Friday, January 14, 2011

Why micro-environments are important

During the floods across Queensland and Northern New England, my train reading switched to Volume 2, The Commentaries, of An Atlas of New England (Department of Geography, University of New England, 1977). Edited by David A.M. Lea, John J.J. Pigram and Leslie M. Greenwood, the commentaries include a variety of essays on different aspects of the human and physical geography of the New England Tablelands and North-Western slopes and plains.

I wanted to read the book again because of the importance of geography to the history I am writing. However, I read it at this point because I remembered that it had material relevant to the unfolding flood drama. In doing so, I was reminded of the importance of what I think of as micro-environments.

The floods themselves were triggered by broad weather conditions that covered a significant portion of the continent. However, their on-ground impacts varied greatly. The floods at Toowoomba and in the Lockyer Valley were part of the broader flood, but they were also greatly affected by local geography.

I think that most people are aware of climatic variation across their immediate areas, although this has been muted by to some degree by our urban life style. Taking Greater Sydney as an example, most people are aware that there is a temperature gradient as you move away from the sea; that thunder storms or fires are more concentrated in particular areas; that the gap between highest and lowest daily temperatures is greater in inland Sydney than on the coast.

This is of considerable practical importance. I am sure, for example, that spatial plotting of different types of emergency calls to the SES (State Emergency Services) would show considerable differences in patterns across Greater Sydney.   

While people recognise that these variations exist, I am not sure that we realise just how important they are. Statistics, reporting and policy are all based on averages, making it difficult to recognise and accommodate variation.

The Liverpool Plains lie north of the Hunter Valley, south west of the New England Tablelands, separated from the Tablelands by a sharp range of mountains. The Plains are part of what is sometimes called the Sydney-Bowen Basin, a huge stretch of territory that in very ancient times was a shallow sea. The great coal deposits on which Australia now depends for a significant proportion of its wealth date from this period.

Coal is a hot topic on the Liverpool Plains at present. Miners want to mine, while local landowners complain that this will damage the environment and especially the ground water.

Expressed in this way, it sounds like any other environmental dispute. However, if you drill down, you find that the Namoi Valley has, I think, the greatest ground water resources in New South Wales outside the Great Artesian Basin. Further, unlike the Basin, those waters are regularly replenished during major rain periods. Issues associated with protection, use and control of ground water are therefore very important.

In my continuing Greece travel series, I have frequently referred to the importance of water. The same holds in Australia.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent. Further, the rain that does fall often falls in spurts, our droughts and flooding rains. Looking just at New England, the Atlas's authors draw out the variability. They show the way in which particular centres might receive the equivalent of a month's average rainfall in just an hour. They plead for better data that might allow what I call the micro-environment to be better measured.

Traditional Aboriginal life in New England was dependent on water. Populations in particular areas were directly related to the maximum population that could be supported in dry times.

The largest Aboriginal populations were found on the coast with its constantly running rivers. Inland, the Aborigines spread across the country in wet times, contracted during dry times to more permanent water supplies. The large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water including the Liverpool Plains' ground water with its springs.

Water is just as important today. However, it is not the only variable. Soils, land form slopes, mineral resources, every geographic feature you care to name, can vary greatly across relatively small areas.

At a macro level we may be able to ignore these variations, although they are critical for understanding local or regional history. However, I would argue that if we don't understand geography at both a macro and a micro-environmental level, our responses are likely to be inadequate.    

In Australia at least, we still haven't worked out how best to integrate the broad with the regional or local. Until we do, we are going to get inadequate results.


In comments, David Nash helpfully queried my statement that "the large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water including the Liverpool Plains' ground water with its springs." This led me to write a full post amplifying my ideas.   

Environment and the distribution of Aboriginal languages in NSW


David Nash said...

"The large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water ..."
I don't think this follows (whether you mean large in territory, or in population). Compare the size of language groups along other large rivers. Or one could equally suppose that assured water could be shared by many different groups each of whom need less territory.
(I offer this comment as someone who rarely finds anything to query on this blog!)

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a fair correction David, and thanks for your end comment. I will bring a correction up at the end of the post. What was lurking in the back of my mind was the impact of Liverpool Plains ground water as a possible explanation for relative distribution of the Kamilaroi.

Dealing with territory first, the territory occuped by Kamilaroi speakers, while large in absolute terms and relative to other New England groups, was smaller than the Wiradjuri to the south. In population terms, there were more W than K.

The Murray River was marked by high population concentrations but many language groups. There is also evidence from bone structures of periodic malnutrition. The impression I have had for both the Murray and the smaller Darling where you have a major water resource surrounded by often very dry country is that population and social structures centred on and ran along the rivers.

By contrast, the K and I think W language groups were less individual river specific. I haven't properly looked at the impact of the Murrumbidgee.

The coastal position is different again and I should have qualified that.

I'm not sure on your point re water sharing when it comes to larger language groups as compared to local groups.

I need to think more and then, as I said, add a correcting postscript so that I don't mislead.

David Nash said...

(In haste:) Much more amplification than I expected Jim! Yes, population density has to be distinguished from density of language varieties; and water supply variability is relevant as you spell out.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, David. As you can see, your comment was very useful in the process of documenting and testing my own ideas.

David Nash said...

The relevance is tenuous, but you my find something of use in this recent post of mine concerning the more inland side of the Kamilaroi area What's a Warrambool?.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, David. I have saved the reference for later review.