2. The Australian story

The inspiration from this collection dates back to my time spent as an undergraduate archaeology student at the Australian National University. As part of my course requirements, I participated in a dig in the Snowy Mountains country of Kiandra.

For two weeks, we were stationed at Cabramurra- a small town of less than 100 residents, which is known as the highest permanently inhabited township in Australia. Cabramurra was established as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme development in the 1950s. At the time, I worked under the nickname ‘Dirt Girl’ since I was tasked with soil analyses across the site.

In class, the professors had led us to expect structures from the early 1900s. This was sufficiently exciting to prompt hard work from an eclectic bunch of students. First, we painstakingly removed alpine grass and topsoil from the designated site, which adjoined the main road. Then we gridded and on hands and knees, recorded every inch of ground across the site before beginning the dig. Old timers stopped their cars and stared at our work. Some even stopped by and showed us albums of black and white photographs of bygone landscapes.

Thousands of sifted and catalogued artifacts, March Fly bites and skinned knuckles later, I was responsible for shutting down a third of the dig on account of my discovery of loose asbestos fibres in the soil. My analyses also showed a higher proportion of fibro than would be expected of structures from the 1900s. Then my name really was mud!

Down time from the dig saw me taking long walks through the alpine summer landscape. It was intimate time with nature- serene plays of light on tussocks, roads straddled by the smooth limbs of stunningly patterned snow gums. The sky was so blue it pierced my retinas and the pace of life there settled on me like liquid amber or pilgrimage. In patches, tiny alpine flowers and grasses competed with wild strawberries, pelargonium, cotoneaster- introduced species that must have escaped from long since destroyed or removed cottage gardens.

Sometimes, when I am driving my children home, I catch sight of a tussock of grass beside the road. Tussocks that would be at home in many of Australia’s extreme alpine or desert landscapes. I want to stop the car and admire it- it’s toughness and its raw beauty and its simple design… I am instantly transported back to the honeyed solitude I found in the mountains.

Eucalyptus pauciflora/ snow gums are now helping dendroclimatologists to build an Australian climate record spanning the past 500 years. Their slow growth and sensitivity to cold leads to clarity in their tree rings. This is enabling Australian National University scientists to build a picture of climate change in Australia.  It is hoped that this information will inform policy makers in the future (see more at http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/snowgum-tree-rings-shed-light-on-past-climate.htm).

For all admirers of natural landscapes, and who carry a little of these landscapes inside them, I offer you my Australian collection.