Firing the imagination – A walkshop with Professor Nigel Clark

The pre-walkshop conversation focuses on one important question – shorts or longs? Heading into the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Area we’ll head to Mount Kembla and walk a short way through rain forest. The name – Kembla – is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘plenty of game’ and the local fauna includes swamp wallabies, deer, bandicoots, flying foxes, wombats, possums, water dragons, water skinks, frogs, blue-tongued lizards, as well as snakes and a raft of birds. After a night of rain, however, the main concern is with one species in particular – leeches – and their veracity in searching for a mid-morning snack. A variety of combat strategies emerge ranging from Thomas Birtchnell’s longs and masking tape security fix to Nick Gill’s shorts and open sandals – ‘it lets you see them’ – approach.

_walk2Arriving at the summit car park our path through the bush is an easy descent. The atmosphere is humid and warm – slightly cooler under the umbrella of the canopy; the ground underfoot damp from the overnight rain. Every few steps is followed by a scan of shoes looking to spot any wriggling invader before it gains purchase on bare skin and begins to feed. We stop to observe an echidna foraging in the undergrowth; spot a young blackwood tree; admire the spread of a large sandpaper fig.

Emerging from the bush the track hits a fire road and we stop. Our purpose here is less pedagogical, more conversational. And what better place to to have a conversation about our relationship with the Australian bush than in the bush. Professor Nigel Clark, visiting from Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University invites us into a conversation considering bush and fire and coal. This thinking Clark tells us builds on research he has been undertaking with Dr Lauren Rickards (RMIT) that has looked at instances where extractive activity has unintentionally sparked fires – the bushfire-triggered Hazelwood coalmine fire in Victoria (2014), the close encounter between oil sand mining and wildfire at Fort McMurray, Alberta (2016) and the ongoing interface between coal mining and open-field burning in Indonesia. This is an odd feedback loop, as he says: “‘a new species of trouble’ in which the climatic effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels circle back in the form of wildfire (or storms, flooding and other extreme events).” The Illawara region itself has a history of both coal mining and of impact by bush fire.

_talk2This line of thinking then asks what might be the implications of human-induced destratification – such as coal-mining – knocks into these increasingly ‘deterritorialised flows’ – bush fires and other human-induced environment impacts. How might we think about this relationship – make sense of it? Who is affected by these kinds of impacts, and what political and ethical questions do they prompt? And indeed can these ideas be used in shaping pathways and strategies that provide vectors through potential stresses? – that is, possibilities for shaping “alternative geosocial or pyropolitical futures” as Professor Clark puts it.

This is an interesting conversation to have – and even more so when had on a fire road in the bush within a long-serving coal mining region. It acts as a spark for thinking, and hopefully one that has the potential to catch and move in different directions.

Throughout the discussion the vigilance for crawling invaders continued. Brave explorers were picked off boots and shirts and returned to the bush. But nature can be more cunning than we give it credit. The following day a well-fed leech was found wandering the corridors of the AUSCCER offices. It was only later that Professor Clark discovered an ankle covered in blood where the attacker had quietly attached itself and fed after it must have hidden itself perhaps in his shoe. Thus unfortunately for Professor Clark, his presence provided more than just food for thought – for some it was nourishment in the simplest sense.

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