A review of two books and partial review of a third. Details of books at end.
Steppe. Something you may have heard of in tales of the Cossacks and Scythians in European history and literature. What is it?
I bought the book Steppes: The plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions for a global, biogeographical comparison with Australia’s temperate grassland bioregions. And indeed, there are many parallels. But as I learned, Australia does not really have steppe in the sense this book uses the word.
An abridged version of this review has been published by Green Left Weekly
As a kid the way I was taught about Indigenous people was terrible. For one thing, the understanding of the Indigenous economy and technology was non-existent. I had this picture of people living in homes basically made of a bit of bark and maybe grass and sticks leaned up against a tree trunk. Kind of like I often now see kids doing to make cubby houses. The impression was they spent their time wandering around and occasionally spearing a kangaroo or goanna for dinner.
Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of a more realistic and less insulting picture of Indigenous life, but it wasn’t really until I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe that it all fell into place such that I can maybe imagine in some detail how people lived.
The original inhabitants of Australia built comfortable huts of various materials, including stone in some areas. They farmed grains and root vegetables as staple crops in many areas. They created dams and weirs and canals to hold and move water. They traded valuable products like axeheads and smoked eels and fabulous possum-skin cloaks.
I don’t know if the valley here was a settlement, but I will guess what it could have looked like. Perhaps on the higher edges of the broad floodplain there were villages of huts made from basalt blocks and bent-over wattle trees and bundled reeds, comfortable insulated shelters in winter rain or summer sun. Earth ovens would cook feasts maybe of the bustard and mallee-fowl that used to live around here, and the yam daisy (from which the town Myrniong takes its name) which was probably farmed, maybe on the rich alluvial soils. Continue reading
I visited the Dumbarton St grassland in Reservoir the other day. It was brought to my attention via an online petition asking the government not to sell it off for housing (please go there and sign!). It’s a large vacant block in a residential street, backing onto a linear reserve for a pipeline/aqueduct.
It doesn’t look much from the street, although grasslands often have that problem. The front half is mown and the back half is dominated by rank exotic grasses of the kind that tend to infest wasteland everywhere.
But in the centre is a small Eucalyptus tree (I think it was a River Red Gum), and in a halo around it, a spread of native grassland plants with few weeds among them. The Eucalypt probably takes enough moisture from the soil that the fast-living exotic invaders don’t bother with that area. So here there’s some mat-rush (Lomandra species), Bindweed (Convolvulus angustissimus), Nodding Saltbush (Einadia nutans), native tussock-grass (Poa species) and quite a lot of the once-ubiquitous Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra). And even among the weedy grasses, closer inspection reveals patches of Themeda are scattered here and there, and Convolvulus twining around the grass stems. Continue reading
Did you know that if you want to control mosquito borne disease it may help to plant native grasses? The reasoning as to why this might be so is a bit of a yarn. Bear with me.
Living near a river, mosquitoes are inevitable, but some times they are worse than others. And they are a worry, as mosquito-borne diseases like Ross River Fever and maybe even the sinister “Buruli ulcer” are becoming more common even in Melbourne.
Microbats, those little flutterers that are about the size of a mouse (“flittermice” is an old name), eat about half their body weight in insects every night. Including mosquitoes. Up to 500 insects an hour. But the bats need somewhere to hang out and sleep during the day, and this is typically in little crevices and hollows in old trees. Continue reading
EDIT (March 2018): the following advice works, I believe. I observe plague proportions of these bugs destroying fruit in nearby gardens, while my yard has only a few of them wandering around without causing much problem. I mention removing mallow weeds; I’d remove all tall weed patches around the garden, and if you border on a vacant lot, maybe a strip along the side of it as well. Living weeds and tall grass seem to provide vital harbour even when they aren’t also food.
With a brief moment of warm weather on September 2 this year, the harlequin bugs are on the march again.
Many gardeners around Bacchus Marsh have encountered plagues of these sap-sucking critters. They are remarkably adaptable, feeding off hosts as widespread as mallow, pepper tree, citrus, tomatoes and rhubarb. Most insects that are leaf-chewers only feed off one or a few closely related species of plant, because they need to specialise their metabolism to overcome the chemical defenses of the plant. Sap-suckers bypass the leaf with its battery of noxious compounds, and tap straight into the sweet flow of the plant’s sap, which is relatively free of chemical defenses. Continue reading
Clouds shuffle across a sullen sky, staring down at a landscape that is waiting in limbo until the autumn rains. The rainwater tank is getting low, plants not heavily watered have shut down growth as they run out of soil moisture to draw on. Rain will come, but when? And how much?
Previously I’ve had a bit of a stab at charting long-term rainfall trends using Bureau of Meteorology historical data for the town, compared to the recent data from Melbourne Water’s nearby weather stations. With a bit more thought and work I think I have improved the analysis. I’ve also included more data.
The result, in short, is that rainfall has been declining over the 137 years since the records began. This appears to be caused mainly by a large decline in autumn rainfall.
I also looked more carefully at whether the south end of town gets less rainfall than the north (as I had previously assumed). It appears that is true and likely to hold with current weather patterns. Continue reading