thomas m wilson

Going Down to Earth

December 7th, 2006


[Thanks to the Department of Agriculture and Food for the photo.]

If I ask you where you live you’ll probably tell me a particular suburb and a particular street number. But where you live is also defined by your bioregion, that is your watershed, the plants and animals that are native to your place, the climate, the soil beneath your house… This is basic knowledge, and yet so many of us cheerfully walk around each day as ecological illiterates. We can read a complex alphabet developed into Western Europe, but we can’t read the shapes and forms of our home place. Walk into the middle of your local university, supposedly a city’s greatest repository of learning, and ask the first academic you bump into about the soil which lies beneath our feet. From the distinguished, tenured philosopher specializing in Hegel you will get a blank look.

Most people in Perth live on the Western Coastal Plain, where the soils are largely yellow or brown sand, often with a grey surface, and with limestone further down. Rain falls on the ground and soaks down through the sand to underground to aquifers and to the Swan river. Our suite of native plants and trees are exquisitely adapted to this ecological niche.

Certain people in this city choose to resist these physical realities, and to pretend they live somewhere like England with deep topsoil with plenty of organic matter in it. They plant non-native plants which require lots of piped in water and fertilizers. The phosphates from the fertilizers flow down through the soil to the Swan River and create massive algal blooms in the water each summer which use all the oxygen in the water and kill everything in that ecosystem. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

This week I and my brother and father were twenty metres beneath the old Fremantle Prison. We were exploring an underground passage way dug out by convicts well over a hundred years ago. The passage had been dug out of the limestone by hand, and our torch lights flickered across the uneven rock surface. Water flowed through the bottom of the passage at some points. The air was musty and damp, and as we walked along we noticed thin, hairy tree roots hanging down out of the shadowy ceiling. Some native tree had sent its roots over twenty metres through this limestone in search of water. That is true knowledge of one’s place.