Joining the dots

Art & climate in the deserts of Central Australia. The metapatterns of nature, of science, of art and everything are down below. We are flying over Lake Eyre and then tracking north to Alice Springs.

"We can hope that we might have the capacity in us to learn from them"

Andrea Hylands and Angelina Pwerle, Angelina uses the bonnet of a car as her easel.

Down below are the ancient trading routes of Australia’s Aboriginal people. These ancient pathways of trade that trace the rivers and waterholes were also the tracks of dreaming ancestors.

Down below are the ancient rivers of sand of the Lake Eyre Basin. The wet seasons waters flow on inland and south to Lake Eyre where the water remains until once again it evaporates in the shimmering heat to reveal dazzling saltpans once more.

We are working down there in a place we have always loved. So what is it like? It is both a harsh land and a delicate land. To walk on the pristine untrodden river beds of sand seems a desecration of the patterns of nature, a hundred different impressions in the miniature sand dunes left there by the birds, marsupials and reptiles that inhabit this land.

Prior to our visit to make the film Bush Plum, the rivers had flowed for consecutive seasons following on from years of drought. All that recent water had kick started the nature of Australia. In these precious places nature responds to water in the most extraordinary ways allowing many species to breed and to increase their dwindling numbers once more.

This was the second of three journeys over a period of two months filming Angelina Pwerle in Bush Plum. Fires still burning around us, as they had done two months earlier, we made the 250 kilometre journey to Camel Camp at Utopia.

Along bitumen covered roads at first and then an hour or so to the north of Alice Springs, the turn off and onto the sandy bush roads of the Northern Territory which lead us to Utopia. We rattle our way along the sandy tracks, clouds of dust trailing behind us.

On this journey we are taking two four wheel drive vehicles full of supplies, our swags, a great deal of water and of course a lot of technology, cameras, computers, sound recording equipment and lots more. There are eight of us, two, our Aboriginal friends Angelina and Gladdy who are returning home, Bill Nuttall, Mark and Janet from Artlore and Rob, Andrea and I.

Unlike Arnhem Land and most of the 'top end', where the combination of Cane Toads, feral cats and increasingly changes in climate, have all but exterminated native species, Central Australia still has evident animal populations, particularly reptiles. The deserts of Central Australia are free from Cane Toads for now, but who knows what climate change will bring.

We see more and more wildlife, the Wedge-tailed Eagles and other birds of prey, and here in the lizard kingdom, it is not hard to spot a large Sand Monitor or a Dragon catching the early morning sun on the sandy roadway, their numbers boosted by the large mouse plague, a great feast, which accompanied the unusually wet seasons in Central Australia.

The Bearded Dragons sit dangerously on the road and try to defy any attempts to move them to a safer spot, happily we were more stubborn than they were.

Here the shy Perentie (Australia’s largest monitor and the world's fourth largest lizard) also lives, elusive despite its considerable size. These lizards, part of dreaming, important in Aboriginal culture.

There was a gallery of reptile species, suddenly a King Brown glides its way across the road in front of us. This is a place where you keep your eyes firmly to the ground and where you avoid walking through clumps of long grass, now much harder with all the introduced Buffel Grass around.

The King Brown, because of its size is easier to spot. The Desert Death Adder is almost impossible to see with all its camouflage and relatively small size. We stop every few minutes, cameras at the ready, as some of the reptiles obligingly allow us to film them and do so even in macro.

We tread carefully on country.

The flowers are out too, framed by their background, the red earth of Central Australia, the Billybutton, Sturt’s Desert Rose, the floral emblem of the Northern Territory of Australia, and the Bush Plum.

Australian Deserts, these semi-arid lands, can have a relatively significant cover of vegetation, species have adapted to these harsh conditions with a complex range of mechanisms to ensure their survival. There are deserts or parts of deserts in Australia with a lower density of vegetation, the Stony Desert and in parts the bare windswept crests of the Simpson Desert.

The flourishing native plant life in parts of arid Australia tricking the early settlers into believing these lands could be used for farming. History tells us that there was a mass extinction of native species in Central Australia in the 1930s because of the introduction of feral predators, among them cats and foxes, inappropriate land use and increasing non-indigenous settlement of the region.

Among the animals to become extinct was the Desert Rat-kangaroo, adapted to the harshest conditions in Australia, but sadly, no match for European settlement. By a trick of language the exterminators of this beautiful animal can reassure themselves that nothing of great value has been lost.

These dramatic changes, once again diminishing the traditional food supply for Indigenous Australians.

Thirty years or more have passed since we first crossed the sandy riverbed and drove through the ‘front gate’ and in to Utopia. Utopia, an area of just under 2,000 square kilometres to the North East of Alice Springs, is semi-arid desert country inhabited by Aboriginal people.

Through the Utopia front gate and we take the track to the small outstation called Camel Camp where we are working. Here there are traditional bush shelters and a largely traditional life of hunting for and gathering food.

We pull up at the camp and are greeted by everyone. The place is full of smiling faces and the wagging tails of the camp dogs.

It is great to be back.

Angelina painting at Camel Camp

In the early days of the Utopia contemporary art movement Angelina Pwerle was one of a group of women who produced batik. She was also a participating artist in A summer project, the seminal event that inspired the first Utopia canvases painted in the summer of 1988-89. Bill Nuttall first discovered Angelina’s work in 1993 when he came across a sculpture that took his breath away, that sculpture was by Angelina.

It is not surprising that the art of Central Australia has become one of the world’s most significant contemporary art movements with its startling explosions of colour and form.

Utopia has been particularly important in the recent history of Aboriginal art and cultural practice as it was the heart of a women’s art movement of considerable distinction, producing, now internationally famous women artists, their work including batiks, carvings and paintings on canvas.

Indigenous people are in the front line when it comes to understanding the impacts of the destruction of biodiversity and the impacts of climate change. Particularly damaging, the way the many problems we have created interact with each other, compounding these problems for Indigenous people.

I have written often about the impact of our own actions on the traditional lives of Indigenous peoples, here are some of the things that are happening in Central Australia.

Even the remotest parts of Central Australia are not immune from our actions. For now freshwater ecosystems may not be as damaged as those elsewhere in Australia but they are under threat from introduced species, from domestic herds destroying precious waterholes and riverside vegetation and the thoughtless action of introducing pest plant species into the delicate and arid environment.

These ancient and arid landscapes provide us with a sensitive record of environmental change. The Central Australian deserts’ transverse and longitudinal dunes so sensitive to small changes in both climate and hydrology.

The recent great wets of Northern Australia have further distributed the introduced African species Buffel Grass. The Buffel Grass now covers large areas of the country around Alice Springs displacing native grasses. After the wet period, the now dry Buffel Grass stands waste high covering the desert floor.

When this introduced grass burns it burns much hotter than the more delicate native grasses and when it burns the intense heat can kill the native animals that cannot escape from it. The land is left bare so those animals that do survive the fire are easy pickings for the feral cats that stalk this land. The intense heat damages the desert trees and shrubs long adapted to lower intensity fires.

Once again this damages the traditional food supply of Indigenous people who rely on the fruit and roots of native plants such as the Bush Plum. During that August much of the area around Alice Springs was on fire, by mid August 2011 more than 650 square kilometres of country surrounding Alice Springs had been burnt, destroying ecosystems and polluting the atmosphere.

Add to this a changing climate, and in the case of Central Australia, where the impacts of global warming are particularly severe with serious increases in temperature, and this means more frequent and intense fires.

Add to this the danger posed to Australia’s Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest on earth (1,700,000 square kilometres), and the major river flows into the Lake Eyre Basin from coal seam gas extraction processes occurring in Queensland and elsewhere. Dangerous because we pretend we know the impact of these things when we have absolutely no clue of what the consequences will be on the aquifers and natural water systems of Australia. What is obvious the unmeasured and denied fugitive gas escaping from the many thousands of wells can only be adding to the warming of Planet Earth. The Lake Eyre Basin covers more than one million square kilometres of arid and semi-arid Central Australia. There is a lot to lose. I place the threats to Australia’s Great Artesian Basin and the Great Barrier Reef in parallel – to destroy these places, or even to think about destroying these places, is immensely foolish.

Just how Indigenous people are going to cope as the desert country becomes even hotter than it is now, and the region is warming faster than much of Australia where the problems are already serious, will unfold in coming years. One thing we can say is that Indigenous people had little to do with creating the problems in the first place but will be among the most impacted by the inevitable changes we will all have to face.

Australia’s native species are showing great sensitivity to increasing temperatures and to hotter and longer heatwaves. There are mass die-offs of animal communities and continuing declines in native species, including mammals, birds, reptiles and plants, something just under 2,000 of Australia’s major species (forget the small stuff) are in trouble or deep trouble. The northern Australian extinction of species is underway and Australia retains its top global position, number one for mammal extinctions in the last 250 years, and sits well in the top five of species endangering and land clearing countries on earth. Australia’s per capita greenhouse emissions are also startlingly high at around 14.6 tonnes of CO2 per annum. These emissions are now increasing again.

Not deterred by any of this Australia’s Commonwealth Government is likely to unveil plans for even more land clearing and even greater levels of destruction as it attempts to develop the north of Australia, not learning from anything that has gone before – what you will get is just more of the same – but much bigger and much much worse than anything that has gone before. So instead of Asia facing future cities in the north, powerhouses of Australian innovation and technology and economy, all you will get is more environmental devastation.

These out-dated ideas combined with environmental results to date in Australia send me a warning signal about our own positions in all of this. So what will happen to us, to our children, to our greenhouse intense economy?

I suspect if things in Australia do not change we will all be joining Indigenous people in the front line of climate change and the denial of things now will mean an environmental and economic shock that the children of today will never forgive.

As for our Indigenous friends in Central Australia, they have proved remarkably resilient to our conduct and we can hope that we might have the capacity in us to learn from them.

This blog is a transcript of a talk given by Peter Hylands at Niagara Galleries during Melbourne's Climarte Festival in April 2015.