- Possums, Quandongs, and Kurrajongs:Wild Harvesting as a Strategy for Farming through Drought in Australia
Drought is a regular and persistent feature of the Australian climate. Unlike most other environmental events, drought lasts months and years rather than days and weeks. This has, over the years, resulted in great stress for farmers and agricultural communities, bringing economic hardship and even destitution. Underlying the human impact of drought is environmental degradation: vegetation loss, soil erosion, sandstorms, and loss of soil fertility enhanced or ameliorated by agricultural and land-management techniques.1 The regularity and impact of drought mean that it has been a profound shaper of Australian society, but histories of drought in Australia have largely focused on hardship: water shortage has become embedded in the Australian settler narratives as exemplifying the struggle of the settler against an unpredictable natural environment, and the term “rural” has become synonymous with stoicism and endurance against hardships such as drought.2 The Great (or Federation) Drought of 1895–1902, due to its length and severity, has a particularly important role in forging a national identity of stoicism in the face of hardship.3 And the struggle of the settler against a hostile environment is compared to a battle faced by a soldier in war.4
The recurrence of drought in Australia has, however, meant that farmers and agricultural communities have, over the last 150 years, [End Page 358] found ways to survive and adapt. How have they done this? Some historical studies have focused on government and other large-scale responses to drought such as irrigation schemes, town water, and inter-regional distribution of water such as the Wimmera-Mallee stock and domestic water scheme.5 However, the social factors that enable individual farmers, their families, and households to survive drought remains an underresearched area. Insights into the way people cope with drought can be found in studies of recent droughts of the 1990s and 2000s. Significant factors include personal attributes such as optimism, humor, creativity, flexibility, and decision-making ability—similar attributes to those that have been identified by historians of the North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.6 Immediate family has been found to be the first line of defense, providing solidarity, labor, and practical assistance.7 Social networks, clubs, community events, and institutions provide emotional support, practical assistance, and opportunities for recreation, escape, and solidarity.8 Moving beyond studies of drought to international research into the impact of other recent natural disasters provides insight into the way people cope with severe environmental events in recent times. Four themes emerge as important in facilitating resilience in response to natural disasters: adequate economic and social resources to reduce vulnerability and increase flexibility; diverse strategies to respond to disaster; local knowledge that tailors responses to particular conditions; and experience of, or ability to learn from, previous natural disasters.9
Influenced by the field of positive psychology, many of these psychological, sociological, and socioecological studies have applied the concept of resilience.10 Resilience is a process (rather than an inherent trait) by which individuals, groups, or communities, firstly, survive adversity and, secondly, respond and adapt to change.11 With drought and other natural hazards, resilience has become the new buzzword of the 2000s, just as sustainability was in the 1990s. As a concept, resilience can be problematic. At its most banal, resilience is used as a euphemism for self-reliance and eschewing governmental and institutional assistance. In this form, resilience can be used to deny difficulty and to present a romanticized picture of stoicism. However, while being mindful of these pitfalls, resilience, I argue, can be a useful term in understanding drought in the past. The concept of resilience moves us beyond reiterating hardship and instead focuses attention on response and adaptation [End Page 359] of individuals and communities, drawing attention to the fact that people in the past were active agents in relation to the environment. It takes us beyond the pioneer myths and reminds us that people were neither triumphal conquerors nor passive recipients but that they made decisions and employed deliberate strategies in their interaction with the environment. While still acknowledging drought as a significant stress for...