This one’s now hit the streets: you can find it here. Let me know if you’d like a reprint.
Australia is not renowned for its mountains. Our medal tally at the last Winter Olympics will tell you that. And yet we have a mountain range that challenges the grandest the world has to offer. Not in height, no. But for scale, diversity and sheer spectacle? You have to give me that. The range I’m talking about is of course the Great Dividing Range – a conglomerate of mountains that stretches 3500 km along Australia’s eastern seaboard. Like most Australians, I’ve only nibbled at the edges of the Great Divide. But what a rewarding taste it has been. I’ve rambled through environments ranging from alpine meadows to sub-tropical rainforests, and had the pleasure of crossing paths with herps ranging from the tiniest of skinks, to dragons, elapids, frogs and pythons…
Because, well, why not?
If I had to sum up my research in one word it would be autecology. I’m fascinated by the stories of individual species. Their life-histories, their patterns of activity and dispersal, their diets, their habitat requirements. In short, the axes that influence the survival of individuals and populations. But it’s just my particular window on ecosystem function. It’s a form of abstraction. Like all applied ecologists, I’m ultimately concerned with the persistence of entire ecosystems. So how does an autecologist indulge their passion for ecosystems directly? Through landscape photography, of course!
I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent wandering Melbourne’s volcanic plains. I grew up a just stones throw from them, on the sedimentary hills east of the Plenty River. Perhaps it is sacrilegious to say, but the volcanic plains were far more interesting for a boy obsessed with herpetology. Whereas the Red Box woodlands east of the river offered fleeting glimpses of the odd Garden Skink, the volcanic plains west of the river offered Little Whip Snakes, Brownsnakes, Tussock Skinks, Pobblebonks, Bluetongue Lizards, Cunningham Skinks, Copperheads, Tiger Snakes, Small-eyed Snakes. The choice was easy….
Tell me this – have you ever taken drugs? Yes? No? The answer depends on one’s definition, but I’ll bet that many of you will admit to dabbling in some form of stimulant. We are, as a society, obsessed with them. Dark aromatic shots of plant extracts; delicate paper tubes delivering wafts of nicotine; colourful vessels of molten sand filled with fermented fruit juice; little polyethylene baggies carrying a fine dust of crystalline tropane alkaloids. We have employed all our ingenuity in search of a high.
Why? Let me give you my theory. I think our craving for stimulants is an attempt to the replace the pulses of endorphins that once accompanied our daily rambling in the wilds. I can honestly say that nature has given me by far the biggest highs of my life. I’ve stood at the edge of Mt Meg’s spectacular granite bluffs, with blood coursing and nostrils flaring, and believed that I could soar off if only I had the courage to jump. I’ve perched atop dunes of the Big Desert and felt my skin tingle with awe. I’ve stood waist deep in the Merri Creek with a full moon overhead and frogs calling all around, and been so fulfilled that if I’d slipped into the murky depths at that very instant, I would have died happy.
My most recent of these experiences was also the most profound. It was March 2011. La Niña had just prized southern Australia loose from El Niños’ grasp, bringing rain and plenty of it. The Murray-Darling catchment, wilting and gasping after ten years of drought, was reborn. Floods spread across every inch of the basin, coalescing at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers in Victoria’s north-west. With haste, my old friend Jeremy Tscharke and I packed the car and headed north to glimpse the spectacle. What we found eclipsed even our wildest dreams.
Land that two years before was literally dying of thirst was now heaving with life. Supposedly long dead Red Gums re-sprouted in effervescent green. Wetlands that we presumed had seen their last flood years before now brimmed with fish and turtles. Frogs reclaimed the flood plain in such numbers that one had to be careful where they placed their feet. It was stunning, and a truly humbling experience.
The climax was a sunset that Jeremy and I will never forget. We’d headed up a flooded Lindsay River in search of ‘Big Red’ – a Red Gum of gargantuan proportions we’d seen previously on aerial imagery. We found her just as the sun dipped below the western horizon. The sky progressed through golden, to pink and eventually to deep violet. As we marveled at this great tree, we talked about the history it had seen. Big Red would already have been a towering giant when Captain Cook sailed up Australia’s eastern seaboard. She could well have sheltered families of Aboriginal people from inclement weather, and her hollow limbs must have once been home to regionally extinct marsupials. Undoubtedly, she has seen scores of floods of the scale of the 2011 epic. This tree was, quite simply, a living piece of history that we could touch and caress and imbibe. We had found our Totem, and returned to camp with a sense of bliss that no substance could ever hope to replicate.
Avid followers of this blog (….crickets chirping in the background….) will know that it’s been a while since my last post. Four months to be exact. What I have I been up to? Well, in short, fighting my way through a mass of preparations for leaving Australia and heading to Old Blighty. To York to be exact. Yep, I’ve left the colony and headed back to the old country. I’ll be here for the next two years visiting Prof. Chris Thomas at the University of York and Dr Jenny Hodgson at the University of Liverpool. Chris and Jenny have long standing interests in metapopulation dynamics, and so their respective labs represent a logical place to hone my metapopulation capacities (there’s a masterful in-joke in there if you can spot it…). I’m here courtesy of the Victorian Government, who have packed me off to learn some new skills and extend my professional networks. It is a wonderful opportunity and I’m hugely excited about it!