By Anna Pilz
I have never set foot on the continent called Australia. I am unfamiliar with its beaches, bushlands, deserts, and cityscapes, with their sounds and smells, colours and textures. It is a place far away that I encountered mostly in my studies on nineteenth-century Ireland. I have travelled there in my imagination alongside thousands of Irish migrants who were shipped to or set sail for the new colony in attempts to leave famine-stricken Ireland. I imagined what the lengthy journey across oceans must have been like for the 4,000 orphaned Irish girls whose arrival is marked by a Famine Rock in the Melbourne suburb of Williamstown. Stepping onto land with uncertainty and fear in an unfamiliar environment. Miles and miles away from home, survival depending on their resourcefulness as well as the goodwill of and help from strangers and the migrant community. Victims of an environmental catastrophe, these orphaned Irish girls are part of a wider historical migration that is part of that continent’s history. Commemorating those who died during the Famine of 1845 to 1852, the Famine Rock acknowledges the attendant violence of new arrivals: “In sorrow for the dispossession of the Bunurong and Woiworung people built in a spirit of reconciliation. In solidarity with all those who suffer hunger today.”
Now, in January 2020, a bushfire crisis is blazing, and the soaring temperatures are feeding the fire. Crops and habitats destroyed for human and animal alike. Since last summer, I have been sharing an office at the RCC with Kate Wright. She is sitting with her back to me on the desk in my line of sight. I can see her screen. Often over the past weeks, she has the map of Australia open with thick clusters of red dots indicating the burned and burning areas of the country that is her home. I wonder about her emotions as she keeps switching between the map and the word processing document of her latest research paper. I wonder about the degree to which her feelings in response to the map travel across into the deep matter of her academic work. One day, she showed me a video her dad sent of a wallaby eating a carrot in the backyard of her parents’ house. The carrot an offering of solidarity. The wallaby is holding it tight between both front paws, looking straight at the camera. A relationship is forged, even if it only lasts for a few minutes. She tells me that the animals are struggling to find food because of the drought. A snapshot from the shared lifeworlds we live in. Lifeworlds that demand solidarity. I am watching this from the safety of our office in the heart of Munich, where I can turn the heat up and down, where the air quality is good when I open the window, but where the absence of snow in the midst of winter indicates a changing climate.
Kate, her partner, and three-year-old son Rory will be in Munich until the summer. I am glad that they are able to escape the worst of the fires—this year. I am worried about little Rory’s exposure to smoke and I wonder how someone of that age will make sense of the world. He’ll have spent one year in Bavaria. How will he experience the return to his home? What are his sensory memories of that place? Most of my early childhood memories are conjured up by smells and sounds. Will his senses recognise home as ‘home’? Will he be able to connect what he left behind and will return to when he steps off that plane later in the year?
Another Carson Fellow, Jayne Regan, left for Canberra in mid-January. Jayne regularly attended my writing group while she worked on a chapter on urban development in Sydney in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. She showed me historic photographs of Sydney’s waterfront and more recent pictures she’d taken on the foreshore on a bright and sunny day. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is sharp on the edges against the blue sky, the image is clear. A few weeks later, one of The Guardian’s news stories has a picture of Sydney’s iconic waterfront where everything is cloaked in a thick haze of smoke. Only a few days after Jayne left Munich, I read that the capital city had the worst air quality index of any major city in the world. I imagine Jayne stepping off the plane, the smoky air travelling down her lungs and nestling there. I feel guilty stepping outside my apartment and breathing in the good Bavarian air on a mild winter day when others do not have the fortune to do so. I feel guilty for feeling relief that I am living in continental Europe where the effects of climate change are not yet hitting our senses on a daily basis. I am worried about Jayne.
The RCC is a transient community of fellows, bringing together people from across the globe. A hub of ever-widening social networks with constant arrivals and departures that leave their imprints on this collective of relational connections. When I look at the map of the Australian bushfires, I look at an emotional map where each location and area of a bushfire is evaluated according to its degrees of proximity to the people I’ve come to get to know and who have become friends. I’ve listened to their stories and worries about their loved ones, human and non-human alike. I see the red flames that indicate the different scales of magnitude of the fires. I am thinking, “This is where Kate’s parents live. This is where Jayne lives. This is where Su works. This is where Kelly’s husky Bella is awaiting her return.” I am trying to imagine what it must feel and smell like on the ground. I cannot imagine it. It is too much. And these are only individual stories, nodes of connection that carry me across continents. What are the limitations of these relational connections? How can I offer solidarity from here? How is that solidarity compromised by desires and needs to stay safe? These stories have to be multiplied by millions to acknowledge the emotional, embodied, lived experiences of animals and humans, and the multitude of living and non-living beings that make up our world. The map of my emotional connection to the Australian bushfire crisis is spreading out; my thoughts travel across a great distance. The distance between here and there diminishing. As my thoughts return to the here and now of Munich in January 2020, the view out is no longer the same.
In November 2019, before I flew to Munich, I stayed with my parents in Armidale, New South Wales. National parks, farms, and properties between the town and the coast were on fire and, depending on the wind, the grey-brown miasma of smoke blocked out the blue sky. The town was on level five restrictions, limiting residents to 160 litres of water per person per day. My mother, who had gardened all her life, agonised over which plant to save and which to let die. We threw our bathwater over the broccoli. In the mornings, I woke with the smell of smoke in my hair.
I flew from fire into snow, rising from the deep sleep of jetlag to roofs crusted with white. I walked to find my bearings and accustom myself to the city. Wandering beneath the spare winter trees of the nearby park, I thought of the close friend, evacuated three times from the south coast of New South Wales, who loves eucalypts and watched them burn. Of a student from my environment and literature reading group who was watching her research subjects—black cockatoos—incinerated with their habitat on Kangaroo Island. Of my mother, confined to an air-conditioned house because she only has a third of the average lung capacity, and who could not breathe each time the smoke pulled over. As I repeatedly refreshed the news I also searched, amid images of charred kangaroos and communities clustered on beaches while the sky blazed beyond, for information on the place I have been researching for twenty years, the South Western Australian Floristic Region (SWAFR).
The SWAFR is a biodiversity hotspot, an area which is rich in endemic species but which is also highly threatened. Only 2.3% of the earth’s land surface contains wild biodiversity in these hotspots, yet it houses 150,000 vascular (or sap-bearing) plants, which constitute 38% of the global total. The SWAFR stretches for roughly three hundred thousand kilometres across the south-western corner of Western Australia. It is bordered by the Indian and Southern oceans, while to the north and east of the area, the land is arid. It is an old, weathered landscape which has persisted for millions of years. The low regeneration rate of the soil—caused by a lack of geological activity and precipitation—means that the soils are very poor in nutrients. Yet it has given rise to an incredible range of plants.
The heritage-listed Stirling Range National Park forms part of the SWAFR. Standing on bedrock that is 2,500 to 2,900 million years old, it extends for 65 kilometres from east to west and is approximately 116,000 hectares in size. In the mid-Cretaceous period, Australia broke away from Antarctica and created an uplift of the Stirling Range, an area which has remained a vital area of floristic richness and endemism in the SWAFR. It is populated by 1,500 plant species, which is more than the whole of the species found in the British Isles. It is also home to several rare and endangered plants, including the Eastern Stirling Range Montane Health and Thicket Threatened Ecological Community (an ecosystem which is in danger of being lost). This community was vulnerable because of drought and dieback (a condition caused by the mould Phytophythora cinnamomi), as well as a fire in 2018 which burnt 86% of its area.
On Boxing Day 2019, two separate lightning strikes started fires which eventually consumed 37,000 hectares of the eastern half of the national park, one-third of the park. The last, unburnt patches of the threatened ecological community were destroyed. The population of Banksia montana, which consisted of only eight mature plants, was razed. Although there were some seedlings of this plant, their survival is threatened by drought, dieback, and grazing.
Like the bleaching events of the Great Barrier Reef, which are occurring too close together in time for the coral to recover, the razing of ecosystems through fire isn’t leaving species enough time to gather themselves and regrow. Ecologist Dr Sarah Barrett of the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions in Western Australia notes that it would take up to 25 years for critically endangered species to reach maturity. If another fire was to burn plant populations in the national park that had recently been affected, they would be at risk of extinction. Meanwhile, Brett Sumerell, Director of Research and Chief Botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, refers to the fires on the south coast of eastern Australia as “like a sterilisation event.”
As I watched the news coverage of the fires from the other side of the world, I ached with homesickness and helplessness. I missed the ecosystem that supported and nourished me: my partner, family, and walks along the Brisbane River as heat ebbed from the day. Yet I was an organism with the ability to slot back into my niche; the plants of the SWAFR did not have this capacity. They had created sophisticated mechanisms for survival in nutrient-poor soil over millions of years and it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to grow back.
As the horrific summer drew to a close, Georgiana Reid, writer and editor of The Planthunter, an online magazine dedicated to gardening and growing, tried to quantify how many trees had burnt. She consulted Brett Summerell at the Royal Botanic Gardens for his opinion. Summerell estimated that between three and seven billion trees had burnt. “And more, again,” writes Reid, “of shrubs, climbers, ground covers, fungi, moss: the microscopic and the magnificent. These are quantities hard to fathom, hard to imagine, hard to feel.”
The problem is compounded by the fact that humans find it difficult to focus on plants because they don’t have faces and seem indistinguishable from one another. They also don’t move fast, and humans are trained to pay attention to movement. But to overlook plants is madness: they produce the sugar and oxygen which keep us and our fellow beings alive. As Summerall observes, “the best way to help wildlife is for them to have an ecosystem that they can function in. That’s plants.” Perhaps it is time to emphasise, as humans once did, the communal over capital and the nourishment of the vegetal world that underpins all human life.
I am grateful to Dr. Sarah Barrett and Kay Jessen for their help with information on the impact of fire on the flora of the Stirling Ranges.
Norman Myers et al. “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities,” Nature 403, no. 6772 (2000): 853–858.
Stephen D. Hopper, Silveira, Fernando A. O. Silveira, and Peggy L. Fiedler. “Biodiversity Hotspots and Ocbil Theory,” Plant and Soil 403, no. 1–2 (2016): 167–216, p. 168.
S. D. Hopper and P. Gioia. “The Southwest Australian Floristic Region: Evolution and Conservation of a Global Hot Spot of Biodiversity,” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 35, no. 1 (2004): 623–650, p. 628.
Hopper and Gioia, “The Southwest Australian Floristic Region,” 631.
Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. ‘Stirling Range National Park.’ https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/organisations/australian-heritage-council/national-heritage-assessments/stirling-range
Sarah Barrett, “Stirling Range National Park Fires 2019. Conservation values – preliminary summary of impacts,” Unpublished report, February 2019.
Michael Traill, “Plant Species on the Brink,” Albany Advertiser. January 30, 2020, 10–11.
Traill, “Plant Species on the Brink,” p. 11.
Georgina Reid, “Seven Billion Burnt Trees,” The Planthunter, February 13, 2020. https://theplanthunter.com.au/botanica/seven-billion-burnt-trees/
Reid, “Seven Billion.”
At first, there are only a couple of photos. The usual places: the Guardian, Instagram, Facebook. I trace the fire as it creeps down and across the Southern Highlands, through the deep gullies of the Blue Mountains, and suddenly flares across the South Coast. I keep half an eye on the glistening diamonds placed carefully by the Rural Fire Service on their Fires Near Me app. They give each fire a name of its own: Currowan, Ruined Castle, Grose Valley, Green Wattle Creek. They colour them blue, yellow, red. They tell me to “watch and act.” I watch, only a little afraid. I don’t act.
Then there are more. I realise it is going to reach her house, again. Just like the last fires, or was it the fires before then? I know, it is hard to keep count, but I’m too scared to reach out. She won’t be on the Internet right now, I tell myself. She will be too busy fighting the fire, which is now more-than-many fires. The more-than-many fires surround everything I know of this sliver of land on the edge of this island continent. The little diamonds are now accompanied by thick black lines. The lines are cutting the land up. They mark the space between burning and about-to-burn. There seems to be less and less room to breathe. They always told me it would burn. And then, there she is being embraced as she walks into an evacuation centre. “Ashen” is the verb they use.
The photos appear in my feeds more rapidly now. Others are watching. I’m curious but also numb. Some images feel more important than others. I save them. I press “power plus volume down,” and my phone makes a little click. The photo flashes before me one last time and then disappears into memory. I am not sure where it goes, but it is safe. Kept.
Most of the photos are anonymous, posted to make the news seem more real. But some are from friends. Friends who mark time by holding their breath under their facemasks. Everything is hot and sticky under a facemask. “Evacuated three times.” “Back now.” “Here is our shed.” Or more accurately, “there was our shed … at least it didn’t get to the fences.” Friends who continue with the best every day they can muster, go for a walk to the beach, and return home via a new path cleared by the fires. The images continue to circulate with a new intensity. Grief pervades every pixel of my feeds. It is hard to watch, but I can’t look away.
I read about hostile environments, uncontained environments, strengthening our defences. The verbs escalate.
Someone posts a picture of their backyard, muffled in a thick protective blanket of pink fire-fighting foam. It has even covered the washing on the line. Pink sheets, pink lawn, pink wheelbarrow. They are not sure how, or when, to wash it away, but are glad to have the protection.
I tell someone I have been asked to write about the fires. They turn to me, confused. “But you weren’t here.” It takes me a minute. It felt like I was here. Where is here, anyway?
I pick up a book. It is Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. I pick it up because I know Sontag has things to say about photographs, and I have experienced these fires through photographs. I turn to her for help. She writes “Victims, grieving relatives, consumers of news—all have their own nearness to or distance from [crisis]. … With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet.” Sontag quarrels with her past self. In On Photography she wrote about how photographs shape “what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about.” Now, she reflects, “we become callous. In the end, such images just make us a little less able to feel.” But what about now, I wonder?
Fire has no moments of rest or kindness. Both humans and fire need oxygen to live. We share this need. Right now, the fire wants everything it can get. I watch it suck the oxygen from the coast. People describe fighting an unpredictable monster. The beaches are sooty, littered with blistered and burnt leaves. I save the photos and a few of the leaves, but I don’t share them. I try to be discreet.
Sontag tells me that “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience.” I struggle with this idea of “another country”. An other’s Country? Country in Australia has a specific meaning. It encompasses 60,000 years of Aboriginal care and custodianship. Country is a way of living together, it summons deep histories. More-than-human. Country has a remarkable capacity to survive.
It is raining today. Lots of rain. It is thick with the smell of smoke. What about now, when the language of war is employed to talk about a disaster that once would have been labelled “natural”? What about now, when the disaster is ever-so human but not-just human? What about now, when a disaster that has fed on a diet of greed, complacency, and violence for the past 200 years, takes over the media consciousness of the planet? When people rush to tell me about the day that the smoke made it over the Tasman … when breathing the same contaminated air makes us feel connected in a new way? What about all the pictures of koalas? What about now, when the photographs that circulate across our network feed and mark more than just a single act of violence, when they fill our heads with sensation and fear? Dread. Is this what it takes to finally pay attention? Watch and act.
The invitation to write this piece came as I was preparing to travel to Melbourne to work on a new collaborative writing project about the fires with the Non/fiction Lab at RMIT University. This solo is written alongside, and can possibly be found woven through, a very special collaborative text written between 9.30am and 1.30pm on 14 February 2020 with Hannah Brasier, Sholto Buck, David Carlin, Sophie Langley, Brigid Magner, Rose Michael, Peta Murray, Francesca Rendle-Short, Lucinda Strahan, Stayci Taylor, and my forever collaborators Joshua Lobb and Catherine McKinnon from the MECO network.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin, 2003), 55.
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 93.
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 94.
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 16.
In this short film created by the Mosquitopia team following the Rachel Carson Legacy Symposium “Mosquitopia? The Place of Pests in a Healthy World,” 21 experts give their opinions and insights on this critical question. For more on the topic, check out the symposium report, as well as the three-part feature “Mosquitopia” in the ongoing series “Silent Spring Continued: A World without Insects.”
“Stuff happens off camera, the pen only moves so fast, you can only sit in one chair, not all the chairs in all the room. This is good, honest objectivity because it has good, honest limits. The instruments for observation are here, not over there, and definitely not everywhere all at once. What you read has a partial perspective” (Watts, 2018:6)
In February 2020, we, the members of the doctoral program from the RCC, invited Laura Watts from the University of Edinburgh as our guest speaker for the Lunchtime Colloquium. We were curious to hear about Laura’s work not only because of her interesting research on energy landscapes, but also for her experience in creative and speculative writing. Laura is an ‘Ethnographer of Futures’ as well as a writer, artist, and poet. Her research, based on the Orkney Islands, explores ‘landscapes on the edge,’ where she asks how futures are imagined and made.
“We are truly a species touched by fire” (p. 24)—Stephen J. Pyne’s book Fire: A Brief History focuses on exactly this relationship of mankind, fire, and nature. Published as part of the Weyerhaueser Environmental Books series by the University of Washington Press in 2019, the second edition adds to the first, from 2001, with a new chapter on the future of a world full of fire. Pyne suggests calling the world we are living in “Pyrocene”—a new concept inspired by and carrying onward the well-used term Anthropocene. Apart from this new chapter, Pyne revises his nearly two decades old first edition in the light of the ongoing fire research in transdisciplinary environmental studies. Yet he has kept the overall structure of the book the same, narrating “the entire human history of fire on Earth” (p. IX).Read More
Workshop Report, 22–23 November 2019, Rachel Carson Center, Munich
How should we teach a discipline that is still evolving? This question brought together more than 20 practitioners and scholars from five continents, all involved in teaching within the broad field of environmental humanities (EH). Convened by Christof Mauch and Anna Antonova, the workshop created a space of mutual learning and the sharing of thoughts and experiences. It also marked the beginning of the Volkswagen Foundation’s support for the RCC under their University of the Future scheme.
In the morning, Gesa Lüdecke presented the RCC’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program and we watched an online contribution from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. This provided a good start for our discussions on the importance of interdisciplinarity and finding ways for the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to work together. In the round of introductions after the presentation, participants highlighted some shared experiences and challenges. Many worried about the importance and visibility of EH, or were more immediately concerned about literally staying “dry” in a changing climate. At the same time, one inspiring overlapping element was participants’ shared enthusiasm for and engagement with their students. After listening to participants describe their inter- and transdisciplinary, international, flexible, and creative programs—whether existing or planned—our guest for the first session, Jane Carruthers remarked: “This is a major moment in scholarship.”
The Taproom is a monthly series that explores the rich history of all things beer. It is curated by Pavla Šimková.
Turkey is home to some of the most impressive ancient and medieval archaeological remains of the Mediterranean, but its government does not have a good reputation for its conservation policy. The flooding of Allianoi, a recently discovered sanatorium from the Roman period near Bergama (Pergamon) in 2011, and the ongoing flooding of Hasankeyf, an ancient settlement and medieval capital on the Tigris, both for dam projects, have provoked protests but, unfortunately, no general outrage. Many minor alterations, such as the “creative” restoration of ancient churches now used as mosques (to make their Christian origins less visible), go unnoticed except by experts and locals. However, a completely different issue recently brought many architects, journalists, and revellers up in arms: the first industrial brewery on Turkish soil is in danger of partial demolition. All oppositional newspapers and news portals featured this story prominently when it became public in early September 2019. As during many similar conflicts, residents of Turkey frame this as a clash between two different ways of life; an ascetic worldview enforcing prayer and abstinence onto the general populace, and a hedonistic one supporting openness and other impious forms of frivolity. The former brewery has become yet another battlefield for this conflict. Read More
Workshop Report (12–13 December 2019, Kerschensteiner Kolleg of the Deutsches Museum, Munich)
After a warm welcome by Helmuth Trischler (Munich) and Martin Lengwiler (Basel), who outlined the Issues with Europe project and central themes of the workshop, the meeting started with a first keynote lecture by Christian Henrich-Franke (Siegen). In his talk, he reflected on different types and functions of expertise, as well as various forms of expert networks. Henrich-Franke’s analysis of standardization, institutionalization, and internationalization processes accompanying European infrastructure planning from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, paved the ground for understanding the roots and structures of the decision frameworks in which negotiation processes took place in the workshops most central period of interest: the time from the “ecological revolution” around 1970 until the present day. Read More