The gathering storm

Adelaide's olive trees in a changing climate

ADELAIDE’S WEST TERRACE Cemetery has its share of famous residents, not all of them human. The sell-out release of the cemetery’s own boutique olive oil, grown on site, has drawn attention to the established groves of olive trees that populate the grounds of the city’s most visible burial place. These trees, like the cemetery itself, date from the mid-nineteenth century, a time when death was not something to hide, but was incorporated into the everyday lives of the living. The siting of a cemetery on a prime arterial road of the growing city suggested to its citizens that the past would remain visible, but in a settled, eulogistic form. The olive trees, in turn, spoke of the future, with their potential to live for thousands of years. They flower and fruit, and flower and fruit, on and on, silent sentinels over the dead.

Olive seedlings joined the first colonists on the Buffalo’s journey to South Australia in 1836 (one resulting tree is believed to be thriving in inner suburban North Adelaide), and were followed by many more. By the 1870s there were tens of thousands of olive trees populating the Adelaide plains, thriving in the city’s celebrated ‘Mediterranean climate’, and an olive oil micro-industry resulted. According to Craig Hill, a historian of Adelaide’s olive tree plantings, Adelaide was the ‘olive oil capital of Australia’ by the end of the nineteenth century. While the industry subsequently declined, the trees have remained, clustered in groves around the city’s Park Lands, and throughout inner suburbia and the foothills. Hill has called for this largely forgotten history of civic olive oil tree cultivation in the city to be remembered, and celebrated in turn, through renewed investment in local olive oil production. These trees once again look towards the future. And there is an urgent context for taking this seriously.

In late September 2016, South Australia experienced its largest and wildest storm in fifty years – a so-called ‘cyclone-event’ that ripped across the state and brought down its entire power network. Some politicians, including Prime Minister Turnbull, subsequently leveraged the blackout to initiate misleading debate over SA’s progressive use of renewable energy, claiming that its 40 per cent reliance on wind and solar rendered the network unnecessarily vulnerable. This was despite evidence to the contrary that showed no link between the blackout and renewables usage; rather it was the damage to infrastructure brought about by the big storm that caused the lights to go out. It was here, in the weather event itself, that a more alarming story lay. A media fact sheet released by the independent Climate Council put it bluntly: ‘This is a prelude to a disturbing future.’ The strong link between this storm and the warming, humidifying atmospheric conditions caused by global climate change indicate the precarious environmental conditions faced by this largely arid state. Along with further extreme storm events, South Australia is predicted to suffer increasingly severe heatwaves and declines in average yearly rainfall over the next half decade. In Adelaide, sea level rises in this period will threaten significant amounts of housing and public infrastructure. Extreme heat will render the city’s ageing population especially vulnerable. The social and economic consequences are vast.

Amidst this, the olive tree’s hardiness is likely to come in handy. Recent research undertaken by scientists at the Casaccia Research Centre in Rome[i] indicates that olive trees in the Mediterranean region are, unlike most other crops, likely to do well under warming and drying conditions. Applying this to SA’s Mediterranean-like conditions places the state’s olive trees in a positive frame. They may be among the last trees standing as climate change alters our world. And as we have long been warned, Australia, and south-eastern Australia especially, due to its vulnerable water resources, is at the forefront of these predicted impacts. No environmental picture is straightforward, however, and while Adelaide’s olive trees might suggest optimism they are also an ambivalent presence in the landscape, inseparable from the circumstances that gave rise to their antipodean presence.

As a non-indigenous tree, the olive signifies destructive pasts as much as it does promising futures. It is an agent of colonisation and postcolonial remaking, now classified as ‘feral’ in some parts of the Adelaide Hills and up into the Flinders Ranges. The Friends of Black Hill and Morialta Conservation Park report that dense olive groves in national park areas destroy native vegetation and are a significant fire risk due to their high oil content. In the Park Lands, Craig Hill tells us, an Olive Management Plan is duly in place to keep the growth of further trees in check. They are recognised, in a classic postcolonial trope, as both in and out of place, as arrivals from outside that make their home anew but whose belonging is never assured.

Less recognised, perhaps, is the complicity of the olive tree in a long history of attempted erasure in the colonisation of South Australia. Where olive trees were planted across the Adelaide plains, Kaurna people were dispossessed of their land and indigenous vegetation was cleared. A leading reason why olive groves are now widespread in the Park Lands is because in the early colonial drive to clear land, vegetation was depleted to such an extent that olive trees, quick growing and luxuriant, were needed to restore lost shade. Land clearance was a psychological as much as a pragmatic tactic of claim: it signalled the pacification of an unfamiliar environment as well as its amenability to a particular vision of industry and development. Clearance enabled the imagining of a land opened up and ready for the taking; replanting with trees from elsewhere was an effort to compose the script of place anew.

THE GROUNDS OF my own primary school in the inner southern suburbs of Adelaide was stained with a carpet of squashed black olives in early spring every year. Black Forest and its local primary school gained its name not from these olive trees that came with the colonisers, but rather from the dense indigenous bush that once covered the area and was widely cleared from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The trees in this original ‘black forest’ (an area known as Kertaweeta to the Kaurna) were eucalypts and wattle, as well as native pines and she-oak, plants with deep roots that promoted healthy soils that were composted by the nutrients from the dense plant debris. This vegetation was a hemisphere away in ecological origin from its subsequent Germanic namesake. Like all places, Adelaide has to live with its mismatched names, such as Paradise in the industry-heavy outer north, or Prospect, where tightly built streets crowd out the once-evident vista down toward the city’s heart. These names communicate earlier visions and unrealised civic goals. But other names, like Black Forest, tell a more explicit history of colonisation. The transposition of names from the other side of the world suggests a yearning for home and the refusal to acknowledge the unfamiliar, remaking colonised land in the image of elsewhere. But it also indicates the physical and cognitive challenge of the colonial project. It communicates the uncertainty and fear experienced in the meeting and feeling of profound difference.

Black Forest is sited on a flood plain that historically fills with water every one to two years. Its flooding source, Warriparinga, or Brownhill Creek as it is now also known, was once the most powerful waterway in the environs of what became Adelaide. It was near here, too, that the Kaurna of this area were forced to inhabit a small reserve, right where the floods periodically unleashed their energy, hemmed in by the land grab around them until they were finally moved away to government missions. When the indigenous bush was cleared, the possible plantings that would survive the flooding were few. The ever-hardy olive tree was one that would. This success is, in a sense, the result of erasure. The trees’ presence speaks of something prior. What endures from before colonisation must be traced like a living map, coming into view as points are connected. Black Forest Primary School is bordered by Kertaweeta Avenue: olive trees flank its boundary.

In writing this, I think of Toni Morrison’s description of ‘a rush of imagination [that] is our flooding’.[ii] The complex histories that fed the recent South Australian storms made their presence felt as Adelaide’s intricate creek network, constrained by a complex network of storm-water management, filled and overflowed once again. This is a furious reminder of what needs remembering and what happens when a culture tries to forget. The problem is that postcolonial cultures have a habit of refusing their memories, even when they erupt and overwhelm us.

The early colonisers of Adelaide knew early on this land was unlike the land they had known in the Northern Hemisphere. The Torrens (Karrawirra Parri) was never a river in the European mould, but a network of waterholes connected by a slow-flowing stream that began in the Mount Lofty Ranges and stretched towards the west. With no natural ‘mouth’, in times of flooding Karrawirra Parri would spread out over these western plains, ushered by a dune system that ran between what is now West Beach and the tidal estuary now known as West Lakes. Despite this, it was treated as the river it was not, dammed and devastated, and continues to catch the city’s residents off guard even as it bursts its banks with some regularity.

When the Torrens and its creeks do flood, the rising water pushes out into old familiar pathways west and to the north, reactivating the memory of the ground. One of these runs the length of Port Road and ushers the floodwater out to sea through the Port River at Port Adelaide. For some years after the colony’s founding, Colonel Light and subsequent surveyors made attempts to construct a canal that followed this flood line to link the Torrens with the docks at the port, transporting water (unreliably available in volume from the Torrens) and cargo on a fleet of inland boats. Although it was never constructed, this proposed canal was imprinted in the development of surrounding suburbs, whose lots accommodated its ghostly shape. While it’s not certain why the canal was not realised, one reason is likely to be the gradient rise of 0.2 per cent that leads from the city to the port – a rise that still doesn’t dissuade surging flood waters.

At the start of Port Road, where the imprint of the never-built canal begins, stands a grove of olive trees, flanking the gateway to the city.

FORGETTING REMAINS ENDEMIC to how we continue to design and make our places in a postcolonial Australia. Port Adelaide is a case in point. This post-industrial waterfront area – the mouth of the Port River – has been on the radar of urban developers for sometime now, since the area’s economic and population decline from the 1970s onwards. This was Australia’s largest port for most of the twentieth century, and a strongly working-class area, busy with fishing boats and later ships carrying mineral ore, as well as the many public houses and other businesses that sustained its working population. This changed as export shipping moved elsewhere and manufacturing industries relocated or closed. Now the port’s historic timber boatsheds have been largely demolished to make way for new housing and commercial developments.

Some of the these developments were realised as part of the Newport Quays project in the mid-2000s, a property-led urban regeneration plan that sought to build high-density high-end housing and retail spaces on unused industrial land, a public-private venture branded very visibly as ‘future making’ for the port. Community concerns were raised early on about the project’s failure to accommodate the socio-economic diversity that has long characterised the port, as well as its inadequate protections for the built history of the area that the National Trust claimed was being ‘severed from our collective memory’. Yet a focus on built history inevitably centralises the colonial past. Long and multiple histories mingle at the port, as they do everywhere in ancient land. Histories of older losses move in the humid air of salt and fresh water coming together as the flood plains reach the sea.

When the former South Australian government announced its plans for Newport Quays in 2004, one of its proposed sites, the old CSR factory grounds at Glanville, was already subject to a claim for recognition and protection under the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. This claim had been made by Aunty Veronica Brodie, a granddaughter of Kaurna woman Lartelare, who was born at this site in 1851. Aunty Veronica had extensive documentation as required by the act to prove her connection to this site from where her grandmother and mother had been dispossessed when the government sold it to the Colonial Sugar Refinery in 1890. Despite this, in addition to a significant community response in support of Aunty Veronica’s efforts to halt development, her claim was denied. Luxury apartments and marina berths were subsequently constructed. Within the development is a small community park named ‘Lartelare’ that acknowledges the Indigenous history of the port – a gesture of remembrance, but a far cry from political and legal enfranchisement, and the historical recognition this entails.

While community opposition did not stop the Glanville redevelopment, which sat within the first two stages of the Newport Quays construction, general dissatisfaction with the overall project did, and its third and final stage was scrapped by the Weatherill government in 2011. In the wake of this, a new iteration of the port development is now being planned. Reassured to have been guided by an ‘extensive consultation process’, the project is promising to deliver a generative community vision for the future, grounded in an acknowledgement of the past. Just what past is recollected continues to be a case in point. ‘Embracing the History’[iii], a cultural mapping and survey recently undertaken to inform this second attempt at development, starts with European arrival, and is focused on maritime infrastructure. The exception is a reference to Hawker’s Creek, a tidal creek reportedly significant to local Kaurna at the time of colonisation that ‘has long since disappeared’ due to the dockyards and urbanisation. Disappearance feeds the development discourse of absence, however. Port Adelaide, according to Patrick Archer, one of two developers working on the project, is ‘a blank canvas, [and we will be] building on the maritime history that’s been there for a long time’.

The continued forgetting of a natural ecology is complicit in the erasure of the human past, a past that does not accord with the developer’s gaze. Newport Quays and the latest development plans by Renewal SA situate their blank canvas above a ghost map of dense mangroves, old tidal flows and dunes covered in indigenous shrubs and seaweed, as well as spectral canals and other, older colonial attempts to remake the land. If such developments are future focused, their vision of the future is disconnected from the past and all its vital knowledge for living – surviving – in our country. You can’t erase the past and expect to thrive. This is a lesson that South Australia is learning by default, as storms gather and climate change takes effect. Climate change will erase histories, too, and in doing so it will remind us of others, repressed by the colonial project. It will likely see the olive trees standing, still sentinels over the dead, but also participant in the many entanglements of a postcolonial place, not in denial of them. Back at my old primary school, the elderly Greek neighbours come every year to shake down its olive crop, which, once pressed, is then bottled and labelled by the school kids on site. Histories meet and futures are born.


[i] Agroecosystems Management Laboratory at Casaccia Research Centre in Rome. Source is (26 March 2014)

[ii] (‘The Site of Memory’ in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture), New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990.


Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review