive rainforest walk beside Lake Eacham National Park, part of Queensland’s Wet Tropics World Heritage site, children are asked if they can stamp on all the pest animals. Instructions clearly demarcate for anyone who might be unsure, exactly what to do – what is native and belongs, and what comes from other countries – and does not belong. The choice seems clear. With clear metaphorical intention, the game challenges children not only to learn to demarcate native from other, but as they do so, balance themselves on top of small constructed pedestals, stamping stones, each one identified by a picture diagram of possible friend or foe; Scrub Python, Indian Myna, Tree Kangaroo, Tilapia, Brush Turkey, Cane Toad, Goat.  We watch, and wonder, how each will choose; which animals to select and balance above, triumphant.

Today, with Stephanie Toole, I visited Lake Eacham along our route across the Atherton Tablelands, heading west toward the dry vine thickets and savanna country in search of invasive (pest) plant rubber vine as part of AUSCCER research project ‘The Social life of Invasive Plants’ led by Lesley Head. In this research we aim to provide new perspectives on human relations with invasive plants. We know they have significant economic and environmental impacts, but they have usually been studied from an ecological rather than a human perspective.

It shouldn’t be too hard to find –  rubber vine has infested some 700,000 hectares and is present across 20% of Queensland. It threatens pastoral production and significant tropical biodiversity. A formidable opponent; prolific, fecund, tenacious.

Stamping out Rubber Vine (resident in Australia since the late 1800’s) is one part of the national weed strategy – eradication in some parts of the country is part of the policy objective, but is it really feasible? How much is it going to cost? How long will it take? Is there an alternative(s)? What if it can’t be done?

In other parts of the country, vast tracts are heavily infested and eradication is not longer the objective. We look forward to learning what life is like for the people who have to live with – rather than stamp out this pest.