Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Time to Burn: The Land

I’ve noted in the past that the Australia is a dry land.  The proximate cause of this is the generally northward movement of the Australian Plate over the last 40 million years or so.  This triggered an overall drying out of the continent, especially the interior, far from any sources of wet air.  Geology dominates (again).  You can watch this here.  The flora and fauna adapted to the drying.  The role of fire was likely enhanced when people first arrived, at least 60,000 years ago.  Burning has numerous advantages for the hunter/gather lifestyle.  The flora and fauna certainly readapted to this human impact. 

The role of aridity on the land is not immediately apparent, especially in winter.  It’s green and sometimes rainy in the Perth area.  There’s an ocean nearby, and the Swan River cuts through the city.  Green lawns are abundant, even in Perth’s sandy soil. 

The Pilbara is different.  Whether arriving from the south by plane or vehicle, I’m always confronted with entering a semi desert.  The air is drier.  The sun feels hotter and more intense, nearer to the equator.  Beyond the margins of human modification, the landscape is immediately stark.  No water.  Red-brown earth mixed with loose rock.  Spinifex and termite mounds.  Wattles and mulga.  Rare flowers, often yellow, sometimes red or lavender.  My shoes coat with red dust the moment I step onto the ground.  There is often wind.  If not, there is silence.  Depending on the time of day, birds, lizards, and insects may add motion.  Flies are almost always present. 

I’m fond of this beauty.  The colors are right.  The landscape has an apparent minimalism: a few major components, repeated innumerably.  The land is open; I like seeing such long distances.  I feel this fitting in most arid settings, especially if they have red rocks. 

Back to Australia Fifteen.  We swagged out for two nights west of Paraburdoo, along the southern edge of the Hamersley Basin.  During my visits, this has seemed to be the driest part of the Basin.  I think it suffers from the rain shadow effect of all the mountains to the north.  By the time the summer cyclones that bring the Pilbara most of its rain get here, they have lost much water.  The plants are also a bit different; maybe this reflects the relative lack of moisture. 

We’d found a swag out site in a broad valley north of the road.  As I walked around gathering fire wood and looking for the right place to sleep, I kept thinking, something’s not right here.  I finally realized: there was no ground cover.  No grass, no spinifex, just dirt and broken rock.  The emu bushes near camp were wilted.  They seemed to have stopped growing and had drooped in the middle of flowering.  I kicked at the ground.  It was very dry, very dusty. 

Swagout site, west of Paraburdoo
Driving back to Paraburdoo in the morning.  Our progress was slowed by cows along the road.  This is common.  I always slow down when cows are around  The last thing I want is to hit or be hit by a bolting half ton animal.  Well, these cows didn’t weight anything close to one thousand pounds.  Their ribs and hip bones were prominent.  They kept their heads down, eating the dead grass by the road, and ignored us.  This was unusual.  There were no calves.  The cows in Paraburdoo looked only a little better.  The carcasses and dying cow in Woongara Pool looked worse.

Seeing changes in the plants and these suffering animals made me realize that the Pilbara is a deeply hard place.  Setting aside the issue of whether large agricultural animals should be on this land or not, the margin between life and death is quite thin.  I have not often sensed this boundary.  All of the components that go into successful field work - advance planning, abundant supplies, good maps, strong vehicles, and a conservative attitude - insulate me from this viscerality.  Geez, I get twitchy if there’s less than five litres of water per person.  It’ rare that this cocoon of safety is pierced here or at any point in my life back in the Northern Hemisphere.  West of Para, it was dead evident.  This land will burn you, this land can kill you.  

No comments:

Post a Comment