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MESH Research Fruits

Public Lecture: Eucalypts in the Patchy Anthropocene | Histories and Futures of the Camden White Gum

Emily O’Gorman (Macquarie University, Sydney) and
Thom van Dooren (University of Sydney)

June 22, 2023 | 17:45

The Camden White Gum (Eucalyptus benthamii) is an endangered species of Eucalypt found in the Sydney region, Australia. While the species faces a range of threats, in recent years its future has become even more uncertain with a proposal by the state government to raise the wall of the Warragamba Dam, and in so doing drown the largest remaining population found in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The proposal to raise this dam wall is an effort to mitigate the growing impacts of flooding in western Sydney, a situation that is likely to become even more problematic in our climate altered future. But the population of Camden White Gums in the World Heritage Area is not all that remains of the species. A few scattered stands of trees are still to be found growing along the Nepean River in what is now a predominantly suburban area in Western Sydney. Other trees can be found growing in even more unlikely places. The potential commercial value and the conservation need of the species came together in the 1990s and led the Australian government to create several orchards of the tree hundreds of kilometres away, while also allowing the seed to be sold for commercial plantations. To date, the primary market for these seeds has been in South America, especially Brazil. And so, vast numbers of trees of the species can now be found growing on the other side of the planet.

Our starting points are the diverse landscapes and contexts of the contemporary Camden White Gum. From there, our presentation explores the past and continuing flows and connections between these sites: movements of ideas, capital, genes, harm, and more. Taken together, these populations offer an exemplar of what Anna Tsing, Andrew S. Mathews, and Nils Bubandt’s have called the patchy Anthropocene. In each place, the same species enters into different human and nonhuman entanglements. In exploring these sites, we shift our focus to a landscape rather than a planetary scale, helping us to think both the unevenness of global processes of biodiversity loss and capital accumulation, and the profound interconnections between seemingly disparate sites and processes. At the heart of this lecture is an effort to understand what it means to be an endangered species that is at the same time globally abundant. Does it really matter if the last remaining wild populations of the species are lost? If so, why? What if, instead of undermining the significance of wild populations, taking these other patches of trees seriously might help us to get clear on precisely what is so significant and precious about the wild?

This research is part of a larger project focused on the Narrative Ecologies of Warragamba Dam that is exploring the diverse values, understandings, and stories that are at work and at stake in the proposal to raise the wall of this dam. The project team includes Thom van Dooren, Emily O’Gorman, Stephen Muecke, Grace Karskens, Matthew Kearnes, Natalie Osborne, and Peter Minter, and this research is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Emily O’Gorman is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her research is situated within environmental history and the interdisciplinary environmental humanities, and is primarily concerned with contested knowledges within broader cultural framings of authority, expertise, and landscapes. She is the author of Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (2012) and Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-than-human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (University of Washington Press, 2021). She is currently the Convenor of the Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Environmental History Network.

Thom van Dooren is Deputy Director at the Sydney Environment Institute and an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Sydney. His research and writing focus on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. He is the author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia UP 2014), The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (Columbia UP 2019), and A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions (MIT 2022). www.thomvandooren.org