Australian Deserts

SKU 9781486305995
AU$60.00
Australian Deserts Ecology and Landscapes By Steve Morton
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Australian Deserts: Ecology and Landscapes is about the vast sweep of the Outback, a land of expanses making up three-quarters of the continent – the heart of Australia. Steve Morton brings his extensive first-hand knowledge and experience of arid Australia to this book, explaining how Australian deserts work ecologically. This book outlines why unpredictable rainfall and paucity of soil nutrients underpin the nature of desert ecosystems, while also describing how plants and animals came to be desert dwellers through evolutionary time. It shows how plants use uncertain rainfall to provide for persistence of their populations, alongside outlines of the dominant animals of the deserts and explanations of the features that help them succeed in the face of aridity and uncertainty. Richly illustrated with the photographs of Mike Gillam, this fascinating and accessible book will enhance your understanding of the nature of arid Australia.

Launch speech, Alice Springs, Tuesday 29 March 2022 by Tom Griffiths

Women and men of the Australian deserts!

Here tonight in the heart of Australia we celebrate the publication of a new book – a remarkable book! – that analyses the secrets of life across two-thirds of this continent. How does life, in all its myriad forms, find ways to thrive and survive in an environment of extremes? It is a question that takes us not only to the core of our continent but also to the heart of our identity as Australians.

How do plants, animals, insects, birds, nesting bees, raspy crickets, humans, mulgaras, yellow billy buttons, bats, bush flies, river red gums, euros, desert oaks, salt lake wolf spiders, thorny devils, copperburrs, mulga, sap suckers, zebra finches, waddywoods, banded stilts, spinifex, marsupial moles, antlions, Mitchell grass, lerps, harvester termites, burrowing frogs and fat-tailed dunnarts – how does this gorgeous, ebullient array of life come to be, how does it find ways to flourish, how do its constituents relate to one another, now and across time, across millions of years? How do we learn to see the richness and diversity of this life, how do we read the Country for its presences and absences, how do we fine-tune our capacity as humans to appreciate and understand the miracles that unfold at our feet and under the skies every day and night? These are beautiful, inspiring, exhilarating questions and they underpin this book, which is a glowing compendium of intelligent wonder.

Steve Morton is our guide in this quest, an admired scientific leader, a renowned ecologist and a gifted writer, and he is introducing us to his home, the beautiful and diverse arid lands of Australia. This book is about this astonishing and vast region and everything that lives in it – and we glimpse our guide too from time to time: a human in his chosen and beloved setting, relishing a desert dawn, attending a pit-trap, sharing a cup of campfire tea with colleagues, or driving at dusk on the saltbush plains, his forearm resting on the open window when a raspy cricket, large, slim and stylish in tawny colours, lands on his arm. Steve and the handsome insect exchange a glance before the cricket sinks its jaws painfully into his skin. As he fights the pain and fights to keep the car on the road, Steve can’t help admiring the poise, attitude and éclat of that rascally raspy.

Admiration is a strong emotion in this book. This is science with a heart. The natural world elicits Steve’s appreciation and awe. And he accommodates mystery. He is often happily astonished: when describing masses of grasshoppers shooting up into the jet stream and flying halfway across the continent, he exclaims ‘who would have believed such a thing?’ It’s ‘a life history’, he says, ‘that seems like science fiction.’ There is tenderness, too, in Steve’s relationship with other forms of life, a warm regard for his fellow creatures and the miracles of survival they daily perform. He describes desert ecologies with rapt affection and pries into the personal lives of plants and animals with delicacy and respect. He is careful not to be sentimental or anthropomorphic, but he does use his imagination and literary skills to project the reader into the experience of other living things: we are offered X-ray vision so that we can see inside river red gums, underground radar so that we realise how much life is busy beneath us, and time-lapse imagery so that we can appreciate the workings of evolution. We are even enabled to sit between the wings of a grey teal in flight.

There is a kind of autobiography of a desert ecologist that can be gleaned from the pages of this book. We see Steve in his late teens out with his dad admiring merino sheep and talking to a farmer on the Hay Plain. The youth is distracted from pastoral talk by male brown songlarks in a frenzy of breeding display; he becomes captivated by their soaring and plummeting, by their singing at full throttle to the female birds. Steve hears their call, too, and soon he is lured away from his destiny as a farmer. And later at university we see him having a ‘Eureka!’ moment in his first-year biology practical class when he peers into a microscope at the profuse life to be found in the abdomen of a termite. He shouts with glee at the sight of such a vigorous diversity of organisms. In that moment, he decides to become a biologist, and he’s felt grateful to termites ever since.

Although Steve is a particularly fine individual of the human species, this book is not about him. His modest appearances on the surface of the text are as fleeting as those of the burrowing frog after rain. But the warmth of his curiosity and the joy of his wonder suffuse the book. And he is not the only human who appears in this text. There is a strong sense of an intellectual community, of the collegiality of ecologists and bush scholars; there is an international fellowship of the field and the laboratory, of the lecture hall and the tea room. Every insight depends upon others, knowledge is collective and organic. It advances by being shared and tested, it relies upon teamwork, upon long-term observation in the field, upon a robust scientific culture. This book glows with pride at the collective achievement of ecologists in Australia over decades.

And it glows too with respect for the knowledge and teaching of Aboriginal peoples. It is wonderful to read an ecology of Australia that is so plainly and profoundly indebted to the ecological wisdom of First Nation peoples. Here is the kind of respectful confluence of traditions of knowledge which so many people have been striving for, especially here in Alice Springs. It’s not just about supplementing western science with Aboriginal insights; rather, it’s about recognising – as this book does – the primacy of Aboriginal understanding and management of these lands and making that deep knowledge the foundation for all ecological inquiry. The result is immensely heartening and quite beautiful, a respectful integration of Aboriginal and settler philosophies, united in their awe for the land, nature and the elements.

There are three further ways in which this book might be honoured in the traditions of science and literature. First, it enacts an ecological vision. That is, when I read this book, I begin to understand what it is like to think and see like an ecologist. So it is not just about a vast, enchanting region, it is also about a particular way of seeing the world in all its vibrant connectedness. Science leads to philosophy which leads to poetry, and insights flow the other way too, from art to ecology. From now on, if people ask me what an ecological vision means, I will give them Steve’s book.

Secondly, Australian Deserts is a remarkable contribution to two centuries of Australian desert literature. Here I can only briefly invoke an impressive lineage of which Steve is very conscious: writings by Charles Sturt, Ernest Giles, Edward Eyre, Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, J W Gregory, Cecil Madigan, Ernestine Hill, Hedley Finlayson, Alice Duncan-Kemp, Francis Ratcliffe, Ted Strehlow, Alan Newsome, Isabel McBryde, Dick Kimber, Peter Latz, Kieran Finnane, Tim Rowse, Mike Smith, Barry Hill and Kim Mahood, to name just a few. This constant pulse of scholarly and literary reflection coming from the heart of Australia has changed national understandings and identity, and Steve’s new book embraces that conversation and adds to its richness. Much of the early desert literature was about searching and disappointment, about expectation and failed dreams, but Steve writes as someone who is joyously, ecstatically at home, intellectually and emotionally fulfilled by the ecology and landscapes of arid Australia. And Aboriginal peoples appear not as strange or other but as respected teachers, their ancient and continuing cultures the embodiment of what it means to read and love Country.

Thirdly, Australian Deserts, although primarily a scientific work, is also a stunning book-length piece of nature writing. Steve is a beautiful writer. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the sheer elegance and precision of every sentence in it. There is a formal grace to his prose, a quiet majesty to the intricate portrait he weaves. Literary exactitude is, in his hands, a scientific instrument, an essential tool in his quest to create holistic understanding. He is educating us to a more precise language about deserts, and tutoring us to a different sense of time, not just of deep time but of slow time. For desert life is patient and so must we be. Steve reminds us that at times of climatic stress, ‘the country is waiting rather than dying’. And so without him telling us explicitly, we come to understand that an ecologically intact landscape tends to be beautiful. So I would place Steve’s book in another lineage, an international bookshelf of nature writing where science and literature coalesce magnificently, and on that shelf is Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Richard Nelson’s The Island Within, J A Baker’s The Peregrine, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, George Seddon’s Landprints and Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor about the Western Australian wheatbelt.

So this book is going to become a classic. And for another reason too! For there is yet a further dimension of magic in it. Mike Gillam’s photographs are, quite simply, extraordinary. They are no mere illustrations of the text although they do perform that role superbly; they offer as well a magnificent parallel vision that complements the micro and macro scales of the prose. This book is subtitled Ecology and Landscapes and that is exactly right, for ‘ecology’ invokes science and ‘landscapes’ invokes art. But the word ‘ecology’ also suggests intricacy and ‘landscapes’ implies vastness. Mike Gillam’s photography works on both levels; indeed, it is one of his conjuring tricks to make an aerial landscape photo look like a view through a magnifying glass and a close-up ground portrait look like a view from the air. There is a powerful ecological message in that, about systems and patterns across all scales of a landscape. These are painterly photographs, high-art in the poetics of colour and light, yet they are also scientifically precise and stunningly intimate. They bring you eye to eye with insects and animals; Mike must have learnt the patience of the deserts to capture such portraits. Mike Gillam on Australian deserts deserves the recognition accorded to Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis on Tasmania’s South-West. So the book is a double delight of words and images, cultivated in collaboration from this same blessed hectare of Alice Springs. We are in awe of what you have each done, and of what you have done together.

Congratulations, Steve and Mike, on the publication of Australian Deserts, and to all who have helped and encouraged you. It is a great privilege and honour to share this celebration with you, here in your home in every sense of that word. This is a book that will bring learning, joy and inspiration to generations of humans and greater compassion for our fellow creatures, and it will also, I think, help us all to live with deeper respect, kindness and understanding and with a keener awareness of beauty, wonder and complexity in this magnificent land. It is my great pleasure to launch Australian Deserts on its journey to readers and admirers around the world!

Tom Griffiths, March 2022

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