Awakening the earth

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There was no sound except for the ‘sighing squelch of the camel pads’ and ‘an occasional creak of cordage’ as Ion Idriess and his Aboriginal guide continued westwards towards Lake Eyre. Sand ridges and barren river beds stretched ahead, framing an oddly appropriate scene. Here he was, Idriess reflected, aboard ‘an ancient animal’, accompanied by ‘the last living son of prehistoric man’, ‘riding down into a dead lake, into a dead world’. Everything felt old and lifeless as they trekked on, deep into the continent’s ‘Dead Heart’. 1

The bones of a diprotodon protruded from a dried river bank. Elsewhere Idriess found the petrified remains of what might have been a giant kangaroo. Was that the skull of a ‘gigantic crocodile’, he saw, or the remains of an ‘enormous bird’? ‘Just here and there’, Idriess observed, ‘in some exposed place where mud had turned to stone, these monsters of the past were in part preserved’. Indeed, all over the ‘Dead Heart’ was evidence of ancient life, he argued: ‘the story in stone, in fossils, in opalized remains… tells us plainly of vast waters, of forests, of teeming life where now is aridity or desert’. These remains of animals long dead were more than curiosities, they offered proof that ‘the land itself is good land’, hope that the ‘Dead Heart’ itself could be revived. 2 All that was needed was water.

Idriess recounted his journey in The Great Boomerang, arguing for a massive engineering scheme that would revive the arid centre by turning coastal waters inland. It was a book about the hardships of a dry land, and the possibility of redemption though the life-giving properties of water. You only had to take the book ‘within five yards of a lettuce’, a reviewer in the Bulletin remarked, ‘and its sad heart beats again’. 3 The idea that Australia’s desert regions could be made to bloom was hardly new. In Australia Unlimited, EJ Brady had memorably argued that the ‘Dead Heart of Australia’ was ‘in reality a Red Heart, destined one day to pulsate with life’. 4 He returned to the topic in a series of articles in the Australasian in 1937, describing the wonders that could be wrought by irrigation: ‘this sandy waste needs only moisture to convert it into hotbeds of growth’. 5

Evidence for the regenerative possibilities of water was found in the ability of the land to recover from drought. An article in Australia To-Day entitled ‘Recuperative Australia—the most responsive of all lands’ sought to reassure prospective immigrants. While drought brought many difficulties, it was inevitably followed by a miraculous burst of fertility: ‘within two days of the first welcome drops the wonderful land shows the enduring stockman a blush of green, herald of the great transformation that never fails to astound the oldest and toughest of those who have seen many dry spells’. ‘The awakening of the surface of the earth after a drought’, the article maintained, was ‘much like the coming of spring in a cold country’. 6

Growing knowledge of Australia’s ancient past added another dimension to the prospect of regeneration. The long dreamt of inland sea had been a reality once, and might be again. In the mirror of deep time, Idriess could see an image of future possibilities. JJC Bradfield, the engineer who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was similarly inspired. Introducing his own scheme for ‘rejuvenating inland Australia’, Bradfield offered a brief sketch of Australian history beginning 1,600 million years in the past. ‘Dense rainforest’ had once lined the rivers of inland Australia, he explained, and ‘terrifying herds’ of giant wombats had grazed on the ‘rich vegetation’ that covered most of the continent. ‘In bygone ages’, Bradfield concluded, ‘Australia was well watered by magnificent streams’. 7 Why not again?

The Bradfield Scheme was a slightly more modest enterprise than Idriess’s ‘Great Boomerang’, but shared the same principles. Floodwaters that had previously ‘run to waste’ in the coastal regions of northern Australia would be diverted inland. While the diversion would require massive tunnels, dams and pipelines, everything else was waiting and ready as it had been for thousands, if not millions of years. Dried river beds, empty lakes and fertile soils just needed water to begin the process of regeneration. ‘This is not my Plan’, Idriess asserted, ‘it is nature’s’: ‘Nature had the Plan working in the days of the diprotodon; its structure lies there ready to be used again’. 8

The schemes gained support in the early 1940s, buoyed no doubt by the spirit of reconstruction. Writing to Prime Minister Curtin in support of the Bradfield scheme, WEM Abbott argued that Australia may have been ‘saved from the Japanese’ only to be lost ‘to the growing menace of drought’. 9 The North Queensland Local Authorities Association referred the Prime Minister to fossil evidence of past fertility, and warned of the growing threat of soil erosion. 10 Likewise, Michael Sawtell decried government inaction in the face of looming disaster. Bradfield’s ‘great live-giving proposal’ was being ignored, he raged, and all the while ‘the great dust bowl… is steadily and victoriously moving east’. 11 Idriess, too, was gravely worried by the effects of soil erosion, manifest in the ever-widening ‘dust bowl’. ‘Nature for centuries had battled hard and had succeeded in keeping the Dead Heart from becoming a desert’, he argued, ‘but man has upset the balance’. 12 Overstocking, land clearing and rabbits had done their damage, now it was time to repair and replenish. Water would restore the balance and create ‘a new Australia’. 13

Of course there were critics aplenty eager to dampen the hopes of the water schemers. The costs were prohibitive, the benefits uncertain, the science misleading. 14 Australia’s supposedly fertile soils were increasingly recognised to be tired and worn out. But dreams of regeneration were not easily dismissed. The Bradfield Scheme has its supporters still, and the 2002 drought brought yet another chorus of ‘turn the rivers inland’. 15 Even as the Chifley government formally dismissed the scheme in 1946, it was beginning to plan a massive engineering project to divert the waters of the Snowy River. The Snowy Mountains Scheme combined the totemic power of water with the confidence of the Atomic Age. Not quite the ‘Great Boomerang’, but drawing upon the same spirit of transformation and rebirth.

Atomic energy brought possibilities of its own. Mark Oliphant wondered in 1947 whether this new source of power might offer ‘a solution to Australia’s water problem’. Salt water from the sea or bores could conceivably be distilled using atomic energy to provide the basis for a large scale irrigation project. 16 More generally, though, the Atomic Age strengthened belief in the power of science to transform nature, to overcome the obstacles that had beleaguered humankind for generations. The potential for dramatic developments in agricultural production was further highlighted by CSIRO’s spate of successes. The introduction of myxamotosis had curbed the rabbit plagues, research into trace elements was opening new lands for development, and rainmakers had taken to the clouds pursuing the dreams of drought-wearied farmers.

‘To speak of “Australia Unlimited” in terms of Australian agriculture 20 years ago would have been considered frankly laughable’, explained Ian Clunies Ross, CSIRO Chairman, in the Sydney Morning Herald’s 1957 ‘Australia Unlimited’ supplement. The ‘uncertainty of rainfall’ and the ‘poverty of our soils’ seemed to impose clear limitations on development, he continued. But things had changed. The article was illustrated with a series of photographs from the AMP Society’s development project near Keith in South Australia. Here, Clunies Ross explained, ‘poor, almost worthless soil’ had been ‘transformed to fertile pasture’ by the addition of trace elements. 17 The work of Australian researchers, he commented elsewhere, had demonstrated that ‘millions of acres of virtually worthless “desert” soils’ could be developed. 18 ‘Today we are making, not marring, the countryside’, he argued, ‘making good soil deficiencies, raising fertility, and increasing productivity’. 19 It was a ‘revolutionary change in the outlook of Australian agriculture’. 20

And so it seemed the deserts might bloom at last. Waste lands would be reclaimed, tired soils reinvigorated, the continent reborn into an age of scientific achievement. The possibilities of regeneration continued to inspire hopes of a land transformed, of a world where problems could be resolved, failures redeemed. The future could be liberated from the deadening grip of the past. ‘It is as though we were seeing Australia for the first time’, Clunies Ross remarked, ‘ seeing it not as a hard, difficult and drought stricken country as so often in the past…but as a country which only waits upon the vigour and determination of its people to make real the vision of a brighter era than any which have preceded it.’ 21 Progress was as ever to be found in the journey from old to new.



Notes:

  1. Ion L Idriess, The great boomerang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 188.
  2. ibid., pp. 190-4.
  3. ‘Water, water everywhere’, Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 3232, 21 January 1942, p. 2.
  4. Brady, Australia unlimited, p. 630.
  5. Edwin James Brady, ‘“I’s” for Australia! – Irrigation and immigration’, Australasian, 21 August 1937, p. 5.
  6. HM Somer, ‘Recuperative Australia’, Australia To-Day, no. 11, 1 November 1915, p. 39.
  7. JJC Bradfield, ‘Rejuvenating inland Australia’, Walkabout, vol. 7, no. 9, 1 July 1941, pp. 7-8; JJC Bradfield, ‘Restoring Australia’s parched lands’, Australian Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1, March 1942, pp. 27-8.
  8. Idriess, The great boomerang, p. 213.
  9. Letter from WEM Abbott to John Curtin, 22 November 1944, NAA: A9816/4, 1943/664 Part 1.
  10. Letter from North Queensland Local Authorities Association to FM Forde (Prime Minister), 6 July 1945, NAA: A9816/4, 1943/664 Part 1.
  11. Letter from Michael Sawtell to Prime Minister, 4 December 1946, NAA: A9816/4, 1943/664 Part 1.
  12. Idriess, The great boomerang, p. 166.
  13. ibid., pp. 204-6, 236-7.
  14. See for example: G W Leeper, ‘Restoring Australia’s parched lands – A comment’, Australian Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2, June 1942, pp. 50-52; JD Lang, ‘Australia’s water resources’, Walkabout, vol. 13, no. 3, 1 January 1947, pp. 6-20.
  15. For some recent comments on the Bradfield scheme see Tim Sherratt, ‘A climate for a nation’, part of the Federation and meteorology web resource, Austehc, 2001, <http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/fam/0003.html>. For 2002 debate relating to ‘drought proofing’ see Weekend Australian, 12 October 2002, p. 7.
  16. Marcus Laurence Elwin Oliphant, ‘Australia could use atomic power in 10 years’, SMH, 26 March 1947, p. 2. Ten years later Oliphant suggested fusion-powered reactors might provide the answer to Australia’s water problem, SMH, 27 January 1958, p. 1.
  17. Ian Clunies Ross, ‘Science, research lift farming output’, in ‘Australia unlimited’ supplement, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1957, p. 28. For more on the AMP Society’s project in SA, see: FS Feely, ‘Science conquers the sands’, Walkabout, vol. 15, no. 4, 1 April 1949, pp. 34-37; Henry C James, ‘Food from the desert’, Walkabout, vol. 18, no. 5, 1 May 1952, pp. 13-16; Michael Batten, ‘This land was desolate’, Walkabout, vol. 24, no. 12, 1 December 1958, pp. 11-14; Libby Robin, Defending the Little Desert: the rise of ecological consciousness in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 11-13.
  18. Ian Clunies Ross, ‘The role of science and technology’, Canberra Comments, vol. 13, no. 3, 15 March 1959, p. 1.
  19. Ian Clunies Ross, ‘Some problems of Australia’s scientific development’, Welcome, vol. 4, no. 11, August 1958, p. 11.
  20. Clunies Ross, ‘The role of science and technology’, p. 2.
  21. Ian Clunies Ross, ‘The place of science in agriculture in Australia’, Country Hour Journal, vol. 4, no. 11, November 1953, p. 4.

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