Sublime days – reflecting on geological timelines

The lead up to Christmas and New Year was hot. Bushfires near Ballarat and in the Otways were roasting and fanned by parching winds. My cousin lost her home, farm and livestock. Unbearable to think about. On the other side of the world the planet was melting or washing away.

Watching my Christmas gift Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide was a similarly sombre reminder of the vast geological time that has shaped the planet we live on and everything on it against the daily struggles we face. The formation of Australia as a continent: its antiquity, its incredible geological structure, its fragility were wonderfully explained in Richard Smith’s epic undertaking.

Another indulgence was to watch Bill Bailey’s gorgeous documentary ‘Jungle Hero’ Alfred Russell Wallace and his explorations in Indonesia (as it now is). The main surprise for me, which picks up the similar story of Continental drift in Smith’s dissertation on the wanderings of Gondwana, was the detail and demonstration by Bailey of the Wallace line – a faunal divide which follows the continental shelf separating Bali and Lombok which has resulted in the markedly distinct faunal species on either side. To the west Asiatic animals; the orang utans, miniature deer, rhinoceros and cattle species and to the east, marsupials and a varied and unique selection of bird species including parrots and Birds of Paradise.

I’ve always marvelled at Wallace’s endeavour and his parallel findings on the evolution of species to Darwin who was ponderously reviewing his journeys in the Galápagos Islands while Wallace was trekking through Borneo and beyond.

Possum and Banksia

Honey Possum atop an Orange Banksia – drawn from specimens in the new Darwin Exhibit at the Melbourne Museum (C) Chas Spain 2014

When we travelled up to Mansfield for a short break this week we were also able to marvel at the geological formation and its outcome for Australia’s amazing flora and fauna.

The beautifully illustrated geological map of Victoria which hung in many a primary school classroom was a mysterious explanation of the land beneath our feet. Here too, a marked geological line shows how the land along the Great Dividing Range was shaped as meetings of firey volcanoes and sea-formed limestones cut through the land. In Mansfield the activity of the Snowy Mountain volcanoes and upthrust of sands and limestones created the South Blue Range, now eroded and flattened to shale banks, clay slopes and rocky outcrops.

The relief map shows the mountainous corner of Australia – little known in other parts of the world where the images of red earth, beaches and open sea are usually sold to attract curious tourists.

The fauna in Victoria also follow the lines of the mountains and differ from their lowland cousins – we have mountain living marsupials and birds of the high country. Our reward for taking the time to sit out on the verandah was an amazing display of a family of sugar gliders flying between the trees at last light. A real treat that Darwin, Wallace, Bailey and smith would all have been thrilled by.

 

wildlife-sanctuary-6

A family of sugar gliders – this group are at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania

 

While the only comfort for we Homo sapiens who treasure the planet (as best we can) is Smith’s closing commentary that the Earth will continue her life of fire and ice for a good while yet. As Lovelock and others have done before him, Smith concludes that whether we humans enjoy any long-term residency on the Earth is up to us.

No doubt Gaia will add to our self-inflicted disrespect of her and decide at some point she has had enough and either burn us up, wash us away or freeze us over to make way for other forms of life on Earth.

***

Images of the Wallace and Huxley lines from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Altaileopard

Maps of Victoria are from the rather wondrous Regional Guide to Victorian Geology edited by John McAndrew (CSIRO) and Marcus Marsden (University of Melbourne) 2nd Edition 1973.

Bunorong Wildlife Sanctuary 

I wrote a short post about the exhibit on Wallace and Darwin at the Melbourne Museum a while ago in Back to the Drawing Board.

 

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