Sunday, July 31, 2011

To the footy!

"Don't you dare waste your money," the station master barked over the loudspeaker. Heads turned. A couple on a bench chuckled knowingly. I finally realized he was talking to me. "Come to the window. Come on, do you see what it says on my window?" A sign advertised discount Sunday fares. I could save 50 cents by getting my ticket from the window rather than the automated machine. I was grateful for his persistence and happy to provide some light entertainment for the others on the platform. The chuckling couple smiled at me as I waited for the train near their bench. I was headed into the CBD for a day of garden and city wandering and a footy game at the infamous Melbourne Cricket Ground. Pictures to come...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Too excited to sleep

My 6a.m. flight to Melbourne put me in the air just at sunrise, a wonderful treat. The sun was visible from the air, but the land was still cloaked in shadow, the valleys shrouded in fog. No light, no movement was detectable from my vantage point, but I knew that far below a flurry of activity was underway-- birds on the hunt, fish venturing out near the surface of placid pools, wombats and echidnas retreating to their daytime hideaways, roos springing through the frosty grass. I couldn't possibly sleep. I was too excited about the prospect of seeing the snowy domes of peaks below come alive, tinged with pink and gold. I was not disappointed. The powder caught the gorgeous morning light and capped the range with a profusion of beacons stretching off to the horizon. The landscape broadened and rose up as the frontier of light flowed into foggy valleys, flashed into overflowing lakes, and blazed down coursing rivers, no doubt pricking the ears of wallabies down for a drink. It was a fascinating and wondrous 45 minutes of observation and imagination.

Family Talk

An article I read recently about the killings in Norway pointed out a way of handling horrific situations in a way I never seriously considered until recently. "There was a Ghandhian flick to the Oslo mayor's pronouncement that the correct response to the killer was 'to punish him with democracy and love.'"

I noticed a striking similarity to an approach described by Libby Hoffman in a talk I attended before leaving for Australia about her film Fambul Tok (family talk), which follows reconciliation and forgiveness in post-conflict Sierra Leonean communities. Instead of jails and negative forms of punishment, she described villages that traditionally took a more positive approach to transgressions by community members. The transgressor would stand in the middle of a circle, surrounded by his community, and each person would provide positive statements about his worth and value in that community. The film's website states that the Sierra Leoneans "often repeat a local saying-- 'There is no bad bush to throw away a bad child,' meaning that even bad members of the community are needed and must be rehabilitated for the community to thrive."

Food for thought.


My swim suit has reappeared! It was in the lost and found at the mall I venture through on my way home from the bus stop. It was still wet. That definitely deserves a laugh and a big thumbs up!

I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the American debt. I can't exactly answer them as I have been watching in horror from afar like everyone else around the world, but I think this Daily Show segment from a while back about sums it up:
JUST KIDDING! I think Paul Krugman of the NY Times would disagree with this. And when I surreptitiously borrowed The Australian from my sleeping seatmate on the plane to Melbourne this morning, I found our looming crisis had garnered a huge, color picture of a concerned-looking John Boehner on the front page. I'll be watching closely to see how things unfold in the next few days.

Another interesting article I read described the fear many Egyptians have that their struggle has been forgotten. I remember having this very discussion with my fellow students in our Social Change class earlier this year. While we were inspired by the uprising that toppled Mubarak, my classmates and I were most interested in what would happen when the citizen pressure and media attention died down, once the difficult work of restructuring the country began. I know I have been remiss in keeping up with Egpyt's journey, so today was a good reminder. One article in the paper discussed the limits of social media in the actual decision-making and negotiations that occur when redeveloping a social structure. "Revolutions need leaders and none has emerged from the millions now joining the debate... dissent fomented in bedrooms can mobilize the people but has yet to produce the personalities to lead them."

This limitation is interesting to note as I continue to consider the role of government and political leaders in facilitating things like natural resource policy and management. I'm trying to reconcile the balance between collective involvement and individual leadership. One tension I've felt in my work is that creating fair systems for the ever-expanding "collective" often requires oversight and framework setting at a scale so far removed from local people that it can be difficult for higher level leaders to stay grounded. Although Australia has been trending toward centralization in some areas (education, resource planning, etc.), they seem to be going in this direction with some lingering misgivings. Namely, which issues should the federal government really be given ultimate authority over and which can they simply facilitate by supporting the actions of state and local governments as in the past? Subsidiarity is a helpful new vocab word I learned this week to help me think things through. While in the states this is a concept I hear most often touted by conservatives, I don't think the concept is partisan at its root. Like subsidiarity suggests, however, it's an and rather than either/or question of how to split up jurisdiction among different levels of government. Figuring out appropriate levels of involvement is the trick, but even states understand that they do not exist in a vacuum, that the things going on within Queensland borders have an effect physically, economically, and socially on the entire nation.

In my quest for more information on participatory resource management, I have come across some interesting models that seem to be working. Most of them are in Europe. There was HarmoniCOP, an EU initiative that created a best practice manual for collaborative water planning. I've been learning about the incredible Elinor Ostrum-- nobel laureate, theorist, professor, and activist--and her work in social ecology and NRM. I'll be sitting down with two of my new workmates next week to hear about their experiences in collaborative bush fire management and Scottish rural development. It's an exciting world!! I just wish more had come up when I googled "collaborative natural resource management USA." Or that anything had come up when I googled "collaborative natural resource management Arkansas."

Thursday, July 28, 2011


What a day. Earlier this week, my external hard drive stopped working. Today, after an unsuccessful attempt to recover my files with the help of the Clinton School’s wonderful Kari, I finally had to face the fact that it had crashed completely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my backup drive. It was my main repository for 4 years of photos, music, and archived things like college essays and parts of the film I made before graduating from Barnard. I’m crossing my fingers that I can find bits and pieces of this stuff on various computers back home. Otherwise, here’s to hoping Vimeo and Facebook never die.

By mid-afternoon I was starting to feel a little crazy. My head was buzzing, I was antsy, and I couldn’t seem to get any work done. So I went to the pool! It was great to be in the water again. Whenever my mind started to wander towards my disappointments, I just swam harder and focused on my stroke. I kept swimming until my severely out of shape body couldn’t drag another arm through the water, but it was enough to get my head screwed back on to my body and temporarily stop me from obsessing over things that are beyond my control.

But that wasn’t the end. When I got home, I realized that I had misplaced my swim suit somewhere between the office, the bus, and the walk from the bus stop.

While no doubt a let-down, I couldn’t care too much because I had seen something on the way home that made everything alright. For the first part of the ride, I had my eyes shut against the glaring sun shining directly in through the window. When I opened my eyes I noticed, in a spread of sheer winter cloud out to the side, a colorful little sun dog. Then, on the walk from the bus stop I admired the stringy bark hanging from the eucalyptus trees and the reddish tinge of the tall grass on Mount Taylor and I couldn’t have been happier.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Adventures in the Bush Capital

Today I had a lucky break when a meeting was canceled at the last minute while I was in the vicinity of new Parliament House in Canberra. My exploring plans had been stymied by rain for the past few days, but today was beautiful and sunny. They let me take my backpack full of stuff inside without a single question, and I was free to wander unsupervised around most of the complex, including the rooftop overlook and the House and Senate chambers. The chamber colors are the traditional green (lower house) and red (upper house) borrowed from England, but they've been given an Australian twist. The House chamber is tastefully done up in the same nice shades of blue-green that you would find in a eucalyptyus forest, while the Senate chamber colors are softer versions of the red soils of the outback-- dark rose, mulberry, and mauve.

From the rooftop I got a good sense of Canberra's very strange design. Hardly another building was in sight. It was just trees and hills, and beyond them mountains, as far as the eye could see. The city is spread out in a way that almost makes it seem like it doesn't exist. One minute you'll be standing in a town square and the next you're hiking through the bush. After my jaunt through Parliament House, I needed to get to a meeting on a street that, according to the map, seemed nearby. A policeman pointed me to a path that led down one side of Capitol Hill. I was immediately engulfed by eucalyptus trees and proceeded to make my way down into a legit forest as if I was in the middle of nowhere. The rain had really brought out the eucalyptus smell, so everything was fresh and minty. It's similar to the smell of a pine forest in hot sun, only better. Fifteen minutes of hiking later, I popped out on a roadside and was presented with a menu of different government buildings. I turned around in amusement to look where I had come from and saw nothing but a thick mass of trees with the giant flagpole on top of Parliament House in the background. I had to laugh. And take a picture. Yes, my experience in Canberra certainly lives up to it's "Bush Capital" nickname!

Instead of high-density development, Canberra is decentralized around several town centers that are surrounded by suburbs and bush. They don't typically allow tall buildings or development on any of the hills, so you get amazingly clear and uninterrupted views of the landscape.

The extraordinary amount of breathing room takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. For example, we saw kangaroos grazing on the Governor-General's estate! And a giant herd of sulfur crested cockatoos:

Also, there are bike trails everywhere-- around lakes, amongst the forested hills, and through each town center. It's a bicycle paradise, really. The mountains in the distance are all part of a national park that seems to be well utilized by the sporty residents of the Australian Capital Territory. I could literally leave my house, be in the wilderness within minutes, and stay there for weeks. A little further south and you enter the Snowy Mountains, where you can hike around to tiny huts and shelters, some of which are old drover's shacks and settler's homesteads.

I got an informal drive-by tour of the different embassies in Canberra and saw a few things of note. Most of the embassies are fairly modest, small buildings. Then you drive past the American embassy. And drive. And drive. We've got a HUGE compound surrounded by a tall, white, wrought iron gate. The compound is filled with massive colonial-style buildings of red brick. Way to be ostentatious, 'murrica. Then you round a corner and there's a fenced off section of forest backing up to the American embassy. A sign states that this is supposed to be the site of the Iranian embassy. Maybe it's an incentive for them to get their act together: look at this lovely slice of bush we've reserved for you!

When we passed the Chinese embassy, my lovely tour guide told me that when the Chinese remodeled their Canberra embassy a few years ago, they found a number of spy devices the Australians had planted in the walls. Apparently that didn't go over too well :)

Warm, fuzzy memory for a chilly Canberra day

As the rough waves crashed against the Point Lookout cliffs on Straddie in the most incredible show of power, we saw a beautiful thing. Just below the deadly explosions of water against rock, several dolphins were nonchalantly sufing the monster waves. Each time a large wall of water would roar up into being, the dolphins were suspended as if set in a column of blue-green glass. Incredible.

I later learned that Moreton Bay, the area we were in just off the coast of Brisbane, has the largest resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The End of Growth

Many of my classmates have discussed how their experiences abroad this summer are putting things in perspective for them. I’d add that reading about their experiences is putting things in perspective for me across a wide range of situations and cultures. One thing that particularly struck me was reading about the severe lack of basic drinking water in the Tanzanian village where Fernando is working. People in his village sometimes have to walk for a full day in search of water, and there have been multiple deaths from dehydration and exhaustion. I’m so impressed with his recent efforts working with the community to fund, design, and build a rainwater cistern (and this is outside of his normal work).

In comparison, even after a decade-long drought here in arid Australia, towns and cities in the Murray-Darling Basin still had access to water for what they call “critical human need.” Some towns were very close to running out, but the rains came just in time. The debate here rages at a very different level-- how much water to allow for agriculture and industry versus the environment. Drinking water is rarely mentioned, though it has been highlighted increasingly in past years since fears were heightened among local government officials during the drought.

Many Australians I’ve met have said that they are raised to think they live in The Lucky Country, full of natural resources, natural beauty, and peaceful, content people. Although they are a rather dry continent, Australia is the widely-acknowledged leader in arid zone water resource management.

However, many factors are contributing to rural decline in Australia, as around the world. While rural communities here may have their basic needs provided for and a functional welfare system to pick up the slack, people are still dying. In addition to major youth outmigration and crippling household debt, increasing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, nutritional issues, and inadequate mental health care are also weakening rural communities. For those reliant on agriculture and facing additional water cuts under the latest round of water reforms, these health and wellness factors are at an all-time high. From the perspective of the village in Tanzania, access to water alone would be cause for celebration. In rural Australia it is a given and so most resident’s sense of fulfillment has been built on a more complex system of expectations related to farm infrastructure, tertiary educational opportunities, quality health care and education, good harvest years, and access to technology, among others. These expectations are currently being dashed and people have few avenues for coping mentally. Several people have described the process as similar to grieving.

I feel like I’m looking into the future. In a country or world where development has been capped, what is the fallout for those who have built their identities and will to live around expectations of achieving a certain standard of living that is no longer possible? I’m curious about the psychological impacts that rural Australian communities are experiencing and whether that provides a glimpse into the way other developed countries might react to the necessary end of growth. The reality is that water is a finite resource. Efficiencies can be developed to some extent, but each level of efficiency is increasingly more expensive and difficult to attain. What happens in your head when your community, once thriving and successful and ever hopeful for a brighter, more prosperous future, reaches the end? Is it possible to avoid the suicide and depression by changing one’s attitude, or will it take generations for humanity to come to terms with a new way of looking at the world, one that doesn’t rely on constant development and more money to attain happiness? My question is specifically targeted at the US: will it be possible to cut back our ingrained expectations about what constitutes the good life and be content with alternative ways of being? Do we have a looming mental health crisis on our hands? I’ve never quite thought of it this way before.

Ultimately, though, this idea gives me hope. It’s easy for people of my generation to despair—we’ve been handed a really messy planet. But a new question has been sparked in my mind—despite the realities, can changes in attitude and mindset help us get to a better psychological place to handle an uncertain future? Rather than seeing the end of growth as something scary, what if we viewed it as an opportunity and actually helped it along? What if we could reframe the message about the future? What if the end of growth meant that families became closer, people regained a sense of appreciation for the natural world, soccer clubs thrived, nutrition improved, and crime decreased?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Equity ≠ Empowerment

What happens when efforts to create equity are at odds with efforts to empower communities? Someone recently pointed out to me that the Queensland government is charged with facilitating equity of resource access and use among residents now and in the future, but this has led to an interesting quandary when it comes to living out that mission.

Take the current situation in the Murray Darling Basin, for example. The state has been asked to help develop and support a local group in each water catchment that will have broad representation across the community. These groups are a modified version of the Community Reference Panels and other advisory councils that were created to aid water planning activities in the past. The groups have several important roles. They create an established go-to group that government officials can interact with and provide information to in order to have it better disseminated throughout the larger community. The representatives are able to gather opinions and concerns from their respective groups and create a more unified voice for their region. They are also better positioned to make quality submissions during public comment periods and negotiate with government officials over the details of the plans. A side benefit of the groups is that the different representatives learn from one another and have a mediated environment within which to build relationships and alliances across a variety of interests.

In theory, the local groups can be an effective form of community empowerment, conflict resolution, and participation in water planning at a scale that was not previously possible. If the state genuinely engages with these groups, they can have a more substantive influence and the subsequent plans will have a great deal of buy-in because they were created collaboratively. The public comment period for the draft Basin Plan will be released in the next few weeks, so these groups need to get up and running, and FAST.

The problems start when you acknowledge the different levels of empowerment in each catchment community. Some already have sophisticated structures in place and respect among stakeholders. These communities have jumped at the opportunity and formed their own local groups with limited government assistance. Other communities are not so organized or have historical divisions and tensions that make it difficult to pull representatives together. The state has simply encouraged the savvy catchment communities, but the others require much more assistance. From a government perspective, you would ideally have equally empowered and organized groups in each catchment. You can't have one or two holding all the cards because that would make for an unbalanced outcome in favor of those areas. But the government also can't necessarily represent the unorganized communities' interests well because they often do not understand the specific needs and history of those areas.

What would you do in this situation? In the name of equity the state has gone out and attempted to create groups in the less organized areas. Have their actions gone too far? At what point does it move from well-meaning organizing to coercion? The timeline the state is operating on does not allow for the needed community development that would create true ownership in the group, or for seeking out reps for interests that are not at the table and providing leadership development for them. This usually means that the usual suspects (those with an economic interest in the proceedings) come together and purport to speak for the whole community. While the limited group will be able to provide some input, it will not be holistic and may even cause further division and disempowerment within the community as a whole.

But what is the alternative? The government can't just ignore all of the local communities and make decisions unilaterally. That's exactly the paradigm they're trying to move away from. I think it's interesting that one noble cause can, in some cases, block another noble cause. What a horrible trade-off to navigate.

Dance Review: Bangarra Dance Theatre

I didn't have a chance to glance at the program before the theater lights went dark. No idea what to expect. I had never seen traditional Indigenous Australian dance, which is the root and inspiration of the contemporary works choreographed and performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre. What I did know was that the title of the night was Belong, and the two pieces I was about to view were titled About and ID.

About opened with a single woman dressed in white and a fine white mist creeping out from the right side of the stage. As the mist snaked and curled its way ever closer, she shrank from it and slowly, deliberately backed off the stage to the left. Then, a highly coordinated mass of dancers congregated in the mist under a backdrop that resembled a view of distant mountaintops. They began a sequence that had an uncanny resemblance to the opening scene of Ailey's Revelations. Arms were raised like flying birds above the dancers' heads and they moved as one, costumed in earth tones. The dancers made their graceful and powerful way through several scenes that seemed to represent a number of different natural places and processes-- desert, sea, and thunderstorm. A voice spoke throughout, describing experiences in the land, and drum beats filled in the silences. The woman in white reappeared throughout, sometimes joining in the dancing and other times standing back as if observing. Knowing that the theme of the night was Belong, I wondered whether the mist represented tradition and the woman in white was attempting to determine her relationship to and place within her cultural heritage.

At one point, a male dancer came out with chalk all over his body and hair. It came off of him in clouds when he moved and danced, mimicking the shape and direction of his movements. So cool! The mist was on and around him, as if he and the mist were one.

When I read the program during the intermission, I learned that the piece "explores the mood of the winds as they move across the land, sea, and sky signifying key moments in time. It reflects the strong links between communities and their natural environment." The woman in white was listed as "Storyteller," so perhaps she wasn't backing away from the mist so much as summoning and creating it. The spoken words must have been her own. Her involvement in the dancing from time to time took on new meaning-- as a guide rather than an attempt to fit in. From my limited knowledge of Indigenous beliefs, this kind of storytelling is very significant because, according to a book I'm reading, "Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path-- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes--and so singing the world into existence." These paths are often called "dreaming-tracks" or "songlines," but to many Indigenous people they are "footprints of the ancestors" or "way of the law."

The second piece, ID, was less cohesive than the first. Each new sequence within the piece was a clear departure from the one before-- stage setting, costumes, dance styles, and music all changed dramatically from part to part. I had a hard time developing a clear narrative, but the piece did a great job of raising some interesting questions. For example, one scene opened with a row of five dancers at the front of the stage. Each had a large number painted on their chest-- 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16. My interpretation was that they corresponded to blood percentages. Similar to the United States, you can gain access to different kinds of government assistance if you can prove that you are least 1/16th Indigenous. Thinking about it from my own perspective, I know that I'm likely at least 1/16th Welsh, but this has no meaning for me. On the other hand, my 1/4 Italian Catholic heritage has a great deal more meaning to me than my 1/2 Eastern European Jewish heritage. I know some Americans who do not know their background at all. Identity and heritage are so complicated.

Another scene in ID depicted the antics of rowdy schoolchildren on a set of bleachers. One child sat alone at the top of the bleachers, quietly keeping to herself. Finally, all of the "children" sat down, painted their faces black, and smiled broadly. The scene closed with a loud CLICK and a bright flash. No matter how different the majority of the kids acted, they would still be viewed and depicted as black.

I attended the performance with a couple of anthropologists. As you can imagine, this led to some very interesting discussions about traditional Indigenous culture and dance. They suggested I look up this video by Yothu Yindi called Treaty. I hope it gives you a sense of both some traditional dance styles and some cultural issues.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In her shoes

"You'll stay with me?"
"Until the very end."

This is the reassurance that Harry Potter's deceased family gives him before he faces Voldemort for the last time. I saw the final movie tonight and it was a good reminder that our loved ones are always with us, even when we can't see or talk with them anymore.

Sometimes they can even seem to reappear quite tangibly. I don't know what it was, but the facilitator of a meeting I attended on Friday seemed to be channeling my grandmother in such a clear way that it actually made me choke up. Maybe it was a combination of things: the familiar way he looked over his glasses, his witty sense of humor, the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed. Or maybe his confident attitude and impeccable word choice.

My grandmother died a few years ago when I was a freshman in college. I often wonder what kinds of conversations we might have had if she was still alive, now that I'm really developing as an activist and leader.

As we had the same shoe size, I inherited some very nice Italian leather shoes after her death. They give me a great deal of confidence. I look at the worn soles and am reminded of how she helped to pave the way for me by pounding the halls of the Arkansas state capitol and the streets of Little Rock for decades seeking justice and understanding. She became a civil rights lawyer, served as Assistant Attorney General for several years, and was active on the Panel of American Women. She was a campaign manager and active Arkansas Democrat, raised an incredible family, was a supporter of the humanities and of science, and could often be found blissfully dancing Second Line in her adopted Louisiana city. She cared deeply for people and the environment.

Obviously, I had to bring a pair of her shoes with me to Australia. Their power lies in the daily reminder that she is with me. Always. Until the very end.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Australia will be there

"What side was Arkansas on?" is a question I have been asked several times about the American Civil War. Australians have a vague sense when I mention the South that the war was a big deal for us. I complicate their notions by explaining about Arkansas's sparse population and split loyalties at the time.

I think many would be surprised about the frequency with which war is discussed here in Australia. People are very saddened by the 30 soldiers they've lost in Afghanistan, which might not sound like much compared to the thousands of American soldiers who have died, but is devastating and dramatic for a historically peaceful country of only 22 million. They are especially bewildered because it's difficult to understand what they're even fighting for.

Australia has a history of coming to the aid of other countries in wartime. During World War I, Australia fought beside Great Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, though they had gained their independence in 1901. Anzac Day, held on April 15th, commemorates the 1915 massacre of Australian and New Zealander troops that occurred on the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey. At the moment I'm reading the Australian classic novel, A Fortunate Life, in which the author shares a good deal of his horrific experiences fighting at Gallipoli.
Suddenly all hell broke loose; heavy shelling and shrapnel fire commenced. The ships that were protecting our troops returned fire. Bullets were thumping into us in the rowing-boat. Men were being hit and killed all around me... the sight of the bodies on the beach was shocking. It worried me for days that I couldn't stop to help the men calling out.
Later, he describes leaving the battle field:
It was the nineteenth day of August 1915. I had been on Gallipoli only six days short of four months and I want to say now that they were the worst four months of my whole life. I had seen many men die horribly, and had killed many myself, and lived in fear most of the time. And it is terrible to think that it was all for nothing.
World War I touched almost every Australian family directly due to the heavy losses incurred. The small country sacrificed in extraordinary ways. In addition, as one of my colleagues described, the world wars were a defining line for Australia by catapulting it from relative obscurity and isolation into the international scene. Following the second world war, access to capital and consumer goods grew, sparking a major spate of development that has scarcely slowed over the past 60 years.

I interviewed an indigenous elder in St George who described the changes in the land over the century. Before the war, western Queensland was primarily made up of sheep stations. There were no irrigation schemes and the rivers ran clear and unimpeded. Everything changed in the 1960s. Weirs, dams, and irrigation channels were developed on the major rivers, large machinery was suddenly available, the stations were divided into soldier settlement plots, and the scrubby land was plowed up to make way for wheat and cotton. My interviewee and his brother, the only Aboriginal pilot to fly in World War II (he flew a Kittyhawk Fighter with "Black Magic" painted on the nose), were shearers before the war but turned to other industries in the changing landscape.

After the wars, many towns created meeting places for the Returned & Services League that are still community centers today. We had a drink and dinner one night this week at the St George RSL and I noticed these clubs in some of the other towns we went through. Australia has not been substantially involved in many other conflicts since the world wars. Still, there is a sense of concern about war in general. Perhaps some fear comes from its geographic relationship to growing Asian power. After all, the Japanese did attack the northern part of the mainland during World War II, and several submarines found their way to Sydney harbor.

I met an antique maps seller at a weekday market in Brisbane who told me about his amateur interest in the psychology of war. He studies war in the hope of coming to some understanding of how living, breathing men and women can be sent to their deaths as a means to an end. I wonder about that as well. How are these actions justified in the hearts of the men and women in command?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Concerning hobbits

After the disappointing lack of small people with hairy feet in the Balonne Shire, the next thing you are likely to notice is, well, not much at all. It takes a bit of a closer look to reveal the charms and quirks of this area to the untrained eye. Much more has come clear after my second trip to St George.

Last week in Brisbane, one of my interviewees told me to look out for a lady in the DERM St George office who has a soft spot for wombats. I had been in the office on a previous visit, but now I started to notice wombat paraphernalia everywhere. Posters, fliers, pictures, and news articles were pasted to the walls. A life-sized wombat piggy bank guarded the door. I was able to watch a short video about the endangered Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, of which scientists have been attempting to establish in new colonies around Queensland. According to the video, "nowhere has anyone ever moved such a large burrowing animal." They are typically very sensitive animals that suffer in new situations, but the relocated colony is apparently thriving. The best part about pursuing this wombat craze was that I scored a "Save the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat" water bottle.

The ladies restroom at the office also has its own special style. Someone has set up little displays on hot pink washcloths involving scented candles, soaps, lotions, fake flowers, and other girly stuff. I'm going to miss this place!

I have begun to understand just how important cotton is to the communities along the Condamine/Balonne River. Wheat, sorghum, chickpeas, and other dryland crops are farmed to some extent (also beef and wool), but cotton is the real economic boon for the area. This year was a record harvest and the holding lots in front of the St George cotton gin are still stuffed with bales waiting for processing. Many farms have had bales sitting in the paddock for a month now waiting for space to open up at the gin.

The bales are primarily these long blocks about the size of a semi truck trailer. Making them involves several people working to stuff cotton into a modular pressing machine and then tarping the top to protect the bale from weather. Some farms are moving to machinery that creates round bales and only requires one person to operate.

There are not many alternatives to farming to support these remote western Queensland communities. Because of limited water availability, the state has already capped use, meaning that any growth in productive capacity will have to come from on-farm efficiency measures since no new water is available for development. The federal government will buy water back from farmers that is needed under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to return flows to the environment, but although these willing sellers will be compensated, the cutbacks may have negative impacts on communities that rely on the agricultural sector. If a community loses too much population or productive agricultural capacity, it may also lose needed services such as doctors, schools, development investment, etc. Young people will leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. People who might want to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere aren't able to sell their home or property, creating a trap. Debt builds. Ultimately, the community becomes dependent on government assistance. This decline has already been seen in some towns due to the prolonged drought Queensland suffered until late last year. With the rains, some communities have bounced back, but at a much lower operational capacity and with unknown potential for true sustainability.

Seeing the rivers full of water, bird life, and fish makes it difficult to imagine that in the very recent past the Balonne was nothing more than a trickle in a dry riverbed. I contemplated the awesome resilience of the environment from my hammock after a long day of interviews...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Earn your Junior Ranger badge!

On an excursion this weekend to North Stradbroke Island (AKA "Straddie"), we stumbled upon a sandy area near a swamp. It was smooth and unbroken except for two parallel prints, each indentation long and thin, at regular intervals. We were fascinated when we realized they were kangaroo tracks! Try your hand at identifying other tracks we came upon during our travels.

Reply via a comment on this post by Friday, July 15th at midnight Toowoomba time.

Friday, July 8, 2011

All of the Dreamers

Powderfinger is an Australian band that has been recommended to me several times, but I had forgotten to look them up until one of their songs came up on my iPod. One of my work mates gave me the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Triple J 100 (yearly Aussie top 100 song list put out by the alt radio station Triple J), which had some Powderfinger. The song, All of the Dreamers, stood out to me because the lyrics matched what I had been considering at the moment-- how to act in the world in a way that creates true equality and sustainability.

"So you speak out loud like a libertine/But you’re just another cog in the great machine/But in a cold bitter irony/You’re a hero of the community. When you come down to the barrio/You get a feel of the people’s scenario/It’s a last opportunity/To steal a march on the enemy."

Listen to the song here. The city in the music video is Brisbane. And the lyrics:

From your tower of ivory
I hear you rattle your jewellery
But in a hard bitten irony
You’re a pillar of the community

When you come down to the barrio
Get a feel for the people’s scenario
It’s a Grande opportunity
To steal a march on the enemy

Now all of the dreamers
Jumpin at shadows in the dark
Follow the leaders
Don’t follow the leaders into the dark

Down in the night it gets so cold
Under the shadow that you’ve thrown
The disciples stand at dawn
Wait for the world to be reformed

I never promised you the world
I just followed it round as it untwirls
So I string you up and along
With all of the dreamers...

So you speak out loud like a libertine
But you’re just another cog in the great machine
But in a cold bitter irony
You’re a hero of the community

When you come down to the barrio
You get a feel of the people’s scenario
It’s a last opportunity
To steal a march on the enemy

Now all of the dreamers
Jumpin at shadows in the dark
Follow the leaders
Don’t follow the leaders into the dark

Down in the night it gets so cold
Under the shadow that you’ve thrown
The disciples stand at dawn
Wait for the world to be reformed

I never promised you the world
I just followed it round as it untwirls
So I string you up and along
And along with all of the dreamers...
So I string you up and along
With all of the dreamers...

All of the dreamers
All of the dreamers

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Water world

This morning I took the ferry to work with my Brisbane host mom, Diana. She pointed out the changing landscape on our way downriver-- the University of Queensland, a huge rowing complex, industrial infrastructure, swanky new loft apartment highrises, parks, the performing arts center, swaths of mangrove forest, and of course the bridges. I tried to imagine a similarly redeveloped Little Rock as our speedy, stealthy ferry boat pulled up to North Quay (pronounced "key" here). From what I've gleaned, Brisbane has done a lot in the past 20 years to achieve the wildly successful utilization of its riverfront real estate. The result is a vibrant biker and pedestrian friendly city core encompassing both sides of the river, which are artfully knitted together with the many bridges I've discussed in recent posts.

What if you could hop on a high-speed ferry in Maumelle and be at work downtown in 10 minutes? A Big Dam Bridge stop could take ADEQ staff from their office to the Arkansas State Capitol complex in under 5 minutes. Realistically, though, I don't think we have the population or the right kind of riverside development to support such a scheme. And there's no way I would trade in the excellent string of parks that make the Arkansas River such a pleasant place to be in Little Rock. I'm holding out for high speed hoverbusses to make movement easier around our lovely city.

Many of you know that water has a very special place in my life for multiple reasons. Growing up, I spent a good deal of my non-school waking hours in the pool training as a competitive swimmer. My namesake is a seaside National Park where the waves crash against the craggy coastline in awe-inspiring demonstrations of power. My family spends a good deal of time on the Buffalo River, possibly the coolest river in the US.

My water obsession followed me to college. I joined the crew team for a semester, then moved on to water polo. My study abroad mates in Thailand dubbed me "dugong" because of my playful water-based antics. After I moved back to Little Rock I joined the Master's group of my old swim team. Because I plan to continue with that in September, I have had the best of intentions for swimming to stay in shape while in Australia. There are pools everywhere and most charge only a few dollars per visit. Haven't made it there yet. Maybe it's the intimidation factor-- after all, Australia always gives the US a run for its money in Olympic swimming events.

I recently learned that freestyle was (first?) developed as a competitive swimming style in Australia. Originally called the "Australian crawl," it was actually stolen from the Solomon Islanders. A young boy sent by his Australian father (Islander mother) to school in Sydney won many a race using the technique commonly employed by people from his island. This style, combined with a similar front crawl learned by John Trugden from Native Americans, is the freestyle stroke we learn across the world today.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


The ubiquitous jacaranda tree is an introduced plant in Australia native to South and Central America, but holds a special place in Queenslanders' hearts and can be found in every park in Brisbane. The city is purportedly beautiful to behold in the spring when the jacarandas are covered in masses of purple flowers. It's not a good sign for Uni students, though-- final exams come hot on the heels of the first blooms. Usually I try not to gush about invasive plants, but these trees are just so cool! Clouds of shimmering leaflets shade gnarly, spreading trunks that are just right for climbing and hammock hanging, and inspire a good deal of general admiration and appreciation:

Brisbane is on what I would call the "bridge plan"-- in addition to millions of dollars of riverside development, the city also loves to invest in bridges that are the longest, strangest, biggest example of this or that. Little Rock is embarking on a similar quest.

The Kurilpa Bridge was described by one blogger as "one of the most audacious and technically ambitious bridge designs of recent years." The style is known as "tensegrity" and, like the Big Dam Bridge (the longest purpose-built pedestrian/cycle bridge in the US), Kurilpa has a hilariously specific claim to fame: The World's Largest Tensegrity Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge.

I mean, bridges are pretty darn cool. I definitely spent a good 30 minutes hanging out with my new friend Kurilpa today (another plus: it's the scenic route over to the coolest library in Australia!). One of the first things I'm planning when I get back to Arkansas is a bike ride from my house over that cool new bridge to Two Rivers Park and all the way to Pinnacle Mountain-- who's in??

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mystery moves

What are these guys doing? And what's with the pants? This one is a mystery even to me, so hopefully it will be the challenge some of you are looking for. I don't think it's just your average everyday break dancing.

The usual: leave your answer as a comment on this post and I won't moderate them until the contest closes on Tuesday, July 5th at midnight Brisbane time.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Re-cid-i-vism [rɪˈsɪdəˌvɪzəm]: continued inappropriate use of scientific paradigm. -Gus Hamilton, Toowoomba


There's a big difference between optimizing systems to avoid re-inventing the wheel and becoming a repeat offender in the world of research methodology. I met another student of governance, natural resource management, and community engagement (though she's working on her PhD) here in Toowoomba and we had a long philosophical chat about our research approaches. She started out with interviews, but the limits placed on her by IRB approvals and such made the approach cumbersome and unduly formal. She talked a lot about Foucault and his experiments with discourse and discourse analysis. Our conversation made me interested in attempting to wade through some of his dense texts. She suggested starting with The Foucault Effect. Other suggestions, folks?

One of the problems I'm facing in my interviews is that while I have a set of topics and questions I want to ask each participant, I find myself sacrificing the structure for what seems like a better flowing conversation in which I weave the topics in as things unfold. However, this means that the question order in each conversation is different, some questions are answered in the course of the conversation without being asked, etc. Also, for the sake of conversation and dialogue I sometimes add things that are not scripted and could be problematic. For example, if I voice an observation of my own in an effort to delve deeply into a topic, does that skew the conversation in a certain way that complicates or even invalidates the data? For the majority of the time I am asking questions and listening, but my lack of experience means that I can't always find a way to word an idea as a question or in a way that avoids blatant assumptions. Am I introducing too much of my own judgement into the situation and compromising the integrity of the data? Or is it the opposite-- that I'm collecting better, more nuanced data because of this approach? Hard to know.

Also, the whole idea of having a preconceived set of questions seems to call into question my grounded theory strategy (letting the data tell me the story rather than seeking to support a hypothesis). I'm starting to question the quality of data that come out of fabricated conversations. My new friend said she proposed using "creative" or "natural" interviews (more open-ended and free form, less structured), but the academic institution that she's working through didn't consider that an appropriate research method.

She was interested to hear about the Clinton School's approach of trying to marry theory and practice. We discussed the definition of "engaged research" and whether those claiming to do it really fit the bill. On a random Google search, I found an interesting blog post that lends insight from one researcher who claims to do engaged or participatory research but recognizes the difficulty many face in making the research useful and understandable to the activist or marginalized community they study.

What are we missing or gaining by playing by the rules that many institutions set to ensure that research is rigorous and ethical? For example, due to her restrictions my friend changed her methodology from interviews to participant observation. She attends meetings and other events, takes notes, and tries to fade into the background as much as possible. What is she missing by her limited ability to engage in dialogue with the people involved? On the flip side, I have had so many informal side conversations, observations, and other experiences here in Australia that have contributed to my understanding of the water planning issue and I am now struggling with the question of how/whether to include that information in the study. I can't ignore it, but it was not systematically (or necessarily ethically, by IRB standards) collected.

Both my friend and I are furthering our education to better understand the situations of our communities in order to be of continually better service to them. It's great to meet like-minded folks and share experiences, expound on shared quandaries, and feel supported and understood. I'm looking forward to many more meta discussions with her!