Daily Archives: February 14, 2009

What’s new Sunday 15 February to Saturday 21 February

07feb 008

For the previous week visit What’s new Sunday 8 February to Saturday 14 February.

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Posted by on February 14, 2009 in milestones, site news


Still on the fires

Over in Michigan my ex-student David Smith via Facebook “wonders if anyone has heard any convincing explanation of why Victoria has nearly all the bushfire fatalities in Australian history. If so, let me know.” Now there is something to think about, though topography and settlement patterns must have something to do with it. I imagine the Adelaide Hills and the Blue Mountains would be up there too, perhaps for similar reasons.

Some points along these lines were made on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph by Tom Griffiths yesterday.

Award-winning Tom Griffiths, is one of Australia’s leading environmental historians.

He knows the Victorian fire country extremely well. He has written about it in Forests of Ash (2001) – his beautiful book about this very part of Australia.

Professor Griffiths criticises the National Fire Policy. He says that it was impossible for people to ‘stay and defend’ their homes in this extremely fire-prone region of Australia. He argues that we need specific regional policies – not a ‘national approach’

I found this review of Forests of Ash.

Firstly, it is a social history of human involvement in the forested areas of Victoria, Australia, lying north and east of Melbourne. Griffiths devotes one chapter to an attempted Aboriginal settlement there. His other chapters detail the uses and meanings that the area has had for Europeans: They "improved" its agricultural potential by destroying half the forest, mined there for gold from the 1850s, set up mills to exploit the timber resource, then reserved some of the forest as a water catchment area. (Upper Yarra Dam, in 1957, tripled Melbourne’s water supply.) Increasingly, the area also attracted naturalists, bush walkers, and other tourists. Its features (waterfalls, tall trees, lyrebirds) came to symbolize Victorian identity; even its industrial heritage gained cultural significance.

These chapters are a revision of part of Griffiths’s Secrets of the Forest (Allen & Unwin, 1992), with many of the paragraphs simply divided into more appetizing bites, but half the original work is thrown out in preference for new material and a new emphasis. While the first book grew from a report to Victoria’s Historic Places Branch, Forests of Ash appears in association with Museum Victoria, resulting in a slicker, wider-ranging presentation, including "spotlights" on the forest by specialists with biological (rather than historical) knowledge. These do not always integrate well with Griffiths’s text, but they underline that this is, secondly, a consciously environmental history of a particular ecosystem, dealing with interrelationships of climate, fauna and flora, and of how human activity affects and is affected by that ecosystem.

As an entirely new chapter explains, these Victorian forests are not the dry "bush" typical of Australia, nor the less extensive rain forest or "jungle." Rather, they are a blend of the two in which the tallest trees are Eucalyptus regnans. Australians call these mountain ash, but they are unrelated to the rowan and mountain ash of Europe and North America, and as mighty as redwoods.

Griffiths follows Stephen Pyne in stressing the role of periodic fire in Australian forest, and so the title also refers to ash left when the forests have burned, the necessary nursery for a further generation of trees. The central event in Griffiths’s history is Black Friday, 1939, when 1.4 million hectares of Victoria burned, analyzed as "a cultural exaggeration of a natural rhythm" (p. 189). Humans, by lighting fires, extended fire’s usual range and frequency (and then they deepened the imbalance by salvaging burnt trees). As so often with environmental history, the causes of a "natural" catastrophe are found to have a human component.

Forests of Ash is a good story well written. The subject is made even more approachable through maps and over sixty photographs, many of them stunning. This is definitely not just a text for scholars. But the book can be regarded, thirdly, as a case study, a springboard from which to leap into discussion of environmental history itself. Griffiths does this in the epilogue, where the argument that this discipline "uniquely bridges planetary and deeply local perspectives" (p. 194) justifies both concentration on one geographic area and his global extrapolations. Finally, his source notes are, effectively, a bibliography of Australian environmental history. This is a valuable gateway into Australian material, which provides an excellent counterpoint (and sometimes a corrective) to many studies made elsewhere.

Perhaps some answers for David (and the rest of us) lie here.

ABC has an excellent site on Black Friday: Griffiths is a contributor.


*** To visit:



Saturday quick stats

Just a run through the past seven days…

Floating Life: 2,812 page views so far this month

Most visited posts:

  1. Australian poem: 2008 series #9 —  A B Paterson The Angel’s Kiss 98 views in the past seven days
  2. How good is your English? Test and Answers 59
  3. Dispatches from another America 45
  4. Australian poem 2008 series #17: A D Hope Australia 42
  5. Thinking about Victoria — updated 30

Neil’s Modest Photo Blog: 324 page views so far this month

Most visited posts:

  1. Passing parade and uplifting message: Cleveland Street 5
  2. 2009 in order 5
  3. Saturday 7 February – relaxed 5
  4. Hot in Prince Alfred Park again 3 5
  5. A week of respect and solidarity 5

Ninglun on Journalspace: 90 page views so far this month

Most visited posts – extrapolating from Sitemeter:

  1. Mystery head in church 6
  2. Woman at work 4
  3. Week of respect and solidarity 4
  4. Got character but needs work 3
  5. Sydney CBD from Prince Alfred Park 3

Ninglun’s Specials and Memory Hole: 886 page views so far this month

Most visited posts:

  1. Sequel: Art Monthly Australia July 2008 25
  2. 10. But is it art? Responses to the Bill Henson Controversy 21
  3. Family stories 3 — About the Whitfields 13
  4. Top poems 2: John Donne (1572-1631): Satire iii 13
  5. 05 — Old Blog Entries: 99-04 10

English/ESL: 4,895 page views so far this month

Most visited posts:

  1. How should I write up a Science experiment? 304
  2. Studying the Gothic, or Emily Bronte? 160
  3. The "Belonging" Essay 141
  4. Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein" — and "Blade Runner” 141
  5. HSC English NSW Area Study Standard and Advanced: Belonging 118

No doubt which blog wins!

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Posted by on February 14, 2009 in blogging, site stats