Recently I went to see the movie Red Dog, which is set in the Pilbara, a place very close to my heart.
This gentle film captured not just the joys of living with a cheeky kelpie who does exactly as it pleases (also close to my heart) but how the shimmering horizon beckons, where blue sky sweeps across a red and yellow landscape and where the red dust gets under your skin - and just about everywhere else.
My first visit to the Pilbara was in 1996, when I returned from the US to Australia to take up a post-doc position in plant ecology at UWA . I've been going back and forth to the northwest ever since.
I grew up in the bush of the northern Victorian mallee, another place of red earth and endless blue sky and lots of space which, at least in part, explains my innate attraction to the Pilbara. I'd much rather be in spinifex than in a close, wet forest any day (well, except maybe those days when it's over 45°C when I'd rather be sitting in a gorge).
My dad gave me a book when I was ten years old called Iron Mountain (by Mavis Thorpe Clark and still a great read) that told the story of a family moving to Tom Price from Melbourne in the early days of iron ore mining - it must have influenced me since here I am, many years later, working on issues relating to ecological sustainability in the Pilbara.
The Pilbara, like much of arid Australia, has received little research attention despite escalating development across the region. Burgeoning mining activities and growing populations, from the coast through to the inland ranges, are placing increasing pressure on resources such as water, and significant ecological challenges.
These challenges are coupled with wonderful opportunities to develop new understanding of how these ecosystems work. As a field-based scientist, I love my time in the Pilbara possibly more than any other aspect of my work. It's fun (almost all of the time!) and at times I can't quite believe that I get paid to be doing what I would most like to do anyway.
Most ecologists would likely answer the same way. What's not to like about getting dirty excavating a root system or paddling around in a creek bed collecting water samples followed by a cold beer with good company at the end of the day?
I get to spend time in some of my most favourite places in the world, doing and discussing science (and everything else under the sun) with a fantastic group of dedicated PhD students and colleagues from academia, industry and government.
I also get to talk with people from a myriad of backgrounds about their observations of ecological change in the Pilbara and the way ecosystems are managed. There are many people who are passionate about this beautiful part of the world, not just because of the economic benefits brought by the mining boom, but also because it's a fascinating place with a rather unique combination of dramatic light, ancient landscapes, intriguing geology, high plant and animal diversity, contrasting gorge systems and arid grasslands and a long and proud Aboriginal history coupled with a more recent and diverse history of pastoralism.
Taking students to the Pilbara is another opportunity to go north. This was our fifth year taking botany students on a two-day road trip each way, with a week's field work in between, to learn about plant surveys in the Pilbara, all only made possible through the generous support of Rio Tinto.
I love opening students' eyes to new experiences and possibilities, particularly to the opportunities that are available to them as budding botanists and ecologists. I also envy them slightly that first revelation of what an awesome place the Pilbara is! As a teacher, one of the most satisfying student comments is when they tell me how much they learnt from the experience.
Dr Pauline Grierson
School of Plant Biology and Ecosystems Research Group
Published in UWA News, 22 August 2011
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