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Everyday anthropology

A weed by definition alone says a lot

buffel hills

In his books The New Nature and Feral Future, Tim Low writes about the adaptability of weeds and introduced species to thrive and transform the natural environmental of Australia. Through the stories of explorers writing about the Harpy-like crows, the endangered bell frog living in the old quarry pools at Homebush, and chapter titles such as ‘nature needs weeds’, Low writes of how nature can strive and thrive alongside cities and humans. His is a writing that avoids the nostalgia that can creep into environmental writing that holds on too tightly to what this country used to look like. It’s a writing that appreciates nature for what it is today. That’s not to say that all weeds should remain or that some introduced species shouldn’t be halted in their progress, for they cause problems that need to be dealt with. It’s more a rethinking of a case-by-case basis.

Last weekend I attended a historical walk in Alice Springs that gave me much the same impression as reading Low. The talk was by Dick Kimber about the Spencer Hill region. For those who don’t know Dick Kimber, he’s kinda a local authority on Central Australia having lived and worked there for close to 40 years. As well versed in the Whitefella history of the place as he is the Aboriginal history, he has featured numerous times on the ABC. Just google his name and you’ll see him and hear his words.

The talk itself was a stop-start rambling walk that went for more than an hour. Beginning where the floodway meets the Todd River, we followed the channel, stopping along the way to learn about the history of WW2 and the ammunition bunkers which lined the bottom of the hill, one of which still stands today and is often used as shelter by those homeless. Dick told us of the plan he’d heard from an army sergeant to blow up Heavitree Gap if the Japanese ever got this far down from Darwin.

The walk continued, and passed across the channel towards Spencer Hill itself. Around the bottom of the Hill, Dick talked about the significance of buffel grass in the region. For Alice Springs residents, Buffel Grass is something of sticking point – hated by many for the way it dominates the landscape by killing other grass with its high burn and being loved by pastoralists as it has fed many cattle through many a drought or dry season.

Dick himself stayed clear of weighing in on the argument and merely mentioned the reports his wife had written about the two sides of the buffel debate. Instead, what Dick gave was a history of the grass itself, from its origins in Rajasthan to its travelling across Central Australia in the saddles of the early cameleers, spreading throughout the landscape as cameleers repaired their saddles. Not only that, it was planted near waterholes by these cameleers as a way of marking their long trails and treks.

Dick spoke of it being collected by Aboriginal women in giant big bags for station masters so that when the rains came they could release the seeds and turn their lands into a field of buffel for their cattle. This, Dick said, helped many a family in Alice Springs survive a drought.

One lady in the crowd, who would have been in her 80s, spoke of her husband getting it from town in little calico bags in 1960 and then planting it around. It was sold to help prevent the dust storms that used to frequently blow through town – an occurrence that sill happens occasionally, but is much less frequent.

Listening to Dick, buffel took on an anthropological value. Here we had something out of place, something considered as not belonging, and yet its very existence told so many stories. And it wasn’t only buffel that interested Dick; there was also asbestos block sheets, tin lids, bottle caps, plastic, the placement of the stones. They all had some value that indicated some point of history of the town. In the space of an hour, the most ordinary object had become something so much more, emphasising the importance of looking at things more closely.

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Scott Foyster lives in Mpartnwe/Alice Springs where he writes and collects stories to share. He is one of the editors of Wai, an independent quarterly national newspaper on social jusice and environmental issues around the country/region, and is also one half of Black Kite Press, an independent press that is currently working on it's first publication.

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