Friday, February 17, 2017

Larapinta: Extinction, Temporal Discernment and the Reaches of Creation

Water Hole on Finke River/  in Evening Light

I was out of touch.  After a night of uneasy sleep, still topsy turvy with half-remembered dreams, I wobbled out into the early morning light of Glen Helen Homestead and sat down on a bench overlooking the waters of the Finke River.  It was time to take stock.  Of what exactly was unclear - of the last week, month, or year, or perhaps even of an entire lifetime, at least as much as the latter had progressed so far.  In my 67th year to heaven, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, should he have lived so long, I found myself again in the Red Center, looking yet again to make some sort of contact with what matters.

Stone Marking Tjilpa Country
A few years ago, I had spent a week in these environs with anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose engaged in preliminary ethnographic research regarding Dasyurus geoffroii, the Western Quoll, also known as Tjilpa to the Arrernte families here traditionally responsible for its well-being (See Rose and Hatley, 2011). Like many of its marsupial kin in the area, Dasyurus geoffroii is a threatened species, yet one more living kind being summarily consigned to non-existence in an era of mass species extinction.  In fact, this marsupial cat, as it is has sometimes been called by Europeans, has long since disappeared, at least in the flesh, from these surroundings and is now only found in the wild in the southwestern corner of the continent. Nevertheless, Tjilpa remains in this country a ceremonial presence, its dreaming still a powerful element of Arrernte cultural life.  I witnessed during that visit how even in the shadow of its absence, Tjilpa still reaches out to touch those who would remain faithful to it.  And now I had returned to express my own commitment, however fraught it might be with the destructive legacies of European settlement, to this living kind's continued life upon the face of the earth.

Thinking about mass species extinction as one's day to day activity leads to a disquieting way of life.  When Deborah Bird Rose, along with Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew, instituted the Extinction Studies Working Group in 2013, we were well aware that the challenges presented by our subject were as much spiritual as conceptual.  One's love for the diverse creatures wth whom we humans from our very beginnings have shared a home on the face of the earth, leaves one, here and now, the target of terrible knowledge and uncanny grief.  At the bottom of it, one is called upon to witness a degree of disloyalty on the part of humanity to its more than human kin that is not easy to bear.  The temptation is either to succumb to anger, becoming consumed with rage, or to yield to despair by simply growing numb.  Even worse, one can just let the madness of it all settle in, giving free rein to the mania and incoherency feeding the catastrophe.  One acts as if all is well, regardless of what might actually be the case.  One denies climate change and habitat loss, as if reality can be dismissed with a quip.  When worlds are ending, it turns out, for those who remain the shopping can be fantastic.  At least temporarily.

Dragon Perched on Stone in Ormiston Gorge
Yet what is really required is the courage to remain faithful to all involved, both the human and more-than-human living kinds who make their homes here.  Half a continent away to the east in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, both eastern and western quolls can be found at the Secret Creek Nature Sanctuary, thriving not in the wild but in pens designed to protect their inhabitants from the marauding cats and foxes permeating the countryside.  The quolls are cared for by former coal miner Trevor Evans.  A prodigious soul bustling with energy, Trevor once looked me straight in the eyes and said wth blunt frankness:  "If you write about a creature, about a living kind, then you owe it.  You shouldn't just write something, and then walk away."

Blooming on the Finke River
Those words have stuck with me.  And so these several years later, contemplating retirement and the looming question of what to do next, I had repaired to the Red Center to revivify my faith in things in general and Western Quolls in particular.   Arrernte artist and author Margaret Kamarre Turner puts succinctly the devastation wrought by European settlement here when she writes: "The land's...been turned upside down" (Kemarre Turner, 192).  Yet she also observes: "We see our country, even though it might be destroyed by another species, we see how the beautiness is still in the country. It doesn't matter that horses and bullocks have caused such destruction, we still the spirit of that Land glistening" (Kemarre Turner, 141).   If nothing else, I had hoped, perhaps in my just witnessing a place in which so much is still flourishing, in which the very land still speaks of quolls, even if they are not so easily found, healing and insight might be offered.  Yet after a week of motoring about the desert, stopping here and there to be still and listen, or at times even to kneel down on the earth and observe as closely as possible the goings on (lots and lots of ants!), I was still more than a bit lost.

Cliffs overlooking Larapinta

And this brings me back to that moment recounted above on the banks of a river.   Known on contemporary Australian maps as the Finke. Larapinta rises in the McDonnel range of the Red Center and then meanders several hundred miles before disappearing into the arid reaches of the Simpson Desert. Named in 1872 after a benefactor in Adelaide bankrolling an expedition into these parts, the earliest European account of the river's Arendan name mistakenly understood it as a word denoting the rainbow serpent; only later did it become clear that Larapinta refers to the briny waterholes dotting the riverscape (Koch and Hercus, 292).  Still, the river's serpentine course bordered by white sands and green marshes twisting left and right across the desert floor - as if the the milky way had looked down to find its reflection on the face of the earth - makes the mistaken translation a bit more forgivable and perhaps even inspiring.

Reading one of the earliest accounts of contact between European outsiders and the Arrernte people on the banks of this river is instructive.  In his journal, Ernest Giles writes: "We made an attempt at a long conversation, but signally failed, for neither of us knew many of the words the other was saying.  The only bit of information I obtained from them was their name for the river – as they kept continually pointing to it and repeating the word Larapinta" (Koch and Hercus, 291).   The river itself then serves as the hinge of encounter, the auspicious occasion for the first word shared between one people and another.  Personally, I am saddened when I read Giles's characterization of the medium of this precious exchange as "a bit of information." So much went wrong so quickly when whitefella met blackfella, but in this first interchange might be found a hint as to another way in which the settlement culture now housed at Glen Helen Homestead might find its way into the truth of things in this place under the sun.  Something much more than "bits of information" will be involved.

"Ancient River Gum" by Roland Hemmert
And so early on November 29, 2016, if I had been keeping a diary at the time, I might have written something like this: "I am not sure what is happening as I face the great glistening cliffs hovering over the river this morning. I do not know its name, but I am being touched by it and heartened, my anxieties eased, my despair assuaged.  I have been scurrying to and fro over the floor of the desert looking for a sign these last days when all along the earth was speaking loud and clear right outside my door."

This experience is one that is more often than not dismissed these days as romantic claptrap by many of my scholarly colleagues.  And perhaps more often than not, they are right to be suspicious of, if not outright scandalized by, yet another denizen of the non-Indigenous world seeking out sunny climes usurped from other peoples in order to feed her or his appetite for spiritual enlightenment.   All the while, all around one, the catastrophic consequences of colonial usurpation continue unabated.  Better perhaps to pack up and leave and go home.  Of course, the very home one would return to is itself stolen land.  The more one thinks about the position of the great-grand-children of colonial settlers upon the face of the earth, the more homeless one realizes she or he might be.

Larapinta is among a small group of rivers, it turns out, whose courses are older than the mountains surrounding them.  When one views the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, one looks down at waters that began carving into the earth some six millions years ago. The story gets more complicated when geologists note that earlier rivers had already begun sculpting these canyons, so that the defiles themselves go back some 70 millions years (Greenfield-Boyce).  This is already a long ways.  But Larapinta adopted another strategy altogether, continuing to meander over the face of the earth, even as mountain ranges were thrusting up around it, inch by inch (Pickup (1988), Wells (1988), Haines (2001)).  The path the river follows is now 300 to 400 million years old, older by far than the diverse species of marsupials, Tjilpa among them, now making their home here.  As a whole they have only been in residence upon the earth for the last 90 million years.  Yet next to these we humans are rank newcomers.

When one is called upon to take stock of one's time upon the face of the earth, one would do well to consider the immensity of the past into which one's own life is rooted.  European colonists were convinced that the earth was a recent phenomenon, no more than four or five thousands years in age.  While other cultures might not have quantified so precisely the time involved, they seemed far more aware and respectful of a temporal depth to earthly existence transcending the human capacity to conceive of it in straightforward terms.  They realized we humans are in need of discernment to understand how time itself provides for us.  We were not here upon the face of the earth, when Larapinta first arose, nor when Tjilpa first set foot on the desert floor surrounding its banks.

The birth of a living kind is not an overnight phenomenon.  Larapinta instructs us concerning the powers at work on the face of the earth, powers that mold the living kinds, that call the very dust of stones into the restless shapes moving through time that are both ourselves and our biological kin.  Before we who are now living can begin to appreciate what is involved in the threatened loss of Tjilpa among many others in a time of mass species extinction, we would do well to listen to what this river has to tell us about the reaches of creation.

Hills Overlooking Larapinta's Waters Transformed into Molten Light/

River Gum near Larapinta

Works Cited

Edinburgh, Unviersity of.  "Origin and Evolution of Marsupials." University Natural History Collection Website:

Greenfield Boyce,  Nell.  "The Grand Canyon May be Older (and Younger) than you Think."  NPR Website.  January 27, 2014:

Haines P.W., Hand M., Sanford M. "Palaeozioc synorogenic sedimentation in central and northern Australia: a review of distribution and timing with implications for the evolution of intracontinental orogens."  Australia Journal of Earth Sciences. Vol. 48, no. 6 (2001): 911-928.

Hemmert, Roland.  "Ancient River Gum," a pastel composed and completed in pleine aire nearby the Larapinta, is in my collection of artwork.  More can be read about Roland's work at:

Kemarre Turner, Margaret. Iwenhe Tyerrtye -what it means to be an Aboriginal person (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010).

Koch, Harold and Hercus, Luise.  Aboriginal Place Names: Naming and Renaming the Australian Landscape (Canberra: ANU E Press and Aboriginal History, Inc., 2009) Access:

Pickup G., Allan G., Bakerr V.R. "History, palaechannels and palaeofloods of the Finke River, central Australia.  Fluvial Geomorphology of Australia.  Warner, R.F., ed. (London: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 177-200.

Rose, Deborah Bird, and Hatley, James. "Tjilpa - Quoll - Native Cat - Dasyurus geoffroii - Dreaming - Vulnerable."   Blog originally published on the Extinction Studies Working Group Website in 2011. For an archived copy see:

Wells, A.T., Forman, D.J., Ranford L.C., Cook, P.J.  "Geology of the Amadeus Basin, Central Australia.  Bureau of Mineral Resources, Australia Bulletin (1988), p. 100. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Haunted by Dragonflies

Green Emerald Patrolling the Rockhole at Rungutjirpa

A deep cleft splitting the mountains asunder, Rungutjirpa has been known for 40,000 years or so to the Arrernte People of central Australia as a site of creation.  A Goanna Dreaming is storied here, their tussling long ago putting things today as they are.  For the last 200 years or so Whitefellas have know the place as Simpson's Gap, in honor of the same geographer, A. A. Simpson, whose name also serves to designate a nearby desert and more distant cape.  Whether the life of a Whitefella geographer constitutes a dreaming serious enough to merit being mentioned in these environs is not an unimportant question. Personally, I am not so confident of a positive outcome.  And so even if doing so makes me more than a bit uncomfortable, calling on the tongue of the very people whom the people of my tongue have so persistently displaced, I end up referring to this site in its Arrendan rather than English instantiation.

Following anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose's example, I come first to Rungutjirpa whenever I reenter the country of the red center.  Showing up here is not something to be taken lightly.  In late afternoon the green waters lapping at the rocky foot of the cleft catch bits of sun and bushels of shadow.   After clambering around a boulder or two, I settle down on a spot along a bit of sandy shore overhung by stone and stare up into the airy heights and then down into liquid depths.  Their muddy bottom is likely only a few meters below my folded knees, but what the waters suggest are abysses as deep as creation itself.  The immensity of the world above is effortlessly gathered onto the pond's surface, an image shuddering with the passing of every breath of air. We are, the waters whisper, agile enough to encompass all that is illumined.  And, they could just as well add, all that is not illumined.

Wandering Percher Resting
on the Path to Rungutjirpa
The sun flashes on the wings of a green dragonfly, a single Emerald Tau (Hemicordulia tau), capering and gliding in great figure eights over the length of the pool.  Below its path more diminutive wandering perchers (Diplacodes bipunctata) hover near the water's surface into which they are regularly dipping their red, red abdomens, as thin as colored pencil leads, as they lay their eggs.  Just above these yet others are coupling in flight, male with female. The wandering perchers are less standoffish, coming near from time to time to perch, just as their name promises, abdomen flexed upward on stone within an arm's reach.  The Emerald Tau, on the other hand, circuits ceaselessly never alighting anywhere.   Scooping up mosquitos and gnats on the go with its opened jaws, the dragonfly replenishes its energy and continues to claim its spot under the sun.  Other males will be driven away.  At one point he even breaks off from his path and rushes toward me, hovering at eye level four or five feet away for a few moments. I can't help but think he is making clear that I am in his sights.

The globular eyes of dragonflies are famously immense compound organs, honeycombed with 30,000  or so "ommatidea," each of which in turn is shaped in a hexagon composed of a lens fixed over a small patch of light-sensitive cells.  But even if we know precisely the anatomy involved,  what the dragonfly actually sees is not so certain.  Some theorize its field of vision is a vast mosaic cobbling together individual bits of light, others that the outlines of things are not so distinct even as any movement nearby is magnified thirty-thousandfold, others that the dragonfly's visual field circles a full 360 degrees around its body, effectively immersing it in a globe of illumination.  Its tail would be as available to it as its forelimbs.  Possessing no fewer than eleven and as many as thirty chromatic opsins (proteins with distinct sensitivities to color in the diverse rods of its many retinas), it is rumored the dragonfly lives in a far more colorful, even ultra-chromatic universe. I wonder then what the Emerald Tau makes of the redness of the red earth here, already intense to my mammalian eyes with only three opsins to call upon, not to mention the overwhelmingly blue sky stretching overhead.  What boiling bubbles of color might my own mammalian flesh be for these non-mammalian eyes?

Green Emerald over the Waters
 "When we appeared in their eyes/ we were strangers":  In these lines from his poem "After the Dragonflies" (Merwin, 2016), W. S. Merwin wonders not only of how foreign we might seem to this living kind but also of how enigmatic and perplexing we become to ourselves when we muse upon our own all-too-human image making itself at home in a dragonfly's perceptions.  At the core of the exchange of light between one species and another, the eyes work magic, bringing the flesh of another living kind, or at the very least its facsimile, into one's most intimate depths.  The Bible might have well proclaimed that man has been made in the tselem, the image or imprint, of the Most High but should have added that immediately this image radiates outward into the eyes of arthropods and amphibians, of mammals and birds.  And when we turn to the world surrounding us and see ourselves there being seen by all these others, might this not be just as disconcerting and unsettling, as our seeing ourselves in the gaze of the Creator?   "Where art thou?", the dragonfly is asking.  Easier to imagine oneself in the mind of God than in that of an arthropod.  But the latter meditation offers its own peculiar invitation into spiritual insight, into humility before and complicity with others that undoes the assumption that one's loyalties can be confined to one's own hominoid skin.

Golden Winged Skimmer in my Garden in Salisbury, MD
These days, dragonflies are doing well at Rungutjirpa but not so well in one's own backyard.   W. S. Merwin's poem imagines a world in which dragonflies, once "as common as sunlight," have disappeared.  And already to a degree they have, given the persistent applications in urban areas across the planet of a diverse array of insecticides targeting mosquitoes.  A governmental study recently concludes, "Virtually every pesticide currently used to manage mosquito populations has the potential to adversely impact nontarget species" (USFWS, 14).  The adverse effects, for example of mathoprene, has been observed in fourteen aquatic taxa including odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies (Breaud et al.).  I remember, as Merwin does, a time in my childhood when dragonflies aplenty helicoptered about the yard, hooked to one another in dazzles of profligate and promiscuous mating. Not so in my garden today despite its proximity to an entire landscape of marshes and swamps comprising the eastern shore of Maryland.  The dragonfly population just outside my door regularly crashes throughout the summer  One can only theorize as to why.  Even more troubling is a recent German study which hints that the biomass of insects is plummeting across the face of the earth as complex ecosystems are transformed into huge swaths of monoculture regularly seasoned with pesticides.  A trap set up in the Orbroicher Bruch Nature Reserve that yielded 3.5 pounds of diverse species of insects in 1989 only yielded 10.6 ounces in 2014 (Schwaegerl, 2016).  Something is afoot.

Images of dragonflies abound on the internet.  We humans love to observe this particular creature in all its intimate details, to hold its taxonomical characteristics fixedly and precisely in our imagination.  This often results in what might be termed the money shot, one in which every filament and hair, every anatomical detail, is rendered with precision.  The results are truly spectacular if not just a bit pornographic.  One wonders whether a picture of a human being similarly rendered might be similarly sought out and for what reasons.  Imagine a close up focusing on every hair and pore, not to mention the nearly microscopic mites inevitably finding their way into such environs, speckling the face of a fashion model.  So much for Descartes' notion of a clear and distinct idea.

Colonial seizure of lands often involved the renaming and reimagining of things in a manner that was not necessarily intent on who was involved. The land might speak, but we Whitefellas weren't necessarily interested in listening.  Goannas might dream, but Geographers were for the most part fixed on describing, delimiting, and classifying topographical features.  And of making maps so one could know where to find them again.  The colonial project in a nutshell: uncover, designate and store for future use.  The images of dragonflies mentioned above made with a view to fixing the precise details of their taxonomy fit well into this attitude.  In lieu of these the images offered on this blog hopefully move toward the iconic if not the Icon.  The living kinds involved have not been removed from their habitat and held firmly in place between one's fingers or by means of some other implement in order to get the money shot.  Instead, the photographs here verge on the oneiric, as the gesture of a dragonfly's flight over the waters of Rungutjirpa actively threads a line between darkness and light.  One is hopefully summoned into a world revealed through the powers of a fellow creature.  Are we willing to live in the company of dragonflies, to invite them into our most secret recesses?  I pray that we are.

Works Cited

Breaud, T. P.,  J. E. Farlow, C. D. Steelman, and P.E. Schilling. 1977, "Effects of the insect growth regulator methoprene on natural populations of aquatic organisms in Louisiana intermediate marsh habitats  Mosquitoe News 37: 704-712.

Merwin, W. S.  "After the Dragonflies,"  Matthew Zapruder, ed.  New York Times Magazine.  July 22, 2016.  URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016.

Schwaegerl, Christian. "What's Causing the Sharp Decline in Insects, and Why it Matters."  Yale Environment 360.  July 16, 2016.  URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016.

USFWS. "Environmental Effects of Mosquito Control: Appendix K."  Edwards, 2004. URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016. No longer accessible on USFWS Website.