The White Spaces on the Map

Catching a bus or a train through a landscape is a different experience to flying or driving. When flying, the land beneath you (if you can even see it) exists as a sort of backdrop or postcard, as in nature documentaries when they have panning shots of mountain ranges, or an establishing shot of a forest.

Yes, it’s there, but not as a story in itself.

Driving is a little like this too, and one tends to be travelling too quickly or be focusing on the road or be chatting with others in the vehicle or be driving along a fairly ugly road whose flanks are strewn with litter. The drive along the highway between Canberra and Sydney, for example, is not one to lift the soul.

Catching a bus or a train is different, as they tend to go slower and one tends not to be the driver. Buses are higher than cars, so there is a view over the safety rails and above other traffic. Trains wend their way through the landscape on their own terms with such sweet charms (even the demonstrably rubbish ones we have in Australia) that you simply cannot argue with them.

So why this exploration of different modes of transport?

Well, one day late last year I found myself on the Canberra-Sydney bus once more. Usually I eat a book on that trip (like the memorable afternoon I started Oil and Honey shortly after leaving Central and had finished it before crossing the border) but this time I elected to simply stare out the window and try not to be too upset by that raspberry thicket, that paddock of African Love Grass, that deep scar of an erosion gully, those rabbits …

It struck me then – New South Wales exists. Australia exists! The whole, enormous country, every sunburnt square centimetre of it is out there. Not just as a backdrop, or something you fly over, or a vague notion of space between the cities; no, every blade of grass, every rabbit twitching her nose, every pebble, every billabong, every dirt track, every cattle station, every mountain.

They exist. For millions of square kilometers around me, the country was breathing quietly as it has done for so long.

I think Conrad was wrong – a central theme of Heart of Darkness is the white spaces on the map. As a child the protagonist sees all the blank spaces that cover Africa and his heart is taken by the desire to fill them in; to cover this blankness with lines and symbols and things named after various monarchs. Creepy colonialism aside, it’s just wrong, really.

Think of New South Wales. It’s a bit boxy, has Sydney in it, it’s Australia’s most populous state but gets very hot and dry very quickly when you get west of the mountains, so most of them live along the coast. You may imagine it like this:


Well sure, but two years ago I was at the Macquarie Marshes, which are here:


I had no idea that such a beautiful, biodiverse place existed in NSW. I had never even imagined it. When we were there the storm clouds were rolling in and the air was electric with it and the light was watery and orange in that soft afternoon way and I nearly wept because it was so damn beautiful.

mm2 mm1

I’ve also been to Eden, on the south coast. We saw whales, dolphins, and turtles. We caught wallabies, pootoroos, possums, Antichinus, rare birds, and lizards in our traps. We saw seals lying on the rocks and playing in the waves and I squealed like a four year old because they were just so sweet.

eden2 eden1 eden3

I haven’t been to Broken Hill yet, or any of that desert country.


I will though, because blank spaces on the map aren’t blank spaces, they’re just bits of country you haven’t seen yet, haven’t smelt or touched or swum in yet.

bh2 bh1


Soft afternoons, bright mornings, hot suns, crashing waves, breaking ice, trees whistling in the wind, rivers rushing, blue moonlight, rocks covered in snow, stinging desert sand, the cloying smell of rain hitting the tarmac at five o’clock of a summer evening. Every tiny bit of the country exists and sometimes that thought just blows my mind.

Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation Voted ‘Best Thing Ever’

Basically, there is this really exciting method of paddock rehabilitation that is called Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation (WOPR, pronounced ‘wop-er’) and is run by Greening Australia, a very awesome environmental NGO that works with farmers to make their land healthier, more productive, and have better biodiversity.

The Problem

The agricultural area of south-east Australia is highly productive but also really very degraded. Farmers face problems such as salinity, erosion, bad soil health, and having their stock exposed to the elements. This makes their land less productive than it could be, means that stock loose weight due to stress, and means that they lose land to problems like salinity or erosion.

unhappy sheep
These sheep are pretty unhappy in their treeless paddock. Photo: Michael Marriott.

A Solution 

WOPR started in 2008 and since then has been pretty successful and shows great potential for kicking goals all over the place. Simply put, the way it works is that stock are taken out of a paddock of at least 10ha and trees are directed seeded in belts. Each belt has about four rows of trees and are 40-50 metres apart, giving the paddock a tree cover of 20-30%, which is ideal. Some trees and other plants such as grasses are put in a tubestock.

happy sheep
Happy sheep grazing in a WOPR paddock. Photo is copyright GA.

Among many other things, it has been shown to:

  • improve weight gain for stock;
  • increase habitat for native fauna, especially for birds;
  • be an additional form of food for stock;
  • increase carbon sequestration; and
  • improve soil health.

So how does WOPR happen?

A farmer applies to Greening Australia to be a part of the project. If they are accepted they need to put aside some land of at least 10ha paddocks, or a large paddock can be divided into smaller paddocks based on the quality of certain bits. Using existing paddocks save a lot of time and money on building fences!

This is a really excellent diagram of WOPR that I did on Paint. The green rectangle is the >10ha paddock and the black lines are contour lines. You can see that the dark green belts of four bands of trees trees are planted along the contour lines, that’s because if you plant trees down a hill you just channel water and enhance or create problems with erosion and lowered landscape functionality.


The farmer takes out her stock and trees are direct seeded in belts across the paddock. She has to exclude her stock from that paddock for the next five years, so she is compensated at roughly $50/ha/year in two lump payments; one at the start of the five years and one at the end. After this time the trees should be big enough to be grazed by stock so she can let them back in, but Greening Australia recommends using a rotational grazing system for the five years thereafter to really get the best out of the pasture.

The projects are monitored throughout and as WOPR is a fairly new thing, the oldest sites are only six years old there is a lot of research to be done, which is where I come in …

WOPR and I

There is a strong tradition of ANU students doing research on WOPR, especially Honours projects. I intend to follow this tradition and spend between now and November doing a little bit of preparation for Honours next year, when I will be looking at something to do with tree density, probably creating models to project the next 200 years or so (it is only week one of semester, so a question hasn’t yet emerged from my excitement).


For more information on WOPR, check out the website here, where there is a nice little video and some lovely pictures. Tony Magee, the farmer from ‘Gunyah’ was nice enough to let us onto his farm to take a look at it when I did a sustainable agriculture course last semester, and it was really easy to see the benefits of it, especially when contrasted with his neighbours’ paddocks.

Book Review: The First Eden

I cannot stress enough how exciting and interesting this book is.

first eden

Written as a tie-in for the BBC’s First Eden TV series, everyone’s favourite nature commentator David Attenborough takes us on a journey through about 7 million years in the region that is the cradle of civilisation.

the book

The book is divided up into four parts that nicely describe the geography of the region. It’s just mindblowly amazing because it’s 200 pages of a well written discussion that explicitly states how the natural environment shaped the civilisations that occur(ed) there, and how they in turn shaped the natural environment. Nothing says geography is *awesome* like examining these relationships because as we know that is what geography is all about.

Typically of such books, it’s not a happy story and the four parts of it can be summed up thus: there is a beautiful, highly biodiverse place; people come along and live bountifully; people overstep the limits of the natural environment; the natural environment collapses.

There are lots of  photos, maps, and diagrams, which were very nice/helpful.

Although the book is a bit old (first published in 1987) it only feels old in the final few chapters, and it doesn’t detract significantly from the educational value or the pleasure of reading it.

I haven’t seen the TV series but I’d really, really love to because David Attenborough.

the book and geography

The first part is called The Making of the Garden and talks about the physical processes that formed the area and the biodiversity of it and how all that came about. It presents a different picture to what you might get when you hear ‘Mediterranean’ (olives, crowded Spanish beaches) and in doing so really gives the reader a feel for what the region was like before people came along and why it is called the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilisation.

“…at the (eastern) end of the Mediterranean, other human communities were developing a different way of life. They were building permanent homes and settling together in villages. And they were devising ways of exploiting the animals and plants around them that would eventually transform the whole world.” pg 53.

The Mediterranean. I didn't realise that there's such a big bight along the top of Libya!
The Mediterranean. I didn’t realise that there’s such a big bight along the top of Libya.

The second part, The Gods Enslaved, talks about how the old goddesses and gods could do things on their own, like a bull that is the font of fertility. By around the first century CE things changed from that old style animism to beliefs that placed humans at the centre; the bull was still the symbol of fertility but needed someone to stab it to release it’s power. This is a big change in the relationship between society and the environment and sort of spelled the beginning of the end for the Romans,  who as we know expanded their empire until they just ran out of food/farmland.

Classic mistake (pun!) and one we’re busily repeating today.

It used to be said that such cities collapse because nature fails to support man. The truth is the reverse. … The bull, the all-powerful god of fertility who had been worshipped since long before man began to build cities, was now dethroned. The last debased relics of his cult were the ritualized slaughter of the Spanish bull-ring.” pg 101

Yes, they are nice pants but truly the man is mad.
Yes, he has nice pants/socks, but truly the man is mad.

Things really start getting glum in part three, The Wastes of War, when it talks about how people’s strange need to attack each other really took it out of the Mediterranean. It goes from when the horse was domesticated in what is now Ukraine/Hungray/Poland (doesn’t say when) to the Crusades in the Middle Ages. In terms of geography, it again demonstrates that a bad relationship between a society and the environment it is in/relies on is only going to end in tears.

This really hits home in the final part, Strangers in the Garden, which discusses ‘modern’ times (i.e. up to the late 80s when the book was written.) I can’t say much, except this: can we try and get along with our environment please?

“The processes that started here ten thousand years ago and brought the Mediterranean to its present condition are now at work all over the earth. Now it is not just a small sea, and the lands that surround it, that nations must come together to save. It is the planet.” pg 207

This picture is fantastic because not only does it scream ‘global warming!’, it also reminds us that we are poised on the brink of the sixth mass extinction. Hint: they’re both our fault.


Name: The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man

Authors: David Attenborough

Date: (first ed.) 1987

Publishers: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

Rating: I give it ten out of ten ancient civilisations


Geographer of the Week: Disney’s Pocahontas

Disney’s Pocahontas is a fictionalised person.

So necklace. Such leaves. Many hair. Wow.

There was a real Pocahontas who met the English when they came to north America, who then moved to England and married a bloke named John Rolfe and who died at 22, never to see her homeland again. It’s a slightly sad story, full of lost promise.

The version most of us know is the highly fictionalised account in Disney’s 1995 film “Pocahontas”. For it’s depiction of Native Americans, Pocahontas herself and the actual facts of her life, and the historical context it has been called disrespectful, dehumanising and just plain inaccurate in the decades since it’s release, and these things are obvious upon a critical viewing. (Also, there is no way she’d have the full set of internal organs/ribs with a waist that tiny.)

It’s my favourite hat. – Pocahontas.

However, we can all agree (surely) that there is one outstanding part of the film: Colors (sic) of the Wind is a beautiful song with a great clip/story and it is just lovely.

For her understanding of environmental science and how society should have a healthy relationship with it’s environment, Disney’s Pocahontas gets Geographer of the Week.

Check out the  song here and then let’s go through the song as geographers (song, lyrics & etc. are all copyright Disney).

You think I’m an ignorant savage
And you’ve been so many places
I guess it must be so
But still I cannot see
If the savage one is me
How can there be so much that you don’t know?
You don’t know …

In this first verse she is reminding us that even if you’re “civilised” you might have a rubbish relationship with the natural environment. Her use of the word “savage” reminds us that indigenous peoples all over the world are still treated with racism, disrespect, and are seen as subhuman. This is an enormous problem here in Australia; we treat First Australians so, so awfully then wonder why the land has gone to shit under 200 years of white mismanagement.

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew

When the British landed in Botany Bay in 1770 they decided that the land was ‘terra nullius‘; a land belonging to no-one despite that fact that First Australians were living there very happily, and had been for up to 60 000 years. Pocahontas reminds us that we should respect every part of the environment  and that we need to listen to the knowledge of those connected to the land if we’re going to manage it properly, rather than being bigoted fools.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they’re worth

Here she sings about experiencing and enjoying the natural world, thinking about it and connecting with it, without trying to make it a commodity.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends


How high will the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know
And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon

For whether we are white or copper skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind

You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

She’s so, so right.

You need to paint with all the colours of the wind.

A Bird in the House …

… is worth nothing at all as it is a very stressful experience for all involved.

I was in my room earlier this evening while downstairs all the bustle of making dinner was going on, when I heard Dad say something about there being a small hummingbird in the house.

As we’re not in the Americas it clearly wasn’t a hummingbird, but when I went to look there was a tiny, olive green bird with a relatively long, curved black beak darting  frantically around the ceiling.

You can see why Dad thought it was a hummingbird. This photo is nawt mine.
You can see why Dad thought it was a hummingbird. This photo is nawt mine.

It was clearly highly distressed; hitting the ceiling again and again with little ‘thump’ noises, flying into the walls and hanging off the rims of the downlights. Watching it panic thus was awful.

First I closed all the doors so it couldn’t go into another room, then I got a broom and sort of waved it around a bit and it moved towards the front door (was this related to the broom waving? We may never know), which was open, but I couldn’t convince it to fly down to it and out.

I thought that maybe it was attracted to the light so I turned them off and switched on one outside, but that did nothing (we will find out later that I was half right).

The little bird thumped into a wall again and again, then /fluttered down to the floor where it sat next to a door looking dazed. I picked it up, feeling it’s heart thudding in an insanely fragile chest. It was almost weightless, like holding a few grapes or a large flower. I took it out to the garden and opened my hand.

It didn’t move. I was afraid I’d broken it’s neck. I felt utterly responsible for that warm, small creature; as if something infinitely precious was crouched in my palm (as indeed there was). It looked so small, it’s body beak to tail barely longer than my index finger.

I didn’t take this photo and this isn’t my hand, but it gives you an idea of how small and fragile looking these birds are.

Oh shit, what have I done?

My eulogy for the tiny bundle of feathers was cut short as it sat up on one of my fingers, gripping it with tiny claws, looked around then vanished with a pprrrp of wings. Relived, I went back into the house – only to find it dashing itself fruitlessly against the ceiling.

Note to self: close the door behind you.

This time it’s movements were more intense as if it’s encounter with me had scared it further. It hurled itself at the ceiling time and again as I stood below it, hands wringing with stress.

What if it had a heart attack? It’s beak was so slender – what if it was damaged against the roof? What if I can’t get it out, and find it dead in the morning, cold feet curled and stiff; blank eyes accusing? I hate the way the head of a dead bird lolls.

It was fluttering in a corner now, then dropped into the laundry basket. I scooped it up and hurried it to the garden, closing the door behind me. I crouched down by a thicket of bushes I often see small birds in, but it just sat in my hand listlessly, no longer moving it’s head around. It seemed to have let go of my finger and just be lying there.

Sitting there under a macadamia tree beside some bamboo I thought it would die in my hands. It’s heartbeat was slowing. It did not sit on my finger or move to fly away; I couldn’t convince it to climb onto a small bamboo stem.

I had almost given up hope when, with a sound like a deck of cards being shuffled, it burst out of my hands. It’s wing brushed my face and I flinched; then it was gone.

After dinner I was sitting by the windows trying to figure out what it was. Some kind of honeyeater, probably. The outside of the flyscreen was covered with insects attracted by the lights – and eating those insects with a whirr of wings, I saw a tiny green bird.

It clung onto the mesh, it’s head swiveling this way and that, it’s body contorting around itself, slender beak snapping up insects. It looked exactly like the bird from earlier – it may have even been the same one. It was not to be afraid at all and I used my bird book to guess that it was a juvenile eastern spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostis).

A juvenile eastern spinebill. Note how flexible they are, you should have seen it on the flyscreen; it was like an acrobat. This photo isn't mine.
A juvenile eastern spinebill. Note how flexible they are, you should have seen it on the flyscreen; it was like an acrobat. This photo isn’t mine.

I guess the one that had come in was eating insects then had been unable to get out again. We will make sure to keep the doors closed in the future.

There isn’t really a point to this story, I just thought I’d share it. It’s nice to be fairly certain of what it was. It was really nice when the bird flew away with the exaltation of free wings. To get that feeling, follow this link and pay attention from around 4:00. (Also, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, so just generally listen to it whilst imagining yourself bushwalking through the mountains on a clear winter’s day, watching a bird fly over a sunlit valley.)

I could say something about caring for urban and peri urban biodiversity, but I don’t feel like that’s a valid statement because, a. If there wasn’t an ‘urban’ the bird wouldn’t have been in danger; and b. I just feels like a wanky thing to say.

So yeah. Interesting story.



Repower Port Augusta

This is a rough transcript of a speech I gave at an Earth Hour event this year after we watched 2 Degrees, a film wich I can highly reccomend. It talks about the collosal fail that was the Copenhagen CoP in 2009 and the wonderful story of the Repower Port Augusta campaign, which I was lightly involved in in 2012.

I want to start by acknowldging the traditional owners of this land, the Gumbaynggirr people, and their elders past and present. I want to apologise to the elders of the past, of all countries across Australia, because they were stewards for tens of thousands of years and looked after the country, and in the 200 years of whitefellas being here we now have all kinds of environmental problems.

We’re here tonight to work on fixing one of those problems; climate change.

A warning: this is a slightly interactive talk.

In 2012 I was part of a group that walked the 328km from Port Augusta to Adelaide. It was really fun; I met some lovely people, travelled through beautiful countryside, and became an expert in taping up blisters. For two weeks we walked through heat, dust, rain and cyclonic winds and when we finally marched into Adelaide and were met by a huge, supportive crowd it was one of the most exciting and powerful things I have ever done.

We walked into Adelaide and about 2000 people joined us to march through the streets to the SA Parliament. It was wonderful; we were all singing and dancing and chanting and the police cleared the streets for us and that night we were all over the news right around Australia. #kickinggoalsallovertheplace

(We were all over TV the day we arrived in Adelaide. Ellen Sandell was AYCC Director at the time, check out her talking to the ABC here.)

Repowering Port Augusta will start a new way of thinking in Australia. This project will prove that renewable are not only viable, but that they are better than fossil fuels. It will show that we can move away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change without compromising our standard of living or the environment. This campaign, and in particular the Walk, marks a turning point in Australia’s interaction with climate change – when a community stood up and took action instead of waiting for action from a government.

community vote
The Repower Port Augusta team lead by Daniel Spencer who was the AYCC SA co-coordinator at the time (pictured) and the late Joy Baluch, who was Mayor of Port Augusta for decades, put in hundreds of hours of work to put together a community vote which showed overwhelming support for solar energy over fossil fuels.

I went because I wanted to be a part of it, to be able to say, I was there; much like I am tonight. I loved the idea of showing how much I cared in the real world, not just through a petition or something, but through tangible action. And I can tell you, with the number of blisters I got it was very, very tangible.

Volunteers of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition were invited to go on the walk and we helped to escalate the campaign and create national awareness of it, which we did wonderfully. This was only possible because of hundreds of hours of work put in by the PA team and their volunteers.

See, as a Walker, I was just one cog in the Repower Port Augusta machine. Leading up to the Walk and in the years since, the Port Augusta team worked hard with the local community to grow support for concentrated solar thermal for their town. Port Augusta hasn’t been repowered yet, but the community is so behind it that it will be.

Here’s the first interactive bit: If I said Vincent Lingairi and Paul Kelly, you would say … ?

(If you don’t know the song, have a listen here. It is a classic from one of Australia’s best contemporary musicians about a very important episode in our history.)

We know that from little things, big things grow and because of their determination and commitment, this little group of South Australians as the potential to grow into Australia’s first big renewable energy project.

A concentrated solar thermal plant in Spain. The mirrors shine light onto the top of the tower where molten salt is heated up and put in tanks. The salt is used to heat water to spin the turbines to create electricity and can provide baseload power.

The lessons from Port Augusta are important now, as the science gets grimmer, time slips away from us and governments around the world – and in Australia – refuse to take it seriously. It’s easy to lose motivation.

But in 2012 a hundred of us walked 328km for solar, this week UniSuper, Australia’s 7th largest super, announced it would start transitioning away from fossil fuels, and tonight we are all here to continue strong climate action in Coffs Harbour.

There is still a long way to go on UniSuper, but this is a good start.

Even if you’re just six people with five laptops and one idea, with enough time and effort you can change climate change. We can save the Great Barrier Reef, we can transition Australia to renewable energy, we can divest from fossil fuels, change hearts and minds, and lead our governments.

Port Augsta teaches us that we have the skills, technology and will to beat climate change, we just have to get our local community organised and put in a lot of work.

Second interactive part: I want you to all hold out your hand and imagine that there’s a little puzzle piece on it. Now all we have to do it fit them together to grow something big.

earth hour
While I was giving my speech in NSW, Canberra was looking mighty fine for Earth Hour, fitting 3600 little candles together for one big message: we have to fight climate change to save the Great Barrier Reef.

How went from “strange kid” to head of the green class

This is an interesting article I suggest you get inspired by.


May Boeve grew up in the ’90s, in a world where environmentalism was presented less as a social movement than as a personal lifestyle choice: buy a car that doesn’t use much gas, insulate your house, use energy-efficient lightbulbs, compost.

So when she was an undergraduate at Middlebury College, she and a group of friends set out to practice environmentalism differently, taking their cues from the social justice movements they were learning about in history class (civil rights) and seeing play out in the world around them (marriage equality).

“Clearly, a lot of people were concerned about climate change,” Boeve said in an interview earlier this year. “But it didn’t look like the movements we’d studied in school, with protests and songs and visual imagery and analyses of power and all these intricate things.”

May by Ryan HeffernanMay Boeve.

Today, Boeve is the executive director of, an…

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