DISASTER | Drought

Posted on 11/09/2013


This morning when I woke, my mind drifted to consider the ways in which different disasters inhabit our ‘dwelling’. I am unsure if dwelling is something that can be inhabited. I am just stretching the relationship between thought and dwelling; mind and body. Not that I think mind or thought occupies body or dwelling but rather that embodiment is at the heart of dwelling and of place. My tutorial group discussed this in our recent placemaking tutorial, as an unfolding from Tim Creswell’s assertion that “place is right at the centre of humanity”.

Major fires broke out in Australia yesterday as the countryside succumbs to drought conditions. More than half of Queensland has been declared drought stricken. Also, I finally booked my trip to Christchurch where I will be participating in a panel discussion as part of the SCAPE Public Art Biennial. Another earthquake was recently reported. I had been delaying making bookings because of the possibility of earthquake. And as I made my booking yesterday, I was unduly concerned about travel insurance.

Drought is a different kind of emergency to those more cataclysmic events like fires, floods, storms and earthquakes. It proceeds more slowly, even incrementally, like desertification, the melting of glaciers, icesheets and polar ice caps. The heart aches. Readiness, response and recovery play out differently. It seems as if it’s only been a few years since a pernicious decade-long drought broke as floods swept much of the state. So much for the long climatic cycles of drought and rain that have shaped this country’s ecologies. The country is changing [links to An assessment of the impact of climate change on the nature and frequency of exceptional climatic events, report by BoM and CSIRO].

Today the state government issued a press release about a new initiative in disaster readiness and resilience, with the Premier saying “Queensland is a great state with a great climate and lifestyle but we all know that part of living in Queensland means from time to time we have to deal with floods, cyclones, severe storms and bushfires.” Drought is not mentioned, yet it’s impact is widely felt as devastating and disruptive. And this says something about our understanding and approach to ‘disaster’ or ‘crisis’ as cataclysm rather than slow burn especially as climatic and land use patterns change. Droughts mean starvation and famine: on the land it can mean bankruptcy, declining rural community wellbeing and poor crop and livestock yields, and at the checkout it can mean more expensive fresh produce.

Drought seems to have become normalised and this is evident in the seemingly expedient citing of the lines from Dorothea McKellar’s famous poem, My Country: “Of droughts and flooding rains”. It’s just what this country does:  and in that commonsensical or platitudinous way, there’s an undercurrent of ‘it’s not for the faint hearted’ or … ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’. I was fascinated by this post by Fiona Ferbrache on the blog Geography Directions in which she discusses the concept of ‘terroir’ as a geographic concept that relates to the interplay of climate, primary produce and geology in a region. As Ferbrache unfolds this idea, there is a connection to ‘way of life’ and dwelling that is intimately connected to a sense of knowing of place. This plays out in other ways; thinking about solastalgia.

ABARES reports that “Relatively warm temperatures, up to 10 degrees above average across the wheat – sheep zones of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, are likely to have reduced soil moisture levels and resulted in moisture stress for crops and pastures where soil moisture levels were already limited.” There are also recorded rain deficiencies in Western Queensland.

In Christchurch, I will be participating in an opening weekend panel discussion themed ‘Making the Strange Familiar (When the Familiar Seems Strange)’ which will be chaired by Physics Room director Melanie Oliver on 29 September. The panel will explore ideas of change, place, strangeness and unsettlement and the role of art and artists in negotiating both strangeness and familiarity. The panel promises to draw out responses to the rebuilding of Christchurch since the earthquake and the role an event like SCAPE can play in responding to change.

With this in mind, I am attentive to how disasters unfold and what counts as disaster or strangeness in these turbulent times and what it means for our sense of place, caring for place and knowing place.

Posted in: art, desert, disaster, drought