Bonilla on O'Gorman, 'Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin'

Emily O'Gorman
Francisco Javier Bonilla

Emily O'Gorman. Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. xvii + 261 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74915-0.

Reviewed by Francisco Javier Bonilla (Carnegie Mellon University) Published on H-Environment (July, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Francisco Javier Bonilla on Emily O'Gorman, Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin

Emily O’Gorman’s second book on the history of the Murray Darling Basin is a complex and sophisticated study of different areas of Australia that attests to the theoretical growth of river histories in the last decade. While O’Gorman’s first book, Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (2012), wove a narrative of this massive watershed through focusing on the role of floods in the formation of a more traditional river history, Wetlands in a Dry Land focuses on more granular, temporally overlapping processes that give agency to more-than-human actors in the production of the wetlands of this river system. O’Gorman historicizes indigenous peoples’, ornithologists’, seals’, pelicans’, and many others’ entanglements to show how watery places are co-constituted by an assemblage of human and nonhuman relations. This is a timely analysis as it combines deep archival work with more anthropological approaches to conservation and political ecology. By showing how wetlands are always the changing outcome of a plurality of multispecies interactions, the study as a whole also levies a stinging critique at global wetlands protection, a domain still dominated by Ramsar-style discourse.

The book is organized in seven chapters, all with a verb in their title. Each refers to a specific action in the co-constitutive process of these wetlands. Rather than parsed out by animal, every process examined is the result of a set of multispecies relations. The first chapter, Weaving, relies most on nonarchival sources and is thus the most contemporary of the lot. O’Gorman theorizes human weaving as just as integral to the environment and world making as animal weaving, and argues that it is a medium for indigenous women to remain on Country amid social pressures and ecological constraints. Indigenous women gained a late entry to the water politics of dams and drought that govern flows to the marshes, the places where vegetation which provides material fundamental for weaving grows. Their demands on state and federal authorities derive from the nature of those sedges and rushes, combined with the fire knowledge that indigenous peoples employed to obtain the best fibers from these. This chapter adds an important cultural dimension to the study, but the historian might wonder about change over time germane to these weaving practices and how these changed amid the frontier violence of the nineteenth century.

Chapter 2 has an even more innovative theoretical framework and is the only chapter that brings urban history into the equation. It gives agency to the swamps located on the site that became the city of Toowoomba, and uses the concept of “leakiness and recalcitrance” to trace how they “troubled borders, boundaries, and townships” from early British settlement in the 1850s through World War II (pp. 46-47). The swamps served indigenous peoples, then aided British colonization, and later leaked through aquifers and miasmas to complicate colonial control of the area. In between, influenced by improvement ideology, settlers drained them, yet some of these liminal spaces became red light districts. Yet animals and their hooves also shaped and expanded the town’s swamps. This chapter is an example of how we can move beyond Cartesian narratives of social marginalization following ecological degradation when discussing wetlands under capitalist urbanization in settler societies. Chapter 3 also centers disease, and how irrigation drove uncertainty regarding mosquitoes as vectors in the interwar period. This chapter is the more traditional in the book as gender, class, indigeneity, and the wetlands themselves are pushed to the background in favor of other scales of analysis such as the national and the regional.

The rest of the chapters unpack multispecies relations in which nonhuman, noninsect animals are main actors. Chapter 4 documents an entanglement between rice farmers, ornithologists, indigenous peoples, and Australian nomadic ducks deriving from dams blurring the divide between agricultural and wildlife areas. This multispecies dialectic revolved around whether ducks ate rice or not, a question that generated an archive of scientific literature spanning most of the twentieth century, which O’Gorman uses deftly. Chapter 5 also historicizes the co-constitution of wetlands through another “pest bird:” fish-eating pelicans. O’Gorman uses a particular waterbird massacre in 1911 at Coorong lagoon to trace the trajectory of attitudes toward these birds held by fishers, indigenous peoples, and ornithologists, centering on their effects upon private land management. Chapter 6 offers a critique of wetlands as a category and object of conservation, arguing that the Ramsar convention, in which Australia did not participate yet quickly adopted, was imbued with a migratory-bird centrism that excluded the needs of other nonhumans and some humans in wetlands. The last chapter, on seals, examines the multiple ripples of their presence, or historical absence, in the Coorong. O’Gorman uses the contemporary fishing industry and their conflicts with seal’s behavior as a starting point to build a more-than-human narrative that combines indigenous understandings of the seal’s local natural history, the contemporary fishing industry, tourism, and irrigation infrastructure. This chapter, as does the first one, provide excellent examples of how history can inform and even shape contemporary political ecology case studies, especially its nuanced deconstruction of the contested historical seal population baseline.

Wetlands in a Dry Land is a phenomenal study from a master river historian that can help redefine the historiography of rivers. Environmental historians eager to include other species in their studies might have appreciated a more robust discussion of how multispecies histories differ from more established animal historiography. Despite focusing on an arid area and the impact of the specificity of Australian ecosystems, the critique of conservation as a colonial enterprise that undergirds the whole book is relevant for the preservation of watery spaces elsewhere. O’Gorman’s case studies, which are reinforced by the interconnectedness of the Murray-Darling basin beside the author’s analytical prowess, convincingly demonstrate that the wetlands are the result of socioecological processes which cannot be grasped while still hanging on to even remnants of a human-nature binary.

Citation: Francisco Javier Bonilla. Review of O'Gorman, Emily, Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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