State of Hope: where’s the Mallee?

The latest issue of  the Griffith Review is No 55  and it  is about  the future of a  post-colonial South Australia. The issue is entitled  State of Hope and  it is edited by Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington and  it consists of  short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and photo stories.  Authors include Robyn Archer, John Spoehr, Peter Stanley, Angela Woollacott, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chris Wallace, Dennis Atkins, Nicholas Jose, and Ali Cobby Eckermann. This is an Adelaide and South Australia  primarily seen by those working within a literary culture, which includes print journalists in the mainstream media and  literary creatives  in academia. There are  reviews of the text here and here.

The  marketing blurb to the  State of Hope text says that:

As the industrial model that shaped twentieth-century South Australia is replaced by an uncertain future, now more than ever the state needs to draw on the strengths of its past in order to move ahead. Now, on the cusp of change, the state needs to draw on its talent for experiment and innovation in order to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. State of Hope explores the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.

This is a reasonable assessment since  South Australia is undergoing extensive de-industrialization that began in the 1970s and an uncertain  post-industrial  future does  loom. However,  South Australia is not alone in this–eg.,  witness Victoria. Surely the process of de-industrialization  and an uncertain future after the closure of the manufacturing industry and the end of the mining boom also applies to Australia as a whole? So what is unique to South Australia? An uncertain future? Difficulties in making the transition to a post -industrial society?

It is good to see that the future is not disconnected from the past,  and it is refreshing to see that history has not been erased from  our present concerns about our  futures in South Australia.

Surprisingly,  some of the short stories appear to have little connection to South Australia,  and there is little by way of inclusion of contemporary photography about Adelaide or South  Australia.  There is visual photo essay  on rural South Australian  with the  Lost geographies  by Annette Willis:  a  photo story  concerned with the past failure of settler culture in  South Australia north of the Goyder line in  the Flinders Ranges. The Riverland and its wineries are also included in State of Hope text, but not the Mallee country.

The Mallee is forgotten country in this text, along with the erasure of its human past. I  found no mention of the Mallee apart from the brief mention of mallee scrub south of the Goyder Line that stretches from Ceduna in the west to Pinaroo in the east on the Victorian border. Goyder’s  Line is shifting south ward under the impact of climate change,  and so the pioneer history of   ‘struggle country ( greening a brown land) — and  associated myth of  a golden age of agriculture and historical narrative of endurance, will continue. Will the settler discourse on  drought, where drought is seen as exceptional, unfortunate, even disastrous, rather than a ‘normal’ aspect of the local climate, also continue under the impact of climate change?  The settler discourse in this region is one of hanging on and surviving on hope.


The absence of the Mallee in State of Hope  is puzzling.  This is a strange omission  as climate change starts to take effect in Adelaide and South Australia.  The history of dryland agriculture in  the form of large-scale wheat production  with enhanced drought tolerance would surely be  an example of experiment and innovation. Moreover, isn’t  the predicted impact of climate change on our agricultural production regions–a warming and drying climate—a key aspect of South Australia’s future? Isn’t Adelaide going to suffer from increasingly severe heatwaves and declines in average yearly rainfall over the next couple of decades?  What kind of  disturbing future will this be for Adelaide with its vulnerable water resources?  Doesn’t this suggest a rethinking of our intellectual traditions about how we view water, given our dependency on fresh water for our survival?

In recent decades there has been a general trend towards decreased late autumn and winter rainfall across southern Australia,   which includes most of the cropping zone of southern SA. Associated with this is the projected temperatures rising by 0.4°C to 1.8°C , drying soils,  and increased soil  erosion. The likely increases in temperature, but also decreases in rainfall and a combination of these would tend to increase the  drought periods and  the dry spells and  so reduce  the productivity of  South Australia’s  cropping lands in the Mallee.

So how will the people in the Mallee cope as the temperatures heat up? Presumably, wheat will still grow,  even if the rainfall season is shortened–eg., through planting species with shorter growing seasons, dry sowing seeds and tilling fields less often. Agri-businesses will become larger with greater integration into global markets.   The old settler narrative of  ‘we’ve lived though dry spells before, it will come good’, which  is based on traditional local knowledge and lived experience,  probably won’t hold up under impacts of broader economic restructuring on rural industries and climate change.

What we can infer from this exclusion of the Mallee from the State of Hope text is that the Mallee in South Australia is a ghost land,  along with its dreams, hopes, memories  and narratives about land clearing,   and it has disappeared into the early history of the 20th century.   It plays no role in Australia’s post-industrial economy, since  that future,  according to the economists,  is about robotics, innovations labs, digital special-effects firms, biomedicine etc, education, not the dry,  cropping lands in the Mallee. The Mallee has  become a series of lost places and  its relics of closer settlement  represent  rural abandonment.  The  wheatlands are  the heartland of rural decline.

Yet we need to remember  how the pioneer narrative about a land deemed empty and land clearing, which was about enabling the settler vision of a land opened up, ready for taking and economic development at all costs, ignored the destructive aspects of economic progress. We need to remember  how external expertise and scientific knowledge remained out of step with the  prevailing cultural practice of learning through localised, lived experience of climate. It is the latter with its enduring drought and clinging to the hope that farming conditions would go back to the way they once were, that is part of the identity formation of the people in the Mallee.

 It  is  the long term consequences of the settler attempts to remake the Mallee  in the early 20th century that is being forgotten:   the  removal of too much vegetative cover, followed by inappropriate land use; soil erosion, dust storms in summer,  land degradation through salinisation; the loss of biodiversity.This is not a history that we should forget.


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