exhibited at Huw Davies Gallery, Photo Access
9 May - 8 June 2019
'Dieback' refers to the eerie phenomena of mass-tree extinction, in this case the death of the Eucalyptus viminalis (also known as the Ribbon Gum or the Manna gum) in the Snowy-Monaro region of NSW, Australia. The cause of this dieback is uncertain but environmental scientists and the local Ngarigo Elders believe the initial stress to the trees could be due to a combination of factors including drought, changing rainfall patterns and a lack of cool burning. It appears once the trees immune systems were compromised they were then attacked by the Eucalyptus weevil who eat the leaves and deprive the trees their ability to produce energy from the sun. Too weak to fight back the trees essentially starved to death.
Dieback was happening for a long time before anybody noticed it. And by the time it was noticed it was too late.
The first time I saw the dieback was when I moved to the Snowy-Monaro region two years ago. The tree skeletons stand stark and silent stretching a distance of 2000 square kilometres. No colours. No whispers of leaves in the breeze. No sight of birds in flight. Only a vacuous lifeless energy. In winter the mist creeps through the valley, suffocating and claustrophobic. The dead trees freeze over, their leafless tips hard as ice. It feels like a scene from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. The Road tells of an unrecognisable post-apocalyptic Earth. It is skeletal, ash-covered and abandoned of all life but for a few remaining wanderers hiding from anthropophagous scavengers. Though, however dark, McCarthy's book stands as a positive reinforcement of "the tender pricelessness of the here and now...” (Alan Warner, The Guardian). Similarly, the intention of my video work is to act as a warning of how much we have to lose. It is to motivate the viewer to turn thinking into doing and begin to take steps that might mitigate further deterioration of Earth’s ecosystems.
There are already positive steps that the Upper Snowy Landcare Network have taken to address the dieback. Their ‘comeback’ program involves the planting of new trees & the establishment of biodiversity plots in the region. Monaro landholders are coming together to create bush corridors for insects and birds. One can also report early sightings of dieback in other regions via Atlas Living Australia.
For anyone that would like to be involved in some tree planting please follow the Upper Snowy Landcare group on Facebook for updates - https://www.facebook.com/uppersnowylandcare/
As the filmmaker I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this video was filmed, the Ngarigo people. I pay my respects to all Elders both past and present.
TALKS & INTERVIEWS
CATALOGUE ESSAY [EXCERPT]
Dr Martha Sear - Head Curator, Anthropocene Australia Centre, National Museum of Australia
‘Country that built my heart’ Judith Wright’s poem ‘Train Journey’ begins:
Glassed with cold sleep and dazzled by the moon,
out of the confused hammering dark of the train
I looked and saw under the moon's cold sheet
your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart;
In this age of environmental disjunction and distress, it’s hard not to imagine us all aboard a train Wright prophesied. Her voice, in poetry and protest, sounded the clanging bells, warning of an approaching juggernaut. Fueled by burning coal and compressed white steam, pumping progress’s pistons along a track of infinite acceleration - the Anthropocene Express. But, as Wright so acutely observed, we are not waiting at the crossing for the locomotive to pass, belching soot and ash. We are on the train ourselves, hurtling through the dark, sleepy and dazzled and confused, and looking out over a land that we know has made us, but has the eerie pall of being un-made by us too.
The artists whose work comes together here are all pointing our attention out the train window at scenes of fragility and ephemerality, strangeness and change. But they are also reminding us of how country has ‘built our hearts’ – by each, in different ways, collaborating to make work together with active, expressive places and dynamic, multi-dimensional photographic forms.
Samantha Hawker’s Dieback plays with unexpected orientations and directions, this time in relation to the mass death of Eucalyptus viminalis in Ngarigo Country, the Snowy-Monaro region of NSW. Although the scenes are apocalyptic, I cannot escape the feeling that these trees, though dead, are joining in with Sammy’s choreography, advancing from an upturned sky, or pirouetting under a drone. Their presence in these images remains palpable – recalling the ways I understand some Aboriginal people still speak of the thylacine in the present tense, because to them it has not ‘gone’. In Sammy’s frames, the dead gum’s bare branches seem transformed into blood vessels, or tributaries that should combine and flow through the great trunk, filling up the country’s breast. But they are, as Wright saw from her train window, run dry.
The beauty and poignancy of all these works, created by four artists alive to the land’s expressive power, is proof that meaning and connection can still pulse through these channels. Each creator has brought photography’s great potential to frame the view out the train window, freeze time’s hurtle and blur, and capture moments otherwise indistinguishable to our dazzled eyes. From these exposures, we too can begin to collaborate with life and build new forms and flows that connect the country’s heart more closely to our own.