In an already diverse landscape, Yarrangobilly Caves adds an x-factor to South East NSW that is rare and special.
Despite being brought up Catholic, I haven’t had religion for a long while. Still, I remember fondly the time spent in old, cool churches – the smell of stone, the peace, the sense of endless time.
The late folk singer Michael Kennedy described how nature’s beauty can evoke a spiritual response – “Ceiling clouds swirl, aisles of bloom curl round the wild cathedral.”
Natural spaces, like places of worship, can provide sanctuary and help us connect with who we really are.
During the recent school holidays, my family and I visited Yarrangobilly Caves in Kosciuszko National Park.
On the way from Cooma we drove through the epic and faltering landscape of Adaminaby and Kiandra, old goldfields with diggings and ditches full of snow.
Brumbies wander this country with majesty and bouncy playfulness. Their colours blend with the patchy wild scrub; despite being equine intruders, left over from last century and stranded in the wrong land, they’re elegant.
We paid our cave entry fees, and did a tour of Yarrangobilly’s Jersey Cave, which takes about an hour and half.
I hadn’t been underground for years.
I used to do it a lot, at Wee Jasper and Wyanbene and Cooleman, as a teenage scamp who liked to wriggle through crawl spaces. This was much tamer, but an incredible experience nonetheless.
Caves are like slow, slow gardens.
It’s springtime, and I’ve been watching my sunflowers shoot up over the last few days. They manage a centimetre overnight, no worries.
The “cave straws” that reach down from the cave ceilings of Yarrangobilly – which look as you’d imagine – like straws, take 100 years to grow a single centimetre.
Many of the cave straws at Yarrangobilly are much longer – 20 or 30 centimetres; 2000 or 3000 years old.
My kids are 6 and 4, and they are surprisingly quiet and attentive (when they’re not wrestling each other for the torch).
They seem to understand the fragility of the formations. They know that the oil from their fingertips could stop them forming, and don’t reach for them. It’s surprising.
The names of cave formations are evocative – flowstones, shawls, pillars.
They’re all incomprehensibly ancient, but look like they could have grown through winter, like icicles or frozen waterfalls.
Beautiful, still rock pools are edged by rimstone dams and grow dogtooth spars – angular, squat crystals that cluster. These pools are otherworldly.
Some flowstones look like intricately woven fettuccine, cascading over metres.
All have formed as the fossil-rich limestone of the valley is dissolved by acidic rainwater, and redeposited as calcite.
According to National Parks, local Wolgalu people didn’t enter the caves much at all – formations survived thousands of years of indigenous custodianship.
But like so many caves, Jersey Cave was raided for souvenirs over the last 150 years. The cave is still stunning, but some caverns are stained darkly by the smoke from bygone kerosene lamps.
I’ve often felt as though caves are alive. Or that, at least, they can tell us something important about ourselves.
They tell us that we are small, transient, destructive, and peace-loving.
We’re a confused bunch, and caves can provide a beautiful space to meditate and contemplate.
Perhaps we’ll always feel like impostors in such spaces. But thankfully these caves are now protected, and we can continue to visit and appreciate their lasting beauty.
Yarrangobilly Caves are open daily for you to explore and ‘feel’ for yourself.
Ranger talks really add to the experience as does a swim in the thermal pool!
FAN cites a series of scientific studies that point to negative health effects related to fluoride. Yet the World Health Organisation cites fluoridation of water as, “the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”
The ingredients of this debate are a potent mix of conflicting evidence, with added fear, and a rather large ethical grey area.
It’s murky and hard to navigate.
Yet if you can familiarise yourself with this tricky landscape, you can start to make sense of the different perspectives people have on this issue, and perhaps take some of the fear out of the equation.
It turns out that scientific studies, the foundation stones of public health debate, are not always as rock solid as they seem.
While the fluoride debate touches on personal choice, welfare, and economics; scientific studies are a central part of pro and anti-fluoride argument.
A body of studies has been cited by the Fluoride Action Network pointing to potential effects of fluoride such as reduced IQ in children, obesity, and even cancer.
But with so much at stake, how do you navigate the conflicting “evidence” that we’re finding?
Where better to begin than Google Scholar?! Google’s search engine for published academic studies. What happens when you search for “fluoride and IQ”?
Looking through the studies that have linked fluoride to lower IQ in children, one thing stands out – most studies that popped up didn’t test for other factors that could affect IQ.
Many studies were from China, India, or Mongolia, and compared towns that fluoridated water supplies with those that didn’t.
However, they didn’t check for other differences between the towns – levels of poverty, nutrition, potential lead and arsenic poisoning, all of which can affect the IQ of children.
This is like blaming weight gain on exercise, without considering diet.
These studies simply don’t meet the criteria needed to inform sound decision-making, yet they are published online alongside studies of higher quality.
Twenty low-quality studies that link lower IQ and fluoride, alongside only one quality study that finds no link, can look like strength in numbers and cast the wrong impression.
Assessing evidence doesn’t work like that. It’s not like voting. One study is not necessarily worth the same as another.
The problem is that scientific investigations can be carried out and published (particularly online) by any scientist, from any organisation. Most are carried out with noble intentions, but even noble intentions can be fed by bias – if you’re passionate about a cause, or feel that you’ve found an important link, established scientific practices might fall by the wayside.
Dr Wakefield and his colleagues felt that they’d found an important link after reviewing the cases of eight people who’d been diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The investigation was found to be riddled with problems; their medical assessments and analysis of results were described as incomplete and biased.
Much of the criticism of Dr Wakefield’s study suggested it ignored statistical significance.
Given that 50,000 children per month were vaccinated with MMR in England at the time, eight presentations of autism were not enough to establish a link.
Statistical significance is needed for a scientific result to have meaning. Where health is concerned, this usually means two things – that a lot of people were tested and the results were strong enough to discount coincidence and other confounding factors, such as nutrition and lead in the IQ example.
Dr Wakefield’s study was discredited, and wide scale, high-quality studies were carried out that found no link between autism and vaccination. But his study was already fuelling the fears of parents across the globe.
When something appears to threaten the health of children, it can achieve notoriety.
It’s important to carefully examine the information you are given or find yourself, but how do you sift through the jargon, the publications, the conflicting evidence?
Putting your fear aside, how do you know what and who to trust?
“While I’d love to say that I have the capacity to truthfully assess the veracity and rigour of all research that’s available online, I simply don’t have that capacity. In fact, no one does,” he says.
“Instead we’re all forced to use the decision-making heuristics we’ve always used, typically though not exclusively, trusting a variety of voices in our networks that know better.”
Dr Grant says that we rely on institutions to process this information for us.
“But if I’m a person who doesn’t trust these institutions – and the number of people who don’t trust the central institutions of society is growing globally – then I’m going to trust other things,” he says.
Other things might include organisations like FAN, who question the reliability of institutionalised knowledge.
The FAN website claims it, “develops and maintains the world’s most comprehensive online database on fluoride compounds.”
Despite making this claim, they don’t give you a comprehensive review of the quality of materials in their database.
The Australian Government’s National Medical Health Research Council (NHMRC), is a not-for-profit research organisation that draws on the expertise of people tied to the University of Melbourne, Royal North Shore Hospital, The Cancer Council, Alfred Hospital, and Monash University, among other organisations.
Firstly, it assesses the quality of studies looking into the effects of fluoridation on dental caries (decay) and other symptoms from 2006-2015, and walks through them bit by bit, weighing up their value without apparent bias.
Secondly, its conclusions reflect the “greyness” of this debate. The NHMRC says the evidence appears to indicate that Australian water fluoridation standards are safe, while also suggesting there are gaps in the research.
The recommended level of fluoridation is shown to give a 35% reduction in dental caries. This is a significant number, as it means that more than a third of dental decay can be prevented by adding fluoride to a water supply.
This has knock-on effects for the rest of a person’s health and reduces financial pressure on individuals and the economy by cutting down on visits to the dentist.
The report also shows that recommended fluoride levels can increase the incidence of tooth discolouration due to fluorosis (a chronic condition caused by excessive intake of fluoride compounds, seen as mottling of the teeth) by around 12%.
The NHRMC document also gives many of the scientific reports presented in this debate a confidence grading.
The low overall confidence grading of the reports that raise concerns about cancer and IQ perhaps take some fear out of the equation, as the ratings are low enough to discount many of the studies altogether.
The presence of studies of higher quality (ie more thorough and more reliable) have tipped the balance of evidence away from such matters of concern.
However, if the NHRMC also suggests there are gaps in the research, why can’t we just test for the negative health effects that fuel much of the fear in a robust credible way?
In Australia, people are exposed to fluoride in a number of ways, including in toothpaste and tea, and it naturally occurs in the environment around us. This means that a person’s previous exposure to fluoride is very difficult to determine. To find a bunch of people who have never been exposed to fluoride as a control group, and then to test the effects of drinking fluoridated water on them, is extremely challenging.
And as the studies linking fluoride and IQ in China, India, and Mongolia show us, these studies are problematic because there are so many other factors that can contribute to influence a person’s health.
Finding the fluoride link is not easy.
The NHMRC review gives us an indication of which way the evidence is swinging – and it’s telling us that fluoridation of our water supply will give us healthier teeth and that the only side effect of significant concern is discolouration caused by fluorosis.
It also tells us that other side effects are most likely not going to happen at Australian levels of fluoridation.
Our personal views on fluoridation are important and varied and can’t be discounted.
But it is important that we are able to critically assess the information that is given to us. If we can’t do this on our own, we can at least have a look at how others have reviewed it and make sure that we’re satisfied with how they’ve done it, which perhaps takes some of the fear out of the equation.
*Kate Burke is completing her Masters in Science Communication through the Australian National University
The National Folk Festival in Canberra is underway and there is somewhat a South East take over happening with a bunch of artists from this side of the mountain performing.
People like Heath Cullen, Kate Burke, Mike Martin, Sam Martin, Stonewave Taiko and the Djaadjawan Dancers are all taking centre stage.
In the week’s leading up to the National, South East NSW provides a warm-up space to many of the performers booked to play in Canberra.
The Cobargo Folk Festival is one of those warm-up events and always makes the most of the international artists who fly in for the National – it’s often the case that Cobargo is the first gig in an Australian tour for musos from the UK, Europe and America.
Apart from music, folkies enjoy a chat and a lively speakers tents is part of every folk festival.
At Cobargo this year, festival goers heard of an ambitious idea to change the way forests in South East NSW are managed and used.
The push to establish The Great Southern Forest aims to turn State Forests in the region into carbon sinks – creating jobs and economic opportunities through land management, restoration, and tourism.
Those driving the campaign see the end of the current Regional Forest Agreements in 2019 and 2021 as the chance to end native logging and move to a new economic model.
Dr Bronte Somerset, comes from a career in higher education, she has five children and 12 grand-children and is one of the advocates for The Great Southern Forest, she detailed the idea in a crowded speakers tent at the Cobargo Folk Festival.
Thanks to my partners in this podcast –Light to Light Camps, rolling out the red carpet on the 31 km track between Boyd’s Tower and Greencape Lighthouse south of Eden.
There’s a colony of grey-headed flying foxes in Candelo, in the massive old plane tree by the bridge. On the latest count, there are around 1400 bats roosting in its branches.
There aren’t many native species that arrive on our doorsteps in such sudden, large numbers, and with such noise, visibility, and aroma.
We’ll never see 1400 wombats hanging out on Candelo Oval at the same time!
Flying foxes challenge our sense of control over our urban spaces, failing to seek our permission to take over parklands, failing to give us notice for when they will check in or check out, and failing to place an order for what they might eat from our gardens along the way.
So are they simply unwelcome guests in our town landscapes? Why might we want to attempt to understand their movements, their presence, and our relationship to their habitat?
In the Southeast region of NSW, grey-headed flying foxes are a well-known part of the landscape: at Bega’s Glebe Lagoon a population has existed there for years, flying at night to feed on coastal forest flowers or south-west to the escarpment to flowering eucalypts. They pollinate native forests and are an integral part of forest ecosystems.
However, native flora and fauna have become wrapped around the human footprint, existing in the margins, in strongholds that are weakened daily by pollution, deforestation and development.
Flying foxes are one of the few species that can actually transplant themselves back onto the human landscape – but it’s not always a comfortable fit for them or us.
This summer, they have been starving. Eucalypts that provide their usual spring and summer food sources have, for the first time in years, failed to flower at the right time.
Here in Candelo, I arrived back from a trip to Melbourne in November to find seventeen dead baby flying foxes under the poplar trees by the creek. They were tiny. The next day, checking under the trees, I found one alive.
The baby flying fox’s wings were spread out, her 7cm-long body tucked into itself, eyes closed. She was cold. I did something that you’re not supposed to do: I gathered her up in my jumper and tried to warm her up, taking care not to touch her directly, and I called Wildlife Rescue.
Some people find bats strange and scary, or smelly and annoying, and most will not get the chance to see one up close.
This baby was only just breathing, otherwise motionless, and at the mercy of my decisions. I held her and looked up into the tree. Somewhere up there was her mother. She would have nursed this baby to the best of her ability for weeks, as she slowly grew weak from lack of food. Eventually, her hunger would have caused her to stop producing milk, and her baby began to starve, eventually dropping from the top of the tree to the ground.
The other babies had not survived the fall or had died on the ground from the cold. There would have been more caught in the branches that I could not see. We were witnessing a starvation event, the evidence of which was brought directly to our town.
Candelo residents have reported losing fruit crops from their trees. The bats are tending to fly out along the creek line, so people in town aren’t suffering too much bat poo on their roofs or cars. But there is a low grumble of discontent in town: why are they here? Will they keep eating my fruit crops? Should we move them on?
Flying foxes usually eat from just over 100 native plant species. Around half of these are targeted for fruit, but the other half are flowering plants that can be visited over and over again as they continue to produce nectar.
Local fruit trees are usually visited by the weaker bats who aren’t able to fly to flowering plants in nearby native forests. The recent food shortage has made this behaviour more common.
Hugh Pitty runs monthly flying fox surveys at the Bega’s Glebe Lagoon colony for the CSIRO National Flying Fox Monitoring Program. He says historically there has been a camp at the Candelo Showground, which indicates they will continue to visit Candelo but probably won’t stay for good.
“It’s likely that you’ll see the camp last this year, and possibly next year, but it’s likely that it won’t be here long term,” he says.
“You’ve got water here in the creek, but it doesn’t have all the attributes that the main camp in Bega does”.
There are hundreds of previous camps around NSW that aren’t used anymore. The best long-term camps have permanent water, good shade, and no risk of disturbance from below.
When in 2001 the trees across the road from Hugh’s home in Bega became the site of the largest permanent bat colony in the area, he was fascinated rather than upset. He made them the subject of an animal habitat study for his Biology degree.
“I sometimes say that my bedroom window is closer than you can legally put a bird hide vantage point for a flying fox colony,” he says.
Many locals are used to the bats, and the Glebe Lagoon colony is relatively uncontroversial.
In Candelo, the flying foxes make a bit of noise and don’t smell too bad most of the time – in fact, most days I find their smell takes me back to swimming at Mataranka in the Northern Territory as a 16-year-old on a school trip (how romantic!).
But the occasional wafts and the screeching aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and the picnic area underneath the plane trees is a bit of a mess.
With winter approaching, local flying fox colonies will move on and it’s difficult to predict where the bats will turn up in a few months’ time, or what they’ll do next summer.
The question remains the same, though, how do we balance our needs and theirs?
Presenters like The Inside Sleeve’s Paul Gough have cottoned onto the fact that there’s something special happening in Candelo town, and they regularly shine a spotlight on the region when a new album is released.
However, ABC Radio National is set to cut all but one of its music programs in 2017 – including every single one of the programs mentioned above, in a move toward a spoken-word, digital model for the national station.
How will this affect Candelo musicians and their livelihood? And what does it mean for regional RN audiences?
Candelo resident David Ross MacDonald has played drums with Australian folk-pop legends The Waifs for almost two decades.
“ABC Radio National‘s music programs have been key to the exposure and successes of The Waifs over the past 18 years while I have been drumming for them,” David says.
“On the times I have got to play live and record in the ABC it has always felt like I was participating in a bigger Australian story that encompasses national identity and also felt a sense of pride and professional opportunity during such experiences.
“The cancellation or scaling back of music programming at the ABC will be to the greater detriment of the Australian music industry and also diminish the valuable role music plays in the creation and bolstering of national identity,” he says.
Radio Nationalplays a special role in the life of many regional musicians and audience members.
“It’s how many of us keep up with new developments, new ideas, new sounds from all over Australia (and the world) right from our regional homes.
“And – as has happened for me and for other regional artists – Radio National (in my particular case, via The Inside Sleeve) has given us the opportunity to play our songs and to talk about our music in front of a nationwide audience.
“To share the art that we create, and the process by which we create it, with listeners that we wouldn’t be in touch with otherwise,” Michael says.
“My work takes me all over the country, and wherever I go, RN has played a major part in connecting me with my audience – there are always people have heard my work on an ABC RN program, and so they come along to a show,” he says.
Candelo’s Robyn Martin, who has come back from a national tour with her sister Jodi Martin, says:
“Airplay and interviews on Radio National have been some of the most consistent forms of support I have received for the tours and albums I have been involved with.
“It is not easy to sustain a music career and it is even harder to imagine how to go forward with this professional life with diminishing opportunities on Radio National,” Robyn says.
Good national music programming can have unexpected benefits for regional audiences. As my bandmate, Ruth Hazleton states in her currentpetitionto the ABC.
“Many regional listeners also comment that RN music shows provide a lifeline; particularly in difficult times, diffusing the effects of isolation and in combating mental health issues, which we know plague our regional communities,” Ruth says.
“Although Triple J and its digital cousin Double J will remain unaffected by the cuts, they do not cater for older and more diverse audiences.
“RN’s music shows deliver content rarely featured or supported by Double J and Triple J,” she says.
“While these are fabulous Australian institutions, we do not believe that we will be represented to the same degree by these services.”
Candelo musician Pete Wild describes the wider cultural impact of the cuts:
“The loss of RN music programming will limit Australians’ exposure to diverse cultural ideas and forms, and will make this country less harmonious and more boring.”
Change can be refreshing, but the cuts to RN seem more like a cultural slap on the wrist than a healthy makeover.
Can the ABC guarantee that future programming will be supportive of Australian arts?
“Our national broadcaster’s charter requires it ‘to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia’ and Radio National have, up until now, always done it well,” says Heath Cullen.
“The decision to cut nearly all of this treasured music programming from RN‘s schedule is the wrong decision. It must be reversed immediately.”
Sign the petition to save music on ABC Radio National – HERE