Selected non-fiction from the archives
How long must I wait: Indonesia’s warehoused refugees, a multimedia essay published by Griffith Review in 2016 >>
This essay is also archived on this web site >>
Understanding place through narrative: changing who we are and the places we love with stories, an essay first published in the anthology Making Sense of Place (National Museum of Australia, 2008), and based on my presentation to the 2006 multidisciplinary academic conference, Senses of Place: exploring concepts and expressions of place through different senses and lenses, in Hobart, Tasmania. The conference was hosted by the Place Research Network, National Museum of Australia, Mountain Festival, and the Community, Place and Change Theme Area of the University of Tasmania, 7-9 April, 2006. >>
Storying Sustainability: the transformative power of narrative, my presentation to the joint UNESCO-University of Canberra Sustainable Landscape Futures Conference, 10-11 July 2014.
Kate Kelly on the Lachlan 1885-1898, a working paper presented to The Land: Past, Present, Future symposium at the Centre for Professional Development, Charles Sturt University, hosted by Macquarie University’s Centre for Media History and CSU’s School of Communication and Creative Industries, 5-6 May, 2011 >>
Beyond Australia’s Great Divides: From Terra Incognita to Cognita, in Hitchers of Oz: Hitchhiking Stories and Observations from Australasia and Beyond, edited by Tom and Simon Sykes, Interactive Press, 2009, pp 57-70
Australia is divided east from west, the coast from the rest, by a cordillera of low mountains, uplands and dissected plateaus stretching from Cape York Peninsula in Queensland’s far north to the island state of Tasmania in the Great Southern Ocean. On one side of this watershed is the densely populated Pacific seaboard, on the other the sparsely populated inland. The partition is so complete that the twain need never meet: indeed, the coastal plain and the remainder of the continent might as well be different countries. More >>
Or read this essay on Google Books >>
Balochistan, the invisible war: politics, land and terror in remote Pakistan, Arena Magazine, October/November 2007 >>
Even my Pakistani friends warned me about Balochistan, and not without reason. In the days immediately before I was to catch the train to Quetta, the provincial capital near Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and Iran, ‘terrorists’ detonated a bomb in a shopping plaza in the city’s military cantonment and fired rockets at two of the regular express trains below the Bolan Pass. More >> [pdf 126kb]
Breasting cancer in the bush: a personal story, for Colvin Chatter, the newsletter of the Cancer Patients Assistance Society of NSW, CanAssist, Autumn, 2008, in appreciation of the care I received after I was diagnosed with breast cancer >>
Riverstories: genealogies of a threatened river system, Futures 39: 2-3 (2007), pp 306-323
I write this in a small rural town in central New South Wales beside a river slowly meandering towards its terminal wetland, the Great Cumbung Swamp, in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. For most of its 1500km journey from its headwaters this river flows through Wiradjuri country to trace the presence of Baiamai, the father of creation, Wawi the rainbow snake and other ancestral beings who created and enlivened this landscape. Wiradjuri descendants know the river as Galiyarr, or Kalari, and 2000 generations of ancestors are interred in its alluvium. Indeed, humanity’s oldest ritual ochre burial and oldest cremation have been found on the foreshore of a paleo-lake that was once filled by Galiyarr, and samples of our species’ oldest mitochondrial DNA have been taken from these skeletal remains. But in 1815 the river Galiyarr acquired another name >>
Redreaming Australia, introductory essay to the special double issue Futures, 39: 2-3, guest edited by Merrill Findlay, March-April 2007, pp 131-136
This special issue of Futures, Redreaming Australia, celebrates the rather fuzzy 15th anniversary of ‘Imagine The Future Inc.’, a very small yet influential project-based cultural development and ‘applied futures’ organisation I founded in Melbourne, Australia. ITF was conceived and developed when sustainability discourses were being institutionalised after the adoption of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development by the United Nations in 1987, so it embodies the zeitgeist of these times. The essays in this special issue reflect both the values the organisation was founded upon and our collective ‘dream’ of ‘‘a society in which we live more harmoniously with ourselves, with one another and with our ‘natural’ environment’’. >>
Redreaming the plains: an exegesis, Master of Social Science, RMIT University, Melbourne, awarded May 2006
The New Media database, Redreaming the plains, was conceived and developed in response to the moral imperative of biodiversity loss and ecological degradation. In this context, the view from the top of Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge across the eastern rim of Victoria’s basalt plain was paradigmatic. ‘Sustainability’ scientists, resource managers and land stewards might now interpret this view as a hierarchy of nested socio-ecological systems in which human and non-human entities are interacting in complex, even chaotic ways, but as a writer and cultural practitioner, I see it as the localised enactment, embodiment or reification of all the ‘stories’ that have been narrated within this bioregion since the British invasion of 1835. But regardless of our differing perspectives, those of us who subscribe to the contemporary quest, or ‘dream’, of ecological sustainability face the same challenge of reducing anthropomorphic impacts on indigenous ecological communities by changing human behaviour. As a writer, as a moral agent, I have reflexively interrogated myself about my own role in this process: How can I story ‘sustainability’ in ways that are true to my understandings of the complexity of socio-ecological interactions, and still effect change in the world? >>
Romancing the grindstone on Gunningbland Creek, Futures 37:8, October 2005, pp 893-903
The days are lengthening, crops are ripening, and the air is sweet with Spring as I write. For the first time in years of drought there are pools of muddy water in Gunningbland Creek, the ephemeral stream that meanders across our farm towards its river, the Lachlan, in south-eastern Australia; and a brood of grey teal ducklings is dabbling in the sparse rushes and nardoo, a native aquatic fern, now miraculously regenerating after the recent rain. I nearly trod on the teals as I walked along the creek the other day: three tiny brown beings trying to be invisible in the drying grass, and further along, their parents pretending to be clods of dirt or speckled rocks. I stopped and pretended to be a Casuarina tree, but the teals weren’t fooled! More >>
Genre-bending in Elsinore, review of After Moonlight by Merle Thornton, Overland, Winter 2005
Somewhere in the Brisbane Courier-Mail’s archives there’s a black and white photograph taken in March 1965 of two stylish young women quietly enjoying a beer in a public bar. One is wearing a white tailored knee-length suit, the other a timeless light-coloured short-sleeved frock. By today’s standards they are dressed for a garden party, but if you let your eyes slide down their clear nylons towards their white stiletto heels and high wedges you’ll notice a dog chain and padlock securing them by the ankles to the bar’s foot rail. It’s an image that screams for its context. >>
Asylum seeking and perilous journeys, Overland 175, Winter 2004, pp 104-107
So there I was amongst the bean bags and picture books in my local library fighting back tears like a ten-year-old as I read about Jamal and his young Hazara mates playing Manchester United versus Newcastle in Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard. Amy Jericho, a 20-something primary-school teacher from Murtoa, in Victoria’s Wimmera District, had told me about this ‘kiddylit’ at an event hosted by Horsham Rural Australians for Refugees, for a group of asylum seekers I’d crisscrossed rural Victoria with in June. Her students were “bored with refugees and poor people”, she complained, so she’s reading Boy Overboard aloud to them each day. And they love it, she said: “Especially the bits about camel poop!” >>
Redreaming the Earth, a catalogue essay to accompany Le Van Tai’s retrospective exhibition, Square Earth, at the Fairfield Regional Gallery, Sydney, 28 February to 29 March 2004, published in TienVe, an online mainly Vietnamese-language journal
I come to this work as an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, so I’ve struggled to ‘translate’ some of Le’s imagery, including the beautifully executed squares from which the title of this exhibition is drawn. My initial thoughts ranged from clichés about being boxed, cooped up, subdivided and fenced in, to exclusionary notions of inside/outside, centre and periphery, and all those 1990s innovation-mantras like ‘think outside the frame’ and ‘push the envelope’. These preliminary very-Eurocentric readings will seem naïve, even simplistic, to people whose cultural roots are in East Asia where, despite the processes of modernization and economic globalization, social and political life is still deeply imbued with Taoist and Confucian values. People immersed in these traditions will immediately recognize that Square Earth is a very explicit reference to a cosmology in which Heaven, Earth and we Humans are conceived as a single, integrated whole. More >>
Complex questions for futures studies, a commissioned report on the 17th international conference of the World Futures Studies Federation, Many cultures, One World: Globalisation and Local Development, in Brasov, Romania, 5-9 September 2001, published in Futures 34:2, March 2002, pp 205-212.
The 17th international conference of the World Futures Studies Federation was held in Brasov, a medieval Saxon trading town on a high Romanian plain ringed by soaring mountains. Summer had just passed and the locals were preparing for the season to come, the slow rhythm of rural folk swinging their scythes across their fields as generations before them have done; the fecund smell of freshly cut grass drying into winter hay; of potatoes being dug from the still-warm earth; of smoked ewes-milk cheeses, sausages and thick salamies hanging from the rafters; of seed stored for next year’s crops. Such simple acts of faith in a future that is so deeply rooted in the past. >>
Rehabilitating the Danube River, in Changing Values-Forming New Societies, edited by Erzsebet Novaky, Tamas Gaspar, Gergely Tyukodi, published by the UNESCO and the Futures Studies Centre, Budapest University of Economic Sciences and Public Administration, Budapest, 2002 >>
Look out the window to the Danube River as it flows under Budapest’s Freedom Bridge. See it not as it is today, but as it was before your forebears polluted, dammed, dredged, over-fished, canalized and stripped it of its protective forests and marshlands which, for millennia, had been its natural purification system and home to countless species of birds and butterflies, dragonflies and frogs. >>
Redreaming the plains, an e-journal about ‘sustainability’ developed for Imagine The Future Inc, with funding from the Australian Film Commission and other project partners.
Our Redreaming ‘begins’ with the native grasslands, freshwater wetlands and saltwater marshes of the basalt plain of southeastern Australia, and with the indigenous peoples, who witnessed the most recent volcanic eruptions >>
Merino Sheep as Cultural Heritage, Top Sire, Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders
It looked so familiar at first. Ewes grazing contentedly on the early spring grass, snowy lambs cavorting beneath the sheltering trees … but even to me, a bush-born and bred city-based writer who had forgotten most of what she had ever learned from her merino-breeding family in central NSW, those merino sheep looked ‘all wrong’! And those short evenly spaced evergreen trees, so neat and picture-book trim, were nothing at all like the straggly eucalypts back home. >>
Ecologically Sustainable Development: the last ten years, National Parks Journal, NSW National Parks Association Inc, October 2000.
We were all a decade younger then. Bob Hawke was in The Lodge, Ros Kelly was Minister for the Environment, and Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Report, had been published long enough for the words “Sustainable Development” to be on the lips of every senior bureaucrat and politician in every member state of the United Nations. Except Australia. >>
Greening Academia (or trying to!), RMIT Openline, June 2000.
When RMIT’s Vice Chancellor signed the Talloires Declaration she committed the university to the “long haul” of greening all subjects, across all faculties, so all graduates would be aware of their connections to the natural world and therefore able to participate in their societies as environmentally responsible citizens of the 21st century. >>
Literature as a tourist asset: a non-paper presented at the Changing Geographies: Australia and the Millennium conference, 1st Universitat de Barcelona, Spain, 2-4 February, 2000.
The first dawn of what we in the ‘West’ now call the Year 2000 began far too early for me. At 3.15 a.m. to be precise, with an adolescent rooster testing his testosterone in the chook yard, and the much-too-close nocturnal emissions of a warbling willie wagtail. A pause just long enough for this new century to emerge from darkness into half-light, and then a screeching, screaming helicopter gun ship squadron of sulphur crested cockatoos, and a pair of delinquent kookaburras giggling hysterically at me from the nearest gum tree. Not the dawning I might have wished for after only a few hours sleep, as you can imagine, but a quintessentially Australian one nevertheless, and much the same as any other over the last few million years — except for that rooster, whose ancestors invaded the continent a mere two hundred years ago. A dawning good enough, however, for a tourist brochure: the ancient landscape; the dry creek bed lined with eucalypts and melaleucas; the unique wildlife; the homestead with its bull-nose verandas; smoke rising from the slow combustion stove for the early morning cuppa; the cattle yards, the horses; the dusty riding boots and akubras at the gauze door … An advertising agency’s dream for a poster promoting that mythical tourist destination, the Australian “Outback”. >>
The timeless bond between birds and people, The Age, Saturday Extra, 22 August 1998. With photos by Age photographer Sandy Scheltema.
As the days grow shorter in the far-off waters of the North Pacific, hundreds of thousands of hungry, dun-coloured seabirds, millions even, begin their long annual flight south to Big Dog Island from their Arctic feeding grounds to mate, lay their eggs and rear their young, the next generation of short-tailed shearwaters, or mutton birds.
Big Dog itself is an island of extraordinary fecundity. Even the granite boulders scattered around its coast are covered with an iridescent living skin of orange lichen, and every square metre of earth is riddled with mutton bird holes. >>
Eddie Mabo comes home, Good Weekend, 1 June, 1996
It’s hot on the rim of this extinct volcano at the far northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Bonita Mabo has been waiting in the shade of a battered fibro shed all morning. A small crowd has gathered around her: children, grandchildren, siblings, in-laws, cousins, aunts, uncles, members of the Meriam Council of Elders, young warriors from her late husband’s Piadram clan, a documentary film crew, plus this writer from Melbourne. And there it is, the light aircraft descending from the sky to bring the exhumed remains of Edward Koiki Mabo home to Mer, or Murray Island. >>
Imagining a sustainable city, Issues No. 36, Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd, August 1996, pp 16-21.
Making the world’s villages, towns and cities socially and ecologically sustainable is humanity’s most urgent challenge for the 21st century and demands changes to almost everything we now take for granted. The goal of sustainability also requires a general acknowledgement that we humans are part of nature, not separate from it, and that our ongoing well-being depends upon complex ecological processes that we are still only beginning to understand. >>
The power of positive imaginings, invited presentation at the Altona Sustainable Development Congress, Altona Civic Centre, Melbourne, July 26 1994, and published in the conference papers
More than a decade before I was born, Europe collapsed into yet another ‘tribal’ war — only twenty years after the last ‘war to end all wars’. Many of you may still remember Hitler’s armies marching into Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, that deal he did with Stalin, the invasion of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, and then on into France. >>
On the flutterings of butterfly wings: chaotic reflections on the future of the world, presented in Brisbane, 1994, and posted as a very early ‘blog’ on the ecoversity web site >>
A few weeks back I took an early morning canter into cyberspace on the back of my clunky old ISP horse, Pegasus, and found the following electronic mail message waiting for me: Subject: What’s your opinion? I would like your opinion about the prospects for our future. >>
Building the world’s first Ecoversity, The Tabloid No. 1, winter, Imagine The Future Inc
Imagine this: a very large room in a recycled MacRobertson’s chocolate factory that is now the national headquarters of the Australian Conservation Foundation in inner-city Fitzroy, Melbourne. Walls painted red ochre, the colour of the earth, with paint manufactured from all-plant chemistry and natural pigments. (You clean the brushes with solvent made from citrus oil that smells like the most fragrant liqueur.) Two sofas and a long low coffee table glowing now with the oil of tung beans, one of the secret ingredients of Chinese lacquer. >>
Crossing Cultures: intervening in East Timor’s futures, The Tabloid, Imagine The Future Inc, 1993, p. 2.
It’s the year 2020. The ecoversity is playing host to the president of one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, some of her cabinet ministers and a leading activist in the indigenous non-governmental sector. The country these distinguished guests are from is East Timor – an imaginary future East Timor. An East Timor in which, as ‘President’ Elizabeth Exposto explains to her ecoversity audience, people can at last work together to repair the damage of the past and build a strong indigenous society that is peaceful, just, democratic, economically viable and ecologically sustainable. >>
Imagining Imagine The Future: Habitat Australia, May 1993, later adapted as a book chapter in Violence to Non-Violence: Individual Perspectives, Communal Voices, edited by William Kelly, Harwood Academic Publishers/ Craftsman House, Melbourne, 1994.
It was the end of the eighties. I’d been invited to judge an art competition associated with the United Nations pavilion at the World Expo in Brisbane. Asked to look at hundreds of images, songs and poems by young people about making the world a better place, and then, with my fellow judges, decide which ones were ‘the best’. (A flawed concept, you might agree!)
There was this drawing by a young boy. I can still see it. Two options for the future: one bad and one good. The bad one was easy and he drew it in meticulous detail. Explosions, war ships, tanks, a mushroom cloud. Death and destruction. (Or this is how I remember it.) The world of his deepest fears. The world he saw each night on TV. On the other side of the page, he’d drawn a better world; a figure sitting alone on a beach in the sun. No detail. No content. >>
Sunset on High Temperature Incineration, self-published as a pamphlet on the eve of the 1991 NSW election with the support from Greenpeace Australia’s Toxic Waste Campaign, after the Sydney Morning Herald refused a shorter version because it was ‘too political’
It’s your typical Australian family farm. Old weatherboard house with bullnose verandah, corrugated iron rainwater tanks, pepper trees, dam, windmill, sheep dogs at the gate, sheds, large tractors, ploughs, harvester – and at the back door, a large pair of very dusty elastic sided boots and a battered akubra hat. Alongside these icons, the next generation’s little red pedal-power tractor and two tiny blue gumboots. >>
East Timor: it’s time to talk, ‘petition’to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, New York, 7 August, 1991, on behalf of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid and the East Timor Talks Campaign
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee, fellow petitioners: thank you for the opportunity to speak with you here today. The organisation I represent, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, has petitioned you in the past, but we are anxious to do so again in what is now a new political climate. In view of the excellent role the United Nations has played in Namibia and Western Sahara recently, and the unprecedented attention being given to long-term and seemingly intractable issues by the US, USSR and Britain, we believe the time is now right for a fresh attempt to resolve the ongoing conflict in East Timor – in what the honorable Soviet delegate to this Committee this morning refered to as “the post-confrontational period of world development.” >>
East Timor: the story so far, published as a broadsheet by the East Timor Talks campaign, September 1991
Fade in to clear water lapping tropical sand. On the horizon a Portuguese ship lumbering towards conquest – and this island’s sandlewood. From the beach, from the mountains, a people watch: soon they will begin their long struggle for self-determination. >>
Climate change: culture change, Habitat Australia, October 1990
The sun reaches across the darkness of space to our ancient dune, illumes it grain by grain in golden light. Our breath hangs condensed in this Mungo dawn: three women, my two friends and me, and the ghost of a fourth who lived, died and was buried here perhaps thirty thousand years ago. She too watched this same scatter of sunlight, this same early morning alchemy. We read her life but darkly from the only text we have: this now semi-arid crescent dune which was once the eastern rim of a great freshwater lake. >>
Unearthing a city’s past: the archaeology of Little Lonsdate Street, Habitat Australia, August 1990
It’s called the Body Corporate, the staff gym at Price Waterhouse, the transnational firm of accountants on the corner of Melbourne’s Spring and Lonsdale Streets. There’s this guy on the floor pumping metal in his lunch hour. Can’t stop to talk because his heart rate’ll drop. Soon he’ll slip into the change room – quick shower and blow dry, white shirt, silk tie and dark suit – and emerge again as a post-industrial executive. He’ll return to his desk somewhere below and the lift will talk to him. “Going down” it will say, in a satin female voice. “Have a nice day.” And he’ll glide along the designer carpeted corridor, through the postmodern art deco chambers, past the fresh florist flowers, and take his seat before his visual display terminal for an afternoon of cost benefit analysis. >>
Eritrea: just a question of time, Canberra Times, 7 June 1989
In a stone room dug into the side of a narrow rocky gorge we bent towards a tiny transistor radio. It was news time and we were listening to the Voice of the Masses, the frequency of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, transmitting from deep within Eritrea’s “liberated zone”. The signal was weak. My companions, all senior members of the EPLF, strained to hear a report from the front line in Tingrinya, the guttural Semitic tongue that is one of the nine national languages of this small former Italian colony on the Red Sea coast of Africa. They translated for me: “Fighting on the Massawa Asmara road continues. Four thousand Ethiopians either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Twenty nine T54 and T55 tanks destroyed or taken. 1,489 weapons taken, three 85mm field guns, five trucks …” >>
Eritrea: the miracle, Habitat Australia, December 1989
Take one small strategically placed former Italian colony, deny its four million people education, health care and their right, under international law, to self-determination; give it no military assistance but let both East and West supply its adversary with military and/or economic aid; bombard it, attempt to starve it, degrade and deforest it – and what do you have? >>
Greening the family farm, Habitat Australia, February 1988
Country town. Interstate bus. They’re all there to meet me. It’s spring time and the roadsides are splashed with purple Patterson’s curse and the exotic yellow daisies we call pee-the-beds. The crops are young and green, just starting to head, and the trees silhouetted against the setting sun as we drive home — well, I’m afraid there aren’t many of them left these days, except along the road reserves. European agricultural practices haven’t been good for trees in this country. Nor for the land itself. >>
Why document? Working paper no. 9, Arts Victoria, commissioned by the Victorian Community Arts Resource Centre to examine ‘community arts’ praxis in Victoria. Full text to be republished on this site soon.
Carnarvon: Reflections of a country town (Shire of Carnarvon 1984, ISBN 0-9529109-0-3), a coffee-table book celebrating the centenary of the Shire of Carnarvon in Western Australia and one of the outcomes of my 6 month Arts Council residency in the Gascoyne region in 1983. I hope to re-publish Reflections on-line sometime soon.
Over paid, over sexed and over here: American sailors in Perth, About Town magazine, Swan Publishing, pp 4-6, December 1981.
Shelly and Alma were trying not to cry.
‘Ted, throw a wrench into one of the boilers,’ Shelly, the brave one, shouted from the wharf in a half-hearted attempt at a joke.
‘Sabotage the engines, Mike,’ Alma added. But tears were already rolling down her cheeks.
Ted and Mike waved and grinned from the deck of the U.S.S. Denver. They were already in trouble for returning to ship six hours late, but they conspired for a moment then disappeared into the guts of the huge vessel. They ran down flight after flight of narrow metal stairs to a small but heavy sealed door just above the level of the wharf. After struggling to open it, they swung themselves out onto the quay and grabbed their grief-stricken girls for a final desperate kiss. With that last loving gesture even brave Shelley broke. >>
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