Glen Phillips and John Kinsella: Mythology and Landscape

29 November 2010

Conversations in Motion: Glen Phillips and John Kinsella passing through the Wheatbelt.

John Kinsella wishes to acknowledge that it is Nyungar land he discusses in this conversation, and that it was stolen from the Nyungar people and remains in their custodianship. He believes in the return of land to those dispossessed.


JK: We are just coming out of Toodyay, we are taking the Coondle West Road, heading west, eventually across to New Norcia and this is hopefully not the last of our journeys, but the last of the Watershed dialogues, which have been conducted over ten years.

GP: Ten years.

JK: Ten years. 1997 we did the first one, so just under ten years. Over a decade. In fact we thought of the ‘project’ first in 1996, even though the earliest conversations were recorded in 1997, so it’s a decade. And a lot of things have changed, things are changing very fast. Even going through Toodyay, through the Avon Valley then into the Toodyay Valley, along the Brook —it’s still relatively forested being on the edge of the Darling Range, but whole hilltops along the Avon Valley have been and around here have been stripped bare, where the remaining wandoo forest area has been extensively subdivided and turned into sort of small lots, for weekenders … just went past a water carting sign. It’s a mixture of wandoo and areas of York gum. Also patches of jarrah and marri, with plenty of parrot bush.

GP: Signs of the historically driest summer ever.

JK: Yes. It is the most devastating summer that many people remember in fact, so the crops are almost non-existent around York where we are; the ones that have survived are only a few inches tall, but where [my brother] Stephen shears up around Geraldton it’s just entirely dirt, and Tracy and I drove from York the back way through Tincurrin and Dumbleyung down to Bunbury and on to Busselton last weekend, and it was like a big stretch of brown. And everywhere we went people commented on the extremity and … literally there is a psychological counselling being done right through the wheatbelt, because of the drought … basically we’re looking at a fifth to a quarter of the crop expected and it’s going to be devastating for a lot of the farmers. As you know, the weather patterns are distinctly changing. Last summer was bizarre, it was cool and wet, and the whole kind of … you know I’ve been observing this as, Glen has and many others, over a twenty-year period the weather patterns distinctly changing, but now it’s becoming very fast, very dramatic.

GP: Very fast. And I think what you’ve been saying for years, writing for years about the wheatbelt as a kind of sensitive, as a — like they used to take the birds down the mines to detect the gas — the wheatbelt has been telling us that this is going to happen for a mighty long time. I guess when you went from Dumbleyung across to Busselton, you went through what, when I first went through there in 1943, on the way to Bridgetown during the war, that was heavily forested, all around Kojonup, all around from between Narrogin and Williams, all that was just heavy forest, no cleared country at all, or hardly that I can remember. When you go down there now, they’ve cleared the whole of the south-west forest and that must have affected the rainfall patterns. It’s going to be like the Middle East.

JK: But I was through on this road, four years ago, and there were no smaller properties and houses here … the bush on the left, we’ve got wandoo forest on the left was fairly intact, and I don’t know if you’d know this because you’re driving Glen, but up until about thirty seconds ago, there were about fifty new housing blocks with little developments …

GP: Subdivisions …

JK: Yeah, the forest has entirely been subdivided. I thought that was crown land, set aside for, you know, for flora and fauna conservation purposes, but it’s been stripped back … the last bits are going. Now there’ll be a salinity problem here shortly, and people will be complaining and, nothing is being stopped. That’s a brand new house just in there. And that’s been entirely cleared. That’s Red Gum Road, and then next to it we’ve got another development, and on and on it goes, so this, what I thought was one of the few areas left that’s a cross between wandoo … and jarrah and blackbutt by the looks of it, mixed, is like, anything that can be — this is Red Gum Circle — anything at all that can be developed is being developed. It’s like none of the warnings are being heeded, and it’s — the decay — is happening so fast. All remnant bushland is being consumed, people are allowed to clear— under the present government — up to between one and ten acres a year of — so what they’re doing is every year they’re clearing that, and around where we are the bits of remnant bushland, we’re watching each year, by a tenth, disappear. So they’re still getting it, it’s just taking ten years to do it. And then they’re cropping what can’t be cropped, and the next step is to introduce genetically modified grains that are salt resistant, and of course still require vast amounts of spray and so on anyway. Pollute the whole food cycle and then of course still …

GP: The impact on wildlife …

JK: … the impact on wildlife, and still end up becoming redundant. Look at this. This has entirely been cleared since I came through. There was a farm with a lot of bush on, they’ve obviously got subdividing permission and turned it into an estate. This is entirely developed as if it was close to the city.

GP: All this forest last time …

JK: It was the last time I went through too. It’s very scary stuff. The philosophy is that everyone should have their slice. Well, you know, when why don’t they slice up already cleared land?

GP: That’s right.


GP: Just making a bit of a comparison with China because of the massive development happening there, in Shanghai in particular which I have been watching for twenty years, when we first went there, the Jiang Pu River was the eastern border to the place, with the Bund along the western bank.

On one side you had the city of Shanghai, on the other side of the river, the east side stretching away. There were just a few docking places and a little bit of a village, a little rural village, and all the rest of it was paddy fields and farming. And that went away to the ocean. You see this when you fly in. But in … really in the space of about fifteen years … a complete new city has been built there, with some of the biggest buildings in Asia and hundreds and hundreds of subdivisions crammed with high-rise, but also with the sort of villa development, mirror imaging what you get in modern American housing estates. And, where are they going to grow the rice? And the best land — arable land — in China is very rare. It’s one of the mountainous of all nations. So they’re going to … they went from an oil exporting country to an oil importing company in about five years, because of the private ownership of cars and the increased demand for fuel there, but they’re going to become very very dependent on other countries for their food, because they’ve used up the few areas and are using them up more and more because the suburbs of Shanghai extend north, east, south and west and are sort of re-doubling, every time you look at them. You spend hours travelling to get out of the suburbs. Many of the suburbs are not yet inhabited. They’ve been already built, but they’re not even inhabited. So you have problems all over the world because our world population has exploded and so it’s got to have to impact every part of the world. So we only have the faintest glimpse of what our future on this planet is going to be. It’s horrifying.

JK: It is horrifying, and you know the kind of exploitation of — the denial — until the last couple of years, the denial of greenhouse effects and climate change, has suddenly turned the corner because people now see profit to be made from trying to ‘rectify’ or diminish the problems that come out of this, the whole very dubious and erroneous sort of nuclear debate about, you know there’s suddenly there’s so called clean energy — a so-called clean energy that produces waste so toxic that it can sit around for millions of years and endanger the planet on a very very literal and fundamental level. So that particular lobby suddenly, you know, try to flog their dirty wares as clean — I mean it’s the dirtiest thing of all — and the one most likely really, to finish the whole place off. So you get all the exploitations start coming into play and the things that have been staring people in the face, from wind power, solar energy, through to you know, recycling methods, and you know, home energy retention and all these kind of things. Because they’re not as profit-making, at least at this stage as the others, they are still be thwarted and pushed aside, and it is, it’s the exploitation, on every level. This one we’re doing now, though, has been a real eye-opener for me, as I said, four years ago when I went through here this was all basically bush, and every square inch now has been subdivided and sold off. Now it seems to me that this isn’t private land, this has been crown land that’s been sold off, and partitioned, which seems very dubious. I’d like to know who was consulted and what environmental studies, impact studies were done. I’ll bet none were done. You know this is the constant kind of environmental impact studies. Like Barrow Island. And I guarantee very little consultation was made with the Nyungar custodians of the land.

GP: They’re done at Shire level probably. Who’ve you got on the Shire who has, you know, got limited ability [or facility] to make any kind of scientific evaluation of the ecological impact.

JK: So what we’ve got, in our, over this decade of going off and looking at saline areas and marking the devastation and talking about historically how this came about, we are actually now, at the end of that decade, had something quite different. We are at the bits that are left, being totally and very rapidly developed and exploited. The wheatbelt in a sense has also changed its nature in that vast areas out on the — Payne’s Find — out around there that are cleared below yield crops on vast areas. The scrub cleared. Are basically failing because what? Of lack of water? And so on and so on. Salinity.

GP: Unreliable rainfall.

JK: Unreliable rainfall …

GP: Wind erosion is very bad …

JK: Wind erosion. Massive clearing for quick-fix profit-making. [And rainfall drops as vegetation is cleared.] You know we saw this ten years ago… ridiculous — now, you know, they’ll go and try the false panacea of genetic modification, sadly, and that will screw things up even more…

It’s like this sudden desire to turn saline land into profitable land by yabby farming or whatever it is. But once again, it’s this sort of ‘red herring’ to actually get away from the fact that destruction shouldn’t be taking place in the first place, and the wheatbelt is changing in nature, because it is basically failing through being damaged more and more. People are trying to find alternative ways to exploit it, which will in fact only re-enforce the damage, and in the long term, make it even more barren, and useless in its own sense as well as in their limited ‘what will it give us’ sense. So if there’s a theory to be drawn out of this, I suppose it’s twofold: One, you know, is that any form of non-respect for the geo-forms of the land, and its flora and fauna and so on are going to lead to it being damaged and redundant and wasted; Two, is that there is something to be said about the wheatbelt as an indicator of the health of the land as a whole, because there is so much that is barren, so much cleared and stripped away over the last hundred or more years, and so much of its remaining health based on remnant bits of bush, and their resistance — this remnant bush is the last remaining life-force if you like, a true barometer of what’s happening in the broader world.

GP: Yeah.

JK: It’s a real kind of indicator. And that’s been neglected as an indicator, I think.

GP: Yeah, that’s what I meant by my analogy, with the, taking the little birds down the mine to detect the gas …

JK: Indeed.

GP: Before it affects the human beings.

JK: The thing is, I suppose, many people haven’t really seen the wheatbelt, they see it as, okay, it’s been over-cleared and you get salinity and it’s less productive, but they don’t see that as actually being something that is not only symbolic, but a literal measure of the broader problem. It is highly sensitive, because it’s such marginal, as they call it, land, it’s highly indicative of a broader malaise. I mean, eventually the rich lands will follow. So what you do, is you preserve your marginal lands, and your rich lands will persist, you know. And… one needs to interpret the space, in an entirely reverse way. So maybe instead of seeing it as marginal, because it’s less productive, why don’t you see it as hypersensitive and less marginal? You know, reversing the equation, maybe that’s the theory that evolves, maybe we could call it a theory of inversion, of looking at it in reverse, so instead of it being the lesser land, that produces less than it ‘should’ — an acre of this land produces so much less than an acre of land in Britain — but eventually an acre of land in Britain is going to produce no more than this, and less. So let’s reverse the equation: this land is actually richer because it’s more vulnerable, rather than the other way around. And if we use that way of looking at things, then we might have a chance of regressing, rather than working in reverse. Do you think that’s a viable theory, Glen?

GP: Yeah, I think it is a theory, but in terms of the actual, it working, at a sort of a ordinary level, one of the things that’s been a phenomenon of our wheatbelt and of our farming areas generally, in this part, is that small ownership has been replaced by larger and larger ownership, and with this season like this, this disastrous dry winter, meaning more farms will be sold up and will become owned by larger companies, rather than individual people. Now traditionally it was the ‘people’ who looked after the land because it was in their interest to do so, and one of the things they found in China, was once they took away actual ownership and went into collectivism, the neglect, of soil erosion for example, the introduction of phoney schemes of farming which actually were totally disastrous compared to the ones that have developed over thousands of years, of husbanding the land. What do you think John, will happen — will it be better that a fewer number of people or companies own the land, perhaps it’s easier to educate them, and change them, or would it have been better if there were a multitude of small farmers who had the concern of trying to preserve their own land, their own properties, and would they be more sensitive to resisting the kind of changes that are occurring?

JK: Well, ultimately, as an anarchist, I believe everything should be on a small scale and decentralised and operate outside profit, and we’re all accountable for where we live, and I think that the larger kind of conglomerate kind of things only serve a purpose of concentrating wealth and actually leading to exploitation in the grand scale. But when small properties are carved out of the forest for ‘lifestyle purposes’ and more land is cleared so each individual can have their ‘slice of paradise’ at the expense of the bush, I object to that as much as I object to the big farm or company doing the same thing. But the individual protecting and preserving the bush/the land is a deeply positive factor. Agri-companies never do that.

However, having said that, if the world is to be divided up into little bits, and people are going to carve out their own existences and so on and so on and so on, pretty well nothing’s going to be left. I think that what happens, what one requires is mutual responsibility, so groups farming and sharing land is a very good thing on a small scale. That group should also have a responsibility as all indigenous communities around the world always have had a responsibility for a portion of the non-farmland near you. So for example, I see myself living small-scale [as I do, in the country near here] — even though it’s not my land — but I look on it, and I write about it, and I seek to preserve and protect, and protest about it if I see it under threat. There’s a small area of crown land on top of Walwalinj/Mt Bakewell near my mother’s place in York that I keep my eye on. I’ve already had two EPA surveys of it done in the last twelve months because I know that the recreationalists are wrecking the bush up there.

GP: They’re wrecking it.

JK: So, now that’s being observed, and they’re taking satellite pictures of it [which I disagree with — damaging technology] and they’re examining it to see if it’s being damaged. Now that’s not my land, but I see it as my responsibility. So our family live on that lot of land, on the five-and-a-half-acre block down the front… and we look after that, and we live around there and make use of the land, but that general territory — it doesn’t have to be crown land, it could be just agreed-upon areas that we have responsibility for — I see it as my responsibility, to make sure it’s protected. I cannot see why, in the way that ideologies have ruled the planet, be it capitalist or communist or whatever it is, why such a philosophy can’t be perfectly viable, that we have collective responsibility. Now of course what happens, is people get greedy and then they say well this is not enough, we want more so we can then sell it and then we can get more for ourselves, we’re going to use a bit of that land, and everyone agrees, because they also want a bit more, and it decays. Unless you have basically some hope of collective responsibility …

GP: In the form of a custodial consciousness.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: