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Following the Water

Chapter 1

Introduction

I think that perhaps the ultimate mystery is not that there are no clear impenetrable boundaries in the universe but that we live as if there are.

Barbara Hurd1

In the early 1990s, the Gippsland Lakes were in the worst ecological condition they had ever experienced, with massive algal blooms and ongoing fish deaths. At the same time, the $200 million Biosphere II project, in the Santa Catalina mountains near Tucson, folded in ignominy. It was the best known and largest experiment in artificial life support ever undertaken in human history.2 In 1991 eight men and women entered a sealed dome, which included an ocean, savannah, rainforest, marsh and desert, and livestock such as pygmy goats. They intended to try and live independently of the surrounding biosphere for two years. The survival of the so-called Biospherians was contingent on the fresh oxygen pumped into the sealed dome.

What the failure of Biosphere II conclusively demonstrated was human inability to replicate the sophistication and interconnectedness of ecological life support processes. It is not entirely fanciful to begin a book about the colonial settlement of Australia with the image of asphyxiating Biospherians, because both are lessons in how little modern, white Europeans and their offspring have understood about the multitude of ecological processes that sustain our daily life.

This book is about the importance of ecological processes to sustaining life on a daily basis. It is a case study of how one group of people in a particular place perceived one process, the hydrological cycle, in the nineteenth century. It examines the relationship between the hydrological cycle and the nineteenth-century white emigrant colonisers of the Gippsland Lakes catchment in south-eastern Australia.

The case study area is bounded to the north by the Victorian Alps and to the south by Bass Strait (see Maps 1, 2 and 3). Its eastern boundary is the edge of the Tambo River catchment, which includes Lakes Entrance, and Omeo to the north. To the west, the catchment takes in the Latrobe Valley, past Warragul and Noojee up to the Dandenong Ranges. This topographical isolation from Melbourne was a defining characteristic of the area’s history.

The catchment is made up of a number of smaller catchments, which fall into three large connected lakes. The catchment is drained by seven rivers, although, globally speaking, Gippsland’s rivers are mere streamlets. At the eastern edge of the catchment, the Tambo River rises above Omeo and discharges into Lake King. The next and smallest river is the Nicholson, which falls out between the Tambo and Bairnsdale. The Mitchell River, with its internationally significant silt jetties, discharges at Bairnsdale, a major town. The Avon is next westward, and the major town associated with it is Stratford. The most westerly part of the catchment is drained by a combination of three rivers: the Macalister, the Thomson and the Latrobe. The former two join the latter just above Sale before their combined waters flow into Lake Wellington. The outfall of the whole system is at Lakes Entrance, a town that grew up once the entrance was made permanent. These lakes make up the largest navigable inland waterbody in Australia.

Sale and Bairnsdale were the major urban settlements in the nineteenth century and intense rivalry characterised their relationship. Each of the rivers supported settlements, with a number of mining towns being established in the Alps – for example, Walhalla and Dargo.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1: Catchment signage between Cann River and Lakes Entrance.

Source: Author.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2: ‘Tarrago Creek’, near Neerim, Latrobe River catchment, Thomas Henry Armstrong Bishop, c. 1901.

Source: Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria, Accession no. H36688.

Concern for the health of the lakes was expressed in the 1970s, but reached a critical point in the 1990s because of a series of major algal blooms. Algal blooms are caused by an excessive amount of nutrients that allow bacteria to multiply at the expense of other species. They are frequently toxic. The 1998 Gippsland Lakes Environmental Audit concluded that ‘despite sporadic but generally high quality research and numerous management plans, no real improvement in health has been achieved in the lakes’.3 In addition to the algal blooms, species loss, shoreline erosion and sedimentation were all beginning to claim public attention, indicative of a greater contemporary appreciation of the role of ecological processes.4 This book situates the perception and actions in regard to the hydrological cycle of the region’s settlers within their own terms, and simultaneously offers a reflection on their legacy.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3: Nicholas Caire’s image of the Reeves River, actually part of the Lakes, c. 1900.

Source: National Library of Australia, Accession no. 2593652.

The Encarta Concise English Dictionary provides five definitions of the word ‘process’, of which two are the most relevant. The first definition is ‘a series of actions directed towards a particular aim’, while the second is ‘a series of natural occurrences that produce change or development’. The first implies human agency, while the second encompasses humans as part of nature and includes ecological processes. Aren’t ecological processes what environmental historians write about anyway? The answer is a qualified no. My reading of the field suggests that ecological processes remain subordinate to better known concepts such as landscape, space and place.5 This tends to reflect a preference for what is easy to perceive, such as a river, lake or a mountain range. The immediacy of the seen, the felt and the observed helps to explain the preponderance of river and wetland histories in the discipline.6 There has also been considerable research on problems caused by pollution or by over-exploitation of resources, issues that produce tangibly perceived and understood effects. Erosion caused by deforestation, for example, or polluted air, can create critical public health problems.7 In contrast, ecological processes can often operate more subtly, with the concomitant tendency to fade from human attention. Some are invisible, for example, the role of soil bacteria in aerating soil. Yet, ecological processes create the places and landscapes that we fall in love with, even though that love does not tend to extend to the process itself.

As such, ecological processes are often hard to teach as Karterakis et al. identify in their article about teaching the hydrological cycle. They describe their problem as the difference between knowledge embodied in experience and knowledge separate from experience.8 Most people understand rainfall, in its infinitely varying permutations of duration and strength, because they experience it with their body. It has ramifications: respite from ferrying the children to sport, but the washing remains damp. Depending on your mood and the meteorological conditions prior to the rain, you may feel alternately refreshed or oppressed. In contrast, the movement of a water table is not something that can be learned through sensory experience. This can only be understood with specific training and instrumentation.

Until recent years, much academic scholarship privileged the latter, calling it ‘objective’ and worthy of study, and downplayed the everyday, embodied sensual experience as being ‘subjective’. This objective/subjective split is not helpful to understanding how we comprehend and interact with the world around us.9 Ecological processes, particularly the hydrological cycle, are particularly good at flouting such boundaries. Strang wrote:

As the substance that is literally essential to all living organisms, water is experienced and embodied both physically and culturally. The meanings encoded in it are not imposed at a distance, but emerge from an intimate interaction involving ingestion and expulsion, contact and immersion. Engagement with water is the perfect example of a recursive relationship in which nature and culture literally flow into each other.10

It is first and only through the everyday embodied relationship with water that people begin to experience the work of ecological processes. The combination of both kinds of knowledge has the potential to lead people to new relationships with nature that are founded on a connective ethos.

It is also true that while we experience rain, for example, very few pay sustained attention to it. We know its impact but we don’t, generally, have ‘a relationship’ with it. This is true for most ecological processes that support our lives. They remain in the backdrop until they are found wanting in some way, or depart from usual expectations. The processes that make up the places where we live remain in the background, a little like Cinderella.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked:

What is officially defined as the ‘past’ clearly is and must be a particular selection from the infinity of what is remembered or what is capable of being remembered. How great the scope of this formalized social past is in any given society naturally depends on circumstances. But it will always have interstices, that is, matter which form no part of the system of conscious history into which men [sic] incorporate, in one way or another, what they consider about their society.11

Ecological processes are the perfect illustration of such an interstice in the histories of modernised, technologically dependent people.12 Hobsbawn (by no means an environmental historian) is describing a ‘fact’ of historical enquiry, which I do not dispute. However, I use his comment to point out that forgetting our dependence on ecological processes is a glaring issue in historical practice.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4: Cleared hillsides surrounding Walhalla, Thomas Henry Armstrong Bishop, c. 1901.

Source: Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria, Accession no. H36688.

This work pays as much attention to the processes as it does to the place. This means a detailed evaluation of four key phases of the hydrological cycle – precipitation, flow, storage and evaporation – combined with an unpacking of settlers’ cultural baggage around nature. This approach to writing environmental history allows a more conscious reflection on human knowledge and understanding of the ecological processes upon which our lives depend. As 80 per cent water ourselves, we cannot escape our connection to the hydrological cycle.

A process-focused approach complements existing environmental history research, because every person, organisation, group or party has, at some level through their sensory experience, an understanding of how the natural world works and how they relate to it. Process-based environmental histories can be written regardless of the amount of formal or ‘objective’ learning anyone has. Lack of ‘objective’ knowledge is no barrier. This approach enables a more sympathetic approach to understanding the actions of settlers, because we are not judging them by the standards of a scientific discipline that didn’t exist in their day.

There are many ecological processes that would have made good candidates for this study. The hydrological cycle, or the movement of water at all scales, was the preferred choice because of its mutability in structure and in time, its ubiquity and because of our complete dependence on it. Besides that, I think it is always best to write about something you love. Of those three characteristics, the ubiquity of water has come to inform this work’s approach, while aspects of the hydrological cycle itself have informed its structure.

This book is a blend of insights and approaches from ecopsychology (particularly gestalt psychology), cultural history and the sibling disciplines of hydrology and ecology. My emphasis on the everyday, ubiquitous nature of water is related to the gestalt ‘parent’. The gestalt school of psychology defines itself as working with ‘the physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional, interpersonal and spiritual aspects of an individual, and which are considered inseparable from the individual’s environment, history and culture’ in a therapeutic setting.13 History is not therapy, so I have adapted the holistic emphasis to better suit the constraints of writing a history of a community in profound ecological and social transition.14 Echoing the gestalt emphasis on the intertwined whole, this work explores water in the physical, emotional, spiritual, economic and social everyday lives of colonial Gippslanders.

The book focuses on the ability of colonists to perceive ecological processes during the first 70 years of colonisation. This period set in train changes in the catchment that developments in the twentieth century would multiply. Laura Sewall states that there are five parts to ecological perception:

  • learning to attend
  • learning to perceive relationships, contexts and interfaces
  • developing perceptual flexibility across spatial and temporal scales
  • learning to re-perceive depth, and
  • the intentional uses of the imagination.15

Figure 1.5

Figure 1.5: Flora Gregson’s painting of wildflowers from around Lakes Entrance, c. 1870.

Source: Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria, Accession no. H16561/24.

Learning to pay attention is the first step. It is the intention to behold and explore where one finds oneself with care and interest, regardless of location. The second component takes the perceiver into the details and textures, noting, for example, how vegetation changes with soil type, or the dietary preferences of animals. Developing flexibility across spatial and temporal scales might mean an interest in the patterns of migratory birds; which birds, and when and where did they come from? Perceiving depth means seeing how you are one organism among billions, counting the soil bacteria and earthworms as well as the higher-order species. Finally, the intentional use of the imagination suggests trying to see yourself as the snipe, or the ash tree. Or at least, trying to imagine what joins you.

The multidisciplinary body of literature that explores ecological perception is not easily retrofitted to nineteenth-century Australia. One reason is that Sewall’s definition presupposes knowledge of geological time that was by no means a done deal in the nineteenth century. Second, it presupposes familiarity with the notion of biological diversity. This was not the era of BBC wildlife documentaries, transmitting the astonishing form and variety of species straight into people’s living rooms. Instead, many people were only just coming to grips with the idea of microscopic organisms.16 Third, the very strangeness of the Australian continent would have flummoxed even the most ardent proto-ecologist. While European exploration into the continent was introducing an enormous number of new species to science, their apparent oddity often found more detractors than admirers.17 Fourth, it takes time to learn about ecological processes, and it must be said that patience was not a virtue displayed en masse by settlers. Rolls, for example, describes a problem with perceiving the differences in pasture recovery rates for areas receiving between 100 and 200 mm rainfall per year. Both look the same, but the pasture in the lower rainfall areas takes much longer to recover from grazing. By the time a pastoralist realised his overstocking mistake, it was too late.18 Frawley describes a similar issue with the length of time it took white settlers to grasp the nature of soil fertility.19 But, rather than rectify their impacts, most settlers simply moved on to virgin lands, which was quicker and more profitable. This combination of unfamiliarity and haste, compared to the time needed to perceive ecological processes, prevented most white settlers developing the skill of ecological perception as described by modern writers.

However, I do not claim that settlers did not possess any of these skills. It is particularly tempting to claim a lack of imagination. Patently, this was not so. They imagined a future and they created it on that landscape. What was missing was any reason or motivation to see with ecologically tinted glasses. This is the more basic reason why the notion of ecological perception cannot straightforwardly be applied to colonial Gippsland. Because of their pre-existing assumption of their separation from and superiority to nature, they had no a priori motivation to develop or apply the skills of ecological perception to their new homes.20 Their world view limited what they could perceive.21 Deborah DuNann Winter describes this using the example of a house. ‘Our worldview’, she writes, ‘acts like the frame of a house: It determines the shape and coherence of the particular beliefs it supports. We see and experience the particular beliefs (walls) instead of the frame, but the frame exerts pivotal influence on which beliefs we hold and how they are related to each other.’22 The frame of colonial Gippslanders consisted of dualism, separation and mechanism, factors that ecopsychology suggests lie at the root of most of the world’s contemporary environmental and social ills.23 In the nineteenth century, nature was often thought to be inanimate, operating rather like a clock. Humans were thought to be separate from nature, and separate from each other.

Ecopsychology differs so radically from traditional psychology because it places human wellbeing within the environment and inseparable from it. Psychology has traditionally proceeded on the assumption that the totality of a person is encapsulated within the boundaries of the epidermis. In this view we are skinned egos, interacting with other skinned egos in a formless, shapeless vacuum.24

Ecopsychologists challenged their discipline in the same way that environmental historians have challenged history, issuing a call to insert the environment into its discourse. Otherwise, there are no rivers to dive into, no grassy plains, no trees to climb. There are no wetlands to derive a living from, no water sprites to make offerings to. And without this living, breathing, pulsing, changing environment, any account of the human psyche or human history is flawed. Gibson and Neisser describe ecological psychology as ‘a psychology that is about the complex embedded relationships of objects in constant transformation’.25 This was a psychology that echoed the natural world of ecological processes.

Much early Australian environmental history was interested in attitudes to the broader landscape. Frawley, building on Heathcote’s work from the early 1970s, put forward five basic categories of response to, or five perceptions of, the Australian landscape up to the end of the twentieth century:

  • colonial or resource exploitation
  • national development/optimism
  • scientific enquiry into nature
  • ecological opposition to development ethos, and
  • romantic attraction to wild and uncivilised landscapes.26

Of these, ecological opposition was the least prevalent during the nineteenth century, though it certainly existed, as Roe demonstrates in his analysis of park creation in the late nineteenth century.27 Scientific enquiry also lacked influence because it was frequently made subservient to the goals of resource development and expansion.28 The romantic tradition was also expressed, for example, in Bonyhady’s analysis of the history of Fern Tree Gully.29 But by far and away the strongest perceptions of the Australian landscape in the nineteenth century were resource exploitation and national development. Powell’s extensive body of work on water largely addresses the nexus between settlers, the state and development.30 Understanding of ecological processes and of the hydrological cycle in particular, however intrinsically fascinating to individuals, was collectively passed over unless it became useful to meet the transformative demands of colonial settlement.

Our colonial forebears were totally dedicated, possibly even addicted, to growth, as are we. Addiction theory has been reworked by ecopsychologists to ask why we continue to destroy what we depend on.31 Addictions require the capacity to suppress or ignore information that might threaten the hold of the addiction. The major characteristics are denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, grandiosity and emotional disconnection, most of which appear in some form in this story.

There is certainly no shortage of grandiose sentiments expressed by colonial Gippslanders as they lobbied to attain the infrastructure that they fondly believed would bring ‘progress’ to their district. Indeed, the grand infrastructure projects of canals, entrances and railways would exert the control over nature that was so vital to them. Living alongside them were the survivors of a culture who had lived in relative harmony with the surrounding environment for thousands of years, yet colonial Gippslanders denied the skills of ecological perception that the Kurnai possessed and dismissed them as ignorant savages. Finally, the harshness of colonial life suggests that there were few privations that they would not endure to achieve material and economic progress. The passion for growth meant that their ability to perceive their impact on ecological processes was either blunted or considered less importance than the progress achieved.32 Griffiths noted in Forests of Ash: ‘Improvement was nostalgic; it was dismissive of indigenous environmental systems; it was aggressive as well as progressive’.33

In contrast to the historic assumption by Western culture that nature exists for human benefit, we survive solely because of ecological processes that are in a continual state of flux. This has not been the standard view of modern Western European cultures and their colonial offshoots. Chodron outlined the conflict neatly in one crystal clear paragraph:

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything – every tree, blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate – is always changing moment to moment. We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this. Yet at the level of personal experience, we resist this basic fact.34

Chodron is right about personal discomfort with processes of change. We resist ageing, death and many other forms of change strenuously. This resistance also operates at a collective level. There is a fundamental tension between the nature of our ecological reality and how we want it to be. As a species, we have enthusiastically set out to control as much of the environment as we can in order to make conditions favourable for our own survival and wellbeing, and of our economic systems. As Cicero said: ‘Finally, by means of our own hands we endeavour to create, as it were, a second world within the world of nature’.35

We have liked to think (all evidence to the contrary as Barbara Hurd suggests in the epigraph) that this will protect us from what is beyond our control, and what has often been beyond comprehension. To facilitate this, Judaeo-Christian-based societies have insisted on the separation of humans from nature, and that this is a firm boundary. The opening epigraph alludes to this entrenched aspect of Western culture. Creating a persistent dualism, we have done our utmost to downplay our porosity, and our utter dependence on ecological processes for our survival.

To smooth out the fluctuations in ecological processes, we have turned to technology and infrastructure. This made survival less of a hit-and-miss affair, and, during the Industrial Revolution, fuelled the rise of the factories of eternal production. There are many histories that tackle this vast subject and, unsurprisingly, many of them are river based. Technology and changing rivers have gone hand in hand. Blackbourn’s history of the Rhine is an excellent example, detailing the damming, dredging and draining of the river and its floodplain in the service of industry and capital.36 His title, The Conquest of Nature, is an explicit enunciation of the theme of control and power mirrored through water.37 Gippslanders followed the lead set by Europe, to the best of their financial and technical capability. They rerouted rivers, created entrances where there were none and removed vast swamps, all to facilitate their participation in the economic life of the empire.

In short, they worked to remodel the catchment’s hydrology to make exportable products. They were exporting water, embodied or disguised as timber, grain, butter and other foods. Embodied water is a way of asking how much water went into the creation of a cow, fence paling or wheel of cheese, all products that colonial Gippslanders sent to market. Rather than viewing the product as being complete in itself, the concept of embodied water includes the trails of water needed to make it and thus situates the product more obviously in the web of ecological connections supporting its existence.

The study of embodied water emerges from contemporary concern about the damage that has been done to the hydrological cycle by manufacturing processes.38 Globally, approximately 70 per cent of the world’s water is currently abstracted for agricultural purposes, and estimates range from 500 litres to produce a kilogram of potatoes to 15,000 litres to produce a kilogram of beef.39 These are modern estimates, but colonial agriculture follows the same pattern of intensification of water use through irrigation. Dams, pipes, channels and drains were all deployed in the Gippsland Lakes catchment to shore up the levels of embodied water in their crops, ready to be exported to Melbourne and beyond. Colonial Gippslanders chose an economic path of exporting a select set of water intensive products using increasingly water intensive infrastructure.

Colonial Gippslanders were passionate believers in agriculture as the foundation of human civilisation. In one of its earliest issues, the editor of the Gippsland Times proclaimed:

We must make the lands more profitable than by their existence in their pristine covering, this is the age of science and advancement and we must progress with both, or forever remain in the same state we are now in. We well know we cannot all be agriculturalist, but at the same time we know that agriculture is the foundation of progressiveness.40

Gippslanders were enthusiastic appropriators of water for their agricultural endeavours, so long as it was orderly and appropriately timed for their crops. In reality, the new colonial lands from which they sought their fortunes were anything but orderly. The great southern land came with a suite of environmental characteristics that stretched colonial Gippslander’s capacity to adapt. Either too much or too little rain, coupled with fire, drought, foreign vegetation and animal plagues tested the colonisers’ flexibility. (At least the sun still rose in the east and set in the west.) The Australian environment was one giant question mark of uncertainty, and making a living off the land was a game of chance.

This book takes a microcosmic look at this game of environmental roulette. Part One deals in more depth with the intellectual baggage that colonial settlers brought with them to Gippsland’s plains and forests. Chapter 2 focuses exclusively on the idea of the hydrological cycle itself, examining its evolution from ancient Greece to the present and locating colonial Gippslanders along that spectrum. It also sets the book within the context of twenty-first-century concerns about global environmental change, and how environmental and hydrological knowledge is structured. Chapter 3 explores the world view of the settlers, probing their religious beliefs and cultural values about the nonhuman world.

The four chapters that make up Part Two focus specifically upon the study area and are structured by aspects of the hydrological cycle. This gives an in-depth exploration of how settlers perceived the specificity of the hydrological cycle in Gippsland by tracking the entry, passage and exit of water through the catchment. Chapter 4 considers the effect of precipitation in all its forms, and teases out how wetness influenced the daily life of settlers. I include flood in this chapter, rather than in the following, for the reason that flood generally occurs with an ‘excess’ of precipitation and snow melt. Chapter 5 addresses what is now referred to as environmental flow; the water in creeks, rivers, floodplains and aquifers that sustain ecosystems. The emphasis is upon movement, and how settlers combined to use and remake the catchment’s watercourses for their economic gains. I also consider the symbolic aspects of flowing water, especially from the point of view of biblical teachings. The importance of religious belief is extended into Chapter 6, which analyses the opposite to flowing waters: this chapter focuses on the ‘problem’ of still and stagnant waters. Chapter 7 addresses the effects of water in its gaseous state, and links dryness, drought, fire and irrigation.

The evidence used is largely unofficial in character, relatively diverse and sometimes, at first glance, fragmentary or even trivial. However, a gestalt approach suggests that a fragment can lead to a whole world of meaning. Like embodied water where each object trails a cloud of vapour behind it, these fragments of evidence, like single line entries in diaries, carry threads of meaning which connect with other threads.

My principal primary source has been local newspapers (in retrospect, an eye-destroying decision). Regional and local papers proved to be the standout source of information. They provided a wide range of information of interest to many settlers, addressing the physical, emotional, spiritual, economic and social aspects of their everyday lives.41 They reproduced council proceedings at length, reported on the weather, assessed the progress of seasonal crops and debated politics. They covered a myriad of social events, infrastructure issues, church activities and business news. However, the subject matter meant that indexes, if they existed, could not be relied upon to guide searching. Particularly severe natural events and some infrastructure matters were indexed, but the wealth of material collected was not.42 When the research started the newspapers had not been digitised, and accordingly, a five-year sampling strategy was chosen for the Gippsland Times from when it commenced in 1861, with at least two issues (and generally many more!) being read in detail for each month.43 The five-year strategy assured that most weather conditions would be sampled. One extremely wet year (1871) and one extremely dry year (1898) were also read in detail. Local newspapers, such as the Morwell Advertiser, were used as available.

Diaries, manuscripts and memoirs from individuals and families were the second primary source. These provided the minute detail of everyday life required to balance out the more generic information gathered from the newspapers. Approximately 20 original diaries and manuscripts were used, supplemented by memoirs that have been published in the many newsletters of historical societies. What was most memorable about the diaries was their general terseness, compared to the florid language in the papers. The practical importance of water suggested by the papers is confirmed by the diaries, but it is difficult to come to any conclusion about the metaphoric or symbolic understanding of water for the individual diarists. Mostly, they treated the diary like a business engagement book rather than a space to confide feelings. There was little common ground between the writers’ demographic characteristics. I have therefore refrained from conclusions of general applicability based on the diaries, except in agricultural or pastoral matters.

The third category of sources comprised almanacs, books, music and sermons. These sources were selected to flesh out aspects of daily life, and to help interpret the symbolic perception of water. Almanacs provided a source of readily accessible environmental advice about the Australian environment. Books and music, sourced from descriptions of concerts and meetings in the papers, provide insight into the symbolic interpretation of water in entertainment. Sermons were often reprinted and help to give context to spiritual beliefs.

Finally, a selection of government documents made up the last class of records consulted. These included land capability assessments, meteorological data, reports of various boards, parliamentary debates, papers presented to parliament and maps. This diversity lends strength and reliability to the conclusions drawn.

Given that water policy in Australia seems to be perennially made in response to drought or flood right up to the present day, we have not really moved on.44 During the course of my research, Gippsland burnt and flooded more than once. In January 2011, virtually the whole of south-east Queensland and the Murray-Darling Basin experienced extensive flooding. The city of Brisbane was shut down for days. But for the less florid language, the flood reportage could have been lifted straight from the Gippsland Times from 1871.

The ecological processes inherent in these events in south-eastern Australia between 2006 and 2011 were portrayed as an affront to human values, talents and aspirations. Such events do blight lives, and cause immense heartache and loss for the communities that are affected by them. No one with a functioning heart could avoid spilling tears for the homeless, bereaved and injured. But such events are not a deliberate affront, or an act of war from nature directed at humans.

To think in this way presupposes separation from the natural world and the ecological processes which make life possible. It is the antithesis of a gestalt way of thinking that presupposes connection. Learning to think connectedly with an ecological process orientation is a new task for us. In a society increasingly confronted by its poor environmental record, it is also is much needed. This book, I hope, is one contribution to that process.


1 B Hurd, Stirring the mud: On swamps, bogs and human imagination, Beacon Press, Boston, 2001, p. 77.

2 D Day, ‘Beyond the biodome’, The Space Review, 17 January 2005, www.thespacereview.com/article/305/1, accessed 3 January 2011.

3 G Harris, G Batley, I Webster, R Molloy & D Fox, Gippsland Lakes environmental audit: Review of water quality and status of aquatic ecosystems of the Gippsland Lakes, prepared for the Gippsland Coastal Board by CSIRO Environmental Projects Office, Melbourne, October 1998, p. 2.

4 P Synan, Highways of water: How shipping on the Lakes shaped Gippsland, Landmark Press, Drouin, 1989, p. 195.

5 For example, P Hubbard, R Kitchin & G Valentin, Key thinkers in space and place, Sage Publications, London, 2004.

6 A selection of surface water histories large and small: for the US see DJ Pisani, ‘Beyond the hundredth meridian: Nationalising the history of water in United States’, Environmental History, vol. 5, no. 4, October 2000, pp. 466–82. doi.org/10.2307/3985582; J Sellye, Beautiful machine: Rivers and the republican plan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991; M Reisner, Cadillac desert: The American West and its disappearing water, Viking, New York, 1986; C Sheriff, The artificial river: The Erie Canal and the paradox of progress, 1817–1862, Hill and Wang, New York, 1996; B Black, ‘Oil Creek as industrial apparatus: Re-creating the industrial process through the landscape of Pennsylvania’s oil boom’, Environmental History, vol. 3, no. 2, April 1998, pp. 210–28. doi.org/10.2307/3985380; CF Meindl, ‘Past perceptions of America’s great wetland, Florida’s Everglades in the early twentieth century’, Environmental History, vol. 5, no. 3, July 2000, p. 378. doi.org/10.2307/3985482; WD Solecki, J Long & CC Harwell, ‘Human–environment interactions in South’s Florida’s Everglades region: Systems of ecological degradation and restoration’, Urban Ecosystems, vol. 3, nos 3–4, 1999, pp. 305–43. doi.org/10.1023/A:1009560702266; R White, The organic machine: The remaking of the Columbia River, Hill and Wang, New York, 1995; D Worster, Rivers of empire: Water, aridity, and the growth of the American West, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985; A Vilesis, Discovering the unknown landscape: A history of America’s wetlands, Island Press, Washington DC, 1997; Hugh Prince, Wetlands of the American Midwest: A historical geography of changing attitudes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997. doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226682808.001.0001.

For Europe, see P van dam, ‘Sinking peat bogs: Environmental change in Holland 1350–1550’, Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 1, 2001, pp. 32–46; M Williams, The draining of the Somerset Levels, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970; F Willmoth, ‘Dugdale’s history of imbanking and drayning: A royalist antiquarian in the 1630s’, Historical Research, vol. 71, no. 176, 1998, pp. 281–302; S Halliday, Water: A turbulent history, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire, 2004; S Haslam, The historic river: Rivers and culture down the ages, Cobden of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 1991; T Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1970. doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674281806; M Dobson, ‘“Marsh fever” – The geography of malaria in England’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 6, no. 4, 1980, pp. 357–89. doi.org/10.1016/0305-7488(80)90145-0; HC Darby, The changing fenland, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983; M Cioc, The Rhine: An eco-biography, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2002; S Ciriacono, Building on water: Venice, Holland and the construction of the European landscape in early modern times, Berghahn Books, New York, 2006; R Garcier, ‘The placing of matter: Industrial water pollution and the construction of social order in nineteenth-century France’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 36, no. 2, 2010, pp. 132–42. doi.org/10.1016/j.jhg.2009.09.003.

For Australia, see J Tibby, ‘Explaining lake and catchment change using sediment derived and written histories: An Australian perspective’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 310, nos 1–3, 1 2003, pp. 61–71. doi.org/10.1016/S0048-9697(02)00623-X; M Cathcart, The water dreamers: The remarkable history of our dry continent, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009; L McLoughlin, The Middle Lane Cove River: A history and a future, Centre for Environmental and Urban Studies, Macquarie University, North Ryde, 1985.

7 For example, M Williams, Deforesting the earth, from prehistory to global crisis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003; P Brimblecombe, The big smoke: A history of air pollution in London since medieval times, Methuen, London, 1987.

8 SM Karterakis, BW Karney, B Singh & A Guergachi, ‘The hydrologic cycle: A complex concept with continuing pedagogical implications’, Water Science and Technology: Water Supply, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, p. 29. doi.org/10.2166/ws.2007.003.

9 For a recent Australian example of how subjective and objective are being challenged, see F Allon & Z Sofoulis, ‘Everyday water: Cultures in transition’, Australian Geographer, vol. 37, no. 1, 2006, pp. 45–55. doi.org/10.1080/00049180500511962.

10 V Strang, The meaning of water, Berg Publishing, Oxford, 2004, pp. 4–5.

11 E Hobsbawm, On History, Abacus Books, London, 2002, p. 14.

12 Sofoulis and Allon provide an example of a modern approach to demand management that focuses on this level. Their ‘approach underscores the importance of investigating the ordinary, unspectacular dimensions of daily life and scrutinising those rituals of water use that have become, to a great extent, routine, habitual and, therefore, inconspicuous practices of consumption’. Emphasis in original. Allon & Sofoulis, ‘Everyday water, cultures in transition’, p. 47.

13 Gestalt.com.au. For an example of gestalt applied to an environmental topic, see C Cooper Marcus’s now seminal book from 1995 in the field of design. C Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self: Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Nicolas-Hays Inc., Lake Worth, Florida, 2006.

14 T Griffiths & L Robin (eds), Ecology and empire: Environmental history and settler societies, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997. The introduction covers debate on how much of the environmental transformation that accompanied colonialism was active or passive, planned or accidental.

15 L Sewall, ‘The skill of ecological perception’, in T Roszak, ME Gomes & AD Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1995, p. 204.

16 U Seibold-Bultmann, ‘Monster soup: The microscope and Victorian fantasy’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, vol. 25, no. 3, June 2000, pp. 211–19. doi.org/10.1179/030801800679242.

17 No animal created as much consternation as the platypus. A Moyal, Platypus, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2002.

18 E Rolls, ‘More a new planet than a new continent’, in S Dovers (ed.), Australian environmental history: Essays and cases, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p. 26.

19 K Frawley, ‘Evolving visions: Environmental management and nature conservation in Australia’, in S Dovers (ed.), Australian environmental history: Essays and cases, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p. 43.

20 The nature/culture split is well-traversed territory in many disciplines. D Tacey, Re-enchantment: The new Australian spirituality, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2000, pp. 162–4 and 174; LM Gibbs, ‘“A beautiful soaking rain”: Environmental value and water beyond Eurocentrism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 28, 2010, p. 364. doi.org/10.1068/d9207; see also D DuNann Winter, Ecological psychology: Healing the split between planet and self, Harper Collins College Publishers, New York, 1996, p. 28; Strang, The meaning of water, p. 90; C Merchant, The death of nature: Women, ecology and the scientific revolution, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1980.

21 Dean Radin describes an elegant experiment to test this. Playing cards were altered so that, for example, the six of spades was made to be red, instead of black. It took more than 40 viewings by subjects before they noticed the deck had been changed. The expectation of what a deck of playing cards should be determined what could be seen. D Radin, The noetic universe: The scientific evidence for psychic phenomena, Corgi Books, London, 2009.

22 DuNann Winter, Ecological psychology, p. 28.

23 DuNann Winter, Ecological psychology, p. 236.

24 Hillman in Roszak et al., Ecopsychology, p. xvii.

25 Gibson and Neisser in DuNann Winter, Ecological psychology, pp. 240–2. They coined the term ‘ecological self’.

26 Frawley, ‘Evolving visions’, p. 59.

27 M Roe, Nine Australian progressives: Vitalism in bourgeois social thought, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984.

28 JM Powell in Roy MacLeod, The Commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888–1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 249.

29 T Bonyhady, The colonial earth, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

30 JM Powell, The public lands of Australia Felix: Settlement and land appraisal in Victoria 1834–91 with special reference to the Western Plains, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1970; JM Powell (ed.), Yeomen and bureaucrats: The Victorian Crown Lands Commission 1878–9, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1973; JM Powell, Environmental management in Australia, 1788–1914, Guardians, improvers and profit: An introductory survey, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1976; JM Powell, Watering the garden state: Water land and community in Victoria 1834–1988, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989; JM Powell, ‘Snakes and cannons: Water management and the geographical imagination in Australia’, in S Dovers (ed.), Environmental history and policy: Still settling Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 47–71; JM Powell, ‘Environment and institutions: Three episodes in Australian water management, 1880–2000’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 28, no. 1, 2002, pp. 100–14. doi.org/10.1006/jhge.2001.0376.

31 See, for example, C Glendinning, My Name is Chellis and I’m in recovery from Western civilization, Shambala Press, Boston, 1994.

32 For example, Gippsland Times (hereafter GT), 4 May 1881. ‘The over hanging gums over course, were bound to be sacrificed to the exigencies of commercial progress, but we image that the Council will somewhat repent of having authorized such havoc among the ti tree.’

33 T Griffiths, Forests of ash: An environmental history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, p. 32.

34 P Chodron, The places that scare you: A guide to fearlessness, Element, Hammersmith, London, 2001, p. 26.

35 Quoted in JD Hughes, What is environmental history? Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006, p. 24.

36 D Blackbourn, The conquest of nature: Water, landscape and the making of modern Germany, WW Norton and Co., New York, 2005.

37 Many scholars look at power relations mediated through technologies applied to water. Their focus is upon governance and human institutions more so than the ecological processes inherent in the hydrological cycle. For a historical water example, see WE Bijker, ‘Dikes and dams, thick with politics’, Isis, vol. 98, 2007, pp. 109–23. doi.org/10.1086/512835. Common pool resource theory is a key body of work that exemplifies the interest in governance of natural resources, Elinor Ostrom’s landmark publication of 1990 galvanised this field. E Ostrom, Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990. doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511807763.

38 There are vast variations in the estimates made to analyse embodied water. Some of these variations include type of production process, climate and geographical location and whether or not the embodied water of ingredients or components is also taken into consideration. As Gleick says, there is no rule about where to draw the line on the supply chain of goods. PH Gleick, H Cooley, MJ Cohen, M Morikawa, J Morrison & M Palaniappan, The world’s water 2008–9: The biennial report of freshwater resources, Island Press, Washington, 2009, p. 335, Table 19.

39 R Clarke & J King, The water atlas: A unique visual analysis of the world’s most critical resource, The New Press, New York, 2004, p. 19 for the 70 per cent and p. 33.

40 GT, 21 August 1861.

41 L Morrison, ‘The newspapers of Gippsland, 1855–1890’, Gippsland Heritage Journal, vol. 6, 1989, p. 3.

42 Ian Lunt reported the same problem in his study of clearing grasslands. I Lunt, ‘The distribution and environmental relationships of native grasslands on the lowland Gippsland plain, Victoria: An historical study’, Australian Geographical Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, July 1997, p. 142. doi.org/10.1111/1467-8470.00015.

43 If I had my time over and started this work with digitised papers, I would still have chosen a five-year sampling strategy. Digitisation is a wonderful advance, but it also makes much more material available. A sampling strategy remains a sensible and time-honoured approach. In revising, I have undertaken keyword searches but nothing showed up that caused me to alter my original arguments.

44 D Connell, Water politics in the Murray-Darling Basin, Federation Press, Annandale, 2007.


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