We finally catch up with rubber vine just west of Mt Surprise where the vast Gulf country intersects the westward march of the development road. With an odd sense of excitement Stephanie Toole and I pull over and carefully thread our way amongst the neck high grader grass and slip in between the barbed wire fence to get a better look. 12 months ago Lesley Head and I saw the remnants of one dead plant in the Kimberley eradication zone. It is a bit strange having read and heard so much about this particular plant for so long without having seen it in the flesh.
I stand somewhat mesmerized by the thick arching whip stems reaching out for something to hold onto, climbing as all vines do, to reach the light. Spotted purple stems anchor deeply into the cracking grey dirt; hummocky shapes sitting quietly, patiently in the paddock waiting for rain. You can’t help but have some respect for this plant’s ability to carve out a space for itself and make its presence felt.
As we head west toward Georgetown and the Einsleigh and Gilbert rivers, the extent of rubber vine’s reach becomes clear. Over the coming four days we spend time with pastoral station managers and their families, weed officers and helicopter pilots, listening to their experiences. We have wide ranging discussions about what it means to make a living in this country, what is happening to the other nonhumans in this story and what the future might hold. There are difficult decisions ahead for people here and multiple lives and livelihoods at stake.
We get our own hands dirty too, taking part in a demonstration day – a treatment technique to burn the rubber vine from fuel-laden canisters. We manage our ethnography from the helicopter, taking deep breaths behind our camera lenses as our skilled guide pilots us along the creek line, barrelling in for a closer look at the towering, smothering and then smoking mass of vines. In Charters Towers at the Tropical Weeds Research Centre, we talk to ecologists who have tested a range of management techniques over the last decade or so. We learn that, unlike other weed species, there are effective options available.
In remote places like the Gulf, it is a simple matter for unfolding ecological dramas to play out unnoticed in our mostly urbanised lives, something Val Plumwood drew attention to in her work on Shadow Places. And even here amongst the rubber vine, there are clear material connections to the global economy; to meat and livestock as well as crop production. Plumwood argued that as consumers, the ethical responsibilities to such places should not elude us.
It becomes clear to me in this very short space of time that doing nothing is not an option for the people who live with this plant. What is not quite so clear is how this will play out; having an effective ‘treatment’ is one thing, effectively putting it into action is quite another matter. Rubber vine has a large head start, it has readily made itself at home. It will take a lot of time and effort to catch up. Exactly what should be done, how much it will cost and who is going to fund it are just some of the difficult problems we must all begin to own.