A few years ago I conducted some research about the threat of an exotic plant disease called ‘dieback’ (Phytophthora cinnamomi) to plants of significance to Noongar people on the south coast of Western Australia. Noongar (also spelled Nyungah) is the name for the Indigenous people and traditional custodians of southwestern Western Australia. I had the honour of going out into the bush with some of these people, and learning about their bush tucker and bush medicine. I also had the sadness of learning about the destruction caused by this introduced plant disease: beautiful under the microscope, ugly in consequence.
This clip was recorded in June 2012 at the Denmark Festival of Voice, Western Australia. The words follow:
Autobiography of a Plant Killer
They first found me rotting away in a cinnamon tree,
And I am a malaise of modern, mobile, society.
Virile, though sexless,
I am newcomer to these age old rocks.
And I am a detail by which technology killed the world.
I am small, almost microscopic, my translucent whiskers are shapely, charming, miniature versions of the coral reefs that lie stretched out beneath the oceans.
And like the reefs, I am huge too, my coralline whiskers have slithered, swum, and hitched from Sumatra all around the world, to the ancient woods of Tasmania, the famous proteas of southern Africa…
In the mud on the tyres of your four-wheel-drive-ly.
I stowed away in soil on ships and I now ravage the tall hardwoods of the Americas, and the great wildlands of southern Australia, where every peak in the landscape is a story from creation; and now the bush foods of the local ones are becoming less, and less, and less.
The old Noongar, she talks about the bush tucker.
She tells of the honey from the banksias, a good healing tonic.
Dead banksias now.
She calls me Drastic
They call me Insidious. Tragic. Deadly.
They call me Phytopathogenic Pseudofungus.
They call me Biological Bulldozer.
they call me Phytophthora cinnamomi.
They call me Worse Than Salinity.
I ignore signs. I ignore boundaries.
I ignore laws that say ‘no taking of native flora’; ‘no destruction in a national park’. I destroy the hillsides, I destroy the valleys. And those plants; I take half.
I take half and leave their skeletons, grey and dead.
They call me dieback. But I am a front. And I am in front.
And somehow it comes to be that my unconscious, mouldy evolution has outsmarted all the power and knowledge and gadgets of the human race, and all they can do is watch me do my work, try to grapple with my epidemiology, and hope to live longer than my victims and tell their story.
“Gotta speak good story”, they say.
I ain’t no good story.
I love the rotting of the living.
I scour the roots with which the windswept trees grip the ancient soil, as they turn red with silent, underground rage at their doom.
You see, I believe in simplifying the world. Just what clarity is there in a biodiversity that stretches from here to the moon? Why worry with those
all them that are Myrtaceous
(words that your common physicist couldn’t even spell)
when you can so easily manage
sedge, after sedge, after sedge.
I creep underbark, through vessels built for water and food and all things good. I creep leaving lesions scarring up tall, strong trees that withstand wind and rain and the turning of centuries, but cannot resist my deathwish.
Parched, thirsty roots dying silently.
Cells without integrity once I’ve been through.
and so, even before full-scale industrialisation,
I took advantage of exponentialization.
While young male patriots ran up and down the wild magnificent mountains, learning how not to fall over,
And pioneer farmers with high hopes cleared land for their woolly herds,
And roads were built,
And gravel was spilt,
I, without guilt,
flagged a ride on their shoes.
© Keren Gila Raiter 2012