Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The glass grass

The attitudes and practices of colonialism did incalculable damage, and not least on the list is the fact that (by and large) the colonizers completely disregarded indigenous people's knowledge of their own lands.

The inevitable result was that much of that knowledge was lost.  Not only general, broad-brush information such as how to raise food in climates unfamiliar to the colonial cultures, but specific details like the uses of native plant and animal species.  The colonizers, secure in their own arrogance, instead imported the species they had back home -- thus adding another problem on top of the first.

Because, of course, this is a huge part of why there's such a problem with invasive exotics.  Some jumped accidentally; but a great many were deliberate imports that have proceeded to wreak havoc on native ecosystems.  Consider, for example, the problems caused by the introduction of European rabbits to Australia -- and the millions of dollars that have been spent since trying to control them.

I bring up Australia deliberately, because it's a prime example of colonizers completely ignoring millennia of experience and knowledge by indigenous people, embodying Adam Savage's oft-quoted line "I reject your reality and substitute my own."  You'd think they would have listened, wouldn't you?  Not only does Australia have a tough climate by most anyone's standards, plagued by droughts and floods that seem to alternate on a monthly basis, its native species have adapted by becoming tough and resilient.  The indigenous Australians managed in much the same way; learning how to deal with the climate's vagaries -- and relying on the native plants and animals to provide sustenance.

This meant making use of damn near everything, including species that seem on first glance to be worse than useless.  Take, for example, spinifex grass (Triodia spp.), which grows all over inland Australia.  Not only is it able to survive in broiling hot desert conditions -- it can survive temperatures of 60 C -- it puts down roots as long as thirty meters in an attempt to access what groundwater there is.  In a place where any kind of vegetation is fair game for herbivores, spinifex has developed ways to defend itself; it absorbs silica from the soil and deposits it in the tips of the leaves.  Silica, I probably don't need to point out, is better known as glass.

Walking through a field of spinifex in shorts is a good way to come out with your legs embedded with thousands of glass splinters.

An Australian grassland ecosystem, with two species of spinifex -- the green plants are soft spinifex (Triodia pungens), and the gray-green ones are lobed spinifex (Triodia basedowii). [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Hesperian, Triodia hummock grassland, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Despite its difficulties, the indigenous Australians made full use of this odd plant.  The fibers of the stems were used for weaving and thatching huts; the waxes and oils extracted from it were hardened into a resin that could be used as a glue or a sealant.  And now, spearheaded by the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people of the upper Georgina River, spinifex is being reintroduced as a 21st-century commodity -- with potential international markets.

Scientists at the University of Queensland, working with Indjalandji-Dhidhanu elder Colin Saltmere (himself an adjunct professor of architecture), have analyzed spinifex's unique properties, and found that not only does the resin (used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples) have properties similar to moldable plastic, the fibers in the stems have high flexibility, exceptional resistance to fatigue cracking -- and eight times the tensile strength of an equal diameter of steel.  The potential applications are already a very long list, including cable manufacture, production of resilient membranes (possibly superseding latex in gloves, for example), and creation of substitutes for wood, plastics, and carbon nanofibres.

"For thousands of years, spinifex was a building block for the Aboriginal societies in the desert; now it will continue to play a role in advancing local Aboriginal communities through business and employment opportunities," Saltmere said.  "The fine fibres at a nanoscale make this plant remarkable – and because it is so fine, we can make a fully renewable gel that is 98% water, and on a scale where we can sustainably generate hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material."

What seems to me to be nothing more than common sense -- "Listen to the people who know the land way better than you do" -- was effectively ignored for hundreds of years.  It's heartening that at least some of those voices are now being heard.  And given what's happening to the climate, we're going to need every advantage we have.  Better late than never, I suppose.  In this case, making use of a strange crop that was considered little more than a weed by the European colonizers, the multiple uses of which are only now becoming wider knowledge outside of the communities of indigenous Australians.


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