Australian landscapes: Mary White’s contribution towards our understanding of them.

The Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group blog is a collaborative effort. We’re happy to publish your contributions as part of this Landcare Network discussion. See the collaborate-contribute page for a range of topic suggestions or get in touch to discuss your idea.

The following is a new post from Mr. Colin Samundsett. Colin was raised on the Atherton Tablelands and became a surveyor by trade, but also cultivated an expertise in rainforest structure and species. A nursery man and tree planter by avocation, also a wood turner and expert with axe, adze and scarfing hoe. Here Colin introduces and reviews an important series of books produced over several years by Australian Paleobotanist and author Mary White.

 Australian landscapes:

Mary White’s contribution towards  our understanding of them.

By Colin Samundsett

Australia’s first wave of immigrants, their descendants and those supplementing them, wrestled with turbulent changes for 50 or 60 millennia. What the first European immigrants saw on their arrival was a between-rounds pause, the last, in an enduring bout with those changes. It was a time of remarkable adjustment between the landscape and the Europeans’ predecessors. But, the continent’s fundamental geology and geomorphology remained unchanged.

Scottish migrant Peter Dodds McCormick, Sydney resident for 23 years, believed he had enough knowledge of his new country to pen a song about it: his Advance Australia Fair’s first public delivery in 1878 declared “…For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share…”. Well, we’re sharing it with 21 million more than he was then; and there’ll be another million in four years from now. But, do we really understand just what we are sharing?

We have learned much about this land since 1878, and Paleobotanist Mary White has synthetised it admirably. She provides a wealth of information on how it is, and how it came to be; all in very readable style with five books. In providing the fundamentals, they are supported by detail and explanation in a clear and interesting manner for both the ordinary punter and the more scientifically demanding. Much more than a passive observer, she has been around the traps: out in the paddocks where the physical details lie, has wandered the libraries, communicated closely with the best brains on the issues; and had close liaison with supporting photographers.  The result is a highly skilled communicator’s  delivery of very accessible, accurate, and beautifully presented information on what makes our landscapes tick.

Mary deals with the formation of landscapes of which soils are a fundamental component and are in large part derivative of the formation. Their details are left to others. For those details, perhaps  Australian Soils and Landscapes (McKenzie, Jacquier, Isbell, and Brown; CSIRO publishing 2004), would be appropriate: It lists 13 orders of naturally developed soils, and one (Anthroposols) developed by human intervention. White’s broader view explains the circumstances and time-lines of landscape and soil development; and how human intervention has impacted upon them. In the absence of understanding these circumstances, it is difficult to avoid working against, rather than with, the natural resources and processes within which we are embedded.

In order of publication, White’s relevant books: The Greening of Gondwana (1986 Reid Books, 3rd edition 1998 Kangaroo Press); After the Greening (1994 Kangaroo Press); Listen Our Land is Crying (1997 Kangaroo Press); Running Down (2000 Rosenberg Publishing); Earth Alive (2003 Rosenberg Publishing).

The Greening of Gondwana “The 400 million year story of Australia’s plants” is divided into two parts. The first part has subsections 1) ‘From Lifeless Earth to the Age of Hidden Life’; 2) ‘The Age of Evident Life; Australia in Gondwana’; 3) ‘Australia’s Gondwanan Inheritance, Evolution of an Australian Flora’. The second part contains 10 chapters: 1)‘Life in the Early Seas’; 2) ‘Life moves out of the water and onto the land’; …; 9) ‘Australia becomes the Island Continent, with a vegetation dominated by flowering plants’; 10) ‘Australia’s Modern Flora’.

After the Greening: The Browning of Australia is divided into four parts and their various chapters . Part One. Rifting  1) ‘The making and breaking of supercontinents’;…; 5) ‘Rivers Beheaded, Broken and Bent’. Part Two. Drifting 6) ‘Flame trees illuminate the warm wet forests’; …; 11) ‘Countdown to an Ice Age’. Part Three. Drying 12) ‘How Australia changed in an increasingly icehouse world’; …; 16) ‘The Widest, wide Brown Land’; …; 20) ‘Salt – Desert Made and Desert Maker’. Part Four. Unbalancing The Biota 21) ‘A Continent Dominated By Two Genera’; …; 29) ‘Turning The Island Continent Into A Desert Island’.

Listen Our Land is Crying “Australia’s Environment: problems and solutions” has fifteen chapters: ‘Australia’s Climate, Global and Local’;  ‘Australia’s Geological History’; ‘Biodiversity’;  ‘Soil – a non-renewable resource in serious trouble’; ‘Salt and the salinisation of soil and water’; ‘The Murray-darling Basin and river system’; ‘The Riverine Plain of the Murray Darling Basin in New South Wales’; ‘Australia’s grasslands’; ‘The five focal catchments of the National Dryland Salinity Program’; ‘Out of Control’ [i.e. weeds and obnoxious animals]; ‘The Tropical North’; ‘The arid rangelands’; ‘Mining and the environment’; ‘Forests and wilderness’; ‘Coastal and marine environments and the eastern green crescent’.

Running Down; Water in a changing land “…gives a deep-time perspective of the story of the co-evolution of water resources, the environment and the animal and plant life it supports. It sets the scene for an understanding of the geological history of the continent, the past history and the modern status of its water systems, and the impact of European land use on our two main life-support systems–water and soil. Sustainable management of our land and water resources can only be achieved if the ancient history of the continent is taken into account and the limitations set by this unique land itself are recognised.”

In Running Down, examples–with diagrams and photographs–are given for the history, development, and current status of numerous regions/catchments across Australia: from the Herbert River mouth in North Queensland to the Adelaide and Mary Rivers in the Northern Territory; from the Esperance Region in Western Australia to the Shoalhaven and Bega rivers in the East; down to the Pieman River in Tasmania; and to many, many in between. All with very cogent detail of processes and outcomes, cause and effect.  The continent, throughout its extent and diversity, is very well covered by examples; interior and exterior–none are neglected.

Earth Alive:  from microbes to a living planet is a different book in that it records the history of biological  development. It is a sobering draught, from the keg of reality, regarding our attitude to that.  As presenters at the 8th International Mycological Congress during 2006 in Cairns noted, the Fungi Kingdom represents more than 20 per cent of the worlds biological mass, a large proportion of which is within the top layer of soil.  The book puts into perspective the ecological soup which is part of us, and of which we are part; and how that came to be:

We need to acknowledge the symbiotic nature of the biosphere, where microbes represent more than half of the living matter; the interconnections between all living things and the environment; and the dangers of not taking into account the factors required for maintaining the life-friendly balances that result from the functioning of all the webs of life. Because terrestrial life is dependent on plants-whose photosynthesis provides the basis of all food chains-the role of soil micro-organisms is all-important. Understanding how plants and the soil biota interact is basic to achieving sustainable land use and thus our survival.

Hopefully, this gives some idea of the worth of Mary White’s skills in communicating the science underlying the formation of our landscapes and the changes we are forcing upon them.

Colin Samundsett

6 responses to “Australian landscapes: Mary White’s contribution towards our understanding of them.

  1. Many thanks Mr Samundsett .
    Dr Mary White is a national treasure . Her books should be in all libraries .

    Also nice to meet someone who understands the power of hand tools .

    We use scarfing hoes for tree planting all the time .
    Its a heavy forged head sharpened on the top side of the blade .
    Curved handle allows you to swing from waist height to under grass roots , parallel with soil surface .
    You can clear a square metre of turf down to mineral soil in five minutes .
    Less tiring if ripping done first . Even better if second rip has wings bolted on the tines .

    With this technology we can plant trees without use of herbicides and expect 90% establishment .
    Grass competition eliminated for first season , soil fungi not poisoned , much less frost damage .
    The turfs are flipped over to be dried for mulch . Don’t allow the sides to touch and stay damp or the grass will grow back . Good to flip them on to cardboard so the grass dies even as it weighs the cardboard , or wet newspaper , against the wind .



  2. Braidwood Library and Central School now have some Mary White titles,
    Suggest you read on the verandah till the mothball smells dissipate .

  3. Peter Marshall

    Dear Ellen ,

    I will find a 15 year old with digital camera magic .

    Stand by .


  4. Peter Marshall

    Dear Ellen ,

    15 yo is away so no photo of my own scarfing / scalping hoe . Sorry .

    In US they call them Hazel or Adze hoes .
    Heavy forged head 6 1/2 inches wide . Square adze type eye and curved hickory handle . US $80 or so with handle . Stock number 69057

    In Germany the Hartz pattern has a bit narrower head . For the racer .
    Gedore Ochsenkpf OX 28 Hartz Hoe

    I like to sharpen them on the side facing the user . It cuts better without hacking .

    Trick is to use the weight of the head . Weak hand stays fixed . Strong hand slides up handle as you lift head to waist height . Then slides down to meet other hand as you use gravity to do the work .
    A slight tilt forward makes the stroke cut nice and level under the turf .
    Don’t try to flip big turves , cut them out as tiles .

    Do not lift above head and bring down with muscle force . You can’t keep up a days work like that .

    Be careful if you google Hazel Hoes . You may find a girl called Hazel behaving in unusual ways .



  5. Peter Marshall

    Dear Ellen ,

    Are you a relative of our pin up girl , Mary ?
    If so I have found a spare scarfing hoe you can have .
    If not , it’s still yours if you want it .


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