Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What the FRACK

I must have some sort of magnetic force for gas drilling issues. They seem to follow me everywhere! When I was at school in NYC, the Marcellus shale was geared up for rampant exploitation. I ran away home to find that they were fracking the Fayetteville shale. Now, it's the Surat Basin coal seams.

Last week, a group of mining and drilling protesters showed up on the lawn at the Tor Street complex. It seemed like they were using it as a staging ground for the main picket at the Surat Basin Energy and Mining Expo that was in full swing at the Toowoomba showgrounds. All the other DERMites were busy away in their hidey-holes, but I ventured forth to see what was up. That led to a couple of interesting conversations about mining and drilling in Queensland, and I got contact info for some folks I hope to sit down with later to learn more. They seemed interested in hearing about what we were facing in Arkansas, too. I love cross-pollination! Hopefully I can have some conversations that might be useful to us back home.

In terms of my research, coal seam gas (CSG) development had been off of my radar-- it was more of a personal interest thing. That changed today when CSG became a hot topic in a meeting between DERM, stakeholders, and the MDBA. One irrigator, concerned about energy company extractions from aquifers without accountability, said, "until the CSG industry operates on a sustainable level, we aren't interested in talking [about further cuts]." These companies apparently have some sort of immunity through the law that prevents them from being held to account within the Murray-Darling Basin planning process. Thus, irrigators are continuously required to decrease their water use while the CSG companies go unregulated and are even able to access new water. This particular irrigator said that he and others in his area have been operating on 50% use in cooperation with state regulators and without compensation for years, and this has been accepted by the community, but they aren't willing to make any more cuts without someone dealing with the CSG conflict. As government bureaucracies love to do, the MDBA shunted responsibility off to the state by claiming it wasn't in their jurisdiction to deal with the issue. The farmer retorted by arguing that if they would only interpret their enabling legislation in the correct manner, they would be able to include the CSG company water use as "take" and place them under the same plan that everyone else is being called to abide by.

These situations always seems to end up at the "interpretation" quandary. The same case is constantly made by Arkansas environmental groups seeking adequate environmental protection actions from ADEQ and other regulatory agencies. You can be as technical as you want, go all out on your scientific studies, but at the end of the day it really comes down to politics.

Hmm... maybe I should keep looking at Political Ecology PhD programs...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Even though this is an English-speaking country, I'm still having my fair share of communication snafus. Especially in towns like Toowoomba and St George, I sometimes get grimaces when I open my mouth and speak, as well as a fair number of blank stares and giggles. Sometimes people use it as a handy excuse not to help me out. I have to fight the feeling of reluctance when it comes to speaking-- force myself to make phone calls and the like. As I walked back from the post office the other day after a confusing set of misunderstandings between me and the cashier, I felt a new-found empathy for people in the US (0r anywhere) who might speak the language perfectly but face prejudice, ridicule, and self-consciousness because of their accent. It can feel like a big hurdle.

On the lighter side, communication difficulties have led to many a hilarious moment. Here are a few:

Me: What time are you coming in tomorrow?
Jason: Well it won't be sparrow's fart.
Me: Uhh...
At this, our section of the office erupted in laughter and Jason explained to me that the sparrow gets the early worm, after which he has a nice fart. Translation: I won't be in very early, that's for sure.

Me: Where is the new supply closet?
Terrie: Supply closet? Ah, you would be meaning the stationary cupboard. The closest we've got to a closet is the water closet-- the loo.

Jason: That's a neat honey squeeze bottle you've got.
Me: Yeah, I had to get it because it had this cute koala bear on it.
Everyone in unison: A KOALA IS NOT A BEAR!
Much laughter ensued.

Me: Why don't we meet at Coffee Club on Margaret Street?
Neil: Sure. Your shout?
Me: Huh?
Neil: Your shout?
Neil: Are you buying me coffee?
Me: Ohh! Sorry, I haven't got the slang down quite yet.
Lots of chortling from the office mates.
[Everyone seemed to think this was one I should know. Has anyone ever heard "your shout" in a bar or other situation where you're treating people in the US? Am I just oblivious?]

Other things I'm learning:
peanut butter = peanut paste
dunny = toilet
The Lodge = the Prime Minister's residence in Canberra
"Fanny" and the verb "to root" are not appropriate. Ever. Poor Carrie Underwood has received a lot of attention lately for saying she would be rooting for one of the rugby teams while she was here. Oooooops!

Speaking of kookaburras...

This lil guy was hanging around on the clothesline outside my window this morning!

Monday, June 27, 2011


Walking may be the single best way to explore the planet. I am convinced that the human body can best take in its surroundings on foot. Technology allows us to zip across huge expanses of land in sealed up containers without having to consider what we are missing. But walking-- ah, walking-- gets you quietly up close and personal with the world. My advice to myself in a new place is usually to explore via walking. It works most everywhere, from the wilderness to the most developed urban areas (barring some places that are shamefully designed to discourage pedestrians). Here are some photos from my wanderings around Australian environs:

Good example of modern society's conspiracy to make certain neighborhoods only accessible by car. This is my current home.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree/Merry merry king of the bush is he... now that I know what "kookaburra," "gum tree," and "the bush" are, this song makes SO much more sense! Here we have a very poor quality picture of a kookaburra on a wire line.

This spirited grunge rock band I heard in the West End (Brisbane) had a mesmerizing energy, thanks to their lead singer, a hardcore woman in tight red pants with a contagiously powerful attitude.

Art is everywhere in Newtown, a Sydney neighborhood known for attracting an alternative, progressive crowd. I found this contemplative creature sketched on brown paper, then pasted to the boarded up doorway of an abandoned building.

Color and light play at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Brisbane's swanky pedestrian bridge and city skyline bask in the fading glow of yet another breathtaking Aussie sunset.

A magical trellis for the 21st Century on the South Bank, Brisbane.

Recycled robot pelicans have colonized a riverbank pylon on the Brisbane River!

The old Queensland Treasury building, now a casino. Clever, eh? One thing I've learned is that Aussies really like their gambling. "Pokies" (slot machines) are everywhere. The bar where we won the case of beer in St. George had lottery, pokies, TVs for horse racing and greyhound racing, and tons of other gambling opportunities.

Like mother, like daughter :)

Stalker picture number 2. This one was just too good to pass up. Country guys wear these long, heavy oilcloth trench coats around, apparently even to rugby games.

The impacts of mining are a normal fact of life for Toowoomba residents. Looking out from any vantage point over the Dividing Range, you will see quarries stretching into the distance. The quarry in this picture is for "blue metal," one constituent of road beds. Many of the other quarries in the area mine sandstone. Toowoomba also serves as a major throughway for New Hope Coal trains (we wait for trains nearly every day) taking coal from the interior to the coast to be shipped to markets in Asia. Many attribute Australia's record expansion of resource extraction in recent years as the key to the "two-speed economy" that helped to offset slumps in tourism, manufacturing, and other sectors affected by the strong dollar.

However, mining and drilling activities have serious environmental and social consequences. Activists are currently fighting a plan to dredge part of the Great Barrier Reef at Gladstone, Qld in order to put in a new port for shipping coal to the north. Activists have also been fighting plans to issue exploration permits to gas and mining companies to operate within Toowoomba and Oakey city limits. Residents have little recourse because the government controls all mineral rights in Australia and can lease as they please. The Commonwealth government talks a lot about protecting strategic agricultural lands from mining development, but says little about protecting communities under threat. However, the paper reported this weekend that "Qld Mining Minister Hinchliffe warned resource companies to 'think twice' before drilling near established communities." The paper also said that "the encroachment of mining and test drilling on urban areas is fanning a grassroots revolt." Well, that's what you get for trying to drill on Nicole Kidman's $6.8 million retreat outside of Syndey just because you can.

Here we are standing on Table Top Mountain, looking back across the valley at the escarpment upon which Toowoomba sits. The landscape isn't really that different from the Ouachitas. Very homey. Getting to the top of the mountain requires a bit of scrambling over loose scree and rockclimbing, but the view and the quietude at the top are pretty astounding. Ross and I sat for a while, gazing out over the Lockyer Valley and talking about flying. Apparently people hike up and hang glide down from the top of the mountain. He was telling me about his experiences in a glider, where you ride invisible thermal coils up into the sky and then coast down, coil up and glide down. All you hear is the faint rush of wind and the creaking of the aircraft. So cool!

Tree king of the ridgetop hoards his boulders.

Each June, hundreds of professional road bikers descend upon our modest town for the Tour of Toowoomba. We went to spectate the Open Criterium race on the last day of the competition, where the bikers do 21 laps (50 km) around Queen's Park.

Silhouette of a shopper crossing a bridge on Toowoomba City's main drag, Margaret Street.

Yep, it's definitely winter!

Sunset has come for this strip of historic storefronts in more ways than one. Sadly, an indoor megamall two blocks over has sucked the life from the streets.


Changing city streets sometimes makes for creative examples of adaptive reuse, such as this fitness center in an old church.

The dark bark of eucalyptus trees shreds off to leave smooth, white trunks behind.

Behind the darker eucalyptus (commonly referred to as "ironbark") in the foreground, you can see the slim, white trunks of another type of eucalyptus. Standing in a forest of these giants is incredible because of the stark contrast of their milky trunks against the dark green of the shrub layer and the dark silver-green canopy of their leaves swaying high above.

One last scene: Ross descending through the ubiquitous red dirt into the Lockyer Valley one splendid Sunday evening.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Two week reflection

How am I feeling? Like a real researcher, for once. A researcher who is digging in and doing her due diligence, rather than skimming her way through. At work I am focused, thorough, serious about wanting my study design to be as informed as possible.

Part of it is that I think I've hit on something I really care about-- working with people to develop strategies for sustainable, collective community shaping and meaning making. And exploring whether this can work within the structures (governing bodies, schools, etc.) we've created to handle our public issues. I personally don't have any faith in the market to solve our problems, and I don't trust individuals to consistently look outside their own interest enough to work together to protect the balance of life on Earth. To me there will always be a need for entities to plan for and protect the commons.

If I assume that governing structures and institutions are an inevitability, then my immediate next question is: how do we make them truly of, by, and for the people? That's really what my research is about-- how do we equalize power within a community to facilitate every stakeholder getting what they need?

In resource planning, things can get tricky because it's not just about people anymore-- the non-human environment itself has needs (and intrinsic value and rights, some argue). And let's not forget that environmental needs add up to processes that sustain human life. Environmental and resource management is not an issue like health care provision or community violence where the focus is on people and the solutions lie primarily in the human realm (feel free to argue with me here). Most of those human issues are effected by the environment, but rarely (never?) must the value and rights of great blue herons and gum trees be considered when developing a plan to eradicate polio.

Once you add the environment as a "stakeholder," things get messy. Who gets to represent nature? Government officials will say they are charged with looking out for the environment, but how do they go about this and are their efforts sufficient? The environment is so complex and we don't understand it very well yet, especially the interactions between land, sea, air, and the flora and fauna that live upon and within these mediums. If we don't really understand it how do we ethically represent it? There are plenty of examples of people acting for what they thought was the good of the environment (see: Cane Toad debacle) only to cause even greater destruction.

Some environmental consequences are easy to observe: if irrigators upstream take too much water, the wetlands dry up--> loss of bird habitat--> insect population explodes--> crop output declines, invasive species take over faster. OK, then, how much water is needed to keep an "acceptable balance"? "Well, we don't really know-- it's somewhere between this amount and this amount for these particular wetlands, but that's not the whole story because the Red Gum tree that grows along the bank needs dry periods in order to remain healthy..." and on and on and on. The complexity is awesome, but obviously frustrating to sedentary, agriculture-reliant cultures that need resource security in order to maintain a certain population's lifestyle. Every year we become less adaptable and flexible to nature's fluctuating cycles and needs.

In contrast, take the case of the indigenous people of Australia. As Bill Bryson wrote, "they mastered the continent. They spread over it with amazing swiftness and developed strategies and patterns of behavior to exploit or accomodate every extreme of the landscape, from the wettest rainforests to the driest deserts. No people on earth have lived in more environments with greater success for longer. It is generally accepted that the Aborigines have the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world." I know I'm romanticizing here, but it's difficult to see the numbers and not wonder what they got right. I'll develop this in future posts.

Back to how I'm feeling. Good, and so far able to avoid any feelings of being overwhelmed. I have had no problem getting responses to my email requests for interviews, asking for help from my co-workers, or finding papers to read in order to refine my methodology. My living situation, though tentative, is awesome and comfortable. I get free lunch every day by hoarding leftovers from conferences held down the hall from my office. Every few days the cold weather is punctuated by an absolutely gorgeous sunny day. Australian sunsets are epic. Aaaaand... there are bottle trees!

How do you measure up?

One unit of measurement the Australian water planning folks use is a "sydharb". You have until midnight Toowoomba time on Monday, June 27th to find out the volume of one (1) sydharb and tell us what it is based on. Prizes will also be given out to anyone who can name and define another unusual Australian unit of measurement. Get to it, geeks!

The usual: leave your answer as a comment on this post and I won't moderate them until the contest closes on Monday.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Question Time, too

Question Time, I learned this week, is also the name of a forum in Aus Parliament where MPs (Members of Parliament) can ask questions to be answered by the larger group. It's often used as an opportunity to embarrass or needle the opposition. In the event that the answer is not available, the question will be put "On Notice" and one of the Ministers (always an MP) will be responsible for sending it down the right agency channel to get the appropriate answer. DERM sometimes receives questions sent by the Environment Minister from the Queensland Parliament's Question Time that deal with water, vegetation, and other natural resource issues.

Question Time was where Kevin Rudd was to be found the morning after he was sacked last year as Prime Minister. Folks were surprised to see him there, bleary eyed but doggedly living out his duties as Member for Griffith. His comment on the situation? "Never let the buggers get you down, whoever the buggers might be." Rudd has been in the news a lot lately because there's widespread speculation that he's gearing up to overthrow Prime Minister Gillard (Australia's first female PM) and reclaim his old title. He may not be far off the mark. As one of the papers reported, "there does seem to be a galvanizing feeling... that his political assassination at the hands of the Australian Labor Party factional heavies, and not at the voting booths of Australia, did not pass the test of the country's notion of a fair go."

Rudd hasn't totally disappeared in the year since his deposition. He has been serving as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, a job about which he's fairly snarky: "people say I'm constantly in mid-air. That's true. Almost. Though I always remind them-- look carefully at my job description. It does deal with foreigners... most of them live overseas."

Coming from a presidential school, it has been interesting to compare the differences between the executive branch here and back home. For example, the paper reported that in Rudd's old Brisbane office, "27 cardboard packing boxes are stacked against a wall. They are filled with Rudd's handwritten notes, speeches, and personal records from when he was prime minister." Compare THAT to the multi-million dollar repository President Clinton gets for his records.

But does President Clinton have a nickname as endearing as Kevvie? I think not.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Question Time

My co-workers have been joking that play time is over and it's time for me to get down to business. Last week wasn't exactly all play-- I was getting a sense of things on the ground, meeting people, reading reports and studies, and doing a lot of thinking. Over the weekend I took some time to write out a few options for reformulating my project now that I have a better understanding of the current state of things. We firmed up the details of my project focus yesterday and since then I have been hard at work developing a list of potential interviewees, drafting introductory emails, and formulating questions. On the side I will help Steve and Jason document and facilitate the formation of the "localism" groups in Queensland.

In an unrelated conversation this morning, Ross mentioned an essay called The Art of Powerful Questions, and seeing as good questions are key to good interviews, I decided to give it a read. The article praises curiosity and encourages readers to have the courage to let go of a "fix-it" mentality to embrace questioning that opens up infinite possibilities and moves beyond current understandings and paradigms. "As we enter an era in which systemic issues often lie at the root of critical challenges, in which diverse perspectives are required for sustainable solutions, and in which cause-and-effect relationships are not immediately apparent, the capacity to raise penetrating questions that challenge current operating assumptions will be key to creating positive futures."

A powerful question:
  • generates curiosity in the listener
  • stimulates reflective conversation
  • is thought-provoking
  • surfaces underlying assumptions
  • invites creativity and new possibilities
  • generates energy and forward movement
  • channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • stays with participants
  • touches a deep meaning
  • evokes more questions

So how do you write powerful questions? The article describes three key dimensions to consider. The first is something that anyone who has attended a workshop on facilitation will know: Why, How, and What questions are infinitely more powerful than Yes/No questions. While some simple, informative questions may be relevant and important, they should ultimately lead to deeper questions that really get the participants to reflect. Second, the questioner should carefully consider scope, or the domain of inquiry the participants will engage with. In other words, the questions should stay "within the realistic boundaries and needs of the situation you are working with." Instead of asking about any planning processes the Queensland government has ever initiated, I will ask the interviewee to consider their specific prior experiences with water planning processes. The final dimension is awareness of assumptions within questions that may or may not be shared by the people involved in the exploration.

The article also introduced the idea that in some cases the questions do not need to be premeditated. "Sometimes the most important thing is to help the people themselves shape the questions in the most powerful way, since they know their own situation the best of anyone." This reminded me of a story my friend Emma told about her work in communities in Kenya. One day, while conducting an interview, a young Maasai man turned the interview around to ask why she was the one who got ask the questions. "We should be the ones asking these questions of our own community," the man insisted.

Though I'm here in Australia conducting research within a community that is not my own, I will soon be back in Arkansas to participate in these internal processes within my own community like the Maasai man is hopefully doing in his. The article gave me a lot of food for thought in terms of my own leadership style back home. I've specifically been thinking about the group I was trying to start to develop a youth contribution to the gas drilling situation in the Fayetteville Shale. I think I was too focused on what we were going to DO. Instead, perhaps I should have allowed more time for dialogue, deep inquiry, and reflection. I'd be curious to hear stories about successes and challenges people have had with this type of method!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Review: Oranges and Sunshine

Expecting a historical drama like Rabbit Proof Fence, I was surprised to find myself in a very different, but equally powerful, story about Margaret Humphrey's discovery of the hushed-up, systematic deportation of 130,000 British children to Australia over the better part of the 20th century. Much like the Stolen Generations-- indigenous Australian children forcibly taken from their homes to be assimilated into white culture-- these children, many of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and whose parents were still alive, lived in group homes where they were sometimes abused, neglected, and denied access to education or adequate housing. Officials apparently believed they were doing the right thing by separating children from seemingly dead-end lives in England and giving them a clean slate in a country where "the sun always shines and you pick oranges for your breakfast every day."

While the film offers snippets of these children's stories, it focuses mostly on Humphrey's struggle to help victims discover their identities, find their families, and support one another, in addition to seeking acknowledgement of wrongdoing from the British government and resources to correct past wrongs from the offending missions, churches, and non-governmental organizations. She faced death threats, attempted battery, mental breakdown, and hateful media attention to reunite thousands of families and eventually bring the situation to the light it desperately deserved.

The film itself is tense, involved, and heartbreaking, taking its time to wind you deep into an understanding of the situation's haunting gravity. Unlike a feverish and emotional tearjerker, the film leaves you dry-eyed but pained, with a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is an especially insightful film for public servants and all those who seek justice, particularly those of us from privileged backgrounds. This depiction of Margaret Humphrey's work is no holds barred-- it shows the consequences of choosing the cause over family, the emotional hell caused by her obsession with the project, and how irreconcilable unfairness and inequality can be.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A word about stubbies

Stubbies: short shorts worn by Aussie men and women alike. See Exhibit A above: manly men playing rugby and baring a lot of thigh. You'll even see tough bushies with their sun-weathered skin and big boots wandering around in stubbies without a care in the world. It's interestingly refreshing. And they start them early:

Like stubbies, Australians have a nickname for nearly everything. After introducing myself to a guy in a pub in Brisbane, his first question was, "Acadia? Is there something shorter?" My team at DERM agrees with that sentiment and have dubbed me "Arkie" to avoid the four-syllable monster that is my given name. It doesn't always mean that a name gets shortened, though. Sometimes it just means that the name gets cuter. For example, Mr. Cook and Mr. Krebs are Cookie and Krebsy, respectively.

Something you might hear around the office: "Have you seen my sunnies? I'm heading out for smoke-oh." Sunnies are sunglasses. Smoke-oh is the 10:30am break that everyone takes advantage of to refill their mug with tea, enjoy the sunshine, and have a quick cigarette (not too many smokers around, though).

And now for something completely different.

Quotes of the day:

"You don't know how government appropriations work, dear. You're being logical."

"I've had a lot of tools in my life, but now that I have a chainsaw I feel complete."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Name that reptile!

Comment on this post with the common name of this Aussie snake by midnight Sydney time on Monday, June 20th. I won't moderate the comments til then... extra points for adding an interesting fact!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The wild west

Early Thursday morning, Jason, Steve, and I (the de facto community engagement team, it seems) loaded into a Queensland government 4WD with heavy-duty 'roo bars (big front grate to block the kangaroos from totaling your car) and headed off into the "wild west". We came down from the dividing range where T'woomba (local pronunciation) is perched and entered red dirt country known as the Brigalow Belt and the Mulga lands. Our destination was the town of St. George, where we were holding the second of two stakeholder meetings this week.

The first meeting was on Wednesday; we hosted irrigators and people representing farming interests from the Upper and Mid Condamine-Balonne River catchment at our office here at the Tor Street complex (office that I'm based out of). I was intimidated at first after walking into a room full of tough-looking men, but I just sucked it up and struck up some one-on-one conversations, which made me realize that the guys were really nice, interesting, and engaging. I had nothing to be afraid of. By the end of the meeting I had two invitations to come to Brisbane to meet with the Queensland Farmer's Federation and Cotton Australia. Sweet! I will definitely be taking them up on that.

The second meeting in St. George was for irrigators from the Lower Condamine valley and what is known as the St. George Water Supply Scheme, a series of dams, weirs, and gravity-fed channels that provide irrigation to cotton growers in the area. Cotton had just been harvested this week, so there were huge bales waiting in fields around the shire and in a staging area outside the gin. The roadsides were snowy with fluffy bolls that had blown free from transport trucks. The white of the cotton was very pretty against the deep red soil. Apparently, one woman made $20,000 over two years just from picking up this wasted material along roads in Queensland. I'm not sure if $10K a year is really worth that much effort, but it's a kooky thing worth noting!

In case you were wondering, we did not hit any kangaroos. They are a very real road hazard, though. The 'roos we saw traveled in bands of 15 to 20, and they bound across the road in a line-- we could see them jumping through the mirages ahead of us on the road, and you never know if another one from the pack is going to come leaping out of the bush and into your car. It doesn't help that they blend in with the vegetation-- everything is grey and brown out there. Emus are another problem. On our way back from visiting one of the dams, we saw two half-dead, downed emus on the side of the road and stopped to put them out of their misery. It was the only noble option. Steve and Jason pointed out wildlife as we passed: "feral goat, emus, kangaroos... oh, look there! Wild horse... with wild blanket."

We also saw a tree full of dead dingoes hanging from their hind legs, much like this photo. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead so these pictures are all from the internet. We did get a couple on Steve's phone, for example:

The night after the stakeholder meeting, we met up with another Jason who works at the St. George DERM office for drinks and steaks at the St. George Pub. The giant steak you see before me was their regular-sized rump steak. I didn't actually eat that thing... this whole photo was staged because the guys thought it was hilarious. I got the mini-rump, still a ridiculously large steak, with Dianne sauce. That night being Thursday, we got to participate in the weekly lottery for a flat-screen TV. You are given a ticket when you buy a drink or some food, so we had racked up quite a collection of tickets. If your ticket number is drawn, you pick a card from a deck and hope it's the Joker. If so, you win the TV or sometimes a cash jackpot. Our number was drawn, but I unfortunately didn't draw the right card. We still came out of it with a free case of XXXX beer, though! We couldn't just leave it, so we lugged it back to Jason #2's place and sat in front of his fireplace talking about life and drinking our winnings.

For breakfast this morning I had the traditional outback fare of baked beans on toast. There was also the option of spaghetti on toast, but I thought that was a little too weird for breakfast.

Here I am with Jason at the infamous Nindigully Pub on the Moonie River. They have a well-known B & S Ball (Bachelors and Spinsters Ball), which from what I can tell is a rural Aussie tradition that consists of locals dressing up in tuxedos and ball gowns, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, running around in the mud, squirting food dye on each other, and bonnet surfing to sometimes disastrous results.

We spent a good chunk of Thursday and Friday traveling, which was cool because 1) I got to see some of the outback, and 2) Steve and Jason were captives and I could ask them as many questions as I wanted. I kept Steve talking solid for the four hour ride up, only stopping to buy a "Moonie milkshake" at the Moonie roadhouse. A Moonie milkshake is milk... shaken! Once you pass the roadhouse, the road quality diminishes dramatically for the next hour on the way to St. George and you are left bumping around in your truck, hoping for the best. Moonie milkshakes are nearly impossible to drink. Jason explained that the road is so poor because the soil in the Brigalow Belt has a tendency to shift an awful lot and so is very difficult to build on. Brigalow is a native type of acacia that once covered vast portions of Queensland, but is now difficult to find in large enough stands to constitute a real ecosystem. Most of the land where it grows has been cleared for agriculture, though some conservation groups in the area have schemes to protect the remaining stands.

On the ride back today I was so tired and spared Steve my endless questions. I did make him tell me about his work with Indigenous groups, then promptly fell asleep. It's hard to pay such close attention all the time... the Australian accent takes more effort to understand than I expected. Usually when Steve and Jason start talking to each other I have to tune out. It's bloody this and bloody that, but every once and a while they stop talking, look over with a sudden realization that I might not understand, and throw a bunch of slang definitions my way. Steep learning curve!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

News from the escarpment...

What's the big local news around here?

Toowoomba just set the record for the world's biggest lamington! It was apparently equivalent to 45,000 normal sized lamingtons. There is even a Facebook page. This is serious business.

Rat Attack! A local woman's apartment is infested. Oh the horror.

Overweight women get worse customer service than skinny women at dress shops.

There was a fatal shooting at Nobby's general store. Don't worry, mom. If I get into any outback feuds I'll make sure I get them before they get me. No rules out here.

The Maroons (a.k.a. Cane Toads) did not win the game, so we're on to the third and final game of the State of Origin series in a few weeks! Believe the headlines: we may have lost the battle, but we WILL win the war.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


For the past few days I have been staying with my main contact, Ross, and his wife in their gorgeous house on what they call "the escarpment," which is essentially a steep hill in Toowoomba overlooking other beautiful topography of the Great Dividing Range (highest peak in Oz is only 7,000 ft-- don't get too excited). It has been amazingly conducive to adjusting since they cook me delicious meals (Ross making Thai curry above... Australians sure love their Thai food) and let me go to sleep in my cozy bed whenever I feel like turning in. It feels a bit like they are my parents, not least of all because we are in an inaccessible suburb where I am basically trapped. Maybe I should invest in a bike and get all the other neighborhood kids to join my bike gang. I could start an Australian chapter of Variety Paq! They love cupcakes here, too.

I can't stay in the Rapunzel castle forever. This is temporary until we get the details worked out with my more permanent host. I got a couple of offers of places to stay at my first day of work today, so I guess that means I made a good impression (reports were that I wasn't the horrible "Yank" they were expecting). Thank God, since everyone seems to know who I am already and how sad would it be if I didn't exceed their expectations? ;)

I get the feeling that I'll be moving around a lot anyway. On Thursday my awesome community engagement team is going to the town of St George to hold a stakeholder meeting about forming a group based under this new strategy of "localism" where power is decentralized to build local communities' capacity for participation in processes that will effect them. Neat model we are trying out here, and a new concept for a country that tends toward centralization.

Here's my workspace when I'm in the office:
Very governmenty, eh? Today I had my DERM induction, which sounds like I'm joining a cult or secret society, but is really just their term for orientation. I was joking about this with my supervisor, Jason, and his response was, "well, you never know..."

One of the lucky things about staying with Ross is that he is a sports nut and the second game of the State of Origin rugby series between Qld and NSW is coming up tomorrow. Queensland, known as the Maroons, is the favored team and if they win this game then they win the series. Now that I'm a Queenslander I will be proudly cheering on the Cane Toads and booing the Cockroaches. Those are their nicknames, no joke!

Back to Thai curry, I also had it a few nights ago while couchsurfing in Brisbane. Here is my new friend Ayack using appropriate protection while chopping onions. Turns out he's also a photographer and has a kick-ass website:

And the winner is...

Becca Hedges, with her lightning-fast skillz of a lion! Send me your address, B.

Here were some other noteworthy responses:

Cossie is your swimwear costume. trunks.
bottle-o is your liquor store or bottle shop commonly attached to a pub.
arvo is a lazy australian way of saying afternoon.
pissed I guess is drunk.

I'll be stuffed! Sheila's been waggin' the Clinton and hitting the turps like a bogan. She knows every boozer and bottle-o this side of Bourke Street. Yesterday arvo she was sprung pissed, running down to the beach waving her cossie over her head like a dill.

Translation: I can't believe that after traveling half-way round the world that woman would drop out of her prestigious internship and become a regular drunk. Only a week in and she's already well acquainted with every liquor shop and bar in town. And yesterday afternoon she got so blasted, they caught her running down to the ocean buck-naked waving her bathing suit over head like an idiot.

1. swimwear
2. liquor shop
3. afternoon
4. drunk (or to take the piss - to make fun of/joke)

used in a sentence: this arvo we should grab our cossies stop by the bottle-o and head to the beach to get pissed. make sure to grab the eski and throw it in the boot and if you forget you will be a heapin' wank.

1) Togs
2) Bottle-shop
3) After dinner and before tea (at least on a Sunday)
4) Blotto

1) cossie: a fur shawl worn tightly wrapped around the neck
2) bottle-o: a fully stocked liquor cabinet (much like the one we have here at home, currently)
3) arvo: turn of phrase much akin to "my bad", commonly used en los estados unidos
4) pissed: DRUNK of yo ass

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sydney --> Brisbane

How many of you have read Dinotopia? I think it was partly based off of Australia. And not just in the strikingly similar shape of the continents. I feel a bit like I've been washed up in a new place like intrepid Arthur and young Will, a place that is generally familiar in that it is modern-day human civilization, but with an epic foreignness that is so enthralling. People, there are trees larger than buildings! Giant ferns dwarf even the tallest men. The blindingly clean, white light creates beautiful plays of shadows everywhere. Sydney is full of lush and lively squares, parks, and other European-type common areas surrounded by elaborate old buildings, but with the interesting juxtaposition of new glass monstrosities as a backdrop. And the beautiful blue-green sea with its yachts and sailboats and great sandstone cliffs surrounds it all. Not unlike this:

Haha! Dinotopia lives! The different environment is somewhat overwhelming and unsettling, but in a very mind-broadening and gratifying way. My sense of awe is being stretched to wonderful new depths.

While in Sydney I spent some time with Nate, who seems to be getting along nicely. He took me out for kangaroo pizza-- thanks, Nate! Check out his blog here:

Brisbane is no less amazing. It has a different feel than Sydney-- even more laid back, if that's possible. Slightly cleaner, if that's possible either. Better public transportation. I'm staying with a group of university students and travelers in a house near Gabba cricket stadium on the south side of the river. We come from the US, France, Germany, Sweden, and Australia. Brisbane is clearly a major cultural center of Queensland and is filled with festivals year-round, music, art, performances of all kinds, writers conferences, and other attractions.

My favorite spot so far is the South Bank park/community space. Greg, you would love this. You enter the park through a huge trellis of the 21st century-- an arching, beautifully dipping and curving steel structure with cables running from ground to the sky literally dripping in vine-y plant life covered in starry purple flowers. This tunneled walkway (shared by bikers and pedestrians) snakes all throughout the park and drops you off at the neatest spots and detours. One area is a small lake with a series of islands covered in twisting fig trees with their roots magically hanging everywhere. The islands have little pavilions for grilling and picnicking, but these grills are fancy-- like at a hibachi restaurant. All of the pavilions were full of people cooking steaks and kabobs. Probably every Asian and Pacific Island nation was represented there. After the picnic area you come to a beautiful stream that opens up into a series of swimming pools that are more like lagoons and lakes and beaches. There are tons of cool fountains you can run through and other awesome water park features. All of this is free and open to the public, with lifeguards and everything. After that is a deep, dark forest with boardwalks through the trees. You finally arrive at the Qld Performing Arts complex and a bridge over the river to the vibrant downtown area. During all of this you have the picturesque river with the Kangaroo Cliffs and the Brisbane skyline in the background. Insane.

Alright, off to the pub with my international crew to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's "birthday."

Will be settling in Toowoomba, the Garden City, tomorrow!

Putting it out to the universe

It's not uncommon for things Mama has said over the years to stick with me and ring true again and again, but she has been telling us most of them since we were little and so they are ingrained in our most basic understanding of the world. However, there's one that she voiced relatively recently-- maybe last year-- that has become a theme for both me and her. It's the concept of putting things out to the universe: if you say or write or otherwise express something that you want, there will be an answer (on second thought, this is not too far from prayer, so maybe it is more ingrained in me than I think, but I'll save that idea for further pontificating).

Having had favorable past experiences with the universe, I put out my interest in learning about Aboriginal culture and struggles. Here's what I got back so far:
  1. A floor full of aboriginal art and the tour that I eavesdropped on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales;
  2. Enlightening exhibit on indigenous peoples at the Australian Museum;
  3. Found a helpful booklet about Aboriginal art and culture at a secondhand shop for $2;
  4. A girl on the train to Brisbane who gave her unbridled (and horrifying) opinion about the Aborigines and the government's way of dealing with them. I channeled my inner Singhal and used questions to help her consider why she thought that way;
  5. Learned about the Bangarra Dance Theatre, which features indigenous choreographers and dancers who create contemporary works "fueled by the spirit, energy and inspiration derived from the culture, values, and traditions of Indigenous Australians." They'll be in Brisbane in early July-- definitely going;
  6. Couchsurfed with Ayack, a French dude who has already done a lot of reading on the subject because of personal interest and his plans to hitchhike the outback. He is letting me borrow "The Songlines," Bruce Chatwin's story about traveling Australia in the 1980s in order to understand Aboriginal spirituality and culture. It has garnered quite a bit of criticism over the years, so I'm trying to keep this in mind as I read. I've had some interesting conversations with Ayack about all of this, and I hope that other interested folks will wander into my life this summer so that I'll be able to discuss my informal research.
Once I get my bearings in Toowoomba, I plan to write y'all a lengthy essay about my findings so far. Don't feel obligated to read it unless you're really interested, but I'd particularly recommend it for those environmentalists among you because I think a lot of things will make sense and give you food for thought.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Get Yer Racing Suit On

In honor of the Queen's birthday weekend, the first intrepid person to correctly define the following Aussie slang words wins stuff!

You have until Monday, June 16th at midnight Sydney time to submit your answers to me at Please put "Contest 1" in the subject line. Good luck, mates!

1. cossie
2. bottle-o
3. arvo
4. pissed


Making sushi while couchsurfing!

Sydney skyline

Now that I have been in Australia a full 24 hours, it is time for some initial impressions so that I can look back on them later and laugh.

I have started surfing... couches! It's much too cold for surfing in the ocean, and besides I have terrible balance. Couchsurfing is what I would call a movement-- awesome people building essentially a global community through shared experiences-- facilitated by the website It's not an outlet for free places to stay, it's about meeting people and sharing their home and hometown, doing the same for others in your hometown, or even just meeting for coffee or a drink with a passing traveler. I'm staying with a really neat girl in Marrackville, a quiet Vietnamese and Greek neighborhood in southwest Sydney. Last night we had a lot of fun chatting while making sushi and sharing a bottle of wine at her house. She has a sweet kitten named Pixie, worm composting in the backyard, and awesome stories from her travels in Thailand and Morocco and Norway. I now have a set of keys, full access to the vegemite in the fridge, and leftover sushi for lunch. Loving this!

Yesterday I spent the day wandering around the harbor area looking for all the world like a silly tourist. I became obsessed with photographing awesome-looking but common birds in the park, which Im sure is the equivalent of fawning over squirrels and pigeons in the US. Cockatoos (cockatoos!) are everywhere here. They seem to enjoy making the most blood-curdling screeches as they swoop past your head for sport. Haha! They clearly scorned my fresh-off-the-boat ways. I spent about an hour in the Royal Botanic Gardens (once the government farm back when Sydney was a penal colony) trying to find two trees that would be good to hang my hammock from, but it seems they anticipated this sort of renegade behavior and spaced the trees accordingly. Probably for the best, since it was a little too chilly to comfortably hang out in a hammock for long.

Just when I was feeling the serious fatigue also known as jet lag start to set in, the Art Gallery of New South Wales appeared and beckoned to me with its warmth, free exhibits, and clean bathrooms. The basement, where they keep the Aboriginal art, was my favorite. I learned a lot by eavesdropping on a guided tour, but there are so many concepts that I need to learn more about: "dreaming," the significance of using dots (one painting was a series of lines depicting a spear straightening ceremony, but if you looked closely the lines were all made up of dots), the meanings behind decorated logs where the ashes of ancestors are kept, etc. Hopefully I'll learn some of this at the Australian Museum today.

Sydney isn't what I expected from looking at maps and pictures. From my one day of experience thus far, it is much more compact and friendly than all the talk about the city as a busy metropolis leads you to believe. After two hours I fully expected to run into Nate Looney while wandering around downtown at lunchtime. That's how cozy it feels. I made friends in crosswalks, on footpaths in the park, and at restaurants. Really. One retired gentleman I met in a crosswalk even let me come along with him to a free lunchtime concert at the Conservatorium of Music. On the train, people notice your existence (all in a friendly way of course). The one place I did not find folks to be so warm was, ironically, the Visitor Information Center.

Off for another intrepid adventure! Today: Australian Museum, ferry to Manly beach, perhaps a film at the Sydney Film Festival, dinner and hanging out with Nate, and drinks at the pub with my couchsurfing host and her friends!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Last Things First

Finally on my way! I'm one of the last students to leave the states, but it has been well worth the wait. May in Arkansas is NOT to be missed!

I can't think of a better way to spend my last full day stateside: Woke up blissfully cocooned in a hammock deep in the Ozarks, went on an adventure to a magical waterfall with my sister, successfully dealt with my first flat tire (on a dirt road in the middle of a national forest, nonetheless!), drove back to Little Rock bathed in my last gorgeous Arkansas sunset with the windows down singing 90s music at the top of my lungs with the aforementioned lovely sister, and topped it all off with parting drinks at Pizza D's amongst a gaggle of my favorite people!

While hanging around in my hammock this week I finished Bill Bryson's "In A Sunburned Country," which was a rather successful attempt at capitalizing on the travel-literature-devouring flocks that descended upon Sydney for the 2000 Olympic games. As expected, it became a NY Times Bestseller.

Though it is 10 years out of date, I imagine that most of the content still rings true. Here's a bit of an introduction to Australia from Bryson with updated statistics from me in brackets:

We pay shamefully scant attention to our dear cousins Down Under-- not entirely without reason, of course. Its population-- just over 18 million [over 22 million in 2011]-- is small by world standards, and as an economic entity it ranks about level with Illinois [now higher, but still ranks below Turkey and Indonesia on the GDP chart]. Its sports are of little interest to us. From time to time it sends us useful things-- opals, merino wool, Errol Flynn, the boomerang-- but nothing we can't actually do without. Above all, Australia doesn't misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn't have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.
WHY, you might be asking yourself, knowing this did Acadia choose to go there? Why not Honduras or Vietnam or Botswana?

For one, Bryson is of course giving only a very simplified, one-sided view. In many ways-- environmentally especially-- Australia is on the edge of crisis. For example, a climate science professor who lived in Australia for many years suggested that I visit the Great Barrier Reef before it's too late. Another good example is the reason that I'm here: serious water issues.

Twelve years of drought have plagued industry and communities in south-eastern Australia. Some view the drought as the first in a series of extreme weather events that will occur on the continent as climate change worsens. The Murray-Darling river system, which provides water for the country’s most intensive agricultural land, now fails to reach the sea 40 percent of the time. In addition to the human systems under stress, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has identified Australian ecosystems as “potentially the most fragile” on earth in the face of the threat.

I will be working with two government agencies-- one at the national level and one at the state level in Queensland-- to review their past efforts to engage communities and industries in comprehensive water planning, research best practices from other places around the world, and assist in developing new, more inclusive strategies. Though it is easy to think that such desperately-needed water planning should be "efficiently" laid out by scientists and officials, in reality the sustainability of the system will lie in how effectively all voices are brought to the table to develop consensus and make difficult decisions.

I know it's easy to pay lip service to topics like community engagement and consensus-building, but I hope you will bear with me as I explore them more this summer (winter?) and hopefully provide some interesting insights from my process.

(the absolutely most favorite Australian farewell/closing statement ever)