This post contains no mathematics, but if you are interested in the future of universities you might like to skip to the last paragraph where there is an account of a relevant and disturbing case.
After my visit to Monash, I had two weeks’ holiday, a week with my sister Marie in Toowoomba, a week with my brother John in Gympie. Both places had suffered in the 2011 floods.
Toowoomba had hit the world news briefly with dramatic pictures of the flash flood that had devastated the centre of the town and swept away cars; the dramatic story of the boy who was drowned after insisting that his brother be rescued first made the front pages in Britain. The damage caused to the town has mostly been repaired now, though one bridge needed to be completely replaced and is still closed. Marie’s house was on top of a hill and suffered no damage, though her garden was turned into a lake.
The two dams that supply Toowoomba’s water, which had been 7% full not much over a year ago, are still both full to capacity. We visited both of these, and saw a small mob of grey kangaroos and a koala. We walked in the rainforest at Ravensbourne and the Bunya Mountains, and in several of Toowoomba’s parks, and I walked in the bush on the escarpment. We had Christmas lunch with our aunt in Biddeston, the village where we grew up, and I met two of my old school friends at church on Christmas Day. Finally, we went to the pictures, in the old Strand theatre, and saw the astonishing performance by Meryl Streep in “Iron Lady”.
As I described earlier, we rejuvenated Marie’s website, and (I hope) her interest in maintaining it. She has so much information about our family history, that I hope this year she will write some of it down.
My two siblings and I, with some family members, met up for a picnic in the Bunya Mountains so that I could be handed over, a bit like a parcel, from one to the other.
John and Jenny have a farm at Lagoon Pocket near Gympie. They have an excellent herd of Jersey cows, and have greatly improved the soil and pasture quality on the farm since they have been there. Now they are getting no younger, and are beginning to plan their retirement. But none of their children will take it over, and with the combination of world economic downturn and government policies, this is not an easy time to sell a dairy farm as a going concern. So, to their great regret, the farm may have to be split into blocks and sold either to neighbours or to “lifestyle” farmers, and the herd sold separately.
The farm was almost completely submerged for three days during the floods; they had to put the cows on the road (fortunately this road is a dead end) and bring in feed and water for them for a fortnight until the land dried out a bit. They say that it takes two years to recover from a flood, one to get the farm back to normal and another to pay all the bills. Certainly the pasture grass was hit by its soaking; there was less roughage in the grass, and consequently less butterfat in the milk.
Nevertheless, they found time to take me to the sea at Tin Can Bay, where we ate fish and chips and walked on the sand; to Lake Cootharaba; to Sunshine Beach (where I walked in Noosa National Park, along the nudist beach at Alexandra Bay, where I observed that it is the oldies who take off their clothes, while young people keep covered up); the famous Buderim ginger factory, relocated to Yandina when land at Buderim became too expensive to grow ginger; and the Dickabram Bridge, one of only two such bridges in Australia (built 125 years ago to carry both road and rail, and possibly named after the sound that cars make running over the sleepers).
I saw three of John’s six children while I was there: Gillian, who lives in Kingaroy with her partner and two sons; Rob, a National Parks and Wildlife ranger, who has produced the information leaflet for the Great Cooloola Walk, which I intend to do someday (not this trip, since it is a five-day walk and requires camping gear), who is also one of the few guest writers on my blog; and Craig, a bottle shop employee, computer nerd and comic writer.
John and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, though we do agree that no pop music since the 60s lives up to what was done then. (Though even there we are not completely in accord; his favourite 60s song is “Snoopy and the Red Baron”.) One of our disagreements is over climate change, though I can see why he takes the view he does. In Australia, the national and state governments use the threat of climate change as a stick to beat the farmers with – the carbon tax does not yet apply to farmers but it will do so fairly soon, partly because of methane emissions from cows – while, hypocritically, allowing miners digging up or transporting coal total rights of access to farmers’ land. I have followed the fight of the Felton community against a threatened mine and industrial complex on their land, and on the trip from Toowoomba to Gympie I saw the huge scar in the middle of agricultural land that is the Acland open-cut mine.
In end-of-year repeats on the television, there was a documentary about how farmers are beginning to use social media to reach and inform consumers, presenting themselves as they are, people with deep concern about their animals and their land, rather than the ecological vandals that some in the animal rights movement would paint them. I tried to persuade John and Jenny that they would be well placed to do some of this, especially if they have a bit more time when they retire and are not milking cows twice a day every day. In particular, not only the farmers, but their cows, are individuals with their own stories.
In support of this, here is a small incident in farming life that happened while I was there. The day before New Year’s Eve, one of the cows, Gabriel, had her fourth calf. I watched it happen, and Jenny invited me to name the new heifer calf. I thought to continue the angel theme and suggested Raphael, which Jenny feminised to Raphaele. As calves do, Raphaele was on her feet well under an hour after her first appearance in the world.
The next morning, Gabriel was down with milk fever. This is caused by calcium depletion as a result of the cow’s milk producing system abruptly kicking in when the calf is born. John dosed her with calcium and drenched her with water and a mixture of various strange things, including kelp and something which might have been antifreeze. Then he asked me to help him apply the “old aboriginal method” of getting a cow to her feet (actually taught to him by an Afghani vet). The method requires two people, one at the head and one at the tail. The one at the head gains the cow’s trust, and then suddenly shouts very loudly in her ear. The startled cow tries to rise, and the person at the tail assists. (Cows get up back end first.) At the second attempt, this worked. She is now fine.
A final gleaning from the television re-runs of the year fits with something I have said here. A terrible case of animal cruelty came to light on Mataranka cattle station in the Northern Territory, where hundreds of cattle starved to death, and nobody was held responsible. Reading between the lines, what had happened was that the station, owned by Charles Darwin University, was used for education and research; but at a certain point, the University decided that the station should also make money. So they overstocked it with cattle, and then couldn’t sell the cattle. This in no way excuses those responsible for what happened, but it is a rather telling example of the price universities can pay when they let the quest for money override their traditional business. (This was on the ABC’s Landline programme, first broadcast on 27 July last year; a transcript can be found here.)