Prickly Pear makes a comeback

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Photo of Prickly Pear near Roma by Bob Wilson

You don’t have to travel far inland in Queensland to see that Prickly Pear, the invasive scourge of farmland in the early 1900s, is making a comeback. ‘The Pear’ as it is sometimes known by farmers, has started to re-appear, growing and spreading after the floods of 2011 and 2012.

The Opuntia species (a member of the Cactaceae family) was introduced to Australia (by white settlers) in the late 1880s to form hedges and provide fodder for times of drought.

Prickly Pear, a cactus plant from the Americas, thrived in the Australian outback. The combination of cacti and rabbits, another introduced species, took a heavy toll on Australian farmland at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Prickly Pear was a major problem. After some years of experimentation, authorities introduced a biological control in the form of the Latin American Cactoblastis Moth. The moth lays eggs on the prickly pear and its larvae eat the cactus. This was hailed as one of the world’s most successful examples of biological control (the moth eggs were distributed manually). Within six years all varieties of the prickly pear cactus had disappeared.

Not so circa 2017, with varieties of Prickly Pear re-emerging along roadsides and in paddocks around western Queensland and the southern Downs. When we travel I notice things like this and habitually make notes (usually when I’m a passenger).

In some areas (Goondwindi to Inglewood is particularly bad); the cactus has spread into farmland back from the road. Some plants look unwell, though whether through poisoning or biological controls we don’t know.

At this point it should be noted that the variety known as Tree Pear (photos) has some resistance to Cactoblastis, though it can succumb to a cochineal insect. The Southern Downs Regional Council recommends the application of herbicides.

In the interests of moistening a dry subject, let me digress and mention two folk bands that enshrined the Prickly Pear legend into folklore.

Toowoomba musicians John and Sandy Whybird formed Cactoblastis Bush Band when John, then a high school teacher at Chinchilla, saw what Prickly Pear could do to the land. He taught students about the pest and the late 1920s solution to the invasive species.

The band, which recently recorded a CD, performed at the Chinchilla Museum last September to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of Cactoblastis to the area.

A Brisbane folk duo (Jan Davis and the late Tony Miles), adopted the clever stage name Prickly Pair. They played together for eight years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My research led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines Prickly Pair as slang for the stubble growing back on a man’s testicles after shaving (for an operation or whatever).

Anyway, the Common Pest Pear is back and local farmers ought to know that notification of infestation is required under the Biosecurity Act 2014. No-one expects a problem of the scale which caused farmers to walk off their land after ‘The Pear’ and rabbits finished off what floods and drought had missed. There’s a plaque alongside the Moonie River at Nindigully that commemorates the success of the Cactoblastis moth, when the use of poisons and cochineal insects proved to be ineffective.

Early settlers, in their wisdom, decided to set up a cochineal industry to provide dye for clothing. The cochineal is a scale insect from which the natural dye is extracted. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti then brushed off and dried.

The Pear is commonly spread by birds and animals eating the fruit and excreting seeds. However, the new spread of Prickly Pear has been accelerated by floods moving broken cacti pads from one location to another.

The State Government’s Business Queensland website describes the Pear as “vigorous in hot, dry conditions, causing other plants to lose vigour or die. It competes and invades pastures and impedes stock movement and mustering.”

Authorities took the rampaging cacti seriously and began investigating biological control agents in 1912. More than 150 insect species were studied, with 18 insects and one mite released in Queensland.

Today, eight insects, including Cactoblastis cactorum remain established in Queensland. An article by Leonie Seabrook and Clive McAlpine in the Queensland Historical Atlas describes Prickly Pear in Queensland as a generic term for five different Opuntia cacti.  Three are low-growing shrubs up to 1.5 metres high and two are tree pears, growing up to three metres. The article observes that at the height of the infestation in 1925, prickly pear had spread across 24 million hectares in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the (imported) Cactoblastis Moth was hailed as a biological saviour, early settlers must shoulder the blame for importing invasive species and pests into Australia. Apart from prickly pear and many other weed species, settlers also introduced cane toads, rabbits and feral goats, pigs, cats, brumbies, foxes and camels.

Prickly Pear observations aside, we had four lovely days hiking in Carnarvon Gorge where the weather was balmy. It did rain on the last day but I went for a walk anyway. It’s only rain, as they say in NZ.

As you’ll have gathered, we just spent 10 days towing our little caravan out to Carnarvon Gorge via Rolleston and back via Injune, Roma, St George, Nindigully, Goondiwindi and Warwick. Today we headed home, via Toowoomba and Esk.

Other on-road observations included a lot of road kill, a feral cat, a lone kangaroo out in the middle of the day, a couple of pelicans in a dam, two emus foraging in the long grass, an abandoned car that had been pillaged for parts and a bloke on a recumbent bicycle (the rider lying down and pedalling in a reclining position). We saw two vans smaller than our 12-footer and a massive RV being towed by a 4×4 (with a small car being towed behind that).

We had the usual (and unusual) mishaps common to most caravan expeditions. Like trying to move the car when it was still shackled to the caravan by metal chains (good one, Bob). I bought one of those stainless steel coffee percolators you brew on the stove. First cup I poured tasted a little soapy. As I sipped further down the cup it transpired someone had left a spoonful of congealed dishwashing liquid in the bottom of the cup. (Guess who usually does the dishes? Ed.)

A highlight of the trip was the free camp at Nindigully, where about 50 caravanners were camped beside the Moonie River. A goodly number of them gathered in the pub to watch the State of Origin decider. Many people left at half-time (we assume they were NSW supporters or maybe they were just cold). The ones who remained were in good spirits, taking their crushing defeat like good sports. As we headed back to the van in the dark we heard a chorus of cheering and the war cry ‘Queenslander!’ from the pub.

How do you reckon NSW will go next year?” I asked She Who Spilt A Pot of Pepper In the Van But Didn’t Want It Mentioned.

“I reckon they’re cactus,” she said, chortling quietly under her maroon beanie.

Online subscribers might have noticed we did not file a FOMM last week. That’s because we were out bush and offline. I did post a 2014 column to email subscribers. You can read it here:

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/approval/v2?auto=false&response=code%3D4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s&approvalCode=4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s

One drink too many

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one-drink-too-many

The smell of Scotch makes me want to puke. That’s an astonishing thing for a Scot to say. Let’s call it a physical memory; traces of a bender with no recollections to go with the nauseating smell.

Our State of Origin friends gathered on Wednesday for food, wine, conviviality and (as it turned out), a fairly subdued evening as our team was soundly beaten. I’d forgotten to get some sparking mineral water or what we call “fake wine”. One of our guests brought a bottle of the latter and shared a glass. The alcohol-removed option is a rare treat because it is just as expensive as buying a bottle of wine.

It has been so long since alcohol touched my lips I rarely have to refuse alcohol when socialising.

“His is a ginger beer,” someone will say when we have choir wine nights. Most people just accept that I don’t drink. Years ago I went to lunch with a business contact who kept pressing me to drink, to the point where I said “Mate, you don’t need my approval. If you want another, have another.” We never went to lunch again.

Since I decided to stop drinking, circa 1984, I have never been tempted to start again. My (former) drinking mates would say “Oh well you obviously weren’t an alcoholic, then if you could just stop like that.” A couple of people I knew decided to quit around the same time. We never had the conversation because I rarely drank with those two. They had an enormous capacity while I was a two-pot screamer. If I started drinking wine or spirits after two or three beers, the night would be a write-off. As far as I’m aware, they did the 12 Steps and never fell off the wagon, which is universal parlance for starting to drink again.

I did go to an AA meeting once, in Auckland, circa something. The group comprised mostly rough-looking young men, a few teenage girls and a couple of middle-aged men and women you could pass in the supermarket and never think “Jeez, she looks like an alkie.”

One of the traits of a long-term alcoholic is to hide it from partners, children, extended family and friends. If friends and family enjoy a social drink, they will probably not notice you starting on the third bottle of wine.

AA impressed me because (a) it was anonymous (b) you could share your story and not feel as if you were being judged and (c) there was a cast-iron understanding that your story would not be told outside the room. I’d been an agnostic since my teenage years and decided that talking to God and following the 12 Steps was not going to work for me. I had a two-week break from drinking, decided to have a few at the weekly folk club and woke up next day not remembering anything from the night before. This was not a fuzzy, “Oh, now I remember” night. It was like someone had sliced a piece out of my brain and it never came back. Two weeks later (after another break) I got on another bender and the same thing happened. Next morning, the car was sitting in the driveway covered in mud.

It was so like the Paul Kelly song that emerged three or four years later:

“The sergeant asked me softly “Now do you recall?”
It all looked so familiar as though I’d dreamt it all;
I don’t remember a thing, I don’t remember a thing.”

(Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Under the Sun)

So I quit. She Who Likes a Social Drink was a bit pissed (sorry, annoyed), that I threw out the remains of a wine cask.

If I could recap the life I lived since that day 34 years ago, you could chart it on an Excel spreadsheet; my professional life, physical and mental health and creative life all on an upward trajectory. It was not, as I feared, that being sober would rob me of rich ideas for my songwriting and short fiction. The opposite occurred. I rediscovered the serenity which comes from long vigorous walks, during which I was writing things in my head. My performance as a husband, father and friend, however, was like Telstra shares, a good income provider, punctuated with periods of poor performance.

You may wonder what brought this on – it’s not an anniversary of anything, I’m not inclined to fall off the wagon, even though Queensland lost the State Of Origin and the Baby Broncos got thumped by The Warriors. Two things gave me pause to revisit my drinking days, where I’d get drunk quickly and cheaply, slowly beginning to understand (sometimes) that I was the only drunk person in the room and that my real friends were just putting up with me. A silly bore, but never obnoxious. We all know the obnoxious drunk; the kind who get in your face and insist that you (the sober one), must be some kind of wimp because you won’t take a drink.

The other triggering factor was a story in The Monthly which is ostensibly about AA (the organisation) but more about the author’s personal struggle with alcohol and how AA helps and maybe doesn’t help. The remarkable thing about Jenny Valentish’s story* is that it stands alone as critical essay about an 82-year-old organisation which is rarely scrutinised.

AA mean Alcoholics Anonymous, which means you can repent under a cloak of anonymity. You could be a big rock star or the chief executive of Very Big Inc and no-one knows or should know you are a recovering alcoholic. One of the precepts of AA is that you never ‘get over it’. You’re an alcoholic and one drink will bring you undone.

Valentish observes that AA has made no significant updates to its doctrine, despite “a growing mountain of evidence-based research”. AA won’t change its literature without the approval of 75% of members worldwide. Three addiction experts reviewed the Big Book in 1985. Psychologist Albert Ellis was concerned by the lack of emphasis on self-management.

“By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work or and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”

Valentish starts her essay by confessing to a relapse after seven years sober. She says AA helped her a lot when she stopped drinking the first time. But by AA’s rules, if you have a relapse, you have ‘failed’ and have to start the 12 Steps all over again.

The organisation holds the 12 Steps (based on Christian principles), to be sacrosanct and it seems to work for problem drinkers (if they are determined to stop).

So go ahead and have a drink while you watch the Roosters give the Baby Broncos a pasting. If you can stop at 2, jolly good luck. I never could.

*One Step Beyond by Jenny Valentish, page 46 The Monthly, June, 2017

Rugby league vs State of Origin

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No State of Origin for Broncos halfback Ben Hunt, who returns from injury for the NZ Warriors game on Saturday (Benji Marshall in the wings) Photo courtesy

Dear readers, it’s time for those of you who don’t like rugby league or sport in general to get back to posting cat and dog photos on Facebook. Today we ask the unthinkable: why not scrap this faux State rivalry  called State of Origin and let footie players get back to their own teams?

Each year at this time, professional rugby league players face a massive conflict. If you’re good enough, fit enough and have that perceived ‘spark’ you’ll get picked for State Of Origin.

Kick-off for the first of three State of Origin games is this Wednesday evening. It’s Queensland vs New South Wales, although not really. You can be born and bred in Cunnamulla, but if your first senior game was played in Dubbo, then by default you become a NSW representative – a “Cockroach”. Likewise for the Queensland team. If you played your first senior footie for Brothers in Brisbane, you’re a Cane Toad.

But as Brisbane Broncos Chairman Dennis Watt says, “It’s always part of every player’s dream to play for their State and play for their country. If they get picked, nobody says no.”

Mr Watt says the State of Origin period (May 31-July 12) is a difficult management issue for the Brisbane Broncos, who have six senior players in the Queensland team for State of Origin I.

“It’s a big impost on the club but also an opportunity for younger players coming through.

“The fear is that top players will be injured. Traditionally we (Broncos) have not done well through the Origin period, with the exception of 2015.

“My other fear is that the junior players will eat too much at the buffet,” he quipped.

A touring group of 45 players, coaches and support staff left Brisbane this week, flying to Auckland for the match against the New Zealand Warriors. The group included 20 players from the Broncos under-20 team, who will also play on Saturday. All travel, accommodation and ancillary costs are covered by the NRL.

“The downside of State of Origin is that we are missing some of our best players,” he said. “We haven’t been playing great footy for 80 minutes (this year), but there’s a bit of grit about the team.”

Mr Watt, a former newspaper executive, says he is enjoying the challenge of helping Broncos chief executive Paul White oversee the construction of the Broncos’ new $27 million headquarters at Red Hill.

NRL.Com’s New Zealand correspondent Corey Rosser, previewing Saturday’s game at Mt Smart Stadium, seemed to be predicting a Broncos win. He reminded readers of the Warriors 30-14 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons last week, while Brisbane scored six tries against the Wests Tigers to win 36-0.

Six Broncos players and Warriors veteran Jacob Lillyman will miss the Round 12 match in Auckland due to State of Origin commitments. The Broncos will be missing Darius Boyd, Corey Oates, Anthony Milford, Josh McGuire, Matt Gillett and Sam Thaiday. Also missing from the squad is hooker Andrew McCullough (injured).

Halfback Ben Hunt returns from injury, joining utility player Benji Marshall, who has had limited playing time for the Broncos in 2017. Newcomers or players who rarely get a run include Jai Arrow, Jonus Pearson, Jaydn Su’A, Travis Waddell and George Fai (making his first-grade debut). The Broncos named Tevita Pangai Junior, Jamayne Isaako and Joe Boyce as reserves.

We were at Lang Park stadium in Brisbane on May 13 for the ‘double-header’ rugby league event. We got there at 5.15 and the first game between The Gold Coast Titans and the Melbourne Storm had already started. The crowd, which later swelled to 44,127, was already vocal. There were conflicting cries of “Go Billy, Go” or “Hayne Train.” If you want a quiet Saturday night out, don’t do it to yourself.

It is interesting how a football stadium becomes a microcosm of the broader city. There were a few “pre-loaded” young blokes intent upon drinking themselves into a stupor, a few young women wearing heels and nightclub clothes instead of the ubiquitous Broncos fan jumpers. There were also happy family groups behind and in front of us, one woman willing to take our photo ‘in situ.’

“Don’t try posting that to Facebook from here, mate” she advised. “Everyone’s on it and it will take ages to upload.” She was right. The Titans made an unbelievable comeback and beat the Storm 38-36.

Then we were between matches. The Manly cheerleaders came on the field in tiny white shorts and halter tops and did a dance routine. Many people streamed out and thronged to the bar. There were queues for food, queues for the loos and those not otherwise engaged were checking their phones or checking out the tiny white shorts.

When I returned to my seat, the Little League game was in progress. These keen young kids play across a small section of the field at half-time. Even with the under-6 kids, you can spot the future stars. They are the ones who run straight and hard, tackle properly or who show footwork and pace. One particular young lad crossed the goal line four times. There are a few different age categories of mini league kids between 6 and 10. Hard to know which is which when there’s no commentary, just a seemingly muddled group of kids getting carved up by the three or four who know what’s going on.

“Go, son, go” came a shout from somewhere behind me, “Go! You beauty.” (as the kid scored between the plastic goal posts.

Then Manly (boo) and the Brisbane Broncos (yay) ran out for the main match. We were up and down like that Whack-A-Mole sideshow game. Every few minutes we were standing, flipping back our seats back while someone struggled their way to the other end of the row, carrying four dribbling beers in a plastic tray. This went on all night, even though drinks are expensive at Lang Park (sorry, Suncorp Stadium). She Who Listens to the Radio While Watching Footie shouted “Why don’t you sit down and stay sat.” I pointed out that as she had headphones in her ears, the remark may have been louder than she thought. “Good,” she mouthed.

Despite a dismal first half, when Manly piled on 14 unanswered points, one of the best coaches in the game (Wayne Bennett) must have said inspiring words at half-time. The Broncos came back from a 14-0 deficit to win the match 24-14.

As 44,127 people were being squeezed like toothpaste out of Suncorp Stadium’s various exits, I had that panicky feeling like when you’re about to go under anaesthetic but nobody has given you pethidine yet.

If you don’t like crowds and noise and can’t afford decent seats, you’re far better off watching rugby league on TV, or listen to the game on ABC Grandstand. You’ll get a better word picture of the game and even details often missed by Nine’s commentators like who replaced who from the bench (and why). And you’ll never hear discussions about whether players should wear their socks up or down.

Shut up, Gus!

 

Time capsule tips

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Photo of Colin Meads: Commons wiki/File:Colin_Meads_Sheep.jpg

From the misty annals of childhood comes a memory of the town fathers burying a time capsule, not to be opened for 100 years. They had asked the townsfolk for suggestions as to what the capsule should contain and our little urchin’s cabal suggested such items as an alarm clock (with two bells atop), a gob-stopper, that famous photo of All Black Colin Meads with a sheep under each arm, a train ticket and a can of pick-up-sticks. Somebody said we should get an episode of Life with Dexter and put that in too.

Digression alert: it is untrue that Meads (1960s rugby version of Paul Gallen), kept fit running up and down hills on his farm with a sheep under each arm.

Historians and archivists may scoff, but the practice of encapsulating the trivial lives of a cross-section of society for future generations is still in vogue. Time capsules are often buried beneath the foundations of a new building to mark a special occasion, a centenary, perhaps. The idea is to set a date in the future when they should be dug up and opened.

General interest in the concept increased after Westinghouse created one as part of its exhibit for the 1939 New York World Fair.

The 2.3 metre long, 360kg capsule, made of copper, chromium and silver alloy, contained items including a spool of thread and doll, a vial of food crop seeds, a microscope and a 15-minute newsreel. There were also microfilm spools containing such prosaic fare as a Sears Roebuck catalogue.

Wikipedia’s entry says Westinghouse buried a second capsule in 1965. Both are set to be opened in 6939, that is, 4,922 years from now.

Sometimes time capsules rise to the surface before the appointed time. When the statue of John Robert Godley, the founder of Christchurch, toppled to the ground during the 2011 earthquake, workers pawing through the rubble found two time capsules under the plinth. A glass bottle containing parchment and a long metal container were handed to the Christchurch museum.

Director Anthony Wright told the Daily Mail a third capsule was discovered beneath the base of the cross of the badly damaged Christchurch Cathedral. All three capsules were opened a month later and were found to contain items including old newspapers and photographs, a City of Christchurch handbook (1922-23), what appears to be a civic balance sheet, a few coins and a brass plate.

So what’s it all about, then? As self-confessed time capsule nerd Matt Novak writes, time capsules rarely reveal anything of historical value. In many ways, time capsules are like small private museums which are locked up for 100 years or more and nobody is allowed to visit.

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Time capsule in Seattle containing seeds. Photo by Eli Duke (flickr)

The exemplar of the genre so far is the 200-year old Boston time capsule, discovered in January by construction crews. The capsule was set into the cornerstone of a building by one of the nation’s founding fathers, Samuel Adams, and patriot silversmith Paul Revere. The contents of the capsule (coins, newspapers, photographs and a silver plaque inscribed by Revere), now belong to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The National Archives of Australia maintains a web page dedicated to serving people who are planning to bury a time capsule for posterity.

The NAA says careful choice of materials to be included in a time capsule will contribute to the longevity of both contents and capsule.

The latter is worth bearing in mind, given that witnesses to the Christchurch unearthing said one of the capsules ‘smelled like blue cheese.’

The International Time Capsule Society estimates there are between 10,000 and 15,000 time capsules worldwide.

The notion is popular with schools, particularly those with a strong sense of tradition. In celebration of its golden jubilee in 2007, Epping Boys High School of Sydney (whose alumni includes rock musician Iva Davies and barrister and TV presenter Geoffrey Robertson) invited Prime Minister John Howard to plant a new time capsule but also, as the Old Boys Union reported, open the one buried in 1982 (the silver jubilee). Alas, the school was closed for the holidays, so your intrepid reporter was unable to unearth a description of the capsule’s contents.

This set me to thinking just what should be inside a time capsule buried, for example, in the foundations of a massive new public housing eco village planned for, say, Wentworth.

It would have to be a big-arse capsule, because I’d be recommending items for posterity include the mechanical rabbit from Wentworth Park. If that is not possible, then at least include a Dapto Dogs racebook, so citizens 100 years hence can ponder the curious sport of dog racing.

The capsule should contain a large lump of brown coal (they won’t miss it, honest), so future generations can see why the planet went amiss.

She Who is Glass Half Full This Week says we ought to include some Aussie inventions: plastic money, the electronic pacemaker, the black box recorder, the cochlear implant…

Countering all this world-changing innovation, we need to show the substance abuse issues of the 21st century – a hemp shoulder bag filled with all the illicit drugs of the day, and for good measure a bottle of whatever young kids turn to when binge drinking, and a packet of fags, adorned with graphic images of tongue and lip cancer.

It might not work in a hundred years’ time, but we should include a smart phone, charger and spare battery, along with a hard-copy cheat sheet. And yes, what 2016 time capsule would be complete without a victorious Queensland State of Origin team photo, hunkering down, singing aye-yai-yippy-yippy in 17 different keys, making odd, triumphant finger gestures.

The NAA might warn us not to use ephemeral recording materials, but what else do we have? I’d suggest a special DVD edition of Q&A with Alan Jones, Steve Price, Andrew Bolt, Phillip Adams, John Pilger and Marcia Langton discussing indigenous land rights, refugees and free speech, with Tony Jones trying to keep them all on point.

One could have such fun filling a time capsule. Items bound to puzzle people in 2116 could include: a (new) disposable nappy, a coffee pod, a Go Card, a government-issue hearing aid, one of those ear-expanding discs some young people wear so they can look like primitive tribes from darkest Africa. We could employ a taxidermist to stuff a cane toad and a feral cat and include literature explaining their stories. I’d be tempted to Include copies of every newspaper editorial before (and after) the 2016 election, just to show that whatever passes for punditry 100 years from now was always thus.

It could be fun to somehow preserve a ‘best of Facebook photo album’ to show future generations what people did with their spare time. It would not take long to curate images of tattooed people, pierced people, nude bike riders, hipsters, cats and dogs doing odd but cute things, photos of what people had for lunch, independent bands nobody ever heard of (now or in 100 years’ time), absolute proof that the earth is flat, out of focus selfies, a video of a serious young dude performing a handfarting cover of a Pink Floyd song (this really is on YouTube. Ed) and 17 versions of the same sunset.

Oh, and let’s not forget to include a laminated copy of that Friday guy’s take on time capsules.