Beckler’s Botanical Bounty Project is happening again in Menindee, outback New South Wales. This is my seventh time up here, so many of you are familiar with the story. But just in case you don’t know, here is the short version. (For the longer version you can jump to our website Beckler’s Botanical Bounty. Sorry, can’t do a hyperlink.)
In 1860 the Bourke and Wills Expedition set up their supply camp in Menindee, a small town on the Darling River. The Expedition was to be the first crossing of the continent from Melbourne in the south to north at the Gulf of Carpentaria. While Bourke and three others made it there, the Expedition was a disaster.
However, our project is connected to Hermann Beckler, the doctor on the Expedition. He remained in Menindee, where he had resigned in furious disagreement with Bourke. Beckler was fascinated by Australian plants and collected widely in the area. His friendship with Ferdinand Mueller at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens meant that the specimens collected by Beckler became part of the collection in the Herbarium.
Fast forward 150 years to 2010, when the Project began as a celebration of the 150 anniversary of the Expedition. We have been collecting the same species Beckler collected, and then painting these plants.
There were 120 plants on Beckler’s List. This year we have only 38 more to find!
However, I doubt that we will find any plants to collect and paint this year. (Warning: from here on in I am writing about the effects of drought, and I am feeling angry about the state of affairs.)
The drought has been on the news lately, mainly showing politicians in Akubra hats pontinficating about their ‘generosity’ with belated funding. Up here it hits you in the face.
It is so dry, unbelievably dry. It’s an environment that always looks ragged, but we have always found things growing, often carpets of daisies, things twining through the salt bushes or flashes of colour on the sandy banks.
This year there is so little; no annuals at all. No daisies, not even the fried eggs one that has been so common. No pimeleas dancing in the breeze. No Cullens, the plants I have been painting, not even Cullen discolor a prostrate version and has been growing abundantly on the golf course in past years. (I have found one plant, growing in the nature strip in town!) Not even very much onion weed, that has always grown everywhere.
Even the perennials are stressed. Much of the saltbush looks dead. I say “looks” because a local has told us that with the first rains it will grow again from the centre. But to see a bare landscape, with even the saltbush dead or struggling is heartbreaking.
The mighty river red gums are holding their own down on the banks of the Darling River, but the leaf and bark litter and fallen limbs tell of their stress. Beneath them are Swainsonia greyana ready to burst into purple flower and is the only species that looks to be flourishing. The sennas are holding their own too, providing a burst of yellow in a sere landscape.
There is no moisture in the soil, and there are no roots of the annuals to bind it. So the soil just flies away. The Fella and I drove into Broken Hill on the day of high wind, and we could see the dust storm carrying away the soil.
And it’s not Summer yet.
It is distressing. I admire the resilience and courage of those that live here, building communities and lives.
I know that drought has been a part of the Australian landscape. I find a glimmer of reassurance knowing that the native plants are adapted to these periods of drought. However, I also know that we humans are affecting the climate and that we must reduce our CO2 emissions. Instead we have a government that refuses to set any emission targets, preferring coal over green energy. Some on the government benches refuse to acknowledge that climate change is influenced by human action.
Last month we changed prime ministers, not through a general vote and not over policy, but because some members thought Malcolm Turnbull would loose seats in the next election. These Climate Change Deniers have that sort of influence.
Meanwhile our environment, and the people living in it are suffering.
I know that the plants here have evolved with drought, and when the next rains come there will be a blossoming of life. It’s important to know. But climate change is putting unnecessary stresses on them, and it is that that we must do something about. And that requires serious, concerted political action, and that is what we are not getting.
I was going to leave you with a sunrise photo, help you understand the beauty of this place, but internet connection is so frustrating. (This post has taken nearly a day to write.) I will post more when I get home next week, and show you more than the drought.