Buffel Grass: An Augmented Landscape

Article excerpt

One year I deliberately chose to spend time in Alice Springs during early summer. Until then I had only visited in winter, the peak tourist season. This time I flew in rather than drove and met the first wave of heat through the parting glass doors at the airport.

I stayed at the usual place but was surprised to discover that it had come to life. At nightfall, the walls and windows hosted numbers of small pale geckoes lying in wait for insects, and chirruping loudly through the night. There were two that hunted from the outside glass panes of the window next to the kitchen table, and as I ate dinner I had an intimate view of their pale fawn underbellies and the sticky discs at their fingertips with which they clung to the sheer surface of glass. Their dark bulging eyes glistened as they lay in wait for the moths attracted by my kitchen light. At dusk, when I went walking through the ironwoods and hakeas, a sacred kingfisher darted through a low submerged greenish light that lingered beyond sunset. In the heat of the day a wasp came and went outside the door, building a nest against the side of the stone steps. Its nest was composed, so far, of three small mud cups joined together in a cellular pattern. In the undergrowth, lizards rustled when I passed; along the gravel driveway was a resident goanna about a metre long, and out on the road a large brown snake sunned itself on the bitumen. The first couple of nights were quite cool; but then, in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m., I was woken by the sound of distant wind approaching across the landscape-that particular sound wind has when it is imminent, a roil of motion approaching a pocket of stillness. I was sleeping with the door open and when the wind struck it was hot. A hot wind in the middle of the night was completely counter-intuitive to me, when one associates nights with cooling. A wave of heat was crossing the desert in the darkness.

I realised I was familiar with weather changing from across the sea: cool south- westerly changes coming in across Port Phillip Bay. Not waves of heat arriving from inside the continent in the dark. And from that night onward it grew steadily hotter and hotter, with clear crisp mornings, and evenings that were still hot, but where colour softened and the nearby ranges suddenly became comprehensible again as objects in space. During the heat of the day they seemed inaccessible, shrunken into the distance, and incomprehensible, shrunken under glare and the high, whitened colour of heat. At sunset, the edges of deep golds and burnished oranges across stone ridges brought them close again, as if the landscape had pieced itself together in the softlight.

In my preoccupation with buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) I spent a couple of weeks at the library at the Arid Zone Research Institute (AZRI), the Northern Territory Archives Service, and the CSIRO library. What had happened between imported seeds carrying such improving potential that, as one nineteenth century seedsman put it, they would 'cause streams of wealth, and happiness, and progress to meander through all our plains and valleys', to them later (at least in some instances), breeding a form of despair and alarm?1 I had become preoccupied with buffel grass because of the diverse narratives it delivers about processes of placemaking in central Australia. It 'speaks' on a number of registers: as an 'instrument of colonial domination' during settlement and the expansion of pastoralism in the region;2 it discloses scientific attempts to both remedy the destructive effects of overgrazing and make better economic use of the arid zone; it also reveals more recent ecological understandings of desert lands and their biota.3 As with many introduced species, buffel grass divides opinion. A comprehensive report for the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, evaluating benefits and risks associated with continued use of buffel grass for pasture, captures in its title the polarised views the grass elicits: 'Buffel Grass: Both Friend and Foe'. …