Wednesday, February 23, 2005

It's a Matelock Moon and the Marri is flowering heavy

It's a full moon and, last night, I watched it rise over the Rugged Ranges, these days known as the Stirling Ranges, but known by many other names by the Noongar who lived under the shadow of it's array of solitary peaks. The sky was shaded mauve and malachite in the still singular air of the Great Southern, the Minang region of the south west. There is a deepness of hue in the air just after dusk on still clear days here that is uniquely captivating.

The Matelock moon marks the commencement of the gnurri season, these days misnamed as salmon. These fish come in schools, chasing schools of pilchards on the edge of the surf breaks on beaches and bays open to the Southern Ocean. On the seaward side of the Quaranup peninsula the surf line off the beach is broken by a small island, Mistaken Island. On this beach in March 1830, Mokari and Collet Barker walked along the shore following the salmon until they were close enough for Mokari to leap into the waves and demonstrate his prowess with a fishing spear.

This year, Piroe, the two moons of December and January, has been a dry and hot. The Marri, Eucalyptus calophylla, is flowering spectacularly. The wildflower experts say it's the best they've seen for 5 years. It's widespread and heavy, from eprth down to Albany, her branches are drooping with white blossoms and birds and unexpected bounty. The vinyard owners are laughing because they've had no problems with parrots for the first time in years.

On the ground the bandicoots are getting thin while in the trees the possums are getting fat.

I'm told that old timers reckon it means that we'll have a good winter. We shall see.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

The Minang and the destruction of the Southern Right Whale

Here is a tale from the 1840's.

A taap knife (from King, 1827) Posted by Hello

The South Coast and the West Coast of Western Australia are worlds apart. Overland as the crow flies the colonial settlements of Albany and Perth are 400kms of rough sandy track that takes 2 weeks on horseback, if you don't get lost. By sea, it's a week minimum, and with a lee shore much of the way around Cape Leeuwin, treacherous in winter. By virtue too, these outposts are separated, Perth is all private vice and Albany is public virtue. Albany was by far the smaller of the two and although the local Minang Noongar had not been the subject of punitive massacres as in Pinjarra or wide scale settlement of their lands, it was still tense. It was clear that what had happened in Perth could happen here.
The Noongar response to invasion is, and was often unappreciated. The Noongar considered themselves highly civilised and the behaviour of the invaders to be barbarian. A response that they shared with their Chinese and Japanese counterparts at the time, was to call the British, 'white devils'. 'Djanga'. or 'djanak'.

The British misunderstood this to mean that the Noongar saw them as reincarnations of their relatives. That's what the Noongar said but what they meant (and kept saying) was that the British could not take their land without taking responsibility for the Noongar who, inseparable from their land, would become like a relative to be cared for and considered.

Of course, the concept of family was already breaking down in Victorian England where families were being ripped asunder by the industrial age. The Noongar, I suspect, sensed this need in this pale uncivilised creatures. A need to belong and a sense of having been ripped asunder and tried unsuccessfully(at least to date) to use this as a bargaining tool.

For the Noongar, kin was, and is, everything. Daisy Bates wrote that after the Pinjarra massacre a number of people died because it was the custom not to eat the totem animal of people after they had died for a number of months. So many people died in the massacre, that many of the survivors starved themselves to death.

Noongar culture in 1830, was built around songs and singing. Important news was delivered 'in recitative'. Performance was an everyday occurrence, songs and dances were practiced as people crossed the country. Young men decorated themselves with feathers and ochres. Dances were taught and traded at fairs, (Mandurah is named after a place where a traditional Mantjar [fair/festival] happened ).

The barbarian invasion at Perth and the massacre at Pinjarra sent shock waves trhough the south west. Many Noongar wanted nothing to do with the British, but at Albany the locals had established an uneasy accord. The settlement, small in number, survived on kangaroo and quokka meat. The fishing was excellent Only half a dozen farms existed in the hinterland and it's main purpose was to supply the passing shipping. Which it did, badly, when the ships could get in.

Elsewhere the sheep spread like lice.They and their shepherds consumed the kangaroo feed like an inexorable tide. In 1840 on the South Coast, the sheep were still lucky to survive without any Noongar intervention. Many of the local plants were poisonous.

But for the Noongar what was really troubling was what was happening at sea. For Centuries, the Minang had come to rely upon regular strandings of whales during winter. At least 3 strandings a year were expected. Along the South Coast, Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks bred in the bays and inlets. The Southern Rights in particular lived close to the shore. The Noongar believed that the whales could be sung ashore as they often were. The Minang had invented a knife, the taap, specially designed for cutting whale meat. A unique utensil in traditional Australian tool cultures, fashioned from pieces of flaked quartz , glued in place along a stick using an admixture of balak (X.preissii) resin, dung and ash.

In 1837, George Cheyne and Thomas Sherrat pioneered the onshore whaling industry on the south coast, using boats to capture the breeding southern right whales. They did well in that first year. Soon, the whole colony was afloat on whale fever and but for the want of boats, they would have prospered. The slack was taken up by the Americans and by 1840 it was estimated their were up to 150 whalers visiting the south west in a year. By 1843 it was over.

From then on, only one or two southern right whales were taken a year from the south or west coasts. How the remaining ones survived is a mystery. To this day, the population is still critically endangered. The onshore whaling industry continued in fits and starts until 1870 by which time the humpbacks were so few that they too were not worth the hunt.

It was the winter of 1844 that the consequences of this profligate slaughter began to hit home. Although some cattle had been speared and the occasional theft had occurred on stations in the bush. The isolation of the few farms established away from Albany itself meant that getting on with the traditional owners was necessary to survive. But the colonists were fearful and misunderstood the land and it's people. Tension was clearly rising on both sides. Petitions for more soldiers had been submitted in 1840 and two native constables had been sworn in.

The Noongar were appalled at the destruction of the southern right whale. Years later Daisy Bates was to record how the whale totem had died out along with the whales on the west coast. The loss was felt for a long time.

By the 5th April, 1844 seven Noongar men were being held in the single room jail on a variety of charges. The jailer, who had the use of only one arm, made the mistake of leaving the outer door open when he served the meal and was overpowered and all escaped. Then over a six week period from the 11th April to the end of May, the Noongar systematically raided every storehouse in Albany. One hundred weight of flour from Mr Belches by digging under the floor. Flour, sugar and knives from Mr Townsend while he was being distracted by Wylie, the native constable and heroic companion of Mr Eyre. Mr Belches for a second time (after he had taken ever step to secure it) rice and sugar were taken before the thieves were disturbed and finally 4 cwt of biscuits from Mr McDonalds. The spree continued - money from Mr Warburton's, Sherratt's and Taylor's houses were rifled.

The galling thing was that, from the first, the thieves were identifiable by there tracks. Three men, Norn, Teyning and Bobby, were identified –although it's clear that the only people who could identify the tracks were there own companions. A tracker was employed to follow them and after several miles 'could go no further'.
Eventually, Norn and then the others were 'recaptured' through the offer of judicious rewards, namely rice. Although by this time the price of rice in Albany had gone from 3d a lb to 2/6d a lb.

An eyewitness to their trial in Albany, Robert Neill, records that Teyning defiantly admitted his guilt and, moreover, that he was also responsible for the cow speared on Mr McDonald's farm as well. They were clearly willing to risk the rest of the winter on Rottnest for the sake of making their point loud and clear. The Noongar could and would work as one to resist the wasteful desecration of their food supplies.

Wylie was never trusted again, although he was back in favour a few years later when he was made a constable by Mr Camfield. Although the Noongar clearly wanted to make the point as to how vulnerable the colonists were, they also recognised the superior fire power of the Europeans and their lack of civilised morality. They could not seriously threaten the colony without risking the lives of their children and old people. At the same time, they could not stand idly by while such a wrong was being committed on their land.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Scepticism and Science

The publication of Michael Chricton's latest novel has occasioned much discussion about the nature of scientific knowledge. Are global warming sceptics engaged in scientific discourse or dissembling, themselves. As I'm typing I'm listening to the first of a 4 part series being presented on the Science Show(Radio National) over the next four weeks. I want therefore to summarize the variety of arguments that have been raised in the philosophy of science over the last 100 years to deal with this issue. I learnt some of this from a delightful little Aussie book called, "What is this thing called science" by David Chalmers who has just started a philosophy blog.

Karl Popper was one of the protagonists of the 'positivist' argument, which states that 'nothing is provable, theorems can only be disproved'. This is the most conservative of views – that there is no provable knowledge only exceptions that can be observed to break the rules. The problem with this point of view, is that it says nothing about, how exceptions are acknowledged, or more likely ignored. As well, many of science's most useful inventions rely upon an edifice of theory such as quantum mechanics that provides much of modern electronics. Or upon the strength that theories gain when they are proved later on, such as the confirmation of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution by the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The strongest answer to these shortcomings was formulated by Thomas Kuhn('The Structure of Scientific Revolutions') with the concept of 'paradigms' Kuhn pointed out that there would be no scientific activity at all if Popper was right. Kuhn described science as undergoing periods of 'normalcy' and periods of revolutions, when a scientific paradigm is overturned by the establishment of a new theory and a new program of research. The classic examples are, of course, Einstein's revolution in physics, and Wegener's continental drift. During 'normal' periods of science exceptions can be safely ignored, until they become an elephant at which point somebody notices the appearance of the elephant.

But this concept introduces a relativism and uncertainty into the nature of scientific knowledge which needs to be explained or explored. One direction, taken by Polanyi ('Personal Knowledge'), is that all kinds of knowledge are equally useful, thus astrology can co-exist alongside astronomy, as different kinds of knowledge. He presaged a viewpoint that was later elaborated by the post-modernist schools of thinking. However, like post-modernism, this relativist point of view is unsatisfactory because science clearly has economic consequences whereas astrology does not.

The next point of view represented by Stephen Rose and Brian Easlea is that scientific paradigms are defined and constrained by the ideological and material paradigms that are at work in the world. Stephen Rose applies a Marxist interpretation to his exploration of science. As such he presents an accurate description of the scientific process as it occurs in organic chemistry and as scientific agendas have been determined by the needs of the military – industrial complex.

Easlea ('Liberation and the Aims of Science') presents a similar point of view but his book is infused with the moods of the sixties and he hints at the role of masculinity in his discussion in scientific knowledge. Susan Griffin("Woman and Nature") and other feminist writers have expanded further upon this direction with a critique of the whole scientific enterprise built as it were, on the burning of witches. Griffin's critique is the most interesting, IMHO. She does not dispute the sceptical gaze, but rather focuses her critique upon the lascivious gaze of the scientific enterprise to 'rip aside the veil' from nature.

Applying this knowledge to the debate about scepticism and global warming, we can see that scepticism must be evaluated firstly in terms of the ideological paradigms that are at work. In this the case, the sceptics ideology and commitment to a petrol based society.

The sceptics contention that 'scientists' are captive of their own research programs (and paradigms) begs the question as to who funds the research programs. In fact, the paradigm that is being shifted, is the result of unpleasant facts accumulating as the result of a scientific program (based around NASA) which was intended to pursue a different agenda (the conquest of near earth space). Nearly all, the basic knowledge upon which various climate models are tested was a result of this program. The facts that accumulated from an attempt to present a caring and all knowing image to the world through the space program and it's earth observing off shoots.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

PBS approval process goes west with new FTA

The PBS approved two new drugs for schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder today. And it's an indication of what may be to come.
One of these drugs, Zyprexa, has been linked to a significant increase in the risk of diabetes amongst people taking it. In fact, it's dubious improved efficacy (as compared to similar drugs) and it's price (twice that of older drugs) are the centrepiece of allegations regarding ties between it's manufacturer, Eli-Lilly and the Bush Adminstration.
The other drug, risperdal consta, is an older(introduced in the 1990's) anti-psychotic in a new long acting form.It uses an innovative new form of sustained release encapsulation which enables it to be given up fortnightly instaed of daily. But, although, it is an 'atypical anti-psychotic' it still has typical symptoms that it shares with the older anti-psychotics such as librium and haloperidol. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is the most likely of these newer anti-psychotics to have 'extra-pyramidal syndromes'. These are involuntary movements, that can be quite severe and can lead to permanent disabilities.
Whilst one can make out a case for the latter drug(the long acting formulation is an innovation), the case for zyprexa is surely contentious. Is this a sign of things to come?

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Tales from the past – The Chinese in Albany

The occupation of Western Australia by the British was closley linked to the fortunes of The British East India Company which was making the usual 1000% profit on trade between South East Asia and Britain. Stirling, who was instrumental in founding Perth(and was it's first Governor) was married to the daughter of one of the Companies major shareholders. The direct route from Perth to Singapore and Jakarta was one reason why Albany(on the south coast) was not chosen as the capital of the new Colony.
In the 1860's
Messrs Stweart & Nairne, a commercial firm trading at Penang wished to establish trade with Albany and to purchase ship runs and town lots – the trade was to be carried on by means of two vessels from Penang to Sydney and regularly calling at Albany. These gentlemen expressed their willingness to import Chinese mechanics and labourers on reasonable terms either for private individuals

John Hassell, who, by then had control of a large sheep run at Jerramungup, took up their offer and requested a dozen, specifying the numbers of each trade that he required.

He was by no means the first of the Colonists to import Chinese labour. The Rev Wollaston who arrived and died in Albany in 1855, bought with him an adaptable gardener named Ah Quin. His grave along with about 20 other Chinese bought to Albany between 1850 and 1900 is identifiable at the Albany Cemetery.

Two brothers, Ah Kit and Ah Loo, who were employed at Strawberry Hill Farm in 1890, married Noongar women. The Loo family prospered and has descendants living in Albany and around the Great Southern. The Ah Kit's had only one son, who became a well known footballer during the 1920's. At a time when being Aboriginal and playing football still required one to jump a few hurdles, most Albany football clubs seem to have maintained a quiet integrity in their treatment and respect for Noongar players.

His father, Ah Kit senior, was the gardener at the Hassell town house, Hillside, in Albany. Ethel White(nee Hassell), recalled him keeping the chooks in three separate groups with a stock whip. As a child she was fascinated by the fact that he could tell which chook belonged in which flock.

In the 1890's the Chinese became a significant economic force in Albany establishing market gardens at Gledhow and on the Kalgan River to supply vegetables for the booming goldfields at Kalgoorlie.

Mr Chip, as he was known to locals, was one such. In those days there was no bridge across the lower Kalgan River where he maintained several gardens. So he had a "tiny" coracle which he would row across the river. One fine day the coracle was loaded with some chickens and several bottles of whisky along with Mr Chip when it capsized in the river. Fortunately, their were other's about, waiting for the ferry pontoon perhaps, and their heroics were evenly divided between assisting to keep Mr Chip's chickens afloat and trying to find where the bottles had sunk. The chickens survived but the bottles, so it is said, were never found.

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