Benton Ching
Entry #1


I acknowledge I am on stolen Jaithmathang country and pay respects to their elders past and present. I also acknowledge the other traditional owners of the Alpine region the Bidawal, Dhuduroa, Gunai/Kurnai, Mitambuta, Monero-Ngarigo and Taungurung, whose unceded lands I have been exploring.

Prior to this residency, I’d never actually been to the high country. I wanted to learn as much as possible before coming up. I reached out to scientists Prof. Nick Bond from La Trobe, Associate Prof. Ken Green at ANU and Prof. Eric Warrant to get their insights on the state of alpine ecology, and spoke to artists Bridget Chappell and Harry Nankin about their time up in the mountains. It was also really beneficial speaking to Jess Houghton at NECMA who spoke to me about her time working with Jaithmathang elders and youth up in the high country and offering to put me in touch.

Coming up to the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, I prepared a reading list to read over my residency which has framed my general observations and interactions with the high country and its environment. Some of the books I brought up with me were:

Einstein’s Dreams - Alan Lightman
The Spell of the Sensuous - David Abram

Inflamed Invisible - David Toop

Meeting the Universe Halfway - Karen Barad

It’s an interesting and quite solitary time to be here at the centre, with the village mostly empty after the evacuation of residents after the major landslip that wiped out the road between Falls Creek and Mt Beauty. The exception being builders working to renovate the cabins and the odd school group at the outdoor centre across the road. 

A lot of my first week up here has been spent doing walks up in the Bogong High Plains, up various peaks and taking little detours along the way back down. Coming up to the high country in autumn, you are struck by the vibrancy of life up here. Alpine crickets and grasshoppers leap across and out of the grass with pretty much every step you take and flame robins and blue-winged parrots hover above and nestle in the trees. Some interesting encounters I’ve had while on my walks were a close observation of a friendly pair of Alpine Bog Skinks on a rock who maintained a cautious curiosity as I approached, and a friendly Alpine Stonefly at Fainters Falls which I tried to record walking over my contact mic (turns out I needed something slightly more sensitive – these guys have light steps).

Something that does strike you up here is how many of the species you encounter are endangered, which speaks to the fragility of the alpine environment and its fauna. A lot has been written about the alpine biome’s fragility, with scientists finding a gradual upward encroachment of subalpine and montane environments as temperatures rise. (A 2009 report on climate risks presented to the federal government noted the alps as one of the most vulnerable biomes.) Furthermore, reminders of recent fires abound wherever you look with some sections of the high plains looking like a sea of pale, ghostly snow gum remains. On this point, some really interesting things I’ve learned while up here is that firstly, fires don’t entirely kill off the snow gums. They have deep roots underground called lignotubers which allow them to live on and regenerate, so you often see signs of new life bursting from behind burnt out snow gum. Another interesting point here is that the rocks and boulder fields up on the high plains become vectors for snow gums to grow around (as well as homes for skinks and moths), particularly given how well they retain heat in an environment that can get inhospitably cold for these species otherwise.

This has made me think a lot about the codependence of biological and geological spheres, with ecological systems upending a lot of our conventional, discrete understandings of entities in nature. On this point, you can’t speak of the alps without talking about the eponymous Bogong moth – there’s so much to talk about here. 

The once ubiquitous, now endangered Bogong Moth migrates up to the high country to aestivate/chill during the peak of summer from its breeding grounds thousands of kilometres away across the country with some found as far away as WA. Some say in human scale, they do the equivalent of walking across the earth twice in their lifetime. They navigate back to their aestivation grounds using the milky way, which runs North-South as well as with sight and an internal electromagnetic compass (one of the first insects discovered to have this ability). Something magical happens once they get close to the caves and boulder fields where they rest, lining the walls like tiles in the warmers months. It is hypothesised that two species of nematodes release a smell (odourless to humans) that lures the moths back into the caves, where they are fed on by said nematodes and other creatures like the native mountain pygmy possum. The sheer volume of moth remains then forms a special kind of peat known as insect peat found only within these caves. Peat can be defined as as a stored surplus of energy resulting from low levels of decomposition activity. Peat deposits develop when the built-up remains of biological communities (say plants or moth remains) exceeds the rate at which the environment can process it. Seen this way the moths are the mountain – taking energy up from everywhere else and bringing it back up.

A thought I’ve had is that energy flows are a really interesting lens to look at the alps. The moths are a renowned source of energy, with the traditional owners of the land and surrounding nations historically meeting during moth season to harvest and eat the moths, which apparently provide a highly concentrated source of fat and protein. The moths were both an important resource and seen as a sacred entity. Speaking to Ken Green and Eric Warrant, they mention that the Bogong Moth is the most important source of energy for the alps, second only to the Sun. It is estimated that in peak season, the moths provide around 4929 GJ of energy (as well as 7.2t of nitrogen and 0.97t of phosphorus), which converts to about 1369 MWh, the equivalent of running all four power stations of the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme at full capacity for four hours. 

The Kiewa Hydroelectric scheme is a giant network of geoengineering infrastructure (with extensions planned), its presence irreversibly marked in the landscape through dams, power stations, powerlines, pipelines, reservoirs and tunnels. Many of the towns and settlements up to Falls Creek (including Bogong Village) were made to house workers on this project. One that stands out is the former site of Clover village – now the Clover Arboretum – which was eventually abandoned due to how inhospitably damp it was for its occupants. The Arboretum is now home to number of beautiful thriving non-native species such as gingko and cherry trees left behind by the former occupants, nestled into a small pocket just off the Bogong high plains road.

The scheme extracts/delivering/diverts energy to the state of Victoria by redirecting the flow of water through the alpine regions (only 2% of the state’s power mind you). It is a crucial piece of Australian energy infrastructure which rests on an incredibly fragile biome with a bloody, unresolved history. A November 2000 report on dams and development by the World Commission on Dams found that at the time there was no justifiable doubt about the following (it is worth listing in full): 

Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable.

In too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.

Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives.

By bringing to the table all those whose rights are involved and who bear the risks associated with different options for water and energy resources development, the conditions for a positive resolution of competing interests and conflicts are created. 

Negotiating outcomes will greatly improve the development effectiveness of water and energy projects by eliminating unfavourable projects at an early stage, and by offering as a choice only those options that key stakeholders agree represent the best ones to meet the needs in question.

I wonder what this means for the High Country, and whether the limited amount of energy provided to the state by this scheme justifies an extension to the scheme at the risk of further erosion of this fragile environment. And if it does go through, whose needs and values will it actually be able or seek to accommodate? These are just preliminary thoughts and I’m no civil/geo/hydro engineer so take these words with a pinch of salt.

A question I’ve thought about a lot in my practice is what sound can tell us about the health of our environments. Technological advancements such as passive bioacoustic monitoring allow us to continuously upload and analyse swathes of data about our environments – in so doing building up an enormous trove of audio recordings no human could possibly hope (or desire) to sit or even sift through with their ears. Our understanding of the health of our environments through sound becomes transduced/transposed over such a time period - with the spectrogram being our main interface with this collection of sound. Its an undeniably useful technique for conservation, but I’ve also been wondering - what is the sensory capacity of this emerging audio archive? When there are no alps left what will all this data mean? How does sound as transcribed visual data differ from sound experienced in place?

Sonically, my initial experience of the high plains has been characterised by the sound of the wind. Up here, wind is a productive force. Birds like the Japanese snipe ride on the wind fronts to feast on insects flying through the air. Over time, wind erodes forms into the peaks and rolling plains. Its ability to shapes is not merely subtractive, but also also additive. From my conversation with Ken, I learned that Mount Kosciuszko is apparently shaped by foreign soil blown up from the west - rather than merely by erosion of the native rock found on its surface. The wind also carries seeds and branches, carrying vegetal spawn with it as it moves across the alps, allowing species like the snow gum to move up the mountain.

From the perspective of sound art and perhaps art practice more generally, a question I’ve been asking myself this week at the residency is what role the arts have in all of this. Does art need to have usefulness in this context, should it even seek to? In the studio, I was drawn to the collected writings of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who mentioned : “all art ends in artificiality, in that sense it is false. But what is it that gives it the ring of truth?” I suppose that’s a broader question to delve into through this residency and one that’ll come up again in the next instalment of this journal - till next time!