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Weathering the storm: a tale of timing, loss and learning.

For two years I had focused on studying the lived experience of one environmental extreme--drought; then I wandered into the aftermath of Cyclone Larry, a climatic force altogether more immediate in the wounding. But there can be serendipity in the reawakening from a bewilderment of loss. In this paper, I recount how an unforeseen experience led to delay in research--but this allowed me to witness, unexpectedly, a momentous shift in public ideas on Australian climate.


'The watchers have been waiting for what might be called the Moment.'

Edward O Wilson, In Search of Nature (1)

Everything has to be continually reinvented. I must have cottoned on to this as a child tucked in bed, listening in terror to the red-bellied black snake in the dank void of our farmhouse roof. Timber creaked as she shed her skin.

Of this I was reminded recently, when torn away from Melbourne and the tenacious life of doctoral research. For two years my mind had been focused on studying the lived experience of one environmental extreme--drought; then I wandered into the aftermath of a climatic force altogether more immediate in the wounding.

A year has passed since Tropical Cyclone Larry came and went and took the homes and livelihoods of thousands of far north Queenslanders. To be frank, at times I'm still reliving the rupture. It's four o'clock in the morning and as autumn rain brings to Melbourne a dizzy ritual of relief, all I can think about is how rain smells like home to me. With just one heady whiff of it, I am back there in the aftermath of Larry: I am still sitting in a caravan, sunk into the mud next to the remains of that old farmhouse, staring out at a kind of grey-brown emptiness--where once stood a rainforest thick with life.

I doubt now that I could accede to the cyclical idea that all endings are beginnings. Yet I can feel the pull of 'the dawning of a new day'--of which Edward Said wrote, with 'its prospects seeming to raise one up from the darkness and gloom of even the unhappiest night'. (2) For there was serendipity in the reawakening from a bewilderment of loss. In this paper, I'll recount how that unforeseen experience and unexpected delay in research chronology allowed me to witness, in concert, a momentous shift in public ideas on Australian climate. That shift, to me, was a moment of big history, but that it led my research in a new direction came down to time and chance.

Michel Foucault once famously wrote of 'man' as a figure drawn in sand at the ocean's edge, soon to be erased by an incoming tide. (3) With vivid economy, he described the imagined subject of humanism as but a composition of eighteenth and nineteenth century discourses of knowledge, facing apocalypse. (4) Today we might read Foucault's proclamation for its literal simplicity, faced as we are by a wealth of environmental discourses of knowledge telling us Earth is warming unnaturally fast. (5) The tide is rising, and how.

In the late twentieth century, the evolution of climate science brought undeniable evidence that global warming was altering Earth's climate. Attempts to assemble a 'big picture' of the global risk posed by such warming manifested as a polarising, moral and political dispute over human agency, both within and outside the scientific community. As historian William Stevens noted in his narrative of 'people, weather and the science of climate', since the 1980s at least, publicised debate over whether global warming was human-induced was cast as a dispute between two positions: the doubters and the believers. (6) Across the globe there appears to have been a rapid rise in the number of believers of late. This 'history of the present' has formed the backdrop for my doctoral project.

Ideas of aberrance have been common to most ways of thinking about drought throughout the modern period of Western culture--and they form the forefront of my research. Certainly, drought has starred in the ongoing cultural construction of a 'variable' and 'harsh' Australian climate, near-always qualified as fraught with the 'vagaries' of uncertainty. Droughts, much like floods, bushfires and cyclones, have punctuated Australian rural, regional and national histories, and shaped foundational narratives of endurance and hope. And when viewed in context of the sheer incidence of drought in our national history (drought makes national news headlines now much as it did a century ago), Australia has been and remains drought-stricken, crisis-ridden. (7)

If, as social historian Tim Sherratt wrote, 'climate and culture create each other across a shifting, permeable frontier', drought also has played a considerable role in the reproduction of structures of knowledge and power in Australia--of the ties that label this land, its climate and inhabitants 'Australian'. (8) In short, ways of thinking about drought are shaped historically by that climate-culture interdependency.

For nearly four years I have studied rural people's stories of how they interpret the climate in which they live. This began in 2003 with a specific focus on drought. In September 2004 and February 2005 I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with people in drought-stricken communities across the beguiling, semi-arid Mallee region of northwest Victoria. In the oral histories collected, I sought to examine drought in terms of lived experience. Conducting fieldwork formed a means of gathering discourse for cultural analysis--and in a way I needed to, for there was and remains but a handful of academic studies on the lived experience of climate in Australia. (9) Indeed, there was little published on drought as a cultural concept when I began the project, in stark contrast to the swell in interest in the topic since. (10)

Conversations on the weather may seem about as gripping as, well, a doctoral thesis. But those interviews in the Mallee procured fascinating tales of optimism amid hardship, of an enduring vulnerability--and much more. I learnt that while oral history did not provide an exacting document about historical or categorical 'real' events, oral testimony defied 'reality' by challenging accepted categories of history. The stories people shared with me in the Mallee in fact complicated dominant ideas on drought--narratives of endurance that have enabled more singular and celebratory versions of Australian rural history--as the experiences of contemporary rural life were narratives of crisis and uncertainty, which have presided over rural Australia since the 1980s. As rural sociologists Lisa Bourke and Stewart Lockie noted recently, once-bold introductory statements on rural crisis have become 'so commonplace as to seem cliched' for scholars concerned with ascertaining the causes of social, economic and environmental decay in the Australian countryside. (11) Yet recollections of a 'golden age' of agriculture still loom large in Australian rural historiography. Using oral histories of lived experience, of living memory, seemed to me a powerful means to explore tensions between the rural past and present.

Let me share with you a moment from February 2005.

Earlier that particular forty-degree day I had embarked on what felt like a drive to the end of Earth to reach Panitya, a blip on the map of the semi-arid and marginal agricultural landscape in Victoria's northwest, near the South Australian border. I admit, by the time I reached Hubie Sheldon's farm, my thoughts had turned to engineer Alfred Kenyon's infamous account of 'sand, scrub and mallee below, the scorching sun and bright blue sky above, and not a sound to break the solemn silence'. (12) But that broad-acre wheat and sheep property is where Hubie has spent most of his life, as did his father and mother before him--and his father's parents before them, having selected and cleared their 640-acre block of sand and clay country in 1910.

Across an old kitchen table, Hubie started sharing memories. He spoke of droughts and El Nino, of cycles in the weather and in world grain prices too, of massive dust-storms and soil erosion, of wicked mouse and rabbit plagues, of intensified monocultural cropping practices aided by new machinery and modified crop breeds, of cultural and physical processes acting together to determine or block the road to survival.

Hubie's story was about the Australian environment and his relationship to it--his conversation with it, if you like--as much as it was about the lessons of environmental history:
 When you look at Australia and its history, we've been here 217
 years roughly, since we've been settled ... So while we've been here
 a coupl'a hundred years, we've probably only really developed the
 country in the last hundred, and more particularly in the last
 fifty. So that's a very, very brief time. And we've altered this
 landscape a hell of a lot in a short period o' time. And if that's
 gonna change our weather patterns--which it, well, it looks like it
 is--we need to look at what we've done in the past and try and
 learn. (13)

Hubie's Mallee was 'a forgiving style of landscape', one that required our respect and of which we should avoid asking 'too much'. (14) This narrative brought into sharp relief how stories function through and as expressions of the real and of self. Perhaps Alessandro Portelli concretised this idea best in the assertion that oral stories 'communicate what history means to human beings'. (15)

With three theses worth of transcript, I intended to wrap up the fieldwork phase in 2005. Things changed quite rapidly within my research timeframe, however. Frankly, environmental and political context got in the way. In retrospect, I became quite accustomed to doing the Mallee tour, as once a year for two more years I found myself in an antiquated blue Mazda hatchback, darting between properties from Murrayville to Manangatang, Hopetoun to Hattah.

By the autumn of 2005, about half of Australia's arable land was drought-affected; forecasters predicted 'catastrophic' economic consequences (including wiping up to a third off Australia's forecast economic growth). (16) In the ultraproductivist landscape of the Mallee and across the Australian grain-belt, Anzac Day had long been considered the cut-off date for sowing winter crops like wheat. But the rain hadn't come, and farmers' hopes for crop yields were fading by the day.

Daily, the politics of drought declaration, social welfare 'relief payments' and self-governance were making national news headlines. As the dry conditions lingered, the historical and meteorological records were rewritten. As had happened many times previously, Australia was pronounced as suffering one of the worst droughts on record. (17) Prime Minister John Howard declared the drought one of the worst 'in our history'. (18)

Increasingly, however, discourse on prolonged drought shifted from the representation of meteorological anomaly to the populist search for 'proof'; it began to fuse with discourse on a far greater, global phenomenon: climate change.

By February 2006, when I returned to the Mallee for the second (and I thought final) round of interviews, talk of uncertainty about climate change peppered discussion on drought. Interviewees began reflecting on their earlier observations. Some doubted themselves. Others doubted the climate science. All doubted the bevy of politicians weighing in heavily on climate change debate in Australia, as a federal election year drew closer. But people were realigning ideas about the past, present and future--reconciling knowledge of climatic cycles gained through localised, lived experience with more abstract ideas received through science and the media about global climate change. This drew attention to their sense of mistrust in science and the media--institutions on which they also depend.

In the 1990s, sociologists Phil Macnaghten and John Urry theorised that as contemporary risks transcended the senses, extending to 'the very distant and the extraordinarily long term', people had become dependent on increasingly 'global expert systems' of knowledge. (19) Unrelenting reportage of global disasters had heightened people's sense of insecurity. The abstraction of global environmental risks, such as climate change, through science and the media thus affected personal identity and ontological security. (20)

This in mind, I discovered that, in narratives of drought in the dryland Mallee, the process of apprehending climate change was circumscribed as provisional. Uncertainty formed a defining feature of these farmers' experience of climate, as the following excerpt of oral history revealed. In February 2006 I interviewed Des and Maree Ryan with their son Andrew on their broad-acre wheat and sheep property near Manangatang. Discourse on recurrent cycles--in patterns of climate (inter-annual and--decadal) and as a way of thinking about how political economy shaped agricultural production and impacted upon rural social life--dominated the Ryans' oral history. Through that discursive frame, scientific expertise and lived experience of local environmental conditions were considered inherently partial forms of knowledge:

Do you believe in climate change?

Andrew: Well it's pretty hard not to ... if you take on board the evidence ... It does look like there is going to be some definite climate change but to what degree ... who knows? ...

Des: I'm not sure ... Might be climate change to a certain degree but it's also just one of them cycles. I dunno whether I've learnt, or I just hope, that's what it is.

Maree: Unfortunately, I think it is climate change as well. It's cyclical, but yes, there is climate change ...

Des: Every time there's been some extreme in weather, one way or the other, we hear this 'climate change' come up.

Maree: But historically even, I think I can remember our parents saying, 'the climate ... it used to be hotter', or 'it used to be ...' you know?

Des: Yeah. I think if we go back to the '40s or something, well, the climate's probably changed for the better, to what it could've been then. (21)

These interpretations of climate change were anchored in farm family (cultural) history--in the remembrance of what current and previous generations of the Ryan family had lived through. This finding corresponded with recent ethnographic research on farming 'meteorological meanings' in which Carla Roncoli et al asserted that uncertainty was 'a building block of local systems of thought'; human knowledge on climate was underscored as 'a "work in progress" that unfolds through time.' (22)

More broadly, I was learning that returning year upon year to talk with the same people, to record more of their perceptions of climate, was enabling an ongoing recontextualisation of issues of 'farm family' cultural survival, socio-economic struggle and environmental change. This brought into question the fixity of traditional methods of historical research. Time and again, I was challenged to rethink my role as researcher, to allow for a change in the weather and in people's minds too.

The cyclone catches him by surprise ... he barely registers the two dark days of solid overcast which precede it ... The air smells suddenly electric and his ears pop.
 A chill wind comes ripping through the treetops.

 Tim Winton, Dirt Music (23)

 I had a nightmare. Edging my way in heavy darkness around the
 farmhouse (this is not my house, and yet it is), the floor is a
 pool of water and I am wading through it, torch in hand ... I go
 into my brother's room, my sister's, and I spy our old cat; she is
 spooked by me. Just as I reach to embrace her, to claim company,

 I feel the angry spirits closing.

 Personal journal entry (24)

I saw Cyclone Larry sweep across far north Queensland all morning on 20 March 2006. I was told I got the best view, curled up on the floor of an inner-Melbourne terrace-house, transfixed by the small screen. That Monday I spent five hours solid watching the Seven Network, which extended its Sunrise flagship to run a marathon of cyclone coverage. Seven televised live a national suspense-thriller--a meteorological game of cyclone tracking (a kind of 'connect the big nasty swirly dots'; it was more hypnotising than Nine's parallel coverage of swimming heats), interspersed with gripping reports from eyewitnesses in Innisfail, Babinda, Silkwood and any other 'deep north' town that had mobile phone coverage (and residents: about 1,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas across the region). (25) This formulaic feat of television was held together by our hearthside 'friends of the family', hosts Mel and Kochie (Melissa Doyle and David Koch), who bridged the final truths of meteorological science with the 'raw reality' of firsthand accounts of the storm. (26)

My parents were out there in it. (27) David and Wendy Anderson bought the dairy farm on which they still live, and which I still call home, some thirty years ago when I was three. The farm lies at the southern tip of the Atherton Tableland, thirty-six kilometres inland from Innisfail, where Cyclone Larry crossed the coast, and encompasses some 150 acres of dense rainforest that adjoins the World Heritage-listed Wooroonooran National Park. This is where my sister Jan, brother Maurice and I grew up, where we lived in a Queenslander-style house built in the late 1930s from a mix of local Ash, Queensland Maple and other timbers. It was a home plagued by mould during the relentless, annual wet season. (28)

The landscape I love is in fact a far cry from the dairy farmers' idyll, but rather a mosaic of tropical pastures and thick pockets of always-damp forest. Lately it's more a picture of slippery-steep hills marred by the fresh diggings of wild pigs. Paths into waterfalls we frequented as kids have long been grown over by the likes of lantana, wild raspberry and bramble bush, nestled in with the dreaded stinging tree, which, if brushed against, will inflict an agonising sting that lasts for months. (29) Several creeks wind through the property, in jagged gullies, whose waterways can swell into a torrent in the height of the wet. Indeed, one of my most vivid memories is of Dad dragging me from a swollen river during Cyclone Winifred in 1986; through the eyes of a twelve-year-old, that moment fixed upon him heroic status.

But Winifred was tame compared to Larry, which was bearing down on Innisfail from the Coral Sea as a category five cyclone, with winds of up to 290 kilometres per hour and gusts up to 320 kilometres per hour. (30)

That morning of March 20 I was at first grateful to Seven's extended coverage, but then the network started championing the exclusivity of its live event. I began to sneer when V8 Supercar-star and Sunrise weatherman Grant Denyer, replete with wet-weather gear, hollered excitedly down the camera, live on the street, from the mild squall of Townsville. (31) I saw a couple of cars cruise past, in shot behind Denyer, and then I swore. Did the metropolitan TV audience not realise that Townsville was as far from Innisfail as Melbourne was from Warrnambool?

While the public spectacle of Cyclone Larry belonged to national network television, the absence of local footage compounded the impression that a pocket of far north Queensland was 'cut off' from the world. Admittedly, I still saw more of Larry's path from my Carlton lounge-room floor than did my parents as they lived through it, cut off as they were from the power of television, cowering in a flea-infested strongroom in their next-door neighbour's defunct dairy. That concrete strongroom was reinforced with steel; it was built by a big bloke who had survived Tracy, the first Australian cyclone to be interpreted as a 'national event' and in which sixty-five people died. (32) Larry was stronger than Tracy, however, if less tragic in human lives. And while Seven was busy narrating the nation's biggest live cyclone coverage, I was waiting to hear word of my family. It seemed a long wait.

David: You can hear it coming, just like a roar of thunder comin' at you, just an absolute scream and roar. If you can imagine a railway train coming full bore down the tracks at you. Or big semitrailers steaming towards you, a big line of semis. And it hits, just with a wallop. Even that concrete building was vibrating ...

Wendy: I didn't realise steel could twist like that. It was twisting, the whole end of the roof was going up and down, twisting at least ten inches to a foot. In Winifred the timber was flexing in the ceiling of our house ... Well, this time steel was twisting ... The whole building trembled, sort of like a whole lot of cattle, a stampede coming ...

David: Our biggest worry was the pine trees across the road snapping off and 'firing' through the roof. We could hear them crashing off. We knew if one big one came off and hit ... You just gotta sit there and hope, and think 'how do we survive?' Mum thought I was crazy--I had ropes, I had chainsaws, I had axes, I had heaps of wire, the lot. At daylight around 5.30, 6 o'clock, we could see the neighbour's roof lifting up and down and all of a sudden it just disappeared ... (33)

Mum telephoned early afternoon--her voice muted, as if transmitting from under the Coral Sea. She spoke of 'the power of nature', of trees having been snapped off like twigs and hurled through the air. She was standing in a pool of water 'inside' our house, and remarked how a cat had just swum past. Much of the farmhouse roof had been curled up, peeled off, strewn up to half a kilometre down the nearby bull paddock.

Wendy: It was raining inside. I s'pose I was in a bit of shock ... It was devastation, I s'pose. Everything's broken and everywhere you look it's all ... you think 'hmm, where do we start?' Main thing is that nobody got hurt, so we're quite well off in that department.

David: The house was pouring, just a bog. Water was just pouring through. It was just a mongrel-looking sort of a day--damp, dark, everything sopping. It was real overcast, just pelting with rain. Everywhere you look was just trees flat, fences down. No power, no nothing. The dogs had survived, cats were still around ... It was pretty surreal.

My parents found their dairy herd of eighty-odd cows standing in a mud-lake, which the cattle had created in the corner of a hillside paddock:

David: They'd been going round and round all huddled together in a corner of that paddock all night long. We never got milking till around two o'clock. The dairy was strewn with rubbish. Roof was off, of course. We had a job trying to milk. The machines kept falling to bits ... And the cows only had one milking that day so they were busting. Took us ages to get through ...

The coastal region surrounding Innisfail and stretching inland to the Tableland was declared a 'natural disaster zone'. (34) Residents, businesses and emergency crews faced a massive clean-up in Larry's wake. Preliminary reports estimated the cost of loss and damage to be worth more than half a billion dollars. (35) Like a war effort (and similar to the Darwin appeals at the time of Cyclone Tracy), charity from around the country marked the start of a 'national healing narrative'. (36) The Australian Defence Force dispatched troops from army, navy and air force bases across Queensland to assist far north communities despairing in the aftermath. According to one news report, Larry had damaged around 14,000 homes, devastated the region's fruit and sugar cane crops, and--who could forget--crippled Queensland's $400-million banana industry. (37)

Certainly it seemed much of the nation's experience of Larry came to centre upon that grim hike in the price of a thick-skinned tropical fruit. A work colleague in Melbourne pointed out to me that being forced to pay in excess of fifteen dollars a kilogram for bananas (more than five times the pre-cyclone price) was in fact how many Australians would remember Larry. While I saw truth in the comment, it left me stunned. It's hard to erase the memory that lingers for me--of a grey mist rising from an obliterated rainforest, and the deathly silence that descended upon it. Tim Low wrote in Australian Geographic that, by one estimate, seventy percent of all animals in the cyclone's central path had perished:

The forests were left unnaturally quiet, robbed of their song. Vast numbers of songbirds were probably crushed by flying debris ... But surviving a cyclone means living through the aftermath as well, and animals of the [rainforest] canopy had no canopy to return to, while inhabitants of the shadowy understorey found the lid lifted off their world ... (38)

On my family's farm it rains 200 days a year, on average. Of course in 2006 it rained 264 days, in one part for 105 days straight, so it's a little absurd to think in averages. We'd all experienced the annual cyclone seasons, typically from December to April, but the onslaught of torrential rain that fell for weeks on end after Cyclone Larry was unheard of, and it transformed the wreckage to a swampland of decay. I took leave to be with my family; like so many others, we looked on helplessly as the mould enveloped ever so gently the fragile objects of household memory.

Amid the enormity of the clean-up, the accompanying physical, economic and emotional strain made any progress seem agonisingly small. It took nineteen days for power to be restored to our end of the Tableland; it took a week just to clear the road into our property of forest debris, to allow the milk tanker in to pick up the milk at night. In between milking cows morning and evening, the days slipped by as we tore the insides of the house apart and carted its soggy remnants to the local dump.

It took my mother some weeks to bring herself to inspect what was left in some dark corners of the house--to simply open the cupboards. Perhaps it was too hard to face the demise of whatever lay within. Eventually, hour by hour we pieced through those objects of family history: wedding gifts from forty years previous, great-grandparents' photographs, glum school notebooks and sheet music and all the peculiar trinkets of childhood. Even the flooring had tales to tell, as we tore up layer upon psychedelic layer of linoleum from the 1980s, '70s, '60s and '50s, all welded together by the gritty damp. By the time I returned to Melbourne in June, the dairy herd was sold, the business shut down, and rebuilding of the house had begun.

Talk turned to the future, even as it revolved around the washed-out imprint of the past. Cyclone Larry had exaggerated public debate on signs of a changing climate. 'Could it be the harbinger of a new drought-busting La Nina weather cycle?' our national broadcaster beseeched. 'Could it be a product of human-induced climate change? Or is it just too soon to tell?' (39) The Bureau of Meteorology reported a rise in number of intense tropical cyclones in the past three decades. But scientists awaited more proof that Larry was the product of climate change. As Geoff Love, the Bureau's director of meteorology, told ABC Science Online, 'only time will tell'. (40)

Meantime, lay speculation on climate change was bound up in remembrance of the past. Much as I'd discovered in drought-stricken communities in the Victorian Mallee, far north Queensland perceptions of increased geographical vulnerability to more frequent and intense weather events in the near future seemed to hinge on self-assessment of lived experience--on histories that emphasised survival. Yet the dawning of belief in climate change lay exposed in praxis, in the fight to apprehend the disorientation and the sadness of the present.

The power of time and chance cannot be underestimated as agents in research. In late 2006, as I strove to get back on track with my studies, the national public agenda turned to climate change, adding a further dimension to the scope of my doctoral project. The delay has meant my PhD research has witnessed the momentous shift in Australian public discourse on global warming.

Now, as never before, climate change is high on the Australian public agenda. The spring of 2006, in particular, brought a dramatic shift in Australian discourse on climate, and this was startling even for a scholar who had spent nearly three years immersed in talk of weather extremes.

The Australian Climate Institute reported in March 2007 that concern about climate change was at 'an all time high', after a survey of 1,000 Australians found that climate change ranked as more important than housing affordability and national security. (41) It found the 'vast majority' of Australians no longer doubted climate change was 'real' or attributable to human activity that caused greenhouse gases. (42) The report concluded: 'Water shortages and the drought have certainly sharpened the public's interest in the issue and a sense that we are already seeing the effects of climate change.' Scientist Snow Barlow also linked the fact that global warming registers so high on the public agenda to Australians' contemporary experience of the weather, and underlined the power of popular culture as a medium for mainstream science. Barlow stated:
 The record maximum temperatures and the accompanying bushfires of
 early spring 2006 dramatically underlined to the community that
 this is not just a severe drought--it is climate change. At the
 same time we had the Stern report providing credible economic
 analysis of the costs of continued inaction and Al Gore's
 Oscar-winning 'slide-show' bringing the science of climate change
 to millions in Australia and internationally. (43)

When I returned to the Mallee in February 2007 (how could I not?), the shift in broader public awareness of climate change was shaping the stories of most of my interviewees. In effect, the extended collection of stories began revealing interpretations of drought as climate change--encompassing tensions between the past and present, about Australian relationships to land and water that have never been resolved.

While the events of our pasts are unchangeable, the stories we recount of our lived experiences change with time. For memory is innately revisionist--as Freud taught: as in a dream, a whole series of events can be telescoped into a single moment of history (44)--and meaning is seldom static. Viewed in this light my doctoral candidature, nearing its end, has become a shifting terrain of stories and story-telling, an ongoing process of destabilising the way things were ordered in the immediate past.

In the midst of research and the experience of weird and wild weather, of learning and loss, it seemed I had stumbled upon a lesson none would set out to take. In some respects my family's story mirrored the volumes of memories I had recorded in the Mallee; it served to highlight just how badly we require a sense of the past infusing the present. For, a survivor narrative assumes that a stable self can be recovered--and this is a narrative which discourse on global climate change has served to challenge, to disrupt. As sociologist Barbara Adam suggested, as our world became more 'globalised', the greater became our need to construct boundaries to 'reassert traditional identities'. (45) In short, the more the future 'predefined' the present, the more intense was people's concern with the past.

Yet perhaps our minds are more open to the germ of a new idea when resurfacing from awkwardness and uncertainty. Maybe it's more that our minds are ready; to have meaning, a moment of discovery needs a well-prepared context on which to shed light.

Deb Anderson

The Australian Centre/School of Historical Studies


(1) Edward O Wilson, In Search of Nature, Island Press, Washington DC, 1996, 183. The line hails from a passage in which Wilson, a scientist, imagined aliens watching on from space as humans gained intelligent control of Earth. The 'moment' to which Wilson referred was in fact a period of a few centuries--still 'a mere tick in geological time'--or that period leading to our current, global environmental crisis. 'Is humanity suicidal?' Wilson asked. 'Is the drive to environmental conquest and self-propagation embedded so deeply in our genes as to be unstoppable?' Optimistically, he concluded not. See Wilson, 183-6.

(2) Edward W Said, 'Adorno as lateness itself', in Malcolm Bull (ed.), Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, Blackwell, Oxford, 264-81, 264.

(3) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Alan Sheridan (trans.), Vintage Books, New York, 1973. Clearly Foucault's epithet to 'man' obscures the potential of woman (is she left to inherit Earth?). Feminists have condemned the failure of much critical theory to address adequately the experience of women (whether 'woman' is a cultural construct or not). Jane Freimiller, for example, argued that while traditional epistemologies had devalued the environment and women, postmodernists, deep ecologists and social ecologists have yet to 'divest themselves of the androcentrism permeating their thought'. Freimiller wrote: 'For it is not anthropocentrism that provides a skewed perspective on the environment, but specifically the male perspective that structures the thought and institutions of modernity and the responses to it.' See: Jane Freimiller, 'Unnatural discourse', Social Theory and Practice, vol.24, no.2, 1998, 283-99.

(4) Apocalyptic pronouncements were 'common enough' in the texts of the French intellectual avant-garde, given that the rise of structural anthropology and the 'linguistic turn' formed epithets to the demise of traditional philosophies of language and interpretation. See: Christopher Norris, 'Versions of apocalypse: Kant, Derrida, Foucault', in Malcolm Bull (ed.), Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, 227-49, 227.

(5) The most authoritative of the latest mainstream scientific reports was released in the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC), which included: Richard Alley et al, 'Climate change 2007: The physical science basis, summary for policymakers', Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Secretariat, Paris, 2007.

(6) William K Stevens, The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate, Delacorte Press, New York, 1999, 243.

(7) Brad West and Philip Smith, 'Drought, discourse, and Durkheim: A research note', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol.32, no.1, 1996, 93-102, 97.

(8) Tim Sherratt, 'The human elements', in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, 4.

(9) The prominent exception is Australia's foremost sociological project on drought, which emerged in the late 1990s: Daniela Stehlik, Ian Gray and Geoffrey Lawrence, Drought in the 1990s: Australian Farm Families' Experiences, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Rockhampton, Qld, 1998.

(10) Works published since 2003, when I began my research project, include: Linda Courtenay Botterill and Melanie Fisher (eds), Beyond Drought: People, Policy and Perspectives, CSIRO, Collingwood, Vic., 2003; Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds); and Michael McKernan, Drought: The Red Marauder, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2005.

(11) Lisa Bourke and Stewart Lockie, 'Rural Australia: An introduction', in Stewart Lockie and Lisa Bourke (eds), Rurality Bites, Pluto Press, Annandale, NSW, 2001, 1-14, 1.

(12) Alfred S Kenyon, in Robin Bromby, Unlocking the Land: The Saga of Farming in Australia, Lothian, Melbourne, 1986, 55.

(13) Deb Anderson, 'Hubie Sheldon: The lived experience of drought in the Mallee', Museum Victoria, Ngallo, Vic., 14 February 2005.

(14) Anderson, 'Hubie Sheldon'.

(15) Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Guilia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1997, 42.

(16) Tim Lee, 'Forecasters offer alternatives to "dry winter" prediction', Landline, ABC TV, 29 May 2005, viewed 18 May 2007, at landline/content/2005/s1377788.htm.

(17) As sociologists West and Smith noted in their study of media, political and popular discourses on Australian drought in the 100 years to 1995 that 'droughts were consistently defined as unexpectedly severe in their intensity or duration' (94).

(18) Misha Schubert, '$250m rescue package for farms', The Age, 31 May 2005, 4.

(19) Phil Macnaghten and John Urry, Contested Natures, Sage, London, 1998, 99-100.

(20) Macnaghten and Urry, 98.

(21) Deb Anderson, 'Maree, Des and Andrew Ryan: Perceptions of climate change in the Mallee', Museum Victoria, Manangatang, Vic., 2006.

(22) Carla Roncoli, Keith Ingram, Christine Jost and Paul Kirshen, 'Meteorological meanings: Farmers' interpretations of seasonal rainfall forecasts in Burkina Faso', in Sarah Strauss and Benjamin S Orlove (eds), Weather, Climate, Culture, Berg, Oxford, 181-200, 188.

(23) Tim Winton, Dirt Music, Picador, Sydney, 2001, 358. I've omitted from the quotation the following line (for brevity; but I include it here for fellow Winton devotees): 'The afternoon of the third day is black but it feels no different from the usual diurnal build-up until he notices fish jumping madly amongst the flooded mangroves and when he looks down the gulf he sees the irritable state of the water beyond the island's lee.'

(24) This is an edited excerpt from my journal, entered four days before Cyclone Larry crossed the Queensland coast. I reconcile the timing of the entry as sheer coincidence, a dream of chance. The feline was Casper (yes, as in The Friendly Ghost!); she was the family's cat of some fifteen years, and that she haunted my subconscious was not unthinkable for she had passed away a couple of months previously.

(25) 'Monster cyclone slams into coast', The Age, 20 March 2006, viewed 18 May 2007, 2006/03/20/1142703248280.html.

(26) Jonathan Benthell coined this term in his study of images and narratives of disaster relief. See Benthell, Disasters, Relief and the Media, IB Tauris, London, 1993, 194.

(27) So too were my older sister, Jan, and her husband Andrew. Jan was then manager of community development for the local Eacham Shire Council. She spent the duration of Larry at council headquarters, which served as a disaster co-ordination centre, in Malanda (about 40 km from our parents' farm and also in the cyclone's path). Andrew saw out the cyclone from their nearby tea and beef farm at Butchers Creek. Astonishingly, their home incurred minimal damage.

(28) Much of the region's landscape was marred by timber felling for most of the twentieth century. This changed with the proclamation of World Heritage rainforest listing throughout the area in 1988.

(29) The leaves, stems and fruit of stinging trees, also known as Gympie stingers (Dendrocnide moroides), are covered in hairs made from silica; when brushed against, their tips break off in the skin, releasing neurotoxins. The plant prefers the sun, so is common where rainforest has been cleared--and indeed has thrived since Cyclone Larry. See: Queensland Government, 'Malanda Falls Conservation Park: Nature, culture and history', Environmental Protection Agency/Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, last modified 20 September 2006, viewed 1 August 2007,

(30) The Bureau of Meteorology classed Larry crossing the coast as a category four cyclone. But as my father said: 'It seems to have hit in pockets. The Bureau's saying now that it crossed the coast as a category four but even they're admitting it seems to have broken up into sections, like big vortexes. I still think we must've copped close around to a [category] five where we are.'

(31) Wikimedia Foundation, 'Grant Denyer', Wikipedia, last modified 10 May 2007, viewed 18 May 2007,

(32) Brad West, 'Mythologising a natural disaster in post-industrial Australia: The incorporation of Cyclone Tracy within Australian national identity', Journal of Australian Studies, no.66, 2000, 198-204. West noted Cyclone Tracy was 'unique' in being interpreted as national event, which he linked to the way in which Tracy evoked a national mythology of warfare. This was in contrast to the long list of previous cyclones with a greater human death toll--such as Cyclone Mahina in 1899, in which more than 300 people died at Bathurst Bay in Queensland.

(33) David and Wendy Anderson, personal communication, 7 May 2007.

(34) 'Monster cyclone'.

(35) Wikimedia Foundation, 'Tropical Cyclone Larry', Wikipedia, last modified 3 May 2007, viewed 6 May 2007, at

(36) West, 203.

(37) Kathryn Roberts, 'Innisfail residents remember Larry devastation one year on', ABC Radio AM, 19 March 2007, viewed on 18 May 2007 at http://

(38) Tim Low, 'When cyclones strike', Australian Geographic, no.85, 2007, viewed 6 May 2007, ehost/detail?vid=2&hid=119&sid=c16c9bc2-994f-4cff-ab8f-b0112ab48eb 7%40sessionmgr106.

(39) Judy Skatssoon, 'News in science: Cyclone Larry adds to climate confusion', ABC Science Online, 21 March 2006, viewed 6 August 2007, at

(40) Skatssoon.

(41) The Climate Institute's stated goals, I must note, are to raise awareness of global warming and 'motivate the country to take positive action'. See: Climate Institute of Australia, 'Climate of the nation: Australians' attitudes to climate change and its solutions', 31 March 2007, viewed 18 May 2007,, 1, 3.

(42) Climate Institute, 17.

(43) Snow Barlow was reported in: Nerissa Hannink, Rebecca Scott and Janine Sim-Jones, 'The big shift', The University of Melbourne Voice, vol.1, no.1, 2007, 4.

(44) Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson, 'Introduction', in Raphael Samuel & Paul Thompson (eds), The Myths We Live By, Routledge, London, 1-22, 7.

(45) Barbara Adam, 'Detraditionalisation and the certainty of uncertain futures', in Paul Heelas, Scott Lash and Paul Morris (eds), Detraditionalisation: Critical Ref lections on Authority and Identity, Blackwell, Oxford, 134-48, 139.
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Title Annotation:Cyclone Larry
Author:Anderson, Deb
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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