Essay

The planet is alive

Radical histories for uncanny times

I WANT TO take you on a journey from the planet to the parish, from the global to the local, from the Earth in space to the earth beneath our feet, from the lonely glowing speck of dust at the edge of the galaxy to the soil that we kneel upon and sift through our fingers and to which we ultimately return, dust to dust. These are contrasting perspectives of our home – one vertiginous, the other intimate; one from the outside in deep space and the other from the inside in deep time – on very different scales but still connected. And we have to see them as connected if we are to live respectfully and sustainably as part of nature.

I refer to the first decades of the twenty-first century as ‘uncanny times’, for they are weird, strange and unsettling in ways that question nature and culture and even the possibility of distinguishing between them. The Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh uses the term ‘uncanny’ in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016). For him, the word captures our experience of what he calls ‘the urgent proximity of non-human presences’. He’s referring to other creatures, insects, animals, plants, biota, even the very elements themselves – water, earth, air, fire – and our renewed sense of dependence upon them. The planet is alive, says Ghosh, and only for the last three centuries have we forgotten that. We have been suffering from ‘the great derangement’, a disturbing condition of wilful and systematic blindness to the consequences of our own actions, in which we are knowingly killing the planetary systems that support the survival of our species. That’s what’s uncanny about our times: that we are half-aware of this predicament yet also paralysed by it, caught between horror and hubris.

Climate change and ecological crisis are often seen as purely scientific issues. But as a historian, I want to persuade you that all environmental problems are at heart human ones, that ‘scientific’ issues are also, and probably pre-eminently, challenges for the humanities. An historian’s view of the ecological crisis links our experience today with modern history, medieval history, classical history, indigenous history – with human experience over the last few centuries and across deep time. Historical perspective can offer much in this time of ecological crisis, and many historians are reinventing their traditional scales of space and time to tell different kinds of stories, ones that recognise the agency of other creatures and the unruly power of nature – and that give us some hope amid the doom.

 

WE INHABIT A critical moment in the history of the Earth and of life on this planet, and a most unusual one in terms of our own human history. We have developed two powerful metaphors for making sense of it. One is the idea of the Anthropocene, which is the insight that we have entered a new geological epoch in the history of the Earth and have now left behind the 13,000 years of the relatively stable Holocene epoch, the period since the last great ice age. There is debate about exactly when the Anthropocene began, but the new epoch recognises the power of humans in changing the nature of the planet, its atmosphere, oceans, climate, biodiversity, even its rocks and stratigraphy. It places humans on a par with other geophysical forces such as variations in the earth’s orbit, glaciers, volcanoes and asteroid strikes.[1] We were first jolted into the Anthropocene by the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century, when we began digging up and burning fossil fuels. That brilliant and profligate exploitation of a finite, buried resource underpinned population growth and economic expansion. The second turning point, known as the Great Acceleration, was in 1950 when the human enterprise suddenly exploded in population and energy use, and rapidly began to outstrip its planetary support systems.[2]

The other potent metaphor for this moment in Earth history is the Sixth Extinction. Humans have wiped out about two-thirds of the world’s wildlife in just the last half-century.[3] Let that sentence sink in. It has happened in less than a human lifetime. The current extinction rate is a hundred to a thousand times higher than was normal in nature.[4] There have been other such catastrophic collapses in the diversity of life on Earth: five of them – sudden, shocking falls in the graph of biodiversity separated by tens of millions of years, the last one in the immediate aftermath of the asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We now have to ask ourselves: are we inhabiting – and causing – the Sixth Extinction? In 2014, the American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert published an influential book called The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt) and subtitled it An Unnatural History. It is an unnatural history because the Sixth Extinction involves, to some extent, consciousness and intent.

These two metaphors – the Anthropocene and the Sixth Extinction – are both historical concepts that require us to travel in geological and biological time across hundreds of millions of years and then to arrive back at the present with a sense not of continuity but of discontinuity, of profound rupture. That’s what Earth system science has revealed: it’s now too late to go back to the Holocene. We’ve irrevocably changed the Earth system and unwittingly steered the planet into the Anthropocene; now we can’t take our hand off the tiller. The Australian economist and philosopher Clive Hamilton, in his book Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Polity, 2017), argues that the Anthropocene is a game-changer, a whole new paradigm of life on earth and a challenge to our humanity. He strenuously resists the efforts of some scholars to generalise and normalise the Anthropocene into a longer history of human disturbance, one that takes us back to the origins of agriculture or of fire, for example. Rather, he sees the Anthropocene as a rupture in Earth’s history and our own, and now everything must be rethought, especially modernity, progress and the Enlightenment.

These metaphors of deep time have some visual counterparts in deep space that have also emerged in the last half-century. First, there was the photo of ‘Earthrise’ taken on Christmas Eve 1968 as Apollo 8 went into lunar orbit. In what was then the most-watched television program in history, three American astronauts narrated the view out their window. One of them, Bill Anders, reflected: ‘We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.’[5] That revelatory image of the beautiful blue planet, visibly alive and floating alone, finite and vulnerable in deep space, had a profound impact on environmental politics and sensibilities. Four years later in 1972, a photo taken by the Apollo 17 mission and known as the ‘Blue Marble’ became one of the most reproduced pictures in the world, showing the Earth as a luminous breathing garden in the dark void. Within a few years, the American scientist James Lovelock put forward ‘the Gaia hypothesis’: that the Earth is a single, self-regulating organism.[6] Two decades later, on Valentine’s Day 1990, the Voyager spacecraft was tracking beyond Saturn, six billion kilometres away, when it glanced over its shoulder. Voyager was not programmed to look behind as it journeyed into the unknown, but scientists decided to take a risk and commanded the spacecraft to look lovingly back towards home. And so we have a picture of Earth as a mere speck of dust in space, an image that astronomer Carl Sagan called the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. ‘Look again at that dot’, wrote Sagan. ‘That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.’[7]

These images from outer space of the unity, finiteness and loneliness of the Earth helped escalate planetary thinking. Earth systems science emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, building on Lovelock’s intuition about the biosphere and, with the help of advanced computer technology, collecting and organising global data on climate, oceans, atmosphere and biota. From this colossal integration came a keen understanding of planetary boundaries – thresholds in planetary ecology – and the extent to which the human enterprise is threatening or exceeding them. Three identified thresholds have already been crossed: changes in climate, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle.[8]

The American ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949, at the turn of the Great Acceleration, of the need for a new ‘land ethic’. ‘A thing is right’, he wrote, ‘when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’[9] Leopold envisaged a gradual historical expansion of human ethics, from the relations between individuals to those between the individual and society, and ultimately to those between humans and the land. He hoped for an enlargement of the community to which we imagine ourselves belonging, one that includes soil, water, plants and animals. Today, seventy years after Leopold’s philosophical leap, we are being challenged to scale up from a land ethic to an earth ethic, to an environmental vision and philosophy of action that sees the planet as an integrated whole and all of life upon it as an interdependent historical community with a common destiny.[10] We are belatedly remembering that the planet is alive.

 

THE WRITING OF history is responding to this challenge. But to do so, it has had to rethink its very foundations.[11] History became professional in the nineteenth century by focusing on literacy and nationalism, and this enforced a distinction not only between history and prehistory but also between civilised and primitive, humans and animals, and culture and nature. Nature was placed outside of history, along with hunter-gatherers and most of the history of humanity itself. And the rise of civilisation came to be defined against nature – indeed, as the acquisition of mastery over nature. History thus was the story of the exceptionality of humans. Even the ‘animality’ of humanity – ‘the fact that men eat and sleep and make love’, as RG Collingwood put it – lay outside of history.[12] In 1961, the historian EH Carr defined history as ‘a series of specific events in which men are consciously involved and which they can consciously influence’.[13]

This orientation towards manifest history and events of conscious concern was challenged in the 1960s and ’70s. A series of intellectual and political movements soon swept through historical practice, encompassing environmental history, social history, ‘history from below’, indigenous history, and feminist history. Nature joined class, race and gender as fundamental, disruptive categories of historical analysis. The American historian Alfred Crosby wrote a series of landmark books about ecological imperialism and the Columbian exchange, where he examined the invisible agents of empire (animals, plants and pathogens) that empowered human invaders. He argued that the superhuman achievements of European expansion were exactly that – more than human – and we have failed to realise just how much more.[14]

But environmental history has turned out to be far more radical than it first seemed four decades ago. It does not merely add nature to the categories of historical analysis; in the epoch of the Anthropocene, it also questions the very separability of culture and nature. In the twenty-first century, the binary that was the foundation of history has collapsed, and the fate of humanity has become inextricably bound up with that of nature and the Earth. This is the expanded moral community that Aldo Leopold called for.

As well as this expansion of ethics, environmental history elicited deeper scales of time. Reeling from the horrors of World War II, scientists and scholars strove to escape the grim immediacy of the history of political events and searched for a history to live by, one that found human commonality beyond the categories of ‘nation’ or ‘race’ and pushed history back into ‘prehistory’. The founder of the French Annales school of history, Fernand Braudel, who drafted his great work on the Mediterranean while a prisoner of the Germans, famously rejected the short timespan, itself a sort of imprisonment, and instead championed the study of la longue durée, the slow-moving structures and rhythms of centuries.[15] This temporal yearning bloomed impressively in the late twentieth century with the emergence of what is called ‘big history’, which is the history of the universe over 13.6 billion years from the big bang to the present.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, several new histories declared themselves – world history, transnational history and global history – but big history was quite different to the others because it reached courageously across the science/humanities divide and took nature seriously. It also pushed the story back far enough to make time itself a subject of study. Since the development of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915, it was meaningless to talk about space and time as absolute, as transcending the limits of the universe; instead, they became dynamic qualities of the universe itself. In 1989, an Australian historian of Russia, David Christian, pioneered the teaching of ‘big history’ at Macquarie University. His course was built on this scientific insight that the universe is finite and historical; it thus met the challenge of the new biology and the new physics and was driven by the belief that historians need to reclaim their traditional role as global storytellers.[16]

Inspired by David Christian’s advocacy for big history, I taught a course at Monash University in the early 1990s called ‘A Short History of the World’ (with a nod to HG Wells’ 1922 book of that name). It was an early version of environmental history on a planetary scale, and our flyer featured the Earthrise photo from 1968. It was a telling choice of image, for historian Ian Hesketh has recently described big history as Earthrise history. Big history and Apollo 8, he argues, both journey valiantly away from anthropocentrism towards nothingness, but in the end they turn around and marvel at the miracle of humanity, the special qualities of the living Earth, and the unique mission that humans have in exercising agency over their evolutionary future.[17] Big history offers a parable, a spiritual story for vulnerable Earth, one that finds hope amid the crisis. It was born at the end of the Cold War out of fears of nuclear apocalypse, and now we need its long view to comprehend global warming.

 

A COMMON PUBLIC misunderstanding about climate science – and one furiously peddled by denialists – is that it is all about the future, and all about scientific modelling. Another is that scientists have not attended to the natural climate variations of the past. Both these critiques overlook the profound role of history in defining and understanding the ecological crisis. Climate science is unavoidably climate history; it’s an empirical, historical interpretation of life on earth, full of new insights into the impact and predicament of humanity over tens of thousands of years and especially over the last thousand years. Historians are playing a critical role in shaping the science and in helping the public to understand the origins of the climate crisis and the full seriousness of its implications. To do this, they draw on natural as well as human history, on the archives of ice, air and sediment as well as bones, artefacts and documents.

Recent histories of the last one or two thousand years have been crucial in helping us to appreciate the fragile relationship between climate and society, and why future average temperature changes of more than 2 degrees Celsius could have dire consequences for human civilisation. We now have environmental histories of antiquity, and of medieval and early modern Europe – studies that cast new light on familiar human dramas, including the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Death in the medieval period, and the unholy trinity of famine, war and disease during the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century (see, for example, Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), Bruce Campbell’s The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013)). And then there is John McNeill’s history of the twentieth century, Something New Under the Sun (WW Norton, 2001), which shows that ‘the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on earth’. These new histories encompass the planet and the human species, and provocatively blur biological evolution and cultural history (Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘brief history of humankind’, Sapiens (Harper, 2011), is a bestselling example). They investigate the vast elemental nature of the heavens as well as the interior, microbial nature of human bodies: nature inside and out, with the striving human as a porous vessel for its agency.

Australians seem predisposed to navigate the Anthropocene. I think it’s because the challenge of Australian history in the twenty-first century is how to negotiate the rupture of 1788, how to relate geological and human scales, how to get our heads and hearts around a colonial history of 200 years that plays out across a vast Indigenous history in deep time.[18] From the beginnings of colonisation, Australia’s new arrivals commonly alleged that Aboriginal people had no history, had been here no more than a few thousand years, and were caught in the fatal thrall of a continental museum. But from the early 1960s, archaeologists confirmed what Aboriginal people had always known: that Australia’s human history went back aeons, into the Pleistocene, well into the last ice age. In the late twentieth century, the timescale of Australia’s human history increased tenfold in just thirty years and the journey to the other side of the frontier became a journey back into deep time.[19]

It’s no wonder that the idea of big history was born here, or that environmental history has been so innovative here. This is a land of a radically different ecology, where climatic variation and uncertainty have long been the norm – and are now intensifying. Australia’s long human history spans great climatic change and also offers a parable of cultural resilience.[20] Even the best northern-hemisphere scholars struggle to digest the implications of the Australian time revolution. They often assume, for example, that ‘civilisation’ is a term associated only with agriculture, and still insist that 50,000 years is a possible horizon for modern humanity. Australia offers a distinctive and remarkable human saga for a world trying to come to terms with climate change and the rupture of the Anthropocene.

Living on a precipice of deep time has become, I think, an exhilarating dimension of what it means to be Australian.[21] The brilliant anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, who worked with Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District, has written of their orientation towards origins. They regard themselves as the ‘behind mob’, for they walk in the steps of the ancestors who precede them. Rose admits that a Western person exposed to this reverse temporal alignment can ‘experience a dizzying sense of historical inversion – of the past jumping ahead, or of time running backward’.[22] Michael Christie, another scholar who worked in northern Australia, confessed his gradual realisation that projects with Yolgnu people ‘could only be negotiated ethically by looking backwards, as it were, rather than forwards. Looking forwards allows governments to ignore the past. It also allows a brutal ­disregard for the suffering of the present…’[23] This kind of testimony makes it clear that our nation’s obligation to honour the Uluru Statement is not just political; it is also metaphysical. It respects another ethical practice and another way of knowing.

 

IN HIS BOOK Like Nothing on this Earth (UWA Publishing, 2017), Tony Hughes d’Aeth recounts the environmental and emotional history of the Western Australian wheatbelt – a vast region of land cleared and ploughed in the last century of settlement – through the eyes and voices of its writers, including Albert Facey, Jack Davis, Dorothy Hewett, Elizabeth Jolley and John Kinsella. Hughes d’Aeth begins his book by recalling the weather map on the nightly Western Australian news: a satellite view of the land that shows a great gash of perfect linearity across the south-western corner of the state. It is known as ‘the clearing line’ – the divide between wheat-yellow and gum-green – and it extends with almost perfect linearity from the Indian Ocean north of Geraldton to the Southern Ocean east of Esperance. It ‘is the most obvious visible sign from space of humans’ effect on the planet’; it’s an artificial line – a human slash across the continent – yet as Hughes d’Aeth argues, it is also a line of resistance, the point beyond which intensive agriculture was unable to extend. He compares it to other imperial demarcations such as ‘the famous walls that marked the limits of the Roman and Chinese empires’. The history of the wheatbelt, as he tells it, is ‘a history of radical disappearance’. Only 7 per cent of the region’s original vegetation remains today.[24]

What is striking about the history of the wheatbelt is the banal, managerial, repetitive, mesmerising violence of the clearing frontier. There was systematic clearing of the bush and also of Aboriginal people. Settlers removed or marginalised both in order to establish farms, to found their own families and communities, to make a living, to conquer nature, to make their mark, to sow their seed in the earth, to feed the world – to possess the land legislatively, morally and emotionally. The bush and its creatures were bullied into oblivion; they registered in the colonial vision mainly as obstacles to progress, as sites of heroic human toil and transformation. These changes were labelled and tallied by the state as ‘improvements’. The labour of transformation was hard and required so much personal sacrifice and such uncertain reward that it became essential to enlist history to give it meaning. Municipal history became, then, the chronicle of these ‘improvements’, a tale of challenge, triumph and advancement. Alternative readings of the experience were slow to emerge, and it was fiction – with its closer attention to the inner life of the participants – that was first to give voice to doubts.

At first, something unnerving, something uncanny, is glimpsed by the settlers from the corners of their eyes. In the 1920s and ’30s, concern begins to emerge about the loss of species, the disappearance of trees and bush, and the signs of erosion and the outbreak of salt in the soils. A strengthening sense of nature as fragile follows, the dawning realisation that it is capable of being destroyed not just here and there but in toto.[25] After World War II, the word ‘environment’ – indeed, ‘the environment’ – comes into common usage to denote nature as a whole, as an interdependent system of organisms.[26] It arrives bolstered by its alliance with the word ‘ecology’. In 1962, the publication in America of Rachel Carson’s bombshell of a book, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin), with its exposé of the catastrophic impact of pesticides on the natural world, signalled the arrival of an environmental consciousness that had political power. It also reminded people that the destructive impact of humans could be invisible, lurking beneath the surface, yet so powerful that they could ultimately affect their own survival. Suddenly, like salt appearing in a paddock, the full ecological consequences of the creation of the wheatbelt crystallised. What had been understood as a heroic creation of generations, a celebrated product of human toil, turned out also to be a shocking loss, ‘the incursion of nothing, emptiness, into what was something’ (as Hughes d’Aeth put it), a swift and devastating act of destruction, the full scale of which was recognised too late.[27]

This Anthropocene drama was played out across the continent. What is so moving about these popular frontier histories is the way they finally arrive, surprised, at a place of loss, emptiness and deep melancholy. The clearers, over generations and sometimes even within their own lifetimes, come to realise what they have done. The story that has sustained them dissolves before their very eyes. The steady, clear, distant horizon for which they yearned, once won is eerily empty, less reassuring than they hoped, more fraught, threatening and unstable than they expected.[28] And, as Hughes d’Aeth reminds us, the local story is also of grim global stature, for the systematic eradication in the twentieth century of the native vegetation of the Western Australian wheatbelt and the fauna that depended on it ‘was an extinction event on a grand scale, one of the more far-reaching ecological erasures of recent human history’.[29]

 

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, I was privileged to fossick around some of the remnant bushland of the Western Australian wheatbelt with a distinguished daughter of the region, Barbara York Main, a zoologist and gifted author, and one of the writers studied in Like Nothing on this Earth. Hughes d’Aeth discerns the birth of environmental consciousness in her work, especially her masterpiece of Australian nature writing, Between Wodjil and Tor (Jacaranda, 1967).[30] Barbara and I climbed the tor, Yorkrakine Rock, a great dome of granite in the cleared landscape, and later we walked among the wodjil too, the woodland of sandy soils next to her family’s farm. This is where she played as a child and where she first took an interest in trapdoor spiders, which became the focus of her life’s work as a scientist. She is implicated in the clearing of the wheatbelt through her family history and now she is one of the eloquent and wise champions of the creatures that share the soil and of our responsibility for their future as well as ours. Her trapdoor spiders, carefully monitored over decades, have been abandoning the lower country where today we find only the shells of old nests. They are moving uphill, away from the creeping salinity unleashed by clearing. On higher ground, where there are fewer weeds, more indigenous tussocky grasses, better leaf litter, less salty soil, we find more spiders. Barbara is happier when she finds healthy spiders. She tenderly checks their residences, gently flicking open the perfect little trapdoors and ever-so-softly closing them again. The active nests are beautiful: supple, white, clean. Some of these nests are marked and monitored and Barbara knows many of her spiders as individuals, even how old they are. Our final visit is a very special one, for she takes me to meet ‘the elders’, as she calls them: her ‘31-year-old ladies’. There Barbara is greeted with a lovely surprise; I hear her exclaim with delight through the wodjil, ‘Number sixteen has done it again!’ Barbara has just discovered that one of her elders is pregnant again. There is hope. We are at ground level now – below ground actually, at home in Australian earth with an insect-eye view of our predicament – and there is hope.[31]

Hope is important in our histories. In his history of the wheatbelt, Hughes d’Aeth is not distantly judgemental; rather, as he says of one of his writers, he is ‘willing to remain on the ground and in the fray, mired in the reality which continues to emerge’. He accepts that the wheatbelt is a crucial farming region and a source of livelihood and life for thousands of people, and that it could not exist without vast clearing, but he questions the extent of the clearing and its long-term costs, and worries that the wheat frontier is now under pressure to extend even further east. To help balance short-term exploitation with long-term perspectives, Hughes d’Aeth aims to present a century of history as ‘a sudden event’. For this he sets out, as he puts it, to displace human time into geological time. He has to zoom out, like the satellite photo with which he begins his book, and to shift the temporal focus away from the annual production cycle and ‘even beyond things as seemingly venerable as the passage of human generations’ towards a scale of time that acknowledges non-human lives and the fate of the soils themselves. He hopes thus ‘to put an end to the idea of endlessness’.[32] It is a history for uncanny times.

We need these radical histories, narratives that weave together humans and nature, history and natural history, that move from Earth systems to the earth beneath our feet, from the lonely, living planet spinning through space to the intimately known and beloved local worlds over which we might, if we are lucky, exert some benevolent influence. We need them not only because they help us to better understand our predicament, but also because they might enable us to act, with intelligence and grace.

 

This essay is an edited version of a talk delivered at the Australian Museum on 15 February 2018 as part of HumanNature: The Sydney Environmental Humanities Lecture Series organised by Thom van Dooren and Emily O’Gorman.

 

References

[1] Will Steffen, Paul J Crutzen and John R McNeill, ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’, Ambio, vol. 36, no. 8, December 2007, pp. 614-21.

[2] John McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

[3] The 2018 Living Planet Index, a biennial report produced by the World Wildlife Fund in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (http://livingplanetindex.org/home/index). See Damian Carrington, ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of animals since 1970, major report finds’, The Guardian, 30 October 2018. See also Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, London: John Murray, 2015.

[4] Donald Worster, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 195.

[5] Benjamin Lazier, ‘Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture’, American Historical Review, June 2011, pp. 602-30.

[6] Following journal articles outlining the Gaia hypothesis in 1972 and 1974, Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press) in 1979.

[7] Stephen J Pyne, Voyager: Exploration, Space, and the Third Great Age of Discovery, New York: Penguin Books, 2010, chapter 20, pp. 312-15.

[8] J Rockström, W Steffen et al, ‘Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity’, Ecology and Society, 14:32 (2009).

[9] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 242.

[10] See Donald Worster’s chapter on ‘Earth’s boundaries’ in his Shrinking the Earth and his argument about a new earth ethic, especially pp. 194-201.

[11] See for example Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35 (Winter 2009): 197–222.

[12] Quoted in W J van der Dussen, History as a Science: The Philosophy of R G Collingwood (New York: Springer, 2002), 46 (italics in the original); see also R G Collingwood, The Idea of History, revised edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, p. 216.

[13] E H Carr, What Is History? Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964, p. 134.

[14] Alfred W Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972, and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 1-17, 194. See also Crosby, ‘The Past and Present of Environmental History’, The American Historical Review, vol. 100, no. 4, October 1995, pp. 1177-1189.

[15] Fernand Braudel, ‘History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée’, in his On History (trans. Sarah Matthews), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980, pp. 25-54, and his Preface to The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, (trans. Sian Reynolds), 2 vols, New York: Harper and Row, 1972-4.

[16] David Christian, ‘The Longest Durée: A History of the Last 15 Billion Years’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, No. 59–60 (August-November 1989), pp. 27–36; ‘The Case for “Big History”’, Journal of World History 2, no. 2 (1991), pp. 223–238; and Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

[17] Ian Hesketh, ‘The Story of Big History’, History of the Present, vol. 4, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 171-202.

[18] Tom Griffiths, ‘Deep Time and Australian History’, History Today, November 2001, pp. 20-25; Alison Bashford, ‘The Anthropocene is Modern History: Reflections on Climate and Australian Deep Time’, Australian Historical Studies, 44:3 (2013), pp. 341-349.

[19] Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[20] Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[21] See Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2018.

[22] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004, p. 55.

[23] Michael Christie, ‘Decolonising Methodology in an Arnhem Land Garden’, in Beate Neumeier and Kay Schaffer (ed.), Decolonising the Landscape: Indigenous Cultures in Australia, Amsterdam/New York: Editions Rodopi, 2014, p. 67.

[24] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, Perth: UWA Press, 2017, ‘Preface: The Clearing Line’, pp. 1-8.

[25] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth, pp. 39, 381-2.

[26] Paul Warde, Libby Robin and Sverker Sörlin, The Environment: A History of the Idea, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

[27] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth, p. 234.

[28] Another example of this frontier epic is the 1920 collection of reminiscences by the South Gippsland Pioneers’ Association, The Land of the Lyrebird: A Story of Early Settlement in the Great Forest of South Gippsland, Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch for the Committee of the South Gippsland Pioneers’ Association, 1920. This volume brought together the memoirs of over fifty selectors in the district, men and women; it was heroic and elegiac, and lamented the forest’s passing even as it celebrated it.

[29] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth, p. 211.

[30] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth, chapter 8: pp. 381-431.

[31] I am grateful to Barbara York Main for her generosity and guidance during my visit to Yorkrakine Rock in August 2004. Four years after the publication of Between Wodjil and Tor (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1967), York Main published Twice Trodden Ground (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1971) about the same country. See also her The Spiders of Australia (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1964). For the full life story of Spider No. 16 (1973–2016), see Avi Selk, ‘The extraordinary life and death of the world’s oldest known spider’, The Washington Post, 1 May 2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/05/01/the-extraordinary-life-and-death-of-the-worlds-oldest-known-spider/?utm_term=.4509e6100e2e, and Leanda Denise Mason, Grant Wardell-Johnson and Barbara York Main, ‘The longest lived spider: mygalomorphs dig deep, and persevere’, Pacific Conservation Biology, 24 (2018), pp. 203-06.

[32] Tony Hughes d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth, ‘Epilogue: The Wheatbelt in Deep Time’, pp. 553-57.

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