Island to Outback

Island to Outback is an exhibition by Kangaroo Island artists Ria Byass, Quentin Chester, Gethin Creagh, Prue Coulls, David Foreman, Ruth de la Lande, Wendy Haylock, Janine Mackintosh, Nicholas Burness Pike, Deborah Sleeman, Maggie Welz and Kenita Williamson, curated by Eleanor Scicchitano. It is the creative outcome of the artists residency at Coward Springs, a desert landscape on the edge of the mound spring system and the Old Ghan Line. This is my essay accompanying the exhibition.

In time

At Coward Springs it seems that you can see forever.

The Kangaroo Island artists who ventured to that campground 829 km north from the tip of the island at Penneshaw all saw something new, in the landscape, in their artistic companions and in themselves.

Here is a landscape vast and open and dry and endless and beyond words. It sits over the continent’s largest inland sea which perforates the land through mound springs. These founts of water, each one unique, bubble, seep and run with ancient water endowing life to this land. It is a place of deep weathering time, of beauty and brutal conditions.

The Fount

Photo: The Fount by Quentin Chester

For Prue, this desert place is her home for half the year; for Wendy, Deb, Ria, Ruth and Dave it is a very familiar place where they have visited their friend over many years; for the rest it was new. Yet everyone who came together for ten days in July–August 2018 yielded to an adventurousness, born of the time and permission to devote to art practice, and a place apart from ‘normal life’. That was what they were there for, a serious purpose, no distractions. As a place of deep time, it forced artists to go a bit deeper. For some, their artwork in this exhibition is entirely new practice, after years of sticking to a tried and true approach.

There was plenty of time to be on your own and work your own way – to touch and feel the landscape, to absorb it and to express it in art. The pottery bench was a place to learn about ceramics and also about each other – chatting while moulding and forming. The front verandah of the house was a place of respite from the wind, but only if you had a fly net; in the museum the net could also go. Bliss. The night camp fires were a warm and friendly wind down after a rewarding day. The storm – well that was just bloody rude.

At Lake Eyre you can see forever.

Arabunna elder Reg Dodd shared the precious gift of Lake Eyre, once the ocean bed, once a lush forest, now after a long drying time a white, shiny, crusty, salty, awesome vastness. This exposure to one of the world’s most magnificent sights was the heart of the experience. It brought a new mood, a more thoughtful, contemplative, overawed need to somehow process what we had seen. How is salt, the scourge of agriculture on Kangaroo Island, such a delicious thing in this setting?

On Kangaroo Island in 2013 the low-lying lagoons of Magillivray and Haines joined into inland seas when a massive downpour ran down to that lowest point. Without an outlet, the water sat and salinated for almost two years. Now, after two drought years it is a salty dry barren wasteland. There is little beauty, yet this area might become a lake of joy and wonder. If it gets there the process will be much more rapid than the 30,000 years for Lake Eyre. Mankind is seeing to that.

At Kangaroo Island you can now see what forever could be.

On 9 January 2020, islanders were brutally reminded of what an island means, as the fires swept from the west. The coast that had always been an avenue to a rich marine world became a barrier to escape. Half of a landscape that has always been notable for its vegetation is now black sticks and ash. Mallee, she-oak, sugar gum and river red gum hundreds of years old – many now gone, burnt or slaughtered in the aftermath. The field of vision has expanded alarmingly. Now the tourists who complain that they can’t see the view blocked by roadside vegetation have their wish. And those who wish to be rid of that ‘ugly scrub’ have an argument.

Islanders, born or made, are different. They are individuals, often excessively so. They are windswept yet hugged by the sea. They are torn between being independent and demanding to be helped, often at perverse times. People in the outback are similar, creating a world within a world.

The people of Kangaroo Island arrived in different waves over the last 200 years. The soldier settlers, after World War II, established houses and farms in a foreign place with skills hastily acquired. Once that was done, the women got together to build an inner and more social life. They took themselves off to art camps at scenic places on the island – spoilt for choice of course – for a long weekend or a week.

The artists camp at Coward Springs was built on such attributes and traditions but it was more. Taking off for a world apart where so many things were different, yet so many things were not-so-gentle reminders of home. Take the wind, please.

At Coward Springs the sea is underneath everything, on Kangaroo Island it surrounds. But in both cases there are limits. We know the Great Artesian Basin and its mound springs are inexorably losing their life force, seeping into extractors’ pockets. We know our marine waters are being depleted of life.

Some might hanker for simpler times but they are gone. The world is a very complicated place and our artists have a place in telling this complicated story of life. They can show the present and ponder the future. Will our grey, heartbreakingly dry lagoons become white wonderlands? Will our recovery from the fires bring more rapacious development to our island?

In the centre, there were no straight lines until the railway, fences and roads pushed straight through, and bores went down and water towers went up. We, people, changed the landscape forever.

We should know now the world is not infinite. And this is on our watch.

We are all different because of the Coward Springs artists camp. And we are all different because of the fires that raged across half the island and threatened it all. But we all, more than ever, know Kangaroo Island is our home.

Kathie Stove

February 2020

Have we won yet?

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Southern Ocean coast near Pennington Bay, Kangaroo Island. Photo: Quentin Chester

Earlier this year, the environment minister in South Australia declined to sell some coastal crown land that developers wanted for part of a golf course. It was a big win by a community who fought an intense campaign within a short time window. And we still really don’t know whether the win is real or token. We’ll see.

Read it here on the Live Encounters website

Trains, buses and planes, part 3

It’s a plane: Alice Springs to Brisbane without a camera. I love a window seat on a plane, as long as it’s not above the wing.

Lines of sand dunes with and without vegetation. It’s the Simpson Desert. It’s an Aboriginal dot painting. How do they see the landscape from the ground? No planes, satellites or virtual reality. Extraordinary. I’m reminded of Yami Lester at Mimili in 1979 when the flowers were blooming in abundance. He saw, he knew, despite his blind eyes.

Plains rutted and lined. It’s Channel Country. It’s a Maggie Welz ink drawing on paper. Which way do these streams run? It’s impossible to tell from up here.

All too soon, roads appear. They’re easy to see because they are straight and everything else is randomly curved and fluid. At first not many but then more and more they break up the landscape, along with paddocks defined by fences.

The dots reduce to just along the watercourses and then disappear altogether. Green circles created by centre pivots leap out of the landscape. It’s the Darling Downs. The bush reappears ordered into blocks, 5 acres maybe, each with an access road to a cleared area. They aren’t the dams I at first think; they are cleared house sites. They are like a grid across my window view.

The mountains reach towards the plane and then the announcement to prepare the cabin for landing as we pass Toowoomba.

Welcome to Brisbane, the building site.

Trains, buses and planes, part 1

The almost one-kilometre-long Ghan, travelling twice a week in each direction from Adelaide to Darwin, might incline you to think that train travel has returned to its rightful place as preferred mode of travel. It’s comforting to know that so many people want to take the train through the desert but in truth, the comfort element is a big part of the attraction.

I like to travel by rail as much as I can, and actually see the country I’m travelling though even if it’s flashing by. And I have the most appropriate back up of Don Watson’s The Bush, though not much gets read on the train during daylight.

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Before darkness descends we cross Goyder’s Line and enter saltbush-bluebush-Western Myall country. Happy memories of Rangelands Ecology on Middleback Station in January.

Next thing I know is sunrise at Marla Siding. Everybody off the train for breakfast. So many people taking photos of sunrise as if it didn’t happen every day – perhaps not in the desert and unimpeded by anything except other people taking photos.

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Now we are in mulga country, an occasional white-trunked gum, quite a few shrubs I can’t identify and, was that a Callitris?

Then we get to my favourite tree, the desert oak Allocasuarina decaisneana and I can revel in it for days through to Uluru.

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We are well into the NT before I see the first lumps of the ubiquitous grass of the Australian centre, Triodia irritans. I remember driving over hundreds of miles of the stuff in the APY lands in 1979. It looks invitingly lemony soft with spiky vertical hair but it is (I know) impossibly ‘irritans’.

In places the country is so flogged there’s barely a green/grey leaf; in some areas the small size of the veg looks like it’s returning after being given a severe thrashing.

The land is almost never flat. Relief might be a rocky outcrop, a gentle rise of a sand dune, a distant hill. It is always changing. I sip my beer, look out the window. I am in heaven.

 

Reviving Pig Islet

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Quentin Chester captures Pelican Lagoon

Pelican Lagoon is one of Kangaroo Island’s many treasures. It’s a Marine Park Sanctuary Zone that has its inlet from the ocean at American River.

On a windless sunny day, the mirror-like surface of the shallow lagoon, dotted with islets, is enough to make me gasp, even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times before.

Friends of Dudley Peninsula Parks and Eco-Action have a joint project to rid Pig Islet of African boxthorn and replant with the species that would have been there before westerners arrived (as far as we know, it’s not absolutely clear). If this smallest of the islets is revived, we’ll move on to some of the others. Yes, it’s a long term plan.

One of the Friends, Andy Collis, came up with this project and has soldiered on despite some misinformed opposition. We Friends are very happy to help him and the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources has given us permission to do the work.

 

 

Boxthorns are nasty brutes but they can be managed: cut the stems as close to the ground as possible, dab the cut straight away with strong glyphosate and they’ll give up the ghost. Sounds simple but getting through the thorns to the stems is the tricky bit. And we all have the scratches to prove it.

On one of the four working bees so far we had a chain saw to help, and that was a morale boost. We’ve had 21 people helping in one or more working bees, and also helping Andy with extra trips for camera trapping and watering.

Getting to the islets is also a challenge. Each time a little flotilla of kayaks and canoes sets out and makes it across the water in radically different times (some of us need to get a sense of direction).

                                 Wwoofer Merel Nyhuis got the short end of the jobs stick.

This week, on the last of the working bees for 2017, we planted the shrubs, grasses and groundcovers Veronica grew up at the Natural Resources Kangaroo Island Plant Nursery (an island gem). The Friends groups has other projects to get on with for the rest of the year. Then we’ll be paddling back next year.

All photos by Quentin Chester.

 

Weekly words – things for governments to care about

Alison Croggon cuts to the heart of the Australian funding cuts to the arts in her excellent article on The Monthly blog.

As an example of what an artist freed from funding constraints can aspire to, have a look at Antony Gormley’s latest exhibition. Oh to be in London.

And on another topic being ignored by the federal government, Chris Mooney talks about talking about climate change. In facts anything Chris Mooney writes about energy and environment is worth reading

 

 

Dangerous message

I don’t often write letters to the editor of the local paper, The Islander, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. ‘Send a message’ plastic bottles are apparently common around Australia, and Oil Free Seas alerted us to them arriving on ‘clean, green’ Kangaroo Island. What are we thinking? So I wrote:

Dear Editor

I commend Sharon Zealand of Oil Free Seas Australia for pointing out the risk of the plastic message in a bottle.  

The product may not be intended for the sea but chances are that up to 5% of the product will end up there. That’s the percentage of the 300 million tonnes of plastic the world produces each year that washes into the sea – about 12 million tonnes of plastic every year.

Recent studies predict that by 2050 we will have more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Already, 60% of all seabirds have plastic in their gut. Plastic never goes away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that keep killing.

There’s only one way to stop this havoc. Stop making and using plastic. Idealistic, sure, but not selling gimmicky plastic tourist products would be a pretty good place to start.

Brand KI (and I am a proud member) proclaims that Kangaroo Islanders have a “tangible and individual connection to the natural world”.

Shouldn’t we islanders behave as if we do? Shouldn’t we reduce all plastic use? Shouldn’t we sell brand-affirming souvenirs made from natural materials? Shouldn’t we produce them on the island and support island artists, craftspeople and handypeople, and our broader economy and its future?

 

Unfortunately, people are pretty good at not getting things quite right – I have trekked in the Himalayas with people who complained that there were hills and brought along high heels – so some of them putting plastic ‘send a message’ bottles in the sea is a sure bet.

And while I’m at it, the top 6 items of rubbish in the ocean are cigarette buts, caps and lids, plastic drink bottles, plastic bags, food wrappers/containers, and cups, plates, cutlery – more or less in that order and mostly plastic. Almost three-quarters of marine litter is ‘single-use’ plastic items.

The deadliest ocean trash, according to a CSIRO study, are in order: (1) fishing gear, (2) plastic bags and utensils, (3) balloons, (4) cigarette butts, (5) bottle caps. Animals get entangled or eat items thinking they are food. Some items contaminate the water.

The best way to do something about it: Refuse to Use, especially single-use bags at the supermarket checkout.

And you can support organisations that are doing something positive about removing plastic from oceans, such as these:

  • Plastic Bank helps the world’s most disadvantaged people to reuse and recycle single use plastic items to their community’s advantage.
  • Ocean Conservancy works for a healthy ocean by gathering and distributing information, and organising volunteers clean-ups.