Tag Archives: Ocean Island

An incovenient truth

The American writer Mark Twain is generally credited with that oft quoted weather maxim, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Twain was recorded as making a remark similar to this in the early 1900s with his words later paraphrased into the famous old adage but the fact is, the idea had first been espoused by Twain’s friend, the essayist Charles Dudley Warner decades earlier. Twain later borrowed the concept during a lecture tour and the mistake in authorship stuck.

The Twain attribution is an example of how a misrepresentation if told often enough, becomes fixed. The reality is the writer’s name itself was also a fiction but ask anyone who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in life and you will be met with a blank stare, so with this in mind maybe old Sam won’t mind if I  borrow a line from him right now.

“You know, everybody in Melbourne talks about the weather, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”

As our fossil fuel dependent power grid struggles to keep up with the demands of hundreds of thousands of houses across the state attempting to run electricity hungry air conditioning this summer, the talk has been all about the need to build a new coal fired power station, but wouldn’t you say that could be a case of the chicken and the egg?

It got me thinking about truth and the perception of truth in a globalized 21st century society. Any suggestion that the weather we’ve been having and that the associated record breaking temperatures that go with it might have anything to do with Climate Change or with Global Warming is evidence if evidence is needed that there will always be some people for whom denial is their first port of call. I’m told there is a difference between weather, which is what we have been experiencing, and climate, which is what has been changing, but the facts speak for themselves. We might be in need of a cool change right now, but there are still some around us who would have you believe there is no such thing as a changing climate, a belief which is at odds with all the scientific evidence and expert testimony to the contrary.

We live on a planet where climate has changed many times throughout prehistoric earth history, ranging from balmy warmth to long periods of glacial cold. The last Ice Age ended a mere 10,000 years ago and ushered in an era known to science as the Holocene. It may be no coincidence that in this era, the era that has seen the growth of the human species worldwide and which contains the whole of recorded history, there has been no full crash in climate on a world scale. If there had been it is likely that early civilizations would not have survived and I’m thinking we would not be here at this moment to blog about it on a World Wide Web.

The concern now however is that it may be the actions of humans that has started driving the Earth’s climate and that as a result we may be heading in a direction that will take us past what is an already natural tipping point to a place where too much is being asked of an inherently fragile climate system causing it to snap back in protest into as yet unknown territory.

It might seem like “An Inconvenient Truth” to him, but the leader of the world’s largest economy and by default the erstwhile leader of the Western World has said that he does not believe in Climate Change. End of story. The trouble is, although the boffins might generally agree on the reality of that Change, the jury is out on what this might actually mean in practice. Climate is such a tricky thing that change just one bit of it and the consequences become hazy. Some might say hazier than the sky over Beijing on a smoggy morning.

The emergence of a polar vortex of warm air over the Arctic last week actually drove cold air south which resulted in a record plunge in temperatures over the North American continent. One particularly worrying Climate Change theory anticipates an end to the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current, the current which keeps European temperatures temperate and this would result in an overall drop in temperatures in Europe. So much for Global Warming.

In Australia we have our own Conga Line of Climate Change denying sycophants, many of whom seem to have found themselves into positions of political power where they maintain obstinately that there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing to this planet. While our economy in Australia is not on the same scale as elsewhere, we do have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, the global effects of which are potentially equally as dangerous.

The Yallambie Creek in flood in 1974. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
The Plenty River in flood at Yallambie,  c1890. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900, (Source: Lady Betty Lush Collection).

Much of Australia is classed as semi arid, a continent where climate is often variable and where frequent droughts lasting several seasons can be interspersed by considerable wet periods. Thomas Wragge who made a fortune running sheep in marginal country in the Riverina, made a success of these difficulties but chose to live at Yallambie after he purchased the Heidelberg property from the Bakewell brothers. His family gathered there before the Melbourne Cup each year and stayed there throughout the summer to avoid the worst extremes of temperature at their properties in inland Australia. Winty Calder noted the milder environment the family enjoyed at Yallambie in her 1996 book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” writing that:

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman, (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

“Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare.” (Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 1996)

Rainbow over Yallambie in 1995.

Yes, we’ve always thought it a lovely place to live here at Yallambie but thinking of the climate as something constant is misguided. The weather of our childhood might have felt like the norm but it was in fact a snapshot of a moment in climate history and by association different to what the early settlers found in Australia or indeed to what we are experiencing today.

I remember a time from my childhood when any temperature reaching into the 30s seemed like a heat wave. Now it is a temperature taken past 40. Across the river from Yallambie, the Lower Plenty Hotel in its bushland setting has an illuminated temperature gauge on its signboard visible from Main Rd. I photographed this at 6 o’clock in the evening last month when it was displaying 47° Celsius, or nearly 117° on the old Fahrenheit scale. I don’t know what the temperature might have been in the middle of that day but in the evening the temperature as displayed on the Lower Plenty board was several degrees above the official temperature when I checked it for Melbourne at about the same time.

Temperature gauge at Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie last month.

A story in Domain last month would seem to confirm this. Of all the data examined from all the weather stations across the greater metropolitan area, the weather station at Viewbank right next door to Yallambie came in as Melbourne’s hottest suburb with an average annual temperature there of 20.9° Celsius. The Bureau of Meteorology puts this down to the distance of the suburb from the stabilizing influence of sea breezes but there is also something called the “Heat Island Effect” to take into consideration. The concrete and built structures of Melbourne absorb heat during the day storing it up like a heat bank, then radiating that heat during the night making the city warmer after dark. I’m guessing that it’s those same sea breezes mentioned by the Bureau of Meteorology that are then pushing the warmer air up the Yarra Plenty valley where it is trapped by the hills around the Viewbank weather station.

A stroll in Yallambie Park.

Trees can provide some form of relief – just take a stroll along the river under the trees in Yallambie Park on one of these warm afternoons to see my point – but as blocks of land in the suburbs are ever more reduced in size and more and more houses are jammed into the existing environment to increase the profits of the developers, the heat island effect is only ever increased. The answer they seem to have to this is to put air conditioning into those jammed in houses but these require electricity to function which in the past has been produced in greenhouse gas producing coal fired power stations. It is a situation that becomes self-replicating. A catch 22.

Yallambie, July, 2018.

Yallambie Homestead with its high ceilings and 150 year old walls of solid double brick and plaster, located within a garden setting surrounded by numerous plantings of trees, manages to stay cooler in warm weather longer than most, but when it does warm up it retains the heat far longer. Another example of the heat island effect.

This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

In my October 2017 post about “Conurbation”, I made brief reference to the heat island effect I had seen first-hand at Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific. The story of Ocean Island or “Banaba” has always struck me as being like an ecological mirror of our own planet and if you can think for one moment about our fragile planet as being like a Pale Blue Dot cast adrift somewhere in the dark depths of space, then spare a thought for solitary Ocean Island sitting out there in the vast Pacific, all on its own.

Abandoned and overgrown mining infrastructure at Ocean Island (Banaba) in the Central Western Pacific, (writer’s picture).

Like the Pale Blue Dot, Ocean Island was the only home its native inhabitants had ever known. That was before the mining industry realized its potential. Roughly two square miles in area or to reference our subject, twice the size of Yallambie, an 80-year long phosphate mining industry in the 20th century reduced the island to a weedy, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial moonscape of broken rock and abandoned mining buildings and machinery. Unlike the inhabitants of the Pale Blue Dot however, a new home was found for the local people, the Banabans who were relocated to a small island in the Fiji group, much to the detriment of their heritage and to their identity as a Micronesian people.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The phosphate from Ocean Island was meanwhile used to green farm land in Australia throughout most of the last century, so look around you. There’s probably a little bit of Ocean Island below your feet at Yallambie even now.

The sacrifice of the island to the needs of an industry that aided an agricultural revolution in the 20th century resulting in the population of this planet increasing from 1 ½ billion when mining started in 1900 to 7 ½ billion and climbing today, is an irony. The industry left the island source of a small part of that revolution largely uninhabitable but even so, there is a bigger irony at work here. Should general industrial practices across this planet result in Global Warming and a rise in sea levels which is a fundamental prediction of many expert opinions, then ruinous Ocean Island as a raised atoll and politically a part of the Republic of Kiribati will be the only island within that nation that has the potential of remaining above those projected altered sea levels.

It’s a sobering thought and one that might see future peoples of low lying islands calling out the name of a certain American writer as they measure the water outside their front door. Whoever first spoke those somehow Global Warmingly appropriate words, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the source doesn’t really matter now. It seems instead appropriate that the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which found its origins from his years working on the Mississippi riverboats where a safe depth for passage was called out as two fathoms on the line – “by the mark twain” – could one day find another use. In years to come as the waters rise, we might all be hearing a bit more about the “Mark Twain”.

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I’ve been a very good boy all year

Multi armed goddess at Bhaktapur, Nepal, (writer’s picture).

Have you ever thought what it would be like to live your life as some sort of multi armed, Hindu deity? She who I share my breakfast table with probably knows. She’s often said she could do with an extra pair of hands about the place but maybe that’s got less to do with the domestic goddess in her and more to do with her ongoing passion for old keyboard instruments and the consequent number of fingers needed to bang out a tune on the same. At last count she owned three pianos of varying descriptions and in fluctuating playing condition. She also has a pedal pump parlour organ, a folding church reed organ and even a virginal style, rectangular harpsichord, but unless things have taken a turn in a decidedly Zaphod Beeblebrox direction lately, at last count she only had the usual issue of piano playing arms.

I’d been thinking there must be some other purpose for having all these keyboard instruments around our shared domicile, other than the obvious musical motif. Then it struck me. The folded up tops of those instruments are where the annual harvest of Christmas cards get deposited each and every December, come what may in the Yule tide Season. In the days before television and wireless when most homes owned an upright, the piano top was an obvious and apparently ready made shelf for all manner of things, albeit the place where the cat would sometimes jump to knock it all flying.

But that was then and fashions change. Nowadays the cat plays the piano on the internet while the piano itself has been replaced by an App on your lap top that will do just about the same thing with an on-screen keyboard. Pianos struggle to make a hundred dollars at auction and I’ve even seen them left out on the side of the road. It’s all a bit sad really but, more to the point, it’s not like anyone even sends out bundles of Christmas cards these days.

Christmas cards in a New York shop window, 1910. (Source: Wikipedia, from The New York Times photo archive)

Every year it seems our Christmas card list is pared back ever more and I don’t think that’s just a reflection on my dwindling list of friends, although maybe I should take that as a hint. I reckon I could now fit the Christmas card list onto the back of a postage stamp but wait, when’s the last time you actually saw a postage stamp outside of a philatelic album? The reasons for the decline are obvious and represent another change in societal fashion. Log onto Facebook or send an e-card out to your contacts and the job is considered done for another 12 months, and that’s without any of that tedious and unhygienic business of licking stamps, addressing envelopes or perish the thought, actually writing anything resembling a properly personalised message.

Christmas theatre programmes from Ocean Island.

My maternal Grandfather, Alfred St C Compton designed his own Christmas theatre programmes on Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific in the 1920s. As with most things, there’s something to be said in favour of the effort required to achieve a little home grown originality although I must say, in my case I gave up making my own cards at about the time I paid a swan song to a much loved first car.

The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.
The “Noddy” car Christmas card.

I guess the decline in the popularity of the printed Christmas message could be seen as saving a tree from giving up its life to cardboard, but does it really have to be like this? A friend in the UK still sends me her “Advent Calendar” which is a series of emailed illustrations sent one day at a time in the days leading up to Christmas. They never seem to quite follow a Christmas theme but recipients on the CC list “Reply All” with stories inspired by the images. It’s quite random and evidence perhaps that there’s still room for creativity even inside the digital age.

Christmas card by Gibbs, Shallard & Co, 1881, from the collection of Michael Aitken. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. (Source: Wikipedia)

It has been recorded that the very first printed Christmas cards were created in England in 1843 for use in the newly founded penny postal service. This was about the time that the Bakewells were settling in to their new surroundings at the Plenty Station, Yallambee, but it wasn’t until three decades later at a time concurrent with the building of the present Homestead that the giving and receiving of cards at Christmas became widely accepted. At that time inexpensive, mass produced chromolithographic cards became available and these were posted to Australia by friends and family living back “home” or were imported directly into Australia for domestic use. These cards of course typically depicted scenes from a Northern Hemisphere winter, scenes that were somewhat at odds with the heat of an Australian summer or life in the bush, so it was not long before card manufacturers started producing cards in Australia with a distinctly Australian content.

Christmas postcard showing rural scene at Heidelberg, c1918. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

In the days when you might need a bank loan to place a long distance telephone call, the so called trunk call, letter writing and dropping a card of some description into the corner letter box was the easy and inexpensive alternative. There are people who probably still remember a time when the post man on his bicycle rode past their house with a delivery on Saturday. At Yallambie we share our Post Code number with neighbouring Macleod and while Yallambie has never had its own Post Office, the Simpson Barracks up the road apparently had an office located inside the camp before the postal services were removed about 20 years ago. Maybe they got confused by people continuing to incorrectly address mail to the garrison which is located in Yallambie, to Army personnel at the “Watsonia Barracks”.

But as for what people actually write at Christmas, the other day I was looking through a collection of old Christmas cards and turned up a couple of hand written notes that had been written to Father Christmas by a boy at some now long forgotten Christmas eventide. The story of the fox recalled to mind a recent post and brought back to me nostalgic memories from another time, a time before the boy stood six foot in his socks and when the magic of Christmas on Christmas night was very much a real thing.

It is said we all yearn for the Christmas times of our youth – a time of long, hot summers in Australia and a time when people still wrote those copious quantities of Christmas greetings. In those days the scent of spruce seemed to fill the house in the weeks leading up to Christmas, just as it does now. Somehow though the idea of a jolly fat, fellow dressed all in red and flying through the night sky on a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, landing on the roof of your house and climbing down your chimney even if your house didn’t have a chimney, seemed not an altogether impossibility. In the uncertain world of today, maybe that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

Who am I to say?

The Big Con of Conurbation

The game is afoot.

Appearing as the harbinger of our doom, the sight of cranes clawing at the Melbourne horizon is an unmistakable sign of a scurrilous attempt to turn the “World’s Most Liveable City” into a “megalopolis” of over 8 million people by the year 2030.

At first glance, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive, but if the crystal gazers are right, it’s a real possibility Melbourne will grow from a city of just under 4 million people at the 2016 census to an astonishing double that number sometime inside the next two decades. The so called Urban Growth Boundary, first sketched onto a map by government 15 years ago, has proved in practice to be a rubbery line that stretches this way and that way according to political whim while the old “Green Wedge” which was supposed to fill the void beyond the boundary with a ring of non-urban land, has been gradually whittled away to little more than half its original size resulting in urban sprawl and the loss of some of our most fertile agricultural lands.

It’s taken 180 years to get to this point but by any reckoning, Melbourne was always a town founded on the unchallenged principle that growth is good for us. From the heady days of the Victorian Gold Rushes and the regular boom and bust of the Real Estate economy, there has only ever been one way – the way forward. Australia has now been without an official recession for 26 years, something the commentators maintain can be counted on as some sort of a world record, but was Paul Keating right when at the start of the last one he described the descending bust as, “the recession we had to have”? Is growth really that good for us?

The pre-emptive actions of the pioneers of Port Phillip in 1835 are probably the nearest Australia ever came to the American way of doing things when it comes to an assessment of our pioneer history. In the United States, government generally took a back seat as the covered wagons rolled out across the Prairie, the settlers founding towns along the way wherever they came to rest, safe in the power that the Second Amendment gave to them to control their own destiny. In the Australian colonies by contrast, settlement was typically occasioned by Government initiative, either by sending convict fleets to the South Seas or by private enterprise supported by Royal decree.

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (Source: City of Melbourne Collection )

In Melbourne, things happened slightly differently with the Over Straiters arriving from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 and the Overlanders coming from New South Wales the following year to found an illegal settlement at Port Phillip, in spite of official Government policy designed to prevent it. Only after the settlement was reasonably well established did Government bow to the pressure of what was by then a fait accompli and sent in administrators armed with the acts and statutes of New South Wales to try to sort it all out. As a result, when it came time for the Roberts Russell and Hoddle to lay out the streets prior to the first land sales, some settlers found the houses they had already erected were standing in a no man’s land in the middle of the proposed roads and would need to be demolished. John Batman’s brother Henry was one who lost his home in this fashion, much to the amusement of the irascible John Pascoe Fawkner, who despised him.

Wragge women folk on a post and rail fence at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The Heidelberg district to the north east of Port Phillip was founded around the three way river confluence of the Yarra/Plenty Rivers and Darebin Creek and was one of the first places to be settled outside of Melbourne itself, becoming for a while an almost fashionable location and a desirable neighbourhood for the genteel set. As such it didn’t last long with the absence of a direct railway line and properly maintained roads arresting district development in the second half of the 19th century, but the resulting quiet solitude combined with the natural beauty of the river valleys appealed greatly to those who chose to live there.

“Tranquil Winter”, by Walt Withers, 1895 showing a house which stands today in Walker Court, Viewbank. The Wragge daughters at Yallambie took painting lessons from Withers about this time. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Sleepy Hollow they called it and when the artists discovered it towards the end of the 19th century, the area became famously the home of an Australian Nationalistic impressionistic art movement, the “Heidelberg School”.

Real estate brochure from the A V Jennings sale of Yallambie Homestead.
The fields of Yallambie prior to the residential subdivision. (Source: Eltham District Historical Society)

The square mile of country that made up the Yallambie region on the north eastern edge of the Heidelberg district remained more or less undisturbed until the second half of the 20th century, wedged in as it was between the towns of Eltham in the east and Greensborough in the north, its lands locked up within the surviving boundaries of Thomas Wragge’s farm and the neighbouring army camp. Yallambie as a suburb developed only after the sale of the 19th century homestead and its remaining farm land to the developer A V Jennings in 1958.

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate

The process of subdivision was initially slow, commencing in 1966 but by the early 1970s with urban sprawl gathering momentum, the neighbourhood had begun to take shape with roads and landscaping in place and an active district progress association with a dedicated membership operating with effective results.

Folding brochure reversed

Neighbourhood spirit was strong and a firm sense of community was a feature of the area.

A 1978 picture of Moola Close, Yallambie. The proposed NEL Corridor B tunnel would probably emerge at a point to the right of the photographer. (Picture source: Winty Calder)

The 1st Yallambie Scout Group formed and operated out of a hall built and paid for by residents’ initiative while local sporting clubs like the tennis club, soccer club and a junior cricket club, the “Yallambie Sparrows” all called Yallambie home.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at the Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

The suburb enlarged further at the start of the 1990s when land was carved from the south east end of the Simpson Army Barracks to create the “Streeton Views” estate, the name a real estate developer’s invention that had its basis in the notion that the Heidelberg School artist Arthur Streeton had once painted there. The idea of the subdivision of the Army land had been first mooted in 1986 as a means of supplying low cost housing to Army personnel but in the end, when the developers came on board, housing for the Army was limited to a few street locations around Crew Street, paid for by the sale of land to the public in other locations. No doubt for a while it proved to be a nice little earner for those developers lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to get themselves on board.

Adastra Airways aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie/Lower Plenty district in 1945 showing a predominantly rural landscape.
Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
Aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie area in 1981 before the development of “Streeton Views” and “The Cascades”.
Aerial survey photograph of the Plenty River at Yallambie, 2017.

The subdivision at Streeton Views was initially opposed by the Yallambie Progress Association as a matter of principle, it being felt at the time that if Army land was going to be released it should be used to create park land and not an addition to the existing housing estate. A public reserve and the artificial lakes between Arthur Streeton Drive and Lower Plenty Road were arrived at as something of a compromise but the changing of the name of the local primary school from Yallambie PS to Streeton PS and subsequent loss of the Community Hall to the Education Department became a sore point. The developers at Streeton Views were selling blocks advertised as being in proximity to a primary school and the name was changed under the guise of a school merger although the reality was that it fitted nicely with the developer’s business model. The old wooden pole sign at the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads which had been there from the start announcing the identity of the estate as “Yallambie” was removed about this time and the more permanent inscription “Streeton Views” was set into stone retaining walls on Arthur Streeton Drive and The Grange in a move further designed to confuse people.

At the start of the new century surplus land that had been previously reserved for an SEC substation adjacent to the Yallambie/Streeton Primary School was subdivided into another new estate, this time carrying the appellation, “The Cascades” with water pumped up and down a nearby gully occasionally to create the fantasy land of a fast flowing mountain stream. Many fine, modern homes have been built within the new Yallambie estates with one house in Macalister Boulevard setting a new price record for the suburb at a sale earlier this year.

Entrance to “The Cascades” at Yallambie, October, 2017. The proposal for NEL Corridor B would take a road underground through the electrical easement in this picture.

This sort of subdivision activity is being repeated all across Melbourne these days with the resulting urbanization and infrastructure pressures leading to the population estimates mentioned at the start of this post. Towns like Whittlesea further up the Plenty River were supposed to sit outside the Urban Growth Corridor within the Green Wedge but the rapid rise of new suburbs along Plenty Road has seen Whittlesea now almost absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl in a process known as “conurbation”, a concept first promulgated at the time of the start of the First World War but perfected only after the Second.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner. (Source: Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, National Library of Australia)

Robert Hoddle produced a classic 19th century rectangular street grid for Melbourne, the wide avenues named after a motley collection of Port Phillip identities, politicians, Royalty and Vice Royalty. The main north south road, east of the town was named after Hoddle himself and for motorists stuck in the grid lock on Hoddle Street today the question probably is, why did Hoddle create a city plan without an orbital route around the city centre? The answer of course is that Melbourne was laid out long before such questions were ever an issue and the present situation where the Eastern Freeway finishes at a dead end at Hoddle Street has only compounded the original problem.

Which brings us back in a roundabout sort of way to what has been most lately on my mind, the North East Link. Without proper road reserves the four alternative routes would each require tunneling and a buyback of houses that might have brought a smile to John Fawkner or a frown to Henry Batman in another era. A mail out to every household in the City of Banyule last month cost ratepayers an alleged $110,000 and included a letter describing the four corridors and Council’s grave concerns about the impact of the Corridor A (Viewbank) proposal. The letter also makes the point that the Corridor B (Yallambie) and Corridor C (Eltham) proposals would connect the Western Ring Road with East Link at the aptly named Ring-wood. The letter was signed by the Mayor of Banyule and the last paragraph sums up the situation: “Council has long recognised the need to complete Melbourne’s Ring Road as a direct orbital link from the Metropolitan Ring Road to Eastlink at Ringwood…”

A 1994 map of Melbourne’s road network with missing links indicated and no suggestion of a “Corridor B” poposal. From a Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

In other words, Banyule Council supports the concept of Corridor B equally as much as Corridor C as a viable alternative to bad, bad Corridor A! The scenic railway of the Corridor D (Kangaroo Ground) proposal has already been ruled out by most pundits which leaves Corridor B looking increasingly like an unlikely NEL compromise between Corridors A and C, routes which have been strongly opposed by Banyule and Nillumbik respectively. Let’s face it, when it comes to opposing Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty, we are on our own as the letter from the Mayor of Banyule makes quite clear.

Lower Plenty Road in 1914, south west of the Rosanna Rd intersection. (Source: Picture Victoria, Heidelberg Historical Society image).

At a meeting at the old Heidelberg Town Hall last month, during a long discourse about the limitations of Corridor A, the Mayor made the fair point that something needs to be done because Rosanna Road, the current de facto orbital link, was well, “full”. Yes, it’s full but it’s not just Rosanna Rd that’s full. The reality is that it’s the planet that is full and we have only been adding to the problem. I might be in a minority but I’m sure I’m not alone in not wanting any of these road proposals built. The ongoing need to build more freeways is a symptom of the problem but not the problem in itself.  With desalination plants needed to provide our society with drinking water and a conurbation of towns and cities fast consuming our arable land surfaces, mankind has not been kind to the planet it calls home. When those covered wagons wheeled out across the Prairie in the 19th century it seemed that there were no limits to the horizon but the reality today is so much more uncertain.

Marco Amati from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research was quoted in a story in “Domain” last week saying that the greening efforts of local governments had not been as effective as hoped and that with a major decline in canopy coverage, “As they lose vegetation, urban areas start to act like heat sponges.”

To digress along this line, consider for a moment the case of a remote Pacific island, Ocean (or Banaba) Island, an elevated speck of rock within the island nation of Kiribati, (pronounced “Kiribus”). Just 10km in circumference, Ocean Island had been home to a British phosphate mining industry for the first ¾ of the 20th century leaving its hinterland a scarred moonscape when I saw it during a prolonged visit some years ago, denuded of both vegetation and the tribal society that once called the island home.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The shameful plight of the Banabans is a long and compelling story, too long for these pages, but suffice to say that the exiled locals now live mostly on a completely different island in the Fiji group. Meanwhile the ecological fate of their homeland is to my mind the story of our planet in a microcosm. The Island is infamous for its droughts and so much vegetation was eventually removed from it that when rain clouds approached the island, it was recorded that the clouds would separate around the pulsating heat emanating from the denuded rock surfaces to join up again on the other side, dropping all the while their much needed rain into the ocean. This claim might seem far-fetched, but the mining industry on the island had a desalination plant operating on the island long before Victoria ever needed one.

I’m not pretending that there’s an answer. You wanna planet of 7½ billion people and counting, you need cities to put ’em in and roads to get them around.  That nutcase in North Korea reckons he has the answer to having too many people on the planet, but his answer isn’t really an answer and would destroy the planet itself.

The English animator Steve Cutts summed it up poignantly in 2012 with his environmentalist message, “Man”. The prospect of a flying saucer arriving to mete out primary justice to mankind might raise a Golgafrinchan style smile right now, but without flying saucers to make good our escape, a smile may be the only thing we have left one day on this “Pale Blue Dot”.

Wunderkammer

butterfly collectorThey say butterflies are free.

That is unless you were a butterfly flitting around the garden at “Yallambee” in the mid-19th century. For then you would likely have found Robert Bakewell’s net landing over your head and a pin stuck rudely through your body onto a mounting card.

Robert Bakewell of “Yallambee” was an entomologist. He was, to coin a phrase, a bug catcher and by all reports, a catcher of some distinction. During his life time in Australia he developed a vast and important assortment of butterflies, moths and insects. Upon his return with his brother John to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell continued to add to this collection, purchasing and adding the M. de Laferte set to his own in 1860 when he was made a member of the French Entomological Society.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).
Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).

Upon his death on Christmas Eve in Nottingham in 1867, some of Robert’s specimens were left to his brother in law in Melbourne, Dr Godfrey Howitt, but the great majority of his collection was left to the British Museum. It’s still there. The register of the insect collections in the Natural History Museum in London records that 515 Buprestids and 2430 Llamellicorns were acquired from the collection of one, Robert Bakewell.

The Castaways of Gilligan's Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.
The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.

The concept of collecting and classifying the natural world was a Victorian passion, often pursued by gentlemen in the privacy of their home libraries in an era when the definition of the sciences was still being determined.

Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.
Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.

The process involved naming and by implication, ownership of the natural world. This was an essential concept in the new world of the early Australian colonies where so much was alien and, under the terra nullius doctrine, supposedly without previous proprietorship.

The origins of this practice can be found right there at the start when the gentleman naturalist, Joseph Banks, hitched a ride on Cook’s first voyage of discovery. Somehow within the cramped confines of the HM Bark Endeavour of 1768, room was found for 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks in which were packed “all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing… many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits”. With all those bugs on board, there would seem later hardly room left over for the ship’s crew. Maybe, not even a cook.

Perhaps history’s most infamous collecting voyage however followed 20 years later when the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied, aggrieved at their alleged treatment by the ship’s master, William Bligh, but also peeved by the molly coddling needed by the bread fruit specimens the ship was transporting. One of the first things the mutineers did after putting Bligh over the side at the end of a plank was to follow him up with the despised potted plants themselves.

Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.
Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.

French voyages to the South Seas, aimed specifically at broadening scientific understanding of the world followed, amassing thousands of plant and animal specimens for transport to the museums of France (and the garden of Napoleon’s main muse, Josephine) along the way.

The British nation by contrast came to the antipodes for the duration. As settlers they found an alien world where everything appeared to be at sixes and sevens. The trees dropped their leaves in the summer, animals hopped around on their hind legs and marvellous furry creatures sported bills like ducks.

Lachlan Macquarie, 5th governor of New South Wales and considered by some to be “The Father of Australia”, (quite fitting to this story as his family had connections to Moffat McLachlan) gathered a truly remarkable collectors’ chest during his command of the New South Wales colony . Such cabinets of curiosities, although not serious scientific items, followed a tradition of wunderkammer or collector’s cabinets designed to appeal to the cognoscenti and scientifically minded gentlemen of the day. Macquarie’s was constructed for the governor around the year 1818 and was crammed chock a block with Australian seaweeds and shells, preserved butterflies, insects, stuffed birds and was decorated with painted panels of scenes of the early colonial landscape.

Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector's Chest, SL of NSW.
Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector’s Chest, SL of NSW.

The cabinet went back with Macquarie to Scotland in 1821, along with his pet cow, and it stayed there for the best part of two centuries. Today it forms part of the Mitchell Library Collection here in Australia, along with a second chest of apparently identical origin — a sort of collection of collections, within a collection, you might say. No one knows what happened to the cow.

Macquarie Collector's Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.
Macquarie Collector’s Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.

Such artefacts from the mysterious Great Southern Land held great wonder for the stay at homes of the old world. The writer and artist and life-long friend of Edward La Trobe Bateman, Louisa Anne Meredith visited Yallambie in 1856 and wrote about it with purple prose:

…What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion flowers! (Over the Straits, p184, Meredith, 1861)

Louisa was first drawn to the idea of emigrating by the presence of Australian natural history specimens in her earlier Birmingham home. These included a case of stuffed birds and wild flowers, the skin of a Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) and, most unusual of all, a cochlear or whale’s ear drum which sat on the chimney piece of her “painting room”, confounding visitors as to its purpose. These items had been sent to her from Van Dieman’s Land by her cousin, Charles Meredith and the fascination must have been compelling for when he visited England in 1838, she married him. The whale’s ear drum now resides in the Glamorgan War Memorial Community Centre history collection in Swansea, Tasmania, the crucial role it played half a world away in the union of one of that states best known pioneer families, probably now all but largely forgotten.

Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.
Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.

Long before the Harry Potter movie franchise made specimens under glass the new chic, my wife and I kept our own natural history collection at Yallambie. Visiting the beach usually meant coming home with a bucket load of shells, stones or seaweed. Or usually a combination of all three.

Late 19th century, cased shell display made by the wife of the head keeper at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, SA.
Late 19th century, cased shell display at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse Museum, SA.

Remembering where the specimens originated or the correct classification sometimes proves a problem but my wife has books devoted to the subjects which she has been perusing since she was three years old. Her great uncle George kept pickled rattle snakes in jars from his time spent in North America and these proved a fascination for my little Wednesday Adams. Great uncle Georgey Porgy has a lot to answer for. My contributions are small beer by comparison. One stone, cut and polished along one edge, came from the floor of a banga banga or water cave on the phosphate island, Ocean Island, picked up during a visit I once made there while chasing a bit of forgotten family history. That difficult to access island was named Ocean by the first Europeans who sighted it from the British transport SS Ocean returning via the Pacific from the first abortive settlement to Port Phillip of 1803. If they had only stopped and asked the locals, they would have found the island already had a name — Banaba. Every object has a story.

Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed by the writer's grandfather between the wars.
Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed between the wars, (collection of the writer’s grandfather).

By contrast, Tommy Wragge’s devotion to the natural world was limited mainly to the coinage he could make from the four footed variety he kept at the bottom of his Yallambie paddocks. There were a couple of deer heads listed in the inventory made of the contents of the homestead after his death in 1910. They were described as “moth eaten”.

Years ago we attended a country clearing sale and somehow or other found ourselves driving home afterwards with an old mounted deer head parked on the back seat of the car. I can still remember driving down the Hume Hwy towards Melbourne and being passed by a tour bus. I looked across as it went by to see what seemed like a whole bus load of Japanese tourists looking down at us with cameras out from their vantage point. Glancing over my shoulder at the back seat I could see what had no doubt drawn their fascination. Our child in a baby capsule on one side of the back seat, on the other side, a Basil Fawlty moose head, belted up and antlers all askew.

What did we want it for? We really didn’t know once we got “Dougal the Deer”, as he quickly became known, to home sweet home. Eventually he went on the wall of the dining room where a Wragge specimen was said to once reside. By the time our son started going to primary school however, “Dougal” had become notorious. Sometimes all it took was a visit by a mother with her child under the watchful eye of Dougal for us never to see them again.

"Oh dear," said the the deer. "I can't feel my legs."
“Oh dear,” said the the deer. “I can’t feel my legs.”

Poor old Dougal. He was quite possibly a happy deer roaming through the gloaming before finding himself short one noggin one afternoon in the now forgotten past eventually to find himself lodged on a wall at Yallambie in the 21st century. It is this fact that must leave a cautionary note to this tale of collecting mania for the very act of collecting carries with it an inherent danger of destroying some part of the natural world that it seeks to record. How many people gasped in disbelief this year when a well-known, former Australian Test cricketer was shown on the front pages of the newspapers, photographed alongside a dead elephant shot on safari in Africa?

The wife of the greatest painter of North American bird life, John James Audubon, was born Lucy Bakewell to the Derbyshire branch of the family of John and Robert Bakewell of Yallambie. Like other members of that extensive family she was a Quaker and was taught an appreciation of the natural world from an early age. She met and married John James in America after emigrating there at a young age and with her background and education she proved herself to be a great assistance to her husband in his artistic endeavours.

Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.
Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.

John James Audobon shot the birds that he painted for his magnum opus, “The Birds of America”, mounting them in realistic poses on boards before sketching them. “The Birds of America” is probably the greatest book of ornithological illustration ever created and that is now ever likely to be created, for many of the birds depicted in its elephant size plates are now extinct.

The Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard developed a reputation as the foremost painter of landscapes in the Australian colonies in the 1850s and 60s. His painting “The Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne” was painted in 1862 and shows a pastoral scene somewhere in the vicinity of the Plenty Valley.

Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862.
Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862, SLV.

According to Lucy Ellem, founding professor of Art History at Latrobe University and today an Honorary Research Associate, this painting may have been produced after a visit to the Bakewells’ “Yallambee”. Writing about Richard Howitt’s earlier (and previously quoted) description of “Yallambee”, Lucy identifies this painting and compares it to Howitt’s description, stating the elegant notion that:

“…in 1862, and perhaps also on a visit to the Bakewell homestead since he was staying with their brother-in-law, Dr Godfrey Howitt in that same year, one of Australia’s leading colonial artists , Eugene von Guerard, would record the landscape of this vicinity in a work which expresses Howitt’s sense of the dreary, unending woodlands.” (The Cultural Landscape of the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 1, Lucy Ellem, 1995)

“The Plenty Ranges” is an oil sketch but possibly von Guerard’s most famous painting was the large and highly detailed “Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges” which was painted in 1857. As Tim Bonyhady explained in “The Colonial Earth”, it sat in a shop window at the top of Collins Street East near the home of Dr Godfrey Howitt for nearly two years, drawing admiring spectators and made the artist and the subject matter famous throughout the Colony.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.
Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.

Previously the “Ferntree Gully” of the painting had been known locally as Dobson’s Gully but such was the painting’s renown that the area became firmly set in the popular imagination as “Ferntree”. Admiring tourists were drawn to visit the place of von Guerard’s painting, among the first being the artist’s friend, Julie Vieusseux who went there on New Year’s Day, 1858.Tragedy followed when Vieusseux’s 8 year old son went missing in the bush. A fourteen day search failed to find him, his bones being found on the mountain two years later.

One of the keenest searchers for the lost boy was Alfred Howitt who as previously discussed had earlier visited the Bakewell brothers at Yallambie. Howitt wrote excitedly to his sister Mary Howitt (former fiancé of E La Trobe Bateman), giving her his impressions of the fern trees:

“…among their roots runs the coolest, clearest stream you can imagine and on each side an almost impenetrable musk scrub covers the side of the range. It would be almost impossible to give you an idea of the strange effects of light and shade in the gully. The fern trees seem to form a living grotto. Their rough mossy stems are the columns, their arching fronds are the roof…”

From being a wilderness where a child could be lost in the bush with fatal consequences, Ferntree Gully became a Mecca for Melbourne day trippers, enthralled by the natural beauty of the area. The inevitable consequence was destruction of the environment.

The Wood-Splitters' Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865
The Wood-Splitters’ Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865

With every frond removed from the Gully to decorate the Melbourne parlours of visiting tourists and every fern leaf taken to be pressed into Victorian scrap books, the Gully was that much diminished. Visit Ferntree Gully today, the Melbourne suburb on the Burwood Hwy at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, and from the highway you would be hard pressed to find a world recognizable to von Guerard.

Douglas Adams perhaps best summed up the process of loving an environment to death with his farcical description of the fabulous fictional world of Bethselamin in his improbable, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“A fabulously beautiful planet, Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.”

marvin