Address by Ruth Morgan at the Launch of John Dargavel’s Anthropocene Days

Ruth Morgan has kindly allowed use to publish her introduction to John Dargavel’s Anthropocene Days from a launch event held at the ANU in Canberra on 18 April 2023.

Photo of the launch by Rikki Dargavel. Right to left: Peter Kanowski, John Dargavel and Ruth Morgan

Thank you – it’s a real honour to have the opportunity to speak about John’s book and his work. I’d like to pay my respects to the Custodians on whose unceded lands we’re gathered here today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri Peoples, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

It’s fitting that we meet not far from Sullivan’s Creek, which passes through the campus on its way to the Murrumbidgee, the Murray and onto the Southern Ocean. In Anthropocene Days, John reminds us that among the willows that the University’s founders planted, is a group of Lombardy poplars that have grown from suckers from the roots of a tree that once shaded a sheep pen. Trees, writes John, ‘can bear a great weight of memory. Unseen. … They are not descendants, they are the same tree that still struggles to come up again and again, despite the best efforts of the grass mowers’. John muses on where it might have come from, who planted it 150 or more years ago, watched it grow, enjoyed its shade as the sheep would have done. ‘But that rustic scene also casts the dark shadow of memory for the Ngunnawal people who were disposed as it grew.’[1]

In Anthropocene Days, John gently reflects on his journey from his childhood home in Old Lodge Lane in London, through his training as a young forester in Edinburgh, on to South Australia and the pulp plantations of Victoria, and then the Australian National University, and most recently, to Kennon St in Doncaster East.

I came to John’s work during my Honours studies in environmental history, when I was still finding my feet and found Stephen Dovers’ edited collections especially insightful. I learned from John about forest history – that, as he wrote in 1994, ‘the forest historian has to take a long view into the past to unravel the manner by which human actions and natural processes that have shaped the landscape which urban and rural dwellers now admire in their different ways’.[2] He later wrote the first biography of forester Charles Lane Poole, The Zealous Conservator, whose career I encountered in my own research on southwestern Australia’s environmental history. 

John had been one of the founders of the Australian Forest History Society in 1988, which held its first conference at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies here at the ANU in May that year. Recognising the growing interest in Australia’s settler and Indigenous History around the Bicentenary, as well as interest in the human effects on the Australian environment, they aimed to ‘advance historical understanding of human interactions with Australian forest and woodland environments’.[3]It took its inspiration from similar initiatives in North America as well as the Forest History Unit of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations. 

A decade later, in 1998, John edited the first special issue on Australia’s environmental history for the journal, Environment and History. In his editorial, he wrote, ‘There is an urgency and a fracture to Australian environmental history. Great areas of the continent are racked by dryland salinity, threats to endangered species – some are already extinct, polluted rivers, and many other problems. This is the white tale of pioneering and development, conservation and preservation, and of finding place and identity in a new land. If we can understand it better, perhaps we can be reconciled with the past and walk forward with a lighter and more companionable step, or so the hope is.’[4]

Founded by The White Horse Press just a few years earlier, Environment and History marked the rise of environmental history as a distinct field of scholarship both in the United Kingdom and here in Australia, and elsewhere. Forest History, along with historical geography and public history, had intertwined to develop a uniquely Australian approach to environmental history, grappling with settler sense of place and the ethics of settler relationships to stolen land. John was soon involved in steering the young journal’s direction, joining the Editorial Board in 1996, and encouraging the wider international recognition of Australia’s forest history, as well as a greater appreciation of the imperial and transnational nature of Australia’s environmental history. 

Hope is a theme to which John returns in Anthropocene Days, as he wrestles with unfolding environmental crises, from climate change to biodiversity loss. Reflecting on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he writes that hope ‘lies in the determination of many thousands of scientists from almost every country as they work together in inquiries that range from deep oceans to the high atmosphere, from deserts to tundra, from geological time reconstructed from Antarctic ice to recent fires and floods, and much else. It is a great flowering of the enlightened human spirit … In international politics – there is a great human hope for building a better world’. For John’s mother, the hope for peace lay in the League of Nations established after the First World War; for John it lay in the United Nations established after the Second World War; naïve perhaps when set against the centuries of war. Now John sees that hope for curbing climate change also lies in the United Nations.[5]

Finally, John turns to geographer Lesley Head’s Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene.[6] She looks at the ways in which people think about their place in the natural world and starts in a way that resonates with John as she writes, ‘We need to deal with at least the possibility of catastrophe. Yet daily life continues more or less unchanged, in varying combinations of struggle and contentment.’[7] Her views of hope as something ‘practiced and performed’ fits neatly with the ideals of forestry and is repeated every time a tree is planted. She also sees that a social pressure to be optimistic about the future avoids dealing with the possibility of catastrophe. Head’s view of grief draws on the loss of favourite places in a way that evokes fire-ravaged forests to John.

In this beautiful book, John has invited us to think, worry and wonder with him and his life of learning – about forests, about nature, about the world. Asking, ‘Is that the nub of the world’s environmental crisis: that in the business of everyday, we pass by with our connections unacknowledged?’, he nevertheless reminds us, “There is hope in persistence”.[8]

Persist he has – thank you for Anthropocene Days, John, and for your shaping of our field.

[1] Dargavel, Anthropocene Days, pp. 47-48.

[2] Dargavel in Dovers (ed.), Australian environmental history: Essays and Cases (1994).

[3] K.J. Fraley and N. Semple (eds), Australia’s Ever Changing Forests: Proceedings of the First National Conference on Australian Forest History (1988).

[4] Dargavel, ‘Editorial’, Environment and History 4 (2) (1998): 127-28. 

[5] Dargavel, Anthropocene Days

[6] Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualizing Human-Nature Relations (Routledge, 2016).

[7] Head, cited in Anthropocene Days

[8] Dargavel, Anthropocene Days

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