Friday, November 27, 2009

A November Update

The month has been all about the weather.......again. The southern part of the continent has been subjected to some of the hottest November weather on record. Adelaide in South Australia had its longest spring heatwave since records began in 1887, with eight consecutive days of more than 35 deg C.
The heatwave extended into Victoria and New South Wales with Sydney's average maximum temperature over 40 deg C during the third week of the month making it the city's hottest November day in 27 years. Added to all this were hundreds of bush fires breaking out all over the heat affected country.
While Melbourne's hot weather ended with a huge storm that dumped 55mm of rain (their November average) in 12 hours, we have had none.

This weather is a result of El Nino and is indicated by sustained negative values of the Southern Oscillation Index (SIO). These negative values are usually accompanied by sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a decrease in the strength of the Pacific Trade Winds, and a reduction in rainfall over eastern and northern Australia.
Our main concern is the state of our dams for watering the cattle. This is becoming more critical as the 'big dry' continues but we are set up to divert water from our house tanks to enable us to trough water them. As they each drink 25 to 30L/day this of course puts pressure on our reserves so despite having more than enough for our domestic needs, we are once again applying 'restrictions' to have as much spare water as possible should it be needed. It is possible to buy water by the tanker load but we would like to avoid this considerable expense if possible. This is a part of our country life that bemuses some of our 'city' friends who think water continuously appears with a turn of a tap, no matter how much you use.
Apart from all that, the grapevines are enjoying the warm dry weather and we have been able to reduce the necessity of fungal sprays considerably.
The remaining 2009 vintage in the tanks is progressing well. The Cabernet Sauvignon seems to have a little more body than normal which is probably due to the grapes being that little more ripe resulting in a higher alcohol level. The Pinot Noir which I had given up on due to the development of a distinctive "sherry" nose (the result of oxidation) seems to have recovered. Dedicated Pinot winemakers will tell you this can happen and to be patient, all will be well. I was, up until now, a sceptic. So looks like we will be bottling these two after Christmas to make way for the 2010 vintage.
Our vege garden is progressing well despite the heat and the dry. For the time being we are 'allocating' irrigation water from our domestic stash.
We went beach fishing one day with Neighbour Bob and the co-driver in her first attempt at the this outshone us both with a good catch.
We caught good sized Australian Salmon which aren't really salmon at all but members of the Arripidae family. Early European settlers thought they looked like the northern hemisphere salmon hence the name. To my mind they are strongly flavoured, coarse and have a slightly oily flesh that makes them less than desirable as a food fish. But they put up one hell of a fight when caught so they are a great sports fish. We always throw back what we don't need for that night's meal despite there being no bag limit.
It looks like I may have to invest in some additional gear to keep the new fisherperson happy.
We have taken our first tentative dip in the surf. Cool but not painful. I think we lasted twenty minutes. The good news here is that the water temperature has increased by one degree in the last month. So it's all systems go for December.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bush Fire Aftermath

It's been about ten weeks now since bush fires ravaged the countryside around us. We had only a glimpse of the damage that had been done before we left for the USA. As we headed out for our long roundabout trip to Sydney airport back in August we were confronted by the smoking remnants of the fire that had burnt through the Meroo National Park right on our doorstep.
However on our return we had time to absorb the enormity of the desolation. Thousands of hectares of state forest, national park and private property had been devastated. The two major fires had burnt from the mountains to the west of us to the beach. It was only luck and the skill of the Rural Fire Service that protected dwellings and prevented any loss of life.
In the forests just the gum trees, the eucalypts, have been left standing. The entire understorey is gone. In the coastal heath there is nothing. Just blackened sticks.
But Australia is the driest continent on earth with a high incidence of fire so many plant species have adapted to this over the millenniums.
Take Eucalypts for instance. Many species possess lignotubers. These are a woody swelling at the base of the stem which contain buds and food reserves. They develop new shoots rapidly after fire. The lignotubers are usually accompanied by epicormic buds located within the bark which cause the familiar sight of red shoots springing from a blackened trunk.
We are beginning to see this!
Many species however don't have this feature and rely on bark thickness or a heat reflective or absorbent bark to resist fire. However an intense fire will often kill these species. But the death of the tree accelerates seed shed and those together with that shed in the years before, and kept dormant by low light, will suddenly spring to life. This is a result of the enhanced nutrition of the seed bed and the reduced canopy shading, both caused by the fire.
Lignotubers are also evident in many shrubs and small trees of the Proteaceae eg. Banksia sp., Casuarinaceae and Leguminosae to name a few. But unfortunately the majority of understorey plants in our region will have to rely on seed regeneration.
Banksia ericifolia for instance are killed outright by fire and the recovery of the species depends on the accelerated seed shed a fire induces. It has been found that seeds are released earlier and quicker from cones exposed to high fire temperature. If the fire is followed by periods of good rainfall, a very large proportion of seed will germinate. So while we have had some rain and there is some evidence of ground cover regeneration activity, we will need a lot more to see the forest return to its previous condition.
From other areas near us that have been fire devastated in the past, it seems that it takes about five years for the bush to return to "normal" with the only evidence of fire being random blackened tree trunks under the green/blue canopy of leaves.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

American History

History was always a bit of a boring subject when I went to school. Lots of dates and incidents to memorise, list of kings and queens to be learnt by heart and names of lots of people to remember.
Then in my final year I had a teacher who broke the mould and began to tell us about what caused those date/incidents to happen, what actually happened and what the result(s) of all that was immediately and into the future. And suddenly for me history became a less of a chore. It was Samuel Eliot Morison who said that history could be read for pleasure, James Parton who argued that historical writing need not be encyclopedic and A.J. Langguth who considered it high praise when his historical non fiction was said ‘to read like a novel’.
So what is all this about?
I had been a regular visitor to the USA since 1969 but mainly as a tourist. In the greater part of the last decade however, I have spent longer periods of time there and lived like a resident. Living a day to day life in one place is certainly much different from just passing through seeking out tourist icons. And when you have time on your hands, as a househusband does (foreigners are not allowed to work), you tend to be more observant of what is going on around you and you begin to wonder why things are the way they are.
At school, American history was limited to a cursory look at Columbus, the Pilgrims, War of Independence, Civil War and the expansion westward (the latter aided and abetted by Hollywood during Saturday afternoon matinees). British and European history, even at the expense of Australian, was considered more important. The fact that the American War of Independence was a major factor in the settlement of Australia was never fully appreciated. Where else was England to send her unwanted felons after losing her North American colonies? If it were not for that event, we might all be speaking French in Australia right now.
But I digress.

So I was on the look out for books that would not only describe and explain American historical events but would be entertaining as well. Certainly there are multiple shelves of American history books at places like Barnes & Noble, Borders etc. so it made choosing a little difficult. As with most things now, information on the Internet proved invaluable. Sifting through numerous book reviews narrowed down the field considerably.
So starting with the War of Independence I can pass on a few of the books that I have enjoyed and recommend not only as historically interesting but also as "a good read".
Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth. This looks at the Revolution through the eyes of the major players who took part in it and approaches the subject as a story. It finishes in 1783 with George Washington returning to Mt. Vernon in the hope of a peaceful retirement.
Union 1812 by the same author continues that story with Washington’s return to public life and the events that lead to America’s second war of independence, the War of 1812. Again it is a story of all the major players; Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Madison et al. plus those who fought the battles. Mrs. Madison also scores a chapter.

This period produced a significant event in American history, the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson’s Great Gamble by Charles A. Cerami is an entertaining story of 30 months of "high drama, blandishment, posturing and secret manoeuvres of some of the most powerful and crafty men of their time" involved in the Purchase. One million square miles for four cents an acre must be one of the best real estate deals of all time.
Another fascinating story of the time is the exploration of the Louisiana Territory via the Missouri River, Rocky Mountains to the west coast by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark under instructions from Thomas Jefferson.
The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Volumes 1-3) edited by Elliot Coues is a detailed account. This may be a bit hard going for all but the affectionado but there is an excellent abridged version of their diaries, The Journals of Lewis & Clark by Bernard DeVoto.
Add to this the PBS DVD of Ken Burn’s Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and you’ll have more information about this epic journey than you know what to do with. And some of the photography in the DVD is stunning. You can tell I am a fan of this particular story!

Apparently the American Civil War has had more books written about it than any other subject in the English speaking world. This is again clear from the amount of work on the bookshelves. Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative seemed an obvious choice but three volumes with a million and a half words on three thousand pages was a bit daunting.
I chose Battle Cry of Freedom by James A. McPherson. This Pulitzer Prize winner not only covers the military aspects of the war in enough detail, but also describes the complex economic, political, and social forces behind the conflict. And in only 900 pages!
Look Away! By William C. Davis is a fascinating insight into the social, political and military aspects of the Confederacy before, during and after the conflict.
And finally, following on from that, is The State of Jones by Sally Henkins and John Stauffer, a story of Union resistance in the State of Mississippi during the war. This is a controversial book that has some debating whether it is fact or fiction. But the main character aside, it does give a picture of what the deep south was like particularly post war during Reconstruction, the reasons for it and maybe why some attitudes exist there even to this day.
So we are slowing working our way up through the decades. Still a long way to go but it is sure to be worth while persevering.