climate change

'The land is a book, waiting to be read.'

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland gives readers something that many novels don’t: a glimpse at the enormity of time, and the vast capacity for change across centuries of social and environmental disruption. It's a novel that has skyrocketed its way to the top of my 2017 favourites list, and is one that I will no doubt re-read in the near future. For it deserves re-reading – there is so much to miss on the first read, but one is invited into the story with such ease that I found it difficult to slow my pace.

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Spanning hundreds of years, Storyland is a novel of time and environmental change. Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales under the eternal shadow of an immense and ancient fig tree, each chapter, or short story almost, explores the lives of a variety of characters and how each plays out in the presence of these surroundings. Some chapters depict epic adventure, others extreme violence, and one an innocent understanding of the world from the perspective of a child.

The ability of McKinnon to portray deep and relatable character development is a major highlight of this book. From Will Martin, the cabin boy accompanying George Bass and Matthew Flinders upon the Tom Thumb sailing boat in 1796, to Nada, the bodiless mind of a woman from 2033 being interrogated by future authorities for the Storyland project in 2717– there is a wide breadth of characters, each of whom interacts with the surrounding natural world in diverse ways. Despite the dystopian twist of the novel, the events of Storyland never appear far-fetched. In fact, they are savagely real. McKinnon's writing reveals bit by bit the diverse realities of each character, none of which seem too unbelievable, despite the often unusual circumstances. 

Although the book skips over many years from chapter to chapter, the rate of environmental change due to human overdevelopment and climate change is still frightening. An incredibly short period of time in the wider scheme of things, a lapse of 100 years sees European settlers move in and violently take advantage of the local Indigenous peoples, with one ex-convict resorting to an act of extreme violence. Later, the gruesome murder of a teenager in 1900, her body shockingly discovered in the local creek. Then, the lively adventures of three young children on Lake Illawara in 1998, told through the honest and naive perspective of Bel. And finally, the chaos of a civilisation on the verge of breakdown, as rising sea waters decimate the homes of those living near the coast.

To the east, Port Kembla - that in my childhood had been a place of fire-blowing smokestacks - Port Kembla is gone and between where it once was and where I now stand there is only water.

The novel’s structure of multiple stories taking place generations apart is definitely not a new concept. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas springs to mind, and the similarities between that epic cross-country, cross-century novel and McKinnon’s work are obvious. However, McKinnon makes the format her own in Storyland and it’s refreshing to read such a novel written in an Australian context, with strong environmental themes. I was not surprised to learn of McKinnon's background as a playwright, as each chapter of the novel seems to function as a different 'act', with haunting scenery and reflective monologues throughout.

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Storyland vividly portrays the relationships between Indigenous Australians, European Australians, and the landscapes that they inhabit. The title itself implies the importance of promoting the stories of Australian landscapes and people – how do we connect to the land, why should we care about it, and how does it change around us and, in many cases, because of us? McKinnon seems to consistently implore the reader to connect with the natural world and their fellow human: a suggestion that who we are is so strongly linked to where we come from and where we grow up. The intense storylines throughout the novel are more than just great fiction – they are raw, real and confronting in their exploration of humankind's inescapable connection to the natural landscapes we call home.

One group names the town for the land that is strong and solid behind it, the other names it for the water that lies before it or above it. As if one looks at how boundaries are marked, and the other at how they might merge.

The richness of the characters and the thrill of finding that their story isn’t over when their initial chapters end (for fans of Cloud Atlas, you’ll know what I mean) make Storyland an unusual, vibrant Australian novel that I believe deserves much more praise, from both critics and readers. If you want, or need, a push in the right direction when it comes to appreciating just how dire the effects of climate change could be, or you simply want to comprehend the often inexplicable sublimity of Australia’s natural landscapes, then this novel is a must-read. It is a piece of fiction that has made me realise just how much of Australia I have left to see. There are so many lives being lived, and that have been lived, across so many different landscapes, giving each area its own unique history within a longer history of Indigenous habitation, and an even longer history still of evolutionary and geological time. It gives me hope that as Australians, we can learn from the past, prepare for the future, and set aside time to reach out to nature in the process. 

Storyland is published by HarperCollins Australia and can be purchased at Readings.


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Liam Pozz on Unsplash

Melbourne's Teen Polar Explorer Takes on Greenland

Being a teenage girl can be tough. Young women are constantly bombarded with messages telling them they need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, be a certain way. Sixteen-year-old Melbournian Jade Hameister is trying her best not to pay attention.

“There is too much emphasis on chasing perfection,” she says.

Jade is chasing something else instead. This year she hopes to fulfill her dream of becoming the world’s youngest person to complete the ‘Polar Hat Trick’ – a feat only a handful of people have accomplished. By the end of 2017, Jade is planning to have completed a three-pronged mission to ski to the North Pole, cross the world’s largest icecap in Greenland and ski to the South Pole.

She is already two-thirds of the way. In April 2016, at age 14, Jade completed the first stage of her mission by skiing 150km over shifting polar sea ice to the North Pole. In doing so, she became the youngest person in history to ski to the North Pole from anywhere outside 89 degrees.

Jade trains all over Victoria, pulling tyres along the beach at Lorne and along the Kokoda Track to mimic the action of pulling a sled – that weighs as much as she does – over the ice.  

In May this year, Jade set out on the second stage of her mission, to traverse 540km across the world’s largest icecap in Greenland, unsupported and unassisted.

“I was very committed to trying to finish by day 27, which we did, because I wanted to finish aged 15,” says Jade. She turned sixteen the day after they completed their journey, on June 5th.

Teen polar explorer Jade Hameister after becoming the youngest woman in history to traverse the Greenland icecap, the day before her sixteenth birthday. 

Teen polar explorer Jade Hameister after becoming the youngest woman in history to traverse the Greenland icecap, the day before her sixteenth birthday. 

She made the trip on skis, dragging a 70kg sled containing 30 days of supplies. To make things even harder, the weather was not always on Jade’s side. Her group had to delay their start date due to rain, and stop for two days during the trek to shelter and dry out their gear after being soaked in a blizzard. 

“The most surprising part was how warm it was,” says Jade, but this was not necessarily a good thing. “The warm weather also meant the ice was very slushy, which makes dragging sleds very difficult (they glide much easier on hard ice) and meant that we were sweating lots in our polar clothing and boots. Our boots are rated to -100°c, so in the heat of the day our feet were literally cooking – which meant lots of blisters.”

The group also had a close run-in with one of the locals, coming across the fresh tracks of a mother polar bear and her cub. They were 150km inland from the coast at the time (“where there isn’t much food, except us!”), so they spent a few nervous days setting up perimeters around the camp to make sure they were alerted to any unwelcome intruders. 

“Thankfully we never actually saw the bear.”

Jade had to drag a 70kg sled of gear behind her for the 540km journey. 

Jade had to drag a 70kg sled of gear behind her for the 540km journey. 

The trials, setbacks and hard work were all worth it, however, as Jade was able to complete her mission and spend some time in “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.” 

It is spending time out on the ice, and meeting the local people, that has solidified Jade’s view of our changing planet. Part of the generation that will inherit the effects of climate change, Jade has started using her firsthand experience of the most fragile part of the planet to raise awareness about the effects of rising temperatures.  

“From what I have seen, experienced and researched, and the scientists and indigenous people I have interviewed, global warming is very real.” She says, “Our beautiful and fragile polar regions are disappearing fast.”

Jade now has her sights set on her next and final step: the South Pole. In December, Jade will ski 1,170km over unexplored territory, which may take up to 60 days, depending on the weather, to reach her final goal. 

“South Pole will be next level. We are attempting a new route from the coast, so it will be true exploration.” 

#bravenotperfect “If we choose bravery over perfection, then we give ourselves permission to fail or look foolish and we try anyway.” – Jade Hameister, 16

#bravenotperfect “If we choose bravery over perfection, then we give ourselves permission to fail or look foolish and we try anyway.” – Jade Hameister, 16

Jade’s mission is not just about crossing the ice. She is trying (and succeeding) to show that young women should not just be valued by how they look, but by what they do. She has been pushed out of her comfort zone, and now Jade is embracing being a role model for other girls who may be afraid to give something new a try.

“We need to shift the focus for young women from how we appear to the possibilities of what we can do and contribute to this world.”

Keep an eye on Jade as she heads towards the final stage of her mission in December: / @jadehameister


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.

All images courtesy of Jade Hameister.

1900 Footprints: A Journey for the Plight of Threatened Species

This is a guest post by Tristan O'Brien.

With a growing list of over 1900 Threatened species in Australia and an ongoing struggle for resources to combat this issue across the country, what does the future of sustainability and biological diversity look like in Australia? 

As the world’s population migrates into cities and leaves the countryside, our physical and emotional connection to natural places is being broken. Indeed, the first modern ‘urban’ areas in Europe have existed for only around 200 years, a mere fraction of the eons our species has spent living with a much closer connection to the land. Globally, more than half of the world's population live in urban areas, whilst in Australia, the number of people living in cities dwarfs those living in rural areas at a staggering 89%. 

How many people in this country are now able to experience the Australia described by Banjo Patterson? ‘For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.’

Surely, this is having an effect on our motivation for and understanding about why protecting ecological integrity is important here in Australia. In protecting threatened species and responding to climate change, we are struggling to fulfil our responsibility to lead as a developed nation.

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species.  Image: Camilo Mateus

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species. Image: Camilo Mateus

Reconnecting with our HumaNature for the long term

It is clear to me that as Australians, we have a unique opportunity. We are economically stable, and have a high standard of living, low population density, and some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes on Earth.

Developing a greater outdoor culture in Australia will ensure that future generations are equipped with the knowledge to protect biodiversity. Getting our city populations outside and reconnecting with our amazing environment will go a long way towards developing motivation and political will to restore our fragmented landscapes into the future.

This cultural change can happen at a grassroots level, by taking friends and family to our own favourite spots and sharing our enjoyment of natural places. This is why organisations working towards these changes are so important, especially if they are able to reach a wide audience and involve them in environmental issues in an engaging way.

Another exciting movement is the way our understanding of what it means to have nature in a city is changing, particularly by changing cities themselves to contain and function as unique ecosystems. Side effects of including nature in the function of cities include greater social cohesion, a decreased chance of developing a mental illness, reductions in crime*, and increased productivity**.

Logo design: Bel  én Elorietta.

Logo design: Belén Elorietta.

But what about responding now?

Unfortunately, many environmental issues are pertinent now, and cannot wait for future generations to make the first response. For example, historical land clearing in Adelaide’s Mt Lofty Ranges ending in the 1980s has left an ‘extinction debt’ of nearly 50 of the 120 bird species that originally existed in the region, eight of which have already disappeared.

Continued land clearing, mining activities, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change are just some of the pressures threatening many species around Australia that require immediate action to prevent further species loss.

Therefore, it is important for Australians to support organisations that are actively carrying out restoration works right now.

So what are we going to do about it?

1900 kilometres for 1900 threatened species

In my own efforts to highlight these issues, from mid-September I will be undertaking a long-distance walk called 1900 Footprints to raise awareness and funds for conservation projects in Australia. The walk will take me from Adelaide to Melbourne and across Tasmania.

In walking one kilometre for every species listed as Threatened in this country, I hope to garner interest from individuals, groups and organisations for changing the way we think about our connection with natural environments and to fundraise for on-the-ground conservation initiatives.

Funds raised will go towards two organisations that are making a real-world difference in these areas:

BioR is a volunteer-run, scientifically-informed restoration organisation that reconstructs habitat for declining species in cleared agricultural landscapes. They will use funds from 1900 Footprints to install a nursery and nesting boxes for declining bird species in a 1700ha restoration site near Monarto, South Australia.

Wollangarra is an outdoor education centre that helps young people connect with themselves, their peers and the natural environment by taking them hiking in wild areas of the Victorian High Country. In these places, they perform important, on-the-ground conservation works, including weed removal, track maintenance and tree planting. Funds from 1900 Footprints will be used to sponsor disadvantaged young people to attend these life-changing courses and connect with the wild Australian landscape.

Please help me with 1900 Footprints by sharing this project with your family and friends and by donating to the project.

WebsiteFacebook / Instagram 


Tristan O’Brien has worked in ecology, sustainability, outdoor education and eco-tourism. He is passionate about communicating environmental conservation through design, writing, photography and outdoor education. He completed an Honours year in Environmental Biology, investigating habitat use changes of woodland birds following controlled burning.

You can find him on Twitter at @TristanAvella

Banner image courtesy of Tristan O'Brien.

*Wolfe, M.K. and J. Mennis, Does vegetation encourage or suppress urban crime? Evidence from Philadelphia, PA. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2012. 108 (2–4): p. 112-122. 

**Nieuwenhuis, M., et al., The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2014. 20(3): p. 199-214.    

Our First Mammalian Casualty: The Extinction of the Bramble Cay Melomys

Not too long ago, I wrote a piece on our native rodents. Before I wrote that article I, like 80% of the people I’ve met, was… not a fan, to put it nicely. Researching our native species and their amazing relationship with our continent completely switched my brain around. I couldn’t believe that, in just one-fifth of Australia’s history as an isolated continent, our number of native rodent species grew from zero to sixty. I couldn’t believe that we actually had mice that used pebbles in their burrows! And some of our native rodents hopped like our marsupial species - I mean, that’s crazy, right? That is actually amazing. I couldn’t believe that there was all this diversity right at my feet and I had literally no idea.

There have been no sightings of the Bramble Cay melomys since 2009.

There have been no sightings of the Bramble Cay melomys since 2009.

Up until a few days ago, I also had no idea about another native rodent species, the mosaic-tailed rat, which was also known as the Bramble Cay melomys, or Melomys rubicola. Reddish-brown and small-eared, it had a tail scaled in a mosaic pattern, distinctive for the genus. The species was found only on Bramble Cay, a small vegetated coral cay in the Torres Strait. The species shared its home with sea turtles, shore birds, and a single lighthouse, the only artificial structure. In 1978, hundreds of Bramble Cay melomys were thought to have lived on Bramble Cay, foraging at night and burrowing through logs and debris. Numbers declined rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, directly correlated with rising sea levels. In just ten years, 97% of their habitat was completely wiped out. In the last month, this native rodent, the only mammal endemic to the Great Barrier Reef, has been confirmed to be extinct. Not only that, it is the first mammal confirmed to be driven to extinction due to climate change.

For a lot of people, climate change probably doesn’t seem very real. I know in the past it has seemed rather abstract to me. I’ve learnt about it since I was in primary school, and it seems to have followed me as I’ve aged – discussed by teachers, lecturers, scientists, and politicians. There have been movies and documentaries, papers and popular books written about the phenomenon, warning me of what was to come. Still, I had always been able to distance myself from the reality of climate change – based in Melbourne, I’m relatively protected from the realities faced by so many other people and species. But when I recently read about the Bramble Cay melomys and discovered that scientists had recorded the first mammal to go extinct from climate change – and that this mammal was native to Australia – climate change no longer seemed like a far-off thing. Climate change is not ‘coming’ – it has arrived in full force, and it has claimed its first mammalian casualty here, in Australia.

The only artificial structure on the island, the Bramble Cay lighthouse sticks out amongst flocks of nesting seabirds.  Image: Natalie Waller via  The Conversation

The only artificial structure on the island, the Bramble Cay lighthouse sticks out amongst flocks of nesting seabirds. Image: Natalie Waller via The Conversation

Australia is home to so many endemic species, each of them amazing. From kangaroos to wombats, platypus to green tree frogs, the sheer number of species is difficult to think about. But now we are home to one less. We may not notice one species, the only mammal in the Great Barrier Reef, as it slipped away from us due to human-induced climate change – but we will miss the approximate one-sixth of all species on the planet that are estimated to disappear if we keep refusing to act. There are opportunities we can take to minimise the damage we’re causing and reduce our carbon footprint. Getting involved in charities like Cool Earth and Conservation Volunteers Australia are good places to start to learn how to give back.  

It is too late for the Bramble Cay melomys, but we owe it to our other native species to try.

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Banner image courtesy of Natalie Waller via The Conversation.