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Posts Tagged ‘australia’

Photo: The Guardian.
Sister Brigid Arthur, 86, and Anj Sharma, 16, are among a group who secured a judgment from the Australian federal court that found the government has a duty to protect young people from climate change.

If you ever feel powerless to do anything about climate change, consider how an 86-year-old nun and eight Australian teenagers stopped a massive new coal mine in its tracks by persuading a court that the needs of youth need to be addressed first. Fingers crossed that the success is more than temporary.

Adam Morton writes at the Guardian, “The federal court of Australia has found the environment minister, Sussan Ley, has a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis in a judgment hailed by lawyers and teenagers who brought the case as a world first.

“Eight teenagers and an octogenarian nun had sought an injunction to prevent Ley approving a proposal by Whitehaven Coal to expand the Vickery coalmine in northern New South Wales, arguing the minister had a common law duty of care to protect younger people against future harm from climate change.

“Justice Mordecai Bromberg found the minister had a duty of care to not act in a way that would cause future harm to younger people. But he did not grant the injunction as he was not satisfied the minister would breach her duty of care.

“David Barnden, a lawyer representing the children, said it was a historic and ‘amazing decision’ with potentially significant consequences.

“ ‘The court has found that the minister owes a duty of care to younger children, to vulnerable people, and that duty says that the minister must not act in a way that causes harm – future harm – from climate change to younger people,’ he said outside court.

‘It is the first time in the world that such a duty of care has been recognized, especially in a common law country.’

“He said Bromberg had indicated he would now take submissions before making further declarations about what the minister’s duty of care may mean for whether the mine extension could go ahead.

“Whitehaven Coal had a different interpretation of the judgment. In a statement to the stock exchange, it did not mention the duty of care finding, and said it welcomed the court dismissing the teenagers’ attempt to block Ley from approving the mine extension. …

“Speaking for the children, 17-year-old Ava Princi said it was ‘thrilling and deeply relieving’ that the justice had recognized the minister had a duty of care. …

“She said though an injunction was not granted the case was ‘not over yet. … There will be further submissions on what the duty of care means for the minister’s decision and the mine.’ …

“The court heard the expansion of the mine could lead to an extra 100m tonnes of CO2 – about 20% of Australia’s annual climate footprint – being released into the atmosphere as the extracted coal is shipped overseas and burned to make steel and generate electricity.

“In his judgment, Bromberg said the evidence presented to the court showed the potential harm the children could face due to global heating ‘may fairly be described as catastrophic, particularly should global average surface temperatures rise to and exceed 3C beyond the pre-industrial level.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

It may not be over, but a finding for children and their future is important, and when added to other recent judicial decisions described in the Guardian article, there’s some reason for hope.

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Photo: NPY Women’s Council.
To combat coronavirus in Australia, “For the first time, Aboriginal health workers were given contact-tracing powers usually reserved for state health authorities.”

Recognizing that plagues of the past had wiped out whole indigenous communities, Australian authorities took action to get ahead of the coronavirus plague — with a particular focus on protecting elders.

At the Washington Post, Rachel Pannett reported on where their results stood in early April.

“From Alaska to the Amazon, Indigenous people are more likely to get sick with or die of covid-19, as the pandemic magnifies deep-rooted health and socioeconomic inequities. That is not the case in Australia.

“Not only have Indigenous Australians recorded far fewer infections per capita than their global counterparts, they are six times less likely than the wider Australian population to contract the coronavirus, government data shows.

“There have been no cases in remote communities, and not a single Aboriginal elder has died. Of the 149 cases involving Indigenous people since the start of the pandemic nationwide, few were serious enough to require hospitalization. …

“The vaccine rollout is also proceeding more smoothly in many Indigenous communities than elsewhere in Australia, where some clinics are complaining of empty vaccine fridges. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are being prioritized for vaccinations because of their higher risk of developing serious illness if infected.

“On the first day of the vaccine rollout in Sydney, one Aboriginal clinic booked all of its appointments in an hour, according to Aboriginal health officials. In the remote Australian-controlled islands of the Torres Strait — near Papua New Guinea, which is battling an outbreak — over 80 percent of adults have been vaccinated, officials said.

‘This is a most amazing response to the pandemic from a community that is so marginalized,’ said Fiona Stanley, an Australian epidemiologist specializing in public health. ‘This is probably the best evidence we have that if you put Aboriginal people in charge, then you get better outcomes.’

“First-nation people globally have a painful legacy of disease and its impact on elders, those most responsible for the survival of Indigenous culture. Europeans introduced smallpox and other diseases to the New World starting from around 1500, wiping out much of the Indigenous population. The 1918 flu pandemic destroyed entire villages. …

“The first case of the coronavirus in Australia, in January 2020 — a man from Wuhan, China, who arrived in Melbourne — was a wake-up call for the country, but especially for Australia’s Indigenous leaders. The new virus was striking older people, particularly those with chronic conditions. And being highly contagious, it was likely to spread like wildfire through remote Indigenous communities where overcrowding is common. …

“Pat Turner, chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization, wrote to state and federal leaders in March 2020, asking them to use their powers to order the closure of remote communities to stop visitors from entering. Accordingly, the communities were sealed off.

“Lawyer Teela Reid kicked off efforts to protect elders in Gilgandra, a rural town 270 miles northwest of Sydney. ‘I could clearly see how catastrophic it could get in the country, if we got one case in our town of 3,000, because we don’t have the health resources,’ Reid said.

“The local municipality compiled a list of elders and made sure they did not need to leave their homes for food or medicines. Reid’s grandmother Stella, the town matriarch who presides over traditional ceremonies, went against her natural instincts and padlocked her gate.

” ‘It was hard for us,’ Reid said. ‘Our grandparents are often the people who raise children. But they also hold our story lines. They’re passed down orally. If you lose that, it’s gone.’ She added, ‘The ways in which many communities acted was through the natural instinct to be a survivor and to protect elders.’

“Before the pandemic, Aboriginal health organizations had been talking with government officials about plans to address a syphilis outbreak using local Indigenous health services. Australia’s chief medical officer at the time, Brendan Murphy, supported the approach, an endorsement that [Dawn Casey, who co-chairs a government task force established to develop a virus plan for Indigenous communities], says helped smooth the way for a community-led approach to the coronavirus.

“On Facebook, TikTok and Vimeo, Aboriginal health agencies launched coronavirus messages — including instructions on cough etiquette and hand hygiene — and interviews with trusted health officials, translated into local languages.”

More here.

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Photo: Rainer Jensen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.
A visitor walks through the exhibition of Aboriginal artist John Mawurndjul at the Sprengel Museum in Germany.

As much as we have appreciated seeing the art of indigenous people around the world, it can’t be right for museums and collectors just to help themselves. In the US, many items now being returned have religious significance for tribes or were raided from burial sites.

Perhaps as art gets repatriated, native communities will show some of the works in their own way. In any case, one country has big plans to get Aboriginal art back from overseas. Tessa Solomon writes at the Art Newspaper that Australia is putting serious money behind repatriation of artifacts.

“The Australian government has pledged A$10.1 million (about $7.2 million) in additional funds over four years toward the return Indigenous cultural heritage objects held in collections overseas. The pilot program was launched in 2018 with a A$2 million ($1.4 million) budget by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), a national institution that supports the cultural resurgence of Australia’s native peoples.

” ‘We wanted to help the nation understand that there was an Indigenous perspective on this history,’ Lyndall Ley, the executive director of the institution’s Return of Cultural Heritage project, told the Art Newspaper.

“The project’s first two years were focused on artifacts held in public collections overseas and will now expand to facilitate the return of objects held in private collections. According to Ley, a U.K.-based collector made the first private repatriation, retuning eight secular artifacts of the Australia’s Yindjibarndi community. …

“A report released in September by AIATSIS under the title Return of Cultural Heritage 2018-20 identified 199 overseas institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage collections — collectively containing around 100,000 secular and ceremonial Indigenous objects. Some 33 percent of these objects are held in U.K. collections.

Of the 199 institutions identified by the report, 44 expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of returning Indigenous artifacts to their respective communities.

“The project’s second phase kicks off amid renewed interest. … In March, Arts Council England asked the Institute of Art and Law to develop guidance for U.K. museums on restitution, including advice on ‘dealing with claims and making decisions on the potential return of objects.’

“France voted this earlier this year to pass a bill to return 27 artifacts from French museums to Benin and Senegal. The vote followed a 2018 report on the repatriation of African artifacts commissioned by President Macron from the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, which recommended the restitution by French museums of works in their collections taken ‘without consent’ unless the institutions can prove the objects where acquired legitimately from former African colonies. Macron pledged in a speech in Burkina Faso that his government would facilitate ‘the temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa’ within five years.”

More at the Art Newspaper, here

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Photo: Shelby Sherritt.
Shelby Sherritt is relieved to be known on TikTok for something other than surviving cancer, writes the Guardian. She started off making pottery koalas, echidnas, possums. Now she grabs a random slip-casting mold, enjoying the surprise at the end.

People started following a young lady in Australia because of her rare cancer, but she’s much happier being followed for her cheery slip-cast pottery.

Matilda Boseley reports at the Guardian, “For years, Shelby Sherritt was known as the ‘cancer girl.’ …

“Sherritt had been featured in videos about young people going through cancer. … Now hundreds of thousands of people are following her online, but much to her surprise it has nothing to do with cancer. Instead, Sherritt has become internet famous for reviving the 70s craze of slip casting pottery.

‘It’s now become, “Oh she’s the artist,” it’s about my pottery, and I find that so empowering,’ she says with a laugh.

“Sherritt has gained half a million followers on TikTok by hosting a wildly successful series from her Ballarat art shed, where every week she makes a new piece from a giant pile of mystery slip-casting molds she got free from a man on Gumtree.

“In the one-minute videos, she walks to her giant pile of plaster molds, picks one, and pours in watery clay or ‘slip.’ Once it’s dried she reveals the model, usually a kitsch 70s mug or garden gnome. Sherritt then paints it. … Many are looking forward to these videos every week. …

“ ‘I think it’s about the mystery. The molds are so elusive on the outside, people are just like “oooh what could actually be in that?” ‘

“Her videos now regularly top a million views, something Sherritt says she could have never imagined when her life was focused solely on surviving.

“When Sherritt was 20 she came down with what felt like run-of-the-mill appendicitis.

“ ‘I was on holiday in Perth and I just could not get out of bed, I was in that much pain. And then we went to a doctor. … By the time I went into surgery, it had ruptured,’ she says.

“During the surgery her doctors discovered she was suffering from a rare form of appendiceal and bowel cancer. … The doctors spoke in a serious, quiet tone that filled Sherritt with fear. …

“ ‘I obviously had to put my life on pause,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t work, I couldn’t study, I had to just do the treatment.’ …

“In the deepest pits of her boredom, Sherritt says she gravitated towards her old art equipment that had been gathering dust, painting, drawing, and even sculpting from her bed. …

“ ‘My original work started off as Australiana pieces. So koalas, echidnas, possums, paying homage to the bushland.’

“As Sherritt’s treatments went on her pottery got better and better, and after the chemotherapy and more surgeries beat the cancerous cells back she started selling her work, and wondered if maybe this was her new path. At the start of 2020 Sherritt was able to make pottery her full-time job, and with her extra hours began uploading videos to TikTok to promote her business. …

“Her views rapidly grew when she began the slip-casting series, and the bump in sales meant she was well and truly making enough money to live off. …

“When Sherritt first went into remission the doctors told her if her cancer was going to come back, the chances are it would be in the first five years. But on 18 January this year, Sherritt finally completed that long and nerve-racking countdown, totally cancer-free. …

“ ‘The cancer definitely inspired me to grow, but now it’s the pottery itself that’s my narrative. … I feel really, really fulfilled now that I’m on this path.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

When I was in junior high, my parents were dismissive of the slip-cast dish I made for them because the school used molds (ie, not creative), but I was proud of it. Kids should be encouraged in whatever version of art interests them. You never know where an interest will take them — or what it will mean to them.

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Photo: Nadia Tugwell.
After the koala caused a multi-vehicle crash by ‘stomping’ on an Australian freeway, Nadia Tugwell put it in her car and called for help. The koala played around with the car’s steering wheel while waiting for Adelaide Koala Rescue and was ultimately released at a safe distance.

It was only last summer, when bushfires raged through koala habitat in Australia, that the adorable marsupials were threatened with extinction (story). Here’s a recent article about one that got itself into a different kind of danger but stayed calm and carried on.

Josh Taylor reported at the Guardian, “A koala crossing one of South Australia’s busiest freeways has led to a six-car pile-up as drivers abandoned their vehicles to mount a rescue of the ‘calm’ marsupial.

“[South Australia] police confirmed the multi-car crash occurred on Adelaide’s South Eastern Freeway. … A male driver reportedly was the first person to stop his car to try to rescue the koala before 7am. His car was then hit from behind, causing a chain reaction.

“An Adelaide woman, Nadia Tugwell, was behind the pile-up and said at first she couldn’t tell what was causing the delay in traffic. … Then Tugwell saw the koala moving between the cars and a concrete barrier in the middle of the freeway.

“ ‘The koala was just cute … sort of stomping between the cars and the barrier. Then I saw a lady running behind it, trying to catch it with a blanket or something.’

“Tugwell grabbed a jacket from her car and also raced towards the koala.

‘When it saw me it instantly turned around to run backwards but the other lady was there and so we jumped it, bundled it up, and it ended up in my car because she had children,’ she said.

“Tugwell had previously rescued animals from other roads so she had the number for the Adelaide Koala Rescue centre saved in her phone. She arranged to meet them at a nearby service station.

“While she waited an hour for the rescuer to arrive, Tugwell said the koala made itself at home in her car, including on the steering wheel.

“ ‘I was sitting there entertaining myself but I had to jump out of the car at that stage when he decided to take over,’ she said. …

“ ‘He was actually quite a calm koala, he didn’t even fight about being in the bag, he was just calm and went into the basket,’ Tugwell said.

“The volunteer released the uninjured koala back into the wild a kilometre from the freeway.

“An Adelaide Koala Rescuer volunteer, Ann Bigham, told the ABC, … ”The koala was in really good condition, it was lucky it hadn’t been hit at all and thanks to the rescuers it was kept safe.’ “

Wouldn’t it be something to have that experience? I’d love to be a koala hero like Tugwell. Can’t see it happening in New England, though.

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Annette Ruzicka/ Guardian
Ngarinyin children playing in a region of Australia that’s reclaiming indigenous place names.

As a fan of efforts to preserve rare languages, I believe that using native people’s names for geographical places is also important. Brian Friel captures the concept in Translations, his play about English soldiers changing place names in Ireland: “It can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.”

Colonists always try to impose their culture, but in the end, it is unlikely to turn out well.

At the Guardian series “Indigenous Investigations,” Annette Ruzicka reports in a photo essay that the reinstatement of traditional place names in a region of Australia “signals a new wave of empowerment” for aboriginal people called the Ngarinyin.

“Hit the Gibb River Road out of Derby, Western Australia, and you find yourself heading towards the northern Kimberley plateau, a breathtaking landscape of sandstone ranges, rivers and boab-dotted savannah country. About 63,000 sq km of this land is Wilinggin country of the Ngarinyin people and their connection to country dates back 60,000 years.

“One of the first stops towards Wilinggin country passes the Queen Victoria Head – a rock formation bearing an uncanny resemblance to the famous monarch. While it’s a blunt reminder of colonialism, it’s also the gateway to an area that until very recently had far more dubious name – the King Leopold Ranges, named after the Belgian king responsible for grievous atrocities, brutal oppression and enslavement of African people. …

“After two years of work behind the scenes, traditional owner groups made some new headlines with a historic name change to the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. It’s a hybrid name to represent both the Ngarinyin (Wunaamin) and Bunuba (Miliwundi) traditional names.

“Since then, another seven places in this conservation park have changed back to their Ngarinyin name.

“Since the Wanjina Wunggurr Wilinggin native title determination in 2004, the Ngarinyin people have made significant moves to empower their community and return to, and care for, country. One of the first things they set up after determination was an Indigenous ranger program: the Wunggurr Rangers.

“Ngarinyin man Robin Dann was one of the first rangers employed and is now head ranger, living on country in the Ngallagunda community, with his family. His younger brother Kane Nenowatt is more recent addition to the Wunggurr rangers while his wife, Tanya Spider, sits on the Wilinggin board of directors. …

“One of locations changed back to its traditional name is (the formerly named) Barker pool, now Dudungarri mindi. The name refers to the dreamtime story of the Wanjina spirit and the Yawarlngarri jirri (blue catfish) which live in this pool. This represents a rich and ancient history that Ngarinyin people hope to share with visitors alongside the staggering beauty of the region. …

“With it comes a genuine economy: employment and investment brought to the region by the people themselves. With a second ranger group on the way, the determination of the Ngarinyin people to stand on their own is a shining light in an uncertain world.” More at the Guardian, here.

On Facebook, I started following a different group of Australian indigenous people, NPY Women’s Council. The home page says it “is led by women’s law, authority and culture to deliver health, social and cultural services for all Anangu.” In one post, Nellie Patterson reported, “We went to the Olympics so that all the people there would see the strength of who we are. The Olympic experience has made us strong with a resolve that has never been shaken since.

“We did a really important inma (ceremony) in Sydney and we did it with the intention of making a deep impression on the people who saw it and in the hope of better relationships and collaborations with other people in the future. It was a very important occasion.

“My sister carried a great deal of valuable knowledge and she and I made this inma available through Women’s Council for the benefit of everyone across the country.” For more about the council, click here.

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Photo: Damien Finch et al
Mud-wasp “nests go hard and mineralise over time,” reports the BBC. “(1) Dating nest material on top of the paintings gives a minimum age only.” (2) Removing the nest allows researchers to ascertain the maximum age.

Prehistoric cave paintings, it seems, still have secrets for the enterprising to unravel. Researchers, with the active support of the local Aboriginal community, recently learned that calcified wasp nests could help determine when some of those paintings were created.

Jonathan Amos reported at the BBC, “When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia’s Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art. On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings.

” ‘I couldn’t believe how little was known about them; we didn’t even know how old they were,’ Damien said. ‘It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn’t studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture,’ he told BBC News.

“Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right. He’s approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in [a February issue of] Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberley’s so-called Gwion figures.

“These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs. It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is [about] 12,000 years ago.

“Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis.

“Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings. And for this, he’s working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. …

“When the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley’s fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated. … Material that smothers pigment gives a minimum age; underlying material provides a maximum age.

“A distribution of dates from many locations enables an estimate to be made for when the Gwion style was in vogue. …

“The paintings [Damien] and his team have been working on are, of course, sites of immense cultural significance. All the sampling was guided and approved by representatives from the traditional owners of the artwork.

‘We couldn’t have done what we did without their active support and encouragement,’ ‘Damien told BBC News.

“He’s hopeful the mud-wasp dating technique can now be used at more locations right across the north of Australia, and perhaps at other rock art locations in the Americas and Europe.”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: Carol and Brian Smith/Educational Passages
Brian Smith posed with a boat made from a kit at a Massachusetts school. He and his wife found it after it washed ashore on Dalyellup Beach in Australia.

How’s this for a school project? Following a boat you built as it braves the high seas for science.

Steve Annear (who in my opinion gets all the fun assignments at the Boston Globe) reported on the excitement of hearing that the first of several such research boats was found after more than a year.

“After spending 463 days on the unforgiving ocean, the ‘Sacred Heart Star of the Sea’ made its final landing on the shores of Western Australia late last month, plucked from the sand by an unsuspecting couple out for a sunset stroll.

“It was a long and closely watched voyage that began in the classrooms of the Sacred Heart School in Kingston last year, where students assembled the small ship as part of a class project before it was packed with a GPS monitoring system and a weighted keel, and [taken to a launch site] in the Indian Ocean with dozens of personal letters to whomever might discover it one day.

“Now, that day has come. And at its new home on the other side of the planet, the miniature research vessel is being heralded as something of a small-town hero, paraded around to schools and local offices as residents marvel at it.

” ‘This boat is a popular chat topic,’ said William Power, a geoscientist in Australia who had been tracking the boat’s final movements toward land, in an e-mail.

“On July 2, officials from Bunbury posted on Facebook about the vessel’s arrival at a beach in Dalyellup, a southern suburb.

“Though a search party led by Power had scoured the beach a few days earlier, hoping to find the mini-boat, it was Carol and Brian Smith who happened upon the ‘Star of the Sea’ first. …

“Carol Smith said in an e-mail, ‘What caught our attention was the sticker that said, “If found please e-mail” … We didn’t know at the time but groups were looking for the mini-boat.’

“The couple strapped it to their roof rack and took it home. After doing research, they learned the boat was part of an educational mission by students in Kingston, some 10,000 miles away.

The boat was put together by students at the Catholic school in January last year, led by Maine-based Educational Passages, a nonprofit that supplies students with kits to construct the ships, send them out to sea, and track them online. …

“When the 5½-foot boat eventually landed in Australia, its sail and mast were gone, and it was covered in barnacles, Smith said, a sure signs of an arduous journey that lasted more than a year. But the rest was spared, including the letters onboard.

” ‘It was so exciting to open up the waterproof compartment, and see all the intact letters,’ Smith said. …

“Winifred Dick, an English teacher at the school, [helped] get the boat kit from Educational Passages. Dick’s husband, Henry, is a chief scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and was the lead chief scientist on the cruise at Marion Rise, where the vessel was first lowered into the sea. …

“The boat first visited Australind Primary School, where Smith teaches, and is now on display at City of Bunbury offices. It will go on to visit other schools, and later Fremantle, a port city near Perth. …

“At some point the boat will undergo repairs. There’s also talk of sending it back out on the water for another adventure.”

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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500-year-old-rock-art-may-have-been-made-with-beeswax

Photo: Archaeologists Liam M. Brady, John J. Bradley, Amanda Kearney, Daryl Wesley
Was this ancient rock art created using beeswax stencils?

Here’s a tip for making detailed art that lasts. I’m talking about 500 years and counting. A team of archaeologists now believes the secret of certain cave paintings is beeswax.

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet News, “Archaeologists in Australia believe they have identified a previously undocumented beeswax stenciling technique used by ancient artists to create cave paintings.

“Most rock art stencils are large in scale. Artists would place their hand or other objects on the wall and spray liquid pigment, creating a full-size negative image. But the artworks at a Limmen National Park site called Yilbilinji, in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of northern Australia, are much smaller. There are 17 tiny stenciled paintings at the site, some depicting human figures and animals, such as kangaroos and turtles, others of boomerangs and geometric designs.

“Studying the 500-year-old rock art there, a team from Australia’s Flinders University and Monash University, have come up with a new theory about how Aboriginal artists created the miniature and small-scale stenciled motifs.

“The team was able to replicate the mysterious miniature art using tiny models sculpted from beeswax, publishing their findings last month in the journal Antiquity. Representatives of the local Indigenous Marra people assisted with the experiment, which only used materials that are native to the region.

“The researchers believe that the Yilbilinji artwork may have served a spiritual purpose in religious rituals. On the other hand, the artwork is placed low to the ground, suggesting it may have been made by children.” More at Artnet, here.

Don’t you wonder how future archaeologists will interpret artifacts dug up from our own culture? Will their theories be as far apart as “It’s for a solemn religious ceremony,” “No, it’s for a child’s game”?

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Photo: Margaret Carew
In 2014, two Warlpiri women from central Australia were photographed performing a traditional dance about a child who attempts to take seed paste from a coolamon (vessel). Ancient stories can give us insight into survival and the interconnectedness of all things.

Back in early January, when I in my ignorance thought coronavirus was just a problem for China, I saved this story about indigenous people passing along ancient wisdom. I did understand then that we’re all connected in the sense that if your island is drowning, mine will, too. I also understoood that indigenous people know a lot about protecting nature. Today I’m thinking that the wisdom of the ancients might help us in ways we have yet to explore.

Meanwhile, check out this article at the Conversation. The authors are Dana Lepofsky of Simon Fraser University, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares at the University of Helsinki, and Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi, contributor to the special issue on Ethnobiology Through Song.

“Since the beginning of time, music has been a way of communicating observations of and experiences about the world. For Indigenous Peoples who have lived within their traditional territories for generations, music is a repository of ecological knowledge, with songs embedding ancestors’ knowledge, teachings and wisdom. …

“Academics are just beginning to see the deep significance of these songs and the knowledge they carry and some are working with Indigenous collaborators to unlock their teachings.

“At the same time, non-Indigenous researchers and the general public are becoming aware of the historic and current loss of songs. Indigenous communities are also grappling with what this means. The loss of songs was brought on by brought on by colonization, forced enrollment in residential schools and the passing of the last of the traditionally trained knowledge holders and song keepers.

“A recent special issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology celebrates the power of traditional songs as storehouses of traditional ecological knowledge. …

“Although traditional music is threatened by past government-sanctioned actions and laws, with much already lost, Indigenous Peoples globally continue to use music in sacred and ritual contexts and celebrate their traditional songs.

“The lyrics in traditional songs are themselves imbued with meaning and history. Traditional songs often encode and model the proper, respectful way for humans, non-humans and the natural and supernatural realms to interact and intersect.

“For instance, among the Temiar singers of the Malaysian rainforest — who often receive their songs in dreams from deceased people and who believe all living beings are capable of having ‘personhood’ — dream-songs help mediate peoples’ relationships with these other beings. …

“The special issue was inspired by Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla Clan Chief Adam Dick. Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla was a trained Clan Chief, [the] keeper of hundreds of songs about the Kwakwaka’wakw people, their traditional territory in coastal British Columbia, and all aspects of their lives and their ritual world.

“In his role as ninogaad (culturally trained specialist), Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla was the last culturally trained potlatch speaker. The cultural practice of potlatching is a central organizing structure of northern Northwest Coast peoples.

“Potlatching was banned until 1951. As a result, singing potlatch songs was a source of punishment and fear for many generations. The interruption of the transmission of traditional songs in every day and ritual life has been profound. …

“In 2002, he revealed an ancient ya’a (Dog Children song) that unlocked the mystery of lokiwey (clam gardens) on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Cultivating clams in clam gardens — rock walled terraces in the lower intertidal — is a widespread practice among Coastal First Nations. We now know this practice is at least 3,500 years old.

“Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla’s sharing of this clam garden song unleashed a wave of research on traditional management practices and helped not only awaken people’s understanding of the extent to which Indigenous Peoples tended their landscapes, but also provided the foundation for research on how to improve clam management. …

“Despite the immense global value of traditional songs as libraries of ecological and other cultural knowledge, researchers and the general public have been slow to recognize their social and cultural importance.

“For instance, the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), highlight the importance of protecting and honouring Indigenous languages, but songs are not explicitly mentioned.[But] in many Indigenous cultures certain dialects, words and expressions are found only in certain songs, not in spoken conversations. Thus, protecting traditional songs is a critical aspect of protecting Indigenous languages. …

“Recognizing the importance of traditional songs and creating a context to promote this knowledge is fundamental to Canada’s reconciliation process. Speaking at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Traditional Knowledge Keepers Forum, Blackfoot Elder Reg Crowshoe said:

‘… We need to be aware or re-taught how to access those stories of our Elders, not only stories but songs, practices that give us those rights and privileges to access those stories.’ …

“Such knowledge, as in the case of clam gardens, may provide important lessons about how people today can more respectfully and sustainably interact with our non-human neighbours.” Hmmm. What if humans had left the endangered pangolin alone? Would we have a pandemic today?

More at the Conversation, here.

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Photo: Daniel Boud
“It’s in our Indigenous DNA to use oral stories … to carry culture,” says Stephen Page of Bangarra, a dance company in Australia.

When the new has practically obliterated the old, it’s not a bad idea to co-opt the new and use it for your own purposes. That’s what some indigenous people in Australia are doing as they test the possibilities of virtual reality for passing along oral traditions.

As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes at the Guardian, “When Brett Leavy recently showcased his digital renditions of pre-colonial landscapes in Australia, one Aboriginal man in the audience started to cry.

“ ‘I get tears [from the Indigenous audience] because they feel a sense of loss. … And then there’s also anger,’ he says. Leavy is a Kooma man and founder of Brisbane-based Virtual Songlines: a First Nations interactive design agency whose output ranges from video games to virtual reality.

‘I’m doing this in a fun way – it’s a bit gamefied – but the question I’m asking is: who are the sovereign custodians of the land?’

“For millennia, Indigenous Australian communities have been passing down histories, knowledge, language and customs, largely through oral storytelling. But in a world of digital addiction, where even the most remote parts of the country are being infiltrated by smartphones, telling stories via screens is the new necessary: a way to both preserve tradition and reach out to the young. …

“ ‘There is massive intellectual capital in our community. There is this whole untapped resource,’ Mikaela Jade, founder of the Indigenous augmented reality app Indigital Storytelling, said at a talk in Sydney in 2017. ‘Don’t wait for it to be built and then be given it to us.’

“Stephen Page, creative director of Indigenous dance company Bangarra, is taking this idea seriously. [To] celebrate its 30th anniversary, Bangarra [opened] a free immersive installation, Knowledge Ground: 30 Years of Sixty-Five Thousand [and launched] the company’s new digital archive site of the same name, which contains interviews, photographs, videos and essays about Bangarra’s productions and processes. …

“Of course simply putting content up online – or placing it on a screen in an art show – does not mean it will automatically make an impact, or find an audience.

“Torres Strait Islander filmmaker John Harvey, 44, sees this harsh truth every day at home on the Sunshine Coast with his two children, aged four and 13. Kids, he sighs, are brutally honest. If online content doesn’t ‘feel authentic to them in a way that they can relate to, they will stop straight away. It doesn’t matter if it’s been made by an Indigenous person or not – they will just stop.’

“Harvey is in the process of creating a work for the new permanent exhibition at ACMI [Austrailian Centre for the Moving Image], which opens in Melbourne in May 2020. Inspiration came from seeing the first-ever footage of Indigenous people in Australia: a four-and-a-half minute sequence shot by British zoologist AC Haddon during a Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898. Locals were portrayed as anthropological subjects.

“In his artwork, Harvey wants to counteract this by filming intimate moments at home. Rather than white rich outsiders holding the camera, he’s using his own phone to capture his own people as he sees them, from the inside. It is, as he says, about ‘democratisation of stories and storytelling.’ …

“Virtual reality was not an obvious tool to tell the story. But many of the senior women observed young people ‘increasingly engaging with screens and technology, and so wanted to capture their attention and interest,’ [Angela Lynch, manager of the Ngangkari program at NPY [Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara] Women’s Council] says. ‘They strongly believe that traditional culture and Anangu law holds the answers to the issues and problems of contemporary life in remote communities.’ ”

More here. PS. Please look at the wonderful photoat the NPY Women’s Council Page. It’s protected, and I can’t copy it for you. Made me smile.

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Photo: Delaware Agriculture
Mark VanGessel, Professor of Weed/Crop Management at the University of Delaware, with an invasive palmer amaranth plant.

Agribusiness presents all sorts of challenges these days. For one, weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, the herbicide that has received so much attention for causing cancer. And having a huge number of acres makes it hard to find a paying crop to plant on alternative years, which can help improve the soil.

A report at Civil Eats, rebroadcast by Public Radio International, got me interested in Australia’s superweed problem. In it, Virginia Gewin explained how near-desperation was causing to farmers to get creative.

“In December, C. Douglas ‘Bubba’ Simmons III left his corn and soybean farm in northwest Mississippi to visit the dryland wheat fields in Western Australia, a region considered to be the herbicide resistance capital of the world. Plagued with unwelcome intruders such as annual ryegrass and wild radish that have evolved resistance to several herbicides, Australian farmers have been forced to develop new approaches to manage weeds — and their seeds. It hasn’t been easy. Farmers there are paying roughly 27 percent more per acre due to increased management and yield loss, according to Bayer.

“Simmons visited several farms in the southern half of the state of Western Australia with three other U.S. farmers and a weed scientist. … Simmons, eager to learn from growers who have faced similar weed concerns, was inspired by Aussie ingenuity. It remains to be seen whether their mechanical and cultural solutions will work in the U.S., given Australia’s much drier landscape. …

” ‘I think Mississippi might even be considered ground zero for the number of herbicide-resistant weeds we have,’ he says. ‘It’s a constant battle from mid-March to mid-November.’

“The long growing season and warmer climates in some parts of the South allow noxious weeds to thrive. But ‘superweeds’ that refuse to die when sprayed with herbicides have been taking over crop land across the U.S. farm belt and beyond. Globally, 255 different weeds have developed resistance to 163 different herbicides, but the most concerning are the 43 that have developed resistance to glyphosate (the main chemical in the widely used weed killer Roundup). These weeds compete with crops for space, water, and nutrients in the soil — and they’re beginning to impact many farmers’ yields. …

“Palmer amaranth, an aggressive pigweed that has devastated crops in the South and Midwest, is one of the worst. Each plant can produce at least 100,000 seeds, and, when left unchecked, they can grow to be taller than some people. …

“ ‘We really need to think about other methods,’ says [Christy Sprague, a Michigan State University professor and weed extension specialist who also traveled to Australia]. It won’t be easy. Farms have gotten larger and larger, so it’s unclear what physical approaches can be incorporated into current farming systems. Cover crops also show promise in suppressing weeds, for example, University of Arkansas weed scientist Jason Norsworthy found that a cereal rye cover crop suppressed roughly 83 percent of palmer amaranth. But their use among farmers is only growing slowly. …

“ ‘Our mantra—keep the weed seed bank as low as possible,’ says Lisa Mayer, manager of the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative and WeedSmart at the University of Western Australia. In other words, control these seeds, and keep them from turning into new weeds. To that end, farmers have developed a number of approaches to catch and destroy the seeds. Some pile the wheat chaff into lines behind the combine, which can be collected or burned. They also use the Harrington Weed Seed Destructor, a device that pulverizes weed seeds as the grain is harvested.

“These methods have proven to kill 95-99 percent of the annual weed seed produced. In combination with some herbicides, weed populations have been reduced to around 1 plant per square meter, which lowers the potential for resistance. …

“Simmons says the big takeaway he learned from his Australian counterparts was the need for farmers to help develop new tools for the fight against weeds. Despite the often-intense pressure to continue buying herbicides, Simmons says growers can’t continue as if there’s only a single tool in the toolbox.” More here.

I can’t help thinking smaller farms are the answer, but can they feed a planet that already has too much hunger?

Photo: University of Delaware Carvel REC
The root structure of the invasive palmer amaranth weed makes it almost impossible to eradicate. And it produces a huge number of seeds.

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Photo: ABC Rural/ Jess Davis
To avoid using plastic, Allen Short has made more than 3,000 small berry baskets from recycled timber donated by makers of wood veneer.

Many of us have been trying to phase out our use of plastic, starting with single-use plastic, and smart companies are focused on meeting the demand.

Biofase in Mexico, for example, takes unwanted avocado pits and makes things like picnic cutlery and straws that biodegrade sustainably. I was especially glad to hear about Biofase after people complained they hated the paper straws our eco-conscious ice cream place started using — and caused the ice cream parlor to switch back to plastic. As visions of plastic-straw-choked sea turtles danced in my head, I thought I’d better let that shop know there was a better alternative than paper for getting rid of plastic straws.

Farmers, too, are working on ways to reduce their plastic footprint — and save money.

As Jess Davis reported at ABC Rural in Australia last summer, “Gippsland beef producer Paul Crock believes he can go plastic-free, despite being in an industry reliant on single-use plastics.

” ‘Without putting too fine a point on it, meat uses a lot of plastic,’ he said. … Mr Crock said it was needed for health and hygiene. Plus, vacuum packing increases shelf life by up to eight weeks.

“Mr Crock is in discussions with European companies that are looking at plastic alternatives, and he has even floated the idea of casings for meat, similar to what you would find on the outside of a sausage. …

” ‘We want to be remaining ahead of the curve and looking at ways we can minimise plastic.’

“But Melbourne butcher Tony Montesano said there was no easy solution.

” ‘Unfortunately you’ve got to use some [plastic]. You can’t exactly have just a flesh of meat. Where do you put it? You can’t exactly put it in your pockets.’

“Mr Montesano allows his customers to bring their own containers to the deli, but that is not something the two major supermarkets allow. …

“Fruit and vegetables also rely heavily on plastic packaging. Allen Short is doing his part to reduce plastic in the berry industry by making punnets [small berry baskets] out of offcuts from the timber industry.

“He started making the punnets for his neighbour, who grows strawberries near Daylesford in central Victoria, and had so far made more than 3,000. …

“Mr Short approached the Timber Veneer Association, which helped him out with scraps. Now, it deliberately sets aside the offcuts at no cost.

 ‘All these [veneer pieces] were just going into landfill, so now they’re being stacked up and given to us and we’re making full use of them,’ he said. …

“While he hoped more people would get on board with sustainable packaging, scaling up an operation like his for the industry at large would be more difficult.

” ‘We’re not going to change the industry but we’re going to do our little bit. And I can’t help but think that taking someone else’s waste product and turning it into a useful thing is a good thing.’ ” I will add that everyone doing their bit is also a good thing.

Read more at ABC, here.

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Photo: Newshub
Sans Forgetica is a typeface meant to aid memory. It was invented by researchers at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

There’s a new memory-boosting font that you can download for free and use for short texts. The inventors say you wouldn’t want to use it for long texts like a novel because it would give you a headache. But I say, what good is a typeface if you can’t read novels with it?

Lisa Martin writes at the Guardian, “Australian researchers say they have developed a new tool that could help students cramming for exams – a font that helps the reader remember information.

“Melbourne-based RMIT University’s behavioural business lab and design school teamed up to create ‘Sans Forgetica,’ which they say uses psychological and design theories to aid memory retention.

“About 400 university students have been involved in a study that found a small increase in the amount participants remembered – 57% of text written in Sans Forgetica compared with 50% in a plain Arial.

“Typography lecturer Stephen Banham said the font had an unusual seven-degree back slant to the left and gaps in each letter.

“ ‘The mind will naturally seek to complete those shapes and so by doing that it slows the reading and triggers memory,’ Banham told the Guardian.

“Senior marketing lecturer Janneke Blijlevens said the concept of ‘desirable difficulty’ underpinned the font’s design. …

“The font was designed with year 12 students cramming for exams in mind but could also be used to help people studying foreign languages and elderly people grappling with memory loss.” More at the Guardian, here.

I can see that having to work harder to read something may cause memory to fire on more burners, but when I was a kid, a friend who purported to analyze handwriting told me that broken letters like this indicated a criminal mind!

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Photo: Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
Australian wetlands researchers behind the Feather Map invite citizen scientists to send feathers and include an explanation of where the feathers were found.

I recently saw a great quote on twitter from a Rhode Islander about what he learned years ago when he visited post-apartheid South Africa: “I learned that the power that you have to change big things is entirely about how strong of a community you can form.”

That quote came to mind as I was reading about how researchers in Australia are enlisting the enthusiasm of citizen scientists to address the challenges of wetlands protection. That may not sound as important as ending apartheid, but wetlands are expected to play a big role in the fight against global warming.

Livia Albeck-Ripka had a report at the New York Times.

“One day in April 2016, Kate Brandis opened a weathered envelope, mailed to her from suburban Sydney. Instead of a letter inside, she found the feathers of an Australian white ibis. A day or so later, another envelope arrived, stuffed with more feathers. In the days following, more began to come.

“Soon, Dr. Brandis, who is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Center for Ecosystem Science, was receiving three to four envelopes a day containing the feathers of birds from across Australia, including those of pelicans, wood ducks, cormorants, herons and spoonbills. …

“Two years before, she had put out a call to the public to send her fallen feathers of wetland birds so she could analyze where they came from, in an effort to map how the birds are moving between the country’s disappearing wetlands. …

“Wetlands — which include swamps, marshes, lakes, mud flats and bogs — are biodiverse ecosystems that can improve the quality of water and mitigate damage from flooding and pollution. But since the beginning of the 20th century, some estimates say, more than half the world’s wetlands have been lost, largely because of human activities. …

“Now, the impacts of climate change — which can include less rainfall in some areas, changing river flows and flood patterns, and potential saltwater intrusion into inland bodies of water — are further threatening some of Australia’s wetlands, and the birds that rely on them for breeding. …

“ ‘When our floodplains flood, which is only every couple of years, these birds come together in the hundreds of thousands to breed,’ Dr. Brandis said. But when the water recedes, the birds disband. …

“Where do the birds come from, and where do they go afterward? ‘Because we don’t track our birds, we have no idea,’ she said.

“Traditional tracking methods, like banding birds, have not fared well in Australia. … Many birds, like the ibis, have a high mortality rate. Another factor is simply Australia’s size: Inland birds often go to places where people do not.

“For that reason, Corrie Kemp, a 73-year-old retiree from Queanbeyan, New South Wales, made a special effort to collect feathers for Dr. Brandis’s project from among the most remote corners of Australia, in western Queensland. ‘We made a point of going places where no other people where going,’ Mrs. Kemp said, adding that she and her husband, Peter, had devoted an entire three-month trip to collecting feathers, during which she kept a diary of her discoveries and often corresponded with Dr. Brandis. …

“Bird feathers, like human hair and nails, are made of a protein called keratin. As the feathers grow, the keratin keeps a record of the bird’s diet, much like the rings of a tree. By analyzing a section of a feather, Dr. Brandis and her team can get a snapshot of the bird’s diet while the feather was developing.

“Feathers from chicks — which have spent their entire lives at one wetland — are particularly useful to researchers, providing what Dr. Brandis and her team call a ‘fingerprint’ of each place. By comparing the diet record of adult feathers against this information, researchers hope to map which wetlands the birds have been using, and how healthy those wetlands are. …

“Dr. Brandis said the possibilities were endless when studying animals’ tissue for clues about their environments, their habits and their origins. ‘It’s like the tip of the iceberg.’ ”

Read more about the Feather Map of Australia here and here.

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