About Jenny Atchison

Jenny Atchison is a researcher in AUSCCER at the University of Wollongong. Jenny's interests are contemporary and long term human relationships with plants. She is currently working with Lesley Head on research project 'The Social Life of Invasive Plants'. Ingrained A human bio-geography of wheat, co-written by Lesley Head, Jennifer Atchison and Alison Gates is published with Ashgate in July 2012. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409437871

Entangled invasive lives. Indigenous invasive plant management in northern Australia

In this video Jennifer Atchison (and Lesley Head) discuss their research on Indigenous invasive plant management in northern Australia. This presentation was delivered at the World Parks Congress held in Sydney on 17th November 2014 in a special themed session on Indigenous people and invasive species organised by Judy Fischer, Emilie Ens and Oliver Costello.

Discrepancies between the purist, warlike policy discourse of invasive plant management and the messy realities of on-ground practice are being noted in an increasing number of studies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the extensive indigenous lands of Australia’s tropical north, where communities have increasing responsibility for invasive plant management among other pressing land management tasks, as part of what Richie Howitt and others call ‘New Geographies of Coexistence’. Drawing on our own ethnographic research and an analysis of the grey literature, we describe an emerging assemblage we call Indigenous Invasive Plant Management (IIPM).

Sound track: listening to fish tales of environmental flows

River impoundment or damming together with flow regulation is implicated in the global decline in ‘health’ of riparian aquatic environments and river biodiversity, but in Australia there is broad variability to this picture depending on how river hydrology has been modified. For the Shoalhaven River in NSW the accumulating water demands from urban use, agriculture and industry for the greater Sydney region combined with increased frequency and duration of drought periods highlight the difficulties of managing low volume flow releases for environmental purposes. Continue reading

Expectations and openings in Mimosa Country

Fieldwork is never what you might expect or plan for. On my first day with Lesley Head in Daly River Northern Territory to discuss management of Mimosa pigra as part of our research project on ‘The Social Life of Invasive Plants’ our main informant became seriously ill. In north Australian Aboriginal communities death comes often and in small and remote communities its effects are far reaching. Continue reading

Catching up with Rubber Vine

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.

This tree is out of place!

40 Mile Scrub National Park (40 miles west of Mt Garnet) in Far North Queensland is a quick morning tea break for travellers heading west toward the more popular nearby destination Undara Volcanic National Park. If you have 5 minutes to spare, the 300m walking track loop through the scrub points out points of interest. Incoming AUSCCER PhD student Stephanie Toole and I are heading west from Cairns in search of Rubber Vine as part of AUSCCER research project ‘The Social Life of Invasive Plants’. Here we find Bottle Trees, White Cedars and Burdekin Plums.

The ‘scrub’ – dry rainforest or semi-evergreen vine thicket, is described as distinctly different to the lush coastal rainforests. Lower and more variable annual rainfall, combined with the hotter temperatures here limit and confines the distribution of its species to small mineral rich basaltic soil patches. Patches of rainforest in a sea of eucalypt savanna.

Some time ago, we learn, a seed, an interloper, survived and grew. ‘Out of place!’ this tree now stands as a mature narrow-leaved iron bark in the middle of the rainforest. What does it mean for a tree to be ‘out of place’? Can a gum tree be out of place in Australia? Where does this plant belong?

Plant distributions are governed by tolerances, competition and disturbance. Life is possible for different species across water, mineral and temperature gradients. Life must also contend with fire regimes, herbivory, competition and so on. If a seed sprouts and a plant grows to maturity – it is tolerant of the conditions and if it survives and reproduces – it is fit. Plants assemble themselves amongst and in the thick of things. How then can this tree or indeed any plant – life becoming through relations; exchanging gases with the atmosphere, feeding and sheltering inhabitants, rooted firmly in the ground – be out of place? Fit, but not fitting?

The rainforest savanna boundary is not a line marked in the sand, there is a transition zone, there are thicker and thinner edges. Disturbance and gaps in the canopy come and go, creating momentary opportunity for some. These zones of belonging change through space, and time.

No Rubber Vine in sight, we venture further into the scrub beyond the walking track. Instead, we find invasive species Lantana – thick, scratchy, impenetrable, rising over our heads, covered in ripening black berries. Wary of ticks, we head out, feeling a bit out of place.


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.