Location location location: the future of environmental history

Early map

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‚Ķ. 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?

NZ Conifer Broadleaf forest

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) ‚Ķ often shackle themselves‚Ķ, confining their sources to a limited study area. This deprives them of sources [from distant places] and context‚Ķ. A better approach is to seek as well sources and context beyond the study area.” (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.

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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.


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

It’s hard to feel ‘shackled‚Ķ 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‚Ķthe Ô¨Årst bushÔ¨Åre we have seen’ [my italics] 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 Ô¨Åre 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‚Ķ. 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.

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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 ‚Ķ. Back to Leichhardt.”

Originally Published at http://ianluntecology.com/2013/02/17/location-location-location-the-future-of-environmental-history/

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