The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s capital

colour map of the proposed city of Canberra.

Preliminary plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin, 1914. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The capital city of Australia is a twentieth century creation.  It emerged from a paddock in rural New South Wales one hundred years ago.  On 12th March 1913 Lady Denman, the wife of Australia’s Governor-General, stood on the newly laid foundation stones and announced the name of the city to be – Canberra.

The city had already been born by the time the crowd gathered in the empty paddock to hear its chosen name.  The ideas for the built structures had flowed from the minds of American architect Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Chicago over fifteen thousand kilometres away.  In turn their design was indebted to the ancient landscape on which it was to be built and the indigenous people who nurtured that environment and from whose language the name of the city was derived.

This year is the centenary of the founding of Canberra.  It is also the year when one of our daughters moved to Canberra so we will be visiting it more often than we usually do.  Last month we fitted in a visit to the National Library where I saw their exhibition, ‘The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital’. Continue reading

Book Review: Flood Country by Emily O’Gorman

Author, Emily O'Gorman holding her book, Flood Country

Author, Emily O’Gorman at the Sydney launch of her book, Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (Collingwood, Vic: CSIRO Publishing, 2012).

I would never have read this book if it wasn’t for twitter.

Last year I came across the twitter stream of the University of Wollongong’s, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (@AUSCCER) and those of researchers who work at the Centre.  I have enjoyed these tweets about geography and the environment . One day I noticed their tweets about the Sydney launch of a book written by one of the researchers at the Centre, Flood Country: an Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.  Happily I was free at that time and could attend.

People remain connected to and dependent on the natural environment despite all our inventions designed to make us more comfortable.  However, our technology and structures have lulled us into thinking that we are immune from the vagaries of our environment.  We get a nasty shock when this veil is ripped from us in a fire, drought or flood and we are forced to confront a difficult reality.

It is no accident that I decided to read Flood Country this month.  I was going to read another book but the flooding in Queensland and northern New South Wales from ex-tropical cyclone Oswald prompted me to change my plans.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s.  This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s. This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

In Flood Country author, Emily O’Gorman uses the case studies of four floods to examine the relationship between the European settlers and the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin.  She covers a broad sweep of European settlement starting with the flood in Gundagai in 1852, then moving on to the flooding of Bourke in 1890, Mildura in 1956 and the flooding in south-western Queensland in 1990.  In between the accounts of these floods are chapters that tease out particular issues of the period such as the differing approaches to regulation of water for the pastoral and mining industries in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the rise of the engineered solution to water management in the twentieth century. Continue reading

Thistle Thoughts

ute full of thistles

Our family’s harvest of thistles. Photo by Alan Perkins.

Today I was inspired while weeding.  This was not the dainty weeding that one does in a household garden bed.  No, one afternoon on my Christmas holidays I spent the afternoon with the rest of our family pulling thistles out of an infested paddock on my brother’s farm.  When I wasn’t pulling thistles I was chief thistle spotter and bag puller.  As you can see from the photo we filled one ute tray with thistles and there’s still more to be done.

Top half of a flowering thistle plant.

A photo of a thistle is better than the real thing – no prickles! Photo by Alan Perkins

So I suppose you are thinking that given we were weeding on such a large scale that my inspiration must be similarly large, maybe even momentous.  You may be right.  In fact my inspiration was so compelling that I have passed on a game of scrabble to share my inspiration with you.

It all started with a simple question.  Why, oh why, did Tasmania’s early settlers feel so compelled to transport such a dastardly prickly plant thousands of kilometres from its home in Scotland and plant it in the antipodes? Continue reading

Maths, Accounting and the Environment

Cover of book, Double-Entry by Jane Gleeson-White

Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet, by Jane Gleeson-White (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012).

Businesses have acted as an artery of global life since time immemorial.  Our lives and culture today would be severely curtailed without the innovation and trade that have been fostered for centuries by businesses. If we are to have a good grasp of history we need to include in our reading those books which explore the history of commerce.  Jane Gleeson-White’s book, Double Entry, is a good book to help the general reader not only enhance their understanding of this history but also to gain better insight into financial issues that affect every person on this planet today.

This book is an enjoyable and provocative read.  It traces the history of double entry book-keeping which is at the core of financial reporting and record keeping of businesses the world over.  Author of Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White initially focuses on the enormous contribution of Venetian merchants to the emergence of double entry book-keeping and in particular that of fifteenth century mathematician Luca Pacioli. The genius of Pacioli was his ability to communicate new mathematical concepts to a broad audience using three significant developments of the era – the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals, writing in the vernacular instead of Latin (because it could be read by more people) and publishing his work using the printing press.  Pacioli had to explain Hindu-Arabic numerals in his book and how they could be used in basic arithmetic because many of his readers were unfamiliar with this new development.

In twenty-seven pages that reverberated throughout the European business world for centuries to come, Pacioli explained how the Venetian businessmen kept records of their business dealings using double entry book-keeping.  Gleeson-White has written Double Entry for a general audience.  To do this she draws extensively on Pacioli’s fifteenth-century treatise on book-keeping for he too was communicating to an audience who had no background in this form of account keeping. I thought that Gleeson-White’s use of Pacioli’s examples worked well.  She does not assume that the reader has any knowledge of double entry book-keeping.  The language she uses is engaging and where necessary she gives simple and clear explanations of how double entry book-keeping works. Continue reading

Mapping Australia’s Natural Disasters: Space and Time

Just outside Tully #TCYasi on Twitpic

Just one image from the Tully area after Cyclone Yasi hit. Source: cycloneupdate on Twitpic.

Yet another natural disaster is unfolding in Queensland with tropical cyclone Yasi crossing the coast of Far North Queensland.  There was not much sleep in our household on Wednesday night as we have family members who live right at the heart of the destructive forces of the cyclone.  I resumed this post at around 1 am Thursday morning.  Blogging while keeping an eye on Twitter and regular media is the best way of dealing with the anxiety.

We had a phone call from our family near Tully at the height of the cyclone just after midnight.  They asked when the eye of the cyclone would hit.  Already they had lost some windows, had to nail a board over the door to stop it from opening and then a tree fell on their house.  They had no electricity and little idea of when it was all going to end.  Their house was swaying in the ferocious winds.

We turned to the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar image and map for the information that they needed.  Maps are indispensable when dealing with a natural disaster.  It is hard to understand the extent of the recent natural disasters in Australia without maps.  Maps record the area or space, that has been affected by the disaster.  Floods in Australia have been mapped since early settlement.  In order to get a better perspective of this summer of disastrous weather conditions in Australia I have been referring to maps of the current situation as well as historical maps. Continue reading