Blog on hiatus

Greetings dear readers!

As I write this I am 39 weeks pregnant, so I’m sure you’ll understand why the blog is being put on hiatus for a little while. At this stage I don’t want to make any promises about my return to a regular posting schedule, as I really don’t know what I’m in for with the whole baby caper. However I still have a fair amount of work to go on my thesis, so I imagine I have a few more posts in me yet!

In the meantime, please do explore the (now quite extensive!) archive of horse-related posts you can find here. I will leave you with this link to a lovely feel-good story about an octogenarian who has stayed faithful to his love of the draught horse, and continues to work with them even today:

“[A] few years ago when Mr Norris ended up in hospital for some pains, he told the doctor he had received them while out sowing wheat with his horses. The doctor noted on his medical records that dementia was suspected because Mr Norris believed he was still in the past.” [1]

Plough on, readers. Plough on!

REFERENCE:

[1] Melanie Pearce and Julie Clift, “Octogenarian’s passion still strong after lifetime of working draught horses,” ABC Central West, accessed 19 July 2016 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-18/octogenerians-lifetime-of-working-draught-horses/7637634

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It’s here! The 2016 Draft Wild Horse Management Plan

The long-awaited Draft Wild Horse Management Plan produced by the NSW Parks & Wildlife Service was released in early May. The document is open for public comment until August 19,  and I urge any readers who have strong feelings about this issue to make a submission.

In brief, the Draft Plan advocates for a reduction of brumby numbers from an estimated 6,000 horses to 600, using a range of methods, and being undertaken over a period of twenty years. Once the population has stabilised at this sustainable number, other, non-lethal approaches will be implemented, including fertility control, and ongoing passive trapping. The Draft Plan has been met with disbelief by brumby advocates. The most highly-reported opinions have been of those outraged by the proposal, while those in support have not been as visible in the popular media. Further, any accurate reportage of the core elements of the Draft Plan is frequently lost amid the outcry.

One example of this, sent to me by a blog reader, is the July issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazine’s cover features the tagline “Our heritage – The fight to stop a brumby massacre”, and the article, titled “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies”, continues in much the same vein. Overall, I find it doubtful that the author of this piece had even read the Draft Plan when she wrote the article. It refers to environmentalists disparagingly as “greenies” [1], repeatedly gives the impression that fertility control has been completely discounted under the Draft Plan (it hasn’t), and reports the opinion of a brumby advocate who “looks overseas to Europe, where horses are being reintroduced to many wildlife areas to protect biodiversity and replenish natural spaces. Surely … the Snowy Mountains brumbies must have similar value.”[2] The repetition of this woolly thinking is incredibly frustrating, for, as discussed previously on this blog, there can be no comparison between habitats that have evolved alongside hooved mammals, and those (like Australia’s) which have not.

Elsewhere we see the reportage of a very select reading of the evidence – brumby advocate Madison Young, for example, is cited  as being “furious that shooting on sight [site] has been rated by the scientists’ group as more humane than transporting to rehoming.” [3] This appears to be a misreading of the 2015 report of the Humaneness Assessment Panel, which was assembled on behalf of the Independent Technical Reference Group, which makes the point that being shot on site is a more humane option (for the 82% of brumbies who do not find a home) than being trucked interstate to slaughterhouses. Of course it is wonderful for the 18% of brumbies that are transported out to rescue groups and rehomed. But, as has been discussed elsewhere, this is certainly not the fate of the majority of horses removed from the park.

Of course misinformation such as that seen in the Women’s Weekly story is rife in such debates. Consider another “fact”, appearing in the Daily Mail Australia‘s coverage of the Draft Management Plan: “The brumby arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Only seven survived the harrowing journey.” [4] I honestly don’t even know where to start with everything that is incorrect within that statement! But when you consider the source cited is savethebrumby.org, you begin to see which voices are being heard most loudly in these debates.

This level of misinformation in the (pro-brumby) opinions that are so frequently cited by the media is disappointingly reminiscent of climate change deniers. It would be a shame if such strategies of obfuscation lead to a similar state of paralysed inactivity, while the world (and Kosciuszko National Park!) hurtles towards a state of inevitable destruction.

REFERENCES:

[1] Beverley Hadgraft, “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies,” Australian Women’s Weekly July 2016, p. 31.

[2] ibid, p. 34.

[3] ibid.

[4] Hannah Moore, “Almost 6,000 wild brumbies living in the Snowy Mountains to be killed under controversial NSW scheme to save Mount Kosciuszko National Park,” Daily Mail Australia, accessed 2 May 2016.

Phar Lap and the underdog narrative

The underdog narrative is popular in stories of Australian identity. Typically, an underdog is someone who, despite starting from behind, shows tenacity and fortitude to succeed against the odds. This spirit is frequently applied to descriptions of the Australian character, and the Phar Lap narrative is no exception. Ironically, while the story is rife with underdog characteristics in the way it is popularly constructed, if you look beyond the death of Phar Lap you will see what is far less frequently discussed, and that is that there were no happy endings, for any of the protagonists.

Phar Lap’s underdog status has been granted because of several factors. According to the story, he was initially dismissed by his owner David J. Davis on the basis of his looks. Second, once he started winning consistently, the racing establishment, which has been positioned as one of the main antagonists of the horse and his connections, tried to curb his streak by changing the weight-for-age scale of penalty weights.[1] However, whether this was a deliberate strategy designed to target and exclude a single horse, or was instead an attempt to open the field for other competitors, is a matter of perspective. Certainly the “anti-Establishment” angle is the favoured one. The idea that the Chairman of the Victoria Race Club (VRC) targeted Phar Lap, due to personal jealousy, is  particularly emphasized in the 1983 film version of the story. However, as a registered Thoroughbred, Phar Lap was no less a pedigreed racehorse than any other competing on the field at that time.

Further to this, another popular aspect of the Phar Lap narrative, frequently cited to support the horse’s positioning as an underdog, was his “cheap” price at auction. However it should be remembered that the 160 guineas paid for him was still too great a sum for Harry Telford, the struggling trainer whose interest in the colt was piqued by the horse’s bloodlines, to afford. Instead, Telford persuaded wealthy businessman Davis to purchase the horse.

After his initial dismissal of the animal, Davis agreed to lease him to Telford for a period of three years. Though the horse did not perform well in his early starts as a two-year-old sprinter, and lost eight of his first nine races, starting him over longer distances as a three-year-old soon brought victory. By the time Telford’s lease of Phar Lap elapsed, he was a rich man. Harry Telford is frequently portrayed as the archetypal Aussie “battler” made good, and, while the usual narrative arc holds true when the focus remains on Phar Lap’s lifetime, when the gaze shifts beyond it, we see that Harry Telford’s success did not last long beyond Phar Lap’s death.

In fact this holds true for all the key human figures in the Phar Lap narrative. The Australian triumvirate of trainer (Telford), jockey (Jim Pike) and handler (Tommy Woodcock) can all be neatly positioned into pre-existing archetypes common to such stories – providing the narrative does not travel any further than Phar Lap’s death. Going beyond this artificial endpoint in the Phar Lap chronicle reveals a less-than-happy ending for all the protagonists.

Telford failed to train any significant winners after Phar Lap died in 1932. He soon had to surrender Braeside, the training facility he was able to establish with Phar Lap’s success, and eventually retired from racing in 1957. He died in 1960. Jimmy Pike, always fond of a drink and a bet, had never been physiologically suitable to be a jockey, being naturally of a larger frame. Nonetheless, in order to meet the requisite weights he frequently endured the regime of wasting common for jockeys in those days, which left him with ongoing stomach problems. He retired as a jockey several years after Phar Lap’s death, in 1936. He met no luck as a trainer, and eventually died in poverty in 1969.

Of the three men commonly associated with Phar Lap, Tommy Woodcock did not fall as far, perhaps because, as a strapper, he never attained the elevated profile of either Phar Lap’s trainer or jockey. After Phar Lap’s death, Woodcock achieved some success as a trainer, however, in 1977, when his horse Reckless was the sentimental favourite to win the Melbourne Cup, he was beaten by the “big money” – the Bart Cumming’s trained Gold and Black. Reality failed to deliver a narratively-satisfying happy ending to Woodcock’s story, either.

Finally, let us not forget the horse himself. Phar Lap, in spite of his success and popularity, died in excruciating agony from arsenic poisoning. Though the ongoing display of his preserved remains seem to deny the fact that he only lived for five years, this is merely a comforting fantasy. The stories of those associated with Phar Lap, including the horse himself, are manipulated so as to fit the narrative arc common to the underdog tale. It is this removal of Phar Lap from the normal birth-life-death cycle, and his insertion into life everlasting via the museum, which subsequently renders him a symbol, rather than just a horse who ran fast.

Interestingly, interpreting the figure of David Davis – both within and beyond the Phar Lap narrative arc – is more problematic. Perhaps as an American, Davis resists being stereotyped into an Australian narrative – or perhaps his foreign status renders him invisible. His story does not end in the same way as the others, as he continued to enjoy success as a racehorse owner, including owning another Melbourne Cup winner, Russia, who won in 1946. Though frequently portrayed as an antagonist to Telford and ascribed the blame for taking the horse to America where he died, Davis also not only paid a significant sum of money to have the skin mounted, but then donated the mount back to the people of Australia. As such, his role in the Phar Lap story resists any easy simplification.

Phar Lap is widely seen as embodying uniquely Australian characteristics. These, of course, can only be projections. The horse himself remains elusive. All that we have left of him are physical remains encased in glass within museum walls, along with some grainy footage. Photographs and racing memorabilia, such as race programs in which he is featured, frequently appear in the catalogues of auction houses. To own a part of Phar Lap is thought to be akin to owning a part of history. He has been positioned (both literally and metaphorically) as a key symbol of Australian identity.

Scholars of religion Carole Cusack and Justine Digance point out that Phar Lap sits alongside two other venerated Australian icons – the Anzacs at Gallipolli, and Ned Kelly – and argue that “all these heroes were ultimately ‘losers’: heroic achievers who died before their time”,[2] and further observe that “Australian icons persist in being somewhat iconoclastic.”[3] Nonetheless, Phar Lap’s “loser” status is not what is emphasised in the narratives that relate to him; instead, he is idolised for the way contemporary Australians view him.

Though initially renowned as a horse who brought hope to a generation during the Great Depression, the social and economic circumstances of that era now recede into the distant past, and the horse is memorialised today for different reasons. Phar Lap is seen as embodying key traits of Australianness. These are courage and tenacity, and achieving success despite the odds. However, as an historical figure, Phar Lap’s story needs to be shoe-horned slightly to fit the proscribed narrative arc of the underdog story. In reality, Phar Lap did succeed as a racehorse, by continuing to win races under increasingly heavy weight penalties. He was a popular figure of the day, though, as argued elsewhere, this is largely attributable to the emerging advances in media technology, which ensured his visibility.

Yet the horse continues to hold the nation’s imagination as a beloved symbol of Australian national identity. This symbolic status is evident in the deviation between what Phar Lap actually did, to an emphasis on what Phar Lap means to people.[4]

REFERENCES:

[1] Museum Victoria, Phar Lap webpage, accessed June 14, 2016 https://museumvictoria.com.au/pharlap/horse/winner.asp ; Biff Lowry, Killing Phar Lap: an Untold Part of the Story (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014), 35.

[2] Carole M. Cusack and Justine Digance, “The Melbourne Cup: Australian Identity and Secular Pilgrimage,” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 12 (2009): 886, accessed August 1, 2014, doi: 10.1080/17430430903053109.

[3] Cusack and Digance, “The Melbourne Cup,” 886.

[4] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” ReCollections: a Journal of Museums and Collections 8 (2013).

The historic context of equine symbolism: from Europe to Australia

While the narrative of significance associated with the horse in Australia has gone largely unquestioned, internationally there has been a growing interest in exploring horse culture, specifically during the early modern period in Europe. While such work may not at first appear relevant to the Australian context, closer scrutiny of this history reveals a perhaps surprising correlation between the cultural associations of the early modern period, and some of Australia’s more familiar equine tropes. The horse has attained a level of symbolic power across cultures and continents, and, while these remain culturally specific,[1] much of Australia’s equestrian symbolism can be seen to have historical antecedents, particularly in English traditions.

Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham argue that the cultural significance of the horse stems from within a social elite, as it was this group who “possessed the means, as well as the inclination, to judge horses according to their symbolic value as well as their functional capabilities, [and] viewed them not as luxuries but as essential signifiers of status.”[2] In Elizabethan England, for example, the horse was understood as a meter of worth for his human counterpart,[4] and “[t]he symbolic reading of the meaning of a horse and a noble rider, a perfect combination of the steed’s flowing action and lithe muscle and the rider’s learning, control and agency, was obvious and meaningful to all at the time”.[5] Conversely, when horses were imported to the Philippines by Spanish colonists, their adjustment to the climate and environmental conditions led to a rapid decrease in size. This physical diminution was reflected in a reduction of the horse’s symbolic power, and “it became more closely associated with the humdrum affairs of the colonised. … Far from enhancing the dignity of the coloniser, the [horse] now served only to mock him”.[6]

While an exact translation of cultural meanings across history and geography is impossible, the origins of many tropes now attached to representations of the horse in contemporary Australia can be seen to lie within this period of England’s history. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, horses came to be associated with a distinct English national identity,[7] at a time when the notion of such an identity was itself relatively new.[8] As Ian MacInnes argues, “horses contributed economically to the construction of the idea of “nation”… [and] attention to the horse was by extension attention to the land and its products.”[9] A century or two later in Australia, the horse similarly contributed to the construction of the nation, both literally, in the case of physical labour and the advantages of mounted settlers, and metaphorically, in the cultural imagination.

Elsewhere, we can see the high regard in which the thoroughbred horse is held in Australia, particularly in conjunction with its association with horse racing, as a trope transplanted more or less directly from England.  The thoroughbred is strongly associated with English cultural identity, and Richard Nash argues that, as a specifically and intentionally bred horse, it functions simultaneously as natural and artificial. [10] Interestingly, Nash’s positioning of the thoroughbred as a cultural artefact resonates with the refashioned form of many racehorse remains. If, due to their breeding, these animals are already understood subconsciously as a cultural artefact, then the physical transformation of their bodies into a concrete one assumes an (albeit strange) internal logic.

A conjunction between the horse and a nation’s performance in battle is another association with origins in the early modern period. As the pace of modernisation increased after the seventeenth century, weapons, and the nature of warfare, also modernised, leading to a reduced role for the horse in military life.[11] In parallel to this, the significance of the aristocracy in military hierarchy also decreased. This signalled a democratisation of the traditional apparatus of the cavalry, and lead to the formation of the Light Horse brigades, which replaced heavy cavalry.[12] In an Australian context, we can see how this emphasis on egalitarianism influences the narratives surrounding the exploits of the Light Horse during the First World War – by the time Australia was shaping up for battle alongside the allied forces in Europe during the early twentieth century, the notion of an egalitarian nation had been internalised, and reconfigured into something of an identity narrative.[13] This is evident in the importance of the Light Horse narrative in Australia’s cultural imagination – a nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism.

In an era and society where the horse was ubiquitous, images and representations of this animal were encoded with assumed cultural knowledge,[14] but such a uniform understanding of the symbolism of the horse has passed into history. With what understandings are contemporary Australian equestrian representations encoded?  Or have such symbolic understandings vanished altogether, as the horse becomes more and more distant from everyday life for the majority of Australians? Interestingly, the iconic status of the horse appears to have become entrenched in inverse proportion to its ubiquity. This fact is noted by Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, who contend that horses are estranged from the modern developed world, unfamiliar visitors who, though not exotic, are not prosaic either, and who attract attention in public spaces because of this.[15]

REFERENCES:

[1] Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, “Introduction,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 3.

[2] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7.

[3] Peter Edwards, Karl A.E. Enenkel and Elspeth Graham (eds), The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World (Leiden: Brill), 2012; Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (eds), The Culture of The Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World (New York: palgrave macmillan), 2005.

[4] Elizabeth Anne Socolow, “Letting Loose the Horses: Sir Philip Sidney’s Exordium to The Defence of Poesie,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 137.

[5] Socolow, “Letting Loose”, 137-38.

[6] Greg Bankoff, “Big Men, Small Horses: Ridership, Social Standing and Environmental Adaptation in the Early Modern Philippines,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 117.

[7] Ian F. MacInnes, “Altering a Race of Jades: Horse Breeding and Geohumoralism in Shakespeare,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 175; Richard Nash, “’Honest English Breed’: The Thoroughbred as Cultural Metaphor,” in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 246.

[8] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[9] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[10] Nash, “’Honest English Breed’,” 246.

[11] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[12] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[13] Catriona Elder, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2007), 41-42; 46; 49-52.

[14] Pia F. Cuneo, “Visual Aids: Equestrian Iconography and the Training of Horse, Rider and Reader,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 70 – 97.

[15] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 1.

Unbranded

Last week I attended a screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival (touring edition) here in Canberra, specifically to see the documentary “Unbranded” (thanks to my cousin once again for the tip-off !). This film touches on several American icons, including the mustang (equivalent of our brumby), the cowboy, and the Wild West, and it won the People’s Choice Award in this showcase of outdoorsy and adventure films.

The edit shown was an abridged version of the whole documentary, and only ran for 46 minutes, though the film in its entirety  runs for an additional hour. Unfortunately access to a complete cut of the film is currently unavailable in Australia, so I base my judgments solely on the parts of it I’ve seen.

Now, it has to be said upfront that this film deals with an American context, and for several reasons (which I will explore shortly) the mustang in America and the brumby in Australia are two entirely different beasts – both literally and figuratively! Watching the trailer on YouTube, I was frustrated at the thought that brumby advocates here in Australia might try to use this film as yet another argument for adopting the U.S. model of feral horse management. In fact very little of that “mustang narrative” featured in the version of the film that was screened as part of the BMFF. Instead, it was much more of a “boys’ own” adventure-type film, focusing heavily on the journey of these four young men, rather than the plight of the mustang.

So while this inhibits my ability to critique the film in terms of its portrayal of America’s feral horse populations, it still provides a useful entry point to consider the differences between the situation of the mustang, and that of the brumby. In the United States, the mustang was declared a protected species (along with the burro) during the 1970s. Though descended from the horses of 16th century Spanish colonisers, these feral horses were seen as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … [Mustangs] are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [1]

While many brumby advocates would like to see the implementation of similar policy in Australia, with brumbies considered as part of the ecosystem (particularly in the Snowy Mountains), there is a huge geo-evolutionary difference between the continents of Australia and North America. In fact, the horse evolved in the grasslands of North America millions of years ago, and continued to have a presence there until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. This long period of co-existence means that the North American continent truly did evolve alongside the horse, an argument that, though often mistakenly applied to the Australian High Country, simply does not hold true here.

Another interesting difference between the Australian and American contexts is that the main opponents of the feral horses in the U.S. are ranchers, who see these equine populations as competition for the resources of public grazing lands. Conversely, in Australia, where many grazing licences were revoked in order to establish National Parks (eg in the central plateau of Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW, and around Mt Kosciusko), the graziers affected are now among the core supporters of the brumby. It would be interesting to know what the attitudes of the Australian graziers of the past, who did have to compete with feral horse populations for access to public lands, would think of the present situation.

Of course there are also environmental concerns regarding the impact of herds of mustangs in the U.S. Where the presence of natural predators (such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears) remains, populations may be maintained in a healthy balance, though where these predators are absent, or in optimal conditions, populations can explode. This also occurs here in Australia, though without the presence of any natural predators to curb population growth, expansion is virtually unlimited. In spite of much smaller numbers of feral horses than in Australia, the U.S. is currently struggling to effectively manage these populations. As well as free-ranging populations, tens of thousands of horses are held in government facilities. To kill them is a felony offense.

The notion of following in the U.S.’s footsteps and proclaiming the brumby a National Treasure is absurd. Australia lacks comparable eco-systems and our evolutionary history is completely different. Further, the problems being faced in the U.S. now represent a compounding of the issues currently faced by Australia. While I personally don’t like that the majority of brumbies removed from NSW National Parks end up at the abattoir, and believe they should be culled on site to minimise the stress and trauma to the animals, imagine if this were to be made completely illegal. The mind boggles!

In short, while there are definite similarities between the regard in which the mustang is held in North America, and the brumby in Australia, and parallels in the management issues each nation is facing, the environmental and political situations of each continent is so different as to render the sort of sweeping comparisons frequently made between the two by brumby advocates meaningless.

REFERENCE:

[1] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), accessed 25 May 2016 http://www.all-creatures.org/alert/alert-20110920.pdf

In defence of public collections

Yesterday, Victorian auction house  Mossgreen auctioned off a large private collection of Phar Lap memorabilia, consisting mostly of race programs for events the horse competed in. The collector is an American named Gary Madeiros. Though he is portrayed as a sports fan, he is also acknowledged to be a former stockbroker who “knows how to accumulate and monetise.” [1]

Madeiros assiduously collected the Phar Lap material, writing to race clubs in Australia, and buying the last item in his collection, Phar Lap’s Agua Caliente race book, from the owner of a bar in “not the nicest neighbourhood” of San Francisco 5 years ago.[2] Now, the collection is valued at over $150,000,[3] though it was not being sold as a collection. Instead, every one of the 28 race programs was auctioned off separately. This, according to Mossgreen’s Max Williamson, is “to try and get them to collectors rather than museums.” [4]

Really? Why? What’s the objection to such objects going to museums? Of course the hard fiscal reality is that the greatest amount of cash will be realised by selling such items individually, and targeting wealthy private collectors rather than cash-strapped public institutions. But the above statement makes it sound like it is somehow morally preferable for these items to go into private hands, as though museums are the lesser choice.

This baffles me. Sold to private collectors, these socially and historically significant items will be squirelled away, enjoyed exclusively by those with the wealth to own them. Or perhaps they will go into a bank vault somewhere, where the next canny investor, fully cognisant that time will only increase their worth, sees them as a sound investment. This, of course, is completely anathema to the spirit of the museum. While it is true that only around 5% of a museum’s collection can ever be displayed at any one time, for reasons including space restrictions, resourcing, and conservation concerns, as public institutions museum collections are always available to their stakeholders – that is, the public – for research, even when not on display.

In rare instances (such as that of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia, and his hide at the Melbourne Museum), some objects that are held in such high regard by this public are retained on perpetual display in spite of what might be regarded best-practice conservation measures, simply because these objects are too important, and too well-loved, to ever be taken off exhibit.

Imagine if, at Phar Lap’s death, instead of Harry Telford’s donation of the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, or David Davis’s donation of the hide to National Museum of Victoria, these objects had been disdainfully withheld, and alternately been put into the hands of the highest bidder, disappearing into private collections? Do we imagine for one second that these iconic objects would be as accessible to Australians as they are today? As they have been for almost a century?

I understand someone’s desire to collect as an investment, and to reap the financial rewards of their collection. It’s what the art market is founded upon, after all. But I also strongly object to any intimation that historically significant material disappearing out of  the public sphere, unavailable for public access, is somehow preferable to its acquisition by a museum. Not for the material itself, and certainly not for Australian society more broadly. The only people to benefit in these scenarios are the investors who are selling, and the increased profit margins of the auction houses.

REFERENCES:

Chris Johnston, “Phar Lap ‘stuff’ worth $150,000, and climbing,” the age online, 7 May 2016, accessed 10 May 2016 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/the-phar-lap-stuff-worth-150000-and-climbing-20160506-goo6xs.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.