Location location location: the future of environmental history

early map 2

A recurring theme in Australia’s environmental history is the quest for the Grand National Narrative. The desire to create the universal ‘big picture’ story that is everywhere relevant, everywhere important. This theme dominates many popular environmental histories, from Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres to Tim Flannery’s Future Eaters and Bill Gammage’s recent book, The Biggest Estate on Earth.

The quest for over-generality isn’t new, and can be traced back to Thomas Mitchell’s famous quote from the mid-1800s:

“Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue. Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests…. But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably contained as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America, instead of the open forests in which the white men now find grass for their cattle.”(Mitchell 1848)

It’s a unique and perceptive observation. But it certainly stretches the geographical imagination. A thick New Zealand jungle? In Adelaide, Wagga Wagga and Canberra. Really? Would you buy a used car from Mitchell Motors?

Historical fiction? It’s fanciful to suggest that dry Australian woodlands would look like this if they didn’t get burnt. Source: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

This goal for global generalization is abetted by the non-spatial nature of many environmental histories. Observations from one locality are appropriated and applied elsewhere, to paper-over the absence of information from the region in question. The historian Bill Gammage champions this non-spatial approach in his award-winning book, The Biggest Estate on Earth.

“Scientists (and historians) … often shackle themselves…, confining their sources to a limited study area. This deprives them of sources [from distant places] and context…. A better approach is to seek as well sources and context beyond the study area.”(Gammage 2011, p. 335)

As an ecologist, I find this approach deeply troubling. The golden adage of real estate, ‘Location, Location, Location’, is equally apt for ecology and environmental history. Locality matters, and ecological observations – historical and current – can’t be traded like swap cards across the country side. There can be no latitude in applying a longitude.

Making a modern history

What happens if we ditch the old non-spatial approaches and instead use a modern spatial method? Do we discover a different history if we carefully pin each observation to the place it was made, rather than smudging old records across the map?

In a great new paper in Biological Conservation, Jenny Silcock and colleagues from Queensland answer this question, by creating the first, explicitly spatial, environmental history for a huge slab of north-east Australia.

They did their homework well. They extracted every record of vegetation, fire, waterholes and animals from the diaries of twelve expeditions by early explorers. Laboriously, they plotted each record on a Geographic Information System (GIS). They then overlaid the old records on new maps of rainfall and vegetation types, such as spinifex grasslands, brigalow shrublands and eucalypt woodlands. In total, they pinned down the locality of almost 4,500 historical records.

Silcock explorers
Jenny Silcock and colleagues painstakingly digitized every record of plants, animals, fire and waterholes from each explorer’s diary in this huge part of north-east Australia. (Source: Silcock et al. 2013).

It’s hard to feel ‘shackled… to a limited study area’ when you can analyze thousands of records from many Million (truly) Wild Acres. A big spatial dataset is enabling, not restricting. It enabled Silcock and colleagues to answer questions like, did the explorers record lots of fires, as is widely thought? Was the vegetation much more open then than it is now? Did their observations differ between rainfall zones and vegetation types? Their paper is fascinating and well worth reading, and I can only skim over their many findings in this short post.

Surprisingly, the explorer’s mentioned fire rarely, especially in the driest regions. Where less than 250 mm of rain falls each year, there were only five records of fire from over 11,000 kms of travel. The explorer McKinlay wrote of ‘Blackfellows burning grass… the first bushfire we have seen’ near the end, not the start, of his seven-month journey. Was the vegetation more open then than now? Some areas definitely thickened up, but many areas were equally thick 200 years ago. The authors concluded:

Careful evaluation of the record suggests little change in broad vegetation structure or waterhole permanence, running counter to prevailing paradigms. The sparse observations of fire suggest burning was infrequent and mostly restricted to creek-lines and higher-rainfall grasslands in the east and north of the study area and spinifex-dominated vegetation.(Silcock et al. 2013, p. 321)

What did Major Thomas Mitchell see? Given his famous quote, you’d imagine that he recorded lots and lots of fires. Perhaps he did in other regions, but not here. In Jenny Silcock’s words:

Selectively plucking quotes from the journals can result in them being taken out of context. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is Mitchell’s musings that ‘Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue’. This oft-quoted passage has been used to imply that most of Australia was regularly burnt and, indeed, dependent upon burning…. This is not supported by Mitchell’s 1844–1845 journal, which contains only occasional references to fire in the 2000 km he travelled through Queensland, and no references in 500 km of the semi-arid zone traversed.(Silcock et al. 2013, p. 329)

By confining their sources to their study area, and tying each observation to a specific locality, Silcock and colleagues discovered a very different history to the Grand Narrative of open woodlands and frequent fires. By definition, their findings cannot be extrapolated to other regions. They are pinned to the places they were recorded. We may fully expect to find very different patterns and processes in other regions.

Great studies like this remind us that spatial studies don’t shackle ecologists, historians or readers. They liberate us. They enable us to compare patterns between landscapes, between soil types, between vegetation types and between centuries, to address – in a repeatable and transparent way – questions that can’t be answered by broad-brush, non-spatial, Grand Narratives. Spatial histories give us many nuanced narratives, not one big blurry one.

History unchained

Grand Narratives of environmental history are a product of their time. The product of an era in scholarly history that championed personal interpretations; an era in technology that demanded records be painstakingly transcribed, compiled and synthesized by hand; an era in story-telling that placed the singular narrative (the weighty tome) above multiple local experience.

Like CDs and newspapers, Grand Narratives are not the product for our time. We can download priceless texts from the web and mark-up every relevant quote; no-one could before. We can follow explorer’s trails on Google Earth. We can pin-point on a digital map every sentence in every historical diary and every historical landscape painting and lithograph.

We can link quotations to Wikipedia and Google Scholar. We can upload a photo from a phone, and instantly compare past and present vistas. With a click of a mouse and a swipe on a screen, we can overlay maps of rocks, soils, rainfall and ecosystems. We can search and select any information we want. We can generate multiple local histories from local data, informed but not confounded by a wealth of ancillary material.

We can follow Thomas Mitchell in Street View.

Location, location, location. It liberates the future of history from the shackles of the singular National Narrative. We have all the tools we need to create the best histories we’ve ever had. We haven’t yet stitched all the pieces together, but it won’t take long. When we do, the environmental history of the future will be bound, not by an over-imaginative narrative, but by a latitude, a longitude, a link and an address.

Beam me back Siri …. Back to Leichhardt.

Further reading

Gammage B (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Mitchell TL (1848). Journal of an expedition into the interior of tropical Australia. In search of a route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria. (Link to full text ebook; one day you will be able to follow him on Google Earth)

Silcock JL, Piddocke, T.P & Fensham RJ (2013). Illuminating the dawn of pastoralism: Evaluating the record of European explorers to inform landscape change. Biological Conservation 159, 321–331.

The photo at the top of this blog is taken from Project Gutenberg.

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15 thoughts

  1. Hi Ian – one of the best posts yet. Thanks for introducing Jenny’s paper to the wider world – I thought it was an excellent piece of work too. For me, this old data is like red wine. It get’s better with age. Understanding the appropriate way to use historical data – to ask ecological questions at the appropriate ecological scales – is what I think you (and Jenny) have done a great service to in this post.

    1. Hello John, thanks for your comment. You are right, it’s all about ‘scale’. If the scale of generalization is too broad, we risk losing, not gaining, valuable information. Best wishes Ian

  2. Hi Ian,
    Great blog. I think we have some of the same issues in other prominent ecological debates – e.g. grazing effects, tree dynamics – many of the main points of contention are issues of scale and location (including management history, climate, their interactions, etc.). ‘Unshackling’ ourselves from ecological context has led to syntheses that are not very useful…
    Your Turner Review on grazing effects shows us that we can synthesise our knowledge in a way that doesn’t ignore context and scale, and there is plenty of scope to do this for many of our unresolved ecological questions.
    Cheers, Nick

    1. Hi Nick, great point, I hadn’t thought about it that way. A challenge in many conservation and ecological issues is working out an appropriate scale at which generalizations can be made, and also identifying the key factors that delimit the range of generalizations. For example soil nutrient level might be a useful factor to guide decisions about grazing, and rainfall amount and seasonality might be used to limit generalizations about fire behavior.

      There’s an interesting new paper by Brett Murphy and colleagues that identifies fire regions in Australia, which has just come out, which builds on your point above….

      Fire regimes of Australia: a pyrogeographic model system

      Thanks again for a great comment, best wishes Ian

  3. I note that you do not bother spelling out Gammage’s ‘grand narrative’, which is that Aboriginal people were engaged in purposeful, fine-grained land management in all parts of the continent prior to white man’s arrival. To support his hypothesis, he advances a large number of location specific examples from Cook’s journal entries of his vantage point from Grassy Hill (now forested) in 1770 to Von Guerard’s watercolour of Mt Eccles at contact. In these and many other examples given, the landscape described was very different from what it was today. Where once the landscape was ‘park-like,’ there now lies dense forest. I found Gamage’s exposition illuminating, a quantum advance on the ‘firestick farming’ school of Australian history.

    As for Mitchell, he may not have mentioned fire much in his travels up north, but in his journals of his 1839 travels through Australia Felix he records how the marks of fire were everywhere to be seen, even on the highest mountain tops. I couldn’t agree with you more – it helps to ensure that our criticisms match the locations.

    1. Hello Gib, thanks for your comment. In a short blog it’s hard to discuss lots of details, and my main aim was to highlight the new paper by Silcock and colleagues, not Bill Gammage’s lengthy book.

      Silcock and co found very few records of fire from any explorer (not just Mitchell) in their large study area. Their region was enormous, and included most of inland Qld excluding Cape York, plus parts of SA and NSW. If we base our conclusions on the historical evidence from their region (rather than on a recent interpretation by a modern reader of evidence from other places), it’s difficult to sustain the argument that there was a ‘fine-grained’ fire management regime prior to European settlement in their region – even though many Aboriginal people obviously lived there and used fire in a very purposeful way.

      Silcock and co also found that, overall, the landscape wasn’t ’very different from what is it today’ even though changes have definitely occurred in many areas. As I point out in the blog, this doesn’t mean that Silcock’s findings can be extended to other regions, they can’t. But similarly, it does indicate that narratives developed from evidence in other regions don’t seem to apply to the large area studied by Silcock and colleagues.

      Unfortunately, the link I provided to Silcock’s paper requires a subscription, but hopefully you will be able to access a copy, as it’s a very informative study, and I’m sure you will enjoy it. Best wishes Ian

  4. Dear Ian

    I quite agree with you about the lack of spatial awareness (I call it geography!) in many environmental histories and especially Gammage’s.

    But I thought that Silcock and Fensham’s paper was one of his targets, on fairly specific grounds. Have the author’s addressed the methodological issues Gammage raises anywhere, and if so, to what effect?

    1. Hello Deirdre, thanks very much for your comment. The paper by Jenny Silcock and co came out about a month ago, and I’m not aware of any critiques of it – I doubt that there’s been time for any to have been published yet.

      ‘Spatial history’ or ‘geography’? I studied the latter when I was went to uni, long long ago, but the term has declined in usage nowadays. I wonder how many young readers get excited by ‘geography’? Hopefully lots. Thanks again, and best wishes, Ian

  5. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for your blog on our explorers paper. It was a rewarding and enjoyable project to work on while wandering around western Queensland looking at plants and pondering landscapes over the past few years – albeit verging on obsessive at times, and by no means ‘finished’! What better companions to have around the campfire than the first people to write about those same landscapes, right on the cusp of a massive change in land management? Certainly there are problems and frustrations with using the explorer record in this way, as outlined in our paper, but it is unique in its insights from this critical period. Bill Gammage’s book is impressive in its scope and beautifully written, but I do think we lose something when we aim for global truths and overarching narratives. The local context invariably becomes subsumed in any quest for such ‘grand narratives’. Through millennia humans have been intimate with and tried to understand their necessarily small and limited patches of the world, rarely able to travel far from their hometowns. Now we can fly around the world and analyse global datasets (which is amazing and exciting as well!). But I still feel that some of the most interesting and enduring studies are those which are grounded in attachment to, and observance of, a particular place – and the historical record provides a temporal scale we would otherwise be unable to obtain.

    1. Hi Jen, thanks for your wonderful comment – and for your great paper. You possess a wonderful respect for both land and history. The more you continue to build our understanding of your favourite landscapes, the more likely that, in another century or two, ecologists and historians will be re-tracing your steps, humbled to discover and camp at your campsites. Keep your theodolite and GPS accurate. 🙂 Thanks again, and best wishes, Ian

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