Category Archives: environmental history

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier. Continue reading

Live by the gun; Die by the gun

While I’m sorry, of course, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, there’s a little bit of me that feels he had it coming to him. I speak not on behalf of Serbian nationalism, but on behalf of Antipodean wildlife.

Last year when I was in Vienna I visited the Natural History Museum. There are some wonderful items in this rather fusty old museum, including the Venus of Willendorf and other archaeological treasures, but also far too many dead animals and birds, which don’t really do it for me. Franz Ferdinand shot an amazing number of these animals during a world tour on the Imperial battle cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth in 1893, accompanied by his own personal taxidermist and a zoologist from the Imperial Natural History Museum. Continue reading

And they call the wind…?

St Margaret and the Dragon

For no particular reason, except that I fell in love with this dragon, from Stories of the Life of St Margaret, in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon

Many years ago, I visited Lipari, one of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. It’s a lovely place, except that for a day or so while I was there, the sirocco blew. This is a hot wind that comes up from the Sahara Desert carrying on it tiny grains of sand. They must rub together to form an electric charge. Certainly the combination of heat, grit and positive ions is thoroughly unpleasant.

There’s a very good archaeological museum on Lipari, with lots of objects such as amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks, but what I particularly remember were the Neolithic remains from the region, in almost perfect condition, because they are buried under layer upon layer of fine Sahara sand. Because the sirocco blows so regularly every year, they can estimate their age from the depth of the sand they are deposited in.

At the moment, I am on holiday in the Rhône Valley in France and I’ve just been introduced to another famous wind: the Mistral. Continue reading

Kakadu and Sickness Country

There has been a spill of contaminated material at the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu. It’s still not clear how bad it is (or if it’s the only one) but Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) assures us that no one was injured and no uranium leaked from the site. Who knows? As always, there are many conflicting interests, but everyone will no doubt be on high alert, especially now, during the wet season.

wetlands kakadu

I visited Kakabu in the 1990s, so these photos are nearly 20 years old, but there is – or should be – something timeless about this beautiful place.  But of course the environment is vulnerable.   Nothing stands still, and this is an area already affected by various environmental catastrophes. Continue reading

The Mullet Run in Southeast Queensland

It was about 30 years ago.  I had been staying with friends in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane.  It was an overcast day in early winter, with only a few desultory surfers in the water, when 5 or 6 people arrived on the beach with a long net.  Two of them waded out into the surf holding the net and dropped it into the water, enclosing about 10-15 metres between them.

Then the whole group joined in to drag the net back to shore.  It was hard work, for the net was brimming with frantic fish, swarming and jumping in the surf.  They had caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sea mullet.

Locals in the know turned up with buckets.  They sold a lot on the beach and packed the rest in polystyrene boxes to sell later.  They backed a 4WD on to the beach, packed away the catch, and were off before the Fish Marketing Board could know or intervene.  From start to finish, the whole affair took less than an hour. Continue reading

Yew: the graveyard plant that is now saving lives

In the mid-1990s I spent a month doing research at Aberdeen University. During the week I sat transcribing letters in the library. On the weekends, I explored the coast and countryside in a borrowed van. One warm(ish) day in June, I visited Crathes Castle near Banchory. The castle dates from the 16th century, but what I mostly remember from my visit was the gardens, particularly the tall yew hedges that walled in the different spaces. Yew grows to a great age, and these hedges, well over 9 feet tall, date from the beginning of the 18th century.


Yew hedges at Crathes Castle, near Banchory. Photographer Darren Foreman, from Wikimedia Commons

The day I was there, a gardener was trimming the hedges. Balanced on a ladder, a good 8 to 9 feet above me, he was carefully saving all the clippings in a plastic garbage bag. The work looked precarious, and I asked him why he was taking so much trouble to save the trimmings. He told me they were parcelled up and sent to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where scientists were working on a cure for cancer.

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Dutch Courage and the FV Abel Tasman

They say it’s bad luck to change the name of a ship.  The owners of the super trawler formerly known as Margiris may be pondering this old saltie’s superstition as the Australian government ramps up its efforts to prevent the ship fishing out in Australian waters.

The issues are complex and controversial.  Environmentalists are worried that this ship – larger than any fishing vessel that has operated in Australian waters before – will gobble up too many fish, and destroy too much ‘by-catch’ while doing so.

Scientists are divided, and there’s a healthy dose of nationalism in play as well, worried that ‘our’ fish will be harvested for sale overseas.  But there’s a division of power in a federal system, and as Tasmanian government has already okayed the deal it’s not clear what the federal Minister for the Environment can do, especially in a hung Parliament.  We may find out later today. [Update: Or not]

As a historian, I’m intrigued by the actions of the spin-doctors behind the Dutch company, Parlevliet & Van Der Plas, who have decided to rename the ship, which is now registered in Australian waters as the FV Abel Tasman.  It’s a clever attempt to highlight 400 years of Dutch-Australian contact, but I think they may have been too clever by half.

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National Bilby Day and the future of the Easter Bilby

The Easter Bilby is a relatively recent Australian phenomenon, but in a land where rabbits have been viewed as the Enemy, Easter Bunnies never made a lot of sense.  So it was a great marketing strategy to reshape the bunny into a bilby: lengthen his nose and tail, give him claws and a squat stance and – hey presto – a politically correct, environmentally friendly chocolate marsupial.  Since most of us city dwellers have never seen a bilby anyway, anatomical accuracy isn’t essential.

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Potatoes and the foods of the poor

I bought 2 kg of potatoes last weekend.  Four days later, I took out the bag to peel some for dinner, and found that every single potato in the bag had shoots on it.

I spent a minute or so muttering about supermarkets and their appalling buying policies, but then I realised that, in a funny way, I felt quite happy for those potatoes.  It’s cold at the moment (by Brisbane standards), but we passed the shortest day three weeks ago.  In their plastic bag, deep in the darkness of my pantry, those potatoes knew that spring is only a week or so away.

We ask a lot of potatoes.  There are some basic foodstuffs we expect to be on hand all year – potatoes and onions, apples and bananas, eggs and milk – yet even the humble spud is really a seasonal vegetable.

purple potato from villandry

Purple potato chips, made from purple potatoes, and served at the Chateau of Villandry in the Loire Valley,  which is noted for its vegetable gardens.

In 1949 the pioneer in World History, William H McNeill published an article on ‘The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland’ in the Journal of Modern History, based on his postgraduate work.  Now that every commodity, from cod to coffee to the colour mauve, seems to have its own historian, it’s easy to miss just how innovative McNeill’s thematic approach then was.  Exactly 50 years later, he returned to the topic with ‘How the Potato Changed the World’s History’, in Social Research: An International Quarterly (1999).  His preoccupation is understandable, for potatoes really did transform the world.

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Blood in the Water: shark attacks in Australian history

There was yet another fatal shark attack off the West Australian coast last week, the 5th this year, making Western Australia ‘the world’s deadliest place for shark attacks’.  Statistically, the chance of dying in a shark attack is very low – just as the chance of dying in a plane crash is low – but statistics don’t really matter. We are creatures of the land.  In the ocean or the air we are literally out of our element and vulnerable.

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