Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage series edited by Caroline CE Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.
Content Warning: This essay discusses Aboriginal people who have died, their displacement, and the desecration of their place(s) of burial. This may cause emotional distress to their descendants. Care and discretion are advised when reading.
A mighty river winds in magnificent curls through the semi-arid landscape of Erawirung country, in what is now called the Riverland of South Australia. The dunes, cliffs, islands, and billabongs the river has made and remade over deep time are visible on the ground and from the air. The work of the river over time is rendered starkly visible against the red dirt, white sands, and green squares of ancient and modern landscapes as viewed from satellites and cameras affixed to drones. A place that contains within it all the characteristic features of this region is known as Chowilla: a word that is said to mean “place of spirits” in what is known of the local Erawirung language (a language so devastated by settler-colonialism that the truest original meaning of this word remains ambiguous).1 Chowilla is at once Erawirung land, pastoral station, homestead, floodplain, and conservation area. In many ways, Chowilla can represent much of the beauty and contradiction of the lands it lies within: a place of strong and enduring Indigenous history; a site of frontier wars and dispossession; a colonised space given over to agriculture; a colonised space for conservation. Chowilla holds traces of more-than-human entanglements that persist through time, in visible as well as shadow places.
The beauty of this country stands in contrast to the violent history of colonisation written upon its past landscapes. As archaeologists Heather Burke et. al noted in their 2016 spatial study of the historical geography of this region, this part of the Australian continent became a “space of conflict” – an anxious topography where the forceful entitlement of colonial representatives collided with Indigenous lifeways.2 Thousands of the sheep, cattle, horses and humans that were driven over carefully managed Indigenous spaces and trackways from the late 1830s trampled over and disturbed Chowilla. The violence and dispossession that resulted follows a pattern that played out across the continent now known as Australia.
As colonisation of these lands continued on into the mid nineteenth century, a massive pastoral station was established called Bookmark. Later split into two stations — Calperum and Chowilla — white colonisers of these lands found evidence of the Indigenous peoples whose lifeways had once thrived in their Country.3 And importantly, as many scholars have demonstrated, Indigenous people did manage to find ways to stay “on country” for long periods following invasion, and there were accounts of many Indigenous people living and gathering on Chowilla into the late 19th century.4 Most pertinently for a place named for spirits, what would become an orangery near the Chowilla homestead was, first, an Indigenous burial site.5 Settler farmers transformed the land into an orchard, disturbingly, using ashes from the site to help fertilise the newly-planted citrus trees.6 Chowilla, the ‘place of spirits’, became a place where entanglements over decades folded into one another, as horticulturalists used ashy soils from Indigenous places of burial and memorial to help fertilise the growing citrus trees.
Just as ash and soil were shovelled onto the base of citrus trees to secure the productivity of the orchard, as the twentieth century progressed, new and synthetic chemical blends were developed to spray, dust and inject into orchard ecologies. The material make-up of the non-human space of Chowilla had been and continued to be altered. Land ownership and agricultural practices named and bounded places on the ground and on maps. Sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, and all manner of introduced creatures further compacted once carefully managed soils, sands, and grasses that made up Chowilla. From the late 1880s, the lands and waters of Erawirung country were introduced to the Western practice of irrigated horticulture. Vineyards and orange orchards were imposed in orderly lines across former grass and mallee lands, drawing water from the River Murray through pipes and channels to flood previously semi-arid and dry soils.
From the late 1880s, the lands and waters of Erawirung country were introduced to the Western practice of irrigated horticulture. The effectiveness of these chemicals was lauded in agricultural journals and industry newsletters alike, but well before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the dangers of broad-acre use of these chemicals were becoming evident. The danger posed to humans by many of these chemicals was among the first to receive attention. One instance of poisoning by parathion was reported in the local newspaper’s ‘Horticultural Notes’ in 1950: forty-six out of ninety pear pickers in California had developed symptoms from handling fruit from trees which had been sprayed ten days previously — with 16 of these individuals hospitalised for treatment.7
But the danger these chemicals posed to nonhumans was also of concern. In an address to the Local Government Association at Loxton (70 kms south of Chowilla) in September 1950, Mr. O. E. Halliday suggested that the use of DDT was effective in not only killing ‘pest’ insects, such as codling moth, but also in killing beneficial insects, such as bees – especially native bees.8 Similarly, BHC was known to have lethal effect on bees, and its traces persisted in soils tainting certain fruits and vegetables grown thereafter.9
By January 1965, the Riverland district’s horticultural adviser for the South Australian Department of Agriculture, C. M. Cooper wrote an article for the local newspaper decrying the dangers of the various chemicals in regular use by commercial horticulturalists.10 Chlorinated Hydro-carbons (including DDT) are effective in the first instance, but common pests targeted by the use of such chemicals can develop resistance over time, Cooper warned.11 The chemicals persisted for long periods of time on and within the soil, Cooper urged, recounting, too, the health hazards of indoor use of inappropriate chemicals leading to “a state of collapse, with vomiting and other symptoms.”12 But, Cooper reassures readers, DDT is still safe to use – just read the label and follow instructions.13
As time would tell, these chemicals persisted: and so did their impacts on the nonhumans that lived and died on lands colonised with orchards and vineyards. Chemicals sprayed and dusted onto plants and soils were gradually mixed in with the soils that the ashes of Ancestors had been spread upon. Insects – whether deemed pest, or not – fell and died, their bodies decomposing to likewise become part of the soil. Microbial organisms, whose mysterious work is essential for all beings whose lives depend on the soil and what grows in it, were killed, injured and changed through chemical horticultural additions. But in the soils, they persist.
Today, the orangery at Chowilla is long gone. In its place there is a small vineyard and no visible trace of the original, Indigenous site. A land that holds memories of intentions, actions, lives and deaths is one that troubles simple chronological understandings of history. As is becoming increasingly evident, the deep-time history of so-called Australian landscapes – its material spaces, and meaningfully imbued places – reveals the short-sightedness of colonial assumptions. British colonisation of Australia, beginning in 1788, was achieved with ongoing violence, spread of disease, and without treaties between colonists and Indigenous peoples or settler colonial purchase of Indigenous land. Ongoing colonisation has, until recently, and for the most part, ignored the agency and connection of Indigenous peoples to more-than-human nature along with entangled inter-connections of the ecologies that bind material space and relational place. At Chowilla, and in spaces and places throughout the colonised world, there is an uncomfortable acknowledgement of haunting, in the guise of the persistence of names, the persistence of material remains, and the persistence of unceded sovereignty. The refusal of settlers to imagine the extent of persistence in and through country – material or symbolic — reveals an origin of the violence of settler-colonialism.